The Deathless Hand
by Danielle L. Parker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
7: En Route to the Chinese Consulate-General, St. Petersburg
The interior of the Bentley Continental Flying Spur was shadowed in spite of the street lamps overhead. Koschay could see little of the Chinese man in its back seat other than the reflection of light on the man’s large spectacles. As the silver sedan passed, Koschay stubbed out a Davidoff cigarette and pulled out of his parking space to follow.
Inside the Bentley, Wen Hongqi sat with hands folded neatly in his lap. His face was impassive. “Please turn off the air conditioning.”
The driver replied over his shoulder, “It’s not on, Mr. Wen.”
“Please turn on the heater. I am cold.”
The driver reached for the dashboard. A low hum invaded the quiet interior. Wen Hongqi shivered. He pulled the collar of his coat around his throat. Behind his large glasses, his black eyes glinted in sudden irritation.
“Driver, you turned on the air conditioning. I feel cold air. Please turn on the heater.”
The driver said in exasperation, “Mr. Wen, I did. The heat is on its maximum setting.” In a tone of strained conciliation, “Maybe you’re coming down with something. A fever or flu.” He ran a finger around the collar framing his massive neck. Sweat gleamed on his skin. “It’s too hot up here, I can tell you.”
Wen Hongqi made no reply. His hand stole into his coat pocket, where his fingers grasped a Chinese-made QSZ-92 pistol. His eyes switched back and forth, searching for an invisible presence in the car. “Jiang-shi.”
The driver looked in his rearview mirror. “What did you say?”
“Do Russians believe in evil spirits?”
The driver pulled in front of the flood-lit consulate and stopped the car. “I believe I know one. Well, here you are, Mr. Wen. Better take care of that fever. You don’t look healthy. Good night.”
8: Interrogation room, Politisiya Station,
36 Dzerzhinsky Avenue, Novosibirsk
“I didn’t kill Professor Filakov.” Grigory Arshavin’s face gleamed with cold sweat. He used his striped prison shirt to wipe his forehead. “I admired Anton Palyich. We were friends as well as colleagues. I didn’t kill him. Oh, won’t someone believe me!”
Police Captain Lantsov had tired cynical eyes. He rested his hip on the edge of the table as he lit his cigarette.
“A big white bear did. We hear a lot of fairy tales in this room. Yours is the best, though. Let’s take it from the beginning again. I like hearing this one.”
Arshavin put his hands to his face. His interrogator waited, smoking his cigarette in apparent peaceful enjoyment, as Arshavin wept.
The door opened. Another black uniformed OMON policeman stepped inside. “Captain Lantsov, sir. Someone to see you.”
“Send him away. I’m busy.” Lantsov blew smoke through his lips and watched the thin blue ring dissipate in the stale air.
His subordinate leaned closer. “You’d better see this one, sir. It’s Levkin. He’s seen the colonel already.”
“Dmitri Levkin?” Arshavin looked up from his wet hands. Tears made streaky trails down his pasty cheeks. But hope gleamed in his eyes. He blew his nose noisily on the only available material, which was the edge of his striped shirt. “Thank Heaven! Someone here to help me at last.”
“You poor fool,” Lantsov said softly. He got to his feet and went to the door. “Stay with the prisoner.”
No need to ask where to find his visitor. Dmitri Levkin would be found only in what passed for a VIP lounge in this shabby building. Sure enough. Surrounded by the expected half-dozen bulky protectors.
Lantsov forced a smile to his face. It hurt his cheeks. Like to arrest him but not enough men in the city to do that job. Face of an angel and soul of a devil. What did you do to Raisa Petrova, you monster?
“Good day, Mr. Levkin. What can a mere police captain do for the great oligarch?”
“Captain Lantsov,” Levkin replied in his gentle voice. “You have something that belongs to me.” He lifted a hand, and one of the massive escorts came forward with a paper. “I discussed the matter with your colonel. As you see.”
Lantsov gave the form no more than a cursory glance. He had no doubt the authorization to release the prisoner was genuine. How much money passed under the table? Probably not much. Levkin doesn’t have to bribe. Just make a suggestion and we’re eager to agree. One of these days you’ll slip up though, you devil. I hope I’m around to enjoy it.
He made a last effort. “Grigory Arshavin is our prime suspect in a heinous murder. I refuse—”
“You refuse, Captain?” Levkin’s voice grew softer still.
Lantsov refolded the release authorization with stiff fingers. For a long moment he could not trust himself to speak. Levkin’s mild expression showed only curiosity. But the nape of Lantsov’s neck felt naked. Why does this man frighten me so much? Why am I praying?
“I will have the prisoner brought to the lobby,” he said at last. “In five minutes.”
9: The Chinese Consulate-General, Nab. Kanala Griboedova, St. Petersburg
Wen Hongqi had fallen asleep at his desk beneath the red star of Communist China. But when his consciousness left his sleeping body, before it drifted against his will into the land of mists and spirits, it was not Mao’s little red book he clutched for help, but the Taoist and Confucian beliefs of his long-departed grandfather.
