Dragon Sword: Chapter 1
Being the same, desiring and not desiring are called mysteries … mystery upon mystery, the gateway of the manifold secrets.
A new chapter is available every Wednesday at Noon, CST.
I needed to steal something.
I don’t mean I really wanted something in particular. I mean I wanted to steal something.
So to scratch that itch I was climbing up the side of the Twelve Treasure Museum to a hidden floor not open to the public. It was supposed to be haunted. That was perfect. Perfect for me anyway.
I’m Angie Tanaka, the one woman crime wave. That’s what it says on my business cards. I stumbled across this museum one day when I was bored and feeling too much like an upright citizen.
A hint of sea breeze ruffled my hair. I studied the shadows around me, making sure I was still alone.
The city of Shaolong lay sleeping below — as much as it ever slept. The museum was on a hill above the town. There are nine mountains, not counting the volcano. Most of the island is straight up, straight down or clinging to the side of some hill or other. The only flat stretches are along the seashore.
I pulled myself up onto the roof — the first level of the house, anyway. It was an old-fashioned Chinese pagoda built like a wedding cake. The outside was covered with the Asian version of gingerbread. The carvings and embellishments had a dragon theme, but a lot of things were decorated with dragons Shaolong, the Land of Nine Dragons. Real ones. I’m being honest here. I bullshit a lot — I was kidding about the business cards — but not about this.
I rested for a minute on the ledge or balcony or whatever this was and looked for the small window I’d seen when I cased the place in daylight.
I adjusted the sword hanging in a scabbard at my back. I probably should have left it at home. Heck, I should probably throw it into the sea, but neither thing was going to happen. This sword was a katana made by my grandfather in Japan right after World War II. It was a hero’s sword and though I am about as far from being a hero as you can get and still be standing on planet earth, I couldn’t turn it loose. Not yet. Someday. But not yet.
Daiyu had given me the sword’s scabbard and it was beautifully carved with, naturally, a black dragon with tiny seed pearls for eyes. It had a nifty feature in that it was invisible and made the sword invisible. I could touch it, feel it and even see it when I was holding it in my hands, but nobody else could see it. Cool, huh? It meant I got to wear a Ninja sword all over town without causing talk or unwanted police attention.
I started the last leg of my climb. I’d already been all over the museum — open to the public, remember? It had some gorgeous, expensive and rare things, probably looted from the Chinese coast in the 19th century. This house had belonged to the last warlord of Shaolong. His only child had been a girl who’d died young. When the old man finally gave up the ghost, the city made his house a museum and declared themselves a democracy.
I’m pretty sure Chiang Kai-shek tried to get involved but the islanders told him to kiss off — or Chinese words to that effect — and he, strangely, backed off. Maybe Taiwan was enough for him. Who knows. That dragon thing may have been an issue.
I looked up sat the window above me and began the last leg of my climb. I have dragon issues myself. A couple of them thought I needed to be rehabilitated. Yeah, well, everyone should have their dreams.
It didn’t take long to get to the window. It was shuttered, of course. I had a packet of tools in my hip pocket but this looked like all I would need would be a flat head screw driver which I had the foresight to bring along.
The shutter popped open easily. Looking back, I think that should have been a warning. My life is never easy. Never.
When the shutter swung open, an overwhelming sense of hunger seized me. Hungry? Seriously? Stealing stuff is meat and drink to me. I don’t think much about food when plying my art, but right now I’d trade my right arm for a peanut butter sandwich or maybe a couple of fingers for an energy bar.
The unusual hunger was also warning. Who knew? Not I. I slid into the window and landed on a thick, dusty rug.
I smiled to myself in the dark. This must be what climbing Mount Everest feels like or playing Carnegie Hall or finding a diamond ring in a box of Crackerjacks.
I pulled out my flashlight and played the beam around. Nice furniture, cabinets, rugs, other than the thick coating of dust, this must be what it all looked like when the warlord was alive.
Suddenly the itch, the hunger, the intense longing to possess something washed over me so hard I was shaking. I was a vast, hungry, needy maw.
