These four chapters follow on from the end of Chapter 39 on page 307 of the book, with the current Chapter 40 (Safe) coming afterwards.
I hope you enjoy reading these chapters and that they'll served as a reminder of what happened in The Dragon Path before The Serpent King comes out.
Thank you very much to Secrets of the Tombs reader, Max Tomlinson, for looking through these chapters and giving me the thumbs-up to put them on the website from a reader's point of view.
Chapter 40: Return
That evening there was a summit meeting in the kitchen of the McNeils’ apartment.
Cleo and Ryan had conducted an urgent whispered conversation in the Accident and Emergency waiting room. By the time Ryan’s burns had been dressed and Cleo’s ankle had been strapped up, they had come to a decision.
They had to make a full confession.
They had to tell their parents that they had entered the forbidden tomb of the First Emperor.
It would mean trouble so deep they might never dig their way out of it, but there was no choice. Now the Tiger’s Claw gang knew the location of the dragon path tunnel, they’d be able to use it to get in and out of the First Emperor’s tomb whenever they liked, looting its treasures and selling them off on the black market. They’d be safe from the dragons as long as they didn’t remove any of the jade rings, and they could disarm the crossbow booby traps by inserting Ryan’s model of the hufu into the socket by the door in the ancestor temple. And unlike us, Cleo thought, they don’t have to cross the perilous mercury sea to get out; they can simply leave the way they came in, via the dragon path.
The only way to stop Joey and his gang emptying the tomb was to tell the truth so that security arrangements could be put in place – guards at the mouth of the dragon path tunnel, locks on the trap door . . . not to mention a search to catch and arrest the members of the gang.
Cleo and Ryan took turns to recount the saga of the Dragon Path Mission; from the jade ring in the box under Eveline Bell’s chair to the the missing film in the archives of the History of Archaeology Museum and the search for the tunnel. They described how Ryan had made the model of the hufu and how they had found the entrance on the mountainside, only to be set upon by the Tiger’s Claw gang at the last minute. Neither of them mentioned Wu Meilin; they’d agreed that there was no point in getting their friend into trouble with her family as well.
By the end of the story the three parents were holding their heads in their hands. Cleo gazed at her mum’s tangle of dark curls next to her dad’s wiry copper-red hair – which, she noticed for the first time, had the beginnings of a bald patch on top - and Julie Flint’s spiky blonde crop. ‘We only wanted to return the jade ring to the dragon for Grandma,’ she said weakly.
Mum was the first to look up, her face contorted in a battle between worry and rage. ‘I don’t know which is worse; that my mother asked you to do such a stupid thing or that you two agreed to do it!’
‘You could have been killed!’ Dad sighed.
Julie Flint leaped up from her chair. ‘I thought you promised to stay out of trouble!’ But then she sat back down again and frowned into her coffee cup. ‘Joey Zhou?’ She nodded slowly. ‘So that’s how the gang got their inside knowledge about the dig sites. He posed as a guide.‘
‘Is there really a model of the world down there?’ Mum asked. She still looked furious but she couldn’t resist find out about the tomb. ‘Did you see the coffin? Is there any water damage?’
‘It’s absolutely amazing!’ Cleo had been bursting to tell them all about it. ‘It’s all preserved incredibly well-preserved and . . .’
Julie held up her hands. ‘Let’s hear about it later. First we need to call the police chief. They’ll need to get some guards out to the tomb to try to catch the Tiger’s Claw gang . . . ‘
Dad smiled , ‘You’re right. ‘I’ll go and see Professor Han to let her know what’s happened.’
Mum reached for her phone and grimaced. ‘And I suppose I’d better inform Sir Charles. I don’t want him hearing rumours about this from anyone else.’
As Dad left the kitchen he gave Cleo’s hand a squeeze as he passed. ‘No harm done, eh? At least you’re both in one piece.’
Meilin’s good luck charm really does seem to have brought us good fortune, Ryan thought, as he pulled his t-shirt on over his bandages.
Two days had passed and the fall-out from their confession had been much less drastic than he and Cleo had feared. There’d been lots of questions and a few lectures about ‘irresponsible behaviour’ but everyone agreed that the most important thing was to prevent looting by the Tiger’s Claw gang. Police and army officers had been dispatched to guard the entrance of the dragon path tunnel around the clock. There had been no mention of grounding or loss of pocket money or extra French homework . . .
