Dark Before Dawn
“Rise up! Yu! Yuh got bodies!”
It was the overnight sarge calling from the 0-Nine, the
Ninth Precinct, growling something about Manhattan South detectives into his ear, barking out a location with two bodies attached to it.
As soon as Jack Yu caught the address, he knew: Chinatown
again. He was going back to the place he’d left behind when he moved to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, just across the river but a world away.
It always started with the rude awakening, the alarms going off in his head, the angry clamor, and then the Chinatown darkness snatching him off again, back into the
Fifth Precinct, back to unfinished business. . . .
He’d been dead asleep, dreaming he was still partying at the After–Chinese New Year’s party that Billy Bow had pulled together at Grampa’s, aka the Golden Star Bar and
Grill, a favorite Chinatown haunt. In this dream, Jack was picturing himself feeding quarters into the big jukebox setup, a rock tune with a deep bass pounding out, Hey son
where ya going with dat gun in ya hand? He’s gulping back a beer, scoping out the revelers. Gonna shoot ma lady, she
cheat’in wit annuda man.
Jack spots Alexandra. Alex. Friend and confidante, wearing a bright red Chinese jacket, the color of luck, glowing in the darkness of the bar. She nods at him and jiggles her smile to the backbeat, her long black hair shimmering in the dim blue light. Gonna shoot her down, down to the ground,
wailing from the jukebox. He wants to pull Alex close, to bring her heart to heart, to kiss her eyes lightly and find out what she’s thinking. But suddenly there’s this clamor, from the back of his head, accelerating to his frontal lobe, like a thundering lion drum starting up, following the raucous clash of brass cymbals and iron gongs, exploding suddenly into jarring, blinding consciousness.
He reached toward the frantic pleas of the noise, the cell phone’s cry, the alarm clock’s clang. The clock radio banged out a steady beat. Jack looped the beaded chain over his head; the gold detective’s badge tumbled, then its weight held the chain taut. He’d moved to Brooklyn and changed precincts after Pa’s death, but still he hadn’t escaped the old neighborhood. He rolled his neck, popped the ligaments,
pulled on his clothes.
He patted down his thermal jacket for the plastic disposable camera, and dropped his Colt Detective Special into a pocket.
He took the stairs down and stepped into the freezing wind, letting the cold rain pelt his face, pumping up his adrenaline. He jogged down to Eighth Avenue in the desolate darkness, and jumped into one of the Chinese see gay,
car service lined up along the street of all-night fast-food soup shacks. He badged the driver, giving the address in
Cantonese while slipping him a folded ten-spot.
“Go,” Jack said, “Faai di, quick. I’m in a hurry.”
The driver made all the green lights and the short-cut turns. He blazed the black car across the empty Brooklyn
Bridge and dropped Jack off at Doyers Street, off the Bowery in the original heart of Chinatown.
The trip had taken twelve screeching minutes.
Seven Doyers was a four-story walk-up right on the bend of the old Bloody Angle, where the tong hatchetmen of the past battled and bled over turf and women, butcher-sharp cleavers hidden under their quilted Chinese jackets.
Jack knew the street well; it was around the corner from where he’d grown up, where his pa had passed away recently.
And around the corner from where his former blood brother Tat “Lucky” Louie had met his fate: shot in the head, he was now comatose at Downtown Hospital.
The Bloody Angle was a serpentine, twisting street that was anchored on the Bowery end by a Chinese deli, two small restaurants, and a post office branch. Where the street cut to the right and dipped down, there was a stretch of
Chinese barbershops and beauty salons on both sides.
Doyers was a Ghost street and everyone knew it. The
Ghost Legion was the dominant local gang that terrorized
Chinatown, and Lucky had been their dailo, their leader.
Normally, Lucky would have been Jack’s source for information about gangland politics, but his condition had ended such cooperation.
Seven Doyers stood above a Vietnamese restaurant and the Nom Hoy Tea Parlor on an empty street lined with the closed, roll-down gates used overnight. The uniformed officer standing outside was a solitary figure beneath the yellow glow of the old pagoda-style streetlamp; a tall, baby-faced
Irish kid, a rookie. Jack wondered how he’d pulled the overnight shift. Had he been desperate for overtime or had he fucked up somehow; was this a reward or punishment?
