“What you want?” Jin Xiang glares at me as what must be his granddaughter retreats. The few bulbs that still work in the mould-covered ceiling over my head throw a soft yellow light over the wizened Asian’s long hair and wispy beard. The soft hum of the industrial washing machines, divided between those actually cleaning clothes and the ones turning with vast quantities of fake money, underscores the man’s annoyance. “Come on. Come on.”
“Wasn’t I clear in my emails?” I respond softly, almost making it sound like an apology. I want to be direct with him, but I know it’s not going to be that easy.
“Emails, shemails.” Xiang hoists his hands high and rolls his eyes. “No good business done with typing. You want something, you look me in eye and ask. I merely tell you I meet with you.” I suck at my lip. It’s not going to be easy to try to vocalize what I need when I can only lie or speak in questions, but I can make it work.. I’ve found my feet, and I’m sure I can weave my way through negotiations with the ancient man if I have to.
I’ve already gone from a naked god without anything to scamming my way into a luxurious hotel room. Not that I’ve yet felt the desire to upgrade from the second-hand suit I’d purchased. It doesn’t feel right. Not after what happened with Lily. Amelia. It was Amelia that sold me this suit. Not Lily. Lily is gone, and Amelia is my future. By which I mean, this city is my new home. It’s going to give me a job and allow me to fix everything. All I have to do is follow my plan.
Step one is my backstory. I can’t just appear and win the race to be mayor. For one thing, any candidate has to have lived here for two years. I don’t have that sort of history, so I need some help. That’s why I’ve come to this underground workhouse.
“Cat got your tongue?” Xiang gives me a piercing stare. It feels like it cuts to the core of my blackened soul, but I’m certain he can’t be that perceptive. He doesn’t really know who I am.
“Am I right that you can help someone who needs some documentation?” I ask, my tone humble. Another glare, and then he shuffles forward, plastic crocs scraping across the concrete floor.
“Are you cop? Because if you are cop, you got to tell me.”
I tug at my second-hand jacket, the shabby elbows grating against my arms. It’s my turn to fix the old man with a glare.
“Do I look like a cop?”
“They come in all shapes and sizes these days. Diversity madness!” He looks ready to launch into a tirade of outdated stereotypes, and I cut in.
“Have I come to the wrong place?”
“No, no, no, no, no.” He flaps his hands at me like he’s ready to take flight. “Men in my position, we have to be careful.” I consider asking whether he considered that point when I was escorted past his money-laundering operation. Worn-out workers shovelling fake dollars in and out of grim machines. All of them had seen better days.
“So you can provide me with what I need?”
“It’s no small order. Why you need so many years?” Once again, he gives me that piercing look. If he had the strength, I’m certain he would pull open my head and rummage around in there.
“Why do you need to know? Are you a cop?” For a moment, Xiang’s still, and then he explodes in laughter. It’s the sound of a jackal being castrated.
“You funny. Very funny.” He then shrugs. “What I care. As long as you pay.”
“And how much is everything I asked for?”
He looks thoughtful, but I can tell it’s just for my benefit. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
“One million dollar.”
I twist my face into an expression of pure surprise. He’s not the only one who can play games.
“Don’t you think that’s a bit steep?”
“For new life? New identity? Would you really put price on that?”
“Yes, but I have costs. You know how many people involved?” He steps closer, a finger wagging at me. “You know what I give you, yes? People. Anyone go to what we claim your old address, and neighbours will say you were there. Whoever else was there, they forgotten. Only you lived there, no one else. We even make sure there are pictures. You at parties. Bomb photos. Pictures with babies. I make sure you covered. But, you not want all that, you go see my competitors. Sloppy sons of bitches.”
“Can you recommend someone else?” I’m playing coy, and I need my next move to be perfect. I can’t raise that amount of money without sticking my head above the parapet. It’s going to leave a footprint. Someone will remember me, and I’m not sure I can afford that further down the line. But I need to move forward with my plans, and I don’t want the delay while I raise the funds I need just to kick start everything.
“Someone else?” He spits at me. A glob of putrid phlegm flies through the end and splats on the floor. “Pah! No one do work like me. They no come close.” He shuffles back and forth, wildly waving his hands. “Someone else!”
I start to speak, but he whirls on me, admonishing me with that finger again. “You waste my time. Time waster! Get out. Go see someone else.”
I sigh heavily.
“I thought you were the best?”
“I am!” he roars at me. “You want best? You pay!”
“You understand why I’m doing this?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You have crazy ideas.”
“You think wanting to be mayor makes me unhinged?”
“Yes. You mad!” He snorts and cackles at me. “You not from right background. Even with my help, you no be accepted.”
“Why don’t you let me worry about that?”
“Pah! No one vote for you. You all wrong.”
“It’s such a shame you won’t help me,” I muse, pleased for a moment as I am able to lie directly to him. “Because if my plans came together, I would make such a difference to small businessmen like yourself.”
He stops moving and hits me with another look.
“You want help me?”
“It’s in my plan.” I pull my scribbled notes from the inside pocket of my jacket and thrust them towards him. Most are legit. I have got very excited about what I can do when I run this town. Yet a few have been added as protection. Just in case this sort of situation arose. It’s always good to be prepared. Xiang casts his eye across my scribbles. It’s quick, but I know he sees what I want him to.
“You going to give that many tax breaks?”
“You can read, can’t you?”
“And what this about police priorities?”
“Do you mean my plans to have the boys in blue focus on violent crimes?”
“Over other activities?”
“Do you know that assault and battery are some of the least investigated problems in this whole country?”
“I did not.” Xiang slowly nods his head up and down at me.
“Do you realise that the police are prioritising financial misdemeanours because it’s easier to quantify?”
He blinks, long and slow. He is calculating, working out what my proposed changes would save his more genuine business interests. Thinking about how much more he could do without the cops watching his every move. How much easier life would be.
“Why would you do that?”
“Didn’t I say in my email that I want everyone in this town to prosper?”
“Really?” There’s suspicion in his face. He can’t tell if I’m too good to be true.
“If someone scratches my back, why shouldn’t I help them in return?”
“And I suppose you remember your friends, eh?” He winks at me.
“Why would I forget them?” I grin back. He thinks for a long moment. I try not to show my anxiety. I’m desperately hoping I’ve got good enough to scam my way through this and get what I want. Finally, he turns and eases his way across the floor, his arm twirling as he moves.
“You know, maybe you inspire me. Maybe I should do something for the community too. Help out those less fortunate. Make a donation to those in need.” He steps towards the shadows at the end of the room. “Give me three days, and I send documents to you.”
“You realise I’m very appreciative of your support, don’t you?”
“You better.” He gives me an ice-cold stare. It is the look of someone who has gotten to where they are the hard way. “And you better make sure you do become mayor. Because if not…” He lets the threat purposefully hang in the air.
I nod, maintaining eye contact with him. That’s the next focus of my planning. Once I properly exist as a citizen of the city, I need someone who actually knows about campaigning to help me win this election. I already have someone in mind. It’s just a case of making sure she realises it’s the job she wants. It could be tricky, especially after what she’s been through.