Chasing The Dragon

By Sashet

E-mail Author: mailto:sashet@postmaster.co.uk

Summary: MacGyver does a favor for Pete and ends up in big trouble….again

Category: Action, Adventure, Hurt, Comfort, Angst, Friendship

Rating: T-15 for mentions of drug abuse and addiction

Disclaimer: MacGyver and its characters belong to Paramount Pictures and all the powers that be, not me. No copyright infringement intended. This story is written for fan entertainment only and no money has exchanged hands. The story is the property of the author and may not be posted anywhere without the authors consent.

Authors Comments: The usual thanks to Dr D for the swift beta and for the inspired title – what a star. Thanks also for Beth for hosting this for me.

FB is always welcome.

 

 

You know me  - usually I LOVE to travel but this was one journey I really didn’t want to make.  To be honest I didn’t even really know where I was or where I was going but I just knew I wasn’t going to like whatever was waiting for me at the other end.

Perhaps I’d better explain, see right now I’m bouncing about in the back of a inconspicuous looking truck somewhere in the remote wilds of a country not known for its tolerance of the West, handcuffed, blindfolded, my head still aching from where some goon hit me.  The booted feet of my captors occasionally ‘encouraging’ me not to move.  I guess it would be an understatement to say I was in just a little bit over my head.

 

And how did I end up like this?  Easy…  I did a favor for Pete, who was doing a favor for a ‘friend’.  You know how it goes!

 

Two weeks earlier:

 

“You ever been to China, Mac?”

 

Loaded questions like that, especially when asked by Peter Thornton, really worry me. There’s no good answer and usually no way out of ending up doing whatever he had planned for me.

 

“Why?”

 

“Well I have this friend and he needs some help with a …problem.”

 

“And this ‘friend’ just happens to be in China?”

 

“Yes, he happens to be in China.”

 

“And this ‘friend’ in China has a problem?  A problem that only you can solve?”

 

“Stop it Mac!  If you’ll just listen for a minute I’ll tell you all about it.”

 

Goading Pete was fun, but only for a while.  So I had my fun and then I sat back and let Pete tell me all about his friend and his problem.

 

Turns out his ‘friend’ is a high ranking official in the Chinese Interior Ministry.  He is currently responsible for overseeing an important archaeological dig in the Far East of the country.

 

And see that’s when my interest picked up a little.  I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of an amateur archaeologist… I’d been on a few digs and found a few things and I learn real fast too.  Now a dig in a remote and virtually uninhabited, well uninhabited today, part of a country that usually Westerners would never get a chance to see.  How could I refuse?

See I told you those loaded questions always caught me out! 

 

Pete’s friend, Dr Tann Li, was suspicious that not all of the artifacts that were being found at the dig were being recorded and sent back to Beijing.  It was well-known that Triad warlords operated in these remote areas and he was certain that they were behind the disappearing artifacts.  To add to his suspicions a set of small jade soldiers had recently appeared at an auction in Paris.  The set was identical to one found at the dig site.

 

Li knew Pete from, well I’m not sure, but ‘way back when’ is a pretty good bet and he called him and asked if he knew anybody who could help him.  He needed somebody who could go to the dig site and see what was really happening.  Pete said ‘Of course’ … of course and then…. There was that loaded question.

 

“You ever been to China, Mac?”

 

You know China is long way from home, a long way.  It’s at least 3 planes and twice as many time zones and right now I’m tired, really tired.  Just never quite got the knack of sleeping on planes.  Pete had said that Dr Li would meet me at the airport and fill me in on all the details.

 

“Mr MacGyver?”  A small dapper man in an immaculate suit had stepped into my path as I cleared the baggage hall.

 

“Yes.”

 

He bowed his head slightly in that peculiar way that the Orientals do.  “I’m Dr Tann Li, welcome to China.”

 

I’ve always been a great believer of the old adage; ‘When in Rome, make like a Roman’ and so I bowed my head back at him and then stuck out my hand.

 

“Thanks.  Pete tells me you have a problem.”

 

“Straight to the point Mr MacGyver, I like that.”  He let go the firm grip of my hand and pointed towards the large glass exit doors.  “I have a car waiting to take you to your hotel and once you are rested we will talk then.”  As we walked he lowered his voice a little, “We can’t talk here, too many chances we will be overheard.  I have to be careful, my Government watches its employees closely.”

 

“Well why don’t you just tell your Government what’s going on at the dig and stop all this cloak and dagger stuff?”

 

“I don’t have any proof” he whispered back “and I think that somebody high up in my department must be involved.  But I’ll tell you more later.”

 

The car that was waiting was a nice Government issue sedan with a Government issue driver (who was no doubt under orders to report back everything that was said) who took us to a nice Government approved hotel for Western Tourists.  We talked of inconsequential stuff, how my flight was, the weather back home and my supposed expertise as an archaeologist.  Nothing subversive there for the Government to worry about.

 

Dr Li left me at the hotel telling me he would meet me for dinner at 8.00pm.

My hotel was basic but functional; the East’s idea of what the West is like.  Close but… not quite close enough.

 

Sure enough it was bugged too, they were not very well hidden either.  It only took me a few minutes to find them all.  All the usual places, the phone, the light and the mirror to name but three.  Can’t say I was surprised, after all this was Communist China and I was the decedent, corrupt Westerner.  Why WOULDN’T they bug my room?

 

Sure enough at 8.00 sharp I was informed that Dr Li was waiting for me in reception.

 

More head bowing and hand shaking to appease the watching Government agents, well there had to be some somewhere I figured, and then off into the bustling Beijing night.

We walked through the tourist traps, the expensive restaurants, brothels and drinking clubs and into the darker quieter streets off the main strip.  The kinds of places where the Chinese eat and foreigners don’t.  The streets soon became just a warren of alleys and dead ends, if we were being followed then by now we would have lost them.  I just hoped that Li knew where we were!

 

Another twisting back street brought us to a small house the door to which opened as soon as we arrived.

 

Curious, I looked at Li.

 

“My brother’s house” he said in answer to my unasked question.  “Here we can talk safely.  He will watch out for any signs that we were followed.”

 

“Good.”

 

Over the next hour and some great Chinese food home cooked by Li’s sister–in–law he told me what was going on at the dig.

 

He was sure that some of the artifacts were being sold to the local warlords who would then use them as a cover to smuggle drugs over the borders.  Once the drugs had been recovered the artifacts could be sold on, either to private collectors who didn’t ask too many questions or at small auctions where hopefully nobody would wonder where they came from.  He suspected that somebody high up in the Interior Ministry was in on the whole scam, records from the digs had been altered, artifacts he knew were there were suddenly not there, if you get my meaning.

 

Corrupt Government officials, Triad Warlords, guns, drugs, smuggling ... sounded like a whole heap of trouble to me.  But, what could I do, I told Pete I’d help his friend and you can’t go back on your word now, can you?

 

Li had arranged a cover story for me.  I was supposed to be an archaeology student (yea I know, I AM a little old for a student, but my hair is long enough!) hoping to complete my Doctorate in Ancient Chinese Cultures.  The Government had agreed to me being allowed to the dig in the spirit of, well, détente I guess.  Of course the Government knew nothing about me; Li had forged all my papers.

 

Now it was up to me.  I had work papers for a week, not long I know but anything longer might arouse suspicion, especially as I know NOTHING about Ancient Chinese cultures other than what I had managed to cram on the flight over.  I doubt I could sustain my cover for more than a week… so I had to work fast.  Li would not be able to contact me whilst I was at the dig, he couldn’t afford to take the risk and blow my cover, as well as expose himself to the ever watchful State Police and so for that one week I really would be on my own.

 

I’d been at the dig site for 2 days now and so far it seemed that my cover was holding.  I was sure that the guy running the dig, Kwon, wasn’t really convinced that I was who I said I was, but… so far so good.

 

Well actually no, not so far so good at all.

 

Trying to find out what was really going on was proving difficult.  Kwon had assigned me a ‘minder’ under the guise of another archaeological student and he stuck to his job and to me diligently.  I couldn’t shake him off no matter how I tried and with his endless questions about my research I knew it wouldn’t be long before I tripped myself up.  I had to get away from this guy and take a proper look around the dig site, I was certain that Kwon was making sure I only saw what he wanted me to see.

 

Heavily armed and quite nasty looking men guarded certain areas of the dig site.  When I asked why an archaeological dig needed such protection I was told it was to stop the Triad Warlords attacking the dig which they believed was violating their sacred land.  Or some such bullshit!  Didn’t fool me, whatever was really going on was going on behind the guarded doors and so that was where I had to go.  Just as soon as I could lose my shadow.

 

This far away from civilization the nights were black, really deep dark black.  Perfect cover for a little investigating.

 

As quietly as I could I slipped from the tent and off into the dark.  I’d tried to memorize the layout of the dig during the daytime, it would be rather embarrassing if I fell into the trench, but I still managed to take a wrong turn before I finally found myself outside one of the guarded buildings.  It was a wooden hut, one door in, one door out, no windows and a bored looking guard leaning against the door frame.  This wasn’t going to be easy, I had to try and find some way to distract the guard and get inside the hut.  Assuming of course the door wasn’t locked.

 

For once luck was on my side, the door opened and a man came out of the hut.  I’d never thought that anybody might have still been working at this time of the night…he chatted to the guard for a moment and then they both walked away from the door and lit a couple of cigarettes.  They stood smoking, talking in low voices, their backs to the door. It was now or never… maybe I should have gone for never!

 

A quick dash to the door, which I cranked open as little as possible and I was in.  The hut was full of artifacts carefully stored on shelves.  There were the usual items that indicated a settlement of sorts had once been on the site, plates and bowls, pieces of jugs and items of jewellery.  But there were also some items of fantastic beauty and no doubt great historical significance, there were more sets of carved soldiers like the ones from Paris, ornate swords and armor that had obviously belonged to a leader of some sort.  I’d bet my Wayne Gretsky game worn hockey shirt that these were the items that were never on the records, that never made it back to Beijing where they could have been enjoyed by thousands, and I love that shirt!

 

On a nearby desk were a set of papers, all in Chinese of course, so to be on the safe side I quickly photographed them.  I knew my time must be running out, it doesn’t take that long to smoke a cigarette.  I had just about made it to the door too when…. Well I guess I’ve never been able to refuse the lure of something really strikingly beautiful.  Set aside from the other pieces was the most amazing thing, a large hand-carved Jade Dragon, must have been at least a couple of feet tall.  The dragon scales were gilded with what looked like gold.  It was beautiful, so beautiful that just for that split second I forgot where I was, drawn to it by the craftsmanship and the pull of the ruby red eyes.  I picked the dragon up as carefully as I could, turning it in my hands, admiring it and then I heard it, the sharp unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked.

 

“The dragon is one of China’s most sacred creatures, Mr MacGyver, so I suggest you put it back very carefully.”

 

“It’s just a shame that China will never get to see this one.”  I said as I put the dragon back on the shelf and turned to face Kwon.  His gun was not the only one that I found myself facing and I slowly raised my hands in surrender.  “You know what you are doing isn’t right Kwon, the people have a right to see these treasures.”

 

“The people, the people are an ignorant rabble, they don’t see these” he waved his arm around the hut “for what they truly are, what they truly mean.”

 

“Yea, what’s that?  An easy way to smuggle your drugs out of the country?”

 

Kwon laughed, “Is that all you think this is about?  Drugs?  Oh no Mr MacGyver it’s about so much more than that, it’s about returning China to the way she was.  To the days when our leaders were just that, leaders, not small minded beaurocrats chasing the Western Dollar.”

 

“ So…?”

 

“So a group of us decided it was time for change, time for a return to the values that made China great.”

 

“Like killing those who don’t agree with your way of doing things!”

 

“If necessary yes.  It’s true we do use the artifacts to smuggle our drugs out of the country, within a week they are being sold on the streets of a dozen capital cities, the artifacts we sell to the highest bidder.  Revolution is an expensive business.”

 

“And a dirty one.”

 

Now you see that was the point when I should have learnt to keep my mouth shut because the next thing I know I’ve got Kwon’s fist buried in my gut and I’m struggling for breath like fish out of water.

 

“All revolutions have casualties Mr MacGyver; another one won’t make any difference.”

 

Now there was a threat I really didn’t like the sound of.  “You know my people know where I am, if I don’t….”

 

“Oh stop please.  You are here on forged papers, you are a Western spy, nobody knows exactly where you are and in this part of China… well we do have problems with the Triad. Missing presumed killed in a Triad attack.  Our Government will send your Government its apologies and promise to hunt down those responsible, but you know how long those things can take..?”

