Detective Kil Mal-chin was dying. Cirrhosis of the liver. The doc gave him six months if he stopped drinking. There was talk of a waiting list for a transplant but Mal-chin nixed it. He had to stay on the job, which meant paying the doc to keep quiet. Business as usual. Doctor Jeong was a specialist for the Incheon Metro Police and as bent as the cops he cared for. He routinely fudged fitness reports and slipped scripts on the sly. Mal-chin got pills for the nausea, pills for the shakes, and a prayer for the seizures and hallucinations. So far, so good.
The fifty-five-year-old Vice vet stood in the alley out back of Fu Manchu’s, chain-smoking KT&G Indigos, waiting for his new partner to show. Only one Chinatown in all of South Korea and it was right here in Incheon. Kil Mal-chin’s beat. Mal-chin hated Chinks worse than Japs, an idiosyncrasy that made him one dogged dick and a pain the balls for the local tong twerps. And he was hell-bent on hurt tonight.
He heard footsteps coming from the direction of the street. A tall, good-looking man in his late thirties rounded the corner carefully.
“Detective Kil Mal-chin?” he asked, polite but incredulous. Mal-chin was slick with sweat – from humidity or withdrawal was anyone’s guess. He needed a shave, a haircut, and a new pair of shoes. The younger man, on the other hand, looked like he was dressed for a blind date.
“That’s right,” Mal-chin said. “Sun Chin-hae?”
“Yes sir,” the younger man bowed. “Harbor Patrol.”
“Not tonight,” Mal-chin told him. “Follow me.” He started toward the club. He could hear Officer Sun’s heavy, eager footsteps behind him.
“Have you been briefed?” the detective asked.
“Yes sir,” Officer Sun said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”
“Don’t thank me just yet, swabbie. You’re out of the harbor but you’re in the deep water now.”
“I understand, sir.”
“You do not but you will. And you don’t have to ‘sir’ me.”
“Yes s– Detective Kil.”
“Good enough,” Mal-chin said. The sound of the street faded as they entered the neon pink glow in the alley corridor. “If you have any questions, get them in now. The rest you’ll have to pick up along the way.”
“What are we doing here?” Officer Sun asked. He was big but he was meek. Mal-chin chalked that up to country manners and respect for authority.
“We’re looking for a guy called Little Kwang. He’s a CI and he’s been dodging me. He’s one-point-six meters tall and about sixty kilograms.”
“So the name’s not ironic.”
“Not in the least. He’s got tattoo sleeves on both arms and a mouth full of gold teeth. If you spot him, grab him.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“Not to a big boy like you,” he goaded. “You get that strong pulling nets?” The young officer hesitated.
“I did,” he said. The detective had read the officer’s file. Sun Chin-hae grew up the poor son of a fisherman down in Jijuk-ri. His tell-tale tone said it all. He had that quiet self-loathing Mal-chin had seen in so many people who moved to the city from the sticks – embarrassed of where he came from and ashamed of that embarrassment all at once.
There was a goon at the back door. Mal-chin flashed his badge and he and his new partner stepped into the back hall. He waited for the door to close then kept walking.
“Do you speak Mandarin?” he asked.
“I don’t,” Officer Sun said.
“That’ll have to do.” He turned left and headed for the Men’s Room. “Can you fight?”
“Seven years of Thai Boxing,” Officer Sun said. Mal-chin spat on the floor.
“Queer shit!” he said. “Don’t you know any Taekwondo?”
He kicked the bathroom door open. That turned some heads at the piss trough but none of them were Little Kwang’s. Mal-chin started pushing open the stall doors. He noted that Officer Sun covered the exit without being told. Good start.
When the middle stall didn’t give Mal-chin went to the one in the back, stood on the toilet, and looked over at the tops of three heads bumping coke.
“Don’t hide from me, Little Kwang.” Before he could finish the sentence Kwang was already bolting from the stall. He had his tats on full display in a white tank top and he had dyed his short-cropped hair blonde. The twerp tried to run past Officer Sun and got checked into the first stall for his trouble. As he tried to get back to his feet Mal-chin got him in a headlock and drove him back to the dirty floor.
“Where’s my pearl, Little Kwang?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?!” Kwang croaked in Mandarin. The detective’s arm in his neck made him work for his words.
“When you catch a blonde-haired Chinaman he’s supposed to give you a pearl. That’s what my grandmother always said, anyway.”
“Fuck you,” Kwang said. Mal-Chin yanked the little man up on his feet. His compatriots in the stall had fled along with the heads at the piss trough. Officer Sun closed the door but stayed between it and the squirrely CI.
