When Apache says "Tea?", you say "Yes. Sir."
The front door slammed open on its hinges as Apache made his typically violent entrance. He didn't bother to knock: his famed one-inch punches make such niceties irrelevant, the protocol of lesser beings.
Wiping what looked to be (someone else's) blood from his knuckles, he slumped down at the teatable and silently opened a worn leather satchel that looked as if it had been taken by force. He produced a cake that I didn't know existed: the 2010 Dayi cake celebrating 70 years from 1940 to 2010.
Wordlessly, he reached into the dark interior of that satchel and produced a device that could only have once belonged to the US Department of Defence, or perhaps MI5. A nonchalant flick of the wrist caused it to activate - this while Apache himself looked uninterestedly out of a nearby window, as if it were all too much for his burdened soul. A soul that had been places too dark for the fragile sanity of mere mortals.
Lighting the darkness of that stormy afternoon, the strange device produced a purple glow that the tacit wanderer casually passed over the label of the Dayi cake. A fluorescent patch of colour appeared, proof that this cake was the real deal. Good for whoever this cake was taken from: the last doomed victim who tried to palm off fake goods on Apache was identified only by his dental records.
I tried to hold onto consciousness as his bloodstained fingers gripped the surface of the cake, slipping a knife between its leaves as so many hapless victims had felt as their last sensation before they shuffled off this mortal coil.
At last, words: "From Dragon Teahouse". I wondered if the proprietor of that business was still breathing, as the grim-faced visitor stoically went about the procedure of gutting the cake, watching slabs of pu'ercha flesh land in the tray. The master butcher at work.
The visitor took a cup from my shaking hands, not deigning to look me in the eye. He seemed content with the brew - at least, his fists remained casually lain on the table. It was an old-fashioned recipe. It brought back to Apache's mind memories of home, fighting for survival on the streets of Hong Kong as a young boy, learning the tricks of those that had been fortunate enough, or brutal enough, to pass on their hideous secrets to him.
Slamming the cup down on the table, an icy silence chilled the room. "Solid. None too flavoursome, but that's OK." His voice sounded rough, as if he had spent all night chasing illegal imports, washed down with the rough potato vodka that he sometimes used as an anaesthetic, to numb the pain of memory.
He reached slowly into his bag and withdrew a 2011 Jin Dayi.
More flashes of steel as the razor-sharp blade slipped between the ribs of the cake, circulating within, probing for vital organs. He unconsciously reached for his side, remembering the duel that had taken place deep in pre-unified East Germany. He couldn't even remember the face of the other guy. Too many faces had come and gone. Brothers, friends, fathers. All unavenged.
I had heard about the Jin Dayi. I had heard that it was steamrolling in price, a commodity for which many lives had been spent heedlessly. The wrapper, now discarded on the floor like a spent prostitute, suggested that it was the June pressing - one of two in that year.
The heavy, molasses-like fragrance filled the room, taking my attention away from the stench of raw sweat and nicotine coming from the visitor, now hunched wordlessly over his cup. Solid. Hard. Basic and rough, in a way that made you think this tea would be around and aging long after Apache's next victims had cooled in their shallow graves.
I should have guessed what would next come from that accursed satchel, for whom so many had given up their lives. The 2003 Jin Dayi. This cake had seen many over-confident newcomers pass by. The label suggested that it was Hong Kong. I wasn't aware that Apache had been back there since the arrival of the new gang in the old port, but his network of unnamed associates is everywhere. Everyone owed the dark stranger a "favour", of some kind. He could get anything, except the one thing that his reputation could not buy: the return of his innocence.
Perhaps that was the most valuable of all the many things he'd lost over the years.
Some poor gullible fool had translated the Chinese script on the cake's ticket, probably at knife-point, before being shoved into the Thames to sink along with the others, unmourned.
The price on the market was £300, but prices were of no interest to Apache. Rumours were that he had acquired an enormous fortune through the years - mostly protection money and bribes from senior officials.
His eye twitched as he downed a cup in one swallow, staring straight ahead. Eyes that had seen too much. It reminded him of the 2011 cake, and that was good. It kept his mind away from his duties - the tasks that would soon hurry several prominent public figures into the next world.
Heavy, damp wood. Like the planks on a rotten coffin, exhumed, thrown open to the dark night.
"Six Stars" was the name of the next cake casually hauled from the old satchel, made by Fujin. The "He" brothers were behind this business, and I wondered if it was a front for something less palatable. Apache would have known; he probably gave them the funding to start out, as he had so many others. "No strings attached" was not a phrase that people used when talking about Apache's "gifts". Everyone was in his pocket, sooner or later.
He sucked air through his broken, gold-plated teeth as yellow tea burned its way past his unfeeling lips. "Four times the Jin Dayi price", he muttered. I wondered if that was a special "Apache price". Merchants tended to get nervous when he entered a shop, and prices seemed to fall. To zero, mostly. "Gifts" given by men with wet palms, cold with sweat, eager to please, eager to caress their loved ones just once more, anxious to see the sun again.
It was an old-recipe tea. Everything that Apache drank that day was old-recipe. I guessed that he was looking for something from his past. Something that he had once loved. Something long gone, but missed, when his mind was alone and, finally, calm in the middle of the night, before the dawn.
A blood-smeared plastic bag was thrown on the table in front of me. "97 Yesheng Qingzhuan", it read - scrawled hastily by someone wanting to be somewhere, anywhere else.
The brick was clean, somehow. I'd once seen Apache batter a man into submission using nothing but an old tea-brick. Never refuse him, I learned that day. You don't want to end up like the guy on the other end of that brick. They say that guy eats through a straw these days.
Sharp and powdery, this brick reminded Apache of his mother - memories from an age ago, before the streets happened. Warm memories. Perhaps the last time he was loved. I've found out a few things during the years I've known him - rumours, mostly - but never anything about his family. His past is a closed book, and that's the way he keeps it.
I figured it was safer not to know.
Suddenly, he was standing, his eyes fixed on something in the distance, something I couldn't see. He muttered something in his granite drawl, and shoved a cake into my shaking hands. Slinging his satchel over his shoulder, he left the room with a grace that always surprised me, as if he knew how to move. How to be somewhere else.
I watched until his departing figure in the rain of that dark afternoon turned a far corner, before calling my wife, telling her that it was safe to come back. Safe - until next weekend. Apache would be back. No matter how much you prepare, you're never ready.
Not for him.
Not for him.