In this heart-stopping installment of Peter May's award-winning China Thrillers, the Beijing Olympics are the setting for fierce competition, national pride—and murder.
A prodigious Chinese swimmer kills himself on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. Days later, a champion weightlifter suffers a fatal heart attack prior to competition.
Detective Li Yan senses a conspiracy surrounding the fatalities, and finds a female athlete willing to talk. But she will only trust one person: Li's fiancee, Margaret Campbell.
When Campbell's contact herself vanishes, the gun is fired on a race against time. And Li must now outrun—and outwit—an enemy bent on pushing him beyond endurance.
Release date: November 15, 2012
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 340
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But for now, their only focus ahead is the warm chlorine-filled air, water slipping easily over sleek, toned muscles, the rasp of lungs pumping air in the vast echoing chamber of the pool. A final training session before confrontation tomorrow with the Americans. A flutter of fear in the stomach, a rush of adrenaline that accompanies the thought. So much riding on them. The aspirations of a nation. China. More than a billion people investing their hopes in the efforts of this chosen few. An onerous responsibility.
They wave at the guard who glares sullenly at them as they cycle past. He stamps frozen feet and hugs his fur-lined grey coat tighter for warmth, icy breath clouding around his head like smoke.
Turning right, by pink accommodation blocks, the swimmers shout their exuberance into the clearest of night skies. The foggy vapour of their breath clearing in their wake like the pollution the authorities have promised to sweep from Beijing’s summer skies before the world finally descends for the Greatest Show on Earth. Past the towering columns of the Department of Mechanics, legs pumping in unison, they slew into the main drag. Ahead of them, the ten lit storeys of the master building shine coldly in the darkness. On their right, the floodlit concrete angles of the Department of Technology. On their left, the imposing steps of the Department of Law. The vast, sprawling campus of Qinghua University, dubbed by one American Vice-President as the MIT of China, is laid out before them, delineated in the dark by light reflecting off piles of swept snow. But it is not a reputation for excellence in science and technology which has brought them to this place. It is another kind of excellence. In sport. It is here that John Ma inspired the rebirth of Chinese sport more than seventy years ago, building the first modern sports complex in China. Snow rests now on his head and shoulders, gathering also in his lap, a cold stone statue by a frozen lake somewhere away to their left.
But they are not even aware of this nugget of history, of the statue, of the old pool where Mao used to swim in splendid isolation while the building was ringed by armed guards. They are interested only in the lights, beyond the gymnasium and the running track, of the natatorium. For it is here they have spent these last weeks, burning muscles, pushing themselves to the limits of pain and endurance, urged on by the relentless hoarse barking of their coach.
As they pass beneath the shadow of the athletics stand, a handful of students bounce a ball around a floodlit basketball court scraped clear of snow, sport for them a recreation. Their only pressure is academic, and failure will disappoint only their families and friends.
The swimmers park up among the hundreds of bicycles stacked in rows beneath the student apartments. Washed clothes left hanging on balconies are already frozen stiff. They trot across the concourse, swinging arms to keep warm, and push open the double doors of the east entrance, warm air stinging cold skin. Down deserted corridors to the locker room which has become so drably familiar, synonymous with the pain of the training which they hope will reap its rewards in just a few intense minutes of competition. The hundred metres butterfly. The two hundred metres crawl. The backstroke, the freestyle. The relay.
It is only as they strip and drag on costumes that they notice he is missing.
‘Hey, where’s Sui Mingshan?’
‘Said he’d meet us here,’ someone replies. ‘You see him when we came in?’
‘No … ’ Heads shake. No one has seen him. He isn’t here. Which is unusual. Because if anything, Sui Mingshan is the keenest of them. Certainly the fastest, and the most likely to beat the Americans. The best prospect for the Olympics.
‘He probably got held up by the weather.’
They pass through the disinfectant foot bath and climb steps leading up to the pool, excited voices echoing between the rows of empty blue seats in the auditorium, wet feet slapping on dry tiles. The electronic clock above the north end of the pool shows ten to seven.
When they first see him, they are slow to understand. A moment of incomprehension, a silly joke, and then a silence not broken even by breathing as they realise, finally, what it is they are witnessing.
