Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chapter 5 - The Negotiation

The streets crowed in the market place. People huddled shoulder to shoulder, movements in the current of flesh, waves crashing in their voices and eddies formed at the booths and shops that lined the street as it wound around the horizon. Awnings and carts sheathed the side of the street on both sides selling everything imaginable. The heads of the people moved back and forth with life and living. 


He was glad to be here. He loved to look at the people as they bustled by him, doing what they do. Xhi breathed in the smells of the street as he stood under the wide arch that led from the room where he had stayed the night before. Morning had already come. There were odors of cooking meats and steamed vegetables. They mixed with the smells of boiling pots of tea and fish and those other odors that only people produce. The smells made him feel connected again, like he belonged. He took a look and marveled a moment at the uniformity of the architecture. He had become accustomed to the hodge-podge and disharmony of the buildings in New York. Here though, here the buildings followed like the curves of the hills in the surrounding landscape, at least in most places, at least the places where the West had not folded over upon the East.  His view was just above the heads of the people passing by.  It was entertainment to see how they were all so totally oblivious to the world that was really around them. He remembered when he was one of them, too.


He stepped out into it, keeping pace with the hurried current moving toward the center where the traffic was moving past the peddlers. It felt like being on the bank of a large river and lunging into its current. He walked past a booth set up along the side of the street. Meat was being served from large boiling kettles. Various foods were smoked, barbecued, slathered in heavy Chinese sauces and rice being served in fist sized balls covered in sesame seeds. He looked up at the vendor and met his stare. A short nod-like bow and he returned to keeping his head down, determined but lively in his steps he meandered through the streets of the city. The man’s bald head covered by a round thatched hat. His black robe covered most of his oat white pants. The bag peeked out of the flap of the arm of his robe on his left side. People crowded the streets as he made his way block after block.


As he turned the corner, he knew that this was a twist in the path he’d not wished to happen quite so soon. The alley was about 80 feet long and 15 feet wide. The people poured past the entrance to the alleyway from where he had turned. The buildings were varying in height and all made of motley brick work. Small windows on both sides of the ally hung wire that strung from side to side, as laundry hung drying in the semi-lit warmth. There were some cans full of refuse and a short row of bicycles at one end. Rusty, corroded pipes lined some of the blotchy brick walls while old ventilation boiled steam and blew warm air into the alley, straining with age. Half of a sun bleached advertisement spanned one of the walls from ground to roof while both roves had electrical wiring spanning their lengths. Each building displayed a skinny, boarded up door about every 18 feet, each locked on the outside with skeleton key locks. Some doors were red and others were yellow though the paint too had aged and was pinker than red and more brown than yellow.


Xhi!” a voice called from behind him. He felt it pulse through the air seeking his ear.


“Wan” he responded without turning, but halting in his step. “You are earlier than I had expected, how clever of you.” His words passed his lips quietly.


“You are too kind, Xhi.” The man paused politely. “I wonder. Has your path led you to happiness?” Wan said with genuine interest, his face open and gracious and identical to that of Xhi.


Wan, all paths lead to their destiny. Lord Buddha said, “Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.”


Xhi, you are gifted with such eloquence as always, of course. Lord Buddha said, “A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.” The man’s face was unchanged. His hand waived a bit as he spoke in a comfortable way.


Wan’s left hand raised shoulder length. His fingers pressed to firmly meet his thumb. His lips moved slightly and the corners of the street closed at both ends, walling up to the back of both Xhi and Wan.  “We should need a small amount of privacy.”


Smiling, Xhi turned to great his brother. The men behind him stood sentry as the ally way on both sides now closed. “Wan!” XHI’s hands outstretched. The two men greeted each other cordially, embracing as soon as they were with in reach of one another. Upon their embrace, an audible crackle snapped in the air smelled as though rain were coming. “Wan, it is good to see you. How I have missed you.” The men were identical in every aspect. Neither man had a spot of hair, leaving their scalps to shine. Both men were wearing the same outfit except one was white on top; black on bottom and the other was his opposite. They possessed the same features in every other conceivable way.


“How true. I must admit, all is not right when we are not together. Unfortunately, Xhi, this is not a social occasion. I have come for what you have in that bag.” The joy in his face faded as did Xhi’s. Their faces now placid oceans, unmoving, like quicksilver. Each man backed up slowly, bowing in respect at the other though never losing eye contact with his reflection.


“Though I would deny you not of my own accord, Wan, I must confess my regret for denying your request. It is unfortunate.” Xhi said, his voice inexpressive but polite in his dissension. “Though this request cannot be met satisfactorily, is there perhaps something that I may offer you of mine in its stead?”


