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Friday, February 23, 2024

F³ It's Only Money 53

             Mei, despite only claiming to learn about Chinese folklore to bolster sales, was good at researching and relating the stories. I had a basic grasp on some of the stories, but Eastern mythology was just fundamentally different from Western, and it took a while to wrap my brain around it. Literally anything, and most did, could have a spirit and required a specific ritual to deal with it. So when Mei pulled up funeral traditions and the burning of joss money, all I could really do is shrugged. She had to connect the dots for me.

            “It’s like paying the debt of people in the afterlife,” she said.

                        I was familiar with the concept of Catholic indulgences, literally buying your soul out of hell and into limbo, but there was a wrinkle in this for me. “By burning the money?”

            “It’s not real money, it’s . . . it’s incense money, specifically made for this.”

            “Okay, I guess, but how does that connect to this?” I pointed to the figure.

            “Well, Jade Girl and Golden Boy carvings are meant to watch over people, and in some stories they’re even servants.”

            “Right, we covered that. The whole ‘take it with you’ idea.”

            “Yeah, but see, here’s the thing.” She pointed at a picture on the monitor.

            It was an example of the joss money, but whereas others showed a picture of a man or were decorated with metallic foil in gold or silver, this was copper, but stamped with black ink in the shapes of common household objects: food, clothing, tools, etc. Underneath the picture was an explanation that these were the daily essentials of the afterlife.

            “So Jade Girl could also be one of these ‘daily essentials’?” I scrolled up, looking over the other examples of the money, scanning over the captions.

            “Ah ha!” Mei shouted.

            I hadn’t noticed, but she had ducked under the counter and now stood up with a cellophane brick. Carefully slitting the end with a box cutter, she slid out a short stack of paper from the brick. Immediately, I could smell the incense.

            “Is that it?”

            “Uh huh. Gold, silver, and copper joss paper.” She pulled over the cookie sheet that caught the ashes from the incense sticks. Moving the incense burner off and transplanting the joss money and the figurine, she pulled a lighter from her pocket. “Ready to do this?”

            “Um,” I said. “If this works, that statue is going to turn into a human woman on your counter.”

            “Good point. Let’s move it to the floor.”

Friday, February 16, 2024

F³ Deep Dive 52

             This kickstarted a deep dive. She moved to her computer as I tried to keep up with my phone. Mei hadn’t been kidding. Lee had taught her about everything in the shop, and she had done even more research on items on her own because she thought the stories might help her make sales. And she had done more than digitize the inventory and sales records of the shop. She had gone so far as to digitize all of Lee’s old books, allowing her to read through them while he kept the originals for sale.

            She recited passages in Manadarin and Cantonese back to me, telling me all about the Jade Girl and Golden Boy folk tales.

            “You know—” she began.

            “I thought it was Yunu,” I interrupted.

            “It is. I was saying you know. As in you know how—”

            “Right, sorry. Go on.”

            “You know, I wonder why she has a name, at all.”

            I shrugged. “A spirit or some other celestial entity. Tons of things have names in Eastern mythology.”

            She nodded. “That’s true, but what if that’s not the case, here. Yunu is described as the Jade Girl and there’s the Golden Boy. What if they were human to begin with?”

            “Yeah, we kind of went over that.”

            “I know, but that was some kind of guardian spirit, but what if it’s more mundane, like, I don’t know, kings wanting their things.”

            Something clicked for me. “Wait, are you talking like Egyptian pharaohs? They get buried with all their earthly possessions, including servants?”

            Mei’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, like that! They’re servants, turned into statues so the kings can have their servants in heaven or something.”

            “So how do we bring them back? If they’re supposed to serve the person in the afterlife, there must be a way for them to carryover or something.”

            We both frowned, looking at our screens.

            “Funeral traditions,” I said, suddenly.

            “What?”

            “You said it. They watch over the graves and are supposed to serve or otherwise be buried with the person to help in the afterlife. So we go back to Chinese funeral traditions to see if there’s a connection.”

            “Oh! All right. Oh, there’s a ton of stuff on funeral traditions, though.”

            “I’ll get us takeout from upstairs,” I said.

Friday, February 9, 2024

F³ Jade Guardians 51

             I laid it all out for Mei—I had to ask her—without spilling the beans about Nikki being a vampire or the possibility of other supernaturals at the Fairhaven Club.

            “So this is like human trafficking at the next level? Turning women into statues and then smuggling them over as curios. Then they’re turned back into people?”

