Thomas Denis Gibney

FICTION

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POETRY

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SOUND

The Incidents; An (Optional) Appendix

 

Δ

“—I’ll be perfectly honest with you, Vicky, I’m not too sure I’m comfortable with what this book is trying to say.”

The Hank Paulson-looking figure kept nodding in the corner and going “Mm. Mm.”

“—And you know how I try to put myself in the mind of the child, as in what would a child think.”

“I see what you’re saying, Rex.”

“—And here I am I’m reading this book, and I’m thinking as I’m reading this—”

“With you, chief. Just jotting some notes on this post-it pad right here.”

“—Right. And I’m being perfectly honest with you. I mean I think we could all agree that I make a conscious effort when I do this. How I try to empathize with the child, how I try to think like a child.”

“And you are very good at that, sir, is the overarching consensus.”

“Mm. Mm.”

“—And here I am I’m reading this and being perfectly honest with myself as I’m reading this, and I’m starting to think about it as honestly and objectively as possible and I’m like—and this is the realization I’m coming to, as I’m reading it—”

“I’m all ears, chief.”

“—And I’m like, if I can’t even get my head around this, as a publisher and an editor, and well just as a human being, trying to put himself in the child’s position, then what in Jim Henson is a child gonna think about it?”

Mm.

“—But then the other side of the cookie is that we announced this contest on the back of a cereal box, for the love of. I mean I know we’re a quote alternative press—”

“For families not interested in the traditional capitalist narratives and Judeo-Christian moralisms of the available English-language children’s literature—”

“—The available—right. And I know we’re strapped Vicky and going through the same post-Web 2.0 mid-life crisis that every publishing house big and small is going through right now, even a child would know that, for crying out loud.”

“Mmmm-mmmmmm.”

“—But like I’m sitting here realistically and I’m thinking to myself—and I’m being completely honest here—and I’m just like, this is in no way shape or form appropriate or even digestible for the Under-5 set.”

“And yet the pickings were slim, we had all agreed. Bergie? Were we in agreement on that fact?”

“Mm mm mm mm mm.”

“—Right. Vicky. Yes. You are right. And regarding which we can’t just out and say Whoops looks like we’re not declaring a winner after all, or just out and not say anything at all, surely that would be bad form?”

“We’d sure have a lot of complaint letters coming in from contestants wondering what happened to their manuscripts.”

“—We could just send out rejection letters to all of them? As in a nice form letter, a gentle ‘We appreciate the truly stellar quantity of submissions we received for our inaugural General’s Mill contest and so with much regret we must resort to this form response—’”

“Like there’s already this guy from Grinnell’s written in five times asking would we kindly let him know when he can start signing the papers, we can forward all correspondence to his agent, etc., which I seriously doubt he has an agent, as he’s given a different name each time. For the agent.”

“—Surely presses have done that before? Just scrapped the contest in the end because of the, eh, woeful quality of submissions? On the whole?”

“Mm.”

“I’m just envisioning a PR nightmare with that, Rex, if I can be honest here. I mean we shucked out some cashage to announce that contest on every limited edition box of Sugar Ring Puffs and Bran o’ Wars.”

“—They’d expect a winner, ’s what you’re saying.”

“From what I can tell from incoming correspondence, they all expect to be the winner, sir.”

“—We did advertise on a whole lot of cereal boxes. Where’s Grinnell?”

“Iowa. Corn country. Only reason I know this is because of the five times, like I said.”

“—Okay so in other words we’ve got to, unavoidably, must needs select a winner, as in someone’s got to take the cake and we’ve got to publish it.”

“Mm.”

“Rex, if I may— we’ve known from the start this was a leap of faith, this whole getting involved in the indie thing.”

“—Right.”

“And I feel that, yes, we’ve had some controversial titles in the past.”

“—The Sword Swallower’s Son comes to mind.”

“Right. And the one about the constipated cat. What was that one called? Bergie? What was that one called?”

“Mm mm mmmmm.”

“Oh yes. The Maddening Misadventures of Monstrositus and Feliney.

“—The one where every fourth line rhymed with ‘bracken’.”

