Fang-Liu House is an old hotel near the entertainment district. Sitting in the middle of the row, its dilapidated plaster crumbling out of hairline cracks caused by creeping vines.
On the front of the house hangs a plastic banner, secured to the balcony, the red faded to salmon, and the yellow lettering almost white, “CRIMINAL CUSTOMERS NOT WELCOME. SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY WILL BE REPORTED TO THE AUTHORITIES.”
Brian Cheung saw the house two days ago while raiding a night-club. As he was climbing into the passenger seat of a large SUV, he asked his partner about it and she said, “I’ve never heard of it, but you can look into it.”
The house was indeed owned by Mr. Fang and Mr. Liu; both were unmarried and had never filed any reports to the government.
Mr. Cheung opened the door and approached the front desk, which was made of faded wood panels, just like the wall behind it.
“Welcome,” Said Mr. Liu (Chueng knew it was Liu as the database photo matched this person’s appearance). Mr. Liu was wearing a bright green vest. His long black hair rested gently on his shoulders, complementing his golden earrings and bright eyes, “Can I offer you a room?”
“No, I’m here to ask some questions,” He handed Mr. Liu his credentials.
The short man hopped off his stool and motioned him to the back room, which had a small table, TV, rug, and stove.
“May I offer you some tea?”
Cheung nodded, frowning as Mr. Liu put the kettle on the burner then touched his index finger to the bottom of the porcelain. He hated magicians.
“I suspect you of offering services to criminals, particularly gay couples, which frequent this area.”
“We have a sign to prevent that.”
“Yet you have never made any reports.”
“Then the sign is working.”
There was a brief silence, filled by a grating tap, as a hairless cat crept across the floor. Its skin was speckled with pockmarks, and on closer inspection, Cheung realized it was pumice.
“Mr. Liu, you know, as well, certain branches of magic are made illegal by the national government, particularly illusions.”
The short man wiggled his nose, “There are no illusions.”
“Thank you,” Cheung accepted the cup of tea. It was strong, incredibly bitter.
Mr. Liu noticed his face, “Mr. Fang is getting the groceries. He will be back with milk and sugar. He prefers things sweeter.”
“How do you prevent gay customers from using your facility?”
“There is the video camera. You can review the footage.”
He nodded, his nails rasping, as he scratched the cat’s pumice head.
“You don’t inquire after suspicious circumstances. Like clothing, body language, two men or women alone together.”
Cheung stood, irritated, “Mr. Liu, come with me to the station for further investigation.”
A sudden crash caused Cheung to spin, his hand on his weapon. It was only the cat, now sifting through the soil of a downed plant. When he looked back, the man was gone.
He noticed the back door ajar, so he crept outside.
* * *
It was drizzling, but his shirt remained unstained. At the bottom of the grass covered hill, a twisting stream ran through a forest. As he inched down the hill, Cheung noticed a pair of ears: white spots on black puffs.
His grip went slack as he realized a tiger was laying across the path, its head bobbing as it groomed its paw. The river was swelling, the now thick rain matting the tiger’s fur. It turned its face toward him, revealing a small rabbit trapped between its front feet. It gave the shivering creature a few more licks, as the water began to lap their toes.
A tall, muscular man was slogging through the river, carrying a plastic bag. The imprints of two items, sugar and milk, pressed through the slick, opaque covering, the blue lettering on the sugar bag almost visible.
He stopped when he saw Cheung, then smiled, “Welcome to my house.”
Cheung looked for the tiger and the rabbit, the tips of the black ears poking above the pooling water.
“Will it be okay?”
Mr. Fang looked in the same direction, “I don’t think so, but it seems you aren’t getting wet.”
“Because this is an illusion.”
The tiger emerged from the water, filthy, the white rabbit limp in its mouth.
“How is it that these illusions work? I’m wearing a government issued ward to negate magic,” He proffered the item, which had saved him in quite a few criminal confrontations.
“Maybe that’s only true because some magicians believe it works or maybe they are not illusions,” Mr. Fang reached down and picked up Cheung’s gun from the ground, “Here perhaps this will suit you better.”
“Where is Mr. Liu?”
“I just came home.”
He raised the gun, “I want you to accompany me to the station.”
“I will put away the groceries.”
He went inside with Cheung trailing him. The stone cat rubbed against his leg, its tiny tongue licking the cloth of his pants.
“Sir, I need to know where Mr. Liu is. I am authorized to use force.”
“I suggest we be patient; I know as little as you do.”
The bullet passed over his shoulder and hit the wall, leaking stain through the splinters, revitalizing the ancient wood to a pleasant honey color.
They stared at each other, shocked. Cheung lowered his weapon, unsure if he had fired intentionally. The cat leaped up to investigate the flowing fluid, recoiling at the taste and fleeing, leaving dark paw prints on the boards.
“Why did you do that? The structure doesn’t heal,” Mr. Fang remarked, dismayed.
The image of the puddle growing, enveloping them terrified Cheung. He rushed back outside, raising his hands to shield his eyes, as the light of the sun blinded him. As he rushed down the path to the forest, falling on his knees, gathering a handful of short, round sticks to fill the hole. As his hand pushed through the jade ferns, he saw a flash of fire. He leaped back, terrified he would see the tiger, but closure inspection revealed two foxes laying together, their many tails intertwined.
One lifted its head, snarling, while the other tried to sooth it. Finally, it charged at him, nipping at his heels as he raced back up the hill, the sticks dropping from his hands as he ran.
He dived through the back door and slammed it. After moments of heavy breathing, he placed trembling hands on the counter, and watched the lazy flow of the leak. The puddle had already encroached on the kitchen table. He removed the jug of milk from the clinging plastic and put it into the refrigerator.
His eyes fell on the TV, which now showed the empty front room. He grabbed the remote and rewound the footage to where he had raised his gun. Wincing at the honest depiction, he returned to the present. He watched in real time as Mr. Liu entered through the front door, shaking his hair to remove the rain.
He slowly entered the front room.
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
e shook his head, and Mr. Liu gestured to the door. He realized he didn’t know where the gun had gone but refused to return to look for it. Right before he stepped onto the front patio, under the faded red banner, Mr. Liu spoke again.
“Brian, guests that damage the property make others feel unsafe. Please don’t come again.”
Image – Wikicommons – https://www.flickr.com/photos/101561334@N08/9845978225/