            “That’s as far as I can piece it together. What I need to know is how to turn them back. An incantation, a ritual, or maybe some other magic whatsit to undo it all. Was hoping that your grandpa knew of something. Some weird thing from mythology. I did a little research on the Jade Emperor, thinking there was a connection.”

            Mei shook her head. “No, nothing like that is attached to the Jade Emperor. Besides, he’s a good guy. None of his stories talk about him except as being wise and kind.”

            “Yeah, that’s what I got, too. Was hoping that there was something missing, though. I can’t figure the why of any of it. I mean, what’s the point of turning people into statues? Are they guardians or something, meant to come back alive to protect something?”

            It was a random thought, probably inspired by too many watchings of Indiana Jones and other fantasy movie offerings.

            “Guardians?” Mei said. “Wait a second.” She began typing on her phone, then scrolling. “Hey, here’s something. Yunu, the jade girl. They were carvings over graves to watch over and guard them. What if they weren’t always carvings? What if they were real people?”

            She showed me her phone, and I began reading.

Friday, February 2, 2024

F³ Preceding Reputation 50

             The young woman let out a low whistle as she leaned in to look at the figure. “She is gorgeous. The level of detail is amazing. Was this 3d printed? The work is so intricate, down to the embroidery on her dress. I can’t imagine carving—” she stopped as she touched it. “Wait, this isn’t plastic. It’s real jade!”

            I nodded.

            “How? Wait.” She looked at me. “Tortoises. You bought a ton of jade tortoises. Grandpa told me the story how the jade tortoises, the black tortoise, was used to stop the Chinese firebird here in Belport! He used to tell that story, a lot, how a guy bought a bunch of them so the fire department could use the tortoise on their engines to put out fires in the city. That’s you?”

            I nodded.

            She touched the figurine, gently. “Is this magic?”

            “That’s kind of what I need your grandpa for. I think, I’m not certain, though, that this is a real woman, turned into a jade statue.”

            Her eyes went wide with horror. “She’s alive? You’re not messing with me, are you? Grandpa told a lot of wild stories. I thought they were just to fool tourists into buying stuff.”

            “I’m sure some of that’s the case, but with me it was always more than that. Is there anyway we can contact your grandpa?”

            She shook her head. “Like I said, he won’t even do a cordless phone, much less a mobile. But I really did listen to everything he talked about. If some of it is real . . .” She trailed off, her eyes back on the figurine.

            “Well, I guess we can try it out. Here’s what I know.”

Friday, January 26, 2024

F³ Establishing Bona Fides 49

             “Um,” I said, confused. “I’m looking for Han Lee.”

            “Yes, this is the place. This is Han Lee’s, shop.” The young woman beamed a customer-service smile.

            “It’s changed since I was here last. Is Lee here?”

            Her smile slipped and her eyebrow questioned me. “Why do you want Grandpa?”

            One of his granddaughters. Thought he said none of them were interested in running the shop.

            “I know him. I’m Matt Allen. Wanted to ask him about some things.”

            Her smile completely disappeared. “Ask about what things? Grandpa’s not in some kind of trouble, is he? I won’t answer any questions without a lawyer.” She pulled out her phone.

            I held up my hands defensively. “Whoa. I’m not a cop. I’m a PI. Your grandpa has helped me on cases, before. I’m Matt Allen.”

            “What’d you buy?”

            “What?”

            “You’d have to buy something for Grandpa to help you out. So what’d you buy?”

            I searched my memory. “Jade tortoises, a bunch of them. A bronze gong. Some beads. Silk cloth. Some other things over the years. I’m sure he wouldn’t have talked about them.”

            “No, he didn’t, but I’ve got all of the shop’s records I can search through?”

            “Wait, Lee digitized everything?”

            “No, I did. Grandpa is still afraid of cordless phones, much less mobile phones and cloud computing.”

            That fits.

            “Hmm. Okay, I can see that you have made purchases.” She scrolled through her phone. “Pretty random stuff, and you only come in rarely. Would it kill you to be a more regular customer?”

            “I’m a bit far away to be a regular. Usually only need his expertise rarely. Is he here?”

            “Expertise? On souvenirs? That’s weird, man. No. He’s not here. He went back to China.”

            “Permanently?”

            She shrugged. “Maybe. He is pretty old. At least a year, though.”

            “Oh, well. Okay. Thanks.” I turned to leave.

            “What? That’s it? Thought you had some case and needed answers.”

            “I do.”

