It's not unusual to work two jobs in this day and age, but sorcerer and former triad soldier Rupert Wong's life is more complicated than most.
By day, he makes human hors d'oeuvres for a dynasty of ghouls; by night, he pushes pencils for the Ten Chinese Hells. Of course, it never seems to be enough to buy him a new car-or his restless, flesh-eating-ghost girlfriend passage from the reincarnation cycle-until opportunity comes smashing through his window. In Kuala Lumpur, where deities from a handful of major faiths tip-toe around each other and damned souls number in the millions, it's important to tread carefully.
Now the Dragon King of the South wants to throw Rupert right in it. The ocean god's daughter and her once-mortal husband have been murdered, leaving a single clue: bloodied feathers from the Greek furies. It's a clue that could start a war between pantheons, and Rupert's stuck in the middle.
Success promises wealth, power and freedom, and failure... doesn't.
I dare you not to fall in love with Rupert Wong, who moves across the pages of this trilogy like a classic hardboiled character in a magical Kuala Lumpur filled with gods and monsters. I loved it as soon as I read the first chapter, and I bet you will too! – Lavie Tidhar
"My favorite urban fantasy this year... Very fun, fast, quick read, and the protagonist's voice amused me."– Silvia Moreno-Garcia
"A high-octane fantasy and murder mystery. It's got a near-perfect first chapter, and I'd love to see more in that world."– Lavie Tidhar
"You can't unionise. If you unionise, you'll—" I feel jaw muscles tighten from the impending awkwardness. "You'll make demonic-undead-baby-ness look viable."
I slump. The words hang like the absence of applause at the end of an ill-considered comedy routine. Luckily, my audience isn't the type to heckle. Instead, they stare, a violence of gold-green eyes dangling from the ceiling. Unblinking, uncurious. I used to wonder if death kills your sense of humor. It does. At least, when it comes to the kwee kia. I've never heard any of these ghost kids laugh.
"Why not?" The voice is wood rot and maggot bodies convulsing in ecstasy. Heartworms boiling out of an old junkyard dog. "You said to protect our own."
I scratch the back of my neck, shrug, and make pointless noises. I neither need nor want to be splitting hairs with them. In two hours, the boss is expecting a feast to end all feasts. Which means I'll need to very quickly figure out how to process obese Caucasian while organizing the refreshments. Guan Yin forgive me, but the first actually galls me less than the second. Meat is meat by any other name. Plus, the excess of available lard means I can put Penang delicacies on the menu, something that will no doubt delight the guests who keep halal. Human is very similar to pork, after all.
(I know, I know. Religious pundits say that cannibalism is forbidden in the Quran anyway. The ghouls say that this isn't quite the same.)
As for the beverages, I can't say I'm looking forward to the process. The blood will need to be segregated and decanted into custom Swarovski vials, cross-checked against autopsy records and attractively labelled—the boss abhors bad handwriting—to ensure no one confuses the selection. It's all tedious busywork coupled with the vague risk of infection. I blame it on the fad burning through the northern penanggalans. They've made HIV into the 'It' flavor. It's a bloody mess.
(Ha. Get used to it, ang moh. The juicy hot dog of life is best enjoyed between two puns.)
"Yes. But unionising is going to encourage those Taoist priests and bomohs and what-have-yous to make even more of you," I tell them as I sift through the spice rack. Cardamon. Is cardamon an anathema to any of the guests?
"Genetic diversity is good," declares one of the kwee kia, his voice like a hornet's nest, humming with importance. "We need to consolidate resources against larger threats."
"Only if you breed. Which you shouldn't do. Because you're underaged and shit. Also, dead." I'm tripping over my tongue and my thoughts, but I can't help it. Tact isn't my forte. "And where did you even learn—"
Their glittering stares tell me everything.
"Oh. Oh, right. I taught you that. Right. Shit." I press the heel of a hand into my left eye where a dull ache is taking root behind the socket. "Anyway, tell you what. Let's talk later. Tonight, even. Come find me."
I peel my sleeve back and expose my wrist. There's a patch of skin on the inside still naked of demonic tenants (I'll explain that later), proof that I'm not completely drowning in the red. The kwee kia don't hesitate. One by one, they detach moth-silent from the ceiling to land on my forearm. Say what you will about these little bastard sons and daughters of the grave, but they're amazingly courteous. No one jostles for access. No one tries to drain me dry. They all consume exactly one small mouthful of blood; just enough to keep my scent in their noses. The last even goes as far as to lick the opened vein close. So polite. Their mothers would be proud.
Having acquired their thimble of bodily fluids, the kwee kia disperse, scuttling through gaps in the masonry and openings in the roof. They're like cats in that respect, capable of navigating spaces you'd think were too small for their decay-plumped bodies. A bomoh friend of mine said it has something to do with how they are made. By nature, fetuses lack the tensile skeletal structure that adults enjoy. Mix that physiological quirk in with some blasphemous juju, the natural consequences of putrefaction, and you get some, well—you get those guys.
Still, they were legion, and I am but one: Rupert Wong, superstar chef to the ghouls and liaison for the damned of Kuala Lumpur. By the time the air stops reeking of frangipani, I'm giddy from blood loss. My fingers tingle; my head swims. But these are just inconveniences, minor obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of the month's rent. Speaking of which...
I pick up the tools of my office—bone saw, cleaver, garden shears for those hard-to-crack ribs—before wobbling unsteadily towards the walk-in freezer. Inside, a three-hundred pound tourist and his generously proportioned wife await.
Day jobs. Love them.
* * *
"Sayang, you're late."
