Cape Weathers just wanted to know what time it was before he died. It wasn't much of a prayer, but it was all he could manage on short notice.
Cape was on his back, looking up at the clock tower as the Russian tried to strangle him.
He could feel his larynx start to collapse as the gangster shifted his weight and tightened his grip, all three hundred pounds of him crushing the air from Cape's lungs.
Broken ribs stabbed as he tried to breathe. His vision started to fade and Cape knew he'd black out any minute. Then he'd be dead. But he could still see the clock tower jutting upward into the fog, and he couldn't help himself. He wanted to hear the bells ring one last time.
He also wanted to kill the son of a bitch that was strangling him, but Cape had learned to set realistic goals.
Cape managed to free his right arm and swung frantically, trying to get an angle on the giant's head. The Russian spat in his face and squeezed harder. Cape heard a wet cracking sound and figured he'd lost another rib. He fought the pain and kept punching, telling himself this would be over soon, one way or another.
An audible crunch and sudden pain in his throat, his attacker relaxing his grip as if Cape had just died.
Maybe he had.
Cape snapped his head back, away from the hands, banging the back of his skull against the pavement. White spots flashed as he watched the Russian's head flop to the side, eyes rolling back, the thick tongue drooling blood across Cape's chest.
The barbed tip of an arrow protruded through the Russian's neck, the wooden shaft slick with blood. It had struck the back of the neck and penetrated far enough for the tip to pierce Cape's throat a fraction of an inch. He held his breath and got his arms under the Russian, heaving the lifeless body across his own until he could sit up.
Cape felt his ribs and found most of them intact. The cracking noises had been arrows hitting their mark. Two more were just be low the shoulder blades, their feathered ends pointing back toward the tower. Cape followed their line of sight and saw a lone figure standing on the balustrade above the clock, dressed in ninja black with bow in hand. Even though he couldn't see a face, Cape knew who it was.
Then the fog swallowed the tower and the figure vanished just as the bells started to chime.
Cape smacked the alarm clock with his right hand and twisted himself awake. The sheets were soaked, his left arm pinned beneath his body, the cold air coming through his bedroom window making him shiver. Forcing himself to sit up, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, stood up, and walked naked to the bathroom.
He didn't turn on the light, but the morning gray was enough to show his reflection in the mirror. He noticed his sandy hair was damp as he leaned across the sink. Two blue-gray eyes stared back, the lines around them multiplying as he forced a smile. Yeah, still here and in one piece. He gingerly touched the narrow scar on his throat.
When a dream is really a memory, when does it fade away? The scar was almost a year old, but the dream still haunted his sleep.
Cape didn't mind the scar; it was better than the alternative. But he was really getting sick of that damn dream.
It was time to abandon ship.
The eternal twilight of the ship's hold gave no sense of time, but she guessed it was almost dawn. Almost twelve hours since the last meal, and the crew usually stuck to their schedule.
Almost two hundred men, women, and children were huddled together in the cargo hold of the decrepit freighter, their collective fear palpable. Twenty had died during the eight-week voyage from Hong Kong, their bodies thrown overboard by the crew. The lingering stench of sweat and fear hung like a fog in the stale air.
She sat perfectly still in one corner of the huge hold, close to her fellow passengers but not crowded. A couple of older Chinese men had recognized her--If not by name, then for what she was, and gave her a wide berth since the voyage began. The whispered rumors traveled fast that first day, and for the rest of the trip she kept to the shadows.
She looked at her fellow refugees, most sleeping fitfully, clutching the person next to them whether related or not. An old woman rolled over, causing a rat to scurry for another place to keep warm. A young boy retched against the steel hull only a few feet away. She looked away, not wanting her eyes to bring him more shame, wondering if he'd survive, sick with the knowledge there was nothing she could do for him.
An adolescent girl cried quietly in her mother's arms, the older woman's face an expressionless mask. The girl had been taken by the crew on a regular basis, then returned to her mother bruised and sobbing. She had probably been raped, as had many others. Sometimes they didn't return at all.
She put her right hand to her breast, feeling the weight of the package concealed under her ragged clothes. It seemed to have become heavier with each leg of the journey, but she knew that was exhaustion taking hold of her imagination. At least that's what she wanted to believe.
