NOW: AN ACTION-PACKED SPIN-OFF SERIES FROM THE GABRIEL WOLFE THRILLERS
They want her to kill for the Party – but she has other ideas
As a baby, Tara Wolfe was kidnapped by Hong Kong triads. After a bungled ransom demand, she was taken secretly to the mainland. Now known as Wei Mei, she has known no other life but the rural village where ‘Mummy Rita' raised her. When men with guns arrive in the village looking for her, she runs away to the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen, and a life on the streets.
Witnessed by a talent scout defending herself from an assault by three rich kids, Mei is recruited for a Communist Party school for assassins. The training is brutal, but Mei makes a couple of friends along the way: ‘Rats' and ‘Sis'. Then, after an arduous training exercise, something happens that tears the tight-knit trio apart.
Mei's dreams hint at a life she can't remember. Determined to escape and return to make sure Mummy Rita is safe, she ends up in even worse danger than before, as foreign agents close in. Then she discovers the secret that will destroy any chance she has of returning to a normal life.
She hatches a daring plan to free herself from the Party's clutches before it's too late. But with just 24 hours before she is taken to a Beijing facility where her fate will be sealed, time is running out, fast.
Release date: January 18, 2022
Publisher: Tyton Press
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WHO IS TARA WOLFE?
Tara Wolfe was born in Hong Kong to a British diplomat and his half-Chinese wife. Her older brother, Gabriel, would grow up to become ﬁrst a soldier in the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS, before joining a British Government black ops unit called The Department.
When still just a baby, Tara was kidnapped by gangsters, under the direction of a corrupt ofﬁcer in the Royal Hong Kong Police. The kidnappers botched things and Tara was spirited away to the mainland by the widow of a triad enforcer. She renamed the child in her care Wei Mei – ‘Beautiful Plum’.
This is what happened next.
“Respect yourself and others will respect you.” Confucius
1998 | A SMALL VILLAGE IN GUANGDONG PROVINCE, CHINA
The ﬁsh was a giant: Wei Mei had ﬁrst seen it when her gang had been swimming in the river. An expanse of silver scales that ﬂashed in the sun as it rolled over a few centimetres below the surface and dived for the bottom.
She planned to catch it and then sell it at the market. Think what she could do with the money someone would pay for it.
‘You’re twelve, Mei,’ her best friend, Ping, had said when she’d shared her plan. ‘You can’t have a stall. The authorities won’t permit it.’
‘Who cares about the authorities? I’ll do it anyway,’ she said, folding her arms. ‘By the time they ﬁnd out, it’ll be too late.’
Squatting by the edge of the slow-moving water, she pictured the ﬁsh snaking along the bottom looking for something tasty to eat.
‘Come along, beast,’ she murmured, eyes ﬁxed on the softly rippling surface of the river. ‘Come and get your dinner.’
So engrossed was she in the hunt that she failed to notice the older boy creeping up on her through the reeds and broad-leaved plants that thronged the bank.
Tan Hu was ﬁfteen. A good head and shoulders taller than Mei and all of her friends except Beanpole. But Beanpole was too skinny to defend himself against the village bully.
Because that’s what Tan Hu was. Actually, Wei Mei thought ‘bully’ wasn’t strong enough to describe the kind of boy who would beat up little kids for fun. Throw sharp-edged stones at them when they were playing quietly in the dirt. Or steal their snacks right out of their hands and run off laughing as they cried.
Mei kept the line nice and taut against the current. Behind her, Tan Hu grinned as he manoeuvred into position. Keeping low, he slid a knife from a nylon sheath on his belt. As he watched her, he pressed the palm of his left hand against his groin, enjoying the hot, fluttering sensation it produced in the pit of his belly.
Mei blinked as a ﬂash of sunlight bounced off the water. When she looked again, the tip of her ﬁshing pole was dipping sharply.
With a cry of triumph – ‘Got you!’ – she jerked the rod up to set the hook in the beast’s great bony-lipped mouth. Immediately the rod seemed to ﬁght back, almost pulling free of her hands.
‘Oh, no you don’t!’
She heaved back and felt the ﬁsh resisting her, a surge of power like when you tried to lead a mule with a rope and it didn’t feel like coming with you.
