Whew. Rhonda Parrish, people. In addition to all of her writing and editing work, not to mention her handholding and support of sometimes anxious/nervous/tearing-their-hair-out-frustrated author friends (it me!), Rhonda created and manages an annual holiday fundraising campaign called Giftmas.
Rhonda cheerfully persuades people to donate their time, creativity, and blogs to raise money for the Edmonton Food Bank. This year, she’s asked for poems and short fiction from her participating authors.
Why am I blogging about this?
Yup, you guessed it. I have the honour of being first up. It’s like I’m the opening act! Below, you’ll find a short story of mine called “The Fix” (reprinted from Sleuth Magazine, Vol.1, August 2015). Like all my Crescent City short stories, this one centres on someone other than Lola Starke (my novel series protag): here, it’s Lola’s father, Butch.
Please read and enjoy. Please donate to our cause. We appreciate donations in any amount you feel comfortable giving. The goal this year is $750. The Edmonton Food Bank can turn every $1 into 3 meals—which means if we reach our goal, it could mean 2250 meals for people who need it.
So, how can we get there from here?
Read my story today. Tomorrow, visit Alexandra Seidel at her blog. She’s next on the Giftmas 2018 blog tour and she’ll have a poem or story to share with you, too. From Alexandra’s blog, you’ll find the link to the stop afterward, Chadwick Ginther on Dec. 3rd, and so on and so forth—all the way til Dec. 25th, when we’ll reveal the Top Sekkrit Surprise!
If you enjoy my story, if you want to support #Giftmas2018, please share this post and any or all of the rest of the Giftmas 2018 blog tour-iffic contributors. (Yes, I went there.)
You’ll find a wee bit more info on the other #Giftmas2018 contributors at the end of this story. So what’re you waiting for? Read on…
A Crescent City Short Story
The man had lost his eyes. Bloody and ragged, their sockets glistened darkly in the rays of the rising sun.
Butch clenched his jaw, unwilling to let his stomach get the better of him. He stared at the corpse’s legs, the thick hair on the calves, the pale skin around the ankles. The light was still uncertain, or maybe it was just too bright. Butch wasn’t sure if he was looking at the impressions of sock garters on the dead man’s legs, or if they were just patches of flattened hair.
“It’s him.” Nicky Lo’s voice was rough with lack of sleep.
“Are you sure?” Butch glanced at the older man standing next to him. Lo nodded abruptly. Butch rubbed the back of his neck, felt the stubble at his hairline.
He said, “And the dress?”
“That’s the silver cheong–sahm from ‘The Wedding.’ One of them, at any rate. I imagine there must be at least a dozen for the show.” Lo looked at Butch sidelong. “Thought you’d recognize it too.”
“On Mildred Chao, sure. Not on her leading man, however,” Butch said drily. “I certainly wouldn’t’ve thought it came in his size.”
Lo snorted and passed his hand over his eyes. Even over the susurrating waves, Butch could hear him sigh heavily.
“What do you want to do now?”
Lo remained silent, staring down at the dead man. The ocean breeze brought the taste of salt, the briny smell of kelp. It buffeted Lo, flapping the hem of the traditional Chinese split tunic around his ankles. Butch’s gaze followed the map of smudges and streaks on the older man’s tunic and wide cotton trousers. Even his shoes, black quilted cotton reinforced with cloth wrappings, were heavily crusted. Butch grimaced, remembering the previous night’s work. He glared down at the man lying at their feet.
Wang was definitely dead now, but he’d led them a merry chase through every dank alleyway in the City before coming to a bad end. Butch silently wished him luck in the next life.
Feeling a sudden gust of chill air, Butch looked down at himself. The middle two frog closures of his plain navy tunic had popped open. He slowly redid them and felt his collar tight against the knob in his throat as he catalogued the grains of sand adhered to the muck on his own black cotton shoes. He grimaced again. At least they’d be cheaper to replace than if he’d given in to the latest City craze for European leather boots. The twentieth century had thus far proven a mixed blessing for the Chinese founders of Crescent City. Butch was grateful for the burgeoning silent film industry but he would happily do without the cyclical madness for European fashions. He’d noted more people looking askance at his adherence to Chinese short tunics and wide trousers. He was City-born and bred. What else would he wear?
