As you read from Max, things got a little heated between us a week ago; one of the things I really didn't think about with the Inn, at least for me, since I've turned into single adults both times, is that it reduces family drama a whole ton. I miss Max and my parents, but I'm a little glad not to have certain obligations, or them looking disappointed at me, or all the times Max made fun of my weight as a punk kid. So not seeing them doesn't make me happy, but there's also things I don't miss, and when you drop into a new life with a clean slate, you don't automatically pick up someone else's issues to compensate. Like, I didn't know what Yuan-wei's issues with Chen-ai were, but what-the-fuck-ever, I didn't need to make them mine. Net drama level, lower, even if I missed people.
So, fighting with him kind of sucked, and sucked more because I'd forgotten what it was like to fight with him for real, not just argue like we have been ever since he got turned into Elaine #3. And maybe we would have kept fighting if Annette hadn't been there to meet us at the train station, but she was, hugging us both and saying she'd already scouted the Inn, and it was pretty much empty, which was to be expected since Brittany had posted on Monday. It would have been tough to get hints about what I had in store for me anyway, as Room 7 is hard to see into from either the street or the beach.
She was looking kind of furtive as we walked down the street toward the condo I'd found on AirBNB, saying that it had been fun to not really flirt but still talk to Benny's cousin like they were old friends when she bumped into him on the street earlier that day, and boy, did guys start assuming that meant she wanted to fuck. She asked if college guys were like that, and I had to tell her that, from relatively recent experience in both sides, they were worse. She groaned about how she was not ready to jump right into her senior year like she knew what she was doing, either academically or as a girl who isn't even old enough to drink.
The subject changed when we got to the condo I'd rented - "only" two bedrooms but furnished and nice, right near the beach. If I was going to lose Yuan-wei's trust fund in a matter of days, I figured I'd better get some use out of it until then. Annette said that if this were a movie, that would be the signal to start a shopping montage, so we took a cab into Portland and did some of that. I may not have had much reason to do it for myself, but Annette was into getting some new outfits, and even Max admitted that he might as well stock up, because he didn't know when he'd be working.
It was 80 degrees on Wednesday, so I declared a beach day, and Annette agreed, leaving Max out-voted. Annette was a bit nervous about her swimsuit, but she looked super-cute, and the two of us even managed to cajole Max into one, saying that we should have one day as sexy girls together. I'd sneaked a red one into a shipping bag the day before, and as he was changing, I told him through the door that it wasn't a big deal - I'd seen him wearing a Speedo at the beach before, so I knew it wasn't the near-nakedness, it was just feeling the bra part do its work, a constant reminder that you've got tits and dudes are judging you based upon them.
Max reeked of fear more than I did as Deirdre at his 9-man tournament, and you could see it until Annette got the idea to give him dark shades, and then, daaaaaaamn! He kind of looked badass even before he realized he looked badass, and I think he finally realized that this could be like a Halloween costume, that you can be yourself and this other thing, and maybe use that other thing to bring part of yourself out.
Anyway, we had fun on the beach, played some volleyball, ate some pizza at lunchtime and fish and chips for dinner. I actually ate a fucking lot that day, because while I've been pretty lucky to have a good metabolism as Yuan-wei, it's not like I can just shove as much down my throat as I used to and keep it up. The good news is that, between vanity and changed taste buds, I like grilled fish and vegetarian meals way more than I used to; the bad news is that is not quite enough. I don't have to actually go out and run to keep fat from selling in the wrong part of my ass just yet, but I kind of figured it would serve Carlotta right if she had a few pounds to work off.
Shit, I spent a few minutes in from of a barbershop, thinking about going in and having them cut it all off, but Max said they'd probably take it out on him. Wasn't terribly impressed with my idea of getting my hair dyed blue to see whether Carlotta got stuck with it or if the chemicals stayed on my head, either.
Day had to end, though you couldn't tell my brain that; I was up until 4am dicking around on the Internet, trying to finish a book, and other shit until I finally passed out when the sunrise made a mockery of my apparent attempt to keep the next day from coming by not sleeping.
It did, though, even if Max and Annette let me sleep until noon. I didn't spend long writing a letter to go in my luggage - "Fuck you and your sister" seemed to cover it - but still put everything together and started dragging it down the street. Picked up the key and coupon packet, and felt kind of jelly-legged as I got to the door of the Trading Post, glad Max and Annette were along for support. We navigated or way to Room 8 and felt pretty fucking stupid praising before we opened the door, as we all knew from experience that there'd be nothing in there but a cheap-ass hotel room.
