Chapter One - Part One
Maassluis, Holland, Friday 05 July, 1979
“Holy Mother of ...”
Meredith the DEA officer stumbled over the latrine bucket cursing. His flashlight lingered over the sordid scene in a makeshift cage of wooden pallets on the top floor of the riverside warehouse. There were dozens of drums of number three heroin, ‘Chinese Brown Sugar,’ in neat rows across the floor. He and his companion Julian de Lyon hadn’t expected to see a cage with two girls in it huddled under a blanket.
“That fucking light ...” one of the girls hissed.
Julian hushed the girl and the American with some urgency. Meredith turned his flashlight off. Moments earlier the only sound had been lapping water and the occasional cry of a curlew. Vehicles had pulled up on the quay below them and two Chinese were coming up the main stairway talking quietly in Cantonese.
With the drums offering no cover Julian quietly pulled the pallet door closed, shutting him and Meredith in with the girls. The one who had complained about the light in her face whispered her name was Beverley. Her hair was a mess, her face had the previous week’s make-up all over it but her mouth was one of grim determination. She was about to introduce the other youngster when it was Meredith’s turn to insist on silence.
One of the Chinese remained at the top of the stairs and lit a cigarette. The other lit an oil lamp by the pallet door and sniggered as the light picked out the fine black hair of the younger girl in the cage trying to hide under the blanket. When he saw the overturned bucket his leer disappeared. He let out a torrent of abuse, picked up the hurricane lamp and cursed again at seeing the bolt undone. When he saw Meredith he slid the bolt closed and shrieked a warning to his friend.
There was a loud crack as Julian drove his fist through the pallet door making contact with the man’s scrawny head. The lamp shattered sending a creeping blue and yellow light across the floor. Lit up as if it were suddenly daylight Meredith took a shot at the shadowy figure in the distance. Julian turned to Beverley whose fingers were in her ears from the explosion of the .45 resounding around the bare brick interior.
“Have you got shoes?”
“They took them away from us ...”
“Is she fit?”
Beverley grabbed her friend’s wrist and hauled her to her feet.
“She is if you’re taking us out of here ...”
Minutes later on a warm July night Julian, Meredith and the two girls were at the rear of the warehouse scrambling along a short quay jutting into the grey waters of the Lek. There were four vehicles in front of the building with people running everywhere panicked by a gunshot and flames. Julian watched Meredith tap his radio, muttering obscenities because it was not transmitting. The American’s T-shirt, emblazoned PITTSBURGH 12 might just as well have read AMERICAN AGENT. Clearly, it was not a good night for an investigation.
The quay from which they were to be picked up was a mess of boating paraphernalia; oil drums, frayed hawsers, scrap timber and rusting machinery. Strained voices sounded all about them. It would be a trying few minutes before the launch arrived. There was an upturned skiff on the quay but it would be suicidal venturing out in it. Julian lifted both girls past a bin of scrap steel and settled them behind a stack of concrete sleepers. They had suffered because of their bare feet but not uttered a sound. Beverley did not want to let go of him.
“You’re strong, aren’t you!” she whispered.
He put a finger to his lips, loosened the cord of his hood and listened. Beyond the noises of their pursuers and lapping of the water below he could just hear the throbbing of diesel engines of the launch riding the turning tide. Meredith indicated he heard it too and Julian flashed the emergency signal. A searchlight from the launch several hundred metres out in the channel locked onto the quay. There was a muffled roar and the craft turned.
A machine gun on the other side of the sleepers began rattling insistently until a grenade from someone on the boat with an M79 silenced it. The girls reeled from the explosion and hail of concrete chips. Meredith was stung in the face. The launch pirouetted in a mass of white froth, thumping the quay broadside on. Crew members bundled the girls below. Julian and Meredith jumped aboard and held fast. The engines throttled open again and they were away.
Julian wiped the spray from his face and looked back at the warehouse. Fire had taken a hold on the top floor of the warehouse and on the quay throwing an orange light and flickering shadows up its massive brick frontage. Car headlights were swinging about. With the sound of explosions and gunfire across the estuary making enough noise to wake up the nearby town the rivierpolitie would not be long in coming.
“Christ that was risky, an M79 ...” Meredith said to one of the crew.
“One of those piss-pot grenades!” the young officer replied pouring generous measures of Jim Beam into tin mugs.
“Been on the receiving end of one lately?” Julian countered. The three men began chuckling.
