From Dragonfish, the debut novel by Vu Tran
Vu Tran’s upcoming novel Dragonfish is set in the Vietnamese underworld of Las Vegas. Robert, an Oakland cop, can’t let go of Suzy, the mysterious Vietnamese wife who recently left him. Now she’s remarried a Vietnamese man named Sonny, a dangerous Vegas smuggler and gambler who’s been violent with her. So Robert has come to town, looking to hurt Sonny and to redeem himself. In this scene, he meets with Sonny’s son in Chinatown, at a Japanese restaurant that “Sonny Jr.” manages.
He dabbed at his forehead with the napkin, pocketed it, and said, “I have something to show you. It will behoove you to come with me.”
“I’m guessing this something is not your father.”
Instead of answering me, he nodded toward the front of the restaurant. “You are free to go if you want. But I think you will regret it.”
I still hadn’t moved.
“You’re the police officer here,” he said. “It should be me who is nervous.”
I felt vaguely embarrassed and downed the rest of my beer before getting up. As I gestured for him to lead the way, I noticed again how much taller I was. On our way to the kitchen, we passed two private tatami rooms, each being busily prepared by the staff for the swarm of guests out front. Foolishly or not, the presence of so many people eased my mind.
The kitchen was staffed by Mexicans and Asians, all in white uniforms. No one paid us any attention as we walked to the back, toward a door marked OFFICE. Junior unlocked it, and once we stepped inside he relocked it. He approached an enormous, door-size oil painting of a geisha walking up a dark flight of stairs. There was a clock on the wall beside it, which he set to midnight, then he turned the minute hand three revolutions clockwise and two revolutions counterclockwise. The painting slowly swung open from the wall like a door, revealing a passageway and a dark descending staircase. He walked down and with a glance over his shoulder said, “It will close again in ten seconds.”
Visions of my own doom flittered through my head, but at that point I’d already talked myself into following. If he wanted to lure me into danger, he wouldn’t be this obvious about it, even if he figured me for a complete idiot. The kid seemed too smart to underestimate a cop. He really wanted to show me something, and I wasn’t ready yet to walk away.
We reached a long dim hallway and passed six closed doors, each with a keypad over the knob. At the end we stopped at a door that was set much farther away from the others. He punched a series of numbers on the keypad and something clicked. He pushed the door open completely before walking inside.
I heard soft oriental music. The room glowed bluish and shimmered.
It was no more than eight hundred square feet but felt cavernous, with a lofty ceiling and walls of glass surrounding us, behind them water and fish. I had entered a gigantic aquarium. The three walls before me each showed the flush faces of four separate tanks, framed in quadrants like giant television monitors, their blue-lit waters filled with stingrays and sharks and what looked like piranha and other menacing fish, swimming around beds of coral and white gravel. High above me were two ceiling fans, their slow synchronous spinning like the gears of a machine. I noticed then the small video camera perched in the corner, peering down at us.
On a large oriental rug in the center of the room stood a black leather couch, two dolphin chairs, and a glass coffee table. Sonny Jr. walked to the table and took a cigarette from the pack lying there, lit it casually, and approached the tank of stingrays.
I sensed something behind me. Haunting the hallway outside, in his oversize bib of an apron, was the seven-foot Mexican, his dull Frankenstein face looming beyond the top of the doorframe, nearly severed by it. Junior spoke Vietnamese to him and he stepped inside, bowing to do so, and propelled me farther into the room until I was standing by the black couch. He untied his apron and let it wilt onto the floor, then closed the door behind him.
I don’t know why it had taken this long for my nerves to kick in, but as soon as the door clicked shut, I clenched my jaw. It struck me that the Mexican spoke three languages, including Vietnamese, apparently, and something about this — the fact that he belonged completely to this absurd situation — was both comical and deeply troubling.
I said to Junior, “Your father has expensive pets.”
A moment with vu tran
On how living in Las Vegas influenced his fiction: “When you set a novel in Las Vegas, you inevitably trap yourself in a landscape that most readers will have very specific and vivid ideas about, even if they’ve never been there. It’s strippers and gamblers, neon and glitter, excess and depravity. Early on in writing the novel, because I was telling a violent crime story that featured poker players and gangsters, I struggled a great deal with how to handle these and other, sometimes unavoidable Vegas tropes, how to get the city right but in an unexpected and unique way. The further I got into the novel, however, the less I worried about what might be hackneyed. The thing that ultimately mattered was whether something was convincing within the world I had built around it. The novel would feel real and interesting not because it avoids cliché, but because the reader believes in my characters and things they do and feel.”
