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By Cameron Cruise
MiraCopyright © 2007 Cameron Cruise
All right reserved.
Your name is Dog.
You don't find the name cruel, only ironic. When the kids first begin calling you Dog, you think of them as acolytes, unable or unworthy to say your name outright. They say it backward.
It's been that way all your life. Few are worthy.
You remember all the names you were taught as a novice: Ra, Brahma, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, Odin. You close your eyes and whisper your own name, adding it to the list. Your skin feels on fire with your brilliance. In some corner of your mind, you understand that the sensation is really pain. This time, he beat you with his belt.
You give a secret smile. The pain brings with it the power of knowledge: you're the one in control now, pulling the strings.
Bloodletting, you were taught, is an important ritual, one that has endured through the ages. Druids would kill a man by slicing open his midsection to divine the future from the convulsion of limbs and the pattern of blood. India's Thuggee cult, followers of Kali, Hindu goddess of death, mutilated their strangled victims by stabbing the eyes and ripping out the intestines. Centuries ago, Aztec priests reached into the chest cavity to pull out the still-beating heart, the life force flowing from the altar, nectar for the gods.
You, too, require your sacrifice.
At this late hour, it isn't difficult to get by security, if that's what they call the dozingguard with his chair propped against the chain-link fence. You pass roped-off mosaic tiles and ancient stones and statuary that look like so many Tinker Toys, broken pieces bravely pieced together like something precious. Each day, lines of tourists worship here with their cameras and their guides, but you covet something very different.
Walking down the limestone path, you pass two coeds speaking in hushed tones in what sounds like German. You will yourself invisible, just another student no one will remember come morning. The girl with shining blond hair slips a glance your way with a smile, giving the greeting, "Grüezi." Swiss, then. You can't help it. You smile back.
The full moon shines down on the ruins like stage lighting. You know the exact moment the play begins because you follow the main characters here. You don't miss even a second. You know he will take her somewhere safe, somewhere deserted. There is no one but you to stand as audience.
She follows willingly for the moment, but you expect her to put up a fight.
From the shadows, you watch them argue. She makes a slashing gesture with her hand, letting him know her answer. No. Absolutely not! That's when he makes his move.
He grabs her by the hair, shoving her forward. He strikes her, over and over. She bleeds from her mouth and nose, but she is a strong woman; she doesn't falter. She swipes her clawed fingers across his face, at the same time kicking wildly. Only, by now he has the rope around her neck.
He pulls her down to the ground. Sadly, you are reminded of cattle being branded rather than a religious ceremony. You had hoped for better.
You have extraordinary hearing and take in the music of her death as her breath begins to gurgle deep in her throat. You can't see her face--he is hunched over her, blocking her from view--but her legs and arms flail in drumbeats on the ground.
You know his vision is merely to kill her and take his prize.
He is quick--too quick. Her death doesn't do her justice.You want to scream in frustration. Not like this! you plead silently, knowing that she deserves a much grander homage to her life and work.
When she finally stops moving, he releases his grip on the rope and falls back on the ground beside her, winded as if he's fought some great battle. But soon enough, he rises to his knees. He searches frantically through the pockets of the windbreaker she's wearing, finding his treasure.You wonder how he convinced her to bring it here. He cradles the stone against his chest in relief.
After he leaves, you approach in complete silence. Standing over her, you see the rope he used to strangle her, still around her neck. Sloppy.
Her skin reminds you of the moonlight reflecting off the ancient marble surrounding you.You kneel down, stroking the blood from her bottom lip with your thumb. There's not enough light to give her much color. The blood looks like a dark stain on her white skin.You suck the blood off your thumb. It tastes like an old penny.
You know what you want, picturing her blue, blue eyes. But you also need to be careful.
Suddenly, you hear a wheezing breath. You watch her chest rise as she chokes in a lungful of air. Her eyes open. The fingers of her right hand spasm to life. That's when you move in like a spider racing across its web.