Straining every muscle, she levered the rod upright and was rewarded with a ﬂash of silver as the ﬁsh broke the surface, rolling and thrashing in the dull green water.
She leaned backwards, and the combined strength of her arms, the bamboo pole and the heavy ﬁshing line brought the beast curving and bucking towards the bank.
Leaning over and trying to avoid the gaping mouth with its double row of ugly, needle-pointed teeth, she stuck her thumb and ﬁngers into its gill slits and clamped down hard. It was cold in there and slippery, but she squeezed tighter and readied herself to yank it out of the water.
She could already imagine what she’d shout at the weekly market.
‘Come on, ladies and gents! Who wants this beautiful ﬁsh? One- hundred-and-ﬁfty yuan and it’s yours.’
She knew she’d have to haggle, but even a hundred would be a fortune.
Then another hand gripped the rod and pulled the giant ﬁsh closer. She whirled round, ready to thank whoever was helping her land the beast. And a cold tremor ﬂashed through her.
Still holding the rod, Tan Hu swept his knife out in a wide arc and cut the line.
The ﬁsh folded itself double then disappeared back into the green-dark depths, showering the two children with water from its scimitar-like tail ﬁn.
‘What did you do that for, you idiot?’ Mei shouted.
She punched Tan Hu in the face, drawing blood from his lower lip.
In response, he brought the knife up where she could see it.
‘Do what I say or I’ll cut you open like a ﬁsh belly,’ he said. ‘Take your clothes off.’
He grinned; an oddly disjointed expression as if his lips had forgotten to tell his eyes something was funny.
‘My friend here says you will.’
The knife was small, but the blade looked sharp. If she tried to take it off him, he’d probably stab her or give her a good cut. Mei wanted neither. Instead, she meekly said, ‘OK, Hu.’
His eyes widened. ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, really. Just turn around.’ ‘You’ll run.’
‘No I won’t. Anyway, you can run faster than me, you know that,’ she said, holding her hands wide. ‘So what would be the point?’
He nodded. And, like the stupid brute he was, he did just that. Mei launched herself at him, grabbed a handful of his thick, shaggy hair and pulled back hard. His head snapped back and he howled with pain. Then she dug her ﬁngers into his throat, choking off the sound.
‘Try that again and I’ll come to your house at night and castrate you with your own knife. I mean it,’ she muttered into his ear.
Then she shoved him, hard between the shoulder blades. With a cry, he pitched forwards into the swirling green water of the river they all called Little Mekong, even though the real one was way, way, way over to the west.
But as Tan Hu toppled in, Mei’s foot slid in a patch of clay where the weeds had been torn away in the scufﬂe. She went in straight after him.
His head broke the surface a few seconds later. Ten metres downstream from where she was treading water.
‘I’ll kill you!’ he screamed, spraying river water from his mouth. ‘Try it!’ Mei yelled back. ‘Next time maybe I’ll slit your belly open.’
He opened his mouth to shout something back but swallowed river water instead. Coughing, he went under again, only to reappear another twenty metres downstream, now facing in the direction of the current and striking out towards an overhanging tree branch.
Mei reached the bank easily: she was a strong swimmer. She hauled herself out and clambered to her feet, careful not to slide straight back in on the slippery red mud.
Laughing, she ran back the way she’d come, through bamboo and the pink-berried plants with long, sharp-pointed leaves that had earned them their nickname: Devil’s Tongue.
Halfway back to the village she looked over her shoulder, just to check Tan Hu wasn’t after her. Maybe he’d try it on again later, but she’d be ready for him this time. Probably she ought to take a knife from the kitchen just in case.
She looked forward again and crashed into Ping, who was running the other way.
Mei jarred her ribs as she tripped and fell onto the hard-packed red earth of the track. Ping stumbled, but stayed upright. Hurriedly, she pulled on Mei’s wrists, dragging her to her feet.
‘What is it?’ Mei asked her friend as she rubbed her elbow. ‘You look like a demon’s chasing you.’
Ping’s eyes were wide. ‘There’s a man at your house. He’s got a gun! He was pointing it at your mum and shouting.’
Mei’s heart was thumping in her chest. She’d forgotten all about the pain from the collision.
