A Cheap Hotel on the Outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand
An insistent ringing began to invade Dr. Sergei Arturovich Draganov subconscious, demanding his attention and dragging him out of a deep but restless sleep.
Confused and disoriented by his sudden awareness of the unfamiliar mattress and strange pungent smells of his equally-unfamiliar surroundings, and the fact that his head was throbbing painfully, he reached out for the bedside table alarm clock with eyes tightly shut, fumbling desperately to shut off the insistent noise … and then, when he failed to do so, opened his eyes and stared in confusion at the small blank clock face, barely visible in the almost completely dark room.
What … ??
The suddenly familiar rang out again and he reached across the table top for his red-flashing cell phone --- the only source of light in the room.
Where am I? he asked himself as he reflexively activated the phone and brought it to his ear, the effort magnifying the pain radiating across his forehead,
“Hello?” he rasped sleepily.
“You’d better get up, Dr. Draganov,” a deep unfamiliar voice spoke, “you’re going to be late.”
Late? Late for ---? Oh my God, the Symposium! What time is it?
A quick glance at digital clock on the glowing face of his cell phone caused him to snap upright on the hard mattress, tearing off the thin blankets as he lunged out of bed and stumbled into the tiny bathroom.
* * *
Barely twenty minutes after receiving the warning phone call, Dr. Sergei Draganov burst out of the narrow stairwell into the hotel’s small, dark and seemingly empty lobby, clutching a worn briefcase in one shaky hand as he struggled to pull on a ragged raincoat over his badly wrinkled suit and poorly knotted necktie.
He spent a futile three seconds scanning the lobby for the on-duty clerk, then --- sensing the hopelessness of his situation, but desperate to try anyway because he had so much to lose --- he ran for the main door leading out into the hotel’s shabby entryway, shoved the creaky door open … and stumbled out into a torrential rain and darkness lit only by the headlights of distant structures and vehicles. All of the immediate building, street and traffic lights were as dark as the surrounding sky.
Watching his steps as best he could to avoid tripping on the broken concrete sidewalk, he lurched across the hotel’s small, half-circle driveway --- that, like the connecting front street, was mostly a ragged mixture of broken asphalt and mud --- to a small leaky hut where the hotel’s single on-duty clerk and doorman sat crouched, looking cold and miserable.
“I asked for a wake-up call,” Draganov screamed. “Why didn’t you ---?”
“All power out,” the clerk interrupted, gesturing with his hands at the surrounding darkness, clearly in no mood to repeat the explanation he’d already given many times this morning. “Wake-up call list in computer. Computer down. Everything down. Nothing I can do until power back on. More important I watch for delivery truck. Then we all have hot breakfast.”
“But I don’t care about ---” Draganov started to argue, but then remembered that he had a much more important concern. “The early bus to the airport --- where is it?!” he demanded.
“You too late for early bus. Already gone.”
Draganov sagged, his eyes bulging in dismay.
“Gone? But -- when will it be back?”
“Two hours, maybe three. Traffic very bad now.”
“Two --? No, I can’t wait that long. Call me a cab immediately!”
The clerk shook his head.
“No cab come here until street fixed. Get stuck. Only bus … and delivery truck,” he added, looking around hopefully.
“But, but ---”
“No cab come here. You want cab, must walk to St. James Hotel.”
The clerk pointed indifferently off into the darkness.
“How far away is that?”
“Not far.” The clerk shrugged. “Half hour maybe.”
Draganov glanced down at his wrist watch, sighed heavily, and then began picking his way along the broken sidewalk, cursing in Russian. In doing so, he failed to notice a man in an expensive-looking trench coat slip out of the hotel lobby’s side door and begin to follow his labored path.
* * *
A half hour later, a thoroughly wet, miserable and despondent Sergei Draganov was still cautiously picking his way through poorly illuminated mud and street debris, head down against the rain and cursing half-heartedly, when a loud clanking sound caught his attention. He stopped, looked up, and saw a Thai male thirty feet away holding a metal pipe.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Draganov demanded, trying to keep his rising fear out of his voice.
Draganov laughed bitterly. “Can’t you see I have no money? Why else would I be walking in a morning like this?”
The thug shrugged, and then gestured with his head toward a nearby second thug and a third who had stepped out of the dark shadows behind Draganov. All three men were armed with pipes, and appeared poorly dressed for the bad weather.
