BANGKOK — Friday 07:00
The meeting duplicated the previous day's gathering except for the breakfast and the conversation. Duncan looked down and saw American style pancakes. Eggs sunnyside up were on a separate plate alongside, butter or margarine—he couldn't tell which from looking—on a smaller plate. A miniature pitcher contained syrup. The margarine was soft and easily spread, the way he liked it. Margarine should melt on contact with pancakes, and the buttermilk pancakes were hot. The syrup was maple, his favorite. They had to have talked to somebody, he concluded.
Mr. Li's personal assistant was talking.
“He's giving everyone a status report,” Nancy whispered to Duncan.
“Fill me in later,” Duncan whispered back.
“I can't. I don't understand most of it. He's using the Teochew dialect. I speak Cantonese.”
Duncan nodded and continued eating before his pancakes got cold.
He finished eating and the assistant finished talking at the same time.
“My assistant says you have suggestions which will add to the burden of preparing?” Mr. Li said evenly to Duncan.
“Yes.” Duncan wiped his lips with a napkin. “My original specs called for the igloos to be insulated with carpeting on the floor and ceilings and foam core on the sides. Belts were to be anchored into the foam core to keep people from being thrown around. There's no time to do all that now, but I still think you should put carpeting on the floor and the sides. If there's nothing on the floor to give traction, people will slide around when the igloos are on forklifts. That might make them cry out. At the very least the loaders might hear them being thrown against the sides, and if somebody's ring or watch or whatever hits the bare side of the igloos, it'll make a noise that'll be heard.”
“Those of my people who will be alert are well disciplined,” Mr. Li said. “And the workers who load the igloos on the airplane will be well paid to ignore anything unusual.”
“It's your call, sir, but I'd be more comfortable if you'd at least have everyone take off any hard objects, and you might consider having them lay down in the igloo rather than sit. Remember the airplane will be sitting on the ground for awhile in Hong Kong, in Chitose, and in Anchorage.”
“Those are both reasonable requests.” Mr. Li nodded toward his assistant, who wrote in his ever-present notebook. “Do not worry about Hong Kong. We will be in the midst of friends there. Arrangements are also being made with friends in Japan. Only in Anchorage will we have to be careful.”
“If any of your family has claustrophobia or is excitable, you might want to let them see what it's going to be like beforehand. You could put them in an igloo and shake it around on a forklift. I'm thinking of the women and children,” Duncan said.
“The women and children will not be bothered by claustrophobia, and they will not be excitable. They will be quite content. They will enjoy the trip. We have ample means to ensure that.”
It took Duncan a moment to grasp Mr. Li's meaning. “Of course. I hadn't thought.” Duncan smiled, and his mind slid back through the years, recalling the many times he had seen Hmong women sitting in front of their huts oblivious to yelling children or any other disturbance. Each igloo would become a small opium den. “I trust they're not going to smoke it.”
Mr. Li smiled. “No, Duncan. They will chew it ... until takeoff from Anchorage. They will be alert when we reach San Francisco.
“Okay, that's it then. The other changes you've made are fine. I was going to mention having sick sacks ready so anyone who vomits wouldn't smell up the place, but the opium will keep them from getting sick.”
“Sick sacks will be readily available, just in case. My assistant will see to that personally.”
“Your choice. I have one other request. ACI allows couriers to accompany sensitive cargo. You've already settled that with them. I understand you're using a Thai associate. Couriers are supposed to sit in the back of the upper deck—there's three seats there—but nobody enforces that. They're usually invited to sit in the cockpit jumpseats if they want, or if they aren't it's always okayed if they ask. Everybody likes to be in the cockpit for the takeoff and landing. I need somebody up there that I'm used to working with, somebody who speaks fluent English. I want to use the young man who was with me before, Richard Lee. I alerted him via e-mail yesterday. He replied during the night. With your permission, I'll call him and get him started this way.”
“Of course, my assistant will make ticketing arrangements.”
“He'll need a forged passport and a U.S. visa. He'll have to clear customs in Anchorage, and I want him to be able to have a life after this is over.”
The first ballots arrived at the warehouse at 08:00. By 09:00, women and children of Mr. Li's family were stuffing them into the packets. Duncan and Nancy arrived at 10:00.
A four-person crew manned each side of each table. A child removed the drug packets from the boxes, keeping a supply piled on the left side of each of two women. In front of each woman and positioned in the center of the table for sharing with the opposite crew, was a stack of ballots. Each woman pulled a packet from the pile on her left, stuffed in a ballot from the stack in front of her, folded and stapled the top of the plastic packet, and moved it to a pile on her right. Another child collected the piles of completed packets and put them through the single opening in the igloo.
