Twenty Five: Freedom in Singapore

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Friday, Day 26 – Freedom in Singapore

 

Luo Qiang knew the Sharmarke was no better than a break even proposition.

He flicked the display on his cell phone to the Weibo app and posted “Sharmarke, 7 picks. Back soon.” His friends on the Chinese equivalent of Facebook would know he wouldn’t be responding for a few minutes.

One of the two Singapore harbour tugs assigned to position the ship for unloading had pulled away early for another assignment. The remaining tug chuffed black diesel as it steadily pressed the ship toward the side of the quay.

Luo Qiang put the phone in his shirt pocket and reached forward, juggled the quay crane’s controls to start the bridge running out the cantilevered runway.

The signaler on board the Sharmarke in his orange hardhat, vest and gloves saw the spreader coming out and, as the ship bumped the dock, he raised his right arm, pointed his hand down with index finger extended and twirled it in a small circle.

Qiang pressed the up/down lever fully forward and the spreader dropped toward the first pick, a dark red full size container.

Rapidly shifting his attention between the twirling orange hand, the closing gap between spreader and container, and the spreader microprocessor “Tracking” indicator, Qiang eased the lever back to slow the spreader’s descent.

The “Tracking” light came on and the lights on the crane’s control panel starting flicking on and off with the automatic micro-adjustments the computer was making for the last meter of descent.

Qiang monitored the action and, at least in theory, was ready to override the computer but the wind was calm today and he expected no problems.

He saw the spreader’s lifting cables slacken ever so slightly as the weight of the spreader shifted from the overhead cables onto the container below. Simultaneously, the four “Locked” indicators on his control panel blink on, all green. The twistlocks had all activated and he now had the container.

The old manual system relied on a good signaler and crane operator to achieve the two centimeter alignment between spreader and container. Any more than that and the twistlocks would not engage. That meant misses and time wasted to back up and try again.

A missed pick was lost money.

But the computer out on the spreader with its high tech sensors automated the final motions and fired the twistlocks. All he had to do with get with a couple of meters. As long as the ship was still and the wind didn’t bat around the spreader, the computer would make the grab. He hadn’t missed a pick with the new system. Better still, dropped containers were pretty much impossible.

There was a fully loaded Maersk ship tied up just aft of the Sharmarke waiting for him. With over two hundred containers to be removed, it would put several hundred Singapore dollars in his pocket.

But he had to finish the Sharmarke first.

Qiang focused all his attention on the container now in the spreader’s grasp at the end of his crane. His hands danced across the controls starting it up, trolleying it slightly to center the load under the bridge, and simultaneously racking the container back up the runway away from the ship. On the dock below, a tractor truck and empty container trailer waited.

The dockside signaler was watching the container coming fast. He started flashing hand signals to Qiang. The spreader’s computer couldn’t see below the container so the “place” operation was done old school. The signaler next to the truck alternated between “down” and “left” as Qiang simultaneously moved in both directions. After a moment, the signaler flashed a stop followed by inch down and, leaning forward to check alignment, threw in a little right.

The truck tilted slightly as its trailer took the load. Two other dock workers darted forward and manually fired the trailer’s twistlocks. The signaler waved they were done and Qiang pressed the button that released his twistlocks from the top of the container. Almost simultaneously, he started a fast up and out, headed for the second container on the Sharmarke.

As the winches sang, he glanced to the front of the ship. The stevedores were just now pushing the main hawser onto the forward bollard.

I win!

Slew, drop, grab. Lift, slew, down and release. Smooth and always in motion with no overshoot. He was the best picker in Singapore, arguably the first or second busiest container port in the world.

Good thing they tie stuff down inside those containers, he thought as he grabbed the next container and began slinging it toward the next truck on the dock.

#

Inside the container, the lift, sideways slew and vertical drop had left them all breathless. They’d assumed their container was then sitting on the ground but the burp of a truck’s air brakes and sudden yank as its diesel engine rev’ed left them glancing about in the dim light that leaked in around the doors.

The jerking ride was short, apparently to a different area of the shipping yard. Accompanied by the sounds of a second diesel engine that rev’d with the container’s movements, they were again lifted, shuttled to the side and then set down hard. The steel rang with the impact and the jolt sent a shock up everyone’s backbone.

Both diesels moved away to lift another container from truck to ground and then moved even further away.

Pretty soon it was completely quiet.

Heat radiated inward as the mid-afternoon equatorial sun blazed against the container’s steel skin.

