After a few weeks, the initial shock started to wear off. Life began to go back to normal at the school and we all resumed our usual routines. A detective, Lt. Chung, was assigned to the case. He was a youngish man, very sincere, who spoke very good English. I spoke to him on more than one occasion. He was soft-spoken, unassuming and dressed in regular grey/black street clothes. He reminded me the the Columbo actor on TV.
Apparently, he had some resources on the police force that allowed him to do some ‘digging’ into the Brain’s pass in the States. Some years earlier the Brain had been involved in a very serious auto accident where he was almost killed. Instead, he was left with several very deep scars on his body. When anyone asked about the accident he’d simply say, “I don’t remember what happened.”
Instinctively I knew there was something wrong with that story.
Lt. Chung, a personable young guy of about forty, had however, a permanently sorrowful look on his face. The Lt. looked like he was about to say “I’m sorry to tell you this, but….” Point of fact, he probably did have to say that kind of thing to people. Maybe he subconsciously arranged his face to project the message first.
Anyway, Lt. Chung had taken to stopping by the apartment house and hanging out in the office with the two old duffers who owned the place. On my way home from school, I could see them in the office, talking and laughing about whatever or outside having a smoke.
Lt. Chung found out in his own detective-style way that I was from California. He shared with me from time to time that his greatest aspiration in life was to take his wife and three-year-old daughter to Disneyland. Apparently, they had been saving money for some time but still were a little short. He loved to have me give him more details about Southern California and what to expect when they got there.
“Well, there’s Gladstone’s for Fish in Malibu, and the beach. Oh, and you might see some movie stars; then there’s Las Vegas.” The Chung would sit there mesmerized, drinking in every word. “Yah, it’s worth it, go!” He nodded his head sagely and with a little heave of the shoulders let out a little sigh.
Man, I thought, this guy is killing me.
Anyway, in between getting tourist tips for his trip, the Lieutenant would divulge bits of information to me regarding his investigation. Why he felt like he should share this stuff with me, I didn’t know. Maybe he trusted me because I was older and had worked with the police in my prior life as an insurance investigator. One day when we were discussing the merits of Medieval Times Restaurant and the jousting show versus Knott’s Berry Farm he got somber.
“You know that accident that Mr. Clifton was in back in the States?” Clif Webb was the Brain’s real name. Chung always called him Mr. Clifton.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Did he ever say there was someone else with him then?”
I sucked in air from surprise. “No, he would never talk about it.” I told him.
“Hum,” he replied. “There was another person, a man with him.”
“Oh,” I replied not knowing where this was going.
“Yes, younger man. Much younger, only 19 years old at the time,” said Chung shaking his head sadly.
This was not sounding so good. “What happened?” I was forced to ask.
“Young man died,” was the response.
My mouth formed a little ‘O’ shape.
“Mr. Clifton, he had been drinking, a little. He pulled in front of a very large truck, on the highway, at night. Maybe, no lights. The truck no sees the car and hit it very, very hard. Young man on passenger side, killed.” Chung finished. He cleared his throat.
I was shocked. Not only to find out how the accident that had left the Brain with so many scars had occurred but that someone had died too. Wow!
“The police, they investigate and want to charge Mr. Clifton with murder. But they finally decided he not legally drunk and called it manslaughter instead.” He shook his head again. “These Americans, they such fools,” he concluded.
I couldn’t disagree.
“So, then when Mr. Clifton get out of hospital and pay fines, he leave the United States and come here.” He looked at me seeking to find the logic in the whole thing. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
“I talk to my captain. I want go to United States myself and see the records of the accident. Maybe take wife and daughter on little vacation.” He winked at me.
I gaped; I had never had an Asian wink at me before. I think Lt. Chung had been watching reruns of TV detectives.
A few weeks went by after this conversation and I was so busy with classes all thoughts about Lt. Chung escaped from my head. I was therefore, a little surprised to see him hanging around in front of the apartment again, this time alone, having a smoke. It was, coincidentally, the same time I got home off the bus from school.
“Ah, Mrs. McGinney!” he said as though he were actually surprised to see me. “You are here.”
I had to smile.
“I wanted to talk to you a little. But,” he added, looking around, “not here.”
Reluctantly, I invited him up to my tiny little apartment. Lucky for me, I had a tinsee little living room with a couch that he could sit on. I closed the slider to my bedroom. I knew that Lt. Chung was a very happily married man, but still, I kept getting these vibes from him. I couldn’t tell if he was being friendly or what. I dumped my heavy bags down, made a run for the bathroom, came out, and put the teakettle on.
“Coffee?” I asked. Always the ceremonials.
“Thank you so much,” he replied and I got out two cups. He seemed brimming with good news as I handed him his cup.
“It is all okay,” he announced. “We go!”
I was lost.
“United States,” he said gleefully. “My wife, I and baby girl, we go to California.”
The light dawned. “Ah, yes,” I replied. “Your vacation!”
“Yes, yes vacation,” but added somberly, “a little work too.” I looked at him.
“I will go to Arizona to talk to the family of the young man killed in the accident with Mr. Clifton. There is, as you Americans say, something not right here.”
I nodded, surprised by his astuteness and the amount of TV this guy must be watching to be picking up on these phrases.
“May I write you the email if something ‘interesting’ comes up?” he asked.
Again, I was a uneasy. Somehow, I was feeling like a boundary was being crossed here into my personal life. I struggled with my answer. Finally, he did seem so sincere, I finally agreed to let him have my school email. I gave him a business card.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said so enthusiastically I felt ashamed to have distrusted him.
“I must go now,” he said standing up abruptly. “We be in touch.” He thanked me again for the coffee, we shook hands and he left.
I couldn’t but wonder about this guy and how much he was like Colombo; particularly that dogged persistence.
Another two weeks went by and although I hurried home every day looking for something from the Lieutenant, nothing.
Life had gone on, as they say. Pinkie had gotten over her near hysterics from the day of the murder. Blondie had finally gotten over the sniffles but still looked very sad, like her brother had been taken. I guess the Brain was, in a sense, her brother.
Finally, as the spring was upon us and the never-ending Asian winter was ending, I got a clipped one-line message from the Lieutenant.
“The young man, he had a sister. Younger, maybe fifteen years,” signed “Very Goodly Yours, Lt. Chung.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean? I thought. I racked my brain and could come up with nothing. The young man had a sister? Ok, and? I was forced to be patient because there no other answers were forthcoming from the Chung.
I wrote him back asking what he meant and he replied by telling me how great Disneyland was and maybe they move to USA. Great!
About ten days after that, when I was yet again making the trek to the apartment from the bus, laden with bags. I pulled up short in front of the apartment building.
What I saw first were two cop cars flashing their wigwags in front of the building.The door to the manager’s office was wide open. I stared and looked around and spotted the Chung auto-car off to the corner. I hit the elevator to go upstairs and as the doors opened, Lt. Chung was looking at me.
“Mrs. McGinney,” he cried and gave me a hug. “You gave me such good advice for my trip and we have wonderful time!!” He beamed at me.
My mouth hung open.
He said “One minute, please,” and leaned back to talk to the beefy cop behind him. I stepped aside as the two moved into the foyer babbling to each other in Korean.
Finally, the Chung turned to me and said, “I see you in your apartment in few minutes, yes?” He immediately turned around to the cop again and they walked off together. Having been thus dismissed, I got into the elevator and rode up to my floor. What else?
Thirty minutes later, I was sipping a diet-coke, in my jeans and slippers with my hair pulled up in a pony when there was a knock on the door. I opened to see Lt. Chung.
“I come in?” he asked as he started to walk in the door.
“Ah, sure, “I replied stumbling backwards. I went through the same coffee drill but today he didn’t seem interested.
“You got my email?” he asked. He knew I had. He looked at me as thought that one sentence should explain everything and only a dolt would not clearly understand.
“Yes, I did but….” I didn’t have a chance to finish before he was waving my comments away like the unimportant nats that they were.
“The young man, he had a sister, yes?” he looked at me expectantly. I stared at him. He cleared his throat and continued. “She was younger, maybe seventeen of your American years at the time of brother’s death. They were very close.”
I wasn’t getting it. I looked at him and nodded with what I hoped was an intelligent look on my face.
“The sister, she was very, very angry at brother’s death and the decision of police and legal system against Mr. Clifton. She not thinks it right, not fair,” he continued.
“Ok,” I said, “and?”
He gave me a condescending look.
“After the accident, arrest and hearing, they bury her brother. She graduated from high school and went to college there in hometown.” I was still not putting it together.
He looked at me triumphantly, like he had discovered the cure for cancer and leprosy all at the same time. “She studied to become a teacher!”
Dimly, the pieces started to shift into place.
“She got her teaching degree and applied to become teacher here in Asia!” I sucked in my breath in surprise
“She got a job at your school!”
“Who, who….? I started.
“Caroline Crisswell!” he said quietly.
I sat there stunned. I couldn’t believe it. Caroline Crisswell? Cute, little, blond bouncy, cheer-girl type from Arizona, Caroline?
“But, but…” I fumbled. “The name of the kid in the accident, you told me was different. It wasn’t the same name!”
Then he smiled that special smile at me. He tapped his head knowingly. Those Asians!!! “Different fathers, different names.”
I gaped some more. “Where, where…?”
“She is gone, the apartment is empty. Everything still there except for one large bag. Her mother, who I spoke to in Arizona when I was there, must have told her.” Lt Chung nodded almost as though he agreed with the mother’s decision.
“I still…” Don’t understand I was trying to say.
“Yes, yes.” said the Chung. “The young man, Dennis Cleary, he was having affair with Mr. Clifton and they went everywhere together. The sister she feel like the death was a murder not an accident. She never get over it. She graduated from school with the teacher’s degree and hunt down Mr. Clifton. Not too hard, they from same small town in Arizona know many same people. Mr. Clifton not hard to find.”
“She find out what school he working at, apply to same school, and in Asia not much experience needed, she get the job. Mr. Clifton not really know her as young man and girl not live in same household. He never saw her except at funeral. Girls, you know, they always change the hair.” He sighed.
“So,” I interjected, remembering seeing the Brain and this girl together, talking and laughing over some silly thing.
“She gets to know him here, gets into the same apartment complex and finds out from Clifton that he never locked his door. (“It’s Asia,” he would say, brightly, “what can happen?”)
