Tag Archives: Modern

Blood in the Stacks (Part 4, end)

“Shit. Shit. Shit!” The gunman swore, pacing frantically.

Inside, Hands echoed the man’s sentiments. They’d been so close to solving the whole situation, and now they were back where they started.

Then the other man turned and looked at Hands and the girls. “Where’s that book? C’mon! Search faster! No more stalling!” He was waving the gun in their direction, and one of the girls started to cry.

“Hey,” Hands said in a firm and calm voice. “That isn’t helping. We’re searching as fast as we can. We want out of here as much as you do.”

“Then find me the goddamn book!” Swore the gunman and kicked a nearby chair to send it clattering across the stone floor.

“We will, man. We will.” Hands said, and turned his attention to the whimpering girl next to him. “It’ll be okay,” he whispered. “Just keep looking.”

The girl nodded, and sucked in a breath. Then she reached out and took another book, opening it.

Seeing she was on the right track, Hands looked at the other girl, the chubby blond, planning to give her a pep talk too. But, he paused when he saw she was staring down at the book in her hand with wide eyes and a pale expression.

Leaning in, Hands could see it was a dogged 2003 paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot that had writing scrawled across the margins of the pages.

“Looks like you found it,” Hands said in a very quiet voice. “Can I take a look?”

The girl looked at him, and then her pale expression became sharp and she pulled the book closer to her chest. “So you can share it with your new best friend?” She shot.

“I just want to get out of here like you.” Hands told her. “Besides, if you give it to him, and it’s the wrong book, what do you think will happen?” He gestured towards the gunman with his chin, and she looked over to where the masked man was nervously passing the gun from hand to hand as he stared down at the floor and whispered to himself.

She shoved the book at him like it was on fire.

Quickly, Hands took it and flipped it open to page 153.

The page and the one facing it were covered in finely printed penciled words that were barely bigger than the typed script next to them. At first blush, they looked like someone’s comments about the text, where a character named Straker was buying food at a local store. That was strange enough to comment on, but the writing was specifically commenting on the meat the character was buying from the store. It was to the effect of, “Should have bought 104 steaks, 44 chicken legs, 73 pounds of bacon, 246 wings, 150 bags of home fries, and 204 cans of beer. Now that would be a party!”

Hands stared at the writing- those numbers were too random, it was definitely a code meant to be unnoticed by those making a casual glance at the book. Was this an account number? Or maybe a password?

Then he thought of something, and began flipping through the book.

A smile crossed his face. He’d been right.

Then he heard the sound of the gunman marching toward him. “Hey! What’re you doing?”

The gunman stopped on the other side of the pile just as Hands looked up at him, holding the book in the air. “This one’s got writing on it, you should take a look.”

Jamming his foot into the pile, the gunman lunged forward and snatched the book from Hands, rushing away to pull it open and stare at the pages. “About time!” He crowed, and then rushed over to the front desk.

“Hey! You people!” He yelled into the microphone. “Drop what you’re doing and come to the front lobby! All of you! Now!”

Then he let the mic drop, grabbed the two duffel bags from the floor and put them on the counter-top and moved a few things between them. As he worked, the rest of the tired bookstore patrons came wandering back up from the stacks. When Rick came out, he gave Hands a thumbs up gesture of support.

Finally, the gunman turned around. “I need a volunteer…” He started and then stopped and pointed at Rick. “You’ll do. C’mere!”

“Hey man! I don’t want any trouble.” Rick tried to back off, but the masked man was insistent, and so Rick moved to the front of the group. The man then marched him over to stand in front of the double front entrance doors and spun him around to face the group.

“Now hold this with both hands,” said the gunman, passing Rick one of the duffel bags.

When Rick took the bag from him, the gunman grabbed the strap of the bag and looped it over Rick’s neck so it rested around his head and shoulders.

“This man,” he announced, stepping away from Rick. “Is carrying a bomb with a motion sensor. If he moves, you all die.”

Rick turned deathly pale. “Hey! That ain’t right!”

“Deal with it, loser.” Said the masked man, and then he swung the other duffel bag over his shoulder. “I’m going upstairs. Any of you follow me, I shoot you. Got that?” He said, waving the gun menacingly around before ducking into the stairwell behind the front counter. They heard the sound of boots on metal, and he was gone.

At first, everyone stood there in stunned silence, and then as one they all turned and ran, rushing into the stacks to try and put as much distance between themselves and Rick as they possibly could. It was a smart idea. The place was big, and all that paper and metal could absorb a lot of damage- they’d probably be safe so they hid and waited.

Everyone, that is, except Daimon Hands.

Hands instead walked towards the sweating Rick Moule.

“H-hey man, if you could tell the cops not to come breaking in, I’d really appreciate it.”

“It’ll be fine, Rick.” Hands said calmly. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Y-you’re not the one about to go boom. You better just stay away.”

“I think you’re going to be just fine, Rick. I saw him set the bomb, and I think I can defuse it. But you’re going to have to help me.”

“Y-you did?” Rick gulped. “You saw him set it?”

“Yeah. He set it before he shoved it in the bag.”

Rick turned even paler, and seemed to be sweating even more. “Oh geez.”

“But I can disarm it. You just need to listen to me.”

Outside, they could hear Police shouting. It sounded like the cops were getting ready to try to break in.

“O-okay. Whatever you want man, just get it off me.”

“First, I want you to tell me about the book.”

“The book?”

“How did it end up here in the bookstore?”

Rick stared at him, wide-eyed. “How should I know?!?”

“Because Rick, that masked guy knew your name. He said it when we were talking.”

“I know lots of people.”

Hands nodded, “Yeah, I bet you do. But that’s the thing, Rick. If you were working with that guy, a whole lot of things make sense. For example, I thought it was odd how freely you were willing to risk your life by trying to open that back door, even if it was a trap. But the thing is- you knew it was safe from the beginning, didn’t you? You rushed to the back because you were afraid that someone else might think of another way out, and you wanted everyone to know they couldn’t escape. You were a plant to keep us moving in the right direction.

“Same reason you paired up with me, the one guy who looked like he could cause trouble, and when you figured out who I was, you let your partner know he needed to keep me here and keep an eye on me. Hell, you probably saw he’d gotten too close, and stopped me from disarming him on purpose. I’d wondered about that at the time, but it could have been a coincidence.

“And then, to top it all off, when I was stuck here, the gunman who was so careful to pair everyone up let you go running around loose. He could have added you to another group, but he left you free, so you could keep an eye on people. Same reason he picked you to be the one who got the bomb- you’re the one person he knows would stay here in front of the exit and buy time. You wouldn’t throw it down, or try to escape, because you’re here to stall for him while he gets away with the book.”

Then Hands leaned in, close enough that the man could feel his presence. “But you didn’t know he was going to put a real bomb in the bag, did you? Gonna be a lot easier to split that money one way instead of two.”

“D-damn it.” Rick looked like he was trying not to cry as he looked down at the package in his shaking hands. “Bastard told me this was gonna be a f-fake.”

“So, who set this all up, Rick? You or him?”

