by Peter Huston
“Cash. I need your cash.” The mugger blocked the Hong Kong seaport alley, waving a switchblade stiletto. There wasn’t time for this. I took a deep breath of cool, early morning salt air and struck, my years of training serving me well.
A crescent kick disarmed him. As the knife clattered to the pavement, a quick pivot and a spinning side kick caught the man mid-chest. He flew back, stumbled, recovered and brought his hands up ready to fight.
It surprised me a mugger still had such fight in him.
I lashed out with my hands before he could catch his balance, a double single-fingered cobra strike to the nerve centers on each side of his neck, and with a sigh and a rolling of his eyes he fell to the ground, breathing deeply as if asleep.
“Took long enough,” said the deep voice behind me.
“No jokes,” I said. “A ship awaits and people depend on us.”
I was tense. I had a job to do. Thousands of lives hung in the balance, perhaps the very fate of the free world, but, worse, I felt guilt for having misused my art. Kung fu was supposed to be about self-discipline and devotion to a spiritual path, not casual violence against a down-on-his-luck street thief.
Behind me Barbed-wire Jackson chuckled. I glanced back noting the grin splitting the face of my large afro-ed friend. “Nelson, you bad-assed kung fu honkey. Up ahead our ship awaits.”
I gave him the power sign in answer, and headed down the alley, knowing he’d watch my back. He’d die for me and I’d die for him. We were both sworn Brothers of the Golden Tiger and we’d been sent here to stop a shipment of heroin destined for the streets of America. But this wasn’t just any simple shipment. It was so much more.
By the side of the alley, a beggar woman waited in the early morning dawn, wrapped in rags, leaning on her staff, the bowl in front of her holding just a few coins. I paused, placed a bill in the dish, then moved on.
“An Andrew Jackson? A twenty? Man, you sure are some soft-hearted honkey.”
“A warrior must show compassion even while heading into battle—so says the ancient proverb.” Kung fu was a deep philosophy handed down for thousands of generations.
“Man you so silly. I bet that chick is jiving you and there’s nothing even wrong with her. If you grew up on the streets like I did, man, you’d know that score.”
I adjusted the straps that held the backpack with the satchel charges and kept walking. “To the ship, Barbed-wire. Save it for the ship.”
We wove through the side streets of the Hong Kong seaport arriving at the docks. The ship, a large freighter, floated, conspicuous among the harbor full of Chinese fishermen’s junks.
It was a large ship with a large crew, some of them hand-picked warriors and assassins sworn to fight, kill and die at Kang’s whim. Aboard were countless kilos of heroin, heroin specially treated by that arch-nemesis of all that was good, Kang, the puppet master. Our job was to stop that shipment.
The moment of truth awaited, that sublime moment when a warrior looks in his heart and learns what he is made of, when life and death become one and action and justice are all that matter.
Gaining access to the large freighter was no problem. Hand over hand, we pulled ourselves up the anchor chain, then climbed a few feet and raised ourselves over the edge of the ship. It was dark and all was still save for the hum of a crane that lowered pallet-loads of plastic-wrapped crates into the recesses of the ship’s hold and the Cantonese chit-chat of its bored tenders. Barbed-wire Jackson and I watched from our perch in the shadows. We knew what was in those crates.
Heroin is a plague that destroys souls just as it rots minds and bodies, but Kang’s special heroin was even worse. Kang specialized in using Western science, Chinese tradition and the dark hidden sorcerous teachings of myriad cultures to fulfill his nefarious goals and increase his personal power.
The special heroin was part of his latest plan.
First he’d used occult inter-species breeding techniques to create the ravenous creatures known as “scorpion-mosquitoes.” A swarm of these fist-sized flying things could easily surround a man, paralyze him with their sting and then strip him of his flesh with their razor-like claws while simultaneously draining his blood and bodily fluids. From beginning to end the agonized victim was frozen, unable to scream. Three minutes later, nothing was left save for bare bones and a fleshless skull, its jaws locked in a horrible grimace.
There was only one known repellant to attacks from the scorpion-mosquitoes, and, of course, Kang controlled that too. His plan was to distribute it as an additive to heroin. The addictive drug laced with the repellent would then be sold on the streets of America’s greatest cities to desperate junkies eager for a fix.
That was phase one of the plan and these sales alone would fill Kang’s war coffers with dangerous wealth.
