I’ll kick this blog off with a piece that will certainly be rewritten: A chapter of my modern spy romance novel, The Golden Blade. This version of the story focuses on Amy, industrial espionage expert, but I’m planning to rewrite it as more of a team effort. I think it will be interesting to tell a spy story from some non-traditional points of view instead of the usual Bond/Bourne stereotype. The action in this scene takes place in Montreal, but the story moves to Japan later. And don’t worry, this chapter is safe for work, though later ones aren’t.
Agent Amy McCann works for the Omega Agency, a firm specializing in industrial esponiage. Her company has been hired to investigate Serum 88, a revolutionary and highly-secret component being developed by Golden Phoenix cosmetics. Amy, presenting herself as cosmetics industry researcher Emi Mizuno, had previously met the wife of Golden Phoenix’s CEO and fortuitously helped save her life. She now finds herself invited to her daughter’s Sweet Sixteen party.
When the elevator doors opened, Emi Mizuno hesitatingly stepped into the Sweet Sixteen party. She immediately felt overexposed and underdressed. The few female guests who had already arrived were wearing sequined gowns and high heels with higher hair; the few men were in tuxedos. Her pink flats and paisley-print sheath made her feel ten steps below anyone here. The Agency’s damn luggage requirements had let her down, as had Alex’s usually flawless sense of taste and occasion. Then again, she thought, when would he have ever been to a Chinese-Canadian teenage birthday bash? She felt like she was dressed for a high school dance instead. When a waiter brought around a tray of champagne glasses, she grabbed one and clung to the thin stem like a lifeline.
Emi joined small crowd of guests in an approximate line to a podium a few feet away. There stood a perpetually-smiling woman in a pink pantsuit, wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and carrying an iPad. The line shuffled forward steadily until Emi reached the woman. “And your name, Madame?” she asked.
“Mizuno, Emi,” said the agent, bowing. Agent Amy McCann froze momentarily as she looked for a place to put her glass. Pantsuit woman smiled and took it from her. Emi bowed lower this time and fished the invitation out of her purse. As she took back her glass, the woman winked at her.
“You look darling,” she said. “And so chic, is that really a Dubuc? His Spring collection was really something this year, wasn’t it?”
Emi smiled modestly, as inwardly she promised to buy Alex a very nice box of chocolates. “Oh, why thank you. Philippe suggested I should wear this tonight.”
Pantsuit woman arched her eyebrows, then gestured on the screen of her PDA. “Welcome to the party, Ms. Mizuno. Don’t forget to take a gift bag!”
Bowing once more, Emi walked away from the podium. A teenage boy with an earnest look on his face proffered her a pink polka-dotted bag, which she allowed him to slip onto her wrist. She then stepped forward onto the dance floor. A quick glance downwards revealed what she had already guessed: the cameras and microphones the rest of them team had installed were already gone, victims of Golden Phoenix’s counter-espionage team. For a cosmetics company, they sure have solid people working security, Amy thought. When she’d finished her glass, she put it down on an empty table and moved to a corner of the room. She checked her cellphone, but there were no messages to be had. She peeked into the gift bag. Beyond the rose-scented tissue paper, there were cosmetics samples, a small fan, and delicate rhinestone-covered watch: the usual junk. Gritting her teeth, Emi stepped back into the main room and towards the typical wallflower hangout: the buffet.
Trays of food were being brought out to cover a table decked in white linens and pink candles. Noodle dishes sat in bowls lined with banana leaves, and a whole roast pig had been jointed and sliced into crispy pieces. A watermelon carved into a pair of swans held a cold bitter melon soup. A nearby cabinet was stocked with racks of steamed dumplings and custards. Already, a few uniformed waiters were assembling plates. They ferried them to a few elderly guests who were eagerly chatting among themselves in Cantonese. Emi’s appetite grew as kitchen staff arranged jewel-like arrays of smoked and raw fish. She recognized the square-jawed man from before, the one who’d calmed down the birthday princess’ tantrum earlier. As he laid down a tray, he deftly slipped a piece of fish from his hand to his mouth without missing a beat. The agent, perhaps a little too much into character, giggled.
