A dozen men clad in bright orange coveralls and white hardhats swarmed the decks of CGSL Orion, the 396-meter flagship of China Global Shipping Lines, like ants. The hollow thud of metal box against metal box rattled the air, adding a bass note to the scream of gears and the whine of spinning cable drums. Gargantuan orange gantry cranes towering fifty meters above dipped and rose, then dipped again, their noses swinging back and forth from dock to ship with payloads of white, green, blue, or red metal containers known as TEUs, or twenty-foot equivalent units.
Gao Tian, chief of the ants, stood on the concrete docks of Dalian. This was one of the busiest container hubs in China, and the mountain of TEUs stacked beside the huge vessel made the man look and feel minuscule. He waved his good arm and spoke into the radio clipped to a loop on the chest of his coveralls. The broad smile across his face belied the frenetic pace of the activity around him. Far too busy with their own tasks, none of the other dockworkers looked up to pay any attention to his flailing arm, but they listened intently to his voice over their respective radios. His job was to coordinate and make certain the loading went quickly and safely; of all the people on the docks, Gao was intimately familiar with the dangers.
Each year, almost three-quarters of a billion of these ubiquitous metal containers—roughly 24 trillion pounds of cargo—moved around the world via tractor-trailer, locomotive, and cargo ship. Roughly 180 million TEUs came from China, and well over 10 million of those came through the Port of Dalian—on ships much like Orion.
The job of a dockworker was stressful enough, but Gao Tian found it difficult to concentrate, considering his recent upturn of fortune.
Gao was forty-one years old, with thinning black hair and a round face that naturally relaxed into a smile—a coworker had remarked that he always looked as though he’d just relieved himself in the swimming pool. He was not a big man, nor was he particularly strong. In truth, Gao had many reasons to be unhappy. His right hand had been crushed in an accident three years earlier when a turnbuckle on a piece of lashing gear had snapped. The sudden loss of tension allowed the TEU to shift just a few inches—but those few inches were enough. Three fingers of his right hand had been sacrificed to the ship, his bone and flesh smeared between the steel bulkhead and the fifty-thousand-pound metal box, like so much red-currant jelly.
Gao’s thumb and remaining finger were of little use. He could, at least, hook the antenna of his radio and depress the talk button, allowing him to direct the activity of the crane operators and the dozen orange-clad stevedores, ensuring that the stacks of TEUs were loaded correctly and efficiently. Gao earned no more pay as the chief coordinator, but, given his useless hand, he counted himself lucky that the dock manager gave him a job at all. And besides, it made sense that the men who did the hardest and most dangerous work received a few more yuan a day than someone who merely stood on the dock and talked into his radio.
Other men in the crew might eventually move up and become true supervisors with offices of their own, but that was not to be for Gao. In all his years, he had never strayed farther than a hundred kilometers from his birthplace of Dalian—and then only to visit his wife’s mother, who lived on a small piece of cooperative land north of the city.
He’d grown content enough with his lot—and then the man with the red eye had come to visit him. Three weeks ago, the man had offered a considerable sum of money to see that a certain TEU was loaded into a certain spot aboard a certain ship. To Gao’s astonishment, this arrangement happened twice more, and each time the man had given him an envelope of money along with verbal instructions. He made Gao repeat the number of the desired TEU and would not allow him to write it down.
Today, the man with the red eye wanted two TEUs—PBCU-112128-1 and PBCU-112128-2—loaded together, well aft of the stacks, low and near the centerline of the ship.
CGSL Orion was classified as an Ultra Large Container Vessel, or ULCV. Almost four hundred meters in length and with a draft of sixteen meters, the ship was deep enough to stack eighteen TEUs from the bottom of the hold to the topmost box above deck. Twenty-three TEUs could be arranged side by side across her fifty-three-meter beam. One TEU looked much like any other, so the chalky blue box with unobtrusive white X’s painted at each corner would soon blend with the 16,000 other boxes aboard the ship, all similarly muted in color, that were stacked over, under, and around it. PBCU-112128-1 and PBCU-112128-2 were not particularly difficult to remember, which was a good thing, because Gao was already thinking of how he was going to spend the extra money the man with the red eye had given him. Nine hundred yuan, roughly equivalent to a hundred fifty U.S. dollars, each time he helped arrange a spot for a container that was going on the ship anyway. It was a tidy sum for someone making seven thousand yuan per month.
Gao suspected his benefactor worked for a triad and wanted his container of drugs or other illicit material stowed deep in the middle of the thousands of containers on the vessel, thus lessening the possibility of search by authorities. Gao was a moral man, opposed to narcotics, but nine hundred yuan was nine hundred yuan, and he rationalized that he did not know with any degree of certainty what was in the container. The man with the red eye had assured him that he wanted only to hasten the unloading process when his container reached its destination. So Gao took the man at his word and kept the money, with a conscience as cloudy as his benefactor’s eye. He was able to slightly assuage his guilt by thinking about how he might spend the newest installment of nine hundred yuan.
Keeping well clear of the swinging cables and flying TEUs, Gao followed the man’s instructions and located PBCU-112128-1 and PBCU-112128-2 in the stacks. He located the barcode on each container and checked them with the scanner he kept secured to a lanyard at his waist. He then coordinated between the operator of the second gantry crane and the stevedores working aft of Orion’s exhaust stack and bridge house to guide the chalky blue TEUs into place. The entire process—from the time Gao first pressed the talk key on his radio with his surviving finger to the moment the locking cams on the lashing hardware were turned at each corner of the two containers, locking them together, seven layers from the bottom deck, ten rows aft of the raised white bridge castle and eleven across from the starboard rail—took just under six minutes.