 

Now I REALLY didn’t like the sound of that, think MacGyver think! I looked around the hut, nothing really to help me, certainly can’t start throwing thousand year old pieces of history around, so I guess it’s just going to have to be the old fashioned full frontal attack.

 

Jeez I hated this…. But…

 

I threw myself at Kwon, what was that old tale about take out the leader and his troops will follow?  Tell you what, it isn’t true!

 

I think I must have got lucky because I managed to land Kwon on his ass with my first and to be honest, only shot.  His guys were good, they were on me in a flash and I never had a chance.  One good quick blow to the back of my head and it was all over.

 

The last thing I remembered as I fell to the floor was Kwon’s voice, sounded like he said something about the Triad.

 

I woke up in the back of some kind of rattling truck being bounced about like a rag doll. My hands were bound behind me; I could feel the cold steel of handcuffs cutting into my wrists.  There were voices from above me chattering in Chinese and if the truck bounced hard I felt their boots in my back as they held me still.  I had tried to open my eyes, but it didn’t matter, something was tied over them.

 

To say that things didn’t look good was probably an understatement.  Although Li knew where I was he wouldn’t even start looking for me for another few days at least and I had a feeling that when he did he would just come up against a wall of silence.  A few threats to his job and his family and he’d have no choice but to back down.  Kwon and his crowd of would-be revolutionaries could easily make me disappear.  If I was going to get out of this mess then I would have to do it on my own, trouble was I didn’t really know just how much of a mess I was in…

 

When I get my hands on Pete I’m going to kill him and then I’m going to resign and this time I mean it!

 

Blindfolded I had no idea of how much time passed until the truck finally stopped.  All I did know was that I had bruises on top of bruises from the constant jostling.  I heard the sound of people moving and then something that was probably an order but hey… my Chinese isn’t good!  I felt hands on my arm as I was pulled from the back of the truck. The ground wasn’t far, maybe three feet but I still hit it hard, stumbling over.  More shouting, probably telling me to get up.  I tried but my head was still swimming, aching, pounding in fact and I just couldn’t manage to get my feet under me.

 

Someone grabbed my shoulder, hauled me upright and started shoving me forward.  I staggered more than walked, the terrain was rough and more than once I fell, tripped by something I couldn’t see, and each time the hands dragged me upright again, silently shoving me onwards.

 

I had tried to move my head enough to see around the blindfold but I hadn’t seen anything.  I had however, heard the tone of the word even if I didn’t recognize the word itself and felt the pain of the rifle butt against my ribs.  I guess that looking wasn’t on the agenda.

 

The ground under my feet changed, the rough earth replaced by something that sounded hard and felt smooth like a proper floor.  Our footsteps now seemed to echo and the cool breeze I had felt before was gone.  I guessed we had gone into a building, probably a large one by the sounds I heard.  Sounds of people moving around, lots of people moving around. 

 

Abruptly we stopped, the firm hand on my shoulder roughly pulling me to a halt.  I heard the sound of knocking, a hand on wood and then the gentle creak of a door opening.  A moment’s pause and then the hand pushed me through the door which slammed ominously behind us.

 

For a moment the silence was complete and then I heard a low voice I recognized from the truck.  He was talking in hushed reverential tones, but to whom?  The voice turned in my direction, changed in tone and barked an order.  I just stood my ground, shrugged my shoulders and opened my mouth to tell them to stop yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand.

 

All that came out was a groan of pain.  The language of violence didn’t need any translation as the heavy blow to the back of my legs forced me down to my knees, where an unnecessary hand held me still.

 

“Americans” a voice spat the word with as much contempt as I have ever heard, yet in English that was cultured and accentless, like it had been learned from a book.  “You have no manners, no reverence, no discipline.”

 

“And you call….” I never got to finish my sentence before a hand from somewhere struck me hard across the face, splitting my lip and sending me crashing to the floor.  I had no chance to catch my breath as I was hauled back to my knees again.

 

“No manners”, the voice repeated in a tone usually reserved for naughty children.  A sigh.  The tone changed, now it was matter of fact, almost sinister in its underlying promise to carry out whatever it said.  “But no matter, I will teach you manners and reverence and discipline.  You will learn the ways of the true China, the ways of the Triad.”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

I never stood a chance, how could I?  I couldn’t see the blows coming and even if I could, handcuffed as I was, I had no way to fight back.  Once again I felt the pain of another backhand across my face and then the cool stone of the floor as I hit it again.  This time though, before they dragged me back to my knees I felt the fiery sting of hard boots impacting with soft flesh as several of them decided to use me as a soccer ball.  I tried to curl up, to protect my most vulnerable areas and to hold in my cries.  I wasn’t really successful on either count.

 

Now back on my knees, gasping for breath I decided one more try at talking to this guy was in order, before his goons beat me half to death or worse.

 

“Listen, I’m sorry if we got off on the wrong foot, but my Chinese isn’t that hot I just didn’t understand what you were asking.  I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”  That old adage about Rome and Romans again, I didn’t really want to toady to this guy but if it kept me alive, well I guess it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world now would it?  “How about we start again? My name’s MacGyver.”

 

All I got for my pains were, well just that, pains.  In fact one huge overwhelming pain as something hard, probably a gun butt came down in almost the exact same spot on my still sore head as the last one had done.   The effect too was the same as, once again, I was unconscious before I hit the floor.

 

This time when I woke up things were different, not better but different.  I think it must have been the cold that woke me, ‘cos I really wasn’t ready to wake up on my own. When I opened my eyes this time I could see, well I could see out of the eye that wasn’t stuck shut with what felt like caked blood.  The stiffness in by body told me I must have been out for a while, but when I tried to move agony like a red hot poker flared in my chest.

 

Damn!

 

Guess the boys had decided on a little more soccer practice, leaving me with what felt like a broken rib.

 

I was in a small windowless room lit by a single dim bulb, devoid of furniture, unless you counted the bucket in the corner.  Somewhere along the line I had lost my boots, socks and shirt, I guess that kind of explained why I was cold.  I’d also lost the handcuffs, didn’t mind that so much.

 

Gritting my teeth against the agony I knew was to come, I eventually managed to get myself into a sitting position.  It took a lot of effort and some language that would have made a Marine Drill Sergeant blush.  Now as soon as my head stopped spinning and the non-existent contents of my stomach stopped threatening to reappear I could think about getting to my feet and maybe finding some way out of here.  Wherever here might be.

 

Sitting against the wall I wondered what time it was.  Why Mac, you got somewhere to be?  Of course my watch was gone too and a quick check of my pants revealed my fake papers and Swiss Army knife were missing. I don’t know why I was even surprised by that, but I was.  I kind of hoped that I’d been taken to a local gang who would just rifle my pockets, rough me up a little and then ransom me off for drug money.

 

Wrong, so very, very wrong.

 

Sometime later, don’t know how long, but long enough for the damp chill of the room to have set me shivering, I managed to get to my feet.  The room still spun wildly but I didn’t fall over, well not quite, I staggered against the wall but hung on.  After all I’d gone to a lot of trouble to get upright it would seem such a waste to just fall over again. Never leaving the safety of the wall I walked, staggered, shuffled round my small room. It wasn’t big but it took a fair bit of getting round I can tell you.  There was nothing to see but whitewashed walls, a stone floor and a heavy wooden door, which was of course locked.  Nothing to help me there.

 

Dejected, sore, tired, cold.

 

All I could do now was sit and wait, wait for the promise of being taught about reverence and manners and discipline.  Well I’ll have you know Harry taught me all those things when I was just a kid and I didn’t need to learn them all again.  No sir!

 

I guess I must have fallen asleep, don’t know how though.  Last thing I remembered was wishing I could stop shivering with the cold because it made my rib hurt and that made it harder for me to breathe properly.  I hadn’t meant to go to sleep but with the fatigue and the pain my body had other ideas.  Now the sound of the heavy door slamming wide and hard against the wall woke me.  Through my one good eye I could make out my visitors were a couple of well armed men, they wore black uniforms, smartly pressed and carried themselves professionally.  I guessed this wasn’t a social visit

 

“Up” said the smaller of the two men in heavily accented English waving his gun at me to make sure I got his meaning.

 

“I can’t” I replied shaking my head.  I pointed to my side where a deep bruise was forming,  “Broken.”  I tried to indicate my meaning by miming breaking something with my hands.  The movement jarred my side an unnecessary reminder of just how painful broken ribs could be.  “Shit” I mumbled as the tears pricked in my eyes.

 

“Up!” This time louder as if that would help me to understand.

 

“No” I followed his lead and shouted back at him.   I shouldn’t have done that.

 

He was anything but gentle, as he slung his rife over his shoulder and pulled me to my feet, a movement which once again had me on the verge of throwing up as my head swam and little spots danced in front of my vision.  He ignored my protestations to go easy, probably didn’t understand me.  As soon as I was upright he yanked my arm from its protection of my damaged rib and with a short ruthless punch against the broken bones had me gasping for breath and unable to stop him as he bound my hands tightly in front of me, leaving a long piece of rope dangling free.

 

He said something in Chinese to the other guard the only word I understood was ‘American’ and they both laughed loudly.  I knew enough about human nature to know that I was the butt of whatever their joke was, but I’ve got a pretty thick skin.  Then he picked up the end of the rope and walked off pulling me behind him like a dog on a leash.  Hey maybe that was the joke!

 

It turned out that my room was one of several lining a long corridor.  The corridor was unfurnished apart from small plaques on some of the doors and a couple of signs, all obviously in Chinese.  People came and went around us without so much as a glance in our direction, it was as if they were used to seeing a half naked Westerner being dragged through the hallways.

 

The building was modern, the people dressed in suits or lab coats, not really what I had expected.  Some of the doors were guarded by men in the same smart uniforms as my captors.  They had the look of efficient and well trained soldiers. This was DEFINITELY not what I had expected.

 

I struggled to keep up with the pace set by my captors.  I was still weak and tired, being knocked out, beaten up and coping with a broken rib will do that to you.  Every time I lagged behind too much the tension in the rope binding me would increase and I’d be pulled stumbling forward, usually to the accompaniment of low chuckles of laughter.

 

Every pull on the rope transmitted itself through my bound hands, down my arms and straight to the grinding of bone on bone in my chest, causing me to grimace and, on more than one occasion, curse with the unexpected pain.  I stumbled a lot but somehow managed to keep my feet beneath me, although I had precious little time or energy for anything more than a cursory glance at my surroundings.

 

The journey seemed to take forever and the cold that had chilled me was now replaced by the slick sweat of effort.  Eventually we reached our destination, a set of huge and oddly out of place looking wooden doors at one end of one of the many hallways we seemed to have been down.  Hallways that to me had all looked the same, bland, soulless, identical.

 

I was pulled up short, and stood breathing heavily while my two captors fretted over how they looked, tidying their uniforms and adjusting their manner until they were finally ready.

 

I guessed somebody important, important to them, must be waiting behind the doors.

With as much aplomb as he could muster one of them rapped loudly on the door, waited and on hearing a muffled response from inside, swung the huge doors open and stepped inside.  He made some kind of grand proclamation in Chinese, I guessed it was something to do with me and stepped aside.

 

My ‘friend’ with the leash in hand marched in, pulling me behind him until he was in the centre of the room where he stopped and stood smartly at attention.  We must have looked a pair, him in his stylish uniform, clean and polished and me…., half dressed, body battered, bloodied and bruised, barely able to stand let alone at attention.

 

An immaculately dressed man in traditional Chinese attire sat behind an ornate dark wood desk. The desk was fitted with all the trappings of a modern and successful businessman, including a computer.

 

He rose slowly from behind the desk and my two captors bowed deeply at the waist and held their bows until with a single word he gave them permission to rise.  My guess had been right, this was somebody important to these people.

 

The man stopped, placed his hands behind his back and fixed me with dark, piercing eyes.   I stood my ground as best I could, held myself up as straight as I could manage and held his gaze right back at him.  He wasn’t somebody important to me, at least not yet.

 

At the corner of my vision I saw the sudden horrified looks passing between my two captors.  Looks that told me I had obviously committed some cardinal sin, or worse.

A blur of movement, a shouted command, another unwelcome burst of pain as I was driven to my knees by the combination of the heavy blow across my legs and the tugging on my bound hands.  The jarring of my knees against the floor reverberated right through me ratcheting the agony in my ribs up another notch and causing me to let out a groan.  I hadn’t wanted to let them have the satisfaction of knowing how much it hurt, although the set lines on my face had probably already done that.  I glared back up at the leader, defiance I didn’t entirely feel, plastered onto my face.

