Bang. Bang. Bang. The loud banging on their old wooden front door reverberated through their old prewar house in the early hours of the morning.
"Open up! Tan Zan Chun! We know you are here, open the door now!" several loud male voices shouted outside. They continued to bang on the door, thumping and kicking at it.
"You think you can run from us? You owe us money and you have to pay us back!" one of them, who appeared to be the leader, shouted.
Tan Zi Mei was crouched directly upstairs, staring down the peephole. The one good thing about these old houses was the peephole on the wooden floor of the first floor that looked directly down at the entrance. It afforded those inside a private and safe way to observe those at their front door without them knowing.
She counted at least five burly men outside their entrance, spread out at the five-foot way. These gangster-looking men are obviously loansharks here to demand payment from her father. She is all alone at home. She has not seen her father for almost a week. She had wondered where he had went. Now she knows.
Her father, Tan Zan Chun, is a compulsive gambler. He gambled all of his income as a labourer away and now that Zi Mei is working at a cafe, he demanded money from her and gamble that away too. Each month, she had to scrimp and save just enough to pay the rental for the old, ramshackle house located in the heart of the heritage city of George Town. They were fortunate that their landlord was kind enough to charge them minimal rent although the rental rates for most of the prewar houses in the city have skyrocketed in recent years.
"Open the door Tan Zan Chun! If you don't pay up, your young and pretty daughter will have to come with us as collateral," the leader warned as he gave their sturdy door another kick.
Zi Mei doesn't know what to do. She can't go down to tell them to go away. They might kidnap her to force her father out of hiding. They might sell her off to become a prostitute to earn back the money her father had borrowed from them. She shuddered at the thought. She considered calling the police. After all, the men were being violent and threatening. Surely, it is against the law for them to threaten their clients even if their clients had defaulted in their payments.
She picked up her cell phone and dialled 112. An operator picked up and directed her to the police immediately. After a few rings, a policeman answered. She quickly told him about the five men outside her door, banging on it and shouting threats. The policeman assured her that they will send someone over in 10 minutes. After she hang up, she was not in the least assured. Ten minutes is a long time. So many things can happen in 10 minutes.
"If you are not going to open up, we will wait outside here until your precious daughter comes home and we will take her with us," the leader said.
Zi Mei is now panicking. What should she do? Should she try to sneak out from the back door? But, they might have a few other men waiting at the back door. She can't even check her back door as it is a metal door without any peephole. If she opened it and the men are waiting there, she would be doomed.
Why does she have gambler for a father? This must be her karma from her previous life. Her mother had ran off years ago, unable to withstand her father's gambling habit, leaving Zi Mei with him. She had practically grown up taking care of herself, preparing her own meals, ironing her school uniform, going to school, doing her homework and stealing her father's money when he was sleeping so that they could pay rent and buy food. Sometimes, she couldn't even steal a single cent and when she ran out of money to buy food, she'd shamelessly beg for food from their kind neighbours.
Their neighbours! Darren! She could call him and ask him for help. Darren lives a couple doors away and he is her best friend. They practically grew up together and he had helped her a lot over the years. His mother often cooked extra dishes and asked Darren to give to her.
She quickly dialled Darren's number. It rang for a long time before his sleepy voice came on.
"Ya….who is this…" he mumbled.
"Darren! Help me. There are loansharks outside my door and I don't know what to do!" she said urgently into the phone. She heard some rustling sound, as if he had dropped his phone.
"What? Loansharks?" his voice is now wide awake. "Where's your father?" he asked.
"I don't know…I have not seen him for almost a week now," she replied.
Another loud bang reverberated through the house.
"Whoa…is that them banging on your door? Have you called the police?" he asked.
"Yes, but they told me that it will be another 10 minutes before they come and I am worried, what if they break down the door?" she asked.
"Did you close the second timbre door with the bolt? They can't possible break through two layers of heavy timbre!" he said.
