Monday, February 9, 2015

The Jade Owl excerpt by Edward C Patterson

From the flagship novel of the Jade Owl Legacy, Book I - The Jade Owl by Edward C Patterson:

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 (10/23/2008)


Chapter One

Opportunities Lost


When Rowden Gray charged into the San Francisco Museum of East Asian Arts and Culture, he caused quite a stir. He had been pacing in the buttery sun of Golden Gate Park for at least twenty minutes, his feet scuffing the grayment. He clutched a battered telegram. Stopping, he gazed at the Museum’s marble archway. He tried hard to restore his calm. Difficult. He was not calm. After the flight from New York, his jet lag advanced. His stomach growled like a fireball. His eyes strained from the grit of in-flight movies. He took one bracing lung-pulling breath and felt the strange warmth of the wintry air.

I should leave, he thought. I should just head back to the airport and go home. Why should I give him any satisfaction? Rowden sauntered to a bench, sat and then cracked his knuckles almost dropping the balled up paper. He loosened his tie. Hands wiped on his gray slacks. Eyes closed. Spit. Where would I go? All these years waiting for this or something like this, was shattered like the telegram he mashed. Shattered bythe telegram he mashed. Years of research and classroom slavery, a sea of bored faces cropping into his mind — students without interest, without aptitude. No reward for the serious scholar, the passionate expert in things Chinese. Here it was, before these doors, the opportunity of a lifetime, the reward that comes to the worthy. Only now that reward lay tarnished in words ill met by downcast eyes. I wish they hadn’t led me here. But they had. He had, and to Professor Rowden Gray, that made the telegram burn as if it had teeth biting into his palm, eating his composure to the marrow.

So when Rowden resolved to enter and face his foehe flew off the bench, whirled up the marble stairs into the cold luster of the Museum’s cavernous lobby. His feet kept him focused on the goal, but blind to the many visitors and guests. As Rowden bolted past the security guards, he ran smack into an unsuspecting visitor.


Rowden kept to his own feet, the visitor being a slight thing — a young man in a blue shirt, who careened backwards, spun and fell near the guard station.

“Are you all right?” Rowden asked. He came to the young man’s aid feeling quite the ass for his actions. “I didn’t mean to . . . I mean, I’m sorry to have . . . Christ, I’m sorry.” The man lay facedown, squirming to regain his feet. When he turned, his eyes met Rowden’s. Lavender, Rowden thought, although he had no idea why he thought it. Maybe it was the kid’s aftershave or perhaps his deep blue eyes. Whatever crossed Rowden’s mind, it stymied him from helping. The guards rushed to the young man’s assistance. They scowled at Rowden Gray.

The stricken visitor seemed more embarrassed than upset. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll be okay. Leave me be. I’m okay. Really.”

Rowden sighed, and then cracked his knuckles. The guards, appearing to know the young man, helped him brush off. One guard had a full cropping handlebar mustache. The other was as hairless as a Chihuahua.

“You better have a good explanation for charging in here like a fucking bull,” said the mustached guard.

Rowden looked about. Beyond the lobby, the main exhibition hall now echoed with the chatter of visitors.

“Well,” the guard snapped. “Are you listening to me?”

“I am,” Rowden said. He held the crumpled telegram in his right hand. “I have business here. Important business. Pressing business.”

“We’ll see about that,” the guard said, pulling at the telegram. Rowden refused to surrender it. He turned away from the main hall, glancing down a long corridor. A woman approached, her beige high heels echoing on the marble floor, announcing her arrival.

“RG?” she said upon reaching the entrance.

“Connie?” Rowden tightened his hold on the telegram. “Connie, look what I’ve caused.”

Connie inspected the damage. There was none. The young man was already recuperating. The other visitors were drifting back to the display cases.

“Quivers,” Connie said to the mustached guard. “This is Professor Gray. He has an appointment with the Curator-General.”

Quivers bobbed his head and fluttered his hands. “If you say so, Miss Wilson.”

“I’ll take him in,” she said. “Follow me, RG.”

The young man in the blue shirt sat on a bench now. Rowden thought to apologize again, but perhaps it was best to leave it alone. Incident over. He had vented his anger. Shame it poured over an innocent bystander.Shame.

Rowden followed Connie Wilson through the corridor past an authorized personnel only sign. She slinked, her fetching curves easy to follow, if one had a notion.

“Rowden, I’m really sorry this has happened.”

“Me too,” Rowden said. “I hope that young man’s okay.”

“Young man?” She smacked her lips and rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry about him. I’m sure he’ll recover. Accidents happen.” She turned toward him and straightened his tie. “No, I meant about the position.”

Rowden sighed, loosening his tie. “So you know?”

 “I do. I was excited when I heard that you were joining our team. I told J.J. that the Board made a wise decision in choosing you. I heard the bad news only yesterday. I’m sorry.”
They had reached a dark cold spot in the hallway. Rowden could barely see his conductor, but felt her as she slipped his tie up again. She gave him a peck on the cheek.

“I only wish they’d told me before I came all the way out here,” he said. He raised the telegram and punched it.

“I agree. Not tactful nor timely.”

They turned a corner into a brighter stretch. A windowed door filtered light upon the mosaic floor. Curator-General was emblazoned across the opaque window proclaiming the seat of authority. Connie turned the knob, but hesitated before the pull.

