Authors: Joanne Pence
Copyright 2012 Joanne Pence
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. This book may not be resold or uploaded for distribution to others.
This is a work of fiction. Any referenced to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
First e-book edition: November 2011
Second e-book edition (Quail Hill Publishing): September 2012
Table of Contents
About the Author
Hong Kong, British Crown Colony, 1978
“You call yourselves police? What do you mean you still haven’t heard anything about my brother?”
“Look, Miss…uh, Perkins.” The balding, ruddy-faced policeman slowly lifted his gaze from the newspaper on the counter and wiped the perspiration from his brow with a once-white handkerchief. “We are trying to be sympathetic, we are trying to be reasonable,” he droned, “but each year, hundreds of American tourists show up to peer from the Hong Kong border into the heart of Mao’s China, or to actually enter it in their well-guarded little tour groups. You simply cannot expect us to remember one individual. Good day, Miss Perkins.”
C.J. Perkins folded her arms, one toe tapping as she glared at the man immersed once again in the latest round of tabloid scandals.
Until a few days ago, everything C.J. knew about Hong Kong came from old movies likeThe World of Suzie WongandLove is a Many Splendored Thingwhich she'd shed many a tear over. But they didn't prepare her for the real place. She learned that the Hong Kong British Crown Colony was made up of several parts: the island of Hong Kong, the mainland city called Kowloon, and to the north, the area called the New Territories. They were separated from Communist China by a well-patrolled border. Already, there was much talk and nervousness in Hong Kong about the British lease running out in another ten years, and that the colony would revert to the People's Republic of China. No one could believe that would ever happen, however.
Now, C.J. found herself in the town of Luchow deep in the New Territories and near the Chinese border. As opposed to the modern, high-rise filled Hong Kong and Kowloon areas, the New Territories were old, comparatively barren, ramshackle and laden with yellow dust.
At midday the Luchow police station was quiet, the heat and humidity high enough to keep troublemakers comfortably indoors and the border town relatively crime-free. Only the rhythmic whirring of the ceiling fans and the patter of insects hitting the window screens broke the soporific silence.
The policeman raised one eye in her direction, a look of disdain on his face, and returned to his reading.
Frowning, she remained where she was, waiting for him to do something. Anything. Hot and tired, she angrily shoved a frizzy, humidity-crinkled lock of brown hair behind her ear. Her frustration soared at the heat-induced lethargy surrounding her.
There was only one way to deal with these people, she decided. After all, her brother was missing. She had tried sweetness, patience and understanding, and had gotten nowhere. She hadn’t tried to be flirtatious. She was well aware she wasn’t the type to pull that off.
It was time to be tough.
She linked her thumbs in the belt loops of her white cotton slacks and squared her shoulders under her red plaid blouse. She spread her feet apart, the small stacked heels of her white sandals adding two inches to an already tall frame, and took a deep breath.
“I am an American citizen.” Her voice was low, well-modulated and controlled as she spoke, even though she knew her statement didn’t mean as much throughout Asia as it had before the recent pull-out from Vietnam. She continued. “My brother, Alan Mansfred Perkins, has been missing for three weeks, his papers show that he planned to come here, and now, he's disappeared.” When the officer still didn’t move, her fury boiled over. “I demand that you do something!”
He looked up, his eyes half-closed. “So you’ve told us, over and over. But you still haven’t told us why. Why did he want to come to Luchow? What was his reason?”
The same unanswerable questions again and again, she thought, as her fists clenched. “I’m not a mind-reader! I don’t know! I don't care!”
He slammed his hand on the counter and pushed his round, pugnacious face toward hers. “Well, neither do I! And he’syourbrother!”
"He'syourmissing person! I want you to try to find him!"
"If he shows up, we'll let you know."
His breath was hot and smelled revolting. C.J. spun around hugging her arms, her cheeks burning and her chest heaving. This was the same annoying claptrap she had received for days. And she was still no closer to finding Alan.
She shut her eyes for a moment as a wave of despair and worry filled her, but she fought against it and turned again to face the epitome of bureaucratic implacability. “I must speak with your chief.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, although he sounded quite the opposite. “He’s away at the moment, and I’ve no idea when he will return.”
“May I wait?”
“My pleasure.” His sarcasm dripped as he left the front desk to shuffle papers elsewhere in the room.
C.J. stubbornly plopped down on the old vinyl-covered sofa across from the counter, causing puffs of dust and the scent of mildew to waft up to her. She picked up a Chinese magazine and briskly fanned herself against the sweltering heat. Her blouse kept sticking to the plastic furniture.
Where was the police chief? She looked around the station she had come to know well—too well— over the past few days. The large main room, its plaster walls cracked and gray with age, was empty, as usual. So were the chief’s office and some small rooms beside it. On the far end of the main office was the door to the jail cells, which were about the only part of the station she hadn’t seen yet. She had no desire to change that.
Over an hour passed, but still the police chief did not return. C.J. willed herself to be patient and leaned back on the sofa with a weary sigh. That she had nowhere else to go and had reached the end of her brother’s miniscule trail, made her resolution to remain here easy to keep. She also had a niggling feeling that the police were hiding something from her, and she was determined to stay until she found out what it was.
As the heat and humidity of the afternoon made the air thicker and more oppressive, even the ceiling fans seemed to slacken their pace. She put down the magazine to concentrate on making no movement whatsoever. Her eyelids grew heavy, and her thoughts drifted freely....
If she were to go home now, what could she tell her parents? That she almost found Alan, but not quite? That she had failed again? Just as she had with her career? Her art work?
Her parents had paid for art school for her to become the “female Rembrandt of her time.” But the main lesson she had learned, much to her own dismay, was that even dedication and hard work don’t always result in truly creative talent. Not that she was untalented, she just wasn’t a great artist. Her work was technically competent, well-executed and likable. But nothing more. . . nothing more...
Her eyelids flew open. She must have fallen asleep, she thought, as she quickly pulled herself upright on the old sofa and wondered if anyone had noticed. Mercifully, the office appeared empty. So why had she awakened so suddenly?
“What are you doing in Luchow?”
The voice startled her so badly she nearly toppled off the couch. It belonged to Captain Burnham of the British border patrol, a memorably odious person. Tall and heavy, with a florid complexion and thinning dirty blond hair, he could have stepped out of a 1940s movie about the Third Reich, except for his very British accent.
“I wish to speak to the American Consul.” A deep, male voice with a pure Yankee twang to it answered Burnham.
After days of unhelpful British accents, the resonant sound was comforting to her homesick ears. The voices came from one of the small rooms off the main office, but she couldn’t see anyone.
“What are you doing here?” the captain repeated.
The American gave the same response.
“You’ll go to the consulate in good time, after you answer our questions. Now, where are your papers?”
“I wish to see the American Consul.”
The voices grew louder.
“Were you in Communist China?”
“I wish to see—”
“Tell us your name.”
“I want your name!”
“I wish to see—”
“Does the name Alan Perkins mean anything to you?”
At this, C.J. froze, every sense alert. Who was this man? Why would Burnham ask him about her brother? She heard his standard reply and felt as irritated by it as she suspected Burnham did.
“Tell us about the White Dragon,” Captain Burnham said.
C.J. all but gasped aloud, and covered her mouth with her hands.
The White Dragon was the name she had found on a note in Alan’s room—the same note that had led her to Hong Kong. She had asked the police about it over and over, but they had consistently maintained that they had no idea what it was. Now she knew that it did mean something to them. They had lied to her! But why?
“...American Consul.” The last words of the man’s pat answer drummed once again in her ears. She jumped up and moved closer to the back room, throwing herself against the counter that blocked her way as she strained to hear every word.
“Lock him up,” Burnham said.
No! Her mind spun.They can’t do that!
Since the border patrol was asking the stranger about Alan and the White Dragon, he must know something. He wouldn’t tell them, but maybe he would tell her, a fellow American. He had to tell her! He was her only lead.
She chewed her bottom lip, uncertain what to do or how to find a way to talk to the stranger.
She was still considering her options when she heard a slight shuffling sound; then a tall, thin man was pushed into the large office from the small side room. He stumbled once before he regained his footing. He wasn't merely being questioned. To her dismay, she saw that he was handcuffed. He was a prisoner.
His jeans and dark green T-shirt were torn, and layers of dirt clung to his clothes, face and arms. Yet, despite the handcuffs at his back, he held his spine straight and his head erect.
His long, sun-bleached, light brown hair was pushed straight back from his forehead. His face was bearded with prominent cheekbones, a patrician nose and high forehead. A jagged scar cut across his left eyebrow, and his skin was deeply bronzed by the sun.
The defiant look he wore made her think that capturing him had probably not been one of the border patrol’s easier missions. Considering how she felt about the authorities in Luchow, the thought gave her perverse pleasure.
She took a step forward. He raised his eyes to hers, and their glances met across the large room.
His eyes were a startling green. She had seen that exact shade in the jungles of Malaysia where her brother had last been living, on the uppermost leaves of the rain forest when it was flooded in sunlight. As she felt herself ensnared within their depths, they reminded her further of the jungle—beautiful, yet frightening; enticing, yet threatening.
She hadn’t meant to stare, hadn’t meant to lock her gaze with his, but was unable to break away.
A slightly questioning look flickered across his face for a moment; then he gave a rakish grin and turned again toward the captain. The grin startled her at first, but then she realized that it had only added to the self-assured demeanor of the man. He had the look of a feline playing with its prey. He was, in a word, magnificent.
In that same instant, she knew what he saw when he looked at her, and why, far too suddenly, he had turned away. She was a woman who was “a little too”—a little too tall, a little too clumsy, and, she had to admit, a little too bossy. Her hair was too mousy-brown to be pretty, and styled too simply--shoulder length with a side part--to be chic. Her mouth was too big, and her eyes too pale a gray. She was, in a word, plain. Being able to captivate a man with her beauty wasn’t her long suit. Not even when the man was already a prisoner. That knowledge didn’t make approaching him any easier, but she had to find a way to speak to him. As she studied him, a plan formed. He didn’t seem like a criminal, she thought. Or not quite. And the authorities were so hopeless. Dare she chance it? If it failed, what was the worst that could happen to her?
She didn’t want to contemplate the answer.
Okay, C period, J period, Perkins. You’ve always said you’re tough—now’s your chance to prove it.
She swallowed hard as she braced herself to take the plunge. She bolted around the counter and across the room. “Wait!” she shouted.
The men turned to look at her.
“You found him!” she cried. “You found my brother!”
She stopped in front of the prisoner and put her hands on his arms. “Alan! Thank God! We were so worried.”
He accepted her greeting without the slightest twitch, although her own body was trembling so badly that she was convinced she would give herself away. Understand, her eyes pleaded with him. Please understand! Putting her shaking arms around him, she pulled his head against the side of her face. He stiffened at first, then bent toward her without complaint.
She patted his back with sisterly affection. “Oh, poor Alan. What happened to you out there? It must have been terrible. Don’t worry, I’m here now to take care of you. I’ve got your papers, and we’ll be home in Columbus in no time.” She knew she was babbling, but couldn’t stop. “Mom and Dad have been so worried.”
He straightened and stared at her. As she stroked his hair back from his face, her eyes met his. The power his gaze had exercised over her from across the room was insignificant compared to this, and her hand faltered, then dropped to her side as her stomach did a triple somersault.
She tore her gaze from him to the captain, forcing a smile. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said.
Burnham’s eyes narrowed as his head snapped from one to the other. “This is your brother?” Incredulity dripped from his voice.
“He must have been robbed and beaten. That’s obviously why he looks this way,” she said. The stranger lifted one eyebrow at her.
She began to pat his shoulder, hoping to distract him from protesting, hoping to signal her distress, and praying for him to go along with her.
“Let me see his papers again,” the captain said.
She handed over the identification papers she had found in Alan’s room in Malaysia. His passport, however, was not among them.
“Six feet tall, two hundred pounds, dark brown hair, brown eyes,” Burnham read, then eyed his prisoner as he rubbed his hand against his chin. “Six-two, I would say. Twelve, thirteen stone, at most—that’s a hundred seventy or so pounds to you,” he said to C.J. “Hair is brown, sort of. But the eyes…”
She felt flustered. The prisoner cocked his head at her with “Now what?” on his face. She raised her chin. “So he lost weight in this godforsaken part of the world! Who wouldn’t?” That was when she noticed that the captain’s stomach stood quite a bit nearer to her than did his feet.
She grabbed Alan’s papers from Burnham’s hands and stuffed them quickly back into her purse, her words tumbling out ever faster. “You know men don’t worry about little things like inches. They’re all six-footers or they’re short, that’s all. There’s no other height they worry about. And his eyes, I ask you, how many men really think about the color of their eyes? I’m sure ninety percent of the men in the world say their eyes are brown.”
“Ninety percent of the men in the worlddohave brown eyes.”
“My point exactly, so what’s a little—”
The prisoner stepped forward. “If these are my papers and she is my sister, then what charge am I being held on?”
C.J.’s mouth fell open; she couldn’t believe the authority in the man’s voice. Even Burnham looked surprised.
“Ifthose are your papers, there is no charge at the moment. Not from us, in any case. If you are, in fact, Alan Perkins and this is your sister, you have far greater problems than the border patrol could provide.” Burnham scowled. “And there are still some questions—”
“And I told you, I have no answers. Now, I suggest you remove these handcuffs and let me out of here, or you’ll be facing a false arrest charge.”
C.J. got ready to run when she saw the rage slowly well up in Burnham’s face and threaten to explode at any second. “I suggest you both leave Luchow immediately, and that you do not return. I have enough trouble with Chinese Communists just across the border. I don’t need more from you Americans.”
“What would the free world do without you?” the prisoner said as his handcuffs were removed and his bedroll was handed to him. As C.J. stood bewildered by all this, he clasped her elbow. Before she knew it, she was standing on the street outside the station.
The busy street was narrow and lined with small shops displaying all manner of edibles and household necessities, a crush of people went about their business. Some were dressed western style, while many wore loose fitting pants and tunic tops. Shoppers haggled over prices, mothers disciplined wayward offspring, radios blared the latest Cantonese tunes, and cars, carts and animals all added to the cacophony of sound that greeted C.J. as she stood there, unsure what she should do next. Dust flew everywhere and the strong smells of roasted and fried foods, ginger, garlic and soy hung in the air.
In the midst of this, the stranger took her hand and kissed the back of it, his eyes bright. “Thank you, fair damsel. You’re a friend indeed. Goodbye.” He turned smoothly and started walking down the street.
Goodbye?She stood immobile as she watched him melt into the sea of pedestrians. “Wait!”
He neither stopped nor slowed down, simply continued to ease his way through the thick crowd as if he belonged there. C.J. had to struggle, and felt almost rude as she pushed her way through the mass of people who were as unwavering in their purpose as she was in hers.
Finally she reached him, but he barely glanced at her.
“Wait! I need your help,” she cried. “I didn’t get you out of there for nothing!”
“I know. Your brother, Alan Perkins.”
“You know him?”
“I know of him.”
“You do? That’s more than the police will admit to,” she said bitterly. “You’ve got to help me find him.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I have nowhere else to turn.”
“You mean nothing to me but trouble.”
“Trouble?” What could he mean? She was the one who’d gotten him out of trouble.
He hurried on.
She ran to catch up. “Please.” Her voice cracked; she was close to tears. Chasing a man down the street wasn’t a usual part of her routine.
A look of weariness came over him. He sighed, and turning to her, looked her straight in the eye. “I’d like to find your brother, too. In fact, a lot of people would. But it’s just not worth it to me. And it’s not the kind of thing for a woman to get mixed up in. Do you understand?”
All the worry and frustration she had felt for a whole week welled up in her. “What do you mean not the kind of thing for a woman? It’s my brother we’re talking about! Whatever’s going on, I’m already mixed up in it—the ‘blood’ kind of mixed up. I care. Can’t you understand that? I love him.”
He regarded her a long moment before continuing on his way.
Embarrassed, she wiped away the angry tears that trickled down her cheeks, then ran and caught his arm, refusing to release it until he spun angrily in her direction. “Why won’t you tell me what you know?” she demanded. “Why won’t you help me? Haven’t you ever had a brother—or someone—you cared about so much you’d do anything for them? Haven’t you?”
His eyes darkened. “Once,” he replied, his voice low and harsh.
Something in his look made her drop her hand. He paused momentarily, then continued walking. She dogged his steps. The crowds thinned as they left the busiest part of the colorful marketplace. She had no idea where they were going. He’s so obstinate, she thought; he even looks obstinate. How could I have thought him handsome?
His face was an intriguing mixture, though. His eyes were surrounded by dark hollows and deeply set. His profile reminded her of engravings she had seen of Roman emperors on old coins, but at the same time, there was a ruggedness about him.
She glanced at him again and noticed his wariness, a sense that he was alert to everything nearby and could strike like a rattlesnake at any hint of danger. She shuddered slightly.
“Cold?” he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle.
“No. I was just wondering how the police managed to pick you up. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for them to catch anyone.” Least of all you, she added silently.
He looked at her quizzically. “You don’t have a very good impression of the police here, do you? Anyway, it was the border patrol, Burnham’s group, that picked me up. Not that that’s any justification. It was my own fault. I was too tired. A man makes mistakes at such times.”
