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The Pig of Providence

The Year of the Forgotten Secrets

book 1

Ophelia Sikes

Copyright © 2018 by Ophelia Sikes /

Minerva Webworks LLC

All rights reserved.

Cover design by Ophelia Sikes.

Book design by Ophelia Sikes

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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and events are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

First Printing: December 2018


- v1 –

Half of all author’s proceeds from this book benefits battered women’s shelters.

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The Pig of Providence

book 1

Chapter One (yi)

I’ve always loved pigs: the shape of them,
the look of them,
and the fact that they are so intelligent.”
--Maurice Sendak

It was December 11th. Long past time to begin decorating my apartment for the holidays. I sighed, staring out the window at the foggy mist drifting like fingers along the alley behind my kitchen. No wonder Providence spawned tales of ghostly hauntings and diabolical creatures rising from the depths.

I put down my coffee and walked to the spare bedroom, currently occupied solely by a battered desk and a folding chair. I slid open the closet door and reached up on my toes to get the box jammed on the overhead shelf. The one labelled “Pigs”.

I took it down.

I drew in a breath.

I brought the box over to my bedroom and laid it on the dark blue comforter. I took off the lid. Then I retrieved each item within, unwrapping each from its newspaper blanket and putting them in a series of neat rows.

The crystal pig where air bubbles speckled within it, causing shimmers of light.

The porcelain painted pig with an uncanny resemblance to the one from the cartoon version of Charlotte’s Web, a movie I had once loved.

The shiny metallic silver one, so polished that I could see my own reflection in it. Dark, messy hair to my shoulders. Worn face from dealing with this stress-filled world for nearly twenty-five years. Pale skin stretched perhaps a bit too tightly over an angular frame.

My lips turned down.

Pig. I would never be called a pig.

I gathered up several of them in my arms and headed out into my apartment. The metal pig went in the living room with its futon and two thrift-shop wooden chairs. The carved wooden pig found a spot by the dish-cluttered kitchen sink. The porcelain one was placed on top of the toilet tank.

At last they were all out.

The holiday decorating was complete.

Good riddance.

* * *

I groaned as Kayley drove us down Waterman Street. I held a Ziplock bag of ice against my bruised face.

Kayley glanced over, her eyes holding that hint of laughter that they always did. “Sorry about that, Amber. I thought I had a hold of him. But you gotta admit it, who would have thought he could kick that high!”

“Yeah, he must’ve been Bruce Lee in another lifetime,” I agreed. “But in this one, he’s just a petty thief. And now he’s added onto it assaulting a police detective.”

His drunken groan came from the back seat. “I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’, you pigs! Let me go!”

Kayley rapped against the plastic divider. Her dark fingers nearly blended in with her black wool jacket. “Hey, you, you have the right to remain silent. So use it.”

I groaned, my head echoing. “Cut that rapping out. My head’s drumming enough as it is.” I leaned back and turned my head. We were passing three-deckers with shops on their ground floors. Apartments high and storefronts low. All the random needs and wants which powered a city like this. Barber shops. Bodegas. Check cashing. Liquor stores. Pawn shops.

Kayley swirled an elegant hand in the air. “Yeah, well, when we get back to the precinct I’m sure the Cap’ll wanna talk with us and –”

My eyes caught motion.

A crammed shop was overflowing with jars and bottles.

A beefy man within the large front windows swept his arm hard, sending half the counter’s contents smashing down on the floor.

I called out, “Stop the car!”

Kayley, bless her soul, was my other half. She never questioned. She slammed on the brakes right there in the middle of the street. High tire squeals came from behind us as the line of cars following barely prevented catastrophe.

I called, “Pull in somewhere,” as I jumped out and strode toward the shop. Large glass windows fronted the street, revealing aisles of shelves overflowing with bottles, jars, and small boxes. In gold letters the word “Meiying” was written across the windows’ center.

I pushed open the door.

A light cheerful tinkling echoed above my head.

There were two men. Both were thick, beefy, and Italian, if I had to make a guess as to their ethnic heritage. They turned with narrowed eyes. Thug One growled, “We’re closed. Get lost.”

The floor was a scattering of glass shards, fragrant herbs, oozing brown goo, and a few animal parts I would rather not try to identify.

From behind the counter, a middle-aged Chinese woman with dark hair in a bun stared at me, stunned. She stammered, “I’m so sorry. Please come back another time.”

I kept my right hand at my hip, where it rested easily. My left hand swept at my coat to show my badge. “Detective Dunne. What seems to be the problem here?”

The Chinese woman shook her head. “No problem. No trouble.”

