Vera opened the door and we entered a space she described as having originally been used to store fuel and chemicals. That turpentine scent still hung in the air. I had the impression Vera and the other Angels used it as a kind of operations room. Inside, the three Angels were squatting side by side on the floor. The stripped back long gun and pistols laid out on a sheet of canvas in front of them told me they were on weapons detail.
They acknowledged Vera with a smile; when I nodded not one of the three returned my greeting. I didn’t get the feeling they were being rude, in fact they came across as rather shy.
“So you’re all armed and dangerous, are you?” I didn’t wait for them to offer me a seat. Sat down in the armchair in the corner. Couldn’t do much about Delphi pushing me around, but I wouldn’t take it from anybody else.
I reflected on the conversation I’d just shared with Delphi and how much had changed since we first met. Twelve years earlier, she was an energetic eighteen-year-old, waitressing at the Hunan, a restaurant popular with sailors, deep in the heart of Hong Kong. Later that evening, she was on a break and we were chatting at the bar. I couldn’t tear my gaze from her gorgeous hazel eyes as she recalled, in her sweet little girl’s voice, her only trip to the West, when she’d visited Cincinnati.
Someone—we never found out who—roofied our drinks. I woke up in the gutter and she was sloppy enough to get fired. Sanchez showed up to get me back to the ship before the Shore Patrol nabbed me. He found Delphi slumped over beside me in the gutter. Put me in a cab, drove her home himself and the two of them began dating. If only I hadn’t ordered that tequila sunrise.
Vera stood in front of a map of Hong Kong pinned to the wall above a long cabinet on wheels. She kept her back to me. “We needed a concealed carry. Small but effective. Gunther got us those. What would you have recommended?”
“Why ask me?”
“Gunther says you’re a good shot. Are you?”
“Sure, Vera, I’m not bad.” I’ve had a lifetime love affair with shooting, but I’m talking English double trap competition, clay discs and shotguns. As a teenager I competed in the ten meter air pistol event shooting a 4.5 mm. I got bored with that and spent a good deal of my shore leave participating in the Match Rifle discipline in Stickledown shooting at ranges of up to a thousand yards. I tried hunting when I moved to the States but couldn’t get into it.
I didn’t put too much thought into my answer. “You’re talking about a Saturday Night Special? Jennings J-22, I guess.”
She turned to face me, shook her head and pointed to the pistols. “Gunther insisted we use those. Ruger II 380s. Good for us girls.”
I didn’t know where she was going with this. “What do you want me to say?”
I moved to the front of the desk and absorbed the wide variety of paperwork attached to the wall behind it. Upon closer inspection, every post-it, every scribbled note, the maps, the photos and the rest of it were pieces in the puzzle they were putting together. “Your research into the Vaslav Network?”
“That’s what we mostly work on here in the Operations Center.” Vera pointed to an island highlighted on a map of the greater Hong Kong area. “Come here and take a look at this.”
I moved to her side. “What might that be?”
“Cheung Chau Island. Also known as Death Island.”
She sat back down in her seat behind the desk. “A spate of unexplained suicides over the years have given it a sinister reputation. Basically people from Hong Kong go there to top themselves.”
“Charming. What’s our interest in it?”
“That’s where we can find David Ho. He keeps a summer house on the east side of the island. His wife’s detective followed him to a very private late night party in a temple behind a remote beach over on the west side. The detective later identified all five men in the Vaslav Network as being in attendance, together with a group of boys and girls. One of them was Delphi’s son.”
“Any security at these events?”
“Wang has two armed guards twenty-four seven and at special events like the temple an extra two will patrol the perimeter. Delphi has drone footage on her laptop.” She opened a manila folder and laid out a series of five photographs on the desk. “These are our five men.”
They looked no more and no less than anyone else. In their forties or fifties, well-dressed in business attire. When she told me every one of them had a wife and kids of their own, it made me a little sick in the guts. I took up a seat on the other side of her desk. “So paraphrase your plan for me.”
Vera tapped one of the photographs. “David Ho. We know along with boys, he likes Asian girls in their mid-teens, so we start with him. He drinks at the Royals Bar in Wan Chai. The Angels will find their way into his bedroom and make an opportunity for Gunther’s men to grab him. We’ll get him back to the ship.”
I scoffed. “Middle aged men, especially professional pedophiles like Ho, want nothing to do with groups of girls in bars looking to get picked up. There’s a good chance the men will get rolled and they know it.”
All three of the Angels giggled; I spun around and did my best to shoot them a disapproving glance. When I turned back to Vera she too had a cheesy grin on her face. “Oh, I see.” Now I knew what they had in mind for me. “I’m to get chummy with David and tell him about my three little friends here and how we’re looking for someone to share a good time.”