You grab the rope by both ends. There's no time to act on any of your grand plans; the idiot before you made sure of that. Standing over her, you know the exact moment she recognizes you. The knowledge of her fate is there in her startled gaze.
As she struggles, you hum to yourself a childhood favorite.
There was an old woman who swallowed a fly. I don't know why she swallowed a fly. Perhaps she'll die....
You smile, knowing that, in the end, they all die.
Trisha Tran, soon to be Trisha Chance, tried not to be annoyed. She glanced nervously at the digital clock built into the dashboard.
She was going to kill her mother. Stuck in Tommy's sweltering Honda Civic--the air-conditioning was out again--she waited for the light to change at the intersection. She had her windows down, and cast an anxious look at the homeless man standing on the corner just a few feet away. He was jabbing his finger in the air, debating some invisible adversary, his sunburned face twisted in the heat of the one-sided argument.
She turned away just as the guy caught her staring. She could feel her heart begin to race. Great, just great.
It didn't matter that here in the paradise of Orange County the homeless were a daily sight. Just about anything had Trish jumping out of her skin today. Gawd, she hadn't seen Aunt Mimi since the last death day celebration.
The light changed and Trisha roared the Honda into the intersection, earning a glare from the diminutive woman seated in the passenger seat. Her mother reached for the radio and dialed in yet another Vietnamese station. Trisha allowed herself a long sigh. What a waste of time.
Trisha didn't have a lot of time to waste. She was graduating summa cum laude from Chapman University and had a wedding to plan. The last thing she needed was to indulge one of her mother's silly superstitions. But here she was, negotiating the traffic jungle of Little Saigon to see a fortune-teller.
The worst of it--her fear that Aunt Mimi might say something bad. Then she and Tommy would really be hosed. It had practically killed her parents when Trisha had introduced her blond-haired, green-eyed fiancé. She hadn't even let on that she was dating a white guy until Tommy proposed. She didn't think her parents could handle any more bad news.
Suddenly, the car next to her swerved across two lanes of traffic. Trisha slammed on the brakes, just missing the guy's bumper. The idiot came to a complete stop in the turning lane. She tried to shut out the obvious--the whole Asians-are-bad-drivers thing. But the man behind the wheel proved to be some old Jewish guy wearing a yarmulke. Beside her, her mom chanted a soft prayer.
Trisha wondered if it wasn't some sort of a sign. Turn back! Like maybe it wouldn't be such a great idea to sit for a reading with Aunt Mimi.
She gave herself a mental scolding. Stop being so melodramatic! She concentrated on the road ahead. Trisha knew the wide boulevard lined with industrial parks and strip malls was a far cry from what a tourist would expect exiting the 22 Freeway and its promise of "Little Saigon." She remembered the first time she'd brought Tommy here. She could tell he'd been disappointed. Tommy was from San Francisco, where Chinatown was a thrill ride of colorful storefronts and throngs of tourists.
Here in Westminster, California, Little Saigon was low-lying and spread out, dotted with auto body shops and trailer parks. Only strategically placed storefronts displayed some of the architectural details once found in old Saigon: tiled and curved roofs, the old French colonial charm, doors positioned according to the principles of feng shui. Trisha had read somewhere that one of the malls designed to be a tourist attraction was going to be razed to make room for track homes.
She reached over and turned down the music blasting from the radio--she swore her mother was going deaf--earning another disapproving look from Má.
Tommy, Trisha's fiancé--just about everyone called them TNT--was always telling her she needed to be more patient with her parents. He didn't see how going to a fortune-teller to pick a date for their wedding should be such a big deal. He didn't understand the Vietnamese way, that fortune-tellers and astrologers had insane amounts of influence. God forbid a man born in the year of the Tiger marry someone born in the year of the horse.
That's what had Trisha worried, of course. That her mom would use Aunt Mimi in some power play to stop Trisha from marrying Tommy. Depending on what Auntie said, her mom could sputter on about doom and gloom and bad luck, maybe even take to her bed. The next thing you know, Trisha's marriage dishonored the spirit of her ancestors. Then everyone would get on board with Má. She could be pretty cagey that way, her mother. Definitely manipulative.
