A complicated, shadowy man in disgrace, Dante Mancuso leads a double life. Lately, though, the line he walks has become razor thin.
Dante works for The Company, a nebulous security organization operating just this side of the law. Dante wants out, but it's a hard life to leave behind-rich with its own seductions, its own dark attractions.
His latest assignment sends him back to his old North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco. First rendezvous? His estranged father's funeral in the dying heart of Little Italy. Here Dante picks up the strands of his old life and soon finds himself playing an even more elaborate game, a game that involves not just his duplicitous family, but also his ex-fiancée and his former colleagues in the San Francisco Police Department.
Adept as he is, Dante can not play this game forever, pursued by the laconic Frank Ying, a Chinese detective anxious to know the secrets Dante hides. Caught between the sinister imperatives of The Company and the ghosts of his own past, Dante treads a harrowing path to a confrontation more lethal-and more surprising-than he could have imagined.
With Chasing the Dragon, Domenic Stansberry-the acclaimed writer of modern noir-introduces a new hardboiled series set in San Francisco. In this, the series opener, Stansberry tells a story written in clear homage to the masters of the genre, yet with an original, breathtaking voice all his own.
Domenic Stansberry's recent novels include the Edgar Award and Hammett Prize finalist The Last Days of Il Duce, Manifesto for the Dead, and The Confession. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.
About the Author
Domenic Stansberry's previous novels include the Edgar Award and Hammett Prize finalist The Last Days of Il Duce, Manifesto for the Dead, and The Spoiler. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.
Domenic Stansberry’s previous novels include The Confession, an Edgar Award winner; Chasing the Dragon; the Edgar Award and Hammett Prize finalist The Last Days of Il Duce; and Manifesto for the Dead. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Read an Excerpt
Chasing the Dragon
By Domenic Stansberry
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Domenic Stansberr
All rights reserved.
It was August in New Orleans, and Dante Mancuso was far from San Francisco, far from his dying father. He had taken to sleeping in the afternoon, after the daily thundershower, during that time of day when the light outside had begun to grow white again, hot, more merciless than before, and the humidity rose from the ground in vapors thick enough to see. Outside, the traffic slowed, and people sought the shadows. It usually took Dante a couple of shots to go under, but once he did he tumbled into a sleep that was sweet and dark and empty.
At the deepest point, he awoke. Since his last assignment, it often happened this way. He awoke with no transition to find himself sitting bolt upright in his bed, heart beating like a drum. His clothes were damp; the room smelled of his own sweat. The image that stayed in his head was simply one of darkness, but beneath that darkness, he knew, there had been something else.
Things had gone badly on his last assignment, in Bangkok. A young Thai girl — a professional concubine, with sweet, drug-clouded eyes — had been slashed to death, and he'd been the one to find her, bloody on the sheets.
It was time to quit, he'd told himself. To leave the company. But it wasn't so simple. He took the bottle and went out on his stoop.
The bourbon helped, but not enough. The darkness was still inside him, an emptiness he could not fill. In Bangkok he had grown used to stronger stuff. It had been part of his role: a decadent businessman gone over the edge, bingeing on liquor and opiates and sex. He'd taken it a little too far, carried away in the part, and those cravings still haunted him.
The Ninth Ward was a working-class neighborhood. Black families, Irish, Italians. They lived in bungalows like Dante's, built on swamp fill underneath the levee that held back the wide, polluted waters of the Mississippi. At twilight people came out on their stoops to chatter. The "yat" couples in their blousy clothes, mouths full of booze, out to greet the evening. Young black men walking alone, escaping the heat of the Desire projects.
Though the similarities were superficial, there were times when the streets reminded him of home — or made him long for it, anyway. For San Francisco, North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood where he had grown up: its nineteenth-century rowhouses, its concrete patios and the sound of drunks caterwauling in the midnight streets. An old man's face, maybe, glimpsed in passing; a building cornice; a woman's skirt — such things would trigger in him an unreasonable nostalgia.
But he was far away. He had been away from home seven years. The air here was heavy. Even his memories were languid, full of murk.
