The Chinese police have once more been forced to enlist the services of American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell, this time to investigate a series of four horrific ritual executions in Beijing.
Detective Li Yan is determined to discover just how one of the victims in particular, an American diplomat, became caught up in the slaying. And he is arguably even more determined to have nothing to do with Campbell, whom he finds simultaneously too foreign and too ... familiar.
The personal polarity that once attracted Yan and Campbell again strengthens their professional partnership. Yet the closer they draw to the truth, the greater the danger posed by a killer prepared to do anything to conceal it.
Release date: June 14, 2012
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 384
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The Fourth Sacrifice
By now he knows he is going to die. And he feels something like relief. No more long, lonely nights and tortured dreams. He can release all those dark feelings that he has carried through life like some great weight strapped to his back, causing him to stoop and stagger and bend at the knees. But still this knowledge, that death is close enough almost to touch, is not without fear. But the fear has retreated with the effects of the drug, and lurks somewhere just beyond consciousness.
He is only vaguely aware of those things around him that have been so familiar these last months: the scarred and naked walls, the rusted window frames, the washing hanging out to dry in the glassed-in balcony beyond the screen door. There is still a smell of stale cooking in the air, and sometimes the occasional hint of raw sewage that rises from the drains in the street four floors below, especially when it rains, like now. He hears the rain pattering on the windowpanes, blurring the lights of the apartment block opposite, like the tears that he can feel, warm and salty, on his cheeks. Only now does he succumb to an overwhelming sense of sadness. What futility! His life, the lives of his parents, and of their parents before them. What did any of them mean? What point had there been?
Now he feels rough hands forcing him to his knees, and a cord is passed over his head, a flash of red characters on white card as it drops to hang around his neck. Now his hands are drawn behind his back, and he feels the soft, familiar texture of silk as it tightens around his wrists, grazing and bruising. He would have been gentler with it. Despite the best efforts of the drug, his fear is re-emerging now, rising in his throat like bile. He sees a flash of light on dark, dull metal and a hand pushes his head forward and down. No point in resistance. No point in anything, not even regret. And yet it is there, big and scary and casting a shadow in his consciousness, fighting for space alongside his fear.
He is aware of the figure on his right, and he sees the shadow of the rising blade trace its pattern across the pale linoleum. He swallows and wonders if he will feel any pain. How good is his executioner? And then, fleetingly, he wonders if the brain ceases the instant the head is severed. He hears the swish of the blade and has a sharp intake of breath.
No, there is no pain, he realises, as for a moment, before blackness, the room spins crazily and he sees the twin jets of blood spewing from the strange apparition of his own headless body as it topples forward. But he will never be able to tell anyone. So many things he will never be able to tell.
The rain fell like tears from a leaden Beijing sky. Ironic, Margaret thought, for hers had long since dried up. From the shelter of her balcony on the sixth floor she could see, across the treetops in the park opposite, the dull reflection of a tiny pavilion in the rain-spotted lake. Above the rumble of traffic, and the mournful banter of furriers in the street below, she could hear the wail of a single-stringed violin and the sad cadences of a woman’s voice breathing passion into a song from the Peking Opera.
Margaret moved back into her hotel room and slipped a light coat over her blouse and jeans. She had told herself she had chosen this hotel because of its proximity to the American Embassy. It was nothing to do with the park across the road. That’s what she had told herself. But Ritan Park was her last connection to him. A place where the death of a man had first brought them together and, in the end, forced them apart. Just one more failure in a life that seemed destined always to let her down. She lifted her umbrella and closed the door firmly behind her, resolved finally to act on a decision she had delayed for too long.
On the fourth floor, an elderly woman with brassy lacquered hair and too much make-up, stepped on to the elevator. Margaret saw that she was wearing a name badge on the lapel of her blue suit jacket. Dot McKinlay, it read. Margaret registered some surprise. Mostly the Ritan Hotel was filled with the wealthy but unsophisticated wives of Russian traders, desperate to spend their roubles before the exchange rate fell any further. The woman drew painted lips back across long, slightly yellowed teeth in what she clearly imagined was a smile.
‘Where y’awl from?’ she drawled.
Margaret’s heart sank. ‘The sixth floor,’ she said, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the illuminated numbers above the door, willing them to descend more quickly.