 

It was time to make my stand.

 

The only place I ever knelt was in Church and I hadn’t been there in a long time.  I CERTAINLY wasn’t kneeling before some pompous overblown… whatever.  I knew the right place for reverence alright, and it wasn’t here.

 

I had got one knee off the floor in an attempt to stand up before they reacted.  I saw the shadow fall across me just the instant before the gun butt smashed against the side of my raised knee with a sickening thud, knocking me efficiently and effectively off balance.  Without the real use of my hands I had nothing to stop the fall and I landed in an ungainly heap on my side.  I was just grateful I didn’t land on my damaged ribs.  A flurry of hands pulled me back to my knees. A flurry of what I guessed by the accompanying bowing were apologies were conveyed and stilled by a raised hand.

 

I had hardly got back to my knees when I felt the hard edge of a rifle at my temple and a strong hand between my shoulders pushing my head towards the floor.

 

 Oh no… no way!

 

It was bad enough that I was kneeling in front of these guys but I WASN’T going to prostrate myself as well.  At least that is what I thought.  It was a brief and for me ultimately painful and futile battle.  I resisted the pushing in my back and ignored the increasing pressure of the gun at my forehead.  I HAD to believe that having only just captured me they wouldn’t want to kill me just yet, for the first few seconds.  What I couldn’t resist was the combination of a vicious kick right in my kidneys combined with a sharp tug on the rope that still bound me.  That was how I found myself face down on the cold stone floor, the wind knocked out of me and another growing bruise or two to add to my collection.

 

Being stubborn, as soon as I could I tried to raise my head only to find it firmly held in place by a boot on the back of my neck.  This was so not fun!  I kept squirming though; no way was I going to give them an easy ride.

 

Eventually the well dressed leader spoke, I immediately recognized the voice as the one from before, the one that had promised to ‘teach’ me all kinds of things I didn’t need or want to learn.

 

“You obviously have a lot to learn about manners Mr MacGyver.”

 

“Yea well how about you let me up off the floor and we’ll see about that.”  Empty threat? I guess it was.

 

“I do not think that would be wise, do you?  But here am I talking about manners and yet I have not even introduced myself.  I am King Yip Leung and I am the ah kung of the Hsing Chung Triad.”

 

“That’s nice for you, bet your Mom must be real proud."

 

I should have learnt by now that comments like that are usually better left thought and not said, but….. I never could resist.

 

“The arrogance and impudence of the West, to presume to know what you can not know.”

 

Seeing as my sole field of view was the floor I never saw Leung signal his intent to his soldiers but I did feel his intent as a powerful punch landed in my kidneys.  Now I was sure I’d be pissing blood.  Again I couldn’t stifle my groan.

 

“I killed my Mother in front of my followers because she did not believe in my cause.  I will not hesitate to do the same to you.”

 

“Well you’d better get on and do it then, ‘cos I’m never going to follow you or buy into your crazy ideas.”

 

“We will see.”

 

I didn’t see the foot that swung into my broken rib, in fact after that I didn’t see anything except the blackness.

 

I could feel warm sunshine on my face and exposed body long before I took the chance to open my eyes.  It felt good, reminded me of spring in Minnesota, of watching the countryside shaking off the last of winter and getting ready for a whole new year.  Time for me to do the same, time for me to face up to whatever Leung’s brave new world had in store for me.  With a steadying breath I opened my eyes.

 

I was in the centre of a small courtyard, chained by my hands, which were above my head, to a thick wooden post.  My back was against the post but there was enough slack in the chains to allow me some movement, enough to see that apart from me the courtyard appeared empty.

 

“Hey, anybody around?”  Unsurprisingly silence greeted my shouts. “Come on guys can’t we just talk about this?”

 

“The time for talking has past Mr MacGyver, now it is the time for action.  As you well know it has often been said that actions speak louder than words.”

 

Leung’s voice came from behind me, surprising me.  I twisted in the chains until I faced him.

 

“That is SUCH a cliché Leung and I hate clichés.”

 

“What a pity.”  Didn’t sound to me like he thought it was a pity.

 

Leung raised his hand and clicked his fingers, seemingly from nowhere a young woman appeared, dressed like Leung in traditional Chinese dress.  She bowed low and then listened intently as Leung gave her his instructions.  His voice was low enough for me not to be able to make out more than the occasional mumble, not that I would have understood a word anyway.  Once he had finished speaking the woman bowed low again and vanished as quickly and quietly as she had appeared.

 

“Nice place you got here Leung, not exactly what I expected from the Triad though.”

 

“Again your arrogance and now your ignorance condemn you MacGyver.  Did you expect to find savages high on drugs just spoiling for a fight? The Triads have moved with the times, we have influence in all walks of life, in business and in politics.  We are almost” he paused as if searching for the right word, “respectable.”

 

“You will never be ‘respectable’ as long as you sell drugs to young kids, run guns and whatever the hell other illegal acts you get up to.”

 

“So righteous in your indignation of a history and a way of life that you do not understand.”

 

“I understand lives wasted by drugs and guns and violence and that’s enough!”

 

Leung was starting to get under my skin, with his ‘holier than thou’ attitude and power mad delusions.  I had strained at my chains to try and reach him but they had held firm the cuffs around my wrists chaffing the already sore skin.  I’d seen kids down at the Challengers Club who had been wasted on drugs and drink hell-bent on destroying themselves and anybody who tried to help them.  We tried… we didn’t always succeed but we always tried.  Now here was the head of the snake acting like somehow it was me that was in the wrong for caring.  If I could just get free then….

 

Then what?

 

 I was in the stronghold of a Triad leader, out numbered and out gunned and if I did manage to get free I didn’t even know where in China I was, assuming I WAS still in China at all.

 

Not the best thought you ever had Mac!

 

Don’t let this guy rile you.

 

You’re going to have to think your way out of this one.

 

The sound of footsteps caused Leung to look away briefly before returning his attentions to me.

 

“As I said the time for talking is past, now is the time of teaching. Your first lesson is respect.”

 

The courtyard was slowly filling with workers each of whom bowed to Leung before kneeling in neat rows all around the courtyard.

 

Looks like it was going to be a full house although I wasn’t sure I liked the thought of being the main attraction.

 

Soon enough the courtyard was full, Leung, the woman I had seen earlier and a large well-muscled man were the only ones standing.  At a signal from Leung the woman strode into the courtyard until she was close to me and began a long litany to the assembled crowd.  I couldn’t help but wonder what she was saying.

 

Leung and the other man then came my way; I was beginning to not like the look of this at all.  Without instructions the big man approached me and, turning a previously unseen handle near the base of the post, quickly and efficiently took up the slack in my chains, leaving me stretched with my toes barely touching the ground.  Satisfied, he spun me round so that I was facing the post, slamming my head hard against the wood as he did so.  The pulling on my bruised and battered body was bad, but the fiery agony in my chest was the real killer.  Somehow I managed to fight down the urge to scream, instead letting out just a low hiss.

 

The woman was still going on in the background as Leung took off his tailored silk jacket and stood close to me, muscles rippled in his chest and arms.

 

“Zao Ming is telling them to observe and to learn from what they observe. They will hear my words and see my actions and they will fear me.”

 

“Yea, well fear is not the same as respect.”  I countered trying to keep the growing knot of fear I felt in my stomach from showing through.

 

“Through fear comes respect. You will learn this.  You will fear me and what I can do and then you will respect me.  You will respect the fact that I am a man of my word.”

 

Zao Ming had stopped talking and the silence was scary in its own way.  She knelt where she had stood and bowed low, her head touching the floor of the courtyard, from what I could see everybody else followed suit.  Creepy! They stayed like that until Leung released them with a raised hand.

 

I hadn’t noticed that the big man had slipped away, but I did notice the whip he brought on his return.  He handed it to Leung who stroked the coiled leather lovingly as he spoke low so only I could hear him.

 

“I will give you a choice MacGyver, you can kneel before me now and show me proper respect, or you can do it later.”

 

“How about not at all?”

 

“That is not an option.  You will show me proper respect.”

 

“No… I won’t.”

 

Leung unfurled his whip.  “I am glad that you leave me no choice.  I am glad that you still have spirit.  Now then how many strokes?”  He idly flexed and flicked the whip as he thought.

 

“Why don’t you cut the overdramatic melodrama and just get on with it?”

 

“Very well.  I think 12 strokes to start.  If you want me to stop all you have to do is say that you will kneel before me.”

 

“Never going to happen.”

 

Leung inclined his head and walked behind me.

 

Shit!

 

I was in trouble now, serious deep trouble with a capital T.

 

I grasped the chains with my hands, locked my knees and steeled myself as best as I could.

 

Then I waited.

 

And waited.

 

And waited.

 

Seemed like forever until I heard the crack of the whip to one side of me.  The noise made me flinch slightly even though it didn’t strike me.

 

Another on the other side, same effect.

 

Just practice shots to find his range…  wish he’d get on with it.

 

The next crack of the whip wasn’t enough of a warning, wasn’t far enough ahead of the searing pain as the leather bit into my skin.  If I thought I was prepared then I was wrong, because it hurt…. far more than I had expected.  I let out an involuntary gasp through gritted teeth.

 

Come on Mac, you’re going to have to do better than that!  That was just the first… only another 11 to go..

 

I had hardly drawn breath from the first stroke when the next one hit, the pain seared across my back but this time I held in the cry welling inside me.

 

Again the lash struck.  Again I flinched but forced my legs to hold me.

 

The blows were unerringly accurate some high across my shoulders, others low catching my backside and the tops of my legs.  Each one was getting harder, more painful to bear as my back became more damaged.

 

A blow caught me low curling over my broken rib and I shuddered against the chains that held me.  That had really stung and I was sure I could feel the trickle of warm blood down my side.  Sweat dripped into my eyes, down my face.  I could taste its saltiness mix with the blood from where I had bitten my lip to stop me screaming.

 

I felt another cut open, felt more blood ooze from me.  Was that 6 or 7?  It was hard to remember.  Hard to concentrate on anything other than making sure that sick bastard didn’t hear me cry and didn’t see me falter.  I couldn’t … wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.  Nor would I tell him to stop… no way… never…

 

The next stroke fell, harder than the others and landing in a different direction, directly on top of existing welts and cuts. I didn’t exactly cry out with the pain… you can’t really called the sound I made a cry, don’t know what you’d call but it wasn’t a cry!

 

Another cut ripped across my shoulders, I felt the skin tearing.  That wasn’t a good feeling.  How many more?  Not too many I hope.  Can’t keep count.

 

Hurry up and let this be over.

 

Please….

 

Another lash buckled my knees, left me swinging from my chains, oblivious to the blood that stained the metal cuffs and smeared my hands and arms.

 

“Bastard” I mumbled “Sick crazy bastard.”  I used the words to feed my anger enough to stiffen my legs once more.  Wasn’t going to give in…. was I?  I was tense with anticipation, knowing there was another blow to come, hoping it was the last.

 

The tip of the whip bit deep into my side and a gasp of pain slipped past my lips.

Damn you Leung, damn you to hell.

 

Moments passed, long blissful pain free moments.  No more blows fell.  I guess that was 12, felt like more.

 

I’d done it – not sure if that was good thing or not.  I suppose it all depends on what other ‘delights’ Leung has stored up for me.  What other inventive methods of ‘teaching’ me he had planned.

 

Apart from my ragged breathing the courtyard was silent.  The faces of those kneeling in front of me were impassive, uncaring.  Maybe they were used to seeing Leung’s little power trips.  I hope they’d enjoyed the show, but now the shows over guys.

 

Actually the show wasn’t over.  This was just the half time interval.

 

I hadn’t heard Leung move; I was kind of occupied with my own little world of hurt.  Now he was beside me, his fist in my hair pulling my head back from the wooden post, turning me to look at him.

 

“Well?” he didn’t need to complete his question we both knew what he was asking.

 

“I told you already… no.” I tried to keep my face impassive so he wouldn’t see how much it hurt, but I couldn’t keep the pain from my voice.  I sounded weak to my own ears.

 

“I will ask you one more time.”

 

“Save it Leung.  The answer’s still no.”

 

“Then your lesson is not complete.”

 

In one swift movement he brought the handle of the whip up and smashed it hard into my face.  Blood spilled from my lips and nose as the tears welled in my eyes.  Leung smiled slightly as he watched my discomfort then flung my head away from him and walked away.

 

I’m sure I heard all the bones in my neck crack with the force of his actions.

