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Mei-Ling watched Silas and Hannah. Propped up on one of her lavish cushions, she looked like a queen surveying her subjects. The table before them was laid out with full tea service. She poured herself a cup. Silas and Hannah were required to stand by the door and wait. Slowly Mei-Ling finished tasting the tea and nodded to her attendant, who bowed and quickly left the room.
Eventually, she got around to speaking to Silas. “Were you successful?”
Silas stopped tapping his foot. “That all depends on what you do with the corpse on your roof.”
Mei-Ling showed mild surprise.
“This is the ghost’s body?”
“It’s not a coincidence.” Silas invited himself to a cushion and poured a cup of tea. “Looks like he was killed and stuffed in the box. Bury the bones, give him whatever rites you think appropriate, and the ghost should be satisfied.”
“Shouldn’t we call the police?” Hannah asked.
Silas turned to Mei-Ling and smirked. “I’ll leave that up to you.”
“We will take care of it internally,” Mei-Ling said. She looked at Hannah and, for the first time, her expression wasn’t one of disdain. “Please, have a seat.”
Hannah sat down beside Silas. She poured a cup of tea to be polite, but only sipped it once. To her credit, she did notice it tasted better than the stuff upstairs.
“Okay May, we took care of your ghost,” Silas said. “Let’s talk.”
Mei-Ling’s face was unsearchable. “Tell me what you want.”
“A woman was kidnapped,” Silas said. “A fetish was used to mark her. There are probably more of them floating around the city.”
“You assume they are being moved through Chinatown?” Mei-Ling said.
“Good place to move merchandise,” he said. “I don’t have to tell you that.”
“If I knew items like that were being sold, I would put a stop to it,” she said. “I have a responsibility to this community.”
“You can’t know about everything going on in Chinatown,” Hannah said. “Right?”
Mei-Ling’s eyes darted over to her and back at Silas. “Let me see this fetish.”
“Do you not have one with you?” she asked.
“Cops took mine,” Silas said.
A cloud passed over Mei-Ling’s face. “The police are involved?”
“Women are missing, of course, they’re involved,” he said. “But I’m not working for them, so you can unclench.”
“If the police are not paying you, who is?” she asked.
“Nobody’s paying me,” Silas said. “I’m doing it on principle.”
Mei-Ling laughed. It was a sharp sound, like a shattering mirror. “Do not lie to me, Mr. Black.”
“People are in danger,” he said. “More will disappear if we don’t act. That’s always been my business.”
The woman looked at Hannah. She seemed to guess the truth.
“I would still need to see one of these fetishes,” she said.
“Wait.” Hannah almost fell out of her seat. “I have pictures of it on my phone.”
Mei-Ling extended a hand. Hannah fished inside a pocket for her phone. The woman took it and silently examined the photos. Her face slowly changed. It was like watching a pot of water reach a boil. She jabbed the phone back into Hannah’s hand.
“I have seen that before,” Mei-Ling said, her face taut.
“Now, we’re getting somewhere,” Silas said. “Where?”
“One of the markets.”
“Okay. On Canal Street?”
Mei-Ling stared at Silas. “It is not customary to bring outsiders to one of these markets.”
“I’m not an outsider,” Silas said.
“You are when it comes to the Souk.”
“Whoever’s selling these dolls is working for the kidnapper,” he said. “It might actually be the kidnapper.”
“I will deal with this problem myself,” Mei-Ling said.
“If these effigies are being used as you say, then my community has become host to a terrible evil,” she said. “I cannot abide it.”
“I agree,” Silas said. “But if you come on too strong, this vender could bolt. Please May, let me get a crack at them first. Then you can drive bamboo shafts under their nails or whatever you want.”
Mei-Ling was silent. Silas feared he had gone too far with that last comment. Setting her teacup down carefully, she stood to her feet. Silas and Hannah followed.
“Let us move quickly.”
Chinatown was a cramped neighborhood, to say the least. With a total square mileage of two, it managed to fit in more than its space should allow. That was standard practice in a city as old as New York, but the neighborhood seemed to have a knack for making the most out of a small space. That made Hook and Ladder 1049 all the more unusual.
From the outside, it looked like an old, abandoned firehouse. That was suspect enough; most fire stations were still in use no matter their age. The existence of an unused building in Chinatown–and a firehouse to boot–should have attracted even the mildly curious. But the people walking past were oblivious to the anomaly. Nobody paid much attention to Hook and Ladder 1049 and certainly, no one tried to get in.
