Beijing detective Li Yan, now based at the Chinese embassy in Washington, is dispatched to find out how his fellow countrymen died in a sealed refrigeration unit in southern Texas.
Then he finds himself face-to-face with American pathologist Margaret Campbell, the woman who walked out of China, and his life, to return to the U.S.Tasked to work together again to investigate the $100 million trade in illegal Chinese immigrants that led to the tragedy in Texas, they discover that the immigrants were unwitting carriers of a deadly cargo.
And still wrestling with the demons of their pasts, Li and Margaret find themselves racing against time to defuse a biological time-bomb that threatens to wipe out not only their future, but that of humankind.
A Blackstone Audio production.
Release date: November 15, 2012
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 340
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Petrels circle the ice-breaker, plaintive cries whipped away on the edge of a wind that tugs ever more fiercely at the walls of the decontamination tent. The steel cables of the lift-arm whine and scream as the ice shifts and the submarine cants slightly to its port side where the supports they have laboured so hard to put in place prevent it from toppling back to its icy grave. A frozen crust has attached itself already to the soft orange coral accumulated along its hull.
From the tent, five figures emerge in slow motion, like spacemen negotiating a moonscape, clumsy and encumbered by their protective STEPO outfits. Beneath, they are encased in tear-resistant thermal body suits. Filtered air blows down over the faces of The Team, pale and anxious, peering out from behind clear, curved faceplates. Each of them has brought his or her own discipline to The Project: microbiology, virology, medicine, medical archaeology, pathology. Nearly twelve months of planning are nearing their moment of fruition. The tension of The Team is palpable.
‘We all live in an orange submarine, orange submarine …’ Doctor Ruben’s tuneless voice crackles in their headsets.
‘Shut up, Philip!’ Doctor Catherine Oxley’s voice carries the authority of the Team Leader, but it is also tight with stress. She wonders why it is that all the pathologists she has known share the same juvenile sense of humour.
The Seadragon looms over them. At first, when the vessel was raised from the water, Catherine had been surprised at how small she seemed, how it was possible that twenty-two men had once lived and worked — and died — aboard her. Now she seems huge, rising up out of the ice like the carcass of some giant beached mother whale with twenty-two Jonahs in her belly.
They clamber up the scaffolding erected by the crew, thickly gloved hands emerging from red sleeves reaching out to help them at each step. Everything is coated in ice and treacherous underfoot. Each movement is meticulously, painfully slow. As they climb the conning tower they can see the muzzles of the four torpedo tubes slightly proud of the foremost bulkhead. The engine-room hatch is rusted solid and no attempt has been made to open it. A sheet-metal screen around the chariot bridge is almost eaten through. The mounting behind it where the portable wireless aerial would have been disassembled prior to diving for the last time, is obscured by more than eighty years of accumulated coral. The main hatch has been cleaned off and shot with lubricating fluid and anti-freeze, but remains unopened.
Catherine watches as Doctor Ruben and Professor Marlowe get stiffly down on their knees and grasp the handwheel that locks the hatch in place. To their surprise it turns almost easily. The crew have done a fine job. But prising it loose from its seal proves more difficult. Doctor Arnold squeezes on to the bridge to help. Catherine looks away for a moment at the detritus of The Project littering the ice, at the red-suited crewmen, like slashes of blood against the white, standing in groups looking on, many of them just kids, student volunteers. Funding had been a nightmare. And she looks at the sky, almost black now, and knows that they have an hour, maybe less.
In almost twenty years of medical archaeology she has recovered many bodies from many graves. But for the first time she feels an uneasiness about the opening of this unintended tomb, and tries hard not to visualise the horrors she expects to find locked in its dark interior.
She turns back as the hatch finally breaks free, and gases escape with a moan from inside, making all the hairs rise up on the back of her neck.