Sui Mingshan is naked, his long, finely sculpted body turning slowly in a movement forced by air conditioning. He has fine, broad shoulders tapering to a slim waist. He has no hips to speak of, but his thighs beneath them are curved and powerful, built to propel him through water faster than any other living human. Except that he is no longer living. His head is twisted at an unnatural angle where the rope around his neck has broken his fall and snapped his neck. He dangles almost midway between the highest of the diving platforms above and the still waters of the diving pool below. He is flanked on either side by tall strips of white fabric, red numbers counting off the metres up to ten, recording that he died at five.
It takes all of the swimmers, the team-mates who had known him best, several moments to realise who he is. For his head of thick, black hair has been shaved to the scalp, and in death he looks oddly unfamiliar.
The walls were a pale, pastel pink, pasted with posters illustrating exercises for posture and breathing. The grey linoleum was cool beneath her, the air warm and filled with the concentrated sounds of deep breathing. Almost hypnotic.
Margaret tried to ignore the ache in her lower back which had begun to trouble her over the last couple of weeks. She sat with her back straight and stretched her legs out in front of her. Then she slowly bent her knees, bringing the soles of her feet together and pulling them back towards her. She always found this exercise particularly difficult. Now in her mid-thirties, she was ten years older than most of the other women here, and joints and muscles would not twist and stretch with the same ease they had once done. She closed her eyes and concentrated on stretching her spine as she breathed in deeply, and then relaxing her shoulders and the back of her neck as she breathed out again.
She opened her eyes and looked at the women laid out on the floor around her. Most were lying on their sides with pillows beneath their heads. Upper arms and legs were bent upwards, a pillow supporting the knee. Lower legs were extended and straight. Expectant fathers squatted by their wives’ heads, eyes closed, breathing as one with the mothers of their unborn children. It was the new Friendly to Family Policy in practice. Where once men had been banned from the maternity wards of Chinese hospitals, their presence was now encouraged. Single rooms for mother and child, with a fold-down sofa for the father, were available on the second floor of the First Teaching Hospital of Beijing Medical University for Women and Children. For those who could afford them. The going rate of four hundred yuan per day was double the weekly income of the average worker.
Margaret felt a pang of jealousy. She knew that there would be a good reason for Li Yan’s failure to turn up. There always was. An armed robbery. A murder. A rape. A meeting he could not escape. And she could not blame him for it. But she felt deprived of him; frustrated that she was the only one amongst twenty whose partner regularly failed to attend; anxious that in her third trimester, she was the only one in her antenatal class who was not married. While attitudes in the West might have changed, single mothers in China were still frowned upon. She stood out from the crowd in every way, and not just because of her Celtic blue eyes and fair hair.
From across the room she caught Jon Macken looking at her. He grinned and winked. She forced a smile. The only thing they really had in common was their American citizenship. Since returning to Beijing with a view to making it her permanent home, Margaret had done her best to avoid the expat crowd. They liked to get together for gatherings in restaurants and at parties, cliquish and smug and superior. Although many had married Chinese, most made no attempt to integrate. And it was an open secret that these Westerners were often seen by their Chinese partners as one-way tickets to the First World.
To be fair to Macken, he did not fall into this category. A freelance photographer, he had come to China five years earlier on an assignment and fallen in love with his translator. He was somewhere in his middle sixties, and Yixuan was four years younger than Margaret. Neither of them wanted to leave China, and Macken had established himself in Beijing as the photographer of choice when it came to snapping visiting dignitaries, or shooting the glossies for the latest joint venture.
Yixuan had appointed herself unofficial translator for a bewildered Margaret when they attended their first antenatal class together. Margaret had been lost in a sea of unintelligible Chinese, for like almost every class since, Li had not been there. Margaret and Yixuan had become friends, occasionally meeting for afternoon tea in one of the city’s more fashionable teahouses. But, like Margaret, Yixuan was a loner, and so their friendship was conducted at a distance, unobtrusive, and therefore tolerable.
As the class broke up, Yixuan waddled across the room to Margaret. She smiled sympathetically. ‘Still the police widow?’ she said.
