It was four in the morning and Jie Bai was at the markets to buy vegetables. The Jie family had been selling vegetables to the households of the Tang-jian Capital for four generations and it was part of his job to choose and buy the produce that the family's network of stalls and shops would offer to their customers. Later in the day he would take over the cabbage stall that his elderly cousin, Jie Bo, ran while the old man went home for lunch with his daughter and an afternoon nap. Jie Bo would come back to finish off the day and lock up, while Jie Bai went home to eat, bathe and sleep before he got up at three to go to the markets again.
Home was a bachelor apartment near the markets. It was a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom and the use of a communal laundry and drying area. A couple could have shared it, but it would have been cramped. Jie Bai hadn't married and had reached a stage of his life where he didn't expect to, ever. Which made it rather strange when a woman grabbed his arm with both hands, reached up to kiss him on the cheek and said "Husband, here you are! Have you looked at the choy sum over in Aisle Six yet?" She was a pleasant and happily animated woman, maybe five years his junior, dressed sensibly in in tailored blacks, and Jie Bai had no idea who she was.
He was about to say something cutting and pry her hands off him when he caught sight of movement on the edge of his vision. When he raised his head a little, he saw two of Golden Lotus Tong's heavies coming towards them. They were a fixture around the markets where their activities had not previously impacted on Jie Bai. He looked down at the woman clinging to his arm and replied, "Aisle 6, you said? So, Lee Wan and Sons or the Da Dou Co-operative then. I haven't been down there yet this morning, but as you've taken the trouble to bring them to my attention I'll go and see them now." He added very, very quietly with his face tilted down towards her, "Keep both hands on my arm. If you take either of them off there or someone else makes an attempt on my pockets, I will ditch you and start raising a hue and cry. Do you understand me?"
"Yes." Her reply was quiet, and her eyes widened. Jie Bai wasn't sure if she was trying to look appealingly innocent or if he'd scared her. It didn't really matter which, as long as she did as she was told, and he started walking towards Aisle 6.
"How upset with you are the gentlemen we left behind us?" He asked the question quietly.
"I was just asking some questions," she replied defensively.
"What sort of questions? Specifically, were they the sort of questions that might be taken as a threat?" Jie Bai scanned the route ahead of them for complications.
"Mutual support payments." She muttered the reply, and when he looked down at her she must have thought he hadn't understood her answer because she added, "Protection money."
"That would explain why the mutual support fund's security people were following you." He stepped them around a man pushing a trolley of green bananas and continued on to Aisle 6. "Why pick me as cover to get away from them?"
"You looked safe, competent, and, well, safe."
"Not unlike several tong and triad members in good standing that I know of. If you're going to go around asking awkward questions you need to make your own extraction arrangements." She gave him a look. "Ah, Aisle 6."
He picked up the pace half a step and got them past Aisle 9 just before the stream of forklifts moving onions blocked their route. Then it was just the work of a few minutes to cross the tops of Aisles 8 and 7, and barely a moment or two more to find the choy sum in the Da Dou Co-operative's display. Also, a photographer and the market price reporter from the Capital Gazette. "These would be your friends," observed Jie Bai.
"Yes," she nodded again.
"Did you tell them that you would be asking awkward questions?" Jie Bai looked at the choy sum on offer and noted that it was good quality and a reasonable price.
"I may have assumed that it was implied from what I did say." From his perspective it looked like she was pouting as she replied.
"Then we will have to tell them that they need to get you out of here." Jie Bai walked her over to the newspapermen and bowed. "Keung Yun. Chow Xing. I believe this lady is your colleague?"
The two men bowed in return. The reporter, Keung Yun, replied, "Jie Bai, always a pleasure. Is Su Fang in trouble?"
"I am here, you know."
"Madam Su seems to have annoyed some members of the Golden Lotus. She also publicly declared herself to be my wife." He and Keung Yun exchanged looks.
"It's Miss Su!" hiss that lady.
Jie Bai added to Keung Yun, "I may need to ask you for a formal introduction, but right now I think you need to get her out of here."
"You're talking over the top of me again."
He looked down at her. "You chose to involve me in this. You put your safety in my hands. I am taking what I think are appropriate steps."
She spluttered. He hadn't quite taken the wind out of her sails, but he had cut off the possible variants of 'How dare you!'
He went on, "If you want to continue this discussion, I suggest one o'clockish this afternoon at the cabbage stall opposite the western entrance of Teng and Sons."
"That's an odd meeting place." Her hands were still clamped around his arm.
"That's where I'll be. Now, if you would please let go of me, I'll leave you with Mr Keung and Mr Chow so I can get back to work." He just looked at her while she let go of his arm, and then he bowed before turning to buy choy sum and everything else the family's outlets required.