“He did. He set it up.” Rick said. “This was his idea. His old man sent him that book from prison, but the old guy didn’t tell him was what in it, so Rick tossed it into the book bin. Later on, he found out, but by then it was somewhere in this store. After the store closes, they’re gonna sell or pulp all these books, so we had to find it today, but it’s so big and the stupid bastard thought Stephen King was the name of the book!”

Hands nodded. It was crazy, but he could see how it could all work.

“So, what did his old man do? Bank robber?”

“Jewel thief or something. Look, I’ve told you what I know. Can you get this thing off me?”

Hands gave a smile. “Sure. Sure. No problem.” Then he reached out and yanked the bag from the man’s hands, tossing it casually on the floor nearby. When he did this, Rick gasped and fell over, almost fainting.

“You said…” He managed.

“I lied.” Answered Hands, who reached out to unlock the front doors and let the police in.


The next day, the police arrested the masked man exactly where Hands told them to find him.

It was the simplest way, since there could be real hostages trapped in the building, and the masked man would definitely have ditched the book and just hidden the pages rather than keep it on himself.

When he’d told the Chicago PD inspector where to find the masked man, he’d looked at Hands like he was crazy. So Hands had gone to the pile and produced a copy of Salem’s Lot to show him, pointing out the first words on pages 104, 44, 74, 246, 140 and 204- “Cumberland”, “Post Office”, “Account”, “Drop”, “Box” and “Sixteen.”



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Blood in the Stacks (Part 3)

“I wouldn’t do that.”

The gunman turned and looked at Hands, who was sitting with his arms and legs crossed at against the wall.

“Why not?”

“If you shoot them, who will find your book?”

The man paused, turning to face Hands again. “I can always get someone else.”

“You don’t have time. The longer you’re here sorting, the sooner the police are going to come. Someone will stick a message out a window or pull an alarm, and then where will you be?”

“But if I don’t, what message will that send?” Said the masked man, tapping his gun against his hip in thought.

“That they’ll get out of here alive if they play along? People like things to be predictable. It’s the unpredictable that frightens them.”

The gunman paced a few times, and then nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. You got a point. Okay ladies,” he picked up the timer and gave it a twist. “You got an extension.” Then he grabbed the microphone from behind the desk. “Time is ticking people!” He yelled into the loudspeaker system. “These girls is fine, but I can’t promise they’ll stay that way. Get them books up here, now!”

Then he let the mic stand drop back behind the counter and turned to look at Hands. “Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome,” said Hands. Then after a time Hands said, “Y’no. There’s a lot of books there.”


“Well, seeing as time is important to you. I was figuring maybe I could come help?”

This made the gunman pause, and Hands could feel the eyes on him as he considered the offer. Hands needed information, and sitting here wasn’t getting it fast enough, he needed to be involved.

“You promise not to try anything?”

“Scouts honor.” Hands raised his fingers in a mock promise.

“You ever a scout?”

“Nope.” Hands admitted.

This made the gunman laugh. “Shit. Me neither. Get over there and help.”

Hands took his time standing up, taking a moment to stretch his legs. He purposely kept his movements slow. He was a big guy, and people always assumed big guys were slow- he wanted to preserve that image in case it came in handy. He also didn’t want to alarm the gunman, who seemed plenty jumpy enough.

Hands chose a spot on the other side of the pile from the masked man, facing him, and between the two girls. One of them, a chubby blond, gave him a smile and a whispered thanks when he sat down. He told her not to worry about it, and then looked up at the gunman.

“So, can you tell me what it is I’m supposed to be looking for? It’ll make this a whole lot easier.”

“Yeah. You’re lookin’ for writing. On page 153, or close to it. You find writing on that page of one of those books, you let me know.”

“Simple as that?”

“Simple as that.”

“What kind of writing?” Hands said, reaching into the pile and plucking out a copy of Cujo. “Pen? Pencil? Crayon?”

“Any kind, shithead. Just shut up and look.” The man snapped.

“Hey. Hey.” Said Hands, putting up his palm. “Just asking.” Then he flipped open the book and skimmed to one-fifty-three. Nothing there. So he checked the pages around it, and finding nothing set the book aside.

He did the same for the next book, and the next.

It was when he was on his tenth book that he began to really appreciate the task he was undertaking. The pile in front of him had nearly a hundred books in it, and as he worked the other patrons kept bringing boxes of more to add to the pile! Thin books. Thick books. Books that looked like they could stop a bullet. They kept being put in front of Hands and the girls. And they had so many different titles.

He began to wonder if the guy who’d written all these books was human. He knew King had the reputation of being his own little publishing machine, and had even read a few of these books himself, but when you had his whole library dumped in front of you like this, it really made you appreciate just how much the man wrote. From Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot to Mr. Mercedes and everything in between, and there were enough copies of The Stand on this pile to build a house!

After a time, he asked their captor. “So your wife donate the book without you knowing or something?”

“Or something.” Said the man, alternating between watching them and watching the security monitors. They didn’t just show the inside of the store, and all the patrons moving around the place, they showed the outside too. Everything looked perfectly normal in the outside world. People kept coming up and leaving after they rattled the doors a few times, but except for that all was quiet.

“My ex threw my stuff out once,” continued Hands as he worked. “I used to make models. Little ones, out of wood. I’d make cars, houses, and little ships. Whatever I thought would be a challenge. It was my way to cool off. I’d just sit there and carve.”

The other man gave a snicker. “She catch you out getting some strange?”

Hands shook his head. “She decided that I liked the models more than her. So one day I came back and they were gone. All of them. Years of work.”

“Yeah.” The man nodded. “Bitches be crazy. You show her your hand?”

“Nah,” Hands shrugged. “I use these, she’s going to the hospital, right? So I just told her to get out and don’t come back. But you know, when I think about it, I guess she was right- I really did love those models more than her.”

The masked man nodded, and was silent for a time. Hands, who’d been trying to get a conversation going, wondered if he’d have to try another way, but then the masked man suddenly spoke up again.

“I had a car.”

“Excuse me?” Hands said.

“I used to have a car,” continued the man. “An old Cadillac I’d fixed up. Bought it from my buddy, and spent everything I had working on that thing. Custom engine. Custom hubs. Custom seat covers. You name it, I gave it everything.”

“Then she came?” Hands offered.

“First time we met, she asked for a ride in it. I gave it to her both ways.” He paused, as if remembering something happy, and then the gun began tapping at his hip again and the masked man began to pace. “Next thing I know, though. It’s the car or her. She’s got dreams she says. She wants a ring. I told her that the car was my life. So when I’m sleeping she steals my keys.”

“The junk yard?”

“The river.”

“Bitches be crazy.” Said Hands in commiseration.

“Yeah.” Said the other man, and then sucked in a breath. “Well, I showed her. I stuck all her nudes from my phone online.”

Hands shuddered, but kept a neutral face.

“You sure showed her.”

“Yeah,” nodded the gunman. Then he paused and said, “Showed her off to the world, right? That’s pretty funny. I like that.”

Hands, who hadn’t intended it as a joke, just played along. “Thanks.”

“So how’d you end up here?” The guy asked, taking a seat on the counter facing Hands. “You into reading?”

