Smith goosed the accelerator with his snake-skin espadrilles.
“I only pray we’re not too late.” He sucked in ganja smoke.
“Too late for what?”
“Oh, silly me. My mind is so occupied with chill apprehensions that I haven’t filled you in, fleshed out the narrative. Spilled the beans. Laid the down-low dope on you.”
“Planning to babble like a parrot all night, or could you kindly spit it out? Suspense is the last thing I need.”
It’s a rotten life, I considered, but somebody has to live it.
“If a clean syringe happens to be the first thing you need, Petrie, there’s a fully loaded one in the glove box.”
One thing I can say for Smith, he knew what I wanted. We entered the ever-reconfigured precincts of Limehouse. Half sewer town, half real-estate Nirvana. The streets ablaze with neon and LED signage, microchip photograms coating the walls of hundreds of buildings of every vintage and elevation. The sidewalks a sculpture garden of junkies and Ninja gangs, Mohawks bristling in rainbow tints, the antique flotsam of Blade Runner conjoined with the boxy drab of KMart.
We ran an obstacle course of human wreckage, stylish plummy couples floating in and out of smart boutiques and electronics stores, luxury food marts, fashionable bistros. Some wheeled their replicants in prams, others reported their progress through space into mobiles, in screaming voices, to people they would be encountering within seconds.
“I’m right near you right now.”
“I can see your ass but not your face.”
Solitary males used their phones to shave. Some transmitted their clearance cards to airport check-in counters. Still others, ears grafted to iMe’s, collided with utility poles and shop windows, enraptured by the iMe’s menu of simultaneous functions, notorious for scrambling the user’s belfry into euphoric obliviousness.
“Watch out for information loop,” Smith gravely cautioned. “It’s from a whole new arsenal of espionage implementa. We’re either being tracked, or will be soon enough. It’s a spell since you visited Shadowland, ain’t it? Plenty of new toys our enemies like to fiddle with.”
“I won’t ask which enemies, since they seem to be legion.”
“We do have plenty. Me, you, the Nation, the very vestiges of our civilization.”
“What is information loop?”
Smith warmed to the subject as he sideswiped a parked BMW.
“An ingenious neurological tweak in the brainwash department. If you notice the same thing happening twice, like a film loop, chances are you’ve been zapped with a loop needle. They evaporate on contact. In which case, take one of these.”
Smith handed me a small tin of lozenges.
“Loop assault makes identity theft look like pickpocketing. No forms to fill out, no numbers to punch in. You just do a walk-in on somebody else’s brain without ever leaving your body. But it takes at least two minutes for the toxins to complete a memory wipe. Temporary erasure, but it doesn’t take long to do mucho damage. Swallow one of these, and the process reverses itself.”
I pried the lid from the tin and stared at numerous tiny, colored bubbles.
“What are they?”
“Neuron blockers. Same as beta blockers. But for synapse protection.”
“What happens if you don’t take one in time?”
Smith chewed his lip, sucked on his spliff, and spat his gum out the driver side window: ambidexterous with his mouth.
“Not sure how to put it. Get a Phantom Captain situation. Almost anybody can telepath into it.”
“But I mean to say, what happens to you?”
Smith restrained himself from raucous mirth.
“There isn’t any you, Petrie. There isn’t any I, either. Not in this day and age, if ever there were. Never much to all that anyway. Once you’ve been looped, the ‘you’ you think is you starts cancelling itself like a postage stamp.”
He darted into a parking space near the gaudy portals of a Chinese restaurant. Amber Lotus Heavenly Eating Compartment. Standard neon signage, sinuous blinking dragon. Generic dump, more or less.
Killed the ignition. Tapped his fleshy lips. Pulled up his shirt cuff and thrust his wrist into my sightline.
By this time, my eyes barely registered single objects. The entire city seemed to be collapsing, like an avalanche of Christmas bulbs and edifices melting into oozing blobs.
After a few powerful slaps in the face from Smith, I focused on a nasty gash on his forearm. The flesh puffed and scarlet around the sutured cicatrice.
“Ever seen anything like this?”
I am a doctor, of course, and have seen everything.
“It’s a deep puncture of some sort that’s been cauterized. It also resembles a sewn-up vagina, or a rectum sealed with candle wax. Since it’s on your arm, I’ll go with my first guess.”
“It may interest you to know, Petrie, that a stinger packed with hamadryad venom caused this gash!”