After a stiff drink and several minutes of the fresh night air on his face, Julian went below to the cramped quarters. Beverley and her friend both pale and exhausted were clutching mugs of tea. He made sure they had no immediate problems apart from lacerations on their feet and reassured them they would be looked after at the police headquarters in Rotterdam. Someone from the British Consulate would see them later in the morning, he said. He didn’t mention they would soon be on their way home. That didn’t always go down well.
A familiar tale unfolded as Beverley answered his questions. She wasn’t telling the truth when she said she had been in Amsterdam for a year as a waitress but he didn’t pursue it.
“We’d been in that hole a week,” she went on. “There were six of us, then they took the others away. The Chinese and sometimes a Dutchy gave us food but didn’t seem to know what to do with us. They knew what to do with us at night though, the bastards.”
Her voice tailed off but her face took on the determined look Julian had first seen. True grit, he could have called it had he known the expression, although he knew she was from somewhere in the North of England. The other youngster ‘Suzy’ was clinging silently to her. She was younger, about thirteen years old and looked Hong Kong Chinese. He spoke a few comforting words to her in Cantonese but she did not respond. He asked Beverley how she had got into the situation.
“She was on a cultural visit to Europe staying with friends of her family she said. A right posh lot they must be in a château near Paris. I call her Suzy. You know, Suzy Wong, because she’s from Hong Kong.”
She shook her friend’s shoulder to no avail. The girl was alone in the château one evening when two men walked in to her bedroom. They held a cloth to her face with chloroform, or something, on it. She had only vague recollections of what happened after that.
“She’s only eleven, the bastards.”
Julian turned his attention to the landing lights of a mooring platform he could see through the porthole.
“Were you friendly with the man who got you into this?”
“He’s a Chinky but not like you. You’re only half, aren’t you?” she asked, looking up at him. “His name’s Johnny, Johnny Wan, I think. I met him a couple of months ago in the club. He’s been good to me, giving me money and fags and meals too in his restaurant on the Oude Zijds, by the Town Hall. Until last week, the rat.”
A scowl swept across her tired face but the smile soon reappeared and Julian was amazed again at how forgiving people could be. She called out her thanks as she and Suzy were escorted off the boat, blowing him a kiss with the words,
“If I were only ten years older ...”
Meredith grinned but thought better about any ribald comment. He didn’t know Julian that well.
Amsterdam, Saturday 06 July
The following evening was also warm and pleasant. Julian stopped on a bridge, adjusted the zipper of his track suit and watched the light playing on the oily surface of the canal. There was a tinkling of glass from a restaurant at the water’s edge. People laughed. Plane trees whispered all around. Amsterdam was at its best.
He was not in harmony with this prettiest of cities. Life was good for those enjoying a summer weekend but while two young girls had been brought back from the brink of a traumatically shortened life of domestic or sexual slavery a hundred others would have been sucked in. The trade was remorseless and growing.
The weekend was not improving. He looked back at the traffic across Rembrandstplein, his vision of Ann-Marie lingering. She had neither home nor business interests in Holland, having long accepted the Dutch were too liberal and that an aristocrat would be swallowed whole. Had it been her in the Citroën that passed him in the square? He had hardly seen her in recent months but thought she would be in Paris that weekend for her father’s birthday. He should know if his wife had just driven by.
He walked on along the cobbled quay to the Oude Zijds and into an empty restaurant by the Stadhuis, squinting in the neon brightness. A tight-faced Chinese youth in a dirty apron viewed him suspiciously. Being part-Western, with dark brown hair and bigger physically than most Chinese, Julian’s presence invariably provoked this response. The youth took his order in silence and left a beer unopened by the glass.
Julian stretched his legs under the table. Ross had laid the weekend’s operation on him at a ridiculous two hour’s notice. This was not what he wanted to hear when about to pitch into Friday rush hour in Brussels.
It was now after eleven at the end of a long day at police headquarters in Amsterdam assisting with interrogation of hard-done-by couriers and surly Chinese without proper identification. He had stayed late only because of the DEA operation and the chance he might pick up some information for the office and make the weekend worthwhile.
He finished a bowl of noodles and contemplated ordering another Tiger beer. It was more than a casual reminder the Singapore triads had taken over the narcotics trade in Amsterdam pushing out the Hong Kong-based 14K and wo triads to other cities. He would have to put narcotics and his wife’s recent erratic behaviour and periods of disappearance aside. His office’s information was that a Dutch cell of one of these Chinese organizations was behind the huge increase in the trafficking of teenagers out of Holland.
