Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

Qi Sport

Boy howdy, had the match proven an ugly one. The fight’s underdog had her entire arm ripped off at the shoulder during the first five minutes in the ring, but then she dropped into a deep stance and swept her opponent’s legs out from under him, knocking him to the floor in what the audience clearly considered a thrilling reversal of fortune. When she stomped his neck, hard, and used her remaining hand to pluck out the other geung si’s left eye, the crowd went crazy. Ugh. While decisive, it wasn’t the most beautiful victory Jimmy had ever witnessed. When she started drinking her opponent’s qi through his eye socket, her mouth in a taut O-shape around the gore-smeared orifice, it kinda looked like she was kissing it.

Jimmy tipped his open-crown hat low enough to cut off his vision, but it did nothing to block the grotesque moaning and grunting sounds the geung si made as she fed. Jesus Christ, he hated it when he had to watch the fights. To Jimmy’s mind, the undead were creepy as hell — the stuff of nightmares, not entertainment. But given the volume of the hooting and hollering and stomping as the winning geung si’s trainer stood on the wire mesh covering the fighting pit, holding aloft his hands as he turned around and around, Jimmy was in the minority.

Well, in this company, he was in the minority. Geung si boxing was considered a disgusting spectacle and a public nuisance by most residents of San Francisco, and was thus deeply illegal.

The geung si’s grunting became more frantic, and Jimmy angled his mouth toward his colleague Zeke’s ear.

“You ready to get outta here?”

“Just about,” said Zeke, over the din. He was still transfixed by the action. “What’s your rush?”

Jimmy answered with half of the truth. “I don’t want the new recruit to get bored and run off.”

“So what if he does?”

Jimmy ground his teeth in frustration. He’d pushed back Wong’s appointment specifically to accommodate Zeke’s desire to see this fight, and still Zeke was busting his stones. Still, he had to keep Zeke happy; getting the boss’s right-hand man’s consent to hire Wong would be tough enough already.

“C’mon, Zeke. Turkey wants as many fresh contenders as possible for the big match,” said Jimmy. “Therefore, it would behoove us to find ourselves a psychopomp.”

Typically, a psychopomp — a spirit guide — was someone you hired to exorcise a ghost, or take care of any other sort of undead what troubled the living. Their job was to quiet the restless dead. But for men in their line, a psychopomp — a corrupt psychopomp — had other uses.

Given that they were in San Francisco, not New York City or even Chicago, finding a talented psychopomp was hard enough. Finding one willing to betray their vows by working for operations like Turkey’s were even rarer, which was why Jimmy was so annoyed about Zeke being such a pain in the balls.

Finally Zeke sighed, and after withdrawing a pocket watch and checking the time, nodded. “All right,” he said. “But this better be worth it.”

The drive back to Jimmy’s office didn’t take long. The mules were eager after standing for the better part of an hour, and it was too late for there to be many other carts on the road. As they pulled up, Jimmy saw the kid slouching against the building to the left of the door, looking like he’d bought his duds off some cowboy. A taller, bigger cowboy: the leather duster he sported further dwarfed his scrawny body, and his too-big Stetson hid his features better than the darkness.

“Kid’s a little short for a psychopomp,” was Zeke’s comment. “I mean, is he even shaving yet?”

“Hush, he’ll hear you.” Jimmy climbed down off the wagon’s riding board and wrapped the reins around the hitching post. “Hey Wong! Sorry we’re late. Come on in and take a seat. Gotta talk to my friend Zeke here before you and me get down to business.”

Wong’s only response was a quick nod.

Zeke breezed through the foyer and into Jimmy’s office like he was the one who worked for Pacific-American Shipping. Not only that, while Jimmy was settling the kid on the threadbare sofa in the waiting area, Zeke had the nerve to sit in Jimmy’s chair, and prop his muddy boots on Jimmy’s desk. Jimmy sighed, but said nothing — he’d expected this conversation to be a pain in the ass.

“So that’s your amazing find?” said Zeke. “The psychopomp so good I had to leave the pits early? ’Cuz on first glance . . .”

