Monday, January 6, 2014

The Jade Owl excerpt by Edward Patterson

In Edward Patterson's The Jade Owl, set in China, they whisper about the Jade Owl and its awful power. This ancient stone, commissioned by the Empress Wu and crafted by a mineral charmer, long haunted the folk of the Middle Kingdom until it vanished into an enigma of legend and lore. Now the Jade Owl is found. It wakes to steal the day from day. Its power to enchant and distort rises again. Its horror is revealed to a band of five, who must return it to the Valley of the Dead before the laws of ch’i are set aside in favor of destruction’s dance. Five China Hands, each drawn through time’s thin fabric by the bird, discover enchantment on the secret garland. Five China Hands, and one holds the key to the world’s fate. Five China Hands. Only one Jade Owl - but it’s awake and in China, they whisper again.

Professor Rowden Gray has come to
San Francisco following a new opportunity at the East Asian Arts and Culture Museum, only to find that the opportunity has evaporated. Desperate, he means to end his career in a muddle of pity and Scotch, but then things happen. He latches on to a fascinating young man who is pursuing a lost relic that Professor Gray has in fact been seeking. Be careful for what you seek - you may just find it. Thus begins a journey that takes the professor and his companions on a spirited adventure across three-thousand miles of Chinese culture and mystery - a quest to fulfill a warrant long set out to ignite the world in myth and legend. The Jade Owl is the beginning of a series - a legacy that fulfills a terrible truth; and in China, they whisper again.
 
The Jade Owl
CreateSpace (October 2008)
ISBN: 1440447977

Excerpt:

Chapter Three: Night Life

1

Rowden had not forgotten the iron ball that sat in his stomach reminding him that his life might have been enriched by a major curatorship that now reverted to mediocrity. Marking exams. Scribbling on blackboards. However, for the moment, a sprite diverted him from the extravagance of self-pity. This fascinating sprite had a passion for things Chinese. He even struck on trade secrets. The Jade Owl. Odd? Now, Rowden was going to break bread with this lavender scented, blue shirted sprite.

The Vermilion Phoenix, unlike most Chinatown restaurants, enticed diners with a quiet ground floor lobby — restful, sporting a lionized menu of unique native fare. Rowden and Nick took the elevator up to this serene approach to East Asian cuisine. As the elevator rattled, Nick turned pale, eyes darting until the doors opened.

Not too keen on elevators, Rowden thought.

They arrived. Nick pushed out a sigh, and then hopped around the vestibule. Rich aromas enticed Rowden. His stomach sang. He couldn’t remember such delectable, enticing aromas.

Whether it was the alcohol or having fasted since the airport, Rowden could have chased the pig around the room and picked it clean. As he lumbered toward the dining hall, he spied a black display case. At first, he thought he saw the usual Chinese restaurant statuary — Fu Bu of the Big Belly or Guan-yin on her lotus. But no. Double take. He blinked as he paused before the case.

“You weren’t pulling my leg, Nick,” he said. Rowden saw a six-inch jade figurine that sat on a red velvet drape, shimmering in a spotlight. “In this light, it could be the real thing.”

Nick’s reflection joined him.

“The Jade Owl,” he said.

A Jade Owl, with round eyes and stubby ears, perched on a black irregular base. Rowden cocked his head, his initial excitement subsiding.

“An owl, yes, but this isn’t even jade. Could it be another forgery from the antique dealer?”

“A forgery would at least be jade,” Nick said. “A forgery would also suppose one knew how the Jade Owl looked. I’d say this is a replica of a supposition.”

“Curious,” Rowden said.

“Curious?”

“It’s curious how you even know about the Jade Owl.”

Nick turned, thus avoiding the question. Rowden knew that he should not be pressing his new young friend on such issues. To press on the subject of the Jade Owl might only lead to a more problematic discussion. But how does Nick even know about it?

“Nick,” came an amiable voice.

Saved by the bell or at least the Maitre D’.

“Ch’u,” Nick said. He waved Rowden along.

“You and your guest are expected,” Ch’u said. He signaled an invisible cadre of servers. Come in. Come in. I have a table with a good view for you. Sam will be your waiter. This way.”

Rowden and Nick followed Ch’u into the dining room. If there were other diners, they were faded into the warm wooden fixtures, the black trimmed railings and the burgundy carpet. A touch of brass complimented booths and tables. This was unlike any Chinese restaurant he had experienced. No garrulous yapping from the kitchen, with canned p’i-pa and erh-hu music scraping on some cheap sound system tucked behind last year’s bamboo calendar. This was elegance.

“Over here, Nick,” Ch’u said. “Good view here. Overlooks Grant Avenue.”

“Nice,” Nick said. He sat. “Very nice.”

“Quite a contrast, this place and the street,” Rowden said. He noted Grant Avenue’s garish neon.

“Welcome to the Vermilion Phoenix,” Ch’u chanted. “Mr. Xiao has told me to personally oversee the best of all things for you this evening. You are his guests. To be a guest of Mr. Xiao is an honor.”

Ch’u turned, and then sang a string of orders in a mellifluent ramble to the help.

“Some place, eh?” Nick said, leaning into the table.

“Very different. I’ve been in many Oriental restaurants. I don’t think I’ve encountered one so restful.”

“Encountered?” Nick chuckled. “I love the way you speak, Rowdy. How is this place different? Is it like restaurants in China?”

“There are no restaurants in China.”

Nick gave Rowden a you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me look. “No restaurants? Where do you get Chinese take-out then?”

I wouldn’t eat anything that’s a take-out in China, Rowden thought. Nick continued his stare for more information.

“Well, there are restaurants in Hong Kong and in the major hotels. Mostly, there are mess halls on the mainland. No menus. No ambiance. Fish stink and ratty tablecloths.”

“Wow,” Nick said. “Some day I’ll get there. Some day.” He looked across the room spying a stocky man, who marched in quickstep toward the table. “Here’s Sam Ch’ang. He’ll take care of us.”

“You seem to know everyone.”

Nick shrugged.

“Nick,” Sam said, smiling broadly, revealing a gold tooth. Did Nick only know Chinese gentlemen with precious dental work? Sam had a scar on his right cheek that made him appear older than he probably was. “It is always good to see you,” Sam said, rubbing his palms as if sharpening them on a whetstone. “You and your friends are always welcomed here. I have the plum wine.”

Nick smiled. He flared open his hands to show they were empty.  “Menus, Sam?”

“No need. Xiao Win-t’o has already ordered for you — egg-flower soup, Ming-shou dumplings, and broiled prawn with mung bean noodles. Fire Pot too, in our signature Guilinese chili sauce.”

Sam poured the wine, and then stepped aside. A pair of men, outfitted in white, wheeled in the meal.