“That’s the one. And just let us recall that this whole cereal campaign was another big leap, one of those close-your-eyes-and-do-it moments that any renegade press, children’s lit or whatever, confronts with, inevitably, we know. I mean we needed this. And the response was overwhelming.”

“—I never knew how many adults read the backs of kid’s cereal boxes.”

“And how many of them were aspiring children’s authors.”

“—How many of them had like, manuscripts just waiting up their sleeves to send off.”

“And so the response was overwhelming. Mediocre, but overwhelming.”

“—I’m with you, Vicky. And it’s not that this one isn’t good—”

“It’s got a certain freshness to it, Rex. A certain…”

“………”

“…Yeah, freshness. Is I guess the word.”

“Mm mm.”

“And on top of the fact that it’s the only really worthwhile submission we’ve got, I just can’t help but feel, reading this manuscript, that we—Flying Trouser—we’re at another of those chasms again. Another close-your-eyes moment.”

“—It does have some nice illustration work. Graphic, but nice.”

“We can edit that.”

“—But Vicky am I completely being just too honest here and have I like psyched myself out of the child mentality or what? Cause my principle reservation with this text, you know, I think we all know, aside from its being unintelligible here and there—”

“We can edit that.”

“—is like, and this is what I’m thinking to myself as I’m reading it, is I mean there’s some serious moral territory this book’s getting into that I’m not sure even adults are capable of really swallowing, and besides the fact there’s a kind of, a kind of, doom to it all that I’m just not sure. I mean I know we’re an alternative press. We’ve been publishing marginalized children’s literature for what, six years now. I’m just being honest here.”

“Bergie?”

“Mm!”

“I know what you mean, chief. And there’s that description of the bloody beak. Which we can edit, I’m fairly confident.”

“—I mean I think we have to consider that yes, on the one hand, Flying Trouser Press is the gold standard in alternative children’s literature—”

“And yet respected enough that we can work out a tax-deductible ad deal on the back of a very popular line of sugary kid’s cereals.”

“—Yes—right—and but that standard needs to be upheld, we can all agree, but on the other hand we have to think about the fact that our authors and the books we put out are essentially, and I’m just trying to empathize here with the parents who are buying our books and what it might look like to them, and what they’re thinking in terms of trying to think what their children would think—so like thinking like a child through the eyes of the parent, is what I’m trying to do here—we have to think about the extent to which we’re endorsing the message of these books, and how that’s gonna look, to the eyes of the parents who are trying to make rational and wholesome purchases for their children.”

“I’m with you, sir. All ears.”

“Mm.”

“—And so what I think what it comes down to is are we willing, is Flying Trouser willing, to put its name to a book that essentially posits a very advanced and seriously noggin-racking moral predicament and then follows through with a, uh, I guess the only word is controversial, solution which we are in effect endorsing with the publishing of this book?”

“Mmmmmmmm.”

“—Am I crazy?”

“I think we’ve ID’d what exactly is the issue here, Rex, without a doubt.”

“—I mean is this book gonna be our undoing? Be honest with me, Vicky.”

“You’re the jefe, chief. And you know I respect your empathy and the way you think like a child does. And I just can’t help but throw this out there, maybe, that sometimes maybe the problem is that as adults we can’t think as the child does. That we’re beyond it. Irretrievable. –bly.”

“Mm.”

“And that maybe, I don’t know, just throwing this out there, that maybe the thing about it is that children can maybe wrap their heads around this, what’d you call it, predicament more than, I mean better than, we can. As in they’re closer or at a point better where this kind of situation isn’t so, unsettling. Like they get it.”

“—As in like we’re overthinking it, as adults? As adults trying to think like children?”

“And not just that, chief. That in some unpolluted way the predicament isn’t so, erm, predicate. To them. Or that they can’t even really be bothered by it. That kind of choice hasn’t acquired the sort of moral baggage we now as adults associate it with. As adults.”

“—I’m reminded now of that story about the tiger and Blackie. The one my mum read to me every night before I went to sleep.”

“Yes, the beginning of your love for children’s books.”

