Out of the five men in the room, Yixing only recognized two—one because they worked for the same boss, and the other because…well…because everyone knew the other. Outside the Triad, he ran one of the most notorious white-collar crime operations in Asia. Yixing had run into him before, mostly in passing, but still. You had to be willfully blind not to recognize Kris Wu. His money had created almost every major real estate project and entertainment complex in Shanghai and Hong Kong since the turn of the decade.
“Good, we’re all here.” The man at the head of the table addressed them as he folded his hands. “Thank you, gentlemen, for coming on such short notice.”
“Weren’t we all already in town?” A man in a black hoodie and a pair of well-worn Converse sneakers looked around the room. “All of us except for Lu, I mean.”
“Excuse me, do I know you?” The entirely-too-familiar use of his name seemed to disturb the man diagonally opposite Converse Guy, a rather striking looking human with an exceptionally pretty face.
“You don’t,” Converse Guy said. “But you will. Or at least as much as I’m willing to let you know me.”
“Sweet Merciful Goddess, why are hackers always so annoying?” Next to Handsome was an equally-attractive gentlemen. Only taller. And broader. And…younger? It was hard to tell. Both of them looked barely old enough to legally drink. “Is it because you don’t get out much? Or are you just naturally socially awkward?”
“Shut up, Peaches. Nobody asked for your input.” Converse Guy leaned back in his chair, smirking slightly as “Peaches” glared him down, not showing the least bit of concern for his own safety. Converse Guy wasn’t that big, and Peaches could have probably put him through the wall one-handed, but his relaxed demeanor implied that maybe Peaches wasn’t much of a fighter. Or maybe he was but didn’t feel like he needed to show it.
Yixing was intrigued.
“Boys, can we please table the witty banter until I’ve finished? We’re on a bit of a time crunch, and I’d like us to get moving as soon as possible.”
“Why? Where are we going?” Handsome asked.
“That’s classified. For now anyway. Also, it might not be your final destination.”
“Why are we bringing a Narc?” Kris asked, and Yixing realized suddenly he was part of the conversation.
“He’s not a Narc, he’s a security professional.”
“Oh-kay, why are we bringing a security professional?”
“Because for one thing, your team will not be coming with us, Mr. Wu.” Mr. Head-of-the-Table seemed to enjoy the way he seemed to catch Kris by surprise. “For another, no one knows quite as much about bypassing analogue security measures as a security professional.”
“I…um…I’m also a designated marksman,” Yixing added.
“Designated marksman? As in sniper?” It was hard to tell if Kris was impressed but Converse Guy whistled when Yixing nodded. “That’s crazy. You ever miss?”
“Only when I want to,” Yixing said.
Converse Guy was definitely impressed. Mr. Head-of-the-Table, however, was growing impatient.
“Seriously, we have about 40 minutes until we need to be on the tarmac and we still need to pick up some of Chen’s gear, so enough. You can chit chat with each other on the way. What I need to know right now is if all of you are willing to accompany me on an errand outside the country for an undisclosed amount of time. You will be compensated, both monetarily and in the individual ways we have discussed, but you cannot tell anyone that you are going, nor can you discuss anything you experience upon your return. You will be national heroes, but you must always remain anonymous. And if this goes well, your services may be contracted again. Is all of that clear?”
There were several heartbeats of silence.
Converse Guy was the first to speak. “Clear,” he said. “And I’m in. Well…I’m in as long as you really can keep me out of prison.” He flashed Mr. Head-of-the-Table a charming grin.
“I am a man of my word, Chen. I said I would make those charges disappear and I will.” Mr. Head-of-the-Table looked around. “Anyone else?”
“You said ‘tarmac.’” Handsome looked warily at their unofficial master of ceremonies. “Is this not a…terrestrial type of errand then?”
“Well, we will be taking a plane to our base of operations, but we’ll be on the ground most of the time from there.”
Handsome’s face went very, very pale. “Um…I see. So there’s no other…”
“Shh. Lu, it’s okay. It’s cool. I’ve got you.” Peaches leaned over and squeezed Handsome’s shoulder. “Your stuff is in my bag. You can just pass out and sleep the whole way and pretend it didn’t even happen.”
Instead of looking relieved, Handsome looked scandalized. “You knew about this? You neglected to mention the flying part when you told me you’d booked us a job? Tao!”
“I know, I know. I was super shitty. And I knew you’d be upset, but he can make that thing disappear, Lu. You know, that extradition order? Because of what went down at Cannes?”
Handsome looked back at their MC. MC, Mr. Head-of-the-Table smiled in a most unreadable manner, but nodded, affirming Tao’s words. “It a simple case of mistaken identity. They mistook the two of you each for someone else. Odd since neither of you were even there. It seems they’ve found the actual culprits now, though.”
Handsome regained a little bit of color, or maybe he was flushing, it was hard to tell. But he didn’t ask any more questions, and Tao gave him a grateful, reassuring side-hug.
“What about me?” Kris asked. “I know you mentioned on the phone you needed access to one of my properties, but you didn’t mention any additional compensation. What, besides payment, are you going to give me, Minseok?”
“I believe if you check your email, Mr. Wu, you’ll see that the permits you’ve been waiting for have made their way through the bureaucratic red tape. You are free to move forward with your casino projects whenever you are ready.”
“Projects? As in plural?”
“As in anything that has already been submitted now has the green light.”
“Hng.” Kris folded his arms, looking neither pleased nor displeased as he mulled over this tidbit information. “I see. Well, that seems like a fair enough deal.”
“Wonderful. I’m glad to hear you think so. You are in?”
“Guess that just leaves you, Sniper.”
“Huh?” Yixing found himself dragged back into the conversation again, this time thanks to Converse Guy—no, Chen—kicking the seat of his chair.
“Are you in?” Chen asked. “Was whatever Minnie promised you enough to go on a grand adventure with the likes of us delinquents?”
“Oh.” In reality, Yixing hadn’t been promised anything. He’d just been given notice by his boss to be in the lead curator’s office fifteen minutes after the museum closed with his go-bag ready. He’d thought nothing of it, just came up to the third floor after making sure all the objects in the Qing Dynasty gallery were secure, and now, here he was. “I, um. Yeah. I’m in.”
Chen grinned, but Minseok only looked as if the unneeded declaration was wasting precious seconds of his precious time.
“There is a car waiting at the first floor loading dock. Get your bags, turn left down the hall, and use the staff elevator in the back. The access code is 4264. I’ll meet you down there in a minute.”
Minseok stood and exited the room through a side door. The rest of them, after a brief pause, went the way they were instructed—left down the hallway, to the staff elevator, and then to the waiting car.
It was not the most exciting plane ride Yixing had ever taken. He was not the most outgoing person by nature, but as it turned out, neither were any of his companions. True to his word, Tao had helped Lu onto the plane, handed him sedatives, and then offered himself up as a makeshift pillow when Lu promptly passed out. Kris, despite the dimness of the chartered plane’s cabin, had put on a pair of sunglasses and his headphones and buried his nose in paperwork Yixing had no desire to know more about. And Chen, probably the most likely candidate for idle banter, was hunched over a computer screen with Minseok, murmuring quiet affirmations as Minseok presumably explained to him the finer details its contents.
8 hours and 25 minutes passed in nearly complete silence.
And then, Minseok said, “We’ll be landing soon.”
“Thank you for flying Convict Airlines,” Chen singsonged. “Please be sure to bring your seat backs and tray tables to an upright and locked position in preparation for our descent. Also, make sure to turn off any electronic devices and revive any unconscious seat-mates you may have encountered during our flight.”
“Trust me when I tell you it will be easier if we just let him sleep,” Tao said. “Though if you’re going to get on people about their electronic devices, shouldn’t you be taking your own advice?”
“Minnie’s laptop, not mine,” Chen responded. “And he’s the boss, so…”
“I’m actually surprised he hasn’t told you off yet for calling him Minnie.” Kris closed his portfolio and put it, along with his headphones, back in his briefcase. “I could have sworn Minseok hated cutesy nicknames.”
“I do,” Minseok said, looking up from said laptop. “But I also have found it is easier to ignore Chen than it is to argue with or correct him.”
