Chapter One of my new Al Pennyback mystery, "A Good Day to Die"


March 24, Oakland, CA

     The sun, just rising, made the hills around San Francisco look like green jewels, and the Golden Gate Bridge gleamed in the early morning light, as the Christina B out of Hong Kong made her way slowly through the bay, heading for a dock at Oakland terminal.

     Captain Chow Hung Fat, a slender Chinese with close-cropped iron gray hair, felt every one of his sixty years as he stood at the front of the wheelhouse, watching the bow of the ship gently rise and fall as it sliced through the metallic blue water.  He had been at his post since well before dawn; Chow knew his helmsman was experienced, having made this same voyage at least half a dozen times in the past couple of years, but when the Christina B was making port, he felt that his post was in the wheel house until the ropes were secure and the ship was resting at the dock.

     It was well past mid-morning when he was finally satisfied that all was in order, but his job was not over.  While his first officer could see to the off-loading of the cargo, it was his duty as captain to be at the head of the gangway to welcome the American immigration authorities aboard.  They would want to see the crew list, and he would personally present it to them.  On most of his visits to the United States, there were no problems; the lists were given a cursory scan by the bored looking officer, stamped and returned; and the crew would get some much needed time ashore.

     This voyage, however, was different.  There were no special containers, with secret markings, that required special handling; a situation that usually presented few problems.  The ship was sailing out of Hong Kong, but had a Singapore registry, and the American authorities seemed not to suspect that ships belonging to the city state were anything but legitimate.  On occasion, money had to change hands, but unless the U.S. Coast Guard had been alerted; in which case they would intercept the ship as soon as it entered American territorial waters, and not allow it to dock; this was often just a tiresome formality.  No, it was not cargo, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, that worried him.  It was the crew list.

     The crew, with the exception of one man, had been with him for more than ten voyages, and were well-known, and as well-behaved as sailors who’d been at sea for more than twenty days could be.  But, that one man, whose name was buried in the middle of the list, had been added just before the ship left Hong Kong port.  It was his second time on board.  The last time, over a year ago, had been from American to Hong Kong, and he’d made Chow nervous then.  Now, he caused the elderly captain to develop a major case of heartburn.

     Li Jiu Long was no sailor.  He’d spent the entire voyage secluded in the first officer’s cabin, causing that unfortunate fellow to have to bunk with the crew.  He took his meals alone, and spoke to no one since coming aboard, except on the first day when he cavalierly informed Chow that he did not want to be disturbed during the trip.

     If anyone thought it strange that a common seaman would get away with giving orders to the captain of a ship, especially one with Chow’s age and seniority, they wisely kept it to themselves.

     Every man in the crew knew what and who Li was, but none would dare say it aloud.  Even though Christina B was a Singapore-registered container vessel, and sailed from Hong Kong, all aboard knew that the real owners were a company that served as a front for the Dragon Clan, a vicious mob organization with murky ties to the Internal Security Services of Mainland China, a fact that was not apparent even if one searched the documentation of the vessel.  They also knew that Li was a senior lieutenant in the Dragons, one who was called upon when the job was dangerous, or when someone had to be ‘disappeared.’  Li’s desire to be left alone was honored to a fault.

     The immigration officers, and he noticed that on this morning there were two rather than the usual one, were just coming on board when Chow reached the boarding plank.  One, a middle aged white man with large gut that hung over his belt, Chow recognized; he worked this area of the docks regularly.  His companion, a young black man with medium-length, curly hair, and gray eyes that stood out vividly against his dark brown face, Chow had never seen before.

     “Morning, Captain Chow,” the white officer said.  “Welcome back to America.  Bet you got lots of stuff for Americans to buy on board this trip.”

     Chow shook hands, bowing slightly as he did so.  “Yes, Mister Calhoun,” he said.  “All of the containers are consumer goods and toys from Chinese factories, so your stores will be well stocked for a few days.”  He eyed the black officer warily.

     The white officer, Rory Calhoun, a 22-year veteran of the immigration service, inclined his head toward his companion.  “This is Agent Leland West,” he said.  “He’s been newly assigned.  I’m gonna be retiring in a few months, and he’ll be taking my place.” 

     Chow shook hands with the young man.  “It is my pleasure to meet you, Mr. West,” he said.  He never said agent when he talked to the immigration officers; always mister. 

     “The pleasure is mine, Captain Chow,” the black man said.  “Rory here says you’re a pretty regular visitor to our shores.”

     “Yes, that is true,” Chow responded.  “I make six to eight voyages a year.”