Their water supplies exhausted, all they could do was wait.

#

The light around the doors slowly changed from sunset yellow to electric blue and the steel walls cooled. Night had fallen.

They heard footsteps scrunching through the gravel outside. When they stopped, there was a sequence of sounds on the outside of the door: something like pliers snapping shut to cut through something, a stiff wire being pulled through a metal hasp, and then a terrible screech of metal on rusty metal as something was turned.

The light at the bottom of the door popped a little brighter.

There was a second screech as something turned but stopped. They heard someone grunt and then the screech continued. Suddenly, the rubber seal around the door made a sucking noise and the door rattled open a centimeter.

Everyone inhaled and held it.

Yanked abruptly from outside, the door rattled as it swung open. Brilliant blue light from storage yard’s mercury vapor lights poured in along with a bolus of cool, fresh air.

The taste of the air was overwhelming. Sartaq took a deep breath. It was like inhaling pure oxygen.

He coughed.

Looking out, the uniformed guard that had opened the door was now backing quickly away, his face down with a hand over nose and mouth. He was also coughing but looked like he was gagging and about to throw up.

“Damn!” He said in English, looking askance at the container.

Lili, Sartaq and his five followers all rushed out, stumbled and fell onto the gravel.

Sartaq looked at the others. They all looked like carpe in East Lake when it was choked with algae and the fish came to the surface to gulp air.

Sartaq smiled and started laughing mixed with fits of coughing. In a moment, they were all grinning, shaking their heads, laughing and coughing, Lili included.

They’d survived.

#

An hour later, they finished removing trash, buckets, wrappers and plastic bottles from the container. Nothing was left but the original shipment of shrink wrapped white boxes, still roped to each corner and screwed down to the floor.

The night watchman re-closed the doors, threaded a new inspection seal into place and crimped it shut. Sartaq knew the inspection numbers pressed into the lead wouldn’t match the paperwork but that was thousands of miles and many days from here. Their mission would be finished tomorrow and only he would be left.

The guard ushered them out of the storage yard and locked the gate behind them. Sartaq ordered them to split up and walk in different directions for at least a kilometer. They were to then find a major street, flag a taxi and use their family credit cards for the ride to the hotel.

Lili would go with Sartaq.

As they walked in the dark, Sartaq caught Lili making small glances at him. He was sure she was getting ready to bolt.

“Don’t try it,” he reminded her. “Your American is going to show up tomorrow at Noon and, if you try anything now, I’ll kill him. You’ll never have a chance to warn him. Stay with me, do as you are told and I promise I will let you go to him. I will let the two of you walk away.”

Passing under a street lamp, he saw she was staring at him. Her eyes said, “Liar!”

Sartaq kept his hand on the revolver in his pocket.

Six blocks later they walked across the overpass of a major road at the boundary of a residential neighborhood. Even this late at night, there was a moderate amount of traffic. Sartaq watched and flagged an approaching taxi. On the short drive to the hotel, the driver glanced back at them several times but didn’t say anything about their appearance. He did, however, open all four windows for the entire trip.

In the lobby, Sartaq and Lili attracted a few stares but no one approached. He guided her firmly to the couch against the wall across from the check-in desk. He sat beside her and waited, still grasping the revolver in his pocket.

The five arrived in two groups over the next few minutes.

Lin Yusheng checked them in. His name was on the Friday night reservation Sartaq had made weeks ago. Not sure when they’d arrive, Sartaq had made three reservations, one Yang Longwei on Wednesday,  Zhao Zixin’s for Thursday and Lin Yusheng on Friday.

The five went up the elevator first after nodding to Sartaq. That meant they’d been given the two requested rooms on the 50th floor. Sartaq, with Lili at concealed gunpoint, went up a few seconds later.

When the elevator opened on the 50th floor, Sartaq nudged Lili out to join the five waiting for them in the hallway.

“Lili and I will be in this room,” he said, taking one of the room keys.

Sartaq opened their door and guided Lili in. Lili wrenched her arm away and walked quickly to the bathroom.

“Don’t come in,” she said as the door closed with a ker-chunk. Sartaq heard the bathroom door lock click.

He closed his eyes to visualize the bathroom from his previous visit. He smiled and crossed to the desk, picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone. A moment later, there was a definite click.

“Wrong!” He roared into the phone. “Try that again and I’ll break down the door and kill you right there!”

There was a huff over the dial tone followed by another click.

