The rifleman's eyes revealed by his stocking mask coldly surveyed the room. The young woman at the table in front of the pillar was too surprised to cry out a warning to her three friends.
She watched in mute horror as the rifle rose to eye level and angled to the left. Points of light suddenly flashed from the barrel, followed by explosive noise.
A few feet away, the gang members seated on the lower level lived up to their Chinatown nickname of fei jai--"flying youth." Common sense told them they could easily be the gunman's intended targets. They had enemies from one end of Chinatown to the other. As one man, they crashdived to the floor and cowered in fear behind cover of a table.
They were the lucky ones. Seasoned gangsters, they immediately understood when the first shots were fired that the Golden Dragon had become a combat zone.
A woman screamed. The shooter at the front of the restaurant went trigger-crazy. His automatic barked as he peppered the startled crowd with bullets. It sounded like strings of firecrackers exploding.
The waiter making his way through the crowd with the tray of duck noodles for the table beside the dragon pillar heard what he thought was firecrackers go off above the din of voices and the clatter of plates. In that instant he had his eyes on his waiter friend the violinist, who was taking an order near the table of a prominent Chinatown artist who sat beside the low wall of the upper level.
The violinist toppled forward, a spray of blood spurting from his neck. The horrified waiter froze, his tray in mid-air, and turned his eyes to the main doors. In a haze of numbing horror, he saw two figures bearing long weapons sprinting toward the stairs to the upper level. Their movements seemed unreal. He felt himself coldly suspended in disbelief as if he were ice in water.
Detached from reality, he swayed with his perilously balanced tray in a sea of humanity suddenly set in motion by unreasoning fear. People swept around him, their screams dashing against a huge crimson screen along the back wall like waves pounding against rocks.
At the front of the restaurant, the waiter saw a third figure with a gun, bursts of flame spouting from the barrel. In this moment of madness, he imagined the flames to be the fiery breath of the golden dragon escaping from the hell of its crucifixion on the pillar to soar around the room in a wide arc of death-dealing destruction.
An off-duty policeman in plainclothes, Richard Hargens, sat at the bar watching television. He saw the three youths muscle their way in through the front doors, but even though he was only drinking a Coke, it still took several seconds to register in his mind that they were masked and carrying weapons. Shots were fired before he could drop to his knees and wrestle his pistol free to point it at the solitary gunman standing nearby. By then the crowd was in motion in all directions, trying to escape the gun blasts. Thinking fast now, he realized he might kill an innocent person in his desperation to bag the shooter, and so held his fire.
The screams, the clatter of toppling tables and chairs, the shattering of glass and porcelain--all seemed to combine to incite the front gunner to mayhem. He loosed his rattling submachine-gun across the full breadth of the hapless crowd at the Golden Dragon.
One of the first of his rounds struck the waiter-violinist, who thudded face down on the tiles of the floor. The artist, whose bill the waiter had just presented only a moment before, yelped in pain when a slug bit into him, too. His lady companion covered her head with her hands and closed her eyes in terror. A psychiatrist from Tiburon, an elegant community across the bay from San Francisco, sat with two friends who comprised a comedy team. They also thought they heard a string of firecrackers go off at the front of the restaurant, but that was the sort of thing you could expect in Chinatown. You never knew when you might meet a paper dragon dancing in the street outside a newly opened shop to drive away the demon of bad business with infernal noise. That's the way it was around Grant Avenue.
The Golden Dragon might have made a perfect setting for one of the comedians' hilarious sketches. They could have scripted a tourist's first encounter with plastic chopsticks popping slippery won-ton dumplings like missiles across the flamboyantly Chinese room.
But these were not dumplings flying past their heads, and there was nothing funny to the psychiatrist when he felt the hot pain of a bullet entering his body. Crowding under the table with his friends, he saw a thrashing mob of people and dishes and furniture all over the floor. He heard continual shooting and wild screaming. There was blood everywhere.
An Asian lady who had known the waiter-violinist had not seen him struck down in the first volley of bullets. She knew him personally as a devoted family man and a lover of classical music. She, too, thought she heard firecrackers at the entrance. She looked that way and saw a figure holding a gun. Realizing with a start what was happening, she dove down and stayed there. Her companions, a married couple, followed suit.
She saw nothing from her crouching position, but heard screaming and tables and plates falling. The firecracker sound persisted for a long time. She felt shattering pain. She thought a plate had hit her, but she had been shot twice. A bullet went through the shoe of her friend's wife without wounding the foot.
The buxom blonde who had caught the eye of the waiter who carried duck noodles saw darts of flame flaring from the end of the gun. Her husband yelled and yanked her down. A bullet whizzed through her hair as she fell, but fate intended the scalding piece of lead for someone else. The petite brunette, whom the waiter had also noticed, crawled frantically across the floor near the blonde's table, dragging a chair for cover and seeking refuge behind a pillar. She turned her head in the split second the blonde felt something whiz through her hair and took that bullet full in the face.
Three men sitting together heard the shots and observed one of their party bleeding from the shoulder and hand. As soon as he was hit, one of the others pulled him under the table. The wounded man was in excruciating pain.
At another table, a young man had his back to the door when he heard the noise. He, two male friends, and a girl kept on talking and eating until finally he turned around and saw somebody shooting. The shooter was holding a gun at waist level in a grip position. The young man went out of his chair and fell face down on the floor. Nothing further was said, but everyone got the same message and reacted in a similar manner, tugging each other downward. The second man felt something slap his foot. He thought it was a falling glass, but it was actually a bullet passing through his shoe and little toe. The third man got one in his thigh, but did no more than wince. The girl crouched wide-eyed, uninjured and uncomprehending. The first man sprawled with his head between his arms, blood pooling underneath him.
"Oh, my God," whimpered the second man to the first, "speak to me!"
He did not respond. The second man crawled over and shook him frantically.
Near them, beside the dragon pillar, the young man seated at the table with the girl who had first seen the gunmen enter, sprang in terror from his chair. For a split second, he stood in sharp relief against the glittering dragon. The gunner at the front of the lower level took sudden notice and turned the automatic weapon toward him. A sickening burst of bullets. The young man reeled and dropped to the floor.
An instinct different from the one that had moved the neighboring gangsters to fly for cover catapulted one of the three young women at that table to her feet. The instinct was not for herself, but for the man she cared so much about. She flung her body downward to shield him as he fell beside the pillar.
But the machine-gunner cared nothing for the girl. He advanced rapidly to zero in on the one she tried to protect. The girl was in his way. His laurel for her courage was a garland of bullets that laced her from side to front. Their impact knocked her aside. Her wounded friend lay on his face, helplessly exposed.
The relentless gunman stood over him and pumped three of the bullets into the young man's back. They passed through him and struck the tiles of the floor.
Another of the three girls at that table had been shot, too, caught in the vicious circle of gunfire that had spelled disaster for the boy and girl already on the floor. Her body bore so many wounds that it was impossible to distinguish one from another. She had no pulse, no blood pressure, no respiration. Her legs twitched like an animal's in the throes of death. The third young woman at that table, who had seen the gunmen first, moaned at her side, struck by a bullet that had already passed through someone else.