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Black Jade – Chapter 1
“Jacques, I need you!”
My copy of the Dallas Morning News twirled to the floor as I jumped to my feet. The rare emotions in the summons made my pulse race. It wasn’t often that my companion felt either surprise or excitement, and I’d just heard both. “What is it, Dai?”
“Can you smell it?”
Daiyu was the only child of the immigrant Wu family. She was also the principal reason for the continued success of White Laundry. My companion wasn’t what anyone would expect. She was more of a ‘doll’ than most women called by the moniker could ever hope to be. A mere four foot eight, she was a tiny thing—but assuming that was all she was would be a grave mistake.
“Lye? Soap?” I had no idea how anyone could smell anything else in here.
Dai half-turned on her stool, her dainty gloved hands on her lap. “Garlic, Jacques. I smell burned garlic.”
Her straight black hair fell to just above her shoulders. It was untouched by the finger waves currently in fashion, so there was nothing to detract from its silky fall around her heart-shaped face and almond eyes. Her skin was the color of yellowed porcelain, but the bad lighting in the crowded work area made it seem darker, like transparent yellow amber. A line of perspiration trailed down her long neck, the only sign that she was bothered by the laundry’s oppressive humidity. Her opaque teashade glasses sat ignored at their assigned spot on the worktable, along with the chemicals and powders she mixed for the family business. Her meticulous efforts and her enhanced sense of smell gave her family’s company an edge over the few remaining Chinese laundries in town, and placed them at an even more significant advantage over the American ones. The glasses themselves were more to ease other people’s discomfort than her own. She did not need them. Dai had been blind from birth, her unseeing eyes almost silver and possessing no pupils. Most thought the sight of them disturbing. To me, they were anything but.
“Do you see any garments colored bright green?” Dai’s excitement rebounded in every word.
I was used to being her eyes. It was the main argument she’d used to win her parents’ permission to keep my then seven-year-old self, whom she discovered following her at Dallas City Park. She’d been only eight, her mind already sharp and looking to the future.
“Yes. It’s a ballgown by the looks of it. It’s still hanging with the recent arrivals. Should I fetch it for you?”
“No, don’t!” Dai shook her head. “Not without first donning gloves. No one should let that fabric touch their bare skin.”
My eyebrow rose. What were we about to get into?
As commanded, I found a thick pair of workmen’s gloves and fetched the gown. It was an old-fashioned evening dress, all gossamer and lace. Not something typically found in Texas—more like New York or London, and at least thirty years ago, at that. I hung it nearby, making sure it wouldn’t accidentally touch Dai.
“That’s the one. Surely you can smell it now, can’t you, Jacques?”
“I’m sorry, Dai, I can’t. You know my nose is nothing compared to yours.” I smelled no garlic and had no inkling why that would be a concern, or how it had led her to the conclusion that the gown’s color would be green.
A sharp bark near Dai’s feet drew our attention as her second companion left the comfort of his pillow. Another mongrel she’d picked up off the street, and as loyal as myself. At a guess, I figured him to be a Scottish Terrier and Pomeranian mix. His owner had abandoned him as a pup in the streets as money became scarce everywhere.
“No, Prince Razor, you mustn’t get near it. Sit.”
He did as she asked. Prince set his small paws neatly before him, and his expressive brown eyes watched her every move.
“Jacques, is there a ticket pinned to it?”
I checked. There was one, although… “It’s blank, but stamped paid.”
“Really? How curious.” The timbre of excitement in her voice grew. “Here, run this swab over the dress. Hold your breath while you do it, just in case.”
Still wondering what this could be about—and growing more nervous about it by the moment—I ran the swab down the length of the gown, then deposited it into the test tube she held. “What now?”
