Monday, January 15, 2018

The Shanghai Songbird Part 2

There was just enough light inside the nightclub to see the stage and nowhere enough to peer into the hearts of men. Lee placed a tiny mirror on the table, no larger than a compact makeup case, trying to make the best of the dim candlelight behind him.
Wong didn’t mind. But in their corner booth, the policeman had a good view of the door. Lee was facing the wrong way, by choice. Shanghai might be an international city but mixed bloods always drew attention. Better if people didn’t see his face.

At exactly nine in the evening Ouyang Li Yan took to the stage. Her sheer golden cheongsam glittered under the spotlights, its long slits showing off longer legs. She held her head high, regally poised on delicate high heels. Her eyes swept the crowd and landed on Lee’s. She smiled, a blazing sun just for him, and caressed her microphone with a gloved hand.
On an unseen signal, the band played. Matching her voice with the deep saxophone, she sang in English.
I knew a boy who loved to play hero / Of his flaws I knew exactly zero / But there’s one thing about him I know / To a beautiful face he’d never say no
Wong nudged Lee’s foot under the table. “I think I see the stalker.”
Lee looked at the mirror. “Who?”
“At the door. Huge Chinese guy in the cheap brown suit and tattoo on his neck.”
Lee adjusted his mirror just so, tracking the suspect. The guy was alone, staring on the singer. He loomed tall over the other patrons, taller than even the Westerners. His eyebrows were a thick dark line of hair. There was a black splotch covering his neck—it was too dark to make out what it was. He plopped down in a corner and ordered a bottle of baijiu, potent grain liquor.
Just before Ouyang had left his office, she had told him what the stalker looked like. This man seemed to fit the bill. Lee kept an eye on the mirror and an ear on the singer. She switched to Japanese for her next song, then Shanghainese. The suspect poured a cup of baijiu and carefully sipped at it. That or he was just pretending to drink it.
Ouyang worked the stage, fluidly switching languages and pitches. The man stayed rock-still, drinking mechanically. Lee cast his eye over the audience every now and then, but he didn’t see anyone else who matched the description she gave him.
When Ouyang finished her last song and went backstage, the man in the cheap suit sprang to life. He downed what was left in his cup and paid the bill. He tapped his foot repeatedly.
Ouyang reappeared, dressed in a green shawl and matching cheongsam. Audience members surged forward to greet her. The man in the suit got up, digging his hands into his pockets. Lee got up and followed.
“He’s trying something,” Lee said. “Let’s go.”
The man in the suit made his way through the crowd, shoving people out of the way. Lee worked a different tack, slipping through holes that formed in front of him, firmly pushing only when he had to, while keeping an eye on the back of the man’s head. The man jostled his way to the front, ignoring Lee as he slid in just behind him, stopping right in front of Ouyang.
The man whispered something. A woman shouted at Lee, drowning out what he said.
Ouyang’s face paled, her mouth opening ever so slightly.
The man’s right hand rose from his pocket, revealing a handgun.
Lee slipped in, seized the weapon in both hands, and wrested it up. The man pulled the trigger, and the pistol discharged harmlessly into the ceiling.
Lee startled. The crowd dissolved into shrieks and screams. The man resisted, trying to force his arm back down. Lee wrestled with him, keeping the gun pointed high, and the stalker fired once more. Out the corner of his eye, Lee saw the civilians ducking and running. Lee lashed out with his knee, connecting with the man's thigh. The gunman's stance crumbled. Grabbing the shooter's wrist with his right hand, Lee twisted into him, taking him off balance—

—the body slammed to the ground. Lee pried the pistol out of unresisting hands and pointed it at the man’s chest.

