Happy to be back in Brooklyn on his last run of the day, Meng Shunxi hurried down the street towards the river, the large paper bag of feathers clutched to his chest in an awkward bear hug. Li Ha Wei had taken his Metrocard, so Shunxi had walked up the Bowery and across the Williamsburg Bridge, pocketing the two dollars they gave him for subway fare. His thriftiness had made him a little late, but it was the pre-Christmas rush, and there'd be workers at Fujian Feather and Display of Williamsburg late into the night. Even so, he didn't like being down by the waterfront after dark.
Feeling the cold, Shunxi pulled the feathers tighter to him. It was his last run, carrying overstocksix dozen peacock feathers and a dozen crimson boasfrom the Manhattan store back to the warehouse. Since most of the deliveries were small, he could manage them easily and cheaply on the subway, saving Mr. Tan money and solving the problem of Shunxi not having a driver's license.
He looked around him, staring into the empty shadows. This part of Brooklyn was getting better, but nearer the water, away from all the houses and apartment buildings, the streets were still dangerous. The delivery men were prey for youths from the nearby projects; two years earlier, Li Ha Wei had almost been beaten to death by a group of teenagers not two blocks from where he was now walking. Wei told Shunxi later that, while they were hitting him, he didn't cry out: if the police had caught him, he'd have been deported. The project kids hunted them specifically for that reason.
Shunxi walked a little faster.
Ten more minutes, and his day would be done. Tonight he would meet up with Wei and Mr. Zia from down the hall, and they would gamble and drink.
He heard footsteps behind him. He kept walking. Six more blocks.
After passing a streetlamp, he glanced back. The man behind him was a white man in a pea coat and a New York Fire Department baseball cap. A white man: Shunxi breathed a little easier. He crossed the street anyway.
The man stayed on the other side, but soon caught up; he tensed, but the man passed him as they neared the low bridge. Shunxi felt a little sheepish as his anxiety dissolved. "Like an old woman...", he thought.
A half block before the bridge, the man stopped to tie his shoe. Shunxi's sheepishness was instantly replaced by wariness. Ahead he could see the small floodlights on the factory's sign; just two more blocks.
The man called to him. "Hey."
Staring fixedly forward, Shunxi broke into a slow jog. Nearing the shadow of the bridge he looked back quickly, and saw the man sprinting soundlessly towards him across the street, a club-like object in his fist. Shunxi ran as fast as he could, holding the bag even tighter in his panic.
He got barely ten paces before something slammed his ankle out from underneath him. He crashed forward sprawling, scarlet feathers spilling onto the dark asphalt.
Stunned for a second, Shunxi regained his focus, and struggled to pull himself to his hands and knees, his ankle tendon cut, his foot flapping obscenely from a pant leg gleaming with dark blood. The man stood in front of him, a small axe in his hand, absently tapping the back of the axe head against his palm as he looked down at the deliveryman, wreathed in fluffy boas.
Shunxi lifted his open palm to the man, and stammered out, "Please! No money! No have money!" Ignoring him, the man was examining the feathers.
This wasn't about money.
Weeping and gasping in pain and terror, Shunxi began to crawl, pulling his mangled foot. The man stood, stepped quickly over the feathers and came up behind Shunxi, as he scrambled towards the light of the intersection.
The man had no intention of letting him go. He kicked Shunxi's good leg out from underneath him, sending him face down into the gutter. Coming to his senses, Shunxi opened his mouth to scream, but the man stomped one foot down onto his back, then smashed the hatchet blade into the back of Shunxi's head. He held it in place for a short while, riding the rhythmic shudders; when the convulsions slowed, he pressed the head down into the gutter with his foot, stepped back and gave a quick twist to free the blade from the skull.
He walked back to the bag, and squatted. He tore the rest of the scarlet marabou feathers out of the bag, scattering them in the street, then looked through the bagged peacock feathers with care. Some of the feathers had been bloodied, and in others the vanes were clumped together from damp and grime, but the deeper feathers were pristine. He selected two packages, each with a dozen perfect plumes of iridescent emerald green and royal blue, then walked on down towards the East River.