Vital signs dmb 2, p.35

Vital Signs dmb-2, page 35

 part  #2 of  Dr. Marissa Blumenthal Series


Vital Signs dmb-2

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  They were the men who'd kidnapped them the day before.

  At first, Bentley reached for his gun, but he quickly reconsidered.

  Several of the men had machine pistols in plain sight.

  Thinking that her worst fears had materialized, Marissa froze in her tracks. She was amazed at the cool nonchalance the men exhibited in brandishing such firearms in public.

  "Please remain where you are," one man said as he strode forward. He reached into Bentley's jacket and withdrew his pistol.

  Then he spoke to Bentley in Cantonese. Bentley turned and got back into the Mercedes.

  Turning his attention to Marissa and Tristan, he frisked them for weapons. Not finding any, he nodded toward the restaurant.

  Marissa and Tristan started walking.

  "Certainly helpful we brought Bentley," Tristan said.

  "Nice to know my money was so well spent."

  "They always seem to be a step ahead of us," Marissa said.

  The interior of the restaurant was simple but elegant, with antique-style wooden tables and peach-colored walls. Since it was still before twelve, there were no customers. Waiters were arranging the flatware and polishing the crystal.

  A French maitre d' in a tuxedo welcomed them and was about to ask them if they had a reservation when he recognized their escorts. Immediately he bowed and showed them to a small separate dining room one flight up.

  Mr. Yip was sitting at a table. In front of him was his large ledger book as well as a cup of tea. He was dressed as before in a spotless white silk suit, Their escort spoke to Mr. Yip in Cantonese. Mr. Yip listened while he studied Marissa's and Tristan's faces. When his henchman had finished, he closed his ledger book and leaned forward on it with his elbows.

  "You have insulted me by bringing an armed guard," he said.

  "No insult was intended," Tristan said with an uneasy smile.

  "We had an unfortunate incident yesterday. Someone tried to kill us."

  "Where?" Mr. Yip asked.

  "At the Peninsula Hotel," Tristan answered.

  Mr. Yip gazed up at the man who'd brought Marissa and Tristan in to see him. The man nodded, apparently confirming the story. Mr. Yip looked back at Marissa and Tristan and shrugged.

  "Attempted assassinations are not so uncommon," he said.

  "It's the price of doing certain business in Hong Kong.

  There have been any number of attempts on my life."

  "It is not something we are accustomed to," Marissa said.

  "Regardless," Mr. Yip said, "it was a mistake to bring a guard to a meeting with me. Besides, he could not have protected you."

  "We are foreigners," Marissa said.

  "We don't know the rules."

  "I will forgive you this time," Mr. Yip said.

  "Did you bring the money?"

  "Too right, mate," Tristan said.

  "But how about our information first?"

  Mr. Yip smiled and shook his head in amazement.

  "Please, Mr. Williams," he said.

  "Do not trouble or irritate me any more than you already have. And don't call me 'mate."

  "Righto," Tristan said.

  "I suppose our bargaining position is a bit weak." He dug into his pocket and pulled out a hotel envelope in which he'd put ten thousand Hong Kong dollars. He handed it to Mr. Yip.

  "For your entertainment expenses." He smiled.

  Mr. Yip took the envelope.

  "You are learning our Hong Kong business practices quickly," he said. He tore open the envelope and flipped through the money. Then he slipped the money into his jacket pocket.

  "I have learned that the Wing Sin are doing business with an Australian company called Fertility, Limited," Mr. Yip said.

  "They have been bringing out pairs of Chinese men from the People's Republic for several years, about every two months. The Wing Sin have been arranging transportation from a pickup on the Pearl River north of Zhuhai to Aberdeen. From there they take them to Kai Tac and put them on planes for Brisbane. It has been a comfortable, profitable business relationship: not overwhelmingly so, but it is adequate."

  "Who are these men?" Tristan asked.

  Mr. Yip shrugged.

  "I don't know and I don't care. It was the same with the students from Tiananmen Square. We didn't care who they were. We just wanted to be paid for their transport."

