A grotesquely burned corpse found in a city park is a troubling mystery for Beijing detective Li Yan. Yan, devoted to his career as a means of restoring the respect his family lost during the Cultural Revolution, needs outside help if he is to break the case.
The unidentified cadaver in turn provides a welcome distraction for forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell. Campbell, married to her work and having left America and her broken past behind, throws herself into the investigation and before long uncovers a bizarre anomaly.
An unlikely partnership develops between Li and Campbell as they follow the resulting lead. A fiery and volatile chemistry ignites, exposing not only their individual demons, but an even greater evil—a conspiracy that threatens their lives, as well as those of millions of others.
Release date: June 14, 2012
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 368
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Their mother had asked the baby-sitter, a dull country girl, to take the twins to the park early, before kindergarten. A treat in the cool of the morning, before the sun would rise and bleach all colour and substance from the day.
An old man in Mao pyjamas and white gloves practises t’ai chi among the trees, slow-motion graceful, arms outstretched, one leg so slowly lifting, exerting a control of his body that he has never had of his life. The girls barely see him, drawn by the strange sounds coming from around the next corner. They run ahead in breathless anticipation, ignoring the calls of the baby-sitter asking them to wait. Past a group of people who stand reading sheets of poetry strung between the trees; past a bench with two grey-haired old ladies in carpet slippers and grey cardigans who shake their heads at such a wanton display of free spirits. Even had they been allowed, in their day bound and bleeding feet would have put a stop to it.
The sounds that draw them, like strange music, grow louder as the children turn into a large paved circle bound by a high wall. They stop and stare in open-mouthed amazement. Dozens of couples – young, middle-aged, elderly; civil servants, office workers, army officers – shuffle in bizarre embrace. All heads are turned for guidance to the steps of an ancient sacrificial altar in the centre of the circle. At the top of the steps, where once blood was spilled as an offering to the sun, a young couple all in black confidently demonstrate the steps of the cha-cha in time to music scratching out from an old gramophone.
There is such joy in all their expressions that the children stand for a moment entranced, listening to the alien melody and rhythms of the music. Their baby-sitter catches them up at last, flushed and breathless. She stops, too, and gawps bewildered at the dancers. The city is such a strange, unfathomable place. She knows she could never settle here. From the far side of the circle she sees men wielding long, silver-bladed swords in slow, deliberate acts of contained aggression, slicing the air in grotesque parody of some medieval battle. The dancers ignore them, but the baby-sitter is afraid, and she shoos the reluctant children down a path, away from the people and the noise.
But now another distraction. Smoke filtering through the leaves, descending like a mist, thick and blue. A strange smell, the baby-sitter thinks, like meat on an open fire. And then she sees the flicker of flames through the green gloom and is gripped by a sudden desperate foreboding. The children have run ahead again, scrambling up a dusty path among the trees, and ignore her calls to wait. She runs after them, a shady pavilion that overhangs the lake dropping away to her left. The wailing call of a single-stringed violin reaches her as she crests the rise through the trees and follows the children into a clearing where the flames lick upwards from a huddled central mass. The girls stand staring curiously. The baby-sitter stops. She feels the heat on her face and shades her eyes from the glare, trying to see what it is that burns so fiercely. At its heart something moves. Something strangely human. The scream that comes from the nearest girl somehow sharpens the baby-sitter’s focus, and she realises that what moved was a charred black hand reaching out towards her.
The world tilted and the sun flashed back at her, reflected in a fractured mosaic like the pieces of a shattered mirror. Her body was telling her it was two in the morning and that she should be asleep. Her brain was informing her that it was mid-afternoon and that sleep was likely to be a distant prospect. Sleep. In twenty-one hours of travelling, it had successfully eluded her every attempt to embrace it. Although in these past weeks even sleep had provided no escape. She was not sure which was worse – the waking regrets and recriminations, or the restless nightmares. The gentle oblivion induced by the vodka tonics she had swallowed gratefully during the early hours of the flight had long since passed, leaving her with a dry mouth and a headache that swam somewhere just beyond consciousness. She glanced at the health declaration she had filled in earlier, still clutched in her hand …
WELCOME TO CHINAFOR A BETTER & HEALTHIER TOMORROW
She had drawn a line through the space left for ‘Content of Declaration’. She had nothing to declare, except for a broken heart and a wasted life – and neither of these, as far as she was aware, was infectious, contagious, or carried in the blood.
