I needed a fresh start. There was no denying I'd made a mess of my directionless life. My old nemesis, negativity, had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a lifelong nightmare of stubbornness. How many times had I stood on the edge of success but refused to budge? I didn't want to know, I only wanted to look the other way.
That's how I ended up in Hong Kong, hooking up with Quan, Gan and Chen. Quan and Gan were twenty-something ne'er-do-well sons of an affluent Chinese family and Chen, though unrelated, was as close to them as a brother and in fact they all three called each other brother. The bond between them was strong and palpable, something to be trusted. I needed something like that, a rock to prevent me from floating out onto the sea of failure once more. Those three were as one - and I wanted to tag along as a fifth Beatle.
Quan and Gan had been cast as the black sheep of the family, irresponsible playboys wasting their lives. But that only made me like them all the more. Quan always had a smile on his face, upbeat in the face of adversity. Gan was the fearless daredevil willing to face anything. As a pair I much admired them and they were a pleasant contrast to my negative nature and complete loss of confidence. I was hoping they wouldn't ask too much of my past, that they'd look the other way. There is no greater mirror than being handed the keys of trust. I trembled.
But we gelled as a team and I was quite proud of our dynamic. I was held in a bit of false high esteem simply because I was Western and from America. They thought that meant I somehow knew something they did not. We were going to build a hotel together and I was part of that as a logistics coordinator, a skill I had picked up over the years while waiting for something I actually wanted to do with my life. I was very, very bitter that that something never came along.
Rehabilitation was in the cards for Quan and Gan too. This prime piece of property was being entrusted to them by the family so they could prove themselves. Chen scared me a bit. He was from the rough Hong Kong streets. He was to be in charge of the kitchen, a big step up for him into the genteel society of a professional career. Though he'd ostensibly made his living as a cook all his life I suspected not all his income had been quite legal. But in the streets you gotta survive any way you can. Look the other way.
Like I said, a great dynamic formed between us as we began to believe in ourselves and what we were doing. Quan and Gan were very creative - though reckless - but I was able to reign that recklessness in and they took my advice without resentment. They began to see by putting aside their egos and putting the project first we could build something to be proud of. Chen was always a bit dour and withdrawn - scars from his previous life, I assumed - but even he was starting to get into his role as head man of his department. Alright!
One thing did bother me: Lucy. The boys all shared her but not in a romantic way. It was as if she was their permanent unofficial prostitute. Was she a slave? Could she leave at any time? She was part of their bond too, I could see, as she acted as all women do for men: being their nighttime confessor. I thought to myself "Different culture. Different ways." I prided myself on being liberal and open-minded, not to judge their mores - mores I could very well have if I'd grown up there. Look the other way.
But this pebble in my shoe bothered me. I was being dishonest - which prevented me from actually being liberal. So I did what I always do in that situation: I role-played a liberal. In this case I was the round-eyed Western with superior morals obliging the Eastern heathens who operated in ignorance. I quite enjoyed this vanity, of at last not being the biggest loser in the room. I was going to make things work this time, put the project above my personal feelings: do the right thing. Perfidy would not do me in this time!
The stumbling block came with Chen. I felt a tad sorry for him. He was being asked to do a lot in his new role but all of us were being positive and non-judgmental - a mentality I helped foster and, frankly, insisted on. Quan and Gan clearly enjoyed drinking from this cup as it gave them a new lease on life. We wanted to bring Chen along to enjoy the fruits of this banquet like the rest of us. Chen's problem was he needed to expand his menu, his range of cooking.
It wasn't as if he didn't have the talent. I would even call him gifted, I was envious at the flashes of skill I'd seen. His management skills were also up to the task, understanding what's needed even if not brilliant in doing so. But my whole previous life flashed before my eyes in terror as I saw him sitting on that bench in the back of the kitchen with his arms folded and staring straight ahead as those around him gently cajoled him to learn the new recipes. He refused absolutely, listening to no one, his mind made up - not even considering it. I couldn't look away: that was me!
I staggered away, devastated. So that's how I looked in all my previous attempts at success. Standing right on the edge, refusing to go forward. I wanted to strangle Chen with every fiber of my being; outraged and disgusted. "You're only a failure if you believe it to be, you idiot! Take the good that's given to you!" What could possess a man to be so stubbornly stupid? No way I could ask Quan and Gan to go on without him. They'd never put the project that much ahead of their feelings. I was simmering to a slow boil.
I didn't get any sleep that night, Chen's frozen face peering out at me in the darkness, so painfully reminding me of my own. Is that what I had truly done all my life? Had I been that big of an asshole? Oh, God no! Please don't let it be so. My name is Tragedy. Over the years I'd clung to the "morality of nothingness": that I was nothing and therefore doing nothing was what was best. "Remove yourself from her life. You are nothing. It's the right thing to do." Was I ever going to do the right thing?
