At dinnertime, the three sisters traded the information they had got during the day. Tricia began first, “Today, I helped Sam with the investigation for one of his cases. I was in Morristown and happened to see someone in a car looking very much like Frank coming from the opposite direction. When I wanted to have a second look, he had already passed me. So I was not quite sure about it.” She put some food into her mouth and chewed it slowly.
“Did he drive his own car?” Lois asked without looking up. She was peeling the shell of a shrimp.
“No, it was another car, a new Buick. So I doubt he could afford such an expensive car,” Tricia replied, having swallowed the morsel.
“He must be alive,” Lois surmised. “There might be some reason for his disappearance.” She pushed the shrimp into her nicely shaped small mouth with the tips of her chopsticks. The color of her lips was naturally so red that she didn't need to apply a red lipstick. It sufficed to look like she had already put on a ruddy color. So she never used any color on her lips. The grotesque blue, green, purple or black lips would look like a vampire's, she thought in disgust. They were only fit for Halloween night.
“Why didn't he go home or contact his parents if he can still breathe?” Sally put forth the question. She already finished two pork chops, quite a few shrimp and a plateful of vegetables. So her question of “to eat or not to eat” was already solved. It was “to eat”.
“That's what we must find out,” Tricia remarked. She was having another bowl of vegetable soup now. Vegetables and fruits are good for skin texture, the doctors said. Since Sally didn't have any useful information to give, it was Lois's turn. She got the shrimp down her food pipe now.
Lois described everything in particular about Master Craig Pu and his family. After the narration, she turned to Alida. “Did you notice if the stranger had a beard?”
“Definitely not. He didn't seem so old,” Alida replied.
She was assigned a plateful and a bowlful of food, enough to feed a horse. “You need nourishment for your growth,” Mrs. Lin said.
“Master Pu said he never taught anyone kungfu outside his family,” Lois quoted, lifting her chopsticks to dip them into a dish of spinach.
“Most likely it was Richard Chang who was the stranger,” Sally passed her judgment. She finished her vegetables and was searching on the table for more edibles.
“Don't be so sure when you have no evidence,” Tricia warned. “The word 'rash' should never be in our professional dictionary.” Tricia had enough and laid down her chopsticks. She wanted to keep her figure slim and attractive, never overfeeding herself.
“Speaking of Master Chang, there's something very funny about him,” Lois blurted out, also putting down her chopsticks and empty bowl.
“What is it?” Sally was always very curious, still fixing her eyes on the dish of bamboo shoots.
“He never says pants or trousers. Whenever he refers to them, he uses nether garments. And for underwear, he uses innermost nether garments.” Everyone at the table couldn't help chortling. “Anyway, he's a responsible master and an upright person.”
“Even if he killed Uncle Charles?” Sally asked dubiously, raising her eyes to Lois, temporarily forgetting the bamboo shoots, her chopsticks still poised in midair teeming with the aroma of the food on the table.
“As we can conclude by now, if he was the stranger, he didn't kill Uncle Charles. Someone else did.” Lois had good feelings towards Master Chang now.
“At least, he was the cause of Uncle's death,” Sally protested. “Uhu!” she clammed shut when she saw tears trickling down Alida's cheeks. The sisters were silent. Louise hugged Alida, wiped her cheeks with a tissue, and dragged her into the kitchen.
“Lioness Team. Lois speaking.” Since a reporter had given them the nickname in the newspaper for a difficult case they had cracked a few years before, no one remembered their official name anymore, which was “Lois, Tricia & Sally Private Investigation”. Now even they themselves used the nickname instead.
“Hello, this is Mrs. Pamela White,” an old lady spoke at the other end.
“How can I help you, Mrs. White?” Lois inquired politely.
“My dog's been missing for twenty-four hours already. I am old and he is my only companion and helper. I don't know to whom I can turn to for help. Since you have such a great reputation, I think your office can help me.”
“I'm sorry, Mrs. White.” Lois wanted desperately to keep her voice sounding normal. “Our business really doesn't include finding missing pets.”
“I know. I know.” The old lady sounded pathetically morose. “I don't know how I can survive if he isn't there to keep me company and help me. Almost every other morning he goes out with a basket held in his mouth to Foodtown to get food and other necessities for me. People there know him. They will take the note I put into his basket and put all the items I need into it. They'll take the money I left in the basket and put in the change. He will bring everything back home to me.”
“How old are you, Mrs. White, if I may ask?” Lois was a girl with a golden heart, easy to sympathize with pitiful people; therefore, often bending her principles a little flexibly.
“Eighty-seven.” Her voice sounded that old and nearly in tears.
