The One-Eyed Dragon
Brian C. Petroziello
Deke Bennett turned into an alley not far from the docks in Old Shanghai. He made his way down the alley until he found a doorway in the middle of the block. The building was ancient, dating from British colonial rule. The paint was peeling, and the small storefront windows were so covered in dust that they barely admitted light into the building. He couldn't read the faded Chinese characters painted in red on the windows, but knew that they proclaimed that this was the tattoo parlor of Chen en Lu, perhaps the most noted tattoo artist in all of Shanghai. This was to be the last session with Lu so he could finish the elaborate dragon tattoo that snaked the length of his left arm.
He let himself into the shop. Bells tinkled as the door opened and closed. Four bare bulbs lit the interior, but did little to lessen the gloomy atmosphere. Grimy black electrical wires ran across the ceiling on small, round wooden insulators -- testimony to the great age of the building. A young girl sat behind a counter, reading.
"Is old Lu in?" he asked.
"He out. Be back soon," she said in labored English.
"How long?" he pressed.
"Not know -- soon," she replied. "Take seat."
He found a seat on one of the wobbly wooden chairs near the front door. He looked over the girl. She was probably in her twenties. He could not believe that old Lu would have a daughter so young -- must be a granddaughter or even great granddaughter, he surmised.
She was slim, and fragile looking, like a delicate flower. Her long black hair was straight and shiny, and fell well past her shoulders. She wore a simple white shirt that overhung a long black skirt.
Deke was never one to want for anything. He was one of those men who had decided a long time ago that the world belonged to him -- and him alone. If he wanted something, he simply took it -- without regard to the consequences. He decided that he wanted the girl. He stood and went over to where she was sitting. She fidgeted in the chair. She did not trust Westerners, especially sailors such as Bennett who frequented the area near the waterfront. Shanghai still deserved its age-old reputation for being rough and tumble. Communism had done little to change that notion.
"Take seat," she said, trying to sound as forceful as possible, but he could detect a trembling in her high pitched voice. He turned as if to return to the time-worn chair, but whirled suddenly, and quickly had hold of her. There was a set of stairs behind her that led to the second floor where he guessed that Lu lived. Bennett carried her under his arm, as if she was a bale of goods he was unloading from a ship. She struggled as he dragged her up the steps, ripping her cotton blouse as in the process. He threw her forcefully on the bed. She continued to struggle mightily, biting his arm. This only incensed Bennett. He struck her several times, but she still resisted him with every ounce of her strength, striking him full in the face. In his rage, he pulled a knife from a sheath hidden in his boot, and struck a fatal blow. He struck again and again. He shoved the girl to the floor where she lay in a heap, her white blouse now stained crimson, a pool of blood spreading across the unpainted floor boards beneath her.
Bennett composed himself in a dirty mirror, straightening his clothes, and brushing his hair. He wiped the blood off of his knife on the bed sheet, and replaced in its sheath. He walked slowly down the stairs and resumed his wait by the door as if nothing had happened. It was a shame he would have to silence Shanghai's greatest tattoo artist too -- as soon as he was finished with the art on Bennett's arm.
It was not long before Lu entered the shop. He was obviously old, probably as old as the building, and maybe even older. He was short of stature and a gold skull cap with red dragons embroidered sat tightly on his head. He wore a traditional jacket, also of gold, with straight shoulders that went out past his body. It continued the dragon motif from the skull cap. A tuft of unkempt gray beard grew on the tip of his chin. Tiny wire rimmed oval eyeglasses were perched on the tip of his nose.
"Where girl?" he asked Bennett.
"She was here when I came in, but she said she was hungry, and left to get something to eat. She told me to wait for you. I don't reckon there's much worth stealin' in here anyhow," answered Bennett.
Lu uttered a string of invectives in Chinese, shook his head side to side and continued muttering under his breath.
"You come," said Lu as he took off his jacket, sat down in a much sturdier chair, and searched for his tattooing needle and inks.
Bennett removed his shirt and sat down next to Lu with the stunning tattoo facing the old man. The work done thus far was spectacular. The dragon was a traditional Chinese design. The upper half of the body was a bright red, with rows of golden scales; the lower half of the body was a light blue. The scales were exquisitely executed, and appeared to float above his skin. The dragon was so life like that it looked like it would leap to life at any moment, and fly off of his arm.
