SNAKE SOUP by EW Farnsworth
One of the many perquisites of Fatty Millstone’s position bridging the hierarchies of the police and criminal segments of the city was his quarterly visit to Li Fun’s Chinese restaurant on Picklock Lane. He always walked alone to the establishment, which was discreetly known by its neon image of the Chinese cobra raised in the striking position. Downstairs was the public’s portion where the garish red and gold accoutrements and bland menu masked the vastly different worlds of the second and third floors, devoted respectively to exotics and opium. In the sub-basement were crates marked with warning signs in Chinese and walls with portraits of the founders of the restaurant.
This Sunday night Fatty sat at his personal table on the second floor sipping the thick, hot soup with its mix of cobra and chicken. Billy Li sat across from him savouring the same fare and keeping a close eye on Fatty’s reaction.
“Fatty, I hope you like the soup. Just for your pleasure, I had my chef add the fresh gall bladder from a cobra, which we used to make snake wine. As you are a connoisseur, you know the innards of the reptile are best kept out of the wine, but the snake will curl into a striking position as the wine cures. Then, you shall have the result as my gift to your health.”
“Li, this soup is excellent. On a cold night during the Lunar New Year, there’s nothing better. Thank you.”
“Do you want your gold before you finish dinner, or do you want it right now?”
“I like to multitask. Let’s have the gold now. And you can tell me what you plan for the new year while I count the coins.”
Li clapped his hands twice, and two young Chinese men brought pouches with gold coins to the table where they stacked the coins in piles of tens before they withdrew. As Fatty counted the stacks, Li proceeded to give a detailed account of his plans.
“Not everything we plan for this new year will be illegal for trade, but the majority will, naturally, as it is most profitable. The legal trade will provide cover for our contraband, but I don’t anticipate trouble with the authorities as long as our friendship remains intact.”
Fatty was counting the stacks, but he hesitated to answer the implied question of his host. “Don’t worry, Li. We are aligned like Yin and Yang, aren’t we? If we aren’t, it won’t be on my account.”
Fatty nodded at the gold to signal that the correct number of coins was on the table. Li clapped his hands again, and the two Chinese men returned to replace the coins in the two pouches, which they left on Fatty’s side of the table.
The diners consumed their delicacies in an otherwise empty room. Li regaled his guest with stories of his family’s difficult transition to this country, aided by the triads, who happened to be warring for illicit business in the days before today’s mah-jong parlours and opium dens.
“Speaking of opium, if you want to go up for a few pipes, you are welcome to do so. The raw opium is especially sweet and pungent today.”
“I’ll pass, thank you. Drugs and business don’t mix in my practice.”
“Perhaps then you’ll take advantage of what I have on the fourth and fifth floors. Lovely and lively, young women sport on the fourth while on the fifth are tender young boys who know all the right tricks.”
“Again, thank you, Li, but not tonight. I have a dozen things to supervise—and my work is never done.”
“Of course, Mr. Millhouse. Just remember that my establishment is yours too. Whenever you desire, you may partake of whatever you fancy.”
Fatty nodded, and a young woman in an embroidered silk costume came to the table to serve snake wine. She seemed innocent and sensitive, and her eyelashes batted in the way a bashful girl might flirt with a powerful guest of the house, which Fatty certainly was.
Li twirled his waxed moustaches and squinted in the dim lamplight. “You like?”
“I like very much.”
“But this one, you must not touch. She is my daughter Mai Lin.”
“I am honoured to have you present your daughter. What is the occasion?”
“Fatty, I am growing old. I must prepare for my legacy. Mai Lin will inherit my interests in this city. I want her to have the same protection as you have afforded me.”
“Li, this is a total surprise. You are hardly old enough to retire. And your daughter is far too young to take over a dangerous business like yours.”
“Still, the triads are warring again. Any day might be my last. When the knife falls or the poison eats at my vitals, I won’t have time for niceties.”
“Are your triad troubles on this side of the ocean or in Wuhan?”