My gaze went to the two men. “You two responsible for this redecorating?”

Thug Two gave a shrug. “She’s just clumsy. We was offering to help out.”

I snorted. “Sure you were.” I moved my hand from my hip to my pocket and drew out my cellphone. I snapped a photo of the two of them. “And I’m sure when I get back to the precinct that I won’t find either of those mugs in our files.”

Thug One glanced at Thug Two. “Yeah, well, we were just leaving, officer.”

“That’s detective,” I replied. “Detective Amber Dunne. Two Ns.”

The two men strode out past me. One of them made a snorting noise as he went past. The door tinkled as they left.

I held in the sigh and stepped forward. “Ma’am, were those two hassling you?”

She hurried out with a small whisk brush and tray. “No hassle, no trouble, detective. Let me clean this up.”

A tinkling came again and I turned, hand going to my hip –

Kayley came in, glancing over her shoulder. “Those two don’t seem like the New Age types.”

I pointed at the floor. “I think they had another kind of transaction in mind.”

The Chinese woman was busily getting everything into her tray. “No problem,” she insisted. “No trouble.”

“Sure, as long as you pay up,” I agreed. “Are you Meiying?”

She nodded. She brought her trayful of detritus to the trash and dumped it in. Then she began working on another quadrant of mess. “Yes. I am Meiying. This is my shop. I live up above it.”

I squatted to get to her eye level. “Meiying, we can protect you, you know. From those goons. You don’t have to pay their protection money.”

Her eyes stayed focused on her task. “I am fine. There is no worry.”

A soft noise came from behind the door at the back of the shop. Kayley’s head rose.

Meiying shook her head without ceasing her motion. “Cat. Gets the mice.”

I sighed. A woman, her cat, and a shop which probably was her entire life.

Other than the mess on the floor, the shop was well cared for. The shelves were neatly stacked with items, attentively arranged by type. Herbs in powdered, minced, and whole form were layered along the far wall. Each was labeled in both English and Chinese. The nearest aisle held braziers and neti-pots. And here, on the counter –

I peered at the ornately decorated container. “Pig treasure. That’s pretty rare.”

Her eyes lit up, showing emotion for the first time. “You know of this? A man in Rizhao - a village near mine - discovered it when he killed his sow. The bezoar was four inches long. Worth a half million dollars US! We’d been friends when we were young - he sent me this tiny piece as a present.”

Kayley peered at the engraved bottle. “A half million dollars? What is it? Jade?”

I smiled. “It’s a bezoar.”

Her face scrunched in confusion.

“A gallstone.”

She laughed. “A pig’s gallstone is worth half a million? Heck, my uncle had some of those, and he had to pay to get them removed.”

Meiying tossed out another blend of glass shards which smelled of cinnamon and fennel. “This is from a sow. In its gall bladder. Very lucky. Removes toxins from your body.”

I smiled. “We humans try to flush toxins out. Unlike the pigs. Pigs just cram their toxins in their fat cells. Carry their toxins around with them. Toxins become a permanent part of them.”

Meiying blinked. Her eyes rose to mine. She peered at me as if seeing me for the first time. At last she nodded in confirmation. “You are a pig.”

Kayley’s brow came down. “Hey, now wait a minute –”

Meiying gave a small smile. “You are a Water Pig. Now soon comes the Earth Pig. It will ground you. Give you a foundation. Bring you what you seek.”

I sighed. “Well, Meiying, if you won’t press charges, it seems that we’re done here.” I drew out a card from my pocket and placed it down on her counter next to the pig treasure. “You change your mind, you contact me.”

I nudged my head at Kayley. “C’mon. Let’s get our perp downtown before he forgets what we’re hauling him in for.”

Kayley came along beside me as we let the door tinkle closed behind us. She asked, “What was that all about? Water pig?”

I pushed all the memories away. “Hell if I know.”

* * *

I was nursing a glass of scotch and staring out at the lights of the moonlit city when my cell rang. I glanced at the screen and sighed. I picked up anyway. “Hey there, Dad.”

“Hey, punkin. How you doing? Got the place decorated for the holidays?”

“You mean do I got the pigs out, then, yeah. They’re out.”

“Zhaohui and I were wondering if you wanted to come up to Boston to visit sometime.”

I took another sip of my scotch. “Sorry, can’t do. Juggling lots of events down here. You know how it is. In fact, I’m heading out to something right now. Gotta run, Dad. Talk to you later.”

“You know my number, punkin. Call anytime. Love you.”


I hung up.

The porcelain pig stared at me with that insipid smile painted on its tiny face.

I raised my glass to him. “Some pig.”

