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S. K. Garriott




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“T        ake the box.”




“Oh, I really can’t,” I said.

Reilly—I never did discover his first name, or maybe Reilly was his first name—held up the small mahogany box.
The end of a silver key protruded from the lock. All around us in the tiny apartment were stacks of boxes, most
lidless, appearing as if they’d been filled by a man with a snow shovel. Pathways just wide enough to pass from
one room to the next wound between the boxes. I’d run into Reilly sitting outside our local Safeway next to a
shopping cart filled with his possessions. None of them looked in particularly good shape.

“They threw us out,” he said. I think I’d given him a brief look or just as brief a smile. Evidently it was all the
incentive necessary for him to continue the conversation. I scanned the parking lot for my wife in our car. No such
luck.

My folks brought me up to respect others no matter the station in life. “The wind can blow prosperity or poverty,”
my dad said. “You have to be ready for both as they each bring their own trouble.” He also reminded me to not
look down at those in trouble when I wasn’t. And the wind had definitely blown this guy’s sloop over.

“Really?” I said. Ignoring people who talk to you is rude. And, yes, I can play the part of a mark quite well.

“World War Two vet. Fought in the Pacific until they sent us to the Aleutians. Took a bullet from a Jap… Now
they’re throwing us out.”

“What will you do then?”

“Me and the misses we got us another place up the hill. This is the last load I can carry. The other things’re too
heavy for me.”

Still no wife. “Look, I can see if I can get some help for you… to move your stuff.”

“That’s kind of you, young man. Very kind.”




                                                          2
I smiled down at the old man. “The least I can do.”

“The name’s Reilly.” I shook his hand. It was callused and covered in a fine grit from lack of washing. After a few
attempts, I finally extracted his address and told him I’d shoot for Saturday morning. I’d find someone with a truck
to help. By the distracted look on his face, I’m sure he expected to never see me again, another good Samaritan
who was all talk. That just makes me more determined.

Life is nothing if not about timing. My wife pulled up at that moment. I waved goodbye to Reilly and slid into the
front passenger seat, hoisting the bag of groceries into the back seat.

She greeted me with a quizzical look. “What now?” she said.

I explained what I’d done.

“You didn’t give him any money, did you?”

“No,” I said.

I’d learned my wife was the more practical of the two of us. I tended to act impulsively out of guilt while she was
immune to guilt and tended to use it as a weapon against me.

“He just needed some help. I couldn’t just leave him there,” I said.

She was skeptical but accepted my excuse.

Once home, I started making phone calls. I tracked down three people I knew who had the size of truck I would
need to move Reilly and his wife. All three turned me down. Moving is one of least enjoyable activities I can think
of, so I didn’t hold it against them. I was about ready to rent a truck and try to move appliances by myself. A
vision of my broken body beneath an overturned refrigerator flitted through my mind.

The phone rang. It was Tucker.

“I heard you needed some help.”

“Uh, yeah, well, that’s true, I guess.”

“Hey, beggars can’t be choosy, you know.”

Choosers, I thought. I hadn’t found much enthusiasm in my normal avenues.

“Come on, man,” said Tucker. “I’ll come through this time.”

“I told the guy Saturday morning. You have a truck?”

“Sure do.”

“Alright. Fine. Saturday morning then.” As I said, I’m the perfect mark.

I can’t recall when I met Tucker. He was big and friendly in a smothering sort of way. I’m a friendly person, too.
People ask me for directions. People ask me to help them move. So it makes sense Tucker the moth would be
drawn to my flame. We were instant pals to the point where my wife had started hinting at the need for a
restraining order.

Saturday morning. Clear and cold as were most autumn days. Tucker showed up in my driveway with the promised
pickup. I hoped it wasn’t stolen. He’d never done anything illegal that I knew of, but I just felt it was a matter of
time.




                                                          3
I jumped into the passenger side. My wife watched from behind the screen door. Her face gave the impression that
the next time she saw me it would be as the main contestant at a crime scene. I tried to tell her he wasn’t a threat,
but she never believed me.

“She doesn’t like me much, does she?” said Tucker.

“You know how women can be.”

He returned a blank look.

“It’s not that she doesn’t like you. She just wants to make sure I come back okay.”

“Oh… Why would she think you wouldn’t be okay?”

“I don’t really understand women. I just pretend to be.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Reilly’s apartment was only a few blocks away. We pulled up to find him outside on the front steps. The look on his
face was worth it. He clearly didn’t expect me to show up. And he definitely didn’t expect me to bring another
person with me.

“I told you’d I’d help,” I said.

“I know you did. I believed you.”

Reilly led Tucker and I into the apartment. The place smelled of the accumulation of years of occupation by unclean
bodies, a muskiness that left me breathless. Standing in the living room was Reilly female counterpart, his wife, I
assumed.

