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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde - Chapter Ten



I didn't get lucky with the traffic, which meant I had to choose between dinner or the lecture. Since I hadn't eaten for hours, it was an easy choice. Which explained why Irene and I were sitting at her massive kitchen island two hours later sharing a bag of chips, a jar of salsa, and a pitcher of margaritas. It didn't quite qualify as dinner, but it would have to do until the pizza arrived.

"Any luck finding Toby?" Irene stabbed half a chip into the dip.

I shook my head. "I spent a half hour on the phone calling shelters. No one has brought a basset hound into any of them in the last month."

"That's too bad." She studied me for a moment. "I'm sure he's alright, Mar. There are a lot of animal lovers out there. I bet some kind soul took him in right away. He's probably eating filet mignon and sleeping in his own four-poster bed."

I smiled. "I hope you're right. Still, I'll check with some of Kate's neighbors. It'll give me a chance to meet them anyway." I munched on a nacho. "If none of them has seen him, I'm not sure what to do. Put up Lost posters?"

"You could call local vet offices," Irene suggested. "See if anyone's brought him in."

I brightened. "That's a good idea."

"I bet there are websites where you can post a lost pet," she said. "I can check for you, if you want."

"Thanks." I took a sip of my margarita. "By the way, I ran into Dr. Watson today," I told her.

Irene grinned and waggled her eyebrows up and down. "Oh, do tell!"

I rolled my eyes. "There's nothing to tell." I relayed my brief encounter with him at the coffee bar. "He wants to speak to Mr. Holmes. He was talking to Dr. Osterman about Kate."

"Who?"

"He's a forensic pathologist."

Irene shrugged. "I'll have Mr. Holmes shoot him an email."

I cringed. We were just getting deeper and deeper into this Sherlock thing. I wasn't entirely comfortable with it.

"You talk to anyone else in the park today?" Irene asked, popping a chip in her mouth.

I shook my head. "I wish I could have talked to Albert. There's something about that guy I don't trust."

"I know what you mean. He's, I don't know, shifty somehow. He obviously wanted nothing to do with us. That's not normal male behavior around two gorgeous women." She winced when she reached for the margarita pitcher. "Ow. I think I sprained my pancreas in that yoga class."

I grinned. "That's what you get for trying to do that reverse twisty triangle thing. You should've known better."

She refilled our glasses and used both hands to put the pitcher down. "I can do it. I just have to get rid of a few ribs first."

"I don't think Sunshine has any bones," I said. "She's pretty remarkable for her age, isn't she?"

"Sure." She took another chip. "Remarkably evasive."

I blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Come on, Marty. You weren't buying that whole time is an illusion schtick, were you?"

I hadn't given it much thought. "I guess I took her at face value."

"Didn't you notice how she diverted our attention to Albert? Very smooth."

"I think he deserves our attention," I said. "He seems more likely to kill someone than a hippie yoga teacher."

"Agreed. I'm just saying, don't be so quick to rule her out." Irene wiped her fingers on a paper towel and pulled her tablet in front of her. "But since we're talking about our friend Albert, I think it's time we dug up a little information on him."

I upended the bag of chips and poured the crumbs into my palm. "We don't even know his last name."

"Your point?" she asked. Her fingers moved nimbly across the screen. "Haven't you read the newspaper in the last six months?"

"Occasionally." The parts not involving sports anyway.

"Did you read this?" She pushed the tablet over to me, a story from roughly a month earlier on the screen. "I hardly paid attention to it when I first saw it, but now…"

I picked it up. "Is that our park?"

"It sure is. And that's our boy Albert and his buddies, front and center."

It was a typical local-interest article, the kind of filler used by papers on a slow news day. The reporter had talked to a couple of the mothers and to Louis Chu about the benefits of maintaining green space in an urban setting. Probably they'd been the only ones willing to speak to a reporter. I couldn't see Rabid answering questions, and trying to interview Sunshine was like trying to carry water with your fingers. Luckily, Louis had been talkative enough for everyone. He'd provided the names of his chess-playing entourage and posed for a group photo around the chess tables. Everyone was smiling except for the man second from the right. Albert Fong.

"See?" Irene took back the tablet. "Easy. Now we just google Mr. Fong and…" She fell silent as she worked over the computer. After a minute or two, she drew back. "Oh."

"Oh?" I craned my neck to see. "What oh?"

"Mr. Fong has been a bad boy." She scrolled down. "No wonder he comes across as shifty. Back in the early 2000s, he was suspected of being involved with the Chinese mafia."

I stared at her. "Albert was in the mob?" That was hard to imagine. Physically, he was less than imposing. He was thin and withdrawn and dressed badly. He didn't look like any of the mobsters I'd seen in movies, who were always full of machismo and looked slick in tailored suits, polished shoes, and lots of gold jewelry. Albert barely spoke and wore plaid shirts, baggy khakis, and beat-up sneakers. He dressed like some of the two-year-olds who played at the park. Minus the diapers, I assumed.

