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Destroyer 83: Skull Duggery

By Warren Murphy apir

Chapter 1

More than a year after Tiananmen Square, the tanks still rolled through Zhang Zingzong's dreams.

They lunged at him, their caterpillar-tread teeth seeking his feet, his hands, his frail human bones, and he would run. But there would be no place to run, for Zhang was surrounded by T-55 tanks.

It was not the sound of their treads clawing for his bones that awoke Zhang Zingzong at twelve minutes past midnight on a Tuesday evening in the city of New Rochelle, thousands of li from Beijing.

Even as he bolted from sleep, his ears rang with their clatter and the terrible pong polls pong sound that, more than the T-55's, haunted his waking hours.

The room was too bright. Moonlight washing through the thin window curtains was like white neon. It made a distorted triangle pattern on the bedspread and wall.

Blinking his almond eyes, Zhang Zingzong fumbled a pack of cigarettes off the nightstand. He speared out a single one. He took it in his dry mouth. The fibery taste of the American filter scratched his tongue. In disgust, he spit it out and threw off the covers.

Zhang Zingzong perched on the edge of his bed, his brain thick with unresolved dreams, his lungs like concrete wings. As he pulled the nightstand drawer open, he saw why the moonlight was so intense.

It was snowing outside. The flakes fell thickly, like scabs of lunar dust.

A spidery cedar was already heavy with accumulation. Beyond it, housetops were pristine sugar-dusted fantasies.

Zhang Zingzong found his last pack of Panda cigarettes, which he kept sealed in a plastic sandwich bag.

He pulled apart the seal and fished out a single cigarette, noting he was down to four.

He lit it with a Colibri lighter and sucked down the coarse, aromatic tobacco smoke. After two puffs, his head felt clearer and he went to the window.

The ethereal beauty of New Rochelle wrapped in a midnight snowfall held his attention, all thought of Tiananmen Square dispelled by the swirl of countless white flakes.

Then Zhang Zingzong saw the footprints.

They were ordinary footprints. One pair, they broke the even snow on the safe-house walkway like well-spaced intrusions. Although they were fresh, the falling snow was already beginning to soften their cookie-cutter edges.

Something disturbed Zhang Zingzong about the footprints. They appeared to lead from his front door to a long black car that was parked out front. For a moment his concentration shifted from the footprints to the silent car.

Obviously a limousine, it was a model he had never seen. It was not a Lincoln Continental. One had whisked him from the San Francisco airport to the first of many safe houses strung across the United States. He wondered if it was an official car and why his guard had left the house to go to it.

For Zhang Zingzong jumped to a logical conclusion. Except for a single FBI guard, he was the only person in the house. There were footprints leading from the house to the mysterious car; therefore, his guard had gone to the car.

Why had the driver not come to the house? he wondered.

Was something wrong? Would they have to move again, as they had in Paris, San Francisco, and again in that cold ugly city with the odd name, Buffalo? Zhang Zingzong had thought he would be liquidated in Buffalo. Only quick action by the FBI had extracted him from that situation.

Zhang Zingzong was considering getting into street clothes when he took another look at the footprints. His sharp eyes told him something was not right. He looked harder, his eyes squeezing against the harsh moonlight reflecting off the snow until they were like black slits in his white-brown face.

He saw it then. It made the skin of his bare back gather and crawl. He involuntarily worried the short hairs at the back of his neck with a nervous hand.

For the accumulating snow was quickly filling the foot-prints. Soon they would be obliterated. That was not the thing that made a thrill of supernatural fear clutch at Zhang Zingzong's heart, a heart that had not quailed at the sight of tanks rumbling through Tiananmen Square, a heart that had seen what the cruel steel treads could do to human flesh and bone.

What impelled Zhang Zingzong to jump into his jeans and throw on a shirt was the indisputable fact that the footprints furthest from the black limousine were freshest.

Zhang Zingzong did not know what it truly meant. The footsteps were plainly going toward the car. But those nearest it were fast blurring in the gentle downfall. There was no wind, so drifting would not explain the phenomenon.

Except that it meant the owner of them had come to the house from the car. Someone unknown to Zhang Zingzong, perhaps someone unfriendly to Zhang Zingzong.

Zhang Zingzong shoved his sockless feet into his Reeboks and stuffed his wallet into the tight jeans pocket. He breathed through his mouth, in gulps like a beached fish.

Creeping to the closed bedroom door, he put one ear to it. He heard no sounds at first, and then he detected footsteps. Padding footsteps, not like the American FBI agent. Six months on the run had made everything about the man, from his stale breath to his heavy-footed walk, as familiar to Zhang Zingzong as the rose-petal scent of his own wife, who was still in Beijing.

These were not his footsteps. They moved unsurely. Once, a lamp wobbled on a coffee table and stopped suddenly. A leg brushing a table and two quick hands reaching out to prevent the crash of an upset lamp. The image leapt into Zhang Zingzong's mind as clearly as if the bedroom door was transparent.

That settled the last of Zhang Zingzong's wavering indecision. He leapt to the bed and got down on his stomach. Reaching in with both hands, he found his khaki knapsack, the same one that had borne his meager supplies on the long trek to Canton. He yanked it out by the straps, felt the square-edged shape inside, and went to the window as quietly as possible.

The pack on his back, he undid the window latch and shoved the pane up. It rose with barely a scrape, for which Zhang Zingzong was silently grateful.

The storm window was another matter. He did not instantly fathom its construction. Did it lift or pull out? He felt around the edges, seeking a clue, his smoldering Panda dangling from his tight mouth.

He sucked in a breath, tasting tobacco smoke. It reminded him of those precious last four cigarettes.

Zhang Zingzong rushed to the nightstand and grabbed his last pack of Pandas. It was a foolish thing to do, but as it turned out, very fortunate.

Turning from the nightstand, Zhang Zingzong saw the line of light spring to life under the bedroom door.

The boldness of that act told him instantly that his FBI guard was no more.

Zhang Zingzong picked up a wooden chair, and holding it legs-out as he had been taught by the FBI to ward off knifewielding assassins, charged the stubborn storm window.

The stout legs splintered going through the thick glass and the chair back knocked the breath from Zingzong's smokefilled lungs. But it worked. The impact of the chair carried him safely through the glass and into the soft snow.

He jumped up, throwing off shards of glass and dusty dry snowflakes.

His eyes went everywhere, seeking a safe escape route.

The driver's door of the limousine popped open, and an apparition stepped out.

It seemed to be a man garbed entirely in a black uniform. He wore a peaked cap, military style. Its brim shadowed his face as he walked slowly and catlike toward Zhang Zingzong.

He moved with an easy-limbed grace, as if he were in no hurry.

And as he approached, his head lifted, revealing a cruel, certain smile-but only gleaming black where his upper face should be.

"Ting!" Zhang cried. "Stop! Come no closer!"

The man in black quickened his pace.

Zhang stood frozen, transfixed by the half-hidden gaze of the approaching man. His fear was palpable. Unlike the blind tanks, he felt there was no escape from this black devil.