The Adventure of the Desert Cat

April, 1962, San Francisco

Far Eastern Treasures

"Ah, Alex, what a pleasant surprise. It is indeed wonderful to see you. Please come in!" A short, stout Chinese woman with a formal air and a very British accent greeted Alex Silverstone and her friend, Tammi Page as they entered the Far Eastern Treasures curio store in San Francisco's Chinatown. "It has been far too long since your last visit."

Alex laughed. "Liling, you always say that, even when I saw you last week. But I love to hear it. I've missed you, too." She turned to Tammi. "Tammi Page, I'd like to introduce Liling Kam, one of the sharpest traders you'll ever meet. Everything you see here, she bought on one of her many trips to the Orient. Liling, this is my roommate Tammi."

"Pleased to meet you," Tammi smiled and curtsied like a schoolgirl. Liling bowed in return, smiling back. It was almost impossible not to smile at Tammi, who continued: "Alex has told me so much about you, your travels, your wonderful shop and all the fantastic treasures here. I just can't wait to see everything!" She was just bursting with energy and zest, and her head was swiveling from side to see as she spotted here a silk painting, there an idol of glittering obsidian, across the room a rack of necklaces of jade pendants dangling from gold chains.

Liling chuckled at Tammi's enthusiasm. "As you are no doubt aware, Alex has a tendency to exaggerate. In my youth, I did indeed travel frequently and traded everywhere I went, but age has inevitably slowed me. I no longer do most of the traveling, or the buying, myself. Instead, I trust my manager, Lei Chiu." She changed the subject, not comfortable talking about herself.

"Has Alex told you that she was the artist who painted the stunning mural on the outside wall of this store?" Liling asked politely. "That mural by itself is likely responsible for at least half of our business. Many times a day, tourists stop to praise it, and we almost always manage to sell them some small trinket or other."

Alex rolled her eyes at this - the valuable, tasteful and expensive items for sale in this shop could hardly be classified as 'trinkets'. If she hadn't been a friend of the owner, she would never come in here, as there was nothing on display that a struggling artist could afford!

"No, she's never once mentioned that mural, after the first million times or so. You know how modest she is," Tammi answered emphatically, teasing her friend. "So, show us what you got, gal!" If Alex or Liling frowned at Tammi's informality with someone she'd only just met, Tammi herself never noticed. She wasn't big on formality.

They were a striking trio, browsing the very cluttered shop, which featured small statues and statuettes, figurines, pottery, jewelry, paintings, oriental fans, and other curios, all purchased in the Far East by Lei Chiu, who seemed to have superb taste. Liling Kam, the owner, very formal, dressed in a brightly printed silk quju, short but nicely matched in height with Tammi Page, whose dark hair was woven into twin schoolgirl braids which fell to her waist, and today had chosen to dress in a girls' school uniform, a kilt in green and red plaid that covered her knees, white knee-high socks and saddle shoes, and a starched white blouse with a men's tie in the same plaid as the kilt knotted in her collar and reaching to her waist. In contrast, Alex was more than half a foot taller than either of the other two women, her blonde hair cut short and flat on top, and very casually dressed in men's blue jeans and t-shirt.

And Tammi was acting very like a schoolgirl today as well, jabbering excitedly over some of the more exotic pieces on display, touching everything, directing Alex's attention to this and that. Her energy was almost enough to wear out anyone just watching them.

"Hey!" Tammi almost shouted, pointing at a ceramic statuette of a sand-colored cat, with a head that seemed to be a size smaller than its body, short legs, tufted ears that flared out to the sides instead of pointing upwards, and a banded tail that looked like it belonged on a raccoon. "That's the same cat that's on the mural outside! It is so neat-looking, I wish we had one!"

"It's a little-known species from Tibet called the Chinese Desert Cat," Alex replied with a wry smile of amusement. "A real one is about the size of a collie. They are efficient and deadly predators, and I don't think we'd want one for a pet. Might be good as a guard dog, though, but I doubt if they can be trained.”

“The mural outside represents the parable of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey King and the Desert Cat," Liling added. "It's a wonderful story, recounted to me by my great-grandfather." She paused, and when she saw that both women were listening attentively, she continued. "According to my great-grandfather," Liling began, "my family is descended from the most venerable sage, Chan Kong-sang."

Alex's eyes widened in mock surprise. "I've heard of him," she said. "A friend of mine saw a movie about him in Chinatown a couple weeks ago. He said the movie was way out there." Both she and Liling knew that she had heard already heard several stories concerning the woman's ancestor.

Liling raised an eyebrow and gave her head a slight tilt, but made no comment concerning the movie.

“Sorry," Alex said, sheepishly.

The older woman continued to stare at her for a moment, then smiled. "Shall I continue?"

Both Alex and Tammi stifled grins like the mischievous schoolgirl the latter appeared to be.

As I was saying" Liling said.