It was weeks after New Year and there was little demand for cabbages at lunchtime now the festivities were over, so Jie Bai wasn't busy with customers when Miss Su arrived at the stall at five past one by the clock on the tower of the Teng and Sons building. She appeared as pleasant as she had at four in the morning, but now seemed slightly less animated and more businesslike. She didn't bow or greet him before she launched into, "So, what is your deal?"
Jie Bai made eye contact with her, bowed, and acknowledged her with, "Miss Su." When he was upright again, he went on, "This morning you brought me to the attention of members of the Golden Lotus, an organisation I have had few direct dealings with. Your declaration that I am your husband has resulted in no less than eight enquiries so far regarding the details of our wedding. Three to me and five to my mother. My mother has been in contact with me and wants to know everything. Given that I am a dried up, middle-aged, confirmed bachelor this second circumstance is a somewhat disconcerting development."
Su Fang considered that statement, very briefly, then said, "Possibly you're middle-aged, possibly you're a confirmed bachelor, but I would have to take issue with dried up." She looked critically at him for a moment and commented, "Though your mother probably does tell you to eat more." A pause, then, "Is she upset?"
"She does want to know about this woman who seems to think that I'm husband material." He smiled at a passing woman who often made a purchase on her way home later in the afternoon. "What were you asking that upset the Golden Lotus?"
"I was trying to find out why people pay them money. I mean they are running a protection racket, aren't they? But this is the Capital and it's not like police are in short supply here." She didn't add, 'Not like back home,' but Jie Bai could almost hear the unspoken words.
He gathered his thoughts for a moment and then answered, "The Golden Lotus operation in the markets runs more like an insurance excess coverage program than a protection racket. They charge an annual fee that's just under the amount of the business insurance excess, they turn out if something goes wrong, and they give you a properly receipted invoice for the amount of your excess afterwards. They also keep other potentially coercive organisations out of the markets."
"So, they don't make 'accidents' happen to the people who won't pay them?" Miss Su looked sceptical.
"Not in the last twenty years," affirmed Jie Bai. "What they do is not turn up with fire extinguishers or tarpaulins, depending on what's needed. They don't get you a replacement labourer if someone gets sick. They don't send someone around if you have a family emergency to help feed the children and get them to and from school. They do all those things for people who do pay them."
"Do you pay the Golden Lotus for their services?" She looked at him enquiringly.
"I'm just the buyer for a network of retail distributors."
She murmured, "So Keung Yun mentioned."
"I have a cousin who deals with that sort of thing, but we don't have a stall at the markets, so no, I believe we don't." He paused their conversation to sell a cabbage to a nurse on her way home from a hospital shift.
When the customer was gone, Su Fang asked, "If you do the buying at the markets for all your family's businesses, why are you selling cabbages? Mr Keung gave me to understand that you buy for a substantial network of retail outlets."
Jie Bai shrugged. "My cousin is elderly. It's good for him to have a meal and a nap at home in the middle of the day. I don't have any other tasks at the moment, so I have time to fill in for him." He didn't comment on the number of shops he bought for. "So, why are you asking questions at the markets?"
She went coy on him, shifting her weight awkwardly and tucking her head down and in towards the shoulder nearest him. "I finally got a transfer to the paper here from the regional masthead in my home town and I want to show that I can do the legwork and the investigation and the putting everything together to work on the big stories. On my old paper they never let me even try.... And it looks like I've made a muck of it the first time I tried."
"Firstly, no-one gets it right all the time so why would you have a trouble free first endeavour?" He stole a glance at her face to see whether he should hand her a handkerchief. "Secondly, just a suggestion, but have you thought of asking about business insurance excesses?"
"About the excesses?" She looked up at him curiously.
"My cousin who does the insurances is always complaining at family gatherings where we get drunk together. Did you know that all the insurance companies that offer business insurance in this province are subsidiaries of one or another of four foreign insurance conglomerates? He completely loses me on the reinsurance side of things, but he's not happy about that either." He lifted an interrogatory eyebrow at her.
"Four foreign conglomerates." He could almost see her brain thinking. "Barton and Pullman, Zeiss Mutual, Allianz d'Isle, and Breda en Maarten or van Zuul Berheer? And no local firms?"
"Only locally registered subsidiaries," he confirmed.
"That might bear looking into." She wasn't quite thinking out loud.
"I'll talk to Keung Yun about a formal introduction," added Jie Bai. "My mother may well want to send along a matchmaker too."
Her attention snapped back to him with the change of subject. "But!"
"You've told the world we're already married. I see no reason that we shouldn't investigate whether we can't just call you prescient."
"This wasn't supposed to happen! You don't have to-."
"I want to." He smiled.
"Oh." She swallowed. "Oh. I'll have to consider when might be convenient then. Oh, my." She looked stunned. "This is very unexpected."