Thirteen: Last Day

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Friday, Day 12 – Wuhan, China

Spence awoke for the last day of class before either of his two alarm clocks. His plan was coffee, pack, check out, teach and get out of Wuhan. He was standing in front of the hotel with his bags in twenty minutes.

James arrived in the van five minutes later. Without turning the engine off, James hit the button to open the sliding door. Spence set his suitcase inside, pushed the button to close that door, and then climbed into the passenger seat with his computer bag. James nodded and they were underway.

After the turn through the iron gates into the campus, it looked more like an early Saturday morning than Friday. Only a few students were out, on foot or bicycle. As they drove deeper into the campus, they passed piles of debris, apparently from the destroyed library.

The route took them past the previous classroom in the ISS building with all its glassless window frames. Today, they went another five minutes toward the back of the campus before James stopped in front of a boring, single story, flat roof red brick building. Aluminum framed windows, glass intact, and closed shades completed the 1970s effect.

Spence climbed out and retrieved his suitcase. He wanted everything with him, ready to go.

James nodded before ushering him through the off-center single door. The fluorescent lights snapped and buzzed when James flipped the six switches next to the door. As the lights steadied, Spence saw they were at the back of a large meeting hall stretching out to his left filling three-fourths of the building. Long tables ran across the space with a center aisle as in the previous classroom. The instructor’s lectern, made of shellacked plywood, sat on another table centered beneath the projection screen on the far wall. To Spence’s right and filling the remainder of the building were dark, glass-walled offices with closed doors.

Spence walked down the center aisle to the instructor’s table, set up his computer on the lectern and tested the projector. He nodded to James who was waiting in the back. James returned the nod before leaving.

Nothing more to do, Spence went outside to wait. It was 8:25 AM.

Students began arriving at 8:55 AM in ones and twos. They nodded silently as they passed to enter the building. No one smiled.

At 9:00 AM, he went inside and counted heads. Twenty seven. A far cry from the nearly 200 that had attended every day before.

“We will wait a few more minutes for latecomers,” he announced.

Ten minutes later, no one else had arrived.

“I guess this is it. Let’s get started.”

It reminded him of a Unix class he’d taught years ago at an idled two-way radio plant in Fort Worth. Halfway through class and unable to get any participation, he’d asked why they were taking the class. They said they were all being laid off. Their employer was paying for the class, “Cross training for new careers,” one of them said. Spence asked what their previous jobs had been. “We’re assembly line workers. We put connectors into circuit boards before running them through wave solder machines and then do any touch up.” Spence asked what programming or other computer experience they had. One student said his wife did email via her home computer with a dial-up connection. Spence scratched his head before asking if they were totally lost with the training. Everyone nodded. Trying to come up with something that would be useful when they walked out the door unemployed in two days, Spence suggested they use their time together to work on resumes and do practice job interviews. He got his best ever ratings from that class.

Here in Wuhan, Spence wasn’t worried about his ratings.

He abandoned all his verbal examples and stories. He did what he hated in others. He read the slides, line by line, a practice he knew would kill interest and, with it, any possible interaction. His goal was to show all the slides and say all the words so no one could accuse him of abandoning the course, but mostly he wanted to be done as quickly as possible.

No one complained.

#

Sartaq fumed at the waste of a day as he gazed out at the slowly passing countryside. The early bus had bogged down in the suburbs as they headed out of the city even though most traffic was going the other direction.

Megyn said “brunch” would be at 9:00 AM at their parent’s home. Sartaq guessed that was some American dish from California. He’d peck and try a bite or two to be polite. But the two hour bus ride to get out to their parent’s home was a total waste, and then there’d be another two hour ride to get back to the campus.

Damn!

The complicated part of his plan was about to kick off and he needed to make sure his five soldiers did everything on time. While they were all graduate students, they still behaved like kids sometimes. For this critical move to Singapore, things had to happen on schedule.