The briny wind gusted over the nape of his neck. Shaking himself out of useless thoughts, he swung his head up, checking the beach. Nothing but pale sand and a small group of sandpipers, darting around about ten feet away. Farther up the shore, a lone heron stood still as stone, its blue feathers gilded by sunlight.
“Quarter past six.” Lo sighed. “At least the beach is deserted.” He put a hand on Butch’s shoulder. “Stay here. I’ll get a blanket. Cover him up. We’ll pretend to be helping a drunk friend back to the car.”
“Aren’t we getting the police?”
Lo raised his eyebrows. “Not until we get him situated properly.”
“I wasn’t lying, Butch. When I said we take care of things. This is clearly tailor-made for the scandal rags. We’ve got to tone it down before anyone hears of it.” He gestured with a thumb to the corpse. “We’ll take him back to his house. Doctor up a story.”
“How’s that going to explain the eyes?”
“I know some people.” Lo shrugged. “We’ll come up with something.” He placed a roughened hand on Butch’s shoulder. “We square?”
Butch looked away up the beach. The heron remained impossibly still, its legs mostly hidden in the depths of a tidal pool. Its head cocked from one side to the other in jerky movements as it searched the water beneath it. Then it struck, extending its s-shaped neck to arrow its beak downward. With a splash of bright droplets, the heron raised its head, a silvery fish was wriggling crosswise in its sharp beak. With a casual toss of its neck, the heron re–oriented the fish to slide down into its gullet.
Butch let out a breath. He nodded.
Butch watched Nathaniel Tsoh prowl the dead man’s bedroom. Tsoh wore a pale gold silk mien–lahp jacket with symbols traced in darker gold thread, a high round collar and mustard yellow frog closures down the front. His flat-front, wide-legged trousers were of dark navy silk. Butch couldn’t help noting Tsoh’s shined leather boots and white cloth spats, fashionable perhaps a decade ago. He bit down softly on his tongue.
“Nothing we can do about his eyes,” Tsoh said. “Conjuring new ones would take too much energy.” He shrugged. “Ling doesn’t think it’s worth the ether.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Lo. “I know the limitations to your spells and your ghost’s ether energy. I won’t make you two conjure for a hopeless cause. We don’t have that much time anyway.” Butch watched Lo take out a handkerchief and wipe at his brow. It was stuffy, but Butch knew better than to offer to open a window—even if the smell of the most eligible bachelor in Crescent City was quickly becoming unbearable. The neighbours might be too far to smell death, but the grounds crew could be anywhere.
“For what it’s worth,” said Tsoh, “Ling thinks Wang was murdered. Those eye sockets weren’t gouged by physical means.”
“Which means a Conjurer with a ghost?” asked Butch.
Tsoh levelled a gaze at him. “Perhaps, a longtime host might also be possible. It depends on the ghost, really. How much the ghost knows of spells and such.”
“Are there any distinctive signs? To the spell casting?” Butch gestured to the dead man’s body, straightening up from his lean against the doorframe. “You think your ghost can discover who murdered him?”
Tsoh stared back at him, an assessing look in his eyes.
A bird chirped twice in quick succession, its small brown form flitting away from the magnolia outside Wang’s bedroom window. Butch held Tsoh’s stare.
Tsoh inhaled sharply then, faced Lo. “Wu wants the usual?”
The older man nodded, running his hat brim through his fingers. He stared at the body, covered in a drab grey blanket, lying on the floor next to the large bed. He straightened out his narrow shoulders, smoothed the front of his wrinkled tunic. “How long will you need?”
“Say, three hours? Ling and I need to scrub whatever spell took the eyes and killed him. Any leftover energies from it could be a problem.” Tsoh glanced at Butch. “We don’t want anyone tracing anything.”
Butch clenched his jaw.
“Then we’ll tidy him up so not even the highest level Catchers will find anything hinky.”Tsoh grinned. “The coppers’ pet ghost hunters won’t have a clue.”
“Except for the eyes.”
Tsoh’s grin disappeared at Butch’s words.
Lo gestured to Butch as he spoke to Tsoh. “Time to work, Nathaniel. Tell Ling thank you.” He waved vaguely in Tsoh’s vicinity.
“If we can make those gouges look mundane,” said Butch, “a lie will work as well as magic for the eyes.”
After a pause, Lo grunted. “Use a knife, a spoon, chopsticks, I don’t care. Do what Butch suggested. We’ll meet you at my office.” He walked out. Butch turned to follow. He heard Tsoh call out to him in the hallway.
