Wong's Water Pot (Part 2 of 2)
By dusk the following evening I was a nervous wreck; bouts of nausea swept over me, fear of the unknown gripped like a vice. With hands trembling, I tried to drink a cup of coffee in the hotel lounge. The giant TV screen suddenly went blank. Moments later the national anthem of Bandesia blared out and a high-ranking army officer appeared, seated at a desk littered with miniature flags, emblems and a name plaque. The general solemnly announced that his armed forces had successfully mounted a coup d’état and overthrown the government. Martial law now prevailed. Hotel residents and staff gathered in front of the television. Some clamped hands over their mouths and shook their heads in disbelief at the news. Others clung to partners for comfort. A few women sobbed uncontrollably. Young children, not understanding, looked around in bewilderment.
Banging the coffee cup down, I leapt up, strode over to Larne at her reception desk and blurted, “Now what? We’ll have to call the whole thing off.”
Larne said, “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“The military coup. It’s happened – just now. It’s on the telly.”
Larne shook her head disbelievingly. “It can’t have.” She stood up and we hurried to the lounge. The general was still talking, outlining measures put into effect under the new regime. He announced, “A curfew will be in place between midnight and seven o’clock each morning. The international airport in Bandesia City is closed except to military aircraft. Ferry services between the mainland and islands are suspended. Tourists should contact their consulates, embassies or tour operators. All foreigners are advised to remain in their hotels and wait for further advice. Unfortunately, rioting has broken out in Bandesia City and surrounding areas. Anyone disobeying instructions from military personnel will be shot immediately.”
“Well, that makes things slightly difficult,” Larne said softly.
“Difficult? You mean impossible.”
“Not exactly. My friend – the one who’s taking us to the ferry terminal—is well connected with boat owners. He’ll be able to work something out – borrow a boat.” Larne sounded remarkably calm and confident.
“What about the curfew?”
“My friend will be able to deal with that. The private boat will leave before midnight and cross to a secluded place away from main shipping lanes. When the curfew is lifted at seven, we’ll be able to move on.”
“Who is this family friend? What’s his name, and why is he willing to be involved in this?” I asked.
“Look, I know it seems strange but the least you know, the better—just in case something goes wrong.”
“Well that isn’t exactly reassuring. Where will he be taking us on the mainland? At least I have a right to know that.” I said firmly.
“We’ll land in a small bay. There’s an airstrip just off the beach. A four-seater aircraft will take us to Bandesia City Airport, where my friend has arranged for us to board a military plane that already has clearance to operate flights to the Middle East.”
“Middle East? But where exactly? It’s a big place with a lot of dodgy areas.”
Larne, losing her patience, hissed, “Do you want to do this job or not? If so, stop making things difficult. Okay?”
I held my hands up in submission. “Right, right. Let’s get on with it.”
* * *
Only a handful of guests remained in the lounge at about ten o’clock. I sat close to the cabinet, facing reception. I held the fake Wong’s Water Pot in a resealable plastic bag, and placed a holdall containing my passport, bankcard, money and a few items of clothing beside the chair. Larne nodded to signal that she was ready to put the plan into action. With thumping heart, I struggled to remember the code for the cabinet, fearful of punching in the wrong combination. Two security guards patrolled nearby.
Larne moved to a row of switches on the wall behind the reception counter and pushed one. An almighty clanging of bells erupted overhead, the din echoing down the staircase. Startled customers leapt up and rushed towards the exit. The porter and concierge took up position in the doorway, attempting to prevent a stampede as other hotel guests began spilling down the stairs, pushing and shoving in a quickly growing queue. The uniformed security guards galloped up the stairs, followed by a clearly shocked trainee manager.
Larne gave a thumbs up sign, confirming the CCTV cameras were switched off and I leapt to the back of the cabinet, punched in the code and opened the door. It only took seconds to make the switch and close the door. With the masterpiece stuffed in the plastic bag, I grabbed my holdall, joined the mêlée around the exit and eventually catapulted into the street. As planned, I nipped into an alley at the side of the hotel and securely sealed the plastic bag while waiting for Larne. She arrived breathless moments later and was joined by a man wearing a black balaclava, bright eyes peering through the slits.
The hooded man barked, “Let’s go!” He turned, ran along the alley and we followed. In a service road behind the hotel, a saloon car screeched to a halt, a back door burst open, the three of us tumbled in and the car roared off. As the driver swung onto the main road and speeded towards the ferry terminal, fire engines, ambulances and police cars careered towards the Grand Imperial. Peering through the windscreen, I gasped fearfully on sighting a military roadblock at the entrance to the terminal. Our driver veered off the highway onto a narrow lane and we bumped over a potholed surface at suicidal speed. A full moon played hide and seek with fluffy clouds, creating light and casting shadows over thick woodland bordering the route.
