THE LUCKY PALACE
"Listen, kid, I like you. You know I like you. You’re a solid guy. But I think we need to have a serious talk,” you say, calmly. “Once or twice, I can understand. Sometimes an old guy chokes on a peanut and in the chaos and panic of the moment, you forget your first aid training and he dies of asphyxiation. It’s a sucky situation, but no big deal. Accidents happen.”
You liked Cat Urine Guy. Sure he smelled, but he never caused any problems, and he always gave Mrs Chen a box of oranges on Chinese New Year.
“And alright, sometimes an asshole holds a gun to your back because he can’t pay the house what he owes,” you continue. “And in the struggle, you stab him in the neck with a corkscrew. I mean, how were you supposed to know he just had a stapler in his pocket? Shit happens.”
You cross your arms over your chest, a show of how supremely unimpressed and Very Serious you are. “But, Peixue, this is the third time you need my help getting rid of a body. Third. They say third time's a charm, but you know four times is bad luck, right?”
Peixue is squatting over New Guy, hands covered in blood, snot and tears streaked down his face. His little black quiff bounces as he nods along to everything you say, as if you’re giving the most fascinating TED talk — as opposed to reminding him he’s now technically murdered three people and you would genuinely appreciate it if he could, please, knock it off.
“This is becoming a habit,” you say, nudging the jade Fu Dog with your shoe. It’s not as bloody as you’d expect it to be, considering. There’s gunk stuck in the grooves, but a quick rinse and a light scrub with an old toothbrush and baking soda will have it good as new.
Unlike New Guy’s head.
This is bordering on some serial killer shit. New Guy was just here to play some mahjong, crack open a cold one with the boys — not get his head cracked open by a boy.
“You’re right,” Peixue says, wiping his nose on his sleeve. The gesture smears a bloody moustache across his upper lip. “You’re right. I’m sorry. This is really bad.”
He tries to take a deep breath through his nose but ends up choking on snot. You grab the box of tissues from the tea cart, holding it out for him to take.
He blows about ten tonnes of gunk out his nose, and it’s gross, but at least he’s not puking this time. You really like these shoes. Though, if you’re honest, you kinda wanna puke. New Guy’s head is completely bashed in, like a watermelon someone filled with rhubarb chutney got smashed with a sledgehammer.
“So listen, I’ll sort this for you, but when Mrs Chen gets back, I think you need to ask for some time off,” you say, snapping your gloves on. “Maybe book a spa day. Do you meditate? Maybe you could take up yoga. Or go for a hike. Listen to some lofi beats. Really chill out. Find your calm.”
Peixue continues nodding. “I like lofi beats,” he says, miserably.
The body will be easy enough to get rid of, but the rug’s gonna be a dick and a half to clean. You’d toss it, but Mrs Chen just imported this from Turkey, and if she comes back to it gone, heads are gonna roll — figuratively speaking.
You pat at New Guy’s pockets. He used to come here back in the day when this was just a restaurant, and you were just a kitchen hand. He’d always order the house special, with a Tooheys New. Mrs Chen started calling him New Guy, and it kind of stuck.
The license says his real name is Paul Rafferty and he’s sixty-four. His phone says his emergency contact is Denise Rafferty, but his Facebook says Denise now goes by Denise Pemberton, and lives in Brisbane with Gary Pemberton, who has a six pack and an excellent tan.
Dang, New Guy. Tough break.
“Did he owe the house anything?” you ask, pulling a ziplock bag out your back pocket. You turn the phone off and pop it in along with the wallet and keys. Always best to get these to a seller than leave them on the body.
When Peixue doesn’t reply, you turn to him, expectant. He has the gall to blink blankly at you, as if Mrs Chen won’t beat his ass with a wooden spoon for offing a client before they’ve paid their dues. “Will you go check the books, please?”
He gets to his feet, hurrying to the stairs before pausing, and coming back, hand clutched to his chest. “Oh, um. Should I give you this?”
You hold out your hand, only to rear back when he holds out what you initially think is a small spring roll dripped in Sriracha — except it has a fucking ring on it.