Inside, the phone rang. Dante hesitated, drenched in sweat, already a little drunk, thinking about getting drunker. He let it ring three times, then meant to grab it, because he was superstitious about numbers — a trait he'd inherited from his grandmother on his mother's side, Nanna Pellicano.
It was a superstition that amused him, that he did not really take seriously, he told himself, but it stuck with him anyway.
Three. The number of the Trinity. Of flesh and spirit in union with the divine.
Nanna Pellicano had gotten truths like this from the nuns in Calabria when she was a little girl, but hers was an older Catholicism mixed with the spirits of the old country — the kind of demons that rose from the peasant landscape, informed by some pagan augury — and Dante had been drilled in it more thoroughly than he cared to admit.
There are things you should know, my grandson, Mr. Homicide Cop. The devil can't come in if you don't invite him. ... If you wear the scapular beneath your shirt. ... If you count the beads as you pray.
Tonight, though, he was a little bit slow and did not catch the phone until the fourth ring. When he heard the thin voice on the other end, he wished he had not picked it up at all.
"New Orleans Import?" asked the voice.
He didn't know for sure if it was the same voice that had contacted him in the past — when he thought of the voice later he could not be sure, at times, even of the gender — but either way there was a certain timbre, a reedy quality, not quite human, like that of an insect speaking through a megaphone.
Dante paused, knowing that if he didn't come back with the right phrase, the conversation might end. Part of him was tempted to foil the whole business.
"Import-export," he said.
"We have some cane furniture coming in."
"Can the routine," said Dante, breaking from the script. "Just tell me what you want me to do."
There was silence on other end. He'd violated protocol. The company liked their sequence of greetings, their routine. The business had to be played out, no matter if they had his every move monitored, likely as not. No, the company liked these conversations to proceed in a certain way. Each phrase like a number in a combination lock. And all those numbers had to line up precisely, in the right order, or the alarms went off.
Which was sweet in theory, except little the company did quite worked according to plan.
The thin voice tried again. "I said, we have some cane furniture coming in."
Dante sighed. "Good quality?"
"When can I see it?"
"We have a salesperson coming into town. You could meet her. If you wish."
"Name?" Dante asked.
"Name?" repeated the voice on the other end.
"Yeah, name. How do I know who I'm meeting if I don't have a name?"
It was an absurd name, of course, the kind of cover name that company people were prone to use, that called attention to itself, the exact opposite of what you'd expect.
"All right," Dante said.
The man gave him the information regarding the meeting in the backhanded way his people always did. As Dante took it down, he felt a hunger for the man he had once been — or imagined himself to have been — back in North Beach, walking the streets his father had walked, and his father before him.
What it came out to now was this: He was to meet this Anita Blonde tomorrow morning, just past ten, down at the Café Du Monde.
"Hey," the voice said. It was a kind of a whisper — a tag on the end. A direct address, strictly against protocol.
"Yeah?" said Dante.
"Go to hell, smart-ass," said the voice, and the line went dead.CHAPTER 2
The next morning, the woman called Anita Blonde sat alone outdoors at the Du Monde under the patio umbrella. There were couples on either side of her, tourists most likely, and though the men in the restaurant may have given her an appraising glance — and the women, too, for that matter — there was no reason for anyone to regard her as anything other than she appeared: a woman waiting for her companion to arrive so they might together begin to eat their strawberry croissants and drink the chicory coffee. She had a perfectly composed face, difficult to read. So it would have been impossible to tell at what point she caught a glimpse of the man crossing the square toward the Du Monde — or if indeed she had noticed him at all. A handsome man, though a bit dissipated. An odd, loping walk. A man with penetrating eyes, an aquiline nose that gave his face a certain fierceness — and whom the night before had been instructed by telephone to meet a woman in a straw hat sitting under an umbrella.
The man was Dante Mancuso and he walked up to her table without hesitation.
"I love strawberries," he said.
"Myself as well."
"Are these for me?"
"If you want them."
