Koh Samui, Thailand – Friday, Feb. 21, 10:00 a.m. local time
Miami – Thursday, Feb. 20, 10:00 p.m. EST
In the sitting room of his private villa on Koh Samui, Jesse clenched his teeth and called Jimmy Lin again—his fourth attempt in so many hours. The wide-open sliding doors created the effect of a picture frame. Outside, Joanna was reading her daily devotions on a lounge beside a sea-green infinity pool. A glass of ice water stood beside her on a little bamboo table. She wore a wide-brimmed sun hat and yellow sundress. Behind her, the palm trees swayed in the breeze, and beyond them, the Gulf of Thailand stretched out toward the coasts of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Jesse softened for a moment at the sight of her. He felt glad he had not disappointed her in Bangkok—accompanying her on the floating market tour and making their flight the following day to the beach on time. During their plane ride south, Jesse had divulged everything Ko had said—regardless of Ko’s desire for privacy. Joanna was a shrewd observer, and he wanted her opinion.
“Keng is a wild card,” she had warned.
He knew Joanna was right. They were all risk takers, but Keng had always stood a little closer to the edge. Whatever apprehensions Jesse had repressed about Keng nagged at him now.
All knotted up, Jesse listened to Lin’s phone ringing and ringing—without even a kick into voicemail. What if neither Lin, nor Keng was reliable? If Lin would answer the damn phone, maybe at least one problem could be cleared up. The line went dead.
He dialed again. The temperature outside was a pleasant 78 degrees, but Jesse’s head was heating up, as if he were in a sauna. He wiped his fingers across the front of his neck to gauge how much he was sweating. His hand was dripping. The phone kept ringing.
“Hello!” Lin answered.
“Finally!” Jesse shouted, drying his hand on the white upholstery. “Where the hell have you been?!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lin yelled back.
“Ko tracked me down in Bangkok a few days ago. Channarong and that girl are dead. And you vanish!”
“I’ve been busy taking care of everything. Unusual circumstances call for special stealth. You understand.”
“No, I don’t understand at all,” Jesse growled. “Do not go dark on me! Ever! You are not the only middleman in this world!”
“No, but I am the best.”
“You arrogant little cocksucker!”
Lin laughed. “Rest assured the wait was worth it. I’ve been working for you this whole time. I didn’t call, because I didn’t trust the phone lines. But I just got this new end-to-end encryption tech—no back doors. We’re totally secure. Now, what can I do for you?”
“Tell me what the hell is going on—because Ko set off alarm bells!”
“Forget about him, and don’t worry about Channarong or the girl. Those deaths are outside our purview.”
“That is not Ko’s position. He is concerned, and he was not happy about informing Keng. I tried to reassure him. It would do us no good if he loses his head, but his concerns are my concerns, Jimmy. Ko and I go way back.”
“I know your history, Jesse,” said Lin, stretching out his words. “Your father was the minister in their village. You grew up there. You were like brothers. I get it.”
“But do you?” demanded Jesse, incensed. “Get it?” Jesse’s childhood memories flooded his mind. Tropical snakes and storms, later the Vietnam War. He heard his father reassuring him. “God will take care of us,” and, “Pray for peace,” he used to say. Jesse recalled that many people—in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the United States, and elsewhere—did pray. Yet they didn’t get peace. They got more war and death and displacement. These things did not reveal God’s mercy to Jesse, so he decided to pray for something else. Jesse prayed for strength.
“I get it,” Lin said snidely with a sigh.
Jesse was not satisfied. “Do you have any idea how their people suffered?”
“Yes. Centuries of invaders. Burmese, Khmer, Chinese, Japanese, British. Do we count Americans?”
“Their chance is now! Ko and Keng have a chance to break free now. They must not lose this opportunity!”
“Calm down. I, too, have long-standing contacts. I, too, know when to heed warnings. And I repeat: These deaths in DC change nothing for our deal.”
“I told Ko we’re well-insulated, and it must remain that way.”
“Look, I don’t want to get dragged through US courts for export control violations. That’s why I hand-picked this Dutchman. He’s the best man in the cargo business.”
“That’s the whole damn reason I involved you,” Jesse interrupted. “We need to keep up appearances.”
“As you have told me before, this is not your average every-day semiautomatic pistol shipment. We are not dealing with a simple delivery from your home factory there stateside to your American collectors. I get that. A little creativity must be involved.”
“Shit!” Jesse said. “A lot of creativity! The supplementation must be managed very carefully!”
“Yes, I understand.”
“You sarcastic asshole!” Jesse replied. “You must guarantee invisibility!”
“Look, this will work out. You are the best on the supply side. You know all the other manufacturers and dealers—black markets too—used, repurposed, diverted. Even ghost weapons. And you have a reputation to uphold, I know. But that’s the point. I am the best on the ground, in-country. I want this as much as you do. We need each other.”
“Everything must arrive in pristine condition.”
“The utmost care.”
“Rifles, grenade launchers, detonators, every single item! Shipped invisibly and cleanly!”
“I assure you, as I have assured Ko: There are no weak links in our chain.”
“You better be right,” said Jesse, nodding as his double chin opened and closed. “I am depending on you to get this shipment all the way to Myanmar.”
“It’s exactly as we planned.”
“Ko and Keng are like brothers to me. And God wants my brothers to be free.”
“No worries, Jesse,” Lin said. “God is on your side.”
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