The voyage to Hong Kong would take around four weeks. Strange as I expected the vibes on board to be, the prospect of fresh sea air and some clarity from Delphi and Gunther as to the way forward inspired me to harbor more positive feelings than one might expect. I’d left the car in the care of the Angel club. Now, sea-bag in hand, I straggled up the gangway. Delphi stood alongside the Quartermaster. Her arms were folded. When my eyes met Delphi’s, her harshness burnt a hole in me. My guard went up and I dropped my bag.
“Arrest him.” She pointed her finger directly at me. Delphi, my nemesis, my judge, my executioner. Two imposing figures—guards, whose tactics Gunther would have undoubtedly modelled on those used by Naval Police—stepped out of the shadows and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. I may be small but when pushed I can get real nasty and I got in two jabs to the head of one of them. Slammed my right fist into the other guard’s guts. Both men were made out of concrete and had no trouble restraining me. My feet never touched the ground as they dragged me away and threw me in slots. Kicked and slapped me. Not a severe beating but it wasn’t what you’d call fun either. I curled up in a ball and took most of their blows on my forearms and legs.
They bolted the door shut.
Don’t know how long I lay there for but eventually I staggered to my feet. I had a grubby porthole, a single mattress and two bottles of fresh water. In the corner was an iron toilet and wash basin. The space was barely big enough to stand up in.
I dropped back onto the mattress and drilled myself with questions. What if Delphi had decided the only option was to wait until they were in open waters and toss me overboard? Was it her idea of a joke and I’d be released in the morning? Could all options be on the table and they were still weighing up what to do with me?
The reality that I’d killed an old friend only hours earlier played intermittently on my mind but any time guilt stabbed me in the heart I reflected on Sanchez’s request for Delphi to die a slow death. Who even thinks like that? He had it coming. Still, I couldn’t deny that Delphi had played both of us.
I did eventually drift into a shallow slumber. Every half hour or so, the ache in my legs and hopelessness of my predicament would shock me awake like a bucket of cold water in the face. At sunrise the shrill pipe from the Quartermaster rang out through a speaker somewhere outside my door, summoning all hands on deck. The night before, when they tossed me in the brig, it happened so quickly, I hadn’t taken in much of my surrounds. The roll and sway of the ship, or lack of it, led me to surmise they’d taken me several floors down, around midships. Total isolation from the crew.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and gazed through the porthole. The flat Atlantic, a clear blue sky and a flock of seagulls gliding alongside. There were two slots in the cell door—the one in the middle opened.
“You okay, Peterson?” Gunther’s utterance had a resonance of genuine concern.
“What do you think? Why am I here?”
“Just stay strong buddy. Delphi will speak to you.”
“Why don’t you come in here and speak to me?”
He slipped a tray of food through the bottom slot.
No reply just the fading shuffle of footsteps in the corridor as he disappeared without another word.
“Come back here.”
Didn’t care if I never saw the bastard again. I squatted on the floor and got stuck into the bacon and eggs.
In the dark of the night, I picked out the occasional vessel cresting the horizon. A caravan of flickering lights. I’d been locked up for forty-eight hours when a cryptic occurrence broke the monotony. My cell door opened and one of the Angels stepped inside carrying my sea-bag. She set it down in front of me, the door clanged shut behind her and she sat down on my mattress.
I recognized her. “You’re Vera, right?”
She had on one of those sailor fuku outfits worn by Japanese schoolgirls. Her long ponytail rested on the flap collar and her skirt was as short as they get. “Delphi said you can fuck me if you want to.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” It wasn’t that I found her unattractive. Delphi attempting to organize my sex life made me feel queasy. “Well?” I held my hands out. “Anything else?”
Vera’s sensual features and eyes that I’d previously read as playful were indecipherable but I did get the sense that she appreciated me not taking advantage of her. She opened her schoolbag and placed a bottle of betadine and a strip of tablets on the floor. “Your face isn’t cut. Got any wounds anywhere else that need dressing?”
“Leave me alone.” Childish as it sounds, I didn’t want Delphi sharing me with anybody. A cloud of depression washed over me.
“Take a couple of those anti-inflammatories.” Vera knocked on the door four times, it swung open and she departed.
I stared straight ahead. A situation so hopeless that I resigned myself to the prospect of never seeing another sunset.
On the morning of the third day, I awoke to the clang of the door being unbolted. The Quartermaster told me to get dressed, step out and walk two paces ahead of him. Reluctant to leave my cell, he assured me Delphi had sent for me and not to cause any trouble.
We marched through the service area towards the bow, crossing paths with a handful of the crew. No one made eye contact. If the Quartermaster had plans to put me in the drink I had my fists clenched ready to make a fight of it but instinct told me I wasn’t about meet my maker.
Behind the bridge, we arrived at Delphi’s quarters next to the captain’s cabin. Two young Able Seamen stood guard either side of the open door. Delphi sat behind a small, heavily lacquered oak desk, a slender cigarette in one hand and teacup in the other. She didn’t look up from her laptop. The door shut behind me and I stood there alone, awaiting orders.
