Ryan Kelley knew he was in deep shit when he turned the manila envelope over and a severed ear plopped onto the sticky bar.
He stared at it for a long moment. The ear was pierced. A steel Jolly Roger. Both the ear and the earring belonged to Brody. From the jagged cuts, it looked like whoever had removed the ear needed three or four tries. Or maybe he was just taking his time. For the fun of it.
The bartender came back. An ex-pat Australian with sleeves rolled up to show off faded tattoos on hairy arms. He ignored the ear, nodded at Kelley’s empty mug. “Need another?”
There are about a dozen holes in the area around Kuala Lumpur where you could drop a severed extremity on the bar and expect not to get any hassle. Kelley was on a first name basis with the bartenders in all of them. This one happened to be in Port Sweetenham, just to the southeast of KL.
“I’d better just settle up, Gar.” The other man moved off.
Kelley remembered the envelope still balanced in his hand. He peered inside. A few errant blood streaks. Other than that, empty.
There was no name on the envelope. No markings. But he knew who had sent it. Because sixty seconds before, a 10-year-old local kid had dropped it in front of Kelley. The kid had met Kelley’s eye, and repeated the only two English words he knew:
Kelley stepped out onto the street. Early evening, on the late side of magic hour. It was still hot. Humid, like his body had been wrapped in boiled cellophane. He immediately felt sweat gather at his hairline.
Kelley wore beat-up jeans and black boots with rubber soles, the kind that don’t slip on a wet deck. He wore a simple black t-shirt pulled tight across a refined chest.
Kelley was a tough guy. Not huge like a bodybuilder. He had the lean hardness that came from years of manual sea labor and boxing. Kelley looked like a golem built from spring steel and whalebone. He had spikey blonde hair and mid-afternoon stubble. He could throw a look from his dark blue eyes that made men step back like he’d punched them in the forehead. Not many people gave Kelley shit unless they had a gun or knife in hand. Several jagged white scars slashing across Kelley’s face and hands testified to those rare exceptions.
He also wore a gold wedding ring on his right hand. It was dented and bent. He kept it for his own reasons.
Kelley immediately spotted the two assholes across the street. They were exactly the kind of Malaysian street punks Kelley’d expected to find waiting for him. Every one of them the same, like they were slapped together in a single sweatshop: tattoos of tigers and/or dragons, cheap bling, designer knock-offs, all affecting the same wannabe Triad hard guy routine. Kelley figured about one in twenty were worth keeping an eye on; the rest were background noise. They sipped from cans of Coca-Cola, probably laced with codeine and kratom. It was a trendy drink with the kids, invented by Muslim teens. Getting drunk on alcohol was a sin, but catching a buzz on laced Coke apparently didn’t count as a big deal. It had caught on throughout Southeast Asia.
Kelley swerved his way across the street, dodging through traffic that didn’t slow down. The punks waited and smoked. Kelley arrived.
They didn’t answer. The punks gave him the stare of two guys trying to come across as stone-cold killers. The punks had Malaysian eyes. Flat and jet-black, like a doll’s. It was unsettling if you weren’t used to it, or if you were a pussy. Kelley was neither.
After paying the bar tab, Kelley had stuck Brody’s ear back in the envelope and folded it up until it fit into his back pocket. He took out the envelope and repeated himself, this time in Malay.
The first punk smirked, showing off the gangsta-style gold front teeth. “King Pirate say, fifty thousand.”
“Dollars or ringgit?”
Kelley glared. “What if I don’t have it?”
The smirk turned into a grin. Gold Tooth shrugged. Don’t know what to tell you, man.
“How about I knock those gold teeth out of your head and give them to King Pirate as a down payment?”
The punk casually flicked away the cigarette butt with a quiet snap. “Try it. See what happen.”
Kelley glanced around. They were in a sketchy part of town. Lots of shady characters. Kelley and the punks fit right in. This wasn’t the financial district. Some trouble could go down. But there were plenty of people around. In traffic. Sitting in bars. On the sidewalks. Witnesses. He’d be easy to spot in a crowd. Someone called the cops, they’d find him. They’d lock him up. He’d sit in a cell for a while. They’d cane his white ass. Kelley wasn’t scared of a caning. He’d gotten several, with the trophy scars to prove it. Puckered stripes on his back and buttocks. Both cheeks. But the whole process would burn time Brody didn’t have. Kelley turned his attention back to the punks. Gold Tooth kept smiling, having no idea how lucky he was to still have teeth in his head.
Brody was a friend. He and Kelley met while working on the Asian Princess. Kelley and Brody stayed in touch. They had several interests in common. Hard drink. Women of various nationalities. And the sea. Always the sea. Both were refugees from the first acts of their lives, men who had tried and failed to handle the nine-to-five. For them, it was nothing but boredom and authority. To the squares left in the wake, they were losers, detritus who couldn’t get their acts together well enough to fit into normal society.
You know what? Fuck ‘em. Even a cattle herd needs a few rogue bulls.
