by Patricia Brown
Here is yet another Aurora Caldicoat mystery short story set in Fresno and written by Patricia Brown who is a member of the San Joaquin Chapter of Sisters In Crime and this is her third published short story.
Vang Her stepped into Wong’s Tea Garden at the corner of Kings Canyon and Peach in southeast Fresno, whiffed the soy sauce and ginger, and felt at home. It was a ratty place really, but he had been coming to the dive for twenty years and knew he would be safe.
Back then, after he had first emigrated from Thailand, the only Asian food joints were Chinese, so he had become a regular and had forged a silent friendship with Chan Wong, the owner. He admired Wong’s entrepreneurial spirit and his eminent patience in the face of rabid discrimination. Wong’s Tea Garden was only a few miles east of the Japanese WWII internment camp on Butler Avenue near the fairgrounds. It was a sober reminder of the one he had called home in Laos for five years during the Secret War. Americans, however, didn’t seem to be able to distinguish the Japanese amongst them from the Hmong, Thai, Laotian and Chinese who made the San Joaquin Valley home.
Alfred Takaoka, Dr. Aurora Callicoat’s sidekick, followed Vang into Wong’s to pick up his order. The area around Wong’s had built up the last twelve years he had worked for the amateur sleuth, but as Wong’s had deteriorated, Alfred and the doctor stopped coming in for dinner and instead opted for take out. The food was as great as always, but the ambiance had died years ago. Alfred was happy to fetch their meal; it was only a mile west of the doctor’s brick estate on the corner of Clovis and Butler avenues.
Wong greeted both men almost simultaneously. “General Her! Mr. Takaoka!
Do you know each other?”
“Can’t say I do,” Alfred extending his hand. He knew that many of the Vietnamese and Hmong, while eeking out an impoverished existence in the U.S., had held positions of great respect and wealth in their native lands. Generals like her who had fought the Vietcong on the side of the Americans were revered if not rewarded for their war-time efforts. But instead of returning the handshake, the General threw down his cash, picked up his to-go order and rushed out.
“What was that all about, Mr. Wong?” Alfred asked.
“I don’t know, but you better catch him—he took your order!”
As Alfred reached to push the door open, he heard the gunshots and the squealing of tires out of the parking lot headed west on Kings Canyon and out of sight.
“Call 911, Mr. Wong!”
The General had landed on top of his take out face down in the parking lot just steps from his car. Soy sauce mixed with red blood gushing from the wound on his head and the one in his belly. Alfred yelled for the folks pouring from Wong’s and the liquor store next door to stand back as he tried for a pulse to no avail.
An hysterical Wong rushed out and tried to reach the General, but Alfred restrained him, reminding him it was a crime scene and he could better serve his friend by not touching anything. They heard the wail of the ambulance in the distance. Alfred fumbled for the cell phone buzzing in his pocket. It was Aurora.
“Alfred, I’ll take the pot stickers over the egg rolls after all.”
“Doctor, murder at Wong’s! I’m okay! Call Detective London! And, stay where you are–don’t you dare get out of bed!” Alfred barked. Under the circumstances, he knew Aurora would forgive him for raising his voice and not feeding her right away.
Through the crowded coffee shop Aurora could see him stand up, put his trench coat and fedora on and move to the exit toward the trains. She had left him waiting for hours, years really, and he had given up on her. She loved him so and had just come to her senses that she was insane to leave the only man she had ever loved. The customers blocked her as she rushed to him and she tried yelling over the din to stop him. He never saw her desperation to reach him and he disappeared from her sight and her life forever.
In that stinging moment, Aurora sat down in the seat he had just vacated to feel his heat, the only residue left of his presence, the place where she would remember the last place she saw him. She pulled from her pocket the fortunes that he had given her in another attempt to connect to him, to savor the memory of him, to let her know that what they had had been real and true. But the five or six fortunes from Hop Sing’s in Manhattan’s Chinatown had been reduced to tiny balls of paper. They had disintegrated like their love.
Aurora woke up and an overwhelming sadness came over her. She felt the fever spike that had nearly landed her in the hospital recently. Coming off the dream, she had insisted Alfred go to Wong’s to get Mu Shu pork with explicit instructions to get not one, but a whole bagful of fortune cookies. Of all the many demands she had made over their tenure together, this was a new, mysterious one. Must be the fever speaking he had figured.
