Sung’s Ride – a short story

Sung was going to die. He was sure of it. September can be murderously hot in Waikiki, especially if you’re locked inside a parked black Explorer baking in the afternoon sun. Each fading breath burned his throat. But worse, his vintage silk aloha shirt and the crotch of his new cream linen slacks were soaked with sweat.

Sung accepted death, but when he went, he intended to go when he wanted and in style. Maybe seventy-five or eighty, on a first-class cruise, high on oxy, with some big tan white guy’s muscles wrapped around him. Not approaching the peak of his career, suffocating in the back of a detective’s car in ruined sweat-stained resort wear like some stupid drunk tourist.

His hands were cuffed behind him and anchored to a steel ring in the crack of the back seat. How long had he been in here?  Sung didn’t know. But he knew that this is how babies die in Florida.

Lady in Orlando locks Junior in the car, runs in to get her dry cleaning, starts in with some other fat white woman – yapping, smoking, and crunching potato chips. By the time she gets back to her car – stick a fork in Junior, he’s done. Sung considers his size. He’s small, even for a southern Chinese. Junior-size. He blinks away sweat dripping from his forehead. Forget the cruise. Forget the haole boyfriend. Forget all of it. Death has him now.

The Orlando lady runs out and sees him. She screams and tries to open the car door, but she burns her hand. She gets a baseball bat. She smashes the window and reaches in. Now she’s got her burned fingers on his shirt. She pulls. No no no. He has style. He is gay. He is Chinese. He will not live with mayonnaise and stretch pants. Bodies slam into the side of the car.

“I am not Junior, lady!” Sung screamed. “I am not dead!  I am Chinese!” He jerked his head back and forth, gasping, his eyes slamming into focus on an irritated Japanese man’s face telling him to shut up for Christ’s sake.

The Japanese man was Paul Tanaka, a Honolulu Police detective pulling him forward by the front of his wet shirt to un-cuff him.

“What’s the matter Sung?  Victims come back to haunt you?”

“I am the victim! I almost died in here. I could sue. Take your badge.”

Tanaka pulled him out of the back seat. “Fine by me,” said Tanaka, “I’ve been looking for a way out for years.” Next to Tanaka was a woman Sung recognized as Crystal, the hottie hard-ass owner of a local strip club. She laughed.

“Bullshit, Paul. No one could get you off the job.”

Tanaka slammed the car doors shut. “Doesn’t keep your sister from trying,” he said.

“She’s your wife. She worries about you…”

“Now who’s bullshitting?”

Crystal pulled Tanaka away from the car. Sung couldn’t hear what they were saying, so he took stock. The detective had relocated him to the front seat, and re-cuffed him. But not anchored to a cuff ring, an upgrade Sung appreciated. Tanaka had also deposited two bloodied greasy tourist lumps in the back, cuffed and anchored. The lumps slumped against each other, groaning and breathing in and out like the big wet seal lions Sung had seen on a PBS environmental special. Sung thought these two probably never watched PBS. Some criminals worked to better themselves culturally, some didn’t.

Tanaka got behind the wheel and looked across Sung to Crystal on the street. “I’ll call you later,” he said.

Crystal smiled at Tanaka. “Thanks,” she said. Tanaka looked at her a beat, returned her smile, nodded and then pulled away. Sung filed those smiles away with the bits of their conversation. You never know. Tanaka shot a look at Sung. “You’re up here just ‘til I take out the garbage. Don’t get cute or I’ll knock those shiny new capped teeth down your throat. Got it?”

“Got it, boss.” Sung looked down at his Ferragamo loafers, pulled one foot out admiring the pedicure he got this morning. Those Koreans sure know their feet. “I won’t sue,” he said.

“Good. Sit there and mind your business.”

That was cool by Sung; he sure didn’t want anything to happen to his new teeth. They were key to his smooth-money look. No one suspects their wallet’s been lifted by a man who looks richer than they are. He was already the top dip in the islands. Now he was on the brink of taking his class-act skills worldwide.

Then Tanaka showed up out of nowhere and caught him with his hand in that German frau’s purse. What was a cop doing at the Waikiki Surf seafood buffet anyway? Sung had two previous convictions. This arrest could seriously screw up his career. But he would wait, see how Tanaka played it. Chinese were infinitely more patient than the Japanese, a fact that every Chinese knew, but the Japanese like this detective, were too busy being busy to notice.