Brody was a damn good friend. If they weren’t working on the same ship, Kelley made sure to look him up in port. Their work took them both throughout the Asian seas. They’d chased skirts in Japan, brawled in Vietnamese bars and wept into their beers in Indonesia. Kelley and Brody were rough men given to extremes of mirth and melancholy.
Brody was one of the best friends Kelley’d ever had. He’d been taken captive when pirates swarmed howling over the bows of the Lucky 88 five days before. Kelley knew the pirates would force him to give up family names for a ransom demand. Brody didn’t have any family. Or, at least, no family that would pay cent one for his worthless skin. Brody only had Kelley.
Hence, the ear. And Kelley’s shortening patience.
“How long do I have?”
“An hour to pull fifty thousand bucks together.”
Again, that languorous shrug. Kelley was ready to break this guy’s arms.
“I want to talk to King Pirate.”
The punks chuckled, derisively shaking their heads.
Kelley stepped up, getting in their grilles.
“If King Pirate wants this money, I’m talking to King Pirate.”
Gold Tooth’s eyes narrowed. Trying to man up in the face of Kelley’s vicious glare.
“You don’t give money, you don’t get friend.”
Kelley closed in farther. They were nose-to-nose, like fighters in a ring.
“What happens when King Pirate finds out you cost him fifty large because you couldn’t dial a phone?”
Gold Tooth looked away; Kelley had broken him. He edged out of Kelley’s space, backing off. The Malay punks quickly discussed their options. Kelley caught one word in three.
The punks nodded toward a nearby alley. Kelley followed them in.
Gold Tooth made the call on a cell phone the size of a credit card. A whispered conversation. Kelley occupied himself with staring down the other guy. He wanted both of them to get the clear, unspoken message that he was not to be fucked with.
Seconds later, Gold Tooth extended his phone to Kelley: “Talk. Then you pay.”
Kelley kept an eye on the punks. Put the phone to his ear. “Yeah?”
An electronically-distorted voice buzzed across the tiny speaker. Excellent English, with an unplaceable accent strong enough to bleed through the noise.
“My friends have already explained the deal. I trust the down payment we gave you made our position clear. Do you have what I want?”
Kelley considered his options for a moment. Realized that he had none. “I don’t have the money. But I can get it.”
King Pirate went silent. The device disguising the voice hissed. Then, “Can you get it in an hour?”
“Are you sure, Mister Kelley?”
“Yes. But I can get it. It’ll take me a few days, but I’ll figure out a way.”
Again, silence. Hissssssss…
“In that case, you can have your friend back – “
Kelley fought to keep the punks from seeing his obvious relief. “Thanks.”
“– in as many pieces as you’d like. You see, we’ve already chopped him up as fish bait.”
The words took a moment to register in Kelley’s brain. Echoing in his skull, growing and rebounding, until they came out of his mouth as a primal scream of sheer fury.
King Pirate chuckled. Through the voice-blurring distortion, it was like hearing a swarm of bees laugh.
Kelley’s reaction was a pre-arranged cue for the punks. They whipped out extending metal fighting batons.
Kelley responded without thought. It takes most people a long time to react to the threat of violence. They have to realize the violence is real and immediate. They have to think and decide what to do about it. They have to deal with their fear. The whole process can take several seconds to a minute. The punks were counting on the delay time.
They didn’t get it.
With the speed of muscle memory, Kelley shot his right elbow into Gold Tooth’s face. There was a wet gok sound, like when you snap a carrot in half. His nose breaking. Hot blood sprayed onto Kelley’s arm.
The other guy cocked back the baton to crack Kelley’s skull open. He never got past mid-swing. Kelley tagged him with two fast left jabs: pop-pop! Nothing that would knock a guy out. But it broke the punk’s rhythm, put tears in his eyes. Rocked him back. Good enough.
Kelley grabbed the baton wrist with both hands. Threw the guy to the ground, still holding the wrist. Got a grip on the hand holding the baton. Gave it a quick twist. Kelley felt the delicate wrist bones snap under his fingers. The guy yelped. Kelley stomped him in the jaw. Bitch.
He took the baton away. Heard Gold Tooth recover, coming at him from behind.
Without looking, Kelley crouched low and whirled. Gold Tooth’s baton came down in an arc. It was meant to tag Kelley in the back of the neck. But Kelley was low, inside the swing. Moving. The baton glanced and rolled off his left shoulder blade.
In the same motion, Kelley slammed his stolen baton into Gold Tooth’s ribcage. He heard three break at once, like fast applause. Gold Tooth folded in half. Kelley grabbed him by the hair and guided his face right into a rising knee strike. Gold Tooth flipped backward. Hit the ground. Bleeding and moaning in a back alley, where all worthless chumps like him eventually end up.
Kelley searched the ground. He found the fallen cell phone. It was thin and delicate. Broken into a dozen shards.