That’s why today’s family meeting had him in such turmoil. Lili had needled him last week saying he was neglecting their aging parents. She had almost demanded this meeting to work out how they would handle things for the next couple of years. He’d bitten his lip at her words and not mentioned that she’d dumped all this on him when she moved to California twenty years ago and, other than sending a monthly check, she did little else.

Megyn, Sartaq groused to himself, Lili calls herself Megyn.

How very American.

He wanted to shake her and say, “You are Zhang Li, daughter of an honored Chinese family with deep roots in this soil.” He would scoop up a handful of dirt from the yard of the Zhang compound and pour it into her hand. “This is the richness of China. It is here in your hand and all around you. Your Zhang ancestors have guided the people in this valley for dozens of centuries. They revere you. You are a true Zhang, unlike me.”

But he’d held his anger. She’d made her choice decades ago. And so had he.

Kashgar had changed his life. He’d learned his real father’s Khan family was cruel and selfish. He had a scar on the side of his head where the hair wouldn’t grow to prove it. The only thing he wanted was to prove to them he was a better man than his Khan father.

The real change came when he joined the independence movement which, for more than twenty years since, had come to dominate his life. In that time, he’d recruited dozens of students from the University. Drawing them in first with Islamic doctrine, he’d gain their confidence before revealing their true goal, the resurrected independence of East Turkestan. When that was achieved, he would be recognized as an honored patriot who had carried out, at great personal sacrifice, the movement’s every wish.

Horns blared and the bus swerved to miss something. Sartaq looked up to see the driver shaking his fist toward the side view mirror.

Sartaq’s arm throbbed and, looking down, he saw blood pooling next to the nail of the thumb he’d been unconsciously chewing. He’d torn the nail down into the quick and the pain was like a piece of molten iron burning into his thumb. He flipped the hand forward as if to throw away the pain.

With his other hand, he pulled the edge of the seat pocket in front of him to look inside. There was a plastic card showing the emergency exits from the bus, the operation of the air vents and how to buckle and remove the seat belts that were no longer present. There was also a bag with a twist tie for motion sickness and a crumpled brown paper napkin.

He took out the napkin and unfolded it. It had a smear of yellow on one side.

Sniffing it, Sartaq decided it was probably mustard.

The back side looked clean.

Biting and holding the end of the spike of thumbnail, he gave it a sudden yank. The shard of nail tore away. He spit it on the floor and watched as the blood welled up between thumb and nail before dripping on the seat between his legs.

He wrapped the clean side of the napkin twice around his thumb and squeezed with his other hand. He gazed out the window waiting for it to clot.

He recognized the area. The ramshackle individual houses near the city had given way to large family compounds surrounded by high walls with multiple homes inside. They were close to Zhenghuangwan. The area was unofficially but efficiently run by families dating  back more than a thousand years, each environ taking the surname of its de facto rulers.

His aged, adoptive father was the figurehead of the village but the day to day decisions were made by the nephew who had occupied the main house for nearly a decade. On rare occasion, he would consult Sartaq’s adoptive father but mostly as a matter of form and decorum rather than necessity.

They were a patient family. Over the centuries, the Zhangs had learned to remain unobtrusive and give tacit support to each passing regime but, at the same time, methodically build and rebuild their influence in the area. To the Zhangs, Beijing and the Communists were just another political wave that would eventually pass.

The bus lurched to the right, braking unevenly before coming to an uneven stop. They were at the intersection nearest the Zhang compound. Sartaq stepped out the front door and down to the pavement as a cloud of blue exhaust smoke enveloped him for a moment.

As the bus drove away and the air cleared, Sartaq peeled the napkin away from his thumb. A small drop of fresh blood appeared where the napkin had stuck, but the worst was now sealed beneath a fresh scab.

Sartaq absently dropped the bloody napkin and started the short trek up the hill to the East and the Zhang family complex.

Coming around the final bend, he saw the double wide gate of thick wood slabs hanging on heavy, hand-hammered iron hinges standing open as usual. Directly through the gate was the main house where his cousin by his mother’s second marriage lived and, off to its right and still concealed from view, was the smaller home his parents used.

