Monday, November 5, 2018

Chapter One
Kiss of the Dragon
© 2018 Charles F. Millhouse/Stormgate Press 

May 8, 1933, San Francisco
The band played Stormy Weather, while couples in fancy dress, danced in the center of the room. A thick layer of cigarette smoke lingered in the air, and a faint chatter of conversation filled the background.
Steven Hawklin stood at the bar and sipped on a dry martini. Prohibition was still in force, but had lax as of late. It was a silly law and it was only a matter of time before it ended. Steven tugged on his collar, feeling out of place, but the alcohol seemed to ease his nerves. He had come up San Bruno Mountain to the home of Wanda Deupree out of curiosity. He received an invitation claiming she was an old friend of his father. Since Steven didn’t know any of Thomas’ friends, he curiously accepted.   
The room was warm. A thin stream of sweat ran down the back of Steven’s neck. He wore a black tuxedo, with tails. His blond hair was slicked back to one side and he wore his wire thin reading glasses that made him look more sophisticated. He waved the lingering tobacco smoke out of his face. Though he smoked briefly during the war, he never found a taste for it.  He studied the people around the room and tried to remind himself why he had come to the party. Curiosity always got the better of him.
Steven came to San Francisco two months ago to prepare the sale of his father’s company to Orman Wintergreen, who made a healthy offer that Steven couldn’t refuse. Plus, in some twisted way, it made Steven feel good to know that he’d sold the company Thomas had worked so hard for, to his greatest rival. A thin smile graced Steven’s lips knowing that Thomas would be stark at the proposition. But Thomas was out of it, especially since he chose to remain in the subterranean empire of Suversia, with Queen Hilana, in December of the last year. Since it was unlikely Steven would ever see his father again, he had to do what was best for him. Hawklin Contracting didn’t fit into his plans to create the countries best flight school and build his Clandestine Wing, an elite fighter squadron to patrol America’s western shores. It also helped that Thomas never included Steven in any of Hawklin Contracting’s decision making. Steven always felt like an outsider when it came to the family business.
Steven finished his martini, and sat the glass on the bar and pointed at it, but before he could ask for another, the bartender had already prepared a drink and sat it in place of the empty one. Though Steven probably didn’t need another drink, he deserved it. The last year had been grueling. He, Hardy and Oz were called before a special senate committee telling and retelling the accounts of the raiders from Suversia. Though out of the ordinary, the Senate committee was arranged by a special prosecutor because of Thomas’ top secret work and construction of highly classified naval equipment for the government.
Steven stated his father perished with the rest of the inhabitants of Suversia. Claiming the underground city had been totally destroyed, with hopes no one would go looking for it. The hearing seemed cut and dry, everyone bought their story except for a couple members who didn’t quite believe his fantastical tale, including the Senator from Georgia, Jedediah Mumford, who spent a lot of time drilling each of them in private sessions. Steven heard Mumford’s name come up quite often over the last several years, as if he was obsessed with Steven or something.
Still, the hearing was over, and in the end, the members of the committee declared Thomas Hawklin dead. The matter was closed, but Steven had an odd feeling it was far from over.
Before Steven had time to order a third drink, he heard, “Now why are you standing here all alone?” He turned to find Wanda Deupree behind him.
Wanda was a handsome lady in her early sixties. She wore a lowcut white and yellow dress with gold necklace around her neck. Her blue-gray hair was swirled atop her head and she’d applied too much makeup that made her look like a washed-out clown. She smelled of blossoms, the odor of her perfume a bit overpowering and it drew a tear to Steven’s eyes.
“I’m afraid I’ve never been one for parties Misses Deupree,” Steven said stepping away from the bar.
Wanda hooked her arm into Steven’s and said, “Nonsense, you simply don’t know anyone here. I’ve been neglecting you as host – and as host, it’s my job to make you comfortable. I’m sure you’re still in mourning, but I knew your father well, and the last thing he’d want you to do is mourn over him. He’s in a better place.”
Steven choked out a response, “Yes – he is in a better place.”