“You were arrested because you had no papers?”
“Must have misplaced them.”
“I see.” She gulped, realizing she didn’t see at all, and that she might notwantto see.
“Where are you staying?” she asked, realizing that she still had to talk to him, no matter what.
“I have a car. I can drive you wherever you want to go.”
“I haven’t decided.”
“Look, I really must—”
“Go home.” He turned a corner.
She turned as well. “I won’t give up, and I won’t let you simply disappear on me!”
He nodded wearily. “I seem to be getting that message.”
“I’ve told the police you’re my brother! I’m responsible. What if Burnham comes to find—”
The look he gave her stopped her. They both knew that wasn’t the point.
She gritted her teeth. The man did look ready to drop with exhaustion. “If you need to rest, I’ve got a room.”
“Oh?” His right eyebrow rose ever so slightly as his glance swept appraisingly over her body. A dangerous man all right, she thought.
“I’m only talking about a little while! Just long enough for you to lie down, I mean…um…take a nap.” There was no way she could make it sound right.
“Nap?” His incredulous expression told her that he probably hadn’t heard that word since kindergarten.
She tried to ignore the warm rush of color that filled her cheeks as she continued, desperation spurring her on. “You can get something to eat, too. You must be hungry. And after that we can talk. Look, there’ll be no need to worry about the police, or, or anything. Just eat, sleep, and then tell me what you know about Alan. Okay?” She paused, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t object.
“Come with me,” she continued when he didn’t reply. “My room’s not here in Luchow; it’s on the edge of Kowloon. I’ll drive, and we’ll be there in no time at all.”
His steps slowed, as if by allowing himself to think about the needs of his body, the energy he had called upon earlier vanished.
“It’s got a nice, soft bed,” she added, “with fluffy down pillows.”
“Is it a double?”
“I thought you were tired! Best of all, it has a bath with hot, running water.”
“You win.” He stopped walking, looking as if he could barely take another step. “Which way is heaven?”
C.J. unlocked the door to the passenger side of the rented white Toyota. The stranger climbed in while she went around to the driver’s side.
She glanced at him as she started the engine and slowly eased the car into traffic. Already, he had dropped his head against the headrest, his eyes shut.
Finally she had found someone who had information about Alan. The anticipation of what she might learn was hard to bear. Perhaps soon this whole mad episode would be over and she could return home.
Thoughts of all that had happened in the two weeks since she had received the bizarre phone call from her mother came rushing back at her. Since then, she had seen and done things she couldn’t have imagined before, had found herself in places she hadn’t even known existed. The recollection made her shudder.
Her brother was a Peace Corps volunteer. After the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the recessions under Presidents Nixon, Ford and now Carter, Alan had given up on finding a good job in the U.S. and took off for Sarawak, a part of Malaysia on the South China Sea. When her parents received a telegram that he hadn’t returned from leave as expected, they telephoned C.J. from their home in Columbus, Ohio.
C.J. had known something was wrong as soon as she heard her mother’s voice. Mildred Perkins saw the idea of making a telephone call to Los Angeles as purely frivolous. Letters had worked well enough for her Puritan forefathers, after all. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” was Mildred’s favorite expression, and one that C.J. did her best to ignore.
Her mother had told her that it would be wisest if she were the one to go to Malaysia to find out what had happened to Alan, since her father had a “delicate constitution.” Of course, the family would pay the whole bill, knowing C.J. hardly had enough money to make ends meet. That was her fault, Mildred reminded her, for not having a real job.
“You don’t think those heathen cannibals got him, do you, C.J.?” Mildred had asked, a familiar note of pious indignation in her voice.
C.J. had cringed. “I really doubt Alan’s ended up in a stew pot, Mother. If he were hurt, I’m sure we’d have heard something.”
“This is no time for levity!”
“Goodbye, Mother. I’ll write when I find out what’s going on with Alan.”
“C.J., wait. Your father and I are so anxious....Send us a telegram when you learn something. Goodbye, dear.”
C.J. hung up the phone, then stood looking at it with dismay. What would her mother do without her?
Her father, Charles, was a dreamer, and Alan was just like him. Mildred was forever sheltering both of them from life’s difficulties. With Mildred so busy seeing to her men, it always fell to C.J. to actually straighten out any dilemmas that arose. Her move to Los Angeles five years ago, at age twenty-three, had been her escape from that burden. Not that it had turned out exactly as she had hoped, but at least she was on her own.
But now, once again, she was being asked to solve a family problem. She was firmly convinced that Alan’s so-called disappearance could be explained easily. He was thirty-one years old, after all, and didn’t have to account for his every move.
As the thought of a journey to Southeast Asia had become more real to her, she rather selfishly hoped it could be turned into at least a little adventure while she was there.
Once she had gotten off the phone with her mother, she began making a mental checklist of everything she had to do before her trip. Thanks to a ten-day bus tour through France, her passport was current so she only had to obtain emergency visas.
Two days after Mildred’s call, C.J. was on a plane to Singapore, a flight of over twenty hours, followed by another full day to Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Once there, she hired a driver to take her to the small village of Bir Sakan, where Alan had been assigned.
C.J. hadn't ever heard of Sarawak before Alan was sent there. She had heard of Borneo only because old movies and even older circuses used to refer to "wild men of Borneo." She had no idea who or what they were.
She quickly learned that the island of Borneo was uncultivated except for a few locations along the ocean and major rivers. Beyond them was pure jungle. Who or what inhabited that jungle was anyone’s guess—but headhunters definitely lived out there once upon a time.
In Bir Sakan, C.J. learned that Alan had supposedly gone to Singapore because of an “emergency in the family,” and when he didn’t return after three weeks, his fellow Peace Corpsmen had become concerned. Rumors persisted of his having been sighted elsewhere on the island, but a search had turned up no trace of him. He had disappeared.
C.J. had been confident that, once she got to Sarawak she would straighten everything out. After all, nothing ever happened to her or Alan that was either interesting or worth worrying about.
Not until she arrived at the small village on the edge of a frightening, mysterious jungle did she face up to the grim possibilities of what might have happened.
Alan’s tiny room hadn’t been touched since he left. C.J. searched his belongings for some clue to his whereabouts, but everything seemed to be there except for his passport. Other identification papers were neatly placed in a drawer. She took them out and put them in her purse. There were no pictures. She found nothing else, until she began rummaging in a large can that doubled as a wastebasket. There, amidst some candy bar wrappers were tiny scraps of paper. She scooped them up and placed them on the desk, fitting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle, and then taping them. She studied the result and wondered what its significance could be.
“Luchow,” “HK,” and “Bai-loong” were written in Roman letters, and beneath them were two Chinese characters. No one in Bir Sakan knew the meaning of the note.
C.J. stayed in the village one more day talking to people and poking about in Alan’s belongings. After that, she flew back to Singapore to go to the American Consulate. She introduced herself, explained that she needed a translator, and was led to the office of a Chinese gentleman.
“Can you tell me the meaning of ‘Luchow,’ ‘HK,’ and ‘Bai-loong’?” she asked, wasting not one second on pleasantries or small talk.
The man looked at her curiously. “Well. . .“ He hesitated, as if considering the possibilities. “In this part of the world, ‘HK’ means only one thing—Hong Kong, the British Crown Colony. And Luchow is a small town in the New Territories portion of the Crown Colony, near the border with the People’s Republic of China.”
C.J. nodded, her fingers tapping her lips in thought. A town on the Chinese border…so that explained Luchow and HK. But what about the other word? “What does ‘Bai-loong’ mean to you?” she asked.
He shook his head and appeared perplexed.
“Here.” She took Alan’s paper with the Chinese characters from her wallet and handed it to him. “Maybe this will help.”
His brow furrowed with concentration as he glanced at the paper. “It says ‘white dragon.’”
“What does that mean?”
With a shrug, he handed the paper back to her, his face expressionless once again. “Who knows? It might be nothing more than the name of a restaurant. I’m sorry, Miss Perkins.”
At that he bowed and turned back to his desk; the interview had ended. Irritated, C.J. marched out of the office. A restaurant indeed!
Standing outside the consulate, she pondered her options and made a decision. She caught a taxi to the airport and booked passage on the next available flight to Hong Kong.
When she arrived at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport, she was physically and emotionally exhausted. Her task seemed increasingly hopeless. She stumbled from the plane into a taxi and asked to be taken to the nearest cheap hotel.
The next day, she rented a car and began a week’s worth of frustration. Again and again she was given the same answer. On Hong Kong Island, on Kowloon, in Luchow. From the police, from the immigration authorities, from both American and Malaysian consulates. No matter where or to whom she spoke, she received the same response: We know nothing of your brother.
She had lost all hope until the arrival of the arrogant stranger she had “rescued” from the clutches of the border patrol—the man who was now sleeping peacefully beside her as she drove.
She hadn’t even thought to ask his name.
“My brother, Alan, will be joining me in my room for a short while,” C.J. told the desk clerk, “If there is any additional cost, just add it to my bill, please.”
The clerk looked up from the racing form he had been studying, his black eyes darting from. C.J. to the man beside her. His mouth grew pinched as his gaze swept over the man’s grubby appearance. “Your…brother.” He didn't believe her for a minute, and bent over the tout sheets again. “To each his own,” he muttered.
C.J. gave the top of his head a scathing glare.
She and the stranger rode the elevator to the fourth floor, and entered her room. It wasn’t very large to start with, and with this man inside it seemed infinitesimal. The room was cheap but clean, painted a gaudy robin’s egg blue, with garish floral drapery and a green chenille bedspread on the double bed. A chest of drawers, a small writing desk and two wooden chairs completed the furnishings.
C.J. opened the window, feeling the need to do whatever she could to make the area seem more spacious. The window looked out over a courtyard filled with trash cans and bundles of old newspapers.
The man dropped his bedroll in the corner, his face impassive. “This isn’t a tourist hotel. How did you find it?” he asked.
“A taxi driver.” She wondered if she should start to quiz him about Alan yet.
He crossed the room to the window in two strides and leaned out, quickly glancing down, up and to the sides, then withdrew and seemed to relax. Peering at his grubby outfit, he frowned. “If you don’t mind, the thought of a bath…”
“Please,” she said quickly. “Be my guest.”
He nodded and went into the bathroom.
She sank onto a chair, her elbows on her knees, and her head in her hands.Oh, C.J.,she thought.What have you done now?
But almost immediately, Mildred’s long years of training on the care of others came rushing back to her as, hesitantly, she approached the bathroom door.
“Excuse me,” she called over the sound of water running into the tub.
“If you just toss your clothes out, I’ll send them to be laundered. They do a quick job here.”
“Great. There’s some more stuff in the bedroll, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh? Well, sure.”
“Also, I have a razor with my clothes. I forgot to grab it. If you could hand it to me?“
“And shaving cream. I don’t have any. Do you think you could call room—”
“Yes!” My God, she thought, have I created a monster?
He opened the door slightly and handed her his clothes.
She tried not to face him as she took them, then opened up his bedroll to get the others.
She called room service, ordering dinner and shaving cream, and sent the stranger’s clothes out to be cleaned. As soon as she heard the water stop running and the slight sloshing as he got in, she returned to the bedroll. In it were his few possessions: a wallet, a pocket knife, a razor and one key. She inspected the wallet, trying to find some clue as to who he was. There was nothing, not one piece of identification. She shook it out.
About fifteen minutes later, a light tap at her door meant dinner. The bellboy looked with curiosity at the mess filling the room as he put down the tray.
C.J. set the dinner dishes on the small writing table, placed a chair on each side, then sat and waited for the stranger to emerge. Five minutes of silence later, she began to worry.
She knocked at the door. “Are you all right?”
“Wonderful. This is great! Want to join me?”
She jumped back, glad he couldn’t see the blush lighting up her cheeks at the picture her overly active imagination had conjured up.
“Dinner's here. You don't want it to get cold,” she said, deciding it was best just to ignore his question.
“Dinner? That’s the one word you could say that would get me out of here. Be with you in a minute.”
A short while later he joined her, a thick white bath towel secured around his waist, his chest and legs bare, his face freshly shaved, and his hair glistening. He had a good build, with broad, muscular shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and hips. With the beard and mustache gone, she noticed that his face was more rugged than she had expected, but it didn’t detract from his attractiveness at all. If anything, it added to it. Her artist’s eye had suspected there was a good-looking man under all that dirt, and she had been right. She felt her temperature go up at least five degrees.
“Sorry about the towel. I travel light,” he said. “Unless you’ve got a robe I could borrow?”
She gave what she hoped was a saucy little toss of the head. “No bathrobe in your bedroll? Whatever would Miss Manners say? Your clothes should be returned soon. Come on, let’s eat.”
She took the tops off the bowls of Cantonesewar won ton, walnut chicken in black bean sauce, bok choy with beef, pork chow mein and rice. He didn’t load up his plate, but ate Chinese style, putting bits of food onto his rice bowl with his chopsticks. As he ate, C.J. noticed several long scars interrupting the smoothly tanned skin of one forearm and wondered what outrageous undertaking he had been involved in to get those. They reminded her once again how little she knew about him, and that she needed to be careful.
As she picked at her food, she watched with growing wonder as he polished off one dish after another. She thought she had ordered far too much, since she hadn’t been sure which dishes he would like, but now she was afraid she hadn’t ordered enough.
Finally he sat back and placed his bands on his stomach, his green eyes shining. “I think I’ve injured myself,” he groaned.
“No, it’s wonderful.” His smile was lazy. “I haven’t eaten this much since. . . Rangoon? Right, it was Rangoon. Two, three months ago.”
She sat looking at him, not knowing what to do or say. He offered no assistance, and the silence grew. “Would you like some coffee? Cigarettes? Anything?” she asked finally.
“Yes. To all of the above.” He raised one suggestive eye brow.
She cleared her throat and said, “I’ll call room service.”
He reached for the morning’sHong Kong Star, which was lying on the bureau, and devoured it like Rip Van Winkle trying to catch up on what he missed in the world.
In a few minutes the bellboy arrived again. As he looked at the stranger, draped only in a bath towel, his expression grew even more dumbfounded than it had been earlier. C.J. gave him a generous tip.
The man folded up the paper and laid it aside. Taking a swallow of coffee and a long drag of a Marlboro, he sat back in his chair looking relaxed and content.
C.J. felt anything but content. Her nerves were frayed, and she stirred her coffee, round and round. She had imagined that the stranger would quickly bathe, nap and eat, then tell her about Alan and go on his way. It wasn’t working out quite that way. She had to find a way to ask her hundred and one questions, and then get him out of there.
“Well, Sis,” he said. She dropped her spoon, sending it clattering onto the table. She reached to grab it, but he put his hand on top of hers. She felt the strength in it. Stiffening, she looked at him in surprise. “My male ego would like to think it was my magnetism that attracted you and made you plead with me to come here as your kept boy, but I know better. What now?”
“We need to talk.” She pulled her hand away.
“True. Shall I call you Sis, or Seejay—sounds like a Pakistani name.”
“Pakistani? Oh, I see. My goodness, no. Straight mid-west. My name is C period, J period. Just initials.”
Once again, she realized she had been so caught up with Alan’s problems that she hadn’t asked the man who he was. “What’s your name?”
“C.J. isn’t a name.”
Had she heard him right? “It’s mine.” She tried again. “What’s yours?”
“No one names little girl babies just letters. That’s usually something they do to themselves to hide sickeningly sweet names like Bunnie, Queenie, Missy, Muffy—”
“Most little girls’ names are not sickeningly anything. What’s your name?”
He pursed his lips. “C.J. Hmm. Is it Carrie? What about Cecilia? Or Carla? Now, there’s one worth initializing.”
Her eyes narrowed with irritation. “No!”
“Knock it off!”
“Aha! You’re not afraid to speak up! That means it must be a delicate, feminine name—one that’s totally unsuitable, right?”
C.J. felt the color drain from her face at those words.
“How about Clarissa? Clarice? Cassandra?”
How can I stop this dreadful man?How can I get him out of my room, out of my life? To think I invited him here! I must have been crazy.“I have politely asked your name a number of times,” she began. “The least you can do is answer. You are, after all, sharing my room, my food, my—”
“Yes?” he leaned closer.
“All right." He backed off with a grin. "The name’s Kane. Darius Kane.”
“Oh.” She leaned back in her chair. The name meant nothing to her; she hadn’t come across it in any of Alan’s papers.
“Yes, well, that’s the reaction I get from a lot of women.”
“I didn’t mean that I’m not interested.”
She fumed. “I mean, it’s just that I was hoping that your name might mean something to me. But I’ve never heard of you before.”
His eyes twinkled. “Let’s go back to how interested you are.”
She jumped up. “Look, Mister Kane—”
“Darius,” he interjected, another grin playing on his lips. “No woman calls me Mister when my clothes are off.”
“Mister Kane! My brother is missing. I’m at the end of my rope. No one will help me. I’ve been fighting here, literally fighting, with the police, immigration, the airport people. I just. . .I just. . .” She crossed the room and sat on the bed, arms folded, trying to calm herself.
“Hey, Clementina.” Darius got up from the table and walked to her side, placed a hand on her shoulder, then bent toward her. “Forgive me. I should have realized. It was just a joke. A bad one. Forget it, okay?”
