Ato Bawa, as always, came to town that morning to drop his wife off at her store, The Sleek Lines. He was helping her out of the small but nice family coach, and answering the greetings of one of the salesgirls, when Mrs. Agatha Comfort, distinguished wife of the banker Henry Comfort, crossed the street with her pompous nose stuck in the air and her fat little fingers wriggling in their usual all-important manner.
“The nonsense that Wailer Vroom is capable of,” she said in her high-pitched non-melodious voice as she climbed the sidewalk.
“Morning, Elaine, you look gorgeous today. Did my dress arrive yesterday?” Elaine, still in the circle of her husband’s arms, shook her head slightly at Ato; she knew just how much he despised the lady. She smiled and nodded.
“Yes, dear. Came in with the last coach, and I sent Angelina to inform you this morning before reporting to work.” The fat lady’s face lit up with a smile that almost made her look human and pretty.
“Oh, dear! That indeed is grand news! Come, I can’t wait to see it. Wailer Vroom almost spoiled my day with his nonsense about how that dreadful man Jack Dean went to old Roy Sampson’s place this morning and got himself a real beating. Claims they brought Jack to Doc Anaman with all his teeth knocked out. Have you ever heard a sillier story? Roy beating up Jack Dean? Balderdash, if you ask me! But come, dear, show me! Show me my new dress quick!” As the huge woman hurried into the store she failed to see how both husband and wife stiffened at her words.
Ato Bawa was still holding onto his wife, and he felt the tremor that passed through her, and when their eyes met he saw the horror in the depths of hers, the sudden look of sheer helpless pain. He himself experienced a sudden dizziness, but the pain that passed through him was as a result of a new hatred he had long believed tamed.
The same thought ran through their heads, but none of them spoke it: Chris! Without a word Ato released Elaine, his mind already racing, and as he went round and climbed atop the coach his jaw was set tightly, and his heart was beating so rapidly and loudly that he could hear it in his head. No, no, no…dear sweet Mary, don’t let this be!
Behind him he didn’t see how Elaine almost fell down going through the door of her store, or how her hand was clamping that little golden necklace around her neck so tightly that it threatened to cut through her glove and her palm. She leaned against the door, and her eyes were tightly shut.
Coincidentally or by some twist of fate, though no one ever knew this, the same prayer that her husband had uttered passed through her trembling lips: no, no, no…dear Mother Mary, don’t let this be true!
Chi-Chi Hung was unarguably the richest Chinese in Little Rock and its environs. In an era where most of his compatriots were employed as cheap labourers or lowly-paid hatchet men, he had set up an eatery in Little Rock, and faced down the initial volcanic attacks that threatened to cut him down.
He began in a little wooden structure with a couple of tables and a few benches, with a crudely-carved signpost – comprising of a T-shaped stake with a flat little board across – and called the place Hung’s Noodles. He had been bright, and combined false meekness with clean environs and even cleaner utensils. His noodles had been good, and working hard with his two wives and five children, orders at his place had been swift. Thus, people kicked out at him and his family and called them ugly names, and even though sometimes people refused to pay, and even when he had to watch his pretty girls being grossly fondled in front of him, Chi-Chi Hung always had a broad smile and a sweet food to offer.
Cowboys, always hungry and looking for a quick grub, had begun seeing his place as indispensable, and as his money trickled in, he expanded his eatery, and then had begun the little surprises on the side: cowboys and other customers who refused to pay, or who were excessively violent, were found beaten ruthlessly.
People who went a bit too far with their lewd remarks and actions toward the female members of Chi-Chi’s family were found really beaten up and minus a sizeable amount of their monies. And always Chi-Chi answered all queries with a wide innocent smile and a shrug of the shoulders. No one could hold him responsible, but everyone knew that his cousins and brothers who practiced martial arts were responsible for the beatings. And so, slowly, people stopped misbehaving toward him and his family.
