by JF Garrard
“Don’t be such a wuss, Sam, just open the door,” Rebecca blinked her long false lashes and gazed at him through her blue-tinted contacts. She flipped her long, bleached blonde hair over her shoulder and pressed her body against his arm. Dressed in a short-sleeve white blouse with a bow and mini skirt, she resembled an anime character out of every male otaku’s dream.
Sam’s face turned red at the contact of her body against his arm. A heavyset Chinese boy with dark, short-cropped hair, beads of sweat ran down his back, making his white collared shirt cling to him.
They were standing in front of the large ornate metal doors of the History Museum, Sam’s place of employment as a security guard. A giant banner hung on top of the entrance, featuring Han Dynasty Chinese antiques photo-edited onto a blue background with the words “Visit our Search for Immortality Exhibit! Opening Soon!”
After taking several shallow breaths, Sam shook his arm gently to loosen her grip. “Rebecca, I don’t think this is a good idea. I can get fired. I actually like this job and I need to pay Dad rent money.” It pained him to be reminded of the argument with his father a few months before, who pointed out that Sam had graduated high school years ago, was unemployed, and spent most of his time in the basement watching anime and playing video games. Meanwhile, there were bills to pay, such as medical school tuition fees for his brilliant younger brother, Danny.
She let go of him and rummaged through her purse. “When I went into the archive room this afternoon, the jade suits were still in pieces. The guy at the store said he wanted a few jade tiles from the male and female suits. He’s going to give us two thousand dollars for them. I brought along some scissors, gloves, and Ziploc bags. Do we need anything else?”
Sam didn’t answer and looked up at the sky instead. In another week he was going on a trip of a lifetime to Tokyo, the city of his dreams, filled with vivid neon bright lights, and futuristic technology – the birthplace of manga. If there was a God, they were on his side. Well, they were on his side until Rebecca saw some ad about an international J-pop competition and became obsessed with entering. Their hotel and airfare were being paid by the anime con they volunteered for, but at least three thousand dollars was needed to cover the J-pop competition entry fee, makeup artist, accessories, and wardrobe to make her a worthy competitor. Both had sensible Asian parents who thought entering a J-pop competition was idiotic and a waste of money.
A few days ago, Candy, the visiting Chinese curator of the touring Search for Immortality exhibit happened to have a conversation with Sam about people attempting to steal tiles from the stars of the show, jade burial suits of Prince Liu Sheng and his wife Princess Dou Wan. She even showed him a few websites of local antique dealers who she thought were scoundrels and would probably buy stolen goods. Sam had mentioned this to Rebecca and before he knew it, she had visited these stores to ask about the pricing of tiles and offered to steal some.
Silence did not bode well with Rebecca and she spoke in a stern tone. “I was talking to Candy and she told me that the entire museum has cameras in all of the rooms except for the archive room because the ceilings have asbestos so they were never installed there. This means I can pop in, grab the stuff, and pop out with no evidence of taking anything. We’ll be okay.”
Sam looked unconvinced.
“Look, the jade suit covers the entire body. Right now Candy is repairing the backside. If any pieces are missing, no one will notice, the suits are displayed with them lying on their backs anyway.”
“You know the tiles are all numbered, right? I mean, the people that made the suits carved Chinese numbers into the tiles?”
She rolled her eyes. “Candy mentioned that there are already tiles missing anyways. Stop being so glum! Next week we’ll be in Tokyo and we can have lunch in the Gundam café in Akihabara!”
Sam’s face couldn’t help but light up at the thought of beautiful café maids bringing him tasty burgers with robot faces embossed in the buns and cold milky tea drinks. His shoulders slumped down when he thought about the robbery task that was in the way of his trip.
Standing on her tippy toes, Rebecca gave him a tiny kiss on the cheek. “I promise this will totally be worth it after I become a mega J-pop star!”
His heart burst with joy with the contact of her soft lips and he gave her a crazy grin as he used his key card to open the doors to the museum. Raising a fist into the sky, he chortled, “Tokyo, here we come!”
He stopped smiling when they entered the main lobby, a round floor space with a compass design on the floor. The area featured a small counter for the security staff on the left, a larger counter for visitors to purchase tickets in the center, and three potential paths leading to different gallery halls within the museum. The paths led to Asian, European, and African artifacts.
“Who’s she?” Jack, an older man in a security uniform gestured at Rebecca.
“Oh, she’s a student writing a story for the university. She left her camera lens in the archive room when she was visiting this afternoon and wants to get it back.” Sam signed his name and time of arrival in the employee log without looking up, not wanting his supervisor to see his quivering lips.
