No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except for brief quotations included in a review of the book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
by Danae Whyte
13-year-old Lillian (Lilly) Hill is back with more adventure, fun, and faith!
This time in A China Escape, Lilly travels with her dad to the land of dragons and pandas to help a friend in need. But the sudden disappearance of their friend in a car “accident”, makes Lilly realize they are in a lot more danger than they think. In the second book of the Adventures of Lilly Series, when an ally turns out to be a traitor and faith is oppressed, Lilly learns to rely on God for courage.
Thirteen year old Lillian Hill, called Lilly by her family and friends, awoke to the sound of raindrops falling outside her window. She immediately threw open her pink and yellow curtains, smiled, and thanked God for the rain. The delicious smell wafting into her room and the noise coming from downstairs prompted Lilly to hurry and get dressed. Racing against the clock, she attempted to tame the unruly curls which hung like a lion’s mane around her face and neck. She used her brush to untangle the curls on the right side, then on the left, only to watch them squiggle back up.
“Well, that’s all the attention you guys are getting from me right now,” Lilly muttered giving her hair one final tug. “The day has already started and I can’t spend another moment of it on you.” Giving a confident nod to her reflection in the mirror, Lilly bounded down the steps of their San Diego home two at a time and made her way into the kitchen.
“Good morning, Momma, Dad, Marco,” she said greeting each member of her family.
“Morning, sweetie,” Mrs. Hill replied rushing a stack of plates to the dining room table.
“There’s my Lily flower,” Mr. Hill said giving Lilly a hug and dropping a kiss on her forehead.
Lilly grinned. “You say that every morning,” she said.
“That’s because you go to sleep every night,” Mr. Hill replied.
“Well, I’m glad to see you still in your PJs. I take it you’ll be staying home with us today.”
Mr. Hill nodded. “You got that right. I’ve got three months to prepare for battle.”
“You mean prepare another case before you go to court, right?”
“Yes, yes,” Mr. Hill chuckled, “and you know where I do my best work. In my home office surrounded by my three noisy musketeers.”
“I know you’re not calling me a musketeer,” Mrs. Hill said over the sizzling of the frying pan. She winked at Mr. Hill and playfully swatted Lilly with a spatula.
“See, Mom’s the ringleader,” Lilly whispered as she ducked swiftly.
“I know it. I know it,” Mr. Hill agreed.
“Hey, sis,” Marco said, sliding out from inside one of the kitchen’s V-Groove patterned clear glass cabinets. “Guess what we’re having for breakfast?”
“I see bacon and waffles,” Lilly said.
“There is far more than meets your eye,” Marco replied, rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist. “We’re having, drum roll please, waffle tacos!” he announced dramatically.
Lilly was surprised. “Cool idea,” she said grabbing a waffle and folding it into the shape of a taco.
“Thanks. Syrup is your sauce.” He plunked the bottle down in front of her. “I saw the waffle tacos on a restaurant sign, and mom said she could make it healthier at home. So, here you have it! Give me credit for spotting the sign announcement thingy.”
“Don’t worry. We can’t all be geniuses and recipe inventors too,” Lilly remarked.
Marco blushed at being called a “genius.”
“O.K., but I’m one,” Mr. Hill said with a grin.
“How’s that, Dad?” Lilly asked.
“Well, knowing you already consider me a genius, put this on your taste buds.” Mr. Hill handed Lilly and Marco a piece each from a strawberry filled whole grain bar. “Toasted,” he proclaimed. “That bit was my brilliant idea!”
“Gooey wonderful,” Lilly said, while Marco exclaimed, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” at the same time. They were excited. Mr. Hill beamed.
“Alright, people,” Mrs. Hill called, breaking up their mini taste test. “Honey, you know it’s not right to brag and stop encouraging them to eat sweets before the real food.”
“But, Mom,” Marco began, “sweets are real food.”
Mrs. Hill cut her eyes at him. “You know what I mean.” Marco pretended to look befuddled.
Around the dining table, Mr. Hill led the family in devotions. “Father God,” he prayed. “We thank You for waking us up this morning. We thank You for being so faithful to us and for providing for all of our needs. Bless the hands that prepared this good food before us. Please help us to use the energy gained from eating this food to do great, purposeful work throughout the days. Continue to lead us on the right path and give us strength to shine as light in the world. Speak to us through Your Word today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
“Amen,” everyone echoed.
Marco held up his hand. “I have something to say,” he declared, a look of mock seriousness on his face. “Lilly, I hate to break it to you, but your hands won’t be blessed today because you didn’t help make breakfast.”
Lilly burst into laughter. “Sorry about that,” she apologized. “I overslept.”
“No worries, sweetie,” Mrs. Hill said. “When school starts back in two weeks, you’ll be up early every morning.”
“I can pray that God bless the hands which shall clean these dishes bearing the good food we are about to eat,” Mr. Hill offered, half-jokingly.
“You got me,” Lilly said. “Sure. Thanks.”
Mr. Hill prayed again for that purpose. Afterward, everyone opened their Bibles as he read aloud Philippians 2:4 – the family’s focus scripture for the week. “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Marco, you can go first this time. What do you think this scripture means? How is it speaking to you?”
“Well, according to the text, I believe Paul is encouraging us to look for ways to help others, especially those who don’t have as much as we do,” Marco shared thoughtfully. “We ought to be considerate of others and not be selfish. But that doesn’t give us any right to butt into other people’s business unnecessarily either.”
“Very good,” Mr. Hill commended. “Was your last statement a jab at anybody in particular?” He chuckled.
Marco hesitated. “My conscience is giving me no peace to lie about this matter. You have read my mind, Dad. I was talking to big sis here. You always ask me what I’m doing so many times in every day.”
Lilly laughed. “You don’t remember, but I even asked you when you were a baby! Before you were born, your response was always ‘chillin’ in the womb. Too bad you’ve trapped yourself out in that crazy world so soon.’ Then I’d poke mom’s stomach just to get back at you.”
Mrs. Hill joined her daughter with laughter.
“That’s called being a responsible older sibling,” Lilly continued.
“True, Lilly,” Mr. Hill agreed. “And through Paul’s writing, God is calling us to be like Him. He also wants the best for us. You see, when we care for others and put them before ourselves, we live a better life because we are happier.”
“Amen,” Mrs. Hill said. “No wonder I’ve got such a happy hubby. Looking on the things of others is your profession.”
Mr. Hill bowed his head meekly. “Thank you, dear.”
“Selflessness trumps selfishness any day,” Lilly said.
“Preach,” Mr. Hill encouraged Lilly. “Now, let’s eat.”
As Lilly munched on her fruit, she wondered in what way God would give her an opportunity to demonstrate what she had just learned from His Word. Conversation around the dining table turned to making plans for that day.
“I hope what ever we do does not include sending Lilly away to a beauty pageant. I missed you,” Marco said.
“As far as I know, it doesn’t,” Lilly assured him. “Been there. Done that. God made a difference in the moment and I came out with a crown.” She smiled, thinking of her restored relationship with mean girl turned nice, Casey, and the new friends she made at the Dream Girlz Beauty Pageant, namely, Cathy, reigning beauty queen Gwynet, Dominique, and Kwanza. “But what are we going to do together today, Dad and Momma?”
“Well, I purchased these tickets to the water park a few days ago considering I won’t be visiting my fashion headquarters today,” Mrs. Hill told the family, retrieving the tickets from her skirt pocket. “I planned to surprise you all with them today. Unfortunately, it’s raining. But, don’t worry, they’re redeemable.”
“So it has come to this,” Marco huffed, giving his waffle taco a jab in the side with a fork. “Dancing in the rain will be a sorry substitute.”
“Son,” Mr. Hill began. “No need to be so dramatic. You weren’t expecting to go to the water park and we have much to do around the house.”
“What about fun things?” Marco questioned. “Because we don’t have a water slide.”
“Oh, Marco, we can all pile onto the couch and watch a midday movie,” Lilly suggested.
“Great idea. We’ll watch that movie you saw last night and were laughing so hysterically about while I was trying to sleep,” Mrs. Hill said addressing Mr. Hill. “I almost had to get some ear plugs.”
“Forgive me, dear,” Mr. Hill said breaking out into laughter. “I think I’ll watch it with you again.”
“Now that that’s out of the way, though it shouldn’t have been in the way, I think we need to match schedules and plans for the upcoming month,” Mrs. Hill directed. “We are busy people, so confusion has no place here. First of all, school is starting back for you two.” She pointed a perfectly manicured pinky finger at Lilly and Marco. “That means shopping for school supplies and sports equipment: leotards, pointe shoes, cleats, shorts, tape, Gatorade, and sweat….No, not sweat. We do not need to shop for that, neither can we. Sweat will produce itself in boatloads once we get going.”
Lilly laughed. “Yes, Ma’am. Don’t forget, I’ll be helping with trends for your fall line of girls’ clothes.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Mrs. Hill said. “Your expertise is greatly needed.”
Lilly loved helping her mother with her clothes designing business which was taking the online fashion world by storm. “I’ll round up the troops to assist us, too,” she said.
“Who are the troops?” Marco inquired, looking perplexed.
“My friends,” Lilly answered.
Marco sighed. “Whew! You had me worried for a hot second. I was afraid that you and mom had raised a powerful army underground, so I thought to myself, ‘What kind of morose trick has been pulled on me, by my own family no less?’ But, if it’s just your friends, I have nothing to worry about. They wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“I’m not so sure,” Lilly joked, flexing an arm muscle. Marco recoiled in mock horror.
“Mom, can you please make my costume this week?” he asked suddenly.
“Costume for what?”
“For my school play. Remember Mr. Luca told us to have them ready by the time we return from break.”
“What is this play about again?” Lilly asked. She did not recall Marco ever telling her about it.
“It’s about Julius Caesar,” Marco answered. “I wanted to play him, but Mr. Luca thought Julio deserved the role, probably because his name is close to Julius and he has curlier hair. But I’m happy for him. He’s nice to everybody. I was assigned the role of Brutus. Thankfully, I’ve been memorizing my lines because Mr. Luca is brutal whenever someone messes up in rehearsal.”
“All the best to you, son,” Mr. Hill said. “I’ll be there opening night—camera at the ready.”
“Thanks, Dad. But that’s for only one night. I’m not acting on Broadway.”
“Oh, I know. However, to me it’s a big deal.”
“To me also,” Mrs. Hill said.
“And to me,” Lilly echoed. “Perhaps I can give you a few acting lessons. Some years back, I had a role in that play–”
“The most coveted girl’s role,” Mr. Hill interrupted. “Julius Caesar’s wife. She outshone everybody, including Mr. Caesar himself who I do believe she had a little crush on at the time–”
“Dad! I did not!” Lilly protested her fork clattering to her plate.
“I’m just teasing you, sweetheart; just teasing,” Mr. Hill chortled. “But don’t worry, Marco, you’ll be learning from the best.” He looked proudly at his daughter.
“In fact, we filmed her play, too,” Mrs. Hill said. “The CD is probably in the attic.”
Lilly covered her face with her hands. “You don’t want to see that, Marco,” she assured him.
“Hmmm. I think I do,” Marco said. “Thanks, Mom and Dad. That’s another activity we can do this week.”
“So does anybody else have something upcoming that we need to plan for?” Mrs. Hill asked bringing everyone back to the original topic.
Lilly raised her fork mid-air. “Yes. Marco’s birthday is coming up,” she said excitedly.
“Of course. We would never forget about that,” Mrs. Hill said. “Is there anything special you’d like, Marco?”
“Nada,” Marco answered. “Everything I could ever want I have it in all of you.” He reached across the table and patted each member of his family on the hand. In doing so, he nearly knocked over the pitcher of orange juice which sat on the table.
“Oh, Marco,” Mrs. Hill began. She was all choked up. She silently thanked God for such a sweet and contented child.
“On second thought, there is one thing I’d like,” Marco said. He was smiling as he spoke. “A pretty thing, actually.”
Mr. Hill raised his head. “I knew there would be something,” he said. “Out with it, son.”
“I…would…like…wait for it…a dog!”
Mr. and Mrs. Hill looked at each other, then stared, as if reading one another’s thoughts. Finally Mrs. Hill spoke, “Aren’t fish enough?” she asked referencing the five fish in the family’s aquarium.
“Now, son,” Mr. Hill began. “A dog is a very big responsibility–”
“Oh, I know, Dad,” Marco interjected. “That’s why I’ve already bought a collar. See!” He pulled at a glow-in-the-dark dog collar which hung around his neck.
Lilly stopped pouring the remaining syrup from her plate onto her spoon. “Seriously.” She wanted to laugh. “I was wondering what that was. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for getting a dog.”
“Thanks, Sis. It’s nice to know someone’s on my side.” Marco nodded.
“Momma and Dad are on your side, too,” Lilly continued glancing at them. “But I think they just want to make sure you understand that taking care of a dog is more than buying it stuff. You have to spend time with it, train it, clean it, and clean up after it. And, of course, I’ll help you. So, no worries there. I’ve heard it said that caring for a dog is just like raising a child. Just as kids like us are dependent on their parents, dogs are dependent on their owners. Now, think about it. Will you be as responsible as Momma and Dad have been toward us?”
“Yes! Yes!” Marco promised. “If I was a proud man, I would say ‘even more so,’ if that’s even possible.”’
“Are you sure?” Lilly questioned.
“Positive. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“That about settles it,” Mr. Hill said with a smile. “I’ll be holding you to your promise, Marco.”
“No problem,” Marco said. “Would you happen to know any good dog names?”
“I do,” Mr. Hill replied. “But are you sure you want to name a pup you haven’t even seen? Naming someone is a very important and visual experience. For example, when you were born, one of the reasons your mother and I decided to name you Marco Maximus was because you looked like a Marco Maximus.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Marco asked.
“I don’t know.” Mr. Hill laughed at himself. “Perhaps it means you appeared different and dignified…like someone around this table.”
Marco grinned. He knew his father’s ways. “What a way to compliment yourself in a roundabout fashion. Go ahead and hit me with some names.”
“Alright. Here goes. How about…Sunny?”
“Only if it’s very strong.”
“Only if it’s a bloodhound.”
“Only if it has a shadow…Wait, that doesn’t make any sense…maybe.”
“No. I can’t name a dog ‘Bear.’ It would get offended.”
“How about Faith?’ Mr. Hill suggested. “That’s the last one I’ve got.”
“I like that name.”
“Do you like the name ‘Christmas’?” Mrs. Hill asked.
“Yes. But only if the dog was born in December.”
“Wait! I’ve got the perfect name for our pup,” Lilly said. “Buddercup.”
“Buttercup? Like the candy?” Marco questioned.
“No. No. Buddercup,” Lilly repeated.
Mr. and Mrs. Hill looked perplexed, but Marco was overjoyed. “I love it!” he said.
By this time, all had finished their meal, so Lilly volunteered to wash the dishes and Marco helped her clean the kitchen and the glass display case in the living room. Mrs. Hill left to run some errands while Mr. Hill went to work in his home office. Afterward, due to the rain, they reassembled in the living room and watched a movie. Mr. Hill laughed most uproariously causing Lilly to repeatedly turn up the volume; that is, until the phone rang and he went to answer it.
“That was a strange call,” Mr. Hill said as he returned to his place on the couch.
“Who was it from?” Lilly asked turning the volume back down.
“I’m not sure of that,” Mr. Hill said. “However, a woman’s voice was on the other end asking for help.”
Later that evening, Lilly brought two cups of spicy chai tea down to her father’s home office nestled between the dining room and the master bedroom. She tapped on the door with her foot.
“Come in!” Mr. Hill called.
“One for you. One for me,” Lilly announced. She plunked both cups down on his charcoal colored desk.
Mr. Hill was at work on his laptop. Lilly noticed a fresh dent on its exterior.
“Yep. I was chasing down another fly,” Mr. Hill said in answer to her unasked question.
“They can be so pesky,” Lilly said.
“Funny. For some reason, they all like to congregate in my office,” Mr. Hill said.
“They do that for more joy. The flies like to congregate around you because you get annoyed at them the most,” Lilly joked.
“How wicked! I ought to prosecute the whole lot of them,” Mr. Hill said, playing along. “Thanks for the tea, sweetheart. Which cup has the least sugar?”
“That one.” Lilly pointed to the cup on the left.
Mr. Hill sipped some tea, then set the cup down, looking at it with a strange expression on his face.
“So, Dad, did you find out who our mysterious caller is yet?” Lilly asked, settling into one of three oversized, velvet chairs positioned before the desk.
“In a way,” Mr. Hill replied. “I called back, but received an automated message saying the phone had been disconnected. However, the country code points to China. I tracked the number to Beijing.”
“I hope you didn’t stop there,” Lilly said.
“No. I contacted our friend Bo over there. He did a little prodding and was able to track the phone’s signal to a specific location. Just a few minutes before you came in, he called me back and said that he visited the house. A woman answered the door, but refused to give any information about herself. However, after he told her the company he was representing, she told him that she needed to get in contact with me over an urgent matter and asked that he pass the message along. So, there you have it.”
Lilly scrunched up her eyebrows. “Do you have any idea who she might be?” she asked.
Mr. Hill shook his head, no. “About two years back I prosecuted a group of gang members from Beijing. Their ring leader was a woman who went by the name of Snookie. Last month, I received word that she was released from federal prison, having served her term, and had returned to her native city of Beijing. But rest assured, I’m positive that she is not seeking retribution. Still, I’ve already booked a ticket over there, just in case.”
Lilly nodded thoughtfully. “You know what I think, Dad?” she asked.
“I believe that this is the perfect time for us to think on the things of others.”
“Us?” Mr. Hill questioned with a twinkle in his eye.
“Um-hm,” Lilly got up from her chair and walked behind the desk to look at her dad’s laptop. “Shouldn’t you be booking another ticket?” she questioned matter-of-factly.
Mr. Hill threw his head back and laughed softly. Lilly had become his travel buddy ever since she had turned nine years old and showed an interest in seeing the world. Whenever she could, Lilly joined him on his business trips across America and once to Russia. Together, they had already visited twenty-five of the U.S. states and had hundreds of photos to prove it. While Mr. Hill did business in the conference rooms of large, glass buildings, Lilly sat in the sophisticated waiting areas sketching images of passers-by and brewing numerous cups of coffee using the company’s espresso machines (except when they traveled to Russia; there, she studied a bit of the Russian language). Sometimes she practiced her gymnastic floor routine, but more often than not the receptionists gave her a withering stare, which would cause her to sit back down hurriedly and continue drawing. Afterward, she and Mr. Hill would sightsee and explore the cities before returning home.
“Check with your Mom first to make sure she doesn’t have anything important planned that we need to stick around for,” Mr. Hill advised Lilly. “But I’ll go ahead and book the ticket so she can’t say no.” He winked.
“Will do,” Lilly promised.
“And before you go,” Mr. Hill began, “would you please take this tea into the kitchen and pour it into a clear glass cup?” He handed Lilly his royal blue ceramic cup.
“Sure,” Lilly said, looking perplexed. “Why?”
“Well, I have…a…certain fear…of drinking tea or any liquid, really, from out of a colored glass. I’m particularly afraid of what may be lurking at the bottom because it cannot be seen,” Mr. Hill admitted. “Don’t worry. This isn’t a rip on your dishwashing skills,” he quickly added.
“Riiight,” Lilly said. “Dark-glass-phobia. That’s a new one, Dad. Never heard of it.” She gave him the thumbs-up with her free hand as she backed out the door.
Waltzing into the kitchen, Lilly found Mrs. Hill and Marco seated on stools by the counter clearly enraptured by her Julius Caesar play performance which they were watching on Mrs. Hill’s laptop. Lilly pulled up a stool beside theirs and snapped her fingers in front of the screen.
“Get out of the way, please,” Marco said, pulling on a strand of her hair. “You’re already on the computer. Isn’t that enough?”
“Mom, Mom, I’m going to China!” Lilly announced ignoring her brother.
“What’s that?” Mrs. Hill asked.
“I’m going to China!” Lilly repeated.
Mrs. Hill cupped her ear as if she still couldn’t hear. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Was that a question or a statement?”
