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Book Three of The Jade Owl Legacy Series
A shadow stalks the lanes and streets, from Gui-lin to San Francisco, from Florence to the Dragon’s Pool. In its wake, Rowden Gray and his China Hands follow a course to right the wrongs of time. The relic is hidden, but stirs in the soul and archaic rituals long since forgotten, but never lost. Some books are closed. Others are open, giving up their secrets. In the darkness, ancient terror awaits. A barren field yields up its magic and . . . the comets return to earth.
The Dragon’s Pool, the next installment of an adventure like none other, looms across the landscape giving even the stouthearted pause to reflect. The stalwart characters of The Jade Owl and The Third Peregrination are back, and joined by new players and helper bees and . . . yes, villains. It is time for the Tien-xin Rite. It is time to close history’s fissure. It is time to complete the prophesy that dwells beneath Her Majesty’s hem. It is time to count the teeth that emerge from the Dragon’s Pool.
The gay kid watched over his shoulder on this dark Castro night, knowing that the men followed him. Anxious, his panic increased along with his pace. No guessing. They were following him. His heart beat double time. His eyes scanned ahead for a safe haven. He hastened. An alleyway was coming up on his right. He could find shelter there, but it could also spell — dead-end. Still, something had to be done. No time for dumb indecision. In the dark alley, he could blend with the trashcans. Perhaps he could discover an unlocked door. Or a fence to leap. His pursuers were hulks — two of them. He, however, was sinewy and young — fifteen in his Nikes. He could outrun them . . . possibly. They were gaining on him, matching his pace. They would bash him . . . no doubt. So he pressed his Nikes to the grayment, and then sprinted into the alley, speed and chance his only hope now.
Darkness could be his friend, except it wasn’t as dark as he supposed. Light threads filtered through the iron slats of the escapement above. Clotheslines hung silhouettes like Spanish moss. Still, he hadn’t shaken the men — thugs grunting threats, probably pissed that their prey had bolted. Why didn’t he leave the club earlier? Too late to wonder now. He always had taken care to avoid the night shadows. This was the Castro, after all. Gay kids were supposed to be safe here, or so he imagined. But when he emerged from the club, he had sensed something amiss. He spied the men across from The Painted Lips . . . and they were waiting. Waiting for something — for someone. But this was the Castro, after all. A gay haven. So he shrugged them off as night revelers tagged up for a tryst. How stupid had he been? These were the night goblins, mongers seeking a gay punching bag. A kid was a perfect mark — young, alone, silky blonde, with a face as smooth as his black leather jacket. The bashers fished — two against one. Coward’s odds. The kid didn’t have a chance. So it was the alley and the filtered light and the cottony Spanish moss.
The kid strained for his night eyes. He assessed the short stretch between this spot and a chain-link fence. That fence would either be a ladder or fly paper. Beyond it was more darkness. However, his pursuers were close behind him. Audible grunts.
“He’s down here.”
Now or never. The Nikes pushed toward the fence. Lurch, but then . . . snap. His pants caught on a metallic mass in the shadows — a bicycle. Under different circumstances, this contraption would have served him well, but it twisted his legs with pedals and wheels, spilling him headlong into broken glass and street screed. Dazed. Dizzy. He scarcely heard the grunts now, or the shuffle.
“There. There he is.”
The kid inhaled the alley’s urine aroma just as the first blow fell. He couldn’t see his assailants. Blur. Dazed. Dizzy. A sharp knuckle across his cheek. The pain was reminiscent of other pain. He was not a stranger to the pain or to the hatred. However, the last time he had been assaulted, the knuckles were from familiars. Suddenly, boots replaced fists. Kick. Crack. His wind went. His gorge arose, spewing his last beer over his lips. Retch.
The kid rolled onto his back, meeting another kick.
I must get up, he thought. If he remained a wounded cub, he’d be a headline in the morning. He would beg for his life, but the words wouldn’t form. So he continued to roll, dodging the next kick. He scrambled, crawling like a tadpole. Somewhere in his young spleen, he found his crust, firing his legs out like springs. Pay dirt. The thug tunes changed from mere hatred to unadulterated anger. One of the night goblins doubled-over. Pay dirt.
Good shot, the kid thought. Haul ass, now. He bucked hard, aiming for the chain links. He touched the steel, his fingers laced through the cold strands. He scrambled up, but a clenched claw interrupted his flight. It pressed him into the links.
“That’s the last fucking time you’ll get a chance to shit free,” growled the basher.
“Hold him Benny,” said the other. “I think this’ll do it.”
They pressed the kid’s cheeks against the fence, choking him. So this is how it shall end, he thought. He heard glass break. If he had been the Sunday school going kind, he would have muttered a prayer. If he could have better assessed his situation, he would have known that he was now beyond such things as prayer. The night goblin wielded a broken bottle — a Southern Comfort remnant, long shorn of efficacy.
Hateful slogans. Demonic laughter. The kid heard it and felt a swoon rising. Gasp. They denied him even the urine-bitter air. Suddenly, other sounds. Trembling. Panicky cursing. Hellish screams. Metal pounding — trashcans clashing. Startled, the kid felt air rushing back into his lungs. Dizzy, he slid from the fence, and then tried to whir about, but his legs surrendered. He fell, wondering what had happened to quell the attack.
The kid scanned down the alley.
“Holy shit,” he muttered, the words painfully squeezed from his throat.
His pursuers no longer pursued. They had been pelted with a tornado of garbage cans and glass. Benny and his accomplice were sprawled against the graffiti laden wall like the cuss words scrawled illegibly across the bricks. Debris swirled unabated. Still, the kid was mesmerized. The thugs were entwined in bicycle wheels and handlebars. However, what stunned him was a silhouette that loomed over this human trash.
