Jade Tiger by Jenn Reese

Jade Tiger: Excerpt

Prologue

Hunan Province, China
Sanctuary of the Jade Circle
Sixteen Years Ago

But Mother, why can’t we fight?”

They hurried through the tunnel in a quiet line. Her mother first, Shan second, her father last, carrying their things. The torches tossed shadows against the uneven stone walls, and even the familiar dirt floor offered small comfort tonight. The rat-tat-tat of machine guns and the determined crack of pistols filled the distance above them and behind them. Wood and glass shattered. Men shouted guttural commands in Cantonese and Mandarin.

But even if this were the storm, her mother was at its eye, calm and focused. Lin-Yao stopped and crouched by Shan. Shan saw the dust in her mother’s long black braid and thought, for the first time, that her mother had become wise like the ancients while Shan had been busy playing with her dolls and studying her numbers.

“Mother, we are strong. There are almost thirty of us now. We can defend ourselves from these intruders.” Her voice rose in a whine, so close to tears, but held.

“They are too many, my little tigress,” her mother said, smoothing the hair away from Shan’s face. “The man who leads them hates us very much. He’ll sacrifice anything to destroy what we have built.”

“But Mother–”

“No, Shan.” Her mother placed one thin finger on Shan’s lips. “Did you know you have your father’s eyes? Yes, green. The very same color as his. They will bring you great fortune in America.”

Behind them, much too close, wood smashed into rock.

“They found the trap door,” her father said. He shifted the bags to his left hand and pulled a gun from his waistband with his right. Her mother stood.

“No, let me take care of this, John. There’s little enough time as it is.”

They both looked down at Shan. Her father towered above them, his head almost touching the ceiling, a giant with skin the color of steamed rice and hair the color of sand. In every memory Shan had of him, he was sitting with a book, or teaching one of the women to speak English. The gun was not at home in his hand, and it hurt Shan to look at it.

But even with the gun, Shan knew her mother was the more dangerous of the two. It was her mother who practiced the old ways every day of her life. Her mother who called all five of the ancient animals to her when she fought.

Her parents switched places in the narrow hallway as Shan stood still, her feet like lead. Her mother’s shoulder brushed against her father’s chest, but they said nothing, made no move to prolong the contact. Then they were past.

“Do you have it?” her mother said.

“Yes.” Her father hefted the bags. “It’s safe.” Her father, so often smiling, remained grim tonight. The straight line of his mouth brought tears to Shan’s eyes for the first time since the sanctuary had been invaded.

Without a sound, in a blink of an eye, her mother crouched by Shan’s side again.

“Teeth are strong and fall out,” she said. “Gums are soft and remain.”

Shan let her mother pull her into a hug. Shan closed her eyes and felt the embroidered silk of her mother’s shirt rub against her arms. She inhaled the fullness of her mother’s sweat, the scent of green tea still clinging to her mother’s clothes.

A man shouted behind them. A gun cracked, and stone sparked near her mother’s head.

“Now, go!” her mother said.

Her mother stood and turned around, her back to the family. Shan felt her father tugging at her arm. Her legs started to move in his direction, but slowly. Shan couldn’t stop looking at her mother. The green silks, dusty and old, shimmered like scales in firelight. She pictured her mother’s eyes, thin slits of black swimming in gold.

The eyes of a dragon.

The first man around the corner fell screaming, hands covering one of his eyes. Her mother’s move had been too quick for Shan to see. The dragon strikes fast, without warning. Shan almost envied the man. His life would probably end quickly, without much suffering. But Shan’s misery would continue…without her mother and on some distant, unforgiving shore, far away from her ancestors.

Her father pulled Shan along the passageway and, finally, her mother passed out of view. Shan watched the flickering shadows on the wall. A spinning braid became the whip of a huge tail. The curved hands struck, shimmering into a gaping maw around her next victim’s head, then shrinking instantly back down to hands.

