Lawyer Foster Cobb’s objective is to bring down the mysterious Dr. Au, responsible for the drugs that flow through Vancouver. But under the pressure of a disintegrating career and marriage, Cobb himself has himself taken up a long-abandoned heroin habit.
With a racing plot and dramatic twists, Needles plunges into a seedy 1970s underworld of crooked cops, Asian drug lords, and tense courtroom scenes. A winner of the Seal First Novel Award, it’s a riveting tale of crime and justice with “surprises like shattering glass,” from an author who has sold over a million copies (Philadelphia Bulletin).
“Spellbinding, first-rate.” —The Buffalo News
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By William Deverell
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2002 William Deverell
All rights reserved.
Saturday, the Third Day of December, at Eight O'Clock in the Evening
It was warm in the room, and there were smells of sweet sauces. A naked bulb near the front door illuminated a route past the counter, into the back. In the dimmer light there, the room seemed densely populated but still, as if a tedious cocktail party were in progress. Most of the figures casting thin shadows were suckling pigs and whole swine carcasses and plucked ducks, aging for taste. A long shadow was cast by the Surgeon who worked deftly between two assistants, his fingers dancing and probing. There were human noises: murmured entreaties, then gasps, the sounds of air being sucked in suddenly.
And then a scream from the fat man on the chopping block. A shriek that shivered the stillness and echoed wildly among the animal corpses.
The two assistants stood at either end of the long block intently observing the art of Dr. Au. They were bodyguards, junk brokers, hard jacks-of-many-trades. They were both short, sturdy, agile. They were veterans of Dr. Au's campaign to extend Ch'ao-chou markets in the New World and wore scars of battle, like emblems.
One assistant was bereft of hair, bland of expression, and retarded of mind. He had old cuts on the skin covering his skull, which, by fortunate chance of genetics, was thick and hard. He had fought in Vancouver's tong wars, and he brought to the service of Dr. Au, his great khan, much natural skill with hands or weapons. Au controlled him like a dog, with simple commands and piercing looks. He was Charlie Ming.
The mind of the other assistant was quicker and crueller and more devious. He was fierce-looking with his old-country drooping moustache and a knife scar that ran over the bridge of his nose and just under the right eye. That eye was partially paralyzed and rarely moved in concert with its partner. He was a gunman, a dead shot either from or into a moving vehicle, but lacked a little in courage. He watched Au's technique with a keen interest, and every twenty minutes or so he popped a white pill into his mouth. He was Laszlo Plizit.
Between them, and in contrast to them, Dr. Au appeared handsome. In his fifty-first year, he was ten years older than Ming and Plizit. They wore rough clothes; he wore an English-tailored three-piece suit, conservatively cut, with a fine light stripe. The grey of the suit met the shade of his hair at the temples and the silver of his eyes, which were intense and brilliant and cutting. His face and body were clean and smelled gently of musk. He was slender and tall, and he moved with a fluid grace. There was only one outward blemish: an inch of flesh and cartilage had been torn from his right ear many years ago, and the ear looked patched.
None of the men in the room was a heroin addict, although the man outside was. That man wore a raincoat and a narrow-brimmed hat, and squinted through the smoke of a cigarette, which hung limply from the side of his mouth. The mouth was outlined by thin lines of lips below a pencil moustache. The man was tall and sinewy and nervous and cold. He was leaning against a telephone pole, checking his watch from time to time by the light from the window, light which glistened on the black car nearby. He winced when he heard the scream from within, and he squinted into the dark tunnel of the street. But saw no one. This man was Jean-Louis Leclerc, and because supplies were plentiful and free, he was doing six or seven caps a day, enough to stay straight and get a little buzz on top. He had burned out two veins in his left arm.
There was reason for this gathering: it was a solemn inquisition into a charge of treason. The accused was the fat man. The inquisitor was Dr. Au. The trial was by ordeal.
There had been damages suffered. Several of Dr. Au's runners were in jail, and networks below the border were in jeopardy, and the arrests had cost Au nearly a third of a million dollars in payments to next of kin. Such business losses can be endured, but disloyalty to one's patron cannot — the Ch'ao-chou say that thieves in a household are hard to guard against — so Jimmy Wai Fat Leung, naked and roped spread-eagled to the chopping block, related the final chapters of his life between bursts of pain that ignited his body.
In recital, Dr. Au was an artist, a master.
He tinkled the piano of the fat man's torso with a clean and delicate touch, and composed toccatas of pain. Improvising, he discovered chords of anguish that caused his trussed patient to render dissonant songs of confession and repentance. The touch of Dr. Au taught Jimmy Wai Fat Leung the wisdom of speaking truth, and for truth this plump plaything, this hapless Pavlovian dog, was rewarded by release from pain. Au's hands knew the points of the human body where pain nerves surfaced, and they knew where touch brought surcease from pain and where it brought pleasure, as Au willed. The long fingers of Dr. Au could strike flesh percussively, or could soothe as they transmitted the learning of centuries of Chinese healing.