Chen’s “hey!” was lost in the sound of the landing gear touching down and Tao’s yelp as Lu’s forehead collided with his jaw.
“And we’re here.” Minseok closed his computer. “Since we are entering as government employees, there will be no need to go through customs. We’ll head straight to Mr. Wu’s resort property, rest, and discuss our next steps after some sleep and a meal.”
“Wait, it’s over?” Lu sat up and blinked blearily as he looked around the cabin. “We’re there already?”
“We are, and you have the hardest head.” Tao rubbed his chin. “But other than bruising my face, it was painless, right?”
“It was,” Lu murmured. “I don’t remember a thing.”
“There’s nothing much to remember,” Kris said. “It was about a uneventful as trips get.”
“And with any luck, the ease of travel will be an indication of good things to come,” Minseok added.
“Which reminds me,” Chen said. “You never did tell all of us what we’re doing here. Or where here even is.”
“Didn’t I? Hm.” Minseok pursed his lips. “Well, here is the Maldives. As for what we’re doing, we’ll discuss that more over breakfast. There are several steps involved in this endeavor, and I think it will be best for everybody if we tackle them one by one.”
The plane slowed to a stop. And if Yixing thought the flight was uneventful, the deplaning process and the ride to the Wu Resort was even more so. It didn’t help that Kris resumed working the minute the door to the car closed behind them. Or that a still-groggy Lu went right back to sleep, this time taking Chen and Tao with him. That left only Minseok alert, and Yixing didn’t know Minseok well enough to make small talk with him. Hell, after four years in his position, today was the first time Yixing had ever even seen the inside of Minseok’s office.
For better or worse, however, Minseok took it upon himself to begin talking to Yixing.
Yixing turned his attention away from the scenery blurring by outside the window. “Hm?”
“I was told by your supervisor that you were an MP prior to taking up your current position.”
“And you did several tours overseas?”
“How are your foreign language skills?”
That was not the question Yixing had been expecting. “Um…I can get by most of the places I’ve been. And my English is okay.”
“You can speak it? Understand it?”
“Good. I figured as much, but I wanted to double check.”
Kris chucked quietly to his right. “Minseok doesn’t like speaking English,” Kris informed Yixing. “He thinks his accent makes him sound unintelligent.”
“I didn't spend eight years doing post-graduate research to give people a reason to question my scholarly credentials,” Minseok huffed. “Anyway, Officer Zhang, if you accompany Mr. Wu and me on an errand tomorrow, you’ll be able to follow the proceedings?”
“I hope so…”
“You just have to be able to keep up,” Kris said. “Chen’s going to have a wire on you, but you’ll be there to catch anything he might miss.”
“Is this…are you looking for evidence of something?”
“In a way,” Minseok said. “We have on good authority that one of the missing bronzes from the Summer Palace zodiac fountain passed through the hands of a dealer here recently. In a private, off-record sale.”
“Not black market,” Kris said. “More of a con job. The dealer didn’t know what he had, but the person buying it certainly did.”
“He paid cash,” Minseok added.
“So there’s no record,” Kris finished. “You don’t do that unless you don’t want to be found.”
“Oh.” Yixing looked back and forth between the two men. “So you want to, what? Question the dealer?”
“We want to see if we can get a handle on where it came from and where it might be going,” Minseok affirmed. “And maybe stop it before it gets to its final destination.”
“You think you’ll be able to get all that?”
“We might if we come in with enough money of our own to burn,” Kris said. “Wads of cash can be pretty convincing when necessary.”
“Kris is here checking on his business and looking for new art to decorate his Shanghai residence,” Minseok said. “Or, at least, that’s what we’re going to tell them.”
“That doesn’t sound like government work though,” Yixing said. “Where does the government part come in?”
“The government sent us,” Minseok explained. “But the only people that need to know that are the six of us and the government.”
The top floor of the resort had been reserved entirely for them, and it consisted of two master suites with space for four people each. Yixing didn’t overly concern himself with whom was rooming with whom, just went to the closest door, punched the code and opened it. Somehow, Tao and Lu had snuck past him to claim the double beds, but Yixing didn’t mind when he saw the setup in the living area. The sofa bed was next to the sliding glass balcony window, overlooking the ocean, and equipped with an excessive number of pillows. It would be more than adequate for his needs.
“Breakfast will be brought up at 9 a.m., and we’ll meet in our living area once everyone has had a chance to eat.” Minseok appeared via the bathroom, and Yixing realized the two suites must be connected somehow. “If you need anything, front desk staff is available 24 hours.”
“Right now, I just need a glass of water and an actual pillow,” Lu said, running his fingers through his hair. “I’m beat.”
“Me, too,” Tao agreed. “You okay out here…uh…”
“Yixing,” Yixing supplied. “Zhang Yixing. Or Officer Zhang. Or just Xing is fine, too.”
“Cool. I’m Tao, this is Luhan.”
Yixing acknowledged the introductions with a nod. “You guys…work overseas?” he asked.
Tao and Luhan exchanged secretive smiles. “Sometimes our alter egos do,” Luhan said. “But most of the time, we’re just two average citizens making our way through life.”
“By conning people,” Tao said, and Luhan smacked him on the arm. “Ow, what? He’s gonna find out sooner or later!”
“That's fine,” Luhan said, “but do you have to use that word? You know I hate that word.”
Tao rolled his eyes. “Fine. We use our persuasive charms and pretty faces to entrance people as we relieve them of their financial burdens. Is that better?”
“Anyway,” Tao continued. “We can switch it up tomorrow night if you want. If we’re still here. I wouldn’t mind a sofa bed if it means getting to look out at the ocean.”
“Yeah, sure,” Yixing said. “But we can worry about that tomorrow. Minseok seems to have big plans for us, and it sounds like we’ll need to be awake and coherent for them.”
Luhan’s brow furrowed. “He tipped you off then? To what’s going on?”
“Sort of,” Yixing said. “He mentioned talking to an art dealer about a recent sale.”
“Mmm. I thought this might have had something to do with that,” Luhan murmured.
“Wait, you did? Why? When?” Tao asked.
“Well, I mean, I don’t know about the specific sale that caught Min’s attention, but there was an article published not too long ago about auction prices and collectors and the demand for particular goods being at record highs.”
“What type of goods?” Tao asked.
“Er…stuff that was taken without permission. What was the word they used? Oh, repatriation. Collectors are intent on buying back cultural property so it can come home. And since Minseok is a curator…”
“Huh.” Yixing mumbled. He chewed his lower lip, deep in thought.
“That’s a pretty loaded grunt there, Xing.” Tao came over and sat down on Yixing’s sofa bed. “Care to share how you managed to give ‘huh’ so much hidden meaning?”
“I, yeah, sure, it’s just…Minseok mentioned in the car that part of what he wants to do tomorrow is try and find out who bought the piece and where the piece is going. Why would he do that if it’s going back where it belongs?”
“He wouldn’t,” Tao said immediately. “Which means he knows who ever got their hands on it isn’t Chinese.”
“And that he wants it bad enough to work outside the normal channels to get it back?”
“Sounds like it.”
Luhan folded his arms. “Well this just got a hell of a lot more interesting.”
“Yeah,” Yixing agreed. “It…really did. Especially because he said the government is involved.”
“That explains the favors,” Tao murmured. “So we’re what? Working for them?”
“All of us?” Luhan asked. “Kris, too?”
Yixing shrugged. “He didn’t say otherwise when Minseok brought it up, so it’s probably a safe to say yes.”
“Damn,” Tao said.
The stared at each other in silence for several long moments.
Luhan was first to move. “Well, that’s a lot to digest before bedtime. Anyone care to join me for a rejuvenating facial mask?”
“I will,” Tao said. “Xing?”
“I’m good,” Yixing said. “My job isn’t quite so dependent on my looks as yours.”
Luhan smirked. “Suit yourself. Though you never know when good skin might get you out of a bad situation.”
“Noted,” Yixing said. “Next time, I’ll take you up on it, okay?”
“Sure. Next time.” Luhan looped his arm through Tao’s and tugged him toward the bathroom. “C’mon Tao Tao. Let’s go get pretty.”
