Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (37)

Qinzhou Marina was already shrouded in a cloak of darkness as the black Alphard slowed to a halt alongside the dock. The precious cargo in its rear passenger compartment remained stolid and uncompromising: Sophie Blake had taken neither food nor water throughout the entire journey from Guilin. At this hour, the Marina was eerily quiet: other than the crew of a waiting launch, there was not a soul around. There were no unwanted eavesdroppers, then, listening in on the conversation now taking place by the quayside between a lone, rather portly Customs official and a gangster who some time ago had restyled himself as Bei Din Din. The notorious drug lord was making it his personal business to grease the cogs of Excise Department bureaucracy, thus ensuring the smooth export of the valuable consignment. This was a tricky part of the process Din knew he could never entrust to the likes of Guilin gang leader Wei, lest the whole venture be ruined by a slip of the tongue, or nervous gesture.

In the background the stuttering, baritone chug of the vessel that would ferry the girl on the next leg of her enforced journey throbbed away, unevenly. Its Captain needed no charts to plot the route he would be taking, for it was one he had plied on a countless number of previous voyages. But whilst these were all similarly illicit in nature, never before had they involved the carriage of human cargo. Initially, there had been a considerable amount of disquiet amongst his crew at the prospect. But such concern was quick to dissipate once he provided details of the lucrative deal he had struck with Din. And so the Captain would be hugging the coast Eastwards throughout the night, before the first rays of dawn lit up some of the thousands of small islands guarding the entrance to young Sophie Blake’s final destination – Ha Long Bay, where a luxury superyacht lay at anchor, in silent expectation.

With his back leaning against the side door of the Alphard, Wei Dang was meanwhile looking on with an anxious expression. Although his part in the drama was effectively over, he knew that without the assent of the man his eyes were now trained upon the whole deal might be called off, jeopardising the gang’s considerable bonus payout. “Sign the fucking paperwork, you son of a whore,” he suddenly blurted, the words issuing forth almost involuntarily. And unfortunately for Wei, his ill-conceived remark was just loud enough for Din to overhear. Cutting away from his discussions with the corpulent official, Din paced over to him, a look of thunder written across his face. “You speak only when I say, you piece of dog shit!”, he screamed into Wei’s face. The former drug king of Hanoi then began circling him, menacingly. “You just cost yourself a thousand US, prick!” he further spat, as Wei turned to avoid the risk of having his aggressor directly at his back. “Now shut the fuck up – unless you want me to kill you! Understand?

Wei knew that Din was not a man to make idle threats. It was evident that he was no stranger to violence; moreover, that he had an extremely short fuse. Din was indeed someone who needed to be handled with a great deal of care. Beaten down by his tormentor’s naked aggression, Wei wisely sloped off to join his accomplices while Din composed himself once more, before returning to the official in order to resume negotiations. “I’m sorry, my friend. I apologise for that… that jerk’s outburst. But in compensation for the further inconvenience caused, I can now add another thousand dollars… er… duty to my payment. Does that solve the problem we were having with your official chop?”

The Customs man scanned his surroundings left and right, seeking final reassurance that this was not actually some kind of trap, before smartly stamping the forms on the clipboard he held in front of him. Impatient to wait for the ink to dry, Din suddenly moved to snatch them away. But the corpulent official was having none of it. With surprising agility he lowered the board just in time, deftly avoiding Din’s lunge. “That move has just cost you another thousand,” he then said, superciliously, much to Din’s surprise. Who the fuck do you think you are, fat boy? he thought, angrily. And on further contemplation, the comment began to eat away at the seasoned killer, positively infuriating him. “What did you say?” he now countermanded, his eyes glazing over. “Three thousand? You’re now asking for three thousand?” The pause that Din then left was heavily pregnant with menace. “Tell me you’re kidding me. And make it quick,” he demanded. Incredibly, the other man stood his ground. Half smiled, even. “Do you think you can insult my intelligence like that and get away with it, you crumbling piece of dried dog shit?” Din concluded with a bark, while pumping out his chest.

The hapless official’s bluff was to prove one too many irritations for Din on this night, as quite suddenly the full horror of his dark side emerged. His temper back in Hanoi had been the stuff of legend, and he was about to prove that the intervening years had done little to soften it. Reflexively and with the swiftness of a cobra strike he lunged at the official’s fleshy throat. Stumbling backwards in his eagerness to avoid being trapped by Din’s grip, the Customs man was unfortunate to trip on a boat tether situated immediately behind his heel, toppling him in a wide arc, as he continued to clutch his clipboard tightly to his chest. With no hands to break his fall the corpulent official’s full weight brought him down heavily, with the back of his skull slamming into an errant quayside cleat, cracking it open instantly with a sickening smack. Gaping at his quivering body, the onlookers each knew there would be no need for any emergency assistance, nor official pronouncement of his condition. For as the grey stuff quickly began oozing from the long and gaping fissure, it was clear to all that the officer was already on his way to the next life.

“Quick! Quick, you fucker!” Din suddenly yelled at Wei, who was standing frozen, in shock. “Get her out of the fucking car. Now!” The Guilin gangleader was trembling as he then slid open the Alphard’s side door, looking in to see if the young guimei captive was still sleeping. But Sophie had revived herself and was very much awake. Too young to have fully understood the horror of the Customs man’s grisly demise, and with unexpected courage for a lost and frightened seven-year-old, she now swiped at Wei’s face, scratching all the way down his left cheek, from just below the eye socket. “Aaah, fuck!” he wailed, spinning away in pain. “Get out of my fucking way, you idiot!” Din shouted as he then took control of the situation, brushing Wei aside before lunging into the rear compartment of the vehicle.

