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CHAPTER 28


BANGKOK — Thursday 07:00

Breakfast was on the veranda off Mr. Li's bedroom. Duncan, Nancy, and her father sat at a table in the early morning sun. Mr. Li's personal assistant stood behind him. His bodyguard stood at the edge of the veranda, watching the boat traffic on Klong Tan. Four men, two middle-aged and two slightly younger sat silently on folding chairs just inside the open sliding doors leading into the bedroom. Before sitting, Duncan had seen the heads of two other men on the two corners of the rooftop overlooking the veranda.

“Please, eat,” said the old man. “I eat little these days, so I prefer to eat slowly. Duncan, I hope your breakfast is to your liking. If you would like your eggs fixed another way, please say so.”

Duncan looked at the food before them. He didn't recognize all that was set before Mr. Li and Nancy, but his plate had ham and eggs, hash browns, and toast on the side. The eggs were sunnyside up. Duncan wondered if it had been a lucky guess on their part or if they had researched his preferences. “These are fine, thank you.”

“Air Cargo International has acknowledged our request to charter a 747 from Bangkok to San Francisco,” Mr. Li said. “The soonest an aircraft will be available is Sunday.”

Duncan was uncomfortable discussing the operation in an exposed location. “Sir, I don't know this area, but in my part of the world it wouldn't be safe to discuss anything out in the open like this. We're in sight of three homes across the river. A directional mike in any of those buildings could easily pickup everything we say.”

Mr. Li smiled. “I understand your concern, but each of those homes is the residence of one of my sons, as are the homes on either side of this one. We are safe here, Duncan. We can talk of anything we like.” He paused, cornering a small morsel of food with his chopsticks. “I trust all of the people here. They are all my family. They will all be going with us. You may speak freely.” He lifted the food to his lips.

Duncan had noted Mr. Li's dexterity in manipulating the chopsticks, had seen his hand was steady. The old man might be dying, but he was in control of his faculties.

Mr. Li continued to address Duncan. “You didn't have the time in the United States that you had planned. What problems has that caused you?”

“I didn't even get started on what the ballot in each packet will say. I wanted to get the wording right and that would have required a lot of legal input, but there's no time now. I've decided to adopt a simpler approach. The ballot won't offer any of the information or the selections I had envisioned. It won't present choices. It'll be a postcard-sized leaflet. If they send it in they agree. If they don't agree they can throw it away. I prepared the text on the way here. I need to get a million of them printed. As you recall, I was going to see to the printing in the U.S. I'll need some help on that now.”

“We can have them printed in the next few days. Bangkok has many small printing presses. We will use as many as we need. My assistant will see to it.” Mr. Li motioned his head toward the young man standing behind him. The assistant bowed respectfully toward Duncan.

“Inserting a million leaflets in the packets will take time,” Duncan said.

“We Chiu-chau always live up to our agreements, Duncan. Do not worry. The packets will be ready. In what other ways can we help?”

“There wasn't time to plan my escape route, but that's not a concern. I sent a message to a friend in San Francisco. He'll take care of getting me to Mexico. I can get to South America from there. I'll sort out the rest as I go. I have a lot of friends in a lot of countries.”

“I will circulate your name with news of my personal gratitude. All Chiu-chau and many others will consider it an honor to help,” Mr. Li said, glancing back toward his assistant. Duncan saw the assistant make a note.

“Do you have other problems?”

“Not of consequence. The money from the sale of my home won't be in Switzerland by the end of next week. The U.S. Government will probably find some way to tie that up, but since I'm not having to pay for the drugs, that's not a problem.”

The old man smiled, obviously pleased by Duncan's attitude. “We also have had to change many of the details agreed upon in our messages. We would like you to look at what we are doing and offer any suggestions.”

“I'd like that. We have a saying in the U.S. We're all in the same boat.”

“Yes, Duncan, indeed we are, and now I must ask where that boat will arrive.”

There was some discussion among the four men just inside the room. Mr. Li turned toward them, uttering a few sentences in Chinese.