Mother and Zhang step-father, he reminded himself.

As he came through the gate, he saw a new car, dark blue with a light coating of dust, parked in front of his parent’s smaller residence. Lili’s rental, he knew from their meeting here a week ago. She’d offered to drive in to pick him up for today’s family meeting but Sartaq was anticipating an angry showdown and wanted to be able to leave at his own choosing.

“I’ll take the bus,” he’d declared.

The front door of the small home was always open this time of year. He stamped the dust from his feet before entering but saw no one.  Hearing his mother’s voice, he followed the sound through the well-stocked kitchen and outside.

They were seated, mother, step-father and Lili, at a small table in the deep shade of a wide, fat tree. An empty chair awaited him.

His Mother was a tiny fraction of her former self. The years had drained away her stature and appearance and, most cruelly, her kindness and optimism as well. Lili speculated she had suffered a series of small strokes that the doctors and hospitals in China didn’t treat quickly enough. As a result, her mind was damaged. Sadness, anger and pessimism now dominated her life.

Sartaq thought it was much like what the Communists had done to the country as a whole.

Lili started in as they finished eating.

“Taq, father and mother are concerned for you. They say you only visit a couple of times per year. They need you and, frankly, you need to leave the city and move here. You are the son and it is your duty. Your skills are needed to maintain the house, see to their needs, help with the farming and take care of the estate. All our cousins are here and they, as well as our parents, need you.”

Sartaq shifted in his seat trying to decide where to begin. He resisted the thoughts that immediately jumped to mind such as asking just where had she been for the last twenty years or what had she done in all that time except send money as a guilty apology for abandoning them?

Half consciously, he raised his right hand to his mouth to silence the anger that welled up. As the thumb brushed his lips, he fought back the desire to bite and rip open his thumb again.

“You don’t understand,” he said, leaning forward and focusing on Lili. “Just like you in America, I have work to do. You may not see it but it’s important work.”

He wanted to say so much more about what he was doing but dared not. Not for another few weeks, he consoled himself. Keep it general, he thought before continuing.

“I need to be in the city. My work is there, not out here walled off from the world. Perhaps even more than you, I have something …”

Sartaq leaned back suddenly, again cutting himself off.

He sighed heavily, stopped and waited.

They’d been here before, both with his parents and now again with Lili in front of them. Sartaq had tried to make it clear he was engaged in something he couldn’t talk about. Surely they could understand that important things sometimes have to be kept secret until the right moment?

No one spoke.

In the distance, a diesel tractor chugged through a field at the bottom of the hill, a cloud of dust funneling up behind.

Sartaq’s step-father, always the diplomat, broke the silence.

Turning to Lili, he said, “Daughter, your mother and I would like to know about the American you brought to the University. You’ve mentioned him a couple of times. Is he a business associate?”

Lili paused. He’d addressed her as “Daughter” but she’d lived in America, Sartaq thought she has probably forgotten how to answer properly.

He was right. She shrugged and started babbling.

“He’s American. I met him through work several years ago. He lives several hundred miles away in Arizona,” noticing their confused looks she added, “that’s the state next to California where I live. Up until this trip, Spence and I only saw each other once or twice a year when our business travels coincided. This time, however, we flew together to Shanghai, …”

Her face turned red. Sartaq noticed it and, he was sure, so did both of their parents.

She went on, “… and then here. He’s staying at a hotel near the campus where he’s teaching a class.”

Li’s head was down as she stopped.

“And you love him,” their mother finished, a statement, not a question.

Lili raised her eyes and smiled, “Yes, mama, I do.”

“Is he a good man?”

“Oh, yes, he is.”

How odd, Sartaq thought. She sounds like a teenage girl, flush with love, not a mature woman in her late 40s.

