Read your excerpt from Devil Take The Hindmost.
Lola picked the lock, keeping her back to the client.
“I’m sorry,” said the other woman. “I must’ve forgotten the key in my haste.”
Lola grunted. If that’s how the client wanted to play it, she’d go along. For now. She nudged her picks a little to the left, then up a smidge, and the lock clicked open. She turned the knob, pushed the door inward. “After you, Mrs. Kane.”
The client brushed past. Lola smelled citrus and frangipani. The woman stopped after a few steps.
“I didn’t think he was here, but still.” She turned to Lola. “I suppose I was hoping he’d just…well, that doesn’t make much sense either, does it? A man doesn’t hide out in his office for two days and nights without there being something severely wrong.” The faint smile on her face faded into a frown. “And I’d swear that everything was fine. Wonderful, even.”
“Mrs. Kane,” said Lola, “is there anything amiss here? Anything missing?” She eyed the two walls of shelving with their neat rows of cloth-bound volumes, thick as encyclopedias. Then, the desk of dark wood and the matching chair. The wife’s touch was obvious in the brightly striped cushion on the seat. Lola guessed her client was also to blame for the plump two-seater sofa, two armchairs, cuspidor, and low table arrangement in the corner. In all the years that Lola had shared the floor with Lewis Kane, she’d never once heard a cluster of voices coming from this office space. In fact, she’d never heard ‘boo’ from the man himself.
Kane walked to the window, threw the lock, and pushed up on the sash. Lola heard the same noises she was accustomed to hearing from her own office. Brisk footsteps, the occasional snatch of conversation, horns, engines, and grinding gears. She didn’t know what she expected. This was only thirty feet away.
“You haven’t heard anything from this office at all these past days?”
Lola looked over at the other woman. Her marcelled waves shone blue-black in the sunlight. Her dark eyes were pinched at the corners. She held her petite frame stiffly, shoulders tight. Lola shook her head. “I’ve not been in much this week. And to be square with you, I don’t often hear so much as a peep from your husband. Philately isn’t a very…expansive endeavour.”
Kane stared at Lola another beat. She narrowed her eyes slightly. “Do I need to show you a photograph? Do you even know what Lewis looks like?”
Lola gave her a bland look.
Kane flushed and turned away.
“You didn’t forget your key, Mrs. Kane. You don’t have one for this office, do you?” Lola saw the other woman’s shoulders rise even farther. She pushed on, kept her tone gentle. “Perhaps your husband doesn’t wish to be found.”
“You don’t know a thing about us.” Kane faced Lola, dropped her shoulders. “I can imagine the sordid becomes normal after a while in your line of work, but we’re not like that. Lewis and I, we’re very close. We spend every evening together, even though we both have clubs.” She raised her chin. “I’ve spent the past two nights and a day ringing up every one of his associates, all over this country and abroad. There’s been no reason for him to go on a trip. Stamp collectors are an odd lot, and I know Lewis has had to leave abruptly before, to perform an assessment out of town for someone or other. But he’s always left me a note or rung me up at work. This is not normal for us, Miss Starke, and I’m worried.”
“This may be best handled by the police, Mrs. Kane. They do have more resources available to them.”
The other woman shook her head. “I stopped in once already, yesterday morning. The desk sargeant seemed to think that a Chinese woman gets what she deserves when her gwai husband runs off on her.”
Lola had nothing to say to that.
“Besides, I’d rather work with a woman investigator and there seem to be even fewer of those on the City force than there are as private detectives.”
“Did you file a missing persons claim with them at least?”
Kane shook her head. “The sargeant said it was too soon, and made it clear it was a waste of time. But I’ll do it today.”
Lola considered, looking around the room again. She pointed at the desk. “May I?”
Lola took stock of the surface. A plain green blotter, a battered black telephone, a scratched fountain pen and two pencils in a cup. She opened the drawers, found the bottle of ink and four sets of metal tweezers, envelopes and pads of blank paper. There were also boxes of small, square glass plates and squat bottles of glue.
“These for the stamps? What d’you call it, mounting them?” Lola said.
“Yes. Lewis said sometimes collectors will pay more if the stamps are pre-mounted by him. He’s very precise.”
Lola nodded absently. “Can you tell if anything is missing or awry?”
Kane looked around, sighed heavily. “I’m not here often. But if something bad has happened, wouldn’t there be some disarray?”
Lola assessed Kane openly. The other woman’s shoulders were tight, but she met Lola’s gaze squarely. “I’m not in the habit of leading clients on,” Lola said. She pushed away the twinge of memory from the Arbogast case, four months past. “So I’ll give it you straight, Mrs. Kane. There are a number of options. One, your husband has disappeared of his own accord, with careful planning and execution. In which case, he’s left all of his work behind.” She gestured to the office, neat as a pin. “Two is that he’s been called away unexpectedly and so urgently that he hasn’t had a chance to contact you. In which case you simply need to wait until he does. This option may also mean that he wrote you a note, but it’s got lost somewhere, or he forgot to leave it in plain sight for you.”
“I suppose he may have had to travel afar, and hasn’t been able to wire me or to telephone.” Kane’s tone was dubious.
“Third,” said Lola, “is that he’s met with an accident and hasn’t been able to contact you.”
“I’ve rang all the hospitals in the City.” Kane’s tone turned sharp. “None of them have any patients under his name and none of the unidentified patients match his description.”