“I like history,” Hands told him. “Mostly Asian stuff. There’s a few rare books I’m looking for, and I came here to see if they had any cheap copies.”

“You sure picked a bad time to come.”

Hands nodded, risking a glance at the formerly friendly girl next to him, who was now scowling as she listened to them pal it up. He ignored her and smiled. “Tell me about it. Couldn’t you have hijacked the place an hour later?”

“Sorry about that, man,” the gunman laughed. “But tell you what- you find me that book, and I’m not gonna make your day any worse.” Hands could tell from the man’s tone that wasn’t a threat, but an honest promise between men.

“I’d appreciate it.”

“No problem. So, those books are like kung fu books? Rick said you were into MMA?”

“No. Mostly philsophy books and poety. You ever hear of Li Bai?”

“Nope. Just his brother, ‘Goodbye.'” Then the man laughed at his own joke.

Hands suppressed a grimace and nodded his head, “That’s a good one. He was a Chinese poet and I try to read his stuff when I feel stressed. He gives me a sense of place in the bigger scheme, and makes me think about my life, y’no?”

“You mean fish in a pond stuff?”

Hands nodded. “See, you’re getting it.”

“I read that on the back of a Chinese menu one time.”

I bet you did, Hands thought, but kept it to himself. They kept the conversation going for a few more minutes, the pile beside Hands growing, and then Daimon said. “So, tell me, what’re you going to do if this book isn’t here?”

“It’s gotta be here.”

“Maybe they sold it. You don’t even know which book by King you’re looking for.”

The gunman jumped off the counter and began to pace again. “We’ll find it. It’s gotta be here.” Then he whipped around. “What’s taking so long? How are there so many goddamn books by that guy in this place?”

“He’s a popular writer,” said Hands. “But, you know, there’s still a chance to get out of here. If you run now, nobody’s gonna catch you. Nobody’s been hurt and the police won’t try too hard.”

The man stopped pacing and Hands could see he was thinking about it. He kept looking between the stacks and the front door and mumbling to himself.

Come on, said Hands. Take the chance and run.

“Get out now,” Hands encouraged. “While you can still get away. The book’s not here, man.”

The masked man took a step toward the front door, pivoted, and looked at the pile.

Hands could feel the tension the man’s body gave off.

He was getting ready to run.

Then, from the outside, the piercing sound of sirens penetrated the thick walls. The gunman and Hands both turned to look at the monitors, which showed police cars pulling up in front of the bookstore, grey lights flashing on the monochrome monitors.


Time had just run out.

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Blood in the Stacks (Part 2)

Theatre of Books was housed in an actual old theater in a run-down neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and as a result there were three things that were true. The first was that the building was big, really really big, which is why it was able to house so many stacks of books in the former theater space. The second was that it was solidly built. The masons who had put this building together had great pride in their work, and they spared no expense in making the brick and stone walls of this former theater to last. And the third was that every single window in the building had nice, thick iron bars. The kind that were great at keeping thieves out.

Of course, all of these things that made the bookstore such a safe vault of slightly used knowledge also made the bookstore an excellent prison. There were, as Hands and the others quickly discovered, only four ways out, including the front door, the two very blocked fire doors, and the rooftop exit. And the rooftop exit required you to access the roof, the stairs to which were reached via the front lobby- where the gunman waited with his ticking time and hostages.

“I don’t think we’re getting out of here,” the skinny guy lamented as he and Hands walked back from checking the second fire door.

“Sure we are,” Hands said. “We just have to find those books, right?”

That brought a smile to the other’s face. “You know what the kicker is, man? I just came in here to use the bathroom. I don’t even like to read!”

Both of them chuckled over that irony a moment, then the smaller man stuck out his hand. “Rick Moule.”

“Daimon Hands”

As they shook, a light suddenly appeared in Rick’s eyes. “Well shit! I thought you looked familiar! You’re “Demon Hands” right? The Mixed Martial Arts fighter! I saw you fight Lester Rodriguez last year.”

Hands shrugged. “It pays the bills.”

“So, you gonna use your kung fu on this guy? You got something planned to take him out?”

Hands shook his head. “I’m just trying to get out of here in one piece. Kung fu don’t stop a bullet.”

“But you could just take him, right?”

“Not unless I have to,” Hands answered, then stopped and plucked a book from the shelf with “KING” on the side in big block letters. “Grab that empty box over there, will you? We’d better get the books from this row.”

Rick did as he was told, and Hands slung the box under his huge arm like a basket, putting books into it from the right side while Rick put them in from the left.

“I thought,” said Rick. “That bookstores were supposed to be organized or something. Why the hell are these things everywhere?”

“It’s a used bookstore.” Said Hands.

When more information didn’t seem to be forthcoming, Rick asked. “So what? They just dump them here?”

Seeing his companion wasn’t going to be quiet, Hands finally said. “Not enough staff. They don’t have time to sort everything, so they just stick them up on the shelves.”

“No wonder this place is going out of business.”

Hands shrugged. “Some people think of it as a scavenger hunt.”

“That include you? Don’t tell me you’re a reader, man?”

“Let’s just say I didn’t come in here to use the washroom.” Hands said in a tone that indicated that the topic was finished.

“Hey! Hey! Nothing wrong with that.” Rick continued. “Readers are fine. You can learn stuff. Like apparently you can learn a lot from Stephen King, eh?”

Hands said nothing.

He was too busy thinking about this situation, trying to figure a way out.

Rick wasn’t wrong. He could disarm and subdue the hostage taker with ease if he got close enough, Rick was a guy who taught the real military and law enforcement how to do exactly that. But this guy was pretty cagey, and didn’t seem like the type to let Hands get that close again. The last time the gunman had surprised Hands when he’d been coming out of the washroom. There’d been an announcement that a special free give-away was happening over the intercom, and so the emerging Daimon wasn’t at all surprised to find a group of people in the front lobby. As it turned out, that had probably been the gunman rounding everyone up, but it had had the extra benefit of putting Hands off-guard.

He wouldn’t let that happen again.

He just didn’t want to risk a confrontation, or a potential random shot killing someone, unless he had to do it. So, the key now was twofold- one) figure out what the gunman’s real motivation was (if whack-job wasn’t the order of the day) and two) figure out how to talk him into stopping this whole situation before someone got hurt. All before someone managed to alert the police, turning this into a true hostage situation and making things a whole lot worse.

‘I think that’s it.” Rick wiped the dust from his hands on his jeans. “This row’s done. That box full?”

Hands glanced down. “Pretty much.”

“So lets go dump it and make him happy.”

“Right.” Hands agreed, and the two of them began to make their way through the stacks towards the front of the store. Once they’d reached the lobby, they found that other groups had already been there, and there was now a small pile of Stephen King paperbacks in the middle of the aged marble floor. Next to the stack, the two teen-aged female hostages were busily working to sort through the books.

“Dump it there,” the gunman ordered with a nod towards the pile, looking bored.

Hands walked over, paying careful attention to what the girls were doing as he dumped his collection.

As he watched, they each picked up a book, flipped to a particular page, skimmed the pages around it, and then added it to another smaller pile which was growing beside each of them.