Those fingers lacked the accuracy of needles but were more sensitive, and they returned to the sender messages that were honest, messages that inspired Jimmy Wai Fat Leung to continue his broken dissertation of past and present treachery. Jim Fat (as he was called by his friends and by the police) was made of jelly. He was no stoic, and no more reticent in his choking pleas for relief than he had been in his conversations with a certain narcotics officer who had blackmailed him — quite properly by standard RCMP procedure — and taken information from him.
Au was serene. It was unseemly in his family to exhibit anger or make a show of seeking revenge. While still a novice in his school of acupuncture he had been tutored in business by elders of the Ch'ao-chou, who believe that one can gain an edge if one goes about his affairs without passion. The Ch'ao-chou hold that the mind must be unfettered by feelings: that "the mind must be as clear as a mirror." Looking inwardly at himself, while his hands studied the undulating structure of Jim Fat, Au observed that the emotion he least mastered was a tranquil sorrow born of the need to engage his friend and follower in such painful physical conversation. A balance was nicely achieved, however, by the pleasure that Au's work had given him this evening, for in two and a half hours he had drawn from Jim Fat, in the dialect of the Ch'ao-chou, a nearly complete history of his clandestine relationship with Corporal Cudlipp of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a senior man in its Asian heroin team.
"My parents," he cried in a jerky sing-song, "are elderly."
"I respect them."
"Ai, ai, I beseech you, Au P'ang Wei! I am their only support. ... Ai, please listen! Twenty years in jail were spoken of. Or life — the remainder of my pitiful life. I could not face my ancestors in heaven. ... My parents would have starved, Au P'ang Wei. It was ... it was with respect for my parents that I came to such arrangements."
"You are unworthy of them, Wai Fat Leung," Au said. "It distresses me that you did not respect my generosity, the more so because it is known that I allow no family to suffer in such circumstances." The dialect varied much in pitch, but Au's voice was modulated and without inflection of anger. Au did not feel anger.
"Do they have any of our Kowloon people?" he asked. "Do they have the Bangkok people?"
Au's finger again found the touch point for the head pain, and Jim Fat groaned and hoarsely begged to be freed from it.
"You will avoid this by answering quickly," Au said.
"In complete sincerity," Jim Fat said, panting, "I assure you I gave no names. I gave only dates of some small deliveries, and these you know."
"Yes, Wai Fat Leung, I have those from you. Chang last spring. Pin Low and Yen T'saio-po in June. Four friends in August, and one was Sorenson, whose markets in Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo are gone." Au contemplated those losses for a time.
Normally Au P'ang Wei could not enjoy the luxury of such long discourse with patients, and when time was limited he would move more quickly using needles of gold or silver or platinum (or cutting instruments, with which he was equally deft). But he was as learned in the art of the an na, the use of hands and fingers, as in needling, and his fingers could balance ch'i — that energy whose flow is ordered by the interplay of yin and yang — as well as stop ch'i. (The Chinese phrase "to stop ch'i" means to bring death.)
The essence of Taoist medicine was love of humanity, and Au scorned this. He had taught himself the darker side of the old arts and had discovered the points of pain and the meridians of death. He understood the twelve death- touch points of karate.
In Canada he had become a businessman, but prided himself that he had not become a dilettante at acupuncture, using his gifts wastefully. In fact, he used them to further profits and protect against loss. Jimmy Wai Fat Leung had squandered Au's profits, investing foolishly by selling information to the police for no return but his own worthless freedom, and Dr. Au's fingers — sensitive computers of human frailty — ingested that information.
He had found a place five centimetres above the left knee where he could cause alternately a drumming pain in Jim Fat's back brain and an electric shock in his kidneys. The middle finger tapped that point, and it was as if a lightning bolt cleaved Jim Fat's kidneys, and he arched his back, and piss spurted from him.
"We have everything except the last three months," Au said in the silence that came after the screaming. "How often did you meet after August?"
"Ai, ai, Au P'ang Wei, I have ... I have spoken in perfect candor. One meeting, only one meeting in September. ... Ai! Then I grew afraid to meet with Cudlipp — ai, patience! — because he is not trustworthy, in my poor opinion."
Au set about to master the sadness that had again insinuated itself into his heart, because here was Jimmy Wai Fat Leung, who had worked for him for eleven years and who, although in extremity, was failing to be honest. He removed the mist of sorrow, cleaned the mirror of his mind, and placed his hand gently on the comfortable shape of his old friend's abdomen, feeling turbulent movement from within the man.
Au said: "It is taught that one does not employ a person one distrusts, but one must trust a person one employs. I gave you my trust, and even now you hold yours from me." Au caressed the belly, and the trembling within ceased. "You met alone with Cudlipp on five occasions after September. The last such occasion was two days ago, when you drank whiskey with the policeman in the back room of Archie's Steak House. Cudlipp gave you a package wrapped in a newspaper. Yesterday, I am unsure of the time, you placed his package under the front seat of my automobile, which was parked at a meter near the Hastings Street office. You were aware that I had intended to drive it to my home alone. There is heroin in the package, and a box of condoms and a one-ounce weight. I find it most displeasing that I cannot drive my car. It sits and collects parking tickets."
