Prologue – The Sorcerer
“Your choice,” the sorcerer clasped his hands and rested them on the table in front of him.
“Not much of a choice,” the young woman retorted, defiance in her eyes.
A small shrug, “It’s the same offer I made to your parents.”
“Which they refused.”
“Well, that’s not quite true. Your father was very much in favor.”
The young woman sat straighter, “But he ultimately walked away from you. Away from you and back to my mom. My mother’s love won. You lost.”
“Again, that’s not quite true. They both lost. They failed to understand that ultimately, I have something they do not: the key to life and death. Your parents were foolish.”
“Were they? Because you still don’t have what you want, do you?” came the biting reply.
“Not. Yet.” The icy cold words came out in a lethal hiss.
Undeterred, the young woman stared straight into her captor’s eyes, “And I don’t want what you’re offering either.”
The sorcerer sighed, “You are determined to stoop to a blindingly idiotic level of stupidity. How predictable. I shall have to make this interesting, killing you now feels too… how shall I put it? Too prosaic. I am so easily bored, you see…” He unclasped his hands and touched the tips of his fingers together. He cast his eyes upwards, as if deep in thought…
Moments later, he looked down with a malevolent smile, “I think I have it… a wager…”
“With my life?” The young woman asked.
“Of course. It wouldn’t be fun otherwise… yes, a wager. You mentioned love triumphant earlier. I didn’t know young people still believe in romance these days.”
When he didn’t get a response, he continued, “Here’s the wager: If you can find your soul mate within a year, I’ll leave. If you can’t, you name me the beneficiary of your estate, and then you will die.”
The young woman narrowed her eyes, “What’s the catch?”
“No catch. It’s quite simple: My wager, my rules,” the sorcerer smiled.
“What are the rules?”
“No, no,” the sorcerer wagged a finger, “that’s not how this game is played. I’ll let you know the rules only if you take the bet.”
Two sets of eyes dueled silently for a beat, before the young woman nodded, “I’ll take the bet.”
Chapter One — The Merchant and His Daughter
Once upon a time… in a city much like any other…
“I swear, boss, they say that place is haunted,” Lyle pleaded, “Call any of the guys at Durand Landscaping. They’ll tell you. Don’t do it. It was so creepy Mr. Durand terminated the contract two weeks into the project.”
“Doesn’t sound like Chad,” Steven Zhao said thoughtfully, “He’s not the superstitious type.”
Lyle agreed, his relief evident on the other end of the line, “Exactly! My brother was on that crew. He’s not the superstitious type either.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it” Steve allowed, “Go back to work, Lyle.”
Steve hung up and stared into space for a couple minutes. Best to go straight to the source, Steve picked up the phone and called his friend.
“Stevie-Z!” Chad Durand answered on the second ring, “What’s up?”
“Gotta quick question for you,” Steve leaned back and put his feet up on his desk, “I got invited to bid on a contract for the Zedecker Estate–”
“Don’t do it, buddy,” Chad’s voice took on a no-nonsense tone, “Don’t let the dollar signs fool you. It’s not worth it.”
“Lyle said the mansion was haunted?” Steve chuckled, “You pulled out of the contract because of ghosts?”
“We were all spooked, dude. It was the best money I’ve ever lost. I shit you not.”
Steve looked at the RFP, “Makes no sense though, ten and a half acres of land, twenty thousand square feet of house… what’s not to like? Vampires are asleep during the day anyway, right?”
Chad sighed, “I can’t explain it. Weird shit kept happening. We’d do a massive clean-up, and the next day, it’s like we’d never done the clean-up at all. Our cell phones kept fritzing out… and the boss-lady was creepy. The sun would be shining but we’d all be shivering cold.”
“Hm,” Steve ran his eyes down the requirements, “Looks like you guys spooked Zedecker too — the new RFP has a pretty painful early termination clause.”
“Don’t touch it, Steve. Trust me.”
“Hard to say no to the seven-figure base budget. And the early completion bonus…”
Chad’s voice was incredulous, “They threw in a bonus? How much?”
Chad whistled, “Look, you and I have worked this market for years now. I like it when you’re busy – because I don’t have to compete with you… and I’m sure you like it when I’m neck deep in a project with some high-maintenance zillionaire who can’t make up his mind… But be careful man. I know I can’t tell you to turn away business but be careful. There’s some strange voodoo going on at the Zedecker place.”
“My wife knows kung fu,” Steve joked, “She’ll protect me.”
Chad didn’t laugh, “My wife’s pretty handy with a nail gun but I wouldn’t let her anywhere near that place. It’s not worth it.”
Neither man spoke for a beat.
“Hey, Steve,” Chad’s voice was low.
“You don’t need this contract, right? You guys doing okay money-wise?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, “Yeah – we are. This’ll just get me to retirement sooner, know what I mean?”
“Gotcha,” Chad paused for a second, “I’m here to help if you need. I know you’d do the same for me.”
“Yeah – I know. Thanks. I’ll call you later,” Steve put down the phone.
“ANDI!” Steve shouted, “NEW PROJECT!”
When he didn’t get a response, Steve headed upstairs into the kitchen. He looked out into the backyard and was met with a scene he’d witnessed hundreds of times before: His wife Tina was out there, guiding their daughter Andi through what looked like a fairly complicated kung fu combination. Steve wasn’t kidding about the kung fu. Tina – all five foot five of her — could kick butt. Tina’s mother had been a grand master, whose training lineage could be traced directly back to Ng Mui, said to be one of the Five Elders of Shaolin.
Tina moved to the US as a college student and stayed on after marrying Steve. Steve was a fourth-generation American-born Chinese, so he had as much knowledge of Chinese culture and heritage as the next guy (which is to say, little to none). Their only child, now twenty-five, was a perfect blend of parental DNA. Andi — a transliteration of her Chinese name An Di — inherited her father’s height and build, and her mother’s striking and angular features. Steve and Tina had planned to give Andi a proper English name, but it became evident early on that ‘Andi’ would be the ideal name for the girl who had no intention of ever growing out of the tomboy phase.
Mother and daughter finished up their practice as Steve opened the sliding door, “Don’t you guys usually practice after dinner?”
Tina nodded, “Yes, but she was moping around, so I wanted to get the endorphins pumping sooner rather than later.”
“My girlfriend cheated on me andbooted me from our apartment, I think it’s okay to mope around,” Andi shrugged.
Tina rolled her eyes and headed into the house, “She wasn’t the right match for you. Why be sad about something that was wrong?”
Steve chuckled, “Never sentimental, that one.”
“Tell me about it,” Andi grabbed a towel and ran it over her face and hair.
“Looks like she worked you over pretty good!” grinned Steve.
Andi nodded, “You know mom. When she gets into Sifu mode, you just need to grit your teeth until it’s over.”
“Yeah, I bet this’ll make you think twice about working from home tomorrow, eh?” Steve changed the subject when his daughter grimaced, “I’m kidding. Hey, can you do some research on the Zedecker Estate after you freshen up?”
“Sure,” Andi cocked her head, “It’s up on Harrier Ridge, right?”
Steve nodded, “We’ve been invited to bid for some work on it. Chad had the contract and quit. If we get it, we’ll have a decent pile of rainy-day cash.”
“Why did Chad quit?”
“Do your research, I don’t want anyone to jump to conclusions on this one.”
Andi headed upstairs, “I’ll run downtown to the Buildings Department after my shower. Are you working here the rest of the day?”
“I am headed to the Callahan site in half an hour, and I didn’t want to drive out from downtown.”
“Makes sense,” Andi paused midway up the stairs, “Do you want anything from the office since I’m going that way anyway?”