"It's not that hard to believe. You never know with people." Irene read on. "What's hard to believe is that he's been arrested five times and was never convicted of anything. He was never even indicted. So he's either incredibly smart or incredibly lucky."

My vote was with lucky. Albert Fong hadn't come across to me as particularly smart. But I had to admit I didn't know him at all, and his evasiveness and hostility might have had its roots in intelligence. Maybe he was hiding from someone or something in his past life, and we'd represented a threat to that. Or Kate had. Maybe the criminal activity she'd been complaining about wasn't present but past.

"Well, look at this." Irene smiled. "Looks like Albert owns several businesses. A Laundromat in Berkeley, a thrift store in Oakland, and a tea shop in Chinatown."

I froze. Hadn't Watson said that one of the uses of the ginger lily found under my aunt's fingernails was to make tea?

"What's the name of the tea shop?" I asked.

"The Lucky Dragon. Real original," Irene mumbled. "Didn't Louis Chu say Albert was in sales? I thought he was retired."

"Apparently he's living off the income from his businesses."

"Or they're all fronts for his mob operations, and he's not really retired at all. Maybe he has people run the day-to-day, and he just sits in the park collecting nice laundered money."

I looked at her. "You think he's still involved in something criminal?"

"No, I'm sure he makes a great living from selling teabags and used knickknacks." The doorbell rang, and Irene pushed the tablet aside. "Our pizza's here."

My brain was in overdrive. "I wonder if Kate found out about him," I said, following her to the door. "She might have known something that could have sent him to prison. Maybe she knew something about his past and recognized him from walking Toby in the park. Maybe he killed her to keep her quiet."

"That's a lot of maybes." Irene handed over the pizza box and paid the deliveryman.

"I think maybe we should check out that tea shop in the morning."

"You wanna stay here tonight so we can get an early start?" she asked with a grin. "Unless you would rather deal with that geriatric Peyton Place of an apartment of yours."

"Where do you keep the extra blankets?" I asked.


* * *


The Lucky Dragon was nestled in the middle of the block, its drab exterior a stark contrast to the lively jumble of colors and people that made up Chinatown. It almost seemed as if it was hiding in plain sight. Like Albert himself. I wanted to keep an open mind, but I was starting to feel like Albert tried too hard to go unnoticed.

A tiny bell jingled to announce our arrival. The inside of the shop was narrow and small, the air thick with a myriad of exotic scents. Rough-hewn wooden shelves lined both walls and stood roughly six feet high. The shelves were crammed with teas I'd never heard of before, with exotic names like Dragon Phoenix Oolang and Momordica Fruit. At least on the jars that had labels written in English. I squinted at the rows of Chinese characters on the others, wondering if any contained ginger lily tea. An old-fashioned register with buttons stood to the left of the front door. A glass jar of stick candy sat beside the register. The floor was wood plank. It was actually sort of charming in an old-fashioned soda fountain kind of way. While much of Chinatown catered to the tourist trade, Albert Fong's shop looked like it serviced the Chinese-speaking population who lived and worked there.

A doorway curtain made of long strands of beads suggested a back office. Two men stood to either side of that curtain. They both wore black suits. Both had their hair slicked back into braids that ran down their backs. Both stood with legs spread, arms crossed, watching us with unfriendly eyes. They might as well have been wearing Mobster sandwich boards.

"We're being watched," I whispered.

Irene picked up a teapot and pretended to study it. "And not just by the two goons in the back. By that camera above the door too."

Now why would a tea shop need a security camera? It's not like oolong was a high-dollar item. Before I could stop myself, I made a move to look up over my shoulder.

She nudged me. "Don't. Pretend you don't notice it. It's probably not the only one. Any decent security system has more than one online camera." She put the teapot down and picked up a gift set of teas. "Wonder who's getting the feed."

It wasn't hard to imagine Albert Fong huddled in a Batcave monitoring activity in the shop—or the lack of it. Just our luck, we were alone with the dust bunnies and Heckle and Jeckle. We could have used some genuine touristy shoppers to distract them. Of course, if it was Albert on the other end of the cameras, we'd be recognized immediately. Unless maybe he didn't remember us. That was a possibility. After all, he hadn't paid much attention to us in the park. Hopefully the only thing he could identify about us was our feet, since he'd been either staring at them or at Kate's house the whole time. And my feet were pretty unremarkable size 7s in pretty unremarkable running shoes. They'd never get pegged in a lineup.

The beaded curtain parted, and a small, stoop-shouldered man walked out. He looked to be somewhere between sixty and a hundred, his face lined, his skin papery, and his head sporting less hair than his ears. But his eyes were sharp and bright, focused on Irene and me.

"Follow my lead," Irene whispered as he approached.

"May I help you?" he asked in heavily accented English.

I shot a glance at Heckle and Jeckle. They were still doing the spread-legs, crossed-arms thing, only now they were a few paces closer to us. I hadn't even heard them move. Spooky.

Maybe this had been a bad idea.