There had also been another, even more surprising, decision. Before the tomb was sealed up again, a small expedition was to be allowed inside for a one-off tour. Led by Professor Han, the team would enter the tunnel to ensure that the gunpowder mechanisms were not in danger of going off again. They would then be allowed into the tomb itself to record details and take photographs of the underground structure to help with planning any excavations in the future.
In addition to Professor Han and various other Chinese archaeologists, the team included Cleo’s parents, Sir Charles Peacocke, and a select group of important local officials. The chief of police and several of his officers would also be accompanying them to search for evidence of the tomb robbers.
Cleo and Ryan had also been invited along to demonstrate exactly how they had got in and made their way through the tomb. Cleo was thrilled. Ryan was not. He had in fact, done his best to get out of it the tour. He’d seen enough of the First Emperor’s tomb to last him a lifetime. He didn’t want to revisit the fire breathing dragons, or Lymington’s skeleton or the creepy dead ladies. But he’d soon found out that he had no choice. It was called ‘co-operating with the enquiry’ and was the only way to keep out of trouble with the police . . .
And today was the day.
Ryan trudged to the waiting car with all the eagerness of a condemned man. But, to his great relief, the journey along the dragon path tunnel, through the ancestor temple and into the tomb, proved to be much less terrifying than the first time. They weren’t being pursued by ruthless armed criminals for a start. They were also fully kitted out with top-of-the-range breathing equipment and protective suits and flashlights. The police workshop had made a new replica of the tiger hufu from the instructions in Segal’s journal, so they were able to open the trap door and disarm the booby traps. It was all excited chatter and photographs and clipboards and tape measures - just like a school field trip.
‘Mum told me something odd this morning,’ Cleo whispered, as they made their way across the model universe. ‘She said the police chief told her that we must have made a mistake about Joey Zhou being one of the gang who attacked us.’
Ryan stared at her through the screen of his mask. ‘That’s rubbish! It was him!’
‘I know. But apparently he’s got an alibi. He got the early plane to Hong Kong that morning - the morning after the banquet - and spent the whole day at an archaeology conference. He was working as a translator. There are witnesses.’
‘But that can’t be right!’ Ryan spluttered. Not unless Joey Zhou had cloned himself or discovered the secret of time travel. ‘What witnesses?’
Cleo stopped. ‘Sir Charles Peacocke, for one! He was the guest of honour at the conference. It seems Joey is still working there now. That’s why he’s not been around the last few days . . . ‘
But before Ryan could give Joey’s baffling alibi any more thought, they reached the base of the model tomb mound. Professor Han pointed up to the gold pavilion. ‘Is this where you found the mummy of the First Emperor?’
Cleo nodded. She began to pull her mum up the slope. ‘Just wait until you see this. He’s on a chariot in a in full suit of jade armour, and he’s got that amazing bronze sword we told you about – the one with the map in the hilt that we used to find our way out through the islands - we named it the Sword of Life.’
Sir Charles had already entered the pavilion. ‘I can’t see a sword in here,’ he called back.
Ryan hurried in behind him. ‘It’s propped up on the chariot. Next to his . . .’ He stopped and stared. ‘. . . leg,’ he said, his voice trailing to nothing. The sword wasn’t there.
Meanwhile the police chief was puffing up the mound carrying an object at arm’s length. ‘What’s this?’ he demanded.
Ryan whipped round, still trying to take in the disappearance of the Sword of Life.
‘Oh yeah,’ he said.’ That’s my backpack. I left it behind.’
The police chief unzipped the bag.
‘It’s just leftover picnic stuff,’ Ryan said.
The police chief crouched down and tipped out the contents. But it wasn’t old watermelon rinds and kebab sticks that tumbled out; it was gold and silver pots, carved jade figurines and jewelled bronze mirrors
Ryan’s heart pounded in his ears. He reached up for his mask, trying to pull it from his face. He couldn’t breath. ‘That’s not what was in there!’ he gasped.
The police chief jabbed a finger at his chest. ‘It looks as if you were planning to steal these treasures when something disturbed you and you ran off.’
Cleo’s dad stepped forward. ‘There must be some sort of mistake.’ He turned to Sir Charles Peacocke. ‘Sir Charles, I’m sure you can explain. Ryan would never do anything like that.’