“He’ll fill you in, RG. I believe there will be satisfactory compensation.”

“It’s not about the money.” Rowden’s chin tucked as his former anger rekindled. “This place is my dream. John Battle’s quarry is here. What an opportunity to prod and poke in the old man’s treasures. You, of all people, know what this post meant to me.”

Connie lowered her eyes, the look of understanding. She opened the door, ushering Rowden in. The Curator-General’s secretary, a pleasant, older woman with white hair and tidy heft, acknowledged them with a friendly smile. She stood behind her well-ordered desk.
“Millie, this is Professor Gray.”

“Professor Gray,” Millie said. “It’s such a pleasure. Your name is a legend among the staff. Just the other day I heard . . .” She stopped mid-smile, perhaps thinking what she had heard should not be repeated, although she probably had repeated it often enough. No matter.
“Actually, Professor Gray, I wish the Curator-General had better news for you. I’m truly sorry. It would have been nice to have you on board.” Suddenly, her pout changed to a broad smile. “Are your accommodations satisfactory?”

Rowden’s head cocked. She’s worried about my accommodations, when I’m out here adrift. How flaky is that? “Quite nice,” he said. “I’m at the Drake, but you would know that, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, inviting him to sit. “Good. I’m glad. At least we can make you comfortable while you’re our guest in San Francisco.” She waddled around to his side. “I’ll tell J.J. you’re here.”

Rowden sat. He was the picture of anxiety. Lips tensed. Teeth clenched. Eyes scanning the room. He cracked his knuckles. Connie sat beside him.

“Still doing that?” she said, placing her hand on his.

“Bad habit, I know.”

“And noisy.” She brushed his pants toying with the crease, or what would have been a crease had the flight been shorter. “How’s Rose?”

“Rose?” He smiled. “News travels slowly. Rose and I split up. I thought you knew. It’s been four years.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not really helping you, am I?”

“Actually, you are. You’re a friendly face — a familiar one.”

He had felt abandoned since his arrival, even before he checked in at the Drake and got that poisoned telegram. He came to San Francisco filled with excitement. Things had been rough lately. Nothing but a sea of the same old classroom assignments and beginner’s guides to the Cultural Revolution — nothing special.

“Connie, this post was good news — great news. Then, to get this telegram.” He slapped the paper again. “You don’t know what it is to arrive with hope only to be handed bad news by a front desk clerk. It’s no way to treat a man of letters.”

“No,” she agreed. “But you needed to hear about it somehow and before you came here today.”

That’s certainly true. But why should he be here at all? Why didn’t they just leave him alone in his obscure fiddle-fucking, pen twirling sinological obscurity — allow him to fester on some innocuous research paper for The Harvard Journal of Asian Studies, a cancerous whim meant for importance instead of infecting him down to the knuckles he cracked? Why did he feel so alone and betrayed? Why should he not? He was both.


Millie returned through the Curator-General’s door, where a tall, portly man stood wearing a three-piece suit. Older than Rowden by two decades, J. Jenkins Gillenhaal appeared older still, time aging him with the same subtle brush that had varnished his office’s dark paneling.
“RG,” he boomed. “Please come in. Have a seat. Millie, two coffees. If I remember, you take it black?”

Rowden jerked to his feet. He veiled his thoughts behind a forced smile and followed J.J. Gillenhaal’s cue. The curator checked his pocket watch, proceeding to a large picture window overlooking Golden Gate Park. A grandfather’s clock bellowed the noon hour as Rowden sat.

“We have beautiful weather here in winter, RG,” the Curator-General said. “It gets cold during the summer. Befuddles your East coast logic, doesn’t it?”

“The weather doesn’t befuddle me, J.J.” He cracked his knuckles. “I love Golden Gate Park in any season. This museum is its crown jewel.”

“We are proud of it.” Within these halls, the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets. “Ah, the coffee. Thanks, Millie.”

When Millie left, Curator Gillenhaal sat behind his empire desk, his demeanor changing. He played with his MontBlanc pens, three of them — one green, one red and one blue. “It’s been some time since we’ve sat face to face. You were among my star pupils.”

“J.J., cut to the chase. I’ve come a long way for nothing. I’m as tired as hell and fucking pissed. Bottom line, please.”

“I can understand your hurt,” Gillenhaal said, shrugging, “but it’s not personal, you know. The Board of Trustees created a real position. You were their choice and rightly so. Although, I must say, you haven’t published much and you’ve never held tenure in any of your positions. Nonetheless, the Board reviewed your research. You were their choice.”

“It sounds like I wasn’t your choice.”

The clock ticked like a bomb somewhere in the corner of the room.

Tick dock. Tick dock.

“There is no other expert of your caliber in Sung Dynasty studies today,” J.J. said. “I did have reservations. Personally, I think you cleave too much to John Battle’s school of thought, you know. Battle’s methods were never my cup of tea.”

Tick dock. Tick dock.

“John Battle was a great man.”

“Yes. A pirate and swashbuckling scholar.” J.J. templed his fingers, tapping his lips. “There was always a touch of drama about John Battle. He was too driven. And then there was his obsession with the Jade Owl.” Rowden winced. Just this reference to his mentor’s lost relic sent shivers down his spine. “I mean, it’s a shame the damn thing went missing, if it existed at all. But whatever credibility the Old China Hand had with me evaporated when he lectured on the Jade Owl.”

