Investigation, Part Two

From the Story Arc: The Touch of the Orchid Phoenix (mature readers only)

Previous Story in the Arc: Investigation, Part One by People's Blade (Saturday, October 23, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: The Meeting by People's Blade (Thursday, October 28, 2004)

(posted Tuesday, October 26, 2004)

Fei Li found it difficult to stare at the sidewalk as she walked down Fulton Avenue. She was trained to absorb visual details at a glance, filtering them for indications of danger. But Kelly Wu, college student and Sleeping Dragon calligraphy brush saleswoman, must not seem so alert. Any Tsoo enforcer would notice People’s Blade in a moment, by bearing and combat readiness alone. As Kelly, Fei Li felt utterly vulnerable.

Cha Hsien Lo lived in a brownstone townhouse, without family. His name was fourth on Grandmaster Te’s list of calligraphers who were suspected to have been approached by the Tsoo. The first two showed no evidence of Tsoo contact, let alone involvement; they were too relaxed. The third had clearly spoken to Tsoo enforcers, but an undercurrent of relief in her voice told Fei Li that she had been able to refuse the offer without fear of recrimination. Perhaps because her calligraphy was substandard, meant for tourists.

He answered the door promptly. Cha Hsien Lo reminded her of an elderly chess player in the park.

“Yes?” he said with a kind smile.

Fei Li made a show of consulting her clipboard. “Cha xiansheng, nin hao ma. Wo shi Kelly Wu…um…” She imitated the clumsiness of an Americanized Chinese speaker.

He nodded to her. “You need not struggle, little one. We can speak English.”

“Xie xie, grandfather! I am from Sleeping Dragon calligraphy supply. If you have a moment, I would like to show you some brushes. Ours are the finest in this country!”

Cha Hsien Lo tittered. “I’m sure they are! Yet I have mine sent from home.” At Fei Li’s look of dismay, he laughed again. “But I am about to make tea. Why don’t you show me your brushes? It would be nice to have company for a change.”

Following him inside the brownstone, Fei Li pondered his last statement. A lonely old man would likely joke to himself if strangers began to show at his door. She guessed that he’d had no visitors recently, let alone gangsters.

Calligraphic scrolls lined Cha’s walls. His brushwork was unhurried and authoritative, as he was. She spotted three pieces that she would treasure having in her own apartment.

“The ‘tranquility’ scroll appeals to you?” He laid out the tea service on a coffee table. “I find it soothing as well. Here, please sit and enjoy Cha’s cha.”

She giggled at his little joke: “cha” with a different intonation was Mandarin for tea.

Fei Li took her seat and opened her case. The brushes were top of the line, costing her half her weekly paycheck until she could submit receipts for reimbursement.

“Grandfather, I will skip over the entry level brushes and move to our best, for one whose calligraphy is so accomplished.”

He smiled and bowed. “Please, let us drink the tea first. Humor an old man who so rarely meets a great hero of the Chinese people.”

Fei Li sprang into a Lotus stance, scanning the room. Cha laughed again.

“Oh, no, do not be alarmed! I am alone here.”

“How did you recognize me?”

He gestured at the tea, and she resumed her seat. The tea was simple green tea, but from a fine leaf. “When you live so long as I, you notice much. No college girl who cannot speak Mandarin moves like a tiger.” He smiled. “Your secret is safe with me. Perhaps, for the rest of the world, glasses would help.”

It was her turn to laugh. “I hope the Tsoo cannot see through my disguise so quickly. It is my hope to slip past their spies unnoticed.”

“They should hire more lonely old men!” They both chuckled. “I know why you’re here. The Tsoo came to me four days ago.”

Her smile dropped and she leaned forward.

“Grandfather, did you accept their commission?”

“I did not. But,” he said, holding up a hand, “I made them show me the scrolls, or rather pictures of them.”

“That was dangerous!”

Cha laughed his brittle laugh. Fei Li liked the laughlines around his eyes. She wished she had a grandfather like Cha xiansheng. “I was bored! Why shouldn’t I ask to see them?”

He gathered writing supplies from a cabinet and laid them out on a drawing table. With a brush, presumably imported from China, he waved her over. “I’ll show you as much as I remember.”

With bold strokes he drew characters for “long life,” “health,” “fear,” “death” and “maple tree.” The characters were quite ancient, the sort only scholars read with ease.

“You have probably never seen these, little daughter, but this means –“

“Long life, but with a radical for power. Dui bu qi, I should not have interrupted.”

He gasped and looked closer. “You’re right! I didn’t even realize, drawing from memory.” He regarded her closely. “Very few people in the world would recognize so old a variation, let alone a girl barely into womanhood.”

She bowed. “Xie xie, grandfather, you flatter me. Perhaps you will allow me my own little mystery.”

He smiled, but his manner became formal. “Hao, xiaojie. I will draw the characters as I visualize them, and leave the interpretation to you.”

They spent an hour on the characters. Fei Li corrected him several times, each being an obscure variant on an already obscure character. At last they had what Cha guessed to be half a page of the first scroll.

The words seemed nearly unrelated, though they all bore some connection to the hopes any Chinese would have for themselves. Long life, prosperity, many male children. Other than some strange choices of characters, the content was nothing one could not find being sold to tourists in a Chinese marketplace.

“I will be sure to call you the next time I need some ancient literature interpreted, xiaojie. Your mastery of this material is unparalleled.”

She grinned. “It would be a welcome relief from patrolling streets for malcontents.” She tapped the character for “long life.” “This one still troubles me. Do you recall anything else about the scrolls? The nature of the paper, a casing…anything?”

“Hmmm.” He rubbed his chin. “All I saw was cropped images of a portion of the first scroll. I guessed that it was written during the ____ dynasty. However, the penmanship was extraordinary, even in poorly lit photographs. I was tempted to agree to their terms merely to see the scrolls for myself.”

“What were the terms?”

He leveled a deadly serious look. “They are Tsoo, honored hero. The words spoke of large sums of money and promises of safety, but behind them was the threat of death if they were displeased by the outcome.”

She patted his hand. “I am glad you refused them.”

“But perhaps I should have accepted, because there was only one more name on their list, so they told me. I have had a long, happy life, and dying does not frighten me. The last name on the list was one I recognized.”

She showed him the list given to her by Te. He pointed at a name. “Kuo Qing, a graduate student at the university. Her father is an acquaintance. I would never forgive myself if the Tsoo hurt her.”

“This is her correct address?”

“Dui. Please, Blade of our People, do what you can to protect her, but do not call down the wrath of the Tsoo on her or her family. You cannot be in all places at once.”

Fei Li bowed deeply to him. “I swear to you, I will protect her with my head and my heart.”

He bowed in return. “An old oath, a soldier’s oath, xiaojie. You are a surprising person. I will treasure my memory of this day.”

She smiled. “Oh, grandfather, I will come back. We did not finish our tea!”