But Sir Charles Peacocke slowly shook his head. ‘I’m afraid it does all look rather incriminating.’ He looked up at the chariot. ‘And with the sword being missing too . . ..’
‘Ryan Flint,’ the police chief said. ‘I am arresting you . . .’
‘No!’ Cleo screamed. ‘He hasn’t done anything!’
The police chief ignored her. ‘. . arresting you,’ he repeated, ‘for robbery from the tomb of the First Emperor of China.’
Chapter 41: Nightmare
Cleo sank onto the bench and stared down at the drift of golden leaves between her feet. She was trapped in a nightmare. And this nightmare was a million times worse than being chased by through a labyrinth by a dragon.
Ryan had been arrested as a tomb robber.
He’d been bundled off to the police station.
Mum and Dad and Julie were all there now, protesting his innocence, clamouring for his release, making phone calls, sending e-mails. But they were getting nowhere. There were official procedures to follow, forms to fill in. There would be witness statements and court hearings . . .
Cleo hadn’t been able to bear it. She’d bolted out of the police station and blundered from one street to the next, blinded by tears, until she’d found herself in the little park. Only now did she realize that this was the very bench where she’d sat eating sweet potatoes with Ryan after they’d first watched the film of the dragon path tunnel.
It seemed so long ago.
The smoky sweet potato scent was still wafting in from the street. Children were still flying their kites. Old ladies were still doing t’ai chi exercises.
But everything was different now.
According to the police, it wasn’t just the Sword of Life that Ryan had stolen. Other relics had gone missing from the First Emperor’s tomb too, most importantly the copper and gold fungi of immortality from the trees on the islands. And then there was Ryan’s backpack. The chief of police had found it right there in the tomb, stuffed with treasures. What stronger evidence could there be that Ryan was a tomb robber?
And it didn’t stop there.
Ryan had also been accused of stealing the Isles of Immortality scroll from the Archaeology Department. Why else, the police declared, would he have slipped away from the banquet pretending to be sick on the night it had been stolen? Cleo had explained, of course, that Ryan went to Gao Xin’s hardware store to make the model hufu, but they hadn’t seemed to believe her.
She blinked away tears and watched as two grey-haired men set out a Go board under a wutong tree. They began to play, taking turns to set down their stones, black, then white, then black again.
The police had it all wrong, of course!
It was Joey Zhou and his accomplices who had stolen the Sword of Life and the other treasures. They must have planted the loot in Ryan’s backpack in order to frame him for their crimes. And it was Joey who had stolen the Isles of Immortality Scroll on the night of the banquet.
‘You’ve cornered my stone!’ The shout came from one of the Go players under the tree. That’s how I feel too, Cleo thought. On the losing side, surrounded by the opponent’s stones, with nowhere left to move.
She’d tried to tell the police all this, of course. She’d given a long interview to a pair of officers who had nodded and made notes. They’d looked as if they felt sorry for her. They said that Ryan must have “duped” her into falling for him so that she’d tell lies to protect him. They’d even said that Ryan had only befriended her in the first place so that he could gain access to the archaeological digs that her parents worked on.
A group of children rushed past on their way to the sweet kiosk to buy candyfloss and lollipops. Cleo closed her eyes and leaned back, shivering in spite of the late afternoon sun. The police had talked so much about Ryan deceiving her that she’d almost started to doubt him herself. Was he pretending to be my friend all along just to get his hands on ancient treasures?
But then she remembered the look on Ryan’s face when he’d come hurtling down the slope after escaping from the tomb. The joy when he saw I was alive, the way he hugged me - even though it was agony when I pressed against his burns. That was all real. They’re just trying to turn me against him.
Cleo had an uncomfortable feeling that she was being let off lightly because of who she was. Her mother worked for Sir Charles Peacocke, who was an important minister in the British government. Her father was here as the guest of Professor Han, an eminent Chinese archaeologist. It would just be too embarrassing all round if their daughter were found to involved in tomb robbing. She clenched her fists so hard her nails dug into her palms. Do they really I’m going to slink away and leave Ryan to take the blame for everything? Especially when it’s all my fault in the first place; he was only doing it to help me return Grandma’s jade ring.
She had to do something. The question was what?