The work progressed steadily. For some one so old, Lu's hand was steady and swift. Bennett endured the sting of the needle without showing any discomfort. The old man checked the door periodically for signs of his granddaughter. He finished the right eye, leaving only the left eye to be etched in order to complete his masterpiece in flesh and ink. He loaded the needle with ink, and was about to apply it to Bennett's skin, when a thick red drop hit the top of his glasses and ran down the lens. He stopped abruptly, sitting back in his chair. He looked up to see a red stain spreading on the cracked plaster of the ceiling.
He knew immediately what had happened. He stood and screamed in Chinese at the top of his lungs. Bennett understood a smattering of Chinese, but could not make out the words. He didn't have to -- the old man's sentiment was understandable in any language. He back handed the old man, sending him reeling over the chair and onto the floor. His head struck an old desk with a loud crack. Lu did not try to stand immediately, but struggled to pull open the bottom drawer of the moldering desk. He pulled out a small wooden box, and produced an ancient hand tattooing needle with an incredibly sharp point.
Bennett knelt over him, and raised the knife high over his head. The old man, spry for his age, twisted his body, and aimed the needle for the tattooed arm, striking Bennett in the middle of the work of art. As unbearable pain spread up and down his arm.
The old man screamed again in Chinese before Bennett silenced him for good. This time Bennett did recognize some of the words, "curse of the dragon," is what he understood it to be. For just a moment the hair on his neck stood on end, but he did not know why. He wiped the blood off of the knife once more and resheathed it.
He used his sleeve to wipe a tiny area of the window clean, and looked out at the alley. Seeing no one, he walked out into the street, as unobtrusively and as calmly as possible. He kept to side streets and alleys to avoid the ever present government patrols. Finally, he found himself on a familiar street not far from the docks, strode purposefully to one of the storefronts, and stole inside. He sat at the bar, and ordered several stiff drinks. After the third drink his nerves were steadied once more. He dared to look around the bar. At a table in the far corner he recognized a familiar face -- Sam Taggert, a merchant seaman, who regularly worked the cargo ships that plied the China trade. He ordered two more drinks, and carried them back to Taggert's table. He slid into one of the chairs, and shoved a drink over to Taggert.
"Been a long time, Sam," he said. "Watchu been up to?"
"I've been criss-crossing the Pacific on a couple different ships. I ship out again tomorrow on the Starling. I heard you were in Shanghai. Are you crewing?"
"No, I've been working on the docks for a Dutch shipping company. But I'm getting restless again. Do you have a full complement?" he asked.
"Actually, we're short a man. We sure could use someone with your experience," he replied. "I thought that the Cap'n would have to 'Shanghai' someone." He laughed at his own joke. "I guess that stuff still goes on here."
It was what Bennett was hoping to hear. "I can have my sea bags packed and ready by dawn, Sam."
Taggert gave him the pier number, and the Captain's name. "Make sure your papers are in order. We stand inspection before we go. You know how the Chinese authorities are -- and a bribe can only go so far these days." Taggert noted a red stain on Bennett's sleeve. He pointed, "you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just getting some tattoo work done." He pulled up his sleeve far enough to show some of the dragon that graced his arm.
"That's a beauty, Deke. Looks like Lu's work. He is the best, alright. I'll have to make time to see him the next time I'm in port."
Bennett finished his drink, and slapped the table. "Sam, I need to go wrap things up, I'll see you in the morning."
Taggert nodded, and went back to his meal.
The next morning, Bennett walked past the tiny front desk of his flop house, and tossed some currency on the desk. He waived good bye to the manager. Once again he kept to the alleys as he made his way to the docks. He found the pier where the Starling was berthed. The name was appropriate, for it was small as far as cargo ships go. She flew a Liberian flag, and was an itinerant ship, having many ports of call until it would reach New York City. He made his way up the unsteady gang plank to the main deck where Taggert was waiting for him.
Taggert slapped Bennett on the back. "Welcome aboard, Deke. I cleared everything with the Cap'n. You just need to check in with the purser, and sign some forms for the company. He'll tell you where to store your gear. Gotta run, I'm on duty now."
