Thursday, November 23, 2006

In the Lair of Dr. Xiang

Trip Morrow tumbled through a long period of choking, turbulent unconsciousness. Tiny bits of his brain broke loose and scrambled about until the inside of his skull became a nest of snakes, all slithering over one another in constant, chaotic, feverish motion. And underneath it all, strange shapes at the edges of his consciousness, their movements vast and slow and seismic, and a curious and fearful uluation of harmonies not issued from any human throat.

Trip woke, and stared into the face of a dragon.

It stared down at him from the walls with huge, googly paper-mache eyes, and a grimace as comical as it was fearsome, tufts of fur-scales bristling in brilliant greens and yellows around its head, and for a moment, Trip thought he was still dreaming.

Then reality sorted itself out, the tumblers in the lock of his brain clicking into place, and Trip recognized it as a fake dragon head, the kind used in Chinese New Year’s ceremonies. He was shirtless, lying under a thin sheet on something soft and comfortable, his torso and the back of his neck clammy with slowly drying sweat.

His mouth was cotton-dry, his throat parched and prickly, his muscles sore. There was a dull, fading ache at the side of his neck, where -- yes, he remembered now. Thje stone giant. Muriel and her needle. Running, the world inverting itself, the headlights. And now, a dragon’s head.

He felt whole, and alive, and incredibly hungry.

It took him a solid minute to muster the energy to sit up and turn his head. The room was high-ceilinged, the windows tall and criscrossed with the fine metal mesh of industrial glass, and barred from the outside. The walls and floors were concrete underneath, unpainted, but hung with elaborate Chinese scrolls and paintinings. Trip put a bare foot down to the floor, braced for cold, and found instead thick, soft rugs. Red paper lamps dangled from the pipes along the ceiling at intervals, and the air smelled of incense and oranges.

He’d been lying on a deep red overstuffed couch; he saw a wooden chair nearby, as if someone had been keeping watch. His button-up shirt and t-shirt were draped over the back, and his shoes and socks rested underneath, neatly stacked.

He turned his head a bit more, slowly, and saw a heavy metal door ajar at the far side of the room -- and next to it, another window, and a lush, overstuffed armchair, and curled up asleep in the chair, a young woman with dark hair and fishnet stockings. Her boots splayed on the floor next to the chair, and she was hugged in a silk blanket, her exposed toes -- the nails painted black and red, alternating -- twitching softly. Her hair had fallen in dark, sharp slants across the pale skin of her face. Her breathing came in even, regular gusts. Trip felt a sudden, inexplicable need to put a shirt on.

His arms and shoulders ached as he shrugged the t-shirt over his head, but it felt good to move. He examined the skin of his arms and found tiny, dark-red dots at even intervals; there were more on his stomach and chest, when he checked, and his mind immediately suggested, accupuncture. He stood slowly, on shaky but reliable legs, and slowly shuffled his way across the room in his bare feet. The woman in the chair shifted as he passed, muttering cottony mush-syllables, and he froze for a moment, suddenly afraid he’d wake her. But she settled back into sleep, and he squeezed himself carefully through the steel door and into the next room.

It was some kind of kitchen, a cold kettle still on the stove and dregs of loose leaf tea in the sink. The refrigerator hummed softly, and at the far side of the room, seated around a table, Trip saw two more sleeping men. They were Asian, about his age, heads both shaved bald, wearing some kind of black silk robes. They slept deeply with their heads down on the table, and as Trip studied their faces, he saw nasty-looking bruises, yellowing around the edges of the purple, and a multitude of neatly dressed cuts and scratches beginning to heal. A pizza box from Giordano’s yawned open on the table between them, and to Trip’s considerable disappointment, it contained nothing but dark grease-spots and a forlorn plastic tripod, lying on its side.