What was this thing? What had wiped the alley clean? What phantom?
The phantom turned, and then moved into the filtered light. It was just a bit taller than the kid, but it appeared to loom to greater heights. It wore a green flowing cape and ruby red tights; and upon its chest emblazoned the silver letter O. The kid knew. He sighed. He trembled.
“The Jade Owl,” he whispered.
He had heard the rumors about the crusader of the Castro. Like every gay youngster, he had followed the Jade Owl’s adventures in The Chronicle’s comic section, but . . . here it was in the flesh. The kid raised his eyes to the escapement. Had it come from the fire escape? From the roof? Did it matter? Safety now. Haven true and keen.
The kid took a step toward this green, shadowy phantom, but a silk clad hand stayed him.
“No closer, please.”
The kid saw that his hero (for he was his hero now) wore a feathered hood with two tufted ears. And goggles; no, not goggles. Brass spectacles that shimmered blue.
“Who are you?”
“It doesn’t matter.” The voice was sweet. The voice was young. “Are you okay?”
The kid glanced at the pile of hate at the base of the wall. He was okay; better than okay.
“I guess so.”
“You’re too young to be out this late.”
This must be a dream, the kid thought. He shuddered. His savior stretched his hands aloft like a man about to swan dive. He pulled himself through the night air, his blue eyes forming a firefly shower. The kid observed this, his own eyes blinking timed to his heartbeat. He detected an emerald glow at the cape’s edge. Then it, and its owner, disappeared over the roof. The Jade Owl was gone.
“No, don’t go,” the kid cried.
He tripped over the bicycle, landing near Benny’s buckled head. He pushed away from the sight, regaining his feet and his momentum. No, don’t leave me. He was saved. He was free, but he had nowhere to go. He wandered in the dark now until he clutched the chain links, and then climbed. At the crest, he tottered, almost losing his balance. He thought he could still see the emerald glow. No, don’t go. He felt the growing bruises on his ribs. They’d be purple by morning. His throat still pained or he would have shouted after the retreating cape. Dizzy. Sharp pain. It hitched him from the top, the ground coming up fast. He thumped over the fence onto the other side. Now his palms and knees would join his ribs competing for the worst color award. He was in another alley, one that opened onto Hartford Street. The kid pushed himself up, the fence a lifeline now. Glancing through it, two crushed thuggish forms confirmed that he had not been dreaming. It did happen. He gazed skyward again.
The kid ran along the thoroughfare, pain chasing him like a fox. He had hope now, but nowhere to go. Time held no consequences for him — or so he thought; the myopic blessing of youth. On Hartford Street, he hobbled, thinking he could still see the glowing cape. Whether it was his imagination or the side effects of the beating, he had convinced himself that he had met his hero. Now, the kid was the pursuer.
At 17th Street, he paused. He squinted at the rooftops. Yes. It was not his imagination. He saw the glow, bouncing like Tinkerbelle. By the time he crossed Noe Street, he knew. The cape had come to rest either on Pond Street or on Prosper. He thought, Prosper. The kid pursued . . . having nowhere to go.
Three shows had drained the vigor from Simone DeFleurry. Now he drag-queened his ass up 17th Street drawn by the promise of a hot bubble bath. He hadn’t even bothered to defrock, lacing an orange twill button-down sweater over his sleek, black evening gown. His falsies slipped as he trundled. Like a night raven, Simone humped uphill from the cotillion, but he felt like a tired old bag lady cleaving to her shopping cart under a fairy-domed overpass.
Simone halted, catching his breath, listening to a susurration over the bramble-lined street frontage. He gazed toward Pond Street knowing his haul had neared its end. Feet swelling. Feedbag heavy. He snorted the night air through his beak and dreamed of that hot, steamy tub.
I’ve got to get Chatty to lighten my load, he thought. Three shows are too much for my aging bones. The public demanded the talents of La DeFleurry, and three times might even be a shortfall. Still . . . he adjusted his falsies, straightened his raven wig beneath his floppy hat, and then recommenced his trundle.
Dooney the Looney could certainly pick up the slack. The thought of this rival puckered Simone’s crimson gob. Miss Claire de Lune replaced him when he had strutted across China two years ago. The Looney was hell bent on the Queen of the Castro’s gig — lock, stock and D cup. That would never do now, would it? Trundle. Pond Street. One block to go now. Uphill from here.
Prosper Street challenged everyone. A veritable ski slope. Still, Simone DeFleurry muscled it up.
Bubble bath. Bubble bath. Foot soak. A mantra now.
He sniffed the aroma of the pines that cradled his house. He spied his pink and green door hacienda — the little Perch on the Hill. The breeze lifted his spirits. He gazed toward heaven’s starbrace.
Home, bubble bath, and my Nicky.
He spotted a lamp lit in the front parlor. Encouraging. His husband had waited up, perhaps with a nice jug of cosmopolitans . . . to slurp in the bathtub. Perhaps the tub would be a two-seater tonight. Sigh. Nothing for it. Simone sloshed around the feedbag for his keys, but . . . he sensed something else — something hidden in the dwarfed pines.
Oh my God.
Alarm. There had been a rash of muggings. They were covered daily on page five of The Chronicle and he suddenly was aware of each.
“Not here,” he gasped. Please, not on my own doorstep. He mustered mock courage, and then clutched his bag at the ready. Just let a mugger try his hand dodging the mace-like swag of Miss DeFleurry’s feedbag.
“Go away!” he shouted. “I’m not alone.” He darted his eyes up the parlor. “My husband’ll come down and kick your ass.”
