by Barry Wiley
Enjoy this never before published mystery of sorts, with a bit of a twist.
Nine Black Dragons was a Chinese restaurant that resembled an old Charlie Chan movie, even to being smudged black and white. According to the gaudy paper placemat describing the Chinese zodiac, this was the Year of the Dog. The white plastic chopsticks, antiseptically wrapped tightly in thin paper marked “Made in Hong Kong” in smeared purple ink, were placed near and exactly parallel to its right edge.
I wasn’t there for their dinners—noodles, unborn grass, meat blobs, and tea, which probably wasn’t even Chinese. And fortune cookies, an agglomeration of rice flour, shortening, sugar, and eggs, that aren’t even good desert. They weren’t Chinese either—invented in San Francisco way back.
I was waiting for her to arrive.
My line of work, private problem solving, requires a pragmatic and unsentimental mind, though some misguided adults think of my work as romantic in a tough Bogart style.
I had completed a difficult case successfully a few weeks ago, but the toughest angle of the case was getting paid by my client. I was getting lean, waiting for the money. I had finally come here to eat, because things were very…ah, tight. After dinner I snapped open the fortune cookie, like opening a book. The slip inside said: “Your talents will soon be rewarded.” The client’s money was waiting for me at my place when I got back.
Money doesn’t last forever, some philosopher observed, probably Chinese—particularly when work doesn’t appear. I was soon back swallowing meat blobs again. I snapped the cookie open. This time the slip said: “Your talents will soon be rewarded.” A new client was waiting for me the next morning.
The case wasn’t my best effort. A few uncharacteristic loose ends but payment was swift. I was feeling good, and frankly I wanted to see what the fortune cookie would say when I had real cash in my pocket. I was beginning to reassess my pragmatic views.
She was Eurasian with an impossibly exotic face, sitting alone in a booth near my table. Booths were normally reserved for two or more, but no one joined her as she ate her dinner, flexing her chopsticks with classic ease. She seemed cautious, or fearful, I couldn’t tell which. I had to meet her, but I didn’t want to scare her by being too aggressive.
Our meals were finished almost simultaneously. I watched her eagerly pick up the fortune cookie delivered by our shared waiter, and carefully separate it at the fold. Her large eyes went wide, then she laughed lightly, beautifully, then looked over at me.
“Something good?” I asked her.
She smiled. “Something a little silly and foolish. What about yours?”
I’m quick to see openings. I picked up my cookie and brought it to her table. I crushed it to small crumbs between my fingers, picked the slip out from the fragments, and shared: “Your talents will soon be rewarded.”
We laughed since it was her fortune too; but that night I knew I was becoming a believer.
We saw each other often after that. She seemed deeply interested in me and was naturally curious about what a guy like me did with his time. My clients’ problems are confidential, so I spoke very little of them.
My most recent client had another problem in another city, which I cleared up, but again not so cleanly as I would normally like. Unfortunately, payment was delayed, so I returned short of cash, but she said she would meet me at the usual place.
According to the astrological placemat, I was born in a Year of the Rat, which makes me a quick-tempered opportunist, but charming and generous to the ones I love. I was grouped with Mozart, Churchill, and Truman Capote.
As we ate and talked, she sensed and responded to my depression and concern. Dinner ended too soon. The waiter brought the check and two fortune cookies.
She opened her purse—to pay the check I thought—I reached quickly to stop her. I still had a little cash. It wasn’t cash she removed but a snub-nosed police .38, while knocking my hand away. Then she pulled her badge and ID from her purse.
“We suspected a single professional killer, not multiple shooters. The hits were executed with too consistent a technique,” she murmured, still exotic. “A talented craftsman stays with the tools he trusts…but not a good idea for someone with your profession. A .22 forces you too close to be sure of the target. Powder burns on each of your cases. You popped up to the top of the list from our modus database.”
Two men had started toward our booth from a nearby table—her backups apparently.
She smiled again as I broke open both of our fortune cookies.
“Your talents will soon be rewarded,” they said.
“A lazy baker,” she said, as she ratcheted the S&W cuffs on my wrists.
Maybe—but I had become a true believer.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.