The Chinatown Speakeasy

Somewhere in Neo Tokyo, there is a Chinatown speakeasy with orange lampshades and pink curtains, bartenders dressed in cheongsams and bobbed hairstyles, in an alternate history where Trans-Pacific travel is done by airship and Polynesia is a world superpower.

Behind the bar of the speakeasy, a girl in a turquoise cheongsam mixes Vilnius gin into a coconut.  The Del-O-Vision above the bar announces that the rain will continue tomorrow in Neo Tokyo, and then plays some Hawaiian steel guitar, the blurry images of distant palm trees and an island sunset like a distant memory in the mist-filled concrete night.

She serves the coconut cocktail to a woman at the end of the bar, a rather disheveled woman wearing a tuxedo.  Her elbows are on the bar, a messy head of flame red hair hanging over her hair.  The door opens, admitting throbbing light from the neon dragon sign across the street.  A woman walks in, a thin face and a tall, thin body wearing a brown leather bomber jacket.  Korean, Taiwanese, and Australian service patches cover the shoulders and back of the jacket.  Her green eyes roam to and fro over the speakeasy.  She strides through the bar in a confident click of flight boots.  She sits next to the redhead in the tuxedo, looking over at her with a half-smile, looking down at the gin tiki cocktail in the coconut sitting untouched on the lacquered bar.

I miss you, the redhead says, stirring her coconut cocktail.

The tall, thin woman in the bomber jacket puts a hand on her shoulder, her half-smile replaced with an expression of chagrin.  The Hawaiian steel guitar music stops, the fighting betta in the aquarium set into the side wall turns in a slow flourish of indigo fins.

The redhead though about the last time they had been together, in the hospital in Manila fifteen months ago.  Her heart had been aching ever since in her absence, and no visit to the pagoda, no meditation before a jade statue could calm the anguish.  She would leave the Del-O-Vision on all night in her small apartment, hoping to hear some news about the battles in Tonga and Kamchatka, the news chatter and music mixing in with the sound of the monsoon rain on the roof.

The feelings of longing hung like an airship over her, distracting her fingers as she picked through rambutan and loquat at the corner market, making her forget her steps as she walked from her skinny tenement building to the Emerald Club every night to work the early shift.

She missed her yesterday.  She would miss her tomorrow.  And she missed her right now, even as she was sitting next to her.

Night of the Gargoyle

Moving through the silent streets of Girona at midnight, Lochlen heard few sounds besides his own footsteps.  We remember, we will never forget, he thought to himself.  He looked up to gaze at the ribbon of stars flowing between the tops of the tall buildings.  The wind creaked against the wooden doors and shuttered windows, and Lochlen drew his cloak closer.  He pulled the black woolen hood tighter over his head, whispering a prayer to ward away the chill.

He knew the inherent danger of bringing the emerald on this road, through this city, but it was the only way he could get to Rome; there was too much threat at sea from the Ancient Ones and the forces they controlled underneath the waves.  He travelled by night, and scuttled through towns watched only by the moon.  At times he worried when clouds passed over the moon.  He knew the forces that sought him hid in shadows, and could approach in silence.  Now he was worried; someone was supposed to meet him at the steps in front of the enormous church.  He had looked up at the church, and silently communed with the gargoyles, high above him.  Minutes passed like hours, the chill and the bats flying overhead reminding him that he was awake and not dreaming.  Then, he had felt something nudge his consciousness, from below, from a deep gutter he spied in the recesses of a stairway he had not noticed before.  The stairway led somewhere dark; he could see etchings in the worn stones at the top.  He needed to find his way towards water, and he knew Girona had bridges over a river.  Thus, he has slipped away, wary as ever of the shadows and tendrils of fear that crystalized in his mind.  The intelligence he had received was that a cabal of nightwalkers dwelled here, but he was not sure that they would be concerned with the emerald he concealed.

Lochlen pushed forward cautiously down the winding staircases and through the streets, focusing his mind on the emerald nestled in his cloak.  He could feel a twinge beginning in his legs, and knew that something was near.  Finally, he came around a corner and could see a bridge ahead of him.  At that moment, a wave of freezing fear washed over him, paralyzing him.