Lili continued, “He’s a strong, honest man with good values. He’s sincere, works hard, and has a deep love for others. You can see it when he’s teaching. He’s a computer expert in a highly specialized area and his students go on to build airplanes, space craft, medical electronics and other very high tech things.”

Their father stated the next, rather obvious question, “Are you going to marry him?”

Lili blushed again.

“I’d like that,” she said quietly.

Perking up, she asked, “Would you like to see his picture?”

She reached into her purse, took out her cell phone and flipped through several images before stopping. She leaned over to show the picture to their mother as her father stood up and moved around behind the two of them to see.

“This is a selfie of the two of us,” Lili continued, holding up the phone for the two of them to see. “I took it on the flight from San Francisco. We’re in our seats in the airplane. I’m afraid I don’t look very good after so many hours— we were almost at Shanghai.”

Sartaq, still in his seat, wasn’t particularly interested in the picture. The issue of their parent’s support seemed to have been forgotten and he was anxious to get back to the city. He’d bear a few more minutes of this and then leave.

Squinting at the cell phone, their mother objected, “He looks a little rough.”

“That’s his beard and mustache, and probably the long flight. He was looking ragged after flying all night.”

Lili turned the display, “Here, Taq, this is him.”

Sartaq idly glanced at the tiny picture.

Caucasian. Light brown hair. Short mustache. Goatee. He was in a short sleeve shirt and looked very American.

I know that face, Sartaq jerked upright.

“That’s him!” he exclaimed, realizing too late he’d shouted it aloud.

They all looked at him with puzzled expressions.

“I mean, that’s him? Next to you, I mean?”

This was the man he’d seen on the mountain! This was the man that had watched him execute Wang Qinq Yang. This was the man he’d chased down the mountain. This was the man he couldn’t openly follow right then because the students would recognize him. This was the man he’d asked about but had been unable to find.

This was the man!

Sartaq’s trip to Singapore and then disposing of Wang’s body had delayed his search. And because the man was teaching all day at the University, that would keep him busy and out of sight during the week. The students he’d asked weren’t part of the seminar so they knew nothing, and those that were in the seminar were tied up all day and weren’t around when Sartaq was asking questions.

It all made sense.

Sartaq grabbed the phone from Lili to stare at the picture. Yes, this was the man. He remembered him sitting on the University walkway, his chin bleeding but looking back into the forest where Sartaq was hiding behind a tree off to the side.

Sartaq studied the picture.

Struggling to calm his voice, he said, “So, this is his first visit to China.” And then continued in a more conversational tone, “So, how does he like our country so far?”

Lili shook her head, “I’m afraid it’s been a terrible experience. I’m sure he hates it. The explosion on the campus was very close to his classroom. He was injured and can’t hear anything in one ear. The doctor said it would heal but some of his students were killed. One of them was unusually smart, Spence said. The school said the young man’s name was Feng Min but Spence knew him as Alex.”

Ah, Sartaq nodded, that’s what happened to Feng Min. He’s dead. Good. While his technical skills making gadgets will be hard to replace, I have enough left of his transmitter and receiver sets for Singapore. I won’t have to worry about Feng Min saying anything to spoil our plans.

Lili went on, apparently encouraged by Taq’s nodding, “And then almost a week ago, Spence was out hiking by himself— I told him that was not a good idea but he insisted— and he, uhm,” Li’s eyes darted back and forth, “uhm, he said he saw something that, uhm, was very disturbing.”

“He didn’t say what he saw?”

“No,” Lili said, her voice warbling.

Sartaq was sure she knew more.

“Did he say where he was hiking?” Sartaq probed.

“Somewhere in Luojia forest, I think, by the campus. I tried to convince him to call the Police but, well, he didn’t want to get involved. Americans do that, sometimes.”

Their mother shook her head, “That doesn’t sound very responsible.”

“I know, Mom. But he’s a stranger here. The Police might suspect him and since he knows he is innocent— I know him and I’m sure he is, too— since he’s innocent, he just wants to stay out of it.”