“He’s better than good . . . far as his work goes, that is.” Jimmy shrugged, trying to seem confident. It was hard, while standing like a chump in his own office, but he would not sit in the visitor’s chair. “His big problem is he’s wild. Spends his pay on drink and fan-tan, can’t be counted on to show up regular-like. No one’ll hire him . . . except us.”

Zeke’s frown eased a little. “That’s good, but Jimmy . . . he can’t be sixteen.”

“He’s not lying about his experience, and that’s what counts. I checked his references, especially his claim he did a stint at the Merriwether Agency. You know they’re the best game in town. They can hire anyone they like — so why a kid?”

“You tell me.”

“Because he’s the real deal.” Jimmy saw the muscles of Zeke’s face ease yet further. “Anyways, I went to work at fourteen.”

“I reckon you weren’t seventy-five pounds soaking wet and knock-kneed besides.” Zeke shook his head. “I don’t like it. Kid could get hurt.”

Jimmy didn’t have time for all this rigmarole, not with Turkey breathing down his neck. “You his mama? What the hell do you care if he gets hurt? What matters is whether we’re turning a profit.”

“You mean what matters is whether Turkey’s turning a profit.” Zeke pulled a flask out of his inside breast pocket and took a swig, then replaced it without offering Jimmy a sip. “We can’t afford to make mistakes. Big night’s just around the corner. Turkey wants some real contenders, and he wants them now.”

“The kid would be working already if you could stop wringing your hands over his . . . youthful visage, or whatever’s troubling you.” Jimmy wouldn’t usually speak to one of Turkey’s men like that, but what did Zeke want?

Truth be told, Jimmy was plenty worried that the kid was too green. But needs must when the devil drives, as they said.

Zeke exhaled, making his lips flap, horse-like. “All right,” he decided. “Go on, if you want to risk it. But if he gets hurt or killed and the sheriff starts sniffing around —”

“You think the sheriff’ll care about some dead Chinatown kid?” Jimmy rolled his eyes, genuinely confident about something for the first time this entire conversation. “Don’t lose any sleep over that. You know well as I do that the law’ll turn a blind eye if they even deign to look our way.”

Zeke swung his legs off the desk and stood. “Suit yourself. It’s your ass on the line.”

As always, thought Jimmy, as he showed Zeke out and invited the kid in.

Jimmy had gotten mixed up in all this to pay off his gambling debts — gambling on horses, not the undead. But, given his ideal placement as the Cargo Manager at Pacific-American Shipping, Turkey had seen a real opportunity in Jimmy . . . and now he was in it. Deep. He’d forged company records and destroyed letters from irate Toisanese families who’d paid for their relations’ remains to be shipped back to China, only never to have the bodies show up. Worse, he’d hushed up enquiries out of Chinatown, tipping off thugs like Zeke and his cronies so they could silence the enquirers. That part was the worst.

A missing corpse was a missing corpse. Even at a big, trustworthy company like Pacific-American Shipping, it happened. Totally understandable.

But people would find it far less understandable if word got out that these so-called “lost remains” had actually been selected to arise as geung si — violent, mindless, qi-draining vampires — and trained up to fight in an illegal geung si boxing ring. Which, of course, was exactly what was happening . . . and with the annual San Francisco Geung Si Boxing Championship around the corner, that was exactly why Jimmy had to keep everything quiet as the grave.

• • • •

Up close, Wong might look closer to twelve than sixteen, but he was sharp as a tack. He didn’t ask nosy questions, either. He seemed to understand that as the operation’s psychopomp, he didn’t need to know much beyond where the coffins were stored, and what they wanted him to do with what was inside of them.

“So, yeah, late hours and all,” said Jimmy, as they trekked across the starlit lot towards the warehouse closest to the docks. “Can’t have anyone seeing you sneaking around where we keep the stiffs.”

“Yeah, I sure wouldn’t want to get a reputation as a creep who hangs out with the dead,” said Wong, flashing Jimmy a grin.

“It’s more —”

“I understand. I don’t work for you. Shit, I don’t even know you.”

Jimmy nodded yes, but hell if this kid didn’t remind him of his boy, dead these three years. Jimmy Jr. had cracked wise, too, but innocently. The kind of sass that warmed your goddamn heart.

