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Authors: Alyc Helms

The Dragons of Heaven

BOOK: The Dragons of Heaven
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The Dragons of Heaven
Alyc Helms

For Jason Pisano, Storyteller

ONE

Mystic in the City

N
ow

“It's all over for you, Mr Mystic.”

The boy leveled his gun sideways at me in a fair imitation of the hip-hop videos he'd been raised on. His hoodie gleamed with the polished-cotton newness of recent purchase. His lip curled like that of a thousand cinematic thugs before him. Suburban white boys should stick to watching films about gangstas, not try to emulate them.

“We chased off them Asians, and now we're gonna ice you, old man. Once you're out of the picture, the Dogpatch'll belong to my crew. Ain't no one gonna get in our way.” He paused. The five yes-boys surrounding him crossed their arms and directed chin-nods at me. I scanned the catwalk above us for movement. Nothing. I sighed and resigned myself to playing for more time.

“My dear boy,” I said to the leader in my most reasonable tones – the kind calculated to annoy. “Do you honestly believe that I came here unprepared? Do give me an ounce of credit. I've been in the adventure hero business since before you lot were in leading strings.”

“In what? What were we in?”

“Leading – oh, never mind. The point is, you haven't caught me unawares, and the longer you stand there holding that very heavy pistol, the longer the police have to move into position.”

I lowered my hands, uncowed. The boys shifted in a ripple of whispers, unnerved by my deviation from script. I was betting that their young leader was high on pop culture sensibility and low on common sense. The gun he had trained on me shook; the muzzle lowered an inch. I didn't bother to conceal my smile; the shadows cast by the brim of my fedora would do that for me.

“So, the question is: are you going to soliloquize more on your triumph, or are you going to escape now and hope you can get away?”

The gun wavered, as did the boy, but neither withdrew. The presence of his five cronies acted as a bolster to keep the leader from backing off. Better nudge him along.

“By all means, take your time deciding. It's your neck the noose is tightening around.”

The muzzle lowered another inch, but then the boy dredged up a dose of righteous fury from somewhere. He tensed, and the gun rose with a jerk. I spared a moment to pray that the trigger was a stiff one.

“I'm not falling for your shit, Obi-Wan. I've heard about you. They say you have the power to control men's minds n' shit. Well, not me, motherfucker.”

So much for stalling. The police support I'd hoped for was nowhere in sight. Time to call on other allies. The room darkened around us. The crew shifted; their shadows did not.

“I believe you're thinking of the Shadow. I'm afraid my skills are far less noteworthy, though the confusion is understandable given what I can do.”

The boy jerked as he realized his shadow was no longer following him. Then he panicked.

“You can die is what you can do, asshole!” His arm tensed, and his eyes clenched tight. Likely the boy had never fired at anything but bottles and air. The tell gave me time to drop to the ground before the gun went off above my head.

I released my hold on the darkness surrounding us. The shadows attacked.

Black shapes thick as smoke rose in an eddy around the wannabe gangstas. The boys scattered in a confusion of shouts, running in all directions and drawing weapons as they did so. The leader's gun went off twice more before he disappeared into the vortex of shifting shadow. His weapon skittered across the cement of the warehouse floor to rest inches before my nose. I stared at its still-smoking muzzle, smelled the stench of cordite. I rose to a crouch and darted after the leader, skirting the gun – nasty, loud, oily things; I refused to have anything to do with them.

The other boys ran for the warehouse entrance, firing at the shadows in pursuit, but they were not my main concern. Their leader launched himself up the catwalk risers two at a time, a roiling sea of shadow-forms close on his heels. I followed, wading through the shadows. The boy's footsteps rattled the catwalk as he bolted for the multi-paned windows that stood propped open to the night beyond. The fog had crawled over the peninsula earlier in the evening. There was no visibility to speak of, and the aluminum rooftops would be slick and treacherous.

I didn't relish the idea of chasing this boy down in a daring
le parkour
escape. I whispered a command, and the shadows flooded ahead and surged up in front of the boy. He stumbled and fell to his knees. The metal catwalk groaned and shuddered beneath us.

