Tag Archives: Portfolio

Fairies and Flappers: Sample chapter

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I wasn’t sure what part of this novel to post, so I figured I’d begin at the beginning. I’m currently editing this work in view of submitting it to publishers. Well, that’s the long term. In the short term, I just want to tie up all the loose ends and pick up the dropped plot threads so my characters will stop haunting me. Yes, I saw what I did there.

Note: This story takes place in the ’20s and I’ve done my best to be accurate to the time. Sometimes, I’ve used terms and reflected attitudes that aren’t acceptable in our era. My goal is not to normalize prejudice, but to illustrate what some people back then chose to perpetuate and others had to overcome. Mind the past or be doomed to repeat it, I reckon.

Chapter 1
Early morning, April 4, 1924

It was a sunny Saturday morning when I finished packing my suitcases: books, laboratory instruments, clothes both practical and fancy, and of course my pistol. Regardless of what the vaudevillians might say, a Browning was a girl’s real best friend.

“Did you remember to pack your snowsuit?” asked my best friend and occasional investigative partner, Estella.

“Stell, Montreal’s just over the border. It’s not like the mercury’s going to drop below freezing again until next winter.”

Estella sighed and pretended to examine the flowered curtains in my window. “Well, it doesn’t have to be freezing to be cold. Besides, it’s Canada,” she said, adding particular emphasis to the last word.

I shook my head and gave Estella a good look over. She was wearing her Sunday best: A white poplin drop-waist with a mauve lace overlay. Her floppy-brimmed silk hat, carefully set on my dresser, had a sprig of violets tucked into the band. She was wearing stockings and (without her mother’s permission, I was sure) silver-buckled white patent leather shoes.

“Well, you’ll cut a fine figure at graduation,” I said, only half-sarcastic.

“You’ll cut a better one, in fact, you’ll be cut right out!” Estella rose to her feet, standing next to the foot of my bed. “I can’t believe you’re leaving right before the ceremony, Tony. Everyone will miss you terribly.”

I laughed, thinking of my fellow students at Miss Exeter’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. “Stell, everyone does not contain as many people as you think.” I saw her trying to interject, but raised my hand. “Most girls in this class wouldn’t care if I dropped down dead today, present company excepted. Or perhaps they would, given that my untimely demise would be the last bit of gossip they’d get out of me. Unless, of course, Pa managed to reanimate my corpse…”

“How can you be so morbid!” squealed Estella. “It’s saying those things that make the other girls, well, talk.”

“So let them talk,” I said, dusting off my chocolate corduroy jacket. I put it on over my coral cashmere sweater, then straightened my calf-length skirt in the mirror. A small topaz hung on a fine gold chain around my neck would be my only jewelry for this trip. “Besides, Stell, you know that graduating me would stick in Miss Exeter’s craw for decades. I’m her worst student ever. Ma would have had to bribe her with angel cakes and lemon curd for the rest of her natural life. So I took the honorable way out, not to mention less fattening for the battleaxe.”

Estella made a sound that sounded like a laugh strangled by a hiccup. She shook and turned slightly red. “Oh Tony,” she finally exclaimed, “I’m going to miss you so much!”

I stepped over and gave Estella a big hug. “Me too, Stell. I’ll write, though, and send a telegram if there’s anything urgent.”

“Do you have to leave so soon? You could at least wait for Easter,” she pleaded.

I sighed and shook my head. “You know that if I stay for Easter, then Ma will want me to stay for ball season. Then I’ll never leave Ellenberg. Besides,” I added, snapping shut my suitcase, “I got a lead in my case and I have to investigate before it goes cold.”

Estella picked up her hat and looked me squarely in the eye. “How do you get into such interesting situations, Miss Antoinette Lapierre?” she said in an affected tone.

I laughed a little, and wondered that myself.