 

In the next instant his bully boy was back, reaching above me and unlocking one of the cuffs that held me.  He spun me with ease, slamming my raw back against the post before refastening the cuff.  Using the handle he took up slack that wasn’t there so now I was swinging free of the ground.

 

I was now facing Leung who once again stood ready with his whip.

 

“Do I waste my breath with you MacGyver?  Do I ask you again to show me respect? Look around you, they know who I am and they respect me.  Is it so hard for you to do the same?”

 

I spat blood toward the floor and remained silent.  I’d told him no, wasn’t gonna tell him again.  Not sure I could tell him, couldn’t trust my voice.

 

“Stubborn and ultimately foolish, but in a way I admire that.”  He flexed his arm, the one holding the whip, as if he was easing the muscles.  “12 more.  Then we shall see if you are still so stubborn.”

 

The T in front of trouble had just got bigger.

 

I’m sure that the color drained from my face as the impact of Leung’s words sank in.

 

Another 12.

 

I’d barely made it through the first 12, I really wasn’t sure I could manage the same again.  I didn’t want to think about the pain that was to come it was hard enough coping with the pain I was in.

 

Now I could see what was to come.  I could see Leung raise his arm.  I could see the coiled leather unfurling towards me.  I could see the red welt that marked my chest.  I’ll tell you that knowing what was coming didn’t make me any better prepared, it still hurt like hell.

 

I watched as blow after blow flew towards me and landed with the same sickening accuracy as they had on my back.  Angry red welts formed and then split, spilling blood down my torso.  Without my feet to hold me the motion of the whip’s steady rhythm set me swinging in the chains that held me.  My arms strained in their sockets, the metal cuffs digging deep into already damaged flesh but I hardly noticed.  My back bounced against the post rubbing the split skin raw but I hardly noticed.

 

I had to keep the pain from overwhelming me, from making me scream at Leung to stop, because deep down inside a little bit of me was being eaten away, consumed with a fiery agony.  That bit of me wanted an end to it and all I had to do was agree to kneel in front of Leung.

 

But I too was a man of my word and when I said no I meant it.

 

So I forced myself to keep staring at Leung, challenging him to make me beg him for the end.  I grunted and flinched with every blow but I never took my eyes from him.  It was a battle of wills, his will to break me and my will not to let him.

 

I had to win.

 

I had to.

 

I had no idea how many times the vicious leather bit into my skin before Leung finally stopped.  He had said 12, felt like… well it felt like a whole lot more than 12.  My chest was striped with livid marks, cut and bleeding from many of them.  My pants were ripped from where the whip had caught me low.  My chin was bleeding where the end of a high stroke had nicked it.  All in all I must have looked in a pretty good mess.

 

I don’t know who was breathing harder out of the two of us, maybe me… well OK definitely me.

 

Just for a second I let my head hang, closed my eyes and said a silent thank you to whoever was watching out for me.  A fresh wave of pain flowed through me as the last swinging momentum of my body scraped me against the post again forcing me back to the painful, unpleasant reality.

 

Leung was in my face again.  I really didn’t need this, not right now.  What I needed right now was to let myself give in to the swirling ebbs and flows of pain that rippled through me.   I felt like I was on fire… all over.  I couldn’t distinguish the pain from my ribs and my earlier beating from the pain of being whipped;  I was just one huge mass of hurt.

 

I raised my head, opened my eyes, took a deep breath pushing a little of the pain away and faced up to Leung.

 

“That the best you got?”  I goaded in a voice still edged with hurt.

 

He looked a little shocked.  I guess he was used to getting what he wanted and usually without question. He had people to impress; he couldn’t be seen to loose face in front of his workforce.  No doubt Zao Ming had told them how he would crush the imperialist scum or some other such ideological crap.

 

I was a little shocked too, I planned to spoil his party but I hadn’t planned to say that, it just seemed to come out all on its own.  I’m not sure it was the wisest move I’ve ever made.. . goading the guy who’s torturing me. But once said I couldn’t take it back even if later I might have wished I’d never said it at all.

 

To give him his due he recovered quickly enough.

 

“The best?  Oh no MacGyver this is not the best, this is just the beginning.  You know how to save yourself from what is still to come.  Kneel before me now and I can make all this pain stop.”

 

This was really sounding like a stuck record and I didn’t need to hear it anymore.  It wasn’t going to happen.  I was NEVER going to kneel in front of this guy, not of my own volition.  He could make me kneel, he’d already proved that, but he wanted to show his power by breaking me and I was as he so rightly said, stubborn.  Too stubborn to let that happen.

 

The battle of wills was back on.

 

“Blow it out your ass Leung.”

 

I think that made him mad.

 

In fact I KNOW that made him mad, because he hit me.

 

Hard.

 

More than once.

 

Set me swinging in my chains again, body screaming at me from arms and ribs and chest and back, to give up and give in.  My eyes watered, I wanted to scream but I didn’t have the breath left.  Damn that hurt.  Honest to goodness… HURT.

 

At that moment there didn’t seem a piece of me that didn’t hurt, didn’t ache, wasn’t bruised and bleeding.

 

This is definitely the LAST time I do a favor for anybody!

 

Leung’s eyes seemed glazed as if he had lost control as if all he wanted to do now was beat me to death.  Another blow and this time the grayness at the edges of my vision swam tantalizingly close and then was gone, replaced by a surge of fresh agony as Leung changed his tactics.  This time he dug his fingers into one of the gashes on my chest, poking and probing the raw wound until I couldn’t help but scream.

 

That was it.

 

That was what he wanted.

 

To hear me scream.

 

He pulled his bloodstained fingers from my chest, wiped them down the front of my pants and smiled.  A smile of pure evil that chilled me to my very core.  He stepped back and with a couple of gestures had Zao Ming and his bully boy back at his side.  He spoke low to them both and they went about their business quickly and efficiently, while he stood off to one side, dressing himself.  I hung there gasping, maybe even whimpering a little, bleeding more than a little, bruised a lot and in a whole heap of hurt.

 

I could hear Zao going on again in that sing song voice of hers; it was a good thing to concentrate on as I was lowered until my feet touched the floor.  As my hands were released the additional surge of pain from the abused muscles was just the push my body needed and I stumbled to the floor landing hard on my hands and knees.

 

This WASN’T kneeling…. Was it?

 

I was just resting… honestly!

 

I raised my head to see Leung still grinning, like he had achieved something.

 

Like he had got what he wanted.

 

Well he hadn’t.

 

This WASN’T kneeling.

 

Deep within me almost buried behind the pain I found a spark of anger bordering on hatred and that was all I needed.  I wasn’t going to be his whipping boy…. Hey good pun Mac… I wasn’t going to give up that easily.

 

Yes I hurt like crazy.

 

Yes it would be easy to just do what he wants.

 

Yes I am as stubborn as they come.

 

Anger and defiance helped me to push myself back to me feet.  I swayed dangerously but stiffened my knees and held on.  Even though I turned slowly and carefully until I faced Leung, the courtyard still swam and spun in a maddening fashion and I had to wait what felt like long lonely moments until everything resumed its rightful place.  Zao had finished talking and the silence would have been complete apart from my still ragged breathing and occasional noise of pain.

 

“What now Leung?  What lies are you going to tell them now, now that I won’t do what you want? Not such a big shot now are you Leung? Get your precious lady friend over there to talk your way out of this one.”  That was a pretty good speech for me considering I expected to become re-acquainted with the floor at any second.  Must have been that stubborn streak again.

 

 I remember Harry telling me once that being stubborn was a good way to get into a heap of trouble fast, shoulda listened to him.  Shoulda done a lot of things I didn’t.  Shoulda been there for Mom…

 

Strange how your mind kind of wanders when your body is telling it to shut up and lie down!

 

It was also strange to watch the play of emotions on old Leung’s face.   When I was on the floor he was like the cat that got the cream.  When I got myself to my feet he looked, well surprised I guess would cover it.  Which is what he did, cover it I mean.  He looked surprised and then, then he looked mad again, not mad like when he was beating up on me but mad, really crazy 100% certifiably mad as a hatter mad.  Then he looked calm again, like a storm had passed.  Like he was once more a man in control of his emotions and his actions.

 

That expression I liked the least.

 

That expression most likely meant more trouble for me.

 

I didn’t think I could stay on my feet much longer, the adrenaline was spent, the anger and the defiance were spent and everything else was starting to overwhelm me again.  I swayed where I stood and despite my best efforts I knew deep inside that it wouldn’t be long before I couldn’t hold myself upright any longer.

 

Why didn’t he say something? The silence was frightening.  Why didn’t he do something? That look on his face…. Chilled me to the bone.

 

“This lesson is not over.”  He glanced behind me and inclined his head just a fraction, I wanted to look around and see what he saw but I knew if I did that I WOULD fall over, no question.

 

“Until tomorrow MacGyver” he said as he turned and swept from the courtyard like the whole scenario had panned out just as he had planned.

 

I kinda thought it was score one for the good guys!

 

As the rows of assembled workers started to file out, their faces bore a variety of expressions.

 

Pity.

 

Amusement.

 

Sadness.

 

Fear.

 

And I thought Orientals were supposed to be inscrutable.

 

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle just before I sensed the looming presence of Leung’s favorite thug just behind me.  With my last fading reserves of energy I held myself as tall and as still as I could, it wasn’t much and it wasn’t good but it was the best I could do.  And right now that was going to have to be good enough. Good enough to tell him maybe his boss had misjudged the corrupt, capitalist Western infidel.

 

Good enough?.... Well I’ll never know.

 

Futile and wasteful of energy?…. Yes but I didn’t know that at the time!

 

I did know though that the direct application of a stun gun to an open wound is enough to make even the strongest man pass out.  I never stood a chance!

 

I don’t know how long I was out, but I woke back in my room, or maybe I should start calling it a cell now, because that was what it was becoming.  A cell to hold a prisoner.

A prisoner that nobody even knew was missing yet.

 

I didn’t think there was a part of me that didn’t hurt.  I felt liked I ached in every cell of my body and that wasn’t a good feeling.  Not a good feeling at all.  I was on my back, which wasn’t comfortable, the stone was rough against the broken skin heaping on the pain.  I needed to get up off the floor but even the thought of moving filled me with dread, I just didn’t think I could.  Not right now maybe later….much, much later.  I let myself give in again to the welcome embrace of unconsciousness.

 

It didn’t hold me for long enough.  I woke up shaking, shivering, cold like nothing I’d ever felt before.  If I hadn’t been in shock I probably would have realized I was in shock. Instead I just lay on the cold floor, shaking violently as I tried to curl in on myself to get warm again.  It must have worked too because the next minute I’m hot, burning up with a fever, sweat dripping from my face and body, throat dry as the desert as I try to pull the air into my lungs.

 

I didn’t know which was worse – the chills or the fever. They racked my body one after the other, keeping me from sleep but not from the pain.  I drifted somewhere between waking and oblivion, craving the one but not the other.

 

 I don’t know how long I lay there dozing, drifting, whatever, maybe hours, maybe minutes, maybe days. Time was marked only by the changes in my body.

 

Too cold.

Too hot.

Too sore.

Too much….

 

What’s that saying?  Same shit, different day.

 

It was definitely the same shit although I had no idea if it was the same day, the next day or even day at all.  Guess it didn’t really matter one way or the other.  It was still the same shit.

 

The same world of hurt was waiting for me when I woke up again, only this time I was a little more ready for it.

 

I’d been here and got the T-Shirt so I kind of knew what to expect.  I lay there waiting for the worst of those post-waking up moments to pass; I was getting way too used to what they felt like. This time the chills and the fever passed quickly eventually blurring and merging into an initial peak of agony before subsiding to a barely manageable ache.

This was as good as it was going to get so it was time to find some more of that MacGyver stubbornness before I had none left to find.

 

If I didn’t then…. I didn’t really want to think too hard about what if I didn’t.   Didn’t want to think about the fact that Leung was still out there just waiting for me.  Just waiting to do….

 

Hey Mac don’t go there!

 

Come on Mac standing up is easy, you’ve been doing it most of your life.  Shouldn’t be so hard now…

 

I soon found out just how hard it could be, trying to persuade a stiff and sore body to cooperate.  Every movement, no matter how small, no matter how careful pulled and tugged on fragile skin and bruised muscles.  Eventually, after more than a little effort, I had got as far as my hands and knees.

 

That had a depressingly familiar feel to it.

 

As had the warm trickles of blood that once more smeared my chest and no doubt my back too.  The worst of the cuts had split despite my best efforts.  This was SO not fun I can tell you.

