The first time I saw the dog in the mirror was on a rainy grey morning years ago, in the tiny apartment I shared with my two brothers in the city of Dalat, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I just came out of the shower, and was dressing up for a meet with some hustlers who wanted to sell us quality counterfeit US dollars at ten per cent of their face value. It was a good deal, and mister Hoang specifically wanted me and my brothers to handle it for the organisation. My brothers Duc and Khiem were waiting for me in the kitchen, rearing to impress mister Hoang, to show him that our generation were now ready to take over from our father and uncles who went through the same ritual years ago. The alliance between our family and the Hoangs stretched back further than any of us could remember.
I pulled my jacket over my shoulders and inspecting the fine figure I cut as an up and coming operator for the Hoangs in the mirror, I saw a dog sitting beside me. It was a big animal, with nasty scars and suppurating wounds marring its dusty and dirty faded brindle coat. It sat next to me, looking patiently at my face in the mirror. I went ice cold; like everyone else in Dalat I was aware of the myth of the Death Dog, the dog that appears when it’s your time to die. It supposedly escorts you to the afterlife. I have never bothered with anything mythical, I only laughed at the old wives’ tales of the magical dog that was only visible in reflection. But looking to my side, I only saw an empty bathroom. Glancing back at the mirror, the big, ugly beast was patiently panting, presumably waiting for me to die.
The supporting stories of how to use the Death Dog to your advantage ran through my mind. I have never paid much attention to any of it, but I remembered that you could use the dog’s appearance to cheat death. You have to do something completely surprising, out of your routine, and whatever ill fate would have befallen you, would then happen in your absence. If you were fated to be flattened by a bus, for instance, all you have to do when noticing the dog by your side in the reflection off a shopfront would be to change your immediate plans and instead of crossing the road, rather duck into an alley or shop. The bus would then pass where you would have been, and that would be that. The secret is just to do something immediate, something completely different that to what you were planning. So in a panic I climbed through the bathroom window and made my way down eight flights of rusty fire escape stairs. I was halfway down when the bomb in our apartment went off, killing my brothers Duc and Khiem.
With bits and pieces of burning furniture and rubble falling around me I made it to the ground floor and made my way to mister Hoang’s office in downtown Dalat. On the surface he was a respectable lawyer and we weren’t allowed anywhere close to him during business hours. But this was a special case. Somebody in the organisation knew where we stayed, and wanted to eliminate us from the positions higher up in the organisations that all the cousins were vying for. That could be the only explanation. Nobody else knew where we stayed, or that we were muscle for the Hoang organisation. Mister Hoang would have none of it, treachery from inside the organisation was unthinkable. In the decades, maybe even centuries, of the association between our families, something like this have never happened.
It was now years later. I was still in Dalat, and I’ve made my way up to be one of the senior lieutenants in the organisation now spearheaded by mister Hoang’s eldest son, Nguyen. I was never able to track down the bomber who killed my brothers, and, to be quite honest, I have started to doubt my own suspicions about my cousins. It could have been one of the rival gangs who wanted to thin our numbers. But still, nobody knew that we stayed there. Maybe Duc or Khiem said something to somebody in one of the bars where they hanged out. It’s not impossible. Highly unlikely, for they were as disciplined as I, but certainly not impossible. In the years since, none of my cousins have ever given me reason to suspect any of them of the bombing. And in the following years my suspicions faded, as well as the memory of the hideous dog that made its appearance in the mirror.
But there he is. Staring at me once again, with an infinite patience that belies the purpose of his visit. I put down the razor in the sink, and not knowing if I have a minute or seconds before the cold hand of death touches me I retreat slowly, thinking what my moves would have been. I would have exited the bathroom through the short passage leading to the tiny living room, from where I would have gathered my things and leave out the front door for the day’s work. So I should do something else. And once again, the only exit is through the bathroom window. I rush past the spot on the floor where the dog is sitting in the mirror’s reflection, and hastily shove the window open. I’m a bit older now, and not as skinny as the last time I did this. Living the good live as one of Nguyen’s trusted lieutenants does have its benefits. It doesn’t help too much to squeeze through a tiny window, though. I start to panic. It could be a sniper waiting for me to exit the front door, or another bomb. I have no idea how much time I have. A few scratches and a torn shirt later and I am on the fire escape. This building isn’t much different than the one I shared with my brothers so many years ago. As a matter of fact, most of the buildings in Dalat seems to have been built on the same design. My feet hammer down the stairs and I realise that I’m expecting a mighty explosion any second. But there’s nothing. So it could be a sniper, I suppose. I have left my pistol and my blade in the living room, to be collected on my way out. I have nothing with me, nothing at all with which to confront any possible attacker. So going around the building and trying to surprise whatever assassin awaits me on the other side is not an option. I would have to go to Nguyen and explain the situation to him. But I don’t think his reaction to my story of the dog in the mirror will be any less incredulous than his late father’s was, all those years ago.
I make it to the bottom of the staircase and jump the last three stairs, landing on the unpaved dirt in the alley between my building and the neighbouring one. The alley is dirty and filled with overflowing dumpsters. The smell of rot and decay is overpowering. I look up and down the alley to see if whoever meant me harm had any backup organised on this end, but there’s nobody around. I make my way to the end of the alley and turn to the right, away from my building, and try to mingle with the pedestrians on the crowded sidewalk. Glancing at a shopfront window, I freeze. I can feel the blood draining from my face. A cold feeling comes over me, it feels as if the wind was knocked out of me. Standing by my side in the reflection was the Death Dog, looking expectantly at me as if I was about to throw it a ball. I start to run. I can feel hysteria reaching into my consciousness. It takes all my willpower to suppress it. I have to do something unexpected, something that wasn’t in my plan. I was planning on going to Nguyen’s office. So anywhere but there. I turn my head towards the windows flying by and I see the dog galloping merrily by my side. I stop dead in my tracks and turn around. I start to run the other way. The dog seems to have a bit more momentum and it slides a bit on the pavement before playfully following me. Where am I running to? I have no idea.
In a panic I look up and down the street. There are a host of motorcycles coming my way from where the traffic light turned green a hundred meters away. I look in the other direction, but there’s nothing coming. I suddenly turn into the street and sprint to the other side. I can see myself approaching in a large display window on the other side of the street, and next to me, the Death Dog. His tongue was hanging out, and he had a big smile on his ugly face. I reach the pavement and turn towards the left, and slip into the first alleyway I find. Halfway down the alley is a glass door leading into the building, and I stop in front of it. I look at the reflection in the door, and only see myself. An immense feeling of relief wash over me. I stand there panting, my hands on my knees. This is the second time I have outrun fate, thanks to the reflected Death Dog. I have nothing left, I can’t run any further.
I consider my next move. Maybe the opposing gang have got hitmen out to get me, strewn up and down the street, and I have now slipped into the only spot out of their view? The best I can do is to hide behind the dumpster for a few hours, and not enter the street again. I look back at the street from where I can see motorcycles, buses and cars going about their business. And then something catches my eye and I look back at my reflection in the glass door. At the edge of the reflection a big, scarred muzzle appears. Even though I feel nothing, I can see the muzzle nudging against my elbow.
And then a sledgehammer hits me in my chest. My knees buckle and I am faintly aware of my head hitting the pavement. I hold my chest and I cry out. I can’t breathe. Another hammer strikes my chest. I look down and see nothing, no blood, nobody hitting me or shooting at me. The world is swimming in front of my eyes. In the reflection I see the dog looking at me, smiling, wagging its tail. And then everything goes dark.
Clutching my chest, I think of how wrong old man Hoang was, so many years ago. Sometimes, treason does come from within.