Sartaq awoke to someone shaking his shoulder.
“We’ve landed, Sir,” the flight attendant was saying. “You have to deplane now.”
When he reached Passport Control, the digital clock in the corner of the electronic display said 1:37 AM. He needed to hurry.
The uniformed agent looked at the photograph in his forged passport and then at Sartaq’s face. He slid the edge of opened identification page through a computer reader, glanced at the display and then smiled. Pointing to his left toward Customs he said, “Welcome to Singapore, Sir. We hope you will enjoy your stay.”
Reading the signs in multiple languages including the Chinese that was common to most of Asia, Sartaq walked through the green “Nothing To Declare” exit without challenge and into the spotless Singapore airport.
It looked brand new. The marble floor reflected mirror images of the ceiling and glass-fronted shops, all closed at this hour. Between shops, the walls were covered in dark marble and Sartaq could see his ghostly image as he hustled past. Palms and other exotic tropicals festooned raised planters spaced every dozen meters or so. He saw a worker with a pair of scissors standing on a small step ladder trimming a huge leaf.
Exiting the electric doors to the street, it was hot and humid like Wuhan in the summer.
The line of taxis were easy to spot. He scanned the rate printed on the side of the first two. Both were the same: $3.25 + 0.22/400 M, $3.00 airport, $3.00 Marina Bay Sands.
He nodded to the driver standing next to the first.
Inside, Sartaq gave the particulars of his destination, “Cowden Shipping, Pesek Road, Jurong Island.”
The driver looked at him in the mirror before responding, “Now? It’s pretty late.”
“I know that.”
The driver shrugged his shoulders and dropped the flag. A red 4.88 sprang up in the meter’s digital display as the taxi pulled away from the curb.
Sartaq asked, “Is that right? Isn’t it supposed to be $3.25? Is that in Singapore currency?”
“After midnight. 50% surcharge. And, yes, that’s Singapore Dollars.”
Sartaq worried the cash smuggled to him from Kashgar might not hold out.
“Can I use a credit card for the fare?”
“Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club and Discover.”
Sartaq settled back as they entered a road labelled ECP. It looked like one of the high speed divided roads in Wuhan but it felt like they meandering along in a residential neighborhood. Leaning forward, Sartaq saw the speedometer; it said 70.
Must be kilometers per hour, not miles, he decided.
“Is this the fastest way?”
“It’s the only way,” the driver glanced in the mirror at him. “The speed limit picks up soon.”
Sartaq began to relax when they accelerated past a speed limit sign that said 80 and not long after, up to 90. Each time, he stole a peek at the speedometer to verify the driver was using every bit of it.
It was nearly 3:00AM on the dashboard digital clock when they arrived. The meter said 46.30 as Sartaq moved for the door and instructed the driver, “Wait here for me. I’ll be a couple of minutes.”
But the door wouldn’t open. The driver said, “Sorry, sir. You need to pay what’s on the meter now. I can start it over and wait for you but no more than five minutes. This is a pretty isolated area by the docks and I don’t like being here by myself.”
Sartaq hissed at the delay as he passed Mr. Ma’s Visa card through the opening and waited while the credit charge was approved.
“Sign at the bottom, please.”
When he passed the receipt back, the driver reset the meter and 4.88 was again displayed.
“Five minutes, sir,” the driver said as the rear door opened without Sartaq needing to do anything.
Lit by a blueish street light next to the curb, the building was a low, single story glass and metal office. A painted sign hung by the door, “Cowden Shipping.” All the interior lights were off.
Sartaq went around the corner to the right. On the left of the closed gate to the shipping yard was a guard shack. The yellow light inside showed a single occupant reading a magazine.
Sartaq walked up and the guard slid open the panel.
“I’m here to pick up a package for Ma Feng.”
“ID?” the guard droned.
Sartaq opened the passport retrieved from his shirt pocket and held it out. The guard glanced at it briefly without taking it.
They then stood looking at each other for a moment.
Finally, the guard prompted, “You have something for me?”
“Oh.” Sartaq handed over the envelope he’d prepared with the twenty S$10 Singapore bills smuggled to him back in Wuhan.
The guard counted the bills, put them back in the envelope and put it on a shelf under the desktop.
Leaning over, he came back up with a cardboard box about the right size for a pair of boots. It was taped shut around all edges and looked like it had been handled several times. A red label said, “Fragile: Handle with Care.”
Pushing it out to the shelf in front of Sartaq, the guard slid the window shut and went back to his magazine.