The inspection went well, and several tugs eased the Starling away from the dock, and out into the harbor. In a few hours she was in the open ocean headed for the first of many stops on her long journey.
On the second night out at sea, Bennett was leaning over the port rail, amidships, having a cigarette. The moon was coming up over the bow of the ship. He liked standing on deck, and watching the moon rise over the rippling ocean. He puffed on the cigarette, and suddenly felt woozy. He was puzzled for he had never gotten sea sick before. He passed out. When he awoke, Sam Taggert was slapping his cheek, trying to rouse him. He could hear a loud commotion, and men were running toward the bow.
"What's going on?" asked Bennett.
"Something's happened to Salty," answered Taggert, as he helped Bennett to his feet. About halfway to the bow, Bennett had his sea legs back, and was able to make it the rest of the way on his own. When they arrived at the bow, there were several men with flashlights playing their beams on a red ruin near the rail. It was what was left of Salty. Only his legs were recognizable as human, and the dim light revealed what appeared to be huge bite marks on them. Two of the sailors were making the sign of the cross.
A few feet away, an excited sailor was talking to the Captain. He was gesturing wildly. Bennett and Taggert headed in that direction. The sailor was yelling again, "I tell you it was a Dragon --about thirty feet long, breathing fire. It swooped down at Salty, and blasted him, then started eating him. And the damnedest thing--it had only one eye."
The Captain looked at him in disbelief. "You know the rules, Lopez, no drinking on duty. You'll be gettin' docked for this," said the Captain. His accent was Greek.
"Cap'n! I tell ya I haven't had a drop since we left Shanghai. I know what I saw."
"We'll talk in the morning when you've had a chance to sober up." With that said, he dismissed the distraught sailor with a wave of his hand. He gave orders to several other sailors to put Salty's remains in a body bag, and to stow it in the ship's freezer.
As they did, Taggert stared long and hard at Bennett. "What did you see?" he asked him.
"Nothing. I was havin' a smoke and watchin' the moon rise when I got dizzy and passed out. First time I've ever lost my sea legs," he replied.
Vince Minelli sat at his desk, using two fingers to crank out forms on his computer. His hair was jet black, and he sported a five o'clock shadow, even though it was still early in the day. A scar ran diagonally down his right cheek, a souvenir from a rough life as a kid on the streets in Jersey. His partner, Brendan Mulhearn, sat a desk facing his, poring over files. His red hair was turning to gray at the temples. He wore his trademark black blazer and Kelly green tie. Together, they made up the city's Special Crimes Section, or as fellow officers derisively referred to them, the "Spook Squad." They were assigned to solve the stranger crimes that occurred in the big apple.
"These new computers sure make it easy to fill out the forms," said Minelli.
"Yeah, if only it would tell us what to put on the forms that won't make it sound like we belong in Bellevue," answered Mulhearn, as his phone rang.
He listened intently, and wrote a few notes on a tiny legal pad. He hung up the phone, ripped the sheet from the pad, and put it in his shirt pocket.
"C'mon, Vince. That was the Chief Fire Investigator, he needs our help."
"Is some ghost setting fires?" Minelli asked.
"Not quite." He paused, then said, "I'll let the Chief tell you -- you won't believe this."
"Hey, that's not fair," protested Minelli. "I tell you all the weird stuff! Where's the fire?"
"It's on the docks -- Pier 66 -- between West 25th and West 26th. One of the old railroad warehouses, Lehigh Valley or Erie, one of those railroads that failed in the 70's."
It was about forty five minutes later when they pulled up to the scene of the fire. Several piers jutted out into the Hudson at this point, like pudgy fingers. The piers were covered by long low warehouses. The nearest one was fully engulfed in angry orange flames that were shot hundreds of feet in the air. There were fire apparatus everywhere. Firefighters showered the warehouse with water from many hoses from the street side. Out on the river, fireboats sprayed water in long plumes on all three sides. The Chief, white helmeted, stood by a car, directing the efforts.
Minelli and Mulhearn hung leather wallets containing their badges around their necks, made their way over to where the Chief was, and introduced themselves. He thanked them for coming.