Blood oozed out of the entry wound. Claret mixed with gray and white matter on the floor. The man's eyes bulged out of his head. The world smelled of death and gunpowder and fresh soap. The body twitched and jerked erratically. Lee scanned the crowd and saw them retreat before him.
Wong caught up, badge in one hand and handgun in the other.
“He’s dead,” Lee pronounced.
The detective leaned over and felt for a pulse.
"He's dead," Wong confirmed.
Ouyang tottered over to Lee, clinging to his left arm.
“Oh my God,” she said. “He was…I was…are you…”
“I’m okay. Are you hurt?”
“No, no.” She sniffled. “I’m okay. I’m…I thought, I thought you were…”
Lowering the pistol, Lee held her close. “I’m fine.”
“Thank you. I’m so… thankful.”
She sobbed softly into his neck. Her breath warmed his neck, his ear, his cheek.
“Ahem,” Wong said.
Lee let her go.
Wong held out his hand. “I need the weapon.”
Lee inspected the gun. A Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless. Pointing it to at the ground, he ejected the magazine with and racked the slide. A shiny bullet spun out of the ejection port, bouncing off against the floor. Lee reversed his grip and handed the pistol to the cop butt-first.
“I’m going to call for backup,” Wong said. “Do you need a doctor?”
Ouyang shook her head. “I’m fine. We’re fine.”
“Lee, I’m going to need your statement.”
Lee sighed. “Let’s wait until we get to the station.”
Wong nodded. “You two stay here and don’t touch anything.”
“Understood,” Lee said.
She held him again. They stayed that way until uniformed patrolmen flooded the club.
“Good news is, we’re ruling it self-defence,” Wong said. “Clearly a tragic accident by someone who had it coming. You’re free to go.”
Lee rapped his fingers against the heavy wooden table. In the interview room, it was just him and Wong and four silent walls.
“That means there’s bad news.”
“The dead man is Lin Da Hai. Triad. Hatchet man for Tang Zhong Sheng. You remember him, he's the Dragon Head who owns a fifth of the city."
Lee remembered. During his time in the Reserve Unit he'd clashed with Tang's triad more than a few times.
“Did Tang send Lin after the girl?”
Another, more pronounced shrug.
“You don't know, or you don't want to know?”
“It doesn't matter. Your work is done. The stalker is dead. Case closed.”
“Really? Work with me here. That guy looked like a crazy fan to you? What kind of obsessed idiot follows a woman around, does his damnedest to avoid being noticed, doesn’t even try to contact her, just tries to shoot her?” He leaned forward. “That’s not a stalker. That’s a killer.”
Wong’s face hardened to stone. “Leave this alone. This is police business now.”
“I never thought you’d leave a case alone.”
“You were a great detective, Lee. One of the best. But you’re out now. And we’re dealing with triads. Tang may hesitate to send a hatchet man after me. But you don’t have a badge or uniform anymore. It’s done. Get on with your life.”
The man exchanged icy glares over a rocky abyss. A lifetime later, Lee slapped his palms on the table and stood.
“I'm leaving,” Lee said.
“An excellent decision,” Wong replied.
Wong escorted Lee out. The detective saw the civilian all the way to the evidence room, lingering long enough for Lee to gather his things, and disappeared, leaving Lee to head out by his lonesome.
She was waiting in the lobby, a hat pulled low over her head. Looking up, she smiled at his arrival.
“Hey,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Been better. You were waiting for me?”
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
They left the polite fiction at that. Walking her to the door, the wet heat of a Shanghai summer slammed into his face.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked.
He exhaled sharply, briefly forgetting he wasn’t expelling a lungful of hot smoke. And abruptly grinned at her. “Where should I send the invoice to?”
She laughed. “You’ve prepared one?”
“It’s at my office.”
She brushed her arm lightly against his side. “Let’s go. You can hand it to me there.”
Neither of them owned a car. They settled for walking to the nearest tram station. With the hat she wore, no makeup, flat shoes, she was no longer the Shanghai Songbird, just another pretty face in the crowd. People paid more attention to Lee, if only to decide where he fit on the East-West spectrum. He kept his head down, watching for passers-by and stray garbage, until a thought hammered his brain.
“What did he say?” Lee asked.
“Who?” Ouyang answered.
“The shooter. He said something to you. What was it?”
“I…the police didn’t tell you?”
“They said it was none of my business. What did he say to you?”
“He said…he said, ‘Mr. Tang sends his regards.’”
“You know this Tang guy?”
She bit her lip. “Tang Zhong Sheng.”
“The triad Dragon Head.”
“Yes. The Commissioner was…very interested in going after him.”
“And now Tang is very interested in going after you.”
“Yes.” She shuddered. “I don’t…I don’t think this is over. I don’t feel safe. The Commissioner doesn’t want to protect me, but Tang…”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but Lee caught Ouyang’s eyes narrow ever so slightly.
“What are you going to do?”
“Talk to him.”
“Talk to him? Really, Mr. Lee? That’s all you’re going to do?”
He laughed. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but many problems can be solved simply by talking to the right people the right way.”
She looked skeptically at him. “Well, the Commissioner used to talk a lot about Tang. He told me once Tang liked to have breakfast at the teahouse on Fangbang Road.”
“Thanks.” He chuckled. “Guess I have to hold on to that invoice.”
She pouted. “Going to charge me extra, huh?”
“Just seeing this case through to the end.”

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

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