Margaret shrugged, struggling to her feet. ‘I knew it went with the territory. So I can’t complain.’ She placed the flats of her hands on the joints above her buttocks and arched her back. ‘God … ’ she sighed. ‘Will this ever pass?’
‘When the baby does,’ Yixuan said.
‘I don’t know if I can take it for another whole month.’
Yixuan found a slip of paper in her purse and began scribbling on it in spidery Chinese characters. She said, without looking up, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, Margaret. You have only a few more left to take.’
‘Yeh, but they’re the hardest,’ Margaret complained. ‘The first one was easy. It involved sex.’
‘Did I hear someone mention my favourite subject?’ Macken shuffled over to join them. He cut an oddly scrawny figure in his jeans and tee-shirt, with his cropped grey hair and patchy white beard.
Yixuan thrust her scribbled note into his hand. ‘If you take this down to the store on the corner,’ she said, ‘they’ll box the stuff for you. I’ll get a taxi and meet you there in about ten minutes.’
Macken glanced at the note and grinned. ‘You know, that’s what I love about China,’ he said to Margaret. ‘It makes me feel young again. I mean, who can remember the last time they were sent down to the grocery store with a note they couldn’t read?’ He turned his grin on Yixuan and pecked her affectionately on the cheek. ‘I’ll catch up with you later, hon.’ He patted her belly. ‘Both of you.’
Margaret and Yixuan made their way carefully downstairs together, holding the handrail like two old women, wrapped up warm to meet the blast of cold night air that would greet them as they stepped out into the car park. Yixuan waited while Margaret searched for her bike, identifying it from the dozens of others parked in the cycle racks by the scrap of pink ribbon tied to the basket on the handlebars. She walked, wheeling it, with Yixuan to the main gate.
‘You should not still be riding that thing,’ Yixuan said.
Margaret laughed. ‘You’re just jealous because Jon won’t let you ride yours.’ In America Margaret would have been discouraged at every stage of her pregnancy from riding a bicycle. And during the first trimester, when the risk of another miscarriage was at its highest, she had kept it locked away in the university compound. But when her doctors told her that the worst had passed, and that the baby was firmly rooted, she had dug it out again, fed up with crowded buses and overfull subway carriages. She had been at more danger, she figured, on public transport, than on her bike. And, anyway, women here cycled right up until their waters broke, and she saw no reason to be different in yet another way.
Yixuan squeezed her arm. ‘Take care,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you Wednesday.’ And she watched as Margaret slipped on to her saddle and pulled out into the stream of bicycles heading west in the cycle lane. Margaret’s scarf muffled her nose and mouth against the biting cold of the Beijing night. Her woollen hat, pulled down over her forehead, kept her head cosy and warm. But nothing could stop her eyes from watering. The forecasters had been predicting minus twenty centigrade, and it felt like they were right. She kept her head down, ignoring the roar of traffic on the main carriageway of Xianmen Dajie. On the other side of the road, beyond the high grey-painted walls of Zhongnanhai, the leadership of this vast land were safe and warm in the centrally heated villas that lined the frozen lakes of Zhonghai and Nanhai. In the real world outside, people swaddled themselves in layers of clothes and burned coal briquettes in tiny stoves.
The restaurants and snack stalls were doing brisk business beneath the stark winter trees that lined the sidewalk. The tinny tannoyed voice of a conductress berating passengers on her bus permeated the night air. There were always, it seemed, voices emitting from loudspeakers and megaphones, announcing this, selling that. Often harsh, nasal female tones, reflecting a society in which women dominated domestically, if not politically.
Not for the first time, Margaret found herself wondering what the hell she was doing here. An on-off relationship with a Beijing cop, a child conceived in error and then miscarried in tears. A decision that needed to be taken, a commitment that had to be made. Or not. And then a second conception. Although not entirely unplanned, it had made the decision for her. And so here she was. A highly paid Chief Medical Examiner’s job in Texas abandoned for a poorly remunerated lecturing post at the University of Public Security in Beijing, training future Chinese cops in the techniques of modern forensic pathology. Not that they would let her teach any more. Maternity leave was enforced. She felt as if everything she had worked to become had been stripped away, leaving her naked and exposed in her most basic state – as a woman and mother-to-be. And soon-to-be wife, with the wedding just a week away. They were not roles she had ever seen herself playing, and she was not sure they would ever come naturally.
