Flying Blind to China
By: Walter Giersbach

Jing–Wei wrinkled her nose, stepping over Jimmy Huang's clothes as though she smelled something nasty. Jimmy lay in the bed, watching her dress, thinking her belly had curves resembling a violin.

"You always cause trouble. Detective! That is why my father is so angry." She pulled a green tank top over her head and the violin disappeared.

"It was not my fault," Jimmy said. "I went to the factory to arrest a manager and the big boss wouldn't let me in. Jing–Wei, they were making phony medicine out of wallboard and highway paint! American lawyers took their case to a judge. The Hong Kong Police were ordered to investigate. I was assigned…."

"You held the owner at gun point until the Senior Superintendent himself arrived!" Her lip trembled. "Bad for business. Don't you know business people run Hong Kong? Not politicians. Not the government. And they put pressure on my father, so what do you expect?"

Jimmy sighed. He could kiss off the promotion he was expecting. Her father, the Chief Inspector, would make sure his papers went to the back of the queue.

"And, I don't like taking the subway all the way out to your place. Can't you find an apartment near the university?" She didn't wait for his answer. Just muttered "I'm late for a class" and pushed out of the door.

"Me too," he said muttered. "I got a plane to catch."

An hour later at Kai Tak Airport, Jimmy looked with a jaundiced eye at the Havilland Dash–8. Sparrows of fear fluttered in his stomach, but he'd been given no choice about flying. Jing–Wei's father ran the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau of the police. It was his direct order that Huang fly to Nanjing to pick up a prisoner.

If his prisoner was anyone but the software counterfeiter Three Finger Ma Jimmy would have pleaded that he had swine flu or his grandmother had died. He hated flying and a flying coffin like this was worse than confronting an entire triad. He wondered how he could make peace with the Chief Inspector and whether his affair with Jing–Wei had a future without the old man's blessing. Even whether Jing–Wei's name — Little Bird — was an omen.

Love was damned complicated compared with being a cop.

He sat down uneasily and looked around. A dozen or so other passengers, all Chinese, were buckled in two abreast in each row. Bad luck, Jimmy thought, that he was given a window seat at the front of the cabin. If the plane crashed, he would be the first to see death rising to hug him.

One passenger in a dark suit was speaking English into his mobile phone. Maybe not unusual for a Hong Kong departure, but curious. The other passengers all looked like hourly paid workers taking the limited–service midnight flight for convenience or economy. Jimmy was being punished by being on this flight. Was that English–speaker also being penalized by a superior?

The pilot and co–pilot went forward without smiling. Jimmy jumped when the turboprop outside his window sputtered into life, and then the second engine kicked over. Flames bellowing from the engines confirmed his belief that these demons were fire–breathers.

His pounding heart slowed as the plane accelerated, reached altitude and leveled off. His strongest wish was that a flight attendant would bring him a beer, but there were no attendants. This was a 'mei–you guanxi "no problem" flight with three stops. Cheap would be the reason the Chief Inspector bought Jimmy's ticket on this flight. Was the Chief Inspector now smiling vindictively? He couldn't possibly know Jimmy and Jing–Wei were lovers, could he?

"We'll be flying at ten thousand feet and land in an hour," someone in the cockpit said over the speaker system. "Do not get up or move around." Typical Mainland indifference to the passengers. Jimmy didn't listen to the rest.

He closed his eyes. A quarter hour or a few minutes later — Jimmy didn't know which — he awoke, choking. The cabin was filled with smoke. His eyes opened wide. A red light shone from the open door to the flight deck and something — a passenger? — brushed by him. He could hardly see his hand.

Passengers shouted, and a woman let out an eerie high–pitched scream. Death was going to be their pilot, Jimmy thought. This was every passenger's terror at being in a fiery plane ready to kiss the earth. Damn the Inspector. Goodbye, Jing–Wei. Goodbye to that soft stomach and those cute breasts.

Moments later, there was an explosive blast as the door in the front of the cabin opened. Smoke streamed out and bitterly cold air rushed in. Several people tried to rise in their seats, shouting and banging their heads on overhead bins. At any moment, the plane would begin to nose down and embrace the earth.

As soon as he could see, Jimmy pulled his way to the cockpit. The pilot's seat was empty. To his right, the co–pilot was slumped over the wheel. Jimmy thought angrily, what kind of Mainland airline was this where the pilot walks off the job?

He ignored the little sparrows in his stomach and pulled back the co–pilot's head. A groan issued from the man's mouth and his eyes fluttered.

"If you want to wake up," Jimmy shouted, "I will invite you to please fly this fucking airplane before I am killed." The co–pilot shook his head to clear it.

Maybe today we won't die, Jimmy thought.

The co–pilot managed a smooth emergency landing in Fuzhou. No cabin chatter now. Just a planeload of people frozen in silence. The twelve passengers and co–pilot were met on the tarmac by a bus. Waving his arms like wash on a clothesline, a police officer told everyone to get aboard and remain seated.

It was cold and dark and raining, and Jimmy was hungry. He tried calling Jing–Wei on his mobile and got her recorded message.

"Hey, officer," he called to the cop. "I'm a police detective. I want to talk to whoever is in charge." He pulled out his badge and identification.

"Sit! Do not move! And give me that phone." The local spoke with a Fujian accent.

Angrily, Jimmy handed over his phone. "Hey, local boy," he said. "In Hong Kong we don't get mad. We get even."

When the bus screeched to a stop at the terminal, an extremely obese Army officer boarded the bus. This one must be a big Party member to be so fat, Jimmy thought.

"I am Major Yue and I am in charge of this investigation." The major looked into each person's eyes to make his point. "Each of you will stay where you are until you are ordered, one at a time, to go into the terminal. You will be questioned." He pointed to Jimmy. "You first."

