SIGN OF THE DRAGON EXCERPT
BY: NEIL LOW
It was well after midnight before Alan and Vera made it to her apartment. She led him into the bathroom where she had him take off his blood-soaked sweater and T-shirt and sit down on the toilet seat. Lathering soap on a clean washcloth she turned his head to the side so she could gently wash out his wound. After it was cleaned and patted dry, she persuaded him to let her dab a cotton ball with diluted hydrogen peroxide into the wound to kill the germs. He held the sterilized cotton against his wound while she went to the kitchen for an ice bag. She returned with the bag, water, and a bottle of aspirin.
Inserting her fingers past his lips, she tucked a number of aspirin in his mouth, and handed him the water. When he finished washing down the pills, she gave him the ice bag and a cloth to put over the wound. “You really should have that closed with a couple of stitches, so it won’t leave a scar.”
“Does that mean going to the hospital tonight?” Alan asked.
“If we did, the White Dragon or the police might find the records and connect us to what happened in the bathhouse.”
“We don’t want that,” Alan said.
Alan recalled his first visit to the Chinatown bordello, where Vic covered all his expenses as a way of saying thanks. Vic didn’t scrimp on costs, paying for two young women to join Alan in his bath and relieve him of his virginity.
“That might not be such a good idea,” Alan finally said.
“Why not? I could drive.”
Alan’s mouth sagged open and he rolled his eyes. “It would be difficult introducing you to the people there—Mama San and Little Papa—because their English isn’t very good,” he said with more certainty than he felt.
“It all worked out well for Vic, and he had a gunshot wound,” Vera said with a pleading frown that Alan saw right through. “In fact, they patched him up very well indeed,” Vera added impishly.
“That’s because he speaks enough Chinese to get by, and he has Rose to help him when he gets stuck—but they’re gone now.”
“I think the gentleman doth protest too much,” Vera said, laughing. “Okay, if that’s what you want, but that means I’ll do the stitching.”
“You can do that?” Alan asked.
“Of course. Sterilize the needle and thread, pull the skin together, tie little knots, and snip off loose ends when it’s done.”
Alan groaned and shook his head. “Doesn’t sound like fun.”
“Should I brace myself with a stiff one first?” he asked.
“You don’t want me to answer that, do you?”
“What?” Alan asked.
Alan then glanced down at his lap, where Vera’s gaze rested. Suddenly he got it. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, embarrassed he’d walked into that one. Vera smiled but didn’t abuse her advantage in the play on words.
“Not a good idea to mix alcohol with head trauma,” Vera said. “I read that somewhere. You’ll have to tough it out for now.”
“Let’s get it done then,” Alan sighed.
“Hold the ice in place while I get a sewing kit. We’ll want the swelling to go down more.”
Alan squinted up at her. “You still have grease paint on your face.”
Vera touched her face and glanced in the mirror. “Well I’ve also got blood from at least three different people on me. What’s a girl to do?” She unceremoniously grabbed the base of her sweater, pulled it over her head, and dropped it on top of his clothing. Then she unsnapped her trousers, shook her hips while tugging them down, and let them drop to the floor as well before she casually walked out of the room in her bra and panties. “I should probably burn those,” she called back over her shoulder. Through the pain Alan managed a smile.
Three minutes later Vera returned dressed just as she had left the room, carrying a needle, thread, scissors, and a kitchen bowl. She mixed hydrogen peroxide with water and let the sewing kit soak in the solution. While the sterilizing solution did its work, Vera took a clean washcloth, immersed it in warm water and dabbed at the White Dragon’s greasepaint that had transferred to her face during their battle. “Did you notice how good the Dragon’s English was?” Vera asked.
“What do you mean?”
“By most standards you would say it was flawless. She didn’t have an accent or pause at all while she searched for the appropriate American word.”
