On boardthe M.V. Elizabeth Anne Delane, off the west coast of Canada
As far as winter storms in the Pacific Ocean went, this one definitely wasn’t the worst he’d ever seen. But it was up there. The captain of the forty-year-old fishing boat loved to tell stories of his most dangerous moments at sea, the really bad ones, culled from his quarter-century of sailing through some of the worst weather known to mankind, but his crew, save one, had heard them all before. The greenhorn, a young man from Fairbanks who was more of a boy than anything, believed every word the old salt told him and never noticed the sideways grins and raised eyebrows from the other six men on the boat. Tale after tale of sea monsters, or winds that could rip your skin off, or waves that would swallow the Empire State Building whole, all embellished over the decades, had captivated the lad. They’d also scared the crap out of him, truth be told, but in his youthful naiveté he was sure he hadn’t let on to all the veterans. With great bravado he told everyone he was “totally cool” and completely unaffected by the stories.
He was wrong about that.
They’d known the storm was coming, of course. Though she was forty years old, the Elizabeth Anne Delane, based out of Alaska, was crammed full of the most modern navigation, communication and safety tools sold. Every boat was. Well, every boat that didn’t have an idiot for a skipper. And everyone on this particular ship had seen the radar, and knew they were sailing towards a “boomer”, and had spent the best part of a day readying the vessel. The captain was an experienced man, and a prudent one, and he didn’t skimp when it came to safety. He valued his life. He didn’t want to die at sea. He’d seen it happen over the decades, a few times, and there was hardly anything worse than witnessing human beings drown. Especially wide-eyed greenhorns who got hired on simply because they were the next-door neighbours’ nephew and the next-door neighbour occasionally had sex with the captain.
The plan before the storm had hit was to make it to Tofino, the nearest port to where they’d been working off the western edge of Vancouver Island. They’d originally hoped to go north, past Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, around the majesty of the islands of Haida Gwai, and back towards home, but the storm had moved sharply and quickly to block them, so south-east had been the only viable option. The lead-hand had questioned the decision, since they were illegally fishing out-of-season in the wrong countries’ waters, but one more look at the radar had convinced him the risk of a search and seizure by Canadian fisheries officers was worth it. Besides, the captain reminded him, Canada had maybe three boats to cover their entire Pacific seacoast, and that amounted to thousands of miles and very few chances of being caught.
And, he reminded everyone, the Canadians weren’t idiots either. They’d be heading for safe harbour themselves. By his figuring, they had a better chance of having the greenhorn turn out to be an alien from another planet.
But the storm was faster than he’d thought, and as night was falling and the rain was hammering and the ocean was beginning to heave and the blackness sailors hate came creeping up at them he’d decided to just head for shore. Any lagoon or bay would have to do. The leading edge of the storm was upon them now, and all the warm moist air from Asia and the cool dry air from the Arctic were merging electrically above them, charging up and waiting to strike, and playing havoc with the GPS system. It couldn’t keep the satellite link for long before crashing. The few reboots didn’t hold. Luckily, the captain had indeed been doing this for a very long time, and he more or less knew the lay of the landscape, where he was and where he had to go.
By the time night was fully over them they were close to shore, half-secure in some remote inlet, though they weren’t actually sure which one. It mostly protected them from the brunt of the storm, so they anchored the boat, locked her up good and tight and sat together inside to ride it out. And even this close to shore, it was still a bumpy ride. But by four-thirty a.m. the worst of it was over, and it was time to check for damage. Both the captain and the lead-hand had noticed sounds during the storm that they didn’t like, and the whole crew spent an hour below decks, eyeballing everything, waiting for the last of the gales to subside and the sun to come up before they felt safe on deck. With flashlights in hand the crew inspected the insides of the old girl, from top to bottom. And she was fine, other than a few spilled coffee cups during the dips and swirls.
Though he’d never admit it, the captain breathed a sigh of relief. The fishing hadn’t been great so far, so the blessing of a less-than-predicted onslaught was most welcome. Some good news, for a change. He started to feel better about the trip, like things were maybe turning around.
Until he heard the screaming.
