As of now, Kill Yuan is up for pre-order on Amazon, with a release date of May 10. Go here to preorder.
And just to give a bit of a taste, so you’ve got a reason to hit that preorder link, here’s Chapter 1:
A shout from the watchtower drew Nong Song out of his reverie. He looked up from the table where he had been cleaning his QSZ-92, to see Banh waving from the watchtower and pointing off to the southwest.
He grimaced. Nong didn’t like many of the motley squad of Javanese and Malaysians he’d been saddled with, out here on tiny Pulau Repong, but the scrawny, gap-toothed Vietnamese pirate, who liked to boast about the number of merchant throats he had slit dockside in Cam Ranh, revolted him. But Shang Xiao Yuan had put him on this flyspeck in the ocean for a reason, so he hastily reassembled the pistol, then got up and reached for his binoculars.
As he scanned the water, looking for whatever Banh had meant by that inarticulate yell, he thought, for the hundredth time that week, that there really was very little to like about this entire situation. He had put on the single bar of a Shao Wei in the PLA Navy, only a year before, looking forward to a career that he hoped would ultimately end in a command of at least a destroyer, if not one of the refit Kuznetsov-class carriers. He certainly hadn’t expected his career to end less than a year later, resulting in his presently sitting on a tiny, miserable island in the South China Sea, commanding a band of pirates with only one other Han on the island. And Pan Jing was not the man he would have chosen to have with him. He was almost as bad as Banh.
It took a minute of scanning the horizon before he saw what the little Vietnamese was excited about. It was a yacht. A big one; his quick estimate put it at close to seventy-five meters or more. Sleek and silver, it looked very, very expensive. He ran to the tower and began to climb, while yelling to Pan, “Start getting the boats ready!” The big crewman looked up languidly, and started to get to his feet. If the target was as rich as Nong thought it was, as soon as Pan learned what it was, he’d lose some of his laziness. So would most of the rest.
The ladder leading up to the tower was as rickety as the rest of the structure, which had been hastily lashed together by men who had somewhat more knowledge of knots than they had love for manual labor. It hadn’t blown down yet, at any rate, but it creaked dangerously as Nong climbed. He was probably going to have to send Banh down when he got to the top, just to be on the safe side.
When he hoisted himself up onto the platform, Banh was staring through the spotting scope at the yacht, muttering to himself gleefully in Vietnamese. Nong didn’t speak a word of it, though Banh, along with most of the rest of the pirates except for a couple of the Javanese, spoke passable, if rough, Mandarin. Nong didn’t speak, but simply jerked a finger toward the ladder. Banh hesitated, the look in his eyes suggesting that he was considering simply gutting the soft Chinese kid that had been put in command over him, but then stepped away from the spotting scope and started down the ladder.
Nong waited until Banh was already a good ten feet down before turning to the spotting scope himself. He’d learned early not to necessarily trust any of his fellow pirates, especiallynot the ones who had been engaged in this particular occupation for much longer than he’d been a naval officer.
Banh had already had the scope focused on the yacht, which was barely moving; it had hardly reached the edge of the optic’s field of view. It took the barest of adjustments to center the yacht in the scope’s objective lens.
It was expensive. Nong didn’t know what boat values were but he was guessing a price tag that no one short of the Central Committee could afford. As he focused the scope a little better, he could see figures on the bow. They were far enough away that it was hard to see, but he thought he could see several shirtless men and almost as many women in even less clothing. They were mostly light-skinned. Westerners. Probably Americans. Japanese were possible, but he thought he could just make out a flash of yellow hair on one of the women.
Whoever they were, they were obviously extremely wealthy, and just the kind of target that Shang Xiao Yuan would call a “target of opportunity.” The majority of their targets were freighters or tankers, but the Shang Xiao wasn’t going to pass up a juicy kidnapping, and this looked like one of the juiciest.
Nong really didn’t have his heart in this business, but he knew that the Shang Xiao would probably have his head if he passed up a target like the yacht. Worse, he’d probably just turn him over to Banh for sport. Not because Yuan held the Vietnamese pirate in any sort of esteem, but simply because he was the scum of Nong’s crew. The Shang Xiao had a harsh imagination when it came to punishment. He wouldn’t just take a man’s life, he’d make sure that man lost all face before he died.
