For one of the most ruthless crime bosses in Halcyon, Hock didn’t cut a particularly sinister figure. Dressed in a simple white button-down shirt and dark trousers, he looked very much like a legitimate businessman. Which he was, in a manner of speaking - he was one of the owners of the Peach Garden, and owned a number of diverse business interests in the territories he controlled, the ill-gotten gains of his assiduous usury practice.
Ivan took in the tailored cut of the shirt and the trousers, as well as the tasteful silver watch and mirror-shine leather shoes, all more expensive than they had any right to be, and all different from the last time they’d met. In a quiet way, the mid-thirties loan shark standing before Ivan was one of the highest net-worth individuals he’d met in Halcyon so far.
“Good afternoon, Brother Hock. How have you been?” Ivan stepped around the mahjong table to shake Hock’s hand. The man’s grip was firm, and despite his veneer of unassuming refinement, his hand bore a pattern of calluses suggesting he’d spent a long time handling a weapon.
“I’m doing very well, Mr Johnson. How about you?”
There was always a little show-and-dance that preceded negotiations here in Halcyon, even in the Underworld. Overtures of respect, propriety, and deference - Ivan lit a new cigarette for Hock, Hock offered a drink, Ivan politely demurred, Hock insisted, putting away the gutter piss his men had been drinking and pouring two fresh glasses of a smooth single malt, and they raised a toast.
“Well, I’ve been busy as always, Brother Hock. Your beautiful city has been very kind to me, as you can see.” Ivan pointed to the rubber-banded stack of banknotes that hadn’t been on the table a moment before. Hock raised an eyebrow as he looked down, but maintained an air of nonchalance as he thumbed through the bills.
“Five thousand dollars. Not bad for a month’s take. You’re on schedule to finish paying your loan off sometime next year. Of course, if you can’t wait that long, my other offer is always on the table.”
“Oh - pardon me, Brother Hock, I jumped the gun a bit there, didn’t really give you the full picture. Here’s the full amount.” Ivan set another three stacks on the table, sliding mahjong tiles away to present them to Hock. “I believe we’re square now.”
Hock made a show of counting the cash, but Ivan knew that he knew that the amount was accurate. He’d just been caught off guard by the sheer amount of cash Ivan had pulled out of nowhere, and was using the busywork to recover his composure and plan his next move. Every time they met, Hock played up how long it would take for Ivan to repay his debt, and unsubtly reminded Ivan about his ‘other offer’, but Ivan had always politely evaded the issue.
He didn’t need more blood on his hands. He especially didn’t need it in Halcyon, and he didn’t need Hock knowing about it. There was a code of honor amongst triad members that forbade selling anyone out to the authorities, even for murder, but Ivan doubted Hock would extend the same courtesy to an outsider - a foreigner - like him. All in all, he’d rather do whatever it took to pay off what he owed Hock than get involved in bloodshed on that scumbag’s behalf.
“I see. And this sudden windfall of yours wouldn’t have anything to do with the incident yesterday in Emperor Drive, would it?” Hock re-bound the banknotes and stacked them neatly in front of him before looking up at Ivan, lips drawn in a stern scowl.
Ivan kept a polite, opaque smile on his face as he shrugged modestly. “What can I say, Brother Hock? I wanted to honor my end of our deal as soon as possible, so I took some risks and they paid off. I came right over to share the good news with you as soon as I could.”
“Risks? You brought a whole squad of police into Emperor Drive. And don’t pretend you don’t know about the situation there. Do you understand how hard you’re making things for me?”
“The police were already involved in Emperor Drive, Brother Hock. Your men got into a shootout with the Three-Tigers the day before, didn’t they?” He was careful not to lay blame on Hock himself, allowing him to save some face. “The way I see it, I did you a favor. I got two Three-Tiger Triad guys arrested, and it’s their name in the news, not the Mirokyu Clan’s. Even the police are focusing on busting the Three-Tigers, not the Mirokyu.”
“Well, I never asked you to do anything of the sort. Your recklessness is a liability, Richard. And I have to adjust the deal to account for that.” Hock seemed to be mulling over what Ivan had said, but quickly put the conversation back on familiar terms, pushing the cash away from him. “The interest on the outstanding sum is sixty percent, up from the previous twenty percent.”