Duncan watched the four women at one of the tables until he decided which was the slowest. Timing her, he watched her complete ten packets in a minute. At that rate each table would stuff forty packets a minute, twenty four hundred an hour. Doing the arithmetic in his head, he calculated the rate of the eight tables together at nineteen thousand two hundred per hour. All one million would be stuffed in fifty to sixty hours, even allowing for breaks.
Duncan focused on a young boy supplying the women with unstuffed packets. Through his hands was passing a small fortune in heroin and cocaine. Drugs which, in the U.S., pushers daily urged children his age to try. Duncan had been saddened the night before over the effect his actions would have on a recovering addict. Tonight he was buoyed by the thought that, should the ballot proposal ever succeed, the pushers would be out of business.
Nancy had not seen a ballot, and Duncan had not discussed the text with her. She plucked one off a pile. Reading it induced a surprised sucking-in of her breath. She turned to Duncan, who had watched her reach toward the pile and waited for her reaction.
“I think you hope for the impossible,” she said kindly.
“There was a U.S. Senator. His name was Morris Sheppard. He was from Texas. He was a principal author of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment that made alcohol illegal. In 1930 he did a little gloating. He said there was about as much chance of repealing prohibition as there was of a hummingbird flying to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933. Look at the back of the ballot.”
Nancy flipped the ballot over. There, printed and appropriately arranged, was a hummingbird, a rope, and the Washington Monument.
Duncan and Nancy left the warehouse.
Duncan spent the afternoon on flight planning, a task which would be done for the ACI crews by computer. Each crewmember would have a detailed copy of the flight plan when they boarded the airplane. Duncan did it by hand to spot potential problems. The task was time consuming, and he lacked the information not known until immediately before a fligh the exact routing, winds aloft, and destination weather. Routing differences could be expected to be minimal, and he assumed reasonable values for the other variables.
There would be four legs: Bangkok to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Chitose on Japan's island of Hokkaido, Chitose to Anchorage, and Anchorage to San Francisco. ACI would have a fresh crew waiting at each stop. Two hours of ground time would be allowed for the crew change and refueling.
By evening, Duncan had uncovered two problems that would have to be addressed at the morning breakfast meeting.
Li Mei was tired. On the second shift of ballot stuffers, she had been working for six hours. The slight rocking of her chair irritated her. Either the floor was uneven or the chair had a short leg. All four legs were never on the ground all at once. When she reached for a ballot, the chair tilted toward the leg off the surface. When she leaned back, it returned. The difference was slight, and it had not bothered her when she was fresh, but it now it did.
Attempting to solve the problem, she shifted the chair, but the rocking remained and her irritation increased. Finally, she took a ballot, folded it in half three times, and inserted it between the floor and the chair leg currently off the surface. The rocking stopped, and she finished her shift without further irritation.
WASHINGTON, D. C. — Friday 10:00
“We'll do everything we can to help you, but if they're headed this way, it'll be your show,” the Director of the DEA said to his Immigration and Naturalization Service counterpart. “We want to be there in case they bring drugs in. Customs won't like that, but we're the ones who developed this intelligence. We have a right to be there.” Greg Ballentine listened to his boss's side of the phone conversation.
“I know it sounds bizarre, but my internal affairs chief knows this pilot. He's ex-CIA, and he's known for doing bizarre things. If you put everything together, it sounds plausible. Li's daughter recruits a pilot who's mad as hell at the U.S. government, Li has the money to do anything he wants, and the Thais have been told he's waiting on word from the States. Now the daughter and the pilot are back in Bangkok. Li is getting ready to move.”
“I agree, that doesn't mean they're coming here, but it wouldn't make sense for them to go to Hong Kong. Maybe it will be Manila, or maybe they'll go someplace they don't already have family. Who knows? But it'll be damned embarrassing if a hundred international criminals get into San Francisco. That's the only other place they've got family. You know how they are. They stick together.”
“No, I'm not sure of the number. His family is large. We've been told at least a hundred. These people breed like flies.”
“I agree. You'd never find them. The Chinese community'd close around them like a wall. They've got to be stopped before they get there.”
“We're trying, but we haven't been able to get ahold of the informant. Our people in Bangkok think he's been killed, and the Thais have clammed up.”
“Well of course somebody's been paid. That's how they do business over there.”
Greg listened to the Director end the conversation ended with a few amenities.
“He doesn't think it can happen,” the Director addressed Greg. “Chinese refugees arrive in broken down ships, not 747s. It does sound far-fetched. You sure you aren't allowing your past association with this fellow Harris to get the best of you?”
“Look, it's just like Laos. We'd have a guy or maybe a team stuck someplace. We'd tell Dunk we wanted them out. He'd come up with an outrageous plan, something no one would expect. Now, Li is stuck in Bangkok, he and his whole family. He hires Dunk to get them out, to get them to the U.S. So I ask myself, if I were Dunk, what would I do? What would no one expect? The answer, the only answer I can think of: I'd load them all in an airplane, fly them to the U.S. , and land at an airport without facilities, one where you'd never expect to see a large aircraft.”
