It was the first time I ever got a phone call from the underworld.
I was chopping spring onions when the red kitchen phone rang. (I told my children to buy me a red phone so the calls would be lucky ones. However, it doesn’t always work.) Wiping my hands on my apron, I walked across the room. Instead of lifting the receiver I pressed the blue button, as my son showed me, so the caller and I could converse in the air, while I continued with my onions. “This is Chin Yong-Yun speaking,” I said, to be polite, though surely the phone knows who I am by now.
The voice in the air asked for my daughter.
This happens fairly often. My daughter is the only private investigator in Chinatown. Her office is in an out-of-the-way location and her phone number quite private, yet people sometimes feel that for true discretion they must consult her at home. I dislike it; I am opposed to her continuing in this profession precisely because of the riffraff she encounters. Also because to do her job properly she must pry into the affairs of others, which is not ladylike behavior.
“Come on, Ma,” she tells me. “It’s just a phone call. It’s not like the riffraff are coming up to the apartment.”
Disregarding the fact that the riffraff occasionally do come up to the apartment—at least her white-baboon partner Bill Smith does, and he is more than enough riffraff for me—there is also this: Even a phone call can fill the air of one’s home with bad luck and evil influences. As was happening right now, I knew, because I had recognized the caller’s voice.
“Gerald Yu,” I said, “why are you calling here? You are dead.”
“You know it’s me?” He sounded surprised, but Gerald Yu, even when he lived, was never a very smart man.
“How long were we neighbors? How many years did you work at Moonlight Pavilion Restaurant with my husband? How many times did we pass in the hallway, where I carried groceries to fix my children’s dinner and you wailed about mah-jongg tiles that had fallen badly and gin cards that had not come into your hand? I went to your funeral, old man. I threw hell notes into your cauldron. Why have you come back?” A bad thought struck me. “Has the King of the Underworld sent you to find vengeance? I had heard rumors your death was not a natural one. If that is true, however, my daughter cannot help you. That is not the kind of detecting she does. Goodbye.”
I started back across the kitchen to press the button that would end the call. Getting involved with ghosts is a bad business. Before I could, however, Gerald Yu spoke up.
“Chin Yong-Yun, wait! It’s about my death, yes, but it’s not vengeance I’m after. Also, it’s not really about my death, because I’m not dead.”
“Who told you that? They’re lying.”
“No. I pretended to be dead and I disappeared.”
“No, you’re pretending to be alive right now. I know about the tricky ways of ghosts.”
“I was paid. It was a lot of money.”
For a moment I stopped. Around the mah-jongg table it had always been said that Gerald Yu would do anything for money.
“Someone paid you to be dead?”
“A lot of money?”
“Fifty thousand dollars,” he said proudly.
Gerald Yu hesitated. “I’m not sure. It had something to do with taxes and Chinese tariffs on imports. They needed an unfamiliar passport.”
“For an illegal purpose.”
“I don’t know about the purpose. I had my own difficulties that made the offer tempting.”
“So you didn’t inquire?”
“I didn’t quite understand it, I suppose. But do you know the American expression about gift horses?”
“Someone gave you a horse?”
“No. But I took the money.”
“To be dead.”
“Then do what you were paid to do.” I pushed the button.
I was scraping the onions into a bowl when the phone rang again. I wouldn’t have answered it, but ghosts can be very persistent. I didn’t want to listen to that ringing all day.
“This is Chin Yong-Yun speaking.”
“Give me your daughter’s number. Then I’ll go away.”
“I’ll find it anyway.”
“If you could find it anyway you wouldn’t have called me a second time.”
“You’re right.” He sounded as though he was smiling. “I can’t remember what her detective agency is named.” He probably thought I’d find his stupidity adorable. My five children could tell him he was wrong. “I’ll pay her.”
“Not if you can’t find her.”
“That’s why I need you.”
“That’s why we don’t need you.”
He paused. “What?”
“Gerald Yu, my daughter doesn’t want to be involved with a ghost. I can tell you that, so you don’t have to ask her. You have a son and a daughter-in-law. You remember their names.” I wasn’t sure that was true. Maybe ghosts had bad memories. “Call them.”
“I can’t call them. I was told never to do that.”
“By the people who paid you.”
“To pretend you were dead.”
“Then do what you—”
“Don’t cut me off again! Chin Yong-Yun, I want to come home.”