Someone was there. Short. Non-threatening, and, revealed in the dim light, dressed in leather. He had soft blonde, shoulder length hair — and dimples. Simone relaxed his clutch. This dimpled threat gave him pause.
“I’m sorry,” said the kid. “I just want to see him again.”
“Again?” Simone shrugged, but then gazed aloft. “Again, you say. And just who did you want see?”
The kid scratched his nose. He drifted closer. Simone thought he recognized him, but when you perform three times nightly, faces blend into masks. Still, one usually remembers the blue eyed, blonde cuties in leather.
“He’s here. I know it,” the kid said.
The kid balled his fists. Simone re-clutched.
“The Jade Owl.”
That damned Owl. “The Jade Owl? That’s a fairy tale. A funny paper drawing.”
“No. He saved me tonight.” The kid relaxed. “I know what I know. He’s here, and I want to see him again.”
Oh, Nicky, Nicky. You’ve been out on the prowl again. Simone approached the lad. It was an easy approach, still perhaps with some care aforethought. One pets a puppy with an eye on the muzzle. Oh, but those blue eyes. So young. He gently cuffed the lad’s shoulder.
“Come sit and listen.”
“I know here’s here. I followed him.”
Simone bobbed his head, and then sat on the stoop with the lad. “Perhaps you had a bit more to drink than you should?” There was a whiskey whiff. Who served him . . . and where? “You’re too young to drink. You’re too young to . . . well, how old are you?”
“You can’t fool me. You’re not a day over . . . fourteen.”
Simone beat his lips with his fingers. Very young for the hustle.
“So, you’re underage, out after two, whiskey-pewed and sitting on my stoop, pining for a comic strip character. What will your mother say?” The kid turned away.
Oh, motherless. Well, aren’t we all?
Simone played with the silver epaulet on the lad’s jacket.
“Why don’t you go home? Call it a night — a sweet dreams night that never happened.”
“It did happen.” The kid’s lips trembled. Was this anger or a wellspring for tears? Simone sighed. Leather on the outside, but marshmallow to the core. “I followed him here. He glowed.”
“Glowed?” Nicky, Nicky. Sloppy, sloppy. “Where do you live?”
“Here and there.”
“On the street?” This was not an uncommon state for a gay teen, especially one dressed for the hustle. The kid would not confirm it. Simone lifted the smooth young chin with his chiseled, bejeweled fingernails. “I know you have a story to tell your Aunt Simone.”
“I know who you are. From the club. You sing beautifully.”
“Why, thank you. I bet you sing like a sparrow for your supper.” Yes, it was not uncommon, but this little one was too precious. “What’s your name?”
“Pretty name, but that’s for your clients. I’m not a client. I’m your Auntie, found you on my doorstep, following . . . some green glow in the dark.” Oh Nicky, Nicky. Sloppy, sloppy. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a place to sleep tonight, and perhaps a bowl of milk.”
“You’d let me in to meet him?”
“Him? You mean The Jade Owl? There’s no such thing. You’re delusional.” Delusional. Who’s delusional here? Sloppy, SLOPPY. “But I do have a husband, and I believe he’s home, and . . . if you promise not to hit on him, you shall have your bowl of milk.”
Silky smiled the sweetest smile Simone had seen in ages. Purring. This one’s clever; and with dimples. Simone adjusted his falsies and the slipping sweater on his shoulder. He applied his key. “Welcome to the Perch.”
Regret. Owls sit on perches and all that. Therefore, Simone just grinned, tugging Silky through the door and into the foyer. He pointed up the staircase.
“You’ll see when you get up there — in the morning, when the sun fires up the Castro.” Silky shrugged. “You’ll see.”
“Nicky. I’m home, thank goodness. And we’ve got company.”
Nick wasn’t in the parlor — that ornate Victorian sampler from a different tribe. Its hung velvet was insufferable on this late spring night. Silky perhaps thought he had been thrust through a time portal. He became all touch. Touched the couch, the walls, the tables, the sideboard . . . stared at pictures and cocked his head upon hearing the clock collection’s mismatched ticks and offbeat tocks. Silky fit well into this limoges and tiffany den, like a knick-knack in Simone’s collection.
“Sit there,” Simone commanded, “and . . . just sit there until I tell you. I’ll make you a sandwich. I think I have a jar of gefilte fish, which makes a dandy late night snack.” Oblivious, Silky sat on the centerpiece couch’s homespun fabric. Hopeful that his guest was riveted, Simone cracked the door to Nick’s study. A musty aroma nipped Simone’s nose. He dreamed of attacking the place with Febreze, but Nick thrived in this air. It was his retreat, after all, just as the parlor was Simone’s. On the roll-top desk, a wee desk lamp shone, scattering its scant light over papers, photos and books. No sign of Nick Battle. However, Simone knew better.
Across the desk chair draped the emerald cape. The hood, tights and jersey were flung on the day couch. Most evident, beneath the wee lamp lay John Battle’s brass spectacles. Simone scanned the study’s corners for Nick. He found him, sprawled behind the desk, naked and cramped in the fetal position.
“Nicky, Nicky,” Simone said. He hunkered down, chancing a split in the ebony gown; raven locks filtering over his husband’s face. “Nicky, Nicky.”
Eyes opened — wide blue eyes, the award-winning kind that only a charmer could inherit from a long line of charmers. Dim smile and a slight lift toward the raven hair. Simone crowned him with a kiss.
“Nicky, Nicky. Sloppy, sloppy.”
“Sloppy?” Nick croaked. He appeared exhausted — tough work that, saving the Castro. Expending much ch’i. Draining. “I was working, dear. And I succeeded . . . again. How’s that sloppy?”