Through the door, he heard the shower start.

Sartaq dialed the other room and said, “One of you come here. And don’t hang up this phone.”

He set the receiver on the table and walked to the door. Peering through the peep hole, he saw Zhao Zixin come out of the room opposite. Sartaq opened the door and motioned him in.

Sartaq handed the revolver to Zhao.

“Sit here between the bathroom and hall doors,” he pointed. “Keep the gun aimed at the bathroom. When she comes out, keep it aimed at her at all times. I want her to know you are watching every move. If she tries anything suspicious, kill her. Do you understand? Kill her!”

He didn’t wait for a nod.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Searching floor by floor, Sartaq repeated his previous strategy of looking for cleaning carts and an unguarded pass key. It didn’t take long.

Pass key in hand, he went to the storage closet near the elevator on the their floor and let himself in. Up on the shelf, everything looked just as he had left it. He pushed aside the covering box and pulled down the heavy one he’d left two weeks ago.

He slipped back out into the hallway, stooped over and scooted the pass card under the elevator door where it would drop down the shaft and be forgotten, and then walked back to their room with the box.

As he entered, the shower was still running.

He put the box on the desk and crossed to the bathroom.

“Hurry up,” he shouted.

Hearing nothing, he banged hard.

“Hurry up, I said. Answer me!”

Muffled by the door and masked by the hiss of the shower, he recognized Lili’s voice. She was cursing.

He smiled and sat on the nearer of the two beds to wait.

Zhao, still in his chair with the revolver in his hand, looked around nervously but Sartaq shook his head.

They waited.

Finally, the shower stopped.

Another ten minutes went by.

Fifteen.

When the bathroom door finally opened, Lili was barefoot and wrapped in a fluffy white robe, the collar pushed up tightly around her neck, her dark hair slick and wet over the collar.

She crossed the room, sat at the desk and pushed the box aside to look in the mirror.

Sartaq thought he smelled flowers and sweet grass from a summer meadow. Looking at her freshly scrubbed, immaculate complexion and shiny damp, chestnut hair, Sartaq absently drew a deep breath and sighed.

Zhao had also been distracted; Sartaq noticed the revolver in his grip was now canted limply to the side and his eyes had swept Lili’s figure in the billowy robe.

“Hey!” Sartaq shouted.

Zhao bolted upright and tightened his grip on the revolver as his face turned red.

Sartaq stood.

“I’ll be in the shower,” he said.

“Remember, Zhao, anything suspicious and you shoot!”

In the bathroom, Sartaq stripped off the stiff shirt and pants he’d been wearing for two weeks, He pressed them into the sink, filled it with as much water as it would take and squeezed in what was left at the bottom of the little plastic bottle of Body Wash. He alternately pressed the clothes down into the soapy liquid and then pulled them up to drip. He repeated the process several cycles. Draining the sink, he refilled it with plain water and repeated the action to remove the soap. His laundry complete, he draped the pants over the toilet seat and the shirt over the commode’s back.

He climbed into the shower and turned on the water.

Lili had used up the shampoo but, with his extremely short hair, the tiny bar of soap in the shower tray was sufficient. After all, he didn’t look that dirty, not like after working all day at his forge.

Turning off the water, he looked for a towel. Only a single dry wash cloth remained on the counter. Everything else looked wet where it had been kicked under the sink.

He shook his head at Lili’s excesses.

He was glad he’d never had to live with anyone like that. The occasional whore in Wuchang, when he felt the need and had the money, was more than enough company. The whore’s job finished, they left. That’s how he preferred it.

He put on his clothes, still very wet, before reentering the room.

Lili was sitting at the desk looking in the mirror and using her fingernails to slowly rake through her wet hair.

Sartaq took the revolver back and dismissed Zhao.

Sartaq placed the box he’d retrieved from the housekeeping closet on the bed he’d been sitting on earlier. He opened the folding knife from the pocket in his wet pants, cut the tape that sealed the box and folded back its flaps.

Inside, everything was wrapped in black plastic that was again sealed at every edge.

He retrieved one of the damp towels from the bathroom and laid it out flat next to the box.

Lili turned to watch as she continued running her fingers through her hair.

Cutting open the inner black plastic wrapper, he laid everything out on the towel so he could verify the contents.

