Read an Excerpt
Stealing the Dragon
By Tim Maleeny
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2006 Tim Maleeny
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSan Francisco, present day
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 below 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.
Chapter TwoIt 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 had given 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, 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 behind 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 belowdecks. 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.
Chapter Three"It's big, ain't it?"
Howard McClosky had been asking his wife Betty the same question for the past five minutes. It was a question he usually asked in the bedroom, a thought that almost made her smile, but she kept her mouth shut and gritted her teeth. She knew Howard got a little touchy about their private life and besides, she was trying her damnedest not to puke.
"And it's getting bigger," was all she said, glancing at the huge container ship and trying not to turn green. She turned away after a second and locked her eyes on the deck between her feet.
They were squeezed alongside the starboard rail of the Alcatraz II, a twin engine powerboat that ferried people from Pier 39 to the infamous island prison. They'd come all the way from Lubbock, Texas, and stood in line for three hours with thirty other people who were now crammed aboard right next to them, holding on to the rails for dear life. The tour guide had warned them San Francisco Bay got pretty choppy this time of year, but Betty thought he could have been a little more specific with the folks from out of town, which was pretty much everybody. Either that or hand out Dramamine on the dock. The sky that day might have been blue through the breaks in the fog, but the currents were hellacious. As far as Betty was concerned, it was The Perfect Storm out here. She expected to see George Clooney float by any second.
"It's funny how your whole perspective changes once you're on the boat," mused Howard, totally oblivious to the rolling of the deck. Last time Betty checked, he was the only one onboard not staring at his shoes. She figured it must be all that spicy food he ate—the jalapeos fucked up his stomach so bad he couldn't feel a thing. Probably why he farted so much, now that she thought of it. She started humming to herself to keep her mind off the waves. Howard, my husband, the flatulent sailor.
But to Howard, she just nodded dumbly as he continued his monologue.
"Like that big one there," he said, jutting his chin at the massive container ship cutting across the bay. "A few minutes ago, it looked like we were a couple of miles away from Alcatraz and that ship was just coming under the Golden Gate. Now you'd swear we're gonna hit the island any second and that ship is gonna meet us there, even though you gotta figure the captains would keep us at least a couple hundred yards apart. It's gotta be a code or regulation, don't you think?"
Betty looked up at the big ship, sensing Howard needed some kind of response. Even at home he needed at least an "uh-huh" or "I see what you mean" to egg him on, not satisfied asking a purely rhetorical question. Hard enough being married to such a talker, but to provide constant feedback, well, being a woman was never easy. Not wanting Howard to get pouty, Betty tore her eyes away from the undulating deck to verify Howard's insightful observation about optical illusions.
Howard was right. The freighter looked as tall as a skyscraper, blotting out the sun, looming so close she thought she could touch it. She looked past Howard and saw the captain's face as he shouted against the wind at one of the crew standing near the bow. Whipping her big hair back toward the freighter, Betty saw the rivets in the hull, the dull scratches in the paint, even smelled the sour tang of oil from somewhere in the boiler room. Her eyes glued to the black ship, Betty reached out, grabbed Howard's hand, and started screaming.
A second later, the impact knocked the smaller boat right out of the water. The sound of metal hulls colliding drowned out the passengers, the wind, and the churning water below. The powerboat bent nearly in half, shooting twenty feet into the air before landing against the rocks at the base of Alcatraz. The passengers and crew flew off the deck like ping-pong balls shot from a cannon, splashing into the water a good thirty yards from the island.
Betty and Howard, still hand in hand, hit the water hard and sank a good fifteen feet before their natural buoyancy brought them to the surface. Betty's hair broke the water first, followed by Howard in the midst of a sentence he'd started just before Betty got her scream out, something to do with relative distances at sea.
Betty gasped. The water was ice cold, the current yanking them and twisting them around. She tilted her head back and tried to keep her mouth above the waves, her eyes glued to the mammoth black hull just fifty feet away. The container ship had run aground on the banks of Alcatraz, the sharp metal prow digging into the coarse sand, the giant vessel listing sharply sideways.
Betty thought she heard a Klaxon somewhere in the distance, but she couldn't be sure. As the waves lapped against her ears, it sounded like a large group of people were singing, or maybe screaming, a muffled chorus somewhere nearby. She saw spots and figured she was losing consciousness, but she still clung to Howard and figured she'd be all right. All that hot air should keep them bobbing on the surf till the Coast Guard arrived.
I knew there was a reason I married you, she thought happily, squeezing his hand beneath the waves.
Chapter FourSan Francisco Bay looked like the freeway at rush hour.
The container ship listed drunkenly on its keel: the bow stuck in the loose shoal around Alcatraz, the stern braced by two tugboats commandeered by the Coast Guard. Two cutters idled on either side of the huge vessel while a harbor patrol boat circled Alcatraz Island to maintain a secure perimeter.
Just beyond this tenuous ring of authority, chaos reigned. Sailboats, powerboats, and even a few rowboats jockeyed for position as tourists, locals, and reporters tried to get a closer look at the spectacle.
Overhead, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered noisily, its rotors blowing foam off the already choppy water. Within an hour of the accident there had been almost eight helicopters in the sky, most of them from television news bureaus. The choppers from Channel 5 and Channel 7, two stations in a fierce ratings war for the right to call themselves "The Bay Area's Favorite News Source," almost collided directly over the ship. That prompted the Coast Guard to establish a no-fly zone the rest of the day.
Excerpted from Stealing the Dragon by Tim Maleeny Copyright © 2006 by Tim Maleeny. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.