“Although I won't take this as a case, I think I can help. Will you give me your phone number and address?” Lois picked up a pen and a yellow sticker off her desk, but there was no more ink in the pen. “Will you hold for a moment, please? I have to go find a pen.” She laid down the receiver, went to Tricia's desk, and pulled open the middle drawer, looking for a pen. However, the first thing that struck her eyes was a piece of paper with Sam's name written all over it. Lois was really distracted, but soon she gathered herself and closed the drawer after picking up a pen. She returned to her desk and wrote down the phone number and address of the old lady.
She called a sergeant she knew in the Highland Park police station and asked him to notify all the patrol cars to look for a golden retriever along their patrol routes. Then she called her mother. “Hi, Mom,” she said after Louise picked up the phone.
“Hi, Lois, what's up?” her mother said with concern.
“I need your help,” she confided, tapping her pen on the yellow sticker, making ink marks everywhere the ballpoint fell on it.
“Is everything okay with you?” The concern developed into anxiety.
“I'm fine, but a very old lady needs help.” She related the event to her mother and gave her the lady's phone number and address, which was luckily still discernible despite the ink marks all over.
Louise phoned the lady first, telling her that she was the mother of the girl she had called and that she would come over to help. Fifteen minutes later, Louise arrived at the address. It was an apartment building with three stories, but no elevator, and the old lady lived on the second floor. Louise rang the doorbell and after a long while the door was opened for her. Louise noticed that the old woman walked very slowly with the aid of a walking stick.
“My daughter's looking for your dog for you, but we don't know if we can find it or not, or how soon. Meanwhile, I'll help do the shopping for you.” The old woman thanked her profusely. So Louise became a temporary volunteer social worker.
A young policeman, who just came on duty, said to the sergeant after he was told the situation, “Yesterday when I was patrolling at night, I heard a dog barking somewhere. I'll check it tonight, but how can we be sure it's the missing dog? We cannot search people's houses without a warrant.”
“Don't worry,” the sergeant said. “Get the address of the house under suspicion for me.”
The young policeman talked on the police communications system to the sergeant. “I got the address. Will you write it down?”
The sergeant took down the address and called Lois at home to pass on the information. Lois thanked him.
The three sisters were in a meeting. They wanted to find a way to make sure it was the missing dog. It was not unusual for dogs to bark at night. After a long discussion, they couldn't find any excuse to get into the person's basement. The only way was to sneak into it. “I'll go,” Sally offered. She had always liked the game of hide-and-seek since she was a child. Now she liked jobs that involved breaking and entering. She thought it was a lot of fun, challenging and adventurous.
“Be careful,” Lois warned. “If you are caught, it will ruin our good name.”
Sally walked there, dressed in a pair of comfortable black stretch leggings, black sneakers, and a black turtleneck. Her mouth was moving with the chewing of her gum. She pried open the low window of the basement with a special tool and peeked inside. She slipped in and jumped onto the hard cement floor, directed by her small pen-like flashlight. The dog was barking at her from somewhere. She swept the beam of the flashlight across the room and saw a golden retriever on a leash attached to a pillar. She approached the dog, putting her index finger to her lips, “Shhh. Shhhhhh… “ But the dog had not been trained for the meaning of “shhh.” The dog refused her approach, baring his teeth. Suddenly, she heard the door handle turning. She turned off the flashlight and slipped behind the furnace. Footsteps were heard echoing off the stairs. The bulb flicked on and a man's voice said, “Don't bark, good boy. Here's some food for you.” A plate touched the cement. Then footsteps receded upstairs. The light was still on. Sally tiptoed furtively up to the dog from behind and gently released the leash from the collar then quickly grabbed up the dog after checking its collar. The dog was engrossed in eating now and struggled and whined when she picked it up. Sally noticed a back door in the basement. As she was about to dash for the door, a man in his late twenties appeared on the stairs.
“Who are you?” he asked Sally.
“It doesn't matter who I am,” Sally said calmly. “I came to take my dog back.”
“Put down the dog and leave, or I'll call police,” the man threatened.
“You kidnapped my dog. Go ahead and call the police and we'll see what they have to say about it.”
The man thought it over. He appeared nervous. “No one's calling the police, okay? You can leave with the dog. Just forget all about this.”
Sally knew that trespassing and intruding were illegal; so she agreed to the condition and left through the back door, turning her head to spit out the gum at the man who had stepped down the stairs and was now standing a few paces away with his mouth half open. To his surprise, the gum flew into his mouth, but didn't hurt him. He swallowed it in his stunned bewilderment without knowing what it was.