Simone’s ass plunked on the parquet.
“You don’t need to do these things. You’ve solved the mysteries. You’ve done all the good you can. Why can’t you retire, already?” Simone wiggled the wig. “It freaks me out having my husband gallivanting around, saving the Castro. Bogeyman hours and dressed like a Disney version of Spiderman.”
Nick kissed Simone’s cheek.
“Then, why don’t you redesign my fucking threads — a DeFleurry special. Only I won’t wear a wig.”
“Don’t be fresh.” He sniffed. “And speaking of that, you need a good scrub and some lavender.” Two in the tub thoughts, only now . . . now there were three.
“I’ve been into the garbage cans tonight. Nasty business.”
“Nasty?” Simone said. “Not so nasty.” Nick raised an eyebrow. “He followed you here, you know.”
“Who followed me?”
“Your last rescue.”
Nick was on his feet, his ass showing bright in the windowpane. He gave Simone a hand up, and then opened the shutters and poked his head through.
“Put something on,” Simone said. “The neighborhood fairies wait with their binoculars.” Nick just squinted out, looking for his own telltale trail across the rooftops. “He’s not out there. He’s . . .”
Nick twisted to the desk.
Simone pointed with his eyes.
“Put something on. Anything but that green funk.”
“No,” Nick declared. “Why did you bring him up here, Simon? I can’t blow my cover.”
“Blown, dear. No more night prowls masquerading as that damned Owl!”
Nick turned in an expected fury. Eyes furrowed. Lips snarled.
“I am the Jade Owl,” he croaked.
Simone wouldn’t hear it. He snapped his hands over his ears. He had watched Nick slip further and further into an ocean of delusional prophesies. Ever since that mysterious return from Wu Tze-t’ien’s tomb through the Museum’s basement, his fantasy had grown. Nick had scary powers — undeniable. Simone knew that all the ch’i-t’ang possessed extra-sensory gifts, but he didn’t see Professor Gray prowling the rooftops at night giving demonstrations with his magnetic fingers. Nor did Sydney Firestone mend the world through his hands. In fact, Sydney wore a skullcap to prevent his fingers from charging up. The monk — Meng Ka-bao, with all his psychic powers, was not doing stints on Oprah Winfrey. And Rose Whitaker was now Rosa Tosti-Tostacaroni and lived in the Tuscan hills like any normal prod and poke Sinologist — prenuptial be damned. However, Nick . . . Nick had changed. Simone still loved him like his best set of luggage, but Nick fought depression . . . long, lonely hours of staring and wondering and, Simone suspected, weeping. Only his collaboration with Griffen Jones on their comic strip for The Chronicle seemed to assuage the fleeting hours. But even this drew from the ever-more-frequent crusades through the Castro as the original source.
Simone raised his fists.
“The Jade Owl? Knock me over then. I know you can do it, but not as the Jade Owl. Do it as Nicky, the Magneto Boy, straight from the Hall of Fire.” Simone was a fright. Nick melted at the challenge, especially when Simone converted fists into outstretched hands, and then a full-blown hug that cradled his husband’s shallow chest. “The Jade Owl is gone, my love. It’s gone from us forever. Whoosh! If I could bring it back to give you peace, I would, even though it irks me. I would do it ‘though, in a cock’s flash. Whoosh!”
“Whoosh!” Nick disengaged. He cracked the door open and peered at the cargo in the parlor. “He’s asleep.”
Simone pushed passed him. Silky, dead to the world, snored. His legs crunched into the velvet like Peasebottom snug in a dewdrop. Simone shook him. No revival. He peeled the leather jacket off. Heaven help us if the metal epaulets snagged on the brocade.
Nick gazed at the exhausted form.
“He was an easy one to save.”
Simone stroked the kid’s hair.
“Sorry pup. He has no one. Nowhere to go.”
“He has someone.” Nick’s squinted, plunging as he could with a glimmer. This kid, who had seen the acrobatic Jade Owl, would now hear its soft mental whispering.
“His name’s Silky,” Simone said. “Sweet name, even if it’s street hustle marketing.”
“It’s Marsh Elliot,” Nick said, his eyes rolling as he probed. Nick’s body twitched and his skin rose to gooseflesh. Simone surveyed him and wondered what gave Nick a rock-hard, stud-horse erection. Nicky. “He’s been out and about for a year. Mother’s in jail. Father beats him. Has one brother, who burned him with lit cigarettes. This kid lives under the highway . . . sometimes . . . and sometimes under the Bay Bridge. They’re a pack of wolves, selling their wares in the pick-up trade. He has a scar on his back . . . from a bastard, who tied him up and . . . well, he was hospitalized for . . .”
“No more, Nicky.” Simone snapped at Nick’s cheeks. “He’s used goods, but I know a sweet soul when I see one. He just needs some rest and . . . a meal. A hearty breakfast in the morning.”
Nick sat on the couch’s end, his elfin nakedness translucent on the velveteen brocade.
“He’ll wake early, Simon. He’ll do a number on your limoges. He doesn’t want food. He wants trade and . . .”
“What else does he want, dear?”
Nick rolled his eyes again. The kid awoke. He sat bolt upright, starring at the man who sat at his feet — the man without green cape, furry hood, emerald jersey and crimson tights. Just the man. Only the man.
“Marsh?” Nick asked.
“How did you know my name?” Silky reached for Nick. “You are him, aren’t you?”
“In the flesh.”
There we go now, Nicky. You’re Jade Owl days are over.
No dear. If you feed this stray, I think he will come often.
“Are you hungry, Silky?”
“Not for gayfilter fish, or whatever he fuck you called it.”
