Legend of the Jade Dragon

Legend of the Jade Dragon
Original Edition: May 2004, Berkley Prime Crime

Second Edition: October 2016, Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC

Tarot cards seldom lie. So when they predict chaos and bad luck for her last client of the day, Emerald gets more than a little worried. He leaves behind a charming jade statue of a dragon--but promptly dies in a hit-and-run accident outside of her shop. When other terrible things begin to plague Em and her family, the only explanation is the jade dragon. To thwart its evil spell, she'll have to follow a trail of heartache all the way back to China's Ming Dynasty--and its ancient--and sometimes harsh--mysteries.

Excerpt:

Chapter 1

AS I STARED at the cards, I had an overwhelming desire to fold them up and tell the man sitting opposite me to forget it. It wasn't like I needed the cash. Ever since the news broke a few months back that I'd managed to catch a two-time murderer thanks to the ghost of one of his victims, my china shop was packed with customers. The tearoom was full every afternoon, and my appointment book for tarot readings was crammed. Emerald O'Brien, I'd told myself as I looked myself in the mirror that morning, you've got it made. Life's sure turned around, so count your blessings.

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And count them I did. Every night I gave a little nod of thanks to the universe for letting me spend another day with Kip and Miranda, my peculiar and brilliant children. I loved my life, my cozy house, my thriving business, and my family of friends. I also tried to be grateful for the two men who both wanted me in their lives, but it was hard to smile at the same time I was the prize in a determined, if good-natured, rivalry. So this was what it felt like to be a love goddess.

Yep, things had turned around, all right. But as I laid out the reading for the man sitting on the opposite side of my table, I felt a flicker of apprehension. When I studied the cards, that flicker turned into a cringe. The Tower, Death, the Five of Swords. Great. Just great. A tidy prediction forecasting the breakdown of everything in this man's life, and I was the one destined to tell him about it. The phrase Please don't kill the messenger ran through my head as I tried to gauge whether or not he would be able to handle the reading. My clients trusted me to be honest, and I never fudged, regardless of what I knew they wanted to hear. Nine times out of ten, I was dead-on accurate.

The man, who had introduced himself as Daniel Barrington, came into my shop carrying a suitcase that looked like it had seen better days and wearing a black raincoat faded from too many storms. He set the suitcase down by the table and asked if I had time to read his cards. Something about him whispered worn out and, even though I didn't particularly feel like dragging out my deck, I sensed an urgency in his demeanor, so I motioned for him to sit down. As he took his seat, a flash of fear grazed my intuition. He wasn't a dangerous man, I could tell that right off, but his presence unsettled the energy in my shop. It was almost as if something had shifted when he walked through the door, and I felt as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff and the railing protecting me from the long drop had suddenly disappeared.

I shook off the feeling and studied the cards, looking up after a moment. Daniel met my gaze with a tired glint of resignation, and I could tell that he already knew things weren't hunky-dory.

"Have you ever considered taking some time off? Maybe get away for a while?" I searched for the right words. The cards only showed the most likely events to come. There was almost always the chance to change the future, but this time, I drew a blank. Everything seemed so bleak, so full of trauma and turmoil, and then the reading really disintegrated into chaos.

"I hear Bermuda is nice this time of year." I grinned. Hey, a little humor couldn't hurt, and maybe it would ease some of the tension.

He shrugged and, with a short laugh, leaned back and let out a long sigh. "You don't have to pussyfoot around the truth." His accent was clipped, British, but as faded as his overcoat. "It predicts bad luck, doesn't it?"

"I'm afraid so." Bad luck, my ass. Doomsday was more like it.

"How bad?"

What should I tell him? Some clients took every word I said as gospel. I didn't want to discourage or scare him. "Well, I don't recommend investing at this time or trying out for the X-Games. Watch out for speeding trucks and the IRS. Airplanes, too, so I guess you'd better forget that trip to Bermuda. The reading gets a little jumbled after that." It was like trying to focus on a collage; every time I looked at the cards, the images seemed to shift and change. Usually, when this happened, I wasn't supposed to interfere in whatever was going on. Karma at play, or perhaps destiny. I decided to forget my fee; the cards weren't clear, and he looked like he didn't have any money to spare. "This one's a freebie. The cards aren't being cooperative."

He tapped the table with his fingertips and cleared his throat. "Don't worry about it. I know what they're telling me. Believe me, the confusion is par for the course and bad luck, my constant companion." He reached for his raincoat and proceeded to empty the pockets as he searched for his wallet. First a balled-up handkerchief, then a Greyhound bus ticket, then his keys and a pocket-sized notebook. He finally found the calfskin trifold and pulled out two twenties, tossing them on the table. "Don't feel bad, please. I think I'm beyond help at this point." As he stood up, his coat caught on the edge of the table, and he tugged at it. The material had snagged on the hinge of one of the folding legs and, before I knew what was happening, the table tipped-cards and all-and everything spilled to the floor.