It all came down to Joey Zhou! If he didn’t have that perfect alibi for the day of the ambush at the tunnel Ryan, he’d be the one under arrest instead of Ryan. But somehow several witnesses, including Sir Charles Peacocke and his assistant Melanie Moore, claimed that they actually saw Joey Zhou working as a translator at a conference in Hong Kong. How could he have been following us into the tomb of the First Emperor at the same time? It seemed logically impossible. And yet Cleo knew it was Joey Zhou at the dragon path tunnel . . .
There was only one other person who could back up their story and identify Joey as one of the gang on the mountain; Wu Meilin.
Cleo jumped to her feet. I didn’t want to drag Meilin into this, but it could be Ryan’s only chance . . .
She sprinted through the maze of back streets until at last the familiar red lanterns came into sight. Peering in through the steamed up window of Aunt Ting’s crowded restaurant she saw Meilin flitting from table to table, bowls of noodles balanced on each arm. It’s too dangerous to go inside, Cleo thought. Someone might see us together. She turned and headed down the alley of the building. Strange noises were coming from the shadows. Cleo jumped, as a figure lurched towards her. But it was only Meilin’s little cousin - the one who had brought them the box of mooncakes with the hidden message - playing with a basketball. He grinned and pointed to a hoop made of wire attached to the wall. ‘Your boyfriend made it for me.’ He took a step back and shot the basketball through the hoop.
‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ Cleo started. Then she changed her mind. That was hardly the key issue right now. ‘Can you give Meilin a message? Tell her Lucky and Tiger want to see her . . .’
The little boy looked puzzled but he ran off towards the kitchen. Cleo crossed the back yard and crawled into the shed. Bao Bao licked her hand in greeting. She stroked the puppies, picking up Lucky, with his little bat-shaped white patch, and then Tiger, the brindled one she’d named. Ryan really loved these puppies. She buried her face in Tiger’s warm fur. Since when did I start thinking about Ryan in the past tense? Taking herself by surprise, she sobbed out loud - just as Meilin ducked in through the door.
‘Cleo!’ Meilin cried, wrapping her arms round her. ‘What is the matter?’
Cleo tried to speak but another sob juddered out instead.
‘I’ve been so worried.’ Since Ryan wasn’t there, Meilin switched to Mandarin. ‘Ryan told me he would come and say goodbye before you leave, but he didn’t come . . . has something happened?‘
‘Ryan has been arrested . . .’ Cleo managed to blurt out at last. Between her sobs she recounted the terrible turn of events. ‘They think he’s a tomb robber . . .’
‘But this is crazy!’ Meilin turned on her heel. ‘I will go to the police station right now and tell them they have made a mistake. I saw those men attack you . . .’
At that moment the back door of the kitchen crashed open with a burst of chatter, clatter and pop music. ‘Meilin!’ Aunt Ting bellowed. ‘I have ten orders going cold here!’
‘Wait,’ Meilin told Cleo. ‘I’ll be back in two minutes.’
As Meilin darted back to the kitchen, Cleo peeped out of the shed. Dusk was gathering and in the gloom she made out the glowing orange tip of a cigarette. A man was leaning against the wall, looking up and down the alleyway. A car drove along the street beyond, flooding the alley with its headlights. The lurking man was illuminated for the briefest of moments before melting back into the shadow. But it was long enough.
A small man, with a straggly beard and tattoos like dark inky sleeves.
Cleo’s heart flipped over.
It was the man who had tied her up at the entrance to the dragon path tunnel.
Chapter 42: Evidence
When Meilin returned from the kitchen, Cleo pulled her in through the doorway of the shed. ‘One of the men from the Tiger’s Claw gang is in the alley,’ she whispered. ‘He’s watching the restaurant.’
Meilin’s eyes popped wide with fear. ‘They must know that I saw them attack you.’
‘It looks like it. Two of them were here that morning when we were translating Segal’s journal together. They must have recognised you.’ Cleo bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry. I think you could be in danger.’
Meilin peeped out through a crack in the woodwork. ‘I can see him.’ Her shoulders sagged with relief. ‘He’s leaving.’
Cleo looked too. The man was heading towards an old blue van parked at the end of the alley. She made for the door. ‘I’m going to follow him. If he leads me to the gang’s headquarters, I can look for evidence that they stole the Sword of Life and the fungi of immortality. That’ll prove Ryan is innocent.’ She stopped, halfway out of the shed, her fantastic plan caving in around her. ‘But how can I follow a van?’