Lola nodded, her thoughts turning grim. Kane raised a hand before Lola could continue. “Before you speak the fourth possibility, I feel the need to stress that I would know if he were gone, gone for good. I can’t explain it any other way. So you must take my word on this, Miss Starke. He may be hurt. He may be with a client in some out of the way village. He may have simply forgotten to get in touch with me. But the fact remains. My husband is missing and I want you to help me find him.”
Lola shivered as her Ghost returned to her.
Aubrey said, “What’s this? ‘Calla Kane.’ Is she related to that stamp man down the hall from you?”
Lola felt a tightness inside of her relax a fraction. She shook herself, scowling. “Yes.”
She couldn’t see him, of course, nor feel exactly where he stood, but she knew instinctively he was reading over her shoulder. She suppressed the childish urge to snap her notebook shut.
“And what are you going to do,” Aubrey asked, “call the same people and hospitals all over again?”
“That’s what she wants. It’s a good a place to start as any.” Lola’s mouth lifted at the corners. “Stamp collecting ain’t exactly a hotbed for scandal or illegal activities.”
“Hm, might depend on the stamp.”
Lola pressed her lips together. She picked up her sleek black telephone and asked the operator to put her through to the first hospital on her long list.
Forty minutes later, she was able to clear ‘injured, unable to contact’ off her list. One hour after that, she’d spoken to twelve philatelists from across the country. She scratched ‘out of town trip’ next, locked up the office, and headed out into the hot afternoon.
The August sunshine brightened everything to a glare. Women held aloft umbrellas, the occasional black circle darting amongst the otherwise pale sun shades. Lola drove across the City, to the farthest of Lewis Kane’s associates, then made her way back more or less in a wide loop. Of the five men and one woman, not a one had heard from Lewis since the previous Friday. There were no big shows coming up and no one had any idea where Lewis might have gone, nor any reason why he wouldn’t tell his wife. Calla was his world, they all said. Calla and stamps.
“Aren’t you concerned?” Lola asked the last philatelist.
The woman laughed, gestured around her small, neat shop. “We’re not exactly in the diamond or gold league, Miss. Why would anyone want to harm a philatelist? No, I’m sure he just got whisked away by some eccentric client. Now those, we’ve got plenty of. They’re the ones with money, so we all humour ’em.” The woman shrugged. “There’s money to be made in the usual course of things, sure, but no one’s gonna turn her nose up at a few thousand dollars for a few strange requests.” She eyed Lola then and laughed. “I bet private investigation isn’t all that different.”
Lola was tapped out of leads by eight o’clock. She called it a night, went home to change, and was at The Supper Club by nine-thirty. Her best friend was covering a crime spree for the Herald, so Lola joined a table of middle-aged divorcées for her meal. She listened for half an hour to the house band, fidgeting, then made her excuses and left. She stopped in at the Lucky Bamboo, wasted two hours in a round of mah-jongg with three old men. She left fifty dollars poorer, ready to jump out of her skin.
She drove eastward from there, staring at the taillights ahead of her. Eventually, she parked in front of a modest storey-and-a-half, dark save for a light in the attic dormer window. A figure stepped into the window space. Lola raised a hand to the silhouette, closing her car door. The figure retreated. Lola heard the faint sound of footsteps, ringing against the hardwood of the stairs inside the house. She picked her way across the darkened walk, mindful of the uneven cobbles under her heels. A light came on, the front door opened, and Lola smiled at the man standing in the doorway in dark trousers, grimy shirtsleeves, and no collar.
“I came by to see your new etchings,” she said.
Aubrey muttered something. Lola felt him disappear, that low level tension returning to her. She forced her focus back to the man in front of her.
He grinned, stepped onto the porch, took her by the hand, and hauled her within. He closed the front door gently behind her. “My etchings, huh? Not the most original of lines.” He kissed her on the corner of her mouth.
“Worked for you, didn’t it?”
“Mm, but I really am an artist. I really did have etchings to show you.” He laid a line of kisses along the column of her neck, reached up and pulled the pins from her hair.
“Well I liked what I saw. I’m back for another Nixon Yeung original. If you can spare the time, that is.”
In reply, he flicked off the landing light.
Lola thrashed once, bolted upright. Her pulse pounded in her ears, in time to the thundering behind her breastbone. She threw aside the blanket, shaking her head against the lingering images of fire and smoke. Trembling, she dressed quickly in the chilly attic, taking great gulps of air. She found her artist asleep on the corner cot, took her leave with a kiss. Her car started wth a purr and she drove home in the predawn darkness, her window down. She took great gulps of air, slowing her breathing block by block.
Lola quietly let herself into her apartment, mindful of waking Elaine. She crossed to her bedroom and private bath. She shed last night’s evening wear and stood under the spray of hot water until the bathroom filled with thick steam. She stepped back out into her bedroom, paused. A pale blue blouse and camel-coloured trousers were laid out for her on the bed. Shaking her head, she dressed for the second time that morning. Out in the dining room, Elaine had already set out breakfast. Lola downed her coffee, ate her rolls, and was ready to go back out before eight o’clock.
“Be careful out there, boss lady,” said Elaine.
“Always,” said Lola.
