Monday, November 20, 2006

Escape From the Terrible Three

Sully Wells had spent maybe an hour there in the stifling dark, first shrieking and pounding the lid, rattling herself up and down in hopes that someone would hear her. Then a long period of sobbing quietly, her whole body shaking. And then, worst of all, the quiet acceptance, when her tears ran out and she became acutely aware of the dimensons of her body, and seriously believed that no one would find her, and wondered whether there really was a Heaven.

She must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next thing in her memory was the lid opening wide to reveal her grandfather’s face, haggard and frantic and relieved all at once. He had picked her up under her armpits and lifted her bodily out of the trick cabinet and hugged her tightly, the both of them crying, and made her promise never, ever to play up in the attic again. And then, because he knew her better than that, he showed her the trick of it -- the hidden latch that opened one of the sides of the cabinet and let the people inside slip out. She’d absorbed it all with wide eyes still red from crying, and said nothing.

That night, lying atop her covers in bed, with all the lights on and her favorite stuffed hippo hugged close to her, seven-year-old Sully decided that she never, ever wanted to feel that scared, that trapped, again. She had to know the secrets her grandpa knew -- the trick to it all. She had to know how it worked.

She started back in the same attic, amid posters of her grandpa in a tuxedo, pulling rabbits out of hats during his days as The Great Gant, Master of Illusions. She pulled out the dusty books of magic he’d gotten from his father, Indigo the Magnificent, and spent all the afternoons of all her summers reading closely, studying the diagrams, practicing with her own hands and her grandmother’s borrowed jewelry mirror. She didn’t concern herself with patter or showmanship; she didn’t want to be up on stage doing these tricks, which her grandfather assured her was not nearly as glamorous and exciting as the posters made it look. She just wanted -- needed -- to know the mechanics. If only so that, the next time she dreamed she was back in the box, as she did now and then, in the close, velvet, suffocating dark, she’d know where to look for the latch.

The skills and the interest stuck with her, into high school, where picking locks proved great for sneaking out of or into the house at odd hours, and sleight of hand made an ideal method for cadging the occasional pack of cigarettes down at the Quik-Stop. And into college, where she picked up more than one guy by surreptitously lifting his wallet while she had him busily looking down her shirt. It’s how she’d known OMG was good -- better than she was -- when she saw him doing card tricks in Santa Monica. And it’s how she was able to make sure that the new tricks she and the magic consultants had worked up cut through his perpetually foggy brain -- by sitting him down with several large cups of coffee and running through the tricks with him, hour after hour, until he could do all the palms and reverses with a skill and fluidity she secretly envied.

So when the sheer, surreal panic of being hauled off her feet by unseen men, bound, blindfolded, and tossed roughly into someplace noisy and dark had passed, Sully was able to take a deep breath, call upon months of West Hollywood yoga classes to calm her heart rate, and take inventory.

The floor was cold and metal, rumbling and bumping. Car, she thought. No, the engine sound was too growly, and the space she was in too spacious-sounding. Truck. Van. She tried to move, tasting the fibers of silk in the gag stuffed in her mouth, and found her hands bound behind her back with what felt like one of those treacherous plastic zipties, and another set around her ankles.

Voices. Two, from somewhere not far away; one low, the other slightly higher. Sully couldn’t make out what they were saying, or even the language. Too much noise. Then someone nearer, much nearer, cleared his throat, and Sully knew she wasn’t alone. There was a third man in the back of the... van, she guessed... with her.

Okay. First things first: Get her hands free. When she wriggled her hands, she felt them press against cold metal. Which meant she was lying with her back to a wall, which in turn meant that odds were her captor couldn’t see her.

She gave her wrists a shake, and her silver cigarette lighter slid neatly into her palm. She waited for the van to hit a bump, and flicked the lighter on, hoping the sound had been covered. Hoping it wasn’t so dark in the back of the van that the flame would cast a light. She began to twitch her ankles back and forth, in a regular rhythm, hoping it would draw the eyes of anyone watching her away from what her hands where doing.

