Wong’s Water Pot (Part 1 of 2)

My only fictional story in the first person. Other fiction has always been in third person. Any critique or comment more than welcome. I’m particularly keen to learn if any of the paragraphs should be shorter. (Including in Part 2 to follow) Thanks.

This is the first part of a short story which has a total length of about 5500 words.

I excitedly clutched in one hand a little framed reproduction oil painting. I’d just bought it at a market on the mainland for only a couple of dollars. Known worldwide as Wong’s Water Pot, the original masterpiece was on display in the classy but jaded Grand Imperial hotel in Banston Bay. I passed the secure cabinet often when walking through the reception area to get to my room. My copy of the painting of an Asian woman with a water pot on her head looked just as convincing. With a struggling oriental craft business in a London backstreet, I needed a substantial cash injection, and had been developing an idea of how to raise some capital. Skipping down the stairway to the lower deck of the ferry, I joined the queue of holidaymakers waiting to disembark in Banston Bay. We’d arrived at the premier resort on Pacibaya, a cosmopolitan holiday island within the Republic of Bandesia, located in the west Pacific Ocean. Beside me stood a young Bandesian woman with waist-length shiny black hair, an alluring face and head-turning body. She tugged at the hem of her short, tight black skirt before fastening the top button of her white blouse. Then she slipped into shiny black stiletto heel shoes. Convinced she wasn’t on holiday, I decided to find out more.

“Hi, you look like you’re off to work. Am I right?” I said brightly.

With a dazzling smile she replied, “Correct, and you look like you’ve had a day at the market.”

I suppose my baseball cap, sleeveless top, shorts and trainers could have been a clue. It was unlikely she’d spotted the painting. “Sure. I’m Gary – Gary Jamison. From London, England. What’s your name?”

“Larne – Larne Ho. Yes, you look English with those blue eyes and fair hair.”

“Nice to meet you, Larne. Where do you work?”

“At the Grand Imperial.”

“Really? I’ve been staying there for a week but haven’t seen you. Which department are you in?”

“I’m head receptionist but have been home to see my parents for two weeks.”

I said, “Then no doubt we’ll be seeing quite a bit of each other, Larne. I look forward to that.” I felt a tingle of excitement from the possibility this lovely lady might just turn out to be available from a romantic viewpoint. I was ready for a new special someone in my life after a long-term relationship with a girlfriend back home fell apart. I tried to keep the conversation going with, “Why aren’t they letting people off? The gangway’s been down for ages.”

“I expect the police have decided to do another random search. It’s something they started recently after crime increased here in Banston Bay.”

That unexpected development shocked me; there hadn’t been any searches on the outward journey earlier. With churning stomach, I suddenly felt my scheming was ending. Moments later, however, I reckoned this chance meeting might turn out to be very useful in my plan to steal the original Wong’s Water Pot, worth two million dollars. Larne must know a lot about that cabinet housing the painting. I indicated to a bench against a bulkhead. “Why don’t we sit down then?”

“Let’s do that,” Larne said.

After settling on the bench, I said, “This place used to be one of the most peaceful and romantic destinations. What a shame it’s all changing.”

Larne nodded. “Yes, Bandesia has suffered a lot. A corrupt government has almost brought the nation to its knees, on the verge of bankruptcy.”

Shielding my eyes from the blazing sun, I surveyed the palm-fringed sandy shoreline. Beyond, rolling green hills dotted with luxurious white villas, plantations and shady woodland painted a breathtaking backdrop. “You’d need to be a millionaire to own one of those villas.”

“Oh yeah, they’re all super rich.” Larne almost spat the words. “A lot of them are serving or former government ministers. Thanks to them, we lost our free health service, and a colossal tax imposition destroyed many businesses and broke up families.”

“Yet we tourists still come in droves, choosing to ignore the perilous state of the nation. I suppose that’s because most of the trouble occurs on the mainland.”

“That’s changing rapidly. The military have made repeated threats to mount a coup d’état against the headstrong, selfish Prime Minister Kang Chun and his government.” Larne pointed in the direction of the villas. “Quite a few of those homes now belong to leaders of rebel groups who became wealthy from organising armed robberies, blackmail, drugs and arms running.”

