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Friday, April 12, 2024

F³ The Clothing Unheist 60

             Nikki deposited a reusable shopping bag on my desk.

I arched an eyebrow at her in a question.

“The fruits of my labors. A complete hostess outfit for the Fairhaven Club.”

“Really? Wow. That was fast.” It had only been a day since we had planned the heist. “Jen,” I yelled to the outer office. “Wardrobe’s here.”

She came in, look at the bag on my desk, and sighed. “Can’t believe I have to do this. I’m getting overtime for this,” she said.

“And hazard pay,” I nodded.

“Really?”

“Absolutely. Nikki’s paying. I’ve been giving myself hazard pay since the first trip to the Club.”

Jen nodded, and took the bag into the bathroom. We needed to make sure everything fit properly in case we had to send Nikki back in for a swap.

Nikki sat down in the chair across from my desk and glared at me. “Really, Matthew.”

“Uh, yeah. I should create a whole new pay scale just for Fairhaven Club stuff. A step below dealing with storm riders, but there’s almost always a chance of losing life, limb, or soul in that joint.”

“Storm Riders?” Nikki quirked an eyebrow.

Whoops. Not supposed to mention them, so much.

“So how did you get the goods? Please tell me it was a heist. You did your own little heist, right?”

Nikki smiled. It was a layered smile. No doubt she would ask me later about the Storm Riders, but underneath that was the amusement of the story.

“Would you really like to know?” she teased. “It is somewhat salacious.”

“In that place, I would be shocked if it wasn’t.”

“Very well. As with any heist, a great deal of preparation went into the operation. Though I did not need an independent crew, I felt it necessary to make sure that all steps of the plan were laid out before I went into action. I was prepared for a great deal of misdirection to cover my tracks.”

I grinned, getting into the vibe. I was ready for this.

“So, are you ready?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Very well. Just inside the Club, I requested a private room to conduct business and for space to set up all of my special equipment.”

I nodded.

“Then I called for some red wine.”

Not the direction I had expected, but this was the early stages of her caper.

“When the girl arrived, I requested the clothing in Jennifer’s size. The girl brought it to me and charged my account.”

“What?”

“The end.”

“What? That was awful. And what gives, Nikki? You just jeopardized our entire heist. After it’s over, they’ll look and see you bought an outfit and—”

“Do nothing,” she interrupted. “Hundreds of outfits are sold each year.”

I felt my brain screw into a knot. “What?”

“It shouldn’t surprise you, Matthew, that many of the club members are men with outrageous tastes. Some of those tastes extending to dressing people as club hostesses. Perhaps more common are that club members will accidentally stain or otherwise mar the clothing, requiring them to be charged for replacements.”

“So there’s going to be too many to check at any given time,” I concluded. “But won’t they suspect you because you’re a woman?”

“This is not the first time I’ve purchased the garments, either, Matthew.”

I opened my mouth, but instead of asking the questions I wanted to, the bathroom door flew open, revealing Jen.

“What the hell? This skirt barely covers my butt, but every time I take a step in these death-trap heels, the skirt rides up. How do they even engineer that? Matt, I want at least double for this. This is way beyond what you two described.”

I shrugged, then nodded.

“I think you look rather fetching, Jennifer. Perhaps you should wear it for Halloween?”

I’d never seen Jen glare at Nikki before. They usually got along great, but this time daggers flew from Jen’s eyes. Nikki, though, appeared unperturbed.

Friday, April 5, 2024

F³ Planning The Heist 59

            Nikki, Ira, Jen, Jessie, and I crammed into the office. Okay, cram is overstating it, with the couches, desk, and chairs, it was mildly packed, but that was because we didn’t have a full crew.

            “Right,” I said, pointing to the white board on the easel. “So, we’re going to need some supplies.”

            Ira elbowed Jen lightly on the couch. “Love these movies.”

            Jen nodded, and Jessie grinned.

