(Part I in "The Gourmand with a Gun" series)
‘Fragrant Harbor’ they called it.
But Hong Kong was anything but fragrant the night Poh Seng Pang flew in. The air outside the terminal was dank, vegetative—like the smell of the Singapore River in wet season, or the streets of the Jurong Wholesale Market after a deluge. Poh found it strangely comforting.
He checked his Citizen Quartz Titanium; almost dinnertime in Singapore. Betty would be taking first customers at her small chicken-rice stand inside the Hawkers Centre. He tried not to eat on the plane. ‘Airline food’ was an oxymoron and it gave him constipation. But this time he’d missed his wife’s lunch in the rush to the airport and had reluctantly accepted the airline offerings; a decision he now regretted as he stood clutching his small overnight bag on the concourse.
Beyond the terminal, rain fell. With no wind to speak of, it drifted down in an almost vertical fashion across the runway, hangars and the harbor beyond. A black Toyota Lexus sat idling at the end of the taxi rank, its exhaust steaming the night air. The driver was old-school—silver crew cut, permanent scowl, a real toothpick-chewer. His gaze met with Poh’s in the rear view mirror. He lowered his newspaper and the rear passenger door clicked. Poh pulled on the handle and climbed in. They exchanged single-syllable greetings and the car moved away from the curb to join the swirl of courtesy buses, catering trucks, rental cars and limousines leaving Chek Lap Kok island for Kowloon and the night beyond.
Poh was feeling pensive tonight. This would be his last assignment. On his return to Singapore, he would formally tender his resignation. At 58, he was getting too old to be a “shipping agent”.
He was looking forward to retirement; he’d help Betty at the chicken-rice stand, maybe join a mahjong club, and take more of an interest in his daughter’s studies in Australia. Microbiology, wasn’t it? What did he know about microbiology? Except that you should always wash your hands after flying because, as his daughter insisted, ‘airplanes are crawling with bacteria.’
The travelling, the hotel rooms, the waiting—the waiting was the real killer. He’d read somewhere that the average human spends a year of their life waiting. The only thing that made the waiting bearable, besides the money, was dining. He loved sampling the specialties of each town and city he visited: the dumplings in Taipei, Medan chicken curry in Sumatra, pork noodles in Sabah, suckling pig in Bali. Dining was his real pleasure, but only after a job was done, and even then it had to be a quick meal en route to the airport.
He slumped back in the seat, listening to the timbre of the windshield wipers working away the rain. Why had he chosen this line of business? Actually, he hadn’t chosen this business; it had chosen him. His talent had been recognised early. The recruitment process had been quick, the training minimal and his first assignment issued within a few weeks.
He had never botched a job. Granted, it was possible. Once, in a Kuching hotel, his gun had jammed. The target had woken with his call girl beside him and he’d had to knuckle-dust them both. Then he’d smothered the target with a pillow and walked. He never killed women—as a rule—and he was glad he’d never been put in a situation where he’d had to choose between a woman’s life and his own. It was another reason to retire.
The lights of the Marriott Hotel appeared through the drizzle. The driver eased the car into the circular driveway and drew up to the concourse where a team of red-vested bellhops stepped from the shrubbery. Poh reached beneath the driver’s seat, pulled out a slim dark case and slipped it inside his overnight bag.
‘Sim cards inside,’ said the driver.
The hotel lobby was crowded, the queue at the reception desk lengthy. Poh didn’t mind, he was used to it. Waiting allowed him to survey his surroundings: the vast, open lounge room crowded with travellers, the lavish red sofas, a grand piano, and at the centre, an enormous Christmas tree decorated with sparkling, pulsating lights. Though it was only November, he felt slightly cheered.
The receptionist requested his booking card and passport, glancing briefly at the photo of the man with dark hair neatly-parted to the right, a crisp white business collar, blue striped tie and dark-rimmed glasses. In a Singaporean shipping office, he was “Poh Seng Pang”, one of the thousands of shipping agents who came and went across Southeast Asia’s big cities everyday. He stood out like a grain of sand on a beach.
