Trail of Blood

1

“I’m back.”

I dropped my suitcase, slipped off my shoes, and listened to familiar Chinatown sounds spill in the windows. Horns honked, delivery vans rumbled. Mr. Hu’s songbird trilled from the roof next door. I heard a child squeal with laughter and her grandmother scold in Cantonese: Hold my hand, you bad girl, or that fish truck will squash you flat.

And speaking of scolding in Cantonese, here came my mother.

“Who are you?” She shuffled from the kitchen and peered at me. “You look like my daughter, Ling Wan-ju, but I haven’t seen her in a long time. She went to California. She said she’d be back soon, but she stayed. I’m happy she’s having fun.”

My mother’s sarcasm could cut diamonds.

“Two extra weeks, Ma. And they’re your cousins.” I kissed her papery cheek, which she grudgingly allowed. “Have a good time while I was gone?”

“Your brother’s children are very noisy.” I have four brothers, but my mother rarely uses their names when she talks to me; I’m supposed to know which one she means. This time I did: Ted, the oldest. She’d stayed at his place in Queens while I was away.

“But you had the downstairs apartment to yourself, right?”

“I was fortunate it was empty. It’s so dark, no wonder no one will rent it.”

“I think Ted and Ling-an did a nice job on it.”

“Too many rooms for one person. With such a big kitchen! Hard to find all the pots and pans.”

“Did you cook?”

“Your brother and his wife both work so hard, come home late. They order from restaurants. So expensive! I made har gow, and long-life noodles.”

“I’ll bet the kids liked that.”

“And so much lawn, so many useless flowers! I planted melons.”

“You did?”

“Your nephew helped.”

I could see that scene: my mother in a straw hat, plants dangling from each hand while ten-year-old Barry dug and mulched. Luckily, both Ted’s kids adore her. They know her frowning and finger-wagging are scams to hoodwink malicious spirits into thinking her useless, disobedient grandchildren aren’t worth stealing.

“Flushing. Pah!” my mother finished. “Too far away.”

I sighed. She’d seen right through us. That apartment, far from being “fortunately” empty, had been built for her. My brothers and I think this fourth-floor walk-up we grew up in is getting hard for her to manage. But her refusal to leave Chinatown begins with a refusal to acknowledge she has anywhere to go.

Jet-lagged, I didn’t have energy for this argument. “I’m going to unpack, Ma. Then I’ll tell you all about the wedding.”

“You could have gotten married yourself, you were there so long. Have you eaten?”

“Not yet.”

“I made congee. There may be enough for two.”

Detouring into the kitchen, I waved at old Chow Lun, leaning over the street from his usual windowsill. I lifted the lid from a steaming pot and found enough congee for an army. The table held bowls of chopped spring onions, pickles, and dried fish.

My mother’s never liked fish in her congee. But I love it.

While I unpacked, I called my office phone. No messages. Not that I’d expected any. Work was slow, and anyway I’d been checking in daily from California. Now, that might sound like I was waiting for a particular call, but of course I wasn’t. I especially wasn’t waiting for a call from Bill Smith, my former associate, then partner; former close friend, then almost-I-don’t-know-what, who’d done a vanishing act months ago after our last case together. The case, involving Bill’s nephew Gary, had ended badly. As his partner and close friend, I felt terrible for him and understood why he wanted no part of anyone for a while. But as his