They stand there for a moment, staring into the inky blackness, before Catherine snaps on her flashlight and picks out the rungs of the ladder that will take them down into the body of the submarine. She manoeuvres herself carefully to make the descent. At the bottom there is nearly afoot of water. Although the Seadragon was never holed, the salt water has, over all the years, eaten its way through rivets and joints, slowly seeping in to violate her icy sanctity. The air is steamy cold and fetid and Catherine is glad she does not have to breathe it in. She is aware of The Team following behind her, flashlights holding moisture in their beams, bringing light to decades of darkness. Catherine moves forward into the battery compartment. She points her flashlight up at the capstan and windless motor above her head, then pans down and starboard to pick out the crewmen’s personal lockers. She has conducted a virtual tour of this Canadian-built H-boat submarine many times, but the reality is very different. She turns, knowing that she is moving into the Chief and PO’s mess, and is unable to prevent a small scream escaping her lips as a mummified face peers up at her from the table, pasty white, with shrivelled eyes and sunken nose, the dark staining of blood and vomit, like a shadow, still visible about the mouth. The uniform is preserved almost intact, but where the feet and lower legs have been in the water, the flesh is long gone, leaving the bones pale and white and washed clean.
‘Jesus …’ She hears Marlowe’s whispered oath from the fore-ends and turns back, wading quickly forward to see, in the criss-crossing shafts of light, the shrunken bodies of the ship’s crew swaying gently, silently, in hammocks rigged in the torpedo tube and stowage area. They are wrapped in blankets and coats, the horrors of a death that took them without mercy nearly a century before, frozen on their faces, like their beards and moustaches, for eternity. She shivers, wrestling in her mind with a sense of foreboding, knowing that the disease that took these men so horribly is certain to return, one way or another. It is only a matter of time.
Deputy J. J. Jackson, known to his colleagues at the Walker County Sheriff’s Department simply as Jayjay, stuck another matchstick between his front teeth and began chewing on it. He unzippered his fly and issued a yellow stream into the dry bed of Bedias Creek. Steam rose from it in the cool morning air, and he made a bold effort to make sure that most of it crossed the county line into Madison. Somewhere to the north, beyond the trees that broke the monotony of the flat Texan landscape, prisoners were being called out of their cells at the Ferguson Unit to face another day of incarceration. And he was free to piss in the breeze, clocking off in just over half an hour, to bring to an end the long red-eye shift, and with it the prospect of an empty bed. He spat out the matchstick and regretted that he had ever given up smoking. He was sure to die of wood poisoning.
The Dixie Chicks played from the open door of his black and white. Strictly non-regulation, but hell, you had to have something to keep you awake. He squeezed his ample frame in behind the wheel and eased his patrol car out on to the deserted Highway 45. He was flying now, south, into the wild blue. Day was when Martha would have had hot pancakes and syrup, and a plate of grits on the table when he got home. But since she’d run off with that air-con salesman he’d taken to driving into Huntsville for breakfast at the Cafe Texan, opposite the County Courthouse on Sam Houston Avenue. He always sat in the smoking room just so he could breathe in other people’s cigarettes. Nothing you could do about second-hand smoke he could tell the doc.
He sang along with the Chicks for a few bars.
Up off the highway on the right a Mexican fast food joint stood proud on the bluff. Much as he liked that beer with the slice of lime stuffed in the neck, Jayjay avoided Mexican food whenever possible. It gave him bad heartburn. But today he turned off and followed the bumpy road up to the parking lot, a big empty stretch of dusty tarmac. Empty, that is, except for a large refrigerated food container hooked up to a red, shiny trailer tractor. Not unusual. Truckers often pulled off to snatch a few moments shut-eye during an all-nighter. But the door on the driver’s side was lying wide open, and there was no sign of anyone around. There were no other vehicles in the lot, and the restaurant wouldn’t be open for hours yet.
Jayjay left his engine running and got out of the car. He had no idea why the truck had drawn his attention. Maybe it was because the driver had made no attempt to slot it anywhere between the faded white lines. Maybe it was just instinct. Jayjay held a lot of store by instinct. He had had an instinct that Martha was going to leave him at least two years before she finally got around to it. Although that might not have been so much instinct as wishful thinking. But, hell, there was something odd about this truck. It looked … abandoned. He pulled the brim of his Stetson down, stuck another matchstick in his mouth and clamped his open palms on his hips, the forefinger of his right hand touching the leather of his holster for comfort.
Slowly he approached the open door of the truck, glancing a touch nervously to left and right.