“Jesus Christ,” you shout, jumping to your feet. “Why do you have a severed finger?” You look at New Guy’s body, thinking maybe you missed the fact he’s missing a whole-ass finger the first look over, but nope, he’s got ten. “Peixue, whose fucking finger is that?”
Peixue’s face crumples, shoulders shaking as he cries. And okay, fair enough, you shouldn’t have yelled. Your therapist is always telling you, yelling doesn’t solve problems; it only adds to them, and here you are, raising your voice.
“I’m sorry,” you say, holding your hands out. Inhaling through your nose, exhaling through your mouth, you kneel down again. “What I mean to say is, please, if you don’t mind, can you tell me why you’re holding a finger, and who it belongs to?”
“These last few weeks, New Guy’s been coming with this other guy,” Peixue says, slowly. “He left before I could stop him.”
Ugh. Okay. This is a mess, but it can be salvaged. The cops aren’t here banging down the door, which means This Other Guy is probably into some shady shit and doesn’t want them involved.
“You know where This Other Guy’s lives? Where he works?” You get to your feet, snapping your gloves off. The longer you leave blood to dry, the harder it is to clean, but this takes priority.
“Um, I think he lives at the big grey house by McBurney?” Peixue says, eyebrows furrowed. “Why? What are you going to do?”
“Oh no, no, no,” you say, holding your hands out. “I’m just the cleaner. You’re the one who appointed yourself designated Mess Maker. This is all you, kid.”
“You — I can’t kill someone!” Peixue protests, eyes wide, clutching the loose finger to his chest.
Standing over the corpse of a semi-headless man, you raise your eyebrows. “I mean, you say that, but all the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.”
You pull the car up across the street, putting it in park. “You’re sure this is the place.”
“Yeah, but, um, I really don’t think I can do this,” Peixue says. He’s paler than usual, which you didn’t know was possible. He keeps fiddling with the seal of the ziplock bag, a tremble in his hands. “What if there’s other people in there? What if there’s, like, six men with machine guns? Or worse – what if he’s got a family? What if he’s got a dog?”
Leaning your head back against the headrest, you sigh. It’s still dark out, but the sun rises early in the summer, so it’s best to get this over and done with as fast as possible. Plus, there’s every chance this kid will wet his pants, and you’re not in the mood to clean blood and piss today.
“Fine. Hand it over." Peixue passes you the bag. “You owe me big time.”
“Thank you!” he whispers, as you get out the car. “I love you!”
The house is fenced off, but the back gate is unlocked. There was a car parked out front, so This Other Guy is probably home. You get in through the back, pulling on a new pair of gloves as you creep through the kitchen.
The lights are on. There’s a bottle of whiskey on the dining table, along with a bloodied rag and an open first aid kid.
The toilet flushes somewhere down the hall. You tug the fridge open, peering in curiously before closing it gently. You lean against its doors, arms crossed.
This Other Guy comes into the kitchen, smelling of Pantene Pro V, dressed in nothing but boxers and a silk robe. It takes him a moment to notice you, but once he does, he lets out a shriek and dives for a knife in the drying rack, sending the whole thing clanging all over the floor. He grabs at whatever he can reach, getting to his feet wielding a spatula.
“The fuck. Who are you!” he screams. “Why are you in my house? Fuck. Fuck.”
“I believe this belongs to you,” you say, tossing the finger at him. He catches it on reflex, dropping the spatula. He looks at the finger, then down at the knife, then back up at you.
“I beg you,” he whispers. “My wife and kids are upstairs.”
He looks like he’s around New Guy’s age. Balding. Beer gut. Slightly-racist tattoo on his chest. You’d believe him if you hadn’t seen the contents of his fridge.
“Hope you’ve got life insurance,” you say, mildly.
“Please, I didn’t even like Paul,” he says, eyes wide. “We’re not even friends, really. I’m glad, he’s gone. Good riddance.”
You raise your eyebrows, glancing at the finger.
“What, this? It’s my least favourite finger,” he insists loudly, holding up his bandaged hand. “The kid did me a favour. It’s fine. We’re all good. You can go. And don’t worry about the money. You can keep the money, I don’t need it. It’s all very, very fine.”
