Delphi made it clear, if we weren’t on a ticking clock she would have had me locked up in slots for the rest of the voyage. Payback for trying to keep her out of the gunfight. I suspected the real reason she didn’t try it was the new camaraderie I shared with the crew. I’d always heard shoot-outs will bring a squad together. Too right. Not one of those seaman, not even the guards who gave it to me on day one would have thought it appropriate to drag me off to cells and Delphi knew it. Not saying they’d disobey the order but locking me up would have been bad politics. I’d done well. The general public don’t realize it’s much harder to score a bullseye with a grenade launcher than it looks, but the crew sure appreciated it. And so did Gunther.
The following morning we had breakfast together. Our captain wasn’t known for his compassionate side and he asked me if I’d take charge of Vera and Kiara. Fast-track them through the grieving process. He wanted to confine himself to navigation and captain’s duties. I suspected the arthritis in his legs had given him some trouble during the fight. In shorts his knees looked like knots on a tree trunk and he’d acquired something of a limp. For my part, despite being deafened and a little shaken up when the bullets began to fly, I found the whole exchange to be thrilling and couldn’t clear it from my mind. After years of operating as the paperwork boy, somehow I’d found my calling.
Naturally losing two of the angels brought a tear to my eye. Seeing the two dead girls lying side-by-side with their eyes rolled back in their bloodied heads, shook me up. I didn’t dwell on it. Had my own survival to maintain. What was playing on my mind was the reality that Delphi and I would have to sort out our issues and redesign the Haji Temple Operation with only two girls and not four. Forty-eight hours after the invasion of the pirates, there was a knock on my cabin door. An AB told me Delphi was waiting for me at the stern of the ship. He then politely asked me to keep my walkie talkie on so he wouldn’t have to spend his time running messages between Delphi and me.
Delphi didn’t smile or offer any kind of greeting; she kept her eyes focused on the ship’s wake. A stream of bubbling soup. The wind blew her hair in every direction. As I moved to her side I detected a scent of sandalwood. Assumed she hadn’t applied it for my benefit. Were we going to have a Jack and Rose moment? Hardly. No sooner had I leaned against the railing then she ordered me to follow her and strolled away. Some girls know exactly how to push a man’s buttons and not in a good way.
Outside the deckroom armory she held a hand up and spoke in a whispered tone. “Vera and Kaia are in there cleaning the weapons.”
“I know. I’ve had them on it since sunrise.”
“What do you make of the way they’re responding to the deaths?”
I shrugged. “They’re getting on with it.”
It surprised me when she said, “Something’s wrong. Something has changed in them.”
We moved to the open deck.
“Delphi, what do you want me to do? Try speaking to them again? I’ve done that.”
She peered around my shoulder. “Speak of the devil”
Behind me both girls were holding TEC-9s and strolling my way.
“Gunther told us to forget these TEC-9s—he doesn’t like them.” Vera’s eyes wouldn’t meet mine.
“You girls will be carrying the AK 47s. I’m toying with using something else.”
For a moment all four of us shared an uncomfortable silence.
Before I attempted to break the ice, Vera said, “Do we have to strip back the TEC-9’s then? Been doing this all day.”
“Yes you do,” said Delphi. “On your way.”
They both nodded their heads slightly before they left.
“They seem alright to me.” I really believed that. Of course losing your sisters is traumatic but they gave the appearance of two girls who were just getting on with it.
“No there’s something wrong.”
An unfamiliar voice on Delphi’s walkie talkie identified himself as P.O. Ellis and requested our presence at the Comms Center.
We were three days away from Hong Kong, thirty-three days until Jonathon’s anticipated birthday party at the Haji Temple and our entire mission was about to get turned on its head.
We entered the Comms Center at the rear of the bridge. Pulsing electronic resonances hummed in the air. In one corner the crew had stacked a salad of seafaring equipment. Ropes, shackles, an old jib sail, a CQR anchor and a discarded iambic paddle and electronic keyer. A row of monitors lit up the back wall. Computers were on and blinking. Shortwave radio, two visual display units; cellphones plugged in and charging.