But Dot just laughed, heartily, as if she had enjoyed the joke. ‘Ah do like a sense of humour,’ she said. ‘Y’awl from the north, that’s for sure. We’re from the south. Louisiana. Only thing further south than us is the Gulf of Mexico.’ She laughed again, as if demonstrating that southerners could be just as amusing as northerners. ‘Ol’ Dot’s Travellin’ Grannies, that’s what they call us. We been all over. Just our luck to choose China during the rice crisis. Don’t you just get sick of those noodles?’ She leaned in confidentially. ‘And if Ah’d known this hotel was gonna be so full of goddamn Ruskies, Ah’d ’a booked us in somewheres else.’ She nodded emphatically. ‘But it’s great to know there’s a fellow American on board. Even if ya do come from the sixth floor.’ She grinned. ‘Why don’t y’awl join us for a drink tonight?’
Margaret glanced at her. ‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible,’ she said. ‘I’m leaving tomorrow.’
The doors opened on the ground floor as Dot was about to express her disappointment, and Margaret hurried away past a group of a dozen or so elderly ladies all sporting name badges. She heard Dot greeting them with, ‘Hey, you’ll never guess who that was …’
No, Margaret thought as she pushed through glass doors and out into the sticky, warm rain, they never would. Not in a million years. The two security men at the gate glowered at her as she opened her umbrella on the way out. It was only in the last couple of weeks that Western newsmen had stopped hanging about the gate in the hope of getting photographs or an interview. The security guards in their brown uniforms, privately hired by the hotel, had been forced to take their duties seriously, instead of sitting around all day smoking and looking important. They didn’t much like Margaret.
She ran the gauntlet of some half-hearted stall owners who thought she might be Russian and interested in the furs that hung row upon row under dripping canopies. But most of them knew her by now and didn’t give her a second glance, sitting folded up on tiny stools, nursing jars of cold green tea, smoking acrid-smelling cigarettes and spitting noisily on the sidewalk. Everywhere you looked here, the names of shops and restaurants were written in the distinctive Cyrillic Russian alphabet. You could almost believe you were in some seedy corner of Moscow, if it wasn’t for the Chinese faces. Someone had lit a brazier, in preparation for an early lunch, and smoke mingled with the mist and rain. Margaret almost stepped into the path of several bicycles, alerted only at the last moment by a flurry of bells. Oriental faces glared at her from glistening hooded capes. She grasped the railing at the edge of the pavement and held tightly, overcome by a moment of giddiness. She breathed deeply and steadied herself. She had not realised until now just how stressful this was going to be.
To delay the moment, she took the route through the park, although she would have denied, if asked, that she was procrastinating. But she knew immediately it was a mistake. The place was too full of memories and regrets. She hurried past small damp groups of people practising tai ch’i under the trees, and out through the south gate. Again she took a circuitous route, along Guanghua Road and down Silk Street, past the new visa block in the Bruce Compound of the American Embassy. Women in white masks and blue smocks swept wet leaves from the gutters with old-fashioned brooms. Dismal marketeers sat under the shelter of trees opposite their empty stalls, tourists kept away by the rain.
A young woman with cropped hair approached Margaret hopefully. ‘CD lom?’ she said. ‘CD music? Looka, looka, I have new ones.’
Margaret shook her head and hurried by. A very thin young man in a dark suit and white shirt with no tie approached. ‘Shanja dollah?’
‘No!’ Margaret snapped at him, and stepped briskly away along Xiushuibie Street. There was no point in delaying any further. Past the Consular Section of the Bulgarian Embassy, the US Commercial Section, she stopped outside the gate of San Ban, No. 3 Building of the American Embassy. The Chancery. She pushed open the door of the gatehouse and found herself facing a scowling Chinese security guard.
‘Margaret Campbell,’ she said. ‘I have an appointment with the Ambassador.’
An unsmiling marine in dress uniform watched her from behind the glass booth just inside the front door of the Chancery. A young Asian woman appeared at the door to her left and it clicked open to the accompaniment of a long electronic buzz. She smiled at Margaret. ‘Come on through,’ she said. Margaret entered and heard the door shut behind her as the woman held out her hand. ‘Hi. I’m Sophie Daum. I’ll be looking after you for the next while.’
‘Will you?’ Margaret looked at her suspiciously. Small, short dark hair, beautifully slanted eyes, sharp but not unattractive features, she barely looked old enough to be out of high school. ‘What happened to the Regional Security Officer?’
