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American Fiction Crime

The grimy tiled walls of the curved underground tunnel rushed by as gloomily lit wall lanterns pulsed out of the darkness, marking unseen intervals as the train sped to the next stop. We hit top speed for just a few moments before the gears began their gradual wind-down as we slowed again. The linked cars rattled and swayed and screeched as we burst into the light of the LaSalle Street station. The 5:43 stopped and slid open its doors, and the train became engorged with commuters. Many more streamed down through the turnstiles as we pulled away, quickly accelerating towards the next platform before repeating the process again. The next stop would be above ground as the train emerged out of the dark, and I watched as the yawning black half oval of the subway raced away. Like so many others on the subway, my day was complete. The first portion of my contract had been fulfilled as it too receded behind me.

We climbed southward onto the elevated section of the Red Line. I was cocooned in a window seat, my shoulder pressed against the exterior bulkhead of the train car and my forehead resting against the glass of the tempered window. The gloom of an early November evening washed out everything in shades of drizzling grey. Behind the scratched and faded windows, I watched the watery streetlights and streaming traffic go by as if they were flowing along a gutter with the rain. Hunched and shielded figures hurried along in the mists, bundled against the temperature as it hovered in the high 40s. I wondered why these folks were out and where they were going. Were they arriving from work as I was? Watching each person, I tried to match their image with an occupation. Did they enjoy their work, did they get along with their co-workers, or talk about their boss behind his back? My current assignment had been accepted through a third party. I had no idea who my employer was.

Speeding away from the skyscraping bulk of downtown, the dizzying heights marched downward while the commuting crush of humanity thinned, exposing the industry which transitioned away from the edges of the innermost part of the city. Through mild motion sickness, degrading into dull anxiety, I felt the train as it settled between the bumper-to-bumper traffic lanes of the Dan Ryan Expressway, transforming my view into an unending sea of headlights and taillights mostly streaming to the west. I gazed ahead and saw the yellowish glow of the 31st/Chinatown stop , a wholly unique junction just seconds away from one of the most vibrant and stabile Chinese communities in the country. Local businesses and social circles there are tightly controlled. Outsiders are decidedly not welcome. The next step of my work strategy, however, would insert me directly into the local socioeconomics.

The final portion of my commute was roughly half a mile, and though I’ve walked the distance several times in better weather, tonight I got onto the 24 bus after departing the train. There were plenty of seats as I boarded, but I decided to stand near the back door as the bus lumbered and coughed its way west. I recognized the regulars clutching their purses and packages in preparation to get off. I knew them by sight, but aside from an occasional nod, I never interacted with anyone. I dispense with the pretense of pleasantries when I’m trying to keep a low profile. Making even an accidental acquaintance meant creating a social complication and possibly allowing someone to actually notice me. I didn’t want to be noticed, as my type of business wasn’t all exactly above-board.

The corner of South Parnell Street and 31st Avenue features a Chinese herbalist, a tailor’s shop, a fenced-in corner featuring new construction (Jiffy Lube Coming Soon!), and a parking lot. The apartments above the homeopathic medicine shop were my destination. I had managed to win over the favor of the landlord some weeks earlier after unexpectedly defending his only daughter, Wang Li, from a decidedly hostile group of bald-headed, jackbooted gentlemen who seemed intent on injuring the young lady. To be sure, there were injuries, though ultimately none to Ms. Li. Honor bound and strangely insistent, the owner and alchemist of the herbalist shop, Mr. Zhao, offered his services. I needed a place. He claimed he needed to save face. Despite my timely heroics, the immediate community was irritated by my recent residency. Evidently, all Anglos were now met with suspicion. I was neither surprised nor offended.

The apartment couldn’t be more anonymous, which has made me near invisible. I hoped to retain that anonymity until the neighbors’ rude disregard evolves into unfriendly scrutiny. I left each morning before dawn and returned each evening well after dark. My ingress and egress were quick, quiet, and efficient, and as I expected my commission to be completed in mere days, I did my best to ensure that my tenure there wouldn’t linger in anyone’s memory. The only entry to the flat was a discreet, alleyway stairwell behind the building, which led directly to my second story entry door. The space was clean and warm and was rented partially furnished for two months. If all continued as planned, I would be departing long before my temporary lease expired.

The remaining task on my once lengthy to-do list required some after-hours activity, and if my labors were not found lacking, I thought I might complete the job that evening. I washed up, set a two-hour timer, and fell immediately asleep, the white noise of the streets serving as a lullaby. I had been a very poor sleeper until I finally found my dream job…no pun intended. I can now drop off to Land of Nod in moments. The old corny inspirational words about loving your work made that possible. Not having to deal with someone else’s stress was the key for me. My naps have become refreshing religious experiences. A whale song ringtone guided me out of sleep, and a glass of filtered water got my system up and running. I sat up and puzzled together tonight’s agenda while I continued clearing the cobwebs of slumber.

