Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
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Flight of the Hornbill
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living room of the dead
wrong side of the wall
short stories



Shanghaied One of the monks is missing."

Warner holds a finger to his lips to shush me. "Later."

We move down the line of the five remaining monks, shaking their hands, wishing them well, ending with Bokar, the head lama, who we assure we are on the case. They squeeze into a taxi, the driver scowling at them and muttering foully under his breath. He can't be too upset, he'll find some way to overcharge them on the drive to the airport. We wave goodbye as they careen away from the curb in front of the Mandarin Hotel.

"So, Bill, what's with the missing monk?"

"He seems to have found another calling on Portland Street. Honing his tantric practice, I imagine."

Portland Street is famous for its yellow-sign girls; hookers who work in small apartments with yellow neon signs that are often elaborate word play on Chinese names. "Isn't there a long tradition of horny monks?"

"I don't know. I don't want to know. Bokar couldn't convince him to leave."

"How ya gonna keep 'em down on the lamasery, after they've seen Hong Kong?"

He scowls at me. "What's keeping you here, Ray? Now that the commies have taken it back."

"Haven't figured it out yet. I still don't know if guys like us are going to be an anachronism or not."

"In the new Hong Kong?"

"If that's what it is. Meanwhile, I'm still working. What's up with our monks? The missing one got anything to do with the job?"

"I wouldn't think so, but you know how these things go, take your eye off even the little things, and they can bite you in the ass."

I'd met the monks at dinner, two nights ago. About halfway through our main courses, it occurred to me they were eating meat, and that seemed odd. I asked about it.

The chief lama finished chewing a large bite of the gore rare and charred black porterhouse, put down his knife and fork, and took a deep draught of his non-alcoholic beer.

He dabbed below his lip with the starched linen napkin. Then he smiled and answered me in perfect, clipped Oxford English.

"According to the Pali texts, Mr. Sharp, this steak is blameless."

Lei Yue kicked me, hard, under the table. I would've kicked her back, but it would have been childish. Especially in front of six Tibetan monks who might be clients, and our boss, Bill Warner. I couldn't even look at her. We'd both break out laughing. We have that affect on each other. If this had been a big Thanksgiving dinner, we'd be at the kid's table.

I'd directed my question to the head guy. I'd forgotten his name, but his robe was a rich, extra-sharp-cheddar orange. The others wore robes that matched the small dollop of bright yellow mustard he'd wiped off from under the right corner of his mouth.

"Blameless? I'm sorry if my question seems rude, but you must know our Western stereotypes of Buddhist monks living an ascetic life. I would have thought you'd be a vegetarian."

"No, please, Mr. Sharp, do not concern yourself with the decorum of your inquiry. It is not the first time such a question has been asked. The Majihima, the Anguttara Nikayas and the Vinaya all make reference to the 'blamelessness' of eating meat. The condition is simply that the monk must have no reason for suspicion that the animal was killed specifically for him."

I couldn't help raising my eyebrows.

The big cheese chuckled in that annoying way that monks often have, the one that has "I'm the more enlightened one here" hiding somewhere not too deep behind it. Or maybe that's the way I heard it.

"Even his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has said, "I am a Tibetan monk, not a vegetarian." He cut another big bite of his steak and hoisted it halfway to his mouth.

"We are in a restaurant, Mr. Sharp. This cow would have been slaughtered for consumption regardless of our patronage."

It's the time honored, 'if I wasn't doing it, someone else would be,' excuse. I've employed it myself from time to time. It took an effort, but I kept my mouth shut. So was it the cow that was blameless? Or him? Where did the restaurant fit in? The butcher? The cook? The waiter? I didn't think the boss would be happy if I antagonized the guy, so I didn't ask. I smiled, cut myself a chunk of my own beef and appreciated my position at the top of the food chain.

It must have cost Warner a bundle. Steak houses in Hong Kong aren't cheap, and we were in the swankest of them all. Aren't Tibetan lamas supposed to be poor, impoverished by the Chinese occupation, something like that? I wondered how they'd pay for whatever it was they wanted us to do. What did they want with a corporate investigation firm, anyhow?

Maybe it was an excuse to show up for the parties. The night before the dinner, at midnight, July 1, 1997, the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong had been handed back to China. More than a few of the local Brits spent the past month drunk, grumpy, packing up. Some fellow Americans, too. I'll be losing plenty of friends who are heading home over the next few weeks. A lot of the local Chinese are worried about whether or not they should have a Canadian, Australian, hell, even a Costa Rican passport—just in case. A contingent, a regiment—how many is that anyhow—of People's Liberation Army soldiers occupied the barracks where the British colonial troops, who were mostly Nepalese, had been the day before.

But none of us were talking about that. We were busy eating. The cleaned steak plates were taken away and the monks all ordered dark chocolate brownies topped with coconut ice cream to pack in on top of their beef. They weren't watching their cholesterol.

I sipped a top-shelf Portuguese aguardiente. The main monk asked what it was. I told him it's a type of extra strong brandy. He asked if he could sniff it. I passed it over. He inhaled deeply from my glass and a transcendent, slightly sorrowful look washed over his face. "At times I feel it is a shame that the texts have found no way for us to consider the finer alcoholic beverages blameless."

He enjoyed another whiff before passing it back. I took something larger than a sip, then held the glass up in his direction. "Too many of us try to blame alcohol for those demons it summons from within ourselves. The booze itself is, I think, not to blame."

