Sunday, October 28, 7:30 p.m.
In a private dining room above an alley on the crowded peninsula of Kowloon, the Moon Dragon spooned rare tea leaves into a fired clay pot while using his peripheral vision to examine his visitor for any sign of worry.
“You are sure that everything has been taken care of, Mr. Farley?” he asked in English as he raised the glass kettle exactly six inches above the pot and poured boiling water into it.
A British expatriate in his mid-forties, Farley exuded a competent air when he replied, “Precisely as you requested, Mr. Long.”
“I trust so,” Long replied, and sat back to let the tea steep.
Long Chan-Juan was in his early fifties, and in robust health. He wore a finely tailored Hermes blue suit, starched white shirt, Parisian silk tie, hand-sewn shoes, and a rare Cartier watch, a gift from his wife. On his right hand there was a gold signet ring that depicted a crescent moon and a winged lizard, an iconic representation of his name, which meant Moon Dragon in Cantonese.
The Moon Dragon fingered the ring, said, “All records of the transactions destroyed?”
“Of course, sir,” Farley said. “But then again I always work with the utmost discretion.”
Long leaned forward, and with precise and graceful gestures poured the fresh brew from the clay pot into Farley’s cup.
“A present for you then, Mr. Farley,” the Moon Dragon said. “I just received it from the mainland. A very rare pu’er. One thousand dollars an ounce.”
Farley looked on as Long poured a cup for himself and raised it toward the Brit. “To the future: may it be long and profitable.”
The Brit bobbed his chin, raised his own cup, and said, “Very, very long and very, very profitable, Mr. Long.”
The Moon Dragon smiled, sniffed, and took a sip of the tea, enjoying the pungent first pass aroma and taste. Farley took two longer sips, closed his eyes in pleasure.
Long set his cup on the table, studying his visitor again. When Farley opened his eyes, he said, “It pleases you?”
“Brilliantly, sir,” Farley said almost breathlessly. “That is the most exquisite tea I believe I’ve ever been fortunate enough to taste.”
“It gets more subtle with the second and third infusions,” the Moon Dragon replied. “Truly remarkable. And it’s yours. The entire ounce.”
Farley looked pleased, and said, “Very kind and thoughtful of you.”
“The least I could do given the circumstances,” said Long, bowing.
Farley drank the rest of the tea, then exclaimed, “Brilliant, Mr. Long, but I have another appointment to . . .”
The Brit stopped, blinked, and then coughed. He blinked again, slower this time, and the teacup slipped from his hand and fell to the bamboo floor.
Frightened now, Farley looked to the Moon Dragon, tried to speak, but couldn’t. He rocked forward on his elbows, and his head swung slightly as he began to fight for air.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Farley,” Long said, rising from his chair. “But my friends and allies like to keep things tidy, no loose ends that might come back to haunt us.”
The Moon Dragon stood there, watching the Brit, fascinated by the spasms and tics the poison was causing. “You were a competent errand boy. You simply knew too much and would suspect our involvement in the events of the coming days. You should have foreseen that we could not chance your betrayal. I’m sure you understand now.”
Farley’s eyes rolled up in his head and he attempted to swallow his tongue before crashing to the floor beside his teacup.
“A few more moments,” Long said to Farley as he quivered in the throes of death. “Then you meet your ancestors. May you embrace them with great joy.”
He went to an intercom on the wall and pushed a button. Moments later, a Mongolian man who was almost as wide as he was tall entered the room, said “Yes, Moon Dragon?”
Long said, “Strip him, Tuul. Take him toward Macau tonight, weight, and dump him. The sea and the sharks will do the rest.”
Monday November 29, 7 p.m. Indochina Time
Three hundred miles southeast of Vietnam
South China Sea
Night and clouds took jagged bites of the fiery horizon until there was only blackness beyond the aluminum halo cast by the Niamey, a 380-foot custom oil tanker cruising at six knots in deep, deserted water, bound for the Dun Quat refinery on the Vietnamese coast north of Ho Chi Minh City.