  "Why are they being smuggled out of the PRO." Tristan asked.

  "No idea," Mr. Yip said.

  "It is not important for the Wing Sin."

  Tristan threw up his hands in frustration.

  "You haven't told us anything that we didn't know before," he complained.

  Marissa shifted uneasily. She was afraid Tristan would irritate the man.

  "I agreed to make inquiries," Mr. Yip said.

  "And indeed I did.

  Perhaps to mitigate your chagrin I can offer one additional service.

  Perhaps you would find it beneficial to visit the captain of the junk who does the actual pickup."

  Marissa could tell Tristan was livid. She was terrified he might do something to jeopardize their safety. She hoped he would be interested in Mr. Yip's offer. She knew she was. Maybe the captain could provide the information they were looking for.

  Tristan caught her eye.

  "What do you think?" he asked.

  "You interested?"

  Marissa nodded.

  "Okay," Tristan told Mr. Yip.

  "We'll give it a go. How do we find this captain?"

  "He's in Aberdeen," Mr. Yip said.

  "I'll have one of my business associates show you the way." Mr. Yip then gave their escort instructions in rapid Cantonese.

  "I was so afraid you were about to do something silly in there," Marissa said.

  "That rat bag cheated us," Tristan said indignantly.

  "That hoon poofter took our money and gave us a bunch of claptrap."

  "Sometimes I wonder if you speak English," Marissa said.

  They were back in the armored Mercedes with Bentley at the wheel. They were following a comparably armored Mercedes that was leading them to the captain Mr. Yip had mentioned.

  Bentley was quiet, humiliated by the episode in the Stanley Restaurant parking lot.

  "This junk captain better have something interesting to say," Tristan warned.

  "Or you'll do what?" Marissa questioned.

  "Get the Wing Sin after us as well as our friend from Female Care Australia? Please, Tristan, try to remember who we're dealing with."

  "I suppose you're right," he said morosely.

  As they drove into Aberdeen, both Marissa and Tristan forgot their concerns for the moment. The town was extraordinary. The enormous harbor was choked with thousands of sampans and junks of all sizes lashed together to create an enormous floating slum. In the middle of the squalor were several huge floating restaurants gaudily decorated in crimson and gold.

  "How many people live out there on those boats?" Marissa I questioned.

  "About twenty thousand," Bentley said.

  "And some of them rarely step onshore. But they are being relocated by the government."

  "And no plumbing," Tristan said with disgust.

  "Probably not a proper dun ny in the lot. Can you imagine the E. coli count in the water?"

  When they got into the town proper, they saw a number of jewelry stores and banks. Aberdeen, it was clear, was a city of haves and have-nots.

  "It's from smuggling," Bentley said in response to a question from Tristan.

  "Aberdeen was the center of smuggling and piracy long before Hong Kong existed. Of course it wasn't called Aberdeen then."

  Near the Ap Lei Chou Bridge, the lead Mercedes pulled over to a sampan dockage. Mr. Yip's henchmen got out. Bentley pulled into a parking area. By the time Marissa, Tristan, and Bentley got to the quay, the man had secured a motorized sampan.

  The small diesel engine was chugging and sending off puffs of black smoke from its exhaust.

yone climbed on board. The sampan operator pushed off and they motored out into the turbid water.

  "Hope this boat doesn't capsize," Tristan said.

  "One dunk in this water and we'd all die."

  At that very moment they saw a group of young children dive off a nearby junk. Frolicking in the water, they squealed with delight.

  "My word," Tristan said.

  "Those kids must have impressive immune systems!"

  "Who are these people?" Marissa asked, even more amazed at the floating city from close up. Entire families were in evidence, with clothes hung in rigging to dry.

  "Mostly the Tanka," Bentley said with a touch of derision in his voice.

  "They and their ancestors have been living on the sea for centuries."

  "I take it you are not a Tanka?" Tristan said.

  Bentley laughed as if Tristan were comparing him to some subhuman race.

  "I'm Cantonese," he said proudly.

  "A little prejudice in the Heavenly Kingdom?" Tristan quipped.