            Nikki didn’t seem amused.

            “Right, so, Ira, you’re going to keep us wired up for comms. Now, we don’t have a big budget or a lot of time, so what can you suggest?”

            “Wireless earbuds with built-in mics. They won’t be invisible, but I can tweak settings so they’re always on, even in a pocket. It’ll be one big conference call.”

            “Excellent,” I said.

            “Matthew,” Nikki began.

            “Hold questions,” I said. “Next up, we’ll need a van. Jessie, get some prices, and you might want to drive it around a bit. You’re our wheel- er, woman.”

            “On it, chief.”

            Ira gave her a high five. “Van buddies!”

            “We need someone on the inside. Nikki and I are going to be attracting a lot of attention. Jen, you okay wearing one of those hostess outfits?”

            Jen quirked her mouth in a frown, then shrugged. “It’s not like I’ll be doing anything with those old men. It’s fun to dress up, at times. But I want a wig.”

            “I don’t have a problem with that. The budget can probably take it. The big thing is getting one of those dresses. That’s a mini heist for you, Nikki. Can you get us one?”

            “Matthew, what is wrong with you and I walking in, simply picking the lock, and walking out with our take?”

            I let my hand fall. “You just . . . do you have to take the joy out of everything? It’s a heist? How many times in my life am I going to get to plan a heist?”

            She rolled her eyes. “Very well. I can get the dress. Jennifer, to complete the look, you will also need their underwear, stockings, and shoes. Please give me your sizes.”

            All eyes whipped to Jen. “Wait, what, now? They have their own underwear and shoes?”

            “It is an exclusive club with a strict dress code.”

Friday, March 29, 2024

F³ Practice 58

             A bank job, even when it’s the private deposit boxes of the Fairhaven Club, require a lot of preparation. In this case, specifically, it required me to up my game. As it turned out, Nikki had a box at the Club, and showed me the key.

            From that, I was able to tell quite a bit about the lock. Thanks to Youtube, I had been able to actually practice the interesting and useful skill of lockpicking. It was a small side gig to open people’s homes and car doors when they locked themselves out. But I had never attempted anything on the security level of a safe deposit box.

            The key showed it was an eight-pin tumbler. At least I wouldn’t need to use a specialty tool to deal with disc detainer locks. Immediately, I ruled out being able to use a comb, rake, or a bump key to quickly get into the box. This was going to take a lot of tool-work. Fortunately, the internet provided me with the names of deposit box manufacturers, and the basics of the security measures they employed.

            Obviously, there were the security pins: mushrooms, spools, serrated, and combinations thereof. Some even had a second set of pins, which would require picking the lock a second time to unlock it.

            I ordered a vintage box lock off ebay, but while it was being shipped, I practiced on regular locks with those pins. Jen watched me and timed me as I worked on it in the office.

            “Three minutes, Matt.”

            It wasn’t a lot of time, at least on this attempt, but the previous attempt had taken me half an hour, and I was getting frustrated. I kept going back through the pins with my pick, feeling the fourth pin sticking. As I pushed, the tension I applied to rotate lock wanted to go back. I let it, slightly. This was likely a serrated pin, and I needed to get it out of the “false set.” Unfortunately, I eased too much on the counterrotation. The pin moved into place, but it was too easy a movement. I certainly had lost the rest of the pins I had picked, and would virtually have to start over.”

            “I need a break,” I declared, my fingers aching.

            “Yeah, you’re not as good as the guy on Youtube.”

            “Give me a break, Jen. That guy can pick anything in under five minutes. I’m still learning.”

            “What about brute force?”

            “A hammer or screwdriver or something?”

            “Yeah, why not?”

            “Too easy to notice the damage, afterward. I don’t of a way to destructively get in without it being obvious it happened.”

            “Well, you better get back to practicing, then.”

            I sighed.

            It’s a bank job. There’s no shortcuts to doing it right.