She waved to the security guard at the gate of the university compound and saw his cigarette glow in the dark as he drew on it before calling a greeting and waving cheerily back. It was nearly an hour’s cycle from the hospital to the twenty-storey white tower block in Muxidi which housed the University of Public Security’s one thousand staff, and Margaret was exhausted. She would make something simple for herself to eat and have an early night. Her tiny two-roomed apartment on the eleventh floor felt like a prison cell. A lonely place that she was not allowed, officially, to share with Li. Even after the wedding, they would have to continue their separate lives until such time as the Ministry allocated Li a married officer’s apartment.
The elevator climbed slowly through eleven floors, the thickly padded female attendant studiously ignoring her, squatting on a low wooden stool and flipping idly through the pages of some lurid magazine. The air was dense with the smell of stale smoke and squashed cigarette ends, and piles of ash lay around her feet. Margaret hated the ride in the elevator, but could no longer manage the stairs. She tried to hold her breath until she could step out into the hallway and with some relief slip the key in the door of number 1123.
Inside, the communal heating made the chill of the uninsulated apartment almost bearable. The reflected lights of the city below crept in through her kitchen window, enough for her to see to put on a kettle without resorting to the harsh overhead bulb which was unshaded and cheerless. If she had thought this was anything other than a temporary address, she might have made an effort to nest. But she didn’t see the point.
Neither did she see the shadow that crossed the hall behind her. The darting silhouette of a tall figure that moved silently through the doorway. His hand, slipping from behind to cover her mouth, prevented the scream from reaching her lips, and then immediately she relaxed as she felt his other hand slide gently across the swell of her belly, his lips breathing softly as they nuzzled her ear.
‘You bastard,’ she whispered when he took his hand from her mouth and turned her to face him. ‘You’re not supposed to give me frights like that.’
He cocked an eyebrow. ‘Who else would be interested in molesting some ugly fat foreigner?’
‘Bastard!’ she hissed again, and then reached on tiptoe to take his lower lip between her front teeth and hold it there until he forced them apart with his tongue and she could feel him swelling against the tautness of her belly.
When they broke apart she looked up into his coal dark eyes and asked, ‘Where were you?’
‘Margaret … ’ He sounded weary.
‘I know,’ she said quickly. ‘Forget I asked.’ Then, ‘But I do miss you, Li Yan. I’m scared of going through this alone.’ He drew her to him, and pressed her head into his chest, his large hand cradling her skull. Li was a big man for a Chinese, powerfully built, more than six feet tall below his flat-top crew cut, and when he held her like this it made her feel small like a child. But she hated feeling dependent. ‘When will you hear about the apartment?’
She felt him tense. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, and he moved away from her as the kettle boiled. She stood for a moment, watching him in the dark. Lately she had sensed his reluctance to discuss the subject.
‘Well, have you asked?’
‘And what did they say?’
She sensed rather than saw him shrug. ‘They haven’t decided yet.’
‘Haven’t decided what? What apartment we’re going to get? Or whether they’re going to give us one at all?’
‘Margaret, you know that it is a problem. A senior police officer having a relationship with a foreign national … there is no precedent.’
Margaret glared at him, and although he could not see her eyes, he could feel them burning into him. ‘We’re not having a relationship, Li Yan. I’m having your baby. We’re getting married next week. And I’m sick and tired of spending lonely nights in this goddamn cold apartment.’ To her annoyance she felt tears welling in her eyes. It was only one of many unwanted ways in which pregnancy had affected her. An unaccountable propensity for sudden heights of emotion accompanied by embarrassing bouts of crying. She fought to control herself. Li, she knew, was as helpless in this situation as she was. The authorities frowned upon their relationship. Nights together in her apartment or his were stolen, furtive affairs, unsanctioned, and in the case of her staying over with him, illegal. She was obliged to report any change of address, even for one night, to her local Public Security Bureau. Although, in practice, no one much bothered about that these days, Li’s position as the head of Beijing’s serious crime squad made them very much subject to the rule from which nearly everyone else was excepted. It was hard to take, and they had both hoped that their decision to marry would change that. But as yet, they had not received the blessing from above.