* * *

Kayley pulled the car into the parking lot of the Chinese restaurant, and I sighed. When Kayley got something into her head, she stuck with it. It made her a fantastic detective, and I’d learned a lot from her over these past two years.

It also could make her quite annoying.

She said, “I heard they’re really authentic here. Chicken heads. Pig hooves.”

“Trotters,” I automatically corrected. “You don’t eat the hooves. Just the feet.”

She pushed open the door. “Your stepmom teach you that?”

I sighed. “She’s not my stepmom,” I explained for perhaps the twentieth time. “She’s just the woman who married my father.”

“When you were six,” she pointed out.

The Chinese waiter came over to us. He was in his thirties and had a raspberry-colored birthmark on his neck. His accent was strong. “Two for lunch?”

Kayley nodded.

He led us over to a red vinyl booth and gave us our menus.

Kayley glanced around. She whispered to me, “Nearly everyone here is Chinese. That’s a good sign.”

I barely glanced at the menu before I put it down. Kayley took a little longer, perusing the lunch specials, before she, too, put down her menu.

The waiter was back before us in a flash. “You ready to order?”

Kayley said, “Special number two with egg rolls. Lots of that sauce.”

He turned to me.

“Baobao with shiitake mushrooms and bok choi.”

He nodded and headed off to the kitchen.

Kayley looked down at the printed paper placemat. Her brow creased. “Hey, wait. When were you born again?”

I sighed. It was clear what was coming. “1984.”

“My youngest brother was born in ’84! So you’re a rat, like him!”

I shook my head. I hated to say the words. “I’m a pig.”

She poked a dark finger at the illustrated chart on the mat. “Says right here. ’84. Rat.”

I poured myself some tea and took a sip. Good, if a bit bland.

I explained, “They simplify things on those sheets for the stupid white folk. In reality, Chinese traditions are thousands of years old. They were developed long before some white guy in Rome decided that the year should begin on a random date a week after the solstice. The Chinese tie their changes to astronomy. To the cycles of the stars and planets.”

She glanced up at me. “So like Pisces and Cancer and all that stuff?”

“Something like that. Anyway, a new year isn’t just January 1st. That isn’t a meaningful date. For the Chinese, and heck, for most of the real world back then, years and seasons were based on natural cycles. And the Chinese New Year came between late January and early February. On a new moon.”

She stared at the chart. “Doesn’t say that here.”

I took another sip of tea. “Made for stupid white humans,” I reminded her. “In ’84, the new year began on February 1st. I was born on January 18th. So I was still the year of the pig.”

Her eyes lit up in awareness. “That’s what that woman was saying! She knew you were a pig!” Her brow scrunched again. “But why did she call you a water pig?”

The waiter brought over two glasses of water. He put them down before us. His eyes were sparkling with amusement. “Food will be out shortly.” He turned and left.

I sighed. “Every cycle of years has its own element. Earth. Metal. Water. So on. The year I was born, that was a water year. So I’m considered a water pig.”

I stared into my glass. “Before my dad hooked up with Zhaohui, I always thought I was a rat. Even had a pet gerbil. I was so happy that we were the same. Called him my little brother.” My lips turned down. “And then Zhaohui ruined that. She ruined everything.”

Her voice was gentle. “Your mom died in a car accident. You can’t really blame your dad for moving on with his life.”

I snapped, “He coulda waited more than a year.” My tone was perhaps a bit harsher than necessary. “He coulda kept his hands off of one of his own graduate students. And then they had to go both work for that same biotech in Cambridge. All lovey-dovey. Makes me ill.”

The luncheon platters came, and I dug in. My baobao dumplings weren’t nearly as good as Zhaohui’s cooking, but then, few dishes were. I could be upset with her for many things, but I gave her her due when it came to food.

Fortunately, Kayley took her eating seriously. I didn’t have to deal with any more questions about water pigs or Chinese astrology. Our table was quiet as we finished our meal.

She scooped up the last of her pork fried rice. She smiled as she looked down at it. “Hey, so what I’m eating here is –”

Sirens lifted their call outside, and we both turned our heads.

A firetruck raced past us, heading north.

The Chinese patrons were all staring at their phones and muttering to each other in concern. A few headed out the doors.

I waved over the waiter. “What is it? What’s on fire?”

His eyes were hollow. “Meiying’s.”

Chapter Two (er)

I tossed money on the table and we sprinted out the door. Another moment and our siren was adding to the chorus as we blasted down the streets toward the shop. We could see the strength of the blaze as we rounded the corner. The full first floor was engaged and flames were shooting out the second floor windows as well. The third floor seemed untouched.