Over the years Hung’s Noodles moved to the centre of Little Rock because it had ceased to be the place of cowboys alone, but it had turned into a decent place where almost every big shot family in Little Rock visited often, or ordered food from. It now had a large glass front, a brilliant green awning with a nicely crafted name: Chi’s Sweet Dips. He only employed Chinese workers. His wives had now retired and took things easy at home whilst his male children had taken on administrative roles in the eatery.
His main menu still consisted of a variety of noodle dishes, but he had now expanded to include a few other delicacies. It was normal to see a distinguished clientele at Chi-Chi’s each morning for breakfast.
Mike Braimah mostly came to Chi-Chi’s on Saturdays, mostly because Mildred, his wife, adored noodles with pork snips, and he brought her there whenever she wanted. Steve Hollison seldom visited the eatery because Effe was a good cook, and he only ate her food. However, sometimes when he was in town he went to Chi-Chi’s to meet with friends. Since their release from prison, and since the painful journey for acceptance and respect began in Little Rock, he and Mike Braimah had strove to stay as far away from each other as possible. People erroneously saw this as a genuine effort to break away from the past, and it had helped their cause well.
However, they shared a similar destiny, and knew secrets about each other that could hurt, and most importantly they had been pals before falling in with Chris Bawa. As a result, of the strength of this friendship they met sometimes out of town. When something needed to be discussed urgently, however, they accidentally bumped into each other in town, mostly at Chi-Chi’s. That day they met by real accident at the Chinese eatery. Mildred had woken up with what she called ‘a crazy crave for noodles and pork’ and since Braimah was in the mood to pamper her, and since her mood had also caught up with him, they came to town for the noodles.
Steve Hollison was coming to withdraw money from the bank, and since the morning queue was a bit long, and he didn’t want to throw his weight around, he and Effe had decided to have tea and meat pie – which Hollison adored and which Chi-Chi was a real expert in – at the eatery. Chi-Chi Hung always reserved his glass-topped tables and quaint padded seats for his rich clientele, and when Steve and Effe entered he personally attended to them, steering them round the tables toward the darker corner where the Braimahs were already seated. As usual all conversations ceased when the exquisite Effe entered. Hers was a beauty so classic that both sexes marvelled at it, and wherever she went total attention was always focused on her. Wearing a fetching knee-length dress that morning, she looked more ethereal than a human being, but a close look at the set of her face would have revealed to those who knew her that she was not feeling overly comfortable that morning.
Steve Hollison had been wanting to speak with Mike Braimah about Chris Bawa since the night Effe had had that disturbing vision, and thus when he saw the Braimahs already seated he smiled and took Effe’s elbow and steered her to their table which conveniently had two empty places. Chi-Chi took their order, and when it was served Steve Hollison dug in heartily whilst Effe pecked at hers. The men talked whilst Mildred chipped in occasionally, but Effe, as usual, remained silent, and gave mostly single monosyllabic answers to Braimah’s queries.
This secretly pleased Steve Hollison very much. He liked it when other men unconsciously licked Effe’s feet by trying to draw her attention. Of course, he knew Mike Braimah had had the hots for the lady ever since he set eyes on her, and even though she belonged to his friend, that had not prevented him from trying to get her attention. Everybody thought Effe shared Steve Hollison’s bed, and that was okay with him. No one knew she did not sleep with him because he was scared she might lose her incredible abilities if he made love to her. And then, casually, Steve Hollison asked the question,
“Say, Mickey, have you heard anything about Chris lately?” Mike forked a chunk of noodles into his mouth and sucked on a stray that fell down his chin. He stuck out his tongue to lick down his chin and Mildred elbowed him, giving him a mock severe glare.
“Stop that, darling,” Mildred said. “That’s gross.”
“Chris?” Braimah asked. “Chris who?” And then he realized which Chris his friend was talking about immediately he asked the question, and suddenly his face clouded over.
“Now, Steve, why do you worry yourself over that bastard, excuse my language ladies, please?” he said almost savagely and leaned forward. “Life is short, Steve. We played bad and went to prison, but we came back, and luckily for us the folks here accepted us. For me that’s a miracle, and so I don’t mess my brain up by thinking about ghosts. Why do you ask anyway?” Hollison glanced at Effe as he took a quick sip at his tea.