"Damn it! I'm such a klutz." Daniel knelt down to help me clean up the mess, hurriedly scooping up his keys and other items. "I'm so on edge that I've been tripping over everything. I hope I didn't break anything. If I did, I'll pay for it."

"Don't worry about it," I said. The poor man had enough to deal with, without me fussing over a pack of spilled cards. "Please, it's okay."

He hesitated, then picked up his suitcase. "Then, I'll say good-bye. I've got one final leg on my journey, and then maybe it will all be over."

"Where are you going?" I asked, mesmerized by his resignation.

He stopped at the door to give me a half-wave. "The Pacific. I have one more errand to do before I can rest. Destiny has a way of forcing you to see things through to the end, you know." Then, without another word, he turned and walked out the door.

I watched him leave. The poor man was surrounded by a nimbus of despair. What could have happened to make him so depressed? I shook my head. Most of my customers were locals who just wanted to know about their upcoming party or whether it was a good time to invest a little extra in the stock market, but sometimes tarot clients came into the shop who I never saw again, who stuck in my mind years after I met them. I sighed as I gathered up the cards. Daniel would be one of those. He would remain a mystery, and I'd probably never hear from him again.

As I reached for the last card, I saw something white peeking out from behind a nearby cabinet. I fished it out; it was the linen handkerchief from Daniel's pocket, and it was wrapped around something. It must have rolled behind the shelf when the table tipped.

Curious, I unfolded the cloth. Wrapped in the thick kerchief was a dragon, little more than four inches tall, and it was incredibly exquisite. I hesitantly turned it over in my palm. No Made in Taiwan labels here. Possibly hand-carved. As I examined the figurine closely, I realized that it had been sculpted from a single piece of jade. This was no sweatshop-produced tourist crap designed to be sold at WorldMart or the Import Emporium. No, I had the feeling it was incredibly old. What had Daniel been doing with this?

Daniel! I had to catch him before he got on the bus and disappeared. He might not remember where he'd dropped it, and the dragon looked like some sort of heirloom. I raced out the door. A throng of shoppers strolled along the sidewalks, but I managed to dart my way through them just in time to catch sight of him as he started into the crosswalk.

"Daniel! Wait! You forgot something!"

He glanced back. I held up the dragon; he clasped his hand to his mouth, nodded, and began to move in my direction. Before he could take another step, the sound of screeching tires filled the air as a beige van came hauling ass around the corner, speeding along at at least forty miles per hour. Daniel jerked, trying to get out of the way, but then it hit him, and he bounced off the hood. He flew into the air, twisting as the van shot away and disappeared down the road before anybody could even react. His suitcase popped open, and clothes scattered across the road as a hush settled over the crowd. Daniel came to rest in the middle of the crosswalk with a thud. He didn't move.

A scream from one of the passersby shattered the silence and jolted me out of my paralysis. I shoved the dragon in my pocket and raced toward Daniel as the crowd surged forward. As I pushed my way through the knot of people gathered around him, I saw that Doc Adams-our doctor-had already reached his side.

I knelt beside the doctor, and he glanced around as he felt for Daniel's pulse. "Does anybody know this man? What's his name?"

My stomach lurched as the blood began to pool, trickling from Daniel's mouth down the side of his cheek to form a puddle on the asphalt. "His name's Daniel Barrington. He was just in my shop. He forgot something, and I called him back, and the van-the van-" And then it struck me. If I'd been a moment earlier or a moment later, Daniel would still be alive, but I'd caught his attention at the exact moment that the van wheeled around the corner. I stared at the broken man lying in front of me as Doc Adams motioned to a man with a cell phone.

"Did you call 911 like I told you to?" he asked.

The man nodded.

"Okay, somebody give me their coat; he'll go into shock if we don't get him warmed up." The man who'd called the paramedics offered up his long wool duster.

Just then, we heard the high-pitched keen of sirens in the background, and a medic unit pulled up. Numb, barely able to stand, I started to back away to give them room, but a strangled gasp made me turn around. Daniel had regained consciousness. He focused his gaze on me and weakly lifted his fingers. I dropped to his side and took his hand. His breath raggedly puffed from his lungs, torn as if he couldn't catch enough air.

"The dragon... the dragon..."

I leaned down, looking in his face, making certain he could hear me. "It's safe, so please don't worry. I'll keep it for you until you get better. Now, save your strength. The paramedics are here to help you."