“Exactly, so as you say,” replied Chung. “She ready with knife she took from school kitchen. She waits for bad weather when lots of noise outside and wind, so nobody be outside. She goes down to Mr. Clifton apartment, when she knows he is drinking, maybe she even gave it to him and when he lies down, she stabs him in heart. She goes up the backstairs that nobody takes and goes to her room. Next day, acts like nothing she knows.”
I thought back to that wild night; as a matter of fact, many of the teachers in the building had come down to the Brain’s apartment to see what was going on, except…. Caroline. She had not been there and the next day she said she was such a heavy sleeper she hadn’t heard a thing. . .
“Wow!” was all I could say. “But where is she now?”
Lt. Chung looked a little sad. “She has left by the airplane, but no doubt, we find her and bring her back.” He seemed to feel personally bad about that. He seemed conflicted by what was clearly his duty.
He pulled himself up a little officially and said, “We will start to look for her …first thing tomorrow. It is a little late.”
“Tomorrow!” I almost cried. My American sense of justice rose up. I stopped myself and shut my mouth. He looked at me, I looked at him.
“Hey, you want to see the pictures from my trip?” With delight he pulled out his brand new, bought in America camera. I went to put on the coffee.
Still; I had some money in the bank, my bills were paid and no one was screaming the house down for past due amounts. I got a regular paycheck, my needs were taken care of; it had been some time since I could say that. Surprisingly, to me, this overseas teaching gig seemed to be working out.
I had gotten a breather from the high cost of living in the US and the funeral dirge we call news telling me, daily, how everything was going into the shitter.
Anyway, it was nice being away from the States, the economic slump and endless finger pointing. I had settled into my life with a tiny studio apartment, bathroom and tinsee kitchenette. Thoughts like I could live here forever began to float in my head.
Problems began to emerge from our group of American teachers. To say they were a real assortment of soup to nuts was an understatement.
The Americans bitched and complained about how it wasn’t like home and they don’t do it likethis in the States, etc. etc. The complaining was only topped by the endless rounds of drinking, hangovers, colds, illnesses and trips to the hospital. It seemed many of our teachers were fragile and clearly out of their comfort zone.
Rising to the top of this formidable group of misfits, was a tight cluster of besty friends who huddled together in gossipy, whispering bunch. They were two gals and a guy who were nothing less than scary.
What to say? Amber (Blondie) the leader of the group, was fat and fuzzy. As regards to her taste in clothing, she specialized in knee high leather boots, short skirts and sweaters that emphasized her voluminous rear. She reminded me of a vixen from ‘Cabaret’. Being of German heritage, with blonde hair and blue eyes, I could picture her, a tiny black whip, leather cap and one booted foot resting on a chair, waiting for her next customer.
The other two I called Pinkie and the Brain after the cartoon of the same name. In the cartoon, Brain was the genius, Pinkie was the idiot, and every week they came up with a new plan to ‘take over the world.’ Right, just like here.
Pinkie was a fluffy concoction of bleached blond hair, cheap, uncomfortable high heels, tight skirts and low cut blouses. Her best feature was her face and she specialized in radiating brilliant toothy smiles at everyone, irrespective of the circumstance.
Alos, she also had a repertoire of deep and sincere looks of apology whenever she could not/would not accommodate your requests. That was, naturally, most of the time. Let it never be said that she didn’t ‘have your back’ as an administrator at the school and she wasn’t ‘working hard to take care of you.’
I could often hear the three of them talking and whispering in the back of the bus as we made our way to school. When the Brain let loose with some particularly noxious remark, Pinkie would giggle her little cat-like giggle. She would curl up around the Brain like an old married couple and purr. Since the Brain was gay, this didn’t impress me much. Blondie would bark laughter and a happier group never was.
The Brain on the other hand, rarely bothered with the niceties unless the administration was visiting. He was the clown, the buffoon, the jokester, the cynic, the critic, the sarcastic one. The Brain lived for the delight he got in putting other people down and into their place. He loved to watch others and to catch them with their pants down and then announce these failings and gaffs to anyone listening.
One day I made up ‘In and Out’ signs for the stationary door because people kept walking into it. The Brain switched the signs because it was so funny and then laughed when people tried to go through the locked door. Someone I thought of as a good friend, nearly laughed himself sick over the door trick. That Brain, what a guy huh?
The Brain worked his magic with one of the Asian administrators, Henrietta, and got her thinking he was all that. After he got promoted to trainer, a job created just for him and not requiring any of those long, laborious, expensive degrees the rest of us had, the worm began to turn.
At the opening ceremony, Henrietta, the Asian staffer, made some announcements and the Brain listened carefully.
When it was his turn to get the microphone he ran with it.
“Oh, Henrietta, that was so wrong. Oh no, no, no……Well, that won’t be the first time.” Brain smiled broadly at his audience. Henriette had a white, pinched face.
His recriminations against Henrietta continued to become more and more vitriolic. One night we were waiting in the cold for a bus to show up and when it finally did, it was too small for us to all fit.
I could hear the Brain. “Oh Henrietta, you lied to us the last time about the bus too.” Ashamed, she shook her head unable to respond.
Brain announced that he never bothered to lock his door. “This is Asia,” he would say. “What can happen?” I guess that worked as he waltzed back and forth with a parade of buff, young Asian males.
So our lives went on for many months. I tried to avoid the gruesome threesome as much as possible. Biting my tongue was becoming an everyday occurrence. I was busy looking for other jobs and hoping to get the hell out of there.
I was out one especially fierce some and wild night when the Asian sky opened up and dumped a torrent of rain on our heads. The wind whipped the trees and trash everywhere. I was in a taxi praying the driver would get us home in one piece without killing him, any unwary pedestrians and me.
We finally made it to the apartment building. I paid the driver, wrenched the door open into the frozen blast, and ran for the elevator. I could hear banging from somewhere but it sounded like trees beating against the building outside. Inside at last, I pulled off my drippy clothes and threw myself into my warm bed.
The next day, the teachers trudged dutifully to the bus, tiptoeing over puddles and trying to avoid cars splashing water as they drove by.
We got on the shuttle and Pinkie kept looking around. I could hear her speaking to Blondie and trying to reach the Brain by phone but – no go. They finally signaled the bus driver to leave and off we went for another happy day at work.
I was busy with classes all day and didn’t think about the missing Brain until much later that evening. As it happened, my apartment was directly above his. Pinkie had apparently got home too, got off the cheap heels, and made her way over to Brain’s apartment.
I was busy taking off my makeup and reading emails when I heard the screaming. It seemed to go on forever.
Wiping the last cold cream off my face and pushing slippers on my feet, I ran down the stairs two at a time to where the sound was coming from. It was the Brain’s apartment. The door was open and Pinkie was inside, still hollering. I went inside, the sound, somewhat muted by her hands covering her mouth. The Brain was lying on his bed, eyes open, mouth gaping and a large knife sticking out of his chest. A long dark red trail of blood led from his chest, down the wine colored sheets onto the carpet flooring.
I grabbed Pinkie and pulled her forcibly out of the apartment. Her face, a frozen mask of terror, big blue eyes rolling wildly around. I was reminded of a frightened pony. I closed the door and grabbed her by both arms.
“Angela, Angela,” I said. “Stop, stop. ”
People were piling out of their apartments looking to see what was going on.
“Stay here,” I told her. She shook her head numbly. “Don’t go back in.”
She shook her head no.
I ran to the manager’s office on the bottom floor and waving franctically at the cigarette smoking jerk who worked the desk. I finally got him to understand to come with me right away. He fumbled with his slippers and locking the door. He stared at me in a dazed fashion as if he couldn’t believe his presence was required anywhere.
I dragged him upstairs and pushed him through the door where he stood staring stupidly. I made a hand gesture to indicate telephone.
“Police, police, police,” I kept saying to him. He nodded his head but didn’t move. I got behind him and pushed him out the door. He kept turning his head to look back at the bed.
We got downstairs where he fumbled with the phone like he had never used one before and finally got the phone call made. I could hear a lot of conversation I couldn’t understand. The hand gestures seemed to go on for a long time. At last, he nodded and hung up the phone then waved in the air with his cigarette, gesturing that they were coming.
I went back up to the second floor, gathered up Angela, and asked her where her apartment was. Since we never socialized together, I didn’t even know which one was hers. She indicated it was on the third floor. I got her on the elevator and back into her apartment. Other teachers were trying to stop me to ask questions but I shook my head and wouldn’t answer. “The police are on their way,” was all I said to disappointed faces.
Pinkie’s apartment was an assortment of all things pink and fuzzy to include kitten plates on the walls. It appeared to be the well-decorated abode of any 14 or 15-year-old girl.
Fits, I thought to myself.
“Angela, do you want some tea?” I asked her. She looked dumbly at me like she had forgotten how to speak English.
After a minute, she nodded her head. I rummaged around in the cupboards looking for teabags and a cup. Finding a pink one with little flowers on it, I started the water to boil.
I sat close to her not knowing what to say. It wasn’t like we were true friends, ‘cause we weren’t; far from it. I managed a tentative pat on her knee. That was about the best I could do.
She sucked in some air. “He’s dead isn’t he?” Now, I am no expert on these things, but the fact that the Brain was dead did seem to be apparent.
“I think so,” I replied.
She sucked in some air and started making a choking sound.
“Oh no,” I thought, “Here it comes.” At that moment, there was a brief knock on the door and Blondie came rushing in.
“Angela, Angela,” she grabbed her friend and the two of them started sobbing together, rocking back and forth.
I got up and started backing toward the door. They didn’t appear to notice me. I got to the door, when through and closed it behind me. I let out a gasp, incredibly grateful to be out of there. I knew I should go down when the police showed up but I gave myself permission to go put on regular clothes first. Somehow I knew there were going to be a lot of questions.
What happened the next few hours and indeed the next few days was a blur of just that; questions, puzzlement and more questions.
I suppose I became the subject of so much inquiry because my apartment was above his. The police seemed convinced I must have seen or heard something. I had to repeat to them over and over that I had heard something like banging but that it seemed like wind and trees bagging on the side of the building.
What came out of this circular discussion was that there were no leads, no fingerprints, and no witnesses to anything. No one had a single clue as to how this had happened other than that the door was open and the murderer was able to simply walk in, stab the victim and walk out. The residents of the apartment rarely spoke or interacted with each other and the hallways were frequently empty.
Courtney E. Webb – See more stories in the Kindle Vella platform.
Randall Pagalla was at work early. His white chef smock was clean and buttoned to the top. The black chef pants had been cleaned and pressed by his wife. His black clogs gleamed and shone from his personal elbow-grease.