“That’s service,” Rowden said.

“We have been expecting you. Enjoy it all. Especially the Fire Pot.”

“This sauce is special,” Nick said. “These chilies come from Xiao Win-t’o’s hometown — Gui-lin. I don’t think you can get them anywhere in Chinatown.”

Sam Ch’ang and his busboy brigade departed, leaving Rowden and Nick to enjoy their meal. Rowden, perhaps forgetting that he was a professional academic, the kind that set examples, dived into the trays and platters like a field hand. He managed his chopsticks (and these were genuine ivory) with native mastery. He dribbled little down his chin despite his rapacity. Nick used a fork.

“So, what d’ya think, Rowdy?”

“Everything is tasty. Quite delicious and authentic.”

Nick stared at Rowden. Rowden caught it across the golden lamplight. The glow made Nick’s eyes duller, navy marble rather than blue plate special. Rowden set his chopsticks aside.

“Question, Nick?”

Nick shrugged. “Just wanted to know if this meal was enough to knock you out of your depression?”

“I wasn’t depressed.” Rowden resumed eating. “Just disappointed. Maybe a bit despairing.”

“Well, if that’s your mood when despairing, heaven help us when you’re depressed. At least you’re coming around.”

Rowden smiled, a mung bean noodle dangling from his lips. “With your help and your passion for things Chinese. You certainly have piqued my interest.”

Nick poured tea.

“So we’re back to the Jade Owl?”

“I guess we are. I mean, it’s curious, isn’t it?”

“My knowledge of such things?”

“Few people know about the Jade Owl.” Rowden cracked his knuckles. “Few have ever seen it. I haven’t . . .”

Suddenly, Sam Ch’ang appeared at the table, startling Rowden. Sam glanced from Nick to Rowden, and then cleared away a finished plate of dumplings. His sheepish, gold tooth smile unsettled. He faded into the lamp glow, leaving Rowden waiting on Nick’s answer.

You’re not getting off that easy this time.

Nick sighed. “Rowdy, there’s no mystery why I should know about the Jade Owl.” He laid his fork aside. “Xiao Win-t’o knows all about the Jade Owl. I’ve learned about it from him.”

“That’s intriguing in itself. In fact, I have only met one person who claims to have seen the Jade Owl. That’s my old professor at Columbia University.”

“John Battle?”

Rowden’s hands dropped to his side.

“How did you know that? You’re beginning to scare me, Nick.”

“Why is that so strange? It’s common knowledge, for those of us with a deep enthusiasm for Chinese antiquities, that John Battle spent many years collecting rare T’ang relics.” Nick lifted his wine cup to his lips as if to toast. “I go to the museum specifically to view those relics in as much detail as I possibly can. John Battle is like a god to me.”

“A god?” Rowden said. That echoed. “Well, I’ll drink to that.” He raised his cup. “To the Old China Hand.”

“To the Old China Hand,” Nick said, completing the toast. “It’s well known that some of John Battle’s finds were stolen in transit, including the Jade Owl. So when you say my old professor, who else could it be? Eat your Fire Pot.”

Rowden observed Nick through the lamplight. How much passion can anyone have for such lost relics? How much devotion can be laid at the feet of old, dead Sinologists? His mind wandered back to his former professor. He actually felt that he was sitting with the old man at the coffee shop in Morningside Heights being drilled on the latest Bielenstein dissertation. Rowden could see John Battle’s curled brow as he tapped his saucer, waiting for a structured, theme-laden exposition on Sung governmental hierarchy. It was a warm feeling to sense the old man again.

“He was a tough man,” Rowden said.

“Who?”

“Who else? John Battle.”

“Flunked you, did he?”

“No. He was good to me.” Rowden looked across to Nick, imagining those coffee shop days again. “John Battle was very good to me. He taught me things that the other China Hands jealously guarded. Professor Battle was open about his methodology — generous. Of course, some regarded him as . . . as a thief. The Chinese government viewed his digs as looting and tomb raiding.” He bit his lower lip. “Perhaps they were. Who can judge these matters in light of the results? I sometimes wish I followed his course.”

“Did you have a falling out?”

Rowden scanned the neon glare of Grant Avenue. His mind pained now to think of another opportunity lost, the most precious opportunity of his life. Squandered.

“We had a falling out over the most tsetse fly ass-hole reason.” Why am I telling this to a total stranger? Because you need to, you ninny. “John Battle wanted me to pursue a study of T’ang Dynasty reliquary. I preferred the Sung. He had plans for me. I was his successor — heir to his circle of research and his total absorption in a few mysterious relics.” Like the Jade Owl. Most certainly, the Jade Owl. “Over this, we went our separate ways.”

Nick glanced down, then quickly up again. “What’s a dynasty or two between friends?”

“Do tell.” Rowden played with his fire pot. “I sometimes think everything would have been different if I had followed the course John Battle set for me. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to land good work in the Sung field.”

“With your knowledge?”

China closed its doors during those years. There were no more China Hands.” There were no successors to John Battle’s work, only bureaucratic ass-holes like J.J. Gillenhaal. “I wound up teaching frigin’ elementary Chinese History classes at night in community colleges. You know — the Han bone’s connected to Wei bone; the Sui bone’s connected to the T’ang bone.”

“Heavy stuff,” Nick said. He laughed nearly choking on his mung bean noodles.

“But lo and behold, the museum offered this curatorship.” This curatorship? Fucking bastard, Gillenhaal. Rowden cracked his knuckles. “You know the rest.”

“No backsliding, Rowdy.” Nick turned his attention out the window looking down at two tourists, who stopped by a homeless man. “Things could be worse.”

Rowden watched the homeless man also. It might just get to that, he thought.

“What do you do Nick? When you’re not at the museum or taking total strangers on the grand tour of San Francisco, that is?”

“A bit of this. A bit of that. Eat your Fire Pot.”

“Why, is it drugged?” Rowden cocked his head. He searched the restaurant’s depths as if maybe Sam Ch’ang’s presence unsettled Nick. “Really, what do you do for a living?”

“Odd jobs,” Nick said. He continued to scan the street. “Rowdy, are you married?”

You’re changing the subject.

“Are you?”

“I’m in a committed relationship.” Nick returned the stare to Rowden as if to say your turn.

“I’m divorced,” Rowden said. “A subject best left alone.” There was no reason for Rowden to dwell on that subject. Rose was a closed book. He didn’t need another iron ball dropped into his stomach tonight. One was enough. Nick did not pursue it.

“Do you see that man down there in the doorway?” Nick said, tapping on the window.

“The bum?”

“Homeless. It’s unfortunate, but we do have more than our share of homeless people in San Francisco.”

“I see him. What of it?”

