The Swan Tattoo

Jun 27, 2014

The Swan Tattoo by Wayne Zurl (cover)Jerome Lee, owner of the Magic Panda, a new Chinese restaurant in Prospect, suspiciously has a finger cut off. Three days later, he’s found hanging from a second floor landing in his home, a suicide note only a few feet away. But Police Chief Sam Jenkins thinks Mr. Lee was the victim of gangster Jimmy Fong, a thug employed by loan shark and triad leader Martin Kee. Sam’s investigation takes him to Atlanta, Malaysia, and back to Tennessee with twists and turns and false leads.

Read An Excerpt

At 12:30 Kate and I waited inside the doorway of the Magic Panda, a new Chinese restaurant in Prospect. Every table was occupied, five people stood in front of the sushi bar, and more than a dozen hungry souls circled the two long buffet islands like buzzards over a dead cow, each holding a large white plate. One heavyweight cracked his head on the glass canopy when he reached to the opposite side of the steam table and grabbed the last egg roll before a young girl could take it.

“I told you to meet me here at 11:30,” I said. “A new restaurant always creates a feeding frenzy.”

“I only finished my program at Prospect Pines a little after noon. I couldn’t get here any earlier.”

Four soumo-size customers sitting at a table looked like they’d finished eating, but continued to shoot the bull, caring nothing for the local police chief and his wife who needed a seat. I hate when people do that and envisioned more steam escaping from my ears than what circulated beneath the buffet trays. If my wife wasn’t so good-looking, I’d have gotten mad at her.

Then a bloodcurdling scream from the kitchen grabbed everyone’s attention. Being the only man of action in the building, I pulled out my badge and trotted toward the noise.

“Call 9-1-1,” I said to Kate who followed me.

We pushed through the double swinging doors and found a middle-aged man holding a bloody apron around his left hand. The color had drained from his face as quickly as his blood soaked the apron.

“Bettye, this is Kate,” she said into her cell phone, “Sam needs a car and an ambulance at the Magic Panda, that new place in the strip mall across from the Foothills View Motel. A man’s bleeding.”

Several cooks, waitresses, and a few unidentified men stood in the kitchen watching the injured man bouncing around and squealing in what I thought sounded like the Foochow or Hokkien dialect I once heard in Singapore, but no one helped him.”

When I got near the victim, I noticed a foot-long kitchen knife and a little finger lying on a wooden cutting board in the middle of a stainless steel table.

“Hold still,” I said. “Let me see your hand.”

I unwrapped a not very hygienic apron from around his hand and saw a short stub where the severed pinkie had once been.”

“Someone hand me a clean towel or apron, quick,” I barked at the onlookers.

Blood drizzled out of the wound and still no one moved. My Chinese is limited to getting around Hong Kong in a taxi, so I tried a little pigeon lingo, pointing at the bloody apron. “Che um che clean? Quick, quick!”

The calmest man in the room, a thin young guy with a pony tail and brightly-colored sport shirt pulled a clean apron from a nearby shelf and handed it to me with as much emotion as a two-toed sloth. I rewrapped the hand, but in only moments the oozing blood soaked the white cloth. Pressing the veins on the underside of the man’s wrist helped, but not much.

“I can’t stop the bleeding,” I told Kate. “Tell Bettye I’ll transport, but have her get clearance to Blount Memorial. Adult male, severed finger. You come with me.”

As Kate and I pushed through the kitchen, I grabbed a plastic bag and stuck his bundled up hand inside.

“I don’t want blood all over my car,” I said. “Sit in the back with him and keep this elevated.”

As we hustled through the dining room, most of the customers gave us their undivided attention, but a resolute segment of the starving masses kept gobbling their pepper steak or gnawing on their chicken sticks.

With Kate and my victim snuggling in the back seat, I fired up the Crown Vic, turned on the flashing grill lights, and flipped a switch for the siren. Once I hit the blacktop and nailed the accelerator, I grabbed the microphone.

“Headquarters, this is Prospect-one. Have the man responding to the Magic Panda get names from everyone in the kitchen who witnessed this, then find someone who speaks good English and bring them to the ER in case we need an interpreter. Also, have medics wrap the severed finger in a clean cloth soaked in a saline solution and put it in a closed container. With luck, a surgeon can sew it back on.”

“10-4, Prospect-one. Five-zero-one is 10-36 now.” Bettye said calmly—she never gets rattled.

“He’ll meet you at BMH as soon as possible.”

“10-4, Headquarters,” I said. “501, switch to channel two.”

I flipped a toggle on my radio console and heard, “501 on.”

“Junior, pick up the big knife on the kitchen table and preserve it for prints.”

“Ya mean this ain’t an accident?”

“Not certain yet. Be sure to get names for the three men in the kitchen wearing sports clothing. . . If they’re still around.”

“10-4,” he said.

I looked in the rearview mirror at the Asian man who was still moaning, mumbling, and gently rocking back and forth as Kate held his crudely bandaged hand.

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Kate and I stood in front of the triage area only a few feet from the entrance to the emergency room.

“Sometimes this police work gets in the way,” I said. “I’m starving.”