“Shan!” Her father’s voice stung sharper than a slap. Shan turned from the shadows, from her mother’s fate, and embarked on her own.

CHAPTER ONE

Risley University, Upstate New York
Now

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Professor Ian Dashell rubbed his eyes and stared at the offending paper again, willing the words to be different the second time around. “The Vikings’ primary weapon in battle was their famed horned helmets. Helmets which they wielded by bending over and charging their enemies.”

Ian let the red felt-tip pen slip from his fingertips and onto the mountain of final exams covering his desk. His forehead followed shortly afterward with a satisfying thunk.

“Mmm. Comfy.”

He closed his eyes. It was well past midnight but still long before dawn. All self-respecting archaeologists were snuggled deep in their beds, or their tents, or their hammocks at this hour. He would have settled for his own disastrously messy–but surprisingly warm–bed just off campus. On most nights, he elaborated on the fantasy with an attractive female colleague who just adored his doctoral thesis on the ritual significance of jade in Shang Dynasty China. But tonight he wanted the imaginary bed all to himself.

“Mmm,” Ian groaned again, amazed at how comfortable a pillow a D-worthy exam paper could be. Would a C paper be better, or worse? How about an A or a B? Oh, the possibilities.

Ian rolled his head to the left, bringing his cheek in contact with the cool pages. Just a little nap. Drool dried invisibly. No one would ever have to know.

The painful sound of shattering glass echoed through the empty hallway.

Ian wrenched his head up.

The artifacts.

His chair screeched across the slick floor as he pushed back from the desk. He darted out the door and ran, the fog of sleep still thick in his head.

“If this is some stupid, frat boy prank…” Ian couldn’t even finish the sentence in his thoughts. No one, but no one, touched those artifacts. Not without permission. And supervision. And a god-damned note from their mother.

The hallowed halls of Risley University projected sound like a three-story megaphone. Even Ian’s scuffed shoes thudded appallingly on the faux marble floor. Another smash from the room ahead swallowed the sound of his running feet, but Ian’s relief was fleeting. More priceless remnants from the past possibly destroyed.

Ian slowed at the door. The solid brown wood, plastered with department fliers, stood stalwart as ever…except for the ragged hole where the doorknob used to be. Someone was definitely inside. Touching. Moving. Breaking. Where the hell was that security guard? Sure, he was sixty or something, but at least the man had a billy club and some experience with this sort of thing. Maybe Ian should head downstairs and get him.

Ian took one step toward the stairwell at the end of the hall and stopped.

He saw a boot in the distance. Black and dull in the darkness, toes pointed toward the ceiling. The white rim of a sock, the listless folds of a pant leg. Whatever this macabre image was attached to lay just out of sight in the stairwell. Ian struggled to swallow. The security guard wouldn’t be helping him anytime soon.

But decades of work cowered helplessly in the artifact room. Countless hours of research and back-breaking labor in the field. The promise of exhibits and careers and the overall idea that the past could be saved and cherished and…

Ian kicked open the door with his foot and yelled, “Stop!”

He’d been expecting a surprised curse, or maybe the snick of a bullet cutting into the wall by his head. He certainly hadn’t anticipated getting hit in the face with what felt like a speeding train.

The man’s fist took Ian squarely across the jaw, and his kick slammed into Ian’s chest. Ian sprawled on his ass and slid across the floor into the heavy metal shelves against the left wall. Behind him, the door slammed shut.

“Stay down,” the man said, his voice thick with a Mandarin accent. “I don’t like to kill teachers.”

Ian shook his head, trying to recover his vision and pushed himself onto his knees. He took two deep, rasping breaths, but neither brought enough oxygen to relieve the pain in his chest. He coughed, surprised at how cold and dirty the floor felt against his palms, and annoyed his mind chose such inopportune moments to notice such things.