Meilin pushed past and darted towards the kitchen. ‘On a motor scooter!’ she called back. ‘Gao Xin’s got one and he’s in the restaurant. It’s parked out the front. I’m sure he’ll let us borrow it.’
Cleo hurried across the yard after her. ‘Gao Xin? The boy from the hardware shop?’
‘Yes. Do you know him?’’
‘No, but Ryan does.’ They were in the kitchen now. Aunt Ting looked up from stirring a steaming vat of noodles and opened her mouth in surprise.
‘But I don’t know how to drive a scooter,‘ Cleo said.
Meiln burst into the restaurant. ‘I do. I’ve practised on an old one at grandfather’s orchard.’ She stopped behind a grizzly bear of a boy hunched over a bowl of biang biang noodles. ‘Ryan’s in trouble!’ she told him.
Gao Xin looked up, a long wide noodle hanging out of his mouth like a floppy tongue.
|biang biang noodles
‘You know?’ Cleo prompted. ‘The English guy who came to your workshop to make the tiger.’
Gao Xin slurped up the noodle and grinned. ‘Oh yeah. Sure. Cool guy!’
Meilin handed him a napkin. ‘We need to borrow your scooter.’
He wiped his face, then fished in his jeans pocket and held up the keys. ‘No problem.’
They were almost at the door when Aunty Ting charged across the restaurant, her ladle raised like a battleaxe. ‘Wu Meilin! Come back this minute, young lady! We have customers.’
With astonishing speed, Gao Xin sprang to the door, grabbed the keys back from Meilin and swept out of the restaurant pulling Cleo along with him. ‘I’ll take you!’ he said. ‘It’ll be faster anyway. I’m used to the traffic.’
Cleo jumped on the back of the scooter and clung to Gao Xin’s Rock God t-shirt as he revved the engine.
‘Where to?’ he shouted.
Cleo looked over her shoulder. The blue van had gone! For a heart-sinking moment she thought they were too late. But then she saw it at the end of the lane, pulling out into the main street. ‘Follow that van!’ she shouted.
‘Rock and roll!’ Gao Xin yelled in English as they lurched out into the traffic.
Cleo had never been so terrified.
And, given that she’d been tied up by a criminal gang, trapped by dragons, adrift in a sea of mercury, swallowed by a metal giant’s head and stranded underground with a pile of skeletons, all in the space of the last week, that was saying something.
Gao Xin drove as if he were in a computer game. He took every corner at high speed, banking so that Cleo’s knees brushed the tarmac. Every stop was a slamming on of brakes, every start a rocket launch. They sped along the main road to Xi’an, weaving in and out of the multiple lanes of rush hour traffic.
I’m not even wearing a helmet, Cleo thought, as a bus almost mowed them down. High-rise blocks, bridges, factories and warehouses all flashed past in a blur. At last they came to a huge junction. The blue van left the motorway and took the turn for downtown Xi’an. Careening through the bus station she lost sight of it for a moment. ‘There it is!’ she cried, spotting a flicker of blue through the trees on the other side of a crowded pedestrian square. ‘Oh no! We’re going to lose him!’
‘Not if we take a short cut!’ Gao Xin whipped the front wheel round and took off across the pavement, through a flowerbed, past a NO VEHICLES sign and into the square. People scattered, shrieking and waving their fists. ‘Hold on!’ Gao Xin shouted, as they buckarooed down a flight of steps. They were almost across the square when, all at once, opera music blared from a bank of speakers and plumes of water shot up all around them. Coloured lights strobed across the ground. The scooter swerved through splashes of purple and green and gold.
‘Oops!’ Gao Xin shouted. ‘I forgot they have a dancing fountain show here!’
|Dancing fountain show in Xi'an square
There was roar of applause and laughter. People think we’re part of the entertainment, Cleo thought. But she didn’t care. She’d just glimpsed the red taillights of the van disappearing through the giant archway under the city wall. ‘That way!’ she spluttered as a jet of water caught her full in the face.
Gao Xin dodged back into the stream of traffic, heading for the archway. The city wall, an ancient fortification of grey brick, as mighty as a medieval castle, rose up in front of them. The battlements and watchtowers that topped the ramparts blazed with neon lights. There was a sudden echoey boom of traffic noise as they followed the road under the wall and then they were on the other side, in the old city of Xi’an.
