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Agashi by AC Koch

 

AC Koch lived in Pusan, South Korea, in the mid-90’s, where he learned the awesome power of kimchi. The spiciness of Korean food drove him to explore further horizons of fiery cuisine, and he ended up settling in Mexico for a decade. He recently returned to his native Colorado where he teaches English and trolls the specialty corner stores for snappy ingredients to stir into experimental recipes that recall lost worlds. His fiction has been published in Exquisite Corpse, Mississippi Review, River City, Night Train, and previously in Carve. Today he is at work on a young adult novel set in Europe, Asia, America and points between.

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Ken Krasner in a nutshell: He peers at me, bug-eyed, over the pages of his Newsweek and announces, “I have to go be a priest in Russia.” Me, skimming an in-flight magazine, all I can muster is a nod. When I look away it’s to gaze out the window at a cloudscape of pulled taffy suspended over the South China Sea. “Yeah,” he continues, “this says there’s no priests over there because there was no church for so long. So somebody’s got to do it.”

I’m not suggesting Ken Krasner is the kind of guy who would give up everything and go be a priest in Russia. I’m only saying he’s the kind of guy who would talk about it. Why would he talk about it? We’re talking animals, I guess. We talk and talk and that’s supposed to equal what we are. Some of us just say stupider things, that’s all. “Just wait till we finish this crusade,” I say. “Then if you want to do Russia, you’re on your own.” After only an hour in the air, the plane is already descending. The green hills of Korea appear through a haze that might be Asian mystique and might be acute pollution.

. . .

I have no good reason for settling in Hong Kong. I’d been doing an article about post-handover filmmaking, ran out of money and ended up teaching English at a private institute. The salary is fat and under the table and requires no valid papers, and I suspect the place is a front for organized crime. My students are Chinese captains of industry and government wonks who all want to learn about Paris Hilton. As long as I play down my Irish brogue and talk through my nose like an American, they’re happy. I’m less a teacher than an entertainer. My boss, Mr. Lim, makes sure I understand that. “The client must always be happy,” he says. That’s what he’s gleaned from Western-style capitalism. Never mind whether anybody ever learns anything. Not that I’m on some kind of crusade. I’m here for the money, buying time to finish my article. Mr. Lim supposedly has a phone number where Chow Yun-Fat can be reached. Chow Yun-fat? Asia’s biggest gun-toting screen star. Bruce Willis to one billion people. My ticket to international publication and, possibly more edifying, an apartment of my own. Mr. Lim played that for all it was worth. “I should like to make a conversation,” he announced. “You and Mr. Ken please come see me after lunch.”

Here it was: Lim wanted me and Krasner to take a vacation. South Korea was beautiful this time of year, and Lim was worried about our legal status. By leaving Hong Kong and then returning, we could get real work visas and the Institute could go legit. And there was this one other thing: he wanted us to find his niece in Pusan and bring her back with us. He wasn’t sure exactly where she was, but he was sure she would rather be in Hong Kong with him than in Korea where she was an orphan. For this service, Lim would bankroll our trip and hand us a bonus on our return. Plus, he said, he could get me Chow Yun-fat’s phone number, no problem.

. . .

That’s how we ended up on a Cathay Pacific flight to South Korea, me and Krasner, side by side in Business Class. I can’t say for sure why Krasner is doing it, but I have my reasons. Without money, papers, or Chow Yun-fat, I’m a wetback in China with nowhere to go but back to Ireland. If you’ve ever been penniless in Dublin, you’ll know that’s not an attractive option. But Krasner, who knows what he’s thinking?

“Lim’s niece,” I say as the stewardesses moves up the aisle collecting plastic cups and trash. “Do you suppose that goes with quotation marks? ‘Niece?’”

“Hmmm?”

I have to spell it out for him. “The niece thing. What’s up with that? Why can’t he get one of his shady associates to do it for him?”

“We are his shady associates. Anyway, she may be in trouble.”

Everything, you see, is a crusade for Ken Krasner.

. . .

