“Fuck that guy.” Ivan exhaled smoke in a narrow stream. “Oh, if you’re really sincere, why aren’t you sucking my dick already? Fucker.”
Mei laughed, slipping the cigarette from between his fingers and taking a drag. It was a rainy evening in Leigang, and they were huddled under the sheets with the window open.
“Yeah, that’s Hock for you. I mean, you joke about it, but Su actually had to put up with something like that a couple months ago.”
Ivan paused midway through reaching for the cigarette, picturing it.
“I’m serious! He was pissed with her about something or other, threatening to hand her over to the Redbloods.”
“Let’s just say she had to pull an all-nighter to keep him happy.”
“Wow. I’m getting off easy, then. Anyway, sorry I bombed that meeting, after all you did to help me with his background and all.”
“Don’t worry about it. Hock loves his ‘respect and sincerity’ shit, but if you go along with it mindlessly, it just gives him more power over you. I actually think you did great.” She passed him the cigarette, smiling. “That’s the first time someone’s gotten the better of Hock in one of these shakedowns.”
“I wouldn’t say I got the better of him - I had three guns to my head at one point.”
“Hey, you made it out in one piece, didn’t you? And you talked him into taking your deal.”
“Yeah, well. He also wants another twenty thousand, which is going to be a pain. Oh, speaking of which…” He passed her the wallet he’d lifted off the thug who’d tackled him. “Here. He won’t miss it.”
She opened it, looking at the money with surprise and some unease. “Are you sure? There’s like eight hundred dollars in here. You just said you needed to pay Hock again, didn’t you?”
“This is a drop in the bucket. Just take it. Most of your pay goes to paying off your indenture, doesn’t it? You deserve more.”
Slavery wasn’t legal in Halcyon or even the Underworld, but indenture agreements were a gray zone ripe for scumbags like Hock to exploit. The terms of Mei’s loan were simple enough - in exchange for the lump sum, she’d work at the Peach Garden for a certain number of years, her earnings split between paying off her debt, and paying for her room and board. That was a mixed blessing, because without her mother’s income, she couldn’t afford the rent on the flat she’d grown up in. However, because Hock basically owned the Peach Garden, he could charge whatever he liked for living expenses, so the deck was stacked against you from the start.
“I mean, thanks, but… I don’t know. Mama Lo will get suspicious if I turn up with cash that isn’t accounted for.”
“You can accept gifts from clients, right? Just say you got a request.” Some of the Peach Garden’s top earners had enough client loyalty that they’d get requested as call girls regularly, and Mei counted herself amongst their elite ranks. Even so, she wasn’t content to rest on her laurels, instead continuing to pick up as many shifts at the Peach Garden as she could handle.
“Oh, is that what this is?” Mei’s smile took on a sarcastic edge, but laughter twinkled in her eyes. “I’m underdressed for the occasion, then. Or overdressed, depending on how fast you like to move.”
“Not like that!” Ivan laughed awkwardly. “I just-”
“Relax, I know, I know.” She slapped him on the chest mockingly. “Yeah, I guess I can write this up as a house call. More of a quickie, for eight hundred bucks.”
“Anyway, if I manage to pull this off for Hock, I’ll talk to him about releasing you from your indenture.” He took a drag on the cigarette and passed it to her.
She didn’t take it.
“Wait. Are you serious?” Mei looked at him like he’d just suggested they take a dip in the sewers. “Ivan, you really don’t need to do that.”
“What, you don’t want to get away from that place? From Hock?”
“No! I mean, no, I do, but… you don’t need to do this. I don’t need you to do this.” She turned to face him straight on, eyes hard.
“Look, it’s just… I’ve seen this story play out, alright? It never ends well.”
“And I’ve seen your type before. Thinking you can ride in on a white horse and rescue a damsel in distress, throwing money around like you’re the god of fortune himself. Listen, I appreciate the thought, alright? But I don’t need you to save me! I’m doing well at the Peach Garden, I’m even being considered for this… something like a manager position. I can save myself. I was doing this before you showed up, and I plan on doing it even after you settle your business with Hock.”
“Tell me, how many girls have managed to earn their way out of the Peach Garden? Because Hock doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who lets easy money slip out of his fingers. Let me guess, you’re on track to pay off your debt ‘sometime next year’, right? He fed me the same bullshit. Next year never comes. If you want out, you have to shake up the status quo. You have to do something big. Unless you want to be stuck pulling double shifts this year, and the next, and the next.”
“Easy for you to say. What do you have on the line? You don’t have a life here, or family, or anything tying you down here. If ‘something big’ doesn’t work out, you can skip town whenever you like, and leave me holding the bag!” She paused at the look on his face, softening her tone and stance. “Sorry. Maybe that was too far.”
“No. You’re right, Mei. I know how this must sound. I just…” The cigarette slowly burnt its way down to his fingers.
“Ivan.” She held out the wallet. “Are you really doing this for me? Or are you doing it for you? Because I can accept your kindness. Your company. But your pity, your ego, your assumptions… that I can’t take.”