“Speak Korean, dipshit.” Mal-chin shoved him into the sink counter. “I let you run free on the condition you make yourself useful to me. You’ve been dodging me for weeks, you little rat bastard. So now you’re going to spill your gu-”
Mal-chin spun around, dove into the nearest stall, and vomited. Two big waves, a cough, and some dry-heaving. It ended quickly enough but when he came back out of the stall it was the first time he ever felt worse after puking. Low nausea and a feverish weight hung heavy over him. He caught his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He looked absolutely wretched.
“Detective…” Officer Sun looked visibly worried. Mal-chin put up his hand.
“It’s just a little food poisoning.” He straightened up with a deep breath and set his sights back on Kwang. “I’ve got three bodies pulled out of the harbor in the last two weeks. What do you know about that?”
“Hey, you know I don’t mess with anything that heavy,” Kwang said. “Besides, those were all shark attacks.”
“Shark attacks, right,” Mal-Chin said. “There’s something like eight shark attacks in South Korean waters since the 1950s, never anywhere near here. And now there’s three in two weeks in the busiest port in the country.”
“So?” Kwang shrugged.
“We brought this egghead down from the Institute of Oceanic Science and Technology and he said it was a hammerhead. Hammerheads never attack unless provoked, though. Right, Officer Sun?”
“That’s right,” the young man said.
“You know what else?” the detective asked. The three victims were all soldiers for the Lao Shen Tong. I find that odd. Don’t you, Officer Sun?”
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Mal-chin said. “Do you, Officer Sun?”
“No, I do not.”
“See, Kwang, Officer Sun and I are old fashioned. We’re prone to fits of common sense. And unless these Lao Shen boys were snorkeling for shark fin to get their little dicks hard I can’t see how they could all meet the same gruesome fate without a little help.”
“I don’t know anything about anybody getting killed,” Kwang said.
“Well you better know something about anything or I might have to cut you loose.” Mal-chin grabbed him by the shirt and bent him back over the counter.
“Okay, man!” Kwang relented. “I’m sticking my neck out, you know?”
Mal-Chin smacked his blonde head with an open hand. “You better stick your tongue out, you little shit.”
“All right!” Kwang rubbed where Mal-chin had struck him. His scolded-child demeanor made him look all the more ridiculous. “I heard about some trouble a few weeks back. Some of the Lao Shen got into it with some guy at the Russian Bathhouse over in Dohwa-dong.”
“Don’t know. But from what I heard it sounds like it would have gotten bloody if there hadn’t been a bunch of off-duty cops there to break it up. A guy I know who was there said it was some old beef.”
“The guy who told me.” Kwang said. Mal-chin palmed his forehead and pressed his skull into the mirror.
“What’s. His. Name?”
Kwang squirmed. “The guy’s name is Zhe, but everybody calls him Blue Fang.” Detective Kil stopped. He knew Blue Fang from an old case.
“Why do they call him Blue Fang?” Officer Sun asked.
“Because he’s blue, man. You know, like, sad all the time.”
“Why is he sad?”
“Who gives a shit?” Mal-chin interrupted. “Where can we find him?”
“He hangs out at Song Kong. He’s probably there now.” Mal-chin nodded to Officer Sun. He gave Kwang one last shove as he walked past him.
“Don’t make me look for you again.” They walked out of the bathroom.
Rain came down hard on the drive over. Mal-chin was behind the wheel. Officer Sun sat in silence. The detective knew he was uncomfortable with the scene back there.
“You didn’t like that, did you?” he asked the young officer.
“No, but I’ve seen worse.”
“I know,” Mal-chin laughed. “You turned in half your crew mates for helping the tong smuggle girls into the country.” Officer Sun turned to him.
“How did you-”
“I know everything about you, Sun Chin-hae. I know you’ve been a pariah in Harbor Patrol ever since. I know you’ve been denied every transfer you’ve applied for. And I know all three of these ‘shark victims’ were found between Wolmido and Bukseong – that’s your patrol. That’s why I picked you.”
“You’re not worried that I’ll report you?”
Mal-chin laughed. “You’re pretty stiff but you’re not stupid. Besides, I know what side of the line I’m on. You’re going to step in your share of shit with me, but I’ll make a deal with you. Help me close this case. Once it’s done you can write the report and mention anything you want. Just help me get it finished.”
Officer Sun looked steadily at Mal-chin, who was wiping sweat from his face with a clammy palm every ten minutes. Not a trustworthy look. But Officer Sun nodded in agreement.
“I’ll help you close it,” he said. “I pulled those men from the drink. I’m as curious as you are.”
“I bet that was a mess,” Mal-chin rolled down his window just a crack, despite the rain, and lit another cigarette.
“When you grow up on fishing boats you get used to the sight of guts,” Officer Sun said.
“A man’s guts aren’t the same as a fish’s.”
“You get used to the sight of dead men, too. Despair takes most of them. But it’s the smell that I can’t stand.”
“I bet the harbor does a number on them.”