Inside, Jimmy greeted the major with a bow. "Hau bu–hau. I am a detective in Hong Kong. What just happened? Maybe I can help."

"Nothing you can help with," the fat man said. "I will be frank, but you must promise not to say anything to anyone."

Jimmy nodded. Maybe the major believed a good word from Jimmy might open up a Hong Kong residency permit. No harm in being nice.

"The government was shipping an ancient scroll from Hong Kong back to the museum in Fuzhou. It is extreeeemely valuable." He drew out the word for emphasis. "The scroll came from the palace of the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. The co–pilot was personally charged with its safekeeping. Now, the art has disappeared along with the pilot."

Jimmy whistled. "The old Huangdi, the same guy who built the Great Wall two thousand years ago? Must be worth a lot of money.

"Millions of yuan in the right hands. But it will do the pilot no good. We know his identity. He put the plane on automatic, knocked out the co–pilot and stole the scroll. Veeeery smart. He set a smoke bomb to go off in the main cabin and then got into a parachute — hidden somewhere — and jumped out the door. That was what cleared the air so quickly."

Major Yue rubbed his stomach in satisfaction. "It's a matter of time until we find the pilot, charge him, have a trial, and execute him."

"May I be permitted to watch while you interrogate the passengers? I may learn something about how to better conduct investigations."

The major smiled benevolently. "I am always happy to teach eager students."

One by one, the passengers and remaining crew member were ordered forward to account for every minute from the time the plane left the ground until it landed.

The woman was a teacher going back to the University of Nanjing. A man and woman were partners in a family bakery. A truck driver on holiday was going to visit a brother. And so on. Finally, an older man — the English–speaker on the mobile phone — limped up with the aid of a cane.

"No point in wasting, Mr. Tso's time," Major Yue whispered. "He's one of the most respected businessmen in Shanghai." Turning, he bowed and apologized for the flight interruption. "The airline will refund your ticket, I am sure, Mr. Tso. This is outrageous. I assure you we will catch the criminal."

"So happy to fly with a notable person," Jimmy interrupted in English. "I saw you bravely helping the people seated near you."

Tso gave a nod of appreciation. "Experience. I am a veteran of the People's Liberation Army Air Force. I personally flew against Chiang Kai–shek's bandits in the China Sea."

"Ahhh," Jimmy said. "I am honored to meet you. Can you tell me what your feelings were when the smoke entered the cabin? Did you think we were going to die?"

"I realized we were in trouble," the old man answered. "I saw the smoke filling the plane. I was in the front row. I could see nothing so I put my head down to the floor to breathe. Afterwards, I saw the cockpit door open and someone rushed by my seat. Then," he shrugged, "a shock as the cabin door was opened."

The major looked perplexed as the foreign language passed over his head.

"Thank you very much, Mr. Tso. Sye–sye," Major Yue said in Chinese. "We are sorry to trouble you. We will see that you get the next available flight to…."

"Mr. Tso," Jimmy interrupted again. "I am confused. You said 'afterwards.' What did you mean?"

The old man blinked. "After the cockpit door opened."

"No, no," Jimmy said. "You said you put your head down to the floor to breathe better and afterwards someone rushed by. Why afterwards? That's what you say when an event has been completed. What happened?"

The old man shook his head. "I do not understand."

Jimmy smiled. "You are a rich Chinese businessman. Why didn't you fly first class instead of taking this…this flying coffin?"

"Well," the man said gruffly, "it was convenient to my purposes."

"Detective Huang, that is enough! Mr. Tso, you are free to go with our apologies."

The man stood up with a crooked smile. "Thank you," he said sarcastically.

"Wait, Mr. Tso, one more question," Jimmy tugged at the hand holding the cane. "Your leg. What is wrong?"

"A flying injury, defending our Motherland. Do not be impertinent!"

"A flying injury that took off your leg?" Jimmy inquired. "When you walked in out of the rain you left a funny footprint on the cement. Like a duck with only one good leg."

"Detective!" Major Yue turned red. "That is enough."

"Let me suggest something, Major…and Mr. Tso." Jimmy pursed his lips. "The plane was flying along, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. A smoke bomb goes off. Mr. Tso gets up from his aisle seat in the first row. He goes into the cockpit, kills the pilot, knocks out the co–pilot, grabs the scroll, and afterwards throws the pilot out the door."

"That is the most ridiculous…!" Tso sputtered. "You have been reading comic books!"

"I think you will find the pilot lying in some rice field. With no parachute," Jimmy said.

"Officer!" The major waved at the local policeman. "Arrest this troublemaker. Get him out of here!"

"Wait a minute! What kind of investigator are you? You haven't checked my theory."

"Damn all you Heung Gong Ging Chaat!" The major spat Cantonese dialect for Hong Kong Police. "Where is the scroll, Mr. Smart Detective? We checked everyone's luggage."

The local cop locked his arm around Jimmy's neck to pull him away.

"Mr. Tso," Jimmy shouted, wrestling free, "pull up your pant leg! If you do not have an artificial leg I will apologize. And if the scroll is not inside the leg I will prostrate myself and let a jet plane roll over me."

The major nodded at the local cop to let Jimmy loose — for the moment. Tso suddenly began hopping like a rabbit toward the door. Instinctively, Jimmy stuck his foot out, tripping the man. Tso cried iut as he fell to the floor, exposing a pink, plastic, prosthetic leg wrapped in an ancient scroll.

"Now," Jimmy said, taking a deep breath, "I would very much love to have a cold beer. And if I can have my mobile phone, I need to call my girlfriend."

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