“Well, she should come back tomorrow. We can’t allow strangers to come into the museum when it’s closed!” Jack crossed his arms and looked stern.
“Um, well, she’s my brother’s girlfriend,” Sam mumbled, his face flushing and his chest feeling heavy. Although they were a perfect match, their parents had decided long ago that she would be more suitable as the bride of his brother, the future doctor.
“Hi, I’m Rebecca,” Rebecca extended a hand to Jack and gave him a sweet smile. “I’m just going to pop in and out, it’ll be fast, I promise!”
“Well…” Jack studied her innocent-looking face as he took a sip of purple bubble tea. “Fine. Sam, you go with her and walk her out afterward!”
“Yes, Sir! Hey, are you drinking bubble tea? I thought you didn’t like that stuff?” Sam raised an eyebrow.
“Candy gave it to me. She said I had to try it. It’s not bad, but the bubble stuff is chewy though,” Jack shrugged and grinned.
“Alright, see you later!” Sam ushered Rebecca to follow him and waved goodbye to his supervisor. His heart was racing as they walked quickly down the path for the Asian galleries.
“Are there any other people around here?” she whispered as they went past historical Chinese, Japanese, and Korean objects and design elements that represented various themes of tradition, symbolism, and myths.
“Nah, just us two for the night shift. Nothing ever happens,” Sam shrugged.
The Search for Immortality exhibit was at the end of the largest gallery room and was segregated by temporary plywood walls covered with posters advertising its upcoming opening date. Sam rummaged through the keys on his belt and opened the door in the temporary wall leading to the exhibit and archive room.
The objects in the special exhibit were arranged to illustrate how things had been arranged in the tomb of Prince Liu Sheng, who had managed to take his wealth with him to his death. Facing visitors first were terracotta soldiers on horses, the guardians meant to protect and ward off unwanted visitors. Next was a display of everyday items required for life and the afterlife, ranging from cooking pots, wine vessels, and glasses to earthenware statues of dancing ladies in chiffon gowns. Missing were the remains of the servants sacrificed to help in the afterlife. The last section featured funeral objects which surrounded two jade-covered lacquer coffins. Once the jade suits belonging to Prince Liu Sheng and his wife, Princess Dou Wan were repaired, they would be in glass cases set above the coffins. Each suit took almost a decade to make and consisted of over two thousand jade tiles sewed together by hand with silk threads. Jade was believed to possess magical properties that would protect the body from decay and ward off evil spirits.
Other jade objects in the room included delicate cicadas representing reincarnation, figurines of musicians and dancers, hair ornaments, and masks. The jade varied in colour, from light green to purple, was translucent or opaque and some was cut with such skill that it glittered like diamonds under the museum’s fluorescent lights. Two small ragged looking steel daggers stood out as odd objects in the room and the description tags explained that they were ceremonial daggers used during funerals. Rebecca marvelled at some delicate jade hair pieces in the shape of lotus flowers. “I should get a few of these for my J-pop audition. What do you think?”
Sam shrugged. “They look pointy and sharp. Why don’t you buy fancy swords and do martial art moves? You did take Wing Chun for a while. You could sing and fight!”
“Yeah, but that’s not kawaii enough!” she pouted.
Along one of the walls was a large banner advertising China as a tourist destination. Sam shoved it aside to reveal the door to the archive room. The large, musty-smelling room was filled with cabinets, bookshelves, and artifacts from all over the world, ranging from a giant stuffed sabre-toothed tiger to delicate tiny gold snuff boxes. In the centre was a large table cleared off to facilitate the repair of the jade suits. Similar to a knight’s armour, each suit was made up of several pieces consisting of gloves for the hands, coverings for arms and legs, a large torso portion as well as a face mask.
Rebecca set her bag down on the floor and took out rubber gloves, Ziploc bags, and fine blade scissors.
“Whoa, wait until I close the door first!” Sam scowled and shut the door behind him. He glanced nervously around and gulped when he noticed the eyes of a stuffed bear staring at him from across the room.
“I’ll be fast!” She put on her gloves and gave a larger pair to Sam. Studying the suits situated on their backs with gaping holes of missing tiles and loose threads, she came up with a quick plan. “Look, I don’t even have to use my scissors on the male suit, just grab me two or three tiles where the thread is already broken. Easy job! I do need to make some cuts on the female suit though.”
Hands shaking, Sam wrapped a firm hand around one of the tiles and yanked it off. It slid off the ancient thread easily. The second one came off quickly as well. As he wrapped his hands around the third tile, he felt pain and realized something sharp had pierced his fingers. He watched in horror as blood dripped onto the jade tiles and the table. Strangely enough, the blood didn’t stain the tiles. Instead, the blood disappeared as if absorbed into the jade. Frowning, he absently took off his gloves and stuffed them into his pocket. With his bare hands, he turned the jade tiles around in his bleeding fingers, but the tiles remained a translucent green with no sign of red stains.
