A Dragon's Ransom Prologue
The container ship Happy Valley was making a steady twelve knots running north parallel to the South Carolina coast line which was some eight miles of the port bow. In the half light between night and day, three of a skeletal crew of fifteen were hurriedly preparing the highly illicit packages to be loaded into the awaited delivery boats. The three men were busily working in a false hold set deep within the bowels of the huge container ship. At almost 400 metres long and with a displacement weight over 150,000 tonnes it had been a pretty easy job to hide a thirty-metre by twenty-five-metre area from prying eyes.
Other than the handful of the men and women who had designed, built or worked in the area, no one knew of its existence and the owners went to great lengths to keep it a very well protected secret. So much so that several of the original architects, even had they wished to crow about their engineering achievements, were no longer physically able to share the details with the living.
The Happy Valley was the largest and most modern ship in the Chang family’s extensive modern container fleet and had cost almost $170m to build and outfit. She was named after the famous area on Hong Kong Island where the locals went happily off to the race track and gamble hundreds of millions of Hong Kong dollars away in an afternoon.
The change in the tone of the massive diesel engines combined with the noticeable shift in how the vessel rode through the Atlantic Ocean was the signal that Liang had been waiting for. He took a quick look at his watch, a good imitation of a Cartier that he had picked up in a street market a few months earlier in the Central District on his native Hong Kong Island: bang on schedule. Good, he thought; he knew that his boss would be very unhappy if the operation was not carried out as punctually as had been meticulously planned. It was time. “Niu, open the doors,” Liang instructed in Cantonese. Niu moved his heavy frame across to the complex looking control panel and started going through the process of pressurising the hidden space. The slight popping in his ears confirmed to him and the other occupants of the room that the door seals had done their job. He pushed a couple of buttons on the touch screen computer screen, and in response the polished steel hull in the centre of the floor began to slide away, revealing the churning dark blue Atlantic waters beneath the now almost stationary vessel.
The three men hadn’t been waiting long before the dark outline of a submersed object could be seen rising slowly up towards the surface; it looked like a large oversized cigar. Its form became clearer and, as the sleek conning tower pushed its way through the now still water surface, one recognised it to be a small black submarine some forty feet long. The water- tight hatch atop the conning tower was pushed open and two men exited the sub in quick succession. Within sixty seconds the first submarine was joined by its twin, both vessels now laying alongside one another in the small submarine pen concealed in the hull of the Happy Valley.
“Liang, how’s it hanging man?” The leader of the submarine squad had climbed off his boat and was making his way to the athletically-built Chinese man standing by the pile of product that was to be loaded onto the subs. Liang reached out his calloused hands, hardened by thousands of hours of martial arts practice. He didn’t like the man standing in front of him, but choose to keep his personal distaste of this particular individual - and westerners in general - to himself. To his mind they were an ugly form, normally overweight, clumsy and rarely to be trusted in his experience.
“I am well, Chuck, thank you.” He didn’t bother with asking how the American was doing on that particular morning and instead looked across at Niu and Feng. “We don’t have much time, begin the loading of the packages.” The instructions snapped off in Chinese.
If Chuck had noticed the intended insult he didn’t show it and pulled out a cigarette. “You guys,” he directed the curt instructions at his three men, “help the Chinks with the dope.” The three heavy built thugs made their way towards the neatly stacked packets of cocaine and effectively formed a chain between the piles of drugs and the submarines. In quick order the foil-wrapped packets were moved along the line of five men and deposited into open storage holds, set fore and aft of both submarines.
The subs were purpose built by a small company in Korea that normally specialised in ‘toys’ for the rich and mighty. The owner of these particular subs was certainly rich but that’s where his personal profile with the manufacturer’s typical customer match abruptly ended; no one was under any illusion that these were in any way toys. Powered by a bank of large batteries, they were big enough to carry two members of crew along with a decent sized stash of cargo. Their range was about a hundred and fifty miles before they would have to recharge and so were ideal for the short runs between the southern states’ coastline and the frequently returning Happy Valley.
