One and a Half: Witness

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“Damn!”

The expletive, in English, exploded from Sartaq’s lips even though he spoke and thought almost exclusively in Cantonese.

There’s someone behind that rock!

In the fraction of a second their eyes locked, Sartaq had a snapshot of the other man’s features.

Caucasian. Light brown hair. Short mustache. Goatee.

Sartaq was certain this man had just seen him execute Wang Qing Yang.

It had to be done, Sartaq rationalized, His rebellion was a threat to the plan. His execution will motivate the others.

But an outside witness, someone he could not control? Sartaq’s entire plan would be in jeopardy.

Sartaq bolted across the ridge toward the rocks, pulling the machete from its scabbard. Sticky with drying blood, it bonded to his hand.

Passing the rocks, his target ran surprisingly fast along the ridge. Two dozen meters ahead, Sartaq could only see the other man’s back. He wore a blue and white short sleeve shirt, slightly faded blue jeans, white socks and blue running shoes with white edging and gray soles.

The overall impression was unmistakable.

American!

The man veered off to the right heading down the hill toward the campus.

Students will be out studying and playing their games today. If he gets that far, we’ll both be seen.

Sartaq glanced down at his own shirt. A mix of dark and bright red from the drying blood glued it to his chest.

Can’t be seen like this. Too many students know me. Must get him before he reaches the campus.

Sartaq increased his pace down the hill but the dense undergrowth and tree trunks forced him left and right into diverging angles. His target, however, was quite literally flying in huge leaps down the hill and straight as an arrow. Even with his occasional falls, he would land, roll and regain his feet without slowing.

I’m gaining, but not fast enough.

Looking through the trees ahead, Sartaq could make out the black asphalt walkway and green grass of the campus beyond.

Damn!

Sartaq slowed to a stop ten meters from the end of the forest. He put his right hand still holding the machete against the trunk of a large tree to regain his breath. Shifting left and right to see through the tree trunks, he saw his witness laying face down on the walkway. Two students were hurrying toward him, their arms out.

Shit!

Sartaq silently used another of his favorite English words.

Sartaq’s mind raced through what would probably happen next.

They’ll call the Police. He’ll show them Wang’s body. They’ll find the head.

Sartaq shook his own head.

Wang had worshiped with us, helped figure out the plan. But then he revealed himself a coward. He’d been playing with us the whole time.

Traitor!

Infidel!!

Sartaq looked through the trees again.

They’ve moved!

There, a few meters to the left with a student under each arm, they were slowly moving along the road that led to one of the auxiliary campus gates.

Why didn’t they use their cell phones? Didn’t he tell them? All the students know English.

Sartaq realized the delay in alerting the Police could work to his advantage.

That’s all I need, a few minutes to find and dispose of the body … and head. I know this mountain — I grew up here and know every gulley, every depression.

Sartaq waited until the American and his two helpers had disappeared from view before starting back up the hill.

At the top he went back to where he’d executed Wang Qing Yang and quickly found the body, three meters down and partially wedged under a log with a scattering of yellow and brown leaves. Sartaq grunted at the effort to wrench it loose.

Free, he dragged it clear and then down the forest slope to a dry bowl like depression he knew that filled with water when it rained. Standing in the spongy bowl, he used his hands to rake away the colored dry leaves on top into one pile and then the layer of damp brown ones beneath into a second. Reaching the dirt beneath, he rolled the body into the depression, covered it with the pile of damp brown leaves, patted them flat again and then threw the colored leaves on top.

Sartaq went back up the hill to search for the head.

Examining the execution scene that was evenly strewn with yellow and brown leaves, Sartaq saw two relatively straight lines of dark red blood, one of them more than two meters long but the second shorter. They angled toward each other indicating where he’d stood, Wang helpless in his choke hold.

Almost exactly where the two streaks would converge was a circular patch of only dark brown leaves — no yellow ones.

I set Wang’s head there. When I kicked it, the yellow leaves from the ground must’ve gone with it.