Ellis’ attention was totally focused on a radar screen. I stood behind him, narrowed my eyes and tried to work out what it was he found so absorbing. We were hugging the coast of Vietnam and the tracker had hit a target. Scanning, like an impatient clock hand, the target blinked again. Something was cutting through the clutter and edging towards us.
“Is that there on the radar screen what you wanted to see us about?” Delphi spoke with an air of impatience. She wasn’t used to the crew keeping their back to her when she entered the room.
“Nah, just a containership.” He rose and with his big black eyes stared through both of us. Probably in his twenties, his hollow cheeks bore all the hallmarks of too many amphetamine driven nights lost in the digital world. His putty complexion was the dull façade on a face made up of grayish pouches all stitched together. He pointed to a Mac on a desk in the corner. “Take a look at this.” He logged in and began scanning through documents. Showed us a blog he’d created on WordPress, and the LinkedIn profile of our imaginary journalist. Emails he’d sent to Wang and Ho. The newspaper with a headline announcing the investigation into the Vaslav Network.
Delphi sat on the edge of the desk next to the computer. “I trusted you to do all this Ellis, but what is it you really wanna show us?”
I offered him a cigarette. He lit it and spun his chair around so he faced both of us. “A while back you had me digging into Vaslav and I didn’t come up with much. Yesterday I had the bright idea of looking at the wives of the five men. Cross checked them with various records. Came across a Mongolian boy called Bataar.”
“Keep going,” said Delphi.
“I can’t prove it of course, but I’m pretty sure he’s being held by David Zhang.”
I remembered that name from the Vaslav list on Delphi’s cellphone. “The Real Estate guy?”
“Yep.” He ran his hands over the tops of his thighs, as if the secrets he’d uncovered were making him restless. “We should arrive in Hong Kong waters tonight.”
I nodded. Something told me an important announcement was coming.
“Three of the Vaslav five are going to Death Island tomorrow. The other two already there.”
“You think there’s a ritual at the Haji Temple?”
He nodded. “Tomorrow, Saturday, is Bataar Altan’s eleventh birthday.”
Now that was an announcement. “How sure are you?”
Before he could answer my question, Delphi was on her feet and making her way to the door. “Get that newpaper printed out with Sunday’s date on it.”
I had to quick step it to catch up to Delphi. She didn’t stop and I grabbed her arm. “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing to think about.” Delphi was the pedantic type who’d want to stick to the plan but hit the Haji Temple the next night. I’d already come up with something far more practical.
She turned away, I grabbed her, spun her around and told her, “Now listen and listen good.” I clasped her arms firmly and shook her. “Please.”
She pushed me off then appeared to relax. “Go on. What is it?”
We didn’t have to go to Hong Kong as we no longer needed to trade the body parts. I’d never been too comfortable with the prospect of getting weaponry over to Death Island from our dealer on Hong Kong island and had an idea that stood a reasonable chance of working.
She heard me out then suggested, “Let’s take this into the Operations Center.”
We spent fifteen minutes in front of the map of Hong Kong and the surrounding islands, pointing at different locations and musing over routes and strategies.
She sat on the table and leaned back. Her nipples on her plentiful breasts were showing through her T-Shirt and they really caught my eye but I tried not to stare. “Alright Peterson, so one of the lads gets us there in the inflatable. It’s you, me, Vera and Kaia. We land on the beach, make our way to the temple. Take them down, get Jonathon out, get back to the beach, on to the ship and hightail it out of there.”
I nodded. “And only handguns with suppressors. Can’t risk drawing too much attention.”
“How do we know there’s not twelve guards with fully automatic weapons?”
“That would attract way too much attention. Besides high powered weapons are hard to organize in Hong Kong.”
“You’re probably right.”
I approached her, squeezed her shoulders, said, “I am right,” and left to clear the plan with Gunther.
Delphi didn’t follow. She would be calling the Angels into the Operations Center to clue them in on the mission. By then Delphi and I were both showing a real talent for knowing what the other was thinking.
And knowing that brought a smile to my face.
