Babel Tower


By Walter Giersbach



Jimmy Huang was ushered into Director Tanizaki's office high above Tokyo's Shinjuku sector after waiting a scant three minutes.

"Sorry I have little time for pleasantries," Tanizaki said. He was a compact man in a white shirt and dark suit. Nothing distinctive about him except his title and his responsibility for containing the rising levels of violence.

"It's not important," Huang said, falling easily into English. "It's you who have the problem. Maybe you want to tell me why I was brought from Hong Kong." It was a too-direct question, but Huang didn't care. His inspector at Metropolitan Police had simply ordered Huang onto an early morning flight and told to report to Director Tanizaki. He hoped there would be no blah-blah-blah from this politician. Politicians were worse than Kowloon whores. At least the whores put out for their money.

"The problem is Sky City 1000," Tanizaki explained. "Since it was built in 2027, there have been many problems. Bigger problems than anyone could have imagined."

He pointed to the building cutting the skyline. Thirty-five thousand residents lived in the half-mile-tall building and a hundred thousand workers entered and left each day. It was a city unto itself. Except for a cemetery. There was no place in Sky City to bury someone.

"The Social Animists have taken over the lower floors and most of the eastern sides," Tanizaki said. His mouth curled. "The Anachronistic Taoists control the mid levels. Scattered among them, but mostly on the top floors and western side, are the Neo Buddhists who anticipate a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva. It is civil war — like Baghdad at the beginning of the century." He shook his head. "This is very distasteful. Most Japanese do not sympathize with these..." and he used a Japanese word Huang didn't understand.

"I see the video feeds," Huang said, cutting him short. "The bombings, the mayhem, the..." and his hand fluttered like a bird, indicating individuals sailing off parapets into space. "It is war among the people, not between people or states. Very hard to defeat an enemy who is yourself."

"Is that Sun Tzu's military philosophy?" Tanizaki looked interested.

"No, a police sergeant from Wanchai who took bribes."

Jimmy Huang was familiar with street wars. Knew it from tong vendettas in Kowloon, from the cutthroat business cartels in Shanghai, and from the yakuza in Tokyo. Knew it and didn't like it. He was a cop, not a soldier.

"What you don't know — what no one knows except us," Tanizaki said, interrupting, "is that a madman with a nuclear device entered Sky City two days ago. He is at large and promises to bring the building down. This is why our government needs a sniffer. You are supposed to be the best sniffer in the world."

"And his motive and profile?" Huang asked. Best to be direct at a time like this. "Jihadist? Schizo? Zealot?"

"He issued a polemic to the police. Anonymously, of course. He said constructing something as large as Sky City is an affront to god and nature. Do you know the story of Babel?"

Huang shook his head.

"The bomber is, we believe, an Evangelical. The letter quoted the Old Testament and the people of ancient Babylon who built the Tower of Babel in their pride. God, it is presumed, was displeased and tumbled the building to the ground. That is the rationale for destroying Sky City in less than five hours — by 3:00 p.m. today."

Huang didn't smile, but felt the irony in the message. Everyone spoke English now. It was the only common language the world could communicate in. Maybe God was really pissed that everyone spoke one language.

Tanizaki explained his entire agency was combing the building for suspects. "Radioactivity sensors have turned up no trace of the man or his bomb. Interpol has no leads on his identity. Worse, it's impossible to evacuate the building without denting the Japanese economy and sending a ripple through the world's markets."

Huang templed his fingers. "So I was invited here to provide a solution. And why am I able to do this? Perhaps because I don't think logically."

"You are an intuitive detective," Tanizaki offered. "Unique among a special group." A sheen of perspiration on the man's face showed he was terrified.

"No, I'm like everybody trying to get through the day — but a cop who tries not to get hung up on bad judgment and useless passion. Even though I don't have everything I want," he said, "I'm really grateful for the things I don't want. Now, I'm going to take a cab to Sky City. I will be a tourist." A wan smile crossed his face and he bowed.

"I will have an officer accompany you. To translate, where needed, and to help you better understand the landscape so high above the ground. Tetsuo is a good man." He pushed a button on the desk and a uniformed security officer entered.

This was not something he needed, Huang thought. He had never been successful working with partners, not even a wife or girlfriend. Tetsuo didn't disappoint his expectations. He looked physically strong and clean-cut in a Western way. A forced smile told Huang the man was rigid when he should have been supple — an oak that would fall while a willow bent in the winds of adversity.