————-

January 4, 1924

It was a freezing cold Adirondack evening when Mrs. Raymond Evans came calling. I’d asked her to visit on Friday when I knew Ma would be out playing canasta with the neighbors. It’s not that Ma didn’t like visitors, she just had a particular idea of what class of visitors she could stand to entertain. And while Mrs. Evans did come from what Ma called “good stock”, her questionable choice of associates had gotten her on Ma’s persona non grata list. Pa, on the other hand, would welcome anyone in, as long as he wasn’t too busy in the lab. Unfortunately, as this was nearly always, Ma had the final word in all invitations.

Despite her determination, there was one type of visitor my mother could not keep away from me: my customers. As Ellenberg’s first female private detective, my goal was to build a client base and keep them happy. “Referrals are key,” my father often said, and I certainly believed in that kind of logic. Since hanging up my metaphorical shingle (as Ma refused to let me install an actual one outside the house), I’d had a few nibbles. So far, I’d researched genealogy and foiled a livestock rustler. Admittedly, the livestock were chickens and the rustler was a stray dog, but it was still work for my fledgling agency.

I rushed downstairs as soon as I heard the doorbell. Our maid Molly was already there, ushering Mrs. Evans inside. “It’s an awful night out there, ain’t it? Bright and cold as a new steel pan,” she said, taking Mrs. Evans’ raccoon coat.

“Yes it is, dear,” said Mrs. Evans. She was a woman of 24 who carried herself like one of 42. She removed her hat, patted her brunette hair into place, and called out, “Ah, Antoinette, there you are!”

“Welcome, Mrs. Evans. And thanks, Molly. Do you think you could make us some tea, please?”

“Of course, Miss Antoinette,” replied Molly, tucking a wayward strand of red hair back under her cap. At 17, she was two years younger than me. “Should I bring it to the study?”

“Yes, please,” I answered. I looked back at Mrs. Evans, who had a slightly disapproving look on her face. Smiling despite it, I said, “Shall we?” and gestured to the study. She quickly smiled back and and stepped in the direction I’d pointed.

As Mrs. Evans turned around, I tallied several observations about her. Her hair was showing some strands of gray. She wore a heavy felt coatdress with pilled elbows. A loose edge of lace from her slip showed beneath. She’d removed her galoshes and put on soft leather shoes which had seen far better days. Were these signs of poverty, or distraction? Perhaps she’d let her maid go altogether? Mrs. Evans had not told me exactly why she wanted to see me, so these guesses added to my existing knowledge of her.

As soon as we entered the warm, book-lined study, Mrs. Evans whispered loudly in my ear. “My dear, you don’t have to be so… familiar with the help. It will give them… expectations.”

“Mrs. Evans,” I replied while sitting down in my favorite green armchair, “I hardly consider it inappropriate that Molly expects to be treated like a human being. Do you?”

The brunette clucked softly, playing with the hem of her heavy dress. The more I studied it, the uglier the garment became. “There are simply some things of the world that you do not appreciate,” she pronounced.

“Oh, I’m sure of that. But one thing I do appreciate is having contacts everywhere, at all levels of what you wouldn’t call society. Thanks, Molly,” I added as the maid silently carried in the tray. She shared with me a small, impish grin before bowing slightly and backing out of the room.

I turned once again to face Mrs. Evans, who’d positioned her rotund self into a olive green velvet chair. Seeing a look of concern on her face, I rose and gently closed the study doors. When I returned to my seat, she started talking in a relentless monologue.

“You see, Antoinette,” she began, “I haven’t seen Raymond since Thanksgiving. We had dinner with the whole family, put the children to bed, tucked ourselves in and the next morning, he was gone! Now, he often travels for gigs, but he’d always tell me where, you know? Oh, did you know he’s a musician?”

I nodded. “A drummer, right?” Mr. Evans’ artistic profession was my mother’s main source of disapproval of the entire Evans family unit. Mrs. Evans continued her speech.

“Well, I thought maybe he’d received a call that night and didn’t want to wake me. Oh, but I’d have thought that telephone bell would have woken me. Ever since we had that device installed last year I still find the din shocking. But I suppose I could have slept through it. All that turkey and stuffing makes anyone soporific, doesn’t it?”

