Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XVIII
If you take a cargo ship, reader, and slowly start replacing the legitimate cargo with illicit goods one container at a time, at what point does it stop being a cargo ship and start being a criminal outfit?
When does a cargo ship become a smuggling ship? With the first, lone illegal act? Even a small one?
What if the cargo it’s carrying is perfectly legal in one country but strictly prohibited in another? In that case, the definition between serving a public good and being a menace to society depends on the morals of whoever in the country is strongest, or the majority of voters…or, in some cases, wealthiest.
It’s hard to tell what kind of ship you’re looking at just from the outside. Even an inspector at an international port might not have a full idea of a ship’s nature until the conclusion of his investigation. Let’s say that customs officers board a ship destined for Japan from China and begin opening containers one by one. In the first container? Enough produce and edible goods to feed a small army. Nothing illegal there.
Second container? Children’s toys. Stuffed animals with giant, love-filled eyes and dolls with oversized heads that whisper sweet nothings when you press their hands.
Third container? Clothing. Thousands of bright, highlighter colored track-suits ranging from green to yellow to red, white, and blue.
So far, the only crime being committed is one of fashion. Nothing suspicious about this ship, the inspector says to himself. And so he and his team continue their checks. As far as the officials are aware, this is a routine cargo ship transporting routine materials on a routine route.
If the very last container they inspect, however, contained something suspicious…say, a hot air balloon or, worse, three human beings (one of whom never had the proper documents to be in the country of origin)…then the ship immediately transforms right in front of the inspector’s eyes. Even if every single other container on this ship is legitimately performing a public good, the discovery of that one illicit box turns the whole thing into a smuggling operation. The ship is locked in the port. The captain and crew interrogated. The three individuals are arrested. The balloon is confiscated as evidence.
That one last discovery changes the whole perception of the ship, redefines it. Lucky for Elise, Laurents, and I, the inspector’s team grew bored after the thirtieth container-full of track-suits (how many people could possibly be wearing these things?) and satisfied themselves with thinking that this ship was both legitimate and boring.
And the ship set off with the three of us and a hot air balloon tucked secretly away. Next stop, Japan.
With the ship safely under way, we heard a loud thumping followed by a metallic shriek and the sound of rusty latches coming undone. The door to our container swung open on noisy hinges to reveal our captain, silhouetted against the soft moonlit glow of a cloudless night. He helped us out of our dark hiding place, offering us a few hours of fresh air. After telling where was on and off-limits for us to wander and pointing out the food and bathrooms, he and Laurents walked off together, presumably to discuss compensation for helping us get out of the country.
That left Elise and I to walk aimlessly among the containers. It almost felt like we were walking down an abandoned city street in the dead of night, with the neat rows of perilously tall stacks of containers making up city blocks full of skyscrapers.
“Okay, now will you tell me?” I pleaded.
Ever since the train station, we hardly had a quiet moment to catch up. And I was dying to understand what happened in Wuxi, how Elise managed to get Laurents and make it back to Shanghai. Now that we were safely at sea, it seemed like there was finally time for her share.
“I can hardly believe it worked the way it did.” she grinned. She had been doing that more often since getting back from Wuxi, as though she discovered a newfound confidence over the past day.
As we meandered around the ship, she explained everything. Hearing the story felt like looking into a new container of her life. It was as though I had one perception of her, but with each word she spoke, there was something new and undiscovered that transformed her right in front of my eyes:
When I left, I had no idea what I was going to do. All I had was an address. But was hoping that three days would give me enough time to think of something. It was our only option.
Did you ever play Chess or Sudoku or anything as kid? I tried chess and hated it because it felt too constraining. It was like a puzzle with too many borders and shapes that only fit one way. I always wanted more flexibility to use pieces differently. The problem we were dealing with about Laurents, though, was like a puzzle where the only boundaries were the resources we had an our own creativity. I knew a solution had to exist, it was just a matter of finding it. If I couldn’t think of one, I just wasn’t being creative enough.
