It was the dead birds that people noticed first. Dark shapes defacing the narrow asphalt roadways of the small, rural Lantau Island community of Pui O like droppings from one of the feral water buffalos that roamed the forests and fields surrounding the town. The overseers of Hong Kong’s skies, the troubadours of the trees, now only dark mounds of feathers, beaks, and curled up feet: tree sparrows, magpies, and shrikes, plumes of browns and blacks with dollops of yellow, lying still and quiet on the asphalt.
After the birds, people started to notice the snakes, not as obvious. They lay twisted and unmoving in the fields and on the smaller footpaths that crisscrossed the farm plots of the community: bright green bamboo snakes, gray-black cobras, and black and white banded kraits. Also the frogs, the spiders, and the insects: all dead. A noticeable silence embraced Pui O: an absence of buzzing, croaking, and chirping.
The scientists were called in. The scattered assemblage of haphazard houses and small stores that comprised Pui O was suddenly inundated by a contingent of serious-faced technicians from The University of Hong Kong. They swelled the population of long-time locals and newly planted bohemian ex-pats. They tromped through the fields and forests, studied the cadavers, and took samples, which they studiously put in small glass jars. The area of apocalyptic demise of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects was mapped, and a circle of death was drawn. Ground zero at the center of the circle was a fenced off, three-acre meadow. The scientists referred to it as ‘The Field’, and it took on a cache similar to ‘The Grassy Knoll’. Samples were taken from The Field and sent back to laboratories for analysis.
At the edge of The Field stood a sturdy wooden hut painted oyster gray with white trim. It exuded an aura of guilt, a complicit participant in the crime awkwardly caught at the scene. A small porch embellished the front, and the windows were shuttered and the door locked. Eventually the scientists called the police, and they broke in. What they found was reminiscent of those extra-gory horror movies shown on late-night Hong Kong Telecom.
Forty-three kilometers across the South China Sea from rural Pui O, in the shoulder-to-shoulder density of Hong Kong Island, Homicide Detective Nigel Ho munched a pork bun and sipped milky coffee. Sitting in his cubicle on the ninth floor of Arsenal House, the iconic steel and glass headquarters of the Hong Kong Police Department, the morning paper spread-eagled before him on his desk, Nigel said with a mouth stuffed full of pork bun, “Hey, Angela, listen to this crazy shit. You know those dead animals they been finding in Pui O?”
“Yeah,” Detective Angela Cheung said as she stared out her window at the dappled greens of the shade trees of Harcourt Gardens below from her adjacent cubicle, debating the wisdom of her choice to leave the Triad gangs of Kowloon to join the police force. “I read about it. So what?”
“Today’s ‘Standard’ says that they found a field at the center of what they are calling ‘The Circle of Death’ that had been poisoned with some strange compound they cannot identify. The birds and frogs ate the insects that had been in the field, and poof: they dropped dead. Then the snakes ate the frogs and the birds: same deal. But here comes the really strange part,” Nigel said.
“OK, I been waiting for the strange part,” Angela said.
“There was a shack on the edge of the poisoned field, and when the police broke in they found that some lunatic had been dissecting the dead snakes and frogs. Only they weren’t dead! They were pinned to tables, writhing and twitching. The poison they had ingested had made them seem dead, but then they came back to life, like zombies!”
“Aiyahh! That is weird,” Angela said. “They came back to life?”
“Sort of, ‘cause they weren’t really dead in the first place. The poison put them only in some kind of catatonic state. The article says the creatures were brain-dead, but doesn’t go into a lot of detail.”
“That is creepy. Could you not be stiffing your face with pork bun while you’re talking to me? It’s disgusting,” Angela said.
Nigel continued, “It says that the Lantau South Divisional police are investigating, and that neighbors reported that the renter of the hut was some ‘devil-eyed woman’, whatever that means.”
“Ha, it means some superstitious, old Cantonese granny didn’t like her,” Angela said.
“Well, let’s hope the case sticks with Lantau South. The last thing I want to be investigating is bird murders. I will stick to human murders, thank you very much,” Nigel said as he finished the last of the pork bun.
“Don’t know, Nigel. My intuition tells me this is just shadow boxing,” Angela said, turning her gaze out the window across Victoria Harbour. She could see Lantau Island as a hazy gray strip on the horizon of the ocean.
“Shadow boxing?” Nigel asked.
“Yeah, a warm up. An experiment. A rehearsal. The main performance is coming up, Nigel, and I’ll bet a dozen of those pork buns that you stuff in your face every morning that soon it will be people dropping instead of just snakes and birds,” Angela said. “Then, Nigel, it very much will be our case.”