The world tilted again, and now she saw that the dazzling mosaic of light was in fact a pattern of water divided and subdivided into misshapen squares and oblongs. The reflection of a culture five thousand years old. Green shoots of rice pushing up through the paddies to feed a billion hungry mouths. Beyond the haze, to the north, lay the dusty plains of the Gobi desert.
An air hostess walked through the cabin spraying disinfectant into the atmosphere from an aerosol. Chinese regulations, she told them. And the captain announced that they would be landing at Beijing Capital Airport in just under fifteen minutes. Ground temperature was a sticky 35 degrees. Centigrade. That was 96 degrees Fahrenheit for the uninitiated. One of countless differences she supposed she would have to get used to in the next six weeks. She closed her eyes and braced herself for the landing. Of all the means of escape she might have picked, why had she chosen to fly? She hated airplanes.
The overcrowded shuttle bus, filled with the odour of bodies that had not washed for more than twenty hours, lurched to a halt outside the terminal building and spilled its passengers into the simmering afternoon. She headed quickly indoors in search of air-conditioning. There was none. If anything, it was hotter inside, the air thick and unbreathable. She was assailed by the sights and sounds and smells of China. People everywhere, as if every flight of the day had arrived at once, passengers fighting for places in the long queues forming at lines of immigration desks. Even in this international transit hall, Margaret drew odd looks from strange oriental faces who regarded her as the strange face in their midst. And, indeed, she was. Curling fair hair held back from her face in clasps, and tumbling over her shoulders. Ivory pale skin and clear blue eyes. The contrast with the black-haired, dark-eyed uniformity of the Han Chinese could not have been starker. She felt her stress level rising and took a deep breath.
‘Maggot Cambo! Maggot Cambo!’ A shrill voice pierced the hubbub. She looked to see a square, uniformed woman of indeterminate middle age pushing brusquely through the advancing passengers holding aloft a piece of card with the name MAGRET CAMPELL scrawled upon it in clumsy capital letters. It took Margaret a moment to connect the name she saw, and the one being called out, with herself.
‘Uh … I think you might be looking for me,’ she shouted above the noise, and thought how foolish that sounded. Of course they were looking for her. The square woman swivelled and glared at her through thick, horn-rimmed glasses.
‘Doctah Maggot Cambo?’
‘Margaret,’ Margaret said. ‘Campbell.’
‘Okay, you gimme your passport.’
Margaret fumbled for the blue, eagle-crested passport in her bag, but hesitated in handing it over. ‘And you are … ?’
‘Constable Li Li Peng.’ She pronounced it Lily Ping. And she straightened her back, the better to display the senior constable’s three stars on the epaulets of her khaki-green short-sleeve shirt. Her skipped green hat with its yellow braid and its gold, red and blue crest of the Ministry of Public Security was slightly too large and pushed the square cut of her fringe down over the tops of her glasses. ‘Waiban has appointed me to look after you.’
‘Foreign affairs office of your danwei.’
Margaret felt sure she should know these things. No doubt it would be there, somewhere, in all the briefing material they had given her. ‘Danwei?’
Lily’s irritation was ill concealed. ‘Your work unit – at the university.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Margaret felt she had revealed too much ignorance already and handed over her passport.
Lily glanced at it briefly. ‘Okay. I take care of immigration and we get your bags.’
A dark grey BMW stood idling just outside the door of the terminal building. The trunk lid swung up and a waif-like girl in uniform leapt out of the car to load Margaret’s luggage. The two large cases were almost as big as she was, and she struggled to heave them off the trolley. Margaret moved to help her, but was quickly steered into the back seat by Lily. ‘Driver get bags. You keep door shut for air-conditioning.’ And to reinforce the point, she slammed the door firmly closed. Margaret breathed in the almost-chill air and sank back into the seat. Waves of fatigue washed over her. All she wanted now was her bed.