 

Before I had the chance to really gather the strength I would need to get me to my feet, the heavy wooden door swung cautiously open, just enough to let in a young nervous looking man.  He glanced behind him and then pulled the door almost shut.  He hurried to my side.

 

“I’m Xi Pen and I’m here to help you.”  My look of total confusion must have thrown him. “I’m with the Chinese Drug Enforcement Agency.  I’m undercover in Leung’s organization trying to get enough evidence to convict him.”

 

“Well I won’t say I’m not glad to see you.”

 “I don’t have long” another nervous glance toward the door.  “You understand that I can’t afford to be missed from my work?”

 

“Yea I know. Thank you.”

 

“I’ve seen what Leung has done to others who have stood up to him, I couldn’t just stand by and watch.”

 

“Well I’m glad you didn’t.  Can you help me to stand up, this is really not my favorite position.”

 

Even with Xi Pen’s help it was a struggle to stand up and I doubt I could have managed it on my own.  Even now I was standing I wasn’t very stable on my feet and for the first few minutes I leant heavily on Pen to stop myself from falling over.  I felt weak as a kitten.

 

He kept glancing at the door as if at any moment he expected it to open and he would be caught red-handed helping me.

 

“Look, if you gotta go then go.  Don’t get in trouble for me.  Just leave the door open on your way out and I’ll take it from here.”  I tried to make it sound like a joke but really I was serious.  I only needed one chance, maybe.

 

Take what and take it where?  Well that part of the plan was still a little hazy.

 

“I’ll try and get back as soon as I can until then you’re just going to have to hang on.”

He shrugged me off him and dug into his suit pocket pulling out a couple of white tablets, looked a little like Tylenol, and a small bottle of water.  “Take these, it’s the best I can do for now.”

 

Xi Pen made his way to the door and cranked it open just enough for him to look out into the corridor.  Satisfied that nobody was around he stepped into the open doorway and paused. “I’ve got to go or I’ll be missed.”

 

“I know, thanks for these” I waved the water and tablets at him.  “You hurry back now!” I joked.

 

Another glance into the corridor and he was gone, shutting the door firmly behind him.  Well it had been worth a try.

 

I hoped he was a man of his word and that he would be back soon.

 

I wasn’t really sure what the tablets were but guessing they couldn’t make me feel any worse I took them with half the water.  It tasted, well it tasted just wonderful.  Leung and his cronies hadn’t bothered with the niceties of food or water and up until now I hadn’t really missed them.  Think I might have had other things on my mind!

 

Now I knew I shouldn’t drink too much in one go as I’d only make myself sick, and also this might have to last me, so reluctantly I stopped myself from finishing the bottle in one go, which is what I REALLY wanted to do.  Even that little water made me feel better, now all I had to do was just as Xi Pen had said hang in there until he came back for me.

 

I could do that.

 

I needed to hide the rest of the water, if Pen didn’t come back before Leung decided it was time for my next ‘lesson’ I didn’t want the chance of loosing it.  The only place in the room was behind the small bucket in the corner.

 

I hid the water and used the bucket for what is was intended.  I was surprised how much I peed considering my lack of fluids.  I wasn’t surprised to see it tinged with pink. A sure sign those earlier shots to my kidneys had done me some damage.  This day was just getting better all the time!

 

Although I was pretty certain it would be a waste of my time as I had nowhere else to go and nothing better to do and I was stood up, I had another close look around the room.  It did prove to be a waste of time because just like the last time I’d looked around, whenever that had been, there was nothing to help me.  Just plain nothing.  If I was going to have any hope of getting out of this place I either had to wait for Xi Pen or somehow I had to get Leung to give me a change of scenery.

 

Standing, walking, just moving was taking its toll on me.  I suddenly felt weak, well, OK, weaker, and the room was tilting and lurching in spectacular fashion.  Guess I’d done too much too soon.  I felt bad, really bad.

 

Sick, dizzy, hot cold…. Everything….nothing

 

OH shit!

 

I needed to sit down before I fell down.

 

Damn!

 

Too late.

 

My legs buckled in spectacular fashion as I crumpled to the floor.  This is just SO old!

At least I didn’t pass out this time, although it was touch and go for a moment when the nausea swirled inside me leaving me with dry hacking coughs that pulled and battered my back and chest causing white hot shards of agony to blast through me, taking me right to the edge of what I could bear.

 

And that was how they found me.  Curled on my side, my body still racked by shuddering spasms, tears of pain blurring my vision.  A sorry looking sight I’m certain, not that that fact seemed to bother Leung’s head henchman as he stood just inside the doorway glaring at me in a none too sympathetic manner.  I wanted to say something smart and witty, do something brave and heroic but all I could manage was another bought of coughing and a few unexpected moans of pain.

 

Being dragged to my feet and shoved and pushed into the corridor didn’t make me feel any better either.  I couldn’t seem to manage more than a shuffle which didn’t seem to be the required pace.  If they shoved me hard I had a tendency to stumble and more than once I would have fallen if the guards accompanying me hadn’t grabbed my arms.  I think eventually ‘Mr Muscles’ got tired of me and had his guards ‘help’ me to walk.  Within a few strides my legs had gone from under me again and I just let them drag me between them.   It was less effort for me that way and the little strength I saved I might need later.

 

They dragged me down the soulless windowless corridors, past the closed guarded doors just as they had done before, except this time I didn’t see anybody else.  Not a single worker anywhere.  I suppose if I’d have been thinking straight I might have thought that was a little odd, as it was it hardly registered, I was just glad that they weren’t around to see me now.

 

I saw a glimpse of daylight and what looked like the courtyard where Leung had whipped me and, despite myself, I shook at the memory.  Not a place I wanted to visit again…ever. Then it was gone as I was hauled away, my mumbled curses at the strain on my abused limbs ignored.

 

I’m sure the next corridor was the same as the last, it certainly looked the same.  Then again maybe I was mistaken; this corridor seemed colder, more foreboding, like somebody had left a door open somewhere.  Then again maybe I was mistaken; I didn’t seem to be able to focus on anything too well.  The end of the corridor loomed large and the chill intensified, I shivered although nobody seemed to notice.  Or care.  The doors at the end were slightly ajar, but the gentle wind that blew through them was warm, guess it wasn’t a chill that made me shiver.

 

The doors led to another courtyard, larger than the last one I had been in and set out in an ornate, formal style.  The side of the courtyard that was furthest from the main building was occupied by a separate single story building, windowless but lavishly decorated in red and gold, with a giant dragon motif splitting the wide doors.  The gravel of the path that lead directly to the doors cut my feet as the relentless pace of half dragging, half walking continued.  Leung’s head guy strode ahead slightly and threw open the wide doors with an unnecessary flourish, stepping inside and overseeing the guards as they entered the building and flung me with a little to much enjoyment for my liking to the floor, where I lay breathing heavily, bleeding slightly and more than a little scared.

 

Inside the building was, in fact, one large wooden floored room, with mirrors all down one wall and dominated at the top end by a large shrine.  On either side of the shrine was a golden dragon just like the one I had seen at the dig site.  No doubt they were part of Leung’s payoff – a perk of his dirty job.  The room was obviously used by Leung to practice some form of Martial Art, evidenced by the array of Kung Fu weapons stacked in one corner.

 

The mirrored wall not only allowed those training in the hall to watch themselves, it also allowed me to see myself as others saw me for the first time since… well since whenever.

 

I wasn’t going to win any beauty contests!

 

My body was bruised and bloodstained, the bright raw marks from the whip standing out like some sort of bizarre road map against my pale skin.  I had dried blood on my pants and matted into my hair.  I had a spectacular bruise on one side of my chest, it still bore the imprint of the boot that had broken my rib, it was run a close second by the black eye that had formed after my first meeting with Leung and his hospitality.

 

In the centre of the room Leung was showing off his moves, effortlessly bobbing and weaving away from his three attackers.  They all wielded a weapon and had a tattoo of the golden dragon down their backs.  For big men they could move but Leung made them look pedestrian as he easily evaded their attacks.

 

Mr Muscles nodded to the guards who took a step back but didn’t go too far.  I’m not sure what he or they thought I was capable of doing; right now just lying here on the floor is about as much as I can manage.

 

 Mr Muscles had taken off his jacket, revealing that he too sported a golden dragon tattoo, picked up a Jian, the double edged straight sword of Kung fu, and joined the fight.

 

I’m sure the whole scene was being played out for my benefit, a show designed to prove how great, how strong, how powerful Leung was.  Even with odds of four to one Leung easily turned defense into attack and, had this been for real, he would have soon been surrounded by badly injured, even dead bodies.

 

Soon though he tired of showing off and halted the fight with a word of command and a complex swing of his Dao, a gleaming single edged curved broadsword.

 

Leung turned and looked in my direction as if seeing me for the first time, I wasn’t fooled and I he knew that.  I know he knew the exact minute I’d arrived in my current unceremonious heap on his unspoiled floor.  He walked towards me and I pushed myself up into a half sitting, half slouching position.

 

“As you see MacGyver victory goes to those who are righteous” the bastard wasn’t even out of breath.

 

“I wouldn’t say it was a fair fight Leung, don’t think your boys were really trying.  Probably didn’t want to upset the boss, now if you give me that sword…” I left my weak and futile threat hanging.

 

“You still have spirit MacGyver even though you must realize that your course is hopeless. I admire that.”

 

“Well, gee thanks.  That makes me feel warm all over.”

 

He stepped to one side and allowed his four sparring partners to get near me.  One of them dropped his weapon and pulled me to my feet.  Leung spoke briefly to ‘Mr Muscles’ and smiled, although the smile never quite reached his eyes.

 

I caught the flicker of intent in the eyes of the man wielding the long wooden staff just the second before he swung it towards me.  A burst of adrenaline surged through me…flight or fight… can’t fly and I’m not sure I can fight but ….

 

The decision was made for me as my natural self-preservation kicked in and I  threw one arm up to defend against the blow that was coming as the other tried to grab the staff from the firm grip of its owner.

 

Wasn’t quite fast enough and certainly wasn’t strong enough.  The blow from the staff hit me square across one shoulder and sent me stumbling against the man who had pulled me up.  He pushed me away straight into the return of the staff, this one took the breath from me as it landed hard in my side, breaking the thin scab that had formed on my scared body.  The wooden staff was red with my blood as he pulled it away accompanied by a groan from me that was louder than I had intended. 

 

That seemed to be the cue the others were waiting for and suddenly I was the centre of a flurry of blows and kicks as they all descended on me.

 

I tried to defend myself, I really did, but it was a lost cause from the start.  I’ve never been a lover of violence, it doesn’t really solve anything, but I’m not going to stand by and let people take advantage of that fact.  I threw some wild swinging punches most of which either didn’t connect at all or bounced off the muscled bodies of my attackers.  I looked like a punch drunk boxer who just didn’t know when to quit.

 

I just got kicked, punched, knocked and battered between the four of them like a helpless animal, which is pretty much what I was.  The pain just heaped on and on, dull and aching interspersed with the occasional unpleasant and unwelcome peak of agony when the sharp blade of ‘Mr Muscles’ Jian gashed an as yet unbroken piece of skin on my arms or legs leaving me bleeding….again.

 

A blow to my groin sent me tumbling back to the floor, where the wooden staff smashed against my outstretched hand, the sickening sound of broken bones filled the air but was soon all but drowned out by the choked off scream from me as the staff swung upwards into my side and my breath was stolen away.

 

As I lay there tears in my eyes, gasping, struggling for breath I had a feeling deep inside me that something wasn’t right.  Now I know that might seem like an obvious thing, but for once I didn’t mean with my situation, I meant with me.  It was hard to draw a breath, harder than it should have been even given my situation, and it hurt.  It hurt like something inside me was damaged and I kind of wheezed and rattled as I tried to pull enough air into my tortured body to still my breathing. 

 

I saw the movement of the staff as it began yet another arc towards me and for a moment I just didn’t care.  I didn’t think I could take much more, I was tired and I hurt and I wanted an end to it.  I was certain another blow would push me past my limits, hell the way I felt it might even kill me, but I just DIDN’T care.  But the blow never came and the pain never stopped.  Leung had stopped the attack and was moving towards me.

 

As he drew closer I felt the tightness of a fist in my hair as I was yet again pulled to my knees.  What is it with these guys and kneeling?  Haven’t they heard of a chair?

Leung was swinging the sword loosely in his hand as he got closer.

 

“You are a man of your word MacGyver, I admire that.  You have showed courage which I did not expect and I admire that but…” his face had taken on the same look as it had back in the courtyard – the one that I knew was going to mean trouble for me.  His eyes were as cold as the steel in his hand.  “You made me loose face in front of my followers.  That I do NOT admire nor can I tolerate.  I will take your life and my honor will be restored.”

