The Naked Eye - A Trilogy

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Chapter 7

At a walk-up kitchen with a counter and stools on the sidewalk, Furor stares in at a one-room, grease and smoke-filled kitchen and a woman in a traditional white Chinese chef coat and tall, brimless toque hat with pleats taking orders. He puts in for a plate of moo shu pork, shrimp dumplings, a side of lo mein noodles and three egg rolls.

“You know,” Lombardo says, stabbing at the noodles with a pair of chopsticks, “no one would blame you for sitting this one out.”

Furor is quiet a moment. When he speaks, his voice is soft. “Did I ever tell you how we met?”

“Who? You and Jai Mei?”

“It was my first undercover assignment with vice, right here in Chinatown. I’d been a detective for all of two minutes when word comes down that I’m to go uncover and break-up an illegal trafficking ring.”

“Sex or drugs?”

“Fish.”

Lombardo tilts his head, sours his lips. “I don’t think you’ve ever told me this.”

“It came after the FDA intercepted an illegal shipment of tora-fugu, a poisonous fish, bound for Chinatown. Desperate to make an arrest, they reached out to us for help. Captain green-lighted the operation and somehow my name ended up at the top of a short list. Can you imagine, a six-foot-two, white guy undercover in Chinatown?”

“Sounds high-priority to me.”

“Yeah, well, it took six weeks, but I finally traced the deliveries to this restaurant, the Fung Shui. Four-stars, perfect food service inspection record, investors from here to Beijing. On paper, it was unassailable.

“But I needed to get inside, get a look at and taste of the menu. So, wearing a series of alternating disguises, I spent the next several weeks maxing the unit’s budget on hundred-dollar meals. Two or three times a week, I was in there, working my way through every kind of fish and seafood dish on the menu and smuggling samples back to the lab. But they all kept came back negative. Then, one day, I noticed a man slip the host what appeared to be a small, business card-sized voucher of some sort. The host studied it for a minute, nodded his head, then, afterwards, led the man to the back of the restaurant where he disappeared through a large green door with this ornate gold dragon relief. That night, several more people arrived, all with vouchers, all led through that same green door. Figuring this was the key to unlocking the mystery of the tora-fugu, I made a note of the day and time. Then, one week later, I returned and, sure as stilts, another dozen or so people holding these vouchers were led through this mysterious green door. The next week, it was the same thing. So, now I had a schedule. Every Wednesday at nine o’clock. All I needed then was one of those vouchers, which was easier said than done. However, I’d been watching closely and noticed that every time a customer presented one of those little cards, the host stamped it, then slipped it into his inner coat pocket. This meant I was going to have to fingersmith this guy without him seeing or noticing. Like I said, easier said than done.

“To prepare myself for the operation I went back to this low-end, pay-by-the-week flat the department had put me up in, rolled-up the feather mattress, tied it with some rope I’d purchased on my way home, and strung it up on this lamp hook in the ceiling. I then threw my suit coat over it, and, for the next two weeks, practiced pulling business cards from the inner coat pocket without making the mattress sway.

“Once I’d perfected the technique, it was time to pay another Wednesday night visit to the Fung Shui. Only this time, instead of taking my usual seat at a table, I was leaned up against the bar, nursing some overpriced Chinese vodka, waiting for an opening. The moment came as the host was escorting a party of four voucher holders to the back door just as a tray hoisting waitress approached from the opposite direction. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Two steps from sliding past them, the waitress crossed right behind me. I reared up my left foot as I came spinning off the stool, clipping her across the shin. She stumbled forward. The host, seeing her falling, reached out to steady the tray, but the plates were already sliding. Meanwhile, I was able to catch the falling waitress in one arm while snaking the other across her back and into the open flap of the host’s jacket. Pinching one of the small cards between two of my fingers, I managed to extract the voucher just as the host brought the tray down with a crash on the bar counter. Two plates slipped off the side, smashing as they hit the floor as the drinks went splattering across the tray.