It was a shame . . . Wong showed a lot of independence and, for lack of fancier way of putting it, scrap. Could’ve gone far if he’d kept himself out of the whorehouses and fan-tan parlors. “Anyways,” Jimmy heard himself saying, “you’re welcome to come in and pull a cork with me after you’re done. Just come on over and knock if you see a light on in my office.”

“Thanks,” said Wong. “Maybe I’ll do that.”

They’d reached the warehouse. It suddenly occurred to Jimmy that maybe he’d been insensitive, hiring this kid. He was part-Chinese, after all, and here Jimmy was asking him to not only betray his training as a psychopomp, but also his beliefs as a Confucian or whatever.

Wong must’ve sensed Jimmy’s hesitation. “You gonna let me in to see which of these yellow devils are ready to turn, or are we just going to hang around in the night air?”

No scruples. Tugged at the heartstrings, that, but Wong’s attitude was in their — Turkey’s — best interests. With mixed feelings, Jimmy unlocked the door, withdrawing a handkerchief to hold over his nose and mouth before sliding it open.

“This is the place.” With his free hand, he gestured expansively at a row of some twenty-odd coffins. “Big load here, and we’re s’posed to get in few more tomorrow. They’ve been doing blasting work for the Transcontinental, I hear, which is good given . . . uh.” He swallowed. The stench was causing his gorge to rise something fierce. “I mean, not good for them. Good for us.”

“I’m a psychopomp, remember?” Wong grinned at him again. “More restless dead out there, more money’s in my pocket.”

“Fair enough.” Jimmy shut the door and pulled the shade from his lantern. “How’d you get mixed up with such a weird profession, anyways?”

“How’d you get mixed up with underground geung si boxing?”

Jimmy considered briefly before replying, “Circumstances.”

“Exactly.”

“Look, it’s just . . . you’re pretty cool around the dead for a kid, is all.” Wong was already poking around among the coffins.

“Hard to excel in this line if you’re squeamish.” Wong shrugged. “Anyways, I better get down to business. I don’t want to stay up too much past my bedtime.”

Jimmy laughed, though the joke made his eyes sting a little. The kid’s sense of humor really was just like Jimmy Jr.’s.

Wong opened up a russet leather bag that he’d been carting around the whole night, and pulled out a pair of lensless goggles. After asking Jimmy to bring the lantern a little closer he opened up a cylindrical case and withdrew a pair of pinkish lenses, fitting them into the sockets. Settling the apparatus over his eyes, he squinted through the thick glass.

“You want me to mark the corpses that are spiritually putrid, right?”

“Right.”

“These lenses are treated so’s I can see any remains of lingering qi. Should be able to pick ’em out quick, so we can both get on home.”

“Our last psychopomp used some kind of stick.”

Wong nodded. “Probably a peach-wood rod or sword. That’s an old Taoist trick. Everyone has his own style.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. But I figure it’s goddamn late, so rather than prise open every coffin in this dump, I’ll give ’em the once-over like this. I can see through the wood this way, is what I’m saying.”

Jimmy found Wong’s matter-of-factness a little disturbing. All the psychopomps he’d dealt with before had been a lot more secretive about their methods, maybe from a sense of shame. As far as he understood it, what they were asking of Wong and the rest was a total betrayal of their profession.

He felt another pang, remembering Jimmy Jr., wondering if Wong would ever feel like he’d gone too far down a path to walk back the way he came — and choose a similar way to deal with that . . .

“I’ll slap a ward on any coffins that contain corpses like to turn into geung si,” Wong said, when he found his first one. He dug around in his satchel for a roll of yellow strips of paper adorned with red Chinese writing. Jimmy knew what they were; such things were a common enough sight in the geung si boxing underworld. The vermilion in the ink immobilized the things, or something. “It’ll keep them quiet, and let us identify them when they need to be shifted.”

“Sounds good,” said Jimmy.

This batch of corpses had a high percentage of candidates showing signs of imminent geung si possession. Jimmy felt his initial queasiness transforming into glee; Turkey would be pleased when they took them across town tomorrow. But when he remarked on the bounty, Wong’s response made Jimmy’s stomach roll once again.

“Well, when folks die angry or scared, they’re more likely to turn,” said the kid. “People who pass easy-like don’t usually exhibit symptoms of spirit-lingering or possession. But working for the railroad when you’re a Chinaman . . . well, it’s no church picnic, so say the coolies what come home. Alive, I mean.”

