Welcome to The Next Big Thing!
Beginning with this entry, this Huffington Post blogger is bringing old and new media together in a fresh way. For the next number of entries, I will be posting the opening to my eighth and latest novel, Quiet Teacher.
This is the second book in a series about the lives, loves, and action adventures of Dr. Xenon Pearl, a South Florida neurosurgeon who saves lives in the operating room during the day and goes out as a vigilante at night. There's something for everybody in these books: Chinese history, medicine, martial arts, romance, ghosts, and of course page-turning action.
I know you all love books and want to support them. Enjoy!
I am an insubordinate puppet in the pitiless hands of karma, and try as I might I cannot cut the strings. Day in and day out I struggle among the ten thousand things, pulled one way by the desire to shun the world and another by the need to save it. Back and forth I go, sometimes exercising suture and scalpel, other times heeding a dark and terrible call. I want to be a better man, but my violent compulsions stay me. I am never more at peace than when I am cutting; I am never more tortured than in cutting's red wake.
My new stepsister, police detective Wanda Berkowitz, knows nothing of my inner turmoil. Although she could see easily enough that nearing the prison sent me into a toxic swoon, she could not know that it was because a thousand lifetimes worth of judgments and sentences fill my head. As she propelled me toward the penitentiary door, I unconsciously rooted myself to the floor.
"Oh no," she said, taking my elbow. "You're going through with it, buddy boy."
"Please," I said.
"You're not out of the woods yet. There are still charges floating around and people waiting to pounce if you slip up. Any and all reminders of prison life are good for you and even better for our family."
Two control room guards watched our dance with mild interest. Wanda pressed her badge to the bulletproof window. "Detective Berkowitz," she said.
"Everything under control, detective?"
"You better believe it."
The guard opened the security drawer. Wanda dropped in her badge and reached back somewhere for her cuffs. Then she loosened the jacket of her gray suit and pulled her duty Sig-Sauer .45 from a nylon shoulder web.
"Holster those eyes, doctor," she snapped.
I didn't. "Watching a woman undress has never been quite like this," I said.
"Shut up and give over your knife. I know you've got one."
"Don't be silly."
"The metal detector will find it."
"There's nothing to find."
Holding my eye she feigned a cough and magically came up with another, smaller gun. I managed a smile.
"And where'd that come from?"
"Kahr PM40," she said. "Forty-caliber death puppy. Nothing flatter, nothing finer."
The guard pushed out a clipboard for us both to sign.
"Chaplain's office," said Wanda.
"All the way down the hall, first right, second left."
Once before Wanda had tried to scare me straight by taking me to the Broward County Main Jail. It hadn't worked, though I still remembered the terrible stench of sweat and disinfectants and toilet. Up here in South Bay on the lower edge of Lake Okeechobee, smack in the middle of what used to be magnificent Everglades and was now chemically polluted sugar country, all I got was a whiff of burning cane. The hallway was brightly lit, and the orange and yellow color scheme said school as much as maximum security.
We found the chaplain's office and Wanda introduced me to a man whose shopworn face revealed a faith still strong after much testing by rapists, murderers, child molesters, and punks.
"It's really quite astonishing to get a renowned brain surgeon to come to prison to lead a meditation," he said, seemingly unable to stop staring at my ponytail. "Do many of your colleagues do this kind of work?"
"I don't know any others who do," I said. "And I wouldn't exactly say I'm renowned."
"I'll leave you two to get acquainted," Wanda said. "There's a prisoner I have to interrogate. Zee, I'll meet you at the car in an hour."
She left and the chaplain stared at me in fascination. "Tell me about your meditation techniques," he urged. "A Zen master has been doing a monthly session here for about five years, but I'm sure he doesn't have your technical qualifications."
"Sounds like I don't have his," I said. "Meditation is just an escape for me."
"And for the men," the chaplain smiled. "The only escape, or so we hope. Shall we go see them?"
He led me down another hall to a little windowless room where barefoot men in fatigues waited cross-legged on the floor. A statue of Buddha stood on a draped bookshelf at one end and there were prayer flags, two tiny incense cauldrons, and a stack of inspirational books.
The chaplain made a few remarks about me being a celebrated surgeon and meditation master, describing an impressive man who did not sound the slightest bit like me. Then he slipped out of the room and left me alone with the inmates. I made it a point to shake everyone's hand. The group's leader was tall and gangly and ruddy and thin. His ID tag said Irwin. I figured he was there for the same reason as the other men--to break the monotony and find an incorporeal route past the barbed-wire fence and the cameras and fences and guards.
"We got a few sick brains in here, Doc," he said in a Southern drawl. "Probably all the neurosurgery in the world won't help."
I started to chuckle but saw he was serious. I motioned for the men to rise. "I have a few exercises to calm the body and make meditation easier," I said.
"Jing to qi, qi to shen," said a man standing front and center.
His nametag read Neptune, and he bristled with the kind of hard, shiny muscle only endless hours at the weight rack can bring. His ears were as perfectly formed as a young girl's, and his look said he was working the angles, always monitoring how he struck others and how he could use whatever impression he made to his best advantage. His gaze was intense and challenging. He looked at me as if he knew what I was hiding. I found myself holding my breath.