“Where the hell are we going?” I demanded. The man in the balaclava remained silent.
Larne said, “We’re okay. Our boat is waiting further down the beach.” Vehicle headlights beamed behind us and a siren wailed.
“We’ve got company,” the driver growled, swerving across the road while reaching under the dashboard. He lowered the window, slowed momentarily, tossed something out then accelerated violently.
I turned and looked out of the rear window. The vehicle in pursuit suddenly exploded, a giant orange fireball mushroomed skywards. Then we skidded round a corner and all was quiet again. “I don’t believe it. We just blew up military personnel. This is crazy, we’ve had it,” I groaned, terror stricken.
The engine of a motorboat spluttered to life as it bobbed in the sparkling moonlit swell off a deserted sandy beach. Our driver hadn’t wasted any time abandoning the car and legging it up a footpath parallel to the road we’d arrived on. With holdall on shoulder and painting held high, I waded with Larne and the balaclava man to the vessel. Strong rough hands hauled us aboard, the boat turned and at full throttle cut across the waves, heading towards the mainland. It seemed the man who pulled us on board was the only crewmember. He stood at the controls, peering around and shouted to us to keep down. Sitting on deck boards in the stern, I saw navigation lights on a vessel some distance behind. I nudged Larne and hissed, “We're being chased!”
“Looks like a police patrol boat. They are super fast, damn it. We won't be able to shake them off.” Larne called out to the man in the wheelhouse, “Hey! What are you going to do?” Her question brought no response so she turned to balaclava man and demanded, “Do something. Go on! Do something will you? Don't just sit there.”
The hooded mystery man uttered the first words since meeting us outside the hotel. He said , “I expected something like this. We are prepared. Excuse me please.” He ran at the double and joined the man in the wheelhouse. Despite our dangerous situation, I began wondering who he was, and why he kept his face concealed. He grabbed an assault rifle from a locker.
I moaned, “Surely he isn't going to . . .”
Larne said, “It's our only chance. So long as there isn’t another boat after us we'll reach the mainland okay.”
Our pursuers closed the gap rapidly. An amplified man's voice shouted, “Heave to! Stand by the rail with your arms up! We are coming alongside.”
“Do as they say,” balaclava man ordered.
The crewman cut the engine and joined Larne at the rail. After placing my holdall under a shelf in the wheelhouse, I made sure the plastic bag holding the picture was well sealed and put it on top of the bag before joining them, hands in the air. Balaclava man kept out of sight with rifle at the ready. The police launch came to a halt beside us. Two uniformed officers pointed handguns at us. One of them snapped, “Stay where you are. We’re coming aboard.” A third man—seemingly the captain—appeared from the cockpit and sprang headlong to safety along the deck when balaclava man’s automatic rife bullets tore into the cockpit structure, shattering glass, timber and instruments. A fire broke out and smoke billowed.
Balaclava man joined us, screaming, “Go! Let’s get out of here!” He delivered another burst of rapid fire along the length of the stricken vessel, sending the occupants scampering for their lives.
* * *
Gathering clouds obscured the moon as we ploughed on in pitch blackness. A strong wind whipped up big waves, causing the boat to pitch and roll alarmingly. The man at the controls stood legs apart, balancing skilfully under worsening conditions. “There's a heavy storm brewing. It's going to get rough. Don't move around—unless you fancy swimming the rest of the way,” he shouted over his shoulder. Vivid sheet lightning flashed and revealed silhouetted hills on the mainland. Thunder crashed deafeningly and rain, blown by the gale, lashed down, stinging our eyes, and water flowed over the deck.
“Take cover in the wheelhouse,” ordered balaclava man. Larne grabbed my arm as we struggled to reach shelter. The windscreen wipers barely managed to cope with the deluge as I peered ahead. Intense lightning picked out jagged rocks to left and right as we navigated inshore waters.
“You’ll have to swim to the beach,” barked the man at the controls. “We’ll end up splintered on the rocks if I try to get closer.”
“Oh no! I can only swim a few strokes. And what about sharks? These waters are infested with them.” Larne shook her head. “Surely you can . . .”
“I’ll grab you after we jump in,” I said without much confidence. “It’s not very far,” I lied.
“What about the painting?” Larne cried.