This made him stop and stare, until he heard a bark from behind him.

“Hey! What’re you doing?!?”

Hands raised an apologetic palm to the masked gunman. “Sorry man, just surprised at how many books they have.” The gunman had come over, and was now just within arm’s reach, the gun pointed at Hands’ chest.

“This ain’t none of your business,” he told the big man. “Get back to work.”

Hands’ muscles tensed.

It was his chance.

Throw the empty cardboard box in his hand left as a distraction. At the same time, move to the right, grabbing the gunman’s wrist in a lock and twisting the gun out and up out as his other hand struck the man in the throat. It would be over in seconds.

Then Rick stepped between them.

“Hey man!” The skinny youth told the gunman. “You don’t want to do this. This here is Demon Hands, the MMA fighter. You don’t want to mess with him.”

The gunman’s eyes looked shocked, looking between Rick and Hands, and then he smiled. “So you’re Demon Hands, eh? I’ve heard of you.” He took a step backwards. “You probably wanted me to get close enough to try something, right?”

Hands cursed the kid’s clumsy attempt to help him.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Daimon said, raising his hands.

“You bet you don’t.” The gunman used his weapon to wave Hands over toward a nearby wall. As he did, he tilt his head to look at Rick. “What’re you looking at? Get back to collecting books!”

With a worried glance at Hands, Rick turned and disappeared back into the stacks.

Then the gunman looked back at Hands again.

“So, what do I do with you?”

Hands said nothing. The guy was taunting him, and he wasn’t going to fall for it. He’d met people like this guy before, and knew his best weapon was to stay calm and cool, so that’s exactly what he intended to do.

The gunman’s interest slowly faded under Hands’ unflinching gaze. Eventually, he motioned for Hands to sit down. “Just…Stay there.” He ordered. “You move, I shoot you.”

“I won’t.” Hands told him.

Then the gunman turned his focus back on the two girls at the pile. “Hey you two! Hurry it up! You got…” He started, and he was cut off.

The shrill sound of the egg timer alarm rang out and echoed in the marble stone lobby.

He gave it a light tap to turn it off, then looked back to the girls.

“Well, I did promise.” He said, raising the gun. “Nothing personal.”


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Blood in the Stacks (Part 1)


(Modern, Action, PG (Language))

The gun that was shoved in Daimon Hands’ face was a 9mm Glock, the kind you buy at a gun show to have, but nobody ever uses. That told Hands that this wasn’t a professional job, but then what kind of professional robs a bookstore?

“You!” Shouted the masked man with the gun. “Get over there!” He waved Hands towards the knot of people gathered in the bookstore’s front check-out area.

Hands raised his palms in a submission pose. “No problem,” he said, backing away toward the other patrons.

“There anybody else in the store?!?” Yelled the gunman, a stocky broad shouldered guy wearing a flimsy red rubber skull mask that covered his whole head but left his white throat showing. Based on voice, Daimon guessed he was in his twenties or early thirties, and he moved in the clumsy way of someone who hadn’t seen exercise in a long time.

The skinny man he’d pointed to shook his head. “N-no, man! T-this is everyone! I swear!”

Satisfied, the gunman nodded to himself and looked around. “‘Kay.” He said, clearly thinking about what to do next.

This surprised Hands a bit. If this was a robbery, the thing to do next was to empty the till, maybe have one of the three employees open the safe for him. That was why he was here, wasn’t it? Theatre of Books, Chicago’s largest used book store, was having its closing day sale, and the cash register made a tempting target. This guy was after the money. It was all so simple.

So why was the loser in front of them thinking?

What was there to think about?

“All of ya,” said the gunman. “Pick a partner.”

Pick a partner? Thought Hands. What was this guy’s game?

The skinny guy, the one who the gunman had threatened earlier, was beside Hands, and he looked up at him. “I’m sticking with you, if that’s okay?”

Hands gave a noncommittal shrug that could be interpreted the way the guy wanted.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Most people had two reactions to Daimon Hands when they first saw him- they either stuck real close or got as far away from him as they could. Hands was six foot four, weighed two hundred and forty pounds, and had muscles that made his dark skin look like it was going to pop at any second. He wasn’t ugly by any means, but had an intimidating air about him that made most people stop and ask themselves if they really wanted to bother this person. Of course, in a crisis, this also made Hands the first person most people gravitated towards.

Once everyone had paired up, the gunman gestured towards a pair of girls who were trying to look as small as they could towards the back- “You two! Get everyone’s phones and put them right here.” He tapped the counter-top. “I’m gonna check, and if anyone doesn’t hand over their phone, I swear to god I’m gonna shoot them right now.”

Nervously, the girls began to gather the phones. When they got to Daimon, he shrugged. “Don’t got one.” He said. Then, when the girl gave him a pleading look, he repeated. “Really. I don’t carry a phone.”

So the girl nodded and moved on, then joined the other one in dumping her armload of phones to clatter on the plastic counter-top.

“‘Kay! You two, sit right there!” The gunman said to the scared teens, gesturing to a spot in front of the check-out counter. The girls did as they were told.

Then he looked at the rest of the people, taking a moment to count the pairs off. “…Seven…Eight…Okay. So listen up. Here’s what you’re gonna do. I want you all to go through this bookstore and find me every copy of a book by Stephen King. You’re gonna gather them up and put them in a pile right here.” He pointed at the open space in front of the check out counter. “Got it?”

This guy’s a nut, thought Hands. God. I’m locked up in here with a certified psycho with a gun.

From the murmuring of the people around him, Hands could tell the rest of the people there were thinking the same thing, and for a moment, he saw indecision flash through the gunman’s posture. Then it was replaced by anger.

“Hey! I’m not fooling around here!” He yelled, then Hands’ breath caught as the gunman leveled his weapon at one of the two young girls next to him. “You do it, or I start shooting. And, if any of try anything, I’m going to shoot them too, so you’d better do what I say! No calling out. No trying to run away. One person leaves, I shoot the other. And remember,” he gestured at the bank of fuzzy old black and white monitors behind the counter. “I can see your shit. You got me?”

“Umm…” Said an older grandmotherly woman to Hands’ left. “What Stephen King book are you looking for? Maybe we can find it easier if…”

“Shut up!” The gun was now aimed at her. “I said I want you to bring me every Stephen King book you can find. I want all of them. And…” He pulled a broken plastic red egg-timer out of his pocket. “In one hour this thing’s gonna go off. And, if I don’t have a big pile of books here, I’m gonna shoot one of these girls.” He gave the timer a twist and slammed it down on top of the counter with a loud clang. “Now move!”

The crowd looked at each other, and then began to shuffle off, dispersing to the shelves.

“C’mon,” said the skinny guy with Hands. “We’d better go.” But, as soon as they were in the stacks and out of the gunman’s view, he began to rush forward and waved Hands to follow. “Hurry up! We gotta get to the fire door at the back.”

Hands nodded. That was the first thing he’d thought of as well.