On a balcony below the tanker’s bridge, Agnes Lawton stood at the railing feeling the wind and the storm coming amid sweltering heat. She had just watched the end of day near the equator, hoping to see the legendary green flash said to appear at the moment where day meets night in the tropics. She had hoped the flash would be a positive omen, but she had not seen it, and she wondered what would become of her.
In her early fifties, attractive, a sharp intellect, a commanding personality, Agnes Lawton nevertheless feared that her current task might exceed her capacities. She hung her head and began to pray. Before she could finish her prayer, however, she heard the bulkhead door creak, and then a male voice said, “The others have asked that we adjourn for the evening.”
Turning to face her assistant, a much younger man named Josh Reynolds, she said, “The election is in nine days. Tell them to come out on deck, get some air, and we’ll go at it again.”
“They’re exhausted,” Reynolds protested. “You’re exhausted. Sleep does wonders for people’s dispositions.”
Agnes Lawton thought to argue, but then ceded the point. “I’d at least like a word with them before we retire.”
Fifteen minutes later below deck, she paused in her impromptu speech, gathering her thoughts, her attention roaming over the worn faces of the two men, a Chinese, and an Indian, who sat across from her looking as if they each carried an enormous weight.
“Both of you know that your countries seem to be at risk as much as mine,” Agnes Lawton went on. “We can’t lose sight of that fact.”
Both men nodded gravely, rose, and reached out to shake her hand; and then they left with aides trailing them out the door.
Gathering up her papers, she glanced at her assistant, who smiled and clapped silently. “Just the right tone, I think,” he said.
“I hope so. If these things came to pass . . . well, I can’t even imagine what the world would look like.”
Her aide bowed his head slightly. “Shall I have a snack delivered to your cabin?”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, snapped shut her briefcase and went out into the narrow hallway. Two men in plain clothes carrying Heckler & Koch submachine guns guarded a hatchway door at the far end. The taller of the men opened the hatch.
Before Agnes Lawton stepped inside, she said, “Wake me at five, Bill.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the taller guard said. “Sleep well.”
She watched him shut the door after her. Then she threw the lock, undressed and lay on the bunk in the darkness. She had heard a storm might be brewing and as she fell into sleep Agnes Lawton asked God for a peaceful night.
Three decks above Agnes Lawton’s stateroom, inside the oil tanker’s bridge, Jim O’Hara, the captain, was working at a computer, plotting his course. Suddenly, horrible, off-key singing came over the shortwave radio bolted to the ceiling above the helmsman.
O’Hara cringed at the voice, screeching like a wounded cat with no hint of melody, and in a language he did not recognize. The singer sawed on a few more bars until the irritated captain walked over, reached up and twisted down the volume. He glanced at the man at the helm.
“You understand any of that, Manu?” he asked. “You’re from these parts right?”
The helmsman nodded, “He sings in Indonesian, Captain. He’s saying all Malays like to have sex with dogs. Giving and receiving.”
“Sounds like a hit to me,” chuckled a deep male voice behind O’Hara.
The captain looked over at a beefy American carrying a pistol in an exposed shoulder holster. Beside him was a considerably smaller Chinese man carrying a shotgun, and an Indian who had a pistol in a side holster, and looked ready to doze.
“You can go below and sleep,” Captain O’Hara said to the Indian. “Supposed to get weather later, but we’re right on course.” He glanced at the radar screen beside the helmsman. “Nearest vessel is two miles away. Looks like a fishing boat.”
The American nodded and said, “Go ahead. I’ll take first . . .”
His voice trailed off as he caught movement out the window. The boots, legs, and torsos of four men appeared, floating out of the night on black parachutes.
“We got company,” the American yelled, going for his gun.
The captain snatched up the shortwave microphone. He turned up the sound on the receiver. The man was still screeching his obscene songs.
The captain triggered the mic, and tried to shout over him, “May Day! May Day! This is the Niamey. Position - -”
O’Hara glanced at the GPS readout over the helm. But before he could spit out the longitude and latitude coordinates, the helmsman dove for the floor behind the American, the Chinese, and the Indian who were heading toward the door, shouting into their own radios, demanding reinforcements topside.