Friday, March 22, 2024

F³ Where The Money Is 57

             Nikki passed over the finished sketch. Unlike the examples of joss paper with just plain geometric shapes, the face of a prominent figure, or the stamping of household items, this featured what looked like a shrine structure with a female and male figure flanking the sides of the altar.

            “This should be pretty easy to identify,” I said.

            “Perhaps. The trick will be locating it. We’re relatively certain about who is engaging in transactions with this currency, but it is another matter to locate where they are holding it.”

            Where would they be holding the paper. It could be anywhere. I mean, it’s just paper.

            My brain latched onto something Nikki had said. A transaction.

            “Some thought has occurred to you,” Nikki smiled.

            “Transaction. Currency. Money. Where do you store money? In a bank.”

            “Hmm. Normally true. However, remember that this is not actual legal tender. It would not be accepted, even as foreign currency, and added to a ledger.”

            “What about a safe deposit box?” I smiled. “No one knows what’s in them, just the owners. Perfectly secure and guaranteed protection by the bank’s security.” I frowned. “That’s bad. There are a ton of banks all over the city, and even with your mojo, we’d still have to know which bank to look at. We’re looking at weeks of investigating people to find out their banks.”

            Nikki wore a Cheshire-Cat-smile.

            “What?”

            “The Fairhaven Club has a vault with safety deposit boxes.”

            “Well, that narrows it down, but we’d still have to find out which box or boxes have what we want.”

            She tapped the side of her nose.

            “What?”

            She tapped her nose again.

            Then I got it. “Incense,” I said.

Friday, March 15, 2024

F³ Investigative Security 56

             While we finished up lunch, Nikki sketched out what she had seen.

            “It was only for a few moments, you understand, and a considerable time ago. At the time, I believed it to be a simple foreign currency transaction between members.”

            “They do that in the club?” I sipped on my iced tea.

            “Nearly every kind of transaction you can and cannot imagine takes place at that club, Matthew.”

            “One of the reasons I’m not a member,” I muttered. I knew she could hear me, but I wanted my disgust for the place on the record.

            “Except that you are, dumpling.”

            “What are you talking about? Max Auron bought me a membership for a year, but I let it lapse.”

            “I’m aware.”

            “You’re paying for my membership?”

            “It’s not an full membership, merely one associated with me, but yes.”

            “Why?”

            She looked up from her drawing, and gave me a wry smile, then returned to the drawing.

            “Right,” I said. “I shouldn’t have to ask. Just for occasions like this or that proxy vote you had me give. You’ve been wanting to investigate this club for a long time, haven’t you?”

            “Of course. Although I confess, I never expected to employ you with your special investigative focus. I had suspected more typical political and financial corruption.”

            “Lucky me.”

            “Would it surprise you to learn that a number of the Club’s upper echelon also employs investigators.”

            Oh no.

            “You playing straight with me? You’re not playing around?”

            She flicked eyes at me, checking my expression. “This is no jest. What’s the matter?”

            “They could have people on us, right now.”

            “It is a possibility, I suppose, but you are the only supernatural investigator in town, these days.”

            “That doesn’t mean we’re not being tailed.”

            “I have upgraded my own personal security a great deal since initially hiring you. My vehicles are frequently inspected and have countermeasures. My club security is an invisible fortress, and even places where I enjoy recreation are fortified. Perhaps you noticed the curtain at this fine establishment?”

            I looked at it. It had colorful depictions of Indian artwork, featuring elephants, mythological figures, and people against a backdrop of a coppery geometric pattern.

            “What—wait.” I reached out and touched the fabric, thumbing the pattern. It wasn’t ink or paint. Instead, it was metal, either a wide wire or metal tape.

            I had done enough regular detective work to know some of the toys like wireless bugs, laser microphones, and just regular shotgun mics. I pulled out my phone. No bars. “Is this a faraday cage?” I asked.

