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Excerpt from the current novel that I am writing.

Prologue

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.”

Negotiating For a Goose in China

I am currently writing a sequel to ‘The Witch of Wanchai’. The new story begins in 88 BC in the Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu Di of Han commissions a jade burial suit to be made of the finest jade in the world, ‘mutton fat’ jade found in the Karakash River of southwest Xinjiang near Galwan Kangri Peak. The novel follows the jade burial suit through its manufacture and the intrigue of the Han Dynasty Court, where eunuchs, concubines, and royal siblings jockey for power until the Emperor’s demise.

The story then picks up in the 1920’s when an English grave robber steals the jade suit from Emperor Wu’s tomb in Xi’An. The nefarious Englishman stops in Burma on his way back home for a tiger hunt, but when his elephant keels over after ingesting too much opium (long story there) the Englishman is thrown to the ground and is mauled to death by a wounded tiger.

In the 1980’s the jade suit ends up in an art auction in Hong Kong but then mysteriously disappears before it is sold. Decades later the search for Emperor Wu’s priceless burial suit becomes heated as a Chinese group of high-tech, international mercenaries, a Burmese-hired psychotic killer with a Maori tattoo on his face who disassembles and then re-assembles his victims, and a Japanese yakuza boss who had possession of it for a while, leave a trail of dead bodies to obtain it. The team of Hong Kong detectives, Ian, Angela, and Nigel, must find the suit and stop the carnage.

Back to roasted goose and Emperor Wu. When I write, since I am soooo addicted to food, I try to set the stage by describing the tastes of the period that I am writing about. I was sure that I could do something with roast goose in the Han Dynasty as it such a classic cuisine here in China. To my surprise my Internet research revealed that roast goose did not become popular in China until the Yuan Dynasty, considerably after the Han Dynasty. Poor Emperor Wu never experienced the crispy skin and succulent meat of a roast goose!

I, however, am able to experience this delicacy. I am always delighted to find a restaurant in my travels that serves good local food cooked in the traditional style. When I travel to Shenzhen I typically stay at a very local hotel. Nice hotel, cheap price, funky neighbourhood. The surrounding restaurants serve mostly what I classify as ghetto food. Complaining about the poor restaurant choices the other day, a colleague responded, “Hey, there is a famous local roast goose restaurant very near your hotel. You should try it.” Good goose restaurant? I am there!

A short walk from the hotel I found the goose restaurant, recognizable by the line of browned, glistening, perfectly roasted geese hanging from hooks in the window. Yum! Roast goose is a particular specialty of southern China. I walk in, savoring the smell of roasting geese, enjoying the chopping sound of cleaver on wooden cutting board as the chefs chop the geese before plating them, and I say to the host, “One person, please”. The restaurant was crowded, and I was seated at a round linoleum table with strangers. They glanced at me suspiciously, and rightfully so; a foreigner in this neighborhood, in this restaurant, what’s the world coming to?

There was going to be a hurdle to get over, however. A local restaurant with a following will not have pictures on their menu, which is a big deal for a foreigner who cannot read Chinese. Sure, I can speak Mandarin reasonably well, but a preschooler has a better chance of being able to read a Chinese menu. If a menu has pictures I can point to the photo and say, “I want that.” It works. In this case I would have to do what I always do in such a situation. I would have to make ‘The Confession’.

‘The Confession’ involves announcing to the waiter in Mandarin as he hands me a menu, “I cannot read Chinese characters.” This is similar to an introduction at a twelve-step program, “I am David, and I have a problem.” What is the worst that could happen? Laughed out of the restaurant? Forcibly ejected? Well, one time at a restaurant in Hong Kong a waitress tried to shoo me out, but that was an exception. Usually the staff is very cooperative and will explain what fare is on offer.

I delivered ‘The Confession’ in perfectly accented Mandarin to the waiter who appeared bored senseless by his job at the goose restaurant and life in general. It did not take. Sometimes when a foreigner speaks Chinese, no matter how good the pronunciation, it just doesn’t take. The brain of the recipient of your eloquence refuses to process that a foreigner is speaking Chinese. This was one of those cases. The waiter stared blankly at me as if on ketamine, and then without a word turned and got the proprietor. She instantly comprehended that the foreign barbarian before her actually was speaking Chinese, and that he was saying that he could not read Chinese characters and so could not decipher the menu. Now we’re getting someplace.

The word for goose in Chinese is e, pronounced something like ‘euhw’, a sound that occurs in zero words in the English language. It also has to be said like it is a question because it is the up-rising tone (Mandarin has four tones, and if you use the wrong tone you will not be understood). Euhw? I want Euhw? I suspect they came up with the name for ‘goose’ in China thousands of years ago by imitating the sound of a honking goose (actually, a goose honking a question). I felt foolish, what if I am pronouncing the word all wrong? Hey, Wang, check out this foreigner honking like a goose.

The word for ‘roast’ is shao, hence roast goose is shao e.

Me: I want Shao Euhw? Shao Euhw?

Her: Shao Euhw? Shao Euhw?

Me: Yes, Shao Euhw?

Her: Good, Shao Euhw?

She got it! A honking success! As I waited I looked around the restaurant and everyone was eating the same dish. This restaurant did one thing, goose, and they did it very well. So why do they even need a menu if everyone is eating the same thing???

A plate of vegetables, rice, and goose was soon set in front of me. There was a cup of sweet plum sauce for dipping. The bird had been chopped into slices still on the bone. Guangdong roast goose is seasoned with spices and cooked over high heat in a charcoal furnace, rendering the skin a dark mahogany, very crispy, and the meat is moist and juicy. Fantastic! Tough luck, Emperor Wu, this is good!