The warehouse was dim, lined with cubicles, each lit by a small drafting lamp. Dozens of people sat on stools, carefully writing. Lucy was one of many. She meticulously inscribed each character on the white metal bar on her desk. There was a stack of identical metal bars, unmarked yet, at the top edge of the workspace. Lucy was proud of her work. She’d spent hours and hours in her childhood, learning the meditations of calligraphy, making each character a ritual in itself. Now she was paid to do so.
Voices rose just outside the main room. The discussion was growing heated, verging on argument. Now it was truly an argument, and grew even more strident.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Lucy heard in Chinese. “Now we have to move everything!”
Lucy, unable to concentrate now, carefully cleaned off her pen, laid it on the desk and went to investigate.
At a sidewalk coffee- and tea- shop, several teens slumped in different positions, slamming Thai tea and playing their fierce card game. The cards were brightly colored pictures of each swing, kick or block in a street fight. Moves were played; cards left the table, picked up by the winner of each round. At the end of the round, each boy reshuffled what cards he had and anted up his loss -- a white metal bar, carefully inscribed with Chinese characters.
Inside the 101st precinct, Officer Barnes was feeling distinctly overwhelmed. The old woman shouting at him was a few shades lighter than, say, a football, but otherwise looked much like one. She was castigating him in rapid Chinese, and no matter what he said she shook her finger in his face and just yelled louder. The old man, Barnes assumed, was her husband. He looked used and tired, not expecting anything anymore. From time to time he touched the woman’s shoulder and murmured something in Chinese, but she only shouted at him, too, then turned back to Barnes.
Sergeant Broderick was dialing back into the bullpen. “Caine? I need your ass up here. We’ve got a situation.”
The young cop was there immediately, speaking soothing Chinese words to the old woman. Barnes almost melted with relief as Peter Caine led the suddenly subdued woman and her husband back into the pen, over to his own desk.
“Griffin, I don’t know what to tell you,” Sikes was saying. “We can’t get a handle on it, but it’s new on the street. It’s killed a couple kids already from bad reactions. We think it’s an inhalant, like dope, but we can’t seem to find the drug anywhere, just stoned kids and dead ones.”
“I’ll look and see what my contacts can come up with,” Kermit told him through dark glasses as he sipped his coffee. He’d had an eye on the China Situation, and watched as Peter and the couple walked by. “I’ve not heard anything on the wires, but I can start an inquiry and let you know.”
“Thanks, brother,” the wiry, ginger-haired cop grinned.
As he turned to leave, Kermit groused, “I’m not your brother. Got enough troubles of my own.”
But he stepped over to listen in on Caine’s discussion.
The kid was still going at it in Chinese, but he took the time to wink up at the older cop. After a few more minutes of rapid Chinese, he smiled, patted the old woman’s hand and stood.
“Not sure what we can do for them,” he told Kermit.
“What’s up?” Griffin nodded to the couple with a sympathetic grin. The old woman nodded and patted his hand, while the old man just tried to smile back sadly.
“Their daughter has been missing for a week. She’s a calligrapher, working for Benny Hsing down in Chinatown. Unfortunately, the girl is over twenty-one. It’s possible she just got tired of playing bread-and-butter to some old parents. I don’t buy it, though. Seems the girl, Lucy Quang, was real traditional -- she worked in a respectable calligraphy house for a long time, brought home cash to support her folks, and always did what they liked. She’s a little strong-willed, from what I gather, and refused to marry into support for them, insisting on working for the money herself. She went out with men on her own say-so, which Mrs. Quang doesn’t like, but on the whole she was a dutiful daughter, strong in the old traditions, walking a line between them and modern America. Doing a pretty good job of it, too. Then her contract was transferred to Benny’s with no explanation or reduction in pay, and then last week she didn’t come home from work. The money has come, addressed to the parents but with no postmark. Just not one word from the girl.”
Kermit frowned. Most people were intimidated when he did so, but not Peter. Kermit said, “Sounds like a job for missing persons, except that you’re right. She’s a grown woman and can make decisions for herself. Any sign of foul play?”
“No. Just that she disappeared, which the Quangs say is unusual for her. I’m going to talk to Pop and see what he can do. Can you sit with them for a minute while I find a quiet place to try to contact him?”
“I guess so, kid.”
