Lola didn't say a word to me when I dropped her off at her apartment. I handed her her bag, and as soon as she had it, she turned away nose in the air. I watched the tuft of her white tail sway from side to side as she climbed the steps to her building. She went in without a backwards glance. I couldn't blame her for being steamed, but I didn't see that I had much choice in the matter. A woman had paid me to conduct an investigation and had turned up dead the same night. If I waited until Monday to start on the case, I'd have lost the scent on half the trails I needed to follow. Besides, I doubt I would have been very good company with images dancing though my mind of Marlene's Milkbone's charred and broken body being pulled from the wreckage.
I was fairly certain that someone was looking for me by now. They'd be watching my office and my apartment. Whether it was the cops, Milkbone's henchmen or some other troublemakers, I'd given them the slip so far and wanted to ride my luck for as long as I could. It was getting late, and if I wasn't going home I'd need a place to stay for the night. I'd done all the thinking I could on the way down in the car, and I was itching to get to work on finding out what was going on with this case. I was also famished. Suddenly, I got an idea of how I might solve all three problems at once. I turned my car towards Chinatown.
The Palace of the Golden Empire was a huge building, decorated pagoda-style and trimmed with red and gold paint, lit on the outside by hundreds of Oriental lanterns. I could smell the place for a block before I could see it, and my mouth was watering by the time I found parking in a nearby alley. Fortunately, I was dressed for my date with Lola - well enough to get in. The Palace was owned by Sonya Mao's family, and it was the most exclusive restaurant in Chinatown and one of the most popular restaurants in the entire city. Many of the city's bigshots came here for dinner, from the heads of movie studios to politicians to ordinary, garden-variety millionaires. Besides its reputation and excellent cuisine, the Palace was open late on weekends, making it a popular meeting place for the after-hours crowd.
When I arrived at the main entrance there was a line to get in, and I could see they were turning some people away without even the chance to get in line. It was a busy night. I walked up to the door, but as I approached, my way was blocked by the doorman. He was a short Pekinese canine with long wavy fur that framed his alert eyes; his teeth were slightly bared, and his lower jaw jutted out slightly giving him a fierce look. He wore a red uniform bedecked with brass buttons and gold brocade. "Sorry," he said, "No more for dinner right now." He spoke with a heavy accent. "You try back in one hour."
"I'm here to see Sonya Mao," I said, sliding my paws into my pockets. "It's important."
"Miss Mao very busy tonight," he said. He stepped aside to point one finely-dressed couple to the back of the line. "Try back tomorrow."
"I'm afraid it can't wait. Like I said it's important."
He looked at me, his face a blank behind his long fur. "You can't go in. You want to leave message?"
"If you can take it to her right away. Tell her the man who found the golden monkey is here to see her. I'll wait for a reply." The doorman nodded once, then went and pulled open the door and exchanged a few short words in Chinese with someone inside. He went back to his traffic directing duties. In a few minutes, the door opened and an elegant looking feline in a black silk dress came out and went up to him. He gestured in my direction.
She glided over to where I stood. "Mr. Spaniel? Miss Mao will see you now. Please follow me." The doorman hurried to open the door for us as we went into the restaurant.
Within minutes, I was seated in the elaborately decorated private room that served as Sonya's office. The walls were hung with decorative scrolls and intricate paintings. Even to my untrained eye, I could tell the stuff was priceless - each image glowed as if the incredibly fine lines and subtle colors had been scratched onto the silk by some otherworldly hand. The furniture was just as exquisite, beautifully made and inlaid with elaborate scenes and patterns in gold and jade. Sonya was not there when I arrived, but my guide had brought me a cocktail from the bar, and I sat nursing my drink and taking in the details of the room.
I wandered over to Sonya's desk and glanced casually at the few papers that lay there. Mostly they were in Chinese and looked to be restaurant business. My eyes lit on a small picture in a jade frame. It was a younger Sonya, sitting on a horse behind a younger Marlene. Both women looked about eighteen or nineteen. The horse had no saddle; Marlene was leaning forward, her head down on the horse's mane and her arms around its neck. Sonya was just behind her in nearly the same pose, resting her head on Marlene's back, her arms around her waist. Their long tails hung down across the horse's side, just slightly entwined at the tips. Both women wore shorts and summer blouses, and they were each smiling as if they hadn't a care in the world. I felt something catch in my throat.
