I descended the staircase, and it was halfway down that I first noticed the smell. How can I describe it? It was as appetizing as anything that had ever filled my nostrils, but it was absolutely not a restaurant smell. Or it was a secret restaurant smell, the smell of some exotic vegetable that had to be peeled and boiled and pureed before it was suitable for the tongue, but which scented the air beautifully, even freshly torn from the earth and smeared with soil. It was the smell of coffee roasting in Freed’s when I was a kid, before I had to take the next, hard step and learn to drink it.
There was a simple wooden desk in the vestibule, and behind it a lovely young woman in a crimson cheongsam, watching a soap opera on a portable television with the sound turned low. She looked up when I approached and greeted me with a smile that looked genuine. I stopped in front of the desk.
“You’re new.” It was more a statement than a question.
“Is it that obvious?”
She kept smiling, but the smile didn’t broaden or show any teeth in response to my very mild humor.
“Three pipes for twenty dollars. The best for beginners. Not too little, not too much. Are you working this afternoon?”
“This way you can work if you choose to...” A dramatic pause followed by a smile that looked a little less genuine than its predecessor. “...and you’ll like it more.”
I laughed a little. At her, not with her. But it didn’t matter. I was reaching into my wallet and pulling out a twenty. She took the money and slid open the top drawer of the desk, which was filled with mah jongg tiles and the proverbial little tin box. She put the twenty in the box and handed me three tiles of genuine ivory, which might have been the oldest things in the place. I looked at the red of her nails, deeper than the red of her dress, as her fingertips brushed against my palm. I felt the erotic allure of opium before the first match was struck. With the other hand she made a small but theatrical gesture toward a curtained doorway.