“I know, Wong. It’s real sad.”

“Eh. The whole world’s a goddamn tragedy.” Jimmy almost laughed, or cried, maybe; the kid was telling him this? “Anyways, that’s the last of ’em. You wanna pull that cork, like you were saying?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Sorry, kid,” he said. “Look — tomorrow, come in the same time. You can do what you gotta do, and then, if you want, you can help me take ’em across town. We could even stay and watch the fight . . . if you wanted, I mean.”

Wong gave Jimmy a funny look before tipping his hat and showing himself out, as well he might. Jimmy suspected it was pretty obvious how sick at heart he felt. This job, identifying bodies to withhold from families eager to bury their dead . . . Christ above, how was this his life?

Before all this business with Turkey Jimmy had been shocked at the volume of bodies that came to Pacific-American via the railroad and its subsidiaries. It seemed obscene, the loss of life; the final request of the workers to be shipped home to be buried in Toisan, poignant. But now, viewing them — the corpses — as a commodity, something to profit from in the pits . . . it was some sick shit, that was for sure.

Truth was, Jimmy hadn’t turned Wong down because he didn’t want a drink. He was craving a tipple something fierce, but he wanted to be alone. Jimmy ambled back to his office, to the couch where he slept on late nights like these, musing on how the world was truly an awful place, full of awful people. Hell, the most he could say for himself was that before this gig with Turkey, he’d never once placed a bet on a geung si match. He’d never been one for gambling at all, really — that had all begun after Jimmy Jr. hanged himself, and his wife had run off to get away from him, from everything. It had been so easy to lose his past while he was losing his money.

Jimmy opened his desk drawer and withdrew a bottle of rotgut. After pulling the cork out with his teeth, he took a long swig.

• • • •

The next day’s shipment of bodies arrived on time, and so did Wong, his quiet knock coming just after the eighth stroke of the mantle clock was fading.

“Just give me the key,” he suggested, when Jimmy looked up with tired eyes from the pile of shipping orders he’d been working on all day. “You can sit tight and finish your work. I don’t need a babysitter.”

Jimmy hesitated, then nodded.

“Just mind you don’t poke around none, and bring the key right back. Don’t lose it.” Wong rolled his green eyes. “Afterwards, you wanna cart the stiffs to Turkey’s? We can stay for the fight, like I said. The final match’ll feature our number-one champ.”

“Fine.”

“Good.” Strange how much better the prospect of company made him feel. “Plenty of meat to get through before any of our fighters go up, but it’ll take us a while to get there after we load up . . .”

“All right, all right. I’m moving.” Wong grabbed the key off the peg and disappeared.

Half an hour later Wong was back. He said “Four,” and hung the key up before Jimmy could even ask what the head count was.

“Not bad.” Seven the previous night made eleven future geung si. Turkey would be over the moon. “Let’s load ’em up. Want a drink, first? It’ll keep you warm.” He shook his bottle of rot at Wong. Wong accepted it and took a long pull without choking. Jimmy was once again impressed by the kid’s grit.

“Thanks,” Wong said, handing back the bottle.

“I hitched Blackie and Brownie to the wagon earlier on, so for now all we have to do is drive ’round to load up the bodies. Later we’ll take an ax to the coffins and throw the boards in the scrap pile.”

Wong nodded. “Then you’ll change the records to reflect the new numbers?” Jimmy said nothing, but his silence seemed to be answer enough for Wong. Kid whistled, low and long. “Quite the operation. How long’ve you been . . . ?”

All the questions were spoiling Jimmy’s good mood. “Too long.”

Wong nodded, and didn’t ask any more questions.

They trekked across the misty lot towards the stable. Eventually Jimmy gave in and said, “About a year, I guess.”

“Huh?”

“That’s how long I’ve been working for Turkey.”

“How’d the boss get geung si for the pits before you?”

“Never asked. Knowing Turkey, I prefer to remain ignorant.”

“Got it.”

