I looked forward to having a beer with the sailor who’d murdered my wife. Sanchez was one of those friends we all have; the kind you don’t like but are resigned to having around. We became friendly during our years in the Royal Navy. I even introduced him to his spouse. Ten years ago he married Cantonese beauty Eileen Chan. She was in Hong Kong waitressing at the Hunan Restaurant deep in the heart of Wanchai. I ate noodles and couldn’t tear my gaze from her gorgeous hazel eyes as she recalled, in her sweet little girl’s voice, her only trip to the West, when she’d visited Cincinnati.
Later that evening a jealous kitchenhand filled with unrequited love for Eileen, didn’t like the smiles the two of us were sharing and roofied our drinks. I woke up in the gutter out front of the restaurant with Sanchez slapping me about in an attempt to resuscitate me. He put me in a taxi and paid the driver to get me to Kowloon. Eileen lost her job for falling asleep in the dumb waiter. Sanchez accompanied her home and made arrangements to meet the lovely girl the next evening. A year later, at age nineteen she was a well-known nightclub dancer and model in Guangzhou.
With her intellect and curvy figure, she’d become a social sensation but Eileen gave it all up to marry Sanchez and become a nurse. Throughout that same period I got shacked up with a delightful creature who took five minutes to turn into a miserable trollop. My brief chat over dinner with sweet Eileen at the Hunan stayed with me twelve years later when, two days before my thirty-fifth birthday, Sanchez contacted me and gave me a chance to put my life right.
I’d known Sanchez since we first met as nine-year-old boy scouts. I was polishing brass in the Leading Seamans’ mess when he blackened my eye for not saluting him. The fact that he was an Able Seaman — not a commissioned officer didn’t even come into it. The bully wanted respect. We traded blows, I gave a good account of myself and thus a friendship was born. At one point we attended the same school. It was during our two decades at sea with the Royal Navy when we began to see more of each other, when we both drafted onto type 42 Destroyer HMS Glasgow.
A night of hard drinking on the town in the Philippines saw us both thrown into slots and following that forty-eight hour incarceration we started running with the same crew. Fast forward to a summer evening in New York three months back. Right there in a bar in Manhattan, we discussed my wife’s affair and he told me of his own unhappy marriage to Eileen. We agreed on a strategy to solve both of our problems. He’d kill my wife and I’d kill his.
The thought of murdering Eileen made me sick but it’s impossible to overstate just how badly I wanted out of my marriage. My lady had betrayed me with another but she wouldn’t agree to a divorce. I’d lost all of my own money at the poker table and the insurance pay-out would be enough to make a fresh start. Eileen worked at a hospital in Baltimore while Sanchez did contracts for the Merchant. She could have had any man and I always wondered what she saw in Sanchez. He wasn’t bad looking, I guess, but he didn’t treat her well. Who knows why we fall in love with the people we do? They had a son who passed away at the age of five. I’d never met the boy and Sanchez chose not to speak of the matter. Like all of us, he had some matters the discussion of which were off-limits to all. Naturally the loss of her son changed Eileen too. She and Sanchez began the long drawn-out process of growing apart completely.
The night before Eileen was scheduled to die, it took me about an hour to make my way through the busy Baltimore traffic all the way to the city center. Got through the Jones Falls Express, diverted away from the main roads then weaved through a long, winding alley until I reached McComas Street and the Cruise Maryland Terminal.
Parked my Jag behind a cement truck. The SS Thiri Sanda was pulling up anchor at midnight. They were setting off on a Hong Kong run and Sanchez wanted to go over things before he took up his post onboard and departed for China. It was very important for him to know that Eileen suffered before she died and he made me promise I’d give him a moment to moment account of her murder when he got back. That was a tough request to listen to.
A small, red and grey vessel — I estimated the Thiri’s deadweight to be around twenty thousand tons. The vessel was privately owned by another shipmate of mine, Captain Gunther Mueller. Technically, it was an ocean liner, designed as they are to transport passengers from one place to another and he registered it as a Tramp Ship, meaning it didn’t run on any particular schedule.
Gunther had brought the Thiri back from the cusp of scrap and refashioned it so as to be able to handle the difficult conditions he anticipated experiencing on the way to a multitude of exotic and remote locations. The Thiri could best be described as a rust bucket but Gunther selected her because the tapered bow and deep draft would help to maintain stability when they traversed an angry ocean. From the outset, Sanchez had involved Gunther in the murder plot. It seemed reasonable to assume Gunther would have taken complete control of the operation — as was his way.