With the sun just inching up from the east the crew had crept outside, inspecting the top deck and all their equipment. A few big crab pots, each close to eight hundred pounds and strapped to the deck, had been moved about by the wind and the tossing of the ship, as if their enormous weight and size were meaningless. A large toolbox had broken free of the brackets holding it to an outside bulkhead and overturned and spilled, raining wrenches and sockets and pipe fittings across the deck, but it wasn’t anything they hadn’t dealt with before.
The strange noises were still there though, subtle and intermittent, yet indefinable in the early murk, so once it was barely light enough the lead-hand had sent the greenhorn around the perimeter to look about. When he heard the lad scream, he ran forward as fast as he could. At the same time, his walkie-talkie squawked, the captain yelling for answers. “What the hell is going on up there?” As he passed the crane gantry, the lead-hand could see motion in the water off the starboard side, down below. He stopped for a second and gazed. What’s that stuff floating? It looked like garbage, actually. A lot of it. Broken and shattered bits of wood, some tiny and some huge, varieties of clothing in tatters, plastic barrels and bags, mattresses and pottery and what looked like a small welding machine, and hundreds of other pieces of waste. Junk. One piece looked like a Schwinn ten-speed frame, twisted slightly, giving it the impression of a pedal bike as if an avant-garde artist had sculpted it, but with no tires or gears or cables. The captain yelled again for answers.
“Boss, it looks like garbage. A huge pile of it.”
“Garbage. Some of it looks like household stuff and some like industrial crap. Wait a minute…I can see some writing…it’s Chinese, or Japanese, or something.”
“Well which is it?”
“How the fuck do I know? I mean, it looks like the same stupid symbols you see on those Jap orange boxes we get at Christmas!”
The captain thought for a moment. “You know Jesse, I heard about floating debris from that tsunami in Japan a few years back. Piles have been showing up on the whole Pacific coast, right up and down North America for a year or so. Could be from there, I guess. It’s possible, right?”
The kid screamed again, and he sounded very frightened. It wasn’t a shriek of surprise, or of glee. It was the sound of abject horror. Racing around the front equipment house, the lead-hand came upon the greenhorn, bent double and retching on the foredeck, his right hand held up and pointing over the railing. Lunging for it, the veteran sailor looked down, and instantly understood that the one hundred and eight foot Elizabeth Anne Delane, a registered Motor Vessel of Ketchikan, Alaska, was not going home now. Not anytime soon. He could see their immediate future, and it didn’t involve being back in their own beds, possibly for weeks. They were going to be in Canadian port. There would be investigations up the wazoo, from multiple agencies. The whole crew to a man would be interrogated on end, and not just about fishing illegally out-of-season in the territorial waters of a foreign country.
No, the questions would be about the three dead naked bodies floating face down in the water, large chunks of their skulls at the back simply missing, handcuffed together so they formed a circle, each mans’ left hand connected to another’s right and so on. They looked, in a bizarre way, like an exotic flower, or one of those little yellow plastic curved things people used to squeeze into the holes of 45 RPM vinyl records that were all the rage for decades, before the advent of digital technologies and CD’s.
Except these bodies weren’t yellow. They were ghostly white. Three dead bloated milk-coloured naked men, caught up against the hull of the Elizabeth Anne Delane, mixed in with a pile of random intercontinental trash. And the lead-hand knew the problem was horribly obvious: the bodies couldn’t have come all the way over from Japan. It just wasn’t possible. Ocean currents as powerful as atomic bombs would have swamped them under for all time, or marine animals would have destroyed the bodies ten ways to Sunday before they ever got here.
No, he knew. These were freshly dead.
Hours later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Tofino had gathered as much information as a four member crew could, and had developed a working theory. Within a few hours more, they were augmented by over twenty additional people and a ton of gear flown in on a rush from the Vancouver-based E Detachment headquarters. The local ‘cop shop’ building couldn’t hold them all, so they rented the community hall up the street and set up business. Naturally, the news raced through the small fishing and tourist village, the aging hippies and visiting surfers who gathered most days at the Common Loaf Bakery expressing worry about so many cops in town.
But the Mounties weren’t at all concerned with the goings-on of a few stoners, old or young. They were focused on the task at hand. The events had made the media in Vancouver, and then spread immediately from there, right across the country, and then right across the world. The top cops in Ottawa had become involved, and they made sure the agents on site knew what the immediate tasks were. Who, what, where, when, how. The basics. Do them fast, and do them right. The why would come later.
