He sleeps on an exhaust vent down in the Lower East Side. More often than not, you can find him there on Madison Street, Vladeck Houses, building 8, curled up like a snail and pinched between the rusted metal and red bricks of his makeshift burrow. He’s there on that grate because it pumps heat up from the basement of the building, keeps him warm when the bare trees rattle and the gutters clog with brown slush. Sometimes you can find him picking greasy noodles from a Styrofoam container. Or he might be sweeping his long black hair back into a rubber band and staring up at the gunmetal sky, as if waiting for something to drop from the clouds. Regardless, there’s always a shopping cart parked on the sidewalk in front of him. A big lump wrapped in a blue tarp rests in the cart, and many wonder what it contains. A body, maybe? Cash? Soiled clothing? Rotten food? Sticks of dynamite? Rats? Who knows? Those who’ve seen him dig around inside it can’t seem to remember.
His name is Lil’ Soup. Nobody fucks with him. And here’s why.
Five years ago, Lil’ Soup was in row 36, seat B, on a flight inbound from Hong Kong via Honolulu. The plane collided with a weather balloon somewhere over the Mojave Desert and spun like a shot bird to the hardpan below. Everyone on board perished, except Lil’ Soup. He walked out of the fire and smoke lugging a green duffel bag over his shoulder. He traveled east over scorched rocks for a day and a night before he ran across a road. There, he sat and waited. His face was caked with dried blood. Angry purple bruises ran the length of his ribcage. His left foot was a black singed mess— one of his shoes had caught fire in the crash, and now he only wore one. But he was a young man of twenty-seven and in otherwise good health, and the shade of a Joshua Tree kept him from drying up like a fallen leaf. He sat with his back against the tree and drummed softly on his duffel bag and remembered his last encounter with Grandfather.
This was just two weeks prior, far south of the big cities. A tiny speck in the jungle near the Vietnam border. The old man, his grandfather, was straddling the root of a Banyan Tree in the center of their village. His shorn scalp gleamed in the twilight. His bright brown eyes tracked the progress of children balancing buckets of water on their heads, as mothers hollered to them from the doorways of corrugated tin shacks. A yellow veil of smoke crept the through the branches of the trees and clung to the mud, and the grandfather doubled over in a fit of coughing before speaking.
“Xiao Tang,” he began. “You remember the bushes down by the river, the ones we warned you about when you were a child?”
“I do,” Lil’ Soup answered.
“You didn’t listen to us, did you?”
“I did not.”
“No, you did not. I saw you. You ate from the bush on several occasions. And still you can think. You still know who you are. Those bushes are powerful medicine, but somehow… you…”
Grandfather then gripped Lil’ Soup by the elbow, pulled him close and peered into the young man’s eyes.
“You alone are immune,” his grandfather told him. “It is why this burden is yours. The forest is dying. And also the village. There are bulldozers to the north, south and east. To the west, they’ll probably start stripping the mountains soon. I don’t know who’s doing this to us. But I know why. Money. No one understands reason anymore, but they do understand money.”
Grandfather then leaned across the root of the giant tree and yanked the green duffel bag from the earth, and laid it at Lil’ Soup’s feet.
“Don’t share the noodles with just anyone,” Grandfather told him. “Be sure they are worthy.”
Lil’ Soup sat in the shade of the Joshua Tree and thought on his grandfather’s words and the fate of his village. He pondered his grandfather’s instructions for many hours, until a car finally approached. Lil’ Soup saw the glint of sunlight moving fast on the horizon. Soon enough, the sparkling dot took on shape and color. It was a blue sedan and it passed in a blur, before braking hard, fishtailing in a cloud of white smoke.
The blue sedan idled for several minutes. Then there was the whine of the transmission as the car reversed. It slowly backed down the road and came to rest right beside Lil’ Soup. The windows were tinted and Lil’ Soup couldn’t see who was inside, so he just stared at his warped reflection in the black glass. He didn’t look great. He didn’t look like someone you’d want to pick up in the ass end of nowhere.
Lil’ Soup was waiting for the car to shift into drive and move on, when the passenger window rolled down and sunlight fell across a broad pink face framed by a stubble of red hair. It was the face of a hard-living man. He had a squashed nose and seams crisscrossing his forehead and jowls. His eyes were cold blue stones shining from the hollows of his skull. He did not smile when he talked.