“My word, Smith! A hamadryad! The deadliest reptile or insect in the Orient!” I had never actually heard of any hamadryad inhabiting any region of Asia. The hamadryad is indigenous to South America.
“Oh,” Smith sighed, “I don’t know. They say the saliva of a Komodo dragon contains enough bacteria to kill you if it sneezes near you. But the Komodo is amphibious, I seem to recall. All the same, the hamadryad’s poison is no day at the beach. I spent a week raving in a whore-house that reeked of malaria, flat on my back. And I’d be there now, lifeless in Rangoon, if I hadn’t acted instantly.”
The Mary Jane fumes roiled my vision. I hallucinated a sort of soap bar of cholesterol. I remembered Smith.
“Putrid luck, to pick the one whore-house in South Asia with a hamadryad scuttling around.”
“Exactly my point, Petrie. That reptile was planted in that whorehouse, in the very bed I had just shared an hour earlier, unwittingly, with a will-less emissary of you know who.”
Smith examined his wound thoughtfully.
“She had the most … versatile pleasure hole I’d plummeted in years—which ought to have aroused my suspicions. But I allowed my tumescent prong to lead me by the nose.”
My crotch began itching in a tormenting manner. Smith’s story sullied my high. The cold burn crept all over me, complete with pinches of imaginary bug bites.
Smith sucked his dwindling boo, holding in its fragrant effluvia, as if pushing himself to new peaks of hypervigilance.
His gaze had frozen on the restaurant window. It featured an immense aquarium where semi-comatose carp and some stunted lobsters swished and straggled through greenish water, soon to be plucked from their befouled native medium, hacked to pieces for the dining enjoyment of what appeared a table of Hong Kong Triad underlings.
“Hate to sound dense, Smith, but just who is this you know who you keep referring to?”
Smith’s exasperation escaped like air from a leaking bicycle tire.
“You know as well as I, Petrie, who you know who is whom I’m referring to—whom do you imagine is you know who, if not Fu Manchu!”
I still had enough skag in my blood to avoid gasping with terror. No percentage, anyway. I did cough, less from fear than from the dense ganja fog trapped in the Mini.
For years, Weymouth Smith had kept me spellbound with bloodcurdling tales of close shaves in the Far East. I had even accompanied him on some dicey missions in Egypt and Laos. The world is clotted up with every sort of evil, and I like to think I’ve played a small part in thwarting a few varieties of it. But I had never directly contended with the absolute evil that was Dr. Fu Manchu. I’d never even laid eyes on him.
Fu Manchu was the embodiment of evil. The quintessence of evil. The sun and the moon of evil. A one-man axis, a fusion reactor, a Vesuvius of evil. A thousand faces, a thousand personalities. Whole armies of henchpersons, dupes, sycophants, assassins, hypnotized stooges, thugs, grasses, stoolies, puppets—Fu’s very name, uttered in some quarters, had been known to induce fatal coronaries in those who’d tasted a mere smidgeon of his implacable wrath.
And Fu Manchu was full of wrath. He was wrath personified. Wrath on a stick. Wrath-mad. Wrathier than a rattlesnake on speed, wrathful in his sinister cunning, wrath-wrapped in his intricate schemes for world domination, the veritable grapes of wrath—skip that, the Supreme Avatar of Wrath.
As for vengeful, you could simply substitute the word ‘vengeful’ for the word ‘wrath’ and get a mere glimmer of his vengefulness.
Now it all made sense. Sort of. Nothing lay beyond the reach of Dr. Fu Manchu’s immensely long, tapering fingernails. No human mind was safe from Fu’s tamperings. No crime known or unthought-of by humankind had gone uncommitted or unattempted by this faceless yet myriad-faced individual, a mastery of cosmetology and prosthetic alteration of the physique and physiognomy. A wizard of mimicry and disguise, with uncountable minions slaking his thirst for power and abetting his designs for global conquest.
And yet an important bit of information wormed its way into my thoughts.
“Smith! It can’t be Fu Manchu! He’s dead! He died in that crusher behind the Mahua Blossom Iron Foundry in Ho Chi Minh City!”
“Perhaps,” Smith cryptically replied. “But don’t forget, Petrie, I’ve always said that Fu was not the supreme leader of the ChoFatDong, only a high official. In fact, it’s often rumored that the real capo di capi of the ChoFatDong isn’t a man, but a woman—a goddess woman, a woman whose diabolism would make Fu Manchu look like a piker.”
I pretended to consider this.
“Quite an old woman, I would imagine.”