Her cabin had the appearance of a military berthing that had very much been subjected to a lady’s touch. Purple satin sheets on the double bed and flowering pot plants on the shelf. On my left, her clothes were immaculately folded in the open wardrobe. A series of framed landscapes and figure drawings on xuan paper were fixed to the curvy bulkhead. The entire cabin shone under a lustrous coat of lilac. I tried to make out the Cantonese inscriptions on one of the drawings but my eyes were drawn to a glossy silk dressing gown—very pink and very alluring—casually draped over the end of the bed.
Delphi wore dark brown overalls and Doctor Martin boots. She’d pulled her hair back into a ponytail and the absence of make-up exhibited her freshness. As I examined her curvaceous figure and delicate features, the reality that I still loved her led me to close my eyes, almost in pain.
“Thank you.” I unfolded a small metal deckchair and took up a seat opposite her.
She opened a draw in the cabinet beside her, pulled out a Ruger SR22 pistol, pointed it at me and pulled the trigger. I immediately experienced that sensation of a downward push in my bowels. Thankfully the weapon wasn’t loaded and I took charge of myself before ruining my underwear.
Seeing her smirk was the final straw. I cursed her, sprang to my feet, and marched towards the door.
“Okay, okay, I forgot how fragile you are.” She pointed to the chair. “Come on Peterson. You’ve got questions for me I’m sure, now sit yourself down.”
Out of options, I returned to my seat. She closed her laptop and poured two cups of tea. I’d had nothing other than bottled water to drink and couldn’t turn down the opportunity to savor the red Chinese tea. I took a sip, put the cup to one side and told her, “For the record, I’m not fragile.” I leaned back in my chair. “Like any man, I’m not partial to being kept in solitary then having the trigger pulled on me.”
Her stare turned steely. “What’s wrong with Vera?”
“What do you mean? She’s—”
“Why didn’t you take her? Nothing to stop you. Why?”
“You’re asking me why I’m not a rapist?”
“Fair enough.” She topped up our teacups and closed her eyes like she couldn’t quite work out where to begin.
I needed to know, why me? Why did she set up the fatal confrontation with Sanchez? Was she forcing me into her ghastly business? Why was I being kept in cells? Would I even survive the voyage? But I said nothing. Simply stared into that gorgeous, sensual face and waited for her to make the next move.
“You did well when Sanchez moved for you. Sure, my husband had drugs in him, but it aint easy to fight off a man twice your size. Admirable restraint you showed when Vera was at your mercy.”
From her observations I surmised she’d been engaging in an assessment of my character. Had I passed her stringent test?
“Did you know, Peterson, that a good chunk of the population can’t cope with solitary confinement? After forty-eight hours, maybe seventy-two, they slip into a dreamlike state and never pull out of it.”
“Makes sense. Your dreams are all you have.”
“The beating you took—you over it now?”
“I’ve had worse. I’ve dealt out worse.”
“Never picked you as the violent type. ”
“Something I learnt in the military. How to dish out violence or take it if there’s no other choice.”
“I always thought of you as a softie.”
“That’s why you put me through all this, right? See what kind of man I am?”
She didn’t bother answering. Took a sip of her tea. “How do you feel about pedophiles?”
Stupid question. Like everybody I think they’re the scum of the earth. “Never thought about it too much, but they belong in prison.”
“Nothing more extreme?”
“It’s for the courts to decide.”
Her eyes turned to one of the drawings on the bulkhead. A boy chasing his dog down a rich green hillside. “No, I’m the one who decides.”
“For Christ sake, Delphi, tell me what you want!”
“You’re here because of my son.”
That I did not expect to hear. “Your son?” The ship rolled and I had to grab the bulkhead so as not to slide off my seat. The change in her demeanor, the way her eyes wouldn’t meet mine and her fidgeting hands told me it was difficult for her to recall what must have been an enormously painful episode in her life.
“Five years ago, Jonathon was abducted. We agreed to pay a ransom. Called the Hong Kong police. Kidnapper found out we’d brought the cops in and stopped all contact. Around six months later we’d still heard nothing, but we’d met other parents. Some bodies were showing up. Butchered bodies. Police told us holding out hope was futile.”
“They never found your boy?”
“When they arrested Daigle—”
“That was the kidnapper’s name?”
“Yes. He said he got rid of Jonathon and a little girl at sea. Her body washed up on the beach at Jiaokeng Bay. Daigle hung himself in prison. Case closed.”
“Well I’m sorry to hear that. How did Sanchez—”
“Sanchez was useless. He didn’t care.”
That surprised me. The man was loyal to family. I sipped my tea and chose my words carefully. “Five years ago. That was during a period of about two years when none of us saw you or Sanchez. We assumed he was working in Asia somewhere.”
“He was. Busy with his whores. I had no one to turn to.”