“Language, language.” Silky’s eyes never veered from Nick. “Well, I’ll whip you up a nice omelet. And then maybe you’ll be up for a hot scrub.”
Finally — goal achieved. The bubble bath . . . and yes, it would be for three.
The morning sun streamed through the latticed windows, motes dancing across Curator-General Rowden Gray’s desk. He was working in his new Presidio digs. Good on his word, he had moved his blossoming family to an ample house overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Solace.
Rowden sat listening to the breakers that washed over the caissons, waves drawing his attention more than the papers piled on his desk — blank sheets that shouted at him; rosebuds for the garland — that goddamned, elusive garland. Instead, Rowden listened, his hazel eyes blinking at the motes. He heard the bay, but also heard his darling daughter burbling from the parlor as she wheeled around in her walker.
She’ll be out of that thing soon, he thought. Terror for the neighborhood. Now there was a image — a walking replica of Audrey. Terror? I think not. Rowden glanced toward the door. The cherub laughter encouraged him to shuffle the blank sheets about his desk. Amy. Sweet Amy. Sea songs could never trump the sound of Professor Gray’s adorable Amy. No quests for dark tombs and hidden relics could do it either.
Amy. My pulse. My breath. My trace.
Rowden grasped for a book.
“Cleave to it, man! Cleave to it!”
As the massive tome swept through the buttery sunflakes, another opus drew his attention — thin and feathery, like his attention. A glossy cover sparkled, but the opus — The Jade Owl Strikes Again, didn’t settle well on Rowden’s mind. He pouted, hands raised over the flimsy work — Number 7 of Volume 2, authored by N. Battle and G. Jones. Prettily drawn and typically penned. Complete with thought-bubbles and Wham! Bam! Boom! Rowden wiggled his fingers, a prelude to using his particular kinetic skills. The comic book (excuse me, he thought — the Graphic Novel), levitated, floating to eye level. In this issue, the Jade Owl rescues a lipstick lesbian from a dog attack. Of course, the dog was vicious and was set upon the damsel in distress by her next-door neighbor, who (of course) was homophobic and neo-Nazi. After all, dogs are smarter than neo-Nazis, but they are loyal to their masters, are they not? Rowden snickered. He recalled The Chronicle’s headline concerning some such case, the Noe Valley Incident. Not very transparent, Nick.
Fingers arched. Graphic N. opened. Griffen’s artwork’s good, Rowden thought. He perused the action hero — the green capped capon with his fuzzy helmet and scarlet tights.
Wham! Bam! Boom!
Doggie guts sprayed to the sidewalk — the Jade Owl victorious. Lesbians of the world rejoice. Nick’ll get free oil changes for life, Rowden thought, and then turned the page with just a flick from his pinky. Suddenly, he was thunder struck. His thought belittled his friend’s effort. Still, Nick succeeded. He’s done it. He fires his reader’s imagination in these pamphlets. Rowden let the work fall onto his own blank pages — pages that laughed at him.
I can’t marry one fucking word on the subject into a single coherent, publishable article. Nothing sticks.
Rowden Gray just couldn’t cleave to it. His plate was full. Besides family life, he had finally mustered the Shang-hai relic exhibit at the Museum, christened (by Nick), The Spark of the Middle Kingdom. Rowden had Sydney’s assistance, but Lloyd Kitteridge had stuck to the job, shepherding the scholarship for each relic. Meng Ka-bao had voluntarily applied his skills to the exhibit and it was a rousing success.
Wham! Bam! Boom! Rowden thought. Despite this success and the happiness at his new Presidio digs, the Curator-General of the San Francisco Museum of East Asian Arts and Culture just couldn’t cleave to it — hard pressed to deliver his own Wham! Bam! Boom!
Rowden cracked his knuckles, the familiar splintering sound mingling with the rolling thunder of his daughter’s walker. He sighed. Why should he care about having . . . the block? And that’s what it was — writer’s block. Still, he envied his colleagues. Nick fluttered around the Castro at night, saving the pink world, gleaning material for Griffen to scrawl for titillated fans. However, Rowden had no such outlet to escape the expectations he had promised the sinological community. He had demonstrated triangulation, but they were hungry for more than a demonstration — that Really Big Show.
What should I tell them? I toddled off to the Motherland with a shit bag filled with nifty magical relics. Had a great time — even walked through a painting and had breakfast with Li K’ai-men while touring twelfth Century China on a special CTS package that included time-travel. With my kinetic powers, I saved the world, no less. Not the whales or the freakin’ Emperor Penguins, but the whole mucking world. But don’t say thank you or kiss my ring, because I came back in one piece, through a bath towel in a snowstorm that allowed me to travel three thousand miles in a single bound. A single bound fit well, graphic novel and all that. And to crown it all, I materialized as naked as the Pope’s ass and scared the shit out of Mrs. Marlin’s sixth grade class — News at Eleven.
Meng Ka-bao was spot-on correct. No one will ever believe us. Nick’s approach was far more credible — Wham! Bam! Boom! Rowden was not about to join the League of China Hands. Maybe Rose was up to playing Cassandra this week. Would Sydney care to restore the Shroud of Turin? Therefore, Rowden’s written outline was simple. He had presented the world with triangulation. Now he had to make the world forget triangulation. His index cards were sprawled with horseshit about how he found some unusual relics made from some untested material that when juxtaposed with a unique fabric cut from Harry Potter’s cloak, projected ancient holograms. Projections. That’s believable. Everyone believes in StarTrek’s holodeck, after all. Everyone has seen Princess Leah projected from R2D2 — Obiwan Kanobi, you’re our only hope. Rowden’s task was to invent a theory on how these ancient Chinese projections worked. Theory. Easily done. Theories are no more than lies on crackers — easily broken — generally stale.