“Night, Xing,” Tao called as he disappeared from Yixing’s line of sight.
“Night,” Yixing said.
He laid back, folded his hands behind his head, and closed his eyes.
So for some reason, my brain decided Hacker!Chen likes to make dated American pop culture references. Sorry about that.
Yixing woke the next morning to the sound of clinking metal and the smell of delicious food.
“Hey there,” Luhan called from the kitchenette. “Breakfast is here. You might want to get some before Tao devours more than his fair share!”
“I am literally twice the size of you,” Tao shot back. “I need to eat more than you just to exist.”
“You are barely a head taller than me, stop exaggerating. You just eat like a teenage boy.”
“I’m hitting second puberty!” Tao inhaled a mouthful of seared tuna. “Don’t be mad because you’re short.”
The way Luhan rolled his eyes as Yixing sat down gave Yixing the strong impression that they had this conversation often.
“Morning, bitches!” Before Yixing had even pulled up his chair, they were joined by Chen, Minseok and Kris carrying more trays of food.
“Change of plans,” Minseok said. “We’re eating together.”
“How cozy,” Luhan said, making room. “Not enough pretty in your own room for you Min?”
“I’m all the pretty we need.” Minseok put his tray down and went and got some additional plates from one of the cabinets. “Where’s the coffee?”
“Still brewing,” Tao said. “Luhan forgot to hit start.”
“Heathen,” Minseok hissed, but he smiled, taking any potential sting out of the barb. “No worries. I’ll take care of it.”
Chen snickered quietly as he sat down to Yixing’s left. “Chipper, isn’t he? You’d think he got laid last night.”
“Something you need to tell us, Kris?” Luhan teased.
“The only thing I need to tell you is that you and the other pretty boy wonder over there are going to be going on an intel-gathering mission today,” Kris returned.
Tao paused, food halfway to his mouth. “I assume you’re talking about me?”
“I’m certainly not talking about Chen.”
“Hey!” Chen threw a wedge of pineapple onto Kris’ plate. “Don’t be a dick, Wu.”
Kris pushed the offending fruit to the side.
“Stop fighting, children.” Minseok returned to the table, the aroma of brewing coffee following in his wake. “Everybody will have a job to do today that is unique to their individual skill set.”
“Professional Asshole is a skill set?” Chen lobbed another piece of fruit in Kris’ direction.
Kris batted it away with a growl.
Minseok sighed. “Chen, please. Enough. Anyway, as I was saying, everyone has an assignment. Luhan and Tao, yours will be gathering information.”
“What kind of information?” Tao asked.
“Anything and everything that anyone might know about this.”
Minseok produced a folder out of nowhere with an image paper clipped to the front. He set it on the table and the others stared at it until the silence started to get uncomfortable.
“And that is…?” Tao prompted.
“It’s a snake,” Yixing said. “No…wait. It’s the snake?”
“I don’t get it,” Luhan said. “Can someone please explain?”
“It’s a missing part from the Zodiac Fountain,” Kris said. “You know, one of the five animals that haven’t been found yet?”
There was a quiet chorus of ‘ohs.’
“Hence, your job is going to be very important,” Minseok said. “I picked the two of you for a reason. And when I say I want you to find out anything and everything, I mean it. No matter how small or insignificant a detail may seem, I want you to report it back to me. If the piece gets too far too quickly, we run the risk of losing track of it.”
“And we don’t get paid if we don’t bring it in?” Chen asked.
“That’s one possible outcome, yes.”
Across the table, Tao groaned and Luhan smacked his shoulder. “Leave it to you to pick the job with the flight and the caveat,” he hissed. “We could have stayed home, found some nice old lady to write us into her will, but no. You wanted to do this.”
“Aw c’mon, you’re not the least bit excited?” Chen asked. “This is some serious shit. International espionage! Heisting the heist! Outsmarting the enemy like a top-level secret agent!” Chen crouched on his chair, sweeping the room with his imaginary finger gun. “We’re like James Bond…no, the Angels! Minnie’s Angels with Minseok as our man behind the speaker!”
His triumphant grin was greeted by blank stares.
“What are you even talking about?” Tao asked.
Chen straightened, grin fading slightly. “You don’t know Charlie’s Angels?”
“I thought we were Minnie’s Angels,” Luhan said.
“Well yeah, but the reference is to Charlie’s Angels. You know, the American TV series? It was made into some movies?”
“Chen, not everyone spends as much time on the internet as you do,” Minseok said, “Now may I please finish?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” Chen sat back down, grumpily defeated.
“Okay. So while Luhan and Tao are gathering information, Yixing, Kris, and I are going to head to the gallery where the sale was made to do some fact-finding of our own.”
“I’m a potential buyer,” Kris said. “Yixing is my bodyguard, and Min is the expert I hired to authenticate anything I might decide to purchase.”
“Yixing will be wearing a body cam since it will be easiest to disguise on him as ‘security gear.’ Chen will be monitoring the feed, and in touch with Yixing at all times through his earpiece.”
“Wow,” Tao said. “That’s intense.”
“We will plan to meet back here early to mid afternoon,” Minseok concluded, “and consolidate what we have. Once we have a better picture, we can decide the next step.”
“We have the rooms as long as we need,” Kris said. “Since it’s my resort.”
“You’re not worried about losing business?” Yixing asked.
Kris shrugged. “If they can’t wait for me to be done with my own business, I don’t need their money that badly.”
The blurp of percolating coffee abruptly ceased in the background.
Minseok was up and back with a mug in his hand before Yixing had even managed to visually locate the pot.
Yixing was not surprised to find out Kris’ personal security team had their own uniforms, and that Kris had brought one along in the approximately-correct size for Yixing to wear on their outing. Nor was he surprised that their entire walk from the hotel to the gallery was narrated by Chen in the form of crunching noises, random singing, and the lots of cuss words.
“You know your mic is live, right?” Yixing asked as they paused to wait to cross one of the main streets. “Like, I can hear you?”
“Yes, that would be the point,” Chen said. “You’re going to need to hear me so I can get information.”
“I didn't sign up for the American pop music, though. Or the potato chip noises.”
“Are you saying you don’t like Mariah Carey? Xing, you are a tragedy. How about Taylor Dane? Still in the diva category at least…tell it to mah heart, tell me I’m the only one, is this really love or just a gayyy-amme!”
Yixing subtly slipped the earpiece from his ear until they arrived at their destination.
There wasn’t much to see from the outside. It was a tiny, boxy-looking store front on the back side of the main shopping street. However, when they went inside, Yixing realized the space expanded, providing plenty of room for objects of all shapes and sizes.
The man that ran the gallery was nice enough, conversing easily with Kris in comfortable English as Yixing looked around. There really was a lot of stuff. It very much reminded him of collections storage at the museum—rows of metal shelves that went floor to ceiling, lined with every imaginable media: marbles with a distinctive European style, ceramics from all over Asia, woodwork that wavered between Oceanic and South American, even a couple framed canvases hung up carefully on chain-link metal end caps.
“I like my stock to reflect the diversity of my customers,” the man explained. “I comb the world looking for interesting and unique pieces, the type of thing that would make the perfect purchase to remind one of the perfect trip.”
“Marble seems like the opposite of that, though,” Kris said, stopping next to a demure, toga-clad Grecian woman who looked like she might be thinking about bathing. “What kinds of tourists buy statuary? And for what?”
“Mmm, usually patrons of your rank,” the man said with a smile. “Ones who are looking for something more refined for their home. I’m very good at getting rare things.”
“So these aren’t copies?”
Minseok’s warning grunt seemed to make the man think twice about lying to Kris regarding authenticity. “No, they are definitely copies. But excellent ones!”
“Eh,” Kris said. “I’m not into knock-offs.”
The man flinched a little, as if offended that Kris would imply his copies were anything but sincere imitations. “Right, well, let’s go to my office then. Anything I have that has been authenticated and appraised, I don’t keep on-site. I use a database.”
“Why is that?” Kris asked.
“Extra level of protection, of course.”
