Light rain struck the traffic helicopter’s plastic bubble sounding like pebbles on tin, heard even over the ferocious roar of the chopper’s blades. Stevie McNeal could not get used to the empty space of the clear plastic beneath her feet. She floated high above the white chop of the water and the wickedly fast gray wisps of cloud that raced past underfoot, half nauseous, half adrenaline rush.
Boldt stood over the Port Authority radar, its circular black scope fully refreshed every seventeen seconds, returning images of any vessel with a deck taller than six feet above the waterline or carrying a radar reflector, as most pleasure craft did. Radar installations rimmed Puget Sound’s coastline, all feeding data into this one facility, two miles south of downtown. There were four such scopes in all, covering every shipping lane from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Elliott Bay waterfront. The six men and women in this darkened room tracked the movement of commercial ships into the Port of Seattle ‘‘twenty-four, seven.’’ Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
‘‘As they enter the system,’’ the man with the military haircut explained to Boldt, ‘‘they identify themselves and we tag them, much the same way air-traffic control would with an aircraft. The only difference here-these ships move a lot slower,’’ he said, trying but failing to evoke a response from the lieutenant. ‘‘But being as they’re tens of thousands of tons set in motion, tens of thousands of tons that take anywhere from one to three miles to come to a complete stop, they bear our attention. Most, if not all, have contracts with tugs to be picked up and moved into port. We track where and when that is to happen to remove any possibility of collision or bottle-necking. On top of the commercial shipping lanes we have over two dozen commercial ferries on regular schedules through these waters, an impossible number of cruise ships, military craft, Coast Guard and tens of thousands of registered pleasure craft. It keeps us busy.’’
The military cut nodded. ‘‘Yes. The SS
‘‘Is that common?’’
‘‘It happens, sure.’’
‘‘But it’s not common,’’ Boldt pressed.
‘‘Listen, with you guys breathing down our necks, we take everything just a little more seriously, okay? Anything you can name, it has happened out there: fires, explosions, collisions, you name it. If an equipment failure threatens to slow down traffic or bottle us up, we’re only too happy to get that ship out of traffic.’’
‘‘She’s a container ship.’’
‘‘And once she’s out, what then?’’ Boldt asked.
‘‘To be honest? Our concern is with the lanes: keep the traffic moving. On a typical night, we’d pay little or no attention to her once she’s down in speed and picked up by a tug and out of our way.’’
‘‘But she’s on your screen,’’ Boldt reminded.
‘‘Of course she’s on the screen! But all I’m saying is, out of sight out of mind. You know?’’
‘‘And if she made an unscheduled stop? Would you guys spot that?’’
‘‘Why the hell would she make an unscheduled stop?’’ the man asked.
‘‘I need an exact location. A GPS fix, if you’ve got it.’’
‘‘You learn quick,’’ the man said, clearly impressed. He grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down a string of numbers. Like a bat, he was used to working in the dark. Boldt couldn’t see a thing.
When the dim but visible lights of SS
‘‘Will they see us?’’ she asked into her headset. ‘‘The freighter mustn’t see us! We mustn’t spook them.’’
The KSTV technician, who had crowded the chopper’s backseat with gear, reported, ‘‘I’ve got their feed.’’ He passed Stevie a small color screen the size of a paperback book, a single wire running from it. On the tiny monitor Stevie saw the ship’s shape as a collage of iridescent colors-a yellow-orange wake spilling away from the stern of the ship like a paper fan set afire. She couldn’t look at the screen very long without added nausea.
Below her the freighter grew in size from a child’s toy to something large and menacing as the rain fell harder and the collapsing ceiling of thick clouds swirled like water headed down a drain.
Fully loaded, the SS
The technician warned, ‘‘They’re getting ready to go live, or they wouldn’t be transmitting images.’’
Stevie asked the pilot, ‘‘Can we get between them and the ship, and still avoid being seen?’’
‘‘Not with our lights on,’’ he said, flipping a switch and making them dark. No strobes whatsoever.
‘‘Is this legal?’’ she asked.
‘‘Could you lose your license?’’
‘‘Is it safe?’’
The helicopter dove so quickly that Stevie reached out for a grip.
‘‘Depends,’’ the pilot answered, talking loudly into the headset.
‘‘On what?’ she asked nervously.
‘‘On what they do,’’ he answered, indicating the neighboring helicopter as they passed below it.
‘‘Stand by,’’ the technician said, ‘‘I think they’re going to broadcast.’’
‘‘Get between them!’’ Stevie instructed. She could not have Seven revealing the ship and spoiling Boldt’s efforts. Melissa! she thought. ‘‘Oh my God!’’ she hollered. ‘‘Hurry!’’
The screen in her lap showed the water as a dark green, the ship’s outline boldly as black, its wake, a flaming orange roil, its onboard lights pale yellow and tiny.