The streets were just getting heavy with traffic by the time Lola parked half a block from her offices. There was a new lift operator. He stared, wide-eyed, at the three burly men and slender woman crowded into the elevator with Lola. She kept her grin to herself. If Mona So wanted to pretend dark glasses and a scarf concealed her famous mug, that was her business.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
Lola turned her attention politely to one the of the bruisers. “Yes?”
“My Ghost says you’re a Host. Is that true?”
Lola shrugged. “Who’s asking?”
The man frowned, stepped subtly in front of his companion. “I’m in charge of Miss So’s security—”
“Chao.” The tiny slip of a woman slapped him lightly on the arm. “I’m incognito, remember?”
“Trust me, Miss So,” said Lola. “You’re not fooling anyone.” She gestured with a thumb at her entourage. “You shoulda left them at home. They’re almost as famous as you are.”
“But don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me. You can ask Doctor Plimpton yourself. I’ve never ratted out one of his clients.” Lola smiled, letting it die before it reached her eyes. So took a step back.
The lift bell sounded.
Lola let them exit before her. They turned right.
She thanked the operator, turning left out in the hallway. She shook her head, pondering the vanities of film stars, as she walked down to her office. She faltered a step as she passed Lewis Kane’s office, clenched her jaw, and moved on.
She pulled out her list from yesterday, written in Calla Kane’s terse hand, and reviewed the names still to be contacted. She worked out the difference in time zones, reorganized the list, and reached for the telephone.
“Edmund Henneman. How may I help you?”
Lola opened her mouth to reply. Her teeth snapped together as she felt the cold of Aubrey’s return.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Lola cleared her throat. “Hello.” She introduced herself and the reason for her call.
“Yes, I spoke with his wife, a lovely young woman. Her English was delightful. You sound somewhat similar. I have an ear for accents, you know. Are you Chinese too?”
“No, Mr. Henneman, but as close as makes no never mind.” She hurried on. “I believe Mrs. Kane spoke with you day before last? Have you heard from Mr. Kane since then?”
“’Fraid not, Miss…Starke, is it? Lewis and I rarely do our business over the telephone. We’ve met, of course, that’s important, you know, knowing one’s associates. But when we meet in person, it’s only at the annual show, in October. I don’t know what you know about philately, but it doesn’t require much travel. We do use the post quite often, however.”
Lola thanked him for his time and rang off.
Eithteen minutes and ten more conversations later, she crossed off the last remaining entry. Rubbing at her ear, she stood up and stretched. She walked to the window, paused to stare down at the traffic, then walked back to her chair. She fetched an Egyptian cigarette from the inlaid box on her desk and fired it up. Back at the window, she smoked, narrowing her eyes in the blue haze, and considered her next task.
“Back to the client?” asked Aubrey.
Lola pressed her lips together, returned to her desk, and stubbed out her cigarette. She spun the ebony ashtray in lazy circles as she waited for the operator to put her call through.
“Global Seas Trading Company.”
“Yes, Mrs. Kane, it’s Lola Starke. Do you have a minute?”
“Do you have news for me?” Kane’s voice caught at the last word.
Lola cursed to herself. “No, I’m sorry. I’m still working through the leads.” She updated Kane on the list of contacts. “Which police station did you file your report with?”
Lola paused. “Yesterday, after we concluded our business, you went to file a missing person’s report. Do you recall the officers’s name? And I’d like to have the file number as well. Helps expedite my inquiries.”
Lola heard Kane draw in a deep breath.
“I didn’t file a report. I had no intention of doing so. There’s no point, you see. I have plenty of experience with that type of prejudice, believe me. They’d only take down the bare minimum and file it away. And I couldn’t bear that hostility again. Not when I’m so worried as it is. I’m sorry.” She finished in a rush.
Lola blew out a harsh breath. “Mrs. Kane, I don’t like working with clients who lie to me. I can return the remainder of your retainer, minus the day’s worth of work. I’m sorry, but I can’t refer you to another investigator, not in good conscience. My name would be on the line.”
“Please don’t. Please.” She stumbled over the word again. “Just…please come see me. I need to talk in person. If,” she hesitated, “if after I’ve had my say, you still want to quit this case, then you can return the rest of my money. But please, not until you’ve heard me out.” She named a noodle house by the northern docks. “Give me an hour. I promise I’ll come clean.”
Lola hesitated, considered the desperation in Kane’s voice.
“Lola,” said Aubrey, voice quiet, “this isn’t worth the trouble. There will be other easy cases. If you need more time to recover from the fire—”
“Fine, I’ll be there,” Lola said into the telephone.
Kane thanked her once more and they rang off.
Lola heard Aubrey sigh loudly. She flicked open her inlaid box and selected another cigarette.
As Lola suspected, the noodle house was a corner shop short on décor, long on attitude. A line of rough-looking men waited outside to order from the counter set into a window on one wall, under an awning faded a grey-brown. A few looked Lola up and down, eyes narrowing at her expensive shoes and purse, the tailored cut of her clothing. Others smiled broadly at her, elbowing their companions. She stared them down before stepping inside, followed by a chorus of whistles. She paused to let her eyes adjust to the comparative dimness. One waitress with black hair pulled back into a tight bun had the run of five tables. The woman frowned, staring up at Lola.
“You lost?” Her Cantonese was clipped, impatient.
“Two please.” Lola used her most polite tones.
The waitress raised her brows, then shrugged. She pointed up at the chalkboard menu. “Want tea?”