The office was beyond the object room. It was similar to Minseok’s in that it had a desk, a laptop, and several tall filing cabinets, but dissimilar as it was in a state of disarray Minseok would never tolerate.
Yixing nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of Chen’s voice in his ear.
“Xing, if you can hear me, cough once.”
Yixing coughed quietly behind his hand.
“Good. Okay. Listen carefully. I’m going to give you instructions on where to stand so I can both hear the conversation and see what kind of database he has. I’m assuming he meant digital, but you never know with these artsy types. Clear your throat if you understand.”
Yixing made the appropriate noise and hung back a little as Minseok, Kris and the dealer gathered around the desk.
“It’ll just be a minute,” the dealer said. “This is an older model computer and our internet here can sometimes be spotty.”
“Do you have any paper files I could look at while we wait?” Kris asked.
“Sure. Um…here.” The dealer grabbed a stack of folders out of what looked to be a desk organizer, though not one that was very good at its job. He handed them to Kris. “This is some of the older stuff I’ve had around for a little while. Very niche-market kinds of things.”
“Get in there,” Chen said abruptly. “Get in as close to Kris as you can without being obvious.”
It was a good thing Yixing was good at being subtle.
“There! Good. That’s great. Don’t move,” Chen said.
Yixing made sure to stand as still as possible while Kris flipped through the mound of images and appraisal reports in his hand. Nothing made Minseok or Chen comment in any way, but Yixing did his job regardless, hoping Chen was getting what he needed.
“Here we go.” The dealer interrupted their fruitless perusal with a triumphant smile. “If you don’t mind moving the papers, I’ll put the screen where everyone can see.”
Kris set the stack aside. The dealer moved the laptop to the center of the desk, opened an application, and a page of thumbnails appeared on the screen. The dealer clicked on the first, opening it full size.
“Tang,” Minseok interrupted. “Mi se.”
The dealer paused. “Yes. Yes, it is. You have a good eye.”
“He better. That’s why I hired him,” Kris said. “What else do you have?”
“Plenty. How about I flip through and you let me know if you see anything you like?”
Kris looked at Minseok. When Minseok nodded, Kris gave his okay.
Nothing happened for several awkward minutes. Just pictures clicking by on the screen. They were starting to blur, one piece of ancient pottery looking very much like then next and then, as if on cue, both Minseok and Chen both yelled, “stop!”
Yixing flinched, resisting the urge to rub his abused ear. Kris raised an eyebrow but otherwise remained silent as his eyes trailed over to Minseok. The dealer, who didn’t speak Chinese, looked back and forth between Minseok and Kris, hand hovering over the keyboard.
“This one?” he asked at length.
Kris kept his eyes on Minseok, and when Minseok confirmed this was the record they wanted, Kris spoke to the dealer. “This one,” he said. “How much for this one?”
The dealer opened the catalogue listing for the file. “Okay. Well…oh! It looks like this one was sold a couple days ago. I’m sorry! It must have gotten filed with the active items by accident. I’ll just move it over here…”
“No!” Minseok startled all of them, including himself. with the sharpness of his voice. Flustered, he beckoned for Kris to come closer and then whispered something Yixing couldn’t quite make out.
“You sure this was sold?” Kris asked. “It’s not still at your off-site location?”
“No, it was definitely sold. And it wasn’t off-site. It was right here in the showroom, actually. Dreadfully awkward thing. Not really something I expected an American to be interested in.”
“American?” Kris pressed.
“Yes. At least I believe so. He could have been Canadian or something, I’m not sure. I get all those North American accents confused.”
“But not local.”
“No, no. No one I’d ever seen before. It’s a small island. Even short-term visiting faces become familiar pretty quickly, so it was definitely a foreigner.”
“Yixing, don’t move,” Chen murmured in Yixing’s ear. “That screen is a gold mine of information. Don’t let that window close!”
Yixing did his best to stay still while continuing to pay attention to the ongoing conversation.
“Has the buyer come to get it yet?” Kris asked.
“No. He wanted us to ship it,” the dealer said. “We crated it last night and sent it down to the docks this morning.”
“So it might still be here? If I gave him a better offer, the buyer might change his mind and let me have it?”
The dealer looked surprised. “Well…I mean…maybe? I’m not sure. I don’t know that I’ve ever brokered the resale of my own sale before.”
“I would pay him twice the amount he paid you for it,” Kris said. “And give you a commission for your trouble. Can you get it back?”
“Boo-yah!” Chen hissed through Yixing’s earpiece. “Gotcha yah snakey mother fucker! And if you guys get out of there in the next ten minutes, we can even intercept it before it leaves port!”
Yixing gave a quiet grunt.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Kris’ masterful negotiation skills,” Chen dismissed. “Trust me, we’re better doing this my way so get them to move, Xing!”
Yixing grunted again, acknowledging Chen’s scarily-accurate assessment of his internal monologue. And this time, Min acknowledged him with a quick, sideways glance.
“Mr. Wu?” Min said, looking at Yixing out of the corner of his eye.
“What?” Kris asked.
“Perhaps its best if we…leave it be?” Min spoke in Chinese. And Yixing, hoping the dealer truly didn’t understand them, nodded his agreement.
Kris, however, didn’t look convinced. “Why? It’s still here.”
“I’m willing to make the call,” the dealer interjected. “Considering your investment record, Mr. Wu, I believe something could be arranged. The gentleman left me a contact number somewhere. If you just give me a minute…”
The dealer started rummaging through the detritus on the desk. Kris looked back to Minseok, silently demanding the explanation Minseok didn’t have.
Yixing came to his rescue. “Sir, Mr. Kim’s…associate…seems to feel that won’t be necessary.”
“Why not?” Kris demanded.
“Because in the time it will take for you assholes to negotiate, we could be down to the port and back to the room!” Chen yelled, and it was loud enough that even the dealer heard him.
“Did you say something?” the dealer asked.
“I…no. I was speaking to my security guard, sorry.” Kris pursed his lips. “Did you find the phone number?”
“Huh? What? Oh. No, not yet. But I know it’s here…”
“Please keep looking.”
Yixing was fairly certain everyone also heard Chen’s frustrated curse.
“Xing,” Chen pleaded. “Tell Min to unclench and tell Kris his dick is huge. We’ll let them sit with the damn snake strapped in between them all way back to Shanghai because I’m looking at the container number right now but we only have until 5 p.m. before it leaves on the next cargo ship to New York.”
Yixing bit his lip. “Sir, Mr. Kim’s associate says it’s urgent. We don’t have much time.”
“Here it is!” The dealer held a scrap of legal paper up above his head. “Johann Smith. Do you want me give him a quick call, Mr. Wu?”
“If you don’t mind,” Kris said. “And while you do that, I’d like to speak to my team outside.”
“Oh, of course! By all means.” The dealer waved them out as he rummaged for his phone. “This shouldn’t take long…”
Kris, Minseok, and Yixing exited the office, closing the door behind them as they stepped back into the showroom. For the sake of his eardrums (and sanity), Yixing removed his earpiece and they huddled around it.
Minseok was the first to speak. “Following up both leads would give us better odds,” he said. “But that would also mean we need to stay here. I presume you disagree, Chen?”
“Yes, Minnie. I vehemently disagree,” Chen affirmed. “I’ve got a tracking number, a container number, and the name of the ship the thing is supposed to leave on. All we need to do is go get it. Right now.”
“And yet, we’re busy here,” Minseok reminded him. “Where are Luhan and Tao?”
“The hell if I know. I haven’t seen them since breakfast.”
“Well, call them. I left you their contact information!”
“Fine. Sure. And what, exactly, do you think that is going to accomplish? The Wonder Boys and my hacker ass can’t just skip on down to a working shipyard— in broad daylight mind you—and pry open a shipping container to steal back some stolen cultural artifact!”
“And what about adding three more people to the party is going to change any of that?” Minseok asked cooly.
Silence. And then Chen spoke in a very clipped manner.
“Min, you seem to be forgetting that Yixing is the only one among us that actually has any kind of hands-on experience doing anything like this. The sneaky shit I mean. At least let me have him if you really want to follow through with this rando and his ‘Johann Smith,’ which has to be the fakest name I’ve ever heard by the way…”
“Of course it’s fake,” Minseok said. “If he knows what he has, he’s not going to give anyone his real name.”