“Forgive us,” Mr. Li again addressed Duncan. “All the members of my family know English, but some not as well as others. When you referred to us all being in the same boat and I continued the metaphor, one of my grandsons thought we had decided to embark by ship.” The old man paused to sip his tea. “Where, Duncan, will you land the airplane. We agreed that you would withhold that information as long as possible, but now we must know.”

“Of course, but I want to stress that if the DEA or U.S. Immigration learns of the location—even just minutes before our arrival—the chances of success become very small. At that point we will be out of fuel. We will be committed to land.”

Mr. Li nodded his head in affirmation. “No one here in Bangkok not in this room will be told, and I have stressed the need for absolute security to those in San Francisco who need to know.”

“There is a town named Novato on Highway 101 north of San Francisco. It has a small airport with a single runway. The runway is only 3,300 feet long.

A burst of Chinese came from one of the middle-aged men inside the doorway. Mr. Li translated. “How many meters is that?”

“Ah, a little over one thousand, a kilometer,” Duncan replied, converting quickly.

The middle-aged man, obviously agitated, uttered several sentences.

“My son says a 747 cannot land in such a short distance. He has had some small experience piloting aircraft,” Mr. Li again translated.

Duncan smiled. “I'm glad to hear him say that, because when we drop below radar coverage, the air traffic controllers will rule out Novato with exactly the same thought. But, in fact, appropriately flown and at the weight we'll be down to, we can fit into a thousand meters. Also, the runway has an overrun at each end, 100 additional feet at one and 125 feet at the other. If you like, after this meeting, I'll show your son the performance figures. I have a 747 performance manual in my flight bag. Or I can explain now.”

Mr. Li and his son conversed.

“He would like to see the figures after our meeting. I would like to hear an explanation now,” Mr. Li said. “As you say, we will all be in the same boat.” He was smiling. The other Chinese men were chuckling. Only Nancy and the bodyguard remained silent.

“Okay, first we'll be light. The empty weight of the heaviest 747 in ACI's fleet is 338,000 pounds. Your people, their equipment, and the igloos will weigh about 90,000 pounds. We'll be down to around 15,000 pounds of fuel. So we'll weigh around 443,000 pounds. Stall speed will be approximately 100 knots. We'll touch down just barely above that. The stick shaker will be active and noisy.” Duncan said the last looking at Mr. Li's son.

Mr. Li asked his son if he understood ‘knots' and ‘stick shaker'. His son nodded.

Duncan continued, “All of ACI's 747s have an automatic braking system. You can leave it off or select minimum, medium, or maximum braking. If you use it, braking starts as soon as the wheels spin up after touchdown. If you select maximum, the full pressure of the hydraulic system goes to the brakes. All sixteen main gear wheels get 3,000 psi of pressure put on their brakes. It's like getting on the brakes with your feet and pushing as hard as you can.”

“That would make skidding,” the middle-aged son said directly to Duncan using English.

“There's an anti-skid system that senses when any wheel starts to lockup, to skid. When one does, pressure to that wheel is lessened enough to keep it from skidding—you get more braking power from a wheel just about to skid than you do from one that's actually skidding.”

The son nodded in agreement.

“The maximum setting is hardly ever used; it's an emergency procedure. You're guaranteed to have problems. Weak tires blow, and ACI scrimps on maintenance. Their 747s always have a few tires that really shouldn't be there. They're not a first-class outfit.”

“And they charge too much,” said the assistant. “They're not competitive.”

Duncan smiled. “Sam Devlin—he's the owner—isn't known for his charity. But he won't make money off this trip. The airplane will be damaged, and getting it out of Novato will be costly.”

“How will it be damaged,” asked Mr. Li.

“There are several possibilities. First, when tires blow they often disintegrate into pieces. It's not unusual to have an exploding tire drive pieces through the aircraft's belly skin. That's generally not serious, but the holes do have to be fixed.

“The next problem is brake heating. We'll be using the maximum setting for the entire landing roll. The brakes will get red hot. Within a few minutes after stopping, the tires will soak up the heat. Each tire is filled with nitrogen to 225 psi at normal temperatures. The heat from the brakes will send tire pressures off the scale. There is, in each wheel, a thermal relief plug. The plug gives way before the internal pressure explodes the tire. At least that's how it's supposed to happen. Again, with ACI's maintenance ...” Duncan shrugged.