Looking carefully around that spot in an ever widening circle, Sartaq found a yellow leaf with blood marks. Picking it up, the blood looked as if it’d been printed or pressed on rather than spattered.

Guessing it had been under the head where he’d set it down, the leaf must’ve fallen off when he kicked the head and it flew over the edge and down the hill. Clambering down the hill in that direction, he found first one patch of blood-tagged leaves and then a second. Further down, he spotted the head laying on it’s right ear in front of a tree trunk.

The head felt like a medium size medicine ball when Sartaq picked it up. He put it under his left arm and worked his way across the steep slope to the depression and the leaf covered body.

Raking a smaller clear space, he added the head then made sure the layers of leaves were restored in the  correct order again.

Satisfied with the concealment, Sartaq skirted the slope to the main path and then down to the alley that ran between forest and the backside of the shops. He dug into his pocket for the key to his padlock, unlocked and entered his pitch black shop, hanging the key on a nail by the door frame by touch.

Through the dark, the edges of the closed roll-up steel door across the front of his shop was clear but nothing else was visible, not even the glow of coals he knew would be deep inside the forge.

Through the thin metal roll-up, he could also hear passing traffic on the six lane avenue outside. Most of the neighboring shops were open for Saturday business. Muffled voices came through the wall from the tiny grocery to the right, the high pitch of the wife grated on his ear as she tried to encourage a reluctant buyer at her jewelry display. She would say the precious stones she imported — at great risk for which she paid too much — were from the western provinces. She would tell the prospective buyer they had a craftsman whose name she absolutely could not reveal who used gold from the mines in Krygystan — she would try to make it sound exotic. If the buyer were a man, she’d bat her eyes and smile like a bad girl, to give a slightly too obvious prurient hint of why the artisan favored her, and only her, with his precious treasures.

Sartaq, however, knew it was the same cheap junk sold all over the city. She disgusted him. He thought even less of the husband she dominated.

Getting back to his purpose, Sartaq took three paces forward in the dark, verified the anvil on his right by touching it with his hand and then reached up to pull the light’s switch.

The bare bulb revealed the interior of his shop.

Everything was either the dull black of soot and cinders, or the shiny metal of products for sale. Just inside the roll-up front was a cleared area for serious customers. Hanging on the walls on both sides were his less expensive items, mostly repaired metal kitchen utensils including knives that had been broken and discarded which he scavenged and reground. There were graters and slicers previously bent but now straightened and an assortment of thin metal pots, bowls and skillets with new handles, patched holes and bottoms hammered nearly flat again.

Moving back from the entrance, larger and more expensive items either hung from the walls or sat on the floor next to the walls. These were small parts from cars and trucks, some hammered straight, others bent beyond repair in accidents, sometimes almost in front of his shop at the intersection with the traffic light up the avenue to the right at the hotel. The screech of tires and impact of metal on metal would call him out from the anvil to see if there was something he could quickly grab and add to his inventory while the drivers cursed and accused each other.

Minor theft from the front of his shop was common — that’s why only cheap things were there. It was a fact of life. They stole from him so he felt no qualms about reaching through someone’s open window to take a kitchen knife, skillet or pot. The narrow alleys around his apartment were prime hunting grounds on moonless nights.

Life is hard, he thought. Deal with it by being harder, stronger, faster.

His anvil, the single most valuable thing in his life, sat in the center of the shop. When the owner of a metal shop several blocks over had died, he’d rushed to console the widow, offer her enough to buy her dead husband a polished wood casket and quickly haul it away on an overloaded cart as he promised to bring the money back in an hour for her poor husband’s funeral.

He smiled at his clever mastery of yet another way of getting something for nothing.

Grief makes people stupid.

