The Chinese Fortune Cookie Caper

The Chinese Fortune Cookie Caper

My mother had two rules when eating out; use basic table manners and never leave through the bathroom window. In her words not only is it rude, but also cowardly. However, my Aunt Zinnia told me that mom got stuck in the bathroom window at The Chinese Fly while ditching Johnny Altman and firemen had to come rescue her. Either way, I’ve never been tempted to take the bathroom window. The back door works fine for me.

At Mandarin and Mystery Dinner Theater, in the old waterfront section of Portland, Maine, there are no windows in the bathrooms, but Jackie’s and my dates disappeared out the front door behind the woman dressed like a dog without even noticing that Jackie and I weren’t behind them . I’m sure they just wanted to get the jump on the mystery, but they could have waited another two minutes. Everyone gets the same fortune in their cookie at Mandarin and Mystery. Today it was Follow the Little Black Dog; so when dog girl ran through the restaurant, shortly after everyone had finished their meal pandemonium ensued as patrons donned their jackets and followed her out into the street. Including our dates, no window needed.

Jackie grabbed her sweater and purse, hurrying to catch up with our guys. I jumped up and turned to snatch my purse off the ground. Behind me, standing in the doorway to the kitchen was a small black pug. He stared at me and barked once.

“Hey Jackie! Look!”

Jackie looked my way. “What’s up, Frankie?”

“Look,” I said, pointing. As if on cue, the pug turned and hurried through the kitchen door. I grabbed Jackie by the arm and followed the dog. He trotted through the kitchen and pushed out through the screen door. I ignored the startled cook standing with his spatula in a pan of sizzling noodles and dragged Jackie out the back.

“Is that your dog?” The Chef followed us into the alley. “No dogs in restaurants!”

“Not ours. Come on Jackie!”

The chef followed us as we trotted after the waddling dog down the alley dodging trash cans and dumpsters. The dog stopped at a puddle, looked back at us and barked once. I began to wonder if there were two mysteries being played out, because two black dogs couldn’t be a coincidence¸ could they?

“If I ditched my date and missed the mystery part of Mystery Theater because you decided to follow a demented pug to a puddle in an alley I’m going to be mighty unhappy,” Jackie said.

I was already unhappy, the puddle looked mighty suspicious and a glance upward confirmed my fears. A bloody hand, nails painted the color of the dripping blood, hung out of the oversized dumpster, the source of the puddle. The little dog backed up a couple of steps, sat and barked at the arm.

“Do you see what I’m seeing?” I asked Jackie as the Chinese chef arrived next to Jackie, panting.

“Yeah, and I don’t want to be. I suppose it’s too late to forget I saw this and go join the others. Wait! Maybe this is part of Mystery Theater and we just got here sooner than anyone else.”

“I wish. You’re going to have to give me a leg up so I can see in that dumpster.”

“What? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“What if she’s still alive? What if waiting for the police would mean life or death?”

“No one who bleeds like that will be alive for long.” The Chef toed the edge of the puddle.

“Oh Lord,” Jackie let out a little moan.

“Listen, it could be worse. You can be thankful I’m not big enough to boost you up. At least you don’t have to figure out if she’s alive.”

Jackie turned pale and I worried she was going to pass out on me. But she took some deep breaths, rallied, and offered her hands for my foot. I stepped up and grabbed the edge of the dumpster pulling myself over the rim. The smell of rotting vegetables made me gag. I steadied myself and looked down, realizing if I really wanted to know if the woman was alive I was going to have to drop into the dumpster. She was hanging by her arm, head limp. I couldn’t see much else in the dim light of the evening.

I pulled myself up to perch on the edge of the dumpster trying to ignore the garbage stink.

“Frankie, what are you doing?”

“Call the cops, Jack. I’m going in.”

“Frankie, I don’t think…”

But I’d already swung my legs over and landed on my ass in a pile of fried rice and sweet and sour sauce. I could hear Jackie on the phone as I surveyed the situation. The woman’s black raincoat had gotten snagged on a tear in the metal in such a way that it only looked as if she was hanging by the arm hanging over the edge of the dumpster. I touched her gingerly, brushing back her limp red hair, avoiding the blood which seemed to be everywhere. I jumped when she groaned. “Jackie! Tell them she’s still alive.”

I heard her utter “Oh thank God,” and return to her conversation with dispatch.

“Help’s coming,” I said. “You’ll be okay.” In reality I thought she could die at any moment. There was so much blood I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, it was everywhere.  I don’t usually mind being a five foot nothing light-weight, but I hated that I couldn’t get her down. I just didn’t have the height to lift her high enough to unsnag her clothes.