“That's why you sent careful directions to come to airplane after stop?” the son said.

“Right. The thermal plugs face sideways with respect to the airplane. When your people bring up the airstairs, they must stay away from the sides of the landing gear. I think most of the thermal relief plugs will fire. If they hit someone, it could kill them. Look, at some point in the next few days, we need to make sure everyone is briefed as to what to expect. It's going to be chaotic. There's going to be a lot of strange noises. A thermal relief plug blowing sounds like a gunshot. Tires blowing sound like a small explosion, and if I'm off the centerline a little on the landing roll, that'll sound like antiaircraft fire hitting the airplane.”

“Explain please,” someone said.

“The Novato runway is just wide enough for the main landing gear. If I get off-center a little, the tires will start picking up the gravel at the runway edge. Some of it will hit the under surface of the wings, may even make punctures. If that happens it will extend our landing roll—the braking won't be as good. That's not a problem. I'll get back on centerline quickly, and even if we run off the runway, we'll still have a bit of overrun. We'll be very slow by then, and both ends of the runway after the overruns are clear fields. Don't worry about it, and if it happens, don't let it shake you. Tell your people in San Francisco to expect it ... and remind them we'll be landing into the wind. If the wind is calm we'll be landing from the south, from over the bay.”

All present were quiet and sober.

“There is one other thing that needs to be stressed. Everyone has to focus on getting out of the airplane and moving directly away from it as soon as possible. What we're doing is deliberately putting ourselves into an emergency situation. Get out, don't look back no matter what the sounds or the sights are.” Duncan purposefully paused, looking around the veranda and into the room. “There is a possibility the airplane will burn. Sometimes, not always, red-hot brakes cause a brake fire. There's no real fire equipment at that airport. A brake fire will eventually consume the entire airplane, but that will take time. You'll be exiting the airplane out the cargo door at the rear, well away from the brakes. If they're burning, ignore them, don't look, don't delay the person behind you, just get out. You'll have time.”

“Thank you, Duncan, for your honesty,” Mr. Li said. “We will meet here for breakfast each morning ... all of us,” the old man said, glancing at all in the room and on the veranda. It was an order.

All sitting rose except Mr. Li. Duncan stopped after standing.

“One more thing for what it's worth. How things are handled after you're off the airplane is your concern, but it occurs to me that an accident blocking the Golden Gate Bridge would prevent the rapid deployment of federal officers out of San Francisco to Novato. The bridge is a choke point.”

Mr. Li was well pleased with the meeting just concluded. He felt so good he didn't return to bed, deciding instead to remain in the sun. Serendipity, it was still with him. He couldn't have found a better man than Duncan Harris or a better plan, and both had fallen into his hands.

His daughter had said the American could and would do whatever was necessary, and Mr. Li had watched his sons and grandsons accept the man's competence. The day had started well.

Mr. Li's son accompanied Duncan to his room where they went over the performance figures for a 450,000 pound 747's stopping capability with the automatic brakes set to maximum. Though the son's experience was only with light aircraft and his English limited, he and Duncan got along well, and the man went away satisfied the aircraft would perform as Duncan had said.

Except for lunch with Nancy, Duncan spent the rest of the morning and the afternoon with Mr. Li's personal assistant. The two went over the plans for housing the two hundred and fifty-seven members of the family aboard the airplane. Duncan had earlier e-mailed detailed plans. That basic planning was still good, but the shortened schedule required bypassing many of the niceties.

The family would still be hidden in standard fiberglass cargo igloos. Duncan had planned on using the largest size, each igloo ninety-six inches wide by one hundred and twenty-five inches long, and eight feet high. The 747's main deck could hold twenty-nine: two angled into the tapered nose, thirteen each along the left and right sides of the aircraft's constant section, and one angled into the start of the tail taper.

A problem was that the igloos along the sides would be positioned end to end, and one of the ends of each unit contained its door. There would be no way for family members to enter and exit while these were in position. The plan had been to install an additional door on one of the long sides of each igloo. Duncan changed the plan to use the next size smaller unit, eighty-eight by one hundred and eight inches, but still position them as though they were the larger size. This would provide an aisle eighteen inches wide between the ends at the cost of giving the occupants less room.