Sully pulled her wrists as far apart as they would go, creating a precariously small gap where the plastic band around her wrists did not touch bare skin, at the cost of cruelly cutting off circulation in her hands. She’d have to work quickly. Carefully, she turned the flame of the lighter against the plastic, and hoped it’d melt before she’d burned her hands.

It did, but only just, and Sully pulled the melted, stretchy plastic apart wincing at the scorched skin on her wrists. She lay there, the lighter flicked shut, and waiting for the stinging to subside. She heard whoever was with her in the back of the van cough and shift -- soft sounds, like silk -- and felt the van lurch to a halt at a stoplight, idle for a moment, and then turn a corner.

Sully began to make gagging sounds in the back of her throat. She let herself convulse, let the sounds welling up from inside her get louder and more distressed. She heard the man move to her, heard his clothing rustle as he crouched down, felt hands against her face clumsily but not cruelly working to untie the gag.

Sully waited until she could feel the faint exhalation of breath on her face. That told her where his head was. She shot one hand out to grab the back of his neck, and using that as a gauge, made a lucky guess as to the location of his testicles with the other hand. Then she brought her head up hard against his. It hurt like hell, for the both of them, but Sully was the only one ready, and before he could so much as whimper, she clonged his head against the metal wall of the van.

She waited. The van drove on. She heard continued conversation from the front seat, and soft, regular breathing somewhere close by. Lucky on two counts. Sully reached up at last and stripped the blindfold off her eyes.

It was, indeed, the back of a van. Outside it was just getting light; Sully couldn’t recognize the neighborhood, but then, she couldn’t recognize anything shorter than a skyscraper in this town. (It was why God had invented cabs.) There was a young Asian man lying next to her, his head shaved and stubbly, dressed in black robes like some kung fu movie reject. There was a goose egg rising on one of his temples, but nothing bleeding, and he seemed to be breathing all right.

Sully used the lighter to get the ziptie off her feet -- wincing as the lighter scorched the leather on her brand-new vintage boots, picturing the look of withering disdain on the face of the shopowner who’d sold them to her that such treatment would surely invite -- and took a moment to plan her next step.

Slowly, staying low to the floor of the van, she crawled around the man in the black pajamas toward the rear doors. She kept an ear cocked for the conversation in the front of the van, but it didn’t change -- now they seemed to be having some sort of good-natured argument.

The van stopped at another light. Sully reached up and turned the latch. The rear doors swung wide, predawn light spilling into the shadowy confines of the van, and Sully tumbled out.

The change in light and the sound of the doors made the two men in the front of the van take notice. There was a burst of Mandarin syllables, flung with the sort of throwing-star vehemence that marked them as curses, and both the front doors of the van opened to disgorge two fit, muscular young men with shaven heads and loose black tunics and pants.

“Dammit!” spat Hu Lao, the stout, broad-shouldered one, slamming a palm against one of the open rear doors of the van. “I thought you were keeping an eye on her, Pang!

Pang Qi exhaled nervously, clapping both hands to his elongated head. “I was watching the road, Hu! You kinda have to do that when you’re driving! Crap, crap, crap! Gary, where’d she go?”

“Huh?” said Gary Cheng, wincing as he rubbed his aching head. “Ow. Damn, do I look like I know where she went? Unconscious here.”

Hu and Pang helped a groaning Gary out of the back of the van, Pang carefully sizing up the lump on Gary’s head. The truck idling behind the three men’s van honked angrily as the light turned green.

“Just go around!” Hu fumed to the driver, who responded with a hand gesture that would not, in any culture, have a friendly interpretation as he sped around the van and through the intersection. “Some goddamn kung fu masters we are. Can’t even bag a skinny little white girl.”

“Skinny little white girl who hits like a freakin’ Marine,” sulked Gary, his pudgy cheeks puffing sullenly. “Even my nana doesn’t hit that hard.”

