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DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES —MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.
Idon’t have anything against the dead—not as long as they stay dead.
It’s when they get reanimated that I become hostile. Also scared, creeped out, and nauseated, as well as violent if the occasion calls for it—which it usually does when you’re being confronted by a frisky corpse.
In the normal course of events, obviously, the deceased do stay that way. But mystical Evil loves to mess with the mundane, and there are any number of dark forces that can make death less decisive than you’d think.
So when I got a phone call from an undertaker telling me that the departed had departed—as in, got out of the coffin and walked away—I didn’t dismiss this news as drunken delusion or a dumb prank. I know that the unbelievable can happen because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Besides, John Chen wasn’t a drunk or a prankster. He was a serious, credible person—as well as a graduate student at NYU pursuing a doctoral degree in biochemistry. So I didn’t doubt his strange story when I heard it. John also worked part-time at his family’s funeral home in Chinatown, which is how he came into contact with corpses, animated or otherwise.
I had met John via his side job, a temporary gig doing hair and make-up for ABC, an indie film set in his neighborhood and written, produced, and directed by his old school friend, Ted Yee. I had been cast as an insensitive uptown white girl whom the ABC (American Born Chinese) hero of the film dates for a while before realizing that his soul mate is actually a hardworking young woman who’s lately immigrated from China.
Unfortunately, Ted Yee told me earlier today that he was calling a halt to the film. I mean that this was unfortunate for me, not for audiences who would now be spared the prospect of suffering through Ted’s clumsy, cliché-ridden, low-budget melodrama. I’d had a difficult winter so far, and Ted’s film was the only real work that had come my way since November. By “real work,” I mean acting—that’s my profession. When I’m not acting, I’m doing whatever work I can find that will pay the rent—which, even in a rent-controlled apartment like mine, is extortionate in New York City.
So to make ends meet after the Off-Broadway show I was in this past autumn finished its limited run around Thanksgiving, I had taken a job as Dreidel, Santa’s singing-and-dancing Jewish elf, at Fenster&Co., the famous Manhattan department store that was probably destined to go bankrupt soon, what with mismanagement, truck hijackings, attempted murder, and the recent conjuring of a solstice demon that wanted to eat Manhattan. I have had more demeaning and humiliating jobs than being a retail elf, but not many.
After Christmas (and also after whole portions of Fenster’s had been destroyed in confrontations between Good and Evil, as well as between criminals and the NYPD), I returned to my usual between-roles job of waiting tables at Bella Stella, a tourist trap and mob hangout in Little Italy. I liked my job there as a singing waitress, and the owner, Stella Butera, was a fair employer. But she was also allegedly laundering money for the Gambello crime family. So the cops raided the restaurant on New Year’s Eve, closed the place down, and arrested a number of the people present—including me. (In my case, the charges were dropped. The other arrestees were now awaiting trial.)
After that fiasco, I was unemployed and couldn’t find another job. I was down to my last few dollars in the world by the time I got cast in Ted Yee’s low-budget Chinatown film, and I was very glad to have income and acting work again, even if the script was lame and the pay was modest.
But now that Ted had decided to quit the film and shut down production, I was out of work once again and already worrying about how to pay my rent.
I knew that Ted was a dabbler, prone to embracing new artistic interests with great enthusiasm and then dropping them before long. So although I was disappointed by this turn of events, I wasn’t exactly surprised. And to be fair, even a completely committed and disciplined writer/director/producer might well throw in the towel on this project, after everything that had happened.
Ted’s first backer had died. So he found another backer—and that one died, too. Then he learned that his manipulative mother and controlling sister were responsible for those deaths, as well as for the nasty mishaps which had befallen other people involved in the film. In a nutshell, they were murderously meddling because they feared Ted’s project would embarrass the family; and, in any case, filmmaking wasn’t what they wanted Ted to do with his life. His sister Susan’s obsession with preventing him from making ABC had even led her to attempt to murder an NYPD detective and try to shoot John Chen for helping Ted with the movie.
As a direct result of recently getting to know Ted’s dreadful family, I made a solemn vow to be more patient with my own. They have their faults, God knows, but they don’t inflict deadly curses on my colleagues. They are also safely distant from me, all residing in the Midwest, which makes patience a little easier.
