Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (52)

The narrow doorway proved a major obstacle to the group’s attempts to manoeuvre Anath’s limp body through it and on to the bus. During the long moments it took to achieve this, there was no possibility of maintaining sufficient pressure on the wound, which meant that he lost a further significant amount of blood in the process. For a fleeting moment, their task of saving the boy seemed hopeless. But with a crude shove, they at last managed to bundle him up the steps before sliding him along the metallic floor, his head towards the rear. A number of the kampung-dwellers then boarded, a smear of red revealing to them the passage of the boy as he was manhandled on to the dilapidated conveyance, still barely clinging to life.

Outside, the Captain’s wife gazed on forlornly, her bloodstained garments providing firm evidence of her compassion. Slowly, she moved forward to peer through a rain-streaked window and into the bus, desperate for confirmation that the young man was still alive. Unable to tell for sure that this was the case, she winced inwardly while recalling the moment her husband had fired off his third volley, vowing once again never to return to him. A sob welled up in her, convulsing her body on its release, as she then reluctantly accepted that her role was now complete, her participation in the drama over. Drawing away miserably, she melted into the throng, unsure of where to go – or of what the future held for her.

The woman’s melancholy was in stark contrast to the commotion that was now ensuing inside the minibus, as the passengers swapped places with one another, clambering over the prone figure of the victim as they each sought to position themselves in the best place to offer assistance. A good deal of pushing and shoving was taking place, producing the odd angry exchange, while the babble rose to fever pitch. It seemed there were a number of conflicting views as to where to take the boy for treatment. Aware that the seconds were ticking away, the driver of the idling bus meanwhile implored the group to make a decision, his unheard pleas only adding to the general hubbub. Finally, the man who had earlier emerged as the group’s leader piped up, shouting down the rest: “Look, we’ve got to stop screaming at each other! We need to act fast – decide on a plan and get going! We don’t have time to keep arguing about what we’re going to do!” A silence at last fell, with all eyes switching to this self-appointed voice of authority. “Thank you,” he continued, his tone more measured now. “OK – where’s the best hospital to take him?” “Rumah Sakit Medika!” yelled one, to a chorus of agreement. “It’s the closest, anyway!” “Right,” confirmed the leader. “Driver! RS Medika! Cepat!Quick!

The driver gunned the engine and pulled away unsteadily, a series of juddering motions rocking the passengers and flinging Anath from one side of the footwell to the other. “Steady, you idiot!” called out the man whose turn it was to apply pressure to the boy’s wound. “You’ll kill him if you carry on like that!” Staring down at the young victim’s limp body, the leader noticed that the boy’s skin was now almost translucent. And where it had any colour at all, that colour was grey – an uncommon pallour in this part of the world, and something which was now mesmerising him. For an instant, he thought about calling the whole thing off: they were never going to make it to the hospital in time. But Ketu Pramoedya knew more than anything else that he was not a quitter. No: the boy deserved better than that. The situation they were facing was just so unfair – like everything else in this Godawful town. No: they were going to bring this unfortunate kid to hospital – alive – and demand immediate treatment. And after that, they would be seeking justice from the perpetrators of the crime. “Take it easy, Mas!” he then called out to the driver, shaking himself from his stupor. “I know I said we’ve got to move quickly, but we still want to arrive in one piece!”

posted by Kirk at 11:20 pm  

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (32)

Inside her handbag Kate’s cell-phone began vibrating, unnoticed. Its urgent quivering went undetected while, spellbound, she allowed herself to be entertained by the vulgarity of the conversation she was having with her new Australian girlfriends. The air was blue with crude sex jokes as they nibbled their way through a plateful of crab cakes at Niporn’s Palace, Sunny Cape’s obligatory Thai restaurant. Kate was grateful for the company of these women, for whom, up till now, she had had little time. It was good to be able to chat idly, without having to think of the problems she was having with Blake, and their failing marriage. For the past couple of hours Kate had enjoyed the luxury of an escape, and nothing at present was going to jolt her from her reverie. These Canton Air widows may be coarse, she thought to herself. But they’re bloody funny… and they certainly know how to have a good time…

The vibrations in her bag would not cease, however – demanding her attention through their persistent, repetitive tremors. Blissfully unaware of the earth shattering news that was to come, Kate eventually noticed the pulsating of the device when her thigh brushed against the bag in which it fidgeted. Briefly, she rummaged around inside, before locating it. She looked at the display. Seventeen missed calls. Seventeen? Punching in her password – t-o-m-m-y – she then sighed while pressing the ‘enter’ button, promising herself to restore it to the original s-o-p-h-i-e as soon as possible. Once more she pressed ‘enter’, an action which now led her to a screen detailing her missed calls. All seventeen were from the same, unrecognised number – the first four digits of which indicated, however, that it was from somewhere within the Cape. Kate thumbed the green ‘call’ button, to return the call. Over the din, she thought she could pick out the word ‘school’. “What?” she asked, screwing up her eyes as she rose from her seat to walk a few paces away from the raucous laughter that had flared up again. “Say again? I can’t hear you!” “Sophie…” It sounded like someone said ‘Sophie’… “…regret… inform… missing…” Missing her? Of course I’m missing her. “Missing… around noon, local time… every effort… locate…”

Missing.

Did someone just say that her Sophie was missing?