     “Well, welcome to the United States.  You have a crew list for us?”

     Chow pulled the carefully folded list from inside his tunic.  He hesitated.  Calhoun was senior, but the younger agent had asked for it.

     “That’s okay, captain,” Calhoun said.  “Leland might as well start getting his feet wet.”

     Chow handed the younger agent the list.  West took it and scanned the names from top to bottom.  Calhoun looked over his shoulder as he read.  Chow held his breath.  He could feel his heart beating so hard, he feared that the Americans would hear it.

     After a few minutes, West took out a pen and scribbled his name at the bottom of the list.  He then took a small seal from his jacket; one of the self-inking kinds, and, holding the list against his leg, stamped it.

     “Again, captain,” he said.  “Welcome to America.  I hope your crew enjoys their shore leave.”

     “And, tell them to spend lots of money,” Calhoun said.

     Laughing, the two agents turned and left the ship.  Only when they were far down the dock did Chow let out a breath.  Yet again, he had delivered what he was supposed to deliver, and right under the noses of the Americans.  Maybe the clan was right, he thought, the Americans are stupid.  Such a thing would never happen in China.  The crew list would have been checked thoroughly, and every member required to present himself for inspection.  Chow seriously doubted that even the Americans would have taken Li for a seaman.  Where the other men were brown from days of working on the deck in the sun, Li had the pale complexion of someone who had spent his days indoors.  Even Chow himself had the reddish brown skin from exposure to sun and wind at sea.

     Oh well, he thought, I do not know what Li and the clan are up to, and I do not want to know.  Just unload the cargo, and head back to Hong Kong and my little flat where I can sip tea and watch the horse races on TV until the next voyage.

     Li Jiu Long had been watching the exchange between the captain and the immigration officers from just inside the nearest hatchway.  As Chow turned to return to the wheelhouse, Li stepped out of the shadows.

     “That was very well done, captain,” he said.  “I notice that you did not even offer them payment to expedite the paperwork.”

     Chow bowed slightly.  “That is not necessary here in America,” he said. “Unlike China, where every official expects to be paid tea money to do his job, here, they have very strict rules against such actions.”

     “Hah,” Li said.  “I know very well that on occasion money changes hands; even here.”

     “Yes, from time to time, I have to give money to the lesser workers on the docks.  But, I have never had to pay an official. At least, not directly.”

     “Just as well,” Li said, and spit on the deck.  Chow winced as the globule spattered over the polished wood that had been scrubbed only that morning.  “That might have drawn unwelcome attention to me.  Our masters would be most unhappy if anything interfered with my mission.”

     “You should encounter no problems,” Chow said.  “Will you require the papers from the ship in order to go ashore?”

     “No, captain, I have all that I need.”  Li patted the breast of the jacket he wore.    It was thick, much thicker than the weather required, and made him look several pounds heavier than Chow knew him to be. “You have done well.  I thank you for your hospitality.”

     “Will you be returning to Hong Kong with us?  We depart in ten days.”

     “No,” Li said.  “Other arrangements have been made for my departure.  I do not think I will see you again, Captain Chow.”

     Li bowed slightly to the older man and walked purposively down the gang plank and onto the docks.  Chow watched him as he strode toward the canteen that was a few hundred yards from the exit.  A small eating establishment, it was there for the rare sailor who did not wish to partake of the delights of Oakland and nearby San Francisco.  Chow, who never went into either city, would probably venture there later in the day to sample the American version of Chinese food.  He particularly liked the hamburgers and fried potatoes.

     When Li had vanished from his view between the canteen and an adjacent building which contained a bathhouse and a small bar that sold cheap whiskey and beer, Chow turned and went back to the wheelhouse.

     Li approached the building, but instead of going into the bar, he entered the bathhouse.  Luckily, it was empty at this hour.  He walked to the back and entered an empty stall, pulling the door shut behind him.  He took off the heavy coat and ripped out the lining.  Tucked inside the lining was a neatly folded blue suit, shirt and a red tie.  He stripped off the jeans and work shirt and donned the suit.

     He would have liked to have a better pair of shoes; something more befitting the rest of his attire, but patting the breast of the jacket, and feeling the leather folder inside, he knew that soon he would be able to buy a pair.

     He folded the work clothes and placed them inside the jacket, and then folded it until it looked like a canvas package. 

     Brushing the dust off his shoes, he left the bathhouse and entered the bar.

     An elderly Chinese man stood idly behind the bar.