“Which means the phone number is probably fake, too. So the longer you stand their being ridiculous, the closer we come to losing our shot. Work with me, Minnie.”
Minseok and Kris looked at each other. “It’s not like we can’t defend ourselves if we need to,” Kris said. “We could let Yixing go with him.”
“We didn’t bring Yixing to defend you,” Minseok reminded him. “We brought him to keep up appearances. Don’t you think it’s going to look odd if you suddenly dismiss your security detail?”
“You can’t seduce a metal container into opening,” Chen said before Kris could reply. “You can, however, make up a reason that your bodyguard had to scram, especially when said body guard kicks ass at being discreet.”
“So what if he had to go accompany Minseok on an errand,” Kris suggested. “To see another dealer. About another offer.”
“But that’s not…” Minseok tried.
“It’s not remotely true, I know,” Kris said. “But it’s a solid Plan B. Putting pressure on this dealer guy might make things go faster if Johann is the greedy bastard I expect he is. And if it doesn’t, the five of you are a decent enough team to make a move. So go, Minseok. If I need anything physical, I have people I can call. And if I don’t, and I get a break before you do, I’ll let you know.”
“I don’t like this,” Minseok said. “But if you’re going to be insistent…”
“Minnie, we all know he is, and that the only reason you don’t like it is because you didn’t think of it first,” Chen said, but there was affection his tone, not malice. “I’m texting the Wonder Boys now, and setting you up with a cab that should be there in the next three minutes. C’mon, Min. Let’s make this work.”
Minseok sighed in resignation. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s…make this work.”
Chen clearly meant well getting them a ride back to the resort, but the traffic was so snarled, Yixing and Minseok ended up getting out five blocks away and running the rest of the way up to the suites. Fortunately, Tao and Luhan had already made it back and were in the process of getting up to speed on all the current developments.
“We have an hour and a half to get this done,” Minseok said, striding past them as if they hadn’t just sprinted through the lobby at top speed. “Chen, traffic is a mess, what’s the fastest way to the port?”
“Bike?” Tao suggested. “Not exactly badass, but it would work.”
“Or boat,” Chen said. “A little bit of overkill, but considering I’m sure as hell not up to the challenge of biking through rush hour with a priceless bronze statue in my lap, it might be more practical.”
“Do any of us know how to drive a boat?” Minseok asked.
“I do,” Yixing said. “I mean, I haven’t renewed my license in a while, but it’s not like the mechanisms really change.”
“I know I really shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I am,” Luhan said. “And impressed.”
“Save it,” Chen said. “Right now we need to get a boat. There’s a space for pleasure craft right next to where the commercial ships load and unload, so if we do it right, no one will even notice.”
“How do you know that?” Tao asked.
“How do I know what?”
“About the slips for recreation boats?”
Chen flipped his laptop screen around. “I’m looking at an aerial image helpfully provided by the internet. See those little white things? Those are personal vessels. Off of which we can hop and make our way to where stuff is getting loaded.”
Tao folded his arms. “Okay, fine. That was a little obvious. You don’t have to be rude about it.”
“Sorry,” Chen said. “We just have a really short window to do this, and I’m getting jumpy.”
“None of us can afford to get jumpy,” Minseok said. “Especially not right now. Any of you, where do we find a boat?”
“I expect the concierge of a high-end resort like this could procure a boat on a moment’s notice for some VIP guests,” Luhan said. “If not…” He looked over at Tao.
Tao sighed. “If not, I can do it.”
Luhan grinned. “Tao made lots of friends today. Lots of friends.”
“I did, but can we try the concierge first?” Tao asked. “I don’t really feel like flirting with the daughters of any more tourist trap operators.”
“Half the female population of the island has really taken a liking to Tao Tao,” Luhan explained.
“Just the ladies?” Chen asked, tapping his fingers against the keyboard.
Luhan smiled. “Well, no. There were a good number of gentleman in the mix, too. But Tao Tao…”
“Enough, Lu,” Tao said. “Where’s the house phone? I’ll make the call.”
“Bedroom.” Minseok waved in the general direction. “What’s next?”
“You might want to see if the concierge can get us a blowtorch,” Yixing suggested. “Or some bolt cutters.”
Luhan and Minseok looked at him.
“Shipping containers are made of metal,” Yixing explained.
“I should be able to hack the code to the locking mechanism, though. Right?” Chen asked.
“Probably not,” Yixing said. “They’re analogue. With very few exceptions.”
“Well, fuck.” Chen paused his typing to scribble something down on the pad next to him. “That makes me feel pretty useless.”
“You are not useless,” Minseok said. “You’re making sure we don’t get caught, and that’s pretty damn important.”
“Minnie, you say the sweetest things,” Chen cooed. “Will you tell me I’m pretty, too?”
“Don’t push your luck.”
Tao came back into the living area. “She can have a boat for us in about five to seven minutes.” Tao said. He stretched his arms and cracked his back. “We can pick it up on the dock.”
“Kris has a private dock?” Luhan asked.
“The resort has a private dock,” Tao corrected. “They do shuttle boats to and from the airport for guests, but they seem to have a gap in the schedule today. Isn’t that convenient?”
Tao’s grin was a dead giveaway that their luck had absolutely nothing to do with convenience.
“Right. Well, let’s not waste any more time,” Minseok said. “Yixing, what else do we need?”
“Uh…” Put on the spot, it took Yixing a minute to think. “Well, I was kinda serious about the bolt cutters. Also because they’ll attract less attention than a blowtorch.”
“Ah yes, I’m sure mine are in my suitcase somewhere,” Luhan quipped. “How about something more readily available?”
“I don’t know. Something to pick a padlock with? And a way to knock out the security cameras. But I think Chen’s on that…?”
“Chen is on that,” Chen confirmed. “But Chen will probably need to take some of his equipment with him. These fuckers are everywhere.”
“Okay. Well, then…the only other thing I can think of would be gloves,” Yixing said. “And long sleeves. And pants. Sorry, Tao Tao.”
Tao looked down at his board shorts and bare chest. “Contrary to what this might imply, I actually prefer being fully dressed whenever possible.”
“My inferiority complex and I thank you for that,” Chen said.
Minseok disappeared momentarily, returning with a handful of white, cotton gloves.
Chen glanced over and laughed out loud. “You travel with your curator gloves?”
“Of course I travel with my curator gloves,” Minseok snapped. “I’m a curator. Xing, will these do the trick?”
“I don’t see why not,” Yixing said. “If they make a barrier between skin and surfaces, sure.”
“I thought as much,” Minseok said, and he shot Chen a look as he handed everyone a pair.
“I don’t know that I brought long sleeves,” Luhan said. “Tao, can I…”
“You can if you’re okay with a rash guard. It’s the only other long sleeved thing I have,” Tao said.
“Yeah, fine. That works. Suitcase?”
“Suitcase.” Tao gestured toward the door adjoining the suites. Luhan slipped out while Minseok went to lurk over Chen’s shoulder.
“One more,” Chen said, without looking up. “And then I’m gonna mess with the container ship’s navigational system a little bit to buy us some time. I won’t be able to really block the signal until we get closer, but I can start it glitching.”
“Are you going to need to bring all this stuff?” Minseok asked.
“No,” Chen replied. “If I do this right, I should be able to get away with just taking my phone and a tablet.”
“I’m going to go change,” Yixing said standing. “Since we’re going to have our boat sooner rather than later, I want to be ready.”
“Good idea,” Minseok mumbled. “Make sure the other two are actually changing, too, will you?”
Yixing nodded, and went to join Tao and Luhan in their suite.
Ten minutes later, Yixing and his rag-tag group of international thieves were on the water.
They were tense but ready and, aside from Tao, they were below decks, hopefully coming up with an extraction plan. Tao was beside him keeping an eye on the depth finder.
“How do you feel about all this?” Tao asked him. They were going along at a steady pace, but not full throttle, so the ambient noise allowed for some limited conversation.