It finally coalesced within the grey matter of her mind. Kate was staring absently somewhere off into the distance as one of the Canton Air widows then approached her. “What’s up, doll?” With a look of incredulity written across her face, she continued to stare vacantly ahead, saying nothing in reply. “What’s the problem, darlin’?” The woman took her arm, shaking it gently, to no effect. Then swinging around quickly to face the others, she yelled: “Oi! Girls! Shut the fuck up a minute! I think we’ve got a problem here!” A hush began to fall as she swivelled back around to look once more at Kate, who now stood rigid with fear. “Are you OK, doll?” the woman repeated her initial question. “Come on, love. You’ve got to tell me. What did they say when you just made that call?” “I… I’m… not sure,” replied Kate, slowly shaking her head. “I don’t know… Can you call them back? Ask them?” Kate’s cell-phone slipped out of her hand and on to the floor, with a crack. Her mind was already beginning to shut down, to deny what she had just heard. She felt numb: an overwhelming sense of guilt that if what she thought she had heard were true, then she had not been there for Sophie when it mattered.

And then, as she realised there was almost certainly nothing she could do, Kate began to enter into shock…

Blake was having a blinder by the time the complimentary deep-fried toffee bananas arrived. Not only had he captivated the JAL stewardesses – who he insisted were to retain this moniker, despite their having revealed themselves to be tourists from Taiwan – but he had also managed to produce fits of laughter from the staff of what, ordinarily, was a staid, family-run restaurant. For Blake had decided that an impromptu, a capella rendition of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the antidote to the quiet misery he presumptuously determined his fellow diners were, up until this moment, suffering. And as he arrived at the O Mama Mia Mama Mias, stood rather precariously on his chair, the whole restaurant was conducting his performance and preparing to join in when he reached the part where Beelzebub has a devil put aside for

…for Blake, it then turned out, as he toppled unconscious once more, this time from the lofty height of his chair, felled by some neural lumberjack in a slow-motion arc, to land head first on the carpeted floor, his entire system crashing yet again. Zzzzzppp! He felt a few slaps to his face as his mentor brought him round, and then, much worse, a tone of cold finality in John’s voice: “Buddy, I’m not sure I can go on doing this,” his friend was telling him, with some justification. “Now if you’re OK, I think I’d better get back to work.” Blake was in no condition to reason, one way or the other, simply grunting in response while trying to refocus on the JAL girls, who were already paying their bill in order to make a quick exit. Lifted by a pair of waiters he watched as John’s back then also disappeared through the door. They propped him back on his chair while inspecting his head, before applying a bag of ice to the larger of the two lobes on his now lopsided forehead. “Fuckin’ done it again, ain’t I?” he managed to slur, while falling once more into a semi-conscious slumber.

Two hours later, Blake woke in front of a goldfish tank to the welcome of a monumental headache. The movement of the black, white and orange objects made him giddy, causing him to retch. Apparently, the waiters had taken pity on him and carried him to their restroom, where they stretched him out, allowing him to sleep it off for a while. He felt sick and weak, like a puppy that had enthusiastically devoured a whole tub of lard. There was one, solitary idea that now formed in his mind. Elle… Must get to Elle… Elle’s place… It was his one chance of a sympathetic audience, he believed. Prayed. Reaching into his pocket, he fumbled around for his cell-phone, without success. Must’ve lost it, then, he half-mumbled, forgetting completely his earlier exchange with John. “Fuck!”

posted by Kirk at 1:40 am  

Friday, May 30, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (51)

Emerging rapidly from their tawdry shacks on hearing what they thought was a firecracker going off, the first of the kampung folk were horrified at what greeted them as they arrived upon the scene. In the run up to Ramadan, the Holy fasting month, there had been a spate of incidents involving the cheap explosives – examples of boisterous adolescence in the main – which due essentially to their irritating frequency, rather than the seriousness of the damage they caused, had begun to anger the local community. Picking up broomsticks and other assorted objects with which to chase off the transgressors, they had expected to come across the familiar assortment of youngsters they had faced on previous occasions. No-one was prepared for the horror of the circumstances that were now revealed. To many, the moment seemed almost surreal. Pushing their way to the front of the crowd that was now surrounding the boy, a few of the kampung‘s more dominant characters stared down at him in disbelief. “It’s Anath! The kid who sells the papers!” yelled one. “Take off his shirt!” shouted another. “Rip it off, quick! We’ve got to find the wound!”

A degree of panic was now beginning to manifest itself – sweeping throughout the group like a contagious disease and leading to hurried, uncoordinated attempts to lift the dead weight of the boy’s limp body. It was only through the calming influence of a particularly strong member of the team that they successfully managed to pull his tee-shirt over his head, which at once flopped backwards with a sickening crack. Despite their natural revulsion, the group then began wiping away his blood with their bare hands, eventually locating the puncture mark, from where a liberal torrent of the vital fluid was still spurting. “He’s going to bleed to death if we don’t do something quickly,” said the man who was emerging as their leader. “We need to push hard, somewhere around the hole… Stem the bleeding… I saw it in a movie!” “OK – do it, then!” someone urged.

One or two of the group helped by experimenting – prodding and pinching around the dark hole before managing, finally, to locate the spot where constant pressure did indeed stem the flow. “Somebody’s going to have to press here until… well, until we find a way of getting him to hospital,” said the man who was now pressing hard, close to the wound. “I’ll do it,” came a voice from behind him. An unexpected, cultured voice. That of a woman; finely dressed, and none other than Captain Farid’s wife.

Positioning herself so that Anath’s head nestled in her lap, the woman pushed as hard as she could in the exact spot indicated by the kampung-dwellers. Knowing that the boy’s condition had been momentarily stabilised, the members of the group then ran out into the road, waving frantically at the municipal minibuses in an attempt to force one to stop. But seeing the bloodstained garments among the crowd that was milling about the scene the drivers veered away, fearing they were about to be drawn into the latest incidence of amokan – the feverish violence that could sometimes intoxicate the lawless mobs that were quick to assemble in this crowded city; occurrences that often led to baseless killings that were the result of a suspension of reality coupled with the primeval fascination of watching human blood being spilled.