The massive garage doors seemed welded shut. Silas and Hannah waited by the corner, as per Mei-Ling’s instructions. They had watched the woman approach the front door. She didn’t knock or make any indication she was there, but it opened. Silas craned his neck to get a look inside but saw only darkness. There wasn’t even the hint of a doorman.
“How much do you want a bet it’s empty in there?” Hannah asked.
“Can’t be,” Silas said.
“Maybe Mei-Ling’s just stringing us along,” she said. “She got us to help her out, and now she’s ditching us.”
“I think I know the woman better than that.”
“You sure?” Hannah said. “Dollars to donuts she just slipped out the back.”
He shook his head.
“You know her that well?”
“She may not be my biggest fan,” he said. “But she wouldn’t renege. Not on me.”
“How well do you know her?” Hannah asked.
“How far back does your relationship go?”
“A few years,” he said.
“M-hm. And how would you define it?” she asked.
“On life support,” Silas said.
“But it was better in the past, you’d say.”
“I’d say you’re barking up the wrong tree. Mei-Ling and I have always had a professional arrangement. That’s all.”
“Now it looks like you have a null arrangement,” Hannah said. “Face it, she’s gone.”
The little door in the firehouse opened. Mei-Ling reappeared. With a quick gesture, she summoned them.
“Do you see how wrong you are?” Silas said.
“Follow my lead,” Mei-Ling said. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.”
“So, I shouldn’t bring my blowhorn?” Silas said.
She gave him a sharp glance before turning back to the firehouse. Mei-Ling stepped inside, then Silas, and finally Hannah. It was like walking into a wall of black. The light from outside didn’t make it passed the doorframe. Behind them, they heard the door close. Ahead, were the firm steps of Mei-Ling as she pressed further inside.
“A little light would be nice,” Silas said.
“Just keep walking.”
“I have bad luck in dark places,” he said.
He took a few more steps and the darkness was gone. They were inside the empty firehouse garage. A sad NYFD patrol car sat up on cinderblocks. Silas and Hannah crossed the vacant room to a door in the back. A large man covered in tattoos was standing guard. His bulging eyes watched Silas and his assistant skeptically. But when they got close, he nodded and held open the door.
“I think we’re supposed to go that way,” Hannah said.
“Astute, as always.”
They went through the door. It was night. A crescent moon hung low, almost touching a line of trees. Silas and Hannah walked under an ivy-wrapped arbor. A rumble of voices greeted them. They stepped out into a large field and were greeted by a blast of light. Hannah was forced to shield her eyes. Fireworks were going off in all directions.
“Welcome to the Sickle Souk!” greeted a man at the edge of the field.
A large paper-mâché dragon floated in the air as they entered the bazaar. Jugglers on stills were tossing blades, fire, and fiery blades over the crowd. Tents honeycombed over an ever-expanding field of grass. Intermingled were tables and vendors the likes of which Chinatown could only dream. Hordes of consumers moved among the shops like bees.
Silas got onto a nearby tree stump to look over the tents. There was no sign of the New York skyline, only pine trees bordering the Souk.
“Where the hell are we?” he said.
“If you don’t know, then I sure as hell don’t,” Hannah said.
“This is new,” Silas said, turning in a circle to take it all in. “And it’s amazing.”
“Where do we even start?” she asked.
“It’s got to be organized somehow,” he said. “We should ask somebody.”
“Where’s Mei-Ling?” Hannah said.
“Gone again. That’s her M.O.” Silas looked around for anyone that appeared authoritative. It was difficult. Most of the shoppers were ordinary people. Some looked as confused as Silas and Hannah. The detective pin-pointed a figure near the entrance, a short man in a purple hood, dark tunic, and leather leggings. Silas waved at him.
The figure bounded up beside him. “Hello.”
“Do you run this place?” Silas asked.
“Nobody runs the Sickle Souk,” the man said. “It runs itself.”
“Okay. You wouldn’t happen to know where we could buy fetishes?”
The greeter scratched his chin in thought. Silas noticed a neatly-trimmed goatee poking out from his hood. That was all he could see of his face, save for the glow of silver eyes. His skin was dark, with the same purplish tint of his hood. His fingernails came to delicate points.
“There is a large collection of shops in the center square,” he said, pointing deeper into the market. “They sell toys, talking idols, and the occasional demi-god.”
“You mean models of a demi-god?” Silas asked.
The greeter shrugged. “Whatever you like.”