Beverley and Suzy were lucky. If they had been abducted for prostitution their breaking-in period could have begun within days in a brothel anywhere between Casablanca and Cape Town. After this would be imprisonment in a stinking room somewhere between Marseilles and Macao servicing anyone who could pay their owner. Their fate could also have been one of sexual entertainment with animals or as victims of torture on film. They would probably not have survived their teens.
After three years in Europe Julian felt bitterness that a tiny under-resourced office of the United Nations, the Committee on Slavery, was the only organisation in Europe making an active stand against a billion-dollar trade. It was a grim tale of impotence and indifference and of collusion and profit to the highest levels of society and government.
It was almost midnight when four Chinese swaggered into the restaurant laughing loudly. They sensed trouble when Julian stood up. One reacted immediately, running into the kitchen and alleyway scrambling over rubbish bins, bicycles and empty cardboard boxes. There was only one way out to the canal front and Julian was waiting.
The expensively-dressed Singaporean backed into the shadows. His hair was coiffured like that of the younger men and slightly stiffened by an adoring girlfriend’s hair lacquer. A trace of make-up on his face would not have looked out of place in old Bugis Street.
“Johnny Wan ...” Julian said with the faintest of smiles. “You look well, Johnny. The Dutch have been good to you.”
Johnny with his lacquer and mascara was wanted for a list of unpleasant activities going back to 1972 in Toronto’s Chinatown when Julian had worked for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. More recently his name had been linked with a transport company operating out of Belgium with a sideline in little girls. This meeting could be the break Julian had hoped for that weekend.
A chill went down the Singaporean’s spine. He had enough experience of narcotics agents to know he should do as he was told. Julian nodded toward the canal and he acquiesced, his senses straining. The vigorous clacking of mah-jong tiles from a room high above them stopped. This should have been followed by their clattering over the table but there was silence. The restaurant fronted a gambling house controlled no doubt by Johnny’s gang, the See Tong. The alert had gone out.
Johnny’s companions reappeared on the empty quayside at the entrance to the alley. More of their kin tumbled out of the kitchen. There were a dozen men around Julian. Cleavers and kitchen knives glinted but it was Johnny who hissed they do nothing. He might just walk away from the police station that night.
The Singaporean missed the point. There was a flash of a steel blade and he sank to his knees, astonishment across his face. Someone had decided he was a liability.
Julian’s attention turned to the two burly youths nearest in the gloom waving knives with bravado rather than technique. A double kick sent a blade through a first-floor window and left the youth on his back on the blackened, greasy cobbles gasping with a broken wrist and cracked rib. Julian gripped the other attacker at a pressure point below his elbow. The youth went to his knees gasping in pain, looking helplessly as his knife dropped. The ma hyel induced paralysis and the youth rolled over convulsing.
There was some muttering in the alley and general movement ceased. Julian remained motionless. Indeed, it looked as though he hadn’t moved at all. His eyes flashed in the darkness, defying any of them to come closer but it was the insistent sound of a police siren on the other side of the canal that scattered them into the night.
“Talk, Johnny, you’re going to die,” Julian whispered. Blood was spurting from the Singaporean’s chest. “Why do your Brothers kill you?”
Johnny Wan grinned. No matter how bitter he might have felt in his last moments he would say nothing. Fear of the Brotherhood and of the oaths he had sworn would go with him to his grave.
Julian prompted again, asking if he did not want something better for his wife and child. Johnny, still grinning, could not resist the words,
“Look in your own backyard - ”
Brussels, Monday 08 July
When Julian returned to his apartment in Rue Américaine after another difficult day at the office in Place Madou he was greeted by the pungent odour of his young nephew’s enthusiastic cooking. He poured a drink and looked down into a street in shadow with the last of the evening sunshine clinging to the chimney pots. Peter had come over to Belgium for his last three vacations from university in England and they were getting to know each other. It was unfortunate his nephew’s presence that week was inappropriate.
After the incident in the Amsterdam alleyway that left one man dead, Julian submitted a brief report to the head of the City Police’s Criminele Inlichtingendiensten and took an early flight back to Brussels. At about the same time Meredith was murdered in the doorway of his apartment block in the Hague with a single silenced shot. This prompted an altogether more urgent flurry of calls between Brussels and Geneva. The American was a CIA field man using DEA cover and the US authorities were demanding answers from the Committee on Slavery’s parent organisation, the Bureau of Social Affairs.