“Did your father ever tell you how he and I met?” Wanda asked as she navigated Steven through the sea of guests. Before Steven could reply, Wanda jerked him close and said, “He and I met aboard ship when you were very young. You were there, but I dare say, you were more excited about being on the ship, than who your father was meeting. You spent most of your time with your governess.”
Steven tried to recall all the times he and his father crossed the Atlantic together. Until Wanda Deupree contacted him when he arrived in San Francisco, he had no memory of meeting her. He cleared his throat and asked, “Were you and he…”
“Oh, gracious no,” Wanda giggled. “Mister Deupree was on board, too.”
Interesting, Steven thought. There was a lilt of disappointment in Wanda’s voice.
“It was on that voyage that my husband and I bought stock in your father’s company. If it weren’t for that meeting, I wouldn’t have what I do now.”
“And Mister Deupree?”
“Killed before the war, in China. Sadly, he never got the chance to reap the rewards that your father shared with us.”
Steven looked at Wanda. He noticed her lack of symphony for the death of her husband. True it had been nineteen years since the start of the war, and a long time to get over a lost love, but her emotionless demeanor bordered on the callous and was not the disposition of a widow.
“I’m at a loss as to why you invited me to your party, Misses Deupree.” Steven said as Wanda turned him away from the crowd and toward a large velvet divan. She motioned for him to sit.
“I hadn’t seen your father for several years, he came by frequently after my husband’s death, but about three years ago, he stopped. And, well I never got the chance to say my goodbyes. When I heard you were in town, I wanted to meet you.”
For a moment, Steven thought he heard miss-truth in Wanda’s voice. But after the war, and his journeys abroad, he considered it nothing more than finding menace in his own shadow. He drew a breath, but before he could say, I’m glad you did, he saw the alluring gaze of a woman from across the room and his attention went elsewhere.
She was Chinese, in her mid to late twenties, with long black hair that ran down her back like slick oil. She wore a green silk dress that outlined her hourglass figure and hid her feet. She wore a ring on each finger, and a delicate gold bracelet that spiraled up her right arm like a snake. Her lips were a natural pink, and her large doe eyes were… oddly familiar. He stared into them for a long while, studying her. If Steven could describe her in one word, it would be, striking.
Wanda Deupree chuckled, and said, “You are like your father.”
Steven swallowed in a dry throat, “Who is she? She’s lovely.”
“Her name is Juno Li, she’s visiting here from China, and working closely with one of my charities bringing aide to her homeland in the way of comfort through religion and the Holy Word of God.”
Steven broke his gaze from Juno and looked at Wanda, asking, “Wouldn’t food and medicine be more beneficial, than Bibles and prayer Misses Deupree?”
A bit snobbish, Wanda replied, “God, will provide Mister Hawklin. We are only the instruments of his divine.”
Steven shifted in his seat, “Scripture will hardly fill empty spots in children’s bellies, I’ve seen firsthand what starvation can do to a child. It isn’t pleasant.”
“Yes – but…”
Steven stood and said as he walked away, “If you’ll excuse me.” He didn’t look back at Wanda, but had an idea what kind of expression she held on her face.
Steven made eye contact with Juno as he crossed the room. As if it were timed, the band began to play a slow song and he asked, “May I have this dance?”
Juno replied with a faint smile and placed her hand in Steven’s as he put his hand on her waist and led her into the sea of dancers. Without preamble, Juno slid into Steven’s arms. Their bodies pressed to one another.
“It’s nice to meet you, Captain Hawklin,” Juno whispered.
Steven wasn’t sure if he was more surprised by the fact that Juno spoke flawless English, or that she knew who he was, which led to his reply, “You have me at a disadvantage.”
“I doubt that Misses Deupree could have kept it in. She likes to think of me as her little poster child. Bringing civilization to the East.”
“It would seem she does enjoy helping the less fortunate,” Steven said.
Juno’s stance went ridge and she snapped, “China was an empire when the rest of mankind was less than swinging in the trees.”
Steven backed away, but didn’t release his grip on Juno. He noticed several onlookers in the crowd staring at them and said in a soft tone, “Don’t be so defensive. Not all of us are as uninformed as Misses Deupree.”