“Ow!” Rebecca gave a yelp. “Something poked me and I’m bleeding!” She clutched the tiles with dripping red gloved fingers.
Sam wanted to move closer to see if her blood was being absorbed into the tiles as well, but a rattling noise made him freeze. He shoved the small tiles into his pocket and made gestures for Rebecca to be quiet and to hide under a tarp that was under the table.
“Sam, is that you?”
A soft female voice speaking English with a faint trace of Mandarin accent made him turn towards the door. His face flushed when he saw Candy, the exhibit curator come through the door, wearing a tiny leather cross-body purse, and holding an orange bubble tea drink. Although she appeared to be in her twenties, her seemingly unlimited knowledge of history, preference for keeping her hair in a tight bun, and formal dress suits made her seem older.
“Um, hi, Candy, I was just doing the rounds and checking on stuff. I should go now.” Sam tried to walk by, but she reached out and grabbed his arm.
“Something’s wrong,” she said, pointing to the table where the jade suits were.
“Wh-wh-what?” Sam stopped and flinched. He felt a bit dizzy as the room became very stuffy and sweat dripped down his temple.
“There’s blood on the floor and table. Did something happen? Was it here when you arrived?” She raised an eyebrow, looking at him expectedly as she sucked on her bubble tea noisily.
“I didn’t…didn’t…notice…” He stumbled and fell onto the ground when he tried to walk backwards away from her. A jade tile popped out of his back pocket upon his impact with the floor.
Candy put down her bubble tea on the edge of the table and put her hands on her hips. “You’re not a very good thief, are you? Leaving behind DNA evidence and dropping stuff all over the place.”
“I…please…I…” Sam pulled out the other two tiles from his pocket, moving towards her while on his knees. “The tiles were loose and I was picking at them for fun. I wasn’t going to take them, really! Please don’t tell Jack!”
“Let me look at those tiles…” Candy held them up and squinted. “Your hands are all bloody, but the tiles are not. Why?”
“I don’t know,” Sam shrugged. “The blood just got soaked up by the tiles. Is this normal?”
“Hmm…” Candy looked at him thoughtfully while rubbing the tiles with her fingers. Setting them down on the table, she reached into her collared shirt and pulled out something that was on a thin rope around her neck. Sam immediately recognized she was holding an omamori or Japanese amulet. The black satin pouch with its ornate rope design and calligraphy indicated it was of the katsumori type. The owner of the amulet would channel their energy into a single goal and the katsumori will guarantee that it happens. Opening the tiny pouch, she took out a semi-translucent piece of paper that had many tiny Chinese characters written on it in black ink. She muttered something to herself and used her fingers to calculate something.
Abruptly, Candy spoke in a sharp tone. “Can you tell me your birthdate again?”
Blinking rapidly, he blurted out, “January 19, 1994.”
“You are sure?”
“Yes. Why? I should…should…go…” Sam mumbled as he tried to stand up.
“You are not going anywhere!” Her livid look caused Sam to collapse back onto the floor. “I need you to repeat after me…” Candy said some words which sounded vaguely like Mandarin but with tones that Sam had never heard before.
Speaking in an abnormally high-pitched nervous voice, Sam repeated the words as best as he could. After he finished speaking, a sudden wind blew through the room, ruffling his hair, and the jade suits rattled on the table. Then the wind left as abruptly as it first appeared.
“Damn, I guess you are the wrong person,” she sighed and put the piece of paper carefully into the amulet pouch and back in her shirt. “Every century I get my hopes up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember how I told you that Prince Liu Sheng almost became emperor? Out of his father’s fourteen sons, he was the most brilliant, but his younger brother Liu Che became emperor instead.”
“What?” Sam scratched his head. “But Liu Che or Emperor Wu is considered the greatest emperor ever. He expanded China, created the first national college and the Silk Road flourished. During his reign, China was bigger than the Roman Empire!”
“He was a harsh, demanding, and merciless man. He made his followers, wives, and sons commit suicide because he believed in rumours evil advisors fed into his ears. Also, Emperor Wu’s best ideas came from my husband, Liu Sheng.”
“Your husband.” Sam’s eyes widened and he swallowed hard. “Wow, that’s…um…you know the Han Dynasty happened a long time ago, right?”
