Reader Group Exclusive
Excerpt of Movable Type
a Crescent City short story
It didn't look like much to Ria. Maybe twelve by twelve of workspace hidden behind the house proper. The sunset, filtered through bright pink cherry blossoms, cast shifting shadows through the lone miserly window. She watched dust motes dance slowly in the still air.
The old man glowered. "Think you're a right Abercrombie, don'tcha?"
"Hardly, Mr. Ying. Know-it-alls don't make good reporters."
"Bah. You think I'm just bumping gums, eh? But you're wrong. This is a career-making story and I'm givin' you the chance to grab it and run with it."
Ria eyed him narrowly. "Well, you've gotta admit it's beyond most people. Frankly, not a lot of our readers will care how their paper gets printed. They just want to read about world news or the latest show business gossip."
"Bah. What are you, twenty? I can't tell with you people. Too old to be so dumb, anyway, especially in this business."
"It's rude to ask a lady's age."
"Maybe for you gwai. Not for us Chinese. We're obsessed with aging." He peered at her suspiciously. "Didn't you say you were born in Crescent City?"
Ria gestured dismissively. "Yes and that's neither here nor there. Can we get back to your so-called invention?"
"Fine, fine. Then pay attention." He puffed up his chest. "I can typeset a standard newspaper in half the time it currently takes. Your readers may not care how their news gets printed. But they certainly do care how quickly it gets printed."
Ria scribbled quickly in her notebook. "When did you do this?"
"Thirteen years ago."
She faltered to a stop. "And how is this an exclusive now?"
He glared. "I'm giving you proof."
"That I know what I'm talking about."
Ria shook her head. "And what exactly are you talking about then?"
"A revolution in printing."
Ria cocked her head to one side. "You got a printing press hidden in here somewhere?" She gestured at the piles of greasy machine parts, the stacks of paper schematics, and the grimy worktable. "'Cause I gotta say, all I see is a hobby workshop inside a garden shed."
"For gods' sake, girl, what are they teaching reporters these days? Haven't you been listening?"
Ria silently counted to five. "So what's this proof I'm supposed to have?"
"Have you never visited the printing room at the Herald, Miss Monteverde? Seen the typesetters at work? Listened to the printing presses? Felt the heat? Tasted the ink at the back of your throat?"
Ria shook her head. "My editor still reviews my pieces."
Ying grunted. "I'm sure he does."
She let that one pass. "What about the printing room, Mr. Ying?"
"I'll get to that. First, you go back, down to the dungeon, look in December of 1921. Week of the twelfth, that's the Monday. Once you've done that," he pointed at the floor, "you come back here and I'll explain."
She did the math. "December, thirteen years ago? Is this why you, what, retired? Quit? Got fired?"
Ying ushered her out of the shed.
"Wait. Why me, Mr. Ying?" She waved her hand in the vague direction of downtown. "Why not Zhuang or Poon or even Chang? She's the current City desk ace."
Ying smirked. "Exactly. They're all known quantities. But you, you're not Chinese. No chance you're owned by the Tong, right? Unlikely you've got family ties to any of them gangs. You're new enough they haven't got to you yet. Plus you don't do the crime beat."
Ria raised a brow. "Have you even read any of my stories?"
"Oh yes, the one about my neighbour's daughter and her Ghost saving the family dog. Very touching. Inspiring, even. How do you think I found you?"
"So you just scanned the bylines until you saw a gwai name?"
He shook his head. "Of course not. I saw you. When you came to speak to Mrs. Chao next door. One simple question and here we are."
"Just hold on a damned minute." Ria pulled her arm from his grip. "I'm not going haring off on your say-so, mister. What's your history at the Crescent City Herald got to do with some special invention?"
Ying flapped his hands at her. "Keep it down, for gods' sake." He searched the surrounding yard, took a step closer. "Have you ever heard of a portable movable type machine?" he whispered.
Ria frowned, shook her head.
"It allows a person to create an entire document by using cast characters, just like we do for printing presses, instead of writing by hand."
Ria suppressed a sigh. "Mr. Ying, I hate to break it to you, but typewriters have been around for years."
He jabbed a finger in her direction. "Yes, for English and other European languages, but not for Chinese. Too many characters to put in one machine." He raised his chin. "Ours is not a language easily broken down into a palmful of letters."
"So you've done it?" The old man nodded. Ria peered around him. "Where is it? Can I see it?"
Ying shook his head. "No. You do your research first. Then come back. I need to know you can follow instructions."
Ria stared at him for a few beats. "What's in it for me to jump through your hoops?"
"The story of the century. Weren't you listening? Now," Ying tapped his pocket watch. "You better go. You'll have to be up early to catch Woodie in the dungeon. And you'd better do it before you file your story on...the swimming octogenarian, isn't it? Your editor will be sending you out on another scintillating story afterward, I'm sure."
What is Crescent City?
Crescent City is a fictionalized 1930s-era Chinese city-state, established in California during an 1880s Gold Rush—a place where ghosts and magic are a normal part of everyday life. This is the world of the Lola Starke novels, where Lola, a gwai (non-Chinese) PI with a trust fund, contends with varied clients, shady cases, and her own unwanted ghost, Aubrey. Find out more about the original trilogy here.
Who is SG WONG?
SG Wong is the creator of the Lola Starke series of novels and of the Crescent City short stories, written in the tradition of the hard-boiled detective genre, with two-fingers’ worth of noir and a liberal sprinkling of magic and ghosts thrown in for good measure.
In addition to being an author and writer, SG Wong is also an acclaimed presenter, public speaker and moderator.