 

He raised the gleaming blade above his shoulder and adopted a fighting stance.  Not a flicker of emotion crossed his features, which I’m not sure held true for me.

 

Was this it?  Was this how my life ended?  At the hand of a psychotic Triad leader with delusions of power and a better way of life, with nobody to mourn me?

 

I shook the fist from my head; if I was going to die then I didn’t need any help.

 

As the blade in Leung’s hand began its efficient arc towards me, all time seemed to slow down.

 

My life didn’t flash before my eyes.

 

I thought about those who matter the most to me, Harry, Pete, Jack Dalton, ‘Mike’, even that crazy Penny Parker.   But I had no unfinished business with any of them, nothing I wished I’d said or done.

 

I looked into the dark expressionless eyes before me and held them, defiantly, hoping my gaze didn’t betray the pounding of my heart that was so loud and so strong I thought it would burst from my chest.

 

With the precision of a surgeon and the skill of years of practice Leung carved a graceful arc in the air, a gentle swish coming from the razor sharp blade as it effortlessly pushed aside the air in front of it.  It was all that filled my vision as he completed his arc and stopped the blade against the side of my neck, a sight trickle of blood now marking the pristine blade.

 

Phew!  I call that a close call!

 

I just wanted to fall back to the floor as the adrenaline that had fuelled me for the last few minutes was suddenly spent and seemingly every part of me was demanding my attention, each trying to hurt a little more than the next.  A rattling cough shuddered through me forcing its way past the groan on my lips and leaving a trail of blood stained spittle on me and the floor.  Told you something wasn’t quite right.  I heard Leung talking but he seemed somehow distant and faint although he was immediately in front of me.  I couldn’t really concentrate on his voice I needed to concentrate all my efforts on not falling over…again.

 

“It seems that you are not afraid to die.  I promise you that soon I will make you beg me to die.  You will fall before me and plead for me to kill you.  Then my revenge will be complete.”

 

“Never.” It was a whisper, pain filled and not convincing especially to me.  The raised hilt of Leung’s sword crashed hard into my temple and the hurt just stopped.

 

Consciousness came with a sudden rush, a rush I wasn’t prepared for, a rush I didn’t even really want.  I was getting way too used to how this felt and I didn’t like it at all.  If I had known what the next few days and weeks would bring I would have stopped complaining right now because this was the best I would feel for a long time.

 

 I was still in the hall but this time I was alone and stripped down to my boxers.  I was also chained by my left ankle to a solid brand new looking ring in the wall.  Don’t know where they thought I was going!  I was too weak to move, it was all I could do to lift my head more than a few inches from the floor.  My breath was rattling in my chest and every now and then my whole body would be racked by coughs that left the floor stained with my blood and me shaking from the effort.  Something inside was bleeding, the blood on the floor told me that, but I had no idea what, I did know though that internal bleeding would kill me eventually.  Maybe that’s what Leung had meant; he was just going to leave me here slowly bleeding to death, dying breath by breath until I couldn’t take any more.  Not a great prospect I had to admit but unless Xi Pen came good on his earlier promises, I couldn’t see a way out.

 

I heard low voices getting louder and saw two people approaching me.  With difficulty I made out that one of them was Leung, the other I had never seen before but he wore a white coat like a scientist or a doctor would wear.  They stopped beside me and both bent down, Leung pulled on a pair of thin latex gloves and turned to the other man.  It sounded like he was giving him orders or instructions but I didn’t understand a word and I didn’t have the energy to resist when they rolled me onto my back.  Leung took a bag of white powder from the other man and proceeded to rub handfuls of it into the open wounds that still marked my chest.  The initial painful sting passed quickly and I felt no different, I still hurt just as much, still struggled for breath and still coughed up blood. I didn’t know what he had done but the fact it didn’t make the pain I was in any worse was a bonus.

 

There was another conversation between the two men and then the one in the white coat took the bag from Leung, handed him something, I didn’t really see what, stood up and left.

 

 I knew what it was though as soon as I felt the sharp prick of the needle as Leung jabbed it into the vein in the crook of my arm and depressed the plunger.  I hate needles, always have.  They tend to bring nothing but pain, like being at the dentist or having stitches after cutting myself falling skating, or worse, like being poisoned and watching your life ebb away.  Leung was no expert either and I felt every inch of the needle in my skin and saw the blood smearing my arm when he had finished.  This guy’s technique needed some serious work.

 

“Enjoy the ride MacGyver.”  His voice was as cold as ice as he rose from my side.

 

I had a moment of blinding clarity.  What had I said back a lifetime ago at the dig site:  An easy way to smuggle your drugs out of the country?  The triad dealt in guns, stolen artifacts and DRUGS.

 

Hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.

 

Now I’ve never been an artificial stimulation kind of guy.  I don’t smoke.  I don’t drink.  I always thought that life was its own natural high.

 

I was wrong.

 

So very, very wrong!

 

In less time than it takes to tell I didn’t care about what I had previously thought or believed in as the sudden intense, powerful euphoric rush of almost pure heroin surged through me.  I was awake enough now to experience every sensation, how the pain I had previously felt had disappeared, how I felt like I could take on the world.

 

Now that was a high!

 

But it was a high that was short lived.  The immediate skyrocketing pleasure dropped off quickly but still left me in a blissful if slightly drowsy state.  I relaxed into the warm comfort of the drug, not really caring what it might be doing to me.  The high had been worth it.

 

My labored breathing slowed even more and my head felt thick like I couldn’t think properly.  I started a slow gentle slide back to unconsciousness, a slide that was halted by another rush, not as intense as the first but good, very, very good.

 

Gradually I realized that it was heroin that Leung had rubbed into the wounds on my chest and now the drug had worked its way into my bloodstream producing the great way I felt.

 

Life is its own natural high….what a load of crap!

 

This was how to get high!

 

The lesser high passed even quicker than the first, the sensations were not as powerful but even now I knew I wanted this feeling again.  This time I couldn’t fight the drowsiness, the struggle to breathe, the slowed heart rate and I let unconsciousness carry me from this happy place.

 

Now it’s confession time.

 

Most of what happened to me in the next few days I can’t really remember and I can’t fully trust those memories I do have.  With the help of Pete’s friend Dr Tann Li and the evidence found in and around the triad complex I’ve kind of worked it out.  There are some things I DO remember, things that I’m not proud of now, but at the time they seemed the only option.

 

It seemed that whenever I was unconscious they would shoot me up with another dose of heroin, increasing my dependency and getting me hooked quickly.  I would wake up and not even notice the needle marks in my arm or the fresh bloodstains that accompanied them.  Time had no meaning in the hall; there was no natural light so it was always the same when I woke up, always anytime and no time.

 

They didn’t feel the need to beat me when I was awake; I was no danger to them now. The continuous dulling of my senses, a side effect of the heroin, kept me docile enough. Occasionally though, one or more of the guards who accompanied the doctor would knock me about for fun.  Usually though they lost interest pretty quickly when I didn’t fight back and didn’t seem bothered by the pain they caused me.  For the most part though I was left alone to the oblivion of the drugs that seemed ever present in my system.

 

I was soon up to four shots a day, it was as pure heroin as they could get away with without killing me outright, and although the rush was still there, when I was conscious enough to feel it, it was never quite as high as the first time.  And I wanted that first time high back, worse and worse with every shot.

 

They had left me a little food and water but to be honest I didn’t want it.  I had no interest in food and the water just made me sick.  I had stomach cramps all the time now, another side effect of the drugs, and the blood stained coughing was getting worse.

 

Then came the first day that I do remember.  The day they didn’t come with my drugs, the day I knew I was hooked.

 

A junkie.

 

An addict.

 

I woke in pain, which was unusual in itself, the drugs kept the pain from the occasional beatings to something that I hardly even noticed any more.  I ached all over in every bone and muscle, my eyes and nose were runny and I couldn’t keep the shake from my hands.  The nausea I was used to feeling also seemed worse and not for the first time I couldn’t control my bodily functions and was left lying in a pool of my own urine.

 

Finally, two men came into the hall and walked around me slowly.  I recognized one of them as ‘Mr Muscles’ the other I’d never seen before but he was just as big and menacing.  They taunted me in Chinese and broken English, calling me names and gloating at their perceived superiority over the broken, decadent Westerner.  They dragged me to my feet and proceeded to beat me without mercy.  I was just a punching bag for them as they took it in turns to hold me whilst the other pounded me with fists and feet.  No part of me was spared the onslaught and I was soon cut, bruised and bleeding, hanging on by just a slim thread.  Hanging onto the hope that, when this was all over, I would once again feel the short sharp pain that brought relief.

 

Eventually they had done enough and left me where I fell.  They didn’t give me anything before they left, just a final kick for good measure.

 

I needed drugs.

 

I needed them now.

 

Time passed slowly in haze of agony I hadn’t felt since I had been whipped all that time ago.  I writhed and shook with the pain, heaving dryly, spitting blood on the floor, cramps punishing every muscle.  I was covered in a cold sweat.  After what seemed like an eternity I heard footsteps on the wooden floor and looked up to find Leung now at my side.  He looked down on me like I was something he wanted to stand on and squash beneath his shoe.  I guess maybe he didn’t like the way that I was messing up his once ordered life or his nice clean floor.  He squatted beside me, a slow smile splitting his features.  He pulled a syringe from his pocket and held it in front of me.

 

“Is this what you want MacGyver?” he taunted.

 

He knew it was and I knew it was and despite the little tiny piece of me that knew it was wrong screaming at me to stop, I nodded and held out my arm.

 

“Oh no MacGyver it is not that easy.  If you want this you must ask me for it, in fact you must beg me for it.”

 

He waved the needle in front of me, tantalizingly close, if I could just reach out and grab it.  But I couldn’t, I was too weak, too sick.  I had to have it though but…. I still had a spark of the old me left.  The MacGyver that had vowed never to bow before this crazy man and I couldn’t beg…not yet.

 

I pulled my arm back hugging myself carefully, trying to stop the shaking in my limbs.

 

“No.” I whispered, my voice hoarse from lack of use, my throat raw from coughing and vomiting.

 

“Very well.  I will just put it here and when you are ready to beg me for it I will give it to you.”  He stood up and walked a few paces away before laying the syringe on the floor and leaving.

 

Ha!

 

His first mistake!

 

He’d left the syringe where I could reach it, not so bright now are you Leung?  I moved as far from the wall as the chain on my ankle would allow and then lay on the floor, my arms outstretched.  This would be easy.  I’d just grab the needle, give myself the shot and I’d feel fine again.

 

No begging needed!

 

I reached out and nothing!

 

Again I felt for the syringe straining my fingers as far as they would go.

 

Still nothing.

 

I looked along the floor, I could see the syringe it WAS close enough for me to reach. It HAD to be.

 

Of course it wasn’t, it was never going to be that easy.  No matter how I twisted and turned, what position I got myself into, the syringe was always just out of reach.  No mistake then, Leung knew just what he was doing.

 

I howled my frustration.  “Leung you bastard!  You crazy son of a bitch!  Get back in here now.”

 

But he was long gone and I was left to my sobbing, shaking agony as the pain built and the first signs of withdrawal began to set in.  The cramps intensified and my muscles began to react with strange jerking motions that made me look like I was trying to kick somebody.  I was restless and, although it hurt to move, I couldn’t seem to keep still.  I crawled against the wall and waited, waited for Leung to come back.

 

After what seemed to me to be forever the door opened again and Leung was back.  He didn’t bother to collect the syringe from the floor that was left for me, as a constant reminder of how close I could come to having what I needed and yet never be able to get it.

 

He pulled a fresh syringe from his pocket, bigger than the previous one and knelt beside me.

 

“Are you ready to beg for this now?”

 

I was, I was more than ready.  I needed the pain to stop but more than that I needed that feeling of euphoria, I needed the RUSH.

 

“Please.” I croaked.

 

“What MacGyver?  What do you want?  Do you want this?  Tell me what you want.”

 

“Yes.  I want it…please Leung.”  I hated myself for every word I spoke but I did need the contents of that syringe.  I needed them badly enough to do the one thing I’d vowed I never would.  Later I would have to live with that but right now I just had no choice.  I held my scarred arm out and begged him again. 

 

“Please, please give me the drugs.”

 

A wide smile broke on Leung’s face as he held my shaking arm, stuck the needle in, pushed the plunger to the bottom and then withdrew it.  The rush I felt this time was akin to the first time.  The prolonged period that I had gone without making the sensations all the more exciting, all the more pleasurable.  I basked in the gratifying feelings of the drugs return and before long had fallen into a comfortable, exhausted sleep.