One after the other, Delphi, Kaia and Vera descended the rope ladder on the port side and slipped into the inflatable. Gunther had given the order for complete radio silence and the edict seemed to have extended to all forms of communication, for as the crew went about their duties on deck they didn’t say a word. I handed my walkie talkie to P.O. Ellis. “Remember the drill.”
We’d been over it a thousand times, but still he repeated, “Delphi calls me twice on the cell. It rings four times before she hangs up. I don’t answer. I tell Gunther to ready the ship to depart because you’re on your way back.”
“And ninety minutes is all we get.”
“Starting sixty seconds from now. And sixty minutes from now I send that text message to David Ho.”
“Unload the media campaign right there and then.”
The plan was to create a narrative where David Ho got a text informing him the journalist was about to go public with his findings. Ho would be at the Haji Temple with his fellow Vaslav Networkers. We would make it appear as if the network couldn’t face the aftermath of being unmasked and made a collective decision to do themselves in. A far from perfect cover story, but one designed to buy us enough time to disappear across the Indian Ocean.
A quick handshake with Ellis. A deep breath. I scanned the concrete Hong Kong skyline on the horizon. A shimmering fluorescent façade standing shoulder to shoulder in majesty and ruling over seven million scuttling insects. It occurred to me, as I descended the rope ladder, that I’d been building towards that moment for my entire life. Everything else had been just a little distraction. The beast inside me had been a caged animal I never fed for I’d been too busy filling out forms in preparation for the end of the financial year. Didn’t want the operation to be a cakewalk. I wanted blood so badly I could taste it.
Seven hundred yards from shore.
The choppy sea beneath us made sitting in the inflatable waiting to get underway a bit like riding on a merry-go-round. Salty spray washed over us, stinging my eyes and irritating every scratch on my face. To skipper the boat, Delphi specifically chose a Leading Seaman who none of us were too familiar with. She didn’t want him hanging around after our ninety minutes were up, hoping and praying we’d show. He ordered Vera to release the stern line, gave us the once over then thundered the engine into life. The bow rose; we bumped and careened over the biliously heaving black water.
Delphi held tight to the roping on the gunwale and kept her eyes down, focused. Like all four of us, she was all in black, wore a ski mask, gloves and she’d armed herself with a Ruger LCP II. Very light and easy to rack. We didn’t bother with suppressors for Gunther’s old cans were three times the size and weight of the pistol itself. I’d gone over the drone footage and concluded the Haji Temple is so isolated we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with nosy neighbors. Besides, if we filled our enemys’ ears with a good bit of bang bang it would be a great way to ensure cooperation.
Four hundred yards.
Inside our foul weather jackets we had four six-round magazines. I ran a hand over the Matriarch knife hanging from my belt. With its recurved blade and downward-pointed tip it would do the job. Delphi knew her knives. She chose the Matriarch because they have a hook cut into the spine of the blade. It opens and locks the moment you pull it.
We pushed along at around twenty knots. The island grew larger and larger in my sights. Could make out the beach.
Twenty yards out.
The Leading Seaman killed the engine; I didn’t wait, I was over the side, knee-deep in water. The four of us made it to the beach and raced for the cover of the bush. Dropped to our knees to gather ourselves. The lemon scent of wildflowers invaded my nostrils as whining wind and the buzz and click of a thousand burrowing cicadas filled the night air. Less than a minute we’d been on dry land and already my heart pounded like a piston.
“Let’s do it,” whispered Delphi. She rose and nodded at me, Vera did likewise. They turned and headed into the scrub. For a split second I wanted to recall Delphi—but didn’t. Their role was to take out the guard at the entrance on the east side of the temple but Kaia and I had to strike first. From the drone footage I’d surmised that guard number one always manned the entrance to the temple while guard number two scanned the perimeter. We had to take out that second guard. He could have been anywhere and would be extremely familiar with the area, so to catch him unawares we’d have to be at the top of our game. There could have been a couple of other guards but we simply didn’t know enough to draw up concrete plans to deal with them. Find ‘em shoot ‘em—that was it.