“O Mighty One, do you desire tea?” Peter asked a second time, smiling engagingly at his uncle standing by the window. Julian declined. Something curry-like was dripping onto the carpet from the wooden spoon his nephew was holding.
“Something to eat, perhaps?”
Knowing he would not be good company Julian said he would eat in town and Peter should invite over someone more deserving. Peter ignored his uncle’s slippery compliment of a meal he was actually preparing for Thérèse and said he had a theory one could test a girl’s sexuality by how hot she could eat a curry. Amused by the idea of a controlled experiment, Julian poured another bourbon and asked how his nephew graded his results.
Peter found himself struggling.
“I prostrate myself, O Divine One, for my fatuousness,” he said, admitting his evidence was far from conclusive.
Julian walked to the tram stop a little way down the Chaussée de Charleroi to leave Peter and Thérèse alone for the evening. It had taken his nephew a long time to persuade his Continental friend to sample one of his creations. Thérèse was the epitome of Eve of the Sunday school lessons of his childhood. Fair-haired and of slender build she could not have contrasted more with his nephew’s current punk look and almost manic concern with physical fitness.
He couldn’t help smiling at the young man’s nerve and was sure in his own youth in Hong Kong he had been more respectful to young women, to everything. Thinking further, he realised the point would not stand much scrutiny.
On his return later that evening through the silent streets of the old city he regretted not taking up his nephew’s offer of dinner. Peter was his only family left in Europe and he should have been making a better effort with the young man. He caught a 32 tram on the boulevard at Porte de Namur and remained on it past his stop on Avenue Brugmann.
At the end of the Avenue Louise, in embassy land where Gendarmes patrol with submachine guns he pulled the collar of his coat about his face and began walking back up the avenue towards his wife’s apartment. He was not unduly worried about Ann-Marie’s current disappearance. Madame, as she was known along the tentacles of her family’s business empire did as she pleased and could have been anywhere in the world. A dead CIA agent in the Hague, Johnny Wan’s last words and a possible sighting of a disappeared wife in Amsterdam had concentrated his mind.
The porter in the brilliantly-lit foyer of the marble-clad building on the rond point Louise called the lift and returned to his desk. The living room in the penthouse apartment was as Julian had left it a couple of weeks earlier. Cushions showed the same creases, his note was unread. This at least would have been removed by Ann-Marie or her maid.
Everything was in its place. The artefacts in glass cases arranged such that on a fine evening the last rays of sunshine would fire the bold colours of the Aztec pottery and give a rich redness to the mellowed Inca gold. Even under soft artificial light the collection had a vibrant, pagan power. It delighted Ann-Marie who once said the full ritual of human sacrifice must be one of the most potent events a human being could witness.
It was not the materialistic excess characterizing his wife’s family that dominated Julian’s thoughts as he returned to the midnight streets. The last time he and Ann-Marie spoke he mentioned something of the Committee on Slavery’s work; that an aristocratic family could be involved in a spate of highly-organised abductions across Europe. She had displayed an unseemly anger at the suggestion.
A few minutes after leaving her apartment he turned into a dimly-lit Rue Américaine and noticed a car ahead of him, creeping, without lights. When the car stopped he did too. Brussels is a provincial little town settled by nine and asleep by eleven. When the car moved off again Julian broke into a trot. Its two occupants were following someone. The shadowy figure also running became visible in Place Leemans. Again the young man stopped, leaning this time against a lamp-post to massage his calves. Julian’s thoughts hardened. It was his nephew being followed.
After waiting in the darkness until the car had left the street Julian let himself into his apartment. Peter was in an armchair in the living room. He had run all the way from Thérèse’s place after taking her home and had a touch of cramp.
Julian poured a drink for them both and asked if the young woman enjoyed dinner. Peter began relating the evening with a sparkle in his eye until Julian told him he keep his fantasies to himself.
“In fact, young Nephew, I have the rest of the week off. You’ve been here two weeks and we have yet to do something positive together. This will be a good opportunity.”
Peter avoided asking what it was a good opportunity for. He did request they go for a spin over the weekend, meaning he wanted to get his hands on his uncle’s car.
“I had other things in mind.”
“Ominous!” Peter responded, grinning. “Still, it’ll serve me right. I didn’t do half as much training as I should have last term.”