Wen Hongqi stood on a glossy black surface, slightly rounded under his chilled bare feet, which he soon realized was the shellacked tiles of the monstrous great tortoise representing the power of the north in ancient Chinese legend. Clouds pregnant with snow whirled in disturbing, almost-grasped shapes in the bitter breeze; a sky ladder of frosted blue spruce branches disappeared into mist beneath the belly of the impossible tortoise.
Standing beside him was a figure he identified through dim memories of his grandfather’s fireside tales. That ugly, scowling old man with scraggly beard, beggar bowl slung in a dirty wrap, scratching prominent ribs with ragged fingernails, was none other than Iron-Crutch Li, one of the Eight Immortals. As the mists swirled aside, Wen Hongqi perceived the rusted iron crutch supporting Li’s lame leg.
Iron-Crutch Li looked as irascible and bad-tempered as Honored Grandfather had described him. “Foolish grandson,” Li croaked. “I was enjoying myself on the slopes of Kunlan Mountain until I was called away for your sake. What have you to say for yourself, grandson? Have you helped the poor? Have you nourished the hungry? Visited the sick?”
Here Iron-Crutch Li poked Wen Hongi painfully in the stomach with his iron crutch as he hopped on his one good leg. “That red star you love, how has it made you happy?”
Wen Hongqi looked down and saw all he wore for clothing was Mao’s Little Red Book on an iron chain, and pasted over his nether regions, a tarnished red star. He bowed humbly to Iron-Crutch Li.
“Honored Grandfather, I am a disgrace to my ancestors. I will do better.”
“Hmphf!” Iron-Crutch Li said. “See you do. Well, someone wishes to speak to you. He is a jiang-shi of great power and ferocity. He has a heart of ice and a sword of many shapes. He will not have mercy on you, so answer him wisely, grandson. I have warned you. Now I return to Kunlan Mountain. See that I’m not called out again.” And Iron-Crutch Li vanished, as another figure took his place.
Wen Honqi’s knees knocked for sheer fright, for he understood at once the jiang-shi stood beside him. But Wen’s ancestors would not have disowned him for lack of courage. He bowed as deeply to the jiang-shi as he had to Grandfather Li.
The jiang-shi appeared as a tall lean man with a dreadful hook in one hand. The being had skin of opaque ice. Long coarse black hair and a cloak of white bear fur whipped in a wind grown suddenly colder and fiercer. The stern face had eyes of glowing glacial blue.
Wen saw a second mouth in the lean man’s forehead, displaying snowy teeth sharper and crueler than any behind a man’s lips. Wen tried to remember his grandfather’s advice about how to combat the reanimated corpses known as jiang-shi. But one hardly keeps the blood of black dogs on hand, especially in dreams.
“Honored sir,” Wen said. “I am at your service.” But what Wen actually thought, as he observed the jiang-shi’s polar bear cloak, rich brocaded tunic and padded trousers tucked into high wolf-fur boots, was: This is a spirit of the northern barbarians, not one of ours, and I must answer carefully indeed. For it may mean us no good and is not to be trusted foolishly.
“Wen Hongqi,” the jiang-shi said, “I come to warn you. Your people will only suffer in making an agreement with Vaslev Bryachislavich.”
“Honored Sir,” Wen replied, bowing once more. “I know no person of that name.”
“You know him in the world as Dmitri Levkin. But Vaslev Bryachislavich is his true name, and he hears me when I speak it. He is a fallen prince and a black sorcerer. He will tempt you with the offer of a great power. Accept that gift and suffer its curse.”
“When a wise man holds the egg of a duck in one hand and the egg of a serpent in the other, he will know which one to eat.” Though it was no saying of Confucius, as far as he knew, Wen was secretly proud of his spur-of-the-moment sagacity. Furthermore, he had not committed himself to any course of action other than wisdom.
One had to be crafty dealing with possibly malignant and obviously powerful spirits. Although this spirit came to him through Iron-Crutch Li’s good auspices, so perhaps it was well-intentioned. Surely a good Chinese son could trust one of the Eight Immortals.
“No good comes of any alliance with Vaslev Bryachislavich.”
“A man is as faithful as his options,” Wen quipped, which might actually be a saying of Confucius. On second thought, the line sounded more like Mao. Or perhaps Wen’s philandering neighbor. “What is this curse you speak of?”
“To be as I am,” the jiang-shi said. “A spirit of ice. That fate the prince abhors. He will offer others the cup of poison to drink, but not partake himself. Let your grandfather Li witness I warned you. Suffer the consequences if you choose the egg of the serpent.”
Then the jiang-shi vanished, and Wen Hongqi woke shivering. Once again the air was as bitter as the snow-filled clouds of his vision.
Copyright © 2014 by Danielle L. Parker