Excerpt 1 from The Hainan Conflict | Verso.ink

Excerpt 1 from The Hainan Conflict

Book 2 in The Net thriller series

By DM Coffman

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The conflict between Yi and Sarah

Yalong Bay Resort, Hainan Island

“What a wonderful change from Beijing,” Sarah said when they arrived at the tropical island resort. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and took in a deep breath of the clean, warm air of Hainan Island.

The surroundings were more verdant than Sarah imagined. In one direction, beginning on the far side of the road, a steep mountain arched up, its dense covering of monsoon forest alive with the constant noise of cicadas, the humid air thick with the sweet smell of steaming vegetation. On the ocean side, garden walkways were edged with banana trees and tall coconut palms that swayed in the sea breezes.
Leaving Sarah standing with her mouth open as she gazed about, Yi picked up their suitcases and entered the hotel lobby.
“Sorry,” Sarah said sheepishly as she rushed to his side. “It’s just so beautiful here.”
The lobby was spacious and open, with a warm ocean breeze drifting through. Yi checked in while Sarah walked out on the patio to take in the view. It was captivating. She had never seen an ocean so turquoise. In contrast to the newness and elegance of the hotel, several time-scarred old fishing sampans bobbed out beyond the breaking waves. And the shrub-covered hill of Wild Boar Island loomed large above them. She watched the waves gently break along the beach with the rhythmic sound of the water being interrupted only by the occasional squeal of a seabird.

“Tell me about that small island out there,” Yi said to the hotel clerk.
“That is Wild Boar Island,” the clerk responded. “It is a wonderful place for snorkeling or scuba diving.”
“Then I look forward to doing some diving there,” Yi said. But it was the name of the island that caught his attention. That’s the island the strange woman in Beijing had talked about. What was her name? Oh, yes, Meijuan. She had said it was ‘her’ island, but that her son—the mayor here—had let in an evil presence. It looks pretty harmless to me, Yi thought.
“It looks deserted. Besides diving, any activity on the island?”
The clerk shook his head. “Just the old lighthouse. And tourists hike it for bird watching.”
Just as I thought—harmless.

The bellhop deposited their luggage into their luxury suite overlooking the sandy beach as Yi helped Sarah into a comfortable chair.
“I’m okay, Yi,” she insisted. “Really.”
Although the facial swelling had gone down, Yi could still see the purple and yellow bruising. “But you don’t want to over-exert yourself. You’re here to rest and recover, remember?”
Yi walked to the balcony doors and stared out at the horizon, above the rhythmic waves breaking along the pristine beach. Glancing to the left, he noticed a group of tents in the distance on the beach. Soldiers in green fatigues were scurrying about. A military camp? At a luxury beach resort? What branch of China’s military would conduct training at such an unusual location? Yi thought. As an expert on Chinese policy, Yi would be able to tell from their uniforms. Grabbing his camera, he zoomed in on the soldiers. Two surprising facts became clear: one, the uniform insignia were not any of those used by the People’s Republic of China; and, two, they were mostly non-Chinese soldiers. That’s unheard of! Yi snapped some pictures to research later.
“Sarah, after we unpack, what relaxing thing would you like us to do?”
Once again surprised by Yi’s thoughtfulness and constant awareness of her needs, she replied, “How about we walk the grounds and check out the beach?”
“Sounds great.”

The ocean reflected orange and pink as the sun was beginning to set. Yi extended his hand to Sarah. They strolled barefoot at the surf’s edge. Yi’s pant cuffs were rolled up slightly and Sarah carried her sandals in one hand, stopping now and then to pick up a shell or interesting rock. The sound of the cicadas grew louder in the nearby trees as night began to fall. There was no one else on the beach. Surprisingly, they both felt comfortable enough with each other to not have to keep up a conversation. They walked in silence, except for the soothing sounds of the surf gently rolling up and occasionally covering their feet.