“I can’t use it,” said Reilly, looking down at the box in his hands. He held it carefully as if it were a child. “It’s
supposed to be magic.”

I heard Tucker snuffle behind me.

Admittedly, I wanted to do the same. Like everyone else, I knew I had my own superstitions, but they were my
choice and I went into them with eyes wide open. Calling something magic just seemed too easy.

“Why can’t you use it?” I said.

Reilly took a deep breath. His wife made a quick chirping sound from her chair in the corner. It was the only sound
I’d heard her make during the whole day. Maybe she couldn’t speak. I’d never thought of that before.

“It was part of the deal.”

“You have something that’s magic, but the deal is that you can’t use it?” I felt I could be critical, as if my helping
him move had given me special privileges to judge him.

“We’d fought off the Japs for three days. This was before I took the bullet. Nothing in the world like Adak. It rains
sideways. Stops radar arrays from moving because the wind blows so hard. A dead frozen rock no sane person
would ever want. But it was our job to hold it. Nothing prepared us for the cold. The brass in their infinite wisdom
pulled us from our training to fight Rommel to fight on that rock. Quite a contrast… They practically sent us with
the same gear for North Africa!”

He eased himself down onto a box that squeaked as his weight pressed down on it.

“After one skirmish, we sent them into retreat. We went ahead, careful not to end up in a trap. In a foxhole hacked
out of the ice and snow, I found a badly wounded Jap. I’d just lost a buddy the day before, so all I wanted to do
was put a bullet between his eyes. No one would have said a thing. But he wasn’t doing so good… and he was
young. Sometimes you realize the truth about war; both sides are doing what they think is right, what their leaders
say is right. They believe them just like we did.

“I kept a bead on him, but I didn’t pull the trigger. One part of my brain was telling me to plug him. But I guess
the human part got the best that day.

“I checked to see he wasn’t booby-trapped. He wasn’t. He spoke to me in broken English. ‘I am still alive, Joe?’ he




                                                              4
said. It wasn’t mocking. Just a simple question. I said he was. For all I knew, I guess I could have been the one
who shot him. God knew I shot at a lot of Japs that day. Somewhere my brain was using that to explain my
behavior. I got him good so no reason to add one more bullet.”

“I saw a lot of men die, so I was good at telling when the time was coming. It wasn’t long for this guy. On the one
hand, I had to hate this soldier and all his fellows, but I also knew it was our jobs to kill each other. The side that
kills the most wins, right? We just did a better job this time. I knelt down in the ice and snow and gave him a drink
from my canteen. I had to keep it under my gear so it wouldn’t freeze.

“He didn’t say anything, but I knew he appreciated it. Then he reached under his coat, and I can tell you I thought
I was a goner. I thought the next thing I’d see would be the muzzle of one of those Nambu pistols.

“It wasn’t though. It was this box. He handed it up to me, and as soon I took it from his hands, I saw the light go
away in his eyes. The strangest thing in the world is to see something die. I watched my old daddy kill cattle. One
minute life and the next just a piece of meat. Like turning off the key. There’s nobody can bring it back.

“I kept the box. I found his pistol, a Nambu by the way. It’s somewhere in one of these boxes I expect. I stashed
both in my pack. Three days later, I took a bullet across the forehead.” He pointed to the puckered scar at his left
temple. “They thought I was as good as dead so they didn’t waste their time on my frostbit feet. But I lived and
kept my feet, so I can’t say the Imperial Japanese Army never did nothing for me.”

Reilly was silently looking up at me. “And it’s magic?” I said. “A magic box?”

He nodded. “I’m convinced of it. After I got home and got better, I took it around to some of the shops in
Chinatown. I wanted to know more about it. I hadn’t even opened it. Once reason was I was recovering, and
frankly I forgot about it. The excitement about coming home and all. I wouldn’t let anyone else open it either. I
kept the key in my pocket and told the shopkeepers not to open it. Some didn’t think it was anything but a box,
pretty and all, sure. But just a box. But there were an equal number that wouldn’t touch it. Wouldn’t look at it. Left
the room when they caught a clear glimpse of it. That’s how I figured there was something more to it.”

“But it’s a pretty big jump from a box that weirds people out to something that’s magic,” I said.

Reilly looked around the room, his eyes finally resting on his wife.

“She’s always stuck by me. I haven’t been the best husband. I drink too much, and when I do, I see the faces of
the guys I fought next to. When I don’t drink I can hear their voices in my head. I don’t know which one’s worse.
But she’s always been there. I’d give her the box, but she’s not really there anymore. It wouldn’t be right to do
that to her. She wouldn’t be able to pass it on properly.”