Lily slid into the front passenger seat. ‘Okay, so now we go to headquarters Beijing Municipal Police to pick up Mistah Wade. He send apology for not being here to meet you, but he have business there. Then we go straight to People’s University of Public Security and you meet Professah Jiang. Okay? And tonight we have banquet.’ Margaret almost groaned. The prospect of bed receded into some distant, misty future. That much-quoted line from Frost’s poem came back to her … ‘and miles to go before I sleep’. Then she frowned, replaying Lily’s words. Did she say banquet?
The BMW sped along the airport expressway, bypassing the toll gates and quickly reaching the outskirts of the city. Margaret watched with amazement through the darkened side windows as the city rose up around her. Towering office blocks, new hotels, trade centres, upscale apartments. Everywhere the traditional single-storey tile-roofed siheyuan courtyards in the narrow hutongs were being demolished to make way for the transition from ‘developing’ country to ‘first world’ status. Whatever Margaret had expected – and she was not certain what her expectations had been – it had not been this. The only thing ‘Chinese’ that she could see in any of it were the ornamental curled eaves grafted on to the tops of skyscrapers. Long gone the huge character posters urging comrades to greater effort on behalf of the motherland. In their place gigantic adverts for Sharp, Fuji, Volvo. Capitalism was the spur now. They passed a McDonald’s burger joint, a blur of red and yellow. Her preconceptions of streets thick with cyclists all uniformly dressed in Mao pyjamas were blown away in the clouds of carbon monoxide issuing from the buses, trucks, taxis and private cars that choked the six lanes of the Third Ring Road as it swept round the eastern fringes of the city. Just like Chicago, she thought. Very ‘first world’. Except for the bicycle lanes.
The driver hugged the outside lane as they approached the city centre past the Beijing Hotel and Wangfujing Street. In the distance Margaret could see the ornate towering gate of the Forbidden City, with its huge portrait of Mao gazing down on Tiananmen Square. Heaven’s Gate. It was the backdrop, it seemed, to every CNN report from Beijing. A giant cliché of China. Margaret recalled seeing the pictures on TV of Mao’s portrait defaced with red paint by the democracy demonstrators in the square in ’89. A student herself then, still at medical school, she had been shocked and outraged by the bloody events of that spring. And now here she was, a decade on. She wondered how much things had changed. Or even if they had.
Their car took a sudden left, to the accompaniment of a chorus of horns, and they slipped unexpectedly into a leafy side street with gardens down its centre and locust trees on either side forming a shady canopy. Here they might have been in the old quarter of any European city, elegant Victorian and colonial buildings on either side. Lily half turned, pointing to a high wall on their right.
‘Ministry of Public Security in there. Used to be British embassy compound before Chinese government threw them out. This old legation area.’
Further down, past some older apartment blocks that didn’t look remotely European, they took another left into Dong Jiaominxiang Lane, a narrower street where the light was almost completely obscured by overhanging trees. A couple of bicycle repairmen had set up shop on the sidewalk, making the most of the shade. Cars and bicycles crowded the road. On their right, a gateway opened on to a vast modern white building at the top of a sweep of steps guarded by two lions. High above the entrance hung a huge red-and-gold crest. ‘China Supreme Court,’ Lily said, and Margaret barely had time to look before the car swung left and squealed to a sudden halt. There was a bump and a clatter. Their driver threw her hands in the air with a gasp of incredulity and jumped out of the car.
Margaret craned forward to see what was happening. They had been in the act of turning through an arched gateway into a sprawling compound and had collided with a cyclist. Margaret heard the shrill voice of their driver berating the cyclist, who was getting back to his feet, apparently unhurt. As he stood, she saw that he was a police officer, in his early thirties, his neatly pressed uniform crumpled and dusty. A trickle of blood ran down his forearm from a nasty graze on his elbow. He pulled himself up to his full height and glared down at the little driver, who suddenly stopped shrieking and wilted under his gaze. She bent down timidly to retrieve his cap and held it out like a peace offering. He snatched it from her, but peace was the last thing on his mind. He unleashed, it appeared to Margaret, a mouthful of abusive language at the shrinking waif. Lily, in the front seat, emitted a strange grunting noise and hurriedly climbed out of the car. Margaret, too, thought it was time to interface, and opened the back door.
As she got out, Lily was picking up the bicycle and making apologetic noises. The policeman appeared to turn his wrath on her. More venom issued forth. Margaret approached. ‘What’s the problem here, Lily? This guy got something against women drivers?’ All three stopped and looked at her in amazement.
