Sync or swim

John Brennan

Part 18 of our dramatic serial

John Brennan |

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The smoke seeping out from under the shutters which sealed the front of the shop was growing thicker and darker with every passing moment. "Gung gung!" Ethan screamed as, with mounting desperation, he pummelled the metal screen.

While one of the neighbours yanked unsuccessfully at the locked door beside him, Ethan forced open a small gap between the bars. Inside he could just about make out Grandad lying on the camp bed. Was he asleep, unconscious ... or something worse?

"They're coming!" someone in the crowd of onlookers yelled. Yes, there was the wail of the siren - but were they already too late?

The fire engine screeched to a halt beside them, lights whirling and air brakes hissing.

As several of the crew unrolled a hose and headed for the blaze at the back of the building, a fireman strode towards Ethan, axe in hand.

"Is there someone in there?" he asked.

"My grandad. But I don't know if he's still ..." Ethan faltered.

"Stand back," the fireman ordered, as he drew back the axe. He was just about to bring it down on the lock when, with a rattle almost unheard amidst the cacophony, the door slowly opened and Grandad emerged, wincing and coughing.

"Gung gung," Ethan gasped with relief.

As the fireman turned to summon the waiting paramedics, the elderly man looked around in bemusement. "What's going on?"

"Are you OK?" a breathless voice behind Ethan asked. It was Mr Wong, who had just come from his home several streets away. Grandad nodded.

"I heard the sirens," Wong continued, "and I knew where they were going."

Ethan looked at him. How had he known?

"It was only a matter of time until they tried something like this," Wong said, shaking his head bitterly.

Grandad was now alert enough to mouth a warning to Wong. But it was too late.

"Who are 'they'?" Ethan demanded.

With the fire quickly extinguished, the building's angry residents surrounded the policemen who had arrived at the scene.

With fingers jabbing and voices raised, they recounted the long list of harassments they had already reported to the authorities: the smashed windows, the abusive phone calls in the middle of the night, the graffiti, the damage to the building's power supply ... the list went on. But most of all, they told the police who they believed was behind this campaign.

Once the paramedics had finished checking him out, a grim-faced Grandad rejoined his grandson and his oldest friend.

"You've told him?" Grandad asked his friend.

Wong nodded. "After this he has a right to know, doesn't he?"

"But why didn't you tell me, gung gung?" a bewildered Ethan asked. "And why are you putting yourself through all this? Why don't you just give up the shop?"

"What?" Grandad demanded. "My former boss still owns the place. He'd have to sell if I left. He's too ill and too old to cope with this.

"You're not that young, either, you know. And so what if he sells?"

Yet Grandad was adamant. "We're not letting those developers and their agents win like this." He turned to Wong. "Are we?"

Wong gave Ethan a sad, resigned look, then shook his head. "No, we're not."

"Are you certain the developers were behind it?" Sam asked Ethan as they stood by the gates after school. "This is Hong Kong in 2012, you know. Surely they'd just offer them more money to move out. They wouldn't act like gangsters."

Ethan shrugged. "The police and fire brigade are investigating but..."

In the cold light of day, he wasn't entirely convinced by the conspiracy theory, either.

"And how is your Grandad?"

"Fireproof and indestructible - according to him."

But Sam wasn't the only one who had noticed the pall of anxiety hanging over Ethan. Standing by the main doors of the school, Maya had watched him and Sam deep in conversation.

Finally, when Ethan was clearly about to go, she decided she had to find out what was going on.

But as she moved towards them, someone gripped her arm back. "Where are you going?" It was her boyfriend, Kieran.

She nodded towards the gates. "Ethan may be an idiot but at the moment he looks like a very worried idiot. I need to ask him ..."

Kieran clenched his fist tighter, cutting her short. "You don't need to ask him anything," he hissed. Maya was stunned for a moment. Then she shrugged herself free. "No, what I don't need is your permission to do anything."

Although Ethan had now gone, his best friend remained checking messages on his phone. "Sam ... Sam ... " Maya called as she strode towards the gates.

When he arrived at the hospital, Ethan found Grandad already at Mum's bedside. Sitting up in bed, she chatted happily about the next tests that would hopefully clear her to come home before the New Year.

In a bid to keep her in good spirits, Grandad painted a fantasy of his shop's booming trade.

Knowing he could say nothing about shamefacebook, and the hours and effort he'd put into getting the website off the ground, Ethan reluctantly went along with this well-meaning myth. However, the web of secrets - or were they simply lies? - that they had spun to protect Mum from stress was weighing ever more heavily on him.

Once outside, he couldn't contain his concerns anymore.

"Gung gung, you can't keep putting yourself in danger. Today Sam told me he's already found an advertiser for the site - and that's before I even send out the official

e-mails. We're going to need you working full time on the business side - to take the meetings, do the accounts and all that stuff."

However, Grandad was having none of it. "We've got to keep the shop. How else are we going to explain to your mother where the money is coming from?"

Outside the neighbouring premises he owned, Mr Wong was waiting for them. "I don't know how, but the police say they could find no evidence the fire was started deliberately."

"What?" Ethan asked, incredulous.

Wong nodded, before adding with a dismissive sneer: "They have said, though, they're going to increase their patrols in the area."

But Grandad beamed. "That's it," he told his grandson. "There's nothing to worry about now. We've got police protection."

As Ethan followed Grandad into his shop to see what damage, if any, had been caused, neither of them noticed the smartly dressed man standing across the road talking on his mobile phone.

"Yes, I'm sorry, Mr Chan. And yes, next time we won't make any mistakes."

To be continued next week