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Roger Hobbs was the youngest-ever winner of the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and is a recipient of the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel and the Maltese Falcon Prize. Born in 1988, Hobbs graduated from Reed College in Portland. Mr. Hobbs died in 2016.
The South China Sea
A few hours before dawn on the morning of his last job, Sabo Park got down on his belly next to the rifle on the bow of his fishing boat, eased forward into a comfortable shooting position and flipped open the lens cap on his night-vision scope. After quickly double-checking the sight-in, he took out a pair of white earbuds, put them in and pressed play on his iPod. The only song on the playlist was Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” Ten minutes and twenty seconds long.
When it was over, Sabo was going to kill as many people as he could.
Here’s the deal: the South China Sea has more active smugglers than any other place in the world. The sea connects ports in China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. More cargo rolls through that puddle than anywhere else in the region. Most of it is legitimate, of course, but not all of it. Any illegal product worth selling goes through there. Human traffickers in Cambodia load up old cargo containers with children, throw them a couple cans of Ensure and a bucket for waste, then ship them wholesale to sell as slaves in China. In Vietnam, cartels send out flotillas so packed with Golden Triangle dope that they can barely stay afloat. Every day go-fast boats packed with counterfeit luxury goods make it out of Hong Kong and fishing ships loaded with illicit whale meat come north for the hungry Japanese. Meth comes from Thailand, guns come from Russia, fake money comes from North Korea and bootlegs come from Shanghai. The South China Sea, for better or worse, is the epicenter of illegal shipping in the world.
And where there’s illegal shipping, there are pirates.
When most people think of a pirate, they don’t have a guy like Sabo Park in mind. Modern pirates are supposed to be Somalian kids with AKs who are hopped up on khat, not skinny Koreans with a propensity for seasickness. Sabo looked more like a fashion model than a hardened criminal. He stood six foot six and wore a Hugo Boss wind- breaker, a blue pin-striped Eton shirt, tight-fitting jeans and a pair of twelve-hundred-dollar designer boots that had never seen mud. He had a Rolex Daytona and an iPod plated with fourteen-carat gold. Only the thick cotton ski mask and the latex gloves revealed his true purpose.
Sabo Park was an armed robber.
But tonight he wasn’t stealing just anything. He was after some- thing small enough to fit in the palm of his hand and valuable enough to buy a whole cargo container of Golden Triangle heroin. Over the years, thousands of men like him had fought and died for these things because Sabo’s target was, by weight, one of the most valuable sub- stances in the world.
Tonight, Sabo was going to steal a blue sapphire.
You see, more than half of the world’s blue sapphires are smuggled at one point or another, because the best ones come from a little place called Burma. Specifically, they come from the town of Mogok in the Mandalay region. The problem is, Burma isn’t a place anymore. The country now calls itself Myanmar, because for a few decades it was ruled by a military junta who ran the whole place into the ground. The nation’s bosses still sent people into the pits to pan for sapphires, sure, but every stone they pulled out was supposed to go directly to a state-supported gem dealer, who’d mark it up a few thousand percent and pass the profits over to the regime. For some people, that markup just wouldn’t do. Even now that Myanmar is taking some baby steps toward democracy, the markup’s still there. So there are smugglers. A lot of smugglers. And worse, the independent narco-armies who con- trol the north are finally getting in on the action, in order to supple- ment the drug money that pays for their perpetual civil war. More than a billion dollars of illegal gemstones get out each year, every year, like clockwork.
There are two major smuggling routes—the cheap way, and the good way. The former is for crummy stones, which take the long route. First, a miner has to sneak the stone out from under his military- supported taskmaster’s nose. This can be pretty tough. The miners are often children, sometimes as young as seven, who put in eighteen-hour days in blistering heat or freezing cold panning through gravel and cholera water with their bare hands for tiny colored rocks worth more than their entire village. Once they find one, they have to hide it or it will be taken away. You’d think there are lots of ways to hide a stone, but there aren’t, and the taskmasters are wise to most of them. Only one method really works. Before anybody notices, the miner has to take that muddy hunk of rock, pop it in his mouth and swallow the fucker whole. No simple task. A sapphire has a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale, making it just slightly softer than a diamond. If the stone has a jagged edge even a millimeter long, it could be as dangerous as swallowing a razor blade. And the kid can’t just throw it up later, either. No. That rock has to go through everything. Throat, stomach, intestines, colon. Then, if it finally passes, the miner’s got to pick it out of his own blood-soaked feces, wash it off and bring it to market.