He looked up. The man, clearly Asian, stood against the far wall and pulled another bin off the shelf. The man placed the bin on one of the desks in the center of the room and began pulling out the bagged and labeled artifacts. He ignored the labels and stared directly at the contents. Bag after bag dropped to the floor or exploded against the wall near Ian.

Ian’s lungs finally filled with air, and he drank it in deep gulps. Bins were everywhere–overturned on desks, spilled onto the floor. His throat clenched. Venetian glass. Incan pottery. Cuneiform tablets. Artifacts that hadn’t yet made it into museums, and now never would.

Ian huddled against the shelf behind him. He’d been thrown against the European wall, near the locked weapons bin. Slowly, he reached into his left pocket for his key ring. The man across the room seemed completely occupied with his search and destroy mission, but Ian couldn’t count on it. The man had obviously anticipated Ian’s flamboyant entrance into the room. There was no guessing at the extent of his awareness.

More baggies dropped to the floor. Red cinnabar. Ivory. Blown glass. The man’s feet crushed them absently as he hefted another bin to the table.

Ian’s hand remained surprisingly steady as he pulled the keys from his pocket and slipped them behind his back. His fingers searched for a small round key amidst a dozen others of various shapes and sizes.

The thief had another bin on the table. Ian’s teeth ground together. That simple container represented his last five summers of work in China.

“Please,” Ian said. “Stop.” His voice pleased him. It divulged no sign of his faltering pulse. Ian found the small key on his key ring and started feeling the bin for the lock.

“I’m looking for something,” the man said. “I’ll stop when I find it.” As if to make his point, the thief dropped a shard of pottery to the floor and ground it beneath his shiny black boot.

“I know,” Ian said quickly. He had to get the man to stop. “I’ll help you find what you’re looking for. I know where everything is.”

The man dropped the new bag in his hands back into the bin and started to crunch his way toward Ian. “Now I know why I like teachers,” he said.

The man’s dark crop of hair was cut flat like a lawn on top of his head. A pale scar radiated from the man’s right eye in a painful sunburst. The eye itself seemed glazed over, as if a sheet of thin vellum had been glued to its surface. Judging from the man’s excellent depth perception at the door, Ian doubted that he was blind. But he also doubted the man got laid very often, despite the expensive black leather outfit hugging the man’s steroid-sized muscles. Just too creepy.

Twenty more steps, now fifteen.

Behind his back, Ian found the small indent of the lock and maneuvered the key into place.

Ten more steps and it’d be too late.

Ian twisted the key. He yanked the lock open and pried it off the box.

Five more steps, and the man smiled without showing his teeth.

Ian flipped open the lid to the bin and thrust his hand inside. His fingers wrapped around the worn leather. He used his right hand to push himself to his feet just as the thief came within range. Ian whipped his left hand out of the weapon bin and thrust the broken blade of a seventeenth century Italian rapier at the man’s chest.

The blade, dull from centuries’ neglect, snagged in the man’s clothes above his heart and dragged a bloody gash across his torso as the man jumped away.

Before Ian could pull back and strike again, before he could even think about parrying, the blade flew out of his hands. He was dimly aware of it clattering in the distance as the man’s foot connected with Ian’s temple. This time Ian hit the floor hard.

His head throbbed. His vision spun. Those papers would never get graded. Maybe the kid with the horned Viking helmets deserved a C instead of a D. Maybe he should have pursued that relationship with Rachel Sexton after the Tenochtitlán dig in college. Maybe he should have gone yachting with his dad once in awhile.

“You surprised me, teacher,” said the man. His voice seemed to echo between Ian’s ears. “And I really don’t like surprises.” Another kick slammed into Ian’s ribs. The force of the blow sent him upward and spinning onto his back. He landed hard again, and his skull threatened to explode.

“Well, then, you’re gonna hate this,” said a new voice. A woman’s voice. A nice woman’s voice. Did she have a yacht?

