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Friday, December 29, 2023

F³ Bureaucracy to The Rescue 45

             I drove us back to the dockmaster’s office. Before going in, I pulled out to figures from the crate, wrapped them in a blanket I kept in the car, and stashed the bundle under my seat. To help sell things, I put on a pair of nitrile gloves. Nikki held out her hands for a pair as well.

Why not? If it works for me, then both of us will be twice as convincing.

Then I pulled the crate out and took it into the dockmaster’s office with us. Parker was still there; Belport, like a lot of ports, operate 24/7. His shift wouldn’t end for a couple of more hours, which was probably perfect for what I wanted to do.

            His head swiveled towards us before going back to his computer screen. “Oh, it’s you two again. Did you find what you were looking for?”

            “No,” I said. “We found much more, and much worse.” I carefully set the crate on his desk, pushing his coffee mug precariously close to the edge of the desk.

            “What’s that?”

            I reached in and pulled out another figure, putting it in front of his mouse. “A problem. These are almost certainly smuggled, and I’ve got a hunch they’re antiques. Container’s full of these crates.”

            “What?” Parker’s eyes came off the screen and looked at the figure, then the crate. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

            “Does it look like we’re in a jesting mood, Parker?” Nikki deadpanned.

            Way to sell bad cop. She’s almost too good.

            “Listen, Parker. I don’t think you knew.”

            “I didn’t know! Do you know how much comes through here? Sure, we’re not Portland or L.A., but we get—”

            I raised my hands. “Easy. Easy. Like I said, I don’t think you knew. But this is some grade A serious guano. It’s gotta go up the chain. If we do that, eyes are going to fall on you and this office. Big time.”

            “I’m not convinced it shouldn’t,” Nikki glared.

            “No, he was straight with us, pointed us right to them. He didn’t know, and I’d hate for his job and pension to be at risk for something like this.”

            Parker’s eyes darted from Nikki to me, and he began to look horrified. “I didn’t know!” he yelled.

            “Right. That’s what I’m saying,” I tried to reassure him. “So you’re going to be the one to run this up the chain.”

            “What?” he seemed genuinely confused. I guessed Nikki was doing more than just pulling off bad copy, but adding her mojo to the mix.

            “Here,” I handed him a card for US Customs and Border Protection. “You call it in. Ask for her. And just do what you would do if you found something suspicious. In fact, you did. You found this,” I pointed to the crate, “and that,” I pointed to the figure, “outside the container number you gave us. Tell it like it is. These look like smuggled artifacts.”

            “I call it in, and I’m the hero?”

            “Well, it might get a little uncomfortable, but it goes a long way in your favor if you do. If we call it in, well, they’re going to look at you for a long time. Because they’re going to ask, ‘Why didn’t Parker call us?’ Better this way.”

            “Better this way. Okay. Okay.”

            I pointed to the number on the card.

Friday, December 22, 2023

F³ What Now 44

             The holy water formed a small puddle around the jade figure; I returned the figure to the safety of the crate, not trusting it not to get knocked over.

            “What else can you try, Matthew?”

            I shook my head. “I need to do research. It could be a spell or another artifact that frees them. There’s no way to know. This came from China, and the jade is kind of a big indicator that Chinese mythology is somehow involved. I’ve had a little dealing with that before, so I can do some research, but there are no guarantees, Nikki.”

            “There never are in life. Now, we must move these containers.” She closed the door and relocked it.

            “Move them? Where? How?”

            “We cannot let our adversaries keep their prize, Matthew, while you discover how to restore them to humanity.”

            “I didn’t say no, I just asked about he where and how.”

            “My club has loading docks,” she smiled. “By incentivizing the right workers, it shouldn’t take long to relocate them all beyond the reach of those from the club.”

            She started walking to the car.