I have a difficult time being around Krasner for very long. That’s because I’m literally within ten feet of the yankee son of a bitch every day, all day long, week in and week out. We both teach English at Lim’s Institute in Kowloon, and share a desk in the teacher’s office. By sharing a desk I mean that it’s one desk, designed for a Chinese-sized person, and our two chairs sit side by side and our piles of books overlap and our coffee cups clink all day long. Our schedule is the same, and we ride the bus home together. We share a tiny apartment, courtesy of Mr. Lim. Our separate bedrooms open onto a living room with tile floors and no furniture save for a bunch of throw pillows that I use to sit by the window, and the folding chair where Krasner watches TV and reads his Newsweeks. All week long, Krasner and me, side by side. For weeks at a time he’s the only person besides my students that I talk to. I tried to make our relationship a good one but my efforts petered out quickly. Krasner is a chain-smoking, Coke-guzzling, Pringles-smacking, Newsweek-addled Anti-Christ. Worse, he has come to represent all Americans to me: insecure, ultra-organized, wracked with guilt. If I could push a button and erase him from existence, then push push push, I would I would I would.

. . .

From the air, Pusan looks like a ruined urban wasteland, and that’s what it looks like from the ground too except that you can smell it. Even if Korea really was nice this time of year, you would never know it because the place is nothing but concrete high-rises, clogged avenues and low-hanging pollution. The taxi ride from the airport, while not particularly far, takes a good two hours. We arrive at Haeundae Beach, where Lim had booked us a double room in the Hyatt Regency. I stand in the tenth floor window and look out over the bay where a hazy line may be the coast of Japan or may be the fumes rising from an oil slick. Ships criss-cross the horizon. All along the curve of the bay stand high-rises covered in the geometric syllables of Korean, advertising who-knows-what. Dozens of umbrellas and tents cluster along the concrete boardwalk where the indistinct forms of Koreans come and go in the falling twilight.

Krasner takes an hour to unpack. He’s brought two suitcases for our weeklong sojourn. I watch him taking his silverware out of a plastic bag and lining the utensils up on the coffee table. “Can’t do chopsticks,” he says when he sees me watching him. He changes into mismatched trousers and a sport coat with a knit tie, and combs his stringy hair across the top of his head. Me, I thought vacations were about not having to put on a tie. I’m in a tee shirt and jeans. I throw my book bag, the only thing I brought, on the bed by the window to stake my claim and I’m ready. Krasner has the address. We go down for a taxi.

. . .

The niece’s name is Soon-hee. The address is a coffee shop in an outlying suburb and the taxi takes an hour to get there. We pass along a freeway that seems to leave the city, cutting through a valley of pine-covered hills and then we fly around a bend and enter another teeming urban knot. The driver doesn’t know the place we’re looking for, only the district, and so we clamber out and pay on some random street where neon signs hang overhead and workers scrub fish guts off the pavement in front of a closing market.

Coming from Hong Kong, the sight of a thousand neon signs masking every facade is not unsettling, but here I can’t decode anything. There is the occasional English motto, like “Drink and Friend,” or “Lucky Time!” but there’s no telling what these places are. All the buildings are variations on the same theme of slapdash brutalist architecture, covered in bathroom tile or aluminum panels with tinted windows. The place we’re looking for is the “Earthangel Coffeeshop” but there’s no telling if the sign will be in English. None of the streets have names and there are no numbers over the doorways.

It’s been a day of nothing but taxis and planes and waiting in traffic. My head is throbbing. Krasner stands next to me sucking on a Marlboro and the sour smoke wafts around my head. “Maybe we should try tomorrow,” I say. I’m thinking about the dark and mellow pub I spied in the lobby of the Hyatt when we checked in. But Krasner is energized. “We have a job to do,” he states. That’s Krasner for you. Last week he spent all day cutting photos out of magazines to make flashcards of things like KEY and PHONE and PEN. He cut out the pictures, scanned them into the computer, then printed them and taped them to index cards. Then he painstakingly typed and printed the words on the back side and had them laminated at a copy store. All this for one lesson. When I get to that unit, I grab a key, a phone and a pen from the office and take everything to class. Total prep time: one minute. It might mean that Ken Krasner’s a highly dedicated teacher, totally committed to the best possible lesson he can give, or it might just mean that he’s an idiot. And does it mean that I’m a lazy slob? Or a brilliant improvisationist? I ponder these questions all the time.