The young policeman regarded her coldly. ‘American?’
And in perfect English, ‘Then why don’t you mind your own business?’ He was almost shaking with anger. ‘You were in the back seat and couldn’t possibly have seen what happened.’
From somewhere deep inside, Margaret felt the first stirrings of her fiery Celtic temper. ‘Oh yeah? Well, maybe if you hadn’t been so busy looking at me in the back seat, you would have been watching where you were going.’
Lily was horrified. ‘Doctah Cambo!’
The young policeman stood for a moment glaring at Margaret. Then he snatched his bicycle from Lily, dusted down his cap and replaced it firmly on his close-cropped head before turning and wheeling his bike away in the direction of a European-style redbrick building just inside the compound.
Lily shook her head, clearly distraught. ‘That’s terrible thing to say, Doctah Cambo.’
‘What?’ Margaret was at a loss.
‘You make him lose mianzi.’
‘Face. You make him lose face.’
Margaret was incredulous. ‘Face?’
‘Chinese have problem with face.’
‘With a face like his, I’m not surprised! And what about you? Your … mianzi? You didn’t have to stand there and take all that. I mean, you outrank him, for heaven’s sake!’
‘Outrank him?’ Lily looked astonished. ‘No.’
‘Well, he only had two stars …’ She patted her shoulder. ‘… and you’ve got three.’
Lily shook her head. ‘Three star, one stripe. He got three stripe. He is Supervisor Li, senior detective Section One, Beijing Municipal Police.’
Margaret was taken aback. ‘A detective? In uniform?’
‘Uniform not normal.’ Lily looked very grave. ‘He must be go some ve-ery important meeting.’
Li stormed through the front door of the redbrick building that still housed the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department and made his way quickly to the toilet. The blood on his forearm was congealing with the dirt from the sidewalk. He ran it under the tap and jumped back cursing as water splashed darkly all over the pale green of his shirt. He looked at himself in the mirror above the washbasin. He was dusty and dishevelled, splashed with water, bleeding from the elbow, and had a dirty smudge on his forehead. In addition to which his dignity was severely dented – and in front of two Chinese women of inferior rank he had just lost face to a foreigner. ‘Yangguizi!’ He almost spat the word back at himself in the mirror. Foreign devil! After two hours of sweating over his uncle’s ironing board, neatly pressing every crease and flap of his shirt and trousers; after an uncomfortable hour in the barber’s chair that morning having his hair shorn to a bristling quarter-inch all over; after fifteen minutes in a cool shower to wash away the sweat and dust of the day; he should have looked and felt his best going into the most important interview of his career. Instead, he looked – and felt – awful.
He sluiced his face with water and dabbed away the blood on his arm with paper towels. His anger at the incident at the gate was giving way again to the butterflies that had been fluttering inside his ribcage all morning.
When the position of Deputy Section Chief had become vacant there was an automatic assumption among his peers that Li would get the job. Still only thirty-three, he was one of the most experienced detectives in Section One. He had broken a record number of homicides and armed robberies since his graduation to the section from the University of Public Security, where he had been the top student of his year. Li himself had felt that he was ready for the job, but he was not in a position to apply for it. The decision on his eligibility or otherwise would be made in the Promotions Department, with a final decision being taken by the Chief of Police. Cosy assumptions of promotion from within had, however, been thrown into disarray by rumours that a senior detective of the Shanghai CID was being recommended for the post. It had been impossible to ascertain the veracity of the rumour and, through the long bureaucratic process, Li did not know if he was even being considered. Until his summons to attend an interview with the divisional head of the CID, Commissioner Hu Yisheng. And even now he had no idea what to expect. His immediate boss at Section One, Chen Anming, had been tight-lipped and grim-faced. Li feared the worst. He took a deep breath, straightened his cap, tugged at his shirt, and stepped out of the toilet.
