Vital signs dmb 2, p.37

Vital Signs dmb-2, page 37

 part  #2 of  Dr. Marissa Blumenthal Series


Vital Signs dmb-2

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  "Aberdeen!" Tristan told Bentley.

  "We're going smuggling."

  They drove out of the alley and over to East Tsim Sha Tsui, then into the Cross Harbor Tunnel. Almost immediately they slowed to a crawl in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

  Tristan eyed his watch nervously in the dim tunnel light.

  "Damn!" he said.

  "It's going to be close if Captain Fa-Huang weighs anchor at six sharp."

  Marissa closed her eyes. She felt numb, as if nothing that was happening were real.

  The enforcer looked over his desk at the hit man. The tension between them was natural for two experts in the same small field.

  They each knew that the other did similar things, just in different worlds. Mr. Yip thought that Ned was a crude barbarian. Ned thought Mr. Yip was a hoon poofter in a white suit.

  They were sitting in the same office where Mr. Yip had Marissa, and Tristan brought on their first meeting. Willy was outside with some of Mr. Yip's men.

  "I trust that Mr. Pang rang you," Ned said.

  "He did indeed," Mr. Yip said.

  "But he only said that we were to do business. He said that it involved dealing with a couple, for which you were to pay the Wing Sin one hundred and fifty thousand Hong Kong dollars. He did not provide further details."

  "It is a man and a woman," Ned said.

  "One Australian, the other American. Late thirties for the man, early thirties for the woman. Their names are Tristan Williams and Marissa Blumenthal.

  They're staying at the Peninsula Hotel, but that may soon change."

  Mr. Yip smiled to himself, realizing immediately that the Wing Sin was about to profit from both sides of a conflict.

  "This is a coincidence," he said.

  "I'm sure that the couple that you are describing have been here to see me in this very office."

  "For what reason?" Ned asked.

  "They paid me for information," Mr. Yip said.

  "They were interested in the people we have been smuggling out of the PRC for Fertility Limited."

  Ned shifted nervously in his seat.

  "And what were they told?"

  "Very little, I can assure you," Mr. Yip said.

  "The Wing Sin has never bothered to interfere in Fertility, Limited, business.

  So," continued Mr. Yip, "how much is in this for me?"

  Accustomed to doing business in Hong Kong and with the Wing Sin in particular, Ned was not surprised by this direct request for squeeze.

  "The usual ten percent," he said.

  "The usual is fifteen," Mr. Yip said with a smile.

  "Done," Ned said.

  "It is a delight to do business with someone accustomed to our ways," Mr. Yip said.

  "And we are in luck. The couple in question is scheduled to leave this afternoon on a Tanka junk to make one of the Fertility, Limited, pickups. That will make the deed extremely easy and efficient. The bodies can be dropped into the sea. Very neat."

  Ned pulled his sleeve back to look at his watch.

  "What time are they leaving?" he asked.

  "Around six," Mr. Yip said. He got up from his chair.

  "I think we'd better leave immediately."

  A few minutes later they found themselves stuck in traffic.

  "Isn't there a faster way?" Ned asked with frustration.

  "You must relax," Mr. Yip said.

  "Consider the job done."

  Even the Aberdeen Tunnel was crowded at that time of day. As they got out of the tunnel, the south shore proved equally congested.

  It was stop-and-go traffic all the way to Aberdeen.

  Tristan was frantic. He could hardly sit still, looking at his watch every few minutes. In contrast, Marissa sat immobile, staring blankly ahead. Her mind was in a turmoil as her emotional numbness was beginning to wear thin. She was thinking of Robert and the better times they'd had. Not only did she feel responsible for his death, to a large degree she felt responsible for the rough months before it. Tears began to well in her eyes. She averted her head to keep Tristan from seeing. Except for a powerful apathy that overwhelmed her, she would have asked if they could turn around.