The parable of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey and the Desert Cat

You can find the full text of the venerable parable here: The Parable of the Desert Cat 

Here is a quick summary:

The wise man, Chan Kong-sang struggled for weeks, without food or sleep, to reach the snow-covered peak of the great mountain Chomolungma, where he sank into lotus position and chanted continuously for another week, ignoring the driving snow that buried him. On the morning of the 8th day, the sun broke through the clouds and revealed a golden stair, that extended yet further into the sky, which he climbed, to reach the grand castle of a giant ta-jen. The ta-jen welcomed Chan Kong-sang into his home, fed him, and entertained him with a parable…

"Listen, then, as I speak of the time when the Jade Emperor accused Monkey of stealing his most favored pet, his Chinese desert cat."

***~~~***

The Jade Emperor’s most favored pet, a Chinese desert cat named Mao Di, disappeared. After a week of searching, a single monkey hair was found in the suite of Mao Di, leading the Jade Emperor to summon the mischievousness Monkey King to account for the absence of his pet. Displaying the single hair, the Jade Emperor demanded that Monkey return his stolen pet.

Though Monkey proved that he had not stolen Mao Di, he felt compassion for the obvious anguish the Emperor felt for his missing pet, and he mad e a promise: "I will find Mao Di for you," the Monkey King whispered, "even if it takes all eternity."

It took Monkey many hours of thought - the list of those who might wish to cause him trouble was long and distinguished, but perhaps the Dragon Kings, who valued formality above all, were more offended by Monkey’s mischief than the others on the list. And he found it so; not only did the Dragon Kings admit to the catnapping, they refused to return the cat. Monkey brokered a trade - for the return of Mao Di, he would except the Dragon Kings from his practical jokes for two thousand years, plus the gifts of a painting and a song. But where would Monkey get gifts magnificent enough to satisfy the picky Dragon Kings?

His mortal friends, the lovers! Bi Yu (translated as Jade Paint Brush) and her husband, Chung Yu (Jade Bell). Bi Yu and Chung Yu labored for a week. Bi Yu presented her friend with a painting, and Monkey captured the song of Chung Yu in a magic bottle.

The Dragon Kings were fascinated by the moving picture painted by the moral artist, and the never ending song that was played whenever the bottle was opened. They returned Mao Di to the Jade Emperor, and returned to their caves to enjoy two thousand years of peace.

***~~~***

Chan Kong-sang looked at the ta-jen. "Master?" he asked. "Is there a moral to this story? When did it take place?"

The ta-jen took a sip of wine. "Perhaps there is a moral hidden in the story," he said. "If so, it is there for you to find. As for when it took place, what is time to the immortals? It could have taken place a thousand years in your past, or a thousand years in your future. Some things are simply timeless."

A Desert Cat for Tammi

Tammi watched Liling closely as she recounted the parable, apparently listening intently. As soon as Liling was finished, she spoke up. "A real Desert Cat is almost big enough for me to ride on like a pony. Say, Alex, wouldn't I look great riding on the back of a real tiger in my leopard-skin bikini when we go to that party for the premier of 'Nefertiti' next week? I'd be the center of attention!"

"You're always the center of attention anyway, Tams," Alex replied with a shake of her head. "Don't you think you ought to let Jeanne be the star of her own party?" Next week in San Francisco, a party was scheduled to honor the premier showing of the soon-to-be-released movie 'Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile' and Jeanne Crain, the star, was being feted. Tammi would be there, too, as she always was when lots of cameras were involved. And she'd find a way to get photographed, whatever it took

"Phooey! You NEVER let me have any fun!" Tammi pouted.

"Ah, young lady, perhaps this will cheer you up," Liling soothed her. "Please accept this statuette with my compliments." She handed the Desert Cat to the store manager. "Please wrap this carefully, Lei Chiu, to be sure our beautiful cat safely reaches her new home."

Lei Chiu, her manager, was distressed. "Madame, no, you cannot give cat to these. I have promised to another buyer, coming tomorrow."

"You returned from your last trip with two such statuettes, Lei Chiu!" Liling snapped at her manager, annoyed at being contradicted in her own store. "When you finish wrapping this one, you may retrieve the other from the storeroom for tomorrow's customer." Her voice cracked like a whip.

"Yes, Madame," the manager responded sullenly. He finished wrapping the cat statuette, dropped it into a bag, thrust the bag at Tammi without another word, then stomped away.

"I apologize for Lei Chiu's behavior. I've never seen him act this way," Liling said contritely.

"Don't be sorry - he's the bonehead, not you." Tammi chirped. "Thanks for the really neato gift! I'm going to put it in the solarium!"

"Of course you are," Alex agreed resignedly. "If there's room for it, among all the other free gifts you always manage to get everywhere we go."