He moved closer to take her in his arms again. ‘I can stay over tonight.’
‘You’d better,’ she said, and turned away from him to pour hot water over green tea leaves in two glass mugs. What she really wanted was a vodka tonic with ice and lemon, but she hadn’t touched alcohol since falling pregnant and missed the escape route it sometimes offered from those things in life she really didn’t want to face up to.
She felt the heat of his body as he pressed himself into her back and his hands slipped under her arms to gently cup her swollen breasts. She shivered as a sexual sensitivity forked through her. Sex had always been a wonderful experience with Li. Like with no other. So she had been surprised by the extraordinarily heightened sense of sexuality that had come with her approaching motherhood. It had hardly seemed possible. She had feared that pregnancy would spoil their relationship in bed; that she, or he, would lose interest. To the surprise of them both, the opposite had been true. At first, fear of a second miscarriage had made them wary, but after medical reassurance, Li had found ways of being gentle with her, exploiting her increased sensitivity, taking pleasure from driving her nearly to the edge of distraction. And he had found the swelling of her breasts and her belly intensely arousing. She felt that arousal now, pushing into the small of her back and she abandoned the green tea and turned to seek his mouth with hers, wanting to devour him, consume him whole.
The depressingly familiar ring tone of Li’s cellphone fibrillated in the dark. ‘Don’t answer,’ she whispered. And for a moment she actually thought he wouldn’t. He responded hungrily to her probing tongue, hands slipping over her buttocks and drawing her against him. But the shrill warble of the phone was relentless and finally he gave in, breaking away, flushed and breathless.
‘I’ve got to,’ he said, and he unclipped the phone from his belt, heavy with disappointment, and lifted it to his ear. ‘Wei?’
Margaret turned back to her green tea, still shaking and aroused, desperately wanting to have sex with him, but knowing that the moment had passed. Angry with him, but knowing that it was not his fault. His work intruded on their lives all the time. She had always known it would. And there was even a time when she could have shared in it. But it was months since she had last worked on a case, performed an autopsy. Li had forbidden it, fearing that there could be health risks for the baby, and she had not resisted. Just one more erosion, one more piece of herself falling back into the sea she had tried so hard to build defences against. It was easier now just to give in, and she was no longer interested in his cases.
He clipped his phone back on his belt. ‘I have to go,’ he said.
‘Of course you do,’ she said in a flat tone, and she reached over to switch on the overhead light and turned to blink at him in the sudden brightness. ‘What is it this time? Another murder?’ Beijing appeared to be in the throes of a crime wave. Crime figures were sky-rocketing. And there had been some particularly gruesome killings. Li’s team had just arrested an ethnic Korean for murdering a twenty-nine-year-old woman for her hair. Consumed by some bizarre desire to posses her long, black locks, he had stabbed her to death and then beheaded her with an axe. After taking the head home with him he had peeled off the scalp and hair. When detectives from Section One burst into his apartment, they had found him stir-frying her facial skin with the apparent intention of eating it.
‘No,’ Li said. ‘Not a murder. At least, it doesn’t appear that way.’ Although he smiled, he was perplexed. ‘Death by sex, apparently.’ He stooped to kiss her softly on the lips. ‘Perhaps we had a narrow escape.’
Li’s bike rattled in the back of his Jeep. The Chrysler four-wheel drive, built in the city by a Chinese–American joint venture, was affectionately known as the Beijing Jeep, much beloved by the municipal police who had adopted it almost as their own. The vehicle allocated to Li as Section Chief was an unmarked dark green with smoked glass windows. The only indication that this was a police vehicle, to those who knew, was the jing character and the zero which followed it on the registration plate. Normally he left it at Section One and cycled home, which was often faster than trying to negotiate the capital’s increasingly frequent gridlocks, but it was a long way across the city in the bitter cold to Margaret’s apartment, so tonight he had bundled his bike in the back.