‘Oh, Jon Dakers is pretty well tied up these days. I’m the new assistant RSO.’
‘You don’t have a very oriental name for a Chinese-American.’
‘Vietnamese-American,’ Sophie corrected her. ‘And I was adopted by a very old-fashioned, old-money family from California.’ She led Margaret up a flight of stairs lined with pictures of previous ambassadors to China. ‘I guess you probably think I look too young for the job. Everybody does.’ She was trying to sound bright, but Margaret detected more than a hint of weariness in her voice.
‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘You look at least old enough to be in the second grade.’ She glanced across at the girl and saw that her smile had frozen on her face, and she immediately regretted the jibe. ‘I’m sorry. You caught me on a bad day.’
Sophie stopped and turned on the stair. ‘Look, Dr Campbell,’ she said, the smile gone, the eyes suddenly cold and hard. ‘I’m being polite here. But I’m twenty-three years old. I got a degree in criminology, and I’m straight off the security staff of the Secretary for Defense. I got a black belt in tai kwondo, and I could kick your ass all the way down the stairs. I don’t need your bad days, I got enough of my own.’
‘Hey,’ Margaret held up her hands. ‘I believe you. Sounds like you’ve got enough bad days to make up a whole week. PMS can be a real bitch.’
And to her surprise, Sophie’s face broke into a reluctant grin. ‘Yeah, OK, maybe I got that coming. But it’s PCS I’m suffering from, not PMS. Post China stress. You know? I’ve been here a month and all I’ve heard is I don’t look old enough to be out of high school. It’s bad enough when I get it from the guys without the women turning on me, too.’
‘And how many of the guys have you threatened to kick down the stairs?’
‘Oh, just you,’ Sophie said breezily.
‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’
Sophie grinned, a rapport established, and opened French doors into the Ambassador’s outer office. To their right, the secretary to the Deputy Chief of Mission was talking on the telephone. To their left, the Ambassador’s secretary’s desk was empty. She was just emerging from the inner sanctum.
‘Oh, hi.’ She held the door open. ‘Go straight on through. The Ambassador’s expecting you.’
Margaret followed Sophie into the carpeted hush of the Ambassador’s office. It was a big room – high ceilings, tall windows, a large polished desk facing the door, the US flag hanging limply from a pole behind it. Margaret had been in here several times, but it still intrigued her. The walls were lined with photographs of the Ambassador with the President and his family. It was said they were close friends whose friendship predated politics. There was a picture of the President at his inauguration, smiling to the heavens, an appetite whetted by the prospect of supreme power. Something to be savoured and enjoyed.
To the left was a sofa and several armchairs around a coffee table, pictures loaned from some US art gallery on the walls, Chinese chests lined up as filing cabinets. The Ambassador, in shirtsleeves, and another, younger, man wearing an immaculately tailored dark blue suit, rose to greet them.
‘Margaret,’ the Ambassador nodded curtly. He was an attractive, dark-haired man. A senator for nearly twenty years, he clearly felt more at home in the rarefied atmosphere of high politics than at this, more mundane, level of real life. ‘I think you know First Secretary Stan Palmer.’
‘Sure,’ Margaret said, and they all shook hands and sat down. The First Secretary poured them coffee from a tray that had just been brought in.
The Ambassador sat back and cast his eye curiously over Margaret. She looked tired, older than her thirty-one years, her pale blue eyes strained and dull, fair hair falling listlessly over her shoulders in big sad waves. ‘So,’ he said. ‘You’ve reached a decision.’
Margaret nodded. ‘I want to go home, Mr Ambassador.’
‘That’s very sudden, isn’t it?’
‘It’s been on my mind for some time.’
The First Secretary leaned forward. ‘Have you told the Chinese?’ His tone was sniffy, almost superior.
Margaret hesitated. ‘I was hoping you would do that.’
The Ambassador frowned. ‘Why? Is there a problem?’
Margaret shook her head. ‘No, I … I’ve just had enough. I just want to go home.’
‘You could have gone home ten weeks ago. You know that.’ The Ambassador’s tone was faintly accusatory. ‘After we secured your release.’
‘Sure.’ Margaret nodded. ‘It was my decision to stay on and co-operate with them. I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. I still do. But I spend night after night sitting alone in a hotel room watching CNN, and day after day being debriefed on the same old stuff. I’m tired of it. I didn’t think it would go on this long.’ She paused, a horrible thought occurring to her for the first time. ‘I am free to go, aren’t I?’