Lilly laughed. “Sorry, that came out wrong. I meant to ask if it’s O.K. with you for me to travel to Beijing with Dad this weekend?”
“Beijing? Why? He has another business trip?”
“Kinda,” Lilly answered. She related all that Mr. Hill had told her about the mysterious caller.
“Bless me!” Mrs. Hill said, shaking her head slowly. “That sounds weird.”
Lilly placed her hands on her mother’s forehead. “You’re blessed,” she announced. “Now, can you please give me your permission to go to China?”
“I just don’t know,” Mrs. Hill sighed. “Beijing, China, is so far away.”
“Oh, no, it’s not,” Lilly quickly said as she remembered her mother had said the same thing about her traveling to Russia. “China is right here on planet earth. Shall I show it to you on a map?” She flung her arms into the air.
Mrs. Hill narrowed her eyes. “You know what I mean,” she replied. “It’s not a skip, hop, and a jump away. Besides, this whole situation seems so weird. But I said that already, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” Lilly said. “That’s exactly why Dad and I should go. We must un-weird this little mystery. If not us, who will?” She flashed a winning smile.
“Us?” Mrs. Hill questioned, running her fingers through her rich brown locks of hair. “I’m thinking ‘him’ alone.”
“Pleeeeeease,” Lilly pleaded.
After thinking for a few minutes, Mrs. Hill consented. “Alright,” she said. “You can go, but only if you promise to take good care of yourself and come back soon, alive, and not wounded.”
“I always do,” Lilly said. Lilly interlocked one of her pinky fingers with one of her mother’s. “O.K., I promise.”
“Thanks for the sass, miss,” Mrs. Hill said. “But that’s not what I wanna hear, baby doll.” Mrs. Hill hugged her tightly. “I’ll miss you,” she whispered.
Marco eyed her warily. “Word to the wise,” he said. “Learn how to use a pair of nunchucks and take them with you.”
“Thanks,” Lilly began, “but the wise don’t need a word.”
“Yeah, they do, because the wise are those who listen,” Marco answered. He turned his attention back to the laptop screen.
“You’re funny,” Lilly said smiling. After transferring her dad’s tea into a clear glass, she returned to his office and told him the good news.
“Wonderful,” he exclaimed, leaning back in his chair and propping his socked feet on the desk.
Lilly copied him. For several minutes, they tried unsuccessfully to knock each other’s feet off the desk. Then Mr. Hill spoke. “Our plane takes off in two days,” he said. “Are you ready for it?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Lilly assured him. “Guess I should start packing.”
“Great idea,” Mr. Hill said with a twinkle in his eyes. “Your last minute packing is always disastrous and constantly jeopardizes our plane trips.”
“Way to tell me the obvious truth, Dad,” Lilly said.
“Go! Go! Go forth and pack early,” Mr. Hill urged, shooing her out of his office.
With these words ringing in her ears, Lilly walked to her bedroom and pulled out her pink, tan and black suitcase from beneath her bed. It was a little beat up, but Lilly loved it because it reminded her of all the other places she had been. Throwing open her closet door, Lilly proceeded to take down clothing items and roll them up to fit in her suitcase.
“Cardigans,” she muttered to herself. “Trench… check. Two dresses… check. Patterned skirt… check. Velvet track suit… must have… check. Dad’s borrowed sweater… check. Mickey Mouse PJs… check. Let’s see. What else will I need?” Her eyes roved across her room. “Jewelry… check. Leggings… check. Scrunchies…check. Undies… check. Juicy Couture perfume… check. iPad… check. Lip gloss… check. Chocolate sauce… uh, no… just chocolate bars—a very necessary friendship-forming tool. Stuffed pet, Wasp…check.”
Lilly figured that if she needed anything else, she could always purchase it in China. That’s how they always did it after all. Besides, she prided herself in packing light and mentally patted herself on the back for doing it so quickly.
The first time Lilly had packed for an overseas trip, she had filled three suitcases with stuff, and then had to jump on them to close them down. That experience as a ten-year-old now sent a tiny wave of shivers down her back. “Three minutes and forty-seven seconds,” Lilly said triumphantly glancing at her sports watch. “Record broken.”
Picking up her phone, she dialed the numbers to ring her best friend, thirteen-year-old Adria Sinise.
“Hey, matey!” Adria said. Her lovely Australian accent sprang out making each word bounce and pop with an undeterred liveliness.
“Hello! Hello!” Lilly greeted her. “Guess what, Barbie?” Barbie was Lilly’s nickname for Adria because of her straight platinum blonde hair, dimples, naturally bright pink lips, ocean blue eyes, sweet, buoyant spirit, and sense of style.
“You sound super excited, so I’m gonna bet you’re either going to the moon or you’re finally able to do a front handspring,” Adria surmised.
“Your first guess is pretty close,” Lilly confirmed. “Only I’m traveling somewhere on earth. Guess again!”
“Help me out, seester! Is it some place in America?” Adria asked.
“No,” Lilly answered. “Keep guessing.” She rubbed her hands together furiously.
“Nope. Canada is a part of the Americas, Barbie.”
Adria rolled her eyes. “Kidding,” she said. “I totally knew that. What about India or Istanbul? Are you going there?”
“No to both,” Lilly told her. “Why didn’t you just say the Middle East? Istanbul is a part of the Middle East, ya know.”
“Because I like the way Istanbul rolls off my tongue. Ihs-tahn-buhl,” Adria repeated.
Lilly laughed at her best friend’s absurdity. “Okay. Two more guesses,” she said.
“Down the rabbit hole? Alice in Wonderland style?”
“Of course not. There is no evidence that that insane place exists. Last try.”
“China or Japan?”
There was some rustling of papers on the other end of the phone. Lilly coughed dramatically. “Two in one…Guess one, please.”
“Well, my mind is saying ‘China,’ but my heart is screaming ‘Japan.'”
“Choose wisely, mate,” Lilly advised.
“I’m going to go with China,” Adria said.
“China it is!” Lilly shouted. “Never listen to your heart when it screams.”
“Yay me!” Adria cheered. “I used a world map,” she admitted. “Tell me, why are you traveling to China and to what part?”
“Beijing,” Lilly answered. She proceeded to rehash all about the mysterious caller and her dad’s plan.
“That sounds like some awful sort of cloak and dagger business to me,” Adria said when Lilly finished talking.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be alright,” Lilly assured her. “Do you think you’ll be able to come along with us this time? We leave on Wednesday morning.”
Adria twirled a few strands of her hair around her finger before audibly sighing. “No. I don’t think so. My ancestors–”
“You mean your Mom and Dad,” Lilly corrected.
“Yeah. Them—my ancestors. They would never let me travel overseas on such short notice. So, I guess I’ll just stay sittin’ in my room munching on frosted flakes continuing to be hypnotized by this zany poster of the Cheshire cat that my brother made me, while my best friend jet-sets across the globe, adventuring without me… ‘Tis a hard life I’m living.” Adria let out an exaggerated sigh.
“Come on,” Lilly groaned. “You’re making me feel bad. Besides, I told you to throw darts at that stupid poster and your life is not all that bad. Remember, you have an audition for a role in that big drama movie on Saturday. Keep your head up, Barbie. I’ll be praying for your success.”
“Thanks. I’ll be praying for your safety, too. You are seriously the greatest friend ever. As I think about it, there is no reason for me to get depressed. I’ll probably be chosen for the role I’ve been practicing for all summer. I mean, the directors asked for an athletic, perky, blonde haired girl who’s about five feet one inch. I’m all that and a bag of cotton candy! After all, you do call me Barbie. Who can say ‘no’ to perfect?”
“Uh huh.” Lilly was amazed at how far a little encouragement could go in boosting Adria’s self-esteem through the roof and into the stratosphere.
“Seriously,” Adria began again. “Thanks, seester. You better send me a ton of photos and buy me a stunning memento in Beijing.”
“Totally will,” Lilly assured her. “One more thing,” Lilly added. “Be sure to do yourself a favor and look up the word ancestor in a dictionary.”
“Ha! Ha!” Adria said. “I’m adding that to my to do list now.”
“Great. See you tomorrow. Bye. Poof!”
“See you. Bye-e!”
Exactly two days and eight hours later, Mr. Hill and Lilly arrived at San Diego International Airport. Because of Lilly’s early packing, they had nearly thirteen minutes to spare. Mrs. Hill and a sleepy-looking Marco came along to see them off.
“Heavenly Father, please bless and protect my hubby and daughter as they embark on this journey to China. Only You know what awaits them, so we put our trust in You. Use them for Your glory, God. Thank You in advance. Amen,” Mrs. Hill prayed.
“Amen!” everyone echoed.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” Mrs. Hill said kissing Lilly on her forehead and cheeks. “Remember your promise.”
“I will. Bye, Mom,” Lilly said.
Mrs. Hill stood on her tiptoes to kiss her husband goodbye nearly spilling some of her latte on his luggage in the process. Marco covered his eyes.
“You should have worn your killer heels today, Mom,” Lilly joked.
Mrs. Hill laughed. “Don’t you have something to say, Marco?” she said to her son.
“Of course,” Marco answered. “Bye, guys. You already know how much I love you.”
Mrs. Hill gave him a disapproving look.
“O.K.,” Marco began again. “I love you, Dad, and I love you, Sis, as the day is long, the sea is wide, the mountains are tall, the sun is burning, marshmallows are chewy, the sky is–”
Mrs. Hill gave him a look that meant he was going on too long. Marco flung his arms outward.
“Simply put, I love you all very much, and…I made you a going away present.” He pulled a folded sheet of blank paper out of his denim pants pocket and handed it to Lilly. “It’s a two-sided square and it means good luck.”
Lilly turned the paper every which way as Mr. Hill looked on, perplexed. “This two-sided square looks like a straight line to me,” she observed.
“Only it is a two-sided square,” Marco confirmed. “That’s the genius of it, Sis.”
“If you say so,” Lilly said.
After Mrs. Hill and Marco left, Lilly and Mr. Hill boarded their flight. Mr. Hill slid into the plush blue window seat. Lilly cleared her throat. “Um, excuse me, Dad,” she said.
“Oh, yes, yes. ‘Scuse me, darling,” he chuckled. “I shall not deprive you of this privilege. Window seats are the best.”
“Thanks,” Lilly grinned as they switched places.
Ten minutes later, their plane still sat on the tarmac awaiting take off. “I wonder why we aren’t moving yet. What is taking so long?” Mr. Hill said to no one in particular as he thrust his head into the aisle.
“Chillax, Dad,” Lilly said knowing how much tardiness peeved him.
As if on cue, a short, young, white-haired man with blue rimmed sunglasses and a permanently creased forehead, entered the plane and plopped down in the seat beside Mr. Hill. He had a bad attitude and was mumbling some incoherent apology for holding the plane up.
Mr. Hill cracked a joke about his hair turning white early because of his stressful late arrivals. This lightened the atmosphere greatly as the man threw his head back and laughed in relief. “Actually, I dyed it,” he said. “My name’s Jason, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you,” Lilly and Mr. Hill said in unison shaking his outstretched hand. With seat belts buckled, the plane finally rose into the air.
“Lilly! Lilly! Wake up!” Mr. Hill called shaking her gently.
Lilly’s eyes fluttered open. “What’s up? Where is everybody?” she asked stuffing her iPad into her carry-on bag.
“We just touched down in Beijing. Everybody’s leaving the plane,” Mr. Hill answered.
“Funny,” Lilly muttered. “I was just dreaming the same.”
“Congratulations!” Mr. Hill said. “You dream of reality. I don’t know of too many people who do that.”
“Just teasing,” Mr. Hill said. “You were probably half awake.”
“Right. What time is it?” Lilly asked.
Mr. Hill looked at his sleek fashionable watch with the tiny dots in place of numbers. He frowned. “Sorry, darling. I still can’t tell time off this thing.”
“No worries,” Lilly said switching on her cellphone. “It’s 11:14 p.m.”
Stepping off the plane, Lilly was immediately struck by the huge Beijing Capitol International Airport, the thousands of bright city lights, and the heavy smog which hung over the area hiding the moon and twinkling stars. The new sights, sounds, and smells assaulted her senses in the most splendid way.
“This is all so impressive,” Lilly said snapping photos to send to Marco and her friends back home.
Mr. Hill nodded his head in agreement as they walked to locate Benedicto Hsu, their chauffeur. Smiling pleasantly, he welcomed them to China and loaded their luggage into the black Audi. “Where to?” he asked.
“Downtown, please,” Mr. Hill said. “I’d like to grab something to eat first.”
“Me, too,” Lilly agreed. “My stomach feels empty. Did the attendants even serve dinner on the plane?”
“They did—while you were sleeping.”
“You shouldn’t be so hungry then,” Lilly said.
“You aren’t very observant, darling,” Mr. Hill said. “I try not to eat anything in the air.” He smiled. “The food tastes like cardboard.”
In a few minutes, they arrived in the downtown area of Beijing surrounded by glistening, highrise buildings and swarms of people. “There’s a McDonald’s,” Mr. Hill said pointing out the car window. “Why don’t we eat there?”
“Come on,” Lilly exclaimed. “We’re in China! Where’s your adventurous spirit?”
Mr. Hill hugged her shoulders tightly. “I must have left it somewhere in the ocean. Forgive me. May I borrow yours?”
“Sure,” Lilly said. “A generous portion.”
“How about I take you all to my favorite restaurant,” Benedicto offered from the driver’s seat. “It’s just a few blocks down, but we’ll still have to hurry. Closing time is tomorrow morning.”
“That means we have hours, right?” Lilly asked. She was confused.
“No,” Benedicto answered. “Tomorrow will be here in about fifteen minutes.”
Lilly looked at the numbers on her phone. “I get it!” she said. “It will soon be twelve o’clock midnight.”
Benedicto chuckled. “So what do you say?”
“Hmmm. Is the food good?” Mr. Hill asked.
“Quite. I know the chef.”
“But how do we know you’re not biased because of this friendship?” Lilly asked, the corners of her mouth curving to form a smile.
Benedicto decided to play along. “Well, I suppose you’ll just have to go there. The food speaks for itself. Trust me.”
“If you’re right, and I am sure you are,” Mr. Hill began, “Lilly will pay you an extra $19.00 for giving you a hard time. It’s a go.”
Benedicto’s face broke into a grin. “Deal,” he said.
“Cruel punishment, Dad,” Lilly moaned. “But I’ll pay up.”
“And I’ll make sure of it,” Mr. Hill guaranteed.
“You don’t have to. I’m a trustworthy person,” Lilly said.
“I’ll still make sure of it,” Mr. Hill repeated with a smile.
The restaurant was a medium sized one with low lights hanging from its ceiling casting a golden ambiance all around. Large abstract posters hung on the brick walls and bowls of fortune cookies sat in the middle of each vacant table. Over their meal of roasted duck, spicy noodles, steamed vegetables, and green tea, Lilly and Mr. Hill discussed their plans for lodging.
“I’m picking the hotel again this time,” Lilly said stirring her tea, “’cause the one you chose in Novosibirsk was horrible. It was probably haunted. I got lost in it. Remember? And I never get lost.”
Mr. Hill raised his thick eyebrows so as to show doubt about that statement.
“O.K., sometimes I do,” Lilly admitted.
Just then, Benedicto honked the car horn from his parking spot in front of the restaurant. Lilly and Mr. Hill flashed him two thumbs up.
“He said this food would speak for itself and it is sure saying something good to me,” Lilly commented.
“I agree, Lilly,” Mr. Hill said. “However, I need to tell you that we won’t be staying in a hotel this time around.”
“How come?” Lilly asked.
“Well,” Mr. Hill began looking at his phone, “Bo has set us up to board with one of his friends who has a family of four, and that’s including two kids around your age.”
“This should be interesting,” Lilly said. “But is it at all possible for us to stay with Bo like we did last year in the U.S.?” she asked referring to her father’s friend and associate who had moved to China as a result of his newly acquired promotion in their firm’s branch located in Asia.
“No, because Bo’s apartment here is too small,” Mr. Hill informed her. “He practically lives in his office.”
Lilly made an ‘O’ shape with her mouth. “No biggie. I’m excited to stay wherever.”
“That’s the spirit,” Mr. Hill said. He finished off the last of his noodles.
After ordering red bean buns and ice cream for dessert, Mr. Hill tipped the chef generously for allowing them to stay past closing time, and then gave Benedicto the directions to the host family’s residence in Shuangjing. After arriving, Mr. Hill paid Benedicto before saying farewell.
The apartment complex was large, and thankfully its interior was much warmer and more inviting than its rigid and uninspiring exterior which rose so high into the smog-filled sky that Lilly could not make out where it stopped. Lilly and Mr. Hill took an elevator to the third floor.
“Remember, say, Ni Hao, for hello,” Mr. Hill told Lilly as they rode up.
“Got it,” Lilly said repeating the words until they reached the door marked 19Z. Mr. Hill knocked. Immediately the door swung open and they were greeted by four beaming faces.
“Ni Hao! Hello! I’m Evan Leopond Sun.” The man introduced himself and welcomed them inside. He motioned to the woman, boy, and girl standing behind him and said, “This is my wife, Eia, and our two kids, Echo and Emmy.”
Eia was the first to speak. “Hi! Bo told us you arrived tonight so we decided to stay up until you arrived. I’m so glad we did. It is an honor to have you in our home.” Her warm brown eyes shone.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Mr. Hill said. “We should only be here one or two days so I can clear up a matter.”
Eia waved her hand dismissively. “Feel free to stay as long as you need to. Can I get you something to eat? Something to drink?”
“No. No,” Lilly answered. “Actually, we just had dinner at a restaurant around here. That’s why we didn’t arrive earlier.”
“O.K.,” Evan said. “I wish you hadn’t because the best cook in the world made the tastiest dumpling soup.” He squeezed his wife’s shoulder and she blushed.
Lilly smiled. “I’m sure it was wonderful. Perhaps tomorrow we can enjoy it.”
“Of course,” Eia agreed.
“Mr. Hill,” Evan began, “Bo told me a little about why you’re here, although he left out most of the details, so if you’ll be needing transportation, I am happy to take you and your daughter anywhere you all need to go, as long as I am available.”
“Thank you for your kind offer, and I do believe we shall accept it, at least for tomorrow as I still plan on renting a vehicle for our time here,” Mr. Hill said. “We don’t want our presence to interfere with your daily activities.”
Evan Sun nodded.
“Children,” Eia called referring to Echo and Emmy, “please show this young lady around while we finish talking.”
Lilly smiled her thanks as they approached her. Thin black hair framed both children’s faces. They had large, expressive eyes and profound dimples. They were lithe and stood no higher from the ground than Lilly did.
“Hi, again,” the girl said giving a small wave. “I’m Emmy and he’s my clone, otherwise known as my brother.” She playfully nudged her brother.
He tossed his head haughtily as if to dismiss her statement. “Actually, we’re twins and I was born a full nine minutes before her so that makes her my clone, even though she’s going to deny it to death. And I have a name too. It’s Echo.”
“Cool names,” Lilly complimented them.
“Thanks,” Emmy said. “Even our middle names start with the same initials. Mine’s Kim, and his is Koki.”
“She speaks the truth on that,” Echo agreed before asking Lilly, “What’s your name?”
“It’s Lillian Hill,” she replied. “But you can call me Lilly. Everybody who knows me does.”
“O.K.” Echo said.
Emmy took Lilly’s arm. “Come on. I’ll show you around.”
A door in the living room led into a pristine kitchenette. “This is our food lair,” Emmy said. “And Echo’s study headquarters. I study in my room and eat in here, while he eats in his room and dissects murky math problems in here.”
Emmy opened a cabinet. “Anyway, Lilly, our food lair is the best because it houses rice cakes which are my favorite snacks. You should have one….or two…everyday that you’re here. Be sure to top them.”
“What are the best toppings?” Lilly asked.
“Well, I like natural peanut butter with sugar or marshmallow paste or strawberry jam on mine. You can probably tell I can’t decide. But it’s best to experiment because no two people’s taste buds are the same.”
“That’s no scientifically proven fact,” Echo said quickly.