* * *

Switching the painting in that display cabinet wasn’t going to be straightforward. To start with, the hotel reception area was never empty. I found that out in a couple of days by spending endless hours sitting in an armchair and observing everything going on. Of course, I didn’t sit there twenty-four hours a day but spent various lengths of time during the day and night, pretending to be busy with books or my smartphone. The displayed painting occupied a spot almost in the centre of the spacious reception area. Admirers circled the little fortress, studying every detail from various angles. In addition to the presence of a receptionist, concierge, porter, guests and security officers, CCTV cameras were all over the place – at least three of them focused on the cabinet. A control panel for the lock—and no doubt security alarm in the event of an incorrect code being entered—was located next to a door at the back with hinges strong enough for Fort Knox. The hotel’s general manager, a good-looking slim young man named Mr Sagwau Tanaka, frequently strolled around; apparently checking staff efficiency and cleanliness. He sometimes glanced over, which made me feel uncomfortable – probably a guilt complex.

During the second day of observations, Sagwau Tanaka walked up and said, “Good afternoon sir. You seem extremely interested in our little exhibition. Are you an artist, or maybe an art dealer?”

“Oh –er—not really. I have an oriental craft business. But that picture is just so magnificent.”

“Indeed it is. I’m glad it is bringing you so much pleasure. Enjoy your stay with us.”

Without doubt, help would be needed to pull off the theft. I reckoned Larne Ho might be able to assist.

* * *

Larne happened to be on duty the night I walked in from the street. With a broad grin, I strode over to the desk. “Well hello! Great to see you again.”

She looked up and smiled. “Oh, good evening Mr Jamison. How are you?”

“Call me Gary. You look stunning, Larne.”

She glanced around, leaned forward and whispered, “Okay, but you have to be Mr Jamison when anyone’s listening.”

“Well as no one is, how about a little drink when you finish work?”

“Thank you. I finish at midnight.”

“I’ll be here. We’ll go to Sparkles, a little cocktail bar I discovered not too far away.”

* * *

Shortly after midnight, we hurried along a palm tree lined sidewalk full of food carts crammed with delicacies from all corners of the world. The aroma of spices, meat and fish hung in the hot and humid night air. The Pacific Ocean murmured gently as it lapped the shore in the sheltered bay. Packs of wild dogs howled in the distance, neon lights flashed, music spilled from bars and clubs but pedestrians hurried along, anxious to get indoors, away from armed police patrolling in pairs. The lawmen were obviously wary, hands hovering over their gun holsters. The sound of many heavy boots stomping along the road grew louder. A platoon of soldiers in steel helmets, and with rifles at the ready, marched into view. A deafening explosion and shattering glass sent people scurrying for shelter. Police whistles shrilled and officers rushed towards a shop with smoke and flames billowing from the demolished frontage. The army unit broke ranks and charged to the ruined building. Police and troops opened fire on a group of men running away from the scene. Two would-be escapees screamed in agony and fell to the ground.

I roughly pushed Larne through the doorway of Sparkles cocktail bar and stumbled in behind her. “Hell’s bells!” I gasped. “I thought this stuff only happened on the mainland.”

“Not any more,” Larne said grimly. “It’s going to get worse. As we’re stuck here for a while, we might as well have that drink.”

 We sat on stools at the bar. Scared customers huddled in groups. An old man with grey curly hair and a dazzling smile played a battered upright piano on a tiny stage. An attractive young woman with wide bright eyes full of fear smiled bravely as she shook cocktails and served customers.

Larne glanced around apprehensively before telling me, “The army is getting very close to toppling the government. Crime gangs are taking advantage of the impending chaos by launching armed raids on locations where valuables are kept. They recently spread from the mainland and have already robbed the biggest jewellery shop here in Banston Bay. The gangs always operate late at night when it’s quiet. It’s widely believed the Grand Imperial is high on the list because of the painting.”

After downing a couple of stiff cocktails, Larne revealed more about the state of play in this part of the world. She explained that her parents both needed expensive medical treatment following a dreadful road accident but the family were poor and couldn’t afford it. “My salary just isn’t enough. I send home as much as possible, leaving just enough for me to live on,” Larne said sadly.

“That’s terrible,” I told her with genuine concern. “Life can be very cruel. I thought my problems were bad enough.” Those words aroused her interest so I spent fifteen minutes explaining my shortage of capital to keep the business afloat.

Larne leaned towards me and whispered, “If I thought I could get away with it, I’d steal that painting in the hotel.”

After a stunned silence, I coughed then whispered, “What?”

“Sure. I’ve as much right to it as anyone else.”

Nodding to a quiet corner of the bar, I said, “Let’s sit there. We can talk without being overheard.”

After settling in comfortable chairs, I asked Larne, “Why do you say you have as much right to the painting as anyone else?”

“Because it was confiscated by this awful government – or more precisely by the Prime Minister, Kang Chun. Now he pockets huge amounts of cash by ordering businesses all over the country to pay fees to exhibit it. It pulls in a lot of customers.”

Shaking my head in disbelief, I asked, “Who was it confiscated from?”

