Vital signs dmb 2, p.29

Vital Signs dmb-2, page 29

 part  #2 of  Dr. Marissa Blumenthal Series


Vital Signs dmb-2

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  The concierge raised his eyes and watched the man cross the lobby and meet with a dark-haired Caucasian woman, then head up to the bar. As soon as they were out of sight, he reached down and picked up the receiver on one of his many telephones. He'd had a lot of strange requests since he'd worked at the Peninsula, but t1tis was one of the strangest.

  Marissa swirled the ice cubes in her glass of mineral water and listened to Tristan reminisce about his childhood in a suburb of Melbourne. It sounded idyllic. He'd commuted each day to an English-style public school in the city via a green tram and a red train. He'd had a stamp collection and went to church on Sunday.

  His father was a schoolteacher.

  "It was a sheltered life," he admitted.

  "But very pleasant. To this day, I have a definite nostalgia for its simplicity.

  "Unfortunately my father died," Tristan said.

  "He'd never been the picture of health. All the sudden he wilted and died.

  Wasn't even sick that long. After that, we moved from Melbourne to Brisbane where my mother's family was involved in the restaurant business on the Gold Coast. That's how I happened to go to the University of Queensland."

  Marissa was exhausted. The traveling was taking its toll. She enjoyed listening to Tristan, but was eager to turn in. She was also thinking about phoning Robert.

  "Maybe we should call it a day," she said when there was a lull in the conversation.

  "I think I'd better give my husband a ring to let him know I'm here."

  Marissa had told Tristan about her childhood in Virginia and about her surgeon father and how she'd ended up in medical school. She'd also been careful to tell him about Robert, purposefully avoiding mention of their current marital problems.

  "Yes, of course, call him!" Tristan said, standing up for Marissa.

  "Why don't you go on up? I'll be along soon. I thought perhaps I might quiz some of the taxi drivers about the Wing Sin."

  Marissa took the elevator to the sixth floor. She had her key in hand, but the moment the elevator door parted, the hall porter appeared from nowhere and opened her door for her. She tried to thank the man but he bowed and wouldn't even look her in the eye.

  She called Robert as soon as she got in. She decided to make it a collect call, not sure how her finances would hold out.

  "You just caught me on the way to the office," he told her after accepting the charges.

  "Have you sold the stock?" Marissa asked. She thought of it as the call was going through.

  "No, I haven't sold the stock," Robert admitted.

  "When are you coming home? And where are you? I tried calling your hotel.

  I was told you'd checked out."

  "I'm not in Australia anymore," Marissa said.

  "I'm calling to let you know I'm in Hong Kong."

  "Hong Kong!" Robert yelled.

  "What the hell are you doing in Hong Kong?"

  "Just a little investigative work."

  "Marissa, this is too much!" Robert fumed.

  "I want you home.

  Do you understand?"

  "I'll take it under advisement," Marissa said, echoing Robert's reply to her request to sell his stock. Marissa hung up. There was no point trying to talk to him. He didn't even inquire about how she was feeling.

  Marissa went to the window and gazed out at the scene. Even in the dark of night, Hong Kong boiled with activity. It could just as well have been the middle of the day. The lights of multitudinous vessels moved like fireflies over the surface of the water.

  Across the harbor in Central on Hong Kong Island, the windows in the office high-rises were all ablaze, as if the businessmen could not dare to take an hour off. In Hong Kong the seductive ness of capitalism was complemented by the sheer power of human endeavor on a twenty-four-hour basis.

  Just then Marissa heard a door close. She assumed it was Tristan. Within seconds there was a knock on the connecting door. Marissa told him to come in.

  "Good news, luv," Tristan said excitedly.

  "One of the Caucasian doormen gave me a tip. He said there is a place not far from here where the triads reign supreme."

  "Where?" Marissa asked.

  "In an area called the Walled City," Tristan said.

  "It isn't really walled, but it was way back when. It was built as a fort in the twelfth century by the Sung dynasty. The Japanese occupying forces in World War II had the walls torn down to extend the runway at Kai Tac Airport. But the salient feature is that the British and the Chinese could never decide who had jurisdiction.