Commissioner Hu Yisheng sat in shirtsleeves behind his desk in a high-backed leather chair, his jacket carefully draped over the back of it. Behind him, rows of hardback books in a glass-fronted bookcase, a red Chinese flag hanging limp in the heat, various photographs and certificates framed on the wall. He leaned over his desk, writing slowly, tight, careful characters in a large open notebook. His mirror image gazed back at him from the highly polished surface. He waved Li to a seat without looking up. Li slowly lowered his hand from an unseen salute and perched uncomfortably on the edge of a seat opposite the Commissioner. The silence was broken only by the gentle whirring of a fan lifting the edges of papers at one side of the desk – and by the heavy scratching of the Commissioner’s fountain pen. Li cleared his throat nervously and the Commissioner glanced up at him for a moment, perhaps suspecting impatience. Then he returned to his writing. It was important, Li decided, that he didn’t clear his throat again. And almost as the thought formed, so the phlegm seemed to gather in his throat, tempting him to clear it. Like an itch you can’t scratch. He swallowed.
After what seemed an eternity, the Commissioner finally placed the top back on his pen and closed the book. He folded his hands in front of him and regarded Li almost speculatively.
‘So,’ he said. ‘How is your uncle?’
‘He is very well, Commissioner. He sends his regards.’
The Commissioner smiled, and there was genuine affection in it. ‘A very great man,’ he said. ‘He suffered more than most, you know, during the Smashing of the Four Olds.’
‘I know.’ Li nodded. He had heard it all before.
‘He was my inspiration when the Cultural Revolution ended. There was no bitterness in him, you see. After everything that happened, Old Yifu would only look forward. “No use worrying over the might-have-beens,” he used to say to me. “It is a happy thing to have a broken mirror reshaped.” It was the spirit of men like your uncle that put this country back on the rails.’
Li smiled his dutiful agreement and felt a sudden foreboding creep over him.
‘Unfortunately, it makes it very difficult,’ said the Commissioner. ‘For you – and us. You understand, of course, it is the policy of the Party to discourage nepotism in all its insidious forms.’
And Li knew then that he hadn’t got the job. He loved his Uncle Yifu dearly. He was the kindest, fairest, wisest man he knew. But he was also a legend in the Beijing police. Even five years after his retirement. And legends cast long shadows.
‘It is incumbent upon you to be better than the rest, and for us to examine your record more critically.’ The Commissioner sat back and took in a long, slow breath through his nose. ‘Just as well we are both good at our jobs, eh?’ A twinkle in his eye. ‘As of eight a.m. tomorrow you are promoted to the rank of Senior Supervisor, Class Three, and to the position of Deputy Section Chief, Section One.’ A broad smile split his face suddenly and he rose to his feet, extending an arm towards the bewildered Li. ‘Congratulations.’
The car sat idling in the somnolent shade of a tree just inside the rear entrance to police headquarters, across the compound from the door of the redbrick building that Supervisor Li had passed through more than fifteen minutes earlier.
‘That Mistah Wade now.’
If Margaret had lapsed into gentle snoring in the back seat Lily gave no sign of having heard it. She leaned across and unlocked the door. Bob Wade slipped in beside Margaret. He was incredibly tall and skinny and seemed to have to fold himself up to fit in the car.
‘Hey, you guys, I’m really sorry to keep you waiting.’ He pumped Margaret’s hand enthusiastically. ‘Hi. You must be Dr Campbell.’
‘Margaret,’ she said.
‘Okay, Margaret. Bob Wade. Jeez, it’s hot out there.’ He took a grubby-looking handkerchief and wiped away the beads of sweat forming across a high, receding forehead. ‘Lily looking after you okay?’
‘Sure.’ Margaret nodded slowly. ‘Lily’s a real gem.’
Lily flicked her a look, and Bob was not slow to detect Margaret’s tone. He leaned forward to the driver. ‘How about we hot-tail it to the university, Shimei? We’re running a bit behind schedule.’
Shimei gunned the engine and backed out into the compound before swinging round towards the gate. As they passed under the arch, Margaret noticed Supervisor Li emerging from the redbrick building. His whole demeanour had changed – a spring in his step, a smile on his face. He didn’t even see their car. His shoulders were pushed back and Margaret realised that he was very tall for a Chinese, maybe six feet. He pulled his cap down over his flat-top crew cut. Its peak cast a shadow over his square-jawed high-cheek-boned face and, as he disappeared from view, she thought how unattractive he was.
‘You must be pretty tired.’ She turned to find Bob examining her closely. He would be around fifty-five – the age she felt right now.
She nodded. ‘I’ve been on the go something like twenty-two hours. It seems like one hell of a long day. Only it’s tomorrow already and I’ve still got nearly half of it to go.’