The two nose igloos were reserved for special purposes. One would become a jail cell to hold the aircraft's crew after Duncan took control. The second would be Mr. Li's and serve as his command post. Duncan would ride with him.

The remaining main deck igloos would house the rest of the family, each holding nine or ten people. A ten-person igloo would weigh two thousand eight hundred pounds, well under the maximum allowable weight per igloo. Duncan smiled at himself for being concerned with legal load limits when the entire project would violate the laws of every country involved, every country they would fly over. Weight limits were different though. They were a concession to the laws of nature, not man.

The two igloos containing the ballot packets would be in the rearmost full-size positions of the aft belly compartment. Since there was no way to get from the main deck to that compartment in flight, the six men assigned to getting the packets to the outflow valves would be housed in a third aft belly igloo.

A stop in Hong Kong was needed to pick up a few members of Li Wah's family wanting out of the former British Crown. A freighter capable of flying from Bangkok to Japan apparently stopping in Hong Kong only for fuel would arouse suspicion. Five igloos, empty but labeled as full, would be loaded in the aircraft's forward belly to belay that suspicion.

In the evening, Nancy reappeared and she and Duncan, accompanied by a driver and two bodyguards went to a quiet and expensive Bangkok restaurant. Duncan invited all three of the men to dine with them, but they politely declined. The driver stayed with the car. One bodyguard took up a position outside the restaurant, the other did the same inside.


WASHINGTON, D. C. — Thursday 09:30

Greg Ballentine stared at the faxed photograph of the Asian woman. Brian Killough waited patiently in a chair fronting his chief's desk. The subject was Duncan Harris.

“So you think this gal is why he rushed off to Thailand when ACI fired him?” Greg asked.

“I think it makes sense, sir. A lot of Westerners who regularly visit Bangkok have mistresses there. It doesn't cost much to keep a woman in Bangkok.”

“But he didn't go to Bangkok. He went to the North, and when we made him coming back to Bangkok, nobody was with him.”

“The North is a popular vacation place, sir, even for the Thais. He could have met her there. They could have taken separate flights back to Bangkok.”

“Why would they do that if they're lovers?”

“I don't know, sir. Perhaps the flights were full. But we do know they're sleeping together now. Agent Wislowski said they're making no attempt to conceal that.”

“And now they've gone back to Bangkok?”

“That's where they finally bought tickets for, sir, and the airline says they used them. They weren't under direct surveillance after they left Eugene. Eugene called Frisco, but they didn't have people to watch them. Frisco checked around when they had time and found they'd bought the tickets to Bangkok.”

This time around Greg had been successful only in getting resources for watching Duncan's home, not for a continuous surveillance of his person. Nobody is taking this seriously, he thought. He looked again at the photograph. It would have helped if Wislowski had gotten more than a headshot. You can tell a lot from how a woman dresses. “We need to find out who she is.”

“At the airline ticket counter she used the name Nancy Lee—our man was right behind them in the line—so she must have a passport in that name. The airlines are pretty careful these days about making sure ticket name's match passports.”

“Intelligence has nothing on her?”

“No, sir. I personally ran Nancy Lee through the computer. We have nothing. The cocaine desk is sending her picture to Bangkok. Maybe they'll be able to find out something.”

“If the heroin desk didn't have anything, Bangkok probably won't either.”

Brian looked puzzled. “The case is assigned to the cocaine desk, sir.”

Greg looked up. “But the cocaine desk does talk to the heroin desk about someone operating in an area where heroin is the predominant drug, right?”

“They tend to be ... territorial, sir.”

Greg started to buzz his secretary, and then thought better. Having people come down to the cellar should be reserved for instilling fear.

Having the good sense not to ignore the chain of command, Greg went to the Intelligence section's chief. Brian followed two steps behind. Greg explained his need, and the section chief called the heroin desk's duty officer to his office.

Greg put the photograph in front of him. “Ever seen this woman before?” he asked.

