The Ghost Shipment
Prologue: The Barrel
He looked around the room. They’d all crashed.
He tipped the contents of the packet onto the table, used his credit card to divide it into two lines, rolled the one-hundred-dollar bill into a tight cylinder.
Poking the makeshift straw up one nostril, closing off the other with his finger, he breathed in gently, moving evenly along the line.
He exhaled, slow, steady, then sniffed again to pull it higher.
His eyes watered, his top teeth went numb.
He swapped nostrils, sniffed the other line.
His heart began racing. His breath quickened to keep up as his skin flushed warm and the tingling spread outward from his chest to his fingertips, toes.
The room appeared brighter, sharper.
The breeze through the open doors magnified the crows of a rooster and swept the rush of the river from way down in the valley up, up, up into the room, swirling through the metal fish on the wall until the light blue one out front, leader of the pack, pulsated, shouted to the world, after me you losers, let’s do this.
The keys to the Harley were on the sideboard, beside the GoPro.
The security guard at the Nyalahutan resort would later tell police the young American took both helmets off the handlebars, threw them over the wall, rode off south towards Ubud without turning on the lights.
At Simpang Tohpati, he swung onto the bypass road, cranked the throttle, tilting and weaving through the light pre-dawn traffic with the wind caressing his face, the potato-potato-potato-potato of the engine streaming with nodding palms and the black-white-black-white-black-white curbing into a mesmeric haze.
A CCTV camera mounted near the entrance to the underpass on the edge of Ngurah Rai Airport recorded the Harley bellowing through the tunnel. Another on the second floor of the BNI building captured the American saluting at the statue of a surfer.
He turned off the bypass at Jimbaran, slowing only slightly as the road got bumpier and tree trunks pinched in on both sides. After the roundabout with the archer statue, he started climbing, the Harley emitting harsh, even rasps. He caught glimpses of the massive floodlit Visnu riding a garuda on the hill to his left, before the crack-crack glide down to the coast.
A woman dusting inside the Rip Curl store at Padang Padang would later tell police she saw the young American ride up onto the sidewalk beside the gateway to the temple. Another woman cleaning the windows of the ticket booth – closed that time of the morning – said the young tourist greeted her with a polite salamat pagi before shuffling down the steps and taking a small plastic bag from his pocket.
He tipped the powder onto the stone, knelt, snorted the lot in one go. Felt it trickle down the back of his throat.
Teeth flared from the smiling gargoyles guarding the entranceway, like embossed words on a book cover. The strokes of a woman sweeping the floor of the small temple rasped full noise.
His chest started pounding as he skipped down the gap in the limestone cliff, keeping his head down so the GoPro wouldn’t hit the overhang. The beach was deserted, except for a guy setting up a t-shirt stall under an umbrella.
The vendor would later describe to police how the American stole a surfboard from one of the rental racks and stripped naked before entering the water wearing only the strange benda on his head.
He paddled directly out from the beach, cruising through a gnarly rip current, the chill water caressing his balls and the numbness rising to his neck, his chin, teeth. As he approached the takeoff zone, he shut out the thundering of the surf, visualized the epic peak, paddled like fury and dropped into the perfect green barrel.
A photographer trialing a new rectangular fisheye inside the bowl where the tube opened up would later tell police a badass swell from the south-west was hurling eight-foot offshore barrels onto the shallow coral reef. He had a bad feeling the moment the naked dude stood up on the board.
1. Vein for a vein
This was it. The moment that could swing the debate, hand Ped Garland victory in the winner-take-all Florida primary, crack the race for the Republican nomination wide open like a ripe pecan.
Or, if the kid – the Ciph – had screwed up one line of data, harvested the wrong cohort, Lawd have mercy.
The question was: What was he was going to do – specifically – about drug traffickers?
He’d gotten this far with his stump lines about the war on drugs failing America’s kids. How the careerists in Washington had tried locking people up left and right, then flipped the script and started talking about reducing harm. All the fancy talk made not a lick of difference. Surveys kept showing one in four young adults using illicit drugs. One in four! It was downright outrageous you could line up four young folks against a wall, and only three would be clean. Or lying. The whole drug situation was like a never-ending billboard of what was wrong with America.
The contest for the Republican nomination started with five candidates. Two dropped out after failing to take any delegates in Iowa or New Hampshire. A third bailed after Super Tuesday, leaving Ped sole challenger to the clear frontrunner, Kate Hunter. But despite throwing everything into the cluster of primaries the following week, he’d fallen further behind and was already being written off by some muck slinging journalists.
The question was repeated: ‘If you become President, Mr. Garland, what will you do about the traffickers?’
