Chapter Three – Papa Mao
“Miss Paltrow?” A frantically waving young man caught her attention on the way toward the south exit. “Miss Paltrow, over here!”
Fiona was thankful for the drink on her flight to Haiti. She felt relaxed enough to smile cheerily as she approached the dark-haired man in a pink Hawaiian shirt. He held a sheet of smart paper with her alias—Rebecca Paltrow—on display in fluorescent orange letters.
“Welcome to Haiti.” He offered his hand. “I’m Harvey Meltar. I work for Papa Mao’s Pleasure Cruises.”
“It’s a pleasure.” Fiona had switched over to a Southern accent for this role; she sounded like a resident of Florida by way of East Texas. “D’you think you could help me with my bags?”
Harvey’s eyes quickly scanned the two rolling suitcases Fiona dragged along and the overstuffed bag on her shoulder. He flashed her a quick smile and took one of the suitcases from her, then pointed her toward an idling sedan outside. She returned his smile. There was no way for him to know that both suitcases were decoys; everything she needed was in the shoulder bag and she could use the suitcases as obstacles if she needed to make a run for it.
The moment they stepped outside, Fiona was awash in the heavy spring air of Port-au-Prince. She readjusted her straw hat as Harvey put her suitcases in the trunk of his car, then raced over to open the door for her. It was touching, even if his fast movements left her a little suspicious. He had an odd vibe that bore watching.
“So, Mr. Meltar,” she said as they drove off.
“Please, call me Harvey.”
“So, Harvey…” Fiona tilted the brim of her hat to catch a glimpse of her deeply-tanned face in the vanity mirror. She narrowed her eyes, just enough to appear interested in her driver. “What is it you do when you’re not picking up lil’ ladies like me?”
“Ha, well, I…” Harvey coughed as he turned a corner, steering the car toward the harbor. “I’m what you call a Client Service Assistant for the cruise line. I do public relations work and handle technical questions. And on occasion, I assist with the cruise ship’s operations.”
“My, that’s fascinating.” Fiona smiled indulgently. “And are you involved with passengers… in any way?”
Harvey coughed again, this time looking more flushed. “Why? What are you implying
?” He suddenly turned to face her, nearly causing Fiona to break character. Her hand tightened on the shoulder bag, fully prepared to swing it in his face.
Then the young man blinked and shook his head. He pulled the car over and parked it outside of a fishing supply store just outside the harbor. Fiona leaned back as he reached across her lap and opened the glove compartment. Harvey took out a small orange medication bottle and shook out a pair of white capsules into his palm. In one quick blur, he put the bottle back and swallowed the pills dry.
“Okay…” He breathed in and out, slowly and strongly, until some color began to come back into his face. Then he turned and smiled apologetically. “Sorry about that. I have a condition.”
“Oh, honey…” She didn’t have to fake the sympathy in her voice. “We all have a little trouble now and then.”
“Heh, not like I do.” Harvey turned and leaned on the steering wheel, still recovering. “It’s a psychological condition. Paranoid schizophrenia. I… see things. And sometimes I think people are out to get me.” When he looked up at Fiona, his eyes widened. “N-not that I suspect you, ma’am! You’ve been vetted as a first-class passenger!”
“Aw, sugar, don’t you worry ‘bout that!” Fiona slowly reached out to touch his shoulder. “I’m just on an extended vacation. You can think whatever you like about me.”
Harvey nodded gratefully. “I appreciate that, ma’am.”
“Oh, please, call me Rebecca…”
As Harvey pulled the car forward again, Fiona sat back, feeling a bit nervous but still in control. It had been an interesting little episode. She felt a slight sting of remorse for thinking it, but she made a note of Harvey’s condition.
For all she knew, an easily-triggered mind like his could be a key to uncovering Mao’s secrets.
“In answer to your question,” said Harvey, now calmer, “I do work with some of the passengers. I’m what they call a part-time dad. I play with regressed passengers and do some occasional bottle-feeding.”
His eyes were staring ahead at the road and the pristine waters of the harbor beyond it. Fiona was able to quietly appraise him again. A nice-looking fellow, with turmoil below the surface.
As much as she hated to admit it, she found herself wishing that he would be her caretaker on the cruise. The pecs under his shirt and the muscles below his sleeves hadn’t escaped her notice. Maybe she could get into this ageplay business with someone like him…
The SS Calypso
was a broad white yacht, elegant and gleaming in the midday sun. A handful of new passengers were already boarding the gangplank by the time Fiona and Harvey arrived. He grabbed both her suitcases and huffed his way toward the ship, while Fiona trotted close behind. She was grateful that Lee had given her such excellent muscles. It made her reflexes and her run a lot smoother than she was used to.
