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In mid-1980s Los Angeles, retail worker and sometime-playwright Hannelore Herald has become fascinated by Korean nightspot The Club Tong Pang. But the very day she decides to venture into it, she finds itís closedóand encounters an attractive but elusive man who plunges her into a world of cross-cultural intrigue, crimeóand comedy.

 

 

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The Ex-Club Tong Pang

humorous mystery

Janis Hashe

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

The guest I await will arrive

With a blue robe over his weary person.

óYuk sa Lee

Los Angeles, the late 1980s

It never occurred to Hannelore Herald that the Club Tong Pang would disappear. She assumed it would be there when she got up the courage to step through its enormous wood and iron doors. No one she knew had ever been inside the Tong Pang. Its windowless exterior cloaked foreign and fascinating conversations and transactions. Its doors were that of a fortress. She was determined that one day, in a fit of dizzy valor, she would storm it.

Hannelore had to admit that perhaps because she spent so much time around theatre people, her thought processes were sometimes a little melodramatic. However, she did make it her mission to go places in her neighborhood no other white people did, partly to pick up ideas for plays and partly because she was just nosey.

She loved the idea that there were layers of life going on all around her, all the time. In the space of a few blocks in her íhood, she would encounter faded but gallant people who could remember when Norma Talmadge (or was it Constance?) really lived in The Talmadge apartment building; young, black female office workers with attitude and five-inch heels; unbuttoned Latino families barbecuing in their parking lots; buttoned-up Korean families gardening in their front yards; and, quite possibly, her Armenian landlord and his Rumanian wife, out for an afternoon stroll. Life in her neighborhood could change rhythms with one blast of a car horn playing La Cucaracha or the next-door neighbors turning on íRetha real loud.

The Club Tong Pang was one of her special targets for infiltration. With expensive cars parked out front, it was incongruous in the corner mini-mall, which had a Laundromat on one side and a cheap Thai take-out place on the other. Sheíd heard of Korean hostess bars, and pictured very young, very bored Korean girls in tight dresses listening to businessmen basting their egos. The Tong Pang was a hostess club, she was convinced, but the weird thing was that she never seemed to see anyone coming in or going out of it.

She was driving home one night after a rehearsal, waiting to make the left onto her street and staring, as usual, at the Tong Pang, when a tall, skinny white guy came out of the clubís door. Hannelore watched him as he walked through the parking lot and on up the street. He was already an unexpected development, but when he passed under the streetlight, damn! she thought. Large eyes, big nose, cornsilk blond hairóhe was just her type, which pretty much always meant bad news.

Hannelore was of course now convinced the Club Tong Pang was the perfect setting for a play. She vowed to herself then and there to venture in as soon as she found out about the reading of her play GoodYear at the Root Theatre. If the Root said no, she could console herself by making plans for another play set in the Tong Pang. If the Root said yes, she could have a drink to celebrate. If I put it that way, she reasoned, itíll be hard to weasel out of going in there. Hannelore felt it was important to make herself do things that seemed scary. She was thirty-five, and secretly admitted she was approaching middle age. But she wasnít ready to be comfortable.

The next day she got the good news about GoodYear. The Root would stage a reading of it, with Hannelore directing. No money was involved (there never was), but a well-known local theatre had acknowledged her existence and life was pretty good. The call from the theatre had come at noon. Bernice, her boss, had given her the day off from the boutique where she worked. She had plenty of time. No more excuses.

She walked down the hill from her apartment toward the Tong Pang, admiring the view of the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign, what she always thought of as "the stars and the Stars." She threw a scathing look at the carwash across the street to see if any dope dealers were sneaking through the shadows. She was, after all, the neighborhood watch block captain, but it was empty except for a black Mercedes getting its final rubdown. The carís windows were so deeply tinted she couldnít tell if anyone was inside.

The three usual street punks gave her a half-hearted, "Hey, mamacita." She ignored them. She walked up to the Tong Pangís doors and yanked on the iron doorpull. The doors didnít budge. Then she noticed a "For Lease" sign tacked up across the far side of the club. This had definitely not been up the night before.

As she gawked, the tall, skinny guy came striding around the other corner of the building. He stopped and stared with what seemed to be dismay equal to her own at the sign.

"Tong Pangís history, hombre," said the leader of the street punks to the skinny guy, who had walked past Hannelore and pulled on the door. That the punk had not bothered to give her this information was his revenge, she figured, for her spurning his many tempting verbal offers of what he could do for her.

"Since when?" the guy said.

"This morning," said the punk. The same three losers never seemed to move from that corner, so he was in a position to know.

"Have you seen the owner around?" the blond guy tried, and failed, to sound as though it was just a casual question.

The punk was getting edgy, and Hannelore saw his pals were looking at him like, "Vamanos, chico." But the blond guy walked closer and looked down at him. He obviously expected an answer.

"Yeah, well, he come down this morning. Heís outta here now though." The punk shrugged. "I know his Lexus." He and his pals smirked and headed for the liquor store three doors away.

Although he was standing right next to her, the white guy seemed to notice Hannelore for the first time. This, she felt, was not flattering. During the conversation she had been checking him out. It was the natural thing to do at that corner. He was broad shouldered but very thin, so thin that his hands looked huge completing endless skinny arms. His long legs were encased in scruffy but well-cut jeans.

Hannelore was a sucker for long legs, the source of more than one romantic disaster. She was also terrified, in the way she got when confronted in real life with someone or something she had been building stories around in her imagination. This guy was currently starring in several potential plots about the Tong Pang. Now she feared she was going to find out he delivered snack foods to bars and was named Milt.

"Looks like weíre both out of luck," he said, favoring her with a smile. "Are you looking for Ron Song too?"