“Leave me alone! I’ve done nothing wrong!” yelled the driver of one of the vehicles as he jumped down from the cab and scuttled quickly away, fleeing what he assumed to be a lynch mob. The sheer weight of bodies had eventually managed to block, and then surround, its rusting target. It was inevitable as a result that the bus’s unlucky driver would not be earning enough to feed his family today. Pursued closely by the conductor, who under normal circumstances would welcome the seemingly inexhaustible supply of passengers the crowd represented, the pair of disenfranchised transport workers then disappeared anxiously down a side street, hurtling through a group of children at play in their rush, and knocking over a makeshift basketball hoop in the process.

“What now?” asked the group’s leader, shouting above the hubbub. “It’s OK, I can drive,” said another. “Get the boy, I’ll start the engine!” The man jumped up into the cab and tested the turn of the steering wheel, before firing up the engine. Together with a few of the others, the leader had already rushed back to Anath, who remained under the care of the sophisticate who had emerged from the restaurant. A volunteer, it now occurred to the leader, who despite her obvious standing in society was prepared to dirty her finely tailored clothes on the damp, red soil that fronted the restaurant. Thinking this and in spite of the dire nature of the circumstances they faced he managed to smile, acknowledging her with a grateful nod before once again coordinating the other group members in an effort to lift the boy with as little discomfort as possible. All around them, meanwhile, the crowd continued to gossip excitedly, glad to have witnessed the drama and survived, and each with a story to tell upon returning home. As the team then barged through row after row of the curious onlookers, the woman’s attempts to apply continuous pressure to his shoulder were at times unsuccessful, her occasional slips allowing the red spurts to come once more. Their stuttered progress towards the waiting bus at times induced a natural swinging motion in the boy, whose limp torso swayed to and fro, like a deer trussed to a hunter’s pole…

…and now he was swinging in a hammock on the porch of his Mother’s house… Mother… Mother..? but he sensed she was not at home today… where is she..? how he missed her… but this hammock was so comfortable… sooooo comfortable… as he swung and lolled, his body loose and relaxed… swaying airily in the afternoon breeze…

posted by Kirk at 10:48 pm  

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (31)

Situated in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district, the Red Pepper restaurant had been popular with tourists and local residents alike for decades. Specialising in the fiery, chili-laden recipes conceived in the kitchens of China’s western interior, the pungent flavours of its signature Sichuan dishes would waft on to the street from its constantly revolving door. The simple décor of this unassuming, family-run eatery was adorned with the many culinary commendations it had been awarded since first opening. Like the Conrad’s Brasserie, it had become a regular lunchtime haunt for Blake and his mentor. John was already sitting at their regular table as the erstwhile Country Manager: Hong Kong stumbled through the doorway, managing to produce a smile for the pretty cashier sitting just inside, in spite of his foul mood.

“Red wine, sir?” asked the head waiter, knowingly and without need of a response, as he deftly uncorked a bottle of Wolf Blass’ President’s Selection. Pop! The man poured two full glasses without offering either guest the opportunity to taste, before reeling off their regular order with smug dispatch. “Crispy beef start, scramble egg with shrimp, sizzling prawn, beef with spring onion, Yung Chow rice?” Sharing a nod, Blake and John clapped shut their menus and returned them to the waiter, unread.

“And a box of paper tissues,” added John, whose nose would generally begin to run by the time they were halfway through the prawn course. “Tell all,” he continued, eager to hear Blake’s story, now that the formalities of ordering had been concluded. Keen to oblige, Blake began to recount his regional boss’s surprise visit, with John laughing aloud as he described with typical flourish the moment he had raised the bird finger. “Not a lot of come-back opportunity from that point, my friend,” John remarked. “So you’ve finally done it, despite my entreaties. Least I won’t have to keep pumping you with advice, now.”

As Blake reflected upon this, he felt the force of several Gs suddenly pushing down on his shoulders. Hadn’t thought of that, he admitted inwardly. Guess I’m on my own then, now. Cheering himself with a large gulp of the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon he then began prodding inexpertly at the crisp strips of chili-coated beef with his chopsticks. Absently, he began to reflect that the dish had arrived, for once, at the start of the meal as intended. But his thoughts soon gained greater focus, returning to the previous day’s episode with the soulless, mechanical Deeds.

“I reckon it was the Chairman who told him to pull the trigger,” Blake abruptly said, speculating on how his enforced departure was engineered. “Who’s that?” “The wanker in New York. Harmann. Harmann the hammer, they call him. The one with the orange face. Must spend half his life under a fucking sun lamp, the tosser.” “Fake tan, fake man,” observed John, wittily. “So what do you think you’ll do next?” “I think I’ll just chill for a while. You know, spend more time with the family. Well Sophie, at least.” “Four o’clock,” said John, a propos of nothing. “What?” asked Blake. “Japanese tourist nymphs. Sitting at four o’clock. Don’t look no–”

But Blake had already swung around to stare directly at the two attractive young girls, who he took instantly to be JAL stewardesses, and who now giggled while covering their pretty mouths with tiny, cupped hands. They let out excited squeals as the prawns that had now arrived at Blake’s table sizzled when making contact with the poker-hot skillet. The cloud of chili oil vapour that was sent up stung the eyes. “By the way,” John spluttered, “why didn’t you answer your phone when I called you?” “When?” asked Blake. “Just before you arrived. I called ’cause you were late, but you didn’t answer.” Blake patted his pockets and then pursed his lips. “Shit! I must’ve left my phone back at the apartment. I was in such a rush to get out, catch the eleven fifty ferry.” “Where’s the rice?” John demanded, as the head waiter topped up their glasses with wine.

posted by Kirk at 10:06 pm  

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (50)