Sartaq gently picked up the box and guessed it weighed a few kilos, certainly less than ten. Nonetheless, he held it with both hands and carefully watched the path as he walked back to the taxi.
The driver smiled as he got in, “Where to now?”
“Marina Bay Sands Hotel.”
The driver looked surprised. “Yes, sir!”
Half an hour later they arrived.
At the hotel check in, the agent greeted him in Mandarin but, without missing a beat, switched to Cantonese when Sartaq said, “There should be a reservation for me.” He handed over the forged but matching passport and credit card.
Typing on his computer, the agent said, “You’ll be staying with us for two nights, Mr. Ma?”
Sartaq paused, the name momentarily catching him off-guard.
“Oh, yes, two nights.”
“How many keys would you like, sir?”
“Keys?” Sartaq looked confused. “It’s just me. One key.”
“Room 5416,” the agent said handing him what appeared to be a white credit card inside a paper holder. Before he could slide the card out to look at it, the agent handed him a second card.
“And here is your casino card. It has 750 RMBs credit, compliments of the hotel.”
The second card was red plastic with a stylized lion’s head printed in white on the front. The backside had a black stripe across the top and a lot of very small print in several languages beneath.
The desk agent continued, “You may use it at any of the machines or tables in the casino but not in the restaurant or bar. When you cash it in, anything over that amount will be refunded to you in any currency you wish.”
The agent handed back Ma Feng’s passport and credit card and asked, “Would you like help to your room, Mr. Ma?”
Sartaq carefully lifted his cardboard box and took a step away from the desk but the lobby was so big, he couldn’t figure out how to find his room.
He turned back to the agent and asked, “How do I get there?”
The agent smiled and, palm up, indicated directly across the lobby. “Take the elevator directly behind you to floor number 54. When you exit the elevator, your room will be to the right.”
“54th floor?” Sartaq questioned, emphasizing the number four.
“Yes, sir. If that’s a problem we can give you a room on another floor?”
“No, 54 is fine.”
He’d been told the casinos had been built specifically to attract rich Chinese customers so he was surprised their hotel included floors ending with 4s which are bad luck. But Sartaq was bringing bad luck to Singapore so, in a way, it seemed fitting.
When the elevator started up slowly but then accelerated, Sartaq grabbed the rail along the wall as he hugged the cardboard box tightly against his chest.
First the airplane and now this elevator, Sartaq groused, I hate this!
Standing in front of the door to 5416, he pondered the lock. Surely his room wouldn’t be unlocked, he wondered, but he was mystified how it would be keyed to admit only him.
He tried the handle but, as expected, it was locked and wouldn’t budge. He gently set the cardboard box on the carpet and then tried the handle first slowly, then quickly, pushing while turning, pulling while turning but nothing worked. He had started to sweat and was on the verge of braving the elevator back down for help when another man walked up to the door on the other side a few meters away and slid a white plastic card into the door lock and then removed it. Sartaq saw a green light on the lock and the man turned the handle, opened the door and entered. The door shut and, a moment later, the green light turned off.
Looking at what he’d assumed was a hotel credit card, he saw it had an arrow on one side.
A credit card to open the door, he marveled. That means the maids will have master cards for all the doors.
He smiled at his discovery.
He slid his white card, arrow first, into the plastic lipped slot just above the handle and, when he pulled it out, there was a metallic thunk as the green light in the lock lit up. He pushed down on the handle and when it turned, he pushed the door open. Holding the door open with his foot, he leaned over and carefully picked up the cardboard box with both hands and entered his room. The door shut with a resounding “Ker-chunk.”
The room lights came on automatically and Sartaq was awestruck for the fourth time that day.
The room was beyond neat and tidy. It was gorgeous. Everything was straight and crisp, with fabrics in browns and greys, and all the woods in black. There were two queen size beds to the right with the bed sheets, the color of new snow, were folded back on the bed nearer the floor to ceiling window and topped with three plump pillows, two white and one dark charcoal. One the left side, a dark brown armoire stood next to the long, dark brown wood desk with flat-panel TV, a tray with a plastic bucket and two glasses and a three-ring binder of information.
The airplane, the Singapore airport, the hotel lobby and now this room far exceeded anything Sartaq had ever experienced. He’d seen luxury like this only in advertising and television shows and had assumed they were made up. That he’d actually see, touch and smell things this nice as part of the every day, normal experience dumbfounded him.
People live like this all the time?