Still, though, I was terrified. I’d never done anything like this before. I started questioning why I even came to China in the first place, started questioning why I left you in Shanghai, and why I didn’t just go to the police like you said. I started freaking out and panicking right there in my train seat, questioning everything. The train was halfway to Wuxi by the time I managed to put all those fears to the back of my mind. I think the pressure of a deadline helped. It’s not a long trip to Wuxi from Shanghai. Besides, I was already on the train, no turning back at this point. I had to figure out how to do this, So, I forced myself to think about the problem instead of my fears.
First, what resources did I have? I knew their address. I also had the benefit of surprise. If they had Laurents and the Candlewind, then maybe they had let their guard down. Maybe they stopped looking for me and you. They probably wouldn’t be expecting either of us to show up. I checked my bag. Since you still had the bulk of our notes and books back in Shanghai, all I had was some cash, the emergency phone that Laurents had sent his text to (no new messages since), and a small blank notebook.
And that was it, she laughed, those were my resources. Now, the next step in solving the puzzle, I needed to use those resources, those pieces, to achieve the end goal. Goal number one: escape with Laurents and myself alive. Goal number two: escape with the Candlewind. Goal number three: shut down their operations in Wuxi.
So I had my pieces, and I had my end goal. All that was left was to learn the gameboard. By the time I got to that part, the train had arrived in Wuxi.
My first stop was clothes. I bought myself a hat and a mask to hide my face. Luckily, people in China wear masks pretty regularly–I assume because of the pollution–so I didn’t stand out too much by doing it. Next, I went to scout out the place.
The address took me to a small, run down building. It was three stories and stood by itself with a single, metal door in front. Pretty invisible when you took in the entire street. It was away from the nicest parts of the city, but was still pretty well trafficked. Across from the office building was this small cafe.
I picked a seat in the cafe where I would have a clear view of the building. As soon as I sat down, a wave of exhaustion hit. I realized I hadn’t had any real sleep in days. I ordered some coffee and willed myself to stay focused. I had to pay attention to the building.
The cafe had a small stack of magazines, so I took one and pretended to read it. I felt so obvious sitting there, I might as well have had holes cut out of the magazine and a big t-shirt that said SPY.
Still, I forced myself to sit still and stay calm, only taking off my mask to drink my coffee. I looked normal, right? Was this normal?
I kept an eye on the building, but nothing was happening. What was I expecting to see? A bunch of bald, burly men in sunglasses dragging a hooded prisoner through the front door?
There was a clock on the wall of the cafe. 11:13. How long was I supposed to sit here?
It felt like hours but, in reality, it was only a little after 12 o’clock when I finally caught my first clue. A motor scooter was putt-putting slowly up the street and pulled over in front of the building. The driver was wearing a bright red and yellow uniform and on the back of his scooter was a big, black, insulated bag. Fast food delivery?
The driver got up and pulled out one small paper bag (it couldn’t have held much food), and knocked on the front door.
No answer. The driver stood there, awkward, looking around to see if there was another door. He pulled out his phone and double checked the address. Another knock, louder this time. Still no answer. The poor guy must’ve been getting nervous. I’m sure he was on a tight schedule. He took a few steps to the edge of the building and looked down a narrow alley that ran down the side. He stepped in, leaving my view.
I stood up, pretending to stretch, and walked up to the drink counter in the hopes of getting a view down the alley. I tried to act like I was looking at the big overhead menu when, in reality, I was glancing out the window. Luckily, he was easy to spot in his bright uniform. He was basically a walking billboard for the restaurant.
He was deep in the alleyway, knocking. Was there a second door to the building that I didn’t see earlier? Must be. He kept knocking, but then the front door finally opened. A gruff looking man appeared in the doorway wearing gym shorts and a dirty t-shirt. He squinted against the light from outside, looking disheveled and disoriented, as though the banging on the door had just woken him up. He looked up and down the street, grimacing.
But the poor food delivery guy was still banging on the side door. It was a little funny to watch, but I was interrupted by the lady at the counter.
“Ni yao shen me?”
Startled back to my surroundings, I realized a short line had formed behind me and they were all waiting for me to order. I had to turn my attention away from the missed connection in progress outside and absentmindedly ordered the first caffeinated thing I saw on the menu.