Shafts of sunlight thin as a spider's web broke through the cracks in the deck above. It was almost time. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and focused her energy, as she had been trained to do since she was a little girl.
Rusted steel beams roughly four feet apart ran along the walls of the hull, exposed ribs in the belly of the ship. Laying sideways, she pressed her open palms against the nearest beam, then set her feet firmly on the one below. She pushed and arched her body to match the curve of the hull.
Carefully, she moved her left arm two feet, followed by her left leg, all the while maintaining pressure to keep her off the deck. In agonizing increments, she scuttled across the beams, a massive black spider working her way to the center of the web. Fifteen minutes later, she was directly below the hatch, looking down at the huddled refugees. A few were awake and watching with a blend of fear and hope, but none were willing to meet her gaze. She tried to control her breathing. Pressing hard against the facing beams, she swung her left arm around, pivoting in the cramped space.
Staccato footsteps on the deck, followed by the rattle of chains as she heard the padlock on the hatch. She braced herself, arching to keep as much of her body in shadow as possible.
The hatch swung open with a harsh creak of hinges, pale sunlight blocked by the silhouette of a man. He blinked, squinting at the black square below his feet until his eyes adjusted.
The shadows moved. He felt something grab his right leg below the knee, yanking him down to the steel deck and knocking the wind out of him. He sat up, dazed and angry.
The deck was empty.
Maybe he'd tripped. He'd felt like shit all morning, drank too much last night. Just like every other night and every morning on this floating prison.
Clutching the edge of the hatch, he leaned forward cautiously, peering obliquely into the hold. The weak sunlight showed only refugees huddled together, sunken eyes staring at him anxiously from thirty feet below. Cursing and spitting, the crewman shook his head and began to stand up.
He never saw the hand that grabbed his collar, but he felt the force of the foot against his spine as it shoved him through the hatch. It happened so fast he didn't have time to yell. He plummeted through space, the refugees parting like the Red Sea, clearing the floor before he hit the deck with a sickening thud.
Long seconds ticked by as he lay there unmoving, then he groaned and raised his head. He tried to sit up and almost fainted, realizing too late that both his arms were broken. Twisting his head around, he looked at the men and women huddled nearby, an imploring look on his battered face.
The faces that looked back were no longer filled with fear--bright fires of hatred were lighting their eyes. As quickly as they had moved away, the ragged mob converged on the lone crewman. The hatch slammed shut just as he started to scream.
She heard a muffled cry and whirled around as a lone seagull cut across the bow of the ship. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the hatch, wondering if she'd heard the gull or a cry for help from the lone crewman.
I hope he isn't dead yet. Some deserve to see it coming.
She hoped her calculations were correct. They were due to arrive in San Francisco that morning, maybe even within the hour. The crew would be awake soon and start moving refugees into the empty containers on deck. A heavy fog wrapped around the ship like a blanket but she could just discern the ghostly outline of land.
The Golden Gate Bridge should be visible anytime now.
She stepped carefully across the deck to the starboard side. Glancing at the black water, she estimated the distance, wondering if the nylon rope around her waist was long enough. Stealing a lifeboat would make too much noise, so she had to stay hidden until they were almost at port. They would unload the containers filled with cargo like every other ship, leaving the refugees onboard until nightfall. Then they would turn the operation over to their Chinatown contacts while they got drunk in a local bar.
She thought of all the people trapped in the belly of the ship. Entire families who sacrificed everything just to escape their homeland, parents who sold themselves into slavery so they could give their children a chance they never had.
Her original plan was to leave no trace, hoping the crew would come to the conclusion that the guard had fallen to his death, knowing none of the refugees would expose her.
She thought of the girl crying and the look in the mother's eyes, the woman's expression not recriminating or even angry. Simply determined, devoid of fear. There was something in those eyes that neither the crew nor a daughter's suffering could take away.
She touched the package beneath her clothes and reminded herself why she was there, then cursed under her breath and shook her head at her own foolishness.
We cannot choose what fate will bring us, or when it will arrive.
Words from her childhood invaded her thoughts.
Death is an ally. Use him wisely.