…outside the classroom… a hot summer’s afternoon… all quiet in the village… it seemed as though he was hovering above the ground, looking down… then Anath saw himself lying on the earth, next to his friend… the poor kid who was so often subjected to ridicule… afflicted from birth… hare lip, cleft palate… why was God so cruel..? he had often asked the question… Anath had purposely befriended the boy… whose name, for now, he could scarcely remember… had wanted to show how sorry he was that the God he was instructed to love had somehow failed this fellow soul… had laid suffering at his door… God the merciful..? a God who had even, it seemed, prevented the doctors from coming to the boy’s aid… side by side on the grass… outcasts, the pair… for different reasons… but bonded, as a result… perhaps that was the lesson… who knew..? and now he saw himself smile as they both sat up… and the other Anath – the one down there – began drawing a shape on the ground with a stick… had assumed the role of teacher… was instructing the other kid in something he’d been able to visualise… something he’d managed to figure out for himself, ahead of his time… long before the teacher had read it to them from a book… at first it was unclear what he was sketching in the dust… but then Anath saw that his doppelganger had drawn a right-angled triangle… was now pointing to its hypotenuse… Pythagoras… ai ya..!

There was a moment’s silence before a scream pierced the steamy air. The uniformed man was now standing stock-still, his gun lowered at his side while his wife rushed over to the fallen boy, stumbling in her haste to reach him. “You bastard!” she screeched, turning to look back at the Captain, finally unable to conceal her contempt for the man she married, the man she had witnessed slowly morph into a monster. “I fucking hate you! Stay the fuck away from me, you bastard!” For the first time in a very long time, Captain Farid felt shaken – sensed that his destiny was not entirely within his own control. Kneeling down next to Anath, the woman then carefully slid her handbag under his head, cushioning him from the damp and the dirt. The smell of his blood forced her to gag, reigniting her hysteria. “What have you done? Look at all this blood! Will somebody help?” she screeched. “Please! For God’s sake, help!”

With all eyes levelled at Anath and the woman, Detective Adi was able to slowly melt from the scene. Moving in the direction of his car – and his escape – his pace began to pick up, but only to the extent that his battered body would allow. By now, he was beginning to regret taking on the Captain in such a risky manner. He cursed his arrogance, the impetuousness that had resulted in the hellish episode that ended just moments before. A terrifying clash that might easily have taken his life. Adi realised he still had much to learn if he was going to survive the further tests that were likely to come his way, while he built a career with the force. His ill-judged attempt to publicly humiliate the Captain had left him covered in cuts and bruises. He could barely feel any sensation in one of his legs, while blood was seeping from somewhere on his scalp. Detective Adi Dharsta, the maverick who had luck on his side, had survived – but only just. He shivered as he recalled the whir of the bullet that had fizzed past his ear. But in the heat of the moment he spared not a thought for the young man who had taken the hit: who was now lying prone on the ground outside the restaurant, most likely bleeding to death. Grappling with the old Toyota’s door handle, Adi managed to wrench it open before slumping inside. A warm sensation spread in his crotch as he then began wetting himself. Unable to stop the embarrassing release, the once cocky Detective for whom nothing ever went awry barely resisted a strong urge to cry.

His hands were shaking as he then tried to insert the car key into the ignition. Shit! Adi had dropped the fob down by his feet and was now forced to reach down with a hand to scramble about on the floor. The side of his head pressed against the steering wheel, producing a blast from the horn that made him jump. Fuck! The last thing he needed right now was attention. His urine was now seeping into his socks, its stench bringing another reminder of his lack of control. His shame. Finally locating the keys while swallowing down a sob, he pulled himself upright again before hurriedly pushing one, successfully this time, into the ignition slot. The engine burst into life as he turned it, while flicking a glance through the rain-spattered window in the direction of Sate Blora, where people were still flocking to the scene in fascination.

To his horror, Adi suddenly spotted Captain Farid approaching, supported now by two men, one either side. Adi recognised them from the Captain’s table, back inside the restaurant. One was presumably his father, the other a younger brother. He swallowed nervously as they neared the red Toyota before, to his relief, marching past and out of sight, around a corner. Detective Adi let out an involuntary sigh that was almost a whimper. Still trembling, he began trying to concentrate on what he needed to do in order to move the car. Before long, he was gratefully pulling away from the kerb and disappearing slowly down the quiet Sunday afternoon street.

Inside another car – a green, army-issue Timor – Captain Farid was meanwhile cursing incoherently, trading random insults with his brother – cocky little fucker – the irritating success story, who had always been Daddy’s favourite. The General took the wheel, instructing his elder son to shut the fuck up as he pulled away with a screech and drove around the corner without looking, on to the main road. Wondering what he would be able to do to rescue the situation, his mind whirled as he contemplated the awful embarrassment that would befall the family if word of his son’s misdemeanours were spread. And what had that asshole of an intruder meant by the other things he said, back there in the restaurant? …What you discuss with the Latinos… The whore who knew your secret… What happened to your driver… Your driver… “Where’s your driver, anyway?” the General abruptly snapped, in anger. “Of all the times to go missing, when we need him most…” “Worm food,” Captain Farid calmly declared, his voice conveyed on an eerie tone. Blood was still oozing from his lower lip and his eyes were fixed rigidly ahead, unfocusing. “What?” quizzed his younger brother. “I said he’s fucking worm food, you cunt! Deceased, geddit? He’s dead. Mati. Fucked! Understand?” “You’re an animal! A fucking animal!” his brother concluded, helplessly. But his assertion served only to produce a strange giggle from the Captain, followed by the sucking in of air through the drool that continued to seep and gurgle from the corners of his mouth. More a feral act, than any form of human behaviour. Up front, the General began slowly shaking his head, in the terrible realisation of his son’s emerging insanity, his eyes now filling with tears at the horror, the shock of it all.