“Something like that.”
The reality that I would be going out into the Hong Kong night on a dangerous operation began to sink home and I lit up a cigarette. “Him trusting me at our first meeting is a long shot. You’re going to stake everything on that unlikely outcome?”
“It won’t be your first meeting, Peterson.” She moved to the long cabinet on the far side of the room. Opened the top lid. Frosty mist emerged. A freezer. “The day before you’ll be meeting him to hand over this.”
I didn’t wait to be asked. Had a look for myself. Through the ice I could see four pieces of meat. When I noticed one of them had ears it a sickly acidic taste welled at the back of my throat. “Sanchez?”
“What did you need the head for?”
“David Ho collects them.” She returned to her seat and gestured with an open hand for me to do the same.
I staggered back to her desk and slumped into the chair. “Who chopped him up?”
“Doctor in the sick bay,” said Vera. “Delphi’s a registered nurse and she assists although she’s not cut out for that sort of thing.”
The thought of Delphi in a blood-stained nurses uniform handing the doctor the scalpel to remove Sanchez’s bits riddled me with disdain and self-doubt. “You may find that I’m not cut out for this sort of thing either.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Delphi is counting on you. Can she?”
I tried to push the image of the woman I loved from my mind. Closed my eyes and told myself I’d get over her. All I had to do was wait until we were ashore then I could disappear. It did no good. I adored Delphi. Had to get her son back and wipe away the tears from Delphi’s eyes. “Yes, she can count on me.”
It was acknowledging my undying feelings for Delphi that gave me a second wind. I sat up straight in my chair and delivered my appraisal of Vera’s proposed operation. “So you’re thinking we get David Ho on board, lean on him until he tells us who has young Jonathon and then go after them?”
“That’s pretty much it.”
“It’s unworkable. Should any one of the Vaslav Network go missing the rest of them would have mechanisms in place to protect themselves. Through their legal and enforcement contacts they’d be invulnerable.”
Before Vera could retort the door swung open. Two able seaman entered; Delphi walked in behind them. The sailors took up position at either end of the freezer and wheeled it out and away down the corridor. Delphi shut the door behind them, then made what sounded like a positive comment in Cantonese to the girls who had completely re-assembled the long gun. An AR-15. She moved to the back of the desk and stood beside Vera.
“How’s it coming along?”
“Not bad,” replied Vera. “Peterson is expressing the same concerns you have with the network running for cover once we’ve got Ho in the bag.”
“Alright,” said Delphi. “Let’s hear your thoughts, Peterson.”
I didn’t want to completely discredit their plan so I thought it best to focus on the aspects that were workable and elaborate on them. All project administration is the same and vulnerable to the mismanagement. Whenever I had to organize stores and vittles for a camp, the Leading Seaman and Petty Officers would always have everything broken down into segments which were supposed to link up naturally. They’d spend too much time focused on a sailor’s individual requirements, whereas I offered no such accommodation. I made Chief because I utilized simplistic reduction. One supplier. The same meal three times a day and on and on.
“Well ladies, before I begin can you tell me about this temple on Death Island?”
Delphi didn’t appear to expect that question. “It’s rundown. Abandoned.”
“Why did the network hold their soiree there?” I stubbed my cigarette out in the ashtray and caught Delphi’s eye. “Ho has his summer house and I’m sure they’ve got access to all kinds of venues. Why the temple?”
“So is the South Pole. No, no, it’s a ritualistic setting. Did the detective report on what was going on at the event?”
Delphi unfolded a deck chair and took up a seat beside Vera. With both girls sitting opposite me it felt like a job interview. “He didn’t get inside. Jonathon went outside into the bushes. There was a lone banana tree hidden in the scrub. He picked a handful, the detective was mindful of the guards but he approached him and managed to ask him a couple of questions. Jonathon spoke English. He identified himself but he wouldn’t leave with the detective. Got scared, dropped his bananas and ran back inside. That’s when the detective thought it best to withdraw to an adjacent beach.”
“He reported nothing else about the event?”
“What about the music?” said Vera.
Delphi lit up one of her slender Chinese cigarettes. “On the stroke of midnight he heard them all singing. After that he heard screams.”
“I only know it as a Jewish party song.”
“Well? What song?” It was probably nothing but we had so little to go on I needed to know. “How does it go?’
“It’s pretty catchy. I can whistle it for you.” She puckered up her lips and though whistling was clearly not her greatest talent, the tune was unmistakable.
“That’s Hava Nagila.”
“They play it at Jewish weddings,” said Vera. “Right?”