  On top of her emotional pain, Marissa also began to fear going out on the open sea, worrying that she might get seasick to add to her problems. During the ride out to the junk in the motorized sampan, Marissa again considered demanding they go back. The sound of the water and the thought of the ocean not only made "FA her queasy but also brought back the memory of Wendy's death with stark vividness.

  "Good show!" Tristan exclaimed as they rounded the row of junks and saw that Captain Fa-Huang had not yet departed. The sampan pulled alongside the receiving port.

  Marissa saw that the captain had company. A couple of fierce looking

  Chinese men were standing at the railing on the poop deck, watching their arrival with interest.

  Grabbing Tristan's arm, Marissa pointed.

  "Who are those men?" she asked.

  "They look like bandits."

  "Dunno," Tristan said.

  "Must be the crew." e Bentley scrambled up into the opening, then turned to lend a hand. Tristan handed up the boxed lunches and the bottled water.

  "Okay, luv," Tristan said taking Marissa's arm.

  With a boost from Tristan and a pull from Bentley, Marissa found herself aboard the junk.

  Once on the boat, they went forward and climbed the ladder to the main deck. The captain bellowed a greeting and introduced them to Liu and Maa, the two deckhands. Everyone bowed. Then the captain yelled a command and the men fell back to work.

  The junk was in the final stages of preparation. Even the two women that Marissa had seen earlier were occupied. They were busy lashing down a cage containing four live chickens.

  Within fifteen minutes of their arrival, the mooring lines were cast off the junk. With much straining the boat was eased out of its berth by sheer muscle power. Once in the channel, the captain fired up his twin diesels. Soon the boat was pulsating with the deep, throaty vibration of its engines, and slowly the ponderous craft chugged out of the congested harbor.

  They headed due west toward the setting sun. In other circumstances,

  Marissa might have found the experience exhilarating.

  The scenery was magnificent, especially once they cleared the tip of Ap Lei Chou Island. It was then that they had a view of the wooded Lamma Island to port and the much larger mountainous island of Lantau directly ahead.

  But the beauty was lost on Marissa. She sat by the railing with her eyes closed and held tight. She was glad for the strong sea breeze; it dried the tears from her cheeks before anyone could see them. And on top of everything else, she was beginning to feel a little seasick as the boat began to pitch.

  Ned Kelly swore as only an Australian can swear when he found himself looking at the empty space where he'd hoped Fa-Huang's junk would be moored.

  "Couldn't we have gotten here faster?" he steamed. Coming from Australia, he had trouble understanding how people could conduct their lives with so much traffic.

  "Ask the neighbors if Williams and Blumenthal were on the boat!"

  "I am not your servant," Mr. Yip said. Ned was irritating him more than usual.

  "Stone the crows!" Ned exclaimed, peering heavenward to muster some patience. He well knew Yip was a character to be reckoned with, particularly on his home turf.

  "Please ask them," he said.

  "I'm sorry if I insulted you."

  Mr. Yip spoke to the family on one of the junks that had been next to Fa-Huang's. He spoke to them in Tanka, a language Ned did not understand.

  Turning back to Ned, Mr. Yip said: "There were two white devils on board. That is a literal translation."

  "It must be them," Ned said.

  "Can we go after them?"

  "Of course," Mr. Yip said.

  Ordering the sampan operator back to the quay, Mr. Yip had one of his henchmen bring around a sleek speedboat. Ned climbed in the front seat with Willy
and the driver. Mr. Yip and two of his men got in the back. Both the men were armed with machine pistols.

  With a roar, they left the quay and raced down the length of the harbor. Ned was encouraged by the boat's speed. But when they reached open water, his mood soured. The ocean was dotted with junks. They all looked alike. After cruising by a handful with no luck, they gave up.

  This American is living a charmed life," Ned complained.

  He twisted in his seat and yelled to Mr. Yip over the sound of the powerful engine: "What should we do? Wait for them to come back, or what?"

  "It's not necessary to wait," Mr. Yip called out, "Enjoy the boat ride. We will talk when we get to the restaurant."

  "What restaurant?" Ned asked.