“Fists are never a match for magic, Starke. Remember that.”
Butch paused without turning. “A pleasure to meet you as well, Tsoh. You and your spats.” He continued through the house and exited out the back.
Butch nodded at the guard on the gate and drove through onto the backlot. The car jolted a few times over bumpy gravel and holes in the packed dirt. A splash of colour in his periphery turned into a woman in bright pink robes on a bicycle, cutting across the car’s path. Butch jammed the brakes, stalling the car. The woman rode on, expression serene.
Cursing, he jumped out and cranked the engine back to life. When the engine caught, the hand-crank slipped, rotating too quickly for him to catch hold. The metal slapped into his wrist, eliciting a string of curses. He snatched the crank and slid back into the driver’s seat. Tight-lipped, he threw the hand-crank into the back seat.
“Don’t,” he said, seeing Lo shift in the passenger seat.
The older man spoke mildly. “Nathaniel’s right, you know. It’s not our job to find the killer.”
Butch grunted. He pulled to a stop outside the commissary. The car jerked once and rocked gently back and forth, settling down. Butch glowered at the steering wheel, wringing it slowly in his hands.
Lo got out, walked around the front of the ticking car. He stopped at Butch’s window, slid his hands into the tunic pockets at hip height.
“Listen, it’s not too late. You join up with the coppers, that’s fine by me. But this job, this one here, we don’t find criminals. We don’t mete out justice.”
“No,” Butch muttered. “It’s about cleaning up after spoiled actors and their sordid affairs.”
Butch rubbed at his eyes, his rough fingers scratching at his skin.
“We’ve got hours to go yet to square this away,” said Lo. His expression softened. “But I understand if you want to go home and give your little girl a hug.”
Butch thought fleetingly of Lola, her dark hair and fathomless eyes, her strong fingers as she grabbed his hand.
Butch squinted at the older man. “You know damned well I need this job, Nicky. It’s the best pay I’ll get.”
Lo nodded. “I’m just giving you the chance to walk away. No strings.”
Butch was tempted to resent being manipulated. In the end, he simply shrugged. “She’s better off with her sitters right now.” He rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck. “What do you want done now?”
“You tell me.”
Butch rubbed his chin, the stubble prickling at his suddenly sensitive palm. “I suppose you’ll have to update the boss man. Tsoh and his ghost’re taking care of the body.” Butch sighed. “Which means I’ll have to tidy up here.”
Lo nodded, his expression implacable. “Dressing room and office.”
“Lo’s Cleaners, at your service,” grumbled Butch.
Lo gestured to the building over his shoulder. “Get yourself some lunch afterward. Then meet at my office.”
Butch calculated quickly. “I might be late. Can you catch yourself another ride? If we don’t meet up, I mean.”
“I know where to find you.”
Butch kept his expression thoughtful. “We don’t want a lot of activity around his rooms. Someone’s bound to notice and say something to the police.”
After another moment, Lo nodded. “All right. We can play it your way.” He pointed a skinny finger. “You make noise nosing around, though, and I can’t help you. I meant what I said. This isn’t about justice.” Butch willed himself to look calm despite being caught out. Lo narrowed his eyes. “You’ve got Lola to think about now. Her mother won’t be picking up the slack.”
Butch angrily pushed away thoughts of his ex-wife. “I’m always thinkin’of her, Nicky. I’ve got no other choice.”
“Gods damn it.” Butch glared at the slice across his knuckle. He stuck the offending digit into his mouth, tasting blood. Cursing again, he resisted an urge to kick the rack of colourful, glittering costumes with their unexpectedly sharp edges. He swung around to survey the room instead. A flutter of red in his periphery caught his attention.
A woman stared at him from the doorway, her expression apprehensive. She wore the shimmering costume of a desert dancer, her black hair piled in loose curls atop her head, with a gold circlet around her temples. Tiny crystals embedded in her hair glinted and sparkled. Her dark eyes were wide, and her skin luminescent. Butch noticed her teeth were white enough to be false, or maybe it was just the contrast with her deep crimson lipstick.
“I’m sorry, Miss. This is Mr. Wang’s dressing room. Are you lost?” Butch flicked a glance at the closed door behind her. How had she opened and then closed it without him noticing?