I didn’t give Gerald Yu my daughter’s number, of course. What mother would allow a ghost near her children? However, I am not a person without compassion. I am also not a fool. In his days in this world Gerald Yu never changed: horse races, xiangqi, dominoes, slot machines—he chased after them all, waving his money. He was not a bad cook, nowhere near as good as my husband, of course, but his dishes were palatable. My husband supported his family and also saved enough to buy a partnership in Moonlight Pavilion Restaurant, a partnership I sold soon after his death when the restaurant changed hands. Some of my cousins said I should have demanded a higher price, but I am not a greedy person. I preferred the peace of mind that came with not being in business with the new owners, C.C. Yip and his brother T.T. Yip. Say what you will, the Yips are an unsavory pair. That decision, made many years ago, turned out to be a wise one. Though they are tight-lipped about their dealings, reports recently swirling in Chinatown maintain that the Yips have lost a great deal of money. Half a million dollars, it is rumored to have been. Some say, through poor investment; others say it was stolen from them. It is whispered that they went hat in hand to the moneylenders on Doyers Street. Of course, I am not the sort of person who pays attention to gossip. I am just glad to have extricated myself from the affairs of the Yip brothers long ago.
Gerald Yu, however, due to his improvident ways, found it necessary to remain at Moonlight Pavilion Restaurant, although he never advanced beyond the day shift. Gerald Yu wasted every dollar he earned betting on things over which he had no control. People whispered he had borrowed from the Doyers Street moneylenders also, more than one time. It was said he was in debt to them when he died. One of the mah-jongg ladies speculated that Round Chong the moneylender lost his patience and had Gerald Yu killed.
I considered that and decided it was a ridiculous idea. “Round Chong is not a stupid man. Why would he kill a customer? Living, Gerald Yu might yet pay his debts. Dead people do not pay debts.”
The other ladies agreed with me, as they often do, because I am usually right.
Gerald Yu’s lifelong refusal to change his behavior gave rise to my thought that he would not stop trying to find my daughter either. Eventually he might succeed. Also, as I have said, I am not a cold kind of person. The desire to come home is something everyone feels.
I told Gerald Yu his case would be investigated.
On a previous occasion, to keep my daughter from getting involved with a particularly odious woman who wanted to hire her, I looked into the case myself. I found the problem simple and solved it before dinner. My daughter was not grateful, but what children are when parents do favors for them? She told me not to involve myself in detecting work.
“Why?” I asked her quite innocently. “Is it dangerous?”
My daughter has been telling me for years, when I request that she stop this nonsense and find a real job, that the work she does is perfectly safe. She opened her mouth that day but had no answer. It would have been unkind to press such an obvious advantage, so I dropped the subject. However, I made no promises. If she thought otherwise it is not my fault, but rather is because she was not really listening to me, as is often the case with children.
And if Gerald Yu understood from what I said that I was intending to pass his case on to my daughter, I cannot be blamed for that either.
Following a recipe of my husband’s for dumpling filling, I minced pork and mixed it with the onions and a small amount of ginger, while I considered the situation. I placed the covered bowl in the refrigerator so the ingredients would blend their flavors—cooking, like most things worth doing, requires patience—and then cleaned the kitchen and put on my sneakers. Detecting can be strenuous; this is why my daughter refuses to wear high heels, though they would be more attractive than the sturdy shoes she insists on. It would also be better if from time to time she wore a skirt instead of trousers. I’ve found many enticing patterns for lovely feminine clothing for her, but she will not take an interest. My daughters-in-law are much more rewarding in that way. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing my daughter’s trousers are well made. I am my family’s tailor.
Locking three of the five locks on the apartment door and leaving the other two open—so a thief picking them to let himself in will at the same time lock himself out—I went to see Round Chong.
In the anteroom to Round Chong’s office on Doyers Street I could smell the sharp scent of the permanent-wave solution from the beauty parlor below. Many Chinese women choose this method of adding curls to their hair. I have done so myself from time to time. My daughter would benefit from the softer image created this way, if only her hair were longer. As it is, she wears it too short for styling.
I was not kept waiting. I told Round Chong’s secretary—a young man with large muscles who looked cramped behind his little desk—that I was in a hurry, as I had much to do. He nodded respectfully and announced me to Round Chong through the door behind him. It was only after I was seated in Round Chong’s office that I realized the young man must have assumed I was a new client, come to borrow money at outrageous interest rates because I was incapable of living within my means. That anyone could believe anything so ridiculous annoyed me, but I did not allow Round Chong to see my irritation.
“Chin Yong-Yun,” said Round Chong, who had courteously lifted his melon-shaped self from his oversized chair as I entered, “I hope you are well. Will you have tea? I have an excellent oolong from Wuyi.”
