"Hello, Owen," Jackie said stonily.
Owen licked his suddenly dry lips. "H-hey Jackie," he said. "What brings you here?"
"More importantly, is old billy goat with you?" Mama Tohru asked frostily.
"Sensei is in Hong Kong," Tohru said placatingly. "It's just me, Jackie, and this boy."
"Hi, I'm Ron," Ron said, waving awkwardly.
"Owen, do you know anything about the Luck of the Oasis?" Jackie asked.
"The Luck of the Oasis?" Owen sucked air through his teeth. "Shoot, y'know, Jackie, if you'd hit me up just two weeks ago, I'd'a had it right here waitin' for ya. Had it right in my hot little hand!"
"I'm sure that you did," Jackie said coolly, visibly straining not to roll his eyes.
"I did, honest Injun!" Owen insisted. "Least, I did. Then I ran into an old friend, we got t' drinkin', we played some poker—y'know, like we did back in the old days—"
"You lost it in a card game," Jackie interrupted dryly.
"Yep, just like old times, pardner," Owen said with a big, toothy grin.
"You know this phony?" Mama Tohru asked disapprovingly.
"We go way back," Jackie said. "Owen, you said you ran into an old friend. Who has the Luck of the Oasis now?"
Owen grimaced. "Yeah, about that..."
Jackie blinked. His shoulders slumped. "Oh no."
"Please, anyone else but him."
Owen clapped a hand on Jackie's shoulder and looked him square in the eyes. "Good luck, Jackie. You're gonna need it."
* * * * *
"Well that was a bust," Jade said grumpily as she climbed into the back seat of the family car. She crossed her arms and glared at the mansion they'd just left as though it had personally offended her.
"Well it's a very lovely jewel," her mother said. "And so unusual! I can see why they're protective of it."
"Pfeh," Uncle said. "'Natural impurity of gold'! Uncle does not think so! Gold not make shape of character for 'monkey' in piece of jade by accident!"
"Who cares," Jade sulked. "It isn't the thing. We could be having a cool adventure with Jackie in the Middle East!"
"Is visiting your dear old parents really that bad?" Jade's mother asked.
Jade sighed. "Of course not," she said. "I mean, it's nice to see you guys once in a while. It's just that now we know Jackie's the one on the trail of the real Monkey Crystal, and I'm missing out on it!"
"Well, as long as we are in Hong Kong, Uncle has personal business to take care of," Uncle said. "You have nice visit with parents for next two days, then we go back to America."
"Eh, I guess," Jade said resignedly.
* * * * *
After Jackie asked Owen a few more questions, the group made their way out of the Grand Bazaar, now with Mama Tohru in tow.
"Mother, why were you haggling with that crook over an old shogi set? I bought you a perfectly nice shogi set for your birthday two years ago!"
"Yes, and I love it and I use it often," Mama Tohru said with a smile. "But I happened to see that while I was browsing, and I thought it might be nice to have an antique shogi set to display when I have Taiko Meijin in my house for tea next month."
Tohru blinked. "You're having a Meijin for tea?"
"An honor I won in a shopping district raffle," Mama Tohru said. "Anyway, it was a passing thought, but..."
"Taco Mage?" Ron wondered aloud, earning a disapproving scowl from Mama Tohru.
"Taiko Meijin," Tohru enunciated slowly and deliberately.
"A Meijin is a respected master of a game or sport," Jackie explained patiently. "Shogi is a very important and revered game, you see—"
"Yeah, it's Japanese chess, I know," Ron said. "I picked it up when I was an exchange student in Japan. Never really got good at it." He stroked his chin. "So it's like, a shogi champion? Okay, I got it."
Jackie sighed. "Yes, something like that."
Mama Tohru scrutinized Ron sharply. "Who is ropey-face boy?" she asked. "Usually I see you with billy goat or that cute little scamp Jade."
"Aww, again with the ropey face? What the heck?!"
"He is a...visitor, of sorts," Jackie said. "He and his friends are actually why we are looking for the Luck of the Oasis. It is a very long story. As for Jade, she is with billy goat—err, I mean Uncle—in Hong Kong."
"Hmph! You sure billy goat can take care of that girl by himself?"
"Of course he can," Jackie said tiredly. "Come on, we need to rest up and arrange passage to Thailand." His shoulders slumped. "Bad day..."
* * * * *
"So this dude we're here to see," Ron said as the group left the airport in Bangkok. "What's his deal and why do you look like you'd rather eat expired dairy and ride the world's biggest rollercoaster?"
Jackie grimaced. "Carter traffics in stolen artifacts," he said. "Many unsavory types have dealings with him, and more than once I've had trouble with him showing up at a dig. He tends to not care how much damage he causes or how many delicate and priceless discoveries he breaks. He once collapsed the excavation of a temple by setting off a pile of explosives to cover his escape with a golden idol." He shook his head. "Besides, he's just...very annoying."
"You seem to encounter quite a variety of societal rejects in your profession," Mama Tohru said in a calm, conversational tone.
