Saturday, May 27
Captain Hillman sensed time passing, so he knew he must be conscious. At first he assumed he was in some sort of sensory deprivation capsule, since he had absolutely no physical frame of reference. Suddenly an itch attacked his left thigh, but when he tried to scratch it, he panicked because he couldn’t feel his arm.
He thought he must’ve broken his neck. But that didn’t explain why he couldn’t see or hear. He concluded it must be a nightmare, and resolved to relax and breathe slowly. And since it was a nightmare, not feeling his own breathing didn’t matter a lot.
He must have slept, because he next felt jumbled, random sensations of taste, touch, pressure, pain, temperature, and flashing color. The sensations intensified until he felt he would lose his mind, then they stopped.
Some time passed, and the sensations began again, but with indefinable differences. Then he heard a loud, yellowish humming from the left, gradually changing to a more general bluish white noise. Odd there was no aural sensation from the right.
PAIN! Total pain through every fiber of his being … then nothing.
Captain Hillman lost track of the number and frequency of those sessions, assuming he was undergoing some sort of sadistic torture. But his captors hadn’t yet probed for information. He longed for a direct confrontation with his tormentors, to see their faces and stare them down, to defy them as he had imagined during his anti-interrogation training. He was taught not to hate, because it would eat away his insides, giving victory to the enemy. He knew his best strategy was to resist with all his will.
Romeo Obozniev was in charge of twenty-nine other Russian mafia sociopaths assigned the daunting task of finding Karl Adams and his party as they would inevitably pass through Chek Lap Kok, the mainland airport serving Hong Kong Island. They had studied dozens of photos of the four fugitives, but Obozniev lavished particular attention on the Jewess, Rachel Yeshurun, because her small size and attractively angular features suggested to him a beautiful young boy. Simply fantasizing about what he would do to her initiated his coveted physical response, so he intended to be the one to find her.
Though Romeo had warmed to the project at hand, his comrades constantly groused about the long hours they were expected to be vigilant, and all the faces that began merging after only the first few thousand. How could they be expected to find four, probably disguised, people out of the tens of thousands who would pass through the jetway gates each day? Yet there would be no excuses, and their positions, if not their lives, depended upon locating those four troublesome people. By the end of their fifth day of watching, half the team was stupefied, a condition exacerbated by their periodic vodka consumption.
Lev Markov led another team of six Russians to watch the bank itself. Of course they had a cover story and forged papers to satisfy the bank’s security people. It seemed the four fugitives were international bank robbers from Russia who had targeted the Hong Kong and Beijing bank. He didn’t know Karl’s account number or in what name he had opened it, but he had the full cooperation of in-house security to spot any sizable transfers or withdrawals.
Hoping to motivate his men, Markov had posted a reward of five hundred thousand US dollars for the three Brits, and a cool million for the despised Karl Adams–alive! It would be worth every cent to slowly carve him up, a finger here, an ear there, and listen to him scream. He was curious to see just how long he could keep the blighter alive. Though that bungler, Witherspoon, had blown his attempt to roast Adams, Lev Markov would not fail.
The dowager’s hump Rachel had strapped to her back as part of her geriatric disguise kept her from resting during the seven hour flight from San Francisco. As she debarked, she had no trouble acting the part of the arthritic, seventy-five year-old woman, and her only goal in life was to lie down flat, without the hump. Before the flight she had happily anticipated becoming reacquainted with the sights, sounds, and odors of Hong Kong, but her sleep deprived, jet lagged misery prevented any such appreciation. Her secured reservation at the Island Shangri-la had cost a fortune, but having a bed waiting at the end of the long cab ride was worth it.
Ten hours after departing San Francisco, she hobbled into her twenty-eighth floor single room, dropped her bags, and fell face down onto the bed fully clothed. During the short seconds before sleep engulfed her, a thought briefly passed her semi-conscious mind. It was something about a meeting the following day, but it was gone, as was she.
Betty and I had reasoned that Markov’s resources were too limited to cover all of China. For that reason we chose to avoid Chek Lap Kok, or Hong Kong Intercontinental Airport as it was also called, and flew into Tokyo. Then we took the ferry to Shanghai and the train to Kowloon, across the channel from Hong Kong Island. Our assumed identities were never challenged, though we spent a great deal on the various expedited visas needed to cross all those borders.
Once in Kowloon, we sought quarters in any hotel that would have us without reservations. After tramping about half the day with our bags in hand, we finally found a quaint little room at the China Star. The nightly charge took my breath away, considering the small size of the room, and that only lavatory was located on each floor.
The friendly Chinese proprietor, who spoke the Queen’s English perfectly, explained that all but a very few VIP rooms in Hong Kong were quite small by American standards. The fact of our naivete, and that the gentleman assumed we were recently from the USA, demonstrated how Americanized we had become. We settled in to wait until the following day, when we were to meet Karl and Rachel at the assigned place.