He set out ingredients in the expansive school kitchen. The sturdy metal shakers, in military lines, stood ready for duty. He loved the kitchen, especially early in the day before anyone else showed up. The stainless-steel countertops, still clean before the day’s work started. The white tiles of the room gleamed in the bright florescent lights. Early morning sunshine came through the bay windows, bounced off metal pots and pans hanging and stacked around the room.
He put out the eggs. He liked to let them come to room temperature before baking. Like patient soldiers, bags of flour, sugar, salt and baking powder were lined up in a row. The huge jar of oil was next to a bag of pudding. Measuring spoons and spatulas waited on the counter like surgical tools on a tray.
Even after all these years of cooking, Randy still carefully measured his ingredients. Especially the salt and the baking powder. God forbid you got too much or too little of either, the recipe would be ruined.
He plugged in the mixer and started to crack eggs in a small glass bowl. With a large spoon in hand, he examined the eggs to check for specks of eggshell. Seeing a couple of errant bits, he carefully scooped them out. He poured the eggs into the mixing bowl and turned the mixer on medium to get the eggs well beaten. Sometimes he would turn the motor up to high just to pull in some air for fluffiness.
Next was the oil and the water. He let them mix well before adding the pudding. This kept the cupcakes moist. The big oven was turned on and heating. He started to sift the flour with other dry ingredients. Using a big metal spoon, he rotated the spoon in circles, the flour falling lightly through the mesh of the round metal sifter. He contemplated the coming day.
“Randy.” A voice from behind made him jump.
He turned. Brandon Bain, the head teacher was right behind him.
“Oh, sorry, Randy. Did I startle you?” Brandon grinned like an eighth grader who had thought of something clever.
“No, Brandon, I’m okay,” Randy lied. “Just didn’t hear you come in.”
“Oh, I know. That aging process is such a bummer. Might want to get that hearing checked.”
Randy could feel himself grinding his teeth but still managed a smile.
“Can I help you with something, Brandon?” He found himself gripping a spatula with his left hand, keeping his face passive.
“Well, let’s see. Yes, here it is. It’s some student satisfaction reports. Two girls – here” Brandon’s pudgy finger pressed down on the paper, “reported they thought you were too hard on them in class.” He held the papers up in front of Randy’s nose. “Can you read that without your glasses, Randy?” Brandon’s face was sympathetic.
Randy held up his hand to the papers and with a little yank, pulled them free. He had his contacts in, so he could read them fine. Two names were circled in red.
“Ok, Sue Ellen and Misty. In pastry class. Yes, let me think. Right. They were on their cell phones in class several times when I have told all students, no cell phones in class. It’s not sanitary for one thing.”
Brandon frowned and held his hand out for the papers. Randy gave him back the sheets.
“As you no doubt know, Brandon, studies have shown that not only are cell phones germy, they sometimes carry particles of fecal matter.”
Brandon stared at Randy, his small blue eyes pinched together under a thick wrinkled brow.
“Is that a thing?”
“Okay, cell phone usage. Well, of course, that shouldn’t be happening. Naturally, and I will make a note of that.” He yanked out a thick gold/black Monte-Blanc pen and placed a couple of squiggles in the margin.
“However, Randy, please,” he emphasized the last word, “Keep in mind how important student satisfaction is at Info-Tech College. We need those tuition payments coming in. You understand.”
Randy nodded slightly.
“You do understand what I am saying, don’t you?” Brandon arched an eyebrow at Randy and stuck his chin out. The small eyes peered at him from between rolls of fat.
“Great.” Brandon replied. “And I will take it upon myself to personally address the complaints of these young women and see if anything can be done about this, this…situation.” He dotted the paper with another swirl. “So, carry on, Randy. Another busy day in culinary, right?”
“Absolutely, Brandon. Another busy day.”
Brandon turned on his heel with the pen and papers gripped in one hand. He left the kitchen and Randy could see him shaking his head to himself and mumbling something. With his other hand, he was tamping down his sprayed, short blond hair.
“Jesus,” Randy said in a low voice and blew out a breath. Looking down he was startled to see that he had bent the plastic spatula almost in half. He quickly looked around to see if anyone was looking, threw it in the trash and got out another one. He washed his hands again.
“Fucking A, that guy.” He shook his head to clear his brain and rechecked the recipe to see where he was.
Randy paused to remember the past year. He and his wife Susan had taken some inheritance money and used it to fulfill his lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant. They had opened the restaurant in a cute little section of Old Town amidst local fanfare. It had been an immediate success.
They served tea, scones and other teahouse confections. They became the favorite of the older set and families. They served breakfast, brunch and lunch. Randy and staff got constant compliments on the food and service.
However, the cost of running the restaurant, even with good help was getting to Randy. He was working sixty to eighty hours a week and they were barely making a profit. He came home exhausted every night.
Finally, Susan stated the inevitable.
“Randy, you love the restaurant, but it’s killing you. You are going to have a heart attack and then where will we be?”
He sat slumped on the sofa, too tired to argue. She was right. Heart attacks ran in his family, and he wasn’t getting any younger. Finally, they closed up shop against a chorus of sad goodbyes. Randy counted himself lucky to have gotten this full-time teaching job on the culinary staff at Info-Tech College. It wasn’t his own place, but it was a regular paycheck with weekends off.
Randy sighed and refocused. Thankful for his old habit of putting away items as soon as he added them to the recipe; he was certain he hadn’t forgotten any ingredients. He wanted to forget Brandon Bain, but that was another story.
It was 10 am, break time at Info-Tech and students and teachers were outside the building grabbing smokes. Randy Pagalla loosened his smock and was having his second cigarette of the day.
Paul, the Sommelier teacher, came up to him with an aggravated look on his face. Paul turned his back to the students.
“Bum a smoke?”
Randy pulled out the pack of Marlboro 100’s, and Paul yanked one out. Randy got the Bic out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Paul.
Paul lit up and took several deep breaths. He blew out smoke and seemed to calm down.
“Son of a bitch,” Paul spat out. “That fucking son of a bitch.” He sucked the cigarette some more.
“Brandon, Bain in my ass, is who. God that guy!”
“What this time?” Randy puffed on his own cigarette.
“The little prick comes in my class for an ‘observation’ with no notice, no warning.”
“Then he does this bullshit evaluation. Tells me I have to stop teaching about French wines.”
“Why?” Randy squinted against the smoke.
“Apparently, it’s offensive to the California wine growers, and we have to support ‘local grown’. God what a dick. I wish he’d stay out of my class.” Paul took some more angry puffs.
“I hear that,” Randy agreed. He didn’t feel like repeating that morning’s conversation. “I’m curious, since I’m new here. Did Brandon ever actually teach?”
“Yeah, nutrition. The students hated him.”
“How did he ever get promoted?”
“He’s really good at one thing,” Paul replied with a grim smile.
Back in the kitchen, the cupcakes were out of the oven. Randy had taken a knife and swirled it around the cups, so the cakes came out clean. They were now in pans lined up in straight rows, awaiting the next class. The aroma of baked goods filled the air.
Students filed in, dropped their books and bags and went to wash their hands.
“Okay, students. Today we are going to do frostings. Work in pairs. You will get bags of powdered sugar, milk and a copy of the recipe. Also, a grater and two oranges. We will do white frosting with orange zest. Okay, get your supplies.”
Students went over to the workstations and began dragging out cups, bowls, spoons, and cartons of milk. Pairs of students got copies of the recipe and began reading.
“Alright, you can read the instructions on the sugar and milk. Mostly, you don’t just dump the milk in; you add it slowly so that the frosting is not too wet. Also, I will demonstrate using the grater for the zest.”
“I have washed the orange and dried it. I pull off the little green stem and use the small gauge grater to make a fine zest. We don’t want chunks of orange peel in the frosting. Just a little bit for taste.”
He grated a little pile of zest and pointed. “You’ll want about that much for one recipe. Let’s get started.”
Students put their heads down and began industriously grating. An occasional orange would flip away from its owner and land on the floor. Randy chuckled as he heard low curses from students bent low, chasing oranges across the linoleum floor.
“Remember students, we are going to have our big Luau this Friday. We will freeze the cupcakes and pull them out then.”
Randy went back to his office to check emails. He could still see the class through a large glass window. There were the usual correspondences from students with excuses for absences and late assignments. He scrolled down.
“URGENT!” was marked with a little red flag. From Brandon Bain, “Teachers, don’t forget the Luau is this Friday. Submit a list of what your class will be contributing for my final approval. Also, attendance for this event is required. Let’s be sure our students know we appreciate them!”
“Ha!” Randy half laughed to himself. As though we need constant reminders of that, he thought to himself. He must think we have never supervised people or taught before. He shook his head.
At lunch that day, Randy met up with Paul and Smitty, the meat chef. Randy was steamed.
“What up?” Paul asked him as they put cafeteria food on their trays.
“The boss doesn’t want the two hundred cupcakes the students just finished. It’s not ‘Island’ enough and I have to come up with something else. Jesus.” he rubbed a hand through his dark, curly hair. “I’ll be up all night trying to find the right thing for him. Crap. And here I thought there wouldn’t be overtime on this job.” He plunked a salad on his tray.
“Don’t bitch to me,” replied Smitty. “I was going to do something easy like barbequed ribs. No, no. The master wants an authentic pig. ‘Let’s celebrate native Hawaiian culture the way they would.’” he mimicked.
“Can you do that?” Randy asked.
“Sure, no problem,” Smitty replied. “It just takes about three times as much work is all. That asshole has absolutely no idea.” He banged some dishes on his tray. “I’d like to skewer him on a roaster,” he muttered darkly.
Randy did a double take. This guy is really pissed.
Randy scoured his cookbooks that night. Susan suggested mimosas. He found a recipe and sent that to the boss.
Randy checked his email and saw the curt reply.
‘Randall, proceed. B’
This guy was something. He had told one of his student assistants to come in early. They were going to need different supplies. He started going over the list with the kid. They were would have to make a run to Restaurant Supply.
An hour later Randy was pulling goods out of his SUV. He could see Smitty in the quad yelling at the students setting up the barbecue pit. He and the assistant got the goods inside. He needed to run to the office and make copies of the new recipe. He left the kid to set up class.
The copier was in the Admin building. Randy got to the machine and punched buttons to warm it up. He waited for the familiar hum.