‘I’m sorry, Sir,’ the receptionist said, ‘but all of our standard rooms are taken due to a flight cancellation. But since you are a Marriott member, would you accept an upgrade to a deluxe double, with our compliments?’
Poh nodded, thanked him.
‘Here is your room key and dinner voucher,’ said the staff. ‘The restaurant buffet is at the end of the lobby. Alcoholic drinks are at your own expense.’
Poh took the elevator, stopping halfway to allow inside a middle-aged Asian man and his two female companions. The man held a large glass of red wine in his hand and smelled of cigar smoke. He smiled at Poh as he exited on his floor, and said without smugness, ‘Have a wonderful evening.’
Once inside his room Poh turned off the lights, stepped to the window and checked the distance to the harbor. He pulled the curtains, turned the bed lamps to ‘dim’ and memorised every emergency exit on his level. Next, he changed over the SIM cards for both his phones. Then he slipped out the slim-lined case, entered his code into the lock and pulled the two Type QSW 06 pistols from their foam cradles. He checked the firing mechanisms, inserted the magazines and switched both to ‘safety’. Finally, he lifted out the two sound suppressors and examined each beneath the bed table light. Satisfied, he stowed everything beneath the bed mattress.
Then he turned on the hot water kettle to make a cup of tea.
As he sipped, he looked over the dossier again. The mark was a company president, the owner of Soon Fat Seafood Co. Ltd. in Kowloon. Poh noted how similar the two of them looked: the big-boned face, long earlobes, nondescript office worker hairstyle. Poh was just older, slightly more jowled and used hair dye to conceal his creeping greyness.
He put away the dossier and his thoughts turned to old Mister Ng. He had been more of a father than his own father; nurturing, encouraging and rewarding him through his years of service to the company. They’d first met in the garage of his father’s logistics company in Jurong Port, where, impressed by the young Poh’s mechanical skills, Mister Ng had offered him a job at Ng and Sons Business Solutions Co. Ltd. Not without reservations, his father had assented. Perhaps it was Mister Ng’s reputation for getting what he wanted that had persuaded him.
Poh had been ecstatic—someone had at last recognised his patience and precision. At high school he had won trophies and titles for small bore shooting. He had trialled for the Singaporean Commonwealth Games shooting team, reaching the top three, so that rumours had flown thick and fast that he would be offered a coveted place in the team. But when the offer came, his father had refused: his son was too young and his studies should come first. Poh had never forgiven him.
Soon after joining the company, Mister Ng had taken him aside and explained that his meaning of ‘Business Solutions’ was a little different to the usual definition; Poh would be required to travel, usually on weekends, for one or two-nights, and make good use of his skills. While his new job had required some moral adjustment, his first assignment had been executed smoothly: he had shot dead a man in a hotel hallway in Penang.
This was all in the past now. Poh had killed many men since; men far richer and more powerful than even Mister Ng himself. Not even the rich and powerful were fallible, and when they messed up, Poh was sent to clean up.
He drained his cup of tea. Sensing a sudden bowel movement, he made hastily for the toilet. After a few minutes of grunting and wheezing, he managed only a dry fart.
Despite his discomfort, he felt suddenly peckish. A good meal might help things along, he reasoned. He had time; the call would come sometime after 10pm, so until then, he could be relatively sure of an uneventful wait. He washed his face, polished his glasses with the pressed handkerchief Betty had given him, turned his phones to vibrate mode, slipped them into his pocket and exited the room.
Downstairs, at the far end of the lobby lounge, a waitress greeted him and directed him to a window table. Poh picked up a copy of the South China Morning Post from a side table. He sat with his back to the window, surveying the restaurant. It was busy and the constant inward flow of clientele kept the white-uniformed staff bustling about behind the buffet counters, replenishing baskets, trays and terrines with sumptuous-looking dishes.
Dining from a buffet required a special strategy. Just like killing a man. That is, to optimise the outcome one had to show restraint and discipline—caution even. A buffet was a visual trap, apt to overload the senses with its colour, presentation and aromas, all of which could foul one’s good sense. One had to start small, start light, and not succumb to that trait of many a man’s undoing—greed.
He studied the diners around him. He noted how the large, panicky mainland Chinese women built their plates into small pyramids, lips glistening with grease and spittle, and he knew that they would be snoring it off upstairs before he had even given dessert a thought.