Phase two was even worse. Kang and his minions would then release swarms of scorpion-mosquitoes upon these same cities. Just as the few good citizens who managed to survive began to recover, they’d then find themselves surrounded by desperate heroin-addicts who emerged from the assault unscathed, desperate for another fix, already amoral and soul-damaged, and now completely willing to do anything Kang asked.
When our contacts at Interpol first learned of this, they’d realized it was far outside their expertise. Naturally, they’d contacted the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.
This is the sort of thing we specialize in and the sort of plan we’d learned to associate with Kang the Puppetmaster and his ilk. We knew how to stop it, by using the ancient art of Kung Fu and fighting fire with fire.
Kang, his followers, and the Brothers of the Golden Tiger studied the same arts of personal development. Of course, while traveling these paths, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger kept to the light while Kang the Puppetmaster and his like kept to the shadows. We were like the two sides of the classic paradigm of yin and yang. We knew society needed us to protect them from people like Kang, but we also knew that without villains like Kang, our art, our skills, our years of disciplined study would be of little value to society and we’d remain untested as warriors. Yin and Yang. Evil cannot exist without good and good cannot exist without evil. So says the ancient philosophies underlying our art.
We watched the workers steady the pallets and load them into the ship.
“So, Jackson, what do you think?”
“There’s only twelve of them, Nelson. Let’s do it.”
With a grin we charged. I aimed my flying kick so that I would take out two, one after another, before I landed. Jackson took a different approach and used a double flying kick, also taking two at a time, one with each foot.
This left us, two men, unarmed but skilled in the deadly art of kung fu, versus eight thugs. Hardly a fair fight at all. But they’d brought this upon themselves when they’d taken Kang’s pieces of silver.
We attacked, again without hesitation. They were aggressive and showed little fear, but they were clearly undisciplined. Our feet, fists and elbows cut them down one, two at a time.
It was just when we started to taste victory, things changed. Overhead came a high-pitched whistling sound. Hurtling towards us was Odo Mal, the death dwarf, one of Kang’s Twelve Deadly Assassins from his Inner Circle!
Using a kite to guide himself and with razor spurs fastened to his heels, the small muscle-bound man was like a cannonball of death. As he shot towards my head, I threw myself to the ground. I dodged the blow but I still felt him pass.
I jumped, pivoted and watched him land. Dropping the kite, he turned and threw himself towards me, closing the distance with cartwheeling leaps. Only four feet tall, as he built momentum his spinning little legs turned faster and faster, the slashing blades fastened to his heels cutting the wind as he closed the distance.
By my side, Jackson was holding his own against the thugs, so I focused on Odo Mal. We’d never met but I’d seen his handiwork. In fact, there were nights when the memories of the mutilated bodies of his victims haunted me, depriving me of sleep. Perhaps now I could avenge those deaths.
I grounded myself and prepared to block as he tumbled forward. My rising forearm caught his falling leg on the back of the calf. With a shock and a recoil, the leg glanced away and came down again. This time the razor spur bit my shoulder.
Pain like fire burned through me as I grabbed the wound, slowing the flow of blood. “Zounds!” I cried.
Odo Mal faced me, grinning.
I raised my hands, lowered my weight and assumed a tiger stance.
I blocked out the sensations of warm, sticky wetness and pain from my shoulder and focused.
He hurled himself forward and I easily stepped aside.
He recovered and prepared his next assault. Barbed-wire Jackson seemed to be taking his time defeating the thugs. There were five still standing, but it was clear those five were beginning to suspect they’d hired on with the wrong tyrant. In a few minutes, I figured, they’d either be down or have retreated, jumping into the sea over the ship’s edge.
Despite Odo Mal’s appearance, the ship would soon be ours. Or so I thought.
A search light scanned the deck of the ship, followed by the roar of whirling rotor blades. With wind and swirling dust, a helicopter landed, and a horde of violent men discharged from the chopper, fists waving, ready for a fight. Yet I almost didn’t notice them. That’s how much their leader dominated the scene.
He wore a large red face-mask and was dressed in shining, metal plate armor of an oriental style. About eight feet tall waving a pole arm that had a massive blade almost three feet long and weighed nearly two pounds. When I say red-faced I mean “red,” red like in “scarlet.”
“Fight, you dogs! Fight,” he cried as he waved the weapon. “There’s only two of them.” With heavy mechanical strides that shook the deck of the freighter, he advanced into the melee.
It was Salazar the Decapitator! Another of Kang’s Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. All I could do was take solace in the belief that a warrior must be prepared to die without fear.