‘Hey y’all,’ he called. And when there was no response, ‘Anybody there?’ He stopped, staring up into the empty cab, working the matchstick from one corner of his mouth to the other. Then he pulled himself up into the cabin and checked in back where the driver would usually sleep. Empty.
He eased himself down on to the tarmac and looked around. Where the hell could he have gone? The Dixie Chicks were getting into some R&B back in the car. A slight breeze stirred the dust in the lot. Sun rising under early morning cloud dimpled it copper pink. Later, as the same sun rose, it would burn it off.
Jayjay walked the length of the trailer, past rows of tyres as tall as he was, painted black walls, treads he could almost get a fist into. GARCIA WHOLESALE, it said on the side. Fresh painted. New.
Round the back the tall doors of the trailer stood slightly ajar, and he began to get a bad feeling. He took his gun from his holster, crooking his arm and pointing the weapon at the sky. ‘Hey!’ he shouted again. ‘Is there anybody in there?’ He didn’t really expect a reply, but was disappointed to be right. He spat out the match and pulled the left-hand door wide. It was heavy and swung open slowly. He was immediately hit by the smell of something rotten. Whatever cargo this thing was carrying had been left unrefrigerated and was well past its sell-by. He could see boxes of produce piled high: tomatoes, eggplants, avocados, cucumbers. He grabbed a handle on the inside of the door and pulled himself up. The smell was almost overpowering now, thick and sour like vomit and faeces. Jayjay blenched. ‘Jesus …’ he hissed. Boxes had collapsed from either side and he had to pull them away to make any progress into the interior of the trailer. Tomatoes and cucumbers rattled away across the riveted steel floor, and a naked arm fell from between two boxes, an open palm seeming to beckon him in. Jayjay let out an involuntary yelp and felt goosebumps prickle across his scalp. He holstered his gun and started tearing at the cardboard. Another column of boxes toppled around him revealing that only the back quarter of the truck was carrying produce. It was too dark to see clearly into the space beyond, or the body lying at his feet. He was gagging now on the stench. He fumbled for the flashlight hanging on his belt. The beam that pierced the dark shot back through him like a frozen arrow. The scream stopped in his throat, too thick to squeeze past constricting airways. Bodies. Dozens of them trapped in the light, fixed in death. Arms and legs entwined, faces contorted terribly by some dreadful struggle to hold on to life. Vomit and blood and torn clothes. Ghostly pale Asian faces, wide-eyed and lifeless, like photographs he had seen of mass graves in concentration camps. Jayjay staggered backwards, stumbling over boxes, feet skidding away from him on the slime of burst and rotting tomatoes. He hit the floor with a force that knocked all the breath out of him. For a moment he lay still, wondering if he had slipped through a crack in the earth and fallen into the devil’s lair. And in the distance he heard the Dixie Chicks. I’ve seen ’em fall, some get nothing and, Lord, some get it all.
All my knuckles are broken and bleeding, so I can barely hold my pencil. I have smashed them on the door until I can lift my arms no more. It is difficult to breathe now and the heat is insufferable. The battery in my penlight is almost done and I can no longer see the faces around me. I no longer want to. They only reflect the fear and despair I know is on mine. Cheng has passed out. I do not know if she is still breathing. The grip of her fingers on my arm has gone slack. Poor Cheng. My yazi. All she wanted was a better life, to reach Meiguo, find her Mountain of Gold. It is all any of them wanted. How cruel to have come this far, and be separated from the land we sought by rubber and metal. And death. I can feel it pass under me. Tyres on tarmac. American soil. Why will no one hear us? Why won’t they stop? Please, if someone finds this, tell my mother and father that I loved them. Tell my little girl that she was my last thought. Tell her—
Doctor Margaret Campbell stood before a class of nearly twenty students in a lecture room at the George J. Beto Criminal Justice Center in Huntsville. The center stood on a hill overlooking the death house in the Walls Unit of Huntsville Prison, where George W. Bush had given all of fifteen minutes consideration to the case of each prisoner he had sent for execution there during his time as State Governor.