Instinctively, Sophie bit into his arm: the pain it caused her bringing a tear to her eye. But she was no match for the brute strength of the cruel gangster, who grabbed her spitefully, before silencing her screams by pressing a hand across her mouth, hard. “Get her on the fucking boat! Quick!” he shouted at Wei, almost throwing the girl at him. In what seemed a half-hearted effort, the gang leader caught hold of the wriggling parcel, reaching in the same movement across the gap between the launch and the quayside, in order to pass her over to one of the vessel’s hands. The ropes were already being cast off as the chug-chug-chug of the engine was then revved up into a choking, smoke belching de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de, before the dilapidated boat finally pulled away into the blackness of a moonless night. Din, meanwhile, shook off something that appeared to be embedded in his arm. Something hard and white, like enamel. It dropped down to bounce in the footwell of the Alphard’s rear passenger compartment, unnoticed. Unwittingly, he had just left a valuable clue for any would-be pursuer.

In the stillness that followed, the four gang-members sidled up to Din like hyenas awaiting their share of the kill. Scowling at them, Din made a point of looking over to the dead official, whose blood was now spreading like a lake across the dock. “That wasn’t our faul–” Wei began to protest, realising the significance of Din’s gesture. The gang was about to be negotiated down from the agreed amount. “Shut up, you flea-infested mongrel! I told you earlier not to speak unless spoken to. We’re all in this together. Cleaning up this fucking mess will cost money, so we’ll all have to chip in. Here, this is all you’re getting.”

Thrusting a roll of notes into Wei’s hand, Din moved quickly off in the direction of the Alphard. Although outnumbering him four to one, none of the gang challenged him, such was the power of his terrifying reputation. And as he then sped off into the distance they melted away into the blackness while the dead Customs man’s hands gripped ever more tightly the clipboard that lay on his chest, as rigor mortis set in.

posted by Kirk at 11:58 pm  

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (56)

Apart from the odd twitch, Detective Adi had stopped shaking when he pulled up outside his apartment block. Half falling from the battered vehicle, he turned to kick shut the door that was flapping open, before feeling his way around the front of the car to cross the uneven pavement. During the early part of his flight from Sate Blora, Adi’s first instinct had been to make a beeline for Endang’s, to seek Lulu’s comfort, confessing everything. He needed her endorsement of his actions; craved, in fact, her recognition of his bravery. For Adi had a growing sense that he had precipitated a set of circumstances that were quickly escalating beyond his control. He needed reassuring, fast. But on glancing at his reflection in the rear view mirror as he neared the fork in the road he would need to take, Adi had chosen instead to return home directly. There was no way his pride was going to allow her to see him in this condition.

Wearily, he climbed the four flights of stairs to the door of his modest rooms, wincing at each step. The sounds of a family from the floor above echoed through the fusty stairwell, reminding him of the simpler life he had once lived, of domesticity. Falling through the door he flopped instantly on to the bed, undoing his belt while kicking off his shoes, untidily. Then taking a deep breath, he pulled up his knees to slip off his trousers, which he threw tetchily into a corner of the room. Realising his moment of weakness, Adi then closed his eyes for a second, to pause for reflection. But the horror of his encounter with the Captain was swift to return, taunting him. Abruptly, the young Detective sat up. And in addition to his annoyance at this intrusion, there was something else that had begun nagging at him, which for the moment refused to surface. What is it? he frowned, with little expectation of a reply. I’ve got to see her, he suddenly determined, now deflecting his confusion through a device called distraction. Reaching gingerly down to retrieve his chinos, he smartly relieved them of his cell-phone and wallet, inside which he knew he had previously slipped Lulu’s calling card.

After three rings, she answered with a purr: “Hello, this Lulu. Dari mana?Who is it? “It’s me, sayang. Adi. The Detective. Remember?” There was a short pause before: “Ah… Lulu remember. Hello, sayangku. You want come here?” “No, Lulu. Look – I need you to come here, to my apartment. Need you to come now. Right now. Something’s happened. Please. I need you.” “What happen, handsome boy?” Lulu then asked, becoming concerned. “I’ve had a… Look – I’ll tell you when you get here. Can you come now? Please?” “I try,” she replied. “If boss let me leave for while, I come there.” Spelling out his address, Adi instructed her to take a taxi, the cost of which he promised to reimburse. He then put the door to his apartment on the latch, and ran a bath in which he aimed to soak away the pain, and try to forget.

It was a little over an hour later that Lulu pushed open the door and cautiously entered. “Sayang?” she called out, softly, into the stillness. Hearing nothing in response she began to grow afraid, shivering suddenly at whatever it was that was spooking her. For earlier, she had detected fear in Adi’s tone, and now the silence of the room added to the mystery of his plea for her presence. Slowly, she moved past the bed, noticing the discarded clothes that were strewn all about the place. The lack of care did not match, somehow, the profile of the man she was coming to know. Reaching the other side of the room, she could smell the perfume that wafted through the door. Lulu realised at once that it led to the bathroom. Taking a deep breath before pushing it open, she took a cautious step forward.

“Oh, my poor baby,” was all she could gasp, on seeing her lover’s slumbering face. For Adi’s face and body were etched with the scars of battle. His eyes looked puffy and the bridge of his nose was split horizontally. Scratch marks adorned the circumference of his neck, while liberal bruising played havoc all across his torso. The young Detective began to stir as the pretty girl then began dabbing at his body with a sponge. “What happen, sayang?” she quizzed him, through her tears…

Inside the Timor, the rest of the journey had passed in silence, with each of the three men alone with his thoughts. The General was turning things over in his mind, thinking with some urgency. Not about his elder son’s impending confession, but rather what he would be saying to the Chief of Police – a longstanding friend who would no doubt assist him in covering up the mess that had unfolded, back at the restaurant. Yudi, meanwhile, was beginning to wonder what had happened to the rest of the family – the women they had left behind at Sate Blora, and his two young boys. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out his cell-phone, to dial his wife.