Kelley cursed his luck. He wanted to tell King Pirate that he was a dead man. That, no matter what, Kelley would find him. And do to him what he’d done to Brody. But the phone was broken. So Kelley would have to deliver the message to these punks, and keep it simple enough that they wouldn’t forget any important details.
And then Kelley would find another seedy, shit hole bar. Because it was the only kind of place where Brody would want Kelley to throw back a shot in his honor. And swear his oath of revenge. With two words.
A month later, Sanjay Gupta was using the office phone to make long-distance calls when a boop-boop told him there was someone on the other line.
He switched to line two, also switching from Hindi to Malay: “International Piracy Reporting Center.”
Sanjay rolled his eyes. Switched languages again, now in slightly British-accented English, “Call back in exactly ten minutes.”
He punched off. Went back to his call on line one.
Exactly ten seconds passed.
Dammit. Sanjay apologized to his girlfriend, at the moment on a business trip in Toyko.
Again, in Malay: “International – “
“Quit jerking me around. I wanna talk to Han.”
Sanjay clenched his teeth. These idiots.
“He’s not available to take a call at the moment,” he patiently explained.
“I emailed Han and he never responded. When’ll he be back?”
“If you wish to speak to Director Han, you’ll have to make an appointment.”
A hint of frustration slipped out as Sanjay asked, “Who is this, and may I ask the purpose of your call?”
“I wanna talk to him about King Pirate. I checked out your website. Han’s the man I gotta see.”
Obviously, this guy was just some nut calling to waste everyone’s time.
“Call back tomorrow at nine o’clock precisely.”
Sanjay hung up without another word. When the moron called tomorrow, Sanjay would tell him to call again the next day and the next, ad infinitum, until he got the hint and crawled back into his hole.
He shifted back to Hindi as he punched back to line one. “Sorry, this idiot keeps ringing…”
A dial tone bled from the cell phone. Kelley snapped it shut. Fucker.
He stood in the midst of Kuala Lumpur’s business district. Kelley was across the street from the International Chamber of Commerce building at 27 Jalan Sultan Ismail Road. The building also housed the International Maritime Bureau, which in turn shared space with the International Piracy Reporting Center on the thirty-fifth floor. Kelley stared up at it, as if he could see through the steel and glass to spot Director Han. The Petronas Twin Towers loomed on the horizon.
“Nine o’clock, my ass.” He’d tried coming in the official way. Now it was time to get in the Kelley way.
Kelley headed for the building. Guards armed with automatic weapons stood at attention by the glass front doors. Their eyes immediately picked him out of the crowd. Caucasians were rare in Kuala Lumpur. The guards watched Kelley without reaction.
He’d come downtown expecting to see Han. Kelley wanted to make a good impression. He was wearing his only collared shirt, and his only tie. The night before, Kelley dropped some ringgit on matching dress shoes with thin rubber soles. Rubber was cheap in Malaysia. The country grew a healthy percentage of the world’s rubber plantations.
Kelley pushed through the glass doors. He came into the air-conditioned lobby from the dense, tropical heat. It was like hitting an invisible wall. His skin tightened.
Kelley stared across an ocean of marble. There was a car-sized reception desk on the far side. Four more guards stood nearby.
The guards outside had let Kelley through without a hassle. The guards inside didn’t. Two moved to intercept Kelley as he headed for the desk. They wordlessly blocked his path. The first guard was a meaty dude. He smelled like sandalwood cologne. The tag on his uniform shirt said: Min.
Kelley said, “IPC.”
The guards traded a look. Min the guard cocked his head. Telling Kelley he could proceed to the desk. He did. They followed him.
Kelley found a Malay receptionist. Mid-twenties. Magazine-cover lovely. Gorgeous body. Stylish clothes. Eyes like a jungle cat. Kelley wanted to write poetry about her, with his tongue as the pen and her skin as the paper. He wanted to drop out of a tree and surprise her as she drank from a stream.
His blood heated. It had been a while. Kelley had a rotation of favorite hookers in various ports, Kuala Lumpur included. He liked the regularity. But, since Brody’s untimely death a month hence, he’d been too busy to take care of business. It wasn’t an issue until his eyes drifted to the receptionist’s silk blouse and the wonders it held.
Woman like this behind the desk, no wonder they needed so many guards in the joint. She asked Kelley if she could help him. In more ways than one, he thought.
“I have a job interview with IPC,” he lied.
“Sign the register, including your identity number.” Her voice was music. She could have read from the phone book, and Kelley would listen all day.
Kelley felt his face flush. She picked up on it. A beautiful woman knows the effect she has on men. She smiled, narrowing her eyes just enough. Kelley could tell where her thoughts were going.
It took ten full minutes to get past the guards. IPC had tight security. Kelley came prepared. He gave them every paper they asked for, every number ever assigned him. Through the process, it occurred to Kelley that living in today’s world meant collecting an endless series of numbers. The longer you live, the more numbers you get. It was like guessing a tree’s age by the number of rings. Cut a man down, and it looks like a pi sequence.
Kelley thought about the man he recently cut down. He vaguely wondered what the last number in his stream was.