“Over two thousand years ago…” Candy rubbed her eyes and yawned. “At that time, my name was Zhuo Wenjin and I was Liu Sheng’s second wife. Before Liu Che was selected to become Emperor, I had a plan to dispose of him. He was only a teenager then and did not have any power. But Dou Wan, my older sister was worried that my plan would get the whole family killed, including her, so she poisoned me. My husband hired many doctors to cure me and I presume one of them gave me an immortality medicine.”
“But your husband was a drunk! He had over one hundred concubines and many were buried with him when he died. How come you weren’t buried alive?”
“Dou Wan locked me up in a cage far from home. After she died it was instructed that I be murdered, but I was lucky that my captors felt sorry for me and let me live. My husband only acted like a drunk so that he would appear to be more stupid than his emperor brother. If he acted smart, his brother might think there was going to be a coup and kill him.”
“Hmm…Why did you make me repeat those strange words after you?” Sam stretched his arms up in the air, yawning as he observed Candy, wondering if she was on any type of medication.
“After I learned of Liu Sheng’s death, I consulted many Taoist priests before I found one that could give me instructions on how to bring him back to life. The jade suit keeps his soul on earth, but his body is organic and still decays. The secret is to find someone with the same lunar birthdate as Liu Sheng, make them say the spell on days of a full moon, and ensure their blood is spilled onto the tiles. Inside the suit, I put needles to catch blood from any thieves or potential candidates for body switching.”
“Body switching!” Sam sat up straight, his mouth agape. “Why do you want me to switch bodies with him?”
“I’ve watched China fall too many times. The worst was our loss during the Opium Wars. I can’t tell you how many times I saw men selling their wives and children for a hit of opium. If Liu Sheng comes back, we can revive the monarch again and rule with a strong fist! All battles can be fought virtually now by hacking into every country’s digital economy to control the leaders; we don’t have to shed blood and can win wars much quicker than ever before. We will create a new Chinese dynasty named after us!”
“Okey dokey,” Sam stood up quickly, brushing off the creases in his pants. “Well, it sucks that your plan didn’t work, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Candy shrugged. “I sound crazy, but I’m not. You’re a nice kid, Sam but you will live an average life compared to my genius Liu Sheng. He would be able to do so much more if given a second chance to rule.” She picked up her bubble tea and started sipping on it again.
“Oh…” Sam’s voice came out barely as a squeak when he saw the loose jade tiles float up into the air from the table and the broken red thread magically stitch the tiles back into place. The arm pieces joined the torso, the legs snapped into place and finally, the head which had features made out of larger pieces of jade turned to look at him.
“Liu Sheng! Finally, my love, we can be together again!” Candy’s face became wet as tears streamed down her cheeks and she jumped up and down while covering her heart with her hands. “You don’t know how lonely it’s been, wandering the earth, trying to find a body for you! Oh wait, I’m speaking in English…”
The head of the suit bent down as if to inspect its arms and legs before looking down at Candy. She spoke in a language Sam couldn’t understand, but from the tone, it sounded like she was having a loving conversation with whoever was in the suit.
“I’m going now!” Sam’s heart pounded loudly in his ears as he ran towards the door. Grabbing the doorknob, he turned it, but the door refused to budge. An instinct to stay alive kicked in and Sam realized that he was terrified of death. He pulled at the doorknob again, pushing a leg against a wall as he did so. The doorknob fell off, but before he could open the door, a jade glove appeared in the air and punched him hard in the face. Stumbling backward, he saw stars as pain spread across his face. The jade glove flew back to its owner and the entire jade suit jumped off the table, landing on the floor with a thud.
Sam thought about all the weapons he had ever used in video games when defeating virtual bosses and bolted about the room, looking for things to throw at the jade prince that was slowly following him with clattering noises as the tiles moved over the floor. Grabbing random objects such as boomerangs, Sam threw them but they only bounced off the stone armour. Knocking the stuffed bear down didn’t trip the prince and Sam could barely lift the heavy metal swords from their displays. Not watching his step, Sam didn’t notice Candy putting out a foot to trip him, making him fall hard onto the floor.
The jade suit ambled over to Sam, leaned over, and put its face close to his. The jade mask’s mouth turned into a swirling black hole which sucked out Sam’s air and body energy. Making a fist, Sam tried to punch the jade suit, but the prince wouldn’t budge. As it became harder to breathe, Sam frantically ripped at his own shirt. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and the jade suit flew backward into the wall, collapsing, and scattering pieces of tiles onto the floor.
Looking down, Sam saw a bright light on his chest coming from a jade Buddha pendant given to him by his mother.
“Help!” A loud female voice made Sam and Candy look around the room. Rebecca was being lifted up from under the table by a smaller jade glove belonging to the suit of Princess Dou Wan.