Who? Nationality hadn’t been completely confirmed, because what few prints they could get were still being processed, but even taking into account skin decay and horrible bloating from the frigid waters, it was quickly agreed that they weren’t Japanese. Bone structure didn’t sync. What? Ballistics had been easy, 9mm hollow points, from a close range, based on the star-shaped exit hole and the powder burns in the middle of their foreheads. Where? Experts at the University of Victoria, in the capital city at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, had been consulted and made busy creating sophisticated computer models of all the tidal actions up and down the coast for the previous week. They’d then discussed and argued and eventually mostly agreed that the bodies were probably dumped into the waters somewhere just south of Tofino, near Ucleulet, or maybe Port Alberni, down the coast of the island. The killer, or more likely killers, probably assumed the corpses would float out to sea to find their final resting place in Davy Jones’ locker, or be eaten by killer whales. Instead, the bodies had been caught in the maelstrom of currents created by the build-up of the sudden fierce Pacific storm and eventually became trapped by a floating catch-all of tsunami trash. The veteran cops smiled and laughed and remarked about the one-in-a-million unfortunate event. Well, unfortunate for the killers, anyway, who’d probably figured they were home free, because the bodies should never be found. When? Coroners and forensic technicians had been given the task of determining time of death, because they were the people who knew about the variables of time and rigor mortis and the effects of the ocean on corpses and all the other physical issues in play. They wouldn’t be definitive, lest they be held accountable somehow, but also wouldn’t argue against two or three days, tops.
How? That was a tricky one. Of course, they knew how the men were killed. Someone separated their brains from their skull with massive velocity. But how did they get to where they were dumped? As any cop knows, it’s not easy to transport bodies around, living or otherwise. And if they hadn’t been dead more than a couple of days, then it was possible they were tourists, and it was equally possible that the killers were still around, which would mean a ground search, and quickly. But, some asked, how do three tourists manage to get themselves handcuffed together in a circle and shot dead through the forehead before being thrown naked into the Pacific Ocean? Especially in an area of the province of British Columbia where there was very little crime, because, as some locals liked to say, “there was more bald eagles than human beings in this part of the world”.
A day later, the R.C.M.P. investigators had most of their answers. The prints had come back. Photos, which had been sent to all law enforcement in the country, had received a number of hits. Not tourists. Far from it. One was a mid-level trade attaché, a diplomatic position on behalf of the People’s Republic of China, based at their Vancouver embassy. In other words, a spy. That’s what trade attaché’s did, according to most people in the know. They were spies. Because which country in the world, especially one as big as China, needed to have government employees to promote their products?
The other two were well-known Big Circle Boys, the largest of the Chinese Tongs operating in Canada, headquartered in Vancouver as well.
Subsequently, CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, charged with the on-going task of investigating and interdicting all foreign-based crime or threats to Canadian national security, was handed the lead on the case. They would have liked to send their expert on Asian gangs, but he had gone missing a month before and was assumed to have become a traitor, and then been killed and burned beyond recognition in a horrible incident in Montreal, so they sent the next man down the ladder. The two dozen Mounties who’d parachuted into Tofino and created a noticeable spike in cash sales at the Co-op Market and the couple of eateries and pubs whilst in town disappeared as fast as they’d arrived. Like they’d never been there. Local merchants remarked on the mini-boom to the economy, and some secretly wished for a few more ugly murders in the coming weeks and months. The shortest tourist season they’d ever seen, sadly.
The four permanent members of the RCMP detachment in Tofino were left to clean up. After consultation with the chiefs in Ottawa, they confiscated all the crab from the hold of the Elizabeth Anne Delane, gave their sternest of looks to the American captain and crew, and not-so-politely invited them to never come back to Canadian waters. They could have been much harsher in the punishment, and advised the Yanks just so, but empathy tempered Canada’s official reaction. After all, these men had helped them discover, however inadvertently, a horrific crime with international connections. They’d also had to experience the sights and smells of something truly abhorrent and shocking, something no police officer would want any civilian to witness, ever. For that matter, something no police officer wants to witness themselves.