But Ted, the poor fool, lived with his family—well, until now. Barely an hour ago, his sister had been arrested in the act of trying to murder John Chen in front of witnesses, so she seemed unlikely to return home for 20-to-life. And I had a feeling that Ted and his mother would soon be parting company, too. Lily Yee’s mystical crimes couldn’t be proven under the limitations of mundane law, but she had confessed them to Ted, and her inflicting such damage on his friends and colleagues in order to control his life seemed to be (understandably) the last straw for him.
Those dangerous and deadly curses were why I was in Chinatown now, making my way through the frigid, icy, and densely crowded streets while firecrackers exploded noisily and drumbeats echoed all around me. It was the first day of the Chinese New Year, the day of the firecracker festival and the lion dance. Having discovered that Ted’s family members were responsible for the mysterious mayhem menacing Chinatown, I had come here today (in the company of my friend Max, an expert in such matters) to stop them—on what happened to be one of the most crowded days of the year in these narrow, bustling streets.
The rhythmic pounding of drums and cymbals were the traditional accompaniment to the colorful, athletic lion dancers who were still roaming the neighborhood, though it was late afternoon now. Each time I saw one of these creatures bobbing, bounding, and leaping around gracefully, it was easy to forget that the giant lion was a two-man puppet (one man was the head, and one was the body) rather than an enchanted four-legged beast. Each lion’s massive, dragon-like head was decorated with fur, fringe, and sparkly designs, and they all batted their long eyelashes coquettishly at the various spectators and passersby.
Snow, ice, and slush covered the streets, along with confetti from the celebrations today. Hours into the festivities, people were still following the many roaming lion dancers around Chinatown, watching them engage in the ritual of collecting red envelopes of “lucky money” from shopkeepers in exchange for their dance, then “chewing” up fresh green heads of cabbage and “spitting” the mangled leaves onto people as a blessing, to ensure an abundant New Year.
We passed a cheerfully regurgitating red lion, and I brushed limp bits of cabbage out of my hair without slowing my pace, navigating my way through the thick crowd of laughing, smiling people. It was overcast now, the gunmetal-gray sky threatening to drop more sleet and snow on the city. The light faded quickly at this time of year, and I sensed darkness encroaching already.
“You missed some.” Lucky, my companion, brushed at my wind-snarled brown hair to remove a few stray bits of leafy greens.
“Aren’t your hands cold?” I asked, realizing for the first time that he wasn’t wearing gloves.
“Freezing,” he admitted.
“Here, I’ll take Nelli.” I was sensibly dressed for being outside in late January. But Alberto “Lucky Bastard” Battistuzzi had rushed out of the Chen family’s funeral home on short notice today, after being alerted that John’s life was in danger. “Give me the leash, Lucky.”
The old hit man handed over the dog without protest and stuffed his hands into his pockets, shivering a little. Lucky had earned his nickname by surviving two separate attempts on his life because—both times—the gun that was pointed at him with deadly intent had jammed. (In fact, I had witnessed a third such incident the previous year, when a ruthless killer stuck a gun in Lucky’s face, pulled the trigger—and nothing happened. He really was lucky.) A semi-retired hitter for the Gambello family, he was a valued advisor to the capo di famiglia, Victor Gambello, aka the Shy Don.
In the strange twists and turns of fate that so often characterize life, Lucky was also my trusted friend.
And in a relationship that originated with the previous generation, Lucky was a silent partner in the Chens’ funeral business, as well as a close friend to the family. John called him “Uncle Lucky,” and there was very little that the normally law-abiding Chens wouldn’t do to protect him. Lucky, whose own relationship with the law was habitually adversarial, was equally loyal to them. So when I had phoned him earlier to warn him that John was in danger, he had risked his life and liberty without hesitation in a headlong rush to help save the young man.
He had also brought Nelli with him. A mystical canine familiar who had entered this dimension to confront Evil (with a capital E), Nelli had happened to be with Lucky when today’s crisis arose, but she actually lived with our friend Dr. Maximillian Zadok. Now that John was safe, Lucky and I had left the scene, taking Nelli with us, and we were looking for Max.