 

This then became a game they played with me.  Some days they would come at their usual time and shoot me up as normal.  It kept the pain at bay but didn’t really satisfy my needs.  Other days they wouldn’t come at all, leaving me to succumb to the early stages of withdrawal, to the shaking and paranoia.  They would wait until I was crying, begging for them to come and then they would taunt me until I had humiliated myself enough for them.  I was sure that the extra rush I got from having had the heroin withheld, even for a few hours, was worth the begging and the humiliation.

 

I never considered the damage that was being done to my body by the constant heavy doses I was given.  I never noticed that the blood I coughed up was now deeper red in color or that my breathing was more difficult.  The veins in my arms were scarred and pretty unusable so they had moved to my legs, stomach, feet anywhere they could.

 

The next day I remember with any clarity came, I don’t know how long after I had first been left in the hall.  I had no concept of time, it was just something that happened between one shot and the next.  They had left me without the drug again, playing with me, watching as I still foolishly tried to reach the syringe on the floor.  I had never reached it yet but I always thought I would, I always tried to.  They had kicked me as I lay there, my nirvana just out of my grasp, picked up the syringe moved it closer and then kicked it away as I reached for it.  I was sobbing quietly as the torment continued, so close and yet never close enough.

 

They were killing me and I was helping them.

 

I was at the stage where I was ready to beg, ready to do or say anything they wanted just to get what I wanted.  Then events took an unexpected turn, not a turn for the good either.

 

The hall was filled with a loud commotion as Leung strode in ahead of several of his black-uniformed guard who were dragging something between them.  Actually the something was a someone and the someone was Xi Pen.  I didn’t realize who it was at first, even when they forced him to his knees near to where I was now cowering against the wall.  He had been severely beaten and looked on the verge of death already.  He was covered in blood old and new, his face and body a mass of bruises and cuts.  He looked at me with eyes that had lost all hope and I just stared straight back, my own abused mind trying to sort out why I thought I knew him.

 

Leung was next to me now toying with the syringe he had in his hand, toying with me.

 

“Tell me MacGyver do you know this man?”

 

I thought I did but I was confused.  “Maybe” I mumbled.  I fixed my gaze first on Pen and then on the syringe, flicking my eyes between one and the other.  I licked my dry cracked lips and tried to fight the cramps that twitched in my muscles.  I wiped my eyes with my hand as if somehow that would help me recognize the man.

 

“Have a good look.  Have you seen him before?”  Leung scraped the point of the needle against my sensitive skin which set tingles of anticipation running through me. It was clear what my reward would be.  I looked again and it DID seem like I knew him, he looked like the man who had offered, no, promised, to help me.  A promise he hadn’t kept.  Bastard!

 

He hadn’t helped me and now I had to help myself.

 

“Have you seen him before?  Did he try to help you?”

 

Xi Pen’s gaze had never left me, he was pleading with me with his eyes, pleading with me not to tell Leung anything, not to condemn him.  I didn’t realize and to be honest right then I didn’t care.

 

I was a 100% heroin addict and nothing else mattered but getting that rush.

 

Nothing.

 

“He said he’d help me escape.”  Escape!  The last thing I wanted or needed.

 

“Did he tell you who he works for?  Is he a spy MacGyver?”

 

Had I had more about me I would have realized that all Leung had were guesses and suppositions.  Pen hadn’t told him anything and now I was going to confirm everything, all his work to bring down Leung would come to nothing, and still I didn’t know what I was doing.  All I knew was that the right answers would get me what I needed.

 

I couldn’t hold Pen’s gaze as I gave him up to Leung to satisfy my addiction.

 

“Yes.  He’s a spy, works for the government.  Wants to hurt you.” 

 

“Thank you MacGyver that is all I needed to know.”

 

He shoved the syringe into my shaking hand and rose from my side.  As I curled up against the wall and drove the needle deep into my flesh, I was barely aware of the gunshot that ended Xi Pen’s life.

 

That was my lowest point, the point when I cared less about another human life than I did about how I felt, how I now needed to feel in order to feel anything at all.  When the glorious rush was over and I saw the body of Xi Pen, his accusing sightless eyes staring at me, the last shreds of my reason and my sanity were horrified by what I had done.  My shaking, coughing, pain laced body argued that I had no choice.  It was a battle I couldn’t win, just like the battle against the drugs, I couldn’t win that either nor did I want to.

 

Time passed and with it death crept closer.  I wasn’t eating or drinking anything except what was forced down me by my captors.  My body was failing me, the effects of the occasional beatings and the constant presence of heroin in my system were killing me a little bit more every day.  I still didn’t realize the full extent of my predicament, the drugs dulled my ability to think clearly until all I could think about was my next high, my next rush, little realizing that the next time could be the last time.

 

 

They had left me without my usual shot again and the withdrawal was kicking in.  The shakes, muscle spasms and cramps seem to start sooner and sooner after missing a shot and be worse each time.  The high was better but the low was worse.  Distantly I thought I heard gunfire, shouting, noise, I could smell burning.  I didn’t care what it meant, I only cared that they would still come with my drugs.

 

But they didn’t come.

 

The cramps and nausea got worse.  My muscles twitched and my bones ached, I was hot and yet covered in cold sweat.  I retched but having nothing to bring up but bloodstained bile I just heaped the pain on my abused body.

 

And still they didn’t come.

 

Now I was getting desperate.

 

They had never left me this long before, I was ready to give them what they wanted, to humiliate myself, to suffer another beating, whatever it took, long before now.  They knew that, they had to know that, I had done so often enough.

 

Still taunting me on the bloodstained fetid floor was the full syringe of heroin, now watched over by the bloated rotting corpse of Xi Pen; left there as a reminder of just how far I had fallen, how I was no more than a slave and heroin was my master.  Deep inside I knew it was futile but this time might the time they made a mistake and left it where I could reach it.  This time it had to be.  This time I needed it more than all the other times, which was what I told myself every time.

 

And that was how they found me, chained like the wild paranoid animal I had become, straining for the one thing I needed more than anything, surrounded by my own blood and waste beside the corpse of a man I had killed just to satisfy my own basic need to feel ….alive.

 

If I only had fleeting memories of my time at the hands, or should that be needles, of Leung and his cronies then I had less than that of what happened next.  Again, I have to rely on the help of others to piece together how I was saved from self-destruction.

 

It appears that despite what my drug addled mind told me and what I chose to believe, Xi Pen had made good on his promise.  He had contacted his superiors in the Chinese Drug Enforcement Agency and, as I ended his life, help was in fact on the way.  Now, not only did I have to live with the guilt of having been responsible for his death but also with the fact that it was unnecessary.  If there had been one shred of the old MacGyver left for me to cling to then Xi Pen might still have been alive.

 

A team of agents from the Agency had stormed Leung’s compound, broken up his drug cartel and recovered several stolen artifacts, including a pair of Golden Dragons.  They had arrested most of the workforce, who had put up only a token resistance but getting to Leung had proved far more difficult.

 

His closest followers had put up a spirited defense, a defense that left many of them dead or injured, but Leung, ‘Mr Muscles’ and Zao Ming somehow managed to evade the troops and escape.  I had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before they were back in business, plying their deadly trade to the unsuspecting just like before.

 

In amongst the Government troops was the unassuming figure of Dr Li who had somehow managed to convince the DEA to let him along for the ride.  From what he already knew about the activities at the dig site and what the workers there had ‘told’ the police when the site was raided he guessed that Leung’s compound might be a good place to start looking for an unauthorized Westerner with forged work papers.

 

Good man that Dr Li, now I know why Pete wanted to help him out.

 

I didn’t recognize him as he leant over me and picked up the syringe I had been reaching for, I just knew he had what I needed so I tried to take it back.  I lunged at the rising figure of Li, desperate to stop him, but missed by a mile and fell back to the floor with a thud that rattled the fillings in my teeth.  I coughed up more blood hardly even noticing the bitter taste anymore and screamed at the figure above me.

 

“Give it me!”

 

Silence in my corner of hell.

 

“Give it me” this time it was less of a shout more of a plea.  Tears of desperation filled my eyes as the shaking in my limbs worsened.  The figure above me made a grand show of putting the syringe away.  I whimpered and held out a beseeching hand, I was long past caring about humiliating myself to get what I wanted.

 

“Please?”

 

No response.

 

If I could have seen clearly I might have noticed that Li’s eyes were filled with a mixture of anger and sorrow at what I had become.

 

“Sorry MacGyver.”

 

I just about registered my name before a clinical blow to my head had the blackness rushing in.

 

I woke up briefly but didn’t know where I was, I didn’t care either.  I hurt badly but couldn’t keep still, I wanted to scratch myself but my body was sore all over, so I drifted back to somewhere where nothing seemed to matter.

 

Later I found out that Dr Li had got me out of Leung’s stronghold and taken me to a quiet motel on the outskirts of the nearest city.  It was the kind of motel that existed the world over, the kind where, for enough money, nobody asks any questions and everybody looks the other way.  He hired a burly nurse called Ray who was well used to dealing with drug addicts and had worked in rehab units in hospitals all across South East Asia.  Between the two of them and despite my apparent unwillingness to be helped they forced, cajoled and dragged me back from the dark depths of my addiction.

 

As the days wore on and the insidious effects of the heroin lessened I could remember more about what went on, more about my withdrawal and rehabilitation, some of it… no a lot of it was pretty unpleasant too.

 

Most of the time I was awake I has the mother of all headaches, like a freight train was running in endless circles inside my head.  I was restless all the time and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t keep still, even though the pain from moving stole my breath away.

 

One night I remember being awake, shaking and shivering although I wasn’t cold, I knew what I needed.  If I could have just one more shot then I could get through this, I knew I could.  One more shot to still my body and ease the hurt in my mind.  Just one more shot then I’d quit, honest.

 

The motel room was quiet, not even the low drone of the TV disturbed the night.  I guessed the two men who were looking after me must have been asleep.  Well, if they were asleep they wouldn’t miss me then would they?

 

I didn’t know where I was but I did know that one of the men had what I needed; he had taken it from under my nose in Leung’s hellhole.  And that seemed like it happened only yesterday, he would still have it.  And I would find it and take it and nobody would ever know.

 

Easy.

 

What of course I didn’t know as I blundered from my bed was that yesterday had in fact been several days ago and Dr Li had long since disposed of the heroin.  I must have looked and sounded like a drunk coming back from a long night but trying to act normally, I giggled and whispered loudly to myself as I staggered against the small amount of furniture in the motel room, making enough noise to wake the dead.  I couldn’t control my limbs properly and it was just my absolute certainty that I would find what I needed that kept me going.  I saw the dark shadow of clothing over the back of a chair and lunged for it, grabbing it as I fell to my knees scrabbling desperately through the pockets.

 

Nothing!  I tried again certain I had missed it.  Nothing!

 

My frustration boiled over and I threw the clothing to the ground and fell on it howling and crying.

 

If it wasn’t here then it couldn’t be far away!

 

Pushing myself to my feet I began trashing the small motel room, turning over the furniture, throwing stuff until a pair of strong arms encircled me.  I fought against the grip, wriggling and writhing to get free, but the arms held firm.

 

“Come on now Mac, settle down.”

 

“No!” I protested “I know it’s here.”

 

“What’s here Mac?” The gentle voice of Ray in my ear as he began to move us back towards the bedroom.  My struggling didn’t seem to affect him at all, must have been all those years of practice.

 

“He’s got it.” I gesticulated with my head in the direction of Dr Li who had emerged from the adjoining room at the sound of the commotion.  “He took it from me.  It’s MINE!”

 

“We don’t have it and you don’t need it Mac.  Do you?”

 

Everybody knew what we were talking about, the syringe full of heroin, my savior, my life.

 

“You don’t need it now MacGyver” an insistent reminder from Ray that he kept up all the way back to the bedroom and all during the time he spent getting me back settled in bed.  As I finally fell into a disturbed and restless sleep brought on by the night’s activities, his voice was the last thing I remembered……

 

“You don’t need it now MacGyver.  You never needed it really.  You don’t need it now.”

 

It seemed my dreams that night were more like nightmares as the agonies of withdrawal began to make themselves REALLY known.  It was only later that I found out what I thought were one nights dreams were in fact two days of reality as I sank to the bottom of the depths of withdrawal and then slowly began to pull myself back.  None of it, of course, would have been possible without the endless patience and expert nursing skills of Ray, and the influence of Dr Li which kept away the prying eyes and the awkward questions.

