Chika hugged her knees and peeked over them. Her big, round glasses slid down her circular face. “How about you? How’d you end up here?”
“M-Me?” asked the girl with a long braid. “…I wanted to move to this country so I went to an immigration office.” She played with the end of her long woven locks. “I don’t have much money, and the processing fee looked really cheap, so…”
“Then you got tricked and kidnapped.” Shouko flipped her blond-dyed hair over her shoulder. “Just like everyone else this damn warehouse. She’s asking why you wanted to live in this godforsaken country.” She turned to Chika. “This is the problem with Braids, Chika-chan. I think all the nutrition went to her hair instead of her brain.”
“A braid brain?” mumbled Chika.
Shouko burst out laughing.
“…U-um, it wasn’t that funny…” said Braids. She then looked up and stared at the roof as if trying to see through it. “And my name isn’t Braids.”
Chika tilted her head. “Who’s she talking to?”
Shouko rolled her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. “Who knows? We’re talking about Braids here.” Her focus switched back to the girl with the long black braid. “Anyway, out with it.”
“With what?” asked Braids, her tone hesitant.
“Your story! We already told you ours!”
It’s not like I asked you to tell me…
Shouko glared at her, her bronze-tanned face wrinkling in annoyance.
“O-okay, I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you everything!”
Chika giggled. “You scared her into it.”
Shouko clicked her tongue. “I’m just asking a question, stop trembling like a wet bunny.”
“M-My mother is Chinese. She told me many stories about her childhood in Beijing.” Braids rubbed her hands together to warm them up. “Listening to her, I always thought it’d be nice living there…”
“Did you come here with your mother?” asked Chika.
“No, she passed away from a heart attack when I was thirteen. Dad was never the same after that. He followed her a few years later. I have no other family, so I had nowhere to go.”
“Sure, but coming all the way here to China is a little crazy, don’tcha think?” asked Shouko.
“I couldn’t go to college with the little money my parents left me. I worked part time jobs to get by. It was tough at first, but I got used to it after a year or so. That’s when I saw the ad for a Chinese immigration office. It said it was really cheap to live in this country, and it’s Mom’s hometown, so…”
Shouko shook her head. “This girl’s skull really is chock-full of hair.”
“Stop being mean,” said Chika.
“I’m just telling it like it is.” Shouko pursed her lips and turned away.
“Can you blame her for wanting a new start? Look at how she acts. she definitely has no friends.”
That’s even meaner!
The three of them were sitting in a dark corner of the warehouse. Numerous murmurs faintly reverberated throughout the building. Groups of girls were huddled together in different spots. Some seemed to know each other, while others, like Shouko, Chika, and Braids, had only met after being thrown into the makeshift prison. Several armed men stood guard over them.
Chika sighed as she buried her nose into her knees. “What’s going to happen to us?”
“Sold to prostitution, probably,” said Shouko.
Braids found herself trembling like a leaf. Crushing anxiety weighed on her heart as she considered her future. She felt something land on her shoulders. It was a thick blanket.
“You’re cold, right?” asked Shouko.
Braids nodded without thinking. It was indeed cold because the warehouse did not have any heating, but she was trembling for a different reason. Even with the blanket, her shaking did not stop.
“Tsk. How troublesome.” Shouko sat on the floor beside Braids and snuggled with her, pulling the blanket over their shoulders.
“Eh, ah, S-Shouko-san?”
“Cut it out with the honorifics. You’re older than me, anyway.”
“Sorry about earlier.” Shouko turned away, hiding her face from Braids’s view. “I’m just a little irritated, stuck here and all. And the food is horrible.”
“…Don’t worry about it.”
“Am I being left out? Is this bullying?” asked Chika, who had her own blanket and looked more than warm enough.
“Tsk. Shut up and get over here,” said Shouko.
The three of them huddled together under one blanket until they fell asleep.
Nights like that continued for a week or so.
Then that night came.
Flashes of light brightened the dimly lit warehouse. Bursts of deafening noise, like crashing thunder, battered Braids’s eardrums. A chorus of screams and wails played over the beat of gunfire.
Three of the men guarding them had already been killed. Several women were sprawled on the ground, bathed in red.
Chika, Shouko, and Braids hid behind large crates, their eyes shut tight and knees trembling.
One of the mobsters found them. Braids recognized him. He was the man assigned to guard the rear entrance. He grabbed Chika by her arm and pulled her into the open.
Braids tried to go after them, but Shouko grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.
“Don’t move! Or I’ll kill this girl!” The guard wrapped his free arm around Chika’s chest.
Beyond him, a policeman wearing a vest raised his shotgun and pulled the trigger.
The pellets dug into Chika’s body. Braids could not see her expression from the side, but the tears and blood rolling down her chin clearly communicated her suffering.
The policeman pulled the trigger again, this time hitting the hostage-taker’s head. Chika’s glasses shattered as metal beads mutilated her face.
Consumed by anger and shock, Braids rushed out of cover.