  Mr. Yip pointed. Ahead was one of Aberdeen's enormous floating restaurants with gold dragons and crimson banners.

  Among the throng of dilapidated junks, it was an improbable oasis.

  Fifteen minutes later Ned found himself dining in style. The OWL-sun had set and the lights of Aberdeen were blinking across the harbor. Mr. Yip took it on himself to order a lavish feast. It was enough for Ned to forget his anger.

  In the middle of the meal, one of Mr. Yip's men brought in a nautical chart. Mr. Yip spread it out on the table.

  "This is the ZhuJiang Kou estuary," Mr. Yip explained.

  "Most foreigners call it the Pearl River. Here is Guangzhou." He pointed with his chopstick.

  "And here, above Zhuhai, just north of the special economic zone that the PRC has set up above Macao, are a group of small offshore islands. It is there that Captain FaHuang picks up your people. If you go tonight with some of my men you can meet them. You don't have to wait for them to get back."

  "How do I get there?" Ned asked, looking at the map. He could tell it wasn't that far: maybe fifty miles.

  "We have a special boat coming for you," Mr. Yip said.

  "It is what they call a cigarette boat."

  "Wonderful," Ned said. He knew that cigarette boats were capable of speed in excess of fifty miles per hour.

  "There is only one problem," Mr. Yip said.

  "What's that?" Ned asked.

  "I'll need a bit more squeeze."


  April 19, 1990 10:51 P.M.

  "Marissa!" Tristan called excitedly.

  "We've made contact.

  Why don't you come on deck?"

  Marissa sat up in the darkness. She had been lying on a bamboo mat in the storeroom.

  It had not been a good evening. An hour and a half out of Aberdeen, after rounding the southern tip of Lantau Island, they had run into a sudden squall. Within a few minutes, the rosy sky was transformed into a black swirling mass of clouds. The slight chop gave way to five-foot swells.

  The queasiness Marissa had felt at the start quickly blossomed to full-blown seasickness. Since there were no facilities on board, she could only cling to the poop deck railing and vomit off the back of the boat. When the rain came, she was forced down into the filthy hold.

  Tristan had been solicitous, but there was little he could do.

  He'd stayed with her, but after he'd opened one of the box lunches and started to eat, the sight and smell of the food had made Marissa feel worse. She'd sent him away.

  The storm had also hindered their progress. With the gusty high winds, they had been forced to reef the huge butterfly sail that they'd been using up until the storm. Switching to the diesels, the captain merely kept the boat on course. Bentley explained that he wanted to conserve fuel.

  Even after the storm had passed and the sail was rehoisted, the traveling had not been pleasant. The wind had all but died, and a dense mist had formed over the water creating a pea-soup fog.

  On several occasions, huge ships suddenly loomed out of the darkness with foghorns blasting, giving everyone on the small junk a terrible start.

  But finally they had arrived, and for the last half hour they had been slowly cruising the coast back and forth between the mainland and some small offshore islands. At first Marissa had watched the shoreline with everyone else, amazed that she was looking at Communist Chinese territory. But after a time she'd retreated below to lie down for a while. By then, she was more exhausted than seasick.

  "Come on!" Tristan called out.

  "I know you've had a bad time of it, but this is what we've come for."

  Marissa struggled to her feet. She was dizzy for an instant.

  "Do you have any of our water?" she asked.

  "Sure, luv," Tristan said. He handed her the bottle he had tucked into his back pocket.

  When she'd finished drinking, she gave Tristan the bottle and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Then she took his arm. Together they walked out onto the foredeck. The boat was completely dark. Not a single light was lit.

  The captain had started the diesels, but he had them at such a slow throttle, the only way Marissa could tell they were running was by feeling their vibration through her feet. She couldn't hear them except when the water momentarily covered their exhaust, resulting in a muted, popping sound.

  Squinting her eyes, Marissa. could just make out the shoreline through the mist. She could see the dim silhouette of the treetops against the sky.