Pang took another deep breath and surveyed the empty street behind the van. There was nothing -- no alleys where she could have hidden, no other cars with which she could have hitched a ride. She couldn’t have vanished into thin air. So that meant--

There was a sudden lurch of grinding gears, the roar of the van’s motor, and it sped off through the intersection, rear doors flapping open, as the three black-robed men whirled in disbelief.
Hu looked skyward and let loose a stream of paint-peeling syllables. Gary winced anew, this time thinking about the deposit they’d put down to rent the van. Pang just blinked, and nodded.
“She’s good,” he said grudgingly.

In the driver’s seat of the van, Sully risked reaching over to slam the passenger’s side door shut. Her forearms and knees were grimy and gritty from crawling beneath the vehicle, making her way quietly to the driver’s side door while her captors argued at the back, but she was alive, and in one piece, and apparently the new owner of a late-model black Ford van.

She’d run two red lights -- fine, let the cops pick her up, please -- before she thought to check her jacket pocket. Her phone was still there, thank God, reassuring and cool and pebble smooth. She flipped it open one-handed, with experience born of many a day on the freeway, and thumbed the one-touch button for her assistant Ida. She didn’t even wait for a hello, just the click of a line picking up.

“Ida!” she barked. “Sully. I just got kidnapped by three jackasses in ninja suits and a piece of crap van. I’m -- hell, I don’t know, someplace with buildings, and I think I see the Sears Tower off to the left. Just call the cops and get them to wherever I am. And pick up some bagels, and coffee, because I’m gonna be freakin’ starving whenever I get back from wherever this is.”

There was a soft, musical chuckle on the other end of the line -- very un-Ida-like -- and then the gentle tones of a woman’s voice, proper and English -- also not Ida-like, Ida being a native of Cerritos whose way with a DayPlanner was matched only by her colorful approach to grammar.

“Sit tight, dear,” said the weird Mary Poppins voice. “We’ll be by to collect you directly.”

“Hello?” Sully asked, suddenly bewildered. She stared at the phone’s caller ID, knowing she’d dialed Ida; the display read NUMBER UNKNOWN. “Who is this?” But the line had already gone dead.

Three sets of thumps landed on the roof, heavy and person-sized, and suddenly Sully had more immediate problems. She stomped on the gas and took the next corner hard, feeling herself lurch against the seatbelt she’d reflexively buckled on. Things slid around on the roof, and she thought she heard cursing, but her rear-view mirrors revealed no black pajama-clad people tumbling along the pavement in her wake. Couldn’t have everything, Sully supposed.

The passenger door unlatched. Before she could stop him, one of them -- the tall skinny one with the vaguely egg-shaped head and the serious eyes -- had swung himself down inside the van, slamming the door shut behind him. Sully heard footfalls in the rear of the van and the slam of the back doors shutting. She reached over for the parking brake, and the ninja guy’s hand reached out and grabbed hers. She tried to lift it, twist it like she’d learned in the self-defense classes, but his arm seemed to glide out of her grip like water, and reform just as solidly with his hand around her wrist.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” the ninja guy said. “I suppose we should have led with that.” Sully jerked her arm, but he held it fast. “Easy! I said we’re not going to hurt you?”

“Yeah, the kidnapping totally convinced me of your good intentions,” Sully growled. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt; if she stomped on the brake...

There was a quiet click next to her, and when she looked again, he’d buckled himself in. Not bad, she had to admit.

“I’m Pang Qi,” the ninja guy said gently, evenly. “That’s Hu Lao in the back, and Gary, who I believe you’ve met.”

“Ow,” chimed in Gary through the partition.

“Yeah, that’s nice,” Sully said. “I don’t care. You put a gag on me and threw me in the back of a van, and I’m not gonna stop until you’ve got about five cops each shoving their nightsticks so far up your--”

“We were sent to protect you,” Pang said firmly. “Your life is in danger, and it’s very important that we keep you safe.”