She asked her technician, ‘‘What’s that red blob at the stern?’’
‘‘I’m thinking engine room,’’ he answered. ‘‘Those engines will be cooking. The bright yellow dots are probably some of the crew out on deck. Same with the darker yellow just forward of that-most likely the pilothouse.’’
‘‘And this?’’ she asked, indicating another much larger mass of pale yellow slightly forward of midship.
‘‘That’s coming from a container,’’ he confirmed.
‘‘As in people inside a container?’’ she asked.
‘‘Warmth,’’ he answered. ‘‘The source? We don’t know.’’ He touched his headset. ‘‘Hang on! They’ve gone live. Listen up!’’ He threw a switch and Stevie’s headphones filled with a reporter’s introduction. On the screen, the ship appeared against the blackness of the water, a large rectangular shape of unexplained color. Sparkles filled the screen.
‘‘That interference is us,’’ the technician said proudly.
‘‘Blind them!’’ Stevie ordered the pilot. The helicopter slowly turned to the right and aimed up toward the flashing strobe lights just below the layer of clouds. Both helicopters remained to the stern of the SS
The reporter said on-air, ‘‘Without infrared, you can barely see the stacked containers aboard this ship. . but in a moment we’ll show you what the eye cannot see! It is this reporter’s contention that the heat inside a forward container represents body heat from illegal immigrants. What you will see next is an infrared image of this same ship, with yellow and red representing heat sources. It is
The video screen switched to the infrared color images.
‘‘Now!’’ Stevie shouted.
The pilot brought the chopper’s nose up. He tripped a bright spotlight that flooded the other helicopter white. On the screen, this appeared as a blinding bolt of fire-engine red that interrupted the view of the ship.
‘‘Direct hit!’’ shouted the technician.
‘‘You’re brilliant,’’ Stevie said. ‘‘Pun intended.’’
The image on the screen appeared to burn and melt from the edges until completely white.
The fraught and anxious voice of the news reporter complained like some old lady with her garden torn up by a neighbor’s dog. Channel Seven had caught a few seconds of the infrared image and it reappeared on their live broadcast. The reporter delivered a voice-over narrating the events below.
Stevie asked the pilot if it was possible to contact the other helicopter by radio. He warned her it would have to be quick, threw a switch on the console and indicated for her to depress a button when she wished to speak, and to release to listen.
‘‘Now?’’ she asked.
‘‘Julia?’’ Stevie spoke, naming the Channel Seven reporter. ‘‘It’s Stevie McNeal. Do you realize what you’ve just done?
‘‘Was that you who just fried our gear? You competitive bitch!’’
‘‘You can’t stay on the radio,’’ the pilot warned as air-traffic control began to call out to the aircraft.
The reporter screamed into the radio, ‘‘We’ll sue you!’’
The pilot mumbled, ‘‘They’ll ground me.’’
Stevie moved her hand away from the talk button rather reluctantly.
‘‘Check it out!’’ the technician shouted, handing a set of night-vision binoculars forward to Stevie.
‘‘I think they’ve made us!’’
Through the binoculars, Stevie watched in the eerie green-and-black environment of night vision as the crew ran forward toward the stacked containers.
‘‘They’re working the chains!’’
Below, a half dozen deckhands looked like ants as they hurried to free that top container.
The technician announced, ‘‘They’re going to dump it overboard!’’
The winch jammed with only forty feet of cable deployed as crewmen worked furiously to fix it. Nothing on
A crew of four sprang into action, carrying a fifteen-foot, twelve-inch-thick plank atop their shoulders as they climbed the adjacent stack of containers and then shoved the plank beneath the topmost container and hung their weight from it in an attempt to leverage the container up and over the side.
At the first considerable tilt of the container, the ship rocked and the loosened boxcar swiveled, cantilevered over the dark water below. One of the planks snapped and men fell forty feet to the steel deck. The ship rocked to port and the container miraculously pivoted most of the way back.
One lone figure scrambled up the stack and went at the huge door with a bolt cutter as the rain fell harder.
‘‘He’s letting ’em out!’’ the technician exclaimed.
‘‘We’ve got to
‘‘What’s done is done,’’ the pilot said.
Far below, the huge container doors swung open. Massive bundles of fabric sealed in plastic cascaded down to the ship’s deck. Dark figures fled from that container, the first two falling forty feet to the deck below. A woman jumped into the dark water.
‘‘Follow her!’’ Stevie said. ‘‘Call the Coast Guard! Goddamn it, if only they hadn’t. .’’ She caught herself about to chastise the press as she and her team had so often been chastised. That mirror was not one she wanted to look into. Several more illegals scurried down the walls of the containers, wild with their escape. Frightened. Terrified. The outnumbered crew was helpless to stop them.