Tick dock. Tick dock.

Rowden remembered one such lecture about that precious jade avian figurine. John Battle claimed it glowed and hooted and cast who-knows-what voodoo over its possessor. He delivered that lecture with the conviction of an evangelist on the Mount of Olives. Rowden also remembered the whispers. The old man’s lost it. He’s stayed out in the sun too long. Rowden hated that the field’s most prominent scholar was cast in lunacy’s tinge. Jealousy, more like it.

Tick dock. Tick dock.

“Last time I looked,” Rowden said, “the main exhibition hall out there sports John Battle’s name.”

“Don’t get me wrong. Without his contributions, this Museum would be poorer.” Gillenhaal smirked, apparently pleased to see his points secure. He had tossed a javelin and it hit its mark. “You see how you defend unorthodoxy?” he groaned. “Nonetheless, despite any reservations, I did approve you as the choice.” He tapped his coffee cup with the spoon.
Tick dock. Tick dock.

 “We didn’t expect the Endowment to be cut. That makes the new position out of the question. Maybe when the administration changes, the cash flow might improve. However, in my experience, it really does not matter who rules the national cupboard, once cut, it’s cut.”

“I see,” Rowden said. “So it really doesn’t matter that I have an agreement with the Board?”
Tick dock. Tick dock.

“Well, it’s not really an agreement. We extended the offer. You accepted. We were to finalize it here.”

Rowden exploded, standing so forcefully, his chair pushed back a half yard.

“That’s bullshit, J.J. We settled on salary and bonus. I don’t think you can pull this crap!”

Curator Gillenhaal, calm and silent, continued stirring. He placed the cup down and rearranged his MontBlancs. He glanced out the window again appearing braced by the warm winter weather.

Rowden sat again. He shook in the shadow of Gillenhaal’s calm. Firebrands may explode
over parapets, but if they fail to provoke, it’s no more than pissing in the wind.

Gillenhaal reached into a side drawer, and then flopped a document onto the blotter — a
rather legal looking document. “Calm down, RG.” He pushed it across the desk.

“What’s this?” Rowden asked, perusing it. He knew full well. He was almost ready to see just how prepared the Board of Trustees was to assuage his ire. Call it pain and suffering.

“You see,” Gillenhaal said with the tedium of an old bureaucrat, “we will compensate you for your time and expectations. It’s a fair amount, I believe?”

Tick dock. Tick dock.

Rowden cocked his head. His eyes bugged. “It’s not about the money. I love what I do, and I do it well. I would do it best here. It’s my passion you’re fucking with, J.J.”

“I believe, in the end, it will be about the money,” J.J. said, shaking his head. He raised a finger to the side of his nose. Rowden gazed at the plethora of degrees and awards ensconced on the walls, the ever-present clock (Tick dock. Tick dock), and the precisely stacked collection of expensive fountain pens.

“You will hear from my lawyer, J.J.”

He tossed the agreement at his former teacher.

“Very well.”

Gillenhaal swept the agreement into the desk drawer, and then slid it shut. “There’s still time. You have three weeks to consider the matter. The settlement will be here, if you want it. However, one call from your attorney and it’s a memory.”

Curator Gillenhaal arose, went to the window and warmed his hands in the winter sun.

“Good day, Professor Gray.”


Rowden wandered into the Museum’s main exhibition hall — John Battle Memorial Hall, named after his professorial mentor. He had let himself out of the office, drifting along the dark corridor past the guards. The mustached guard, the one called Quivers, regarded him. The other guard, the bald one, must have gone on break. Quivers sneered under his handlebars like a Schnauzer guarding a bone. Rowden ignored him and sauntered into the great hall.

The hall, high arched and skylighted, sported two balconies, tiers overlooking the precious displays of Chinese dynastic art and reliquary. John Battle’s quarry. Rowden’s breath hitched. He could almost feel the Old China Hand beside him pointing out long columns of text, rattling about the significance of this passage or that. Rowden shut his eyes. Lips quivered. He remembered his mentor and that wondrous find — the Jade Owl.
Rowden had never seen the Jade Owl. He didn’t know anyone who had except the old man.

Rowden had seen a sketch on fine linen sheets in John Battle’s own hand. We must find it, Battle had bristled. It has an inner splendor like no other relic, RG. Believe me, you must follow and take up the trail. You must . . . But Rowden couldn’t recall the rest of John Battle’s passionate call to mystery. He had blocked it from memory.BizarreUnorthodox. Swashbuckling.

“I’m sorry, JB,” he whispered.

Rowden opened his eyes. The sunlight filtered across the main display, a great glass cabinet at the hall’s far end. His gaze fixed on that display like a magnet to steel. He took two steps toward it, and then paused. He looked at his right hand. It shook, still gripping the telegram. Snapping his fingers apart, he jettisoned the evil paper ball across the polished floor.

“Does that make you feel better, RG?” came a voice. It was Connie Wilson. She had been tracking behind him.

“Better?” Rowden turned and walked backwards. “Better than what? Better for whom?” He quickened his pace, turning to assure he didn’t trounce another unsuspecting visitor. “J.J. has always been a bastard. Am I better for that?”