“Oh, and I so belive that, on account of being bound and gagged and thrown in the back of your crappy-ass van,” Sully said, rolling her eyes. Dammit, there had to be a police station somewhere around here. “Just keep talking. I’m taking mental notes for when my lawyer gets here.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Pang replied, with an edge of sarcasm in his voice. “It’s clear that we should have sat you down over a cup of tea and explained it all to you. You know, given your evidently trusting nature.”

Sully had to think about that. She wasn’t naturally inclined to believe anything anyone told her, ever -- having had far too much experience with the simple, depressing fakery behind the most elaborate of promises -- and especially disinclined in the case of weird Chinese guys who walked around dressed like Hugh Hefner’s palace guard.

“Sullivan Wells,” Pang continued, “we are the Three Brothers of the Dragon, the seventeenth generation in a line of sworn protectors dating back to ancient China. And you are the Gaunt Heir, the lineal descendent of the man who saved our master’s master’s life many decades ago. And we have been sent to you now, in your hour of unknown need, to save your life.”

“Go on,” Sully sighed. “Offer me the red pill now.” She had to admit, there was something about Pang’s no-bullshit manner that she kind of liked. He wasn’t trying to seem less crazy -- especially with all that Gaunt Heir business, whatever that meant. He wasn’t trying to suck up to her, and he knew her full name -- something she didn’t exactly advertise. “Save my life from what, exactly?”

She saw the wide, low-slung black car two seconds too late, and only a split second before it barrelled out of the intersection from their left and smashed into the van.

Metal shrieked and rent. Glass shattered. The world spun sickeningly, over and over, and came to a stop upside down. Sully slumped dazed against the seatbelt, hair hanging over her face, and waited for her brain to stop rattling. She heard footsteps outside, spots swimming before her vision; shoes crunching across broken glass. Something tore her door off its hinges, and powerful hands reached in, undid the seatbelt, and hauled her out.

She blinked, trying to clear her vision, feeling a powerful hand clamped around the collar of her jacket. And then she was lifted abruptly up, the jacket pinching under her arms, her feet danging off the ground.

“Hey!” she, shouted, then broke into a coughing fit. Her eyes finally cleared, and she found herself looking down an outstretched arm at a very tall, very slender man with close-cropped silver hair, a hawkish nose, a thin old-fashioned mustache, and one silver-gray eye staring clinically at her. A black eye patch covered the other eye, and a black coat draped his lanky frame down to his ankles. Underneath, Sully saw, he wore a gray tweed suit, with something small and glinting tucked in the lapel.

There were two more men, black hats and coats like his, climbing out of some gigantic ‘50s beast of a black car behind him. It was the same car that had smashed into them, yet some part of Sully’s brain registered that there was no damage to it, not the hood, not the front grille, not even a busted headlight.

“Hmm,” Eyepatch said, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “Yes, it’s definitely you. Pleasure to meet you, Miss Wells.”

“Who--?” Sully managed to blurt, her head still swimming.

“Shhh,” Eyepatch said, raising one long slim finger to his lips. “Don’t trouble yourself. It’ll all be over in a moment.”

With his free hand, Eyepatch reached into his coat and drew out a long, thick silver needle.

There was a sudden whooshing sound, and something round and silver zipped through the air and smashed into Eyepatch’s head. He grunted and dropped Sully, who landed hard on her butt and scrambled back, feeling one of her stockings rip on the pavement. The hubcap that had struck Eyepatch in the face fell to the pavement and began to wobble in a gentle, receding orbit.

Sully looked over and saw Pang, Hu, and Gary next to the demolished van, bloodied but sturdy-looking, poised in the sort of fighting crouches she’d only seen in bad kung fu movies.

“We’re here, Miss Wells,” Pang said, his eyes never leaving Eyepatch or the two other men in dark coats, “to save your life from them.”

“Oh,” Sully said. At this point, that was okay by her.