Silas and Hannah pushed through the throng toward the center square. The largest tents filled the cobblestoned area. A seven-tiered fountain was in the middle, spouting water that shimmered like crystal. Silas approached a tent that wasn’t completely mobbed with customers. It sold jars of color-changing liquid. Oddly-shaped fetuses floated inside. The next booth had no merchandise. Its owner stood motionless, arms folded over his chest. A crowd was waving money. Each would get a turn at the front of the line, slap down their cash, and walk away with a look of satisfaction on their face.
Hannah looked at Silas for an explanation. “Is any of this for real?” she asked.
“I ain’t spending money to find out. All markets are about one thing: separating you from your cash.”
One table was pinned all over with brown slips of paper covered with spidery handwriting. Hannah watched as the words moved. The lines of text shifted like marching ants. They became words she understood. She felt the urge to read them out loud. Silas pulled her away.
“Hex paper,” he said. “The spell changes before you even finish saying it. Most people end up cursing themselves. This way.”
They reached a large, round booth. The few people near it were backing away. Mei-Ling was there, shouting at a man behind the counter. He gestured passionately as he spoke, the words were lost on Silas and Hannah. Their conversation came to a halt when Mei-Ling noticed them.
“What’s the word?” Silas asked.
“None of my vendors know about your fetish,” she said.
“That’s convenient,” he said.
“They do mention a new shop,” Mei-Ling said, “that is selling idols of all kinds.”
“Worth looking into,” Silas said.
“Hang on,” Hannah said. “Even if this shop is selling the fetishes, I doubt Emily Lisbon ever came through here.”
“Many people find their way here,” Mei-Ling said. “Even if they are not looking for us.”
“Us?” Hannah said.
Mei-Ling pointed to a tent on the other side of the square. Silas and Hannah recognized a few of her workers from beneath her tea shop as they loaded smuggled merchandise through a flap.
“What does this new shop look like?” Silas asked.
“It is a small tent,” Mei-Ling said. “Emerald, with a circle of stars hanging over the entrance.”
Hannah’s gaze roved across the square. “They all kind of look like that.”
Silas walked in a circuit. He had the firm belief that wandering aimlessly was the best course when you had no idea where to go. His eyes floated over the shops, not focusing on any one thing. He came to a break in the tents that led to a lane. Silas went down it. Hannah followed.
Ignoring the constant cries of vendors, Silas reached the outskirts of the Souk. Stragglers lounged beneath the dark trees, eager to be left alone. A single tent, a good stone throw’s away from the rest, was hidden in the shade. It was made of a rich green material that looked like velvet. Hanging over its entrance was a cluster of stars. They tinkled gently as the flap was opened.
“Anywhere else, it’d be pretty,” Hannah said.
Silas looked at her peculiarly and stepped inside. The air was thick with incense. For the limited space, it was filled with items. Shelves were packed with figurines. More hung from strings. The very best were arranged on a table at the back. Silas recognized Hindu deities, creatures from Japanese folklore, and a few Precious Moments.
Behind the table was a small, robed figure. He was hunched over, which emphasized his diminutive stature. A hood was pulled low over his face so that not even his eyes were visible. He was busy arranging items on the table, his hands moving too fast to be seen.
“Howdy,” Silas said. “My name’s Silas. Whom might you be?”
The merchant jumped back. Silas had the feeling the man was glaring at him.
“Yes, hello,” he said in a low voice. “I am Qule.”
“Hello, Qule. Do you sell fetishes?”
“I sell all manner of articles,” Qule said. “Idols, totems, and yes, fetishes.” His hands darted to the table and came back up holding a gold statuette. “This one is twenty-four karats. The eyes are cubic zirconia.”
“What’s with all the tentacles?”
“You don’t know Cthulhu?” he asked.
“No, we never met,” Silas said. “Listen, I’m looking for a wooden fetish. Resembles a man. He’s got this stupid grin and is clutching his legs. Got anything like that?”
Qule was silent. He rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. “Sounds familiar. I might have a few.”
“Perfect,” Silas said. “May I see one?”
“Not for sale.” He went back to arranging his figurines.
“But this is a shop,” Silas said. “Why aren’t they for sale?”
He wagged a finger at the detective. “Not for you.”
“My money’s as green as anyone else’s,” Silas said.
“No, no, only for–” The merchant looked up as Hannah stepped into the tent. She stared at the sea of idols. Repugnant would have been a good word for her expression.
“Yes, yes, you may buy.”
Qule ducked into the shadows and reappeared with something in his hands. Holding it up in the candlelight, he proudly presented a fetish identical to the one owned by Emily Lisbon.
“Here, here,” he said, extending it toward Hannah. “You buy, you buy.”
She took a step back. “No thanks.”
“Wait a minute,” Silas said. “Why can she buy?”