***~~~***

Liling was just about to close up the shop for the afternoon, so Alex and Tammi took her to lunch. Afterwards, the two women weren't in any hurry to get home, and they wandered the streets of San Francisco, leaving Chinatown and moving leisurely towards Golden Gate Park, window shopping and occasionally stopping to actually buy something or other. Finally, though, they had too much to carry and hailed a taxi for the last couple of miles. Lei Chiu sighed in relief. He finally had a chance to rest his feet as he climbed into his own cab and ordered the driver to "Follow that car!"

Shortly before midnight, Tammi was curled up in the living room on the sofa in front of the fireplace. She was wearing her favorite silk baby-doll nightie and snuggled under a big fluffy blanket, fortified with a bunch of Dinah Shore, Doris Day and Patti Page 45s stacked on the spindle, a Ronrico Gold and Coke, and a big bowl of buttered popcorn as she eagerly turned the pages of the latest Harlequin bodice-ripper. 'I can't believe they wore those awful corset things!' she thought. 'The things they went through, just to look good for the boys.'

She sat up, startled - she'd just heard something moving in the dining room, and then a few seconds later, in the solarium. She quietly got to her feet and moved silently across the carpet. Now that she was concentrating, she could barely make out the sounds of someone breathing in the solarium. She slid her head cautiously into the solarium; by the dim reflected light from the streetlights out front, she could just make out the silhouette of a man, holding HER brand new Chinese Desert Cat in one hand, and something she couldn't make out in the other.

Instantly, Tammi projected the sound of a tremendous explosion into the solarium. BOOOOM! The intruder was knocked off his feet, and dropped everything as he tumbled to the floor. Tammi flipped on the wall light and stepped through the door to the solarium, then jerked back in shock as she saw him waving a gun. She was back out of sight when he fired, but instead of shooting at her, he blasted out the floor length window, and when Tammi cautiously peeked around the door frame again the room was empty and she could hear him running down the street. She could also hear Alex rushing downstairs, anxious to find out if Tammi had been hurt. And not far away, she heard the siren of a police squad car wailing into the night.

Nighttime Adventure

Within a few minutes, a prowl car pulled up in front of the house. By then, Tammi had managed to reassure Alex that she was OK, both women had put on their house robes, and they had discovered that the thief had dropped the Desert Cat statuette and a large burlap bag as he fled. They put the statuette back where it belonged, as they already had a good idea who the thief might have been and they wanted to capture him on their own. The officers in the patrol car had called for a detective as soon as they heard the shooting and he arrived only minutes later, allowing the cops to return to their patrol.

Since Alex hadn't seen the thief, she was out in the street reassuring their neighbors while Tammi was telling the story to the detective. "When I startled him, he pulled a pistol and shot out the window, and then ran. He dropped that bag there," she pointed at the bag on the floor "and we haven't touched it. As far as I can tell, there's nothing missing," Tammi told Police Detective Stuart Duncan. Duncan was a big, handsome, dark-haired man with a bushy mustache, in his early 30s, and he seemed to be more interested in her waist-length hair than her story. She shook her head, causing her hair to shimmer and ripple, and readjusted her robe, seemingly unaware of the dazzling glimpses underneath that she was providing him. "Look, Detective Stuart - can I call you Stuart? It's late and we're really tired. If you need anything else, I'd be happy to come down to the station house tomorrow," she asked sweetly, flashing him her brightest smile.

"Certainly Miss Pay uh, Tammi. I'm based at the Park Station - you know the station near Kezar Stadium?" She nodded. "Ask for me at the desk at 3 PM." He was actually off duty tomorrow, but he would come in anyway. He was going to give this case his personal attention! And finally he left.

'Good thing I wore my hair down tonight,' Tammi thought, but didn't say. Alex wouldn't approve of her teasing Detective Duncan. She sniffed. ‘Sometimes it seems as if Alex disapproves of everything fun!”

"I guess Avant Guard is heading back to Far Eastern Treasures?" she asked her partner after they finally got a big plastic drop cloth taped over the broken window.

"You betcha! After the screwy way he behaved this morning, I'd bet a thousand bucks Lei Chiu was the burglar. If I had a thousand bucks," Alex joked. She'd received a nice inheritance from her parents, but she'd spent most of it buying this big old house, partway up one of the famous San Francisco hills. "We'll take the bike. Hurry, let's get changed."

"WHEE!" Tammi squealed. She just loved riding the World War II vintage electric motorcycle with sidecar. The acceleration was incredible, and the silence with which the electric motor drove the bike made her feel as if she were flying.

"I'm driving," Alex continued flatly. Tammi just shook her head

***~~~***

A few minutes later, now dressed in their costumes, Tammi followed Alex as she pushed the heavy electric motorcycle into the mild San Francisco fog out onto the street. Palette (Alex) wore a skintight bodysuit which had probably started life colored pale yellow - but which now looked as if it had been used as an artist's drop cloth, as it was covered in spatters and drips and blotches of all the colors an artist would use, and she also wore a black domino mask, red gauntlets and boots, and a black beret.

