In the passenger side of Lombardo’s cruiser, Furor watches as the wiper blades play a hypnotic game of tag back and forth across the windshield. The green number display on the dashboard clock shows it’s been a half hour since their interview with the blind witness. Slicing through traffic on their way downtown, Furor keeps his eyes trained straight ahead. A minute later, after paralleling his car beside a fire hydrant near the edge of Chinatown, Lombardo turns. “Tomorrow morning, eight o’clock?”
Furor nods before laying his shoulder into the door. He’s got one foot on the sidewalk when Lombardo catches his left arm. Furor looks back, met by a pair of stone grey eyes.
When Lombardo doesn’t say anything, Furor lifts himself out of the car, slams the door behind him.
It was almost noon and he hadn’t eaten anything all morning. Amidst all the back-alley street markets, tiered pagodas, and sidewalk steam kitchens sits a dimly lit chopstick shop known as Chang’s Chow Mein. Negotiating a maze of pocket-sized alleyways, he approaches a short stairway flanked on either side by a pair of lion statues.
Inside, the restaurant glows red.
Through a pair of black, swinging doors near the back, waitresses, dressed in traditional qipao-style dresses with gold trim, clamber in and out, hoisting steamy plates of food. Seated cross-legged atop large silk pillows, the only voices you hear are male as they laugh, argue, and belch while slurping their food. Beside them, female patrons sit reserved, smiling when appropriate, but otherwise attracting little attention to themselves. As the men carry on boisterous conversations, it’s not uncommon to hear them hollering after the waitresses to kuai dain, or hurry up.
Furor steps to the counter where he’s greeted by a young woman. Her face, a picture of symmetry, is flat and flawless, her smile fixed like that of a porcelain China doll. She offers a cordial, “Kung hei fat choi.”
“Is it Chinese New Year already?” he asks.
Her head draws back in surprise. “You speak Chinese?”
Furor shrugs. “I’ve managed to appropriate a few phrases.”
“Then you’re familiar with the legend,” she says.
“There’s a legend about the New Year?”
She laughs, “Not the New Year, the dragon.”
He shakes his head.
“Table for one?” she asks.
“Near the window if possible.”
“Right this way,” she says. On the way to his table she continues. “The new year festival is a celebration of the death of the Nian. The Nian,” she explains, “was a dragon. The legend goes back thousands of years and tells how every year, on New Year’s Day, the Nian would come looking to devour the bodies of young virgins. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food on their porches hoping to spoil the Nian’s appetite. One year, the people decided to rid themselves of the Nian, once and for all. So, each person put a plate of poisoned fish on their porch for the monster to eat. When the Nian ate the food, it began to choke. Unable to breathe, it began scratching and tearing at its throat until it collapsed dead on the ground. Every year after that, the villagers would celebrate by hanging lanterns and red spring scrolls recounting the victory on their windows and doors. Firecrackers are now used to frighten away the spirit of the Nian, to keep it from returning to haunt the people.”
“Does it work?” he asks, taking a seat at the table facing the front window.
She smiles, “Do you believe in dragons?”
“I believe in something much worse,” he says.
Unsure how to respond, she offers him a menu and an articulated bow.
A moment later, the waitress appears, laying out a set of tea dishes, which she fills with green tea before taking his order.
As she leaves, he turns to stare absently out the window, watching the street clamor with heavy foot traffic.
For a while, he skips from one passing face to another until the images blur and his vision gradually recedes behind the lens of his own eyes. Reaching deep into his memory bank, all other senses dull as his mind once again fills with images of her.
From a payphone outside her building, he sits staring up at her window, waiting for her to pick up the phone.
“Nǐ chīfàn le ma?” she answers.
“Is that how you say ‘hello’ in Chinese?”
“The literal translation is, ‘Have you eaten, yet?’ But, yes, that’s the standard Chinese greeting. It’s like asking, ‘How’s it going?’ in English.”
“Are you sure you’re not offering to come over and cook for me?”
“I will if you want me to,” she laughs.
“Something tells me you’re no good in the kitchen,” he says.