He moved past them, bare feet on the cold linoleum tile of the kitchen, past one steel door that seemed to lead outside, and slipped through another open doorway to what looked like an office. There were more windows here, admitting early-morning sunlight, and elaborately carved and laquered cabinets lining the walls, bristling with tiny, regular drawers, like a library card catalog. A desk sat beneath the window, with a high-backed chair behind it. A calligraphy brush and a pot of ink sat next to an unfurled scroll of white paper, elaborately painted characters unreeling themselves neatly down its surface. Trip’s written Chinese was shaky at best -- he’d only gotten through the basic textbook -- but he recognized some of the characters. Herbs. Some kind of recipe, perhaps.

And there, to one side of the desk, his grandfather’s cigar box. With a pang of urgency, he reached for it, and lifted the lid, but to his unaccountable relief, its contents were all in place.

The strange gyroscope. The two tuning forks. The glass vile of glittering black dust. The battered moleskine notebook, filled as far as Trip had been able to tell with his grandfather’s characteristically dull and minutely detailed notes on various acoustic and mechanical experiments from his early Bell Labs days. And, strangest of all, the yellowed, crumbling magazine printed on cheap, grainy paper.

Trip hadn’t had a chance to crack it yet; he’d been too struck by the cover, which showed a man smashing feet-first through a window, into some mad scientist’s laboratory where a beautiful, negligee-clad blond had been shackled to a heavy wooden table. The man on the cover had his grandfather’s face, lean and youthful, but with a single white streak in his hair his grandfather had never possessed.


Trip shook his head slowly, wondering if it had been some kind of joke -- a gag gift worked up by his grandfather’s buddies at the lab. He put the magazine back carefully and shut the lid of the box. It was the only thing left specifically to him in his grandfather’s will -- the lawyer had been instructed to personally put it in Trip’s hands -- and it represented a puzzle even Trip’s active, searching brain had yet to piece together.

He caught a face out of the corner of his eye and turned quickly -- a bit too quickly, the motion making him briefly dizzy -- only to see a shrine against the opposite wall, next to the door through which he’d entered. It was dominated by a photograph of an earnest, serene-looking old Chinese man with a long white beard, smiling at the camera as if he knew a particularly amusing secret. Before the picture, a low altar bore smoking sticks of incense and a plate neatly stacked with fat, firm oranges. A single painted scroll hung next to the picture, and Trip instinctively, quietly sounded out the characters, first in Chinese and then in English.

“The Most Honored and Wise Doctor Xiang Chen-Hee,” Trip said.

“Not bad for a gwailo,” came a sleepy voice from the opposite side of the room. Trip turned to see a Chinese woman in her early thirties shuffling into the room from a door he hadn’t previously noticed, wearing a purple camisole and long flannel pajama pants with a bacon-and-eggs pattern on them. Her hands worked deftly behind her head, braiding a long lash of black hair into a neat ponytail.

“I’m sorry,” Trip said -- apology was his default reaction most of the time -- “I didn’t mean to intrude. I just woke up, and, uh... where am I?”

“In the land of the living, for one thing,” the woman smirked, and padded over in slippered feet to join him by the altar. She yawned hugely. “You’re in Chinatown, couple blocks from the Red Line stop, if you’re in any great hurry. Been out for about a day straight. I’m surprised you’re even awake this soon. I didn’t think a skinny guy like you would make it, but you’re a fighter.”

“Make what?” Trip said, rubbing the side of his neck absentmindedly.

“The Black Lotus,” the woman said, her face growing serious. “Deadliest poison this side of Australia. Hell, I can’t believe you even made it here.”

“How’d I get here?” Trip asked, his stomach suddenly tight with disbelief and alarm. “And -- wait, poison? Who’d want to poison me?”

“You tell me,” the woman smirked, drawing a fresh stick of incense from a holder near the altar and lighting it in the flame of a nearby candle. “One of the Order guys -- I’m gonna assume you’re a bit slow, so that’s the Order of St. Fiacre -- picked you up. Must’ve seen that ring of yours. And when he saw the Black Lotus on your neck, he knew to get you here.”

Trip opened his mouth to ask another question, but the woman saw it and sighed heavily. “It’s gonna be Cliff Notes all the way with you, isn’t it? ‘Here’ is the offices of Dr. Xiang, Foe of Poisons and Mender of Ills.”