Emmy bugged out her already big eyes. “Just like when you say that you’re the best twin. That’s no scientifically proven fact, either.”
Lilly switched her head back and forth from Echo to Emmy as they spoke.
“I can eat rice cakes alone for ages,” Emmy continued raving.
Echo ran his fingers through his hair. “Girls cannot live by rice cakes alone,” he sighed.
Emmy looked doubtful. “Yeah. Those aren’t the exact words of Jesus,” she said
“I think you should star in a commercial for the rice cake brand,” Lilly stated.
“That’s my plan,” Emmy agreed leading the way out of the kitchen into a small carpeted hallway which encased five doors. She pointed to the first two. “Behind these doors are bathrooms. Nothing much to see inside. This one on the right is our parents’ bath and this one on the left is mine and Echo’s. You can use ours while you’re here. Our’s is better because we have a whole cabinet of bubble bath soap.
“Understood,” Lilly said.
Echo threw open the third door. “This is my room,” he declared proudly. “Whenever you want to see some fish, Lilly, you can come in here.”
Lilly surveyed his room with great interest. Everything was neat—almost too neat. The only defect was an open closet door. The bedroom walls were starch white and the only light shone from a disco ball, seemingly in riot against the stillness and serenity of its surroundings. A checkered bed was pushed against one wall guarded by two bookshelves on either side stacked with thick works full of tiny printed words. A lone faded Michael Jordan poster hung over the bed and Echo went to smooth its crinkled edges reverently. Lilly glanced at Echo’s impressive model of the solar system which swung from the roof. Then, she noticed a cardigan, a pair of black pants, and green-rimmed glasses in a chair. Lilly figured Echo was the type of person who laid out the clothes he would wear the next day the night before. She made her way over to the fish bowl and looked inside. Three little fish swam in circles. They seemed content.
“What are their names?’ Lilly asked.
“The orange fish is named Spock. The yellow one is named Uhura. The blue one is named Kirk—Captain Kirk,” Echo told her.
“Trekkie?” Lilly asked with raised eyebrows.
“You got it,” Echo confirmed. “I have almost all the DVDs under my bed.”
Lilly peeked underneath the checkered blanket. There they sat, with over a dozen astronomy magazines. “At my house we keep fish too, but in an aquarium,” Lilly said. “Only they have names like Graffiti and Lava.”
Echo made a fish face before letting out a low whistle. “I would love to have an aquarium,” he said dreamily.
Just then Emmy tapped Lilly on the shoulder. She was holding a stack of drawing papers. “Look at these. They’re Echo’s and they’re fantabulous! Aren’t they?”
Echo looked uncomfortable. “I entreat thee now, dear sister,” he pleaded. “Dost tell me why thou must shew my wretched talent to the world?”
“One person is the world now?” Emmy asked innocently before lowering her voice. “He goes all Shakespearean whenever he gets embarrassed.”
Lilly stared at the amazing manga artwork in her hands. “My brother would totally love these! They are all so, wow!” she exclaimed.
“Is your brother going to pop out of your suitcase or something?” Echo asked pulling his long stringy hair around his face.
Lilly laughed. “No. No. He stayed in America with our Mom. Besides, he abhors jack-in-the-boxes. Will you sign one of these for me to keep?”
“Yeah, sure,” Echo agreed.
When he finished, Lilly rolled the picture up and they walked back out into the hallway. “This door leads to our parents’ bedroom. We won’t go in there lest they catch us and think we’re snooping, but I have a big piano in there. It’s where I practice for four hours every day—well, almost every day, and sometimes I compose my own pieces,” Emmy said. “Do you play any instruments?”
Lilly shook her head. “My keyboard is my piano,” she joked.
Emmy laughed a laugh which sounded like rain drops hitting window panes.
“Seriously though,” Lilly began, “my Mom wants me to play the harp. I’m not so sure about it, but I’ll try and take lessons just for her. I love her so much. Right now, I’m just so busy with ballet class and gymnastics class and school and competition and all that stuff. But I’d love to hear you play the piano some time before I leave.”
Emmy clapped her hands before opening the door leading into her own bedroom. “I hope you like pink,” she said to Lilly.
“I love it. It’s my favorite color.”
“Splendid!” Emmy plopped down on the bottom bed of her silver bunk which was adorned with pink trimmings, stuffed bears and lovely crocheted blankets. She sighed. “I’m so happy that I kept this bunk bed now. At first when we were little, Echo and I shared this room, but then he grew a little bit taller than our bunk, so he moved out into his own room with a bigger bed. Meanwhile, I stayed in this same room with the same bunk because I grew no taller.”
“Well, you’re not short,” Lilly said. “Just fun sized.”
Echo thought this statement was especially hilarious.
“But why did you guys share a room when there was an extra one all along?” Lilly asked.
“Because at first our grandma lived with us and stayed in that room until…until she died…last year,” Emmy answered.
“I’m sorry,” Lilly said putting a comforting arm around Emmy’s shoulders.
“Oh, don’t be,” Echo said quickly. “Did you have anything to do with her death?”
“Um, no,” Lilly said rather surprised.
“See. You shouldn’t be sorry then,” Echo said.
“Go to bed, weirdo,” Emmy said tossing a pillow his way.
“Sure. I’ll take my leave now, ladies. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Lilly said.
Immediately Lilly set to work unpacking her suitcase. Emmy helped her while “ooohing” and “aaahing” at several items. In no time at all, they were finished. Lilly stood up.
“Hey, Emmy, what’s all this writing on the wall?” she asked leaning forward for a closer look.
Emmy grabbed a red book from under her pillow. “When Grandma was here she gave me this book and she would read this to me, like, every month. It’s my favorite story. I fell in love with it the first time I heard it. Unfortunately, it’s written in Spanish and Grandma was the only one in my family who could read Spanish. So, after she died, I got a copy of the Spanish alphabet and started translating the book on this wall. That way I can read it from the vantage point of my bed as I go to sleep.”
“Way cool!” Lilly exclaimed. The writing was intercepted by a framed picture of a huge garden covered in Christmas lights. “Can you tell me the story?”
Emmy beamed. “Of course. Hold on a minute. I’m going to do something. Don’t freak out.” She raised the window screen and sat on the ledge with her feet dangling over the edge. Lilly joined her. The view was spectacular.
“Good thing I’m not afraid of heights,” Lilly whispered.
Emmy giggled. “No gymnast can be, I suppose. But if you were scared, there’s a balcony some feet down to catch us if we fall, although most likely we would come up with a broken bone or something.” She giggled again before launching off into telling Lilly the story in the red book.
The story was about a gigantic dragon who promised a king that he would protect his kingdom from its barbaric enemies so long as the king commissioned several officers to search out the land for a mate for him. All went well until the king’s daughter grew fond of the scaly dragon and he accidentally burnt her with his scorching fiery breath. Out of revenge, the king committed a rash act, which brought his kingdom to its knees. The story’s ending was bittersweet.
Lilly applauded after Emmy finished telling the story, then she sat in silence, staring at the silver moon peeking through the blanket of fog until Emmy spoke. “I wonder if there’s an alien kingdom up there somewhere and its residents are looking down on us right now.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Lilly said. “But I know Someone who is.”
“Right. His eyes are everywhere.”
“So you’re a believer, too?”
“Yeah. I became a Christian two years ago. My whole family is…I think,” Emmy answered but with some doubt.
They continued talking until Emmy could hardly keep her eyes open. Lilly back-flipped into the room and climbed into the top bunk. Emmy slid off the window sill, marched to the bottom bed and collapsed in between the downy sheets as if someone had pushed her under.
“Good night,” Lilly sang.
Emmy’s ‘good night’ was cut off by a loud involuntary yawn. “Don’t forget to show me some pictures of California tomorrow. O.K.? I’ve never seen the beach.”
“I won’t,” Lilly promised her before falling off into a restless sleep. No sooner had she fallen asleep when she was awakened suddenly. It was 4:59 a.m. Her bones ached. Lilly lay awake wishing sleep would wash over her. It stood aloof like a stubborn, unbridled donkey. I need some water, Lilly thought. She climbed from the top bunk. Once her feet hit the floor, a hazy green light arrested her attention. Upon further investigation, she discovered it to be one of Emmy’s glow-in-the-dark bracelets. Breathing a sigh of relief, Lilly proceeded into the hallway, then on into the kitchen. Trying to make as little noise as possible, she turned on the faucet and grabbed a cup from off the shelf.
“Lilly?” a voice called behind her.
Lilly spun around and water sprayed onto her face and shirt. She cut the faucet off. “Dad,” she said. “Where did you come from?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Mr. Hill replied with a tired smile. His hair was an undignified mess.
“Right,” Lilly paused. “I was sleeping in Emmy’s bunk bed, trying to sleep, I mean. I think I am jet lagged.”
“I must be, too,” Mr. Hill said. “I’m sleeping on the couch, however.”
Lilly decided to stay with her father. She ended up stretching out on the loveseat while her father tried to sleep on the couch for the remainder of the dark morning, drifting in-between reality and dreamland; teetering on the brink of reality, yet never fully falling over into sleep’s promising valley. When the first rays of daylight hit Beijing, Mr. Hill tried unsuccessfully to skype with Mrs. Hill and Marco.
“They’re probably sleeping,” Lilly said. Mr. Hill agreed.
By 8:00 in the morning, Lilly had showered off her drowsiness and was ready to go with Mr. Hill to investigate the address Bo had given them. Evan Sun drove them there. It took less than an hour. They pulled up into a not-so-fancy housing complex and Mr. Hill and Lilly got out and walked up to the third house from the left. Lilly rapped on the door three times. They waited and waited for some time until a woman with rich, brown hair threw open the door.
“Mr. Hill!” the woman exclaimed, stepping backwards to let them in. Quickly she locked the door again. “Thank you so very much for coming.” Joy radiated from her face.
“I remember you…from somewhere,” Mr. Hill said, stroking his scruffy chin thoughtfully. “What’s your name again?”
“Sa–” the woman began.
“–rah,” Mr. Hill finished. “Sarah!”
Lilly raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“And your last name has to do with the animal family? Am I right?” Mr. Hill asked.
The woman chuckled. “Had to do,” she corrected. “It was Bird.”
“Aaaahh,” Mr. Hill said, clapping his hands together. “I have a great memory!”
Lilly jabbed him lightly in his ribs with her elbow. “Dad, we’re here to help. And it’s not polite to brag,” she whispered.
“Yes. This is my daughter. She moonlights as my corrections officer,” Mr. Hill joked to Sarah.
“Lilly’s my name,” Lilly said with a warm smile while shaking Sarah’s outstretched hand.
“And a beautiful name it is,” she complimented her. “Nice to meet you!”
Right then, a young man with a worried face and slicked back hair poked his head cautiously around the corner into the room. Catching sight of Mr. Hill, he straightened and fully walked into the room.
“Mr. Hill!” he cried, throwing his arms into the air before breaking out into a lopsided grin. “Thank God you have come!”
“Manchu Carrig!” Mr. Hill said in greeting. “Is that you?”
“I am,” the man confirmed, still grinning.
“My, my, you haven’t aged a bit. How have things been going? I see you moved back to China.”
Lilly raised her eyebrows again.
“Yes,” Manchu replied. “First, I married my love, and we are coming up on our third anniversary. As you can see, we have a baby due any day now.” He looked adoringly at Sarah. “Afterward,” he continued, “we settled here in China as I said I would to start a church in my native land. We have done so and God has blessed us!”
“Excuse me,” Lilly said turning to her father. “So you all have met before?”
Mr. Hill nodded in the affirmative before introducing Lilly to Manchu.
“I’d be happy to tell you how we came to know each other,” Manchu said quickly before slapping his forehead. “Wait. Where are my manners? Please have a seat.”
“Hold on a minute,” Sarah told him as she left the room.
Lilly and Mr. Hill sat on a camel colored couch while Manchu plopped into the matching sofa opposite them. From her position, Lilly surveyed all she could of the house. Though it was sparsely furnished, the house lacked nothing of necessity. Certainly, the Carrigs had given off no signs that they were in need of help from their warm welcome. Lilly was eager to get to the bottom of the barrel and find out what they really needed.
Sarah returned with a plate of tiramisu cut into perfect squares, and placed it on the low glass table between the couch and the sofa, instantly creating a picturesque scene.
“Take one!” she urged.
Lilly did so. “Splendid,” she said after taking a bite.
Sarah smiled at her, and she smiled appreciatively every time Lilly reached for another square.
“Where should I begin?” Manchu said smoothing his arm hairs in the same direction.
“Well, the beginning is always a good place to start a story,” Lilly advised.
“Of course,” Manchu said.
Lilly leaned forward on the edge of the couch—something she always did when someone was relating a story—no matter if it was truth or tale.
“Sarah and I met your father at a cafe in California about four years ago,” Manchu began. “It wasn’t a planned meeting. The cafe was full that day, but your kind father offered to share his booth with us. We got to talking and I told him of our upcoming wedding. I remember this especially because he recommended a beautiful love song which we did dance to, by the way.”
Mr. Hill lowered his head sheepishly.
“I also told him how that I had recently graduated from USC with a degree in International Relations, but felt as if God was calling me back to China to minister to my native countrymen. As you can imagine, Sarah and I were delighted to find out that your father was a believer. He encouraged me to follow God’s leading, and at the close of our conversation, he gave me his firm’s card and his direct number so that we could contact him if the Chinese government tried to cause any problems for us. I put them in my wallet and forgot all about our meeting until just a few days ago. Well, actually, it was Sarah who reminded me.”
Lilly and Mr. Hill looked at each other. Then Mr. Hill asked, “I take it the government has been attempting to thwart your church building plans?”
“Oh, yes,” Manchu said. “At first, about a month after we arrived here and got settled in, we held services right in this house. I was amazed at our congregants’ thirst for the Gospel. Quickly our little house church exploded in numbers. This was absolutely wonderful, of course, but it did cause one problem—we needed more room. Thankfully, our church family back in the U.S. provided the money for us to rent out a building. I had the audacity to put the name of our church on the front of the building in both English and Chinese only to attract even more people to learn about Jesus. However, I quickly learned that this wasn’t a very smart move. Several officers barged in mid-service one Sunday, and asked if our church was registered with TSPM. I said no. They told us that we had to apply for a license immediately or stop holding services because we did not have permission from the government, and we were disrupting the peace by inciting citizens to rebel. I promptly told them that we were only sharing the Gospel and did not need permission from the government to do this because we had permission from God. This only infuriated them, and by the next Sunday, they had the owner of the building to kick us out for ‘breaking the sound ordinance.’ I am convinced this was just a setup.”
Before Manchu could say more, Lilly asked, “Why not register with the Three Self Patriotic Movement?”
“Simply because it is headed by the Communist Party and they control and restrict Three Party churches,” Manchu replied. “They twist the true teachings of Christianity and decide who can preach and what can be preached. For one, you cannot preach Jesus’ resurrection or His return. Neither can you give out Bibles. It would be easier for us if we submitted to their rule, but then we would serve no purpose over here. The Chinese people need the truth, just as everyone else does!”
Manchu sighed passionately.
Lilly nodded earnestly. “I see,” she said. “I totally agree.”
Manchu continued. “Anyway, after that week, Sarah, our members, and I decided to meet together at a local park and hold services. The police continued to harass us. They attacked us with batons at one point and threatened arrest. I feared for our congregants.”
“Yes!” Sarah interrupted. “The police even pushed their way into our house about three weeks ago. They confiscated our Bibles, and all our Christian literature, and my cross necklace!” She hit the sofa arm with her hand as she mentioned each item. “I wanted to fight them.”
Manchu put his arm around her as if to protect her from her own outrage.
“But our faith cannot be taken away,” he said calmly.
Sarah calmed down a bit after her outburst, then she went on to explain how she had come to contact Mr. Hill. “Some time after that incident, I was reminded of our meeting and spoke with Manchu about it. Sure enough, he found Mr. Hill’s card and number still in his wallet. I called you, but could only get in a few words before our phone was strangely cut off.”
“Well, that solves that little mystery,” Mr. Hill said to Lilly. He laced his fingers together and looked satisfied. “So is the park still your place of meeting?”
“No. Not any more,” Manchu answered. “One of our congregants owns his own small restaurant and shop on the outskirts of town. We meet in the back of his building every Wednesday eve and Sunday morning. So far, so good.”
“Today’s Wednesday,” Lilly said coolly.
Manchu caught on. “Would you like to attend our service tonight?”
“Definitely,” Mr. Hill and Lilly said in unison.
Manchu was delighted. He scribbled down the directions on a sheet of paper and handed it to them. “Everyone’s to be there by 7:30. After that the doors are locked. But if you arrive later for whatever reason, just jiggle the door handles. Someone will come out and ask you for the password. It’s fish.”
Lilly quickly wrote fish on her arm with the blue marker she carried in her pocket.
“Mr. Hill,” Sarah began, “I just want to thank you and your daughter again for coming to see us. When I called you, I really wasn’t expecting a visit. I was only hoping you’d remember us and be willing to represent us from America if government officials continued to harass us and our congregants.”
“No matter,” Mr. Hill said with a wave of his hand. “Not only are we happy that we could make this trip, but I am thrilled to see you all again. Of course, I will do everything in my power to protect you from unjust attacks brought against you by anyone.”
After saying their farewells, Mr. Hill called Evan Sun to pick them up. Evan looked at them questioningly as they slid into their seats. “Everything go all right?” he asked.
“Quite well,” Mr. Hill replied. “Turns out some friends of mine may need my help.”
Sensing that he did not wish to elaborate, Evan switched the subject. “Is there any place else you wish for me to take you right now?”
“Yes, thank you,” Mr. Hill said. “I need to stop at a car rental and get a vehicle. Again, you have been very generous in offering to drive us around, but I don’t want to tie you up in case Lilly and I decide to do some sightseeing.”
After much protesting, Evan consented. Lilly helped Mr. Hill pick out a car. Afterwards, Mr. Hill and Lilly split ways with Evan Sun to do some gift shopping for Mrs. Hill, Marco, and their friends in the U.S. Lilly purchased an ornate music box for Mrs. Hill, a mirrored iPhone case for Adria, and a father-daughter robot paperweight for Mr. Hill, among other things. I already have a gift for Marco, she thought.
“Your mother is consistently baffled by how I am able to give gifts around Christmas time without going Christmas shopping,” Mr. Hill remarked as they exited the store. “I do all my holiday shopping January through October.” He chuckled good naturedly.
“Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me,” Lilly promised.
For a late lunch, Lilly and Mr. Hill stopped at a sushi bar. They discussed the plight of Christians in ‘foreign’ lands as they ate.
“I just don’t understand why some people feel the need to hurt those followers of Jesus and those who believe differently than they do,” Lilly sighed, pushing her tekka maki around in spicy soy sauce with a pair of chopsticks. “I mean they aren’t hurting anybody, and it’s only fair that Christians have the same freedom to believe what they want, in Who they want, and be able to share those beliefs with anybody they want. Of course, that ‘anybody’ has the freedom not to listen or accept their beliefs as his or her own. Another thing, why fight so hard against someone believing in God and His Son, when you don’t even believe they exist? It makes no sense to feel threatened by ‘fairy tales’ and ‘falsities’! Right, Dad? I mean, where’s the logic in that?” She threw her hands up, causing one of her chopsticks to back flip off her plate, bounce into the air, and prick her in the leg before falling on the tile floor. “Oww!” she exclaimed rubbing her thigh.
Mr. Hill retrieved the chopstick and handed it back to Lilly. “How I wish everyone saw things the way you do, Lilly,” Mr. Hill said. “Well, maybe not everything,” he quickly added, “or we’d all be dressed in pink, sipping cotton candy drinks—or something.”
Lilly narrowed her eyes.
Mr. Hill shuddered as if the very thought sent chills up his spine. “O.K., O.K. Maybe we wouldn’t all be doing that; perhaps something a bit more edifying,” he said before chuckling again. “Anyway, one thing’s for sure, I’d be out of a job if everyone saw things the way you and I do. Then there’d be no one to prosecute, make enemies with, roll in the mud with.” He whistled and shook his head solemnly. “The stuff of nightmares.”