"Nope," Hannelore said. "Does he owe you money?" Might as well find out about the pretzels and chips and get it over with, she thought. One more fantasy shot to hell.

He looked at her in an appraising way, not sexual, but as if he was considering what to tell her. She ran over her self-presentation: Middle-sized woman, shoulder-length wavy auburn hair, brown eyes with green flecks. A dab of lipstick and a little brown eyeliner. White T-shirt, ratty washed-silk pants with a couple of paint streaks on one leg and white walking shoes. She felt she looked reasonably trustworthy.

"Ever been in the Tong Pang?" he asked.

"This would have been the first time," she said. "I was looking forward to it, too."

"Itís not exactly a trendy hotspot."

"Iím aware of that."

This guy was starting to annoy her, cute or not. First, she fumed, he doesnít notice me. Now heís giving me Zagat reviews. Also she resented his implication she looked like a yuppie adrift. "I suppose in your enlightened opinion Ďnice womení donít go into places like this," she snapped. "Allow me to bring you out of the Victorian ageó"

He chuckled. He was really asking for it now. Nonconfrontation did not figure highly in Hanneloreís life. She was visibly bristling. "Donít shoot," he said, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "You took what I said the wrong way. Could we start over? Iím Alec." He held out his hand.

This, she had to admit, was good. Her favorite male name, forever associated with her hero, Alec Guinness. If Sir Alec had not been married for some 60-odd years to the same woman, Hannelore would have proposed immediately. Not that they were on those kind of terms.

Still, what was the deal with this guy? In the space of a second or so, she had to decide whether to walk away or shake his hand, starting who knew what. She tried to bypass the physical attraction. He had sincerity, she noted, that he was trying to cover up with suaver-than-thou. It wasnít working. The sincerity, however, she thought was sincere.

She shook his hand, which completely enveloped hers and was pleasantly unslimy. "Iím Hannelore Herald," she said, using her full name as she always did, believing people take women more seriously when they have complete names. Preferably their originals. She noticed Alec kept glancing in the direction of the car wash. Maybe thatís his Mercedes in there, she thought.

"Pretty strange about the club, isnít it?" he said.

"The strangest thing is," Hannelore countered, "I know it was open last night because I saw cars out front as usual when I drove by." She didnít mention seeing him. "So what are you going to do?"

"The man who owns this place has several clubs. Iíll keep checking them until I find him."

"Why is that so important?" Ask straight out was Hanneloreís motto. She had discovered how much information she could surprise out of people not used to being asked direct questions.

Alec was unfazed. "Heís got my tapes," he said, and just as she was thinking, Why would the owner of the Tong Pang want some white guyís collection of the Allman Brothers, he added, "The tapes for my thesis."

That was weird but Hannelore was a victim of graduate school herself and therefore sympathetic. Once her cat had disemboweled a bird on top of a paper about Titus Andronicus. She enjoyed the feline artistic statement but had subsequently found out that "My cat threw up on my homework" was not considered an adequate excuse.

"Whyís that?" was forming on her lips when Alec, nervously eyeing the carwash, said abruptly, "Have you got a car?"

She backed away. The idea of someone carjacking her funky Honda seemed ludicrous, and besides, she remembered, itís up the street.

"Look," he said, dropping all pretense of cool. "I know this is way out of line, but could you possibly give me a ride? I really need to find my tapes fast."

Hannelore turned her head to look at the carwash. The Mercedes was now idling in the driveway, waiting to turn out onto the street.

"Is this in the nature of a getaway, by any chance?" She knew she should just walk away, but jeez, could she afford to turn down this story? Her play might be writing itself right there in the Tong Pang parking lot.

"Not exactly," he said, with a wisp of a smile. He had white, slightly crooked teeth. "Iím not going faróand I swear Iím harmless." He shifted his backpack to his other shoulder.

Not with those legs, not likely, she thought. OK, Hannelore, whatís it gonna be? You can go home to your nice comfortable kitchen with a nice comfortable cup of coffeeóall right, all right, she answered herself. I promised I was going to take a risk today and this looks like it. "You can never pick your parents and you canít often pick your risks," she began writing in her mind.

All this had taken about a second. "OK," she said. "The carís up the street." She turned and started out of the lot. Alec followed.

"You like íem blond, huh, mama?" Punk Number One had emerged from the liquor store.

"Yeah, blond and dumb. You only qualify on one count," Hannelore tossed over her shoulder. She always talked back to these guys, believing she had the right to walk the street unmolested. As she turned back, she saw the Mercedes make a right and glide out toward Beverly Boulevard. "No offense," she said to Alec.

"I know a lot of good blond jokes," Alec offered. Some of the tension had gone out of his face. He was gearing his longer stride to her shorter one. Hannelore appreciated this.

"Your thesis has something to do with the Tong Pang?" she asked. "Grad school must have gotten a lot more exciting."

"You were a grad student?"

"Donít sound so surprised." He was evading the question but she decided to let himÖfor now.

They reached the car, a silver Honda Civic hatchback with papers all over the back seat and a defective box of Trader Joeís detergent snowing up the floor mats. Hannelore had long ago given up worrying about what people thought about her car because, she reasoned, if they subscribe to the "You Are What You Drive" theory, then her car was an accurate representation of her personality: "Not real tidy, but reliable."

She politely shifted several versions of GoodYear off the passenger seat before Alec got in. His long arm reached into the back and grabbed one.

"This is yours?"

"Yep." Asking him not to look at it was a moot point since he was already flipping through the pages.

"Youíre a playwright."

Why is this conversation now totally about me? she thought.

"Writing plays is something I do sometimes." Hannelore did not refer to herself as a playwright. She spent most of her week selling anklets to women with too much time on their hands. She steeled herself for unsolicited theatrical criticism.