Captain Farid’s mind, meanwhile, was abuzz with a myriad contemplations: his soul consumed by guilt and fear. Dare I tell… everything? he pondered. No. Impossible. He could not imagine there would be any chance of forgiveness, were he to reveal all. And yet he knew, as a clarity that had long been absent returned to him, that his father was right: that to conceal any detail, leave anything unsaid, would maintain the spell that had been cast upon him, lengthening the term of his mental imprisonment. I must rid myself of everything that has infected me, he now determined, urging himself to bite the bullet, to resist the urge to back down. For one last time, the Captain then steeled himself for what he sensed would prove the greatest challenge of his life. And right now he was far from confident. Twitchy, even.

posted by Kirk at 9:20 am  

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (36)

It was dark outside as the black Alphard sped along the final part of its journey, having arrived at last in the largely deserted outskirts of the port city of Qinzhou. The dim lights of the suburbs were still a welcome change from the pitch black highway they had just taken hours to traverse. By now, Sophie was in a deep sleep, her mind no longer willing to deny her fate, her eyes unable to fend off her abject weariness.

Somewhere between Liuzhou and Nanning, the four accomplices had stopped for a brief rest, pissing by the roadside before switching duties, so that Sophie was now flanked by gang leader Wei Dang and one of the others. The burly thug who had grabbed her off the street in Guilin was up front, in the passenger seat. “I don’t think the guimei runt is going to make it,” he half-whispered to the replacement driver, sitting next to him. “Why the fuck d’you say that, shrimp-brain?” Wei piped up from the rear, overhearing despite the man’s hushed tone. “She won’t drink,” he explained, meekly. “And I don’t think she’s asleep, I think she’s in a… a–” “Coma? Don’t be so fucking stupid,” Wei chastised. “She’s in shock, that’s all. She’ll come round, you idiot.” “And w-what happens then? You know, if she’s… er, not dead after all?” the man persisted. “We deliver her to the contact as planned, locust dick! What else?” But although Wei was quick to dismiss his subordinate he, too, harboured doubts. “He’ll be in the Marina. Waiting for us, you’ll see. And then we get out of there.” As fast as we can… he added, mentally. For behind his false bluster, Wei was distinctly uneasy at the prospect of meeting once again with the embodiment of terror his contact represented. The less he saw of the notorious Bei Din Din, the better. For over the years, he had heard stories whose recollection now made his stomach churn. As if snatching the girl had not been a risky enough job in itself, he would now have to run the gauntlet of an encounter with the hardest, least predictable man he knew. Someone whose reputation for fearlessness meant that even the leaders of southern China’s underworld left him alone. “And why don’t you just shut up, anyway? Fucking dog turd! You’ll wake her up!” But inside, Wei chastised himself for taking out his angst on the hapless hoodlum sitting up front. He knew he would be needing to keep his wits about him in the coming hour, when losing his composure like he just had might cost him dearly…

When Blake awoke it was neither dark, nor light. In the grey in between, he was confused at first as to whether it was dusk or dawn, such was the extent of his disorientation. Groping to one side he suddenly recoiled, on feeling her body next to his. The skin felt different – the silk of her panties, her scent vaguely recalling a distant memory. Abruptly, he sat up. Where am I? Although smaller than his wife’s, the body of the woman was equally curvy and it entranced him, instantly. Lying back down, Blake instinctively cupped a breast as the recollection of the previous day’s events jostled for position, rushing rudely back inside his throbbing head.

He began reconstructing. Wincing upon his recollection of events at the Red Pepper, he pushed his groin against the curves of Elle’s behind, in an attempt to distract himself from contemplation of the grovelling apology he knew he would be offering his mentor. But it was the tone in John’s voice that worried him most of all. …Not sure I can go on doing this… Think I’d better get back to work… It was that which hurt, more than anything. Because he knew his friend was right. Knew that John was disappointed at his behaviour, was perhaps finally on the verge of giving up on him, and with some justification. Blake put a mental roadblock there, unwilling for the moment to confront that particular demon. He focused instead on the woman’s body. Feeling around to the front of her panties, he pushed his fingers inside, to seek the fleshy prize that would distract him from his doubts, and allow him to escape, temporarily. Generously, Elle turned towards him, her body willing in spite of her slumber. Blake gripped her, gratefully, taking the opportunity to smell her neck. He filled his lungs with its musky warmth while she, eyes still closed, reached down to pull her panties off her feet. Within moments he was on top of her, pumping away inelegantly to the rhythm of her groans, before shooting, altogether too soon, inside. It had been a clumsy encounter, this first real coupling of theirs, Blake comforted only by the knowledge that it had taken place while he was half-asleep, and she only half-awake.