But he, like the Captain and the Detective too, spared not a moment’s thought for the innocent bystander who had taken the slug. There was no sympathy in either vehicle, as they sped off in different directions, for the young man who now lay slumped on the ground outside the restaurant. A boy who at this very moment was bleeding to death, his unconscious will shutting down the parts of his system that for the present he least required, concentrating instead on the fight that was to come, the fight to survive.

And on the wall outside Sate Blora the telephone began ringing again, unheard.

posted by Kirk at 3:16 am  

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (30)

The black Alphard made its way through the crowded marketplace with haste, tooting and honking the vacuous pedestrians aside. The gang inside knew that this was the moment of greatest risk: an accidental collision, a routine police inspection, and the game would be up. The sooner they left town and hit the highway to travel south, towards Liuzhou, the better. Their vehicle would become anonymous from that point on – camouflaged among the hundreds of other people-carriers that plied the expressway daily. Presently, they came to the market’s ancient gate where the driver gunned the engine, taking his opportunity to speed through a gap that appeared, fortuitously, in the crowd. Freedom.

On the back seat, Sophie was already beginning to stir from her chloroform-induced slumber, her whimpers cruelly ignored by the burly thugs who straddled her. Their own coarse banter was punctuated by the occasional crackle of the cheap cigarettes they puffed on. Mummy… Mummy… I want Mummy… Sophie quietly whispered, repeating the phrase over and again, her mind focused on that rock of her existence, her instincts avoiding the contemplation of the awfulness of her situation. Her new reality. Captivity.

Up front, the gang’s leader breathed a sigh of relief as the Alphard finally motored up the spur and on to the highway. Wei Dang knew that this first section of the journey, a distance of around a hundred and eighty kilometres, would be relatively slow and treacherous. Poor maintenance meant that a succession of potholes would announce themselves unexpectedly, all along the way. And when combined with the ill-disciplined driving of the majority of China’s road-users, their journey would be a substantially hazardous enterprise as a result. But Wei also knew that later, once they had passed Liuzhou, the ensuing passage to Nanning would be quicker and safer, taken along more modern, purpose-built motorways, where the carriages were separated by sturdy barriers. As he drove, Wei mapped out the journey in his mind, planning every stage and estimating they would reach their final destination, Qinzhou, in around ten hours, under cover of dark…

Sophie pulled up her legs and hugged her knees, her bleary eyes surveying her surroundings once more. She sighed heavily as her fears were confirmed. It had not been a dream, after all. Her tongue probed around inside her mouth, and although she could not find the courage to put pressure on the loose tooth at the front, her curiosity made it difficult to resist making contact with it, to see if it were still there, or whether it was even looser than before. Seeing that she had roused, one of her captors suddenly thrust a water bottle into her face, which she gruffly refused. This was a girl who was not about to cooperate, even though she was parched. Slapping it away angrily, Sophie caught a sharp edge on the man’s watch, tearing a fingernail. An involuntary sob ran through her slight frame. But even at the tender age of seven, it emerged that Sophie Blake was made of sterner stuff, and she shook herself in admonishment. “It stinks of cat’s piss in here!” the same man abruptly yelled, the harsh tone of his voice challenging the confidence so freshly restored within her. “We should stop and mop it up.” “Shut the fuck up, you shit-eating peasant!” Wei retorted, roughly shouting the man down.

Hearing the thunder of the man’s baritone as it bellowed throughout the airless passenger compartment, Sophie thought she was going to cry. Fundamentally a timid girl, she had never been comfortable with confrontation, and the aggression she now detected without needing to understand the words reminded her of the recent altercations between her parents. How she wished she could be with them now, each of them holding one of her hands – she, the sole product of their tryst: the bond that would keep them together, forever. But instinctively she knew that something was terribly wrong within her parents’ relationship. Something even a seven-year-old recognised might prove irreparable. Sophie’s world seemed as though it was already starting to fall apart, then – even before she had been snatched away, and forced to face this unexpected terror. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that none of it was really happening, but even this trick did not work. Nothing, it seemed – no-one – was with her…

In Guilin’s dusty market car park, the other schoolchildren were being counted back on to the bus. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one… The teachers chatted away, now looking forward to grabbing a quick beer at the airport, before boarding the return flight. The hair of the dog… Twenty-one? Was that twenty-one, or twenty-two… No. Twenty-one. OK. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…

Twenty-three…

Twenty-three.

There should be twenty-four. With a puzzled look, Abigail Newton boarded the bus and moved briskly to the rear, to begin a recount. Gavin Hewitt and the other teachers continued to share a harmless joke outside. Their laughter was somehow soothing – an antidote to the throbbing inside their skulls. Suddenly, a pale-looking Abigail re-emerged, bouncing back down the bus’s steps in a hurry. She panted heavily, while glancing anxiously around. “What is it?” asked Sally Henderson. “What’s wrong, Abi?” “Twenty-three,” was all she said, her face now a mask of panic, and fear. “How’s that?” questioned Hewitt. “Twenty-three! There’s only twenty-three of them! One’s missing!” The words burst out from her, breathily. It seemed as though she could not get enough air. Hewitt’s expression turned grave. Until now he had been putting on a brave face, trying to ignore the sledgehammering going on in his head. But now this. With surprising agility for a man of his age, he then leapt up the steps and into the bus, hurriedly pulling out the register from his holdall.

“OK, children. Quiet for a moment,” he barked anxiously at the babble that wriggled before him. “I’m just going to take a quick register.” A form of order began to be restored as he spoke with the authoritative tone of a schoolmaster. None of the children detected the slight quavering in his voice. “Mallory Anderson?” “Yes, Mr. Hewitt.” “Evan Barnard?” “Yes, sir.” A young hand was raised. “Sophie Blake?”

