Marshall Moore, Inhospitable
Publisher: Camphor Press
Date: May 2018
Length: 302 pages
A mysterious windfall upends Lena Haze’s almost-comfortable middle-class American life. Her husband Marcus has inherited some prime Hong Kong real estate, a building in Wan Chai, the bustling, gentrifying heart of the city. It comes with a catch, though: the building must not be sold.
With financing from local investors, Lena begins overseeing renovations to convert it into a premier boutique hotel. Alone in Hong Kong and a recent arrival, Lena struggles with culture shock, business obstacles, and malignant ghosts, a part of her life she thought she’d put behind her.
Lena’s previous experiences with the spirit world are of little help because she’s dealing with Chinese ghosts this time. Different rules, rituals, and customs apply, and she has no idea what is coming.
Part One: Arrival
March 201X, a few weeks after
Chinese New Year (Feb. 7)
Chapter One: Friday, early evening
The sky had been blue once. Lena Haze felt almost certain of it on days like this. Over the last few weeks, the milky, carcinogenic taupe of Hong Kong’s winter smog had given way to a grey, Seattle-esque caul of clouds. Some days, the humidity was so dense it condensed on windows and tile walls and ran down them in dusty rivulets. Worse, the temperature hovered at a peculiar midrange, neither cool nor warm, meaning she never quite knew how to dress and was always having to put a layer on or take one off. She had only spent a month in the city so far, which was just as well: she didn’t know many people and thus wouldn’t have to hear lame jokes about her Dutch-derived surname. When she had acquired it by marrying Marcus, she liked the man and his odd last name very much, and now, a decade later, she still did. On both counts. “Blame Holland,” she would say if she had the occasion. Even if Haze jokes in appalling weather like this made her roll her eyes, she rather hoped for a chance to deflect one. It would be a sign that the prevailing winds had shifted.
Reeling after a couple of hours spent at a home-and-garden expo inside the city’s mammoth waterfront convention center, Lena took a wrong turn and found herself on a sidewalk on one of the Wan Chai district’s grimier blocks. Jostling her way down Lockhart Road through the Friday-evening crowds-mostly Western men and the petite Asian whores cooing at them from the doorways of the bars that lined the street-felt like a waltz with degenerates. A jizzy mustiness hung in the air, and everyone she passed smelled of sex, beer, and scalp sweat. In the less-hookerish sports bars with façades that let onto the streets, red-faced white men with heaving Buddha bellies roared at football matches, leered as she passed by, and pounded their fists on wet tabletops. What the hell had she been thinking, walking down Lockhart at this time of day by herself? Even by accident?
I was rattled, she told herself. Too many people in the convention center. Way too many people. And the way out was confusing, all those cordons and roadblocks.
Lena had never seen anything like it: a queue that stretched for blocks, police directing traffic at intersections, and every other person pulling a wheeled suitcase. Inside, an annihilating crush of bodies shuffled this way and that, up and down the aisles. Despite and perhaps because of the noise level of myriads talking over each other, vendors-some with megaphones-shouted nonstop, advertising their wares. Drowning in an eye-level sea of black hair, Lena didn’t last long: she managed to find a few things she liked, snapped photos and collected business cards for later use, and burrowed through the throng in the direction of the last exit sign she’d seen. At times like this, she felt stranded: very alone and far from home.
She’d been here a month. Earlier today, she had the joy of firing her part-time cleaning lady. Delia had unplugged the wine fridge to clean behind it. Having the attention span of a second-grader whose Ritalin has worn off, Delia then moved on to other tasks, utterly forgetting to plug the thing in again. Valuing thrift above oxygen, she also hadn’t switched on the air conditioner; Lena, too busy to notice for several days, was furious when she discovered the damage. For the first time in their lives, she and Marcus could afford good wine, and Delia had baked it. If this had been her first mistake, Lena could have lived with it, but in the two weeks of her employment, Delia had also scorched a couple of blouses while ironing them and left a whole pet store’s worth of dust bunnies under the bed. Once she had been sacked, packed, and sent back to the agency through which she’d been hired, Lena followed up with an email to beg for someone with more brain cells that worked.