Here’s his current idea. He wants to find a Korean/English dictionary and look up the symbols for ‘coffee shop.’ Then we can scan the signs all along the streets, eliminating everything but the potential coffee shops and thus, by investigating every one of them, come to our destination. To this end, he begins to look for a bookstore. I take the address from him, written in neat print in his agenda book, and walk into a corner store. I approach the clerk and hold out the book, pointing to the address. The clerk stares at me, astonished, not even looking at the book. “Here,” I say, pointing at the address. “Where? Do you know where?”

Several customers in the place stop to stare as well. It occurs to me that maybe no Westerner has ever set foot in this store before, or in this neighborhood for that matter. Certainly no blue-eyed, redheaded freckle-face like me. Finally the clerk glances at the address but shakes his head fiercely. “Anyo, anyo,” he’s saying, waving his hands. Whatever it is I could possibly need, he’s sure he can’t help me.

Outside I spot a cop standing in an intersection as cars flash past but he doesn’t seem to be directing traffic. I walk out to him while Krasner stands watching from the curb. The cop, seeing me approach, visibly tenses. He stares as I show him the address. Shakes his head, mumbling something. Krasner begins shouting and gesticulating. That’s when I see, following Krasner’s waving arm, a neon design of a cartoon girl with a halo and angel wings hanging in a second-story window. I abandon the cop and Krasner and I walk along the front of the building searching for a doorway that might lead upstairs. It takes us another five minutes before we spot a guy coming out a door marked only in Korean. We go in and up the steps to enter a dimly lighted lounge lined with vinyl booths and overgrown with plastic potted plants. Incense hangs in the air.

“Have you thought about what we’re going to tell her?” I say as we take a booth.

With a twinkle in his eye, Krasner pulls something out of his inner jacket pocket and puts it on the table. It’s a Hong Kong passport. I open it and find the photo of a girl on the first page. By ‘girl’ I mean Not A Woman. She’s a child, eyes wide in the camera flash, hair cropped in the cut that signifies ‘middle school girl’ everywhere in Asia. I scan the info, find the birth date. She’s fourteen. “That’s her,” says Krasner.

“Lim gave you this?”

“Yep.”

“Is it real? Is it a valid passport?”

“Who knows? He said it’ll work.”

I push it back across the table. Shifty Mr. Lim. What’s he doing with an ‘orphan niece’ working in some shady coffee shop in South Korea? What are we doing here looking for her? And moreover, why did Lim trust Krasner with the passport and not me?

A waitress arrives. She brings no menu but instead slides into the booth next to me, smiling radiant. Her eyelids are painted silver, her lips peachy and wet. She chatters something in Korean, and we just smile. “Coffee?” I say. She giggles behind her hand, shaking her head. A moment passes as we look at each other. “English?” says Krasner. She bounds up and returns a moment later with another girl and they both sit down with us, smiling.

I notice, around the room, several other tables where men sit side by side with young girls. There appear to be no conversations happening anywhere. The silver-eyelids-girl next to me pushes a strand of my hair behind my ear. Her hand comes to rest on my leg and I say to Krasner, “This is a hostess bar.”

“I think so,” he says.

When they bring drinks, they bring one for each of us. My waitress stirs sugar into my coffee spoonful by spoonful until I stop her. Then she picks up the cup and offers it to me. “Show them the picture,” I say as I take a sip.

Krasner opens the passport and shows it to both of them. “Soon-hee?” he says. They take turns scrutinizing the picture but shrug their shoulders. I tap the table, wave around the room. “Where’s Soon-hee? Where’s Soon-hee?” Nothing. The girls stare.

Krasner pulls out his smokes, offers them around and he and the girls light up. I watch the streetscape out the tinted windows, the comings and goings of pedestrians moving through the crawling traffic, the steam rising from sewer grates, the cop who remains standing in the intersection doing nothing. At least for a moment it feels like I really am on vacation: a strange place, a comfortable room, a drink, some kind of intrigue with these waitresses or whatever they are. The feeling of not knowing what might happen next, where this day will come to an end. I feel the girl’s hand on my knee again and I say to Krasner, “Why don’t we just call it quits and take one of these girls back? I doubt Lim would mind.”