The world is made up of rituals. From the way you brush your teeth to how you show obeisance during religious ceremonies, it's an endless list of interlocking behaviours seared into your unconscious self, charms against the madness of reality. Minah and I have them, same as anyone. I come home the exact same way each day: hours too late and smelling abattoir-sweet, my clothes speckled with gore. Minah then reprimands me the same way she has every evening since we moved in together: softly and without malice, her voice like the sunlight piercing the belly of the monsoon rains. I invariably follow up with a smile, sometimes an apology, before locking the door and checking it thrice.
It's an unusual door, with bolts and padlocks to keep the meth-heads out, yellow paper talismans to keep Minah and her boy in. I'm not trading in hyperbole when I say I check it thrice. I really do. Once for habit. Twice for caution. Three times for love. Minah still has nightmares about picking tendons from her teeth, about her bloodlust flinging her over a shoulder and running off to an orgiastic frenzy of people-eating. She can't sleep if the wards aren't in mint condition.
"Sorry, kitten," I say, tired, turning around to pick my way to the kitchen. "It was dinner for thirty today."
Our home is neither large nor lavishly appointed. In another life, it might have been called Scandinavian chic, with its armament of IKEA furniture, austere color scheme, and Minah's one signed poster of Alexander Skarsgård. But right now, there's just too much clutter, too many pieces of magical paraphernalia littering the walls and the floor, for it to be called anything but 'liveable.' To be fair, most of it is concentrated around the doorway to our guest-bedroom-turned-office, but it's impossible to walk three feet without stumbling over a prayer book or a ba gua mirror.
"You've worked with thirty before," Minah replies quietly.
"Yeah, but not with fat white people." I lean against the doorway, cross my arms and waggle a finger. The air is thick with spices: turmeric, cumin, sauteed garlic. "I cooked American today."
Minah turns from the stove. She looks about nineteen. She was nineteen, when they put her in the ground, belly ripe with child. Six months later, she clawed her way free of the earth and stalked down her cheating wretch of a spouse. Then, she gobbled him up, bones, balls, and all. Him and the bitch he poisoned her for.
She spoons a lock of dark hair behind an ear and smiles, lips a curved bow with no teeth. "And—?"
"Um." Damn it. Minah always knows when I'm holding something back. "I—"
Something on the ceiling lets loose a mad little hiss, half lizard and half wasp, all feed-me-your-liver-with-lima-beans. Minah glances up, serene, mouth touched with apology. It's been five and a half years, but she's still beating herself up over our ineptitude at domestication.
"And how's my little dude?" I raise my arms.
It drops like a coconut, and I catch it between my open hands and hold it as far from my face as I can manage. It scratches at the air and hisses again, louder this time, blind fish eyes twitching. Minah's baby is a tragic anomaly. Because it died in her womb, it is irrevocably tethered to her existence, as much a part of her being as her fingers and toes. Because it died before it could even be born, it's... broken. Bad.
"He's a little hungry, I'm afraid."
"Ah." I say, careful not to express anything that could be construed as strong emotion. Feeding time is awkward enough as it is. "Okay. I gotcha. No worries."
Over the years, I've gotten good at being a surrogate father-slash-demon-child-wrangler. I wait for Minah's baby—in my brain, its name is George—to become distracted before I make my move. When a wail from the kettle grabs its attention, I pull George to my chest and wedge its head beneath an armpit, careful to keep its limbs tightly pinioned. It squirms ferociously, anger pouring off its wet little body, but it doesn't fight me for long. When I present my wrist, biology takes over. George sinks its needle-teeth deep into a vein and begins suckling blood like it was ambrosia from Zeus's tit.
"What about you?" I look up from the sanity eradicating tableau that is George's bedtime snack. "You need, um, topping up?"
Minah shakes her head, voice stiff. "I'm not a glutton."
"Okay. Just checking," I reply, adjusting the distribution of weight in my arms. If I squint hard enough, if I fight hard enough against my mind's objections, George can almost, almost pass for a normal infant.
(The lies we tell ourselves, ang moh. Honestly.)
Minah and I find an old silence together. I settle into a chair, still cradling George, and fidget with the old-fashioned radio on the dining table. She fusses over dinner. Under Minah's skillful hands, the aromas condense into identifiable names. Yogurty chicken korma and stir-fried paku pakis drenched in belacan. Confections summoned from coconut milk and pandan extract. We don't talk, only listen to the noises that domesticity make. Led Zeppelin joins in after a squeal of static, singing about heaven and ways to buy redemption. And for a little while, my world borders on normal.
But then the air fills with frangipani again, sweet and cloying like gudang garam cigarettes, and all that tranquility goes away. I jolt upright and scan the seams of the building for the telltale flicker of tiny fingers, the flash of yellow-green eyes. None emerge, but I can feel the crush of their attention.
"Sayang?" And so can Minah, it seems. "Are you expecting guests tonight?"
I nod as I detach George from my wrist. It comes off with a slorp and a gasp, its complaints reduced to aggressive burblings. I leave George on the table and bind the wound with a kitchen rag, fingers compressed over the serrated wound. The checkered fabric blooms crimson.
"The kwee kia want to, um, unionize."
Minah raises an eyebrow. It's remarkably expressive.
I raise my hands, abashed. "Don't say it. I shouldn't have read them those business manuals. I know, just. I'm learning to be better about doing stupid things. I swear."
Deliberately and silently, she returns to her cooking. I wilt under the weight of her disapproval, but there's no time to court her forgiveness. Guiltily, I skulk out of the kitchen and into my office, where it is dark and rich in bright, unblinking eyes.
"You're late, Mr. Wong." whispers one of the kwee kia.
"Yeah, well. Bite me." A heartbeat passes before I realize what I've just said. I raise my index finger. "Metaphorically."