“—I know, I’ve told it before.”

“We’re all ears.”

“—No, it’s just that…I mean the whole time I never once questioned the Blackie part. Never thought about it. I mean this was a different era.”

“It was a different era.”

“—But as a child, it might as well have been the Stone Age. I didn’t know anything about coloreds and PC language and discrimination. Never occurred to me. The fact that this really cherished book of mine which was really successful in its day too I might add had at its core a blatant racial smirch on it, that it named one of its characters a name which to black people today—is that the right word?—today would be, I mean, seriously insulting—none of that even occurred to me.”

“Nor to your mother.”

“—Nor to my mother. And yet the book was magical in spite of or notwithstanding that.”

“Hold that thought, Rex. Bergie? Wanna say something?”

“Mm mmm mm Mm mm Mm Mmmm Mm mmm Mm mmmmmmm mm.”

“Right. It appears we’re all in agreement, sir.”

“—So we’re gonna do this? We’re gonna take the leap?”

“It’s your call, chief. But personally, when I look at the whole of it, and the thought of dealing with the cornucopia of Grinnell-bound correspondence, forgive the pun—”

“—Granted.”

“—and it seems to me that Emphatic Corpse is just about the best juice we’re gonna get from this squeeze, right now, and the people at General’s Mill are getting anxious, I might add.”

Mmmmmmmmm.

Rex slapped the table. “—Then it’s done. Get this Green fellow on the line this afternoon and draw up a rough itinerary. The fly-up, the all-expenses, the press showcase which we’ll invite him to, to like meet the family and all that.”

“He’s local, actually, sir. Address right here in Manhattan.”

“—Even better. Thrilling. I’m realistically leaping. —Vicky, be honest with me. Are we going with this?”

She smoothed her businesswoman’s lapel. “I think we’ve already decided, sir.”

 

 

 

THE FIRST RECALLABLE SENSATION OF SADNESS XAVIER LEVI RECALLED HAVING FELT
{day 2 / into day 3 of the All-Substance Cold Turkey}

 