            “Don’t you think they’ll figure that out pretty quickly?” I picked up the lone crate and quick-walked—carefully—to catch up. “I mean, you’d need some unknown warehouse or something to move them all to, and then you’re leaving a lot of loose ends to follow up on. This isn’t the kind of operation you slap together last minute.”

            She slowed her pace as we got to the car. “True. I could arrange for everything we need, but it would take days, maybe even weeks. Perhaps a temporary relocation while I arrange something more permanent and untraceable.” She tapped a finger to her lips, thinking.

            I set the crate in the back seat, then put the seatbelt on it for good measure.

            “Maybe, but there could be a better, an easier way to stop them from getting all this.”

            “Oh?”

            “Bureaucracy,” I grinned.

Friday, December 15, 2023

F³ Longshot 43

 

I pushed the scrambling, panicked thoughts behind a wall to be dealt with later. I took inventory. Outside the container, it was full dark, now, only tall light poles and building floodlights gave any light. The air was saturated; the gentle, almost nonexistent rain dampened everything and left it with a wet sheen. I smelled roses. Nikki almost always smelled like roses, but it was subtle, like petals folded in her clothing instead of a sharp perfume. On top of that, I smelled the musty, industrial scent of the docks and salt water.

I felt my breathing become more regular as the panic and shock subsided.

Nikki relaxed her hug, then looked into my eyes. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded.

I nodded back.

“How do we free them?” she asked.

The question gave my mind a new direction, and was even better than any kind of calming exercise. I searched my memory. Clearly, this was some kind of magic at work. While I didn’t know everything there was to know about magic, it followed some rules, and there were some things that I could try.

I went back into the container. Almost immediately, I felt the panic rise, just being near all of those souls imprisoned. I picked up the crate I had been sorting through, and carefully hauled it outside. I withdrew one of the figures and set it carefully on the ground. From inside my jacket, I pulled my flask. This was a longshot, at best, but it was the only shot I had at helping them on the spot. Instead of scotch or other liquor, I kept holy water. I poured the hole thing out on top of the figure and waited. Nikki watched from afar, checking her steps when she saw me pull out the flask.

Nothing happened.

I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Friday, December 8, 2023

F³ Shock 42

             The realization popped something in my brain. I felt detached. Numb. And thoughts began racing about the implications.

            So many crates. So many people. Trapped. Sold as what? Slavery? Cattle to be slaughtered and eaten? Worse?

            “Matthew.”

            The noise came from outside of me, but I couldn’t locate it. My eyes darted around, looking down at the figure in my hands, at the others on the floor, at the crate in front of me.

            “Put it back in the crate, Matthew.”

            Nikki. That was Nikki’s voice.

            She was right. I tried to put the figure back in the crate, but my arms and hands didn’t obey. Still felt disconnected.

            “Oh, God!” said a new voice. No, that was my voice.

            Nikki was suddenly in front of me, her hands gently taking the figure from mine. As soon as my hands were empty, they began to tremble, even when I clenched them into fists.

            Hundreds. No, thousands of people. Imprisoned. Yet still alive. Are they aware? Do they know what’s going on around them?

            I watched, still detached, as Nikki carefully placed figures back in the crate, layering the shredded material so that they were protected.

She took my face in her hands. “Matthew.”

I felt something warm drape itself over me folding over me like a blanket on a cold morning. It wanted to ease my panic, but instead it felt smothering, and my panic rose. I thrashed, throwing Nikki back. The warmth disappeared, and I lurched into a stumbling run to get out of the container. I got three steps out when something seized me and hauled me around.

Nikki’s arms encircled me, holding me close. “Shh, Matthew. You’re safe. You are not alone. I am here.”

The panic wavered, and I hugged her back.

Part of my brain got back in the driver’s seat.

Calm. Breathe. Focus on breathing. Push the thoughts away. Gather senses. Know where you are.

Friday, December 1, 2023

F³ Eye for Detail 41

 

I looked all over the crate. “There’s no label, no bill of lading. Completely unmarked. Clearly, these figures are being smuggled in, but are they worth that much?”