But Krasner doesn’t see the humor in this. He watches me, bewildered, then springs up and crosses the room to where an old woman is tending a cash register. We all watch as he shows the passport to the woman. Their exchange goes on for some time and then the woman writes something on a napkin. Krasner peels a bill out of his wallet and slides it across the counter. He returns, triumphant. “Ah!” he says, sitting down. He puts his arm around the girl next to him and throws back a slug of coffee. Then he waits for me to ask him what happened.

“Used to work here, I guess,” he says. “From what I could tell. She gave me a map to another place where she might be now.” He slides the napkin map across the table for me to inspect. It’s a bunch of criss-crossing lines in isolated patches with Korean scribbles here and there.

“She used to work here?” I say, fixing him with my eye. “Doing what?”

Krasner shrugs. He takes his arm back from the girl, arranges the map and passport in his agenda again. “She was an agashi.”

“Agashi?”

“Yeah. A ‘young lady.’ That’s what she said, in a little bit of English.” Krasner eyes me as if meeting a challenge.

“In other words, more than a waitress.”

But he pretends not to hear that. We pay what seems like a very steep bill and go back onto the street. The waitresses follow us down the steps. They wave and beam. “Goodbye, goodbye,” we say, wandering into the street to find a taxi.

“She’s no niece,” I say as we ride the freeway back through the hills. Krasner is staring out the window. “She may be an orphan, and she may have been Lim’s agashi, but she’s no niece.”

Krasner sighs. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know.”

. . .

The taxi driver follows our napkin map back to Haeundae Beach where our high-rise hotel looms glittering in the beams of spotlights. But we pass the hotel and turn down a side street, away from the beach and around the back, entering a small district of cheap bungalows built from cinderblock and aluminum siding. Each house has a large window facing the street and in each window sits a woman on a chair by a lamp. They look out at the street, watching us pass. We come to a stop. The driver is saying something but it means nothing and we pay and get out. Overhead rises the back side of the Hyatt, windows lighted here and there, figures moving in their airtight luxury rooms. We’re standing in front of a bungalow where the woman in the window watches us with hooded eyes, fanning herself with a magazine. She’s wearing a bathrobe that sort of looks like a kimono with her hair up off her neck and pinned with chopsticks. Sweat stands out on her forehead. Finally, as if she had been hoping we would just go away, she beckons to us with the magazine. At last she smiles.

We have no way of knowing if this is the place or if the driver just dropped us off in front of some random house. At the corner a group of men in suits walks through a pool of streetlight, speaking in the familiar sing-song of Cantonese. They head for the main street and walk toward the Hyatt. Other male voices can be heard elsewhere in the streets and different layers of music peel softly from the houses.

“I think I know where this is going,” I say. “Do we need to go through with this?”

“We have to find her,” says Krasner.

Is it possible that in order to get an interview with a Hong Kong movie star I have to hunt down a teen whore in South Korea and bring her back to China? Is that reasonable? Would anyone else in their right mind go through with this?

. . .

The woman in the window meets us at the door of the house. She looks at the passport photo but shows no reaction. She hands it back and walks down a hallway into a lighted room, waving us to follow. Krasner and I go after her. In the room are four girls sitting on couches and watching TV. They look at us without much curiosity. A conversation ensues during which I think I hear the name ‘Soon-hee’ surface a couple times. Krasner, I notice, is becoming nervous. He slicks the hair across the top of his head and straightens his tie and buttons his suit coat, then unbuttons it again. Finally two of the girls get up and take us each by the arm, leading us down another hall where they try to take us into separate rooms. Krasner pulls back. “Wait wait wait,” he’s saying to the girl. “What’s going on?”

She stares.

“Krasner,” I say, “I think you know what’s going on. The question is, how far will it go?”

He looks at me bug-eyed. He should have just gone straight to Russia to be a priest. “She’s not here,” he says, breathless.

“No, I don’t think so.”