Shouko reacted too slowly to grab her. “What the hell are you doing!?”
Ignoring her friend, Braids dashed towards the policeman. He leveled the shotgun at her face. The pitch-black abyss within the gun barrel stared her down, and she realized her foolishness.
I’m gonna die.
The muzzle flashed.
Braids felt a powerful force pull her backward. Her back hit the ground. Something heavy landed on top of her. Blond-dyed hair covered her face. Warm liquid dampened her clothes and breasts.
What the hell is this?
Shouko, eyes wide open, lay lifeless over her.
“Looks like that’s the last of the hostiles,” said the policeman. He stood over Braids and kicked off Shouko’s corpse.
Despite being freed from the weight, Braids could not utter a word, much less move.
“A few girls got away, but there’s no guarantee the triad will find them,” mumbled the policeman. “Hey, you.”
She raised her head towards the voice.
“You’re the only one left, so listen well.” The policeman lowered his gun. “You’ll stay here and be my messenger. When the friends of these criminals get here, tell them what happened. Tell them that their days of feeling untouchable are over. Tell them about me.”
“…W-Who are you?”
“Just a cop sick of bowing his head to these mobsters.”
“Then why!? Why did you kill Chika and Shouko!?”
“What are you talking about? You mean these two girls?” The policeman cocked his head towards Chika’s corpse. “That one was taken hostage. I had no choice. The other one saved you when you tried to attack me. An unfortunate accident. One you caused. Can you blame me for defending myself?”
Shooting down a hostage and an unarmed woman “in self defense” was not something a sane person would do.
Without waiting for her reply, the policeman exited the building and pulled down the rolling door behind him. Between her sobs, Braids could barely hear the door being locked, but she was too emotionally ravaged to care.
After hours of sobbing, she got up and tried to find a way out. All the exits were locked from outside. She gave up on escaping and dragged Chika’s and Shouko’s bodies to the corner they usually slept at. She tried cleaning them up using some blankets but gave up after a while. Chika barely had a face left, and Shouko’s clothes were steeped in blood. It was impossible to make them look anywhere near dignified.
That night, she slept beside her friends. Their warmth had completely faded by the time the sun rose.
The next day, no one came to the warehouse. Braids ate the food and water stored in the guard room and slept in the same place.
The second day, no one came to the warehouse. The metal-roofed building got very warm at noontime. The corpses had begun to rot. To avoid the smell, Braids had no choice but to dump them together in a pile and stay as far away as possible. She kept Chika’s and Shouko’s bodies a few feet away from the human landfill.
The third day, Braids became seriously worried about the decomposing bodies. She had lost her desire to eat because of the foul odor. The idea of starvation loomed over her. But that worry turned out to be pointless.
Visitors arrived. To be accurate, they were not really visitors because they lived in the warehouse even before Braids came along. Also, they were not people.
It started with only one. Braids found a single grey rat nibbling on a dead mobster’s eyelid. She ignored it. An hour later, a dozen rats began swarming over the bodies. Then a dozen more. Then a hundred. Then she lost count.
Thousands of tiny teeth ruthlessly ripped apart the soft tissue on the faces and fingers. The eyeballs were exposed and eaten. The tongues were pulled out and eaten. They burrowed into the bellies and relished in the innards.
The vicious creatures concentrated on the tall stockpile of bodies at first but eventually set their eyes on Braids’s friends. Braids drove the vermin away from Shouko and Chika. The critters ran away for a while but returned, taking a nip or two, every time Braids distanced herself from the flesh smorgasboard. After retreating a few times, the rats became bolder.
The fifth time Braids tried to shoo them away, a rat the size of a one-liter bottle leapt at her. She fell on her butt and shut her eyes in shock. The moment she opened them, she saw the rat gnawing on her bottom lip.
Something broke inside her.
When she came to, she found herself tightly holding the rat by the tail. Its head was smashed. She hurriedly threw it away and ran to her favorite nook. Soon after, the other rats began feasting on their dead kin. Braids fell to her knees and laughed until she fell asleep.
The fourth day, the warehouse door rolled open. Armed men stormed in and found her shriveled up in the corner farthest away from the feasting rats.
“There’s a survivor.”
“Take her. We’ll interrogate her later.”
“I don’t think she’s sane enough for that.”
“Who could blame her.” The man glanced at the feeding rats, which did not even flinch at the sight of humans.
The men carried Braids, who neither spoke nor moved, and shoved her into a car. The events after that were a blur. The next thing she knew, she was sitting in front of a tall man in a white mandarin collar suit.
“What happened at the warehouse?” he asked with a smile.
Braids sat across from him without saying anything. She could barely make out her surroundings. They seemed to be in a spacious, brightly-lit room with chandeliers.
“Just like Zhi Zhu said, huh? Bring me the cage.”
“Yes, Boss!” said a younger man before carrying a small cage over to the tall man.
Braids quivered the moment she saw what was inside. She could never forget those black, beady eyes and long, yellowed, pick-axe teeth.