“Jesus Delphi.” I banged my fist on the desk. “You could have turned to me. You knew how I felt. You could have chosen me to begin with.”
“I am turning to you. I have chosen you.”
Well she had me there.
I let out a long sigh and finished off my tea. Felt like I was tumbling down a bottomless rabbit hole. Deeper and deeper. “None of us can change the past, Delphi.”
“Sometimes history re-writes itself.” She reached out, slid her hand over mine and then withdrew it. The sensation of her skin touching mine took my breath away.
“Peterson, my boy is still alive.”
For the next twenty minutes I let her speak without interruption. An elite pedophile ring called the Vaslav Network used operatives like Daigle to abduct children. Professionals of all stripes—they were above the law. So far did their reach extend, if one of the operatives were captured they’d have them murdered in prison, as was Daigle’s fate.
Delphi got the news about her son from the wife of a prominent surgeon. The woman had been investigating her soon to be ex-husband’s seedy little secret life. As a member of the Vaslav Network he had access to a number of children. One of them was a western boy called Jonathon Sanchez. The next day she Googled his name, tracked Delphi down and after examining his photograph, confirmed his identity. The lady never made contact again.
She offered me more tea and I accepted. “So you want to find your boy.”
“Have to find him.”
“How much do you have to go on?”
She reached into the cabinet where she kept the pistol and pulled out a cellphone. In Notes she had a list of five names with a one-line description after each one.
I read out loud, “Henderson Wang, Ministry of Education. David Zhang, Real Estate tycoon.” Before I could finish she powered off the cell and put it to one side.
“The surgeon’s wife gave you that list?”
She nodded. “Her husband is David Ho but any one of them could be holding Jonathon hostage.”
I had to play Devil’s advocate and point out the reality that infiltrating such a powerful syndicate would prove almost impossible. “If you go after one of those fellows, the rest of the network would know about it.”
“Sure. That’s why we need to strike quickly.” She offered me a cigarette and I accepted.
Blew a line of smoke at the table and kept my eyes down. “Don’t even think about involving me in that disgusting body harvesting business.”
Finally she cracked a smile. A naughty smile. A smile that made me think she did genuinely have some affection for me. “It’s your gentlemanly way that makes you invaluable to this operation.”
“Gunther put his contacts in Hong Kong to work and discovered the Vaslav Network’s trade in body parts. He located a doctor in Palm Springs who’s in the business. He’s handled our first body and Sanchez’s bits and pieces will get us entry into the Hong Kong market.”
“Why didn’t you get Sanchez doing whatever it is you want me to do?”
“The part calls for a gentleman’s finesse. Sanchez was an ape and Gunther is even wider of the mark. No it has to be you and especially now that you’ve proved your tough enough.”
Well my situation didn’t exactly offer a host of options. If I was going to go along with her plans I had questions that needed answering. “Besides Sanchez, who else have you chopped up and sold?”
“Maybe it was a disobedient sailor who Gunther could no longer trust.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“Don’t worry about it, Peterson. Right now all you need to know is after we dock we have thirty days to find Jonathon.”
She’d waited five years, I assumed it wasn’t unreasonable to take as much time as necessary to get the boy back. “Why the rush?”
Now she was hurting. Scared and hurting—I read it in her pellucid eyes. “The network have little interest in adult targets. They take children, enslave them and the day they turn eleven they have a crazy ritual and sell them on for spare parts.”
“Jonathon is ten, right?”
“For sixty more days.”
Alright, so they were on a clock. We were on a clock. “If we’ve got sixty days, why waste thirty of them traveling by sea?”
“A fair point. This ship and its crew are integral to our plans. Gunther knows this route very well, knows how to avoid the authorities. Takes longer but it’s ultimately safer. That’s how we planned it.”
So they had plans. Alright. High time she informed me of my place in her plans. “So what do you want from me?”
She pointed over my shoulder. “You’ll be working with her.”
I spun around in my seat and saw Vera. A sweet smile on her face, she too wore overalls and held a manila folder in her hand. “How long have you been standing there?” I hadn’t heard her enter the cabin.
When I turned back Delphi was toying with a camcorder.
“May I ask what you intend to film now?”
“Nothing. I’m deleting the footage of you and Sanchez.”
Curiously, I didn’t feel any sense of relief. She didn’t need any blackmail movie. She knew how I felt about her. She knew I’d do anything to be with her.
Delphi stood and stared through the porthole at the rolling sea. With her back to me she said, “Vera will show you to your cabin. She’s good at what she does so listen to her.”
I caught sight of the drawing featuring the little boy and his dog on the hillside. Part of me wanted to take Delphi in my arms and softly kiss the back of her neck. Obviously, I didn’t.
“I’ll do my best Delphi. It’s only right that we rescue your son.”
She turned back to face me and I noticed a tear rolling down her cheek. I had some idea of what she was experiencing for I too had the emotional scars carved into my soul by the loss of a son.
In that sweet little girl’s voice, she said, “Go with Vera. Please go.”