“I know where I am. I’m his leading lady. The question is, where is he?” Her voice, low and sultry, trembled. Butch felt his gut twist at the fear in her tone. She took a step farther into the room, watching him. “We had a 5:30 call this morning. His big dance numbers are today. I know he wouldn’t miss them for anything.”
“Well, I’m surely not qualified to comment on Mr. Wang’s intentions, Miss..?”
“Anna Sam.” She hesitated. “I know what you do, you and Mr. Lo.” She leaned back slightly, touched the door behind her. “You’re Mr. Wu’s fixers. You must be doing something about this. Lahp-goh was upset yesterday, when that newspaper story came out.”
Butch puzzled through her sentences. “You mean Mr. Wang.”
She nodded. “Yes, he…he didn’t appreciate having two of the studio guards come to escort him home after the shoot yesterday. And he was upset by…by something I told him.” She pressed her lips together briefly. Her eyes shimmered with tears. “I think I made a grave mistake.”
“Here.” Butch gestured toward the seating area in the middle of the dressing room. “You look like you need to sit down.” He stepped toward her and gently took her elbow. Her skin was soft and yielding. His face heated.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” He offered his handkerchief, chose the armchair at right angles to her.
She dabbed at her eyes. “You must have read the newspapers.” Her dark eyes were intense.
Butch shrugged. “I don’t believe everything I read.”
“Well, it was all nonsense. Lahp-goh is a kind, decent man, upstanding and moral. He did not discard Mildred to sign with Mr. Wu.” She stopped abruptly.
“Mildred Chao? His stage show co-star?”
She nodded. “She made a mistake a few months ago.” She looked away.
Butch waited her out.
“You have to understand,” she said, “I’ve known Mildred for years. We grew up together, just north of Shanghai. We came to Crescent City together, like sisters. I know her. She was a good girl, but…she could also become intensely jealous.”
“Of you?” Butch assessed her openly. This delicate beauty and Wang Lahp Ho would’ve made an incredibly appealing couple.
The woman shook her head. “We look good as a leading couple. That’s why we’re in this film together, but Lahp-goh and I are like brother and sister. Mildred knows I’m not interested, um, in his type.” She blushed, flicked him a quick look through her lashes, and then lowered her eyes. When she looked up again, her expression was grave.
“About six months ago, Mildred was up for a part. She thought it was her chance to snap up a contract here. But it didn’t work out. The director wanted a gwai girl, someone he had in mind already. Mildred went off her head.” She shuddered. “She was going to cut the girl’s face. Ruin her career.”
Butch’s neck tingled. Despite himself, he asked, “You remember a name?”
“Grace…something. Michaels? Mac…something?” She shrugged.
“McCall.” In his mind, Butch saw deep blue eyes, a heart-shaped face, and sleek black hair. He could almost feel her alabaster skin beneath his fingertips. He clenched his fists, shook off the memories of his ex-wife. He focused on Anna Sam’s story.
“Mildred found her in this tiny dressing room. I don’t know where Mildred got the knife, I swear. But the girl was fast. She dodged the knife and punched Mildred hard. Mildred fell back against a rack of clothes, ended up cutting herself with her own blade.” She slid a finger along a forearm. “It happened so fast, I couldn’t stop it. But I was trying to calm them down.
“That Grace girl, she told Mildred she wouldn’t tell the coppers, but she’d tell her lover, that gwai director, that big deal from Europe. He was the one who’d passed on Mildred. She said Mildred would never work in the studios because she’d get her blacklisted.” She looked down at her hands. “Things’ve been so hard for Mildred ever since. I think—” her voice lowered, “I think she was the source for that nasty newspaper story.”
“To get back at her old leading man?”
Anna Sam nodded, hesitant. “And perhaps to increase her own profile. Make people feel sorry for her.”
Butch considered for a moment. “You came here for a reason, Miss Sam. What is it you really want to tell me?”
Tears filled her eyes. “I made a mistake when I told Lahp-goh what I thought. He was livid. I’ve never seen him like that.” She swallowed, wringing the handkerchief in her hands. “I’m afraid he might have gone after Mildred, last night. And that something terrible has happened between them. I haven’t been able to reach her either.”
Butch stared at her, turning over her words in his head. “Does Mildred Chao have a ghost?”
Anna Sam nodded. “Sze-sze was her mother’s cousin, like a sister to Mildred.”
“How long has Mildred been haunted?” Butch felt his scalp tighten with dread.