“Apologies were exchanged all around as I slipped the voucher, unseen, into my pocket. In the cab on my way back to the flat, I removed the card to study it. Scarlet on one side, white on the other, it had Chinese writing and some sort of flower logo in the middle. Handing it to the cab driver, I asked if he could tell me what it said. He looked at it, front side and back. The flower he told me, was the Chrysanthemum, the funeral flower of the Orient. The writing, he explained, came from a Chinese proverb and said, ‘Sleep is the brother of death.’

“I had no idea what that meant or what it was supposed to mean, but the next morning, I took it to a print shop and got an exact replica made, same size, same scarlet hue, same Chrysanthemum logo, same Chinese lettering, same gloss finish, everything but the stamp.

“A week later, arriving fashionably late, I was back at the restaurant in an all new disguise. Only this time, when the host asked if I’d be dining alone, I reached into my pocket and returned the voucher. He took it, studied it, but I could tell something was wrong by the uneasiness in his manner.

“I asked if everything was all right to which he simply smiled, bowed slightly, and invited me to follow him across the restaurant. On our way, he stopped one of the waitresses, whispered something into her ear. She looked up at me then quickly away as she nodded her head.

“A moment later, we reached the green door with the gold dragon carving, which opened to a hallway before turning into a flight of stairs that wrapped above the dining area below. Just so you have an idea of the general layout, the restaurant was divide into two large antechamber rooms, each opening into a spacious dining area with the kitchen between them, directly behind the host’s counter. Along the outer walls of either dining area, and running the length and height of the room, were two large, theater-sized, fish tanks featuring a variety of black- and red-striped fish with violent dragon-like faces. Now, the rooms were identical in every way but one. To the right, the room sat dark, empty, and obstructed from view by a large velvet curtain and a brass stand with a sign that read: Closed for Remodeling.

“That in mind, I was led down another narrow corridor that led to a pair of screen panel doors where a large, squat-shouldered man in a dark suit greeted us. The host handed him the voucher I’d given him. The other took it, flipped it over, and was about to pocket it when the host muttered something to him in Chinese. A look of confusion entered the man’s face, but as the host continued speaking, the look was soon replaced by what I gauged to be resignation. Afterwards, the sliding doors were opened and I was given the gesture to enter.

“With a strong hand on my shoulder, I was led into a well-decorated room where nearly a dozen men and women, seated atop zabuton cushions, sat crowded around a large, low-lying tea table with no legs. The table had been set with bowls of steaming soup from which the guests were sipping. Against the walls, stood several Kabuki-style women with white painted faces and dark katsura wigs, heads bowed, hands folded.

“Guided to one of the empty pillow cushions, I took a seat, knee’s folded. Surrounded by a cacophony of Chinese voices, I sipped and slurped at my soup in silence trying to determine what exactly was transpiring there. After a few minutes, a large gong at the back of the room was struck and another pair of screen doors to the right slid open as two single file lines of women entered carrying large silver trim platters. The women against the wall came to life, clearing away the table to make room for the entrée, a plate of silver dollar-sized slices of fish, arrayed to match the Chrysanthemum logo from the voucher.

“I can still remember how the smell tickled my nostrils. The woman behind me came forward, busying herself with the delicate arrangement of several small saucers and okazu dishes. In a whisper, I asked what exactly it was I was eating.

“‘Sashimi,’ she told me, referring to the preparation rather than the meal itself. As she finished the intricate placement of the dishes, she bowed slightly before resuming her reverential position against the wall.

“She didn’t say it, didn’t have to say it, I knew it was the tora fugu. What other reason would there be for all the theater with the voucher, the hidden dining area, and the security guard posted outside the door? Now, I’d done some reading up on this fish and found that it was known to contain a certain neurotoxin, one thousand times stronger than cyanide, that paralyzes the nervous system, shutting down one organ at a time until it reaches the lungs. With no antidote, the victim, ultimately, dies of asphyxiation.