“Take it easy, RG. Slow down.”

Rowden stopped. “I’m sure my position could have been preserve, except for J.J. He’s had it in for me for years.” Connie gave him an incredulous look, probably drawing a different conclusion. “He’s always hated the fact that I followed John Battle’s research techniques. And why not? John Battle taught me everything.” Rowden cracked his knuckles. His gaze encompassed the display objects as if they were a fine blend of malt and barley. “Look about you, Connie. Look.*”

Connie shifted her eyes from side to side. Rowden grabbed her hand pulling her forward past case after case of Chinese relics — richly adorned porcelains, fine crafted silver jewelry, bronze vessels, and silk ceremonial robes. She resisted, apparently embarrassed to be pulled about like quarry.

“RG, stop pulling me around.” Connie stood her ground. “I see these objects every day. Of course, they’re special, but it’s where I work. They’re my familiars. I can’t get as goosey over them as you do.”

Rowden stopped.

“Work?” He clenched his fists. “Yes, to work here. This is the work — the real work, the kind of thing that a China Hand needs to survive.”

His eyes danced as he gazed to the skylight. Connie looked around probably assuring that they had not become the center of attention.

“RG, the old China Hands are gone . . . except J.J.”

He scowled. “Not J.J. You can’t call him that. Don’t even put him on the same plain as John Battle.” She signaled him to lower his voice, which had carried through the hall’s hollow.

“John Battle is like a god to me.” His hand swept up toward the vault. “See what an Old China hand can procure. Just look at these. I know you see them every day, but do you, really? Do you really see them?”

“RG, you’re just upset.”

“Wouldn’t you be if you were in my shoes?” He drifted toward the centerpiece display. To be custodian for any of these relics would be my great privilege, he thought. In that, I would be better. In that, this museum would be better. But I’m not going to do that now, am I? “You all lose.”

“I’m sure . . .”

“Sure of what?” Rowden shook his head. Sigh — a deep drawn bracing sigh preventing him from exploding at Connie. After all, she was a friendly face, a pretty face at that, with a fresh Ivory Soap aroma. Soft cheeks. Beige curls bobbing over a tight green sweater. He shut his eyes to blank her out. She was distracting. He turned toward the great display case.

“Take a look at it, will you?” He pointed at the glory of John Battle Memorial Hall — a great jewelry box, hewn from jade and encrusted with pearls and silver. Rectangular. Four feet high with ethereal carvings — cranes and sparrows, doves and ducks. At each bird’s eye, a pearl. On the cover, a sea of dragons chasing treasure — except at the crest. There, a break evidenced a missing piece. Where the missing piece belonged was a comet shaped indentation.

“The Empress Wu’s Jewelry Box,” Connie said. “The Joy of Finches.”

Rowden brought his face close to the glass.

“The box that cannot be opened.”

“There’s nothing in it.” Connie came close to Rowden’s shoulder. Oh, the Ivory Soap. “We had it x-rayed. It’s hollow.”

“The wonders of modern science. Who knows what hides in that emptiness?”

“Well, even John Battle couldn’t find out. He spent the better part of his fortune trying, the poor man. But he was a little daft at the end.” Rowden winced. “You must admit that the business with the Jade Owl was over the top. I know the old man was sincere in his belief that he had found and lost the cure for all the world’s ills, but I just think . . .” She didn’t have to say it. He stayed out in the sun too long.

Rowden bit his tongue. He was not going to drag himself through this argument again, defending what he didn’t understand — a relic he had never seen. He glanced at Connie. She’s so fetching in that sweater.“Are you doing anything tonight?” he asked.

“Would you like to get a drink?”

“I’d love to, but I have a long-standing appointment tonight.”

“Break it.”

“I can’t. It’s with the marketing consultant from Biggs. He’s in town for tonight only.” Rowden sighed. He cracked his knuckles. “How long do you think you’ll be in San Francisco?”

“I’m not sure. Not long.” He hunkered down near the display.

“I’ll tell you what, RG. I’ll check my scheduler. If I’m free this week, I’ll leave you a message at the Drake.”

“Thanks,” he said, standing. “It was really nice to see you again. I’m sorry I’m such a surly bastard today.”

She kissed him on the cheek. He hugged her and took a larger liberty beneath her nose, which she apparently did not discourage as she let his lips repose there twice.
“Will you be okay?” she asked.

Rowden smiled. “I’m in freaking John Battle Memorial Hall, standing beside the Joy of Finches. Now, that’s a restorative.”

Connie kissed him again before retreating to the entrance and beyond the authorized personnel only sign. Rowden’s smile dimmed. His fury had melted to despair. A wave of sadness engulfed him despite hisrestoration declaration. He returned his attention to the Joy of Finches, his eyes studying the contour of every beak, eye, and swirl. How he wished he could don latex and explore each contour of this lovely object with his scientific hand. It beckoned him, a power within, calling from an ancient, withered Imperial heart. As he stared, his imagination played a game. A mirage. He shuddered. At the crest of the box, he thought he saw the outline of that haunting bird — a deep velveteen green wavering in a fluorescent glow. He blinked. It was gone.