After paying, I quickly returned to my table to watch. The food driver was back on the main street now, handing the food over to the disheveled man. The driver must have given up on the alleyway and walked back to the main street, or the disheveled resident peered down the alley to discover who was disturbing his sleep. Either way, the food had reached it’s destination and the driver was off again on his little scooter. The disheveled man walked back into the building and shut the door.
Okay, so there was at least one person in the building right now. I wondered who he was, what his role in this operation might be? He definitely looked like he was sleeping. That was odd considering it was the middle of the day. Another thing: the food delivery was pretty small. Did that mean there was only one or two people inside? Maybe it was just that one guy and Laurents in there right now?
The lady at the drink counter called out my order. I took it and thought more about what I’d just witnessed while I drank. Oh, there was a second door now, too, in the alleyway. Another discovery. I walked out the cafe, partially to get a different angle of the building, partially to keep myself awake and active. I walked in one direction as far as I could while still keeping the building in sight. I made it about two blocks before I had to turn around. Then I did the same thing in the other direction. There was a clothing store at the opposite end so I took a moment to break from reconnaissance to buy a cheap light jacket and a different hat. Then, I crossed the street.
Now I was on the same side as the building. I walked up the street towards it, trying my best to look disinterested as I passed by. It was definitely one of those buildings where the closer you look at it, the dirtier and more run down it looks. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve assumed the place was abandoned. There were alleyways on both sides of the building. On the left, there was nothing of interest. I kept walking past that alleyway until I reached the front door.
My heart was fluttering like a hummingbird. Trying to look as casual as possible, I let my hand drift out and quickly try the doorknob as I walked by, trying not to look nor break my stride in the process. It didn’t turn. I didn’t really expect it to, but I had to try. I kept walking until I reached the second alleyway. Sure enough, there was a second door about halfway down. I also noticed a ladder–a sort of ramshackle service stair for getting to the roof, maybe. I didn’t risk walking down the alleyway to try the second door and instead kept walking as if I didn’t even notice the building.
The rest of the day was painfully uneventful. Literally nothing happened. I tried my best to keep an eye on the building. I wandered from store to store on the other side of the street, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. But I was also exhausted. I was out of ideas. Do I try to get inside the building? I had to eventually, right? But how? It’s not like I was going to break down the front door. I could try the alleyway, but what then? Even if I did get inside, what next? Maybe I could use the ladder to get to the roof. But what would that accomplish? My mind was all over the place. Instead of doing anything, my world just shrank down to the size of that city block as I wandered aimlessly and kept watch on the building. Waiting for something, anything to happen.
To be honest. I think I fell asleep for just a little bit at a restaurant. I laid my head down on the table and woke up to an angry shop owner telling me to either buy some food or get out.
It was getting dark out now. Okay, fine. Time to give up on subtlety and try the side door.
I was directly across from the building, working up the courage to cross the street. I could do this. I had to do this. I was out of options. Maybe a solution would come to me once I saw what was inside. Or maybe they would be on the other side of the door, waiting for me. Maybe they spotted me as soon as I showed up and were laughing at my vain attempts to be sneaky, like a child who thinks they can outwit their parents by hiding under the dinner table during a hide and seek game.
Okay, I’m doing it. I lifted my foot to step into the street, but froze mid-stride.
There was a man at the door.
Where did he come from?
Realizing my exposed position, I pivoted as naturally as I could and walked down the sidewalk instead of across the street. My back was to the building now and the foot traffic was thinning out as the hour got later. He would see me if I turned my head to look over my shoulder. I tried walking into a shop but they were closing for the night.
Panic rising, I pulled out my phone, turned on the video recording, and put it to my ear as though I were talking to someone. I stopped walking, as though the phone call was taking up my full attention, and turned ever so slightly, hoping the camera was catching what was happening in front of the building.
Wait. it was getting dark. Was there enough light for the video to see anything? I kept turning, painfully slow, pretending to be lost in conversation, absentmindedly walking in a small circle. People did that while on the phone, right? This looked normal.
Finally, I turned enough to see the front door. The man was still there, He must have walked up while I was distractedly willing myself to cross the street. He wasn’t going inside, though. He stood outside the door, smoking a cigarette. A minute later, another man walked up. Neither of them were well dressed. Jeans and hoodies. They exchanged some words, the first guy looked irritated while the second guy seemed confused and questioning. The first guy banged on the door, but there was no answer. He banged louder. Still nothing.