His apologetic words were her undoing; her eyes welled with tears. He was so close that she could smell the soapy cleanliness of his skin, feel the heat from his hands, and she turned her head away, more upset than before.
“I never cry, you know.” She brushed a tear from her cheek. “I haven’t cried since I was sixteen and the boy I was madly in love with showed up at a beach party with an eighteen-year-old. Now I’ve cried twice in as many hours. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“C.J., I’m sorry.”
It sounded too much like pity. “Stop!” She stormed across the room to the dresser and leaned over it, seething. She had been taxed beyond endurance by the whole frustrating situation of not being able to find Alan, not to mention the reticence of the police, and now she had to deal with an unnerving reaction to Darius Kane. She couldn’t stand it anymore; something had to give. She spun around and glared at him. “It was a mistake to involve you. You don’t know a thing, do you? Nothing. I should have left you with the police. I should have let you rot in jail!”
Darius yawned and sauntered to the far side of the double bed. “Let me know when my clothes come back. In the meantime, I’m going to take that nap you mentioned.”
With a single, fluid motion, he pulled back the covers, then lay down, stretching the length of the bed and then some. With a contented sigh he pulled the covers over himself and flipped the towel he had been wearing to the floor.
C.J. stood speechless as she watched the towel fall, appalled at his presumption in getting into her bed. She gave what she hoped was a withering look, but immediately saw that her glare had been wasted. His eyes were shut, and his chest moved with the calm rhythm of sleep.
How can he do that? she wondered, one hand on her hip. She was beside herself with anger, and he had the nerve to fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He had to be the most infuriating man she had ever met. She hadn’t even asked him any of her questions, and there was so much she needed to know.
She had an urge to push him off the bed in such a way that his supercilious posterior would be rudely greeted by the floor.
She stepped closer to him. How could anyone who was so devilish when he was awake look so angelic when he slept? She was struck by the dark hollows beneath his eyes. He looked exhausted, vulnerable, and something more—as if under that easy grin and behind all the jokes there was sadness, a deep hurt. This was crazy, she thought. She had no business doing two-bit analysis on someone she hardly knew.
Darius Kane. She looked down at him and shook her head. “Dangerous” Kane would have been more suitable. He was a mystery to her, yet, for some reason, he had decided to trust her. She knew that only trust would let a man like him fall asleep in such a defenseless way. He seemed to be a man who lived on the edge of society, yet he’d put himself under her protection, for a little while, at least.
She wearily rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. Why am I angry with him, anyway? she wondered. Unable to answer her question, she switched off the lamp that was shining on his face, sat down on the nearby chair and watched him sleep as the night grew dark.
C.J. was vaguely aware of sunlight flooding the room, and she rolled to her side, burying her face in the pillow. As she turned, she bumped something with her foot and gave it a good kick to get it out of the way.
“Ouch! What the—”
At the sound of a man’s voice, her eyes opened wide. The events of the previous day came back with the chilling clarity of a scene in a horror movie. She sat bolt upright, not looking at him, and giving a prayer of thanks that she was fully dressed and on top of the covers.
“If you wanted to wake me up so badly, there are nicer ways to do it than with a kick,” Darius said. She peeked over her shoulder at him, then quickly scrambled off the bed before she turned to face him again.
He was on his side facing her, his elbow propped up on the pillow, and his head resting against his hand, a look of bemusement on his face. His hair was tousled, a few stray golden locks falling over his forehead, and his eyes were still heavy from the long night’s sleep. The flutter her heart gave at his appearance was more than a little disturbing.
“I was hoping you were just a nightmare,” she said, madly trying to smooth her clothes and her hair.
His laugh was low, husky and intimate. “It was nice of you to join me.”
Bristling, she folded her arms. “Before you get too smug about your irresistible charm, I suggest you try sleeping in that spindly little chair all night. It’ll give you a good idea of what wasreallyirresistible on this side of the room.”
Surprise flickered across his face, and then he laughed.
“If that’s how you feel,” he said with a rueful look, “I’ll go.”
Slowly his foot emerged from under the covers, then the calf of his leg, up to the knee. Now fully awake, C.J. remembered his state of undress.
“Wait a minute,” she cried, hurrying to the phone, not daring to face him. “I’ll call for your clothes. I’m sure they’re ready. In fact, they should have come back last night. Don’t do anything rash.”
“All right, dear sister, you can turn around again. I’ll stay covered up in your bed as long as you like. I’m not complaining.”
She rolled her eyes as she called the front desk. Peeking at him, she saw that the wayward foot was back under the covers, and she sighed with relief.
Before long a bellboy, a different one this time, appeared with Darius’s clothes. He walked into the room, then looked from C.J.’s rumpled state to Darius in the bed. “Miss Perkins,” he said, bowing slightly, then hung the clothes in the closet.
“Oh, my God!” C.J. was horrified at the bellboy’s expression.
Darius chuckled, “I’m sure it’s not the first time—”
“It’s not funny!” She was still staring at the hotel door.
“Oh, what tangled webs we weave…”
She turned to glare at him, but when her eyes met his, the mirth he exuded hit her. Against her will, the sides of her mouth began to rise, and she knew that if she allowed herself to look at him one minute longer, she’d laugh out loud, and this was not a laughing matter. One’s reputation was not to be trifled with.
My God, she thought, I’m thinking like Mildred! At that she did give an amused chuckle, then grabbed some clothes and went off to shower. For some reason, one she absolutely refused to contemplate, she found herself taking extra care with both her clothes and her makeup.
She emerged from the bathroom in an emerald green blouse, pearl gray slacks, and low black heels. Darius’s eyes drifted over her appreciatively, causing a further rush of color to her cheeks.
He had dressed in jeans and a crisp plum colored shirt. She saw once again, as if she needed it, how handsome he was. Her conservative, almost matronly outfit felt dowdy in comparison.
His rolled-up sleeves revealed again the scars on his forearm, causing her to remember how little she knew about him. The day before, she hadn't allowed herself to think about the type of man who would be running around Southeast Asia with no passport or other identification. But this morning that was all she thought about. The possibility that he was some sort of criminal was all too real.
He had ordered a pot of coffee,char siu bau,and a newspaper as she showered.
By the time he finished his pork bun, two cups of coffee, and the morning paper, C.J.’s patience had vanished. "Who are you?” she demanded, her fingers tightening on her coffee cup. “What do you know about Alan?”
He slowly folded the newspaper. “I’m just an American who finds this part of the world suitable. As to your brother, I know very little, except that his name is mixed up with the White Dragon theft.”
“You didn’t know?” He looked at her as if he couldn’t believe her surprise.
“No, no one will tell me anything. What theft? What is the White Dragon?”
“You’re kidding me. You’ve got to know something.”
She stiffened. “I beg your pardon!”
“You came here by yourself?” he asked. “Into this mess with no idea what’s actually going on?”
“Hard though it may be for you to believe, I came here because my brother is missing.”
“But this is…” He stopped.
“This is what?” she demanded.
He studied her as if taking in the measure of her, not wanting to believe her, but realizing he did. “Dangerous. It’s very dangerous.” His voice was soft but serious.
She blanched. “Tell me everything.”
He paused for a moment. “The white dragon is a small jade statue, no bigger than a large apricot, carved during the Chinese T’ang dynasty, around 750 A.D. The jade the artist used was white, not the usual green, and it was absolutely flawless. It was intricately carved into the shape of a dragon and presented as a gift to the Emperor of China.”
She looked at him blankly. “I see. It sounds very valuable.”
“And now it’s been stolen?”
“That’s right. It belongs to the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese agreed to send it along with some other T’ang sculptures on a tour to major European museums. The pieces got no farther than Hong Kong. They were stolen from the Museum of History. It’s a very embarrassing situation for the Hong Kong government, and since this is a British colony, the British feel responsible. The Chinese are furious.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “All those governments involved. How could it happen?”
“It took a pro. It was a slick, well-planned operation.”
She thought about everything he told her. “When did this happen?”
“Over a month ago,” Darius replied.
“A month!” Relief filled her. “Alan was in Malaysia a month ago. How could he have known anything about it?”
“You tell me. I’ve told you all I know, C.J. Your brother’s name has been mentioned in and around Hong Kong in connection with the theft, but there’s no proof that I know of that he stole it.”
“Of course not, he’s innocent.”
“That’s not what’s being said,” Darius told her.
She felt her throat constrict and bit her bottom lip. “He is! It’s just…he’s not…” She couldn’t go on. The paper she’d found in Alan’s room had Bai-loong, the Chinese words for White Dragon, written on it. She shut her eyes, concentrating on blocking the thought that wanted to be born. It was more than coincidence, but it didn’t mean Alan was guilty.
Darius frowned, more at himself than at her. And then, with an expression that said he had no idea why he was allowing himself to get involved, he stood and held out his hand. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“Where are we going?”
“Anything is better than going back to the Luchow police station, isn’t it?”
Spurning his hand, she picked up her large, leather shoulder bag. He didn’t seem to believe Alan was innocent, and she needed to know why. If she went with him, perhaps she would find out.
They rode the elevator in silence and didn’t say a word as they approached her car. The streets of Kowloon were bustling, as usual. Tourists from all over the world packed the area daily to look for bargains, merchants from throughout Asia were there to oblige them, and in the midst of it all thousands of resettled mainland Chinese lived, worked and played. At all hours of the day and night, Kowloon was one of the busiest places on the face of the earth.
“May I?” Darius asked as he took the car keys from her hand, unlocked the doors, then got into the driver’s seat.
C.J. decided not to argue with him. Hong Kong’s traffic filled her with terror. Not only were the streets horribly congested, but the cars drove on the left side of the road. It was the opposite of the U.S., and the same as in Britain. She was all right as long as she was driving straight ahead, but making a left or right turn was an adventure. More than once she had ended up facing oncoming traffic.
“Where are we going?” Since he hadn’t offered to tell her, she decided to ask. It was her car, after all.
“To the American Consulate. Eventually.” He swung into traffic.
“Oh, yes, you do have a fondness for it, I recall.”
Her wry comment provoked a small smile from him. “Since the consulate is on Hong Kong Island, while we're there I want to pay a visit to an old friend, Jimmy Lee. He lives on the Peak.”
Fine, she thought. Now we’re going on social calls! What’s next? Charity work? She folded her arms and said nothing.
A little while later C.J. realized that Darius Kane led a charmed life. He not only easily navigated the heavy traffic in the Cross Harbour Tunnel, the underwater passage that connected the city of Kowloon with Hong Kong Island, but even more astounding, he found a parking place right by the station where they could catch the Peak Tram.
“Do you mind taking the tram instead of driving?” he asked.
“No,” she said, although she was surprised by his choice.
“I’ve always enjoy the ride. The view is terrific, and it’s actually the fastest way to Jimmy’s house since it goes straight up.”
Despite her previous irritation, she couldn’t help but smirk at the thought that “Dangerous” Kane liked train rides.
The green funicular railcar arrived, and they got in. As they climbed Victoria Peak, one of the most exclusive areas in all of Asia, they looked out over the harbor.
Darius draped his arm over the back of her seat, then bent closer to point out an ancient Chinese junk sailing by, its red, ribbed sails catching the wind and carrying it efficiently along. To her dismay, she felt more intrigued by Darius than the junk. And she didn’t even care for the arrogant man!
As she watched, the hydrofoil that carried passengers from Hong Kong to Macao every half hour sped by, skimming over the water at a tremendous speed. The contrast between the two boats was as good an image of Hong Kong as C.J. would ever hope to see.
When the tram reached the uppermost station, they got off.
“It’s a bit of a walk to Jimmy’s, but there’s no better way to see Hong Kong than from up here,” he said. “It feels like you’re on top of the world.”
“It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.” She looked out over the busy harbor sparkling in the bright sunlight. “This is the place to be when you don’t have a care in the world.”
“It’s hard to believe that in a few years Britain’s lease will run out and it’ll be turned over to Communist China. It will change, but no one knows yet how much. All we know is what we have here now is a little piece in time, a bit of history that may be forever lost.”
She stole a glance at Darius as he gazed out at the harbor, a solemn look of gloom and loss in his eyes. For all his easygoing charm, she still sensed a pervasive unhappiness about him. She wondered why, wondered what caused him to be in this place, living the way he did…being picked up by the British authorities.
But outwardly, what a picture he made with his strong profile, straight nose, and green eyes fringed by long, thick lashes. The golden highlights in his hair glistened like newly discovered gold whenever the bright sunlight peeked through the shade of the trees to find him. She would love to paint this scene of Darius and Hong Kong harbor from the Peak.
“There’s Jimmy’s place,” he said after a five-minute walk. His expression changed to a smile as open and genuine as a twelve-year-old’s.
Set well back from the street stood a large, white stucco house with high glass windows facing the harbor and a sharply angled roof. A high white stone wall with a massive wrought-iron gate surrounded the home.
The butler obviously recognized Darius, and invited him and C.J. into the house. They were led through an elegant, marble-floored entry hall into the living room. The room was stark, yet breath-taking, dominated by a wall of windows providing a view of the island and the sea beyond. The walls were white. Chinese designed carpets covered the polished hardwood floors. Tall, leafy fig trees and lush green ferns graced the room, and Buddhist sculptures were the only artwork. The sofa and chairs were white.
C.J. chose a seat near the windows. In a short while the butler appeared with cooling gin fizzes for them both.
“Darius! You're back!” a slightly accented voice cried out.
“Jimmy!” The two warmly clasped each other.
C.J. studied the man who had just entered the room. Jimmy Lee appeared about Darius’s age. He was tall, though not as tall as Darius. His features were as classically chiseled as a traditional Chinese painting, while his body was trim and muscular. The smile on his face made it obvious how he felt about his friend’s visit.
They stepped back from each other. Jimmy’s brow knitted slightly. “It’s been too long, Darius,” he said. “I was worried this time.”
Darius laughed. “Can’t count me out, Jimmy. You’ve got to learn that.”
Jimmy didn’t join Darius’s laughter. “You’re human. Don’t forget it. Buddha might not like such arrogance.”
Darius ignored Jimmy’s warning, placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder and turned him toward C.J. “I’d like you to meet Miss C.J. Perkins.”
Jimmy bowed slightly.
Darius continued, “C.J., this is my best friend, Jimmy Lee.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she said, standing and extending her hand.
“And you,” Jimmy replied as they shook hands. She felt that in the moment Jimmy had sized her up and filed her into a computer-like brain.
“C.J. is trying to find her brother, Alan,” Darius explained. “He went to Luchow and hasn’t been seen since. Now the police are asking about him and the White Dragon.”
“Bai-loong...I see,” Jimmy said thoughtfully. “Please sit down, Miss Perkins. I am sorry to hear your brother is missing.”
Something about the way Darius spoke and the way Jimmy exuded control made her believe that if anyone could help her negotiate the mysteries of Hong Kong, it was Jimmy. She told him her brief story.
He nodded as she spoke, neither asking questions nor offering explanations. “I will make inquiries, Miss Perkins, and do what I can,” he said when she finished. He held out his hand to her. “But for now, permit me to show you my garden. It is in the Chinese style, with small shrubbery, rocks and a pond, in many ways similar to what Westerners think of as a Japanese garden, and in many ways different.”
“I would love to see it.” C.J. took his hand and stood.
Jimmy tucked her arm in his and turned to Darius. “My friend, I would enjoy hearing some music from you. I know it’s been a few weeks, so we’ll leave you to practice.”
Darius smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.” He walked across the room to large French doors and opened them to a room with a grand piano at the far end. Gold upholstered chairs faced it. As Darius stepped into the room, Jimmy Lee escorted C.J. into the garden.
A feeling of peace and tranquility permeated the landscaping. Jimmy was telling her about the different plants when the sound of rich glissandi and complex chords drifted out to them in rapid succession.
“That’s Darius?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yes. Outstanding, isn’t he?”
She listened, and soon the opening practice notes ended, and he launched into a familiar piece.
“I know that work,” she said, looking at Jimmy. “My God, it’s Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto! I’m no musician, but I know it’s quite difficult.”
“Yes,” Jimmy laughed. “I know, too.”
“But he…” She listened for a while longer. “He plays beautifully!”
“You haven’t known Darius long, have you?”
She shook her head. “We just met yesterday.”
“Yesterday!” He sounded shocked.
“Nothing…nothing at all.” He seemed to study her even more carefully than previously before he continued. “I’ve known him for many years, since I was a student at Harvard. I even spent a few summers living with his family in Boston. That’s where I picked up this American accent.”
C.J.’s eyebrows rose at that.
He grinned. “Well, at least my British friends here think I sound like a Yankee. But back to Darius…anyone who’s around Darius for any amount of time soon learns of his love, his passion, for music. He’s good. Great, in fact. He could have been one of the outstanding pianists of our time.’’
“Could have been?”
“There was an accident,” Jimmy said, watching her reaction.
“Accident?” she questioned. “But he seems fine.”
“You said you aren’t a musician, which means that you, like myself, don’t hear things, flaws, the way Darius does. What can I say?” He shrugged.
C.J. shook her head and followed Jimmy as he continued along the garden paths. The romantic music filled the small garden, capturing her in its web, the beautiful music and the man who performed it with such emotion and passion boring their way deep into her soul.