“Whatcha doing out here, friend?”
Lil’ Soup cocked his head and grinned at the man.
“You deaf?” The man asked, then swung a big freckled arm from the window and snapped his fingers. “Huh? Can’t hear? Why are you bleeding in the middle of nowhere?”
Lil’ Soup cocked his head in the other direction and continued to grin.
The man turned to the driver and mumbled something. Then the door swung open and the man stepped to the pavement. He was tall and broad in the shoulders. A paunch swung at his belt line, but Lil’ Soup could tell there was muscle beneath the fat.
“Wouldn’t be very good Christians if we let you die out here, would we?”
The man moved to the back door of the vehicle and swung it open.
“Go on. Hop in,” the man said, grinning. It didn’t make his face look any kinder.
Lil’ Soup looked back down the road, watched the heat ripple on the horizon. In the other direction, a similar sight greeted him. Plenty of pavement. But no other cars. He turned back to the man and blinked.
“Christ sake,” the man grunted. He reached into the backseat and rummaged around, before turning back and waving a plastic bottle of water at Lil’ Soup. “There’s water in here. Come on. Get in.”
Lil’ Soup couldn’t tell if the man was worthy, but even so, 36 hours in the desert had left him parched. He pushed to his feet, grabbed his duffel bag and shuffled to the sedan.
“Watch your head now,” the man said, resting a big hand on Lil’ Soup’s shoulder and guiding him into a cool blast of air conditioning. The door closed with a soft thump, and Lil’ Soup gripped the duffel bag in his lap and squinted, adjusting to the dark interior of the car. There was a case of water bottles on the floorboard. The bench seat was worn and it smelled like coffee and stale sweat and urine and blood. And the back doors, he now noticed, didn’t have any handles. They opened from the outside or they didn’t open at all.
In the rearview mirror, Lil’ Soup caught sight of the driver, who was watching him. The man had a bald, misshapen head. Sunglasses concealed his eyes. A large greying moustache hugged the crease of his mouth. The man chuckled, slid the car into drive and they began to move.
“I’m Detective Vicente. This is my friend, Detective Harbaugh,” he said, motioning to the passenger. “We’re on our way to Vegas for a little R & R, gonna try and blow our retirement in one fell swoop. Maybe chase some tail while we’re at it.” The man studied Lil’ Soup’s impassive face before continuing. “You don’t have the slightest idea what I’m saying, do you?”
Lil’ Soup held the man’s gaze in the rearview mirror. He blinked and grinned, before unscrewing the cap of his bottled water and taking a small sip. It wasn’t terribly cold, but it did taste like water.
“I don’t believe he speaks our language,” Harbaugh said. He turned around in his seat and grinned at Lil’ Soup. “If I’m not wrong, you’re here from China. You were on that plane that crashed, weren’t you? Oh, it’s all over the news.”
To prove his point, the red-headed detective clicked on the radio. A frantic sounding reporter was recounting the sad fate of Cathay Pacific flight 1911, bound for New York. The words ‘tragedy’ and ‘freak accident’ and ‘FAA investigation’ were mentioned several times.
“I imagine folks think you’re good and dead, just one more lump of ash on the desert floor,” Harbaugh said, switching the radio off again.
“Maybe he’s in shock,” Vicente said.
“Is that what’s the matter?” Harbaugh asked Lil’ Soup. “You still shook up from the crash? And how the hell did you survive such a thing, anyway?”
“Don’t seem possible,” Vicente observed. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, flicking his eyes from the road to Lil’ Soup. “Figure we ought to take him to the hospital?”
“Maybe,” Harbaugh said. His eyes fell to the duffel bag in Lil’ Soup’s lap. “Maybe we ought to do just that. First though, I’m mighty curious what he’s got in that bag there. That a parachute?” He laughed through his nose, and pointed at the duffel. “That how you cheated death back there?”
Again, Lil’ Soup merely blinked and sipped his water.
“I don’t reckon it’s a change of clothes or a new pair of shoes,” Harbaugh went on. “Not by the looks of you. No, I think you got something special in there. Like maybe you picked through all your fellow passengers’ shit before wandering off.”
“Now that’d be something, wouldn’t it,” Vicente hummed. He began to slow the car and steer it to the shoulder of the road.
