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In the middle of the courtyard of the shopping mall is the television set, two cooking stations either side, gas burners, and oven and baking trays and frying pans, fridges and fryers, and over the top of it, a sign you couldn’t miss: “The Golden Wok Competition,” complete with a prop wok as the “o” of the sign. Surrounding all the paraphernalia of reality television: cameras set up to catch the angles and cables running like snakes under the feet of the assistants who were running to and fro and keeping the public far enough back.
Centre stage, the female TV presenter of the show is talking into a microphone, and on one side, the older lady sagged over an empty burner like she’d already lost. On the other side, a foppish young man with a diamond earring and slightly ridiculous fringe was preening for the camera, showing off an expensively white smile.
And a few hours before all of that: from the rickety plastic chair, I contemplated the one solitary window in the corner of the utility room. Through the window, a small patch of black, polluted brighter by shopping mall lights.
It was about all that I could see of hope.
The utility room itself was rough concrete, like whoever had built it had died rather than work on it any further. Around the room, a few abandoned tables and chairs, thrown away ramen packets, the background sound of a generator, the stink of piss and rat droppings.
And me. Seated in one of those chairs, my hands tied together at my back with a magic knot that refastened itself if I tried to move.
The four doorwaymen looked at me like I was a rotting durian, stinking up the place. Like they couldn’t wait to throw me in the dumpster with the other trash.
I only had three things going for me.
Firstly, they didn’t know who I was yet.
And secondly, that meant they didn’t know that I was a lowbinder, or that there were only two magic bindings I was any good at. One was how to find something lost. And the other was how to summon something small to hand from close by, or send something equally small. Perfect for card tricks. Not so good for knots around my hands. If one of them got close enough, maybe I could steal something to release myself.
And thirdly, morning was coming. And then the show would start and maybe they would be distracted enough for me to break out from here. Aunty still wouldn’t have her wok, but I’d have to work that out later.
The door opened and in came the professional fist. Garan. I hadn’t seen him before but I’d heard the stories—the kind we tell each other to remind ourselves of the consequences of falling under the wrong shadow. There was one particular story with a thumbtack that I tried to push from my mind.
Garan was an angmoh who moved through the world like he was a knife looking for the place to cut. You knew he was a foreigner because he still tried to wear a suit in Malaysian weather. A suit that did nothing to hide the gun at his side.
But if the rumours were true and he was in the pay of Pretty Boy Tse … none of this boded well for me.
“This him?” Garan said, glancing around at the doorwaymen. He had this disconcerting way with his eyes, blinking two too many times.
“He said he’s a tourist. Got trapped in the shopping mall at the wrong time,” one of them said.
“The wok is gone.”
Garan looked at me, like a butcher looks at a cut of beef. I dropped my eyes to my feet and saw his shoes advance towards me.
“I don’t think you’re a tourist,” Garan said. “Tell me what you were doing here.”
I just needed to keep talking. Keep him talking. One word after another. Until the sunlight came. I cleared my throat.
Well, boss, see, I needed some new pants. So I came to the shopping mall. For new pants.
And you know it’s so hard to find. The new pants. When I did find it, it’s not on sale. And when it is on sale, they don’t have my size.
Finally I find some new pants. I go to bathroom stall to put them on. And then I tripped over the new pant leg and I must have fallen and hit my head. Next thing I know, I woke up and wandered out and it is all dark.
And then these guys found me, and I thought they were security and they brought me here.
“Stop,” Garan said and I did. “Leave us alone,” he called and the other doorwaymen filed out.
While they did so, Garan moved one of the plastic tables in front of me. And then he took something from his pocket, a silver handle, and laid it on the table as well, with a surgeon’s care.
The door closed behind the doorwaymen. And Garan pushed a button on the handle that made a blade spring forth, a curve to it that made me think of another story about Garan.
“What’s your name?”
“‘Compass’ is what everyone calls me. It’s not my name but—”
“Compass, if you say the phrase ‘new pants’ one more time, I am going to hit you so hard that your ears will meet each other for the first time. Do you understand?”
I nodded slowly. I felt like I was walking along an edge as thin as that blade in front of me.
“Do you know who I am?” Garan said.
I shook my head, trying to not look down at the knife.
“Okay, so let’s begin here,” he said. “Look down.”
I did, looking down at the pitted plastic table, the knife, and below that, my stained cargo shorts, my flip-flops below that.
“Do those look like new pants?”
“No, those don’t look like new …” I paused. “Crotch coverings.”
“Then we’re agreed,” Garan grinned a smile with no joy behind it. “I don’t have much time so let’s expedite proceedings.”
Before I could move, Garan took something from his pocket, a silvery rope, a little like the one that was bound around my hands, except inscribed with small characters. He held it and threw it towards my neck with a tcha.