Darius practiced nonstop for over an hour—demonic dances of Liszt, relentless rhythms of Prokofiev, and mystic auras of Scriabin. While he played, C.J. and Jimmy drank gimlets on the veranda, a gentle breeze blowing onto the hill from the harbor. Jimmy told her about Hong Kong, his banking business, and every so often asked a question or two about Alan and Luchow. C.J. found Jimmy a charming conversationalist. He was witty, kind, and pleasant to be with. Still, more than half her attention was on Darius and his music.
Yesterday, when she’d met Darius, he had seemed like a wild man. If he had announced that he was the real Tarzan, she wouldn’t have been surprised. But since then she had discovered him to be gentle and cultured, with talent that could have led to the world's top concert halls. Yet he lived in Asia without even a place to lay his head. It was puzzling.
As the sun rose higher and the humidity climbed, Jimmy decided it was time to go indoors.
“He would go on all day if we didn’t stop him.” Jimmy chuckled as they entered the music room. Darius was playing Chopin.
They listened until the piece ended, then applauded.
Darius looked up, startled to see them, as if the music had transported him to another time or another place, and it took a while to register where he was now.
Then he smiled, and C.J. felt her heart melt.
She and Jimmy walked toward the piano. Darius’s eyes locked with hers as she approached, the luminous green of the wilds seeming incongruous to her in this elegant environment.
“You play beautifully,” she said, surprised at the slight catch in her voice.
Darius glanced at his watch. “Look at the time! How could you let me play so long?” he asked.
C.J. and Jimmy looked at each other and laughed.
Darius turned to Jimmy. “We’ve got to get to the consulate, I’m afraid. I ‘lost’ my passport in Macao.”
“Lost your passport? What happened?” Jimmy looked concerned. “Was it the counterfeiters?”
“They won this round, I’ll admit. But I’ll win the next. I was set up. Facing twenty-five years from the police—and that’s the good news.”
“So how did you get out?”
“Overland,” Darius replied.
“Overland? That’s impossible.”
“Kane, no one waltzes through the People’s Republic of China. I don’t care how clever he thinks he is.”
“What if he knows he’s clever?”
Jimmy shook his head at Darius’s answer, “Someday, Darius...”
“Don’t worry, Jim. You know I always find the back door first. It’s only a sucker who gives himself just one way out.”
C.J. suddenly realized what they were talking about.
She felt her eyes widen in surprise as she looked at Darius. “You don’t mean you were crossing into Hong Kong from the Communist border when the Luchow patrol picked you up?”
The two men glanced at each other.
“But that’s impossible. The Chinese Army patrols...” she began, then stopped, realizing his story was absolutely true. She shook her head in amazement. “You did look as if you had just stepped out of the jungle.”
“One visit to Sarawak and she sees headhunters under every leaf. I’m sorry to disillusion you, but there are no jungles along the Chinese border,” Darius said.
“I don’t care. You looked like it anyway. No wonder you were tired! It’s astounding you’re not dead!”
“Such compassion,” Darius said to Jimmy, cocking his head in her direction. “Given a choice between the PRC and those boys in Macao, I made the right decision.”
Darius and C.J. moved toward the door, Jimmy just behind them.
“Darius, why don’t you two stay here until things die down.”
Darius shook his head. “I don't think that'll work.”
“At least get out of C.J.’s room. Use a different name and find a new one in the tourist area.”
C.J. couldn’t believe what she was hearing. All this time Jimmy had said nothing about her story, and now he was implying that he knew about it, and knew they weren’t safe. Darius told her this quest of hers was dangerous. She was finally beginning to believe him.
“Probably so,” Darius said.
“What will you do?” Jimmy asked with a frown.
“I’ll watch her,” he said, then hurried her out the door.
She wanted to ask why Jimmy had said what he did, but before she could say a word, Darius was walking rapidly along the sunny, shimmering hillside toward the tram. She gasped “Wait,” a couple of times while halfway running to keep up with him, but he seemed completely lost in thought.
She was breathless by the time they reached the tram, but finally had a chance to step in front of him and ask her questions. “What did Jimmy mean? Why did he say my room wasn’t safe? Who are you going to watch?”
He looked at her as if surprised by her words. “You, of course.”
“I’m sure it’s just a suspicion on Jimmy’s part. If he knew anything for sure, he’d tell us.”
“But why the suspicion?” she asked. “You two practically talk in code!”
“Maybe he’s worried because I’m with you,” he said softly. “They might see me and think you know a lot more than you’re pretending to.”
“What?” she gasped, growing increasingly agitated with every answer he gave.
“They might think there was actually some purpose to your crazy actions,” he added, then tapped the tip of her nose with a smirk.
“They? Who arethey?”
“Who knows?” he confessed. “I suspect you never should have talked to me. And I shouldn’t have been so ready to accept all that you offered. If I’ve added to your troubles, I’m sorry.”
She was stunned by his words, not sure how to respond, when the tram’s arrival prevented her from having to say anything. She and Darius were swept along in the group of people getting on.
At the foot of the Peak they hurried to C.J.’s car and sped off toward the consulate. In a short while, Darius said, “Stay calm. It seems we’re being followed by a black Mercedes.”
“You’re joking,” she said as she peered at the side view mirror at the cars following. “There are lots of black Mercedes in Hong Kong, I’ve noticed.”
Darius turned left at the next corner. So did the Mercedes. He made another left after a few blocks, ditto the black car.
“Oh my God,” C.J. gasped. “What are we going to do?”
“It’s probably safer trying to lose them than to make a run for the consulate.”
She gripped the door handle, her face determined, her mouth dry. “Whatever you say, Dangerous.”
She hadn’t even realized she’d said it aloud. “The name suits you. Trust me.”
The black car was now out in the open behind them. “They know we’ve spotted them. Hold on, Carmelita!” He stomped on the accelerator while pulling out of his lane and into the oncoming traffic.
C.J. cried out and clutched the dashboard.
Hong Kong traffic was, as usual, all but gridlocked. But Darius easily squeezed past a Toyota that had been ahead of him, then swung in front of it. C.J. didn’t even have time for a sigh of relief before she felt herself thrown against the passenger door as he spun into a right turn from the far left lane. It made her dizzy just watching the cars go by on the “wrong” side of the street, but when Darius threw in hopelessly reckless driving, she was ready for hysterics.
A string of blaring horns and blazing tempers followed in their wake.
She sat white-knuckled, clinging to the dashboard. Every so often she peeked at Darius, convinced she would see him with one hand on the horn and the other over his eyes so that he couldn’t see the close calls or the carnage around him.
They careened through the city, weaving wildly through the traffic, but the Mercedes was never far behind. She was giving serious contemplation to crawling onto the floor when he said, “I think we’re okay.”
C.J. pried her stiff fingers off the dash and twisted this way and that to look around. The black Mercedes was gone. “Thank God! Shall we try the consulate now?”
He turned onto Garden Road where the American Consulate stood, and immediately made a U-turn. She was flung back against the seat, the car leaping to life as Darius gunned the motor. “I saw it, too,” she said. A black Mercedes had been parked just outside the consulate. Was it the same one? She had no idea, but agreed with Darius that it was best not to chance it.
“We’ll go to the hotel,” he said. “I’ll help you pack up and find another place to stay. Use a different name and you should be safe.”
She stared at him. “What about you? Will you also stay at the next hotel?” she asked.
He gave her a quick glance, and turned back to the road.
“Where, then? Why not stay where I am?”
“That might not be a good idea.”
She nodded. How could she have forgotten? “Right, you have a life. I just sort of barged in and took over, didn’t I? God, where’s my head? You’ve got other things to do! Important things…like your counterfeiters in Macao.”
“Listen, the safest thing for you to do is to go back to the U.S. Let the police do their job. Jimmy warned us. There’s something big going on here. Bigger than either of us knows.”
“That scares me, I’ll admit it. But I’m not going home until I find out what has happened to my brother.” As she spoke, she stared straight ahead, not wanting to look at him, not wanting to admit to herself how after less than twenty-four hours with him, the thought of leaving was difficult. But she always was a silly sort of person that way. “If Jimmy Lee learns anything, will you at least let me know?” Somehow she managed to keep her voice calm.
“C.J., you need to leave here, you really do.” He touched her hand as he looked at her, and almost immediately realized that pleading for her safety wasn’t going to work. “All right, if anything turns up, I’ll contact you.”
He pulled into a parking space near her hotel. They cross the lobby to the elevator in silence.
“We have to get out of here fast,” Darius said as they got off at her floor.
She nodded, feeling strangely abandoned, even as she derided herself for those emotions. She could handle this quite nicely all by herself. Just as she had been doing before Dangerous Kane entered her life. Or, had she?
Darius held out his hand for the key to her room. She couldn’t keep her eyes from lingering a little too long on his hand, tanned and rugged, yet with fingers so sensitive they had made some of the most beautiful music she had ever heard.
She shook her head, kept the key and stepped in front of him to the door. She squared her shoulders as she slid the key into the lock, determined to pack quickly, get out of here and be on her own again—away from this man and his disturbing presence.
But when she opened the door and stepped into the room, she gasped in shock.
“Oh no!” She cried as she stormed inside. She heard Darius cry out, “Wait!” But she was too busy looking at her belongings on the floor, at the overturned bureau drawers, and emptied closet.
From behind the door, a hard, viselike hand gripped her arm while a heavy blanket was thrown over her, cutting off all light and air. She gasped in shock as a thick arm circled her waist and lifted her as if she were a rag doll. Someone pushed the blanket hard against her face, muffling her scream of terror.
She fought wildly to be free. Her arms were pinned down, but she kicked as hard as she could.
Suddenly she was flung roughly aside, helpless to stop or protect herself, and came up against something solid.
Her mind went black as she fell in a heap to the floor.
“C.J., are you all right?” Fresh air filled her lungs as Darius untangled the heavy blanket and lifted it away from her.
“Oh God!” She sputtered as she sat up. “What happened?”
“A couple of men grabbed you before they noticed me in the doorway. That’s when they pushed past me and ran. Since one of them had a gun, I wasn’t about to argue.”
“A gun? Here? In my room?” She felt even more light-headed than when the blanket was over her.
Gently, he pushed her hair back from her face and ran his fingertips along her cheekbones and forehead, his face filled with concern. “Does it hurt anywhere?” His voice was hushed, full of worry.
“No, I’m okay.” She tried to stand, but was so woozy that before she got very far he scooped her up in his arms. Shocked, she put her arms around his neck as he walked toward the bed.
“Put me down! I don’t need to be carried! I’m too heavy!”
“Don’t be silly,” he said softly. He held her as if she were a child, then lowered her to the bed and sat by her side.
“I just had the wind knocked out of me, I guess.” She tried to smile, but found she couldn’t—her heart was pounding too wildly. Between her fright and being in Darius’s arms, she didn’t know which made it harder for her to breath.
“Dr. Kane says a little rest is called for.”
“Shouldn’t we get out of here right away?” Her eyes darted toward the door, as if she were expecting to see a bunch of maniacs burst through it any moment.
“You have time to calm down. They won’t be back that soon.”
“Did you recognize them?”
“They looked like a couple of standard issue thugs. Hong Kong, like any big city, is full of them.”
“You think it was just a random burglary, then?” She hoped he would say it was.
“No, but don’t worry about that for now. Just rest. You’re very pale. It won’t do your brother any good to have you ill.”
At the mention of Alan, a wave of fear swept over her. If people were coming after her on the off chance she might lead them to him…
She turned her head away from Darius and shut her eyes tightly, raising one hand to cover them, as she willed the scared, sick feeling to pass.
He took the hand she had raised and held it between both of his. “C.J.,” he said. “Is there anything, anything at all, about this situation that you haven’t told me?”
“Of course not,” she said, trying to free her hand, but he only held it more firmly. After a moment she added, “It’s just that hearing Jimmy Lee’s warning, then the car chase, and now those men, right here in my room, I can’t help but think that something. . .” She paused, lifting worried gray eyes to his green ones. “What if something…terrible…happened to Alan? What if he’s…”
“Hush, C.J. There’s no indication of anything like that. He’s fine, I’m sure. You’ll find him.” He continued to hold her hand and she found her fingers tightening on his as if they had a mind of their own.
She tried to believe his words, to drive the horrible thought from her mind, but the more she tried, the more persistently it clung. Alan, her big, strong, wonderful brother, might be in real trouble, hurt, even—No!She groaned.
Darius, trying to calm her, placed his hand against her cheek. His touch was like fire, and it was all she could do not to reach out for him. Instead, she sat up quickly, then turned and place her feet on the floor; firmly on the floor.
“I don’t know what more I can do,” she whispered.
“You’ve tried,” he said. “But this place, this situation is too dangerous. You’re just not the sort of person who should get mixed up with thugs and low-lifes. You’re such an innocent.”
She looked up at him. His gaze was soft and gentle, and far, far too kindly. Quickly, she stood and took a few steps away from him, folding her arms.
“I won’t give up, Darius.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” he said with a smile in his voice. “I guess that means we’ll have to find him.”
She faced him again, unable to believe she had heard him correctly. “We?” she whispered, remembering his insistence about leaving her.
He stood as well and stepped closer. “Yes.”
If only I understood you, she thought, trying to ignore the flutter in her breast. “Thank you,” she whispered, thankful she didn’t have face these dangers, this strange, foreign, frightful area alone. His nearness soothed her, filling her with unexpected warmth.
Alarmed at her increasingly strong reaction to this man, thisstranger,she reminded herself, she began to hurry around the room picking up belongings strewn on the floor, doing whatever she could not to think about Darius Kane. It was safer that way. The ever-present, practical creature who lived in her head forced her away to keep moving, to not stop, to not let herself feel. She was a loner, would always be one, and had long ago accepted that about herself. To think otherwise, especially about a man like Darius Kane, would only cause her unhappiness.
He lifted her suitcase onto the bed so that she could begin to pack it, an odd expression on his face. She prayed he hadn’t realized the turn her thoughts had taken. If he had, she was quite sure he would be appalled by any such romantic notions on her part.
She was simply “good old C.J.,” the down-to-earth one everyone else went running to when they had difficulties, the one everyone leaned on, needed...used. She had to be tough when those around her were falling to pieces, practical when they were lacking caution. The role didn’t put her in a position to be the object of many men’s desire. Many? Hah…not any man’s desire. Or, at least, not any man she would have given a second thought to. Combining no likely man, with no second thoughts, she found herself, at age 28, in a laughably inexperienced state.
Darius had called her innocent. If he only knew!
She concentrated hard on packing her bags, with Darius helping as best he could, and she trying but failing miserably to ignore him.
She fastened the locks on the suitcase, then looked up.
Darius sat on a chair and took out a cigarette. He lit it, leaned back, and watched the smoke spiral toward the ceiling.
“So tell me,” he said finally, his arm on his knee, his wrist bent loosely as the cigarette dangled between his long fingers, “how does Miss C.J. Perkins spend her time when she’s not chasing down thieves and missing relatives?”
Glad to get her mind off its dangerous path, she began putting and cosmetics and toiletries into a tote bag. “I paint,” she said.
“Paint? You mean houses, or pictures?”
“Really?” He sounded interested. “Have you had any shows?”
“Oh?” He hesitated. “Your work is all commissioned, then?”
She paused. “In a sense. Yes, you could say that.”
“Must be a very rich patron. A man?”
Was he insinuating what it sounded like? If so, he was even more deluded about her than she had imagined. “Good God, no.” She shoveled more into her bag, eager to be off.
“But you did say you make a living doing this?”
“It’s rather difficult to explain.” He said nothing, but she could see the curiosity in his eyes. She paused, took a deep breath, then said, “I paint scenery. Mainly natural, garden scenes. Little ponds, the flora and the fauna—you know?”
“They didn’t sell. Not at all. Not a single one.” He nodded. ‘‘So I put some people in the scene. Potential customers gave them a second look, at least. So then I tried couples—a man and a woman, obviously in love. I even sold a few.”
He smiled slightly, took one more puff and then stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray.
She faced him, her back straight. “Then one day I heard one fellow say to another while looking at one of my paintings, ‘What are they doing?’ The other guy fellow, and said, ‘Nothing.’ Then they walked away. That got me to thinking.”
One eyebrow lifted. “Yes?”
She shrugged, and in a clipped, curt voice explained, “Now my couples ‘do’ something. Or, I should say,suggestthat something’s going to occur shortly. And the paintings sell. I do live in Los Angeles, after all.”
“You mean they’re…”
He grinned. She looked at him, studying him, not sure what he thought. “C.J.,” he said, “that’s wonderful!” Then he laughed.
She turned back to her packing. She’d been through this before, yet, even as she tried to ignore his laughter, she couldn’t help but glance his way. His gaze caught hers, and in his eyes she saw he wasn’t laughingather, but at the way she explained her work. The incongruity of someone like her creating erotic art…that was worth a chuckle. Slowly, her lips upturned into a smile. “At least they put food on the table. They’re sensual, but no more graphic than the cover of a paperback romance.”
“Oh? That risqué?” he teased.