All I wanted to do was help an old man out by moving his heavy stuff, and now I was in the middle of his
confession.

“Look, Reilly, we have everything move for you, right? I didn’t want to take advantage of my friend more than I
had to. You understand.”

Reilly nodded absent-mindedly. “I need you to take the box with you. It really belongs to you now. I’ve made that
decision in my heart and there’s no taking it back.” A single tear ran down his face.

Jeez! Why did he have to do that? “I really don’t deserve anything for what I did. I didn’t do it for a reward.”

“Oh, it wouldn’t be a reward,” he said. “Just custodial duty.”

“Okay, if that’s what you’d like me to do, I’ll do it for you.”

“Thanks.”

He held out the box again. This time I noticed the hand-carved lid—a dragon with a fiery mane, wild eyes and
talons like a raptor. I took the box. As his hands left the box, I saw his eyes change. It was like placing a glass jar
over a candle.

“Are you okay, Reilly?”

“Fine. I’m just fine. Thanks for all your help, gentlemen. I appreciate it more than you know.”

I asked if there was anything more we could do, but Reilly shooed us out of the apartment. The last sight I had as
we drove away was Reilly’s wife looking out the front picture window.




                                                             5
“You don’t believe all that crapola the old geezer was dishing out, do you?” said Tucker.

I looked down at the box in my lap.

“While I enjoy make-believe as much as anybody, I find his story a bit unbelievable. I mean, I believe he
encountered a Japanese soldier and the soldier died in front of him… But, no, I don’t believe it.”

“Then again, coincidence might just be our way of denying that we might not be in control of everything.”

“What side are you on?”

“I like to keep things interesting.”

“That you do… I didn’t say I was in control, by the way. Just ask my wife. She’ll tell you otherwise.”

“So how is she?”

“Fine.”

“She doesn’t like me very much.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’m a sensitive guy. I can tell.”

“You’re a bit overwhelming to people.”

“I know. I try not to be… How come you can tolerate me?”

“Because, Tucker, as obnoxious as you can be sometimes, you’re the only person who showed up to help. I
couldn’t have done it otherwise.”

He sat up a little taller as he drove. As much fun as moving someone wasn’t, I figured it was worth it to let Tucker
know I appreciated what he’d done. I waved as he drove off, my dubious treasure pinned under my arm. I didn’t
want to lose the lock, so I took it out of the lock and dropped it into my pocket.

I was only vaguely curious about what was inside. Maybe I should have been more curious.

An old World War II vet doesn’t drop a mysterious box and an accompanying intriguing story on me every day. I
was sore from pulling a muscle moving the obsolete, gargantuan refrigerator, so I was distracted. But that wasn’t
it. I didn’t feel it was mine.

I shuffled up the walkway and into the house.

“What’s that?” said Libby from her place at the dining room table. It was a small rental with a shared living and
dining room. Considering it was just the two of us it worked out fine. She was going through the circulars, plotting
her grocery strategy for the afternoon, snipping out the coupons she used to stretch out finances.

I related the story and showed her the box.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” she said.

“I’m thinking about it. What I really plan on doing is keeping it here for a couple of days and then returning it to
the old guy. You know how my dad would get drunk and hand you fistfuls of money? This guy’s probably the same
way.”

“Was he drunk?”

“No, but he was trying to even the score. Some people don’t like owing anyone anything.”

“Aren’t we the insightful one today.” Libby stood up. She had on the pair of lounging pants I loved to see on her, a
sleeveless top, was barefoot… and bra-less. Typical Saturday morning attire. A playful expression made her eyes
dark, and she bit at her lower lip.

“Just call me ‘Dr. Phil.’”




                                                          6
“Well, Doctor, why don’t you show me your bedside manner?”

We spent the rest of Saturday afternoon shopping. For Libby, it's a battle of wits between her and the monster of
consumerism. For me, it's vampire fangs in the neck; feeling my will leak out. Libby could command me to strip
naked and yodel like Tarzan, and I'd do it.

With that ugly task completed, the groceries consigned to cupboards and fridge, and Libby curled up on the couch
to imbibe her PBS comfort programs, I took a clutch of photographs of the box with a cheap digital camera and
started my computer search.

I googled; I chatted; I forummed. I put the word out. Then it was a matter of letting the crab pots rest on the
cyber-sea floor long enough for the right critter to crawl in. I didn't want to spend a lot of time pursuing
identification. I would return it on Monday. I had the photographs; I could do it for my own curiosity even without
the box. If someone was interested, I could direct them to Reilly. It could end up like one of those Antiques
Roadshow things and make the old guy millions. He looked like he could use it.

That first day I received responses a-plenty, one thing the internet is renowned for. Nothing was intriguing enough
for me to risk meeting some stranger.