It hit and coiled itself around my neck. It felt cold and hot at the same time, a numbness coiling up my windpipe. I tried to feign ignorance.
What was that? I tried to say. But instead it forced the true words out: “A misery cord.”
“Ah,” said Garan. A small sigh. Pressure relieved now he thought he knew what he was dealing with. “You recognize it. Which means you are a binder. Not some idiot who wandered into the shopping mall.”
I’m not the brightest fork in the drawer, but I was at least smart enough not to try saying “I’m not an idiot” while a misery cord was wrapped around me.
Instead, I tried to think. Small true words. Just one at a time. “I have just a few small spells. I’m not licensed.” I said, truthfully.
“Hh,” he said. It might have been a chuckle. “You think I’m going to report you? No, don’t answer that. Tell me, what were you doing in the shopping mall?”
I needed to delay him as long as I could—but he’d want to know exactly who knew what I knew and how I’d known about it. That was what I was hoping.
So, let me start from the beginning again.
The first thing I heard was when I was at the market. I work at the street corner just down from Aunty’s at my stall. I do the three card monte. For the tourists.
The market boy, one of those ones who helped Aunty, comes up and says “Aunty needs to see you now.”
So I closed up and went down to look.
You know Aunty Ping, right? Best char kway teo in KL … Oh, uh, kway teo is rice noodle, egg, bean sprout, chive, lap cheong, with sauce all fried over a hot wok. But Aunty Ping’s is the best.
Even The New York Times thought so; then she had the TV show come. Now tourists are there all the time.
And some people say it’s because of her wok. She’s used it every day for forty-three years. Every day, you can see her using it, tossing food over the gas-lit flame, while her staff—all her daughters—do all the servings all around her.
Now, when I got there, Aunty sat at her stall staring down at the gas burner, the place where the wok used to be, like you’d look at a fish without a head. She didn’t look sad. She looked more like she was lost.
“Hello Aunty,” I said.
She looked up at me and said, “Compass, you help me find?”
“But who took?”
She just looked back at me and I remembered about the competition.
And so, I said no.
He had a tell: he blinked three times.
“What competition?” Garan said, trying to play ignorant. But too late.
I gave him a sly look.
“You didn’t see the decorations up in the shopping mall? You missed the big stage where they’ve been filming it? The Golden Wok competition? Final is tomorrow? Winner gets one million ringgit?”
Garan tried to keep his face still. Blink blink blink.
“There are just two finalists left. One is Aunty Ping. And the other is Pretty Boy Tse.”
“He doesn’t like to be called—” He realised too late that he’d fallen into a trap. The only ones who objected to Pretty Boy Tse being called Pretty Boy Tse were the ones who were being threatened by him, or the ones being paid by him.
But I only had a moment to enjoy that small victory before Garan spoke another command word and the cord tightened just a little around my neck. Enough to make me uncomfortable. Enough to remind me who was in control. For the moment.
“And yet obviously you said yes in the end. Why?”
“You think Pretty Boy Tse took it?” I asked her.
She gave me a look again. Aunty can say a lot with just one look.
But I didn’t think anyone else would. And without her wok, well, it was hard to imagine. Pret—I mean, Mr. Tse, will always try to get some advantage. That’s how I thought he’d gotten that far—bribe the competition, or threaten them into making a mistake, or sabotaging their food.
All so he can say he is a top chef.
I figured that if he took the wok, it would be guarded. And it meant that if they found me, then … well … it might mean I get tied up in a shopping mall after hours.
“I’m just not sure that I can do it, Aunty?”
Another look. But this time, in her eyes, I could see all the meals that she’d made for me, even when I had no money. And not just me, it was like I saw all the meals that she’d put into the world. Her art, given to the world, over a gas flame.
So I said yes.
“Why did she ask you?”
“It’s part of my binding. I find things.”
“Anything with a strong emotional attachment.”
Garan stood suddenly, and I steeled myself for the hit. But instead he stalked away to the other side of the basement, adjusting his jacket.
“Could you find … ?” he said, but I lost the words under the whine of the generator.
In the window, the dark patch of sky looked a little brighter. But I couldn’t tell if I was fooling myself. Perhaps it was just the lights of the mall. Or perhaps …
“Pardon?” I said.
“Nothing. It’s nothing,” he said, turning back towards me. “Back to your story, tell me how you found this wok, Compass?”
“Well, that part’s easy. I bought some kueh.”
The kueh from the market with Aunty isn’t the best, because the best is down on—
Oh, anyway. I bought some kueh. Abok abok if you know it. Because it’s already in a cone shape, it’s good. All I need is to say the words and cast the binding and it does the rest. Spins around and points me where I need to go.