Sensing that he would not be able to rest, he began thinking about making preparations to leave. “Elle–” he began, whispering into her face, but his lover quickly turned away. Instinctively, he cupped a hand to check his breath. Stale. Disgusting. Jesus, he blasphemed. Blake dropped off the bed and moved silently through to the bathroom, where the only light was provided by two wide candles, each flickering on either side of the hand basin. Thank fuck it’s dark, he mouthed at his reflection. Blake had rarely looked in worse shape, for as long as he could remember. His cheeks looked puffy and his eyes, he knew, were red. There was no indication in the frame of his torso that this was once the body of an athletic young man. Sort yourself out, you cunt, barked a voice from somewhere inside his woozy head. Blake’s hands shook as he then fumbled with the mirrored doors in front of him, finally managing to prize one open, while the other banged shut again. He gargled with the strong mouthwash he was able to find there, unintentionally swallowing a large gulpful. Eyes watering, he bit back the fierce burn that threatened to creep up his throat and expel itself. Get yourself home, son, he now counselled, spitting a mouthful of bile into the sink.

posted by Kirk at 10:13 pm  

Friday, June 20, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (55)

In the rear of his army issue Timor, Captain Farid was in the throes of a complete breakdown. Blubbering into the chest of his kid brother, the tears that dripped from his chin were laced with the drool and snot of someone no longer capable of withstanding the pressure inside, having finally to let go. Like the sulphurous clouds that bellowed daily from one of Java’s volcanoes, the dark half of his soul had burst free, to be carried away on the winds of confession. For there was no holding back now: the Captain would be telling all, whatever the consequences. “Farid… ’Nak. Pull yourself together now. Come on,” the General’s baritone boomed, from up front.

The old man felt a little calmer now, as he drove them in the direction of the family home. It was as if a breakthrough had been made, that they were finally closing in on the root of his elder son’s problem. Taking a deep breath, he decided to confront him there and then. “You’ve got to grip this… this problem, son. Tell us what it is, please. All of it.” “Bapak, I’m so sorry… Sorry for what I’ve done,” the Captain sobbed. “Those Latino bastards trapped me… with their money… I just couldn’t say no.” But sensing this was only part of the story, the General pressed him further: “Farid, no more lies, please. If you want to get over this, put it behind you completely, you’ve got to tell us everything, however difficult it is to say. Me and Yudi are here to help, but you’re going to have to tell us the whole story. That’s the deal, son.” “OK, ’Pak. Pull off the road, or wait till we get home.” Captain Farid sat upright once more and wiped his nose on a sleeve of his filthy uniform. “I’ve… I’ve got a lot to get off my chest. It’s time to sort out this… this awful fucking mess. Once and for all.” Sucking in a lungful of air, he then let out another heavy sob. And although it felt awkward at first, he eventually caved in to the comfort offered by the arm that was then put around him. “Mas Farid, wherever it is you’ve been, we’d all be so grateful if you came back,” his kid brother whispered. “Let’s wait until we get home, then,” the General piped up…

Where could he be…? This is most unlike him. She did not like getting all grouchy, especially on a Sunday – family day, she now reflected, dolefully – but he really was exceptionally late now, and she was cross, and missing her newspaper.And more than that, the old woman missed his company. She prayed that he would not deny her the pleasure of putting the plate of biscuits in front of him, for it was gestures such as this that made her feel… well, alive. Oh, I don’t know… I don’t want to have cross words with him but I will tell him he’s upset me, she determined, once more attending the stove, to heat another pan of water in order to replace the tea that had already gone cold.

And inside she felt cold, too, despite the oppressive humidity brought on by the rain. Perhaps that’s it, she consoled herself. He’s waiting for it to stop. For it was true, the initial downpour had turned into a major deluge, as if God was taking revenge for some unspeakable act of evil, or cruelty…

At last, the mikrolet was on its final approach to Rumah Sakit Medika. With his eyes still firmly closed, Anath had been mumbling something unintelligible for a while now, including vague references to his mother. His pallour was that of a corpse: something that each member of the group had witnessed, at one time or another in their lives. For them, it was a familiar sight. And it spelt only one thing. The bus continued to rattle over uneven roads, the driver over-revving and clutch-slipping his way along the twisty backstreet route, to the annoyance of everyone. The incessant rain, meanwhile, seemed only to be getting heavier and heavier. Without exception, those inside the stuffy passenger compartment sat slumped in exhaustion, the enormity of the situation taking firmer shape in their minds. The adrenalin rush they had felt when first acting to save the boy had now been replaced by abject weariness – the euphoria of the moment lost, leaving the group deflated. In the stillness, punctuated only by the boy’s moans, defeatist thinking began to prevail. He’s not going to make it, each of them secretly acknowledged.

As they arrived at the hospital gates, the driver swung the bus left to follow the signs marked ‘Darurat’.

Emergency.

After a couple more twists and turns, he was able to bring the vehicle to a halt almost directly outside the entrance doors to the hospital’s Casualty Department. There was a considerable amount of activity in the vicinity, as ambulance doors were swung open and bodies rolled out, some still breathing, others not. There seemed to be an army of people milling around urgently, working in a frenzy of uncoordinated activity, tending to the sick and injured that the city had coughed up. It was a scene that often disturbed the unfamiliar: one that could induce among them a morbid fear – engender the sense that they, too, could somehow be afflicted if brought into too close a contact with the dead and dying. Jaws agape, several of the group were experiencing this uneasy sensation, when Ketu abruptly jolted them from their reverie. “Come on, don’t just sit there!” he yelled at them. “Can’t you see he’s slipping away? Come on! Help!

Ketu Pramoedya was right. The prostrate boy was in dire need of treatment: most urgently, a transfusion of blood. “Quickly, I said. Quick!” he continued to urge, as four of them each took a limb, half-carrying, half-dragging the dying boy directly into the Casualty Department’s reception area, having no time to wait for a stretcher.

posted by Kirk at 11:47 pm  

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (35)

There were few, if any, smiles as the bus finally hissed to a stop outside the school. Bar none, the children were downcast: some snivelled into their sleeves, missing their little friend, while others had developed the misplaced anxiety that the ringleted girl’s disappearance was somehow their fault. Rushing into the arms of their parents, they sobbed in relief that for them, at least, the ordeal was now over.