     “What you want to drink?” he asked

     Li didn’t usually drink alcohol before noon, but he didn’t want to arouse the man’s suspicions.  “I will have a beer,” he said.  “And, do you have a telephone I can use.”

     The bartender ducked his head toward the back, where a phone hung on the wall.

     “You drink beer at bar, or you want table?” he asked.

     “The bar will be fine,” Li said.  “I must make a call first.”  He took a ten dollar bill from his wallet and laid it on the bar.  “I trust this will be enough for the beer?”

     “Yes, enough.  You need coin for phone?”

     “That will not be necessary,” Li said.  “I will use a credit card.”

     He walked over to the corner.  Taking the phone from the hook, he wiped it carefully with a handkerchief.  He then took an international calling card from his wallet.  Anyone troubling to check on it would find that it was registered to one Joseph Lee of Riverside, California.  He also had a California driver’s license in the same name, and the address on it actually existed, a small frame house in a middle class suburb which was occupied by a Chinese-American who received a nice deposit each month to his bank account.

     He had in his wallet other identifying documents, all in the name Joseph Li, which was close enough to his real name that he ran no risk of not responding if someone called out to him by that name.  The documents, although paid for by the clan, were courtesy of his friends in the Chinese intelligence service for whom he did occasional errands during his frequent trips to the United States.

     When he heard the dial tone, Li dialed the code for a calling card number, and then followed the recorded instructions, punching the card number and PIN.  When he got the tone that told him his call was ready, he dialed the 202 area code, Washington, DC, and then a number that he knew all too well.

     It took a few minutes for the receptionist who answered to get the person he really wanted to speak with, but when he did, the conversation was brief and to the point.  He gave specific instructions and, without waiting for assent, rang off.  He had no doubt that what he wanted done would be done to the letter.  The penalty for failing to follow clan instructions was fatal, and the person he called knew that all too well.

     His call finished, he returned to the bar.  He picked up the bottle of beer, Qing Dao, he noticed, and imported.  He used his handkerchief again to wipe the lip of the bottle, and drained it in a few fast gulps, something he’d learned to do after a long time visiting the states.  He often impressed his colleagues back in China, none of whom had mastered the skill of chug-a-lugging beer.

     When the bartender brought his change, he told him to keep it, and spun on his heel and left.

     He had no problems leaving the port; a well-dressed Chinese man with all the proper papers, he was treated as if he was a local businessman at the port to check on shipments.  Outside the port, he hailed a cab and instructed the driver to take him to an address not far from the center of Oakland, a used car dealer who, for cash, could expedite the paperwork.

     He bought a blue 1984 Ford Mustang that had only 100,000 miles on the odometer. He knew that the car had been driven many more miles than that, but when he test drove it around the block, the engine purred quietly, and it didn’t make any strange noises.  It also, the dealer assured him, got good gas mileage on the highway.  To Li, that was important, because he had 3,000 miles of highway driving ahead of him, and only eight days to do it. 

     With the Mustang’s acceleration, and keeping to the speed limits on the Interstate highway system, he would make it with time to spare.  While Li viewed most Americans with disdain, scorning them for their materialism and ignorance, he truly loved their country.  He especially liked driving.  In America, he thought, a person could drive for thousands of miles, and if he broke no traffic laws, could do so unmolested.  Unlike China, he thought, where you were apt to be stopped a dozen times within one province by officials looking for ‘tea’ money.  If only the Americans were not too stupid to appreciate what they have, he thought derisively as he pulled out of the dealer’s lot and headed east.


April 2, United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, PA

     Warden Bradley Swopes was not a happy man.

     He’d only been in charge of Lewisburg Penitentiary for two years, and since it was mainly a maximum security facility, he was accustomed to having problem cases among the inmate population, except for the adjacent camp used to house minimum security male inmates, mostly white collar criminals up for securities fraud, and only wanting to do their time quietly and be released.  In the maximum security facility, though, he had the hard cases; drug traffickers, murderers, and all manner of low-life scum who had violated some federal statute.

     None of the inmates, though, bothered him as much as the Chinese.  Inmate number 251047, one Wei Li, or as he preferred to be addressed when names had to be used, Li Wei, had been sentenced to twenty years for human trafficking, and even though he never got into fights, and mostly stayed to himself rather than mixing with the other inmates, he bothered the hell out of Swopes.

     The first thing that bugged the warden and many of the guards was Li’s occasional inability to understand English.  Swope knew that the shithead could understand and speak English probably better than anyone in Lewisburg, but whenever he didn’t want to do something, he would suddenly go all Chinese on them.

