It was the day after the day after and I still felt like I’d done three rounds with moose, I just hoped the creature felt as bad as I did. After I’d left Ho Ping’s I spent the rest of the day recovering from my trip to see the Dragonlady, which was the only polite way I knew of saying I had been out of my mind on opium. Downstairs, the body of Ho Ping had been delivered to my surgery so I could perform my post mortem. I’d set to it in the morning and it had been a predictably gruesome task. It had been a relief to get out on my rounds, until I found half a dozen cases of what looked like something I needed to worry about spreading in amongst the denizens of the slum.
I was checking some samples under the battered old microscope on my table upstairs. It was night outside, the darkness laying across Shamian like an malevolent oil spill. The alleys and streets were cemetery quiet as families huddled together to watch not only over their children but their sick as well. Nothing for these poor sods was easy. Sometimes when I found myself wondering if giving up on God had been the right thing to do, I remembered times like this and realised he’d given up first.
I was busy contemplating the deep philosophical ramifications of punching the Almighty right in the kisser when a sudden knock on the door damn near handed me a chance to meet my maker face to face. I jumped and whirled round with my heart beating like an angry boxer. As I did my sleeve caught the microscope and flipped it on to the floor. I watched in mute horror as the most valuable thing I owned smashed and spilled its guts into a pile of shattered glass and dented metal.
Fuzz opened the door and peered in, “You ok, Doc?” I looked up, fury clear on my face. “Ah,” he said.
“Damn it! Not your fault. I… Oh damn it!”
“Expensive?” Fuzz asked as I stared at the shards of smashed optics and slides.
“No. Yes. No. It’s just… It’s all I had Fuzz. It was my father’s. It’s all I had left.”
“From England? Your England I mean?” Fuzz’s tone was soft, concerned. I’d almost forgotten I’d ever told anyone about my journey but Fuzz knew, as the sheriff he made it his business to know. I nodded . “Maybe it’s not too bad,” he said moving to the table and crouching down “Let me help you pick it up…”
“No!” I shouted and grabbed his hand, “don’t touch it!”
Fuzz pulled back, shocked “Easy doc, I’m only trying to help.”
“No,” my tone softer, “It’s not… I was looking at samples and they may be contagious.”
“Contagious?” he asked, all concerned sheriff again.
“Not sure yet, some of the Chinese workers are ill. I’m investigating. Well,” I looked at the broken microscope on the floor, “I was.”
“Anything I need to worry about?”
“Not sure yet, I needed my microscope to find out.”
“Hmm, ok,” said Fuzz thoughtfully, “I’ll let the Council know, maybe they will be able to help.”
“Really? I’d appreciate it, Fuzz.”
“Well I’m not making any promises, but…”
I smiled at him. “So, scaring me half to death aside, what did you call round for? The post-mortem?”
“Got it in one. What’s the word on old Ho Ping then?”
I reached for two mugs and some tea, “Sit down and I’ll make us a brew. This might take some time.”
“So you are saying he was murdered, but he did it himself? You’re saying someone persuaded him to cut his own tongue out and slice his ears off, lay them on the floor by the stool he then used to stand on so he could put a noose around his neck?”
“Yes,” I said simply.
“Furthermore you say that when on the stool he gouged his own eyes out before kicking the stool away and hanging himself?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, yes.”
“Doc… That’s… That’s just not possible. No one can be told to do those things to themselves.”
“Well I’ve heard of drugs that can open a man’s mind to suggestion, hypnosis too, but this is extreme I’ll grant you. But…” I left it hanging like Ho Ping himself.
“But?” Fuzz asked, prodding the corpse.
“Well there is The Voice.”
“The voice? I’ve got a feeling I’m going to regret asking this but what is the voice?”
“Ah, not a what, but a who,” I said cryptically. Fuzz gave me a look. “Ok Ok,” I smiled, “truth is no one knows, but the word is he is the Tong’s main enforcer and he can kill by simply telling you to kill yourself.”
“Rubbish!” Fuzz blurted out.
“I’m just telling you what I’ve heard Fuzz,” I said with an exaggerated shrug, “I mean of course it could be so much guff, lies spread by the Tong to add an air of supernatural menace to their reputation, but what if it’s not?”
“Aw c’mon doc, you don’t seriously expect me to put an APB out for ‘some chump who can make you do anything with his voice’? Lunar will think I’ve gone mad and half the women in Steelhead will think it’s a lonely hearts advert!”
I couldn’t help smiling, “Look, I’m only telling you what I’ve heard. Ho Ping killed himself not only in a way no sane person ever would but also in a way that would indicate a punishment and a warning. My guess would be the Tong. The question is, what are you going to do about it, sheriff?”
Fuzz looked at me, his eyes searching mine, “I don’t know yet, doc, I really don’t,” he said eventually, “I can’t get anything to stick. People won’t talk and without evidence, well what do you want me to do? I can’t arrest every Chinese worker in Shanghai to make sure I get the Tong and unless someone comes forward I can’t identify the members. Even if I do get to the thugs on the street, they’re just foot soldiers – the top brass are never implicated. I’m sorry doc, but my hands are tied.”
I knew he was right, he was always right but I didn’t have to like it. I sat back in my worn armchair and drank my tea in silence until Fuzz piped up again, “Look, I’ll set the Sisters on it, OK doc? Maybe they can dig something up.”
I smiled at him, we both knew they wouldn’t but it was better than nothing. Time to move on, talk about something else. I searched for a new topic and failed entirely, “So what’s happening to Ho’s place? I guess the Tong will move someone new in.”
“No,” Fuzz said standing up. He drained the last of the tea and placed the cup on the table, “seems the shop is owned by an out of towner and the word is he’s moving in himself rather than rent out again. Seems Steelhead is to get a new resident doc.”
“Hell of a welcome he’ll be getting, don’t you think?”
“Mmmm, but at least with Ho Ping gone I think we’ve seen the last of these murders.”
“I hope so Fuzz, I would far rather my surgery be a surgery than a morgue,” I said heavily.
“Me too doc.,” He moved to the door, pulling his coat around him,” Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to go see Dr Alter tonight, give her the good news she’s off the hook.”
“Good luck with that,” I smiled.
“Thanks, but she’ll be easy compared to the heat I’ll be getting from the Pinkertons. Anyway, that’s my problem doc.” He opened the door and stared into the night, “Thanks for your help in all this, doc. I’ll speak to the council. I’ll see what I can do, ok?”
“Yeah, good luck with that too,” I said bitterly. Fuzz just looked back sadly for a second before walking out and closing the door behind him. In the silence of my room I stared at the door and wondered why every conversation we had seemed to end this way.
I turned to look at the broken microscope on the floor. How the hell was I going to discover what was wrong in the slums now?
All the “Goodunnit? Murder in Steelhead!” posts can be read here.
Links to other blogs and stories:
1) The murders were originally discussed at one of the weekly town hall meetings and recorded here.