The copier was close to Brandon’s office and he could see Allison at her desk. She was the department ‘aide’. The title of secretary was long-forgotten.
“Allison did you get the flyers distributed for the Hawaiian Luau?” Brandon leaned out of his door.
“Yes, Mr. Bain,” she nodded vigorously.
She looked puzzled for a minute.
“Well, one hundred I think we said…”
“I specifically said two hundred. Please get that done and the banner too.”
Her face flushed a deep red and she slowly got up and walked stiffly down the hall, her skinny arms held ridgely at her sides. Randy retrieved his copies and was about to go back to class when the phone rang in Brandon’s office.
His tone instantly changed. “I told you to stop calling me at work.” Some unseen monkey of mischief made Randy stop to listen.
There was a short silence.
“It’s over, Gary. I need someone with brains and brawn. Why don’t you go help one of your so-called clients? And stop calling!”
Randy’s eyebrows shot up. Who was Gary? He left on silent feet.
Later that afternoon, he ambled over to the luau pit to see how it was going. He puffed on a smoke. Smitty was there staring into the pit. The wood logs were in place and burning. Randy could see the pig strapped to a metal rotisserie rod. The rod was attached to a motor, which kept it turning.
“Wow, Smitty! Engineering brilliance this.” Randy was impressed. There was a little makeshift bamboo hut around the pit. Smitty stepped away. He looked haggard.
“Smitty?” He asked.
The man started to cry and wiped his eyes with a rag.
“What is it?”
“It’s my five-year- review.”
“What about it?”
“Bain has said, well, not said exactly …. that he….” The man paused.
Randy looked at him.
“He’s not sure he is going to be able to give me a passing review.”
“What does that mean?” Randy asked, amazed.
“The school can’t renew my contract unless I have at least a passing score. I’ll lose my job. I’ve been here thirteen years, Randy. Thirteen years. He can’t do this to me!” His voice started to rise as he continued to wipe his eyes.
Randy patted his arm. “Come on, Smitty. We can talk to the Dean if you want. I can’t believe it will be that bad. Hey. You have a good reputation here. Students love your class.”
“Randy,” the man stared at him with wild eyes and grabbed his arm. “He told me if this was getting to be too much, maybe I should consider retiring. Retiring!”
“I’m sixty-three years old, man. No one will take me and I’m too young for Social Security. What am I going to do? Sit at home and watch game shows? I hate game shows.” He waved a skinny arm around expansively. “This school, this job…is my life.”
Randy shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know what else to say.
Smitty nodded and blew his nose on his handkerchief. “You’re right. I need to talk to the Dean.”
“I got to get going, the wife, you know.”
He left Smitty still staring at the pit and walked to his vehicle. He finished his cigarette. The Dean had promised Randy a long career at this place. At forty-eight years of age, Randy was having doubts.
Randy was satisfied that the Indian mimosas were well underway. They should have enough for the luau. His assistant was lining them up in neat, symmetrical rows. He went out for a smoke and coffee at break. He saw Smitty.
“So, I can smell that pig roasting. It smells good.”
Smitty gave him a wan smile.
“You talking to the Dean?” Randy felt a little like a nagging Dutch uncle.
“Yeah, at the end of the day. I got an appointment ‘wit him.”
“Okay, well that sounds good. Tell me how it goes, ‘kay?”
Smitty nodded and Randy went to mingle with some students.
Later that day, Brandon Bain knocked on Dean Holmes’ door.
The Dean put down his pen and got up. He still had that college lad look; tall, thin, blue eyes. And, the somewhat longish blond hair that went a long way, especially, with the ladies.
“Welcome, Brandon. Please come in.”
He waved Brandon in. He made note of the man’s new short-sleeved Izod polo shirt that exactly matched the color of his crisp chinos. Tassel loafers completed the ensemble.
A long way from the black t-shirts and jeans he was wearing when he got here, not so long ago, the Dean thought… The Dean didn’t particularly like Brandon, but he certainly knew how useful he could be.
“Thank you for coming,” the Dean smiled and resumed his chair, sitting casually.
“No problem, Dean, anytime.” Brandon smiled and flashed tiny teeth.
“Ah, yes. Well, it’s about Smitty. You know, the meats instructor.”
Brandon nodded. “Of course.”
“Well,” the Dean laughed a little, “he tells me you said he should retire because of his age.” The Dean’s eyebrows arched up.
“What?” Brandon looked shocked. “His age?” His face was a picture of bafflement.
“So, you didn’t say anything to him like that?”
“Well, we had a talk about his performance. But, his age…?” Brandon spread his hands out wide and shook his head, mystified.
“Well, good, because of course, that would be…”
“Age discrimination. Exactly, Dean, absolutely not. I mean the man was upset when I was trying to go over some numbers with him. But… no, no. Never.”
“Okay, well good. Because I have to talk to him this afternoon. I just want your assurances.”
Brandon continued to shake his head, contrition written on every feature.
“Ah,” the Dean pondered a moment, “was anyone else there, with you when you had this conversation…. about numbers?”
“No, we were in my office and the door was closed.”
Dean Holmes privately breathed a sigh of relief.
“Okay, then, well…”
“However, Dean…there was one thing I wanted to show you.” Brandon whipped out a slim-line black binder. “I have recently done a Survey Monkey study with our students.” He pulled out the green and white form. “We have a very culturally diverse group of students.”
The Dean nodded. Of course he knew, he was responsible for much of that.
“And additionally, their average ages are 22 to 26 years.”
The Dean knew that too. He offered a thin, tight smile.
“This Survey asks the students questions about whether or not they feel like they can relate to and identify with their instructors.”
The Dean waited patiently.
“Many students don’t feel that they can either identify or related to old…older white guys. They would be happier with instructors who were younger, and more like themselves. “
The Dean shifted, a little uncomfortable. He was on the verge of becoming one of those older white guys himself.
“So, your point, Brandon?”
“We should definitely encourage and recruit a younger, more culturally diverse staff, sir.”
The Dean stared at the man a moment. What the hell did he think they had been doing? Why did he think he had gotten promoted so soon? He kept his thoughts to himself.
“Well, okay, Brandon. Point certainly taken. Thank you for your input.”
“It’s all about numbers, Sir.”
“Yes, certainly. Okay. I will speak to Smitty and see if we can put his mind at rest. Other than that, we’ll see you at the Luau.”
“Absolutely, Sir. We have the Luau well in hand.”
Dean Holmes closed his door after Brandon left and sat down with a plunk on his chair. He had to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief. He wondered, not for the first time, if he had made the right decision promoting this guy so soon. He shook his head and went back to work.
Later that day, Randy was packing up and saw Smitty standing out by the luau pit. The smell of the roasting pig was delicious. He walked over. The pig was still on the metal rod, turning slowly. Smitty was staring at it, not moving.
“Smells great. Can’t wait to have some,” Randy said jovially. The man nodded without looking at him.
“So, how did it go with Holmes?”
Smitty slowly came out of his reverie and turned to look at Randy. Thin, sinewy arms folded across his chest, his eyes, dark orbs. An old red bandana tied around thin hair.
“He says that he is not going to interfere. He hired Brandon to do a job and he’s going to let him do that job.”
“What about all those comments about your age?”
“Brandon denies everything. Says I misheard because I was upset.”
“Nope, we were in his office, door was closed.”
“Wow, Smitty. I’m sorry. That’s not so good.”
Smitty let out a sigh. “I don’t know. Suppose I knew this was coming. When they promoted that little prick, it was just a matter of time. I might think about going to live with my sister in Idaho. It’s pretty up there.”
Randy was at a loss for words. He gave Smitty a tentative pat on the shoulder. “I’ll always write you a letter if you want…and Dean Holmes, I’m sure.”
Smitty picked up a long-handled fork with sharp tines. He poked at the pig.
“I just hope that little bastard gets his before it’s all over,” he said with a low growl.
There was not much else to say. Randy backed up.
“See you tomorrow, Smitty.” There was no answer. Smitty just kept staring into the fire.
Randy pulled into the school parking lot. Info-Tech was a series of low buildings sitting in a large grassy park. There were flowers and trees sprinkled around the grounds. Huge banners across the front of the buildings announced, “Cuisine Classes taught here! Sign up for pastry and other cooking classes!”
There was a picture of him on one of the posters. He was dressed in the usual white cooking smock. The photographer had talked him into wearing a fluffy white chef’s hat. He laughed. It was a cheerful campus. He liked it here. Students scuttled from class to class even at this early hour.
He wanted to get in and check that everything was ready to go. The Luau was to start promptly at 11:00 am.
He corralled some of the early bird students to help him carry big trays out to the tables. He was supervising the trays and sniffed the air.
Funny, he thought. He could smell the roasting pig and that smell he recognized but there was some other smell. Can’t quite place it, sort of sweet?
It was then he heard the screams. They seemed to go on and on. A female student, dressed in her server’s uniform, was standing by the luau pit, screaming a scream that seemed to go on forever.
Randy snapped into action and ran over to the girl. She was shaking. He ran up to her, she pointed, and he looked.
In the pit, the pig was still there but pushed aside. Brandon Bain was there, in its place, on the metal rod, eyes closed with an apple stuck in his mouth. He was obviously dead, and his skin looked pinkish and burned.
Randy pulled the girl away forcibly and called 911. Within minutes, sirens could be heard rushing to the school.
The school was closed by the police. They created a crime scene with tape around the body. Several cops shooed all students and personnel away from the quad and asked them to return to their classes.
A quick situation room was set up in the teacher’s lounge.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t call me first,” an irritated Dean Holmes hissed in Randy’s ear. “This could have been handled so differently.” As he leaned against the wall in the lounge hallway, to all appearances, he was as calm and unruffled as ever.
“Sorry, Dean Holmes. It was a reflex action. The girl was freaking out, other students were running up. It was turning into a mob scene. I did what came naturally.”
The Dean scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. Despite his very best efforts to have the interview room moved to his office, the police desisted and choose this lounge as their base. One by one, teachers and staffers were called in.
Randy had to wonder if this was the longest time the Dean had been made to stand on his feet in a while. Probably. He was trying to sneak a cigarette, but Holmes scowled at him, so he stuck it back in his pocket.
“…had to call the President. He has to drive in from vacation. They can’t find Smitty….”
“They can’t find Smitty?”
“No!” The Dean turned when he heard his name. Randy was thoughtful.
Twenty minutes later, his name was called, and he went in. Two beefy cops in dark blue uniforms with an abundance of gear around the waist were sitting at one of the long tables.