Disembarking only after the last of the children had been counted off, the three teachers each wore a heavy mask of guilt. First Abigail Newton faced the sea of angry stares that had assembled at the bottom of the steps. Glancing around helplessly in search of a friendly face, she burst into tears when finding cold detachment instead, the day’s awful events finally getting the better of her. Then Sally Henderson, her face streaked with tears, tottered gingerly down the steps to melt through the crowd and head silently for home, where she would be undertaking a stern evaluation of her actions in Guilin, and her relationship with Brad Taylor.

The last to disembark, Gavin Hewitt stepped down falteringly, to a chorus of jeers. Since news of Sophie Blake’s disappearance had spread throughout the community, the womenfolk had been joined by their men in universal condemnation of Hewitt’s seeming abandonment of the girl. And in China, of all places. It was his appearance the mob had awaited, and now they were ensuring he felt the full weight of their scorn. But there was worse to come for the hapless Deputy Principal – a man who, after all, had already suffered the ordeal of having to leave behind not only the pretty seven-year-old but also Brad Taylor, a relatively inexperienced teacher, all at the instructions of the Chinese Police. Stepping down on to the ground, Hewitt sensed what was coming. Wanted it, in fact. Felt the need to be punished for what he considered his own unforgivable dereliction of duty. And he was indeed about to be on the receiving end. For despite Doctor Elliot’s advice to the contrary, Kate had insisted on attending the homecoming, still clinging to the vain hope that she would be greeting her little girl there.

Suddenly emerging from the throng she rounded instantly on Hewitt, screaming hysterically into his face. “Where’s my baby, you… you fucking bastard?” she shrieked, pummelling her fists into his chest. “Where’s my little Sophie…?” Her voice had become a squeak, unintentionally mimicking her daughter’s. “Och, love. I am so very, very sorry for your distress,” Hewitt tried to calm her, his accent almost turning the words into song. “But young Sophie will be found, I’m sure of–” “Shut up! Shut up, you lying bastard!” Kate continued to scream, cutting him off. A couple of the other Mums now stepped forward, one of whom attempted to mollify her by placing a hand on her shoulder. But Kate was having none of it. Pulling away from the woman, she continued to spit her diatribe: “You left her there in that fucking shit-hole of a place! How could you? Bastard! Bastard!” “Love, I truly wanted to stay there, to wait until she was found. But we were ordered from the place. We were told to leave. And we had to get the other kids back–” Kate slapped Hewitt’s face. Hard. Tears had already formed in the Deputy Principal’s eyes – and not because of the stinging pain, but rather his utter sympathy for this mother’s predicament. He wanted to bury his face in his hands but instinctively knew that he must not, that he must instead remain tight-lipped, accepting whatever his tormentor threw at him. I deserve it, he confessed inwardly.

But Kate’s earlier hysteria had returned, rendering Hewitt momentarily invisible. Turning her attention to the school bus, she stood on tiptoe while attempting to peer through its windows. “Sophie! Sophie!” she called out, delirious, as she now began to run around the vehicle, banging loudly on its side panels. “Where are you, baby…? Where are you…? Sweetie…? Shall we go and buy some ice cream…?” On hearing this, some of the other mothers wept with her, sharing her unbearable sadness, relating at once to what they knew she must be going through. Then tightly gripping the hands of their own children, they began slowly filing away, to bath and feed their precious ones before tucking them into bed, early, while giving thanks that the missing child was not theirs.

posted by Kirk at 1:00 am  

Monday, June 9, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (54)

Ketu Pramoedya had always commanded a fair amount of respect in the kampung, his reputation that of a decent, hard-working man who made up for what he lacked in terms of an academic education with his natural pragmatism. So when he had taken control of the situation outside Sate Blora, it was of little surprise to many of the locals. Back at the scene of the incident, people were now gathered in their hundreds – all milling around in excited conversation, swapping second and third hand anecdotes. They would be talking about what they had seen long into the night, and likely for days to come – embellishing what they knew to be true with every piece of tittle-tattle they happened to chance upon.

The minibus, meanwhile, was weaving a frenzied route through the afternoon traffic, veering from outside lane back across to the kerbside and even, when there was no other way of making progress, up and on to the cracked pavements, scattering pedestrians in all directions. Already notorious for the aggressive paths they carved through the city, the driver of this particular bus was seemingly intent on raising the bar in recklessness. Inside, the group from the kampung were being flung left and right, forced to grab at anything that might keep them from sliding off the bench seats and on to the prostrate boy. “Masya’allah! Slow down! Didn’t you hear what I said?” yelled Ketu, reminding the driver of his earlier instructions. “You’ll damn well kill him!” “Ya, tolol! You might as well drive straight to the mortuary – no need to pay any doctor!” quipped another, his throwaway comment producing an angry stare from Ketu. “Ma’af, ’Pak,” the man, shame faced, then corrected himself. Sorry. “Sorry, ’Pak,” piped up the driver, almost simultaneously. “It’s a long time since I’ve driven anything, let alone a clapped out mikrolet like this!”

By now, the stench of blood throughout the passenger compartment was overpowering and the group had virtually given up trying to hold the boy still, or attend to his wound. The bleeding seemed to have slowed in any event, had perhaps stopped altogether – something that was more to do with Anath’s dangerously low blood pressure than any sign that his condition was improving. And there was further bad news on the way. Rounding a bend in the road, the driver then hit the brakes hard as they came up behind a wall of traffic, sending Anath sliding forward along the tinny footwell towards the front of the compartment, his limp body halting only as his feet concertinaed against the wall of the driver’s cabin.