Larne sighed. “Descendants of the artist, Wong. It had been in the family for generations. The Prime Minister falsely accused them of being illegal immigrants. They were forced to hand over their masterpiece or be deported to their native land – some tiny island not far from the north of Australia. They couldn’t go there because the place has been uninhabited since a volcano buried everything in sight. No country has laid claim to the island for hundreds of years.”

“You can’t deport people to somewhere that doesn’t exist,” I pointed out.

“Our Prime Minister would still have dispatched them – he would have ensured they were just dumped, probably at sea.”

“Surely if the family are still around they’ll do something to get their property back.”

Larne explained. “They’re not around. They disappeared without trace shortly after handing over the picture. It’s thought they sailed off on a cargo ship bound for South America.”

After pretending to be deep in thought, I told Larne, “I wouldn’t mind snatching that picture either. Perhaps we should become partners in crime.”

The door burst open and two armed policemen rushed in, waving handguns menacingly. Women screamed and some people attempted to dive for cover under tables. The pianist continued playing defiantly.

One of the police officers shouted, “Stay where you are! All of you! Sit down!” Both men advanced slowly, guns at arm’s length, staring into the faces of customers. They came towards me.

“This is it,” I hissed in Larne’s ear. “Somebody’s been eavesdropping on our conversation.”

Both officers studied me closely. One pulled out a torch and directed a bright beam over my face. “Passport!” he demanded. Thankful I’d remembered to put in my pocket, I handed it over. After flicking through pages, the officer handed it back, grunting, “No, it’s not him.” They turned, walked to the piano and one of them ruthlessly slammed the lid on the musician’s fingers. The old man gasped in pain and rubbed his bruised hands together. The police stormed over to the bar and began questioning the woman working behind it.

Larne let out a sigh of relief. “It’s okay. They’re looking for one of the men who escaped after the explosion earlier.”

Satisfied the wanted chap wasn’t in the cocktail bar, the police left. A customer shouted, “Play it, Sam!” The pianist played Happy Days Are Here Again. A ripple of applause broke out around the room.

“Thank God for that.” I wiped sweat from my brow. “Now then, we were talking about becoming partners in crime.”

“Are you serious?”

“Sure. We could both do with a bit of luck. Any ideas how we can grab it?”

Larne stared at me long and hard, and then said, “It just so happens Mr Sagwau Tanaka, the hotel general manager, became careless about security. He’s just quit and will be going abroad to work. The other night he didn’t lock the safe in his office before going off duty. I couldn’t resist having a little look in it. There was a piece of paper with the code to unlock the security cabinet. I copied the numbers.”

Suddenly my enthusiasm to own a work of art intensified. With racing heart, I leaned forward eagerly and whispered, “Really? That’s amazing. Seems like we need to do some planning. Where do we start? We need to move quickly.”

With a cheesy grin, Larne said, “Just as well you’ve got that little reproduction.”

Gasping, I spluttered, “Reproduction? How do you know I’ve got one?”

“Oh come on – you don’t think I didn’t notice that little thing you brought over on the ferry?”

“You don’t miss much. Tell me more.”

“It’ll be easy to swap the pictures because there’ll only be a trainee manager on night duty until a replacement general manager is appointed. I’ll be in charge of front of house.”

“How come – er, what’s his name? – the general manager doesn’t want to have Wong’s Water Pot?

Larne replied, “Sagwau Tanaka is a very private man. Nobody really understands him.”

That explanation seemed a bit odd, but I carried on with, “There’ll still be security officers and CCTV. Surely the trainee manager is going to be on hand. And what about the concierge and porter?”

Larne shook her head. “Wrong. I’ll trigger a fire alarm on the top floor. The duty manager and security men will shoot off to investigate; the concierge and porter will be preoccupied ushering people out to the street. Then it’s easy to turn off the cameras, unlock the cabinet and make the switch.”

I realised this girl was quite unique. “Seems you’ve got that bit worked out perfectly.”

Larne said, “We need to do it soon. The raid could happen any time.”

“Where do we go afterwards? I mean, we can hardly hang around here.”

Larne explained. “A good family friend will drive us to the docks and we take the ferry to the mainland.”

“Um, we haven’t even discussed how we share the proceeds from the painting – or how we’re going to sell it.”

Larne snapped, “Look, there’s a crisis going on. Let’s worry about the finer details once we’ve got the damn thing out of here.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s the only way.”

“All I can tell you right now is arrangements are already in place to sell it for two million dollars to an art collector from some country in the Middle East. We’ll do the job tomorrow night. It’ll be easier under the cover of darkness, and there are two ferries within an hour of each other in case we need more time.”

© jezz2544 2023
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