“I don’t know,” Yixing said honestly. “I can’t decide if we are on the verge of an international incident or if we’re actually going to pull this off.”
“Same,” Tao said. “I mean, I’m sure…well, it’s obvious we’re all here because we bring something to the party, but the only one of you I’ve worked with before is Luhan. I know him, you know? In a way I don’t know everyone else. Minseok and Kris and Chen I know by reputation, but you… I don’t know at all about you.”
“I’m not going to cut and run if there’s trouble,” Yixing said. “If that’s what you’re asking. Even without the military training, that’s completely against my nature.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Tao said. “And I didn’t mean to imply you’d bail on us to save your own ass or anything. I just meant…I don’t know anything about you. Sometimes I completely forget you’re here.”
Yixing smiled. “Then I guess I’m doing what they hired me for, huh?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you are.”
They lapsed into companionable silence. Yixing curved the boat to follow the line of the shore, and as he did, the tall, looming bulk of the cargo port appeared in front of them.
“Better let the brains down there know we’re close,” he said. “Hopefully they’ve come up with something.”
“Well, I don’t know about the other two, but Luhan is way smarter than he looks.” Tao winked as he went below.
Yixing stayed the course.
They pulled in to a slip shortly after that, Yixing having radioed ahead for permission to enter the inner harbor. Tao came back above to help him secure the lines and, to Yixing’s surprise, even knew how to tie
a proper figure eight.
“Did some sailing with my dad as a kid,” Tao explained. “I still remember some of the useful stuff.”
They disembarked. Chen swiped furiously at the screen of his tablet, guiding them through the maze of containers, stacked by departure time and destination. It was just after four, so the one they needed was closer to the front than any of them would have liked because that meant there were more people around. And more machines. And more distractions.
“Shit,” Chen cursed. “It’s somewhere in that stack to our left and probably not on the bottom.”
“So what? We just start climbing the stack until we see the container number we’re looking for?” Luhan asked.
“Unless you have a better idea…” Chen said, and Minseok was quick to jump in.
“That's going to attract attention,” Minseok said. “Obviously our main goal is to not attract attention. What’s Plan B?”
“I don’t know, Min. I don’t have a Plan B.” Chen shook his head. “This is why I wanted to get here earlier because it probably wouldn’t have involved climbing five stories of shipping containers.”
“Well, we didn’t,” Minseok said. “And now we have to deal with those consequences, so what is Plan B, people?”
Everyone was silent. They looked at one another, hoping someone else would be the first to speak, but as the minutes stretched on, it became more and more obvious that wasn’t going to happen.
“Are you kidding me?” Minseok threw up his hands. “This isn’t what I hired any of you for. You are supposed to be good at this type of thing! Why are you just staring at me?”
“Minnie. MinMin. We are good. But at what we do. Not…this stuff,” Luhan said. “Now if you wanted me to track down the buyer and convince him signing over any priceless art in his possession is the best idea he’s ever had…”
“Wait a minute.” Chen’s grip on his tablet tightened. “What you do. What we all do! Lu, you said earlier Tao made a lot friends today.”
“Well, yes,” Luhan said. “He’s excellent at channeling his inner Adonis, but I don’t see how that…”
“And getting people’s attention, right?” Chen looked at Tao. “So what about Plan A-and-a-half?”
Minseok raised a brown and folded his arms. “In words please, Chen. We can’t read your mind.”
“Okay. Here me out. This will still involve climbing to whatever level our thing is on, but Yixing. You’re strong. Like, strong enough to make your way up there, right?”
“Um, I guess,” Yixing said. “But what…”
“I’m getting there,” Chen said. “Patience. So what if we did this. What if Xing, Min, and Lu…you went after the piece. And Tao and I…”
“Hold on,” Tao interrupted. “I should…”
“Stop. Talking!” Chen snapped. “It has to be the three of them because one, Xing won’t let anyone die. Two, Min actually knows what we’re looking for, and three, Luhan knows how to pick a lock. Isn’t that right, Luhan?”
Luhan blinked. “How the hell did you…”
“The internet, baby. Found your employment profile from when you worked as a locksmith. So. Anyway. That leaves my scrawny ass and the Bod God over here to cover for you while you do the thing. You follow?”
“Yeah. I follow,” Yixing said. “Standard diversion tactic.”
“Exactly,” Chen said. “Now, I knocked out the live feed on the security cameras, but the last thing we want is someone on the ground spotting you guys where you don’t belong. So Tao here is going to come with me and we’er going to call as much attention to ourselves as possible.”
“This doesn’t involve any nudity, does it?” Tao asked.
“Y’know, let’s hope not,” Chen said. “But I make no promises. Now get the hell up there you three before we blow our chance.”
Minseok, Luhan, and Yixing looked at each other.
“It’s not like we have a better option,” Yixing said with a shrug.
The other two conceded in silence, following as he started to walk around the towering stack of metal.
They quickly lost sight of Chen and Tao, but mostly because they were too busy squinting at the sides of containers, trying to discern which was the one they were looking for.
“What was the number Chen gave us?” Luhan asked.
“NUC1201485,” Minseok replied.
“Seriously?” Luhan asked.
“Yes,” Minseok said. “Why?”
“Because it’s right up there,” Yixing said.
And sure enough, container NUC1201485 was on the back side of the tower, only one story up from the ground.
And yet, still out of their reach.
“Where is Kris when you need him?” Luhan mumbled. “Him and his lanky-ass arms.”
“I could call him,” Minseok said. “We agreed that if we needed…”
“We don’t have time,” Yixing said. “I wish we did, but it’s already 4:20. We need to do this now.”
Yixing approached the container just under the one they were after. He sized up the distance from the ground to the lock, mulling over options. After a few seconds, he beckoned to Luhan.
“If I give you a boost,” he said, “can you climb the rest of the way?”
Luhan raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
Yixing linked his hands. “If I lift you, can you pull yourself up so you can reach the lock?”
“Luhan, we won’t let you fall,” Minseok said. “Trust us.”
“It’s not you,” Luhan muttered, “It’s the height…” But that was all he said before he stepped down on Yixing’s hands anyway, and Yixing lifted him until he could get his hands on the lip of the lower container. From there, he easily scrambled the rest of the way up.
“Xing, do not move.” Luhan wrapped his arms around one of the locking bars. “Stay there in case I lose my balance, all right?”
“You won’t lose your balance if you focus,” Minseok said. “Head in the game, Lu. C’mon!”
“You sound like a mom,” Luhan groused. He looped one hand around the bar and used the other to fish a black pouch from his back pocket. There were some soft metallic thuds, a couple of clinks, and then a high-security padlock dropped into the dirt at Minseok and Yixing’s feet.
“There you go,” Luhan said. “Next?”
“That’s you,” Yixing said to Minseok. “Hey Lu, can you open the door?”
“Yeah, hold on.” There were more metallic clangs and a loud, screechy creak, and then the door swung open. Luhan gratefully moved inside, happy to be on firmer ground.
“Okay, Minnie.” Yixing held out his hands again. “Alley Oop!”
Face unreadable, Minseok stepped. With Luhan’s help, he was soon standing beside him inside the shipping container.
“Do you see it?” Luhan asked.
“Um, no. And that’s a good thing.” Minseok looked back at Yixing over his shoulder. “That means they really did put it in a proper crate.”
“It looks like there’s a lot of ‘proper crates’ in there,” Yixing said. “You want another set of eyes?”
“I wouldn’t say no,” Minseok replied.
“Gotcha. Coming up.”
Yixing easily scaled the distance with minimal effort, joining the other two on their perch.
Minseok pulled out his phone. “Luhan, stay here while Xing and I look. Make sure we aren’t noticed, and if we are, shut the door quick.”
Minseok nodded and gestured for Yixing to follow him into the narrow strip of space between the two long rows of wooden crates.
It was not going to be easy. Not only were they squeezing to fit, but the crates were nearly identical, plywood cube after plywood cube with no identifying markings. Some were taller than others, some fatter, but everything smelled like sawdust, and everything looked like the same dull shade of drab orange-beige.