“And the doctor is...?” Trip asked slowly, looking at the picture over the shrine.

“Oh, so sorry,” the woman said, bowing low. “Honorable Dr. Xiang is off getting crispy fried duck from takeout place.” Quick as a flash, she shot out a hand and slapped Trip hard enough to sting against the side of his head. Her eyes narrowed in annoyance. “I’m Dr. Xiang, dumbass.”

“Ow!” Trip said, baffled, rubbing his skull. “Sorry.”

“Dr. Anna Mei Xiang, and yes, I have a “real” degree too, thank you very much,” the woman said. “And you, Thomas Roosevelt Morrow the third, of 103 W. 18th St., Pilsen, eyes brown, hair brown, drivers license photo surprisingly non-crappy, are one amazingly lucky bastard. I was up half the night with you bleeding out the poison and administering the antidote.” She gestured at the photo. “My grandpa there had only told me about the Black Lotus. Never saw it myself, before you. Somebody wanted you way the hell dead.”

“There was a woman--” Trip began, but Dr. Xiang cut him off, breezing past him toward the kitchen.

“Talk later,” she said. “Food first. And so much tea.”

Trip sat at the table with the two black-suited guys -- Hu and Gary, rubbing sleep out of their eyes and yawning, looking at him with a distance that suggested less unfriendliness than some private trouble of their own. Dr. Xiang fired up the rice cooker, then rummaged and rattled through the fridge, coming up with a dozen eggs and a handful of vegetables. In a few minutes, she was frying eggs and veggies on the stove as steam rose from the rice cooker, and a kettle whistled on the back burner. The noise brought the woman in fishnets into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and pushing her hair back from her face. She sat down at the kitchen table without saying anything to anyone, stealing occasional sad looks at Hu and Gary, and accepted a mug of tea from Dr. Xiang in silence.

“That’s new,” the fishnet girl said at last as they ate, nodding at Trip.

“What’s new?” he asked, his mouth full of eggs and rice, suddenly self-conscious.

“Your hair,” she said. “You didn’t have that yesterday.”

Trip stood up abruptly, searching his pockets. “Mirror,” he said absentmindedly. “Anyone have a mirror?” The fishnet girl reached into a pocket of her jacket and handed him a compact. He flipped it open and looked.

The first thing he saw was the side of his neck, and a deep purplish-red scar where Muriel’s needle had stuck him. It unfolded radially, like a flower. The Black Lotus. Then he moved the mirror up, and probed at his hair with slender fingers. There was a streak of white now running from the crown of his head down to the strands along his forehead, just over his right eye. Just like the Tom Morrow on the magazine cover.

“That’s not new,” he said, baffled, handing the mirror back to the fishnet girl. “I think that’s old. Very old” She just looked at him strangely, shrugged, and kept on eating.

“Could be the poison,” Dr. Xiang chimed in, reaching over Gary’s plate to help herself to more rice. “Sure put your system through enough stress. You want to tell us who exactly thinks you’re worth offing?”

Feeling the food settle comfortably, almost gratefully, in his stomach, Trip told them, starting with the subway accident, and ending with what he could remember of Muriel’s last, strange words. When he mentioned the needle, he saw the fishnet girl visibly stiffen across the table. Her eyes met Hu’s, then Gary’s, and she hunched her shoulders and stared into her teacup.

“Your turn,” Trip said at last, picking up his fork again and pointing to the fishnet girl with it. “What do you know about needles?”

She spoke, slowly at first, then more expressively, about Eyepatch and the men in the black car. She spoke around the subject of Pang, and her silences said plenty. Hu and Gary and Dr. Xiang filled in the gaps in her story -- how before he died a few years back, the Doc’s grandfather had written out a scroll for her, to be opened on a given date and time. The scroll contained instructions for contacting the Three Brothers of the Dragon -- at a phone number they hadn’t even had when it was written -- and described the girl, Sully, right down to where she’d be on the night they grabbed her.

“What did Pang mean,” Sully asked, leaning forward on her elbows, “when he called me the Gaunt Heir?”