I grabbed the handiest thing near me — a porcelain fish so beautifully made it almost looked alive. I tried to stuff it into the bag I’d brought but the fish was too big. I turned it this way and that trying to get the bag around it, but it just wouldn’t go in. Shit. I set it down, not quite hard enough to break it. I wandered around the room opening drawers, boxes and cabinets. A couple of ivory-handled paint brushes went into the bag and some signature chops. A nice cinnabar stuff bottle. Some badly tarnished silver jewelry. All of them got stuffed in my bag which still felt like an empty sack.
I moved from room to room pilfering, rifling and stuffing. My hands still shook and I felt hollow. I was definitely going to stop at an all-night noodle stand on my way home.
I had saved the bedroom for last. That’s where the old warlord had been found dead. Not that I believe in that ghost nonsense, but an old house in the dark of the night is moderately creepy.
The bedroom was remarkably empty of anything valuable. No statues or little boxes of jewelry. Lots of books, scrolls and heavy furniture. One shelf had really old photographs, a middle aged woman, a baby, a little girl. A jar that looked like it was carved out of a single piece of ivory attracted my attention, but it was full of ashes. I knew those ashes weren’t from the fire place. I couldn’t take it. I set it back on the shelf next to the photographs and made sure it was back exactly as I found it.
At the foot of the bed was a black lacquer platform holding a beautifully carved box about the size of a foot locker. The lid opened easily. Inside, on a bed of red silk, was a heavy book covered with dark blue cloth closely embroidered with all kinds of fabulous animals, including the inevitable dragons. I closed my fingers around it greedily.
I clumsily held it in one hand while trying to turn pages with the hand that held the flashlight. The paper was heavy and each page was covered with vivid, lifelike paintings of animals and people surrounded with elegant black calligraphy. The entire book was made by hand and almost certainly worth a bleeding fortune. There was no way I was going to get it in the bag. It was bigger than the fish. I stuffed it in the top of my pants and covered it with my tee shirt.
I must have jumped three feet in the air.
I whirled. A girl stood there in red silk pajamas. She looked maybe ten years old and had large eyes in a tiny face and long black hair loose around her shoulders. She flinched in the flashlight beam so I aimed it at her tiny feet.
She’d spoken in Chinese, so I asked my question in the same language. “Who the hell are you?” I said when I could breathe again.
“I am Poppy. Who the hell are you?” She said it in a sweet little voice that seemed to merely echo my question mindlessly.
“Angie,” I said with uncharacteristic truthfulness. “What are you doing here, Poppy? This is — ” I stopped myself from saying something like “this is weird” which it totally was. “This isn’t a good place for a kid in the middle of the night,” I said. I didn’t know what to do next. Like, for example, I wasn’t available to escort her to wherever her parents lived. Not with my bag of booty hanging off my belt and a big honking book stuffed in the top of my pants.
A little frown pinched her face. “This is my home,” she said.
Okay, freak out. I had an impulse to run to the window, climb out and maybe fly down to the ground if I had to.
But I’m stupid. I didn’t do that. Geeze, sue me. She was a child.
“No, Sweetie, you can’t live here. Where are your Mommy and Daddy?”
She still had a little frowny wrinkle between her eyes and she tilted her head. “Mother and Father are dead,” she said.
“An Auntie? An Uncle?” She shook her head.
My adrenal glands shouted “time to go!” Shut the hell up, I whispered back. When your adrenal glands talk to you, though, you should probably listen.
“So you’re here all alone?”
Again, a shake of her head which both did and didn’t reassure me.
“You are here,” she said.
My earlier freak out was microscopic compared to this one.
“Well, I’m sure they will be along soon,” I said in a shaky babble. “Nice to meet you, Poppy.”
I tried to run backwards out the door without tripping over something. I took the flashlight with me, leaving the little girl in darkness.
The little girl alone in the dark. My intense feelings of assholery drove me to turn around and go back into the room. It was empty. I searched every nook, cranny, under the bed, in the box where the book had been, in every cabinet, cupboard — any place I could think of that could hide a kid that size. I called and called and didn’t get a whisper of an answer.