The autumn days were still plenty warm, so when they stepped inside, the charnel stench of the warehouse was overwhelming. That said, the sight of bodies on their way to becoming geung si always nauseated Jimmy more than the smell of natural death. Spiritual putrefaction prevented physical deterioration, which meant the bodies appeared pristine despite having sat in a warehouse for a few days — and making the trip from wherever they’d been boxed up. The phenomenon wasn’t as surprising when some Chinese from Chinatown wanted his bones sent home to Toisan, but these corpses had come from Utah for the most part, which meant they’d been dead for the better part of a heckuva long while.

In silence, Wong and Jimmy loaded the bodies and secured the tarp that hid their cargo. Only as they rattled over the cobblestones toward Chinatown did Wong speak, surprising Jimmy by asking about the rules of geung si boxing.

“Never been to a match?”

“Nah,” said Wong. “Doesn’t appeal to me.” He flashed a smile at Jimmy. “Deal enough with corpses during working hours, you know? I prefer to lose my money on fan-tan.”

That made a lot of sense, actually. “Well, geung si boxing’s more like cockfighting than bare-knuckle, right? The way they tear one another apart with their claws and teeth, to the . . . can you call it death?”

“Call it whatever you want.”

“Say, you’d know — do they feel pain? Are they the same as they were before they died? I mean, the same people?”

Wong shrugged. “The need for qi is all-consuming for geung si. Ghosts are more like who they were, if you get talking to ʻem.”

“If you get talking . . . to ghosts?”

“Well. Yeah.”

Jimmy recognized that tone. Time to change the subject. “I bet you’ll be able to tell me more about what happens in the ring than the reverse. It’s pretty interesting, watching the trainers. Guess their tricks’d be a lot like yours.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for one thing, the geung si that wins the match is usually immobilized with one of those charm-thingies you used on the coffins back at the yard.”

“Gotcha.” Wong seemed to be thinking. “What happens to the losers?”

“If they’re not torn up too bad they’re thrown back into the ring after getting patched up.” He looked sidelong at Wong. The kid looked a little confused, but unless he asked directly how the geung si had their qi replenished, Jimmy wasn’t going to volunteer the information. “They don’t heal, of course, so usually it’s in lower-quality pits or the matches leading up to the big fight.”

They turned down the alley alongside the abandoned building on the outskirts of Chinatown where Turkey held his fights, and there was Turkey standing outside, his bald head and several chins recalling his namesake. He was smoking a cigarette and bullshitting with his cronies. Zeke was there, and Leung. They hailed Jimmy over the dull roar coming from inside.

“Wondering if you’d show up,” said Turkey, ambling over and petting Blackie’s nose. “Got a good crop for me?” He noticed Wong. “Who’s this?”

“Our new psychopomp,” said Jimmy. “Wong, meet Turkey.”

“You brought the new kid? You stupid shit, Jimmy, if he —”

“I won’t squeal unless you’re slow with my cash,” interrupted Wong, by way of saying hello. Jimmy’s stomach lurched, but Turkey was apparently in a good mood that night.

“No worries there, boy,” he said.

“Then we should have ourselves a chat, as it was never exactly clear when I’d see my money.”

Apparently Wong’s bravado chased away Turkey’s doubts. He looked at Jimmy, eyebrows raised. “Cute kid.”

Wong hopped down from the cart. “My mama raised me right.” He held his hand out. Turkey shook it. “There’s eleven in the cart for you, ripe as the peaches of goddamn immortality.”

“Heaven and earth, eh, Wong?” Turkey chuckled. “Where the hell’d you find this one, Jimmy?”

That brought Jimmy up short. Wong had found him. But this first meeting was going so well; Jimmy didn’t want his boss getting all nervous and irate, so he just shrugged and said, “Word gets around.”

“Does it now?” Leung was leaning against the side of the warehouse, looking hard at Wong. Wong had noticed, and was staring back at him boldly. “Is that how you heard about the job, Wong? Word got around?”

An uncomfortable silence descended upon the group. Wong said nothing until Turkey said, “Well?”

Wong shrugged. “One of my fan-tan buddies said he heard about some operation looking to hire a psychopomp with a certain amount of . . . flexibility in his moral outlook. So I asked a few questions, and knocked on Jimmy’s door at Pacific-American a few nights back. And we really hit it off — didn’t we Jimmy?”

