Read Year of the Dragon Online
Authors: Robert Daley
OUTSIDE THE Golden Palace on the night of the massacre a hard rain was falling. The building had been constructed in rococo style as a movie house and had served as one for decades, coping more or less with each change in the neighborhood. The one change it had at last failed to cope with, the one that put it out of business, had resulted from the decision by Congress to rewrite immigration law; the new law admitted Asians, mostly Chinese, for the first time in proportions equal to Europeans. Chinatown, only three blocks south, had responded by expanding in all directions, at first slowly and then fast, engulfing many bastions of old New York, one of them the Golden Palace, until at last the movie house gave up its struggle to survive and became what it had so much resembled from the first, a Chinese restaurant.
The new owners, principally a man named Ting, had seen no need to change the name, much less the decor. Everything was still painted red and black, or else gilded, and the theater’s florid ornamentation suited the restaurant perfectly. Dragons in bronze or imitation jade, whether balanced on balustrades or brooding in niches, were as much at home as they had ever been. Symbolically at least, the Golden Palace seemed proof that the two cultures, East and West, had come together at last.
Captain Arthur Powers, waiting that night in the former movie lobby, stared out at the rain. The glass doors kept opening to admit umbrellas, none of them hers, umbrellas that folded as they moved past him and up the rather grand staircase, for the lobby was at street level and the restaurant was above. From time to time Powers caught a glimpse of Mr. Ting up there, coming forth to greet someone, menus in his arms. Powers was dressed in brown: a brown tweed sports jacket and sturdy brown wing-tipped shoes such as policemen favored. His 38. in its clip-on holster was jammed inside the waistband of his brown slacks. He was not really aware it was there. It hung slightly to the right of his navel, its two-inch barrel pointed toward his testicles, which in some way was perhaps symbolic also.
He kept glancing at his watch. She was fifteen minutes late. He was not sure he should be here at all and he was becoming irritated. He was worried about being seen with her, worried about what she might ask him; and worried also about the check - when it came should he insist on paying? And as he glanced at his watch still again he was worried about his reservation. This place was popular. Should he wait for her upstairs at their table? Should he at least go up and tell Ting he was here? If Ting gave their table to someone else, they would have to wait for another, standing up for half an hour making small talk - a very long half hour. Or else they would have to go out into the street and hunt down something else. But most restaurants in Chinatown were seedy and some were none too clean. He knew this place was good. Elsewhere he would be guessing, and he might guess wrong.
Life was not going well for him and lately he worried about nearly everything. In a sense he waited in this lobby - as he waited everywhere - not for a woman but for the call. But he did not expect it to come tonight. Indeed so many years had now gone by that he no longer expected it to come at all.
“Hello.” She had somehow materialized beside him.
A transparent plastic rain hood covered with water droplets was tied like a kerchief under her chin.
“You look nice,” she said. She was smiling warmly, looking as if she meant it. For a moment he felt as disconcerted as a boy, though why? Because compliments from females were rare, and therefore absurdly gratifying? Or because she had somehow usurped his role? Powers was a traditionalist, the new values were not for him. It was the man’s job to compliment the woman, not the other way around.
They were standing under a crystal chandelier of grotesque size and taste, but the lighting it gave was kind to her. She was a year or two past her prime - so was he - but in this light, and to his surprise, he found her stunning. But he could not tell her so now. To utter her own words back to her would have seemed to him imbecilic.
She was heavily made up, and he supposed she had come here straight from the set of the Seven O’clock News. He had always hated makeup on women in the past, but at this moment did not hate it on her. It made her look younger, almost new. She must have been a really beautiful girl when she got out of college - how long ago? Fifteen years? Twenty maybe? The network makeup man seemed to have pointed up contradictory elements in her face that most probably existed also in her life, and Powers, even as he shook hands with her, found himself studying her for the first time. Her eyes were blue, beautifully delineated, and drawn with such eloquence that they seemed to suggest not only youth and innocence, but also suffering, a quality Powers could respond to. She had been married once, he believed, but was not married now, and divorce did not come without trauma. She had a teenage daughter somewhere whom she was trying to raise by herself and that guaranteed more trauma. Her eyes nonetheless seemed soft, kindly; suffering had not made her hard. Her lips were faintly outlined in pencil. They were nicely shaped and rather fleshy, and to Powers they looked sensual, a notion that clashed with the accentuated line of her jaw. Her jaw looked aggressive, and certainly she must be an aggressive woman, for she had fought her way to the top in a man’s world. According to a newspaper article he’d seen, she received a salary of over $200,000 a year, to Powers a sum as out of proportion and as incomprehensible as the nation’s defense budget. It was about five times what he got. He had always imagined that success on such a scale would change any man’s outlook upon life. There was no reason to suppose it had not changed this woman’s.
She had shaken off her rain hood and was putting it in her pocket. She was so theatrically beautiful and so unknown to him, such a presence beside him, that he became thoroughly ill at ease. However, he was old enough to conceal this, and in addition he had been a policeman a long time - a cop was used to pretending an assertiveness he did not always feel. So he spoke her name, Carol Cone, murmured something about being so glad to see her, and led her up to the landing where Mr. Ting and his menus waited.
Ting was about five feet tall. Skin as dry and taut as a Chinese scroll. Hair still jet black. It was impossible to guess his age. He was beaming.
“I not see you velly long time, Captain,” Ting said. “Sad for me.”
Did he really remember Powers? Ting was a political presence in Chinatown, had been since before Powers ever set foot there. Remembering people was Ting’s business.
“How are you, Mr. Ting?”
“This way, Captain and lady.”
