Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

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…



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?”


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?


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  


    i bet you were really excited that someone actually commented on your blog for once.

    Comment by Sara Austin — May 17, 2008 @ 6:14 am

  2. Excellent – really grabs the readers attention

    Comment by BB girl — May 17, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

  3. I agree with BB girl – compelling reading and more people should comment.

    Comment by HonH — May 18, 2008 @ 2:20 am

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