Chin Yong-Yun Helps a Fool
by S.J. Rozan
Art by Ron Bucalo
Lan Li should have known better, of course.
Sitting opposite her in my living room, I sipped some tea in order to prevent myself from pointing that out. I am not the sort of person who likes to draw attention to the obvious. Besides, scolding Lan Li would have done no good. I had no doubt she would be on guard against this same trick—I believe the word my daughter, the detective, uses in English is “scam”—should it present itself again in the future. But Lan Li is on the whole a fool. To try to make her wise would be to hurl eggs against a rock. The eggs would be wasted, the rock unchanged.
“I’m sorry, Daije,” she said as she ended her sad tale. Lan Li is older than I am. We are in no way related. Yet it was right that she should call me “Big Sister.” She had come to ask for help. A supplicant must show the proper respect. “I know I’m a fool.” I was surprised she was aware of this—most fools aren’t—but as it was not new information to me, I didn’t respond. She went on, however, as though I had. “But it was my son! My unmarried son! How could I not do everything in my power to save him?”
“I have five children myself. Four of them are sons,” I replied, in case Lan Li had forgotten my detective daughter was not my only child. I did not mention that two of my sons are unmarried, as Lan Li also has an unmarried daughter. I did not want her to have any sudden thoughts. Although Lan Li’s daughter seems to be a sensible young woman, she is the only person in her family of whom I could say that. Better for both of my sons to remain bachelors than for either of them to marry into a family of fools. “I understand a mother’s desire to help her son,” I continued. “But a curse you never knew about until you were told by a stranger on the street? Truly, Lan Li, did you not have a moment’s pause?”
She hung her head. “My daughter is quite angry with me.”
“I do not need to be told that. I heard it in her voice over the telephone.” It was Lan Li’s daughter who had called for this appointment, Lan Li herself being too embarrassed by her actions to admit them.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. I was pleased to see that at least she was penitent. Then she sighed. “That such a thing should happen on Mulberry Street.” Looking up, she added, “After I left the fortuneteller, the first woman approached me on the corner where Plum Garden used to be.”
Plum Garden was the restaurant owned by my late husband. I suppose by mentioning it Lan Li hoped to soften my heart. Because I considered that a devious ploy, I didn’t respond. Lan Li continued, “That corner, of course, is in the center of Old Jun’s domain. But Old Jun has grown so . . . old.” Really, I was starting to lose patience with her. It is true that many years ago, when the people in that area of Chinatown began referring to Jun Da as “Old Jun,” the title was a sign of respect, not an indicator of actual age. However, it is incorrect to attribute Old Jun’s current decline to age alone. Many older persons are quite capable.
“Or,” Lan Li said forlornly, “if, instead of daughters, Old Jun had had sons.”
That was enough. “You are blaming others for your mistake,” I said to her. “Others—the sons of Old Jun—who do not even exist. You may be correct that a certain slackness has lately crept into Old Jun’s formerly firm control over those blocks.” In fact, fool or not, I was sure she was correct. “That does not excuse your poor judgment. But stop, do not argue with me, because none of that matters. We will take your case.”
Lan Li had taken on the look of someone about to make more excuses for herself, something I would not have been able to bear. At what I said, her face lit up.
The help Lan Li had come seeking, at her daughter’s insistence, was not mine. It was my daughter’s. Many people think of my daughter as the only detective in our family. This is a mistaken assumption for which even a fool such as Lan Li can’t be faulted. From time to time I investigate cases myself. But unlike my daughter I do not advertise, have no office, give out no business cards. All that would be unseemly. However, when a case involves people so unsavory I would prefer my daughter not get involved with them, or is so obviously simple it would be a waste of her time, or has factors about it that intrigue me, I will take it upon myself to solve it.
As to what had happened to Lan Li, it was clear to me the same thing must also have happened to other Chinatown elders, or, if not stopped, soon would. For many reasons, not the least being the location of the crime right in the center of Old Jun’s realm, that fact aggravated me.
“Very well,” I said, putting aside my teacup. “Now we will go out for a walk. We will walk for half an hour.” That was as long a time as I was prepared to spend in the morose company of Lan Li. “If we do not see the people who took your money, we will walk again tomorrow. We will go out every day, two aunties strolling in the sun, until you see them or until we can be satisfied they have left Chinatown.”
“But if they’ve left Chinatown, how will I get my money back?”
“You won’t,” I said, rising. “If that’s the case, then that will be the price you pay for foolishness. But I think it will not come to that.”
As she stood, Lan Li wore a worried frown. I, however, was confident we would find the bandits still nearby. Lan Li might be an elderly fool, but she was not the only elderly fool in Chinatown.
Our promenade that day had no result. We continued on each of the next three days, always in the early afternoon. This was the hour Lan Li said she had met the three miscreants, all women, who had tricked her out of her money. Finally, on the fifth day, she spotted one of them on Mulberry Street, near Columbus Park. Though I had been prepared to continue our walks as long as necessary—patience is an important element of detective work—I was glad this phase of the investigation was now at an end, because Lan Li’s sighing company was indeed dreary.