“It’s a tradition in Chinatown that you take your leftovers in a doggy bag and give it to the homeless on the street.”

“That’s a nice tradition,” Rowden said. “And that man?”

“His name is Han. I call him Whiskey Han. He gets my doggy bags regularly.” Sam appeared at the table. Rowden wiped his mouth, and then took a last swig of plum wine. “Finished with your Fire Pot, Rowdy?” He was. “Sam, we’re ready. The usual bags.”

Sam stood aside while the bus boys cleared the table. “It will make a wonderful lunch, Nick,” he said, “although I suspect it will not get that far. I see Whiskey Han has taken up his post. He must have known you were dining here tonight.” Sam winked.

One boy returned toting two neatly wrapped white bags, which Rowden took. They felt heavier than he would have expected, but there were hefty leftovers despite gluttony.

“The check is on the house,” Sam said. “I trust all was well?”

“Hao ch’i-fan ne,” Rowden said. He left a generous tip.  “Hen hao ch’i-fan.”

“Xie xie,” Sam said, watching the guests depart toward the elevator. If Rowden had lingered a while longer, he would have seen the busboys clean the table. He would have witnessed Sam

Ch’ang gaze through the window, the neon reflected in his golden tooth. He would have heard Sam Ch’ang muse: “The Jade Owl indeed. Let it come.”

2

Whiskey Han sat in the doorway of an old noodle shop a dozen yards from the Vermilion Phoenix. He was surrounded by shopping bags. He wore old rags — an old rag wrapped around his noggin. To any casual viewer, Han appeared as a mass of old rags. To Rowden’s eye, the man was nothing more than a rotting old derelict. Might even be dangerous. Rowden stopped.

“I don’t know about this, Nick,” he said. “This is supposed to be a charitable act. He doesn’t look too charitable.”

Han smelled less so, a mushroom of stale urine reeking from the doorway. Rowden choked.

“What does that have to do with anything,” Nick said. “He knows me. He’s harmless.” Nick approached the rag pile. “Han Fu-xing. Hello, Han. A good haul tonight. Extra. I’ve brought a friend.”

Whiskey Han peered up at his company. His dark, rheumy eyes swept the tall landscape as if it had interrupted a meditation, some private sanctuary best not disturbed. Rowden set his doggy bag down beside the indigent.

“Don’t need your crummy food, you rich bastard,” Han snarled like a mad dog. “Do you take me for a fool?”

Rowden started to retrieve the doggy bag, but Nick stopped him.

“That’s his way of saying thanks,” Nick whispered. “Leave it be. He’ll take it when we’re out of sight.” Nick set his bag down with a gentle thud. “Soup in here, Han. Gui-lin chilies. Very good and rare.”

“You can pound your chilies up your ass,” Han grunted. “Piss in your soup. Leave me alone.”

“You see,” Nick said, as he led Rowden away, “he’ll eat just as well as we have. Great street view too. A guest of Xiao Win-t’o.”

Rowden watched Han Fu-xing’s statue pose. If the man was ungrateful during the giving, he certainly didn’t improve after the fact. Rowden was glad to be freed from the stench. It reminded him of the station tunnels in the New York subway — 34th Street, where an array of Whiskey Hans sprawled in vomit and piss on old blankets and newspapers.

“He’s rude,” Rowden snapped.

Nick looked back. “No, Rowdy. He’s proud.”

“Proud. Does pride keep him on the street?”

Suddenly, Nick grasped his shirt pocket.

“Wait here. I forgot to give him my fortune cookie.”

Nick bounded back into the stink zone.

“He’s not very fortunate,” Rowden shouted.

“And no wonder,” Nick quipped.

Rowden expected Nick to drop off the cookie and return, but Nick dawdled. How long does a cookie delivery take when a whole meal was dropped off in an instant? Nick stood over Whiskey Han for a full three minutes — just talking. There appeared to be an angry exchange.

When did we get fortune cookies? Rowden thought.

Nick returned. He glanced back at Han Fu-xing, who still hadn’t taken the bags.

“We’re set.”

“Where did you get the fortune cookie? I don’t remember getting fortune cookies.”

“They were . . . were on the table near the elevator. Let’s catch a cab.”

“Wait. What did Whiskey Han say?”

“Best not repeated.”

Nick hopped into the street¬ — California Street. He looked both ways for a telltale taxi beacon. California Street leveled in its steep decline to the Bay at Grant Avenue. The Bay was invisible in night’s pall. Nick strained to see a hack, waving at a few before one pulled over.

Rowden was tired now. It must be the meal. All this running around. He could just as well go back to the Drake. Nick whistled, signaling Rowden to get in the cab.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

Castro Street,” Nick said.

Castro Street?” Rowden echoed.

As the cabby flipped the meter down, and then pulled away, Rowden’s mind raced. He knew enough about San Francisco to know that Castro Street was the heart of the Gay Community —

The Gay Ghetto. Suddenly, he was leery of Nick’s intentions. He had tried to fathom these intentions since they first met. They had run the gamut from scam artist to drug dealer. Now, perhaps there was another motive. Should I be flattered or upset? The lights on California Street flickered over Nick’s lemur eyes. The cabby turned the radio up, blaring the latest Cher.

“Why are we going to Castro Street?”

“I’m taking you dancing.”

“I don’t dance,” Rowden said, leaning away from Nick. “And what do you mean, you’re taking me dancing? I know about Castro Street.”

“You do?”

The taxi bounced over the cable car tracks, swerving at a breakneck pace. Rowden fidgeted.

“I like you, Nick. You’re smart and interesting, but I hope you’re not hitting on me? I’m not gay, you know.” Silence (except for Cher). “It’s a myth that geek University Professors are gay.”

Nick smiled. Perhaps he laughed a little.

“Relax, Rowdy. I know you’re not gay. I’m gay, but don’t give it another thought. I can tell gay men at a two-mile distance. I know you’re straight. Besides, even if you were gay, you’re not my type. I’m in a committed relationship.”

“So you’ve said.”

Nick looked Rowden squarely in the eye. “Listen. Nothing will lift your spirits better than an evening with the gay boyz. It’s a prescription from me, your smart-ass doctor.”

Rowden winced. He was not accustomed to being diagnosed by anyone so far his junior. He scrunched in his seat, and then cracked his knuckles.

“If you’re so dead against it,” Nick said, pushing his shock of hair from his eyes, “I’ll drop you off at your hotel. But you know what I think? I think you can’t be left alone tonight to brood. Before you go back to your solitary hotel room and your solitary life, I think you need a little pixie dust.”

Have I been insulted? If so, it was a gentle knock at least, not one to concern him. Instead, he worried in the moment.

“I’m not sure about this, Nick. I’ve never been in the gay district of anyplace.”