"I don't know if there's anything to this, but as long as the City has you guys, I figured I'll turn it over to you. You see those two winos over there, they've got quite a story to tell. I'm sure they just got a hold o' some bad muscatel, but I'll leave conclusion up to you. By the way, do you guys hold a seance or somethin'?" he said, trying to stifle a laugh, as he turned back to the fire.
Minelli and Mulhearn made their way over to two men who were leaning against the wall of a building across the street. Each was holding a paper bag with a bottle of cheap wine inside.
"They must have found refills," said Minelli.
The Detectives showed their identification to the men. "The Chief said we should talk to you about what happened here," said Mulhearn.
One of the men took a long gulp from his bottle. Minelli, reached out, and pulled the bottle away from his lips. "Why don't we just hold on a bit," he said. "Just tell us what you saw."
"We was just sittin' right here, enjoyin' a friendly drink among friends, if ya know what I mean, before headin' to the shelter for some shut eye. Then, all of a sudden, there's this big shadow thing flyin' around the building. I used to work there when the railroad owned it, ya know. So this shadow thing flies around the buildin' three or four times, an' all of a sudden it starts shootin' flames from its mouth. An' before ya know it, the buildin' blows up an' there's just flames everywhere."
"It was a dragon, I tell ya, it was a dragon, what else flies an' shoots fire from its mouth," said the second man.
"How much have the two of you had to drink?" asked Minelli.
"This is still the same bottle," said the first man. "We just took a sip when this happened. We been afraid to drink any more 'till now. Ya know we was thinkin' the same as you, so we stopped."
"Could you give me a little more detail?" Asked Mulhearn.
The second man spoke up. "It was about thirty feet long, with little wings that kinda looked like kites. It landed on the edge o' the buildin' for a second, an' I could see it in the light. Its head looked like one o' those dinosaur things ya see in the museums. We go there sometimes to get out o' the cold. Exceptin' it was weird. It only had one eye. It stomped its foot on the edge o' the buildin', causin' part of the roof to fall, an' then took off." He took a swig from the bottle quickly before either detective could stop him.
Minelli and Mulhearn finally coaxed their names from them, and the address of the shelter where they got their shut eye. They spent the rest of their shift without incident.
The next morning they came back to the scene of the fire. In some places wisps of smoke rose lazily from the rubble, but the fire was generally out. As they got closer to the scene, they could make out the form of Brian Peters from the crime lab, bending over, searching the remains. He stood up, and sealed a plastic bag.
Minelli and Mulhearn drew closer. "What are you up to?" asked Minelli.
"Why, I'm up to my knees in scat!" replied the crime tech.
"Scat?" questioned Minelli.
"You know, animal feces--and tons of it. Some very large animal left us a calling card." He held up the baggie.
"Finally, a job crappier than ours, Bren," joked Minelli.
Peters tiptoed his way over the charred timbers until he reached the detectives. He held up another baggie. "Look at this." This clear plastic bag was larger, and held an enormous black claw. "I found this next to the street. I think that the same animal that left the scat also left the claw. I'll know better when I get back to the lab. I'm starting to understand why you two are here."
They informed him of the winos's claims.
"I'm not sure about a dragon, but I don't have a better explanation. Even on his best day, an elephant couldn't leave droppings this massive -- even if it was a meat-eater, which it ain't. And this claw! I don't think any animal we know of has a claw shaped like this, and certainly not one that large. Boy, I can't wait to see the DNA results. I hope you two are planning a book if you make it to retirement age. This could deserve its own chapter."
"Who would believe us?" said Mulhearn.
"What's the Inquisitor's circulation? It sounds like a best seller to me," finished Peters.
Minelli and Mulhearn spotted the Chief Fire Investigator. He was talking to one of his men, and making notes as they talked.
"Any word on the cause?" asked Mulhearn.
"We know what it wasn't. My gut tells me that the fire was set, but we can't find any evidence of accelerants. The burn pattern says that the fire started on the roof. An arsonist would burn from the inside, or the bottom of the building. The power has been off -- so we know it's not electrical. Damned if I can figure this one out -- but rest assured, I will," said the Chief.