As she started the car, her shifting hand brushed against Alecís leg. He looked at her, startled. "Sorry," she said, not knowing why she apologized.

Alec shifted in the seat, smiled and said, "This place is around the corner from the Koreatown Plaza." Hannelore pulled out from the curb, drove past the mini-mall, turned left and started up Beverly. Sheíd gone about three blocks and was trying to adjust the air vents for the July heat blasting through the car when she saw a black Mercedes was on her bumper. This didnít surprise her, Mercedes drivers being what they are, but when she pulled over into the slow lane, the Mercedes moved over right behind her. Its tinted windows prevented any clear look at the driver.

Alecís preoccupation with the carwash was now making sense. "Do you know the people in the car behind us by any chance?" she asked. He stopped reading GoodYear, swiveled around and stared out the back window.

"Yes." He sounded exasperated, but not, strangely, scared. "You know, you have some good ideas in this opening scene, but the languageó"

"Well, what should I do? Pull over?"

"Just keep driving. Donít let them bother you. The thing is, real people donít talk like this."

Fine, she thought. Easy to say in the passenger seat where you donít see some hearse-like German car glaring into your rearview mirror. And dammit, people did too talk like that.

The Mercedes pulled around and was cruising next to the Honda. Hannelore detested people who tried to intimidate her. They were passing the Pioneer Market, so she made a screechy right-hand turn, drove through the parking lot and out the other side. The Mercedes wouldnít be able to turn right for another block.

She stopped the car and looked her passenger right in his (she admitted, extremely attractive large hazel) eye and said, "Look, my friend. Weíve only gotten as far as the Pioneer Market and already someone is following you. That wasnít part of the deal. I ought to throw you out of here right now and take my word for it, Iím a world-class screamer. Whatís going on?"

Alec had begun searching through his backpack. Now he pulled out a little tape, the kind used in dictating machines, opened the carís ashtray, the only clean part of the Honda, and stuck it inside, closing the lid firmly.

"And just what do you think youíre putting in my ashtray?" Hannelore demanded, a vision of the Honda going up in a soapy fireball forming in her mind. Her decision to trust Alec was looking mighty shaky.

"I didnít want to have to lie about having the tape on me. Itís best to lie only when absolutely necessary."

Alec confronted her as squarely as possible in the Hondaís limited space. "The Mercedes belongs to my grandfather. He was waiting in the carwash for me to show up at the Tong Pang. At first I thought you might be his hired help."

Hannelore snorted. "Do people actually buy this stuff?" Her fingers, gripping the steering wheel, began crossing over each other, smoothing the nails. Sheíd given up biting them twenty years before but had never lost the urge. "If itís your grandfather, why didnít he just come over and talk to you? Whyís he following you around in that silly car? Youíll have to do a lot better than that or you can take a hike to the bus stop in front of the Pioneer Market."

"It is my grandfather," Alec insisted, sounding like Paul McCartney in A Hard Dayís Night. "I canít help his taste in cars. Heís following me because I told him I wouldnít stop working on this project. Iíve also told him this is none of his damn business, but if youíd ever met my grandfatheró"

Since the Mercedes was oozing to a stop behind them it looked as though she was going to have that pleasure. Ordering Alec out of the car, hightailing it home and leaving him on his own was definitely the smart thing to do, she realized. Alec glanced back at the Mercedes and said, without looking at her, "I know I have no right to ask you to stay, but if I promise you one hell of a story, would you?"

He paused, looking at the ashtray, then peered at her almost shyly. "It has to do with a prostitution ring operating out of the Tong Pang."

This might be a dynamite play-in-the-making, Hannelore thought, but it also sounded really dangerous. Despite her best intentions, her eye traced the contours of Alecís cheekbone in profile. Her right hand, which had been clutching the tiny sombrero on her keychain, fell away from the ignition.

The Mercedesís driverís-side door opened and a tall, beefy Asian man in a dark suit got out. He was not Alecís grandfather. Probably checking for witnesses before he blows us away, Hannelore thought. Her hand grabbed the keys again.

The man walked over to Alecís side of the car and said, "Hey, Alec." His accent was pure Californian.

Alec rolled the window down. "Hey, Benjamin," he returned. "You scared my friend."

"No he didnít," Hannelore contradicted, but they paid no attention.

"Really sorry," said Benjamin, grinning amiably. "I told the old man I was getting too close."

Hannelore peered into the rearview mirror, but there was still no sign of the unseen granddad.

"What were you doing at the Tong Pang?" Alec asked. "I told him to quit following me around."

"You knew that wouldnít do much good," Benjamin sighed, and seemed to recollect his manners. "May I introduce myself?" he said to Hannelore. "Iím Benjamin Hyun and I work with Alecís grandfather."

With, not for, she noticed. She gave him her name and reached across to shake his hand, thinking, If heís a hit man, heís an awfully polite one.

Benjamin looked at Alec. The tendons along Alecís jaw tightened. He got out of the car. "Iíll just be a minute," he said.

This was her chance. She could be back in her safe little office in five minutes...But is that what Shakespeare would do? Run home to the glovery on the Avon? How am I ever going to write about this stuff if I donít live some of it? She decided she was going to get at least some of the damn story out of him. And then there were those cheekbones . . . "Five and Iím out of here," she said, settling back in her seat.

Alec walked back to the Mercedes and stared in through the side window. A black door swung open ominously. Alec got in. Then it closed.

"Iím assuming that really is his grandfather in there," Hannelore remarked to Benjamin, who was leaning against the Honda and staring calmly up Ardmore Avenue, which was not especially scenic at that point. "Iíd just as soon not be involved in any Mafia hits if itís all the same to you."