Libby and I had dinner--a nice roast breast of chicken and vegetables--played Boggle or rather watched her
trounce me at Boggle, made love again, and slept. I dreamt of icebergs and tiny locked rooms.

After work on Monday, I returned home to grab the box from its place on the mantle. I still had the key; I’d put it
in my pocket that morning. I hated to admit it, but I didn’t trust Libby. It was her question about whether or not
I’d opened the box. I was convinced if she had the chance she’d give it a try. I had polished the box with a cotton
dish towel before I’d left and now I checked for fingerprints. Yes, there they were, evidence of my beloved’s
nefarious intentions.

My house was empty; Libby’s job as a paralegal normally kept her late, so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to
confront her. Without the box, my accusations would ring hollow. I breezed through the kitchen and snagged a
granola bar, locked up, and drove to Reilly’s house. I wanted to see the look on his face when I brought it back. I’d
sift through my inbox when I got back home to see what I’d trapped in my nets.

I found a spot in front of the house. I dropped the box into my coat pocket, exited the car, and stopped. Standing
in the picture window was Reilly’s wife. She didn’t look as if she had moved since Saturday—still staring blankly at
something she couldn’t be distracted from—but that was ridiculous. I waved at her, but her eyes never once gave
the slightest flicker toward me.

I pressed the door buzzer, an obnoxious poke to anyone inside. No response. No sound of movement. I checked
but not even the buzzer had affected Reilly’s wife. I gripped the door knob and twisted. It turned, unlocked. I
eased the door open. The stench of human shit hit my nose like a baseball bat. I covered my nose and mouth with
my jacket sleeve, but it did no good. What next? Do I go in? I realized now why the pair had been evicted from
their previous apartment.

“Reilly?” No answer. I walked cautiously in, fighting the urge to gag. I could see Reilly’s wife at the window,
dressed in the same clothes I’d seen her in, also clearly in the direction where the smell was coming from. She was
definitely the source of the excrement reek.

A few more steps in among the cardboard obstacle course, and there was Reilly. He sat slumped in a straight-
backed chair, his arms resting regally on the chair arms. His head was tilted slightly, and his eyes were fixed like
his wife’s. But unlike his wife, Reilly was gone, his skin gray and his body just a discarded shell.

I don’t have a strong stomach. Libby’s the one fascinated by human body interior design. I’m happy when it all
stays put inside its packaging. There was no surprise when I left the house quickly to vomit out my granola bar and
last break items.

I called 9-1-1, and then I left my number on Libby’s cell phone.

The police arrived quickly, but I had time to stow the box under the car seat. I had no desire to try and explain
why I had the box to the police. They tended to be a suspicious lot, a by-product of the job. I didn’t want to bring
Tucker into it as I explained being given it. Eventually I would probably be exonerated. Probably. Maybe. Best to
avoid the questions altogether. I was concerned about him. That would do, I figured.

The ambulance followed. I explained to the police how I had helped Reilly move, and I was checking on him. They
acted as if they believed me. I’m sure it was a trap to get me to admit I’d strangled him while his mute wife




                                                          7
watched. I kept my answers short and truthful. No reason to add color and sound effects.

I watched as a couple of female officers helped Reilly’s wife—now wrapped in a blanket—into one of the waiting
patrol cars. She made the funny chirping noises. Then she spoke out clearly, “Don’t let him,” she said.

One policewoman responded to her. “Don’t let who?”

“Don’t let no one get it. It wants to hurt us with it. We’re here for a reason. Keep us safe. Keep our lid on tight.”

Her voice, clear and strong, sent my skin to goose flesh and the hairs on the back of my neck to rise. I looked over
at her. She looked right at me clear-eyed with a sweet smile. The next second her face went slack, her eyes dull as
a dead fish on the shore.

“Come on, hon,” said the policewoman, guiding Reilly’s wife carefully into the back of the police car.

My cell phone rang. A couple officers watched me as I answered it. It’s not that I didn’t understand; their job was
to be professional skeptics concerning everyone connected to a possible crime. I was a stranger who happened
upon a dead body. I’d be suspicious of me, too. I just didn’t feel comfortable being the me at that moment.

“What the hell is going on, Matthew?” said my long-suffering, loyal spouse. She always used my full name when I
was in trouble. It’s the Mom gene. “What did you do now?”

“I didn’t do anything.” I explained what had happened.

“And what about the box?”

“I love you, too.”

“You didn’t tell them about the box.”

“I don’t see the point, because I’ll be home soon.”

“You know you could get in trouble if they find out you have his property, even if he gave it to you. It just looks
bad.”

“I know. No, I’m a little shaken up, but I’m fine.”