She tried to think back to last night. She remembers sliding the metal bolt and locking the ornately carved louvred door. Then…yes, she did push the heavy second set of timbre doors close but she wasn't sure about the bolt. Usually, she was too lazy to drag the heavy timbre bolt across. Their city is relatively safe and she lives in an old ramshackle building that looked like it could collapse any second, no burglar or robber worth their salt would even step into their house.
"I don't think I bolted the inner door," she told Darren, panic rising in her throat. What if they break through her door before the police comes?
"Ok, let me think. I'll gather our other neighbours and try to chase them off, don't worry, just stay hidden and don't try to confront them," he said reassuringly.
The men downstairs continued to kick and bang at her door. They were getting impatient. She peeked down at them. The leader was talking into his phone while his colleagues were peering into her windows. Fortunately their windows had metal bars built in by the landlord, like the jail bars, so they couldn't break through or climb in.
A few minutes later, she heard Darren's voice and a few other male voices shouting at the men outside her door. She peered out her windows upstairs and saw at least a group of 10 men led by Darren advancing to her front door. She let out a huge sigh of relief.
The five men left her entrance and stepped out to meet the group of neighbours. It looked like a face off between two different gangs. Except that neither group was armed. Darren was speaking seriously to the leader of the loanshark group. She tried to make out what they were saying but couldn't hear anything except for snatches of words like "police", "criminal intimidation" and "illegal".
Just then, the police arrived in a police car with the lights on but the siren off. The two groups immediately spread out, not wanting to seem like they are about to engage in a gangfight. Two uniformed policemen came out of the car and spoke to the groups. Darren went up to them and was speaking to them earnestly, gesturing wildly at the loanshark leader and his men. The loanshark leader did not seem worried. He sauntered coolly to the police officer and said something. After a few moments of discussions between the police, Darren and the leader, everyone dispersed.
The leader signalled his men to leave but not before he glared up at Zi Mei, who was watching furtively from behind her curtains upstairs. She could sense a warning in his cold narrow eyes. The other neighbours that Darren had gathered slowly walked home while Darren went to her entrance and stood there, as if guarding it. He watched the loansharks leave in their cars. Zi Mei watched from her window upstairs and the moment their cars turned the corner and could no longer be seen, she ran downstairs.
The inner door was merely shoved closed, it was not bolted. She pulled it open, unlocked the outer door and flung it open. Darren was waiting outside. Overcome with relieve and gratitude, she flung her arms around her friend and hugged him.
"Oh Darren! Thank you so much! I was so frightened, they were really scary," she said. Darren's strong arms circled her and he held, her patting her back assuringly.
"You should've called me earlier," he said.
Realising their close proximity, her body so close to his that she could feel his warmth spreading through her thin cotton shirt, she quickly released him and took a step back. They may be close friends but she had never really hugged him this way and not this long too. She felt her face reddened.
In recent years, she had began to develop feelings for Darren but she kept it to herself. She didn't want to ruin their friendship. She didn't know how Darren felt about her and worried that he might only see her as a friend and nothing more.
Oblivious to her shyness from hugging him, Darren turned to close her door and turned the lock. Then, he made his way into her house and sat on one of the wooden stools in the sparsely furnished living room. She followed him and sat on a plastic chair.
"They said you father owed them $500,000," he told her. "He was supposed to make a payment last week but he didn't. They tried calling him but his phone was turned off and when they went to the last place he was working at, the people there said he had disappeared,"
Tears welled up in her eyes. $500,000 is a lot of money. She barely made minimum wage with her job at the cafe. How is she going to pay back the sum? Her father must have ran away. He did not even leave a note.
"What am I going to do Darren? How can I pay back $500,000 when I can barely pay for our rent and food?" she said, tears sliding down her cheeks.
Darren was at a loss for words. He is only a college student and still getting an allowance from his parents. His part-time work pays him even less than what Zi Mei was earning.