Benjamin laughed. "How well do you know Alec?" he asked, taking off his sunglasses to see her answer.

"I just met him about ten minutes ago," she retorted. "And I think you know that."

"I didnít. He could have arranged to meet you at the Tong Pang. Alecís grandfather says a family characteristic is a morbid love of secrecy."

It was hot in the Honda, even with the windows down, and Hannelore was getting antsy, as her sister would say. "Why is his grandfather following him around, why were the tapes at the Tong Pang, and why is Alec so anxious to get them back?" She might be able to surprise some information out of this man before Alec got back.

"What tapes?" said Benjamin, looking concerned.

"Little tapes," she said, "which he said are part of his thesis."

The door of the Mercedes flew open and Alec hurled himself through the opening. He did not look happy.

"You donít know where they are and you arenít going to know," he growled at the person inside. Whoops, thought Hannelore. "And for the last time, goddamit, stop following me!"

He marched over to Benjamin, shook his hand in silence, got in he Honda and said, "Do you like kim chee?"

"No. I hate cabbage in any form."

"There are other kinds," Benjamin said.

"Itís an acquired taste," Alec said, breathing hard. "Good-bye, Ben."

"Is he going to need the baths?" Benjamin asked.

"Yes," said Alec. "Fortunately for him, youíre right next to them." To Hannelore he murmured under his breath, "Letís get out of here." She started the car.

"Good-bye, Miss Herald," said the ever-polite Benjamin. "Iíll see you soon."

"I donít think thatís very likely."

He smiled. "I can see you have just met Alec."

On this pronouncement, they drove off. In the rearview mirror, Hannelore saw the Mercedesís back door slam.

 

CHAPTER TWO

If he shares the grapes on my table,

I do not mind wetting my hands.

óYuk sa Lee

 

Hanneloreís employer, Bernice Moss, looked at the leopard-print bags with gold lamé trim, and sighed as she marked them down for the fourth time. They had looked so fabulous at the accessories show. She had been utterly convinced that they were going to be the new, hot Venice, Calif., beachtown extraordinaire item. Bernice was a great buyer, but she had to admit she sometimes fell in love with something and bought twenty-five when two would have been more appropriate. This explained the existence of what she privately referred to as the "Weíll Pay You Five Dollars To Take This" basket, into which the leopard-print bags were being tossed.

Bernice was thirty-six, very energetic, and the kind of person who says "fabulous" a lot. She had enormous presence and no one thought of her as short, though she was barely 5í2". Her black hair was cut extremely short and stuck straight up. The fashion sense sheíd possessed since she was old enough to reject Minnie Mouse in favor of Pepe Le Pew had eventually led her to open her own store, B.V. Ice, specializing in accessories. Everything from socks to earrings was selected with Berniceís almost-unerring style. She ran the little boutique herself, with the part-time help of Hannelore.

Between the two of them they did the buying, bookkeeping and the window displays for which the store was locally famous. This week, the window featured piles of real sand, with shoe prints trailing off to one side where a lone pair of plastic sandals rested next to a brilliantly striped baseball cap.

The storeís interior, a mix of antiques, used furniture and beach funk, reflected the fact that it was July and therefore in retail, "Fall." Bernice had never accepted the idea that "Fall" per se does not exist in Southern California, so the year-round beach stock co-existed uneasily with glen plaid scarves and angora knee-highs. Somehow these items always sold.

Bernice had known Hannelore since college and was tolerant of her schedule changes due to playreadings and writing crises. These crises were why a part-time job in retail was well suited to her employee. She did not think it was very likely that Hanneloreís playwriting ambitions would amount to much. This meant that if in the near future Hannelore decided to chuck playwriting and stick to retail, well, they could talk about expansion, another store . . .

Berniceís eyes misted over with thoughts of a fabulous new store on Santa Monicaís haute hippie Montana Avenue, and herself slinking off to the Paris prêt-a-porter dressed to kill. Nothing gave her more satisfaction than being the best-dressed person in the room.

She looked out the window onto Washington Boulevard, wishing a customer would come in so she could exercise her infallible powers of salesmanship. Someone was going to buy those leopard-print bags, and they were going to buy them today.

Crossing over to the Dutch door, she leaned on the unopened half and stared into the street. No potential bag-buyers in sight. It was Tuesday, one of the slowest days of the week. She noted another sunglasses merchant was opening up across the street. She could see potted plants, decorated with large banners, being carried into the store. Why not close up for a few minutes, get some frozen yogurt, and say hi to the new neighbors, she thought. Bernice had observed that as soon as she walked out the door, customers appeared in droves. She was also the treasurer of the local merchantsí association and new neighbors meant new duesóan irresistible idea.

Scribbling a "Back in 10 minutes" note and hastily taping it to the top of the door, she locked up. Washington Boulevard was in its usual state of urban renewal, so she stepped carefully to avoid getting mud stains on her new, thigh-high, champagne-colored suede boots and walked into her next-door neighborís yogurt parlor.

This was Yin Yogurt, owned and operated by Gwen Scheibe, Berniceís pal, card-carrying feminist and believer in natural foods as the cure for the worldís ills. There were no M&Mís or crushed Oreos as toppings in Gwenís shop. Candied ginger and powdered ginseng were standard items. Gwen was fascinated with Asian medicine, but being a shrewd businesswoman, had decided to combine this interest with a decidedly Western drawófast food. She could usually be found behind the counter, dressed in drapy clothing with obi-like sashes, dispensing yogurt and free advice on customersí real or perceived health problems.

Because of this, she was regarded as a sort of British-American yak jong sang (alchemist) by the local Korean merchants. About eighty percent of the Venice sunglasses business was done by Koreans, who imported their wares from sources back home. Bernice knew that if anyone had met the new neighbors, it would be Gwen. She was the source for inside information.