‘As far as I’m concerned, you are.’ The Ambassador leaned over and put a reassuring hand on her arm. ‘You’ve done more than your fair share, Margaret. More than they had any right to expect.’ He turned to the First Secretary. ‘Stan’ll tell the Chinese, won’t you, Stan?’
‘Of course, Mr Ambassador.’
But Stan was none too pleased, a fact betrayed by his demeanour as they descended the stairs. He didn’t like playing messenger boy. He ignored Sophie as if she wasn’t there – she was clearly an irrelevance – and addressed himself to Margaret. ‘So …’ he said, ‘the charges have been dropped against your Chinese policeman.’ He ran a hand back through thinning but perfectly groomed blond hair.
‘Have they?’ Margaret feigned indifference.
‘Didn’t you know?’ Stan feigned surprise.
‘For a start,’ Margaret said, tetchily, ‘he’s not my Chinese policeman. And the authorities have told me nothing.’
‘So you haven’t had any contact with him?’
‘No, I haven’t. Nor do I intend to.’ In spite of herself she couldn’t keep the hurt and anger out of her voice.
Stan was quick to capitalise. ‘Really? You surprise me.’ He smiled. ‘I’d heard that you and he were … well, how shall I put it? Close.’
‘Had you? I’m surprised that a man in your position would waste his time listening to gossip like that – never mind give it credence.’
‘Ah, well, that’s where you’re wrong, Margaret.’ Stan was so smooth he positively shone. ‘Gossip is the lifeblood of the embassy. I mean, without it how else would we know what was going on? After all, diplomats and politicians never tell one another the truth, now, do they?’ He shook her hand. ‘Have a good trip home.’ And he disappeared into the hushed interior of the building.
‘Prick,’ Sophie muttered.
‘Oh, you noticed?’ Margaret grinned ruefully. ‘If I’d had your talent for kicking ass I’d have practised it on him.’
‘Yeah, well he’s pretty high up my list of ass-kicking priorities, too.’ And they shared a moment of juvenile amusement – for Margaret a brief release, a breath of fresh air after weeks, months, of relentless intensity.
The marine pressed a button and the door clicked open. Sophie followed Margaret out on to the steps. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘What are you doing tonight?’
‘You mean apart from packing and watching CNN?’
‘Yeah, apart from that.’
‘Not much. But you know, I’d probably have to consult my social calendar to know for sure. Why?’
‘There’s a reception on at the Ambassador’s residence for Michael Zimmerman.’
Sophie pulled a face. ‘Aw, come on, you’re kidding, right?’ Margaret shook her head. Sophie said, ‘You don’t know who Michael Zimmerman is?’
Margaret continued shaking her head. ‘Keeping asking won’t change that.’
‘Where have you been for the last five years? Don’t you ever watch television I mean, other than the news?’
‘Not in a very long time, Sophie.’ And Margaret couldn’t remember the last time she had watched anything but CNN in a Chinese hotel room. ‘So who is he?’
‘Only the most sexy man alive – at least, according to a poll of Cosmopolitan readers.’
‘I thought that was Mel Gibson.’
Sophie shook her head. ‘You are out of date.’ The rain had stopped and they walked slowly to the gatehouse. ‘Michael Zimmerman’s an archaeologist.’
‘An archaeologist?’ Margaret was taken aback. ‘That doesn’t sound very sexy to me. What is he, real life’s answer to Indiana Jones?’
Sophie smiled dreamily. ‘Well, not far off it. He’s made a whole bunch of documentary series for NBC on great archaeological finds around the world. He gets better ratings than the top cop shows.’
Margaret looked sceptical. ‘The great American public finally discovers culture. So, what’s his secret?’
Sophie shrugged. ‘There’s something about him … I don’t know, he just brings the whole thing to life.’ She paused, giving it serious thought for a moment. ‘Plus, he’s got a great ass.’
Margaret nodded seriously. ‘Well, when it comes to culture, that definitely helps.’ She went into the guardhouse and retrieved her purse and umbrella and stepped out on to the sidewalk. Sophie walked out after her. Margaret said, ‘So why’s the Ambassador holding a reception for him?’