“You will give us money -- all you have -- and briefcase too,” the first thug said confidently.
Draganov’s eyes widen in horror as he looks back and forth at the three men, and then shakes his head firmly.
“No, you can’t have my briefcase. My money, yes, but I must have ---”
“You took a wrong turn, Doctor.”
Draganov spun around and stared at a tall Caucasian man --- wearing an expensive-looking trench coat --- who was now standing calmly between him and the third thug.
Before Draganov could respond, the third thug lunged at the newcomer, who moved with deceptive casualness. As Draganov watched in disbelief, the thug crumbled to the ground with a gasp of pain as the pipe clattered away into the darkness.
“You wanted to take a left at that last stop sign,” the newcomer continued on as if his interaction with the thug hadn’t really happened. “Walk ten blocks and you’ll see the St. James off to the right. Can’t miss it.”
Draganov stared blankly at the newcomer, and then switched his attention to the other two thugs who were approaching warily.
“But they ---”
“--- won’t be bothering you.”
“Hurry along now, doctor. You’re going to be late for your lecture. The lads and I will sort things out here just fine without your help.”
Finally understanding that he’d been rescued from a certain beating and the loss of his briefcase, Draganov hurried down the debris-strewn street. Behind him, in the darkness, he heard another agonized gasp and then the clattering sound of a metal pipe.
* * *
The Miracle Grand Convention Hotel Lounge, Bangkok, Thailand
His lecture completed, a less-despondent Dr. Sergei Draganov was sitting alone at a table in the far corner of the lounge, staring gloomily at an expensively-printed menu, when the sound of approaching footsteps and a familiar voice caused his head to snap up sharply.
“May I join you, doctor?”
The tall newcomer pulled out a chair on the opposite side of the table from Draganov, sat down, and then motioned for a waiter.
Draganov started to say something, but then sat in silence as an attentive waiter quickly appeared.
“Would you like some coffee, doctor? And perhaps a sweet roll?”
Draganov glanced down at the menu in his hand and then tossed it aside with a grimace. “No, it’s much too expensive here ---”
“Nonsense. I’m sure you haven’t eaten anything all morning. It will be my treat.” The newcomer looked up at the waiter. “We’ll have coffee, fruit, and breakfast pastries, please.”
Draganov waited until the waiter disappeared and then leaned across the table toward the newcomer, looking scared.
“That was you who woke me up this morning … the voice on my cell phone?”
The newcomer nodded with a slight smile.
“Then I must know … who are you … why are you here … and why were you following me this morning?” Draganov demanded in a nervous whisper, looking around to see anyone at the surrounding tables was paying any attention to their conversation. No-one seemed to be.
“My name is Emerson. Marcus Emerson,” the newcomer --- whose last name was actually Wallis --- lied. “And I was at your hotel this morning to make sure you made it to your lecture. I didn’t want to miss it.”
Draganov blinked. “You were there, in the audience?”
“Yes, I was. Why, do you find that surprising?”
“No, not at all,” Draganov stammered quickly, “I mean, you just don’t … seem like a man who ... uh ... who would be interested in my work.”
“On the contrary, doctor, I find your work to be most fascinating.”
Draganov gulped nervously. “May I ask why?”
Wallis paused while the waiter set the coffee and food on the table, and then smiled as he observed Draganov staring hungrily at the platters filled with fruit and sweet rolls.
“Help yourself, doctor. You’ve had a busy morning. Time for you to relax, enjoy your breakfast, and allow me to do the talking.”
Wallis then sipped casually at his coffee as he watched Draganov fill a plate with fruit and rolls, and begin to eat hungrily. Then, a few moments later, he set his cup down and stared quietly at the Russian scientist until Draganov finally sensed the scrutiny and looked up.
“So tell me, doctor, given the huge potential of your research, and the amount of money your anonymous benefactor initially invested in your facilities, why are you having trouble getting funding?”
“What do you know about my bro --- my, uh, b-benefactor?” he stammered.
“Not a great deal.” Wallis shrugged. “Our paths happened to cross on a remote Southeast Asian island several months ago. At some point, you and your research became a topic of conversation.”
“My brother … talked to you --- a complete stranger --- about my research?” Draganov looked stunned.