I pulled myself up back onto the edge but I still couldn’t see a way to get her unstuck. I glanced down at Jackie, but she was sitting on the ground with her head between her knees, phone to her ear, with the pug sniffing her bag. Not much help to be had from either of them. I was debating with myself over the benefits of panicking and ripping the sleeve off the woman’s jacket or staying calm and trying to figure the problem out with physics when I heard sirens. A moment later three cop cars came down the alley followed by an ambulance.

There was a lot of door slamming and yelling and then a couple of the cops hauled me out of the dumpster while the paramedics detached the injured woman and carefully strapped her to their backboard. She was in the ambulance and out of the alley before I’d gotten my bearings. Jackie and the Chef were both in deep conversation with their own individual officers. I was brushing bits of grossness off myself while trying to answer the cops’ questions coherently when I noticed the pug had my bag.

“Hey,” I said, reaching out to snag either my bag or the dog. He grabbed hold of the strap and backed away. I tried again with the same result so I made a serious lunge for my purse. At the same moment my cop dived for the dog and collided with me. We both ended up on the ground, while the little beast to turn and tear down the alley full speed, dragging my purse with him. I yelled, “Stop you little thief! My money’s in that bag!” got up and tore after him.

Jackie yelled, “Wait!” and I heard her start after me and then a whole bunch of footsteps joined the chase.

Had anyone asked me, I would have said I could easily outrun a dog whose legs were less than six inches long. I would have been wrong. His little legs pumped furiously as he headed right down a dodgy- looking side street. I rounded the corner ten seconds later. Jackie chugged along five seconds behind me with the Chef and two cops shouting and swearing behind her.

We headed for the docks. I could smell the ocean and see a ship berthed at the pier. My purse slid through the detritus of the streets, picking up grease stains and gum, mud and grease. I’d never be able to use it again. Damn it, I liked that purse. The pug reached the end of the street and darted left down a deserted road that ran parallel to the waterfront.

I jogged kitty-corner across the street trying to shorten the distance between us, realizing that I no longer heard footsteps behind me. I turned, but I was too far along to see up the street I’d come down, and when I turned back around the dog had disappeared, my purse with him. I slowed to a walk, scanning for signs of my purse. I thought I saw movement down a long  pier and I jogged into the shadow between two cargo ships.

About midway down I stopped. I couldn’t see any movement among the pallets and crates waiting to be loaded onto ships. Lights along the pier started to illuminate, but they weren’t very bright and the effect was spooky. I turned toward the street but there wasn’t any sign of Jackie, the chef, or the officers. I thought about abandoning my purse, but I imagined  the line to replace my license and the phone calls to the bank and credit card companies. I mentally cataloged the additional contents, my mp3 player and the silk scarf my late grandmother wore. Damn it. I didn’t want to lose that.

I kept on, thinking a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt, walking in the middle of the pier and staying as far away from the shadows surrounding the cargo as I could. A quiet scuffling drew me reluctantly toward the far side of one of the stacks. I had visions of rats. I looked around for something to protect myself but the best I could come up with was a short piece of rope. I sneaked around the crates, caught sight of dog butt sticking out of my bag. The pug was head first in my purse rooting around. Who knows what he thought he might find.

Jackie shouted from the head of the pier as I crept up behind the little thief and was leaning down to seize him when I was grabbed from behind. I fought the good fight, kicking at my captor’s legs and making as much noise as I could with a hand across my mouth. I lost a shoe and my rope as I was dragged backwards up a gangplank and along the deck of a cargo ship. I saw Jackie rushing my way and I cried out, but the hulk dragged me med deck, out of sight.

He dropped me face first into the hold but I turned my head as I fell and saw Jackie, the chef, and the two cops heading toward us before I dropped below deck. I’d barely reviewed the earliest days of my life before I bounced in a net stretched across opening of the hold. Huh? No point in reviewing my life now, it looked like I was going to live.

Before I could say Jack Robinson,  a host of bodies rained down into the net. There was a lot of swearing and flailing so I took advantage of the chaos. I grabbed the net, pulled myself onto my stomach, crawling for the edge of the net. My shoeless foot became an asset, although the rope cut into my skin, so I dropped the other shoe off my foot. It fell through the net resulting in a thud and a mild oath as it made contact with someone below.

I peered between the ropes, but the dim light didn’t penetrate down into the bottom of the hold. The sky was light enough, however, for whoever was down there to see me pretty clearly, which gave me the creeps. I worried about the possibilities of guns and moved faster, ignoring the bite of the rope into my hands and feet. When I  reached the edge of the net my hand missed the rope and I fell forward,  landing with my head dangling and the rope cutting into my shoulder.  I pulled myself back to safety and headed for a corner, figuring that the net had to be attached somewhere.