“It’s just another neighborhood. They sell milk and eggs and drink coffee in cups.” They had entered the Castro and, in truth, there were grocery stores and shoppers and theaters and parking meters — just like any neighborhood. There were also Rainbow flags every ten paces and men holding hands with men, enjoying the night air. Just like any neighborhood. Nick leaned forward. “In front of the Painted Lips.”

“The Painted Lips?” Rowden said, cracking his knuckles again.

“That’s a noisy habit.” The driver flipped the meter and lowered Cher. Nick looked at Rowden for a decision. “Are we getting out, or shall we continue to the Drake?”

Rowden hesitated, but had stopped his cracking.

“I don’t know about this.” Obviously. “If I get into some compromising situation, you better tell them I’m not that way.”

“Not what way? Presbyterian? Abyssinian? A non-smoker?”

Rowden chuckled.

“I give up. What the fuck.”

He opened the cab door slipping out onto the noisy, music filled street that was engulfed in a sea of flapping rainbow flags at every ten paces.

“Don’t worry, Rowdy,” Nick said, grabbing his arm. “No one will bother you. They’ll think you’re my sugar daddy and leave you alone.”

Rowden laughed.

3

The Painted Lips Lounge’s window displayed a pair of scarlet neon lips set between two flashing pink triangles. From outside, Rowden felt the ground thump to a constant hip-hop.

“We’re going in?” Rowden asked waiting in queue as he nervously smiled at the men about him. Buff men and coifed. Hulky and stout. Men of color and men alone. Swish men and college crew. Some slick with party glitz — some in shabby leather. Rowden was reminded of his own wild bebop experimentation in Greenwich Village. Bearded beatnik spirits. Psychedelic tie-dyed shirts. Ripped jeans. The sweet and sour waft of marijuana. This was pretty close, but different. Then, there had been a melting of individuals into a stream of oneness. This was more like a beaded kaleidoscope, each bead on its own thread. Each thread tacked to a different pole.

“You’ll love it,” Nick said. He swayed to the beat.

Rowden just smiled. Knuckles cracked. The man behind him was as bald as a turnip, had a ZZ Top beard, wore round dark sunglasses (to shade what, Rowden couldn’t guess) and sported lederhosen and lace, the lacey part exposing his ass crack shamelessly to the world. Rowden rolled his eyes.

They reached a turnstile manned by a burly bear dressed in pink leather and a floppy glitter hat.

“Pay the man, Rowdy. Fifteen bucks each.”

“That’s steep.”

“I’m not a cheap date.” Nick laughed. He pushed Rowden past the pay post into the heart of the club. The burly bear counted the cash, and then blew Rowden a kiss.

The Painted Lips, cavernous, filled with smoke and writhing, dancing bodies, had a front bar, long and lined three-deep with patrons. A back area opened into a wide dance floor overhung with catwalks and a stage. There were fleshy boyz and burly men everywhere, all dancing or drinking or flirting or chatting. They seemed to be self-contained, unaware that they were squeezed tight into a smoke filled room. Maybe it was the thump-a thump-a music.

“Keep up with me,” Nick said. He pulled Rowden deeper into the club.

On pedestals at vantage points, lightly clad and muscular men danced. Their rippling flesh flashed between lasers and rainbow dance-balls. Rowden stared up at a dancing boy.

“Does nothing for you, does it?” Nick said, laughing.

“No.”

“But the music must be getting into your blood.”

“No. It’s just noisy.”

Nick shrugged, but didn’t seem to mind. “Let’s get a drink.”

They entered the dance area. At each end, bar stations serviced thirsty patrons. Dancers pounded the floor, swaying with wild abandon. Beside the smoke, the place smelled a bit gamy, somewhere between a men’s locker room and the monkey house at the zoo. Rowden observed that many non-dancers stared at the dancers, while other men stared at the watchers. Some paraded, while some leaned against the rails, posing with one foot up against a wall. Backs arched. Preening. What did this mean? Was it some gay ritual best left unexplored? No time to become Margaret Meade.

“Here.” Nick handed him a drink.

Rowden looked at the clear liquor with distrust. Gin? Tequila?

“What is it?”

“Sambucca. Drink up.”

Rowden sipped it. Cringe.

“It’s like drinking licorice.” He set it aside. “Don’t they have beer?”

“Willy,” Nick shouted to the bartender. “A Bud.” He looked at Rowden’s middle-aged spread. “Make that a Bud Lite.”

“Smart-ass.”

“Don’t you wish you had one?”

Willy, who looked as if he was born in a gym, cracked open a beer and slid the frosted bottle across the counter.

“$5.50, Nick,” he shouted over the music’s blare.

“Pay him, Rowdy.”

Rowden complied. Suddenly, the music changed. The thumps transformed into a march-like, brassy disco beat. Nick moved his shoulders, wagging his head to the new thump-a thump-a.

“Let’s dance,” he said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Afraid of what people will say if they saw you dance with a man?”

“No. I’m afraid of what people will say if they saw me dance at all.”

“Well, suit yourself.” Nick darted onto the dance floor.

“Don’t leave me here alone.” Rowden had suddenly lost his cover. He set his beer on the bar, and then blundered between the dancers until he reached Nick.

“Every man has rhythm,” Nick said. “Well, just don’t stand there. Move your ass. Shake your hips. Do something.”

Rowden did something between a modified walk and a sloppy shuffle, smiling — laughing as he almost got the beat. He never did, but it was amazing how close he came. He was never good at dancing (just ask Rose), but when sufficiently boozed up he would chance it. Now, it was more an attempt to fit in. He wondered if there was a watcher out there among the non-dancers waiting to cut in. Nick was an amazing dancer.

“Where do you get the energy?” Rowden yelled. He slowed to a huff and puff. Sweat beads mushroomed along his brow ready to gush down his facial arroyo.

Nick zipped around him, his wiry body, nimble and sleek. He waved his arms to the side in wide circles, clearing every dancer aside. Soon, Nick was the central attraction for a circle of spectators. Swaying. Clapping. Nick executed some fancy footwork. Rowden just stopped and watched.

“You go, Nick,” cheered the circle of friends. “Great, Nick. Go, Nick.”

Nick finished to wild applause, laughing that infectious laugh that made all that heard it feel good. He raised his hand, and then swept down in a bow as the cheers rained forth.

 “You’re soaked,” Rowden said, as they went back to their drinks.

“And I stink,” Nick added. “It’s a good thing I’m with someone who couldn’t care less how I smell, eh Rowdy?”

Whether it was the beer (or that shot of Sambucca) or just the thump-a thump-a, Rowden felt more comfortable. He supposed he had overcome his initial fears of being trounced by an army of flesh hungry men and ravished in some stereotypical backroom. Little did he know that the Painted Lips’ backroom was always full and active; but no one dragged anyone in there. It was a voluntary votary in those sacred shrines.

