Brenda Morris shifted uneasily in the passenger seat of the car her father had rented at the airport.
"Move the seat back if you're not comfortable," her father said without removing his gaze from the road. "The manual is in the glove compartment if the controls don't make any sense."
Obediently, Brenda pulled out the manual and leafed through the glossy pages, but her discomfort was something other than physical. Indeed, the car seat was comfortable to the point of ridiculousness, the result of a double upgrade her father had finagled at the rental counter. He was good at things like that. The strange thing was that people always liked Gaheris Morris, even when he'd just taken advantage of them.
Brenda's mother frequently said her husband and her eldest were alike in their ability to make people like them. Although she always said this with a smile, the comparison usually made Brenda uncomfortable. It didn't seem quite right that people should admire you for being smart enough to take advantage of them.
Brenda slid the manual back into the glove compartment, and leaned back in the seat without making any adjustments.
Her father glanced over at her.
"It's all right if you change the seat, Breni."
He shrugged one shoulder and turned his attention back to the road. "If you say so. I just can't figure out where you put all that leg. You seem to grow an inch every couple of months."
"Not quite every." She laughed. "Actually, I'm not growing nearly as fast as I did in high school. I did need to buy new jeans last week."
"I know." Her father gave a mock sigh of exasperation. "I saw the credit-card bill."
I just wish the rest of me would catch up with my legs, Brenda thought. I'm tired of being flat-chested. Other girls complain about their hips and big butts, but at least they don't get taken for a boy from the back. I think the only thing that saves me from being embarrassed more often is the length of my hair.
Brenda liked her dad a lot, but she wasn't going to say something like that out loud. He was a man, after all, and he'd probably be embarrassed.
Or worse, he'd say something witty, and she'd be the one to get embarrassed.
So she turned her gaze out the window. She could see enough to know that northern California was a lot different from South Carolina.
My hair wouldn't save me here, she thought as she watched two men with ponytails bike by on a side path. I'd have to wear a skirt all the time, and then I'd look like a stretched-out nine-year-old, or worse, a boy in drag.
"Dad, why are we here?"
"You mean in California, or has the local vibe given rise to existential thoughts?"
Brenda swallowed a grin. She'd tried to ask her father the reason for this trip several times over the preceding week. Gaheris Morris traveled on business a lot, and hehadn't felt the need to take his eldest and only daughter with him on other trips. When he'd gone out earlier to meet with a client, he'd left her back at the hotel, so he wasn't indoctrinating her into the family mercantile business as a prelude to some sort of summer internship.
Each time Brenda had asked, Dad had found a way to put her off or distract her. She wasn't going to let him do it this time, even if that line about existential thoughts was a pretty good one.
"I mean here in California, at this time, heading wherever it is we're heading."
Dad sighed deeply. He drove in silence for a long moment, but Brenda held her breath, refusing to say anything he might use to turn the conversation in another direction. Only after he had navigated a complicated turn did he speak.
"We're going to see an old friend ..." He interrupted himself. "Actually, 'old' isn't the right word. Albert Yu is about my age, mid-forties. 'Friend' isn't exactly right either. We've had plenty of disagreements. How about this: We're going to see someone I've known just about my entire life, and the reason we're going is because I want you to meet him."
"Albert Yu?" Brenda frowned. "I don't think I've ever heard you mention him."
"No ... I probably wouldn't. Like I said, I've known him pretty much all my life, but we ..."
He paused again. Brenda found herself startled to silence by her usually articulate father's strange inability to say whatever it was that was on his mind.
"Brenda," he began again, "humor me, would you? One of the reasons I brought you here was to meet Albert before I talked about him, before I biased you in any way. Just because ..."
He almost visibly bit off his words in midstream.
"Would you humor me, Breni?"
Brenda had a distinct feeling that she was being "gotten around," the way her dad got around so many people, but what could she do? Besides, seeing Dad so flustered had her flustered. She had to admit that she was now eager to meet this Albert Yu so she could figure out what it was about him that made Dad so edgy.
"Okay," she said, "but I'll hit you up for something later."
"Anything," he promised in the tone that indicated he meant it, "as long as it isn't chocolate."
On that startling note, he fell silent. Except for comments on their surroundings, he maintained that silence for the rest of the drive.
