By Mark Finn
Sam Bowen walked down Crane Street, his shoulders hunched against the early January chill, and tried to remember where Ping’s Place, the old neighborhood bar, was. After three passes, he realized that it was gone now, and in its place was a tourist-trap restaurant. He should go to Doyle’s, he reflected, if he wanted a drink. However, the whole of the Neighborhood didn’t exactly know that he was back in town, yet, and until he got the lay of the land, he wanted to keep it that way.
At the edge of Chinatown, Sam bought a fifth of whiskey at Ralph’s and stuck it in his trenchcoat pocket for later. For celebrating, he told himself, letting the lie sit behind downcast eyes. Resuming his walk, he strolled past Benny’s Pagoda Hut, glancing only briefly at the No Vacancy sign. It was just as well, he thought. There wasn’t any real reason to be here. Not anymore. He had found his answers, hadn’t he? Uncovered the Machiavellian curse that had decimated his family, even stopped it. And paid the price for it, as well.
In the window of the bank of Chinatown, Sam saw his own reflection and started. All he could really recognize was his eyes. They stared back at him, this older, more tired-looking him. For just a second, he realized that he looked a lot more like Robert Stonehill than he would ever care to admit. The thought made him smile, and sent him on his way, away from the reflection of the man he didn’t know.
Zhu was gone. The corner was empty, as if he’d never been imprisoned there. That thought sent a nervous tingle down Sam’s spine. Who took care of the demon? He’d always thought it would have been him. Probably someone from Chu’s organization. All of his children come home to roost, eventually.
Sam sat down in the Earth side of the Garden of the Five Elements and felt the weight of the whiskey pulling on his coat. He watched the people hurrying by, on foot, on bike, in small, beat up cars. No one recognized him, and no one cared. Cities have terrible memories. Unless you do sweeping, ridiculous changes that everyone knows about, you would not be written into its history. For everything that Sam did, so few people knew about it, and they were either dead, gone, or not really someone he was ready to meet again.
Had it been so long? Inside the Gray, yes, of course, he had aged twenty years. But out here, it was even half that time. Not even a decade. Mi Hei didn’t forget, obviously. Nor had Chu-san. But that was different. Sam glared at the four paths leading away from his bench and realized he was once again at a crossroads. No devil, nor vampire, nor grand, family obligation to deal with. Just the rest of his life. He pulled the bottle out of his pocket, stared down at the label. Kentucky. Home. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do,” he said.
He quickly unscrewed the bottle, took a hefty swig, and immediately regretted it. This was weakness, not strength. He spit the brown liquid out on the ground and tossed the whole bottle in the nearby trash can.
Well, shit, he thought. Now what? Sam stared down at the discarded whiskey and watched the rivulets of alcohol run together around the cobblestones and creep towards the southmost path. Curious, he fished the bottle out of the trash and poured some more out on the ground. The alcohol ran quickly, trickled into a rudimentary arrow, and then puddled up amid the grime into a less recognizable mess.
Sam glared in the direction of the arrow. He could clearly see where it was pointing. Chu Sheng Kai’s home sat at the end of the block, on a slight incline, palatial and silent. To go in that direction was to invite more trouble on himself. And yet, there was a sense that he had one more debt to pay. He owed his life to this family. Or did he? Was not his previous service all part of the account that was, with his newfound freedom, marked paid in full?
No. If he went back to the Chu family again, it would be a new relationship. He was reborn, and all previous incarnations of Sam Bowen were now a thing of the past. He stood up, stretched, and sighed as only the damned can sigh as he merged back into the foot traffic on the street. Like it or not, San Cibola was his last, and in some ways, his best home. There was a place for him, here. He didn’t know just yet what that place was, but he would find it, as he found everything else, in his own way, in his own time. In the meantime, there was Chinatown. Sam allowed a small smile to creep into the corners of his mouth. His eyes wandered across the oncoming clutch of people who were paying no attention to him whatsoever. In a flash, he caught sight of a mismatched set of eyes under a dirty baseball cap. The memory came rushing back on him, even as he heard the man mutter an incredulous “Foreign devil?”
