Held In Customs



Statement of Vincent Yang regarding his claimed imprisonment by Mikaele Salesa.

Original statement given February 22nd, 2000. Recording by Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, London.

Statement begins.


He drugged me. Obviously he drugged me, that’s the only explanation that makes sense. It was the only way he could get me in there, and drugs can affect how you see all sorts of things, even time.

It’s just, it felt so real. I felt every second, and I checked my watch, and – but I’ve taken all sorts of drugs in my life, I experimented plenty with psychedelics in my youth, and this didn’t feel like being drugged. It felt like being eaten. No, not eaten, entombed.

It was his own damned fault. I’ve been working customs long enough and we all know the drill, he should too. You bust the sloppy ones, you bust the ones you think might involve whatever the higher-ups are coming down on hard that month, but most smugglers are small fry. You keep your paperwork in order and we’ll keep out of your way as long as you give us the same courtesy.

I knew that Mikhail shipped through Portsmouth all the time. I never dealt with the man directly, but he should have made sure to keep his documents clean. As it was, I had to hold his shipment. Not enough grounds for an immediate full search, I made that clear to him – but if he didn’t get his papers in order quickly, we’d have no choice.

I still remember how he stared at me, stood in that shipping container surrounded by flight cases and sealed metal boxes. That level, even stare. He was appraising me like some sort of antique. Like he was curious what my value might be at auction. Then his face turned to a scowl of irritation, and he gestured widely to his cargo, offering me the chance to examine it if I thought him a criminal.

His voice was deep, calm, and measured, but his eyes had an anger in them that scared me. I looked around the container, not so much to look at the contents, but just to avoid his gaze.

Truth be told, I hated my job. It wears you down to be someone whom nobody wants to see. Smugglers and traffickers hate me because I threatened to disrupt their business, I understand that, but legitimate operators look at me in the exact same way, because they know that an error on the manifest can be far more important than whether they’ve got 2 kilos of heroin hidden in the boot of an imported car.

I began to walk around, giving a cursory examination to the assortment of mismatched boxes surrounding Salesa. I didn’t open anything, I didn’t want to. I just wanted to make a small show of the fact that I could. It was the 18th of January, about a month ago, and the container was ice-cold. Fiddling around with locks and fastenings would have needed me to take my gloves off, and that wasn’t happening.

Salesa stood there in a tank top and unbuttoned shirt, seemingly oblivious to the chill. If he was trying to make some show of toughness or bravado, then to be honest, it was working. I had no interest in crossing this man.

More important though, was the fact that smuggled antiques was so far down the list of priorities at that point that from a career point of view, bending down to stare at some flight case full of incorrectly declared pottery was a complete waste of my time.

I sighed, got my feet, and as I did so I grabbed the edge of an old wooden crate to the support. I felt the lid shift slightly under my weight. I looked at it a bit closer and couldn’t help but notice it didn’t seem to have any bolts or locks on it and the lid clearly hadn’t been nailed shut.

I reached over to try and slide it back into place, but my gloved hand slipped and as I tried to grip it I swear I barely touched the thing, but the wooden top slid further off, releasing a dusty cloud of air that sent me into a coughing fit. The air was dry and hot in a way that seemed rather alarming in the frigid shipping container. The inside was dark, the light from the entrance not reaching this far back. I shined my light in and to my surprise the crate appeared to be completely empty. I didn’t remember it listed on the manifest but if it didn’t contain anything there wasn’t necessarily a reason for it to be.

I turned back to face Salesa with a shrug. He no longer looked angry. Instead, his face now had a look of concern. I assumed he was worried I’d found something suspicious, but I shook my head and told him that if he got his documents in order by tomorrow he could be on his way no problem. Otherwise it was going to get more complicated. The look on his face didn’t change.

I began to walk out, I had to plenty more work to do that day, when he grabbed my arm. His grip was just as strong as I would have guessed and for a second I was suddenly afraid he was going to kill me. Instead, he looked me in the eyes for a long moment before he said very softly, “don’t go to sleep”.

I shook my head, assuming that was meant to be some sort of threat, and gave him a look that tried to tell him I wasn’t scared. Of course I was, but either way he didn’t seem to notice he just looked at me and repeated himself.

I was understandably nervous after that little encounter but I live in a ground-floor flat in a rather rough area, so I have several locks, a sturdy door, and bars on the window, all of which I triple-checked before turning in that night. Everything seemed to be an order so I had a few shots of vodka to calm my nerves and, well, I turned in.

Looking back on it now, the thing I find hardest to believe is how well I slept. It was a restful night’s sleep and I didn’t dream. The pain in my legs was what woke me. The dull cramp dragged me slowly from unconsciousness, and I tried to shift them into a more comfortable position under the covers.