Karl’s resolution to cleanse himself of ungodly thought patterns and language was hard-pressed during his periodic encounters with customs agents. Convincing those mindless extensions of the Communist bureaucracy that he had nothing to hide was like trying to push packaging cord. He had assumed the wrong persona as a traveling disguise, and matched almost perfectly one of the profiles they chose to harass. His short goatee and shaggy dark hair, along with his holey Levi’s, canvass sneakers and cut-off shirt sleeves convinced even the laziest customs agents that he was hiding drugs.
Flying into Beijing was his second mistake. It took him a full day to convince dozens of bureaucrats that he was a respectable, if eccentric, capitalistic imperialist pig.
From there he boarded the southbound commuter train that stopped anywhere there was an excuse to do so. How was he to know that he would have to purchase separate visas for each province he entered? And each new visa required debarking the train, being rejected by the normal travel agents who sold such things, waiting in some new bureaucrat’s office until he too was convinced Karl had nothing to hide, shelling out the exorbitant bribes and fees for the expedited visa, and rushing back to the train station to catch the next southbound.
He finally found himself sitting in a cab on one of the hundreds of ferries crossing Victory Harbor, praying he would arrive at the Island Shangri-la in time to meet his friends. He could physically feel the buzz of too little sleep and too much coffee during the trip. That, added to his splitting headache and the sensory overload of the sights, noises and odors of this seething mass of humanity, convinced him that he would literally die if prevented from cloistering himself for a few hours in the hotel room.
The ferry nudged gently into its landing, and instantly the hundreds of bicyclists crowded towards the bridge. Many minutes later, the bridge began lowering and the cabs started their engines. When they finally left the ferry, it was a short, but tangled, drive to the Island Shagri-la, where his reservations awaited him.
Karl walked into the lobby of the hotel just past noon, approached the registration desk, waited in line for fully one half hour, and finally found that their computer had never heard of him. Of course the clerk’s practiced contrition was of little comfort to the road-weary traveler.
Back on the street, Karl spotted the silver-colored top of a cab off loading a family of tourists, but it was a half block away. He broke into a flat-out sprint to reach it before someone else discovered it was available, and arrived just as the driver was taking the fare.
“Hold it!” he called as the driver turned to reenter the car, “I need a ride–”
Just then, a business man with a brief case walked up to the left rear door and hopped right in without an excuse me or by your leave. “Hey! That’s my cab!” Karl reached for the door latch and opened it to find the defiant, Indian or Pakistani-looking face staring at him. “Look, a hundred dollars for the cab!” The Indian’s eyes rolled and he stooped forward to speak to the driver. “Okay, two hundred!”
The Indian turned his face slowly towards Karl and said in his thick accent, “Three hundred!” Apparently the bloke thought Karl had more money than sense, which seemed to be the case, because he reached into his Levi’s pocket to remove a small wad of notes, pealed off the appropriate amount and offered it to him.
Karl breathed slowly, trying to maintain an even temper, put back the notes, stooped to remove his left canvas shoe, reached inside, and withdrew three rather soggy one hundred dollar American notes. The Indian grudgingly accepted the distasteful bits of paper with the tips of his fingers, gathered his overcoat and brief case, and stepped out. Karl cast his belongings into the rear seat, swung himself inside, and spied the driver’s greedy leer in the mirror.
“I need a place to stay. I have no reservations.”
The driver nodded knowingly and said into the mirror, “Okay mister, three hundred US dollar.”
Karl jerked up the door latch and flung it open hard against its stop, so the driver quickly added, “Mistake mister. Two hundred.” When Karl began to step out, “Okay mister, one hundred! No lower, or no ride!”
Karl reached out for the door handle and slammed it. “Go!” He again removed his shoe, withdrew one more note, and handed it through the slot in the plexiglass partition. He had no idea the driver would have made the trip for as little as twenty dollars, because the hotel was only three blocks away.
He also had no idea that three blocks distance could make so much difference in the quality of the neighborhood. This hotel was obviously old and in poor repair, but a bed by any other name … .
As much as his entire being rebelled, Karl walked the three blocks through the surging throng to arrive at the maitre d’ podium of the Café TOO. When he said “Presley party,” the distinguished-looking gentleman first surveyed Karl, then the reservations list. After another distasteful look at Karl, he raised his right hand and clicked his fingers. A waiter appeared about two seconds later, glanced at the list where the other man pointed, and escorted Karl to the private dining room where our meeting was to take place.
None of us could point the finger at any other because of our slovenly appearance after our long and difficult journeys. If Karl felt as he looked, he would probably have preferred getting a week’s sleep to eating the dinner we had ordered for him.
When he finally settled in, I opened the conversation. “Right. We’re all here. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering your dinner for you, Karl. Hopefully, a little refreshment will elevate your spirits.”
“I vowed to quit drinking what I need to elevate my spirits, but I’ll take what you’ve ordered.” His smile came across not particularly cheery, and none of us had much to say until after the meal.