He nodded. “
“You called it in?”
“Tell us what you know.”
“Anything and everything.” They were taking notes in small black notebooks.
When he was done and said, “I understand you can’t find Smitty. Mr. Smith.”
They shook their heads no.
“He was talking last night about a sister. In Idaho. Might go and live with her.”
“I don’t know. But, Dean Holmes can get the name from personnel.”
They both nodded. One cop got up and made a phone call from his cell phone. He moved away from them.
“Anything else, Mr. Pagalla, since you’re being so helpful.” The cop was straight faced but a smile lurked at corners of his mouth.
“Ah, yes. There was a phone call. I was making copies…”
“Yes, yes…” The cop waved a hand with impatience. “What?”
Randy told him about the phone call and Gary. The cop nodded, wrote down more notes.
“Thank you, Sir. We’ll be in touch.”
Randy got up to leave. All classes had been cancelled. He decided to go home.
When he got home, Susan was surprised.
“Home early? “she looked concerned.
“Well, you won’t believe what happened in cooking class today,” he grabbed a coke out of the fridge and flopped on the sofa.
A week later the cops were back at the school. Randy saw them go into and out of the Admin building. When they came out they stopped a student. The girl pointed to his building. Through the bay windows, he could see them approaching.
As luck would have it, he had a free period, so the kitchen was empty except for him and two dozen cupcakes.
“Yes, officers, come on in? Coffee, cupcakes?”
The two men accepted the coffee and eyed the cupcakes.
The lead guy, Sanchez said, “We wanted to thank you for the two leads. One on Smith and the other on Gary.”
“Yes?” Curiosity killing him.
“We were able to verify Smith got very drunk the night of the incident at his local bar. The next morning, he took off for his sister’s place and we were able to catch up with him there.”
Randy looked worried.
“His story checked out. “
The other cop, Rawlings inched closer to the cupcakes.
Sanchez continued. “Tell the man about the phone, Rawley.”
“Oh, yes.” Rawlings pulled his eyes away from the white frosted cakes. “We found the cell phone of the deceased, undamaged. There were many texts from a Gary, who is a local sports trainer.”
Sanchez continued. “We picked him up at the gym and took him in. He blabbed. Apparently, he and the deceased had been quite an item for some time until Bain broke it off. Seems Gary didn’t take rejection well.”
“Did you think it was Smith?” Randy asked.
“He certainly had motive. It looked very much like he was about to lose his job of thirteen years and Bain was the moving force. However…”
“However?” Randy asked.
“However, it had to be someone strong enough to strangle the victim, then hoist him up, impale him on a metal rod and place the whole contraption over the luau pit. We really couldn’t see Smith doing that.”
“Too old, too skinny,” Rawlings put in. He finally snatched a paper towel and got two cupcakes on it and was eating one.
“Wow, Chef, these are great! Is that your picture out front on the poster?”
“Huh,” the cop added. “My sister wants to learn to cook. I should tell her about this place.”
“Yes, you should.” The officers were leaving. “And,” he had to add, “tell her to stick to pastries. The meats are too heavy.”
They both rolled their eyes and left.
Randy went to grab his smokes.
Check out more of Courtney’s stories at Kindle Vella or Amazon.com/Kindle.
Sam set the alarm on his phone and dozed off. 90 minutes later the alarm went off and his eyes opened. He lay still and listened. There were voices drifting in from the grounds, but the room next door was quiet. He waited a few moments, got up and listen at the wall. Nothing.
Washing his face, he combed his blond/white hair and scowled at his own reflection. Blue eyes looked back at him. He hated inaction and he was overwhelmed with a feeling of nameless dread. That something bad was about to happen or had already happened. Leaving his door, he paused again outside Chen’s room. It was silent. He knocked and there was no answer. A frisson of fear washed over him.
He scurried to the dining hall. Ignoring the waves and calls from Lydia, he planted himself heavily next to Huang. Straining his neck around, he looked to see if the kid was here. No Chen. He swallowed some bites of food. Washing it down with some tea, he leaned over to Huang.
“Can I talk to you, after dinner?”
Huang turned slightly toward Sam. A look of concern crossed his face.
When dinner was over, the usual contingent of people crowded around the master, but he was able to gracefully wave them away. He looked at Sam.
“Need to be in your office,” Sam told him.
Huang nodded and headed back to the main office. Settled in the sanctum-sanctorum, Sam closed the door. Huang raised an eyebrow but sat back in his chair.
Finally, “Yes?” was all he asked.
Sam hardly knew where to start. It was all so fantastic. Red Chinese, glowing bunnies, disappearing scientists. Was he crazy?
“It’s like this,” he started. Pretty soon it was all tumbling out before Sam even knew it. Huang nodded, his face serious.
“So, what now, Sam-Shi?”
Sam pause and took a deep breath. He thought.
“We need to find Chan. We need to find him now.”
Huang nodded. He picked up a little brass bell and rang it. His major-domo appeared and there was some rapid-fire conversation between the two. The language, which Sam now knew to be Korean, was a complete word salad to him. He understood nothing. The conversation stopped abruptly, and the Domo turned and left. Sam could hear him calling out to other staffers giving what sounded like commands.
“What now?” Sam asked.
“We wait.” Huang replied.
Sam shifted uncomfortabl. Huang responded. “They will find him. If he is here.”
They sat in silence and sipped some of the golden tea Huang always kept simmering in a pot on the side board. A long twenty minutes passed. Suddenly, there was a commotion at the front door. It was the Domo, he was back, waving rapidly.
“Come, come!” he shouted.
Huang and Sam hurried out of the building and were herded over to the laundry facility. The door was open and the light was on. Sam could see people inside the room, bending over something. He rushed inside to see Chan slumped against the wall, legs stuck straight out in front of him and bleeding from the forehead. He ran to the young man’s side, terrified that he was dead.
“Chan, Chan.” The eyelids fluttered, and a huge red shiner was raising on his forehead. Chan groaned.
“Oh, thank God,” Sam said holding Chan’s cold hand. “Can you hear me?”
Chan’s eyes fluttered open. “Sam,” the eyes closed. Someone had called 911 and Sam could hear an ambulance siren wailing in the distance. Soon, paramedics arrived and took over.
An hour later, Chan was on his bed with a bandage around his head. He had been cleaned up and given a pain killer.
“He’ll have a slight concussion,” the medic told Sam, “but he’ll be okay. Don’t let him drive.”
Sam and Huang both nodded and waved goodbye as the ambulance left.
They were now both in Chan’s room sitting on chairs next to him. He was coming around. Sam could see that Fluffy was back in his cage and that Lee’s suitcase was gone.
“Tell us what happened, my son,” Huang prodded gently.
Chan started to cry. “I’m going to get fired. I’ll never work in this state again. I’m going to jail.” He was holding his head in his hands.
Huang looked at Sam and back at Chan. “Breath, my son, breath. In and out. In and out.”
Chan finally started to slow his breathing and calm down a little. He opened his mouth several times and nothing came out.
“One step at a time, Chan. One step.” Sam said slowly.
There was a little gasp. “He took my card.” Chan pointed to the lump on his head.
“Your card?” Sam asked.
“My, my ID car for Bio-tech. He’s got my card to get into the lab.”
“Okay, okay.” Sam tried to stay calm himself. “That’s not a problem is it? Certainly, there are other levels of security there?”
Chan started to cry again and was rocking himself back and forth.
“You don’t understand. You don’t understand.” He was almost incoherent.
Huang put a hand on his arm. “Tell us Chan, so we will understand.”
Chen sucked in a big breath. “He got my finger prints.”
“Your fingerprints,” Sam asked, “how?”
Chen’s eyes got wide. “He had these soft plastic gloves.” He stuck out his hand to demonstrate. “You put your hand in the glove and press down. It molds to your fingertips and leaves an impression of the prints.” He pointed to his own fingertips. “When it dries and hardens, it’s a permanent glove with a set of your prints.”
Sam and Huang looked at each other blankly.
“Don’t you understand?” Chan’s voice was starting to rise. “He can get past the 2nd layer of security and into the lab with my prints.”
There was a long pause. “What does he want?” Sam asked.
“The embryo,” Chan answered simply. “He wants the embryo.”
Sam felt fear wash over him. “We got to go,” he told both men. “Get him up, Huang!” he ran for his room to get his phone and car keys. He hustled the two men out and into his truck, starting the engine and hitting the speed dial for the FBI.
On the way to San Francisco, Sam broke all speed laws and all laws against talking on the phone while driving. He got hold of Phillips, his contact at the bureau and gave him a very abbreviated version of the facts. They would meet at Bio-Tech. It usually took an hour and a half to get to the big city; Sam did it in less than 60 minutes.
They screeched up in front of Bio-Tech. The Bureau guy was there in an un-marked and a couple of SFPD were there, sirens off. They pushed Chan out of the truck and into the foyer. His crying had subsided to some low moans interlaced with hiccups. Brother Huang kept patting his hand and consoling him.
The entire contingent sped into the building. Chan presented his card to the two guards at the desk who were, by this time, ogling at the cops.
A fat middle-aged security guy with the name Stanley embroidered on his shirt answered their questions.
“Well, yes, Dr. Chan. Dr. Lee was in here about, when?” he looked at the other guy, “About an hour or so ago. Said he left his briefcase and had to get it. Going to catch a red-eye flight at the airport. Didn’t he say that?” The other guy nodded silently. “But he had his proper badge, Dr. Chan, he did have access to that little office. And we had seen the brief case before, didn’t we?” The other guy, younger, nodded, not too happily.
“You say about an hour ago?” Sam took over.
“Bill, look that up on the log for the man, will you?” Stanley asked the younger man.
Sam grabbed Chan by the elbow. “Let’s get upstairs and see what’s missing.” The FBI agent followed, and Huang and the cops stayed in the lobby.
They ran to the elevators and Chan punched the buttons. “I got to let you in. just a minute.” Stanley yelled at them. Sam patted his foot. The elevator door slowly opened, and they got in. Chan pushed the button for the 6th floor.
Getting off the elevator, Chan seemed more in his element and raced down the hall. He punched in a code at the security portal and pressed his right hand against the tiny flickering screen. There were a series of beeps! And Sam could hear clicks and the big, heavy white door was open. They hurried inside.
Chan began racing around the lab checking this and that. Phillips and Sam stood awkwardly waiting for him to do his checks. Phillips was checking information on his cell phone. He showed the phone to Sam.