I pulled one of the figures over again, and began to really inspect it. The jade was perfectly polished. It didn’t seem like it was that old. I couldn’t explain it, but old things felt old. Just walking among things in a museum, I could feel the age of some of the exhibits, but I wasn’t getting that feeling from these figures. I used my phone’s camera to zoom in on the details.

The phone wasn’t as good as my Nikon, but it worked in a pinch, bringing up details I didn’t notice before, such as the nose, which looked fully sculpted instead of just a bump on the face. There were even two dimples for the nostrils. The eyes also looked very realistic, and carved with exquisite precision. The eyes were wide, and mouth open. If I had to guess, the woman looked afraid, aided by her pose with her arms close together. I set it aside.

The next figure had the same exquisite facial details, but instead of a huddled pose, she stood rigidly. She wore a Chinese style dress, so detailed that the flowers climbing up one side of the dress had been carved in—no, they were carved out, raised above the dress itself like embroidery would be.

There’s no way this could be carved by hand. Was it done with some sort of machine?

I had heard of computer-controlled tools that were supposedly ultraprecise. I didn’t know anything about them, though. Clearly, though, these were not ancient carvings. No ancient hand tool could produce this level of detail.

I set it aside and picked up another one.

“Do you hear that?” Nikki whispered.

I listened intently, then shook my head. “No,” I whispered back. “What do you hear?”

She held up a hand, concentrating.

I went back to my own figure. This one looked in more of a fun pose. She stood on tiptoe with one foot while the other leg lifted up revealing a lot of thigh where her skirt rose. She had on a big smile, but something was off. Her eyes didn’t share in the same joy that her smile suggested. I used the phone again to zoom in close. The eye was very detailed, but didn’t share the smile. Instead, it felt forced. There was something in the corner of her eye, too. I thought it might be an imperfection. I rubbed a finger over it, feeling it raised up slightly. Whatever it was, it was too small for the camera to make out clearly.

“I think . . . I think it’s. . . .” Nikki trailed off, her ear to the figure.

It all clicked, then.

“A heartbeat,” Nikki breathed.

All of the details, the poses, and the expressions. These were real people. What I thought was an imperfection on the last was a single tear, about to roll down her cheek, frozen in jade.

Friday, November 24, 2023

F³ Faulty Calculation 40

             Inside the container, we used flashlights to look around. Instead of an open container with crates shoved in, they were all stored very neatly on racks with cargo nets preventing them from slipping off. What surprised me was that the crates were all very small. I expected a smuggling operation to be for a wide range of things, but these were no bigger than a large milk crate.

            I undid the net and slid one of the crates out. It was heavy. I used a prying tool on my Leatherman to inch the nails and boards up. Nikki, out of patience, simply ripped the board away. Inside was shredded packing material. It took a little rummaging, and I came up with a small, carved figurine. In the light, it looked like jade. A woman carved in jade, maybe six inches tall. I passed it over to Nikki.

            “Mean something to you?”

            She inspected it, turning it over slowly in her hands. “No, nothing in my recollection.”

            I kept rummaging, and pulled out another figurine. Another woman, but not a copy. They were clearly different. The pose, hair length, and clothing were unique. I set it aside, and rummaged down in the bottom.

Nikki set her figure down with the one I had placed, and then walked deeper into the container. “The crates are identical. Are they all jade figures?”

“Beats me. That’s an awful lot of jade. Be worth a lot, especially if they are antiques.” I felt around for something different, but instead my fingers brushed up against more smooth, polished stone.

Nikki ripped open another crate, and began rummaging herself. “Figures in this one as well. This doesn’t make sense, Matthew. Money is not the object, here. Power.”

“Money can get a lot of power, these days,” I said. I went ahead and pulled out each figure and set it aside.

“To a limit,” she said, and ripped open another crate. “Still more figures. This is most puzzling.”