Juno relaxed and kept in time with the music, she too noticed the onlookers and said, “Pardon my outburst. You would think after the years I have been exposed to people like Misses Deupree, I’d be tolerant of her stereotypical description of my people.”
Steven smiled, and said, “I sense you aren’t here for Misses Deupree’s charity work.”
Juno’s greenish eyes stared into Steven’s and she said, “It is a means to an end. I’ve come to America looking for you, Captain Hawklin.”
“Seven-ball, right corner pocket,” Oz said as he laid his cue on the pool table lining up the shot.
“You sure that’s the shot you want to take?” Hardy asked in a helpful, yet distracting tone.
Oz stood away from the table. He and Hardy had the night off, and with nothing much to do in San Francisco, they found an out of the way dive at the end of the docks. It wasn’t a speakeasy, or hidden saloon of some kind, though there was still plenty of beers being consumed – the rough looking characters didn’t hide the fact.
There were ten or so men, presumably sailors in from a long time at sea, sitting at tables, or at the bar in the the dim, smoky establishment. One man lay hunkered over his table, asleep. The sailors were of all ethnicities, dirty scaly wags, but docile, who scrutinized everything Oz and Hardy did, until they were certain they weren’t federal men. But that didn’t stop them from hiding their beers just in case real agents walked in.
Oz wondered if any of them worked for Hawklin Contracting, but he doubted it. Having met some of Thomas’ employees in the past he could safely say none of these men worked for him.
“Is there something wrong with my shot?” Oz asked as he tipped back his green ball cap and looked at Hardy on the other side of the pool table.
Hardy wore a gray pair of pants, and a dark pullover shirt tucked into the waistband of his pants. Even though he’d dressed down, his clothes were clean, and crisp. “No… no, not at all. I think you should rethink it, that’s all.”
Besides his familiar ball cap, Oz wore his usual dark trousers with a blue button down and faded red jacket, partially zipped in the front. He placed the end of his cue on the floor and said, “There you go. Always trying to confuse me.”
“Oz, I’m trying to help you,” Hardy said with a slight smile.
Oz picked up his mug of beer off the table and took a gulp. He jumped when the saloon door opened and spilled some of his drink on his shirt, but calmed when he noticed two burly sailors walking in.
“Why you so jumpy?” Hardy asked.
“Thought it might be the bureau men coming to bust this place up,” Oz replied, putting his drink back on the table.
“You heard the Capt’n, there’s a good chance prohibition will be rescinded by Christmas. No one, not even the feds care about it anymore.”
“Hardy, our track record with G-men isn’t the best. If anyone can find trouble with the FBI, it will be us,” Oz said.
“Our track record isn’t just with federal agents,” Hardy said. “We tend to run into a vast assortment of trouble.”
Oz snorted and said, “Isn’t that the truth. If there’s something amiss, it will certainly come to us.”
“Now that this whole Suversia thing is over, and the Capt’n finishes his father’s business, we can get back to working on the clandestine wing, and building that school Captain Hawklin has been telling us about.”
“Why do you do that?”
Hardy looked at Oz, and cocked an eyebrow, asking, “Do what?”
“You call him Capt’n, or Captain Hawklin, but I hardly hear you say Steven. Around me anyway.”
Hardy looked at Oz for a moment, mouth twisted like he was looking for the right answer, and then said with a shrug of his shoulder, “I have no idea. He’s always been the Capt’n to me… at least since he got promoted. I’m so used to calling him that, that I don’t catch myself saying it or Captain Hawklin…” he paused and pointed out, “You call him boss, ever since he hired you. And I’ve never questioned it.”
Oz’s brow furrowed, and he said, “Guess, it’s because I work for him… come to think of it I didn’t call Frank Buck, boss… I’ll be bent, Hardy… that’s something to think about,” he said lining up his shot.
Hardy didn’t offer a reply, and Oz was grateful for that as he concentrated on his shot. As he pulled back on the cue, the door of the saloon opened again causing him to misfire his shot, the seven-ball flung off the table and bounced across the floor.