The van turned off into a side street and parked.
Gao Xin hit the brakes and the scooter fishtailed to a halt.
The tattooed man jumped down from the van, glanced over his shoulder, and scurried into a narrow alley at the side of a mobile phone shop. Cleo climbed down from the scooter, rivulets of water dripping from her hair and clothes. She heard Gao Xin come after her and turned. ‘Thanks, but I’d better go on my own. It could be dangerous.’ Before he had time to argue, she jogged after the man, reaching the alley just in time to see him slip through a door marked DELIVERIES.
Cleo spotted a low window next to the door. A roller blind had been pulled down, but it was rucked at one edge, making a spy hole of the corner. She squinted through the grimy glass. Several men, some Chinese, some white, were sitting around in a dimly lit room among piles of packing boxes, drinking beer and smoking. The man from the van had just joined them. He took a beer from a small fridge, threw himself onto a chair and began to watch the snooker match showing on the TV in the corner. A moment later the men all looked up as a door on the other side of the room opened. A man entered. Cleo almost shouted out loud. It was Joey Zhou! So much for being at a conference in Hong Kong!
Joey smoothed a hand over his quiff and began to talk.
Holding her breath, Cleo slid her phone from her pocket. To her relief it was still working in spite of the fountains. She held it up and took a photograph through the chink in the blind. But the image was useless; some dark shadows, a smudge of dust and her own reflection in the glass. She had to get closer for a better shot. And she definitely had to get closer to record Joey’s words; all she could hear through the window was the snooker commentary.
Cleo tiptoed farther round the back of the building until she came to a door. Cigarette ends littered round the steps suggested this was where the shop staff took their breaks. She tried the handle. The door opened. She crept along a corridor. On the right, she could see into the back of the phone shop. The shopkeeper was behind the counter taking money from a customer. On the left, almost hidden behind a stack of boxes and packing foam, was another door, slightly ajar. She could hear an excited voice on the other side; ‘And Ding Junhui lines up to pot the black . . .’
Yes, it was the snooker match! Cleo squeezed among the boxes and put her eye to the crack in the door. Joey Zhou was still standing in the middle of the room. He was holding up a small bamboo birdcage, spinning it slowly to inspect the pair of bright green lovebirds inside. At first she could hear nothing but applause from the TV. Ding Junhui had won the match. But as the cheering died away, Joey’s voice became audible. Cleo switched her phone to record.
‘Did you follow Cleo McNeil, like I told you?’ Joey asked.
The tattooed man from the van slurped his beer. ‘Yeah. She just hung about at the park a bit, but then she went to the noodle restaurant. Aunty Ting’s . She was talking to that girl that works there.’
Behind the boxes, Cleo’s stomach clenched with horror. She’d been so caught up in her misery that she’d failed to notice van man had been on her tail all day. So much for trying to keep Meilin out of trouble! I was the one who led the Tiger’s Claw gang right to her door. She could hardly bear to listen. She had a horrible feeling she knew where this was going.
‘Wu Meilin?’ Joey narrowed his eyes. ‘She’s friendly with Cleo and the boy. She must know something. What did they say?’
The man shrugged. ‘I couldn't get close enough to hear. They were in this shed round the back.’
‘She could be planning to go to the police . . .’ one of the other men chipped in.
Joey Zhou made a kissing noise at the lovebirds and then hung the cage on a hook on the wall. ‘Well, we’ll just have to make sure she doesn’t, won’t we?’
The tattooed man grinned. ‘I foresee a tragic fire in the restaurant kitchen. Those cooking stoves can be very dangerous!’ He laughed and smacked his lips. ‘A shame because the noodles there are very good.’
Cleo’s eyes filled with tears. How can this be happening? Ryan is in prison. Now Meilin’s life is in danger. All because of me. She ground the heels of her hands over her eyes. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to warn Meilin. She started to edge away, but as she took a last look through the crack in the door she saw Joey pick up one of the crates that was stacked around the room and tip it over on a low table. Treasures from the First Emperor’s tomb spilled out among the beer bottles; a white jade horse, a gold vase, bronze mirrors, collars and bowls encrusted with pearls and turquoise . . .