            “So, ask. I know about everything in this shop.”

            “Everything?”

            “Everything. Grandpa wouldn’t agree to me running the shop until I knew everything. I had to sit through and listen to him drone on until I could repeat it back to him.”

            “Okay, but I don’t have questions about items in the shop. I need to know about Chinese mythology and this.” I pulled the jade figurine from my coat and unwrapped the cloth carefully.

Friday, January 19, 2024

F³ Not The Guy 48

             Shadow Valley was a warren of tangled streets that made the Grind look navigable. While the Grind came from the Hooverville shanties during the Depression, Shadow Valley’s knots of streets arose from the various immigrant communities setting up their own places since they were forced to live outside of the towns where they worked in factories.

            Modern GPS systems didn’t know any straightforward way to get to a destination, insisting on dozens of turns in what it thought was the most direct route, but over the last few years, I had learned a shortcut that worked off of three streets, based on landmarks rather than street signs, which had a habit of disappearing.

            The smells of the Golden Peach restaurant called to me. I almost always stopped for some food before I came here, but it was already late, and Han Lee kept irregular hours in his shop. Instead, I went down some steps to the basement of the building and entered the shop.

            Before getting all the way in, I froze. A waving cat statue greeted me. Bright overhead lighting banished all shadows, and instead of the chaos of shelves and counters that resembled the streets above, the place was completely organized. It looked like a dozen other souvenir shops I had passed on the way here.

            “Welcome to Lee’s Cruios,” a woman’s voice said as I came in. “Something I can help you find?”

            I turned to the woman, who was in her twenties, wearing a Chinese-style dress in green silk.

            That was not the guy.

Friday, January 12, 2024

F³ Punny Business 47

             For a vampire, who was hundreds of years old, Nikki displayed uncommon impatience over the next few days. She virtually clung to me as I spent time online researching. I also ended up sending Jen and Jessie to DeGradi’s library to look up some of their more obscure folklore collection, particularly from the Far East collections. It turned out that Nikki didn’t care to piece together fragments of folk texts and apply them to real-life.

            “ ‘Jade is a semi-precious gemstone, highly regarded in Asian cultures and certain North American Native American tribes due to the large deposits of jade found in British Columbia, The Yukon Territory, and parts of Alaska.’” She read. “Why are you looking up the geology of this substance, Matthew?”

            “Because I never know,” I said.

            “Never know what?”

            “Yes.”

            “I warn you I am in no mood for word games.”

            After three days of this kind of questioning, I as in a mood, too. “Tough,” I said. “Research doesn’t move in straight lines. There’s no old man nor a book with all the answers. I piece all of this together. This is detective work.”

            “I expected more searching for clues.”

            “We’ve got a lot of clues. We don’t have a lot of information about them. I need to know more about this stuff before I can make an educated guess before I pump my guy for information.”

            “Guy? This is the first time you’ve mentioned a guy. Some magician, perhaps? Or maybe Tony?”

            “Tony’s long gone, Not coming back as far as I know.” It would have been nice if he would come back. He probably had the raw power to undo the enchantment, or at least be able to pinpoint what did it. “And my guy is more a con artist than a magician.”

            “This does not inspire me with confidence, Matthew.”

            “Ha! Good one,” I said.

            She frowned at me.

            “Confidence,” I grinned. “Con artist.”

            She rolled her eyes. “I was not making a pun.”

            “That’s too bad.”

Friday, January 5, 2024

F³ The Business 46

             We left Parker as he was calling the 24/7 hotline number on the card.

            “How did you get a card from Customs and Border Control?” Nikki asked as we climbed into her car. “And why?”

            I wanted to play it as the cool detective who knows his business, but it was Nikki. She would almost certainly laugh or give me a flat look. “I’ve had a few cases dealing with smuggled items, before.”

            “So you know this Colleen Fenton. Won’t she recognize you by description?”

Parker would certainly describe Nikki and me, particularly Nikki. It wouldn’t really do to get identified by the a border control agent. It was possible, if not likely, that someone at the Club had paid some of those agents off. Even if that wasn’t the case, it represented a loose end, a connection to us when we wanted anonymity.

“Never met her before,” I smiled. “Customs and Border Control sounds imposing, but it’s not the FBI. Regular people have to deal with them all the time, so people are constantly wandering in their offices. I picked cards from a few desks to have on hand, and to call with a question so I can bypass the switchboard.”

            “You are quite a rogue at times, Matthew.”

            “It’s my business.”