No. Ian groaned and rolled his head to the side. Strange new noises filled the air: the snap of clothing and the muffled thud of bone pounding flesh.

“No,” Ian tried again. “Run.” But he knew his words were too weak. Ian felt something thick and warm and metallic fill his mouth and dribble down his cheek. Drool? How fitting. No, wait. Blood.

His vision cleared enough to show him a new figure in the room, but none of the details. Her body blazed across the drab room like a flame. So bright! Her arms and legs moved in time with the thief’s black-clad limbs, like two lovers in some evil, acrobatic bastard-stepchild of the tango. She stood taller than the thief. Her long black hair spun with her, but just a heartbeat behind. It swished into her face until the next dance step had her spinning again, or flying through the air.

It was clear to Ian, even in his current state, that this woman–this bright angel of vengeance–was going to give the thief quite a run for his money. It was also clear to Ian, even in his current state, that he was already falling in love with her.

Or at least in worship.

As usual, his timing was terrible. Ian tried to laugh, but ended up choking on his own blood instead.

* * *

Shan ducked under an uppercut and snapped a backfist at the man’s temple. He blocked and tried to grab her wrist at a pressure point. Twisting, Shan snaked her other hand around and reversed the hold.

Stalemate.

This man was good. Probably the best she’d fought in years. And there was something about his face that tugged a memory she couldn’t place.

She spun. Kicked to the chest. Blocked. Jumped over a speeding foot. Raked his face. Twisted out of his grip again.

Shan leaped up and back, did a somersault in the air, and landed in a low snake stance on one of the desks in the middle of the room, her hands open and waiting.

The wounded man, probably a professor at the university, judging from the button-down and khakis, hadn’t made a noise in far too long. How had he managed to score that bloody gash across her opponent’s chest? Amazing for someone untrained in martial arts. Especially considering that she hadn’t even scratched the bastard yet, let alone drawn blood. With any luck, the professor would live. Shan wanted to ask him about his fight, and find out what he knew about the crane.

No, she just needed the information about the crane. That’s all she had time to worry about, wounded man or not.

Her one-eyed opponent, breathing hard, thrust his heel into the table leg of Shan’s desk. The desk rocked forward, suddenly unstable. Shan used the momentum and angle to launch herself at the man. She flipped over him and landed with her back to his. Her right arm whipped back, and she hooked two of her fingers in the man’s mouth. She yanked hard and crouched low, throwing the man over her shoulder.

One-eye yelped. He slammed into another desk covered in boxes. The whole thing collapsed in an implosion of wood and small plastic bags.

Behind her, the wounded man moaned and said something. Shan turned to look. Just the facts? What the hell did that mean?

A chunk of wood collided with Shan’s face, and she stopped wondering. She fell onto her back and kept rolling until she was on her feet again, ready.

Her enemy swung the table leg at her again. She ducked low as it whooshed overhead, then focused her mind on the leopard. Its thick muscles. The power it drew from the earth. Years of meditation helped her find the leopard’s strength in her own body and harness it. Shan spun and kicked backward, releasing a scream of focused energy. The man’s weapon smashed in two, and he stumbled backward, surprised.

“You…” he said in Mandarin, his eyes wide. Up close, Shan pegged him as late thirties, early forties…and so familiar. There was something about that fiery scar around his eye that made her suddenly think of green tea.

No time for that. She needed to stay focused, keep her mind empty, and feed the leopard energy she had built. Shan curled her fingers into leopard’s paws and struck.

One, two, three–solar plexus, throat, and nose. The man only blocked the first two. A spray of warm red caught Shan across the face.

She pressed her advantage.

They whirred and tumbled, kicked and sprang into the air. Shan slammed hard into one of the heavy metal shelves lining the wall, and another cry went up from the crumpled form at the other end of the room.

“Artifacts!”

Well, now that made a lot more sense than her first guess.