“Indeed,” I sighed. “Have you heard anything from Mr. Evans since Thanksgiving night?”

“Not a word, by phone or telegram,” she replied, shaking her head. “I simply can’t believe he’d leave me and his children in the dark like that. Raymond is kind, Antoinette, always smiling with a kind word for everyone. Something terrible must have happened to him!”

“Have you contacted the police, then?” I asked.

“Yes, but they don’t want to hear about it. They say he’ll come back in his own good time, and that I shouldn’t worry.”

Mrs. Evans ran her hands down her sides, belly, and lap. She rubbed the tops of her legs nervously. The wool of her dress gave off static sparks.

It was then that my impression began. Now, when I say impression, I don’t mean exactly what other people mean by that word. Most people use it quite generally, to mean any strong effect on the intellect or emotions. I, however, have been gifted from childhood with an altogether different type of impression. My father is a scientific man, with unusual leanings, and he attempted to train me to extend my vision beyond that of most people. Just as birds see color while dogs cannot, I can see forms of existence invisible to other humans. Ma made him stop after I told her of some of the things I’d seen. She attributed them to youthful imagination, but I suppose that she feared my father was giving me nightmares, or, worse yet, driving me insane.

So when I say that Mrs. Evans’ dress gave me an impression, I do not merely mean it made me think she was of low taste or income. Instead, I could almost see a pale blue caul shifting over it. By squinting, I could see a better definition of the shape: a round form, about the size of a loaf of bread, enveloped in a translucent sheet. I suppose most people would have been frightened by this. Myself, I considered it yet another discovery into the world of panoptry.

“What are you staring at?” asked Mrs. Evans.

“Your dress,” I answered, knowing a direct response might throw her off guard. “When did you last wear it?”

“To the doctor’s,” she answered automatically. But of course, a woman of Mrs. Evans’ pride would not go to the doctor’s in any less than her finest. Was she trying to hide something, or herself? As she shifted uncomfortably, she briefly raised her hands to her stomach.

Ah ha, I thought, confidently marrying my impression to deduction. The dark shape paused for a moment to hover in mid-air. “This may be an indelicate question, but, did you recently lose a child?”

Mrs. Evans’ face turned bright red, and she blinked rapidly. Looking as fragile as the china teacup beside her, she said, “How, did you…”

“There’s no shame in this, Mrs. Evans. From your reaction, it seems that something went very wrong.”

A rush of sobbing confirmed my guess in a messy, emotional way. “He wasn’t like my other children. My, my doctor said there was no heartbeat… but it was too far along to… I had to carry him…”

I shook my head. I tried not to look at the darting shadow as I spoke. “Mrs. Evans, I’m not here to sympathize or judge. I just want to understand all the circumstances that may relate to your husband’s disappearance.”

“How can you be so cruel?” cried Mrs. Evans. I felt a pang of sympathy, but pushed it away for pursuit of the truth.

“It’s not cruelty, just precision. From what you’ve told me and implied to me, since having Mr. Raymond Evans as your husband, your fortunes have turned sour. He is not often at home, as he leaves to work in a profession that traditionally doesn’t pay very well. And now, you have both experienced a loss that may have upset him in a way similar, though certainly not to the same degree, as you.”

“Well yes, he seemed rather off about it, but he supported me.” Mrs. Evans stopped crying for a moment. “He did strange things, Antoinette. From the time the doctor told me there was no hope, he kept asking me to take long walks in the woods with him. He cried out into the empty trees as if he were summoning Indians, asking for help. I assumed he was just in one of his artistic tempers.”  She turned to me with a bright fury in her eyes. “Are you saying you think he’s left me?”

I sighed. “I can’t be sure, of course. I suppose it is possible that he’s been waylaid.”

“Of course it is,” said Mrs. Evans, straightening her posture. “And you’re going to find him.”

“Mrs. Evans,” I said slowly, “It would be an honor.” I really meant it. Whether this case were abandonment, kidnapping, or even murder, it could make my career. Heck, especially if it were murder. “Do you have any idea where he could be? Where had his recent shows been?”

