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As a measure of my appreciation for your support, I am providing my readers/followers with a preview of one of my new books ‘Distant Gunfire‘. Unlike my other new book ‘The Nautical Prepper‘, which addresses preparedness and provides practical solutions, ‘Distant Gunfire‘ deals with the intrigue and mystery shrouded business surrounding the international gem trade.
By: Capt. William E. Simpson II – USMM
Copyright 2013 – All Rights Reserved
This book provides a glimpse into the secret world of gem dealers. It is based upon real-life events, although in many cases the names of people and places of events have been changed to protect trade sources as well as friends and colleagues, some of who remain at large overseas, doing what they do best, and in harms way…
Chapter 1 – Where’s My Snakeskin?
The discomfort from the stifling heat was only exceeded by the humidity and the sweat soaked clothes that stuck to our skin. We struggled to find any possible way to be comfortable in our grass hammocks. Occasionally the stillness of the night was broken by a gecko’s call, followed by the scuffling sound of a bug’s wings as it was being eaten. Far off in the remote darkness, occasional gunfire would punctuate the night. Fear shadowed our thoughts as we contemplated the terror off in the distance.
A host of insects buzzed around the dim light of our lantern, like electrons orbiting a nucleus, as the squadron of mosquitoes kept their distance from our DEET covered bodies. It was becoming all too familiar, it was just another night like so many other nights before. I found myself lost between the lust for money and my addiction to adventure, yet longing for the family I loved.
It was the Fall of 1987 and I was 36 years old. I was in full career and among other vocations, I had become an international gem dealer.
I met Jerry Swift at the NAPA auto parts store in Kaneohe, Hawaii about a year earlier when I was buying engine parts for the diesel engine in our charter sailboat the Tropical Princess. It was clear to me upon meeting Jerry that he was out of place and was definitely a cut above the rest of the parts wranglers behind the counter. Jerry’s father owned a chain of NAPA stores in California and Jerry had grown as a businessman having managed those stores for sometime. Nevertheless, Jerry struck out on his own to find his fame and fortune. We hit it off right away and soon he became an employee of my company and then a trusted friend to my family. After a time, Jerry would run my businesses and would watch over our family home from time to time when my wife, two kids and I would go back to the mainland to visit family or deliver gemstones to our buyers.
In addition to traits of integrity, discipline and loyalty, Jerry had been a champion power-lifter and bodybuilder. In his mid-twenties, he was as they say “buff”, rippling with muscles, making him a great candidate to watch my back. Even though he had a great sense of humor and was a truly kind young man, he looked very formidable to those who didn’t know him.
Jerry and I were staying in a small one-room grass thatched hut that was constructed with rough lumber on walls and floor. We were near the Thai-Cambodian border, about 70 kilometers east of Chantaburi Thailand, and just west of Hell. The plan was to meet-up with some Cambodian soldiers the next morning who also doubled as part-time sapphire miners over at the Pai Lin (sapphire) mine just over the border in Cambodia. It was about the money for them and us. We were there to buy the gemstones, ‘conflict stones’ as they are sometimes called, and they were there to sell them so they could buy more guns and supplies to fight Pol Pot’s army. I am referring to the same evil bastard that orchestrated the wholesale carnage at the nearby “killing fields” where 5 million Cambodians were systematically exterminated just after U.S. politicians pulled our troops out of Southeast Asia, leaving that diabolical killer in play.
Very few people understand that so-called ‘conflict stones’ are actually very common. In fact, just about anywhere gemstones are mined in third world countries, there is usually a conflict at some level in the nearby vicinity that is funded at least in part by the gem trade. These conflicts are funded in many ways, and throughout history, gems have been a steady source of trade in supporting these dark struggles. The myopic and ignorant media has many people today believing that conflict stones involve just diamonds, which is far from reality. All kinds of indigenous gemstones are bought and sold in order to fund the many sides of some conflicts. Rubies, emeralds, sapphires and tanzanite are just some of the gems that fund the warfare in places like Africa, Mid-East, Asia and South America.
Gee Bill, is it always this fricken hot? What about all these damn bugs? Are we gonna get malaria? We better not! How can I read with all these bugs trying to bite me?
Jerry sounded anxious.
What do you mean I replied…as I swatted a mosquito, the heat, the bugs or what?