  • Thirty-six red sticks of Dynamite
  • Six cigarette-size silver detonators with twisted red and black wires and a plug at the end
  • Six wiring harnesses
  • A clear plastic wrapped block of 9v batteries stacked in five rows and six layers, 30 in all
  • Six hand-activated detonator switches, each with a twisted pair of green and yellow wires hanging out that, in reality, would remain unconnected
  • Six wireless receivers in aluminum miniboxes, designed and built by Alex, now dead
  • One wireless transmitter with its identifying “Go” pushbutton.

Everything was there.

Sartaq waved his hand over the spread out contents and announced to the room as much as to Lili, “All this, from my fellow ETIM patriots in Kashgar.”

Lili paused, her hand halfway down the next stroke.

Thinking she was interested, Sartaq continued.

“All the electronics were assembled in our little factory in the university dorm. That was easy because most of the parts are used by the Electronics seniors in their Special Projects class. The hard part was exporting the assembled electronics out of China. The paperwork alone took two days to assemble. But once it had shipped to Sibolga in Indonesia, our associates repackaged it, added the explosives from the factory there, and then sealed it up as you saw, to be smuggled into Singapore. I picked it up at a different shipping yard than the one you saw and brought it here. I hid it among the Housekeeping supplies for this floor.”

He finished with a grin.

Lili, her hand stoking through her hair again, leaned slightly to look and asked, “Is that Dynamite? Do you really need that much?”

Sartaq picked up one of the red sticks and turned it over in his hand to examine it.

He explained, “No one was sure what it would take to sever the steel columns. But they felt sure that six would do it. But as you saw at the library, that’s probably way more then necessary. Still, it won’t hurt to use more than necessary.”

Thinking what he’d just said, he smiled at his accidental joke, it won’t hurt, and started flipping the stick of Dynamite in his hand.

Lili’s face paled.

“Stop that,” she ordered. “You’re scaring me.”

Sartaq smiled but put it down with the others.

She spread her hands, “I don’t care what your religion is, Taq. This is not what God wants.”

Sartaq furrowed his eyebrows at her reference to God. This had nothing to do with Allah. He though he’d made it perfectly clear to her that the religion was just a ruse to pull in new followers. He was about to ask if she’d been listening to anything he’d said but was interrupted by a knock.

Peering out, Sartaq saw room a white cloth covering a service cart and, behind it, a uniformed delivery porter.

“What do you want?” Sartaq said through the door in Cantonese.

“Room service,” the porter answered, also in Cantonese.

Behind him, Lili said, “I ordered a couple of things.”

Sartaq turned to face her, his face hot and angry.

“Zhao Zixin let you use the phone?” He hissed.

“Yes,” she said matter of factly. She continued to hand comb her hair. “He’s a young man and not as jaded as you are. Perhaps he’d become a little distracted, I don’t know. But don’t worry, your faithful follower kept the gun aimed at me the whole time so you needn’t worry. I didn’t give anything away.”

After eleven days of near starvation diet, the faint odors of food that were creeping under the door and into the room were irresistible.

Hand on the revolver in his pocket, he pulled open the door and nodded.

The porter pushed the cart into the room and, after a brief pause to confirm he should set up their dinner in the open space next to the window, the porter flipped the folded edges of the cart up to make it into a circular table. Reaching under the white linen table cloth, he brought out three aluminum boxes from below and set out the dishes.

After two weeks of ramen, dried fish and beans, the aromas were overwhelming. Sartaq’s mouth watered so fast he had to keep swallowing to keep from drowning.

By the time the mains and side dishes had been spread out and two place settings of silverware, chopsticks and napkins arranged, Sartaq wondered how they could possibly eat everything.

The porter handed the bill and a pen to Sartaq who froze, stunned in place, as he read down the list and the prices. He knew the exchange rate was about five to one but he could only do simple ones.

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice, 27
  • Cantonese-style Hor Fun, 28
  • Lamb Korma, 32
  • Stir-fried Green Vegetables, 15
  • Vegetable Spring Rolls, 20— that’s 100 Yuan!
  • Fresh Fruit, 19— another 100!
  • San Pellegrino Sparkling Water (250 ml, qty 4), 40— 200 for water?
  • Mango Juice (qty 2), 16
  • Bellini, 22— What? (More than 100.)
  • Sub-total, 219
  • 10% Service Charge, 21.90
  • 7% GST, 15.33
  • Total, 256.23

He knew total was well over 1,000 RMB but the exact amount eluded him. Regardless, it was more money than he was likely to see in several months working his forge and selling re-purposed metal goods.

He shook his head thinking, All this for a single meal?

