Hong Kong was filled with smoke. Sergeant Lee Kwon-Sang walked the street with a medical mask over his face to keep the acrid air from stinging his throat. A year ago he would have been issuing fines for some of the fires. That was before the zombies. Now only a heartless man would interfere with Yue Lan, The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts. Sang had a feeling that this year it would last longer than three days. There were too many of the dead to burn paper for, some people had lost their entire family to the attacks. Mercifully, the undead were under control. Yet every loss of life added to their numbers, hence new deaths were of utmost concern. It was now law that such incidents were to be reported immediately. People were given express permission to deal with deceased relatives as necessary. As private citizens were still not allowed to own guns, the recommended method was to use an ax.
Sang respectfully wove his way around a group of Taoist priests praying for the dead to move quickly into the next life. A few blocks before, a cluster of Buddhist monks had been making similar entreaties. Incense hung heavy in the air and red bins burned every few feet. Sang had seen people burning everything from the standard hell money to little paper houses. That in and of itself wasn’t strange; it was common for Chinese to want the best for their departed loved ones. Only this year people feared the dead they could see more than spirits. Who do you burn paper for when your brother or best friend was still out there, a wandering shell? Even those who died a second time were rarely given proper burial. There was no time, no space. So the people they left burned what they could, praying that the ghosts would find peace and leave the living alone.
Some believed that the zombies were demons escaped from another world and had come to take over the world. Sang wasn’t sure what he believed. After what happened to his wife, he wanted desperately to think it had been anyone, anything, else inside that familiar body. Except that there had been something familiar in her eyes. A lingering shadow of her true self that Sang could only pray was nothing more than a cellular memory, stored in the body long after her spirit had departed. Earlier that day, he burned paper flowers for her on the hillside. Yuen always loved it when he brought her flowers.
She was coming back from the wet market on the day of the attack. It was Sang’s day off and he was waiting for her at home. She never made it and Sang could remember running heedlessly into the night to look for her. The he survived at all was a miracle and by the time he found Yuen it was well past midnight. It must have been his good karma, or maybe fate took pity on him. It had not been so kind to Yuen: Sang shot his wife seconds after she smiled at him through what was left of her mouth. Later he would wonder if she recognized him or had merely been happy to see a fresh meal. The idea that zombies could have emotions at all deeply troubled Sang.
Looking around, it was hard to remember the chaos that had overrun Hong Kong. Now it was a fortress, protected against both the dead and the living. Sentries patrolled the borders, ready to kill on sight. These days they mostly shot mainlanders. It wasn’t personal, despite an at times acrimonious relationship between Hong Kong and the rest of China. No, this was a matter of pure survival. Hong Kong was safe now. Becoming a haven for the mainland would only compromise that security. China would have to take care of itself.
“Brother Sang! ” A voice broke out from a doorway.
Sang turned to find Sum, one of Brother Gold’s men, hunched over a red bin. “Nay ho, brother Sum.”
Sum smiled and walked over. “You look tired. Have you eaten?”
“No, but I’m about to. My shift ended and I’m headed to the Peach Garden now.”
“Good restaurant.” Sum sighed. “Better when food was fresh. Do you think we’ll ever be able to send boats out again?”
“Some day. Maybe by next year.”
“Maybe.” Sum looked back at the doorway. “I’m going to go burn more, brother Sang. For my mother.”
Sang said good-bye to brother Sum continued on towards the restaurant. Once upon a time, The Peach Garden served some of the best meals in Hong Kong. Now they relied on frozen, prepackaged seafood. Another year for fresh shrimp was optimistic, but Sang wanted to stay hopeful. Things could be normal some day. They just wouldn’t be the same. Sang was old enough to know that was the nature of things. Twenty years ago Hong Kong still belonged to Britain. For over ten years they were China’s again. Now they were alone. Another fifty years, who knew? They could be back to emperors.
For now Hong Kong belonged to the same people who saved it: The triads. The police had done their best during the attacks, but were unable to compete with the triads in numbers or weapons. Looking back, it was very moving. First the allied gangs had joined forces; then bitter enemies were uniting as one against the dead. Sang had been with the police over for over thirty years, he knew how viciously those men hated each other. Yet they chose to forget face and bury the past. It marked the end for the zombies. The triads closed in on them like locust. Armed with guns and machetes, they unleashed a torrent of decayed blood and severed heads into the streets.
