Situation No Win: Chapter One

It’s finally done, the revision of Situation No Win! It’s taken a bunch of years, but it’s done!

What’s different from the original? Well, the story begins at another point, there’s no first person view from Melissa, and there’s more of one guy I felt really bad about in the first story—Liu! Yes, he gets more time, and hopefully he may pop up here and there, too.

Situation No Win is set in the same region (and world) as Ryan Ramirez’s, and as I’d created this story first, you may find some crossing of paths and plots from time to time in the serial. I’m so excited to finally be working on this series that I first began conceiving and writing back in 2010—a whole life-time ago! Now, all I have to do is gather my notes, and get cracking on more of Ryan’s trials, and ‘15 Minutes, Then’—the working title of the next story set in Shaanxi Province. Got to think of a series name, too. One thing at a time...

In the meantime, here’s what was originally called Tom’s Tale and what I hope will be a Situation Win-Win for all of us!

Enjoy!
 

About the story:

Tom and Liu thought they’d made the discovery of a lifetime when the ancient relic they’re studying reveals amazing properties. Now, Liu’s dead and Tom’s on the run with few he can trust. Running into naive school teacher, Melissa, again could be Tom’s salvation, or his ruin if he can’t stop falling in love with her.  

From the deserts of Shaanxi Province, China to the coast of South Africa, Tom and Melissa have to navigate history, dodge the unscrupulous and psychotic, and stay alive to rewrite their own stories. But with double-crosses and fiendish plans the order of the day, who will end up with naught.

Situation No Win

Leenna Naidoo

2nd Revised Edition 2020 © Leena Naidoo

First published 2013 © Leena Naidoo

Original work 2010 © Leena Naidoo

This is a work of fiction and contains many fantasy elements. Any similarity to events, devices and persons are unintended. Details of existing locations, and some historical facts, have been changed to fit the story.

Chapter One
    Monkey King Vs Highlander
 

The Mu Desert, China, 2010

Tom avoided Liu’s striking arm, leaned back against the makeshift lab counter and rolled out of range of his friend’s enthusiasm.

“You die now, you filthy Scottish scum!” yelled Liu, really getting into the spirit of their mock fight, his cross-eyed squint lending him a comedic menace.

Tom suppressed a giggle. So, he hadn’t showered in two days, well neither had Liu. Still, he couldn’t let that insult pass. It was time to introduce something new to this fight.

He ducked under a free-standing table and grabbed his retractable practice sword lying next to  bubble-wrapped ancient swords: recently unearthed; recently catalogued; and awaiting careful shipment to Xi'an.

Holding his sword with both hands and striking the immortal pose, Tom yelled back with a hundred percent Scottish burr, “There can be only one!” He stared with lower eyebrows at his best friend’s maniacal grin. He knew what Liu was thinking; they’d argued about it for hours on end only just last week: Monkey King Vs Highlander, who’d win?

Liu put the relic he held into his jacket pocket, and dropped into a fighting stance. The puzzling cylinder, dug up less than a week ago still awaited full analysis of its strange chemical composition and enigmatic writing. Bulging at his side, it would have been safer with the bubble-wrapped swords but Liu refused to be parted from the artefact until he personally delivered it to Xi'an.

Tom grinned. He had the greater reach with his sword and longer arms, though they’d both need to be extra careful not to inadvertently damage the relic. Dr Zhou, Liu’s uncle and the Excavation Director, would be heart-broken; it would be unprofessional; and quite possibly the end Liu’s career and of Tom’s stay in China...or worse.

If thoughts of similar disgrace were going through Liu’s mind he didn’t show it as he went through a precise martial arts movement while making Bruce Lee sounds.  

Tom dampened his grin, admiring his friend’s practised flowing Tai Chi movements, and moved into open space in the roomy tent. Liu moved parallel to him, a whirl of movement.  

Tom spun around, feeling he was definitely losing the mock battle in some way, and brought the sword overhead, posing dramatically, his face a mock snarl.  

Liu was momentarily surprised, then concentrated even more, anticipating his friend’s charge.

Tom tensed, muscles set to launch towards Liu, brows furrowed for half a second. The air was electric, like a storm approaching, and was Liu’s favourite relic starting to glow even through the material of his clothes?

Tom would have hesitated but was already committed to the charge. He swept forward, swinging his sword in an arc.

Liu slid down in a snake-like motion and brought his hand forward, brushing the relic at his side.  

The air sparkled with electric dust, and a shocked Tom flew backwards, landing with a crash amongst packaging boxes and markers.  

Liu’s horrified brown eyes met Tom’s appalled grey ones. With trembling hands, Liu withdrew the relic from his pocket. It was glowing! What else could it do? Both friends gazed at the  octagonal coppery cylinder. The odd, unreadable inscriptions running its length offered no answers.  