     But, what really got his goat was the fact that the US Attorney hadn’t tried to tie Li to the killing of the FBI agent by that black private investigator down in Virginia.  Even though the agent was himself a crook, they could have turned him over to the state of Virginia and he would have wound up strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber, instead of being a pain in Swopes’ ass.

     And now, he’d gotten sick, and none of the medical personnel in the prison could figure out what was wrong with him, or make him better.  Prisoners died in stir all the time, but for some reason, the Justice Department took a special interest in Li, and had ordered that he be transported into the town of Lewisburg to be seen by a specialist, a Chinese-American doctor who, in addition to normal medicine, also practiced traditional Asian healing.

     Swopes had assigned two of his best to escort Li into town; John Cochran and Leroy Adams; the two most senior of Lewisburg’s guards.  They would see that he got to the doctor, and once cured, got his ass back into cell block C to spend the rest of his sentence.

     He gazed out of his window just as the prison van was waved through the last checkpoint, and watched as it accelerated onto the highway heading into town.

     Cochran, a tall rawboned redhead from Delaware, and Adams, a slightly shorter, but muscular brown skinned man from Baltimore, had been partners for the entire nineteen years that they’d worked as federal prison guards.  They had been friends before; having bonded at Morgan State University in Baltimore, when Cochran, the only white on the college basketball team, had been befriended by Adams after the other players shunned him.

     On the basketball court, they had become a two-man hit squad, demolishing Morgan’s opponents with Adams’s blocking players while Cochran sank shot after shot from just inside the half court line.  They had learned to communicate through body language, setting up plays that the opposing teams were unable to counter.  They were inseparable off court as well, and after graduation, served as best men for each other when they married their college sweethearts.  As guards, they demonstrated the same uncanny ability; able to control unruly prisoners through coordinated action without speaking.  Inside the walls, they were known as Salt and Pepper; just the spice you needed when things got rough and a situation needed a little seasoning.

     They rode in silence, Cochran driving.  Li Wei, dressed in a white prison jump suit and manacled hand and foot, sat sullenly in the back, staring at the backs of their heads.

     They drove south on Robert F. Miller Drive, turned left on State Route 1018 and headed east toward the river.  As they approached West Branch Highway, where they would turn right to head toward Bucknell University, south of the town of Lewisburg, and the address on a small back street where the Chinese-American doctor had his office and clinic, they could see the smoke stacks of abandoned factories along the tributary off the Susquehanna River that once served the logging and shipping industries of the area.  They could also see the skeletons of old stone buildings that had probably been way stations along the Underground Railroad used before and during the Civil War by slaves escaping to the freedom of the North and Canada.

     It was early in the morning, and there were few other vehicles on the road until they neared the university, where they encountered a few cars, probably being driven by professors or students heading to early classes.

     They had to drive around a few minutes to find the address on Oak Street, a small stone structure set back from the street and surrounded by a low stone wall.  The street was narrow, and they had to maneuver the van around an old blue Mustang that was parked about a hundred meters from the house.

     Cochran parked the van in front of the wooden gate.  Beside the gate was a white shingle sign that read, ‘Dr. Wilson Yun, MD and Traditional Healer.’  There was a drawing of some kind of plant beneath the traditional caduceus symbol just below the doctor’s name.

     He switched off the engine and turned to his partner.  “You wait here with the prisoner, Leroy, and I’ll check to make sure the place is clear,” he said.

     “Sure thing, partner,” Adams said.  He took his radio off his belt.  “Give me a call when you’re ready.”

      Cochran patted his own radio and nodded.  He got out of the van and scanned the area.  The only other vehicle in sight was the Mustang, but he gave it little thought.  It had a temporary tag, which he couldn’t read from the distance, but in a college town, and this close to campus, this wasn’t unusual.  Probably belongs to some student who hasn’t had time to get down to DMV, he thought.

     Satisfied that the outside was clear, Cochran walked up to the door of the clinic and pushed it open.

     The waiting room was empty; not even a receptionist.  This had been one of the conditions that the warden had insisted upon; only Doctor Yun was to be present, and he was to clear all of his appointments for the morning.  If he couldn’t deal with Li’s ailment alone, they would have to try something else.

     The door at the rear of the room, behind the receptionist’s desk, opened, and a tall Asian man that Cochran estimated to be in his late thirties or early forties entered the room.  He wore a white coat over dark slacks, and had a thermometer sticking out of the breast pocket.  He carried a stethoscope in his left hand.