I came out from the street market and walked downtown a block or two, to the shopping mall. Went down the block and it pointed me left. Then left again. And again.
I realised it was pointing me inside.
When I came inside, it was busy.
Plenty of people were gawking at the set for the Golden Wok Competition, there in the main court, in between all the shops. It’s so strange seeing something like that in real life—getting to see behind the facade. So many wires. You see that the sets are so flimsy. Just for appearance.
But I kept on following the kueh, and it led me upstairs. The glass office that looked down on everything else. The one with the doorwaymen outside.
That’s where the wok was.
I peered at the square of window again. This time, I was sure of it: a dash of pink like the shell of a prawn.
But Garan saw me looking.
“You think someone will help you?”
He grabbed my jaw and I winced in pain. He turned my head to look directly in my eyes.
“Is anyone coming for you?”
For me … “No,” I said.
He let go of me again, just as abruptly.
“I could hurt you, you know?” he said, almost philosophically. Like he was discussing what he was going to eat. “Make you talk quickly. With violence. But … I’m trying to change. Do you believe someone like me can change, Mr. Compass?”
My jaw ached, bruised from where he’d clenched me.
“Yes,” I said. “So why do you work for him?”
The question was out of my mouth before I had known I was going to ask. Stupid. I had to consider my words.
Garan looked at me. And for a moment, I wasn’t sure if he was contemplating me or himself. Instead of answering, he asked me a question. “What’s so special about this wok?”
“They call it wok hei.”
He cocked his head.
“It’s like every wok has its own signature. It remembers the meal that it has made. Passes on some of that flavour to everything else that it makes, like a story. Over time, more and more flavour. More and more stories. And now she has used it for forty-three years. It is one of a kind.
“They call it that now. The market where she sells—they call it ‘Wok Hei Street.’”
There was a look on Garan’s face, somewhere in the middle of confused and impressed.
And then I asked one of the questions that had been bothering me.
“Tse, he has money. Why does he need to do this TV program?”
I’m not sure why Garan answered. I figured he thought I’d be dead soon anyway. Or maybe sometimes, you just need someone to tell. Even if it is someone you have tied to a chair.
“He owes some money. Some big money. To some higher-ups.”
“Who’s higher than his dad?”
Garan watched my face until I made the connection.
“Celestials?” I tried, and failed, to keep the squeak out of my voice.
I was way down the ladder when it came to both binding and business. Somewhere up higher was Old Man Tse who made the money flow, this way and that, illegal or otherwise. And above him: Celestials, like the four Winds, the other Dragons, who made the bindings work and made the magic flow. Owing them money, or anything at all, was bad, bad news.
Garan laughed at that, long and loud, a hurtling kyuk kyuk sort of laugh, too strange a laugh to be anything other than genuine.
“We’re not that different, you and I,” Garan said. “Just two people sent out to do a task.”
“To find a wok,” I said.
“Yes,” Garan said. “So how did you get it from out of the office?”
I watched the doorwaymen for a while, then went down to the food court and bought some fried chicken.
When I brought it back up and walked past them, I noticed them watching. I stopped and pretended that it was by accident.
“Ey, you boys want some? I accidentally bought too much.”
They gave me a look, and then glanced at each other.
“Unless you can get off soon, uh? For dinner time?”
One of them checked his watch.
“Not for three more hours.”
“Then you boys need something to eat—go on, go on, there’s plenty.”
One of them took the red and white box and sniffed at it, then offered it to me first.
“You eat?” Which I knew was code for “show us it’s not poisoned.”
I took a drumstick and began to bite on it. And they proceeded to eat the rest. It’s hard to be suspicious of someone who is giving you fried chicken.
“They don’t feed you enough, eh?” I said.
“No, they don’t,” said one of them.
Then I went and browsed the shops for a bit. Then went down to watch a movie. To bide my time until the changeover. I mostly slept through it. Wait till just about everyone was gone.
When I came out, the shopping mall was very quiet. I went down to the TV show stage. Took out the baking trays and pots and piled them up.
Pushed them so they started to fall and ran in the opposite direction.
Big noise, ah? Bang bang bang.
Went up the other escalator as your men were going down.
Came to the office door, found the key and—
“You just found the key?”
“Ye … ye … yes,” I stammered out and then I bit my tongue, so I didn’t finish the sentence.
“Huh,” said Garan, as he watched my face. He blinked twice. “One of them did say it must have dropped out of his pocket.”
With everything that was in me, I forced myself to be quiet.
“And we watched the security cameras and found you. You went to the art supply store? You like art?”
“Sure, I like art.”
Garan grunted. “Never found use for it myself. Well, hurry up. There’s not much time left.”
In the square of window, a streak the colour of orange.
Inside the office, I had to be fast. I knew that the wok was in there, and there weren’t many places for it to be.