Alan had been examining the wallpaper pattern in the bathroom, before counting stitches on the towel in his hand, as he avoided looking at Vera’s nearly naked body. While he held the sterile pad to his wound she stood casually at the sink, either oblivious to the effect she had on him or exploiting it. Was she teasing him again? This time, however, seemed more innocent. Alan glanced up at her face and tried to rest his gaze on her eyes, skipping her magnificent torso in the process. It wasn’t working for him. She had too nice of a body to ignore it for very long, so he returned to staring at the wall. Meanwhile, Vera had worked a special soap into a lather and was busy dabbing it into the crevices around her eyes, not paying attention to him. But then why should she focus on him, Alan wondered. It’s her bathroom.
Vera filled the sink with water. “I don’t know why I’m doing this now. I’m just going to take a bath after I get you sewed up.”
She leaned over the sink and splashed water on her face, rinsing away the lather. Without looking up she reached her hand toward him and bumped his shoulder. “Would you hand me a towel? I’ve got soap in my eyes!”
Alan reached behind him and picked a plush towel from the rack. He twisted back to hand it to her. Vera’s eyes were scrunched shut and sudsy water ran down her neck and across her full breasts. She took the towel, clutched it in her hand, and dabbed at her face and throat. “It’s not so much that she didn’t have an accent,” Vera said, “it’s more like she had a west coast accent—an educated one at that.”
“She sounded like everyone I know,” Alan said.
“That’s my point. You’re from the west coast—Seattle. She sounded a lot like you, but a little different—like California different.”
“You can tell where people are from, even American accents?”
“Not always, but quite a lot. You, for instance,” she said, “could probably spot an east coast one, like Boston, Brooklyn, or Maine, and you would definitely know the southern ones. Of course they vary depending on region, education, and social class. Hers, I’m going to say, was Californian—probably south of San Francisco.”
“Wow. I had no idea.”
Vera set the towel aside, and suddenly Alan was eye level with her bosoms as her cleavage spilled over her brassiere. He dropped his head and turned back to stare at the floor. Vera continued talking as if she were having a dialogue with herself. “Her sword technique is adequate, but she would have posed a lot greater risk without those clunky clogs, which looked the part but gave her very little traction. It’s almost as if she were trying her best to assume a role, one she wasn’t born to.”
Alan glanced over his shoulder and found he could do this safely. With his view of her partially blocked, he could keep her breasts out of his mind, thereby focusing on what she was saying. He tried to hold up his end of the conversation, forcing himself to concentrate. “What do you make of that?”
“I’m wondering if she’s not Japanese.”
“I’m not following you.”
“Alright…maybe she’s ethnically Japanese—but not actually from Japan.”
Alan started to nod but stopped, not sure where this was headed.
“There was something peculiar about her, when we were face to face. Maybe she’s called the White Dragon for a reason—because she’s Caucasian.”
“White?” Alan asked.
“Or partly white. That would fit. Her bone structure was slightly different, perhaps a combination of both races. Under the paint, she’s very beautiful. The men she knows must fall all over themselves when they’re around her.”
“Like they do with you?” Alan asked.
Vera reached out to muss his hair, but went gentle around his head wound. “You’re an awfully sweet darling.”
“I wasn’t trying to be. I’m just telling you what I see.”
“Well, thank you anyways, but there was something else in her eyes.”
After a moment of waiting, Alan asked, “Are you going to tell me?”
“No. I’m not sure. Besides, they always say this about strong women.”
“It’s not important.”
“But you brought it up,” Alan said.
“It may be nothing, but when our faces met… it’s almost like she reached out—let’s just forget it.”
Alan leaned against the toilet tank and chewed his lower lip while he thought. A moment later, Vera set the needle and thread on a dry washcloth at the end of the counter next to him. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“If I said no, then what would—”
“Don’t be a baby. It’s only going to hurt a little, and if your pupils look normal afterwards, then I’ll give you that stiff one, mister.”