Miss Music (Tammi) wore a short, bright red skirt, a loose, low-cut pale blue shiny silk blouse with pouffy sleeves, covered by a short-sleeve, open-front jacket with padded shoulders in the same pale blue, red knee-high boots that laced up the front, a pale blue tri-cornered hat with red trim, and the black domino mask du jour. Her hair now hung in a single long braid down the middle of her back.

They mounted the bike, Alex twisted the throttle and they zoomed away. The bike didn't make a sound, which was helpful in concealing their nocturnal activities from their neighbors. Palette had to drive slowly because of the fog, but she didn't think getting there a few minutes later would make much of a difference at this point, as the police had already delayed them for over an hour. The heroines of Avant Guard were headed back to Chinatown!

An interesting thought occurred to her as she contemplated the benefits of the silent motorcycle, and she leaned over to talk to Miss Music. "Say, Tams, your powers are sound-related - do you think you could project silence like you project sounds?"

Miss Music projected her voice directly into Palette's ear, so she wouldn't have to shout in return. "I've never thought about it. That would be really cool, wouldn't it? Tell you what, why don't you say something and I'll see."

Alex began to sing and Tammi winced. If this use of her power just required motivation, Alex's singing should provide all she needed! She concentrated, trying to project silence the same way she projected sound, but there was no change in that horrid singing.

"You can stop now. Please?" she vocalized into her partner's ear. "I can add sounds to whatever is already there, but I don't know how to make noises less loud by adding more sound to them. But it sure would be a useful power."

"Well, it was worth trying" Palette responded. "Keep thinking about it. You never know what we might still learn about our powers!" She turned her attention back to driving carefully through the fog. Lucky it wasn't very dense, or even with streetlights she wouldn't have been able to see the way.

"Yah. Did you realize that we're just like that couple in the parable?" Miss Music asked, totally out of the fog.

The only couple her partner could think of was the married couple, Bi Yu and Chung Yu. "Tams, we're not quite just like them," she replied dryly.

"Yeah, they rescued the Desert Cat using our powers!" the Audible Ace insisted. "We're in a parable! I wonder who's gonna be the dragon?!"

Alex had painted the mural years before she met Tammi, and she'd never until now realized that indeed, Bi Yu and Chung Yu, which Liling had told her translated as Jade Bell and Jade Paint Brush, had captured sight and sound and used them to recover the Desert Cat. They really had used the same powers as Tammi and Alex to rescue the Desert Cat. At the time, it seemed as if all Tammi was concerned about was riding a tiger in her latest bikini, but she had clearly paid attention to the parable, and drawn a conclusion Alex had overlooked for years! She shook her head in disbelief, then concentrated on driving.

Dragon in the Dark

They parked near the back of the store and decided to enter through the loading doc. Even with her enhanced vision, Palette had difficulty seeing through the fog, so they moved very carefully. They were stunned to find that the door was already wide open, the lock and door frame broken as if someone had kicked through it earlier that evening.

Palette projected the illusion of black shadows on her body and costume, and in the fog and dim light, Miss Music found it even more difficult to see her. Wreathed in her own personal shadow, the Photonic Paladin silently crept into the Receiving area. Across the room, through the entrance to the storeroom, she saw two glowing lights that looked like eyes. On the floor in front of Tammi, a message of dimly glowing red letters appeared.

"Someone in storeroom. Wait!" Tammi concentrated, and she could indeed hear two heartbeats in the next room. The second one sounded like a nervous man - but not someone who was aware of an enemy approaching.

"He doesn't know you're there," Miss Music's whisper sounded directly in one ear of her partner.

The figure Palette was stalking seemed to be wearing some kind of mask, which concealed its face even to her enhanced vision, but the eyes continued to glow, somehow capturing and reflecting what little light there was in the room, much like a cat's eyes. The shadowy figure remained motionless as the Luminous Legend inched closer, then she judged she was close enough and dove forward in a tackle. She expected to hit the watcher solidly in the chest; instead she hit something very light and crashed down on a table top, which then collapsed to the floor. She started swearing, and the room filled with a dim red light, much like the light in a darkroom.

Miss Music rushed into the room, which was even more cluttered than the shop itself, and saw Palette lying on a tabletop on the floor, her body glowing ruby red. Her arms were wrapped around a very large stuffed owl!

"A (*&%*I&ing stuffed animal!" Palette cursed. "G*^%U^ eyes are glass!"

"Say, I didn't know you could glow like that!" the Tuneful Titan said to her partner in wonder.

"I didn't either, but if I can project dark, it seemed logical that I should be able to project light as well" replied the Aesthetic Avenger smugly, glad to change the subject. She was sure Tammi would tease her about this fiasco for weeks to come.

"Uh, Palette. there's still someone in the room with us!" Miss Music suddenly remembered. At that exact instant, a dragon, about the size of a pony, which had been standing motionless next to the wall throughout the prior commotion, suddenly leaped forward with a roar, directly at the Sonic Superstar!