“Not long,”replied Anna Sam. “Perhaps four years?”
Butch felt the tension leach away. Tsoh had said a longterm haunting was necessary.
“Sze-sze was studying at the Temple to be a Conjurer when she fell ill suddenly. The Healers couldn’t save her. She died within a few days. They had just enough time to perform the ghosting ritual. And Mildred was still in the City then. She and Lahp-goh had only just met.”
Butch’s mind raced, collating information, formulating a theory.
Anna Sam leaned forward, touched his hand lightly. Butch looked down at her slender fingers, pale and small against his tanned skin.
“Please, you must tell me. Do you know where Lahp-goh is? Is he all right?” Her eyes were wide, worry evidenced by the very faintest of lines at their corners. Butch saw now that her eyes were black.
He gave her a reassuring smile and lied.
Butch tossed three paper packets onto Nicky Lo’s desk.
“Found those in his dressing room. Stashed inside a pair of riding boots.”
Lo picked one up, shook it, and looked up at Butch. “Heroin?”
Butch shrugged. “Good a guess as mine. Thought about flushing them but figured you might want to know what’s in ’em first.”
Lo unfolded the intricate configuration of paper, revealing a small bundle of dried leaves. He brought his nose down and sniffed delicately. He recoiled, his face twisting with distaste. Butch picked up the packet and brought it to his nose. A bitter, dry scent wafted up, pricking the insides of his nostrils. Butch turned his face away and exhaled forcefully. Glancing at Lo, he broke off a tiny leaf end. Flicking the packet back on to the desk, he put his tongue to the crumb of dried plant.
His stomach immediately rebelled, his gorge rising. His entire body convulsed and Butch spat on to the thick carpet at his feet. He rubbed his tongue against his sleeve, trying to rid himself of the sudden nausea.
“Here.” Lo, mouth bracketed by deep lines, handed him a tumbler of water and the rubbish bin.
Butch swished and spat, swished and spat. The ringing against the metal bin echoed hollowly.
Lo shook his head. “Looks like our Mr. Wang had asthma.”
Butch scrubbed his mouth with his handkerchief. “Why? What is that?”
“Ji fah man toh loh. A medicinal herb. You smoke it to help with the breathing.”
Lo shrugged. “I’m no apothecary. It’s touchy stuff. Wang’s herbalist must be skilled.” He stared at the packets. “Or lucky.” He glanced up at Butch. “Poisonous in the wrong amounts.”
A knock sounded at the door and then Tsoh strolled in, outlined briefly by the brilliant sunshine outdoors. He closed the door behind him, took off his hat, and ran a hand over his black hair.
“Done and done.” His smile was self-satisfied.
Butch exchanged a look with Lo. The older man sighed, pointed to the packets on his desk. Butch stared out the window as Lo explained the herb to Tsoh.
It was as close to midday as to make no difference. Nicky’s office was in a back corner of the administration section of the studio. If he strained, Butch knew he’d be able to hear the clacking of abacus counters down the interior hall. The view outside consisted of a flattened area of brown dirt and gravel that led toward the backside of one of the filming warehouses. Signs posted along the back wall admonished visitors from entering when filming was underway. A red translucent square of glass had been slid into the cage that surrounded a bulb next to the single back door. Butch wondered idly what was currently filming inside the cavernous space.
“Butch?” Lo asked him, voice mild.
Butch returned his attention to the matter at hand.
Tsoh chewed the inside of his mouth for a few moments. He dropped his shoulders. “Doesn’t change anything, far as I can tell. We just put these packets back where the police are certain to find them.”
“Ling and I were able to contain the smell, but that won’t last past sundown today.” Tsoh’s voice was apologetic. “That killing spell made it very difficult to lay down anything at all.” He paused. “But we scrubbed the traces of magic around the eyes. With Starke’s suggestion, it oughta fool the coppers.”
Lo looked at Tsoh and Butch in turn, his expression assessing. “Good work.”
“There’s something else,” said Butch, keeping his tone neutral. He quickly explained his earlier conversation with Anna Sam. He added, “Mildred Chao has a ghost. It’s possible she murdered Wang after all, just as Anna Sam fears. Shouldn’t we at least look for her?”
Lo was already shaking his head. “She’s not our concern at the moment. We need to keep our eye on the prize here. That means making Wang’s death an accident rather than a murder.”