“Only to women,” Qule said. “That was instructions.”
“Instructions? From who? Where did you get these?”
The merchant lowered the fetish and looked at Silas. “Are you going to buy anything?”
“Then get out.”
“All right, I’ll buy this lovely elephant doll,” Silas said.
“That is Ganesh,” Qule said.
“I know. I’ll buy it if you tell me where the fetish came from.”
The merchant seemed to be eyeing Silas up. Hannah took a deep breath, already regretting what she was about to say.
“You know a lot about these things, right?”
Qule turned to her. “Of course.”
She pointed at the fetish, without looking at it. “What can you tell me about that one?”
Cradling it in his hands like a child, he spoke. “Hand-carved from a solid piece of wood. Onyx eyes. Brings good luck.”
“But what about the figure?” she said. “Who is it?”
Qule stood the doll up on his palm. “This is the high priest of Ozryel, of course.”
“Ozryel?” Silas said.
“Ancient god,” he said. “Ruler of ten kingdoms.”
“Where did it come from?” Hannah asked.
“One score of fetishes arrived before the Wolf’s Moon,” Qule said. “Instructions attached on paper.”
“Do you know who sent them?” she asked
A clanging gong interrupted them. The sound of people shouting reached the tent. Hannah ran outside to look.
“Everyone’s gone crazy,” she said to Silas. “What’s going on?”
“I have no idea.” He looked at Qule. “What does that gong mean?”
The merchant was busy dumping his figurines into a sack. He jumped over the table and emptied the shelves. Silas grabbed him.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Qule screamed. He kicked Silas in the chest, knocking him into the table. Idols flew through the air as Silas collapsed to the ground. The merchant dropped his sack and ran out of the tent. Hannah ran over to Silas.
“Are you okay?”
“Bit my tongue.”
They ran after Qule. The bazaar was in chaos. Customers and merchants were running into the trees, leaving their tents abandoned. Silas and Hannah fought through the confusion for the source of the panic. Charging up the center aisle was their answer.
It was Detective Lang, flanked by a team of officers.
“I knew they were following me,” Silas said. “We have to find Qule. Pronto.”
They caught up with Qule as he disappeared through a hole in a tree. Silas shrugged at Hannah and plunged in. The forest and all its trappings were gone, replaced by the familiar cement walls of a basement. Silas followed the sound of footsteps and heavy breathing. He reached a flight of stairs and a boiler room. A few more seconds and he was in a kitchen. Short-order cooks were shouting in Chinese, pointing to a door.
Hannah caught up with Silas as he ran through the restaurant; the customers looked as surprised as the cooks. The front door was still swinging as Silas burst onto the street. By the time Hannah reached the entrance, he had crossed the street and entered a park. He climbed a series of steps, tripped, and fell on his face. Hannah ran over and helped him up. He took a few more steps, heedless of the fact his chin was bleeding.
“Where did he go?” Silas looked around.
“I don’t see him,” Hannah said. The park was full of people, none of whom resembled Qule.
“Great, he’s gone.”
Someone shouted his name. They turned around to see Detective Lang and several of her officers. Silas spoke first.
“What were you doing there?”
“I don’t need to explain myself to you, Black,” Lang said. “What were you doing at an underground market?”
She took a step toward him. Silas didn’t back down. An officer stepped in between them.
“I was about to close your case,” Silas said. “There was a seller there with ties to the kidnapper.”
“You’re not a part of this case,” Lang said. “I made that very clear.”
“I was this close to getting answers when you interfered.”
“What answers?” she asked.
“The fetish you took from my apartment,” he said. “More like it was being sold at the market. It’s how the kidnapper got them into the hands of his victims.”
“We examined that statuette,” Lang said. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s the crux of this case,” Silas said. “It had power. Or didn’t you realize where we just were?”
Lang pointed back from where they just came. “That was an old warehouse off of Spring Street,” she said.
The private eye slowly shook his head. “Are you crazy? We were outside. It was nighttime.”
“It’s obvious you have trouble separating fantasy from reality,” Lang said. “Now I’m telling you for the last time: stay out of my case. If you refuse to comply, I’ll lock you up for good.”
“Might as well just do it.”
Silas stuck out his hands, daring Lang. Hannah ducked behind a park bench and prayed not to be seen. The uniformed officers looked at Lang, waiting for her cue. Her eyes were fixed on Silas, fingering the handcuffs on her belt. From behind them came a commanding voice.
“Leave Mr. Black alone.”
Standing proud at the top of the park steps was Mei-Ling. Her eyes smoldered as she stared at the police. They turned to face her, more puzzled than upset.