He goes back down the hall, through the lighted room and out the front door. I follow him into the street where the woman in the window watches us through the fanning of her magazine. He stands there on the gravel in the streetlight, looking around. “This is bad,” he says.

I head back for the hotel. He catches up in a minute. “Where are you going?” he wants to know.

“This is ridiculous,” I say. “We’re not going to find her in a city of prostitutes. I’m on vacation. I’m going for a drink.”

“What about the girl?”

“She’s in one of those bordellos, obviously. If you want to hunt through each of them, be my guest. I’m taking the night off.”

. . .

Later, in our tenth floor room at the Hyatt, I’m sitting in an overstuffed chair by the sealed window looking out over the harbor. The lights of fishing boats bob on the waves and cars flash past along the boardwalk. Krasner came back with me, paced around for a few minutes then declared he was going down to the pub in the lobby to see if he could find an American to talk to. Me being Irish I could give him no comfort. In fact, I had been planning on hitting the pub myself but I revised my schemes for the evening and instead called room service, courtesy of Mr. Lim. So here I am with a glass of Pernod and a plate of steamed mussels in garlic with chips and I couldn’t be better.

Watching my reflection in the window I see someone else. The image floats like a ghost over the lights of the harbor. It’s Chow Yun-fat, blowing in on the Trade Winds. From out of the night he strides through the glass and into the room. Black suit, black shirt, thin black tie, dark shades. He paces about, peering at the plate of mussel shells and my empty glass of Pernod but he doesn’t seem to see anything. He’s thinking in a silent movie kind of way, knotted eyebrows, flexing jaw, then a sudden look out the window where it seems he finds the answer to whatever has been vexing him.

He’s out the door with a loping stride. Riding the elevator down with his head raised in a light rain of Muzak, chewing his lip. Cut to hotel exterior, Chow dashing across the circle drive, cutting through the landscaping hedges and disappearing into the darkness.

Now he strides down the center of a dusty road through pools of streetlight, scanning the facades of the bungalows where women sit in their robes watching him pass. Perhaps he gives one of them a smile. At last he stops in the middle of the road. A close up reveals the way he shakes a cigarette out of a pack, grasps it with thin lips, crumples the empty pack and throws it away. The lighter flame hovers in both lenses of his shades and casts his face in the copper of a death mask. He strides out of the frame.

Inside the house we see him approach from the point of view of the woman in the window. He pulls the door open and walks down the hall as if it is his own house and he intends to punish the children. Now he enters a lighted room where four young girls in gauzy dresses recline watching TV. They scarcely have a chance to look up at him before he crosses his arms at the waist and pulls two black .45s from his belt, sweeping them in an arc across the room where he fires round after round into the wall behind the couch. The girls cringe and scream. He kicks in a door to find a man kneeling on the floor with his pants down, rooting in the pockets of a discarded coat. On the bed in the background is the astonished oval of the girl’s face: the girl from the passport picture. She holds the sheets against her body, sobbing. Chow levels the gun at the kneeling man and pulls the trigger but there is only a dry click. He dives away at just the moment that the kneeling man gets off a shot from a gun hidden in the folds of the coat. The bullet pierces Chow’s arm and he tumbles into the hallway in slow motion, landing on his wound, teeth clenched. Bullets fly from down the hallway. He raises his other gun, mutters, “One bullet,” and shoots the man between the eyes.

All is ringing silence. Then the sobs of the women. Chow strides into the bedroom, blood dripping from his arm, and stands before the girl. Carrying her wrapped up in her bloodied sheet he walks through the house, stepping over the bodies of his victims, and carries her outside. Her arms go around his neck and, as they pass from a pool of light into darkness, he can be seen to stumble before catching his stride and disappearing into the night.

. . .

I stroll around the harbor in the afternoon. The concrete boardwalk is lined with the tarps and tents of booze-and-seafood joints and I’m cruising them to find one that looks less choleric than the others when I hear Krasner’s voice. He’s talking in that ridiculous pidgin English he uses when speaking with a student. “You like dress?” he’s saying. “Dress? You like?”