There were three customers in the yogurt shop, all sitting down and reading the L.A. Weekly. Bernice spotted Gwen behind the counter, chopping something up.

"Gwennie, you little troll," said Bernice affectionately. "What have you found to poison people with now?" Bernice was not a proponent of natural foods, although she had learned to like frozen yogurt.

"Negative statements create a negative immunity environment," Gwen reminded her, coming out to embrace her friend. They had seen each other earlier that day but hugging, Gwen believed, released good enzymes into the systems of both hugger and huggee. "Would you like to try this? Itís called mi yuk. Wonderful for women who have just given birth."

"Yuck is right," retorted Bernice. "You know I hate kids."

One of the Weekly readers glowered over her paper. Bernice ignored her and sat down at a table with Gwen.

"Have you met the new sunglasses people across the street?" she asked.

"Yes," said Gwen, removing a piece of mi yuk from under her fingernail. "The husbandís name is Lee Kang. Theyíre cousins of Kim Che-hong. Sunburn," she added, knowing Bernice could never remember Korean names. She remembered merchants by the names of their stores, and Sunburn, despite its name, was a very successful beach paraphernalia store down the block.

"Think theyíll join the Merchants?" said Bernice.

"Itís quite likely," said Gwen, "but if you wish to make a good impression, send over a plant with a good-luck message attached to it. Which will help to ensure good in-yon for the store. Thatís Ďfateí," she explained to Bernice, who was peering out the window to see what the neighbors were doing.

"Good thinking," said Bernice, who had no intention of doing anything of the kind. "Give me a medium vanilla with raisins; I have to get back to the store. Hannelore isnít coming in today."

"Why not?" Gwen could barely be heard over the whiz of the yogurt machine. "Itís Tuesday."

"Sheís working on one of her plays." Bernice took out her gold compact shaped like a seashell and ran her fingers through her hair so that it stood up even straighter.

"Which one? The one with blimps in the title?" Gwen scooped up a huge portion of raisins and dumped them over the yogurt. "Care for some wheat germ?"

"I donít know and of course not." Bernice had never read or seen any of her employeeís work and had no desire to. It was understood between them that this was not a common interest. Hannelore hadnít even attempted to explain GoodYearís convoluted plot line to her.

"Really, Bernice!" said Gwen, handing her the yogurt. "You should be more supportive of Hanneloreís writing."

"I donít want to be supportive. I want her to come into business full-time with me. All right, all right," as Gwen pulled on one of the chopsticks holding her hair in a bun, always a sign of agitation, "why should I encourage her? What do I get out of it?"

"For one thing," said Gwen, severely for her, "it would create better ki-bun in your store. Thatísó"

"Mood, I know, you keep telling me. The only mood Iím interested in is whoís in the mood to buy those leopard-print bags. You want one?" She took the yogurt without offering to pay. The two women had charge accounts at each otherís stores and settled up at the end of each month.

"Absolutely not," said Gwen, who had been suckered into Berniceís "great deals" before and had the closet to prove it. "Iíll come over and visit you later."

"Scream if you see any of my customers."

Eating her yogurt and sucking on each raisin before chewing it, Bernice ran across the street. Despite the nearness of the sea, the day was muggy and the reek of tar surrounded her. The yogurt was melting fast, but she was not of a mind to let petty circumstances stand in the way of the Merchantsí association. The new store did not have a sign up. No deliveries were being made. A good moment, she thought, for introductions.

She looked around the storeís unfinished interior with a true retailerís professional interest. The design was very modern, lots of chrome, mirrors and white light. The fixtures were obviously designed to hold expensive merchandise. This met with her approval. Venice already had plenty of "two for ten dollars" sunglass merchants.

The front of the store was empty. She called out "Hello?" toward the rear door. As she did so, the door seemed to open and close by itself.

The cause then appeared: a tiny girl, dressed exquisitely in a blue-and-white sailor dress with matching blue socks and miniscule white mary janes. The front counter had prevented her from seeing Bernice when she zoomed through the door, and she almost ran right into her, but stopped and gazed upward, astonished dark eyes framed by the bangs of her bobbed hair.

"Hello," Bernice repeated tentatively. This generating no response, she added, "Iím Bernice." She had never been good at guessing childrenís ages. This one is so littleóis she about three? Can three-year-olds talk?

Of course, donít be ridiculous, you were talking at nine months, Bernice reminded herself crossly. But she may not speak English.

"How do you do?" said the child distinctly. "I get Papa." Before Bernice could say anything, she turned and rocketed back through the door, which swung open and closed again.

"People come and go so quickly here," Bernice quoted softly to herself. The little girl had had a certain Munchkinesque quality . . .Now donít you go getting swoony on me, she told herself sternly. Itís so not you.

The little girl reappeared, holding by the hand a young, very serious-looking Korean man wearing paint-spotted overalls. Small dabs of white paint dotted his wire-frame glasses and smudged his neatly cut black hair. He did not look overjoyed to see Bernice. She figured sheíd better waste no time in small talk. The little girl stood next to him and continued to hold his hand, but stared in the direct way of children straight at Bernice.

Oh damn, is it the first or the last name in Korean? Bernice considered. "How do you do, Mr. Lee Kang," she said, parroting Gwen. "My name is Bernice Moss. Iíve come to say hello on behalf of the Merchantsí association." I sound like Welcome Wagon, she thought. Whatever happened to them anyway?

"Mrs. Moss," said Lee Kang unsmilingly, making no move to shake her hand, which in any case still contained her yogurt cup. Do men and women shake hands in Korea? she wondered. "May I help you with something?" He had no accent and his English was perfect. The child let go of his hand and edged closer to Bernice, still staring.

