Hong Kong, 1989.
The man stepped out of the warm night air and into the air-conditioned micro-climate of the Chat Jai convenience store. He paused for a moment before the propped-open doors to scan the shelves along the front counter before him. The store was very similar to the 7-Elevens he had remembered visiting as a boy when he had lived in the United States in the early-1970s, except here the Western snack items were intermingled with some locally produced treats. As the English and Cantonese labels vied for his attention, the man felt as if he had stepped into a strange alternate world that was familiar yet different. He chuckled silently to himself as he realized that, in some regards, he had.
The smooth-skinned Chinese woman behind the counter, whose rough expression hinted her true age, looked up from her tabloid magazine and eyed the man intently. Her brow furrowed; she didn't seem to approve of him blocking the doorway — even though there was nobody else in the store.
The man walked forward and smiled warmly before his mouth fumbled across a sentence in Cantonese. He had only been in Hong Kong for a few months, and was still learning the language (his employer and co-workers spoke English so there was no language barrier at work). The man did know enough at least to awkwardly ask for directions, order food, enquire about a price (as well as count his change), and, thankfully, to request a cup of coffee.
The woman behind the counter didn't return the smile. She conveyed a Cantonese reply in a low flat tone, pointing to a self-serve coffee station near the back of the store. She sounded annoyed, but the man didn't take it personally. It seemed to him that everyone in Hong Kong sounded annoyed, if not mildly angry, when speaking in Cantonese. If fact, the man discovered that acting annoyed actually helped him perfect the diction of the few rudimentary phrases he knew.
The man nodded his thanks to the woman, who turned her eyes back to her magazine in obvious dismissal. He pushed his loose glasses back to the top of his nose before heading past the short shopping aisles toward his objective. As he grudgingly pulled a Styrofoam cup from the tall stack next to the simmering coffee pot, the man recalled when a co-worker brought Chat Jai coffee to the workplace and how everyone else seemed to consider it an exotic delight. The man, however, found it to be horribly acrid. He preferred the rich and smooth brew from the hole-in-the-wall local coffee shop across the street. Unfortunately, that place did not stay open past 11, and the man needed the caffeine now. He had two more comic book pages of backgrounds to fill before he could "call it a day."
The man had recently finished college in London and was working in an entry-level international marketing (re: sales) position for a Singaporean insurance firm when a friend there managed to hook him up with a job opportunity as a background artist in a modest manhua studio in Hong Kong. Within two months, he had relocated and now spent most of his waking hours transforming the head artist's few rough sketch lines in the otherwise blank spaces of comic book pages into elaborate architecture, or lavish forests, or battered asteroids — whatever the story called for. The man did very good work, but it was hard work. And it was long work. (The head artist would say it was "slow work," but the man's speed was improving. The man didn't mind putting in longer hours to make sure he stayed on production schedule; the last thing he wanted to be was a spanner in the works.) In addition to the long hours, the job didn't provide much pay. Just enough to cover the basics (since the studio provided quarters in the form of a small room with a bed and a portable stove), plus a little extra to set aside for emergencies. But the man had dreamed of drawing comic books since he had first picked up a copy of Justice League of America #111 from the spinner rack of, interestingly enough, a Texas 7-Eleven in 1973 — his ten-year-old eyes recognizing characters from the SuperFriends programme he had seen on Saturday-morning television. Now he was part of a team that was drawing Hong Kong action comics, and he enjoyed it. So the job was, to the man, worth it... at least at the time.
The man was just about to pour his cup of coffee when he heard a young male voice shouting in Cantonese behind him. This voice was definitely annoyed. The man turned and saw the back of a short male figure in a grey hooded sweat jacket and jeans pointing a small revolver at the cashier, who was nervously moving what little money was available in the cash register into a small plastic store bag on the counter.
The hooded robber kept his gun poised toward the woman as he grabbed one handle of the bag with his free hand. He looked quickly at the contents inside and yelled something else to the cashier in Cantonese — sounding quite angry this time.
The man's heart raced when he heard the cashier's undecipherable pleas abruptly silenced by the sharp click of the revolver's hammer, and saw the gun rise to the level of the woman's terrified face.
The robber quickly looked over his shoulder toward the man's shout. He was wearing sunglasses to obscure some of his face, but the agape mouth denoted the gunman's surprise to discover someone else was in the store.
The man's eyes narrowed with outrage as the robber, and the robber's weapon, whirled toward him. Unfazed, the man's muscles bunched as his fight-or-flight response was unexpectedly readying his body for the former. The reason was perhaps not as much due to his 10-plus years of martial arts training as the youthful motivation behind it. As a boy, the man dreamed of being Bruce Lee, "beating up bad guys" alongside the Green Hornet. And now, over a decade later, a "bad guy" was standing before him, and he definitely deserved a beating.
Fortunately, the training had taught the man long ago how to exercise discipline... and restraint.
"You have what you want," the man rumbled, pointing toward the exit. "Now go!"
The gunman seemed to scoff at the man. Whether he understood English or not, the terse demand was quite clear. The robber muttered something in Cantonese as he lowered his gun and left the store with his light plunder.
The man then noticed that the cashier had dropped to the floor while he was facing the gunman. He quickly moved behind the counter in order to help her to her feet, unaware that the robber hadn't moved far beyond the doorway.
The man barely heard the gunshot when something very small — yet felt very large — tore into his back. His breath, forced out of his body from the initial impact, refused to reenter as intense pain flared through his entire being, overwhelming all of his senses. He barely felt his glasses slip off his face as he tipped back and plunged into unconsciousness.
Caught in the grip of gravity, the lenses of the man's tumbling eyepiece gleamed under the fluorescent lights for a brief instant, then shattered on the sticky tile floor.
To be continued.