“The money,” you repeat. “What money?”
“The twenty grand,” he says. “I overheard the kid telling Paul Mrs Chen was hosting a private game.”
A closed game? The Lucky Palace doesn’t do private games and Peixue’s not supposed to be hosting games outside restaurant hours. Why the hell would he lure men there?
Oh. You groan. That little shit.
“It’s the only reason I was there tonight. I was only stopping by to play a few sets,” he swallows. “The doors were locked, so I tried round back, I get down to the game room and I see Paul getting hit over the head, over and over and over and over —”
“So you threatened to call the cops,” you guess. Peixue panicked, goes to leg it, This Other Guy grabs him from behind, covers Peixue’s mouth with a hand so he doesn’t scream, Peixue goes chomp chomp.
“What? I was just standing there, pissing myself!” he says. “The kid saw me and just came running. He’s small but he’s quick as shit. I tried to fight him off, and he bit my fucking finger off.”
You sigh, getting up off the wall. “Seems there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding.”
“Yes!” he says, nodding eagerly. “That’s all it is. A misunderstanding.”
You step over the loose cutlery, heading towards the door, placing a hand on This Other Guy’s shoulder. “You have my sincerest apology.”
“R-Right,” he swallows. “No, it’s fine.”
You slam him back against the sink, grabbing his neck with both hands and snapping it.
He thumps to the floor, loose finger rolling out of his grip and into the pile of cutlery. Stepping over the mess, you open the fridge, taking out one of the open cans of beans and pouring the sludgey contents over his bare feet.
Hopefully this way, it really will look like an accident.
When you get back in the car, Peixue’s wringing his hands in his lap. His eyes are dry but red-rimmed. It’s very very convincing.
“You know I can’t let you keep the money,” you say, drumming your fingers on the wheel.
“The money?” he asks, eyebrows knitted together.
“Give it up, kid,” you sigh. “This Other Guy spilled the beans. Twenty grand from him, plus, what, twenty from New Guy? You’ve got forty grand back at the club.”
“Oh,” Peixue says, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t care about that.”
You stare at him, at his cute little baby face, quiff wilting from a night of sweating and stressing. If he was doing all this for the thrill of the kill, he’d have volunteered to finished off This Other Guy too. Why go through all this trouble to get you out here?
Peixue glances at you, biting his bottom lip.
You stare at him, heart thudding. “Are you serious?”
Peixue shrugs one shoulder, cheeks pink. He doesn’t deny it, and you don’t know whether to be horrified or flattered.
“There are other, much easier, much cleaner, ways to let someone know you’re interested in them,” you tell him, starting the car. “Flowers, chocolates, stuffed toys. Maybe a little note tucked into a fortune cookie. Seriously, kid, most people would call this overkill.”
You pull out onto the road. New Guy’s body is still in the gaming room, in the restaurant’s basement. There’s still a lot of clean-up, and there’s only a few hours left until the club is due to open. It’s gonna be a tight squeeze.
“You know what they call people who take unnecessary risks, right?” you ask him.
Peixue leans his head against the window, a small quirk to his mouth. When he speaks, his voice is soft, but clear.
“It’s not gambling if you know you’re gonna win.”
When Mrs Chen gets back from her holiday, she calls you down to the shop to give you a box of mooncakes, an assortment of teas, and a fat roll of cash. Really, the sweetest boss anyone could ask for. You kiss her cheeks and in turn, she pinches yours.
“Any trouble while I was gone?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” you assure her. “Did you have a good break?”
“Didn’t want to come back,” she teases. “You sure you don’t wanna play a round? Table six is just starting.”
“Nope,” you grin. “Can’t lose if I don’t play.”
“The phrase is: you can’t win if you don’t play,” she smiles.
Across the room, Peixue comes down the stairs, tea towel slung over one shoulder, tray of drinks in hand. When he catches your eye, he ducks his head, cheeks pink.
“Be careful with that one,” Mrs Chen says, following your line of sight. “He might look cute, but that kid’s got mean bite.”
“Trust me,” you sigh. “You have no idea.”