I felt the net moving and looked back to see my companions thrashing around like turtles on their backs. I made the corner finding the pulley and cable that held the net taut. The trouble was that for about ten feet the only route across the space between the net and the deck was a single cable that ran through the pulley and back to the deck with a six-inch gap where it doubled back on itself. I considered my options. I didn’t have the upper body strength to hand-over-hand it, which meant either hanging and inching along, inching along while trying to stay on top of the wire, or tight wiring it across. The idea of hanging gave me the willies, and trying to crawl across wasn’t much better. I thought my best bet was to walk the wire.

I gingerly pulled myself to the very corner of the net and stood, balancing myself and stepping onto the pulley.  I held my breath and stepped out onto the wire just about the same time as I heard a ruckus. One of the officers was trying to apprehend the thug who’d dropped me into the net. At the same time, Jackie’s silhouette popped up as she struggled to move across the net.

“Jackie! Over here!” I stepped out onto the double cable, angling my foot so that it spanned the six inch gap between cables, my heel on one side, the ball of my foot on the other. I balanced and placed my second foot, then in a kind of crablike shuffle, my eyes on the prize – the deck on the far side of the gap – I started across.

The cable was pretty stable. It was thick and steady and it wasn’t much worse than crossing a narrow, okay a very narrow plank. I was almost half way across when I heard a squeak and a grunt from the other side of the net and the cables moved. I thought I could keep my balance but the bounce caught me by surprise and I fell. “Shit,” I muttered, which was totally inadequate as I thought I was probably going to die, but almost as soon as I cleared the net and cable I landed on a big pile covered in a tarp. I slid a few feet and stopped, feeling my bruises.


“Jackie! I’m down here.”

“The Cops, the Chef and I were following you, but then the cook from the Chinese restaurant got into an argument with one of the cops and we had to break that up.”

“What were they fighting about?”

“Which way to go.”




“I don’t think this is part of the Mandarin and Mystery Dinner Theater.”

“No shit, Sherlock.” There was a rustling down below and I remembered my fear of being shot. I climbed gingerly back to the top of the pile. “Are you hurt?” I asked.

“No. Are you?”

“No. But I dropped my shoe on someone down in the hold. Can you crawl toward my voice?”

The problem was that Jackie wasn’t the only one crawling toward my voice. I listened to Jackie make her way across the net with small grunts, while trying to hear noise from below. I felt the mound of stuff I’d landed on and I figured I was on a pile of something rocky covered in a tarp. Coal maybe, or crushed stone. When Jackie reached the net above me she reached down and dragged me up next to her. Sometimes being tiny has advantages.

“Jackie, do you think you can get to the deck?”

“Frank, I think you should hang from the cable like a monkey and go hand over fist. Then maybe you could find a plank or something to slide over to me.

“Why me? You crawl across.”

“You’ve got a better chance of getting across in one piece.”

“I wish we had a flashlight. Maybe it would be easier to climb into the hold.”

“I have a flashlight,” said a deep voice from behind us.

We each jumped about a mile. We hadn’t noticed the Chef come up behind us. He shined the light down into the abyss of the hold and it was clear that the thing to do would be to climb back down onto the pile and scoot around to where there was a ladder on the side of the hold. We lowered ourselves over the net and down onto the pile of whatever it was, edging around toward the wall of the hold.

The sound of movement and the words “Hey, wait for me!” came from below us.

The chef turned his flashlight onto the figure of a little brown faced man making his way up toward us.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the gardener.”

Where were all these people coming from?



“What are you doing here?” the Chef asked.

“They are taking me to the garden.”

“Whatever.” I said. “We have to get going. Keep up.”

We climbed the ladder, hand over hand. I got to be first. I peeked over the edge of  the deck, expecting to be ambushed as I came off the ladder, but no one was there. I take that back. No humans were waiting for me, the pug, however, stood in a pool of light cast by the fixture lighting the steps to the next deck up. I started toward him slowly, but my efforts not to spook him were in vain. The moment I moved he pulled my purse toward the back of the ship as fast as his stubby little legs would take him.

I chased him down and cornered him at the back railing, crouching low to catch the little bugger when he tried to rush past me. The parade of people following us along the ship rail must have rattled him because he got my bag in a death grip between his teeth and turned, hurling himself from the deck. My first instinct was to rescue him, which I questioned for the four seconds it took for me to reach the railing and throw myself over it.

The water, when I hit it, was freezing cold. I spotted the pug, my purse still in his mouth, struggling toward the pier. I started toward him as the water around me erupted. I ignored the cries of “shit” and “cold!” as my companions dropped into the water after me. I struck out toward the dog and my waterlogged purse. I reached the dog and grabbed the purse.