The man looked straight at Miss Mizuno, startling her. “Sumimasen,” he said in a quiet, deep voice. He then whispered something that Emi struggled to hear. She wondered how she should react.
“Sorry,” he said slightly louder, bowing. “I thought you spoke Japanese. I just said that if we don’t appreciate this food, no one here will.”
“Oh, I should be sorry, I’m out of practice,” replied Emi, reaching for a slice of dark-pink fish. “I love this kind of food. I just know I’m going to love eating this tuna.”
The man blinked a few times and appeared stunned. He opened his mouth as if to speak. Then he closed it, bowed, and turned around. Emi thought she saw the slightest bit of a smirk in his expression. As he walked away, she wondered if she’d offended him or not, or if he was flirting or not, then decided neither was worth worrying about. She also decided that his looks were better close-up than far away. His features were plain but strong, more tough than handsome. She filled a small plate with fish, pork, and rice and headed back to find a seat.
The floor was getting more crowded with both teenagers and adults. Some gathered around the bar, which was assembled from illuminated blocks that held an impressive collection of bottles. Near the entrance, there seemed to be many distant families having reunions. Squealing teenage girls gathered into clumps half-sneaked, half ran to the lounges on the south side. They were followed by teenage boys, most of whom stopped for food first. Practically everyone had stuck to the requested dress code of pink and white.
Over the DJ’s sounds of upbeat ambient music, a booming voice proclaimed, “Antioxidants are no longer interesting.” Emi looked towards the speaker, a portly man with a green tie and thick glasses. Finally, a lead for actual conversation, she thought. The man was gesturing with a steamed dumpling in one hand and a wineglass in the other. “They’re not enough. Women want more plants, more nature in their product.”
Emi steered herself towards the voice. Fortunately, there was one open chair at the table full of middle-aged men. Most had already removed their ties, and a few had removed their jackets as well. Half-eaten plates and half-drunk tumblers of whiskey littered the table. They barely glanced at her as she put down her plate and reached into her purse. Emi checked her cellphone (still no messages), then pressed the combination of keys to turn on its recording function. She left it on the table, next to her purse and the gift bag.
Another man, this one with a graying beard, spoke up. “You are saying they want more nature in their chemicals? Ah, what a contradiction!” A few chuckles spread across the table.
“It may not be a contradiction,” proposed Emi. The men turned to look at this slip of a girl in their midst. She reached across the table for a pair of lucite chopsticks. “Most women like nature, as long they believe it is clean and healthy for them. No woman would want to slip in a mud puddle, but many like to be coated in mud at a spa, no?”
The gray-bearded man laughed. “It’s the difference between minerals and rocks. You can’t sell rocks.” Emi smiled widely as the man signaled a waiter for a glass.
“I’m Ken, and these are Albert, Tran, Clifford, and John,” said the man with glasses. “You can ignore Justinian over there,” he added, pointing to the fellow who’d just ordered Emi a drink. “He’s nothing but an old fool.”
Justinian turned back to the table. “You tell only half-truths, Ken. But I’m not telling you which half.” Smiling at Emi, he asked, “So what’s your name, young lady?”
Amy took a deep breath and clicked deeper into character. “I’m Emi Mizuno. I’m a chemist at Biofresh Industries. I’m pleased to meet you all,” she said, half-bowing in her seat.
“Chemist, eh?” asked Albert, a short man who eyed Emi suspiciously as he clutched his whiskey glass. “What do you think of the new hyaluronan synthesis methods being used in France lately?”
Emi blinked innocently. “Well, I’m no expert in injectables,” she said, “but I think that improvements in the synthesis process are to be expected, given the innate stability of the molecule. After all, demand for it in both cosmetic and trauma units will only increase with time.”
“Heh, demand for hyaluronan will go way down if this Serum 88 is as good as our hosts say it is,” said Justinian.
Ken pointed at Justinian. “You don’t believe it exists, do you?”
