They found his body contorted like a fortune cookie with dried foam at the corners of his mouth and a fallen hand-carved rosewood chair, with inlaid mother of pearl beside him.
"What are the odds," the officer said, to no one in particular, his tongue traveling a well-worn toothpick across his teeth.
The crime scene investigator noticed a faded yellow band on the dead man's wedding finger and scribbled MISSING WIFE on his tiny notepad. The man had no visible injuries.
The investigator turned the man's head to one side, wedged his thumb and forefinger in the man's cheek, and with great care pulled what looked like a ticker tape. After nearly a minute, the end of the coil popped out.
In tiny red letters, it read THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.
"It's over Ben!" Sheila threw a handful of cancellation notices onto the kitchen table, knocking over some empty soda cans and an ashtray buried under a heap of cigarette butts.
"C'mon Sheila. You're making a mountain out of an island."
"It's molehill, you moron. And I am not. What did you do with the money I gave you- huh?"
Ben hated when Sheila spoke to him in that accusatory tone; as if he were a child. Hadn't he done everything she asked? The weekly meetings, the constant checking in? He slapped the table, stood up and walked out of the room averting his eyes from Sheila's self-righteous glare, wiping the perspiration from under his nose with the back of his hand.
Ted sat at a long mahogany table overlooking the downtown skyline. His thoughts were elsewhere as his superiors demanded answers. "How could you let this happen, Ted? You know what was at stake." The more questions they asked, the more muffled their voices became. The meeting had been going on for what seemed like an eternity and a day.
Eight years. That's how long Ted played his role as the "company man" without so much as a pat on the back or a 'Job well done, Ted. Here's a bonus to show our appreciation Ted'.
"You had three days to get this contract signed," said the wrinkled man with the cufflinks and bushy eyebrows. The other starched collars sitting alongside, nodded.
A pigeon perched on the window ledge ruffled its feathers and flew away. It soon became a tiny speck in the dull gray sky until it simply vanished.
"Well, what have you got to say for yourself?"
Ted looked away from the window and faced the angry suit seated directly across from him. He systematically capped his pen, placed it inside his coat pocket, closed the latches to his briefcase, stood up and walked out.
"Who cares ball fag17! every1 and their grandma knows that move. Luzr"
Eddie was learning quickly that as much as he'd hoped, fitting in in cyberspace was no different than being in school. Kids were cruel no matter where you went. But, occasionally there'd be someone who stuck up for you.
"CThunder205, leave bolvar17 alone. take the h8 someplace else."
"whatever, you don't own this thread. anyway it took ball fag forever just to figure out how to tank. no wonder he has no friends."
The one advantage for Eddie though, was in the forums, no one could see you cry.
"hey ball fag instead of getting us killed all the time maybe you should kill yourself. for real."
Sheila remained in the kitchen. Lit only by the mustard colored street lamp directly outside her window, she gathered the empty food cartons that Ben had left on the kitchen counter. She thought of how much she cared for Ben, but knew that staying together would be the end of both of them. I'm working the graveyard shift while his ass sits around all day and he doesn't even have the decency to leave me a single bite. A cockroach scurried across the wall. Startled, she dropped the box and a stale fortune cookie fell onto the counter. She hesitated, then picked it up and cracked it open.
"Mmm...that was delicious, Ted. Thank you."
Ted set aside his chopsticks and quickly swallowed his partially chewed tea-smoked duck. "So, what do you think?" he said, pointing off to the side at the manila folder serving as a coaster for the teapot.
"It's certainly an intriguing proposition."
"An opportunity of a lifetime, really."
The man took a sip and wiped the corners of his mouth with the cloth napkin.
Ted continued, "You know we'd love to get this partnership off the ground as soon as possible. Strike while the iron's hot, right?"
The man sat up and adjusted his waistline. "Sure, sure Ted. I'll take it back to the office and have the others review it. See what they say."
Ted's eyes darted from the man to the folder to the whirling fan in the coffered ceiling. His mind was empty.
The man stood up and extended his hand. "I'll call you. Thanks again for the meal."
As the folder disappeared around the revolving door, Ted's eyes fell onto the fortune cookie at the edge of the table.
Eddie groaned when a ring sounded from his backpack. He took his time rummaging through his things hoping the phone would stop ringing. It didn't.