“Forty percent. That’s, uh... a little much, Brother Hock. Really not sure if I’ll be able to meet next month’s payment at that rate.” Ivan had covertly tracked and eavesdropped on a few meetings like this, and had a pretty good idea of how these conversations went. Next, Hock would push his wetwork offer, Ivan would refuse, Hock would double down on the interest rate to punish his refusal, and ultimately Ivan would give in and take the deal. He had to head Hock off at the pass. “Tell you what, though, I have something of a… counterproposal.”
“Oh?” Hock’s voice and expression cooled significantly, clearly displeased that Ivan had gone off-script. “And what else might you have to offer?”
“I admit, I took a little too much initiative yesterday, so I just want to make sure everything’s above board. It’s not safe for you and yours to be seen in Emperor Drive right now, is it? Any way I can help in the power struggle, I’m at your service.”
“Why, Richard, I didn’t know you were so eager to carve up my rivals! You should have said something sooner, so I could have made the necessary arrangements.”
“Whoa, hey, let’s slow it down just a little there, Brother Hock. That’s not really my skillset - I was thinking more along the lines of information, sabotage... I mean, I certainly didn’t say anything about, uh, carving anyone up.”
“Well, I did. And I know damn well what your skillset is, Richard. It’s not about what you can do for me. It’s about what you’re willing to do for me. That is, if you sincerely value our working relationship.”
“I do! I assure you, Brother Hock, I’m 100% on your side here, I’m in your corner all the way. I’m just saying, there’s no need to jump to bloodshed right away - the Emperor Drive situation is sensitive, and - “
“Shut the fuck up about Emperor Drive. What would you know about it? You learn our language, some of our mannerisms, and you think you’re qualified to act like one of us? You think you understand a situation you just walked into better than someone who was born into it?” Hock snarled, his composure cracking further. “Know your place, foreign devil. I grew up in Emperor Drive. Those streets were my playground and my proving ground, and I don’t need a cocky bastard like you strutting in here acting like you own the place.”
“I know you’ve been having trouble convincing the tenants of Emerald Heights to side with you over the Three-Tigers or the Blackguards.” Ivan re-raised, laying another trump card on the table. Emerald Heights was the real estate crown jewel of Emperor Drive, one of the oldest high-rises in Halcyon. It was the capstone of the district - whichever triad held it would have a decisive edge in the power struggle. “You can’t show your face around there after the shootout, and it would be disrespectful to the tenants not to deal with them personally. And you’re not exactly in good standing with them to begin with, are you? Switching sides from the Three-Tigers to the Mirokyu really burnt a lot of bridges with your former neighbors and friends.”
Ivan’s due diligence was paying dividends - he’d looked into Hock’s police dossier, which detailed his history with Emperor Drive and his decision to join the Mirokyu Clan instead of the Three-Tigers Triad at the start of his criminal career.
“I’ve already said everything I had to say to them!” Hock rose to Ivan’s goading, slamming the table so hard that its legs gave way, scattering tiles all over the floor. The doors behind Ivan burst open at the commotion, Hock’s mahjong buddies rushing in with weapons drawn. Hock was still red in the face, but made a curt gesture, motioning them to stand down.
At least, that’s what Ivan thought, until he felt them drawing a bead on him. Three men fanned out in an arc behind him, one of them directly between him and the exit. That hand signal probably hadn’t meant what he’d thought it meant.
Hock took a deep breath, steadying himself. “You’re too well-informed for your own good, Richard. But you don’t know as much as you pretend to. The Emerald Heights tenants aren’t siding with any of the triads. They just agreed to sell their lots to the Hisakawa Group for some redevelopment project. That’s why there are so many fucking Enforcers in that area - Hisakawa reps went down personally to lock in the deal with the tenants.”
“That’s a collective agreement amongst the tenants to sell? Surely if you convinced enough of them it was in their best interests not to sell, they could call the deal off. I mean, this is a private transaction, right? No Hegemony eminent domain bullshit going on here?” Ivan kept his voice calm and relaxed, as though their conversation hadn’t been interrupted, as though he wasn’t a twitchy trigger finger away from death.
“Nothing like that. But they’ve made their decision, and they’ve signed an agreement.” Hock sighed. “They’re giving up Emerald Heights. And from there, it’s just a matter of time for the rest of the district.”
It was always easier to nudge someone into thinking what you wanted them to think if you made them believe they’d reached that conclusion on their own. As a corollary, it was also easier to make someone believe something if it vindicated their feelings. He’d prepared this argument to keep Hock focused on Emperor Drive in the context of the triad power struggle, but with this unforeseen development, maybe there was another way to play it.