Tanaka turned by the zoo and then took another left on Kuhio. Frankie, the smaller of the two busted-up tourists in the back seat, leaned forward. Frankie had a split lip and his face was bruised and starting to swell. But he managed to approximate the dignified, friendly tone he used when he got in trouble back in Philly.

“Detective, my Cousin Anthony’s really sorry he grabbed that girl. I was hoping maybe there was a way, you know, we could work things out.”

Tanaka swerved around a tour bus and kept going down Kuhio. Frankie pressed.

“No question, Anthony and I got a little out of hand in the strip club. But then again, the bartender and that bouncer chick lost their shit too. But forget them. You got pulled into the middle, and the way I see it, that’s not fair. So Anthony and I want to put things right. And fortunately we have the means to do that, to reimburse you for all your trouble. So, think about it, it’s just a thought, but understand, I’m talking about substantial means here, Detective.”

Anthony leaned his head back against the seat, trying to stop it spinning right off his neck. Anthony didn’t care if the Jap cop bit on Frankie’s dip-shit routine or not. He didn’t care if they got thrown in the can. He didn’t care about his cracked jaw, broken molars, bruised gut, cracked ribs or his eyes swollen into slits. The only thing that mattered to Anthony was that back at the club he went out like a man. It hadn’t looked good right up to the last play in the last half-second, but that’s the moment when champions are born.

Only because Anthony was distracted by the stripper, that bouncer-bitch Crystal had slipped Anthony into some pressure-point shit ju-jitsu hold that put his whole right side into a paralyzing fire, and two seconds later she was frog-marching him toward the exit, with Frankie skeezing along beside her doing his kiss-ass apologizing for Anthony, basically calling him a retard. When they cleared the bar and were just that half-second to the door, an epiphany hit Anthony on the head like a twenty pound sack of flour dropping from a stack in the back the of his Uncle’s bakery where he was wasting his life waiting for a chance to do collections.

Suddenly he could see it now in Super Bowl slo-mo: It was Frankie’s idea to come to this strip joint. It was Frankie feeding him drinks and goading him up on to that stripper’s runway. It was Frankie who was going to tell Uncle Vito and the boys in Philly all about how Anthony got handled by this cooze. If Anthony let himself be bitch-slapped and led out the front door like this, his life was over.

Anthony now knew he had absolutely zero to lose. That cold brand of insight can free one’s mind up to a whole range of options. Anthony went with the psycho option, and nearly getting his arm ripped out of its socket in the process, threw himself to the floor aping a violent epileptic fit. Then, before anybody could spot the fake, jumped up raving and slammed into that six-foot dyke bouncer, running her backward fully intending to snap her back in half against the bar.

Mark Homea had bartended in the club since forever and had seen Crystal handle any situation that came her way with a seamless smooth professionalism that he envied. There had been a rare time or two when due to sheer numbers, she might need a hand. But he had never seen any situation anywhere get so bad so quick as the one that Crystal was in the middle of with these two goombas. He knew the drill though, so as he vaulted over the bar with the taped up aluminum softball bat, he hit the speed dial on his cell.

Anthony didn’t manage to hurt the jujitsu chick much, but shit, he went down fighting. They had to bring the fucking bat. He laughed, thinking about it. Laughing wasn’t good for his busted up gut.

Tanaka turned into the parking garage of The Beachcomber. Frankie was pumped. This was their hotel. He had gotten to the cop.  Frankie was figuring how far to lowball the Jap when Anthony started making wheezing sounds, then gurgling sounds, and then heaved beer and spicy Buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing into the foot well. This was going to cost Frankie a fucking fortune.

Sung watched Tanaka turn the a/c up high, lower the windows, take a parking ticket from the machine and cruise up the ramp like nobody else was in the car at all. Sung was impressed. It’s hard to stay focused when people are puking in your car and trying to bribe you at the same time. Tanaka kept going up past empty parking spots, the car’s tires squealing on the tight turns, until they broke through to the sunlight banging off the concrete of the deserted roof lot. He parked the car at the edge, seven stories up.