He approached the salads first: a small caesar salad with extra croutons and black pepper, a small salad nicoise with extra anchovies, and to accompany this, a glass of dragon fruit juice. He returned to the table.
The buffet, itself, seemed to have no end; seafood specialties blended into European cuisine, then into Southeast Asian dishes, which became Hong Kongese and Shanghai styles, before finally ending in a faux-British pub servery.
Poh moved on to soup next. Deliberating between the seafood bisque and the clam chowder, he chose the bisque, enraptured by the rich aroma. Then to the seafood corner, presented like a French fish market stall with wooden trays of oysters, mussels and scallops, he lifted the tongs.
‘Where are these oysters from?’ he asked.
‘From New Zealand, Sir,’ the chef replied.
Poh smiled. He deftly manipulated a dozen oysters onto his plate, took a half dozen prawns, some slices of smoked Tasmanian salmon and two slices of lemon to garnish. Back at the table, he closed his eyes, savouring each juicy morsel, fattened by the nutrient rich waters of the Great Southern Ocean, and marvelled at the finest flavours the sea could offer. He ate slowly, forgetting his past, his future, focusing entirely on the present and the wondrous taste coursing through his mouth.
His plate was soon reduced to a small midden of oyster and prawn shells. Poh took a few sips of water, several deep breaths, and made his way to the Hong Kong section. There was roast suckling pig stuffed with rice, which a young trainee busily sliced under the watchful eye of the senior chef, but the queue was too long and Poh moved on. He looked over the Peking duck, which didn’t seem much different from the Hawker Centre in Singapore, and kept moving. He settled on a small eel claypot with crispy rice and glistening bok-choi, and together with a glass of chilled oolong tea, returned to the table.
He ate slowly, again thoughtfully. He was fond of Hong Kong, and though he would not get to visit his favourite haunts on this trip, he looked forward to returning someday with Betty. Then he would take her to Wan Chai and Lang Kwai Fong to enjoy the lively bars, the hustle of the narrow, staircased-ed streets and the fragrances of the flower shops which lined them. Then, after an expansive dinner, he would take her back to Kowloon aboard the night ferry, arm-in-arm, listening to the great harbor slough and slap about them.
He finished the eel, scooping the last spoonful of rice from the pot, and after dislodging an eel bone from between his teeth, refreshed his mouth with another sip of oolong tea.
Through the shifting throngs, he glimpsed the seafood counter. With sudden excitement, he noticed the staff had replenished the oyster trays. He rose from his table and weaved smoothly between the diners, lifting a fresh plate from the servery, and arriving in time to beat two large Chinese-speaking women who had exactly the same idea.
The oysters lay fat and glistening in their freshly shucked shells. He picked up the tongs and place six onto his plate. The smell of the sea excited him. He paused, unable to put down the tongs, oblivious to the mutterings of the women behind him. The chef watched him curiously. Why not? Poh thought—the tray would be refilled again. He took six more oysters.
Back at his table, he lifted the first oyster to his mouth. As the dripping morsel reached his lips, he felt a vibration in his side pocket. He put down the oyster and slipped out his phone.
The text message read, “烏鴉飛行”—Crow flying.
He replaced the phone, picked up the fork and scooped the first oyster into his mouth. He chewed quickly, without pleasure. Then a second oyster, and a third were dispatched. They squelched between his teeth, and he fought to contain the marvellous juices which exploded from them. He swallowed hard, sipped his oolong tea, and pronged the fourth, fifth and sixth oysters. He chewed and swallowed, until only four oysters remained. He paused, took a deep breath, then crammed his mouth full and continued chewing. His jaw began to ache.
Diners at a neighboring table shot furtive glances at him. The two large Chinese women looked disapprovingly on; one remarked to the other and they shook their heads.
Chewing a piece of oyster rind, Poh hurried from the restaurant. Inside the elevator, he belched. He felt a sharp and sudden pain deep inside, like air being forced through tight spaces. A faint whistle sounded from his bowel as he stepped from the elevator. Entering his room, he lifted the mattress, slipped on the webbing and inserted the handguns, one beneath each armpit, tucking the sound repressors beside them. Then he pulled on a grey windbreaker, zipped it to his neck, picked up his night bag and exited the room.