It was less than a hundred yards to the temple but clawing our way through the bushes made it seem like a thousand. Upon climbing a small hill and reaching the cover of a banyan tree, I froze. The Haji Temple. Red stone walls crested by two crumbling orange pillars. Light streamed out of a broken window. Kaia shook my arm.
“I’m going in. I’m gonna shoot my father.”
That made me raise my eyebrows. “No,” I whispered. “We don’t go in until we’ve dealt with the second guard, as agreed by all. Remember?”
She didn’t reply but I could sense something was off with her. No sooner had we gotten a visual on the temple than she wanted to go off script.
“Zhàn qǐlái.” The voice came from behind us. Wearing a wry grin, I closed my eyes. Felt like kicking the earth. Had let Delphi down already. “What does that mean?”
“He means stand up,” said Kaia.
“Yes I mean it, now stand up slowly and turn around,” he said in a calm and rather nasally voice. The guard was tall and solid. With his silk suit and Luger, he could have had a part in a Johnnie To movie. From the temple a sinister choir rang out. Hava Nagila. The sacrifice was about to commence. Urgency and anger coursed through my veins like my heart was pumping propane.
What happened next neither he nor I could have expected. I saw it in his eyes—he recognized Kaia who screamed and threw herself at him. He shot her. He got her. Couldn’t stop her momentum and she slammed her shoulder into his groin. He lost his footing. Wrapped around each other, they tumbled down the hillside.
I drew my weapon and scrambled down the hill but couldn’t get a clean shot in the darkness. They rolled into the cover of the bush. Couldn’t have been more than six feet away from me and I could hear them growling but I couldn’t see a damn thing. Two more shots were fired. On my left I detected movement. Saw Kaia limp out from the other side of the bush then up the hill, towards the temple.
Behind me, a shadow shifted in the black. All my senses elevated. I shot the shadow, veered right and shot again, then pumped three more bullets into the darkness. He hit the deck. Groaned. Swore, then went quiet. I made my way forward. A strong arm wrapped around my legs and I fell heavily. The pistol slipped out of my hand. A second later we were locked in a horizontal fist fight. He got his hands on my firearm. The crack of gunfire rocked my left eardrum and sent an electric shock of pain through my head, though the bullet had torn into my stomach. I gasped but managed to pull my knife and stuck it in the side of his head.
He lay underneath me. I extracted my blade, pushed his body away and staggered to my feet. Pressed both hands into my gut. Warm blood seeped through my fingers.
From the temple came a barrage of gunshots and screams. All my thoughts were of Delphi, but the accelerating blood loss sent my heart to racing and I could only think of dying—and how not to. It took a minute but I found my pistol, rocked another clip into place and crawled up the hillside. All was quiet in the temple. A sense of dread consumed me but I made it to within ten feet of the east side entrance. The silence was broken by a flurry of activity as a swarm of kids charged out of the temple and shot off into the darkness. They never laid eyes on me.
With one hand I held a pistol the other kept my guts together. The spark of flame in my intestines now burned like a bonfire. Outside the entrance, two guards, their Lugers by their side, lay dead in a pool of blood. Both had been shot twice. One lay face down—both bullet holes were in his back.
Sweat streamed down my forehead. With my back to the wall I slowly made my way inside. The interior was about fifty square yards. Very brightly lit by four powerful movie lights—one in each corner. The air was thick and sulphurous. The central figure was a decapitated, fractured statue of Buddha. I gazed at the light blue ceiling then staggered forward.
A half a dozen long knives had been meticulously placed beside a stone slab, giving it the appearance of an operating table. The bloody corpses of the Vaslav Network lay hither and yon. All of them were dressed in long white robes now spattered with blood. One of them, Henderson Wang I presumed, had a .45 at his feet. Vera lay face down dead by his side. His outstretched hand held hers. It appeared as if he’d reached out and taken it before succumbing to his wounds.
On my left, a boy I recognized from photographs as Jonathon, stared at me through terrified eyes.
“Let me go with the others,” he said with a heavy Cantonese accent.
I followed his gaze and turned to my right. Two figures were on the ground by the wall. Delphi kissed Kaia’s forehead, then gently released her. She rose pulled off her ski mask and shook out her hair.