Of course the police helped. In the end, however, the people knew who saved them. Hong Kong was divided into five major sections, each governed by a boss who regularly sent representatives to meet with what Sang called the “Triad congress.” They were the final word in Hong Kong, and so far it was working. Now the police worked for them, as did the scientists, doctors, engineers, and anyone else needed to fix what the zombies destroyed. Currently the big project was finding ways to kill zombies more efficiently. Blasting off heads, or severing them for that matter, was messy. Given that zombie fluids carried the virus, a group was trying to figure out how to kill them without comprising public health.
Not everyone was happy to have the triads in charge. Mostly this group was made up of the young or brutally idealistic. Luckily, it was a small group and getting smaller. The better things got, the harder it was to hold on to harsh feelings. Of course some were stubborn. Cheung Wai-Jing was among them. He was an officer Sang routinely worked with since the restructuring of Hong Kong. Before Sang had only known Jing casually and could have easily forgotten his face. Now he saw him every other day, and it was wearing on Sang. The problem was that Jing was both young and idealistic, a stubborn combination which maturity was a long way from affecting. He joined the force shortly before everything went to shit and, like many rookies, held a rigidly simplistic view of reality. For a while now he had been bitching about the triads and Sang decided it was time to have a real talk with him.
Jing was waiting by the front door of the restaurant when Sang arrived.
“Hey, you’re finally here! ” The younger man remarked.
“Sorry for the delay, I met a friend and lost track of the time.” Sang slipped off his mask and put it inside his shirt pocket.
“Are you hungry?”
“Starving! Let’s eat.”
Once inside Sang requested a private room, stating that official business was to be discussed. The waiter quickly obliged, ordering the staff to bring tea and rice wine to the officers. The wine was free, the waiter assured. As extensions of the triad, Police were treated according.
“So you wanted to talk?” Jing asked after the waitress took their orders.
“Yes.” Sang took a sip of tea and composed his thoughts. “I want to discuss your attitude. I’m afraid it is counterproductive to our job, don’t you think?”
“What attitude?” Jing looked sincerely surprised for a few seconds, then scowled. “You mean the gangs?”
“Yes. I worry that your judgment has been clouded.”
“What, because I don’t like being bossed around by criminals?” Sang had expected this. To Jing, being a policeman was like being a in a cops and robbers movie. The waitress returned with their food, and Sang took the chance to let Jing’s temper cool. When they were alone, he tried again.
“I do not mean to criticize you. But you have to understand, the world is not as simple as you make it out.”
“Oh, so since they killed a few zombies we should forget what they are? My memory is not so short.” Jing angrily shoved meat and vegetables onto his plate.
“Why do you always defend them? Are you afraid?”
Sang ignored the childish taunt.
“It was never as simple as you insist, Jing. Even before the zombies. You never got the chance to realize that.”
Jing snorted and ate his rice in patronizing silence. Sang continued anyway.
“Perhaps you have heard the old quote: It doesn’t matter if it’s a red cat, a black cat, or a white cat. If it kills rats, it’s a good cat. The triads took care of rats, despite being criminals themselves. They instilled order in chaos, even if it wasn’t perfect. Trust me, it would have been worse without them. No order, no rule. Can you imagine?”
Jing shrugged and poured himself more tea.
“I am not saying that are all virtuous men, or that they have only pure motivations. But you imply that they are worse than the zombies themselves.” “They are worse! ” Jing spat. “The dead don’t know right from wrong, they are mindless. Human beings have choices. They chose to be criminals. I chose to fight them.”
It really was like talking to a child. Sang had never been that powerfully naive, unless his memory was playing tricks on him. How could he fix Jing’s misconceptions?
“Very well, Jing. Let us pretend that you are correct. Even then, what would fighting them accomplish? It could destroy what balance there is now and create anarchy, how does that help? It is not our job to protect the citizens?”