With only hours until they set off, the entire crew were hard at work. On deck around twenty sailors worked up a sweat. Not a word was spoken. On my left, six of them covered a containment trough with a rain tarp. Every crewman was ex-military and it showed in their confident economy of movement. The primary interest of Gunther’s operations was smuggling and he needed men he could trust. Human trafficking, narcotics, weaponry — nothing was off-limits for Gunther. When, from time to time, I bumped into any of the old gang who were still involved with Gunther, I made a point of not asking about such matters. Not my business. He had a new source of income involving contacts in Palm Springs and Hong Kong and that night I would learn all about it.
At the top of the gangway, an Asian lad of about thirteen cheesed a rope and whistled to himself. The Quartermaster formally greeted me. I asked for Sanchez. He ran a key eye over me then mentioned Captain Gunther would be joining Sanchez and me. That I had not expected.
“There are no civilians coming on-board this evening, are there?”
“I was under the impression Sanchez and I would be meeting alone in his cabin. Drinks will be served.”
“Captain’s orders, Mr. Peterson. Captain’s orders.”
In the Navy that’s a validation you don’t argue with — and I didn’t. Maybe Gunther didn’t think I was up to the kill that night and he was taking over. At that point, anything was possible.
The QM summoned the Bosun’s Mate and had him pipe for the Captain’s cabin then pointed to an empty corner beside a hatch where I would have a viewpoint of the deck while I waited. So thoughtful. I smiled cooperatively, decided against lighting up a Marlboro, leaned against the bulkhead and examined the environment as the deck beneath me gently rose and fell.
Never before had I seen anything like the Thiri. It had something of the look of a liner, the facilities of a cargo ship and the atmosphere of a Destroyer Escort. Officially they operated as a business for ex-Navy personnel. One could take the wife and kids on a cruise where they’d experience the kind of military environment father used to work in. A good cover for rustling.
Gunther still ran his crew within the Royal Navy framework. Hence, the seamen referred to each other by ratings — Petty Officer, Chief or whatever. After he took a voluntary discharge from the military, Sanchez had made Warrant Officer with Gunther’s outfit although he hadn’t been to sea with them for a while.
No crewman was in uniform but their khaki work clothes did remind me of the number 8 work dress we used to wear when on duty. In unison, the dogs on the hatch beside me rotated, the door swung open and Gunther struggled out and onto the deck. He gave me a throttling handshake and told me there’d been a late change in plans. We could find Sanchez ashore in the Flying Angel club, at the base of the dock.
At one point Gunther had been my Divisional Officer and I naturally deferred to his leadership. The two of us never really had any problems and from time to time we spoke on the phone just as a way of keeping in touch. I knew he considered me to be something of a nerd and maybe he’s right. Even though like all military men I can get dangerous if a situation leaves no other option, I’m still only five ten and very wiry. Whereas Gunther and Sanchez began their careers in Gunnery, I always worked in Administration. As a ship’s clerk, log books and paperwork were my thing.
Sanchez would have had misgivings about trusting my capacity to murder anybody, had he not witnessed for himself the devastation my wife’s affair had carved into my worn-down features when we met back in New York. It wasn’t just any affair. I caught her in bed with my son. I’d become a father at age seventeen after a night with a cashier in Birmingham. When, seventeen years later, I stumbled into our bedroom to find my boy in bed with my wife, he couldn’t face me and returned to his mother in Birmingham. Disappeared from my life and broke my heart. The encounter left my wife pregnant and without a word of discussion she had an abortion. You can only push a man so far before he pushes back.
Gunther and I strolled through the docklands. He’d aged and put on weight. The long beard combined with his rough, salty features and shabby raincoat to give him a kind of Rasputin look. His primary role in the unwanted wives project, was the provision of alibis. He’d put me in the clear by writing out a sworn statement that I’d been at his house when Sanchez did the hit and run. We made our way to the club and I listened closely as he clarified the change in the plan.
The Flying Angel club belonged to Gunther. He bought it from a group of Anglican priests who couldn’t make it work anymore, even as a charity, and sold it on privately for The Mission to Seafarers. He’d rebranded it as agreed but everybody still called it by its original name. The diminutive building came right out of the 1970s. The windows were adorned with signs promoting a snooker competition and the tap beer on draught. On the door a notice announced there were rooms for rent. Homeless people especially welcome.
