A buzzing sound indicated the security door had opened. Gustavo entered and walked across the lobby. Several seconds after pushing the button, the elevator car clanked down the open shaft. He pulled back the old-style iron door and got in. On the fifth floor, a floppy-fringed Chinese youth ushered him through an entrance flanked by guardian lions. Outside the sun blazed, but inside the restaurant the blinds were closed and the lights on. Despite the pumping air conditioner, the smell of stale smoke was strong. Scrolls featuring either calligraphy or landscapes decorated the walls, and tired paper lanterns hung from the high ceiling. In this cavernous space that could have fit two hundred diners, Boss Ping sat alone at a large table. She was a middle-aged woman with unpleasant features on a face stretched smooth by severely tied-back hair. Compact rather than obese, it was unfair they called her Fat Ping behind her back. To her right, a man of about thirty in a white chef’s smock stood nervously. Ping had a cup of coffee in front of her and in the middle of the table were two baskets of medialunas and a jug of orange juice.
“Ta laile, laoban,” said the kid with the fringe without taking the cigarette from his mouth. The boss looked up and gave her guest the once-over. He wore a tucked-in mauve shirt that was tight over his strong shoulders, and blue dress pants. He had a calm expression, but a troubled history showed on his crisscrossed forehead.
“Sit, Gustavo, and tell Li how you like your coffee. Take a medialuna, we have de manteca here and de grasa there. Please get stuck in. Li can also get you some toast with dulce de leche or jam if you like?” Obviously not a native speaker of Spanish, Ping’s voice had a scratchy quality, but her grammar was good and accent soft.
“I’ll have a café con leche and two pieces of toast with jam,” Gustavo told Li the chef, who hurried off to the kitchen.
As her guest ate a medialuna, Ping started small-talking: “You know I’ve been here in Argentina so long I prefer your style of breakfast. China has the best food in the world, which you barbarians can’t appreciate. And I say barbarians not as a racist term; in the USA there are people, like you descended from Italians, who love Chinese food. Argentina is full of people with conservative taste buds. But Chinese food is more suited to lunch and dinner than breakfast.”
“I’ve never tried Chinese food, I wouldn’t know.”
Ping frowned. A decent conversation looked off the cards with this close-minded fellow. It didn’t matter. Business, always to business, she reminded herself. “Where are the vehicles?”
“I had them scrapped.”
“That was quick. What did you do with the plates and papers?”
“I’ve still got them – I’ll destroy them?”
“Yes, do that. And what about these Venezuelans that were arrested, maybe they’ll tell the police the duplicate plates and papers came from us?”
“I told them nothing, they were always going to be the fall guys if something went wrong.”
Li came back with Gustavo’s coffee and toast but he didn’t get to enjoy them. “OK, Gustavo, stay in touch, I’ll have something for you,” Ping said, then she addressed the kid with a fringe in Chinese: “Get him out of here, Juan, I don’t like thinking about how helping this guy ended up in a dead English woman, that’s way too much heat. It’s giving me indigestion.”
Juan put his hand on Gustavo’s shoulder and the Argentine got up from the breakfast table without protest. The look he gave Ping wasn’t quite indifferent, but certainly unconcerned. Meeting with the triad boss appeared not to intimidate him, but, Ping figured, he was smart enough not to reject a job if she offered him one.
Three hours later, Ping returned to the same table for lunch. This time the stakes were higher for Li, and he keenly followed the trajectory of a tofu wrap to the boss’s mouth. Ping’s stretched face chewed around fifteen times before swallowing and after another fifteen seconds, she delivered her verdict: “Haochi…just as I told you to make it.”
Li let out a relieved sigh, his yuxiang rousi was a hit. He was now confirmed as Ping’s chef. The boss continued with her praise: “I was afraid it was going to be too spicy, but no, this is like the version we have in Fujian.” Most Chinese working for Ping were from Fujian, but Li was from Sichuan, a province famous for its scorching hot fare.
“My mother’s tasted like this. She made it for me the day before I left for Argentina.”
“I’m very happy you like it, Boss Ping. I can make you other Sichuan dishes at Fujian spice level.”
Ping was disappointed Li wasn’t at ease enough to ask: How did you end up in Argentina, boss? Being around the boss made people nervous and Ping had never learned how to make them relax. Her good humour came across as sinister. Li stood fingering his ribs. There was some flesh over them – reassuring, skinny chefs are bad news. His weight also protected him from becoming one of the boss’s lovers: she liked them skinny.
