The lacquered doors crashed open, and two Chinese dressed in black tunics dragged a man into the room. Arms tied behind his back, his long pigtail falling over his bloodied, bruised face, they dropped him on the stone floor, where he lay between Joseph and the long table covered by an ornate embroidered cloth.
Flames flickered from torches on the walls of the room, and illuminated about a hundred men. Most sat, while some at the back stood and shuffled to have a better view.
The unpleasant acrid smell of cheap cigarettes mixed with the smoking torches, but Joseph, thrilled and animated, drank in the atmosphere. Perched on the hard wooden bench he glanced down at the prisoner, who swivelled his head up to stare at the young man. Joseph ignored the plea for help or compassion, and instead turned to the ceremonial table, where his father, Cheung Pak-ho, leader of the Sung Triad Society, and the other three leaders gazed down at the prostrate man, their faces emotionless.
The tension could, like the smoke, almost be touched, as sitting beside Joseph’s father, the Assistant Mountain Lord cleared his throat, and silence fell over the room.
'This member is guilty of breaking one of the oaths of our Society, which states: "I must not take to myself the wives and concubines of my sworn brothers." Leung Tat-wu admitted his guilt, and will now accept his punishment.'
Leung tried to scramble to his feet, but one of the guards kicked the back of his legs, so he fell to his knees, and the guard’s companion grabbed the prisoner’s pigtail, and yanked his head forward. Leung let out a moan, realising there would be no last-minute reprieve. The despairing sound reverberated around the basement room.
Through the doors strode a giant of a man. Stripped to his muscular chest, he clenched a long sword, its wide up-curving blade decorated with a dancing dragon. He stopped, faced the head table and bowed, the steel’s edge glinting. Cheung nodded, and the man lifted the heavy weapon above his head, pausing only a moment, before bringing it down in one swift movement.
Blood sprayed over those in the front row, including Joseph, who resisted showing any reaction, and left it running down his face. The man clutching the pigtail raised the head up high, as the body collapsed, twitching to the floor. Two guards dragged the torso out, leaving a trail of blood glistening over the stone slabs, the other followed them, holding the dripping head at arm’s length.
Within seconds one of the men reappeared, carrying a shaft with Leung’s head attached, eyes open and mouth contorted. He held the pole aloft, first turning it towards the triad leaders, and then the rest of the members. Stepping forward he placed it against a wall, so the lifeless eyes faced out over the room, blood still dribbling down the bamboo shaft. A reminder, without a complete body, Leung would be condemned to never enter paradise.
Later, his father closed the meeting, but motioned Joseph to stay.
‘Not all meetings will be like this,’ he said, 'but first you will need to pass our initiation. Preparation for this starts tomorrow. That’s if you wish to join the society and be trained as my successor?’
Joseph ran a hand through his long black hair. Again he glanced at the head, and his heartbeat increased as a range of emotions and memories swept through him. For the last few years he and his friends often talked and dreamed about the excitement of being a triad. They watched with fascination and envy as these men strutted through the streets of Shanghai, with their guns barely hidden under their coats, their whores on their arms, and everyone avoiding eye contact with these dangerous men. Now he needed to keep calm, and overcome the stress coursing through his body.
Motionless, Cheung waited. A man of few words, he had never hugged Joseph, even when a child, nor ever told him he loved him. That was not his way.
His father would expect a concise and dispassionate response, so Joseph said, ‘Today being my 20th birthday, I presume you chose this moment to judge me old enough to decide my future. Yes, of course I crave the honour, Father, and will embrace this new life and claim the Sung Society as my destiny.’