Friday, December 29, 2023

F³ Bureaucracy to The Rescue 45

             I drove us back to the dockmaster’s office. Before going in, I pulled out to figures from the crate, wrapped them in a blanket I kept in the car, and stashed the bundle under my seat. To help sell things, I put on a pair of nitrile gloves. Nikki held out her hands for a pair as well.

Why not? If it works for me, then both of us will be twice as convincing.

Then I pulled the crate out and took it into the dockmaster’s office with us. Parker was still there; Belport, like a lot of ports, operate 24/7. His shift wouldn’t end for a couple of more hours, which was probably perfect for what I wanted to do.

            His head swiveled towards us before going back to his computer screen. “Oh, it’s you two again. Did you find what you were looking for?”

            “No,” I said. “We found much more, and much worse.” I carefully set the crate on his desk, pushing his coffee mug precariously close to the edge of the desk.

            “What’s that?”

            I reached in and pulled out another figure, putting it in front of his mouse. “A problem. These are almost certainly smuggled, and I’ve got a hunch they’re antiques. Container’s full of these crates.”

            “What?” Parker’s eyes came off the screen and looked at the figure, then the crate. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

            “Does it look like we’re in a jesting mood, Parker?” Nikki deadpanned.

            Way to sell bad cop. She’s almost too good.

            “Listen, Parker. I don’t think you knew.”

            “I didn’t know! Do you know how much comes through here? Sure, we’re not Portland or L.A., but we get—”

            I raised my hands. “Easy. Easy. Like I said, I don’t think you knew. But this is some grade A serious guano. It’s gotta go up the chain. If we do that, eyes are going to fall on you and this office. Big time.”

            “I’m not convinced it shouldn’t,” Nikki glared.

            “No, he was straight with us, pointed us right to them. He didn’t know, and I’d hate for his job and pension to be at risk for something like this.”

            Parker’s eyes darted from Nikki to me, and he began to look horrified. “I didn’t know!” he yelled.

            “Right. That’s what I’m saying,” I tried to reassure him. “So you’re going to be the one to run this up the chain.”

            “What?” he seemed genuinely confused. I guessed Nikki was doing more than just pulling off bad copy, but adding her mojo to the mix.

            “Here,” I handed him a card for US Customs and Border Protection. “You call it in. Ask for her. And just do what you would do if you found something suspicious. In fact, you did. You found this,” I pointed to the crate, “and that,” I pointed to the figure, “outside the container number you gave us. Tell it like it is. These look like smuggled artifacts.”

            “I call it in, and I’m the hero?”

            “Well, it might get a little uncomfortable, but it goes a long way in your favor if you do. If we call it in, well, they’re going to look at you for a long time. Because they’re going to ask, ‘Why didn’t Parker call us?’ Better this way.”

            “Better this way. Okay. Okay.”

            I pointed to the number on the card.

Friday, December 22, 2023

F³ What Now 44

             The holy water formed a small puddle around the jade figure; I returned the figure to the safety of the crate, not trusting it not to get knocked over.

            “What else can you try, Matthew?”

            I shook my head. “I need to do research. It could be a spell or another artifact that frees them. There’s no way to know. This came from China, and the jade is kind of a big indicator that Chinese mythology is somehow involved. I’ve had a little dealing with that before, so I can do some research, but there are no guarantees, Nikki.”

            “There never are in life. Now, we must move these containers.” She closed the door and relocked it.

            “Move them? Where? How?”

            “We cannot let our adversaries keep their prize, Matthew, while you discover how to restore them to humanity.”

            “I didn’t say no, I just asked about he where and how.”

            “My club has loading docks,” she smiled. “By incentivizing the right workers, it shouldn’t take long to relocate them all beyond the reach of those from the club.”

            She started walking to the car.

            “Don’t you think they’ll figure that out pretty quickly?” I picked up the lone crate and quick-walked—carefully—to catch up. “I mean, you’d need some unknown warehouse or something to move them all to, and then you’re leaving a lot of loose ends to follow up on. This isn’t the kind of operation you slap together last minute.”

            She slowed her pace as we got to the car. “True. I could arrange for everything we need, but it would take days, maybe even weeks. Perhaps a temporary relocation while I arrange something more permanent and untraceable.” She tapped a finger to her lips, thinking.

            I set the crate in the back seat, then put the seatbelt on it for good measure.

            “Maybe, but there could be a better, an easier way to stop them from getting all this.”

            “Oh?”

            “Bureaucracy,” I grinned.

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