A mage who worked for the Magnum Collegium, an ancient and secretive worldwide organization about which I knew virtually nothing (except that they were dangerously inept at vetting their own apprentices—but I digress), Max was the biggest expert on Evil in the tri-state area, and quite possibly in this whole hemisphere. While Lucky and I had dealt with the mundane evil of Susan Yee trying to shoot John on Doyers Street, Max was dismantling and disenchanting the secret workshop where Susan and her mother had concocted the curses they’d been inflicting on Ted’s colleagues. It was located in the cellar of Yee&Sons Trading Company, the family business that Lily had long wanted her son to take over—and which Ted consistently said with fervent loathing he would never take over.
We reached Canal Street, and Nelli flinched mightily when a bright orange-gold lion suddenly leapt in front of us. Since Nelli was the size of a small pony, her involuntary yank on her leash jerked me off balance and I stumbled into Lucky.
He grunted as he caught me, then set me back on my feet as he said, “Maybe I should hang onto her, after all.”
My gloved hand tightened around the pink leather leash. “No, I’ve got her.” I gave a little tug and admonished Nelli to calm down.
She composed herself and wagged her tail hesitantly at the lion, which turned away from us and danced gracefully down the street, followed by clashing cymbals, pounding drums, and a crowd of spectators.
“Does she seem jumpy to you?” I asked Lucky, frowning down at Nelli’s head—which came up to my solar plexus.
“Maybe.” The old wiseguy shrugged. “Or maybe we’re just feeling jumpy around her. After what happened back there . . .”
I knew he didn’t mean John nearly getting shot. Or Susan’s screaming violence when thwarted in her attempt to murder John. Or even the spectacle of the lion costume John had been wearing suddenly roaring fire at Susan when she pointed her gun at me—something I must remember to tell Max about later.
He was talking about what Nelli had done back there on Doyers Street. The reason we had left so suddenly. The reason we were looking for Max now.
As we waited on the corner for the light to change, I contemplated our canine companion. “She only flinched when that lion startled her just now,” I said quietly. “Like her usual self. She didn’t snarl or attack.”
“Of course not,” said Lucky. “Our favorite familiar has got focus. There was a reason for what she done back there. Gotta be. We just don’t know yet what it is.”
The dangerous nature of Nelli’s mission in this dimension meant she could be unpredictable—sometimes terrifyingly so. But she was essentially an affable, gentle dog, the sort who could safely be left alone with toddlers and kittens (though the kittens might bully her). So her sudden burst of aggression a little while ago had been as surprising as it was worrying.
It was that incident which had sent us tearing off to find Max. We didn’t understand what had happened, but we had alarming suspicions about what it might signify.
Nelli shivered a little, and I realized she was cold. Her short fur wasn’t sufficient protection at this time of year in New York, and she usually wore a winter vest when she came outside. (Actually, she had half a dozen seasonal vests. Max tended to spoil her.) Her massive head was long and square jawed, framed by two floppy, overlong ears. The fur on her paws and face was silky brown, and the rest of her well-muscled physique was covered by smooth, tan fur. Her eyes and face were very expressive (though, to be candid, they rarely expressed intelligence), and her mystical nature ensured she had some unusual abilities, as well as some unexpected vulnerabilities (such as an allergic reaction to vampires).
The dog shivered again, and I patted her head. “Poor Nelli. We’ll be inside soon.”
Yee&Sons Trading Company was less than two blocks away. I didn’t relish returning to the store, given my various recent experiences there, but it was where I had left Max earlier today. Without any way to check his location now (he didn’t have a cell phone), I figured that was the logical place to look for him, since it would probably take him some time to destroy and purify the workshop of such talented dark sorceresses as Lily and Susan.
As I continued petting Nelli, she wriggled a little, pleased with the attention, and then gave me a convivial head butt. As I staggered back a step, Lucky said, “See? She’s actin’ completely normal. Like it never happened.”
That was a relief. We didn’t have a maddened mystical familiar on our hands who outweighed me. Nonetheless . . . “I’m really worried,” I said. “Scared. What if—”
“No, let’s not spectorate,” Lucky interrupted.
“I think you mean speculate,” I said. Like a lot of wiseguys, he tended to mangle the language.
“This ain’t our area of expertise, so we don’t wanna run away with our imaginations. Let’s wait until we tell Max what we saw, and we’ll hear what he thinks.”
I nodded and tried to push my fears out of my mind.
Lopez . . .