He crossed the room to stand beside her, his gaze searching her too-serious face. “I imagine they would sell. Somehow, I’m sure they’re very good. And what’s most important is that you’re doing what you love. To do the thing that’s important to you—that’s what makes you feel good just to be alive.”
He remained silent. She finished packing, and zipped her tote shut. She could feel his eyes on her, studying her. She wasn’t sure how to react. Finally she looked at him. “What is it?”
“You. I don’t understand you, Clarissa. Not at all.” Something in his gaze as he spoke made her uneasy.
“Me? I’m just a simple, middle American girl.”
“Simple? You’re a complete contradiction! A fascinating, warm, open contradiction, I’ll admit.”
“Oh, sure!” She saw herself as being as straightforward as the proverbial Mom and Apple Pie.
“You’re a very proper, mid-western lady, with a bold-as brass exterior, and an interior that’s soft, loving and shy. You yell at policemen, take home strangers off the street—”
“And”—his gaze caught hers and held—“I’m sure you aren’t one to casually make love to a man you share a mutual attraction with, which is something that about ninety percent of the unengaged women in this town would do, by the way. Yet you paint and sell suggestive pictures.”
Her face reddened. She decided not to touch his comment about making love and concentrate on her paintings. “They aren’t suggestive.”
“Oh? Explicit, then?” He grinned.
“Maybe we should call them…warm.” The corners of her mouth turned upward. They both broke into laughter, then looked at each other in surprise as the laughter faded and the realization that something more had developed between them, something that went beyond pleasant understanding, something that went beyond words.
She decided to double check the room, to make sure she was leaving nothing behind…anything to brush off the unsettling feeling he caused her. “Anyway, now you know my deep dark secret.”
“Why a secret?” he asked.
Good question, she thought. She walked to the window and concentrated on the view—windows and views were her usual place of escape when she didn’t want to face questions, people, or situations right under her nose. She placed a hand on the frame. Looking out, she said, “At times…sometimes…I feel like a failure. I wanted to be a great artist. I really did. To walk through the Museum of Modern Art and see my own work, a picture I had created. But it takes talent. I worked hard, and, technically, I’m up there with the best of them. But some things just can’t be learned, no matter how dedicated you are.”
“Not everyone can be Picasso.” His words were quiet, sincere.
“You, on the other hand,” she gazed at him as she remembered the beauty, emotion and perfection of his music, “you have talent.”
His features hardened. “But no technique.”
Jimmy’s words about an accident came back to her, about the “flaws” in his ability. “I’m no judge, Darius, but for me, your playing was magical.” She rubbed her hands together. “Anyway, I’ve lived with my shortcomings for a long time, and I accept them. But still, I like being able to create, even if it is just ‘suggestive’ little oils.”
He folded his own hands and looked at them for a long time, then raised his eyes to hers. He stood, their gazes holding.
She took a step towards him, then another.
A loud rap on the door made her jump. “Police! Open up!” The pounding began again.
C.J.’s eyes were wide as she turned to Darius.
He winked, walked to the window, crawled out, and a second later was gone.
“Open this door!”
Her breath caught as she looked from the door to the window. Running to the latter, she leaned out over the sill. There was no fire escape, only a frighteningly narrow ledge along the side of the building. And they were four stories up!
She studied the darkened courtyard below, her heart in her throat. Darius was nowhere to be seen, but he hadn’t fallen...she hoped.
Her hands shaking, she headed towards the door just as it was opened by the hotel’s manager.
Standing with him in the hallway were two strangers in gray flannel suits. “May I help you?” she asked. “Is there a problem?”
A tall man, middle-aged, with thinning sandy brown hair and blue eyes, stepped into the room flashing his ID.
“Gilles, British Intelligence. Leaving?” he asked, looking at her suitcase.
“Is that a crime?”
“It all depends. My concern is the man with you. Where is he?”
She swallowed hard. “Are you talking about my brother?”
“We know he’s not your brother.”
“Of course he is! Ask the Luchow police.”
“Alan Perkins was arrested this morning in San Francisco. He’s being investigated in connection with the White Dragon theft.”
The whole room swayed. C.J. reached out, grabbing the edge of the door, not wanting to believe what she had just heard. “Alan is in San Francisco?” she whispered.
“That’s right. We have a few questions to ask of you and the man posing as your brother.”
She shook her head. “My brother is no thief.”
“That’s for us to decide.”
The other gray-suited man opened doors to the bathroom and closet. “He’s not here, sir.”
Gilles’ eyes narrowed as he faced C.J. “Where is he?”
“Who?” She had no idea what to do or say.
“We suspect the man who was with you is Darius Kane. He’s wanted in Macao. We wish to speak with him.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” she replied, not meeting Gilles’s eyes.
“Please get your coat. I find it necessary to ask you to accompany us to the police station.”
C.J. couldn’t believe any of this was happening. Was she being arrested like Alan? And why? Because of Alan, or because of Darius? She picked up her jacket and purse and walked, like someone in a trance, between the two men. They led her out of the hotel to a police car. The hotel manager stood aside, his gaze reflecting his bafflement.
At the Kowloon Central Police Station, C.J. was placed in a small room with two wooden chairs, a desk covered with papers, an overflowing ashtray, and the remnants of tea and Chinese almond cookies. The smell of ash mixed with cold tea and stale cookies was nauseating. She pushed the food to one end of the desk, and sat as far from it as possible. She waited there for what felt like hours. It’s all a ploy, she thought. They want to scare me so I’ll tell them everything.
She was afraid just might work.
Finally an older man entered. He was of medium height, thin, with white hair and kindly blue eyes. So they think they’re going to charm this out of me, she thought, steeling her resolve to say nothing. Although, she admitted, charm was certainly better than the alternative.
Jaw set, she glared at the man. Her hands shook so badly that even clasping them together didn’t help.
“Miss Perkins, my name is Robert Davis. I work for the British government. I’m sorry for this inconvenience.”
“I’ll leave and save your conscience.”
He didn’t reply, but instead sat on the chair behind the desk. “First, my dear, we must talk.’’
She hated people who called her “my dear” almost as much as those who called her by her first name.
He coughed slightly, then handed her a picture. “Do you know this man?” It was Darius.
“You do, then.”
“I didn’t say that.” She returned the picture to him.
“Help us locate him.”
“We need to ask him a few questions.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” she said.
Davis rose from the chair and paced around the room.
Suddenly he perched on the edge of his desk and leaned toward her. Tossing Darius’s picture on the desk, he jabbed at it with his finger as he spoke. “If this is the man who was with you, his name is Darius Kane. He is an international bounty hunter. Do you know what that means?”
She felt her eyes widen at the news, and shook her head.
“Well, you should be shocked. It means he is the sort of man a decent young woman should have nothing to do with. It means he goes about the world capturing people, art objects, anything, for the reward they’ll bring him. He doesn’t do it for humanitarian reasons, and he doesn’t do it like the police, because it’s a job he can be proud of. He does it for his own selfish profit. He’ll do anything, Miss Perkins, anything for a dollar.” Davis stopped, and she was uncomfortably aware of his scrutiny.
“This man, Miss Perkins,” he said, standing again, and looking down at her, “this man will even get to know an attractive woman and use her, play with her emotions, as a ploy to track down her brother. Then he can turn the brother over to the police and collect the reward. Of course, this sort of man always leaves on the next plane out.”
C.J. felt dizzy, her stomach churning, as his words hit. She folded her arms tightly. “Why tell me this? I don’t know him.”
“We need to know what Kane knows about the theft. If he has proof Alan Perkins is behind it, we want that proof immediately.”
He put his hands on the desk and leaned over her. “Miss Perkins, of course your brother stole the White Dragon. Why else would Kane be with you now?”
“He’s not with me!” She choked on the words. Hot, angry tears threatened, but she held them back, furious at his deception of her, and embarrassed at her sappy, sickening response to him. What an idiot she was!
Robert Davis walked to the door and held it open for her. His voice was subdued, almost gentle. “You can leave now, Miss Perkins. Thank you for informing us of Mr. Kane’s involvement.”
She looked at him in shock, then grabbed her purse and ran from the office.
C.J. couldn’t appreciate the beauty of San Francisco as she gazed out the window of the plane circling the city, awaiting clearance to land. The water was blue below her, but the only color she could see was green: the lush green of Asia; the green of the tall ferns of Sarawak; the green of a pair of eyes....
Forget him, C.J., she commanded.The man used you; he never believed in Alan’s innocence. You were a pawn for him, an avenue to get to his real target—the reward for finding the White Dragon.
Oh well, it was better than being thrown over for another woman. Her self-deprecating joke fell flat, not even the slightest hint of a smile played across her lips. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the window as the pilot droned on about mild temperatures and fair skies.
She took a bus from the airport to downtown San Francisco. At the bus terminal she got a map and tourist book to gain some idea of the section of the city where she should stay. Next she found a talkative cab driver, and he readily recommended hotels, restaurants, places to see and how best to get around town.
She chose a moderately priced hotel near the very expensive Fairmont. The first thing she did after checking in was to locate Alan and learn when she could visit him in jail. Next she made a collect call to Columbus, Ohio to let her parents know what was happening. At least she could tell them where their son was, although they were anything but thrilled by the news. C.J. assured them that it was all a misunderstanding, and that Alan would be free in no time.
She put the telephone down and eyed the bed. Although it looked inviting after hours of sitting on planes or in airports, she couldn’t abandon her big brother, alone and probably frightened, for something so selfish as a nap, so she wearily showered, changed clothes, and headed for the city jail.
She waited in a small visitors’ room while her brother was summoned. An eternity passed before the door on the other side of the glass partition opened, and he entered.
“Alan!” She placed a hand against the glass, waiting for him to come near. He looked much older than he had three years ago when she last saw him. His shoulders seemed rounder, his dark brown hair thinner, and he had lost weight. It made no sense to her that there, in jail, was the brother she had always looked up to, the one she had always been so proud of. What had done this to him?
“C.J.! I knew I could count on you!” He pressed one hand against the glass opposite hers, and then smiled. In that moment, all the years drifted away. He was her big brother, and she idolized him. Tears filled her eyes.
“I’ll do anything I can to help you,” she said.
“I know.” He withdrew his hand as he sat down, then ran his fingers through his hair making it more tousled than it had been. “God, I thought I might rot here! I’ve got a lawyer who I guess is pretty good. He’s trying to get me out, something about false arrest. They’ve got nothing to hold me on, you know. Nothing.”
“What happened? What’s this all about?”
“They want to send me back to Hong Kong. To extradite me.” The lines on his face had deepened, his dark eyes were flat, and his whole body drooped.
“Alan, listen to me. No one will tell me anything about what’s going on here. Start at the beginning, okay, so I can help you.”
He looked at her, startled by her words. “They didn’t tell you?”
“I see.” He sat back in his chair. “It’s a simple story. I don’t know why it’s all gotten so confused.”
“It began in Sarawak.” He stared at her, seeming to wonder whether she would believe him. She nodded and smiled with encouragement. “I often went down to the beach to read. I liked being by the ocean to relax when the day’s work was done. One day I spotted a raft drifting towards me. I know it sounds incredible, like a fantasy of some kind, but it’s true! The raft was bobbing in the surf, coming closer and closer to the beach.
“There was something on it. At first I couldn’t tell what, but as it drifted closer, I saw it was a man. I swam out, grabbed the raft and pulled it to shore.
“The man was dying. He was a sailor, and all the others on his ship were already dead. I tried to help him. I tried to save his life, C.J. I really did. But soon I knew it wasn’t possible.” He paused as if remembering that day.
“Oh, Alan, how terrible for you,” C.J. said.
“Yes, it was. He knew his life was over, but because I had tried to save him, he offered me a favor. He said he knew where to find theBai-loong, the priceless White Dragon of the T’ang dynasty. I don’t know much about Chinese art, C.J., but I’d heard of that piece and how valuable it is. When he told me it had been stolen, I could hardly believe it. All I wanted to do was find it and turn it over to the proper authorities. There’s a nice reward for it, you know. Anyway, the trail he gave me led me here. But as soon as I stepped off the plane, I was arrested.”
He shrugged. “It seems my simple questions around Hong Kong just trying to find the Dragon, made the British think I know more about it than I do. They even seem to suspect I have it!”
She said nothing; his story made no sense. Why was he asking people in Hong Kong about the White Dragon when he already knew where it was? Clearly, there was more to the story. But still, why was he arrested? “It sounds like a terrible misunderstanding!”
“Yes, it was.” He was silent a moment, and then smiled. “God, C.J., I just thought of something! If you’re willing to help, I know how you can free me.”
“Anything! Just tell me.”
“There’s a man here, in the Chinatown section.” Alan was excited now. “He’ll help me; help us. I know he will!”
“What do you mean? Is he a lawyer? What about bailing you out of here?”
“There’s no need to spend money we don’t have on lawyers or bail! Believe me. Contact the man in Chinatown. Write down his address.” He spoke quickly.
“Okay.” She began fishing around in her big purse. “Here’s my notebook.”
“It’s 99 Duncombe, just up the block from Grant Avenue off Jackson Street. The man’s name is Mr. Yeng. He’s very influential. I know the British will listen to him when he tells them I had nothing to do with the theft.”
She raised both eyebrows. “Why should he tell the British such a thing? What does he know about this?”
“He knows enough. Give him the name, ‘Chan Li,’ and then say that I’m in prison and must be set free. Repeat that. Chan Li.”
She wrote it down. “Chan Li. That’s easy enough. But who is this man? What does he do?”
Alan sighed. “It’s better if you don’t know. Mr. Yeng will know. That’s all that matters.”
“I’m on your side, Alan, but how can I help you if you keep me in the dark? None of this makes sense!”
“What do you mean, ‘in the dark’?” He scowled. “I’ve told you everything. And I need you, C.J. I need you, just like old times. I used to be able to depend on you. Now, will you help me, or are you going to abandon me, too?”
“Of course I’ll help you.” She stood, waving the notepad in front of her. “I’ve got my instructions. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Alan smiled at her. “You’re a good kid.”
“You’ll be out of here soon.” She felt terrible at having to leave him there. “I promise.”
Between the time change from Hong Kong to San Francisco and her anxiety over Alan, she was ready to drop. It was night, and the sky was dark. More than anything, she wanted to go back to her hotel room and get some sleep. But how could she when that would mean Alan would have to remain in prison even longer. Even one minute more than necessary was more than her conscience could stand. Her stomach growled. She last ate on the plane somewhere over the Pacific, hours ago.
Forget about yourself, she ordered, while listening to every bone in her body creak with fatigue. Night was falling. A chill wind blew off the bay, and the fog had already rolled in and was blanketing the city.
Feeling light-headed, she hailed a taxi, then leaned back against the cushions with a sigh.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Grant and Jackson. Chinatown.”
Grant Avenue was lit up like a Christmas tree, the street alive with activity. The cab crept along, hardly able to move in the crush of pedestrians and other cars.
C.J. soon ran out of patience with the slow pace. She handed the driver some money and got out a couple of blocks short of her destination. She pulled her light jacket tight around her. The breeze had turned cold. From open upper story windows, radios blared the wailing sound of Cantonese opera, while at street level, sales people chased down tourists to hand them flyers hawking shops and restaurants for dinner. Almost everyone seemed to stroll in one direction while looking the opposite way. People knocked against C.J. so often she felt like a bumper car at an amusement park. It almost felt as if she were back in Hong Kong, except that Hong Kong was about ten times more crowded, and the buildings much taller. Also, Hong Kong was a whole lot warmer.
Finally she reached Jackson Street. Alan had told her that the street she wanted was “up” from Grant. When he’d said up, she realized now, he’d meant it literally. Jackson Street rose steeply from Grant toward the center of the city. In the opposite direction, it roller-coastered down to the bay.
She walked up the hill into the hovering fog. The makeup of the street changed quickly, almost eerily so. From the bright neon lights of stores and restaurants along Grant Avenue, the shops on this street were closed and darkened.
As she ascended Jackson, through the fog she was able to see a street sign with the name Duncombe in Roman letters, and Chinese characters below them. Something made her slow her pace. When she reached the corner of Duncombe and Jackson, she realized that her foreboding had been warranted. Duncombe was a desolate-looking alley.
She peered down the alley. It was so dark that she couldn’t see the end of it.
For all she knew, the black hole of Calcutta could be waiting for her down there. The old expression “being Shanghaied” struck her. It was used about people snatched off the streets of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast during the mid-nineteenth century and made to work on ships traveling to the Far East. Could Mr. Yeng, a man of influence, actually live in there?
Groping in her purse, she again pulled out the address Alan had given her. 99 Duncombe.
She put it away again and held her purse against her chest as if for protection. Her mouth felt dry as she took the first, tentative steps into the alley. A fog-shrouded streetlamp cast her shadow far in front of her, until even the shadow disappeared in darkness. The walls of the alley were mostly brick and stone with steel, roll-up garage doors interspersed between them. Dumpsters blocked the narrow sidewalk as she walked down the center of the pavement. She remembered reading in history books about the tong wars that took place in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late nineteenth century, and how rival tongs, similar to today’s gangs, would line up in the dead of night facing each other in alleys like this one. Instead of guns and knives, they used hatchets. As they stared at each other, eventually someone would move—perhaps no more than the flicker of an eyelid. At that, the tongs would lunge together, their hatchets wildly swinging, inflicting horrible damage to each other. The next day, the city would wake to find the dead and dying.