Rowden hunched forward squinting. Perhaps he had seen another relic in some back case imposing its image in his line of vision. But no. There was nothing. Nothing? He shuddered again.

“What’s that?” He thought he saw another ghost. No. A reflection in the display case glass — the young man in the blue shirt from his earlier encounter. He gave Rowden a start.

Rowden abruptly turned, but there was no one. Nothing. Just the lingering scent of lavender. He cocked his head, looking for reflections in the black marble floor.

How odd, he thought. I must be losing my mind. I must.

He took another longing glance at the Joy of Finches — the Empress Wu’s great treasure.

“You all lose!” he muttered.

He turned away wondering why he could think of nothing now but the aroma of lavender.

Chapter Two

The Powell Street Line


Rowden Gray did not normally drink. Nor did he drink to excess by most standards, but, as he sat in the dark recesses of the Drake Hotel’s bar, he past his own quota by three. An accommodating bartender mixed whatever accompanied the Dewars and gave Rowden an impartial ear for babble.

The bar was a perfect companion to Rowden’s mood. The late afternoon glow managed to peek through the street signage hinting that there might be a sky above the Powell Street canyon. At this hour, few patrons were at the bar. A couple of men, probably salesmen by the drone of their conversation, sat at a high round table with frosty beer mugs. At the far end, a solitary woman, about fifty, sucked a martini. Her part of the furniture appearance tagged her as a regular.

Rowden cared little for other people just now. I’m supposed to be the expert, he thought. I teach. I’ve no other calling. The lesson of the day, kiddies, is a bitter one. Never look for blue skies in winter’s bleak. He drowned his acidic thoughts with a shot, his soft brown eyes looking for anything in the bar’s mirror.

“There’s nothing for me in any season now,” he said. “Nothing.”
In the mirror, Rowden could see the salesmen turn upon hearing his comments. He could see the martini lady look up. Through the window, he saw that Powell Street bustled. Why did he care? They all have lives. Where’s mine?

There was a clanging — a sharp, high-pitched bell echoing through the Powell Street canyon.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“The Powell Street Line,” the barkeep said. Always in the shadow of tall buildings, the Powell Street’s cable car climbed up the steep hill to California Street heading toward the bay. “Passes here every eight minutes.”

Rowden stretched his glass forward for a refill.

“I have no other calling,” he said. “No other prospect left.” The bartender smiled, apparently pleased to dispense nothing more than Dewars’ amber balm. “I knew someone would understand,” Rowden said. “Thank you.” He sniffed the scotch, bringing it to his lips. His tongue leaped into the balm like a puppy lapping the last morsel of kibble. He heard the bell again and glanced into the mirror. He thought he saw the ghost again, but knew he was losing his mind. The outline of the Jade Owl flashed. With some help from the demon drink, it was a short hop to hallucination. Shot glass slammed on the bar. He shouted: “I never cared much for this life as a thing worthwhile.”

“Sir,” the bartender said, squaring his eyes into Rowden’s. “The other patrons. Please.”

“Sorry,” Rowden whispered. “Once I had purpose. A mission. I knew my path. It’s an empty road now. I’m alone and useless.”

The barkeep shook his head and poured another golden drop into Rowden’s glass. Another cable car passed, its sullen bell drawing Rowden’s attention away from his drink.

No. I’ve never cared much for life as a thing worthwhile. The bell beckoned him to breathe the canyon’s air, the fresh aromas of San Francisco. Rowden paid the bill. Lumbering over the hotel’s threshold, he emerged into the Powell Street canyon. Although people filled the narrow street, he felt alone. He noticed nothing but the leaden cable car tracks.

Such a notion, he thought, fighting the compulsion to stand in the middle of the street. His feet unglued, leaving the curb to await the next cable car, the one that would carry him somewhere other than Powell Street. He cracked his knuckles. He could see the next car a few blocks away, loading tourists. Rowden shook his sweaty hands. Eyes closed. He drew a breath. Lavender. He whiffed the scent of lavender.

“They’re better to ride,” said a voice near his shoulder. “Under the wheels is no place for you. Besides, they rarely kill — just maim.”

Rowden turned. Beside him stood the young man in the blue shirt.

“You,” he said.

“Why yes,” said the man. The wiry youth, who couldn’t be more than twenty-two, placed his hand on Rowden’s shoulder. “I heard your little homily in the bar. I thought it quaint, but unoriginal.”

“I thought I saw something in the mirror,” Rowden said. “Why are you here? Are you stalking me?”

The young man pulled a crumpled letter from his pocket. The telegram.

“You dropped this at the museum. I tried to catch up with you, but you’re walking on air or something. It’s addressed to the Drake, so I took a shot. Here.”

Rowden looked at the telegram. Shudder.

“You can drop that. It’s not something I’m likely to save. I was rid of it. I am rid of it.”

“Well, we can’t litter, you know,” the young man said. “I’ll just keep it safe for you.” He smoothed it on his shirt, folding it twice, and then shoved it in his pocket.

“Did you read it?”

“I guess. How else could I find you, Professor Gray?”


The cable car arrived, passengers spilling out its sides. The young man jumped on board.

“Have you ever ridden one of these?” he asked. He extended his hand.

“No,” Rowden said. Rowden stared at the hand, hesitating as if the invitation, although the best one he had at the moment, stung with desperation. Finally, he grabbed it, pulling up just as the car began to move.