Lola nodded, took the only free table, right outside the kitchen. She sat, facing the restaurant’s entrance. She heard Aubrey greet a couple of other Ghosts, his voice cordial and cool.
Behind her, she heard shouts and the clatter of bowls and pans. Lola craned her neck around, saw three people in the kitchen bustling to fill the orders from the sidewalk window. A small woman scrubbed and washed bowls, stacking them clean and wet.
“She’s fast,” said Aubrey. Lola turned back to the restaurant door.
A man sat alone near the front of the restaurant, slurping noodles. Even sitting, he looked tall. His hair was shaved down to bare inches on his scalp, his face broad. His table was tucked into the corner, under a cheap print of a traditional mountain scene. He sat, legs spread wide, his back against the wall next to the door. He stared at Lola as he ate. She gave him her best blank face.
A woman strode in the front door, her face shadowed by a wide-brimmed straw hat. She stopped just inside the doorway, removed the hat, and fanned her face with it, its green ribbon tails fluttering.
“Calla.” The waitress smiled, her voice alight with warmth.
The man gave Calla’s backside the once over, swallowed his mouthful of food, and took a drink from his tea cup. He sat back, eyes watchful. His broad shoulders and muscled arms stretched the fabric of his beige tunic tight as he crossed his arms over his chest. He stuck a toothpick into his mouth and rolled it around from one side to the other.
Kane gave the waitress a brief hug. “Hello, Lin. Place is hopping today.” She pointed out toward the line-up, all the while squinting as she peered around the restaurant. She raised her hand as she saw Lola, said to the waitress. “Thanks, I see my friend.” She hung her hat by its string on the coat stand to her left, just inside the door.
Lin turned and stared at Lola.
Lola raised her chin at the frank appraisal. Behind Lin, she saw the man squint at her.
Kane approached Lola’s table, her expression pinched. She sat, clasped her hands on the tabletop. “Thank you, Miss Starke, for agreeing to meet me. And for trusting me enough to come here.”
“I’ve been in worse. The menu looks decent. They must be good, if that line means anything.”
Lin came with another teapot and two more cups, swapping out Lola’s briskly without explanation. Lola tasted the substitution, noting the darker colour and richer flavour. She held her tongue, raising her brows at Lin. The waitress gave her a hard look and took their orders.
“I didn’t lie about going to the station,” said Kane. “And the desk sargeant truly did say that to me, about Chinese girls and gwai men.” She flushed slightly. “That’s why I wanted to take a chance on you, Miss Starke. I thought I’d have a better chance since you’re gwai and a woman.”
“Mrs. Kane.” Lola hesitated, searching carefully for her next words. “It’s important that you file a report because it may help in identification. In the possibility that an unidentified…man comes under scrutiny.” She paused again. “Due to nefarious circumstances.”
“You mean if they find a dead body.” Kane shuddered, then raised her chin. “I’m not stupid. I know what you mean.”
Lola waited her out.
Kane said, “But I can’t…I don’t want to draw attention to myself. Not from the police.”
“You’re gonna have to give me more than that.”
Kane opened her mouth to reply, snapped it closed as Lin approached.
“Liver and kidneys congee.” She placed the bowl in front of Kane. Lola inhaled the comforting smell of softened rice and the rich aroma of organ meats. Lin placed a small dish of chili oil next to the bowl. Then she carefully put down a bowl of noodles in broth in front of Lola. “Wuntun gai-lan.”
Kane waited until the waitress was back in the kitchen. She kept her voice low.
“Mrs. Jiang, my employer, the owner of Global Seas, has an arrangement with the local Tong. It’s nothing special. Just the usual cost of doing business here, especially around the docks area, being a trading company. As I am the manager now, I’ve taken over…liaising with them. I can’t afford to have police coming around my work, asking questions. The Tong, they’re nice enough as these things go, but they’d be suspicious, wouldn’t they? Mrs. Jiang is a good person and I enjoy my job. I don’t want to hurt her business.”
Lola bit carefully into a hot wuntun. The pork was velvety smooth and savoury with sesame oil. She chewed, watched Kane watching her. “You think they’d bump up her payments?”
“You can bet on it,” murmured Aubrey.
Kane nodded, relief clear on her face. “Yes, exactly. Or worse, burn her building down, as a warning. But it would be a mistake, a misunderstanding. I just don’t think they trust me enough to take my word for it.” She sipped at her thin congee. “Even if Mrs. Jiang and I weren’t distant cousins, I won’t be responsible for something terrible like that happening.”
Lola nodded, ate, and considered. She watched Lin bustle by, with tabs and money and dirty dishes. The two tables closest emptied and filled with patrons. Lola said, “You’ve got a point, but you could’ve told me that outright yesterday.” She took a final spoonful of the clear broth and pushed herself subtly away from the table. She laid her chopsticks atop the bowl neatly. “Why did you lie to me?”
Kane swirled her spoon around the remains of her congee, now thickened from cooling. “Would you believe, force of habit?”
Lola shook her head.
Kane sighed. “I don’t trust easily, Miss Starke. Even if I’m paying for that privilege. I don’t know how much you’ll bend.”
“You’re telling me now, however. I’m guessing from desperation?”
Kane looked away, watching Lin clear a table near the door. Lin nodded as she passed, her tray filled with dirty bowls. She murmured, “Gus wants a word.”