"There's a saying in Mandarin Chinese," I explained, giving myself a chance to recover. "Jing to qi, qi to shen means transforming essence to energy, energy to spirit. Qi is the operative word. It means life force or energy. Meditation, together with the exercises we're about to do, uses this life force to transform your essential fluids into a deeper spirit. The exercises are called the Eight Pieces of Brocade."
"They are martial arts exercises, yes?" Neptune said. "What's a doctor doing bringing martial arts to prison? You know that's not allowed here. Why are you even practicing if you're a healer? This inmate wants to know."
"I'm a martial artist, but these are not martial exercises," I said. "The set is just for health."
They were the first movements my teacher, Wu Tie Mei, shared with me during the years she taught me gongfu, medicine, energetics, and philosophy. A superbly trained fighter, Tie Mei (Chinese people put their given name last, family name first) was a Chinese Jew rescued by my maternal grandfather's rabbinical congregation in a 1970s international outreach. Most people don't know there are Jews in China or that they cluster in a city called Kaifeng at the end of what was once the Silk Road. Kaifeng's Jews have no connection to world Jewry, but they engage traditional practices such as eating unleavened bread on Passover and resting on Friday night to honor the Sabbath.
"Oh they're martial," Neptune went on. "You can fool them but you can't fool me."
His persistence made me uncomfortable. I wished Wanda hadn't left me alone. I wished the chaplain had stuck around. I tried to focus on the exercises.
The first movement in the Brocade sequence had the men reaching for the sky or, more precisely, the fluorescent lights nine feet above our heads. Looking up, I saw dead moths and flying roaches trapped behind the plastic covers by their lust for the light. I wondered about their reincarnation cycles. Perhaps they had already come back as men, had tested the laws of karma, and were on their way here to serve prison terms as inmates; perhaps they were already buzzing around outside again.
The second movement was called the archer because it separated the arms in a bow-stretching action.
"Gotcha," said Neptune, lining up his imaginary arrow with my forehead.
The third movement was a big spinal twist. Mercifully, Neptune had nothing to say about it. The fourth movement was similar. The fifth was a low circle that worked the belt vessel--good for weight control because it stimulated the metabolism. Bending low, Neptune aimed his fist at my groin, striking the air just inches from me.
The next movement was a toe touch. The one after that was a tensed punching exercise. Neptune lined himself up with my face and went through the motions with grimacing and grunting and harsh breathing and a murderous look in his eye softened only by a humorous glimmer. "For your health, of course," he said, his curled thumb just inches from my nose.
He kept his counsel for the last movement, which entailed rising to a toestand and then dropping down onto the heels.
"That's it," I told the group. "Now we do our meditation. We stand rather than sit because standing does a better job of encouraging the flow of your life force through all your meridians. The Chinese believe that these meridians carry energy to all parts of our bodies. On our feet, we open the channels for circulation and energy and nourish the vital organs, appendages, and bones. Sitting closes off some of those channels."
"Appendages," snickered someone in the back.
Chuckles spread in a wave, chaos and violence lurking beneath like shark and rocks, but then the group settled down, hands folded over navels.
"Feel the energy come up from the ground," I said. "Imagine it coming into your feet and up the back of your legs and following the line of your spine to your head, rolling up over your crown and back down the front of you to collect behind the navel in what the Chinese call the dantian."
After ten minutes of standing, I came out of my reverie long enough to check on Neptune. He appeared to be deep in meditation, but the moment my gaze settled on his face, his lips turned up into a smile that said he knew I was watching. Irwin began to rock back and forth. Another inmate, a Filipino man with a stocky build and youthful features, sobbed quietly, his hands still in place, tears rolling down his face.
I went back to my own practice and tried to remember my past lives. I wanted to see images from the Song dynasty or the Ming. I wanted to smell the battlefield or, better yet, a long-lost lover. I wanted to see a panoply of flowers laid out for an imperial celebration, to recall a feast of dumplings, to see snow on a pristine mountaintop before there was acid rain to stain it or strip mining to gouge holes in its profile. I wanted to get to know my cohorts, those people whom Chinese metaphysics said traveled with me during the transmigration of souls, making pit stops at the way station, the bardo, for the purpose of signing new contracts in the seemingly endless cycle of living and learning and dying and living again.
I had visions not of past lives but of this one. I saw my blade, Quiet Teacher, flutter over a woman's eyebrows and I saw her tiny hairs shower down. I saw my sharp steel slice a mulberry-sized mole from a man's neck. I saw that inescapable steel sever an arm from a shoulder, and then I saw it hack a body into bits for easier disposal. My eyes jerked open to find Neptune's lips at my ear.
"You're a fake," he hissed. "The dark and the light all confused and running to gray. You're a healer, yes, but an avenger too, and you've got a bill of goods to sell us. You're a hustler of the spirit, a doctor of deception with no goddamn right to preach."
My eyes snapped open like blinds with springs run amok. Irwin clapped the gong signaling the end of the meditation. The men came out of it with slow breathing and peaceful expressions, but the scorpions in my belly nearly bent me over with their stings. I avoided Neptune's gaze as I shook hands all around and answered a few questions. The men noticed my agitation, but I was in no condition to explain. I left as soon as I could.
Outside at the car, Wanda seemed pleased by my wan expression.
"So maybe the life of crime really isn't for you," she grinned.
***More to Come***
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