“He is not here, Mr. Robert,” he replied and ashed into an ashtray he held in his other hand — yet another overly formal mannerism. He gestured at the entire room. “But I have brought you to meet his fish. You may already know that they are not ... particularly legal. This one here” — he pointed at a creature over two feet long, with a golden, undulating body, glimmering in the light — “is an Asian arowana. A dragonfish. Very endangered in the wild. They’re supposed to bring good luck, keep evil away, bring the family together. Asians always love believing in that. Our clients will pay over ten thousand for a gold one like this.”
He glanced at me for a response. I gave him nothing. His arrogance with all this was confusing, but more than anything it was beginning to annoy me.
He watched the fish intently. “You’ve heard of caliche?” he said with his back to me. “It’s a dense bed of calcium carbonate in the desert soil. Harder than concrete. They must often use special drills to remove it. Because of caliche, my father spent a fortune building all this. Being underground, you see, that’s very important to him. He comes down here two or three times a week, sometimes for an entire day, to smoke and listen to music, to be alone with his fish, remove himself entirely from the world. For all his flaws, he is a man who values peace.”
“Maybe he just values a nice hiding place.”
“A person can hide anywhere, Mr. Robert. Even right out in the open. You do, don’t you? How long could you stand it down here, all alone, with nowhere to hide, with no one but you and yourself?”
I took a step toward him and heard the Mexican shuffle his feet behind me. I spoke to Junior’s back. “I’ve met your fish. Why else have you brought me here?”
He turned around, expelling smoke through his nostrils. “I have brought you here to tell you a story.” He licked his lips and brushed ash from his breast. “You see, my father appreciates these fish because they are beautiful and bring him a lot of money. But they also remind him of home—they bring home to him. It is the irony, you see, that is valuable: a tiny tropical ocean here in the middle of the desert; all these fish swimming beneath sand. The casinos in this city sell you a similar kind of irony, but what we have here is genuine and real, because it also keeps us who we are.”
“Who you are? You and your pops run a Japanese restaurant.”
“Be quiet, Mr. Robert, and listen.”
He put out his cigarette and walked over to take a seat in one of the dolphin chairs. He grabbed a remote off the table and pressed a button and the music faded into the soft purr of the aquarium pumps. Unbuttoning his jacket, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, he offered me the face of a boy but sounded like an old man.
“Twenty years ago,” he said, “my parents and I escaped Vietnam by boat. Ninety people in a little fishing boat made for maybe twenty. We were headed for Malaysia. On our sixth night at sea we hit a terrible storm and my mother fell overboard. No one saw it. It was too dark and stormy, and the waters were too violent for anyone to save her anyway. I was seven at the time. I will not bore you with a tragedy. I will only say that her death hardened my father, made him more fearless than he already was.
“In any case, after nine days, our boat finally made it to the refugee camp in Malaysia, on a deserted island off the coast. The first day my father and I were there, a few ruffians in the camp made themselves known to us. My father was once in a gang back in Vietnam and had also fought in the war, so he was not afraid. He ignored them. A week later, one of them stole my rice ration. He slapped me several times, pushed me to the ground, ripped the sack out of my hand. For one last scare, he grabbed my wrist and ran a knife across it, barely cutting the skin. I ran to my father, bawling, and before he said a single word, he too slapped me. Shut me up in an instant.”
Junior peered at his hands for a moment, like he was studying his nails. His sudden sincerity felt real, except I couldn’t locate its purpose.
He went on: “He took me by the arm and dragged me to the part of the camp where the ruffians hung out, near the edge of the forest. There was hardly anyone around except three young men kneeling and playing dice outside their hut. One of them was the man who had attacked me. My father made me point him out, then had me stand under a palm tree. He ordered me to watch. On a tree stump nearby, someone had butchered an animal and left the bloody cleaver and my father grabbed it and marched up behind the man and kicked him hard in the back of the head. The man fell forward, dazed, and his two friends pounced at my father, but he was already brandishing the cleaver. They backed off. My father grabbed the man by the back of his shirt and dragged him to the tree stump. In one swift motion he placed the man’s hand on the stump and threw down the cleaver and hacked off three fingers. The man screamed. Suddenly there were voices around us, faces appearing in doorways, from behind the trees. I heard a woman shriek. The man was kneeling on the ground, stunned and whimpering, clasping his bloody hand to his chest. His fingers—the three middle ones—still lay on the tree stump. His two friends could only stare at them. My father flung the cleaver away and bent down and muttered something in his ear. Then he wiped his own hand on his pants and held mine as we walked back to our shack. We stayed in that camp for three more months before we came to the States. No one ever bothered us again.”