"Eddie, where are you?"
"The Vice-Principal called to ask how you're feeling. You haven't been in school the past three days?!"
"Mom, it's f-"
"You get yourself home this instant!"
Sheila held a little strip of paper with tiny red numbers in one hand and filled in the little numbered squares on a card with the other. She handed the card to the clerk behind the counter.
He rang up the sale and said, "Good luck," and handed her the printout.
"Thanks, I need it." She kissed the slip of paper and tucked it in her tote bag.
"You fool!" she cried throwing a suede loafer that nearly missed Ted's head as he rushed out the door with little more than a suitcase and a travel bag. Her body wilted at the doorway. "There's nothing out there for you!"
Of the three cars parked in the driveway, he opted for the one closest to the street. He had neither the desire nor nerve to delay his decision any further. The sooner he could get out of sight, the sooner he could put his oversized house and the past twelve years behind him.
In no hurry to face the trouble that awaited him at home, Eddie took a detour and stopped at a small bakery. Every afternoon around this time the store put out a fresh batch of milk pudding buns. Maybe if he got an extra one for his mother, she'd be a little more forgiving. No such luck. He dug through the pockets of his backpack and found just enough to buy one fortune cookie.
"So what have we got?" The Lieutenant pointed to a cork board on which several long strips of paper were matched with photographs.
The lead investigator stood up. "Four vics in as many days. All found with ridiculously long fortunes jammed in their mouths. From left to right, Sheila M., 31, Dispatcher. Fortune reads 'Don't face reality, let it be the place from which you leap'. Lucky numbers: 39-27-44-11-21-42. Up next, Theodore B., 42, Broker. Fortune reads 'Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become'. Over here, Edward S., 14, Student." The detective cleared his throat. "He who climbs a ladder. Must begin at the first step." He returned to his seat.
"Okay, good," the Lieutenant began, "so, we've got a torn, claimed lottery ticket from the woman's tote bag found outside an ATM, three blocks from her apartment -"
"Not the greatest of neighborhoods," said another detective.
"Right," the Lieutenant said. "We also have an unused plane ticket to Tokyo found in the man's travel bag at the site of the crash."
"Who drives to the airport with almost no brake fluid?" the officer added, with a fresh toothpick between his teeth.
"Hmm...and for the boy, all we have is a step ladder propped against the parapet of the campus clock tower." The Lieutenant stepped back. "And today this gentleman, no sign of food poisoning and no motive. Have we found the wife?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Stay on it. And let's look into these numbers and messages. Are they directed at us or the victims? Locate anyone who spoke or spent time with the victims during their last forty-eight hours. And how the hell does someone swallow a four-foot strip of paper?!"
The group separated, each detective with his assigned duties. Over the next few hours they learned the numbers four and seven were considered unlucky according to Chinese numerology. If the latest fortune, fourth on the list, was intended to be a message to the police, then three more people would die in the next three days. The question was, how?
The investigator who made this discovery sat back in his chair, looked to the ceiling and said, "It's gonna be a long night. Where do we even begin?"
"If this works, Sun Tzu, you will be a hero, remembered for generations to come," the King said. Sun Tzu bowed before the court and retreated down the Great Hall and into the courtyard to contemplate his next steps among the plum blossoms. He continued through the Capital, passing the garden of passion flowers, mullein and opium poppies and stepped into a vast room lined with bubbling cauldrons of palm oil and glowing hearths of terracotta and stone. The treats were being prepared by kneeling widows who ground the rosettes and seeds of a delicate flower into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle.
"We haven't much time," he said.
The soldier gave a slight nod. "The first batch should be ready in one or two days, General." He pointed to his left where others were blending the freshly ground powder with black spice and gypsy wort. To his right, bare chested men dipped their swollen arms into large ceramic pots and uprooted snakes, scorpions and spiders to extract their venom.
Sun-Tzu placed his hand on the soldier's shoulder. "Do what you can, but remember, it's only a matter of time before they realize some of their men are missing. The fate of the dynasty is in your hands." He squeezed the soldier's clavicle and placed a crescent-shaped cookie in his palm.
