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Keepsakes: The World in Play: Chapter 7: part one


November 2002

I wish to apologize to the

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

for certain liberties I have taken with their physical reality.

“Why aren’t you coming to the ballet?” Pol asked.

“Bring it around the narrow end twice. Under again, then up in the center of the main loop, right under your chin,” Taz said. “My grandmother sent me an edict, written on silk, complete with red bindings and the eight tassels: she says I’m to go to the Museum. And down through the other two loops so it’s on top of the narrow end. Now, without disarranging the main knot, gently tighten it all by pulling on the narrow end.” He finished putting in his pearl cufflinks, and donned his tailcoat. “So to the Museum I go.”

As Pol finished tying his tie, Taz stepped up beside him and inspected the images in the mirror. “You’re taller,” Taz noted.

“An inch since I’ve been living here,” Pol said. Pol eyed Taz’s clothes.

“You can get by in just a suit, but I have to do the full rig,” Taz said. “The invitation said white tie or national dress; although since the remodel isn’t complete, I think overalls and hardhats would be more to the point. The Consuls General the two Chinas are going to be there, and I need a disguise. Tails seemed most appropriate.”

“You’re not going to take the cable car in that, are you?”

“I considered it, but I hired a limo,” Taz answered, adjusting the handkerchief in his breast pocket.

“Too public to teleport?”

“Too public to teleport discreetly. Inside, the museum is going to be full of guests, docents and security agents of various nationalities; outside, it will be surrounded by mobs of protesters, also of various nationalities; banners, in various languages; and local police. Undoubtedly there will federal observers scattered through both groups. I am endeavoring to be part of the group that’s let in. The limo will be only one of many. I probably won’t even be noticed.”


“IT’LL BE A WHILE,” Taz told his driver. “Go on to the garage and wait. When it’s over, I’ll call and walk over. It’s going to be a even worse mess here afterward.” He got out. The limousine moved forward half a car length and stopped again. Taz walked between two double-parked cars, around another limousine sporting CD plates that was parked in the no parking zone, across the small patch of sidewalk being kept clear of protesters by police, and up the shallow steps between monumental incense burners tended by Museum docents and watched by SFFD members. A quick glance to either side of the doors revealed large fire extinguishers tucked into the shadows of the stone urns that had been part of the original Main Library decorations.

He was unprepared for the number and depth of the local spells. Demon excluders and protections from spiritual dangers were thick in the foyer, and grew thicker as he entered the lobby proper. Inside there were also blessings murmured in several languages by priests or shamans or visiting saints. Occasionally, a small bell was rung or a stone chime was struck. The holy activity was around the edges of the lobby. In the center was an array of greeters and inspectors.

He noticed there were three varieties of security agents: First there were the local staff in their dark red blazers. They were the regular Museum guards, although there seemed to be more of them than usual. The other two kinds were approximately evenly divided between muscle and savants. The savants all had glasses(probably with cameras in the frame), earbuds and wand barcode readers; the muscle all had a subtle stiffness about their torsos, as if their kevlar vests were sticking to their skins. Very briefly, Taz considered importing a string or two of lighted firecrackers. He decided that would be more trouble than it would be amusing.

He handed over his invitation. The Museum staffer scanned it, then handed it off to the visiting savant immediately to her right. The savant scanned it. He listened to his earbud while inspecting Taz, then said something to the muscle standing behind him, and passed the invitation to his right. Another earbud wearing, wand wielding, savant took it.

Taz relaxed. This would take a while.

Eventually, his invitation was returned. He was invited to take the escalator to the top floor, where wine was being served.

The room was nearly bare. When the Museum opened, there would probably be several displays or exhibits up here, but at the moment, there was one very long, narrow room, with a balcony on the north side running from east o west, allowing a view of the lobby four stories below.

There were six Consuls General, plus spouses and staff, in the receiving line. Emily Sano, the Museum director, in red, black and gold brocade, was a living buffer between the diplomats and the local donors, many of whom had relatives among the protesters outside.

There were more Museum guards, a large group of waiting docents and more visiting security guards. There were also waiters surrounding the only furniture in the immediate area: a table with bottles on it, with bartenders behind it. Glasses were filled, trays were loaded, and burdened waiters began to circulate with their offerings.