He looked behind him and glimpsed something enormous in the shadows.  Lochlen looked to his belt for his dagger, and then felt inside his cloak for the lump inside the leather bag.  When he looked back up, however, the enormous figure was gone from the shadows.  It was standing over him now, with cobalt eyes and enormous fangs, inside an aura of despair-inducing silence.  Lochlen felt a slight shiver go down his spine before his hand darted to the hilt of his dagger.

Siena, Italy, 1949

The two men walk through the piazza in Siena, before the dun-colored cathedral, the autumn winds pulling at the hems of their coats.  They turn up their collars further, against unshaven cheeks and under tired eyes.

They say that he does not often speak the truth, that the intervals of his lucidity come with less frequency, the taller one says.

He will tell us what we need to know, the shorter man says.

An hour later, the two men sit in a room of the cathedral, high above the piazza and close to the belfry.  Sitting before them is a man in a tattered fleece-lined coat, gray trousers.  His eyes are slightly glassy, his skin is leathery and burned, he is pinched and thin.  His overall appearance is like that of a hollow man.

Tell us how you found Al-Khattabi, the short man asks.

Oh, you heard about that, hmm?  How the desert fortresses burned and crumbled into dust?

You found something there.  We know you did.  We know after your rescue from the desert, you spent some time in Cairo, and then went to Burma.  It was there that it passed from your hands

You know, some would say I died and was reborn in that desert.  I was not rescued, I assure you.  I had no desire to return to this world, I was ready and my time had come.  She came for me and brought me back against my will.  In some distant fantasy I suppose we sat once more on the shores of a midnight lake in Green Kandiyohi, watching distant lighting flash in silence over and over again.

We do not care to hear about Green Kandiyohi.  Tell us more about what you did with the Dragon’s Scale.  The shorter man drums his fingers on the table impatiently, hears the pigeons rustling in the belfry.

The taller man takes off his hat, places it on the table, and looks at the hollow man with pensive eyes.

Will you tell us your real name?

No, I will not, the hollow man says.

After she brought you out of the desert, what led you to Burma?

I took myself to the mountains of Tibet, learned the names of the flowers upon the plateau.  I followed the rivers down the glaciers and into the hills of Burma, among the Shan and the Kayin.  In the ruins of temples I meditated, in the sweltering jungles and brown streams I once again sought rebirth, something to bury my memories once again.

But then the railroad, you were conscripted during the Japanese occupation?

I fought alongside Merrill’s Marauders, I dug the trenches for the railroad, I did it all.  At the end of the Japanese occupation, I left.  There was enough time, enough distance.  Green Kandiyohi and all its bitter promises were but vague dreams.

Tell us what you did with the emerald.

I left it with someone in Moulmein.  I cannot tell you more than that.

Listen, starts the shorter man, you will—

At that moment, the cathedral bells begin to ring, making the small room shudder and agitate with deep tones emanating from the neighboring belfry.  The two men, startled, nearly fall from their chairs, the tall man’s hat tumbling from the table into the dust on the floor.  The noise from the bells subsides and eventually dissipates, but when the two men look back across the table, the hollow man is gone.

The Discovery of the Dragon’s Scale

There once was a man who lived on the Congo River, in a house on stilts.  He traveled up and down the river in his boat often, he knew every root and every vine.  He knew the sandbar where the crocodiles would sun themselves, and he knew where the ibis perched on the highest tree by a sharp bend in the river.  However, there was one tributary he had never traveled up, as it was legend among his tribe that this stream was haunted.  However, one day in his canoe he witnessed a crocodile leap up to a low-hanging branch and snag the ibis, dragging it down into a swirl of brown water until there were only a few feathers bobbing on the surface.  He took this as a portent, and as he paddled home his mind wandered, he was distracted.  Only until he was a kilometer up the turbid stream did he hear the keening cry of a bird he had never heard before, and then it dawned upon him he was on the cursed tributary.  He stopped paddling; the canoe drifted into the shore and stopped with a muffled crunch.  The man’s eyes met those of an okapi, huddled in the shadows of the jungle.  The okapi looked deep into the man’s soul, never wavering its liquid gaze.  After a few moments that felt like an eternity, the okapi turned its head, and walked away into the jungle, blending into the darkness of the foliage.  The man looked down, his head pounding.  In the sand, there was an enormous emerald, rough and uncut.  It was the Dragon’s Scale.