…and now he was lying in an open canoe… drifting along the river… the sound of water sloshing, trickling… his hand dangling over the side, feeling its warmth run through his fingers…

Anath gained consciousness momentarily, lifting up a hand from the pool of blood in which it had been resting. As he inspected it, his expression was one of curiosity – this was an unexpected twist in the dream and, now that he began to gain focus, was not something he found particularly tasteful. The red fluid that dripped from his fingers had a horrible, metallic smell and there seemed to be an awful lot of it, all around him. With a groan, he then fell mercifully back into the void from which he had emerged, just moments earlier. Outside, the rain was falling heavier; the sky black with thunderclouds. It was as if nighttime had fallen. And inside the bus these were dark moments, too. A nightmare, in fact. “You’ve got to do something!” yelled one of the group, while pointing to the boy. “We’ll – no, he’ll – run out of time if we just sit here!” The driver leant on the horn, an action that served only to encourage other drivers to do the same. Despite the cacophony, they still remained stationary. “Come on, ’Mas – do something!” shouted another.

Glancing in his rear view mirror, the driver saw that nothing had yet come up behind them. Crunching the gearbox into reverse, he then accelerated backwards entirely without warning, a manoeuvre that sent at least one of his passengers sliding up the bench seat to clatter into the back of his cabin. “Steady, bodoh!” shouted Ketu. But the driver appeared to have entered a kind of trance, saying nothing in return as he spun the mikrolet around and sped off in the direction they had come. At considerable speed, the group was now travelling the wrong way down the main thoroughfare, with no possibility of mounting the large concrete median separating the carriageways. The incredulous occupants of a succession of oncoming cars were soon passing either side of them, honking and flashing their lights, while throwing drive-by gesticulations. Showing considerable dexterity for once, the mikrolet’s driver managed to avoid them all – each one seeming to add to some invisible score, as if they were locked inside a computer game. Tilt! “I’ll get us off at the next slip road!” he barked, his excitement showing. Soon enough, they were being launched up the next spur, against the flow of traffic. Narrowly avoiding a similar minibus, whose driver was forced to stand on his brakes in order to avoid a head-on collision, the sheer relief among the group was almost physical as they finally arrived at the trunk road that ran above the highway. Turning on to it – now in the right direction – Ketu cleared his throat: “You’ll, er… have to use the… er, back roads,” he stuttered. “Ambil jalan tikus… We’ll have to… pray this jam hasn’t… spread there yet.”

Continuing on, the group then picked their way along the twists and turns of the narrow lanes that criss-crossed the city’s kampungs, passing wall after wall of graffiti as they slowly weaved their laboured route towards the hospital. None of them saw the words

LOBBY HYAT MIDNITE

that flashed past at one point, nor could have guessed their significance had they done so.

posted by Kirk at 5:59 am  

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (34)

Detective Superintendent Howie Moore was ordinarily a jovial character – ideally suited to his job, he was a man of exactly the right amount of intellect to make light of the dingy world into which he was regularly drawn. ’Spart-a-life, innit – criminality? he would often quip, when attempting to explain away the unlawful activities of the tattooed snakeheads he was responsible for hunting down in his Wan Chai manor. See, they don’t know any diff’rent, do they? ’Swhat they’ve been brought up into – know what I mean? Strangely, Moore empathised with his prey, seeking always to justify their actions. In short, he was someone of a highly forgiving disposition. A man who – uncommonly, for one in his position – avoided wherever possible the heavy-handed approach that was so often deployed throughout the force in which he served.

But today, Moore’s happy-go-lucky demeanour had been sorely challenged and he wore instead the look of a troubled man. Now staring grimly through the windscreen of his car, he drove through pouring rain to the airport, in order to meet the homecoming party. In spite of the foul weather – which had wrecked his plans for golf – the mustachioed senior officer was enjoying a relatively quiet day until, out of the blue, there had been that call from the Sunny Cape school office. The deeply disturbing news he had then been given created a dark cloud of its own – for Moore was himself the father of three young daughters, meaning he could well imagine the torment Sophie Blake’s parents must now be going through. And if this were, as he somehow sensed, a case of abduction, well then even he, as magnanimous as he was, would not be able to forgive the callous actions of the transgressors.

There was something else that was troubling Moore, too. Guilin tour leader Gavin Hewitt was an acquaintance, through a shared Masonic lodge – a relationship he had quickly realised would inevitably create a conflict for him in this most unfortunate of cases. And so it was an unusually apprehensive figure that Moore cut as he parked his car and took the lift to Arrivals on level one of the airport’s vast hall. A group of concerned parents had already assembled there, impatient to see their progenies – the news of young Sophie’s disappearance engendering a kind of hysteria among them. As the school party then traipsed solemnly through Customs and out into the arrivals hall, the cries of recognition were followed by floods of tears, as relieved mothers were reunited with their precious ones. There were tears among the rest of the children, too, and a sense of abandonment that they had not been met. Shocked by the events of the day, they had lost sight of the fact that their parents had planned, all along, to meet them back at the school. In the pandemonium that was developing all around them, Moore beckoned Hewitt to one side with a discreet movement of his head.