“For a supposed good person, you have quite a larcenous streak.”

“I’m not sure when I can leave. I’ll call you again when I’m on my way.”

“Okay, Al Capone. The children and I will be waiting for you when you get out of PMITA.”

“Wonderful! I love chicken. Don’t worry; everything will be fine.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Matt.”

“I do. I love you.” I said the last sincerely.

“I love you, too.”

I had to stick around a little longer before the police let me go. They double-checked my story and my contact
information in case they needed to get in touch with me. Back in the car, I could feel the box under seat. I guess I
kind of knew how the poor unfortunate murdering bastard in The Tell-Tale Heart felt, except for the murdering
part.

Maybe I should have told them about the box. Now, however, my superstitiometer was registering red zone. No, I
didn’t believe in curses and magic amulets, unicorns and soul boxes, but the stories had to come from somewhere,
had to be in existence for some reason, didn’t they?

But the imp on my shoulder—who looked surprisingly like Penn Jillette—was calling bullshit!

“You are going to tie a mortally wounded solder from 1940-who-the-hell-cares to a clearly sick, demented old man
just because they have a wooden box in common? Why not bring up they were both wearing shoes? Coincidence is
just that, nothing more. And the old woman? The human mind slips in and out of lucidity al the time. Which is right
and which is an illusion? She’s been indoctrinated by soldier-boy for the last 50 to 60 years! Of course she’s going




                                                           8
to believe it. Come on!”

And the Penn-imp was right. But who was I hurting if I hedged my bets. It’s not as if my belief in God was a get
out of hell insurance policy… was it?

The whole thing ended up in the local paper, of course. The story was perfect for local TV news, too. They ate this
stuff up. It sells advertising bucks. Old forgotten World War II vet, Purple Heart, dies in the house he shares with
his befuddled wife, surrounded by his memories dumped into piles of cardboard boxes; kept them there because
his mind couldn’t hold onto them anymore. Back to you, Mitch, in the newsroom.

The reports said a neighbor found him. My name wasn’t mentioned because I wasn’t of much concern. But they
ended up finding my name and looking Libby and me up anyway. I gave a brief statement mainly because there
wasn’t much to tell. I kept Tucker and the box out of it. Libby wisely had no comment because she didn’t know
anything. Her bosses were able to provide just the right amount of pressure and threats to bear so the fourth
estate settled for me and my boring story.

Once it was determined Eldon Reilly—I finally discovered his full name—died of natural causes without even the
slightest tinge of homicide (no TruTV; no Law & Order), it was just an old guy dead. They disappeared in hopes of
latching onto a school shooting or a nice ripe missing pretty blonde white girl story.

At least they’d found a relative of Reilly’s, the reports said. Someone at least would take the time to go through his
stuff rather than just letting someone dump it in a dumpster. The whole affair melted away in people’s minds. Even
the beating heart sound faded away, mostly because there was no guilt associated, just my own disappointment at
not returning the box to its owner. Nothing powers the human heart like guilt.

It had been a month since I’d stumbled upon the body of Eldon Reilly. I’d leafed through a number of responses to
the pictures I’d posted on the internet. Most were of little help. But one particular response piqued my curiosity: an
Asian antique dealer who was convinced the box wasn’t even Japanese.

Generally the belief is we live in an anonymous world, lulled into thinking we are buying groceries or gas, surfing
porn or renting videos more or less with few or no traces, just numbers. But what we see as anonymity is
indifference. No one cares if you participated in any of that stuff… unless you do something to bring attention to
yourself. If they want to find you, whoever they are, unless you’re some elite hacker, they will find you.

No one can predict the future. Sorry, Nostradamus. It still didn’t make me feel less foolish to know the pictures of
the box engravings could be accessed from anywhere in the world. I was counting on indifference to shield me for
the moment. Despite Libby’s cracks about my new career in organized crime, I really had planned on returning the
box to Reilly prior to his demise. Now I was just an inquisitive alleged owner of a box; I had no idea of its origins or
its worth.

I entered the restaurant, passing between two lion sculptures, the ones with anthropomorphic faces. Once again, I
was amazed at the interpretation of this culture—thousands of years old—and their renderings of animals with
close ties to humans. I don’t know too much about Chinese mythology, but I vaguely remember interactions
between the gods, men, and animals. It was probably universal. Zeus was always turning into different animals to
put Hera off the scent of his escapades. I’m sure the Chinese were that much different.

The Fortune Palace lobby was neat, reasonably clean, but old. The walls could use a fresh coat of seaweed green
paint. One of my co-workers said patrons were skeptical of any restaurant investing too much money on décor;
they wanted the money put into the food. I don’t know if I believe him; it could be an urban myth. I’ve never had
the opportunity to bring up the subject to anyone of Chinese descent who would know. It made sense, though. One
restaurant I knew of was little more than a room with a few wall-hangings, its furniture one step up from folding
chairs. The food was top-notch: good and inexpensive.