Ivan heard the resignation and bitterness in Hock’s sigh, and the fierce disappointment behind his words. Emperor Drive was his childhood home, and probably the only place left in Halcyon people like him could see the sun in peace. He wanted to be welcomed as the protector of the district’s identity and history, not reviled as a power-hungry turncoat. But if it didn’t want him, then so be it. He’d let faceless property developers raze it and erect sanitized, personality-free malls and condos over the streets he’d grown up on.
“Brother Hock. You’re right, it’s not my place to say this… but Emperor Drive deserves better than this, doesn’t it? It means so much to so many, and it’s a living part of history. Hell, Emerald Heights was the first high-rise built after the Silent-” That was as far as Ivan got before Hock’s goon clapped a hand over his mouth and tackled him to the floor.
“Shh! Are you crazy!? Do not say it - not even in the Underworld, not even in a private establishment!” Hock hissed, genuinely panicked. Ivan could tell without looking that all three goons were spooked, too, from the sudden spike in their heart rate and breathing.
“Enforcers can’t get in here, right?” Ivan twisted away from the goon’s hand, looking around warily, as though one might spring out of the woodwork at any moment.
“No, but I’m not tempting fate. Or the Hegemony. And that’s what it all comes back to, isn’t it? Those bastards trying to clean us out of their city, trying to sweep us under the rug, like we weren’t here from the start. Like we had no part in making Halcyon what it is today.” Hock was extemporizing now, giving voice to years of righteous rage. “That deal might be a private transaction, but there’s no way in hell it isn’t state-backed in some way. And I know the Emerald Heights families - they’ve lived and worked there for generations. No way every single one of them moves out on the say-so of some stuffed suits or even the Hegemony.”
“So why don’t you talk them out of it? You’re a son of the district. You have the right to be heard.”
“They already signed an agreement. There’s no going back on that, no matter what anyone says at this point. The Hisakawa Group will haul the whole lot of them up to court to hold them to it, if it comes to that.”
“Well… the agreement’s just a piece of paper, right? If they can’t find it, there’s nothing to enforce.”
Time seemed to hold its breath for a moment. A succession of emotions played across Hock’s face as he eyed Ivan - suspicion, realization, and amused anger, before he settled on a wry, if bitter, smirk. “Oh, very clever, Richard. And you’re volunteering to… what, sneak in and burn it?”
This was it. He’d set everything up exactly as planned, all his cards on the table. But he could sense Hock’s hesitation, his consideration as he weighed up the situation. He’d been here many times before, nudging someone into making a decision that he’d sculpted for them. At the moment of truth, everything else fell away and it was just his will against theirs. In the space between one breath and the next, he drew on reserves of guile and wit cultivated over years of scamming and grifting as he spoke.
“Even better, Brother Hock. Imagine ripping up that agreement in their faces with your own two hands. Show them that nothing happens to Emperor Drive unless you say so. Screw over the Hisakawa Group and demonstrate just how far your influence reaches.” Ivan could tell by how Hock’s smirk twitched upwards that he was indeed imagining it. “That’s my offer.”
“Wow. Just like that, huh?” Hock fixed Ivan with a flat stare. “Never mind that the agreement’s under lock and key in Hisakawa Tower, in the personal care of the family’s golden girl. You’re going to get it out of there and into my hands just like that.”
“You said you knew my skillset. You really want me to be of value to you? Let me do this for you. I guarantee you won’t find anyone else in your triad, or the rest of the Underworld, who can pull this off.” Ivan didn’t let swagger or bravado cross his mind as he made his pitch. He was simply stating the facts, just a businessman outlining his value proposition, never mind the thug twisting his arm behind his back.
“And if you get caught?”
“Then I’m just a foreign thief, working on my own. No connection to you or your triad. That’s why it has to be me.”
Hock considered for a long moment before nodding to the goon holding Ivan, who pulled him up to his feet. “Fine. You get me that agreement, and we’ll talk about forgiving your loan.”
“Thank you, Brother Hock. I promise you, I-”
“But you better match this month’s payment, too. I expect at least the same amount. If you’re really sincere about being of value to me, that is. Or you can forget about that new identity.”
Ivan’s heart dropped. “Wait. Brother Hock, that’s-”
Hock nodded towards him dismissively, and he quickly found himself staring down the barrels of three guns. The goons advanced on him slowly, and he backed out of the room just as slowly, hands raised placatingly.
“That’s completely reasonable! You’re too kind and just, Brother Hock. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me!”