Dante sat down across from her and looked out over Jackson Square. The sun was not quite blinding yet, but the day was already redolent with heat. He could smell the muddy Mississippi behind him, and the flowers in the window boxes of the French Quarter, and the rats who left their droppings in the gutter at night. The stones on the café floor beneath the table were wet from a trickle of water that ran out of the vegetable stands at the other end of the Du Monde.
Dante regarded this woman from across the table, and she regarded him, and together they began to prattle, improvising, as if they were a couple on some lost weekend.
"Did you happen to see those little mints the hotel left on our pillows last night?" she asked.
"I ate mine."
"Let's have crawfish étouffée for lunch."
"I'll have oysters. And a Dixie beer."
"This town, I don't know how anyone here ever gets any rest."
"You should come for Mardi Gras. We could meet in disguise."
"You've suggested that a million times, dear. In the last two days."
"A million and one."
They laughed, ha ha, carried away with the pretense, making it up as they went. You got good at this kind of stuff after awhile with the company, and together they looked their parts. Dante wore a Hawaiian shirt. Anita Blonde was dressed in yellow, with a straw hat and sunglasses. She was a good-looking woman, somewhere in her midthirties, though a little tired around her eyes, like maybe she'd played a few too many roles herself. He'd never seen her before and figured after today he'd never see her again.
"Let's go sit in the square," she said and smiled at him a little bit.
He imagined for a moment that they were the couple they appeared to be. Maybe stayed last night in the Cornstalk Hotel on Royal, her up from Biloxi for the weekend, a divorcée and a traveling man who'd met in a bar a few weeks back and now here they were in the Big Easy for some illicit fun, some fucking on starched sheets. He took her hand as they went across the street, and there was a kind of a cool pleasure in taking on this role, an escape from the heat.
"We want you to go to San Francisco," she said.
He was taken aback and for a second the blue haze of New Orleans thickened around him as if he were in some narcotic dream — and through that haze he imagined the spires of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, back in Washington Square.
"Tomorrow. First flight out."
"You got a name for me? A history?"
She shook her head. "Take a room in North Beach."
"I grew up there. People know me."
"That's why we want you. Go under your real name. Go as Dante Mancuso."
"It's coincidence. It works out well. The company needs someone in San Francisco. And you have reason to be there."
"What's my reason?"
She looked away for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was deadpan. "A funeral," she said. "Your father died in his sleep. Evening before last."
He met her eyes. He'd known the old man was ill. He'd met with him in Houston, a reconciliation of sorts, when his father had gone to see the specialist there. It's a slow grower, this cancer. The doctor says it's nothing. I'm going to live forever. His old man had been full of bravado, but his eyes had betrayed him, and it had seemed there was something more he'd wanted to tell Dante. So Dante had expected the worst, but not so soon. And he hadn't expected to hear of it from the company.
"What kind of assignment is this?"
Her expression changed. He didn't catch why at first.
The exclamation came from behind him. Tourists, he realized, enchanted with the square, with New Orleans.
"You like Marlon Brando?" Anita Blonde asked suddenly, loud enough for the tourists to hear. "He lives in Tahiti, you know."
"I like him okay," Dante said. She'd changed the conversation, he understood, in case the tourists were not what they seemed and should manage to overhear.
"I've always thought you look like him, just a little." Anita paused, amused with herself. "Before he was such a fat pig, of course."
The tourists were wandering away now, out of earshot almost, but not quite. "Should we go there for our next vacation, do you think? To Tahiti?"
"Only if we stop in and say hi to Marlon," Dante said.
Finally, the tourists were gone. Anita moved closer to him on the bench, putting her knee up against his, playing out the routine but talking business now.
"There's a smuggling ring working out of the city," she said. "High-grade heroin. The company wants to crack it up."
She ignored the question. "It's run by an old San Francisco family, the Wus."