“You mean the mud made up of suits, and thick books, and arm twisting? No, thank you.” Lilly wrinkled her nose. “I wonder, what would you be doing if you hadn’t decided to become a lawyer?”
“I have no idea,” Mr. Hill replied. “I burnt my bridges. Didn’t formulate a plan B.”
It was Lilly’s turn to laugh.
“Oh, I know what you would be doing,” she said, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
“Let me hear it,” Mr. Hill said apprehensively.
“You would be doing gymnastics with me!”
Mr. Hill face-palmed trying to stop the thought from registering in his head. “Oh, no!” he groaned. “Please stop!”
Lilly refused to spare him. “Just listen,” she said breathlessly. “Daddy-daughter gymnastics is just like THE best idea ever! Am I right? I know I’m right!”
“No! No. Me in one of those shiny tight outfits…Never! This is much too painful.”
“I ought to shout it from the rooftops,” Lilly teased.
“In that case, I most definitely would have to gag you with one of these large napkins,” Mr. Hill said dangling one in front of her.
It took Lilly several minutes to recover from how hard she was laughing.
At last Mr. Hill continued, “Seriously though, it would be more than nice if every one sided with me and you on issues such as religious freedom. Some of the persecutors, especially those here in China, do not wish for other people to acknowledge the existence of God because they themselves desire to be worshiped. Whenever they hear the powerful name of Jesus being praised, they feel the need to stamp it out by means of violence. However, it is not wise for us to judge them. Let’s just pray for them along with the people who they are persecuting.”
“You’re right, Dad,” Lilly agreed finishing off her drink with one long sip. “That’s what I’ll do.”
Mr. Hill smiled.
By the time they returned to the Suns’ apartment, Lilly and Mr. Hill had about three hours to spare before they left for the Carrig’s church. Lilly decided to learn more about the reality of persecution using her phone as Emmy attempted to sketch a photo of her on her drawing pad. The “portrait” turned out to look more like a lioness or a wooly haired cyborg. Emmy called it “abstract,” but Echo called it zhengning, which translates in English to “hideous.” Other than an appreciative glance, Lilly didn’t comment for she was both startled and alarmed by what she was reading.
“Lilly,” Mr. Hill said entering the living room. “We’ve got thirty minutes till. Ready to go?” He tapped his watch.
“Just need my shoes,” Lilly answered jumping up from her upside-down position on the couch.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” Emmy asked.
“Hold on,” Lilly said. She followed Mr. Hill into the hallway before asking, “Is it alright if I invite the Suns to church with us?”
Mr. Hill was unsure. “I don’t know, Lilly,” he answered running his fingers through his dark silky hair. “They might be hostile to Christianity, for all we know. Perhaps it is not wise for us to push it on them so soon.”
“But they aren’t,” Lilly said. “Emmy told me they all believe in God.”
“Wonderful! In that case, I don’t see why not. Tell them to hurry though.”
Eia, Echo, and Emmy seemed pleased to accept the invitation to accompany the Hills to church. However, they lost a few minutes waiting for Evan to return from his job. He, too, agreed to attend church and expressed his enthusiasm by saying, “In the door and right back out again. We haven’t been to a church in so long.”
Mr. Hill sped to the restaurant shop. With the Suns following close behind in their own vehicle, they all arrived minutes before the doors were to be locked.
“Hello! Hello!” a small man with smiling eyes greeted them from behind the fancy counter. He introduced himself as Kya Ray. It was evident that he was the owner of the shop. “You two are the Americans Pastor Manchu told me would be coming, yes?”
“Indeed,” Mr. Hill confirmed. “We took the liberty to bring some friends as well.”
Ray beamed. “Bless you,” he said. “You haven’t even been to one of our services, yet you are already inviting others!”
“It wasn’t me exactly,” Mr. Hill said crediting Lilly.
By now quite a few members had left their lukewarm cups of java and tea and sweet cakes to greet the newcomers. Although some could not speak English very well, love abounded.
“Are you sure this is a real church?” Emmy whispered to Lilly after receiving a warm hug from a great grandfather in a wheelchair. She eyed the swivel chairs reserved for customers and the pretty trinkets on sale in the other side of the shop.
“Um, yeah,” Lilly whispered back. “There’s a verse in Ephesians which says that we are members of His body. That means that a church isn’t really a building. It’s the people inside; they’re the church.”
“Oh,” Emmy replied. “I never thought of it that way. That makes sense. Totally.”
“Can I get any of you something to drink? Eat?” Ray asked them. “On Wednesday nights, everything’s free. My order!”
Mr. Hill thanked him for the free food and drink, but still gave him a tip. “I’ll take some tea,” he said. “That will suffice.”
Lilly ordered the same. “With sugar,” she said.
Out of politeness, the Suns ordered drinks also. At the end of their feasting and fellowshipping, Ray put the ‘closed’ sign in the shop window and dimmed the restaurant lights. Pulling back a sliding panel in the back wall, he led everyone into a storage room no bigger than a medium-sized garage. The congregants took their seats swiftly. It was so crowded that some people had to sit on the floor. Lilly took a spot on the floor near the front with the twins.
Everyone participated in singing a few lively hymns under the direction of Sarah. Halfway through “Jesus Loves Me”, a look of excitement flashed across her face. “My baby! It’s kicking!” she exclaimed.
“I think it’s trying to sing,” Manchu joked.
“Or dance,” Lilly added.
Joyful laughter ensued. A time of prayer followed a solo sung in Chinese by a young man with his sister playing a flute. Despite not having any of the trappings of the fine church buildings across the ocean, worship poured from each person’s heart. Manchu’s message was moving. He spoke of God’s everlasting love and encouraged everyone to cling to their faith in the face of tribulation.
“Trials are just tests. They cannot compare to the brilliance awaiting us in Heaven,” he said.
The great grandfather still in his wheelchair, cried out as he witnessed his grand-daughter’s hard heart melt at the hearing of God’s Word. Using his trembling hands, he explained that he had invited her to church many times, only to be rebuffed as she refused in anger — thanks to mistreatment she endured at the hands of her ‘religious’ stepmother. Now, after attending church for the fourth time, she was coming to Jesus.
With full hearts and each other’s blessings, everyone dispersed into the smog-filled night. Wrapped in her black trench coat, Lilly excitedly spoke of the evening’s events with Mr. Hill as they trailed the Suns’ back to their home. Once again, he agreed that a great work was being done through the efforts of Manchu and Sarah Carrig.
Unable to keep up with Emmy’s incessant chattering, sweet sleep came swiftly for Lilly after she climbed into the bunk and pulled the blanket — decorated with its mass of curls and twists — up and over her head.
The sun rose the next morning with a seemingly new-found determination to make its presence known over Beijing like an electric mohawk on a bald man’s head. Lilly looked out the window as the sun’s rays sliced through the smog. Dust particles floated past. For some reason, the whole sky scene reminded her of a dessert.
“The smog is a huge chocolate cake. The sun’s rays are butterscotch icing drizzling down its sides and the dust bits are sprinkles. What a polluted junky cake,” Lilly muttered before closing the window to dress in privacy without the attention of the wispy clouds sailing by surveying everything and everyone up in the sky.
When Marco was seven, he had told Lilly a story. (Well, he called it a theory. Lilly called it a story.) He said that the clouds were silent soldiers of the sky. They watched everyone from on high and stored up a huge amount of spy film. That’s why they became so fat. Clouds were jealous things, mad that they could not partake in people’s joyous events. So they did only what they could—watch. And sometimes one or two would ‘speak’ by striking some poor human with lightning. Then, the clouds would roar cruelly about it, and their laughter would produce thunder. Of course, Lilly tried to tell Marco the science behind the formation of clouds and lightning bolts, but Marco would have none of it.
Lilly laughed then, and she laughed now even harder upon remembering it. “I’ll have to call Mama and Marco again,” she told herself.
At the moment, this was the only thing Lilly was sure she was going to do that day, besides eating with chopsticks and having devotions. Emmy and Echo had already slipped out of the apartment for school, and would be gone until evening.
“Perhaps we can visit part of the Great Wall. It would be a dream come true if Dad and I could camp out there before heading back home,” Lilly mused. “One thing’s for sure. This marvelous day will not go to waste!” she resolved.
After dressing, Lilly stretched before brushing her hair as she pattered about the room. In a few minutes, a firm knock came on the outside of the door.
“Lilly, are you up in there? Dressed?” It was Mr. Hill’s voice.
“Double yes!” Lilly answered. “I was just waiting on you.”
Mr. Hill opened the door. “Good morning, Lilly! Looks like an emergency has come up. Sarah just called and notified me that Manchu is missing! I hope you have a triple ‘yes’ for this question: Ready to go?”
Backing out of the apartment’s parking lot, Mr. Hill filled Lilly in on the details of his conversation with Sarah Carrig: “She said that not long after they arrived home from services, Manchu was called by the young woman who came to Jesus last night. Her great grandfather was extremely ill, and she asked for Pastor Manchu to come to their house and be near him if indeed it was her great grandfather’s last hours. Manchu left for their house around midnight, leaving Sarah behind to get some rest. When she awoke this morning, she was greatly disturbed to find out that he hadn’t returned.”
“Bizarre,” Lilly commented. “He looked the picture of health last night. I mean, for a guy like way up the ladder in years.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Hill agreed. “However, he might have been struggling with some disease internally. Or, perhaps, all the excitement got to him last night. The guy could hardly contain his happiness.”
Lilly nodded. “So where are we headed? To Sarah’s or some place else?” She dumped a handful of rice krispies into her mouth. The box of cereal was the handiest breakfast she had been able to snag from the Suns’ kitchen. No utensils were necessary. Only certain body parts were required.
“Not to Sarah’s,” Mr. Hill answered. “I believe the best point to commence this investigation is at great grandfather Mitsubishi’s place. We’ll find out whether or not he arrived; and if so, what went on when he left. Wherever those clues lead, we’ll follow or fly.”
“If only we had wings,” Lilly sighed.
Mr. Hill smiled. “More or less.”
“Do you already have Mitsubishi’s address?” Lilly asked.
“Yes. Sarah sent it to my phone. They live in a fishing village near the mountains a ways from the city.”
“O.K., but couldn’t Sarah just call them?”
“She did. The phone went to voice mail.”
“She called him as well—multiple times. It just rang out. I’m pretty sure she’s trying again even as we speak.”
Mr. Hill and Lilly rode in thoughtful silence for a while longer until suddenly Mr. Hill leaned forward exclaiming, “That looks like a nasty accident up ahead! Wait! Is that–?”
“Manchu’s car?” Lilly interjected. “Yes! Yes, it is!”
The driver in the car behind them beeped furiously at Mr. Hill for slowing down. Mr. Hill deftly swerved out of the lane and parked on the side of the road. He and Lilly got out and approached the scene of the car accident. It appeared as if Manchu had tried to escape the oncoming car but despite the effort, the two collided head on. The front end of both cars were smashed into each other and glass from the decimated headlights was strewn about.
“Excuse me,” Mr. Hill said to the policeman who appeared to be in-charge of the situation. “Can you tell me what went on here?”
The man who had cheeks so sunken that even if he tried to fill them with air they would not puff out, looked at Mr. Hill questioningly. “An auto accident—that happened,” he said.
“O.K. That’s obvious. Can you give me any details?” Mr. Hill asked.
“No,” the man said. He proceeded to give some details anyway. “Looks like the person in this car drove the wrong way.” He pointed to Manchu’s car, then to the other car with his head. “Person in this car drove the right way. Wrong-way driver hit right-way driver’s car. The collision caused the cars to spin around in this awkward position.”
“How do you figure that it was this car coming the wrong way?”
“I think,” the officer said. “Imagine them spinning. If it was the other car headed the wrong way, they would be in totally different positions.” He waved his arms about wildly as if it was silly. Mr. Hill had doubts about what he was saying. “Perhaps he was drunk and did not have his lights on like a good driver!”
“That isn’t him at all,” Mr. Hill muttered. “Was there any identification in the vehicle?”
“Yes.” The officer called to another officer and spoke to him in Chinese.
He left for his car then returned handing him a plastic bag filled with documentation. “Here,” the first officer said showing the contents.
Mr. Hill took one look at the driver’s license. “Manchu Baltimore Carrig,” he read. “That’s him. Was there any identification in the other car?”
“No,” the police officer answered looking askance. “Besides, what relation are you to him? Who are you?”
“Well, I am a lawyer and a friend of Manchu.”
“And do you practice law in these parts?”
“No. I reside in America. I’m visiting here for Manchu’s sake. That’s why this accident is of such concern to me.”
“Oh, was he having legal troubles?”
“You not eager to speak of his troubles? Why? Sir, you care for friend, Manchu. Then tell me every suspicious wart, or you’ll fall under suspicion.”
Mr. Hill threw his head back and let out a laugh. Lilly couldn’t suppress a smile at the absolute absurdity of the officer’s last words.
“Trying to imply that I am a suspect does not threaten me in the least,” Mr. Hill said resolutely.
The officer responded with a smirk.
“Excuse me,” Lilly said. “I assume no bodies were found in the cars, right?”
The officer’s sunken eyes now rested on her questioningly. “Assumption correct,” he said.
“Come on, Lilly,” Mr. Hill said. He walked closer to the damaged cars and began taking pictures with his phone. Lilly did the same with her phone, but from different angles.
“Please…no contamination of the scene,” the officer said following them around.
“Of course not,” Mr. Hill replied. “But, just in case, this should make you feel better.” He pulled out a pair of leather gloves from his coat pocket, put them on his hands, and resumed taking pictures.
“I think I’ve covered everything,” Lilly said eventually. “Your pictures can serve as backup.”
“So that’s how it’s going to be,” Mr. Hill said, patting her on the back. “Good job, Lilly!” He thanked the officer for his help as they returned to their car. The officer didn’t respond and only called to another officer to get a towing company on the phone.
“That’s a laconic man, if ever I met one,” Mr. Hill commented as he started up the engine.
“What does that mean, Dad?” Lilly asked.
“Laconic? Not very fond of using words.”
“Hmmm. He’s that or just plain mean-spirited,” Lilly said.
Mr. Hill chuckled. “Whatever the case, something isn’t setting right with me about that crash.”
“Yeah, me either,” Lilly mused. “Did you notice anything in particular?”
“Well, I’m still working on the particulars. But something about the crash scene seemed staged and there was no identification for the other driver…” His voice trailed off.
“Yeah, but maybe it was like a hit and run,” Lilly said. “Or the other passenger may have helped Manchu get to a hospital, or vice-versa. Perhaps we should check hospitals around here.”
“Maybe, but if that’s the case, the police should have already checked, and the hospital would have notified Sarah by now. At least they should have. Another thing: I refuse to believe Manchu was driving the wrong way or whatever. Looks to me like his car sustained the most damage. Anyway, I’m going to continue on to Mitsubishi’s place.”
“O.K.” Lilly examined the accident photos on her phone. “There isn’t any blood on the dashboard or anywhere in either car. I mean, nothing of the interiors is out of place… This was a careful crash. I bet nobody got hurt.”
Mr. Hill nodded.
At Grandfather Mitsubishi’s house, they learned that Manchu had never arrived. Even more surprising, Grandfather Mitsubishi claimed that neither he nor his great-granddaughter, Ivy, called the Carrigs with news that he was sick.
“And certainly not near death,” Grandfather Mitsubishi said looking surprised. “See! I was lifting these weights out on the patio right before you all came in!”
“I saw you,” Mr. Hill said. “But someone is lying here. Are you positive that you weren’t sick last night?”
“Of course! The only sickness I have ever had is a spiritual one and asthma. But I’ve been living with asthma since the age of nineteen. Listen, someone might be mentally ill here, but it’s not me. I plan on sticking around for several more years.”
Mr. Hill patted him on the shoulder. “Alright, sir. I believe you. Is Ivy around?”
“No, no. She’s at college in the city. But you can call her. Here’s her number.” Grandfather Mitsubishi handed Mr. Hill a sheet of notebook paper.
Mr. Hill punched in the numbers. When Ivy answered, she also denied having called the Carrigs the previous night. “Neither was my great-grandfather sick in the slightest,” she said. “In fact, we had ice cream and turned in for the night after returning home. We were not disturbed. Has something happened to him that I need to know about?”
Mr. Hill sensed panic rising in her voice. “Calm down,” he urged. “Grandfather is perfectly fine, but Manchu is missing. He supposedly left for your place after receiving this call in the night.”
“Oh, my!” Ivy exclaimed. “Um, I really hope that no one has discovered our little church. I’ve been so blessed there in just the short time I have attended. I’m sorry. I’ll be praying.”
Mr. Hill thanked her before hanging up. “She’s legit,” he said.
“Grandfather Mitsubishi, did you get Sarah’s calls this morning?” Lilly asked.
“No. I mean, the phone, our house phone did ring several times.” He motioned to the white phone hanging on the wall before continuing in his raspy voice, striving to pronounce the words in English properly and deliberately. “That phone doesn’t get answered unless Ivy is home. She knows to call me on my cellular if it’s an emergency. She is the only person in possession of that number. Even then, I’m slow to pick that one up. The phone’s ringing irritates—many times over.”
“The phone will stop ringing when you pick it up,” Mr. Hill suggested.
Grandfather Mitsubishi smiled craftily. “You…you both be too young to remember the days with no phones or other technology. They were peaceful.”
The thought of life devoid of technology was an especially unpleasant one to Lilly.
“Well,” Mr. Hill began, “does anyone else share this house with you besides Ivy? It is lovely and quite sprawling.” He gently fingered the bamboo tapestry serving as a divider between rooms in the house.
Good question, Lilly thought. Someone else might have been prank calling.
Grandfather Mitsubishi swiveled himself in his wheelchair in a circle round the carpeted floor. “Sometimes our extended family comes and stays for new years and weekends to do what is called a reunion, and, on occasion, I’ll rent out half the house to some tourists or other. But that was not the case last night. There’s only myself and Ivy inhabiting this place. Her, because she had a bad family situation. I helped rescue her and now she’s my caretaker, even though I don’t take much care.”
He paused. Lilly let out a little laugh. Then he continued. “Me, because this place was built by my father who owned a pretty large fishing business in this village.”
“Is he still alive as well?” Lilly asked.
“No, dearie,” replied Grandfather Mitsubishi. “But wouldn’t that be something if he still was?”
Mr. Hill nodded that it would be.
“You see, I was my parents’ only child who never married. That is not the only reason my father left this house to me, but that is a long story—one which I doubt you have time to hear the half of.”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Mr. Hill said reluctantly. “Until Manchu is found, I won’t be able to rest—at least not properly.”
“Yes,” Grandfather Mitsubishi said. Wrinkles now highlighted his still youthful looking face. “Pastor Manchu’s disappearance troubles me so. Even though he is my pastor and introduced me to Jesus, I see him as my own son. Once you find out who placed this false voice message, or who hijacked him on the road, or anything about Pastor Manchu’s whereabouts, call me and do say.”
“Yes, sir,” Mr. Hill assured him.
Lilly patted his hand. “Take care,” she said.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“To unravel this confounded morass,” Mr. Hill sighed, gripping the steering wheel of their rental car.
“We will, Dad,” Lilly said confidently. “In fact, that is the proof that he was not the one driving the wrong way. You were right. Manchu never arrived.”
“So what should we do next?”
“I’m probably going to ask Bo for his assistance on this case, primarily to uncover where this phone call originated. He’s a master at cracking code and pulling the fleece back from fakes. He’s more of a detective than I am. Unfortunately, I have a hunch government officials are involved in Manchu’s disappearance. Then we’ll have to find out who tipped them off.”
Suddenly a thought rattled Lilly’s brain. “Surely someone living along that road where the crash occurred would have heard something,” she surmised. “Why don’t we stop and see?”
“Great idea!” Mr. Hill said. “It wouldn’t hurt to see.”
Lilly’s expectations were met at the first house she knocked at—the first in a row of houses backed by a formidable forest. The door was flung open by a Chinese man wearing a seashell necklace for a shirt and black slacks. Frothy white cream covered half his chin and an expression of embarrassment came over his face at answering the door in such a manner.