He realized his unfamiliarity, as with the door lock, could raise some problems for him.
Good thing I came here to check the details, he congratulated himself.
He set the cardboard box down on the desk across from the bed, first one corner and then gently the rest, before walking to the window. Pushing aside the curtains, the late night Singapore skyline stunned him with its intricate sparkle.
When he turned away, the clock by the bed was 4:17AM.
Pulling back the cover, he undressed and slid in. The cool sheets were nothing like his irregularly heated apartment. These sheets were smooth, soft and pleasingly cool, like an early summer morning. He found himself remembering one such morning in Wuhan. He was ten years old. He saw his mother with her dark long hair, shy smile and mature figure. She was a beautiful woman. Standing next to her with a beaming smile was his little half-sister, Lili, with whom, among other games, they’d played dress up. Lili had become a beautiful grown woman. He thought of his own distorted face and hardened body. They made his kinship to these beautiful women hard to fathom.
Such beauty. Such softness and gentleness, he thought staring up.
As his mind drifted, the glow of Singapore played across the ceiling and he fell asleep.
He dreamed of awakening in a pig sty, mutually snuggled together for warmth with three piglets and a large sow. Her hairy hide was surprisingly soft when he caressed her rounded flank with his hand. He felt like a man but, in his dream, he knew he was twelve and had a lot to learn about the real world.
His Uyghur grandfather was shouting and swatting at his head with a stick as he lay there. He scrambled to get up and, disturbed, the little pigs squealed to gain their own footing and get out of the way but they ended up under his own feet where they squealed all the more.
His was standing now and the pigs were gone. There was snow on the ground and a dry, frigid wind blew in from Afghanistan over Irkeshtam pass to the west. It was early winter but, twelve years old in the dream, he didn’t yet know how much worse it would get.
His grandfather’s stick had turned into a walking cane with a big knot of wood for a handle. He was holding it by the small end, swinging it back and forth like a bat, taunting and teasing, then lunging to strike. Sartaq raised an arm to protect his head but discovered he was naked and having a painful erection. He bent forward to cover himself but a blow landed on his back causing him to arch outward and fully expose himself.
It was then he noticed he was in front of his grandfather’s house. His cousins and relatives, all Uyghurs, were there but only the females were watching. The men, all drunk, had their backs turned and were talking and laughing among themselves, oblivious to his beating.
As the blows from his grandfather’s cane continued, Sartaq reeled and cried. Now the shame of crying like a little boy added to his embarrassment for the erection. The women glared unabashedly at his nakedness. They cackled back and forth in traded whispers, hands covering their grins, a knobby finger pointing where they looked, their eyes leering at his boyish body.
They chanted, “Piroytki, Piroytki, Piroytki,” becoming louder each time.
With tears clearing channels from the dust on his face, he covered himself with both hands, surrendering to the beating. He watched his grandfather’s club, as if in slow motion, swing toward the side of his head. He heard the sound of air swishing around the club head just before it struck. There was an odd thud, a flash of brilliant light and then all awareness vanished.
The full equatorial daylight of Singapore shone through the floor to ceiling window of his hotel room when he awoke the next morning. He was naked on the bare bottom sheet. Looking around the bed, the top sheet and blanket had been shoved off to the right while the four pillows were piled up on the floor to the left of the bed.
The marble floor of the bathroom was cold on the bottoms of his feet and a single shiver coursed through his body.
Flicking on the light switch, he cataloged the containers on the sink top as he relieved himself: Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand lotion and two bars of soap, one small and one tiny. He shook his head at the ridiculous waste. He wondered how much time it would take to refill the containers for each new guest.
He wanted to take them home and show them off but knew that anyone he knew in Wuhan would wonder how he had financed such an extravagance. It would make them suspicious and, at this point, that was something he could not afford.
Take nothing, leave nothing.
He put yesterday’s clothes back on, verified he had both the white and the red plastic cards in his pocket, then gently picked up the cardboard box from the desk making sure never to drop it.
He stepped out into the hallway and looked both directions but no cleaning cart was visible.
He went to the elevator and went down one floor.
As the doors opened, he glanced out. No cleaning cart. He let the doors close as he pushed the button for the next floor down. On his fourth stop, he saw two cleaning carts. A uniformed maid was wiping out an ashtray at one of them.
Sartaq left the elevator and walked slowly down the hall, watching the maid and checking the signs on the doors. He saw the Housekeeping sign on one door at almost the same moment as the maid disappeared back into the guest room next to her cart. Sartaq tested the knob on the Housekeeping door but, as expected, it would not open.