“Brian's idea that Harris and Nancy Li are just lovers is a lot easier to buy.”
“Yeah, but it's wrong, and that was before we knew who she was.” Greg considered taking the risk of telling the Director about the tap on Duncan's phone. Duncan's reference to Nancy's non‑existent husband, the call to Nancy with instructions to contact her father, the encrypted e-mail transmissions, all pointed to a clandestine operation in progress. “Something's going on. I'll stake my reputation on it.”
The Director eyed Greg. “You've already done that. If there's nothing to this, I'll need a fall guy.” The Director paused to light a cigarette. “If we do wind up in a joint operation with INS, you'll be our liaison. You know Harris.” He buzzed his secretary. “Marie, I want to get some Chinese‑speaking agents to Bangkok ASAP. Find out who we have.”
BANGKOK — Saturday 07:00
Duncan looked down at the bowl of oatmeal set before him. It had brown sugar sprinkled on it. The mystery was solved. They had talked to Dolores. Duncan's father had oatmeal for breakfast every morning, and he always used brown sugar. Duncan ate oatmeal only when breakfasting at his father's house. He didn't care for oatmeal, but, as at his father's home, he ate it anyway. It was a small breakfast, and he had a lot of talking to do.
Mr. Li's personal assistant gave his morning briefing. Duncan hoped the man wasn't saying anything Duncan didn't already know but should. He finished eating well before the assistant stopped talking and waited patiently until Mr. Li nodded in his direction.
Total estimated trip time from when we taxi out here to touchdown in Novato is twenty‑four and four tenths hours,” Duncan began. “That's if everything goes as planned, and there's no trouble with the airplane. You'll be cooped up in the igloos for all but the last couple of hours.
“We should leave here as soon as possible after two‑thirty in the morning. Hong Kong has an eleven p.m. to six a.m. curfew. If we leave here at two-thirty, we'll reach Hong Kong about six‑fifteen their time.
“We have to leave here before 08:00. An 08:00 departure will put us into Novato right at sunset. The airport has no approach aids. I've got to be able to see it and the surrounding terrain to land, and you need light to get your people out and on their way.
“What this means is that if the airplane has to return to the gate here, it has to be back on its way within five hours or you should have it delayed until the next morning. That'll be a problem with everybody already on the airplane in their igloos. Your choice as to how you want to handle it. Let me know what you decide.”
A flurry of conversation started in Chinese, but Mr. Li cut it off and again nodded toward Duncan.
“The next problem concerns the airplane's weight and balance. The typical 747 freighter load on the route we'll be flying is around 230,000 pounds. ACI is anticipating such a load. Our load will only be 90,000. That'll raise some eyebrows.” Duncan saw a questioning look come over some of the faces. “Raise some eyebrows, that's a figure of speech in English. It means people will find it hard to believe. You don't pay for a 747 just to move 90,000 pounds.”
“We have already prepared forged manifests showing a normal cargo load. We copied them from an actual flight a few months ago,” the assistant said.
“It's not that simple. The airplane will be 140,000 pounds lighter than the dispatchers and the crew think it is. It'll perform much differently, and that could cause a problem. The first thing that will happen is that the nose will come up by itself during the takeoff roll rather than staying on the runway until the pilot raises it. He might decide the trim is set wrong and try to force the nose down. Depending on how aggressively he does that, he could start the aircraft oscillating, maybe even do a little wheelbarrowing. Whatever the outcome, as soon as they're safely in the air, the Captain is going to be on the radio questioning the loading because he has to decide what to do about the landing. He'd know that if the airplane is a lot lighter than they think it is, he's going to float like hell if they set their speed bugs for the heavier weight, and at Hong Kong you can't afford to float.”
“What do you suggest?” asked Mr. Li.
“Between now and tomorrow morning, let's try to find something we can say we're shipping that's very bulky but very light. That'd be the best solution. We don't have to get all the way down to 80,000. The problem with a 150,000-pound difference is that the airplane is going to start flying twenty‑five to thirty knots before they think it will. If we can reduce the difference to 70,000 pounds, the speeds will be off by ten to fifteen knots. They'll still notice it, but they won't complain. The nose will stay on the runway until the pilot lifts it, then it'll come off real easy, but that could be from a bad trim setting. That happens all the time. When they look at the fuel burn for the leg, it'll be less than planned, but that won't alarm them.
“You should also find a good mechanic you can bribe. If we can't figure out something light and bulky, we can load extra fuel in the aircraft's center tank, but we'll have to rig the fuel gauge to not show the extra fuel. Center tanks on 747s come in various sizes, but even the smallest can hold 86,000 pounds of fuel, and the longest leg of this trip will require only 5,000 pounds in that tank it's the last to be filled, the first to be used—which leaves us 81,000 pounds we can hide there.