Many of the side streets, which had not been cleared of snow, were still treacherous with ice. But as he turned on to West Chang’an Avenue, this brightly lit arterial route which dissected the city east to west, was free of ice, and traffic was light. Hotels and ministry buildings, China Telecom, were all floodlit, and Li could see the lights of Christmas trees twinkling incongruously in hotel forecourts. Just two weeks away, Christmas in Beijing was primarily for the tourists. But the Chinese welcomed any excuse for a banquet.
He drove past the impressive front gates of Zhongnanhai on his left, and on his right the big black hole behind the Great Hall of the People where work had already begun on building China’s controversial new National Grand Theatre, at a cost of three hundred and twenty-five million dollars. Ahead was the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the portrait of Mao smiling benignly over Tiananmen Square where the blood of the democracy protesters of eighty-nine seemed to have been washed away by the sea of radical economic change that had since swept the country. Li wondered fleetingly what Mao would have made of the nation he had wrested from the Nationalist Kuomintang all those decades ago. He would not have recognised his country in this twenty-first century.
Li took a left, through the arch, into Nanchang Jie and saw the long, narrow, tree-lined street stretch ahead of him into the darkness. Beyond the Xihuamen intersection it became Beichang Jie – North Chang Street – and on his right, a high grey wall hid from sight the restored homes of mandarins and Party cadres that lined this ancient thoroughfare along the banks of the moat which surrounded the Forbidden City. Up ahead there were two patrol cars pulled up on to the ramp leading to tall electronic gates in the wall. Li saw a Section One Jeep drawn in at the kerb, and Doctor Wang’s Volkswagen pulled in behind it. There were a couple of unmarked vans from the forensics section in Pao Jü Hutong. A uniformed officer stood by the gate, huddled in his shiny black fur-collared coat, smoking a cigarette and stamping his feet. His black and silver peaked cap was pulled down low over his eyes trying to provide his face with some protection from the icy wind. Although it had been introduced shortly before his spell at the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC, Li still found it hard to get used to the new black uniform with its white and silver trim. The red-trimmed green army colours of the police in the first fifty years of the People’s Republic had been virtually indistinguishable from those of the PLA. Only the Armed Police still retained them now.
Detective Wu’s call to Li’s cellphone had been cryptic. He had no reason to believe this was a crime scene. It was a delicate matter, perhaps political, and he had no idea how to deal with it. Li was curious. Wu was a brash, self-confident detective of some fifteen years’ experience. Delicacy was not something one normally associated with him. Nor tact. All that he had felt able to tell Li on the phone was that there was a fatality, and that it was of a sexual nature. But as soon as he had given Li the address, the Section Chief had known this was no normal call-out. This was a street inhabited by the powerful and the privileged, people of influence. One would need to tread carefully.
The officer on the gate recognised Li immediately, hastily throwing away his cigarette in a shower of sparks and saluting as Li got out of the Jeep. The gate was lying open, and a couple of saloon cars, a BMW and a Mercedes, sat in the courtyard beyond, beneath a jumble of grey slate roofs.
‘Who lives here?’ Li asked the officer.
‘No idea, Section Chief.’
‘Where’s Detective Wu?’
‘Inside.’ He jerked a thumb towards the courtyard.
Li crossed the cobbled yard and entered the sprawling, single-storey house through double glass doors leading into a sun lounge. Three uniformed officers stood among expensive cane furnishings engaged in hushed conversation with Wu and several forensics officers. Wu’s butt-freezer leather jacket hung open, the collar still up, his cream silk scarf dangling from his neck. He wore jeans and sneakers, and was pulling nervously at his feeble attempt at a moustache with nicotine-stained fingers. His face lit up when he saw Li.
‘Hey, Chief. Glad you’re here. This one’s a real bummer.’ He steered Li quickly out into a narrow hallway with a polished parquet floor, walls lined with antique cabinets and ancient hangings. From somewhere in the house came the sound of a woman sobbing. From the sun lounge behind them Li could hear stifled laughter.
‘What the hell’s going on here, Wu?’
Wu’s voice was low and tense. ‘Local Public Security boys got a call an hour ago from the maid. She was hysterical. They couldn’t get much sense out of her, except that somebody was dead. So they sent out a car. The uniforms get here and think, “Shit, this is over our heads,” and the call goes out to us. I get here and I think pretty much the same damned thing. So I called in the Doc an
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