Jasmina’s Chamber

Somewhere in the desert, a cloaked figure sits atop of a mountain cliff and looks over the expanse of sand and rock before him.  His camel sits to his right, a small fire to his left, several bags piled up behind him.  The moon slides out from behind the clouds, revealing three other figures struggling across the dunes, some distance below the cliff.  The three figures below sit atop camels, with long-barreled Turkish rifles strapped to their backs.  The cloaked figure ponders the trio below him, formulating a way to scale the mountain and escape their searching eyes.  He knows that they will soon find him, that there is nowhere to hide in this stretch of desert.  The moon hides behind the clouds again, and the desert pan goes from silver to dark slate once again.  The cloaked figure thinks of a pink antechamber in Al Ainish, to the wine dark eyes of Jasmina, to a bowl of maracuja she holds in a golden vessel.  The camel behind him gives a soft grunt and turns her head.  A nighthawk circles over the cloaked figure’s head, seeking quarry between the ochre rocks.  In Jasmina’s chamber there was incense, laughter, and poetry.  Here, in the desert, there is only pursuit and the struggle to survive.  The cloaked figure crawls over to his travel bags, and fishes out a small leather sack, tied shut with a thick string.  He opens the sack, and deposits the Dragon‘s Scale into his hand.  Once again, the moon jumps out from behind the clouds and shines its accusatory face on the cloaked figure.  He raises his head suddenly and gasps, startled.  The emerald in his palm sparkles slightly.  The wind picks up and pushes at the hood of the cloaked figure, wanting to expose his face.  Down below, the three riders take a sharp turn and begin heading towards the mountain where the cloaked figure sits.  He sees them change their course.  He slips the emerald back into the sack and then into his robes.  He knows what he must do know.

Mrs. Chennault

The green emerald you once wore hundreds of years ago, now it sits in a jewelry box belonging to Mrs. Julia Chennault of Woodham, Ontario, Canada.  Its value is absolutely priceless, but it remains unknown to the eyes of the world.  Mrs. Chennault was given the emerald by her sweetheart, Lieutenant Gavin DeVelk, in 1945, the day after he returned home from Burma.  He returned to her on an autumn day when the dry leaves spun around in the stinging November wind, bearing scars that were not there before he left her.  He was still tall, but now wore a patch over his left eye; Julia could see cracks of pink healing tissue extending beyond the black patch over his cheek.  He was gaunt and pocked after the years spent fighting in jungles and islands of the Pacific Theater.  The first few nights after he came back, they lay in bed at night and he whispered to her the things he had seen, heard, and felt, the broad leaves and tall trees of New Guinea, the fall of Hong Kong, the hills punctured by artillery fire in Shan State, the burning rafts and tattered palms of Peleliu.  He brushed the brown curls from her forehead and kissed her in the dark, her arms draped across his naked chest and shoulders.

From his rucksack he brought for a small wooden box, intricately carved with Sanskrit inscriptions.  Inside, wrapped in a patterned cloth, was the Dragon’s Scale, the large emerald once belonging to the warrior’s daughter in the 14th century.  Gavin had discovered the Dragon’s Scale in a small trader’s shop on the Thai/Burma border, in Thanintaryi.  He was told that the emerald was once the scale of a dragon that lived high in the Himalayas, but had fallen off into a river, and thus had floated on to the sea where it was found by a diving monk.  The story of the emerald’s Burmese origins had been lost to the centuries, although we know that the emerald was not even Burmese to begin with.  However, that is yet another tale for another time.

Gavin told Julia they were moving to Toronto as soon as they could, that he would find a broker for the emerald and buy a house.  A month after his return, Gavin started the creaky truck in the gravel driveway and left for the city with the carved box in his satchel.  Late in the day, the sky turning a grayish orange, Julia wrapped her shawl tightly around herself and stood on the porch, staring at the horizon.  He never returned alive.

The box with the emerald remains in the possession of Julia Chennault, in her large house in Toronto.  After Gavin’s violent death, she moved to Toronto herself and started a business.  She was able to realize the future that Gavin and her had planned, but on her own, without having to sell the emerald.  She kept it as a talisman, to keep her memories of Gavin alive, but also to remind her of the misfortunes that befall those who covet.