Maybe they were trying to wake up the disheveled guy that was already inside? Was he still sleeping? Did that mean he was the only one in there?
The second guy shrugged, pulled out a set of keys, and fumbled with the lock for a second before opening the door. It was dark inside and I could hear the first guy yelling as he stepped in, presumably to wake up whoever was napping within. They shut the door behind them.
Okay, this was new information. This was good. I was alert now. The cafe was still open, so I walked up the street a little and went back inside, hoping no one would notice my return visit. I found the same table and watched.
Twenty minutes later, another food delivery guy. Same uniform, too. These guys knew what they liked, I guess. This time he had two bags of food. Twice the amount of food because there were four people inside now, maybe? The disheveled guy, the two new guys, and Laurents? The guy who was smoking the cigarette earlier answered the door, took the food, and went back inside. Quick and efficient. That’s when I noticed something else. Cigarette guy didn’t bother to close the door, it was on a spring and closed on its own.
Now, I had my idea. But it required one more day to confirm my suspicions and I couldn’t hang around here all night. I took out my notebook and started writing in Mandarin:
Bananas, Tomatoes, noodles, bag of rice, beer
Then I went to a second page and wrote a random Chinese cell phone number:
189 4050 3499 Call me!
Ripping out the two pages and folding them several times over so they had some thickness, I crossed the street and went up to the building. I would just have to hope no one was watching.
Working quickly, I wedged the first paper into the small gap between the front door and frame. I tried to place it as close to the ground as possible. It fit in place perfectly snug. Next, I did the same thing with the second paper at the alleyway door.
Satisfied with my work, I found the closest, cheapest hotel, and tried to sleep.
Elise and I made it through the containers and reached one side of the ship. We looked over the railing and saw roiling waves and, off in the distance, the receding skyline of Shanghai.
“Above the sea, that’s what Shanghai means when you translate it.” She absentmindedly broke from her story.
“Elise, you’re…brilliant, you know that?” Her story up to this point was crazy. Who was this woman?
She smiled, “Every problem is a puzzle. Your goal is like the finished picture. You look at what pieces your have, and fit them together to bridge the gap between what you currently have and the final picture you want. The key is paying attention to what your limited pieces can really accomplish. You have to get the full value out of each one.”
“C’mon, you know it’s impressive. Don’t try to make it sound easy.”
“Sometimes…you just have to be creative.”
“And other times,” I added, “you take risks. You could’ve been caught so easily.” the ship turned slightly, and I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“I was so scared, I think I was just on autopilot,” She put her hands on the railing as well, touching mine, “If I paused to think, I would’ve talked myself out of everything. I needed to think just enough to figure out what to do, but not so much that I got overwhelmed by it all, you know?” She turned away from the view and faced me, “I just focused on what was immediately in front of me, and it worked out.”
I was supposed to say something big at this point. Something romantic. I knew it. I could feel it…
But nothing came to me. Reader, I’m so much better at communicating when I can take the time to write out my thoughts. I felt the moment pass. It was like a boat drifting away from the dock. I could just reach it if I jumped, but if I hesitated just for a second, it would be out of reach and caught in the drifting current.
“I don’t understand what you wrote on those pages. And why did you wedge them in the doors?” The questions stumbled out of my mouth. I could’ve said anything. But instead I drew her out of the moment and back to her story. The boat of opportunity was gone, as far from me as Shanghai.
The pages were what let me finally catch some sleep. The next morning, I walked by the building again. As I approached the front door, I saw my piece of paper sitting on the sidewalk, not far from the door. It was still folded up like I had left it, though. That told me that someone opened the door at least once between the time I left last night and now. But, it didn’t look like it drew any attention since it was still folded up. I guessed no one was suspicious and unfolded it. If they had, I was hoping they would see a grocery list and discard it, assuming it was just pocket trash.