“Sure,” he said. “That's Nancy Li. She's the daughter of the biggest drug trafficker in Bangkok. She lives in San Diego.”

“Is she in the computer?” Greg snapped.

“Of course,” the heroin officer replied.

“Sir, I checked the computer. I drew a blank on Nancy Lee,” Brian said.

The heroin officer raised his eyebrows. He glanced at his boss and indicated the terminal on his desk. “May I?”His chief nodded. The officer slid the keyboard to himself, entered the suspect search command, and then entered LI, NANCY. When the response came, he swung the terminal around for Greg and Brian to see.

“Ah, the report from Wislowski showed LEE as her last name,” Brian said weakly.

Greg was pleased. He had lost Duncan, and the DEA bureaucracy's failure to identify Nancy Li had cost two days, but Greg had gained a great deal politically. By deciding not to mention the failure of the cocaine desk to coordinate with the heroin desk, he had put the chief of the intelligence section in his debt. He wrote a memo to the computer group castigating them for their programming oversight in not having the software differentiate between two different Anglicizations of the same Chinese surname. He sent a copy to all section heads to warn them of the problem and a copy to the Director. A fatherly memo went to Wislowski advising him to remember that foreign names were not always spelled like they sounded. A copy of that memo went to the field operations chief as well as the Director.


BANGKOK — Thursday 23:00

After dinner, Duncan and Nancy were taken to a small, dilapidated warehouse near the airport. Inside were two igloos, widely separated. Long tables, chairs at their sides, extended like spokes out from each of the four sides of each igloo. Enough space had been left between each table end and the igloos for a man to pass. At the outer end of each table were stacks of cardboard boxes containing small plastic packets. Each packet contained three much smaller packets, one each with marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Obviously the collection of the drugs had been the easiest of the preparation tasks. Duncan was surprised at how little space one million drug packets took.

Only the insertion of the ballots remained. Duncan had given the text and his paper specifications to Li's assistant that afternoon.

The warehouse was dimly lit, and Duncan had seen no guards. When he asked about security, one of bodyguards uttered a sentence in Chinese. Four black-clad figures appeared, one each out of the shadows of each corner of the warehouse. As they advanced into the light, Duncan could see they were armed with AK‑47s. Fragmentation grenades hung from their ammunition belts. Duncan nodded. The bodyguard uttered another command, and they melted back into the darkness.

Duncan walked to one of the boxes. Extending his hand into the massed packets, he extracted one and laid it on the table near an edge. Pulling up a chair, he sat, centered himself with respect to the packet, and moved it slowly in from the edge with the index finger of his right hand. After a long moment, he picked it up, opened it, and spilled out the three smaller packets.

The marijuana packet was larger than the other two and fastened shut with a staple. Tearing it open, he held the packet to his nose. The fragrance was unmistakable. He reclosed the packet and looked for a stapler. Nancy quickly supplied him with one from the end of the table.

The cocaine and heroin packets had been heat-sealed. Breaking the seal on the cocaine, he wet the little finger of his right hand with his tongue, extended it first into the packet and then back to his tongue. It was bitter, it was pure.

He looked at the brown contents of the heroin packet. It was not as fine-grained as the white cocaine powder. Duncan didn't like heroin, wished Bayer had never invented it; he didn't open the packet.

Putting the three small packets back into the larger, he slid the chair back from the table. Nancy stood with hands folded on the other side of the table.

“The odds are ...” Duncan started and then paused. “The odds are at least one of these packets will land within reach of a recovering addict, some guy or gal who's been through hell trying to stay away from this stuff. They'll look at it. They'll know immediately what it is. Their body will cry out for it, and they'll give in ... and they'll start another descent into hell.” He folded his right arm across his upper abdomen, cradled his left elbow on the arm, cradled his jaw in his left hand. “That I will deeply regret.”

“There are a small percentage of people who have addictive personalities ...” Nancy began.

“I know that.” Duncan cut her off. “And I know there are many times more casual users than addicts, and I know that if you've got an addictive personality, you'll find someway to destroy yourself if you don't control it, but I don't like to give people problems. I kill when necessary, but I don't make people suffer.”

terry.liittschwager@gmail.com

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