“I dunno. Guess I’ve been wondering about the kid lately.”
“Well quit it, Steve,” Mildred said and reached across to pat Hollison’s veined hand on the table. “Just quit it. Chris Bawa was a bad bastard that almost ruined you both! But here you are, both wealthy men with means. Chris Bawa is dead, so forget about him!” And it was at that point, when Steve Hollison began to speak again, that Matt Slade walked in.
Slade was the obese one-legged war veteran who owned The Bliss saloon. He limped in, gripping his crutch tightly under his arm. His left forearm was bandaged up and the gritted look on his face spoke of the physical pain he might be feeling. His light hair was faded strands of grey held back in a loose ponytail by a dirty ribbon. He didn’t like Steve Hollison and Mike Braimah for the simple reason that many years ago, when they rode for Chris, they had busted up his place really bad when Chris was not around. They had done it out of spite when Slade had refused to give them free drinks. And now, whenever he could, he took a verbal swing at them, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t dare touch him because he was a cripple, and that they didn’t want to do anything that would make the good people of Little Rock hate them all over again.
That morning, he stopped at their table, ignoring the pleadings of Chi-Chi Hung, who knew how volatile the relations between the three of them were. Slade raised his bandaged arm in a mock bow to the two and smiled a rather unpleasant smile.
“Morning, gentlemen,” he said, and his voice was absolutely cold. “I’m just from Doc Anaman’s place, you know. He fixed my arm. Some crazy punter busted a wine bottle across my arm, and the doctor fixed it good.” Mike Braimah looked at him with a dirty smile.
“And what has that got to do with us, you dirty fat nincompoop?” he asked nastily. Instead of taking offence Matt Slade rather smiled broadly.
“I was coming to that,” he said, obviously enjoying himself. “I was there when they brought in Jack Dean, old man Frank Mensah’s foolish foreman. His face was all busted up like Chinese noodles. Seems he went up to Roy Sampson’s place to piss on the old man. Somehow, he got himself very severely beaten. Got his jaw broken, and he lost some of his darn teeth. Would be sipping liquid for quite a spell, the way I see it.” He paused and smiled again, watching the faces of the two men intently. He saw that Steve Hollison looked a wee bit blue around the lips, but Mike Braimah, the killer, remained unaffected, and even managed a sly smile. “Well, I saw the face of Dean, and I got thinking that no man in this godforsaken town could carve up that dick. Hell, he looked so busted up I began to think the only time I seen a severer whupping was when Chris Bawa cut down that giant, Tiny – you remember, the one that was riding with the Spencer Brothers- yes, in front of my place so long ago. It made me think that maybe Chris Bawa is back, and Jack Dean bumped into him. Maybe Chris Bawa will come for you two also.” He chuckled noisily and limped on. Mike smiled coldly and pointed his chopsticks at the back of the cripple.
“One day, you bet me, I’m gonna take that man’s crutch and wrap it around his neck,” he said, and was beginning to smile when his eyes met those of Steve Hollison, and the ashen look on his friend’s face made him remember that odd question Steve had asked him, and he sat back slowly. Effe was looking down, and no one saw that her hands were not quite steady. She was the only one who knew that the dark man was in town, and that he was very near! And she also knows that she is going to see him for the very first time that same morning…
“That’s strange,” Mildred said quietly, and her eyes were worried when she looked at her husband.
“First Steve’s question, and now this. You think something is going to happen?” Mike shrugged and attacked his noodles.
“Way I see it, something’s been bound to happen a long time ago. If by some strange twist Chris is here, why, let him come. I’m tired of living and fearing the day he returns. If he’s foolish enough to come back here, he would find out, trust me, that the Little Rock we have here is different from the one he used to rule.” His hands, however, were not quite steady as he scooped noodles into his mouth, and Mildred carefully took note of this, and her heart hammered away with worry. She knew her husband had spoken with false bravado…inwardly, he was just a breath away from real panic