Sally took the dog to the old woman the next morning. When the old woman opened the door, the dog was so excited to see his mistress again that he jumped up on her, almost knocking her over; Sally had to hold her steady. The woman thanked Sally over and over again. If it hadn’t been a repeated expression of gratitude, it would have sounded like nagging.
Two days later, when Sally was in the office, the old woman called again, “You've got to help me, Miss--”
“Sally. Is the dog missing again?” She rolled the wad of gum under her tongue.
“No. He's okay, but the money I put in the basket's missing.”
“Will you explain, please?”
“I sent the dog shopping as usual,” the woman said in a quavering voice. “When he reached the supermarket, people there couldn't find the money in the basket. They gave me all the things on credit, though.”
“I'll come tomorrow before the dog goes shopping.” Sally made her soothing promise.
The next day Sally arrived at ten and followed the dog at a safe distance, blowing bubbles all the way along. When the dog got near the house of the man who had kidnapped him, Sally saw the man crouching on the pavement in front of his house with something held out in his hand. Then he noticed Sally and withdrew his hand. Something dawned on Sally.
The day after, the dog went shopping again. The man crouched on the same spot with food in his outstretched hand. He lured the dog near. When the dog put down the basket to eat the food out of his hand, he reached his other hand into the basket and grabbed the money from it. The man stood up and put the money into his pocket. Just at that time, someone jumped down from a tree nearby. The man looked up. It was the girl who claimed to be the owner of the dog, with a portable camcorder in her hand. He knew he was trapped.
“Do you want to go to police?” Sally asked.
“I know I did wrong. Let me go and I'll never do it again. I vow it,” the man implored in frustration, handing Sally the money he had taken from the basket.
“I have the evidence here.” Sally held up the camcorder in one hand, took the money with the other, then put it back into the basket. “Next time you want to do anything, just think twice and ask yourself if anyone does it to you, how you'd feel.”
Sally stood there, seemingly with no intention of going away. The man looked puzzled, his inquiring eyes fixed on Sally. “Give me back the money you took last time.”
“I'll be right back.” He rushed into the house and came out in a moment with the money. The dog had gone with the basket in his mouth. Sally took the money and spat the gum onto the tip of the man's nose, then walked away. The man took down the gum and looked at it. Now he knew what he had swallowed the other night. He was not sure if he should be happy or nauseous.
“It took me six hours of hiding in the tree to catch him red-handed.” Sally told the story at dinnertime. Everyone was amused.
“So you got up at four in the morning?” Tricia doubted. Sally was never known as an early bird.
“I have to go hiding when it's still dark,” confessed Sally.
“I had a little adventure in the bank today,” Tricia provided.
“Will you tell the story from the beginning, Cousin Tricia?” said Alida. “Begin with 'Once upon a time', please.”
“Okay, Alida, as you wish.” Tricia played along to please the girl. “At a time of yore, there was a little girl called Alida.” She combed a tress of her hair behind her ear with her fingers.
“Tricia,” Alida corrected, “it's your story, not mine.”
Tricia went to the bank at lunch break. There were a few people there already and she got into the line. A woman and a boy of about five stood before her. The boy turned around to look at her, showing a bump on his forehead. “Where did you get the bump?” Tricia asked the boy smilingly.
“He tripped on the way here, fell on his stomach and knocked his forehead on the pavement,” the woman replied for the boy, who only blinked his big brown eyes at Tricia.
“Let me get the bump off.” Tricia laid her right palm on the bump and oozed out her chi. A few minutes later, she removed her hand. The bump was gone, only a red and blue spot was there. Suddenly, a man with a helmet on his head dashed in.
“Don't move,” he bellowed. He had a gun clutched in both hands. Tricia turned around, facing him a few feet away, because she was the last one in the line. As the other customers lay prone on the floor, Tricia seized the opportunity and acted as quick as lightning. The man was at a suitable distance within her reach. She bent backward at her knees, her upper torso almost parallel to the floor, and supporting her weight on her right leg, she kicked up her left foot at the man's hands. The man pulled the trigger, but the bullet went way over Tricia's head into the opposite wall. He didn't have a second chance. The gun was kicked out of his hands, soaring to hit the ceiling. The man was about to turn and run when Tricia hit him with her chi from the index finger of her right hand on a spot of his body called Stop-Motion Xue that made him unable to stir a muscle. “It's okay now,” Tricia shouted. The other customers got on their feet and business went on. A few minutes later, the police arrived and took the man away to the police station together with the gun lying on the floor. Tricia had offset his stop-motion effect by slapping him on the shoulder when the police came in.