     “Ah, good morning,” he said.  “I am Doctor Yun.  You must be from the prison.  Where is the patient?”

     “Good morning, doctor,” Cochran said.  “I’m John Cochran.  My partner and I are escorting the prisoner, er patient.  He’ll be brought in as soon as I’ve checked the place out.”

     “Of course,” the Asian said. “You will find that I have followed your instructions to the letter.  There is no one here other than me, and I have no other patients scheduled until late in the afternoon, just in case I need to take extra time with, what is his name again, oh yes, Mr. Li.”

     Cochran nodded and, after looking around the reception area, eased past the doctor.  He entered a small room that contained an examination table and low cabinets along two walls with glass doors. Inside the cabinets was a mixture of medicines, some of which Cochran recognized from the labels on the vials, and jars of green and brown powders, leaves and what looked like twigs.  There were two doors on the far side, one marked with the universal radiation symbol and a sign that said “X-Ray Room.  Enter only with protective clothing,” while the other was unmarked.  Cochran, who never liked going to the doctor, and who was deathly afraid of what radiation might do to his ability to become a father, merely looked through the thick glass window in the upper center of the door.  The room was unlit, but from the illumination from his side of the door, he could only see the X-Ray machine in the back of the room.  He then moved to the unmarked door and opened it.  It was an exit to the outside, opening onto a small garden that was in need of weeding.  The area to the rear of the building, with a service road used by garbage trucks and deliverymen, was clear.

     “Okay, doctor,” he said.  “It looks clear.  Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.”  He took the radio from his belt and thumbed the transmit switch, causing a burst of static.  “All clear partner.  You can bring him in.”

     A few minutes later, the door to the examination room opened, and Li entered, shuffling in his manacles, followed by Leroy Adams.

     The doctor motioned Li toward the examination table.  “Is it possible for these things to be removed?” he asked, pointing at the manacles.  “It will be easier for me to examine him without them.”

     Adams looked inquiringly at his partner.  “I suppose so,” Cochran said.  “Go ahead and take them off.”

     Li turned around and sat on the table, holding his hands out.  Adams removed a ring of keys from his belt and bent to unlock the wrist manacles.

     Cochran’s attention was focused on the two men, and he didn’t see the doctor dip his right hand into his pocket and pull out a switchblade knife.  His first warning was when the blade made a ‘snicking’ sound as the doctor pressed the button on the handle.  He turned toward the sound, and the doctor plunged the blade deep into his chest, sending waves of white-hot pain through his body before his brain shut down.  As he crumpled lifelessly to the floor, with gouts of blood gushing from his mouth, Adams released his hold on the wrist manacles and spun around, his eyes going wide at the sight of his partner and friend on the floor in a widening pool of blood.  He reached for his service revolver, but Li thrust his still manacled hands upward, knocking his arm aside.  This gave the doctor enough time to take the two steps toward him to plunge the bloody blade into the black guard’s chest. Adams’s eyes widened in pain and he opened his mouth to scream, but the light faded from his eyes before sound could form, and he crumpled to the floor, his outstretched hand touching his friend’s lifeless hand.

     The doctor wiped the knife blade on the white frock he was wearing, retracted it and put it into his pants pocket.  He began to remove the bloody garment.

     “Elder brother, it is good to see you,” Li said.  He held up his hands.  “Now, if you will get these things off me, we can find some decent clothing and we can get out of here and go home.”

     Li Jiu Long picked the keys up from the floor where Adams had dropped them, and unlocked the wrist and ankle restraints.  “Doctor Yun kept clothing here in the clinic, and I think it will fit you,” he said.  “He will not need it anymore.”

      “Why is that, brother?” Li Wei asked.

     Li Jiu Long walked over to the door to the X-Ray room and pulled it open.  Lying there in the doorway, his throat slashed, was a middle-aged Asian.  The blood, which had pooled against the seal at the bottom of the door, had congealed into a sticky black mass.  “We do not need to leave anyone here who can possibly identify us,” he said.  “The good doctor had served his purpose.”

     “Very well, then.  Let us find some clothes and get out of here.  I have missed my apartment in Hong Kong.”

     “In good time, younger brother,” Jiu Long said.  “But, before we return home, we have a mission to perform.”

     “I never question the orders of the clan, elder brother,” Wei said.  “But, what could be so important that we should delay my return home after being locked up here for so long?”

     “We must avenge the honor of the clan and our family.  The black detective who disrupted our operations and caused you to be here must die.”   


Note to readers:  This is the first chapter of a work in progress.  Comments and critiques are welcomed.

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