Butch shrugged. “If Chao shows up, there might be trouble.”
Tsoh barked out a laugh. “What’s she going to say? ‘It’s not an accident, Officer. I killed him.’ That’s preposterous, Starke, and you know it.” He cocked his head, listening to his ghost. “Besides,” he said to Butch, “how do you even know this Anna Sam is telling the truth?”
“Why would she lie?” Butch made himself speak calmly.
“Wouldn’t have the faintest,” replied Tsoh. “Far as I know, she’s just a chorus girl. This film with Wang was her lucky break. Who knows with these actors? Perhaps he was getting more screen time than she was. Perhaps she stirred up the hornet’s nest with the newspapers.”
Lo put up a hand. “Nathaniel’s right. We have no idea why either of these women would kill Wang. And it doesn’t matter. Mildred Chao’s not going to admit to murder, so making his death look an accident will keep her mouth shut. As for the chorus girl, we’ll just have to see what she does.”
Butch forced a grin. “You’re right, of course. I must be over-thinking it.” He picked up the three packets of medicine. “I’ll go take care of this.” Butch bowed with a flourish, turned on his heel and left.
The heron was long gone.
Not surprising, Butch figured. A beach full of loud people didn’t seem a likely resting place for a hunting bird. Sandpipers were still hopping all along the shore, though, avoiding waves and curious children alike. Five police officers stood in a loose ring around what looked like a large bundle of clothing, about fifteen feet from the water. The coppers faced outward, warning off any looky-loos from getting too close.
Butch skirted the main cluster of onlookers, coming up on Nicky Lo from an oblique angle as the older man stood in the shade of a few palms close to the street.
“Can’t be a coincidence,” Lo said by way of greeting.
Butch shook his head. “She wasn’t there this morning. I checked up and down this shore. Twice.”
“Well, she’s not going to cause any more trouble with Wang, is she?” Lo squinted out at the shimmering water.
“Who made the identification?” Butch stared at the shrouded shape on the sand twenty feet away.
Lo shrugged. “It’s not as though Mildred Chao’s face hasn’t just been around the world twice or anything.”
“Anyone saying how long she’s been dead?”
“The coroner’s only been here a few minutes. But I heard some witnesses say she came crying onto the beach and swallowed a packet of medicine.”
“What are the chances,” Butch muttered.
He let his gaze wander the length of the beach shore. He noted the scattering of rocks and tidal pools at the northern end, thought fleetingly of the heron again. Then back down along the narrowing strip of sand as the bay’s shape dictated a shift to a rocky promontory.
He knew he was like a mangy dog with a bone, but he couldn’t hold his tongue. “It’s just too pat, Nicky. I don’t like it.”
“Sometimes, that’s the way it goes. We don’t get paid to like it.”
“Is that why you called me here? To let the lesson sink in?”
Lo raised a brow. “I thought you’d like to know firsthand. See for yourself. So you can stop worrying about Chao stirring up trouble.”
Butch, hearing Lo’s mild reproach, stared at his mentor, truly seeing him as though for the first time. He reminded himself of what he owed this man.
“You really think I can do this?” he asked quietly.
Lo continued to watch the ocean. “Do you have a choice? There are no more acting gigs, Butch. We both know that. And the location scouting…well, that’s going to be hard, after you beat up Esperanza.”
“He was sleeping with my wife—”
“I’m not taking his side, for gods’sake, Butch. And you were divorced by then, remember? Just cool down.” Lo waited a few moments. “But he blackballed you and he’s the golden child at the moment, so….”
“Gods damn it, Nicky, I’m sorry, all right? I’m a fool and an idiot. It’s just—” He couldn’t speak past the sudden tightness around his chest, the heaviness in his gut. He rubbed at his sternum, his rough fingers catching audibly on the cotton of his tunic.
Butch caught movement from the beach. His gaze followed the coppers as they crossed the sand with their burden. Neither he nor Lo spoke.
He envisioned his daughter’s face before him then, grinning with mischief, eyes bright with curiosity. He imagined what this job, this gift from Nicky Lo, would mean as he raised his daughter without his wife and the wealth earned by her successful film career. Butch felt it deep in his bones. There was no question, really. He’d been fooling himself to think otherwise.
This moment, this choice, would allow his daughter the luxury of morals and ethics. He would gladly exchange his for the promise of that future for her.