“I don’t think they chose to make ironic use of Hava Nagila with a wedding a mind.” Delphi and Vera both leaned slightly forward, clearly anxious to hear my deduction and I enjoyed my elevation in the dynamics between the three of us. “It’s traditionally sung at bat mitzvahs.”
Though Vera’s expression remained blank Delphi and I for the first time in years shared a smile. Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
“When a boy becomes a man,” said Delphi.
“They’re making fun of the kid before they kill him.”
“On his eleventh birthday.”
I had to ask, “If they’re only children when they get nabbed, how does the network know their birthdays?”
“They know everything. They’re the Vaslav Network.” A look of dread manifested in Delphi’s eyes. Time was running out to save Jonathon.
“Forget snaring the men of the Vaslav Network one at a time.” This was my project now and I had to see that it would be carried out my way. “We can only be certain of one occasion, one location where we know all of them will be with all the children including Jonathon.”
“No.” Delphi grabbed my cigarettes off the desk, lit one for herself and blew the smoke at me. “You’re proposing we wait fifty-three days until Jonathon’s birthday on August the first when he’s scheduled to be killed and extract him then.”
“What if it doesn’t work? What if they’re not at the temple?”
“How did Jonathon know about the banana tree?”
A lengthy silence ensued. I broke it up by saying, “Well?”
“He’s been there before,” said Vera.
Delphi scowled at her then let out a long breath. “You know, if we screw up in any way my son is dead.”
“That holds true for every step in this operation, Delphi.” I stood up and took the AR-15 from the girls.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said Delphi.
I ignored her and made sure the fire selector was on safe, released the magazine and placed it on the desk. “I’ll drop off the late Mr. Sanchez’s bits to David Ho. Will mention I have a date later that evening with three lonely fifteen-year-old maidens.”
Delphi nodded at the girls as if to say it’s okay. “Be careful with that weapon.” She glanced at the magazine then leaned back in her chair with her hands behind her head. “No need to take all three girls. One will do it.”
“Certainly, every one of them could pass for fifteen.” I placed my strong hand on the pistol grip and support hand on the forward handguard. “All I need is to get confirmation David Ho is going to be on Death Island on August the first.”
“Are you going to find a way to be at the temple event?” asked Vera.
“No. Would need too much time to gain the trust required for an invitation.” I tucked the stock into my shoulder, curled my finger around the trigger guard and took aim at the map of Hong Kong.
“You’re not thinking we should launch a paramilitary attack on the temple,” said Vera.
“Not one that would attract attention before we’ve made our escape.” I could feel Delphi’s desperation to have more details. She wanted something solid. Something to give her hope. I got Death Island in my sights and whispered, “Bang,” then handed the weapon back to the girls. I had to come up with something Delphi would find impressive. Of equal importance was to formulate a plan we could realistically pull off—and get away with. Pedophiles are scum so I had no qualms about proposing an operation so deadly and ruthless Delphi would rubber stamp it. “We extract Jonathon, after which the Network realize they’re about to be exposed and all die in a joint suicide pact.”
“Oh yeah,” said Vera. I had the strongest sense Delphi was coming over to my way of thinking and Vera resented it. “What makes you think they’ll all top themselves?”
“We won’t give them any choice.”
Vera’s mouth, ever so slightly, hung open. Guess she didn’t think I had it in me to propose such a bloodbath but I was deadly serious. “Peterson, you realize you’re talking about murdering five men in one hit, right?”
“I do. I’ll bump them all off.”
Delphi didn’t look completely convinced. “You’re certain,” she said with a wry grin.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“You can have three of them,” said Delphi. She slipped her cigarettes into her pocket and tossed my pack at me. “Vera you stay here. Peterson, follow me.”
I loved the way Delphi walked and enjoyed it when she rose and strolled to the door.
“Where are we going?”
As we made our way out, I asked, “Why do I only kill three of them?”
She swung around, placed both hands on my shoulders, squeezed them and fixed me with a killer’s stare. “Because when I work out which one of them stole Jonathon and shared him with the others, I’m gonna blow his fucking brains out.”
I could see Delphi meant it. “And what happens to number five?”
“There’s a senior education official called Wang. Henderson Wang. Vera and the Angels deal with him.”
We closed the door behind us and walked side by side down the corridor. “Why is that Wang fellow Vera’s target.”
“Vera and the other three Angels are sisters. To be exact two of them are half-sisters. Different mothers same father.”
“Okay, so they’re sisters.” That was no kind of answer. “Tell me, for Pete’s sake, why is it so important to them to kill Henderson Wang?”
“He’s their father.”