Tim Maleeny

Stealing the Dragon

Chapter One

San 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 Two

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 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

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