Once there, a fat Chinese guy with a jeweler’s loupe examines the rock and gives the kid some money. The kid doesn’t get much because he’s basically a slave, but even a little money can go a long way in the pits. Once the Chinese broker gets a bunch of stones together, he sells them to a Thai drug dealer in exchange for heroin. Heroin is better than currency in Myanmar. The heroin dealer then stuffs the stones in his car and drives to Tachileik, a tiny village near the border to both Thailand and Laos. When he arrives he trades the sapphires to a border crosser for more heroin, who then hides the sapphires in bags of rice and smuggles them across the river into Thailand on a bicycle or a big farm truck. Easy as can be. In Mae Sai the rocks are pawned off to legitimate jewelry dealers under the pretense that they came from local Thai or Laotian mines. Since the sapphires are low quality, the lie holds up. The dealers mix the illegal stones with legal ones and sell them off wholesale to retailers around the world. The rest is obvious. Rinse, repeat.
This route is small-time, however. No money in it. The real players don’t care about little one-carat stones with milky centers and no color. The serious money comes from smuggling the big world-class sapphires—ten carats or more, no flaws, clear center, bright color, perfect hue. The story starts the same: miner, Chinese guy, heroin. After that, though, the serious smuggling rings take over. Instead of going to a border town like Mae Sai or Mae Hong Son, they pick up the stones for a pittance in Mandalay, hide them in their gas tanks or elsewhere in their vehicles and drive a few hundred kilometers down to the port city of Rangoon. Hell, if the shipment’s big enough, they don’t bother being subtle. They just put the sapphires on an armored convoy with a bunch of armed guards and shoot it out with anybody who’s asking for it. Once the stones make it to Rangoon, they’re loaded onto a small fishing vessel or some other inconspicuous boat that hauls them out to international waters. This, of course, is the most dangerous part. The smugglers not only have to get past the Burmese coast guard, who are hard to bribe, but also have to sail more than a thousand kilometers around the tip of Malaysia, through the pirate-heavy waters of Thai- land and Vietnam, to the monsoon-ridden South China Sea. That’s when they reach Hong Kong—the city where you can buy anything. It’s a perilous journey, but if the ship makes it there safely, even a small handful of those stones can become a hefty fortune on the international jewelry market. And if your poison is gemstones, that’s the place to be.
Hong Kong’s got more jewelry stores per square mile than anywhere else on earth. It puts New York and Antwerp to shame. Kowloon is the Candy Land of shined-up rocks. The profits are obscene. The sky’s the limit. Stores there have sapphires as blue as the Pacific Ocean and as clear as a shard of glass. They’ve got uncut rubies the size of a testicle and as radiant as an evening star. You could buy a watch covered with diamonds or a cell phone plated with platinum, if you wanted to. There are four Cs for gemstones—cut, clarity, color and carat. If you take a five-minute walk down Canton Road in Hong Kong, you’ll see every combination of those traits laid out in the windows. One successful smuggling trip can turn a twenty-thousand-dollar investment into a million-dollar windfall. Each sapphire can fetch up to fifteen thousand dollars a carat, fifty carats per stone. You do the math. That’s serious money.
And Sabo Park was all about the serious money.
He scanned the distance through his night scope, which illuminated the placid ocean with a pale green glow. In less than ten minutes, a smuggler’s yacht loaded with sapphires would sail into view and he’d be there to take it. The vessel wasn’t in sight yet, but Sabo knew where it was. Its lights glowed just over the horizon, like a car coming over a hilltop in the fog. Sabo tapped his finger on the trigger guard to the beat of the music.
Eight minutes to go.
Sabo held up his left hand to signal his crew. No pirate in the his- tory of the profession has ever worked alone, and he was no exception. This sort of job called for two other people, plus a third who wasn’t on the boat. That person was the jugmarker—the woman with the plan. She’d done all the research and told them where to be and when. Jug- markers rarely do their jobs in person. His was three hundred kilometers away, sitting next to her satellite phone in a limousine and waiting. She’d get a double share.
The man behind the Plexiglas on the bridge deck was Captain. For lack of a better word, he was the wheelman. His job was planning the getaway. Captain was his only name, too. Everybody called him that. He was a stout, older gentleman of eastern Russian extraction with a face like a shriveled prune. While Sabo had been queasy the whole trip out, Captain had salt in his veins. He was one of the best illegal seafarers in the world. He’d gotten his start running refugees from Shanghai to Jindo in the eighties, but when that route dried up he’d tried his hand at heroin in Malaysia. Bangkok to Singapore in eighteen hours—the hardest smuggling route in Asia. For ten years he ran go- fast boats full of the stuff until a bust higher up left him penniless. He was a patient and kind man. A life of crime didn’t suit him. He never left anyone behind, even if he had to miss a shipment. He considered himself a victim of poverty and circumstance, and was probably right about that. There are no old pirates, just old men.