Abandoning the spotting scope, Nong started back down the ladder. Apparently, Banh had already started spreading the word. The pirates were stirring out of their afternoon stupor, though a few were still moving sluggishly, probably still either drunk on Arrack or stoned. The first few executions had curbed some of the harder narcotic use shortly after Yuan had consolidated his hold on the islands, but Arrack, Langkau, ruou, and marijuana were plentiful, and usually overlooked. Some of the Malays and Javanese needed or wanted the liquid courage when they went after a ship, especially as more armed guards were getting posted on them.
“Is it true?” Pan asked as Nong reached the ground. There was an eager light in the big man’s eyes, that Nong didn’t like, but that was life as normal anymore. Ever since Shang Xiao Yuan had taken the Zhaotong and deserted to set up his little empire here in the Anambas.
He nodded. “It’s true,” he replied. “It is a very large yacht. It looks like tourists.”
Pan grinned. He had very good teeth for a rating on a PLAN frigate. It didn’t make the smile any prettier. “Rich tourists, then,” he said. “It will be a big ransom. And they probably are too rich and spoiled to cause any trouble. Easy money. And maybe a little fun, too.”
Nong carefully hid his disgust. Showing emotion in front of these men would be worse than losing face; they would descend on him like jackals. Like it or not, the only way to survive for now was to be a pirate. He pulled his pistol out of its holster and pointed it at the sky. “Let’s go!” he shouted. With a roar of approval, the pirates swarmed to the armed speedboats partially hidden beneath overhanging branches that had been tied down to create overhead cover.
The speedboats had belonged to the oil company that Yuan and his men had expelled from the islands. With the help of the pirate bands that Shang Xiao Yuan had suborned, they had equipped them with a mix of Type 67s, PKPs, DShKs, and a CIS .50. They were attack boats now, and had seen use.
Even the drunks and the stoners made good time getting into the boats and getting ready for action. It wasn’t often they got a target as enticing as an expensive yacht full of dumb Americans, or whoever they were. The women were an added bonus.
With a roar of outboards, the speedboats surged out of the little bay, quickly picking up speed as they raced toward the yacht. Nong was in the lead boat, as his position necessitated. These cutthroats might not be soldiers, but Nong was keeping to his training, as the Shang Xiao had admonished him to do before sending him to this shithole of an island. Only acting like soldiers was going to allow them to control this rabble.
He looked around at the rest of the boats. Their formation, if it could be called that, was a little ragged, with several of the boats pushing to race ahead of the rest. He’d given orders that the machine guns were to be covered until they had the target surrounded, but Banh was in the bow of one of the smaller and faster boats, holding on to the CIS .50, grinning his gap-toothed madman’s grin. Nong gritted his teeth, even as he reflected that he should have expected as much from the little chusheng.
But as they neared the yacht, it didn’t look like the Americans even noticed the gun. He could hear their music pounding even over the roar of the outboards, and a couple of the girls in bikinis on the bow were waving to the boats. One even lifted her top, flashing the incoming pirates with a whoop that was almost drowned out by the music. Nong momentarily felt a flash of resentment at these Westerners’ arrogant stupidity; they would deserve just what his pirates were about to give them.
The pirate boats split, three swinging around the stern while Nong led the other two around the bow. In moments, they had the yacht bracketed, and Nong pointed at the bow. Jalak already had a grappling hook ready in his hands as Abdul steered the boat in toward the yacht’s bow.
The stupid Americans still didn’t see the danger. The big-breasted blond was leaning over the gunwale, waving to the pirates and yelling something that Nong couldn’t understand in a high-pitched voice. A few more of the men had come to the side as well, all shirtless and carrying bottles of beer. One raised his bottle toward the boats with a gleeful shout.
Jalak was starting to twirl the rope with the grappling hook, preparing to throw it. Nong put his hand up and brought it down with a shout of, “Now!”
The covers came off the machine guns, at least aside from Banh’s. In a ragged volley, all five boats fired bursts into the air over the yacht.
Now the Americans got it. Screams erupted from the deck, and suddenly the partiers on the side were gone, a muscular arm hauling the blond away from the gunwale even as she screamed. Jalak gave the grapple a practiced heave, and it caught the gunwale on the first try. With a tug, Jalak made sure it was holding, then pulled, drawing the boat close enough to start climbing up.