“It’s the livers,” Officer Sun said. Mal-chin felt a little jolt in his guts at the sound of the word. “When the livers are ruptured the smell is unbearable.” Mal-chin wiped sweat from his face once more.
The strange thing was, he didn’t care that he was dying. There had been a fog over him throughout his whole life. Marriage couldn’t lift it. He was divorced. Fatherhood couldn’t lift it. His son hated his guts. Almost everyone who knew him did. The only thing that ever gave him any relief, other than drinking, was being in the thick of the job. Riding the momentum of violence and intrigue that could turn to catastrophe at any moment. Maybe he would get lucky and be killed in the line of duty before his putrid liver gave out.
“Good fishing down where you’re from?”
“The best,” the young man said. “Do you fish?”
“Hell no,” Mal-chin said. “I can’t stand the taste of fish. The smell either.”
Officer Sun smiled. “You picked a strange place to live, then.”
“I didn’t pick it, fuckhead. I was born here.” Officer Sun Chin-hae had nothing to say to that.
“How will we know Blue Fang?” he changed the subject.
“I know him,” Mal-chin said with contempt. “I’ve pulled him in before. He’s shaped like a pear, wears his hair long and has a sad, stupid face.”
Blue Fang was up on the bandstand keening karaoke to some sad bastard American song. The eyes of the many patrons were glued to him in rapt attention. The low, amber lighting of Song Kong gave his doughy features a tragic appeal, like he was Chinatown’s own Quasimodo.
There were tong everywhere. Mal-chin shook his head.
“Chinese crooks, Russian bathhouses, Thai boxing, American music,” he turned to Officer Sun. “We’re the only thing that’s Korean in this whole goddamn city.”
Mal-chin blinked. He was standing at the bar. He didn’t even remember walking over to it, but there he was. He caught his own reflection in the mirrored wall behind all the beautiful bottles of booze that were on display. Like most Koreans, Mal-chin was not a religious man but he saw in those bottles the stained glass of his own cathedral. And now more than ever before, he was a true believer desperate for the sacrament. But he needed to get rid of Officer Sun.
“Go stand over by the bathrooms. We’ll cover the exits that way.”
“If he comes my way, should I grab him?”
“No,” Mal-chin said. “We don’t want a scene. Just keep him in sight.” Officer Sun did as he was told. Mal-chin watched him go. He got the attention of some of the tong but it didn’t last. They were more interested in watching Blue Fang pour his heart out. Mal-chin turned back to the bar but kept the fat little sad sack in view with the mirror.
A little soju would hit the spot. Just one. Just to perk him up. He caught eyes with one of the pretty young girls behind the bar. He was about to speak up when a pale hand shot up next to him.
“Sake,” a deep voice said. The young bartender went to fetch the order. Mal-chin turned and saw some Jap bastard standing next to him. He wore a blue suit and had silver hair.
Another fucking foreigner. Mal-chin clenched his fists but bit his tongue. He glared at the man’s reflection. He had that typical stony and indecipherable Jap kind of face. He could have been thirty or fifty. The bartender brought him his drink. Thankfully, he paid and walked away. The detective was practically leaning over the bar when he barked out his order. His hands were trembling – from anticipation or withdrawal, he wasn’t sure. He rubbed them together and watched the bartender prepare his drink. Every moment an agony and an ecstasy all at once. All the while, Blue Fang crooned behind him.
“Dere go my babyyyy…”
The hand twisted off the cap with a practiced jerk of the wrist.
“Dere go my haaaaht…”
The clear liquid poured into a shot glass that was cloudy and blue like the ocean depths.
“Dere gone foeveeeer…”
It was placed on the bar in front of him, glimmering like a liquid jewel.
“So far apaaaaht…”
Mal-chin lifted it with the utmost care. His hand was mercifully steady.
“But onry da roneryyyyy…”
A scream ripped through the club. The noise shocked Mal-chin so badly that he watched in agony as his shot glass of soju sailed out of his hand, tipped off the bar, and spilled on the floor. He looked for the source of the scream, set on throttling its author. But what he saw made his blood run so cold it extinguished the heat of his rage.
The crowd parted, making way for a tong who staggered in from the exit by the bathrooms. Mal-chin saw Officer Sun turn. Saw the horror on the young man’s face as he saw the man. The tong’s left side was a bloody horror. His left arm gone above the elbow. His right arm trying and failing to hold in the guts that spilled from his left side in an oily avalanche. The left side of his face was ripped clean off, showing muscle and bone. The tong collapsed on the floor in a wet, red heap.
Mal-chin ran toward the man as Song Kong erupted in a cacophony of screaming women, screeching chairs, and shattered glasses. People scattered in all directions. The detective was thrown around like a sailor in a storm; stumbling, shoving, and being shoved in every direction. He caught eyes with Officer Sun over the mess of the crowd and pointed at Blue Fang who stood slack-jawed on the stage. Officer Sun made his way toward the bandstand as Mal-chin closed in on the dead tong. He saw the trail of blood behind him go out the exit. He followed it.