            Nikki smiled. “I have invested a significant amount of money safeguarding my activities since that stalking case.”

Friday, March 8, 2024

F³ Uncertainty 55

             Nikki and I sat in the private dining area of Curry Palace, waiting on our food. I had never been to this particular restaurant. My experience with Indian food was limited to lunch buffets. Curry Palace also had a lunch buffet, but Nikki insisted on dinner, and on the private area.

            “What did you discover?” she asked.

            “Lamb is better than chicken,” I said.

            She rolled her eyes. “Not about the menu. Besides, you haven’t even sampled the fare here.”

            “Yeah, but I was basing it on past experience. Lamb is always more tender and tasty. Chicken can be a mixed bag.”

            “Our dilemma, Matthew,” she prompted.

            I shrugged. “I’ve got a hunch.”

            She glared at me. “You spent two days researching and then another day talking to your expert, and the best you have is a hunch.”

            “A hunch is better than a suspicion, not as good as a fact.”

            The server came out, dropping off our curries and naan.

            She closed her eyes, then sighed, not that she needed to breathe. “Very well. What is needed to turn your hunch into a fact?”

            “We need to search the Club for some of this joss paper money.” I dipped a corner of nann into the tikka masala gravy and took a bite.

            “And what, pray tell, exactly is that?” Nikki moved with meticulous efficiency, spooning rice to her place, making a well in the center, and then ladling the curry and meat to its home. Her gravy was blood red, a fact I wouldn’t have latched onto had it not been for her presence.

            It’s tomato, not blood. You know that. Focus.

            I pulled up the article with the photos I had cued up on my phone, showing her the different varieties.

            She took the phone from me, and rapidly read.

            I attacked my curry. My gravy was more orange-ish, the red moderated by the addition of cream. Long dormant memories of curry were suddenly awakened, and I began to devour the dish.

            “Interesting. This paper is commonly available, so have you not tested it?”

            I had to finish chewing and swallow. “The hunch is that whatever turned them into jade is specific, and we need the money made specifically to get them out.”

            “And the currency we will need to search out? It will look exactly like what’s pictured.” She passed the phone back to me.

            I shook my head. “No, there would have to be differences. . . . Wait, what do you mean exactly? Have you seen something like this before?”

            She ate a delicate forkful of curry, and smiled at me. “I believe I have.”

            “You’re certain?”

            “No, but I have a hunch.”

Friday, March 1, 2024

F³ Greenbacks 54

             Mei moved the cookie sheet, joss money, and figurine gently to a wide place on the floor. I smiled at that. This wouldn’t have been possible except that she had cleaned up her grandfather’s shop. The lighter sparked a flame and the thin sheet of incense paper quickly caught. We both stood back, watching the flame slowly consume the paper underneath the jade figure.

Neither of us knew what to expect. Magic, despite Hollywood’s insistence, didn’t come with crazy special effects, musical accompaniment, or usually anything spectacular. In this case, nothing happened. The last bit of flame died out, leaving gray and black ash smudging the figure.

            “It didn’t work,” Mei said softly.

            “Yeah.”

            “We were wrong.”

            “Maybe,” I said. I quickly scrolled back up the page of funeral rites.

            “What do you mean?”

            “Different money,” I said. “The different spirits get different kinds of money.”

            “Yes,” she said, holding up different kinds of paper. “That’s why I burned one of each.”

            “Right, but this is a special case. I’m willing to bet that there’s a specific paper just for these.”

            She looked down at the paper she held. “With different printing on them, made from different materials. . . . jade. Jade!”

            “What?”

            “Jade Girl and Golden Boy. It’s in the name of the story!”

            I looked at the figure, the paper, and then the web page. “Oh, you’re good. That may be it.”

            “Really? You think so?”

            “I think we’re looking for joss paper made from powdered jade and gold leaf.” I thought about it a second, then chuckled. “Greenbacks.”

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.”

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