“Hold on. It’s fun. You’ll love it.”

The car brimmed with passengers crammed into seats or hanging from straps. Faces blurred. Children smiled. Old women preened. Fathers caught tottering babies. Sunglasses were everywhere.

“Yo Ho, Nick,” said the driver. “Hey Ben, it’s Nick.”

“Hey, Nick,” the conductor said.

Nick waved, swinging on the guardrail.

“I take it you ride these often,” Rowden said.

“Every day, if I can. And this is the high flyer.”

“The high flyer?”

“To Hyde Street. It scales the Heights.” Rowden shrugged. “You’ll see.”

The Hyde Street car sailed up Powell to the brink of California Street, where another cable car line crossed. Rowden felt a gush of bay air blow away his whiskey stink. It fortified him toward sobriety.

The kid’s right, Rowden thought. It’s exhilarating, coasting along as if on glass with the wind in my face and the city in my sights. Rowden had a glimpse of serenity — a moment of bliss, detached from the urge to be nowhere. Not a telegram or a Jade Owl in sight. Here, bumping over the California Street divide, just blocks from Chinatown’s aromas, Rowden found liberation. Ironic. Had fate made an investment? A chance encounter at the museum with a man named Nick, a random toss of an odious paper scrap and fate delivered a delightful intervention. It chased the Dewars away.

“Recovered now?” Nick asked.

“This is fun,” Rowden admitted. “Not quite what I had in mind, but it’s relaxing. To think what I might have done.”

“Forget it,” Nick said. “You weren’t thinking then.”

Rowden sighed. He glanced about as they angled higher up Powell.

“You know, I’m sorry for knocking you over in the museum. It wasn’t intentional.”

“Forget it. You weren’t thinking then.”

Rowden laughed. This one has an answer for everything.

“How do you know what I was thinking?”

“I didn’t . . . then. But I’ve read your telegram since.”

“That was private, you know.”

Nick swung from the hand straps coming near Rowden’s face. “I don’t think so. It was trash I found on the museum floor. It was for anyone to read once you tossed it, you litterbug.”

Nick smiled, his deep blue eyes penetrating Rowden’s recovering spirits. Nick played on the cable car like a monkey dancing at the zoo. He stretched far outside the car, catching the wind in his shirt — blue sailcloth in a warm lavender wake. Rowden couldn’t help smiling, even laughing. He has spirit for a smart-ass.


The cable car stopped.

“Is it over?” Rowden asked.

“No,” Nick said. “Stay here and watch.” Nick wended his way through the tourists. Only an agile person could have done it. “Hey Ben, can I help?”

Ben waved him on. Nick jumped off, and then worked with the conductor. They switched the tracks to direct the car up Jackson Street. They turned the capstan until it clicked.

“That ought to do it,” Nick said, hopping back on, resuming his place.

“Quaint,” Rowden said. “That sort of thing would not do in New York.”

“This isn’t New York, Professor Gray. They don’t have Rice-a-Roni in New York either.”

“Don’t call me Professor. Call me Rowden.”

Nick laughed. “Rowden? That’s a mouthful. What do your friends call you?”

“Are we friends?”

“Since you’re on the cable car and not under it, I’d say we have a working friendship. I’m Nick.”

“So I gathered. And my friends call me RG.”

“Well, I’m not calling you that. Let’s see. How about Rowdy?”

“That wouldn’t describe me.”

“It could, with a bit of work.”

Rowden thought of the various things he’d been called by the few friends he garnered through life. His mother called him Row. His father, rest his soul, called him Smitty, because he had wanted to name him Smitty, but was overruled by Mother Gray. Rowden once had a friend who called him Off-White, thinking the pun funny. Rowden never cared for it. Another endearment — Rawden, came from his ex-wife. He had enough of Rawden for a lifetime. No. He guessed Rowdy was as good as any other moniker. Silence confirmed acceptance.

 “Hold on,” Nick said. “Here’s the Hyde Street turn.”

The cable car bell clanged wildly, a howling screech sounding from the wheels to tourist’s delight. Their brochures promised it. The car had been climbing the steady Jackson Street incline. The abrupt turn conformed to the rules of physics, plastering the riders into each other. The car continued its climb through fashionable Russian Hill on Hyde Street until it reached a popular tourist drop off.


“Lombard Street,” Ben shouted. “The world’s most crooked street. Lombard Street.”

Rowden tried to espy this wonder, but a wall blocked his view.

“That’s for the tourists,” Nick said. “Not for us. Just a little further.”


Now half-empty, the car climbed higher until it stopped overlooking San Francisco Bay. Nothing blocked the panorama now — no wall, no conductor, no cloud of scotch whiskey. Rowden’s eyes opened wide. Beneath the steep hill, the glittering sapphire blue water was dotted with sails. Gulls cuffed the wharves. The hill was lush with ticky-tacky houses beneath the buttery sun.

This is the ticket, Rowden thought. His jaw dropped. He smelled the lavender again. Nick’s face was close.

 “A dose of serenity cures dark thoughts,” Nick whispered. “Whatever your complaint, Rowdy, San Francisco has the cure. All you need do is look for it.”

With that said, Nick jumped from the cable car and darted down a side street. Rowden’s reverie was dashed. He saw Nick hopping away like a tadpole.