Fu Manchu himself, according to Smith, possessed a longevity serum that had enabled him to see a hundred and fifty winters, at least, come and go.
“Not necessarily. On the contrary She could be, or at least look like, quite a
desirable woman, beautiful and ravishing, who lures victims to their doom by the ChoFatDong with her ethereal, ageless charms.”
Anything, alas, is possible.
“At least Fu bought the farm.”
Smith’s lips coiled into a vexed frown.
“I’m afraid some doubt has surfaced on that score. The Yard, and I, now have the suspicion that what went into that pig iron crusher was one of Fu’s blind mascar slaves, disguised as the impressario of evil. In which case, you know who is just who I suspect he is.”
A member of the Air Blaster Gang, one of many tribes of atavists who menaced the streets of London, passed close to the Mini, clutching a Sanjuku Sound Box from which the voice of a long-ago songstress, Ethel Merman I believe her name was, momentarily sliced the relatively low street volume. “Life is just a bowl of cherries,” warbled the immense, unpleasant voice. “It’s mysterious, it’s not serious… .”
“All the same, Smith, this doesn’t look like the type of restaurant you’d find Fu Manchu in. I mean, this is strictly a moo goo gai pan kind of place.”
Smith, his voice weary from decades of peeling veils of illusion from the eyes of others, sounded weary of me, as well:
“I doubt if Fu himself is within a thousand miles of here. But his reach is
breathing down our very backs. We’ll need to start at the bottom of the ChoFatDong food chain and work up. No, Petrie, I don’t expect to see Fu in any of his uncountable guises hereabouts. Unless I’m very much mistaken, and I never have been to my knowledge, we should focus for now on these disreputable dog-eating Chinamen. Elsewise, Sir Lionel Parker may become the next victim of the Zaybar Kiss.”
“The Zaybar Kiss—”
“Ask me what it is, and I can only tell you I don’t know. But none who have received it has ever lived to tell the tale.”
The Zaybar Kiss rang a bell.
Through the aquarium, I saw a fat man squatting at a circular, afromosia teakveneer table, shoveling in the chow like a pig, the way they all do. His enormous face, obscured by the sluggish carp, hardly raised itself from the trough. He looked like the capo di capi or whatever you call it of something, a big cheese. A moldering cheese encased in thick, waxy skin.
His companions wore hyacinth or purple satin jackets with frog-hook buttons. Pigtails ornamented gaudily with varicolored satin bows. An effeminate bunch. The three combined weighed less than their bloated ringleader. I knew how versed in the deadly arts these Oriental pansies could be: killer queens, as Weymouth Smith called them. Their chopsticks lunged mechanically into the carcass of an enormous flounder reposing on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce.
A refrigeration truck swung up to the curb a few yards in front of us. One of those boxy, aluminum-paneled vehicles used to transport meat from wholesalers to local vendors.
“The Three Dynasties won the Empire through benevolence and lost it through cruelty,” remarked Smith. “The wisdom of a bygone age, unfortunately.”
He slid a .357 Magnum from his vest pocket and loaded it from a box of shells in the glove box. Smith slipped out of the Mini before I understood that anything was about to happen.
A fog of green exhaust poured from the chassis of the refrigeration truck.
A fog that bore an alarming resemblance to a mist Smith and I had encountered years earlier in what had once been called Pakistan: Osamarkand.
The restaurant entrance, visible through glass panels, was hidden by red damask curtains. The air felt heavy, syrupy. Smith vanished through the curtains. He reappeared as a scattering of bubbles, as the aquarium filter switched on, lifting the pistol. The chitchat inside, though I could not hear it, visibly went dead.
A scarlet rosette sprouted on the fat man’s forehead. Smith shot the other three as casually as he might have ordered an egg roll. The men had reached into their tunics for weapons, but the element of surprise paralyzed their reflexes. Their heads exploded like squashed melons. Bone and brain matter splattered the fish tank. Some of it landed in the water, where the lobsters and carp instantly began nibbling at it.
As Smith exited, calm as a corpse, he detoured around the refrigeration truck and fired two shots through the windscreen. A spray of arterial blood splashed an exterior side mirror on the driver’s side. As Smith passed it, he fired off another bullet.
He yawned as he assumed the wheel of the Mini. Turned the ignition.
“I wonder if I’m not getting eczema,” he pensively remarked as we turned up the access ramp to the motorway. “I itch like the dickens. My legs,” he said. “I’ll wake up and find I’m scratching my shins with my fingernails. First I thought, bedbugs, you know, or tiny spider bites.”