Next to the anvil sat his forge. He’d built it himself learning the hard way that fire bricks were different from those used in house construction. He’d designed it with a larger than usual rectangular opening about ten centimeters high and thirty wide so he could heat and fashion larger pieces than his competitors. While that larger opening meant it lost heat faster, he burned soft coal instead of charcoal like the other metal workers in the area. He could get the lighter pieces white hot and work them with less effort and more strikes. And when he came across something with really good steel, he’d switch to the more expensive hard coal. The heat was much more intense and it burned longer. Only one of the street vendors had coal — most sold only charcoal for cooking — and he had to ask for it ahead of time, but it was worth it. He had more items for sale including heavier pieces no one else could work.

On the wall opposite the forge and well inside the shop hung the objects of his passion, anything with a sharp, cutting edge. All were curved, either in simple arcs or undulating like a serpent back and forth. Sickles with arced blades from five centimeters to the one he called “Allah’s Judgement” that was nearly a meter across the arc hung from nails driven into wood strips attached to the shed’s metal walls.

The best of these were his machetes. Most would extend the user’s reach by a forearm’s length but a few were more than a meter in length. Most had a slight “S” curve with the blade widening near the far end to add weight that facilitated the chop.

Handles were an afterthought, a necessary annoyance. Hacked from wood scraps he picked up or harvested on the mountain behind the shop, he would shape them to enable a firm, reliable grasp but give them no more than a nominal sanding and then paint with any available can of dark colored paint.

The beauty of his machetes was in the shiny, hammered metal blade with the undulating curves.

Sartaq stepped to the forge and gave the bellows three deep strokes. Deep inside, ghost-like wisps of blue flame licked up from the dull red glow below.

Stripping nude, he pushed everything he wore — shirt, pants, canvas belt and shoes — into the furnace. The clothing smoked and then burst into flame.

He removed the machete from its leather scabbard and put them into the forge, the bloody scabbard to be destroyed, the machete to be cleansed and reborn.

He pulled the bellows handle twice and the coal-fired heat roared up. The shoes with their hard leather soles were the last to turn to ash. He picked up a black iron rod next to the forge and, reaching inside, pushed the blade of the machete aside to stir the ashes of his clothes and shoes.

Cleansed of Wang’s traitorous blood, Sartaq removed the glowing steel machete blade. He plunged it into the trough of water and the glowing metal screamed as it quenched.

That was more than Mr. Wang Qing Yang did, he smiled.

Without looking, Sartaq knew there was no hard coal in his supply pile. He’d need it for the bigger job ahead.

He put on the blackened and torn coveralls from a hook on the back wall and the pair of street shoes that sat beneath.

Pulling out the rod that locked the front shut, he rolled up the front of his shop enough so he could duck under and out, then pushed it closed but unsecured. He’d only be a moment. He walked three shops up to Khang’s shop and bought two large plastic trash bags and a new pair of knobby soled work boots. On the way back, he waved to his charcoal vendor as he passed and told him to bring a dozen kilograms of hard coal to his shop on Monday, but not before midday.

“I have a special job coming up,” Sartaq explained, paying in advance to ensure compliance.

Back inside the closed shop, Sartaq impatiently waited out the waning daylight. He needed darkness for the next part but needed to finish that job with time to get to the airport.

It would be close.

Looking through the gap around the roll up front, he decided dusk would be good enough.

Removing his street shoes, he picked up the new knobby boots but tied their laces together and hung them around his neck. He put the two plastic bags in a pocket of his coveralls, strapped on a scabbard and machete from the back wall, and crept out the back door, bare foot.

He walked down the slope of the alley to its end, about half way to the lake. Sitting on the rock wall that separated alley and forest, he put on the boots and walked up the well-used path into the forest. He knew the footprints of the new boots would be distinctive if anyone examined the trail. They could follow this part of his travel, just not the part back to his shop.

About half-way up the slope, he turned left off the path and made his way to where he’d hidden the head and body.

Uncovering the body and head, Sartaq again made two piles of leaves, wet and dry.

Unfolding the first bag, he tried to shove the body in but the arms and legs would not go in, nor would they bend. There was no way the body would fit.

Rigor mortis, he slowly pronounced the latin words in his mind.

He’d expected this.