He stepped out into the alley and turned almost immediately down a small flight of concrete stairs. There was a metal door hanging open with pale fluorescent light flickering from within. The blood lead inside. Mal-chin entered a cramped storage room and saw the heavy freezer door welcoming him into the cooler. A false wall beyond it beckoned him down even deeper.
He saw the looming darkness ahead and the trail of blood and guts that marked the path and kicked himself for not requesting a firearm. He looked around for anything he could use as a weapon and settled on an old mop. He unscrewed the wooden handle from the moldy mop-head and stalked down into the shadows, carrying the handle like a harpoon.
He walked down a metal ramp. He went slow to let his eyes adjust. The ramp leveled out and he could feel a corridor around him. He saw vague, blurry light up ahead. But there was something to the smell of this place. Through the dank and moldy odor of the old mortar he could smell the sickly-sweet scent of sanitation. It was the smell of hospitals and nursing homes. The smell of death by degrees.
The blur of dim light grew in his vision. He stuck the mop handle forward and it separated thick, opaque plastic strips of curtain. He walked through them and into a nightmare.
He had found an organ den.
Rows of makeshift hospital beds and IV drips. People in various states of disrepair lied still in soiled sheets. There were generators powering deep freezers all along the wall. And stacks of coolers with bloody fingerprints on the lids crowded the corners.
The tong who stood guard over them were strewn about the room in pieces. Their blood spattered all over the walls and the sheets. They looked just like the men in the morgue. Like the victims of a shark attack.
But that was impossible.
When Mal-chin stumbled topside to call in to headquarters he could hear Officer Sun shouting for him somewhere in the labyrinth of back alleys. He followed the sound of his partner’s voice and found him at a dead end between a noodle shop and a massage parlor. He was standing over what was left of Blue Fang.
“He got away from me,” Officer Sun panted. “I heard him screaming and found him like this. I’m sorry, Detective Kil.”
Mal-chin waved away his apology. He stared down at Blue Fang’s butchered body. There were deep slashes in his torso and throat in addition to the torn flesh and shattered bones. In all of his years Mal-chin had never seen anything like this.
But there was something else. Something peculiar about the body that caught his eye. Placed in the dead man’s hand was a photograph. Mal-chin nudged the wrist to get a better view of it. It was a school photo of a young woman. Her familiar smile filled Detective Kil Mal-chin with dread.
His body shook.
Fujioka Satomi. Japanese. A first-year nursing student who disappeared four years ago. She had gone to a Chinatown bar with some friends and left the bar with a man she met. Out of the ordinary for her. According to her friends she was a “good girl” – very sweet and dedicated to her studies. Her friends said the man had seemed nice. He was young, handsome, and athletic. He didn’t ring any alarm bells. They were happy to see her meet someone and hoped she would blow off some steam. That was the last time anyone saw her.
Mal-chin caught the case. Missing persons were a dime a dozen then and not much better now. A massive port city like Incheon is a highway for tourists, transients, runaways, you name it. People come and go without a word. They pick up and leave. They meet a nice man and elope. Mal-chin showed Satomi’s friends mugshot after mugshot. He canvassed the area, pounded the pavement, asked Satomi’s friends and family the kinds of insensitive, violating questions you have to ask when a girl disappears.
Dead ends. Like the one where Blue Fang met his fate. It also disturbed the detective that the Fujioka Satomi case was when he first hauled in the sad fat man. He was low level Lao Shen back then. But the girl vanished in their territory so it only made sense to haul in the weak links and rattle their cages. But Mal-chin messed up. He lost control in the interrogation room and slapped Fang. Not hard, but hard enough to get him released.
Cases piled up and a tong war broke out and Fujioka Satomi got sidelined like so many do. Mal-chin was no super cop, but he was good. Even the many men at his precinct who despised him had to admit it. He was a worker. A closer. But he didn’t close Fujioka Satomi.
The top brass issued a full press blackout after the Song Kong incident. For once, the tight-lipped nature of Chinatown’s residents worked in their favor. They normally would have never let Mal-chin and his green partner keep such a massive case, but the gruesome nature was so confounding that nobody else wanted to touch it. The injuries of all the tong victims were consistent with those of the three bodies pulled out of the harbor. Shark attack.
How in the hell?
After a few days of zero progress from the tong angle, Mal-chin went into the Records Room and found the old files on Fujioka Satomi. Her older sister, Aoi, still lived in the city.
He looked like shit. He felt even worse. He had been taking more of the pills that Doctor Jeong had given him but he was in a constant state of nausea and feverish weakness. He had shaved, combed his hair, and put on his best clothes. If this went on much longer he wasn’t sure he would last. Officer Sun, ever the pillar of good manners, remained quiet on the subject.