“Why is she coming back to life?” Candy seethed.
Walking quickly to Sam, Candy snatched the Buddha pendant off his chest, breaking its chain. Running over to the smaller jade suit, she thrust it into the princess’ jade mask, causing the suit to let go of Rebecca and fly backward into the wall, collapsing next to the larger suit.
A large male jade glove flew over to Candy and smacked her hard in the chest, making her and the jade pendant drop to the floor. The glove made a fist before hammering the pendant into many pieces, causing light and smoke to fill the air. Job done, the slightly burnt glove returned to its owner.
The three humans watched in shock as the suits hugged and held hands with their hard faces looking longingly at one another.
The male suit turned to Candy and spoke some words in a deep hollow voice, causing her face to become wet with tears as she clutched her bruised chest.
“This isn’t supposed to happen!” Candy screeched and let out a series of loud wails before crying hysterically. “You were supposed to spend eternity with me, not with her! She’s the traitor, not me!”
The scattered pieces of tiles on the floor flew up slowly into the air to be rethreaded onto the suits. Jumping to her feet, Candy wiped her eyes before running out the door, while calling out to Sam and Rebecca in English. “You two, follow me!”
“What are we going to do?” Rebecca sobbed as she followed the curator closely, entering the area with jade artifacts and funeral items.
Candy pointed to metal daggers in the glass case. “You need to use these to cut the threads holding the tiles together. It’s the only way to break the spell.”
“But it’s in a glass–” Before Sam could finish his sentence, Candy grabbed a stool meant for visitors and smashed the case into a million pieces.
Rebecca reached around the broken glass, grabbed a dagger, and handed it to Sam. Using the stool again, Candy broke the display, with a feiyi or burial banners inside, that was supposed to be a map to guide the souls of the prince and princess to the next life. Reaching into her cross-body purse, she took out a cigarette lighter.
“I’m going to burn these outside. The jade suits will follow you, they’ve tasted your blood. Just stab them and you should be ok!”
Before Sam could protest, Candy ran out of the exhibit towards the lobby. The sound of jade tiles clicking on the floor made Sam shake and clutch the dagger harder. Rebecca grabbed his hand and dragged him towards the exit.
Seeing the lobby made Sam think of his supervisor. “Jack! Jack! We need help!”
Rebecca put a finger to her lips and pointed towards the security desk. Purple liquid was on the floor and his supervisor was unconscious on the ground. Sam groaned, it was obvious that Candy had been adamant that no one interrupt her body-switching plan.
Sam put his hand on the metal door and pushed, catching a glimpse of the night sky with its full moon and Candy a few feet away, trying to burn the antique banners with her lighter. Before he could step outside, jade gloves grabbed onto his calves and pulled him to the floor with a thud. The dagger fell from his hands and the door closed with a bang.
“Sam!” Rebecca shrieked as smaller jade gloves grabbed her legs. She fell down but managed to keep her dagger and thrashed at the gloves, breaking the threads holding the tiles together. The jade pieces fell to the floor and remained shaking on the ground, unable to reform into a glove.
Kicking to loosen the grip of the gloves around his legs, Sam crawled to the dagger he had dropped and used it to break apart the tiles of the gloves holding him prisoner.
The female jade suit’s head flew through the air and crashed into Rebecca’s head. The cracking sound made Sam wince and he watched in horror as Rebecca fell to the ground with blood trickling down her temple.
Before he could scramble to his feet to help her, the male jade head appeared in front of him. Sam swiped at it with the dagger, missing it as the head backed away. Standing up, he tried to bury the dagger into the head, but strong gloveless arms wrapped themselves around his chest from behind, preventing him from moving. The head hovered in the air briefly as if studying his face before coming closer and colliding with Sam’s head.
“Sam? Sam? Are you awake?”
Sam opened his eyes groggily, staring into darkness, searching for where Rebecca’s muffled sounding voice was coming from. He felt odd as if he was floating.
“Did we win? Did we stab those jade suits to death?” His voice echoed into the gloom.
Her soft cries gave him the answer. “We lost badly, Sam. But at least I’m with you. I love you. I always have.”
Sam didn’t answer and tried to close his eyes, hoping to sleep away his new reality.
JF Garrard is an award-winning speculative fiction writer, editor, and publisher. She is the President of Dark Helix Press, serves as the Co-President for the Canadian Authors Association’s Toronto Branch, Festival Coordinator for LiterASIAN Toronto, Deputy Editor for Ricepaper Magazine, and Assistant Editor for Amazing Stories. Her portfolio of books and short fiction is listed on her website, and you can find her on Twitter @jfgarrard.