“I’m tempted to delay this ‘til tomorrow.” Karl slumped in his chair as he spoke. “We’d all think clearer after some sleep.”
Betty appeared taken aback. “You’ve dragged us ‘alf-way around the world and now you want to postpone the operation?”
“I was just thinking–“
”You’re no more tired than the rest of us. I say we get on with it.”
“Please,” Rachel said, “let’s not argue, just because we are exhausted. I agree that we may as well get right to it. We didn’t have the time to arrange our strategy before we had to separate, and we shouldn’t go blind any further.” No one seemed of a mind to object further.
“One thing we can anticipate is the bank being closely watched.” Rachel considered for a moment and added, “They’ll also be monitoring account activity for large transactions. When Karl closes the account they will be onto us instantly.”
“The way I see it,” Betty said, “they’ll be looking for a single large withdrawal.”
Rachel considered Betty’s contribution for a moment. “And I’ll have to find out what hours the bank does business. If the doors are open until the moment the transactions cease being posted, we can complete our business without its being immediately detected.”
Karl spoke up. “And we don’t even have to haul a bunch of cash away. If each of you opens an account that you can access from stateside, I’ll transfer funds to them in relatively small amounts. Available money, no suitcase full of cash.”
“Right. Then it’s settled,” I said, “Tomorrow we each go in at different times to open new accounts. It’ll likely take most of the currency we have with us, but after paying for our rooms and confirming our transport back to the States, all we’ll need is taxi fare and enough to feed ourselves.”
We looked at one another and nodded assent, then Karl said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m wiped out. See ya in the morning for breakfast … in the coffee shop.
“Waiter!” We could make no complaint about the restaurant’s service, as our waiter popped in almost instantly. “How late does the coffee shop serve breakfast?”
“Ten o’clock in the morning, sir.”
“What do you mean, ten AM? That’s the middle of the night!” The waiter stared without comprehension.
Karl looked back to address us with exaggerated frustration. “Okay, quarter to ten it is.”
The Hong Kong and Beijing Bank was as busy inside as was the street outside. I went in first, and patiently waited in the New Accounts line, staring straight ahead so as to avoid noticing others and being noticed. I did, however, detect a heavy security presence, and there were so many Caucasian men in dark, pinstriped suits milling about that I had no idea which of them might be Russian Mafia.
After a half hour in line, most of which time I spent filling out forms, I stepped up to a chest-high, marble counter attended by a middle-aged Chinese woman named Ling. I guessed she was middle-aged at any rate, since I’ve never been successful estimating the ages of Asian people. Her English was broken but discernable, and I discovered we were mistaken as to the amount of funds necessary to open a basic checking account. One hundred dollars did the job, and in another twenty minutes I was on my way out of the bank with a booklet of counter checks, a temporary bank card, and a great feeling of satisfaction.
Betty and Rachel repeated my actions with one exception. Betty spied a man of medium height and slight build with a scar on the left side of his face, dressed in an expensive, charcoal-gray suit, dividing his attention between a computer monitor and bank clients. We managed not to attract his attention, however, which is very well since according to our description of Lev Markov, that was he.
The next phase would be tricky. Because of the nature of his account, Karl had to personally conduct transactions, albeit in the name of Pavel Chekov. At some point moments before the doors were locked, Mister Chekov would have to enter the bank and find the shortest line available. Due to the bank emptying of clients at that time of the afternoon, Karl would be more conspicuous than he wanted. We depended heavily upon the excellent disguise Betty had created for him, and on God’s providence, for his safety.
From previous observation, he knew the tellers would continue accepting transactions for a few minutes past the close of the business day, posting them on the following day’s ledger. Since the tellers had been alerted to report all sizeable withdrawals to the Russian “security” people present in the establishment, he had to transfer funds to our new accounts in smaller increments, even if the process took days to complete.
A spring shower had freshened our world whilst Karl concluded his business inside the Hong Kong and Beijing Bank. Seconds after he exited the building and a guard re-locked the doors behind him, the Sun emerged from behind a cloud, symbolizing the end of our intrigue.
We three were having tea at a street vendor where we might watch for him leaving the bank. As he glanced our way, we could tell without words that he had been successful. Then he turned the other way and proceeded to his hotel room. Our plan was to arrange four different flights from Chek Lap Kok, arriving in San Francisco at staggered times to avoid attracting curious eyes. We had agreed to meet at Nick’s Lighthouse on Fisherman’s Wharf the day following my arrival, since I was to be the last to make the passage.
The first to leave was Karl, traveling light, as were we all. His leaving China was much easier than arriving. It was as though the authorities were happy to see him go. Again, the long flight was uneventful, and passing through customs in San Francisco was seamless. Apparently the agents in California are more accustomed to seeing strange characters.
Betty was the third to make the flight, and I was fourth. Neither of us encountered anything remarkable enough to mention.
Rachel, however, had a far different tale to tell.