“Damn it! Let go of my purse!” My purse was floating, I had a couple of empty plastic bottles in the bottom waiting be recycled. The dog was trying to climb onto the body of my purse without letting go of the strap. It would have been comical if we hadn’t been in fifty degree water. I tugged him towards the pier where I boosted him onto a small wooden jetty at the bottom of a ladder set into the concrete leading to the wharf high above. He still didn’t let go, instead he hunched backward trying to pull the bag from me.

“Damn, you are stubborn.” I tried to keep hold of the bag as I dragged myself out of the water, but it was next to impossible for me to pull my water-logged body onto the planks. Thinking he wouldn’t be able to get up the ladder I dropped the strap and dug into the wood with my frozen fingers. I managed to get a leg up and heave myself out of the water.

I lay there for a moment, catching my breath.

“Frankie! Get out of the way. You’re not the only one that wants out of the water here.” Jackie poked at me from the water and behind her were the others all clamoring at me to get out of the way. I pulled myself onto my knees and gave Jackie my hand. Jackie weighs a lot more than me, not that that’s difficult – just about everyone weighs more than I do, so I had to brace my feet and lean way back to be any help at all. One of the men shoved her up from behind and she plopped down next to me.

The little jetty was going to get crowded fast, so I looked around for my purse and saw the dog under the arm of a man climbing quickly up the ladder to the pier, my purse hanging from his other arm.

“Come back!” I started up the ladder after them with Jackie hot on my heels. My clothes tugged at me and my hands were barely functioning. When I gained the pier I set off after the guy getting away with my purse on one arm and the dog tucked under the other. I dumped my soggy jacket after about ten feet and sped up a little, gaining on the jerk who had my purse. The cops, who were apparently smarter than the rest of us, hadn’t jumped into the water. They were running toward us. The crook must have noticed because he stopped dead, feet splayed like a cat on roller skates, head swiveling as he looked for a way to go.

But he didn’t go anywhere because I ran smack into him, hitting the backs of his knees and knocked him over. I think Jackie was the one who knocked me over, but I wasn’t really sure because the Chef, the Gardner ended up in the pile with us.

The cops loaded us all into a van and dragged us to lockup. Well, not really the lockup, more accurately the hall outside the booking room. When I pointed out I hadn’t done anything wrong I was told “fleeing from the scene” didn’t look good and I was handcuffed to a bench with the rest of them, dripping puddles on the floor. That’s when I saw the woman from the dumpster. She came down the hall with a lawyer. They stopped next to the purse snatcher and started a whispered conversation. I looked around, but as luck would have it, there were no cops in sight.

“Hey! Hey! I need to use the bathroom!” I looked at Jackie, handcuffed to a bench across the hall from me and stabbed my head toward the woman until I looked like a bobble head doll with a tick. Her eyes grew big and she joined in the bathroom chant with me.

It seemed like forever before a cop stuck his head around the corner.

“Shut up down there!”

“Come here! We need you.” I did my bobble head impression again. He had the exact same look on his face that Jackie had when she recognized the woman from the dumpster. He ducked back around the corner and a moment later he came back with back-up. The woman looked up, swore, and started in the opposite direction. The lawyer started after her, but the first cop was no dummy and two more cops intercepted her from the other end.

I thought for sure they’d release us after I pointed out the poser, but they didn’t. They did however let me go to the bathroom where I looked at the windows and wondered if I could squeeze between the bars. I am pretty tiny after all. Although, as Jackie pointed out, they probably didn’t even open. If I had been able to go out the window I would have missed the whole debacle in the hallway where dumpster woman claimed she didn’t know the guy with the dog, even though she came in with his lawyer, and he claimed she was his girlfriend and the one who trained the dog to steal purses. After that there was so much foul language I had to hold my hands to my face in amazement. It was very exciting.

The Portuguese Gardener and his pile of topsoil got delivered to the Museum of Horticulture where he created a very nice exhibit. The Chef, who’d seen the dog being trained and been suspicious from the beginning, went back to his noodles. And in case you are worrying about the diners who might have been left without a chef – on Mandarin and Mystery night there’s only one seating and it ends when the mystery begins.

Jackie and I missed the mystery, but three good things did come of the evening. First, I got my purse back (eventually), and while it wasn’t ever the same again, I got a lot of mileage out of the story of why it looked like it had been dragged behind a car. Second, after the trial I got to keep Percy the Pug. It seems they don’t let you take dogs to the big house with you, and I was the only one willing to take on the reformation of a Klepto-pug. Third, our dates from Mandarin and Mystery — you remember, the guys who didn’t bother to make sure we had joined the group? — the newspaper article made such a big deal of their inattentiveness that it will be a while before they’ll be dating again.


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