A voice like a shaken can of rusty nails interrupted my thoughts, and I turned, knowing it was Odo Mal behind me. “So, Brother of the Golden Tiger, do you choose to admit defeat or are you prepared to die?” A leer so large that it almost split his oversized head in two marked Odo Mal as he steadied himself for his next attack.
I faced off, again in a tiger stance. “If you understood the Brothers of the Golden Tiger you would not even ask such a question.”
With a giggle he somersaulted towards me. I sidestepped and shouted. “Jackson, how you doing?”
“Five by five, my man. Five by five,” he said as he downed one attacker with a side kick to the ribs and then the next with an open-hand palm lunge to the forehead. But the thugs were still coming, not to mention, Salazar, the Decapitator.
Almost as if hearing my thoughts, Salazar stepped into the fray with a mighty klunk, swinging the polearm. True to his own name, he hacked off the head of one of his own, less enthusiastic henchmen.
“At them, I say. At them! Fight harder. I will reward success with fortune and failure with death.” Reaching down, he lifted the thug’s decapitated head and dangled it by its hair as it dripped blood. “Let this man serve as an example to you all.” From within his red-metal mask, he stared deep into the eyes of the bodiless head. Apparently seeing little of interest there, he then hurled the head at Jackson.
Jackson blocked with a classical rising forearm block and the head soared upwards, still dripping blood, like some macabre volleyball from hell.
I turned just in time to sidestep Odo Mal’s next somersaulting attack. With a maniacal giggle, he cartwheeled on, disappearing into the crowd. I had no idea how we were going to survive but we’d been in worse fights before. The key, I knew, was to rely on my training and handle things one step at a time.
I took a position by Jackson’s side.
“About time, you got here,” cried Jackson as he smacked a pair of heads together using a technique that had been generations-old when the Shaolin temple had been founded. I was impressed by his style, but worried by the sheer numbers matched against us.
“Jackson, there may be too many.”
“So,” I gestured at the satchel charge in my back-pack, “how do I leave you behind and blow this ship?”
“Ain’t you enjoying yo’self?” he asked as he punched, pivoted and chambered, then struck in a way that masterfully combined an elbow strike to the rear with a front punch that caused an actual bulge in the backside of its victim.
“That’s not the point. We have a mission.” I blocked an attack from behind feeling the attacker’s wrist snap as it came into contact with my forearm.
“Fair enough. Step one, I suggest, is we take out every single one of these dog-nappers.” And as if to emphasize his point, he downed one with a roundhouse kick to the head, then without pausing, cut the next one down with a hook kick.
I knocked out two more with a palm strike and a backwards axe kick. “But there’s so many, not to mention Odo Mal and Salazar the Decapitator.”
At the mention of that name another bodiless head came flying towards us dripping blood. “Fight harder, fight harder! See what happens to those who do not fight hard enough?” cried Salazar the Decapitator. “There’s only two of them. Wealth to the one who brings them down. Death to those sniveling puppies who fail.” I used an outer forearm block to deflect the flying head and it bounced to high left, trailing dripping blood behind like part of a sanguine fireworks display.
I soon downed two of the on-coming thugs; the first with a knife hand strike, the second with an oldie but a goodie, a punch to the face. Above I heard the roar of another helicopter and realized why the horde seemed never-ending. Kang the Puppetmaster knew just as we did that the fate of the free world hung on this battle and continued to send reinforcements.
“Jackson,” I cried between punches, kicks and blocks. “We’re outnumbered and more are coming. We’re never going to blow this ship.”
“Don’t think about me,” he answered while engaging in some very impressive foot-to-the-headwork. “Think of the mission.”
A man charged at me with a pipe and swung it down with both hands trying to split my head. I sidestepped, grabbed the pipe, gained control of his balance and momentum, pivoted and then threw him back into the crowd, watching him fly over the others as he did. No reason Salazar the Decapitator had to be the only one allowed to throw people today. “I am thinking of the mission. Unless something changes, and soon, we’ve lost this fight. We may have to postpone this mission.”
“And take the chance that Kang releases his plan upon just one or two American cities? No way, my man. It’s too terrible to think about. Not even the honkey side of Cleveland deserves that.” Barbed-Wire Jackson grunted and hit the next two thugs particularly hard to show what he thought of that. The sound of his fist crunching bone made even a hardened warrior like me queasy.