I didn’t really know what I thought Nelli’s odd behavior today suggested. I just knew that, because of it, I was afraid that Lopez was in danger at this very moment. At every moment, in fact, until we knew what was going on.
Lopez was also, I suspected, thinking about breaking up with me again. His exasperated comments a little while ago had indicated as much.
The light on Canal Street changed, and I tromped across the slushy boulevard with Nelli, Lucky, and a gazillion other people while a chill wind whipped at my cheeks and hair.
We were going to have to talk (again) about last night. Lopez knew what I had done. I knew better than to hope he’d just drop the subject. And I certainly knew better than to hope he’d believe me the next time I explained that the reason I had broken into his car to steal his gourmet fortune cookie was because it contained a mystical curse that would cause his death as soon as the cookie was cracked. (Susan wanted Lopez dead because, as a favor to me, he was helping Ted with location permits for the film.) After stealing the deadly treat, I had taken it to Max to be neutralized.
No part of this explanation would be helped by the fact that my on-again, off-again boyfriend (mostly off-again) was a confirmed skeptic who clung resolutely to his steadfast belief in mundane phenomena and conventional explanations. (Well, to be fair, most people clung to that. I had clung to it, too, until it was no longer possible.)
He was also a detective in the New York Police Department’s Organized Crime Control Bureau. Thanks to his job skills, he had easily found out who the culprit was last night after finding his car window smashed in and only one thing (his cookie) missing from the vehicle. Detective Connor Lopez was also not at all happy that the car in question belonged to the police department; I gathered that meant the smash-and-grab involved additional paperwork, thus augmenting his overall exasperation with having a patently insane almost-girlfriend.
But he didn’t intend to turn me in for what I had done. That much was clear . . . and it was another reason that he was so conflicted about me.
Lopez was a straight-arrow cop and an honorable man, so he felt guilty and full of self-reproach every time he gave me a pass—and he’d given me a few by now. In fact, he’d completely violated his deepest principles a few times for my sake, and his tension over this—which I understood and regretted—was something else that came between us. In addition to, you know, his conviction that I was demented.
I wondered what it said about him that despite thinking I was nuts, he kept coming back.
I also wondered how to convince him I wasn’t demented—or even unstable. Could I convince him? Just how rigid was his stubbornly conventional worldview? Would it alter, or at least loosen up a little, if he saw some of the things I’d seen since becoming friends with Max and discovering what a deeply weird place the universe really is?
In any case, yes, Lopez and I were going to have to talk about last night. And it wasn’t going to go well.
Brooding about a man you’re obsessed with can be so absorbing that I didn’t hear the approaching siren until Lucky said, “Come on, let’s not get run over. Pick up the pace.”
He put a hand under my elbow and hustled me along. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a fire truck coming this way. We trotted the rest of the way to the sidewalk, along with all the other pedestrians crossing the broad width of Canal Street, then pushed our way through the throng there, eager to avoid the icy spray from passing wheels as the truck sped through the slushy streets. The vehicle slowed down when it reached our corner and honked loudly as it turned down the street. Since the noise was earsplitting, Lucky and I paused a few seconds to let the truck get ahead of us, then went in the same direction.
A moment later, we heard another fire truck screeching in the distance. It, too, turned down this street. We were half a block from the Yee family’s store.
“Oh, Lucky,” I said with dread, quickening my pace. “Do you think—”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” he replied, also walking faster. “It’s a holiday. Firecrackers. Smoke. Lions with flammable fringe.” We rounded the next corner. “We got no reason to assume—Whoa.”
We stopped in our tracks and stared at Yee’s Trading Company. The building where I had left Max earlier today was now engulfed in flames.
Smoke poured out of the windows of the century-old building which had housed Yee&Sons Trading Company for decades. Fire roared upward through the roof and out the front door. Emergency services were still arriving. As I stood there, my mouth hanging open, an ambulance and two squad cars pulled up, their sirens wailing and lights flashing.
And then, without conscious thought—certainly without anything resembling a decision—I dropped Nelli’s leash and ran toward the burning building, screaming, “Max! MAX!”
A policewoman dived out of a squad car and threw herself bodily against me. The momentum knocked us both sideways, so that we staggered against another police car that had just pulled up.
“No! Stay back!” she shouted.
Nelli was barking, distressed by my screaming and this altercation. I heard Lucky shouting, but I had no idea what he was saying.