Pressing one of Wang’s arms the same way it would normally bend, he used the machete to cut through the muscle on the backside just above the elbow. The rigid muscle cut, Wang’s elbow folded up easily. Repeating this with the other arm, then the muscles behind each knee and finally just under the corpse’s buttocks, Wang folded up like the bellows of an accordion. Sartaq rolled it into the first bag, tucking in legs and arms. He added the head before tying the end of the bag in a knot. He then rolled the first bag with its gruesome contents into the second bag and tied its end as well.

Lastly, he put the wet leaves back into the depression patting them flat, and then threw the dry yellow and brown ones atop.

In the dark, he thought it looked pretty much like when he’d first scouted it several days earlier.

Sartaq hoisted the bag up to carry it back to his shop without leaving marks on the trail but the plastic was slippery and more than once he had to stop, heave the load up and then re-catch it before continuing.

Reaching the well-used trail he’d come up earlier, he paused to be sure he was alone before continuing.

The forest was dark and quiet.

He headed down the trail to where it intersected the alley, half a kilometer from his shop. Sartaq stopped and removed the knobby boots, tied their laces and again slung them around his neck. Bare-foot, he re-hoisted his slippery load and made his way up the alley to the back door of his shop.

Inside, he put the double-bagged body in the back corner away from the door, changed back to street shoes and shoved the once-used boots into the forge. They burst into flame, the plastic soles bubbling and dripping before catching. He pumped the bellows to accelerate the process. In a couple of minutes, only ash was left.

It was very dark outside now and getting late; he would have to hurry.

Leaving by the back door and re-locking the padlock, he walked as fast as he dared out to the main road and down the hill the kilometer to the lake. The main avenue ended there and he turned left into the road that circled the lake. This road was faced with expensive residential apartments. He went half a block to an alley before turning left and away from the lake. As he moved up the alley and away from the lake, the rents dropped. A hundred meters up, he turned right and up a set of concrete stairs.

Unlocking the peeling door to his apartment, he changed into the new clothes he’d purchased for the trip, the shirt in one place, the pants in another, and all from vendors who didn’t know him. Everything had been purchased well away from the neighborhoods he frequented.

From a box under his bed, he stuffed the new wallet with its stolen credit card and cash into his pocket, put the forged Singapore passport with his picture but bearing the same name as the credit card, Ma Feng. He put the round trip air tickets in his shirt pocket and slid the new, prepaid cell phone he’d purchased in yet another distant shop into his pants pocket. The phone had thirty minutes credit and he’d been instructed to throw it away after returning to Wuhan but not at the airport, and not near any of his locations.

All these items had arrived two days earlier by bicycle messenger. The box, addressed simply to “Michael” at East Lake’s boat dock with “12:00PM” circled in red next to the name, had no return address. He’d nodded when the delivery boy said the name and then waited as he rode away to make sure he wouldn’t try to follow him back to his apartment.

Double-checking his pockets to be sure he had everything, he locked the door of his apartment, walked back out to the main avenue and up the kilometer to the hotel where he knew he could get a taxi.

The 22 Yuan fare to the airport was outrageous, far more than he’d expected, and he said so angrily as he waited for the change from his 100 RMB bill about which the driver complained equally.

Inside the airport, all the bustle was confusing but, fortunately, the sign with flights and gates was unmistakable even to Sartaq’s inexperienced eye.

SilkAir, 7:25PM, Singapore, Gate 4.

Ten minutes later, using the forged passport and ticket from the wallet, he walked down the tunnel and into the plane. Unsure what to do, the attendant at the door showed him the seat number on his ticket and pointed out the row numbers on the bottom side of the overhead luggage compartments. He found his seat and, watching the passenger to his right to figure it out, Sartaq fastened his seatbelt. He was glad it was dark outside — heights bothered him — but, even so, when the plane suddenly rotated back and vaulted into the air, he gasped in shock.

“First time?” The passenger to his right smiled.

“No,” Sartaq lied and kept his eyes closed for the five hour flight to Singapore.

 

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