Au favored his former ally with a delicate suggestion of a smile, and moved his hand down the slope of his abdomen. "I bore you by relating these concerns at such length," he said. "Perhaps I have misconceived certain matters. Favor me by showing enlightenment."
He stabbed a finger deeply where the stomach met the pelvis. Jim Fat roared and vomited, and Au dispatched Charlie Ming to the basement to find a mop and pail. Even such a simple task would take Ming a while.
After much crying and stuttering, Jim Fat said: "I beg ... beseech you ... I was faced with no alternative, Au P'ang Wei. Corporal Cudlipp, in his treachery, made me know that if I did not help to jail you, he would speak to you of my earlier indiscretions — and that you would kill me."
"Corporal Cudlipp demonstrates thereby a nice appreciation of the realities of our business," Au said. He knew Laszlo Plizit understood nothing of the conversation, so continued: "It will be of interest to you to know that Corporal Cudlipp has been more forthright than you in his dealings with me. He has spoken to me of the danger to me should I attempt to take possession of my automobile." Au remained serene in expression. "Because it appeared advisable to make more than a token contribution to his personal welfare, I have suffered a financial loss that will be recovered only after many weeks."
Au patted Jim Fat on the cheek, and was rewarded for this gentle gesture by a sharp bite on his palm, his patient finally rebelling, having given up the last remnants of hope.
Au remained serene. He held out his hands, palms up, to Plizit, who pulled a pair of rubber surgical gloves over them. Au reached into his bag and took out his greens and put them on. Plizit tied the gown at the back and handed Au his scalpel. There were cleavers nearby, and any manner of knives for butchering, but Au, who had studied surgery in England — the practice of which had been his dream before misfortune deflected his course — preferred to cut with instruments designed for use on the human body. They called him the Surgeon. And that pleased him.
"I will first take out your tongue," he said. "You will be well advised to spend the remaining three minutes of your life contemplating the enormity of your deeds and recalling the wisdom of the old saying that the mouth is the primary source of calamities. After you have utilized those three minutes, I shall remove certain glands that adorn you poorly, then cut your throat. I shall do so quickly and without pleasure, for although deterrence is necessary in maintaining integrity in business affairs, I feel a rare compassion for you, and do not wish to prolong your suffering unduly."
But the compassion would not distract Au, who had good training and moral strength. Au believed gentle expressions of feeling, always appropriate for poets and artists, were not misused upon the infrequent occasion of concluding an association with an old business friend.
Across the street, in Suite C on the second floor of a poor rooming house, Dugald McTaggart was attempting to bolster a weak queen-side attack. He moved knight to queen's rook four, daring Selwyn Loo to play a centre game. Loo was unafraid, and moved his king pawn forward to begin a double attack on McTaggart's underprotected queen pawn. Loo was not about to be deterred by the activity on his right flank and, without the queen's knight there to hamper him, he planned to pour all his resources right down the yawning open king file.
McTaggart was a bit deaf and did not hear the screams coming from the building across Chungking Alley, but Selwyn Loo did and, while waiting for his turn, memorized the scene outside through his thick heavy glasses, donated grudgingly by the Department of Human Resources. Without glasses, Loo's eyesight was as poor as McTaggart's hearing without hearing aid. For McTaggart, age was the thief; for Selwyn Loo, disease. His mother, an aging prostitute who lived and often worked in the room across the hall, had suffered from syphilis eleven years ago when Loo was being nurtured in the womb.
As Loo opened the window, the screaming was heard louder. He motioned to McTaggart to turn up his hearing aid, and the old sailor came to the window on wobbly knees. They saw dim light shining through the front window of H-K Meats and a man outside flipping the butt of a cigarette to the curb beside a long black car. The screams sounded choked; then they ceased. Loo and McTaggart saw curtains part in the lit window opposite and a man's face appear briefly, framed in the light. That man made a gesture with his hand to the man outside.
Loo felt a lump of hate swell within him as he studied the face in the window.
There was a third rented room — Suite D — on the second floor of the old frame house, one of many such houses in Chinatown. In it, on a sway-backed bed, were two sleeping lovers, Billy Sam and Millie Redfeather, bonded with the glue of stale sweat, spilled wine, and deep affection. They snored, each with a separate rhythm.
On the clock, it was three hours later in Baltimore. There, in a twelfth-storey room of the Plaza Towers, Jess Flaherty, in an old denim jacket and bell- bottom jeans, was concluding a deal for the purchase of a hundred and fifty grams of bulk heroin.
Excerpted from Needles by William Deverell. Copyright © 2002 William Deverell. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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