“Oh, he’d played New York several times, and Plattsburg,” Mrs. Evans said between gulps of tea. “Albany too, though that was back in the summer.”

I pushed my thoughts. The man could be anywhere. The shade in Mrs. Evans lap seemed to have two beady eyes, staring at me mockingly. Desperately, I calculated in my head and grasped at a straw.

“Where was he playing last February?” I asked.

“February… Oh, he went to Montreal around Valentine’s,” said the brunette. “He stayed there about a month. He did write me then, though, several letters full of such passionate sentiment… Oh, but never mind that.”

Out of the country just before the unfortunate conception… Drugs? Social disease? “I’d like to see those, please, and I’d like to examine his possessions.”

“They are very personal,” chided Mrs. Evans.

“They are also evidence, ma’am,” I replied.

“So you’ll take the case, Antoinette? I admit I can’t pay you very much…”

I raised my hand once more. “Mrs. Evans, an honorarium for expenses is all I ask. As this case is of a new species for me, I will treat it as an educational experience.”

“Oh, thank you dear. I apologize, I didn’t mean to call you cruel.”

“You did, but that’s alright,” I answered. “It’s my job as a detective.”

—————-

January 5, 1924

The next day, I visited the Evans’ place and found nothing particularly out of order. Chintz draperies, oriental carpets… it was a typical exercise in genteel excess. The only want in the furnishings was a father. Four small children were running around constantly. Their exuberance was such that it took me a while to establish the number.

“Who helps you take care of the children, Mrs. Evans?” I asked after narrowing dodging a charge from one of the younger boys.

“Oh, we normally have Gertrude, but she’s gone home for a while to visit her family…” Mrs. Evans trailed off in the telltale way polite liars do. Not wishing to repeat the emotional awkwardness of the night before, I decided to leave it be. At least, for now.

“Did your husband have a particular room where he worked, or passed the time?” I asked. “A music room, perhaps?”

“Yes, right through here,” said Mrs. Evans, fishing through her pockets. She walked to the kitchen and opened a door leading off it. “I have to keep this locked, or the boys would be playing the drums day and night.”

I followed her into the small but bright alcove. The room was unheated, but had a large window facing a snowy field. Shelves held books and scores, and a  full set of drums took the place of honor at the center. Mrs. Evans reached out with a rag when I stopped her.

“Please,” I insisted, “don’t disturb anything.” I carefully set down my examining case on a large pile of Victrola records. I cracked it open and withdrew a pair of white gloves, which I quickly donned. Then I removed my brush and powder and carefully eyed the drum kit.

“What on earth are those for,” asked Mrs. Evans.

“Fingerprints,” I answered. I then began my usual speech. “European and American scientists have discovered that fingerprints are unique among human individuals. Criminologists have put this to use by using them to identify the perpetrators and victims of crimes. In other words,” I added, “If I can identify your husband’s fingerprints here, I can recognize them elsewhere he’s been.”

“How novel,” said the housewife, not sounding very convinced.

I positioned myself as a drummer might, standing behind the cracked leather stool where Mr. Evans had surely sat. I mimicked what I thought might be his actions. Of course, he would play with drumsticks, except… I carefully leaned forwards and gently blew some dust off the cymbals. Several smudges appeared. Mrs. Evans watched as I gently lifted the prints: index and middle finger on the bottom, and thumb on the top. There were multiples of each, but I would isolate the best samples at home.

The prints safely stowed in wax paper envelopes, I turned to the rest of the room. It was relatively orderly for a room occupied by such an artistic type. The scores and songbooks were stacked neatly. I believed they were jazz artists, though I knew little about them other than their peculiar names: Jellyroll Morton, King Oliver, Fats Waller. I heard Mrs. Evans cluck softly behind me. “Colored music,” she sniffed.

“What would you prefer he play?” I asked, half out of personal curiosity.

“Decent music, waltzes and such. Perhaps enlightening sacred tunes.”