Nong, true to his role as leader, made sure his pistol was in its holster, then grabbed the rope and started up, with Jalak and Soeprapto right behind him, each with a Type 63 rifle slung across his back. Jalak’s even had its bayonet, which he liked to wave under crewmen’s noses during a hijack.
Nong had not been the fittest of officers when he had pinned on his bars. He still wasn’t; the diet of mostly rice that was all that was available wasn’t terribly conducive to physical fitness. But he was definitely leaner and stronger than he had been when he’d first set foot on the Zhaotong. That was by necessity. Just like the bravado and his pistol, being stronger than most of the pirates he was supposed to be leading was a survival trait. So, while his arms were burning by the time he got up to the deck, he still made the short climb quickly enough, and was able to launch himself over the gunwale at just about the same time that Banh came over from the other side.
The bow had emptied by the time the pirates got on deck. Nong caught a glimpse of a shapely rump in a bikini disappearing through the hatch beneath the helipad that was just aft of the bow. He followed, not so much out of lust, though he was sure many of his fellow boarders would have that foremost in their minds at that point, but because that appeared to be the best route to the bridge. While he really wasn’t worried about much resistance from these spoiled rich Americans, there was always somebody who would try to be brave and stupid, and it was best to nip that in the bud by taking full control as quickly as possible. The bridge was the best spot to do that. He’d learned that on his first hijack, when Yuan had made him go along with Qiao.
The yacht’s interior was a marked contrast to the freighters and tankers they usually attacked. Everything was very sleek, modern, and roomy. He stormed up the ladderwell into a wood-trimmed lounge with luxurious sofas and what looked like a well-stocked bar, before going through another hatch into a narrow passageway similarly paneled in what looked like oak. There were a couple of screaming, barely-dressed young people in front of him, who ducked into cabins on either side, but he ignored them for the time being. Once they had the bridge, they could sweep the yacht and gather all of the hostages on the top deck.
The bridge was two more decks up. By the time he got there, some of the heady thrill of the hijack was going to Nong’s head. The yacht was one of the richest boats he’d ever seen. There was more money sunk into the vessel than anyone aside from a General or a Central Committee member could ever dream of having. Maybe, if he made a good enough showing, the Shang Xiao would be content with ransoming the hostages, and let him have the yacht. It was unlikely, he knew, but a man could dream.
He burst onto the bridge, pistol already in hand, and went straight to the man in board shorts at the tiller, who was still staring in shock at the pirates swarming onto the yacht’s deck below. Nong pistol-whipped the man to the deck and stood over the crumpled body. “I am now in control of this ship!” he shouted, in passable English, or at least he thought it was. “Everyone down on the deck, now!”
He had been far too keyed up and absorbed with fantasies of owning the yacht he had captured to notice that the man had moved with the blow, instead of taking the full force of it. He also hadn’t noticed the tattoos that crawled over the man’s arms, chest, and ribs. Nor would he have necessarily recognized several of the insignias integrated into them, even if he had.
Most of the Americans had quickly dropped to the deck on command, though a brunette with slightly Asian features wearing short shorts and a red string bikini top was just standing next to the stern of the bridge, staring at the pirates and shivering. Banh, who had been right behind Nong all the way up, now advanced on her, leering. His folding-stock Type 56 was slung on his back, and his knife was in his hand.
“I said get on the deck!” Nong shouted at the woman, as much to protect her from Banh’s attention as to reinforce his command. Shaking like a leaf, she obeyed, as Banh stood over her, the same rotten leer on his face, thumbing the edge of his knife, both a promise of things to come. Nong looked away in disgust.
Gunfire suddenly erupted from below decks, a rapid, hammering series of reports that froze Nong’s breath. He turned toward the hatch, sick with the sudden realization that he had just lost all control of his men, and opened his mouth to shout.
He never got the chance to yell. The sight of two large men, one black, one white, both dressed in shorts and t-shirts with plate carriers over them, rifles in their shoulders, made his brain go into lock. This was supposed to be a rich playboy’s yacht, filled with soft, spoiled partiers. There weren’t supposed to be guns here besides what his men had.
Before he could unfreeze his thoughts to act, an iron-hard leg slammed into his calves, sweeping his feet out from under him. He fell to the deck, striking his head on the tiller as he went down. He thought he heard three painfully loud cracks go by his head before everything went black.
When he came to, his head was pounding and he felt nauseous. As soon as he became aware of it, the nausea redoubled and he retched, bile dribbling down his chin and chest. He couldn’t turn to keep it off of himself, which was when he realized that he was zip-tied to a chair, hand and foot.