I fought the policewoman, wailing Max’s name as I tried to get free of her grasp. Another cop joined her in restraining me.
“You have to get back, miss!” he shouted into my face. “Stop!”
I barely saw or heard the two people wrestling with me. All I could see was the burning building that had swallowed my cherished friend. “Max!”
The familiar voice penetrated the panicky roaring in my ears.
Panting and still fighting the two cops, I called, “Max?”
“Esther, I’m here! I’m right here!”
I looked around—and when I saw Max trotting toward me, I sagged with relief. The cops were shouting stern instructions into my face, but I ignored them.
“Max!” I flung myself at him, squeezing him tightly and giving a sob of relief.
“It’s all right, my dear. I’m fine.” He returned my hug and patted my back. “Everyone is fine. No one was hurt.”
“God, you scared me.” I put a hand over my pounding heart as I stumbled back a couple of steps to get a good look at him.
A short, slightly plump man who looked about seventy (though his true age was well over three centuries), Max had innocent blue eyes, fair skin, a neatly trimmed white beard, and slightly long white hair. He was usually tidily dressed, but he’d obviously had a narrow escape from the fire. From head to toe, Max was smeared with soot and ash. His elegant calf-length Russian coat would never recover from this incident, and his hat was singed and stank of burned fur.
“Thank God you got out okay!” Lucky, who was holding Nelli’s leash now, put a hand on Max’s shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Grazie a Dio!”
“We all got out.” As the police loudly urged us to step behind the barricade they were erecting, Max gestured over his shoulder. I looked across the narrow street, and I saw that Lily and Ted were both there, alive and well, though as smudged as Max. After a moment, Max added quietly, “Grazie a Dio.”
Standing behind the police barricade now, I watched Ted and Lily arguing on the other side of the street. Two police officers approached them. I could tell from their gestures that the cops were urging them to get farther away from the burning building. Ted and Lily were too engrossed in their argument to pay any attention. The rest of the street was being evacuated, and the police were taking control of the scene quickly, despite the crowds and the chaos.
Between the festival, this fire, and Susan’s attempt to kill John, this precinct was having quite a busy day.
I turned my gaze to the burning building, recalling the abundance of retail stock inside the confusing maze of the Yee family’s store. There had been some lovely objects and art in there, as well as some mind-bogglingly expensive furniture and antiques. I mostly had negative memories of the place, but it seemed like a sad loss, even so.
Watching the building burn, I asked, “Max, what happened?”
He started to speak, coughed a little, and pulled a bottle of water out of his pocket. I supposed that first responders had given it to him right before we arrived. He took a few sips, then cleared his throat and began explaining.
“Lily and I went down to the cellar to destroy the workshop where she and her daughter made those curse-carrying fortune cookies.” Max’s English was excellent, but it was not his native language. He had a slight, elegant foreign accent, reflecting his origins in Central Europe centuries ago. “Lily asked Ted to stay upstairs and mind the store, but he followed us down to the cellar, full of questions, accusations, and recriminations. I do not think he can forgive his mother or sister for any of this.”
“Go figure,” I said.
Lily had inflicted bad luck, illness, and injuries on Ted’s associates, but she had not planned to kill anyone. Susan was the one who had raised the stakes by adding murder to the mix. And Lily, who had taught her dark secrets to her talented daughter, soon realized that she couldn’t control her. But the two women didn’t fall out until Susan decided to kill John Chen.
Lily had not prevented the other murders—nor the attempt on Lopez’s life only yesterday—but she had drawn the line at letting Susan kill a fine young man who was a longtime family friend. Lily had destroyed the cursed cookie Susan was preparing for John, which was why Susan—by now reckless in her homicidal obsession—had resorted to the more mundane method of simply trying to shoot him. She got the gun from a local thug named Danny Teng, who had been loosely connected with ABC.
I shuddered when I thought of Danny, who’d been hanging around the film set lately, bullying Ted, eyeing me with lip-smacking lust, and making lewd comments. There was at least one benefit to production shutting down and costing me my job: I’d never have to see that dangerous creep again.
Max continued, “But although Susan had run mad, her intelligence did not desert her. She suspected Lily might have an attack of conscience and try to destroy the workshop.”
“So she booby-trapped it?” Lucky guessed.