Taz handed his invitation to a docent, who glanced at it, handed it back, then presented him to the first Consul General. She used English, but pronounced his current use name correctly. She probably spoke modern Beijing dialect as well as he did, but using one language and not all six meant five governments would take offense. English was a tactful compromise. Taz supposed the Nordic-American blonde, in her western black and white beaded evening dress, was a tactful choice too.

Taz did not linger in the receiving line and kept to standard banalities in English as he sped through. He took a glass of champagne, and relaxed a little. There was a docent-led tour starting, and he fell in line, ambling west with the others.

“The bare bones tour, we’re calling it,” the docent said. “You may never see the walls like this again.”

Taz wasn’t a fan of industrial style architecture: The earthquake retro-fit had no doubt brought the building up to code, but it left bare girders visible all along the walls. Centered between two upright steel I-beams was an elaborate Korean ox-horn inlay clothes chest on a display pedestal. Pictures of chests and other furniture for storage were on the walls.

“This floor will house changing exhibits of domestic artifacts. Practical, everyday items, with a practical, everyday use. Brooms, dishes, baskets, bedding, wooden gardening and cooking tools, even modern packaging. Just to give you a sense of the future, we brought out of storage one emblematic object, and images of others.

“The freight elevator will normally be screened from view with movable screens that can give full access. The ceiling lights raise and lower; also dim and brighten. Some of the baskets and mats are dyed with vegetative dyes — which give very fugitive colors, so the lighting for those exhibits will….” The docent, still talking, walked further into the long room.

The elevator silently opened. A young oriental woman, wearing a full length blue and black silk taffeta strapless dress, walked out. Taz recognized a yunü, and wondered what she was doing here. The yunü glanced around and caught her breath sharply. She seemed alarmed. She hurried directly to him and started to bow.

Taz caught her arm and kept her upright. “Stop that,” he said in a sharp whisper. Still softly, he continued: “I am of the household of the Eldest Dragon, and named by my grandmother Dianchi.”

“Yes, I know. Where is it?” the yunü said.

“Where is what?” Taz asked.

“You were supposed to take it. Don’t you have it?”

“You came looking for me?”

“Yes. We thought it would be here. We thought it would be simple…”

“Stealing from humans,” Taz said, “isn’t as simple as it used to be.”

“It’s not stealing!” the yunü said.

“Quietly,” Taz said. “Who’s we?”

“The Eldest Dragon.”

“My grandmother wants me to take something from here? She’s a patron!”

“It’s hers and she wants it back.”

“Look around,” Taz said. “There’s nothing here.”

“I see that,” the yunü said. “It was difficult to get in. No one mentioned all the spells.”

“I don’t see why you’re surprised,” Taz said. “With these local populations? Nobody hangs on to antique ceremonies like exiles. Ritual blessings happen regularly here; sometimes they’re real.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the yunü said. “It’s not here, we can leave.”

“No,” he said.

“Your grandmother orders you…”

“In her own hand, she ordered me to represent the family here,” he said. “If you have an edict from her ordering me to leave at once, we will. Otherwise, following her orders, I came here calmly and deliberately and without fuss and I will leave the same way. If you want to leave, do it discreetly and without alarming any humans here. Meet me at Jingwu’s house.”

“We can’t do that,” the yunü said.

“Why not?”

“Jingwu is not to know any of this.”

“I’m living at her house,” Taz said. Stranger and stranger; however, here and now was not the place or the time for more questions. “Meet me at the Inn, the roof garden. Oh, and who are you?”

“Feng Tailin.”

Putting some distance between him and his over-eager accomplice, Taz returned to the reception area. Taking another glass of champagne, he considered his situation. His grandmother was having a whim. It happened. At least, according to legend, it had happened in the past, so it could be happening again, in the present. He couldn’t return to Kunlun Mountain and ask for clarification; the next time the Eldest saw him, he had better have what she wanted. Asking another yunü or one of the jintong to come here might get her or him into trouble. His grandmother apparently wanted him to do this with Tailin and no one else. He didn’t know why that should be so or why he couldn’t go to his foster mother for advice; he did know that the Eldest had a whim of iron and that he owed her obedience.

Ignoring the moral aspects and the complications, he had no idea what she wanted or how to get it. There were over 17,000 items in the Museum’s permanent collection. Some were always there, some were rarely on display, some might not yet be catalogued.