It got his mind off the receptionist. Kelley focused on the reason he was here.
They finally approved his entrance. Min the sandalwood-scented guard led him to the elevators.
Three minutes ago.
Sanjay leaned into the phone. “A job interview?” Again transitioning back to Malay. “There’s nothing like that on the schedule.”
“That’s what he says,” the main lobby receptionist answered. Sanjay frowned. This made no sense. Unless…
“What does he look like?”
“White guy. Blonde. Good looking. Tough guy, maybe a shipsman or a soldier or something.”
She was practically purring. Sanjay wondered if the guy was standing right there, and if he understood Malay.
Sanjay immediately thought of the moron call. A hand flew to his forehead. “Tell him to go away!”
“No. Send him up.”
The disembodied voice came from the tiny speakers hidden throughout the IPC offices. Loud and sudden. Like God interjecting. A man. Irish brogue-inflected English, thick enough that ‘Send him up’ became ‘Saynd hem oop.’
“Tell Han” – ‘Tayell Hehn’ – “to stop whatever he’s doing and see this guy. I’ll pull his ID from the security desk and run ‘im.”
Whenever the boss spoke, Sanjay’s eyes unconsciously drifted to the ceiling. There was nothing for him to see. It was a reaction to what might as well have been a voice from the sky. The boss could hear and see everything that happened in IPC. The men and women who worked at IPC rarely saw their boss in return. Like the Great and Powerful Oz, he preferred to direct the agency’s efforts against Pan-Asian piracy from behind the scenes.
Cuchulain was a private man.
Kelley stepped off the elevator. He took one look at the neat, officious East Indian man behind the desk and knew this was the prick on the phone. But Kelley wasn’t here to start trouble. At least, not with this guy.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“You know I don’t. That sweet little piece behind the front desk called me up. You know my name, you know the lie I told. But you buzzed me up, anyway. Which means he’ll see me. Quit wasting my time.”
Sanjay briefly imagined stabbing this rude idiot in the heart. But he smiled in his headset and pushed a button on the phone.
“Director Han? I have Ryan Kelley here to see you.”
Listened. Nodded. Met Kelley’s eyes.
“He’s available to see you right now. Just step through to the door to your left. Can I get you something to drink?”
Kelley ignored him and went through the door on his left.
The moment the door latched behind Kelley, Sanjay’s phone rang.
It was Cuchulain. Calling on the inter-office phone line so Kelley wouldn’t hear the speakers. “It would be difficult to find another office manager fluent in six languages. But not impossible. Quit wasting IPC’s time and giving our visitors shit. Understand?” Click.
Sanjay kept his face impassive. Stared straight ahead. Knowing he was watched. Inside he boiled. Getting a hard time from two white guys in the space of a minute could turn a rational man into a racist.
Kelley found himself in a tiny foyer. Three doors. He tried the knobs. All three were locked. He thought the East Indian guy was fucking with him. Kelley turned to go back in the office and dump him out of his chair when the center door opened.
William Han. Director of the Center. A moon-faced Malaysian in a white shirt. He wore a badge. Han was fat. He moved slowly, like he was full of rocks. Short cop hair. Graying at the temples. Flat, black, Malaysian eyes. Seeing everything. Giving away nothing. Except a calm smile.
They shook hands. Kelley followed Han.
They went into IPC’s chic-but-functional conference room. Three walls of glass looked out upon the IPC office. The fourth wall was opaque. Dominated by a map of the world. Red pins marked spots in the Caribbean and off the cost of Africa. Many more stabbed the area around Kuala Lumpur, concentrated on the Straits of Malacca.
Kelley knew unseen people were running his whole life history right now. Han didn’t start with the usual who-are-you preamble. Han got right to it.
“What can I do for you?”
Kelley walked over to the map, looking it over. “I’m looking for a pirate.”
Han said, “We don’t keep pirates here, Mister Kelley.”
Kelley cocked his head.
“You’d do better looking for pirates where they operate,” Han said. He fluttered a hand at the wall map. “Those are all recent piratical activities.”
There were a lot of pins.
Han joined Kelley next to the map. His cold eyes flicked across the pins. He plucked one pin out. Held it in front of Kelley’s face.
“This one. Pirates killed everyone on a tugboat pulling a big barge of copper ingots worth ten million dollars. We had an informer inside the dockworkers, so we took the pirates down when they landed. Only their leader escaped.”
Something flickered across Han’s face. “No. One of his top three lieutenants. Fong Sai-Yuk. We’ve been after him for years. He’s too smart. Even with our inside men giving us info, he’s always three steps ahead. Fong’s like a ghost.”
Without turning, Kelley asked, “Do you have any pictures? Anything distinctive about him?”
Han nodded. “Fong likes bling. Necklaces. Earrings. Bracelets.”
“He likes rings best of all. He buys new bling after every raid. The only piece he keeps no matter what is a ring. Gold. Three dragons, each biting the other’s tail. Their eyes are jade. We’ve heard it’s an heirloom. His mother gave it to him.” Han finally got to the inevitable question. “Is he the pirate you’re looking for?”