He cracked his eyes open, squinting against the light, which only made the pain in his head worse. He could feel the knot in his skull where he’d hit the tiller throbbing. He felt sick, and only in part because of the concussion.
He was still on the bridge. There was another man at the tiller, and the faintly Asian brunette was now wearing a t-shirt and plate carrier, standing nearby with a rifle. She was standing over Banh’s corpse. The Vietnamese pirate had taken a round to the side of the head, and the exit wound had blown a good chunk of his face off.
Nong realized he’d heard the woman shout while he was puking his guts out. She turned toward the ladderwell from below, where two men were now stepping onto the bridge. One was the man he had pistol-whipped, now similarly armed and equipped. The gash where the pistol had hit just above his eyebrow had been closed with butterfly bandages and was still oozing a little bit of blood.
The other man, in the lead, was half a head shorter than his companion, with icy blue eyes and hair that was a dark brown shading to black. He unslung his rifle, leaned it against the bulkhead, then stepped over to Nong’s chair, looking down at him for a moment. He loomed over Nong enough that it hurt to look up toward the sunny sky and squint at him.
Finally, the man squatted down in front of him, bringing his face about to eye level. “Do you speak English?” he asked.
It took a moment for Nong’s aching brain to process the words. He didn’t dare nod; it hurt too much just to keep his head still and upright. “Yes, a little,” he replied.
“Good,” the man said. “My Mandarin sucks. What’s your name?”
Nong gulped, and didn’t say anything for a moment. Old conditioning was reasserting itself. He might be a pirate now, and no longer in service to his country, but he was being questioned by what he could only assume was an American soldier. He couldn’t bring himself to talk.
“Look, son,” the man said calmly, “I’m being nice right now, because you’ve got a concussion, and you might have some information that we can use. If you piss me off, I’ll turn you over to Lambert over there,” he jerked a thumb toward the tattooed man with the cut on his forehead, “and he won’t be nearly so nice. So let’s try this again. What is your name?”
“Nong Song,” he finally whispered, after it took a moment to gather enough spit to talk. His mouth and throat were raw with used stomach acid, and something tasted like blood. The man named Lambert laughed.
The dark-haired man glared at him for a second before turning back to Nong. “All right, Nong Song, here’s how this is going to work. You’re going to tell me everything you know about Shang Xiao Yuan’s dispositions on the islands. How many men does he have? Where are his bases? What kind of defenses? Does he have allies on Borneo or mainland Malaysia that will come to support him if he’s attacked?”
Nong shook his head painfully. It was hard to think, between translating the dark-haired man’s rapid-fire questions in his head and the pounding agony and nausea of his concussion. “I do not know a lot of that,” he said finally. “I was only a Shao Wei. I have been out on Pulau Repong for the last three months. The Shang Xiao does not tell me his plans; he just tells me to keep a lookout. I was to report big targets and attack smaller targets of opportunity.”
“That would be an expensive yacht filled with scantily-clad tourists,” Lambert added helpfully.
“No shit,” the dark-haired man replied. “Shut up.” He turned back to Nong. “Let me put it a different way. Is the entire crew of the Zhaotong part of the band? Or did some decline to become pirates?”
Nong thought about it for a moment. He honestly didn’t think anyone had decided to object to Yuan’s announced plan to desert and carve out his own little empire in the South China Sea. If there had been, they had been dealt with quietly and permanently before any of the non-Chinese pirates had seen it. “I do not know,” he muttered. “I do not think so.”
“You don’t think what?” the man demanded. “You don’t think the whole crew went pirate along with you, or you don’t think any decided they didn’t want to play?”
“I do not think that any of the crew defied the Shang Xiao,” Nong said thickly. “I was the junior officer on board. I think maybe the rest were already part of the Shang Xiao‘s plans.”
The dark-haired man looked up at the man called Lambert. Lambert shrugged. The man turned back to Nong. “All right, we’ll assume that the whole crew joined. Do you know how many non-Chinese pirates there are?”
He tried to shrug, but couldn’t. The zip ties were digging into his wrists. Only now that he was a bit more conscious was he aware of how cruelly tight they were. The pain had been eclipsed earlier by the throbbing agony in his skull.
“I do not know for sure,” he confessed. “There are many. There are enough that only Pan Jing and I were put here to command these men.”