‘What about? What was he shouting? Tell me!’ ‘You!’
‘What do you mean, me?’
‘He said she had to tell him where you were. He said he was taking you away. And he’s wearing a suit!’
This was bad. Nobody from round here wore suits. The only people who had guns and suits were Party ofﬁcials. Mei had seen them now and again when Mummy had taken her into Shenzhen. Mummy would delight in pointing them out.
‘See those two over there? They’re Party. Secret police, most likely. If they don’t like you, you just disappear. Turn up three weeks later in a ditch outside the city limits with a bullet in your brain.’
At the time, Mei thought Mummy Rita was doing a poor job of frightening her. But one was actually here, in the village. And looking for her.
Mei took Ping by her narrow, bony shoulders.
‘Listen, Ping. Listen to me really carefully,’ she said. ‘Go back to the village. Just act normal. If he asks you, say you haven’t seen me.’
‘Why? What are you going to do?’
‘I’m going to get a better look at this guy without him seeing me.’
Ping’s eyes widened.
‘That’s a really bad idea. What if he spots you?’ Mei grinned.
With Ping gone, Mei turned off the track. She knew the woods round the village like her own skin. Every animal track, every fallen tree, every patch of boggy ground that would swallow you whole if you fell in.
She started working her way back to the village using every bit of her skill. She’d come out in a stand of bamboo just behind the house. Dense enough to hide in, but with enough light coming in between the thick green stems to spy on the house.
She wanted to get a good look at whoever was threatening her mum. Eventually he’d leave and then Mei would have a think about what to do afterwards. But, for now, she just needed to see him.
Reaching the house meant pushing through some dense patches of spiny shrubs. They had inch-long thorns hidden amongst gaudy orange ﬂowers with black centres. It didn’t seem fair that such pretty ﬂowers concealed those evil little spikes.
By the time she reached the stand of bamboo, her arms, legs and face were scratched and bleeding. But that was ﬁne. Scratches healed.
She peered through. At ﬁrst she couldn’t see either Mummy Rita or the Party man. Then she heard him. A deep, boomy voice riding over the top of Mummy’s higher one.
‘Where is she?’
‘I told you already, Jian! I don’t know. She’s a naughty girl. Always running off. Never in school when she should be,’ Mummy said, repeating the complaints she usually threw in Mei’s direction. ‘She spends every day by the river or in the forest. Why don’t you look there?’
‘Oh, I will. Maybe for now I’ll just sit here. Bring me some jasmine tea.’
Mei frowned. Not at his rudeness. In her experience, men were usually rude to women. Party men, especially. But because Mummy Rita had called the man by his name. Jian.
That was weird. As far as Mei knew, the village headman was the only Party ofﬁcial Mummy knew. And this wasn’t him. And why did she sound cross with him and not frightened?
She decided it didn’t matter. She’d ask Mummy later. What mattered was making sure the fat Party man with the gun didn’t catch her.
And anyway, she had no idea what she might have done to attract the attention of the Party in the ﬁrst place.
Sure, like Mummy said, she skipped school most days. But honestly, what was she going to do with all that stuff about fractions and minerals and the history of the People’s Republic of China?
The stuff she really needed to know? How to ﬁght off boys like Tan Hu? How to snap a chicken’s neck? How to milk a goat or tell which berries in the forest were OK to eat? Those, she either knew already or could ask real people in the village, like the blacksmith or one of the farmers.
She took one last look at the man with his shiny silver gun and his slicked-back hair. See you later, Mr Party Man!
Something crackled in the dry grass behind her. Maybe a rat. Too loud for a mouse or one of the big purplish-black beetles that trundled around the place pushing balls of cow dung. She prepared to go.
The pincers that suddenly clamped on the back of her neck made her scream. A giant stag beetle had got her! She felt herself rising to a standing position without using her legs.
‘Got you!’ a man said from behind her.
With his ﬁngers still digging into the soft ﬂesh at the sides of her neck, the man marched Mei over to her house.
The fat man got to his feet, a broad smile on his face revealing ﬂashing gold teeth. He put the gun away in a leather holster inside his suit jacket.
Mei was terriﬁed. She started gabbling.