“The kitchen maybe, but you’ve got other rooms, haven’t you? I can’t be bad in all of them.”
“You know there’s a parade going on down here.”
“It’s New Years, Max.”
“So, you’re coming down?”
The night is full of energy. As flickers of lightning electrify the sky, the sidewalks swarm with people crammed together and jostling to catch a glimpse of one of the many decorative floats winding their way through the riotous streets of Chinatown. The two arrive at the back of the crowd. Looking around, Max spots a streetlamp with a squared base, just big enough to fit a foot on either side. Taking her by the hand, together they climb up, him on one side, her on the other. With a clear view of the parade, they watch as men with painted faces and torches blow short bursts of fire from their mouths. All around them, several women with brightly colored dresses and sandal wood fans flit about in choreographed circles.
Behind them, two men, walking single file, hoist a long pole with a large metal gong over their shoulders. Another follows, mallet in hand, dancing and striking the resonating instrument every few seconds. The gong blast barely registers over the noise of the spinning firework wheels held by the men in Chinese opera masks behind them. As the wheels screech and spark, different colored smoke streams from the twirling ends created large clouds of purple, yellow, orange, and green. The procession continues with a series of ornamented floats, some with dancers, some with costumed characters, one with Chinese acrobats, and another carrying a twenty-foot-tall golden Buddha statue. The round-bellied god is surrounded by even rows of men in grey tunics draped with black tabards, molded shoulder pieces, and black coolie hats.
Amidst the sidewalk horde, men with long sticks hoisted into the air are selling everything from dragon masks and fireworks to replicas of the conical shaped hats. As one of the long sticks brushes past, she reaches out, tugs a hat off the rack. Placing it on his head, she does her best to squeeze the narrowing lid onto his forehead before tightening the chinstrap.
“Do I look Chinese?” he hollers.
“You look like Raiden from Mortal Kombat.”
A sudden explosion draws their attention back to the parade where a confetti canon, mounted to the base of a float, has just littered the sky with millions of tiny, multi-colored pieces of square papers. As confetti rains, a low rumbling thunder echoed across the lightning pulsed sky. With the crowd’s attention directed heavenward, the sky opens its big black mouth, unleashing a flood of torrential rain.
Struck by waves of lashing rain, the crowd scatters, clearing the sidewalks and sending people scrambling for cover. Acting quickly, Max shakes off his coat, throws it over the two of them as they dash into the melee of men and women cutting straight lines in every direction. Sprinting across the rain-slicked sidewalk, they dodge in and out of the frenzied shuffle of bodies. When a stiff body knocks against her shoulder and sends her tumbling backwards, she reaches frantically for his arm. Reacting to the fall of her body, he does his best to wrap his arm around her waist. But as her feet continue to slide out from under her, it’s all he could do to bring his leg securely beneath her back so that she lands bent over his knee like dancers at the conclusion of a waltz.
Bowed over her, he finds himself absorbing the delicate contours of her cheeks and the perfectly shaped features of her mouth with lips so soft and beckoning, as she sits, laughing wildly in the face of the open skies. And, in that moment, it’s as if the world ceases to spin atop its axis. Time becomes irrelevant. The commotion around them slows to a standstill. Even the raindrops appear not to fall, suspended, as it were, in midair. As their eyes meet, hers draw to an inviting close.
He leans in.
As his mouth meets hers everything suddenly goes dark. Color drains from her lips, veins appear in streaks across her cheeks and forehead. The life empties from her eyes. Blood spills down her blouse. A gurgling sound lurches up from her throat. There’s a rush of footsteps as a flurry of movement rises behind him. In the darkness, a small, white hand reaches out, takes hold of his shoulder.
Furor leaps back.
“More tea, sir?” the waitress offers, smiling.
Filled with confusion, he scans the restaurant. The dining area continues to hum with customers.
Swallowing hard, he nods. “Yes… yes, please.”
Porcelain clinks as he lifts the cup from the saucer, hot tea splattering on the counter. He sets the cup down, wraps one hand with the other.