Kermit took his coffee -- toxic waste, more like -- and sat at Peter’s desk. Mrs. Quang looked at him with hopeless pleading in her eyes. He turned to Mr. Quang, met that same need in the tired old man’s eyes. Kermit mustered a smile he was not sure he really felt, and nodded slightly. From his breast pocket, he took a card and extended it to Mr. Quang. He’d started to stick some of Amber’s cards in his jacket, just in case he ran into someone who might need her. He hoped she might be able to help them, but it also might get Amber’s mind off whatever it was that was bothering her.
Peter returned then, with a half grin. “Pop’s agreed to meet us with the Ancient -- but he suggested Amber’s store as a meet.”
Kermit returned the half grin, widened it to include and reassure the Quangs. “Just what I was thinking. I’ll tell the Captain where we’re going.”
Amber was at her little desk in the back of the store. The letter lay before her. She had tried to crumple it but lacked the necessary conviction. As if I needed any more to worry about, she thought. As if my relationship was not about to fall apart around me! This is the best thing I’ve ever had, whatever it is with Kermit, and it’s all about to crumble around me, just like all the rest. Bright Lady, why can nothing last for me? At least she still had friends, even if none of the cops were going to speak to her once Kermit took his last walk down the back stairs and got in his Corvair never to return.
Not that he’s acting like he wants to stop seeing me, she admitted to herself. He’s stuck around longer than anyone else. But it has to be coming -- doesn’t it always?
The shop bell rang. Hurriedly, Amber stowed the letter in the drawer and went out to see who’d come in. The Wangs were off right now, Mai in class and Joseph at the dentist. With a professional smile, she strode out onto the shop floor to help the customer.
Peter Caine, Kermit Griffin and two unfamiliar Chinese people stood in the doorway. The Chinese couple was looking around curiously. Kermit stepped to her, gave her one of his quick smiles. “Hi, Green Eyes. We’ve got two nice old folks who need some help, and I thought you were just the right girl. Peter’s already called his old man, too. He and the Ancient will be here in a minute.”
Peter said something to the couple, and came over to give Amber a brotherly swat on the arm. “I’ll explain as soon as Pop gets here. How are you, anyway?”
She managed a bright smile, but it must not have fooled him. He told her, “We’ll talk. Real soon.”
She nodded, looked back up at Kermit. He peered over his sunglasses at her -- not one for public affection; he tried to put his worry into his eyes. She smiled a little shakily. “Hey, dinner still on?” he asked, pushing the shades back up.
“Of course,” her smile was a little stronger now. “I never joke about food with you.”
“Great. See you at seven, then.” He looked at her a little longer than strictly necessary. “Look, I know you can handle this. I’ve got to go on back -- got another case needing my attention.”
“See you, Mercenary Man.” She was calmer now. She had a little longer to enjoy his very private company. “I’ll take it from here, unless Master Caine feels he doesn’t need me.”
Peter cut in. “I know my Pop. He’s got plenty going on with helping every vagrant and juvenile delinquent around here. He’ll be glad to let you have this one, but you know he’ll stick his nose in from time to time.”
“That’s what I count on,” she grinned. Waving Kermit on his way, she stepped closer to the old couple. “Introduce me, won’t you?”
As Peter complied, she made a bow to each of them, and took Mrs. Quang’s hand. Putting all the reassurance and confidence she could into her own hands, she said clearly and slowly, “I will do what I can to help you.”
At that moment, Caine and the Ancient entered the store. Amber grinned happily and went over to greet the tiny Ancient with a kiss, but gave Caine a less exuberant welcome. Somehow kissing Peter’s father never did seem right. A few months back, she had realized he did like her and value her, and she was at ease in his presence, but the easy affection she had with Lo Si seemed inappropriate with Caine.
Peter slapped his father on the back and nodded to Lo Si.
Amber spoke. “Come in, please. If we can wait for just a moment till Joseph gets back, I will take you all upstairs and we can have tea while we talk.”
Joseph bounded in as if on cue. “Amber, look! I got a good checkup and no teeth work this time!” He stopped short and made a bow to the others assembled.
“That’s wonderful, Joseph. I’ll want to hear all about it, but right now I need to go upstairs and see what I can do to help Mr. and Mrs. Quang. Take over till Mai gets back?”
“Sure thing.” He touched the old woman’s hand and said something in Chinese, then bowed once more and took the seat at the register.
Amber led her guests upstairs and busied herself making tea. When she poured out and took her own seat, Kwai Chang Caine told her, “I will translate for Mr. Quang, and Lo Si will do so for Mrs. Quang.”
She nodded her thanks. She could feel the worry and dread coming from the old couple and hoped she could help them.