Kelley answered with a wry half-smile. Mirthless. It made him look like a sniper squinting into a scope.
“You’re wrong about Fong Sai-Yuk. That ring. It was from his stepmother. On his eighteenth birthday. A week later, he hit the seas on a raid. A rival pirate gang came looking for him. They found her instead. Fong was gone for three days. The gang stayed in the house with his stepmom. Having their fun. They finally got bored of waiting and split. Fong eventually came back and found what was left of her.” Kelley nailed Han with his eyes. Letting the mental image sink in.
“Each one of those guys, Fong tracked down. Cut off their dicks and shoved them down their throats. Every member of that gang died choking on their bloody cocks. Fong proved he was no one to fuck with. But he still had a soft spot in his heart for poor old stepmom. That’s why he kept the ring.” He paused.
Kelley reached into his pocket. He took out Fong’s gold dragon ring. He flicked it like a quarter. It landed on the conference room table. Its tinging and rattling filled the room. The ring at last rolled to a stop.
Han considered Kelley for a long time in silence. He finally picked it up. Gave it a close look. Han had spent a lot of time staring at grainy, black-and-white surveillance photos, zoomed in on the ring Fong wore. Photos in their database. A detailed description from witnesses given to their agents. And here it was, between thumb and forefinger.
Cuchulain’s disembodied voice boomed from the speakers. Breaking the silence. “Yer hired.”
Kelley did a double-take. “What the hell is that?!”
“I’m Cuchulain. I run the IPC. I’m the top guy here.”
Kelley’s eyes roamed everywhere and nowhere. Searching for whatever camera this guy was using to watch him. He motioned to Han. “Then who’s this cat?”
“My right-hand man in the office.”
Han was used to speaking with Cuchulain through the speaker. Instead of searching the ceiling like Sanjay and others did, he picked a spot on the wall and addressed it as if Cuchulain were standing there. He held up the ring.
“This could be a fake.”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Where do you think, a pawn shop? I pulled it off of Fong’s hand. He didn’t need it anymore.”
“Why did you bring it to us?”
“I’m looking for King Pirate.”
Cuchulain and Han chuckled. It was an odd effect; one live in the room, the other coming over a speaker.
Kelley frowned. “I ain’t kidding.”
“Didn’t think you were, Mister Kelley. You say ‘King Pirate’ as though he could be found in a bar. Like it’s that easy. We’ve been hunting him for years. The man has never been caught on film.”
“I found Fong Sai-Yuk. Took me three weeks, but I found him. And he was in a bar when I caught up. The same Fong you guys have been tracking for years. The guy Han here called ‘a ghost.’” Kelley grimaced. “He is now. So you are the last two guys in KL who should be laughing like I’m some chump. This office. These ‘inside men.’ Your cute little conference room. Fuck you.”
Kelley could tell that, behind the placid Malaysian exterior, Han was ready to go ape shit. He liked it that way. Angry men didn’t think. They reacted. To what Kelley did or said. That made him in control.
Cuchulain was a different story. He was completely removed from the situation. This office was his realm. Kelley realized this Cuchulain knew what he was doing. But the absolute control only extended to the boundaries of the office. Kelley looked around. Just as Han had said, no pirates in here. Just pictures of pirates, and a bunch of peckers like Sanjay and Han staring at them. For all the good it did. The pirates were out on the water. So who gave a shit? Kelley wondered if even the pirates did. He was already losing patience with these limp-dicks.
But they might know something about King Pirate. Kelley had come up dry. Now he was here.
Han took a deep breath. Re-asked his first question, this time measuring his tone. “What can we do for you, Mister Kelley?”
“I asked around. I checked out your website and did some research. You guys have a database. I can hunt, but I’m just one guy. I’ve only been looking for King Pirate for a month. I’m sure you guys have some pile of information in these hard drives. I figure, if I could check it out, it’d give me a lead. One lead’ll turn into another. And I’ll find King Pirate.
“To be perfectly, one-hundred percent clear: I want access to your pirate info database. That’s all I want.
“I understand this is all super-secret, and I’m not in here pushing pencils and listening to some fat guy yell into a speaker at people – “
“Am I wrong?”
Cuchulain didn’t answer.
“You’re in an air conditioned office all day watching Han answer a phone. I’m out there looking. On the water. In the heat. I’m out there looking. I don’t need inside men. I am an inside man. With some leads, I’ll find King Pirate. And I’ll kill him. It’s a win-win situation if you gimme a lead. Gimme access to your database. What do you say?”
“Why do you want him dead, Mister Kelley?”
“He sent me something in an envelope, and I want to return it,” Kelley said. He left it at that. Kelley didn’t feel now was the time to let them know Brody’s ear was in a cooler full of dry ice in his rented storage unit. It might give them the wrong impression of the kind of man he was.