Silence.

A pause, and the turning of heads among the children. It was now so quiet that the rustling of their sleeves could be heard.

Sophie Blake?

Nothing.

Och, no. No fuckin’ way mun. Och no! Hewitt moved down inside the compartment, his hands pulling at the headrests left and right, eyes searching for the white-blonde curls he knew distinguished the girl from the rest of the class. Wagering every ounce of his trust on the frail belief that this was just a prank, he prayed with all his might that she would be hiding somewhere at the rear of the compartment – on the floor, perhaps, or hidden by her friends’ school bags. But Sophie Blake was not there. She was gone. Sophie Blake was missing. Missing!

Shuffling about in embarrassed silence, the three other teachers had maintained a tense stand off during the tour leader’s absence, not daring to make eye contact with one another. None of them was prepared to risk the accidental outburst of a nervous giggle that a shared look might produce. Their twenty-something psyches allowed them to understand the consequences of what was unfolding, but not to shoulder the blame. No – this was something Hewitt was ultimately responsible for. Even Brad Taylor, now reluctant to glance at his pretty partner of the night, was mentally shrugging his shoulders, formulating his response to any accusation. Well, how could I have known? Weren’t my fault. It was just then that Hewitt re-emerged from the bus, breaking their impasse. But the tension was relieved only momentarily, for Hewitt had the look of a condemned man on his face. His stiff expression sought the immediate attention of Sally Henderson, who was afraid to meet his stare, returning her gaze to her feet instead after throwing him the briefest of glances. “Sally. Sally,” Hewitt implored. The young teacher from Sussex finally looked up. “It’s Sophie Blake,” Hewitt continued, his eyes fixed firmly on her. “She’s missing. She was with you in white group. When was the last time you saw her?”

Sally Henderson wanted to burst into tears, only just managing to hold them back. A surge of guilt rose up inside her, constricting her throat. Come on, girl. Don’t panic now. This is no time for hysterics, she tried to encourage herself. “I… I can’t recall, exactly,” came her stuttered reply. “B-but it must’ve been b-back there, back in the m-market,” she pointed. “Well how could she have slipped behind you, if you were supposed to be at the cow’s tail of white group?” queried Hewitt, now beginning to deflect some of the blame. Sally had no answer, for she had not been bringing up the rear at all. Rather, she had been in the middle of the mingled groups of red and white, reaching out all the while to feel for her lover’s hand. And now she did indeed begin to weep, while Brad Taylor looked away, guiltily, knowing that he, too, had been a partner in her crime.

“Come on, let’s not panic,” the young Kiwi suddenly blurted. “What I think we should do is this: Abigail, you wait here with the children. Gavin, me and Sally’ll go back to the market to look f’rer. She’s probably still at one of the stalls, that’s all.” “OK,” agreed Hewitt. “Get gildy!” Let’s go, quick!

The three of them moved off apace, careful not to run and cause further concern amongst the children, but walking briskly enough nevertheless to ensure a rapid return to the outskirts of the market. No more than fifteen minutes had elapsed since they last left it, and the pretty girl with the white-blonde curls would surely still be there when they arrived.

Back on the bus, Abigail Newton unwittingly ignited a fuse that would quickly lead to mass juvenile hysteria. “Has anybody seen Sophie Blake?” she asked. “She’s gone missing.”

posted by Kirk at 1:06 am  

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (49)

The flimsy doors blew out with little resistance, splintering the wooden frames. One of them sent up shards of glass as it shattered with a crash to the ground. From his vantage point to one side, it occurred to Anath during the ensuing moment’s stillness that perhaps a bomb had gone off, smashing its way out of the restaurant and hurling its victims on to the street outside. But there had been no blinding flash, no pressure wave, and as the focus of his startled gaze was restored, he now saw that the two men on the ground were in fact engaged in ferocious combat – punching and scratching at each other, like dogs before a bitch on heat. The blood that stained their garments flowed not from blast wounds, but cuts and grazes from the glass through which they had burst, and the violence they were inflicting upon one another. Anath could almost smell the hatred in the air; the brutality of the two combatants altogether as shocking as any incendiary blast. And it was now, as they continued hacking and tearing into each other with fists, boots and anything they could lay their hands on, that he began to realise the identity of at least one of them. The hairs stood on his neck and he shuddered, as a shiver ran through his body. The Captain. Anath sensed extreme danger; felt that fate was somehow shaping events – that he was inextricably caught up in some elaborate plot, wherein his destiny was intertwined through no choice of his own with that of the cruel officer. His mind told him to run, but his legs would not move. He barely heard the telephone as it began ringing out from the wall. Anath’s whole body felt rooted to the ground, as if he were pegged out, like a tent. And now another illusion took hold of his mind. For it seemed that everything was taking place in slow motion, that the contest was set to last an eternity. He looked on, fixated, as the two adversaries gradually broke free from one another and struggled first on to their knees before pushing themselves up to stand, hunched over in exhaustion. There was a pause, as if the Gods had put matters on hold, while debating the outcome of the contest.