“Yes it would,” Harbaugh agreed.
As the car came to a stop and Harbaugh reached for the zipper of the bag, Lil’ Soup finally spoke up. “You hungry?” Lil’ Soup asked the men.
They didn’t answer right away. Instead, they shared a worried glance.
“So you do speak English,” Harbaugh croaked. The detective’s Adam’s apple jerked up and down and he appeared to be holding his breath.
Lil’ Soup blinked several times and then gazed out the window. There were still very much in the middle of nowhere. A gash of serrated peaks hugged a distant horizon. Besides that, nothing but pale dirt and limp brush as far as the eye could see. He turned back to the bag and grasped the zipper, and began slowly tugging it open.
“Stop,” Harbaugh said.
When Lil’ Soup looked up, a pistol was levelled at his head, the barrel hovering about six inches from the bridge of his nose. In response, Lil’ Soup merely wiggled his nose and blinked, then leaned forward, seeming to search the tunnel of the weapon as he slowly reached into the bag. A sound like an acorn cracking echoed in the car. Harbaugh had cocked his gun. But it did not have its intended effect. Lil’ Soup remained still for a moment, then carefully withdrew a small plastic container full of bell-shaped dumplings.
“Xiao Long Bao,” Lil’ Soup whispered, speaking into the barrel of the gun as if it were a microphone. “Cold. But still good.”
“Not hungry,” Harbaugh grunted. The man’s gun remained steady, and it was now pointed at Lil’ Soup’s two front teeth.
“Are you sure?” Lil’ Soup asked, cracking the lid on the plastic container.
For a moment, nothing happened. The car’s air conditioner continued to wheeze, the engine moaned in the heat. The only other sounds were nostrils pulling air deep down into lungs. After about ten seconds, Lil’ Soup watched the gun slowly droop, watched the faces of the men in the front seat gently transform. It was like watching two taut balloons gradually deflate. The hard lines driven into rough skin loosened their grip on the men’s skulls, and Lil’ Soup could imagine what the men must have looked like as young boys. It was as if the detectives were toddlers, watching a cartoon for the very first time. Not so much excitement or happiness. More like a sublime form of expectation.
The smell now flooding the car was different for each man present. As Grandfather had explained, the herb held three unique properties— the first, causing the herb’s odor to behave like a shape shifter. It triggered one’s most pleasant olfactory memory, replaying the moment, or at least the smell of that moment, in high fidelity. Therefore, Detective Harbaugh, he wasn’t really in the car anymore. And he’d forgotten he was holding a gun. Now he was back on a pier at Pismo Beach, standing in the shadow of his father with a chili cheese dog dripping down the fingers of his little five-year-old hand. Detective Vicente went to another place entirely. He found himself nestled in the lap of his older sister, the loud chaos of a Quinceanera celebration splashing though his small ears as a silver spoon brought a dollop of rich, brown mole up to his lips. The two detectives weren’t drooling yet, but they weren’t far off.
As for Lil’ Soup, he was still very much in the backseat of the blue sedan. The noodles smelled delicious, for sure— liked crushed cumin and pork broth. But he had long ago built up a tolerance to the herb’s power. Lil’ Soup still had his wits about him. He plucked out a dumpling and held it in front of Harbaugh’s slack face.
“Please,” Lil’ Soup said. “Enjoy.”
Harbaugh nodded and placed the gun on the duffel bag, then reached out with both hands to cradle the dumpling.
“Would you like one too?” Lil’ Soup asked Vicente.
Vicente nodded and held out his palms. So Lil’ Soup placed a dumpling in the detective’s cupped hands. And then he waited and watched. The men did not fall on the noodles like dogs. Instead, they slowly brought the dumplings to their lips. Their mouths hung open, their tongues squirmed, wet and glistening in pools of saliva. Vicente bit into his first and moaned. Harbaugh soon joined him, and the two men made sounds like a woman being slowly fucked. Next, their eyes went glassy and their pupils swelled. Lil’ Soup waited for them to chew and swallow their first bites. It took a while. The men were savoring, eating at a starfish pace. The moment he saw their throats drag the noodles down, Lil’ Soup spoke.
“You were wondering how I survived the crash,” he said.
Neither man appeared to care anymore. Both had shoved the remaining dumplings past their lips. Juice ran down their chins.