I resisted telling her what I thought of enlightenment vis a vis religion when my eyes caught sight of the one book that didn’t belong in the room. On the windowsill, at an odd angle, sat a bible. As I picked it up, Mrs. Evans said, “See, he does have a mind for the divine.” She smiled condescendingly as I flipped through the pages and removed a telegram.

“Montreal, November 20, 1923,” I read. “Come now, stop. Oro needs you, stop.”

“Why that’s, two days before Thanksgiving!” exclaimed Mrs. Evans.

I inserted the telegram into its own envelope. “You’re lucky he stayed for turkey, then.”

Mrs. Evans looked like she was about to cry, again. “I knew this jazz music would be his ruin!” she said. “Accepting some job in Montreal without even telling me about it, the nerve of that man! I suppose he meant to apologize to me when he returned,” she added in a softer tone.

“That may be so,” I said, packing up my case, “But the fact remains that he hasn’t come back. If this is indeed a gig, either it lasted for several months, in which case he would have written you, or it ended far before then, in which case he would have returned.”

“Oh, there you go again being so, rational,” said Mrs. Evans. “You’ve found this, but I can’t possibly go to Montreal, not with the children here. Besides, that is a wicked city full of Frenchmen!”

“Well, I’ve always wanted an excuse to go myself,” I answered honestly. “This would be my first international case.”

Mrs. Evans shook her head. “I couldn’t possibly ask you to go there.”

“You don’t have to ask, Mrs. Evans. I’d go right now if I could, but I suspect my Mother will never forgive me if I don’t finish my school year.” In fact, I usually skipped my classes at finishing school to attend a local college, but of course this was none of Mrs. Evans’ business. Mr. Evans was either dead or alive, but my date of departure would do little to change the odds of either. “I’ll leave in spring when the term, I mean, session ends.”

“I simply can’t imagine how a girl like you could survive there. So innocent and young… People will take advantage of you if you’re not careful.”

“Ma’am,” I said with a grin, “I’ll be taking advantage of them. Now good day, and let me know if there is any word from your husband.” I left the house and walked home over the carriage path, thrilled at the thought of the adventure to come.

————–

Late morning, April 4, 1924

After Estella left for the pre-graduation brunch, I went downstairs to say goodbye to Ma and catch up with Pa. Ma, clad completely in black, sat in the dining room. She even wore her funeral bonnet.

“Goodbye, flapper,” said mother, venomously.

I refused to be dragged into this conversation, again. We’d had it dozens of time over the last few months. “I am going to Montreal for work, mother.”

“Your work, Antoinette, consists of being a proper young lady, not in traipsing off to some booze-sodden Canadian muck-hole.” With that, Ma stirred her tea and took a bite of some dry toast.

I reached forward for a muffin, wrapped in in a napkin, and slipped it into my coat pocket. “Ma, if you want to play the martyr, go right ahead. This case could take a few weeks, so you’ll have time to get good at it.”

Mother sniffled, holding back her final stage of drama, tears. “You’re breaking my heart, Antoinette. I didn’t ask for a daughter like this, you know.”

“You didn’t ask for any, as I recall,” said Pa, entering the room in his usual sunny disposition. He wore a goldenrod tie with an ivory shirt and chocolate brown suit. His mustache was impeccable.  “You said you wanted a sweet little boy who’d play with boats and ride a hobby-horse around the sitting room.”

“Around the backyard, Chester,” said Ma. “Not the sitting room.”

“Mere details, Essie. Now Tony, are you ready to go?”

Pa wrapped a muffin in a napkin and handed it to me. I slipped it into my other coat pocket and nodded. “I’m ready,” I said, my excitement starting to ferment into worry in my stomach. “Let’s not miss the train.”

“Of course we won’t, I have the car cranked and ready to go!” Pa was very proud of his Lincoln, one of the final few made before Henry Ford took over the company. Pa, being a researcher in factory automation, admired Mr. Ford’s assembly techniques but still preferred Leland’s designs.

“You might get stuck in the mud, Chester,” said Ma, still not looking directly at either of us. “You’d be better off taking the wagon.”

