Joanna wandered Chinatown, trying to blend into the chaotic crush of shoppers milling at each storefront and street vendor’s stall. Sherry, a young investigator who’d worked for Jo’s law firm for the past six months and her partner on this excursion, angled around the late morning crowd. An unusually warm November wind blew, and Jo dragged a few stray strands of her wig from her face and tucked them behind her ear.
Across the street, a gaggle of middle-aged females and what appeared to be their teenaged daughters, made their way through the throng of shoppers. Tourists maybe. Their leader, a young Asian woman, glanced over both shoulders, then scanned the area around her. When her gaze swept in Jo’s direction, Jo turned her head, pretending to gawk at a near-miss pedestrian smackdown.
After a moment, she checked the group leader’s progress and found the troop moving along at a good clip. Jo latched onto Sherry’s elbow and tugged. “Let’s go.”
Against the red light, the two women darted into traffic and nearly got flattened by an irate taxi driver. Sherry flipped the cabbie off. With much enthusiasm, he returned the gesture and offered a stream of inaudible words.
Life in New York.
“What is it?” Sherry asked when they reached the relative safety of the sidewalk. Jo jerked her chin. After a moment of analyzing the crowd, Sherry nodded. “Gotcha.”
The line of women marched into a clothing store on the corner and just before the last person entered the shop, Jo and Sherry quietly took up the rear. Inside, the smell of dank stifled air indicated the only breeze in the place came from the door opening and closing. They needed to open some windows.
Jo held her breath for a second while the group wound through circular racks stuffed with cheap T-shirts of every color imaginable. They reached the back of the store and everyone dutifully followed the leader to a second doorway. The young girls in front of Jo giggled.
Oh, please. For what seemed like the ten-thousandth time, Jo wondered if the older women—the mothers presumably—had hesitated, for only the briefest moment, to ponder the potentially dangerous situation they could be exposing these girls to. Even she, a ballsy attorney who took undeniable risks, never came to Tower Street without an escort.
At the bottom of the staircase, the group leader opened an unmarked door and everyone piled in. A sudden round of oohs and ahs filtered to the back of the line as each person entered. Soon enough, Jo and Sherry squeezed into a narrow room where floor to ceiling shelves on three walls were stuffed with high-end purses, shoes, sunglasses—you name it. A veritable bounty of accessories.
The leader shut the door behind them as customers pointed and perused the merchandise.
The back of Jo’s neck warmed as she scanned the names on the items. Gucci, Fendi, Coach—and yes—Barelli. Winner.
A teenager ogled a so-called Gucci. “Is this stuff the real thing?”
“Yes,” the Asian woman answered, her English clear, but obviously not her native language.
A real knock-off. What were these women thinking? If this stuff was authentic, it would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and wouldn’t be in a stuffy, smelly storage room in the basement of a clothing store. Nope, the proprietors would have security devices stashed on the handles and in the pockets.
And Jo wouldn’t be here trying to scrape together information about the smuggler bringing these fake goods—particularly those with her client’s name on them—into the city. Once again, she surveyed the room and catalogued the different brands. For now, she focused on the Barelli handbags.
Time to go to work.