So now this. Lost on Lockhart Road at the start of happy hour, roaring Brits and Antipodeans and tiny bar girls from the Philippines everywhere she looked, the dark and lowering sky threatening rain, and a rather absurd crisis of sudden money to deal with. Her maid had killed the wine. Any day but today this would be hilarious. How on Earth had she gotten here and where the hell was Marcus when she needed him? These tiny sparks of resentment-the annoyed and panicked kind that threatened to blaze into anger -kept flaring up. He couldn’t be here and they both knew it. He was back in Raleigh packing up their lives, of course: winding up his bank job, waiting to close on the house, selling their cars, shipping the things they needed to keep. His inheriting-out of the clear random blue-a mixed-use building in a desirable part of Hong Kong... well, she wasn’t complaining. She’d always wanted to open a boutique hotel and now she could. He’d always wanted to tell his boss at the bank to go to hell, and now he could do that too. Despite being half Hong Kong Chinese, Marcus had never set foot in this city until a month ago when they flew in to sign the papers. So yes, things had gotten weird fast: the absurd was now the everyday, Lena had no clue where she was, and there were investors to impress.
It all sounded simpler than it was. The building was worth a mint but there was a catch: they couldn’t sell it and lacked the cash for the major renovations it needed. Some money had come with the estate but not nearly enough. No matter, though: talking tycoons out of millions had taken less effort than getting her first mortgage. In less than two weeks, the deal was done and Lena was on a plane; and now a sum of money she found staggering-all the more because one U.S. dollar was worth about eight Hong Kong ones, so there were more zeroes-sat glowing like plutonium in an account at HSBC. Accordingly, she had no intention of serving the tannic Bordeaux and cheap Chardonnay she found at the supermarket down the street from her flat to the banksters whose money she was about to start spending. That stuff was mostly plonk to keep the local expats drunk enough to think they liked their lives; it wouldn’t impress Paul and Jessica Lo, whose family owned a telecom in China, shares in a casino in Macau, and vast swathes of property here and in the mainland. And tomorrow night they were coming over for dinner with their son, who was just back from England, fresh out of grad school. She could buy a couple of bottles of guilty, quaffable pleasure for herself later, but for now, she just needed several bottles of something with an impressive label-ideally drab, text-heavy, and French.
Lena could move a little faster now because after the MTR station, the crowds thinned out. She picked up her pace, wishing she’d had the sense to bring an umbrella. If she hurried, she thought she might be able to make it to the store before the downpour began.
A knot of people clustered at the intersection of Lockhart and Stewart, across from the Novotel. Ahead of her in the crowd, a boy and girl in their late teens or early twenties connected at the ears by the white cord of an MP3 player shared a lingering, open-mouthed kiss. The kiss ended when the crosswalk sign flashed green and began to squawk. Half of the people on the corner made straight for the hotel’s main entrance.
“I almost told them to get a room,” a young woman said to her older female companion, in neutral North American English. Despite their proximity, Lena couldn’t see the speaker’s face, nor her companion’s. Too many shuffling people in the way. “Then I saw where they were going. They’ve already got a room!”
“They’re kids,” said the older one. “If you were that age, you’d be all over your boyfriend too.” She had a voice like rock salt and honey. Lena wondered whether she stopped at a pack a day or smoked two.
“At that age, I think I still had a girlfriend,” said the other woman.
Lena hurried up, spurred on by time, hunger, and the need to walk at a natural stride instead of one constrained by the slow pace of the locals. According to its website, the wine shop closed at eight, which wasn’t a concern, but the weather forecast called for an early, unseasonal storm. There’d be no taxis if she timed this badly. She spotted the shop’s red façade on the corner and, no longer interested enough to eavesdrop, passed the two women.
Inside, the air conditioning was set to a temperature that mimicked interstellar space. Lena was filmed with sweat from the walk, a couple of trickles of moisture running down her torso, her bag uncomfortably warm and damp against her side. Keeping a safe distance from the racks directly under air-conditioning vents, she made a quick circuit of the store.
