I told Master Que about the phone technician and the Gi Club in the taxi on our way to dinner. We agreed to wait until we knew when the technician would be coming before making definite plans for which of us would be at the house when he came. As for the Gi Club, he agreed with me that I should go along and see what they were like, but was of the opinion that the Combined Staff Society was more likely to provide a social outlet. “So many members that they don’t need to advertise themselves to this years’ new crop of potential recruits? If nothing else that alone gives me doubts about the current leadership.”
I was wearing the brocade jacket I hadn’t worn last time we’d come here and the newer style military boots, while Master Que seemed to have settled himself into some sort of studied disreputableness for the evening. I wasn’t sure what he was up to but he definitely winked at me before he got out of the back of the taxi and then he ushered me out of it as if I was someone important. He was definitely up to something and as I exited the taxi it certainly seemed to me that there was something going on at The Riverside Terrace tonight over and above the weekly gi fighting contact building. There were a number of impressively solid gentlemen in the foyer, two lines of them facing each other, and arriving diners had to pass between them to reach the hostess. There was more of a queue and a wait than there had been the previous week and Master Que just smiled insouciantly at everyone while we waited while I exchanged polite bows with both the gentlemen from the Phoenix Garden, one of whom was in each line – having exchanged bows before, I could hardly ignore them now, and they were not opposite each other, which removed any precedence issue.
Master Que and I were seated much where we had been the previous week and we gathered from the drinks waitress that the display in the foyer was to do with an event in one of the restaurant’s private rooms. I, for one, dismissed the matter from my mind as something that didn’t involve me as I perused the menu, partly because I still wasn’t sure what Master Que was up to and partly because I realised that I really wanted my dinner. I picked the mixed steamed dim sum starter while Master Que selected the abalone three ways for himself, and we agreed to share the ginger steamed fish and the chilli and beef special with the house’s most luxurious fried rice. Once our food order had been placed and our tea had been delivered Master Que said, “I hear an old friend from my fighting days is going to be here tonight. I’m looking forward to catching up with him.”
“I did wonder what was going on,” I admitted. “You seem…more animated tonight.” I picked my words carefully, you understand.
“Zhou Shung He always makes me feel alive, probably because we spent so much of our professional careers trying to kill each other.” He caught my look and clarified, “We both had the reputation of being very violent fighters. Plus neither of us had a ‘nice’ persona. Of course, he might want nothing to do with me….”
I looked at him over my teacup and said levelly, “I’m sure that the restaurant management, staff and the rest of the customers will be very happy if the two of you do not fight in here. Just remember, they have all of those of extra security men in the foyer that they can call on if necessary.”
“Actually,” said Master Que gaily, “there was a time when we might have done that for the publicity. The trick with that,” he dropped his voice, “is to find an establishment that’s about to close for renovation anyway and make sure that you don’t take out anything structural.”
“So what does your friend look like and who will he be here with?” I looked around the room and saw a few faces I recognised from the previous week, including Master Kung and his elegant lady companion.
“He’s a tall southerner, over six chi and almost seven. He used to have a moustache and he has tattoos on his arms. I believe he’s visiting the Chiangshi Association, so possibly with one of their Masters?” Master Que looked around the room too. “I will have to ask Master Kung for an introduction – it is about time to do so. Wait here please; you can make your bow to him after we’ve had our starters.”
So Master Que went off to exchange greetings with Master Kung and had his back to the door when a large man, almost seven chi tall and with a long grey moustache, was escorted into the restaurant by a contingent of younger people. They were shown to a large round table and the tall gentleman was carefully seated so that he had the best view of the room. I noted however that the seating arrangement and their numbers would make it difficult for anyone else to approach him. I switched my attention back to Master Que and found that he was in conversation with Master Kung and his lady companion. It was only a small movement that I caught in the corner of my eye, but I think I saw the moment when the tall gentleman spied Master Que. I looked directly at him just in time to catch part of the uncomfortable stream of expressions that crossed his face and I suspected that Master Que might be facing an evening of disappointment.
Master Que returned to our table with a bounce in his step and happily said, “Master Kung has promised me an introduction to Master Wu Jiang of the Xiamtian Chiangshi Masters’ Association. He hasn’t heard of a visiting master, but he says he wouldn’t necessarily.”
“Excuse me, Master Que,” I spoke quietly and without pointing, “but is that tall gentleman across the room Zhou Shung He? The big round table on the lower level.” Our table was on a raised terrace around the outside of the room. “The lady with her hair up in braid loops could be his daughter.”
Master Que considered the matter and agreed, “It is and she could be. I know he had several children, not that I’ve met any of them.”
“Perhaps he thought you would be a bad influence,” I suggested politely, “or simply confusing given that you were trying to do him a serious injury on a regular basis.”