 

In my dreams it seemed to me as if my skin was not my own, that it belonged to somebody else, it was foreign, crawling all over me and I had to be rid of it.  I scratched myself raw in several places trying to make it go away.

 

I seemed to be cold too to the point where I was covered in ‘gooseflesh’ but when I grabbed at a blanket to keep me warm I was suddenly hot, burning with a fever hot enough to make me tear off my clothes.

 

I thought I had grown used to the stomach cramps that came from the continued use of heroin but they were nothing compared to the ones in my dreams.  These cramps came with vomiting and diarrhea which left me crying from the pain and the bed covered in blood and waste.  Often my heart felt like it was trying to pound its way through my chest and I suffered several convulsions as the worst of the symptoms finally passed.

 

I’d been obnoxious and rude to both Ray and Dr Li calling them names and cursing at them whenever they tried to help me.  I’d ripped the IV line out of my arm more times than I could remember and had pulled out the stitches Ray had put in the worst of my cuts as I jerked and thrashed about.

 

By about the third day I was through the worst and just left with minor tremors in my body and a deep, deep depression that just wouldn’t lift.  I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, although many who have been through what I had are, but I wasn’t far away.

 

There were times when I knew that if I could just get one more shot then I would feel better and then it would be easy to kick the habit.  Thankfully the lethargy that came with the depression made me do little more about getting a fix than sit in a corner and mumble to myself about what I wanted and needed.  I didn’t have the strength or the courage to face myself, let alone others and spent most of my time just lying on the bed staring at the peeling paint on the ceiling and letting the waves of depression wash over me.

 

Although my body was healing slowly, there was still the small matter of the internal damage done to me by Leung.  Ray was a good nurse and I’ll be forever grateful to him for what he did for me, but internal bleeding was just a little beyond even his talents.  I needed a hospital and proper medical care.  Of course that had been out of the question while I was strung out on heroin but now, now Ray thought I would be strong enough, physically at least, to handle whatever was needed.

 

I hadn’t been coughing up as much blood as before and nobody was sure if that was a good sign or not but eventually they couldn’t wait any longer and over my not very convincing protestations, Dr Li took me into the city and to the hospital.

 

I don’t know what tale he told the doctors and administrators there but they hurried me into an operating theatre and I knew nothing more.

 

I woke up to the familiar smell of a hospital, a smell that seems to be the same the world over.  The only noise in the room was the low humming of the machinery that monitored my vital signs and the snoring of Pete Thornton who was sprawled in a nearby chair.

 

I was still groggy from the anesthetic but I knew I didn’t really want to see Pete, not now.  I was mad at him for what happened to me and I hated myself for what I had become and what I had done during those long days of captivity.  I had to get up and get away before Pete woke up.  Carefully I tired to sit up and, although my head swam, I managed to get into a sitting position, I pulled the monitor off my finger and pulled back the covers, swinging my legs out of the bed.

 

I never made it further than the strong arms of Pete who caught me as my legs gave way and I tumbled towards the floor.  He didn’t say or do anything more than support me until the medical personnel alerted by the change in the machines readings took me from him and placed me carefully back into bed.  As the warmth of the sleep medication began to flow through me again and I drifted off Pete was settling himself back into the chair.

 

“Take your time Mac,” he said picking up a newspaper “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

 

True to his word, every time I opened my eyes Pete was there, sometimes awake, sometimes asleep but always there.  I should have been flattered, I should have been honored, instead I was just depressed, guilty, full of remorse and self loathing and I didn’t want him there.

If I thought he hadn’t seen me wake up I’d pretend to be asleep until he got up to leave. If he caught me awake I’d answer his questions with the briefest of answers, complain I was tired and sore – both of which were true – and ask him to let me alone.

 

My body might be healing, my physical addiction cured but I was still far from well.  I still had to deal with the fact I’d killed a man, a good man, a man whose only crime was to try and make the world a better place.

 

My physical condition was now improved to the point where I was ready to be discharged from the hospital.  I still couldn’t leave China though, I had a few ‘questions’ to answer and besides which the doctors weren’t keen on me taking the long flight home.  I managed to persuade Pete to go back to LA and the Phoenix Foundation, the last thing I needed was him acting like a mother hen once I got out of the hospital.  I told him I’d be fine and that Dr Li would look after me, besides which I had places in China I WANTED to see.

 

Reluctantly he agreed but only after I promised to call him every day to tell him how I was and with the threat that he would be on the next plane back if I missed a day.

 

I know the guy cares and I love him like a brother but… he can be SUCH an old woman!

 

A couple of days after Pete left I was sitting in the nearby park, the summer sun was high in the sky, it was a beautiful day.  It should have been a beautiful day.  But all I could think about was what I had done back…. there, back in Leung’s clutches when I was lost in the fog of addiction.  I wished it would rain so I could hide the tears I felt building inside me as I remembered the faint sound of a gunshot subsumed amongst the ecstasy of getting high, remembered the days of looking at the sightless eyes of a man I had killed as surely as if I had pulled the trigger myself.

 

I could see children running and playing, hear their laughter carried by the gentle breeze, they were young and innocent.  But would they stay that way?  Xi Pen had died trying to stop Leung from peddling his deadly wares and, probably, because of me he hadn’t really succeeded.  Sure we’d stopped that source of drugs from hitting the street but we hadn’t stopped Leung.  And that was the worst outcome.

 

I couldn’t watch the children any longer and hid my despair behind my hands rubbing away the first few tears that now streaked my face.  I threw my head back and stared up at the clear blue sky just wishing…. Well wishing I could turn back the clock.  Wishing that somehow I could make everything right, wishing I could give life back to Xi Pen and… for a moment… wishing I could take life from Leung.

 

My thoughts were interrupted by the soft plop of a ball landing beside me and the squeal of a young child’s laughter as he raced to pick it up and get back to his game.  A group of teenagers sauntered past smoking and chatting loudly, it seemed like a dozen different conversations were going on at the same time.  From behind the group came the once more immaculately dressed Dr Tann Li – the last time I saw him he had been tired and dirty from caring for a man who didn’t want to be helped.  He stopped and watched the teenagers and the children before strolling to my side.

 

“If it took Xi Pen’s death to keep Leung’s filth off the streets, even for a while, and stop just one of those kids” he gestured at the teenagers who were now in the near distance, “from getting hooked on drugs, he would have thought it a good deal.  Xi Pen was a brave man doing a dangerous job but he knew the risks and he believed in what he was doing.”

 

I knew what Li was trying to do and yes, I could see his point but ….

 

“Yes but Leung got away.  He’s still out there and he’ll be back.  Who’ll be there to save the kids then?”

 

“Come on MacGyver I need to show you something.”

 

Dr Li gestured to me to get up and reluctantly I did.  All his good words, no matter how much truth there might be in them, wouldn’t bring Xi Pen back, and I really didn’t want to be further reminded of what a good man he had been.  I know he was a good man, a man who tried to help me even though he didn’t know me, a man who, unlike me, knew the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong.

 

I got up and followed Li, not because I wanted to, what I wanted was to be left alone to wallow in my own self pity, but because like Pen, Li was a good man and he deserved better.

 

We wandered from the park, not talking, well not talking about anything that mattered, until we reached an old building on the edge of a residential area. The building had obviously been abandoned but now was a hive of activity as contractors swarmed all over it.  To one side was a sign written in Chinese but underneath a logo I knew well.

 

The clasped hands of the Challengers Club.  I looked at Li.

 

“What does it say?” I asked my voice hoarse and unsteady.

 

Dr Li looked at me and smiled slightly.  “The Xi Pen Centre for Young People supported by the Challengers Club of America.”

 

I couldn’t speak, didn’t know what to say.  Li explained it to me as I stood rooted to the spot humbled beyond words.

 

It’s a place where young people, especially those who have problems with drugs can come and be looked after, be safe.”

 

“How?” I mumbled waving my arm at the expanse of people working in and around the building.

 

“How?  Well Pete gave us the bonus from your assignment and then the Phoenix Foundation matched that and… and well that gave us more than enough to renovate this building and get it up and running.”

 

“My bonus?”

 

“He didn’t think you’d mind.”

 

No!

 

No I didn’t mind, it was the least the VERY least I could do to make amends for what I had done.  I mean now, later, rationally I know it wasn’t really me back there, at least I hope it wasn’t, but that didn’t change or really excuse what I did.  This helped, in some small way to make up for that.

 

I looked at Li and blinked back yet more tears.

 

“I don’t.  Not one bit.  It’s perfect.” I looked around at all the work going on and imagined how it would look when it was finished, tried to imagine all the lives it would help, maybe even save when it was up and running.  Right then I knew I had to come back and help out.

 

“I’ll come back, you know, when it’s open.  Help out, with the kids and all.”  My words were choked out past the lump in my throat.

 

“You’ll always be welcome MacGyver, always.”

 

A week later and I’d answered all the authorities’ questions and got the OK from the doctors to fly home.  I still had to rest and take it easy for a while but they said I should be fine within a few weeks.  Pete had said he would send a car to pick me up from the airport and that I could take all the time I needed before going back to the Phoenix Foundation.  I do remember that way back then I had vowed to resign and now, as I stood in the airport waiting with Li for them to call my plane, I wasn’t so sure that had been a bad call.  If I quit then I could spend my time doing other things, helping kids who had problems, who had been through what I had.  Easing my still guilty conscience?

 

“I’ll be back soon Tann.” I shook his hand.  “Thank you.”

 

I couldn’t bring myself to say anything more.  Dr Li was a bright man he knew what I meant.

 

“It was my pleasure to welcome you to the Peoples Republic of China” he said with a broad grin.  “Come back soon my friend” he added in a conspiratorial whisper as he squeezed my hand.

 

“Count on it” I said as I headed for the plane and my long journey home.

 

A month later

 

Time passes slowly when you are on your own.  Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, sometimes it is.  For me… well in this case it wasn’t a bad thing.

 

I had got back from China, got over my jet lag and taken myself off to the wilds of Minnesota for a while.  I’d lived in solitude and wallowed in sorrow.  I’d done all the things the doctors told me not to do and sure enough my body hurt like hell, but at least I felt something, almost alive again.

 

I’d also done a lot of thinking.

 

Now my mind was free of the corruptive influence of heroin I could see, see that despite what I had thought I didn’t have any choice.  My body’s dependency on the drug had made everything and I mean EVERTYHING else pale into insignificance, even the life of another person.  I’d been totally consumed by its malign influence and …. Well, well I’d done what I had to do.

 

I could never change that.  I could never undo what happened.

 

All I could do was to try and make sure it didn’t happen to others.  That vulnerable kids didn’t get drawn into a life that revolved around drugs.

 

I knew when I got back I’d quit my job at the Phoenix Foundation and go to work with the Challengers Club, both here and now in China.  It was the least I could do.  Their work encompassed more than just drugs, but …… well it was a start.

 

I had been strong enough to fight my addiction.  I had had help to beat my addiction. 

I had friends to be there for me, even when I didn’t think I needed them.  A lot of these kids had nothing, nobody to help them.  Well, damnit. I was going to help them, be their friend if they would let me.

 

So here I was walking back up the steps of the Phoenix Foundation, something I had done… hundreds of times before.  So why this time was my heart pounding in my chest? 

 

My resignation letter weighed heavily in my jacket pocket.

 

This was probably the biggest decision I had ever made in my life…. And it wasn’t easy. Up until China I had loved my job, the travel, the excitement, the chance to use my wits to get out of a sticky situation and yes, ok I’ll admit it, even at times, the danger.  But now, now they all seemed trite and unimportant.

 

I nodded to the guard on duty as I signed in and took the elevator up to Pete’s office. This wasn’t going to be easy, Pete and I had been friends for years and… well he’d take it hard but I knew he’d understand.  After all he’d seen me in the hospital in China, seen how I’d changed, I was sure he’d understand.

 

This was it.  I was outside the outer door to Pete’s office.  Could I do it?  Could I REALLY resign from the Phoenix Foundation?  I patted the letter in my pocket.  I WAS doing the right thing.

 

I pushed open the doors to Pete’s office.  He looked up from behind his desk.

 

“Hey, hi Mac, how are you?”  he gestured to a nearby chair.  I sat myself down.

 

“Glad you’re back Mac, place hasn’t been the same without you.”

 

“About that Pete..” I started reaching for my letter.

 

“Yes well, no time for hanging about.”

 

He reached for a folder on the desk, flipped it open, looked at me with earnest eyes and asked:

 

“Ever been to Siberia Mac?”