Lena heard American-sounding English again and turned to look at the source: those two women she’d just seen. She put the younger one in her mid-twenties, about a decade south of her own age, and the older one around fifty. The long blonde hair of the former suggested Nordic genes; the ragged blonde bob of the latter suggested peroxide. These women didn’t interact with the familiarity of good friends, an impression somewhat confirmed by the sparks of impatience she saw on the younger one’s face as she herded her companion toward the checkout counter. They’d chosen two bottles of a heavy, generic Chilean red that Lena thought wouldn’t work at all in this muggy weather, but she didn’t want to molest them with an unsolicited opinion.
Enough of them, she decided, flagging down one of the sales staff for admission to the locked refrigerator room where they kept the good stuff. She wanted Pomerol and maybe a Sancerre for their visitors, plus something for tonight. She added a few random, promising bottles on a last sweep before checking out, arranged to have them delivered, and felt a tentative twinge of satisfaction. So far, this was not a day wasted.
And then the screaming started. The door had barely swung shut behind her. As she took her first step in the direction of the subway, she heard shouts and screams rising above the din of traffic. She looked down Stewart Road and saw people at the intersection of Lockhart looking up and pointing. The two American women were one block away from her. They quickened their pace. The noise intensified, and the crowds began to hurry toward whatever had drawn their attention.
Lena, who liked a good car wreck as much as the next girl, had a bad feeling about this. Not one to shirk other people’s catastrophes, she hurried down the street, following the currents in the crowd. The rubberneckers barricading the site kept her from seeing the details at first, and when she did, the wall of bodies prevented her from taking the reflexive step back that her body demanded. Somebody’s Mercedes had jumped the curb and run into the side of a building, cracking the plate glass but not breaking through it. The driver sat slumped inside the car, but he wasn’t the focus of her attention, nor of anyone else’s. Though she couldn’t understand the Cantonese babble around her, the kid lying crushed in the gutter was explanation enough.
Had he jumped, or had he been pushed? Lena had been here only a month and already seen too many bleak headlines about the suicide rate. But for all the violence in Hong Kong’s famous gangster movies, murder was almost unheard-of here. The sight of the mangled boy turned Lena’s stomach, but the familiar, peculiar ripple in the air-she thought of thin black curtains over a window at dusk-next to the body was even worse. There was the hint of a head turning this way and that, looking around. Vague shapes of arms, hands; transparent outlines. Everything in her rejected this, rebelled against it. No. This was not happening again. She took another deep breath, smelled hydrocarbons and collective fear, and pushed her way through the rubberneckers to get away from the scene.
Lena hadn’t made it ten paces through the gathering crowd when there was a loud thud, followed by another round of screaming.
She turned back. Making her way toward the nucleus of the accident took effort: slipping between people whose hands were clapped over their mouths, dodging elbows and shopping bags slung over forearms, quarterbacking her way through the narrow gaps between onlookers rigid with horror. As if the poor boy weren’t bad enough, now there was a dead girl on the sidewalk beside him. Contrary to Lena’s expectations, there was no lake of blood pouring out of the pavement-flattened side of her head. But the girl had landed at an odd angle, as if she had started to dive headfirst off the roof of the building, then changed her mind at the last second and tried to right herself in midair like a falling cat. It hadn’t worked, as attested by the tent-pole bones Lena could see beneath the girl’s reddening shirt.
Next to the dead girl, the same dark ripples in the wall of reality.
I’m going to black out, Lena thought. Retreating, she collided with another onlooker whose face she didn’t see. A sharp elbow jabbed the side of her left breast and brought her back into full attention. Better to get away from this as soon as possible. Instead of walking back toward Hennessy Road, whose sidewalks would be almost impassable because of the mobs of shoppers and the doubled-up queues at the bus stops, Lena walked up the comparatively deserted eastern stretch of Lockhart, in the direction of Causeway Bay. Here, the shops sold housewares, tiles, parquet flooring, and bathroom fixtures instead of catering to baser forms of plumbing.
Yes, she had seen those shapes, those auras. Admitting this to herself made her feel small and weak, a very small woman on her own in a very large city. Thunder shattered the air around her, drowning out the sharp babble of Cantonese conversations and the drone of traffic. For one second, everything was silent. Another thunderclap followed, and then the sky gave up: beaten into submission, it quit holding back the deluge.
Copyright © 2018 by Marshall Moore