I knew that wouldn’t last long.

Kayley slammed the brakes on, skidding the car at an angle against the sidewalk. We raced down the street to reach the side of the firetruck. The Chief saw us and nodded his head, then returned his focus to the scene.

I asked, “You find Meiying?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. But they don’t have much time. Those herbs and oils are going up like crazy. It’s like a gasoline fire in there.”

I had a sense that he might be more right than he thought.

Three of his men were managing a large hose and blasting water through a gaping hole in the front wall of glass. The roaring flames seemed almost alive. They were ravenous, and they were searching, searching –

A scream came from the third story window. “Help!”

All eyes went up.

Meiying was there at the window, a wall of flame menacing behind her. Her eyes were wide with panic.

The Chief called, “Get the net!”

His firefighters scrambled into action.

A loud crunching noise shook the building; something within the structure was letting go.

Meiying screamed.

A man shouted, “Grab the rope!”

She turned her head.

There, at the adjacent building, was a fire escape. A man stood on it, maybe a few years older than me, with short, dark hair and a muscular build. He was holding one end of a thick rope and he was swinging the other. I saw it had a loop formed in it.

He swung it out to her.

She caught it.

He yelled, “Put it around your waist. Cinch it tight.”

The Chief angrily yelled, “We’ve got the net! Jump down!”

A staggering blast came from within the shop.

Shards of jagged glass sprayed out in fury, peppering the firefighters and waiting net. The victims flung hands over faces, crying out in pain.

Meiying pulled the rope over her head to her waist. She gave a tight tug to cinch it up.

The man looped the rope around the railing of the fire escape. He braced himself against it. “All right! Jump!”

She stared behind her at the encroaching flames.

She looked down at where the firefighters and EMTs were scrambling to tend to the wounded and clear the glass from the net.

She looked up at the sky for a long, long moment.

She jumped.

Chapter Three (san)

Captain Pantazis shook his head and took a long drink of his coffee. His light brown curls were going more gray with each passing day, and his paunch seemed to expand on pace. He placed his mug at the center of the wood coaster which was centered on his worn but well-polished desk. “And nobody knows who this good Samaritan was?”

I shrugged. “Guy got her safely onto the fire escape. Then he took her inside and helped her down the main stairs. Half carried her, she says. He got her to the front door. From there she raced over to the fire truck, to see for herself if the shop could be saved.”

I glanced at Kayley. “We were all watching Meiying. Relieved she was ok. The guy? He must’ve gone back inside that building. Maybe left by a back door. Nobody got a good look at him. White. Male. Maybe thirty, short dark hair.”

Kayley leaned forward. “Does it matter, Cap’n? Guy saved her life, that’s for sure. Another thirty seconds and that entire building was engulfed.”

Pantazis turned his coffee. “Yeah, but maybe he saw who set it. He could be a witness. Or, for all we know, a suspect. Maybe he set the fire thinking she was out of the building. And when he realized she was still inside, he couldn’t let her roast.”

I nodded. “We’ll keep looking. But unis have canvassed the whole area already and haven’t found anything. The guy doesn’t seem to be a tenant anywhere on the street. It’s not looking good.”

“Maybe when we get the final report from the fire chief we’ll know more. They seem fairly certain this was arson.”

“Yeah, well, one day she’s being rousted by two Italian thugs and the next day her place is the stand-in for the Burning of Atlanta. Seems related to me.”

He leaned back in his chair. The chair squeaked under the weight shift. “You two get out there and see what you can find out. Anything comes up, you let me know right away.”

Kayley and I drew to our feet. I said, “Sure thing, boss.”

Kayley preceded me out the door and we headed down the hall toward the garage. She looked over at me. “Time to chat with Meiying again?”

I nodded. “Maybe this brush with being barbequed has made her more willing to talk about those ‘no trouble’ visitors of hers.”

* * *

She was sitting on her brother’s crimson-red couch, holding a cup of tea in both hands. She seemed to have forgotten it was there. In each room of the two-floor colonial milled quite a few Chinese of various shapes and sizes. Either Meiying came from a large family or she had extended friends in the neighborhood. Maybe both.

Her brother guided us to a pair of leather chairs opposite her and nodded. “She’s still in shock,” he stated. “We once had a Chinatown here in Providence. It kept us safe. Protected. But the city demolished it – on purpose - in ’51. My grandparents remember seeing it happen. They remember the anger of the community.”

He shrugged in resignation. “And then we were scattered. We lost our center.”

I looked around. “Seems like the community’s still here.”

His gaze shone. “We come together when it matters. We’ll find out who did this.”