Then I pulled out my phone again and pretended to be on a call. Since it was mid-morning, the street was starting to get crowded so I stepped into the alleyway as if to get out of the way of the walkers and to avoid the growing city noises while on the phone. Once in the alleyway, I glanced at the side door. My fake romantic note was still wedged right where I left it. So, no one used this door last night. If anyone opened the door, the note would’ve quietly fallen out. If anyone happened to notice it, they would’ve found a discarded scrap of paper common in any bar. Nothing odd or suspicious. The only real risk was if they found it while it was wedged in the door, but that’s why I put it as close to the ground as possible.
So, when I left last night there were, at minimum, four people inside (assuming Laurents was in there). Between then and now, the front door was opened, which meant that there was likely some change in the inside population. To figure out what that new number was, I just had to wait until lunch.
At this point, I could make some educated guesses. Last night, there were three people inside plus Laurents. At some point in the very early morning, the two night visitors–I called them Mr. Smoker and Mr. Key Man since I saw one smoking cigarettes and the other had keys to the door–probably left, almost definitely through the front door, leaving just Mr. Disheveled and Laurents inside. Mr. Disheveled probably napped most of the day since he had visitors at night to deal with. Waking up only to eat. Maybe he kept an emergency phone near his bed or something and stayed in the building on-call in case something was needed. If the building was manned twenty-four hours a day, that meant something important was inside. Probably Laurents? Maybe even the Candlewind?
The problem was, time was running out. I told you three days and this was halfway through day two. I couldn’t afford to wait and watch longer to learn anything more. I needed to act on what knowledge I had. I only had one narrow chance where I needed to both test my theory and execute my plan.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I spent the morning pretty much the same way I spent the day before. But this time I made sure that by noon I was positioned in the alleyway, pretending to be on my phone again. I took out another sheet of paper from my notebook and wadded it up as tight as I could.
After a few minutes, another food delivery driver showed up. Same restaurant again. Just like yesterday at lunch, he only had one small bag of food. Definitely not enough for four people. He banged on the door several times and nearly gave up, getting back on his scooter. Luckily, he wasn’t as diligent as yesterday’s driver and didn’t bother to try the alleyway door. Finally, Mr. Disheveled groggily opened the door just in time to catch the driver before speeding off.
Okay, showtime. I had to get the timing perfect.
I stood at the edge of the alleyway, just out of eyesight, and listened to Mr. Disheveled take the food. Then, still on my phone in case he was looking, I poked out of the alleyway. The driver was walking back to his scooter, turned away from me. Good.
I stepped to the doorway. Mr. Disheveled was no longer there, and the door was slowly swinging shut on it’s own. I could only hope that he wasn’t facing the door. I walked quickly and, just before the door latched closed, I stopped it with my foot.
I quietly eased myself inside.
I was in a hallway, and I could hear Mr. Disheveled walking up a set of stairs that were at the opposite end to me. I desperately wanted to search for Laurents, but I couldn’t risk spending too much time inside while Mr. Disheveled was awake. This initial entry was going to be quick. I just needed to establish a foothold.
I still had the wad of paper in my hand. Looking down the hall, I saw what I was looking for–halfway down was a turn that went 90 degrees to the right. Stepping quickly but carefully, I went down the hall and took the turn. At the end of it was a door.
The alleyway exit door. I darted to it and, as gingerly as possible, tried the handle. Every squeak and metallic click the door made was like an orchestra at full crescendo to me as I eased it open. I thought for sure that he would hear me upstairs as he ate. But nothing happened. I was over-reacting and didn’t have time to freak out. With the door open, I wedged the wad of paper into the hole in the door frame where the latch would normally go. Then I stepped out into the alley. The door eased shut all the way, but the paper wad prevented the latch from locking.
Done. Hopefully, just like yesterday no one was going to use this door and notice that it had been tampered with.
I nearly screamed with joy at what I had just pulled off. Actually, I think I did jump up and down, but just for a second. Don’t look me like that! This was a crazy accomplishment for me. I calmed back down and walked out of the alleyway gabbing on my phone, absorbed in my fake conversation.
And that was day two done. I tried to get some extra sleep that evening.
The next morning, I was in the alleyway by nine in the morning. Mr. Disheveled was hopefully sound asleep and would remain so until he woke up to order lunch and then presumably fall back into his nap until it arrived.