He blinked, pain flooding in his eyes. "The dragon! Please... you mustn't... don't... get rid-" Abruptly, he choked on his words and slumped. As I moved aside to give the medics room to work, I knew it was hopeless. A white flicker hovered above Daniel's body. I could see it as clearly as I could see Doc Adams, who was staring at me with a puzzled look. Then, like a breeze gusting past, the spirit vanished. Daniel had passed through the tunnel, and all the work the medics were doing wouldn't bring him back. Silently, I looked down at my shirt. Speckles of blood clung to it where I'd leaned close to his battered body.

Doc Adams was talking to the police; I recognized one of the officers. Deacon Wilson had worked closely with my friend Murray before she got her promotion. Deacon motioned me over and asked me what I knew about Daniel. I told him about Daniel's visit to my store and the forgotten dragon and how I'd run out to stop him and what he'd said at the end. Deacon jotted everything down. I was about to ask him if he wanted to take the dragon back to the station when one of the paramedics hailed him, and he gave me a quick nod before joining the EMT. He came back after a moment. "We've got his wallet and his identification." He looked at the dragon. "Looks like just a bauble to me. Since he asked you to keep the dragon, I'd say go ahead for now. Just don't lose it, in case we need it for some reason."

I grimaced. "If I hadn't called to him, he'd still be alive. Daniel turned around to see what I wanted, and that was just long enough for the van to clip him as it barreled through."

Deacon patted my shoulder. "Emerald, that van was doing a good forty to fifty miles per hour from what everybody says. I don't think a few seconds would have been enough for Daniel to get out of its path. Damn bastard didn't even slow down. I'm not sure if we'll be able to catch them, but we'll try. I just don't know what gets into some people."

I wiped my eyes and smiled wanly at him. Maybe Deacon was right; maybe the accident would have happened even if I hadn't called out at that moment. Maybe when Daniel said that he had to see things through to the end, he knew something was going to happen.

The paramedics gently loaded Daniel's body in the ambulance and drove away, their sirens no longer necessary. With nothing left for me to do, I headed back to the shop. Lana was dishing up soup for a pair of customers who were weighed down with bags and boxes from an active morning of shopping, and Cinnamon was restocking shelves as I came in. My shirt was spattered with blood-stains, my face tearstained, red, and puffy. Cinnamon set down the packet of water biscuits she was holding and cleared her throat. At her questioning glance, I shook my head and whispered, "My tarot client was just killed by a hit-and-run driver."

I kept a spare outfit in my office, just in case I ever needed it. I gathered up the clothes and headed into the bathroom. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it, shaking. How could this happen? One minute he was alive, the next he was dead. I closed my eyes, but images of Daniel flying through the air instantly sprang to mind, so I opened them again. I could do without the instant replay. After taking a deep breath to calm down, I looked in the mirror. Mascara streaked down my cheeks, and my lipstick was smeared. I scrubbed off my makeup and washed my face, splashing cold water against my skin. The chill helped, bracing me as I coughed. I wiped my nose and faced my reflection.

"Emerald, you sure do attract trouble," I said. My reflection shrugged along with me, green eyes flashing against my paler-than-usual skin. I absently brushed my hair back into place, binding it into a quick ponytail to corral the wayward curls as I thought about Daniel's last words. "The dragon... don't... get rid..." Well, that was a no-brainer. He wanted me to keep the dragon.

Okay, I thought. I could do that much. Deacon had given me permission, so I assumed that I wouldn't get in any trouble with the police, though I decided to check with Murray just in case. She'd always been smarter than her buddies, and now that she was a detective, I trusted her more than the average cop on the beat.

I pulled the dragon out of my pocket and examined it closely. Beautiful. Lustrous. Old, but I couldn't speculate just how old. And now Daniel was dead, and the dragon was in my keeping. A shiver ran up my spine, and once again a wave of guilt swept over me. I took another deep breath. Deacon was right; I knew he was. Daniel's death wasn't my fault. So why did I feel like I was to blame?

I flipped the statue over in my hand. Yep, I was certain it had been some sort of family heirloom. Well, I would keep Daniel's dragon until I found his next of kin and then return it to them. It was the least I could do for the unsettled man who had been so resigned to his fate. But an odd fluttering in my stomach whispered that there wouldn't be anybody to find. I had a feeling Daniel was very much alone, as alone in life as he now was in death.

The dragon stared up at me, cool eyes gazing into my own. For a moment, I could almost swear I saw them flash red, but then I blinked, and they were the pale milky jade as before. "Little guy, do you know something about Daniel that I don't?" I asked. "Do you know where I can find his family?" The dragon remained silent, but I had the uncanny feeling it heard me and understood everything I was saying.

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