Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
“It is better to travel hopefully, than to arrive.”
, 1881, by Robert Louis Stevenson
The sound inside the coffin was akin to that of a vault door closing. The acoustics were eerie, as if the interior was a miniature theater, its unseen audience hushed and waiting for the curtain to rise and the lights to snap on.
There were no lights, but the sound reverberated in the confined space, doubling and redoubling like pinballs crisscrossing each other.
Nicholas Linnear lay, hands crossed over his chest, as he returned to consciousness. He was dressed in the midnight-blue tuxedo he had been wearing earlier, when he had been drinking Champagne, snacking on caviar, watching the diamond lights along the Bund.
Sound was the first sense that returned to him, sight was the last. In the absolute darkness, there was nothing to see. He heard the functions of his body: his breathing, the blood pulsing through him. Then, moving outward, the sound and the smell of the coffin: the soft creak of wood so aromatic the scent caused his nostrils to flare. They had buried him in a raw pine box. Cheapskates. Then the shifting of the soil around the coffin, softer even than the pine.
All of this gave him heart. Nevertheless, sweat crawled down the back of his neck, the indented center of his spine. The reptile brain that ruled his body’s autonomic nervous system knew it was in dire straits. The amount of oxygen he had to breathe was severely limited. He went into
-breath, slowing his pulse, his metabolism, needing only minimal oxygen now.
He could smell the life in the earth around him—and the death. It was as if he had found himself in a place where the two were equal, where what lay between hung in a delicate balance. He could live or he could die.
Ever so slowly, his right hand moved to his trouser leg, to the ribbon of satin that ran vertically down the side. His fingertips found the small section of loose stitches, picked them open one by one. In the cramped space, in the darkness, this took some time, and all the while he was aware of the air inexorably draining away, however slowly he used it up.
Finally, he felt the metal, warm from being against his skin. An old friend. The six-inch blade slithered out from its satin sheath. With his left hand, he probed the lid of the coffin until he found a seam between the boards. Inserting the point of the blade into the seam, he twisted it. The blade was made of Damascus steel, ten thousand layers, divided equally between pure steel for hardness and iron-rich steel for flexibility. Light and dark; yin and yang. It was a blade akin to those used by Japanese samurai to commit
, ritual suicide, but more special. It had been a graduation gift from Ang, forged by his own hand. There was no other like it.
Nicholas worked the blade back and forth until the soft pine splintered. A dusting of earth drifted down like snow. He repeated this process in two other spots along the same board. Then he turned on his side, jammed his shoulder against the board. It gave way.
Pale earth poured in. Nicholas was ready for it. Deflecting the cascade with one hand, he worked on the second board. Now that he could sit up, he had better leverage with the boards on either side. The onrush of earth almost choked him. Grabbing a large piece of the first splintered board, he raised it vertically over his head, pushing through the loosely packed dirt, wriggling his way upward behind it.
His lungs were near to bursting as he breached the surface, and he sucked in the humid night air. It had never felt so sweet to him. Four feet. The grave was shallow. They must have been in a hurry.
Several hundred yards away, large ships were tied up to loading docks. The largest one—an LNG tanker the size of five city blocks, carrying 260,000 cubic meters of liquid natural gas—rose above the rest. The
—its name emblazoned in the arc lights.
They had been waiting for him on the wide balcony off the crowded ballroom, densely packed with business tycoons and their mistresses, political notables and their mistresses, and even a smattering of Hollywood stars, who were in Shanghai making films or ads—he’d been introduced to Harrison Ford and Scarlett Johansson.
He had been drinking Champagne—more than he should have. But this was his night—the celebration of the first of a fleet of American LNG tankers doing business with the Chinese. More than eighteen months of excruciating negotiations finally had led to this moment. Of course there was talk—there was always talk!—of the Tomkin family background having played a major part in the success of the deal. Nicholas had taken over Tomkin Industries after the old man had died. Since that time, Nicholas had quadrupled the company’s size while increasing its bottom line tenfold. Of course, when it came to him there were always rumors. Being mixed race had led him into perilous currents during his childhood in Japan. This night he could not have cared less about rumors. The prize was his and his alone. He only wished Justine had lived to share in his victory.
He had opened the curtained doors to the balcony in response to an urgent coded text message from Joji, his vice president. His mobile couldn’t connect to calls or to voicemail in the ballroom—indeed, anywhere inside the hotel, he had found. Texts barely squeaked through. This was typical of hotels that deliberately suppressed cell signals, forcing their guests to use the landlines in their rooms.
The people waiting for him must have known that. They had stationed themselves behind the clattering palms on either side of the balcony. He was just dialing the number from the text when they came for him. Even then, he should have been prepared. He should have heard them despite the hubbub spilling out from the ballroom, but he was thinking of the LNG fleet and the repayment of the debt it had incurred. And in the heady release of his triumph he had allowed the surfeit of Champagne to turn his mind a bit muzzy. Surely after hammering out so long and difficult a bargain he had a right to relax.
That’s what they had been counting on.