"Archaeology unfortunately attracts oddballs," Jackie said, showing no sign of offense. "Very old things are often worth quite a lot of money to the wrong people, after all."
"Still, it almost sounds as though you, that American in the Bazaar, and this man we're on our way to see now are old friends."
Jackie grimaced. "We are, or were," he said. "We were classmates in college. All three of us were archaeology students, had most of the same classes." He smiled in reminiscence. "I was the quiet one, Carter was the loud one, and Owen was the one with all the big schemes and plans. We got up to so much mischief...we were inseparable."
"So what happened?" Ron asked.
Jackie sighed. "We drifted apart," he said. "Carter always had, shall we say, a loose relationship with the rule of law. It was our senior year, he was busted for possession and expelled. He decided to go out and see the world after that. Owen had always talked about making it rich as a treasure hunter, and I dreamed of working for the world's museums to make ancient treasures available for the public to learn from." He shook his head. "In retrospect, our friendship was doomed before it even began. Anyway, while I disapprove of Owen's tendency to scheme and connive, he has never to my knowledge broken the law, and I have at least kept in touch with him over the years, though we are not as close as we once were. Carter, however, I prefer to keep at least one continent in between us at all times."
"Ouch," Ron said.
"And now your former friend has the jewel we seek," Tohru rumbled darkly.
"And if it is the Monkey Crystal, then this will likely end in violence," Jackie said resignedly. "Knowing Carter, he probably smuggled it out of Turkey in his behind, and—" He cut himself off. "Well, anyway."
"Oh, dude, SICK AND WRONG!"
"I agree," Tohru said. "That is...a nauseating prospect."
"I am so glad Jade is not here," Jackie said. "Carter's foul language and lifestyle are hardly suitable for children."
Mama Tohru scowled. "Perhaps my Tohru should not be here either."
Tohru pinched the bridge of his nose. "I believe I'm grown-up enough to handle a little cursing and...whatever else this man is up to."
"So long as you don't pick up any bad habits," Mama Tohru said sternly.
It took almost two hours to find the address Owen had given them. It was deep in the heart of one of Bangkok's red-light districts. The outside dazzled with bright neon lights and offended the senses with columns wrapped in red velvet with coiled golden dragons climbing from bottom to top, lighted panels on either side of the door depicting silhouettes of dancing women, and the constant thrum of pounding music emanating from within like an excited heartbeat.
"Uhh...you sure this is the right place?" Ron asked.
Jackie sighed. "Yes, this is exactly the sort of place one would find Carter." Squaring his shoulders, he walked up to the front doors. A thuggish bouncer stood there, arms folded and stern scowl firmly fixed on his face. Beneath his sunglasses, an ugly scar crossed over one eye. Jackie approached him fearlessly. "We are here to see Carter," he said. "Let us in."
The bouncer looked down at him and snorted. "Piss off," he growled.
Tohru stepped up, cracking his knuckles. "Let me handle this," he said. "We are going through that door. Either you stand aside, or I will use you to force the door open."
The bouncer raised an eyebrow...then, moving like lightning, hit Tohru in the gut with a rising double knee. Tohru grunted in surprise as he skidded across the street, barely keeping his balance.
Mama Tohru scowled darkly. "Nobody hurts my BABY!" she howled. She leapt onto the bouncer, seized him around the neck, and threw him to the ground. Before he could register what happened, she delivered a rapid series of strikes to his face and chest that produced audible cracks and shattered his glasses. He let out a groan and fell still.
"Holy crap," Ron said, staring at Mama Tohru.
Jackie knelt down to check the bouncer's pulse. "Sorry, so sorry!" he said, then pushed open the doors. The music from inside assaulted them like a wave. Tohru rejoined them; after being fussed over briefly by his mother, he led the way into the club.
The inside was just like the outside, except cranked up to eleven. Tacky Oriental decor was on display everywhere, a mishmash of every culture's most opulent excesses. Men tipped back drinks and hooted at several women in various states of undress who undulated on a brightly lit, smoky stage at the heart of the room, winding their nearly-nude bodies around brass poles. Strobing speakers pulsed their lights in time with the pounding music. Musky smells filled the air, a combination of sweat, alcohol, smoke, and incense.
"Okay, so...it's a strip club," Ron said in a shaky voice, his eyes wide and his face pale. "Man, KP would so kill me if she knew where I was right now."
Tohru shifted uncomfortably. "Perhaps...I will wait outside," he said hesitantly.
"I might need the backup," Jackie said.
"Dude, I think he's embarrassed to be in the same room as his mom and a bunch of strippers and honestly? I'm not all that cool with it either because I feel like I'm in the same room with my grandma and a bunch of strippers and I'm having kind of a freakout here."
"Pay no heed to the shameful naked harlots," Mama Tohru said in a forebidding tone. "I suggest you boys focus on why we're here. The sooner we take care of business, the sooner we can leave."