‘Look, I don’t know what I’ve done, OK? But I’m sorry. I love the Party. I love Chairman Mao. And all the ones in charge now. I know I’ve skipped school, but I can explain. Just, please don’t hurt my mum. I’m a disobedient girl. I never do what she says, it drives her mad, she can’t control me. I’m—’
The torrent of phrases, most of which had come originally from Mummy Rita’s own lips, dried as the fat man burst out laughing.
‘Wait! You think I’m with the Party?’
He laughed harder, only stopping when a ﬁt of coughing seized him. Bending double, hands ﬂat on his wide thighs, he shook his head until the coughing stopped.
He pulled a red handkerchief from a pocket and wiped his streaming eyes.
‘You hear that?’ he said to the man gripping Mei’s neck, ‘She thinks we’re with the Party!’
‘Fat chance,’ the man said, chuckling deep in his chest.
The ﬁrst man cleared his throat and sighed out a big breath. ‘Listen, Mei, I’m about as far from being a Party man as you can ever imagine,’ he said. ‘You won’t remember me, but I’ve known you since you were a baby. I’m here to take you back to Hong Kong.’
Mei couldn’t believe what he was saying. Hong Kong? Why?
And if he wasn’t a Party man, what was he?
‘Hong Kong,’ he said. ‘A place of opportunity, still, despite the handover.’
Mei had no idea what he was talking about. What handover? But she did know there was no way she was going to Hong Kong with him. She wasn’t going anywhere with him.
She slapped at the man’s hands around her neck. ‘Get off me.’
Mei watched the fat man signal something with his eyes over her head. The other man let go of her neck.
‘Do you need to get some things before we leave?’ the fat man asked.
‘I need to pee. Your bully-boy frightened me,’ she said.
Fat man laughed again. ‘Fine. But don’t even think of running off. We’ll only catch you.’
Mei shrugged. ‘Who said I was going to run? Hong Kong sounds fun. And I hate it here anyway.’
Mummy Rita reappeared just as she said this. Mei watched her face crumple. Her lips trembled as she handed the small china cup of tea to the man she’d called Jian. Mei felt guilt wash through her. But she couldn’t explain she’d only said it to get the fat man to relax. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘But be quick. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us.’
Mei nodded. She walked off around the side of the house. As soon as she was out of sight, she ran. She ran as fast as she’d ever run in her life.
She found Ping playing down by the stream that fed the Little Mekong.
‘Ping!’ she hissed. ‘I have to go.’ ‘What? Where?’
‘Shenzhen. That guy’s not from the Party. I don’t who he is, and I don’t care. But he’s not taking me to Hong Kong.’
Ping’s lower lip trembled.
‘You’re coming back, though, right? When they’ve gone, I mean.’
Mei smiled. ‘Of course, silly.’ She had an idea. ‘Look, if you really, really need to ﬁnd me, leave a message somewhere only we know about.’
‘But where?’ Ping asked, crying properly now.
Mei looked up. Where would be a good place for a secret message? Mummy always took her to the big city on the bus. Yes! That was it.
‘The bus station,’ she said. ‘Where the bus from here pulls in. Queue number seven. There’s a stand selling People’s Daily. All decorated with red-and-yellow banners. The hammer and sickle.’
Ping smiled tearily, wiping her snotty nose with the back of her hand.
‘I know it. We went to Shenzhen last year. Dad bought a copy off the sales lady.’
‘Put your message inside an empty drinks can and squash it ﬂat,’ Mei said, ‘then leave it at the back of the stand. I’ll check every week.’
Ping nodded, gave an almighty sniff, then turned and ran back towards the village. Just before she disappeared out of sight, she turned and raised a hand in a farewell wave.
Three months passed. As did Mei’s thirteenth birthday. Every week for her ﬁrst month in Shenzhen, she checked round the back of the People’s Daily stand at the bus station.
But soon after arriving, she fell in with a group of street kids and found she enjoyed the life. Stealing food from stalls, and wallets from head-swivelling tourists. Running from the cops if a daring raid caused too much commotion. Sleeping on the top ﬂoor of an unused carpark, warm in the humid night air of high summer.
Little by little, her memories of the village faded as the thrills of city living took hold of her.
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