Kane stiffened as she stared at Lin. The waitress gestured toward the front door. Lola looked over. The lone man stared back at her, his expression unreadable. Kane gave him a curt nod, turned back to face Lola.
“I’ll be right back.”
Gus stared at Lola as Calla Kane approached him. He kicked out the chair across from him. She sat. He turned his gaze to Kane, asked her one question. He cocked his head just slightly to one side as he listened to her reply. Kane spoke at length, leaning forward. Gus listened with his face like stone. Then he nodded, said something curt, and left. Lin began clearing his bowl, chopsticks, and tea cup. She laid a gentle hand on Kane’s shoulder briefly before taking the dishes into the kitchen. She gave Lola a dark look as she went by.
Kane sat for a few beats, her back stiff, face turned away. She took a sharp breath inward, exhaled forcefully and stood. She returned to her seat across from Lola, drank her tea cup dry. She took a breath before meeting Lola’s eyes. “Yes. I need to find Lewis. You’re my best hope at the moment.”
Lola waited a beat. Kane refilled her tea. Lola said, “Who was that?”
Kane took a shaky breath. “Gus Chong heads the Tong that Mrs. Jiang pays money to. They own the northern docks area.”
“What did he want?”
“To know who you are. Why we’re meeting. If it jeopardizes him in any way.” Kane paused. “There aren’t many gwai in this area. He’s suspicious.”
“What did you tell him?”
Lola waited. Kane poured tea for both of them, drank her own cup dry again. “That was enough to satisfy his curiosity?”
Kane shook her head. “It has nothing to do with him. He doesn’t care.”
Lola narrowed her eyes. “What did he say, before he left?”
“He told me not to meet you here again.”
“What, here? In this restaurant?”
“He owns it.” Kane cleared her throat. “But he meant the docks.” She pulled out a handkerchief, wiped delicately at her eyes and then her nose. She looked up at Lola. “Please, can we get back to Lewis? You’re my best hope right now.”
Lola frowned. “Are you saying you’ve engaged another investigator?”
“No, no, no, no, no. That’s not at all what I mean. Please, you must believe me. You’re the only one.”
“All right then. Why me? What’s so important about having a gwai woman working for you on this?”
Kane straightened her shoulders. “I’ve read the papers, Miss Starke, like everyone else, I’m sure. I know you almost died in that fire two weeks ago. I know you were cleared of that business with Mayor, just this Spring. Frankly, I was surprised you had any time in your schedule at all for me. I thought clients would be lined up outside your door. Infamy attracts certain people, doesn’t it?” She sipped her tea. “But it’s not like that. You’ve taken on no new clients since the fire.”
Lola heard a sharp sound from Aubrey. She made her expression blank.
“Lewis,” said Kane. “You may not hear him, but he certainly hears you. Or not, as the case may be. He mentioned in passing that you hadn’t been in the office at all, not since the fire. There have been plenty of telephone calls, however, ringing on and on and on. And plenty of people knocking at your door.” She leaned in. “But I took it as a sign that when I needed to see you, you were there. In your office, ready to work again.”
Lola kept her voice level. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
Kane sat back. “I gambled that you wouldn’t care if I’m Chinese or not, nor whom I’ve married. I imagine you’ve had your share of difficulties, growing up gwai in Crescent City. Raised by Chinese or not, wealthy or not, you cannot change how you look. Unlike many others, I can read between the lines. Those newspaper stories are sensational, of course, but they cannot hide your tenacity. You stay with a case until it’s resolved. That, more than anything, is what I need from you.”
“She’s got your number on that one,” said Aubrey. “Smart.”
Lola took out a cigarette, tapped it against the case. She fitted it into a holder and used her lighter. She inhaled deeply, feeling the burn in her chest. Calla Kane watched her, seemingly content to wait as long as it took.
Lola exhaled a long plume of blue smoke. She pointed, her cigarette holder held out at right angles.
“If you lie to me again, I won’t stay. I won’t meet you and I won’t return your money. Understand me?”
Kane gave a single quick nod.
“Good,” said Lola. She took another drag of her cigarette. “Now tell me which police station you visited.”
Felucca Siu stepped out of the spa smelling like a million bucks. Lola smiled. Felucca patted her miniscule hat, with its opal cabochon and spray of three violet feathers. Her hair was sleeked back into a glossy chignon, almost as shiny as her black patent leather, buckled heels. The shoes didn’t come close to matching the lavender belt encircling Felucca’s waist, but her plum shirtwaist dress and haughty attitude made the point entirely moot.
“Lola.” Felucca’s deep brown eyes shone with her smile. “You’ve run me to ground.”
Lola nodded. “It took me the better part of three hours, yes.”
“Excellent. You must truly want to speak to me. Work, I presume?”
“What else is there?”
Felucca laughed. “Liar. We both know your reputation at the tables and clubs, young lady.”
“Who’s to say that ain’t work, Luca?”
Felucca grinned, twining an arm with Lola’s. “Come, keep me company for tea. I’m famished.”
Lola raised a brow. “From pampering at The Palm? What happened? New masseuse? They forgot your favourite type of flower tea?” She pulled a face. “Poor Luca.”
Felucca straightened to her full height and managed to look down her nose while looking up at Lola. “Be nice, young lady. You want something from me, remember?”