It didn’t seem the time to warn him against vigilante justice. Their emotions were still too raw.

I nodded to him. Kayley and I sat.

I brought my eyes to Meiying’s. “Meiying. It’s Detectives Dunne and Johnson. Do you remember? We were in your shop two days ago, when those thugs were harassing you.”

Her lips moved automatically. “There was no trouble.”

I gently said, “There’s trouble now. Your shop was burned down. Your home, too. The fire department’s saying it was arson. There’s traces of gasoline by the window. Maybe someone threw in a Molotov cocktail.”

“Just kids. Kids do stupid things. I have insurance. It’ll take me a while, but I’ll make a new shop. Cheng will help me.”

I glanced up at her brother. His gaze was somber.

I leaned forward toward Meiying. “You could have been killed, you know. It’s sheer luck you made it out of there alive.”

She huddled in on herself, her gaze welling.

I pressed, “Are you sure you can’t tell us anything at all about those two goons? We have their names. Anthony and Marco. What were they in the shop for?”

She shook her head. “No trouble.”

I sighed. Clearly we weren’t going to get far with her today. Maybe it was the crowds of people around or the watchful eyes of her brother. Maybe if we came back in a few days, when she’d had time to think, she’d be more willing to talk.

I laid down a card on the polished mahogany table in front of her. “You think of anything – anything at all – you call us. You let us know.”

She nodded. She barely looked at my card.

I prepared to stand.

A thought came to me, and I asked, “Did your cat make it out safely?”

Her gaze was hollow. “I don’t have a cat.”

I nodded. “My mistake. I’m sorry for the loss of your shop and home.”

We stood. I looked to her brother. “Your sister thinks of anything, you let us know.”

His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Of course, detectives. Thank you for coming.”

There was a motion behind him, and I caught a glimpse of a strawberry-colored birthmark on a neck.

I asked Cheng, “If I could just use your bathroom before we go?”

He pointed down a hall. “That way.”

I made my way through the clustered knots of Chinese, all talking in that language which was both familiar and completely indecipherable. Zhaohui had attempted to teach me several times, and each time I had stubbornly refused. But my father had learned Mandarin, and it had become their secret language. Their way of sharing thoughts that few others could decipher.

My lips turned down.

There. The waiter was standing at the entryway to the kitchen, talking with an elderly man in a traditional black silk top. The waiter’s eyes didn’t even flick in my direction.

I laid a card at the edge of a side table and stepped into the bathroom. I took my time washing my hands.

When I came out, the card was gone.

* * *

I sat on the polished wood bench at the Café Choklad staring at my sandwich. The Stuffed Pig. Shredded pork on kosher. Odd that Feng had chosen to meet here. Then again, maybe not that odd. It seemed less likely that his community members would flock to this offbeat café and catch sight of him meeting with the authorities.

The door pulled open.

There he was.

The raspberry mark on his neck almost throbbed with the tension at his jaw, and he looked all around the small space before coming over to sit with me. I got a better look at him now. He wore a black wool jacket over a dark sweater and slacks. His hair was neatly trimmed.

I nodded to him. “Thank you for coming, Feng.”

“I am a friend of Meiying’s niece. Meiying is a good aunt. All through school Meiying was always coming to the school plays. Always supportive. We all loved her. We did our best to support her shop.” His gaze fell. “And those shou xia destroyed it all.”

I didn’t need a translator to get a sense of that phrase.

I leaned forward. “We know their names. Anthony and Marco Derocco. Brothers. And we know they’re associated with the Family around here. But why were they hassling Meiying? It seems an awfully big leap, to go from messing up her shop to burning the entire thing down. Seems more than she just refused a payment.”

He nervously twined his fingers. “Meiying was compassionate. She cared about people. She donated her herbs to local shelters. Went to the homeless. It gets rough around her in winter, you know. The homeless in Miami? In Los Angeles? They just need a doorway. A park. But here in Providence? It gets to be twenty below in the winter. That wind off the ocean bites hard. People get sick. Get hurt. She did what she could.”

I nodded. I knew the problem well. Providence had a system of shelters set up, but not all of the homeless fit neatly into that network. Some had mental illnesses and refused to accept help. Some were simply too set in their ways to change.

I held Feng’s gaze. “So Meiying was compassionate. She cared about people.”

He nodded. “I went into her shop one evening. I needed some Jin Nei Jin.”

“Stomach problems.”