“Cleave to it, man!”
It had to be done. A coward’s scrawl, written by the hero, who saved no less than the whole freaking world.
Wham! Bam! Boom!
Rumble. Through the study door came the wheeler — a bumper tubmobile with circumferential treads that permitted the widest latitude for its unlicensed driver.
Rowden dropped his blank sheets and his even blanker thoughts. Eyes lilted, lit by the cherub that whisked across the T’ien-ts’in carpeting, and then plowed into the monster desk. He reached for his daughter, cautious not to invoke his magnetic fingers, but he had promised Audrey not to use his gifts at home (or anywhere for that matter). He was relieved she hadn’t seen his graphic novel acrobatics. He whisked Amy into his arms the old-fashioned way — reach, bend and hoist.
“Amy,” came a voice from the other room. “Leave Papa alone.”
Audrey sauntered through the door, her hair unkempt, and her hand bracing her back to support her blossoming belly. It was expansion time again in the Gray household and she was five months gone. Her dim smile told Rowden the story. She had been doing what he asked her not to do — reaching, bending and hoisting. Sung Yi-di was supposed to do that. Sung was lent out by the old Grandmother to help with the chores. Audrey still balked at the prospect. She had been critical of those who relied on others — a private laziness, she called it. Rowden thought to chide her on this point, now that Audrey had a servant, but one glance at his wife’s distress and he decided to forgo any commentary.
“I will take her,” she said. Rowden denied her outstretched arms, clutching Amy tightly, showering her with kisses. “You have your work to finish.”
Audrey glared at the blank sheets, and at the latest issue of The Jade Owl Strikes Again.
“This is not encouraging.” She snatched the graphic novel, using it as a fan. “This does not look like progress.”
“I think any paper for The Harvard Journal of Asian Studies about the Jade Owl would be laughed off the editor’s desk. I’d be better off submitting Nick and Griffen’s world-class comic strip.”
Audrey kissed Amy, who wiggled in Rowden’s arms.
“Cousin Nicholas follows his destiny. Still, I would not mock his efforts.”
“Who’s mocking? I’m downright jealous.”
Audrey shook her head, and then reached for the baby again. This time Rowden relinquished her. Audrey winced, her back pain snarling. Perhaps their future son kicked his mama’s spleen. Audrey frowned. “If you are not giving this your best effort, you can help Sung Yi-di prepare the tea.”
“Do you think that Sung Yi-di would let me near a teapot?”
True. They both knew that Sung Yi-di reigned where she ruled. Audrey secured Amy in the wheeler.
“I am discouraged that you do not write what you know to be truth. Even if you do not submit it, at least it will be said.”
Rowden grasped her shoulders, and then rubbed.
“Don’t be discouraged. You know when I’m down on myself, I bring the whole world down with me.” He swiped back the comic book. “Besides, Nick has told the truth as he sees it.”
The truth as he sees it.
Suddenly, a bristling thought rattled him. Elusive epiphany. Rowden scanned the desk — the massive tome, the blank paper and the index cards. Another book, a thin volume, tan with a golden spine, tilted on the wrought iron bookends — a book by John Battle.
The truth as he sees it.
Rowden always wondered why his mentor never published any revealing articles on his exemplary fieldwork. There was no The Jade Owl: How I Found and Lost It. No The Joy of Finches: The Empress Wu’s Abattoir. Nothing of that sort. There was only a child’s fairy tale — a good one, but still nothing that matched the stature of the man who wrote it. There it was, winking at Rowden and tilting against a wrought iron replica of Peking’s Meridian Gate. It called to him. I am the only published work of John Battle, the Old China Hand and I stand as a testament to his entire research — fairy story and my name is The Dragon’s Pool.
Rowden fixed his stare out on the bay, where the gulls laughed at clam beds.
The truth as he sees it.
“Rowden, are you ill?”
“Ill? No. Just . . . just taken by a thought.”
“Is it the thought that will keep you true to your work?”
He smiled. Audrey always asked the unanswerable question — the Final Jeopardy challenge. He reached for the fairy tale that he had brought home to read to Amy. It was a fun tale about the Princess and the Dragon’s Pearl. A common enough tale. If John Battle chose to recount an old legend, he could have done better with something more obscure. He could have scoured dozens of untranslated texts, hooking a sturgeon rather than a guppy. Rowden touched the volume, sensing an elusive fire beneath its golden spine.
The truth as he sees it.
He dropped the book on top of the blank papers. They vibrated in sympathy for the Princess and her Dragon’s Pearl.
“I think I’ll call it a day,” he said, quickly turning, and then kissing Audrey on the forehead.
“If you are finished, you can entertain your guests.”
Rowden hitched his brow.
“I told Simone you were . . . in the zone. Not be disturbed.”
“Simone?” Guests. Audrey had said guests. “Is Nick also here?”
“No. Just Simone . . . and a friend.”
Drag Queens gone shopping, Rowden thought. They’ve dropped in to see the new Presidio digs. How drag queen was that? Amy took off in her terror-mobile, barely missing the woodwork. Audrey sped behind her before Sung Yi-di could press her with old Chinese lectures on resting during pregnancy.
Rowden watched them disappear. He was in the mood for guests. The sun had shifted, leaving his research theater in the shadows. Rowden had only thoughts of Simone DeFleurry now, decked out in Sunday’s best for a sprint through the Embarcadero. Wham! Bam! Boom!
Publication could wait. Time didn’t press him. Time could run its course as first cousin to the sun. The challenge now was the two anomalies that graced the ink blotter — a graphic novel and a fairy tale — the traces of the Old China Hand and his son.