Taking a deep breath, telling herself the days of tong wars were long past, C.J. plunged into the dark alley, her heels echoing loudly as she walked. Although she looked back over her shoulder toward the main street for comfort from time to time, the fog filled the air until, as she went deeper, she could see nothing more than a dismal blur.
A chill crept up her back, and her steps faltered.
A doorway! That must be it, she thought, as she hurried towards an old brick building. It was three stories tall, with only a few windows.
She stared at the heavy, dark wooden door before her. Perhaps this was just a warehouse? A daytime address? There was only one way to find out. She reached her hand towards the doorbell, but pulled it back as uncertainty gripped her.
She was sure Alan wouldn’t send her anyplace dangerous, but maybe he had been wrong about the address. She glanced up and down the alley again quickly. She should just ring the bell and find out. But what if Mr. Yeng actually did live here? What if he answered the door and invited her inside?
She swallowed hard. Ring the bell, C period, J period, Perkins. Show them you can’t be cowed by a little darkness and some fog!
She was again reaching for the bell when she heard footsteps coming her way.
Ring the bell!her mind cried.You’ve got to help Alan.She flung her hand toward the buzzer just as a pair of strong arms went around her, knocking her away from the door and pushing her deeper into the alley. At the same instant a hand was clamped tightly over her mouth, preventing her from screaming.
The man holding her was tall and strong. She struggled to get away, but she couldn’t. His whispered voice was telling her something, but she was too frightened to make sense out of it. She struggled furiously before his hushed words penetrated her fears. “Stop it, C.J. It’s me. Stop it.”
She turned her head just enough to confront her attacker. As her eyebrows shot up in recognition, he took his hand away from her mouth.
“Darius!” she cried, putting her hand on her chest to still the mad beating of her heart. Her legs were ready to collapse from the fright he’d given her at the same time as she was overjoyed to see him here. The resulting confusion made her mad. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, scaring me like that!” She waved her arms for emphasis.
“Not so loud.” He spoke in angry, hushed tones. “What the hell do you think you’re doing going up to the door of one of the most dangerous men in Chinatown?”
“What? But…” she sputtered.
“Come on!” Darius put his arm around her waist and hurried her out of the alley.
“No! Let go of me!” She struggled to free herself. “I will not go anywhere with you! What are you doing here, anyway?”
A slight metallic sound stopped her complaints. She clutched Darius’ jacket and strained to see in the foggy darkness. A small tin can rolled toward them from deep inside the alley. They watched it in surprise, and then Darius pushing her back into a dark alcove formed by a garage door as a figure, short and slight, stepped from the shadows and ran past them to the street.
C.J. was afraid that her heart would stop from the scare Darius had given her, the effect of having him so close once again, and now this. She didn’t know whether to be frightened or furious.
Still, she couldn’t stop her fingers from tightening on his jacket.
“Who was that?” she whispered.
Without answering, he held her to his side as he quickly led her out of the alley. This time, she made no protest.
He hailed a taxi on Grant Avenue. “Mark Hopkins,” he told the driver as they climbed in.
Even in her bewildered state, the name of one of the most elegant hotels in San Francisco came through with crystalline clarity.
She glanced at him in surprise. He had gotten a haircut since she saw him last, a casual razor cut, combed to the side and back. All in all, it suited him well. Too well.
Her eyes dropped to the jacket he was wearing. It was made of fine, soft leather, obviously expensive. What was going on here?
“The Mark Hopkins?” she asked finally. “Why are we going there?”
“I’ve got a room.” He gave her a wink.
“A room? Hey, isn’t that my old line?” She couldn’t help a sheepish grin.
Yes, her old line.... Memories of the past few days came rushing at her. To her, Hong Kong would always mean only one thing: Darius Kane. She could remember perfectly the first time she’d seen him. How she had found the nerve to talk to him, let alone invite him to her room, she would never know. Then she remembered Darius in her hotel room, and the way he had teased her! And on Victoria Peak, overlooking the harbor, with the hot sun shining on his face and the bright azure sky as the backdrop. And Darius playing the piano...
Suddenly the words of the British inspector warning her against him drummed in her ears.
When she had been hurt and frightened by the burglars, Darius had comforted her. Yet the inspector had told her not to trust him. How well she remembered Darius’ arms supporting her, his smile, that boyish grin that could make her heart melt or drive her to fury, his captivating eyes. But always, always, she thought of the inspector’s warning, that Darius would do anything for money, including spending time with the sister of a thief.
She sat upright. “Take me to my hotel. The Golden Gate.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Leave me alone!” she shouted. ‘‘Let me out of here!”
The driver started to slow down.
“No.” Darius leaned forward in the seat to speak to the driver. “She’s just upset. The Mark, please.” He turned back to C.J. and took her hands. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong? Everything!” She freed her hands and clenched them as she spoke. “Why did you stop me from seeing Mr. Yeng? That man would have helped Alan. But you don’t want that, do you? I don’t want to see you. Not ever!”
She leaned forward toward the driver. “Stop this cab!”
The driver glanced back in his mirror and started to slow down again.
“She’s my wife. Ignore her,” Darius said to the man.
The driver nodded and sped up.
“What!” she cried, looking at Darius in horror.
“C.J., listen to me.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him.
“No.” She tried to push him away.
“Why?” he whispered, his grip tightening. “What’s wrong? What have I done? Tell me, please.”
His voice was soft, his eyes pleading. Such a good actor, she thought, a real pro. She glared at him. “I don’t want anything to do with you. Is that clear enough?” But her voice was soft when it should have been harsh, weak when it should have been strong.
“Don’t you?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head and looked away, her hands still against his chest.
“Then look at me.”
She wanted to say something, anything, to prove to him how she felt, but no words came. Instead, she raised her eyes to his. As soon as she did, she realized her mistake.
Had she really forgotten how intensely he could look at her, and how his look could penetrate to her very core?
No longer did she hear the taxi’s engine, feel the movement of the car; the only world that existed for her was Darius.
The cab pulled into the driveway of the Mark Hopkins, and the driver sat calmly, engine running, waiting for them to pay their fare.
As Darius paid, C.J. got out of the cab and waited until he joined her. “We need to talk, Darius,” she said with conviction.
An eyebrow rose, but instead of answering, he led her across the elegant lobby to the elevator and up to the fourteenth floor. He opened the door and switched on the lights.
She walked halfway across the large room then stopped. She needed to face him, to talk, but the intimacy of the room and her memory of the way he had been there to stop her from walking—if she could believe him—into danger, made her heart thrum. She quickly continued on to the windows and forced herself to concentrate on the view.
San Francisco was breathtaking, its array of lights diffused and softened by the fog and mist. She felt as if she were high in the sky, in a strange never-never land with Darius.
“May I take your jacket?” he asked.
She faced him as his words broke into her reverie. “I’m only staying a minute. But I have so many questions…”
“Fine. I’ll fix us drinks. Make yourself comfortable.” He held out his hand until she gave up the jacket, then hung it up and mixed them each a brandy and soda.
She sipped her drink, the strong brandy warm and soothing, as she checked out his room. It was, in fact, a suite. Besides the bedroom, there were also a small sitting room, a dressing room and, of course, the bath. Some of the furniture appeared to be genuinely antique. A room like this must cost a fortune, she thought, as she settled into a tapestry-upholstered wing chair. She gazed at Darius, trying to figure him out.
“Did you rob a bank since I saw you last?” she asked.
“You never asked me about my finances, you know, before you lured me off to your hotel room. Maybe if I tell you now that I have money you won’t be so eager to send me out of your sight.”
“Don’t bank on it.” Her mouth twisted into a frown.
“You’re right. You’re not that kind of woman. I don’t think you’d ever use someone like that. Not even if you needed to.” He sat on an easy chair across from her, holding his glass with casual grace. “What can I do to interest you?”
“Tell me about Mr. Yeng.”
“I was afraid you’d say something like that.”
“Actually,” she said, “I’ve changed my mind.”
“Good.” He grinned, and she felt her reaction to his smile in the fluttering in her breast. It took ail her concentration to remain businesslike. She drank more before she said, “What I want to know first is what you’re doing here. Why are you in San Francisco?”
He swirled his drink around, then put it on the end table and leaned back in the chair as he studied her. “Would you believe me if I told you I know a sweet kid—no, not a kid, a woman—a warm, affectionate, beautiful woman, who’s in way over her head and doesn’t even know it? She’s got a brother who’s a real jerk—”
“He’s an amateur playing against the pros.” He leaned forward. “There’s only one ending in this for him, unless he’s really lucky. And I don’t want to see the same thing happen to her.”
Her jaw tightened. “If you told me that was your reason for being here, no, I would not believe you!”
His eyes flamed as his anger grew to match hers. He stepped up to her and placed one hand on each arm of her chair, then leaned down to face her. “I will assume that your brother is so addled over his thoughts of riches that he doesn’t even realize what he’s doing. If I thought he knew the kind of man Yeng is and still sent you there, don’t think a mere jail would stop me from tearing him limb from limb.”
She pressed herself against the back of her chair, trying to stay as far from him as possible. She refused to listen to his words. He was only trying to sweet-talk her; to use her. “Sure you would!” She spat out the words. “You have a lot of nerve trying to make me think your overwhelming concern for me brought you here! For one thing, you don’t even know me! But I know you, Mr. Darius Kane. I know all about you. I know what you do for a living—if you can call it that! The British police told me. I know why you got out of that Hong Kong hotel room so fast. A bounty hunter! That’s why you’re here. It’s not for me! The only thing I am to you is a link to Alan. And Alan, you think, gives you a link to the White Dragon. Well, you’re wrong!”
He stood upright, letting go of her chair. “The British told you all that nonsense?”
“Nonsense? You told me yourself about the counterfeiters in Macao. Now it all makes sense!”
He stepped back from her, his expression strangely vulnerable. “C.J. . . .“
“What!” She stood up, too.
He gave a slight shake of the head. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Arms folded, her eyes narrowed slightly.
He turned his back to her. “You’re obviously exhausted. You probably didn’t sleep on the plane, and when you got to the city, I suspect you immediately ran off to see that fool brother of yours. Now you have jet lag and you’re hysterical.”
Furious, she marched around him and looked him straight in the eye. “Hysterical? I am never, do you hear, never hysterical! I want to know what’s going on! Who are you? What is your interest in all this?”
Hands in his pockets, he paced the room, then returned to his chair and sat, his eyes dark and thoughtful. “I know how it must sound,” he said calmly.
She sank into the large chair again, her emotions topsy-turvy. She finished her drink as the silence spread between them, the minutes slowly, languorously ticking by. She didn’t know whether she should believe anything he said; she knew only that she wanted to. She leaned back against the headrest as the liquor numbed her exhausted body. The longer she sat, the more that the fatigue she had fought against all day gripped her, the heavier her eyes felt.
“How did you find me?” she finally asked, her voice groggy even as she struggled to remain alert.
“Yeng’s reputation and his lust for Chinese artifacts are well-known in Hong Kong—at least in Jimmy Lee’s circle. Nothing happens in or around the Orient without that group knowing it, so, when I missed you at the jail, I decided to see if Alan would send you to Yeng’s. Obviously he did.”
Her eyelids kept shutting as Darius spoke, and she could barely hold her head up any longer. “No,” she murmured. “Alan wouldn’t…”
Darius placed a blanket over her lap and legs and lifted the glass from her fingertips. “Don’t worry about it now, Carolina. Just rest.”
She felt suddenly warm and cared for, as if a burden she had been carrying alone was now being shared. “Can’t rest,” she whispered. “There’s no time…”
Then she sank into sleep.
C.J. rolled over onto her back and stretched her arms before opening her eyes. The long night’s sleep had been so welcome, so—Oh, my God!
She was in bed. She quickly tossed aside the blanket and stood. Shoes off, clothes on.
“Darius?” she called.
Walking to the bathroom door, she called again, but received the same lack of response. The sitting and dressing rooms were also empty. Then she saw a piece of paper propped up on the night stand. She picked it up.
Dear Cleopatra Jasmine,
Sleep well, love, and don’t worry. Wait for me here— you’ll be safe. Trust me.
Wait for him? Trust him? If only she could! But with Alan needing her help, it was impossible for her not to go to her brother as soon as she could. She was halfway across the room when a word from the note sprang to mind, stopping her. “Love,” he had written.
She shook off the thought, deciding it was probably just a Britishism he had learned in Hong Kong. But her gaze turned back toward the piece of paper. It would be so easy just to wait there and let Darius do the planning and the worrying for a while. But that would mean she had to trust him, and, logically, she couldn’t. And one thing about C.J. Perkins: she was always logical. Painfully logical.
She quickly got ready to leave his room. At the door, though, she hesitated, then ran back to the night stand to pick up the note. She folded it carefully, put it in a zippered compartment in her purse so it wouldn’t get crumpled, and then hurried out the door.
Back in her own hotel room, she discovered that a shower and breakfast could do wonders for one’s well-being, even though she also realized, halfway through her omelet, that she never had gotten Darius to explain why he thought Yeng was a danger, or about the other man in the alley.
Bah!she cried silently. Why should she care what Darius Kane thought? He was there for one reason only—the White Dragon. Time to go see Alan. She put on a white blouse and peach skirt. Balancing on heels higher than she usually wore, she grabbed her huge bag and set out for the jail.
It took over an hour for officials to decide that she be allowed to speak to her brother again. When she entered the visiting area, he was already there.
“How did it go?” he asked first thing.
She sat down. “Are they treating you all right here?”
“Yes, yes. Now tell me about Yeng. What did he say? What was his reaction?” He looked ready to burst with expectation.
This was going to be harder than she had anticipated. “I’m afraid I didn’t get to see him.”
His face fell. “You didn’t? Why not? Who did you see?”
“I, um, didn’t see anyone yet.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “Too tired after your trip, I guess.”
“No. I went there, but… Alan, tell me about Mr. Yeng. I’ve heard things.”
“What do you mean, you went there, ‘but’? But what? What have you heard about Yeng? Who have you been talking to?” He was angry, shouting at her.
“Calm down, Alan.” She glanced nervously toward the guard, but he made no move. “I’ll tell you all about it. I met a man in Hong Kong named Darius Kane who knows something about what’s going on, and about the theft. I asked him to help me. I didn’t know what to do, Alan, not even where to begin to find you.”
“Wait a minute. You were in Hong Kong?”
“Of course. How else do you think I found you?”
“I sent a telegram to your apartment in Los Angeles!”
“Mom and Dad got a message from Sarawak that you had disappeared. I went to Sarawak then Hong Kong. British Intelligence told me you were here.”
“I see…” He let all that sink in before he spoke again. “Okay, so you met this guy in Hong Kong. What does that have to do with Yeng?”
“Darius Kane is here. He stopped me from going to Yeng’s. He said Yeng is a dangerous criminal.” She searched Alan’s eyes for a reaction, but the only one she saw was irritation.
His jaw set, and his tone became sneering. “How well do you know this guy?”
“Then why, in God’s name, do you believe him? He’s some stranger, and I’m your own brother! What’s he doing following you from Hong Kong? It’s not a cheap little jaunt, you know. It’s not Oakland to San Francisco, or New York to Philly. How can you trust him? You shouldn’t! He’s after something, believe me. Maybe he wants me to stay here. Maybe that’s why he told you tales about Yeng.”
Alan’s words reflected her own tormented thoughts perfectly. Why did she trust Darius Kane? Hadn’t the British warned her? And now, Alan. She had always trusted Alan. Always.
But because of some stranger, she hadn’t followed Alan’s wishes. She was disgusted with herself. “Alan, who is Yeng? No one will tell me!”
Alan sat back in the chair and took several deep breaths before speaking in a much calmer voice. “Yeng is a very powerful businessman who knows many influential people. It’s in his interest to keep relations between Hong Kong and Communist China peaceful, and that’ll be even more important when the day comes that the Chinese take over Hong Kong…if it ever really happens. Anyway, Chan Li is a good friend of his, and through Chan Li he can learn that I am innocent. Mr. Yeng is powerful enough to see to my release.” His speech finished, he folded his arms.
Suspicion grew in her at this blithe, too simple explanation. But there was no reason for Alan to lie to her, was there? “So that’s all there is to it?”
“Of course! What did you expect? Underworld intrigue? Really, C.J., you sound as if you doubt my innocence, too! My own sister!”
Guilt gnawed at her, guilt over the truth of his words. “I’m sorry, Alan. Please forgive me. I won’t ever doubt you again.” Her gaze even, she continued. “It’s that man, that awful Darius Kane. I’ll never listen to him again, Alan, I promise.” She stood to leave.
“That’s great, C.J. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Alan.”
She hurried out of the jail, ashamed that Alan was still in prison because of her. Somehow, she would make it up to him.
She walked to the curb and was looking for a taxi when two Chinese men approached her. They were middle-aged, short, a little stout, and were dressed in dark blue business suits. They bowed.
“Miss Perkins?” one asked.
“We understand you wish to meet Mr. Yeng. He would also like to speak with you.”
She looked from one man to the other in astonishment.