The details planned long ago, that night’s project would also require flawless timing and no small amount of patience and finesse. I was headed to south 23rd St. east of Princeton, about a mile from home, to the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. The museum sat across from the opulent and recently built branch of the Chicago Library. The entire area was also prepping for a major housing development scheduled for early 2022. Property values there were three times what they are elsewhere in the city. In short, there was money flowing, more to be made, and even some leftovers for the taking. Where many of the Chinatowns across the country continued to fade, Chicago’s was poised to flourish in the coming years. I figured that with the right tools and adept application of my skills, I could carve out my retirement fund off the underside of this real estate boom.

The community, as mentioned, was mistrustful of outsiders, preferring to do for themselves or exclusively using Asian-owned services and suppliers. The area boasted a population of around sixteen thousand, with over ten thousand ethnic Chinese. Plumbers, electricians, painters, notaries, lawyers, and doctors can all be found online with the surnames of Wang, Zhang, Liu, and Syun. Managing large projects with large price points also required the services of Chinese owned specialty businesses, and though most of them did not advertise or are not typically listed in any directory, they offered satisfying customer service nonetheless. I was headed to engage an employee of one of those specialty firms. One such specialist, employed by the 14K Baai Lo Triad of San Francisco, was in town for a brief meeting with a local alderman, and I was rushing over to try and get some face time with them. I glanced at my phone. I should arrive a bit early.

The exterior of the museum was surrounded by a dizzying collection of some of the most cutting edge modern Chinese art assembled in the United States. Consisting of numerous spatial arrangements, installation designs, interpretive artefacts, and contentual sculpture, it was deliberately arranged as a maze, forcing a visitor to navigate through it all to enter the museum. I intended to use this area as a waiting room of sorts while I enriched my life interpreting the art displays. I arrived unseen and took up refuge inside a rather classical arrangement of Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. These gods represented all the peoples of China, and each held the power to give life or vanquish evil. After reading this explanation on the exhibition placard, I couldn’t help but smile. I established a direct sightline to the Saint Theresa Chinese Catholic School, directly across Princeton Avenue, and waited for the attendees to arrive at the meeting. I creatively visualized both my insertion and exit strategy. The method of engagement had been agreed upon, unbeknownst to my shadowy employer. I had added my own personal twist to conclude the meeting.

A dark blue Tesla model X silently slid up to the front of the church and stopped. Seconds later, a silver Maybach GLS pulled in immediately behind the electric car. Both drivers exited their vehicles and briefly spoke to one another, before climbing the short approach to the church entrance. The taller of the two men used a key to open the doors and both entered, one after the other. I crossed the street immediately after the large brass doors swung closed, swiftly climbed the stairs and entered the church behind my two business associates. After a brief discussion, they confessed to me a dying desire to seek appeasement for their past sins, so I left them both behind in the confessionals. After having dictated their immediate fate, I left their penance to be decided by their gods. I took the Tesla and drove back to my apartment, pausing only to toss my burner phone into a dumpster.

I was in and out in minutes, leaving an extra two months’ rent on the kitchen counter along with a thank you note written in Cantonese. I hoped Google translate did it justice. As a joke, I signed the note Li Tieguai, the immortal god of medicine. I hoped Mr. Zhao had a sense of humor, and though I would never know, I suspected he didn’t. I drove out of the city, obeying the speed limit and slowing through all construction zones. I saw that the Model S had a full charge, which meant a range in excess of 500 miles, so I estimated an arrival in Omaha around 4:00 a.m. I drove through the night and into the wee hours, making only restroom and fast-food stops, pulling into long-term parking at the Omaha airport with 8% of the battery charge remaining. I grabbed the shuttle back to the terminal, rented a car and resumed driving west on I-80, fueling myself with cups of strong coffee from 24-hour truck stops. I drove through to Laramie, again stopping only for the essentials, and angled onto state roads until I pulled into the modest home I purchased earlier in the year in the tiny town of Centennial Wyoming.

I slept almost twelve hours and woke to a birdsong ringtone late in the day on a Saturday. I brewed a pot of tea and slid open the curtains on the living room picture window. The house was perched on a mild slope at an elevation of around 8100 feet, facing west into the heavily wooded pine valleys of the Medicine Bow National Forest. I stood gazing out at the frosty mists, which settled into the forest hollows, exposing the top half of the secondary growth conifer forest. If it was possible, the scene actually looked quiet. I stepped out the front door and out onto a small deck. The dry cold hitched my breathing immediately, but what really took my breath away, was the silence. There was a roar in my ears, or maybe it was in my head, though I could hear nothing save actual birdsong. After a few minutes, the sound of a nearby truck broke the hush and receded quickly as it descended. The lack of mechanical noise was both spooky and awe inspiring, and I began to realize that an odd taste in my mouth was actually clean air.

I unpacked, got dressed, drank tea and mulled over the conclusion of my completed business in Chicago. I had liberated almost a million dollars at the church, added to half that again from my downtown venture, and along with my pre-existing savings, I estimated that I would be very comfortable in my secure, modest retirement. Sitting back outside, now properly attired, I reflected on my life’s work. The sun was just above the horizon, backlighting the forest in a colorful, double sunset that the western mountains are known for. A soft footstep on the deck behind me caused me to turn to find both Mr. Zhao and Wang Li standing just outside my doorway. My employers’ faces were inscrutable as they pointed silenced handguns. I took a deep breath of mountain air and let the magnificent view burn into my last memory.

April 24, 2021 01:45

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