She comes in all slow and languid, like the first blush of summer, like a jazz tune just beginning. Outside it's winter and deadly dark. She's all auburn curls and wounded eyes. She's got one of those voices like the poem says, "lovely, dark and deep." She tells me her name, Samantha Frost, and though I haven't been out of the building since the blizzard began, though I have the place's ancient radiator turned up as high as it'll go, for the first time in days I really do feel the weather.
She asks me if I can help her. If she notices the thin veil of dust on my desk standing witness to how busy I am, she's too polite to say anything. I say yeah. She asks didn't I used to be a cop? I tell her I'm reformed.
Sammy's what you call a ringer. I can hear it in her voice, something just in the background, like listening to the radio. Big outfits sometimes hire out to guys like me and they know that to a man guys like me are a sucker for the dames. I play along anyway because Sammy's pretty and because that thin film of dust isn't getting any thinner.
Maybe I need a maid.
I see her downstairs to her car and to give the right idea to the big lug behind the wheel, I trudge off in the other direction. My shoes are already getting wet. I hate it when my shoes get wet.
There's a hundred PI's in this town, all with slouch hats and the same hard-luck resume punctuated by luck and violence. A hundred men at least, most of 'em worth their salt, but Sammy Frost chose me on this night so cold it's like all the air escaped into space because she heard--which means they heard--that I get results.
Nobody knows why. Well, almost nobody. They think it's all heel-and-toe gumshoe work, tailin' cars, binoculars, fishing through other people's garbage. They don't know I've got an edge.
Sammy told me she was looking for her husband. Her accent tells me she's a local, which means she's not one of Dominic's girls. That doesn't narrow it down a lot. I remind myself as I make it to the tea house that her money's green mo matter who she works for or what lies she spins to me.
The New Moon tea house is in Chinatown, not far from my own digs, which is convenient because below the New Moon is my edge, the place I come to Understand. I nod at the door man and slip him his fare. I cross the tea room. No one even looks at me. There's a door in the back, unmarked, which opens to dim smoky steps that lead down in a spiral, down, down, down to the Cave of the Tears of the White Dragon.
That's what Ping says its name is, anyway. What he said it means in Chinese. The Cave is the last of the great opium joints in the city. I settle in. Ping mixes the stuff iwth what he calls the dragon's tears, though I've seen him do it and it doesn't look much like tears. More like mold and flower petals.
The thing that it does is it makes you dream.
Best kept secret in New York. I settle in and Ping gets someone to watch over me. He brings the pipe to my lips. I fight it, try to ride it as long as I can before it pulls me under. Before I start to dream.
In my dream Sammy's there, only its back in the war. They're loading men into packing crates: standing up, holding their rifles like toy soldiers. There's clocks everywhere. The clocks are very important. Sammy is staring at them. She's got one of those radio mikes. She's dressed in a dark blue evening gown she looks like she was poured into. I could fall in love with her right there, with the way the light catches on the sequins on her dress. With the sad darkness of her eyes. She speaks into the mike, only it isn't her voice, ti's the voice of the man in that old radio program, The Shadow.
"WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEARTS OF MEN?!"
Just my gut, sister, but I have a feeling you more than most.
All at once there'sa storm, this terrible thundering that won't stop and the earth is shaking but Sammy Frost still wants to know about that Evil in the Hearts of Men. I don't know what to tell her. The damn ground is still shaking, only it's not the ground it's
Me. Ping is shaking me. There's blood on hi,. There are men in the room and these men have guns. My eyes try to focus. Part of me
Is still dreaming. Sammy.
"Have to go!" Ping shouts. I can see his lips but I can't hear him over the din. Everybody's panicked. There's only one way out of the Cave of Tears and that's up the way we came. I can't see them through the haze
But I know their names.
Sammy. Samantha Frost. She led them to me. I led them here. Toy soldiers. Army full of button men, come to see the White Dragon off proper. Got too close to someone last time, or the time before. Makes a man stand up, take notice.
Only...am I dreaming? Someone makes a breeak for it and they all scramble.
Is this real? Not enough button men to take us all.
More shots. It's a stampede.
Is it real?