“Can I help you?” he asked timidly.
“That depends,” Mr. Hill stated kindly before jumping into the reason for why he and Lilly had so unexpectedly interrupted the man’s seemingly pleasant afternoon.
After giving it some thought, the man responded to Mr. Hill’s prodding—more boldly this time. “Now that I recall, I did hear some noise last night—what sounded like a bang and then some scuffling. All rather soft, I thought, to be anything too serious. Maybe just some rowdy neighbors fooling around near the road. That’s why I stayed inside. Was anybody hurt in the accident?” he asked with genuine concern.
“Right now, we don’t know that,” Lilly replied. “Both of the drivers are missing.”
“One of them was a friend of ours,” Mr. Hill added.
“Have you made contact with the police? Filed a missing person’s report?” the man asked.
“Police are on the case,” Mr. Hill assured him. “I fear it’s slightly too early for them to classify our friend as a missing person.”
“I see,” the man said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a friend missing. Good luck on finding him!”
“Thank you,” Lilly said.
With a “God bless!” from Mr. Hill, they turned to leave.
“And if I can be of any more help to you all, just stop by again,” the man called after them before adding limply, “I’ll be fully dressed next time!”
Lilly and Mr. Hill waved before moving onto the next house.
There and at the next residencies, Lilly and Mr. Hill heard more of the same middling reports, except from a couple who slept through it all. However, at the fifth house, the residents there gave a more interesting and assured account of what they saw and heard the night before.
“After the crash occurred, I went out on the porch to see what happened,” a retired man of sixty-three years said to Mr. Hill and Lilly. “I got my flashlight out and shined its light down the hill onto the road. About three men were already down there helping out, I assumed. One of them looked like a police officer because of his uniform. He yelled a couple times that everything was being taken care of and that no more help was needed, so I came back indoors.
Lilly and Mr. Hill glanced at each other.
“Were you able to get a look at who was in either car?” Mr. Hill inquired. “Just close your eyes and let the scene flood your mind—from your memory.”
“Well, I’m already blind in my left eye if that helps any,” the old man chuckled. Still he obeyed.
“Now, tell us who was there and what they looked like,” Lilly said.
“Well, I can’t get a look at who was in the beige colored car,” the old man said slowly.
Lilly and Mr. Hill knew the “beige” car was Manchu’s.
“Out of the green car comes a man—Chinese like me, midsized with lengthy hair and wearing thick-lensed glasses, a jacket—burgundy colored, hooded, emblazoned with letters of a mustard yellow color…nothing remarkable.”
“Very good,” Mr. Hill said scribbling this information down on a sheet of paper. “Now, I really need for you to concentrate. Can you describe the other three men around the cars?”
“Hmm…there’s the police officer yelling at me. My flashlight is shining right in his face, hindering me from seeing his features, but I’m sure he’s normal looking as well. The other two fellows are bent over trying to open the beige car door to see if the driver is well. Wait! One of them turned around…He has some distinct facial hair…looks like a goatee.” Here the old man’s gray eyes popped open. “That’s it. I’m back inside now.”
“So nobody appeared to be injured?” Lilly questioned. “Lying on the grass, perhaps?”
The old man gave an honest answer. “No, ma’am. The man coming from the green car appeared A-O.K. As for the other driver, I don’t know. He was still in his vehicle. Now, a few minutes after coming back in I heard some screams, which–”
Tiny hairs on the back of Lilly’s neck stood up and she deftly moved up to the edge of the chair on which she was sitting.
The old man’s wife who had been silent up until this point, looked lovingly at Lilly. “Our chairs won’t swallow you up,” she said.
“Oh…right.” Lilly quickly regained her composure.
“These screams,” Mr. Hill began, “can you clarify what they sounded like?”
“Yes. A male voice was doing the screaming. It was kind of muffled though. I picked up that they were cries for help. Maybe the fellow stuck in the beige colored car was wounded after all,” the old man said. “At my wife’s behest, I didn’t go back outside, as I wanted to.”
“Perhaps you should have disobeyed me just that once,” she told her husband. “We might have been able to tell these two their friend’s whereabouts.”
The old man shrugged. “Can’t change ‘might have’ into ‘can’ now,” he commented. “Have you spoke to the police yet?”
Lilly nodded. “They weren’t able to shed much light on anything, at the time.”
“We’re headed to the station now this time around,” Mr. Hill said rising to leave. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“No thanks needed,” the old man said seeing them off. “I just put what my eye saw and my ears heard into words and spoke them out to you.”
“Do you believe our half-blind witness?” Lilly asked buckling her seat belt.
“I’ve got no doubts,” Mr. Hill said assuredly. “I believe every word.”
“So do I, but if a policeman was already at the scene, wouldn’t the officer we talked to earlier know where Manchu is, not to mention the other driver?”
“That’s what I’m questioning,” Mr. Hill echoed. “Unless they are both being held at a station for some reason.”
“Or, Manchu was not in the car to begin with. Maybe it malfunctioned, he lost control, and jumped out before the crash,” Lilly said.
“Highly unlikely,” Mr. Hill reasoned. “If that’s the case, Manchu would have called us, Sarah, or somebody else by now. And I would have to look into his car malfunctioning, you know — possible sabotage by someone else. But a sudden car malfunction for no reason? I wouldn’t buy it in this case.”
“Yeah. And how did that officer guy even arrive at the crash scene so fast?”
“He might have been patrolling the area,” Mr. Hill guessed. “But I have some reservations regarding his presence there at that time as well. According to the last witness, he went outside as soon as he heard the crash and the officer and three other guys were already there, like BAM!”
“They must have been trailing Manchu,” Lilly said. “And what do you make of the screams heard afterward?”
“I’m keeping an open mind on that since our witness did not see anything precise to equate with the screaming. Yet, I must admit, it only adds to my suspicions.”
“Before we stopped at the first house, you said that government people were probably involved. That includes the People’s Armed Police too, right Dad?” Lilly said.
“Well, based on the last guy’s account,” Lilly began, “I think you’re proven right, even though I believed you from the start.”
“I never tire of being correct,” Mr. Hill said with a wry smile. “I always am with you by my side.”
Lilly threw out a few more theories as they rode. And Mr. Hill did the same. Together they tested them, knocked a couple down, and applauded each other’s logic in formulating strong possible theories.
“O.K., I’m going to let you out up here at the Suns’ apartment,” Mr. Hill announced as the complex came into view. “Stay there while I do some confronting at the station. Is that O.K. with you?”
Lilly answered quickly. “Why? I have some words to say to whoever might be holding Manchu.”
“I’m sure you do. However, I fear this situation is becoming highly volatile, especially if the officials have found out Manchu is still pastoring a Christian church. If something happens at the station, I don’t want you caught in the mix. Now, when I come back, we’ll do something fun in the town. O.K.?”
“Um, no sir,” Lilly said again trying to keep a serious face. “I like working on cases with you. That’s fun!”
“Well,” Mr. Hill began, “if you keep on working all the time, you’ll end up looking like me in just a few years…strands of grey in your hair…worn skin…blah, blah.”
Lilly burst into laughter at her Dad’s exaggerated description of himself. In truth he was a very energetic man of thirty-nine years with eyes Mrs. Hill often proclaimed were prettier than the sunset. Still, Lilly decided to play along.
“Mom gave me these looks and I intend on keeping them.”
“So are we cool now?” Mr. Hill asked, holding out his hand.
“Yes,” Lilly said exchanging their special handshake.
“That’s my girl.”
Lilly stepped out onto the curb. “Stay safe,” she called.
Mr. Hill beeped the car’s horn.
Lilly watched him drive away before turning and walking into the retro lobby.
Letting herself into the Sun’s apartment, Lilly decided to do two things. First, I’ll see if Momma and Marco are available to Skype, then I’ll give Sarah an update on what we found, she thought. But before she could do either thing one or thing two, hunger, that stealthy force, robbed skype-ing of its first place position. She set about warming up the Mou Shu pancake wraps Eia had saved for her from that morning’s breakfast. She sprinkled sugar on top before taking a bite. “Delicious!”
Pressing the power button on her cell phone, Lilly was dismayed to see it was at one percent. She remembered her charger was in Emmy’s room and picked up her plate. “Come along,” she said good-naturedly. “You’ve got a job to finish.” Right then, Evan Sun entered the kitchen, stopping Lilly in her tracks with a cheery “Hello. How are you today, miss?”
“Splendid!” Lilly replied, for she was. “How are you?”
“Not quite splendid,” Evan answered. “But I am very well and having splendid people like you and your father stay under our roof has made my day so much better.”
Evan noticed her plate. “Oh! You’re having what Eia made earlier. She would be so pleased. I hope you will find the food to your liking.”
“I already have,” Lilly said. “Thanks. If I’m not here when she returns, please tell her I said her cooking is wonderful.”
“About that,” Evan began, “she’s staying with the kids at their tutor’s place for the weekend. It’s something they do once a month. Eia believes it’s helping Echo and Emmy improve their exam scores and music skills.”
“Now, I wish I had told them not to bother since you’re here and I’m not a kid you would want to play with.” Evan smiled warmly.
Lilly laughed. “No biggie. I’m pretty good at entertaining myself.”
Evan seemed to be searching for something else to say. He finally settled on, “Well, if you need anything, I’ll be here.”
“Thank you,” Lilly said. She was eager to get back to feeding the discontent beast—her growling stomach. She then looked at her dead phone and turned on her socked heel. “Actually, there is something I need now. Do you have a computer I can use?”
“Sure, miss. Will a laptop work?”
“Well, it’s a computer,” Lilly said.
“Indeed.” Evan Sun brought his laptop into Emmy’s room so that Lilly could be more at ease. It turned out that Mrs. Hill and Marco were available to video chat. They popped up on the screen making kissy faces at Lilly. She blew them kisses back, and the familiar family chatter began.
“Marco, how have you been living while ‘big sis’ is away?”
“Sickly,” he said in a shrill voice. For some reason, this set Mrs. Hill to laughing.
“How come?” Lilly asked. “You do look wiped out!”
“Well,” Mrs. Hill began, “he got sick about one day after you guys left. It’s probably due to a summer flu that’s going around.” She cradled Marco’s head in her arm.
“See, I need you, Lilly. You’re my life’s good luck charm,” Marco said jokingly before asking, “Where’s Dad? I must confess my sin. The time has come.”
“You flatter me, Marco, but Dad is away right now. What—?” Lilly began.
“And where are you at, sweetie?” Mrs. Hill asked, her voice filled with motherly concern. “If he left you in some dungeon teeming with henchmen, I’ll swim the ocean to come and save you!”
“Oh, Momma! I’m in a right proper house,” Lilly said laughing, ducking from in front of the screen to give her a full view of Emmy’s room. “In fact, we’re staying with some people this time around. Don’t worry. They are a nice civilized family with two kids. So I’m not alone, even though the kids are gone right now too.”
This answer eased Mrs. Hill’s concern for her daughter.
“So what were you saying again about sin and redemption, Marco?” Lilly asked.
“Nothing about redemption,” Marco said. “But I feel the need to make a confession about why I am sick—probably,” he said gingerly.
“Go on,” Mrs. Hill prodded, raking her hand through her rich hair which she had dyed a slightly different shade of brown than before. She quite enjoyed putting her children on mock trial and serving as a judge eager to dole out merciful sentences. Otherwise, she steered clear of the real serious legal stuff which made up her husband’s world.
Marco obeyed her command. “Mom and I went to a pet store in the airport and I saw some really cute doggies that you can buy us for my birthday…But that’s not the point! We bought some dog food and dog supplies and when we came back I ate some of the food because I was so curious about how it tasted. I mean, the titles on the canned foods were very tempting, so I couldn’t resist one iota! Unfortunately, it all tasted gross, but I powered through at least half a can. So that’s why I am queasy, Sis,” he ended limply.
At this revelation, Mrs. Hill looked sick herself.
Lilly was at a loss for words. But she quickly found some. “If I were there, I would make you my magical Milky Way meatballs. That would make you feel better, right?”
“One hundred percent,” Marco said. He felt a sudden urge to dance on the couch as blissful memories of Lilly’s Milky Way meatballs set his mouth to watering. He thought better of doing so while Mrs. Hill sat beside him.
“How do you guys come up with such icky morsels?” Mrs. Hill asked, not stopping to let Lilly and Marco answer. “Who else would have thought of making meatballs with chocolate bars inside?”
“Nobody! We have the most ingenious ideas,” Marco said proudly. “You should have treated yourself to them, Mom.”
Mrs. Hill shook her head sending ripples through her long locks which flowed from her head like a majestic waterfall. “I wouldn’t touch those things with my handbag much less my hands,” she said in her diva-ish fashion designer voice. “Why do I even let you guys concoct that stuff in my beautiful kitchen?”
“Because you love us so,” Lilly said sweetly. All three of them laughed heartily before Lilly suggested that Marco should go to a doctor and receive a check up. “Animal food probably has antioxidants and stuff in it special for them.”
“Oh, I already saw a doctor although it was before my confession,” Marco told Lilly. “Her name is Mom. She prescribed two teaspoons of purple medicine and sleep. I followed her orders.”
“Good boy,” Lilly said. “You should get well soon then, based on my personal experience with Doctor Mom.
“Thank you, sweetie,” Mrs. Hill said. “Now, Marco, give this some thought: Imagine if your dad and I ate all the baby food up before you arrived. How can you be a good parent to that puppy when you have already taken its food for yourself?”
Lilly held in her laughter.
“I can,” Marco replied. “See, I’d say you’re a great parent even if you robbed me of my Goober every now and then. Besides, I plan to leave all dog food alone from now on because I know it tastes gross. Well, except for the dog biscuits, you might find me chomping on those sometimes. It will be a bonding experience for me and doggie. Lilly too, if you wish to join in.”
“Um, no thanks, I’ll bond with our dog in other sane ways,” Lilly said quickly. “But, Mom, Marco is right in one respect. Somehow you eat most of my Speculoos from the supply Aunt Mina gives me every Christmas. The evidence is always on that glass spoon you use as a page holder.”
“O.K., guys. Momma is guilty as charged,” Mrs. Hill acknowledged good-naturedly. Speculoos and Goober were her secret not-so-guilty pleasures. She didn’t use them as spreads, but indulged in them straight out of the jars occasionally, with the now infamous glass spoon. “Enough talk about us,” Mrs. Hill said changing the subject. “What happened at our mystery caller’s house, Lilly? Have you and Dad headed there yet?”
“We have,” Lilly told her before launching into a detailed account of all they had learned in regards to Pastor Manchu and Sarah culminating with Manchu’s disappearance. When she finished, Marco’s eyes were widened to comic proportions, and Mrs. Hill exclaimed, “I don’t like this government business. Is the pastor still missing?”
Lilly squirmed. “We think so, yes. But Dad’s looking for him, and—”
“So that’s why he’s not available,” Mrs. Hill interrupted. “At least you’re not out searching alongside him. Be good, sweetie, and stay out of danger, even possible danger.”
“I’ll try,” Lilly said. She refused to promise such a thing when her mind was set on doing anything and everything to locate Pastor Manchu. “Will you pray with me for Manchu’s safety?”
“Of course we will,” Mrs. Hill said. “I’m positive God knows Manchu’s whereabouts.”
“Marco?” Lilly questioned.
“Sure, Sis,” he suddenly said. “Even a sick dude can pray.” His voice grew hoarse. “My stomach is trying to spew itself out, so excuse me while I go puke.” In a flash he was off the couch.
“Goodbye, Lilly. Come home soon,” Mrs. Hill said. She pressed her hand firmly against the screen. Lilly did the same. “Bye, Momma. Love you.” Then Mrs. Hill rushed in the direction in which Marco had taken off.
Lilly sighed contently, closed out Skype, and brought up the email screen. The Suns’ e-mail account was already logged in on the screen. Inadvertently, a few emails from gov.cn addresses caught her eyes. Each one was in reply to an email with the rather sketchy subject line: ‘church business plan.’ Her interest piqued and suspicion aroused, Lilly opened the emails in rapid succession. Her eyes scanned the words furiously, and her mind comprehended them as fast as it could.
She was shocked upon reading one email signed with Evan’s name detailing Pastor Manchu’s address, the church meeting, and an immediate plot to lure him outdoors to “do whatever needs to be done.” Someone named ‘Pat’ responded in agreement saying Evan had done enough and might be paid some yuan for his labor, once the pastor was safely transported to a labor camp. ‘You’ll be richly rewarded for your proven loyalty to the great Republic of China. As was promised, your continued loyalty ensures you stay free from all charges of debt,’ Pat wrote.
All of a sudden Lilly became aware of hot breath on her neck. Forceful hands came from behind and slammed the laptop screen down. Lilly swiveled around to face Evan Sun standing before her. He held a slender knife glistening with small specks of diced onion on its blade, and his hand quivered as if he was restraining himself from plunging the knife into her that instant. To Lilly, all the air in the room seemed to have been sucked out in a second’s time, but she kept her grip on the chair’s arms and held Evan’s angry gaze undeterred. She had been so engrossed in the revealing emails that she hadn’t heard Evan’s low knock and entrance. Now he broke the silence.
“So you’re going to run off and tell everything to that father of yours?” Evan said in a steely manner.
Lilly nodded slowly. “You said it.” She eyed the knife warily. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“You would be if I put this inside your neck.” Evan flashed the knife before Lilly’s face so close it flicked her eyelashes. A slimy piece of onion flew off the knife’s blade and softly slapped Lilly’s skin. She blinked and the cruel look in Evan’s grey eyes dissipated.
“Luckily for you, child, I’m not a disposer…but there is a first time for everything,” he warned stepping back a few paces towards the door.
“Yeah. Maybe you’ve never physically murdered anyone,” Lilly began, “but you are killing people’s future, dreams, and family life by aiding the government in their injustice. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“Maybe it does. But what it means to me means nothing to you,” Evan said gripping the bedroom door handle with his free hand. “Learn your lesson. Don’t go snooping in other people’s stuff.” He shut the door soundly with his laptop in tow. Opening it again, he thrust his head inside. “You’ll be staying in here for the time being. Don’t try to come out.” He shut the door once again, but quickly opened it back up. “By the way, your fresh cabbage soup, tofu, and egg roll is going in the trash.”
After Lilly heard his footsteps recede down the hall, she removed the piece of onion from her arm and dropped it on the floor. Yuck! As if I’d want to eat any meal you prepared now. She moved to the bed, collapsed onto the bottom bunk, and stared up at the top bunk. Questions and ‘ifs’ swirled inside her head then dropped like deadweights without answers. If only I hadn’t invited the Suns to come to church with us Manchu wouldn’t be missing now. This whole situation wouldn’t be a situation! And how can Evan feel so blithe betraying us while we’re staying in his house? Lilly shut her eyes but the sound of chains at the door roused her. She jiggled the stubborn door knob while yelling, “You can’t lock me in here! Think of your kids. What if they were being treated this way!”
There was no reply.
Lilly tried to get Evan’s attention again. “My dad’s coming back for me! If you don’t let me out, you’re going to get hurt for real!”
“Don’t be so sure about your father,” Evan said from the other side of the door. He walked off humming a soft, raggedy, Asian tune.
Lilly returned to her position on the bottom bunk. More questions swirled in her head. Different ones this time. She tried thinking up a way to escape the apartment. Evan couldn’t keep her there because she knew Eia, Echo, and Emmy would come home sometime even if something did happen to Mr. Hill. Still, Lilly realized she had to move before Evan moved her. A half hour later, Lilly’s cell phone beeped. It was charged 46%. She picked it up to see a text message from Mr. Hill, It read: Lilly, it’s me, Dad. Get the Suns or taxi 2 take u 2 Pratt, Pruitt, Swann & Co. Ask 4 Bo. Get someone 2 local jailhouse. Quickly. Am in chains. Need to be freed. Will xplain l8r. Love.
Well, this wouldn’t be too hard if only I wasn’t in chains myself, Lilly thought. She texted: OK. Got your back. She hid the phone under her leg when she heard the chain on the door clanging again. Evan Sun entered. “What are you doing?” he asked. His voice was full of suspicion.