“Hesitant, I watched as the others dove in without a hint of reservation, attacking their plates as if in a Chinese hunger camp. After a minute, I picked up a pair of chopsticks, lifted the first one into my mouth. There was an almost instantaneous buzz from the spice on my lips. I took a sip of Saki, felt it burn my tongue as it rushed warmly down my throat. After swallowing another two pieces of gooey flesh, I noticed a slight numbness spreading across my lips. At first, I thought it was from the Saki, until I looked around at everyone else dabbing at their mouths and lips. Yet no one seemed at all concerned at the phenomenon.

“After about a minute I could no longer feel my tongue, which made chewing both difficult and dangerous. Amid the buzz of harsh whispers and the tinkering of dishware came the subtle screech of screen doors sliding open. The women, moving in unison, turned, and with shuffling feet, filed out of the room.

“I took a pause from eating for a second sip of Saki, but as I did, I was slowed by a strange sensation. Heavy and weak, it felt as if my arms had fallen asleep from being in a cruxed position too long. The sensation almost tickled, causing me to laugh at the silliness of it. Sipping at my beverage brought another awkward sensation. Rather than hot, it felt cold on my tongue. Neither could I taste it, except to swish it against my cheeks, which burnt from the heat. Swallowing, I realized the numbness had spread to my throat.

“By this time, the women had returned, each clutching what appeared to be a small round pillow.

“Looking around, I realized no one was eating any longer. Instead, everyone appeared to be marveling either at the heaviness of their arms or the numbness of their lips and mouths. Still, no one seemed worried, no gestures for help, not even a complaint to the women who, again, resumed their curious positions against the wall.

“In the meantime, the numbing sensation increased until I was no longer able to move my arms.

“And that’s when the panic set in.

“Helpless, I struggled to lift myself from the table, but it was no use. I couldn’t feel my legs. Oddly, my mind remained fully alert. Heart racing, I turned to see those around me sitting stiff and lifeless, their faces sagging, lips drooping, arms flopped down at their sides, legs splayed out in front of them, their blinkless eyes peeled wide open. In turn, they began collapsing backward where their heads were gently cradled in a soft pillow and their bodies lowered slowly to the floor by the women behind them.

“I remember attempting to scream, but all the muscles in my throat had gone slack, at which point, I knew we’d been poisoned.

“Another blast of the gong followed and the remaining women with pillows stepped forward and began tipping over the last of the men who remained upright. As the room tumbled away from me, terror attacked my brain.

“Unable to move, I laid there on my back pleading in my head for mercy from the woman knelt over me with her ghostly white visage and inscrutable expression. From my peripheral, I could see in her hand some sort of metal cylinder with a long plastic tube that fed from the top of the tank to an oxygen mask.

“They were keeping us alive.

“So, that’s what this is all about, I remember thinking. It’s a death rush. A twisted game of Russian Roulette.

“Paralyzed, though my mind and eyes remained functional, all around me, the only thing I could hear were the sound of tiny feet scuffing the floor. Then came the sound of heavy feet, marching. The noise grew louder until I found myself staring up into the grave faces of several men. One of them I recognized as the host. Another, who I’d never seen, reached into my pants pocket to retrieve my wallet. When they found my police badge, they took turns exchanging foreign syllables and daunted expressions.

“Afterwards, another hand reached into my jacket to remove my gun, which was then passed to the host with what I assumed was the charge to get rid of it.

“One of them then signaled to the woman who dutifully retreated, taking the oxygen with her. Without the mask, my lungs fought to function on their own and that’s when I realized, I hadn’t simply lost motor function, my entire nervous system had shut down.

“As I gasped for breath, a pair of out-of-work Sumo wrestlers cusped their massive hands beneath my armpits before slow-dragging me from the room.

“Hauled across the corridor, I was taken into a room with dark-paneled windows overlooking the unlit dining room that had been cordoned off for remodeling. Hoisted up, someone behind me lifted my head so that I came face-to-face with a large man with black, sinister eyes.

“Reading from my wallet, he spoke my name in a harsh accent.

“Meanwhile, I could feel my lungs seizing up, my esophagus closing.

