Page 4 of Tick Tock

He put the pin on the table beside the doll. Its black enamel head glistened like a drop of oil, and silvery light glinted off the sharp point.


He closed the drapes over each of the three living-room windows. He did the same in the dining room and family room. In the kitchen, he twisted shut the slats on the Levolor blinds.


He still felt watched.


Upstairs in the bedroom that he had outfitted as an office, where he wrote his novels, he sat at the desk without turning on a lamp. The only light came through the open door from the hall. He picked up the phone, hesitated, and then called the home number of Sal Delano, who was a reporter at the Register, where Tommy had worked until yesterday. He got an answer¬ing machine but left no message.


He called Sal’s pager. After inputting his own number, he marked it urgent.


Less than five minutes later, Sal returned the call. ‘What’s so urgent, cheese head?' he asked. ‘You forget where you put your dick?’


‘Where are you?’ Tommy asked.


‘In the sweatshop.’


‘At the office?’ ‘Wrangling the news.’


‘Late on another deadline,’ Tommy guessed.


‘You called just to question my professionalism? You’re out of the news racket one day and already you’ve lost all sense of brotherhood?’


Leaning forward in his chair, hunched over his desk, Tommy said, ‘Listen, Sal, I need to know something about the gangs.’


‘You mean the fat cats who run Washington or the punks that lean on the businessmen in Little Saigon?’


‘Local Vietnamese gangs. The Santa Ana Boys...’ Cheap Boys, Natoma Boys. You already know


about them.’


‘Not as much as you do,’ Tommy said. Sal was a crime reporter with a deep knowledge of the Vietnamese gangs that operated not only in Orange County but nationwide. While with the news¬paper, Tommy had written primarily about the arts and entertainment.


‘Sal, you ever hear about Natoma or the Cheap Boys threatening anybody by mailing them an imprint of a black hand or, you know, a skull-and-crossbones or something like that?’


‘Or maybe leaving a severed horse’s head in their bed?’


‘Yeah. Anything like that.’


‘You have your cultures confused, boy wonder. These guys aren’t courteous enough to leave warnings. They make the Mafia seem like a chamber-music society.’


‘What about the older gangs, not the teenage street thugs, the more organized guys — the Black Eagles, the Eagle Seven?’


‘The Black Eagles have the hard action in San Francisco, the Eagle Seven in Chicago. Here it’s the Frogmen.’


Tommy leaned back in his chair, which creaked under him. ‘No horse’s head from them either, huh?’


‘Tommy boy, if the Frogmen leave a severed head in your bed, it’s going to be your own.’


‘Comforting.’


‘What’s this all about? You’re starting to worry me.’ Tommy sighed and looked at the nearest window. Clotting clouds had begun to cover the moon, and fading silver light filigreed their vaporous edges. ‘That piece I wrote for the Show section last week — I think maybe somebody’s threatening to retaliate for it.’


‘The piece about the little girl figure skater?’


‘Yeah.’


‘And the little boy who’s a piano prodigy? What’s to retaliate for?’


‘Well—’


‘Who could’ve been pissed off by that — some other six-year-old pianist thinks he should have gotten the coverage, now he’s going to run you down with his tricycle?’


‘Well,’ Tommy said, beginning to feel foolish, ‘the piece did make the point that most kids in the Vietnamese community don’t get mixed up in gangs.’


‘Oooh, yeah, that’s controversial journalism, alright’


‘I had some hard things to say about the ones who do join gangs, especially the Natoma Boys and Santa Ana Boys.’


‘One paragraph in the whole piece, you put down the gangs. These guys aren’t that sensitive, Tommy. A few words aren’t going to put them on the vengeance freeway.’


‘I wonder. .


‘They don’t care what you think anyway, ‘cause to them, you’re just the Vietnamese equivalent of an Uncle Tom. Besides, you’re giving them a whole lot too much credit. These as**oles don’t read newspapers.’


The dark clouds churned from west to east, congealing rapidly as they moved in from the ocean. The moon sank


into them, like the face of a drowner in a cold sea, and the lunar glow on the window glass slowly faded.