He grinned. ‘Yeah, I know. You’re chasing the day until about halfway across the Pacific and suddenly you jump a day ahead.’ He leaned towards her, lowering his voice. ‘What happened with Lily?’
‘Oh …’ Margaret didn’t want to go through it all again. ‘Just a little misunderstanding.’
‘You mustn’t mind her really. She’s not all bad. Bark’s worse than her bite. You know, she was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. A real old-fashioned comrade. Only her kind of communism’s not really in vogue any more, so she’ll stay at the bottom of the pile. Never be anything more than a three-star constable.’
The Cultural Revolution was something Margaret had always meant to read up on. She’d heard of it often enough without ever really knowing what it was – except that it had been a bad time in China. She decided, however, not to display her ignorance to Bob.
‘So what made you decide to come to China?’ he asked.
The truth wasn’t an option for Margaret. She shrugged vaguely. ‘Oh, you know … I was always kind of interested in the place. The Mysterious East and all that. I was doing some lecturing, part-time, at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and this guy from the Office of International Criminal Justice …’
‘Yeah, that’s him. He said the OICJ were looking for someone to do a six-week stint at the People’s University of Public Security in Beijing, lecturing on forensic pathology, and was I interested. I thought, hell, it beats chasing fire engines for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. Lot of fires in Chicago in June.’
Bob smiled. ‘You’ll find they do things a lot differently here than Chicago. I’ve been out here nearly two years and I’m still trying to get my lecture notes photocopied.’
‘You ever heard of the Three Ps?’ She shook her head. ‘Well, they represent the three things you must have to survive in this country. That’s Patience, Patience and Patience. The Chinese have their own way of doing things. I’m not saying they do them any worse or any better than we do. Just different. And they’ve got a totally different perspective on the world.’
‘In what way?’
‘Well, for example, you come here thinking: I’m an American citizen. I live in the richest and most powerful country in the world. And you think that makes you pretty damned superior. But the humblest peasant working fifteen hours a day in the paddy fields will look down his nose at you. Why? Because you’re not Chinese and he is. Because he is a citizen of the Middle Kingdom. That’s their name for China. So called because it is, of course, the centre of the world, and everything beyond its borders is peripheral and inferior, populated by yangguizi – foreign devils like you and me.’
She snorted. ‘That’s just empty arrogance.’
Bob raised an eyebrow. ‘Is it? The Chinese were weaving silk three thousand years ago. They were casting iron eighteen hundred years before the Europeans figured out how to do it. They invented paper, and were printing books hundreds of years before Gutenberg built his first printing press. By comparison, we Americans are just a pimple on the face of history.’
Margaret wondered how often he’d delivered this little homily to visiting American lecturers. He probably thought it made him seem more knowledgeable, and China more daunting. And he was right.
‘Biggest single difference – culturally?’
She shrugged her complete ignorance.
‘The Chinese focus on and reward group efforts, rather than individual ones. They’re team players. And the individual is expected to put the team’s interests way ahead of his own. And that’s a pretty big deal in a country of 1.2 billion people. Guess that’s why they’ve been around for five thousand years.’
Margaret was getting tired of her cultural studies lesson. ‘So what happens now?’
Bob became brisk and businesslike. ‘Okay. We’ll get you settled in at the university, meet the people you’ve got to meet, then you can go and get changed and freshened up for the banquet.’
Lily’s words came back from earlier. ‘Banquet?’
‘Yeah, at the famous Quanjude Beijing Duck restaurant. It’s a traditional welcome. Didn’t you get an OICJ briefing document?’
‘Yes, of course.’ Margaret didn’t like to confess that she hadn’t read it. She had meant to. If she could stay awake long enough she would do it tonight.
‘There’s a lot of etiquette associated with these things. Do’s and don’ts. Chinese can be a bit touchy, you know what I mean? But don’t worry, I’ll be around to keep you right.’
Margaret didn’t know whether to be pleased or pissed. Bob, she thought, could become pretty tiresome.
They were heading due west now along another six-lane highway running through a canyon of modern tower blocks. The sun was dipping lower in the late afternoon, dazzling through the dust and insects that caked the windscreen. Out of the haze, a sweeping flyover
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