‘It’s a pre-production party. Shooting starts tomorrow at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing. Some new documentary series on one of China’s most revered archaeologists. Some guy I never heard of. But it’s a big deal here. The Chinese have been bending over backwards to facilitate the shoot, so the Ambassador’s just doing his bit.’
‘And Zimmerman’s fronting the series?’
‘Yes. It’s his production company that’s making it.’ Sophie paused. ‘So do you want to come? I can get an invitation sent round to your hotel.’
Margaret thought about it for a moment. It wouldn’t take her long to pack, and it wouldn’t break her heart to give room service and CNN a final miss. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Why not? I can run a rule over Mr Zimmerman’s ass and see if it measures up.’
Margaret left Sophie at the consular section on the corner of Silk Street, grateful that the assistant RSO had had the sensitivity not to ask her the questions that everyone else she had met over the last ten weeks had asked. She pushed her way down through the narrow market lane, past great bolts of silk and racks of dressing gowns and shirts and dresses, to the six-lane Jianguomenwei Avenue that cut through the east-central city like an open wound. Here, twenty-first-century towers of glass and marble rose above the roar of traffic into the pall of pollution that hung low over the capital, and from their upturned Chinese eaves looked down on the crumbling remains of a disappearing city: the hutongs and siheyuans where street and family life bled one into the other; the real Beijing that was in danger of being swept away on the tide of financial success generated by a new devotion to the free-market economy.
She had no plan, no real notion of where she was going or what she wanted to do, other than the certain knowledge that she did not want to return to her hotel room. There was some desire in her, some need, to drink in this city for the last time, to let it wash over her, to feel its vital, vibrant life. She realised, with a dreadful ache, that she would miss it, with all its noise and pollution and traffic, its shouting, spitting, staring people, its sights and sounds and sometimes awful smells. But then she knew, too, that none of it meant anything without the man who had steered her through it, taught her to love it.
Why had he never been in touch? There was as much anger as hurt raging inside her. Not a call, not a letter. Nothing. Despite what she had led the First Secretary to believe, she had heard about Li’s release. They had told her, during one of those countless debriefings, that he had been reinstated. She had expected him to contact her. It was one of the reasons she had made no attempt to integrate with the social life of the embassy, despite umpteen invitations. Instead she had waited night after night by the phone in her hotel room for a call that never came. Once, she had phoned the offices of Section One of the Criminal Investigation Department in Dongzhimen and asked, in English, for Deputy Section Chief Li Yan. The request had caused some consternation at the other end of the line. Finally, someone speaking halting English had asked who she was, then told her that Deputy Section Chief Li was unavailable.
The No. 4 bus appeared out of the haze, and Margaret jostled with the Chinese in the queue to climb aboard and hand her five fen to the bus conductress, who scowled at her suspiciously. Yangguizi, foreign devils, never travelled by bus. Margaret ignored the faces turned towards her in unabashed curiosity as she clung to the overhead rail, squeezed in among all these bodies. It was extraordinary, she thought, how it was possible to feel so alone in a city of eleven million people.
She battled her way to the door and got off just past the Beijing Hotel, from where Western journalists had watched the tanks heading for their confrontation with demonstrating students in Tiananmen Square eleven years before. She crossed to the other side of East Chang’an Avenue via an underpass. This was foolish, she knew, a needless, self-inflicted pain. But still her feet carried her to the corner of Zhengyi Road, and she turned down into its tree-lined seclusion, away from the thunder of traffic on the main avenue. On her right, the compound of the Ministry of Public Security was hidden away behind a high stone wall, occupying the former home of the British Embassy. Further down, the apartment blocks provided for senior police officers rose above the still-lush green trees of early fall.
She felt sick now, and there was a lump in her throat as if something she had swallowed was stuck there. She had no difficulty identifying Li’s apartment on the second floor, the three rooms he had shared with his uncle. She smiled, remembering the night they had spent there, when they might have made love but hadn’t because she had drunk too much. And she remembered a cold, damp railway carriage in some anonymous siding in the north of the country where she had finally lain in his arms and they had declared their love. When they had returned to Beijing to reveal why three men had been murdered, and to clear Li of the accusations levelled against him by frightened men, he had told her to wait for him. He had told her he loved her. And she had waited. And waited.
She wiped the tears from her face and became aware of the security guard at the gate watching her curiously, this strange blonde-haired, blue-eyed yangguizi, standing weeping on the sidewalk, staring up at an anonymous apartment building. She turned quickly away. This was futile, stupid. It was history, and she was leaving in the morning. Her life was too full of pain for there to be any pleasure in looking back. She could only go forward.