The ceiling was white. The sheets were white, when he flipped over and tore at them with his teeth. The hum of the air con was vaguely white. He tore and thrashed in the bed. No more than what seemed like ten minutes or twenty minutes and he was up, switching the air con on or off, in intervals, like that. The ceiling was going in and out of view. He managed to sleep and then he woke up sweating in a freeze and sprang to shut off the air con. His head hummed. You pussy, said the thought. If any of those pacts with God struck between clenched teeth while bowled over in fetal hunch over toilet bowls or over tile and inexact grout meant anything, they were coming back to haunt him now, to extract every last ounce of blood and breath from his carcass. He dry-wept at all those false pacts, of swearing up and down to never so much as bat an eyelid at a bottle of disinfectant-grade whiskey again, God, never, swear on my life I’ll never just spare me this one miserable morning of my—and then doing it all over again the next night. It was daytime now. Technically hangovers are just very acute episodes of withdrawal. Dehydration and detoxification of the dregs of the night’s medicine, paralyzing the body for want of more. They were child’s play compared to this white room and white teeth and the hum. This was acute and not ending, this forty-eighth hour. What a fucking pussy, said the thought. He didn’t know why the memory materialized in the toilet bowl’s grimed white, the same grimed white of his brain. It was rushing back to him, the great weight of seeing her, a perfect stranger, how alone and grotesque. There were clamors down below his second-floor Sham Shui Po window. A little potted echinopsis’ tendril shriveling on the sill. Since mom had moved to a cliff in Positano, Dr. Levi had said, we’re going to take a trip, just you and I, Xavmeister. He was too young to know how old he was. ‘Where’s A Cliff In Positano?’ Xavier asked. ‘It’s far away from here,’ Dr. Levi said, his mustache looking vigorous and vinegar-dark from the toothpaste he kept brushing it with on the recalled morning. Xavier saw him from the bathroom door, watching him lean into the mirror, watching him brush the toothpaste on his lip, which was sure a strange thing to do with toothpaste. ‘But you and me, we’ll have a big old time, Caesar.’ The toilet bowl stank of familiar poisons. ‘Mommy’s never missed a trip.’ A wooden cross was manacled to the wall above the hand towel, to the memory’s room’s wall. ‘That oughta do it.’ He rinsed the strange toothbrush in the sink, and the toothpaste turned the water dark. Dr. Levi was a big man. His bowed shoulders and portly girth spoke of muscle more than ale. They spoke of farmwork. Xavier said he didn’t understand. ‘Come on, you and your questions. Caesar doesn’t ask, Caesar commands!’ And he roared after Xavier down the hall, Xavier’s tiny five-or-so-year-old’s T-shirt coming down to just barely the elastic bandline of his tidy-whiteys as he barefooted away and Dr. Levi lumbered after in his suspenders and long-sleeves, giving chase for a couple of rooms. Xav didn’t notice the empty jewelry boxes in Maman’s and Papa’s bedroom or that the mirror opposite the fireplace was gone. He wanted to know if they were going to A Cliff In Positano too. Dr. Levi said something about did Caesar say Whither? when history lightly slugged him on the shoulder and told him he was bound for greatness? Xav wasn’t sure if he should ask what whither meant, so he just kept quiet. The sun was getting on in the sky when they climbed in the car and drove away from the farmhouse to the train station. Xavier was bowled over the toilet bowl. The string of saliva swung and spiraled into the pool of the toilet bowl. He didn’t know why he was remembering this. They were boarding a train. Xavier only saw his mother twice a year after that. She kept her bed warm with a neo-Jungian analyst with hair like silverfish and a fat German belly. He had at least twenty years on her. The train took a long time to arrive, he was remembering, in terms of children’s time. She was not the same woman when she remarried. She had turned into a macrobiotic health nut and would send little Xavier trial boxes of granola bars and protein shakes for his birthdays. It seemed all she ever ate were bars, brans, and powders now. About the only thing the neo-Jungian analyst was interested in was how Xavier dreamed. The bowl rippled with the string of saliva, one long strand, hanging like pastry icing from his lip. It was slightly yellow. The familiar taste of bile. And then the analyst would make a circumspect dive of his chin that never to Xavier indicated approval. At best it seemed to indicate a kind of smug pity. The silverfish furrowed beneath the creases in his skin. Dr. Levi moved quietly through the rooms during the visits, shuffling things. He received more and more patients to the house those days. Xavier was confused. While waiting for the train the wind did not blow. It was hot. The station was deserted. The streets below were all aclamor with the shouts of fabric wholesalers and the slamming of car doors, as Xavier’s head was doing the remembering and his belly was bracing to vomit. Just last night amid the stuttered awakenings and the stretches of half-sleep he thought he’d glimpsed the echinopsis’ floral nub probing the face of the window. Dr. Levi grew less strong in Xavier’s mind. The globed shoulders seemed to strain at an imaginary harness. What was he pulling? Xavier dry-heaved. Eventually the train pulled up. ‘When’s mommy coming back from A Cliff In Positano?’ The analyst kept something of a mansion where he received his clients. He led weekend-long and intensive week-long dream camps where people could pay for guided dream practice and drink intentional water. He receives a lot of clients, she said. He’s a busy man. He’s distinguished. The toilet bowl was white and lined with yellow grime. They were about to board the train. Against the window ajar on its hinge, which Xavier could not see, his head bowled in the toilet, in the closet of a washroom that was his Sham Shui Po shower/toilet installation, the echinopsis oxygona’s mortal tendril, with its one pink-white flaccid bud, was flaking upon the sill and shedding its pink-white petals. That was when the old woman apparitioned out of nowhere. She had an old tin coffee can in one hand. Dragging behind her a luggage sack as big as her body. But that wasn’t the disturbing part. ‘You and me, Caesar, we’re gonna have a grand time.’ She was bent over backwards, literally, her body bowled at a ninety degree angle but backwards, the netherregion of her crotch thrust out so her legs had to unstick themselves from the ground with each step, her skin drooping like a hound’s, Mediterraneanly charred—the whole of her dragging crabwise, like a botched exorcism. The tin can rattled. The people hurried past without daring to show they’d noticed. Every evening the echinopsis opens its trumpet of a tendril toward the window and the smoggy moonlight, announcing its pink-white carry-on. Xavier was transfixed. The pool in the toilet bowl was sad and serene and it seemed to project this image of the crocky old woman dragging down the station platform towing a Santa’s sack of engorged ornaments. The air con hummed in and out. Everyone scattered as the train whistle blew. Xavier thought of how you can get crabs from toilet bowls, he’d heard at university sex-ed orientation, and so to be careful. ‘Come on, Xav,’ said the doctor. ‘You don’t want any part of that,’ was what he said. She was one leg at a time at paces excruciating. Come morning, the trumpet appendage wilted and the flower died away, to birth a new one the next evening. The pink-white an ephemeral badge. His chest felt struck. He would remember this later as a great weight. For a person he didn’t know. He felt responsible. Dr. Levi guided him onto the train. He took the window seat before Xavier took it. ‘Come on. Let’s think of something else to think about.’ The strand of saliva fell from his mouth and into the yellowed pool. And then he could only see the station moving backward as the train gathered speed, the old woman a smaller and smaller speck on the window. Xavier dry-heaved a second time. The fabric dealers were shouting their wares. The pool trembled and the yellowed image got mangled. Life was just as sad without drugs as it was with drugs. Things were maybe clearer but just as sad. As a child you feel all kinds of things. He lay there clutching the toilet and quivering. Echinopsis oxygona: native to South Brazil, Uruguay, and northern Argentina. Echinos meaning hedgehog or sea urchin; opsis meaning appearance, distinguished from other cacti by the length of the flower tube and the position on the stem occupied by the flowers. How to undo that gulf of not feeling? Some slamming of truck hatches and some whelping of something Middle-Eastern. A hot plume between the window swept the rest of the dead petals away. Xavier breathed amid the white hum of the air con. The petals danced around the window, and fell, some in and some out.