Xhi, you are gracious but I must decline. The book is all I require. Should you reconsider, be assured you will have my gratitude.” His brother postured with a duplicate manor.


“Ah – well then it is that we are at an impasse. Perhaps it is that you would be generous enough with your time to wait a few days until my need of the book has passed and then I might be able comply with your request.” He submitted his question out of courtesy knowing that it could not be accepted.


“This is indeed unfortunate. I will not be able to delay and my need of the book is great. We are willing to negotiate for it.” His words flowered from his lips.


Xhi’s expression flashed with his curiosity. His eyebrow rose slightly and his lips smiled at their corners. “Please. What are your terms?” he said.


“We would have the book, Xhi, at terrible cost. We have already considered this cost and are willing to pay it. It is expected that our meeting will not bear fruit; however, we wish to forgo any unpleasantness whatsoever. Great is our desire. Admitting this is no shame. We offer you, the Pangu Axe.” Wan’s face was stern and unmoving as he waived he hand and forward came one of the men from behind him. Xhi’s face washed of its curiosity and was replaced by disbelief.


Wan’s minion came round, standing before him. His suit was stunning. Black and crisp and tailored, it fit him and moved comfortably with his gate. The man stood slightly shorter than Wan and Xhi but only by an inch or so. The man’s face seemed to be pulled back ever so slightly, making him look as though he were hiding some pain. The man’s eyes were thin and his brows were cut tight above them. His hair was laid back over his neck and fell to the shoulders of the jacket. There were small marks about his face and hands, tiny dots in his skin, bumps that were slightly raised like grains of sand. The men were all dressed the same – they all looked the same. There was a certain mob like charm about them. The man bowed before wan, hands to his sides and returned to an attentive stance.


Without warning, Wan’s hands unfurled a blurring series of pokes and punches on the man beginning at his neck and moving around his torso until he let a forceful poke at his sternum. There were smacks across his face and thuds where the blows hit his body. The man gasped silently as his eyes rolled aback into their sockets.


From Wan’s robe, he pulled out a small jade handled dagger and he placed it atop the man’s scalp, blade down so that the tip of it, only three inches long, curving like a snake pricked his skin. It stayed, swaying like a top on its axis. Wan’s hands moved as though he were wielding dough around in the air and the blade spun around the man’s neck as though to core an apple. The score sounded out like cabbage being broke open as it severed the scull from the bones in the neck. The cut was clean. The head fell to the ground and the dagger returned to his hand. The man knelt at Wan’s feet before it fell to the side opposing his now separated head. The blood did not spew out but only drained slightly from the gaping hollow of his neck. His tongue swelled out from his open mouth and his eyes lids danced about as his jaw shuttered.


Another sweep of Wan’s hand and the blade flew once again, cutting the man from neck to groin, popping through the man’s collar bone, ribs, sternum and finally his pelvic bone with a sharp series of cracks as they broke and popped and separated the flesh. The fabric of the jacket and his slacks tore effortlessly as the blade ripped the body apart. The blade flanked around the man’s side and continued in its course down his right leg loosing the flesh and fabric from the bone and core of the body. The ragged tissue gave forth a smell like old pork as Wan’s eyes danced about the carcass as though leading the blade to its task.


The blade again returned to Wan’s hand. Clean from having left every fluid intact in its mark, it was placed again in his robe. Wan’s hand outstretched in offering, gracious and poised, his face had relaxed again and a glow beamed back a subtle release of pleasure. He move back a few small steps and bowed in offering to Xhi.


Xhi had watched the carnage with the respect of a surgeon watching a man be cut open or a patron of a butcher shop. He stepped forward cautiously to inspect the inside of the corpse flayed out before him. In its center, the blood covered vertical crescent peeked out of the open body. He could see the haft of it lodged in and about the freshly spoiling organs of the man. The insides looked as though they had been cherry glazed, like a knife sticking out of a pie. He knew the blade well. His face positioned itself around slightly tilted out from his shoulders. His head cocked to the side to better view the razor like face of the axe-blade. The axe once had been used on him as his right side let a shudder. He stood again. “Why do you have this?” he managed to expel the question over his teeth and out of his mouth.


“We are serious in our wish for the book, Xhi. We have gone to great lengths to acquire this. Many have perished far worse than this man in order to bring such a prize. Now we have placed our treasures on the table. Will you take this in exchange for that book you are carrying or will you reject our negotiations?” The man’s voice was delicate but flat. His words filled saccharine with their sincerity but cautious in their tone.


“I am afraid that we cannot come to such an agreement… even when something this preciously gained is offered in exchange.” He knew these were the last of the words even as he spoke them.