Han said, “I’ll have you know, we work in this office between raids. Our security is tight because we hit the pirates head-on, where it hurts the most. We take out crews where we find them. The lucky ones don’t make it to prison.”
Kelley gave him an up-and-down. I’m sure you’re out front with a machine-gun in each hand, pal.
After pondering in silence, Cuchulain made himself known. “By international mandate, only members of this agency are cleared to fully search our database. You want leads, you’d have to join us.”
Kelley cast a disdainful gaze at the cold office around him. “I don’t do office work.”
“Didn’t say you would,” Cuchulain continued. “What I’d like to know is, how’d you find Fong Sai-Yuk? And can you find the other two lieutenants?”
“Probably. Especially if I’m not doing everything by myself.”
“You won’t be,” Cuchulain said, the words coming out ‘Yeh wun.’ “And you’re right. We have a lot of information compiled. But we don’t always know what we’re looking at, or what we should be looking for. If you join, you’ll earn the clearance we both need to get you involved. And with you involved, we’ll find King Pirate’s two lieutenants. They’re likely the only way to get to the King, at last.”
It seemed like the way to go. But the last thing in the world Kelley wanted to do was join a government organization, wear a badge and take orders from a speaker voice. Hell. He tracked down Fong. The other two would be more alert by now. Would make things harder, but not impossible. Nothing is impossible in this world, if you set your mind to it and sacrifice everything to see it done.
Kelley shook his head, musing. Simply said, “Bullshit,” and headed for the door. Out of here. Into the open air. He threw open the door.
And almost ran straight into the perfection of the female form.
Everyone’s born with a sexual type, something in someone that flips their ultimate switch. It could be a nationality, an attitude, a style. Kelley had several types. The biggest one, nestled at the base of his psyche, was a deep longing for haughty Russian women.
When he was a kid, Kelley watched a movie called Weird Science. In it, these two high school geeks invented a woman-making machine. You type in everything you want in a woman and, poof, out she comes. If Kelley ever got a crack at that machine, the woman who popped out would be no different from the one now standing in front of him.
One arched eyebrow cocked in vague curiosity. Soft brown eyes floating in white skin. It was beyond Kelley’s ability to take his eyes off her pooched lips. Russian women did this thing where they press their lips together just a tiny bit whenever they notice a man watching them. If they have thin lips, it creates something like a miniature duck bill. But if those lips were full, Lord help weak men. In her heels, she was almost exactly as tall as Kelley. Every kiss would be a bed kiss. She moved smoothly into the room. Grace and power in her body. Kelley was a fighter. He could tell at a glance if someone had training. Three steps in, Kelley knew she was a dangerous woman to cross. In her eyes. In her movements. In the scent of expensive perfume, mild enough to merely entice. She wore an outfit that cost enough to buy a Malaysian house and the family in it. All tailored, form-fitting silks. Expertly put together. Kelley forgot about the receptionist downstairs. That girl was like a potted flower, pretty but forgettably common. This Russian goddess was a collector’s orchid. She was more woman than any man anywhere would know what to do with.
With the same total, immediate devotion with which he had sent himself on a deadly road to avenge himself against King Pirate, Kelley decided he would rather die than suffer a life that didn’t include having this woman.
He would pursue her. Win her. Take her.
And he didn’t even know her goddamn name yet.
She blew straight past him. Dropped a thin stack of files on the conference table.
Han said, “Ryan Kelley, this is Anastasia Petrovskya. She works in Investigation.”
Kelley casually shook her hand. Met her eyes. She saw the desire gleaming in his. Kelley was trying to play it cool. She was too smart. She taunted him with an icy smile. It sharpened her high cheek bones. In most women, it would have given her a witchy look. For Anastasia, it only made Kelley wonder why a woman who could dominate any modeling agency in the world was chasing pirates. He’d find out.
“You seem bewildered, Mister Kelley. What did Cuchulain do to you?”
Cuchulain laughed to himself, a low rumble echoing through the hidden speakers. “I offered him a job.”
Anastasia idly flipped open one of the folders. Leafing through photos. “You’re in luck, Mister Kelley. Getting you to work at IPC is the worst thing Cuchulain can do to anybody. After you leave, you can go about life knowing everything will be happier and easier from here on out.”
Her voice lilted with a light St. Petersburg accent. Kelley felt goose bumps rise on the back of his neck. He zeroed on the photos.
“What are those?”
Without looking up, Anastasia told him, “They’re surveillance photos of the men we’re almost sure are King Pirate’s two remaining chiefs.”
How did she know he’d -- ? She saw the question in his eye. “Cuchulain asked me to pull the files while you were busy giving Director Han your atrocious American attitude, Mister Kelley. Though I do commend you for finding and eliminating Fong Sai-Yuk. You probably don’t know how many lives you’ve saved.”
Thirty seconds into each other’s lives, and they were already communing, unspoken. Kelley hated every moment he’d lived before meeting Anastasia. He’d never let her see it, if he could help it. She’d know, anyway. She heard his thoughts, saw them written in his eyes. She knew everything. He was helpless.