Pa laughed as he lifted my heavy suitcase. “I am not taking our only daughter out to the train station in a wagon, Essie. Now kiss her goodbye, and wish her luck in her first big case.”

I leaned forward before my mother, who kissed me gently on the forehead. I heard her take a breath, then hold it before letting out a sigh. I shook my head and said, “that’s alright, no luck will be involved. Only hard work.”

“And scientific intuition!” said Pa, heading out the door. I pulled on my galoshes and followed him closely to the car, consciously not looking back.

————–

The mud had made us an hour late, but cattle on the line stalled the train by two. Our conversation along the bumpy road was one of our typical series of non-sequiturs.

“So, what are the possibilities for this name Oro on the telegram?” asked Pa to begin.

“Oro, perhaps from aurum, Latin for gold. Chemical symbol Au, known as a highly non-reactive metal, excellent conductor, valued for its decorative nature and resistance to tarnish. Oro is the actual Spanish word for gold.”

“And in French, it’s or,” father continued. “Sounds like the name someone in authority would give himself, if not a given name.”

“Unless Oro isn’t a person, but a group,” I remarked. “Like the Golden Bough.”

“Perhaps. ‘Oro needs you’ could be a call to action from a society. What instrument did you say the gentleman plays?”

“The drums,” I answered.

“Military units always need drummers,” my father mused. “A good drummer or bugler can make the difference between a successful sortie and total chaos. I remember when I was posted in Liege….”

The conversation went on until we reached the train station. We walked to the single platform in relative silence. When the train finally arrived, Pa handed off my suitcase to a bellhop while I checked my tickets for the last time.

“Be a good girl, Tony. Don’t forget to write, even if there’s nothing happening.” With that, he kissed me on the forehead. I climbed onto the train and found the last window seat left. I watched Pa fade into the distance as we pulled out of the station.

A conductor entered the car and called out, “Adirondack Line, next stops, Ticonderoga, Port Henry, Westport, Plattsburgh, Saint Lambert, Montreal.” I settled in for a very long journey. I had planned to read, but sleep overtook me with the rocking motion of the train.

————–

The blare of a trumpet awoke me with a start. A glance at my watch told me it was noon, but a glance at my fellow passengers made me think it was midnight, New Year’s Eve. Men and women were chatting loudly, and some even danced in the train car’s aisle. Three men in plaid suits played a brass rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

A young man in a blue cap slid into the seat next to me. He proffered a silver flask and asked rather loudly, “Wanna drink?” My mind flashed back to my mother’s recriminations, and for a moment I feared she might be right.

“No, no thanks,” I said, with a polite laugh. This man was far too close for comfort, and I’d never smelled such a strong odor of alcohol outside the laboratory.

“Come on, we just crossed the border. Welcome to Canada!” he exclaimed.

“Welcome to Canada!” came a chorus around us. The band switched to the Maple Leaf Rag while the young man stood up and proffered his hand to me.

As I shook my head, a conductor appeared in the aisle. “That’s alright, sonny,” he said, laying a hand on the man’s shoulder. “There’s much easier sweethearts in Montreal.”

The younger fellow laughed and continued sidling down the aisle, while the conductor smirked at me. “First time on the Prohibition Express?” he asked.

“Indeed, sir. I hardly knew such a thing existed.”

“Don’t worry, then. It’s all downhill from here.”

With that, he continued down the aisle, pausing occasionally to pick up fallen hats and loose shoes. I retrieved a notebook from my handbag and looked around at the developing debauchery. I could barely remember when alcohol was banned, and while my parents did offer their guests a little ration of whatever they could find, I’d never seen such open consumption of the stuff. I wondered if this was what taverns were like, and realized they probably weren’t all the cheerful places Mr. Dickens described in his novels. No, these people were acting more like Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirates, brash in their disregard for social niceties. I decided that Montreal would certainly be an interesting psychological study, and began to take notes.

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The Golden Blade Version 1: Sample chapter

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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.

Chapter 04
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.