The reception staff seemed unsurprised by his early check out—it was, after all, an airport hotel—and wished him a safe journey.
Outside, the black Lexus stood idling at the end of the concourse, the driver chewing his toothpick. Poh climbed inside. He belched. The driver shifted his toothpick and said, ‘Good dinner?’
Poh belched a reply, excusing himself. He wondered what the driver had eaten for dinner, besides a bamboo toothpick. His mind now shifted to the job ahead. He took off his glasses and polished them. He began to ‘empty’ his mind of second thoughts and petty worries, distractions which might cause hesitation and force a mistake.
Poh felt the pressure building. A muffled fart sounded. The driver said nothing but lowered the front windows. In rushed the smell of the night, wet, heavy and vegetative as it had been earlier.
Poh farted again.
‘Jesus. What was on the menu?’ the driver said.
‘You’re telling me.’
‘You like oysters?’
‘I like a car that doesn’t smell of them.’
‘I ate them too fast.’
‘That’ll do it.’
Poh smiled but it was more like a grimace.
‘Is there a toilet up ahead?’
‘I’ll make it quick.’
‘There’s a 7-Eleven after the Kowloon off-ramp.’
Poh cringed. He felt a serious pressure building inside of him; it was pushing, prodding, probing his intestine for weakness. He shifted from left buttock to right buttock, and back again. Sweat beaded his forehead. The driver glanced in the mirror.
‘You alright? You look pale.’
‘How much further?’ Poh said through clenched teeth.
The driver pressed his foot to the accelerator. ‘Soon.’
Rain began to fall again. The lights of Hong Kong harbor reflected against the low clouds and now gave the sky a surreal, otherworldly look. The Lexus slowed and veered onto the off-ramp. The driver took the first right.
‘Stop!’ shouted Poh.
‘What?’ said the driver, alarmed.
The driver braked, jerked on the steering wheel and pulled into the roadside curb, cursing under his breath. Lorries and container-transporters flew off the ramp, sending up sheets of spray as they shuttled past on their way to the port. The convenience store stood on the other side of the road.
Poh pushed open the car door. He stumbled, doubling-over for a moment, then regained his composure. He timed his dash between a large Maersk container truck and a city bus and made it across the wet asphalt to the island in the centre. He paused, waiting for a gap in the vehicles passing in the opposite direction. His glasses blurred, his shoulders hunched, he leaped out and sprinted towards the light.
Inside the cab of a refrigerated lorry, two young men were talking about their girlfriends and making plans for a double date in Wan Chai the following weekend. The passenger passed the driver a Lucky Strike and lit it for him. Up ahead, something leaped across their path—an animal? a man? The fleeting figure was hardly discernible in the glare of the headlights and their reflection on the wet road.
‘Shit!’ gasped the driver.
He rammed his foot against the brake; his passenger grabbed the ceiling handle and braced himself against the dashboard. A dull thud reverberated through the cab, as if a wave of rainwater had hit them, only sharper, stronger. The truck skewed, hitting the curb and slid to a halt.
The driver hit the hazard lights, leaped from the cab and ran to the rear of the truck. Joined by his passenger, they crouched beside the figure which lay prone, wet and motionless against the curb. The driver bent down and rolled the body over.
‘Mister! Hey Mister!’ he shouted, then turning to his passenger said, ‘Call an ambulance, quick…’
Across the road, a black Lexus pulled away from the curb. At the traffic lights a short distance further on, it made a U-turn and drove slowly back past the two men attempting to revive the lifeless form in the gutter. Then it accelerated onto the ramp and its red tail lights were lost to a swarm of others heading towards the airport.
The ambulance arrived, a police car soon after, and in their headlights a curious scene was illuminated. Two young men in white aprons stood over a body. In the hand of one, a gun dangled. Behind them, hurriedly parked against the curb, a small camion on whose doors was written in bold blue lettering, a name known to chefs in restaurants and hotels all over Hong Kong:
“Soon Fat Seafood Co. Ltd.”