Which is why it was time to leave. Kelley scooped up one of the files. Headed back for the door.
“That file’s IPC property!” Han barked. Kelley ignored him.
“Where are you going?” Anastasia asked.
“I’m gonna find a bar and huddle over these until I work out how I’ll find these two.”
Cuchulain backed up Han. “I told you, our information is only for members of the IPC.”
Kelley looked hard at Han. Anastasia. “You can give me a badge when I come in tomorrow.” He have them a hard smile they didn’t understand. “Nine o’clock precisely.”
Han watched the unspoken exchange with eyes downward. Expressionless, but aware of the interplay between Kelley and Anastasia. He frowned at the wall spot he’d chosen for referring to Cuchulain.
“Don’t I have any say in this?”
“Of course you do, Director Han. So long as what you say has to do with making Kelley a member of the IPC.”
Han kept at it. “We’ll need a week to clear him with Interpol.”
“Are you an international criminal, Mister Kelley?” Anastasia crossed a leg. Bouncing her foot.
“I suppose I should say welcome aboard, Mister Kelley. Or should I call you Ryan?”
“Mister Kelley’s fine.”
Kelley winked and left the room. Gone. With the files.
They waited a moment. All three listening to Kelley’s departure through the office. Out of earshot. Then:
“Excellent work, Anastasia.”
“We’re making a terrible mistake on this guy, Cuchulain,” Han warned.
“Anastasia? What do you think?”
She closed her eyes. Thinking.
“We’re making a mistake. But for all the right reasons. Han’s right. This guy’s trouble. I say we harness that trouble and aim it at our targets.”
“You were an insurance investigator?”
“Yup. Good one, too.”
Kelley walked next to Anastasia, who was showing him around the IPC offices. His first day.
“That kind of investigation takes time. You don’t seem like a man who would like detail work.”
They were killing two birds with one stone. Kelley’s background check had come through. Interpol required a formal interview as well. Ordinarily, Han did the interview in the conference room.
Not this time.
Anastasia jotted notes into a PDA as they talked.
“I had assistants who did the grunt work. All I had to do was pretend I was the asshole, and figure out how I would pull the scam.”
“Why’d you quit, if you were so good?”
“They fired me. After a year, it was turning into laying bricks. The cases weren’t interesting anymore. Most people aren’t very smart. They don’t have imagination. Thing is, they think they’re these masterminds, like no one’s ever thought of their brilliant insurance fraud scheme before in the history of mankind. It’s never brilliant. Just stupid. Every once in a while, a cool case came down. But it didn’t happen enough. I started smoking a lot of weed during office hours. Boss had enough. Now that I think about it, I was pushing him to fire me so I could collect unemployment while I decided what to do.”
“What did you do?”
“Smoked more weed. Surfed.”
They came to the Control Room. Anastasia leaned forward for a retinal scan. When she was done, Kelley did the same. The door opened.
“I’m already in the system,” he said.
“I want a badge.”
Anastasia curled a hand around his bicep. Lead him through the door. Kelley concentrated on the sensation. Making sure he remembered the light pressure of her fingers on his skin. Her warmth. He quietly inhaled her scent.
The Control Room had a tall ceiling. Soaring like a cathedral, or a war room. Computer terminals were arrayed in a semi-circle. Surrounding a two-story-tall display of the world. The whole thing reminded Kelley of pictures he’d seen of NASA’s Mission Control.
“What about your military service? Before your civilian life?”
Kelley lowered his voice, like he didn’t want to disturb any of the people working at the terminals. He didn’t care if they were disturbed. Kelley wanted an excuse to push the bubble of Anastasia’s personal space.
“You know I was a Marine,” he muttered.
Anastasia replied in a normal tone. Letting him know they didn’t have to whisper. Or turning it around on him?
“I mean, your specialty.”
Kelley dropped the whispering act. “Sniper.”
“Were you good at that, too?”
“Better than most.”
There were fifteen people working the Control Room. None of them older than forty. They were all nationalities. No Caucasians. Anastasia and Kelley stood out in the crowd. Literally: they were both tall.
“And after you surfed, you joined the Border Patrol.”
“For a stint.”
“There’s a flag on your file.”
Kelley deflected. He pointed at one of the screens. “What’re these rolling numbers?”
Anastasia followed his finger. “Registration numbers for ShipLok. It’s an emergency tracking system, like a LoJack for ships. If there’s a piracy, the captain can activate the locator link.”
“You find a lot of ships this way?”
“Some,” Anastasia told him. “But the pirates are getting smarter. They know where to look for it, and how to stop the signal when they find it. Unless the pirates are new or stupid, it’s little more than an early warning. ShipLok gets us into action that much more quickly.”
“Your Border Guard experience – “
“I knew I’d hear about that.”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
Kelley put his hands behind his back as they strolled. Reluctantly rewinding old mental footage. He stopped next to a glowing plasma screen. Lines like sine waves flowed over a multi-colored map of the Asian seas.