“‘There could be others,’ a voice suggested.

“‘No,’ the man said, shaking his head, “however he wound up here was clearly by accident. If he knew what this place was, he never would have eaten the fish.’

“He then looked deep into my eyes, saying nothing.

“‘What do we do with him?’ someone asked.

“Someone suggested simply leaving me in an alley somewhere. To which someone else pointed out that with no apparent cause of death, the coroner would be forced to do a full autopsy, which would only lead the police back to them. That in mind, someone recommended putting two in the back of my head as a way of throwing off the coroner. Again, reason intervened on my behalf as someone pointed out that that too would raise suspicions. At last, someone came up with the brilliant idea of having me tossed in the river. The only problem, someone noted, is that I’d be dead before I hit the water, before I even reached the parking lot. If the police followed up with an autopsy and didn’t find water in my lungs, they’d be in the same position as if they’d left me in the alley.

“‘Then we’ll fill his lungs with water,’ the man said, gesturing to the men holding my arms. On cue, the men carried me to the far side of the room where a large metal grate in the floor was folded back to reveal a small square opening from which a faint blue light emerged. The realization of what was about to happen hit me just as I was dumped, headfirst, into the cold blue water of the fish tank facing the empty dining area, the one undergoing remodeling.

“Wide-eyed, all I could do was watch as the hideous faces of dragonfish darted in and out of my vision.

“In another couple of seconds, endless gallons of tank water would begin to fill my lungs and stop my heart.

“One of my last memories was watching a smattering of bubbles float past my face.

“And that’s when I saw her. Through the glass, I saw her. Arm raised, index finger laced around the trigger of a gun, my gun. She later told me the gun had been handed to her by the host with the directive to, ‘Make it disappear.’ Meanwhile, all I could do was watch as the first shot fractured the glass panel. The second exploded it completely. As an avalanche of water flooded the room, tables and chairs were sent rushing back against the far wall, clearing the room of everything but shattered glass, a handful of floundering fish, and me. Again, her face appeared, lips wrapped around mine, feeding oxygen into my lungs. A man’s unseen hands lifted me off the floor and onto a pair of shoulders. The man, I would later find out was her brother, a busboy.

“I was then carried to a door that opened to the night and the rear parking lot where a van sat idling. Hefted into the passenger seat, all I saw of the person carrying me was his legs until he came around the driver side and hammered the manual transmission into reverse. The girl, having climbed in beside me, continued to feed air into my lungs as the car went chasing out of the parking lot.

“It took two hours for the toxins to run through my system. Two hours. Throughout the whole of which, she held her lips wrapped around mine, feeding air into my lungs, keeping me alive until I could breathe again on my own. We made a dozen arrests that night. The restaurant was shut down. And I was given a medal of commendation for heroism in the line of duty. I asked her later why she’d done it, why she’d bothered to save the life of a stranger, a man she didn’t know, who she didn’t owe anything.

“She said, ‘Since when does someone need a motive to do the right thing?’

Furor pauses for a moment in his telling. “I owe it to her,” he says. “to all of those women.”

Lombardo turns, pins him with a level, expressionless glare. After a several long seconds, he nods his head. “I’d like you to see the department shrink.”

Furor opens his mouth to object but is silenced by a single raised index finger.

“That wasn’t a recommendation,” Lombardo says. “It was a directive. And as your supervisor, it’s now a condition of keeping you on this case.”

Furor shakes his head, feels his jaw grows tight. “I could file a complaint.”

“On what grounds?”

“Unfair discrimination.”

“And I could put you on restricted duty for the next six weeks until they’ve completed their investigation. That, or you could stop trying to spit on the sky and just accept that you’re going to therapy.”

The skin around Furor’s nose grows white. “How often are we talking?”

“Once a week. Consider it a mental acuity probe.”

Furor lets fly a curse, removes the phone from his pocket.

“What are you doing?” Lombardo asks.

“Getting this over with,” he says. “Now, what’s this guy’s number.”

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