It was in this moment of distraction that the stakes were suddenly increased: the encounter resuming with an altogether deadlier intent. Panting heavily as he gasped for air, the Captain pulled his gun from its holster and, with a wavering hand, aimed it squarely at his tormentor. The filthy, prying, bastard Detective. Almost simultaneously, the first shot rang out, issuing a high-pitched whine as it ricocheted off the concrete of a wall somewhere, before burying itself in a telegraph pole. The second, an instant later, also missed its target. Then, despite the hysterical pleas of the woman who had emerged from the crowd of onlookers now gathered outside Sate Blora‘s entrance, the Captain squeezed the trigger of his army-issue Browning nine millimetre a third time…

Like the first two bullets, the third was misdirected: this time missing its intended target by a hair’s breadth, as it screamed through the air. It was so close that its intended victim could hear the whir as it disturbed the air on its passage, fizzing narrowly past. Frozen in the shock of the moment, his jaw agape as he continued to stare fixedly at the scene unfolding, Anath had the misfortune to be sitting directly behind the Detective, his upper torso lined up in perfect transit for the slug’s navigation. He was just about to make another attempt to rise from his haunches when it hit him, the sound like a hammer smacking into a ripe melon.

The violence of a Parabellum cartridge should never be underestimated. Anath was knocked backwards by its impact, staggering in a crazy zig-zag, attempting intuitively not to fall. It felt at first as if some invisible assailant had taken a full backswing, unnoticed, and then punched him, hard. But the crimson patch was already beginning to spread across the chest of his off-white tee-shirt, its source somewhere near his left shoulder, and he knew instantly that the blow was something much worse than the simple impact of a fist. Shit!… No! For a moment, his mind objected; refused to process the information. He stared down in disbelief, rejecting the truth – denying the lake of blood that was spreading rapidly across his shirt. Now feeling giddy, he had the urge to urinate. In fact the whole lower half of his body was beginning to feel like jelly, as if he would let go at any minute, defecating his pants. Desperately, he clenched, trying to hold everything together. Anath was not about to allow his dignity to be stolen, whatever the circumstances. With some hesitation, he raised a hand to the heat that was now burning deep within his shoulder, coating his palm with a smear of dark crimson in the process. Then slumping slowly forward, he first collapsed to his knees before tottering again, like a felled tree, one arm just able to cushion the fall that ended with his face pressed into the damp earth, as the dream began…

posted by Kirk at 1:25 am  

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (29)

Once Kate had left to link up with the group of school Mums, Blake pondered his options for the rest of the day. He glanced at the kitchen clock: it was still before twelve. If I hurry, I might just be able to get over to Hong Kong side in time for lunch with John, he mused. Blake checked the ferry schedule he kept in his wallet. 12:40. Right, that’s it. In any event, I need to tell him what’s happened, face to face, he thought. Blake wanted John to hear the news of his retrenchment directly from his own lips, before the wagging tongues of the market began to invent their own exaggerated and, in all likelihood, untrue version of events.

He picked up his cell-phone to make the call. “Yes?” “John, it’s me. Adam.” “Christ Adam, what’s happened? The news is all over the market!” Shit! “Lunch?” Blake quickly interjected. “Done. Where?” “How about the Red Pepper, Causeway Bay? Haven’t been there for a while.” “Sure, what time?” “I’m still over in the Cape at the moment. Could be there in an hour or so, I guess. Get yourself there, order a bottle of President’s Selection and wait for me.” “OK,” affirmed John. Then: “Adam, are you OK, mate?” “I’m fine, John. Don’t worry about me. It’s hard to keep a good man down, and I’m not about to let that Septic cunt ruin my life. See you there.”

He rang off and quickly moved through to the bathroom for a shower, before dressing in business casual attire. Looking ruefully at the row of Hermès ties that he had assembled over the years he sighed, a feeling of vulnerability beginning to creep up on him, perhaps for the first time since his sacking. It’ll be a while before I wear one of you again, he reflected, mouthing his thoughts almost in an address to the row of rich blue, green and red silks that were arrayed neatly on a purpose-built hanger. Blake was unaware of how prescient those words would prove to be.

Within the hour, he was gazing out of the big catamaran’s window, Central-bound. It was an odd time to be making the journey and he noticed that the composition of passengers was different to that in the early mornings, when the majority of suited and booted commuters would be noisily flapping the business pages of the Morning Post. Out of nowhere, the screeching of a small child from just behind suddenly interrupted his reverie, forcing a curse: Fuck! I’ve got to get out of this cunting place. I’m gonna go fucking mad here, if I’ve got nothing to do! He got up briskly from his seat and marched to the rear of the large passenger compartment, where he entered the toilet to squeeze out a pee he did not really need. The heavy bump as the ferry then hit the pier’s black tyre fenders jolted him sufficiently to cause a splash of urine to drip down a leg of his carefully pressed slacks. “For fuck’s sake!” he objected, noticing the dark streak that was now running down the tan-coloured trouser. There was a sudden rap at the door and a rough bark in Asia’s Glaswegian equivalent: Cantonese. It was time to disembark. “Yes, I know we’ve docked, you cunt!” Blake yelled through the door as he zipped up his trousers. “Now fuck off!”

He opened the portal and walked through, to the bewildered stare of the chastened crewmember. For Blake, it was already proving another frustrating day and he needed a drink.

Fast.

posted by Kirk at 11:56 pm  

Friday, May 2, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (48)

He stood nose to nose with the Detective, eyeballing him intensely. He was so close that he could smell the gum Adi was chewing; hear his quickening breaths. “What do you want, you fuck?” he barked. Around the table, the family’s initial surprise at the intrusion was now forming into a mild horror at the scene that was unfolding. “Darling! Language, the chi–” his wife began to chirp, reminding him of their surroundings. “Captain Farid Azasti,” Adi cut in loudly, his voice as steady as he could muster, “I want you to explain to everyone here what exactly it is that you discuss with the Latinos on your visits to the coast…”

The Captain’s father began to rise from his chair, initially in anger at the rudeness of this incursion into the family’s regular Sunday gathering, but now with a growing expression of puzzlement as the words he heard were processed into meaning by his brain. And all around, the initial buzz that had swept through the restaurant was quelled to near silence, with all eyes fixed intently on the two opposing men, in fear and fascination together.