“That's not a great solution because center tank fuel is used until the tank is exhausted. I'd have to have Richard keep an eye on the center tank fuel gauge. When he told me it said zero, I'd have to go down into the electrical compartment and manually trigger the other indicators.”
“Why not put heavy weight on floors of igloos?” asked a son.
The brother to whom Duncan had shown the landing figures answered him. “We cannot land at Novato with the extra weight. We would run off the end of the runway.”
The other son persisted. “We will have to fly around San Francisco to use up extra fuel?”
“No. Fuel can be pumped overboard,” Duncan answered. “It's called dumping. The 747 dumps fuel at the rate of 5,500 pounds a minute. If it looks like we're going to arrive at Novato with more than 15,000 pounds, I'll be dumping fuel.”
“Richard Li, meet Nancy Li. Nancy, this is Richard,” Duncan said as Richard entered the back of the limousine. Duncan had decided he and Nancy should remain in the vehicle and had sent the driver to wait for Richard outside the airport customs area. It was early Saturday evening.
Richard sat in the backward facing seat opposite Nancy as they exchanged amenities. It occurred to Duncan that with both in their twenties, with U.S. passports bearing the same last name, and shared ethnic origins, they could pass as husband and wife without question. He filed the thought for possible future use.
Duncan got down to business as the limousine drove off. “We're going into the city to get your Thai passport. It'll have a U.S. visa. You'll be posing as a courier accompanying sensitive cargo. There'll be two of you. The other is a Thai associate of Mr. Li. You'll have to clear U.S. customs at Anchorage. It shouldn't be a problem. You'll both have tickets on you for a return to Bangkok from San Francisco on United on Tuesday morning. The tickets will be legit, bought and paid for.”
Richard nodded. “Sounds like a class act.”
“It is. After the passport business we'll get something to eat. Then it's back to the airport. There's a 747-100 freighter overnighting here. That's the model ACI has. We've got access to it. We'll have all the time we need to figure out how to wire it. I want to be able to keep track of everything that's going on in the cockpit, and I want to be able to talk to you, have you talk to me.”
“No problem. I've got the LTCCK with me,” Richard said.
Duncan and Nancy both looked at him questioningly.
“That's the Larry Tanner Covert Communications Kit,” Richard grinned.
Nancy smiled. Duncan didn't. The mention of Larry's name had been a slip. There was no problem here, Nancy already knew of Larry Tanner, but Richard hadn't known that. Duncan would speak to him later.
“The aircraft we'll be using is due here Monday morning. It's scheduled for a maintenance check while the crew gets minimum rest. That doesn't put us in the departure window we need. Arrangements are being made to find some problems with the airplane. It'll be kept on the ground until our best takeoff time.”
“Cooperative place,” Richard said.
“For all practical purposes, the whole airport has been bribed.”
“It's not just that,” Nancy added. “The Thai government wants my father out. Everybody's cooperating.”
BANGKOK — Sunday 07:00
Nancy was not at breakfast and there was no explanation for her absence. They seated Richard in her place.
Duncan immediately missed her. Though they hadn't slept together since leaving Oregon, he had grown used to her company, had enjoyed her presence. He regretted that their entire time together in Bangkok, except for lunches and dinners, had been devoted to preparing for the trip.
Li's personal assistant started his usual briefing. Duncan wondered if Richard could understand anymore of it than Nancy had. Looking down at his breakfast, he saw it was a repeat of three days earlier: ham and eggs, hash browns, and toast on the side. They had exhausted the menu supplied by Dolores, Duncan thought. He finished the food before the assistant quit talking. Each day the man had more to say. Duncan had little to say this morning. But for going over contingencies with Richard and one other detail, he was ready.
The assistant finished and Mr. Li nodded toward Duncan.
Duncan spoke, “We won't have to hide fuel to get the aircraft's weight up. We've come up with a cover story that the items being shipped are delicate art objects encased in foam, very light. I still want to show a payload over 100,000 pounds. Less would attract too much attention. We'll be down to a five knot speed difference for the weight we'll tell them versus what we actually weigh.”
Mr. Li looked toward his aviation-oriented son. The man nodded his assent.
“Richard and I will be rehearsing how we'll communicate. When we've done that, we'll be ready to go. The only other thing is that I need to purchase a couple of weapons and some ammunition. Not for the trip, but for what may happen afterward. The DEA tends to shoot first and ask questions later. I'll also need to be taken someplace to try them out. I'm out of practice. I haven't fired a gun in over ten years.”
“We have a well stocked and widely varied arsenal. You may have your pick of any of our weapons,” replied Mr. Li.
Duncan nodded. He thought of asking about Nancy, but decided now was not the time.