One corner of Eyepatch’s mouth quirked. Then he smirked. Let out a snort, that became a jag of derisive, hyena-like laughter that quickly spread to his two comrades as well. He fished a crisply folded handkerchief out of one of his suit pockets and dabbed dapperly at the tears forming at either corner of his eyes, and took several deep breaths to calm his laughter into chuckling.

“Oh, son,” he wheezed sarcastically to Pang, “you’ve gotten a bit big for your britches there. The Three Brothers of the Dragon are legendary. Fearsome. You boys are just playing dress-up, there.”

Pang shifted the position of one foot, the sole of his light sandal scraping across asphalt. He tilted one outstreched hand, and twisted it into a fist.

Eyepatch shook his head sadly, his smile going cold. He glanced down at Sully, still crab-walking her way across the pavement. “We’ll be with you in, oh, ninety seconds, Miss Wells. Tops. Don’t you go anywhere.”

Then he flicked the tip of the needle in his hand at the Brothers, and it bubbled with blue energy, and with a sizzling scorch, the chunk of asphalt on which the three had been standing bubbled, burst, and vaporized into a neat crater. Sully yelped with surprise, and immediately hated herself for doing so. But the Brothers had scattered, leaping, and the end result was just one more pothole.

In midair, Pang flung out a hand, and three small blades seemed to materialize in Eyepatch’s forearm. He didn’t drop the needle, though -- just looked at the knives embedded in his flesh, and the dark red stains soaking into the sleeve of his overcoat, and tsked softly.

“Now son,” he sighed to Pang. “There’s no call to go ruining my coat like that.”

Hu and Gary were locked in combat with the other two men, the four of them a dizzying blur of flying punches and spinning kicks and fluttering black silk. Pang and Eyepatch, meanwhile, circled each other slowly, reminding Sully of gunfighters in a Sergio Leone movie.

Eyepatch moved to twitch his wrist and work the needle again, but in a blur, Pang had stepped inside its range and driven the heel of his palm up against Eyepatch’s chin, snapping the tall man’s head back. Pang followed up with a blow to Eyepatch’s stomach, then dropped low under a swing from his opponent to sweep Eyepatch’s legs out from under him. Eyepatch dropped to his back, rolling with the blow, and came up on his feet. A thin line of blood dribbled from one corner of his mouth, and he paused to dab at it ruefully with the handkerchief.

“Two minutes,” Eyepatch revised. “Two and a half, perhaps. And I’m going to enjoy every second.” He made a show of slipping the needle back into his sleeve. “Let’s see what else you’ve got, son.”

Pang’s foot shot out, stomping on the edge of the fallen hubcap he’d first thrown at eyepatch. It popped up into the air, and he spun, kicking it whistling toward Eyepatch’s neck. Eyepatch neatly snatched it one-handed from the air.

“I’ve got no depth perception,” he scolded. “Doesn’t mean I’m blind.” And almost faster than Sully could track, he hurled it back.

The hubcab struck Pang just below the left shoulder. Sully heard bone crack, and Pang winced, glancing for a moment at his arm. In that split-second moment of distraction, Eyepatch charged, and Pang barely had time to throw up a block before Eyepatch slammed a fist down into the apex of his neck and shoulder. Pang cried out and dropped to his knees, but blocked the knee Eyepatch launched at his face, and drove a fist up under Eyepatch’s rib cage, driving the tall man back.

With teeth gritted, Pang reached over and snapped his dangling left arm back into place, then bound it hastily with the sash from his belt. As Eyepatch regained his wind, Pang stood up, wincing, testing his injured arm, and took up a defensive stance.

One of the men in black coats sailed through the air behind them, slamming headfirst into a curbside mailbox with a thunderous clang. He staggered to his feet, shook himself like a dog, and charged back toward a waiting Gary, who was bleeding from his nose and a cut on his cheek.

