The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

My kungfu teacher, Sit, gave me the idea for this. Only a sample of the whole. I still think I might sell this one, if I can find a market.

Death by Feng Shui

by Holly Messinger

April 2008
all rights reserved

Tom Barrett stood before the half-body mirror beside his tie rack, chin lifted as he secured the collar button. "You've got your feng shui class tonight," he said to Jen, not questioning. He no longer asked about her schedule, he only made statements about where she would go and what she would do, as if his will made it so.

"Yes," Jen said, watching him in her dressing-table mirror. Her back was to him, his to her; they saw each other only in reflections. His was tall, American brawn and rough-hewn despite the three-hundred dollar haircut and Wall Street manicure. Her own reflection was small, slim, pale---his China doll, he said when he got a little drunk, and his friends concealed their winces.

"So you'll be out this evening. I'll have dinner in town and stay at the office late." He looped his tie around, pushed it through, pulled it snug. It was the gray silk, the one his secretary had given him for Christmas. Even though he'd repeatedly sneered at Versace as the designer of street-thugs.

"I won't be very late," she said. "I could meet you at the office and we can come home together."

"No. I have to call Hong Kong tonight." He turned, bent to kiss her cheek, his hand gripping her upper arm possessively. "Don't worry, I won't try to speak Cantonese."


There were twelve women in Gerald Wong's White Wing Feng Shui seminar, and Jen Barrett was the only non-white among them. However in all other respects she was one of them---wives of stockbrokers and investment bankers: chairwomen of charity fundraisers, CEO's of high-powered households. They wore the same designers, drove similar cars, and patronized the same decorators. Their husbands belonged to the same clubs, where presumably they all took their secretaries while their wives were all in the same feng shui seminar.

Jen wondered when exactly she'd crossed the line into cliché. It was a badge of honor, she supposed, that she was American enough, integrated enough into Tom's nouveau-riche world, to see herself as a cliché. Her parents would be so proud.

Being ever-sensitive to her own status in the eyes of others, she was quick to notice that the other seminar-attendees afforded her a certain measure of respect, equal parts admiration and resentment, because they were dabbling in a cultural superstition not their own. Some of them might have guessed that she knew no more about feng shui than they did, but they couldn't be sure and they were too sophisticated to risk giving offense.

Jen remembered some rules of feng shui from her childhood, but they were elemental things like avoiding sharp corners and not putting black in the kitchen. This mathematical business with the pa'qua and the five elements was just silly, as far as she could tell. Moving the beds away from windows made sense, it kept the drafts out, but who really supposed it made a difference if the head of the household slept in the northwest or the southwest bedroom, whether his bedstead was made of metal or wood?

Still, tabulating star charts was not much of a challenge to a woman with a PhD in theoretical math. She was finished long before anyone else, and began helping the women at her table, and they cooed and aaahhed and exclaimed at how clever she was. Had she taken this class before? they asked, because they were too politically correct to ask Did you learn this from your parents?

Jen just smiled. She'd learned long ago that people interpreted her reticence---her mother called it sullenness---as Asian mystique. She knew that was one of the things that had attracted Tom to her, that air of graciousness and demure restraint. He didn't want a wife whose conversation was likely to interrupt his own monologues.

"You finished?"

Jen was jarred out of her thoughts by a light touch on her shoulder and the only masculine voice in the room. Gerald Wong bent over her shoulder, fingertips landing on her workbook and drawing it closer. The other woman at her table fell quiet, watching in commingled speculation and envy. Jen had read surveys that claimed American women were not attracted to Asian men, but you could smell the lust in one of Gerald Wong's seminars, and it wasn't just Chanel No. 5.

"This looks good," he said. His voice was dark honey, with just a hint of clipping on the consonants. He'd learned English from a British elocution teacher, he'd told them once, but the Chinese phrases that rolled off his tongue had the velvet rasp of a tiger's purr.

Gerald Wong had also heard the theory that American women weren't interested in Asian men---he'd been told that once by the development producer of the local cable network that was considering giving him a show---and it was one reason he hadn't fucked a woman of his own race in five years.

The other reason was because he didn't get many Chinese in his seminars. "Empty," they said about his style. "Too simplistic. No respect for tradition. Corrupted for Western students."

But the Americans loved him. He was introspective enough to find this ironic; all his adult life he'd been drawn to American culture---its disregard for convention, its conspicuous consumption, its disposable trendiness---but however much he'd tried to be an American, he had never felt fully accepted by Americans until he started teaching feng shui. And even then, his reputation hadn't taken off until he started wearing Mandarin jackets and speaking in vaguely mystical aphorisms. Part of him knew his success was another fad, but he meant to ride it as far as it would take him.

In the meantime, his twice-weekly classes had six-month waiting lists, he had three bestselling videos and their accompanying workbooks in print, and his seminars filled up as fast as his publicist could book them. Filled up with women, naturally---mostly white, although there were a few African-Americans (a stupid, meaningless term his publicist had made him adopt). Generally they were married women, from white-collar households, but occasionally there were some well-off college students, or the rare single professional woman who had enough time to take a class. That type invariably wanted to strengthen the Love and Marriage corner of her apartment.

Gerald was always happy to give in-home consultations.

Jen Barrett was the first Chinese he'd had in his classes since---well, it had been quite a while---and he couldn't decide if he was fascinated or contemptuous. Her English was flawless, but the cadence of her speech was Cantonese, left over from childhood. Her husband was an architectural developer (Gerald's secretary ran background checks on all his new students ever since that incident in Kansas) and she had a doctorate in math. Typical traditional Chinese daughter's degree. Typical traditional Chinese daughter's retiring demeanor, soft voice and downturned gaze. Gerald marveled; he hadn't thought there were any traditional Chinese daughters left in America.

After a few classes, however, he began to suspect that her reticence wasn't shyness or culturally imposed self-restraint. It was depression. Everything about the woman broadcast unhappiness, from her melancholy far-gazing during his presentations, to her sardonic glances at the other women as they were fawning over him, to her barely concealed scorn whenever he gave his customary glance-over of her person. He'd perfected the technique, knew just where to rest his eyes, and how long, to make it flattering instead of sleazy. He considered it part of the enrollment price, what his clients were paying for.

Jen Barrett was not even interested. And that interested him.

"I see you are the Year of the Monkey," Gerald said, looking at her pa'qua chart. "And your husband is a Cock?"

There was a smothered giggle from the blond at Mrs. Barrett's left, and Gerald gave her a warm smile, pretending he didn't understand the double entendre. Mrs. Barrett ignored it as well, but the corners of her mouth tightened. "I know," she said. "My mother said we were incompatible. What's worse is he's a wood sign and I'm fire."

"Ah, that can be a combustible combination," Gerald said lightly. "But that passion can fuel a relationship, each can challenge the other. Still, it is best to temper the difference with balancing energy. The biggest challenge is to slow the flow of chi in the home, to make sure outside yin does not intrude and allow the husband's yang to drain away."

Jen Barrett looked directly at him, and her eyes were deep and black, open to the pits of her soul. For just a second.

Bingo, he thought.

Then she looked down. "So I'd need to deflect the flow from this bedroom door to the foyer. Maybe put a fishtank here?"

"That's one way, but there are other methods that won't clutter your floorplan so much. I'd be happy to schedule a home consultation," he offered, and the pent-up breath of the women around the table escaped in a sigh of envy.


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