Minseok, however, was not deterred. “It’s not going to be one of the floor-to-ceiling ones,” he said, shining the flashlight on his phone back and forth in the narrow space. “It’ll be about…75 cm high-ish? If they did it right.”
“They got the crate material right,” Yixing said. “That dealer must not be a total hack.”
“He’s scatterbrained, but knowledgable,” Minseok said. “About the art trade at least. And I almost can’t blame him for not knowing this wasn’t a fake. It’s been over 150 years since anyone has seen it.”
“How were you sure then?” Yixing asked. “I mean, not that I doubt you…”
“The snake we’re looking for was made with a very specific copper alloy,” Minseok replied. “As it ages, the color gets deeper, and the patina shows up in a way that it wouldn’t on a different configuration of metal. Also, having had a chance to see the other pieces that have been recovered, I recognized the jagged edging where it was pretty much ripped from its base.”
Yixing exhaled. “For a small person, you sure can retain a whole lot of knowledge.”
“It’s a gift,” Minseok said.
They reached the back of the container without finding anything resembling what they were looking for. Yixing had planned on turning around, but Minseok decided squeezing himself over to the next narrow pathway was more efficient and he was out of Yixing sight in seconds.
“Min,” Yixing said.
At the same time, Minseok’s excited shout of, “I think I see it!” overlapped Luhan’s worrying, “Guys…?”
And then there was a loud slam and everything went black.
Yixing instinctively pressed his back to the crates behind him. “Min? Lu?” he called. “You guys all right?”
“Yeah.” A light appeared opposite him. “What happened?” Minseok asked.
“About that…” Yixing turned in the direction of Luhan’s voice. Another light appeared, and Luhan’s outline hurried towards him. “We didn’t exactly go over what I should do if…”
The ground lurched. Yixing would have fallen, but there was no room to fall. Luhan, however, tripped and crashed into him hard enough to make Yixing grunt.
“What the hell was that?” Minseok demanded.
“The noise or the movement?” Luhan asked. “The noise was me tackling Xing.”
“And the movement?”
Eerie metallic scraping sounds came from outside.
“They’re um…they’re loading us,” Luhan said. “We didn’t…we didn’t go over what to do in the event that a crane showed up.”
Minseok appeared, squeezing through a space that should have been inaccessible to a human body. “Were you seen?” he asked.
“No,” Luhan said. “But that’s not exactly going to work in our favor, is it?”
It took a moment for his words to sink in. And then both Yixing and Minseok realized what he meant.
“If we don’t get out, we’re going to New York,” Yixing said.
“And not first class,” Luhan added. “But if we cut and run…”
“No,” Minseok said. “No. It’s right there. We can’t just give up!”
“Minnie, if we don’t give up on the bronze, we’re giving up on our lives!”
Yixing raised an eyebrow. “That’s a little dramatic, Lu. Don’t you think?”
“Is it, Xing? Is it really? Do you want to spend god knows how long in here with no food or water? Without passports or identification? I’m sure US Customs will be oh-so-understanding about Chinese stowaways in a cargo container, right? No possible bad outcomes to this!”
“Luhan, you’re getting worked up,” Minseok said. “Stay calm.”
“Minnie, no. This is not the time to stay calm. We gotta go. All three of us. Forget the fucking snake, it’s not worth it!”
The container lurched again. There was a rumbling, mechanical hum, then a clank, then abrupt silence.
No, not just shouting. Arguing.
“Is it me, or does that sound like Chen?” Luhan asked.
“It’s not you,” Minseok replied. “That definitely sounds like…”
The door banged open as abruptly as it had shut and the light was momentarily blinding.
Yixing reached for a weapon he didn’t have.
The voice was Tao’s. Yixing relaxed a fraction.
Luhan practically bounced off of him. “Tao!” he said. “You came to rescue us!”
“Um…something like that,” Tao said. “Did you find it?”
“Minseok thinks he did,” Yixing said. “But it’s still in the crate.”
“In the crate? Shit, how did you guys even move in here long enough to figure that out?”
“Stop questioning us and get over here,” Minseok demanded. “It’s right there. With your help we can…”
The container lurched sideways. Yixing had a strange moment of feeling suspended in mid-air before the outside of the container bumped hard against something equally solid. The doors slammed closed again, and the noise that followed made his ears ring.
“Fucking hell, Chen!” Tao yelled. “Watch what you’re doing!”
“Sorry!” Chen’s voice sounded tinny. Almost like it was coming in over a hand-held radio. “I hit ‘over’ when I meant to hit ‘down.’”
“Wait….what?” Luhan asked. “What does he mean by that? Where is he? What is he doing?!?”
“Lu, I love you, but I’m not answering those questions,” Tao said. “Chen?”
“How much further?”
“Uhhh…” In the ensuing pause, Yixing managed to locate the glowing cell phone strapped to Tao’s arm. It was on speaker. “I can get you closer if you need it.”
“Closer to what?” Luhan wanted to know.
“How about all the way?” Tao asked, ignoring Luhan.
“Yeah, I can do that, too. It won’t be as dramatic…”
“Not really interested in being dramatic,” Tao said.
“Is he…” Minseok began, but he was cut off by the return of the shaking, the mechanical noises, and the weird sense of movement that Yixing was not very fond of. This time, however, there was no clanging and banging. Just a soft thunk before everything stopped moving.
“There you go,” Chen said. “Shake a tailfeather, Peaches.”
“Right. See you outside.”
Tao hung up. It was dark for a moment before the flashlight beamed on, and Tao gestured to the other three to follow him. Luhan and Yixing moved immediately, but Minseok was still reluctant.
“I’m not leaving with out the snake,” Minseok said. “Either you help me, or I do it myself.”
“But you’re not even sure that’s the right crate,” Luhan said. “Minnie…”
“Help me or I will do it alone,” Minseok yelled. “Decide!”
Yixing heard Tao’s grunt of frustration. “Why are you so damn stubborn?” Tao growled. “Where is it?”
“Tao, no,” Luhan begged.
“You can go Lu, I know you hate confined spaces. If we can’t do it in five minutes, I’ll come right out.”
“I’ll help,” Yixing said. “The more hands the better.”
“Well now I can’t just leave,” Luhan said. “What kind of asshole would that make me?”
“Actually, you can,” Tao said. “Go help Chen keep an eye on the fire. Make sure it doesn’t come too close.”
Yixing whipped around to stare at him. “Fire?” he repeated. “You guys set the yard on fire?”
“No, we didn’t. Momma Nature did. Or something. We didn’t even realize it until Chen being loud didn’t seem to make a difference to any of the dock workers running toward an incoming ship.”
“So things are burning,” Luhan said. “Fucking great. Anything else we should know, Tao?”
“Lu, once again, I love you but please not right now.” Tao turned back to Minseok. “How are we doing this?”
“Well, now that I know that the world outside is combusting, I’m open to the brute force and ignorance method,” Minseok said dryly.
“Meaning we smash the shit out of the outside until we can pull out the bronze,” Yixing said. “What do you have on you?”
“My…phone?” Tao said. “I didn’t exactly come prepared…”
“Neither did we,” Minseok said. “Oh well.”
Minseok angled his body. Holding on to the side of the crate nearest their quarry, Minseok raised his right leg and kicked the target crate as hard as he could. The box shook. Sawdust spilled down on them making Tao sneeze.
“My turn,” Yixing said. “Move over, Minseok.”
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” Luhan grabbed his arm. “Stop for a second, Xing.”
“Because there’s an easier way.” Luhan gestured with his phone. “See that?”
“See what?” Minseok questioned.
“Up there. It’s a lock. This crate has a door!”
So it did. “Can you open it?” Yixing asked. “The lock, I mean.”
“Of course I can open it. I got us in here, didn’t I?” Luhan pulled out the black pouch again and waved it triumphantly. “It’s a simple padlock. Child’s play compared to that thing on the outside door.”
“Make sure you put your gloves on,” Minseok said. “If we can leave the crate the way we found it, it might buy us even more time to get away from here and back home.”
“Whatever you do, hurry up,” Tao said. “Chen’s waiting on us.”
“And he’ll keep waiting until we’re finished,” Minseok said. “Go on, Luhan.”