Liang and Chuck watched on in silence as first and then the second submarine were filled with their illegal cargo of pure cocaine. By the time the process was completed, each vessel was carrying about thirty five million dollars’ worth of drugs.
Chuck dropped his third cigarette stub onto the steel floor and kicked it casually towards the gap in the hull where the submarines were tied up. He’d been cooped up in the sub for over 90 minutes and smoking simply wasn’t practical in such a small confined space, so he was determined to get as many smokes in as possible before making the enforced smoke-free return trip. “Liang, there is something I want to discuss with you.”
Liang looked at the big American and nodded. “Don’t say much, do you,” muttered Chuck under his breath. “It looks like we have a breach in our security; the Feds almost caught us last time we came ashore.” “What is this to do with our part of the operation?” enquired Liang in an even tone; landside operational security was not his concern. He picked up the drugs offshore down in the southern Caribbean Sea and transported the goods to the agreed drop off point. His operation was watertight; of that he was entirely sure. The two men that were now working for him packing the drugs aboard the ‘drug mule’ submarines had been with him for a long time and they knew the consequences of betrayal or of making a silly mistake.
Chuck nodded discreetly in the direction of one of his men who was now busying himself locking down the last of the loading hatches on the submarine furthest from them. “I reckon Tony there has been shooting his mouth off a bit and I think that we need cut him out of the business. I was kinda hoping that I could leave him here and you’d make sure that we’d never hear from him again; if you get my drift.”
The request was clear enough, the hint of a vicious smile appeared across the Chinaman’s lips. “And why, Chuck, are you not capable of taking care of your own house- keeping?” “He’s my sister’s brother Liang, and, well, it just don’t seem right that I kill him,” said Chuck awkwardly. Liang looked at Chuck, making no effort to hide his pure contempt for the man’s weakness.“No problem, call him over.”
The American was taken aback by Liang’s apparent willingness to take on a task of this nature without further questioning, and found it very disconcerting that Liang had not taken any length of time to consider the request in the first place. Chuck had only met Liang on a few occasions but the Chinaman’s reputation for clinical, cold efficiency preceded him. The American recognised that he had set the ball in motion and that he couldn’t very well now lose even more face in front of Liang by backing down and retracting the request. Chuck rather wished that he’d said nothing and had found another way of resolving the problem. This was, he acknowledged, one his great failings; he never really thought things through and had a recurrent habit of firing too often from the hip.
“Tony, this is Liang.” Chuck pointed at the man standing next to him. “Hi, I’m...” Chuck’s brother in law never got the opportunity to introduce himself fully as Liang took a half a step forward and slammed the fingers from his right hand deep into the unsuspecting man’s windpipe. The martial arts expert’s hands were as hard and as rigid as steel and this speed, combined with the accuracy of the strike, left Tony reeling on the floor gasping for breath. Chuck was stunned by the man’s speed; Liang’s arm had moved as a blur. He reckoned that even if he had been prepared for such an onslaught that he would most likely not have been able to stop the impact.
Tony was lying at their feet trying to formulate words, the look of shock and fright in his eyes almost pitiful. There was no remorse to be seen in Liang’s cold dark eyes.He snapped his fingers. “Niu, Feng throw this rubbish into the sea.” Chuck had no idea what Liang had said, but all became clear when the two men picked up the still struggling man and took him to the edge of the loading bay where they unceremoniously dumped the man into the water. “Problem solved, Chuck?” queried Liang. He felt no remorse for what he had done. Tony may or may not have been responsible for a breach in security, it was not his concern. The man had lived and operated as a drug dealer; he certainly was no saint, and if one played in a dangerous game then one knew the rules. Chuck’s last sight of his brother-in-law was watching him sink slowly down beneath the calm water in the loading bay and drift, submerged, towards the stern of the ship in keeping with the general - albeit slow - forward motion of the great vessel. Eliciting no response, if indeed any was necessary, Liang moved towards the control panel. “You have a scheduled to keep; I suggest you be on your way.”