His task complete, Gao began to move his arm again. He spoke into the radio, directing the crane operators and stevedores as they continued to fill Orion, none the wiser to his deal with the red-eyed man. The chief of the ants smiled, nine hundred yuan richer, and thought about the pigs he could now purchase for his mother-in-law. He liked his mother-in-law.
She was a good and gentle woman, well deserving of some new pigs.
Hands clasped behind the small of his back, General Xu Jinlong of the Central Security Bure au leaned in to peer through the tripod-mounted camera over the rooftops of the Chunhe residential district and industrial buildings situated along the Port of Dalian. A soldier at the core, Xu was thick across the shoulders, with the big hands and muscular forearms of a man who spent more time in the field than the office. Two other men flanked him, one close and relaxed, ready to take orders or give counsel. The other, a youthful man wearing a pair of black sunglasses, had positioned himself back a few steps. His hands were folded in front of him, his head slightly bowed, as he waited to be bidden forward.
All three men stood in the shade of a small copse of walnut trees on a gravel apron off Zhongnan Road, just north of Haizhiyun Park and Laohutan Scenic Area. Many varieties of protected birds and plant life were abundant in these woods, so passersby paid little attention to the powerful eight-hundred-millimeter telephoto lens that protruded like a cannon from the front of the digital camera. The camera itself was superfluous; it was only there to give the lens credibility. The last thing the general wanted was a digital record of any of his activities. He had not come to capture the beauty of Laohutan’s numerous waterfalls or magnificent root carvings. His interest at the moment lay northward, down the hill toward the sea and the intense activity along the Dalian docks.
Charged with protecting the highest political leaders in China, the duties of the Central Security Bureau were akin to those of the U.S. Secret Service. Operatives in the CSB, however, put much more emphasis on the word secret, particularly those operatives under the command of General Xu.
Xu stood motionless, eye to the camera, studying the scene with rapt concentration. The dark suit the fifty-six-year-old man customarily wore allowed him to blend in among the hordes of similarly dressed businessmen and government officials around his offices in central Beijing. But Beijing was four hundred sixty kilometers away and a suit would have drawn unwanted attention as he stood on the side of the roadway on the coast of the Yellow Sea. He dressed instead in light khaki slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up against the unseasonably hot and muggy September. A beige photographer’s vest of lightweight nylon hid the Taurus semiautomatic pistol tucked inside the waist of the khakis. The men with him were similarly dressed. But the young CSB operative named Tan wore dark glasses to cover a severely bloodshot eye. All three men were tall and fit, as those tasked with the protection of other men needed to be.
Both the general and his protégé, a man named Long Yun, had come up through the officers’ corps of the People’s Liberation Army, Long following Xu by a decade. Another ten years younger than Long, Tan began his professional life in the People’s Armed Police. He’d shown great promise until the blood vessels around the pupil of his right eye began to burst every time he sneezed. Rigorous testing revealed his vision was still fine, but Xu found the thing hideous and looked for assignments that would keep the man out of his line of sight. It was the general who had suggested Tan wear dark glasses, even on cloudy days or indoors. It would not do to have the general secretary or some other party dignitary thinking one of the men who protected him was half blind or, worse yet, half drunk.
Xu used a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from a high forehead. He spoke without looking up from the camera. “Comrade Tan, do you trust this cripple dockworker of yours?” Tan’s shoes crunched in the gravel as he took a half-step forward. “I do, General,” he said. “I have conducted three transactions in all, one week apart. In the first two, I chose a container at random, each from a lot heading to the United States. Over this three-week span, Gao Tian has mentioned our arrangement to no one, not even his wife.”
“Astounding,” Xu said, and gasped, mockingly, though he doubted that Tan had caught the inflection. What man in his right mind would confide a sudden windfall of money to his wife, of all people?
General Xu stood up from the tripod, arching his back, feeling it pop and snap. In retrospect, it was a mistake to use someone from his own staff for the negotiations, but he would never admit it out loud. The matter of the container ship Orion had been conceived and decided prior to his arrangement with the man known as Coronet. Other operations would be far more tidy—and less likely to connect to Xu or his organization.
“The gods gave men mouths,” the general said. “And in my experience, men have a difficult time knowing when to keep those mouths shut. This endeavor must be handled with the utmost discretion and secrecy. We cannot afford for your man to speak of this . . . ever.” He looked at Tan. “Do you understand?”
“Of course,” the younger man said, but Xu doubted this was true.
“You must kill him,” the general clarified.
Tan blanched at the order, proving Xu’s suspicions correct.
“Of course,” the young man said again.
“Today,” Xu added. It was tedious how everything had to be spelled out for this one.
Tan braced to attention and gave a curt nod. “Of. . . course,” he said again, stammering, as if any more appropriate words had flown from his brain.
The general sighed, exhausted by the conversation. He tipped his head toward the tripod. “Retrieve the lens and gear,” he said. “But be certain you are careful as you put it away. The people’s money should not be wasted by shoddy handling of equipment.”
Before Tan had a chance to repeat himself yet again, Xu turned to Long Yun and gave a knowing glance toward the car.
Long Yun settled in behind the wheel as the general took his customary spot in the backseat, on the right side, so the two men could more easily communicate. Outside, Tan blustered on the gravel pad as he packed the camera equipment, no doubt made more nervous by his boss’s watchful eye through the tinted window.
“Follow this witless egg,” Xu instructed Long Yun. “When he has killed the cripple, silence him as well. I am afraid your man Tan lacks the constitution for matters of delicacy and discretion. If the fool on the docks has not yet bragged to his friends, then someone will most certainly have witnessed him meeting a man with such a hideous eye. That ship will reach the United States in two weeks. I’m confident there will not be much left after... the incident, but the Americans are known to be extremely thorough. There can be absolutely nothing to link Orion to this office. Do I make myself clear?”
Long Yun turned and grinned at the general.
“Of course,” he said.