Butch breathed in deeply. It felt like the first full breath he’d taken in months.
“All right, old man. If you can convince Mr. Wu to trade a bit of scandal now for a good cover story forever, then I think I’ve got a solution to all of this.”
“Dazzling Duo Meet Tragic End in Shocking Sequence”
Butch carefully read through the entire article, and then folded the newspaper carefully before tossing it onto the table. It was still a hack job—the sensationalistic murder/suicide angle—but it would do. He signalled to a waiter for more tea, idly assessed a passing waitress displaying a tray of egg tarts and steamed sweet rolls.
“I heard you came up with this drivel.” Anna Sam stood across from him. She flicked the newspaper with red-tipped fingernails.
Butch waited a beat, considering his reply, and then stood, gesturing to a chair.
“Care to join me, Miss Sam?”
She crossed her arms. The dancer’s costume had been replaced by a royal blue cheong–sahm with a primrose pattern, and a light sweater. Her hair, artfully curled, was tied into a messy bun at the nape of her neck. The carmine lipstick was gone, replaced by pale pink gloss.
“How could you let them print such horrid things about Lahp-goh and Mildred? After I told you—”
Butch raised a hand. “Please, have a seat. Unless you’d rather everyone hear about your role in the whole affair?”
She narrowed her eyes. He looked back at her blandly. She sat.
“Did you just threaten me?”
He shook his head. “Not really. All bark, no bite, sadly.”
“I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
“I have no proof. Just a theory.” He paused. “Want to hear it?”
A waiter with teapot and cup in hand appeared at Anna Sam’s elbow. Keeping her eyes on Butch, she shook her head. The waiter hurried away without a word.
“Why should I?” she asked.
“Why did you deliberately approach me this morning?” Butch raised a brow. “You should’ve left well enough alone. Be patient, wait to see if anything incriminating turns up. But here you are, using the ruse of indignation to winkle information from me. You’re just not quite sure, are you?”
She sat back, her expression abruptly neutral. “About what, exactly?”
“Whether or not you’re safe,” said Butch.
“And what do you suppose I’m in danger of, Mr. Starke?”
“Of losing your contract here.”
She tossed her head, chin raised. “Your sources are mistaken. I have an iron-clad five film contract.”
Butch had to laugh at that. “We both know nothing about this industry is iron-clad.”
“I am happy to prove you wrong.”
“Well, perhaps,” Butch said. “But that’s your situation now.” He paused, appraising her openly. “The studio publicity department’s swooning over you, aren’t they? Your leading man murdered by your best friend, who commits suicide from the guilt of her crime of passion. Why, the public is going to sympathize with you for months.”
“How dare you mock my grief?” She glared at him.
“This is a cold-hearted business, Miss Sam. Your grief’s just another useful tool to the people that matter around here.” He leaned in, speaking softly. “No more silly song-and-dance routines for you. No more background chorus girl roles. No, it’s vulnerable damsels from here on out. Headlining all the way.” Butch sat back and tapped the newspaper. “Just as you planned.”
Anna Sam narrowed her eyes. “Now you’re accusing me of murdering my two best friends?Well, you’d better have some damned solid proof before going to the police, Mr. Starke. Because from where I sit, you sound certifiable.”
“You know I’ve got nothing, Miss Sam. Nothing but a hunch and a bad feeling about you. You did a brilliant job.” He glowered at her. “Tell me something, though. Why pose Wang in that dress? What did Mildred want to prove with that? I’m presuming, of course, that you pushed her over whatever edge of sanity she was already teetering on. Poisoned her with jealousy so she and her spell casting ghost would do the deed for you. Keep your hands clean.” He gave her a nasty smile. “If not your conscience.”
Anna Sam rose, looked down her nose at him. She reached for the folded newspaper. Butch opened his mouth to say more. Her right hand whipped out, catching him hard across the left cheek. Butch shook his head to clear the ringing.
She spat in his face. “You’re despicable. Stay away from me. You understand?”
She walked rapidly between the tables, her chin held high. She had talent, all right, he had to admit that. She was playing her role perfectly.
Butch cleaned his cheek, then took a sip of his tea. He watched, expressionless, as she left the commissary. The slash of bright sunshine lingered behind his eyes long after the door closed behind her.
…But it’s literally just the beginning for us. Please visit the other blog stops (look at that bounty!) and share #Giftmas2018 far and wide.