Down in the hold was the pointman, who’d do the actual ship-to-ship boarding. They called him Jim Holmes, and he was a Kiwi who couldn’t go back home on penalty of twenty-five years for bank robbery. He had the complexion of a cotton ball and the nerves of a small rodent. He was so scared that he was literally shaking, but to be fair he had every right to be jumpy. His job was both the easiest and most dangerous. After Sabo finished shooting, Holmes would jump over onto the smuggler’s yacht while it was still moving, search it and find where the sapphires were hidden. Who knows what else might be stashed on board? One cleverly hidden smuggler with a gun or a single booby-trapped door could end his life. Trembling in his rubber boots, his eyes closed tight, he clutched his twelve-gauge shotgun like it might slip away from him.
And then there was Sabo Park. Slim build, dark eyes, no smile. His long black hair went down to his shoulders, where it partially covered a tattoo of the British pound sign inked into the back of his neck. A pair of long, deep scars zigzagged down his cheekbones in the shape of a permanent grimace. He didn’t show fear, not because he was tough or strong, but because he’d never once felt that emotion in his life. His heartbeat was as steady as the tick of a Swiss watch. He bobbed his head to the beat.
Sabo was a buttonman.
A professional killer.
And that was the whole crew. Just three guys. You might be surprised, but three pirates working together could take down almost any ship on the sea. Even a tanker the size of the Empire State Building can run with as few as ten or fifteen sailors on board. Modern ships don’t need a large crew. It’s all automatic now.
Captain raised his hand, acknowledging Sabo’s signal. He’d been watching the target yacht coming at them on the radar, but no longer. He crouched under the fishing boat’s control panel to flip the breaker and what little light remained on board flickered out. The instruments went dark. The boat was as black as the ocean beneath it. There was no moon. Next, he waded through the darkness and, by sense of touch alone, connected a car battery to a white, round electronic device mounted to the roof of the cabin. It was a spot-frequency jammer, just in case their target’s captain was wise enough to check his instruments. Now the fishing boat was completely invisible, like a hole on the ocean. In this fog, no one would see it coming.
Five minutes to go.
Sabo pulled back the bolt on his rifle and chambered a round. His gun was an H-S Precision Tactical Take-Down rifle, a civilian version of the kind favored by Israeli snipers. Mechanically, it was little more than an old-fashioned all-purpose rifle. Bolt-action, .308 Winchester, twenty-four-inch barrel. His version had a matte-black finish and cost a little over seven thousand dollars, including the night- vision scope, from an American gun shop. It had a trio of four-box magazines, one in the receiver and two more strapped to the forestock so he could grab them at a moment’s notice. He pressed his cheek to the stock, closed one eye and started listening to his heartbeat. Sabo’d found only two things in the world that gave him pleasure: killing people and the music of Nina Simone. For him, this moment was bliss.
So he waited.
Months of work had gone into making this moment possible. The woman who’d planned this heist, the jugmarker, had pored over dozens of nautical maps and sailors’ almanacs in search of the perfect takedown spot. She’d traced and retraced the yacht’s route through the sea with a protractor and consulted computer models to make sure. The South China Sea is three and a half million square kilometers. Finding this specific vessel on this particular night was like hitting a bull’s-eye on a dartboard, while blindfolded, from two blocks away. It took months of study to pinpoint this location. The longitude and latitude were precise.
Then the yacht peeked over the horizon, not all at once but drifting into view in parts, like a sunrise in winter. First the radio antennae, followed by the mast light, the green and red sidelights, the deck and finally the reflective markings on the hull. All four lights seemed to shimmer in the distance—a shape Captain called the Diamond of Death. Soon the whole boat was cutting through the fog like a miniature model.
It was coming straight toward them.
Sabo grew more and more excited. Every passing moment felt like an age. When he was a chil...
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Book Description Penguin Random House, 2015. Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # PRH-9780857522061
Book Description Doubleday. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M085752206X
Book Description Rh UK, 2015. Paperback. Condition: New. Paperback. Seller Inventory # MM-40100140
Book Description Doubleday, 2015. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P11085752206X