I peer around the corner of a tarp and there he is sitting at a plastic table with a girl, two beers and a steaming platter between them. He sees me and leaps up, booming, “Hey! We’ve got her! We’ve got her! She’s the one!” He waves me over, pulling a bunch of shopping bags off a plastic chair.

I take a seat and look at the girl. My first thought is, No way, it’s not her, this girl looks twenty at least. She’s wearing silver eyeliner and silver lipstick and her hair is cut in a fireworks pixie sort of ‘do, dyed orange. She sits erect in a sleeveless silk blouse and her shoulders are broad and she looks strong and healthy and built. She stares at me a moment then looks away out at the beach and the grey tide.

Krasner hands me the passport. I glance at the picture again and it’s true. The picture might have been taken a couple years ago, but it’s the same face. I hand the passport back. “So this I’ve gotta hear, Krasner. Did you go in with guns blazing? How did you find her?”

He beams at me, silent. I refuse to play his damn game. I inspect the dish they’re eating, some concoction of miniature octopi in a stewy sauce. I grab a couple chopsticks (Krasner, I see, has brought his fork and spoon with him) and try a bite. Spicy. Chewy. Curious.

“You want to know?” says Krasner.

“Yeah, sure, I want to know. Whenever you’re ready.”

“I bought her.”

I look at him. He’s still beaming. Waiting for me to ask him what the hell he’s talking about. “What the hell are you talking about, Krasner?”

“Yeah, I bought her. Half a million won. It’s not that much, really. Less than five hundred bucks.”

“You walked into that bordello with half a million won and you bought this girl?” She’s watching all of this, understanding nothing but getting that we’re talking about her.

“Well, pretty much. The thing is, they want me to bring her back at the end of the weekend. I think that was the deal. The old woman there spoke English. She must have learned it from the G.I.s. She kept calling me ‘Sarge.’”

“And what happens when you don’t bring her back, Sarge?”

“Nothing. They have my credit card but all I have to do is cancel it. They’re not expecting anyone to run away with one of the agashis anyway.”

“Young lady,” I say, looking at the girl.

“Niece, actually. Turns out agashi really means niece. It’s for unmarried women, sort of like ‘miss.’” Krasner pulls open one of his plastic bags. Inside is a dog-eared Hang-gul/English dictionary.

“This is crazy, Krasner. What does she have to say about all this?”

We both look at her and she immediately blushes. “Soon-hee,” Krasner says and reaches for her hand but she pulls it away. He looks at me. “We went shopping today. I bought her a bunch of clothes and makeup and shoes and pizza. She can’t get enough of it. I think no one’s ever taken care of this girl in her whole life.”

“Lim didn’t say anything about taking the girl out shopping, Krasner. Is that going on the expense account? You want him to get jealous?” But as soon as I say it I know what’s coming next. This is his moment. His eyes get all dark, his bottom lip juts out and he raises his head. “It doesn’t matter what Lim thinks. She’s not going back to him.”

I stare out at the horizon which is no horizon at all but just an inky wash between the grey of the sea and the grey of the sky. Ships slide through the haze. A dirty foam washes on the shore and the sound is as muffled as the colors. I’m imagining the possible directions this can now take, and which one will end up with me not sleeping with the fishes in Victoria Harbor. “You’re talking dangerous now, Krasner. Let’s get on the plane, take the girl to Lim and you can fight your crusade on home turf, yeah?”

He takes a slug of beer, shakes his head, thumps the bottle back down. “Nope. You can go back whenever you want. I’m not going back.”

“Oh for fuck sake.”

“I’m not in the business of buying girls for Chinese mob bosses.”

“Well, you just bought one.”

“Not for Lim. And this is where it ends.”

I look at the girl. She’s toying with a baby octopus, pushing it around in the sauce with her chopsticks. She hasn’t touched her beer and so I reach for it, take a gulp, set it back down in front of her. “What do you think about all this?” I say to her. She watches me wide-eyed. I pick up the passport, show her the cover that says Hong Kong in Chinese characters. “Do you want to go to Hong Kong?” I make a flying plane with my hand, heading out over the ocean with a whooshing sound. She just watches me. “Hong Kong,” I say. “Discos.” I wiggle a little dance in my seat. “And movies. Do you want to meet a movie star? Chow Yun-fat?”