Back at the bar, Rowden still huffed and puffed. He coughed.

“How can you take the smoke in here?” He downed half his beer in one swallow.

“Gay men have lungs of steel,” Nick said. “And hearts of gold.”

Suddenly, a siren went off. Rowden nearly dropped his bottle. “What the . . .”

“It’s not a raid,” Nick said. “It’s time for Miss Chatty and the cute butt contest.”

“You guys.” He shook his head.

Drum Roll. Spotlight. On the stage, Miss Chatty appeared to applause and catcalls. Miss Chatty, very large, wore an overly tight mini-skirt, which he poured out of like silly putty. He wore several coats of lipstick and a tall beehive wig.

“So boyz,” he bellowed in a baritone voice. “Are we ready to judge some butt?”

The place went wild as the five contestants climbed the catwalks, moving to the stage.

“Rules! Rules!” Miss Chatty said. “Oh how darling y’all are. Ooo la la! Miss Chatty gets to keep the losers. The winner — well, the winner gets to take me home.” More catcalls and heckling. “Just kidding, sissies. Now, you all know the rules. You do a little strip-strip-strip. And a little zip-zip-zip. Then, we see you in your skivvies. Hope you did a wash and used all-purpose Cheer. Oh my, I hope you all wore skivvies. Don’t want to close the place down, you know. After all, your mothers told you in case of an accident to wear clean shorts and socks. If not, be prepared to love a man in uniform. May the best butt win! Fifty bucks for the derriere du jour or nuit, as the case may be.”

The contestants, in turn, did a little strip down to their skivvies. Each stripper, admired and poked by Miss Chatty, was subjected to a crushing repartee and the applause meter. They strutted their stuff. Several votes and recounts later, one lucky butt strutter won the coveted prize and danced around the stage proudly.

“So, boyz,” Miss Chatty bellowed, “now that we’ve got that out of our systems, are you ready for a song?” They were. “Then, give it up for everybody’s sweetheart — Simone DeFleurry.”

Amidst the applause, a glamorous drag queen emerged, wearing a long, black dress and arm-length gloves. Simone DeFleurry sported a smart raven wig with sharp bangs.

“Is that a woman?” Rowden asked.

Nick did not answer, his blue eyes resting on Simone as if nothing else in the world existed. Simone began her song — the gay national anthem:

Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly.

Simone’s enchanting rendition moved Rowden to wonder about his former fears in such company. Simone’s eyes fluttered with the little birds that flew, faithfully catching every
Garland nuance. It was difficult to discern the divide between tribute and styling. The once boisterous, raucous club had been brought to silence until the last measure warbled. The room then burst into cheers. Whistles. Bravos. Calls for encore. Could there be any better acclaim on the Castro?

4

Nick sighed, still transfixed as Simone DeFleurry climbed down the catwalk. Rowden wondered at Nick’s transformation. Was it love?

“There’s a table in the back,” Nick said, walking toward Simone. Rowden was in tow. “We’ll go there.”

Simone slinked down the catwalk blowing kisses to his admiring fans. There must have been two hundred loving touches and feels. He sighed, absorbing the admiration and true appreciation for art. He then proceeded to the usual table, her table, reserved for the grand chanteuse. There he waited for Nick. The table, tucked in an alcove beside the dance floor, was shielded by a purple velvet drape, framing the star, as was the custom. As Nick approached, she waved to him as a queen does, with a hand twist.

“Dearest,” Nick said, greeting Simone with a kiss square on the lips. “Rowdy, this is my significant other — Simon.”

Rowden smiled. Wonderment explained.

“Simone,” Simon corrected, taking Rowden’s hand, anticipating a kiss. Rowden kissed her hand.  “Oh, a gentleman, indeed.”

“A straight gentleman, dear,” Nick said.

“That explains it. And Nicky, why are you out tonight with a straight gentleman? Not that I mind. It is preferable that my hubby stay true to me.”

Once Rowden settled in behind the drape, Nick made formal introductions. After all, nothing less would do for a prominent queen from her cute, sweaty consort.

“Simon, this is Professor Rowden Gray.”

“Professor?” Simone bubbled, preening with joy. “You needn’t tell me of what. It must be Chinese something. I knew one day my Nicky would bring home a Professor of Chinese something.” She leaned toward Rowden’s ear. “His hobby, you know.” She smacked her lips. “Oh, I’m so dry.”

Nick signaled for a drink.

“Your song was lovely,” Rowden said.

“Thank you. You’re most generous.” There was an awkward silence, the type experienced when the conversation runs its course like a river running uphill. Simone cleared her throat. “Is this the first time you’ve been in a Gay Club, Professor?”

“Don’t call me Professor. Call me . . . Rowdy, I guess. He does.” Rowden pointed to Nick, and then cracked those good old knuckles. “I’m a bit out of place here, as you can tell. It is my first time in a Gay Club. Is it that obvious?”

“Well, you have sweaty palms and a case of dart-eyes.”

“Dart-eyes?”

“You know, looking here and there, as if someone is picking your pocket. And, by the way, the first place gay men look at are the hands, dear. Don’t ask me why. It’s something we do naturally. Oh, I am thirsty. Where’s that drink, Nicky?”

“Willy’s slow tonight,” Nick said. “I’ll get it, dear.”

Nick slid out and headed for the bar.


“He’s always so attentive, Professor,” Simone said. “I can’t get him to take the garbage out or clean up the clutter in his study, but he’s the dearest bit of sunshine that has ever graced this getting-to-be middle-aged heart.” Rowden piped his beer. He stopped, realizing Simone was thirsty. He offered, but she declined. “So what brings you to
San Francisco, Professor? I know you’re not from here. You have a New York accent.”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“Not really. I’m originally from New YorkBrooklyn. In fact, when I donned my first drag, I called myself Brooks MacDonald.” Rowden did not make the connection, but bobbed his head as if he did. Simone explained: “The rule of thumb for creating drag names is to combine the name of your first pet and the street of your birth. I had a collie named Brooks and was born on MacDonald Avenue, in Brooklyn. Therefore, Brooks MacDonald.”

“So why did you change it?”

“My Nicky didn’t like it. He said Brooks MacDonald made me sound like a farm, Sunnybrook or the other. So we crafted a new name. But enough about me. Why are you here?”


Rowden bit his lower lip. He scanned the tabletop, a shiny glass mirror that reflected rainbows.

“It’s not a pleasant story,” he said.

“Well, lie then. Tell me you’ve been hired to find that damn Owl Nicky’s been looking for, so I can get a bit of peace.”

“The Jade Owl?” Rowden shuddered.