Trisha bit her lip and wondered if it wasn't too late to turn back. But they had already passed the Asian Garden Mall with its Happy Buddha statue extending welcoming arms to shoppers ready to drop some cash. The two-story building housed some of the largest jewelry stores in Southern California. Her father said there were big bucks behind a project to expand the mall, an attempt, her cousin claimed, to turn Little Saigon into a sort of Bermuda triangle for tourists, Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm being only a few miles away.
Her cousin, of course, saw any such attempts as "cultural imperialism." At family gatherings she would rant about the evils of being "othered" and what she called fundamental questions of "commodification" and "objectification" of their culture--whatever that meant.
Trisha didn't worry about stuff like that. It wasn't her mission in life to change the world for the Vietnamese immigrants who had made their home here in California. Right now, all she wanted was to get her mother off her back.
She clutched the steering wheel, telling herself everything would turn out okay. Heck, if she could get her father to accept Tommy, anything else should be a piece of cake--even a visit to Aunt Mimi.
She turned into the familiar housing track, focusing on just that. She was in touch with her Vietnamese side, sure, but she wasn't obsessed with it. Whatever happened today, she knew in her heart that she and Tommy were meant to be.
The track homes lining the street didn't look like much. Most were modest single-family dwellings. Only, in the crazy real estate market that was SoCal, these houses could be worth close to half a million dollars.
Aunt Mimi's house didn't stand out in any particular way, just a single-story ranch-style in cream stucco with a composite roof. You had to step inside to see just how lucrative the fortune-telling business could be. Mimi had clients all around the world. Trisha had once overheard Má say that Auntie could charge several thousand dollars for a reading.
Mimi wasn't really her aunt. She was part of their sprawling extended family, some second cousin of her father's. But she was probably the most powerful member of the Tran family. Trisha had tried to explain to Tommy how it worked. In Little Saigon, a fortune-teller wasn't like those psychic hotlines advertised on cable television. There wasn't a neon sign of a palm flashing outside Auntie's door. Mimi was well known and highly respected, a high-class clairvoyant. Unlike a lot of astrologers and fortune-tellers in the area, her influence stretched beyond the immigrant community. Mimi often bragged about her prestigious clientele, many of whom were Westerners.
Trisha pictured Auntie in her head. Mimi favored St. John suits and gold jewelry. Lots of it. Trisha remembered one family gathering during Tet, the Vietnamese festival for the New Year. Tet was the most important celebration of the year and took weeks of preparation. For the Vietnamese diaspora in Little Saigon, Tet marked the arrival of spring and the day every man, woman and child grew one year older. At just such a gathering, Trisha had admired a heavy emerald cuff on Mimi's wrist. Má had told Trisha the bracelet clocked in at close to $10K.
Trisha wondered about that sometimes. If it was really okay to make that kind of money off people's fears and dreams... Not that she'd ever say anything bad about Aunt Mimi. No way.
She pulled up in front of the house and took a deep breath. But her heart kept hammering in her chest. She tried to channel some of Tommy's faith. It's going to be okay, Trish....
She helped Má out of the Honda, then hurried ahead to open the wrought-iron gate. Her mother wasn't getting around so well these days. Arthritis, the doctor said.
Opening the gate, Trisha noticed with surprise the heavy iron bars over the windows of Aunt Mimi's house. She frowned. Those are new.
The courtyard smelled of jasmine. The lush tropical growth covered the fence, practically hiding the white stucco house from the street. White ginger as high as Má was tall bloomed across the entry like a fragrant screen. Trish wondered if the plants were an attempt to shield clients from nosy neighbors.
She held her mother's arm as they climbed the two short steps to the front entrance, pretending with a nod of her head to listen to her mother's stream of advice on how to act and what to say. Má used Trisha's Vietnamese name, Tuyen, which meant "angel." All Vietnamese names meant something.
Excerpted from The Collector by Cameron Cruise Copyright © 2007 by Cameron Cruise. Excerpted by permission.
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