‘What about the girl gangs?’ Tommy asked. ‘Wally Girls, Pomona Girls, the Dirty Punks. it’s no secret they can be more vicious than the boys. But I still don’t believe they’d be interested in you. Hell if they got steamed this easily, they’d have gutted me like a fish ages ago. Come on, Tommy, tell me what’s happened? What’s got you jumpy?’


‘It’s a doll.’


Sal sounded bewildered. ‘Like a Barbie Doll?’


A little more ominous than that.’


‘Yeah, Barbie isn’t the nasty bitch she used to be. Who’d be afraid of her these days?’


Tommy told Sal about the strange white-cloth figure with black stitches that he had found on the front porch.


‘Sounds like the Pillsbury Doughboy gone punk,’ Sal said.


‘It’s weird,’ Tommy said. ‘Weirder than it probably sounds.’


‘You don’t have a clue what the note says? You can’t read any Vietnamese at all not even a little?’


Taking the paper from his shirt pocket and unfolding it, Tommy said, ‘Not a word.’


‘What’s the matter with you, cheese head? You have no respect for your roots?’


‘You’re in touch with yours, huh?’ Tommy said sar¬castically.


‘Sure.’ To prove it, Sal spoke swift, musical Italian. Then, reverting to English: And I write to my nonna in Sicily every month. Went to visit for two weeks last year.’


Tommy felt more than ever like a swine. Squinting at the three columns of ideograms on the yellowed paper, he said, ‘Well, this is as meaningless as Sanskrit to me.’


‘Can you fax it? In maybe five minutes, I can find someone to translate.’


‘Sure.’


‘I’ll get back to you as soon as I know what it says.’


‘Thanks, Sal. Oh, hey, you know what I bought today?’


‘Do I know what you bought? Since when do guys talk shopping?’


‘I bought a Corvette.’


‘For real?’


‘Yeah. An LT1 Coupe. Bright metallic aqua.’


‘Congratulations.’


‘Twenty-two years ago,’ Tommy said, ‘when I first came through the immigration office with my family and stepped into my first street in this country, I saw a Corvette go by, and that was it for me. That said everything about America, that fantastic-looking car, going by so sleek.’


‘I’m happy for you, Tommy.’


‘Thanks, Sal.’


‘Now at last maybe you’ll be able to get girls, won’t have to make it anymore with Rhonda Rubbergirl, the inflatable woman.’


Asshole,’ Tommy said affectionately.


‘Fax the note.’


‘Right away,’ Tommy said, and he hung up.


A small Xerox machine stood in one corner of his office. Without turning on any room lights, he made a photocopy of the note, returned the note to his shirt pocket, and faxed the copy to Sal at the Register.


The phone rang a minute later. Sal said, ‘You put it through the fax wrong-side up, dickhead. All I’ve got is a blank sheet of paper with your number at the top.’


‘I’m sure I did it right.’


‘Even your inflatable woman must be frustrated with you. Send it again.’


After switching on a lamp, Tommy returned to the fax machine once more. He was careful to load the page properly. The mysterious ideograms had to be face-down.


He watched as the rollers pulled the single sheet of paper through the machine. The small message window displayed Sal’s fax number at the newspaper and the word sending. The page of ideograms slid out of the machine, and after a pause, the word in the message window changed to received. Then the fax disconnected.


The phone rang. Sal said, ‘Do I have to drive over there and show you how to do it right?’


‘You mean you got a blank page again?’


‘Just your sender-ID bar at the top.’


‘I absolutely loaded it right this time.’


‘Then something’s wrong with your fax,’ Sal said.


‘Must be,’ Tommy said, although that answer didn’t satisfy him.


‘You want to bring the note by here?’


‘How long will you be there?’


‘Couple of hours.’


‘I might stop by,’ Tommy said.


‘You’ve got me curious now.’


‘If not tonight, I’ll see you tomorrow.’


Sal said, ‘It might be some little girl.’


‘Huh?’


‘Some other figure skater jealous about the one in your article. Remember that Olympic skater, Tonya Harding? Be careful of your knee caps, Tommy boy. Some little girl out there may have a baseball bat with your name on it.’


‘Thank God we don’t work in the same building any more. I feel so much cleaner.’


‘Kiss Rhonda Rubbergirl for me.’


‘You’re a diseased degenerate.’


‘Well, with Rhonda, you’ll never have to worry about catching anything nasty.’