He took in the wall-to-wall faces, the red and blue of the CNN banners flanking the auditorium. The spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose glinted in the probing white heat of the spotlights. After a quarter-century of planning, he was about to put everything on the line on the advice of a pimply adolescent with no knowledge of – or interest in – politics.
He adjusted his glasses, pinching the thin metal frames, looked smack-dab at the camera.
‘Lethal injection. A vein for a vein.’
Most people had them. Special places in time, nirvana moments stored away in the memory to be dusted off when needed, wanted, or triggered by some random flashback.
Bec Corelli had fewer than most, but this break in Varkala on the south-western coast of India was definitely a candidate. The main beach and the shacks and stores and eateries and bars lining the path above the dramatic cliffs, the bohemian vibe, all-day warmth, heavenly food and sublime sunsets practically ordained relaxation. Rejuvenation.
And anonymity. No-one in this stress-free oblivion knew, or probably cared, that one of the journalists responsible for uncovering the truth about the Cabo virus was sharing their stretch of sand, haggling over the price of a prayer wheel at the Tibetan market, laughing over the names of cocktails at God’s Own Country Kitchen.
Varkala had been a welcome tonic for Bec’s mental health – an emotional oasis after the turbulence of recent months. Aristotle – the name she used for the color risk scale that helped her self-manage her borderline personality – was behaving.
Green signified the lowest risk of a meltdown. Blue was guarded but manageable. Yellow meant elevated risk. Orange was high, AKA freaking out. Red was bouncing off the walls. Flipped. Unhinged.
Since arriving in Varkala, Bec’s vision, her days, her worldview had been drenched by the swaying greens of the palms above the cliffs, the sweeping blues of the Arabian ocean and unbroken Kerala sky.
Part of Bec could stay here forever. But, as the Walrus famously said in Alice in Wonderland, the time had come to talk of many things…
2. Thousands of hands
‘They’ve given us the five-minute warning sir. Time to get the family out there and seated.’
Ped kissed Patricia on the forehead, squeezed her elbow, hugged their daughter Sophie. As they went through the door, the rumbling from the auditorium rose another notch.
He reached for his jacket, had a last look at the monitors on the wall. It was being called a rout, landslide, shellacking, depending which network you preferred.
Ped had gone into the day trailing by 223 delegates. Victories in the winner-take-all states of Florida and Arizona, plus dominant showings in Illinois and Wyoming gave him 222 of the 255 delegates on offer. More importantly, he’d closed within 28 points of Hunter.
Analysts were crediting his vein for a vein line for the turnaround, surprised how much it resonated with voters. What the analysts didn’t realize was that Ped had asked the Ciph to dig deep into her data for a game-changer, and she’d identified a latent desire for the death penalty. And that within minutes of him uttering the line in the Florida debate, social media feeds and email accounts of tens of thousands of carefully selected voters had been targeted with messages tailored to trigger a positive reaction with each individual.
Followed in the days since the debate with even more subtle peer-to-peer text messages to hairdressers, teachers, cab drivers, brothers, drinking buddies, priests and others identified through their social media activity as likely to influence the core targets.
‘Good to go sir?’
Ped adjusted his tie.
‘Let’s do it.’
The floor shuddered as he approached the steps to the stage, the announcer struggling to make herself heard.
‘Ladies and gentlemen… Thanks to your support, and the support of well over two million Americans in Arizona, Illinois, Wyoming and this great state of Florida, it gives me great pleasure to welcome…’
His name was overwhelmed by a tsunami of screaming and waving that morphed into cries of Ped, Ped, Ped, Ped as he swashed through the explosion of red, white, and blue confetti to the podium.
He waited for the volume to subside, then slowly raised his right hand until his index finger was pointing to the ceiling. Thousands of hands rose in unison.
He repeated the gesture with his left, then started pumping both hands as the crowd chanted his campaign slogan: Straight Up, Straight Up, Straight Up, Straight Up…
Bec had on a hippie-cut cotton dress with floral print in green and blue, though her anxiety over whether two of the most important guys in her life would hit it off called for something in yellow.
Jay Duggan and Mike Bullard. The man of the moment and the lifelong soulmate. The rough and the diamond. The off-grid nomad and click freak.
Before meeting Jay, the only person on the planet who got Bec – other than her father – was Mike. Had done since they’d met as teenagers at Thomas Jefferson Academy in North Carolina. While the fair weathers distanced themselves from the freak, Mike researched borderline personality, encouraging Bec to find ways to self-manage the condition rather than go down the medication route. To accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Which led Bec to Aristotle.
Through their university days at Chapel Hill, the year travelling together in South-East Asia before their first steps into journalism, Mike treated her as normal, didn’t try to heal or rescue her. Just quietly, calmly stuck by her, like a real brother. Through love and hate, attachment and rejection, through blue, yellow, orange, red. And dreams of green.
