HONG KONG, PRC
‘Thank you,’ Lin Mei said absently as the owner of the restaurant brought her tea and a bowl of noodles with fish.
She had arrived early at the tiny dockside restaurant, the anticipation of word from her brother in Beijing being almost more than she could contain. Since the handover last summer, each new day brought with it the reality of Hong Kong’s transformation from British Crown Colony into a Red Chinese city. Despite Beijing’s assurances that little would change, residents of capitalism’s strongest beachhead on the Chinese mainland still carried a nagging sense of uncertainty about the future.
Like Hong Kong, Lin was as much a part of China as she was of the West, and the delicate balance between those conflicting forces was difficult for both. An attractive young woman in her mid-twenties, she had been fortunate to study in the United States and was soon to marry a young man from San Francisco. On a personal level, Lin Mei’s future was full of promise.
She picked at her food, but the anxiety she felt made eating difficult. Instead, she resigned herself to quietly sipping tea while she waited for her brother’s emissary.
She spoke with Zhenyi as often as she could, but getting a phone connection to Beijing was still no simple task. Most of her communication with him was through letters carried by private couriers across the slowly dissolving border.
Lin Zhenyi had surprised her when he joined the Party and took a position with the PRC government rather than going West, as she had. He believed that China could change but that the change would have to come from within the government.
Despite his Party membership, Zhenyi maintained discreet contact with democratic reformers. His belief that change was coming deepened with the expansion of China’s economy and the return of Hong Kong and, soon, Macao. He felt that strong international ties would draw China out of her self-imposed isolation. When Lin Mei received his call three nights before, she sensed that her brother’s optimism had been crushed.
‘Mei, I can’t talk now,’ Zhenyi had apologized at the end of that brief conversation, ‘but my next letter will explain everything. You can pick it up at the usual place on Tuesday, at eight o’clock. Read it carefully and you’ll understand. I’ve also enclosed some important research for a friend of mine. He will make arrangements to meet with you. It is crucial that you give him what I found.’
Tonight, she waited, just as he had asked.
Kang Fa circled the restaurant for twenty minutes, looking for watchers before entering. Hong Kong was still Hong Kong, and he knew that there were many eyes in the city that still worked for foreign intelligence services. Through the window, he saw twelve cramped seats, half-filled with evening diners. Near the window sat Lin Mei.
She is beautiful, Kang thought as he approached, more so than any photograph could render.
Her long black hair was drawn back in a French braid that descended to the small of her back like a silken cord against the red satin of her dress. Life in Hong Kong had been very kind to this exquisite young woman.
As Kang entered the restaurant, he saw her look cautiously in his direction.
She’s expecting me, he thought, and he smiled back to acknowledge her attention.
‘Lin Mei?’ he asked politely as he approached her table.
‘Yes,’ she replied. The man was older than she, well over forty, with graying black hair and a kind face.
‘My name is Kang Fa. I am an acquaintance of your brother. I apologize if I have kept you waiting.’
Lin only nodded, almost afraid to speak. Kang sat in the lacquer chair beside hers and ordered tea from the owner of the tiny restaurant.
‘Zhenyi asked me to bring you this letter. I know he wished that he could have delivered it himself.’
Lin Mei accepted a sealed envelope that bore the characters of her name; the handwriting was Zhenyi’s. She opened it and began to read, devouring each of her brother’s quickly drawn characters. He spoke of his disillusion with China, of his lost hope for the future. As she read, she realized that the rambling letter was her brother’s final confession; he wrote as a man facing certain death. She began to weep as the depth of her brother’s despair unfolded before her. Zhenyi ended the letter by imploring her to deliver the attached pages to a friend, who, he said, would know what to do with them.
She turned to the next page of the letter. It was a grainy photocopy of an official document that authorized the relocation of the listed individuals into Mainland China for an undetermined period of time. All those named were members of Hong Kong’s most prominent Chinese families. The pages were excerpts from Beijing’s ten-year plan for the pacification of Hong Kong.
China is going to take hostages to keep Hong Kong in line, Lin Mei realized. The Communists are no different from the warlord emperors who held key families at court to prevent rebellion.
She placed the letter and the list in her purse while struggling to maintain her composure. ‘Thank you for delivering this letter.’
Kang saw that she was visibly shaken by what she’d read. ‘You must share an uncommonly strong bond with Zhenyi. He has expressed his deepest fears to you, and his news is quite disturbing.’
She looked at Kang’s bowed head and sensed that he, too, was concerned for her brother. ‘Do you know him well?’
‘I’ve only known Lin for a short time, but it has been long enough to know that he cares a great deal for you.’
‘Mr Kang, I really don’t feel much like eating right now, and I have another appointment not far from here. If you have the time, I’d like you to walk with me there. I haven’t seen Zhenyi in months, and I want to hear more about him from a friend.’
‘I would be honored.’
Kang accompanied her on a meandering walk through the narrow streets of Hong Kong. They talked about Lin Zhenyi, and she was grateful for his presence; Kang was a sympathetic audience. The list had given her a glimpse of something terrible, and she felt as if she held the lives of those people in her hands. Lin hoped that the man she was to meet would know what to do with the list.