Lili smiled at his bewilderment.

“I skipped the Dom Perignon. I’ve never had it but at slightly less than 400 Singapore dollars for a bottle, that’s 2,000 Yuan, I thought that might be a bit extravagant. I ordered the Bellini for me instead. I thought you’d find that a little too feminine, sorry.”

Sartaq shook his head as he signed. Lin Yusheng’s parents would get the bill but not until long after the boy had been vaporized in tomorrow’s explosion.

Two minutes later as Sartaq and Lili sat and plucked from a different dish on each bite, there was another knock.

“Oh,” Lili exclaimed. “That must be the personal shopper the concierge suggested. I asked her to bring up a few things.”

Sartaq started to open his mouth but she cut him off, “I ordered only what I have to have, nothing more.”

Sartaq opened the door and a clothes rack rolled in through the door, pushed by a different porter and followed by a small woman neatly dressed in black.

Lili walked over to the rack as the woman swept her eyes up and down to assess her size. She began pulling items out for Lili’s consideration.

Sartaq kept his hand on the revolver in his pocket but otherwise sat fascinated at what was taking place.

As the selection process flowed and swayed, Sartaq divided his time between the food and watching this most feminine of activities. He’d never seen anything like it.

By the time Lili’s mind was made up, a full hour had passed.

The selected garments lay on the bed nearer the window. He tried not to look too long at the undergarments but recognized underwear and bra, both made with a delicacy and lace filigree he’d never imagined.

There was a pink and light tan, very sheer silk top and something that went with it that Lili had called a camisole. The plain linen skirt was the exact same pink as the flowers in the top. He knew because they’d held them up first under the desk lamp and then again in the brighter light in the bathroom before agreeing.

The leather strap and hemp sandals with 30 mm heels Lili had selected had an English word printed on the insole.

“Coach,” she told him.

The off-white sweater was, “a cardigan, for the chilly room.” She made him feel how soft it was.

Then there was the pale yellow night gown and “shorty” robe that made him smile and laugh, embarrassed as he looked away.

All the makeup, at least a dozen different items and far more than he imagined any woman would use in a year but Lili insisted she would need before leaving the room in the morning, went into a bag that had the same English word on its label as the shoes.

The woman tallied things up and handed the bill to Sartaq as Lili held the blouse up, smiling and looking in the mirror.

$2473.28, Singapore.

He tried to calculate five times that amount but the numbers were way too big.

All he could do was shake his head as he signed. Lin Yusheng’s father would be flabbergasted and think they’d bought an entire store, not just clothes for one night and the next morning.

The personal shopper left with her rolling rack of rejects as Lili took her night garments and outer wear for the next day into the bathroom.

Sartaq heard the shower again.

Taking a final bite of the Lamb Korma, Sartaq used the room phone to call across the hall and dictate the guard schedule for the night.

As he finished, Lili came out of the bathroom in a thick billow of steam and quickly shut the door behind her.

“I’m steaming some things. Don’t go in if you don’t have to.”

Sartaq looked away as Lili crossed the room in her nightgown and “shorty” that revealed far too much — she’s my little sister, for God’s sake — and climbed into the bed nearest the window, turned on her side away from him and pulled up the covers. Only the rounded top of her head with her dark brown hair was visible. Curled up under the covers, she looked small and helpless.

She seemed both familiar and exotic.

He was confused by the different emotions that raced through his mind.

A knock on the door brought him back.

Sartaq peered out before opening the door to Zhou Guang who had the first shift.

“Remain alert until you’re relieved,” Sartaq instructed as he handed over the revolver.

“And no telephone calls except to change the shift. Wake me if anything, and I mean anything, happens.”

Sartaq sat on the edge of the second bed, his back to Lili and shed his still damp shirt and pants, dropped them on the floor and slipped under the covers.

The cool sheets against his bare skin were every bit as distracting as they had been on his first visit. But this time, he was also very aware of Lili’s presence a few feet away. The fragrance of shampoo and clean skin collided with the self-chastisement that this was his little sister. That, in turn, battled with the image of the beautiful, graceful and intelligent woman she’d become. Zhou Guang’s presence a few feet away with a revolver in his hand who, Sartaq was sure, was scanning Lili’s gentle shape under the blanket in the next bed, all that did nothing to simplify the war of emotions that whipped his hormones as he lay naked in bed.

He finally drifted off but only after surrendering to the sensory overload that numbed his mind.

 

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