Hardy held his laugh, but tapped the end of his cue on the floor and said smiling, “I told you to rethink it.”
“It wasn’t me…” Oz said and turned toward the door to see two oriental men standing just inside it. Oz thought they were Chinese, but always had trouble when it came deciphering who lived in what Asian country.
Oz considered for a moment that the Chinese had come ashore from a ship, but their clothes, simple slacks and black jackets, were well mended for that. If anything, they come to the docks from the city, but why, Oz wondered.
They remained at the door, scouring the room as if looking for someone. When they made eye contact with Oz, a cold chill craw up his spine. He didn’t look away and before he could say something to Hardy, the man behind the bar said, “You nips aren’t allowed in here, you’ll have to get out.”
The Chinese ignored the bartender, their attention still on Oz.
“Uh, Hardy…”
“Yeah,” Hardy said. “I see them.”
“You, know ‘em.”
“I don’t think so,” Hardy said.
Oz hooked the corner of his mouth, and he said, “They’re looking at us, like they know us.”
The bartender moved to the end of the bar and barked, “Can’t you speak English? No chinks allowed.”
Oz snapped his head toward the bartender and asked, “Hey – why aren’t they allowed in here?”
The sound of scooting chairs and grunts filled the saloon, and Hardy cautioned, “Oz…”
Oz eyed the room. The docile sailors stirred, and they’d took notice of the two Asian men. But more to the point, they’d taken notice of Oz’s sympathetic tone. Oz took a tight grip on his cue stick and squared his shoulders.
“Oy, who are you then?” one of the seamen asked as he stood from his table.
Hardy came around the pool table to join Oz and said in an even tone, “It might be prudent if we get out of here.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Oz replied, setting his cue on the table next to Hardy’s stick. They took steady sidesteps toward the door. More sailors stood up from their chairs and Oz heard Hardy gulp.
“And take the chinks with ya,” someone from the back of the room said.
Hardy lifted his jacket off the back of a chair, said, “Nice and easy Oz.”
“Right behind you,” Oz said and pointed at the door, speaking to the two Chinese, in hopes they understood him, “You two fellas better join us.”
When Hardy reached for the door handle, someone threw a beer mug and it shattered on the wall next to the door.
Doused in beer and broken glass, Oz spun around on the heels of his shoes, his hands rolled up into fists and raised in front of him. The patrons roared with laughter, some slammed their fists on tables, others clapped their hands and hooted. Infuriated, Oz took a step back toward the center of the bar, but felt Hardy grabbing him by the lapel and yanking him out of the dive.
The evening air calmed Oz and he drew a deep breath. He heard a tugboat chugging past the waterfront and he pulled free of Hardy’s grasp.
“You ok?” Hardy asked.
Oz stood staring at the entrance of the saloon, and said, “Yeah – not sure why I was so steamed in there,” Oz replied.
“And I’m not sure who these two are,” Hardy said.
Oz turned next to Hardy, facing the two Asian men and said, “Yeah, I was wondering the same thing.”
“Do, you speak English?” Hardy asked.
The two men looked at one another, then the taller of the two men said, “We’ve come for the Jade Dragon.”
“You have any idea what that is,” Hardy asked Oz.
“Jade dragon – what is that, a restaurant or something?” Oz asked.
Both Chinese reached into their jackets to produce small caliber pistols. The taller man said, “We have come for the Jade Dragon – tell us where it is!”
“They must be really hungry guys,” Oz said with a gulp.
“You will tell us where the Jade Dragon is, or we will shoot you.”
“I’ll be bent – trouble does follow us wherever we go,” Oz said under his breath.
Steven and Juno Li, stepped out a side door of Wanda Deupree’s home and into a well-lit garden. The night sky was cloudless, and the stars filled it like a giant tapestry. Some other guests had come out into the night to view them, but Juno, it seemed, hadn’t time for stargazing as she led Steven down a path away from the other people.
Steven placed a hand out stopping Juno and asked, “What did you mean inside when you said, you were here to find me?”
