Chapter One: Mai-Lin
All Mai-Lin Song ever wanted was to escape a cruel husband, but she never imagined the opportunity would come so quickly, or so deadly.
And to think, she laughed when her fortune teller smacked a hand on the rickety table between them and said, “For thirty years I have listened to you whine about your unhappy marriage, but when I give you what you need to fix it, you dare to laugh? I wash my hands of you and your problem.”
Okay, so this wasn’t exactly what the woman meant when she handed her the little vial, but all she had to do was keep her nerve and she would have everything she wanted. She bit back the nervous urge to giggle as she remembered the moment he positioned her at the entrance of a dark and smelly alley, shoved a gun in her hand and told her to use it only if threatened.
Fearing her sweat on the gun hand would cause it to slip she switched hands and wiped the sweaty one onto the back of her dress. That problem solved she tried deep breathing exercises but it only made her dizzy and did nothing to contain the irritating sweat dripping down her back.
After what felt like an eternity, the door to the alley banged open and her husband appeared, wide-eyed and demanding that she put away the gun and run.
Years of obedience eroded her earlier resolve, but then he had to go and yell, “Run, you fat, stupid bitch!”
Since no one would believe her capable of shooting her own husband; she could’ve said she didn’t recognize the masked man charging at her, gun aimed at her head, or she could’ve said he’d been caught in the crossfire and she fled for her life. Any number of simple excuses would suffice―except Mai-Lin Song was missing and so was the bag of money her husband had been carrying when she shot him.
One week after shooting her husband and snatching up the bag of money, Mai-Lin Song was still undecided on a plan, or for that matter any plan. Her earlier bravado vanished under a noxious cloud of fear, certain there was one person who wouldn’t quit looking for her, someone she feared almost as much as she feared and hated her husband. It kept her pacing the floor at night and carving new lines in her face.
But with every passing day a small hope grew from a tiny bud until it flowered into what felt like genuine confidence. And now she was disgusted to think that she had gone without bathing or shampooing her hair. She held out her hand and glared at the nails bitten to the quick, a tremor she’d developed was almost gone. Surely this was a sign. No one knew about her secret hideout and everything was going to be fine.
She glanced in the mirror she’d put up in a propitious location and tsked at the white in her scalp, then laughed out loud. There was absolutely no reason she couldn’t leave now. Or better yet, later tonight, after all of her tenants were home and asleep. And by tomorrow she’d be far away from Brooklyn, New York. She would spend some of her new found wealth on herself. A new hair-do, a mani, a pedi, new clothes, even a new identity. In her entire life, Mai-Lin had never felt so light, so free. Her spirit soared with new optimism. Her future was before her.
But what about the satchel of money she’d taken off her dead husband? It was there by the door, staring accusingly at her. It wasn’t the millions her husband had stashed in safety deposit boxes all over town, but it was a start. Then again, disappearing meant she would have to leave behind her good-luck apartment building and the envelopes of cash from her renters, but what if someone recognized her and reported her husband’s second man?
The thought of what would happen to her if captured by her husband’s second man dropped angry knots in her stomach. There was no doubt in her mind she needed the money. But then again, if she left it where her husband’s second man could find it, maybe he would forget about his boss’s insignificant wife. But then what would she live on? Take the money, or leave it. But at the unlikely sound of her apartment bell ringing, Mai-Lin froze.
It rang again, the sound bringing twisting the knots in her stomach.
From the day she bought the building, the name plate and bell were taped over, so who would ring the bell of an un-occupied apartment?
With a trembling finger, she pushed the button on the entry’s security camera and the shiny bald head and glittering black eyes of her husband’s second man, Roland Chieu, stared up at the camera, his smile beaming with dark humor.
She jerked away from the image burning a path into her retinas. That he couldn’t see her through the camera did absolutely nothing to calm the rattling fear. And the tremor in hand was acting up again..
What now? Plan A? Or was it Plan B? She’d turned over so many ideas should this happen, but only one solution came to mind. She’d start a fire. The fire alarm didn’t work but smoke would alert the tenants who would call the fire department and everyone knew how swiftly the fire department would come.
She stuffed paper into a metal garbage can, added some cooking oil to create a good smoke, set it next to an open window in the hallway, struck a match and yelled down the stairwell, “Help, help! The building is on fire!”
The response was a deafening quiet.
Where were the tenants? Oh, right. At work, as well they should be―her apartments were a steal for Brooklyn, and her only requirement was that rent was to be in cash and in her post office box on time, and they were to keep their good fortune to themselves. She didn’t have to remind any of her tenants to not gab about their cheap rent when they didn’t have to share an apartment with four or five roommates.