Fujioka Aoi lived in a third floor brick apartment in Juan-dong. The neighborhood was nice enough, if a little unkempt. Her building was older and the heat collected on the third floor. Mal-chin knocked on her door and hoped she was home just to get him out of the smothering hallway.
“Who is it?” a none-too-welcoming voice called out in English. Mal-chin cleared his throat and held up his badge.
“It’s Detective Kil Mal-chin with the Metro Police,” he answered in English. “This is my partner, Officer Sun Chin-hae. You may not remember me but we met four years ago when I investigated your sister’s disappearance.”
There was a heavy silence. Finally she spoke. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to speak with you, if it’s all right. May we come inside?”
Another silence. But the locks turned and the door opened and Fujioka Aoi stood before them. Scrawny, pale, and in a pair of pajamas she’d probably worn all week. She had the look of someone who lived off cigarettes and bitterness. Mal-chin was familiar. She walked away and left the door open.
The cramped apartment was made even more so by the dirty dishes, empty food wrappers, and clothes strewn about. The place stunk.
The only spot given any attention or care was the little shrine to Satomi on the mantle. Mal-chin gestured to it.
“Why not?” she said. She sat on the floor with her back against the wall and fished a cigarette from a crumpled pack next to her thigh.
The shrine was pristine. Fresh flowers, new candles. The salt, rice, and sake were all carefully placed in beautiful little cups.
“Are you Shinto?” she asked with a mean little laugh.
“No,” he said. “But the shrine is very beautiful.”
“Satomi was beautiful. That’s all I have left of her now.”
Mal-chin nodded. He’d seen people move on from the death of a loved one. Even a wrongful death. But to disappear without a trace – that was hardest on the people left behind.
“What do you want, anyway?” she asked.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up, Miss Fujioka. But we have reason to believe our current investigation may have a connection to your sister’s disappearance.”
“My sister is dead.”
Mal-chin said with as much tenderness as he could muster, “That is likely, but nevertheless, there may be some connection. Is there anything that may have sprung to mind since the initial investigation? Anything?”
She fixed him with a glare that could gut glass. “I remember you now. You stunk of whiskey back then and it looks like it’s in your bones now.”
Officer Sun stepped forward. “Please, miss, that’s uncalled for.”
“Shut up,” she hissed. She put her hateful gaze back on Mal-chin. “You had your chance to find Satomi four years ago and you blew it. She’s not missing. She didn’t run away with a ‘handsome Chinese man.’ She’s probably scattered all over Incheon thanks to some fucking tong organ farm!”
Something twitched inside Mal-chin. That was far too specific. No such thing as coincidence. He took a large stride toward her. “Organ farm?”
“Get out,” she growled. Mal-chin stepped closer.
“What tong organ farm?”
“GET OUT!” she yelled and struck the wall with her fist. The impact reverberated through the wall and caused Satomi’s photo to fall forward. Officer Sun went to fix it but stopped short when he saw what was behind it.
“What’s that?” he pointed. Mal-chin turned and saw a small, faded ink print. He walked over to the shrine and was face to face with the wicked, grinning maw of a blue demon. Officer Sun stepped up behind him and looked over his shoulder and the ghoulish face.
“I’ve seen wards against oni before,” he said to the woman. “But never shrines to them.”
“So one of you is Shinto after all,” she taunted.
“No,” Officer Sun said flatly. “I’m Christian.” Mal-chin looked at him with a raised eyebrow. Officer Sun returned the look in a manner that brooked no mockery. Mal-chin left it alone. But Aoi laughed.
“Then you could never understand,” she said.
“Understand what?” the detective intervened. The woman’s cruel smile fell away as her eyes filled with hot tears.
She began to weep, then. Mal-chin could have kicked himself for being so stupid to come here. He had failed her completely and now he had the nerve to come by and pick at the scabs of her broken heart. He took out one of his cards and placed it on the mantle away from the shrine.
“I’m very sorry to have disturbed you,” he said. And he meant it. “If you think of anything…or need anything, please give me a call.” He nodded to Officer Sun and they walked to the door.
“She was my baby sister,” Aoi said through tears. “My poor Satomi. I was supposed to look out for her. But I let her down and now she’s gone forever.”
“I’m sorry,” Mal-chin said once more. He stepped back out into the hall with his partner and for the first time he was glad that he was dying.
“Let’s get a drink.”
The Restless Wind. It had been Detective Kil Mal-chin’s favorite watering hole for decades.
“Now this is a proper Korean bar,” he said. He was greeted with smiles and shouts from the many old regulars he had befriended over the years. Officer Sun was the youngest patron by a stretch. Mal-chin took his usual spot at the bar and slapped the seat next to him as an invitation for his young partner.
“You aren’t going to tell on me, are you?” he teased Officer Sun.