All of it! Jerry replied.
Are you kiddin? Heck this isn’t bad, you should go with me sometime to Brazil… they have cockroaches there the size of skateboards! And beetles that crap when they bite you, and if your scratch the bite the parasites in their feces gets into your blood stream and they chew your brain into Swiss cheese! No, this ain’t bad at all, I joked.
I started thinking about our little doctor’s visit before we left. Even though I never let-on, Jerry’s suspicions were valid.
Ever since my very first trip to Brazil nearly ten years before, I had consulted with several doctors that specialized in tropical diseases and immunology just to maintain some baseline disease prophylaxis on my trips into the jungles and mountains. There were many ways to die in these third-world hell-holes and I was determined to increase my odds for survival. I carried a first aid kit that included sutures and a micro-pharmacy containing various drugs to prevent and treat some of the many known diseases that I might encounter on any given trip. The drugs in my first aid kit were in addition to all the immunizations, which I had the displeasure to bear prior to every trip overseas. On this trip, I made certain that Jerry had the basic shots, including the mother of all shots; ‘gamma-globulin’, which provided a super immunity for a couple weeks. Made from the distilled antibodies of whole blood, this stuff is as thick as light oil, which necessitated the use of a hypodermic needle of a size suitable for any large horse. Ever try drinking a really thick milkshake through a small straw? Well, this stuff was like that, necessitating the railroad sized spike, which upon hitting your ass, definitely got your full attention. Jerry and I both spent plenty of time standing as opposed to sitting after those shots.
As I lay in my hammock contemplating our plans, my thoughts were suddenly disrupted by a scratchy-rustling noise that came from the corner of our hut where some old wooden boxes supported our backpacks… Shit! Rats! I exclaimed as I rolled out of my hammock. The damn things would eat almost anything, and I didn’t want them chewing up my medical supplies or the few energy bars I had saved. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a key-chain flashlight and the Italian switchblade that I carried. This knife was special; I had admired it since the first time my dad showed it to me when I was a child. He had used the knife in combat and then brought it back from WWII. I carried it most everywhere since day he gave it to me.
As I moved towards the commotion knife in hand, I pushed the brass button that was inlaid in the ivory knife handle and the seven-inch bloodstained steel blade emerged. I carefully lifted up one of the backpacks using the tip of the knife blade. Shit! I exclaimed as I jumped back a couple feet.
Jerry jumped up asking, what the hell is it? It’s not one of those huge spiders we saw at the airport gift-shop is it?
I turned to Jerry, no… it’s just a big snake with a rat in its mouth, I replied. Judging from what I could see, it was an 8-9 foot long Cobra. We both hustled outside the hut and stood there, initially looking stupidly at each other. Well, it’s just a snake I said smiling at Jerry who was looking very unhappy standing barefoot on the insect-covered dirt trail in his boxers and tank-top. Laughing at his situation, I intentionally shinned my light in his eyes to piss him off. Ok, let’s find a stick or a board and I’ll get the damn snake.
What if it’s a Cobra asked Jerry?
It is a Cobra, he’s got a mouthful of rat right now, so I think I have the advantage. How about a snakeskin belt? I teased as I handed Jerry my knife and headed back into the hut, with a big stick in hand.
Still standing there, yakking away, Jerry sounded like a guy ordering at burger joint drive-up window…..Hey that’s a good idea, I definitely need a souvenir for my girlfriend. How about a snakeskin purse or wallet? Yea, can we do that instead of a belt?
I went back inside and pushed the backpacks off the wooden crates with the stick. Most snakes didn’t bother me, but a Cobra was another matter. In the dim light from the lantern nearby, I could see the massive snake was fast disappearing, gliding back into the hole in the wooden floorboard where it had most likely come in. I went back outside, seeing that Jerry hadn’t moved an inch.
Well?, where’s my snakeskin he asked? If I don’t bring back a souvenir, she’ll be pissed!
Stop worrying Jerry, Thailand is one big souvenir shop!
Jerry wasn’t too happy with me that day. It started quite early when we pulled into the tiny dusty Thai-Cambodian border town at about 7:00 AM after a hot and bumpy 6-hour Jeep ride from Bangkok. Even that early in the morning it was already about 80 degrees with 90% humidity. Covered with a sticky mix of sweat and road grime, we closed with our destination just over the border from Cambodia.
