For the price of a finger

a life undone by Chinese red dragons

Take your hands out of your pockets mate, that way they’ll know you’re not carrying anything, like a bloody grenade.”

He shrugged the warning off, of course. “You Kiwis worry too much,” he said, bounding up the step and opening the door. “Come on son, I’m as thirsty as a wooden god.”

Jacko was a big tough bastard, six foot six at least, he had all the Aussie bullshit and all the Aussie swagger, the family had a big station in the back of beyond, up the bloody Murrumbidgee somewhere north of Wagga Wagga. Rough as hell up there, hot as hell too. It was safe to assume he’d been in his fair share of scraps in town and that he’d probably come out on top. But if he got into a scrap here in a dark and dodgy pub between the Falls Road and the Shankill, no man’s land between the UDA and the IRA, the outcome might be very different. The air in Belfast was always cold and gray, you got used to that, but the silence was unnerving — it was the middle of the day in a big city but it was deathly quiet, not even the sound of traffic, just a few birds so shook up by the sound of the frequent bombing and shooting they barely sung a note any more. You could sense the troubles in the air.

VanderWolf Images / Shutterstock

Someone at BBC Radio Ulster had decided that because Jacko was from Australia Broadcasting, the best person to show him the ropes would be the resident New Zealander. Just another superior Englishman having fun at the expense of the competitive colonials. There was no sniping between Kiwis and Aussies when the chips were down and they found themselves together with their backs against the wall, but the rest of the time the famously big Australian mouth annoyed the hell out of their quieter cousins. Psychologists would call it “over-compensation,” that’s what it is for sure. Australia had been a penal colony and there is something buried deep in the Australian psyche that makes them say “yeah, we know, grandpa was a criminal and we don’t bloody care, in fact we’re proud of it.” Kiwis were cut from a different cloth. Their country was founded by disenfranchised members of the British aristocracy, caught in bed with the village maid and sent away to the ends of the earth while their reputation was rehabilitated back home. A different kind of cloth altogether.

True to form, Jacko was unfazed by the sandbags and machine guns outside the hotel. He wanted to see everything in the few short days he was in town — which is how they found themselves in the most dangerous part of Belfast. He was oblivious to the constant, watching eyes, the lace curtains pushed aside in windows up high, the kids scuttling away as they approached.

I had no choice. I followed him through the door and into the pub. “Two beers please mate,” Jacko was saying to the man behind the bar.

“Well now son, hold on right there, let me ask you a question before there’s any pouring done, are you Catholic or are you Protestant?”

“Neither mate, I’m a bloody Australian. And this skinny prick here is a Kiwi. Two beers, okay?”

The men at the bar laughed their heads off at that. And many rounds later, when it got dark, they got the the two of them back to the hotel safe and sound, Seamus on one side of Jacko and Liam on the other, three brothers now, weaving their way down the Falls Road, shouting at the English soldiers, all cares cast aside about 10 pints ago:

“Up the long ladder and down the short rope, to hell with King Billy and God bless the Pope, if that doesn’t do, we’ll tear him in two and we’ll send him to Hell with his red white and blue.”

We stayed in touch over the years as Jacko moved on up at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and life took me away from Belfast and London and off to New York. One night he got us all banned forever from Keen’s Chop House at 6th and 36th after he climbed up on a table in the bar to recite poetry for a group of young eager-beaver investment bankers who had tried to keep up with him:

“I was walking down a New York road and into a bar I was lured, and a nosey Yank, said ‘where you from?’ as I downed the amber fluid.
So I told him straight, I’m Australian mate and I feel like getting plastered, cause the beer is crook and the women all look, like you, you banker bastards.”

Jacko was bored at the ABC, everybody knew that. So no-one was surprised when, late one night on one of the visits to New York, he announced he was leaving to try something else. “I met this Chinese sheilah,” he said. “Her dad is one of the bastards strip mining the western desert. That right there is the Australian economic miracle in a nutshell mate. Can’t last. Anyway, I interviewed him for the network last year, that’s how I met her, she’s his assistant. Kiwi, she and I are going to start a publishing business over there in China mate. She’s going to front it. You’ve got to come in on this one.”

The next day, as I made my way towards the Oyster Bar for a farewell libation, it occurred to me that these ideas tend to make more sense at two o’clock in the morning than they ever do the next day. Besides, I’d started a little business with a mate of mine once and I promised myself I would never it again. The business did okay, but we were no longer mates. It was too hard to agree, no, it was too hard to disagree, there were too many relationship layers to manage and it was too damn painful when it became clear that someone had to go.