That gave me three hours. Luckily, it wasn’t a big building.
“Speaking of lunch, I’m starving, do you think we should grab Laurents and find the galley?” Elise interrupted herself.
“What? Elise, no! You have to tell me what happened next!” I was fully absorbed.
“What do you mean? I went inside through the alleyway door that I unlocked the night before,” she shrugged. “Mr. Disheveled was passed out, like I guessed. I searched the building as quietly as I could until I found Laurents. He was blindfolded and tied up, but I helped him free. He told me the Candlewind was on the roof so we snuck back out the way I came, took the ladder to the roof, and got out of there as quick as we could. Then we paid a truck driver to take the balloon to the ship in Shanghai while we boarded the train. Laurents didn’t want to fly the balloon there because he was worried about being spotted.” She said everything so matter of factly.
“Then why were the police chasing you at the station?”
She chuckled, “Well, Laurents was starving on the train, so we went to the food car to eat. The problem was, I spent all my cash on coffees, clothes and the hotel room and didn’t realize it until after we ate and it was time to pay.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After all that, they nearly got caught because of an empty stomach.
Elise mistook my lack of words for moral judgement, “Hey, don’t look at me like that. We didn’t mean to! But what were we supposed to do? We snuck out of the food car and had to continually evade the train workers until we got to the station. It was crazy.”
“That was the crazy part?”
“If you hadn’t collided with the police back at the train station, they would’ve caught us.”
I sighed, “I think you need to work on your storytelling skills. How can you end on such a flat note!?”
She punched me on the arm, “Hey, this isn’t some made up fairy tale or spy novel. You have no idea how happy I was that things went so smoothly in Wuxi. Any hiccups and I would’ve been, I would’ve-” she trailed off.
Something still bothered me, though. I turned around from the ocean view and looked at the city of containers behind us. “Elise, how many containers does it take for a cargo ship to become a smuggling ship?”
She followed my gaze, “Just the one. But what if the ship is carrying critical, life saving medicine? If the ship is transporting ninety-nine boxes of medicine and one illegal box with us in it, does the bad outweigh the good?”
“You clearly haven’t seen the track suits,” I thought for a moment. “How many crimes, no matter how well intentioned, does it take before a person becomes a criminal?”
Her gaze drifted up from the containers to the night sky. The stars out here were brighter than I’d ever seen.
“Who defines a crime?” she whispered, “A thousand years ago, the same educated people who were convinced that the universe rotated around the Earth…those same people wrote the laws that said a man could sell his wife like property.”
“We don’t live in ancient Greece, Eli-“
“Or a hundred years ago, when the law in the United States said, in the same breath, that all men were created equal, but some only counted as three-fifths.”
“Does that make what we’re doing okay, Elise?”
“The world’s a messy, messy place.”
Hearing Elise’s story was like opening one final container on a ship. Seeing who she was, what she was capable of, in a whole new light.
“I’m still figuring it out,” she added, “Despite what you say about me being smart, I don’t have all the answers.” It sounded like she was discovering this new container of her life for the first time as well, trying to re-catagorize herself after learning its contents.
“There is one other thing that happened when I went into the building to save Laurents,”
“Pia, what the hell are you going on abo–“
“Laurents, say yes or I leave you here and walk away right now,” I told him. I removed his blindfold and the gag that was in his mouth, but he was still tied up on the floor.
“I mean it, Laurents. We aren’t doing this whole thing on our own. We aren’t going to shut down all these places, their whole operation, by ourselves. We’re going to do this right.”
“You want to go to the police.”
“Not right now, not immediately. Listen, we go to these places that Alice tipped us off to as planned. But we go there to collect information, not to barge in and shut things down on our own. Besides, look how badly that turned out here. We can’t do this alone Laurents.
We collect information, and we catch up to Alice. As soon as we get her back, we go to the police with everything we have, with Alice as the eyewitness.”
“Pia, we can–“
“No, Laurents. I’m not doing this your way. I don’t know what you had planned, but I’m not a killer. I can do this,” I gestured around the room, “I can help us get information. And, when push comes to shove, I’ll do whatever it takes to get Alice. But we can’t go around wreaking havoc around the world doing damage and breaking laws.”