Eyepatch leapt, one finely shod foot flashing out in a kick aimed at Pang’s neck. Pang sidestepped, grabbed Eyepatch’s ankle, and swung him toward the asphalt. Eyepatch rolled, catching Pang on the chin with his free foot, and got to his feet, plucking the blades one by one from his forearm. He stuck them between each of the fingers in his right hand and made a fist, then smiled thinly at Pang.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting these back,” he said. He swung, wide, roundhouse blows, the blades clenched in his fist whistling centimeters away from Pang’s desperate dodges. At last, Pang managed to grab Eyepatch’s wrist and twist it with a horrible snapping sound; the hand went limp, and the blades fell jingling to the ground, but Eyepatch didn’t so much as whimper. He just smashed Pang in the chest with the flat of his uninjured palm, then calmly set to twisting his wrist back into place.

“Ow,” Eyepatch said, flatly, disinterestedly. “My, you’ve done me a piece of harm.”

Sully took this opportunity to launch herself at his midriff.

She envisioned him going down like a sack of bricks, like in the movies. She certainly threw herself with enough force to catch anyone off balance. Unfortunately, he stumbled a few steps, but stayed very much on his feet. Sully found herself hugging him awkwardly around the waist, looking up along his shirtfront to see him smirking down at her in a way that made her feel like even more of an idiot.

“Wait your turn, Miss,” he said. With one hand, he peeled Sully off him like a piece of lint, and flung her through the air. She landed hard on the hood of Eyepatch’s black land-boat of a car, feeling the shock through her entire body, and took a few seconds trying to remember how to breathe.

Pang, clutching his chest and wheezing, steadied himself against the upside-down wreck of the Brothers’ van as Eyepatch calmly walked over to him.

“Son,” Eyepatch said, dusting a stray pebble off Pang’s shoulder, “you put up a good fight and all. I just can’t be prepared for the consequences if you aren’t smart enough to stay down.”

Pang hit him in the face, then again, and followed up with a kick to Eyepatch’s midriff.

The big man sighed, and casually broke Pang’s right arm with a single hard jerk.

Pang cried out through gritted teeth and staggered backward. Eyepatch let go of Pang’s arm and grabbed him by the throat, lifting the smaller man off the ground. Pang’s feet kicked helplessly off the ground as Eyepatch’s fist smashed again and again into his unguarded midsection. Pang spit blood, gasping for air as Eyepatch’s hand closed off his windpipe.

“Last chance, son,” Eyepatch sighed. “You’re getting blood on my suit there. Say you’ll stay down this time.”

Pang hissed the words out one fierce, defiant gasp at a time. “I won’t. Let you. Hurt her.”

“You say that like you’ve got a choice in the matter,” Eyepatch replied, and began to squeeze.

Behind him, a powerful motor roared to life. Eyepatch turned to see Sully behind the wheel of his own big black car, giving him the finger with one hand as she shifted into drive with the other.

Eyepatch dropped his free hand to his waist pocket, and found his car keys missing. His lone eye grew wide. Then the huge black battleship of a car lurched forward, devouring twenty feet of pavement in a split second, and smashed him like a paper doll against the side of the Brothers’ wrecked van.

Eyepatch choked out unintelligible words, bent backward at the waist over the hood of his own car. He let Pang drop to the hood and roll wheezing off the side of the car. Eyepatch stretched a hand back toward the windshield toward Sully, clawing at her. Hu, Gary, and their opponents had all stopped dead at the sound of the impact, the four of them gaping through fresh bruises and blood dripping into their eyes.

Sully narrowed her eyes, threw the car into reverse, and backed off a few feet. Eyepatch turned, gasping, his spine contorted. Somehow, he was still on his feet. He shook one dangling arm awkwardly, the needle up his sleeve slowly sliding down into his hand. That made up Sully’s mind right quick.

She gunned the engine, seeing the RPM needle on the dash flutter up toward the red, threw the car into drive, and plowed into Eyepatch again, crushing him against the van. This time, what was left of him had the good sense not to move.