As I tried I gradually realized that I couldn’t. They were pressed right up against a hard surface. My eyes began to flutter open and I realized that instead of my pillow, my cheek was pressed against something coarse and rigid, something that, when I tried, to move greeted me with the needling sharpness of splinters.

It was dark. Opening my eyes didn’t do much to change what I could see. My hands pressed against unvarnished wood and I felt a rising panic in the back of my mind. I think deep down I already knew exactly where I was but I still tried, steadily, one at a time, to move every limb and part of my body, hoping desperately that one of them would pass out into open air and reassure me that I wasn’t trapped within that small wooden cube. But I could barely move any of them and it soon became apparent that my prison was indeed a sturdy wooden crate.

I started to shout for help then. The sound was jarring the echo muted by the close confines of the walls, and my cries seemed incredibly loud to me. I called out again and again but nobody came. After a few minutes I suddenly had the horrid thought that maybe I had been buried alive, and I might have limited air. That shut me up very quickly, and instead I started to listen closely for any sound of movement. Nothing.

You know it’s strange, it took me a long time to make the connection with the crate I’d stopped at the cross and Salesa’s shipping container. I was so disorientated by my awakening that the idea that this was his doing took a surprisingly long time to come. Once it did, though, I began to feel rage building. I had the memory of the lid that hadn’t been secured and taking a moment to orientate myself, I began to push up on the wood directly above me.

It didn’t budge a millimeter. Either it had been nailed down or someone had placed a heavy weight on top of it, or both. I started to thrash around at that point, desperate to escape but this only earned me more splinters.

I suppose I was lucky that it was winter. The thick pajamas I slept in, that I was apparently still wearing, protected me from a lot of it. At the thought of winter I began to notice the heat. It was hot in that tiny cell, a closed humid heat that caused sweat to trickle gently down my neck and my throat to gradually turn ragged and raw.

I could do nothing but sit there, cramped and desperate, and feel that stifling oppressive heat thrum around me.

Everything about it was stifling and oppressive. I have never suffered from claustrophobia before but it didn’t take long for it to set in and for a while I gave in to blind panic, muttering to myself and hyperventilating in shallow gasping breaths of hot, sticky air.

The thing that finally brought me out of it was the realization that if I’d been breathing so hard and for so long but was still conscious, that must mean there was airflow and that I wasn’t completely buried alive. That sudden moment of relief ended abruptly though, when I swear I felt the box get smaller.

It was a slight movement, barely a centimeter, but I felt it in a jolt of pain along my leg. That the crate had decided to punish me for my moment of hope. After a while, the cramps that had been so agonizing to begin with began to fade in and out. It’s not that it stopped hurting, far from it, but it became such a constant pain that I could ignore it for long periods of time before it washed back over me in a wave of screaming muscles.

It was in such a window of normality, but I realized I was able to see my arms. There was light. It seemed to be seeping through the small gaps in the wood, barely enough to see by normally, but my eyes had grown very accustomed to the dark. It looked like sunlight. I must have been outside but I had no idea where I might be.

Near my head, a slightly larger space between the wooden slats let in a thin beam of sunlight near my head. I shifted, my neck protesting the movement, but for a single moment I felt it on my face. That sunlight, the dream of freedom. Then the box closed the gap with a shudder and squeezed me a bit tighter for daring to do so.

Still, I knew I was outside, and I knew I had air, so I tried once again to scream for help. I pleaded, I shouted, I felt my dry lips crack from the force of my screams. I kept going until my voice was nothing but a hoarse whisper and then I collapsed back into despair and terror.

At 11:56 I realized I could see my watch. I wasn’t in a habit of taking it off at bed, and the position I had been forced into left it just about visible in the dim light. It was surprisingly little comfort, as the hours that had passed by in a hazy blur of pain and fear now ticked by with an awful slowness.

Even so, it grounded me, kept me focused on something real. The minutes and hours passed same as they would have outside the box, and this more than anything convinced me that I was neither dreaming or mad.

At 9:45, the light began to disappear and I was once again in darkness. I slept then, fitfully and in great pain, and when I woke back up to find myself still trapped there, I cried. Even as I did so, in the back of my mind I hated myself for wasting what water I might have left in me.

Four days I was in there, at least if the darkness and light really was night and day. I used to be religious and I tried to pray several times, but the words felt hollow on my dry, desperate lips. I called out to God, then later to the devil, and finally to Salesa himself. None of them answered.

I knew that that was where I was going to die, trapped and alone. I wondered if they would ever find me. Was I somewhere where the stench of my rot might bring some poor soul to investigate? Probably not if my screams couldn’t be heard but maybe someone would find me. Maybe they would join me if the box was still hungry.

It was thoughts like these that played endlessly through my mind, round and round like a feverish thirsty carousel. Then all at once it was over. I awoke to hear the sounds of wood shifting above me. I barely had time to register what was happening before frigid, icy air washed over me and the torchlight was shining in my face.