She seems to show some recognition. I say the name again and make shooting noises, gunning with both index fingers, pumping Krasner full of bullets. But maybe that was the wrong thing to do. She gets cloudy again and then says a whole string of things which leaves me and Krasner blinking. Her voice is small and delicate, like a little girl’s. She ends up laughing. Then she reaches for a shopping bag and pulls out a long black dress emblazoned with a plastic silver star in the chest. “Disco,” she says.

I turn to Krasner. “I think she wants to go to Hong Kong, Sarge.”

“Just because she said ‘disco?’ There’s discos everywhere. Look at her. She doesn’t belong in Hong Kong any more than you or I do.”

“Bad analogy, Krasner, because I in fact do belong in Hong Kong, and that’s where I’m going as soon as I can get a plane out of here. If you’re not coming—or, more to the point, if the girl’s not coming—then you’d better have a good story ready because Lim will be looking for you. And I’m not covering your damn arse.”

Krasner sits like a stone. He’s looking at the girl, and she’s looking at him. They stare at each other and, despite the oceans that separate their lives and their illusions, they’re locked together. A leading man, and his leading lady. I rise from the table and step back. How would Chow Yun-fat handle this one? Shoot everybody? But even Chow may be no match for Krasner. I have to admit, Chow probably never would have thought about walking into that bordello with a credit card and a dictionary. An uneasy feeling creeps up on me: Is Krasner actually the hero here? Conflicted but unwavering, he beats the odds…and gets the girl. And what does that make me—the craven sidekick who takes a bullet between the eyes at the end of act one?

I walk back to the hotel. At the front desk is a message from Lim. He wants to know how things are going. I ask the clerk to relay the message that we’re still looking, no luck yet. Then I go up to the room and lie down in front of the TV with some action movie blaring, falling asleep on the couch to the squeal of tires and the pounding of guns.

It’s dark when Krasner lets himself into the room. I stir and watch him as he collects his suitcases and then stands framed in the light from the hallway. The girl stands out there with Krasner’s wool blazer enveloping her body, shopping bags in each hand. She stares at me, expressionless. “Tell Lim we couldn’t find her,” Krasner says. “Tell him I’m still looking and I’ll be in touch. Tell him whatever you want, actually.”

“I’ll tell him you rode off into the sunset,” I say. I can’t help admiring the goddamn jackass, but he just snorts at me and goes out the door with his bags.

. . .

Lim sits tenting his fingers together over his desk, trying to see through me. I’m watching the skyline out the window behind him where ferries move across Victoria Harbor toward the glittering towers downtown. A lot of this conversation has passed in silence so far. Lim’s Rolodex stands on the desk between us, containing Chow Yun-fat’s phone number somewhere within. Now Lim says, “You permitted him to kidnap the girl.”

“No,” I say. “I tried to talk to him. But you know how Americans are. They want to save the world.”

“You permitted it.”

“I think he might have been in love with her, sir. He had that look.”

Lim nods slowly, staring into the desktop. “Yes,” he says quietly, “yes.”

“And there’s no negotiating with that.”

He looks at me, steely. “I should not have sent the two of you. You were wrong. Westerners do not understand loyalty. You are weak, aren’t you? You only think of yourselves.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lim.” I suppose he was right about me, but he was off the mark about Krasner.

“I am right. It was a mistake. I will handle this now.”

“Okay.”

“You have lost your friend.”

“Yes.”

“That is a pity.”

“Yes. Perhaps,” I say, “Chow Yun-fat would have known what to do.”

Lim raises his eyebrows. He leans forward on his elbows. “It’s too bad, then, that you will never speak with him.” He spins the Rolodex closed with a flick of his finger, and Chow Yun-fat is lost to me. But I’m thinking that Chow is yesterday’s news. It would be a whole lot more interesting to talk to Krasner now and find out just how far he was planning on taking this whole thing. Tracking him down might turn out to be even harder than getting an interview with a Hong Kong action star, but maybe he could use my help, and I certainly don’t have anything better to do.