Wallis smiled. “Glasses of expensive vodka and remote locations have a way of rapidly creating close friendships.”
“But --- do you know where he is now? I haven’t heard from him in … many months.”
“Which is presumably why you’re making a desperate pitch to the investment crowd? Your brother’s money is about to run out?”
Draganov stared at Wallis, seemingly unable to speak.
“I must say I’m not surprised,” Wallis said calmly. “Your brother was clearly a man who took substantial risks in his ‘business endeavors’; risks not necessarily appreciated by the local law enforcement agencies, much less his competitors. I have every reason to think that he was in the process of quickly relocating his operation to a more friendly work environment when we happened to meet.”
Wallis stared directly into Draganov’s horrified eyes for a long moment. “For your sake, and his, I sincerely hope he made it, Dr. Draganov. But I would assume from your lack of communication with him over these past months that he probably … didn’t.”
An ashen-faced Draganov seemed to sink deeper into his chair.
“So is that the problem you’re having with the money crowd? They think you’re too much like your brother? Too willing to gamble against the odds?”
Draganov finally seemed to find his voice.
“The investors do think my approach involves too much risk,” he acknowledged in a raspy soft voice. “They want me to make progress in smaller steps … use a more defined and less variable virus as a transport vehicle … things like that.”
I understand they’re also concerned about your use of something you call ‘transition’ genetics?”
“Yes, that too,” Draganov conceded uneasily.
Draganov hesitated, and then began to speak, staring out at the far wall. “Genetic manipulation is traditionally done by altering genetic coding --- genes, if you will --- in a fertilized or unfertilized egg using precisely constructed segments of DNA. This is relatively easy to do, because you are only working with a single nucleus … the drawback being the length of time it takes for the altered egg to reach adulthood.”
“Yes, I understood that from your lecture.” Wallis nodded. “Go on.”
“Transitional genetics --- the protocol I’m using --- involves manipulation of that same genetic coding, but in a very young animal that is still in its primary growth stage. The advantage is the relatively short time it takes for the animal to reach adulthood whereupon it can be utilized.
“And the drawback?”
“The huge number of nuclei that must be altered --- essentially the entire animal, which means billions of cells at the very least. The transition must be accomplished in a rapid, thorough and precise manner, which is why I use the cold virus and nano-tube technology to replicate and insert the altered DNA segments. That particular virus type is quite effective in its infection process.”
“So are your critics right? Is the procedure too risky?”
Draganov shook his head firmly, finally meeting Wallis’ cold gaze. “No, not at all. There’s been no evidence at all in any of the literature that nano-tube technology is dangerous. They are correct in saying the cold virus can evolve --- which is to say, mutate --- quite quickly under certain circumstances; but virus mechanisms are well understood. It’s simply a matter of taking all of the proper precautions. There are risks of uncontrolled growth, of course; but the relevant question should be: are the risk acceptable? I ---”
“I understand the concept of risk versus reward, doctor,” Wallis said calmly. “I want to know if the projects you described in your talk are doable.”
“In what respect?”
Wallis took a small notebook out of his coat pocket, wrote down a few words, and then showed the page to Draganov.
“Actually, relatively rare feline.”
“Rarity doesn’t matter if I can get access to the young animals.”
“How difficult would that be?”
“More expensive than difficult ---”
Wallis wrote down a figure and silently showed it to Draganov. “Would an investment of this nature cover all of the necessary expenses?”
Draganov’s eyes widened. “Oh my god, yes, but ---”
“The funding would be in cash. Is that a problem?”
“You mean cash deposited into our bank account?”
“No, handed to you -- packets of US hundred dollar bills. No banks. No government involvement whatsoever; a concept that your brother and I happen to agree on.”
“I suppose that would be okay.” Draganov nodded hesitantly.
“Understand, doctor, I view the feline project as a test of your work. What if I also wanted this?” Wallis wrote down one more word and showed it to Draganov.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, I am. Is it doable?”
“Yes, of course it is … but it would be much more difficult. My god, the magnitude alone ---”
“Would require a much larger investment, of course. I was thinking of adding another zero to the proposed funding.”
Draganov stared at Wallis in open-mouthed disbelief.
“But before I put that much money at risk,” Wallis went on, “I’d have to see your lab and your products, first hand.”