Moving to the cart, he kept watch for the maid he’d just seen and the maid for the other cart while he looked over the cart for a pass key card.
But the maid returned before he could finish.
She said something in Mandarin.
“Shampoo?” He asked in Cantonese.
She handed him a tube and he thanked her before continuing down the hallway, shampoo in one hand and the cardboard box firmly under his arm on the other side.
As he reached the second cart, the first maid had disappeared inside the guest room again. This time he had better luck. This maid’s pass card was hanging from a chain clipped to the cart.
Taking the card and chain, he walked rapidly back to the Housekeeping door, opened it with the pass card and, still holding the cardboard box and the tube of shampoo, stepped inside and shut the door.
The tiny storage closet was jammed. There was a supply rack to his left with floor-to-ceiling shelves with boxes of toilet paper, stacks of individual facial tissue boxes, containers of soap and all the other accoutrements for the rooms. To his right was an empty space with rubber smudges on the floor indicating that was where the two housekeeping carts were stored. Above that was more shelving with more supplies that would be difficult to reach when the carts were present. Up there, boxes had been stacked two deep, one box in front of the second, the rear box hidden from view.
Exactly what he wanted.
Reaching up, he took one of the boxes off the topmost shelf and moved it to the other side of the closet. Taking down the box that had been behind it, he carefully used both hands to boost his cardboard box up onto the shelf and then replaced the second box he’d taken down, pushing his box slowly to the rear. His box was now completely hidden.
Listening at the door but hearing nothing, he turned the handle and slowly pulled the door until a thin slit appeared. Peering out through the opening, he could see the two carts but no maids. The hallway was otherwise empty.
Slipping out quickly, he eased the door shut and walked back toward the cart from which he’d borrowed the pass key. As he passed, he dropped the pass key onto the floor and kept going. At the far end, he stepped through the doorway to the landing for the exit stairs.
Easing the door silently shut, he paused to repeat to himself, 50th floor, 50th floor, 50th floor.
He then walked down one flight, re-entered the carpeted hallway and crossed all the way through before taking the elevator all the way down.
At the ground floor, Sartaq took a few steps and then stopped to slowly scan the entire lobby, left to right.
This is where I will become famous, he announced to himself. This is where my true family, my father’s father and his family and all of their neighbors, will learn I am strong, powerful, and just as honorable as they ever imagined they were. My father’s sacrifice accomplished nothing. I will bring worldwide attention to the cause and live to see it. In all of Xinjiang and, someday, maybe even East Turkestan, they will brag of me rather than my dead father.
Sartaq marveled at the size of the hotel lobby. It encompassed the space under all three towers into a single open area, curving away to the left and right in a smooth arc following a more or less south to north line.
Walking to his left to the far south end, he turned and casually strolled the entire length. He counted 517 steps. He’d passed three pairs of elevators, one pair for each of the three towers. From the briefing prepared by one of his followers in the university library, he knew the hotel’s 57 stories and three towers contained nearly 2500 rooms. Spanning the top, there was a single deck with restaurant, outdoor seating and a swimming pool with something called an “invisible edge.”
On his walk, Sartaq had verified his targets, the six big columns along the inside curve of the arc. All were accessible. No doors would have to be opened to get to them. When it was time, he and his associates — he liked the sound of the English word — would have no problem getting in close contact with each of those six columns when the time came.
He meandered over to one of the columns and leaned against it as if waiting for someone. It was a meter on each side. Sartaq guessed that, inside the wall board and wood trim, there’d be a huge steel I-beam.
He repeated to himself what he’d learned from Kashgar when he’d originally proposed this attack.
C-4 will fracture solid objects but it doesn’t push. C-4 will only dent big, thick steel. Instead, structural beams need a long slow push to sever them completely. Dynamite does that. It pushes. You’ll need six sticks for each pillar to be sure.
Walking back to the center of the arc, he turned to face the outside curved wall. This was the part of the plan that only he knew.
On the outer wall was a green emergency exit sign above a grey steel door with a pushbar latch.
He turned right and counted steps as he walked to the south exit.
Outside, he turned left and walked to the edge of the hotel along the outside of the arc. Turning the corner, he walked along the service road than ran next to the building. He counted off 247 steps and stopped. The outside of a grey steel door was within an arms reach. It was the other side of the door he’d scouted inside.