Jack, letting his gold badge dangle, asked, “So who called it in?”
“Dunno,” the rookie answered with a shrug, “Sarge just told me to stay here and secure the scene. Wait for you. Yu?”
The kid grinned.
“Where’s the sarge at?” Jack asked, looking at the entrance.
“Dunno,” the rookie repeated. “He got a call from the captain and he left.”
Jack didn’t see a squad car anywhere. His watch read 5:45
am. “Who was here when you arrived?”
“An old Chinaman,” he answered, pausing, allowing for a reaction from Jack, who didn’t rise to the bait. Jack offered instead the inscrutable yellow face.
“He said he was the father,” the rookie continued. “And that there were two dead bodies inside.”
“So where’s he now?”
“Dunno. He left after the sarge left.”
“Did he say anything?”
“The old Chinese-American,” Jack said.
“Oh. Said he had to make a phone call. Or something.
Hard to understand his funky English.”
Jack shook his head disdainfully, scanning the empty street. “Keep an eye out,” he advised.
“Ten-four,” the rookie responded, straightening up as
Jack entered the building.
Death Before Dishonor
The door at the top of the first flight of rickety stairs was slightly ajar. Yellow Crime Scene tape crossed its frame.
Jack pulled the tape back and took a breath. He pushed the door gently, stepping into the space illuminated by dim fluorescent light. The old apartment was a typical Chinatown walk-up: a big rectangular room, sparsely furnished,
with a kitchenette and a small bathroom against a long wall.
Worn linoleum covered the floor. The rest of the space was open. A little table nestled in the corner to his left, a puffy jacket draped over a chair.
The place looked neat; there were no signs of a struggle.
Even in the half-light, Jack saw them right away: two bodies,
holding hands but sprawled apart, on their backs, across the width of a bed in the far corner. Their legs dangled off the side of the bed. One man, one woman, Chinese, as far as he could make out in the shadowy distance.
The woman still had her quilted coat on.
There was a lady’s handbag placed neatly against the foot of the bed.
On the linoleum at the headboard end was a small clock radio, crash-tilted at an angle to the floor, its digital display frozen at 4:44 am.
As he stepped closer, he figured the dead couple to be in their mid-thirties. He couldn’t find a pulse, but the bodies were still warm to the touch. Rigor had not set in.
Dead less than two hours, Jack thought.
He pulled the plastic disposable camera from his jacket.
The man still had two fingers of his right hand on the butt of a gun, a small black revolver, just at the end of his grasp,
dangling askew off the duvet cover. He was grimacing; dark blood spread from the back of his head. In the firm grip of his left fist was the woman’s right hand, their fingers laced, as if he was taking her with him somewhere. There was blood on the back of her right hand, blood on the comforter that had come from inside her palm, and a small red hole in the center of her forehead. Beneath that, a dark puddle had formed in the turned-up collar of her coat. Her eyes were open, and her lips slightly parted; she wore a look of disbelief.
In the space between the two bodies was a crumpled business card. Protruding from the man’s shirt pocket was a folded piece of notepaper.
Jack stepped back and snapped photographs from different angles and distances, wide shots and close-ups fixing the images in his mind before Crime Scene arrived.
At 4:44 am, the woman wasn’t going out, Jack thought.
She’d just come home. And he was waiting for her, his jacket draped over the chair. No sign of forced entry. He’d had a key. Or she’d let him in.
The layout of the bodies made it look like she’d sat down at the edge of the bed, placed her handbag on the floor,
and then he’d shot her. She’d fallen straight back, nestled neatly into the comforter. Dead on impact, a bullet in her brain, the back of her head bleeding out, he concluded.
Sometime after, the man had seated himself, taken her hand in his, and then eaten the gun.
Jack imagined it with a cold clarity—the gun jerking out of the man’s mouth, the wild swing of his arm smashing into the clock radio, sending it to the floor. The revolver bouncing,
sliding onto the comforter.
The crashed clock radio on the floor was blinking 4:44
am, offering the three worst numbers a Chinese could get:
the number four in Cantonese sounded like death. Triple
The man had drop-twisted to his right, as if he were dragging her into the next life—holding hands—toward oneness with the universe.