Lola mugged a theatrical sigh. “Yes, ma’am.” She gestured with her chin down the block to her parked car. “Shall we?”
Felucca shuddered, glancing at Lola’s battered brown Buick. “You ought to’ve known better than to bring that thing within ten feet of me.” She tugged on Lola’s arm, leading her to a gleaming silver-grey Bentley and a young man with sharp cheekbones and deepset eyes. He straightened, touched the brim of his cap.
“Vincent’s been waiting hours to take me wherever I desire. Let’s not make him feel useless, hm?” The women were handed into the car and Vincent pulled out into traffic. The drive was a smooth five minutes.
“Luca, we coulda walked.”
“Not in these shoes, honey. And I already told you, I’m famished. The sandwiches at The Palm are barely larger than my pinkie.” She patted Lola’s hand. “Indulge me, Lola. That’s part of the job too, correct? Keep your sources happy?”
Lola allowed Vincent to hand her out. She saluted Felucca. “Ma’am, yes ma’am.”
“Oh you’re such a wag. Come on then, bring your outsized sense of sarcasm inside.”
A maitre d’ sporting a razor-thin mustache bowed and smiled warmly at Felucca. Lola looked around The Queen’s Tea Room. She didn’t resist the smile that came upon her. Apricot striped wallpaper, wainscoting painted a brilliant white, delicate chairs and tables draped in crisp white linens, set with heavy silver. Tiered sandwich trays and bright tea pots burnished like mirrors.
“This way, Madam Felucca,” said the maitre d’. “Your usual table is ready.”
Lola raised a brow. Felucca smiled at her expression.
“Yes, English only within these walls, young lady. So you’d best brush up.” She wagged a finger at Lola with mock sternness. Lola noted Felucca’s speech was lightly sprinkled with Chinese rhythms. “Isn’t it a lark? My favourite thing about this old place. Although the food is divine too.”
Lola concentrated on the conversations as they followed the quick-footed maitre d’ through the room. Most of the patrons were Chinese, as to be expected anywhere in the City, really, but yes, Felucca was right.
“Huh,” said Lola. Aubrey chuckled.
Felucca gave an exaggerated shudder. “Oh honey, your English is decidely not from across the pond.”
Lola grinned. “My tutor was from the southwest. Said she’d grown up on a ranch. A real life cowgirl, she claimed.” She leaned in. “So what’s the penalty for speaking normally in here?”
Felucca gestured. “Ugh, how…banal. Everyone knows the rule at The Queen’s, honey. If you don’t like it, then don’t come. Simple as that.”
“But what if you have an unruly guest?” Lola kept her expression innocent.
Felucca snorted. “Oh please. Your ‘innocent face’ is terrible. Go ahead, if you want. Try to embarrass me. But just remember, you came to me for information. If they toss you out, I shan’t speak to you for weeks.”
“Lola,” said Aubrey, “even the other Ghosts are doing it.”
Lola sputtered. It was Felucca’s turn to raise a brow. “Let me guess, Aubrey just told you something.” Lola nodded. “Well, he’d best have done it in English too, young lady. Or he’ll get you turned out for certain.”
Aubrey laughed. “Yes ma’am.”
Felucca leaned in. “Is his English as terrible as yours then?”
Lola raised her chin. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Felucca gestured. “Oh dear, what sort of Queen’s English is that?”
“St. John’s.” Lola gave the name its proper clipped pronounciation: “Sinjin.” She shrugged. “My mother’s security man.”
“A working class man then.”
“The very best kind. I’m rather fond of him actually.”
“Then don’t let him catch you sounding like that. He’ll think you’re mocking him, he will.”
Lola gave her a broad smile. “Too late.”
The staff brought everything out without any need for consultation. Sandwiches, cakes, and scones. Clotted cream, jams, and pâtés. And black tea in two different pots. Lola discovered that Felucca was partial to Earl Grey and Assam.
Felucca gave a tall waiter a fond smile as he poured for her. “Thank you, Nicholas.” He bowed. Felucca took up her cup and saucer, sipped with a noise of pleasure. She smiled at Lola’s expression. “Not to your taste?”
Lola smoothed out her grimace. “Tastes like soap.”
Felucca laughed, gesturing to Nicholas. “Another cup for Miss Starke, if you would, dear.” She said to Lola, “Earl Grey’s an acquired taste, I’ll grant you. But ‘soap’?”
Lola shrugged. She sipped her Assam carefully. “Can we talk now then?”
Felucca nodded, chewing delicately on a triangle of toast with pâté.
“I’m looking for a stamp collector. I’ve spoken to the regular joes he works with, but I think it’s time to start turning over stones to see what’s underneath.”
“How charming. Are you implying that my line of work is unsavoury?”
“I call ’em like I see ’em.”
“You really must work on your manners, Lola. They are not designed to curry favour are they?”
“Oh pfft, since when have you ever known me to grovel?”
“There’s a large middle ground between grovelling and a bit of tactful flattery. You ought to visit it sometime. It’s really rather nice.”
Lola waved her hand in dismissal. “What do you know about the illegal stamp market?” She stopped, let out an abrupt laugh. “Oh gods, listen to me. It’s even more ridiculous when I say it aloud.”