Minelli produced a card, and handed it to him. "If you could send us a copy of the report, I'd appreciate it."
As they turned to leave, the Chief said, "There is one other thing. I got a report from Interpol this morning. This is not the only harbor fire recently--there's been a rash of them. Started in the Pacific -- in Japan, then the Philippines, Peru, Panama and Miami. They seem to think they're all related -- and all arsons. I think this may be one of the series. I'll have a copy of their report sent over." He pulled out his cell phone.
There were no more reports of flying dragons or major fires on the docks during the rest of the day.
When Minelli reached his desk at the start of their shift, Mulhearn was already seated, reading from the Interpol report. "The fires started in the Pacific, and go in a straight line, right across the globe to South America, then through the Panama Canal, and up the east coast. I'm thinking that it was one ship. I'm willing to bet that Interpol thinks so, too. Let me get on the horn, and find out if they have a list of the ships in that were in port at the time of each of the fires."
After lunch, Precinct Captain, Pete Donovan, handed Minelli a pink slip of paper, ripped from a message book. "I got a call for you two from a Brian Peters over at the crime lab. He seems like a real excitable guy--I thought he would bust a gut on the phone. I suggest you make this your first order of business."
"I'll do the honors," said Minelli as they arrived at their desks. He picked up the receiver, and punched in the number. As he did, Mulhearn's phone rang.
"Peters here," said the voice on the other end of Minelli's line. "Yo, Vince. You're not going to believe this. I got the DNA results. I figured I would be in all of the crime journals--I guess just not the way I thought. It's not a new species--the damn DNA is human! And worse, I put the results into the FBI computers, and I got a match -- a Douglas Bennett. He was convicted of rape in 1997, so his genetic info was on file. After he was convicted, he was being taken upstate to prison, and the van crashed. Both of the transporting officers were killed, and this Bennett guy made his escape. He hasn't been seen since."
Minelli was writing furiously. "Can you transmit a picture, and whatever else you've got?" he asked.
"Sure thing, but you gotta tell me how this one comes out."
Minelli put down the phone.
"That was Interpol," said Mulhearn. "They did single out one ship, the Starling. I'm going to check with the harbor master -- I'm willing to bet that she's berthed in New York right now."
"Wait until you hear what Brian came up with," replied Minelli, as Mulhearn called the harbor master.
The harbor master's office verified that the Starling had indeed entered New York Harbor two days before, and was tied up at a pier about a mile away from Pier 66.
"So, we're looking for a convicted rapist who breathes fire, has wings, large claws, and a bad intestine? Is that the size of it?" Asked Mulhearn.
"Should be easy to pick out in a crowd, dontcha think?" replied Minelli, as they headed for the door.
About an hour later, they found the pier where the Starling was tied up. It was a more modern pier, with a large warehouse running down the center, and wide aprons on each side. On the side where the Starling lay at anchor, stevedores were busy using the ship's davits to unload pallets of cargo from holds deep in the bowels of the ship.
Minelli and Mulhearn made their way up the gang plank, and introduced themselves to the sailor standing at the top of the plank, smoking a cigarette. He identified himself as Sam Taggert. "We'd like to come aboard, and speak to the Captain," said Mulhearn.
"The Cap'n's not here," replied Taggert. "He went down to the company offices. He'll be back this afternoon."
"In that case, do you have a crewman on board by the name of Douglas Bennett?" asked Minelli.
At the mention of the name all of the color drained from Taggert's face, and the hand holding the cigarette began shaking uncontrollably -- a fact that did not go unnoticed by the detectives.
"Ole Deke, he jumped ship as soon as we got into port. I saw him walkin' up the deck -- said he was on his way to the doc's -- lost a fingernail, he said. He had his hand all wrapped up in a handkerchief covered in blood. That was the last time I saw him -- and good riddance. Ever since he came on board, the Starling's been cursed, and she used to be such a good little ship, too. We lost poor Salty on the second night out. Nearly bit in two he was. Mangled. Cap'n thinks he was too close to the rail and an orca got him. I say no way -- the Starling rides way too high out of the water for that to ever happen. Then, in every port it's a either a fire or a death, all mangled and eaten like Salty, and I lay it all on Deke. Him and that fancy new tattoo. There's somethin' strange about it, I tell ya. An' I heard that ol' Lu and his granddaughter were killed the night before we left. Killed with a knife. Deke hides a knife in his boot." Taggert was nearly hysterical and his voice was cracked with excitement.
