Chapter 1 The Guy With Silver Eyes
Liu tapped his mini-trowel nervously against the table, sweat forming rivulets down his back. His tent was not the best place to be in this unseasonably hot, desert night; the unusual mugginess making the heat even more unbearable. He dared not venture outside into the cooler night to find a relieving breeze on a dune. They would surely get him then. He looked at his watch in exasperation. Where was Tom? He was only meant to be documenting the new finds in Camp 2, not the whole excavation!
Liu got up and turned off the lamp. Standing at the tent flap, he peered cautiously out. Should he risk going to his Uncle Zhou? Liu considered it for a few breaths. His uncle was a gentle scholar, oblivious to most evils. He would be no help in the present circumstances. They would kill his uncle much more easily than they would kill him – of that Liu was certain. No, the only person he could trust was Tom. And Tom was still out there running hours late. Liu shivered. Had they gotten Tom already? Had they made Tom show them where the device lay hidden? Liu took a step back. Surely not. Tom was a bit on the paranoid side, not like any other person he knew; knowing how to avoid trouble or, at worst, break away from it.
Liu fretted, still looking at the tent flap. Tom had better get here soon! He desperately needed to tell Tom about the new discovery he had made. Liu fingered the small object in his pocket, the now familiar growing tingle it produced a small comfort. The air felt suffocating. What if Tom didn’t get here on time? What if they got to him before Tom arrived? Outside, the wind was picking up again. Blowing in from the west. Dust storms wouldn’t be far behind. That would slow Tom’s team down. Decision made, with a growing sense of foreboding, Liu worked quickly.
Taking his broken, but still in use, retractable TaiChi sword, Liu tried to force the small cylinder into the hole left by the missing piece. It wouldn’t fit. Sweating even more, he wrestled another segment out. The cylinder fitted this time, wedging securely against the edges. Satisfied, Liu laid the sword gently down amidst his notes; a newly scrawled one in that binary code looking remarkably like a doodle – a derisive Tom had once shown him that trick. It would surely catch his friend’s eye. Then Liu burnt the schematics of the device and all his personal notes on it. He scattered the ashes on the sand floor at the entrance to the tent. All he could do now was wait for the men he was sure were coming for him that night.
He waited for over an hour. The adrenalin rush which had kept him alert earlier was all but gone. It had been the only thing that had saved him from being trapped in the pit with those two men staring down at him. All those years at school playing The Monkey King in Journey To the West had their use after all. And he could still pray to GuanYin and hope that she would remember him after all these years. He hadn’t prayed to her since back in high school when his mother had died… A confused bug hit the tent; the distinct sound jerking Liu awake. He hadn’t realised he had fallen asleep. The wind had picked up even more. The storm was arriving. Liu tensed, straining to hear above the sand-blasted canvas. Not much else could be heard. But they were out there. He knew it; could feel it. He crept softly to his bunk and lay down.
They might not realise that he was expecting them. He might still have a chance of surviving the night – if only a slim one. He had much to live for, especially now that the safety of the ancient device depended on him and Tom alone. Liu resolved to do all in his power to stop it falling into the hands of people who would use it for evil. It was the only thing to be done. And if he was to die here, he would not die in vain. Through half-closed eyes, Liu watched the tent flap slide slowly aside allowing some dust and two men to creep in. Liu clutched his trowel tightly. It was time to live or die.
The Guy With Silver Eyes
Running for the train just leaving the little station, he jumped, only just making it on board; his backpack giving him a heart-stopping moment as it snagged on the door. The attendant exclaimed in surprise. “Sorry.” He grinned ingratiatingly at her. Frowning at the foreigner, she lead him to his compartment. There didn’t seem to be any other occupants. He breathed a sigh of relief. He needed some time to himself. Tom knew he was running away again, just delaying the inevitable. But he needed time; needed a plan. He shucked off his backpack, placing it on his bunk. His boots followed, sliding under the bunk, to be replaced with the train slippers. He left his socks on. Outside, the sun was setting, highlighting a temple roof – one of many in the numerous villages the train would pass. He stared out unseeingly. It was the first break he’d had in over 24 hours – possibly the longest 24 hours he’d ever lived. It was amazing he’d gotten this far. Tom was suddenly grateful the train trip was thirteen hours. Thirteen hours to rest. Thirteen hours to plan. Thirteen hours before he had to face the music in Xi’an.