“Yeah,” mumbled Jimmy. His heart was pounding so hard he was afraid it might burst. Turkey was frowning.

“Why’re you so curious, Leung?” asked Turkey.

“He just looks like someone I seen before,” said Leung. “Someone who’s not a psychopomp named Wong.”

“Well, we all look alike — don’t we, dai lo?”

Wong’s statement caused another silence — and then a round of raucous laughter from all but Leung.

“We’d better go in,” said Turkey, when he got his breath back. “You like geung si boxing, Wong?”

“Guess I’m about to find out.”

Turkey took him by the shoulder and pushed him inside. “You sure are.” He then turned back to Jimmy. “And you better hope Leung’s mistaken. If there’s a problem . . .”

“There’s no problem,” insisted Jimmy, hoping he was right. “He’s just scrappy.”

“Scrappy,” said Turkey thoughtfully. “Well. I’ll take care of him — you go and unload the cargo. Join us when you’re done, I’ll buy you a drink. Eleven new qi-suckers is something to celebrate.”

With no one to help him, it took Jimmy a while to get the corpses downstairs and chained up in the basement they used for storing unrisen geung si. Not that he was inclined to hurry. Above him, he heard cheers and screams and the growling of the fighters. Not a scene he was anxious to join.

Eventually he tramped up the stairs and around to the front. As he elbowed his way through the mob the gong rang, indicating the end of a match. Jimmy caught sight of Wong sitting beside Turkey in the front row, looking . . . Jimmy didn’t know how to describe Wong’s expression. He was fascinated, that was obvious, but there didn’t seem to be pleasure in his interest; honestly, he looked a little green about the gills. Given the amount of time it was taking to clean up the ring, the last match must’ve been a doozy.

As there weren’t any seats up front, Jimmy hung back, watching from a distance as the silver bells of the trainers began to ring out over the general ruckus. Silent, arms outstretched, their foreheads bedecked with regulation charms, the geung si hopped toward the ring, compelled forward by the jingling. It was a sight that never failed to put the spook on Jimmy.

“Folks, this is the bout you’ve been waiting for, the fight that will determine one half of the title lineup for the championship!” cried the announcer, just as the trainers entered the ring behind their geung si. “Will it be Turkey’s Eleventh Tiger of Canton, veteran victor of many a fight — and many a championship?”

The crowd went wild for the geung si dressed in some kind of Chinese court robes. Turkey’s boxers were always favorites in spite of being — or maybe because they were — mainly of Chinese extraction.

“Or will it be Ricky Lee’s White Lightning, Lord of the Southern Swamps?” asked the announcer, to general booing. Apparently the crowd was unimpressed by the tubby, shirtless, coverall-wearing corpse, though this geung si was more interesting to Jimmy. White folks succumbed to geung si possession same as anyone else, sure — but due to the law being more concerned when dead white folks went missing, they were a less common sight in the boxing ring than black, Mexican, or Chinese fighters.

After the trainers and the announcer climbed out of the ring, and the mesh was rolled back over the pit and secured, only the two geung si and the umpire were left. The umpire, a brave, nimble man called Mace, stood between the two frozen vampires.

The gong clanged. Mace snatched away the charms and vanished down the trapdoor, and the fighting began. Jimmy looked away, more interested in watching Wong’s face. When Turkey’s geung si leaped forward and got his long-nailed fingers around his opponent’s throat, the kid flinched.

“The Eleventh Tiger strikes!” cried the announcer. “White Lightning, trapped already! But he’s — he’s away! Ohhh!”

The crowd went wild as Turkey’s geung si swept the retreating White Lighting’s feet out from under him. White Lightning dropped like a stone, but somehow flipped his feet over his head and landed in a crouch, snarling.

This impressive maneuver got everyone’s attention, and Jimmy sensed a shift in the crowd’s sympathies. But when White Lightning somersaulted forward right at the Eleventh Tiger’s feet and then popped up to pop the Eleventh Tiger in the cheek with a hammy fist, the booing began.

“White Lightning catches the Eleventh Tiger off guard!” screamed the announcer, as the robe-wearing geung si took another punch to the nose, this time with White Lightning’s left fist. “Could this be the end of the Eleventh Tiger’s reign of terror?”