“I was in the bathroom,” Lil’ Soup continued. “In the rear of the airplane. It was the last thing to hit the earth, and the seats and the passengers, they cushioned my impact. Does that sound like a miracle to you?”
Harbaugh’s cheek bulged and his teeth were busy, but he managed to moan something that sounded like “yes.”
“It wasn’t,” Lil’ Soup told the detective. “I was simply at the right place at the right time. Much like the two of you are now.”
Lil’ Soup took another sip of water and plucked the gun off the duffel bag and placed it at his side, well out of reach of the men. Now it was time to discover if the noodles would reveal their second property.
“Were you going to take my bag and then kill me?” Lil’ Soup finally asked the detectives.
“Probably,” Vicente groaned.
“Yes,” Harbaugh answered, swallowing the last big lump of his dumpling. “May I have another?”
Lil’ Soup took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. His instinct had been right. They were worthy. But exactly how worthy? He was about to find out.
“So the two of you are thieves,” Lil’ Soup observed.
Both men nodded. A long string of saliva hung from Harbaugh’s bottom lip. Vicente was blinking erratically, his gaze locked on the container of dumplings.
“And are either of you rich?” Lil’ Soup continued. “I’m not asking about the cash in your wallets. I’m wondering about your… assets. Would you say they’re sizable?”
“Please, another one,” Vicente mewled. Sweat pooled in the creases of his face.
“You must answer my question first,” Lil’ Soup told him. Then he turned to Harbaugh. “You must both answer my question.”
Both men leaned across the seat. Their heads wobbled on limp necks. Lil’ Soup could find no sign of struggle in either man’s features. It was clear they would do or say anything, so long as another dumpling soon fell into their hands.
“I have 1.7 million,” Harbaugh blurted. His face twitched. “Off shore, where it can’t be tracked or touched.”
“That’s good,” Lil’ Soup said. He took another sip of water before continuing. “And you, Detective Vicente? What do you have? And where do you have it?”
“2.9,” Vicente mumbled. “Also off shore. May I have another, please?” His eyes bored a hole into the green duffel bag.
“And do either of you men have a pen and paper handy?” Lil’ Soup asked. The words slipped from his lips on a thin stream of air. He was nearly breathless. The herb was working. Even though he knew the herb’s power, had witnessed it with his own eyes back at his village, it was still a shock to observe. He had Googled Sodium Pentothal once at an internet cafe, and the herb was having a similar effect. Men willing to spill their every secret without a second thought. Their minds suddenly as pliant as wet clay.
Lil’ Soup rested his hand on the cool metal of the gun as he watched Detective Harbaugh dig through the glove compartment. Lil’ Soup was silently counting, silently willing the man to hurry up. The herb’s third property would soon take hold. And once it did, getting anything further out of the men would be impossible.
With a kind of yelp of excitement, Harbaugh swiveled back to face Lil’ Soup, now clutching a chewed pencil and the wrinkled envelope of some forgotten bill.
“Here…” Harbaugh cried, trying to offer the pencil and paper to Lil’ Soup.
“It’s not for me,” Lil’ Soup told the detective. “I want you both to write down the bank numbers of your offshore accounts. Write down all the information necessary to grant access. Passwords. IBAN codes. Everything. You have them memorized, don’t you.”
It wasn’t a question, but both men nodded regardless.
“Okay then,” Lil’ Soup went on. He took another sip of water. “Write it all down, please.”
And like two studious pupils, they both did. First, Harbaugh. Then Vicente. They leaned over the dashboard and committed their millions to the faded envelope without hesitation. After finishing, Vicente held the paper up for Lil’ Soup to inspect. The men’s handwriting was small and neat. All the numbers and passwords were there and they were easy to read.
“May I have it please?” Lil’ Soup asked. “And also your wallets? I know I said I wouldn’t be taking your cash, but I’ve changed my mind.”
The envelope was dropped on Lil’ Soup’s bag. Soon, two shiny leather wallets followed suit. Lil’ Soup slipped all three into the pocket of his coat, then reached down to the floorboard for two bottles of water. He held them up before the men.
“Maybe you should drink some water before I give you another dumpling,” Lil’ Soup told the men. “To cleanse the palette.”