A fifth attacker floated by the bridge at less than ten feet. He had the butt of a Kalashnikov slammed into his hip and sprayed bullets at them. The American was hit in the back. So were the Chinese and Indian. The captain grabbed for the shotgun, which the Chinese had dropped, intending to provide cover for the men coming from below.
O’Hara never had the chance.
He heard an explosion and then nothing ever again.
The helmsman lowered the pistol he’d taken from the body of the dead American. He dug in his pocket for his own radio and said in dialect, “Tell him to stop singing. Bridge is clear. Deck controlled. I’m disabling SHIPLOC.”
Agnes Lawton heard the rattle of gunfire even though her room was two decks below the bridge. She’d been drowsily preparing to sleep, but now, wide-awake, she threw on a jogging suit.
A sharp rap came at the door followed by a guard, saying, “Mrs. Lawton?”
She opened the door. The guard said, “We’re under attack.”
Agnes Lawton’s hand went to her throat. “By who?”
“Unclear. They have forces aboard. Parachuted in. They’ve jammed our communications. We’ve lost some people topside, but are moving reinforcements into position.”
“Have you - -?”
Shooting from a deck above cut her off.
Going stony, the guard said, “Do not under any circumstance open this door to anyone but me.”
He yanked the hatch door shut before she could reply, leaving her to fight a sense of growing terror. She cursed the insane secrecy surrounding her mission as well as her decision not to bring a satellite phone with her.
Throwing the deadbolt on the hatch door, Agnes Lawton looked to her laptop, open and glowing on the bunk. She tried to call up the Internet, but got no connection. She stared at the wireless icon. It had shown strong reception not ten minutes—
An explosion roared in the hallway on the other side of the stateroom door. If Lawton had not been seated, she would have been thrown off her feet. The force of it pulsed through the door, leaving her shaken and disoriented.
How was this possible? No one knew she was there. Well, a handful of people, but they were more invested in this meeting than she was, or the Chinese, or the Indian.
The hallway went silent, revealing the ringing in her ears. A man’s voice barked orders in an unknown language. If this man was calling the shots, then her bodyguards were --
She looked around wildly, spotting the fire extinguisher and a small axe in a compartment recessed into the near wall. A key slid into the door lock.
She grabbed the axe, lifted it, and then drove the blade into her computer again and again, splintering the case, the screen, and the hard drive.
Behind her, a man’s gravelly voice said in thick English, “Drop it.”
She froze, clutching the axe as if it were a very unstable ladder.
“Drop it, or I shoot you, make mess,” he commanded, in a strange accent.
Agnes Lawton set the axe on the bed amid the destruction of her computer. No matter what calamity she had faced in her long and remarkable life, she’d never given up. Not once. And she wasn’t about to start. She threw back her shoulders, and turned to face her captor.
Wearing a hood, he was sweaty and breathing hard as he glared at her over the barrel of a shouldered machine gun. He wore green cotton pants, black high top sneakers, and a sleeveless shirt. He had ropey, hard muscles, tribal tattoos, and deep reddish brown skin, as if stained by the juices of darker berries.
But it was his eyes that held most of Agnes Lawton’s attention. Wide, glassy, fervent and quivering, they were dominated by irises as black as night. Whatever his cause, he was a fanatic. She knew it in an instant and almost showed fear.
“Turn the round,” he snarled. “Hands behind you.”
He took a step toward her.
Agnes Lawton glared right back at the gunman. “Do you know who I am? Do you know what a nightmare you’re about bring down around you?”
He was blinding fast, sweeping the butt of the gun down, forward, and up so quickly she had no time to react. The gunstock caught her flush under the chin and drove her back and onto the floor.
Dazed, Agnes Lawton felt him grab her arms and haul her to her feet.
He spun her around and cinched her wrists behind her back.
“Don’t you know who I am?” she protested.
He hauled her to her feet saying, “Of course we know who you are. You were prophesized, weren’t you?”
Then he reached in his pocket and pulled out a matchbook. He tossed it in the corner, and lifted the hood with his thumb, exposing a bearded chin. He spit out something ghastly red. It flew through the air and splatted against the wall.