"We're just browsing," Irene told the man. She sounded totally calm. "You have some lovely things." She reached for the closest item, which just happened to be a particularly unlovely mud brown mug.

"We're looking for a gift for my aunt," I added. "It's her ninety-third birthday. Isn't that something? She doesn't look a day older than eighty-four. Thank God for Maybelline, right?"

Heckle's eyebrow lowered. Jeckle might have growled deep in his throat.

I took a step back.

The little man nodded. "We have many items that make excellent gifts. May I suggest a porcelain tea set?" He gestured to set of small, round cups on a bamboo tray.

"Uh, actually we were thinking more along the lines of tea," I said, my gaze darting between him and the gruesome twosome.

He nodded again. "Yes, yes, we carry many teas. Not exactly the types westerners may be used to, but very nice. Many flavors. Maybe your aunt will like a green tea?"

"What about ginger lily?" I said, getting right to the point of our visit. I didn't want to spend a minute more than I had to with the two goons.

He paused. I wasn't totally sure, but I thought I saw his eyes flicker to the goons. "That's an unusual flavor to request."

"Is it?" I asked, a nervous laugh escaping me.

"We heard it promotes longevity," Irene jumped in.

We did? But I followed her lead, that nervous energy forcing words from my mouth before I had time to stop them. "Not that she needs it. Like I said, she's ninety-three already. We're just looking for another couple of months, really." Unless it was our longevity Irene was talking about. That seemed to be up in the air at the moment. And I kind of had my heart set on my own longevity.

Silence.

"She loves her tea," Irene said. "Drinks it all the time. Her daughter used to come here to Chinatown a couple times a week to buy it for her. Maybe you remember her. She lived on Baker Street by the park. Name was Kate. Blonde, in her seventies, had a little white and tan basset hound?"

This time the quick glance he sent toward Heckle and Jeckle was unmistakable. Their expressions were unchanged, but a silent message seemed to pass between them.

I felt myself bouncing from one foot to the other, suddenly antsy to get out of there.

"I don't know your aunt," the man said, his voice deadpan.

"No, of course not. Why would you?" I said, that nervous giggle escaping me again.

Irene shot me a look. Heckle and Jeckle took a step closer.

The old man walked to his right and brought a jar with Chinese characters written on it down from a shelf. "How much tea do you want?" he asked.

Bingo. They did carry it.

"Just a few pots worth," Irene said quickly.

He nodded and pulled a plastic baggie from behind the counter then slowly proceeded to fill it with the white, dried leaves. I silently willed him to hurry up. With each passing second I could feel his goons staring a hole deeper into us. It took all I had not to glance up at the cameras. My palms were sweaty, and the cloying sweetness of the mingling tea smells was suddenly suffocating.

Finally he attached a twist tie to the top of the baggie and pushed a couple of buttons on the ancient cash register. "That will be $27.50."

I did a double take. There was barely a few ounces in the bag.

Luckily, Irene didn't bat an eyelash, quickly handing him a couple of bills. As soon as he made our change, I grabbed Irene's arm, and we rushed toward the door.

Though not before I saw the man send another silent message toward Heckle and Jeckle.

I felt them moving toward us again as we pushed out the door and out onto the street. Crowds of people flowed past us on either side. Delectable scents from nearby restaurants lingered in the air. A few blocks away, a car horn blasted.

And behind us, a tiny bell tinkled as the door to Albert Fong's tea shop opened.

Irene and I looked at each other. She'd heard it, too. I could tell from the paleness of her face. Without saying a word, we broke into motion, not quite running but not strolling either, in the direction of the biggest crowd. Because if we were going to lose our longevity, I wanted there to be witnesses.

"Don't look back," Irene said. "Remember, we're just two tourists buying a birthday present for an old lady. There's no reason at all two mobsters would be following us down the street."

Somebody should have told the two mobsters that. Every nerve ending on my body was quivering. It took everything I had not to break into a dead run, all the way back to my apartment and beyond—to Portland, if necessary. I usually faced threats head-on. But the threats I'd faced in my life involved things like bill collectors. Heckle and Jeckle were different. They were the Mt. Everest of threats.

"All we did was ask for tea," Irene muttered. "Goes to show you that place is just a front, like we thought."

At the moment I agreed with her logic. "Maybe we shouldn't have mentioned Kate from Baker Street," I said. "Did you see the way the old man reacted when you mentioned her?"

Irene nodded. "He knew her, alright. The only thing is did—"

Someone laid a hand on my shoulder from behind. Images of Heckle and/or Jeckle tearing me limb from limb raced through my mind, and I let out a shriek and bolted like a spooked horse. I heard Irene yell, "Marty?" but I could hear footsteps pounding after mine, and imagined Heckle or Jeckle closing the distance with a grin on his face and some hideous instrument of death in his hands.

I tore around the nearest corner, intent on ducking into the nearest doorway, and ran straight into someone wearing a leather jacket. With blond hair. And Caribbean blue eyes.

Dr. Watson.



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