“Hello Yin Mei-Ling,” Lang said. Her voice was small and respectful.
“I am glad you remember me, Amy,” Mei-Ling said. “It has been many years since we have seen each other. How is your father?”
“He is well, fūrén. Thank you.” Lang bowed her head stiffly.
Mei-Ling looked over at Silas, whom Lang had unconsciously stepped in front of. “Why don’t you leave my friend alone? He has done nothing wrong. In fact, he has been working with me all day.”
Detective Lang marched over to the woman. She tried to exert her authority as an officer she spoke to the elder. Her words were quick and low. Lang gestured to her badge, to the other cops, and to Silas. Mei-Ling was calm as she responded, a stone in the middle of the storm.
One of the cops snorted and leaned over to Silas. “What the heck are they saying?”
Silas looked as if he had been struck by lightning. He glanced at Hannah, who could do nothing but shrug. After a few minutes, Lang came up for air. She walked back to the circle of officers. She mumbled something about canvassing the area and sent them away. They were confused but did as they were told. Lang followed after them to the street. Silas’ eyes followed, catching sight of Detective McClelland, standing outside the restaurant. He saw Silas and turned away.
Mei-Ling walked over to Silas as Hannah came out from behind the bench.
“Care to explain what just happened?” Silas asked.
“No,” Mei-Ling said.
“I guess I owe you one,” he said.
“Yes, you do.”
“What kind of damage are we looking at?” Silas asked. “For the market?”
“Not as bad as you think,” Mei-Ling said. “The Sickle Souk will find another location. You won’t be welcomed back. They will blame you for leading the police to them.”
“Just like Paris.”
“What about Qule?” Hannah asked.
“He may never return,” Mei-Ling said. “Not after such a scare.”
“We got what we could from him,” Silas said.
“I feel it right to say our business has concluded,” Mei-Ling said.
Silas gave a mock salute. “Whenever you need me, call.”
Mei-Ling smiled greedily. “I will.”
She offered one of her hands and he shook it. Turning to Hannah, she bowed. Hannah, unsure of what to do, bowed back.
“You keep strange company, Black,” Hannah said as the woman left.
“You should meet my friends.” Silas winced as he touched his chin. Hannah led him to a water fountain and helped clean the wound with a tissue.
“How do I look, doc? Can I still do ballet?
“You need a Band-Aid,” she said. “But it’s fine.”
“Thanks.” Silas took the tissue and held it to his face. “All in all, that was a productive outing.”
“You’re joking, right?” Hannah said. “We’re no closer to the kidnapper.”
“Oh, my dear Hannah Rhodes. Detective work is fraught with setbacks,” he said. “You learn to look on the bright side.”
“You? Look on the bright side?”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Silas said. “Yes, Qule got away. But we learned a few key details we didn’t have prior.”
“You mean that stuff about Ozer–what was it?”
“Ozryel,” he said. “It’s a lead and I aim to follow it.”
“I guess that’s more than what we had before,” she said.
“Now you’re getting it.” Silas looked at the tissue and threw it away. “Plus, we weren’t arrested. I’m marking that as a win.”
“What was up with Lang?” Hannah asked.
“Yeah, I know,” Silas said. “Never met a cop that angry, all the time.”
“No. Why’d she say we were in a warehouse?” Hannah asked. “We were clearly outside, with the moon out.”
“Sometimes, people lie to themselves,” he said, “when the truth is too hard to face. I’ve seen it all the time.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said.
“It’s a little quirk of human psychology,” he said. “When someone can’t handle reality, their minds quickly fill the gap with a plausible alternative. You see it all the time in paranormal work. Most people can’t handle seeing what we see, so they make something up that fits their existing paradigm. It’s called denial.”
“How can anyone deny what they see with their own eyes?”
Silas shrugged. “People are told ghosts don’t exist, monsters aren’t real, and you disappear when you die. It’s easier to stick to the lie than change. After all, you didn’t believe me, until you had no choice.”
Hannah mulled that over. “I guess you’re right.”
“Of course, I’m right,” he said, getting up. “Crap, I almost forgot this.”
Silas fumbled in his pockets. Victorious, he pulled out a fetish from Qule’s shop. “Snagged it when he kicked me into the table.”
Hannah stepped back as if the object was about to jump out of his hands. “Wonderful.”
“I still got plans for this baby.” He tucked it back into his coat and started down the park path. “Ah, Columbus Park. Haven’t been here in years. Maybe we can catch a game of mahjong.”
“Is that the way to the subway?” Hannah asked.
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