…when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. That was Sherlock Holmes’ spin on things. But Crispin Dench had never bought into it. It was too flowery for starters. Besides, he’d never been interested truth. All he ever wanted were verifiable facts. He had his own practical theory; it went like this: There’s nothing more distracting than the obvious. And nothing more obvious than a distraction. He tried to live by those words. But he was frequently sidetracked by the accuracy of the principle.
He stood next to a dark and idle BC Electric tram. It was 1:00 a.m. There were no streetlights; that part of Chinatown was too low rent. The glowing end of his cigarette was a beacon. It informed anyone who cared to know that he was there, waiting.
When it finally arrived, the headlights of Agustin Ho’s immaculately preserved, chauffeur driven 1938 Packard Super 8 illuminated the rain soaked street. As the vehicle stopped, a bodyguard riding shotgun stepped out and opened Agustin’s door. Crispin Dench watched as a pair of glossy black and white spectators preceded an elegantly suited Chinese man of about forty years onto the wet pavement. Ho put on his hat, lit a cigarette and waved the bodyguard off.
“What’s the hullabaloo, Dench?” Ho said. “I don’t like being away from the office this time of night.”
“Maybe I just want to talk over old times.”
“We ain’t got no old times to talk over,” Ho said, taking off his glasses and wiping the drizzle away with a blue silk handkerchief.
“Then let’s talk about tunnel activity.”
“I ain’t got nothing to say about that either,” said Ho. “I don’t use the tunnels. The tunnels were my father’s turf. I run legitimate businesses, street side. I don’t need to sneak around.”
Dench smiled. He knew Agustin Ho ran one or two legitimate operations. But mostly he squeezed Chinatown businesses and ran a bizarre array of booze cans, dug parlours and cat houses. The kind of places cops and politicians were paid to overlook. Places where respectable citizens went to get smoked, laid or stabbed. Where a square got to make like he had a personality and street credentials were rented, not earned.
“Yeah, you’re legit,” said Dench, “but you also know better than anybody what goes on round here. And you own the Lily Lounge. A patron of the Lily ended up dead in the Keefer street tunnel the other night. Why do you think that might have happened?”
Ho looked over at his bodyguard. Meng was a deadly number with a balisong knife in his pocket and a .45 in his shoulder holster. He and Ho communicated with discreet gestures and eye contact so subtle and fleeting the average civilian would never catch it. It was a complex language of menace, silently spoken in a world where nothing was ever written down. And nothing was ever done in the light of day.
“Boss say he’s already spoken to the police about that,” Meng said. “Boss say he doesn’t want to talk about it again. Boss say it disturbs him to talk about such unpleasantness and that he is offended that you presumed to summon him here for this reason.”
“Talk to me, Ho,” said Dench. “I don’t want your goon translating your facial ticks for me. At least tell him to stop talking like he just got off the boat. He was born here same as you and me.”
“Watch how you talk, sei gweilo,” Meng said.
There was some more mysterious eye contact between Ho and Meng. Meng moved away and into the shadows. Then Ho said, “What do you care what happens underground, Dench? This dead dame a friend of yours?”
“Let’s just say the case intrigues me. And you owe me a favour or two. Don’t forget that Yakuza thing a year ago.”
The mention of the Yakuza and favours owed made Agustin Ho wince. He knew Dench was right. But he hated it. “I heard it was your own Trudy Parr that found the body,” Ho said, “I hear the dead broad had a tiff with her boyfriend, or maybe he was her pimp. She got slapped and then she ran through my kitchen and down into the tunnels. That’s when Trudy Parr followed her down, like some kind of storybook heroine. You know, I don’t never see Trudy round town with any men. I think maybe she goes in for the ladies, don’t you? Maybe she had the hots for that little chiquita. Maybe that’s why she followed her. And now Trudy’s got you out late asking questions about her dear departed little chippy. We’re both getting rained on while she’s at home getting her beauty sleep. That seem fair to you, Dench?”
“I get my beauty sleep when the works done,” said Trudy Parr walking out from behind the tram. She wore a trench coat with the collar turned up. “As for you, Ho. I hear the sunlight burns your skin so you sleep in a coffin during the day.”
“That’s just a rumour,” said Ho with a grin. He continued wiping his glasses with the silk handkerchief.
“Watch out for her, boss,” said Meng, stepping out of the shadows. “She a tricky sister.”
“I’ve got this,” Ho said and Meng disappeared again.
“And another thing,” said Trudy Parr, “my nocturnal roundabouts are my own business.”
“Fine by me,” Ho said, grinning some more. “Look, I don’t know nothing about why that woman got her neck broken underground. It can be a bad neighbourhood down there. What I do know is that a landlord on Georgia Street rented a warehouse out to some shady tenants about a month ago. Since then, everyone’s been talking about bad luck. The mah jong parlours are losing customers and fortune tellers are making a killing off of good luck charms.”
