BLACK JADE DRAGON
In the South China Sea is an island protected by nine dragons.
Angie Tanaka has made one of them really, really angry.
Angie Tanaka has made one of them really, really angry.
#1 The Way that can be traveled is not the eternal Way.
My name is Angela Rosarita Tanaka, but you will call me Angie if you know what’s good for you.
I needed to get out of Hong Kong. To say Hong Kong cops are humorless bastards would be, well something that’s so obvious that it would be silly to say it. Even if I just said it.
If you give a man who owns a fishing boat a big enough wad of cash, he will not ask why you are giving him so much. He will pocket the fistful of bank notes and say the Chinese equivalent of “Where to, Ma’am”? In my case, “where to” was anywhere but here. I answered his question by waving vaguely to the north east. He nodded gravely. He was short—shorter than I am by about four inches—and built like a Chinese brick outhouse and he was burned dark by the sun. He could have been anywhere between forty years old and a hundred and twenty.
The boat captain gasped and focused his attention behind me. I glanced back and saw three of those famously humorless Hong Kong cops pile out of a white patrol car and began terrifying the citizens by stopping them and asking them questions. I had no doubt the questions were along the lines of “Have you seen an American woman with red hair?” The citizens shook their heads but even though I had a cap pulled over my hair, I figured eventually one of them would nod and point in my direction.
The captain noticed the cops too. He wasn't born yesterday. Without another word he picked up my duffel bag and tossed it onto the boat’s well-scrubbed deck. I climbed on board after it and in a few minutes the ancient gas engine had us chugging through the harbor in an easterly direction. By east he knew I didn't mean Shenzhen or Shantau. By the comforting wad of cash in his pocket he knew I meant anywhere but communist China. I would have sat on my duffel bag just for a feeling of security, but my grandfather’s sword was wrapped in all my clothes in the middle of it. Sitting on that was just not an option.
Hong Kong harbor was always clogged with container ships, sight-seeing boats and the occasional picturesque junk hauling tourists around, so we were out of sight of the pier pretty fast. And then almost by magic we were hidden from view by an oil tanker only a little smaller than a battle star. As the harbor fell behind, I spotted a coast guard cutter zip by in the distance but after that all was peaceful. The only sound was a handful of seagulls looking for a handout and the rusty chug-chug of the engine.
When the harbor was far behind and there was nothing around me but open sea, the fisherman cast out a small net and then sat by the helm smoking a pipe. He glanced my way occasionally but didn't offer conversation. My Chinese is only passable and there wasn't anything to chat about.
He seemed mostly to spend his time frowning at a dark haze in the east. I studied it too and didn't see anything I cared about.
After a while he pulled in the net, selected an eel and chopped off its head. It was still writhing as he gutted it.
I watched for white police cutters or helicopters with their telltale red stripe. I only saw a few fishing boats pass by in the distance and the occasional island that dotted the South China Sea. I didn't see any official government anything. Maybe I just wasn't all that. Fine with me. Or maybe the stolen diamonds in the duffel bag weren't as valuable as they’d been cracked up to be.
By the time the eel and noodles were boiling over the tiny brazier, the captain seemed to be mesmerized by the dark haze on the horizon. Even I was beginning to care about it. It wasn't just vaguely dark any more. Now it was a sort of grayish yellow. That didn’t seem like a good thing.
When he handed me my bowl of noodles and boiled eel, my captain spoke for the first time.
“That is a big goddam storm coming. Ping-wei is only about twenty miles that way. We’ll make for it. Maybe we won’t be sucked down to hell.” The Chinese don’t actually say “goddam” but they have plenty of equivalents. I translate loosely. They do understand concept of hell very well—who doesn't?
The problem is that though Ping-wei was a tiny speck of nowhere, they’d have phones, television and probably even a cop or two. As rare as a red-headed American is in Hong Kong, they are pure hen’s teen on those islands between the Philippines and Taiwan.
“I’ll give you another thousand dollars if you try to ride it out,” I said.
He snorted and shook his head. “I can’t take it to hell with me.”
He didn’t wait for my answer. His house, his rules. He turned hard to starboard—I think that’s a right turn—and made for what looked to me was open water, but he knew his job better than I did.
I watched the angry gray-yellow bank tower up and up until it filled the sky. The gray became black down at the bottom and lightning flashes licked through it. The eel almost crawled back out of my throat as I watched it coming. The little captain stood at the wheel. Stoic. Carved out of hardwood. He kept his gaze on the eastern horizon and I watched the growing menace in the west.
I glanced in the direction he pointed. I couldn't really see it. Maybe that smudge? I wasn't sure.
The captain made for it, his broad brown face set in grim determination.
The storm towered in our wake. The swells were growing and getting belly-dropping large and the sound of thunder caught up to us. The captain didn't seemed concerned about all that. He was getting wet from the spray every time we landed in a trough. He didn’t seem concerned about that either.
Now the smudge on the horizon had become clearly an island but it was still so far away compared to the storm that it made my heart sink.
The first salty, cold wind from the storm reached us. It actually seemed to push us in the right direction.
