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Flood Tide (Dirk Pitt Adventures)by Clive Cussler
April 14, 2000
Pacific Ocean off Washington
As if she were struggling out of a bottomless pit, consciousness slowly returned to Ling T'ai. Her whole upper body swam in pain. She groaned through clenched teeth, wanting to scream out in agony. She lifted a hand that was badly bruised and tenderly touched her fingertips to her face. One coffee brown eye was swollen closed, the other puffed but partially open. Her nose was broken, with blood still trickling from the nostrils. Thankfully, she could feel her teeth still in their gums, but her arms and shoulders were turning black-and-blue. She could not begin to count the bruises.
Ling T'ai was not sure at first why she was singled out for interrogation. The explanation came later, just before she was brutally beaten. There were others, to be sure, who were pulled from the mass of illegal Chinese immigrants on board the ship, tormented and thrown into a dark compartment in the cargo hold. Nothing was very clear to her, everything seemed confused and obscure. She felt as if she was about to lose her grip on consciousness and fall back into the pit.
The ship she had traveled on from the Chinese port of Qing-dao across the Pacific looked to all appearances like a typical cruise ship. Named the Indigo Star, her hull was painted white from waterline to the funnel. Comparable in size to most smaller cruise ships that carried between one hundred and one hundred fifty passengers in luxurious comfort, the Indigo Star crammed nearly twelve hundred illegal Chinese immigrants into huge open bays within the hull and superstructure. She was a facade, innocent on the outside, a human hellhole on the inside.
Ling T'ai could not have envisioned the insufferable conditions that she and over a thousand others had to endure. The food was minimal and hardly enough to exist on. Sanitary conditions were nonexistent and toilet facilities deplorable. Some had died, mostly young children and the elderly, their bodies removed and never seen again. It seemed likely to Ling T'ai that they were simply thrown into the sea as if they were garbage.
The day before the Indigo Star was scheduled to reach the northwestern coast of the United States, a team of sadistic guards called enforcers, who maintained a climate of fear and intimidation on board the ship, had rounded up thirty or forty passengers and forced them to undergo an unexplained interrogation. When her turn finally came, she was ushered into a small, dark compartment and commanded to sit in a chair in front of four enforcers of the smuggling operation who were seated behind a table. Ling was then asked a series of questions.
"Your name!" demanded a thin man neatly attired in a gray pinstripe business suit. His smooth, brown face was intelligent but expressionless. The other three enforcers sat silently and glared malevolently. To the initiated, it was a classic act of interrogative coercion.
"My name is Ling T'ai."
"What province were you born?"
"You lived there?" asked the thin man.
"Until I was twenty and finished my studies. Then I went to Canton, where I became a schoolteacher."
The questions came dispassionately and devoid of inflection. "Why do you want to go to the United States?"
"I knew the voyage would be extremely hazardous, but the promise of opportunity and a better life was too great," answered Ling T'ai. "I decided to leave my family and become an American."
"Where did you obtain the money for your passage?"
"I saved most of it from my teacher's pay over ten years. The rest I borrowed from my father."
"What is his occupation?"
"He is a professor of chemistry at the university in Beijing."
"Do you have friends or family in the United States?"
She shook her head. "I have no one."
The thin man looked at her in long, slow speculation, then pointed his finger at her. "You are a spy, sent to report on our smuggling operation."
The accusation came so abruptly, she sat frozen for a few moments before stammering, "I do not know what you mean. I am a schoolteacher. Why do you call me a spy?"
"You do not have the appearance of one born in China."
"Not true!" she cried in panic. "My mother and father are Chinese. So were my grandparents."
"Then explain why your height is at least four inches above average for a Chinese woman and your facial features have the faint touch of European ancestry."
"Who are you?" she demanded. "Why are you so cruel?"
"Not that it matters, my name is Ki Wong. I am the chief enforcer for the Indigo Star. Now please answer my last question."
Acting frightened, Ling explained that her great-grandfather had been a Dutch missionary who headed up a mission in the city of Longyan. He took a local peasant girl as a wife. "That is the only Western blood in me, I swear."
The inquisitors acted as if they did not credit her story. "You are lying."
"Please, you must believe me!"
"Do you speak English?"
"I know only a few words and phrases."
Then Wong got down to the real issue. "According to our records, you did not pay enough for your passage. You owe us another ten thousand dollars American."
Ling T'ai leaped to her feet and cried out. "But I have no more money!"