* * *

Tom hurried along the Shenmu street beside the river. Erlangshan Temple rose like a castle on the ridge above him. Across the valley in which the little city sat sprawled the Nine Dragon Temple rock-faces and pagoda with the glittering golden Immortal overseeing all. A slight breeze made the humidity and strong sun just bearable, reminding Tom why the Mu Desert was one of his favourite places. He breathed in the clean air so unlike most larger cities and smiled at familiar faces as he’d smiled at his friend, Yan, at the temple.  

The monk, knowledgeable than most about the region’s history and oddities, hadn’t heard of a relic with the powers Liu’s strange cylinder held but it was early days in their research and the artefact would soon be in Xi'an. Besides, Tom had enjoyed the conversation with the amusing wise man, who promised to mention the relic to the abbot of HuiShan Monastery where many ancient manuscripts were in the process of being transcribed. Nevertheless, Tom was nervous talking about the relic to anyone, even Yan whom he trusted. He’d convinced Liu and Dr Zhou to remove the photo of the artefact from the camp’s website and to keep news of it as low-key as possible until the relic was studied at the main lab in Xi'an. Gibson was already asking questions about the incident with Liu and the relic, and knowing his director as he did, that made Tom very nervous indeed. Exciting though the discovery was, Tom wished they hadn’t found the intriguing artefact. He already missed the worry-free days when all they’d found were stone inscriptions and graffiti, remnants of old villages, and farm and construction technology.  

Weaving past shoppers and groups of schoolkids making their way back to classes from lunch, Tom dove into the refreshing air-conditioning of the local KFC. Jimmy, one of the team from the dig, grinned and waved from a table by the window while talking into his phone. Mobile reception wasn’t the best back at camp. Tom waved back then turned his attention to the server, glad the lunch-time rush was over. He hated waiting in line. The KFC was almost empty. Besides Jimmy, there were only two other patrons—a guy with mirrored wraparound glasses and an iPhone who got the once-over in return, and a student playing a game on their little phone. Tom gave the menu a cursory glance, checking the seasonal fish and chicken combos were still available. Less than five minutes later, Tom, his body relaxing as he descended, took his tray downstairs to the dim, cool basement seating where Liu would be found,.  

For a change, Liu wasn’t alone. He was laughing, sitting across from a familiar-looking girl. Tom walked over, anxiety creeping over him. Should he know this girl with the unfashionable poor-boy hat? Surely he hadn’t gone out with her in his early days in Shenmu. She wasn’t his type, not in those faded loose jeans and shapeless shirt. Up close, she appeared older than he’d first thought, around his age—late thirties for sure.

“Ah, here he is!” said Liu in English, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Our famous Tom MacKenzie, all the way from Scotland.”

Tom slid his tray alongside Liu’s, reluctant to initiate any contact with the woman. Let her think he was disinterested. It would be the truth.

She half-rose, awkward in the small space of the booth and held out a hand. “Hi! I’m Melissa. Liu’s been telling me all about you.”

Startled by her accent, Tom met her hazel eyes, and wished he hadn’t. He looked away immediately, taking his seat and rumbled a greeting. She wasn’t Chinese though she might have been Asian; her accent English, Canadian or Australian. And if she was in Shenmu, that could only mean she was an English teacher at one of the schools. She looked the type and Shenmu didn’t attract many tourists—not yet. Tom continued analysing her, speculating so he wouldn’t have to think about that shock of electricity he’d experienced when their eyes met. He stole a glance as she settled into her seat again. She appeared flustered. Had she felt it too?  

The strained silence was broken by a frowning Liu. “So, I was just telling Melissa about our remarkable find.”

Tom’s head whipped towards his friend, a glower on his face.  

“She’s eager to see our website and very interested in our work,” said Liu, turning to face both, with a smile for Melissa.  

Ja! I love archaeology and history!” said Melissa, picking up her tea. “I’ve been to a couple of the temples around here, and your camp sounds fascinating.”

“No visitors allowed,” stated Tom.  

Melissa’s cheerfulness turned into confusion. “I wasn’t...”

Liu sighed. “Of course. Though she’s welcome to follow our progress and learn more online. And I’d be honoured if you do, Melissa Laoshi!” His eyes and head flicked from Tom to her and back again: Go on. Be nice! 

Tom tried not to roll his eyes. Here we go again! Just because he hadn’t been on a date recently. Liu would have already taken her through the local custom of subjecting new acquaintances to painstaking, intensely personal questions: How old are you? Are you married? Where are your parents from? Where do you work? Why did you come to Shenmu and not stay in Xi'an...?

Liu kicked Tom’s feet. “Melissa’s a teacher in Yulin.”