“The troubles are all around us. And they are troubles for you as well as me. Quell a doomed man’s soul by saying you’ll take care of my daughter and my business when I am gone.”
Fatty knew the gravity and seriousness of the Chinese entrepreneur’s request. An alien of a different stripe himself, he understood how patronage would be essential for Li’s descendants. Mai Lin began a sinuous fan dance in front of her father and his guest. Her movements were graceful, and her allurements were rather her naïve smile than any wantonness. By the look on her father’s face, Fatty could tell he doted on her—rare for the Chinese, whose first son usually inherited the family business.
“Early in our relationship, you mentioned you had three sons, who would inherit your businesses in equal thirds.”
“Time has not been lucky for them or for me. The triads killed them all. So, as my wife has passed, Mai Lin will inherit everything.”
Fatty sat straight up in his chair and watched the girl’s motions. She was a vision of vulnerability. Millhouse brooded on what his host had said and what he had not said.
“Will you tell me which triad is giving you the most trouble?”
“The Green Triad is the worst. They are now led by a ruthless killer named Min Jiang, who hangs out in a junk on the Yangtze River. He killed his own mother for her gold and jewels. He has ambition to match his evil intentions. He ordered the deaths of my sons.”
Fatty digested this information as Mai Lin finished her dance, folded her fan and retired behind the bead curtain separating the kitchen from the dining area. He lifted his shot glass with the snake wine and drank. Eagerly, Li did the same. Both knew their deal was sealed. The old man rose and bowed deep. Then he went behind the bead curtain and left Fatty alone to ruminate on their pact.
Fatty meandered through the fog that blanketed Picklock Lane. He was not too absorbed in his thoughts to miss the footpads that followed in his wake. Expecting that a deal with Li would bring an attack soon thereafter, he was ready when strong arms seized him from both sides. He did not cower. Instead, he raised himself to his full height and let his tentacle take care of his assailants. The neck of the one on the left snapped like a dry bough. Then the grunts and groans of the man on his right were punctuated by the snapping of his ribs and vertebrae. Fatty searched the two dead bodies, only to verify that the men were hardened assassins with Chinese physiognomies. With his tentacle, he dragged the two bodies to the river and cast them into the flow. Fatty was not angered or insulted; he was convinced that he was on the right side in a fight to the death.
Not far from where he had dispatched the hit men, Fatty saw a hooded, female figure.
“You. Wait. Who are you?”
“You know me as Mai Lin. We met earlier this night at my father’s restaurant. I danced for you. Now I see why my father feels he can trust you to protect me.”
“Did you witness the attack of the two assassins?”
“Yes, though I could not see everything on account of the fog. I saw how you slid the two bodies into the river. I don’t think many men could have overcome two such evil men without assistance.”
“I’m going to walk you home now. Will that be all right?”
“I’ll accept your offer, but I’m often out at night. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“There’s where you are wrong. From tonight, I shall be entirely devoted to you. I have made a solemn promise to your father.”
She nodded and took his proffered arm. He walked in measured steps so she could keep up with him. At the door of the restaurant, he watched her enter and lock up after she entered.
Li stepped out of the shadows. “Well done, my friend. Now I can rest easy about my legacy.”
Fatty threaded the streets around Picklock Lane to accomplish his nightly rounds. Satisfied that he had made all necessary provisions for the week, he went to his apartment to confer with his clones.
“I need to locate fellow aliens who haunt the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in China. Specifically, they must find a triad leader Min Jiang, who lives on a junk that sails there.”
Fatty’s minions worked until dawn when they presented Fatty with the intelligence he requested. He ordered two of his clones to revenge the attack he had experienced the night before. They departed for the docks where they boarded a trade ship bound for Wuhan.
