Excerpt: 'The Shanghai Moon'
I dropped my suitcase, slipped off my shoes, and listened to familiar Chinatown sounds spill in the windows. Horns honked, delivery vans rumbled. Mr. Hu's songbird trilled from the roof next door. I heard a child squeal with laughter and her grandmother scold in Cantonese: Hold my hand, you bad girl, or that fish truck will squash you flat.
And speaking of scolding in Cantonese, here came my mother.
"Who are you?" She shuffled from the kitchen and peered at me. "You look like my daughter, Ling Wan-ju, but I haven't seen her in a long time. She went to California. She said she'd be back soon, but she stayed. I'm happy she's having fun."
My mother's sarcasm could cut diamonds.
"Two extra weeks, Ma. And they're your cousins." I kissed her papery cheek, which she grudgingly allowed. "Have a good time while I was gone?"
"Your brother's children are very noisy." I have four brothers, but my mother rarely uses their names when she talks to me; I'm supposed to know which one she means. This time I did: Ted, the oldest. She'd stayed at his place in Queens while I was away.
"But you had the downstairs apartment to yourself, right?"
"I was fortunate it was empty. It's so dark, no wonder no one will rent it."
"I think Ted and Ling-an did a nice job on it."
"Too many rooms for one person. With such a big kitchen! Hard to find all the pots and pans."
"Did you cook?"
"Your brother and his wife both work so hard, come home late. They order from restaurants. So expensive! I made har gow, and longlife noodles."
"I'll bet the kids liked that."
"And so much lawn, so many useless flowers! I planted melons."
"Your nephew helped."
I could see that scene: my mother in a straw hat, plants dangling from each hand while ten-year-old Barry dug and mulched. Luckily, both Ted's kids adore her. They know her frowning and fingerwagging are scams to hoodwink malicious spirits into thinking her useless, disobedient grandchildren aren't worth stealing.
"Flushing. Pah!" my mother finished. "Too far away."
I sighed. She'd seen right through us. That apartment, far from being "fortunately" empty, had been built for her. My brothers and I think this fourth-floor walk-up we grew up in is getting hard for her to manage. But her refusal to leave Chinatown begins with a refusal to acknowledge she has anywhere to go.
Jet-lagged, I didn't have energy for this argument. "I'm going to unpack, Ma. Then I'll tell you all about the wedding."
"You could have gotten married yourself, you were there so long. Have you eaten?"
"I made congee. There may be enough for two."
Detouring into the kitchen, I waved at old Chow Lun, leaning over the street from his usual windowsill. I lifted the lid from a steaming pot and found enough congee for an army. The table held bowls of chopped spring onions, pickles, and dried fish.
My mother's never liked fish in her congee. But I love it.
While I unpacked, I called my office phone. No messages. Not that I'd expected any. Work was slow, and anyway I'd been checking in daily from California. Now, that might sound like I was waiting for a particular call, but of course I wasn't. I especially wasn't waiting for a call from Bill Smith, my former associate, then partner; former close friend, then almost-I-don't-know-what, who'd done a vanishing act months ago after our last case together. The case, involving Bill's nephew Gary, had ended badly. As his partner and close friend, I felt terrible for him and understood why he wanted no part of anyone for a while. But as his partner and close friend, it made me furious to be one of the people he wanted no part of.
To the tune of my mother bullhorning Chinatown gossip across the apartment, I excavated my suitcase. I was down to the T-shirts when my cell phone rang. I grabbed it; the number was unfamiliar. Squashing down a pang of disappointment, I gave my name in both English and Chinese. Then I yanked the phone from my ear as an offkey tenor bellowed:
"The stars that hang high
Bring back the memory
Of a thrill!
I've been looking hiiiiigh, and I've been looking looooow,
Looking for you, Shanghai Lil!"
"Stop! Pilarsky, your singing has not improved."
"Hey, it wasn't 'Lydia the Tattooed Lady.' I thought you'd be happy. How are you, Chinsky?"
"Oh, I'm fine." I sighed. "How are you? What can I do for you? And what was that?"
"Footlight Parade. Busby Berkeley, Cagney, Keeler. One of the greats. And me, I could be worse. I'm still in business. Are you? If yes, it's not what you can do for me, it's I have a job for you."
"Do I know? A client wants someone who can, quote, operate discreetly in the Chinese community."
"So why did he call you?"
"Apparently, because I speak Yiddish. And he's a she."
"I don't either. Come to the Waldorf at four and we'll both find out."
"Of course today."
"Well . . ." Chasing to a meeting with Joel Pilarsky when I'd just fought my way in from JFK wouldn't have been my first choice; but work is work. "Okay."
"Good girl. I'll be lurking behind a potted palm."
I bristled at the "girl," but Joel was on the far side of sixty, and I was in fact younger than two of his three daughters.
As I clicked off, my mother's face floated around the doorjamb. She must have been in the hall, responding to a sudden need to rearrange the linen closet or straighten the family photos. "Who was that? You were talking about work. Was that the white baboon?"
"Bill? No. I haven't heard from him in a while." I busied myself with my suitcase. "That was Joel Pilarsky. You've met him. I helped him last year when he was looking for that Jewish lady who ran off with the Chinese restaurant owner."
"In Flushing, I remember! Nobody in Flushing is busy enough, so they make trouble for themselves."
Well, mentioning that was obviously a mistake. "Anyway, Joel has a job for me. I'm meeting him later."
"Today? He's sloppy. He gives you orders. And he sings. You get a headache when you work with him."
"Only when he sings." She makes a point of not listening when I talk about work, so how does she know this stuff? "And it's good to have work. Keeps me busy."
"Pah. Keep busy so you won't think about who isn't calling you."
"Ma! You don't even like Bill. And I haven't called him lately either."
"If you never call him again, your mother and your brothers will be happy. But for him not to call you? He values himself too highly. Make you go all the way to California."
"I went to California for Jeannie Chu's wedding."
"A month for a wedding?" Her pursed lips told me what she thought of that. Then she waved away the annoying gnat of Bill. "When do you have to go to your job today?"
"Two hours. Plenty of time to shower and change. But first, let's have some congee."
Excerpt from SHANGHAI MOON by S.J. Rozan, published by Minotaur Books.
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