Turning back toward the resort they walked along the dimly lit path winding through the green archways and floral gardens around the resort grounds. The palm trees rustled softly overhead from the night breeze. They were alone. Sarah’s arm intertwined with Yi’s and once again the conversation drifted into comfortable silence.
Since Beijing, Yi had been distracted by Meijuan’s allegations and on locating the Wild Boar Island cave to ascertain the full extent of her accusations. But now, his senses were preoccupied by the beautiful woman beside him.
Yi stopped and turned to face Sarah whose eyes drifted to the ground, a slight pink coming to her cheeks. Gently, he lifted her chin until their eyes met, and then he kissed her. Her response was eager, yet timid. Yi felt the trembling of her delicate body as he held her close. Touching her long flowing black hair, feeling the silky strands between his fingers, he marveled at her exquisite beauty. Physically, he wanted her. Yet he sensed this incredibly alluring and intelligent woman was inexperienced in love. His desire to protect her grew stronger, and he realized he had never felt such emotion before. Beyond the passion, he felt a bonding of their souls—a cherished moment of oneness. He realized if he were to hurt her in any way, or lose her, the pain in his heart would be more than he could bear. And it scared him.

* * *
Yi couldn’t wait for the opportunity to explore Wild Boar Island, but a storm was brewing.
“Aren’t you concerned about the overcast sky?” Sarah asked Yi as they left their hotel suite. “It’s getting quite dark out there. Do you think you’ll be able to see well enough in the water?”
“I can rent a headlamp with the scuba gear, just in case,” he said.
“And let’s not forget the waterproof camera,” Sarah added. They had purchased one the night before in the resort gift shop.

They positioned the boat near the southwest corner of Wild Boar Island and dropped anchor. The tide was high, so the water was choppy causing the boat to rock back and forth. Yi suited up with headlamp and camera, and swung his legs over the side of the boat. He then turned to Sarah.
“Are you going to be okay out here?” Yi asked. “The water’s kind of rough.”
“I’ll be fine, Yi. Just hurry back.”
He kissed her, put the regulator in his mouth, and slid into the water.
Sarah pulled her sweater more tightly around her body and took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. She looked at her watch to calculate exactly when Yi’s air supply would run out.
Please be careful, Yi,
she thought, hoping in her heart he would find the opening to the cave, yet fearing what he might find inside.

The stormy motion of the water stirred up sand from the ocean floor, making visibility difficult and casting shadows all around. Yi feared that he wouldn’t have any better luck finding the cave opening this time than the last. Precious minutes passed as he recognized the same areas he had searched before.
A thought came into his mind, as if his grandfather had whispered the words into his ear: “Open your eyes, suner; just open your eyes.”
Yi quickly turned on the headlamp. The fine grains of suspended sand shimmered like tiny diamonds before his eyes. Straining to see the rock formation just beyond his view, Yi could faintly see a shadow, cast from the headlamp’s bright beam against the jutting rock. It looked like a bell on its side—exactly as Meijuan had described.
He moved quickly to the other side of the outcropping. There, sure enough, was a small opening to what appeared to be a dark tunnel. Yi removed the camera from the netting bag attached to his belt and took pictures to show exactly where the opening was located.
Meijuan was right—it’s not big enough for an air tank,
Yi thought with dismay.
Then another thought came to him.
If I return to the boat now to leave the equipment, I may not find the opening again.

He wasn’t willing to take that chance.
Slipping out of the air tank, Yi breathed deeply through the regulator and filled his lungs with air. He then anchored the air tank against the rocks and swam into the tunnel. With the headlamp still on and kicking forcefully with his fins, he propelled himself swiftly along the tunnel.
At the point when he felt his air would run out, he switched off the headlamp. In the darkness of the tunnel a faint blue light began to come into focus. He swam harder. As he cleared the inner edge of the tunnel, he let his head break the surface of the water enough to catch his breath. The roar of the pounding surf against the outer rocks echoed inside the cave, covering the sound of his gasps. It took Yi a few moments to filter out the sound of the surf so he could concentrate on any other noises. The only detectable sound was the hum of machinery.

