Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (27)

An unusually brilliant dawn broke on the second and final morning of Sunny Cape International School’s Guilin excursion. The sun’s crystal rays, flashed eight minutes earlier from a distance of a hundred and fifty million kilometres, were now slamming into lush and verdant hills, bleaching the countryside.

Gavin Hewitt and his three staffers were confident they had prepared thoroughly for the morning’s visit to the city’s ancient market, taking the opportunity over breakfast to methodically run through the various precautions needed in this crowded locale: in particular those required to thwart the crafty pickpockets that infested the place. But no amount of meticulous planning could compensate for the fact that all four teachers were suffering acute hangovers, their having drunk the hotel’s stock of alcohol dry the previous evening. Once the tawdry bar’s supply of Black Label had been consumed, they had made the mistake of daring to imbibe in the local mao tai – a potato based liquor akin to poteen. Unwisely, they had chosen to engage in a drinking contest with the experienced bar manager, who essentially drank them under the table, whilst landing them with a hefty bill. Thereafter, two of their number had stayed up the rest of the night – abandoning the children under their watches to seek instead their pleasure between the sheets of her bed. And so Brad Taylor and Sally Henderson were two exhausted, hung-over lovers as they boarded the bus on this particular morning, each of them looking forward to reaching Liangjiang airport as soon as possible after the planned market detour. For them, it was time to return home to catch breath, and re-evaluate their relationship.

Towards the rear of the bus, Sophie and the other children were jabbering away excitedly as they waited for the last of the stragglers to board. These trainee adults had already assembled a junior hierarchy within the group, and while Sophie was not the most dominant, she nevertheless participated eagerly in the group discussions. “Are you going to buy a present for your Mummy?” one of her friends asked. “Course! Jewelly. Jade. It’s like, so cool and my Mummy’s gonna love it!”

Their suitcases had already been stowed on the bus, waiting patiently like terracotta soldiers in the dark confines of the luggage hold. The clapped-out belcher would sit roasting in the dusty car park while the children browsed in the market, before it took them on the last leg of their China adventure: the return trip to the airport for the flight home to Hong Kong. Its brakes squealed as it halted in the historic town centre, the eager children alighting to form into their three designated groups. For the stroll through the market blue group would lead, with Abigail Newton joined at its head by Gavin Hewitt. The Deputy Principal’s experience would be useful in spotting the signs of any potential problems.

It was intended that red group would be situated in the middle, with white taking up the rear. But as they began to move through the narrow lanes that led into the ancient marketplace, the children began to intermingle, as the hands of the leaders of these latter two groups also took the opportunity to entwine. Their thoughts elsewhere, Brad and Sally were unaware that they had drifted towards the middle of the pack, with a fair number of children dawdling behind. The girl with the white-blonde ringlets made up the very rear.

Sophie fell even further behind the rest when an attractive jade pendant nestling atop the counter of a roadside stall caught her eye. Pausing to consider whether to make her purchase now, or wait until they reached the marketplace proper, she could not understand what the wizened old stallholder suddenly began yelling at her. The toothless crone was gesticulating animatedly while bawling something in the local dialect, but all Sophie wanted to know was whether she could afford the item. Confused, she looked around to gain the support of her friends, when suddenly she realised that she had become separated from the rest of her group, causing her to panic a little. Turning away from the stall, she moved off in pursuit of them, pushing at the wall of bodies ahead as the distance between her and the safety of numbers grew by the second. In her mild terror, she did not notice the black Toyota Alphard draw up soundlessly behind her, the side door of which now slid back to reveal two unkempt Chinese hoods inside the rear compartment of the vehicle.

No-one in this bustling, cacophonous hell-hole had noticed what was happening, as the hawkers shrieked at their would-be customers while the blinkered bargain hunters pushed and pulled at each other in selfish determination. Not one potential witness registered the menacing black vehicle with its reflective glass as it crept stealthily along, or had the presence of mind to reflect that its licence plates indicated that it emanated from somewhere other than Guilin. No-one, that is, except one old and wizened hag.

And as the car drew alongside Sophie, it was she alone who saw the arm that was suddenly thrust out from within, to snatch roughly at the young girl’s dress before taking a firmer hold and violently hauling its quarry inside. The old woman continued to look on as the sliding door was quickly slammed shut, the whole incident over in a matter of seconds. Honking his way aggressively through the crowds, the driver of the vehicle then began picking up speed, while the startled schoolgirl sat whimpering in the rear, pressed forcibly between the two burly thugs.

Next, one of them produced a handkerchief, which he forced roughly on to her face. The smell made her jerk, but while she desperately wanted to pull free, Sophie was paralysed by fear. Two big tears fell down on to her cheeks as she realised that the man had knocked her wobbly tooth, which now felt as if it would fall out any minute. They streaked their way down her cheeks in a race, to drip into her lap, where another patch was already forming. Seven-year-old Sophie Blake was wetting herself in terror. She wanted to scream but no sound would come out. And then it suddenly went dark.

posted by Kirk at 12:23 am  

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