Looking east where someone would go when they came out that door, there were only minor obstacles, a curb, a few small bushes, to be negotiated. Sartaq smiled. Reaching the one and a half meter concrete wall at the edge of the hotel’s property that would act as a shield would be no problem.
Satisfied with the physical layout, Sartaq went back into the hotel and to the Gift Shop where he tried to appear like he was just browsing. But he’d seen what he wanted immediately, woven fiber bags about 50x50x20 cm with bamboo loop handles.
Holding one up he asked the attendant, “What are these?”
“Those are our Eco Bags, sir. They’re made of Jute and are 100% biodegradable. I believe they are fourteen dollars. Would you like one today?”
“No, thank you. Not today.”
Wandering back out to the lobby, the central clock said it was barely Noon. He had eleven hours to pass before his flight.
At the Concierge desk, he held up the red card he’d been given at check-in and asked, “Where is the casino?”
Following the directions, he was surprised to be stopped at the entrance by a burly Malaysian man in a black suit who asked something in Mandarin.
Sartaq said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
Switching to Cantonese, the large man asked, “Are you a Singapore citizen?”
Annoyed at the challenge, he questioned back, “Why do you want to know?”
“There is a $100 entry levy for citizens of Singapore to enter the casino. Everyone else may enter without charge. May I see some identification, please?”
Sartaq handed over Mr. Ma’s forged Afghanistan passport and, after a quick glance, the man nodded, handed it back and stepped aside to allow him to enter.
“May you have good fortune, sir.”
The noise was astonishing. He had no idea casinos would have so much constant racket. He wondered how anyone could think. A different electronic jangle rang out from each machine as he passed through hundreds of machines, almost all of which had video displays as well as dozens of flashing lights.
Back in Wuhan, Sartaq often won a few dozen Yuan in the street-side card game next to the hotel but he had no idea where to start with any of these glittery, flashing and constantly chiming and beeping video machines.
Continuing his walk through the casino, he was relieved to leave the video games and see tables with people playing cards.
Walking up to a table with a uniformed but idle employee, Sartaq asked, “Zheng Shangyou?”
The dealer shook his head and answered, “No, this table is for Progressive Texas Hold’em.” Pointing to other tables in succession, he pointed out the various card games, “Baccarat, Blackjack, Caribbean Stud Poker, Pai Gow, Tai Sai and Poker.”
Sartaq had played Blackjack many times but disliked it for the same reason he didn’t try Baccarat more than once. With their simple rules, he felt they were beneath him. And then when he lost, he felt betrayed as if there were some secret rule that had tricked him.
Poker, however, was different.
I can play that!
He grinned and headed for those tables. Signs above each, he noticed, indicated not only what game but also the betting range that was played at each.
He chose a Poker table with S$10 limit and handed over the red card from the hotel check-in. The dealer gave him back only a little more than S$150 in chips. Sartaq couldn’t do the conversion from RMB to Singapore Dollars so he was forced to trust the dealer. He didn’t like that. Sartaq started to get the same vague feeling that he got from Blackjack and Baccarat.
But it was free money so he played what he’d been given.
A scant thirty minutes later he was almost broke. He’d won only two small pots with a pair of Queens and then a small heart flush. All his other playable hands had failed. His one bluff, attempted when his chip pile was three-fourths depleted, was raised, he raised back and was called. He had felt humiliated to show his measly Jack high hand and was beaten by a pair of sevens.
He decided he didn’t like Poker after all.
Now he just wanted to get rid of the chips he couldn’t cash in.
Two hands later, the chips were all gone.
Leaving the casino, he went back up to his room to complete the plan for this first visit.
As he’d hoped, his room had been made up. He pulled back the cover, lay down and thrashed around on the bed. In the bathroom he opened the small soap box — the previous day’s bar was no where to be seen — and washed his hands three times, using a different towel to dry them each time. The barely used towels went on the bathroom floor. Finally, he ran the sink and squirted a portion of the shampoo down the drain, leaving the water running until the bubbles disappeared. He then put the wet bar of soap and the half empty shampoo tube on the soap dish in the shower.
Double-checking his preparations, he thought everything was ready. He left the room card on the desk and walked out.
Consulting the map in the station, he took the MRT subway train’s purple Eastern Region Line to the airport and wandered for the next five hours. His 11:25 PM flight took him to Shanghai where he wandered that airport for the four hour layover. The final leg, back to Wuhan, landed at 9:30 AM the next morning.
There, a body and a head, double wrapped in two plastic bags, awaited him in the shop.
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