Sartaq smiled at the thought, the American didn’t want to get involved. How typical. And how lucky for me because not only did he keep the Police away, but now I also know who and where he is.

But then Sartaq frowned. With the Police all over the campus after the library explosion, finding an opportunity to kill him there would be complicated.

“Where is he going after the class ends?” Sartaq asked.

Lili explained, “Well, we were going to take a week and go to Xian. He wanted to see the terra-cotta soldiers, and then I suggested we take the boat trip through the Three Rivers Gorge before it fills up. But with all that’s happened, he now just wants to go home as soon as possible. He’s leaving tonight.”

Turning to their parents, Lili lowered her eyes as she began,  “I didn’t mention this before because our plans just changed,” Lili went on. “I have to say goodbye today because we’re leaving this evening on the train to Guangzhou. Tomorrow we’ll go on to Hong Kong for the flight back to Los Angeles after a stopover Sunday night in Beijing. Spence will then go on to Phoenix from there.”

Sartaq smiled at the unexpected coincidence with his own travel plans. Theirs started almost the same as his, they by train, him and his team by rental van, both going south toward Guangzhou. With some minor adjustments, Sartaq thought, I can take the train, kill him, and then join up with my crew before turning West to Vietnam.

An opportunity had just dropped into Sartaq’s lap and, if he moved quickly, he could tie up this loose end while moving ahead with his plan for Singapore, all at the same time.

“Well,” he announced as he stood up, “I have to get back to the city. Lili, it was good to see you again.”

He leaned over and hugged her before turning to his Mother, kissed her and then bowed to his step-father. The three of them, apparently silenced by his abrupt decision, mechanically nodded or mumbled in return.

Obligations complete, Sartaq turned and walked briskly through the house and out the gate.

On the short walk back to where the bus would stop for his ride back to the city, Sartaq finished re-working the plans.

Back at the campus, he would arrange for a quick, final briefing at the boat dock for the five he’d prepared for the Singapore attack. He would remind them to bring passports, credit cards and the cash he’d had them get from their parents. He’d stress they were to bring only a very small bag of clothing for a few days and nothing else. He would tell them they would follow the original plan to drive to Haiphong by rental van but, here’s where the plan differed from what they’d planned before, he would already be in Guangzhou and they would need to pick him up there some time tomorrow. He would call them on their cell phones once he was there later this evening and let them know where to find him.

The witness, Lili’s Spence, would be dead by then.

Sartaq smiled as the bus meandered into view. With any luck, the van with himself and his five suicide bombers would be over the border into Vietnam before the body was discovered.

For his own immediate plan, as soon as the got back to his apartment, he would pack the transmitter and the last six receivers Feng Min had built and the change of clothing he would need in Singapore into the duffel bag he’d bought new for the trip. He would also pack the forged Afghanistan passport and matching credit card he would need later. He realized he could’ve bought a much smaller bag but there was no time left. The big one would have to do.

With the mostly empty duffel bag in tow, he’d then go to the train station and watch for Lili and the American.

And somewhere between Wuhan and Guangzhou, the American would be dead.

#

Spence finished the last slide a few minutes before 2:00 PM.

Instead of his usual ending he just said, “Thank you for attending. Class dismissed,” and clicked off the projector.

He was alone in the room before he’d finished packing away his computer.

He positioned his suitcase and computer bag next to the door and stepped outside to get a clear signal on his cell phone. He dialed Megyn’s Cupertino number knowing it would forward to her cell phone at her parent’s home a few miles away.

She answered, a bounce in her voice.

“Hi Spence. How’s it going?”

“We’re done. Attendance was very light, less than thirty.”

“I told my mother and father about you, and that we’re leaving right away. They’re disappointed they won’t get to meet you but, I guess after all these years of my being in America, I don’t think they were very surprised. I showed them your picture. Only Taq seemed upset you weren’t Chinese.”

More than ever, Spence wanted to be gone.

“When can you pick me up, Megyn? We could get an earlier train.”

 

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