“Jade. Shmade. He’s always bent on it. He’ll drive me to the Darvaset with his Chinese stuff. It’s a good thing he’s a sweetheart — my sweet, sweet, sweetheart.”

Rowden slumped, allowing his mind to wander. So here we are again. Another complete stranger talking about John Battle’s mysterious lost bird. He felt as if he had been wandering his entire life on a furtive path only now to stray into a forest where every caterpillar sat on a pink toadstool and lectured on his specialty. As his eyes scanned the dance floor, he spied Nick at the bar. Nick talked to a rough dressed man, who wore a cowboy hat. The man turned facing the Queen’s table. Rowden got a good look, albeit a smoky one. The man definitely looked native — a shortened version of the old tobacco wooden Indian. However, something was wrong through the haze. What’s amiss with his eye? Nick appeared heated in his discussion.


 The rugged man scowled. They exchanged a note and a small white packet.

“Does your boyfriend deal drugs?”

“What?” Simone said. “What gave you that idea?’

“I don’t know. A guess. A few times tonight, he’s secreted away to talk with people as if he was negotiating deals. I just saw him now, at the bar, with a strange man.”

Simone shrugged. He rolled his eyes sky high.

“How would you know a strange man in here, Professor Gray?”

“The man wore a cowboy hat. I don’t see another cowboy hat in here.”

“Oh, him.” Simone smacked his lips. “That’s one of Nicky’s oldest friends. Drugs? That’s rich. No, everything is about his China hobby. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle for him. He’s probably got another piece.” Another piece, Rowden thought. China hobby? He tensed. The Jade Owl was in his thoughts again. China hobby? Another piece?

Nick balanced Simone’s drink (a Sambucca, Rowden thought, but it had a pink glow and floated a cherry) and two beers.

“Here we are,” Nick said. “Why so glum, Rowdy? I didn’t bring you here to continue your pout.” He raised the bottle. “Let’s toast to love, life, new friendships, and old China Hands.”

Rowden laughed. Nick’s right. I have no reason to butt into his business unless it’s my business. He clinked his bottle on Nick’s, tapped Simone’s happy pink drink and swigged.

“You’re a curiosity, Nick,” Rowden said. “The Old China Hands would have loved your spunk and tenacity. You’ve led me on a merry prance tonight. I feel something like life bubbling back through my veins.” He swigged. “What’s next? Where to next?”

“I know,” Simone said, as if on cue. “Since the Professor does not have a pleasant story, why not take him on your pleasant excursion this weekend.”

Nick pondered. Simone coaxed him with her bejeweled hands, pushing his arm like a nun shaking a novice.

“Excursion?” Rowden asked. “What excursion?”

“To Yosemite Park,” Simone bubbled. “I’m supposed to go. And I really would love to go. But Nicky, I’ll gladly give up my place on the bus for the Professor.” She looked from Rowden to Nick, who smiled. “I’m not really good at the outdoorsy stuff — sun on this radiant skin, you know. Gravel and high heels don’t mix well. Besides, the season’s nearly over, and I have two shows this weekend. I promised Miss Chatty I’d cover for Duney the Looney.”

“You mean Claire de Lune, dear.”

“Isn’t that what I said? You wouldn't mind much, Nicky, would you? Besides Professor, you’ll see some wonderful sights like El General. ”

El Capitan.” Nick laughed.

“Whatever. It’s truly lovely.”

Nick took a swig. Wetting his bottom lip with his upper, he smacked them like a spatula on wood.

“Well, Rowdy, unless you have other plans, you’re welcome to explore the wonders of Yosemite with me. It’s just a day trip. Early rise. Back by midnight.”


Rowden laughed, swigged again, and then appeared resolved. His head bobbed. Yes.

“You’re on, Nick. You’re an interesting fellow. We have a great deal in common — common interests, that is. I’ve no other plans this weekend. I do enjoy your company.”

“So,” Simone said, “I’m off the hook.” She winked. “Well, no offense Professor. I do owe you one.” She hit Nicky’s arm.

Nick snorted, but conceded the game. He raised his bottle again.

“To my love, Simone DeFleurry, and my new friend, Rowdy Gray.”

Rowden lifted his.

“And to Nick.” He stopped, and then cocked his head. “You know, I don’t know your last name.”

Nick looked down at the table, and then to the ceiling. Finally, he gazed directly into Rowden’s brown eyes.

Battle,” he said. “I’m Nick Battle.”

*   *   *   *   *

Chapter Five:

The Little Perch on the Hill

1

A mere half-block long, Prosper Street angled steeply up a short, straight hill to a dead end. Like most side streets in San Francisco, it would be great for sledding, but it never snowed. There were a few trees, mostly birches dotting the truncated stretch of street. Their leaves were scant, having been victims to the sharp drafts that gust down the lane in the morning and up the lane at night.

Rowden huffed and puffed as he searched the house numbers for 1160. He past the typical San Franciscan doorways — rococo framed and recessed under inviting archways, each trimmed for competition, their fa├žades Italianate — pastel green and pink, much like spumoni. One olive doorway was dotted with seraphim and rosettes. It sported a placard declaring itself number 1160.

It’s about time, Rowden thought.

He sat on the stairs and gazed down the street.

How do these people live on these hills? It’s like a fucking fun house. There was a time Rowden could throw a football and cover the bases. He even jogged through Central Park. Dim remembrance. Now he stood as a monument to the bookworm life.

Rowden looked for a mailbox or a bell. “This must be it,” he said. He pressed the buzzer marked Battle-Geldfarb. He smiled at the faux double-barreled name. He wondered how it was decided that the Battle came before the Geldfarb. It certainly wasn’t an age before beauty thing.

Footsteps on the upper floor. Window rattled. Rowden stepped back to the tilting sidewalk and gazed up. He could see a man in the window — a slightly balding man, thin and goose faced. This man (the goose man) waved and shook his hands like a bird in flight. When the head disappeared, the door buzzed. Rowden hopped up the stairs to open the olive portal before the moment passed. He entered a narrow hallway. It led to a shallow casement.

“Come up, Professor,” the man called.

Rowden hooked his hands on the banister and pulled himself up. The staircase creaked an old song, something akin to Rock of Ages. The hallway was bright. A stained-glass window near the top drenched the passage with rosy light. The walls were freshly painted. In fact, Rowden might have recognized the Sherwin-Williams aroma — Chocolate Surprise or Eggshell Supreme.

When Rowden reached the top, a slight man (the goose-man) of thirty-something, dressed in pink sweat pants and a Cher T-shirt, greeted him.

“Thank God,” the man said. “I’ve been waiting.” He ushered Rowden in, his hands still fluttering in avian repetition. “I’m a nervous wreck.”

