Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (56)

It was not long after dawn when they left the hotel, walking to the centre of town in perfect weather. Under normal circumstances, their trek would have been a pleasant stroll down the leafy lanes that were among Guilin’s finest features. But there was a dread in Blake’s heart – a fear of failure at the first hurdle, and he tugged impatiently at Elle’s hand, hurrying her along. “Try and relax, Adam,” she reassured him. “It’s still early. We’ve got plenty of time.” “I’m sorry babe,” he replied. “It’s just that I’m petrified. What if we draw a complete blank?” “I can understand how you feel,” replied Elle. “If it helps, why don’t we talk about how we’re going to find Sophie. Form a strategy.” Elle sensed that the best way of dealing with Blake’s anxiety was to keep him talking. And by introducing a systematic approach to their search, they would at least be doing something constructive as they walked. Blake began to recognise the benefit of this, too. “OK,” he piped up, a little more cheerily. “What we know is that they were in some old marketplace when she disappeared. We need to find it, and then map out the whole area.” “We should think about the route they might have taken, so we can retrace it later, talking to people along the way,” added Elle, glad that Blake’s mood was becoming more positive. “Someone must’ve seen something.”

They continued to walk, now in silence, both secretly fearing that to elaborate further would only expose the fragile nature of their plan. For in reality, both knew they had very little to go on. After a few twists and turns along the winding back streets, they came to an arch, beyond which the road opened out into a square. The hairs on Blake’s neck suddenly stood up, in anticipation. “This must be it.” For a moment, it was as if Sophie’s presence was still hanging in the air, calling for his attention. Did she try to leave any clues? he began to wonder. Starting at one end of the ancient trading quarter, they peered down each side road as they walked, to see what lay off the beaten track. But at this hour the market was quite deserted, offering nothing in the way of a lead. On reaching the far end, they discovered the car park where they assumed the school bus had waited for the children and then left, minus one. Hands on hips, Blake drew in a deep breath before blowing it back out, slowly. “This is killing me inside,” he said, shaking his head. Elle reached up to clasp her hands behind his neck, pulling him towards her until their mouths met. “Don’t worry,” she comforted him, after gently pressing her lips against his. “We’ll get her back – you’ll see.”

Retracing their steps, they eventually found the only cafeteria that was open. After Elle had ordered their drinks, Blake placed some worn out low denomination notes in the metal tray offered by a surly waitress. Silently, they both sipped the bitter, grainy treacle that passed for coffee. “Ready?” Blake asked, after a while. “It’s still too early, my love,” Elle replied. “Try and relax.” She placed a hand upon his. Outside, the chattering had begun as stalls were erected and merchandise assembled for display. Because of Blake’s impatience, it was not long before the pair made their move. Methodically, they began to cover every square foot of the dusty streets, questioning everyone they encountered – but after an exhausting hour, they still had nothing to show for their efforts. Elle sensed that Blake was beginning to panic, his worst fears becoming a reality. There was nothing: no clue, not a single indication of where they might look for her. “Keep the faith,” Elle suddenly chirped, without prompting. But Blake could only stare vacantly into space, a tormented look on his face.

It was just at this moment that they approached a stall where an old woman sat. Her coarse shrieking could be heard from some distance and it was evident that she was something of a local character. Her stall was laden with an assortment of jade pendants, bracelets and rings, which she probably fashioned herself from the raw gemstone. Wordlessly taking out his cell-phone, a weary Blake held up a picture of his daughter, anticipating that, like all the others before her, the crone would shrug her shoulders indifferently and wave him and Elle away. But on this occasion things were different, and an excited babble ensued between the two women. Sensing that the breakthrough they had searched for was finally in the making, Blake eagerly sought out Elle’s expression. “Oh my God, Adam!” she blurted at last, making him jump. “This woman remembers seeing Sophie! She saw what happened!”

Floored by the revelation, Blake could barely register Elle’s next words: “She says she saw her yesterday. Tried to warn her as a car… a large black van… came up behind her. She thought Sophie was about to get run over, but then what happened was… Oh God, Adam.” Elle faltered. She had been repeating in English the lines the woman had spoken, but the next would be difficult to say. “She says the car drew up beside Sophie… And then someone pulled her inside.” It was the most painful thing Blake had ever heard, confirming his worst fears. “Dear God…” he murmured, shuddering physically. His daughter’s disappearance was no accident, then. She was not just lost somewhere in this bustling market town. She really had been kidnapped. “Adam. Adam,” Elle persisted, jogging him from his thoughts. “What? What? She’s been kidnapped. I heard you, OK?” Blake answered, testily. Ignoring this, Elle then gave him some news that would considerably raise his hopes. “Adam. Listen to me. There’s something else. It’s important,” she stated. “This woman says that the car number plates indicated it wasn’t local. She doesn’t know exactly where it was from, but she remembers the Chinese characters.” “Meaning what?” “Meaning that we need to find out where that is. It’s obviously our next destination!”

Blake threw a bunch of yuan on to the counter of the old woman’s stall before they both walked off, apace. Somehow, they needed to discover the vehicle’s origin, and fast. Recalling that the café in which they had earlier sat was internet-enabled they raced back, where Elle sequestered the screen by shoving a group of startled teenagers aside. Hurriedly, she typed some characters into the search engine. Brow furrowed, her face was a picture of concentration. “I’ve got it!” she said, eventually. “Qinzhou!” “Where?” And now her joy at the discovery faded. “Oh, Adam,” she said, frowning. “That’s a port town, down south. I hope we still have time…”

posted by Kirk at 8:31 pm  

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