So, that’s where he might have seen her, during their monthly big shop or on the train to Xi’an. Still, she seemed more familiar than simply a face at the station or the KFC. Tom risked looking at her again. She nodded.  

Ja, not as interesting as your jobs, but I love it. The kids here are great!”  

Definitely, not his type, then.  

“So, what exactly do you do, Tom? Are you also an archaeologist like Liu?” Her voice was politely formal.

She made eye contact and Tom’s mind blanked for a second, that earlier anxiety reasserting itself along with confusion and, perhaps, disappointment. Did she prefer Liu? Not that he’d mind, but...

“Technical writer,” said Tom, sounding gruff instead of matter-of-fact.  

“Oh. That’s nice. Unusual. I’ve never met a technical writer before.” She turned her full, attention to Liu. “So, what’s it like being an archaeologist? Do you do Indiana Jones stuff?”

Liu laughed and she laughed with him, looking cute and carefree, with no hint of the stern-face she’d given Tom, though to be honest he might have deserved it for being such a rude eejit.

Tom stare at Melissa was intense, stewing in wordless emotion. Why did he feel he was at an interview and losing the job? The sense he’d known her before niggled more than ever. And why was he feeling so confused? He didn’t even like her! She wasn’t his type. All he knew was he didn’t want her going out with Liu either—or with anyone else. Tom was shocked at himself. This couldn’t be love at first sight, could it? That was only a fable. And not with her—a mousey, unfashionable English teacher! This jealousy he was feeling was simply his sense of competition with Liu, ‘cos Tom MacKenzie didn’t do love. Not any more.

Looking for a distraction as he chewed on crumbed fish-sticks, Tom watched Jimmy descend the stairs. Lingering on the third from last step, the interpreter scanned the empty basement as if searching for a friend. His gaze drifted to Liu and Melissa, then met Tom’s eye. He smiled almost bashfully, and climbed up the stairs again. Tom watched Jimmy, unsettled. His hunches were strong—a gift from a long line of infamous witchy ancestors—a gift he’d been grateful for more than once. The hunch he had now told him something, other than the fish-stick, was fishy. Did Jimmy know Melissa? And if he did, what did that mean? How much had Liu told her about the relic? Tom shivered. The less people who knew about that odd device and its powers, the better. He’d have a word with Liu about the security on the drive back to camp when they’d be assured a modicum of privacy.

* * *

Half an hour later, Melissa made her goodbyes on the wide street outside the KFC, saying she hoped to get the fast bus back to Yulin. Liu exchanged email addresses with her while Tom stood in moody silence growing more surly. They both watched her walk towards the bus station, turning once to wave. She turned down a side alley and narrowly avoided being run over by a motorbike taxi swerving away from one of the many black Range Rovers with tinted windows driving in the city.  

In their own white Landcruiser, Tom waited until Liu had navigated out of the valley and they were crawling up towards the highway on the steep road made narrower by construction. “We have to find a way to keep that device safer. Keep it quiet ‘til we know who we can trust with it.”  

“I agree,” said Liu.

“So why tell Melissa about it?”

Liu smiled and glanced at him. “You’re not the only one with ‘hunches’ and gut-feelings, my friend. I think that nice lady will be significant in our lives.”

“How? She’s an English teacher! To little kiddies.”

Liu grinned. “A well-loved one, I’m told. She can help educate those kiddies about the importance of history, archaeology, preserving—”

“You really like her, don’t you?” Tom watched the endless line of barely moving coal-trucks that would only end once they reached the highway. It wasn’t that he was jealous...just concerned for his friend.

Liu, having thought about it, took a well-calculated opportunity to dodge around a slow-moving tri-wheeled car, then asked, “Don’t you?”

Tom wasn’t going down that route. “We know nothing about her. How can you trust her?”

Liu half-shrugged, hanging onto the wheel as the road edged closer to the cliff dropping all the way down to the valley littered with planted conifers and sparse scrubs. “I have a feeling—a very good feeling—that Melissa will be a good friend and is totally trustworthy, the kind my ancestors would approve of just as they approve of you, Tom Mackenzie.” He shot a grin at the Scotsman.  

A suicidal biker zoomed up to past them in the negligible space between the trucks and the Landcruiser. Liu swerved in reflex towards the cliff. Tom’s heart leapt in his throat as the Landcruiser wheels on his side skimmed the cliff edge. Liu swore and corrected their path, taking them back to relative safety. They glanced at each other, then laughed in relief.

“Too close,” said Liu.

“Yeah, you had me hanging there for a second,” shot back Tom. He continued bantering with his friend, hiding his growing sense of foreboding.  