I divided my attention between the island growing in the distance and the storm thundering in our direction. I didn't care about the cops any more. A nice jail cell seemed wonderful. Heavenly. Let me at it.
And then I noticed the captain had changed a little. The set of his shoulders was different. I think when the wind hit us he knew we weren’t going to make it.
A big wave crashed over us, soaking us both and sending my duffel bag rolling for the scuppers. I dove for it. It wasn't waterproof but water resistant. It’s not like I need those socks and that bra and grandfather’s sword probably wasn't worth risking my life, but those diamonds were why I was here in this shit storm.
“Leave that!” The captain shouted over the wind. “Grab hold of something.” He hooked his arm meaningfully through the wheel.
I pulled the strap of the duffel bag over my arm and then hugged the mast like a long lost lover.
The storm hit and knocked the boat sideways to the waves. That’s bad. Very bad. The boat rolled sickeningly to its side.
The captain hung off the wheel shouting at the top of his lungs. I couldn't actually hear his individual words but I assumed it was a string of curses. That was what flowed through my mind. Every foul word I was told ladies don’t say.
Then the boat pitched over the other way with a huge wave pouring over the side. Now the duffel bag was pushing against me and adding its weight to my own. If I hadn't had my arms hooked around the mast I would have lost it.
Then the rain started. It pounded down hard bruising my head and shoulders. It was better than being pushed overboard by a wave, but only just.
Miraculously the captain got us turned around and headed into the swells—a testimony to how effective Chinese swearing can be—but the propeller wasn't in the water half the time. The wind was still at our tail and gave us a push. There was no telling if we were being pushed to the island or not. We were surrounded by a gray black wall of chaos and the storm was deciding our course. It roiled and coiled around the boat, impossibly huge, impenetrably black and powerful beyond imagination.
A wall of water towered. It climbed up and up and filled the sky green and black and menacing. I saw it, I knew it and I screamed as it crashed down on us.
It didn't feel like water when it hit. It was more like bricks or cinder blocks or boulders. It hurt. A lot. It ripped me away from the mast, tore the duffel bag away and I knew it would tear my life away as well.
I blinked and there was nothing around me but water and nothing to breathe but water. At first everything seemed just black but then I noticed a black-on-black shape above me and realized that had to be the boat. If I had any hope to see another hour of life, I had to get up to it.
I swam hard, kicking with everything I had. Then I saw the duffel bag. I grabbed it. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend—especially in combination with a boat.
The duffel bag was buoyant and actually helped me break the surface. See what I mean by best friend? The surface wasn't a huge improvement. The wind howled and water was crazy but there was blessed air mixed with the spray. The boat was still upright.
Then I heard a fragment of a Chinese curse. Nothing so elegant as being born in interesting times. Four or five yards away I saw the captain’s head—then didn't—and then I did. And then I didn't. At first I thought he was clinging to a piece of the broken mast and then I realized he was hung up on it and struggling to free himself. I swam toward him desperately trying to keep my own head out of the water and not succeeding one hundred percent.
The duffel bag was dragging on me. It weighed a ton and wouldn't steer worth a damn. I fought with it and saw the captain bob up and down again. Shit. Piss. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit! So much for best friends. I let go of the duffel bag and dived for the captain.
The captain still shouted curses. “Ten thousand things shit on your head!” Something similar to that. I translate loosely. But his shouts were getting thinner and more intermittent.
When I got to him he grabbed the front of my t-shirt and I had to beat him away. His eyes were wide and white, his face almost purple. I saw a splinter of the mast had rammed through not just his shirt but the skin of his arm.
I grabbed the mast, braced my feet against his chest and kicked. He screamed. But he was free. His blood was quickly churned away by the wine dark sea.
I pulled him in the direction of the boat and he seemed to get focused enough to help me. In fact he helped push me up on deck with his good arm and then I turned and helped him or at least I think I helped.
The boat was pretty screwed. It rolled low in the water. The wheel was gone. If the engine still existed it was almost certainly flooded. A jagged stump of what was once the mast stuck up out of the deck.
I lay on my back and let the rain wash the salt off my face. I opened my mouth to the sweet water coming out of the sky and was almost instantly rewarded with a salt wave hitting the side of the boat and crashing over me.
In spite of that, the storm was less. It wasn't good, but it was less bad. Thunder still boomed but lightning wasn't right over our head. The swells still lifted us mind-numblingly high and dropped us belly-quiveringly low but it wasn't all crazy chaos.
I let the rain wash me again and looked up at the churning clouds. A long black cloud soared through the others. A long, long, long black cloud. I’d never seen anything like it. A coiling black streak in the green-gray above passed and seemed to circle around the boat, sometimes dipping down into the water and sometimes soaring up and disappearing in the torrent.
And then briefly—I’m sure it was my imagination—I saw a pair of amber eyes looking back at me. Impossibly enormous eyes. And then they were gone. I’m sure I dreamed it. Certainly. I mean, of course I’m certain.
Would you like a little more? Go HERE for another excerpt (from about Chapter 13)