Episode 19: The Curse Of The Jade Bat (Part One)
Fan Song accepted a glass of champagne from the waiter,
barely sparing the young Austrian a glance. He in turn had
specifically manoeuvred himself in order to serve the fascinating
Chinese lady in the crimson cheong sam with the hair dead
straight and alabaster skin, but one look into the cold,
basilisk eyes had killed all thoughts of fascination and
lust. She scared him, and he was glad to get away. Fan Song
watched as the lad blundered into the English Count Backwards,
spilling drinks over the outraged peer. She turned away from
this vaudevillian display with disinterest. Not that Backwards
could be discounted as a buffoon — he was dangerous
and crafty — but not in her parish.
From her position on the raised steps, she surveyed the
reception, putting names to faces from the Tong files that
she had memorized and the list of racers available from the
Secret Stewards. Yes, the brassy blonde with the Texas twang — that
was Kitten Caboodle; curiously, like Fan Song herself, she
was acting on orders from a shadowy principal. She would
need to be watched and, probably, liquidated in due course.
She followed the blonde spy’s glare across to the extreme
far side of the room: ah, so! The English Lady Lavinia, her
flame-red hair blazing like a beacon under the chandeliers,
ignoring the other woman and also, apparently, searching
for someone in the throng. Yes, she seemed distracted, this
English lady, half laughing at the jokes of the beaus who
clustered around her. A woman with concerns and fears. Fan
Song made a mental note; that was useful.
Where Lavinia was, surely then her mysterious half-brother
would not be far away — yet Fan Song could not see
him amongst the throng. She sipped her champagne, speculatively.
Her intelligence sources had whispered hints of a matrimonial
alliance between the Baronet and the lethal Baroness of Bones.
Fan Song could not reconcile this: Lord Fox-Leatherette was
not supposed to be a fool, although her files contained shocking
gaps in his case, and yet the Baroness’ reputation
for bumping off her partners was a very poor secret.
The Chinese spy was wondering where this strange cast of
characters could be when she felt a cool draft; a slim, dark
shape brushed by her. She turned to glare at the murmured
apology, but her viper’s gaze was met by one equally
fatal: it was like running into a brick wall. Her look was
levelly and coldly returned by a woman in black motorcycle
leathers, and it was Fan Song whose eyes dropped first (much
to her inner rage). The woman had an aura, powerful, dangerous,
and poisoned. From her years of study and hidden Oriental
knowledge, Fan Song knew a curse when she saw one.
Pitstop turned away from the Race newcomer and, like the other before her,
scanned the room rapidly before descending the stairs and crossing the room
to leave through another door.
Eschewing company (especially after Venice). Pitstop sat on her bike in the
racers’ garage and opened her small rucksack from which she drew a
selection of documents: the race clue, some old maps, and a mouldering leather-bound
book she had acquired in a dingy back-alley antiquarian bookshop. She placed
these on the petrol tank: she had no time for frivolity, she was determined
to get the next clue, and she knew precisely what it was — the Jade
Bat of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China; an item with its own dark legend.
Gingerly opening the decaying book at the page she had marked (with a ribbon
torn from her Venetian bat mask), she read:
“. . . and in the last year of his reign, the celestial Emperor Qin turned
to the wisdom of his astrologers and alchemists. The Divine One felt the decay
of his mortal frame and sought to prolong his life at any cost. In fear for their
lives, the alchemists toiled for the Elixir of Immortality, using compounds of
red cinnabar and precious metals. But to no avail. Each promised ‘cure’ only
caused the Celestial Ruler more pain and illness; each failure cost the doctor
his head or worse.”
“ Finally, when all hope seemed lost, the Emperor Qin, raving in his final
illness, received a visit from a great sage of the Northern Waste. Unto the emperor
he gifted a han-yu — an amulet of great power, crafted of imperial jade.
This great gift, carved cunningly in the shape of the fu, an omen of good fortune,
would, claimed the sage, grant undying life, cure all ills, defend the soul (and
here Pitstop’s grip on the book tightened), and defeat evil magic.