Alan grinned sheepishly, and Vera smirked. She stepped in close, wedging her left leg between his legs to get near enough to do her work. He forced his attention past her brassiere, down to stop at her navel. There wasn’t any other place on her where he could fix his gaze and be safe from arousal. He didn’t think there was anything sexy about a bellybutton, but as he studied the area of her skin just a few inches from his face, he began to notice small, fine hairs gathered around this curious ornament of nature, forming a delicate swirl. The hairs were tinged with the color that proceeded south to her panty line, increasing in volume and color, hinting at the full pubic bush he knew would be there. She could torture him even when she wasn’t trying. Why couldn’t this be Alice? If it were, Alice would have to yank him by the hair to keep his face from smothering her body with hungry kisses.
Vera’s knee was now mere inches from rubbing up against his erection, which had crawled down his leg. Alan sighed heavily and inhaled her perfumed flesh.
“It’s the anticipation you’re dreading,” Vera said. “It won’t hurt that much. Sorry, I can’t numb it for you. When I pull the thread through you’ll feel a little—”
“It’s not… I’ll be fine.”
“You know what? Maybe you should have something to chew on, like a moistened cloth.”
How about a nipple? Alan almost blurted out but didn’t. He watched in awe as she stretched past him to grab a washcloth from the rack behind, and as she did her lacy brassiere brushed his cheek and earlobe. She had to know.
He squeezed his eyes painfully tight. “Vera?”
“Do you want me to soak this in scotch for you?” She withdrew her leg from between his and started for the door.
“Yes, please, and…”
“And what, dear?”
“Would you put on a sweatshirt or a robe while you’re at it?”
“Alan Stewart, you’re such a prude. You can’t imagine how many men have tried to get me out of my clothes, and here you are trying to cover me up. You don’t like what you see?”
Alan grinned, embarrassed. “I like it too much.” He glanced at his crotch and shook his head. “My skivvies are stretched out so far I don’t think I’ll be able to wear them again.”
Vera laughed and shook her head, returning a few moments later clad in a soft pink robe and carrying a glass of scotch in each hand, at least three-fingers worth over ice. She set her drink down and handed him his. Then she twisted a clean flannel cloth until it formed a tight wedge, dipped it in his drink, and pushed the soaked edge into his mouth. “Here. Suck on this for awhile.”
The scotch was smooth and Alan was sure it was expensive. He savored the flavor and closed his eyes, awaiting the stick of the needle to his skin. Before she could begin he pulled the flavored rag out of his mouth for a moment. “How many stitches will it take?” he asked.
“I’m thinking three if you’re lucky, maybe four.”
Vera extended a bare leg from the robe and wedged it between his legs again. This time it didn’t bother him as much, but he tensed as she worked the needle through the flap of torn skin on his head. He clamped his teeth down on the cloth soaked in scotch. The thread tugged gently on his skin as she pulled the length of line through. The pain wasn’t as intense as he feared, but the whole idea of what she was doing was unsettling. His mind turned to other things and he released his firm bite on the rag to speak again. “Does it bother you?” he asked.
“What? This isn’t so bad.” she said.
“I was thinking about killing the White Dragon’s spies.”
Vera finished drawing the thread through the opposite side of the wound and tugged the two pieces together. Alan squirmed and squeezed his legs tight, trapping Vera closer to him for a moment. “That’s one down, and it wasn’t so bad,” she said.
Alan laughed nervously. “You should try it from down here.”
“Hold steady or you’re going to have a scar like the seam on a baseball.”
“If you can handle that needle and thread half as well as you do a sword, I’m in good hands.”
Vera kept working, intent on her sewing. Alan dipped the rag into the scotch again and sucked out more of the flavor before he withdrew it for a third time. “That’s three more I’ve killed, and from what they were saying, this wasn’t your first.”
“Does it upset you?”
“Of course, but I sort that kind of thing out later, like when I’m soaking in the tub—which I’ll be doing very soon. And knowing I did it for my country makes it a lot easier. There was nothing personal about it.”
“Maybe that’s the difference. I caved in one man’s nose, shot another in the face, and pushed a third into a tub, boiling him like a lobster, and I’m not the least bit…who am I kidding?” Alan sighed heavily. “I feel awful, Vera. My body count just continues to grow. St. Peter must be pacing back and forth in front of the pearly gates, wringing his hands, wondering what he’s going to tell the Big Boss about me.”