Brenda had no idea what she had expected their destination to be, but a high-class, higher-end, high-tech shopping plaza was not it. The buildings were crafted from exposed steel set with sweeping sheets of tinted glass. Most were smoke grey, but interspersed with these were randomly placed strips of bronze or gold. Roofs rose at odd angles that reminded Brenda of old science-fiction illustrations of cities of the future, yet there was a feeling of "village" about the complex as well, created by meandering paths between buildings, immaculately groomed potted plants, and individual storefronts with signs swinging over their doors.
There was plenty of parking, but Dad didn't pull into any of the available spaces. Instead he guided the rental car down service alleys meant to be overlooked, so that mundanities like trash disposal and stock delivery would never smear this retail paradise.
"Does Albert Yu work here?" Brenda asked as her dad pulled the car into a space near a series of door-lined alcoves.
"He ... does, in a way. He has an office here. Look, sugarplum, no more questions for now, all right?"
Brenda blinked. Her father had stopped calling her "sugarplum" sometime when she was in high school. This Albert Yu must really have him rattled.
When they got out of the car, Dad moved more slowly than usual, checking and double-checking locks, glancing at his watch more than once. When he started moving, though, he strode along swiftly enough that, long legs or not, Brenda had to trot to keep up.
He led the way to one of the door-lined alcoves, and selected the central door. It must have been unlocked, because he was swinging it open almost before Brenda caught up. She had time enough to glimpse the legend "Your Chocolatier" written on the door with gold ink in a thin, elegant script before her father was inside and heading up the stairs.
The stairway was so startling that Brenda could hardly make herself ascend the treads. She'd done her time in retail and knew that elegance rarely extended behind the scenes. Here, however, instead of grey painted metal and harsh lighting was a narrow stairway paneled in ebony. Light so dim that it hardly qualified as such reflected off tiny silver nailheads bordering wall panels and stair treads. When the door at the base of the stairwell swung soundlessly shut behind her, Brenda had the impression that she was walking through the night sky, held up only by the stars.
"Dad?" she said softly.
"Here," he said. "Come on. It's strange, but nothing to be afraid of, pretty even, in its way."
Brenda had to agree. She concentrated on forgetting her surroundings and let her feet carry her up as she would have at home. In moments, she was behind herfather, close enough to catch his familiar scent, one that mingled sharp aftershave and the mustard he inevitably slathered on almost anything he ate.
She heard Dad rap his knuckles against the door, but instead of someone coming to answer the door, it swung open of its own accord. Fleetingly, Brenda thought this was another element of the mysterious Mr. Yu's eccentricities. Then her father stepped forward and exclaimed in wordless shock.
Brenda slipped past him and into an office that was, in its own way, as odd as the stairway. She had no attention for the peculiarities of the decor because, like her father's, her attention was riveted by the empty room, and the evidence that it was probably not empty by choice of the occupant.
A table showing what at first glance looked like a mah-jong game in progress dominated the room, as an executive desk might a more usual office. This table had been shoved to one side. It was too large and too heavy to have been knocked over, but some of the tiles had been spilled from the squared-off wall that still stood mostly intact on a cloth at the table's center.
Other pieces of furniture had been moved roughly aside. Papers had spilled from stacks on cabinets to drift on the thick Oriental carpet that covered most of the polished hardwood floor. A chair was shoved into a corner.
Brenda had watched enough television to know that you didn't interfere with a crime scene, so she was almost hurt when her father said sharply, "Don't touch anything!"
Then he pulled out his cell phone, but instead of hitting 911 or Operator or something, he punched in a string of at least ten numbers. She heard the faint sounds of someone answering on the other end.
"Pearl Bright, please," her father said briskly. He waited a moment, then said, "Auntie Pearl?"
His next words, to Brenda's complete astonishment, were in fluid, unmistakable Chinese. She knew that Auntie Pearl--one of her father's oldest friends--was part Chinese, but Dad had never spoken to Pearl Bright in that language before, at least in Brenda's hearing.
Brenda knew enough Chinese to thank a waitress or follow the occasional line of dialogue in a foreign film, but that was it. She recognized the sound, though, because her parents had a fondness for foreign films and always insisted on watching them subtitled. She'd never had the least hint that Dad understood a word of what was being said, but here he was quavering and fluting away like a native.
Deciding she'd had enough of weirdness and miracles, Brenda steadfastly turned her back on her father and tried to figure out what had happened in this room.
She'd thought of the room as an office, because that's what her father had led her to expect, but it was certainly unlike any office she had seen before.