“Red-eye to Beijing, 11:00 pm.” Sam nodded.
“Not here, not here. They could hear Chan talking to himself moving deeper in to the lab. It’s okay, it’s okay.” Then there was a pregnant pause and “Oh, shit!”
He came slowly back to them. “He has taken the cryo-center with the baby embryo. The latest one.” His face was ashen.
Phillips started making phone calls immediately as they all ran down the stairs this time, not waiting for the elevator.
On the lobby floor, they gathered up the rest of the crew. Phillips gave quick instructions to the cops who peeled off to their pandas. Lights on and sirens blaring, they all headed for San Francisco International Airport.
Chan was mute with shock and Sam pulled a small silver flash from his back pocket. He made the young man take a swig. Chan coughed but got some color back in his face. They were in the car with Phillips and he was talking non-stop on his phone, giving orders.
They got to the airport in record time and parked illegally in the red zone in front of Departures and ran out of the cars. Two cops stayed behind to see that Airport Security didn’t interrupt.
Phillips located the gate number and pointed. Two men that he seemed to recognize came running up to him.
“This the guy?” They both asked. Phillips nodded. “He had to give a positive ID for us to stop him.”
They practically ran to the gate, Chen virtually lifted off his feet and hurried along by the beefy agents. They got to gate 21; there was a line of people boarding. Chen stopped and looked around wildly. Then, “Him, that’s him!” he screamed.
Dr. Lee saw Chan and the cops and tried to run but the agents were fast on their feet. They grabbed the man and his precious cargo. One agent immediately relieved Lee of his old brown briefcase and brought it over.
He put it down at Chen’s feet and opened the bag. “This it?” Chen poked his nose inside the bag.
“That’s it.” He sagged so much, Sam had to hold him up. He thought for a minute, the kid was going to faint.
Hours later, Sam, Chan, Phillips and Huang were at an all-night coffee shop. Huang was eating bacon and eggs and coffee.
“What?” he asked Sam.
“Oh, nothing, I just thought. . ..” Sam didn’t finish his sentence.
Huang held a butter knife to his temple. “Can’t be good all the time, Sam-Shi. Not good for you. Not the way.”
Sam had to laugh and sipped on his very black coffee and nibbled on a sweet roll.
“So,” Agent Phillips said to Chan. “tell us when it started.”
Chan sighed and sipped his hot herbal tea. He paused to pour a ton of honey into his cup.
“It started when I took a trip to China. I met this girl…” Sam and Phillips shifted and smiled at each other. “I’ve always been kind of a book worm,” they nodded, and she was so friendly and pretty and. . ..”
“And….” Sam added.
“And she took me to this orphanage and showed me these kids. Those poor kids. They had so many things wrong with them and no one wanted them, and they were just throw aways in that society. It was just terrible.” He sighed again and sipped his tea, remembering.
“Then. . ..” Sam nudged.
“Then, well, she told me I could help. How can I help I told her? I am just one guy. I can’t adopt all those kids. No way. I’m not married. . ..”he paused. She told me there was another way I could help, with my research. My genetics research.”
Sam took over for a little while. “What the wiz kid here does is cutting edge research on embryos where the embryo is genetically altered before they start to go to eliminate ‘bad genes’ or genes known to cause chronic illnesses and diseases. Am I right?” He looked at Chan who nodded.
“But it is in a very experimental stage and there is no way the US Government will allow us to do that with a real baby unless and until there is a lot more research done. We don’t want to have. . . mistakes.”
“And, create a monster when all we are trying to do is help, etc.” Sam added.
Chan nodded and stared at his tea.
“However, the Chinese government is not so cautious and would like to start those experiments as soon as possible,” Phillips continued.
“She told me she was with the orphanage,” pleaded Chan.
“Dr. Chan, I am not exactly sure yet,” Phillips added, “but I am pretty sure this entire operation, start to finish, was financed by the Chinese military who are desirous of creating a super-army.” He looked at Sam. “Sooner rather than later.”
“But the girl. . ..” Chan continued.
“Part and partial, sir. Part and partial.”
Chan seemed unsettled.
“Sir,” Phillips said softly, “did it never occur to you how odd it was that someone you just met, in a foreign country would know about your research?”
“Well, she was so interested in what I said. I guess I just assumed I must have mentioned it. I guess.” Chan stared into his tea.
Over his head Sam and Phillips shook theirs.
Phillips picked up the bill. It was 3am. Sam said he and Huang would drive the kid home.
“Am I going to be charged?” asked a tremulous Chan.
“Well, Dr. Chan, nothing was actually stolen it looks like, since we got everything back. And, Dr. Lee has diplomatic immunity, so he will go home very soon. As for your employer, well. That’s up to them.” Phillips gave a knowing look to Sam. “Someone will have to tell them something. You have about 4 hours to figure out what to say to your boss.” Phillips saluted to Sam.
“Thanks for your help, Mr. Sam Reynolds.”
“Anytime Phillips, any time.”
Phillips turned to leave.
“Oh, last thing Dr. Chan.”
Chan looked at him.
“I wouldn’t advise any more trips to China soon.” He got into his unmarked and drove away.
“Let’s get you home, bub.”
Phillips had dropped them at Bio-Tech. Chan got everything back where it was supposed to be in the lab.
He patted the canister. “She’s okay.”
“She?” asked an incredulous Sam.
“Yes, she. I peeked.” Sam felt his head spinning again.
Downstairs, they piled into Sam truck. He drove them to Chan’s apartment.
“Thanks, Sam.” Dr. Chan told him ruefully. “And thanks to you too, Brother Huang. I don’t know if I’ll have a job Monday. But, I have been a complete fool. I guess it could have been worse. He could have gotten on that plane.”
“Yup,” Sam answered. “It could have been worse. Night Dr. Chan.”
Sam rolled up the window and pulled into the street. He looked at Huang.
“So true, Sam-shi. Glad you brought that up.” Huang responded to the unspoken remark. “It could have been worse. He could have been killed by Lee, not just hit on the head.”
“Exactly, Huang. Exactly what I was thinking.” They both laughed and headed into the new dawn of a new day, going back to the Green Veil.
Sam slept very late the next day and awoke to the sound of his phone pinging at him.
“Hello, hello,” he was groggy.
“Sam, it’s Kristie!”
“Hello, darling, what gets you up so early?”
“Sam, it’s after 11 am, what are you talking about?”
“Oh, yeah. Late night. What’s up?”
“Well, the thing fell through with the kids. The boyfriend got sick and Chelsea sprained her ankle.”
“So. . ..”
“So, the weekend is off. You still want me to come up? I can go shopping at Nordstrom’s!”
Sam paused. Shopping.
“Then there’s the pool at the Clairmont Hotel, wine in the jacuzzi. Couples massages, Chateau Briante for dinner.”
“Hum, sounding better all the time.”
“Super, I’ll make the reservations and pack. I should be up three maybe four hours. Oh, I love you Sam. You’re so dependable. Such a quiet weekend. Just the two of us. Kiss, kiss.” She was gone and off the phone.
Sam rolled over in bed and held the phone to his chest. “Just the two of us. Quiet weekend. Wonder if Brother Huang has some eggs and bacon hidden somewhere, that old rascal. Maybe some coffee too.”
Sam rolled out of bed and pulled on jeans and a T-shirt. With his boots in place, he was ready for the day.
You can see more stories at Kindle Vella – Courtney E. Webb
“So, Sam, how did you like it today?” Huang asked Sam.
“I liked it. The hardest part is getting up and down and crossing my legs. Stiff, you know.”
Huang nodded knowingly. “We will do a few yoga movements too, while you are here, and that might help.”
“Gosh, I hope something does. I feel like the Tin Man.” He helped himself to more fish and rice.
“Try the green stuff,” Huang held out a dish to Sam. “It is a lot like your spinach.”
Sam was wary, but put a little on his plate anyway. He nibbled on a piece.
“It is just like spinach,” he said and put some more on his plate.
Huang was speaking to the various people sitting around them and Sam listened. People had a variety of jobs, several were teachers looking to ‘expand their horizons.”
One young Asian man sat across from Sam and didn’t say very much. Sam wasn’t very good at telling the difference between the different Asian groups. So, trying to not be offensive, he asked: “So, are you Korean too?”
The young man made a slight grimace before replying, “No, I am Chinese. Chinese-American.”
“Ah,” Sam replied.
“I am actually fourth generation here in California.”
“Really.” Sam was interested.
“Yes, my great-great grandfather was what was known as a coolie and came from China to work on the Trans-Atlantic Railroad.”
“Wow, some history.”
“Yes, it has been a long road for my family, but worth it in the end, I guess. I was able to graduate from Stanford, so probably so.”
Sam nodded. “And what do you do?”
There was a slight pause. At first Sam thought the young man was going to refuse to answer him. He detected a faint struggle on his face.
“Ah. . .I do research. Medical research.”
“Oh, interesting. Who. . .?”
“It’s Sam isn’t it?” The young man broke in. “I am Chan, nice to meet you.” He stuck out his hand, American style.
“Oh, you too.” Sam countered.
“However, I am here on a short rest-vacation and would really like to leave all that behind. Just for a few days.” He gave Sam a little smile.
Sam stared a moment then, looked down at his food “Sure, sure, no problem. Think nothing of it. Are these peanuts?”
They all continued eating and Sam kept his thoughts to himself. What young man, that age, doesn’t like to talk about his work. Incessantly, in fact. Whatever. Not my business.
After dinner, Sam was back in his room and tried to read the magazine he brought but threw it down. Feeling restless, he pulled on a jacket and slipped into some shoes and went outside. Late spring, it was still nippy in the air.
God, I could use a cigarette right now. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans to keep warm and started to stroll around the grounds. The grounds of Green Veil were lush with vegetation and beautiful even at night. The facility had been the property of a wealthy dowager who, haven’t gotten into the mediation thing, had donated the entire place to Brother Huang and his school.
Chewing on a toothpick, Sam worked his way around the campus. He was starting to get familiar with where things were. Having gotten some of the kinks out, he started on the path back to his room.
Maybe a hot bath.
He noticed something to his right, movement. Mice? Rats? No, it’s hopping like. Looks like. . .oh, it’s a bunny. Ha. Not too much to worry about there. Probably no foxes or racoons for miles.
He was turning back when something else caught his attention. He rubbed his eyes.
Was that rabbit glowing? A light green color? Couldn’t be.