 

 

 

Δ

 

 

 

 

APPENDIX A. A COMPENDIUM OF THE SELECTED WORKS
OF PEDRO PARANÁ    {a running catalogue}

 

  1. Dragon Versus Phoenix. A martial arts novel in five parts.
  2. Girl Carrying Lantern. Stories.
  3. Subtly Awash with Terror and Other Stories. Short fiction. Stories.
  4. Return of the Sumptuous Wuhan Beauty. A martial arts novel.
  5. La Araucana: A Modern-Day Rewrite. Reinterpretation of the Chilean classic, La Araucana, told in the wuxia [martial arts novel] style.
  6. The Dao of Revenge: Part I. A martial arts novel.
  7. Dragon-Riders of the Wild Frontier. “  ”.
  8. 18 Aymara Assassins. An encyclopedia of eighteen of the most feared and little-known Bolivian kung fu masters of the early-to-late colonial period.
  9. Last Stand of the Concubine. A martial arts novel.
  10. The Dao of Revenge: Part II. “  ”. [Henceforth referred to here as The Dao of Revenge: Part II(a) or DORII(a), for purposes of disambiguation.]
  11. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(b). Rewrite. Author pronounces previous version null.
  12. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(c). Rewrite. Author pronounces previous two versions null ad mortem.
  13. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(c2). Alternate ending to the third draft of The Dao of Revenge: Part II(a) [DORII(c)].
  14. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(c2-2). Alternate ending to the alternate ending to the third draft of DORII(a).
  15. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(d). Rewrite. Author pronounces all previous versions of DORII(a) indisputably and unequivocally null.
  16. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(b2). The author, having decided the DORII, version (b), was in fact the superior draft, but wishing to incorporate elements from the third, alternate third, and alternate- alternate third drafts, forthwith declares all versions null except for the revived DORII(b), then changes the ending.
  17. Blood in the Maté: Stories. Micro/flash fiction. “Classic” wuxia novels rewritten in 140 characters or less.
  18. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(b2-2). Alternate ending to the revised, alternate ending of the [original] DORII(b).
  19. Death of an Era. A martial arts novel.
  20. Santiagueñitas. Micro-microfiction. Largely unintelligible. Uncertain whether it was intended for web circulation.
  21. The Dao of Revenge: Part II(a). Re-release. Author declares original, original DORII(a) to be definitive and all subsequent versions null.
  22. All You Wanted to Know about Serial Wuxia Novels on the Internet (But Were Afraid to Ask). Self-help/psychology.
  23. Staring down Death through a Telescope Lens: The Selected Early Wuxia of Pedro Paraná. Anthology/stories.
  24. The Once and Future Eunuch. A martial arts novel in twelve or thirteen parts, depending.
  25. The Metalogues. Philosophy/fiction. Metatextual conversations among various characters from the author’s stories, on topics ranging from pedagogy and pugilism to abortion, just war theory, and the afterlife.
  26. The Dao of Revenge: Part III. The definitive end to the DOR series.
  27. The Dao of Revenge: Part III(b). “  ”, with an alternate ending.