Wong shrugged indifferently. "Then you will have to be transported back to China."
"No, please, I can't go back, not now!" She wrung her hands until the knuckles went white.
The chief enforcer glanced smugly at the three other men, who sat like stone sculptures. Then his voice changed subtly. "There may be another way for you to enter the States."
"I will do anything," Ling T'ai pleaded.
"If we put you ashore, you will have to work off the rest of your passage fee. Since you can hardly speak English it will be impossible for you to find employment as a schoolteacher. Without friends or family you'll have no means of support. Therefore, we will take it upon ourselves to generously provide you with food, a place to live and an opportunity for work until such time as you can subsist on your own."
"What kind of work do you mean?" asked Ling T'ai hesitantly.
Wong paused, then grinned evilly. "You will engage in the art of satisfying men."
This then was what it was all about. Ling T'ai and most of the other smuggled aliens were never intended to be allowed to roam free in the United States. Once they landed on foreign soil, they were to become indentured slaves subject to torture and extortion.
"Prostitution?" Horrified, Ling T'ai shouted angrily, "I will never degrade myself!"
"A pity," said Wong impassively. "You are an attractive woman and could demand a good price."
He rose to his feet, stepped around the table and stood in front of her. The smirk on his face suddenly vanished and was replaced with a look of malice. Then he pulled what looked like a stiff rubber hose from his coat pocket and began lashing at her face and body. He stopped only when he began to break out in sweat, pausing to grip her chin with one hand, staring into her battered face. She moaned and pleaded with him to stop.
"Perhaps you've had a change of mind."
"Never," she muttered through a split and bleeding lip. "I will die first."
Then Wong's narrow lips curled into a cold smile. His arm was raised and then came down in a vicious swing as the hose caught her on the base of the skull. Ling T'ai was enveloped in blackness.
Her tormentor returned to the table and seated himself. He picked up a phone and spoke into the mouthpiece. "You may remove the woman and place her with those going to Orion Lake."
"You do not think she can be converted into a profitable piece of property?" said a heavy-bodied man at the end of the table.
Wong shook his head as he looked down on Ling T'ai, lying bleeding on the floor. "There is something about this woman I do not trust. It is best to play safe. None of us dare to incur the wrath of our esteemed superior by jeopardizing the enterprise. Ling T'ai will get her wish to die."
An elderly woman, who said she was a nurse, tenderly dabbed a wet cloth on Ling T'ai's face, cleaning away the caked blood and applying disinfectant from a small first-aid kit. After the old nurse finished tending the injuries, she moved off to console a young boy who was whimpering in his mother's arms. Ling T'ai half opened the eye that was only mildly swollen and fought off a sudden wave of nausea. Though suffering agonizing pain that erupted from every nerve ending, her mind was unmistakenly clear on every aspect of how she came to be in this predicament.
Her name was not Ling T'ai. The name on her American birth certificate read Julia Marie Lee, born in San Francisco, California. Her father had been an American financial analyst based in Hong Kong when he met and married the daughter of a wealthy Chinese banker. Except for dove-gray eyes under the brown contact lenses, she had favored her mother, who passed on beautiful blue-black hair and Asian facial features. Nor was she a schoolteacher from Jiangsu Province in China.
Julia Marie Lee was a special undercover agent for the International Affairs Investigations Division of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. By posing as Ling T'ai, she had paid a representative of an alien-smuggling syndicate in Beijing the equivalent of $30,000 in Chinese currency. Becoming part of the human cargo with its built-in misery, she compiled a wealth of information on the syndicate's activities and methods of operation.
Once she was smuggled on shore, her plan was to contact the field office of the assistant district director of investigations in Seattle, who was prepared and waiting for information to arrest the smugglers within territorial limits and break up the syndicate's pipeline into North America. Now her fate was uncertain, and she saw no avenue of escape.
Through some untapped reservoir of fortitude she did not know she possessed, Julia had somehow survived the torture. Months of hard training had never prepared her for a brutal beating. She cursed herself for choosing the wrong course. If she had meekly accepted her fate, her plan to escape would have most likely been achieved. But she thought that by playing the role of a frightened but proud Chinese woman she could have deceived the smugglers. As it turned out, it was a mistake. She realized now that any sign of resistance was shown no mercy. Many of the men and women, she began to see in the dim light, were also badly beaten.
The more Julia thought about her situation, the more she became certain she and everyone in the cargo hold around her were going to be murdered.
Copyright © 1997 by Sandecker, RLLLP
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