Draganov quickly shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, I --- I really can’t allow anyone to visit my laboratory.”
“Like your brother, I’m sure a visit by governmental authorities is something you’re trying very hard to avoid … which presumably explains why your facilities are, shall we say, very remotely located … and also why you don’t seem to be listed in any scientific research directory.”
“I, uh ---”
“This would not be an inspection, Dr. Draganov. I haven’t the slightest interest in how many scientific corners you chose to cut in your work. I’m only interested in the results; which is why I would only be visiting your facilities as an investor bearing cash.”
As Draganov sat in agonized silence, Wallis sat back into his chair and sipped at his coffee with his characteristic slight smile.
One year later … on board the Muluku, off Westport, New Zealand
It was a moonless night, the seas were calm, and the nearby fog bank seemed to go on for miles. All in all, perfect conditions for the sixty-two foot Muluku --- a poorly-maintained charter yacht turned sports fisher running at quarter-speed thirty nautical miles off the northwest coast of Westport --- to perform the simple tasks for which she had been modified. But even so, the ship and her crew approached the fog bank with understandable caution.
The bridge radar screen was showing a big-target blip that should have been the rusting structure of a two-hundred-foot commercial fishing trawler --- five hundred yards out and twenty degrees off the Muluku’s port beam; but there was no visible sign of anything on that heading except swirling fog.
Huang Kat-so, the captain of the converted smuggler, cursed as he brought the portable radio up to his mouth.
“Ged, do you see anything?” he demanded, speaking softly into the radio.
“Negative, Captain, no contact,” Gedimin Bulatt --- a lanky muscular man in his late thirties , , dressed in rubber-soled boots, faded levis, a worn flannel shirt and stained windbreaker --- replied into his radio as he stared out across the water from his position on the bow into the wispy darkness.
Bulatt had a Vietnam War vintage M16 rifle slung over his shoulder; and four 30-round rifle magazines, two 15-round pistol magazines, and a loaded 40-caliber Sig-Sauer semi-auto pistol in the ammo pouches and holster of his assault vest. With his scraggly white beard and short white ponytail just barely visible from the bridge in the wispy fog now surrounding the boat, Bulatt provided a very appealing and soothing image to Huang: that of a tough and able seaman on bow watch, keeping an eye out trouble or treachery as well as imminent collisions.
“This damnable radar is useless! We must be getting close. Keep your eyes opened,” Huang Kat-so ordered as he dropped the speed of the Muluku down another notch.
Under anything resembling normal operating conditions, the linking-up of two ocean-going vessels in the middle of the night, thirty miles off shore in deep water, and under reasonably calm weather conditions, would have been an easy thing to accomplish, fog or no. But both ships were purposefully operating ‘black’ --- without any bridge, navigation or running lights --- and Muluku’s long-outdated radar system was intermittently reliable at best; which meant the trawler might well be five hundred yards off the Muluku’s port beam … or fifty … or perhaps not even there at all.
Must be out of my mind, trusting these idiots to know what they’re doing at night out on the open water, Bulatt thought as he strained to listen for some distant creak or clank of rusted steel that might reveal the trawler’s presence.
He’d already stored an inflated life vest near his bow station; and he was ready to strip off his armament, dive overboard with the inflated vest, and swim for his life the moment he spotted the bow of the big trawler coming out of the fog on a collision course.
It was a perfectly reasonable precaution on Bulatt’s part. Huang Kat-so had a well-earned reputation among the Maui fishing boat community for his indifferent seamanship, casual maintenance schedules, and reluctance to spend much --- if any --- of his profits on his boat and bare-minimum crew; the outward impression being that the south-east Asian immigrant was just barely eking out a living off his occasional deep sea fishing clients.
Which probably isn’t far from the actual truth, Bulatt reminded himself, wondering --- with some vague degree of curiosity --- how many clients in their right minds had ever chartered a second trip on the Muluku after spending an uneasy night on the leaky sports fisher; putting up with the erratically functioning galley, heads and bilge pumps, while the Captain and his two deck hands took turns steering their more-or-less seaworthy craft not too far offshore in a mostly fruitless effort to find a place where fish might actually be biting.