By Jerry’s stare, I could see a question was coming…
Gee Bill, when are we gonna get there?, asked Jerry.
Well, you know you’re getting close when you start seeing soldiers and hearing random gunfire or smell tires burning I said teasingly. And you definitely know you’ve arrived when you’re sleeping on cardboard.
Yea right! He replied, now you tell me this crap, that’s great!
What Jerry didn’t know is that I wasn’t kidding and it was sometimes all too true.
When we arrived at our destination, there were already about 40-50 small motorcycles parked on the dirt road that bordered a large 50-foot by 100-foot tin-roofed open-air gem market. The area was packed full of tables where miners and dealers sat, while others busily pushed-in and crowded all-around the tables, noisily examining, buying and selling, mostly rough sapphires and rubies. In some respects, it reminded me of the floor of the N.Y. Stock Exchange. Quite strangely, I almost felt at home. I couldn’t help but smile as I gazed upon miners and dealers here and there holding gems up to the sky in order to allow the intense morning sunlight to pass through them for a better examination of their color and clarity. On one table, I saw a drop of pigeon blood actually being used to compare ruby color. It was after all, an amazing sight. Thousands of carats of some of the world’s finest ruby and sapphire rough gems went across these tables every weekend, worth millions of U.S. Dollars.
Occasionally soldiers with machine guns would casually walk by as they patrolled the area, as even more arriving motorcycles putted past on the road looking for a place to pull-in. Miners would work all week and then show up for the weekend market to sell their goods, where they would trade with buyers from Bangkok and few daring foreigners that would venture that far out into the boonies. And the miners only take cash, which makes things even more interesting for the buyers, especially foreigners. But there were even more remote places, where the deals to be had were even better, if you were willing to take greater risks.
As we stood there, totally absorbed in the bizarre surrealistic circus-like atmosphere, a weathered old man pulling a wooden cart caught our attention. As the old man drew near, we could see that the cart was filled with road-killed animals. Slowly he rolled right up to where Jerry and I were standing and stopped. As the dust from the cart settled, flies swarmed off the deformed blood-stained carcasses. The old man reached down and grabbed an unusual looking possum-like animal by its tail and held it up to eye-level so we could get a good look at it. Uggh! To think I may have unknowingly eaten some of that in the local stew, I thought to myself. And then, much to even my amazement, he began telling us in a very matter-of-fact-way just how great it would taste when barbecued. The wrinkles in his thick leathery brown-skin deepened as the old man smiled and talked. There was a sparkle in his eye as he completed his sales pitch, still smiling, revealing his three remaining blackened teeth.
At that point I translated the tale to Jerry. Visibly disgusted by his facial contortions, Jerry simply said yuck! Get that crap out of my face!
I turned to the old man, smiled back at him and in my best Thai, politely told him “no thanks”. At that he very carefully laid the road-killed remains back to rest in his little cart and slowly rolled off to find suitable client, which as it turned-out was the so-called ‘Cafe Le France’ about 50 feet further down the road. We looked on as the old man again displayed his offerings, this time to the man standing behind the smoking BBQ, which was constructed from a sawn-in-half 55-gallon fuel drum, who seemed quite interested.
Ah, business as usual, I commented to Jerry.
Jerry wasn’t use to that kind of heat, humidity, and especially not that kind of cuisine, even though we both lived in Hawaii at the time. We carried a couple bottles of water with us all the time to keep hydrated. And if you ran out of water, the only other fairly safe things to drink were carbonated beverages like Coke or beer.
Hey Bill, can we get some breakfast? I am starved! Jerry was a body-builder so he was always eating or drinking something.
I scanned several of the nearby food vendor’s carts who serviced the crowds at the gem markets. Sure I said, eying a nearby food vendor’s glass case full of funny looking deep-fried road-killed animals and some odd shaped eggs, which appeared to be hard-boiled. Hey Jerry, here’s some food?… as I directed him over to the vendor by the glass case. Jerry immediately saw the “eggs” and said how about those? Seeing Jerry’s finger pointing at the “eggs” was more than enough reason to prompt the vendor to promptly dish them over to Jerry. As Jerry eagerly started eating his “eggs”, I paid the smiling vendor, who seemed quite pleased with the transaction.