The men didn’t need another dumpling. And Lil’ Soup didn’t want to give them one. He was stalling for time. They were plenty more worthy souls in the world, and Lil’ Soup needed to make sure he had noodles for as many as possible. He watched the men unscrew the caps on their bottles of water. He watched their slow hands raise the plastic to their lips. And then he watched the light go out in their eyes. The water was forgotten. Everything was forgotten. You could see that plain as day. The flicker of human intelligence had blinked out. Just slack mouths now. Rheumy eyes. The kind of expression you might encounter on a cow.
Lil’ Soup reached out and plucked the water bottles from the men’s hands, and dropped them to the floor board. Then he slowly leaned up over the seat and gently wedged himself between the detectives. “Excuse me,” he said, while climbing up into the front seat. Once there, he leaned across Detective Harbaugh and opened the passenger’s side door. It took some wiggling, but he finally managed to squirm across the man’s lap and step into the sunlight.
Lil’ Soup stretched his back and scanned the road in both directions. Still empty. They might as well have been on the surface of Mars. Satisfied, Lil’ Soup took a deep breath to summon his strength and then reached back to pull Detective Harbaugh from the vehicle. The man was still technically conscious, but motor skills eluded him. As Lil’ Soup tugged, Harbaugh’s girth spilled to the pavement. Lil’ Soup just barely caught his head before it collided with the tarmac. He left the man lying there and moved around the front of the car. Vicente was a heavier man, and it took more work, but Lil’ Soup eventually managed to pry the detective out of the driver’ seat.
For the next ten minutes, he labored to drag both of their limp bodies off the road. He sat them by a rock in the meager shade of a Creosote bush. Then he leaned over his knees and worked to catch his breath. He was sweating and tired.
The detectives were no worse for the wear. At least not physically. Both were slumped, shoulder to shoulder. Their blood continued to pump. Their lungs continued to draw air. Their eyes were still open, peering up into the sun-bleached sky. But did they know what sky was anymore? According to Grandfather, the answer was no. The third and final property had taken effect. The herb had stripped the men of every memory and every word that had ever crossed their minds. They were now blank slates. And they would remain as such for the rest of their days.
“I’ll call for help as soon as I find a phone,” Lil’ Soup told the men. Not that it mattered. Not that they understood the sounds leaving his mouth. “I’ll send someone back to pick you up.”
Then Lil’ Soup got back in the car, buckled his seat belt and pulled away. He followed the two-lane road to a highway. He then followed the highway to Las Vegas. The first thing he did was stop in a gas station, and walk to a pay phone. He called the police, told them that he had passed two men on the side of state road 19, forty miles south. He hung up the phone before questions could be asked.
Lil’ Soup remained in Las Vegas for one week. He had imagined the place would be teeming with worthy people. But it was hard to glean the backstories of the men and women he stumbled across. Most just seemed desperate. Clearly, they were harming themselves. But had they harmed others? He only met one who was an obvious predator. A pimp running prostitutes on the strip. After watching the man strike a young girl one evening, Lil’ Soup followed him back to a motor lodge and offered him a noodle. Lil’ Soup didn’t get much money for his trouble, but the encounter did help him sleep better that night.
Afterwards, Lil’ Soup spent a long afternoon at an internet café, wiring money through a labyrinth of bank accounts that would eventually reach his grandfather. Then he left. He hopped on a Greyhound bus and spent two weeks working his way east. Denver. Chicago. Cincinnati. There would be a few men and one woman resembling detectives Harbaugh and Vicente. There would be another three million to buoy the village coffers, so that the surrounding forests could be bought and saved. But the real jackpot, as Lil’ Soup well knew, was Manhattan. The stomping ground of the greatest thieves on earth. It was why he had been flying there in the first place.
To this day, Lil’ Soup still huddles in the projects, in the shadow of Wall Street. Every evening around five pm, he rises from his grate and pushes his shopping cart west, deep into the canyons of glass and steel. He hovers near bars and listens. He listens closely to the brash men and women, listens to them brag about what they have, and the suckers they took it from, listens for proof of wrongdoing, secrets pried loose by alcohol and hubris.
He follows home the worthy and he feeds them. Only when his bag is finally empty, only then will Lil’ Soup return to his village and start living again.
Z.G. Watkins is an Austin-based songwriter and fiction author.