“You should have been there, Sally. You missed all the excitement.” Tricia liked to tease Sally whenever there was a chance.
“I got the excitement secondhand from your narration. That's enough for me,” Sally replied.
Lois went regularly to the classes at Master Chang's place. Mrs. Chang was very fond of her; so after class Lois stayed behind a little longer to talk with Mrs. Chang, who often treated her with homemade snacks and sometimes even forced Lois to stay for dinner. The furniture in the living room was very simple: a set of sofas along two adjoining walls, a 30” TV on the opposite corner, some chairs taking up the rest of the space against other walls and a low round wooden table before the vinyl sofas, which were a chestnut color and on which they now sat.
“I wish I had a daughter like you,” Mrs. Chang said to Lois. “I really envy your mother.” Lois was touched by her earnestness and sincerity, so she offered, “You can look upon me as your Dry Daughter, like in Chinese tradition, and I'll call you Dry Mother, though my biological mother never fed me with her own milk, but hired a wet nurse for me.”
“Who's whose Dry Mother?” Master Chang had just came into the house from the backyard after he dismissed the other pupils.
“Lois is my Dry Daughter now,” Mrs. Chang informed exultantly. “So you are her Dry Father.”
“Father is always dry,” Mr. Chang said dryly. “Lois, since you are my Dry Daughter now,” Mr. Chang continued, “we'll have an honest talk.” He sank on the sofa beside his wife.
“Okay, Dry Father,” Lois said demurely. “Go on, please.”
“I can feel that you know much more about kungfu than you have demonstrated so far. You should belong to a much higher level than the class level I'm teaching. So I am conjecturing you come to my classes with a purpose of some sort. What is it? Can you tell me candidly?” Both Mr. and Mrs. Chang waited expectantly. Mrs. Chang froze her gaze on Lois's face nervously.
Lois was in a dilemma now. Through months of acquaintance, Lois found that the old couple were good, honest people, though Mr. Chang was the cause of her Uncle Charles's death, if not the murderer. She should have hated him, but she felt that she couldn't harbor a grudge against him, because she knew that Mr. Chang had only made an unintentional mistake at the wrong time in the wrong place. Even if he had not encountered Uncle Charles, someone else would have killed him as well. Probably they had waited for this chance or even used Mr. Chang as a cover. But why? What was the motive? She'd find out yet.
If she wouldn't talk to Mr. Chang frankly, what would the result be? She guessed that she could no longer come. Her purpose to come here was to get some clue, any clue. If she confessed to him, she might have his cooperation and finally learn some clue. After a few minutes of consideration, she made up her mind.
“Okay. I'll tell you everything since you are so nice to me.” After a pause, Lois went on, “Charles is my uncle, actually my grandfather's disciple. I'm investigating his death. His daughter was watching behind the kitchen window when a stranger came to challenge Charles for a fight and he was killed in the second round. We decided that no one could have killed Charles in the second round with kungfu strokes, and so the stranger could not be the killer. In my investigation, I plan to approach all the known masters to find out who the stranger is, and I may get some clue from him as to who the real killer is and why.”
Mrs. Chang was relieved after hearing Lois's confession. She had a firm belief that a girl as nice as Lois would not come to do them any harm. She had not the slightest suspicion of her husband's involvement. So she went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Mr. Chang waited till his wife retired to the kitchen, then he asked, “Are you sure that the stranger was a master, not just someone who knew something about kungfu?” He seemed a bit uneasy, not knowing where to put his hands.
“I'm pretty sure, because my uncle was a first-class master.” It was her turn to freeze her stare on the face of Master Chang to see his reaction.
“Did you find out who the stranger is?” His voice sounded a little unnatural. He clasped his hands in his lap, pressing his back tightly against the sofa as if he hoped to dissolve into it.
“I have my suspicions, but no proof,” Lois informed him truthfully.
Mr. Chang seemed relieved. “What's the real cause of your uncle's death, if I may ask?” He was actually curious to know.
“The autopsy showed that he had a poisonous needle in his head.”
“I--I mean--the stranger--it could not come from the stranger, I guess?” He was flabbergasted at the unexpected, shocking news.
“No, it came from behind.” Lois did not want to cause uneasiness in the master, although she could almost be certain that Mr. Chang was very probably the stranger.
Now Mr. Chang got into the dilemma of whether or not he should confess to Lois. He had suspected David ever since the murder had happened. If he told Lois all about David, it might be a clue, but then he must confess that he was the stranger and very likely, she would bear him ill feelings. He liked the girl. He did not want her to cherish a feeling of enmity towards him. “I'll talk to David the next time he comes in,” he decided.