China, Pinggu District
88 kilometers east of central Beijing
he cloying odor of too much makeup and not enough soap rose from the two ragged prostitutes outside the fence, assaulting the first peach-blossom breezes of spring. Two rows of chain link, the inner one alive with high-voltage current, did nothing to stop the smell from drifting into the guard shack just inside the fortified gate. A plywood sign hung from the wrought-iron arch across the narrow road, reading
in large block letters with the Mudan logo, a blood-red peony blossom, painted ornately on either side.
Liang, the younger of the two guards working the shack, had heard the whispered brags from the soldiers stationed inside the warehouse, out of sight of the general public. The soldiers were young—Liang’s age—and enjoyed boasting about the importance and secrecy of their mission. Mudan’s official stance was that they manufactured crescent wrenches of beryllium alloy. But soldiers didn’t guard wrenches, no matter what they were made of. Soldiers guarded weapons.
Young Liang knew little about tools and nothing of women, least of all prostitutes who worked for no more than food and smelled like overripe lychee fruit. A head taller than his partner, Liang was bony and gaunt with thick, round glasses and a shaggy head that seemed much too large for his spindly body. The green guard uniform made him look like a praying mantis with a pistol.
A bright pool of light from the halogen bulbs atop the electrified fence chased the night back to the peach orchards across the narrow two-lane road. Fluttering moths circled in the glow above the women like flies drawn to their stench. It seemed that the prostitutes had materialized out of the darkness—a fact that only added to the uneasiness in Liang’s gut.
Inside the shack, Po, the older guard, raised a wild eyebrow when he heard the girls’ plaintive cries. Breathing deeply, he stood when he saw the girls, slicking back what was left of his thinning black hair and giving a gold-toothed grin. The prostitutes, noting his interest, pressed their faces against the outer fence, pushing painted lips through the links like feeding carp. Po was thirty years Liang’s senior. To hear him talk, he had a depth of experience with prostitutes.
“Let us in,” the girls keened, sounding like hatchlings demanding to be fed. “The night has a chill to it. We could keep you warm.”
“This has to be a test,” Liang whispered, his youthful voice tightly wound. His eyes flicked back and forth behind thick glasses, adding to his buglike appearance as he searched for any sign of the People’s Liberation Army colonel who he was certain had come to conduct a surprise inspection.
“It is no test,” Po chided. The proximity of willing women turned his voice into a hoarse whisper. He rifled through his paper lunch sack, looking for something to trade the women. He held up two boiled eggs and a glass jar of noodle soup, his eyelids drooping, heavy with lust. “This should be enough,” he said. “I know that one there with the ragged cloak.
“She is talented, that one. She has a scar in the shape of a lotus blossom on her buttock. You can take her if you want to take a look at it.”
“She’s old enough to be my mother.” Liang felt like he might throw up. “I do not care to see such a thing.”
“Suit yourself.” Po shrugged, pressing the button to open the gate. “You take the other one then. It makes no difference to me.” He elbowed his young protégé in the ribs and gave him a wink. “They said they are cold. Maybe we can just trade the eggs and keep the soup.” The older guard sauntered through the gap and began to talk terms.
A series of hollow
punctuated the squeak of gears and clanking chain as the electrified gate rumbled open. Liang watched in dismay as the two prostitutes pitched headlong against the outer fence, faces slack as they slid to the ground in lifeless heaps. He sprang for the red button that would close the gate as a barrage of suppressed gunfire cut down Po. A half breath later and the young guard felt the slap of bullets as they tore into his belly.
Liang was surprised that he felt no pain. He swayed in place, hand not quite on the red button, before slumping to the concrete floor. A dozen men, all dressed in black from head to toe, ran from the darkness of the peach orchard and filed in through the gate. Meticulous in their movements, two peeled off to form a rear guard beside the shack. Another reached in for the ring of keys on the wall inside the door. This one looked down at a gasping Liang with detached eyes. He had the face of a professional, someone who was accustomed to killing prostitutes and gate guards. Shot in the spine, Liang was no longer a threat—not worth the bullet it would take to put him out of his misery.
The young guard watched helplessly as the dark men moved to the main door of the warehouse. They formed two lines, weapons ready, while one of them used the stolen keys to turn the lock on the door. Absent a warning call from the gate guards, the soldiers inside would have no idea what was about to happen. Liang heard more muffled shots as the attackers flowed into the warehouse like an unstoppable force, methodically killing the soldiers inside.