“Precisely.” Max removed his singed hat and examined it with regret. “A mystical booby trap. Susan didn’t have the necessary time or skill to conjure wards that could withstand an assault from her mother, who possesses power similar to her own. Instead, she tried to make the consequences of destroying the workshop too dangerous to risk.”
He dropped his ruined hat into the ankle-deep slush at our feet and gazed up at the burning building. “It was quickly apparent to me there would be a cost for obliterating her dark ritual space. But I underestimated how destructive Susan could be. Even knowing about the murders, I still didn’t anticipate that she was prepared to destroy her home and her late father’s legacy—the shop has been in the Yee family for many years.” Max shook his head. “So I proceeded. And by the time I realized the full extent of the danger, it was too late. The whole building burst into flames. As you see.”
“You and Lily and Ted were lucky to get out alive,” I said, feeling my chest constrict as I realized how close Max had come to death. He often said that fire was the weakest element of his power. His ability to shield himself and the Yees from that conflagration long enough for them to escape with their lives had probably been precarious.
Thinking of fire made me think of Lopez again. He’d been present during Susan’s mad murder attempt today. I recalled the way that unexplained flames had suddenly poured from the mouth of John’s lion costume (he was one of the athletic dancers who roamed the streets during the festival), blazing at Susan the moment after she turned her gun on me . . . I felt sure Lopez had done that, though he didn’t know it.
“We were very lucky indeed,” Max said, glancing to where Ted and Lily stood. “I shall not be taking any of life’s pleasures for granted for some time to come, I assure you.”
I watched the flames rise from the building and recalled other incendiary incidents involving Lopez, before today’s fire-spewing lion costume had probably saved my life by distracting Susan.
When Lopez was trapped in an underground tunnel with a serial killer who was about to slay again, there was a sudden, fiery explosion that killed the murderer while leaving Lopez and the other people present (including me) unharmed. When a villain had tried to escape from Lopez by holding a gun to my head, he’d been foiled by a shower of fiery sparks that rained down on him from light fixtures on the ceiling. On an occasion when Lopez and I were having a particularly volatile evening, my bed had burst into flames—while we were on it together. And during a Vodou ritual last summer, he had been involuntarily possessed by a fire spirit. Lopez remembered nothing about that trance, during which he had played with flames and hot coals without incurring any injury (though I assumed he’d had to throw away the trousers he’d been wearing that night, which were not nearly as impervious to fire damage as his own flesh was).
When I had realized earlier today what Susan intended to do to John, I’d called in the cavalry—that is, I’d phoned Lopez, who arrived within minutes, accompanied by a reassuring number of police officers, to help stop her. And then an unexplained burst of fire saved my life at a moment when Lopez was scared to death for me—as he subsequently told me with more crankiness than affection.
Given the pattern that seemed so apparent to me, I didn’t understand how Lopez could fail to realize—or at least start to suspect—that he was the common denominator in these fiery incidents. But Max, who hypothesized that he was exhibiting some form of pyrokinesis, didn’t consider his obliviousness surprising.
If this was an ability Lopez had possessed since birth or early childhood, Max had told me, then the unconscious processes that created these events might feel so normal to him as to be unnoticeable. And since the incidents seemed to occur only in moments of extreme stress, then they might be too irregular for Lopez to perceive a pattern, let alone identify himself as the source of that pattern.
In other words, I shouldn’t be puzzled by his obtuseness. Anyone as stubbornly prosaic as Lopez was bound to be dense about this sort of esoteric phenomenon.
And it wasn’t a subject I could picture myself raising with him. Well, not unless our pending conversation about the misfortune cookie that I’d stolen from his car last night went a whole lot better than I was expecting it to go.
As I watched the Yee family’s store burn, I wondered if anyone else in Lopez’s life—anyone besides me and Max—had ever suspected that he possessed mystical power of which he was unaware.
“It looks like the building will have to be gutted,” I murmured. “They won’t be able to save anything, the way the fire is consuming the place.”
“It had a fierce beginning,” Max said, “and it spread with terrifying rapidity.”
“But despite the brushes with death on this one, I guess it’s all come out good, huh?” said Lucky. “Not even someone as smart as the Gambello family’s lawyer could get Susan off the hook after what she did today. Attempted murder right in front of a bunch of cops? Stupid don’t even begin to cover it.” He shook his head at the unprofessional sloppiness of that.