Rowden, a bit confused, turned to the man. Of course. Now he recognized him. Not the face so much, but the voice.

“Simone, is that you?”

“Me? Who else would it be?” Simone chuckled. “Oh, goodness gracious, you’ve never seen me as Simon. That’s funny. Yes, yes, it’s me. Come in. I don’t bite.” Simone shut the door, and then raised his shoulders as if he was now Turkey Boy. “I’m a shambles, Professor. Please, tell me, where’s my Nicky?”

Rowden shrugged, almost as turkey-like in this bird convention.

“That’s what I’d like to know.”

“Oh my goodness, you don’t know?” Simone put his hands to his mouth. He stifled a gasp. “Come sit down. This is so upsetting.”

Rowden entered a warm room. Thick carpet. Heavy drapes. A parlor darkened by Victorian furnishings. Curios and picture frames on every available tabletop leaving scant surface for much else. Several wall clocks ticked, distracting as they ticked to different beats and chimed at different intervals.

Simone fluttered about. He opened the blinds, and then straightened a picture of some matriarch who peered out though narrow spectacles and a black veil, some ancestor from the old country, no doubt. Simone sighed. He assumed his hostess smile, despite his frumpy visage.

“Tea, Professor?”

“Yes, but don’t go to any bother for me.”

“No bother. It’s already steeping.” He disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Rowden to study the clutter. “I can’t believe you’ve lost my Nicky.”

“Lost him? I didn’t lose anyone. He dumped me.”

Simone brought the tea on an elegant rolling cart. Like everything in the parlor, it was busy — stacked with cookies and crackers in neat rows, in tins. Rowden took his tea and pawed a wafer.

“Your Nick managed a disappearing act at Yosemite. I traced him here.” He flipped the card over his thumb with all the flash of a magician. “The ID on his backpack.”

“Well, he’s not here,” Simone plopped into a velvet chair, and then sipped his tea. “I bet it’s that damn owl. It’s always that damn owl. This isn’t like him, Professor. I love him like my best piece of luggage, but when he digs into his father’s business, I wonder why I’ve ever hooked up with him.”

Simone set his cup down, and then wiped a tear. Rowden felt like an intruder now. He also understood that the double-barreled name was neither faux nor falsely ordered. As Simone sniffed, Rowden sighed. He was never good at comforting the distressed. It made him nervous to see a man teary. He searched for comforting words, but could come no closer than a progression from Simone’s last comment about Nick’s father’s business.

“Did you know his father?”

Simone blew his nose. “Did you?”

“Yes. I studied under Professor Battle. But John Battle’s business should be finished.”

“He left some business unfinished. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Professor. We should always honor our parents.” He pointed to the ancestral woman — Grandmother, Rowden now thought. “I loved mine. They left me this place, my little perch on the hill.”

“It’s lovely.”

“Oh, thank you.” Simone touched his hand to the teapot. “Lovely things my mother left me. I treasure them. I dust them every day. But Nicky’s father left his son a gaping hole — loose ends, books, objects, pictures, and a little trust fund to keep him out of trouble.”

“So Nick doesn’t work?”

“He works at being Nicky.” Simone sighed. “He has my heart and soul, but when I get my hands on him, I’ll kill ‘im.”

“He’s disappeared before?”

“Always in search of something I don’t understand. If there’s some danger, he’ll keep me from it, dear boy. The truth is, I never know when I’ll get the news that he’s been . . .  he’s been . . . oh shit, I’ll kill ‘im myself.”

Simone slammed the teacup down, almost cracking it. He quickly examined it for scars. Suddenly, he stood, and then stared out the window that overlooked the hill. The sun lit his chiseled features hinting at a deep sadness. Life, as fine and sassy as it can be, plants its heavy hand on those who walk a different line — a rickety beat as diverse as the clock ticks in that cluttered parlor, each within its own proud rhythm, reaching the hour in its own good time.

“I met John Battle once,” Simone said. Rowden sensed that Simone was viewing a daydream, a clear and biting relic played anew on the hill’s amphitheater. “He was a handsome man with salt and pepper hair. He had the same deep blue eyes as my Nicky, except they were restful. I guess with age, the eyes get more restful.” He looked back at Rowden, who took the point. “He was very gentle when speaking with me. But I could tell he disapproved.”

Simone returned to the chair. He crossed his legs.

“I wasn’t in drag that day. I wore a nice white suit and a green and lemon tie. Yes, green and lemon. I still have that tie. I remember. He shook my hand and said, Nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Geldfarb. But I knew he meant, Nice to meet you and hope never to see you again. Later, he had words with Nicky outside my earshot. Nick has never told me what was said . . . exactly. But I certainly could guess. You don’t live in the life and ignore the obvious. From that day on, father and son did not speak.”

Simone reached for his teacup, and upon seeing that Rowden’s cup was empty, reached to pour some more.

“On the day the old man died, they sent for Nicky. But . . . too late.” He sighed. “I truly believe Nicky wanted to make his father proud. They’re a proud lot, these Battles. Me . . . I’m just a spectator.”

Simone put the pot down, and then offered Rowden a cookie. He declined.

“Nicky’s interest in things Chinese grew from that day. So yes, Professor, I met John Battle. I can’t forget him. I see him every day in Nicky’s room. John Battle’s ghost haunts my little perch on the hill.”

Simone walked across the room to a closed door.

“I hate to go in here, but . . .”

He opened it, beckoning Rowden to enter.

“Nick’s study. Come see.”

2

A strange aroma floated into the parlor — an aroma Rowden recognized. An academic aroma. A library one — like the study hall at Columbia University. He sauntered to the door. The sunlight that lit the parlor disappeared in the study. Wall-to-wall bookshelves encircled the room, books opened everywhere; pictures, photos, and manuscripts strewn on tables and a mahogany roll top desk. Old Pew.

“Mother of God,” Rowden muttered. “Would you look at this?” He hadn’t seen so much oriental clutter since his own studies — his thesis days, when the White Cross was ingested by the pound and dim light formed small circles around whatever index stack dumped across the ramshackle of references. The place smelled of old books that had traveled long and far in the bellies of Chinese cargo ships for months at a time, like some scholastic middle passage. It was a legacy to the China Hands to see so many volumes shouting from the shelves with their musty, briny aroma.

“Remarkable.”

“To me, it’s scary.”

“Scary?”

“Considering Nicky doesn’t read Chinese, I don’t see why he’s collected all these Chinese books.”

“This is his father’s collection.” Rowden went to the shelf and dusted off a large pea-green volume. He opened it back to front. “This is the Sung de Li-shr — the Sung Dynastic History. One in seven volumes, I should say. I lived in these. In fact, I borrowed this exact volume from Professor Battle when I started work on my dissertation. You have no idea the memories that this book recalls.”

