Ho Ping

Goodunnit: Chapter 11 – The Dead End

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.”

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“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?

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The End.
All the “Goodunnit? Murder in Steelhead!” posts can be read here.

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Links to other blogs and stories:
1) The murders were originally discussed at one of the weekly town hall meetings and recorded here.

Goodunnit: Chapter 10 – And One More Makes Three

As the sun rose over Polymath Tower, pouring its spiteful light down upon my pounding head, I was calculating whether or not my lungs would make the dash to the pawnshop or simply explode with the effort.

One of my neighbours, Miss Tornado who ran the flophouse at twenty, had found me slumped on her steps and woken me with a message “There’s an angry old nun looking for you, says you’re needed over at Ho Pings.” Angry old nun could only mean the fearsome Mother Supirior, a nun so tough I heard she’d once had a face off with the owl-eating demon from Boomtown and won. I wasn’t sure if it was a contest to see who had the scariest face, but old MS would have won that hands down anyway.

As I ran down the cobbled street, I caught my reflection in a window. Christ and all his angels! My clothes were rumpled to the point of disgrace, my hair and whiskers jutted out at all angles and my face, oh god my face! I looked like a half-starved, half-crazed, half-burst scarecrow running round a field shrieking at birds! And judging by the smell, it was manure spreading time. I hoped to God Sister Sweetchecks didn’t see me like this.

Fuzz was stood with Mother Supierior outside the gawdy pawnbrokers and he gasped in shock as I came to a halt heaving and wheezing, “Gods Alive! Beck you look worse than the stiff!”. Old MS shot him a withering glare, he smiled slightly and added a hasty “well, almost.”

I grunted and self-consciously tried to run my fingers through my matted hair. It didn’t help. “You called?” my voice sounded as if my mouth was made from worn-out carpet, which given the taste it may have been.

“Hmmm not sure I did the right thing…”

“Can it Fuzz,” I snapped, “just tell me what you want.”

The sheriff just glared at me for what felt like an age, his face a mixture of anger and pity that made my skin crawl with shame, “I’m… I’m sorry Fuzz…” I started to say before the wolverine in a wimple cut me dead.

“And so you should be! You sir are a mess. A mess! You come here reeking of that vile smoke and sweat and cheap perfume,” I looked at Fuzz, shocked. He stepped back out of her eyeline and flashed me a slight sardonic smile that said “You’re on your own, pal.”

“I… I…” I stammered.

“I have not finished, Dr Beck,” she said, her tone brooking no discussion on the matter. I shut my trap and held on tight, something told me this was going to be a bumpy ride. “How dare you speak to the sheriff like that! How dare you! He called you into this – against my better judgement I may add,” Fuzz nodded, his smile all Chesire Cat, “and you arrive not only late and resembling something dredged up from the harbour, but with an attitude to match your odour – foul! Well it is not good enough sir! It is simply not good enough! And another thing…” She stopped as Fuzz stepped forward again, all faux gravitas, “I think that’s enough Mother Superior, I think Dr Beck has got the message loud and clear, haven’t you Doc.”

I was stunned. It felt like I’d been drop-kicked by my granny and then made to dress up as her poodle, “I… Well, yes. I’m sorry Sister,” “Mother Superior!” she corrected. “Mother Superior, of course, I’m sorry.”

“Yes, well, see you buck your ideas up, young man. See you buck them right up. Now if you excuse me, I think I need some fresh air!” and she stomped off like a monochrome thundercloud looking for someone to smite with lightning.

I looked at Fuzz, too stunned to speak. Fuzz grinned at me, “What can I say, doc? She’s one tough Mother.”

I nodded sagely, like Canute agreeing with someone lecturing on water’s ability to drown people, “Well, I’m sorry Fuzz, how about I go get straightened out and then come back, huh?”

“Nah, you’re here now, aren’t you? Let me show you the new stiff.”