But Bulatt was also well aware that the disgruntled clients were only a cover for the high-six-figure incomes that Huang Kat-so was making off his illicit business ventures; the latest of which had caused him to go looking for a reasonably trustworthy bodyguard who could also function as a number two deck hand when the previous holder of that job suddenly found himself in serious trouble with the law.
A sudden screech of heavy rusted objects rubbing against each other out in the foggy darkness snapped Bulatt’s head around to the right.
“Audio contact, off the starboard bow!” Bulatt hissed into his radio, and then braced himself as Huang Kat-so quickly reversed both engines; bringing the Muluku around in a sweeping arc to starboard while the first deckhand --- a small, wiry and darkly tanned man of indeterminate age and ethnic origin --- ran forward to the bow with a grappling-iron gun.
Slowing, the hulking structure of the big fishing trawler --- resting at anchor, Bulatt quickly noted with a sigh of relief --- became visible in the surrounding fog.
Demonstrating an unexpected degree of professional seamanship, Huang Kat-so brought the Muluku alongside the larger ship, and then held her steady against the current while Bulatt and the first deckhand quickly rigged protective booms on the port side of the yacht. Then the first deckhand brought the brass butt stock of the grappling-iron gun up against his shoulder, aimed it over the bow of the trawler, pulled the trigger, watched the metal hook arc up into the darkness --- dragging a thin nylon line in its wake --- and then heard the heavy hook clang against the trawler’s steel deck.
Three minutes later, after the first deckhand and Bulatt managed to get a drooping nylon-rope pulley system hauled back from the trawler connected to the yacht’s bridge, the first man-sized, weighted and net-wrapped burlap bag slid down the pulley-rope and then --- aided by some extra pulling by Bulatt --- landed on the deck of the Muluku with a loud thump.
As Bulatt worked quickly in the darkness to unsnap the hundred-and-twenty-pound bag from the pulley line and drag it over to the opened top of the bait tank that was actually a hidden storage hold, a second net-wrapped bag swooped down onto the deck; followed by a third, fourth and fifth. The acrid smell of ammonia and decomposed fish tissue filled the air.
As soon as Bulatt had the fifth bag unsnapped, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a small flashlight, twisted the head ninety degrees until it clicked, and then pressed what normally would have been the ON button.
Moments later, the roar of diesel engines echoed across the water; and the darkness suddenly exploded into blinding daylight as the searchlights from three ocean-going speedboats centered on the trawler and the Muluku, immediately followed by the booming sound of a ship’s loudspeaker:
“AHOY ALL SHIPS! THIS IS THE NEW ZEALAND FRIGATE OTAGO! STAND BY TO BE BOARDED!”
Off in the distance, the running lights of two helicopters were suddenly visible, both aircraft clearly vectoring in on the two ships.
“Quick, the bags! Throw them overboard, now!” Captain Huang Kay-so yelled from the bridge.
The first deckhand ran toward the bait tank; and then yelped in surprise when he felt his wrist being grabbed and then suddenly found himself tumbling head-over-heels to the wet deck.
“Leave the evidence alone, mate. You’re about to be arrested ---” Bulatt advised.
“By who ... you?!” the first deckhand exclaimed, looking confused.
“No, the cavalry.”
The first deckhand leaped up with a knife in his hand, lunged at Bulatt, then gasped in pain -- the knife clattering to the deck -- as he felt his wrist snap. The impact of a flashlight butt behind his ear dropped him to the deck unconscious.
Up on the bridge of the Muluku, Captain Huang Kat-so watched his first deckhand go down, blinked in shock, and then lunged for a wall-mounted shark rifle … just as a SEAL-suited figure leaped over the bow of the Muluku next to Bulatt and fired a stream of assault rifle rounds several inches above the Captain’s head. Chunks of shredded fiberglass flew in all directions.
The Captain dropped the rifle, yelling frantically, “No, don’t shoot! I surrender!”
“About time you got here,” Bulatt commented to the SEAL-suited figure.
Interpol Agent Pete Younger winked at Bulatt, and then glared up at the Muluku’s bridge. “Captain Huang Kat-so, be advised you are under arrest for violation of the New Zealand Endangered Species Act. United States Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt is my witness.”
The Muluku Captain stared down at Bulatt in disbelief as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Special Agent glanced down at his watch.
“Don’t ham it up too much, bud,” he whispered to Younger. “You’ve still got paperwork to do and we’ve got a plane to catch.