“You’re dodging my question. Won’t look good in my report,” she said, only half-teasing.
Kelley stared at Anastasia. “Just tell me what it is and I’ll answer your question.
She relented. “Almost every square foot on Earth is claimed or regulated by someone. A country, a land-owner, whoever. No one owns the sea. The ships are like herds roaming a frontier. All we can do is track and arrest. Like a Wild West that will never be tamed.”
“You’re pretty up on American history.”
“It was my minor.”
“What was the major?”
“This is your interview, Mister Kelley.”
“You just perfectly described why I went to sea.” Kelley let her think about that. Closely watching to see if she dug it. No response. “Okay, the Border Guard thing.
“Friend of a friend scored me a shot at working with La Migra. I was running out of money. I didn’t wanna start dealing. I saw where that road went. I took the job. For a while, I stood in the booth checking trunks and shit. But ‘cause of my insurance work, they pulled me off that pretty quick. Got me into investigation.”
“How did you get the job, with all of your recent drug use? They don’t test for that in America?”
“Sure they do,” Kelley said with a grin. “I bought some clean piss from the guy who got me the job. He was cool. We surfed a lot.”
Anastasia didn’t know if Kelley was kidding with her. Kelley went back into his story.
“We were mostly tracking down coyote rings. Sometimes kidnappers. Sometimes drugs. We worked with other agencies, FBI, Homeland Security, all those guys. We got assigned to a combined operation with the DEA. They had info on a gang of Salvadoran mobsters. All of ‘em illegals, operating a meth lab out of a warehouse near the border. Most of the guys we went after were a bunch of jokers. Not these guys. All M9, former military. Armed and dangerous.
“Twenty of us kicked down doors. Managed to take down their look-outs, so we had total surprise on our side. Didn’t matter. They were well-trained, a hard-ass crew. Purely on instinct, they had guns in their hands and went at us. Card-playing one second, shootout the next. It was a war, total chaos.
“Now that I look back, the DEA could’ve done a better job on recon. Or us, I don’t know. Thing is, the boss had his little girl there. She was visiting, no idea. What kind of a guy brings his kid to a meth lab? Maybe it was Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. Who cares. She was there, in the middle of this crazy fucking gunfight. It was so loud we didn’t even hear her screaming. Like a trapped bunny, it was awful. She wasn’t hit, she was just scared.
“I had daddy pinned down. He was trying to save his kid. I let up on the gun and made for her. I wanted to get the kid first. To save her. And get this asshole to tell his guys to put down their weapons.
“He panicked. He took a shot at me.”
Anastasia listened, rapt. Finally, she said, “Did he hit his own daughter?”
“No,” Kelley said. “He gave me this.”
Kelley rolled up his sleeve to show her a puckered bullet wound on his left arm, in the flesh between the bicep and tricep.
“And, before I could stop myself, I gave him a bullet in return,” Kelley continued. “I shot him dead between the eyes. Right in front of his kid. By instinct.”
Anastasia met his gaze. Her breathing was shallow. Kelley could almost feel her fitting the scene he’d just described with the man standing before her. Deciding how she felt about it. Hating herself for being attracted to dangerous men.
“There was nothing different you could have done,” she said, her accent lilting over the words. Telling him she didn’t mind he was a killer. Now Kelley knew he had one foot in the door. He played the next card.
“No,” he growled. “You’re wrong. There are plenty of other things I could’ve done. Or, at least, the inquest told me so. But I shot the sonofabitch down, anyway. Daughter or not, he was a kidnapper and an asshole. Maybe the kid’ll be in therapy. I don’t give a fuck. Lots more people won’t suffer because her daddy got sent straight to hell. Maybe she’ll take it as a life lesson. Maybe she’ll come after me with a bullet of my own one day. Either way, I don’t care.”
Anastasia’s eyes widened. Shining, like a pair of blue suns. Her head lilted back. Exposing her neck.
“What do you care about, Mister Kelley?”
Kelley leaned into her ear. This time she didn’t pull back. And he muttered, close enough that she’d feel the vibration of his voice on her tender skin.
With that, Kelley turned and walked away.
Anastasia blinked. Inwardly kicking herself. Not again.
Her cell phone rang. Rang again.
“Gonna answer that?” Kelley asked over his shoulder.
Anastasia nodded, breaking herself out of the reverie.
Cuchulain. “Do anything necessary to push through Interpol’s clearance. We need to get him in the field as soon as possible.”
“Agreed,” she simply replied, closing the phone. She stared at Kelley. Before he tears the walls down, she thought. For starters.
Two weeks later. The IPC conference room.
Director Han started. “Pirates boarded a tugboat off the coast of Thailand last night. The Atlas. It was pulling a barge loaded with teak logs from Burma.”
Anastasia was there. Kelley. And several lower-level IPC team members, some of them on loan for training from other international law enforcement agencies.
The Italian guy from Interpol said, “Why heist a bunch of logs?”
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