Gunther led the way into the bar where a grizzled tramp stared into his beer. Dressed in rags, his eyes were those of a man going to the gallows. Sanchez, still a bear of a man, rose from his barstool wearing a huge grin. Oil and sweat stains covered his khaki shirt. Those massive shoulders were intact while his hair had been buzzed down to a shadow. Four very demure Asian girls — the type that look fifteen but are probably in their early twenties — had apparently been keeping him company. He dropped a fifty on the bar. Addressed the prettiest girl as Vera and told them to take a tip on him. Vera giggled and snatched the note up.
After moving to the privacy of the backbar, we located a table in a secluded corner and ordered three steaks and beers all round. The four girls had followed us in and locked the massive oak door behind them. Gunther directed Vera to bring him a bag of chips.
“Who are the girls?” I asked.
“They work for my business partner and we can trust them,” replied Gunther. “The Flying Angels.”
“Jesus I’m tired,” said Sanchez.
“You’ll sleep well tonight,” replied Gunther.
“Hard work will do that.”
Vera placed the bowl of chips and cutlery on the table.
Sanchez told her to scram, took a sip of his beer then got down to business. “So your missus is gone and that’s my half done. I do the Hong Kong run on the Thiri this evening. While I’m heading out to sea you kill my Eileen tonight. Tell me how you’re gonna do it.”
Out of nowhere a peculiar thought occurred to me. What if I really did kill Eileen? How would I feel? How would I live with myself? I’d had no trouble organizing for my own wife to get bumped as she’d gutted my family, but Eileen had never hurt anybody.
“Before we get into that, are you getting any heat from the police?” I enquired.
“Wasn’t even questioned.”
“I know I’m in the clear on that one.” I nodded across the table at Gunther. “The captain here gave me a rock solid alibi.”
“That he did.” Sanchez smirked at Gunther but his expression quickly faded. It was as if he sensed there was something off-kilter in the atmosphere between the three of us.
“What about conspiracy charges?” It was of no importance but I asked anyway. “Sooner or later the police are going to connect the dots.”
“They can do what they want with the bloody dots,” replied Sanchez. “I’m too careful for that mob.”
“Rubbish Mr. Sanchez,” replied Gunther. “Utter bullshit. You never were meticulous enough for this business.” He leaned back in his chair and stared through Sanchez like he wasn’t even there.
“Change of plans,” I said. I hadn’t had time to fully assess what we were about to do and needed a Marlboro. I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “I’ll explain after I smoke this.”
All three of us were silent. The line of smoke wafted from my lips and hovered over the top of the table. Gunther munched away on the chips and maintained his focus on the girls at the bar. When Vera caught his eye, he winked at her.
Sanchez did his best to maintain a nonchalant front, but that old facial twitch was such a giveaway. He guzzled the rest of his beer down and placed the glass in front of me. “Why don’t you get us all another beer, Peterson?” Gunther reached for another chip but Sanchez grabbed his hand. “And why don’t you tell me what’s really going on?”
All I knew was that Sanchez would die that night and Eileen was safe but a much deeper game was at play and I looked forward to Gunther’s clarification.
“Sanchez, we really did have some good times at sea,” said Gunther. “Shame it has to end this way.”
“You’ve been abusing Eileen for years. Peterson here has always loved her. They want to be together. And they will be.”
Sanchez clenched his fists; his cheeks reddened. He pointed a finger in my face. “Don’t give me that love bullshit, you’re set to knock off Eileen tonight.”
Gunther’s laughing eyes were those of a man enjoying his work. “Wrong. It’s all over Sanchez. Your beer is full of tranquilizer.”
“You wouldn’t do that to me.” He wore the expression of a hostage tied to the train tracks. “This is a joke, right?”
“Nothing personal,” replied Gunther. “We need you alive for a few hours. Eileen is selling you for body parts.”
“The hell she is!” Sanchez shot up to his feet, then stumbled to one side. He tried desperately to maintain balance but his eyeballs rolled in their sockets and his legs were jelly. He grabbed me by the neck and wrenched me out of my seat. I grappled and tried desperately to fend him off. I grabbed a steak knife and we crashed to the floor. As he tightened his hands around my throat I instinctively plunged the blade into his solar plexus. Again and again.
For more than a decade the thought of him making love to Eileen had been the blade in my heart and I didn’t hold back until his arms fell limply by his side. Blood bubbles dribbled from the corner of his mouth and ran down his chin.
I pushed myself up to my feet, dropped the knife and rubbed a hand on my constricted throat, focusing my eyes on our naval crest tattooed on the back on his hand. I’d never hated him, I just loved Eileen too much to not take a chance to share my life with her. “That was cruel, Gunther. Eileen selling him for body parts, please.”