He looked at me in surprise. “Yes. Anyway, as I came in, she was at her back bench putting together a mix of herbs. I recognized them. They were for helping with memory loss. Dementia. That sort of thing. She had her worn down coat hanging on a chair nearby. It was the one she wore when she went in to help the homeless. They felt more comfortable with her when she dressed like them. Like she was one of them, not some wealthy doctor come down from the hospital to lecture them or drag them in for observation.”

I nodded.

He glanced around again and leaned forward. “So I asked her who they were for. The herbs. She clammed right up. Swept the stuff into a bag and stuffed it under a table. Changed the topic, asked me about my stomach, what I’d been eating. Told me to lay off all the chicken fingers. Got me on my way.”

I drew my brow together. “Maybe she just didn’t like talking about her volunteer work.”

He laughed out loud. “Meiying? Quite the opposite. She would talk with everyone she met about the homeless population here in Providence. She wanted to humanize them. Make them real to the rest of us. Help us to see them as real people. She told us about their kids and grandkids. About the ones who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s even a Vietnam vet who sleeps under the bridge. Did you know that? And she’s right. It does help. When we see Mary, whose family threw her out because she’s a lesbian, we bring her a sandwich. We sit and chat. She’s not ready to come in and get help, not yet. She’s still feeling too angry at everything. But if we keep being there for her? Someday she will.”

His eyes shadowed. “Soon, I hope. Because it’s mid-December and it’s going to get colder.”

I thought about that. “So Meiying liked to help the homeless population. And normally she was open to sharing their stories, to help build empathy in the community for them. But you think in this one particular case, she was hiding something?”

Feng nodded. “That was only a week before those goons showed up. Those two? They weren’t asking for protection money. That might work over on Atwells, but where Meiying was? There’s Pakistani liquor store owners and Armenian pawn shops. They’re pretty feisty. The Italians start hitting them up for money? It’s more likely one of those fancy restaurants over on Atwells runs into some sort of a rat problem. Things could escalate quickly.”

“You think it was about a homeless person she found?”

“Only thing that makes sense,” he agreed. “Maybe she found someone they’d been looking for. Someone who didn’t want to be found. Maybe she said something to someone before she realized the full situation. And now the Italians were trying to track this person down, and Meiying was refusing to tell them where he or she was.”

It actually made sense. “But why would they want to kill her, if they needed information from her?”

“Meiying was supposed to be giving a talk at Rhode Island Hospital on uses for common food items. Things like tangerine peel for bloating. But she forgot something and had to run back for it. I think she wasn’t supposed to be caught up in it.”

I thought again of the mysterious man on the fire escape. Maybe the Cap had been right. Maybe the guy had set the fire and then realized Meiying was inside. He’d been hired on for arson, but not murder. He’d done what it took to get her out.

Feng looked around again. “That’s all I know. I need to go. Get back to the restaurant.”

I nodded to him. “Thank you for telling me. I know it’s hard, for you to cross that line. To come talk with me. I appreciate it. I’ll do whatever it takes to figure out who is involved in this.”

“Meiying is a good woman. She’s always trying to help people. Seems only right we try to help her in return.”

“We will.”

He held my gaze as if trying to determine if I was just saying that or if I really meant it. At last a warm shine came to his eyes. “Thank you. Xie xie.”

I nodded to him.

He strode out of the café.

A moment, two, and Kayley came in. She took the seat that Feng had just vacated. She glanced at the plate in front of me. “What the heck is that?”

I pointed at the chalkboard menu. “Stuffed pig.”

She laughed. “All right, that looks good. I’m gonna try one myself.”

She ordered, the food was arranged, and a short while later she was sitting back in front of me. “OK, girl, spill.”

I told her everything Feng had said, start to finish.

At last she nodded. “You’re right, it makes sense. Meiying is helping all these homeless people and she stumbles across someone who doesn’t want to be found. Feng said she was mixing up some herbs for dementia and memory loss. Maybe this person doesn’t even remember why they’re hiding out. Just that it’s important to stay off the radar. But before Meiying realizes all of this, she says something to someone. And the Italians get interested.”

I nodded, tucking the last of my sandwich into my mouth. I took down a drink of soda. “They realize Meiying might have a lead on someone they want to find. Maybe someone who wronged the organization. So they go try to shake it out of her. But she’s tougher than they thought.”

“They want to escalate a bit. Cause some damage to her shop when she’s away. But things go wrong. Maybe the shop’s contents are more flammable than they realize. They definitely didn’t seem to think she’d be home. And now it’s not just a few rows of caterpillar mold and deer horns going up in smoke. Now it’s nearly a murder.”

I sat back and looked around the café. It really hadn’t changed much in the last eight years.

Unlike me.

My shoulders sagged.

Kayley’s gaze became attentive. “Hey, what is it?”