On the rear deck of the yacht, where sixteen well-dressed and smiling passengers stood waiting, someone was addressing the crowd. Fiona stood up on her tiptoes to get a glimpse of a Chinese man in his late forties, broad-shouldered and wearing a very bright white suit. His smile was bigger than everyone else’s—which in Fiona mind meant that he was faking it.
“You’ve done me a great honor by coming abroad my boat,” said Mao Jian. He waved out the sea past the harbor. “We’ll soon be setting off—a whole seven days of sensual desire and primal pleasures awaits! Love and kindness and not a care in the world!”
He touched his hand to his chest. “While we set sail, you’re free to call me Papa Mao. And you may call the staff what you like! Mama, Papa, Auntie, Uncle, Nanny—whichever you choose, they’ll respond! Your contentment on this cruise is our first priority. All we ask in return is that you respect the rights and privacy of your fellow passengers.”
Fiona remembered the legal liability waiver she’d signed before coming to Haiti. But if what Garrison said was true, then it was possible that Mao and the cruise staff weren’t being quite so fair with the passengers. She’d be sure to keep an eye out for that.
As his little speech wrapped up, Mao bowed his head and made one more welcome with a deep-throated cry of “Huanying
!” Then he stepped aside and let a tall brown-haired woman take the stage. She wore a baby blue gown that looked like a nurse’s outfit and held a handscreen.
“When I call your name and number,” said the woman in a Mid-Atlantic accent, “please report to the staff person wearing that number. He or she will be your primary caretaker on this voyage.”
Fiona watched the crowd begin to dissipate as the leader called roll. When she heard the woman call out, “Rebecca Paltrow! Group One!” she saw the leader staring right at her. On her breast was a white pin with the number one on it. Fiona shouldered her bag and casually walked over to her.
Six more names were called and then that was it. Everyone formed single-file lines behind their group leaders and followed them into the spacious yacht.
Fiona was led to a private cabin near the middle of the boat. When the group leader opened the door, she saw that her cabin was smooth steel painted over in dull shades of pink and yellow. There was a twin-size bed in the corner with rails that could be pulled up on all four sizes—so that it could become an adult-size crib. Next to the bed was a small dresser and the rest of the cabin consisted of a large white floor rug with plush duck and rabbit toys scattered everywhere.
As she was taking all this in, Fiona heard the door close and lock. She whirled around, half-expecting a trap, but instead she saw the group leader standing behind her. The woman held up her hands and smiled apologetically.
“Sorry for the disturbance, but you’re the first name on my care list.” The group leader’s smile sharpened. “That was deliberate. I needed to talk to you first before Mao or the other staffers showed up.”
Fiona blinked, then remembered the script Garrison had given her. She nodded and said, “You seem familiar. I’ve got a friend in Tuskegee named Riva, looks an awful lot like you.”
“Is that so?” The group leader narrowed her eyes, no longer smiling. “Riva Washington?”
That was the countersign. Fiona smiled and answered in her real voice, “Marie. Garrison says hello.”
Marie Riva offered her hand, which Fiona shook. “I was told to expect someone onboard two days ago. Are you from the Bureau?”
“Not exactly.” Fiona didn’t need Garrison to tell her that discretion was a virtue on these ops. “I’m more of a professional spook.”
Marie’s face tightened. “You’re… CIA?”
“I’m not allowed to say, either way.” Fiona kept her face neutral, her tone short and clipped like a true secret agent. “Company guidelines, you understand.”
The other woman nodded, wary but still satisfied. She put her hand on Fiona’s shoulder and guided her toward the bed. Once Fiona sat down, Marie knelt in front of her on the floor, much like a parent with her child.
“There isn’t much time,” Marie insisted. “I’ve got a tip that Mao is going to pull something big in three days. He’s staging an attack on his own ship.”
“What good will that do him?”
“The pirates who’ll attack us are from Singapore, where he’s usually in contact with someone. Someone scary.” Marie glanced over her shoulder, then added, “In the confusion, the pirates are going to ‘steal’ a case of our most valuable genomes. It goes to the man in Singapore, who’ll refine it into what could be a very powerful chemical weapon.”
Fiona chewed her lip anxiously. It was worse than she thought. And she just had to be right in the middle of it. Infiltration was her specialty. Surviving a firefight was not.
Still, there was nothing else to be done except gather all the data and wait for the right time to make an extraction. She could use the next day to scout out the yacht and come up with a plan.
“Okay,” Fiona finally said. “In the meantime, what do we do?”
Marie looked her over, then smiled. “Now we get you into character, Miss Paltrow.”