Sarah looked at her watch again as more clouds darkened the sky. Forty-five minutes had passed. The winds were picking up, rocking the small boat even harder. Sarah was anxious for Yi to return. As she looked across to Wild Boar Island, she gauged the boat to be farther out to sea than it had been when he had entered the water.
The anchor must be drifting
, she thought, her feelings of uneasiness moving to panic.
She scanned the surface of the rough water for any sign of Yi. There was none.

Yi pushed his mask to the top of his head and blinked the water from his eyes. A faint blue light reflecting off the water cast dancing shadows around the walls of the dark cave. The lake into which the tunnel emptied was edged with columns of stalagmites, some of which had joined with the stalactites that dripped from above. Beyond the columns a wall with a door had been constructed. Above the door glowed a blue light bulb inside a wire casing.
Yi eased himself out of the water onto the cave floor near the door. He noticed numerous crushed cigarette butts on the ground.
Somebody obviously comes out here
, Yi assessed. Good. Less likely the door is alarmed or locked.
After removing his fins, he quietly stepped to the door and leaned up against it with his ear. The hum of machinery was louder on the other side. Yi placed his hand gently on the doorknob and began to turn it slowly. The slight click of the latch seemed to echo loudly. Yi flinched but maintained his grip on the knob. He waited a moment before applying pressure to open the door. The only sounds were the increased hum of machinery and the roar of the surf.
Yi eased the door open just enough to see inside. The room was dark except for the glow of several computer monitors, a green radar screen, three black and white security camera monitors that switched between scenes about every thirty seconds, and floor to ceiling racks of equipment with tiny red and yellow blinking lights. Facing the monitors with his right side to Yi, a bearded man sat wearing camouflage green military fatigues with a black holster and 9mm handgun strapped to his waist. Yi froze. It was the same man he and Sarah had seen at the computer in the Culture Village. Holding his breath, Yi wished his heart would stop pounding.
The bearded soldier appeared to be reading a manual. A desk lamp shone down to an open binder on the desk. Yi carefully and silently released the doorknob, removed his scuba mask, and wedged it between the door and the frame, keeping the door open enough so he could watch the man’s movements. Then he waited.
As he had hoped, within a few minutes the bearded soldier got up, turned off the desk lamp, and left the room by way of a door opposite to where Yi was standing.
Yi quickly entered the room, repositioning his mask in the door frame, and took out his camera. He took pictures around the room including the painted red Arabic characters on the door through which the bearded man had exited, a hallway to the right of the door that led to the bottom of a circular stairway, the racks of communications equipment along the side and back walls, the ventilation ducts along the ceiling, and the communications console.
He then went to the desk, turned on the lamp, and began taking pictures of each of the pages of the manual, which were written in Arabic and contained numerous drawings and diagrams. Guessing his time was limited, Yi wiggled the computer mouse to activate the screens. On one of them were maps of the United States and Central America. Little arrows marked New York City, Washington DC, and numerous US seaports. On the other screen was the same recruiting web page Yi had seen on the culture village computer, including the spiderweb-like symbol—exactly like on Meijuan’s letter.
Yi finished taking pictures of the screens, turned off the monitors, and then exited the back door. As he was pulling the door closed behind him, he noticed a serious mistake he had made. He had left the desk lamp on! As he started back in to turn off the lamp, however, the opposite door opened and the bearded man walked in.
That was close!
Yi watched through the crack in the door to see if the man suspected anything.
The soldier tossed a folder onto the desk then sat down with his back to Yi.
Yi silently closed the door, gathered up his fins, and slipped into the water. He quietly maneuvered behind one of the stalagmites. Hopefully the bearded man hadn’t suspected anything because if he were to come out the back door, even if he didn’t notice Yi hiding behind the rock formation, the water puddles on the cave floor would show someone had been there and had entered through an underwater entrance.
Yi took a deep breath and swam back into the tunnel.
Once through to the other side, he located his scuba gear and filled his lungs with air from the tank. Then, contemplating for a moment the full ramification of what he had just discovered, he took out his diving knife and cut a marker into the rock.