Lilly didn’t even attempt an answer.
“I hope I didn’t frighten you into muteness,” Evan said slowly. “I really am not that kind of person. Here. You still can’t have the meal I was preparing for you, but have some Twizzlers, little one. As consolation?” He extended the plate in his hand which held four Twizzler candy sticks.
Lilly perceived the Twizzlers looked shinier than they should. “No, thanks,” she objected. “They could be dipped in Clorox for all I know. Besides, I don’t take Twizzlers from traitors.”
Evan shrugged but his eyes were seething. “Fine,” he said as if her answer had no effect on him. “When you’re starving in twenty-four hours, don’t ask for anything.” He shut the door and Lilly could hear him fastening the chain.
Lilly bolted up from the bed, donned her jacket, and paced the floor restlessly. I won’t be here an hour from now, much less twenty-four hours from now, she thought. I will not. I won’t. I should have made a dash for it when Evan opened the door. But now that wasn’t a possibility. The door was chained shut, and wouldn’t be reopened for a long time now.
She kept pacing the floor. Determination rose in her with every step. She paced past the window again. The window! It reminded Lilly of the balcony Emmy had mentioned the first night of her arrival as they sat on the sill. Lilly peered over the window sill at the balcony below. The day’s waning light allowed her to see it better. The balcony was carpeted and had a fire escape stairway about half a foot from its left side. Lilly stuffed her phone into her jacket pocket and zipped it shut. “This is it,” she whispered, climbing atop the sill. “God, a lotta help here would be nice.”
Without giving her confidence a chance to waver, Lilly swung herself over the sill, held fast, then dropped with as much control as her gymnast body could muster. It took everything in her not to scream as the air rushed past. Within seconds, Lilly landed on the balcony like a teaspoon tossed from a table. The impact was harsh and knocked the wind out of her, but wasn’t harmful otherwise. Audible gasps coming from behind her caused Lilly to get up quicker than she would have. Two ladies, dressed in bathrobes, who had been practicing yoga in front of their open balcony sliding door, now stared at her, their mouths agape. The women turned to each other in wonder and started conversing in Chinese at the same time.
“Sorry,” Lilly said breathlessly through the glass as she waved. “Carry on.” She leaned over the balcony side, caught hold of the fire stairway railing, climbed over it, and flew down the steps two at a time. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. So many things could have gone wrong in her drop, Lilly figured; but it had gone right, and now she was free.
Lilly stood on the sidewalk opposite the apartment building. Every second that ticked by, she feared seeing Evan Sun’s face appear in Emmy’s bedroom window, or worse yet, watch as Evan Sun bounded furiously out the front door. Good thing the street is bustling with people, Lilly thought. The taxi couldn’t come soon enough. When it did, Lilly hopped into the back seat and told the driver where to take her. He knew the way there by heart.
“Pratt, Pruitt, Swann & Associates,” he repeated in his native African accent. “I transport their workers all the time. It’s as if those people refuse to get their own vehicles and drive themselves. Fine by me…I love my job and the way those folks pay.”
Lilly smiled at his jovial spirit and watched out her window as the world of Beijing whizzed past. The cab driver got her to her destination in seventeen minutes. “So, miss, are you applying to work here?” he asked fixing his caramel eyes in the rear view mirror.
“Oh, no,” Lilly said shaking her head. “Just have to meet someone.”
“Okay. If so, I was going to suggest wearing something more business-like, you know?”
“Like stilettos?” Lilly questioned jokingly as she looked at her converse sneakers.
“Try a suit,” the cabbie replied.
“Got you,” Lilly grinned. “I’ll keep it in mind for a future time.”
“Alright. Do you need for me to wait?”
“I don’t know. And since I’m not sure, you’re free to go,” Lilly said. She tipped him generously.
As the cab sped off, Lilly stared up through the waning light at the gleaming gold letters embossed on the highrise office building which read “Pratt, Pruitt, Swann & Associates.” She swung open the glass doors and entered into a big waiting room which screamed professionalism.
“How may I help you?” the dewy-faced front desk lady with razor-sharp nails asked somewhat bombastically.
“Hi,” Lilly said. “Can you please connect me with Bo? He works here, I was told.”
The front desk lady looked at her doubtfully as she pecked a few keys on one of several computers which sat on her desk like minions begging to receive orders. “Last name, please. Do you know?”
“Um, no,” Lilly answered, drumming her fingers on the glossy wrap-around desk. “I just know him as Bo.”
“I see,” the front desk lady responded. Lilly had a feeling she didn’t, so she explained. “He’s one of my dad’s partners. They’re friends too. Actually, I think everybody here is one of my dad’s partners and friends because he works at this same firm only in another building in America — ”
“I see,” the front desk lady said again cutting off Lilly’s rambling. “Good thing there is only one ‘Bo’ lawyering here and unfortunately Mr. Wu-Cambridge left his office about ten minutes ago. You missed him. I’m sorry.” She made sure to emphasize Bo’s last name—Wu-Cambridge, and didn’t appear to be sorry in the least.
Lilly knocked on her forehead. “No biggie! Do you have his personal phone number, perhaps?” she asked sincerely.
The front desk lady looked up from her computer and stared at Lilly with unblinking eyes for all of ten seconds. “No, I do not have Mr. Wu-Cambridge’s personal phone number anywhere. Only his office number is available to me. Is there anything else you wish for me to help with?”
Before Lilly could reply, a middle aged, blond-haired man wearing a snappy serge suit and toting a briefcase emerged gallantly from the opulent tube elevator to the left of the lobby. Lilly slapped her right palm on the front desk’s surface before pointing to the man and exclaiming, “He! He can help me!”
The front desk lady flinched as she turned her head to the right. Still her long, jet black hair hung like a solid sheet of ice, not moving a centimeter. “Him? That’s Mr. W. W. Warwick III.”
“I know,” Lilly squealed in a strained voice before correcting herself. “I mean I don’t know, but, yes, I know he’s the one that can help me!”
The man whom the front desk lady had identified as Mr. W. W. Warwick III stopped dead in his tracks upon hearing the commotion and seeing the animated looks flashing across both Lilly’s and the front desk lady’s faces. Their expressions jarred him greatly and for a minute he was unsure whether or not he should run from the two lionesses prepared to pounce on him.
Recovering from his shock, Mr. W. W. Warwick III took some steps forward and directed a question to the front desk lady. “Ms. Chanae Lu, what appears to be the matter concerning my help?”
Lilly answered for the front desk lady whose name was now revealed to her, courtesy of Mr. Warwick. “My dad’s in jail illegally!” she stated. “I need you to please help me help him get out…like tonight…preferably.” Lilly stopped short and waited for Mr. Warwick’s response.
“Listen, young lady,” he began cautiously, “many people’s dads are imprisoned for false reasons, even as I speak. Was I scheduled to meet with yours today?”
Lilly shook her head. “I suppose you weren’t. Please come! You’ll be glad you did. Maybe then a little girl won’t be orphaned in this big city…and her dad won’t be suffering for nothing…and another person can be found,” she pleaded.
“She’s not making any sense,” Ms. Lu whispered. Her jet black hair bobbed as if in agreement then ceased all movement.
“And what makes you believe I can be beneficial in helping you accomplish all this?” Mr. Warwick asked Lilly, moved by her theatrics.
For this question, Lilly had no answer.
“I’ll give it to you, young lady,” Mr. Warwick said in his husky voice. “You’ve got faith and guts.”
“Does that mean you’re coming with me?” Lilly asked.
“Not exactly. That was somewhat of a compliment,” Mr. Warwick clarified. “How can I know you aren’t playing some sort of prank?”
“There’s a little something called trust,” Lilly said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
“O.K., O.K.,” Mr. Warwick said laughing a little. “Is your father confined in jail here or someplace else?”
“Right here in Beijing,” Lilly stated.
“One more question, young lady, who is your father exactly?”
“Well, he’s my dad, and — ”
“Does he have a name — other than Dad, I mean?”
“Of course. His name is Marc Hill,” Lilly said, “I call him Dad.”
A look of remembrance flickered across Mr. Warwick’s face. “Marc Hill,” he repeated. “Marc Hill. Is that my old partner?”
“I don’t know,” Lilly said impatiently. “He could be.”
“Oh, I wasn’t asking you,” Mr. Warwick said before proceeding to answer his own question. “Yeah, he must be. But what would he be doing over here. I thought…” His voice trailed off as another look of remembrance flickered across his face. “You’re his daughter? I mean, you’re his daughter.” Mr. Warwick pointed at Lilly with his free hand.
Lilly lowered his pointing fingers with her own. “Yes, of course, I’m positive,” she said.
“Yes,” Mr. Warwick repeated gleefully as if he had just happened upon an amazing discovery. “You’re the beautiful child he was always showing a picture of. I remember now! How you’ve grown so much!”
“I have…like a normal person,” Lilly agreed. She detected Mr. Warwick was the type who unknowingly enjoyed stating obvious facts. “Does all this mean you are coming with me?”
“Not exactly. But what I’m about to say does,” Mr. Warwick assured Lilly. “Yes. I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to help deliver a friend especially one so good as Marc, or his child—ever.”
Lilly took Mr. Warwick’s hand and shook it even though his hand eclipsed her own. “Thank you,” she said simply.
Mr. Warwick stopped shaking. “I can’t make any guarantees, young lady.”
Lilly continued shaking. “I didn’t ask for any guarantees, just help.” She quickly told him the name of the jail where her father was being held.
Mr. Warwick shrugged at Ms. Lu, then followed Lilly outside. Lilly would have toted him out herself if she could, but decided he was moving fast enough on his own two legs.
“Hold up, young lady,” Mr. Warwick called to Lilly, who, in her eagerness, was heading toward the busy street. “Evidently you don’t know where you’re going, and I have a car. Hop in!”
Lilly slid into the smooth, leather passenger seat. Mr. Warwick shoved his worn briefcase near her feet. “You took its special spot,” he joked.
“No biggie,” Lilly replied. “I’m sure an inanimate object doesn’t mind.” She outlined the three Ws and the Roman numeral ‘III” embossed on Mr. Warwick’s briefcase. “What do the other two W’s in your name stand for?” she asked.
“William Wishaw,” Mr. Warwick replied. “William Wishaw Warwick is what I was named.” For nearly the whole drive, Mr. Warwick spoke non-stop. He spoke of his past, of his working relationship with Mr. Hill, and of his future, namely how he was planning to break tradition and cause a stir in his family by naming his newborn son Winograd and Warhol (after the famous artist Andy Warhol) instead of after himself.
The things Mr. Warwick spoke about failed to interest Lilly. Even the compliments he paid her father didn’t sink in too deep because she knew already that they were true. Still, Lilly listened to Mr. Warwick’s words politely. She allowed him the pleasure of hearing his own voice, only interrupting once to ask if he could drive faster to which Mr. Warwick responded, “Young lady, I help defend the law. How dare I try to break it!”
Lilly let the matter rest.
When they finally pulled up in front of the local jailhouse, Lilly pointed at her dad’s rented car. “Yep, he’s in there,” she exclaimed.
Mr. Warwick parked. He turned to Lilly. This time he wasn’t going to say something about himself. “Are there any specifics I should know about what your dad’s been up to before I go in this place?” Mr. Warwick asked.
“Um, yes, sir, there probably are,” Lilly admitted. “But I can’t tell you right now.”
“Because?” he said.
“Because I’ve just escaped from a harrowing situation and am no longer sure exactly who I can trust. And that’s the absolute truth.” Lilly threw up her hands causing her bracelets to jingle musically. She had resolved to say no more.
Mr. Warwick tapped the steering wheel thrice. “Harrowing, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Lilly answered. “You said what I said. Don’t worry, just act like you know!”
“I will,” Mr. Warwick agreed. “In the meantime, hang tight, young lady. The next time you see my face, you’ll see your dad’s as well.”
“What happened to ‘no guarantees’?” Lilly asked, a slight smile spreading across her face.
“Just one,” Mr. Warwick promised. He slid out of the car and strode into the police station.
To Lilly, time slipped by fast, but it was the kind of fast adults referred to when they said she would be ‘all grown up fast enough.’ Not that she was in a hurry to grow up. Lilly rested her head on her seat’s headrest. The events of the day flooded her mind, but she swiftly swept them away, making room for fresh thoughts to spring up—thoughts about how she could possibly scale the jailhouse walls and rescue Mr. Hill, depending on where he was, just in case Mr. Warwick’s plan failed. If nothing else, Lilly decided she could dress up as a Chinese officer, put her hair up, and infiltrate the station that way, just like great detectives did it in novels. This thought made Lilly chuckle. Only where would I find Chinese police garb? she wondered. An answer would have proven useless, for at that moment, Lilly caught sight of her dad and Mr. Warwick emerging from the jailhouse. They were conversing together like old friends. Lilly flung open the car’s passenger side door and bolted from her seat. She raced toward Mr. Hill.
“Hey, young lady,” Mr. Warwick hollered. “You’re tearing up my Mazda!” He threw up his hands in protest at the force with which Lilly had opened the door.
Mr. Hill chuckled. “Still concerned about your style after all this time. Hurry up and have kids. A lot more than your car will get messed up,” he said in jest as he engulfed Lilly in a big bear hug.
Lilly reciprocated the hug. She squeezed him tight. “I’m so happy to see you safe again, Dad. Let’s get out of here!”
“You are the spitting image of him,” Mr. Warwick declared, stepping back to get a good look at Lilly and Mr. Hill side by side.
“Of course,” Lilly said. That was the fifth obvious statement Mr. Warwick had made since they met. She had been counting. Lilly dove in to hug him. “Thanks so much.”
“Awww, a hug this time instead of an icy handshake,” Mr. Warwick sighed. “I was beginning to think you were a secret spy or something.”
Mr. Hill chuckled again. “That’s my girl,” he said proudly before slapping Mr. Warwick on the back. “Thank you, buddy. It was really good to see you again even in this unfortunate situation.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” Mr. Warwick told him, performing his signature shrug. “I just spewed some legal jargon at the first officer I saw. It frightened him enough to release you, though they still demanded that I pay at least 100 wen.”
“What!” Mr. Hill exclaimed. “Rest assured, I’ll compensate you accordingly.”
“Oh, please. It was my pleasure to bail you out and I don’t need the money. But feel free to pay me back by telling me what you’ve gotten yourself into this time.”
Before Mr. Hill could reply, Lilly said, “Before we do that, we should leave, please, or all three of us might find ourselves locked up together.” She eyed the officer coming out of the station behind them.
“Good idea,” Mr. Warwick said. “Follow me. I’ll take you guys to a restaurant where you can tell me all about it.” He circled his Mazda once checking for any scratches before hopping into the driver’s seat.
Mr. Hill and Lilly okayed his suggestion and proceeded to trail him through the crazy jammed road in their rental car. “Were you really in chains, Dad?” Lilly asked as she strapped on her seat belt. “What happened in there?”
Again Mr. Hill chuckled. “I must admit that I’ve always been more than a little colorful and hyperbolic in my text messages,” he said. “Right?”
“Well, exactly what I thought was going to happen happened,” Mr. Hill continued. “After I told the officers what we found out and asked for an update, they rather bluntly accused me of participating in Manchu’s abduction, then trying to plant some false cover story in their minds. Of course, I said their claims were absurd and unfounded, but this only infuriated them more. All my attempts at reasoning with them were to no avail. Several officers circled me, blocking my exit and ‘escorted’ me to a holding cell. That was chains enough for me, darling. On top of that, one officer stripped me of all my monetary possessions, including my beloved watch. He took it away as if it was a threat to his very existence, so much so, I had to refrain from laughing.” Here, Mr. Hill paused in his narrative and turned to Lilly. His eyes twinkled.
Lilly smiled. She admired how her father remained upbeat under duress. “Go on,” she urged.
“Thank God, I took heed to the hostility early on,” Mr. Hill said. “Once things ratcheted up, I knew the officers were gunning to take away my phone so I wouldn’t have any access to anyone who could become witness to my situation. They did take my phone too, but not before I texted you—secretly—behind my back.”
Lilly sighed. “I’ve always wondered how you can pull that off—texting behind your back. I bet Mom thinks you’re some sort of magician. Because, one time, you texted her ‘I love you’ right when you guys were talking. I was sitting right behind you and caught what you were doing.”
“Yeah. At first she kept asking me how I could schedule texted messages.” Mr. Hill grinned. “But now that you’ve mentioned it, the magician idea is alright. Let’s let her keep thinking that. We don’t want to ruin someone’s belief in magic by revealing a mere mortal’s doing.”
“No problem-o, sir,” Lilly agreed.
“The only trick to it is memorizing the letters’ positions. Once you do that, the skill is yours to acquire. Although it is possible to just hang around me a while longer and learn that way.”
“That is the best practice method,” Lilly joked. She grew serious again. “Dad, I actually have proof some government officials orchestrated Manchu’s kidnapping. They know where he is and are taking him to a labor camp.”
“Oh?” Mr. Hill arched his eyebrows. “Did you have a little fun while I was in trouble?”
“Ha. Ha,” Lilly said dryly. “You could call it that. In short, I could’ve gotten help to you faster if I hadn’t been in trouble myself.”
“Oh?” Mr. Hill said again. “Tell me everything.”
Lilly related how she discovered Evan’s betrayal by accident through email. Then she told her father what was in the emails. Then she told him about how Evan discovered that she had found him out and his attempted confinement of her. “I don’t know what he was planning to do if you had shown up,” Lilly finished.
Clearly, Mr. Hill was shocked. “My goodness,” he said. “I knew the government was behind this whole situation, but never in so many years would I have guessed the Suns to have a hand in this! And I especially can’t believe that dirty man tried to lock you in. All my daughter needs is sunshine, so he’s going to pay for what he did.”
“Dad, Dad, calm down,” Lilly said. “I wasn’t hurt at all. He is already being paid back because he’s concerned that he is going to get caught because I’ve escaped. Besides, even flowers need a little rain to grow.” She smiled.
“Well, that was a thunderstorm in my eyes,” Mr. Hill huffed. “Now’s not the time for jokes, sweetheart. We must expend all our energy on – ”
“Finding Manchu before things get more dangerous,” Lilly said confidently.
Mr. Hill smiled. “Yes. I suppose that is what’s best and wisest.” Still he pounded the wheel mercilessly with one fist as if it was the back of Evan’s head, accidentally beeping the horn which Mr. Warwick took as a cue to speed up. When his pounding ceased, Mr. Hill turned to Lilly and hugged her as best he could although he was wearing his seatbelt. “I’m very sorry for bringing you into this mess, Lilly,” he said. “I had no idea…” His voice trailed off.
“Actually, this mess has been a pretty fun experience for me,” Lilly told him. “I’m learning to care for others, and you’ve raised me to be a brave girl, remember? Look out! I think the steering wheel needs your hug right now more than I do.”
Mr. Hill braked, narrowly avoiding running a traffic light. “Thanks,” he said. “I was about to say, ‘I might have raised you to be a tad-bit too brave.’ You didn’t finish telling how you outwitted that man. Did I just miss that part or did you purposely leave it out?”
“You know me too well,” Lilly admitted. “Guess how?”
“Neither. I did that vanishing trick.”
“You sprayed his eyes with something?”
“You raised me to be brave, Dad, but not cruel,” Lilly giggled.
“Alright, did you call the police?” Mr. Hill tried again.
“Not even close. I’m sure you have not forgotten that the police aren’t exactly our friends now that we’re privy to their involvement in Manchu’s disappearance. Think magic superpowers.”
“If you say so…was it flying?”
Lilly clapped her hands together. “Yes, sir. I sprouted those wings you were talking about.”
“Finally,” Mr. Hill grinned. “Then why don’t I believe that?”
Lilly shrugged. “Your deal, Dad,” she said.
Just then Mr. Warwick swerved into a parking space lining the sidewalk which bordered a seemingly never ending strip of lit-up buildings. Nestled inside, was a gem of a restaurant specializing in roasted duck and wickedly spicy sauces. Mr. Warwick turned off the hip-hop music blasting from his car and beckoned for Mr. Hill and Lilly to follow him inside. After placing their orders, he remarked, “Marc, I didn’t know you as one to lose your cool very often. All the facials you were pulling behind me in your car made me think you were having a bad case of road rage. What was with that?”