"Well," said Bernice, who was beginning to regret her impulse and wish sheíd brought a plant as Gwen had recommended, "my shop is just across the street from yours and I just thought Iíd stop in to say hi."

"You are very kind. I am unfortunately very busy right now, as you can see. Perhaps we can talk at another time." With this barely polite brush-off, Lee Kang was turning to walk back through the door. He halted as he noticed that his daughter was now standing right next to Bernice, staring in fascination at the silky thigh-high suede boots which fell in luxurious folds at exactly her eye level.

"Touch?" she pleaded, looking up at Bernice.

The boots were brand new, the suede was delicate, and Bernice was dubious about small-child fingers. But she foresaw two results if she said yesóthe father might thaw out a tad and the little girl would be pleased. She was aghast at the second thought. She didnít like kids.

"OK," she said.

The child reached out and gently stroked the right boot as if it was a dog. "Soft," she cooed, smiling.

Something turned over inside of Bernice. With a mental shake, she righted herself.

"Your daughter knows good merchandise when she sees it," she told Lee Kang, whose demeanor had changed as he watched his child. His own smile banished the dour look.

"Yes, she certainly does," he agreed. "It takes her as long to pick out an outfit in the morning as it does my wife."

"A child after my own heart," said Bernice, observing her left boot being patted as well.

"Melanie, thatís enough. Leave the ladyís shoes alone and come here, please," Lee Kang said.

Melanie gave the left boot one last stroke and ran back to her father, who scooped her up and sat her on the counter, keeping one arm around her.

"What do you say?" he instructed.

"Thank you, Mrs. Bernice," she promptly spouted, swinging her mary janes back and forth and patting her fatherís face with one hand. It was easy to see who wore the pants in this family and they were size three.

"Sheís an adorable child," said Bernice. To her amazement, she actually meant it.

"Thank you very much, Mrs. Moss." Apparently painting was not nearly so urgent now. "You have children of your own?"

"Not yet," Bernice hedged. This was a chink in his armor and she was going for it. "Parenthood must be difficult when youíre opening a new business. I donít know how some of the merchants do it."

"It can be hard," Lee acknowledged. "My wife and I are tired a lot." Melanie squirmed in his arm.

"Arenít we all," Bernice sympathized.

"Did you say your store is across the street?" Lee glanced out the front door.

"Yes, you can see it from here." As Bernice turned to point out B.V. Ice, she saw several women standing at her door, pointedly looking at their watches.

"Thatís a very nice store. We often admire it," Lee said.

"I must get back." Bernice tried to make a quick exit without being rude. "Iím the treasurer of the Merchantsí association and we thought you might be interested in joining," she added, sidling to the door.

"You must come back and have a cup of tea so we can discuss it," suggested Lee, picking up his daughter, who was attempting to hang upside down from the counter.

"Fabulous." She prepared to propel herself across the street.

"I can pet your shoes?" said Melanie, squirming.

"Certainly," said Bernice bravely.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Boy, get ready on the table

A silver plate and a ramie napkin.

óYuk sa Lee

 

La Strega, an old-style Italian restaurant on Western, turned out to be the destination Alec had described as "in Koreatown." Hannelore had envisioned another version of the Tong Pang, or maybe a Korean rib joint, but Alec informed her, "The Koreans love Italian food. Must be the garlic." This was especially true, he said, of the owner of the Tong Pang, who always had lunch at one p.m. on Wednesdays at La Strega.

"You know his entire schedule?" she said skeptically, swerving around double-parked cars.

"No," he said. "One of the girls at the Tong Pang told me."

Hannelore pictured a slinky Korean bar hostess with long, lustrous black hair whispering in Alecís ear. He caught her looking at him and grinned as if he could read her thoughts. Quit writing scenarios about people you barely know, she told herself. What this guy is good for is one thing: a plot.

As they drove into the restaurantís parking lot, she prepared for an argument. She was sure he expected her to drop him off and leave him to whatever fate awaited him and his tapes. But this she had no intention of doing. Heíd promised her a plot and she was going to get one. She wanted a glimpse of this Mr. Song so she could re-create him in what she was quickly convincing herself would be her masterpiece.

"The least I can do is buy you a pizza," Alec remarked, as she opened her mouth to state her case.

Hannelore was confounded. What was he up to now? If he didnít want to get rid of her, he must have some reason. She was pretty sure it wasnít her magnetic personality. Maybe he wanted her to pay for the pizza. She suspected Alecís cash on hand was limited to pocket change. Still, she could always write it off as research.

"What about Mr. Song?"

"Oh, weíll be finished long before he gets here," Alec said airily.

Hannelore sincerely doubted this unless they both ate at the speed of light but it suited her purposes to play along. If Alec had ulterior motives, so did she.

They were sitting in a booth with a good view of the room. Hannelore watched Alecís eyes take in La Stregaís comfortable, traditional colors and tables of pasta-gobbling customers. Most of these people looked to her like businessmen and women, suited and coiffed, with briefcases leaning against their chairs. There were also several couples, and two cops were sitting in a small booth at the back, leather holsters creaking as they reached across the table for the Parmesan cheese.

As Alec studied the menu, she surreptitiously studied him. He looked perfectly relaxed, showing no trace of the minor adventure theyíd just been through. His T-shirt was no more than fashionably rumpled and his lack of stubble indicated heíd shaved that morning. He glanced up at her and she quickly looked down at her own menu. She wondered if her lips were disappearing into her face as her lipstick wore off. She wondered if heíd even noticed her lips.

Snap out of it, sweetie, she told herself. Whatever this guy wants, itís got nothing to do with your Forbidden Ruby lipgloss. Get some information out of him so this afternoon won't be a complete waste of time.