The tall man grabbed the rat inside the cage and held it by its nape. He walked over to Braids and thrust the struggling animal in front of her face.
“A-Ahhhh… AhhhhHHHH!!!” She scampered away on her hands and knees.
The tall man leisurely trailed after her while hanging the rat in front of him. Braids’s back hit a wall, forcing her into a staredown with the squealing monster.
“Talk and I’ll put it away,” he said with a gentle smile.
A bone-chilling fear ran through her spine. She forced her parched tongue to move. Squeezing out her elementary Chinese, she explained what happened that night. She then delivered the policeman’s message.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” said the tall man. He shoved the rat back into the cage and whispered something to his subordinate.
The young man took the cage and left the room. While wiping his hands on a piece of cloth, Zhang crouched down in front of her.
“I’ll give you a choice. You can either live or die.”
What a stupid question.
There was only one answer.
“…I wanna… die.”
“I wasn’t asking you a question. Not yet. Choice only exists if the options presented are possible. In your current state, living is impossible. That may not be the case tomorrow, or the day after that. I’ll grant you that choice. Think of it as my gift for living long enough to deliver that man’s message to me.”
What’s he talking about?
What will happen to me?
“First off, let me introduce myself. I’m Zhang Wei Long, the dragon head of the Soaring Serpent Society.”
Braids had no idea what his position actually meant, but she at least understood that he was a very important person. Scared of being punished for disrespect, she tried to introduce herself.
“And you’re Mao.”
“Forget your old name. An illegal immigrant like you doesn’t have such a thing.”
“Pretending that one’s weakness is one’s strength is an excellent way to mislead the enemy. I wasn’t born as Wei Long. I chose the name ‘great dragon’ because I was horrible at fighting.” Zhang shrugged, palms up. “I still am, but I’ve reached a position where that shortcoming means nothing.” His thin, oppressive eyes stared into hers. “You’re terrified of rats. Isn’t Mao the perfect name? Even with your poor mandarin, you should know it means ‘cat.’”
A fleeting warmth dampened her desiccated heart.
“…Y-Yes, Mr. Zhang…”
“Second, stop speaking like a bullied child. Doubt in your words shows doubt in yourself. A cobra that doesn’t spread its hood is no cobra. The absence of strength is invitation for attack. A bit of arrogance shows others that you aren’t to be trifled with.”
Afraid to earn Zhang’s ire, she opted to keep quiet and nodded.
“And last, you have to acquire the venom that gives your fangs meaning. Fake strength withers away the moment an enemy is foolish enough to test it.”
A short-haired man entered the room and approached Zhang. “You called, Boss?”
“Let me introduce you. This is Zhi Zhu, my most trusted comrade. This girl is Mao.”
“Mao? Isn’t she the survivor from the warehouse?”
“Teach her how to fight.”
“Was I unclear?”
Neither of the men asked or cared about Mao’s approval.
Hellish days that made her regret not killing herself in that warehouse began.
Mao hurled the policeman to the ground. He rolled on the floor several times and ended up sprawled in front of Zhang.
“So he’s the one?”
“Yeah, I remember his face clearly,” said Mao.
“Stop sending me on these stupid errands.”
“Stupid errand? Isn’t he the man who killed your friends?”
“Like I care about something that happened so long ago.”
But you just said you remember his face clearly.
Zhang smiled. “If you say so.”
The policeman squirmed like a slug as he lay prone on the ground. His shoulder had multiple parallel cuts.
Zhang turned him over with his foot and dug his shoe into the wound. “Took me a while to find you. You completely disappeared after leaving that ominous message. Didn’t you say back then that the days the triads feel invincible are over?”
“He said ‘untouchable.’ Are you going senile?”
“I remember it just fine. They mean the same thing.”
“It depends on the context.”
“I know that!”
I also remember telling this girl to be a bit more arrogant.
This is way more than a bit!
Zhang sighed and looked at the policeman. “I’m impressed you’re not begging for your life yet.”
“About that, he can’t talk. He’s paralyzed from my poison.”
Say that earlier!!!
One of the reasons Zhang had decided to make use of Mao was to see the policeman beg for mercy from the girl he had spared at the warehouse. Complete loss of dignity was an appropriate punishment for his attack on the Soaring Serpent Society. Zhang had not expected Mao to become one of his most valuable assets. Her current self was worth much more than petty vengeance over a warehouse of whores.
“Mao, you decide what to do with him.”
“I don’t care.”
“Is that your honest opinion?”
The demeaning smile on her face vanished. “…Yes, Boss.”
“Okay then.” Zhang pulled out a handgun and shot the policeman in the head. “Clean this up.”
Several men on standby dragged the corpse away. Mao turned around and headed for the door.
“I almost forgot,” said Zhang. “I think it’s about time I gave you that choice.”
Her feet stopped, but she did not turn around.
“You can either live or die.”
“The hell are you talking about you old fart?” Mao left the room.
That’s my girl.