He looked at me and chuckled, “Given that I helped you run away from home, he may have had a point.”
Our starters arrived at that point and I applied myself diligently to mine. Most of the fillings were seafood based, which probably wasn’t surprising given our location. I suspected that the next few years were going to include a lot more fish in my diet than I had been used to. After we’d finished our starters I excused myself to Master Que and made my way to Master Kung’s Table where I bowed politely to both he and his lady companion, then said, “Good evening, Master Kung, I trust this evening finds you well?”
“Miss Sung,” he bowed without rising. “Master Que said he was beginning his campaign to broaden your professional acquaintance in Xiamtian. Please allow me to present you to my wife, Madam Kung Wei.” He turned to his dining companion, “Dearest, allow me to make known to you Miss Sung Nai, the student of Master Que. I believe I mentioned her to last week?”
“You did.” Madam Kung smiled kindly at me. “How are you finding Xiamtian, Miss Sung?”
“A little more exciting than I expected, Madam Kung. It seems my accommodation used to be a resistance safe house during the Invasion and Occupation, but nobody knew that until just now so we’ve had the police in. My first day at university today produced fewer surprises.”
“Surprises, Miss Sung?” It was Madam Kung who spoke but they both looked interested.
“A couple of secret rooms, a secret radio, a small weapons stash, and a false grease trap that had been used for hiding explosives,” I summarised. “Those generations of the Lao family, from whom I’m buying the house, seem to have been quite formidable.”
“When I hear about things like this I always wonder,” commented Madam Kung, “what I would have had the strength and bravery to do. You always like to think that you could be one of the heroes, but….”
“Their exploits make me feel very young and untried,” I admitted. Then their main courses arrived, so I excused myself and returned to Master Que.
I returned to our table just as our own food arrived so Master Que and I applied ourselves with good appetite. The fish was very good and I made a note to ask our waitress what sort of fish it was. The fried rice had prawns and scallops in it, which was something I’d never seen before but was certainly prepared to eat again. The beef dish itself wasn’t ‘special’, I could make it myself at home, but it was rescued from ordinariness by the quality of the beef and the execution – that I couldn’t duplicate. If we’d come out for a special dinner I would have been very happy with the whole meal.
After we finished eating and our table was cleared, Master Que ordered a large pot of Quimong Red Dragon First Growth with extra cups and a plate of mixed sweet cakes. Mr Shu arrived shortly after the tea escorting a middle aged gentleman whom he introduced as Mr Yuan.
We all exchanged bows and after a quick glance in my direction from Master Que I invited them to sit and asked them if they would like some tea. Something about Mr Yuan’s posture made me ask, “Have you eaten yet?”
As I started pouring the tea Mr Yuan said, “I have had a little already, thank you,” so after I handed him his tea I pushed the plate of treats over in front of him.
”Thank you, Miss Sung.” He drank some of his tea while I was pouring a cup for Mr Shu and then he said, “I am gratified by your hospitality, Miss Sung and Master Que,” he smiled properly and looked the better for it. “I hadn’t realised how much I needed a good cup of tea until I actually had some. I will have a biscuit, if I might.”
Master Que waved graciously at the plate and Mr Yuan helped himself. I handed Mr Shu his tea and then we spoke business for about twenty minutes while we sipped our drinks. It was true that the contract was still being negotiated, but this was in the nature of airing mutual expectations, because Mr Yuan was the gi-fighter specialist who had been unable to attend our lunch meeting. Unsurprisingly he and Master Que had several acquaintances in common and they spent several minutes exchanging news of those good folk, so by the time Mr Shu and Mr Yuan made their excuses and went on to their next contact in the room I thought Master Que and Mr Yuan both felt that they had the measure of the other.
My probable future agents had been gone a scant five minutes when Master Kung arrived to take Master Que for his promised introduction to Master Wu. That left me alone at the table and, assuming that Master Que was going to work his way through a series of introductions to be able to make his bow to his old opponent, I stacked the used cups to one side so that the waitress could clear them, refilled my own cup and sat back to people watch while I nibbled on an almond biscuit.
Master Que was, by my count, on his third table before I became bored and decided that I wanted someone to talk to too. As I didn’t know anyone beside the Kungs and Master Que, and all of three of them were already busy with other people, I decided to scrape an acquaintance with someone. Frankly I looked at the circulating gi-fighters without a table, picked one I liked the look of who was on his third circuit around the room trying to get the attention of whichever people he wanted to talk to, and waved him over to my table. Perhaps surprisingly, he came.
I stood and bowed, then said, “My apologies for being forward but I was hoping for someone to talk to and it seemed to me that you might be in need of a cup of tea and somewhere to sit while you drink it.”