‘The boss says we can sell all this merchandise ourselves,’ Joey said. ‘His client is only interested in the immortality stuff. Those weird metal fungi and the scroll with the map of the islands.’ He turned to a short, fat man who was playing a game on his phone. ‘Did you seal those fungi in the Ziploc bags like I said. It’s the drops of liquid on them that are important.’
The man nodded.’ Yeah. Who is this client, anyway?’
Joey shook his head. ‘A wealthy collector with more money than sense. A Westerner. That’s all you need to know.’
The two white men pulled a long black golf bag out from under the sofa. ‘What do you want us to do with this?’ one of them asked, speaking English with an East European accent. Cleo almost gave herself away with a gasp. Was there a body in there? Could it be their guide, Tian Min, who had mysteriously vanished ‘to see his mother’? Joey squatted and unzipped the bag.
But it wasn’t a body he pulled out.
It was a long bronze sword. The Sword of Life!
Joey grasped the hilt and held the sword aloft. ‘We should get a good price for this beauty,’ he said. ‘We’ll hang on to it for a week or two. By that time the heat will be off us. All the robberies will have been pinned on the English boy. Then we’ll smuggle it out using our usual contacts.’
Got you! Cleo thought. She turned off the record function on her phone. If she could just get one photo of Joey holding the sword as well, surely that would be enough to prove Ryan’s innocence. I’ll take all the evidence straight to the police station as soon I’ve been back to the restaurant to warn Meilin. Perhaps things will be all right, after all. Cleo leaned closer to get the shot, holding the phone up to the crack in the door.
Her elbow caught the edge of a cardboard box. It toppled from the pile, scattering a sea of polystyrene worms across the floor. There were shouts from the other side of the door. Chairs scraped as the men leaped up. ‘There’s someone snooping on us! After them!’
Chapter 43: Fireworks
Cleo ran down the corridor, knocking boxes flying as she went.
She raced out of the door, down the alley and into the street. A glance over her shoulder confirmed her worst fears. All the Tiger’s Claw men were in pursuit and they were gaining on her fast.
Up ahead the impenetrable stone flank of the city wall towered high against the darkening sky. Cleo turned and bolted down the narrow street that ran parallel to the wall, through rows of market stalls. Traditional writing supplies - blocks of ink, brushes, rice paper, bamboo scrolls - flashed past as she fled.
Then she came to a dead end!
A large building – some sort of art gallery - blocked the end of the street. The doors were closed and the windows dark. Closed! No way in! Cleo cast around for an escape route, but she was cornered. She could hear the men’s footsteps thundering louder and louder, closer and closer behind her. Then she spotted a set of stone steps that led up to the top of the city wall. They were closed off with a wooden barrier. A sign pointed to the official entrance, where you could buy tickets, two hundred metres away. Two hundred metres too far! Cleo scrambled over the barrier and sprinted up the steps.
The top of the ancient wall was a broad, straight road of stone. Wide enough for eight chariots to pass, Cleo remembered reading. If only I had a chariot now! But there were only groups of tourists, strolling along or wobbling about on hired bikes and tandems. She ran past them all, desperately searching for a way out. But the wall was twelve metres high with a sheer drop on either side. And it went on and on for miles. A line of ornamental lampposts marched to the horizon, each topped with a coiling metal dragon and three long glowing red lanterns, suspended like rubies on an earring.
|The top of the city wall, Xi'an
Cleo could hear the Tiger’s Claw men behind her, shouting, pushing through the crowd. They were getting closer. Her lungs were burning. She knew she couldn't run much farther when she saw another set of steps leading down from the wall. If she could just reach them . . .
But it was too late. Joey and two of his men were overtaking her. She was surrounded. Their hands snatched but slipped on her wet top. She threw herself to the edge of the wall, climbed on to the safety rail and looked down. A bright yellow crane was parked at the base of the wall, where a tumbledown block of flats was being demolished. An enormous metal hook dangled from a cable at the end of the boom of the crane, only an arm’s length away and about two metres down.
It’s too far.
I can’t make it!
But I’ve got to make it. I have to save Ryan and Meilin.
Cleo jumped and grabbed. The flesh tore from her palms as they slid down the steel cable. She wrapped her legs around the top of the hook and hung on, swinging from side to side like a pendulum.