Lilly laughed and Mr. Hill smirked. “It wasn’t the traffic out there for sure,” he said before telling Mr. Warwick about Manchu and ending with what Lilly had told him.
“Ouch!” Mr. Warwick said having heard the whole story. He rubbed his arm with his other hand as if it had just been stung, then continued speaking in a low voice as the waiter set down their food. “I understand now. You two have worked yourselves into a block of setting cement. Listen to me, friend. Going up against the government and dealing with religious issues that clearly aren’t sanctioned by the state is serious, tricky business over here. Even activists for other issues are silenced almost instantaneously. And their lawyers are oftentimes punished right alongside them. Marc, I know you know all this, but it’s my task to warn you again. The best thing for you to do, at least safety-wise for your daughter, is to catch the next flight out.”
“But you know I’m not going to do what’s safest,” Mr. Hill said.
“I know you’re not going to do what’s safest,” Mr. Warwick repeated. He took a sip of his ice filled drink. “Precisely why I told you what you should do.”
“Because Manchu is being treated unjustly, neither his wife nor his unborn kid will be able to see him again down here, and their church members will be left wondering where their pastor is. That is why we won’t leave just now,” Lilly clarified. Mr. Hill nodded affirmatively.
“You’ve got it, young lady. You’ve acquired your father’s passion and convictions, I mean,” Mr. Warwick said pointing at her. “But you can’t always save the world. That’s easier said than done.”
“We aren’t talking about saving the world though,” Lilly assured him. “Just one person.”
“Well, in this case, it might take forever to free one person. It won’t be quick and easy.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Mr. Hill’s mouth and a glint appeared in his right eye. “Whether it’s quick and easy, or not, this is taking a couple days max,” he declared.
Mr. Warwick took notice of the glint in Mr. Hill’s eye and instantly knew he was willing to attempt something crazy if it meant retrieving Pastor Manchu. “Even if you left here, God can still work a miracle for the pastor. I don’t normally propose such a thing, but…” Mr. Warwick ended feebly.
“We’re sure of that,” Lilly agreed. “But sometimes He works miracles through agents. People like us and people like you and people like all these people eating,” she made a sweeping motion around the oval room before continuing, “and serving around us. We’re all just sitting miracles for somebody else, and I’m pretty sure now is one of those sometimes!”
“I can’t argue with that, young lady,” Mr. Warwick replied as his blonde hair flopped in sync with his exasperation.
“You’re right, Lilly,” Mr. Hill said before drowning his cream cheese wontons in a tangy sauce designed for his main course. “We both know you can handle yourself. However, if things get more dangerous, I’m bound to take you back home, at least for Gemma’s sake. Understood?”
Lilly shook her head. Her mouth was full. “I’m staying by your side, Dad, no matter how danger-ful this becomes, and that’s final,” she managed to get out discernibly.
The three of them laughed.
“Danger-ful? Very cute!” Mr. Warwick exclaimed. “See, she’s also acquired your stubborn streak.”
“No. No. She received that from Gemma’s DNA,” Mr. Hill joked speaking of Mrs. Hill.
“Blaming the defenseless wifey, aren’t you, Dad?” Lilly replied, jabbing him with her elbow.
“Don’t tell her I said anything.”
“That’s O.K., young lady. Give this ruffian a dose of his own medicine,” Mr. Warwick advised Lilly before continuing. “Seriously though, I’m just concerned for your safety. I wish there was something more I could do. Unfortunately or fortunately, I’m scheduled to be in court in the morning.”
“In my mind, one safe is none safe,” Mr. Hill began. “I will be ill at ease until assured of Pastor Manchu’s safety, but you have done enough to help us. I only ask one more favor.”
“For Bo’s contact information. Do you have it?”
Mr. Warwick looked skeptical. “Your partner in crime? Yes, I do have his cell number and new apartment address, although I doubt he will be ecstatic to see you since this is one of the rare nights he was able to leave his office on time.”
“We don’t need ecstatic. Functioning will suffice,” Mr. Hill said.
“He’s trying to deter us again,” Lilly told Mr. Hill. She rapped her knuckles on the dining table.
“Smart young lady,” Mr. Warwick muttered. Then he riddled off the numbers and letters which led Mr. Hill and Lilly to Bo’s skinny shoe closet size apartment under the blanket of night.
“I’m surprised to see you guys over here so soon,” Bo greeted them despite his face showing no trace of the surprise he spoke of.
“I hope it’s the good type of surprise,” Lilly replied smiling.
“Always, kid,” was Bo’s response. “How do you like my city?”
“It’s cool,” Lilly answered.
“Not really,” Bo said. “Then again, I work here. You came for fun.”
“That’ll create a difference in opinion real fast,” Mr. Hill agreed. “This being my third visit to Beijing, I must say, I like it just the same, meaning, I detest this place.”
Lilly and Bo chuckled.
“Do be careful!” Bo urged in his Chinese accent as they padded around his apartment. He pointed to a pile of delicate China resting in a corner. “A glass broke April 29th and I haven’t had the time or mind to tend to it.”
“April 29th?” Mr. Hill questioned, turning to his friend with concern written all over his face. “That was a couple months ago.” As long as he and Bo knew each other, Bo’s un-normal behavior and strange capability to remember extreme details still weirded him out at times. “You hardly sleep, never eat, yet you operate like a superhero,” he had once remarked in Bo’s presence.
“Um, where’s the means?” Lilly asked.
Bo pointed to a broom only two feet away which reclined against a small ivory table, home to a dozen or so scented candles. These marked the only sweet spot in the barren wasteland that was his apartment.
Lilly deftly swept the glass fragments into the dustpan then disposed of them in the trash bin.
Bo exhaled as if relieved. “Thanks, kid. Now I don’t have to fear cutting myself and staining this non-carpet anymore. Living with terror for two months was enough to tire me out psychologically time after time.”
“No biggie,” Lilly said. “That was an unnecessary terror. My mom always says ‘Don’t complicate your life.’”
“That’s good advice,” Bo decided. “In the vein of Aristotle’s ‘Know thyself’. I’m pleased she never said, ‘Don’t contemplate your life,’ as that would be horrendous advice for most indeed and would breed insufficient living in those around her.”
“I suppose so,” Lilly said. She regarded Bo as a borderline genius even though he claimed to have failed the Bar five times. A lover of wearing cozy, colorful cardigans under his suit jacket, unbeknownst to his clients, Bo moonlighted as a hacker of harmless documents. He was a master of all trades, shy in demeanor but bombastic in presenting evidences to win nearly all his criminal cases.
Mr. Hill laughed. “Are we interrupting something important you were doing?”
“Not at all,” Bo answered. “Even if you were, I wouldn’t have the heart to tell you to go away and leave me to my affairs. I was only watching some old Law & Order episodes. They always make our jobs look easier than they are.”
“They do mine,” Mr. Hill surmised. “However, you make our jobs look easiest of all.”
“Your flattery leaves my soul untouched. It is dead on arrival,” Bo smiled. “What do you need? Have a seat.”
Bo stuffed his legs into the most comfortable chair in the apartment. Mr. Hill took the only other chair and Lilly took shelter in the mustard yellow hammock swinging betwixt the doorway of the rooms.
“I’ll tell. You listen closely and butt in if I miss anything down to the minute details,” Mr. Hill told Lilly.
She nodded, “Gotcha.”
True to her word, Lilly did not let Mr. Hill leave out anything. When his accounting of the former events came to an end, Bo clasped the left side of his close shaven head and pressed it hard. He licked his bottom lip, and said addressing Lilly, “Kid, you weren’t able to remember the exact route mentioned in the emails?”
“Sorry, no,” Lilly answered. “I think it started with a ‘W’ though. I do remember having seen it before on a sign or somewhere–”
“If you recall seeing it before,” Bo began, “then I have a good idea what transportation method is being used to take the pastor to labor camp and where it is located. Once, I was allowed to see one of my guilty clients off there. A long story. That’s how I’ll know if I’m not mistaken. Good thing I have a plan too.” Bo stopped talking and greedily quaffed the remaining contents in his cup. “Hope we’re not too late.”
It turned out that the place Bo’s had spoken of was through the forest which was behind the houses of the possible witnesses Lilly and Mr. Hill had visited earlier. Mr. Hill pulled to a stop on the same road and killed the engine. He and Lilly got out and walked past the neat row of houses filled with sleepers ignorant of all that was about to take place in their tree-filled backyard. They walked until they entered the belly of the forest. Then they walked some more. About three miles in, Lilly and Mr. Hill were greeted by a large clearing in the middle of the forest. Despite the darkness, Lilly and Mr. Hill could see a train sitting on the tracks which ran through the clearing in the woods. They also spied the shadowy figures of men perched on the ground around.
Mr. Hill shrank back behind a tree. Lilly did the same. He reported the scene before them to Bo through the earpiece Bo had given them so they could keep in touch.
“Bingo,” Bo replied, his voice shot through with static. “That’s the route they’re using to transport prisoners to labor camps—at least from here.”
“Oh? Is it normally done under the cover of darkness like this?” Mr. Hill asked.
“I don’t know. The one and only time I attended a ‘send-off’ was during midday. Even my attendance was unusual as no other civilians were present,” Bo said.
“Send-off?” Lilly said. “You make this sound so fun, like everybody’s going off to a ball somewhere instead of labor camp.”
“Whatever, kid,” was Bo’s solemn reply. “Focus in now.”
“Like a laser,” Lilly confirmed.
“If this timing of transportation isn’t normal, I suspect it’s because someone knows about Manchu being put on this train unlawfully,” Mr. Hill surmised.
Bo thought the same. “All the more reason we need to get Pastor Manchu out of their grasp quickly.”
“I’ll do that part,” Lilly said.
“Nice try, kid.” Bo’s chuckle came through Lilly’s earpiece. “There are some real psychos and sickos in the prisoner group who are deserving of labor camps.”
“No!” Mr. Hill objected. “If anything happens to you, I will never forgive myself. The task you have is risky enough. It is feasible for me to pass as a Chinese officer in the dark. I thought we went over this at Bo’s place.”
“Yes, Dad,” Lilly said. She sensed the parental concern in Mr. Hill’s voice, an overwhelming concern akin to no other, so she did not push him further lest worry overcame him completely. At that point of no return, Mr. Hill might very well ban her from joining in the rescue mission. Parental worry was not something Lilly particularly enjoyed, even though she appreciated it.
“Whatever you two do, don’t get caught,” Bo instructed them for the twenty-third time since proposing his plan. “If that happens, we’re put back to square zero, you all will be split up, and we all will be stuck in China like tar and feathers to a nude.”
Lilly stifled a laugh at Bo’s rather graphic comparison while Mr. Hill tried to keep a serious face. Bo continued. “No telling what will happen then. A rescue attempt won’t even be considered because everyone in charge will have been alerted to our first botched plan. So, again, don’t get caught. Now, I’ve secured the helicopter already and am on my way. Godspeed!”
With this, Lilly and Mr. Hill exchanged a hug, then went their separate ways. Mr. Hill stepped into the clearing while Lilly circled around it to reach the train. The nearer she got, the more she was able to overhear the conversation of several officers who were milling about. “How much longer till the train is fixed?” one of them asked circumspectly. “This is the second time it’s broken down tonight.”
So that’s the reason for the stalling, Lilly thought.
“I know that,” another male voice said. He blew in frustration. “The pig-headed engineers need to get it together or else we need to call in for another train.”
“I don’t think so,” the first person replied. “Cory wants these guys taken up there tonight. It’s already 2 a.m., and we don’t have time to wait for a send-in.”
“Yes, we do if we have time to wait for this jacked-up clunk to get fixed. I don’t have all night,” the second man whined.
“Kick your attitude down the road,” came a sniveling, heavily accented voice.
Lilly’s eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, followed a third officer who had come up behind the first two she was listening in on.
“Why? So I can run up and catch it,” the second man spat back.
The sniveling man did not laugh. “No, so the wind can blow it far away. My friend, you need something to keep you out all night. You have nothing to return to anyway.”
“Shut it,” came the second man’s reply. A small cigarette light soon glowed in front of his lips and lit up his face in an eerie orange haze. Just then, another man jogged up to the group of three. “Minho said the train’s fixed,” he reported.
This time the sniveling man laughed, only the laugh got caught up in his nose and came out as a snort. “Minho said the same thing last time. Ask him if he’s lying again.”
Even if he’s not, you’ll think he is because this train is not going anywhere in one piece, Lilly thought. She whispered to Mr. Hill why the train had paused. “Dad, hurry! It’s supposedly fixed now. They’re going to test it.”
Mr. Hill’s steady breathing came through Lilly’s earpiece. Finally his voice did the same. “Thank God for that and I’ve finally located Pastor Manchu. Do your thing, sweetheart.”
Lilly gripped the two flares and the small explosive device in her hands, then threw the first flare as far as she could to the right of the clearing. The other she flung into the trees a little farther away. They burst into fire at the same time, dancing devilishly against the dark sky. Lilly flicked the switch to begin the countdown on the improvised explosive device. Bo had said it would make a loud noise, a lot of smoke, and possibly a fire. She flung it in the direction in which she had thrown the first flare. Tiny sparks leaped out, choked, sputtered, and flew. Lilly watched the scene of confusion unfold before her eyes.
“Good job,” Mr. Hill said. “Live a little longer now to perform act two.”
Lilly laughed quietly. She overheard her father calling Manchu’s name and telling him to follow after him. Then she heard some rustling noises. Her heart fainted for a split second as one of the officers rushed past her yelling in Chinese. By now, Lilly was directly beside the train. She hopped aboard one compartment and ever so stealthily detached it from the crude passenger carriage it was connected to. This action sent a quarter of the train spiraling down the tracks. Lilly raced around the clearing to the spot where she knew her dad would be waiting with Pastor Manchu. Cries of alarm and joy and curses to the train’s derailment rose up from the crowd of prisoners and officials respectively. To Lilly’s delight, the mini blazes seemed to bombard their senses. Bo’s plan and Lilly’s execution of it were perfect. The flares and the train car detachment caught the officers off guard and allowed Mr. Hill an opportunity to sneak off with Manchu. When she reached the eastern tip of the clearing, Mr. Hill took Lilly’s hand and they disappeared into the forest. Manchu was in front of them. “Thank you so much!” he cried.
“Don’t thank us yet,” Lilly advised.
Right then, someone in the clearing barked, “Watch the prisoners!”
Lilly, Mr. Hill, and Manchu did not turn around. Through the trees and down the slope they went. The wind whipped their hair and clothes and the tree limbs kept biting at their exposed skin, seeking to impede their ferocious progress. Within a few minutes, all three reached the forest’s edge. A body of murky water stood before them. Bo’s helicopter hovered in the air above them.
“We’re below,” Mr. Hill reported to Bo.
“Copy that,” Bo confirmed in their earpieces. “The rope is coming down. Are you being followed?”
“No. I don’t believe so,” Mr. Hill said checking behind them.
As they watched the rope being lowered, Manchu suggested Lilly go first. Mr. Hill seemed to think it was a great idea, but Lilly objected. “If we go up and something happens causing you to get left behind, everything will be in vain.”
“Oh, he was only suggesting that you go up first,” Mr. Hill said. He stood with an arm wrapped around Lilly’s shoulders. She scowled much to his humor. “But you’ve got a point,” Mr. Hill assured her.
By now, the rope was lowered, and Manchu, conceding defeat, was lifted up first to safety. Lilly and Mr. Hill breathed a collective sigh of relief. A movement in the trees caught Lilly’s eyes. She spun around to see the unhinged train compartment come barreling towards them.
“Watch out!” Lilly screamed. She and Mr. Hill dived in different directions. Fortunately, the train piece came to a riotous halt, thanks to a particularly dense patch of trees. An officer brandishing a gun and baton leaped from the wounded train part. A disoriented engineer carrying a flashlight followed him out. “Halt!” the officer shouted. “Don’t make me shoot! I know you stole the prisoner. You’re doing illegal–,” the officer barked.
“Bo! Now!” Mr. Hill said, urging him to get the rope lowered again faster.
The officer flung his baton aiming it to whack Mr. Hill’s head. Mr. Hill ducked. The baton narrowly missed. Lilly picked up a thick tree branch and swung it at the officer. It snapped in two after hitting the man’s chest. The stick didn’t slow him down much. Mr. Hill grabbed Lilly around the waist and held on tight. He wrapped his other hand fast around the dangling rope. By the time the officer stumbled to the shoreline, Lilly and Mr. Hill were inside the helicopter. The officer fired one bullet at the chopper, but it missed and fell with a splash into the water below. He called for help.
“Everybody up and in?” Bo asked from the pilot’s seat.
“Yes, sir,” Lilly answered.
“Not unless we want to bring a few of those officers along and pummel their heads a little bit,” Mr. Hill kidded. He breathed a sigh of relief. Lilly laughed heartily.
“Naw,” Bo said. “Let’s turn the other cheek now. I’m not good at hand to hand combat anyway. We don’t want to play with fire and get burnt.”
“Thanks to you, we did play with fire just now and escaped with zero burns,” Mr. Hill said.
“Yeah, sorry about the train thing,” Lilly smiled. “I had no idea some armed people would pour out of it like orcs in Lord of the Rings.”
Mr. Hill chuckled. “As you say, ‘No biggie;’ a train’s gotta do what a train’s gotta do, especially if that train was taken apart by the likes of a brave girl named Lillian Charlotte Hill. I am so proud of you. You did fantastically!” He engulfed Lilly in a hug.
“Did you get hurt anywhere, kid?” Bo asked Lilly.
“Just a little scrape from the trees.”
“Not bad for a rookie, kid.”
Lilly flashed a smile. She found a seat and looked around. The two strong guys who had lowered and lifted the rope sat next to Lilly. Facing them were Pastor Manchu and Sarah, her stomach bulging with their unborn child. Pastor Manchu and Sarah were in an embrace quietly crying tears of joy, in shock about the rescue mission. Lilly turned to look out the window. She silently thanked God for His protection and for all He had done during their trip to Beijing.
By the time the lone officer’s requested back-up arrived, the helicopter was flying far and away, long having vanished out of sight. And the dawn was breaking.
A weekend later, Lilly and Mrs. Hill gathered with Adria and her show-runner mother, Mrs. Ava Sinise, at their favorite brunch shop, Cafe21, in sunny San Diego. They ordered their food and never stopped chatting once it was served.
“Adria, don’t dump all that sugar in your coffee,” Mrs. Sinise advised her daughter.
Adria refrained from opening her thirteenth packet of sugar over her cup of java. Instead, she stuffed it into her leather handbag with the roly-poly key chain. “Don’t worry, Mom. If anything, I’m only killing myself,” she joked.
Mrs. Sinise choked on her tea. “Honey, how morbid!” she exclaimed. “And don’t be so selfish. If you die, it will affect us all, and me worst of all.”
Mrs. Hill patted her friend on the back.
“Love in the time of death,” Lilly sighed dramatically. “Be kind to thy mother, Adria. Now, let’s not talk about sad stuff.”
“Aye, seester,” Adria agreed. “Lemme tell you about all the boring stuff that happened while you were away from the homestead.”
“Hit me with it, Barbie,” Lilly said, though she highly doubted if any of it was boring. “Did you finally destroy that evil Alice in Wonderland themed poster from your bedroom wall?”
“No,” Adria replied. “I’m keeping it up until I get my first movie role. Mom offered to try and get me a role in her TV show, but, no, I graciously declined because I so want to star in movies.”
“That’s right,” Mrs. Sinise piped in.
“Oh, that reminds me. Did you get the role in that big drama movie? How did the audition go?” Lilly asked.
“Well, the audition went superb, and it could have gone super-perb if there hadn’t been like a bajillion other girls who looked like me and did just as good as me. The part went to a girl named Cheyenne Hillary Heist. Actually, I don’t know if that’s her birth name. It’s best to say she is called that. Some actors make up part of the name they wish to be known as when they get all famous. I tried to call you several times.”