What was that, that I said? Some forlorn, off-the-cuff remark from the crossroads between pop psychology and Buddhism? Or was it the booze babbling? Luckily a loud, deep, window-rattling boom shut me up before I could say anything else.

It was followed closely by a bright flash of red light and the oohs and aahs of diners. The show got underway and, with a table by the huge picture windows overlooking the harbor, we had front row seats.

The night before, the departing Brits spent some eight or nine million U.S. dollars on a farewell fireworks display. It lit up the low hanging clouds and reflected off the rain as the Queen's yacht Britannia chugged out of the harbor, taking the last British governor and the whiny Prince Charles with it.

Once the colonists were gone, three fireworks barges were towed into the middle of the harbor and anchored in place. One in front of the stock exchange. One roughly in front of Government House. And the third not too far offshore of the girlie bars in Wanchai.

The Chinese, not to be outdone by the Brits, spent thirty million U.S. dollars on their skyrockets. It was guaranteed to be the biggest, brightest, loudest fireworks display in recorded history. Not counting atmospheric nuclear explosions. I'm sure that if they thought they could set off a nuke in the middle of Victoria Harbor with relative safety, or at least without catching hell from the rest of the world, they would. It couldn't be much louder than the explosion that interrupted us.

The whole thing was set to last an hour, with more than half the bang saved for the grand finale, the last five minutes. I was surprised that the windows facing the harbor hadn't been taped to prevent shattering, as they are for an approaching typhoon.

I needed another drink, blameless or not. As everyone else pressed forward to the windows, I edged back to the bar. Lei Yue was already there, a margarita in hand, standing on a barstool to see over the heads of the crowd.

I ordered my drink, then turned to her. "Monks wouldn't let you get in front?"

"Got no respect for short people, I guess. Maybe they don't like chicas."

"Maybe you'll get lucky and be reborn as a man. Then you'll have a shot at enlightenment."

"Isn't that the way it always is for us women. The glass ceiling even gets between me and nirvana."

"Or fireworks."

"I can see fine from here, amigo."

"Me too." We clinked glasses, sympatico, and watched for a little while, flinching when the big ones went off.

When a particularly giant-sized burst rattled the windows, I tossed down the rest of my drink, turned and ordered another. Lei Yue did the same, then plopped down to sit on the stool.

"You're not going to be able to see from there."

"Chingate, cabron, I don't want to get sliced up by flying glass."

"I wish you'd stop calling me 'asshole.' And was 'fuck you' really necessary? You've got a really foul mouth. Do you realize that?"

She threw a drunken arm over my shoulder. "You know me, just being affectionate, Ray."

"You've got a rough way of showing it."

"What do you expect? I'm a Chinese Mexican dwarf living in a town that's been taken over by the very same pendejos that chased my family out of their ancestral home. There's only so smooth I can be."

I eased one of my arms around her shoulders. We make an unlikely pair of best pals, but there you have it. She actually had taken a bullet for me, a couple of years ago. I'd do the same for her if I had to. She says she'd do it again if necessary, but she wouldn't step in the way of a knife. She hates knives. She sure does swear a lot though. In three, maybe four languages. Lei Yue's impressive in a lot of ways.

She sat there, me standing next to her, sipping our cocktails, watching the bombs bursting in air. There was someone's idea of grand musical accompaniment on the radio. It'd been building and swelling since it started. It sounded like a battle to the death between a Western symphony and a traditional Chinese one. The Chinese orchestra was winning, as one would expect on the occasion.

The monks were silhouetted against the bright colors blaring through the windows. Red, then yellow, then white, then mostly more red and not much blue or green flared against their bald scalps.

The end was approaching. The Western music overcome, the pentatonic clamor triumphed. It swelled mightily for a brief moment, then subsided as the twinkling of the penultimate burst of colored gunpowder flitted down into the waters of the harbor.

It was a very pregnant pause. A deep thrumming of drums, rumbled low but built almost imperceptibly. I looked at my watch. Six minutes to nine. In a minute we would be subjected to eighteen million dollars worth of fireworks going off in five momentous, ear stabbing, eyeball scorching minutes. I was ready for it to hurt.

Lei Yue clambered back up to stand on the barstool to get a view. I rose onto my tiptoes. It seemed like the whole room held its breath.

A rising thunder of enormous brass gongs ripped from the radio speakers. It rolled into a nearly unbearable stomach churning bass that sounded, and felt, like an earthquake I'd survived in Jakarta.

Just as I was looking for somewhere to dive for cover, it broke into a terrible, shattering clatter and clanging of cymbals and whiny caterwauling of one, two and three stringed instruments. It felt like it was splitting my bones. I closed my eyes against the turmoil of it.

But I forced them open again. If it was the end, I wanted to face it. I wanted to see it, at least for the moment or two before it blinded me. The music roared and crashed and banged and took form into March of the Volunteers, China's national anthem.

But the harbor stayed dark. There were no more explosions. No more colors. Nothing.

Everyone in the room waited until the music stopped. The ringing and buzzing in our ears died down. Then we all looked at each other, not sure what happened.

After a couple of quiet moments, Lei Yue tapped me on the shoulder. She leaned into my ear to whisper. "Que paso, Ray?"

I answered back in my normal voice. The whole room looked at me from the first word. "Damned if I know, Lei Yue. Nothing happened, apparently."

© Eric Stone