A small, red taxi cruised slowly up the other side of the street. She called, and waved, and ran across the road. The taxi stopped and she jumped in. ‘Ritan fandian,’ she told the driver, and for a moment marvelled that he knew immediately what she meant. And then straight away felt saddened. China, its language, its people, had taken a long time getting into her soul and under her skin. And now that it had, she had no further use for it.
As the taxi headed back up towards East Chang’an Avenue, a tall broad-built Chinese man with close-cropped hair wheeled a bicycle out from the apartment compound. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt tucked into dark trousers at a narrow waist. He stopped for a moment, feeling in his pockets. Then he turned to the security guard. ‘You got any cigarettes, Feng?’
The security guard was uncomfortable. None of the other officers in the compound even spoke to him, never mind knew his name.
‘Sure, Deputy Section Chief,’ he said, taking an almost full pack from his pocket. ‘Here, have it. I’ve got plenty.’
Li took it and smiled. ‘I’ll bring you a replacement on the way back tonight.’
‘No need,’ the guard said.
Li grinned. ‘Yes there is. My uncle always told me a man with a debt is a man with a burden. See you tonight.’ And he lit a cigarette and pushed off on his bike following, oblivious, in the wake of Margaret’s taxi.
It was almost dark when Margaret passed through the security gate of Yi Ban, No. 1 building of the American Embassy on Guanghua Road, west of Ritan Park. On the right was the main administration block housing the Press Office and the Department of Cultural Affairs, a huge satellite dish oriented south-west on the lower roof. Straight ahead was the Ambassador’s residence, a plain two-storey building with a brown tile roof. It stood at the end of a paved drive bordered by immaculately kept flowerbeds and silently weeping willows. On a tall flagpole the Stars and Stripes fluttered listlessly in the gentle evening breeze. From the street Margaret had heard the sounds of traditional Chinese music drifting languidly from the direction of the residence. Now, as she approached the double red doors at the front, she could see, through a latticed wall off to her right, the musicians – three men and two women – playing on an illuminated terrace.
The Ambassador himself met her at the door, accompanied by his wife, an attractive, statuesque woman in her middle-fifties. Margaret hadn’t met her before, and the Ambassador made the introductions.
‘Oh, yes,’ his wife said, regarding Margaret with curiosity. ‘You’re the rice lady. I’ve heard so much about you.’
Sensing Margaret’s embarrassment, and perhaps knowing something of her unpredictability, the Ambassador ushered her quickly inside to the cool of a dark marble-floored hallway. At the far end, a green-carpeted staircase curled up to the second floor where the Ambassador’s family had their private apartments. Off to the left was a cloakroom and a guest bedroom. Through a square arch to the right, came the sound of voices lubricated by alcohol, early inhibitions already washed away. Margaret had not come early.
From the cloakroom, she saw the Ambassador having a quick word with his wife. Perhaps he was telling her that for a diplomat’s wife she had just been very undiplomatic. Whatever he said, she did not seem impressed and strode away into the main lounge to rejoin her guests. He, however, remained unflappable, and took Margaret by the arm and steered her across thick-piled Chinese rugs through a passage towards a long lounge crowded with people. They passed a square room on their right, opulent classical Chinese furniture facing in to an ornately carved low table inlaid with mother of pearl. ‘Our little reception room, specially for the Chinese,’ he said. ‘They do like us to make a little fuss. Makes ’em feel like honoured guests.’
The lounge was a subtly lit oblong space with full-length windows down one side, sofas and armchairs neatly arranged in ordered groups. White walls were hung with pastel-coloured silk and paper collages, different coloured discs representing ancient seals dangling from each like pendulums. The Ambassador followed Margaret’s eyes to the pictures. ‘Produced on paper handmade by master papermakers in Annhui Province. The works of Robert Rauschenberg.’ He smiled his regret. ‘Just on loan, sadly. Like most of the pieces in the house. Part of the State Department’s Art in Embassies Program. Great idea. Just a pity we’ve got to give ’em back.’ He signalled a waiter with a drinks tray. ‘What’ll you have?’
‘Vodka tonic with ice and lemon,’ she told the waiter. He nodded and melted away.
Meantime, the Ambassador had contrived some hidden signal, and Sophie
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