“In his madness, the celestial Qin — mourn his name — seized
the han-yu; desiring no other to have the secret and supplant him, he ordered
the great sage to be put to death. The man was dragged away, screaming curses
even to his last breath upon the emperor’s head and dynasty — and
that he would never benefit from the han-yu’s blessing. Calamity! And so
it came to pass; within a year, the emperor was murdered by his favourite lily
concubine, the mother of his son, who persuaded him to put the han-yu aside one
night when he took her. Assassins paid by the lily concubine fell upon the emperor
and stabbed him to death. At this point in the bloodshed, the han-yu was lost
and disappeared from knowledge. Some say it found its way to the West. It further
followed that . . .”
Here Pitstop stopped reading. The rest of the history wandered
off the point, and she had all the information she needed.
She knew from her research that “fu” meant “bat” — long
an omen of joy in folklore. Perhaps this legend had legs
but, more importantly, for her, given the legend of this
magical talisman and the new race clue which she now read:
Drivers: Your next task is to seek — wherever it may
be found — a particular token. You must obtain this
in order to be granted full information for the penultimate
stage. Your clues:
“Johan Straus II (well we ARE in Vienna) went to Manchuria,
where he found an omen of joy, bane of the Victorian coiffeuse,
the colour of absinthe.”
Failure to obtain this item will result in severe penalties.
Depending on the category of failure, these may/will include:
Simple identification of the object is not enough and will
not allow you to proceed further in the race . . . unless
you can persuade the officials otherwise. . .
Pitstop smiled grimly. Not exactly difficult, she thought.
She knew well enough where the object was, because she remembered
seeing it years before: in the Kunsthistoriches Museum on
her last visit to Vienna. That was in the touring company
of Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival, whence she had found
herself after being dropped from the roof of the Orient Express.
The task the race organisers were effectively setting was
to steal — or at least “temporarily borrow without
asking” — a valuable and extremely rare artifact.
That, thought Pitstop, would deter some competitors and thin
out the field.
She knew, however, that some of the remaining competitors
would hardly baulk at a little light larceny, and she certainly
knew of one accomplished thief amongst them. Strange she
hadn’t noticed him in the ballroom, she thought. Her
eyes narrowed: could he already be making his bid for the
amulet? No . . . none of the racers would have the clue yet.
At all costs, she must get there first. Unlike the rest of
the field, she needed it — and not just for a silly
race. Packing away her documents, she left the garage to
consider her plans . . .
Kitten Caboodle laughingly pushed the drunken lordling back
into the broom cupboard and locked the door. She left him
to sleep it off, minus his trousers and certainly his wallet.
Well, she needed the cash, didn’t she? She repaired
to her room where a sealed envelope was waiting for her — a
gift from her boss. She cracked it open and read the clue.
As she did so, she began to think. She read it through again
and thought harder. Immortality. Immortality . . . Her “fabulous
prize” — a whole new set of nine lives.
She hated to admit it, but her efforts to eradicate the
other competitors had been somewhat half-hearted, and she
could well see what might happen if she didn’t buck
up her ideas. Might happen that is. But . . . if she acquired
the amulet herself . . . could she slip away? Why turn it
over to the HC? She knew enough bolt holes between here and
Valparaiso to lose an entire battalion . . . she could. If
she could just steal it — hey, she could do that, sure ‘nuff
. . .
She opened her bag of housebreaking tools and began to select
the necessary ones.
Much later, in her own room, Fan Song carefully folded a
piece of parchment and dripped sealing wax onto it. Taking
the ring from her finger, she pressed her seal into it: it
bore the characters for the Third Way and her Tong sign — a
scorpion, tail raised. She turned, and from the shadows another
Chinese man stepped forward, his face an impassive mask.
Fan Song handed him the sealed document, saying:
“ Take this to our master, nothing staying. It is my report. Tell him further,
it is as we suspected — the artifact is that which we seek. Tell him further
I envisage little difficulty from the others. Any that do stand in my way — and
there are a few — shall be eliminated.”
The Chinese man bowed wordlessly and left; Fan Song turned
back to the mirror. Her reflection smiled back at her as
“ . . . eliminated. We shall do it ourselves. We shall
enjoy it . . .”