Sun-Tzu walked away, leaving the soldier to revisit each step of the plan in his mind. All that was left to do was to fuse the Gu with the sweet, sugary rice mixture, press it into thin sheets and wait for the caramel-colored paper to dry just enough to enable the women to fold it into shape and bake it over the fiery coals. In two days' time, the delectable confections would be offered to their captives as tokens of goodwill. By then, the prisoners of war, feeble and famished, would consume enough of these irresistible treats for the toxins to leaden their already frail minds and leave them susceptible to the powers of hypnosis. Through suggestion they would betray their leaders, divulging the enemy's secrets before dying of asphyxiation some time later when the ingested cookies would expand in their bellies and extend into their throats, leaving behind messages that had been inscribed within the cookies' folds.
Whether or not the experiment succeeded is unknown. No written record of the events survived. What did survive were Sun Tzu's notes on the value of psychological warfare in military combat. Inscribed on bamboo slats and bound into a book, his writings traveled across continents as empires expanded, constantly changing hands as dynasties rose and fell.
Centuries later, a merchant discovered a handful of beaten laths that appeared to be part of a larger book. The threads that held it together were few and frayed. Decorated along the margins of each page was the logo of a magistrate in the form of a two-headed dragon, whose tail curled into the numeral eight. The contents appeared to be a recipe for an exotic sweet or pastry. Unlike other delicacies of the time, these were unusually addictive and repeatedly linked to irrational behavior. But demand grew and profiteers found ways to export them to every corner of the world. It was not until the decades' long Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, that distribution was pressured to skulk underground, until eventually any trace of their existence simply vanished.
Outside, the early morning sun was obscured by an intrusive fog suffocating the city streets. Inside, the intense pressure for progress on the recent string of slayings was weighing heavily on the officers' minds.
"I got nuthin', Lieutenant," answered one of the detectives, rubbing both eyes with the fat of his palms. "All my other leads went dry." He stepped up to the corkboard and removed some index cards concealed under a web of string, push pins, maps and photographs.
The Lieutenant stood up from the edge of the desk. "Well, we've got enough to bust the boyfriend, the wife and the kid from the forum."
The other detectives listened as the Lieutenant summarized the charges. It happened that Sheila's boyfriend Ben had been arrested multiple times for varying degrees of narcotics possession. Neighbors heard them arguing in the days leading up to her death. Detectives concluded that the addict followed his girlfriend to the ATM, waited for her to withdraw the money and attempted to steal it. When a struggle ensued, he did what any reckless junkie would do and took the matter into his own hands.
As for Ted, the businessman, it was no secret that he was unhappy and desperate for change. He had the means to quit his job and leave his marriage. What he hadn't anticipated was that his wife would do anything to prevent him from destroying their lives, even if it meant draining the brake fluid from his brand new convertible to prevent him from leaving.
With regard to the fourteen year old who jumped from his high school clock tower, the consensus was that the suicide was a direct result from the constant cyberbullying he had received from a peer whom the police tracked down through an online chat forum for video gamers.
Admittedly, there were two major pieces to the puzzle that still needed explaining:
"Lieutenant! What about number four?" said the Officer who ran out of toothpicks hours ago and had since tapped into his cache of lollipops.
The Lieutenant nodded and held up a plastic-wrapped fortune cookie from a pile on his desk, adding, "And how do these fortunes fit in to the picture?" He straightened up. "Let's bring in these three for questioning and go from there, shall we?"
The detectives grabbed their jackets and holsters and set out, leaving the dispirited Lieutenant behind. He plunked down onto his chair and observed the cookie from various angles, holding it cautiously between his thumb and middle finger. Eventually, he tore open the plastic and peered into the cookie through the opening of its fold. A tiny bit of the papers' corner mimicked him like a bratty child. "Speak to me, you little bastard," he whispered. Careful not to put the cookie anywhere near his mouth, he broke the cookie open and slid out the strip. "Patience is key, a wait short or long will have its reward, for your time has come. Lucky numbers 08-09-25-29-36-42."
The Lieutenant turned the paper over and saw a logo on the back. It was a 2-headed dragon whose tail curled into the numeral 8.
"Lieutenant!" The lead investigator shouted from the hallway. "You coming?"
Startled, the Lieutenant replied, "Right. Yes. Coming!" He then set the paper down, licked the stickiness from his fingers and ran out the door. •