I walked by the enormous fish tank swarming with goldfish and went to the counter. An older Chinese woman was
cashing out a couple of office workers. Once the workers were gone, the woman looked at me with sleepy eyes.

“I’m here to meet Mr. Jiao Wu.”

She tilted her head slightly and wrinkled her brow. “Mr. Jiao Wu?” Her accent was strong.

“Yes.”

“Mister?”

“Yes.”




                                                           9
She shrugged and motioned for a young female server to assist me. The server took me into the seating area filled
with patrons sitting in red leather booths or around large banquet tables. At a booth in the back sat a Chinese
woman in her early 30’s, dressed in a light gray business suit with a crimson tie. She stood as I approached.

“goodsam?” she said, using my screen name. Her Chinese accent with tongue in the back of her mouth indicated
English was her second language. From her professional appearance and her searching, inquisitive gaze, I doubted
English was the only other language she spoke.

“Ms. Wu? I apologize. I assumed you were a man.”

She smiled sweetly, but did I catch something in her eyes? “Not a problem. It’s the limitation of the Western
culture to not recognize gender name differences. I get it all the time.”

“It makes sense now why the woman at the cash register gave me the funny look.”

Wu sat back down, and I sat across from her. She spoke quickly to the server who then left.

“I ordered tea.”

“Thanks. And by the way, you can call me Matthew.” We shook hands across the table.

“Well, Matthew, I come here every time I’m in town, so they know me… Introductions out of the way.” She brought
out a couple sheets of paper with the box engravings printed on them, the ones I’d broadcasted all over the
internet. “So, Matthew, did you by any chance bring the box with you?”

“No, I didn’t. It’s not really mine.”

“Oh, I see. You represent the owner?”

“In a way, I guess. He’s an old guy, and I’ve been doing the internet work for him. You know how old folks are with
computers.”

“I do indeed! My old auntie can hardly move the mouse a fraction without calling me with a question.”

“I think you can understand I’m a little leery about packing it around, especially without knowing its value. I’d feel
terrible if something happened to it. It holds great sentimental value to the owner.”

“Completely understandable. I applaud your forethought.”

The tea came, and I let Wu select dishes from the stainless steel trolleys pushed by servers in an slow, meandering
dance among the tables. Before long I was feasting on some of the best har gau, siu mai, and cheun gyun I’d ever
had. I told Wu as much.

“I’m glad you appreciate my choice. I realize dim sum cuisine is rather generic—the same pork rolls and chicken
feet wherever you go—but there are a few places that add something indefinable to the dishes. This is one of those
places.”

I agreed.

“I hope you don’t find me too forward, but I have a very busy schedule when I am in the United States. I would
like to get down to business.” She spread the last word out into three syllables. “First, the box your acquaintance
has is not Japanese as you describe d it in your posts. It is Chinese.” Wu turned one of the print-outs around for
me to see and used a red-lacquered fingernail as a pointer. “Chinese dragons are related to the Japanese dragon in
many ways, yet there are distinct differences between the two. I won’t bore you with details, but one thing you will
notice here is the number of claws on its feet. The Japanese dragon customarily has three claws, while its Chinese
relative here five… How did your acquaintance obtain the box?”

I didn’t see how the story could compromise Reilly, so I related it.

“I see… You know of the conflicts between China and Japan during the Second World War? The rape of Nanking?
Enslavement of Chinese women? Medical experimentation? It is all documented and very real.”

“I’ve heard of some of that. I know there is still animosity between China and Japan even now.”




                                                          10
“More than you know. Similar to the anger the Russians have for the Germans. Simply put, your acquaintance has
a rare piece of Chinese art stolen from us by the Japanese. It is my hope we can come to a mutually agreeable
solution so I can bring the piece home.”

“I understand, if that really is the case.”

“What do you mean?” Wu sat closer to the table and for the second time I saw a change come over her eyes that I
didn’t understand. I did know it wasn’t a good thing.

“As you probably know, there are a lot of scammers around who use the internet as their playground.”

“I am aware of this. A colleague of mine has fallen prey to such traps.”

“So you can why I’m hesitant about providing you with too much information.”

“I hope you understand, Matthew, you may be in a precarious position.”

“What do you mean?”

“There have been a number of high profile cases lately concerning parties who have in their possession cultural
icons and have been forced to return them.”

There it was: a hardness around her eyes. This wasn’t good, but I thanked Libby for insisting I not bring the box. “I
think you’re making this much more serious than it is,” I said. “My whole reason for going online was to get more
information. If you have the impression I had more than a guidance role in this, I apologize.