But now her good fortune was collapsing around her. She did an about face and scurried back into her apartment, climbed out the window and yanked on the fire-escape ladder that would allow her to step off the last rung onto the street. But the ladder was stuck, and pulling, pushing, kicking and screaming did absolutely nothing to release it. Like so many other things in her building, the ladder needed repair. It wasn’t her fault. Last year was a bad year. The stress of poor sales at the sweat-shop led to a bout of gambling losses and there was no extra money for repairs.
Her options were to stay and hope firemen would hoist a ladder and get to her before the fire did, or jump the last ten feet and break an ankle, making her a sitting duck for Roland, who would strangle her with his signature silk scarf, stuff her into the trunk of his car and dump her body in a garbage pit or some nasty smelling swamp.
If only she had taken some of her gambling winnings and paid to have the ladder fixed instead of putting the repairs off for another day.
Cracking open the door, she slammed it shut against a smoke-filled hall, and stifling a sob, ran back to the window, stuck her head out and screamed, “Help! Fire! The building is on fire!”
A passerby looked up, gawped at the frantic woman in the window and whipped out his cell phone.
Finally! She retreated inside to listen for the sound of her husband’s second man coming up the stairs, but all she heard was the crackling fire as it advanced. She bit off the temptation to scream again and went back to the window and yelled at the gathering crowd below.
A man cupped his hands to shout reassurance. “The fire department will be here any minute!”
So no one would come to her aid? She had to wait for the firemen and when was that going to happen? She reluctantly ducked back inside thinking it was time to brave the smoke-filled stairs and reaching out to the door, jerked back from the searing heat.
Hearing footsteps pounding up the stairs brought a moment of hope. The firemen were coming to rescue her! But … then why didn’t she hear sirens? Maybe she couldn’t hear them over the roar of the fire. Taking heart, she almost called out, but at the last minute remembered the evil face smiling up at her from the security camera. Roland, Chieu, aka The Muffler. It had to be him. Only Roland would charge into a burning building to retrieve a bag of money and make sure she was dead.
What to do? The fire-escape was broken, the room was getting hotter and there was nowhere to hide.
“It’s not supposed to be this way,” she cried. “If only I’d taken the love potion like my fortune teller instructed.” The woman did warn her―the vial of liquid would only be potent for a short period of time. If she wanted her husband to fall in love with her, if she expected him to see her in a totally new light, she would have to take it quickly.
Mai-Lin fingered the small vial in her pants pocket, cursing her bad luck. But maybe the liquid in the vial still had enough potency left to make someone like Roland Chieu think Mai-Lin Song had escaped. And in her place was a beautiful young woman in need of rescuing.
From her hiding place under the bed of her 5th floor apartment the devil slid a beckoning finger under the door. Her Catholic upbringing scolded the superstitious nonsense―the finger of smoke had nothing to do with the devil and everything to do with the man who wanted her dead.
She gave the little glass vial a quick shake, uncorked the top, and before she could change her mind, upended the smelly contents in one quick swallow.
Chapter Two: Frankie Gates
Anxiously waiting summons from her captain, Detective Frankie Gates drummed short, unpainted nails on her desk, and for the fifth time today wondered what the hell was the holdup about. Her shift was over by an hour, she was tired and hungry, but all of that would have to wait until her captain looked up and gave her that two-finger signal that said it was time for The Talk.
It was all her fault. She’d been a fool to believe that a well-known Chinese gang leader was willing to testify against his bosses in exchange for immunity. He was the nice fat pigeon she needed to rescue her reputation in the department. She did her due-diligence on the guy, and with her captain’s approval, a fake poker game was set up with twenty-five thousand dollars seed money borrowed from her department.
The stage was set to capture the gang when they ran out the door, but then her fat pigeon ran straight into a bullet to the heart, and that was the end of her brilliant plan to take down the NYC Chinese Triad.
It was all in her report to her chief, but every click of the wall clock said that he was going over everything one more time; autopsy, toxicology, weapons report, the examination of jacket and slug, and maybe a revelation as to who shot and killed her nice fat pigeon.
Burping the sour taste of last night’s whiskey did nothing to wash away the fear of losing her hard won status as a detective. She grabbed a mint out of her desk and told herself this latest incident shouldn’t warrant anything more than a warning but she dreaded the thought of his report going to HR, which would go to her union rep and start up the machinations for another hearing.
He looked up from his reading, locked eyes on her, and did that two finger signal he used to bring waiting officers into his office.
Frankie used her back teeth to crunch the mint into pieces, pushed out of her chair and maneuvered through the landmine of big feet sticking out in the aisle.
A few heads turned, one or two of her fellow officers gave her a thumbs-up… for luck? She had reason to need that luck since this was her second time under the gun in less than a year. She sucked in a deep breath, opened her boss’s door and slipped inside for a new kind of hell.