“The ends would justify the means.” Jing replied. “Better that we free Hong Kong now than let things continue. The triads can’t be trusted. How long before Brother Gold starts taking advantage of his position? Are you going to wait to stand up to him then?”
“Tell me, Jing,” Sang asked softly. “Are you even grateful for the good things they have done?”
Jing laughed and Sang had his answer. He wondered if Jing even fully realized how bad it had been before the triads stepped in. How it really could have gone either way. But what were a few hundred or thousand more deaths to Jing if it meant keeping his world in order?
“Listen to me, once we have them defeated the people will realize who the real heroes are. The police should have been in charge all along. The way things are now, it’s like putting the wolf in charge of the chickens”
“So now that it’s over, it’s time to throw them away?” Sang asked.
“Yes! ” Jing pounded his cup of rice wine down on the table. The liquid splashed over the sides and wet the tablecloth.
“They helped out some, got way too much glory for it, and now they need to be reminded of their place. People like them belong in only two places: Under the ground or behind bars.”
“You might be dead now if not for them, Jing.”
Jing waved off the comment. “No way. I know how to handle myself! ” He boasted.
Sang wondered if Jing would be so cocky if he took a trip to the lab where the experiments took place. A face-to-face reminder of last year’s horror might humble him. The worst was seeing the zombies die. Given enough time, it happened naturally. Whatever fueled them ran out and that was that: They were dead the way they should have been in the first place. But first they went completely insane. Some would try to dig through the floor until their fingers were reduced to stumps, others would hurl their bodies against the door for hours. When those attempts at escape failed, they turned on themselves for sustenance. Sang had seen a zombie rip out its own stomach and start shoveling intestines into its mouth.
“Look,” Jing announced. “If you don’t want to see the truth, that’s fine. I’m sure there are plenty of other cops who believe in my side.”
“Let me think about it, all right?” Sang cautioned. He motioned for the waitress.
“Mm goy, mai dan! ”
Jing chuckled. “What are you asking for the check for, are you getting senile old man?” Sang slapped his forehead.
“Aiyaa, force of habit.” He lamented. “Sometimes I still try to turn on my computer at home.”
Since the new order in Hong Kong, Police didn’t have to pay for meals. It was one way the people tried to compensate them for their work, now that cash was virtually obsolete. As for laptops, Sang would have better luck logging into a phonebook.
A waiter stopped by the table holding a plate with three plump little dumplings on it.
“For the brave officers, nice ha gau for you.”
Jing was the first to get one in his mouth, but his happy expression quickly soured.
“Ugh, the shrimp is bad. Tastes like shit.”
Sang hushed him. “Don’t talk so loud, you want to make them feel bad? You know they can’t get fresh seafood.”
He scooped the remaining shrimp dumplings up in a napkin.
“Here, we leave by the back door and I’ll drop them in the dumpster. Then no one has to know.”
Jing rolled his eyes. “Fine. You want me to send a thank you card too?”
Sang and Jing made their way out through the rear of the restaurant and into the alley behind it. Sang stopped to slip the unwanted food into the trash. It gave Sum and Brother Gold time to come out of the shadows.
“We heard you have a bill that needs to be picked up.”
Jing whirled around at the sound of Brother Gold’s voice. Instinctively he reached for his gun, but the holster was empty. Sang had always had quick hands.
“Did he eat it?” Sum asked Sang.
He nodded. “They said it only takes a few minutes.”
“What did you do to me?” Jing yelped.
He tried to rush at Sang but careened into a trashcan. Sang knew Jing wouldn’t be able to talk much longer. By now the virus was taking over his brain.
“You don’t have to hang around. We can take care of this.” Brother Gold told Sang.
“It won’t take long.” Sum agreed. “Don’t worry, we won’t make him suffer. As soon as he turns, bang! ”
Sang tried not to think about Jing on the way home. It was a sad fate and soon Hong Kong would have one more body to incinerate. It would have been kinder to let him die a man, but he would have only come back dead anyway. Better to only have to shoot him once. Sang decided that tomorrow he would go and buy gifts to burn for Jing. Maybe a cell phone, if there were any left. These days only the dead could afford luxuries.