But Jacko had done his homework, the timing, the market, the money, even the tricky business of getting political approval from the Chinese government had been handled — the hands of Yuchen’s father were on everything, it turned out. It had been harder to get the political assent of his long-suffering wife, but now she was on board, too. His enthusiasm was infectious, it reminded me of the kids half his age who came in with their start-up plans, full of starry-eyed optimism about creating the next Google. I had a little canned speech ready whenever they came knocking to separate me from my money, you know, busy with other things, the Foundation takes all my energy and spare cash, kids in college, that kind of thing. It was a well-rehearsed, the perfect Thanks but No Thanks. This time I kept that speech in my pocket.

It was the best business decision I ever made.

Jacko always did have the magic touch — and the balls to go with it. Which is why, the day we learned what had happened to him, the circumstances surrounding it, we didn’t feel sad at first. We felt shocked. This was a guy capable of parting the Red Sea. Yet he was reduced to something weak and insignificant, left beaten to a pulp in an alley like someone who had never mattered at all.

Yuchen was a winner who knew how to get things done. She set up the printing plant in a little town outside Jinan in Shandong province, so the trucks could move easily up and down the expressways that linked Beijing with Shanghai. The building she purchased was old and run-down but the printing equipment she ordered from Germany was state of the art, with a quality color press and sophisticated sorters. Around the plant she had built a 10-foot cinderblock wall, “to keep the thieves out.”

“Ugly as hell,” Jacko had said. “Why the hell do we need a wall like that? What will the clients think?”

“Mr. Jacko, the clients will know that people here will steal anything,” she replied. “I will have guards at the gate 24-hours a day, too.” And she told us about the Red Dragons, the local gangsters who extorted local businesses, how one day they had caught some thieves, beaten them, torn off their clothes, tied them up in a tight circle and were dousing them with petrol when the cops arrived. The Dragons would be getting a cut, that’s for sure.

But her quiet beauty and competence was deceiving, for she was badly afflicted with the unconscious arrogance of the rich. She would regularly shout at the workers on the line, for being slow, stupid, hard-of-hearing and if anybody hit the red button and the line stopped, all hell broke loose. The decibel-level of her voice would sound like an alarm, shrill and insistent, searing through the plant. But within a year she had the place humming and thanks to her father and his contacts, it was running at over 95% capacity. Jacko had been right. He had said from the start that as China opened up, there would be a huge demand for printed flyers, advertising circulars, neighborhood magazines, even little weekly newspapers, nothing controversial, no news that would catch the attention of the Communist party, no opinion at all. They were so good at it, the local Party boss came to get his stuff printed there. He got a big discount. Plenty of sly cash in his back pocket. And since he liked sake, he got a bottle of that regularly, too.

The money came rolling in. It was unbelievable, the timing was perfect. It wasn’t long before Jacko started talking about expansion, about building a second plant down near Chengdu and quickly too, before anybody else saw the opportunity. He called a special board meeting.

Everybody flew in to Jinan for it. He was asking for a lot more money and we all wanted to get a first-hand look at things. As the meeting started that morning he quickly ramped up to full cry, his commanding presence holding the room and tilting it early and inevitably in his favor. Then abruptly, he was interrupted.

We could hear the screaming even above the roar of the machinery. We followed Jacko as he ran out of the room and raced down the stairs towards the commotion rising from the far end of the plant where the sorters and stackers and loaders worked. The line was stopped. A circle of people were trying to comfort a worker covered in blood. She was looking down at her hand in disbelief and screaming at the sight of it — and at the recognition that she would never be the same again. Someone was holding the finger that had been severed by the razor-sharp blade of the paper cutter machine. Two more fingers had deep lacerations, her thumb was hanging down from her hand at a weird angle, connected to her hand by just a strand of sinew. The woman was screaming blue-murder. Jacko took charge.

“Okay, who knows where the hospital is. You? Okay, you’re coming with us. Yuchen, you drive and you there, you come with us as well. You too, Kiwi. Yuchen, find out where her family lives, we’ll meet them at the hospital.

And tell them get this place cleaned up. There’s blood everywhere.”

“Boys,” he said to the board, now standing in a daze of the side “I’m off. Back as soon as I can.”