Heinrich Mundt knew exactly what he wanted. The land may have belonged to Quan and Gan's family but Mundt was the German money man. Everything in Mundt's life was clear cut, without confusion: follow the money. He needed that simplicity in his life and guarded it with a ruthless vigor, he never looked away for an instant. His god was a pure god, enforced by a sorcery of unquestioned numbers. Chen's not working out then Chen has to go. Simple. Easy. Non-negotiable.
Had I truly been liberal, i.e. honest, I'd have flown out on the next plane back to America. That was how I felt and if things changed, call me. The train tracks had been ripped asunder and the engine was at a standstill until they got fixed. See ya! But I didn't have that kind of guts. I was weak and seduced by my new role as the positive moral leader. I'd never had that before! What I didn't realize was I was being just as stubborn as Chen by staying. I looked the other way - for the "greater good".
Yes, I was being phony but the amoral heathens couldn't know that. Their conscience wasn't nearly as developed as mine. I couldn't hide it anymore, though, frustration seeping through the edges. The three cooks we brought in to help Chen were unfailingly polite, patient and encouraging. Contention had set in and the next thing I knew someone new had shown up: Hua, another play toy for the boys and Chen in particular. Things were too tense for me to directly question the boys' thought process on this but if they thought that would help...
The pebble in my shoe was now a boulder. "What the fuck is going on around here!!!" By all reason I should bail out more than ever but a spellbinding curiosity led me the rest of the way to my fate. I had to know, no more turning away - despite the sick, sinking feeling in my stomach. My instincts for self-preservation were letting me down. Or rather, I was letting them down. It was then I began to realize I had stepped right through the gates of hell.
One night soon after, I overheard Lucy giving Hua the lowdown. "It's no good here, better to get out." Chen was a killer. He'd killed and buried his previous girlfriends on the property and Quan and Gan helped cover it up. No wonder their parents were fucking pissed at them! They weren't being unfair. It was amazing the boys had been given any chance at all! Christ, what had I gotten myself into? We were building on lies and silent cries. Oh, yes, time to get the hell out.
But it was too late. Chen and what I could only describe as his soldiers - men who obeyed without question - showed up, grabbing my arm, knowing I had overheard. I tried to impress upon them my role as the open-minded liberal but even I didn't believe me. I fell silent. I watched in horror as they took Hua away. Lucy had very delicately earned the boys' trust but Hua was let in on the secret too early. It was as if everyone's masks were torn off.
Chen was forceful and commanding in dealing death. What I'd mistaken as shyness was cunning evil brooding in the dark. That's why he didn't believe he could take the next step forward. He was sitting in self-judgment, all the time thinking of the girls he'd buried as we tried to convince him to make the new souffle. That maniacally determined "I am nothing" face that so horrified me determined my fate in an unhesitating heartbeat. "He goes too."
I screamed in helpless terror as Hua was dropped down the shaft for the foundation pier and concrete filled in until she was heard no more. I was surrounded in the dark. The vacant, eye-less stares of Chen's soldiers removed any illusion of hope. There was nothing with which to reason. I surprised myself as I gathered myself into what I guessed to be an hysterical calm, being in the eye of the hurricane so-to-speak. Chen, in his new demeanor as commander, deliberately walked over to me looking me in the eye the entire time, measuring me. I refused to look away this time - though too goddam late.
"You ever speak that gonna be you."
His voice was icy clear. I said nothing, did nothing, frozen in time. Chen too was frozen, waiting on my response - a response that could drop me in a concrete hole. I could take it no more. I had to get my feelings out regardless of cost. "I'm never coming back here. I want no part of this." The feelings I'd dare not show before made Chen smirk. I don't know what he was thinking but it looked as if my words were some sort of confirmation to him and he motioned for me to be let go. I gathered up my things and headed straight to the airport.
Shattered, unnerved, grief-stricken, I wandered dazed upon my return here. I felt angry - angrier than I had ever been in my life. Chen's final smirk infuriated me. "What a godless world we live in!" I vowed never to look away again - even as my heart still pounded in palpable fear. Who's face would I wear? Mine or Chen's? Would he change his mind and send a Chinese assassin after me? But I knew what I needed to do: I needed to find me. Looking away has too high a price.
CODA: The hotel got built but Quan and Gan had a falling out with Chen. Covering up Chen's murders had bonded them into a morbid family: Chen rejected by the girls, Quan and Gan rejected by their family. They rejoiced in an initial defiant rebellion of unity and my idiot ass came along defining that as pure love. I guess in a way it was - but it was a unity built on the love of lying. The secret ate them up, their lives ruled by what they couldn't communicate - as all lives are. Because they couldn't confess their sin, they were forced to repeat it.
As with all falling outs with Chen, it was fatal. Quan and Gan were found shot dead. I had no doubt Chen's soldiers executed the command without blinking an eye. Get up, eat, shoot someone on orders, go to sleep. A soldier must praise his master for he knows he can never be better. As for Chen, his killings finally became public. I have no doubt he would have kept killing until caught. In another life he'd been a master chef, married with children. I wonder if I'm the only person alive who knows that.