“No,” the young man sighed. “I could use one too. Regulations be damned.” Mal-chin smiled and pulled out his cigarettes. He put one in his mouth and offered the pack to his partner.
“I never asked if you smoked.”
Officer Sun put up a hand. “I’ll leave that to you.”
“Just as well,” Mal-chin said. He caught the bartender’s eye. “Two sojus. The good stuff. And make them doubles.” They sat in silence while the bartender got to work. Mal-chin watched him but the rabid enthusiasm from the other night was long gone. There was nothing left but a sense of defeat. A sense of fate.
“How do we solve this?” Officer Sun asked.
“We can’t,” Mal-chin said.
“I don’t accept that.”
“Then I salute you in your quest.” He ground his teeth as the drinks were placed in front of them. He stared at the clear, sweet liquor and decided that he would kill himself that night. He would drink until the lights went out forever. He just had one thing left to do.
“I’ve got to drain the lizard.”
In the bathroom he took out his cellphone and called his son. It went to voicemail after two rings like it usually did. Mal-chin felt a stinging feeling in his face as he heard his son’s outgoing message.
“Hey, it’s Hyun-shik! You know what to do.” The beep was like a flat-line.
“Hey, it’s Dad,” Mal-chin cleared his throat. “Just wanted to catch up. I know you’re busy. I’ve uh been busy too. Breaking in a new partner. He does Thai boxing. You’d like him.” His vision fogged and his chest felt tight. “Hey, I quit drinking. Five days, now. Or four – tomorrow will be five.”
He knocked his forehead against the bathroom wall, desperate to jar something loose. Anything of value. “Look I know I’m a prick, huh? And I’m sorry for that. And I love you. Okay. Bye, pal.” He put his phone in his pocket and put his hands under the faucet. He splashed his face with cold water. He was shaking all over.
His phone buzzed. He jerked out of the sink so fast that he gouged his scalp on the faucet.
“Shit!” he cried out. He pressed his scalp with one wet hand and dug into his pocket with the other. But when he pulled out the phone it wasn’t his son calling him, but that little dipshit, Kwang. He pulled his arm back to hurl his phone into the wall but stopped himself. Hyun-shik could still call.
Mal-chin answered the phone. He was sullen and pissed. Who better to take it out on?
“You got my pearl?” he opened.
“Very fucking funny,” Kwang said.
“Then why aren’t you laughing?”
“I got something big for you. But maybe you don’t want it.”
“Tonight’s not the night, Kwang. Spill it or piss off.”
“Only because I like you so much, Kil. Remember the guy I told you about? The one at the Russian Bathhouse?”
“I don’t remember because you didn’t know anything.”
“Well now I do, dick!” Kwang was awful tough over the phone. “And I heard he was at Song Kong the night Blue Fang got killed.”
Mal-chin felt that familiar twitch. “What else?”
“Lao Shen are going dark for a while. This guy’s some badass for the yakuza. I guess they want to move in on the port.”
“What does he look like?”
“He’s big,” Kwang said. “Got a mean face on him and short, silver hair.”
The Jap bastard at the bar. Mal-chin was electrified. “What else?!” He was almost panting.
“I just saw him out back of Tseng’s Shrimp and Seafood. Don’t say I never did anything for you, you asshole.”
Mal-chin hung up and ran.
It was fully dark on the drive to Tseng’s. Mal-chin filled in Officer Sun as best he could. It explained almost nothing. One man, even a bloodthirsty bastard with the yakuza, couldn’t do what he had seen with his own eyes. But it was all he had to go on.
He sped back into Chinatown. A place he loathed for its indifference to human suffering, but a place he loved for its secrets. All these years and it still surprised him. Still lead him in a chase along a razor’s edge. Driving through the cramped labyrinth of its streets he saw it now as if for the first time. He saw the loud red lanterns, the glow of the blinking neon signs, the old timers trading jokes and jabs on the sidewalk, the bugs…
Bugs. Hundreds of them. Crawling all over his arms.
He was in such a hurry that he left his drink on the bar. And now he saw the legion of insects scampering all over his flesh. He could feel them too. He hit the brakes and swatted at himself like an idiot. It did no good.
“What’s wrong?!” Officer Sun asked.
“I need you to drive,” Mal-chin moaned. He opened his door and fell out into the street.
“Detective Kil!” His partner came around the car and helped him up. Mal-chin looked at him and pleaded.
“Please, Chin-hae. I’ll tell you where to go, just drive.” His partner nodded and helped him into the passenger seat.
When they arrived at Tseng’s they saw an old woman screaming by the door. Officer Sun tried to help Mal-chin but he waved him forward and stumbled after him. The bugs were everywhere. He prayed to anything that would listen that they didn’t have stingers.