He started to walk slowly after it and was about to catch it with two hands, when the thing darted into some undergrowth.
“Bah!” he said out loud. “Sam Reynolds, it is really time for bed.”
The next morning, after washing up, Sam remembered the rabbit.
Was I seeing things? Was it really glowing or am I on some kind of new mediation enhanced high? What is in that tea they serve after all?
Dismissing it from his mind, he went to breakfast and was able to get down on the floor a little more easily this time. He noticed, with a sense of aggravation, that husband-hunting Lydia and her silent friend, Sylvia, were both able to seamlessly glide up and down from the floor.
Geeze, Sam thought to himself, looks like all those hours in the gym are not really doing the trick here. He felt discouraged.
He quickly got in with Brother Huang’s crowd for lunch although Lydia waved gayly at him from the other end of the table. He gave a little wave back and grabbed for food.
They mysterious young Chinese man, Chan, was a few spots down. Head down, he seemed in a constant low conversation with his fellow Asian.
Older, Sam thought to himself. Maybe in his 50’s, steel rim glasses, really badhaircut.
There was a dark, brooding intensity about the man Sam found unsettling. He could not help his usual PI observations about people. The man kept stabbing at his food with his chopsticks.
Like he’s angry, Sam mused. Somehow, I get the feeling he’s not from around here.
Sam turned from the two men and tried to focus on what the people were talking about on his right. He had to fight that old feeling coming from the hairs on the back of his neck.
That feeling you sometimes get when someone is standing right behind you and you turn around suddenly…
Meditation class was easier the second day and Sam felt like he was getting into the ‘groove’ of the thing more. He was able to control his thoughts a little more and focus better. However, after a few minutes, he could not help thinking back to the young man Chan and his odd companion.
Something. . . something.
“Breath in and out, focus your attention. I will play a little music to help.” Brother Huang was leading today.
Sam liked hearing him, what a calming voice he had!
After lunch he went to have a little lie down before afternoon class began. Once again, he had dozed off when he heard the voices. They were murmuring again, but louder this time.
Always the nosy one, Sam got up quietly from the bed. Still in his thick cotton socks, he moved over to the side wall and put his ear against it.
“They need your help!” came the terse words. “They are dying, every day! They can’t afford the help like these rich American shits!”
“I know that, you think I don’t know that.” Sam recognized the voice of Chan. He realized the other voice had to be that of the older man who sat with him at meals.
“If I get caught, I’ll be ruined. I’ll get fired and never work in this town again.”
Chan sounded almost in tears.
There was a pause. “We won’t get caught. The plan is fool proof. No one will ever know.”
“But the lab is so careful, they monitor everything, constantly. What if they find out?” Chan was almost pleading.
“Listen to me, Chan, you can always come home. We need people like you. You know how much.”
“Yes, Lee, I do know. But, Lee, I am home. You have to realize that. I am home.”
Sam heard a sound like ‘Bah,’ and eased away from the wall. His mind was whirling.
What the heck were these two up to? It didn’t sound good, whatever it was. Not good at all.
He could hear the sound of the bedroom door open and close next to him. Sleep impossible now, he pulled out the little I Pad that Kristie had gotten him for Christmas. He looked up Chan, Ron, Stanford.
Bingo, found him! Got to love this Internet stuff, huh? Right there, ‘Ronald Chan, PH D., graduated summa cum laude, Stanford University. Biochemistry and genetics research. Currently working at Bio-Tech, Industries, San Francisco, CA. Articles by Dr. Chan include. . .’
Sam stopped reading. Biochemistry, genetics research. Glowing rabbit? His head was whirling. He popped in some more words into the Internet and read about how scientists had learned to take the florescent glow DNA from jellyfish and transfer that DNA gene into small animals like rats and mice.
And rabbits? Sam thought warily to himself. What the Hell is going on here?
Getting up, he pulled his grey tunic over his T-shirt and pulled the draw-string tight on his pants. Pushing some shoes on his feet, he slipped into the hall and rapped on Chan’s door.
“Chan, you in there? It’s Sam. I heard you and it sounded like you. . . were sick or something.” He was greeted with silence. Looking up and down, the hallway was empty. People were either still asleep in their rooms or had already left for mediation. Cautiously, he tried the door handle. It was locked.
Turning, he made his way to the end of the dorm corridor and out the exit to the grounds. Walking along side of the building, he found the window to his room, checked for his stuff and counted over one room. Chan’s room was somewhat behind a large bush. He peeked inside. No one there. The window was open a little for air.
Glancing around, the only people were yards away, all busy getting to the next class. Sam got behind the bush and put both hands under the wooden window casing and pushed up. It made a creaking noise. Luckily no one was there to hear it.
Pushing the window more, he was able to stick a leg through and then pull his whole-body in. Doing a quick reconnoiter, he confirmed he was the only one in the room. This was slightly larger than his, with room for two twin beds. Although, still sparsely furnished and no bath. The beds were made, and he could see suitcases hurriedly shoved under the beds.
Sam checked at the door and could heard nothing. He locked the top lock from the inside. If one of them came back, they would have to fumble with the key long enough for him to get out the window again.
He pulled out the first case. It was a modern, hard-clam shell design. Kristie’s daughters both had this type. He popped it open and confirmed quickly this belonged to Ronald Chan. A California Driver’s license was in a leather wallet stuck under some clothes.
“Nothing much there we didn’t know,” he whispered.
On his knees, he inched over to the other bed and pulled out the second suitcase. It was old and worn with an old-fashioned boxy shape and travel stickers stuck to the outside.
“Geese, looks like one my grandma had.”
He had to jimmy the locks to get them open. There had been an attempt to lock them, but they were so old, it was easy to get them undone.
Sam rummaged through men’s underwear and found what he was looking for. A dark red Chinese passport issued to one Dr. Yang Lee, Ph. D., Department of the Interior. The rest was in Chinese and Sam couldn’t read a word. He did see that the last port in China had been Beijing. About one month before, so. . .
Sam heard voices coming down the hall. He jammed the passport into the suitcase, carefully closed the lid and pushed the locks back in place. Shoving it back under the bed he scampered back to the window. His foot banged against something and he almost cursed. Looking down he saw an empty metal cage with a little food bowl with pellets and another bowl for water. It was empty but looked just big enough to hold a rabbit.
He slid through the window and then scrapped along behind the bush to his window. He repeated the same thing, pushing the window up and climbing back into his room. He tiptoed over to the wall again and could curses from outside the next door.
“Why doesn’t this damn lock open.” Rattling.
“Let me try my key.” Shuffling sounds. “There, it was just stuck.” The door opened, then closed.
“No, I told you I have to have more time to think. Plus, there’s Fluffy. I need to get him back before we leave. We can’t just leave him here for someone to find.” Chan’s voice.
“I told you not to bring that animal. Now he’s evidence. If I get my hands on him, I’ll. . . “
“No, you won’t! He’s my rabbit. I will find him.”
“See that you do. Now at least one of us has to go to that damn class or we’ll be missed.”
“I’ll look for Fluffy.”
The door banged open then shut. Sam was still listening. He thought he heard soft crying.
He decided to get to class if, for no other reason, then to what Lee was up to.
Sam entered the big hall from the rear and sat in the very back row. He wanted to be able to keep his eye on Lee. Unfortunately, the man simply followed along with the group and didn’t do anything unusual.
Sam tried hard to focus but found it almost impossible. His eyes kept popping open and searching the room for Chen. Lee stayed in place and Chen never showed. By the end of mediation, Sam felt more aggravated than ever.
Why didn’t the asshole just do something already?
Exasperated, he got up and followed the group out. Most people sprinkled out on the grounds for an hour or so before dinner. Sam followed Lee back to the dorm and let himself into his own room. He sat silently on his bed listening. He could hear the creaking of bedsprings, but no conversation.
Sam Reynolds, self-employed Private Investigator, is feeling low and needs to get away for a little while. Rest, relax and renew. He accepts an invitation from his buddy Brother Huang to attend the Buddist retreat for a few days. Something different, Sam tells himself, a place to meditate and contemplate his life. As always, action has a way of finding Sam.
Later that week:
Sam was busy unpacking his small duffel bag in his tiny dorm room. He had checked into the monastery, confirmed the payment, and was greeted effusively by Brother Huang and staff.“Sam shi! So, good to have you back!” Brother made a low bow and then put his hand out for an American shake.
Sam extended his hand and the brother pulled him into a hug and clapped his back.
“Nice to be back, Brother Huang.” Sam was not still convinced this was a completely sane idea.
“Yes, yes. You unpack your things and we have lunch, yes?”
Sam, at 66 years, was still fit and worked as a self-employed PI. He had met Brother Huang a few months previously when Sam tracked a missing woman to the Green Veil. He had gotten help from Brother Huang then and a loose invitation to come back and learn meditation.
Sam had nodded and was led to his room by the silent major-domo of Huang. A tall, skinny young man; he waved Sam into the dorm room and promptly left.
At first Sam felt like the young man was being rude. Then, as he unpacked his bag he thought to himself, He is neither friendly nor unfriendly. He’s just neutral. That’s different. Well, time for lunch.
Sam was a little uncomfortable having to sit down on the floor to eat. However, one of the servers made sure he had a big pillow to sit upon, so it wasn’t too bad.
Getting up will be a chore, he grimaced, thinking about the arthritis in his hips.
However, soon he was chatting with Father Huang and other guests around the long low table. The servers ran back and forth with big aluminum trays covered with an array of various dishes.
The table was soon covered and one girl, particularly brought him a fork wrapped in a napkin. He thanked her. He realized at that point, the other people at the table were all eating with chopsticks.
Oh well, one step at a time, maybe tomorrow.
His senses were assaulted by the variety of dishes all in little separate bowls. Many of the items he did not recognize. He started with fish and rice, two things he knew. He began to eat. Hum, surprisingly good! He wolfed down some more of what looked like trout and started to gingerly pick at a couple of other things.
There was an assortment of guests at the table. A couple of middle-aged female school teachers were to one side. They babbled incessantly at Huang about the benefits of meditation and how it had improved their lives. On another side, were a couple of millennials on short holiday from the IT tech business. They mostly talked and laughed with each other about people and events only they knew. There was an assortment of other types scattered down the row. The staffers were also there having lunch and practicing their English with the Americans. They would frequently lapse back into their native tongue. Sam, not a language expert, didn’t know what language they spoke.