Vera tied off a second stitch. “I meant to tell you earlier, but you handled yourself really well, Champ. You did more than just carry your weight—you saved both our lives. You heard what the White Dragon said. It was going to be an execution. She wanted to send my head to Japan in a box. They were deadly serious. Without you, I wouldn’t have made it out alive.”
Alan smiled and glanced up at her, a glint of admiration in his eye. “You’re like the second coming of Joan of Arc,” he said.
“But I don’t want to end up like her, roasted on an English barbecue.”
“I’m glad I could help, but…I’m worried about what I’m becoming,” he said.
“Don’t get lost in the gore. Instead, think of the good you’re doing. You’re fighting for your country, and they are the enemy. This whole conflict is going to end in a war. What we did tonight may slow the inevitable and hopefully block their ability to lay waste to China or attack us…. Which reminds me. In the morning we still need to show the Port Authorities what we found and where we found it—so they can place an embargo of the brass. Our work’s not done yet, Champ.”
Alan groaned. “I imagine morning comes earlier on your clock than it does mine.”
“You can sleep in the spare room. It’ll cut down on the time wasted coming and going.”
“What will your neighbors say?”
“There’s not a lot they can say. I own the building.”
“There must be thirty rooms here.”
“That’s about right. There’s actually twenty-nine because I converted the floor space for a separate unit into mine. I wanted the extra bath, bedrooms, and a second entrance.”
“Why the extra door?”
“Privacy, emergency exit…that kind of thing. I take precautions and haven’t had anyone like the White Dragon follow me home yet, but it helps to be prepared.”
“And you own the whole building?”
“I had to have some place to put my money when I sold my share of the show, and I’m not ready to get back in the stock market. My timing was nearly perfect. I got out of burlesque before the movies took over, and prime real estate seemed like the perfect option. Besides, I get to live here too.”
Vera tugged at the third stitch. “I think this should do it,” she said. Vera snipped the threads near the last knot and leaned back to inspect her work. “We’ll put a bandage over it in the morning if we have to, but I wouldn’t cover it tonight. And don’t forget not to get it wet.”
“Champ, there’s a line between being a good detective and prying.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
Vera blinked thoughtfully. “Actually, it’s me that should be sorry. You don’t need to apologize, I was being rude.” She wrapped her arms around his head, cradled it, and pulled him gently to her abdomen. “You’re just curious, that’s understandable, but there’s a part of my life I don’t take to the office. It’s just like Mackie not taking his work home—or ever bringing his family to work.”
“You have a family?”
Vera paused for a long second, her movements frozen in air. “That’s not what I was saying…or where I was going with this. I was talking about keeping certain things private.”
WEB PAGE: http://neillow.com/
ABOUT NEIL LOW:
I’m a 43-year veteran captain of the Seattle Police Department, and I’m currently the Night Commander for the whole city, handling emergency situations involving tragedy and crimes. When I went through the academy, we were required to read Joe Wambaugh’s books, THE NEW CENTURIONS and THE BLUE KNIGHT. About three chapters into the first one I told myself that this is what I wanted to do as soon as I had some stories to tell and took some classes that would teach me how to write. Many years later, after a very rich career, I went back to the UW Bothell and took all the writing classes I could, graduating cum laude in 2003. Besides police work, family life, and writing, I lead the Seattle Murder Mystery Tours through Seattle’s Pioneer Square (when is suits me) and guest lecture on Seattle’s sordid past. Other writers who have influenced my style are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I would add James Ellroy to the list, because he also explores noir fiction as I do, but his treatment of women is lacking, which is understandable if you knew the horrible circumstances around his mother’s death. I prefer strong women and have vowed that you won’t find week women in my stories who don’t have a source of their own strength, which comes in many forms. I also like my characters to be multi-dimensional in that they are well rounded, which includes a healthy sexual appetite. And since one of my protagonisists is a 21-year old male, we can be sure that sex is on his mind most of the time.