He looked at me for a moment, and then bowed. “I would appreciate a cup of tea and a few moments to sit, thank you. I am Gow Sien Tong.”
“Take a seat please, Gow Sien Tong.” I poured him his cup of tea and handed it to him once he was in the chair opposite me. “I am the Student of Shui Tzu Dan. Would you like a sweet cake with that?”
For a moment he looked at me as if I’d grown another head and then took a bean paste cake from the plate I was holding. “Thank you, I will. May I ask what you and your Master are doing in Xiamtian?”
“I’ve started at the university here,” I replied calmly, “and yourself, honoured senior?”
“Not so honoured,” he admitted. “I’m trying to get a training job in someone’s retinue or stable. I’d like to be a competitor but I’m more likely to be taken on as a sparring partner.”
We continued talking and I had him on his second cup of tea and third cake, partly because I frankly thought he needed feeding up, when about a third of the solid gentlemen who’d been in the foyer earlier entered the dining room and began to disperse around the room. The two I’d bowed to on my way in made their way directly to our table and bowed again. They looked at each other and it was the one on my right who spoke, “We apologise, miss, but we need to impose upon your good nature and occupy two of your seats.”
I looked around the room, and I wasn’t the only one doing so, to see pairs of figures looming in what I assumed were strategic locations. “So, this is a non-negotiable offer to do with someone else’s security, isn’t it?”
The other man said apologetically, “I’m afraid it is, miss.”
I took a deep breath and decided that arguing this was way over my seniority level, “Then please, sit down gentlemen. I am Sung Nai and this gentleman who has kindly been keeping me company is Gow Sien Tong. Would you like some tea and cakes?”
“Chow Man,” the man on my right pulled out the chair on his side of Gow Sien Tong and sat down. “Tea would be most welcome if you have any to spare.”
“Ling Tau,” the one on my left pulled out the chair next to mine and sat down, “and I too would appreciate some tea. Would you mind if I took the last lotus paste cake?”
“Not at all,” I passed him the plate and then poured them their tea. “I think we need more cakes and tea anyway.” While they began to sip and nibble, I summoned our waitress and requested a repeat of our order. I could see Master Que looking my direction so I smiled and nodded at him to indicate that I thought everything was fine.
Mr Ling asked, “Is something wrong, Miss Sung?”
“I’m just trying to reassure my master that he doesn’t have to charge over here and rescue me from a dire peril,” I answered lightly. “He’s trying to reconnect with an old associate who’s here tonight and it’s a matter of getting the right introductions – I don’t want him to stop now.”
“Ah,” Mr Ling nodded. “This is very good tea, by the way.”
“It is pleasant isn’t it?” I smiled at him. “It was recommended to me in a restaurant not so long ago and I’ve decided that I should cultivate a taste for it.”
“It’s kind of you to share it with us,” said Gow Sien Tong. “Not all of those in funds are so gracious.”
I shrugged. “You’re either my guests or you’re not. If you’re my guests then I offer to share what I’m drinking and eating.”
“And if we weren’t your guests then we wouldn’t be getting anything, would we?” Mr Chow sounded amused.
“Probably not, sir,” I agreed.
“We shouldn’t be here for too long,” Mr Chow added reassuringly. “Our bosses want to do a walk around the room to impress someone they’re doing business with and then we should be gone.”
“It’s just that there are…issues,” added Mr Ling.
“And we’re in the middle as window dressing?” I raised an eyebrow in my best imitation of Master Que.
“Miss Sung, their contacts with well-known gi masters and fighters is what they’re going to impress this person with. A demonstration that they can’t be ignored even outside their own milieu.” Mr Chow drank some more of his tea while he glanced around the room.
It’s worth mentioning that people were coming and going through the main doors of the dining room all the time. They were generally in ones and twos; the group including Mr Chow and Mr Ling had only attracted attention because of their size, initial cohesion and subsequent actions. Several newcomers surveyed the room, saw the stationed security men and decided to leave. Several tables of diners had called for their bills – they may have been finished for the evening anyway but I got the impression that they were deciding not to linger.
The new pot of tea arrived, I thanked the waitress, she took away the old pot, and I topped up everyone’s tea.
Mr Chow and Mr Ling exchanged a look that had, to me, tones of, “How much longer?”
The waitress came back with our plate of cakes and put them down. Then Gow Sien Tong cleared the vacant chair beside him away with a blast of air and bundled the waitress under the table with himself on top of her. I felt what he was reacting to just as he reached for the girl and put a shield up without thinking. Bullets hit my screen of olive sludge coloured energy and stopped, suspended in raw gi. Gow Sien Tong had probably saved our waitress’ life because my scratch shield would have passed through her if she hadn’t been moved.
This is now followed by Hopefully Not An Ordinary Evening Out.