 

 

 

 

 

Δ

There were some things he didn’t like about living with her. He didn’t like that she didn’t dry her hands after washing them. Just flicked the water off on the floor and smoothed her palms on her pants. It was the same when she drank from his glasses. He could picture her propped up on the bed, the small tumbler in her lap, her shades perched on her nose, beads of condensation prickling the glass, reading a book. He could see her lifting the tumbler to her lips and could hear the sound the ice made as it shimmied in the glass. The condensation would drip all over the sheets. Then she let her arm fall and the glass would just hang precariously over the rim of the bed like that, dripping everywhere. Some vodka-tomato might even slosh a bit on the floor. She looks up. ‘I do believe I’ll stay here for a few days.’ Tony was folding his white button-down, neatly laying it out for the morning with the trousers and the tanned gaucho belt his old friend had sent him from Argentina. And so he smiled at her. ‘Watch where you’re getting that juice, la.’ She drew up real fast and it sloshed some more. He didn’t like that she walked around barefoot and then got into bed. The closet behind Tony was open, the whole closet of identical white button-downs on hangers. She sticks out a tongue and makes a grossed-out face. Tony smiled. He was a handsome turtle, no doubt about that, Fish would remind him. The girls must get their money’s worth on you! ‘How long? I’m running out of tomato juice. And that horseradish is expensive, la.’ Who ever met a turtle as handsome as you! She put her book down. ‘Mmm, you know? I think I like these bloody Marys.’ ‘I noticed.’ She drew up to the window. Tony looked at her again. She was looking at something out the window. ‘Who are you hiding from anyway, la? Did you kill someone?’ ‘Oh hide me Romeo. I’m on the run! I’m shaking the law!’ He moved toward her. He leaned over the bed toward her, toward the open window. She had her arms on the sill and the glass dangling in one hand like that. Tony went, ‘I see your strategy. Straight into the lion’s den.’ She let him feel around the nape of her neck. She had white, astonished skin. ‘They’ll never think to find you here—’ ‘Whoops!’—the glass tinkled—‘all out!’ She sprang up and made for the fridge. Tony folded onto the sill. He peered out the window. Just the edge of the concrete park and the people passing there.

~

Tony was in the office when he got the call. Mornings in the annex involved first brewing the coffee and then checking the dispatcher’s records. Then you could sift through the night’s postings from the commissioner’s intranet bulletin. Later there was letter opening and letter typing on official Yau Ma Tei precinct headquarters letterhead that you stamped with the commissioner’s seal after the appropriate form response was chosen from the templates. Lau sat in the corner in a bell of smoke reading Apple Daily and then the South China Morning Post, in that order. What he did when he turned a page was he licked his fingers and then began pulling at it real slowly and then with a dramatic flick would flip it over. Guy sat across from him. Guy used to run around with all kinds of wasted excitement. But a few months was enough to corrode his newbie’s efficiency. Fish said you move that fast you run out of things to be bored with. When and if Fish came in before 8, it was to slump over the mahjong table and sweat. Guy licked his finger and held it up to the moldy air. Smells like an 80-proof morning, ladies. Tony held the burnt-smelling coffee to his lips. It made him think of urns. Lau put out one cigarette and fingered at the pack for another. Fish was face-down on the mahjong table. Tony waited for the old computer to load. He had some cold noodles from the Chongqing lady in their plastic to-go bowl in front of him. A fan whirled overhead. Guy let out a long whistle. Lau turned to the sports page. The computer stuttered and grunted. Fish didn’t move. Guy looked around for a reason to move. Lau moved his arm up to take a drag and moved it back down. The computer screen hadn’t moved. Yep, definitely an 80-proof morning, ladies, there’s no doubt about that. The fan whirred or chirped. There was the clatter of the bulk post down the chute. Lau turned a crinkly page with first a slow and then a swift flick of his wrist. The mahjong table was still in disarray. The PC stuttered and regurgitated a desktop background of scattered pines and gold-green lakes topped with idyllic pavilions.