"This Mr. Song is a pimp?" she said, keeping her voice low.

"Whatís he got to do with your thesis?"

"Hannelore," he said, putting down the menu. "Does anyone ever call you Han?"

"No one whoís lived to tell the tale." But she liked the way he said her name, kind of rippling and Old Country.

"Thereís a Korean connection, you see. Han is a complicated concept in their language. It sort of means Ďdeep-seated sorrowíóthe kind you have in your heart."

Hannelore looked closely at him for signs that this was a) bullshit or b) some kind of code. He smiled back at her.

"Very interesting," she said crossly. "Would you at least try to answer my question?" He smiled again and the corners of his eyes turned up.

"I very much appreciate your help. My grandfather is probably simmering in the baths as well as in frustration right now." He chuckled. "So I feel I owe it to you to tell you I made up the part about the prostitution ring."

Hannelore slapped down the menu. "Are you telling me that this whole episode is just some dumb family squabble?"

"Not exactly," he said. The waiter approached. She bit back further comment. Alec said, "Weíll have a medium pizza, mushrooms and black olives. And some wine. The 1985 Vinatierri Rosso." He looked at her calmly for approval.

She hadnít been asked if she wanted any wine. She hadnít been asked what kind of pizza she wanted. He didnít even know if she drank. As it happened, she was a vegetarian who liked red wine but the point was he didnít know that. Or maybe he did somehow, but anyway, she silently ranted, his story to get me here has just been exposed as a complete fabrication. Wine is not a top priority. Who orders a good wine with pizza anyway? She nodded to get rid of the waiter.

"Is there actually a thesis?" she hissed. The grad student part surely was true. Alec struck her as someone who spent a lot of time with his head in books and was playing with this as if it were fiction rather than real life. She had to admit that reminded her of herself.

Alec looked solemn. He fidgeted in his seat, his long fingers sliding back and forth on the table. "I really needed a ride and figured that story would get your attention."

"It did. Fine. Now the truth."

The wine arrived and Alec smelled, sipped, waved the waiter away and poured it, deep red and faintly spice-scented, into her glass. "Well," he said, "Iíll tell you how it started."

As they drank the wine and ate the excellent pizza, he told her he was a masterís candidate in sociology. He had decided to do his thesis on second-generation Korean-Americans. Not much research had been done on the Korean-American community, so it had lots of potential. His original interest in the subject came from his grandfather, who had fallen in love with Korea while working there for the UN during the Korean War. Books about Korea had been scattered throughout the house when he was growing up, and his grandfather had even taught him to speak a little Korean.

Hannelore listened and noticed details about him. He used a knife and fork to cut up his pizza, for example, instead of cramming huge slices into his mouth with his hands. He refilled her wine glass and even occasionally used his napkin. She realized she was comparing his table manners to those of her last, unlamented boyfriend. She jerked her attention back to what he was saying, which concluded with, "cross-cultural patterns of assimilation." He seemed quite excited about whatever he had just been talking about.

"I live in Koreatown, or right next to it, anyway," she said. "And from my observation, the Koreans arenít going to let you just walk into their community and write about them."

"They might not let you write about them," he replied. "Theyíre a very close-knit community and you are an oekukin, a foreigner." His superior attitude was annoying.

"And youíre not, I suppose?"

"It helps to have connections." She saw his expression change as he looked over his shoulder at the door. He looked keyed up, as though all his senses had shifted into high gear. "Have you got a notebook with you?" he said, without looking at her.

"Of course." Half of Hanneloreís ideas for scripts came from scribbling down remarks in Laundromats, checkout lines and Amtrak trains.

"I need you to do me another favor. Iíll have to explain afterwards. Look quickly at the two men at the door."

She swiveled around in the booth and saw two conservatively dressed Asian men, one average-sized and one tall and bulky, being fussed over by the host. The booth was screened by a large potted ficus and she didnít think the men had seen either her or Alec yet.

"Turn back around. Thatís Song and his bodyguard." Alec moved over so that more of the ficus was between him and the door.

"I thought you said weíd be finished before he got here." Hannelore figured she had to act upset.

Alec ignored this. "Go to the ladiesí room. When you come back, take the booth right in back of this one. Use your notebook and take notes on everything you hear."

"Do I look like a secretary to you?"

"Please." For a second, his hand closed over hers. She went.

She stood in the hall near the restrooms, trying to look as though she was waiting for someone. She saw the smaller of the two men glance across the room and notice Alec. Alec smiled and beckoned. Without hesitation, the man made his way to the booth, followed by his large associate. Conventional greetings appeared to be exchanged, then Mr. Song (so Hannelore assumed) bowed and sat down. His associate remained standing, facing the front door and away from her.

The booth behind Alec had not been cleared. She caught the waiterís eye and he came over.

"I hope you donít mind." She oozed professional sales charm. "My husband has run into some professional business associates, and Iíd like to move into the next booth to give them some room. Could you bring me a little coffee?"

The waiter looked sympathetic and promised to bring it right over. Now or never, thought Hannelore. She took a deep breath, walked casually to the new booth and slid in. The big man looked sharply at her, but she gave him an empty-headed smile and he looked away. There are times, Hannelore had learned, when you can use peopleís prejudices to your advantage.

She eased her notebook, which was luckily a very small one, out of her bag. Hannelore considered eavesdropping a real playwrightís skill. She had discovered how to take notes on peopleís conversations right in front of them and make it look like she was checking off a grocery list. This would now come in handy.

"I was on my way to the Beverly Hot Springs and decided to stop for lunch," Alec was saying.

"A remarkable coincidence," a Korean-accented voice said dryly. "Where is your companion?"