The gun was an older model H&R 622, a .22-caliber revolver that fit the Saturday Night Special profile. Someone had filed off the serial numbers. Only two shots had been fired. With such a cheap revolver, he’d had to have shot her at close range, almost point-blank. There’d probably be some gunshot residue on her face and hand as well. Jack made a mental note to advise Crime Scene, and the ME, then carefully spread open the crumpled-up business card. It was from the Golden Galaxy Karaoke Bar, with a handwritten telephone number scrawled across the back.
Jack snapped photos front and back, checked his watch.
There was nothing in the man’s jacket draped on the chair.
Jack took the note from the man’s shirt pocket, and opened it up on the table. The word characters were written out in broken lines, like a Chinese poem, in a Three-
Kingdoms-period style. Jack mouthed the words silently,
reading through the series of vertical sentences, using his schoolboy Cantonese.
have covered the sky
from the rivers.
Even the air itself
A growing sorrow
I cannot bear.
There is no one
to turn to,
not even a reflection
in the mirror.
I cannot Face
without a face,
I am ready
What I must do . . .
The man had lost face, mo sai meen, and had become despondent. A hopeless predicament, according to the poem. Overwhelmed, he’d given in to despair.
Jack pushed back from the table, turned toward the bed.
The scene looked like a textbook open-and-shut murder-suicide,
one that any of the murder squad cops could have stepped up to, way before he’d gotten the call. Even a sergeant and a couple of uniforms could have managed it.
So why me? Jack had to ask himself. Because I’m Chinese?
Not that he was complaining. Murder was murder,
any way you colored it.
He went back down the stairs to where the uniformed rookie was leaning against the wall of the little vestibule,
half-nodding his way toward the end of the overnight shift.
The cold draft of air at the door invigorated Jack.
“What’s the deal with Crime Scene?” he asked.
“Sarge said they were en route.”
“What about the ME?” Jack frowned. “I need a wagon here.”
“I’ll notify the sarge again.”
Jack took a deep gulp of the cold air before quickstepping back upstairs. Inside the apartment, he emptied the woman’s handbag onto the linoleum floor. There was nothing unusual: cell phone, makeup, change purse, pen,
eyeglasses. A wallet, containing a photo of herself with a karaoke microphone in her hand, smiling; various credit cards, and a non-driver’s license that identified her as May
Lon Fong, thirty-one years old. Another photo of her with two infants; scrawled across the back of the photo, the Chinese words ma, jai neui, mother and children.
The refrigerator was stocked for a single person: two bricks of tofu, some gai choy, vegetables, and a gallon jug of
dao jeung, bean milk. There were leftover salad greens, a half-dozen eggs, a piece of flank steak, dumplings, and noodles in the freezer.
Jack sat down at the little table and waited for the coroner’s wagon. Crime Scene would arrive soon enough.
Nobody here was going anywhere. The waiting made him wonder again why he’d caught the case, and reminded him of all the Chinatown events that had led up to his recent transfer from the Fifth Precinct. The adrenaline had begun to ebb from his body. Fatigue slowly crept back in.
He remembered how, seven months earlier, he’d gotten a hardship transfer out of Anti-Crime, to be closer to Pa in
Chinatown, who’d been terminally ill. The transfer had brought Jack back to the 0-Five, back to the old neighborhood,
where he’d grown up, where he’d lost boyhood friends and his innocence, and from which he’d thought he’d finally escaped.
The old man had died recently, and Jack’s grief and guilt were still fresh in his heart. He’d moved out on Pa, but only because Chinatown was no longer the same place for him as it was for his father. Jack’s Chinatown was colored by violence,
death, and a feeling of helplessness that he hated.
He’d become a cop, thinking he’d make a difference.
The difference was he’d become as cynical and hard as the gangboys he’d left behind.
He was on the job, working Canal Street with the Anti-
Crime plainclothes squad, when Pa passed away. Jack had found him, after stopping to pick up jook, congee, for the old man, after the day shift. He’d missed the chance to say good-bye, to try and apologize for the clashes they’d had.
And now Jack was the last man standing in the Yu bloodline.
Two hundred years of family history on the edge, in Mei
Not long after the burial, a Chinatown tong big shot had gotten himself murdered. Jack was given the case. Uncle
Four, leader of the Hip Chings, had been shot coming out of an elevator at 444 Hester Street. One man was in custody,
awaiting trial. Another suspect had vanished.