“Is there a Michael Gant in your family?” Dr. Xiang asked her. “Three, maybe four generations back?”

“My great-grandfather,” Sully said. “He was a stage magician. I think he spent some time in Asia when he was young -- that’s what my grandfather said.”

“My grandpa,” Dr. Xiang said, “once showed me a scar on his shoulder. He said it was a bullet wound, decades old. Said a man named Michael Gant had saved his life.”

“There’s somebody like that in our history, too,” Hu piped up. “Our master back in Oakland used to tell us about the time his master emigrated here, back in the ‘30s. Said he owed his life to a guy named Gaunt.”

“His English wasn’t so good,” Gary added. “Maybe he got it wrong.”

“Wait,” Trip said, standing up from the table. “Wait, wait, that name sounds familiar.” He ducked into Dr. Xiang’s study for a moment, and returned with the cigar box, which he set carefully down on the kitchen table. He took out the magazine, and carefully flipped it over to the back cover, which listed the stories inside:


Tom, Nosh, and Shida battle deadly doppelgangers in a haunted castle!

An artificial moon to orbit the Earth?

October is Thriftiness Month -- build your own Tom Morrow Savings Vault!

Tom Morrow teams with Mister Gaunt to thwart the Caesar of Crime!

“Muriel said something about my grandfather,” Trip said, as their eyes all moved in unison over the back-cover text. “I didn’t understand -- Grandpa spent his life in a lab, pretty much. I mean, he invented telephone switching equipment. New kinds of synthetic rubber and copper wiring. Stuff nobody would care about.”

“Then what’s he doing playing Indiana Jones on the cover of a dime novel?” Sully shot back, and Trip could only shrug. He glanced down into the box again, his eyes falling across the notebook--

He had to look twice, to make sure he was seeing it. He picked up the diary, stared at it hard, brushed his fingers over the leather cover. Then he hastily began to undo the elastic straps that bound the book shut.

“What?” Sully said. “I’m pretty sure that’s a notebook, chief.”

“Yeah,” Trip replied. “My grandfather’s. Except the last time I looked at it, it didn’t have this.” He pointed to the cover, where a creased, yellowed, well-worn stamp from Borneo was stuck in one corner.

“Maybe you missed it?” Hu asked, but Trip was shuffling quickly through the pages. “1942 -- okay, this is the same, just notes from the lab. But...” Trip paged back to the very first entry, flipped through a couple pages, then back to the beginning, then forward again.

“The second entry’s ordinary stuff. Equations, diagrams for some kind of switchboard,” Trip said. “But when I looked in it on the flight back to Chicago, the first entry was about a picnic he had with my grandma in Nantucket.”

“And now?” Sully asked, leaning forward, craning her neck to see. Trip handed her the diary, and she began to read. “January 1, 1931. New Year’s in the Lookout. We’re fresh back from New York, where --” She stopped, blinked a few times, and started again. “Where the Sovereign of the Sewers had stolen the Christmas Tree from Rockefeller Center. Lasso and I tracked him to the Great Undercity Basin...”

She looked up at Trip, baffled. “So your grandpa wrote fiction?” Trip shook his head.

“I saw his bookshelves. My grandpa didn’t even read fiction. And besides, that entry -- and that stamp -- weren’t there two nights ago.”

From outside, the metal stairs clanged. Once. Again. Footsteps, heading upward. Everyone froze.

Dr. Xiang looked slowly at Hu and Gary. “You guys didn’t order a pizza?” They shook their heads. “That cabbie guy, Jimmy, when’d he say he’d be back?”

Gary checked his watch, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I think he’s still on shift.”

There was a square of frosted glass in the steel door that lead to the outside, and as all five watched, their mouths suddenly dry, it filled with shadows. Shadows wearing dark coats, and broad-brimmed hats. Someone tried the latch, rattling it first softly, then harder.

Then the door boomed with a solid blow.

Dr. Xiang looked first at Sully, then at Trip. For the first time, he saw real fear in her eyes, and when she spoke, it was a thin, harsh whisper of controlled terror.

“You need to leave,” she said. “You need to leave right now.”

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