  Mr. Yip's associate directed the sampan operator up a row of junks then alongside one of the larger ones. When the sampan stopped they were abreast of an opening at about chest height. A powerfully built Chinese man suddenly appeared and glared down at them. He had a scraggly goatee and wore his black hair in an old-fashioned braid. He was wearing a quilted vest. His pants were loose but short, coming only as far as his calves. On his feet were leather thongs.

  Standing with his legs spread apart and his hands on his hips, he cut an imposing figure. With a deep, gravelly voice, he spoke in animated Chinese. Bentley said he was speaking Tanka.

  Mr. Yip's henchman launched into an animated discussion with the man. Both sides seemed angry. Marissa and Tristan began to feel nervous. In the middle of the debate, a doll-faced, wide-eyed child of about three suddenly appeared, staring down at the strangers from between her father's solid legs.

  "They are having some disagreement about money," Bentley explained.

  "It doesn't involve us."

  Marissa and Tristan felt relieved. They took the opportunity to examine the captain's boat. It was about forty feet long with a beam of approximately eighteen feet. The wood was an oiled tropical hardwood, giving the craft a honey color. The deck was in three levels with a poop at the stern. Just forward of midships was a mast that rose up about twenty feet.

  Suddenly the captain turned to Marissa and Tristan. Pointing at them, he spoke in angry, guttural tones.

  "Okay," Bentley said.

  "We can go aboard."

  "You can go aboard," Marissa said. She looked up into the captain's fierce eyes. They were staring at her unblinkingly.

  "Please," Bentley said.

  "If you do not go aboard now he will be offended. He has invited you."

  Marissa looked uncertainly at Tristan. Tristan laughed in spite of himself.

  "Well, luv," he said, "are you or aren't you?"

  "Give me a boost," Marissa said.

  As soon as Marissa, Tristan, and Bentley were on board, the sampan chugged away. Marissa was alarmed by its unexpected departure.

  "How are we to get back?" she questioned.

  "Don't worry," Bentley said.

  "The sampan will be back for us.

  The other fellow is going to get some money that was supposed to be given to the captain."

  They followed the captain through a room filled with ship's stores as well as family furnishings. In one corner, a pressure stove was lit; on top of it was a simmering cauldron.

  The captain led them forward out onto the forward deck.

  From there they climbed a ladder to the main deck.

  "The captain would like to introduce himself," Bentley said as they all sat down on bamboo mats.

  "His name is Zur FaHuang."

  Marissa and Tristan smiled and bowed as did the captain.

  Then they had Bentley introduce them. After more bowing and smiling Tristan asked Bentley if the captain was aware of what they wanted to know.

  While Bentley was speaking to Zur, Marissa noticed that two women had appeared from below, both dressed in black. The younger woman was carrying a small infant. The little girl they'd seen earlier was clinging to her mother's leg.

  Bentley turned back to Marissa and Tristan.

  "Mr. Yip's man told the captain that it was permitted for you to ask him about people he has been smuggling out of the Middle Kingdom. I trust you understand what that is about?"

  "We do indeed," Tristan said.

  "Then the first order of business," Bentley said, "is to determine how much this will cost you."

  "You mean I have to pay this bloke as well?" Tristan asked with dismay.

  "If you want any information," Bentley said.

  "Bloody hell," Tristan said.

  "Find out what he wants."

  Bentley negotiated. In the middle of the conversation, the captain appeared to get angry and leaped to his feet. He proceeded to parade around the deck, gesturing wildly.

  "What's happening?" Tristan asked Bentley.

  "He's talking about inflation," Bentley said.

  "Inflation?" Marissa questioned with disbelief.

  "Well, he didn't use that term," Bentley admitted.

  "But what he's irritated about amounts to the same thing."

  Marissa watched the man, trying to remember that they were dealing with a swaggering, modern-day pirate who happened to be living in one of the unabashed capitals of capitalism.

  Finally a price was established at a thousand Hong Kong dollars. After Tristan gave the man the money, he sat back down and tried to be helpful.