“Get away! Get them away!” He batted at the shadows, his voice breaking. Nobody likes confronting their childhood terrors – the things that lurked under our beds when we were young – but his fear lacked the distance of maturity. I revised my age estimate down a few years. His parents were probably worried sick.

I waved away the knot of shadows with another whispered command, leaving the boy huddled on the catwalk, sobbing to himself.

“Now, don't you wish you'd left when you had the chance?” I tried pulling him to his feet. He resisted deadweight. I locked my arms around his chest and heaved. That's when my tardy cavalry burst through the doors, weapons and lights bristling in all directions.

“San Francisco PD. Drop your weapons!”

I froze, squinting against the lights. The other aspiring bad-asses – mere boys no older than the one I held – surrendered with a clatter of firearms hitting cement. The lights chased away all the shadows save those cast by my fedora, but too late. The police had seen the monsters I'd brought forth.

Lovely. That would add another two hours to my deposition.

The police scattered through the warehouse, securing it with procedural thoroughness. Several of them climbed up to the catwalk, weapons trained on the boy I held. “Masters, release the perp and back away. We'll take things from here.”

My prisoner took the opportunity to shove away from me, scrabbling across the grating to huddle against a support. He kept his eyes on me rather than the approaching cops, as though I were the greater danger. I heard a few whispers from the spooked officers before their leader shushed them.

“It's all right,” I said. “He's in no condition to harm anyone.”

“Pat him down.” The command came from Officer Cordero, the officer-in-charge of this little bust. I worried that the police might be daft enough to include me in that command, but seeing my shadows had scared them honest. They moved straight to the boy.

“You took your time arriving.” I pulled my fedora a little lower, coaxing forth more shadows to conceal my features. The front of my dark suit was covered with grit from my clinch with the warehouse floor. I brushed the dust away as if it caused me more affront than the police's tardy rescue. There would have been no call to scare the boy if Cordero had brought his men in sooner.

“I'm not losing another arrest because of some judge's bench notion of probable cause, and the only thing we had before the gunshots was a Prius out front that was reported stolen.”

Cordero settled at my side, keeping an eye on the patdown. He grunted as the boy's hoodie was thrown back, revealing what I'd already heard in his voice.

“He looks awfully young and white to be the head of the Shadow Dragon Triad's San Francisco branch,” Cordero drawled. “I thought you said Lao Chan was going to be here.”

“He was supposed to be.”

“Then who is this… kid?”

“Billy Westmont,” supplied one of the frisking officers, who had just opened the boy's wallet. “Potrero address. Just got his learner's permit last week, looks like.” The officer gave the boy a condescending smile. “Hey kid, don't you know you're supposed to have an adult with you when you boost cars?”

“It's my mom's,” Billy muttered. The two frisking officers traded an eyeroll before reading young Billy his Miranda.

“He's a red herring,” I explained as Billy was led off. I had lost my taste for this night's business. “Lao Chan must have gotten wind of the bust and moved his people elsewhere. I'd wager these boys just happened to squat in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Well, maybe Billy here knows something. About the Shadow Dragons, where Lao Chan moved his base. Something.” Cordero gestured to the boy with a jerk of his head. “Can you question him? Y'know, use your power to cloud men's minds to make him talk.”

Why did people insist on mistaking me for a fictional character? “Even if I could, I fear it wouldn't be ethical.”

“Guess we'll have to make him piss himself the old-fashioned way.” Cordero leaned over the catwalk railing to call down orders to his people, the normal procedure that accompanied a police bust. My shoulders twitched; bureaucracy and I had never been the best of friends.

“Officer Cordero, if that is all, I'll be going. I'll send you word if I hear more on Lao Chan.”

“We'll need your statement,” he reminded me.

“I'll have my lawyer send my affadavit to the DA's office.”

Before he could give a response, I stepped back towards the propped-open windows – poor young Billy's means of escape. The shadows welled up around me and I slipped out into the night. Behind me, I heard Billy whimper and the cops mutter to themselves. Well, the rest of the bust might have gone pear-shaped, but at least my exit was up to par.