9/11 had changed Americans. There was a time when people obediently did as they were told in hostage situations, confident that if they just played along they’d get out okay. The hostage takers wanted to live. They wanted to live. People figured that their safest bet was waiting it out and hoping that it was all going to turn out okay. Not anymore. Now people assumed that every hostage taker was going to get themselves and the hostages killed, and their natural reaction was to get as far away from ground zero as possible.

So it was no surprise that Hands and his companion found most of the other patrons were moving in the same direction- everyone following the emergency exit signs. Sure those girls were hostages, but there was no way they were staying if they could help it. That was something to be left for the police hostage rescue team.

But something bothered Hands- If it was such an obvious thing to do, why hadn’t the masked guy told them to stay away from it? Was he just relying on their concern for those girls to keep them here? Why hadn’t he warned them off from trying to use the exit to escape?


Hands and his companion reached the back door before any of the others, and his companion went straight for the door, reaching for the push-bar to open it…

Hands grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to a stop.

“What?” Said the other man, giving Hands a shocked expression. “Hey man, what’re you doing?”

“Hold it,” said Hands, gently pushing the man to the side. Then he leaned down and examined the fire door’s push mechanism. The door was red and ancient, probably dating back to when the building had housed a theatre, and Hands let his eyes run across the metal push bar and the mechanism it was attached to.

When he’d finished, most of the other patrons were behind him and asking what the hold-up was.

“C’mon man, out of the way! We gotta get out of here!” Said the skinny guy.

“Just making sure,” said Hands. “He might have rigged something up.”

That made the rest of them pause. “Does it look okay?” Asked another man.

“Can’t see anything wrong.” Hands answered.

“Well then,” said the skinny guy. “Push it and let’s go!”

Hands stepped to the side, moving so if there was any funny business the doorframe would probably shield him from it. “You first,” he told the skinny guy.

Without hesitation, the skinny guy stepped forward again and shoved the handle.

It depressed, there was a click as the latch was withdrawn.

Nothing happened.

Not a fire alarm, which big letters above the door said would sound if the door was opened.

Not an explosion or other trap.

Not a door opening.

The door stayed firmly where it was.

So the skinny guy tried again, pushing harder.

Same result.

“It’s stuck,” said someone from the group, and others stepped forward to give it a shove.

But the door stayed where it was.

“Oh man, he’s blocked the exits!” Said the skinny guy. “Now what do we do?”

“I guess,” said Hands. “We’d better check the windows.”


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New Years Evil – Part 4 (End)

From nearby, I watched as Lin-Xi and the other detectives flanked the head table, shooing any visitors away and addressing the remaining executives, their spouses, and the President’s wife. She informed them that they would need to be searched, and gave them the excuse that it was standard procedure. Each would be taken to a nearby room and searched by one of the officers, and once she finished she selected the MC and had him taken away.

I hadn’t told her who I suspected because I didn’t think she’d believe me anyways until I had proof, but I was pretty sure that proof would appear shortly if a search were conducted.

I watched as each member of the table was taken away by an officer of the same sex, and saw each of them return. When it was time for the President’s wife to go, I paid careful attention to see if she reacted at all, but the thin woman merely stood with a sad dignity and followed Lin-Xi to the area to be searched.

Now was the crucial time, and I’d find out if I was right.

It seemed like I had to wait forever, but after a few minutes she and Lin-Xi returned. Lin-Xi looked no happier than before, but now there was a slight pep in the step of Mrs. Lin, like she had found a new freedom.

She returned to the table with the others and sat down, reaching for her sunglasses and putting them on to cover her puffy eyes. The other executives at the table began to fawn over her, and the police apologized again for the bother. My girlfriend threw me a decidedly unhappy glance as she made her own apologies to this soon to be very rich widow.

My gambit had failed.

Still I watched her, this woman I was sure had framed her rival for the crime she had committed. It was she who Harold told me had added the music to tonight’s game to cover the sounds of her crime, and it was she who wore dark sunglasses under the guise of having a headache that would let her see in the dark the moment they were removed. She was also the only one to gain from the President’s death tonight, whether for money or revenge, I couldn’t say.

Now she was about to get away with it.

I could only imagine how that felt.

Then, as I watched, her sad, proud expression suddenly turned to one of worry and panic, and she leaned in to talk to the MC next to her, pointing with a trembling finger at the stage. The MC and another A-O Soft executive jumped to their feet and quickly moved to where two police officers had begun to inspect the prizes. At first, they were polite, but a moment later they were shouting at the detectives.

The shouting came to sudden stop when one of the detectives reached down behind the flat-screen TV set and came up with a powder-blue shawl wrapped neatly into a small flat square. When he unfolded it, he revealed two white gloves, the red stains on them bright enough to see even from where I was standing.

Mrs. Lin collapsed for the second time that night.

This time, there was no one to catch her.


Mrs. Lin later revealed during questioning that she’d known of her husband’s affair for some time, but had been content to let it go in the name of their children. However, shortly before the party she’d overhead him promise Melody that he’d divorce his wife once the company had gone public and money was no longer an issue. She’d also learned that the two of them planned to meet secretly during the contest by having matching butterflies, and that was the final straw.

She created a third butterfly identical to the ones they would both be wearing and had it printed onto her shawl so that she could lure her husband in once the lights had gone out. Then, she’d waited until the right time, taken off her glasses, and grabbed a knife from another table to make her move once the game started.

Once she’d found him and stabbed him while the loud music provided cover to any noise, she retreated to the stage to hide her gloves and shawl inside the back panel of the TV, which she believed the police would never think of searching as the no longer to be awarded prizes had no relevance to the case at hand.

The strange butterfly I’d seen during the contest had been her lifting the shawl off her neck, and the flying effect had been because it was on a moving fabric, not a hard button. She’d also made a mistake and lost one of the screws for the panel during the whole affair, which I’d found on the floor and which had led me to the TV as her hiding place.

After it was all done, she’d simply returned to her seat and waited, letting her rival have the secret rendezvous with the now dying President Lin, and making her look like the guilty party. Even without the blood or weapon, any witnesses on the floor would have seen two golden butterflies meet and the only two golden butterflies in the game were Melody and the President. Melody was as sure as convicted, whether she’d managed to find the President or not.

“I have to wonder why she did it,” Lin-Xi said as we were having breakfast at a traditional place in XiMenDing near her office the following week.
“Didn’t she confess?”

“No, not what I mean.” She replied. “Why did she make the third butterfly? All she needed to do was find him the dark and stab him, a third wasn’t necessary.”

I considered a moment. “I think it was a test.” At her raised eyebrow, I continued. “She probably wasn’t sure she could do it until she came to him and he thought she was Melody. Once she heard him say another woman’s name, that’s what gave her the strength to finally act.”

“Sounds stupid.”

I laughed. “Only to someone as un-romantic as you.”

She snorted. “Still stupid, she’s in jail because of it, and her husband is divorcing her.”

It was true. President Lin had survived thanks to a combination of his wife’s lack of strength, his own fitness and Lin-Xi’s quick thinking. He was recovering in the hospital, and had his wife served up the divorce papers while she was still in jail. I didn’t know what would happen between him and Melody, although I suspected this whole thing might put a damper on their relationship. Still, there was some justice…

“I heard A-O Soft can’t go public now,” I commented. “After so much negative press, nobody’s gonna buy their stock. His golden payday is going to have to wait for a while, and their game sales have dropped as well, so it might never happen.”