Her first impression had been that the room was windowless, but now she saw that it had windows, front and back. The one in the rear was smoky grey, clearly one of the exterior panels of the building itself. It began about seven feet from the floor, then angled upward sharply to become part of the ceiling for about three feet, before a more standard, solid ceiling took over.
The front window was even stranger. At first glance it was more grey, nearly opaque glass, but as Brenda stared at it, she realized that what she had taken for dim reflections of herself and her father were actually people moving around on the other side. She studied them for a moment before turning to her father.
Gaheris Morris was pocketing his cell phone, his expression mingling concern and relief.
"Dad, there are people out there! A shop, I think."
Dad nodded. "That's right. That's the shopfront for Your Chocolatier, Albert's business."
"He sells candy?"
"He sells candy the way Ferrari sells cars. Your Chocolatier is where movie stars and millionaires buy their Valentine chocolates. Individual truffles can cost twenty dollars or more. A box small enough to fit in your jacket pocket can set you back two hundred dollars."
His tone held respect tempered with something Brenda couldn't quite identify. Resentment? Envy?
"That window," Dad went on, "is one-way glass. There's a control somewhere that makes it almost clear--from this side only."
"I guess he doesn't trust his employees," Brenda said. "I'm not sure I'd blame him. They could eat about five hundred dollars' worth in about two minutes."
"Actually, Albert claims the window is for market research, not spying. It enables him to see what attracts shoppers, what turns them off. Employees are coached to step on a button when prize clients come in. Then Albert can use the window to see who is there, and 'accidentally' come out to greet them."
"He sounds manipulative."
"That's about right," Dad agreed. Again, Brenda caught that odd note in his voice. Dad went on, "I've reached Auntie Pearl. We're in luck. She was in the area today, and thinks she can be here in about twenty minutes or a half hour."
"Dad, why did you call Auntie Pearl?" Brenda asked, her gaze shifting to watch the ghostly forms of the staff going about their business. "Why didn't you call the police?"
"Too soon to call the police," Dad said. "We don't even know if Albert's really missing. He knew I was coming by, but something could have called him away."
Brenda looked at the messed-up office, and thought her father was being disingenuous. Albert Yu clearly valued order accented with a certain amount of beauty. The office walls held the file cabinets one would expect, but they were crafted from dark, polished wood, the fittings in mellow bronze. The wall space above the cabinets was adorned with elegantly simple ink-brush landscape paintings after the Chinese style.
There was an expensive computer workstation, but it was tucked away in a back corner. Cabinet doors were neatly folded to either side. When they were folded shut, the modern era would be gone, hidden behind polished mahogany inlaid with a pattern of cranes worked in mother-of-pearl. Waist-high cabinets that didn't precisely match, but were similar to the computer workstation in their ornate beauty, balanced the file cabinets.
"What are we going to do if someone in the shop buzzes?" she said.
"They won't," Dad said. This time his voice held absolute confidence. "Albert would have told them he was not to be disturbed, not even if the First Lady herself arrived to shop for White House party favors."
"Because we were coming?" Brenda asked, impressed despite herself.
"Because he was doing this," Dad said, sweeping his arm to indicate the mah-jong tiles scattered on the table. "Albert would not have wanted to be interrupted."
Brenda turned her gaze from ghosts in the shopwindow. "Don't tell me he was playing mah-jong by himself! You need at least three players."
"I won't," Dad said, forcing a grin. "I'll let Auntie Pearl explain. Come on. Let's go meet her."
Brenda glared at her father, but she knew she'd get nothing more from him. His gaze had fallen to the scattered tiles on the cloth-covered table. His grin had vanished, and his expression was very, very worried indeed.
Pearl Bright instructed her driver to drop her off at the main entrance of the largest building in the shopping mall that was quite proud to host Your Chocolatier.
By habit more than vanity, she inspected her reflection in the mirrored surface of the smoked-glass door as Hastings moved to hold it open for her. The reflection gave her back an older woman--no doubt of that--but an older woman who still carried herself upright and moved briskly. The elegance of her attire turned heads in this age when casual dress had gone so far that thongs were worn on both feet and backsides, doing, in her opinion, no credit to either.
"Hastings, I will phone when I wish to be picked up."
"Yes, madam," he replied with formality, standing straight as he held open the door.
He didn't tell her he had a book and a lunch in the trunk of the car, but she knew, just as she knew he would find himself a nice spot under some shady tree and spend a leisurely interlude waiting for her call. There were worse jobs, far worse, than chauffeuring a rich former movie star.