The crew left as quickly as they could. No one spoke much, except to give out specific orders getting underway. The greenhorn, with great bravado, told everyone he was “totally cool” and completely unaffected by the dead bodies in the water.
He was wrong about that, too.
International media interest surged on the story, the twenty-four-hour-a-day networks throwing themselves headlong into it in the only way they knew how. Speculation. So-called news reports sounded more like Hollywood scripts, flowing over with intrigue and theories and possibilities. The smiling heads talked about Canada’s recent murder surge, and the right-wingers on Fox railed that it proved the ‘socialist’ country to America’s north wouldn’t have these kinds of problems if everyone just had the freedom to own and carry guns. They passed right over the irony that it was actually guns that had contributed most significantly to the demise of these three people.
Photographs were displayed often and prominently on television sets around the world, once released by Canadian law enforcement. Thankfully, the images they used were from when the trio had all still been alive. Nobody wanted to show bloated pasty-white corpses, especially since most people had high-definition televisions nowadays. They showed mug shots for the Big Circle Boys, who had both run afoul of Canadian law enforcement at one time or other, and a passport photo for the diplomat, released by the Minister of State for International Affairs in an impromptu news conference. The Chinese government, through the appropriate channels, meaning the entire western media in an equally impromptu news conference, loudly bemoaned the tragic and unnecessary death of one of their best and brightest “peace-loving” diplomats, showed pictures of his grief-stricken bereaved family back home, and complained vociferously about the on-going and unnecessary violence of North America. Perhaps, their spokesman said, the Chinese government would have to seriously consider the safety of all of their diplomatic staff in “capitalist cowboy environments”, and also took pains to remind the world that foreign diplomats working in the great and peaceful socialist workers utopia of China never had to deal with such horrible tragedy and death.
Buried inside the speech, however, was a carefully constructed threat, one that the general public would never understand, but one that the diplomatic world would. The very fact that the diplomat’s face was shown world-wide was an ‘intrusion into China’s internal business’, a complaint that traditional international diplomatic rules of order and discretion had been violated, and that China would have to seriously consider ‘outing’ Canadian and American diplomatic staff in the future.
Which was worth some serious concern at higher levels of western governments. Diplomacy had structure and rules, and threats were threats. Meetings were quickly convened in both Ottawa and Washington, where influential politicians and top-level bureaucrats and intelligence agencies speculated to their bosses with only slightly more knowledge than the news networks, and sounded only slightly less lame. And then the media circle became bigger, because networks began showing video of important people arriving and departing from those hastily-convened meetings in world capitals, which became more on-air fodder. It must be a serious story if we keep showing it on TV. Administrations were described over and over again on the tube and in print and online as being in ‘damage control’, or ‘stumbling on the international scene’, or ‘reaping the consequences of their failed policies’. Serious pressure was immediately brought to bear. It was a “goddamned public relations cluster-fuck”, as one Canadian Member of Parliament had been heard to say off-camera. And when Presidents and Prime Ministers raised their voices behind closed doors and demanded answers, thousands of lives became affected. Intelligence gathering, already a 24/7/365 business costing billions, gets amped up even further. Budgetary restrictions be damned. Get the answers and start controlling the situation. Men in very high positions were now on the defensive, and struggling to maintain some sense of control over their departments and careers.
Especially in light of the recent carnage in Montreal. Four different nations had found their dirty laundry spread all over the worlds’ media that day, and for days afterwards, after a supposed Canadian-based terrorist threat had publicly turned into something far worse: a world-wide blood-soaked deception, and amongst the confirmed or suspected dead were Canadian biker gangs, drug traffickers, Tong members, Chinese and French “operatives”, and “rogue” American and Canadian intelligence agents. Governments in Washington, Beijing, Paris and Ottawa had already been working overtime on multiple levels to downplay the events, to varying levels of success. Behind closed doors, however, on three different continents, some mighty fertilizer was hitting the air conditioning. Heads were sure to roll. Conspiracy theorists filled the airwaves and the blogosphere with stories that previously would have been written off as the nonsensical rantings of nutcases.
But in this circumstance, much of what the so-called experts publicly speculated about had privately turned out to be fairly close to the mark. There was indeed a first time for everything.