‘See you later.’ Tommy put down the telephone and switched off the lamp. Once more, the only light was a pale pearlesence that spilled in from the second-floor hallway.


He went to the nearest window and studied the front lawn and the street. The yellowish glow of the streetlamps didn’t reveal anyone lurking in the night.


A deep ocean of storm clouds had flooded the sky, entirely submerging the moon. The heavens were black and forbidding.


Tommy went downstairs to the living room, where he discovered the doll slumped on its side on the end table beside the sofa. He had left it propped with its back against the stained-glass lamp, in a sitting position.


Frowning, Tommy stared at it suspiciously. The doll had seemed to be full of sand, well weighted; it should have stayed where he had put it.


Feeling foolish, he toured the downstairs, trying the doors. They were all still securely locked, and there were no signs of visitors. No one had entered the house.


He returned to the living room. The doll might not have been balanced properly against the lamp, in which case the sand could have shifted slowly to one side until the damn thing toppled over.


Hesitant, not sure why he was hesitant, Tommy Phan picked up the doll. He brought it to his face, examining it more closely than he had done earlier.


The black sutures that indicated the eyes and the mouth were sewn with heavy thread as coarse as surgical cord. Tommy gently rubbed the ball of his thumb across a pair of crossed stitches that marked one of the doll’s eyes. . . then across the row of five that formed its grimly set lips.


As he traced that line of black stitches, Tommy was startled by a macabre image that popped into his mind’s eye: the threads abruptly snapping, a real mouth opening in the


white cotton cloth, tiny but razor-sharp teeth exposed, a quick but savage snap, and his thumb bitten off, blood streaming from the stump.


A shudder coursed through him, and he nearly drop¬ped the doll.


‘Dear God.’


He felt stupid and childish. The stitches had not snapped, and of course no hungry mouth would ever open in the damn thing.


It’s just a doll, for God’s sake.


He wondered what his detective, Chip Nguyen, would do in this situation. Chip was tough, smart, and relent¬less. He was a master of Tae Kwon Do, able to drink hard all night without losing his edge or suffering a hangover, a chess master who had once defeated Bobby Fisher when they encountered each other in a hurricane-hammered resort hotel in Barbados, a lover of such prowess that a beautiful blond socialite had killed another woman over him in a fit of jealousy, a collector of vintage Corvettes who was able to rebuild them from the ground up, and a brooding philosopher who knew that humanity was doomed but who gamely fought the good fight anyway. Already, Chip would have obtained a translation of the note, tracked down the source of the cotton cloth and the black thread, punched out a thug just for the exercise, and (being an equal-opportunity lover) bedded either an aggressive redhead with a gloriously pneumatic body or a slender Vietnamese girl with a shy demeanour that masked a profoundly lascivious mind.


What a drag it was to be limited by reality. Tommy sighed and wished that he could step magically through the pages of his own books, into the fictional shoes of Chip Nguyen, and know the glory of being totally self-confident and utterly in control of life.


The evening was waning, and it was too late to drive


to the newspaper offices to see Sal Delano. Tommy just wanted to get a little work done and go to bed.


The rag doll was strange, but it wasn’t half as menacing as he tried to pretend that it was. His fertile imagination had been running away with him again.


He was a master of self-dramatization which, accord¬ing to his older brother Ton, was the most American thing about him. Americans, Ton had once said, all think the world revolves around them, think each individual person more important than whole society or whole family. But how can each person be most important thing? Can’t everyone be the most important thing, all equal but all the most important at same time. Makes no sense. Tommy had protested that he didn’t feel more important than anyone else, that Ton was missing the point about American individualism, which was all about the right to pursue dreams, not about dominating others, but Ton had said, Then if you don’t think you better than us, come work in bakery with your father and brothers, stay with family, make family dream come true.


Ton had inherited certain sharp debating skills — and a useful stubbornness — from their mother.


Now Tommy turned the doll over in his hand, and the more that he handled it, the less ominous it seemed. Ultimately, no doubt, the story behind it would turn out to be prosaic. It was probably just a prank perpetrated by children in the neighbourhood.


The pin with the black enamel head, which had fastened the note to the doll’s hand, was no longer on the end table where Tommy had left it. Evidently, when the doll had toppled over, the pin had been knocked to the floor.

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