He moved past the old woman. Inside the tiny restaurant he saw an old man – probably the owner – and a cook who was just as ancient holding cleavers and shouting down a flight of stairs into the cellar. He could hear Officer Sun trying to talk to them but it was no good.
Mal-chin knew he needed to go down there but there was no way he could do it like this. He charged the counter and threw open the cabinet to a modest wet bar. There was no soju. He grabbed the first bottle with authority and upended it into his gullet.
He burned. He drank and he burned and he drank until he couldn’t take any more. He started to heave on the floor but he shut his mouth and swallowed the awful mess back down. He looked around and grabbed his own cleaver.
“Come on,” he said to a stunned Officer Sun as he went down the stairs.
The stench was so awful Mal-chin could have cried. It was the stench of dirty saltwater and living fish. He found the source at the bottom of the stairs when he stepped into knee-deep water. The cellar was only lit by a few dim bulbs that swung from the ceiling. There were three rows of three brick support beams placed at matching intervals. The floor was a pond. And the water moved.
“Can you see that?” Mal-chin pointed at the millions of little splashes in the water.
“Yes,” Officer Sun said. “They’re shrimp.”
They were growing the shrimp down here. The thought turned his stomach but at least he knew they were real. The bugs continued to crawl all over him.
He looked down and saw something float up from under the water. Through the dim, flickering light and the tiny splashes he could see broken bone and viscera. He saw tattooed flesh, blonde hair stained with blood, and the top row of Little Kwang’s gold teeth. His bottom jaw had been ripped off.
A figure stepped out of the shadows behind the pillars and into the murky light. Even at this distance, the detective knew it was the Japanese man.
“Police!” Mal-chin shouted in English. “You are under arrest.” The man stepped toward him. Mal-chin couldn’t help but step back. There was a feeling so wrong that he could not define about this man.
“No,” the man said in a voice that thundered even while quiet. “It is you who are coming with me, Detective Kil Mal-chin.” As he stepped closer Mal-chin could see that the man was completely naked. His body was covered with the tattoos so infamous with the yakuza.
“Who are you?” Mal-chin had to know. The man stepped closer. His powerful body a monument to a singular theme. A work of art in honor of the engines of the deep. Shades of blue and streaks of silver formed a magnificent and terrible tapestry.
The man flashed a shark-toothed grin. “I am the fury of answered prayers.”
And it was then that Mal-chin saw the sharks begin to move. The images swam and churned all over the man’s body. The tattooed man charged. He seemed completely unencumbered by the water, sprinting full speed at the two policemen.
Detective Kil Mal-chin steeled himself. It wasn’t real. Just more damn delirium. He raised his cleaver and prepared to strike but Officer Sun charged ahead of him with a cry of war. He unleashed a flurry of punches and kicks at the tattooed man. They were fast and powerful like you see in a movie. He was good.
But the silver-haired man was better. He dodged the worse blows with ease and took the smaller ones to close the distance. He grabbed Officer Sun with his powerful arms and Mal-chin saw one of the sharks leap out of the man’s flesh, turn in a tight circle, and slash his partner across the face with its tail fin. The man must have held a blade that Mal-chin couldn’t see because Officer Sun staggered back with a cry, spraying blood in a thick arc.
Mal-chin ran ahead and drop kicked the tattooed man in the chest. He fell backward into the water as Mal-chin submerged and landed on his left arm. He cried out in pain and his mouth and nose were flooded with thick, soupy water and several squirming shrimp. He erupted out of the pond and puked so viciously it doubled him over. His back and guts felt as though they had been pummeled with electrified baseball bats.
The tattooed man yanked him backward by the hair and smashed his face into one of the brick beams. He would have passed out if he wasn’t in so much pain. Somehow he kept his feet and swung the cleaver in a pathetic slash. It was nowhere near the enemy but it helped him get some distance.
Hurt and terrified as he was he couldn’t help but stare at the moving sharks on the man’s body. They not only swam over him but they seemed to move through him – growing larger and smaller, appearing to move closer and farther away. As if the silver-haired man contained untold depths within his being.
Just as Mal-chin swung the cleaver again a massive shark leaped out of the man’s torso. Its head was wider than the handlebars of a motorcycle. And as fast as the little shrimp seemed to jump to the water’s surface and disappear, the shark ripped a chunk of flesh out of Mal-chin’s thigh and whipped back into its master’s body like a boomerang.
Mal-chin looked down at the red ruin of his leg. He felt pain like nothing he had ever felt in his life.
He screamed so long and loud it lasted a lifetime. This was no hallucination. This was real. It couldn’t be, but it was. Panic flooded his mind. He could feel himself slipping away toward some kind of madness. It almost overwhelmed him but something cracked in all that darkness.
In that desperate, mad moment he knew he wanted to live. Not the way all animals have a survival instinct. It was something so palpable yet so indefinable it could only be described as True.