“Another John Doe or old man Ping?” I asked, wondering what the hell was going on in Steelhead. So many murders could only point one way – the tong.

“Yup, Ho Ping, the questionable owner of this questionable establishment,” Fuzz stared at the model flamingoes by the door and sighed. Ho Ping, a tong fence who always managed to stay just on the right side of the law, ran a pawnshop where he ran a nice sideline in bleeding the poor Chinese workers dry. Like the rot eating away at the foundations of the harbour, Ping was a cancer gnawing away at the people of Shamain. Somehow I doubted they’d miss him much. But who killed him? Ping was deep with the Tong after all. Was this some kind of turf war? I’d not heard about a new gang trying to muscle in, though. Maybe some poor sap in hock to him finally snapped and cashed Ho Ping’s cheque in, but this didn’t seem likely as the repercusions for their family both here and back home would be terrible. There was one other explanation, one that made more sense than rival tongs or rogue borrowers. “Let me see the body,” I said already walking into the shop…

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To be continued…
All the “Goodunnit? Murder in Steelhead!” posts can be read here.

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Links to other blogs and stories:
1) The start of this case was discussed at this weekly town hall meeting here.

Goodunnit: Chapter 9 – His Master’s Voice

Ho Pings Pawnbrokers in Steelhead Shanghai_001

Ho Ping wanted to run, he really did, but he was far too scared to even try. It wasn’t just the four tong thugs lounging about his shop blocking the exits like jackals waiting for their turn at the corpse, but He was here too. The goons he could cope with, but Him? Ho Ping’s stomach was doing its level best to get out of his body by any means possible and many of his other organs were considering joining it when a slight cough from Him caused his bladder to open.

For a while no one said a word, the silence of the room broken only by the gentle hiss, until the goons broke into peels of cruel laughter and cat-calls.

“Enough!” The word cracked through the air like thunder. The Voice had spoken and all four thugs instantly fell silent and lowered their gaze.

The Voice was a small figure people often mistook for a child. That was until they saw His face. Some said it was a cruel trick of nature, others a curse laid upon Him as a child. Others still said that when he had begun to age past his fifteenth year, he had cut the head of a younger boy and had his own stitched on and that this practice had continued ever since for a very long time indeed. Whatever the truth, the sight of a sixty year old face atop the body of a young boy made people feel somewhat uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as finding their lungs falling out of hole where their intestines used to be, which was something The Voice could quite easily arrange .

“Please understand,” The Voice said, “that your actions in this affair have left us with no other course of action” It was a voice of reason. Reason wrapped around a fist made of granite and decorated with brass knuckles and razor blades. “Did you think a Pinkerton wouldn’t be missed? Did you think accelerating our plans for Dr Alter’s pet would go unnoticed?”

“But…” Ho Ping blurted out.

“SILENCE!” roared the dimunative figure and the shopkeeper’s voice died in his throat, his lips sealing tight against his will. He was on the road to death, he knew that now, but if he angered The Voice it might take a while to get there and be a very unpleasant journey. “You have disappointed, Ho Ping,” The Voice growled, “but more than that you have endangered us. For that I bring you what the Tong bring all who disappoint them. I bring you a message.” Ho Ping’s eyes grew wide, terror twisting his face as his small captor walked slowly and deliberately towards him like some hideous giant spider moving in on its prey. He wanted to run, get away from what he knew was coming, away from the horror The Voice would bring. He turned and bolted for the door but one of the young tong foot-soilders blocked his way. For a fraction of a second he contemplated the window, but hands grabbed and held him fast. He was spun back around and forced to his knees. The Voice crept close, his lined face inches away, his dry lips pushing up against Ho Ping’s ear.

He paused.

The room held its breath.

The night stopped.

And then, slowly, deliberately, The Voice whispered His message to Ho Ping.

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To be continued…

All the “Goodunnit? Murder in Steelhead!” posts can be read here.

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