She hit reverse again and peeled back, rolling the wheel, the car cutting a wide, dangerous arc through the street that sent Hu, Gary, and the other two men in black scattering. The latter two ran to what was left of Eyepatch, kneeling by the twisting, twitching form, and Sully locked eyes with one of them through the windshield as he looked up at her. His eyes were gray -- the same gray, the exact same gray -- but the hatred behind them was jet black.

The doors around her opened, then slammed shut. Hu had taken shotgun next to her, and Gary cradled Pang in his lap in the back.

“Go, go, go, dammit!” Hu shouted, and Sully managed to break eye contact with the man in black, throw the car into drive again, and peel out through the intersection. She saw the two men in black coats begin to give chase in the rear view mirror, shrinking away, and stop at last to stare after the car as it rounded a corner.

Sully gripped the wheel blindly, not caring where she drove. She wanted a cigarette more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life. All she could hear was Pang in the back seat, his breaths turning high and wet and keening. Hu was rummaging around in the glove box.

“Got it,” Hu said, and there was a flurry of sparks from the glove box, and then he was holding a squat black box, trailing wires. “Scratch one homing device.” Sully looked from him to Gary and Pang in the back; they all looked beat to hell, bruises on their face red and purple. One of Gary’s eyes had gone red, bleeding under the surface.

“How’s he doing?” Sully asked around the sudden lump that rose unbidden in her throat, jerking her head toward Pang. He was staring up at the roof of the car, blindly, blood bubbling at the corners of his mouth. Gary just shook his head.

“Hospital,” Sully said to Hu. “You’re from here, dammit. Where’s the closest hospital?”

“No hospital,” Hu said grimly. “We’ve gotta go see the Doc. Next right, then take the second left.”

Sully floored it, and the car surged forward hungrily, greedily, through the empty streets washed in early morning light.

They were heading south, out of the city proper, she guessed. Condos under development flashed past, neat townhouses and crumbling tenements all on the same blocks, and up the hill to her left she thought she glimpsed some kind of big museum building. She noticed a change in the signage -- pictograms accompanying English on the local restaurants and grocery stores and dry cleaners. Chinatown.

“Up here, up here,” Hu said, pointing through the windshield to a wide alley behind a blocky, nondescript industrial building. Chain-link gates swung wide, invitingly. Sully all but took the turn on two wheels, and screeched to a halt across two parking spaces in the small lot at the back of the building, next to the closed-down loading dock and the stairs leading up to the second level.

Sully didn’t even kill the engine, just bolted out her door and threw open the rear driver’s side door. She found Gary sitting there quietly, tears welling in his swollen, bruised eyes, and Pang motionlessly staring out the open door, through her, at eternity.

Her knees wobbled, and she put a hand out against the car to steady herself. Dammit. She didn’t know these people. She didn’t cry, as a rule, ever. Not since she was seven. Not since the trick cabinet in her grandfather’s attic. Now she looked into the face of a stranger who’d died trying to help her, and the monstrous, immense unfairness of it all hit her like a blow to the stomach.

The morning air was still and cold, the shadows wintry blue, the sunlight a pale, sloping orange against the walls. The car idled, spinning clouds of exhaust like candyfloss from its tailpipe. And no one said anything.

The roar of a motor, down the block, grew louder. Coming their way. Sully’s stomach clenched up again, her hands closing into fists. A blur of yellow screeched into the alley, the chain-link gates chiming and jingling as it batted them out of the way, and swerved to a halt, tires squealing, in the middle of the lot right in front of them. It was a taxicab, yellow and black, dented and scoured by years of potholes and harsh winters A wiry young man with tousled black hair, his skin a burnished chocolate brown, all but launched himself from the drivers seat and stared at Sully, Hu, and Gary with wide, desperate eyes.

In the back seat of the cab, a shadow stirred.

“You’ve got to help me,” the driver pleaded in round, rolling curlique syllables. “He’s dying -- the Black Lotus, I think. Please, please tell me -- is this where I find Dr. Xiang?”

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