It certainly seemed possible. The Eleventh Tiger was now attempting to extricate itself from White Lightning’s bear hug, but White Lightning’s teeth were getting ever closer to the Eleventh Tiger’s throat as the geung si stuck his leg between White Lighting’s legs to keep from going over.

Clearly desperate, the Eleventh Tiger risked it all, bringing a knee into contact with what had been White Lightning’s nuts. Jimmy winced as White Lightning crumpled, and the Eleventh Tiger jumped clear. He knew well enough that the geung si wasn’t feeling the same pain he’d feel in such a circumstance, but lots of qi resided in the balls — apparently — so it effectively crippled the poor bastard. The Eleventh Tiger took advantage of that, pinning the writhing corpse beneath him and sinking his teeth into his neck.

“Another win for the Eleventh Tiger!” The announcer was hard to hear over the cheers of the crowd.

But one person wasn’t cheering. Wong, wide-eyed, looked on as the winning geung si drank the invisible essences of his opponent until, maddened by the fresh qi, he rose and began to fling himself up against the mesh, hungry for more. While Jimmy made his way over to Wong’s side, Turkey’s trainer climbed on top of the screen and used a straw to blow a puff of vermilion dust onto the Eleventh Tiger’s face, which quieted him down instantly.

“Want some air?” Jimmy muttered in Wong’s ear.

“Sure.” Wong lurched to his feet.

“Not so fast,” said Leung, stepping over and squeezing Wong’s shoulder so hard the kid winced. “Ain’t so many half-breeds ’round Chinatown that I can’t spot a fraud just because she cuts her hair off,” Leung snarled. “Yeah, I know who you are, Elouise Merriwether.”

Jimmy looked over at Wong. The kid was blushing something fierce.

“What’re you saying, Leung?” asked Turkey.

“I knew I’d seen this brat before. She calls herself Lou, usually — Lou Merriwether,” said Leung. “She’s the daughter of Archibald Merriwether — yes, of the fucking Merriwether Agency. Only the most reputable game in town, Jimmy.”

Jimmy studied the kid’s face and in horror saw what he’d missed: the narrowness of her chin, the smoothness of her brow, the tilt of her eyebrows. The absence of an Adam’s apple. She was a homely girl, that was obvious enough, but girl she was — not some punk kid.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Wong — Lou — whoever. “I’m not —”

“Shut up,” said Leung. “What, so you grew up on stupid tales of girls dressing as boys to do their father’s work or whatever?” Leung squeezed the girl’s shoulder again until she cried out. “Now you’re gonna learn how that really ends up, won’t she, Turkey?”

Jimmy looked at Wong a final time, hoping against hope it was all a big mistake . . . but he knew it wasn’t. Goddamn, and after he’d assured Zeke that if they had to take care of this kid, no one would come looking? Jesus Christ, he was a dead man.

“Get her bag, Zeke,” commanded Turkey. “You come too, Jimmy,” he said, casting a hard look in Jimmy’s direction.

• • • •

They were in the basement with the unrisen geung si. Turkey had propped Lou in a chair and tied her hands behind her back. Then he’d hit her in the face.

“How’d you hear about us?” he asked pleasantly.

“Fuck you,” she said.

Well, she hadn’t been faking scrappy. All the same, Jimmy knew she’d fare better if she showed some goddamn respect. Stupid fucking kid.

Turkey hit her again.

“That one almost hurt,” she said, snot and blood bubbling from her nose, tears running down her cheeks.

Turkey, shaking out his hand, shot her a look that sobered her up with the quickness.

“Look,” she said, “we heathen Chinese can actually see out of our slanty eyes, you know? Buncha bodies go missing, and most of them through Pacific-American Shipping?” Lou must’ve noticed Turkey shooting Jimmy a nasty look. “I’m sure Jimmy’s been doing his job best he can, but just because lawmen won’t listen to Chinese doesn’t mean we don’t listen to each other.”

“Toldja you were being too greedy,” said Leung. “But no, you had to —”

“Don’t be a fool!” said Turkey. “Sheriff wouldn’t deputize no girl to go undercover. Hell, I’d bet no one even knows she’s here.”

Jimmy saw fear flit across Lou’s face. Looked like Turkey’s hunch was spot-on. Jesus. Scrappy didn’t begin to describe this kid!