Tony was in the office when he got the call. Sorry, bud, the fat voice went, no one’s home. Well, Tony went. There was a pause. Well, Tony went again. What’s this about anyway, man? said the voice. The new Death Squad V is out, you got it? Where you been anyway? Eight screen multiplayer. All new arsenals. We’re talking bazookas. Where you been anyway, man? Tony fingered at a seashell on his desk. You haven’t been over in ages, man. When you comin over? Bring me some of that chow mein from that place near where you work, laaa. His laaa was lengthy, garish, inflected. Alright then, Tony went. You better bring me that chow mein, laaa! Now don’t forget! The fat voice chortled. Tony put the receiver back. The phone rang again. Basement, Tony went. It was Fung. Take it or leave it, he went. And: You’ve got some fucking nerve, Chan. Tony said something in reply. Damn, you’ve got some nerve, Fung went. Now don’t go squealing to your father again. There was the hanging up of receivers. Can’t a man get some peace here? Fish moaned from the table. Guy looked up hopefully. It’s your lucky day, Tony said. He sprang to. Where to? Sham Shui Po. We got a body. I’m there, Guy said. Lau? Lau didn’t turn to look. No, you all go on without me. I’m there, Guy went again. Briefly, but not too briefly, Tony thought it was weird he was getting a call twice in three days. Had his father really called something in for him? He felt incompetent. Guy had already grabbed his jacket from the rack. What do you need that for? It makes me look official. The lid snapped-to on the plastic to-go bowl of noodles. It’s August, you know. Guy fumbled at some keys and made for the door. Tony licked his finger where the vinegar darkened with chilis had leaked down the side of the bowl and onto it, onto his finger.