Tom dared not leave his backpack for too long. It was too precious. He took a calculated risk. First he washed the dust off his face, then filled his flask before heading off to the refreshment car. Instant noodles, along with instant Nescafe, accompanied him back to his compartment a few minutes later. Tom prepared the noodles, his mind a comforting blank. There would be time to think about all that had happened; the who and why – and then to plan. But first he needed to rest as best he could. Fifteen minutes later, once the attendant had swapped his ticket for a pass, he switched off the light and stretched out on the upper bunk. It wasn’t his, but it was safer. If someone else came into the compartment, he’d move. He fell into a deep, dreamless sleep within two minutes.
An hour and a half later, there was a knock on the compartment door. He was awake instantly. ‘Dammit!’ he thought, feeling in his waistband for his knife before he remembered he’d had to abandon it at the station’s security checkpoint. He unlocked the door just as the knock came again.
“Nei hao?” he enquired. There was a girl behind the attendant – backpack over one shoulder; huge suitcase, half as tall as she, in tow. The attendant waved her in. “Hello,” he tried, seeing she wasn’t Chinese in the corridor light.
“Hello,” she said with a harried smile.
‘English teacher,’ he thought, stepping aside to allow her in. She bumped in through the door, struggling to tow the huge red suitcase behind her. The attendant helped pushing it in.
“Which is mine?” She looked at the bunks in slight bewilderment. The attendant looked at her ticket again before pointing to the other bottom bunk. Handing the girl her pass in exchange for her ticket, the attendant brushed aside her thanks with a smile and left.
She looked at him awkwardly.
“Do you need some help? I’m Tom, by the way,” he smiled, holding out a hand. He’d play this easy till he figured out what to make of her. She could just be a foreign teacher, then again, maybe she wasn’t…
“Melissa,” she smiled back, taking his hand in a feminine grip, slightly damp from nervousness.
“Nice to meet you.” She glanced around the compartment again, shrugged off her backpack then laid it on her bunk. She looked a little helplessly at the suitcase, then up at the luggage rack.
“We could just leave it there,” suggested Tom. “It’s unlikely the compartment will be full this time of week. If someone else comes, we’ll move it then.”
She smiled at him gratefully. He sat on his bunk watching her. Her hair was up. Her features hard to place – Eurasian? Her accent Transatlantic. He took her to be Canadian or Australian. Possibly British. Her movements were neat and graceful. Tom felt an instant attraction to her. And a wariness. He’d have to be careful. She looked up suddenly from untying her boots, catching him out.
He smiled apologetically. “Sorry. Not used to seeing foreigners.”
She laughed in recognition. “I know that feeling. Are you Scottish or Welsh?”
He was surprised. Most people took him for an Englishman. “Scottish. How’d you guess?”
She smiled again. “Working holiday in Edinburgh.”
“Aye, right. You an English teacher?”
“Canadian?” She shook her head. “Australian?” That shake again. She’d gotten the boots off and was putting on the slippers. “Not British!” He was getting confused now.
She grinned, “No. South African.”
“You don’t sound it.”
“What can I say. I am of the original RSA TV generation. Lots of British, Canadian and Australian content.”
He laughed. “MacGyver?”
“Yes. And ‘Under The Mountain’.”
“Don’t know that one.”
“Australian alien invasion show. Nasty slugs. It was very good. Scary stuff.”
“Right.” He nodded at the suitcase. “You going home?”
“Yep. And you?”
“I have people to see in Xi’an.”
“You a teacher too?” She was pushing her backpack to the end of her bunk.
“Oh. What do you do?”
“Research,” he said, trying not to sound short.
“Really! Oil and Gas, or historic?” Her interest seemed excessive.
She turned to face him enthusiastically. “That’s great! What are you researching? The Chinese Pyramids?”
‘One of those,’ he thought. “Not exactly.”
“Oh. Are you on an archaeological dig?”
“Sort of.” He grinned. “I think you’ve got the wrong idea. I’m actually a writer. Been doing research for a book.”
“What’s it about?”