Lin-Xi considered that over a fork full of Dan-Bing. “Does that mean you won’t be working there?”

I shrugged. “My contract ended at the start of the new year anyway, doesn’t matter.” Then I sat up. “Oh, but that reminds me, I got a text from one of my other clients- they’re having a Beginning of the Year Party and want me to come. You interested?”

She sighed. “What does this company do?”

“They’re a farm machinery company.”

“Oh, sounds boring.”

“Not really, they’ve got a really interesting theme for the party this year.”

“Oh, what is it?”

“It’s a murder mystery dinner.”

I ducked and ran off to pay the bill.


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New Years Evil – Part 3

Under Detective Lin-Xi Kang’s orders, the company executives did their best to get the frightened employees and guests back to their seats. Lin-Xi had ordered the doors to the party be sealed to prevent anyone from leaving, and had building security standing guard until the police arrived.

She also had two of them watching over Melody, who was now sobbing on a nearby chair.

I shook my head sadly. I couldn’t believe Melody had done this- what was wrong with her? This just seemed so senseless, and there was no reason for it. Why kill a man who was about to make you rich? Now, with the President’s death the Public Stock Offering would have to be put off, and maybe never happen.

But, she had been standing there with the bloody knife in her hand, there wasn’t much doubt who’d done it. The only real question was why?

Leaving Lin-Xi to her work, I wandered back over to our table, where the rest of the guests where consuming the wine and snacks that remained.

They asked me if there’d been any news, and I replied that we were still waiting for the police to arrive. Then I commented that I couldn’t believe that Melody had done such a thing.

To my surprise, that didn’t get quite the reaction I expected.

“He probably got smart and dumped her,” Franci commented, and a few of the others around the table nodded.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Melody and the President, they were…you know…” Mr. Lai commented. “Spending a lot of extra hours together.”

“Has anyone actually seen them?”

Franci and another receptionist nodded. “They both go to a bar a few blocks from work, Mr. Lo in accounting saw them go in, so did a few other people. They’ve been doing it for almost a year now.”

That was pretty damning, and not entirely surprising. Melody was flirty, but she was also ambitious, and President Lin was definitely an active and aggressive man. It didn’t take much imagination to see them together, or to imagine the hows and whys.

But that still didn’t explain why she’d kill him.

“Was he going to fire her?”

Not that any of them knew of.

“Did he cut her out of the stock options?”

No, as Vice President, she had huge amounts of company stock.

“Then maybe he really did call it off.”

On this, they agreed. It seemed the most likely answer.

With this information, I grabbed our jackets and headed back to where Lin-Xi waited. As I passed the head table, I saw that the wives of the other executives were consoling Mrs. Lin, who had her head in her hands sobbing. It was getting cooler in the room now that the excitement was gone, and I was surprised nobody had gotten her a jacket to cover her bare shoulders. I would have said something, but my Mandarin is terrible, so I decided to just leave them be.

While I’d been at the table talking, police from the local station had arrived to take over from the building security, and ambulance attendants were working on President Lin. He still seemed to be hanging in there, so maybe his family wouldn’t lose a father tonight after all. But, gut wounds were tricky, so all we could do was wait and pray.

“Did you try talking to her yet?” I said to Lin-Xi when she had a free moment. This made her brow wrinkle, as it usually did when she was annoyed by something. “She says she didn’t do it. Stupid lie.”

“What did she say happened?”

“She said she found him standing with the knife in him, but didn’t know it in the dark. Then he fell over, and since she was holding the knife it came out in her hand.”

I glanced over at the weapon laying next to the body- one of the silver steak knives that were found at every table. No doubt it was covered in her bloody fingerprints.

“Y’no,” I said, thinking aloud. “I wonder if she might be telling the truth.”
Lin-Xi gave me a long look, then cursed in Mandarin. “Foreigners, you think every little white face that plays with you is innocent.”

So, she was still jealous.

“That’s not fair,” I protested. “Why would she do this, and then claim she didn’t do it? Everyone can see she did it, so why not own up to it? There’s something wrong here.”

“When my team gets here, they’ll sort things out.” Lin-Xi turned away. “Go take a seat. I need to work.” Then she went over to where the ambulance attendants were getting ready to load President Lin onto a stretcher.

I watched her go, thinking about the events of the evening. What had happened during those three minutes the lights were out? I couldn’t help thinking it had something to do with that flying butterfly I’d seen earlier during the contest, but what?

I needed more information.

I set out in search of Harold Wu.


When I was done talking to Harold, I knew I had to find Lin-Xi.

I didn’t have all the pieces yet, but I had enough.

The problem was, I also needed to convince Lin-Xi, and that clearly wasn’t going to be easy. She’d already set her sights on Melody, and if I didn’t act it was very possible the culprit might walk right out of the party tonight completely free.

“Lin-Xi,” I said, slipping up to her. “I need you to do me a favor…”

“Sit down, Mark.” She didn’t even look at me, not a good sign. “The officers will come to take your statement soon.”

“I’ve been asking around, and I know why he was stabbed.”

That got her attention, and she turned to look at me. “Why?”

I shook my head, “I need you to do two things for me first.”

Dark eyes narrowed on me. “I can have you arrested for withholding information.”

“You could,” I admitted. “But then you’d have to explain to the rest of your co-workers and your boss why you arrested your boyfriend. That’s going to be fun gossip.”

She let out an exasperated sigh and shook her head. “What do you want?”

So I told her.

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New Years Evil – Part 2

Lin-Xi and I had barely started on the snacks when the MC of the evening, the company’s Vice President of Marketing Mr. Zhou, took to the stage and announced that dinner would now be served. We drifted back toward to our seats, stopping to say hello to a few of my other students, and then settled in at our table.

As it turned out, the wise person who’d arranged the seating had carefully picked employees who had worked overseas to sit at our table, so with the exception of two spouses, almost all of the ten people seated there spoke English. I suspected I had Melody to thank for this, although I couldn’t be sure. I resolved to thank her later.

As it was, Lin-Xi was seated next to Mr. Lai, one of the marketing people, and the two of them got to talking about something in Mandarin that I couldn’t follow. However, since Mr. Lai was pretty funny, and Lin-Xi was laughing at something, I gave thanks for small miracles and was just happy that she was enjoying herself.

I, meanwhile, was next to Franci Hung, one of the receptionists who had lived in the UK for a while in her long-past student days. She’d been there for my first classes at the company, but had soon dropped out citing family issues with needing to pick up her kids from their after-school classes. She was a cheerful enough woman, and liked to talk about her kids, so I just mostly listened while she caught me up on their progression.

We’d only been there a few minutes when I heard Mr. Lai say something excitedly to the other table members in Mandarin, and all conversation suddenly stopped. I followed their gaze to Lin-Xi, who looked uncomfortable.

“Mark, you didn’t tell us your girlfriend was a police officer.” Mr. Lai said, excited. “You said she was a government worker!”