~

At the end of the road was a ring of parked cars forming a semi-circle around the mouth of the alley. Tape had been rolled out and more cars were parked with their lights going farther up the street. A cop in sky blue directed traffic with a flashing baton. It seemed the area was a highly-trafficked one, by day. At night of course who knows what went on. Probably like most places in Sham Shui Po, there were people out in some pockets but soundless alleys whispering their silence in others. They approached the police tape; Tony’s sleeves were rolled up and his holster hanging flagrantly. There was a sense of repeating. He tried not to think of the déjà vu of going up the stairs and finding Leila. That was two days ago. There were some Sham Shui Po district officers shooting the shit by the mouth of the alley as Tony approached, with Guy by his side, and flashed his badge. This is a hell of a lot of shirts for a body in this neck of the woods, Tony said as he approached them. They looked annoyed that their shit had been interrupted. It took a certain kind of cop to work in Sham Shui Po. Chances were you’d grown up there. They were the kind of cops that instantly knew if you weren’t a cop working in Sham Shui Po. Put that away, one of them said. Where is she? Tony went. They laughed. Do you need a fucking sign? Tony pushed past them. Guy did a stiff upwards tip of his chin at them that looked like it was coming from someone trying to appear tougher than he really was. ‘Is it a girl?’ Guy asked, when they’d pushed past. There was some music wafting from an open upper window. Someone practicing the violin over a classical recording. It was all ties and sky blues beyond the tape. The alley wasn’t pleasant. It was just normal. A crowd congregated some paces ahead. Tony and Guy made for the crowd. The morning light careened among the aprons of tarp and hung laundry etched overhead. A police radio squeaked. No one turned to notice them. Fung’s thinning crown of hair was visible at about the same height as everyone else’s. Tony tried to walk up as somberly and nonchalantly as possible. Behind the ties there was a noticeable stench. No one was taking flash-bathed pictures like in the movies or in books. They stood at the edge. Fung whipped around. ‘What the hell, Chan, how long have you been there? Who’s that?’ he demanded, looking at Guy. He pulled Tony aside. Whoever it was practicing the violin, she was damn good, Tony thought. ‘Listen,’ Fung barked in low breaths. He had a toothpick lodged in like in the movies. ‘I don’t know who you think you are, but you wanna be important, that’s fine.’ Tony felt his blood boiling. Every ounce of dignity inside him was ramming against a wall. ‘Well I’ve got an idea for you.’ ‘I’m all ears,’ Tony said. Fung’s eye cocked. ‘Don’t get wise on me. This is something where you spill the juice you’re gonna get fucked in a serious way. Is that understood?’ ‘How about you tell me what the fuck’s going on, and then I tell you if I understand,’ Tony shot back. Fung took a step but that was all. ‘You’ve got some fucking nerve, Chan. The question is do you have a sense of national fucking responsibility. As in do you want some blood on your hands or what. What are you looking at, narc?’ Guy took a step away. ‘Get to the point,’ Tony said, and took a step forward. Fung countered with a finger to his chest. ‘This isn’t make-believe, you asshole. This is a body we don’t want on our hands.’ Tony took a breath. ‘Now, you wanna be a hero or what? As far as I’m concerned the precinct doesn’t know about this. And neither do you.’ He pitched his toothpick aside and yanked out a wad of tissues and blew. He looked pathetic to Tony. Pathetic enough to hit. ‘Moral is, you get rid of this right here and we’ll call it even.’ So this is what the big leagues are, Tony thought. ‘So you called me to take out the garbage,’ is what he said instead. ‘Consider it an internal advancement. I’ll put in a word for the asshole down in the basement.’ ‘How kind of you,’ Tony went. ‘Don’t get sentimental.’ ‘Are you gonna tell me anything about who it is?’ ‘That’s just it, asshole. He’s a gwailo. A mangled fucking ghost. Understand?’ ‘So what?’ ‘You’re an ass,’ Fung said. ‘He’s got no ID on him. Only this’—he gave him a Ziploc bag—‘and no known contacts here. We think we got to it early enough. The guy who called it in already got a good enough licking.’ ‘Jesus.’ ‘Welcome to the police force, Inspector Chan. Jesus, you’re a joke.’ Tony swallowed real hard. ‘Now don’t be an asshole. Do you want it or not?’ ‘I don’t think I have a choice now.’ ‘You’re damn right you don’t.’ ‘Jesus,’ Tony repeated. ‘What’s his name?’ ‘Emmanuel H. Christ,’ Fung went, punching the Ziploc cradled against Tony’s chest. That violin was fucking gorgeous. ‘Now we’re gonna scram in a second, you understand. Get that Peter Pan character of yours to pull the truck around.’ ‘We don’t have a truck.’ ‘I mean your fucking car, Chan, Jesus. Are you a cop or what? Just get rid of it, okay?’ Tony didn’t know what to say. ‘You can thank me later, when you’re standing at a podium one day saluting your pathetic career.’ ‘I’ll be sure and do that,’ Tony said. Fung walked off flicking at a cigarette. What are you looking at? Pull the truck around. Let him pull the truck around. Tony stood staring as some of the ties and the sky blues parted and some of them stayed, protectively. The figure was curled at a wiry angle on the ground. The violin soared in coda. The face was covered. There was no chalk like in the movies. Tony bent down to negotiate the tarpaulin. There were some shouts as the officers at the mouth of the alley pulled their cars around and the tape was cut down. ‘What do we do now?’ Guy asked. ‘Just act like you know what you’re doing,’ Tony said. He couldn’t take his eyes off the puddle of dried blood beneath the head.

 

 

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