“If what exists?” asked Emi, trying not to sound too excited. This was the information Amy McCann had been hired to retrieve. She glanced sideways at her phone, hoping she’d positioned it optimally.
“Serum 88,” said Ken, “is supposed to be a product to regrow skin.”
Justinian broke in. “It’s more than a collagen enhancer, it’s more than an antibacterial agent… This substance can destroy infection and cause multiple layers of skin to regrow simultaneously. There’s a study out that says it can regrow the dermis and subcutis at a rate of a centimeter a day. A bullet wound could be gone in a week, papercuts instantly-”
“And it will shine your shoes and cook your breakfast in the morning,” said Albert. All the men except Justinian laughed.
“What’s so funny?” asked a familiar female voice. Emi turned around to find Mrs. Daintree Wa standing behind her, resplendent in white sequins. At her side was Caroline in her voluminous pink gown.
All the men got to their feet more or less steadily. They extended their hands to Caroline and her mother. “Happy birthday, my dear,” said Justinian, grasping the girl’s right hand in both of his.
“You’re very welcome,” said Caroline, moving slightly backwards. The men at the table shook her hand in turn, while waiters took the opportunity to clear the table of some of its debris. Amy leaned back and covered her phone with one hand before anyone could get near it.
“And how are you, Emi?” asked Mrs. Wa. Without a pause, she said, “This is my daughter, Caroline. Isn’t she lovely?”
“Why yes,” said Emi, sliding the phone under her purse. “Happy birthday, Caroline. May this be a year of prosperity and new frontiers for you.” Emi bowed, and Mrs. Wa smiled.
“You really don’t have to bow, you know,” said Caroline. “Like, we’re not royalty.”
“I’m sorry,” said Emi, bowing slightly before catching herself. “It’s a habit.”
“Pumpkin,” said Daintree, “Emi here is from Japan. It’s their custom to bow there.”
“Oh yeah, like the dog,” replied Caroline, looking slightly bored.
“You… have a bowing dog?” asked Emi, not sure if she should push the point.
“It’s a nickname, and not a polite one, Pumpkin.” Lowering her voice, Mrs. Wa added, “she’s just a kid, really. She’s impolite without knowing.”
“MOH -THER!” exclaimed Caroline.
Mrs. Wa smiled widely to the rest of the table. “Thank you all so much for coming. We’ll be having some games before the band starts. If you want some quiet, you might try the rooms at the back,” she said, gesturing. The company matriarch then seemed to notice a young couple moving across the floor, and pulled Caroline with her to greet them.
Emi began to sit back down, but noticed that the group of men remained standing. They seemed to be pairing off, and arguing lightly over who would be whose partner in a game of Majohngg. Emi bowed to the men, figuring that while they’d let her talk with them so far, she doubted these old friends were tolerate her at the gaming tables. Amy checked her phone (recording stopped, still no new messages), dropped it in her purse, and took her purse and gift bag away with her as she left the table.
She got about ten feet when she was started by a squeal from the speaker system. A man carrying a microphone had climbed up onto the bandstand. Amy recognized the man’s craggy face and graying hair from her mission research: This was Richard Wa, president and CEO of Phoenix Beauty. “Everyone, gather around please!” he said, beaming.
Guests crowded around the bandstand. Mrs. Wa dragged Caroline forward. Richard addressed the crowd. “Thank you all so much for coming! We are honored to see so many of you here. We will soon be clearing this space so the young people can have their music, but first, let us all give thanks for our good luck and fortune!” He clapped and added, “Xiè xie, zhù nu men háoyùn!”
At once, a small parade of musicians entered the room. Two men in colorful silk robes carried tall sets of chimes, while two women in flowing gowns shook tambourines. An old man followed playing a flute. Their tune was cheerful and lively. The guests sighed and chattered at the spectacle. Amy noticed that Caroline looked more than a little embarrassed. The parade circled the room, then headed to the center. At once, the musicians switched to an even faster rhythm and the elderly flute player slipped his flute into his sleeve. He detached a length of bamboo from his belt and rattled something inside. The crowd pressed closer, and Amy clung tightly to her belongings.
