Lord Guan's Altar

Posted on: August 5, 2013

“Detective Li, I just got a domestic violence call over at Redemption Towers. The patrol officer in the area is busy following up on an armed robbery. Do you mind watching the front desk while I look into it?”

It was 3:00 AM. It’d been months since Li had requested the shift change, but he was still unaccustomed to his new hours. He was restless, the prospect of manning the intake desk was unappealing. “I’ll take care of it,” he replied.

The Towers were a pair of government-subsidized residential buildings in Western. They were colloquially called Redemption Towers because the aggregate criminal record of its inhabitants rivaled that of Hong Kong island’s entire population. Naturally, the Towers were a hive for triad activity, so domestic violence calls were not unusual. The sidewalks leading to the Towers were swollen and cracked with age—damaged and neglected with no prospect for repair. Li sidestepped the disrepair and ignored the wary glances he received from residents as he made his way up Tower East.

The door to apartment 5B was askew and opened into a small kitchen, where the cabinets had been emptied. A doorway on the right led to the apartment’s sole bedroom. Alice was alone, sitting hunched on a twin-sized bed amidst a sea of debris from what appeared to have been dinner plates. She stared blankly at Li as he tiptoed his way towards her. A fresh bruise was forming on the left side of her swollen face and a streak of dried blood was smeared across her upper lip. She wasn’t crying, nor was there any indication that she had been.

“Let’s get you to the hospital,” Li said. She grabbed her purse and followed him out without a word.

The drive to the hospital was a hushed one and it wasn’t until she came out of the doctor’s office, cleaned and bandaged, that she finally broke her silence in the waiting room where Li was sipping lukewarm coffee.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Back at the precinct, Alice was cautious in her narrative. Her boyfriend, a low-ranking member of the Three Brothers Triad, had beaten her. He’d discovered that she’d been stealing from him. But that’s where her story stopped—she refused to give up his identity and had no desire to press charges. The silence that Li had previously managed to dispel now persisted.

Alice was staring at a small desktop altar that sat above an old, dusty television in Li’s office.

“Do you believe he protects you?” She was referring to the ceramic icon of Lord Guan, angry and red-faced.

After a pause, Li replied, “No, I’d given up on gods a long time ago. After losing a wife and son to the triads, there’s not much energy left over for faith. That’s why you shouldn’t protect your boyfriend.”

She ignored his admonition. “Ironic isn’t it, Lord Guan, god of war, patron saint to cops and crooks alike. My boyfriend burns incense to him every morning. I’m sure your officers do the same.”

Alice continued, “How’d they die?”


“Your wife and son.”

Li was silent.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t pry,” Alice said.

“No, it’s alright. It’s supposed to be healthy to talk about one’s tragedies. My wife was kidnapped and shot—the price she paid for being married to a cop. And my son, well, death isn’t the only way you can lose a loved one to the triads…”

When Li realized he wasn’t going to coax any more out of her about her boyfriend, he drove her home.

It was early afternoon by the time Li’s shift ended. He stopped for dinner at Ang’s House of Curry and a cup of tea at Harmony’s before heading home. He was a regular at both spots. Routine, the doctor said, would help.

At home, he went straight to bed but was unable to fall asleep despite his exhaustion. There was an umbra of stubborn daylight illuminating the heavy curtains he had installed in a futile effort to imitate darkness. As Li lay in the stifling heat of the Hong Kong summer, he wondered if he would ever sleep again. He had changed his work schedule because of sleeplessness, which he attributed to the unbearable silence of the night. He hoped the urban frenzy, which broadcasted itself through his walls, would comfort him by mimicking the sounds his home had lost. It did not.

In his most sleepless moments, his mind wandered. Today, it was Alice. For hours he couldn’t shake the image of her milk-white innocence and fragility and the dark bloodied stains her gangster boyfriend had defiled her with.

Soon, Li was outside Tower East, coffee in hand. It was late afternoon. Sunglasses shielded his bloodshot eyes, burning in the way fatigued eyes do, from the sun. Each time he blinked, Alice’s face flashed before him. Blink. She’s smiling at him teasingly as her loose t-shirt flutters in the breeze. Blink. She’s looking down coyly as she combs her hair back behind her left ear. Blink. Her bare legs move back and forth as she shuffles her feet. Blink.

The air in the stairwell was stagnant. Beads of sweat trickled down Li’s neck and into the collar of his shirt as he made his way up to apartment 5B. The door was unlocked. Alice’s boyfriend was in the kitchen with his back facing the front door. Li heard shuffling in the bedroom—Alice. Blink.

The pistol quivered in his trembling hands as his exhaustion began manifesting itself. He pulled the trigger, striking the boy in his lower back. Alice appeared from the bedroom, letting out a bloodcurdling scream, “NOOOOO!”

As the boy’s legs buckled beneath the weight of his distorting body, he turned, revealing himself to Li. Li’s heart shuddered as he leapt towards the boy, in Alice’s arms now.

Li cried, “Danny? Danny?!”

He had lost his son twice now and there was cold comfort in the fact that he would never lose him again.

Photograph By: Jaemin Riley
Written By: Sam Chow

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