I blinked hard as I started to make out two figures above me. One was Salesa, staring at me with an expression of curiosity, the other I didn’t know though I vaguely recognized him as one of the captains that made port here occasionally. Captain Larell, maybe, or Lukas? I don’t really remember.

He looked at me then over to Salesa, shrugged, and handed him a 20 pound note before turning around and walking out of the shipping container, which I saw I was once again inside.

Salesa lifted me gently out of the box being careful, I noted, not to touch the sides. Moving my legs was like walking on knives, but I managed to stumble out, overjoyed at my freedom. I felt Salesa push some papers into my hands. An updated manifest he told me, and sent me on my way.

I spent that day trying to get some life back into my tortured, atrophied muscles and slowly drinking water. I ignored my work completely and ended the day by handing in my notice.

Do you know what date was on my letter of resignation? The 19th of January, the day after I had first seen Salesa. My watch no longer matched the clock in the break room. I don’t know why the night was so much longer for me, or why it boiled me with the sun in the middle of winter.

I must have been drugged. Salesa must have drugged me. It’s the only rational explanation. But I know that he didn’t.


Statement ends.

Another tale of the elusive Mikaele Salesa dealing in all sorts of artefacts without any decent safety measures. Unless that’s the point, of course.

And if I’m not mistaken, it would appear he’s at least acquainted with Captain Peter Lukas of the Tundra. Whatever this grand game is, Salesa is definitely involved. I just wish I knew whether he was a player, or a pawn, or something else entirely.

Surprisingly, it seems comprehensive shipping records are harder for Tim to flirt his way into than police reports, and Sasha has had her own issues with trying to access the electronic records. If there is official documentation of this particular shipment that might verify Mr. Yang’s story, we’re not able to obtain them.

Martin encountered a different problem tracking down Mr. Yang himself. Apparently, he’s retired now and living with his children, who were surprisingly cooperative in allowing Martin to see him. He’s also in the later stages of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He could provide no new useful information, and Martin left after Mr. Yang became acutely distressed at the mention of boxes.

All in all, a dead end. If this was the first time Mikaele Salesa turned up in our files, I would definitely agree with Mr. Yang’s own assessment, but by now there are far too many cases to chalk them all up to drugs.

Whatever Salesa deals in is, I suspect, infinitely more dangerous.

End recording.





Gertrude’s laptop has been rather interesting. Unfortunately, nothing along the lines of “My Murderer.avi”. She didn’t keep any sort of diary from what I can see. In fact, it doesn’t look like she kept many documents at all. A few budget spreadsheets and work forms, but I get the feeling she wasn’t much of a note-taker.

The thing that is interesting in the budget spreadsheet is the rather large amount she requested for travel. What’s even stranger is that it seems the budget was approved.

Her internet history and emails reveals some more pertinent information. It looks like she did do a lot of travel, all over the world, far further than the single basement one would expect an archivist to keep to. And in these cases, at least, she kept the receipts and the booking information. Nairobi, Wichita, Budapest, Shanghai – the list goes on. No records as far back as ‘98, of course, but given the pattern, I don’t think a trip to Alexandria is at all out of the question.

There’s also the matter of the products she was ordering. There are several online orders of petrol, lighter fluid, pesticides, and high-powered torches. They are sporadic, but notable in that she did not drive, smoke, or work in pest control. The torches would make sense if it wasn’t for the quantities in which she ordered them. She also sent orders for a staggering array of filing tabs, labels, and index markers, all different makes, formats, and systems, most of which I have encountered in various forms around the archives.

Given that the doddering old lady image is now dispelled in its entirety, I cannot help but wonder if there is a reason she was keeping the files in disarray. I’m not convinced she would approve of my efforts to organize them.

Part of me is tempted to follow her lead and suspend my explorations, but the more I find out about Gertrude, the less I am inclined to trust her, and I am not sure emulating her is the wisest course of action. Especially given the three most alarming purchases I found in her history.

Gertrude Robinson was trying to buy Leitners. Seeing the account name grbookworm1818 gave me a particularly hollow laughs. Obvious when you’re looking for it, I suppose.

It looks like she managed to get hold of three books: a special printing of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, by John Ruskin; that rather dubious copy of The Key of Solomon, and a 1910 pamphlet simply entitled A Disappearance. I am quite sure none of them are in the archives, and they weren’t in her flat, either. I rather hope she destroyed them, especially as The Key of Solomon is something of an almanac on demonology, but my luck isn’t that good.

All told, the laptop has given me much cause for concern, and little in the way of hard evidence. The more I learn about Gertrude, the more I respect her, and the more I worry about her motives.

Perhaps I’ve been focusing on the wrong question, and the most important thing isn’t who killed her, but why.

End supplemental.