* * *

Sky City was superhumanly enormous. However, today anything above a hundred meters was obscured by the gelatinous clouds of soot and carbon sweeping in from China. Several stories below street level, trains disgorged or swallowed thousands of people every hour.

Thinking this was truly an edifice to challenge the law of gravity, if not the gods, Huang fished out his Hong Kong Police Department identification. As he was checked through the magnetometers, a kimono-and-obi-clad female screener gave him a smile of scripted humility. A trio of National Defense soldiers cradling automatic weapons backstopped her. The soldiers didn't smile.

"Please allow me to wander, to look at my own pace." Jimmy Huang's first words to Tetsuo had to be demanding, but not strong enough to insult the man's ego. "Sometimes I can get a gut feeling."

"Gut feeling?" the National policeman snorted. "I believe that when you get them you better take an antacid. They get in the way of facts the way a bad woman clings to you when you leave a bar."

"Sniffers are a recognized phenomenon," Huang said, wondering why he explained anything. "Recognition of these abilities began with cops who could talk a gunman out of a hostage situation or walk up to an urban cowboy and know he wasn't going to shoot."

"I know this bullshit," Tetsuo said. "Your so-called ability to immediately determine the psychological condition of perpetrators."

This was not going to work, Huang thought. Better to deny any relationship and keep the man on a leash the way a good dog follows its master. "Feelings often work. Once, I saw the figure in a window in a small house in Lantau. A light was behind him and I saw the gun in his hand. Somehow, I knew he wasn't going to shoot." Huang shrugged. "We talked then. I asked what was wrong, why he shot his landlord and his girlfriend, why he wanted to kill his little boy and himself. He told me he had lost his job, lost money he borrowed to buy lottery tickets. His girlfriend had threatened to walk out on him. And, 'Today is my birthday,' he said. 'No one remembered my birthday.'"

"Sounds stupid. Japanese do not think that way."

"People think that way," Huang said. It was going to be a long day.

Clearing his mind of twenty-six years of professional memories, Huang wandered past retail stores, restaurants and service establishments. He allowed the jangling music, commercial mnemonics, flashing ideographs and electronic advertising to flood over him without making qualification or judgment. There were business offices he didn't bother to enter, knowing they had their own security systems.

Tetsuo walked a step behind him and to the right, a little smile never leaving his lips.

As Huang wandered purposelessly in and out of elevators, through atriums, and past residential enclaves he saw the signals the Animists, Buddhists and Taoists had erected to display their separateness. Painted wall slogans, headbands on passersby and limp banners proclaimed allegiances. There was now less than two hours to doomsday. He had already witnessed three bottle-throwing riots and an inept samurai attack on a man. The tension on people's faces was even more palpable when he passed through the outer edges of each sector. No rigid soldiers here.

Tetsuo shivered, as if he wanted to arrest someone or shoot him. Huang knew he was becoming angry and irrational.

Huang walked on, taking no calls when his phone pad signaled. He stopped occasionally to use the bathrooms. He sat in a full lotus pose for a long while in a park, just meditating. The moss, stones and bonsai replicated an area around Fujiyama. And he waited.

A part of his mind measured the minutes that were ticking away. Still one hour before the bomb would be triggered. Tetsuo took a bench three or four meters away and crossed his legs at the ankle, defying any scene to unfold while he was nominally there as an authority.

Raising his eyes, Huang saw a woman nearby eating rice and cabbage from a plastic bento box. Her hands moved methodically, but her eyes darted wildly. In a moment the eyes locked on his, and he nodded with a half smile.

"Ni shr chung-gwo ren?" she asked. "You are Chinese?" She spoke Mandarin with an odd accent. Her face was flat and showed no emotion.

"Ni haw ma?" he answered. "I'm from Hong Kong, actually." English was easier among strangers. "How did you know? Only a quarter of Asians can distinguish other Asian nationalities by sight."

"The way you are sitting, the folded hands. I have seen that asana pose before." Her speech was twisted by a rictus around her mouth — a scar caused by a burn or injury.

"But you're not Chinese, are you?"

"I am a guest worker for Matsushita. I came here from Seoul to work on nano technology. A new program."