Mrs. Quang explained the situation with the help of the Ancient, who sat beside her and patted one hand. Mr. Quang merely sat silent, looking drained of all emotion.
“My daughter is a good girl, Miss Adair. She has gone missing. The police say they cannot help, as she might have run off with a boy or for some other reason. I know my daughter. There is much of America in her, but not that much. If she were seeing someone, she would have brought him home for her papa to look over. She’s a good Chinese girl, Miss Adair.”
“Please, Mrs. Quang, call me Amber. What were the circumstances?”
The old woman related the story as she knew it, which wasn’t much. The girl had gone to work one day and not come home. That had been a week ago, and there was no sign of Lucy, other than her wages arriving in a plain envelope. Lucy was the Quangs’ only tie to the new world they had so recently moved to -- she had come over before them and earned the money, through her calligraphy, to bring her parents. She had been doing all the necessary paperwork for their applications for citizenship -- they spoke very little English and were frightened by government officials. “We do not know what state our applications are in, and cannot ask without much help. And if Lucy has disappeared, who is to sponsor us in this country? We want our daughter back. It is no use to us to receive her wages if she is not here to help us with them!”
Amber thought for a moment. The anxiety from the woman was near overwhelming, and she took a deep breath to center and hold, drawing her inner mind into a clear and focused state.
“We talked to her employer, but he wouldn’t let us see her workspace or any of her co-workers. He’s shut down his calligraphy shop, farmed out his people. One of them did come to see us on his own time, another good boy, Charlie Shu. He said she got up to go near the end of her shift, but didn’t return in the morning. That’s not completely unusual, he told us, for others of the employees, but he never expected Lucy to quit. After all, she was making enough to support the three of us.”
“I’ll do what I can, Mrs. Quang. Do you have anything of hers I might hold?”
Mr. Quang slowly drew a long box out of his coat pocket, handing it to Caine, who took a moment to speak to the old man in Chinese, then passed it over. Caine translated, “This is her favorite calligraphy set.”
Amber held it across the palms of her hands, drawing air in deeply, letting it out slowly, as Lo Si had taught her.
“Lucy is just as you say, a good Chinese girl, with a touch of America. She likes a young man she is not sure you will approve, but is confident he will do well enough to forgive his Scottish ancestry in your eyes.” Opening her eyes, she asked, “Have you anything from her work? Did she ever bring anything home?”
Mr. Quang’s eyes lit with something like cautious hope for the first time. Out of the same pocket, he now pulled out a stack of four white metal bars and this time handed them directly to her.
Amber held them for a moment. Peter spoke softly, “Those are all over the streets these days. Kids in Chinatown and on the fringes are carrying them in back pockets, using them as key chains, trading and collecting them. This one is painted with ‘Happiness’ -- the others say ‘Good Fortune’, ‘Peace’ and ‘Light’.”
Caine asked calmly, “Are they for tourists, my son? They seem to be...trinkets.”
“No, everyone carries them, even the locals, especially the kids. I’ve seen a few adults with them, too. They’re everywhere.”
Amber closed her eyes for a moment, then in a strong voice, she said, “I have a location.”
The Quangs wanted to know where, but Amber looked at Caine. “I’m not sure she’s there. I’m sensing a strong location from the bars, but it might not have anything to do with whether Lucy is actually on the premises. I should check it out myself before bringing them there.”
He nodded. “Mr. and Mrs. Quang,” he said in Chinese, “You should go home now and try not to worry. Amber is going to find your daughter if she can. It will be better if you remain someplace safe, where we can get in touch with you.”
Caine rose, somber in his shades of brown. “I will see them home and stop to check on...the Yashi child. He has been quite ill...but is getting...stronger. Then I will ...meet you, if you will...show me the place.”
The young psychic stood as well, reached out for Caine’s hands and tried to meld with his thoughts for a moment. It was so much easier now, especially since she no longer feared the quiet Shaolin.
“Yes, I… see. I will be there directly.”
Mr. Quang placed a paper-light hand on her shoulder and looked deep into her eyes with a shaky little smile before he let Caine steer him away.
“I’ve got to head back to the precinct now,” Peter told Amber and the Ancient. “I’m going to ask Jody to come with you, to give you at least the appearance of a police investigation. Can you tell me where she should meet you?”
Amber reached for Peter’s wrist, opening a light connection. “I’ve seen this place, and I think I know where it is. This is exactly what I showed your father.”
Peter closed his eyes and...saw a
warehouse, lit by little desk lamps. A streetscape teased his awareness
-- he knew this place. “I’ve got it. I’ll call Jody and have her meet