“Zhu.” There was a pop and a flash and Sam dove right, against a plate glass window of a local restaurant. The old man in the shabby clothes shimmered and fell away from the demon in clumps and chunks. Sam started. He had never seen Zhu Kwei Wu without his meat suit on. A pig-faced, barrel-chested minor demon who managed to escape the infernal regions and was subjugated by Chu Sheng Kai to serve Chinatown for one hundred years.
“I heard you were dead,” said the demon through broken teeth.
“I’m a bad penny, Zhu. I keep turning up. When did you get out?”
“Four years ago.” The demon wiped his face with a shovel-sized hand. “Weak, no power, no chi left to work mischief. No skills. Only a need to avenge myself. I went looking for you, but everyone say you died. I was looking forward to sucking your eyes out of your head.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” said Sam. The streets had quietly cleared, the citizens of Chinatown well used to such shenanigans and how to avoid them.
“Oh, it’s no disappointment, Bowen,” said Zhu. He ran a black tongue over his cleft palate. “It’s taken me years to rebuild my power. I can’t get into Chu’s house and rape his women, but I am more than a match for an ignorant white hick hedge magician such as you.”
“This isn’t exactly the conversation I thought we’d have, Zhu. Don’t you want to talk about the good old days?” Sam’s hand dropped ever-so-casually into his pocket as he spoke.
“’Good Old Days’?” Zhu howled. “You crazy fool! You taunted me daily with your questions and your insults and your very presence!” Zhu stamped the pavement with his hooves, and sparks flew up around him. “I am not an animal! I am a footsoldier in the Celestial Army of Zhang Dou’s Black Company. I am twice-born of the Earth Sow, five times a demon in the year of the Metal Dragon! You are nothing, and I will drink my fill from your empty skull!”
Zhu charged, head down, tusks up, fire gushing out of his stiffened ears. Sam pulled the finger bone out of his pocket; it was the only object out of his Bag of Hell that he took with him on his walk. It seemed silly at the time, but now he laughed at his own paranoia as he literally dropped to the pavement and made a grab at the demon’s shaggy legs. Zhu tripped and fell heavily against a brick wall. Sam rolled up into a three point stance, the finger bone in his free hand. It was long, almost a foot in length, and capped off with a sickle-shaped bone claw that greatly resembled a bowie knife.
Zhu turned, screaming, and made to leap forward, when he spied the object in Sam’s hand. “Is that…one of Xhong Di’s Fingers?”
“Not bad, Zhu. You always did know what was what.”
Zhu looked confused. “But…those fingers were lost in the bowels of Hell. Where did you find that?”
“This?” Sam brandished the bone knife. “I found it with the other nine fingers—in the bowels of Hell.”
Zhu’s eyes widened. “Impossible.”
Instead of answering, Sam stood up and pointed the knife at Zhu’s red eye. “Not at all. And now I give you just one chance, Zhu. Walk away. Leave me in peace, and I’ll not send you back.”
Zhu stood up, embarrassed, his head down. “Yes, Bowen. Good. Thank you, Bowen. I’m sorry.” He backed up, bowing deeply. Sam watched him go. Zhu turned and hurried off, the mundane disguise reforming around him. Sam walked quietly, quickly, waiting for it to reform completely, and then in one deft movement, he grabbed Zhu around the neck and plunged the knife into Zhu’s chest, working the bone point between the ribs. Zhu howled the howl of the damned, and Sam whispered the five word incantation that opened a column of glowing green smoke beneath them. Sam dropped Zhu’s twitching form into it and watched the tendrils swallow him up. The glow faded, and then the smoke dissipated, save for a smell that was all-too-familiar to Sam. He dropped the finger knife into his pocket and walked away, upwind, of the smell. It was almost three o’clock. Tea time at Chu’s house. He knew better than to miss it.