Wrong again. Yang Chen-ai was seated on the edge of the bed, wearing an elegant traditional Chinese dress, legs crossed, a tablet right next to her. I dropped the handle to my suitcase out of shock.
She looked at Max and Annette in turn. "Ladies, I ask you - is it proper for a girl to go her entire summer break, her last one before graduating University even, without visiting her lonely widowed mother even once?" Getting no response, she walked up to me, making me look up because she was wearing four-inch heels and I had sneakers. "And you, you ungrateful daughter! Did you never learn to talk to your mother when someone is bullying you?"
It would take Max and me a few minutes to figure out how to respond, but Annette's needs were simpler. "Guys, what is going on?"
Chen-ai turned to Annette and smiled in a less sarcastic fashion, switching to English. "Still don't speak Cantonese, eh? Well, I don't blame you - Mandarin is the language of the twenty-first century, isn't it?" She walked back toward the bed, picked up the tablet, and then turned around. "That's what Carlotta was counting on, you know - that either Annette or Benjamin would wind up as Yuan-wei, and then by either staying in America despite the police wanting to speak to her or being unable to answer a simple question once she arrived back home, she would look guilty enough for the admittedly circumstantial evidence linking her to my husband's death to look damming. They certainly didn't plan on the likes of Jordan Chang being able to come to Hong Kong and pass as Yuan-wei well enough to avoid suspicion, no matter how many anonymous tips they sent to the HKPD."
My mouth went dry. "How did you know?"
The smile want friendly any more. "Sweetie, haven't you figured it out? If you're one in a million, it's almost unfathomable that two felons from the streets of New York's Chinatown would just happen to show up directly after a couple of teenagers from Hong Kong unless someone arranged it. I arranged it."
Max was the first one to react, stepping out in front of me and seemingly ready to attack Chen-ai before Annette and I grabbed him. "You did this to your own daughter? What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"Well, that's the question, isn't it? I came to the Trading Post Inn in the summer of 1994, twenty-three years old and looking to paint lighthouses for a couple of weeks. Well, you know how that goes; I wind up in Harlem, of all places. My English isn't great, but I kind of think it might be good for me to be American for a year - you guys are all too young to remember what Hong Kong was like before the handover, but a lot of people were looking for a way out, scared. I almost think it's fate, even, because the next year, the new Yang Chen-ai says she's having visa problems, but we book things for the next spring.
"That's when I find out I have a daughter, eight months old, who has no idea that I'm not her mother, no instinct saying she should be with someone else.
"I'm not asking for your sympathy here. The rest of my life is good - Siu-wong has built the business, started cultivating contacts with the mainland, and don't get me wrong, if Yuan-wei was someone else's kid, I'd think she's delightful. But I didn't have nine months to get used to the idea, I didn't like how she was first in my husband's heart, and when Siu-wong updated his will to make her his primary beneficiary, saying it's just good estate planning, right around the time she announces that she wants to study in America, and I find out that Carlotta Wong has just gotten out of prison...
"Well, I suppose I should tell you about the Wongs, first. Not that there's really a lot to tell - Chinese-American father, Italian-American mother, in trouble since they were kids, and they tended to make bigger bad decisions as they got older. Not many people liked them. But they hung out with the black girl who was more comfortable speaking Cantonese or Mandarin than English. They beat the bastard who got turned into that girl's husband half to death when he tried to rape her. I owe them as much as any of you owe each other. More, because they helped me without any understanding of why I was so strange. So when I saw a chance to give them a little of what I had, I took it. They did far more to earn a comfortable life than Yuan-wei or Bingbing ever did.
"So I truly regret that it had to come to this."
She activated the tablet, jumped to a video app, and handed it to me. Max and Annette drew in closer, and I hit play.
The image that appeared was the room we were in, lit by just the overhead light, but that was enough to see Max and Bingbing tied and cuffed to metal chairs, gags in their mouths, eyes wide open. "Max" was already on the floor, trying to make his way to the door, but a chain between the chairs ran under the bed. They were well and truly fucked, and then the change started happening.
It took a while - we had to fast-forward the recording - but when it was done, they were both Asian-American women about Chen-ai's age, but you could tell they'd lived harder lives. Carlotta -the one who had been Max - was able to wriggle out of the handcuffs and push the now-loose ropes around her off, pulling her gag out and yelling "Chen-ai You Bitch--!"
She stopped the recording and took her tablet back from me. "I should have seen it coming, of course. They were always up to no good, and it's easy to get along when you all have nothing, but when there's something to fight over? Things get ugly.
