They were the vanished, they were the unfortunate.
To the human smugglers -- the snakeheads -- who carted them around the world like pallets of damaged goods, they were ju-jia, piglets.
To the American INS agents who interdicted their ships and arrested and deported them they were undocumenteds.
They were the hopeful. Who were trading homes and family and a thousand years of ancestry for the hard certainty of risky, laborious years ahead of them.
Who had the slimmest of chances to take root in a place where their families could prosper, where freedom and money and contentment were, the story went, as common as sunlight and rain.
They were his fragile cargo.
And now, legs steady against the raging, five-meter-high seas, Captain Sen Zi-jun made his way from the bridge down two decks into the murky hold to deliver the grim message that their weeks of difficult journeying might have been in vain.
It was just before dawn on a Tuesday in August. The stocky captain, whose head was shaved and who sported an elaborate bushy mustache, slipped past the empty containers lashed to the deck of the seventy-two-meter Fuzhou Dragon as camouflage and opened the heavy steel door to the hold. He looked down at the two-dozen people huddled there, in the grim, windowless space. Trash and children's plastic blocks floated in the shallow tide under the cheap cots.
Despite the pitching waves, Captain Sen -- a thirty-year veteran of the seas -- walked down the steep metal steps without using the handrails and strode into the middle of the hold. He checked the carbon dioxide meter and found the levels acceptable though the air was vile with the smell of diesel fuel and humans who'd lived for two weeks in close proximity.
Unlike many of the captains and crew who operated "buckets" -- human smuggling ships -- and who at best ignored or sometimes even beat or raped the passengers, Sen didn't mistreat them. Indeed he believed that he was doing a good thing: transporting these families from difficulty to, if not certain wealth, at least the hope of a happy life in America, Meiguo in Chinese, which means the "Beautiful Country."
On this particular voyage, however, most of the immigrants distrusted him. And why not? They assumed he was in league with the snakehead who'd chartered the Dragon: Kwan Ang, known universally by his nickname, Gui, the Ghost. Tainted by the snakehead's reputation for violence, Captain Sen's efforts to engage the immigrants in conversation had been rebuffed and had yielded only one friend. Chang Jingerzi -- who preferred his Western name of Sam Chang -- was a forty-five-year-old former college professor from a suburb of the huge port city of Fuzhou in southeastern China. He was bringing his entire family to America: his wife, two sons and Chang's widower father.
A half-dozen times on the trip Chang and Sen had sat in the hold, sipped the potent mao-tai that the captain always had in good supply on his ship and talked about life in China and in the United States.
Captain Sen now saw Chang sitting on a cot in a forward corner of the hold. The tall, placid man frowned, a reaction to the look in the captain's eyes. Chang handed his teenage son the book he'd been reading to his family and rose to meet the captain.
Everyone around them fell silent.
"Our radar shows a fast-moving ship on course to intercept us."
Dismay blossomed in the faces of those who'd overheard.
"The Americans?" Chang asked. "Their Coast Guard?"
"I think it must be," the captain answered. "We're in U.S. waters."
Sen looked at the frightened faces of the immigrants around him. Like most shiploads of illegals that Sen had transported, these people -- many of them strangers before they'd met -- had formed a close bond of friendship. And they now gripped hands or whispered among themselves, some seeking, some offering reassurance. The captain's eyes settled on a woman holding an eighteen-month-old girl in her arms. Her mother -- whose face was scarred from a beating at a reeducation camp -- lowered her head and began to cry.
Copyright © 2002 by Jeffery Deaver
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