As was often the case with older people, Pearl's vision had actually improved as she had grown older, so that the spectacles she once had worn had become no longer necessary. As she advanced into the mall, she inspected the people who lingered in the tiled atrium, looking for the two she was to meet.
Pearl had known Gaheris Morris all his life, and sometimes she had to remind herself that he was no longer theeager young boy she so fondly remembered. His family had moved to the Midwest when he had been something like six. It wasn't until after Gaheris's grandfather's death and the attendant ugliness that she and Gaheris had resumed more than casual contact.
Then Gaheris had been reeling from everything he had discovered about himself and his heritage, all that had been thrust upon him through his father's denial. He had turned to her as a source of stability.
"Auntie Pearl" had been happy to oblige, even if the attention she paid to Gaheris had made young Albert less than pleased. She wondered how Albert would feel when he knew that his sparring partner had been the one to discover his absence.
She wondered if Albert was in a position to feel anything at all.
Glancing to the right, she spotted Gaheris standing next to one of the smooth stone columns that punctuated the open reaches of the foyer. Lean and slim, his curling reddish-brown hair untouched with grey, his skin ruddy with sun, he looked like what he was, an American male of indeterminate ethnic heritage. The young woman standing beside him had similar features, but her coloring was taken from a different palette: browns and ivories, rather than her father's redder hues. The white pantsuit she wore set those colors off nicely.
At nineteen, Brenda Morris was already as tall as her father, her legs seeming impossibly long in proportion to her torso. Her dark brown, almost black, hair was thick and straight, long enough to fall past her breasts. She wore it unstyled, except that the part was slightly off-center, a nice, if possibly unintentional, touch that kept her appearance from rigid symmetry. Her eyes were the same dark brown as her hair, slightly slanted under perfect brows.
Brenda was not pretty, nor would she ever be so, but she was something far better--she was exotic and interesting. Pearl wondered if Brenda realized how lucky she was, and decided she probably did not. Brenda was still young enough that "difference" meant separation from the parental generation, but not from the peer group.
Gaheris raised his right hand in a lazy wave. If Pearl hadn't known him so well, his manner would have been the perfect form of a nephew greeting an elder relative. She knew him, though, and saw the tension in how he gently nudged Brenda forward.
Brenda moved lightly, only the tightness of her shoulders showing how much she disliked being steered. The smile she turned on Pearl was equal parts shy and warm. Pearl knew why. Pearl was a celebrity who was somehow family. The role gave her a certain mystique--a mystique Pearl had refused to relinquish, staying in hotels when visiting the Morris family, and never being seen disheveled or informal.
After greetings had been exchanged, Gaheris said, "I locked both Albert's office, and the stairwell. I don't think anyone will bother them before we can get back. Do you want to stop for something to eat or drink?"
Pearl smiled. "I was finishing lunch when you phoned, but if you and Brenda need to eat, I would be happy to sit with you."
Gaheris shook his head. "We got sandwiches from one of the outrageously expensive places here. I charged it to Albert's account. I figured we're here on his business."
Pearl shook her head in mock reproof, but such behavior really was typical of Gaheris. He was financially well-off, but he never stopped looking for an angle, especially if it would get him something for nothing. Maybe having three children to support was the root of his scheming.However, she suspected it was part of his integral nature. His father and grandfather had been the same way.
Brenda was looking at her father with affectionate dismay. She clearly knew this aspect of her father's personality, but thought he carried it too far. Pearl wondered what the girl would be like when she came into the full force of her inherited nature. She hoped they would have a long time before they found out.
"Very well," Pearl said. "Since we have all eaten, then we should go up to Albert's office. Is his staff aware anything is amiss?"
"They know nothing," Gaheris said. "I sent Brenda into the shop, and as far as she could tell everything was normal. They sold her something the size of a Hershey's kiss for ten dollars."
"It was delicious," Brenda said. "Absolutely wonderful."
The young woman's smile faded, and she gave Pearl the full force of her gaze. "I don't know what's worse, knowing something is wrong or not knowing why Dad won't call the police. He said you'd explain."
Pearl nodded. "Your father did the right thing. However, these are not matters we should discuss here. Shall we go to Albert's office? I would like to see for myself what Gaheris described."
She turned and led the way to the elevator. She was spry for her age, but there was no need to overdo things, and Albert would insist on having his office on an upper floor.