The truth as they saw it.
“Sung Yi-di,” Rowden said. “Where’s Miss DeFleurry?”
Rowden had expected to see Simone poised with his prim pinky up while sipping a cup of gunboat tea. He assumed that Simone would gravitate to the parlor’s simple elegance — the showcase of Chinese lacquer ware and art; geometric sofas and chairs, upholstered in gold brocade; ebony cabinets with museum quality figurines; a flowing Imperial robe draped across the centerpiece wall, flanked by portraits of the Emperors K’ang-xi and Sung Kao-tsung — but no. The pride of the Castro was nowhere to be seen. Sung Yi-di, however toted a tray of plum cakes and a pot of loose gunboat, so Simone couldn’t be far. Perhaps Audrey was giving the ten-dollar house tour. That would take some time. The new digs were a private laziness of considerable square footage.
Sung had placed the tray on a side table. She folded the lilac-colored napkins into iris flutes. The Xiao family abilities to transform simple objects into complex arrays always impressed Rowden. Sung Yi-di may not have been a Xiao woman (she was the daughter of the old Grandmother’s amah), still she exhibited the full artistry of the Dinky Street ke-ting.
Rowden sidled up to Sung. She was sometimes hard of hearing, tuning others out, a talent acquired in service to Xiao Ao-ling, no doubt. The old Grandmother could be craggy at times. Rowden envied Sung this art of selective listening.
“Sung,” he repeated. She turned. Her middle-aged cheeks sagged beneath gray, mottled eyes. “Did you hear me?”
“Much to do,” she answered. “It is the time for Ao-fei’s feeding.” She always called Amy by her Chinese name. Rowden considered Sung an essential helpmate to Audrey; and a symbol of the old Grandmother’s abiding interest. However, Sung regarded herself in a more traditional light. Utility guided all action for a household woman. In the People’s Republic, she could have been a ward leader, or a director on the Yang-tze River dam project. Instead, she drifted with tradition and tradition favored her not.
“Sung. Please. T’ai-t’ai DeFleurry tsai nar?”
“Simone?” she answered. Rowden smiled. Sung glanced toward the back door.
“Xie, xie.” Rowden headed to the back porch.
The day was fair with gentle bay breezes. It would make a good impression on Simone. The red brick porch was sturdy, balustrades arrayed with window boxes that the previous owner (Brigadier General Mortensen, retired; now deceased) ran rampant with geraniums. They cascaded over the rails as lava flows. The General had a green thumb (evidently) and left as legacy a perennial garden that ran riot some eighty yards from the porch. The aroma of mint and gardenia pinched Rowden’s nose. He recalled China, although this inherited garden was more English-mayhem than well-mannered Chinese.
Rowden sauntered just short of the five-stair flight leading to the garden path. In the distance, past the lawn’s verge, was a white fence festooned with green-budded climbers. The garden listed on a gentle slope toward the bay. Beyond stood the marmalade pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge. Rowden loved this panorama. He recalled the first time he truly spied the bay. He rode on the Hyde Street cable car, stopping on the hill above the Embarcadero. The crisp winter breeze brushed the sparkling waves. The sun kissed the ticky-tacky box houses that dotted the hills. Serenity. A gentle voice had cuffed his ear that day. A dose of serenity cures dark thoughts, it said. Whatever your complaint, Rowdy, San Francisco has the cure. All you need do is look for it. Nick’s voice. So much had happened since then. Rowden smiled.
“I did look for it, Nick. I believe, I found it.”
Suddenly, Rowden sensed that he wasn’t alone. Someone listened to his reminiscent soliloquy. He turned. A young man sat on the old Cape May basking chair. At first Rowden thought it was Nick, but unless Nick changed his hair color (and Rowden wouldn’t put it passed him), a stranger sat in the General’s favorite chair.
“Excuse me,” Rowden asked. “Who are . . .” Then he recalled Audrey’s words. If you are finished for the day, you can entertain your guests. Guests — plural. Rowden expected someone different. Someone in taffeta and flounced, not in leather; and not so near the cradle. “You must be . . . Simone’s friend.”
The young man bounced to his feet.
“Silky,” he said. “My name’s Silky.”
“It’s a cool name, don’t you think?”
“It’s unique.” It fit the hairstyle. Rowden suspected that Nick might have had something to do with this nickname. “Well, Silky, I’m glad to meet you.” He extended his hand, which was snapped up, and then shook. “I was looking for . . .”
“She’s smelling the flowers.”
“The flowers? Oh.” Rowden returned to the stairs. He scanned the distant garden. At first the riot of climbers block the view, but then, he spied her . . . him. A wiry lady in a red polka-dot sundress and long matching gloves that wavered over the dahlias and asters. Her ample chest silhouetted against the tall grasses. Her sunbonnet flapped in the bay breeze.
A Gainsborough original, Rowden thought. All you need do is look for it.
Rowden sauntered down the path, Silky trailing at a distance.
“Enjoying the sights?” Rowden asked, coming through the gate.
Simone brightened from his reverie.
“Professor, you have finally listened to me and found some fashion sense.” He extended his hand, which Rowden promptly kissed. “This is more house than I’ve seen in San Francisco in years.”
“There’s not too many like it.”
“It’s so . . . free-standing. I hope it don’t take a tumble when the big one strikes.”
Rowden offered Simone his arm, prelude to a stroll about the shrubbery.
“When the big one strikes, we’re all pretty much fucked.”
“Language, language.” Simone chuckled. “Sorry. With Nicky’s silence and with the little one cussin’ up a storm, I try to be a steadying force.”
