Charlie's To Go
My thoughts were on Moo Goo Gai Pan and Crab Rangoon, not murder, as I walked up the half dozen cracked concrete steps that led into Charlie’s restaurant. All that changed when Charlie crashed through the restaurant’s plate glass window and landed dead at my feet, from a shotgun blast to the back. Bad luck for Charlie that my hunger pains hadn’t kicked in a bit sooner and bad luck for me because Charlie was my friend.
You learn to think fast in my business. The first thing you’re trained to do is get out of the fire zone and find cover. A tree, car, ledge, anything to protect you, since whoever did this to Charlie might easily do the same to you. I said you learn to think fast but in this case fast did not necessarily mean smart. Charlie was a friend of mine, almost family. My thoughts were on revenge, not self-preservation.
I pulled my government issue .45 Colt, which somehow I forgot to turn in fifteen years ago when my second tour of duty in Vietnam was cut short, and did a perfect tuck and roll through the open front door. Pretty good for a middle aged guy with a bad knee. But before I could pat myself on the back for my well executed maneuver, I came to a hard stop against the two tree-sized legs of one very big Asian.
Looking up and seeing a welcome-wagon-sized grin on his face, I could have been mistaken in thinking we were old buddies, were it not for the sight of a double barreled sawed-off shotgun pointed at my face. His smile died shortly before the rest of him when the only sounds he heard upon pulling the twin triggers of his shotgun were click, click.
Lee Sing, like his dad, was about five-six with a slight build and quick, smooth movements. But that’s where the similarities ended. Old dad, having immigrated to the U.S. after Mao took over the mainland, was China-born and lived in the past. Young Lee had never been east of Miami and thought the old ways were a joke.
Lee sat down in the chair across from me. A smirk on his face that just asked to be slapped. Lee was cool, too cool. What was going on in his head was anyone’s guess. It was my job to find out. “Your dad’s dead. Where’s the tears?”
Lee squinted at me through smoke drifting up in a thin spiral from the cigarette pasted in the corner of his mouth. He took a long ten count before answering my question. Whether he did it for effect or was thinking of a good answer, I didn’t know.
“Where do you get off asking me that? You’re nothing to me and my old man was nothing to you. He was just some old Chinese guy you bought fried rice from on a Saturday night.”
“You’re wrong, kid, and you know it. Charlie Sing was a good friend of mine. But he was your father, tough guy. Show some respect. What are you doing here anyway? You called me and asked if you could stop by. I didn’t call you, remember? If you got something to say, then do it. If not, get out of my office.” Lee got up, took three steps towards my door, turned around, crushed the half- smoked cigarette under his heel and looked at me. At that moment the facade faded away. He’s no longer some cool tough guy but just a scared kid whose father had been murdered.
“I know that dad was your friend and you want to find out why he was killed, but please stop asking questions, Mr. Barry. If you don’t, more people will die. My people, your people.”
Asking questions is what I get paid to do. Except this time it’s personal.
I spent many a late night playing cards with Charlie after the last egg roll was sold. His English might have still been bad after almost a half a century in the states, but he was a good listener. We talked about things, or I should say I talked and he listened, which I had never mentioned to anyone else ever, because in my line of work you never show your weaknesses. Broken marriages, broken dreams, broken lives. Things like that. Like I said, it’s personal.
“Hey Jack.” The greeting of choice in the South is “hey.” Not “hello” or “how you doin.” Growing up in St. Louis the only time I heard the word directed to me was when the cops yelled, “Hey you, stop!”
“Larry.” He sat down and slid a plain manila folder over to my side of the table.
“What are you having?” I asked while pointing at the folded menu hidden behind the napkin dispenser.
“Same as you, just coffee. That plastic covered menu probably tastes better than the food, so let’s cut to the chase. I don’t know why I came here. It’s an open case, Jack. I could be back on the street wearing a blue uniform just for talking to you about this.”
“I’m part of this case, remember? I killed the guy that killed Charlie. If you hadn’t arrived so soon, I would know a lot more than I do now. As it is, you treated me like a civilian and kept me behind the yellow tape during the investigation.” A middle-aged waitress, whose nametag read Sally Jo poured Larry some coffee from a dented and tarnished faux silver carafe. I think she was a little put off when Larry failed to return her “hey.”
Larry took a taste of the coffee and made a face like he was sucking on a lemon before answering my question.
“Jack, you’re a civilian now. Or don’t you remember? Worse than that, you’re a private investigator. Nobody on the force likes a PI, cops never know for sure what side they’re on.”
“You owe me this one, Larry, remember?”
Larry took another sip of coffee and looked over the lip of the cup at the people around him. All he could see were pale complexions, flowered shirts and funny shorts. No locals, just tourists. Without saying a word, Larry got up and left, but the file folder stayed.
According to the inventory sheet tucked in the folder, Charlie was wearing a money belt packed with money, at least ten thousand dollars. Charlie also had a wallet full of pictures and a plane ticket back to Taiwan on his body when he died.
I’ve known Charlie for a long time and had seen all but one of these pictures before. Charlie, after a couple of bottles of beer, would get sentimental and begin to show off his family photos. The one picture I did not recognize was of the beautiful young oriental woman with her arm draped over the shoulder of Charlie’s son Lee Sing.
Pictures of your family I understand. I’m carrying a couple myself. But who carries that kind of cash while he’s dishing out fried rice? It looked like Charlie planned to take a long trip to get away -- from someone who wanted him dead? Too bad Charlie didn’t leave a little earlier in the day. He never liked to miss that daily lunch rush.