After ten figures, my crate was nothing but the shredded material. “There’s no false bottom, nothing else stashed in them besides the packing material. Unless they’re hiding one crate in particular with something special, this is what they’re bringing in.”

“It is possible, but to tear open all of the crates to find the one important one, and what if it was already delivered, previously? Yet this seems to be a lot of effort to smuggle in something alongside other contraband.”

She had a point. The cost to bring all of this over, the bribes to keep it all hidden, couldn’t be more than the value of what was smuggled.

It’s not adding up. Which means we’re missing something.

Friday, November 17, 2023

F³ Subtle Touch 39

             “Really, Matthew. I could have persuaded Parker to open this for us, or I could easily break the lock.”

            The locksmithing videos always made the job look so easily, especially that one guy who could open just about anything in under three minutes. I didn’t have nearly his skill, especially at holding the padlock and turning tool with the same hand. I also hadn’t developed the feel with the pick that he had. I would have preferred the easy way of using padlock shims, but they had sprun for high quality padlocks.

            “The point—” I said tightly, my concentration still on the lock. “The point is to not leave a trail. We don’t want anyone knowing we were in here.”

            “Parker showed us everything.”

            “Yeah, but that’s just information. We don’t want any proof that we were in here. You snapping the padlock is clear proof of tampering, as is his opening it for us.”

            I felt a click from the pick. It felt set. I moved back to the beginning.

            “I could easily have made him forget.”

            I paused.

            “How do you do that?”

            “Merely by asking, Matthew. Really, it shouldn’t surprise you. Hypnotists have long done it as a parlor trick. A relaxed state, suggestibility. It’s far easier to get people to forget than to remember.”

            “Hmm.”

            “Is that concern in your voice? Perhaps I have made you forget some things?”

            I didn’t want to answer her. She’d almost certainly here it in my voice. I knew she could make people do what she wanted, but making people forget hadn’t crossed my mind. In fact, it opened up a whole new set of possibilities that I needed to look into.

            But not right now.

            I picked the next pin, and the tension bar moved.

            “I got it. Just needed a subtle touch.”

            “Quite so,” Nikki smirked.

Yeah, I could hear the smirk. It sent a shiver down my spine.

Friday, November 10, 2023

F³ Nods 38

 

Nikki made short work of talking to the respective dock masters. While I was confident a fake ID, clipboard, and tablet with a spreadsheet might do the trick, it always took some fast talking to keep them from calling a boss. With Nikki using her will on them, it was instant cooperation.

Now that I thought of it, the idea should have been making my skin crawl. When did I reach the point that I was okay with a vampire clamping down on the will of others in order to get answers?

I wanted to believe it was for a good cause, but that was the kind of "ends justifies the means" thinking that almost always led down a certain path of good intentions.

"Here's the info you're looking for, ma'am," Parker, the fourth dock master we had come to pointed to a line on the screen, indicating the truck number we had given. I followed the line across to the container number, and the ship it had come from, The Heaven's Barge, which was the translation of the Chinese name which preceded it.

China made sense; it would be rife with artifacts that could be smuggled. Though the government was communist, many of its citizens had thoroughly embraced corrupt capitalism. Hong Kong and Macau made for two of the biggest smuggling ports in the world. Singapore probably beat them out, and. . . . Well, what do you know, the row of the spreadsheet listed Singapore and Hong Kong as ports.

"Is the ship still here?" I asked.

Parker clicked the mouse a few times, then nodded.

"What about the container that the truck was loaded from?

More clicks. A nod.

"Is that container alone or part of a group?"

Click, click. “Hmm, yes. Looks like 4 containers.”

“Any more deliveries to this address?”

I supplied him the address of the Fairhaven Club’s loading docks.

He opened another window in the software and searched. A list of scheduled deliveries popped up over the course of a few weeks.

            I looked over to Nikki standing in the doorway. I nodded.

            She nodded.

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