"I don't really hold a grudge against them. But this whole deal, with Max and you and everything, it probably ends with them trying to kill me and inherit everything, and my gratitude for what they did for me only extends so far."
The three of us had inconvenient pulled a little closer together as she told this story. I tried to stand up a little straighter, but my back want really feeling it. Annette asked what she wanted from us.
"From you? Not a thing. Study hard, stay in school, or don't." She turned slightly to face Max. "Same for you. I figure you'll want to get out of that body, and as you saw, Carlotta was right here--"
She pointed to a spot on the floor.
"--when she changed back. I suspect you'll want to use your brother's reservation and maybe either drag the bed to this side of the room or just plant a chair there every night. Unless you'd like to try being Bingbing for a while."
Max shook his head hard, and Chen-ai smiled before looking at me. "As for you, it's pretty simple. I want whatever I want, whenever I want it."
I swallowed. "That's... vague."
She shrugged. "Well, I'm not sure what the next few years might hold. I often thought that I would take over Yuan-wei's life right after she graduated from college, but I don't exactly feel old enough to stop being me yet. But maybe I get sick. Or maybe I just want you to invest your money a certain way - Siu-wong was right about paying it straight to his daughter rather than allowing it to be taxed twice if it passes through me, especially if my daughter will do what she's told. But let's start with this: Get out your phone and send Jacky a text message saying that the last couple weeks were fun, but it also made you realize that the long-distance thing will never work out."
I actually staggered a bit. "What? Why?"
"Because your mother knows what's best for you, and it's important that you understand that, and it's important that I know I can count on you." She walked over to the room's desk and opened up the designer bag that was laying there, taking out a phone and a piece of paper. "I can get the men who brought my friends to this room here very quickly. I don't want to - any damage they do to you will show up on the next Yuan-wei, and that's trouble I don't need, but I can probably figure out an explanation. And I've got this."
After gesturing with and replacing the phone, she held up the paper. It was heavy, with some gold leaf and embossing, and when I saw what was in bold letters on the top... "Holy shit!"
"It's not that impressive - just one piece of voting stock for 'Trading Post Inc.' I have more. Not nearly enough to be majority shareholder, but having this does bring some privileges, like getting bookings canceled and rearranged at short notice, or even a spare key to surprise your daughter, if you know who to ask." She changed how she was holding it, using her fingers on the corners to hold it flat. "Happy birthday, Yuan-wei."
Annette looked from me to her and back as I nervously took the other corners as Chen-ai let go. "Excuse me, what?"
Chen-ai looked at her, shifting to the outwardly-sweet smile. "Look at the last three years, girl. It does me no good to have a daughter actively plotting against me. And I like this Yuan-wei. She's smart in certain areas, but not hugely ambitious. She's practical. We can work together when need be, and I think we can ignore each other most of the rest of the time. And while it's important she remember that, while she may have gained her life by chance but has it now because I think she should, it's also important she find it rewarding.
"Now send that text, honey."
I nervously got out the phone. Max put his hand on my wrist. "Jordan, don't let her--"
I took the phone with my other hand and started sketching characters. "Better her than Carlotta and Giorgia. Besides, is not like I was going to fucking marry the first guy I seriously dated, and I'm probably going to be looking for visual effects jobs in Hollywood this time next year anyway. Think he's leaving Hong Kong and his family, even for a piece of ass this hot? Might as well get it fucking over with!" I held the phone up in front of Chen-ai. "Good enough?"
She nodded. "That will do." I brought the phone back down and tapped send. "Fuck you, 'mom'."
"I know you're upset now, but trust me, he would not have been right for you. You're destined for more." She placed her tablet in her purse and slung it over her shoulder. "Now, seeing as I'm not in this time zone very often, I think I should fly to Manhattan and do some shopping. I'd invite you along, but I'm sure you've got a fair amount of back-to-school things you suddenly find you have to do." She opened the door and waved. "Have a great year!"
Max interrupted. "Wait - there's still one thing you haven't said. Yuan-wei's father--" He couldn't actually say the words.
"It would hardly make sense for Carlotta killing him to be my plan, would it? Besides, despite his not realizing he was married to an impostor for two years, I never stopped caring for him any more than I stopped caring for Giorgia and Carlotta. Really, you shouldn't think too much about this. That all being a horrible accident makes the most sense."
She smiled and shut the door behind her.
We collapsed on the bed as soon as she was gone. Staring up at the ceiling, Annette asked if it was weird that she was really happy for us.
"Yeah," I said, "but it will be less weird with alcohol. Let's get out of this fucking place and let Max buy us some of the good stuff while he still won't get carded."
There was no argument there.