The bedroom only had one door and I had been running through it like a gold plated coward. She couldn’t have gotten past me.
There was nothing to do but search the rest of the rooms. That took several nerve wracking minutes but no luck. They were empty.
All righty then. I had tried, I told myself. It didn’t work. I felt like a creep as I headed for the window. I called her name as I went and flashed the light in every direction. Nope. I told myself I’d drop an anonymous call to the cops when I got to a phone. It would have to do.
Oddly, climbing down the side of a building isn’t as easy as climbing up. Plus my hands were still shaking. I caught myself from falling twice and still landed in the street pretty hard.
I didn’t move for a while. I had my bag of boodle, the book was still secure in the top of my jeans, I hadn’t broken my neck and I wasn’t saddled with a kid. I felt ahead of the game.
The putt-putt of a motor scooter pushed me a little deeper into the shadows.
Everything was okay, right? I’d tip off the cops that a little girl was in the museum and then it would be their problem. My stomach still felt as hollow as an empty tin can. After I made my little phone call to the cops I’d find that all night noodle stand and call it a day. Or a night. Or whatever.
When I stood up, I had a sudden crazy feeling that my bag of loot was actually empty. I dug through it frantically and couldn’t find anything missing.
I needed to get the hell out of there bad. I wished I’d brought my own motor scooter. But I had this idea that thievery would require stealth, so I’d walked up to the museum. Now, I ran through the dark street and nearly got hit by a farm truck coming down out of the hills. It was loaded with melons. I shouted abuse at the farmer who didn’t bother even to slow down, just shot me a one-finger salute with a bored look on his face.
Then I sprinted for the cement walking path that led directly down the side of the hill and into town. I knew where it ended up. It ended at the big park in the middle of town which was called by the Chinese version of the New Yorker’s creatively named “Central Park.”
If the produce truck was headed down to town that meant there would be others and that meant that dawn was not far away.
I needed to get home. Shaolong is mostly Chinese, a few Japanese and the rest a mix of the folk who wander around the South China Sea. There are a few Americans. Not many. They usually prefer the flesh pots of Taipei. I am an American with a shocking mop of red hair. That makes me really easy to describe to the police.
I didn’t indulge these night urges all that often but when I did, I needed to be home before the sun came up.
Now let me explain the expression “home.” I have two homes. One is a beautiful and elegant mansion on top of Black Jade Mountain. It is filled with gorgeous stuff that didn’t belong to me and never would. That’s where anybody important thought I was tonight.
My other home is mine. It’s a little room above Happy Parrot tea and noodle shop where I keep the alcoholic landlady in a generous supply of Blue Girl beer to pretend I am a nice young woman who leads a quiet life. Everything in the room belongs to me. I’d bought some of it honestly. Most of it, especially the small items, had been lifted from other people. However ownership was acquired, it was mine all mine and nobody but the boozy Mrs. Chin knew anything about it.
That’s where I needed to take my little bag of booty before the sun came up.
That was the plan.
“Good Morning, Angie,” said a smooth voice speaking American English.
I closed my eyes for a moment, heaved a sigh and turned around.
Daiyu isn’t American, she’s just a really good linguist. All dragons are. She looked like an ordinary Chinese woman, except that she was unusually tall, taller than I am. And except she had short, spiky black hair. And except that she was dressed in black leather that fit her like skin. And except that she had a dragon tattoo that wound around her neck and up the right side of her face. The dragon’s head rested above her right eyebrow.
She looked perfectly normal with all the exceptions just noted. But she wasn’t normal. Chinese dragons can take human shape. They may look like humans. They may act like humans. But it’s important to remember whatever they look like, however they act, they are always dragons.
“Hello, Daiyu. I don’t suppose I could possibly persuade you to leave me the hell alone?”
She answered with an eloquent shrug.
She focused her bottomless black gaze on me. When dragons focus they don’t mess around. It was like being skewered. What’s worse, she was a couple of steps above me which meant she towered over me more than usual. What’s even worse was her regard was usually just bare attention. Tonight it was laced with what couldn’t possibly be anger … could it? She was never mad. Never even irritated.