The autopsy report showed that both men died of gunshot wounds. Smiley ate a slug from my Army Colt, and Charlie earned a visit to his ancestors from a single blast in the back from a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun. The coroner could tell from the spray pattern that only one shell was fired at Charlie.
But even before the autopsy, the cops knew it was a single shot. Pretty stupid killer. What’s the point of a double barrel if you only have one barrel loaded? Maybe he didn’t know. The big guy had looked awfully surprised when he heard that second click.
The stir fry cooks weren’t any help at all. Both had their backs turned away from the front counter and were busy with their woks at the time of the first killing. They didn’t see Mr. Welcome Wagon come in, didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary till the sounds of the shotgun blast and shattering glass. When they turned around, their boss was already lying on the steps outside the restaurant with a ragged hole in his back.
I put the inventory report back in the folder, tipped Sally Jo for the bad coffee and walked out to my Ford. I had that old tingling in the back of my neck, the one that told me, I was missing something important.
I reopened the folder and looked again at the pictures in Charlie’s wallet. I should have caught it immediately. I spent a year stationed in Japan after Nam. The woman with Lee Sing and Charlie’s killer were both Japanese.
Old Charlie was a war vet just like me. He fought in China against the Japanese during World War Two. After half a century there was still a lot of hatred between the two peoples, especially for those of Charlie’s generation.
“Charlie is dead. His killer is dead. End of case,” Larry said when I returned his file folder.
“What are you talking about? It was an open case ye sterday. What happened since then?” I said. “Do I have to repeat myself? It’s over. A random shooting is all we got. It happens all the time. A customer or a cook could have taken the shot rather than Charlie Sing. Two minutes later and it could have been you. Charlie Sing just had bad luck.”
“You’re not the first person to tell me to let this go, Larry. Charlie’s kid, Lee Sing, beat you to it. Something’s going on here.”
“Maybe you should just take our advice and let it go. Don’t push your luck. What more do you want? We got the guy who did it. His fingerprints are all over the shotgun. So we don’t know his name – who cares? The prints match, that’s what matters. Hell, he even tried to kill you before you put a hole in his head. It’s over. Time to move on, Jack.”
Larry lived well. Maybe too well. From where we were sitting I could smell the sea air and hear the sound of surf breaking on the beach. As it was a cool November evening, Larry had a fire going. I watched the embers, remembering the fireflies I used to catch as a kid growing up in St. Louis. It didn’t take a genius to see that Larry had crossed over the line. Once you cross, you don’t come back.
“Moving up in the world, aren’t we, Larry? Sure beats the old place. Must cost you big time.”
It’s never been just a black and white thing. Orientals, Jews, Latinos -- they’re all ingredients in the old prejudice pie. Somebody high in the police department decided that finding out why one old dead Chinese guy named Charlie got that way wasn’t worth the police department’s time or money. So the case was closed.
I was sitting at my desk looking out my window at Jay’s Auto Salvage across the street and thinking about all the things that listening to my gut had gotten me in life. Things like; a couple angry ex-wives, a busted career as a cop, friends I couldn’t trust, and a low rent office with a view symbolic of my life, when the girl in the picture came for a visit.
She came to kill me but just cried instead. “You have ruined my life. No one is left,” she said and collapsed to the floor.
I looked down at her, my own gun limp at my side. In her right hand she held the gun which she couldn’t use. In her left was a crumpled picture. There were three people in the picture. In the middle was the girl; to her right was an older, large man. Written in red ink about the man was the word dad. He was the same person who had murdered Charlie and who I had then killed. On her left was a young man, he had his arm around her and they were smiling at each other. I knew his name. It was Lee Sing.
As I watched the police take her away she was still crying. Even with tears in her eyes she was beautiful. Maybe I just thought so because of the tears. Who knew? None of that mattered. She was crying because she loved Lee Sing, and now he was dead and Lee Sing was dead because she’d killed him.
It’s ten years later. I’m the same guy doing the same PI gig. The bad leg still hurts, maybe a little more than before.
Charlie is still dead, and I no longer go to Charlie’s To Go for sweet & sour pork. I couldn’t if I wanted to, it’s now a pancake house owned by some big restaurant chain up north.
Lee Sing is still dead, the result of a mutual suicide pact gone wrong. Seems to have been a lot of guns floating around back then with just one chamber loaded. In this case I think Lee Sing planned it that way.
Charlie’s killer is still dead. The girl in the picture was his daughter and I had killed her father. It looked like Charlie’s killer hated the Chinese as badly as Charlie hated the Japanese and couldn’t stand the thought of his little girl being manhandled by a man with odd eyes. Charlie knew his time was short. He tried to run, but he left just a little too late.
The girl in the picture has a name, Keiko Akimoto. During her trial Keiko Akimoto said nothing; her court appointed lawyer said little more. The story was that Lee’s death was a crime of passion. The jury agreed, which probably saved Keiko’s life. I’ve visited Keiko every week for the last ten years. I was hoping to make amends. She’s seen no one else because there is no one else left to see. This visit will be different. This time I will be meeting her outside the prison walls.
I see her coming now. Keiko Akimoto is walking out the penitentiary gate. Keiko is a free woman and she is crying. Even with tears in her eyes she is beautiful, or do I still think that because of the tears. Why I think she is beautiful no longer matters. What matters is why she is crying. And Keiko Akimoto is crying because she loves me.