Business proceeded as usual for eight weeks. Fatty Millstone went about his affairs while keeping his eyes open for other attempts on his life. During that interval, he was almost struck by a falling gable on Picklock Lane. Examining the circumstances, he deduced the event was no accident. Another attempt came from a gas explosion at an apartment where Fatty was investigating a gruesome murder of an immigrant family. Fatty had narrowly escaped. The most egregious effort at assassinating him took place at his favourite tab le at the Cracked Bell Pub. Four Chinese men entered the front door of the establishment while two came through the back door. Fortunately, Fatty’s two lady friends were carousing with him at the time. Each of them waylaid the two rear-door men while he waded through the crowd to teach the four who entered from the front. The quick flicks of the tentacles made piles of lifeless flesh of the six assassins.
Harriet said, “What makes you so special that you warrant six hit men?”
Fatty laughed. “You don’t think they were coming for me, do you? Why you and Dame Hudibras were their likely prey.”
“That’s not a comforting thought.”
“No, it’s not. But we should all be vigilant. Evil people will not reform their evil ways.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to give Mr. Crenshaw the opportunity to regain some of his tarnished reputation.”
Crenshaw appeared two hours after the assassination attempts eager to ply his slimy trade. He did not trust Fatty Millstone to be playing fair, but six deaths meant a big headline with his name in the by-line of the major piece.
Fatty said, “Crenshaw, I want you to sink your teeth into this dastardly affair. Attempted assassination of two upstanding ladies of our community is an outrage against humanity. What do you think?”
The newshound’s interest was piqued. “What am I supposed to write about the matter?”
“I leave the scribbling to you. You can use pictures of the villains for your front-page images. And you can gin up the why and the wherefore all by yourself.”
Crenshaw said, “One question: why are you doing this for me. You hate me. You know I hate you too.”
“You owe the two ladies a proper apology, which I hope I shall divine in your reportage. Further, I don’t hate you in any personal way. I hate the evil in you, but I know you can’t help yourself. Take this scoop as my way of levelling the field between us. You can take the edge off the grudge you have for me. I will rest happy that I have done even a vile toad a good turn when I saw the opportunity.”
“If you think this squares us for your having thrown me in that loo, you’re wrong.”
Fatty shook his head and stood to full height as if he were going to frog-march the scumbag reporter back to the loo. He could see on the coward’s face that he feared that possibility abjectly.
“All right. Let me get my story. Go back to your cups. Read my tabloid tomorrow and rejoice—or whatever.”
The grisly work of the newshound proceeded apace while Fatty drank from his pint.
The next day, Crenshaw’s tabloid gave the assassination a front-page spread with three features inside the cover. Fatty thought the scribbler had outdone himself except with his description of what brought the assassins low. He could only write about The Tentacle’s presence, which explained everything. Fatty saw how the dead Chinese faces of the would-be murderers were interlaced by a monstrous tentacle.
Harriet and Dame Hudibras enjoyed the tabloid so much that they had two rounds of pints while they discussed every detail. As they toasted Fatty’s acumen, a young boy brought a Chinese-language tabloid to the table in the back of the pub.
“Wait a moment, son,” Fatty told the young Chinese man. “We may need help with the translation.”
The image on the cover was clear enough: a wicked Chinese man was being strangled by a tentacle not unlike the one illustrated in the English tabloid. Apparently the man was aboard his junk on a Chinese river.
“Son, what does the headline read?”
The boy pointed to the characters as he translated them. “The Leader of the Green Triad Meets Fate on His Junk in the Yangtze River.”
Fatty pressed a gold coin into the boy’s hand and told him to take the Chinese tabloid to Li Fun’s Chinese Restaurant where he should give it to Mai Lin. The two ladies raised their eyebrows to each other and waited for Millstone’s explanation.
“I know a young lady who likes stories about exotic figures in her homeland.”
Harriet and Dame Hudibras rolled their eyes simultaneously. They were clearly dying to know about this mystery woman Mai Lin. As they continued to drink, their tentacles tenderly stroked the backs of Fatty’s legs. He affected to not be aware of their ministrations. To distract the other pub denizens from the scandalous actions of the good gentry ladies, he called for one more pint to tide them over until Closing Time.