He yawned hugely. “Do you mind. I’ll tell you in the morning. I’m really beat.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realise…”
Tom stretched out in the recovery position, facing her bunk, alert but feigning drowsiness, still unsure of her. He tried not to tense as she dug in her backpack. Her hand emerged with a toiletry bag. She got up, took a few seconds to figure out the sliding-door handle then left the compartment. He contemplated going through her pack to check out her story and search for weapons, but decided against it. He was too tired. He’d take things as they came. She was back sooner than he had expected. Tom was glad he’d stayed put after all. She put away the toiletry bag, undid her hair, shaking it out, then turned off the light after locking the door. He heard her settle down in her bunk, her breathing growing regular as they drew into a small station with sodium lights. The train stopped for a minute or two. A jerk, and they were off again. Tom fell asleep within the next few minutes.
I tried to fall asleep in my bunk, but found it difficult. I was tired, but too excited at the prospect of seeing my family and friends back home. I lay quietly not wanting to disturb the other occupant; content to let stray thoughts go around my head. I was surprised to find that most of them were now revolving around him. Tom, he’d said his name was. He was gorgeous with dark hair and curiously light grey eyes. A really nice voice. Tall and nicely built; bonny braw, as they would have said in Scotland, with that easy charm so many of the Scots have. Was this attraction just a symptom of association with a younger, happy phase of my life in Scotland or the fact that I hadn’t any interesting conversations with other foreigners these past nine months? Maybe a mixture of both… Maybe not… The morning would bring clarity. In happy acceptance, I drifted in and out of sleep as we rolled on to Xi’an, closer to my dear friend Skye, and closer to my loved ones whom I’d not seen for over nine months. Life in China had been good to me. Visiting home was a special treat. And this gorgeous stranger’s company just a bonus. It was going to be a good trip.
I was jerked backed to alertness by a soft sound. It was the door handle. Someone on the outside had turned it. Wrong compartment, I thought. Then it turned again. I lay absolutely still. That wasn’t right. There was something furtive about it all. I’d been warned about thieves on trains. Glad I’d remembered to lock the door, I waited for them to go away. Should I notify the attendant? With a snick like a blade opening, the compartment door began to slide open. There wasn’t time to wake Tom. I did the only thing I could think of. Taking a deep breath, I screamed. The shadow, framed against the open door, froze momentarily. Tom was suddenly sliding down his bunk, his foot flying out at the intruder who clearly held a knife. I screamed again, in fear. Tom’s foot connected with the man as the train swayed. He staggered back into the corridor. Tom was already up to slam the door as the intruder recovered and threw himself knife first through the door, only to scream as the door jammed on his knife-hand. Tom swung open the door, then viciously slammed it shut again. But the man had dragged his hand free, retreating. Cautiously, Tom first stuck his head out, then slipped out after the man, leaving me open-mouthed. Appalled. Afraid.
Tom raced down the corridor towards the next car, with the attacker vanishing round the corner by the toilets and sinks. Tom heard the attendant exclaim as he too reached the corner and dodged around it. He brushed by the attendant holding a flask on his way to the next car. The attacker, halfway down the corridor, turned, glancing behind him. Tom recognised his face. It was Jimmy, one of the interpreters from the department. Tom put on a burst of speed, determined to catch him. Behind Tom, the attendant and the security guard were following closely. Jimmy tried to run faster, hit the communication door, hauled it desperately open to slip through, then slammed it shut behind him. Tom leaned back to avoid the heavy door, the attendant and security guard almost cannoning into him. Then, he too, was throwing open the door and running through. Jimmy had the car door open, the moonlit desert racing terrifyingly fast behind him.
“Wait!” yelled Tom.
Jimmy looked back at the three, then jumped.
I stood in the doorway of the compartment. Other people were sticking their heads out curiously whilst a security guard stood alertly on my left. It wasn’t long before Tom reappeared, walking unhurriedly down the corridor, ignoring the enquiring looks of the other passengers. He looked tired and distracted. Worried too. Behind him, the attendant appeared, urging everyone back to bed – the English equivalent of: ‘Nothing to see here.’ I stepped back and sat on my bunk to allow Tom in. He sank down onto his bunk.
“What happened? Did you catch him?”
Shaking his head whilst rubbing his eye, he said, “We lost him.” He looked up. “Did anyone come in?”
“Did anyone else come into this compartment?”