  So this little area has existed over the years in a kind of political limbo. Yet it's right here on the outskirts of Kowloon."

  "You sound like a tour operator," Marissa commented.

  "Apparently it's rather infamous," Tristan said.

  "The doorman said that if we wanted to contact the triads, he thought the Walled City would be a good place to start. What do you say about heading over there and giving it a go?"

  "Now?" Marissa questioned.

  "You're the one who's so eager," Tristan said.

  Marissa nodded; it was true. It was also true that her unsatisfying phone conversation with Robert had filled her with nervous energy.

  "Okay!" she said.

  "Let's give it a try."

  "Good show," Tristan said. He got his hat. Together they headed for the door.

  The Chinese taxi driver wasn't enthusiastic about their intended destination.

  "I don't think you want to go to the Walled City," he said. Marissa and Tristan were already in the backseat of his Toyota.

  "It's not a place for tourists."

  "But we're not going as tourists," Tristan said.

  "The Walled City is a pocket of crime," the driver warned.

  "The police don't go in there."

  "We're not looking for the police," Tristan said.

  "We're looking for the Wing Sin."

  Reluctantly the driver put the car in gear.

  "It's your heads," he said.

  They pulled away from the hotel and turned up Nathan Road into the gaudy glow of Tsim Sha Tsui nightlife. Just like the harbor, the city was as busy as it had been during the day. Their cab inched through swarms of pedestrians, cars, and buses.

  Above, garish neon fights lit the night sky. Across the road hung banners emblazoned with huge Chinese characters.

  Feeling overwhelmed by the sights, Marissa turned inward into the taxi. With all the talk about triads, she asked Tristan what they were.

  "They're secret societies," Tristan explained, "with all the usual secret oaths and rituals. The term triad comes from the relationship among heaven, earth, and man. They started hundreds of years ago as subversive political organizations, but soon found crime more rewarding. Especially the ones that either came to Hong Kong or were founded here. There are supposed to be about fifty gangs in Hong Kong alone, with thousands upon thousands of members."

  "That's comforting," Marissa said with a short laugh.

  "The Chinese have the dubious distinction of being the inventors of organized crime," Tristan continued.

  "That's one of the reasons they're so good at it. Centuries of experience. These days the bigger triads have branches in Europe, the U.S." Canada, even Australia. Anywhere there is a Chinese community there are likely to be triad members."

  "And maybe also TB salpingitis," Marissa added.

  Tristan shrugged.

  "Possibly. But Chinese crime is nothing new."

  "I have to admit," Marissa said, "until I met you, I'd never heard of triads."

  "I'm not surprised," Tristan said.

  "Most people haven't. The Mafia gets all the attention and the triads like it that way. But the triads are worse than the Mafia. At least the Mafia has a family oriented morality, no matter how twisted it may be. Not so with the triads. The triads only concern themselves with money. Profit is the only ethic they know."

  "I don't like the sound of all this," Marissa said uneasily.

/>   "I warned you," Tristan said.

  The taxi driver stopped on Tung Tau Tsen Road.

  "Where's the Walled City?" Tristan questioned, leaning between the seats to see ahead.

  "This is as far as I go," the driver said. He pointed through the windshield.

  "See those tunnel openings across the street? That's how you get in. The Walled City is this mess here to our right. If you want my advice, don't go in. It's dangerous. Let me take you to a nice nightclub, real sexy."

  Tristan opened the taxi door, got out, and held it for Marissa.

  "Thanks for your advice, mate," he said.

  "Unfortunately, we've got business with the Wing Sin."

  As soon as the door closed, the taxi made a quick U-turn. The driver hit the gas and was off.

  "Are you sure about this?" Marissa asked. The taxi driver's warning and Tristan's rundown on triads made her wonder how dangerous it was.

  "Looks rather formidable, doesn't it?" Tristan said.