Six hours later Alfred showed up at Aurora’s bedroom door with Chinese food. Homicide Det. London had missed Aurora’s keen eye for details at the murder scene, but Alfred wouldn’t hear of Aurora risking pneumonia again. He knew she was very sick when she didn’t put up much of a fight when he insisted she not come to Wong’s. Her red eyes seemed worse like she had been crying too, but he didn’t press.
He looked down at the trail of Kleenex spewed across her bedroom floor. He estimated she had gone through six boxes in six hours. He would need latex gloves usually reserved for his work at crime scenes to pick them up. Or, maybe he would just let the good doctor pick them up herself when she recovered. He didn’t know. Recovery from this type of pneumonia could take weeks especially with the Valley’s bad air quality.
To Alfred’s surprise, Aurora skipped the Mu Shu and went straight for the bag of fortune cookies. But when she cracked the first one open, there was no fortune inside. So she cracked the next and the next and the next, but each and everyone was empty! A first! Just like her fleeting dream about Robert leaving her ten years before, she was left with nothing but air. She felt it might be a clue if not a premonition. Was something signaling that she didn’t have a future?
But when she had opened all but one last fortune cookie, she saw a fortune peeking out and pulled it without breaking the cookie. It read in red ink: “I’m going to kill you.” Right below the words were the numbers “6 4 6 4 4 4 4.”
“Oh, my God, Alfred!” Where did you get these cookies?”
“Wong’s, of course.”
“Well, you better look at this and call Det. London right away! Tell him we’ll meet him at Wong’s in twenty minutes.”
“You can’t go out—you’ll end up back in the ER, or worse, give us all pneumonia.”
“I can’t lie in bed and do nothing. Did you say the victim took our order by mistake? Then this is a clue to who done it. Contrary to public belief, fortune cookies aren’t a Chinese, but an American invention.
But in the Chinese tradition, “4” is a very unlucky number indeed.”
“How would you know that, Doctor?”
“Remember when I bought this house? I consulted that Feng Shui expert and she wouldn’t let me look at any homes for sale with a “4” in the address. She okayed the purchase of this one, because its address didn’t contain one 4.” Aurora also was looking at the fortune and couldn’t help but remember her dream about Robert in New York City.
“Hey, Alfred. Don’t fortunes usually only have five numbers? Remember when I told you about that friend of mine when we did our residencies at Beth Israel on the lower east side of Manhattan? He use to play the numbers from his fortunes in the New York State lottery. We’d get off our shift at 3 a.m. and head straight for Mu Shu Pork with plum sauce at Hop Kee’s. The basement restaurant was the only one open in Chinatown all night. After he’d play the numbers, he’d give me the fortunes to hold for good luck. This one has six, like a phone number. In fact, ‘646’ is still the area code for Manhattan. Let’s get going!”
“What are you doing out of bed, Doctor?” Det. London asked. Alfred knew the two of them had had a “thing” years back and he detected an undertone of caring in the detective’s voice even after the affair had ended rather badly. He couldn’t help himself; he was always rooting for them to get back together. Aurora was always comparing the detective to Robert, the one that got away. Aurora had cut it off with the detective simply because he wasn’t Robert. Alfred was more pragmatic and thought you should “love the one you’re with” as the song went. He thought Aurora had cut off her nose to spite her face. Now her nose was very red from the latest nose-blowing marathon as she stood outside Wong’s.
“Pang-Ke, where’s your father?” she asked Wong’s son as he took his smoking break. He was the short-order cook and his dad’s right hand man since he had been twelve. Aurora and Alfred remembered him as a sweet kid, but now he seemed changed, hardened, even scary. But, fiercely loyal to his dad, rumor had it he was to take over Wong’s when his dad retired next year. With his friend’s murder right outside his establishment, Aurora thought the retirement would likely come sooner than later. She was relieved when he finished his Camel, snuffed it out with his foot, and motioned for everyone to get out of the cold.
“He went to make his condolences to Mrs. Her. I can call him if you want. I’m doing the prep for when we open tomorrow.” He reeked of smoke; as a doctor, Aurora hated cigarettes. She marveled how chefs could taste their food with ashtray-mouths.
“Pang-Ke, where does your father get his fortune cookies?” Aurora asked.
Pang-Ke now stood behind the four-foot counter with his back to her. She couldn’t gauge is face for signs of lying.