Miss Music instantly dove into a somersault and bounced up under the dragon's stomach with both fists extended above her head - and she ripped through the beast's belly and then through its upper back. "It's only f(*&%&&n papier-mâché!" the Sonic Superstar yelled in frustrated anger as a man started laughing!

Palette changed her illusion to white light, finally, and the two women turned towards the source of laughter, murder in their eyes.

"Hey, it was all in fun!" Their target was a slightly chubby man about as tall as Palette, dressed in a dark charcoal gray suit, navy blue tie, white shirt, wearing a bowler hat, with a camera hung around his neck. "You guys were never scared, we.. erp!" He quickly raised both hands in front of him as he realized that Palette was about to take a swing at him. "Hold it! I'm one of the good guys!" He backed up until he ran into a wall, trying to avoid the Aesthetic Avenger, who continued to stalk forward, her fits clenched.

"Hold on, Palette! I recognize this guy. He's Phoenix Barrow, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Somebody would probably miss him if you kill him!" Miss Music yelled at her partner.

"Yeah, that's me. And you're Palette and Miss Magic, Avant Guard, San Francisco's leading mystery heroes" he replied quickly. "We're on the same side!" he insisted.

Palette stopped stalking towards him. "Your name's really. Phoenix?" she asked incredulously. "What kind of parent would name his kid after a city in Arizona? No, never mind that. What the heck are you doing here?"

"I'm tracking down a smuggling ring, and I got a tip that this store's involved," the reporter replied.

Palette started to object, but thought about Lei Chiu's actions and the attempted robbery tonight and kept silent. She was sure her friend Liling Kam couldn't be involved in anything illegal, but she didn't know Lei Chiu. His travels in the Orient certainly gave him the opportunity to be involved in a smuggling ring.

"Guys, there's something bad going on in the basement" Miss Music broke in anxiously. "I can barely hear somebody yelling from down there!"

"That way!" Palette pointed to the door that led from the storeroom into the store. She'd been in the basement previously, when she'd been painting the mural. Phoenix started moving towards the door, but she stopped him. "Not you, Mr. Reporter. This is our case."

He bristled. "And it's my story. I got here before you guys did, and I'm going to follow it through. Besides, you can't stop me from going!"

"I think we can, even if it requires knocking you out and tying you up," Princess of Projection responded, getting bristly herself.

"Geez, you two, cut it out!" Miss Music interrupted. "I can't believe you're fighting when someone is screaming in agony! You can't hear it, but it sounds like someone is being tortured down there. We need to stop it!" The two looked at her, looked at each other and snarled, then turned towards the door. "Besides" the Harmonic Honey projected her whisper into Palette's ear ". he's really cute". Which didn't help the Photonic Paladin's mood one bit. She had to smile silently, though, at her partner's next smug whisper. "TOLD YOU there'd be a dragon!"

Your Turn to go First

As they moved through the store, they passed a display of weapons. The edged weapons were locked behind glass, but there was a display rack holding fighting sticks and a 'bamboo sword', also known as a shinai. Palette picked up the shinai, liked the feel, carried it with her. Miss Music wasn't interested in any of the weapons, nor was Phoenix.

"Rather use my fists," he said, making a couple of jabs, before proudly continuing. "Battling Phoenix, with fists of thunder, they call me!"

"As we go down the stairs, the basement opens out on our left," Palette whispered. "Careful, there's no railing. Miss Music will go first."

"Hey!" the Phonic Protector interrupted, quietly but emphatically. "I thought it was YOUR turn to go first!"

"You're the smallest, the toughest target, and you can move fastest, that's why," Palette started to explain, but Phoenix interrupted her.

"No way, girls. I'm going first."

Both women turned towards him and turned him down flat.

"No way!"

"When you get powers, THEN you can go first."

Phoenix looked rebellious; he wasn't going to let two girls rush into danger ahead of him.

"I have a better idea, Al... er, Palette." Miss Music interjected quickly, before her partner could start another argument with the reporter. 'I really need a simpler nickname for her in situations like this,' she reflected to herself, then added "Suppose we do a flash and clash, before we dash? "

"What's a flash and clash?" Phoenix was perplexed.

"Just a little trick we've worked out," Miss Music replied cryptically. "Think of it as an explosion on demand, but without destroying everything. Flash and clash, without the crash." She winked at him. "Just make sure you cover your ears."

"That's a great idea, Tuneful Titan," Palette agreed, smiling. "The rear wall of the basement is over there." She projected a line on the floor of the store, indicating the location of the basement wall below. "I'll put the flash right in the middle of that wall, and you make the big noise in the same place. On three."

"Hold it!" Phoenix interrupted again. "People live around here; if you set off an explosion, even one that doesn't wreck the building, someone's bound to call the police. I'm not anxious to have to explain what we're doing in someone's store in the middle of the night, big story or not."