“So, are you new here?” the little woman to his left peered up at him with enormous blue eyes and a huge smile. He was momentarily distracted by the quantity of silver jewelry that occupied every spot on her neck, ears and fingers. It tinkled lightly when she moved, and the various stones winked at him.
“Ah. . .” he mentally shook himself. “Yes, first time, very first time.”
“Oh, you’ll love it!” She gushed at him. “We just love it. Don’t we, Silvia?” she turned to her companion. Silvia was a beaten down looking woman who was as plain, in her fashion, as her friend was adorned.
Silvia nodded dumbly and kept eating.
“I’m Lydia. Lydia Glass. And you are. . . “She extended a tiny hand.
Sam managed to put down his fork a moment to shake her hand.
“Sam, Sam Reynolds, ma’am.” He grabbed his fork up.
“Oh, Silvia, he called me ma’am! Isn’t that just adorable?” Lydia gushed some more. Her friend nodded slightly.
Lydia turned back to Sam. “So, what are you in for?” She smiled at him broadly.
“In for. . .?” Sam stared a moment. “Oh, you mean, why am I here?” he tamped down his mustache.
“Drugs, alcohol, broken heart. . .?” The little lady waved a hand expansively around the room. Sam noticed her thick, hot pink fingernails.
Acrylic? He thought. Aw, Kristie would know.
Lydia turned back to Sam and batted some extremely long eyelashes at him. “We came for weight loss, didn’t we, Sylvie?” Sylvia kept eating.
“You. . .?” she was dazzling Sam with some very white teeth.
“Ah. . . smoking.” He managed to get out. “Stopped smoking on my own, but still keep having cravings and I don’t want to go back to it.”
“Ah, smoking! The Devil’s own handmaiden. I know, I know.” Lydia inched closer to Sam. “I never smoked, of course. My dead husband would have never stood for it. But, I understand from all my friends who are ex-smokers that it is the very worst thing to quit!”
Sam was starting to choke up over the intense smell of Lydia’s perfume. It had a musty, cloying aroma he didn’t like. He looked up to see Brother Huang watching him with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Sam-shi, are you about finished? Would you like a tour?”
Sam stuffed a last mouthful of rice in and nodded. He began the laborious process of uncoiling from under the table and then standing up. At 5’11”, Sam wasn’t the tallest American going, but he was having a devil of a time trying to figure out where to place his long legs.
At length, he got up and felt twinges in his back.
Lydia began to protest that they were almost done and could come too.
Huang put out a stopping hand, “No need, no need ladies. Take your time, please. They will be serving coffee very soon and you can tell some of our newer members about the benefits of your mediation practice.” He bowed low and placed a hand under Sam’s elbow and steering him out of the dining room.
Outside, Sam had to stop to take a couple of deep breaths.
“Oh, my. That perfume she was wearing. Let me breath.”
Brother Huang laughed lightly. “Ah, the lady Lydia. She is a widow and is what I think you American’s call ‘husband hunting.’ “
“Wow, I guess so,” was Sam’s reply. “What a get up. Why not take a cruise? I hear that’s a great way to meet new people.”
Huang looked over his shoulder and continued walking. “Between the two of us, that is her very next stop.”
“Does she really do the meditation thing?”
“Oh, yes she does. I think mostly it is to calm anxiety and get rid of wrinkles.” Huang laughed. Sam was breathing again and had to chuckle.
“Well, I don’t know about wrinkles. But, it is true about the smoking thing. I have been craving cigarettes again and it was so hard to stop the first time.”
His companion nodded. “Understood, understood. I have heard such a thing many times from other. Come, we will get you some proper clothes for mediation and we will begin in the big hall at 1pm.”
Huang led Sam into a little laundry/clothing facility and the girl started to measure Sam for the tunic/pants combo he would be wearing.
“You are very tall, Sam-shi but I think Yumi will be able to find you something. I will see you at 1:00.”
“Yes, you will and Brother Huang,” Sam was sincere, “thanks for rescuing me back there.”
Huang smiled and disappeared out the door.
Sam got his clothes and went back to his dorm room for a wash-up and a little lie down before the class started.
He lay down on his bed, which was mercifully not on the floor, and texted Kristie.
“I here, the weather is great. XOXO.”
“Oh, good, sweetie. Thanks so much for understanding about the kid thing.” She texted back.
“No problem, have a good time.”
She texted back a row of kissy faces. He turned off the phone and closed his eyes.
He dozed for a few minutes when he became aware of the sound of voices. The voices were fairly close. Male? The sound was muffled. It didn’t sound like an argument exactly, but on the edge of a disagreement of some kind.
“Jesus. Can’t you leave that stuff behind for just three days,’ he mumbled and turned over.
His alarm on the phone went up and he sat up. Damn, the class starts in five minutes. Got to hustle.
He came out of his room and remembering the conversation, looked to see if the people were still around. The doors to all the rooms were closed. Probably already there, shit. And first day too.
Adjusting the loosely fitting tunic and draw-string pants, he scooted out of the building and over to mediation. He was the last one in, took off his shoes and tiptoed over to a line in the back. The white cotton socks he had been given glided smoothly over the hard-wood floor. He sat down and assumed the cross-legged position as much as his stiff legs would allow.
“Let us all breath in and breath out,” he good heard the leader saying in a still calm voice. He felt his shoulders start to relax.
Later that day they were finished and it was time for dinner. This time he sat right next to Brother Huang who had, somehow managed to sit some distance from Lydia and her friend.
It was early spring, and the weather was overcast and drippy. Rain was intermittent in the valley and the ground, soggy underfoot.
Sam Reynolds stared gloomily out the glass slider at his back yard. He clutched a hot mug of coffee in one hand and stared at the drips slowly falling from the eves. He gave a sound somewhere between a growl and a sigh and turned back to the kitchen table.
The morning news was spread out and he turned some more pages with a listless finger.
“Jesus, even the sports section has got nothing!” he told the still air.
Plunking a broad-brimmed hat on his head, he did a turn around the front yard. Neighbors were jumping in cars and charging off to work and school and a couple waved as they drove by. He waved back and stared around. More grey, wet dampness everywhere. Depressing.
Turning back to the house, he checked the mail box and discovered a little envelope he hadn’t noticed before.
“Hum.” He read the return address: Green Veil Monastery. “Wonder what they want?”
He took it inside and got out the letter opener and slit the light green paper open.
“Mediation for the Soul – Come for a three-day retreat at the beautiful Green Veil Monastery. Learn to master your inner mind.”
“Don’t know about mastering my inner mind,” Sam chuckled. “Is that like the inner child?” Suddenly, he realized what was wrong with him. “I am bored to shit,” he told the room. “Absolutely, 100%, bored out of my ever-loving mind.”
He turned the card over and looked at it again. The price isn’t bad for three days and they probably serve meals too. Might have to sleep on the floor on one of those matt things.
“Oh, what the hell.”
He underlined the phone number with his pen and went to get his phone.
“Hello? Yes, this is Sam Reynolds. I’d like to speak to Brother Huang. Yes, he knows me. Thanks, I’ll wait.”
Sam started to hum a little tune. He really did need a change of scene and he had liked that place. Very green, pretty.
Sam had been involved in a suspected kidnap/suicide investigation months before. Using his intuition and tracking skills, he had located the missing woman at this retreat in the foothills, east of San Francisco. He had a short acquaintance with Brother Huang who ran the monastery. Sam liked him.
“Brother Huang? Yes, Sam Reynolds here. Remember me? Of course you do. Well, I got this little invitation in the mail. Something about a retreat. Oh, you sent it. Well, I guess I’ll have to come then. Right, talk to your assistant. Okay, will do and see you then.”
Several minutes later when the credit card information had been exchanged, Sam got off the phone and started humming a jaunty tune. This should be fun. He couldn’t wait to tell Kristie.
“Meditation!” Kristie broke into a laugh. “You’re kidding. You?”
Kristie leaded forward and held a hand over her mouth to cover the laughter.
Sam frowned and smoothed down his mustache.
She finally took a deep breath and straightened up, saw his face and got contrite.
“Sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to laugh. It’s just, well . . .” she waved a helpless hand his way.
Sam looked hurt but tried to recover himself. “I know, I know. It’s just a little different is all.”
“Well, yes, you could say that.” Kristie, Sam’s longtime squeeze, sidled over and gave him a big hug. He smiled a little. “It’s just. . . a little unlike you, I guess I should say.” She pecked him on the cheek. Grabbing her coffee cup, she moved away a little in case she was overcome with a case of the giggles again.
Sam pursed his lips. “You think I shouldn’t go?”
Kristie slid her eyes sideways at him then started looking at the morning paper. “No, no. It might be . . . good for something. Blood pressure, that kind of thing.” She studied the paper carefully, avoiding eye contact.
“Well, yeah.” He paused a little uncertainly. “I quit smoking you remember. All by myself. No nicotine patch or nothing. Just powered through it.”
She nodded. “True, true.”
“You want to go with me?”
Kristie looked up with a slightly stricken look. “Go with. . .? Ah, what do they do there, other than hum?” She started to smirk again and caught herself in time.
“Well, I don’t know for sure. I went that one time and there was a bunch of them in a big room, sitting on the floor and they were following the master in the front.”
“Following the master. . .” Kristie goggled a little. “Ah, well. . . I don’t know about that. Sounds a little religious to me and I get plenty of that every Sunday.”
Sam looked disappointed. “You might like it, something different.”
“Well . . .” Kristie was teetering on the brink of indecision when the phone rang.
Kristie picked it up. “Chelsea? Yes, it’s mom. How are you, it’s been ages? This weekend? Well, I don’t know?” She cast a pleading look Sam’s direction and he gave a dismissal wave and pointed at his watch.
“Yes, yes. I think that would be okay. No, not doing anything. Sam? Well, he might be out of town. I know you like seeing him but . . . “she gazed at him again, “I think he might be doing something else.”
Sam went over and gave her a quick hug and tousled her curly, dark blond locks. At 55 years, she was still a looker. He kissed her cheek.
“I’ll be going,” he whispered. She nodded back and blew a kiss in the air.
“Boyfriend? You have a new boyfriend? Want to bring him by? Well, sure, that would be great. I’ll have to clean house of course, which is a big bother, but . . . “
Quietly, Sam let himself out the front door and went and got into his pickup truck. He patted the little green envelope.
“Yep, this might be a very quiet weekend indeed.” He drove off home.
To be continued. You can see more stories about Sam Reynolds in Storyteller – Amazon/Kindle.