I stared at him in slight disbelief. Why the odd question? I looked pointedly around the small space. “I think I’d have noticed if anybody else had stepped in, especially as they’d have to have squeezed past me at the door.”
He grinned suddenly. “Aye, sorry. Wasn’t thinking. It’s just that I’m worried about my stuff, you know. Laptops are a bit hard to replace, especially with so much work on it…”
I smiled. “Yes, I know. I had to bring mine from home.”
He stretched leisurely, relaxing, then yawned widely. “What time is it?”
I checked my phone. “Just gone 1am.” I was surprised. Had it only been about five hours since I had boarded the train in Yulin?
Tom stretched out on his bunk, crossing his socked ankles; his arms behind his head. “I’m not sleepy. Adrenalin, I guess.”
I propped myself against the pillow and leaned down. “Me too. Not that I was sleeping much before.”
“Not used to sleeping on trains, eh?”
“No. Too excited to be heading back home.”
He smiled. “Miss home much?”
“Not really. Miss my family more. And the dogs.”
He laughed. “Yea, and good pizza!”
“Not such a pizza fan myself, but I’ll be having a Debonairs Special when I get home. And some nice cocoa.”
He was smiling still. “How long you’ve been away?”
“Nine months. And you?”
He thought a bit. “Three years.”
“Really? You’ve been in research for three years?”
He looked at me oddly, then shook his head. “No, about 18 months. But I’ve been based in Xi’an for the past three years.”
I shifted into a more comfortable position. “So what exactly is it that you research and write about?” That odd look again.
“I research scientific and historic items. New discoveries and technologies. I write for scientific and other specialist journals. Sometimes I syndicate in the mainstream.”
“That’s interesting. So your book is on ancient Chinese technology?”
“Aye. And some of their new ones.”
I looked at Tom with interest. His reaction to the intruder had been fast and effective – not what you’d expect from an academic. “Is it a dangerous type of job?”
His look was downright wary now. “Not really.”
“Only the way you reacted to that man with the knife…”
His eyes looked dark, shadowed. “Used to be a polisman. Lothian and Borders.”
“Oh.” There was a silence, each of us thinking our own thoughts. Interesting man, our Mr Tom…
“What about you, Melissa? Which school are you in?”
I told him. “I teach mostly kids. It’s great fun, most of the time.”
“This your first job as a teacher?”
“Yes. Is it so obvious?”
He smiled. “Most experienced teachers are a lot more jaded. You still sound enthusiastic.”
It was my turn to smile. “Well, it is fun. At least, I think so.”
“And what did you do before teaching?”
“I was an editor for a small TV production company.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Don’t get many of those out here. Mostly Political Science grads, teachers, and the like. What made you give it up?”
“I didn’t exactly. The company went out of business and it seemed a good time to start a new career that would allow me to travel.”
He nodded. “It suits you. Looks like you chose well.”
“Thank you,” I said in surprise. I wasn’t used to having my decisions approved by strangers.
He continued, “So you in for the long haul?”
“Perhaps. I’d like to be an illustrator. I’m practising in my spare time and slowly building up a portfolio.” He nodded again. This too, it seemed, Tom approved of. I smiled secretly, in amusement at myself. I was pleased he seemed to approve of me. He caught my smile, raising an eyebrow. “Nothing.”
He cleared his throat. “What is it that you want to illustrate? Books or mags?”
I shrugged. “Anything really. But I’d like to try my hand at illustrating for Children’s books.”
“You really like kids.”
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“Depends on the kid,” he grinned. “The only ones I know well are two terrors!”
“You have kids?”
He shook his head, amused. “Nephews. Spoilt brats. Both mommy and daddy work long hours. So…”
I was nodding my head. “Same with my niece and nephew. Mind you, they do have their good moments.”
There were lights outside as we approached another town. The train began to slow. We would be stopping again.
“Do you…?” began Tom.
There was a knock on the door. He got up to open it with reluctance. The attendant said something to him in rapid Chinese. I couldn’t follow any of it with my own rudimentary knowledge.
“Yes.” he answered. Turning to me, he urged, “Look after my stuff, OK? Don’t let anyone else in. Have to go speak to the police.”
He closed the door behind him, leaving me to wonder what he hadn’t told me. And why?
end of excerpt