We fought on, weaving through the thugs, knocking them down where they stood, so that the bodies wouldn’t pile up and cause us to trip. Part of our training—practiced countless hours, blindfolded—had been maneuvering around scattered sandbags in the depths of secret dojos and kung fu training schools whose names were known only to the inner core of the deadliest fighters on Earth.
From behind the mob, something changed. Although most wouldn’t have sensed it, we were trained kung fu warriors, attuned to the rhythms of conflict. The thugs moved differently. Their rhythm was off, as if distracted. At first, we were merely grateful that it was now easier to down Kang’s thugs one after another. But in time we sought an explanation and moved the fight closer to where these new events were unfolding.
And there she was! The beggar woman from the alley was attacking Kang’s thugs from the rear. But she moved like no beggar woman I’d ever seen.
She waved her four foot jo staff like a conductor directing a massive symphony of carnage using motions that were carefully honed and centuries old.
Around her the thugs fell like bowling pins.
“You!” I cried. “But you were a crippled beggar lady.”
She tore off the rags that covered her face, revealing herself to be an astonishingly attractive woman with long, flowing obsidian hair and heavily lidded eyes. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Suzuki Chen, daughter of Tanaka Chen.”
In my astonishment I almost let myself be struck from behind, only sidestepping the blow at the last moment. “Tanaka Chen, the Grandmaster of Iron Fist Karate?”
“Of course,” she said as she pivoted and leaned low, returning to the melee. Her jo staff destroyed two more thugs almost before they realized they’d caught her attention. “And as you can see these spastic, arrhythmic monkey-boys have not only hijacked my father’s art and fighting style but they are performing it quite badly. I was raised from birth to restore the name of Iron Fist Karate by first taking vengeance upon those who misuse it for evil, and, secondly,” she emphasized her upcoming point with a front-to-back pair of sliding thrusts of the jo, “by taking special vengeance upon those who misuse the art of Iron Fist Karate in a sophomoric and flacid manner. I assure you gentlemen that if these thugs had been trained by my father himself we’d all have a much more serious fight on our hands. I, for one, feel more disgusted than fearful because of their attacks.”
Soon she spun, thrust, tripped and probed with the jo staff so quickly that I had lost count of the number of men she dispatched.
I blocked, kicked, and took down two more thugs myself, feeling barely adequate as I did. “But the beggar woman disguise?”
“You ask too many questions, Nelson Kane. I was simply, as your friend Barbed-wire Jackson told you, ‘jiving you.’ You should listen to him more. Now go, fulfill your mission. I will protect him.” She spun to the left and spun back to the right, striking a thug on both sides before he could fall from the first blow.
I was astonished by her flowing and deadly movements and could have watched her fight all day if there hadn’t been a mission to accomplish. I began to punch and kick my way to the hold, shouting back over my shoulder, “It’s nice to have you fight by our side.”
Between a block and strike combination that could only be described as elegant, she smiled a cynical smile. “No, Nelson Kane, please remember it is you and Jackson, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger, who fight by my side.”
“Fight, you dogs, fight. Two men and a mere woman? Fight harder!” And, again Salazar the Decapitator sliced the head off of one of his own men and threw it, but this time he hurled it at Suzuki Chen. She deflected it with the jo staff like a batter at a softball game and the head flew above the fight, dripping red like an aurora borealis of blood.
Then she stepped forward aiming at Salazar himself.
It was as if the melee stopped. All eyes were upon them. Their leader challenged, the thugs had forgotten about me and Jackson.
“Insolent she-whelp!” cried Salazar as he stepped towards her. “I will make an example of you.” He raised the deadly pole arm with its many-pound blade over his head and aimed it straight for her skull, bringing it down.
She stepped under the blow, catching the handle of the pole arm with the middle of her sturdy jo staff in a block that took both arms and all her strength. The battle paused, as strength against strength the contest continued. Then she spun the jo quickly, allowing the pole arm to fall and then striking it on the back to drive it down to the ground even harder. The pole arm bit deeply into the metal deck of the ship. As the deck shook, men tumbled, slipped and fell but Suzuki Chen held her ground and stood firm while Salazar the Decapitator struggled fruitlessly to pull his weapon free.
She spun, pivoted, cocked the jo staff back and with a solid two-handed strike aimed for Salazar’s armored head. With a mighty klang like a deep Buddhist funeral bell the blow connected. Salazar froze, still gripping his pole arm, his now unconscious state marked by only a slight loosening of his thumbs on the handle.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! My sworn brooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooother! I shall avenge you. No one does this to one of the Inner Circle of Twelve Assassins without suffering agony.” I turned. The screams came from Odo Mal, the Death Dwarf who waved his hands in fury.