Out of nowhere, the incensed Captain suddenly lunged at Adi with a swiftness that caught the young Detective off-balance. For an instant, he felt the clutch of a powerful grip constricting his throat. But despite a fleeting sense of near-paralysis, the Detective somehow pulled free, to skip deftly behind another table – the occupants of which scrambled away, tripping over each other in their search for safety. Somewhat short of breath, Adi spat out his gum before wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “And then… why not tell… everyone… what happened… to your driver…?” he panted. “And all about… the whore who… knew too much… knew your secret…” Adi was on a roll now, his confidence returning. Captain Farid’s eyes widened as he instantly realised what it was the Detective knew… What was meant by his jibe…

The cunt is taunting me! he shrieked inwardly, at once rushing forward, his adversary’s words swimming in his mind. The Captain exploded with anger. “I will fucking kill you, you cunt!” he screamed, knocking over chair after chair as he frantically pursued the young Detective around the table. “Son!” The General was up on his feet, an arm outstretched. “Stop!” But the red mist had already descended to envelop the Captain’s head, suffocating his rational side. And when Adi then stumbled into a table, falling backwards to lie momentarily prone atop its surface, Captain Farid took his chance swiftly and without hesitation, diving on top of his tormentor, grabbing at his neck with a hand while smashing the fist he formed with his other into the young Detective’s face once – smack! – twice – smack! –…

Adi’s blood spattered both men’s shirts, provoking gasps from some of the onlookers. It seemed at this point that the contest would be very one-sided. But a third attempted blow then missed, connecting with the table instead, as the Detective managed somehow to wriggle himself free and twist away, crunching across the cluttered surface. Food and drink were sent flying as he rolled off the table and on to the floor – thud! – the Captain once more seizing the opportunity to dive on him. A sizeable crowd was now forming around them, as raw curiosity overcame the restaurant-goers’ initial terror. The violence of the encounter they were witnessing was simply too fascinating to miss, despite the fact that a good number of them were now shuffling about on legs of jelly.

Down on the floor, Adi’s resilience was beginning to show, as he switched to autopilot. This is what all the training is for… he began steeling himself, knowing that he had at least survived the brutality of the Captain’s initial onslaught. But the burn was already beginning to bite into the muscles of his arms, searing the flesh inside. A sting that was eye watering in its intensity. Come on… fight! he urged. For to give in now would be nothing less than to accept death’s invitation.

Adi was acutely aware that Captain Farid would never settle for simple victory: for the soldier, every challenge was a fight to the death. Come on…! He also knew that his adversary would be unafraid to die, particularly at a moment like this, when he was running on dark instinct rather than logic. And there was another reason that dying held a strange kind of fascination for the Captain, Adi realised. For in death’s release, his misery would end. And it was true: Captain Farid’s secret would be obscured, forever, were he to perish in this violent encounter. Fuck! Detective Adi needed to up the ante. Fast. “Bencong! Faggot…! You fucking faggot!” he hissed in the clutch, his mouth now pressed against the side of the Captain’s sweaty face. Adi’s vulgar tease hit home with a force and accuracy that was sufficient to send his opponent into a new level of rage, as if he might burst.

By now, the pair had wrestled halfway across the room from where the Captain’s family had been sitting. Back at the table, the two young boys were now standing on the far side, held in a protective embrace by their father, who sat gawping in disbelief at what he was witnessing. The Captain’s wife sobbed into her hands, matters having reached a depth to which even she had not imagined they could sink. His father, the General, stood frozen – upright but unable to move. It was like a sepia tone portrait of some family drama that had been captured from history. No-one in the cavernous dining hall of Sate Blora could predict what would happen next. Over and over, the two adversaries continued to roll across the floor, now hitting up against the leg of a chair, which Adi grabbed with an outstretched hand in an attempt to bring it crashing down, on to the Captain’s head. To his dismay, the flimsy article cleared his adversary completely, coming harmlessly to rest just beyond him.

Then gaining leverage from the table’s edge, Captain Farid suddenly pulled free. He clawed at the cloth in order to pull himself up, spilling food and drink on to the floor in the process, and shattering crockery everywhere. The rage within him rose once more to the surface as, with a swift and instinctive motion, he callously aimed a kick at the prone Detective’s head. Adi was fortunate to spin away, vitally, at the very last moment. Breathing hard, the Detective now pushed himself back up on to his feet, grabbing at a glass from the table and hurling it in the same movement towards the advancing Captain. The soldier barely flinched as it struck him fully in the chest, sending a shower of glass and water spinning away through the tense atmosphere of the room. With reserves of energy that were seemingly inexhaustible, the Captain then lunged once again, his teeth bared, this time catching the tiring Detective with a powerful body punch. Adi’s audible wheeze cast further grimaces on the faces of the captivated onlookers, who dared not move. The Detective doubled up, blood still dripping from his nose, as the Captain aimed another brutal kick to his head, a blow that was slightly misdirected, glancing off one side. The Detective’s cheek was grazed, but he had at least escaped the crushing of bone that was intended.

And when the Captain then made to pounce on him once again, Adi somehow produced a well-timed uppercut from somewhere deep within, catching his assailant on the point of his chin, dazing him momentarily and allowing the Detective to advance. Seizing his opportunity, he now grabbed and twisted his military foe around, pushing him towards the exit doors, scratching at his neck as he gained momentum, falling forwards unsteadily but grappling ever harder and faster as he pressed home his new found advantage, forcing his stumbling opponent closer and closer to the escape that beckoned outside until, with a heavy trip, the two combatants fell in a graceless and violent embrace into Sate Blora’s glass doors.

posted by Kirk at 9:57 pm  

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