Neither of the heroines was interested in bringing in the police yet, either. "You think just a flash will be enough?" Miss Music asked. Working through an obstacle such as the floor of the store limited the power of Palette's illusions.

"I'll make it as bright as I can, and that ought to daze them, whoever they are, for a few seconds at least," Palette replied. "Go on Go: Three. Two. One. Go!" For an instant, flaring light leaked under and around the door, then Phoenix jerked it open and Miss Music led the charge down the stairs.

Battle in the Basement

A single naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling dimly lit a grotesque scene: Lei Chiu was sprawled face down on a tabletop, his back covered with bleeding welts. Around the table were 4 very large, bald Asian men, wearing black t-shirts, black sweatpants and sandals. One of these men had a whip. They were all dazed from the brilliant flash of light Palette had created. There was no sign of the Desert Cat statuette. The dim shapes of the furnace, boiler and unknown other stuff lurked in the background.

Halfway down the stairs, Miss Music let out her traditional battle cry: "YAAA-HOOOOO!! GANGWAY!! Comin' THROUGH!" as she dove at the man with the whip, who started to turn in the direction of her yell. She curled up into a ball, did a half flip and uncoiled, kicking her legs powerfully to full extension - just as she crashed into the man's chest. He flew violently backwards and crashed into a second man, and they crashed to the floor in a tangle. The Audible Ace landed easily and used her momentum to rush forward. Before they could get untangled, the Tuneful Titan kicked the first man jarringly in the jaw, then focused the pealing of a dozen church bells, amplified to stunning power, directly into one ear of the second man. As her first opponent fell to the floor unconscious, the second screamed and slammed hands to his ears, then collapsed himself, clawing weakly at his head. A few seconds of sound left him dazed and confused.

By now, Palette was down the stairs and running towards one of remaining men. He heard her coming and launched a blind punch in her direction. She managed to swerve enough to avoid the blow, and as she moved past him she swung her elbow viciously to the small of his back. He straightened up and grunted, then swiveled in her direction, dropping smoothly into a martial arts fighting stance, legs apart and bent, arms held up in front of him. Even partially squatting, he was still taller than she was, and probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds. Taking advantage of his temporary blindness, she slapped him in the head with her shinai. He roared in anger and reached for the bamboo sword with both hands. She stepped in and kicked him powerfully between the legs. As he screamed in pain and doubled over in agony, she stepped back and lifted her knee into his chin with a sickening 'CRACK'. He collapsed to the floor like a bag of flour.

Phoenix Barrow was approaching the 4th man cautiously, his hands high in the traditional boxing position, leading with his right. His opponent seemed to have recovered at least partially from the flash, and launched a roundhouse kick at the reporter. Phoenix ducked and blocked the kick upwards with the back of his right wrist, and winced in pain - it felt like he'd been whacked with a police nightstick!. His attacker smoothly continued spinning until he was once again facing in Phoenix's direction. Cautiously, Phoenix stepped forward and launched a right jab. He struck his opponent squarely in the chest, with almost no effect. He followed up with a left to the jaw, and the black-clad fighter's head snapped back, forcing him back a step.

Phoenix stepped forward and tried to launch a one-two combination at the man's stomach, only to find he'd been set up. The fighter moved like a snake striking, and snatched the reporter's right wrist before Phoenix could withdraw. The big man stepped backwards and yanked, dragging Phoenix stumbling forward. The fighter spun and threw Phoenix into the table where Lei Chiu was strapped down. The reporter crashed over the table, and his foe ran, smashing through a door that led to an outside stairway.

Miss Music quickly helped Phoenix to his feet. "Fists of thunder, hah!" she mocked him. "We're going after the guy that ran!" she said to him hurriedly. "You untie Lei Chiu and catch up with us," her final words drifted back to him as she raced up the outside stairs after her partner.

Confrontation

With their combination of enhanced night vision and enhanced hearing, it wasn't difficult for Avant Guard to track the panting fighter. They caught up with him just as he was trying to open the locked back door of a building across the alley from the Far Eastern Treasures basement door. He turned and sneered at his pursuers. "Mess with me and you die!" he snarled.

"Sure, whatever you say, big fella," Palette laughed. "How you going to kill somebody you can't see?" She projected an illusion of darkness on his face, and he was blinded again.

"Want me to take him out, or do you want to play with him for a while?" Miss Music asked. At that instant, the door behind the villain opened.

"That will not be necessary, young lady," said a small, wizened woman in a high-pitched wavering voice. She was wearing an elegant silk robe, colored a subdued purple, embroidered with golden sinographs. She turned to the thug and snapped at him in Chinese, her voice as sharp as a pistol shot. He came to stiff attention.

She turned to Palette. "Release him, young woman!" she commanded. "He will bother you no more." Miss Music watched the man closely, ready to blast him as Palette cautiously canceled her illusion, but the man remained rigidly at attention.

At that moment, Phoenix Barrow showed up, supporting a limping, bloody Lei Chiu. "Who's that?" he asked when he saw the old woman.

Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, the old woman turned back to the thug. "Begone!" Before either of the heroines could make a move to stop him, he vanished down the street. She turned back to the others, raised her hand, and pointed accusingly at Lei Chiu. "This man has sinned gravely!"

When she saw that she had everyone's attention, she continued, anger crackling in her wavering voice. "I am a priestess at the Temple of the Jade Emperor in the town of Temo Wula Gacha in China. Some time ago, a band of thieves stole a sacred relic from my Temple, a large gem of carved jade from the belly of the Idol of the Emperor. I tracked the jewel to Shanghai, where it passed into the possession of this man." Again, she pointed at Lei Chiu. "I followed him here, and hired some local help to track him down and recover the gem. I can see that my hired minions were somewhat overzealous; I told them no harm should befall the thief. For this I apologize."

At that moment, Liling Kam walked out of the fog, carrying the statuette of the Desert Cat.

"Is this true, Lei Chiu?" Like that of the priestess, her voice snapped like a bullet shot. "How dare you soil my name and my honor by receiving stolen goods when on business for me?!"

Moving more quickly than anyone could have expected, based on his beaten and bloody appearance, Lei Chiu pulled a small pistol from from concealment inside his pants. "No one move!" he panted loudly. He took the Desert Cat from Liling. "Is true," he continued. It took a while, as speech was painful for him with all his cuts and welts, and his English was stilted, but he told his story.

For years, Lei Chiu had cooperated with a smuggling ring, receiving stolen goods in Shanghai, secreting them inside merchandise he had purchased for Far Eastern Treasures, and counting on Liling Kam's reputation for honorable dealing to get his merchandise through customs at both ends without close inspections. And he'd gotten away with it for years, until now. The jade gem from the Idol of the Emperor had been concealed in the Desert Cat statuette that Liling had given to a customer, but Lei Chiu had recovered that statuette earlier this night.

"Normally, I turn loot over to gang here, they pay me. But not pay enough. This most valuable gem, I keep and sell for much money." He started backing away, into the fog. A shot rang out, and he fell to the ground, shot from behind. The Cat statuette was smashed and shattered as he fell. A trio of men, dressed in trench coats and fedoras pulled low over their eyes, each holding a pistol, stepped out of the gloomy darkness. With all eyes on the men with guns, nobody noticed Lei Chiu crawl painfully to the shattered cat statuette and start scrabbling through the shards. In the background, distorted by the fog, a police siren started wailing.

"There's nobody else out there, just the three we can see, Alex. Let's take 'em!" Miss Music projected her whisper into Palette's ear. Palette shook her head almost imperceptibly and whispered, so softly that no one other than the Sonic Superstar could hear her, "Wait."

"I figgered the little ^&@#$ was gonna turn traitor on us for that gem. Well, nobody steals from Stony Mason!"

"C'mon, Stony, let's beat it outta here. Da cops are on da way," another of the hoods urged his boss.

"Know this, sinners! The curse of the Jade Emperor descends on all those who dare steal from him." The voice of the priestess rang out, stern and powerful, sounding almost like a chant, echoing weirdly in the fog around them.

"Shut up, ya old bag!" said the hood closest to the priestess. He shifted his pistol to his other hand and started to swing a vicious backhand at the old lady, but Phoenix grabbed his arm.

Miss Music attacked at that instant, blasting Stony Mason with the old 'incredibly loud peal of church bells directly in the ear' trick and he screamed in pain, jerking his hands toward his head.

"YAHOO!" she yelled, as she ran up to him and leaped, head-butting his exposed jaw. Mason staggered backwards and the Audible Ace rushed him, knocking him down, and leaped onto his chest. She winced as his head hit the wall behind him before he slumped to the ground. She was ready to continue the fight, but the head hood was out cold. She hoped he wasn't seriously hurt. She turned to help her partner.

A blinding flash exploded silently an inch or so from the eyes of the third hood, and he screamed with pain that felt like a knife stabbing through his eye into his brain. His pistol fired wildly as he wrenched his hands to his face. Palette stepped in and punched with a roundhouse left to the stomach, and squealed with pain when she punched his belt buckle. She rushed forward and wrapped her arms around the thug, forcing him to stumble backwards.

Miss Music hurried over and positioned herself behind him on her hands and knees, and when he staggered into her, his knees buckled and he fell heavily backwards. The Luminous Legend landing on top of him, knocking the wind out of him. She moved around so that she was sitting on his chest, while Miss Music kicked his pistol away, then stood over them in case he had any fight left.

Liling grabbed the other arm of the hood who was grappling with Phoenix, and the old priestess surprised everyone. "Kiai!" she yelled, and launched a powerful side kick, stretching to her limit to reach the man's exposed solar plexus. He bent almost double, gasping for breath, and Phoenix stepped behind him and pushed, driving the man forward and down, forcing him to sprawl on the pavement. Liling and the priestess jumped on his back, and Phoenix jumped forward and ripped the pistol from the man's hand. He then rapped the man, not too gently, on the temple with the pistol barrel. "Hey, buddy - time to give up!"