“Well, at least it’s worth something to you, Professor.”  Simone ran his hand along another shelf. “They’re dust collectors.”

“Worth something? This entire room is probably worth more than the building it stands in.”

“Fat good that does.” Simone shook his head. “Nicky never parts with a page of it.”

Rowden went to the desk and scanned the avalanche of pictures. “These photos are amazing,” he said. He picked up a large framed portrait of John Battle.  “He was my mentor. He taught me my craft, ungrateful snip that I was. I repaid him with . . . disloyalty — academic disloyalty.”

“Whatever are you talking about, Professor?”

Rowden put the picture down, and then touched Simone’s shoulder.

“I wish you would stop calling me Professor.”

“Why? It’s so you. Let others call you what they want or what you want. Drag queens are not easy to boss around, you know.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

“So, Professor, just how did you come to lose my Nicky in Yosemite?”

Rowden did not turn his attention from the photos. He just whipped through them not knowing which to look at first.

“I didn’t lose him. He went away with . . . well, I guess there’s no way around it. I’m sorry to be the one to bring it up, but there’s no easy way to skirt it.”

Simone tapped his foot. “Don’t be a mystery.”

“Nick bumped into an ex-lover.”

“An ex-lover? What on earth are you talking about? Nicky has never been with anyone but me.”

“Could have fooled me.” Simone drew his beak as if the goose was about to strike. “Griffen. His name was Griffen.”

“Griffen.” Simone laughed.

“It’s funny?”

“Griffen? An ugly, one-eyed Indian. He’s not an ex-lover. He’s not even gay.”

“I saw him in the club the other night.”

“Just because you’re in a gay club doesn’t mean you’re gay. You were there. No, Griffen is Nicky’s old camping buddy.” Simone’s mood changed. Concern. “But Griffen only shows up when there’s trouble. He’s sort of Nicky’s guardian angel. So you’re right. It isn’t funny at all. I bet it’s that damn owl.”

“The Jade Owl? Do you know . . .”

“I know nothing about that thing. But I do know where to find Griffen on a sunny day in San Francisco. Wait here. I’ll be quick. Poke around in the photos.” He shuffled around on the desk, selected a photo. He thrust it into Rowden’s hand. “Here’s your damn Jade Shmade Owl!”

Simone left to get dressed. Rowden stared at the photograph, slowly twisting in the chair. The sepia photo was old and torn. It showed a young John Battle at a China dig. Christ, Rowden thought. He’s the spitting image of Nick at that age. John Battle posed in the photo, holding out the object of his quest — the Jade Owl. Six inches tall, stocky and pudgy, with the two hoot eyes. It did exist. Here’s the proof. But it was strangely out of focus with the rest of the objects in the photo. Rowden sorted through other photos, finding several of the Jade Owl. They all showed it as a fuzzy object — always at odds with its surroundings. I’d love to shove these up Gillenhaal’s ass, he thought. He gazed back at the photos. This thing doesn’t photograph well. Odd.

Looking closer, Rowden noticed several other objects around the dig, including a curious mother-of-pearl box with a large inscribed character on its lid. What’s that character? Shield? Cage? I guess it would need to be in a sentence to tell. It could have both meanings. These photos are unique and wonderful. Nick ought to collect these in a book and have them displayed. I bet the Museum would fund it. Even J.J. would need to admit the old man scored a great find. He squinted.

“Who’s this? Simon, do you know who this woman is in the pictures?”

“I’m almost ready,” Simone said from the other room.

“She’s in so many. And a child.” He smiled. Sly old fox. We prod and poke.

Simone rushed into the room, his lilac perfume gaining Rowden’s attention.

“Zip me up, Professor.” Simon had become Simone once again, wearing a red and white polka-dot sundress with matching red shoes. His wig had merry curls, which begged for a hat. “I wasn’t that long. There goes the myth that drag-queens take longer than women to get dressed.”

 Simone held a wide-brimmed hat flat to his chest waiting for Rowden to complete the dressing process with a zip.

“Are you going out like this?” Rowden obliged the zipper in an off-hand manner.

“Like what?”

“The cross-dress?”

“Professor, I’m not a cross dresser.” Simone pouted, but in a friendly manner, much like a school marm chastising her favorite student. “Besides, most cross dressers are straight men in their wives’ frocks. I’m a chanteuse. A true drag queen. I dress as a sign of style and taste, not as some yearning to be anything more than I am.” Being zipped, Simone twirled around — an inspection twirl, too raucous for the runway, but appropriate for a final exit. “I’m as much the man as you. I package differently, that’s all. I don’t dress like this on all occasions. But on our little mission today, you’ll be glad, in the end, to have had me along and in drag.”

Simone doffed the hat, the wide brim providing considerable shade on each side. The gloves, in place, he clutched a stylish red purse. A scarf completed the ensemble.

“Where are we going?” Rowden attempted to digest the moment with the dignity it deserved.

“Out of this stuffy, gargoyle study. Out into the radiant sun and onto the brilliant pavement. We’ll play tourists today, Professor, on the lookout for fine artwork for our magnificent flat somewhere back in . . . let’s say, Kansas City or Opelika or somewhere back there.” He led Rowden into the parlor. “It must be a fine work to offset the ottoman and lava lamps. It should be by one of the better known South of Market artists.”

“South of Market?”

“SOMA. Don’t you know anything about style and fashion?”

“I guess not. So where are we going?”

Union Square, silly.” Simone led the way down the stairs. “That’s where we’ll find a good artist or at least a half-sighted Indian one today.”

Rowden opened the front door for Simone, who fished through his purse for the key and locked up. Down the bevels of Prosper Street, Rowden Gray escorted his afternoon date — Simon Geldfarb, the divine, gracious and precious dove (formerly goose). A man much like himself, only packaged a little differently.

To read another excerpt from The Jade Owl, see
11/17/08.  For an excerpt from The Third Peregrination (the second volume in the Jade Owl series), see 2/16/09.  To read an excerpt from The Dragon’s Pool (volume #3 in the Jade Owl series) see 6/8/09.

To purchase the ebook, click http://www.amazon.com/dp/B001J54AWO

4 comments:

AlanChinWriter said...

Your prose is smooth as silk, Ed. The story has a wonderful blend of tension and humor.

ECP said...

Tbank you Alan. Such high praise

Victor J. Banis said...

Well, I've read this already and it's every bit as good as the excerpt would have you believe - better, in fact. Wait till they get to China...you'll think you've been there too

Lloyd Meeker said...

I can feel the momentum build, like a train slow out of the station, and can tell this is one mystery that won't be solved right away. Classic hero's journey beginning -- meticulous development carrying the heft of an epic. Yum.