“Mǔqīn,” cried the boy. He raced into her arms.
“Everything’s okay now, son.”
Her eyes caught mine; I tried to speak but collapsed to my knees.
“Peterson!” Her voice echoed through my head.
She helped me back up to my feet. Together we shuffled to the entrance with Jonathon behind us.
“Any trouble waiting for us outside?”
I replied, “No,” and realized I could no longer feel my feet.
“Wait,” said Delphi. She pulled the newspaper from her pocket and hurried back into the temple. I turned around and saw her place the paper on the slab beside the knives. She lay her weapon beside one corpse. Back at my side she grabbed my pistol and dropped it in the pool of blood enveloping the guard.
“You shot the other guard?”
“Stabbed him,” I said.
Delphi pulled the knife from my belt and slipped it in the blood pool. In Cantonese she must have told her son to assist me for he got under my arm and together the two of them struggled outside with me barely conscious.
“Come on Peterson,” she said. “Don’t let me down.”
An odd choice of words but she knew what my priorities were. That girl always could push my buttons. We staggered through the forest. The blood wouldn’t stop streaming out of my guts and down to my knees. Sometimes pain is so excruciating you can barely feel it. You just want to die.
“Delphi. Tell me Delphi, what the hell happened in there?”
“Vera and Kaia went in blasting,” she replied. “A suicide mission of their own.”
Maybe after losing their sisters, the girls just didn’t want to live. We’ll never know.
“We’re making good time,” she said.
I collapsed. “Can’t go on.”
“Oh yes you can.”
Once again I forced myself to my feet and on we pushed.
Light-headed. Double vision. My mouth went dry and my legs shook.
At the edge of the beach, finally, I fell into a heap on the sand. Delphi took out her cell and made the calls to let Gunther know we were on our way back. Standing over me she flashed the light on her cell across the waters. I heard the Leading Seaman start the motor on the inflatable. Jonathon stood at her side, his arms tightly wrapped around her waist. The kid was white with shock.
“Why me?” I had to ask. She could have paid a mercenary to assist her in getting Jonathon back. No denying I hadn’t put in a great performance on the night.
She dropped to her knees, put her hands around my face and said, “Jonathon is your son.”
That sobered me up to the point where I could see straight, and I gazed over at the lad. Recognized the face of my grandfather in his. I couldn’t speak. Could barely think straight. “I…I can’t believe…”
“Come on Peterson, that first night we met? Our drinks were spiked?”
“But you don’t remember what we did out back of the restaurant, eh?”
I frowned. Tasted blood on my tongue. “Nope.” Couldn’t remember that at all. Wished I could.
So that’s why Sanchez didn’t care about Jonathon being kidnapped. Wasn’t his son. He knew it…
“Why didn’t you tell me he’s my boy?”
“You might have backed out and tried doing things your own way. Couldn’t risk it. I had to give you no options.” She caressed my cheek. “Besides, I wasn’t sure if you loved me enough to do this for me.”
“You should be bloody sure now.” I crooked my neck; my head was a lump of steel. Could make out the silhouette of the inflatable pulling up in the shallows. “They’ll be looking for three.”
“The children who escaped will tell them there were three invaders, not four. They never saw me. You two can escape, now get in the water and go.”
“You can make it too,” she said. Tears streamed down her face as she clasped my bloodied hands. “We can be a family.”
“I’m done for. Take Jonathon to see his brother in Birmingham.”
She slipped an arm under my shoulders. “Stand up.”
“No!” A burning pain electrified my limbs and I pushed her away. “Can’t move. Now go.”
I could hear her crying but I was fine. I’d saved my son. I would live on in him. Only Delphi had the strength to take care of my two sons. The three of them would be okay. The entire episode from the moment I got in my car and drove to the docklands in Baltimore to that very moment on the beach when Delphi lowered her face slowly towards mine, it all flashed before my eyes. Eyes that were closing for the final time as the last drop of life drained out of me.
She just kissed me.
That’s what I’ve been waiting for.
That’s what I…