It looked like a carnival had set up on the street below, the flash of red and blue from the squad cars reflecting off the black-slicked pavement. Yet, no calliope music accompanied the lights, just the static of radios and the drone of dispatchers and the occasional bleat of truncated sirens. So much sound and fury, and all the police were going to get for it was Billy and his gang of Eminem fanboys. They would not be happy.

Not wanting to be snippy at someone less stoic than Cordero, I avoided the street and fled across the industrial rooftops.

I was like a shadow myself, slipping along tin-rippled awnings and between squat air conditioning units. The fog enveloped me. Water beaded on the dark wool of my tailored suit and the felted brim of my fedora. I fought to find traction as I darted through the obstacle course, but not even the challenge of the terrain could distract me from my frustration.

I had cocked things up rather spectacularly this night, and I needed to suss out why. How had I been duped into chasing down poor Billy Westmont from Potrero Hill? Why wasn't Lao Chan where he was supposed to have been? A leak on Cordero's team? Some slip-up on my own part during surveillance? We hadn't dared warn Lao Chan by starting warrant proceedings, which was why Cordero had been willing to let me dangle in the face of danger until he got his exigent circumstances.

I slid down a fire-escape to the narrow street where I'd parked my motorcycle, reviewing every aspect of my investigation for some flaw, when a blast of heat and force blew me from the ladder.

I hit the cinderblock wall of the building. My head cracked sideways into it. Too stunned to scrabble for purchase, I plummeted to the street below. Came down hard on hands and knees, barely avoiding cracking my head again. Concussions are not funny.

Smoke clogged the air. I coughed and blinked, trying to clear at least one of my senses. My ears were ringing, and the world was orange.

Slumping down to one hip, I pushed back against the wall. My hand brushed against soft fabric. I looked down. My hat. I set it gingerly atop my aching head. Habit, but the brim helped cut out some of the orange, or maybe my vision was finally clearing. A ball of flame had appeared where the Triumph had been. I struggled to piece everything together. Smoke. Flame. Concussive blast. An explosion.

“Those bastards blew up my ride!” I took my time marveling over that as the flames danced down. Little remained to feed them once the accelerant had burned away.

Using the bulk of the cinderblock wall, I pushed myself to my feet and took a few steps towards the smoking husk. The frame was still there, but everything that made it more than a mechanical skeleton had been burned away: the midnight blue of the chassis, the sleek leather of seats and saddlebags. Even my half helmet had been burned onto the husk like a charred carbuncle on the Triumph's ass.

I gaped uselessly. I'd had that bike since I became Mr Mystic. It was as much a part of me as the hat and the shadows. In the strange, fluid realm of identity, the Triumph was an anchor.

Its loss shook me more than the explosion had.

Lao Chan, it had to be. I searched around for some kind of clue, but he hadn't left me a note or helpful bit of graffiti, and demolition forensics wasn't precisely my field. Still, the simplest explanation favored the crime boss. Something had tipped him about tonight, with enough time for him to clear out of the warehouse unseen by surveillance. Little wonder he'd be looking for some payback for all the fuss.

And here I was, standing at ground zero for him to take more potshots at. I had to get out of here. I had to get home.

I made it as far as the mouth of the alley, stumbling as my knees threatened to give out. My body ached from its meeting with the concrete. Groaning, I lowered myself to the curb. I took out my cell phone and dialed the top person on my contact list.

I was getting too old for this kind of excitement.

A
quarter hour later
, a car drove up. I hadn't risen from my very comfortable curbside seat, and I didn't bother now. The driver burst out of the door and rushed towards me. He was in his mid-thirties, handsome in the manner of a young professional, and still clad in a dress shirt and slacks despite the hour. My lawyer. It was a sad statement on my affairs that he was my first call in such a situation, but I didn't trust many people with my secrets.

“Mis–”

“Not yet,” I snapped, holding up one hand as if that could stop his words. “Not here.”

He gawked at my raised hand as if not sure what was meant by it. I jerked my arm when he didn't move. “A little help here, if you please, Jack? I'm not as spry as I used to be.”

BOOK: The Dragons of Heaven
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