“I thought you controlled Chinatown,” Crispin Dench said. “Why don’t you step in and do something?”
“Sure,” said Ho, “I control Chinatown. But as long as a landlord pays his ice, what do I care who he rents to?”
“What’s so shady about these tenants?” said Trudy Parr. “What’s their connection to the corpse? Why are they bad luck?”
“I don’t know,” said Ho. “These peasants in Chinatown believe everything’s bad luck.”
“Peasants?” said Dench. “I thought these were your people.”
“Hey, I’m third generation Vancouver, man. Most times, I don’t know what the hell these chumps are talking about. I’ve gone by the warehouse and it’s all locked down like Fort Knox. And there’re some pretty rough looking characters, even by my standards, guarding the joint. There’re even rumours going round that the dead dame was conjured up out of some cockamamie magic going on in there that makes twins or doubles out of people.”
“Well, isn’t that something,” said Trudy Parr. “That’s closely approximates what Barney Polenski had to say.”
“Barney Polenski’s a moron,” said Ho.
“You know if there’s any connection between the victim and Polenski?”
“Sure,” said Ho. “They were in the Lily a few times together.”
“Funny, Barney said he didn’t go into the Lily. You say they were together, like dreamily staring into each others eyes?”
“Looked like it was all business to me,” Ho said. “The girl talking and Polenski nodding, taking notes and pounding back rye and cokes.”
“Polenski said his notes were all in his head,” said Trudy Parr.
“Polenski’s a degenerate liar,” said Ho. “I saw him writing shit down. Find him and get his note book. It’ll probably tell you more about what’s going on than I can.”
“If he took my advice,” said Dench, “He’s on a train heading east by now.”
Meng stepped out from the shadows again and signalled silently to Ho. Then he withdrew and Ho turned back to Dench and said, “Yeah, maybe he’s on a train. But sources tell me Polenski was seen going into Lady Ping’s tonight – round back. You know what that means. That bastard’s been a major dope fiend since he got back from the war. His throat was all bandaged up for some reason, too.”
Ho put his glasses back on. “So that’s it, Dench. Now we’re copasetic. I don’t owe you shit as of this moment. I’m going for a steam and a massage.”
As Ho began to get back into the Packard, there was a scuffle in the shadows and a cry for help. Then Meng appeared holding a skinny untidy man by the collar of his raincoat. It was Vancouver Sun reporter Roscoe Phelps.
“Look what I find in dark,” said Meng holding his balisong knife to Phelps’ throat.
“Hands off, you mongol punk,” Phelps said. “I gotta right.”
“Well well,” said Trudy Parr, “if it ain’t Roscoe Phelps. What hole did you just crawl out of?”
Ho signalled for Meng to release the reporter and Phelps stumbled to the ground. When stood up, he made a show of straightening his cheap overcoat and refitting his hat.
“I slice him up good for you, Boss,” Meng said. “I leave him in garbage can for dogs.”
“No,” said Ho. “Cutting down a reporter in this town’s bad juju. But that don’t mean we can’t teach you some manners, Roscoe.”
“It’ll be a headline in the afternoon Sun if you do,” said Phelps.
“Why you skulking round, Phelps,” said Dench.
“I’m collecting dope for a story that concerns all of you. Ain’t no surprise to find you all together here, like it’s a little club. I got a lead on some shenanigans going on in that warehouse you referred to earlier. I got me a pidgin singing grand opera. And some of the characters in that opera are mighty interesting.”
“What’s he saying, this pidgin of yours?” said Trudy Parr.
“It’s not a he,” said Phelps. “It’s a she-pidgin. But that’s all you’re getting outta me ‘til you read it in the papers.”
“Then get the hell out of here,” said Ho, “before I let Meng break your typing finger.”
“Fine with me,” said Phelps. “Looks like this shindig’s breakin’ up anyway.” he tipped his hat and walked away.
A few blocks west, lights burned bright in the Sun Building, Phelps’ destination. It was graveyard shift. They’d already put the morning edition to bed. It’d be hitting the street in a few hours and be blowing in the wind by 10:00 a.m. Already editors were tearing their hair out, agonizing over afternoon copy – shifts in opinion, missed deadlines, blank columns, ambivalent readers and pig-headed advertisers. There was an army up there, toiling over the minutia of a small and insignificant city. Nothing worth a damn ever happened in Vancouver. Not on the surface, anyway.
Trudy Parr lit a Black Cat cigarette. “I think Roscoe Phelps needs a special talking-to,” she said to Crispin Dench as Agustin Ho’s 1938 Packard drove away.
“Let’s read the papers first,” said Dench. “It’ll add context to the conversation.”