As soon as we got to the hospital they took the woman off to a room upstairs. After Jacko and Yuchen filled in all the forms we followed, we could hear shouting as we rushed up the stairwell. The room fell silent as we entered. From the cluster of family around the bed an elderly woman looked rudely at us, and then turned back and started yelling again at the sobbing woman and the doctor standing at her bedside.

“Yuchen, what the hell’s going on? Why aren’t they getting her ready for surgery?”

“That’s her grandmother,” said Yuchen, quietly. “She doesn’t want them to try to save the finger. She doesn’t want them to save the other fingers either, or the thumb. She wants them all amputated.”

“Jesus. Why?”

“Mr. Jacko, if she loses the fingers and especially the thumb, she could get Grade 1 disability for each one. It’s 27,000 yuan for the fingers, more for the thumb. We would have to pay her about 90,000 yuan. The government will match it. The family will be able to move to a bigger apartment and the grandparents will never have to work again. She’s telling her she has to do this for her family.”

“You tell her I’ll pay for an operation to try to keep the finger and to sew up the others. That’s it. This is bloody disgusting.”

It was late in the day when we got back to the plant. The line stood still and quiet. The workers had gone home long ago. The board was still there. We had waited around at the hospital but we still didn’t know what they had decided to do and it was clear they weren’t going to tell us, even Yuchen. “I need a scotch,” said Jacko, “anyone else? After that let’s go out and get something to eat.”

As we sat and talked quietly about the horrors of the day, nobody noticed the guard downstairs lock the gate and walk quickly off down the street. And nobody noticed the guys coming over the wall either, until, that is, we heard the sound of breaking glass. More than a dozen Red Dragons carrying hammers and wooden rods were running through the plant towards the stairs, swinging at anything that appeared breakable. They were all wearing leather jackets and every one of them had a thin moustache. “What the hell,” yelled Jacko, “lock the bloody door and get the table up against it quick. Yuchen, call the police.”

The gangsters had come to negotiate on behalf of the family. Turns out they wanted four fingers. Two for them, of course. The other two for the wounded woman and her family. They didn’t seem to care about the thumb. She could keep that.

The cops arrived quickly. They were short and skinny and drowning in their uniforms, they would be of little use against the Dragons. We ended up paying for two-and-a-half fingers. Jacko was adamant, he wouldn’t budge from that. The Dragons were furious, but the cops must have thought it was fair, they told the Red Dragons to get the hell out — or they would call the police station in the city.

The same cops found Jacko lying in a pool of blood in an alley two months later, on his next visit. He had been beaten senseless, three broken ribs, a broken arm and a fractured cranium. Yuchen got a call that they were coming for him and she had persuaded him to get out of the plant and run through the back alleys to the safety of the hotel. But the guard at the gate must have tipped them off. When they cornered him he was just a block or so from safety.

Worse thing is, they cut off two-and-a-half fingers on his right hand. I won’t tell you where they put the little finger. He was unconscious when they did that.

Today, Yuchen and her father own the whole business. It’s become one of the largest publishing and printing companies in the whole of China. We all sold long before that happened, we got our money out and a little on top, we weren’t going to argue, the price of doing business in China seemed a little steep to us. Someone else could profit from the fabled Chinese economic awakening, like maybe the Dragons. Jacko sold out too. Even though it was his baby, he had no problem letting go.

He spends most of his time at Bungan Beach north of Sydney now. You wouldn’t recognize him, he’s quieter, more subdued, a shadow stumbling around the house all day or wandering on the beach alone. He’ll have a beer with you but nothing more, no more late-night carousing, no more recitations from the table-top, no more tumultuous arguments about the state of Australian cricket. The Dragons stole that spirit from him. It took all of us a long time to adjust to that. Long-term friendships wax and wane over the years but this was different. He had retreated somewhere so deep inside that none of us could find him anymore. I gave up trying in the end.

Last time I saw him we went surfing. It was a classic glorious Sydney day, light off-shore breeze and a big right-hand break working. “Do you do this as much as you used to Jacko?” I asked him as we headed out. I knew how much he used to love it, and how good it would be for his soul. “Nah, not anymore,” he said. “I should I guess, I’ve still got all my bloody toes. At least they didn’t take them, the little bastards. But they took everything else I had mate.”


Peter Winter writes from his home on the coast of Maine. He tells his stories here in Life of Fiction and he blogs about media and management at BlastofWinter

Feel free to drop him a line at peter@pwinter.com

Peter is represented by The Garamond Agency of Washington, D.C.