Sonny Jr. stood from the chair and walked over again to the stingrays. He took out the linen napkin and wiped the glass where his finger had pointed at the arowana. “I still occasionally have dreams about that afternoon,” he said, as if to the fishes. Then he turned to me thoughtfully. “But I’m not telling you this story so that you’ll pity me. I simply want you to understand what kind of man my father is. I want you, in your own way, to respect it. He will hurt you, Mr. Robert. If he doesn’t do it this time, he will find you some other time and hurt you then. No matter what.
“So please, think of this conversation—this situation between us—as an exchange of trust. I have brought you down here, an officer of the law, to see my father’s illegal business. This rather foolish gesture should convince you of my good intentions. Please trust that I am trying to help you. I’m offering you the door now and trusting you to forget your plans in this city, to go home and not say a word of what you have seen. A man of your sentiments should appreciate the sincerity of this offer.”
I watched him neatly fold the napkin and place it back in his pocket. His fastidiousness seemed overdone, just like his words. He’d both shown me his hand and told me how to play mine, but it all still smelled like a bluff. The kid knew he was smart, and in my experience if you let people think they’re smarter, they’ll try a little less to outsmart you. That’s easier said than done though.
I walked over to the couch and sat down. I hadn’t smoked since Suzy left me—another part of my detox plan, since smoking together was one of the few things we never stopped doing. But now I took a cigarette from the pack and lit up.
I squinted up at him. “Why do you want so badly to help me?” I said. “Is it really me you’re protecting? Or is it your father? Because somehow I feel he’s no longer the hard man you say he is. Maybe never was. And I’m guessing maybe you made up that dramatic little story just to scare me. But even if it is true, I’ve dealt with scarier people. Now why you’ve chosen to show me all this fish stuff is still a mystery to me—though I’d wager you just like getting off on your own smarts and impressing people. You’ve either read too many books or listened to people who’ve read too many books. Either way, it’s not my fault that I can’t understand half the things you say. But what I do understand is this …” I leaned forward on the couch. “Your father is a thug. Not only that, he’s a coward. He threw a woman down the stairs and broke her arm. Who knows what else he did or could’ve done or might do in the future, but men like him only have the guts to do that to a woman. You’re a smart boy. You know I’m right. He’s your father and you want to protect him. That’s fine. It’s admirable. But my business with him has nothing to do with you.”
I stood from the couch and walked around the table, stopping a few yards from him. “I’d tell you to fuck off, but that would be rude. I will say that I have police buddies who know exactly where I am and who your father is, and if I don’t say hi to them next week, they’ll know where to come find me.” I took a long drag from the cigarette, flicked it on the ground. “I want to speak with your father. That’s it. All the rest of this doesn’t mean a whole lot of shit to me.”
Junior glared at my cigarette on the floor, still curling smoke, then at me. I couldn’t tell if he believed me or saw through my empty threat. From behind him, the stingrays swam languidly around his thin, stiff figure like a flock of vultures.
His eyes looked past me, and he nodded, and before I could turn, I felt the Mexican’s meaty arms clasp around me, crushing my chest so I could hardly breathe. My feet left the floor, my body seeming to spin like the ceiling fans above me, and I felt a fumbling at my ankle holster and soon saw Sonny Jr. with my five-shot, which he deposited in his jacket pocket. He said something in Vietnamese, and the Mexican shoved me to the floor, forcing me flat onto my stomach. With his knee digging into my lower back, he twisted one of my arms behind my shoulder and held the other to the floor before my flattened face. I could do nothing but grunt beneath him, a doll in his hands, the tile floor numbing my cheek.
I looked up and Sonny Jr. had taken off his jacket. From his pants pocket, he now pulled out a switchblade, which he opened. The Mexican wrenched my extended forearm so that my wrist was exposed. Junior kneeled and planted his shoe on my palm. He steadied the blade across my wrist.
“Wait!” I gasped. I struggled but could hardly budge under the Mexican and his boulder of a knee.
Junior slowly dragged the blade. I could feel its icy sharpness slice the surface of my skin. It was like a crawling itch, not yet painful, but my jaw clenched so tightly that it ached. He lifted his shoe. A line of blood appeared across my wrist, swelled.
I suddenly saw Junior’s open palm beside my face. He pulled back his sleeve and revealed the thin pale scar, like a bracelet, around his wrist.
“You and I,” he murmured, “now share something.”
Vu Tran has a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from UNLV. He is the winner of a Whiting Award and teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.