The man’s fist found her stomach. Shan doubled over with a gasp. His booted foot followed, faster than she could even see, and connected with her skull. Shan was knocked sideways onto the floor and the multitude of smashed objects littering it. Something sharp slid into the skin of her thigh.

“Your mother was better,” the man said. She smelled his arrogance more thickly than his sweat or her own blood. Shan’s mushin, her empty mind, flooded with heat. This pig had fought her mother? Had he been there that night, the night Shan had fled her home? Or had he fought her years later, in a different place, or even recently?

“Is she–”

He dropped his heel onto her chest in a flash of motion. Pain detonated across her torso. Shan felt frozen in time, unable to move or even tell her body to keep breathing. The pain held her like a straightjacket, wrapped tight around every muscle. The man swung his foot off her chest and smiled.

“It is so much better if you die without knowing,” the man said.

Finally, Shan’s arms agreed to listen to her brain. She pushed herself backward, her wounded thigh leaving a slug-trail of blood across the floor. Above her, a three-foot-wide window was sandwiched between two towering shelves. And, unfortunately, barred from the outside. Shan backed into the space, keeping her eyes on the bastard in front of her. A lever. There was always a lever to release security bars. Her left hand slapped the wall behind her until she found a dented, hollow rectangle of metal wedged almost behind the left shelf. And in it, a solid rubber pedal.

Shan wailed from the pain as she shifted her position and snapped the pedal down. He bought the distraction. A faint click from outside the glass told her the bars had been released from their lock.

The man grinned wildly now. Most people stopped to gloat during a fight, given half a chance. It made them vulnerable. Shan preferred to wrap things up before stopping to chat. Far more practical.

“Where are your animals now?” the man said. “You Jade Circle bitches are nothing without your little statues.”

He grabbed the front of Shan’s crimson blouse and hauled her to her feet. Shan whimpered again, her body limp, her eyes wide with feigned fear. Blood continued to dribble down her leg. He wasn’t tall enough to keep her off the ground, but she stayed light on her feet, letting him do most of the work to keep her upright.

“I think I’ll take your eye first,” the man said, “to replace the one your mother stole from me.” His breath smelled of greasy fish. Her mother had taken his eye. Her mother would always be a better fighter.

This was not the time.

Shan let the thoughts flow away from her, like a river into the ocean, until her mind was empty–a vessel waiting to be filled. Only then did her mind and body act as one.

She planted her left foot on the floor and thrust at his knee with her right heel. He screamed. Shan grabbed his right bicep with one hand and the cloth covering his left shoulder with the other. Dropping her weight, she rolled onto her back and thrust upward with both arms and a leg, throwing him behind her.

The man soared through the window, smashing glass and wood, and slammed into the bars outside. They swung open with the deafening scrape of rusted metal on metal and crashed into the stone façade of the building. Shan protected her face from the shower of sharp rain. When she opened her eyes again, the man was gone.

Shan shook off the shards and splinters without using her hands. It was so easy to drop one’s guard at the first respite from fighting, and so easy to get dangerously hurt because of it. She stood up slowly, keeping her weight off her wounded leg, and looked out the window.

Some mangled bushes two stories down stared back up at her. She scanned the quad, looking for limping martial arts bad-asses. No luck. Too bad she hadn’t broken his kneecap. That would have slowed him down enough for her to finish the job.

But he’d definitely be back. Shan needed to find the statue and get herself, and the professor, out of the building before the thief did.

As if on cue, the professor groaned. Shan glared into the trees a few more seconds, then turned and shuffled over to the man. Her leg hurt, but it wasn’t serious. The rest of the bruises she’d discover tomorrow or the day after.

The man was sitting up against a shelf, his face hidden in his hand. At first glance, nothing looked broken. His limbs looked straight, and he seemed to be breathing fine. Internal injuries weren’t out of the question, though, given the professor’s blood-stained chin.

Shan eased into a crouch in front of him, ignoring the complaint from her leg, and gently pried his arm from his face.