Apparently more at ease climbing things when there was little to no risk of falling, Luhan squeezed his way up to the target crate, black pouch of miracles firmly clenched between his teeth. “Eg nrrd uh rinte!” he said, looking down at them. “Grmu uh rinte.”
“Light,” Tao translated. “He needs light.”
“I’ve got it.” Minseok wormed his way up the crate next to Luhan, holding out his phone so Luhan could see what he was doing. Tao and Yixing held theirs up, too, from below.
“Thank you,” Luhan said. “Watch out in case the lock falls.”
Yixing and Tao nodded, too intent on monitoring Luhan’s progress to give a verbal response. But there wasn’t a whole lot to monitor. True to his word, Luhan had the lock open in seconds, slipping it from the latch and tucking it in his pocket with a smile.
“All yours, Minnie,” he said.
Somehow they switched places. Yixing and Tao kept their flashlight beams trained on Minseok, both gasping quietly when he vanished, then re-emerged from inside the crate holding a ball of packing foam to his chest.
“I’ve got it,” he said. “This is it. We’ve…we’ve got it!”
“Pass it down to me so you can climb down,” Yixing said. “Luhan, re-lock the door!”
Yixing reached up and took the precious cargo from Minseok. It almost felt like he was taking hold of a baby the way Tao came and stood protectively by his shoulder, and the way Minseok didn’t take his eyes off him until he, too, was crammed next to Yixing in the narrow space. Tao shuffled toward the door, giving them a little breathing room, and then there was the soft click of a lock and the thud of Luhan’s feet hitting the floor, and there they all were.
“Shit, we really did it,” Tao murmured. “I was starting to wonder if we were actually going to pull this off but we did it!”
“Congratulate us when we’re on the plane,” Minseok said. “We do have what we came for, but we still need to get back home.”
“Even before that, we need to get out of here,” Yixing said. “And isn’t something on fire?”
“The ship,” Tao said. “One of the incoming ones.”
Yixing’s lips pressed to a thin line. “You didn’t happen to notice which direction it was coming in, did you? Or where they were trying to get it to go?”
“No, I didn’t,” Tao said. “I…we were so happy for such a major distraction, we just went with it.”
“What are you thinking, Xing?” Minseok asked.
“I’m thinking that I hope it’s not blocking the channel,” Yixing replied. “Otherwise, we can’t count on using the boat to get back.”
Minseok’s frustrated-sounding “fuck” was drown out by the sound of pounding coming from the direction of the doors.
“What are you guys doing in there?” Chen’s voice yelled. “I said shake a tailfeather, not pop a squat!”
“Does he come with a manual?” Luhan asked. “Like some sort of Chen-to-Chinese dictionary or something?”
“I think he just wants us to come outside,” Yixing said. “And while we’re doing that, start thinking of ways we can get out of here unnoticed.”
“Chen, open the doors!” Tao yelled. “We’ve got it, and we’re coming your way!”
“It’s about time.”
The doors groaned open. Given that the sun was now setting, and they appeared to be facing away from West, the light wasn’t nearly as blinding this time, and Yixing didn’t have to squint to make out Chen’s silhouette against the backdrop of the shipyard. Nor did he need to squint to realize there was someone there with him.
“Don’t shoot, it’s us,” Chen said.
“Who’s us?” Yixing asked.
“Chen and Kris," said a new voice.
“Kris?” Luhan questioned. “How did you get here?”
“I drove,” Kris said. “In a car. The one Chen said you needed when he called me?”
“Why do I want to kiss him right now?” Tao murmured.
“Which one?” Yixing asked.
“Why? Because you want the other?” Luhan teased.
Chen grinned at them from the doorway. “Now, now, boys. No fighting. There's plenty Heroic Male to go around. But not now. And not here. Minseok’s in a hurry. Right, Minnie?”
“You picked up on social cues,” Minseok said. “Proud of you, ChenChen.”
Chen puffed up like a little tech-savvy peacock. “Proud I made you proud. Anyway, I managed to maneuver the container to a spot that’s mostly out of sight, but Kris just drove up in here like owns the place, so can we like…go? Maybe..now?”
“I pretty much do own the place,” Kris said. “From an investment standpoint.”
“Still. We have what we came for, no point in hanging around,” Tao said. “Where’s the car?”
“Literally right here,” Chen said, pointing to the black SUV to his right. “All we gotta do is get in.”
“And the boat?” Yixing asked.
“I’ll have one of my staff come pick it up later,” Kris said. “And if anyone asks, I’ll just say you were test-running it for me after some repairs and got stuck. But nobody will ask. Not if they know what’s good for them.”
“Ominous,” Luhan said.
But they did get in the car. And they did exit the yard mostly unnoticed save for the frazzled-looking individual manning the security gate, who had probably been on-shift too long to care who was coming or going this close to nightfall.
“Did our dealer-friend ever get a hold of Johann?” Minseok asked as Kris turned on to the main street. “Or was that just a ploy to con you out of money?”
“No…we spoke.” Kris said. “Johann Smith is definitely…someone.”
“What do you mean?” Yixing asked.
“I mean, I talked to an actual human. But there wasn’t a whole lot of negotiating. It was…almost academic. And his accent was Australian, not American.”
“But that crate was going to New York,” Luhan said. “Wasn’t it?”
“It was,” Kris said. “Which is why I think that Johann might have been the buyer, but he’s not the one keeping it. If I were to guess, I would say Johann is the opposition’s equivalent to Minseok.”
“Min!” Chen said excitedly. “You have an evil alter-ego! That’s so fucking cool!”
“Indeed,” Min said. “Which begs the question—who really wanted this snake?”
“I’ve been thinking about that, too,” Kris said. “And I have some theories.”
“We’re listening,” Tao said.
“I don’t know if you guys remember, but back in 2013, two of the other bronzes were returned to Beijing…”
“I remember that,” Luhan said. “Some French billionaires right? They called giving them back a gesture of ‘deep friendship’ or something equally bullshitty.”
Kris snorted. “They called it that. But it was anything but. There was a lot more to it than some warm, fuzzy international cooperation.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Minseok said. “If I remember correctly, said French billionaires paid a a lot of money to buy themselves some stolen cultural property.”
“Hence the reason there wasn’t a whole lotta warm fuzzies when the governments got involved.”
Kris slowed for a red light.
“Do you suspect that they never really got out of the cultural property trade?” Yixing asked.
“That’s part of it,” Kris replied. “The other part being that the more demand there is for something, the more valuable it becomes. So it’s not just French billionaires, it’s billionaires from all over the world. People willing to pay a lot of money to have the thing everybody wants.”
“So you think we’re not the only ones actively looking for the missing animals,” Chen concluded.
“Definitely not,” Kris agreed. “But now, we’re starting to find out about each other. I know about Johann, Johann knows about me. He probably knows about Min, too. And he’s going to mention that to whomever he’s working for which, honestly, could be more than one person.”
“The secret is out,” Tao said.
“And the stakes just got higher,” Yixing added.
They started moving again. Kris’ resort came into view, but no one spoke. At least not until Minseok turned to look at them all, one by one, from the passenger’s seat. “If the secret is out, and the stakes are higher, that just means we have to be the best.”
“We?” Luhan said quietly.
“Yeah. We,” Kris said. “There’s four more out there. And as a rich asshole, I can’t allow some other rich assholes to get them before I do. It’s against the Rich Asshole Code of Conduct.”
“At least you admit you can’t do it on your own,” Chen said. “I guess that’s enough for me to sign on to Team Asshole.”
“Hold on. I’m not signing on to anything called Team Asshole,” Tao said. “I want an agreement that there is room for negotiation on the name, or I’m out.”
“I kinda agree with Tao,” Yixing said. “I’m not sure I want to be known as ‘one of the Assholes.’”
A rare, wry smile crossed Minseok’s lips. “Okay,” he agreed. “We have to work on the name. But we’re doing this? All of us?”
“Fuck yeah we’re doing this,” Chen said. “Our pride is at stake now. It’s number one or nothing, dammit!”
From the driver’s side, Kris chuckled. “Then I guess the last one to the next bronze is the real asshole,” he said with a grin.