“You have disturbed something that should have remained sleeping. You have taken something really valuable,” she said. “Give me the bag.”
The Chinese have a lot of wonderful ways to tell somebody to go to hell. I selected one and said it.
She tilted her head. That would be her only reply. She was never going to swear back at me.
“You aren’t my boss!” There was nobody in sight. Yelling was probably okay. “You aren’t my mommy! You can just freekin’ go to hell!”
“Those who misbehave suffer in this world. All suffer when they know the pain inflicted on others.” She was quoting some kind of scripture She did that. It was even more annoying than her silence.
“Oh, bullshit. I don’t steal from poor people. This stuff hasn’t been touched. Nobody wants it!” I was shrieking but I didn’t care. My throat burned and I was shaking. I clutched my little bag of stolen goods as if it held the crown jewels and the secret of eternal life with cherries on top.
She raised her hands and in the dim light I could see the black smoke curling up from her fingers. She didn’t say anything. She wasn’t going to argue back. Why bother?
I drew the sword and held it up. It needed both hands to hold it properly but that meant I’d have to let go of the bag.
Daiyu’s eyes widened a little. No fear. Only a touch of surprise.
“You can’t have it,” I snarled. This was all stupid. I can see it now. I couldn’t hurt her with that sword. Not only could I not bring myself to use it against someone who looked human even if she wasn’t, but … dragons can’t be hurt that way.
It was more an emphasis than a threat. Daiyu almost certainly knew that. The sword had been at my side through thick and thin for the last few years, ever since I’d stolen it from my father. It had a lot of evil clinging to it. My grandfather not only made it with his own hands, he’d killed a lot of people with it too — evil people, criminals, murderers, people who had it coming. My family has issues. You don’t want to hear about it.
I tightened my grip on the bag. “This is my stuff and you can’t have it.” Yes, I know that statement was hypocrisy on steroids, but whatever. I gripped the sword hilt so hard it’s amazing I didn’t break it or the hand holding it.
Her hands were now just black smoke that drifted my way. I watched, hopeless tears stinging my eyes, as the smoke surrounded the bag of stolen goods. It simply disappeared right out of my hand.
Then the smoke withdrew and Daiyu held the bag. I screamed and dove at her. Daiyu has skills that make Bruce Lee look like a clumsy oaf. She merely dodged and I tripped on one of the stone steps, landing hard and skinning one of my knees.
“You must address this problem sometime,” she said as if we were just having a little chat. There was no accusation in it. If anybody else had said it we would be having an intervention followed by a lecture on “thou shalt not steal.”
I looked up at her, fighting back tears. I couldn’t win a wrestling match with her. Wrestling with a dragon isn’t a good idea under the best of circumstances.
“If you take it away from me I’ll just steal it back. It’s mine.”
“The things you steal are not yours no matter where they are located,” she said.
“You’re a self-righteous bitch.” Bitterness rose in my throat. “I’ll steal it back,” I repeated.
And then, oddly, my stomach reminded me I was hungry. I felt hollow, empty.
“Angie?” A tiny silvery voice called my name.
We both jumped. It doesn’t take much to startle me. It takes a lot more to startle a dragon. A little girl in red silk pajamas stood on the steps above us.
Daiyu became blurry. “Angie, give me your sword,” she said.
The command flashed through me like electricity. “Hell no!” I roared.
Above us, Poppy seemed to glow with her own light.
Smoke suddenly surrounded me and I could feel the sword dissolve like the bag did. When I could see again, Daiyu had the sword in her hand.
Then she transformed into a glittering obsidian dragon in a single leap. She flew straight up, becoming just a black outline against the stars.
I nearly tore my throat out screaming abuse at her as she faded into the night.
I was alone, with Poppy skipping down the steps toward me, surrounded with an eerie light.
I was shaking like a starving dog and I just wanted to keep yelling at the place where Daiyu used to be.
“Angie, come back! I need you,” Poppy called in her piping child’s voice. She glowed. She freakin’ glowed and shimmered a little. It refocused my attention to the matter at hand.
I made a little inarticulate noise. Need me? Shit!
I turned and ran, but only because I can’t fly.
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