“Susan has been taken into custody?” Max asked.
“Yes. And she seemed completely demented while they were arresting her,” I said. “Max, do you think she’s got the ability to free herself from behind bars?”
He shook his head. “Only if she’s in a facility foolish enough to let her set up a private laboratory and have access to many unusual ingredients. I’ve seen no evidence that she’s able to exercise power in other ways.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I want her to stay in prison.” After all, besides Lopez, she had tried to kill me and John, too.
Lucky said, “And what with this whole building burning down, the evil mother can’t get any second thoughts about rebuilding that basement workshop to do some more dark magic.”
“True,” Max said pensively, his gaze drifting toward Lily for a moment.
With her daughter in prison, her business destroyed, and her son presumably planning to distance himself from her, there might not be anything left in her life that Lily cared about enough to go to such lengths again.
Max had told me before that Evil often consumed itself with its own voracious appetite. Looking at Lily, I realized once again that he was right about that.
Assuming a deliberately more upbeat tone, Max noted, “Fortunately, despite inconvenience to the neighbors, no one in the area appears to have been injured due to this conflagration.”
“And it looks like the fire department is managing to prevent it from spreading,” I added, watching them work and impressed by their efficiency. “So I don’t think anyone besides the Yees will lose any property, either.”
I looked at Ted and his mother again. They were now being examined by paramedics—and still arguing. Lily looked sullen and tragic—and still beautiful. Ted looked furious—which wasn’t surprising, though it was unusual. He was normally a very affable guy, though feckless, incompetent, and unreliable.
“I feel sorry for Ted, though,” I said. “He’s done nothing wrong, and he didn’t know his mother and sister were doing wrong. Yet he’s lost everything. Even the store. I know he didn’t care about it, but it was also his home—and it must have been worth some money.”
“It’s bound to be insured,” said Lucky. “So unless someone can prove this fire was caused by mystical arson—”
“Unlikely,” Max said. “They will look for mundane causes and will never find any.”
“Then there’s probably gonna be a nice payout,” Lucky said to me. “If he’s got any brains at all, the kid will talk his mom into splitting it with him.”
“Well, after what she did, he’s certainly got the guilt leverage for that.” And I thought that walking away from his toxic family and their past with a wad of money in his pocket, free to live on his own terms and forced to become self-reliant, might be a very positive outcome for Ted Yee.
At any rate, it was certainly a positive outcome for anyone else involved in this whole fiasco whom his mother and sister would have willfully cursed with misfortune or death in order to sabotage Ted’s ambitions.
A shiver passed through me as I again recalled finding that deadly cookie in Lopez’s police car. He could have died at any moment. The second that fragile cookie began to crumble, he’d have been doomed . . .
I fervently hoped that Susan Yee would spend decades behind bars.
And I realized something as I watched her home burn in the wake of her mystical booby trap. “Lily and Ted don’t know about Susan’s arrest.”
“The cops’ll catch up to events soon and tell ’em,” said Lucky.
“Yes, I guess you’re right.” I suspected they’d both be relieved by the news, though probably for different reasons. And since I wasn’t eager to speak to the Yee family ever again, I was content to leave it up to the NYPD to tell them what had happened.
The NYPD . . .
I glanced at Nelli and recalled that there were pressing matters I needed to discuss with Max. But looking at him now, I realized this wasn’t a good moment for that. He had just survived a deadly inferno after performing mystical tasks that were probably exhausting.
I said to Lucky, “We should take Max home. He needs a shower, a hot meal, and some rest.”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” Max said on a sigh.
I looked around at the scene, wondering if he’d get in trouble for leaving it without making a statement to the authorities. But no one was paying attention to us—and I thought that Lily and Ted were unlikely to mention Max to anyone as a witness, let alone explain his involvement. It was in their best interests to stick with a simple and mundane story about today’s events; the building suddenly caught fire, they didn’t know how or why, and it had spread fast.
I took Max’s arm and we turned away from the blazing remains of Yee&Sons Trading Company. Followed by Lucky and Nelli, we headed back toward Canal Street. We could probably hail a cab there, despite how crowded it was around here today . . . but could we find a taxi that would let Nelli come with us? She was an inconveniently large animal.