Their mouths were smiling, but their eyes were veiled.I should feel happy about this,she told herself.Yeng sent someone to find me, which must mean he’s interested in helping Alan. So why does my stomach feel as if it’s got a lead weight in it, while my knees are turning into instant pudding?
“Do not be afraid,” the other man said. “We can understand your surprise at seeing us, but, be assured, we come as friends. We offer you a ride, unless you prefer to go to Mr. Yeng’s residence on your own.”
“I’m sorry. Please don’t think I’m ungrateful. It’s just that I’m surprised by this.”
“Of course.” They smiled and bowed their heads in tandem, reminding her of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
“I’ll come with you,” she said, suddenly decisive. After all, Alan trusted Mr. Yeng, and she trusted Alan.
They thanked her and led her to their car. Won’t Alan be pleased, she thought as she rode along, when he learns that Mr. Yeng wants to help him? She repeated the thought over and over like a mantra.
In no time, the car turned into Duncombe Alley. As they stepped out of it, someone opened the front door of Yeng’s building.
With Tweedledum on one side and Tweedledee on the other, C.J. entered what she thought would be an old warehouse but instead was an enormous home. From the front door she stepped into a long hallway. To her right, the living room was elaborately decorated with Chinese-style rosewood and black lacquer furniture, and a riot of vermillion and gold artifacts, chests and lamps. It made her head spin just to look at it.
“This way please,” a petite Oriental woman said to her.
The two men who had brought her there were no longer with her.
After the living room there was a more sedate but still impressive dining room; then, at the end of the hallway, she saw a long straight staircase with a door at the top of it.
After climbing the steps, the woman opened the door and beckoned C.J. to follow.
She entered an office. An enormous wooden desk took up most of the floor space. Behind it stood a small Oriental man, nattily dressed and wearing glasses.
“Greetings. I am Mr. Yeng,” he said, bowing slightly.
And Darius had said she should be afraid of him! She could kill him with a flyswatter.
“So nice to meet you,” she replied, shaking the hand he offered, then sitting on a yellow chair in response to his gesture.
“I understand your brother is being most unfortunately detained by the police in connection with the theft of the White Dragon.” He sat, his folded hands resting on the desk.
“Yes, but he’s completely innocent.”
“I am sure that is so. Do you know why the police believe otherwise?”
“No, but whatever their reason is,” she hurried to add, “Alan said you would know he’s innocent.”
“I?” A flicker of surprise showed in the man’s otherwise impassive eyes.
“Yes. You have a friend who can prove it. Chan Li.”
Yeng’s eyes narrowed. “My…friend?”
“That’s what my brother said. You will help him get out of jail, won’t you, Mr. Yeng?”
“Of course. There’s nothing for you to worry about. I’ll take care of everything.”
Relief filled her. Alan was right! She smiled broadly. “Thank you! You and Chan Li! I’ll never forget either one of you. Never. I can hardly wait to tell Alan.”
Yeng pushed a button beside his telephone, and in a moment the door to his office opened. A huge man walked into the room.
“My guest is through here, now,” Yeng said, then nodded.
He must be my escort, C.J. thought as she rose from her chair, still smiling. “Alan and I will never forget your kindness,” she added.
“Think nothing of it,” Yeng said.
The large man stepped toward her. A white handkerchief in his hand flashed before her eyes as he lifted it to her face.
“What—” she began.
The handkerchief covered her nose and mouth, nearly smothering her. She flung her arms out, trying to push the man away, but she might as well have been trying to stop a truck. She needed air, fresh air, but she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even scream. She tried to pull his hand from her face, but he seemed impervious to pain. A terror worse than anything she had ever known filled her as the room began to spin, then turn varied shades of purple. He bent closer to her, until she thought she was looking into the eyes of death.
Then everything went black.
She opened her eyes and saw nothing but blackness. She squeezed them shut again, her heart pounding, too frightened to move, to speak, to scream. She was on the ground, a cold, hard, rough surface…it felt like cement. The sense that a long, long time had passed, that she had been asleep for hours, filled her.
When she felt a little calmer, she opened her eyes again. Everything, still, was pitch black. My God, she thought, why can’t I see? She sat up, reaching out in the dark to see if anything was near, but felt nothing. She blinked several more times, willing herself to see, but it did no good. Her breathing was rapid, and cold sweat beaded on her skin. What happened to her? What had that man done?
Not until she turned all the way around did she notice a small, faint bit of light, and nearly wept with, relief. Her sight was fine; it was the room that was black. The light was at floor level. It must be a door, she thought, with light from outside shining underneath.
On hands and knees, she crawled toward the light.
When she reached it, she felt around above the light and discovered that it was indeed a door. A way out. She stood, grabbed hold of the doorknob, turned it and pulled. The door wouldn’t budge.
She pushed and pulled, trying to shake the door off its hinges.
“Help!” she cried, pounding on the wood. “Let me out of here. Please! There must be some mistake. I’m a friend. I’m not here to harm anyone.”
Again, she tugged on the doorknob and pounded the door. “Please!” Her voice cracked with tears and fright. “Please, somebody! Help me!”
Hot tears fell down her face as she kicked at the door, hit it, then threw herself against it. What was this about? She shook her head, unwilling to acknowledge the obvious answer, fighting to calm herself so she could think.
But all she could think was that Darius had been right. Not Alan. Tears filled her eyes.
She slid her hands over the rough wall next to the door, hoping to find a light switch. She found one, flipped it up. To her amazement, the light came on.
Her gaze swept over the room. It appeared to be a small cellar with shelf-lined walls, the shelves packed with everything from auto parts and tools to old books. At least she could read to pass the time!
There were no windows.
The door had no keyhole, which had to mean it was padlocked or bolted from the outside, in the way of most cellar doors.
What now? Her eyes leaped to the door hinges.
She checked out the tools on the shelves. As she did, her eye caught the spines of the books. It figures, she thought. They were all in Chinese.
She rummaged through the tool boxes until she found a thin file. All she needed to do now was to pop the pins out of the hinges and she’d be free. She joyfully reflected on the idiocy of her captors to lock her in a room with a tool box.
The bottom hinge would be the first to go. She held the file against the top lip of the pin and pried. Even after several attempts it wouldn’t budge. Looking closely at it, she saw that the hinge had not only gotten rusty with age, but was slightly bent.
She returned to the tool box for a chisel, a hammer and pliers, and soon was back at work. Every so often she would pound on the door for good measure, but her cries only echoed back at her.
The pins were stubborn. When she finally got one to move about a quarter of an inch she thought she should cheer.
It seemed that hours passed. No one came for her. Not only did her stomach feel empty, but thirst began to really bother her. Her arms ached, and blisters were beginning to form on her hands. Maybe her captors weren’t such idiots after all.
One pin was about halfway out.
She threw down the pliers in frustration and sat on the ground, her back to the door. Tears streamed down her face.
I shouldn’t let myself cry, she thought, I’ll dehydrate faster. She envisioned someone opening the door in about forty years and finding a dried out corpse clutching a chisel.
She had no real sense of how much time went by before the bottom pin finally sprang free.
C.J. picked it up off the floor and kissed it. Then she looked at the other one. The top hinge meant no more sitting on the floor. She’d be stretching, trying to work with her arms above her head. The mere thought was painful.
She was so tired, sore and hungry that nothing really mattered at the moment but to rest. The blisters on her hands had broken already, causing blood to ooze from the torn skin. She tried not to think about how much they hurt.
She stood slowly, her body stiff and creaking from sitting on the cold cement ground. Her hands had already begun to swell and throb. She wasn’t hungry anymore, but she was thirsty; her mouth felt like sand paper. She tried to lick her dry lips, but that provided no relief.
Yeng had done this. How could Alan have sent her here? He couldn’t have known what kind of a man Yeng was. But Darius knew, so why didn’t Alan?
“Darius,” she whispered. “Darius, find me. Please.”
She turned onto her side and curled up, miserable, but knowing that lying there and doing nothing was foolish. She walked around to loosen up, her muscles complaining with every step. Time to start on the second hinge. She picked up the chisel and hammer, but her hands ached so badly that when she tried to clasp the tools her eyes teared from the pain. She removed her half-slip and, using the file like a knife, tore it into strips. She wrapped those around her hands so she could hold the tools, then began to work again.
This pin was as stubborn as the first, and her progress was even slower, because of her awkward angle. She was beyond caring how she felt, but worked on and on, unwilling to give up and await her destiny without a fight.
“C.J.?” A slight tap on the door and the soft sound of a familiar voice caused her to freeze. Was it real, or a hallucination?
The whispered question came again. “C.J.?”
“Yes! Yes! Darius, I’m here.” She threw herself against the door.
“Okay.” She heard the rattle of a key, and in a minute the door was open and she was in his arms.
She held him tightly, burying her face against his neck. “I knew you’d come. I knew it.”
He rubbed his cheek against her hair. “It’s good to see you, kid,” he said, his voice a little husky. “We have to get out of here. Be very quiet.”
She stepped back from him and nodded.
He reached for her hand, then saw her makeshift bandages. With eyes full of concern as he looked at her, he asked, “What’s happened?”
“Look,” she told him, nodding in the direction of the hinges.
He said nothing for a moment, then looked at her with admiration. “Seems you didn’t need me after all.”
“I certainly did!” she said.
He led her to a staircase. They needed to get out of the basement, to go up to the ground floor. Once there, the area appeared to be clear. He had managed to get in through a small window in the back porch, but leaving that way would have involved a jump that he doubted C.J. could handle. He was going to try to get her out the front door. They headed down the hallway walking as quietly as they could.
At the sound of a footstep, Darius whisked C.J. into the dining room, hoping whoever was near would pass them by. The room was unlit, but the light from the hall and kitchen were bright enough that everything was visible. He hurried to the window to see if it offered any escape. They were about eight or nine feet up from the sidewalk. He could hold her until she was close enough to drop the rest of the way without breaking or spraining anything.
He pushed open the window when two men rushed him. “Run, C.J.!” he ordered, then stepped back to meet them.
All she saw was a mad tangle of arms and legs as the two men jumped Darius. She couldn’t just leave him there.
She spotted a large Chinese gong at the entrance to the dining room, its wooden mallet on a stand beside it. She edged along the wall, keeping out of the men’s reach, then picked up the mallet. It was surprisingly heavy. She lifted it high in the air as she stepped back into a shadowy corner.
The three men kicked and punched at each other, and she watched them, awaiting her chance. Then, as Darius fought one man, the second one stood straight, reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. With a flick, an enormous blade appeared.
Without hesitation, C.J. stepped behind him and swung the mallet down toward his head. The swishing sound it made as it ripped through the air caused him to look over his shoulder. C.J. saw his utter surprise as he spied her towering over him, wild-eyed, her brown hair flying, huge white bandages on her hands and swinging a Chinese mallet. He stared, slack-jawed, as the weapon hit its target perfectly.
The man’s whole body seemed to vibrate, then crumpled to the floor.
The other man noticed the commotion and turned his head just long enough for Darius to land a crushing blow to his momentarily unprotected jaw.
Darius and C.J. backed toward the window. He raised his eyebrows and looked at her. She raised hers and returned his glance. Slowly, a smile crept across his face, her lips curving upward in response. How astounding, she thought, as she looked at her captors lying on the floor.
Then, grinning smugly, she and Darius crawled out the window and escaped.
Darius unlocked the door to C.J.’s hotel room and walked in. She was sitting in her bed, leaning against a pile of pillows, with the covers pulled up around her neck. A short while earlier she had cleansed the blisters on her hands and had changed into a very unsexy cotton nightgown—the only kind she owned.
“Room service will bring up your order as soon as possible,” he said, broad smile on his face. “And I found some ointment and bandages for your hands.”
He perched on the edge of the bed, dipped two fingers into the jar of the greasy, healing balm and held her hands as if they were fragile porcelain while he smeared ointment on them.
“I think you could use a little of that yourself,” she said, eyeing a red mark on his jaw and his slightly scraped knuckles.
“No, I’ll be fine. And you will, too.” He covered not only the areas of her hands with blisters, but her entire palm and fingers. She wasn’t about to complain or correct him. No one had ever tried to help her that way since she was a little kid, and even then, her mother usually just handed her Bactine when she had a scrape or cut.
“At least I learned what ‘C.J.’ stands for,” he said as he meticulously covered both hands.
She looked puzzled. “You did?”
“Yep. Calamity Jane.”
She laughed. “Very funny! I don’t even know how many days I was there, and you make jokes about it!”
“Days?” It was his turn to chuckle as he finished his ministration. “Four or five hours are more like it.”
“That’s all? I thought it was an eternity!” Her eyes softened as she looked at him. “Thank you for finding me. I was dumb to go there, and deep down, I knew it even as I got into the car with those two men. I should learn to listen to my gut reaction.”
“Or mine. As I recall, I did warn you.” With a feather-soft touch he brushed her hair away from her brow, and tucked a lock of it behind her ear.
“Saying ‘I told you so’ is not an admirable characteristic, Mr. Kane. I feel bad enough already.”
“You’re right.” He nodded. “Enough said.”
“But how did you find me?”
He scowled. “It wasn’t hard. When I couldn’t find you, I figured Alan had talked you into going back to Yeng’s. Your brother’s a bigger menace than I thought!”
“He wouldn’t knowingly send me into danger.”
Darius shut his eyes for a moment, as if to stop the retort he was ready to give. “Let’s hope you’re right. Anyway, there was quite a bit of activity around Yeng’s place. Then, late in the afternoon, he and most of the others left, which gave me a chance to sneak in.”
She gasped as he suddenly grabbed her shoulders. “If you ever do anything so dangerous again,” he shouted, “it won’t be Yeng you’ll have to worry about! It’ll be me. Why won’t you listen to me?”
The timbre of his voice told her how hurt he had been by her lack of trust in him. She longed to take his hands, but she couldn’t—hers were too greasy. Instead, she proceeded to tell him the whole story of her conversation with Alan, of meeting the two men outside the city prison, and then of telling Yeng about Chan Li.
Room service arrived. A bacon, lettuce and tomato club sandwich with a cup of clam chowder helped her to feel considerably more at peace with the world. She wiped some of the ointment off her fingertips so she could eat. Darius didn’t say anything else until her meal had ended and she was sipping a cup of coffee.
“Alan was released today,” he said finally.
“Released? Really?” She stared at him and he nodded. “That’s wonderful! But now I’m even more confused. Yeng said he was going to see that Alan was released, and it seems he did. But why would he lock me up?”
“I’m not so sure it was Yeng, C.J. I doubt he has any influence with British Intelligence, and they’re the ones who were holding Alan.”
“Why, then, was he released?”
“I don’t know. All I can say is that the next step is Alan’s.”
“It is?” Her mind was spinning. Had Yeng gotten Alan released? Or, if he hadn’t done it, who had? And why?
“One way or the other,” Darius said, “Alan is the key to everything.”
A chill swept over her. “I see.”
“He’ll try to contact you here eventually, and I suspect Yeng’s men will be watching your every move.”
“Great. Now I’m a prisoner in my own hotel room.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“You don’t have to stay here. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t mind staying with you.”
“Really? In that case, got a pack of cards?” She gave a half-hearted smile. “I’m a whiz at gin rummy.”
He eyed her. “I’ve got a better idea, Cinderella. Tonight your pumpkin turns into a coach.”
She was puzzled. “But I thought—”
“We won’t be able to leave the hotel, but it has a restaurant and even a cocktail lounge with a dance floor. What do you say? Does it sound like fun?”
Fun and then some, she thought. Did she dare go? She could stay here and rest, but she knew she wouldn’t sleep. She could stay and worry about Alan, but that wouldn’t help. Knowing him, she half expected him to call and say British intelligence realized their mistake and he was going back to the Peace Corps in Sarawak.
“All right,” she said, surprised that her voice sounded so breathless. “Let’s do it.”
“Great.” He stood. “I’ll change into something more presentable. Maybe even a tie and dinner jacket. I’ll be back in no time.” Then his eyes narrowed. “But first, promise me that if Alan calls and has another bright idea, you will not leave this room without me.”
“I mean it, C.J.” She had already learned that when he called her C.J. he was deadly serious. “If I return,” he continued, “and you’re gone, I will personally wring your neck. Do you under—”
“Yes, yes, yes. Now get out of here.”
He looked as if he wanted to speak, but he didn’t. Instead, he quickly turned and left.
She placed her fingertips against her lips as she watched the door close behind him. In a moment she threw back the covers and jumped off the bed. She had so much to do to get ready.
She ran to the closet: two slacks, one skirt, three blouses, and only one dress, a practical rust-colored synthetic no-wrinkle sundress. Her heart sank. Packing for the jungles of Sarawak just didn’t include glad rags. As she reached for the hanger, being careful not to touch the dress itself with her greasy hands, she realized that she didn’t own the kind of clothes she would want to wear on a date with Darius.
She had to wash her hair, do her nails. She looked down at her hands and suddenly felt dizzy.
All her excitement dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. The terrors of the day came flooding back, and she abruptly sat on the edge of the bed again, still holding her hands out in front of her.
What am I doing? she wondered.
She carefully washed the ointment off her palms, reapplied only small dabs on the blisters and then covered them with bandaids. She leaned forward, her heart pounding, trying to recover her composure.