One hour and eighteen minutes. That’s how long it had been since Yi entered the water. With only one hour of air in his tank, he knew by now Sarah would be either worried something had happened to him or fuming mad at him for not returning to the boat when he had found the tunnel opening. Either way, facing Sarah was not going to be pleasant. He only hoped she hadn’t returned to the resort without him.
His head broke the surface of the turbulent water. Startled at how much stronger the winds were, Yi quickly turned in the direction of the boat. His heart sank. It was no longer there.
“Yi!” Sarah called out when she saw the light from his headlamp. Overcome with relief, tears began to flow down her cheeks.
She hoisted the anchor, started the engine, and maneuvered toward him.
“I didn’t know what had happened to you,” she sputtered between sobs, trying to control her emotions and at the same time trying to help Yi into the boat and out of his scuba gear.
“I’m okay, and I’m sorry to have worried you,” Yi said, wrapping his arms around her. “There was nothing else I could do.”
As the adrenaline began to drain from her body, Sarah shivered from the cold wind.
“We need to get you back to shore,” Yi said with concern.
She pulled away from his grasp, practically yelling to be heard over the increasing wind. “But what did you find?”
Yi ignored her. He turned the boat around and increased the speed on the engine.
“Yi, what did you find down there?” she asked again.
He hesitated, assessing how much he should tell her.
“Obviously you found the cave because you were gone longer than you had air in your tank,” Sarah responded to his silence. “What was in the cave, Yi?” she asked again, this time with annoyance at his reticence.
“Yes, I found the cave,” Yi nodded.
“And there was communications equipment inside,” Yi answered, deciding not to tell her about the soldier with the gun. “Sarah, we need to get back to shore. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there’s a major storm coming in,” he added with a hint of sarcasm.
“Yi, if there’s communications equipment in that cave we need to notify government officials—ones who are high enough in command to be trusted.”
“And tell them what, Sarah? There may be a legitimate and legal reason for communications equipment to be in that cave. Meijuan could have made up everything else in her story.”
“I don’t believe you! So you’re just going to walk away?”
“No, I’m going to give the pictures to the proper authorities.”
“Which ones, Yi?” Sarah queried with skepticism in her voice. “If there is illegal activity going on here—and I suspect there is since you’re not telling me everything—how will you know for sure who you can trust?”
“I’m going to send them to an agency back in the United States. Now, no more questions, Sarah, please,” Yi said as he guided the boat to the boat dock.
“I have a right to know, Yi,” Sarah persisted. “You must think the activity is illegal or you wouldn’t send pictures to the United States. But how are you going to get American officials to take this seriously since Meijuan apparently wasn’t successful at contacting them?”
Yi thought about the mistake he could be making by telling her his true identity. Nevertheless, he knew at this point she wasn’t going to believe anything but the truth.
“Because I work for them, Sarah.”
Stunned, Sarah sat in silence.
“You work for the United States?” Staring at him, confused and disheartened, she waited for his reply.
She paused as the full impact set in. She slowly added, “You’re an American?”
“Yes, Sarah.”
Her confusion was replaced by anger as she blurted out, “So you are CIA! You lied to me! How dare you come here and spy on us!”
“No, Sarah, I’m an attorney from Washington DC. Just as I told you, I was asked to participate in the World Trade Organization's judicial training program to help identify corrupt officials who would try to prevent the implementation of the rule of law.”
“Asked by the WTO and the United States government!”
“Actually, the WTO in cooperation with the government of China.”
Sarah sat and stared at Yi, shaking her head.
“You lied to me,” she finally said, full of emotion. She was relieved Yi wasn’t involved in corrupt activities. However, she felt conflicted about what his being an American meant to the future of their relationship. There is no future, she thought.

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About DM Coffman

DM Coffman specializes in clean suspense thrillers (no offensive language, graphic sex or extreme violence). Strange experiences while living in China inspired The Net thriller series, and many unusual truths are interwoven into the stories of espionage and international intrigue. It's up to the reader to figure out where truth ends and DM's imagination begins.

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