The Criminal Justice Center was a part of the Sam Houston State University, and another seventeen students were watching Margaret on closed circuit television from a facility called The Woodlands, nearly thirty miles away down the highway towards Houston. Any one of them could hit a remote unit on the bench in front of them and have their picture and voice relayed to the lecturer. She, in turn, could direct the camera towards herself, or towards the screen at the front of the room on which she was at that moment projecting an image of a woman hanging by the neck from the ceiling of a garage.
‘When the officer failed to show up for his shift, and they couldn’t raise him on the telephone, the desk sergeant sent a couple of patrolmen round to the house to see what was wrong. They knew his wife was away visiting her parents that weekend, and thought maybe he was just sleeping off a night of excess.’ Margaret chuckled. ‘Well, excess was right, and the sleep was permanent. When they couldn’t raise anyone in the house, the patrolmen went round peering in the windows.’ She prodded the screen with a pointer. ‘And this is what they saw in the garage. What appeared to be a large, heavy woman hanging from a light fitting, her face obscured by long black hair hanging down over it.
‘Well, they figured they had probable cause, and they called for the paramedics and broke in. They discovered two things very quickly. The first that the woman was dead, the second that she wasn’t a woman. That she was, in fact, their friend and colleague, Jack Thomas Doobey, a three-times decorated police officer with more than twenty-five years service.’
A tiny snigger rippled around the lecture room. Margaret invariably found that her lectures on auto-erotic deaths both amused and fascinated her students. Something to do with the human condition, perhaps tapping into the latent fear that most people have of the dark side of their own sexuality.
‘He’d done a pretty good job of turning himself into a woman,’ Margaret said. ‘As you can see. Good enough to fool his fellow officers, at least until they got right up close.’ She segued through several other transparencies as she spoke, including close-ups of Officer Doobey’s carefully made-up face, his black wig, the glued-on fuschia-pink fingernails that adorned hairy fingers, the dress, the layers of padding beneath it to give him hips and breasts.
‘He had gagged himself.’ Red silk over pink lips. ‘And tied his hands behind his back.’
‘How’d he do that?’ a black girl on the front row asked.
‘Stand up,’ Margaret said.
The girl glanced at her fellow students self-consciously and got reluctantly to her feet.
‘Step out in front of the class and clasp your hands in front of you,’ Margaret ordered. The girl did as she was told. ‘Now bend forward, reaching for the floor, and without unclasping your hands, step through them.’ The girl struggled a little to follow the instructions while her classmates laughed. But with only a little difficulty, she managed to do what she had been asked and stood up with her hands now clasped behind her back.
‘You see? Easy.’
Another series of transparencies flashed on-screen to reveal how Officer Doobey had rigged up a pulley mechanism to raise and lower the hanging noose through a large hook sunk into the roof.
Margaret elucidated. ‘He controlled the pulley with a remote control unit he had adapted from a basic stereo system. So that made-up, dressed up, gagged and tied, he stood on a chair with the noose around his neck and the remote control in his hands behind him. That way he could raise the noose until it was tight around his neck and taking most of his weight, literally choking him. And then at the last moment lower himself back on to the chair.’
The class looked back at her in awed silence, clearly visualising the scenario. Then the face of a dark-haired young man from The Woodlands popped up on the monitor and his voice came across the speaker system. ‘But why, Doctor Campbell? I mean, why would he do that?’
Margaret said, ‘Good question.’ She paused, considering how to phrase her response. ‘We are led to understand that by starving oneself of oxygen, one is able to heighten the sexual experience.’ She registered the consternation on the faces of her students as they tried to imagine what was remotely sexual about dressing up as a member of the opposite sex and hanging yourself. Margaret smiled. ‘But I don’t recommend that you try it at home.’ Which brought the relief of laughter to the room.
‘When I got there,’ she went on, ‘I was able to determine pretty quickly that Officer Doobey had managed inadvertently to turn the remote control the wrong way around in his hands after setting the pulley in motion, and was unable to lower it again. You can picture the scene. There he is, hanging by the neck, choking on his own weight. The binding on his wrists that is loose when in front of him, is twisted and tight behind him. He has no flexibility of movement with his hands. He is fumbling desperately to turn the remote around to lower himself to safety. And then it slips from his fingers and smashes on the floor and he knows he is going to die. He struggles for a few moments, feet kicking, then gives up and succumbs to the screaming in his ears and the blackness that descends over him bringing, in the end, a very long silence.’