“Hi, Gavin. I’m sorry to ’ear about wha’s ’appened.” There was an embarrassed look on the Detective’s face. It did not feel right that his friend before him stood accused of negligence. “I’m bloody devastated,” replied Hewitt, looking crestfallen. “I wanted to stay there until we found her, but the bloody Chinese pol–” “Look, I won’t be detainin’ you ’ere and now – all right?” the portly Detective cut in, his piercing blue eyes difficult for the other man to engage. “I expect that in any event you’ll be, like, wantin’ to do the decent thing, you know, an’ face the girl’s parents in person.” Staring at the ground, Hewitt slowly nodded, aware of the reception he would soon be given, back in the Cape. “But I’m gonna need you t’come down to the station in Wan Chai an’ provide me with a full statement, within the next twenty-four hours – OK with you?” “Sure, Howie. And… thanks,” said Hewitt, somewhat meekly taking the big Detective’s hand. But he was still unable to look his lodge acquaintance directly in the eye, aware that the blame for what had happened lay squarely at his feet, which he now dragged off slowly, to rejoin the remainder of the party…

Blake pressed the buzzer on the door to the SoHo studio premises. In fact he leant his full weight on it, causing the harsh sound to trill incessantly within. After briefly peering through the spy hole Elle emerged, looking concerned. “What’s up?” she asked, quizzically. “I… nee… y–” was all he could manage. “Look at you, Adam,” she complained, her words echoing those of his wife, albeit uttered in a gentler tone, and with compassion instead of what, in the other instance, he had come to understand was hate. “Here, take the keys to my apartment,” she continued, now smiling sympathetically while fishing them from a pocket in her jeans. “Go and get your head down for a while, while I finish up here. Can you manage that?” By way of confirmation, Blake managed to smile the lopsided grin of the paralytic, before stumbling back down the stairs. He gripped her key fob as tightly as he could lest he drop it, this coveted prize. As he then staggered up the steep hill in the direction of her nearby apartment, the promise of lying next to her again began to make him wish he were sober. With nothing to run away from any more, he wanted to experience her to the full, to feel each touch her hands laid upon him, to taste the kisses he would tease from her. Sober… up… Gotta… s-soberrup… he hiccoughed.

But on arriving at Elle’s apartment block, Blake’s demeanour reversed once more as he cursed in the realisation that he had forgotten the entry code needed to open the door. Reaching into his pocket, he fumbled around for his cell-phone, without luck. Shit! I’ve los… m’fuckin’ phone…! he cursed inwardly, reliving the experience a third time. Just then the door clicked open, at the sound of which Blake took the opportunity to lurch clumsily through, knocking into a middle-aged woman before twisting away and tripping, to land on his backside. For a moment, the woman thought about challenging his purpose, preparing mentally to raise some kind of alarm. But Blake’s sheepish grin was sufficient to summon the ounce of humanity required for her to let the episode pass and she moved stiffly off, to return to her own business. Now summoning every surviving memory cell from within his pickled brain, Blake sought to retrace each step of the route to his lover’s apartment, which he vaguely recalled was on the eighth – and lucky – floor. Halfway along the corridor there, he pushed a key into a door on the right which to his immense relief turned smoothly in the lock. Bingo! Blake spluttered out a chuckle, amazed at his cleverness: You… still go’it… boy… he thought, contentedly.

Once inside he made straight for Elle’s bedroom, where he kicked off his shoes and collapsed on to her bed, falling instantly into the deep but unfulfilling sleep of the drunk.

posted by Kirk at 11:58 pm  

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (53)

The old woman wheeled herself across the kitchen to the gas stove, where she fished a fire lighter from an adjacent drawer. Demonstrating uncommon agility for someone of her restricted movement, she then swivelled her chair in order to reach across to the cooker’s panel of knobs, while simultaneously depressing the lighter’s trigger with the thumb of her other, wrinkled hand. The hiss of the gas was quelled by a quiet boom as the flame lit it, radiating heat at the very moment of ignition, and leaving only the faintest trace of the malodorous elpigi vapour. He’ll be here soon, she asserted, inwardly, allowing herself a smile at the thought. Such a nice boy. A credit to his mother. But despite her aplomb there was a flicker of concern etched into the septuagenarian’s expression as she then manoeuvred her wheelchair towards the sink, to half fill a saucepan with water. The boy’s daily visit had become so important to her that the minutes leading up to it were now always filled with anxiety, lest one day he should fail to appear.

Not that he fully appreciated it, Anath’s well-intended daily ritual was in fact becoming vital in preserving the old woman’s interest in waking each morning: indeed it energised her will to continue living through what was otherwise a painfully solitary existence. For her daughters had long since been married off, while her only son had simply disappeared one day, never to be seen again. The framed picture of the boy that she now deliberately ignored while reaching for the tea was little consolation for his extended absence. Why has he never returned? Not even sent word he was all right? And does he think so little of me that he couldn’t be bothered to find out how I am? But there was another possibility the old woman had been refusing to confront, and at its thought a shiver was sent suddenly down the bend of her crooked spine. For she knew that her absent son had always trodden a path close to the divide between right and wrong, something that often made her wonder whether he had finally been caught taking one risk too many.

Prizing the lid from the floral patterned tea-tin, she sighed involuntarily while spooning the leaves into two tall glasses, before shutting the utensil back inside. Now staring into nowhere, a look of sorrow writ large across her face, the old woman then absently replaced it on to the counter’s surface. Not daring to look at the clock that sat next to her son’s portrait, she impetuously pulled open a cupboard to reveal an extensive array of packets, which contained all the various cakes and biscuits that she knew the boy loved. Surely he won’t want to miss his Sunday treat? she thought, while spilling some chocolate biscuits on to a plate. Too close for comfort, she now flipped the nearby clock around, so that its face was obscured. She did not want to risk even a casual glance at it, in case it showed that the considerate young man on whom she relied for company each day was late. But her body clock told her that this was indeed already the case, serving only to further fuel her unease.