“I’ll tell you what: you’re clearly concerned about the box and its significance to your country. I appreciate that.
I’m intrigued by it, that’s all. I doubt my acquaintance had any plans on keeping something belonging to someone
else, let alone another country’s. First thing tomorrow, I’ll try to arrange to meet with Chinese officials. If they
determine it’s the property of China, I’m sure I can convince my acquaintance to turn it over to someone in an
official capacity. How’s that?”

“Where is the box, Matthew?” Wu’s voice was quiet, but menacing, he jaw clenched. She pressed herself against
the table edge, leaning toward me. Her pupils were dilated, her knuckles white as she clenched her fists.

“I’m not in a position to tell you.” I said. “I really think our lunch is over.” I started to stand up.

“What do you intend on doing?” Wu relaxed a little, but I was sure she was stalling me. For what reason, I had no
idea.

“I’ll be in touch.” I stood up. As soon as I did, the front door to the restaurant exploded inward, sending splinters
of glass and wood across the lobby! Patrons shrieked and yelled as they sought cover from the unknown force. I
instinctively dropped down below table level.

“If I can’t get voluntary cooperation,” said Wu, “then I will resort to more physical methods.”

Into the restaurant strode the largest man I had ever seen! His clothing—a skin-tight white t-shirt, jeans, and calf-
high leather boots—held on for dear life as his body threatened to split them all wide open. He had a wrestler’s
build and quick, malicious eyes. Wu spoke in Chinese to the man who smiled and flexed his hands, his arm muscles
bulging.

“Do you have anything to say to me, Matthew?”

“I don’t like you very much, despite the lunch.”

“You’re in considerable company. Then I’m not much for nurturing friendships… Information, Matthew, or the
alternative, which I can assure you is not pleasant.”

I watched Wu’s eyes flicker at the giant. I turned and saw the man lick his lips. Was he going to pull me apart like
a roasted chicken or eat me… or both?!

“This isn’t really happening,” I said.

Wu now got up from the booth and stood in the aisle. “Not what you expected, Matthew? You are dealing with
events you cannot possibly understand, their implications are not for you to know… I will give you five seconds to
give me what I want before I let my associate work his magic. One… two…”




                                                            11
Where were the cops? Could you just destroy a restaurant now a days and no one would say anything? Not one cell
phone out calling for help?

“Okay, okay! It’s not worth it. The box is…”

That’s when the dim sum trolley collided with Wu! It swept her aside like a metallic battering ram. Wu crashed into
a table and chairs, making only gurgling sounds. I was about to look around to see where it had come from when a
figure rocketed past me toward the giant man. I turned in time to see the figure slide under the giant between his
legs, swinging a short staff about a yard long. The staff caught the giant behind the legs. He dropped to his knees
with a roar! Another swing to the back of the head this time, and he dropped to the floor like a fallen fir tree.

The figure stood and motioned to me. It was a young woman, Chinese, short-haired, thin as a kitten. I recognized
her as the server who had escorted me to my seat at Wu’s booth. As much as this could mean I was just heading
into another type of peril, what choice did I have?

“Come on!” she said. “They won’t stay down long, and they’ll be mad!”

I pushed my way through the overturned tables and chairs. The patrons all seemed to have made a hasty escape. I
could vaguely hear the sound of police sirens.

Once I was close enough, she grabbed my hand in a painfully strong grip and pulled me toward the entrance. Over
her shoulder she screamed something raspy in Chinese, like metal claws scratching tile. I remind myself if ever
given the chance to pick a super power to pick understanding every language in the world!

She towed me over the rubble of the front door—splintered wood, twisted metal framing, and shattered glass—and
into the street. A group of gawkers had formed, and the sirens were louder now. At the street we took the first bus
that came along. She hauled me to the back and sat me down. At this time of day only a few people occupied the
coach.

“The bus is electric so it should throw them off,” she said. “We’ll still need to transfer a couple times to make sure.”
Her voice lacked any discernible accent so she was probably a native speaker. After all the activity she looked as if
she had just left a shopping mall instead of a fight. On the other hand, I was panting like a dog. My hands shook,
and my stomach protested having just avoided pain if not certain doom. I smelled the ionized bite of ozone. From
the scowl on her face, my new companion was not happy with me.

“That was a stupid fucking move!” I hated to consider just because that word came out of a cute girl it would be
more shocking to me than from, say, a male truck driver, but it was. “You have no idea what you’re dealing with!”

“That’s what Wu said.” I was regaining my composure as I tried to counter her accusations. “And how would you
expect me to know what I’m dealing with when all I got was a bunch of internet responses from clueless
scammers..? I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced. For all I know, you could just be a different from of what
I just got away from.”