She gave me a teasing, coy smile. “Now we go to the lab.” With a spring in her step, Dai grabbed her teashade glasses and led the way, knowing every nook and cranny of the establishment. Prince scouted ahead, in search of any errant mice who dared be in the vicinity. We passed several of the Chinese workers at the vats. They stared as we walked past, but as usual, said nothing. A superstitious lot, many carried charms with pictures of gourds, long believed to be capable of warding off or protecting the bearer against evil. The workers touched them whenever she drew near—despite the fact they owed her. If not for Dai, there might not be a business to employ them or homes purchased in their names so they could stay in the country. But she was both blind and female and had been allowed to live and thrive. Expectations and traditions practiced even in these modern times would have called for Dai’s death when she was born—particularly since she was female and the family had no male heir. Even though from the time of Confucius the blind were supported in court as musicians, her parent’s social class would not allow them to keep a child with such reduced status. But Dai’s mǔqīn had lost all her other children before they were born, and hadn’t been able to stomach the thought of giving up the one who’d made it through.
Going against convention and escalating social pressure were two reasons her family had abandoned all they knew, including their property and lofty status, to come to the land of the free. It was a fact they never spoke of, but one Dai never forgot. Yet even those who came to America to seek freedom from the class restrictions in their country still viewed her continued existence with fear. That she would not be shackled by her blindness somehow made her an abomination and therefore evil.
Dai’s “lab” was located in a small corner of the cellar, which housed the bottom section of the laundry’s large vats and pipes. It was damp and dark—not that the latter made any difference to her. But it kept others out, giving her privacy for what most considered unladylike pursuits. A hanging bulb had been added for my benefit, along with a hatch to make the room light-proof.
Prince dived under the table to keep watch back the way we’d come.
“I believe I have everything we’ll require.” Her hands ran over the small shelves in the corner, grabbing beakers, an oil lamp, and glass tubing.
“Required for what?” I mopped at my sweating brow.
“Why, to test for arsenic. What else?”
Arsenic? She thought the dress had poison on it? “Why would you ever think such a thing, Dai?”
“Please, Jacques—you read me an article on this just last year. Don’t you remember?” She set a stopper in a flask and attached a glass tube to a funnel, which she then placed through one of the two holes on the stopper.
“My memory is far inferior to yours. As you so often enjoy reminding me.”
“Why, yes, you’re right. I do rather like that.” She flashed me an impish grin. “But we digress. You see, arsenic was used before the turn of the century to create the color green in fabrics. But manufacturers weren’t always conscientious about the amounts used in their dyes. Fatal cases were rare, but many consumers suffered health issues because of long-term exposure. Workers dyeing the textiles at the factories even more so.”
More tubing led to a U-shaped vessel, which continued to another lengthy stretch of glass pipe clamped over the oil container of the lantern. “What is all this for?”
“Depending on its current oxidation, arsenic is odorless and, at times, colorless. So detecting it proved difficult for many years, until a brilliant man came up with the Marsh test. An ingenious and effective method of determining the amount of arsenic in the flesh, body fluids, and more.” She ran her hands gingerly over the apparatus she’d made, double-checking her work. “If you’ll place the swab into the beaker, I’ll add the zinc and acid. By heating the mixture, we will further oxidize the arsine in the arsenic.
“Once that happens, please hold the ceramic bowl over the ensuing vapor. Then we shall see what we shall see.”
Dai added the ingredients to the waiting flask. As the chemicals reacted with one another, I held the bowl above it. After that, applying heat to the container caused a silvery-black stain to appear.
“Did it stain?” she asked.
“Most definitely.” It was black, dark as death.
Dai nodded as if she had expected nothing else. “The color and density of the stain are used to pinpoint the concentration of arsenic present. Unfortunately, it’s not something I’ve dabbled in, so I’ve no data to compare it against. The pathologist should have access to a copy of Marsh’s guide.”
Prince Razor barked in agreement. Dai’s excitement was becoming contagious.
“We must find out which of our employees handled the dress and have them wash off any residue right away. Also, have them turn the fans on high. We’ll want to cycle the air as much as possible. Arsenic can convert to a gas, and since I detected the scent of a reaction, it’s likely some got released upstairs. We were lucky a bit of the arsenic wasn’t fully oxidized, so it reacted to the heat and the humidity here. Otherwise, we would have never known something was amiss. Whoever left the gown didn’t count on Texas temperatures.”
She paused for a long moment. I said nothing, still trying to digest all she’d just told me. Then she added, “Before that, please bag the bowl and the dress, as we must bring them with us. We’re going on a field trip!”
“A field trip? Where to?”
“Why, to see the justice of the peace, Jacques! Where else?”