"Very noble work. Very reason-able work. Do you use scientific deduction? Empirical logic to determine next steps?" He was beginning to find the young woman interesting, or maybe it was simply the chance to talk after a long day of walking.

"I don't know what you mean. I was trained as a nano technician. Manufacture and growth on molecular levels."

"Ah, then you must understand bacteria — the way microbes merge with other microbes to grow. It's like sex. They adopt the best qualities of the host they merge with. This is very much like world populations coming together, no? They make errors in their actions, and then learn from their mistakes to act more intelligently. Of course, some bacteria do not learn and so they are eliminated — or destroy themselves. Like bad sex. No more dates there."

"You are speaking poetry — and talking nasty," she said. "I think you are not a scientist. Who are you?" She jammed her chopsticks and plastic tray into the bag and stood up abruptly.

From the corner of his eye, Huang saw Tetsuo's hand slide toward his automatic pistol.

"No," Huang said, "I am not a scientist. I am a microbe — or maybe an antibiotic. A detective looking for people who make mistakes." Soundlessly, his lips formed the accusation, Bad bacteria, bad sex.

She straightened up, standing shorter than the average Chinese but taller than most Japanese. Her back snapped straight, then she bent and reached for the sports bag by her feet.

"Stop!" Huang commanded. Was it her culture that made her automatically obey? "You are a reasonable person. You are here for a purpose. Can you tell me what it is?" He waited for an answer.

"The world is insane," she said angrily. "It is sick. I can cure it with God's help. We must become completely broken before we can put ourselves back together. It says so in the Bible."

"You can do this? All by yourself?"

"No, God is with me." She said the words as though she was an emissary.

"And your husband," he guessed, pointing at the ring on her left hand. "Does he also hear God telling him...?"

"My husband is dead. The plague took everyone in my family. My baby, my mother, everyone but me."

"I am sorry," Huang said. "May I say a prayer for their souls?"

"It is too late." She spoke with sadness as her hand moved to the bag. Huang saw a tag hanging from the zippered closure.

Tetsuo stood up abruptly and pulled his 9 mm automatic from the holster. Noticing him for the first time, the woman grabbed for the pull tab on the bag. With a fluid movement, Huang's hand snaked a small, plastic dart gun from his shirt. "Don't move!"

"I will kill you, kill you all!" she screamed.

Huang pulled the trigger, sending a flechette into Tetsuo's neck, then carefully replaced the dart gun in his shirt. The woman stood for a second with a surprised look on her face, watching Tetsuo fall face down onto the path.

"Why did you do that?"

"An anesthetic. The man was going to hurt you," Huang said. "We are all hurting. We don't need more pain. Now put your bento in the refuse can. Let's go somewhere so we can talk more."

* * *

Director Tanizaki was nonplussed. Not only had this Chinese cop seized the bomber, but she was a South Korean woman, it had taken less than one day to apprehend her, and Huang had the audacity to shoot one of his own officers.

"How was this possible?" he demanded when Huang was ushered in.

Huang tried for an expression of humility, allowing himself the luxury of pride before forcing it to disappear. He knew National Defense officers would lose face that a single Chinese cop had resolved the situation. The prime minister would have to thank the Hong Kong governor. All very painful.

He explained, "Your terrorist was supposedly a technician, but she was eating lunch at the wrong time, in late afternoon. She said she worked for Matsushita but couldn't pronounce the company name correctly — Mat-shoosh'-ta. She was a Christian — from the crucifix she wore, like a lot of South Korean people, but she was in the Animist sector 20 levels away from her workplace. And she became very angry when I tried to discuss logic. Well, maybe because I also mentioned sex. There was no logic in her actions. Do you think," he asked, pondering his own question, "maybe women are not logical? Or maybe no sense of humor."

Jimmy Huang was tired. It had been a long day and years of police work were catching up with him.

"But what if you had been unable to talk her down? And it is illegal — uncivil — to anesthetize an innocent person. Tetsuo was my representative."

"Then I would have to apologize to 135 thousand souls who had gone to join their gods — and I don't speak Japanese very good."


Walter Giersbach's crime and mystery stories have appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Gumshoe Review, Mouth Full of Bullets, OG Short Fiction, and "Chain of Events" appeared in Over My Dead Body! in July, 2010.


Copyright 2012 Walter Giersbach. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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