No space for it in the desk.
And a place like that, there had to be a safe.
I opened it up and there it was inside: Aunty’s wok. I picked it up but as I came outside, there were your men, coming back, so I had to run. They were chasing, and so I went the only place I could go.
I ran down to the court, back to the TV set. And so I hid it there. Hid it in plain sight, you see?
I trailed off.
Realisation came to Garan. He opened the door to bark at the doorwaymen. “It’s still in the shopping mall. On the set of the show. Go, go!”
I heard the rush of feet heading away on the concrete floors. The door shut with a click.
Garan turned and looked me in the eyes. A consideration. With one hand, he snatched up the knife planted in front of me, and tucked it away. His other hand touched the gun in the holster by his side, like two lovers touching hands.
And then he pulled it out.
I looked down the “O” of the barrel and I saw my life. The barrel seemed impossibly large, large enough to take me by the ankle and pull me down into the ground. Large enough to swallow me and every story I chose to tell.
Somewhere beyond the circumference of the barrel, I knew that Garan was still there. I imagined him licking his lips like a cartoon wolf.
“Give me one reason,” Garan said. “Why I shouldn’t kill you.”
Whatever I said next had to count, had to pull me away from the gravity of that barrel that was trying to drag me down.
“How do you know?” I said, vaguely aware that my voice was a scrape of chair against concrete, a muscle twitch away from death.
“How do I know what?” Garan said, his leer wide as an open doorway.
“How do you know …” I said. “That I was telling you all of the truth?”
Garan blinked at me. Something unfastened behind his eyes. The barrel wavered.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I misjudged. I wondered if I would see the spark of ignition from the end of the barrel, if I would see the bullet spin towards me like a ballerina.
Then the barrel lowered, and Garan leaned in close, close enough that I could smell the bad cologne on his body, the acid stink of his body sweat, close enough that I could smell something bad in his breath, the reek of rotting meat, close enough that I could gesture and bind …
“If you’re lying,” Garan said. “I’ll be back.”
“Look forward to it!” I replied brightly, and leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes.
Garan gave me one more look, enough grease in that look to season a hundred woks, and hustled out. The door closed behind him with an emphatic click.
But that didn’t matter. I craned my head around to see the knife in my hand, and got to work.
In KL, it took a long moment for the sun to dive down through the smog but when it did, it finally broke yellow down onto the shopping mall, onto my window.
Down in the basement, it took a little while for me to cut through the rope while keeping all of my fingers. Then I made my way up to the service tunnel where I could see what was happening.
It was chaos. As best as I could gather, Garan’s doorwaymen had been caught tossing the set for the wok and, outnumbered by security, they were being arrested and led away. Garan himself had slid back into the gawking crowd on the other side of the set.
On stage, getting ready for the cameras, Aunty Ping was still staring down at the negative space above her burner, despite the presenter trying to get her ready for an interview, a makeup woman fighting a losing battle against the wrinkles in her face. On the other side, Pretty Boy Tse and his ridiculous haircut, his eyes were pinwheeling around to try and find Garan, some guarantee.
And with security occupied, I slipped onto the stage.
“Excuse me!” said the presenter. “We’re about to go live!”
“You’re excused,” I said. “I’m just helping out with the equipment.” And I reached up to the golden wok that hung on the sign above the stage, and peeled off its yellow wrap to reveal a scarred, battle-tested wok. I placed it in front of Aunty with a bow.
She accepted with a nod. Like she’d known it was coming all along.
And then I went back into the crowd, to watch with everyone else.
This is how it ended: from the crowd, I watched the blue flame of the burner, reflected in Aunty Ping’s eyes. And then I watched everyone watching her, the way her wrist flicks the wok up, studying the motion like you’d watch a master painter draw a line, the food flowing through the air in a juggler’s arc, up and over and back down into the surface of the wok.
And I smelled it on the air and tasted it in my memory: when it all blended together, salty, sweet, and smoky, the smoothness of the noodle and the crunch of the green chives, the sultry luxury of the lap cheong, and all of it, inextricable together, a kind of magic that conjures up something other—something not quite of this world. And then it’s gone almost as soon as you taste it.
But for that moment, it tastes like home, a home you always remember, and have never been able to go to.
And I saw from the looks in their eyes that almost the entire crowd—and the judges—could taste it too. And so nobody was watching really, as Tse’s wok handle fell right off, in the middle of cooking, and his ingredients tumbled down onto the floor. I tapped lightly on the two small screws in my pocket.
And in the chaos that followed, nobody noticed as I slipped around the crowd, around the back of Garan, and magic something into his pocket. His knife, with my business card folded around it. With just one sentence written on it: “Maybe I can help you find what you’re looking for.”