I accepted his offer, because it would have been rude to refuse. Also because the Wuyi oolongs are famous and quite costly and I had never had the opportunity to taste one. We sat in silence while Round Chong poured steaming water into a delicate pot. His thick fingers, reminiscent of the balloon animals my children used to enjoy, swirled the pot clockwise in the direction of welcoming a guest. He poured the golden liquid into tiny cups.
I pronounced it delicious, which it was, and worth waiting these many years to savor. Though I suppose it’s possible Round Chong understood me to be comparing it to other Wuyi oolongs I’ve enjoyed.
“I’m pleased you find it acceptable,” he said, cradling his own cup against the curve of his belly. “Now, how can I help you, Chin Yong-Yun?”
“I’m here to ask if you killed Gerald Yu.”
Round Chong stared and then laughed. “Are you, in fact? What sent you here with a question like that?”
“Yes, I know who you mean. I’m wondering—”
“Yes, I know what you’re wondering. I am not the person who wants to know. Gerald Yu does.” Now Round Chong tilted his head quizzically. “The ghost of Gerald Yu has contacted me,” I explained. “He wants to know who killed him.”
My children would tell you I do not generally lie; still, I felt in this case a small untruth was not out of line. Detectives often dissemble in the course of an investigation. Gerald Yu had not requested the identity of the person who had killed him, because he did not admit to being dead. As he had explained the situation to me, his gambling had at long last made him a profit. A large profit: He referred to it as a jackpot. I reminded myself that even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then, but I did not speak that thought aloud. Gerald Yu, sounding pleased, told me he had won a lottery in another state; he now had more than enough money to repay what he had been given to act dead.
“My son has become a father,” he’d said. “I’d like to return the money, stop pretending I’m dead, come back to life, and meet my grandson.”
“If that’s what you want, why are you calling me?”
“I’m not. I’m calling your daughter.”
“Don’t play games, old man. Why not do as you just said? Return the money and rematerialize? Why do you need a detective?”
“I don’t know who to return it to.”
Finally, he had gotten to the heart of the matter. Ghosts can be quite long-winded. Gerald Yu wanted to know who his benefactor had been.
“I’m afraid that if I just reappear they’ll think I’m breaking our bargain. I’ve been very careful about keeping it, you see.”
“The bargain was, they paid you money and you’d be dead forever?”
“That’s how most people are dead. I even ran away when I saw Tiger Chow.”
“Tiger Chow? Your cousin, who is bodyguard to the Yip brothers at Moonlight Pavilion Restaurant? Old man, Tiger Chow lives on Mott Street. Did you stay here in Chinatown, after you died?”
“Of course not. The people who paid me told me to go far away. I did, but soon after my funeral I saw Tiger Chow here.”
“Where is ‘here’?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you.”
“You have to tell your detective everything! How can your case be investigated if you have secrets from your detective?”
“I thought your daughter was my detective.”
“I told you, she doesn’t like to speak to ghosts. Anything you want her to know you must tell me.”
Gerald Yu sighed. “Very well. I am in Miami, Florida. I chose this place because it is warm and sunny and they have an excellent racetrack, by the name of Hialeah. I flatter myself that you might remember how much I enjoyed the occasional horse race, Chin Yong-Yun.”
“I do remember. In your case it is not a flattering reminiscence. I am also familiar with Miami. My husband took us on a trip to Miami when the children were young. It is lovely there.”
“Yes, it is one of my favorite places. I have been here many times. My cousin also enjoys coming here. That was my first thought when I came across him. I was filled with joy until I remembered my promise. So I ran away. I was afraid Tiger Chow had seen me—he seemed to look right at me—but he didn’t call out or follow me, so I suppose he didn’t. Really, I have tried hard to keep my promise. But having to run away made me sad. It reminded me I was lonely. Then I won my jackpot. So I decided it was time to come home.”
“I see. I see. Now tell me one more thing, old man. All this money you were given—how did it come to you?”
“In a big red envelope. With my name on it and nothing else. I felt the envelope was lucky so I kept it. Now I’m going to use the same envelope to return the money.”
“No, you are not. You will send the envelope to me.”
“It’s my lucky envelope!”
“Yes, I believe it is. Along with it, you will send a written account of the events you have just explained to me. Do you have a seal?”
“A chop? Yes, I do.”
“And you were able to take your seal into the underworld?”
“Chin Yong-Yun, I’m not really—”
“You will place your seal on the written account. Send me the account and the red envelope by overnight mail.”
“I thought you just won a jackpot.”
“My lucky envelope? Do I have to?”
“That may be your lucky envelope, but Gerald Yu, I tell you this: Because you have hired Chin Investigations, today is your lucky day. . . .”
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