  With Bentley as translator, Tristan asked about the men that Zur had been smuggling into Hong Kong for the Wing Sin and ultimately for Female Care Australia: who were they and where did they come from? Unfortunately, the answers were short. Zur had no idea.

  Tristan couldn't believe it.

  "I paid a thousand Hong Kong dollars to hear that he doesn't know?" he asked with aggravation.

  Tristan got to his feet and paced like the captain had.

  "Ask him if he knows anything at all about these people. Anything!"

  Bentley asked.

  Once the captain had replied, Bentley turned back to Tristan.

  "He says that some of the men were monks. Or at least he thinks they were."

  "Now that's helpful," Tristan said irritably.

  "Tell me something

  I don't know."

  The captain talked to Bentley at length while Tristan fumed about all the money he'd paid for nothing.

  Bentley turned back to Tristan.

  "The captain is upset you are not happy. He has made another offer. It seems that he is leaving this afternoon at six P.M. to make another one of these pickups.

  That was what he was arguing about with Mr. Yip's man. He was supposed to have more up-front money. He says that for two thousand Hong Kong dollars each, you and your wife can go with him. It only takes about three or four hours to cross the pearl River. Then you can talk directly to the men he picks up and get answers to all your questions."

  Taken off guard by this unexpected offer, Tristan hesitated Without conferring with Marissa, he said to Bentley, "Tell him that I will only pay three thousand dollars Hong Kong, and that's final."

  While Bentley translated for Zur, Marissa stood up and went over to Tristan.

  "I hope we know what we're doing," she said.

  She was miffed he hadn't consulted her and fearful about the venture

  It hardly sounded safe.

  "Are you sure we should go through with this?"

  "It could be our best bet," said Tristan.

  "If we can talk to a pair of these mainlanders before they get to Australia, we would most likely get to the bottom of this whole affair."

  "Possibly, but we're talking about smuggling," Marissa said.

  "We'll be in Communist Chinese waters. And what if it involves drugs? Smuggling drugs is a capital crime in most
of Asia."

  "You're right," Tristan said reluctantly.

  "But we can find out if it's drugs."

  Tristan went over and interrupted Bentley and Zur.

  "Ask him if picking up these men involves drugs in any way," Tristan said.

  Bentley did as he was told. Zur listened, then shook his head.

  After a short conversation, Bentley turned back to Tristan.

  "No drugs," he said.

  "Zur has on occasion been involved with drugs, but not lately. He says that drug running has become too dangerous.

  "What about his price?" Tristan asked.

  "Three thousand five hundred," Bentley said.

  "I can't get him down any lower."

  "Fine!" Tristan said.

  "Tell him we'll be back at six."

  "Tristan," Marissa said.

  "I don't know..

  "How do we get off this junk?" Tristan asked, interrupting Marissa. He motioned for her to be quiet.

  "We are not going on that piece of 'junk," Marissa said the moment they climbed into the armored Mercedes. She was irritated with Tristan for committing them without her approval.

  "Even if Zur is not involved with the drug trade, he goes into Communist China waters. If we get picked up, we could be in prison for God knows how long. We can't take that kind of risk."

  "Seems to me we've been taking more risk just being here in Hong Kong," Tristan said.

  "The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that going with Captain Fa-Huang will be the only way to solve this affair: trace it back to its origins. That had been my original idea."

  "Where to?" Bentley said from the front seat.

  Tristan motioned for Bentley to wait.

  "People go to the PRC all the time," he said.

  "I happen to know that we can get visas in a matter of hours. It just means paying a little extra. If there is any trouble, then we can just say that we'd hired the captain to take us to the PRC, which is true. We'll say we were supposed to go to Guangzhou, but that the captain cheated us."

  Turning, to Bentley, Tristan asked: "Aren't there a lot of people going back and forth between Hong Kong and the PRCT' "More and more each day," Bentley answered.

  "The PRC encourages people from Hong Kong to come to spend their dollars. I have a permanent visa and go frequently to Shenzhen."

  "Good," Tristan said.

  "Because I was hoping you'd come with us."

  "It's possible," Bentley said slowly.

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