It’s not over yet, Rowden thought, although he didn’t know what had been going on and when it began.


“Wait for me,” Rowden shouted, jumping from the car just as it began to move. He nearly lost his balance, but managed to stay upright. “I’m going with you.”

Nick jogged backwards.

“Of course you are,” he shouted. “Move your ass.”


Rowden followed Nick downhill, catching up after two blocks. The narrow lane was rough, cobbles resurrected from a time before the tar lap and concrete presumed to cover them. They popped up like fretful shrouds thwarting Rowden’s descent.

“Slow down,” Rowden said. Breathless. “Where are we going?”

Nick turned around, walking backwards.

“Downhill. Keep up.”

Smart-ass, Rowden thought. Nick kept his pace. “I’m not as young as you.”

Nick slowed, and then stopped. 

“You’re not young at all.” He laughed, an infectious giggle. “Just a little further.”
Rowden looked about. No pedestrians. No traffic. Strange. The feeder streets were narrow, leading to dead-ends and gray stone houses. He could smell rotting cabbage. He heard the murmur of tenants sing-songing Cantonese.

“Where are you taking me?”

“You’ll see.”

Nick picked up the pace again. Rowden trailed at a huff and puff. Finally, he held his hand up, and then stopped.

“Let me catch my breath, for God’s sake.” He bent at the waist. Shallow breathing. Nick grinned like an imp. He appeared to enjoy the middle-aged professor’s stress.

“Too much time in the classroom, Rowdy. Not enough time on the street.”

Rowden shook his head. He looked about for some place to rest. Ah, a stoop. He plopped his ass on the cold gray cement, and then puffed his lips to catch his breath. Nick danced about, swinging on the metal banister, or at least the one that remained.

“Thank me, Rowdy. We’re going downhill. The trip back’ll be tougher.”

“No way. We’ll take a cab. I can do cabs.”

Nick sat beside him, scrunching his legs up. He leaned forward with his chin nestling between his knees. Rowden looked at him askance. He saw a patient face. Who is this guy? He’s the kid I knocked over in the museum — the one I thought I saw in the display case glass. He’s somehow latched onto me. How curious? He glanced at Nick’s peach fuzz chin and pencil thin sideburns. He’s familiar, Rowden thought, although he knew he never saw the kid before in his life. Yet, there was familiarity. Odd.

Rowden was not easily acclimated to new acquaintances. There was always a formality about making Rowden Gray’s acquaintance — the introduction, the chitchat about research and writing projects, a review of school references and other pissing contests. Finally, an exchange of cards and a firm handshake. No, this was different. Walk into the guy, knock him over and poof. Running now behind him down some San Francisco street to unknown parts. Was this the alternative to suicide?

“Let me know when you’re ready,” Nick said.

“I’d like to know where we’re going.”

“Look around and take a deep breath.” Nick piped in the cabbage aromas, which trumped his own lavender bath soap. “We both love Chinese stuff, Rowdy. I practically live at the museum and when I’m not there, I’m here.”

“Here? Where’s here?”

“Chinatown. Where else?” Nick gave Rowden a hand up. “I’m hungry. I say we eat. We’ll take it easy from here. I wouldn’t want you to get a hernia.”


They came to the end of the narrow street. Rowden was glad to be on level ground as they crossed the center of Chinatown — Grant Avenue. Having been to China several times, he was familiar with the genuine article. Grant Avenue smacked of faux chinois. He did notice that Nick’s eyes lit up, as he babbled about the place as if giving a tour to someone less initiated. Nick bobbed past the emporiums and shoppers, sucking up the aromas.

The shoppers were mostly Chinese, which surprised Rowden, who thought Chinatown would be strictly for the tourists. Somehow, he had dismissed the obvious. He was in a Chinese neighborhood made to feel genuine because it was meant to be genuine. You learn something new everyday — know-it-all or not.

“You’re pretty passionate about Chinatown,” Rowden said.

“I love it here.” Nick nodded to several shoppers. They appeared to know him. Everyone appeared to know Nick. “This is my second home, Rowdy. I’m going to knock your socks off with a fine meal at the Vermilion Phoenix.” Nick walked backwards again, somehow avoiding the trashcans. “But first you’ll see some goodies.”


Nick halted before a grand storefront.
“This is Han Ch’i-wang Antiques,” he said, bowing. “Ch’i-wang’s goods rival the museum’s in quality and in authenticity.” He put one finger to his temple. “And this shit’s for sale. Reasonable too. I know the owner.”

Nick pushed Rowden through the front door. He’s a salesman, Rowden thought. All these shenanigans to get me into a bric-a-brac shop to buy cheap knock-offs. He recalled Tijuana, where tikes hung onto American tourists and yelled Señor, my mother, she is a virgin. You come now. However, Rowden soon banished these thoughts when he scanned the shop’s goodies.

Han Ch’i-wang’s narrow aisles wended around heaps of furniture, lacquer ware, jade figurines, jewelry cases, partitions, and porcelains. There was no order to any of it. All periods were mixed together in one sweeping Chinese historic brush. Impressive.

“So what d’ya think, Rowdy? What d’ya think?”