I remembered that Max had recently found a pet transport service that he used when going places with Nelli that weren’t within walking distance of his home in Greenwich Village. I was about to ask him for the phone number, or at least the name, when my cell phone rang, startling me.
As a cruelly cold wind swept down the street, I pulled off a glove and reached into my pocket, clumsily answering the phone without bothering to see who the caller was.
“Esther Diamond,” I said wearily, realizing how ready I was to get out of the cold. It had been a long, busy, and very fraught day—and now darkness was descending.
“Hi, it’s me.” In response to my blank silence, the caller added, “John.”
“Oh! John.” I smiled for a moment, then asked with concern, “How are you feeling?”
“Pretty freaked out.”
“Well, yeah,” I said sympathetically. “I can only imagine. It must be freaky to see someone you’ve known your whole life suddenly point a gun at you with murder in her eyes.”
“It’s John?” Lucky asked me. “How is he?”
“Freaked out,” I said, putting my hand over the phone for a moment. “See if you can find a cab that’ll take us.”
Lucky grunted skeptically but started looking around.
“Oh . . . yeah, I guess I’m still pretty freaked out about Susan,” John said, sounding distracted. “I don’t even know why she was trying to kill me. Some cop was just here asking—”
“Cop?” I repeated alertly. “What cop?”
“—and, well, I don’t think he believed me when I said I have no idea why. Except that she seemed pretty crazy all of a sudden.”
“Was it Lopez?” I asked. “The detective I was talking to at the scene?”
Hearing that name, Lucky grumbled, “What’s Wonder Boy up to now?”
He was a little irritated with Lopez, who’d broken open a big case against the Gambello crime family a few weeks ago and was keeping busy lately by arresting a bunch of Lucky’s associates.
“I mean, really crazy,” said John. “Susan was like a rabid animal or something today . . .” I could hear him draw in a sharp breath as a new thought occurred to him. “I wonder if Ted’s all right? I mean . . . do we know if Susan targeted anyone else?”
That was a complicated subject, so I settled for saying that Ted was unhurt, and Susan hadn’t shot at anyone else. I started to tell John about the fire that was consuming the store, but before I uttered more than a syllable, he interrupted me to say that he hadn’t called to talk about Susan or Ted.
“No?” I said absently, pointing out an approaching cab to Lucky while deciding how to phrase the news about the fire.
“Oh,” John said. “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t call about that, either, Esther. Not right now.”
Lucky tried to wave down the cab, but it roared right past us. Perhaps the driver had noticed our soot-covered friend and our pony-sized dog.
“What’s not right now?” I asked.
I blinked. “Huh?”
“I mean, I am going to ask you out. Obviously. Like we talked about today.”
We did? I blinked again. I had no memory of talking about it.
He continued, “Just not right now . . . Well, unless you want it to be right now?”
“Um . . .” I frowned, caught off guard.
John was asking me out on a date? And he thought we had talked about this?
I tried to remember what he’d said to me in the chaos after Susan was arrested. Something about thanking me, calling me, dinner . . .
I realized, not for the first time, that I can be such an idiot sometimes.
I liked John. A lot, in fact. But I hadn’t realized until just now, when John baldly used the word “date,” that he had been showing interest in me—that kind of interest.
John was subtle and courteous about it (which was the kind of man he was), and that was one of the reasons I’d been oblivious until this moment.
But the main reason I hadn’t noticed John flirting with me—which I now realized he had been doing lately—was because I was obsessed with Lopez. Or at least very preoccupied with him. And we were dating again. Or trying to date, anyhow . . . unless, after last night’s smash-and-grab, we were already in another off-again phase? Either way, I was involved with him. Well, kind of involved. We had a relationship, anyhow, though we weren’t in a relationship. Not yet, really. Or maybe we were, but we didn’t—
I let my breath out in a rush and gave myself a mental kick. This was not the time to try to find the right word for whatever was between me and Lopez. So far, we had never found the right word for it, and it certainly wasn’t going to happen now, standing in ankle-deep slush on a noisy street corner in Chinatown while Max and Lucky both looked at me with concern, no doubt wondering what John was saying that was making me go all tense and fidgety.
On my phone, John said, “I mean, I want to ask you out later, when my head is clear, instead of right now when I’m so freaked out.”
Oh, no, I thought uncomfortably. John wanted to go out with me. What was I going to do? What should I say to him?