“Aww, yeah. My phone was probably out of power then, and you know how I am about checking missed calls. Next time text me. I’m so sorry about the audition. Trust me, the perfect role is waiting for you. I just know it!”
Adria flipped her blonde hair. “They said ‘no’ to perfect. I was just, like, ‘your loss.’”
Lilly stirred her tea with a Pixy Stix. “To be honest, though, I think if you took that weird poster down from your wall, you might have better luck,” she joked.
“Aye, whatever,” Adria said. “I have something else kinda sad and not boring to tell you about.”
Mrs. Sinise, who had been talking to Mrs. Hill, stopped mid-sentence. Adria caught the look of girlish glee come over her mother’s face. She covered her mother’s mouth with her hand to stop her from blurting out the news. “I’m telling,” Adria said.
“What is it?” Lilly asked.
“My oldest brother’s getting married,” Adria groaned.
Mrs. Sinise applauded. “Yup, darlings! Sig is engaged. I can hardly believe my first baby is getting married.” Instantly, she turned back to Mrs. Hill and the two of them began planning for Sig’s wedding.
“Believe it, Mom,” Adria sighed.
“Who’s the lucky lady? And why do you sound so glum about him getting married?” Lilly questioned.
“Well, the ‘lucky lady’ is this lady from Georgia, Natalie Hersher Simi. I think it is,” Adria began.
“She won’t have to change her last name much,” Lilly commented.
“Not really,” Adria agreed. “I’m going to suggest they just combine the two last names into a portmanteau — Simise!”
“So splendid!” Lilly giggled.
“Anyway, Lilly, Sig said they met on one of his Doctors Without Borders tours. And they’re already planning to start an organization together called, ‘Missionary Impossible.’ Cheesy, right? They got the name from those Tom Cruise movies.”
“How old is Sig, again?” Lilly asked.
“Well, he’s doing awesome for that age and he’s so kind and caring to others. I’m sure he’ll make a great husband to her.”
Adria agreed. “One thing I can’t call him is a selfish meatball.” She laughed her bubbly laugh before continuing. “Natalie’s a really nice person, too. Actually, she’s like my big sister now, but I don’t think you’ll understand why I don’t want them to get married. See, once Sig gets married, the natural progression is for Ruby to go away and get married, then for Lyle to go away and get married, then for Kyle to go away and get married. I’ll be the only one left at home with our parents and my family won’t be a family anymore. For example, Sig and I can’t make donuts every Friday like we did when he was at home.”
Lilly hugged her friend. “Don’t worry, Adria. Your family will still remain a family even when all your brothers move away. Change is going to happen, but you guys can still meet up for holidays and planned occasions. They aren’t going to forget about you, and you and Sig can still make donuts together over Skype.”
“Of course you’re right,” Adria said after a pause. “If he has a computer. While we’re at it, he can even share our recipe with the people he’s helping!”
“And your pretty face,” Lilly chimed in.
Now it was Adria’s turn to giggle. “Stop it, matey! Sig doesn’t know it, but I tried to break off their relationship by telling Natalie that he’s really prideful just because he’s a vegan—the only one in our family. I told her he calls me his ‘little carnivore’ and every time he eats with the family, I have to scowl at him and whisper across the table, ‘Take your silly salad and tofu with you and climb into a cubbyhole somewhere. We don’t want to look at your smug face chomping.’ But she just laughed. It did nothing to make her say ‘no’ to Sig’s bling ring engagement thing. I did check out the bright side though. Eventually, I’ll have three older sisters and you and I will get to be flower girls three times over, and then, of course, you’ll be my best maid at my wedding!”
“That’s some serious future planning,” Lilly said. “But aren’t we too old to be flower girls?”
Adria waved her hand dismissively. “Oldy schmoldy! We’re only thirteen. Now tell me about your time in China.”
First, Lilly presented the mirrored iPhone case she had bought in Beijing for Adria.
“It’s lovely!” Adria said admiring herself in the glass. Lilly pulled out her own phone with its waterproof case. Both girls snapped a silly photo of the other. Lilly rapped her knuckles on her phone case. “Substance over style,” she said, taking a jab at her friend who was checking her teeth in the mirror.
Adria smiled so wide the gap in her front teeth showed. “Style over substance. You know me so well, seester.”
“This way, if we’re ever drowning, I’ll be able to call for help while you can only stare at your dying face,” Lilly joked.
Adria laughed so hard that tears began to drop from her eyes. She punched Lilly in the shoulder good-naturedly. “I’d grip your foot so tight that when you got rescued, I would too. Now, shut up and tell me about your latest adventure,” she begged.
Lilly recounted her adventure to Adria and their moms, making sure to leave out the part about how she escaped from Emmy’s bedroom window. Lilly ended the story of her time in China by telling how Sarah went into labor aboard the airplane just as they were landing in California. (Bo had landed his helicopter in Seoul, South Korea, where they boarded a flight to America.) They rushed her off to a local hospital just in time to have her impatient newborn be delivered by professionals. When Bo returned to his home and workplace in China, he had made sure to send back all of Mr. Hill and Lilly’s personal items for them. “So we didn’t get to see the chocolate museum or camp on the Great Wall of China, but in the end, our trip to Beijing was totally worth it,” Lilly concluded.
The faces of Adria, Mrs. Sinise, and Mrs. Hill were spellbound—all three mouths open wide. Mrs. Hill was the first to speak.
“Honey, I wish I knew you were making all this up. As unlearned as I am in matters of law and foreign affairs, I know that the Chinese government is nothing to play with. And now, I wish I could have been on that helicopter to help out that brave lady, Sarah.”
Lilly stared at her mother from across the small table. “Um, Mom, we all know that you faint at the very sight of blood. A bloody little baby would just be the final blow. Remember the time I got that gash on my knee from falling off my bike. Dad had to bandage it up while you were passed out on the floor. Then we both had to revive you.”
Mrs. Hill wrinkled her forehead and laughed. “Forgive me, but I don’t quite remember it like that, girlfriend. Although it is a wonder how I use so much dark red in my fashion collections,” she mused.
“Hold a minute,” Adria said popping the last of her shrimp corn cake into her mouth. “Lilly, you never told us exactly how you were able to get free from the locked room.”
“Yeah,” Lilly acknowledged slowly. “That was on purpose. I’ll tell you later, Adria, in private. I don’t want to scare you, Momma.”
“O.K.,” Adria said.
“Please don’t,” Mrs. Hill agreed. “You have already scared me enough as is, but if I get wind of anything else dangerous your dad lets you do, I’m talking to him about this—not with him, to him. You hear?”
“It was all me,” Lilly said defending her father. She knew her Mom secretly enjoyed hearing about their frequent escapades and wouldn’t forcefully object to Lilly traveling unless she seriously got hurt, or unless the travels interfered with her education and other goals.
Mrs. Hill smiled lovingly. “Well, we better get going, baby. I want to cook something special tonight in honor of the Carrigs. It was wonderful meeting up with you girls, Ava and Adria. Let’s do it again soon.”
Lilly left a tip near her plate and said her goodbyes. She was eager to host Manchu, Sarah, and their newborn baby for dinner.
Later that evening, Lilly waltzed into her family’s sunny San Diego home kitchen to check on her mother who was whipping up the dish they had decided on—curry chicken with tawa pulao.
“Momma, the Manchus haven’t eaten real American food since they left China,” Lilly stated. “Why did we pick out an Indian meal?”
“Because we are weird like that,” Mrs. Hill answered matter-of-factly. “At least, it looks and smells delicious.”
Lilly laughed. “Exactly.”
“See, your dad would’ve grilled some all-American burgers and hot dogs,” Mrs. Hill continued.
“If dad had the choice,” Lilly agreed. “Do you want me to make dessert?”
“Not tonight, honey. Marco took that upon himself, but I’m sure he could use your help.”
Lilly turned on her socked heel to see Marco kneeling on a stool by the counter swiftly and silently stirring a big bowl of batter. Between intervals, he stuck one of his fingers into the bowl, brought up a glob of batter to his lips, stuck it in his mouth and sucked the glob off meditatively. “What! So you’re the person who stole my job?” Lilly said, sidling up to her little brother.
“No, no. I merely took that which was left undone and tended to it,” Marco said not looking up from mixing the batter.
“I see. What are you making?” Lilly asked.
“Macaroons,” Marco said happily.
“Macaroons,” Lilly gushed. “I suggest we have ice cream with them. Do you need any help? I’m free.”
“No, thanks, Sis. I want to make these all by myself tonight.”
“Why the sudden spurt of generosity and coyness?” Lilly teased.
“Can’t a man be so?” Marco asked.
“Perhaps,” Mrs. Hill piped in. “But a boy of mine can’t.”
“Ahh, Mom, you got me there,” Marco said spooning the batter onto a pan..
“I have, haven’t I?” Mrs. Hill replied.
“Thing is, I have a friend coming over tonight. She–”
“She?” Mrs. Hill asked.
“What’s that, son?” Mr. Hill asked coming into the kitchen. “We’re having a third guest? Interesting word choice you picked to describe her.”
Marco shook his head. “Dad, only you would wish to impose on me so great a delicate burden as that of a girlfriend.”
Lilly and Mrs. Hill chuckled as Marco continued. “Her name is Frigga Kite, and she’s playing Julius Caesar’s wife in the school play I told you all about.”
Mrs. Hill cleared her throat. “You better be careful, Brutus. You might end up the one dead on a stage, instead of Sir Caesar.”
“Going out with Caesar’s girl,” Mr. Hill said contemplatively, as if truly weighing the ramifications of the action. “My son, what have you done?”
Lilly withheld her urge to laugh. “Dad, calm down now. She must be a very beautiful somebody! He wants to impress her with his perfect baking skills.”
Marco turned to them and shook his head sternly. “Mother and Father, I am just ashamed to hear such childish silliness come from your mouths. And my dear sister, Lilly,” he said with an air of superiority, “it is beyond my understanding as to why you join them in this folly, especially since you have been through this same torture at their hands.” With that said, he slid the pan into the oven just as the doorbell rang. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
As soon as Marco disappeared around the kitchen doorway, Lilly and her parents bent over in laughter and shared a three-way highfive. They straightened up as Marco returned with Frigga, a pretty big-eyed Indian girl bringing with her the scent of hotel lotion. He shot them a warning look and proceeded to show her around.
“Welcome to our home,” Mrs. Hill said to Frigga.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hill,” Frigga replied. “Why does this say ‘Ask before ye eat’?” she asked, pointing up at the flowery paper bearing those words which was tacked to one of the glossy cabinets.
“Oh, that’s the cabinet storing my mother’s favorite snacks—the snacks she loves so much we must ask her before we take them so she’ll know when to replenish them for her own pleasure,” Marco reported.
“That’s true,” Mrs. Hill said smiling at Frigga.
When Marco and Frigga left the kitchen, Mr. Hill poked his head around the corner and watched them both with amusement for a few minutes before tapping Lilly on the shoulder. “Come here for a minute, Lilly,” he said. “I originally came in to tell you I received some interesting news involving us both.”
“Yes, sir.” Lilly followed him to his computer in his home office. An email from Mrs. Sun was on the screen. Lilly read it aloud:
To Mr. Hill and Lillian Hill:
I hope this email finds you well. Your sudden return to America was brought to my attention by a friend of yours, Bo Cambridge, who came by to retrieve your belongings upon my return from a week-long stay with my children at their tutor’s house. I was also startled to find my husband missing and I was unable to get in contact with him for several days. Meanwhile, Mr. Cambridge informed me of my husband’s part in hurting you two and the pastor you were trying to aid. I was greatly saddened to hear this and was partly in disbelief since my family, including Evan, has professed belief in the true God and His Son, Jesus Christ. However, my husband confirmed Mr. Cambridge’s report when he called me from prison only two days ago. While I do not wish to burden you with all he told me, I do believe an explanation for Evan’s behavior and actions is both needed and deserved. Near tears, for the first time he told me of a financial debt he owed the government from before we were wedded. Unable to pay it, some years ago, an official approached him offering a back deal – either help them detain those “government dissidents” and be paid occasionally for any success, or be hauled off to prison. He accepted the deal and ever since has been working secretly for the government to do just that. Thankfully, his efforts to help detain two other Christian pastors failed as well. With this third failed attempt, the government came and jailed him claiming they did not know where his loyalties lie. Evan also admitted to me that he doubts his Christian faith, and wants to apologize especially to you, Lilly. I know it is not my place to judge my husband’s heart, but I do feel his apology is sincere and his remorse is not just because of his imprisonment. I believe my husband was a proud man because he could have asked for my help, my family’s help, and even the help of others in resolving his debt, but he did not. Yes, even though I am his wife and this revelation was shocking to me as well, Jesus has given me the strength to forgive Evan. I pray that you have found it in your hearts to forgive him as well. Thank you and God bless.
P.S. To Lillian: Echo and Emmy enjoyed having you stay with us, and hope you come back to visit, or at least send them your email so that you three can stay in touch.
“Look at that,” Mr. Hill said after Lilly finished reading. “Sweetheart, you’re more popular than me. You received two shout-outs in one email.”
“Consider, Dad, one of those shout-outs came because of a creepy hostage situation,” Lilly kidded. “And I was that hostage. I went through a scary situation to get that shout-out.”
Mr. Hill laughed. “So what do you think of this email?” he asked.
“It definitely clears everything up,” Lilly confirmed thoughtfully. “And, of course, I forgive Evan.”
“Same here. I’d like to say, you can’t not forgive someone for taking the mundane out of life,” Mr. Hill said. “This email definitely explains the ‘why’ factor. It is a pity how some men are so venal though.”
“Venal?” Lilly questioned.
“Yes, meaning able to be bought.”
“Oh, I see. Do you believe the Chinese officials are going to have us or the Carrigs extradited to China or something for what we did?”
“No. If they try anything, news will get out, and I’m sure American government officials will put a stop to the situation.”
“Well, if they do and aren’t stopped, just know I’ll stick by your side even in the jail cell,” Lilly assured him smiling.
Mr. Hill put his arm around Lilly’s shoulder. “I can always count on you, darling,” he said sincerely. Together, they typed up a reply email to Eia Sun—an email of thanks and encouragement.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. Hill called their names notifying them of the Carrigs arrival.
“Hurry, hit send,” Mr. Hill said.
“Done,” Lilly said pressing the button. They walked through the hall to the front door where Mrs. Hill, Marco, and Frigga were cooing, oohing, and aahing over the Carrig’s newborn in the waning San Diego evening light.
“We named him Nathaniel St. Christopher Air,” Sarah told everyone, her face aglow. “Air. We decided on it because of the whole almost-giving-birth-on-a-plane-up-in-the-air thing!”
“Well, that is one unique name,” Mr. Hill commented.
“Yeah,” Mrs. Hill agreed. “My children were dormant in the womb every time I flew during their nine months of conception. Sweetie, why didn’t you try something like that?”
“Momma, Momma,” Lilly said, “you are crazy! I had no control over when I came out.”
The Carrigs laughed.
“Marco, if our baby is born in water, then we can name it Aqua,” Frigga whispered a little too loudly.
Marco looked repulsed and backed away from Frigga who was oblivious to his sour expression and sought shelter beside Lilly until everyone took their seats at the dining table.
“What’s wrong?” Lilly asked him as he scooted his high back chair closer to hers.
“My sister,” Marco sighed in a low tone, “I truly thought I had found a pure one, a sensible girl not taken by fantasies of weddings and marriage and babies, but no.” He leaned his curly head of hair back and continued dreamily. “That’s all Frigga talked about…well, besides one scientific thing that I didn’t understand.”
Lilly put her hand on her little brother’s shoulder to comfort him and held back a smile. “No biggie,” she said. “You have many more years to continue the search.”
As the cheerful chatter died down around the table, Mr. Hill clinked on his glass with a spoon to get everyone’s full attention. “Miss Kite, would you like to say the grace for this delicious meal?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Frigga said as everyone else reverently bowed their heads. “Grace!” After a few seconds of silence from Frigga the reverently bowed heads lifted questioningly.
“Perhaps I should have said, ‘pray and ask the Lord to bless the food,’” Mr. Hill chuckled. A loop of laughter rippled around the table with Frigga laughing hardest of all.
“Let me, dad,” Lilly said being the first to recover from the laughter. Once again everyone bowed their heads reverently as Lilly thanked God for His provision and loving care.
“Amen!” they all said at the close of Lilly’s prayer.
Over Mrs. Hill’s truly delicious curry chicken, tawa pulao, and seasoned potatoes, Mr. Hill shared the contents of Eia Sun’s letter with the Carrigs.
“I will definitely keep him in my prayers,” Manchu said upon hearing the news. “Doubt is part of the faith journey for some.”
Mr. Hill nodded understandingly. “So how are you two enjoying California after…what…three years in smog city?”
“Pretty much,” Sarah answered a radiant smile crossing her face. “The continuous sunshine is just heavenly, and I can’t wait till we go to the beach next week!” She looked lovingly at Manchu who smiled his agreement.
“Sarah, honey, be sure to get all your rest,” Mrs. Hill advised her. “Babies can be quite the demanding taskmaster. I should know.” She nodded at Marco, but he was deep in conversation with Frigga discussing how many window-like constructions there were in the coliseum, and didn’t notice.
Sarah gave the thumbs up sign since her mouth was too full to reply.
“Great to hear, Sarah. What about you, Pastor Manchu? How are you liking California after being away for so long?” Mr. Hill asked.
“Very much so,” Manchu began. Lilly detected a hint of sadness in his voice as he continued. “But, and I don’t mean this to sound ungrateful after all you and your very brave daughter have done to save our lives. I am so thankful for all you have done that I can hardly put it into words; but nevertheless, my heart is still with the members of our church that we left behind. Now, they have no pastor. I know that God will stay their eternal Shepherd and can provide for them another earthly pastor, yet, I still feel God has called me to continue ministering to them and others in China through more than just email and such. It will do no good, though, to return only to be caught and stopped for good, even though I would keep my promise to be faithful to Christ by witnessing to my fellow prison mates if that circumstance be God’s will for my future. However, there must be some other way.” Manchu clutched his chest as his voice trailed off.
Mr. Hill set down his fork deliberately, interlocked his fingers together and stared thoughtfully through half-closed eyes into the plate of food before him, his mind racing down an ever-shifting track towards a beneficial solution; but Lilly beat him there.
“There is another way,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m away from San Diego, I attend our home church online. It’s just like going to the real building. I get to participate in worship just the same and hear the message live. There’s also a chat section to interact with other church goers. I was thinking for the time being, once we find the right person to set all the technical stuff up, you can pastor and Sarah can sing from your place over here while your members can listen live and join in all the way from China through their cell phones. If they want to, they can still meet in one place to listen together. Only thing is, you guys will have to be up late at night if you want to broadcast over there and reach the Chinese people during the day time.”
The Carrigs looked at each other, then back at Lilly. “We’re ready,” they said in unison without hesitation. “It is a blessed idea,” Manchu added. “When can we start?”
“Not before I propose a toast,” Mr. Hill said rising to his feet and raising his glass in the air. “To good friends, God’s miracles, and the Gospel news going on.”
Cheers rose up from around the table. Even Marco and Frigga paused in their debate to clink glasses. Juice sloshed over the sides onto the table. Lilly looked around the table at all of them, and for a brief moment everything glittered.
Lillian (Lilly) stayed in contact with Echo and Emmy, albeit through the internet. So far, they have taught her some of the Chinese alphabet and much about Star Trek. Lilly considers them two of her close friends.
The Carrigs’ online church was up and running the very next Sunday after the events documented herein. Once word got out to members overseas, their church blossomed wildly and continues to grow at a great rate of speed with hundreds attending regularly.
The rescue mission had no known repercussions for Lilly, Mr. Hill or their trusty friend, Bo Wu-Cambridge.
Lilly’s final words are: Be helpful to those around you in ways big and small. Be sure you share the Gospel with everyone you can and encourage people to pray and read the Bible. Don’t desert your friends when times get tough for them, and never be influenced into doing that which saddens God’s heart.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except for brief quotations included in a review of the book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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