“Of course she is.”
It took a second for that to register, but when it did I stumbled back to our table. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I will when I see her.”
“Turn around; you can see her now.”
Gliding down the spiral staircase, Eileen could have been walking onto the set of a Hong Kong crime movie. The love interest, of course. Her soft mane of hair had a yellowish tinge and it hung down around her shoulders. The formality of her gray cotton dress stood in total contrast to her well-worn pair of pink running shoes. How tiny were her feet? In her left hand was a small but expensive looking camcorder. Clearly, she’d filmed the fight.
Without looking at the girls by the bar, she clicked her fingers and all four came running. She was yet to acknowledge me as her attention was fixed on Sanchez’s bloodied frame. I moved to her side. One girl carefully picked up the knife and placed it behind the bar at the far side of the room, then returned.
“We can harvest that fat.” She gazed at Vera and prodded his ass with her toe. “Tell Dr. Lee in Palm Springs to have his guy in Woodlawn pick up the buttocks and belly. Get the Bosun to pack the liver and kidneys; they’re wanted in Hong Kong. Hopefully the blade didn’t hit them. Put the rest on ice.”
Vera directed the other girls to take hold of Sanchez’s hands and feet. The four of them proceeded to drag his limp body towards the cellar door, giggling all the way.
“And clean up this blood.”
“Your Flying Angels?” I asked.
“That’s right,” she replied, handing the camcorder to Gunther. “My business.”
“May I have the film?”
Before she could reply Gunther insisted, “And now you’re in the business too, Peterson.” He opened his jacket to display the pistol in his shoulder holster. No wonder he hadn’t been too concerned when Sanchez got angry. His deadpan stare told me not to even think about making a move for the camera.
“You gonna be a problem?” She glared at me.
Now I knew exactly where I stood. My mind was all over the place. Could have thrown up right there and then. That iron stench of blood hit me and I backed away. For what seemed like an eternity no one said anything. Eileen awaited a response.
Four months back, Sanchez had found out about the hatchet job my wife had done on my family and contacted Gunther to sound him out about the feasibility of me killing his lady and him murdering mine. Could I be trusted? Was I up to it? Gunther assured Sanchez I’d do anything to get rid of my wife and the plan was solid. Then he contacted Eileen and tipped her off. He insisted she was frightened and wanted to get rid of Sanchez so she could be with me. She got a message to me via Gunther. If I let her live and killed Sanchez there was nothing to stop us being together.
I was supposed to spike Sanchez’s drink that evening on the Thiri Sanda and Gunther would dump his body overboard when they were in the middle of the Atlantic. Some plan. Right there in the Flying Angel club I admitted to myself that I didn’t know Eileen. Didn’t know her at all.
“No problem.” What else could I say? I went to sit back down at the table but she grabbed me by the elbow and stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Gonna kill me, were you?”
“I couldn’t have gone through — ”
“Don’t ever make that mistake again. We leave for Hong Kong on the Thiri tonight.
“We can be married the moment we get there. Now go home pack a bag and get your passport. I’ll meet you onboard at midnight.”
I was out of options. As I made my way to the massive oak doors, I couldn’t help but stop and turn around. I caught site of Eileen gesturing with those tiny ivory white hands as she stood over Gunther, both of them oblivious to the pool of blood on the floor. Clearly she was giving the orders. Did she have something on Gunther too? Commanding Officers were the only characters I’d ever witnessed ordering Sanchez around, but then again I’d never really looked into Eileen’s sparkling hazel eyes and seen who she truly was. Now I was on the eve of a marriage where one false move would see me turned into spare parts for some wealthy foreigner’s sickly body.
She caught me staring at her and I could see then that nothing was going to stop thirty-year-old former nightclub dancer Eileen Chan from fulfilling her criminal ambitions. I needed to know why it was so important for her to partner up with me but as I made my way back to my car, all I could think about was the reality of my predicament. Not only could Gunther pull his alibi and get the police looking into me for my wife’s fatal traffic accident, he, Eileen and her Flying Angels had witnessed me stabbing Sanchez to death. They had it all on film. Taking orders from anybody without the stripes didn’t come naturally to me, but until I came up with a safe way out, I’d have to do what she bade me do.
She spun around and gave me a look that said, what do you want?
“How did you know to have the camera? How did you know I’d kill Sanchez?”
She shrugged. “Because you love me, Peterson. And I want you to go on loving me.”
The black widow had trapped me in her web. And I had to find a way out.