A large black Range Rover pulled up behind them, perhaps the same one he’d spotted in Shenmu. The back of his neck prickled. He hated to think what would happen if its driver decided to copy the biker’s behaviour. Fortunately, they were almost to the highway and the road was widening as they neared the on-ramps. He needed to discuss more security measures with Liu. His paranoia was returning, but it was more important than ever to take extra measures after that close call. Nobody knew about the relic as much as Liu and him, and he wasn’t going to chance that kind of power falling into the wrong hands.

Tom allowed himself to relax again only after the black SUV took another on-ramp and theirs was the only vehicle heading off towards the ancient dunes.

* * *

Two weeks later, Liu tapped a nervous tattoo against the table with his mini-trowel, sweat forming rivulets down his back. His tent was not the most comfortable place in this unseasonably hot desert night, the unusual mugginess making the heat even more unbearable. He dared not venture outside into the cooler night to find a relieving breeze on a high dune. They’d surely get him then.  

He peered at his watch in exasperation. Where was Tom? He was only meant to be documenting the new finds in Camp Two, not the whole excavation!  

Liu turned off the lamp. Standing at the tent flap, he peered out with great caution. Should he risk going to his Uncle Zhou? Liu considered for a few breaths. His uncle was a gentle scholar, oblivious to most evils. He’d be no help in the present circumstances. They’d kill his uncle much more easily than they’d kill him—of that Liu was certain. No, the only person he could trust was Tom.  

And Tom was still out there running hours late.  

Liu shivered. Had they gotten Tom already? Had they made Tom show them where the device lay hidden? Liu took a step back. Surely not. Tom was too careful and could handle trouble.

Liu fretted, still looking at the tent flap. Tom had better get here soon! He desperately needed to tell his friend about the new discovery he’d made.  

Liu fingered the small object in his pocket. The now familiar growing tingle it produced was a small comfort. He couldn’t risk keeping more of the device intact. Extracting this key component had been easy and necessary. Besides, it was simpler to conceal.

The air was suffocating. Outside, the wind was picking up again, blowing in from the west. Dust storms wouldn’t be far behind. That would slow Tom’s team down.  

Decision made, and with a growing sense of despair, Liu worked quickly.

Taking his broken, but still in use, retractable Tai Chi practice sword, Liu tried to force the small stone from his pocket into the hole left by the missing piece. It wouldn’t fit.  

Sweating even more, he wrestled another segment out. The stone fitted this time, wedging securely against the edges. Satisfied, Liu capped the metal ends of the sword with its plastic cover and laid it gently down amidst his notes; a newly scrawled one in that binary code looking remarkably like a doodle. A derisive Tom had once shown him that trick. It would catch his friend’s eye.  

Next, Liu burnt his schematics of the ancient device and all his personal notes on it. He scattered the ashes on the sand floor at the entrance to the tent. All he could do now was wait for the men he was sure were coming for him that night.

He waited for over an hour.  

The adrenalin rush that had kept him alert earlier was all but gone. Barely a few hours earlier, it had saved him from being trapped in the pit with those two men staring down. All those years at school playing The Monkey King in Journey To the West had been of use after all. He prayed to GuanYin and hoped she’d remember him after all these years. He hadn’t prayed to her since back in high school...

A confused bug hit the tent; the distinct sound jerking Liu awake. He hadn’t realised he’d fallen asleep. The wind had picked up even more. The storm had arrived. Liu tensed, straining to hear above the sand-blasted canvas. Not much else could be discerned but they were out there. He knew it; could feel it. He crept softly to his bunk and lay down.

They might not be aware he was expecting them. He still had a chance of surviving the night, if only a slim one. He had much to live for, especially now that the safety of the ancient device depended on him and Tom alone. Liu resolved to do all in his power to stop it falling into the hands of people who’d use it for evil. It was the only thing to be done. And if he was to die here, he’d not die in vain. Through half-closed eyes, Liu watched the tent flap slide slowly aside allowing some dust and two men to creep in. Liu clutched his trowel tightly. It was time to live or die.

* * *

Tom hit the sand with a groan, his chest almost paralysed by the cruel blow. He barely managed to roll away from the swinging boot. It jarred his shoulder and sent him tumbling down the dune.  

His two attackers followed his descent. They didn’t know Liu had dismantled part of the relic. Neither could they know he’d hidden those parts in the cave. He could never risk telling them; they’d kill him anyway, just as they’d said they’d done to Liu.

At the bottom of the dune, Tom pushed to his feet and began a staggering run into the approaching storm. He had to get help. Even if he couldn’t make it back to camp, he had to keep the relic safe if it was the last thing he ever did.

Panting with effort and spitting sand blasted up by the rising wind, one question raced through Tom’s mind: Who had sent these murderers?

Available from July 2020,
Buy Situation No Win on  Apple Books, Barnes And Noble, GooglePlay,
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or ask your local librarian to help you find it  on Overdrive.  
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