Juno stopped and turned. She was much shorter than Steven and she looked up into his cobalt eyes, placed a palm on his chest and said, “I’ve come for the Jade Dragon.”
Steven’s brow furrowed, and he said, “What’s the jade dragon?”
Juno withdrew her hand, her eyes thinned, she said, “You must know what it is. Your father would never have left it unprotected.”
“Juno, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You are your father’s heir, are you not?”
Steven stepped back, it was difficult to explain. He and Thomas hadn’t spoken for a long while. “Thomas and I didn’t have the perfect father, son relationship. And, he didn’t confide in me. If there is a jade dragon, I don’t know anything about it.”
Juno tightened her petite hands into fists and placed them against her chest and whispered, “Then all is lost.”
In the distance Steven heard the zip zip zip of several motorcycles in the distance. He placed a hand on Juno’s fists and said, “Why don’t you explain what is happening – what the jade dragon is, and maybe I can help.”
Juno looked down at Steven’s hand and then back up into his eyes, said, “If your own father didn’t confide in you, then how do I know I can trust you?”
“You don’t… but right now…” Suddenly several motorcycles tore into Wanda Deupree’s garden. Steven turned as the bikes raced toward them, kicking mulch and soil off their back tires, and spraying it into the air. Other party guests ran for the house, while some dove for cover under a gazebo.
The motorbikes circled the outside perimeter of the garden. The unnerving grind of their engines ripped inside Steven’s head, and drowned out the screams of the people running for cover. It didn’t take him long to figure out, this wasn’t a mere coincidence and he, or Juno were the riders intended targets.
Steven snagged Juno’s hand and he pulled her behind him as they made a dash for the back of the house. The motorcycles bolted after them, crisscrossing in front of them. Steven studied the riders, their faces were obscured by goggles and bandannas.
Juno pulled away from Steven, hiked up her dress and sprinted between the motorbikes, he shouted for her, but his cry was overwhelmed by the constant grind of the engines around him. He watched in horror as two riders’ broke ranks and chased after her. But Steven’s dread turned to disbelief when Juno snatched up a gardening hoe leaning at the corner of a trestle. Astonishingly she used it to catapult herself up off the ground, kicking one of the riders off his bike. Before Steven could believe what he saw, Juno tossed the hoe between the spokes of the second motorcycle. It came to an abrupt stop and the rider flew over the handlebars, spiraling through the air, headfirst into a rose patch. The uncontrollable whine from the engine, went out of control.
The remaining bikes stopped, their engines idling, the riders appeared to be as stunned as Steven, who used their dismay to his advantage. He sprinted toward Juno, who tore her dress up the side, grabbed a hold of a fallen motorcycle and shouted at Steven, “Get on!” As she threw her leg over the seat.
Steven hesitated for less than a second, before he threw his leg over the back of the bike. He barely got into the seat, as Juno revved the engine and the motorcycle raced out of the garden and onto the paved road in front of the Deupree home.
“What the hell is going on…!” Steven shouted.
Juno replied, but the mixture of wind and the cry of the engine drowned out her response.
Steven looked behind them – the remaining motorcycles weren’t far behind. He tightened his grip on Juno’s waist and held on. Whoever this woman was, she wasn’t as timid as she led him to believe.
They rode along a ridge line at the base of the mountain. In the distance, the lights of San Francisco looked like fireflies dotted in the woods. It was more than ten miles down the ridge before they even reached the ferry back into the city, and Steven doubted they could maintain the slight lead they had on their pursuers for long.
The road led down a steep decline and they passed under a crop of trees that had grown over the thoroughfare. There was a chill in the air as the road began to turn into a series of tight curves, to the right and then back to the left. Steven was impressed by the way Juno handled the bike like a pro. But as they swerved around one last tight bend, they were met by blinding headlights of several vehicles blocking the road.

The motorcycle screeched, the front tire swerved, and Juno lost control. Steven tightened his grip on her, but it was of little use, as he, she and the motorcycle crashed over the side of the mountain to their inevitable doom.

© 2018 Charles F. Millhouse/Stormgate Press

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