Arthur could have sworn that woman knew only how to bite, chew, or otherwise curse him out. Even in the gloom he could tell it was her, alright. There was just a set to her shoulders that marked her off from all the other Malaysian Chinese women in his life with a bob cut.
“If it had to be anyone, it had to be Jan, eh?” Arthur sighed, pushing himself to his feet.
Well, no reason to delay, not anymore. And not when four figures emerged from different parts of the surrounding forest and moved towards Jan and the teenage girl. Now that he was moving too, one of those watchers changed direction to come after him, a big wide smile on his face.
Now, wasn’t there a warning about people who smiled too much being the least trustworthy of all? Arthur was sure he remembered a saying like that. And if there wasn’t, there really should be. Perhaps add “and is too handsome for his own good” to that list of other untrustworthy things.
No, there was no jealousy there at all. Even if the one coming to him was a lot taller than Arthur, had a good head of hair that looked like it had actually seen proper shampoo and conditioning and a non-student hairstylist, and nicely bronzed skin which likely meant he didn’t actually burn in the damn sun. No reason to be jealous at all.
“Apa khabar?” the man greeted Arthur, raising a hand as he neared.
“Khabar baik,” Arthur returned the ritual Malay greeting reflexively. How’s things? Good. You’d think that humanity would come up with more interesting conversation starters, especially just before robbing someone, but nope. Here they were, with the prosaic.
Then again, they were trying to rob him in broad daylight. Perhaps asking for originality might have been a tad too much.
“So, boss, need someone to help walk you inside? You know how things are, right?” A big grin, wide and without guile.
Arthur tipped his spear, which he had been using as a walking stick. With its sharp point aimed at the man, he replied breezily, “I think I can walk well enough.”
“Ei, it can get real dangerous, you know,” the man said, shaking his head. “You don’t know the kind of trouble you can get here. No guide, susah; It’s gonna be tough for you. Me, I’m honest, not like those guys.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed, eyeing the tall Malay. Now that they were closer, he noted a few things. One, the other man was staying a good distance away, far enough that it would take Arthur a good lunge to hit him with his spear. The other was that he might have good hair and clean clothes, but the clothes themselves were looking a little frayed at the edges. There was even a stain on the lower right of the man’s shirt that spoke of blood washed out in cold water, leaving its rather unique trace behind.
So, not as well off as he tried to present himself at first sight.
“Look, I don’t have time to play with you. So why don’t you explain what is going on, before my short-tempered friend there causes real trouble,” Arthur jerked his head towards Jan ahead of him.
He could see avarice and calculation fly across the man’s face as he took in the other three men. Two of the three had already reached Jan, but the third hesitated, debating between coming over to where Arthur was or going to the women.
Weird. They weren’t all working together?
“Okay, okay. No need to hurry,” the man said placatingly. “This just a small bribe, lah. You don’t want, then no need. But then again, maybe someone tries to steal your stuff. Maybe they find you outside.” He shrugged.
“Oh, you mean you’re going to do that?” Arthur said, eyeing the man up and down. It was never easy to tell exactly how strong someone else was just from looks, but he wouldn’t put the other man at much tougher than himself.
“Me? What are you thinking, lah. I’m just a guide.”
Arthur sighed. “What’s your name, guide? And who do you work for?”
He started walking towards Jan again, waving the man to follow him. He could see that she’d spotted him too and was gesturing vigorously, even while keeping a hand on her parang rather than the spear she had slung over her back. Of course, he knew she preferred the machete; but personally, he thought the added reach of a spear was hard to beat.
“Raahim.” The man grinned. “And I’m from the Double Sixes.”
“Oh.” Recognition flickered through Arthur’s psyche at the name. The Double Sixes, or the 66, were a large underworld gang that had taken a significant interest in the Tower. Really, most of the triads and gangs had. Any place the law could not reach properly the underworld had extended their reach to. And Arthur knew it was not just in their own Malaysian Tower but in Towers all over the world.
Between the lack of legal employment in the real world, the boredom caused by not having anything useful to do, restrictions put in place by mega-corporations that made even basic entrepreneurial craft work more difficult, and the sheer plethora of designer drugs, the underworld had flourished before the arrival of the Towers.
The Towers were just a shot in the arm they needed to become major players. For the most part gangs still kept their heads down, but most legal corporations and even a few governments used them for their dirty work.
“Does TG Corp know?”
“They do. They got their own people from the Suey Ting,” Raahim said, jerking his chin towards the group around Jan and her friend. “But if you work with me, they won’t bother you.”
Arthur was getting a quick idea of what was happening. A double-dipping, if you would. After all, not everyone was going to shop at the TG Inc.’s big store. And even if they were, why not increase demand by stealing goods from newcomers? Made sure it was harder for rivals to form another store. Explained why they had so many people around the short teenager. Carrying so much on her back it almost screamed competitor.
“Your protection, does it cover them too?” Arthur wondered why Mohammad Osman hadn’t mentioned anything like this to him on the first floor. He’d had a proper alliance with Osman’s Double Sixes. Or at least, he thought they had.
“Them who?” Raahim said.
“My friends.” They were within ten feet now and the closest member of the trio was turning to Arthur and Raahim. Arthur idly noted that the very first newcomer—the one who had been shaken down—finally managed to get into town with little more fanfare, though the guards watching at the border had increased to four now.
“Those two? Okay, can.”
“Then, it’s just a matter of price.”
Now Raahim’s gaze flicked between the three Suey Ting thugs. The one approaching them, a singlet-wearing, hairy South Indian man was stalking forward with fists curling and uncurling as he glared at Raahim.
“Three cores,” Raahim said.
“Done,” Arthur replied immediately.
“Kawan, you’re too late,” Raahim said, grinning and stepping in front of the other man. “This one—and the ladies—are with me.”
“That one too?” A jerk of the head at the girl with the backpack. “No way.”
“That one too,” Raahim said, stepping forward confidently so that he was now only inches away from the girl. “Unless you want another fight. Heard you did bad on the first floor. Want to make it two floors?”
“You don’t dare.”
Raahim just grinned, and the other man looked between Raahim, the big backpack, his friends, and then the guards. His gaze lingered on one of the guards, and Arthur caught a slight shake of the head from that man. The Indian man took a step back. But puffing his chest out, he growled, “Whatever. You 66 push too hard, we push back. Then you’ll see.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Raahim waved the man away. Arthur’s group stayed silent as they watched the trio of thugs blend back into the forested surroundings. They heard, in the distance, voices engaged in argument—probably other newcomers, or even second-floor residents, being accosted in similar shakedowns. As the sun finally set and darkness arrived, more and more second-floor residents were streaming into town. All of them gave their small group a wide berth, though.
“So, boss, just to check. You not opening a store, are you?” Raahim said, suddenly looking a little nervous as he eyed the girl’s backpack. She looked hesitant, unsure of what to do. Jan placed an assuring hand on her arm.
“Me? Hell no,” Arthur said. Then inclined his head to the backpack girl. “Though I don’t know about her.”
“Celaka,” Raahim swore.