Felucca gave her a look of reproach. “Your lack of familiarity with something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Lola raised a brow. Felucca put up a hand. “Not that I’m an expert on stamps. Jewels, art work, antiques, yes. I find stamps unreliable. They rarely come onto the market.” She gave a charming smile. “And there are simply too few unscrupulous collectors willing to buy without legitimate provenance.”
Lola sipped her still-scalding tea. She cocked her head at Felucca. “Can you refer me to someone?”
Felucca made a face. “Yes, but I can’t guarantee he’ll speak with you.”
Lola’s smile was faint. “I’ll handle that part. Where can I find him? Who is he?”
“He,” said Felucca, “is Hubert Fong.” She gestured to Nicholas, asked for a telephone. He returned in a minute, trailing a very long cord behind him, and set a pristine white telephone at Felucca’s elbow.
“What d’you mean?” said Lola.
Felucca raised a finger while she spoke to the operator. Lola frowned.
“Hubert? Yes, hello, it’s me.” A pause. Felucca’s lips thinned. “Fine, thank you. Yes, well, I have someone who’d like to meet you.” She hesitated, her mouth still open to continue, then she snapped her mouth shut. Her eyes narrowed. “No, Hubert, I’m not interested. No.” She shook her head. “I’m not involved in this one. She’s a dear, dear friend. I knew her father. She needs to know about stamps and I thought of you naturally.” Another pause. “You see? Not my purview at all. Yes. Mm-hmm. Yes. All right. No, that’s too late. Now, actually. She’s an extremely busy woman.” Felucca’s expression cleared. “Oh splendid. I’ll let her know. Yes, thank you.”
Nicholas swept the telephone away. Felucca took a drink of her tea, dabbed her lips.
“Not a friend, I take it,” said Lola.
Felucca’s laugh was forced. “He has far fewer scruples than I do, Lola, and he’s entirely selfish. Two things that do not a decent business partner make.”
“He gummed the works for you, then?”
“Oh yes, the little rodent. He left me hanging with thousands of dollars’ worth of…goods because his buyers suddenly got cold feet.”
“Is that his fault?”
Felucca glared. “If he’d screened his buyers carefully enough, or at all, that should never have happened.” She poked an almond petit-four on her plate.
Lola abruptly understood. “And you’re angry with yourself because you’d thought you’d screened him carefully enough.”
Felucca gestured, her movements impatient. “He hoodwinked me, that’s what happened. He paid someone to lie to me.” She lowered her voice. “Not that I ought to’ve been surprised. The man was a thief in his youth, a cat burglar of all things. His specialty was sneaking into wealthy homes after pretending to be a feng shui master.”
“But you still do business with him?”
“No, of course not. I may’ve been fooled once, but I know his stripes now.” She sat back in her chair. “No, I find it useful to know what he’s up to.”
Lola leaned forward, touched Felucca’s hand. “Thank you, Luca.”
“Yes, well, you just make certain you get the information you need from him.” She pointed a slender finger. “And keep a hand on your pocketbook.”
Fong’s office was on the second floor of a white stucco box, highlighted with glass bricks. Across the street, Lola parked in front of a Vietnamese sandwich shop. She noted a discreet ladies’ consignment store in the same block, and a leather repair business. Around the corner, a line of cars that had seen better days surrounded a mechanic’s garage. Traffic was light and there were few pedestrians. Those she did see walked briskly.
“Good location for a fence,” said Aubrey. “Busy enough to blend in. Not so busy as to be filled with potential eye witnesses. And I bet everyone knows to keep themselves to themselves.”
Lola grunted. She saw no need to agree with the obvious.
“Felucca’s a longtime professional, Lola,” said Aubrey. “It would be a good idea to heed her warnings about this Fong character.”
Lola kept her mouth firmly shut.
“I don’t care if you ignore me,” Aubrey said, “I’m accustomed to it, but I need to know you’re not ignoring good advice.”
“Don’t play nursemaid with me, haunt. Stop flapping your lips and let me concentrate on my job. Or did you suddenly acquire a PI license recently?”
Aubrey laughed, surprising her. “I don’t need one. I just follow your lead.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you,” she muttered.
Inside Fong’s building, it was bright and airy. One corridor led away to the right. The stairs were set into the left corner of the lobby. In lieu of a security desk, there was a directory inside a glass-fronted case mounted on the wall next to the staircase. Lola scanned the names, which gave no hint at the nature of the businesses listed. Hubert Fong was listed on the second floor. She paused, listening at the opening of the corridor, but gained no insights into Fong’s building mates. She took the stairs quickly. Fong’s door was at the end of the hallway at the top of the smooth-stepped stairs. The door stood open.
A grey-haired man rose from behind a medium-sized desk and smiled in polite welcome. His long tunic was tan, his slacks dark brown. Both were pressed and pristine. His brown shoes were buffed and polished to a high shine. The room was tidy, with chest-high filing cabinets along two walls, and low shelves along the remainder, beneath the windows. Fong’s desk sat in the middle of the room, faced by two comfortable club chairs in tan upholstery. The windows, shuttered now against the afternoon heat, were to the right.
Aubrey’s voice was cordial, “Hello, Aubrey O’Connell. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister..?”
“Mr. Fong?” Lola introduced herself. “Thank you for making time to see me.”
Fong’s smile was rueful. “Felucca’s whims are my command.” He paused. “I hear our Ghosts have met.”