“Go home,” I instructed her. “Everything will be ruined now if they see us together.”
“But you’ll show her to your daughter?”
“Go home.” Let Lan Li think my daughter would be investigating this case. It made no difference.
I walked away from her to seat myself near the Cantonese folk ensemble just inside the park. It was a good vantage point from which to observe the young woman she’d pointed out. Also, I enjoy the music.
Fortunately, the weather was lovely, with a warm spring sun beginning to bring out the blooms on the trees. I must admit these white flowers are quite attractive, although the trees are a type of pear tree that doesn’t yield pears. Considering the cost of pears at the fruit seller’s sidewalk stands, the Parks Department’s deliberate cultivation of barren trees has always seemed wasteful to me.
Without appearing to do so—although I have never minded the sunshine, I was wearing dark glasses, disguises being valuable when you are detecting—I observed the young woman Lan Li had shown me. The young woman, I could tell, was doing the same: observing. Her gaze wandered from elder to elder to elder, even resting, at one point, on me. Most of the people she seemed interested in were women. This did not surprise me, women being, in general, more trusting, more willing than men to help, or accept help from, a stranger.
I had been sitting in that spot, listening to the musicians (paying particular attention to the erhu player, who was quite good), when the young woman bandit made what I believe my daughter would call “her move.” She had been watching a worried-looking woman who had taken a seat on the customer’s stool of one of the fortunetellers who ring the park. I wondered briefly if the fortuneteller were a member of the bandit gang, but the majority of these women have been telling fortunes here for many years. I recognized most of them, including, once I’d casually strolled to a spot from which I could see her face, this one. Park fortunetelling is trickery of its own, but as I returned to my bench I concluded it was unlikely the bandit gang would risk enlisting a local resident. One of the things that irritated me about this scheme, of course, was that here on Mulberry Street, for them to operate at all should have involved far more risk than, apparently, it did.
The bandit waited until the fortuneteller was through. The worried woman paid her, then stood, appearing only slightly less upset. As she walked away, the young bandit approached her, asking a question. The worried woman, no doubt from an instinct of kindness, interrupted her own anxious fretting to gesture along the street. I could see she was giving directions. Then the bandit, wearing a concerned look, put a hand on the worried woman’s arm. She spoke. The woman responded. The young bandit spoke again. The worried woman wrung her hands, listened, shook her head, spoke, nodded her head, wrung her hands, listened some more. I was beginning to tire of her clumsy worry dance when the young bandit spotted another woman, a chubby, middle-aged one, on the sidewalk. She waved to her, calling. The chubby woman joined the two. The bandit spoke urgently to the chubby woman—also, of course, a bandit—who frowned in alarm. The three conferred, with most of the talking being done by the new arrival. The worried one asked a question. The chubby bandit woman shook her head apologetically, then seemed to relent after an outpouring of words from the worried one. Taking her cell phone from the breast pocket of her jacket, she made a call. Or rather, she pretended to. The phone, I was quite sure, had been on for some time, with the line open. As, most likely, the young woman bandit’s had also been.
After lowering the phone, the chubby woman, now wearing a reassuring smile, spoke to the other two. The three waited, the worried woman doing some more hand-wringing, the others making gestures of reassurance, until the chubby one pointed to another woman at the corner, leaving a taxi. She waved to the new one, who strode without haste up the street. Also middle-aged, this woman was thin, with a look as imperious as that of the rice merchant’s wife in the village where I grew up. She wore discreetly elegant, well-made clothes. I was impressed; this team was clearly willing to spend money to make money. The necessity of this is a lesson I have tried to impress upon my children. Although my sons have learned it, to this point my daughter, at least in the area of her wardrobe, has not.
The new, well-dressed arrival spoke to the chubby woman who had made the call, then turned to the worried one. Expressions of amazement bloomed on the face of the worried one as the well-dressed one spoke. The same expressions must have passed over Lan Li’s face at this point in the trick. I blew out a breath of disgust.
Finally, after more urgent discussion, the elegant woman looked at the sun, squinting her eyes. She nodded, as though satisfied. She drew from her large, costly purse a folded cloth bag with colorful embroidery, though anyone with eyes as sharp as mine could see the work had been done by a machine. She spoke, indicating the bag. The worried one asked a question. After receiving the reply, she looked from the elegant bandit to the chubby one, to the young one, then nodded. Taking a deep breath, she turned to hurry away. She looked back once, to see the young bandit smile encouragingly. The middle-aged one pointed to the street corner they stood on, as if to say they’d be waiting right there. Then she pointed overhead, to the sun. Scuttling along Mulberry Street, the worried woman picked up her pace. . . .
Copyright © 2018. Chin Yong-Yun Helps a Fool by S.J. Rozan