“Don’t worry—the bag’s waterproof.” At least I hoped it was. The boat’s engine died. I picked up the picture and joined balaclava man and Larne at the side rail. Then I remembered all the other important stuff like passport and money were in the holdall. For the first time I noticed Larne hadn’t brought anything with her. “What about my bag—passport and cash. I can’t . . .” Before I could finish, balaclava man and the crewman grabbed me and tipped me headlong over the railing. I sank into the depths, clinging tightly to the plastic bag. Kicking furiously and using my free arm, I slowly began rising and after what seemed an eternity gasped for air on surfacing. A beam of light from the boat searched the black water around me, falling on balaclava man and Larne struggling close by in the enormous breakers, completely disappearing every few seconds when we were forced under. I battled to reach them, somehow still managing to cling on to Wong’s Water Pot. Balaclava man and I gripped Larne between us and attempted to swim for the shore. But the brute force of the sea made headway painfully slow. Dawn began to break, the sky taking on menacing patterns of slate grey as low clouds billowed and skidded angrily in the wind. A large rock with a flat surface, high enough to escape the full force of the treacherous waters, appeared just ahead. Attempting to climb onto it could prove fatal but there was no choice. Trying to use groups of small protruding blocks of rocks as footholds to try scrambling up seemed the only possibility. After Larne and balaclava man managed to cling to rock protrusions, Larne reached out to me and grabbed the precious painting. I struggled to find footholds while groping around with both hands for something to heave myself up. Searing pain ripped through my knees every time a foothold failed to support, sending me slithering down the rock face until managing to hang on to another slippery chunk. Eventually I clambered onto the flat surface. Balaclava man attempted to climb, hanging on to Larne's arm. I lay on my stomach and reached down to help, but could only reach the top of balaclava man's head. Grabbing his hood, I tugged. The headgear gave way, I let go and it blew away. He succeeded in climbing a little higher, still dragging Larne. Somehow I managed to get a grip on his shoulders and hauled him to the top.
“She's slipping! Quick! Help!” he cried.
Frantically I wriggled as close to the edge as possible, stretched down and with both hands gripped Larne's arm—the one still holding the painting. “Come on, you can do it! Try and get a footing, then I can pull you up.”
Larne called out, “Okay, I’ve taken the weight off. Pull! Pull!”
As soon as he could, the now hoodless man helped in hauling Larne to safety—if a piece of rock sticking out of the ocean could be called safe. The three of us lay exhausted on our backs, struggling to breathe for a while. Daylight increased and the gale started to subside. Curious to see the face of the formerly masked man, I turned and looked at him. “You! What the . . .” Dumbfounded, I stared at Sagwau Tanaka, the former general manager at the Grand Imperial.
“A rather unfortunate place for us to be together, Mr Jamison,” said Tanaka. “Let me explain. You foolishly revealed to Larne your plans to steal Wong’s Water Pot. Unfortunately you did not know that Larne and I had already planned to take it for ourselves.”
With spinning head, I croaked, “What? You and Larne? You mean—er—you and . . .”
“Larne is my fiancée. We are marrying when we get settled in the Middle East. Our bank account will be exceptionally buoyant once the little picture has been sold. We’ll have a very comfortable lifestyle.”
I stared disbelievingly at Larne. “Is this true?”
“Sorry, but your arrival on the scene happened to make the operation that much easier.”
“B-but we agreed . . .”
Larne said, “Life can be cruel sometimes, Mr Jamison.”
“So what happens when we get to the mainland?” I asked.
Sagwau Tanaka replied, “There are arrangements to issue you with a temporary travel document and you’ll fly with us to the Middle East before continuing onwards to England.” He crawled to Larne’s side and took the bag holding the painting from her. “I’ll take care of this. Help will be on the way now that the storm is over.”
The heavy sky had given way to scattered light cloud and the sun broke through. Larne sat up and peered out to sea. “Look! Sharks!” She pointed, and I too saw several huge fins cutting through the water.
Minutes later the whirring of a helicopter grew louder and the aircraft came into sight. It hovered above the rock and a rope ladder snaked down.
“Right, Larne. You first,” Tanaka said.
Larne fearfully grabbed the ladder and managed to climb to the doorway, where helping hands pulled her inside.
“Now you, Mr Jamison,” ordered Tanaka.
Safely onboard, I looked down as Tanaka began his climb, one hand on the ladder, the other gripping the work of art. An unexpected gust of wind caused the rope ladder to swing alarmingly. Tanaka let out a terrifying scream as he plunged into the ocean. Swiftly, sharks closed on their prey and boiling water turned red. When calm returned, the wide sea was empty.
* * *
Three months after returning to London, a dark skinned old man turned up in my craft shop with what he claimed to be Wong’s Water pot. He wanted to know if I was interested in buying it.
“You must be joking,” I laughingly said. “I’ve seen more copies of that painting than the Mona Lisa.” As the man walked out to the pavement, I called after him, “By the way, where did you get it?”
As he got into a taxi he said, “It was washed up on a beach in Bandesia.” The taxi sped off. I never saw that man or painting again.