They followed him into the restaurant. Carol was immediately recognized. Heads turned. A few heads, Powers noted; not everyone by any means, but enough to irk him. A society that valued police captains less than a woman who read the news on television, that turned such a woman into a celebrity, was to Powers a sick society.
He led her through tables by the arm, as if she were under arrest.
“The reason I was late,” said Carol over her shoulder, “was that I signed my new deal with the network tonight.” She was grinning up at him, and looked exceedingly pleased with herself.
Did this mean a $100,000 raise? Was he supposed to congratulate her? He didn’t. He said, “Mr. Ting is mayor of Chinatown.”
“Mayor of Chinatown?”
“He’s president of the Chinatown Fraternal Organization and also of the biggest tong. It’s a ceremonial title really.”
Ting, several paces ahead, had reached their table and was holding a chair for her. “Since you’re not,” said Powers, “a native New Yorker, I thought you probably wouldn’t know that.”
They sat down.
“I was born in Boston,” said Carol.
Powers gave a wave of his hand. “Wherever.”
Carol’s eyes dropped. Did she feel insulted? Wounded? Possibly she was merely noting how beautifully the table was set: white tablecloth, flowers, lacquered cups and bowls. With women you never knew. Women could conceal anything: emotion, the age lines on their faces, sexual arousal. It was part artifice, part the way they were constructed, and its sole purpose seemed to be to disorient men.
Powers surveyed the restaurant. Not quite full. About half the patrons were Chinese - Asians, anyway. The other half were tourists. That’s the way the Chinese would see it. In a Chinatown restaurant every white face was a tourist.
“You want nice dlink please maybe?” said Mr. Ting.
“Do you have champagne?” inquired Carol.
“Oh, is celeblation? You like Chinese champagne, maybe?”
Carol turned to seek Powers’ opinion. “Chinese champagne?”
“Is flom Shanghai. Is velly nice.”
“Sure, why not,” said Powers, thinking, if she wants to pay for champagne, let her. But it made his thoughts turn inward. Red China had opened up, even to the extent of exporting a so-called champagne. Meanwhile, he was still a captain. He had once been the youngest captain in the job. Now he was one of the oldest.
“Tonight I became the second-highest-paid woman in television,” said Carol, and she mentioned the name of the newswoman who was first.
Instead of complimenting her, Powers said carefully: “What do you make of Ting’s accent? Is it real, or a put-on?”
Carol picked up her chopsticks and studied them.
She seems easy to hurt, observed Powers. It made him like her more, and also it made him ashamed. To resent her triumph demeaned him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You deserve every congratulation. I know how hard you must have worked to get where you are today.”
This seemed to mollify her. Her eyes rose.
“And next year you’ll go into first place, because you’re a hell of a lot better-looking than that other broad.”
“Looks,” said Carol, “have nothing to do with it.”
Of course they do, thought Powers with renewed irritation. With their made-up faces and outrageous contracts these people were show-business stars, not journalists whatever they pretended - and he stared into her hard blue eyes.
Ting and the waiter had appeared with the Chinese champagne. The bottle was shown to both of them. The cork went pop.
“Sounds like champagne, anyway,” murmured Powers, and he gave her a smile. Truce. The evening had a long way to go, and unless somebody smiled it would be a long one. But he wondered again why she had asked him here.
Into his glass spilled the champagne. He saw that she waited anxiously for him to taste it.
Powers decided to have fun tonight if he could, starting with this terrible champagne, and he smacked his lips as if with delight.
The waiter filled Carol’s glass. “Let’s have a toast.”
Powers, grinning, said, “Better taste it first.”
After swallowing she set the glass down and sat there thoughtfully.
When their eyes met, both burst out laughing.
“Add ice, lemons, a little Triple Sec and two or three bottles of orange juice and that would make a pretty good punch,” said Powers.
“It does have bubbles. You can’t deny that.”
“The French champagne producers must be gnashing their teeth,” said Powers. “As soon as this stuff gets widespread, their whole business goes down the drain.”
He had her laughing, and was pleased. To cause someone to laugh is a triumph of sorts, and he hadn’t had many lately.
“A country always exports its best,” he said. “If the Chinese exported this, I wonder what they kept for themselves.”
She had small perfect teeth.
Powers felt a visceral lurch inside him. It occurred not in the region of his heart, but just below the place where he carried his gun. In his present depressed state, he would have been vulnerable to almost any responsive woman, much less one as glamorous as Carol. Antipathy vanished, and from one second to the next was replaced by desire. He wanted to go to bed with her, an emotion that astonished him.
“A toast,” said Carol, raising her glass.
The confused Powers, though smiling as broadly as she, was surprised even further when she twined her arm inside his, so that their faces were separated by little more than the diameters of their glasses.
She said, “A toast to-”
“A toast to tonight,” interrupted Powers. He didn’t want to hear any more about her money.
Though their glasses merely clicked together, their glances had collided. He saw that she was grinning inanely too, and he imagined that, from across the room, they must look like lovers.
Carol said “At this stage of my life, there’s hardly anything I haven’t done with a man before. But this is the first time I ever drank a toast with one with Chinese champagne.” She made it sound like some new, mutually gratifying sexual act, and he was pleased.
“You mean I’m the first?”
“You’re my very first.”
She set her glass down. “Artie-” she began shyly. She had never before addressed him as anything but Captain Powers. Calling him Artie was a deliberate act, and it warmed him. She caressed him with his own name.
The basis of their relationship had shifted entirely. He did not know how this had happened, nor where it would lead. He was a faithful husband, and he was past the restless age. He was not a man to have casual affairs with women.