Work In Progress. A first look.
Jack Vicious was in trouble and he knew it. It wasn’t the hissing of the air escaping from the engine room air lock. It wasn’t the stink of diesel fuel swirling around his boots. It wasn’t the racket that that God awful parrot was making as it crashed about in its cage, trying to escape. Just like Jack, it wanted out. Jack looked about, taking stock as it were.
“That crazy broad, I should never have listened to her.” I couldn’t help but think that some of this was my fault. Yes sure, the money was good but was this kind of trouble worth it?
“Well, as they say in the movies, it was that dame. I never should have stayed around.”
I looked about. There didn’t seem to be any way out of this steel box that was the throbbing heart of the tramp steamer. The engine fed by the steam boilers created an awful noise. It made the steel plates vibrate it was so bad. The sweat was streaming down my face the humidity was so high. It was time to get out.
“Come on bird, I can’t leave you here.” I grabbed the cage and swung up the ladder to the air lock, improperly shut from the last stoker exiting the engine room. The escaping air was now a roar rather than a hiss, and I knew it was only a matter of moments before the boilers would blow back.
I put my hand on the first hatch dog and pulled. At that moment the red warning light came on. I hesitated, teaching the parrot a few new words, someone was coming in the other way. Coming into the engine room. The airlock would be wide open and the blow back from the boilers would take the whole ship out. I slammed the dog back in place and cursed. The parrot screeched “The petty officer’s a bastard” as I jammed myself back against the bulkhead. There was no room at the top of this ladder way and just me and the damned parrot taking up all the space.
“Be quiet bird,” I shouted above the noise. Not that it mattered, I could see through the glass visor in the hatch that it was one of the black faced heathen pirates who had boarded the ship earlier who was trying to enter the engine room. Ok, let him get into the airlock, and maybe I could vent it and suffocate him. The light turned green. That meant the door on the outside was now closed. He was in the chamber. I spun the exhaust tap and that man was suddenly gasping. No way would either hatch open now, not even for Hercules. The outside air pressure had him.
The parrot was screeching obscenities. “Too long in the stokers mess deck.” I admonished it. The man in the air lock chamber collapsed. He was exhausted. In a manner of speaking.
“Ok bird, it’s time to get off this rusting hulk. I’ve got what I came for.” I slammed open the dogs, having closed the air exhaust cock, and hauled open the inner hatch. The outer hatch was as easy and I wasn’t worried about the airlock. The boiler could blow and I didn’t care a damn. I was out of there. Me and the bird.
I could hear the increasingly louder roar as the fires in the boilers started to blow back into the engine and boiler compartments. It was only positive pressure in the spaces that kept it all going up the stacks. Time to go.
I’d have to have words with that dame when I saw her in Shanghai. What a mission.
The oily sheen of the ocean shifted and glinted with the lights of Kowloon, bleached out like some old black and white movie as the winter mists rolled out of the wide river mouth. The Yangtze was a mighty big river and I had no desire to be found swimming in it, especially out here in the harbour between Hong Kong and Kowloon. My inflatable dingy was bobbing at the end of its rope just off the stern where I’d left it. No one had seen it in the pitch black night so at least that old broad Lady Luck was either smiling on me, or hadn’t noticed that I was here.
Shimmying down the rope and dropping into the dingy was a matter of moments. I could see the orange glow starting to light the deck rigging amidships as I cut the rope and hauled the outboard engine into life. Hong Kong was that way, and I needed to put some distance between myself and that old ship. As the dingy spun in a tight circle and I started for Hong Kong I could hear men shouting and yelling on the deck of the ship as they tried to run out fire hoses, and others were trying to shut the engine room hatches. They didn’t stand a chance and as I disappeared into the night I could faintly see men jumping overboard into the oily waters. A life raft slid off it’s hoists and crashed into the water, men scrambling for it before it had even settled. I wasn’t worried about them. Pirates, and that’s what they were; took their chances. I had crept onboard to retrieve the package I wanted, stashed in a small locker in the engine room I had just left. Just me and the parrot, as we skimmed the slightly choppy swell in the harbour drawing closer to Hong Kong. I had to keep an eye out for the water police. They were the last people I wanted to see. I was relying on the near invisibility of the little inflatable I was in, and the roar of the outboard would be lost in the city sounds that could be heard far out on the water.
In any case, the old tramp steamer was now well alight and providing a beacon that shone out across the harbour like an old Manchu Watch Tower. I was just coming into the bobbing row of junks near Wanchai when a mighty roar rolled across the harbour drawing people from everywhere to the waters edge to see the old ship going up. Or down depending on your perspective. Either the fuel, or it’s cargo or both had exploded and ended the life of the old ship. It quickly settled below the waves leaving burning patches of oil on the water where it had been.
I grabbed the rope my friend threw me, and pulled myself alongside his Junk. I should have looked closer at who was on deck, for no sooner had I hauled myself onboard than the lights went out. Young Li had company, and not of the fairer kind. I’d been jumped and didn’t come to again for air for minutes. By then they had gone, Young Li was on the deck beside me, fortunately breathing still, but my package was gone. I’d risked everything for that package and now someone else had it. Someone who knew my connection to Young Li. The parrot was bobbing up and down on it’s perch looking this way and that as though keeping watch. Too late now I thought, the damage is done. I shook Young Li awake and he sat up holding his head. His black bristling hair like a wire brush cut close to his scalp had a trickle of blood running down to his left ear.
“Jack, I’m sorry.” He said as he wiped away the blood on the back of his hand. “I had no choice. They had Mei Ling and would happily have slit her throat if I didn’t do what they wanted.” He wiped the back of his hand on his black trousers, his massive arms rippling with muscles. His face looked like he had taken a real beating, but I realised that that was only his life etched on his face. The only damage this time was the knock on the head from the belaying pin that still rolled back and forth on the wooden deck as the Junk moved with the tidal swell. I jumped to my feet.
“Mei Ling!” I shouted. “Where did they take her?” I looked about the deck but she was no where in sight.
“I don’t know Jack. I think they may have taken her below.”
We both scrambled for the open hatch above the cabin stairs trying to squeeze through together. Pushing and shoving, Young Li won the competition. He was just too big and strong. He practically fell into the cabin below to see Mei Ling sitting on a chair in the middle of the space. Well, tied to a chair actually, with a look on her face that did not bode well for anyone on the receiving end of her anger.
Young Li carefully pulled the duct tape from across her mouth, and eased out the oily piece of rag that had been stuffed behind her pearly teeth. She spat and sputtered for a few minutes.
“My father will hear of this.” She declared as both Young Li and myself unwound the ropes holding her to the chair.
“Threaten me will they. They will regret the day. My father will have them cut into a thousand pieces and fed to the sharks.”
She stamped her tiny feet to get the circulation back.