Where is he? she mulled, irritably. Fidgeting in her wheelchair she began to ponder a future in which this surrogate son, like her real one, was absent. What if he never comes again? Upon reflection, the thought terrified her: it was a space she did not wish to occupy. I’ll just give up, she now decided. Go to bed one day, and die. And it’ll all be his fault, she further avowed, somewhat childishly. But her attempts to distract herself from the naked fear that was beginning to creep up on her quickly foundered, and she slumped back into her chair once more as the hollow feeling returned, a melancholy descending over her like a shroud. Noticing that the water had begun bubbling on the stove, she then shook herself momentarily from the gloom, while determining to make the tea, as if by doing so she would be able to summon up his appearance. Please, ’nak… Please come and visit your old friend… She’s very lonely without you…

posted by Kirk at 7:32 pm  

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (33)

“I’m sorry, but Mr. Blake no longer works at Valuri Doyle. Can I ask whether anyon–” What? Kate was floored. First there had been the issue of Adam not answering his phone, and now this. She moved quickly through from the lounge to their bedroom, discovering immediately the reason for his unresponsiveness: Blake’s cell-phone was nestling atop a pile of discarded clothes, strewn right across the bedcovers. The tears were streaming down her cheeks as the Canton Air widow came up from behind, to comfort her. “I can’t believe what’s happening to me…” Kate sobbed. “He’s lost his job, as well…” “C’mon, doll. It’ll be all right,” said the other woman, putting an arm around Kate’s shoulders. There was nothing else to say. But Kate could not be consoled. My little girl… My little Sophie’s missing… She burst into tears at the thought, at the nightmare that would not go away, now burying her head in the other woman’s bosom, the full horror of everything that had happened now crystallising into reality from its earlier, surreal state. Sophie is missing! Lost in China, of all places! And now her husband had apparently lost his job and, what was more, could not be contacted. Where is he, for fuck’s sake? she thought, angrily. Finally, when I need him – want him, even – he goes missing on me, too! An awful feeling of hopelessness was welling up in Kate’s stomach, as her legs suddenly began to feel like jelly. The Canton Air widow needed all the strength she could muster as the dead weight of Kate’s body then collapsed into her.

“C’mon, darlin’. Wake up, girl.” Kate could vaguely hear the woman’s voice as the gentle slaps brought her round. She vomited the instant she opened her eyes, spattering her blouse with acrid, yellow bile, before the tears came once again. With a compassion that Kate had never imagined could be a quality of the coarse Australian before her, her newly-acquired friend then began putting a positive spin on events. “Here you go. Drink this. I made it while you were… y’know… out.” The woman passed Kate a cup of freshly brewed, sugary tea, while dabbing at her blouse with a tissue. “Look, I spoke to the school. They’ve heard from Hewitt, the Deputy Head. Said your little girl was only missin’ ten minutes ’fore they realised. The teachers and police are all lookin’ f’rer. She can’t have gone far, darlin’, can she? Not in ten minutes.” The woman puffed on a cigarette. What she could not know was that the news she was now relaying was at least an hour old. The school party, minus Sophie and one of the teachers, was already on its way back to Hong Kong, on the command of the Chinese police authorities. Kate tried to sip the piping hot drink, recoiling as it scalded her lips. The other woman persisted: “The school said they called you before ’cause it’s their policy – y’know, to let you know what’s going on – but it’s just a precaution and you’re not to worry too much.” Her words carried a not insignificant amount of poetic licence. “I wouldn’t be surprised if your baby’s already sitting on the bus, telling her little mates all about her adventure.” Chuckling, she tried to garner a smile, but Kate simply broke down again, inconsolable. “I can’t stand it any more. None of it,” she sobbed. “I just want to get back to England with my Sophie. Get a job, start again. I don’t care what school she goes to, as long as she’s safe and close to me. I’ll never, ever let her out of my sight again!” Forming two fists with her hands, she then began banging on her temples before letting out a scream. Kate was now in the throes of a total breakdown. “I hate this fucking place! Hate it, d’you hear?” she screeched.

Suddenly grabbing the nearest object of any real substance – a Lladro figurine given to her and Blake by his parents on the occasion of their tenth wedding anniversary – she then hurled it at a wall with an angry force that came from deep inside her, one she would have found impossible to manufacture. Smash! The fine porcelain exploded into a thousand splinters that shot up and down the wall, a cloud of dust now bellowing out from the point of impact. “What the fuck d’you do that for, doll?” yelled the Canton Air widow, startled and perhaps a little afraid, now, and shell-shocked by the violence the ordinarily mild-mannered Pom had just unleashed. Kate simply screamed again, shaking her head while pulling at her hair, relieving herself of several clumps in the process.

Taking out her cell-phone from her handbag once more, the Australian woman quickly called Cape Surgery, demanding they send a doctor without delay. Nodding at the receptionist’s initial response, she then repeated the address. “That’s it. Flat D, 33, Caperidge. Come quick. Yeah, straight away. I think she’s really losing it, big time.” Concluding, she flipped shut the handset. Kate, meanwhile, had returned to her bedroom and tossed Blake’s clothes on to the floor. Her face was buried in her pillows, while her aching body jerked with each painful sob. Sitting on the edge of the bed while stroking Kate’s back, the Canton Air widow tried to provide what little comfort she could, under the circumstances. “Don’t worry, love. Doctor Elliot’s on his way. And your little girl is probably already on the plane… On her way home, right now…”

But with every passing second, poor Sophie was in fact speeding further away from her teachers, her friends among the school party, her previous life, her home… For the black Alphard was now fast approaching the outskirts of Liuzhou, speeding past the flat arable land that was typical of the region. Now blazing its way around the recently constructed ringroad, the car would soon be entering the expressway beyond, in the direction of Nanning and then, ultimately, the port town of Qinzhou, close to China’s border with Vietnam. Curled up on the back seat, unspeaking and numb, Sophie meanwhile continued to conduct her private war. Still resolutely refusing to take water, she was rigid to the touch and now successfully beginning to cause the inexperienced gang members no small degree of consternation…

posted by Kirk at 4:05 am  

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