He was suddenly thirstier than he’d ever been in his life. His vision narrowed with each labored breath, like someone drawing a set of curtains. Soon, he could no longer see the warehouse, or the dark men when they trotted past him on their way out of the compound. He could not see what they carried with them. It didn’t matter. Liang had heard the stories. There was only one thing of worth in the warehouse.
These men had come for the Black Dragon.
Three months later
Pakistan, Dera Ismail Khan Prison, 7:14
The Uyghur stood with his back to the rough, unpainted stone. Youthful eyes locked on a shadow as it crept up the chipped concrete, fifteen feet across the crowded cell. Beads of sweat ran down his face, cutting trails through the grit and grime of captivity. Fifty-six other men squatted and slumped at his feet in a sea of hacking coughs and desperate groans on the filthy stone floor, all of them crammed into the fifteen-by-thirty-foot cell. The place was meant to house no more than a dozen prisoners, so the space along the wall was prime real estate, worth fighting for. The Uyghur did not have to watch his back when he stood at the wall—which made it a tiny bit easier to stay alive.
His name was Yaqub Feng, after his mother’s brother who had died as a martyr fighting the Chinese devils for a free East Turkestan. His brother, Ehmet, stood to his right along the same wall. At twenty-four, he was three years Yaqub’s junior. Shorter by six inches and more finely boned, Ehmet had the physical aspects of their father, a Hui Chinese Muslim. Though Yaqub had inherited their uncle’s name, Ehmet possessed a double share of the warrior’s fierceness as well as his indifference toward death.
Their cousin Mamoud, who’d been held with them by the American infidels at Guantanamo Bay, had died just hours after arriving in Pakistan. Cuba had been hot, but temperatures in the Punjab were unbearable, loitering over a hundred degrees, often throughout the night, cooking the minds and bodies of the men inside the prison degree by agonizing degree.
The sour stench of infection and human waste twisted up through the evening light, twining long shafts like a cancer on something beautiful—and adding to the captives’ misery.
“Yaqub Feng!” a fat Pakistani known as Afaz the Biter grunted from the far end of the room, where he straddled one of the three toilet holes cut into the concrete. “I will be finished here very soon. Come and spend time with your new friend Afaz.” Shirtless and glistening with sweat, the Pakistani prisoner’s distended belly rested on bent knees. He listed heavily to one side, the effect of some opiate smuggled in and sold by the guards. One of his ever-present stooges steadied him from the side, a hand on the slope of a hairy shoulder.
Yaqub ignored Afaz’s slurred summons and rubbed the stinging sweat from his eyes. Beyond the bars of the southwest wall, the evening sun wallowed toward the horizon in shimmering waves of heat. Crisscross shadows inched across the scarred backs and pitiful faces of the other prisoners before climbing up the stone on the far side of the room.
Afaz the Biter began to shout again.
“My men tell me you are Uyghur.” His jowly face was red from his efforts at the toilet. “I tasted the flesh of a Uyghur once.” He batted his eyes as if drawing on a pleasant memory. “It was much like good chicken. But . . . Feng . . . that is a Chinese name . . . and you look Chinese.... Chinese taste like dog.” The big man roared in a huge belly laugh, showing yellow teeth. “Lucky for me, I find dog to be delicious.”
Yaqub tried to ignore the Pakistani and kept his eyes on the shadow as it crept upward toward the tiny scratch he’d made in the stone the day before, minutes after his visitor had bribed the guards to see him. Together, the shadow and the scratch made a crude but reliable clock in a world where every minute seemed much like the last.
Ehmet leaned forward, glaring at the fat Pakistani. He turned to wink at Yaqub and spoke under his breath. “I will not let him eat you, big brother. I promise.” There was a feral quality in his brother, a certain lust for blood that frightened Yaqub, even as he offered his protection.
Yaqub tipped his head toward the scratch on the wall. “We are almost there.”
“Afaz has many men,” a skinny Chinese smuggler named Jiàn Z
u said, leaning around Ehmet. Narrow eyes flicked back and forth from Yaqub to Afaz, glowing with something that was not quite fear. “You look like people with a plan. . . .”
Neither Yaqub nor Ehmet answered.
u swallowed hard. “But what if your plan does not work in time? We should put our heads together.”
“What if?” Yaqub whispered. According to Jiàn Z
u, he had been what the Chinese called a “snakehead”—a smuggler who was an expert at moving people across borders and evading authorities—until the day he was caught.
“I may as well fight alongside you,” Jiàn Z
u said. He had a narrow face and a wispy black mustache, which, along with his darting eyes and twitchy movements, reminded Yaqub of a rat. “Your father was Chinese,” he reasoned. “That makes us cousins. We should take care of each other.”