Dante remembered the name. He'd grown up in the city and he'd spent ten years with the SFPD. The Wus headed one of the old Chinese Benevolent Associations — and their family had been around since the 1800s. The Wus also had close links with the underground tongs. With their tight kinship and their network of families and hidden relationships, the tongs in the old days had helped the Chinese survive. In legitimate ways, but not so legitimate, too — mingling smuggling and prostitution, bringing in illegal workers, drugs, and arms, and at the same time running overground businesses.
Dante remembered, when he was a kid, catching a glimpse of Love Wu, head of the Wu clan and an old man even then, standing in his blue suit in front of a door in Chinatown. He was a powerful-seeming man, Dante remembered, with a certain charisma, an expression that suggested he had a secret claim on everything he happened to glance upon and the world beyond that as well.
"I still don't see," he said, "why I get the call."
"Your Uncle Salvatore — your father's brother?"
"He has a contract with one of their holding companies. The Wus move a lot of merchandise through your family's warehouse, and, well ..."
Anita Blonde smiled tartly, and Dante understood the implication. He'd heard it before. His uncle's warehouse these days handled shipments from China, and there were always stories about the nature of those shipments, and suggestions of dealings beneath the surface. But Dante didn't give it much credence. His uncle was a neighborhood guy — a good man, as far as Dante knew. It was hard for him to envision Uncle Salvatore playing the kind of game she was describing. The suggestion irritated him, but he let it go.
"We want you to talk to your uncle," she said. "Tell him we're putting a sting on. Get him to cooperate. If something worries him, promise him immunity — so long as he cooperates."
Dante wasn't crazy about the idea. He didn't much feel like putting the strong arm on his father's brother. Also, there was a question of cover. He'd spent seven years building a firewall between himself and his earlier life at the SFPD.
"You should get someone else," he said.
"No — your association with your uncle, the neighborhood, it gives you an advantage. You'll have access to the warehouse; it'll be natural for you to be there — and you can help set up the sting."
Dante was to connect with a man named Joe Williams, she explained. Williams was an ex-con who'd spent time for smuggling heroin. Dante's job was to get Williams and his heroin, together with Mason Wu, down at the Mancuso warehouse. Mason Wu was Love Wu's great-nephew, and the company wanted him. There was another man, too, they wanted in their net: a Black Muslim, a preacher by the name of Yusef Fakir. The company wanted Fakir and Mason Wu and Williams, all in the building, with the drugs and the money, when the DEA came swooping down.
Anita Blonde went on with it now, explaining the details. They sat in the shadow of the Old Ursuline Convent, near the center of the square, under the lurching statue of Andrew Jackson. Technically this was a DEA sting, she told him. The company wasn't supposed to work on internal police jobs, Dante knew, but it happened often enough, particularly if there was some kind of security connection.
"And, oh," said Anita Blonde, "that woman you used to know. Marilyn Visconti."
Dante felt something drop in his chest. He and Marilyn had gotten together during his last year in San Francisco, before the Strehli case had sent him packing. He didn't want to think about the Strehli case.
"What about her?"
"Pick up your relationship with her."
"It's part of your cover. Prodigal son, home to claim the family business. And his old girl, too."
Anita smiled. Her hair had a little flip and she had done her lips with white gloss. She kept a hand on his knee, playing it for the tourists and anyone else who was watching.
As for the truth behind the scheme and the reasons for it, Dante had no way to judge. In his experience, the company said one thing and set up another, the facts got twisted, and often you were never sure of their real intentions, or who was an agent and who wasn't, and what was the real nature of the masquerade.
When she was done talking, Anita Blonde walked with him to the edge of the square. They stopped at the corner.
"We part here," she said, and for the first time he noticed the Midwest in her voice, the broad flat part of the country gone to seed.
He looked her up and down. "I thought you wanted éttouffée," he said. "A little crawfish."
They stood rather close, like husband and wife, only without the easiness. The sexual tensions were there. She wore shorts and he looked her over — and in her face he saw the terrible lure of fading beauty. He had a brief impulse to take her by the hand and bring her back with him to his place. He wondered what she
Excerpted from Chasing the Dragon by Domenic Stansberry. Copyright © 2004 Domenic Stansberr. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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