The old man opened the container, revealing dozens of thin bamboo sticks inside. He tucked the lid into an embroidered pocket and drew out a small red book. He began a sing-song chant and offered the container to Mr. Wa. Richard drew out a stick, examined it, and called out, “Sixty-two!” The old man nodded, and peered into his book.
“Good fortune!” said the man. “Your rival will soon be defeated to your benefit.”
“Ho ho!” cried Mr. Wa, and the rest of the crowd laughed with him. The fortune-teller repeated the action with Caroline, who grudgingly pulled out a stick.
“Thirty-five! You will soon embark on an enjoyable adventure,” said the man. Applause broke out in the audience.
“That you will, dear!” said her father.
The old man made his way through the crowd, offering the sticks and telling fortunes. The crowd alternately cackled, cheered, and tut-tutted as fortunes of various calibers were read. Mr. Wa seemed particularly amused, and gave excited commentary on many of the fortunes. Amy, who wasn’t superstitious at all, found the whole process annoying. That, and the fact that she was being pushed around like a sock in a washing machine. After what seemed like an eternity, the fortune-teller approached Emi and proffered the bamboo case.
Mr. Wa stepped off the podium. “Oh, our friend is Japanese! Let me help you with our Chinese custom,” he said. He rubbed his hands together for a moment, then placed them on Emi’s head. “I will give you good energy, so you pick a good fortune! But we will share it, so make sure you pick well!”
Emi withdrew a stick, but before she could read the number someone pushed her from behind. She lowered her hands and turned around to see a matronly woman with bright rosy cheeks stumbling slightly. The woman giggled and mumbled an apology. Emi, trying to hide her frustration, read the number loudly: “Twenty-five.” As she read it, she realized that no one had picked that one before.
“An unknown foreigner will bring you benefits and riches,” proclaimed the old man.
The crowd laughed and gasped. “See, you are lucky!” said Mr. Wa. “We will bring each other riches in business! Isn’t that right….”
“Emi,” said Mrs. Wa quietly, standing near her husband.
“Emi, of course!” cried Mr. Wa. “I only didn’t say it because you had to be a stranger for the fortune to work, no? But now it should be safe.”
Emi bowed deeply. “Thank you, Mr. Wa, for such luck. Surely the gods smile on you.”
“We do what we can with what they give us!” Mr. Wa replied. Then he turned around as the fortune-teller moved on to the next guest.
Amy backed away from the crowd, desperate for a moment’s respite and perhaps a drink. She was about to check her cellphone again when something scratched at her wrist. It was a bamboo fortune-telling stick, and it was poking slightly out of her gift bag. The agent noted the number 65 written on it. She looked around, but no one seemed to be noticing her. With a combined sense of worry and wonder, she withdrew the stick and let it fall on the ground. As she walked to the bar and ordered a vodka cranberry (which was served in far too dark a shade for her liking), she casually watched the spot where the stick lay. Soon enough, Justinian noticed it and picked it up.
“Grandpa,” he said, walking towards the fortune-teller, “I found another fortune! It says sixty-five, will I be lucky enough to retire?
“Sixty-five,” said the old man, checking his book. “A man with a dark complexion and a fair woman will soon annoy you.”
Mr. Wa laughed. “That’s what you get for asking for too much!” he said. The crowd continued their chatter as the fortune-telling continued. Eventually, most of the older guests made their way to the north end of the hall while the younger ones crowded around the stage as instruments were being set up.
Amy caught a glance of herself in the bar’s reflective surface. She chided herself for suspecting that her blond roots were showing. Then she began to wonder just how pigmented one had to be to qualify as dark-complexioned in Chinese folklore. I’m not being superstitious, Amy told herself, I’m just following a clue. Or a very strange coincidence. Amy looked for a coaster and realized they a stack of them were being held in the hands of a fat Buddha statuette. Or there really are gods, she thought, and they’re laughing at me.