Rowden tried to catalog the sights into some clarity. He spotted many authentic items, but as many knock-offs and happy forgeries. Toying with price tags, he reacted as only his professional conscience could.

“Quite a collection,” he said. “They must have a direct pipeline to the Motherland.” He strolled through the inner aisles.

An old matron pawed silk mats and inspected cloisonné napkin rings. She smiled. “Hao tze,” she said waving the silk. “Hao bu hao.”

Rowden smiled. “Hao. Shr de, hao,” he said backing away. Her smile revealed a full set of broken teeth.

“Look at this,” Nick said, holding a small, exquisite vase that was decorated with a colorful country scene. “This, I believe, is Ming ware.” Nick raised the vase and pointed to what could have been a hallmark, although Rowden knew that no such hallmark would be there.

“See, the bottom’s unfinished and there’s gilding along the rim. That’s how I know.”
Impressive observation. Rowden took the vase and was about to interject his comments when a Chinese gentleman appeared from behind a rack. The man wore a gray three-piece suit, white gloves, and carried a walking stick. If ever a man typified the Charlie Chan stereotype, this was the man. Rowden had spent a career chiding students who stooped to ethnic dispersions that obfuscated China’s great cultural heritage. So when he thought, Charlie Chan, upon seeing this man, he had no one to chastise but himself.

“Almost correct, Nick,” the man said, reaching for the vase. “This vase is from a later period. It is K’ang-xiware from the Ch’ing dynasty. It was manufactured specifically for export.”
Rowden smiled. Again an impressive observation.

“Quite so,” Rowden said, trying not to clip his response and impugn the man’s dignity. He was a dignified (even noble) creature, bred within the traditions. Rowden took the vase.
Nick winked at the gentleman, shaking his hand.

“Rowdy, may I introduce you to Xiao Win-t’o.” There we go — a proper introduction. “He owns Han Ch’i-wang’s and several other shops on Grant Avenue, including the Vermilion Phoenix where I’m taking you to eat.”

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Rowdy.”


“So you will enjoy the hospitality of the Vermilion Phoenix this evening.” Win-t’o’s smile revealed a silver tooth. “I have some great specials on the menu tonight. You’ll both be my guests.” Win-t’o noticed that the old woman ready to conclude her purchase. He bowed. “Nick, just ask for Ch’u. He’ll take care of you. Let us call it a welcome for your new friend.” Win-t’o proceeded toward his sale, but stopped again. “Oh Nick, a word with you please.”

Nick walked a distance with Win-t’o, into a side aisle near the green Sung ware. Whispers. Wincing.Rowden was content to examine the vase. He set it down when Nick returned. 

I’m amazed, Nick. I admire your keen eye for Chinese art, even if it is off by a dynasty or two.”

“Xiao Win-t’o is a true master with these things.”

“I don’t mean to spoil the illusion,” Rowden said, hesitating. He didn’t want to appear condescending. “Win-t’o is correct in his assessment on how to identify a K’ang-xi vase. However, this one is not the genuine article.” Nick frowned. “You see, it’s correct in every sense, except that export ware always had finished bottoms. The hallmark of the Lung-
ch’ien porcelain works would be incised just below the rim. This K’ang-xivase may have come from China or Toledo for all I know. It’s a clever forgery.”

“A fake.”

“No. A forgery. At this price, it would give its owner some solace. Something like the real thing. Forgeries can bring satisfaction, while fakes are downright criminal.”
Nick lifted the vase up to his eye, perhaps looking for the missing hallmark. “I guess it’s No Sale.”

He threw the vase in the air, and then caught it with one hand. Rowden gasped.

“Real or not, it still has a price tag.”

“Then,” Nick said, winking, “I couldn’t possibly interest you in the Jade Owl, could I?”

“The Jade Owl?” Rowden stammered, raising his eyebrows. What the fuck? The Jade Owl? How could he know about the Jade Owl? “What are you talking about?”

Nick grinned — an impish grin that would be his hallmark. “The Jade Owl,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a dozen or so in the stockroom?” The grin widened.

“In the stockroom?” Rowden stammered. “The Jade Owl in the stockroom?”

Nick smacked his lips. He turned to the fake K’ang-xi vase. “Wouldn’t it be nice, though?”
A joke. Smart-ass. “Maybe you have a Brooklyn Bridge in the stockroom too?” Rowden sighed. “Jesus, imagine. The Jade Owl.” Yes, imagine anyone other than those from the inner sanctum mentioning the Jade Owl.

Nick lifted the vase again. Rowden wondered whether he needed to catch it. No. He patted Rowden’s stomach.


Hollow thump. The good professor smiled.


“You’ll like the Vermilion Phoenix. Very authentic.”

Rowden touched the vase. “More authentic than Win-t’o’s bric-a-brac?”

“Don’t worry,” Nick said. “We’re his guests. The price is right.”

Chapter Three: Night Life


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.


“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 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.”


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 notthat 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.


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.


“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.”


“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 thederriere 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?


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 tableher 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 Chinesesomething. 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.”


“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 York — Brooklyn. 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.”


Victor J. Banis said...

I sort of feel like I"m cheating, since I've already read this book - but that means I can recommend it highly, you'll get an exciting story and lots of Chinese culture served up along with it. Great job

ECP said...

Thanks, Victor or this comment and also your full review out on Amazon.