He needed to talk more with the yunü Tailin, that was obvious. Until he did, there didn’t seem to be anything constructive he could do. He put his glass down, and prepared to follow the current tour guide.

He noticed the reception line was breaking up.

“Madame Sano, would it be possible for my nephew to view the basement?” a member of the Japanese delegation asked. “He is going to CalTech, and would like to see the earthquake devices.”

“The basements are not scheduled, and we may be short of time,” Emily Sano said, “but let me see.” She spoke quietly with an aide, who moved away and spoke into her collar. She nodded to Emily, who nodded to the Japanese delegate. “He will have time,” she told him. Emily waved one hand toward one of the docents. “Miss Leigh knows all about the foundation retro-fit. Sharon, escort Mr. Hokasawa’s nephew to the basement. You can use the freight elevator.”

Sharon nodded with calm assurance. “This way. The excavations struck bedrock at a depth of 39 feet and continued another …”

The elevator doors opened. “This is the second basement.” The mixed group moved out of the elevator, Sharon leading.

“Moving exhibits in and out will be a little like one of those magic squares,” she said. “A four by four grid with fifteen movable little squares that you can’t lift up? You move them around until they’re in numerical order; sort of a flat Rubik’s cube? We put either what’s coming in down here in the storage basement while we move the old exhibit out of the first basement and then into the trucks, or the other way around. As you can see, we use high damping elastomer rubber-steel plate sandwiches to isolate the whole new support structure.”

At the back of the group, Taz looked at the nearest blue enameled metal cube. He looked down the wall at more metal cubes. He looked across the room at still more metal cubes. There were a lot of metal cubes along all four walls and down the long center of the sub-basement, dividing it into two. Taz couldn’t see what was in the un-lit side of the basement, but in the huge room the tour group now occupied, he saw groups of wooden crates, aluminum trunks, and sturdy tables carrying flat fiberglass cases. There were also two fork lifts and a neat row of handcarts.

“Not a fluid damping system?” the nephew asked.

Taz sat on a wooden crate.

“We have space constraints,” Sharon said. “In the entire process we did use we lost ten inches of floor dimensions on every interior bearing wall above the base isolating systems and a foot on every exterior wall above and below ground…”

Taz opened the nearest aluminum trunk. It was full of black high density foam, with a vase-shaped absence in the center. “And this is also where you leave the crates the exhibit items come in,” he said. “So the upstairs isn’t cluttered.”

Sharon heard him: “Just for this first special exhibit. Normally, the crates would go back to the warehouse, but since the display was only for tonight, we kept them here. The curators like to keep a tidy staging area. This will be empty again tomorrow.”

“An excellent habit,” Taz murmured.

“There are nearly two hundred rubber-steel sandwiches in the foundations,” Sharon continued. “Each one can support….”

Taz tuned her out, thinking fast. Since what his grandmother wanted wasn’t here, if it was in San Francisco and currently in the keeping of the Asian Art Museum, it might be in the storage warehouse. The exact location of the warehouse was closely kept. It wasn’t secret, exactly, but it was not announced. Certainly, he could get Emily or one of the curator staff to tell him, but then he would have to remove the memory of that interaction. If the crates were going back to the warehouse, and he could follow them, he and Feng Tailin could search for whatever his grandmother wanted at the warehouse.

What did he have that he could follow? Saliva, blood, yes, he could trace either of those, but his foster mother wouldn’t like him using either fluid. Jingwu was against leaving anything so personal where humans might find it. In recent years, as human science encompassed more and more ways of identifying human, or in their case, human appearing, bodies, from smaller and smaller samples, she had become more and more tidy.

Nothing from him, then. What else did he have? His hand came up to one of his pearl studs. Jingwu had given him the studs and cufflinks, back in the 1850s. She had gone to some trouble to get the natural, perfectly matched pearls, he knew.

Sighing, he grasped the pearl in his left cufflink, and pulled it away. Holding it in his right palm, he contemplated it. The calcium carbonate was just calcium carbonate. It was the nacre the individual oyster added that was unique. Each pearl echoed the ocean surrounding the oyster, as it changed with local seasons and tidal rhythms, great storms and even distant volcanoes. He savored the uniqueness of the pearl, then crushed it to dust. Now to touch as many of the crates, cases and trunks as he could.

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