  It was apparent that Captain Fa-Huang was tense. So were his L two crewmen. This was the most dangerous part of the whole exercise, not only because they might be discovered but also because of underwater shoals.

  No one spoke. They were close enough to shore for Marissa to hear the sounds of swamp creatures. The only other sound was the lap of the waves against the side of the boat until she became aware of the whine of mosquitoes.

  Suddenly, from the shadows of the trees came a distinct flash of light. It was repeated twice more in rapid succession. The captain immediately cut the engines, flashed his own light toward the trees, and gave a hand signal to his crew member in the bow.

  A moment later came the muted splash of an anchor being dropped into the water.

  The captain and his deck mates conferred in hushed tones as the boat slowly swung around to point directly away from the shore. One of the men disappeared below briefly. When he reappeared he was wearing a bandolier and carrying an AK47 assault rifle. In the distance some exotic bird cried, casting an eerie spell over the scene.

  They are afraid of pirates," Bentley whispered to Marissa and Tristan.

  "There are still pirates?" Marissa whispered.

  "There have always been pirates in the Pearl River," Bentley whispered in return.

  "Always have been and always will be."

  About five tense minutes passed with only the drone of mosquitoes and the lap of waves disturbing the silence.

  Then, out of the mist appeared a small wooden boat with two figures in it. One was in the stern using a sweep oar. The other was sitting amidships, facing forward.

  The captain addressed the men. The armed deckhand kept his automatic rifle pointed at them. One of the men answered timidly in a whisper. The captain listened and then motioned for them to come aboard. With that, everyone seemed to relax a little.

  "It's the men they were expecting," Bentley said with relief.

  The man with the sweep oar moved the small boat around the side of the junk.

  Marissa leaned over the gunwale to see the two Chinese- men climb aboard. They abandoned the small boat, letting it drift off into the fog.

  Within seconds, the anchor chain was pulled up from the depths. The captain ordered the sail hoisted to take advantage of the light offshore breeze. Silently, the large junk sailed away from the shore. The silhouettes of the treetops soon vanished in the mist.

  We must stay very quiet for another half hour," Bentley whispered. All eyes strained into the velvety blackness; all ears listened for the slightest sound of another boat. But all they could hear was the creaking of their own rigging.

  The two newly arrived Chinese men huddled together against the mast. No one spoke to them. They were dressed in simple black cotton clothing w
hich reminded Marissa of pictures she'd seen of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

  "What should we do?" Tristan asked Bentley in a hushed whisper.

  "Can we go talk to those buggers?"

  "Wait until the captain gives the word," Bentley told him.

  "We have to get far enough away from shore."

  Even Marissa began to relax. The sea was like a sheet of black glass. Looking up, she could see the great billow of the sail against the gray mantle of the sky. Through the fog she saw a single star, a far cry from the profusion she'd seen in the Australian outback.

  Lowering her eyes, Marissa was shocked to see once again the dim silhouette of treetops. They were again close to land!

  "There's the shoreline again," Marissa whispered.

  Tristan and Bentley looked.

  "That's strange," Bentley said.

  "Just a moment. I'll be right back."

  Bentley walked back to the poop. Marissa and Tristan could see him converse with the captain. After a lengthy conversation he came back and sat down.

  "It's an uninhabited offshore island," Bentley explained.

  "We are entering into a lagoon where we will drop anchor."

  As if on cue, the anchor plunged back into the water at the bow. At the same time the sheet holding the boom was given slack.

  "Why are we stopping?" Marissa asked. She was concerned something was wrong.

  "The captain said we have to wait for daybreak before starting back for Aberdeen," Bentley said.

  "He never mentioned that before," Tristan said.

  "You mean we have to spend the whole blasted night out here?" He slapped at a mosquito that had landed on his arm.

  "Apparently so," Bentley said.

  "The captain says that at dawn we will be able to blend with the fishing boats leaving from a village to the north. If we tried to cross the Pearl River tonight, the PRC would pick us up on their radar. Since the locals don't go out at night, we'd look pretty suspicious."

  "He could have told us," Marissa complained.


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