“What do you expect is going to happen when we catch up to Alice? Do you really think we can get her back without causing some damage?”
I sighed, “We’ll cross that bridge if we live long enough to get there.”
Laurents was silent for a moment. He wasn’t angry. He never seemed to get angry. Instead he was deep in thought, probably evaluating his odds, “Okay, we do it your way. Now get us out of here, Pia. Before that idiot wakes up.”
There were tears in Elise’s eyes as she finished, “I…I’m not this,” she gestured around the ship. “We’re getting Alice back, and we’re getting evidence,” she took a deep breath, “I’m smart,” she smiled through the stress. “I think I can help us get all the pieces we need to reach our goal. To shut this all down and get Alice home.”
“You want to know if what we’re doing makes us criminals. Probably. But if the world was meant to be black and white, why is it so vivid and colorful?” She gave weak shrug, “And I guess I’m willing to carry some dark deeds if it leaves the rest of the world brighter. But you still had a point back in Shanghai. And it made me realize I can’t let that darkness shape all of my identity. I have limits, a balance to keep.” She looked at me. “I need you to help me keep that balance.”
She needed me? I don’t think anyone had said that to me before. Another thought nagged at me: Why was she willing to go to such lengths for Alice? Who was she to Elise?
Before I could respond, Laurents’ voice came from somewhere in the container maze, “What are you guys doing out on the railing like that? You’ll fall in and we’ll never find you out there in the dark. Grab some food with us and the crew.” He turned on a flashlight so we could spot him, and we all made our way to the galley.
The crew was smaller than I would’ve guessed. Only a handful of sailors. “Modern technology,” was the captain’s explanation, “The ship mostly runs itself these days. Still, two of the crew are on watch.”
I don’t remember the food or much else about the ship, my mind was still lingering on what Elise said. After a while, though, when all the plates were empty and our stomachs full, there was a big commotion and the crew pulled us all out onto the open deck–near the center of the containers and away from the ship’s edge. One of them ran back up to their cabin saying they’d be right back. We were all huddled under the night sky listening to the dull drone of the ship’s inner workings layered over the splash of the waves against the hull. Without prompting, the captain produced a bottle of liquor. There wasn’t enough light to see what was in it, but the bottle was passed around to everyone almost like a sacred ritual.
The one crew member suddenly re-appeared from his cabin carrying a wild-looking guitar. Even in the dark, I could see that it was covered in stickers with names of cities from all over the world. Everywhere from Sweden to Mongolia and half a dozen places I’d never heard of.
“She’s nearly as old as the ship,” the Captain remarked, “That beat up thing has been passed on from crew to crew since before I was the skipper.”
The sailor quickly started playing something up beat and fast. It must have been a popular party song because the crew erupted in foreign karaoke, yelling wildly in an off-tune chorus of Mandarin. There seemed to be a few hand motions, too, as they all pumped their fists in the air at key parts. They seemed so carefree and, as their voices reverberated off the steel walls all around us, the melodies seemed to repeat and multiply, leaving us surrounded by their rowdy music. After that, they switched to something in Japanese that was equally as up beat.
As the singing and drinking continued, the sailors started calling out to Elise in various forms of broken English. It had just dawned on me that she was the only woman on the ship. They asked her to dance with them by pantomiming waltzes and such. She played along, taking turns dancing with each sailor politely at first but, after a few minutes, she seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself–laughing with each clumsy misstep and hugging her dance partner at the end of each song.
The party continued like that for what seemed like the whole night. Even Laurents seemed to be relaxing. In fact, at one point he danced with Elise as well, followed by me and then the Captain who remarked to us, “You should know, this would never happen on a typical ship. Being on deck in the middle of the night like this. Any other Captain would have us dumped at the next port for recklessness behavior,” Elise took him by the hand and he spun her in beat with the music, “But if we’re already breaking the law, might as well enjoy what time we have!” he gave the kind of hoarse, ragged laugh that only a grisled man at sea could give. So we all sang, drank, and danced under the starlight in the middle of the ocean and, there in the darkness I thought to myself, If the world was meant to be black and white, why is it so vivid and colorful?
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