“Nothing about the case,” I told her. “Just feeling a bit nostalgic.”

She blinked and looked around her again. “Oh, right, you went to RISD for a year or two, right?”

I nodded. “A year and a half.”

“Rhode Island School of Design. And you were going to be … what? A painter?”

I gave a small smile. “It was all a long time ago. I was just a kid. I had a fight with my Dad, one Christmas. He said I was wasting my time. That I’d never be able to get a real job with the degree and I should find something more useful to do with my life. But Zhaohui stood up for me. Said I had great talent. That pigs were known to be artistic and my father should support me in my dream.”

My lips pressed tight. “That was it. I quit the very next day. Saw an ad online that the police academy was seeking new recruits. Filled it out. And here I am.”

Kayley chuckled. “Here you are.”

I put my hands flat on the table. “Well, we haven’t made progress on finding that guy from the fire. And the chances of Anthony and Marco telling us who they’re looking for is nil. But they know that Meiying knows. So I figure they’re going to look for another opportunity to get it out of her.”

“She’s still at her brother’s.”

I nodded. “I think we sit on the brother’s house for a few days. Watch to see if she goes out. I bet, if she does, that she might pick up a few visitors. Maybe someone a little lower down than Anthony and Marco. Someone more willing to talk if we shake them.”

Kayley finished off her soda. “A stake-out during the holidays. What could be better.”

* * *

Kayley groaned, rubbing her eyes. “Three days. Three days of sitting in this car, waiting for someone to do something. It’s the sixteenth. Less than ten days until Christmas. I should be doing my last minute shopping.”

“You should do what I do. Just give up on the holiday all together. Saves lots of time, money, and stress.”

She glanced over. “Yeah, what’s up with those pigs in your apartment? Was that some tradition from your stepmother?”

I shot her a glance.

She put up her hands. “Right, right, your father’s second wife. Was she anti-Christmas or something?”

I shook my head. “Nah, she was actually a Christian. She liked the tree and the whole deal. But that first Christmas, when she and Dad pulled down the boxes of ornaments and lights, I freaked. My mom had died just before Christmas Eve, you know. In that car accident. So my mom had been the last one to hang those ornaments. It was her and my thing. And now, to see Zhaohui reaching for them –”

I shook my head and turned my gaze back toward the house.

It was a white two-story colonial with a roofed front step. A narrow connector led to a two-car garage. There were lights on in several of the rooms and a number of people bustled around. It seemed Maiying, Cheng, and their family were celebrating the holidays. A Christmas tree sparkled with multi-colored lights in their front window.

Keyley asked, “What did the Chinese do this time of year? Before Christianity came in, I mean?”

“Even now, only a tiny percentage are Christian. The vast majority – I mean like a full three-quarters – are non-religious. But they still have traditions, of course. Many of them would celebrate the Winter Solstice. The darkest day of the year. That was a day which our entire planet-worth of farmers and sailors understood. But the main calendar in Chinese culture involves the yearly cycle. And that first new moon is the beginning. The start of it all. The Chinese New Year. In 2019 it’s on February 5th. That is what everyone is gearing up to celebrate. The Year of the Pig.”

Kayley glanced over at me. “The Earth Pig.”

I stared at her in surprise.

She shrugged. “I can Google. I started looking things up, after you told me about the water pig being your birth year. It turns out this coming year is the earth pig. That’s what Meiying was talking about. That it’s your year coming. And that this time it’s about earth, which is a grounding force.”

I sighed. “Don’t you start in on this too, Kayley. It’s all just nonsense.”

“And yet you have your apartment full of pigs.”

I frowned. “That’s because, that first year when I refused to let us put up the tree or decorations, Zhaohui bought me a painted porcelain pig. It looked like Wilbur, from Charlotte’s Web. You know. Pink, big ears. Round eyes. She said he would watch over me. I didn’t want it, but Dad made me put it on a shelf in my room. So I left it there until after the holidays and then I jammed it into a box.”

I shrugged. “Next year, they tried again with the Christmas stuff and I made it clear I wasn’t having any of it. So she got me a stuffed cotton pig. Half-moon eyes. Oval snout. That’s when she explained to me that I was a pig. It made everything that much worse. So I put the two pigs side by side on my shelf. Just for the holidays. And then back in the box they went.”

The corners of Kayley’s mouth turned up. “You are nothing if not stubborn.”

My eyes stayed on the house. “She’s on the move.”

Kayley leant forward.

Sure enough, the garage door was rolling up. Feng was helping Meiying into the passenger side of a dark blue sedan. Then he went around to get into the driver’s seat. He drove out, and the garage door closed behind them.