Aubrey murmured, “An older brother, Kingsley Fong.” He lowered his voice further. “No receptionist either. Not a man in need of ego boosting then. Or he trusts no one. Watch yourself with him, Lola.”
Lola twitched her shoulder, like a horse flicking at a fly. She gave Fong a nod. “Please give my regards to your Ghost, Mr. Fong.”
“How may I help you, Miss Starke?” Fong made a discreet inventory of Lola’s clothing and accessories. Lola thought of Felucca’s warning.
“I apologize if this is a shock to you.” She reached in her purse and took out her card, “I’m a private investigator. I’m looking into the disappearance of Mr. Lewis Kane.”
Fong uttered a noise of surprise. “Kane?”
“Do you know him?”
“Only his reputation. Never met the man myself.” He gestured for her to sit, retook his own seat. “If you came to me through Felucca, then you’ll know what I do.” He paused, his gaze intent on Lola. “And I’m trusting Felucca to vouch for your…discretion.”
Lola nodded. “As she told you, we have a long history, beginning with my father.” Fong remained silent, an air of expectancy in his posture. Lola gave him a flat smile. “My father was a studio fixer. He caught Felucca in an actress’s dressing room, stealing some trinkets or other. Felucca was fifteen or so. My father warned her off working the studio for good, helped her keep her job. For a while.” She shrugged. “She was my minder a few times when I was a child. She moved on, and we kept in touch.”
Fong stared at her a beat longer, gave an abrupt nod. “Lewis Kane.” He paused, steepled his fingers under his chin.
Aubrey muttered, “Oh a flair for the dramatic. How marvellous.”
Lola tended to agree. She sat patiently, however, and kept her expression polite.
“As I said, I’ve never met Kane personally, and that’s by design. He’s infamous for his integrity. An impeccable reputation for honesty, in fact. I tend to think it must be a character flaw, such inflexibility, but to each his own. Apparently, he had the same sort of reputation in his previous career.”
Lola cocked an eyebrow.
“Some sort of specialized accountant or other. Clearly, Kane is attracted to a quiet life of the mind.” Fong shrugged.
“What about the stamps themselves? Are there any on the market, your end of the market, that is, that’d have someone take drastic measures?”
Fong shook his head before she’d finished. “Even if there were, Kane wouldn’t be involved. Everyone at my end of the market, as you so charmingly phrased it, knows to steer clear of him. Not only wouldn’t he appraise any of my kind of stamps, he’d be likely to blow the whistle on us.”
“How would he know?”
“Provenance, you mean?” said Fong. She nodded. “Sounds like you need a primer, Miss Starke, on how these things work.”
Lola gave herself a moment to suppress her sarcasm. “Please,” she said.
Fong stilled, clearly listening to his Ghost. An expression of disapproval flitted across his face before he gave Lola a small smile.
“Actually,” said Aubrey, “she’s just being polite. You might want to take lessons.” A pause. “Or you could quit flapping your gums and we’ll be gone soon enough. Your choice.”
Lola watched Fong closely. The man seemed intent on ignoring whatever his Ghost was being rude about. She decided to see how far he’d let it go.
Fong sat back, folding his hands over his abdomen. “Someone has a stamp they think is valuable. They take it to an appraiser to discover its value. If they’re smart and careful, they take it to several. The appraisers ought to ask careful questions about how the person acquired this stamp, especially if the stamp is indeed valuable. Now, the person who brought in the stamp will either be someone thinking of selling it or someone thinking of buying it. Procedures are slightly different depending on which. Of course, sometimes, it’s a question of inheritance, in which case, there are lawyers involved and such.
“At any rate, the person looking for an appraisal value ought to be able to explain how the stamp fell into their hands. Inheritance? Estate sale? Garage sale? The name of the previous owner should be known. If it’s not, an appraiser will be careful to ask more questions until he’s satisfied he’s not getting involved in something…unsavoury.”
Lola thought over Fong’s explanation. “But you say there’s nothing up on the market like that right now?”
Aubrey made a low sound of warning.
Fong hesitated, then gestured expansively at Lola. He rested his hands on the arms of his chair. “Well, there are always humdingers floating around, often more myth than fact.”
“For example?” Lola tamped down on her impatience.
“Hmm? Well, collectors love mistakes, for example. So a sunflower on a three cent stamp turns into a bilious purple worm, all due to a mistake in the dye, and we have the elusive Lavender Lamprey. Lovely name, eh?” He chuckled. “Ten sheets of twenty-five. That’s considered rare. One of those would fetch a pretty coin indeed. Or there’s the upside-down tugboat in the Chinese 2-fen from 1927. Another ‘big game’ stamp.”
“I presume Lewis Kane would be doubly careful if something like those came into his hands?”
Fong nodded. “I’d think he’d turn them away, frankly. As far as I heard, he wasn’t interested in rarities like that. He’d not have the best eye for them, either. His expertise was Intaran stamps.” At Lola’s look, he said, “A tiny little island country in the Pacific Ocean. A monarchy.” He paused, staring past Lola’s shoulder for a moment. “No, nothing big has come up, at least, not to my knowledge and I would hear of it if it did.”
He refocussed his gaze on Lola. “But who am I to say for certain? Every man—even the redoubtable Lewis Kane—has a price.”
Lola eyed his toothy smile askance.
…To Be Continued in DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST, coming September 2016