There was nothing out of the ordinary in Ping’s migration story. At the age of five, she figured out her parents would have loved a boy more. Attractive looks or academic brilliance might have softened the blow of being the wrong gender, but she had neither. With her as their one allotted offspring, her parents gave up on a comfortable retirement. For Ping, the options were a poor farmer husband or migrating to a nearby city to find a dead-end job. So when a cousin needed a supermarket cashier somewhere called Argentina, Ping jumped at the chance. After two years as a cashier, she found a way out: joining the triad. Someone prepared to shoot people didn’t have their sex held against them. She didn’t really like violence but preferred it to being bored. Many times, she had thought it extraordinary what she would do not to be bored, but she never had anybody to analyse this with. Especially now that she was at the top – the head of the triad didn’t have friends.
“Can I go to the toilet?” Li asked, acting the meek schoolboy. The relief of the boss liking his dish had brought on a bowel movement.
“Yes you can, but use the toilet first on the left, not the one at the end of the hall. I don’t let anybody use the same toilet as me. Do you know why?”
Li shut his eyes for a second as he re-clenched his buttocks, he wasn’t going anywhere for the minute. “No boss.”
“Night soil. It’s my first childhood memory: the smell of shit coming through my bedroom window. We weren’t too poor; I grew up after the Cultural Revolution. My father’s carpentry work kept meat on the table. We also had a couple of fields of vegetables, fertilised by human shit. I never want to smell that again, everywhere I go I must have my own toilet, and of course my shit doesn’t stink.” Ping stared at Li stonily for a long moment and then laughed. Li attempted his own laugh, which ended up more as a splutter.
“All right, you can go, well done.”
Li dashed off, and Ping picked her chopsticks up again. This time she didn’t bother with the tofu and stuffed the pork straight into her mouth. Her mind was already turning over an idea for deploying Gustavo. Much like Lucas’s father, Ping was a patriot –or a nationalist. That is to say, she wanted to put herown people first: Chinese people, especially thosefrom her home province of Fujian. That this was herattitude was up for dispute, because the Fujianesewere exactly the people she exploited. However, Pingwould have countered that you had to make money somehow, and the exploitation would happen no matter what.
Li came back in and put a plate of fried green vegetables on the table.
“Sit down Li, have something to eat. When were you last in China?”
“Five years ago, boss.”
“I guess they already had that pay from your cell phone in restaurants and ordering food online five years ago. I’d love to go back to China now, it sounds wonderful, so advanced. We need to change too, Li. I don’t want our people having to pick up protection money anymore. It always leads to Chinese hurting Chinese. This Gustavo character seems steady and tough. I’ll send him round the supermarkets. If it works out, we’ll recruit more Argentines. What do you think?
“Yes boss, sounds fine.”
Ping sighed; Li was a talented chef, but a hopeless sounding board.
“In my day Li, the extortion racket was brutal. The owner had three more days if he didn’t have the money on the due date. After that, he’d be shot in the head. Because the assassins were Chinese, the family could usually find out who did the shooting. Then they’d try to take revenge. I’ve had a few guns held in shaking hands pointed at me. These days I tell my guys not to kill anyone, just shoot the place up a little, scare them, it works. It doesn’t always go smoothly, we Chinese are nice hardworking people, but once we get violent we have trouble holding back. About six weeks ago in the south of the city, one of my guys shot a supermarket owner point-blank. He didn’t have my go-ahead to do that and has now disappeared…to China perhaps? Since then we haven’t collected in the south. It’s easier pickings in the north, where the stores make more profit. But the Pixiu Triad has started visiting my areas in the south, not any stores still paid up with us of course…nothing to start a war. There are thousands of Chinese supermarkets in the city, enough for two triad groups to prosper. But I hate losing ground. I’ll try Gustavo in the south. I don’t want him using Venezuelan kids though; look at how that ended up. They showed no restraint at all, shooting two tourists in the open…and for what?”
“It’s hard to find good people these days, boss.”
Ping put down her chopsticks and took a break from talking and shovelling food in her face. She looked at Li: the bovine eyes set in a moon face, the flabby neck and weak shoulders – the antithesis of a tough guy. He was right though, it was hard to find good people.