I gave them some space and then fell in behind them. This was a quiet residential neighborhood – no doubt they had seen us sitting on the house the past few days, although nobody had ever come out to talk with us. On the up side, we hadn’t seen any mysterious cars holding beefy Italian men on the street, either. Just the usual ebb and flow of Chinese relatives and friends.

They turned right.

I checked my watch. “7pm. Maybe they’re out for a movie.”

Kayley shook her head. “More likely they’re getting some final shopping in. You said she has a niece, right?”

I glanced at the dash display. It reported the outside temperature a balmy 19F. I considered. “Meiying is a woman who cares about others. Especially the homeless here in Providence. These past few days, she’s been under lock and key by her family. She’s used to be able to go out and do what she wants. To keep an eye on her flock, as it were. I wonder if she chafed at being held in. If she wants to make sure everyone is all right.”

We followed in silence.

The tires rolled.

They navigated their way through traffic lights, past bustling restaurants and brightly lit stores. At last Feng pulled in alongside the entrance to the Providence Place South Garage.

I looked to my right.

We were beneath a network of raised highways, with cars and trucks zooming overhead, racing to whatever destination seemed so important. Alongside us, past a metal fence, were lines of railroad tracks. The concrete buttresses and other supports were covered with graffiti.

The space quickly became lost in shadows.

Feng turned off his car; both of them climbed out. They took cloth bags from the back seats. I saw now that she was wearing a jacket that was worn and ripped.

We got out of our car and met them by our hood.

Meiying’s face was creased with worry. “Please don’t follow us. You two look like cops. You even move like cops. If they see you, they’ll run. On a night like this, they get away from their camp, they could freeze to death out there.”

I nodded. “I feel their plight as much as you do. And the last thing I’d want to do is roust them on a night like this. I know they’ve been encouraged plenty of times to seek warmer shelter. To let people help them. Scaring them now won’t make things any better.”

Her lines eased in relief. “Then you’ll let me do my ministering? Without interference?”

I glanced at Kayley. “We’re worried about you. We know Anthony and Marco are after you. Our investigations give a sense that it might be related to the homeless people you tend to.”

Feng’s face was completely blank. As if we were talking about the types of green tea.

Meiying hunched against the cold. “I can’t worry about those two. The people here need me.”

“All right, then. How about you take care of the homeless folk. We’ll keep an eye out, from a distance, for Anthony and Marco. Make sure they don’t interfere. After all, you don’t want those two barraging around in the camp, either, do you? They might make more of a mess of things than we would.”

Her eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yes. Yes, you’re right.”

I waved a hand for her to proceed.

She nervously went up to the chain link fence, and then glanced back at me to see if I was really going to let her climb through.

I shrugged my shoulders.

She pulled back the loose piece, and Feng held it for her while she slipped underneath. Another moment, and he had followed her.

We gave them a good head start, and then we stepped in after them.

Kayley murmured to me, “If this person in here is really a key figure that the mob wants to track down, maybe we might do some poking around of our own.”

I shook my head. “If we spook them, Meiying’s right. They could scramble and freeze to death. There’s a better way. Get her to trust us. Convince her we can help. Then we bring this person in safe and sound. If Meiying’s been mixing up herbs to help with dementia, it could be this person is elderly. That they don’t even remember whatever it is has the mob so interested in getting to them. May be they can’t help us at all. May be the best we can do is get them somewhere warm and safe, where they can live out the rest of their life as comfortably as they can.”

Kayley nodded.

Meiying and Feng eased their way down a grassy slope.

I nudged my head to Kayley. “We don’t want to agitate the locals. You head over to the right. I’ll take the left. Keep an eye out for those goons – or anyone goon-like.”

She chuckled. “Right-O.”

A chill coursed through me, and I pulled my jacket tighter. It made me appreciate that I had on my heavy sweater and the thick jacket. That I had the luxury of tucking back into the warm car when this was over. Of getting a nice, hot coffee. The people who lived down here? They were the lost ones. Forgotten. Abandoned. Once they’d had mothers and fathers. Maybe sisters and brothers. Maybe even wives or husbands or kids. But something had happened. Life had zigged when it should have zagged. Things turned upside down.

Maybe someone had died. Someone precious and irreplaceable had died and a gaping hole had been ripped … ripped …

Cold metal pressed into the base of my skull. I knew without any doubt that it was the barrel of a gun.

A voice hissed, almost lost in the brittle wind.

“Don’t move. Don’t make a sound.”

Book 3 in The Year of the Forgotten Secrets series is coming soon!

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