"What kind of tattoo?" asked Mulhearn.
"Runs all the way down his arm it does -- a dragon, a one-eyed dragon." He proceeded to describe the tattoo in detail.
Minelli pulled a card from his jacket, and handed it to Taggert. "If you see him, give us a call, we'd sure like to talk to him," he said.
Back at the precinct house, Minelli arranged an APB for Bennett, and then accessed his file. Meanwhile Mulhearn contacted Interpol to inquire about any murders that took place on the Starling's route.
"It has a note in the file under known contacts. He's got a brother in Brooklyn. Let's check it out," said Minelli.
The address was a plain two-storey frame house, set on a narrow lot like all the others on the street. Mulhearn let Minelli out on the street side, and proceeded to go down an alley to the rear of the house.
Minelli knocked on the door. A man answered who bore a strong resemblance to the mug shot that Minelli had in his breast pocket. "I'm looking for your brother, Douglas. Have you seen him lately? I understand that he arrived in port a couple of days ago."
"I haven't seen him, and prob'ly wouldn't tell you if I did. It's time you cops stop harassin' him," said Bennett's brother angrily.
Before Minelli could reply, he thought he heard a door slam in the back of the house. He swung his body over the porch rail, and headed toward the back of the house.
Mulhearn had pulled up to the rear of the house by way of the back alley. He exited the vehicle, and crouched down behind the open car door. As he waited, Deke Bennett flew out of the back door like a demon from hell was after him.
Bennett was halfway across the yard when he began to swoon. This had happened many times since he had boarded the Starling, but experience didn't make the ground any softer where he fell. As he lay still on the patchy green grass, a transformation took place. A pale purple mist enshrouded his left arm. As the vapors expanded, they took shape, and the purple colors separated into the red and blue of a dragon, which now took to the sky.
The creature sensed Mulhearn's presence. It turned in his direction, and gave a great blast of fiery breath, engulfing Mulhearn's unmarked car which erupted in flame and sound. The force of the blast sent Mulhearn clawing through the air until he crashed through the worn picket fence that surrounded the Bennett home. He lay unconscious on his back, blood trickling from a wound on his head.
Minelli reached the back yard in time to see the dragon, which was clearly missing its right eye, kneeling over the prostrate form of his partner. A strong scent of sulfur assaulted his nostrils. As the creature moved its head back to deliver a killing blow, Minelli could hear the unmistakable crack -- crack -- crack of a gun firing. Hollow-point bullets riddled the dragon's back and opened gaping wounds in the soft flesh from which small puffs of smoke and fire now escaped. The torment of the wounds caused the dragon to ignore Mulhearn for the moment. It turned to face its tormenter.
Bennett was still pulling the trigger of the now empty weapon. The dragon did not hesitate, and in a movement almost too fast for the eye to follow, it lunged at Deke Bennett. When it pulled back, nearly all of Bennett's right side was missing. Too late there was a flicker of recognition in the dragon's sole eye that there was a special connection between it and this puny human. As the life force seeped from Bennett's body, the dragon too began to fade, as did the tattoo on Bennett's arm. Within moments both had disappeared.
Minelli stared for a moment in stunned silence before he holstered his weapon, and rushed to the side of his fallen partner.
© 2006 by Brian C. Petroziello
Brian C. Petroziello says: "I am an attorney in Dayton, Ohio. I have been published on line in Aphelion, Descending Darkness, Dark Fire UK, Fools Motley, Planet Magazine, Unhallowed Sanctum, and in Print in Black Petals and Amazing Journeys. Short stories have been accepted and are scheduled to appear in Black Petals, Ethereal Gazette and Escaping Elsewhere." Mr. P's previous Aphelion appearance include two earlier adventures of Detectives Minelli and Mulhearn (most recently The Hounds of the Five Boroughs, February 2005), and The Visions of Carlos Rivera, October 2005.
E-mail: Brian C. Petroziello
Website: Brian C. Petroziello Home Page
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