“She did us a favor, really,” Turkey said to Leung and Zeke. “I’ve been wanting to try something for a while. The Eleventh Tiger’s gonna need some nice fresh qi to do well next time he’s in the ring. Everyone else feeds their geung si qi from the sick and dying. What if we give ours a ripe young girl?” He eyed Lou’s face. “Well, some sort of girl. Easy enough, after, to dump her somewhere the sheriff’ll find her. I dunno about you boys, but I never saw a girl called Elouise. Or Lou. I might’ve seen a boy get real drunk and pick fights with his betters, but certainly not a girl.”

“No!” Jimmy took a step towards Turkey. “You can’t do this!”

Turkey didn’t even look up. “Take care of Jimmy, will ya, Zeke?”

Jimmy straight up ran for the door. He hated himself for being such a coward, but he told himself that even if he was running out on the kid, he could find someone to help before —

He heard a revolver fire; felt a pain in his guts. Then the world went all colorful and fuzzy, and next thing he knew he was on the floor, next to one of the chained geung si. He’d been shot, and heard and saw everything through a fog of pain.

“The real question is,” Turkey was musing, “should I let the Tiger eat her now, or keep her here until right before the match?”

Jimmy was trying not to groan as waves of pain hit him, but he heard groaning just the same. When he realized what it was, he startled away from the geung si beside him. It was awake, and staring at him with wide, dead, hungry eyes.

“I say get rid of her soon as possible,” opined Leung.

“Probably best,” said Turkey.

Through his panic, it hit Jimmy that he still had the key to the geung si’s manacles in his pocket. If he let the creature go it might at least provide enough of a distraction for him to try to make it to the door and call for help. He forced himself to inch back toward the creature, hoping Zeke wouldn’t notice. Leung was already halfway up the stairs. Just four quick turns of the key in the manacles . . . Jimmy held his breath, hoping against hope —

The geung si rose and, with a cry, launched itself at Turkey.

“What the  —” cried Turkey as long fingers wrapped around his neck. Then the qi-vampire buried its teeth in his throat.

Trying to kick herself away from the feeding geung si, Lou toppled over, her head knocking against the floor. Jimmy laughed; for some reason it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Even funnier, Leung rushed back in to pull the geung si off Zeke, but instead, the vampire got one hand around each of their necks.

“Jimmy!”

He heard the kid’s voice through the fog, and saw Wong — no, Lou — looking at him from where she lay on the floor, still tied to the chair. “My bag! The charms!”

Her pleading got through somehow, and Jimmy got to his feet, casting about for the satchel.

“In the corner!” she cried, jutting her chin in the right direction. Spying it, Jimmy stumbled forward, opened the bag, and found the roll of paper charms.

The geung si was feasting on the now-silent Leung. Jimmy waited for the creature to finish, and after it took a giant bite out of Zeke, Jimmy lurched over and slapped a ward on its forehead, immobilizing it.

Jimmy sank to his knees. He looked down at his gut wound for the first time. Blood soaked his clothes, flowing out of him in short, pulsing bursts.

“Jimmy,” called Lou. “Jimmy, help me!”

“I just did . . .”

“Jimmy, please. Get my hands free. I’ll go find you a doctor.”

He made his way over to her on all fours to where she lay on her side. “There’s a jackknife in my pocket. Come on! The faster you move, the faster I can get help!”

“Sure,” he said as he sawed at the rope binding her wrists. When he got through it, she sprang to her feet.

“I’ll be right back,” she promised.

But the basement was already fading away, receding from his view as Jimmy watched her flee up the steps, and into the mist beyond.

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer’s debut novel, the steampunk weird western Vermilion, was an NPR Best Book of 2015. She is also the author of the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book Award-nominated collection A Pretty Mouth, the cocktail-themed collection Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations, and the historical crime novel The Pleasure Merchant. She is also the co-editor (with Jesse Bullington) of the forthcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu (summer 2016) and the co-editor (with Nick Mamatas) of the forthcoming flash fiction and cocktail recipe gift book Mixed Up!, due out in late 2017. Molly lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she tweets @molly_the_tanz, and blogs — infrequently — at mollytanzer.com, where her full bibliography can be found.