  They were standing before a honeycomb of tenements, ten to eleven stories high. The buildings were jammed together and had fallen into utter disrepair. What more recent construction there was appeared to have been completely haphazard. Clothes were strung on lines that stretched from building to building. No roads led into this corner of town. There were only the dark tunnels the taxi driver had pointed out.

  "Let's give it a go," Tristan said with a shrug.

  "We can always leave."

  Reluctantly Marissa followed Tristan along Tung Tau Tsen Road, heading for one of the tunnels. On one side loomed the dark mass of the concrete slum. On the other side, in sharp contrast, were brightly lit windows of a row of dentists' offices containing jars of pickled teeth, parts of jawbones, and sets of smiling dentures. Above the dental offices were more normal appearing apartment blocks with balconies, potted plants, and TV aerials.

  There were plenty of people on the dental side of the road, with the usual sounds of blaring radios, TVs, and conversation. But the other side of the road was ominously quiet and dark, with only infrequent lights.

  Leaving the area of normal life and activity, Marissa and Tristan approached one of the tunnels that led into the walled city.

  Together they peered down the lonely corridor. The view was hardly inviting. The narrow, dark passage ran for about fifty feet before angling off to the side. The floor was loose dirt littered with broken pieces of concrete. The walls were covered with graffiti. The ceiling was a tangle of electric wires and cables with infrequent bare light bulbs. Water dripped into slick puddles in several spots.

  Suddenly a horrid screaming noise occurred that made Mafissa involuntarily grab Tristan. Both leaped from fright as a 747 thundered overhead heading for a landing at Kai Tac, barely missing the tops of the buildings.

  "I'd say we're a bit high-strung," Tristan remarked with a nervous laugh.

  "Maybe we'd better skip this Walled City," Marissa suggested.

  "I don't know," Tristan said.

  "If we want to contact the Wing Sin, this place looks promising to me."

  "It looks terrible to me," Marissa said.

  "Come on," Tristan urged.

  "As I said before, we'll leave if it doesn't work out."

  "You first," Marissa said reluctantly.

  Tristan stepped within the opening; Marissa followed close behind. They walked down the narrow passageway that soon began to smell like a sewer. Just after turning the first corner even Marissa had to bend to keep her head from touching the tangle of electric cables that ran along the ceiling. The farther they trekked, the more the sounds of the city died away.

  After several more turns the passageway led to a confluence of tunnels heading in several directions. There were also darkened stairways that led both above and below ground level. Everywhere there was trash and debris.

  Choosing at random, they walked down another passage.

  Rounding a corner, they saw the first signs of life. In a series of ill-lit alcoves sweating men and women labored over antiquated sewing machines. They seemed to be making men's shirts. Marissa and Tristan nodded greetings but the people just stared at them as if they were ghosts.

  "Anybody speak English?" Tristan asked brightly. If anyone did, they didn't volunteer.

  "Thanks anyway," he said. He motioned for Marissa to move on.

  They delved deeper into the maze. Marissa began to wonder if they would be able to find their way back. She wavered between disgust and fear. She had never been in a more revolting place in her life. Such standards of living were beyond her imagination.

  Rounding another corner that smelled particularly rank, Manssa saw a pile of rotting garbage with a pack of feeding rats.

  "Oh, God!" she cried. She hated rats.

  The passageway opened up again with another series of narrow alcoves. In some, open-pit fires burned, adding to the oppressive smell and heat and transforming the place into a kind of medieval vision of hell. They passed a bakery where loaves of bread were stacked on its dirty floor. Next door was a snake vendor with some of his wares hung up by wire. Others were housed in wicker baskets.

  "Are you looking for heroin?" someone asked.

  Marissa and Tristan turned. A young Chinese boy of about twelve years of age was standing in the shadows behind them.

  "Ah!" Tristan said.

  "Just what we need. Someone who speaks English. We're not interested in drugs, mate. We're looking for someone in the Wing Sin Triad. Can you help?"

  The boy shook his head.

  "This is 14K territory," he said proudly.

  "Is it now?" Tristan said.

  "Now where would we be apt to find Wing Sin territory" The boy pointed to his left down a corridor as a number of fierce-looking teenage boys stepped out of doorways.