Everyone was started when Lei Chiu screamed in rage and pain. "Not here! All for nothing!" He sobbed once and slumped to the ground amid the remains of the Desert Cat, unconscious.

"Alright, nobody move! Except you, buddy - you drop the gun!" A half dozen policemen stepped out of the gloom, all with guns drawn. Phoenix carefully extended his hand, displaying the pistol dangling from a two-fingered hold on the grip, then bent slowly and placed it on the ground.

"Anyone care to tell me what the HECK is going on here?" Detective Duncan asked loudly.

It took several more hours to get everything sorted out with the police. The goons from the local tong who had been trashed in the basement had recovered and escaped in the confusion. Lei Chiu had been rushed to the hospital in a hastily summoned ambulance but was not expected to recover. Stony Mason and his fellow gangsters were headed for jail, and Duncan had high hopes of breaking them for enough information to round up the rest of the American half of the smuggling gang.

The priestess agreed to brief the Shanghai police on her way back to the Temple of the Jade Emperor and maybe they could bust the smugglers on the Asian end. Liling Kam's honor was restored, and Phoenix had his story. And another story was added to the growing legend of the San Francisco’s most famous mystery heroines, Avant Guard.

It seemed that the disappointed priestess would be forced to return to her Temple without the jade gemstone, but Miss Music quietly arranged for a meeting between her, Liling and Avant Guard the next day.

Finally, Tammi and Alex were back home, winding down in the living room before they got a little sleep - very little, as the sun was already rising.

"You know," Alex mused thoughtfully "I think I'm going to take some training in or judo or karate or something like that. I almost busted my hand punching that one crook."

"Aren't those two guys dreamy?" Tammi asked, dreamily. She meant Phoenix Barrow and Detective Duncan, Alex knew.

"Crap, Tams, don't you ever think of anything but guys?" Alex snapped.

"You know I do," Tammi giggled back, and Alex had to smile as well.

"Hey, how did you recognize Phoenix Barrow, anyway?" Alex wanted to know. "It's not like he's famous, or a TV news anchor, or something like that"

"Well, he was covering the Nationals back in '60 and I guess he really liked me," Tammi replied. "Somehow he managed to avoid all the chaperons the AAU provided, and ask me for a date. Isn't that cute?"

"You didn't go out with him, did you?" Alex was alarmed.

"C'mon, Alex, you know how busy I was back then!" Alex noticed that Tammi hadn't actually answered, and had also avoided saying anything about the time since she'd moved to San Francisco. She sighed and let it go - she'd long ago accepted that Tammi would do what Tammi would do, and nothing Alex could do would change that.

The Monkey King

The next day, Avant Guard met with Liling and the Priestess of the Jade Emperor in the Far Eastern Treasures store.

"I have a gift for you," Miss Music told the priestess. The Harmonic Honey handed the older woman a small gift-wrapped package. Of course, it contained the jade gem.

"May the grace of the Jade Emperor bless you!" the priestess sang, almost overcome with emotion. "I thought this relic lost forever. How did you recover it?"

"Miss Kam gave the original Desert Cat statuette to a friend of mine," Miss Music replied, uncomfortably. "My friend scared Lei Chiu away when he was trying to switch Cats last night, and apparently in the confusion, Lei Chiu left with the wrong Cat. When I told her what happened, my friend smashed her statuette, and there was the jewel!"

"Please give your friend my heartfelt thanks and blessings, along with the thanks of all who worship at the Temple of the Jade Emperor. I'm sure the Jade Emperor himself feels gratitude as well" the priestess responded. "I regret that I have nothing to offer her as a replacement for the sacrificed Desert Cat."

"I think I can help with that," Liling spoke up. "Miss Music, is there anything in the store that your 'friend' might like as a replacement?" Her eyes sparkled with mischief; perhaps the mystical aura of the priestess of the Jade Emperor had somehow allowed her to pierce the magical veil that concealed the secret identities of Avant Guard (*see Mystery Sisters of the Caribbean) and she'd figured out that short, long haired, exuberant Miss Music was also her new acquaintance, the short, long haired, exuberant Tammi Page.

Miss Music looked around, and her eye was instantly drawn to an idol that was almost as large as she was. "I'll bet she'd love that monkey!"

"Ah, the Idol of the Monkey King. Most appropriate. I'm sure it's exactly what your friend would want." She winked at Palette. "Please present it to your friend with my thanks as well, for helping remove the stain on my honor left by Lei Chiu."

"Well, that solves the last mystery," Miss Music confided to her partner.

"And that was?" Palette hesitated; she was almost afraid to ask.

"I couldn't decide whether Phoenix or Stuart was the Monkey King!" the Tuneful Titan replied with a smile as her partner moaned.