“When you say little one . . .” Rowden glanced back to the lawn. Silky had stretched out open-shirted in the sun.
“You’ve met Marsh?”
“Marsh? He introduced himself as Silky.”
Simone halted mid-petunia bank.
“He doesn’t respond yet to his real name. Silky is his professional name.”
“He’s a drag-queen?”
Simone tittered. He tented his fingers to his nose.
“No. That would never do. He’s a . . . hustler.”
“A hustler? Do I need to count the silverware after you’ve gone?”
“He’s reforming. Under my guidance and Nicky’s voodoo, Marsh is responding well.” Rowden shrugged. “It’s a long story, Professor. The short of it is he showed up on my doorstep one night. He followed Nicky home . . . or should I say, the Jade Owl-man. Nicky saved him from an undeserved thrashing. He was homeless. Abandoned. He doesn’t speak about it, but Nicky can delve . . . you know . . . glimmer. That’s how we know his real name.” Rowden knew if he found a stray dog on his doorstep, he would bring it to the pound. How different was this? Simone’s eyebrows rose. “I can see by your look, you don’t approve. It doesn’t matter. As long as he behaves himself, I’ll let him sleep on my couch.” Simone glanced toward the bay. “I’ve broached the subject of school. That didn’t go over well.”
“It’s none of my business, but you’re really taking a chance. Every day you read about shit that happens to good Samaritans.”
“What can I do? I’m a sucker for blue eyes.”
“That will need changing. The leather, I mean. But look how long it took you to exchange your cardigan look for one of Presidio fashion. Besides, you’ll probably read about him in an upcoming Battle-Jones edition; something like The Jade Owl and the Jail-Bait Hustler.”
“I could do with less publishing along those lines.”
“But it’s your fault.”
“My fault?” Rowden cracked his knuckles. He glanced back to Silky, who was now bare-chested and rolling over on his stomach. He munched a blade of rye grass. “I don’t draw. I don’t make up stories. Most of all, I don’t go about town demonstrating my freaky telekinetic powers.”
Simone touched Rowden’s shoulder.
“That’s because you have so much, my dear. Nicky has nothing now.”
“Nothing? He has you. He has his work at the museum, and believe me, no one is proscribing his fictional proclivities.”
“Proclivities?” He sighed. “He will always have me. I’m part of the landscape. I’m his partner, lover and soul mate — everything a good hubby should be. He appreciates that, although . . . he says it less now. No, when I say he has nothing, I mean he has lost the one thing that defines him.”
“The Jade Owl.”
“Simone, the Jade Owl can never be with Nick again. It was sucking his soul into some dark place for some darker reason. Even after we finished our strange business, it wove a web over his mind. I had to separate him from it.”
“But Professor, since it’s gone, Nicky has become even darker. He’s still my love of loves, but he drifts into stone silence at times. And this night roving . . . to save the world. That scares me. I know he has substantial clout with those fingers and those geeky glasses . . . but can he stop a bullet?”
He very well could, Rowden thought. Didn’t I stop a bolt of lightening in Wu Tze-t’ien’s tomb? Although Nick’s powers were ample, Rowden preferred that Nick shouldn’t risk bullet catching.
“You didn’t come here to see my new house today, did you?”
“Of course I did, but . . .” Simone shuffled toward the gate. To Rowden he appeared diminished, a woman fighting for her man, at her wits end for a solution. Simone turned. “What if his soul has already slipped away?”
“I know he sounds delusional when he says that he is the Jade Owl, but what if by some slip of the spirit there’s a scintilla of truth in that folly?”
Rowden shuddered. A flash pricked his mind. Hadn’t Nick’s ch’i dwelled inside the Jade Owl? Hadn’t Rowden slammed the damn thing into Nick’s navel to reanimate him? But that was the end of it. Nick escaped. The Jade Owl was left in the basement under the cold, flickering red emergency lights. Until . . . Rowden disposed of it.
“I cannot help you Simone. To assure Nick’s safety, the damned thing’s gone.”
“You gave it away,” Simone said. “I know, but you can get it back.”
Gave it away. There it was, held in his hands in the basement’s darkness. It was cold and dead. Still it longed for its display case and visitors and . . . Nick. Here, take this, he had said. Hide it. Don’t tell me where it is evermore. Throw it in the bay, if you must. Hammer it to chips. Just take it. Take it to your new home across the sea, but promise me, Rosie, that you’ll never display it. Never make a show of it. It must disappear. He saw in her Yankee eyes those enterprising Bryn Mawr thoughts bubbling to show the Jade Owl in New Yawk. Still, he trusted her and, after all, she was departing to a new life, with her millionario husband to a villa in the Tuscan hills. How far can you throw, Rawden? How far can you throw? As far as those Tuscan hills. Somehow, he knew she could be trusted in this matter. They were protecting her Charmer — her Nick, whom she nursed to health after Old Sheep.
“When I gave it away, Simone, I told the bearer that . . . it should never see the light of day again. In truth, I have no idea where it is.” And that was the truth. Simone could probably detect this in Rowden’s eyes. He brushed the top of his sunbonnet, and then blew a long, unforgiving sigh.
“We must be going.”
“Please. Simone. Sung Yi-di has whipped up tea and cakes.”
Simone smiled dimly. The tea would be bitter. The cakes, stale.
“I just hoped that you could help me get him back, that’s all.” She didn’t need to add, since you took him away.
Rowden held the gate open. Simone strutted up the lawn to Silky — non-stop. Silky scurried behind him like a pet, but not before glancing back at Rowden. That glance held a mighty Wham! Bam! Boom!
Rowden’s heart sank. A thought echoed.
All you need do is look for it. Nick was looking