An hour slipped by quickly, and Lin ended their walk at the dock where she was to wait. Vessels of all kinds were tied up along the pier, aging junks, fishing boats, and small barges. As evening slipped into darkness, odd circles and squares of light from the boats illuminated the dock in an irregular rhythm of light and shadow.
Lin turned to Kang as they approached the site of her expected rendezvous. ‘I would like to thank you for the kindness you have shown me tonight.’
‘The pleasure was all mine. Your brother was a decent man.’
Lin nodded and prepared to part company, when a sudden icy fear swept over her. She looked carefully at Kang. He smiled back pleasantly, but his eyes spoke of something deeper and darker beyond the innocent facade. He read her fear and his smile widened.
‘Why do you say my brother was a decent man? What has happened to him?’
‘Your brother was arrested for espionage.’
Lin swallowed back her fears. ‘Is he dead?’
‘Yes,’ Kang replied.
She looked into his eyes and saw the truth, and beyond the truth, she saw something else; Kang Fa seemed to be taking pleasure in her anguish, as only a truly evil person could.
A single tear fell from her eye as she stood there, paralyzed with fear of this man. Kang gently brushed her cheek with his hand to collect the droplet, his touch nearly causing her to faint.
‘A tear for the fallen, how poetic. Zhenyi shed many tears before he died, especially when I told him that I would be visiting you.’
The certainty with which he confirmed her brother’s death caused Lin’s worst fears to explode in her mind. She was in the presence of a sadistic monster.
‘I broke your brother’s pitiful group of subversives. I infiltrated it with my own agents and destroyed each cell of resistance. With your brother’s help, I intercepted the courier who was to meet you tonight. Everyone involved has been captured or killed, and you, my beautiful flower, are all that remains of Lin Zhenyi’s ring of spies.’
This man is a killer! her mind screamed out. Run!
Lin bolted to one side, trying to escape, but Kang just laughed and grabbed her as she tried to pass, locking his left arm tightly around her torso. His forearm clamped over her breasts, holding her back firmly against his chest. Her warmth aroused him as she trembled in his crushing embrace.
‘You are a very beautiful woman, more beautiful than your brother described. When I told him that I would visit you, he pleaded with me not to harm you. He said that you were not involved in his crimes.’ Kang pulled at her dress and ran his hand slowly, intimately across her thigh. ‘This was the image that I placed in your brother’s mind, the single thought that forced him to tell me everything.’
‘You bastard!’ She choked, sobbing.
Kang’s free hand moved away from beneath her dress, and with it went the fear of a brutal rape. He’d brought her on a journey from trust to fear, enjoying each subtle turn and its effect upon her, but time grew short and Lin’s contact would soon arrive. His grip tightened and her sobbing abruptly halted with the violent snap of her neck.
Neville Axton walked confidently down the darkened pier. Every place in this city held its own special dangers for the inattentive, and a man had to know how to carry himself if he expected to walk about unaccosted. His thirty years as an agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, most of which had been spent in Hong Kong, allowed him to project an outward demeanor that, while not overtly hostile, left the impression that he was not someone to be trifled with.
He had been worried about tonight’s exchange from the moment he learned that Lin Mei would be involved. Axton had warned his Chinese agent about the dangers of using his sister as a mule, but Zhenyi’s situation had become desperate and there was simply no alternative.
He strolled along the pier, ignoring the private lives going on inside the floating homes to either side of him. Near the end of the long dock, he saw the silhouette of a woman in the reflected lights ofHong Kong. The woman made no move, no glance toward him as he approached.
At ten feet, he knew that it was Lin Mei seated on the crates near the end of the jetty. Axton sensed something amiss and approached cautiously.
Crouching down in front of her, he stared into the quiet of her eyes. In place of the animation that usually shone out of someone her age, there was emptiness. Her lips were slightly parted, as if to speak, but no words or warning came.
In Lin Mei’s hands, Axton found Zhenyi’s letter held out like an offering. The list was gone. Axton placed his hand upon her shoulder. His gentle touch caused her to topple forward, crumpling in his arms like a rag doll.
‘Lin Mei,’Axton vowed, his mind filling with rage and sorrow, ‘I swear to you that I will find your murderer.’LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
Jackson Barnett wiped the offending smudge from the right lens of his wire-framed bifocals and, satisfied that his vision would be hampered by nothing more than his aging eyes, perched them back on his face. His face was long and thin, favoring his mother’s side of the family, and framed with a full head of neatly trimmed silver hair. Barnett possessed the look and demeanor of a lifelong scholar: physically unimposing yet possessing the confidence of a well-trained mind.
Barnett read the intelligence report a second time to clarify his grasp of the details. The report identified the means used to divert the shipment of an American-made supercomputer to a North Korean military testing facility. The machine’s sale was restricted to only the closest allies of the United States, and its theft was considered a serious breech of national security. Unfortunately, this was just one of the many problems facing the Director of Central Intelligence this afternoon, problems well beyond those he had faced as a prosecutor in South Carolina a quarter of a century ago.