By the time he had become aware of them, the Propofol had been injected into his vein. He went out instantly. They had used Propofol deliberately. They hadn’t wanted to kill him on the spot. Where would be the fun in that? They wanted him to awaken in the coffin and know that he had been buried alive.
That was how these people worked.
Now, brushing the last of the sticky dirt from his tux, he looked at his watch. Twenty-nine minutes to midnight. His gaze rose to the
. It was preparing to get under weigh.
His heart skipped a beat and he felt the first onrush of adrenalin that would push him forward. He knew why they had been in such a hurry.
The three men who had been lying in wait for Nicholas, who had dropped him into the pine coffin and hurriedly dug the grave, now joined their two comrades aboard the
. Their I.D.s, meticulously manufactured by Section Six of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gained them access to the ship as officials of customs and immigration. The captain, informed of their presence, anxious to weigh anchor on time, was disinclined to cause a delay by querying them.
“Just tell them they have to be off the ship in fifteen minutes,” he told his mate, and was immediately absorbed in the charts the local harbor pilot had put in front of him.
The five men scurried belowdecks, swift as rats. They each had a mission to perform, and they knew they had little time to complete it. Between the engine room and the massive LNG tanks was a corridor interrupted by a series of thick metal doors specifically designed to prevent any fire that broke out in the engines from coming anywhere near the highly flammable liquid natural gas. Other safeguards were in place: the corridor could be flooded with the flip of a switch; all electrical circuits could be shut down as quickly and efficiently; there were heavily armed layers of electronic surveillance.
The mission of the five men was to override all these precautions, then lay packets of C4 in the engine room, the connecting corridor, and along the side of the LNG tank at the far end of the corridor.
They worked with an almost telepathic concentration. Not a word passed between them; none was needed. The electronics expert bypassed one security system after another. He was quick but methodically careful not to make a mistake. When he was through, he lifted a thumb, and the others got to work. One man entered the engine room. He officiously presented his bogus I.D. to any legitimate crew members he encountered, and saw them turn away, their faces pale, tight as a fist. They were frightened of his power to keep them from leaving China, of throwing them into a Shanghai prison on whatever charges he chose to level. He was given a wide berth, and so was able to secrete the block of C4 in the shadows without the slightest difficulty.
Every thirty seconds or so, one man, who was taller than the others and thin as a pipe, raised his pinched face from his work disabling the auto-locks on the doors in the corridor. His nostrils dilated as he turned his head this way and that, sniffing the air for any smell or vibration that might be out of place. Each time, satisfying himself, he returned to his job, concentrating with the ferocious energy of a rodent.
As soon as he reached the ship, Nicholas was informed by the bursar of the five men from customs and immigration who had come aboard. Nicholas’s face betrayed none of the inner turmoil he felt. Three things were immediately clear to him: these were the men who had interred him, they were not from customs and immigration, and they were here to make certain the
never made it out of Shanghai’s harbor. His best guess was that the disruption would occur before the harbor pilot left the ship—that would implicate the company in the death of a Chinese national.
Below deck, he found a shadowed spot behind a gangway. He took off his shoes and socks. Shrugging off his dinner jacket, he folded it fastidiously, then removed his starched white formal shirt and placed it on top of the jacket. Without a second look, he left the pile of clothes behind, silently descended to the lower deck. He not only owned this ship, but he had helped design it, periodically traveling to Sweden to watch over it as it was built. It was enormously expensive, and he was determined to ensure nothing went wrong.
Nothing had, until now.
There were six holding tanks set along the spine of the ship. Interspersed between were ballast tanks, cofferdams, and voids, effectively giving the ship a double-hull structure in the cargo area. Everything had been done to keep the liquid natural gas safe, but he knew full well that human ingenuity could always find a method to steal or destroy the best-guarded treasure.
The Damascus steel blade extended from his left hand. His right hand hung at his side, the fingers pressed together, slightly curled. His breathing was slow—deep, even. Like a child asleep, he was perfectly calm, his mind flooded with the silver moonlight that revealed everything, even the men working in deep shadow. He heard them, smelled them, sensed precisely what they were doing and why.
Hand-to-hand combat was no different than being on a battlefield of thousands or going to war with millions. As Ang had taught him, there were only three paths to victory and they all began and ended the same way: in no-mind. Assumptions, anticipation, reaction all took time away from no-mind. In no-mind you did not anticipate, you did not react; you simply were. And it was this almost mystical state of being that would gain you victory—no matter the odds.
Nicholas was deep in no-mind as he came up behind the man affixing the C4 between sections of the engine housing. He was completely silent, caused no stir of air. He bent down, and in a tenth of a second had run the edge of his blade across the man’s throat. Nicholas caught him as he fell, laid him on the concrete floor as gently as a baby. Then he disengaged the ignition device, rendering the packet of C4 inoperative.
In the corridor that led to the LNG tanks, he encountered two more men. The first saw him and, turning full on to him, received the Damascus blade in the soft spot just above the bridge of the nose. He murmured, as if he were talking to himself, his eyes trying to fix on Nicholas, but crossing instead as his life was snuffed out.