Hannelore froze, then realized Mr. Song could see that the table had been set for two. He and she were back-to-back in the adjacent booths and he reeked of Polo, a scent that always nauseated her. The bulk of his associate effectively blocked one exit from the half-circle of her booth.

Alec didnít miss a beat. "He had a class," he lied smoothly.

Mr. Song shifted in the booth. All his movements were discernible to Hanneloreís heightened senses. "Ah," he said. "You have perhaps reconsidered my offer?" There was no change in his tone.

"Iíve told you I wonít consider any offer that doesnít include a guarantee of Yuen Chong-leeís safety." Alecís voice was cold and businesslike.

"Yuen, yes." Mr. Song sighed. The booth squeaked. "She is quite safe, I assure you."

"But she isnít at the Tong Pang. In fact, youíve closed the Tong Pang. Why?"

"I will remodel the club and reopen it as a restaurant."

"Why not a nurseryóor perhaps a daycare center? Wouldnít that be better cover? Yuen could tell each customer about the babiesí provenanceówho would know better than the person who brings them back from Korea?"

Hanneloreís pen stopped.

There was silence in the next booth. Then Mr. Songís voice, up to now carefully neutral, came in a low growl. "That is not amusing, Mr. Linden. These matters are unsuitable for discussion in a public place. We can continue this in my office."

Alec laughed. She barely registered that she had heard his last name for the first time.

"I donít plan to go anywhere with you," he said.

"Iím afraid you have no choice. Not if, as you say, you care about Yuen. Jung will escort you to our car." Hannelore heard rustling. The waiter appeared with the coffee, glanced at the next booth and looked puzzled. Time to improvise, she decided.

The cops in the back had paid their check and were about to leave by the back door. She bounced out of her booth, waving. "Officers!" she trilled. "May I have just a moment of your time?"

They turned, waiting, and when she stood her ground, smiling inanely, they gave each other a "time for community policing bullshit" glance and walked over to her.

Out of the corner of her eye she could now see Mr. Songís impeccably groomed black hair. The associate had moved to the other side of the booth. There was more movement, but she couldnít turn around to see what it meant.

The policeman loomed, wearily patient. "Iím the block captain of my neighborhood watch group," Hannelore gushed. "Do you know my senior lead, Officer Medina? Heís so helpful to us." As they both began agreeing with her about Officer Medinaís many virtues, she switched them off and concentrated entirely on the conversation behind her, another eavesdropping trick she had mastered.

"Circumstances do not seem to favor continuing this discussion," Mr. Song was saying.

"Very unfortunate." Alec still sounded unruffled.

"Perhaps, however, you will now reconsider my offer. It would be, let us say, in everyoneís best interest."

The cops chatted on. "You know, Miss, if everyone was as involved in their community as you are . . ."

"Have a nice lunch. Iíll be in touch." Alecís voice was suddenly close behind her. He had exited the booth and was ready to leave.

"Thank you so much, officers," Hannelore interrupted. "You guys are doing a wonderful job. Say hi to Officer Medina for me." She shook hands and waved gaily as she headed for the door. As she swept by the remains of the pizza on their former table, she realized Alec had left Mr. Song with the check.

In the parking lot, Alec was slamming his fist down on the Hondaís roof. Fortunately one more dent wouldnít matter.

"Get in the car," she said.

"No," he said. "Just give me the notes you took. This has gone too far. I donít want you to get any further involved in this."

"Youíre welcome for saving your butt," she said. "Get in the car."

Alec glared at her. "If I do, will you promise to go home after you drop me off and forget you ever saw these people?" He had probably remembered that he did, after all, need a ride.

"Yes," she lied. "Where to?"

"The Beverly Hot Springs."

"Where your grandfather is?" Hadnít they just gone through an elaborate rigmarole to get rid of him? Alec didnít answer.

She fired up the Honda and they were quickly cruising back down Western. Alec slumped in his seat. He was worried and tired and looked it.

"I do need to thank you for your help. You think pretty fast on your feet."

"What would they have done to you?"

"I donít know but I doubt I would have liked it." He ran his hand through his hair.

Hannelore swallowed. She needed the answer to a question.

"Why did you want me to have lunch with you? The truth, please."

With peripheral vision she could see him looking at her. He turned away and stared out the window. "I wanted a witness. I hadnít thought it through. It was wrong to involve you. At least Song doesnít connect us."

In the La Strega parking lot, Mr. Song was speaking Spanish to the attendant. He smiled slightly at the answer to his question and pressed a twenty into the manís outstretched palm.

 

 

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Author Bio

Janis Hashe has been a retail fashion worker, journalist and teacher. Sheís also been involved in theatre in various capacities for more years than she cares to admit. Originally from La Selva Beach, California, she lived in Los Angeles for more than twenty years. She currently resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Ex-Club Tong Pang is her first novel.

TTB title: The Ex-Club Tong Pang

Author web site.

 

###

 

The Ex-Club Tong Pang Copyright © 2014. Janis Hashe. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
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List Price: $6.50 USD

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available December 2013!
List Price: $15.95 USD

 

  Author News

Janis Hashe, author of The Ex-Club Tong Pang, has several upcoming events in the Chattanooga TN area. Janis has a booksigning on Saturday, Jan. 18th at The Winder Binder Gallery on Frazier Avenue.

Theatre of Note presents a "meet the author" and book signing of The Ex-Club Tong Pang by former artistic director Janis Hashe, December 2, 2013.

 

  Reviews

"Wow! Intriguing people... a lively setting and a story full of surprising twists and turns. Unexpected developments that all somehow add up to an anxious glimpse at several intriguing parts of 1980's Los Angeles life... Janis' wit and celebration of language makes it a smile-inducing read. Compelling. Keeps you reading until the last sentence."
ó Michael Duffield
 




 


 

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