Tanaka was tired of people like this. Why fly six thousand miles to get into a bar fight?  Why didn’t they stay home and terrorize their own strippers?  He shook his head. He’d been on edge since he rolled out of bed this morning, probably because it wasn’t his bed. His wife was flying home tomorrow. How could he tell her he was in love with her sister?  He would have to end it with Crystal. Things were not in balance. Balance was important to him. When Tanaka was ten, his father sat him down and unwound a roll of old white cloth. Inside was a polished hardwood stick about four feet long. There were old nicks and scratches under the polish.

“This once belonged to your grandfather, a policeman in Tokyo. It was his jo. It was his weapon, and it was him.” The jo looked alive. Tanaka stared.

“Go ahead,” his father said, “Pick it up.”

He did. It felt warm. Familiar. His father stood in front of him, his arms crossed. “Your grandfather was proud of being a policeman – of defending the law; more proud of that than of anything else in his life. Justice was his passion. No matter who opposed him, he would not bend. Power, connections, wealth meant nothing to him. So, they killed him.”

Tanaka moved the jo in a small arc. It filled his eyes. “Grandfather was a hero?”

“He was rigid, like that stick. The family had to leave Japan in fear for their lives. He was no hero. He was hard and selfish. He knew no balance.” Tanaka’s father spoke more of the folly of passion and the virtues of compromise, conciliation, concession. And always, balance. Tanaka would hear this hundreds of times through the years, would come to accept it, and then pursue it.

But at ten he didn’t hear much of what his father said. Tanaka was captured by the polished scars of the jo, by the spirit of his grandfather. The passion for justice pounded in his blood, obliterating reason.

Frankie leaned forward. “Detective?  You alright?”

Tanaka glanced at Sung. Sung looked back. “Your play, Boss. I wasn’t even here,” he said.

Tanaka sighed. Everybody thinks they’re in a cop show. “Stay put,” he said to Sung. Then Tanaka got out of the car, opened the back doors and took the cuffs off the two tourists from Philadelphia. “Get out of the car,” he said.

The skinny one scrambled out first, and started talking money. Big cash for this. Huge. Uncle Vito can wire it straight to any account he wants. No one the wiser. The heavy guy stumbled out trailing vomit on his shoes.

“Clean the puke out of my car,” Tanaka said. They didn’t want to do that, but Tanaka convinced them to try. They ended up using Frankie’s Hugo Boss sport coat for the job. Then Tanaka closed the car door and handed them back their wallets and hotel key cards. “This is simple, fellas. I’m not reporting the assault, or the attempted bribery. You’re getting a pass on this. One time. My friend doesn’t need reports of trouble with her club’s address on it. It’s bad for the liquor license. Bad for business. You’re businessmen; you can understand this, right?”

They nodded. They were businessmen covered with vomit and beaten to a pulp, but they understood.

“This is one time only. You show your face near that club, or cause any kind of trouble anywhere in Waikiki, I’ll come down on you island style. You hear me?”

Before they could start nodding, Sung leaned out the car window. “That means chopping your ass up with a machete and burying you in a cane field in the middle of the night. I’ve seen him do it, too. Him and his cop buddies. They like it.” The Philly boys ran for the parking elevator and didn’t look back.

Tanaka turned to Sung. “What was that?”

Sung shrugged. “I was assisting you, spicing up your presentation. People respond to specifics.”

Tanaka opened the front passenger door, pulled him out, and Sung took his shot. Sung said he had a reporter friend at Channel 9, a Chinese girl. If he told her a story about a HPD Detective having an affair with a strip club owner, and then letting straight white guys go while locking up the poor gay Chinese man – she would jump on it.

Tanaka closed his eyes and turned his face up to the afternoon sun. It struck him that his father’s reverence of balance was based in fear. Fear of being definite. Fear of revealing what you are, even to yourself.

Tanaka was silent looking up at the sky. It made Sung nervous, so he laid it out quick. If Tanaka let him walk like the white boys – no story. They’re even. Otherwise, Channel 9 blasts it all over. Tanaka stepped toward him. Sung flinched. Tanaka didn’t notice. He stowed Sung in the back seat and locked the cuffs through the ring. Then Tanaka got behind the wheel and looked at Sung in the rear view mirror. “Do what you want, Sung,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to do.”

Tanaka started the car and headed for the station. He’d do the paperwork on this thief and sign out. Then he’d take Crystal to dinner.

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