“That’s a lot, if the ratio holds,” the woman said. “We’re talking probably five or six hundred, minimum.”
“I suspect that we’ll find more of the Chinese closer to Yuan himself,” the dark-haired man replied. “Presuming Nong Song here is telling the truth and he really is just a boot butter-bar who doesn’t know shit, and got put out on the LP/OP because he’s a boot and the Captain doesn’t entirely trust him.” Nong didn’t understand all of that, but he got the gist. The dark-haired man turned back to him. “Where is the Zhaotong itself?” he asked.
“I do not know,” he replied honestly. It had been at anchor off Pulau Matak the last he had seen it, but that had been three months before. “It has not come here since we were assigned to Repong.”
“This guy doesn’t know shit,” the man called Lambert said. “Let’s just off him, throw his corpse to the sharks, and quit wasting time.”
A flash of irritation flickered across the dark-haired man’s face, but he looked at Nong and said, “I hope you can give me more than that, Ensign Nong Song, because otherwise Lambert, as much of an asshole as he is, is right, and we have no further use for you. So, what’s it going to be? Do you have something else for me?”
Nong felt a jolt of fear go through him like an electric shock. Looking at the man called Lambert, he could see his own death in the man’s brown eyes. He felt another surge of nausea, whether because of the concussion or the imminence of his own demise, he couldn’t be sure. He thought of the exultation he’d felt, in spite of himself, as he’d stormed the yacht, watching the rich tourists run screaming from him. For a brief moment, he’d forgotten his nervousness and disgust at what he’d become, and embraced the savagery. Now all that was gone. He thought he felt his bladder let go.
“No, please,” he stammered, trying to think past the befuddling pain in his head. There had to be something, some fact they didn’t have, that might keep him alive for a little while longer. “I’m sure there is something, I just have to think of it…”
The dark-haired man studied him for a moment, his nose wrinkling as he noticed the urine stain on Nong’s shorts. Finally, he stood up. “Two more questions, for now. Did any of your people get left on the island?” When Nong shook his head in the negative, he continued. “Did you radio to the main base that we were here? Is anyone expecting to hear from you about the target you came out for?”
Nong’s stomach dropped even further, if that was possible. He hadn’t thought to report the sighting or his attack to Yuan’s headquarters on Matak. He’d been too desperate not to let his motley band of cutthroats get ahead of him to even think about it. Slowly, he shook his head.
The dark-haired man nodded, satisfied. “Good. That gives us some breathing room. It gives you a longer lease on life, too. I’ll have some more questions later. Think really hard about the answers.” He looked at the woman. “Keep an eye on him.” Then he turned and walked off the bridge.
Lambert started to follow him, but stopped at the top of the ladderwell, and watched the other man descend before turning back toward Nong. Nong didn’t like the look he saw in the man’s eyes as he paced back toward the chair.
“Lambert…” the woman began, but the man held up a hand toward her.
“Shut it, Cassy,” he said, never taking his eyes off of Nong. He advanced until he was standing directly over him, looking down. It hurt, but Nong craned his neck to look up at the tattooed man.
For a moment, the man called Lambert just studied him with blank, dead, pitiless eyes. Then he drew his pistol. The woman started to say something, but without looking at her, Lambert said, “Get out.” She hesitated. “I mean it. Get out.” She still hesitated, her hands flexing a little on her rifle, and Lambert looked over at her. “You gonna shoot me for a fucking pirate?” Lambert demanded. “Fuck off. Get out of here.”
“Dan’s going to hear about this,” she said tightly.
“Sure he will,” Lambert said. “But he won’t shoot me for a fucking pirate, either. Get lost.”
With a glare, the woman left the bridge. Lambert turned back to Nong. “Some people are a little too good for this business, you know?” he said conversationally. “I know you’re just wasting our time to try to save your worthless ass. You’re just a clueless bootenant out of his depth, but you’re going to string Dan along because he doesn’t want to be the one to drop the hammer on you, all tied up like that. But as for me, I don’t like having my time wasted. I think we could be doing better things than interrogating you. Plus,” he added, reaching up to touch the bandage with two fingers of his off hand, “you gave me this. So fuck you.” He dropped the index finger to flip Nong the bird.
The last thing Nong ever saw was the gaping maw of the pistol’s muzzle below the coldest eyes he’d ever seen.