“You’re always hungry, sweetie, but how often do you get to save a life?”

“Do-gooder.”

“We can eat when you’re finished here.”

“If I don’t eat soon, I’ll faint.”

Kate smiled and was about to tell me to shut up when the Chinese woman PO Junior Huskey brought to the hospital walked out of the ER. She looked pale and thin and wore her black hair pinned back with barrettes. I stepped over to meet her.

“I’m Sam Jenkins, police chief in Prospect.”

“I am Agnes Lee. Someone from the restaurant called me at home. It was my husband Jerome who had the accident. We own the Magic Panda.” She spoke with a slight accent and appeared concerned, but not too upset.

“How is he doing?”

She shrugged. “They say he lost much blood and gave him a transfusion. Nurses have taken him to surgery. The doctors think they can attach his finger. He may get feeling back, but maybe not.”

“How did it happen?”

Her eyes flashed between Kate and me. She looked like I had just asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question and she didn’t know the answer.

“It was an accident.”

I thought about that and wondered how a right-handed man using a kitchen knife could slip and cut off his left pinkie. Why not the thumb or index finger? They’re closer.

“I’d like to speak to him about that,” I said. “Will they keep him overnight?”

She frowned. “He will be ready to leave later this evening.”

“Then I’ll come back. I won’t bother you much more, but can I have your husband’s information for the report?”

“What report? It was an accident.” She sounded surprised.

“All accidents get what we call a field report. It just accounts for our time.”

She didn’t look happy with my answer.

“All right.”

I found a scrap of paper in my jacket pocket and wrote down a pedigree on Jerome Lee.

“If you’re going to wait, can I call someone to stay with you?”

“Not necessary, thank you. I have a cell phone.”

Kate toned down her usual dazzling smile to low wattage and said, “We hope Mr. Lee recovers quickly.”

Agnes Lee mumbled something, turned, and walked a few yards to the waiting area. Kate and I left the building.

“Notice anything odd back in the kitchen?” I asked.

“There were two mahjongg sets on the shelf where they kept the clean aprons.”

“That’s odd?”

“Who plays mahjongg in a commercial kitchen?”

“I’ll bet when they close the restaurant, they break out the mahjongg sets and play in the dining room all night. The Chinese are great gamblers.”

“They always play mahjongg for money,” she said.

“They play everything for money. I meant did you see anything odd—about the whole scene?”

“I’m not sure. Things happened pretty fast.”

“There were no vegetables on the cutting board where he lost his finger. That long knife is used to cut carrots and things.”

“Very observant, Inspector Charlie Chan.” Kate spoke with a theatrical Chinese accent.

“Right, number one wife. Also, he would have to reach across hand to cut off pinkie when three other fingers and thumb were closer to blade.” Two can do Asian accents, doll-face.

“Number one wife? Who’s number two?”

“What about my theory on access to the pinkie” I growled.

She thought for a moment. “Sounds about right. I’d hold what I was cutting with my thumb, middle, and index fingers. My pinkie would be too far away.”

I reactivated Charlie Chan. “Exactly, grasshopper. I think we have oriental mystery.”

“You’re so clever . . . and sarcastic. How can anyone stand to work with you?”

“They look at working with me as the ultimate education.”

“Oh, pa-leeze. Go live with number two wife.”

I ignored her juvenile statement.

“Did you look at the thin young guy wearing the loud Indonesian print shirt? The guy with the pony tail.”

“Briefly.”

“No one in the kitchen would move before he did. When he handed me the clean apron, his arm stretched out of the shirt sleeve and I saw a swan tattoo. I’ve never seen one like it before.”

“Everyone gets tattoos nowadays.”

“But he looked like a gangster and these Asian hoods are very into macho. They usually get dragons or tigers or snake tattoos. A swan seems a little tame.”

“Why is that strange? Maybe the swan has some meaning to him.”

“I think his presence was strange. The waitresses and kitchen help were dressed appropriately for their jobs. Jerome Lee, one of the owners, wore a white shirt and black slacks. Also appropriate for his role. Mr. Ponytail and two other clowns didn’t fit.”

“Maybe they sell things to restaurants. Or maybe they just stopped in to see Mr. Lee.”

“And Lee played with a big knife while he had company?”

“You’ve got a point.”

“Maybe they sell protection to restaurants. Or maybe they make loans or who knows what.”

“You think they’re loan sharks?”

“If Jerome Lee is a big mahjongg loser, maybe he needs extra cash to settle his debts. Maybe he makes bigger wagers on other things, sports betting perhaps. There’s lots of money in that. Maybe he was late with his payments and Ponytail wanted to express his displeasure. All possibilities.”

“Who is Mr. Ponytail?”

“No idea yet, but I’ll ask.”

“Who?”

“The man with the severed finger for starters.”

Kate snapped her seatbelt in place and I switched on the ignition in the big Ford.

“Are we going back to the Magic Panda?” she asked.

“Hard to maintain my mystique as the Charlie Chan of Prospect while I’m nibbling on dim sum dumplings. Let’s go see Mr. Lum.”

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