Her mouth went hard as if she were dealing with a child’s unreasonable request. “Just call me ‘Tink.’ You probably
couldn’t pronounce my real name.”

“I can be resourceful when I need to be. Okay, maybe I was a little out of my element this time.”

“A little?”

“But what can you expect; I’m not a ninja like you.”

“Ninjas are Japanese.”

“Sorry… Explain to me how I was supposed to know what I have?”

“We tried to get in touch with you.”

“We?”

She screwed up her face and warded off the question with her hands up, palms toward me. “Irrelevant. How the
hell did we expect you’d go to the top of the mountain and scream you had the bos?”

“How else was I supposed to find out without the internet?”




                                                          12
“You Americans are the laziest bunch of people I know. You’re number one right now, but you’ve been there for so
long you don’t see if could be any other way. Well, it can, and it probably will sooner than you think.”

“Now wait…”

“Shut… up. Rather than research the subject covertly—library, a few phone calls maybe—your first, your very first
action is to blast a message to the whole fucking planet!” A couple of riders looked back at us. Tink glared and they
turned back around.

She was right, so I stayed quiet. I could have been a little less cavalier about it, a little less “I know what I’m
doing.”

“Let’s get off here,” Tink said. I noticed for the first time my cell phone was ringing.

It was Libby.

“What is going on downtown?” she said. “They even have helicopters over the International District.”

Tink rolled her eyes as she watched me on the phone.

“I have no idea. I’m heading back to work.”

“What did you find out about the box?”

“That there are a ton more scammers than even I imagined.”

“You didn’t given them any personal information, did you?”

“No, dear.”

“I told you it was a bad idea to bring that box.”

“Yes, dear. You were right; I was wrong.”

“Damn straight.”

“See you after work.”

I hung up. Tink had her feet on the seat. Her arms were crossed over her chest. “So where’s the box?”

“Not you, too.”

“What I mean is does the caretaker still have it or did he pass it on?”

“We just met, and don’t take this wrong, because I do appreciate you helping me get away from Madame Wu, but I
really don’t trust you quite yet.”

“Come on. We’ll get off here.”

We swung off the bus. Tink scanned down the street to see if any other electric buses were approaching. “Two
buses are the minimum to throw them off the scent.”

“They can smell us?” I must have had a smirk on my face.

“Not real smell scent, dummy. Psychic scent.

“Psychic…”

“Scent, yes.”

“Crop circles? Moving pages in a phone book? Killing goats with your mind?”

“I don’t expect you to believe. It took me a while to see it.”

“What I saw was a very determined woman who was going to let her gorilla rip me apart to get some old box.”




                                                           13
“Whatever. Can you at least tell me if Mr. Reilly still has the box?”

That made me stop.

“I can’t tell you much,” Tink said. “We lost track of Mr. Reilly about 20 years ago. Your posts on the internet were
the first indication we had that the box had re-surfaced. Evidently, Mr. Reilly is quite cagey and elusive.”

Considering how I’d already been duped by one devious person, I was determined not to fall for it again with Tink
the good cop. I knew almost as much about her as I did about Madame Wu. Tink could easily kick my ass, but who
couldn’t. She could take out giants with her magic Kung-Fu stick (I’m pretty sure Kung-Fu is Chinese… After my
gaffe with ninjas, I wasn’t so sure anymore). Some shadowy “We” organization out there had been searching for
Reilly, and now they had me. What were the chances they’d let me go?

I was about to blurt out some heroic claptrap when the next bus came along. We hopped on. This time Tink was
quiet, still moody, though.

“Did they pick you for your effervescent personality?” I said.

“I owe them. That and this is pretty important to a lot of people. Not just Chinese, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I wasn’t thinking.”

She grunted, but there was a brief smile there. I seemed to be winning her over, the old black magic of
testosterone just could pass up the chance to flirt with a cute girl and raise its ugly… you know. But is it even worth
it to win over someone who I might eventually find out is an even purer form of evil than Madame Wu?

Tink leaned over to me. “I think you’re going to be fine. Make one more transfer and then take a different way
back to work. I doubt Wu knows where you work, so you should be okay. Considering all the commotion she
created, she’ll probably go underground for a while. And take a different way home. Do some opposites in
behavior, like drive with your lights off when they’re normally on or listen to country western music on the radio… I
need to check on some things.” She handed me a business card with only a phone number on it. “Call me when
you’re ready to talk. At least talk to Mr. Reilly and get his opinion. It’s all I ask.”

At the next stop, she jumped off. I blinked, and she was gone.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: PDF version contains story through Gift: Part 22 on http://murder3rivers.blogspot.com]




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