I heard one of the large doors at the far end of the room swing open, and Sonya Mao appeared. She looked just as I remembered, milky white fur that darkened to nearly black around her nose and mouth, dark tips on the ends of her ears and tail. Her features were dainty and exquisite, her eyes huge. She crossed the large room quickly but without seeming to hurry, the very picture of refined grace and controlled movement. But as she drew closer, I could see she was under a strain that gave her usual composure a weary look.
"Sam," she said. Her voice was surprisingly deep for someone who looked so small and delicate. "It's been a long time. How are you?"
"I'm fine," I said, and paused. "I heard about Marlene, Sonya. I'm terribly sorry."
The veil of composure slid from her face like snow sliding off a roof, and I saw the terrible sadness that was the cause of her strained expression. Her eyes welled up with tears, and she looked away quickly, stifling a sob. I walked around to the front of her desk and put my arms around her. I could feel the tension in her small body as she cried into my chest. I stroked her hair and let her get it out of her system.
Eventually, she stopped and said "I guess she came to see you. She said she was going to."
"Yes. In fact, I saw her last night. I was just about to leave town when she came to my office. When I heard what had happened, I got back here as fast as I could."
"So she told you then? About the attempt on Hanover's life? And how she was afraid he thought it was her?"
"Yes, she told me the whole story, and I agreed to help her." I unfolded my arms and stepped back from her. "Sonya, I need to know what she told you about what was going on. We were supposed to meet on Monday and I'd hoped to fill in some details then, but now I'll have to get them some other way. Also, I'm pretty sure that somebody's looking for me in connection with this. Hanover's chief of security had already ferreted me out before Marlene even came to see me. Until I know more about what's going on I need to lie low for a while. Can you put me up for the night? Then we can talk whenever you have the time, and I can get an early start tomorrow."
She looked up at me and smiled. "Sure, Sam. We've got plenty of spare rooms at the house; most of the family went up to our place in the mountains this weekend. If you don't mind waiting until the restaurant closes, we can ride there together and talk on the way."
"Sounds great. Thank you, Sonya. I don't know if it's any consolation, but I intend to get to the bottom of this thing."
Sonya looked at the floor for a moment, then shot me a wary glance. "You don't think that Marlene's accident was really an accident, do you?" I shook my head slowly, and Sonya looked relieved. "I hadn't thought so either, but I didn't know what to do about it. I didn't have any evidence, just a feeling. I'm glad you're here, Sam. I feel a lot better knowing that you're on the case." She smiled a little, and I could see a twinkle in her eye that reminded me of the Sonya Mao I used to know. "Now if I know you, you're pretty hungry." It was my turn to look at the floor, but then I looked up at her and grinned.
"Well... I'd say famished is a little more like it. I was kind of hoping you could squeeze me in for dinner. I know it's a busy night..."
Sonya's smile widened a little. She walked around behind the desk and opened one of the drawers. She pulled out a small, lacquered box, opened it, removed a large Chinese coin with a square hole in the middle and handed it to me. "Just show this to anyone downstairs," she said. "It's good for all the food and drinks you want, and you won't have to worry about being treated like a tourist." She replaced the box and closed the drawer, then came around from behind the desk. "I'll meet you in the bar after we've closed, or if you get tired, just come back here and lie down on one of the couches. We run pretty late some nights, and I think tonight will be one of them."
"Thanks, Sonya," I said. "This is one I owe you."
"Please," she said. "Don't think twice about it. It's only food - when you run a restaurant, a free meal hardly counts as a debt of honor!" She walked to the door I had entered through, and I followed her. "I've got to go run the business now, but I'll see you later, either here or in the bar." She took my paw and gave it a quick squeeze, looking up into my eyes. "I'm really glad you're here, Sam." I opened the door for her, and we both went through it.
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