“I make them. Right here. In the back room. My father got a used fortune cookie machine from the guy who says he invented them. Saved for years to get it and the only time we closed for two days straight. My dad and I rented a U-Haul to drive to LA to get it.” His voice didn’t go up, so Aurora knew he wasn’t lying about that part. Born in the U.S.A., Pang-Ke didn’t have an accent like his father despite his traditional, old-country name.
“Can you show us how the machine works?” Det. London chimed in.
“You put the dough in the trough in the front, turn it on and the cookies get flattened. The fortunes are fed in the side and the machine automatically pushes the fortune into the cookies which the machine folds. They dry for two hours and then are good to go.” Still no rise in the tone of his voice.
“Do you ever get cookies without fortunes?” Aurora asked.
“No.” The voice seemed to go up slightly.
“How about custom made? Is there a way to make your own messages, like for someone’s birthday or anniversary?” She was trying not to give anything away.
Now she could detect the first flush of a lie. “No, we get all our messages from the printer in LA who supplies all the Chinese restaurants in southern California.” His voice suddenly sounded like a teenage boy instead of the adult male he was despite his pint size.
“But what about this keyboard on the side of the machine?” Det. London had notice the change in timbre of his voice too. He and Aurora had “worked” together for years. He wished it wasn’t, but Aurora made it perfectly clear that theirs was strictly a professional relationship. Now he was being the professional.
“Does anyone else but you use this keyboard?”
“I told you that we don’t make our own fortunes. I mean, the machine could do it, I suppose, but we don’t use it that way.” The detective and Aurora glanced at each other to signal they had both caught the lie.
Just then, the bell over the front door rang and Wong called out for his son. “Pang-ke? What is the squad car doing here again? I thought they finished the investigation so we can open tomorrow.”
“In here, dad. Mr. Takoaka and the doctor are here with the police.” His demeanor changed and he relaxed just slightly with the arrival of his father to take the heat off of him.
“Mr. Wong, we would like to brush the machine for prints. May we?”
Before Pang-Ke could object, the father consented. It would be embarrassing for them to ask more questions in front of Wong, so they also asked if Pang-Ke could go down to the station to look at mug shots. At this point, he was merely a person of interest.
“Dad, I need to prep so we can open.”
“Na, I can do it. I just want them to find who shot Her. I promised Mrs. Her I would do everything to help the police do their job.”
Pang-Ke didn’t bother to take off his apron. He bolted for the door. Alfred gripped his wrist as he passed like he had a tennis racket for all those years as Junior Champ. Pang-Ke didn’t have a chance to flee. It was time for good cop, bad cop, even though Aurora wasn’t a cop. Because of her pre-existing customer relationship with Wong, she would naturally take the good cop role. She knew the drill; Det. London had trained her well.
“Hey! We just want to ask a few questions, Pang-Ke. Detective, can’t we just stay here so he can help his father? They’ve had enough excitement the last 24 hours.”
“But, he was trying to flee from a crime scene. Why? I have to know why, or I can bring both of them down to the station for questioning, Doctor.”
It was going well until Pang-Ke grabbed a Chinese clever. Alfred had released him too soon, but was still standing between Pang-Ke and the door. Aurora blocked Pang-Ke from any shot by London and with the knife in her back, she wasn’t about to make any sudden moves.
“Put that damn thing down!” his father cried. “Have you gone berserk?”
Pang-Ke’s voice was hard now. But the intense tone signaled the rush of truth about to explode from his mouth.
“I did it for you, pops! Twenty years! Twenty years you’ve had to watch the General come in here and rub your face in it. He tortured you in Laos! I’ve seen the scars on your back and legs! For twenty years you pretended nothing was wrong, that he was your friend! But he was never your friend! He followed you to Fresno to torture you some more! How could you let him do this to you over and over again?! What humiliation you’ve had to endure–catering all of his ugly daughters’ weddings, the annual Hmong New Year gigs–how could you stand it? I couldn’t anymore, I couldn’t watch you suffer inside anymore. He was an evil, evil man, and still was until today. You wouldn’t tell what atrocities Her did to you and the thousands like you in his camp in Laos. It was time for revenge, pops! I had to do what you wouldn’t do for yourself. Can’t you see, you will never have to face another day of torture, of torture….”
He was sobbing uncontrollably now. He dropped the cleaver and London rushed to handcuff him. Wong was sobbing too and went and held his son in his arms.
A shaken and sick Aurora stooped to retrieve the fortune stuck to her shoe.
It read: “Tonight expect prophetic dreams.”