I shrugged. “She is. I just didn’t say what department.”

In truth, I can be a bit of a private person, so I don’t usually mention to classes what Lin-Xi does unless specifically asked. It usually had results like this, so I’d learned fast just to keep it quiet.

After that, the others began asking Lin-Xi questions in Chinese, but since I couldn’t follow I went back to chatting with Franci. Soon the first of many courses of dinner arrived, a big plate of steamed Oysters were placed in the middle turntable for us to share and we all began our slow dinner.


After the last course had been served, the MC took the stage again and announced that it was now time for the games to begin. He invited the president of the company to join him up at the microphone, and the jovial, red-faced leader began to speak to his workers.

The speech was in Chinese, but thanks to Mr. Lai’s translation, I was able to follow along. Then, after thanking everyone for coming and their hard work, he announced that it was time to start the game and directed everyone to put on their buttons. After that he directed all of us to stand up, with the men lining up on the one side of the dance floor and the women lining up facing them across the floor.

“In our game, Linna and Bess,” he explained, “the two young girls are lead to their destiny by magic heart butterflies, and so tonight butterflies will lead us as well.” Then the lights on the stage turned off, and now we could see that the President’s badge glowed in the dark. It wasn’t very bright because most of the lights were still on, but you could faintly see the image of a golden butterfly on his chest.

“Each magic heart butterfly has only one perfect partner out there, and when the lights go out, your job will be to find your partner in the dark while the music plays. When the music is done playing, those who have found their partner will be eligible for one of the prizes from the stage, including a vacation in Hawaii and a trip to Japan.”

When the now excited employees finished clapping at that, he continued.

“Please be careful, and try not to be too friendly to the people you meet in the dark. You never know, they might be your boss!”

Then, as the employees laughed, he hopped down off of the stage and made his way over to the men’s side. As he did, I looked carefully for Lin-Xi, and plotted my way to her. There was no doubt she was my match, and I needed a new TV! Although, I wouldn’t complain about Hawaiian vacation either.

At a signal from the company president, the MC raised his hand and began counting down. When he hit zero, the lights were switched off and the sound of a trendy Taiwanese pop-song filled the air. The room was almost completely black and a line of glowing butterflies of many different colors, shapes and sizes had appeared on the other side of the dance floor.

I looked down at my badge to see a half-yellow, half-orange butterfly with spiral-patterned wings, while all around me people rushed into the dance floor like a swarm of bees desperately trying to find their special flowers. Not wanting to be left behind, I desperately began to search through hot darkness of the now-crowded dance-floor.

It was surprisingly hard, the many people moving and turning kept me from being able to see the butterflies, and several times I saw ones similar to mine that turned out to be different on closer inspection. Once, I even chanced upon one that I thought was Lin-Xi, only to see it was pure yellow colored instead of my mixed design. Then an even stranger thing happened- the golden butterfly, which should have been a static badge on someone’s chest, suddenly began to flap its wings and flew upward a short distance before vanishing completely.

Had my eyes been playing tricks? I wondered. Or, maybe I saw someone grab their badge and hold it high into the air so that their partner could see it? But, I was certain I had seen it move- seen the wings flap in the air.
Regardless, that didn’t seem like a bad strategy, and since there was no rules against it, I snatched the button from my chest and held it high, staying in one place and turning slowly around. The last verses of the pop song were playing, and I prayed that Lin-Xi would be able to see it in time.

Then, just as the music began to fade, I felt someone grab my shoulder.

“Mark, is that you?” I heard a familiar voice say.

I turned to face her, seeing her silhouette as my eyes had begun to adjust to the dark. Bringing down my butterfly, I tapped mine against her matching one.

“They match,” I said, and then a thought struck me and I leaned in for a kiss…


On came the lights, and I found myself face-to-face with a surprised Lin-Xi.

She reddened. “What are you doing?”

Despite her unconventional nature, Lin-Xi was actually very oldschool conservative Taiwanese at heart, and didn’t go in for public displays of affection. So, while she certainly didn’t mind kissing in private, doing so in public was one of our long-running disagreements.

“C’mon, it was dark. Nobody could see us…”

Lin-Xi blushed even more, which looked even cuter, and I was about to say something when suddenly there was a blood-curdling scream from nearby.

We both spun and looked. There, a few meters away, President Lin lay on his back on the floor in a pool of blood, his chest heaving. Standing above him was Melody Xie, the front of her orange and yellow dress streaked in blood and a bloody steak knife in her hand. She was staring down at him in horror, making half-gasping noises that sounded like sobs.

It was a surreal scene frozen in time, and then reality clawed its way back into the room. Lin-Xi was the first to move, her training kicking in as she bolted from next to me over to where Melody was standing over the body.

They were speaking Mandarin, so I could only guess what they were saying, but some things are universal enough. Lin-Xi told everyone to get back, and told Melody to step away from the body and put down the knife. It seemed like Melody was in shock, and it took a few tries to get her to listen, but once she started to come out of it she just dropped the knife and then fell to her knees crying.

As Lin-Xi rounded the body, she pointed at various people in the crowd and called out orders, telling them what she wanted them to do- ambulance, police, towels, get people back. Then she pointed at me and motioned for me to come over.

“My phone, get it.” She said, standing over the fallen Melody.

I did as she asked, rushing back to the table and grabbing her mobile phone from her jacket. As I was returning, I heard another cry, and saw the MC and a group of executives holding Mrs. Lin, the president’s wife, who looked like she’d just fainted. I shook my head, poor woman.

Then I rushed the phone to Lin-Xi, who already had several people trying to stop the bleeding with towels. She took it and dialed, had a quick conversation, and then hung up and slipped it into her belt.

“I’ve got a team on the way,” she said. “They’ll be here in a few minutes.” Then she gestured at the knot of men who were caring for Mrs. Lin. “Can you call those company bosses over, I want to speak with them.”

“Sure,” I said, but as I turned to go over to them I heard a crunching noise and felt something underneath my shoe. Looking down, I saw a small screw on the ground and reached down to pick it up. Black, with a rounded top and perhaps a centimeter long, I thought maybe it had fallen from someone’s camera. Not wanting anyone to slip on it, I pocketed it and went over to find the MC.

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New Years Evil – Part 1


(Modern, Mystery, PG)

“Why do I have to do this?”

“Because,” I said, straightening my tie. “The Company President asked me to bring you. And, it’s good relations.” I glanced at the elevator panel- we were almost to the top floor. “Besides, you look great.”

Lin-Xi didn’t return my smile, keeping her dour expression. “The food better be good.”

I imagined it would be. A-O Soft wasn’t just celebrating their year-end party, the maker of the mega-selling Linna and Bess mobile phone game APP was going public in a few weeks. The founder, and many of the others at this party, were on the verge of becoming very rich people, and I didn’t expect any expense would be spared for tonight’s festivities. They’d rented out the whole rooftop restaurant at one of Taipei’s top hotels for their party, after all.