The silver-haired man was only a few feet away. Another hammerhead came off his shoulder and spun on its side. Mal-chin put up his left arm and the demon shark chomped down on it like a bear-trap.
So much pain. But Mal-chin didn’t care. He didn’t care if he had to live as a cripple. He didn’t care if he couldn’t be a policeman. He would live to redeem himself. He would spend every day earning his son’s love again. Earning his right to live. He would fight until his last breath if only he could live through this.
The shark held his arm in a grip from hell. There was no escape. He looked at the silver-haired man and saw another hammerhead barreling toward him. It swam up the man’s chest – it’s massive head and terrible jaws aligning perfectly with the man’s face.
Mal-chin screamed and swung the cleaver into the eye of the shark that held his arm. It struck true and split it down the middle like a sausage. The tattooed man screamed. The shark let go of the detective’s arm and retreated back into the body. As the sharks swam in a frenzy the man staggered and clutched his forehead in agony.
That was when Officer Sun barreled out of the darkness and kicked the man in the back of the knee. He went down and the young officer spun around in front of him and kneed him in the face. He fell back into the water. Mal-chin wasted no time. He sprang forward as best he could on his ruined leg, practically falling forward as the tattooed man rose up out of the water with a roar. And just as the giant hammerhead was about to leap out of the man’s maw and devour him, Mal-chin brought the edge of the cleaver down into the center of the man’s face.
He went rigid and still. There was a deep growling sound that came from the depth of his body. And Detective Kil Mal-chin and Officer Sun Chin-hae watched in stunned silence as the living illustrations turned on their master and began to devour him; his physical body somehow unharmed, but his wicked depths torn to shreds.
Finally, the tattooed man fell dead in the water. And darkness took Mal-chin.
He drifted. He was carried through liquid black for measures beyond time. There were visions here and there. Electronic beeping. Voices from far away. Officer Sun. His boy, Hyuk-shik.
If any part of his conscious mind had been awake he would have thought he was in Hell. But consciousness escaped him. Until it didn’t.
He came out of the ether in a hospital bed. He hurt everywhere. His blurry vision finally cleared enough to make out Officer Sun Chin-hae asleep in a chair next to his bed.
He tried to speak but could only groan. But it was enough to wake the young policeman. He had stitches on his face where he had been cut. It would make a very manly scar. Mal-chin tried to communicate but it was beyond him. He just held his partner’s hand and let the young man fill him in.
He’d been in the hospital for four weeks. Infection in his leg was so bad they almost had to take it but it seemed he’d get to keep it after all. Not that it would be much good to him. He would have a limp for the rest of his life. His left arm was not much better.
The real complications came with the transplant. Apparently sneaky Doctor Jeong had found him a liver and pulled in a lot of favors to get the operation through. His body fought it for weeks. He almost died again. But here he was. He would have to take some serious meds to keep his body from rejecting the new organ but he wasn’t afraid of meds.
The bottom line – he was alive. But he would never be a Metro Police Detective again. Not in any way worth doing. It weighed and it stung but he’d been hurt worse.
The tattooed man’s body was still in the morgue and as yet unidentified. The brass at headquarters didn’t much care who he was and as far as they were concerned the case was closed. It was shit. No concrete answers. No scientific explanations. No peace for Fujioka Aoi and no justice either.
Or maybe those two canceled each other out.
Somehow, though, Mal-chin knew it was settled. The guilty parties were all dead. Maybe Fujioka Aoi would never know peace, but he hoped Satomi had some now.
“Your boy came to see you,” Officer Sun said. “He stayed the night a few times in that chair over there. I thought you would want to know that.”
Three more weeks went by and finally he could move around. Officer Sun came the day before his discharge and wheeled him outside in the sun for a bit. It was a beautiful day to be alive.
“How are things on your end?” Mal-chin asked his young friend.
“Good. My transfer to Metro is officially permanent and I’ve been promoted to Sergeant.”
“Hey, good for you, pal.” Mal-chin was happy for the man. He remembered how great it felt when he made Sergeant.
“What will you do?” Chin-hae asked.
“Hell if I know,” Mal-chin said. “They’re giving me full benefits and pension, though. So I’ve got time to decide.”
“That’s something at least.”
“Maybe I’ll open a bar.” The two men laughed. The truth was Mal-chin had no desire to drink at all. It had vanished like it was never there. He had heard of people changing like that when they went under the knife. Lately he craved hot tea more than anything.
But there were also the nightmares. He felt himself gliding in the dark. He was warm but he was so hungry. He had a need pulling him far and fast that he could not deny. Then finally, just before he woke up, he got the sensation of something violent lurking under his skin.
“I tell you the first thing I want to do when I get out of here, though.”
“What’s that?” Chin-hae looked down at him. Mal-chin grinned.
— Detective Wolfman is a hardboiled loner who’s loved by the Moon.