A silence filled the lecture room as these green freshmen conjured with images of death they could never have imagined. Images, Margaret knew, with which they would become only too familiar when they graduated into the real and unpleasant world beyond this cloistered academic environment. The hum of the sound system seemed inordinately loud in the silence. Margaret caught a glimpse of herself on the monitor. Pale and freckled, fair hair tumbling carelessly over her shoulders. The CCTV cameras did her no favours. God, she looked old, she thought. Much older than her thirty-four years. Perhaps all those images of death she had had to deal with herself over the years had etched themselves into her face. What was it they called it … character?
A young man with close-cropped blond hair at the back of the room asked, ‘How could you know that for sure? Couldn’t someone have set it up just to look that way, and really it was murder?’
‘Yes, Mark, that’s possible,’ Margaret said. ‘But I was able to rule that out pretty much straight off.’
‘Because Officer Doobey not only liked hanging himself, he also liked watching himself do it. He had set up a camera, and the whole drama was there on video tape. Death By Hanging — at a cinema near you.’ Margaret grinned ruefully. ‘It would make life a lot easier if all my cases were available on video.’ She closed the folder on her desk. ‘That’s all for today, guys.’
In the corridor outside, the babble of excited student voices had already receded as they headed out for coffee, and no doubt a few cigarettes. Margaret never ceased to be amazed at how many young people were smoking now. A whole generation had given up, but the kids apparently didn’t care about the health issues. It made Margaret think of her time in China where everyone, it seemed, smoked. Everywhere. But even the most fleeting thought of the Middle Kingdom, even after a year, touched raw nerves, and she immediately turned away from it. She pulled her leather jacket on under the turned-up collar of her blouse and stooped to take a mouthful of water from a stainless steel drinking fountain below a wall-mounted display case filled with the badges and stars of innumerable law agencies.
‘Ma’am? Can I have a word?’
She looked up and saw the boy with the cropped head of fair hair from the back of her class. He was grinning shyly, clutching his satchel to his chest, and her heart sank. He always managed to find something he could ask her about after class.
She stood up and thrust both hands in the pockets of her jeans. ‘Mark, I’ve told you before — it’s Doctor, or Margaret. Ma’am makes me sound like a … well, like a schoolmarm.’ And she immediately saw the irony in that. Because here she was, a teacher being cornered after class by a pupil with a crush on her. She smiled. ‘Just call me Margaret.’
But Mark clearly wasn’t comfortable with that. ‘I’ve been thinking a lot, Doctor Campbell, you know, after your classes and all, about what it is I really want to do.’
Margaret grinned and set off along the corridor. He loped after her. ‘And today you finally figured it out,’ she said.
He frowned. ‘What?’
‘Auto-eroticism. Cross-dressing and oxygen starvation.’
He blushed to the roots of his hair. ‘No … I … I … didn’t mean …’ he stuttered. ‘I mean, what I meant was … I think I’d like to be a pathologist.’ And he added, unnecessarily, ‘You know, like you.’
They had reached the entrance hall, lights reflecting off red tile floors, flags representing all the foreign students at the college hanging limply above the stairwell. Margaret was losing patience. She turned on the young man, white sneakers squeaking on the glazed tiles. ‘If you want to be a pathologist, Mark, you should be at med school. But, frankly, I’m not sure you’d have what it takes.’ His face fell. But Margaret was unrelenting. ‘And, Mark … go chase someone your own age.’ She turned and hurried out past a photo portrait of the kindly looking silver-haired man after whom the college had been named. In the car park she paused for a moment, filled with regret. George J. Beto, she was sure, would not have spoken to a student like that. But Margaret had a propensity for harsh words. It was only too easy to hurt others when you were still hurting yourself.