She closed her eyes and sighed, then crept across the deck until she was directly below the wheelhouse. At this hour there would only be two men in the forward cabin, if that. The others should still be below decks. Reaching around with her right hand, she pulled a black anodized knife from behind her back, the tip of the blade angled sharply in the style of the Japanese tanto. Its weight against her spine had been a cold comfort during the long journey.
She heard voices a few feet away and realized there could be more than two men inside the cabin. She knew the number didn't really matter. If she had learned only one thing, it was that nothing was certain in this life, except death.
She tightened her grip on the knife and stepped through the cabin door.
“The snakes are poisonous, you know.”
The man behind the desk seemed calm as he spoke the words in Cantonese with practiced ease, his voice deep and resonant. His black hair shone dully in the subdued lighting of the office, slicked back from a high forehead that was smooth and unlined. The corners of his mouth curled into a smile as he talked. It was only his eyes that betrayed anger. They were utterly black, each pupil indistinct from the iris, two bottomless wells that threatened to swallow anyone who met his gaze. That was one of the reasons Chan did not look him in the eye.
The other reason was that Chan was hanging upside down, a heavy, braided cord wrapped around his right ankle. Directly beneath him a trap door had opened in the hardwood floor, revealing a hole roughly four feet square. In the dim light it was difficult for Chan to see the bottom of the shaft, but every few seconds something stirred in the darkness, the reflected light betraying sudden animal movement.
And if Chan ever doubted what lay beneath him, the sound made it all too clear. When the hatch opened, a reptilian susurrus flooded the room. To Chan it sounded like the rasp of silk sheets being dragged over a corpse, and in his mind’s eye he saw his own face revealed.
A heavyset man of around forty, he swung awkwardly above the opening. His hands opened and closed reflexively as he tried to stop turning in circles.
“You’re positive it’s missing?” The man’s voice was calm but insistent. The same question had been asked several times already this evening.
“The case was empty, lung tau,” Chan cried, his voice unnaturally high.
The man behind the desk did not acknowledge the title, lung tau.
He’d carried the appellation for so long, at times he forgot his real name.
“I see, the cabinet was empty,” he said pleasantly. “And who was guarding the room?”
Chan jerked frantically, trying to face his captor. “I was on guard,shan chu,” he said, trying to sound respectful. “But I swear—” He gasped abruptly as the rope lurched downward three feet.
Chan’s inquisitor took his finger off a button set into the wide teak desk. As he did, a figure standing in the shadows behind him leaned forward and spoke quickly in his ear. The second man faded into the shadows almost as quickly as he appeared, but not before Chan caught a glimpse of the ragged scar running the length of the man’s face. Even from his inverted position, Chan recognized his accuser and knew, at that moment, there would be no escape.
“I will find it!” cried Chan. “I will bring it back—it is my responsibility.”
The man behind the desk pursed his lips as he placed his index finger on the button. When he spoke again, his voice was almost friendly.
“Not any more.”
As he pushed the button, the rope slipped through the pulley and released. He watched impassively as Chan disappeared from view, and the slithering became a dull roar, the movement of the snakes like a crashing wave.
The trap door snapped shut, cutting short Chan’s scream and chasing the liquid sound of vipers from the room.
The Dragon Head leaned forward, his hands steepled in front of him. Without turning, he spoke to the man in the shadows, his voice sounding loud in the sudden quiet of the room.
“A bit melodramatic.”
“But there is something to be said for tradition.” The man with the scar stepped from the shadows. His black hair was cropped close to his skull, the scar starting just below the hairline on the right side and zigzagging past his eye until it ended at the corner of his mouth. As he smiled, it twitched like a lurid bolt of lightning trapped in his skin, the scar tissue catching the light at odd angles. “He talked quickly, wouldn’t you agree?”
The man behind the desk nodded. “Too bad he had nothing to say.” He sighed deeply. “You will find it and bring it back.”
The lightning bolt danced in the shadows. “Of course, lung tau.”
“And you will find the one who took it from us.”
“And bring them back, also?”
“Only the heart,” came the reply. “I only want the heart.”
Excerpted from STEALING THE DRAGON © Copyright 2011 by Tim Maleeny. Reprinted with permission by MIDNIGHT INK. All rights reserved.