During the investigation, Jack had been suspended by
Internal Affairs, but still managed to bring back from San
Francisco’s Chinatown a New York limousine driver whose name was Johnny “Wong Jai” Wong. A person of interest, a
Hong Kong Chinese woman, was still at large. They knew her only as Mona.
The case was pending trial.
Johnny Wong’s name brought back memories: a short heavyset body lying on the floor, halfway out of a small elevator,
the doors bumping up against his ample waist. The vic was Uncle Four. Someone had popped a couple of
.25-caliber hi-vels into the back of his head.
Jack had followed Mona’s words, her phone tips to him,
to California. But when he arrested Johnny Wong for the murder, Johnny, in turn, had pointed the finger at Mona,
Fat Uncle’s mistress.
Now Johnny was in a cell in Rikers, still claiming he had been framed.
Jack remembered chasing a woman, thirty yards distant,
a gun in her hand, desperately pulling a rolling carry-all behind her. She’d escaped from that San Francisco rooftop and disappeared.
Jack knew he’d have to testify to that. So far, none of the
Wanteds they’d put out on her had come back, but they had
Johnny and the murder weapon, with his prints on it. Sooner or later, the case was going to have its day in court.
Jack recalled the picture of Hong Kong songstress Shirley
Yip, torn from Star! Entertainment, a Chinese magazine. It was the closest likeness they had of Mona; according to
Lucky she was a dead ringer for the celebrity.
Toward the end of his tour in the Fifth, Jack had bumped up against his boyhood friend Tat “Lucky” Louie, who’d tried to recruit him into the ranks of dirty cops on the On
Yee tong’s payroll. Lucky would have known about the
Golden Galaxy, a karaoke dive that was operating on his turf. But Lucky was only being kept alive now by a respirator at Downtown CCU; he’d been caught in a gangland shootout between disgruntled Ghost Legion factions. The shootout had left seven bodies outside Chinatown OTB, and a possible shooter in flight.
Lucky’s luck had run out.
Then there was Alex. Alexandra Lee-Chow, Chinatown
activista lawyer. Pretty and hard-nosed, but with a soft heart. She was going through a bitter yuppie divorce. And she was drifting in and out of alcoholic self-medication,
just like he was.
Since they’d known one another, Jack had steered her past a drunk and disorderly charge, and she’d helped him with his Chinatown cases. During bouts of grief and misery,
they’d commiserated and become drinking buddies.
Two budding alcoholics working their way up.
Jack noted that he could use Alex’s connections in the
Administration for Children’s Services for the newly orphaned children, as well as Victim’s Services. In addition,
there was faith-based support for young victims left parentless.
The man and his wife were dead, but their children had to be cared for.
The karaoke photo of the woman reminded him vaguely of
Mona. She was like a chameleon. From the little popgun she’d squeezed off firecracker shots at him as he chased her across that rooftop.
Then she was gone. “In the wind.” He wondered how far she had flown.
The trilling of his cell phone broke his reverie. The number on the readout was one he didn’t recognize.
“Detective Yu?” The voice spoke Toishanese, the old Chinatown dialect.
“Yes, who’s this?”
“I am the father.” The words froze Jack. “Of the dead man.”
“You were here earlier,” said Jack.
“Yes, I found the”—a hesitation—“Say see, the bodies . . .”
“Sir, I need to speak with you,” Jack said in dialect.
“We can meet with you. About half an hour.”
“We?” Jack asked.
“Myself,” the voice answered, “and the father of the dead woman.”
Jack checked his watch. It was 6:18 am, dark still, but dawn around the edges. He heard the sounds of Crime
Scene arriving outside on the quiet street, the voice of the rookie uniformed cop.
“Where?” Jack asked, rechecking his watch.
He left CSU to their work and canvassed the adjacent apartments.
The neighbors had heard nothing. No arguments,
yelling, sounds of struggle. In the middle of the night, som
gong boon yeh, they’d been dead asleep.
An old couple in the apartment above heard a bang, but couldn’t agree whether there had been one or two. They’d thought it was the street door slamming or the noise of the overnight garbage trucks. Or maybe some lon jaai, prankster kids, blasting firecrackers.
He left the building as dawn broke over Chinatown, made a left on Bowery, and headed north toward Canal.