She reached for an emery board and began methodically trying to salvage something from the mess her nails had become. As she worked, her breathing returned to normal.
Darius would be back soon; she had to pull herself together. She wondered what he would look like in a tie and dinner jacket—probably like a caged animal. The idea was incongruous. Darius belonged outdoors; he belonged where a man could be free to live by his wits and his strength. He was as wild as the jungle, and she loved him for it.
Loved him? No, she shook her head, not love. She was fascinated, intrigued. Maybe even a bit in lust. Who was she kidding? There was no maybe about it.
But not love. She wasn’t the type to fall in love, and she definitely wasn’t the type others fell in love with. As the years passed, she had become ever more accepting of her solitary existence.
Yet if she were the type to fall in love, it would be with someone like Darius.
She put down the nail file, surprised at how her hand was shaking, then headed for the shower.
She dried her hair, took special care with her makeup, and was applying a dab of cologne when she heard a knock at the door. Darius called out, “It’s me.”
Pulling her robe tightly around her, she opened the door.
How could I have been so wrong?was the first thought that came to her. The second was that she should shut her mouth, because she must look ridiculous with it gaping open.
“May I come in?” Darius asked, standing in the door way.
She stepped aside, still speechless. To think that she had imagined he would look out of place in a dinner jacket. The obviously expensive jacket was light gray, worn with slacks in a darker shade. His shirt was white, and the tie blended pink and gray in diagonal stripes.
His tan was even more striking than it was with his usual, sportier clothes. The golden ends of his hair curled lazily around the collar of the shirt, and his eyes were captivating as ever.
“Is anything wrong?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Well, then, charming as you are standing there in that robe, unless you’d like me in a similar state of undress, I suggest you put some clothes on.”
She looked down at herself. “Oh! Please, sit down. I’ll just be a minute.”
She took her dress into the bathroom and finished getting ready. The sleeveless dress had a simple V neckline, a long sash around the waist, and hugged her full figure.
As she stepped into the room, Darius stood, his eyes shining as he drank in the soft material that emphasized the curve of her breasts, her waist and inviting hips.
“Maybe you are Cinderella! You look beautiful.” His voice was quiet, intense.
She felt herself blush at his compliment, wanting, but not daring, to believe him. No one had ever accused her of being beautiful before.
“Here, I brought this for you,” he said.
C.J. hadn’t even noticed the small box he had been carrying as he entered the room.
“Oh, Darius,” was all she could say when she opened it.
Inside was an orchid, a blend of orange, yellow and rust— exactly the same shade as her dress. Her gaze lifted to his.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, running her finger over the soft petals. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten one of these before.”
“The men you knew were really blind, C.J.”
She searched his eyes, expecting to see that he was joking, but his expression was that of a man looking at a woman he admired. Her throat tightened, and she dropped her gaze, flustered.
“Here,” he said, taking the orchid in his hand. “Let me help you.” He stepped close to her, the heady, masculine scent of his after shave filling the air. “Hmm,” he said, “where should it go?” He turned the corsage this way and that in the vicinity of her shoulder.
“Right here.” She pointed to a spot on the shoulder of her dress. “This way.” She turned the orchid right side up, brushing his hand with hers as she did so. She scarcely breathed.
The heat of his fingers against her skin caused a quick intake of her breath. Quickly, she clasped her hands behind her back, not trusting them with him so near.
“Thank you,” she said, having trouble regaining her voice.
He didn’t step back, but he did move his hand from the neckline of the dress to her neck, then ran his finger along her throat, then upward.
She stood rigid, scarcely breathing.
His eyes bored into her, studying her face. His expression filled with tenderness as he dropped his hand. “I told the desk clerk where we’d be, so if Alan calls, they’ll be able to find you,” he said.
Alan. Of course. She couldn’t allow herself to forget that Darius’s main—probably only—reason for being here was Alan to track down the White Dragon and claim the reward. She nodded.
“I’m sure he’s all right,” Darius said as they headed for the elevator.
At the far corner of the lobby, near the main entrance to the hotel, hidden behind a partition of ferns and lattice- work, was a cocktail lounge. A lonesome piano stood in the corner.
Darius led C.J. to a small table. The bar was empty, except for the two of them and the bartender.
“This is nice,” C.J. said. “The ferns remind me of a place near my apartment called Muldoon’s. Thursday nights they serve a great pasta spread. I usually go. It breaks up the monotony of the week.”
“Muldoon’s sells pasta in a fern bar?”
“It’s L.A.” C.J. shrugged.
Chuckling, Darius walked to the bar to order a whiskey sour for her and scotch on the rocks for himself. When he returned to the table, she pointed at the piano in the corner. The combo hadn’t yet shown up.
“I’m sure no one will mind if you play something.”
He grinned. “You know me and pianos. Once I start, you have to pry me loose from the keys.”
“So play.” She touched his hand. “Play something for me. Please?”
He placed his other hand on top of hers and squeezed gently.
“If that’s what you want.” He got up and spoke briefly to the bartender. C.J. saw the man nod and shrug in a way that indicated he couldn’t care less. Darius sat down at the piano, looked at her and winked.
He played a medley of popular tunes,If Ever I Would Leave You, Love Look Away, A Time For Us,and ending withSomewherefromWest Side Story. The songs were beautiful and sad, and Darius played with all the emotional intensity the work deserved. People came into the bar as his playing progressed, not to drink, but to listen.
When he stopped, they applauded warmly. He looked shocked. He’d been concentrating so intently on the music that he hadn’t even been aware when they entered.
“Encore!” they clamored, but Darius thanked them, shook his head and joined C.J.
She smiled at him. “That was beautiful. I love the way you play,” she whispered.
“I’m glad, Carina. Now, how about some dinner?”
She nodded as he led her from the lounge.
“Hey, fella,” the bartender called as they walked toward the exit, “anytime you want a job here, see me. We could use some class.”
“Thanks,” Darius said. “I’ll remember.”
Past the cocktail lounge was the restaurant. A waiter showed them to a table by the window.
“Tell me,” she said, in an offhanded way. “Do you own a piano?”
“Sure.” He opened the menu and began studying it.
She opened hers. “Where is it?”
“Pretty sneaky way to ask where I live, isn’t it?” he said without looking up.
She peered over the top of the menu. “Now, why would I want to know such a thing?”
He smiled. “The piano is at my parents’ home in Massachusetts, just outside Boston.”
“I see.” She dropped her gaze and began to study the menu, and she didn’t look at him as she spoke. “Do you go there often?”
“Just don’t want to?”
He shut his menu and took her hand, careful of the bandaids. “I rarely see them anymore, all right?” He paused, and then more words tumbled from his lips. “I also have a daughter, and an ex-wife, and I never see them either.” His voice was soft as he spoke.
C.J. felt as if her heart had stopped beating. She tried not to show her shock as she removed her hand from his, unfolded her napkin, and placed it on her lap. Then she picked up the menu again and opened it, her eyes downcast. “A daughter?” she said. “How old is she?”
“Five and a half.”
She paused. “And you don’t get to see her?”
“I don’t see her.” He sat back in his seat, his expression enigmatic and very far away. “Her name is Alicia. In pictures, she’s a pretty little girl, black hair like her mother, and big green eyes like her old man. But the situation…” He stopped speaking.
She caught his eye. “Like the situation that causes you to drift around Asia?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” The pain in his words was palpable.
“We never talk about you, Darius. We blither on about me for hours. And Alan—we go on and on about him. I want to know about you.”
“I’ve heard the prime rib here is very good. But if you’re interested in shellfish, the lobster comes highly recommended.”
She sighed, shutting her menu and laying it aside. “Prime rib. Medium rare.”
He placed his menu on top of hers. “A woman after my own heart.”
A slight grin came to her lips. You got out of that one, Darius Kane, she thought, but someday I’ll get you to talk. Someday you’ll understand how much I want to know.
They ordered dinner and Cabernet Sauvignon. The combo began to playTwelfth of Never. “Let’s dance,” Darius suggested.
On the dance floor, as much as C.J. liked his nearness, his arm around her, her hand in his, the few sentences he’d said about his past had made her realize how little she knew him. He had an ex-wife and a child. The thought kept going round and round in her mind, blotting out everything else. There was so much she wanted to know, but didn’t dare ask. She had no right to ask. She was nothing to him; it was none of her business, but still…
Darius sighed and stopped dancing. She looked up at him in confusion.
“Come on, Clytemnestra,” he said, leading her back to the table, the sound of resignation heavy in his voice.
“But the dance…”
He led her back to the table without saying anything else.
“What’s the matter?” she asked as they sat.
“Don’t look so innocent. You know exactly what’s wrong.” His jaw was firmly set, and his eyes showed no emotion as he began to speak. “I’ve been divorced for five years. I have never regretted getting the divorce, and I still don’t. My only regret is not seeing Alicia. It’s easy on her; she was just a baby when I left. Her mother has since remarried twice, so Alicia’s had her share of surrogate fathers. Not that it’s right. Not at all. Sometimes it hurts like hell when I let myself think about her.”
“You don’t have to tell me—”
“It seems I do.”
She held her breath, anxious over what she might hear.
He paused for a moment. “My ex-wife lives in New York City, so if you think I’m still carrying a torch for her, or vice versa, give her a call. Her name is Nadia Balensky. You may have heard of her.”
C.J. felt a shock ripple through her. “Not the violinist?”
“One and the same.”
She was speechless. His ex-wife was talented, wealthy and beautiful. Darius was clearly the kind of man who could attract and marry such a woman. If he could have a Nadia Balensky, why would he give a second glance to a C.J. Perkins? The answer was obvious; he wouldn’t. But then, the whole idea of the two of them together was preposterous anyway. She fought the urge to leave, to go back to her hotel room alone. “I see.”
“No, you don’t see. My relationship with Nadia is over. Finished. It’s something I wouldn’t even talk about except when an interesting young woman decides to write me out of her life because I made the mistake of once having been divorced.”
Her cheeks reddened. “I’m not…I mean…” She looked up at him. “Maybe I was.” He seemed to be hanging on her every word. But surely, she was misreading him. She shook her head. “I’m sorry. Here I was thinking of you as someone who sprang full-grown from the jungle like a modern day Tarzan, and instead I learn you’re more like Henry the Eighth.”
He grinned. “One ex-wife, not six and she’s still got her head. At this stage, I might add, I no longer regret it!”
“Good,” she said.
He stroked his chin. “Tarzan, is it? Then you must be my Jane.”
Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Jane! Aha! That’s it, isn’t it? There’s no other reason for you to look so startled, like a kid with her hand in the cookie jar. Jane. I’m right, aren’t I?” He took a sip of wine, his eyes never leaving hers. “I guess we’re telling all our secrets tonight.”
“Okay, you guessed that one.” She grinned.
“And the C?” He raised one eyebrow.
“A girl’s got to keep some mystery, you know,” she replied.
As Darius had promised, the dinner was excellent. After dinner, they returned to the cocktail lounge for martinis. The combo played lots of ballads, a few cha-chas, all up beat and light. Darius pulled her onto the dance floor. He was an excellent dancer, as she had expected. He was the kind of dancer any woman loved to be with, one so good, he made her feel light and graceful.
She could have stayed in his arms forever.
“Someday,” he said as they danced, “I’d like to really take you out on the town. San Francisco’s a lot of fun at night. I wish I could show it to you.”
“I wish you could, too. Maybe, when this is over.”
“I know, Carmelita. I know.” With that, he held her closer and laid his cheek against her hair. She shut her eyes, shut away everything except the bliss of holding him..
A short while later she was surprised to hear the alto sax player announce the last dance,My Funny Valentine.
“Already?” She looked at her watch. “I’m so turned around by the time, I don’t know if it’s night or day anymore.”
He smiled and wrapped her in his arms again. It felt too good to be with him, and there was danger in that. Danger to her well-protected heart.
He’ll go away soon, she told herself as they danced. Back to that strange existence he was living in Hong Kong. She felt it as surely as she knew her own name: one day he would leave her. But that’s what you want him to do, she reminded herself. Exactly what you want.
“Time to go,” he said as the music ended.
She let her arms fall to her sides. “Yes. Alan hasn’t called yet, either. I guess I’ll be awake all night waiting for the telephone to ring.”
He grinned. “Want company?”
Her stomach tightened, and her heartbeat quickened. She could say that she would prefer to be alone, but she didn’t. She wanted to be with him.
“Sure.” She answered with a measured casualness she didn’t feel. “A nightcap sounds fine.”
Darius went in search of some refreshments after seeing C.J. to her room, but came back a short while later with only two cans of soda. He handed her one. “Everything’s closed. I was lucky to find a soda machine with something still in it.”
“This is fine,” she said, settling into a chair.
He took off his jacket and tie, tossed them onto the arm of a chair, then unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and rolled up the sleeves to just below the elbow. Every gesture exuded male sexuality, and she couldn’t stop watching him.
“So tell me more about yourself, C. Jane Perkins,” he said as he sat on the bed and sipped his soda. “You’re from Ohio, right?”
“Columbus. I went to Ohio State, studied art, then I moved to L.A. What about you?”
“I see.” She paused. “Then what?”
The easygoing grin had vanished as his gaze lifted to hers, and he hesitated, as if deciding whether to joke, or give a real answer. “I traveled, went to Europe, gave concerts. The usual thing for an aspiring pianist. There were competitions and classes. Lots of classes. And endless hours of practice. I could have jogged around the world three times in all the time I wasted practicing.”
“It wasn’t wasted, Darius. Not the way you play.” Her heart went out to him.
He said nothing.
She leaned forward. “Tell me what happened.”
His green eyes darkened with pain before he dropped them, saying nothing.Stop hurting so, Darius,she wanted to cry, but instead, she hurried on, almost babbling. “Do you realize it’s hardly been a week since we met? We’ve been together so much, been through so much, I feel I should know you as well as I know myself, but really, I hardly know you at all.”
A flicker of curiosity crossed his face.
“I want to know you better,” she continued, almost whispering as she added, “I want to know everything about you.” Her cheeks burned with embarrassment as she realized how much her statement had revealed. She rubbed her forehead. “Forget that. I never should have said that.”
“Why not?” His face remained serious. “It was honest. And, I have to admit, flattering.”
She abruptly stood and hurried over to the windows so she could look out, so she could look anywhere but at him. The fog must have been hovering somewhere out over the Pacific Ocean, because the night was clear, and C.J. could see the city in all its splendor, shimmering far below them.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She stiffened at his words, despite their truth. She could easily make a fool of herself over this man. She wouldn’t let that happen. More than anything, she wanted to say something clever, witty, sophisticated, but all she could do was clutch her arms tightly and try to control her surging emotions. She forced her voice to sound lilting and casual as she faced him. “Nothing.”
He waited a long moment before he said softly, “Why don’t I believe you?” His voice grew gentle. “What are you trying to avoid, Chloe?”
“Stop calling me those silly names!”
“What are you running from?”
He stood in front of her. “Me?”
“Of course not!”
“Your independence? Or is it just your dependence?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She clamped her lips together in defiance.
“Don’t you? Tell me, why were you the one, alone, searching the backwaters of Asia trying to find your brother? Is your father too old? Too sick? What?” he demanded, taking hold of her hands.
She froze, then pulled herself from his grasp, putting some space between them before she faced him again. “My father is fine. And it was quite natural that I’d be the one to look for Alan. I’m always the one who does things in my family!”
“Everyone depends on C.J., and C.J. depends on no one. I see. So that’s why you get feisty instead of grateful when someone tries to help you.”
“Sometimes downright ornery.”
“Where did you learn that Southwest drivel if you’re really from Massachusetts?”
“Suspicious, too,” he said, his eyes sparkling as he moved ever closer to her. “And totally untrusting.”
“I am not,” she said breathlessly, grasping his shoulders both to steady herself and to hold him back.
“Contradictory.” He put his hands on her waist.
“I’m never contradictory.” Tingles cascading down her back met with ripples running up it.
“Contrary.” His eyes met hers.
“And far too talkative.”
As their gazes locked, any protest she might have uttered died unspoken.
His expression turned suddenly serious, and her pulse raced in response. She felt a hardening of his muscles beneath her hands as his gaze captured hers. He slowly pulled her closer.
“No!” She pushed him away even as her senses warred against her, and then turned and took a few steps to regain her sanity. Dangerous Kane, she thought, you make my mind and body seem like strangers to me, with an unbending will all their own. “This is crazy!”
“Crazy? I think it’s the sanest thing I’ve done since I first met you,” he replied. “Do you have any idea what it was like that first morning in Hong Kong after sleeping in your bed, smelling your perfume all night, and then waking up with you curled there beside me?”
“Or worse,” he interrupted, once more closing the gap between them, “leaving you lying in my bed at the Mark just last night?”
Her words caught in her throat.
“You,” he whispered, his hands cupped her face, “are a beautiful, desirable woman.”
She wanted to believe him, wanted it desperately. But she couldn’t. She spent a life knowing she wasn’t pretty, desirable, or anything else he was implying. She was klutzy, inexperienced C.J. She never had a lover. She could have, especially in her college years. But the guys who were interested, she didn’t care for, and those she cared about weren’t interested. So she’d waited. Waited for a love that never came.