Pearl and Flame

In a Tibetan city high above the clouds, a figure in a red, hooded robe hurried through narrow streets.  It was just after midnight, and a cold wind blows against the tightly-closed windows and doors, accompanied by a thin flurry of snow.  The man in the red robe holds a lantern in his hand, which is shuttered and gives off no light.  His footsteps are barely perceptible above the whistling of the wind, the man’s eyes searching furtively in the darkness.  The man finally recognizes the alley which he seeks, and darts to the left.  At the end of the alley, there is a door which appears to be weathered and stained.  However, the man recognizes ancient symbols on the door that would be unrecognizable to the casual observer.  The man presses himself against the door and knocks frantically.  Then, he waits, breathing heavily and cradling the shuttered lantern.  As he waits, the snow develops from a trickling flurry to a heavy snowfall.

After what may have been an hour, the door cracks open, and a hand grabs the red-robed man and pulls him inside.  Inside the door, it is pitch black.  The red-robed man only feels a hand tightly gripping his arm.  A voice speaks, and only then does the man see two rows of long, white teeth, almost like fangs, hovering in the darkness above his head.

What brings you here?  Says the voice belonging to the long teeth.

I come to see the Speaker of Truth, says the man.

What do you bring with you?  The voice is almost a guttural hiss.

I bring flame and pearls.

The tall figure slowly exhales, and pulls the robed man around a corner, to a passageway with candles on the wall, a single door visible at the other end.  The robed man can now see that the tall figure is wearing a robe much like his own, except that his hood is drawn up over his head so his face is not visible.  He looks down at the hand dragging him along, and sees that it is gnarled, cracked, and not entirely human.  The fingernails seemed unnaturally long and the color of ash.  The man, while being initiated in the secret ways that have been hidden for centuries from the world, is still frightened by the prospect of things that have not yet been revealed to him.  He clutches the shuttered lantern even tighter to his body, his heart palpitating at what he must disclose.

At the end of the hall, the tall figure opens another door covered in symbols, and shoved the man inside.  The door closed behind him, and the man in the red robe beheld the Speaker of Truth sitting in front of him, his face wreathed in smoke.  He was much older than most people the red-robed man had ever seen, with a smooth head covered in tiny tattoos.  He wore an old brown robe, and held an old, yet thin, book in his hands.  He sat in an old wooden chair in a room full of books like the one he held in his hand, tattered and falling apart.  The smoke from the arghila pipe sitting on the floor flowed to the dark ceiling.  He stared at the red-robed man over half-moon glasses, and beckoned his head for him to speak.  The red-robed man forgot all about the fear he felt from the fanged creature that brought him down the hallway, and now his words spilled out.

Speaker of Truth, I have brought something that beckons a new age.

Immediately, the Speaker of Truth raised a gnarled, tobacco-stained hand to silence the man, and began to speak, almost recite, in a low voice like a bubbling spring.

Let me tell you, my son.  For centuries, humankind stretched and clamored to place our heads among the stars, to bring forth a new age.  A mere 200 years ago, they put man and machines on the moon, one person could talk to another on the other side of the world.  Humankind traveled through the air, their massive vessels visible as moving lights against the sky.  We grew out of our past, beyond the Gods and Giants that surpassed us and ruled over our lives and legends.  Now, we have recused ourselves, the tide has receded, the waves failing to reach the mountaintops.  There are no more moving lights in the sky; most of the world is quiet again.  We now live in bleached out wastelands, among the straws and twigs, in the dust and ashes of our hubris.

The man in the red robe listened to this speech, his fingers twitching.

Speaker of Truth, they have returned.

At this moment, the red-robed man brought out the lantern, and tore off the shutters.  The Speaker of Truth leaned forward to see what was inside.  It appeared to be a large, green gemstone, an emerald of unsurpassed perfection.

It is but an emerald, said the Speaker of Truth.

No, it is more than that, said the man, and he gently thumped the glass of the lantern.

The emerald vibrated.  It then unfolded itself, and the Speaker of Truth’s eyes grew large with amazement.  The emerald was now a tiny dragon, with golden fins and flashing green scales.  The dragon undulated and twisted inside the lantern, staring back at the Speaker of Truth with pearlescent eyes.  The Speaker of Truth reached out his hands to take the lantern, and at that instant the dragon breathed a jet of flame that filled the inside of the lantern.  The man dropped the lantern with a cry, and it shattered on the floor with a crash and an explosion of smoke.  Both men jumped back, and the dragon darted from the cloud of smoke to the top of the arghila, its claws gripping the red-hot coals.  It opens its mouth to reveal teeth and flame.