Cleo looked up. The early evening sky was fully dark now, warmed to an earthy brown by the lights of the vast city. Could she pull herself up the cable and on to the boom and get down that way? She pictured Meilin running along the metal arm, balancing as if on the gymnastics beam, dismounting with a neat back somersault. Not me, though, she thought. I’d fall off. She looked down. It was a very long way to the heap of smashed concrete blocks below, but it was the only option. She let go with her legs and slid her hands until she was hanging from the bottom of the hook. One, two . . .
‘Jump! I’ll catch you!’ The voice came from the ground.
Cleo had no choice. Her fingers were slipping. She was falling.
The next thing she saw was a black t-shirt. She read the words Rock God moments before her face smashed into them. Gao Xin’s big soft arms and chest engulfed her like an air bag. He staggered back and, still entwined, they rolled down the heap of concrete.
Cleo jumped to her feet. The Tiger’s Claw men had run down the steps and were almost upon them.
Gao Xin dragged her across the street and through a rusty metal door into a warehouse. In the dim light, Cleo made out a pair of huge staring eyes, and then another and another. Her heart boomed as if it would burst. There were eyes everywhere!
‘It’s a costume store!’ Gao Xin said, holding up a red and yellow dragon’s head decorated with strips of sparkly paper and embroidered silk. ‘For the dragon dance.’ He picked up another. ‘And this one’s a lion head.’
Weak with shock, Cleo staggered back against the door and peeped out. ‘There are police officers at the end of the street,’ she panted. ‘Someone must have called them.’
‘There’s lanterns and drums and stuff here too,’ Gao Xin said, poking around among crates and boxes. ‘This must all be left over from the Mid-Autumn festival parade.’
Cleo couldn’t believe Gao Xin was talking about parades when their lives were in danger! ‘We’ve got to get the police officers’ attention,‘ she snapped, looking round for ideas. ‘Let them know we’re in here before Joey’s men find us.’
Gao Xin picked up a brightly coloured tube that had fallen from one of the boxes and held it out to her. Cleo frowned as she made out the Chinese characters on the side. Purple Screamer . . .
‘I bet this would get some attention!’ Gao Xin kicked the box with his foot and grinned. ‘Look! Loads of them.’
Suddenly Cleo got it. The label on the box said Assorted Fireworks. And there were many more on the shelf behind it. She grabbed Gao Xin’s arm. ‘Brilliant! That’s it! Quick! Let’s light some.’ Then her heart sank. ‘I don’t have any matches . . . ‘
‘I might have some.’ Gao Xin dug in his jeans pockets and pulled out keys, a ball of string, a handkerchief, an elastic band, several nails, sticks of chewing gum . . .
‘Hurry up!’ Cleo hissed. ‘The Tiger’s Claw guys are right outside.’
‘Aha!’ Gao Xin cried, producing a box of matches at last. He struck one against the box. Nothing happened. ‘They’re all soggy from the fountains . . .’ He took another. It crumpled damply against the side of the box.
‘Try again!’ Cleo was almost sobbing with fear and impatience.
Gao Xin took a third match. This time it caught. The flame flared blue and then yellow. Cleo held out the firework. Gao Xin took it, lit the fuse and hurled the Purple Screamer in among the boxes of rockets, sparklers and fountains.
Cleo gaped at him. ‘What did you do that for?’
‘You said you wanted to attract attention.’
‘I just meant to throw a couple of fireworks out into the street!’ Cleo backed away from the boxes, pulling Gao Xin with her. ‘They’re going to blow!’
They threw themselves through the doors as the first firecrackers fizzed and banged and a rocket whizzed out through the roof of the warehouse.
Cleo landed at the feet of a policeman. She held her phone up to him. ‘This is evidence that the Tiger’s Claw gang raided the tomb of the First Emperor,’ she gasped. She was surrounded by several police officers now, and a growing crowd of tourists and market stallholders too. ‘The stolen treasure is in a room at the back of the mobile phone shop,’ Cleo added, raising her voice so that everyone could hear. ‘And you need to send someone to Aunt Ting’s noodle restaurant. They’re in danger . . .’ She looked up and saw Gao Xin tackling the tattooed man to the ground. Joey Zhou was turning to run in the opposite direction. ‘And that man’s the ringleader!’ she shouted.
Then she watched as a firework display bigger than November Fifth, Chinese New Year and the dragon path tunnel put together lit up the sky.