“Here, let me look.”

The man was a lot younger than she’d expected. “Professor” always summoned images of pipe-smoking, white-bearded old men. Probably since she’d never gone to college and had a chance to debunk the stereotype. But no, her professor looked mid-thirties, with short, unkempt brown hair matted with blood in odd places. At first she thought he’d gotten a gash along his face, but it was just his almost painfully sharp cheekbones poking out from a layer of drying blood. Shan pressed two fingers to his brow, cheek, nose, and chin, feeling for fractures. He shivered, probably from shock, and let her search.

His whole face was covered in angles and ridges. She turned it from side to side slowly, trying to get a better look. It always remained hidden at least half in shadow. Shan blamed his nose. It rose long and thin and proud, demanding her attention from every angle. Especially with the blood, the man looked like some doomed fairytale prince, European-style.

“Can you see me?” Shan asked. “Try to focus on my eyes.”

He looked up at her, the full moons of his pupils ringed ever so slightly in warm brown. Eye dilation and shivers, Shan thought. Definitely shock. Definitely not good.

A police siren wailed in the distance, and then another. No doubt they were headed this way. But Shan couldn’t afford to chat with the cops. Not when some poor security guard with a broken neck lay waiting down the hall.

“You’re doing well,” Shan lied. “Just keep trying to focus. What color are my eyes?”

His pupils retracted slightly.

“Greeb,” he said.

“Good–”

“Green,” the man corrected. “With flecks of yellow.”

The man smiled and, miraculously, almost every severe angle on his face dissolved into a boyish roundness. Only the nose stubbornly kept its shape.

“Ian,” he said. “And yes, I think I can walk.”

“Good. I’m Shan.” She stood up and held out her arm. “We can’t afford to wait for the police.”

Ian grabbed her hand, and Shan pulled him to his feet. His fingers were long, his palms huge compared to hers. Standing, he stood at least half a foot higher. Ian grinned and looked down at their hands. Shan smiled back patiently, even as the heat rushed to her face. Good ol’ half-Asian blood probably kept Ian from knowing that, though.

“Look, Ian,” she began, “we need to go now. Fast. Before that man comes back. But I can’t leave without the statue he was looking for. A small, jade crane. Do you know where it is?”

Ian’s grin faded, replaced by a new wariness that creased his brow and turned down the edges of his mouth. “So you’re a thief, too? I thought you were one of the good guys. My mistake.” He took a step past Shan, but wobbled.

Shan snaked an arm under his to steady him. “I am one of the good guys. Get me that statue, and I’ll explain everything.”

“Everything?” He arched an eyebrow. “I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt because you saved my life, but I’ll definitely need answers.”

“Fine,” Shan said. “You’ll get answers.” She felt the weight of him on her shoulder. His warmth soaked into her neck and arm, down her ribs and across her belly.

“Good enough for me,” Ian said. “Now let’s get the hell out of here.”

“The statue–”

“Isn’t here,” he said. “It never was.”

Shan looked at him. The shadows were back, hiding his eyes and the whole far side of his face. Was he just protecting the statue, or was it really someplace else? Her mother, when she’d been near the Jade Circle, had been able to discern truth from lie, to see through any ruse. Now the Circle was broken, and Shan had only her own instincts to rely on. Instincts which had proved more adept at fighting than diplomacy.

And absolutely pitiful at reading attractive men.

But regardless of Ian’s intent, she’d never be able to search the room before the police arrived. Maybe this was just the break she needed. After all these years of searching, she still had only the tiger statue that she’d started with. And now she knew that someone else was looking for the Jade Circle animals, too. If Ian knew about the crane, maybe he had other information as well.

“Lead on,” she said finally. “It looks like I’m going to trust you, at least for now.”

“Excellent,” said Ian, “because I think I’m going to pass out.”

Copyright © 2007, Jenn Reese. All Rights Reserved.

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