There was a small wooden table just next to the vendor’s glass case with two wooden coke-box stools, which were situated nearby a ditch that also formed a filthy gutter alongside the dirt road.
Sitting down at the table with Jerry, I asked, well? how do they taste?
Chewing as he pondered my question, Jerry seemed slightly distracted.
Maybe it was the rank smelling morning air wafting over us, that carried the unique bouquet of 2-stroke motorcycle exhaust delicately blended with a hint of raw sewage, or possibly the other assorted fragrances emanating from the decaying matter that lay in the nearby gutter at our feet? Jerry was already shoving the second egg in his mouth by then.
Ummm, not bad, not bad, Jerry said. Why do you ask?
Well….. they actually look like snake eggs and I have never tried them before, I replied. Jerry quickly unloaded his breakfast into the roadside ditch and washed-out his mouth with some of the bottled water he was carrying.
You fucker, why didn’t you tell me?
My Cheshire-Cat smile broke into laughter. You never asked!
As I was busting a gut laughing at Jerry, two machine-gun toting men wearing military uniforms walked up to us and began speaking Thai at me as they glanced over at Jerry, who was still rinsing his mouth out into the street. They inquired if I was “Mr. Bill” and “is that Arnold Swartzeneger”?…. while motioning their gun barrels in Jerry’s direction as they spoke.
Seeing the AK-47’s, Jerry suddenly looked quite worried and was still sweating and green around the gills from his snake-egg cuisine.
Jerry exclaimed, now what!
Trying not to laugh, I said; well you see, they said you look like a drug smuggler they’ve been after. I was now trying to act totally serious.
What! exclaimed Jerry….That’s ridiculous I just got here! How could I be a drug dealer!
Jerry’s mind flashed back to the horror stories I told him on the long, long airplane ride from Hawaii about what Thai authorities do to drug dealers.
Bill! Tell them, I‘m no drug smuggler!
Unknown to Jerry, these were the Thai soldiers I was expecting that were working with my business partner and friend Pak. Pak had arranged to have them watch over us and to take us over to the Cambodian border to introduce us to their military counter-parts in Cambodia who were dealing some sapphires out of the Phai Lin area, which produced some of the finest blue sapphires to be had anywhere in the world, and sometimes comparable to fine Sri-Lankan gems. Everyone in this part of the world made money from gems or drugs and sometimes both. There was a black-market for everything in Thailand, even the human skeletal remains from the nearby “Killing Fields” in Cambodia.
I informed the soldiers that I was in fact “Mr. Bill” as I was known to my friends and associates there, and that even though Jerry had huge muscles like Arnold, he wasn’t. Jerry was carefully studying the faces of the soldiers as I spoke, trying to decode their facial expressions since he couldn’t understand a single word spoken, being this was his first trip to Thailand. Jerry was quite worried about what might happen to him if I couldn’t convince them that he wasn’t a drug smuggler. I could see that Jerry was really starting to sweat now, and that I was taking this joke a little too far, so I told him he was OK, that they were really just wondering if he was Arnold S. At this, Jerry was relieved but miffed, suggesting a place where he could put some snake eggs if I kept it up.
It was like this all the time with Jerry and I. Normally, we both had a lot of fun passing the time by joking around. The problem for Jerry now was I was having more fun than he was because of the language barrier in Thailand…. he couldn’t tell when I was serious and when I was joking. We always had some kind of serial-joke going on between us, mostly so that I could pass the time and take my mind off the risks we would face over the next few days.
Even though my first few trips out to the borderlands were somewhat fun and adventurous, this wasn’t due to any naiveté on my part. I had been witness to those who hadn’t fared so well, and whose decomposing remains provided poignant monuments to inexperience. Nevertheless, after the first half-dozen times out to the ‘country’, as we sometimes called it in the business, it simply became work and was just another job to me, albeit a very profitable job.
Chapter 2 – Stained Glass Heroes:
NOTE: If you enjoyed this chapter and would like to see this book on the market soon, please do drop me a line using the contact form on this website! Input from readers is important and may very well help get this manuscript moved ahead in the que with my publisher. It is my desire to make ‘Distant Gunfire’ available by the end of the year.
Cheers! Capt. Bill