To my left, Jackson was dispatching thugs with machine-like precision.
“I just did,” answered Suzuki Chen, as she gave her jo staff an idle spin. “Would you, Odo Mal, care to try me in a bit of sport?”
With a wordless scream he launched himself towards her in another attack somersault. I knew Suzuki Chen and Barbed-wire Jackson could take care of themselves and headed for the entrance to the depths of the ship. The mission awaited.
I ignored the conflict behind me. I even ignored the thought that Odo Mal and Suzuki Chen would soon be locked in combat in a fight remembered for generations to come. Worst of all, I ignored that I was leaving my sworn brother, Barbed-wire Jackson, in danger. The mission, the heroin, the fate of the free world awaited and, for the moment, all depended on me. I adjusted the satchel charge on my back and headed for the doors leading into the depths of the freighter.
Two men tried to stop me but I made short work of them. As I made my way to the engine room, the few crew members who saw me turned and fled. The trained fighters were up on the deck and it was clear that they’d had little success against the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.
Placing the satchel charge was easy enough. I sighed as I worked. High explosives somehow lack the elegance of the ancient weapons of my art, the sword, staff and nunchaku, not to mention the most ancient and elegant of all weapons, a man’s hands and feet. Still, I had to use the explosives. The fate of the free world depended on destroying this shipment. I set the timer for three minutes and made my way back to the surface.
On the way, I pulled a fire alarm, setting off bells and horns. Not only did I expect this would add to the confusion and encourage the crew to flee, but I also felt it important to show mercy whenever possible. Confucius asked, “Why slaughter the deluded when you could be merciful and educate them in proper behavior instead?”
Few tried to stop me as I returned to the deck. When I arrived, the fight was continuing but its intensity had diminished. “Jackson, Chen, to the lifeboats,” I screamed. They looked up from the punch, kick, block of endless battle and saw me. “To the lifeboats!” I cried again.
Suzuki Chen defeated her opponent of the moment with a sweep of the jo staff to his ankle. “Got you with the Shanghai cobblestone maneuver!” she exclaimed as he landed on his back with a thud.
Meanwhile Jackson took out his opponent with a side skipping side kick. The man flew backwards four feet through the air and hit the deck.
“To the lifeboats!” I cried, gesturing.
“Right at you, my man,” answered Jackson as he turned and ran.
Suzuki Chen said nothing as she too turned and followed.
I was first in the lifeboat and began to lower it into the water. A couple minutes later, Jackson, then Suzuki Chen, dropped themselves next to me, forcing me to grip the sides and steady myself as the boat rocked. Soon after I’d regained balance, with a splash the boat hit the water. We undid the oars and began rowing.
We only had a minute or so before the ship blew.
Around us crew members were jumping into the water while other lifeboats, some jam-packed and others almost empty, did their best to escape. In their panic, the thugs, like the proverbial rats sinking a fleeing ship, chose to ignore us.
The ship exploded with a blaze of fire and a sound like a thousand cannons. Pieces of deck, hull and cargo flew through the sky as we covered ourselves, shielding our eyes.
We knew that, for the moment at least, Kang’s plan was foiled. His special heroin would never reach the streets of America, making his scorpion-mosquito attacks unnecessary and pointless. The free world was safe, for now.
The three of us looked at one another. “Odo Mal?” I asked. “What happened to him?”
“I defeated him,” Suzuki Chen answered. “But before we could finish the matter with a fight to the death, his own men dragged him off while he kicked, screamed and begged to be able to finish the combat. Yet even they could tell he was completely out-classed.”
“We’d best be ready,” I said. “He might have survived the blast and soon be seeking extra training.”
“And Salazar the Decapitator?”
“I didn’t see,” answered Jackson.
“Say,” I said, looking at Suzuki Chen, “Kang’s still out there as are most, if not all, of his Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. Why don’t you join us in our fight against evil? I see no reason why we couldn’t have a Sister of the Golden Tiger.”
“Yeah! Why not?” said Barbed-wire Jackson.
“Hah!” she replied. “Although I must thank you for the offer, Nelson Kane, Barbed-wire Jackson, I also must decline. You two may, if you wish, follow me for a while. And Mr. Kane, one more thing I expect you to understand, do you remember the twenty dollars you placed in my bowl when you thought I was a beggar woman?”
“Yes,” I said wondering what she was going to say.
“Please understand I am keeping it.”