I was going mostly as a courtesy, since I’d been teaching English classes to a group of their employees for the past few months. I’d have liked to think it was because they treated me like an honorary employee and enjoyed having me around, but my more cynical side commented that it also looked pretty good to have a foreigner at the party. Whichever it was, an opportunity for a free meal at one of the best hotels in town was not something to be wasted.

The elevator dinged and the door slid open to reveal a hallway and a decorated table staffed by a man in a suit and a woman in a soft green evening gown. The man, one of my students at the company who used the English name Harold Wu, grinned and called us over. Harold was a balding software engineer in his mid-thirties, and a gregarious man with a loud laugh and an infectious smile.

“Teacher Mark!” He said, pronouncing my name “Mah-kuh” as most Taiwanese did, “Welcome to the party. It is good to see you.”

“You too, Harold.” I shook his hand, and then introduced Lin-Xi. “This is my friend, Ms. Kang.” Of course, that Lin-Xi was my girlfriend was obvious, but she hated the term “girlfriend” in English, as she thought it made her sound like she was a child, so I used “friend” as a neutral substitute.

Her sour expression gone, Lin-Xi was suddenly bubbly and friendly, and she and Harold exchanged greetings in Mandarin. While they did, I said hello to the receptionist who was manning the table with Harold; she likely didn’t speak much English, so she just smiled back. Then I looked for our names among the buttons that were laid out carefully in rows of two on the table before us, but when I did I came up short.

“Harold,” I interrupted. “I think the printing company cheated you. These name tags are all blank.”

At first Harold looked confused, and then when I pointed down he suddenly laughed. “Oh! Ah, no. No. It’s okay, these are supposed to be like this.” He picked up a pair and offered them to myself and Lin-Xi. “Please, put these on. These are the for game later.”

“A game?” While Lin-Xi pinned hers to the front of her light green blouse, I examined mine. It looked like the buttons we’d wear as kids that said things like “Hang in there!” or “Glee club rocks!”, but was completely blank. Having a thought, I started to hold it up to the light, but Harold stopped me.

“Hey, no cheating.” He smiled, “It’s the President’s surprise.”

Resolving to check it later, I smiled sheepishly and put it on, then Harold gave us our table assignment and, with promises to talk later, we continued on down the hallway to the restaurant’s main doors. The company logo was displayed large across the glass doors in blue and green, surrounded by Chinese characters I couldn’t read. I guessed it was the company name and a greeting and didn’t bother to get Lin-Xi to translate it for me. Not that it mattered, because the moment we approached they automatically opened to admit us.

Inside the party was in full swing, and well over a hundred finely dressed people were mixing and mingling around the room while servers moved among them pouring drinks. The very large room was laid out into three sections: a small open area, which was right ahead of us; a collection of large, round tables to our right; and an elevated stage to our left. Blue, green and white paper streamers had been hung from the ceiling, and the whole place had a festive feel to it, like the New Years party it was.

Lin-Xi and I first went down to find our table, but it was empty so we just claimed our seats with our coats and then turned to head for the snack table. It was already seven-thirty and I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Lin-Xi didn’t bother with lunch most days, so I didn’t have to ask how she felt. We were making our way through the crowd and almost there when we ran into Melody Xie, the company’s VP of software development.

I had ten students at A-O Soft: two receptionists, three software engineers, two marketing planners, one accountant, and Melody. Of the group, which I taught Tuesday and Thursday evenings from six-thirty to nine, Melody was by far the one who needed it least. A confident, capable, and charming woman in her early thirties, she’d done her graduate work in the United States and Singapore before returning to Taiwan to join A-O Soft. As a result, her English was almost perfect, and I think she really just took my class to keep an eye on the rest of them.

This woman in a sunset colored dress greeted me warmly, and after I’d introduced her to Lin-Xi she leaned in and said, “Now I know why you don’t answer my texts, you bad boy.”

Caught off guard, I glanced at Lin-Xi nervously and tried to come up with a reply. Melody was the mischievous and flirty type, and she said things like this all the time, I normally didn’t mind, but that wasn’t in front of my very jealous Lin-Xi.

“Well, ahh…” I stammered. “It’s…”

For her part, Lin-Xi merely raised an eyebrow and said in a flat tone. “He’s welcome to text anyone he wants. I don’t care.”

The scene could have turned very ugly, but Melody was very much a master of social kung-fu, and knew how to keep things under control. “Don’t worry,” she told Lin-Xi with a mock sigh. “I just keep asking him about our homework, but he refuses to let business and personal life mix. Good for you, bad for me.”

And on that note, I suddenly found my voice. “Melody, is the President here? I really should thank him for inviting us.”

She nodded. “At the head table, over near the stage.”

“Thanks, can we talk later?”

“Call me anytime.” She winked, and we parted ways.

As Lin-Xi and I made our way to the head table, I glanced at her- she was quiet and serious again. “She was just joking,” I said. “She’s like that.”

“You seem to know her well.”

I winced, there was going to be a lot of repair work to do later. “She’s just a student.”

“And you’re her lucky teacher. It must be nice.”

I was starting to think maybe bringing Lin-Xi to this party wasn’t such a great idea after all when the head table came into view. President Lin was standing on the other side of it talking with two other Taiwanese men I didn’t know. He was a large, broad-shouldered man with a shaved head, stylish wire-framed glasses, and wore a very expensive tuxedo.

As we approached, he caught sight of us out of the corner of his eye and said goodbye to the men, turning to greet us. “Mark,” he said in heavily accented English. “Thank you for coming. Is this your girlfriend?”

Before I could reply, Lin-Xi introduced herself and they shook hands.

“Thank you for inviting me,” she told him. “It’s a beautiful party.”

He smiled broadly. “Mark is like one of my worker, and he is very strong at teaching. I wanted to see the woman he caught.” Then he winked at me.

“She is very pretty. You are lucky man.”

Normally, I would have made a joke at this point, but given the current temperature of Lin-Xi’s blood, I decided that the best course was just to smile politely and say, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

Lin-Xi thanked him as well, and then the president turned and called to his wife, who was sitting near him at the table. A thin, slightly frail looking woman, she was in a light purple shoulder-less evening gown and had her hair finely done up in a styled form above her head. Around her bare shoulders was a baby-blue shawl, and she wore a pair of dark blue-tinted sunglasses.

She turned to look at us slowly, and gave a thin smile. “Hello,” she said without getting up, then she also added “Ni hao,” to Lin-Xi. “Thank you for coming.”

We both greeted her back, and then she turned away from us.

“I’m sorry,” President Lin frowned and tapped his temple. “She has bad headache.”

I assured him it was okay and that I understood. Then I tapped the badge on my shirt and asked, “Are we playing a game?”

This brought the smile back to President Lin’s face. “Of course! Wait and see. There is big surprise coming, and you can win prizes.” He gestured over to the nearby stage, where at the back a pile of prizes for the evening’s games waited. Most were wrapped up like Christmas presents in boxes, but a few larger items like a bicycle, a large stuffed bear like you’d see at a carnival, and a large flat-screen TV merely had red bows attached.
I gave an appreciative nod. “Looks nice. What kind of game is it, sir?”

But he wasn’t telling, and after some of the other guests joined us, I let my hunger get to me and we wandered off to find some food.

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