Jackie walked over to the bar and flagged down the bartender. "I'm here to see Carter," he shouted over the music.
The bartender frowned at him and shrugged.
"Carter!" Jackie repeated insistently. "Your boss! I know he is here! Tell him I am looking for him! My name is Jackie Chan!"
The bartender continued wiping a glass, giving Jackie an impassive stare.
"I got this," Ron said. He slid up to the bar, opened his wallet, and pulled out two ten-dollar bills. "Show us the way to Mr. Carter, my good man!"
The bartender studied Ron shrewdly. He picked up the two bills and a cigarette lighter. He set them on fire and dropped them onto the bar.
A passing waitress in a skimpy outfit dropped a metal tray onto the bar, right on top of the burning money. "If you're looking for that son of a bitch Carter, he's upstairs. Third floor. Private suite."
"Thank you," Jackie said.
"I'm not doing you any favors telling you that," the waitress said crossly as the bartender placed three drinks on her tray and gave her a murderous glare. Once she cleared out, the bartender sighed, shrugged, and inclined his head toward a neon-and-gold framed door that led to velvet-carpeted stairs.
Once they reached the third-floor landing, they found themselves standing before a large mahogany door with intricate carvings and brass pulls. Jackie sized the door up. "Tohru?" he said calmly. "Would you care to announce us to our host?"
"Gladly," Tohru said. He stomped up to the door and, with a yell and a massive blow, smashed the door clear off its hinges, sending dust, splinters, and paint chips flying. Shrill, feminine screams could be heard from within, combined with a man's voice yelling profanities.
The room beyond the door was somewhat more tasteful than downstairs—but only just barely. It had less furniture, mostly consisting of two long, plush leather sofas, three large leather chairs, a low lacquered table, and a wall covered in television screens and security monitors. Three naked women were huddled against the back wall. In the center of the room stood a tall, skinny black man in a pinstripe suit. He had short-cropped hair, a pencil-thin mustache and beard, and wore a diamond earring in his left ear. "WOO!" he yelled, looking Tohru up and down. "Damn, boy, what'choo been eatin', whole baluga whales?" As the rest of the group entered, his eyes landed on Jackie and lit up. He grinned, showing pearly white teeth. "My man Jackie Chan!" he said enthusiastically. "Damn, nigga, you ain't gotta go bustin' down my door in the middle of Little Jimmy's lap time, know what I'm sayin'? A phone call woulda worked!"
"Carter," Jackie said calmly. His eyes flicked to the naked ladies. "Can we talk in private?"
"Sheeit, man, they don't speak English!" Carter said. "Go right on. Hey, Imma git'choo a sip, a'ight? I know your big beefy boy here be wantin' some sashimi an' sake, an'..." He looked at the other two members of the group and frowned. "Damn, Jackie, what happened to your taste in friends?"
"I keep better company these days," Jackie said frostily. "Come on, Carter, get rid of the prostitutes."
Carter snorted, snapped his fingers, and barked something in Thai at the women, who hastily departed through a door at the back of the room. Once they were gone, he gave Jackie a long-suffering stare, his hands clasped in front of him. "A'ight, man, wassup?"
"I talked to Owen yesterday," Jackie said. "He said you have the Luck of the Oasis. I would like to have a look at it."
Carter's eyes bulged out. "That's what—nigga you come tearin' ass up in here like it's World War Goddamn Three, an' all you want is to look at a goddamn rock?" He shook his head in disbelief. "Sheeeeeit."
"Please, it is urgent," Jackie insisted.
Carter stared at him for a long moment, then sighed heavily. "See now here's the thing," he said. "You roll up in here, you come up in my place wit'cho big Sumo gorilla an' yo monkey boy an' some...I dunno, crocodile lady? Shit, I ain't seen that much leather since the Bad album! An' I'm supposed to be what, intimidated?"
Jackie sighed. "No, Carter, I'm not here to intimidate you. I just want to examine the Luck of the Oasis."
"Yeah, and snatch it up outta my hands wit'cho quick-ass kung fu shit," Carter said flatly, his expression now cold and hostile. "I may'a fell fo' dat shit in Rio, but yo Rice-a-Roni ass ain't pullin' that shit on me again."
Jackie stared at him, slack-jawed. "I'm not—CARTER! I am not going to pull any shit on you! I just. Want. To SEE. the stone."
"See it," Carter repeated. "Yeah. A'ight. You can see it from over there. Wit'cho eyes. Yo ass hands ain't touchin' it, a'ight?"
Jackie spread his hands wide. "No tricks," he promised.
"A'ight. Coo'." Carter slowly reached into his breast pocket and pulled out...a small remote. He pressed a button.
Four panels opened in the ceiling, and four tall, solidly built men in pinstripe suits and fedoras dropped into the room, assuming Muay Thai stances. Carter slid smoothly back from his guards and started dancing from foot to foot in a loose capoeira stance.
"Bad day?" Ron suggested weakly.
"Bad day," Jackie agreed, taking his own stance...