  "Thanks, mate," Tristan said. He touched the brim of his hat.

  Then he pulled Marissa away.

  "I don't like this at all," Marissa said as they groped in a particularly dark passage, half bent over. She stepped in a puddle of water and wondered what kind of foul fluid it was.

  "At least we're getting close," Tristan said.

  "That boy was the first person to acknowledge he'd heard of the Wing Sin."

  The corridor opened up again on a small, rubbish-strewn courtyard. A young girl was sitting on a stairway.

  "Would you care for some honey" she asked timidly.

  "Only two dollars."

  "Honey!" Tristan repeated.

  "That's an old term."

  "What does it mean?" Marissa asked, staring at the girl. She was dressed in a ragged, Chinese-style dress with a high collar and a traditional slit.

  "We Australians prefer to use the T' word," Tristan said.

  Marissa was appalled.

  "But she's only about ten!"

  Tristan shrugged.

  "The Chinese like their whores young."

  Marissa couldn't take her eyes off the girl. The child stared back at her blankly. Marissa shuddered. Never had she realized just how sheltered she'd been, growing up in Virginia.

  "Uh oh!" Tristan said.

  "Looks like a welcoming party."

  Marissa followed his gaze. A group of young toughs dressed in leather outfits decorated with stainless-steel chains was approaching.

  Their ages ranged from about fifteen to twenty.

  A particularly muscular member of the group held up his hand, effectively stopping the others.

  "What are you doing here?" he demanded in fluent English.

  "Don't you know that gweilos are not allowed in the Walled City?"

  Tristan told him that they were trying to contact the Wing Sin Triad.

  "What for?" the young man asked.

  "Are you after drugs or sex?"

  "Neither," Tristan said.

  "We're looking for information.

  We're willing to pay."

  "Let's see your money," the man said.

  Tristan wasn't sure what to do. He would have liked to defuse th
e situation, but he didn't know how. He scanned the intent faces watching him. No one made a move, but Tristan knew they were prepared to. Slowly, he reached into his pocket and drew out his wallet. Taking a few bills out, he held them up.

  "One of them has a knife!" Marissa whispered, spotting a glint of steel.

  "Run!" commanded Tristan, tossing the money into the air and giving Marissa a push back the way they'd come. Needing no more encouragement than that, Marissa turned and fled down the dark passageway. She stumbled over debris and bumped into a wall. Behind her she heard Tristan following. She soon reached the confluence of passageways they had passed moments before.

  She couldn't remember which way they'd come from. Tristan collided with her, then grabbed her hand. Together they ran down the widest corridor.

  Behind them echoed unintelligible shouts from the youths who'd confronted them. Having seized the money, they were now in hot pursuit.

  Marissa and Tristan realized they were lost. They arrived at a courtyard they had not yet seen. A small, shuttered house stood at its center. Above was the first patch of sky they'd seen since they'd entered the Walled City.

  Skirting the house, they entered another tunnel. From the shouts and catcalls they could tell that the thugs were gaining on them. The Chinese youths had an unfair advantage: they knew the place.

  Rounding a corner, Marissa and Tristan came across another spate of alcoves. One of the rooms was a restaurant with a large cauldron of boiling crab-claw soup. A half dozen simple wooden tabIcs surrounded the pot. A few old men were playing MahJongg at one of them.

  Skidding to a stop, Tristan pulled Marissa into the tiny restaurant. Several of the tables overturned. Mah-Jongg tiles scattered on the rough wooden floor.

  The pursuers were on them in a flash, as out of breath as Marissa and Tristan. Several were brandishing knives. Their faces were tight with determination.

  Pushing Marissa into a corner behind him, Tristan assumed a kung fu stance, expecting one of the young Chinese to make a lunge at him. instead everyone froze again, including the elderly patrons, who'd moved against a far wall, as far from the frenzy as possible.

  The Chinese youths seemed to respect, perhaps even fear, Tristan's threatening posture. The muscled fellow stepped forward.


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