Jay also ticked most of Bec’s boxes. In the short months she’d known the New Zealander, he’d proven himself through the fire, witnessing her in the red and not bailing. Most men reacted to even her nutshell explanation of borderline personality by running for the hills. Jay had simply shrugged his shoulders, said we’re all on the spectrum. Only fellow travelers could truly understand how much that meant to a person constantly forced to mask her condition, presenting a façade of normality often to the point of exhaustion.
Or how important it was to Bec that these two men in her life got along.
After bumming around Kerala for days that drifted lazily into weeks, Bec and Jay had come down to Trivandrum Airport to meet Mike and take him back to the beach house in Varkala to decide on their next project.
Jay, hanging loose in a tattered Kingfisher singlet, frayed denim shorts and jandals – as New Zealanders liked to call flip flops – had no inhibitions or male ego issues ahead of his first face-to-face with Mike.
The electronic board had noted the arrival of the Emirates flight from JFK and Dubai thirty minutes earlier, which should have given Mike plenty of time to clear customs, immigration and collect his luggage.
Flashes of yellow – the flight information logo, a passing sari, gold bling, duty free bags on the backs of trolleys – were starting to intrude into Bec’s vision, before Mike emerged. Dressed for March in Manhattan. Dark woolen coat, dress jeans, leather boots, a smile that beamed as soon as their eyes met.
Once Bec peeled herself from his bear hug, Jay and Mike pre-empted her awkward introduction with a friendly handshake.
‘Good to finally meet you in person Mike. Brace yourself for some tropical heat, mate. I’d lose that jacket before the door if I were you.’
The taxi had hardly left the parking lot before Mike was glued to the screen of his phone.
‘Can’t that wait till we get to the beach?’
‘Come on Bec. We’ve been offline more than four hours.’
‘The Aristotle channel’s getting an average fifty subscribers an hour, guys. Plenty of people are ticking the poll. One in ten putting money where their mouths are. We’re talking serious moolah.’
‘Thanks to your social media following.’
‘That definitely helps. But it’s only half the story here Bec. You’ve still got to have a product people are willing to support, and the reaction to our exposé has been, well, out of this world. There’s talk of a Pulitzer.’
The cab turned onto the bypass road, and they headed north-west, parallel to the coast.
Feedback to the virus story, which they’d published under the Aristotle byline, had given Mike and Bec the idea – and confidence – to quit their journalism gigs in New York, go freelance. Mike had spent the last few weeks setting up a YouTube channel that gave subscribers the opportunity to vote for one of ten proposed investigations, and the option to pledge money towards the journalism.
‘So what projects are getting the most support?’
'Votes are spread pretty evenly across three or four of our proposals. We can go into that in more detail later. Pledges for specific projects are also evenly spread. The big surprise is the generic pledges.’
Jay turned his head from the front seat.
‘From people who just want to support us and our journalism – and are happy for us to decide what to investigate.’
Which was cool, Bec thought. One potential downside to letting the public call the shots was the possibility of conflict with funders. All the proposed investigations were international in scope, most with formidable, vested interests.
She gave Mike a gentle nudge.
‘So, you think this scheme’s gonna work?’
‘It better. I’ve quit the job at Wooster.’
After lunch of red snapper cooked in banana leaves, they walked back to the beach house to make their decision.
They’d narrowed it down to three potential projects: human trafficking, drug trafficking or child labor. All three received strong support from the voting and pledging.
What tipped the balance was an email from Neil Scott, billionaire founder and CEO of a company based in New York that developed software for hospitals. A Google search showed the company was a pioneer in the use of artificial intelligence in healthcare, and one of the principal investors in a new privately-owned supercomputer.
Mr. Scott’s son Charlie had died surfing in Bali, while high on cocaine.
For Bec, the clincher was the moving plea by Mr. Scott to uncover the people ultimately responsible for his son’s death. He wasn’t interested in the bottom-feeder who sold the coke to Charlie; he wanted the Aristotle team to trace the drug back to its source.
Jay indicated he’d be happy tackling any of the shortlisted projects but was attracted by the scale and challenge of Mr. Scott’s suggestion. He also ‘admired a guy prepared to put his money where his mouth is’. The businessman had pledged $100,000 up front, and a further $500,000 if the Aristotle team could complete the assignment.
The tipping point for Mike, other than the money and exotic appeal of Bali, was the video. Mr. Scott’s email came with a police report and witness statements from Denpasar, and a video shot from a Go-Pro attached to Charlie’s head. From a journalistic point of view, it was pure gold.
They decided to split up. Mike would return to the States to interview Neil Scott; Bec and Jay would head to Bali.