* * *
Margaret’s house was on Avenue O at the top of the hill, a spit away from the university campus. It was built of red brick, like the college, and had a grey tile roof. Sprawling on one level, it was set in a lush green garden, screened from the road by trees. It had made sense at the time to take on the rental. The plan had been to settle for a quiet life of academic seclusion. Then, after only three months, the job in Harris County had fallen vacant. Chief Medical Examiner of the third largest county in the United States, taking in Houston, the fourth largest city. She had thought long and hard about it, and the Dean had been very supportive, even encouraged her. She could always, he said, guest-lecture one morning a week. He had grinned and in his clipped New York accent told her it would be quite a feather in his cap to have the CME of Harris County lecturing at his college. She never knew how much influence the Dean had had with the appointees, but one of them had told her later that the job had been hers from the moment she applied.
Margaret checked her watch as she drove up Seventeenth Street. There was just enough time to shower and change before heading back to her office in Houston, a good fifty minutes’ drive if the traffic on the freeway was moving smoothly. But her spirits dipped as she drew her Chevy in behind a bright red pick-up with oversized wheels parked outside her house. Her landlord was standing on the porch with his arms folded across his chest. A young man in overalls and a baseball cap crouched at the open front door, a bag of tools on the stoop beside him.
Margaret slammed the door of her car and strode up the path. ‘What do you think you’re doing, McKinley?’
The young man looked alarmed and got quickly to his feet. But McKinley stood his ground defiantly. He was a redneck with money. Owned several of the houses on the hill. ‘That ain’t ver’ ladylike kinda language now,’ he drawled unpleasantly.
Margaret glared at him. He was a walking, talking cliche. Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, a checked shirt and a scuffed white Stetson pushed back on his head. ‘You didn’t answer my question,’ she said.
The younger man glanced from one to the other. ‘Maybe I should go.’ He stooped to pick up his bag. Chisels and screwdrivers rattled inside it.
McKinley put out a hand to stop him. ‘You stay where you are, sonny.’ And to Margaret, ‘You changed the goddamn locks, lady.’
Margaret turned to the carpenter. ‘You want to know why?’ He looked like he’d rather eat his baseball cap. But she was going to tell him anyway. ‘Because when I was out he was going into my house and going through my stuff. Left his big oily fingermarks on the bras and panties in my underwear drawer.’
McKinley’s face reddened. ‘Now that ain’t true. You got no cause goin’ sayin’ stuff like that.’
The carpenter was examining his feet now with great interest.
‘You want to see the proof?’ Margaret asked McKinley. ‘Two hours of video footage from the camera I hid in the closet?’
It was a bluff, but it proved to be a winning hand. McKinley paled. Then his mouth tightened. ‘You changed the goddamn locks, lady. And that’s a contravention, plain and simple, of the terms of your lease. I want you outta here.’
Margaret’s cellphone rang and she fumbled in her purse to find it. ‘What,’ she barked into it.
‘Been trying to get you for the last hour.’ It was Lucy, her secretary, a God-fearing middle-aged Presbyterian lady who disapproved of Margaret.
‘I always turn off the cellphone when I’m lecturing, Lucy. You know that,’ Margaret said. ‘Why didn’t you try the college?’
‘I did. And missed you.’ She heard Lucy sigh at the other end. ‘Doctor Campbell, we got a call from the sheriff’s office in Walker County up there. They need your help out at a Tex-Mex eatery on Highway 45. Seems they got a truck full of ninety-some dead people.’
‘Jesus,’ Margaret said, and she could almost feel Lucy’s disapproval all the way down the line from Houston. ‘I’m on my way.’ She hung up and pushed past McKinley into the house. She always kept an emergency flight case at home packed with all the tools and accoutrements of her profession.
‘I mean it,’ McKinley shouted after her. ‘I want you outta here.’
‘Tell it to my lawyer,’ Margaret said and shut the door in his face.
Margaret drove north-west on Interstate 45, past the Wynne and Holliday Units of the Huntsville prison complex, the tiny municipal airport that sat up on the right, the spur that took off west to Harper Cemetery. She passed several billboards advertising positions as Correctional Officers for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In Huntsville you either worked for the prison or the university. The warm October sun bleached all colour out of the sky and she could see the cluster of blue and red flashing lights in the distance identifying where the truck had been found. Strictly speaking, this was out of Margaret’s jurisdiction. But the Walker County Coroner simply wasn’t equipped to cope with something like this. Which was why the sheriff had called her office.
She turned on to the 190 and took a left on the access road to the Mexican diner. Three crows stood on a white picket fence g. . .
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