Has Gabriel finally taken on too big an enemy? A debt of honour owed to a triad boss. A desperate search for his missing sibling, kidnapped as an infant. Both urgent. Both dangerous. Both drawing on all his resources as an ex-SAS member. Gabriel Wolfe feels his loyalty pulled in opposite directions. “The colonel has lost his mind” . Fang Jian runs the White Koi triad. And he does business with a senior Communist Party of China official. Now the official has a problem. A renegade Colonel ‘out west’ has set up a private kingdom centred on his missile base, He’s slaughtering the few remaining locals. Comrade Liu wants his problem dealt with through back-channels. And Fang knows just the man for the job. A grisly discovery. Parachuting in to the heartland of China’s remote Xinjiang province, Wolfe is on his own. No partner. No backup. No Plan B. His mission goal: kill the Colonel. What he discovers in the Colonel’s private hut shakes his battle-hardened former special forces soldier to his core. Death seems too light a punishment. Narrowly escaping death, Wolfe realises an ally like Fang is barely worth the title. He’s enmeshed in a web of corrupt police, concealed evidence and family secrets. If you like your action intense. Just as one enemy is routed, another springs up to take their place. Wolfe must travel back to the UK to gather vital clues before returning to Hong Kong. There he must face Fang, then Liu, before a final confrontation that will change his life forever. BUY YOUR COPY OF THREE KINGDOMS NOW.
Release date: September 20, 2019
Publisher: Tyton Press
Print pages: 402
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HONG KONG | PRESENT DAY
Gabriel Wolfe grasped the heavy cleaver. He adjusted his grip on the wooden handle, worn smooth from many hands before his. Looking down at the body stretched out beneath him, he picked his spot, ignoring the dark eye staring up at him.
One clean blow just behind the head. That was what the triad boss standing beside him had advised.
“And aim for the block beneath, not the surface of the skin. That way your cut is clean and you remove the head without needing more than one blow.”
He twisted the blade so that it caught the blue-white light from the overhead neon tubes, which flickered constantly, plinking in the silence. Then he raised the cleaver high overhead and brought it down, fast and hard. He felt the crunch as the razor-sharp edge met skin, muscle, bone, and the scarred wood of the chopping block. The sound, a trebly chack, slapped back off the white tiles. Blood sprayed upwards, hitting him in the face. He held on tight until the shuddering spasms beneath his fingers ceased.
Smiling, he turned to the gangster and to the man standing a respectful half-pace behind him.
“How did I do?”
Fang Jian, the boss of the White Koi triad, nodded, then turned to the second man.
“Well, Master Lo, would you take him on as your apprentice?”
The man, short, thin, with wrinkled brown skin like a weathered apple, grinned.
“He removed fifty dollars’ worth of meat along with the head. The cat-food factory will get it now. He needs more practice.”
Fang laughed, throwing his large, blocky head back and showing a mouthful of gold-filled teeth.
“You hear that, Gabriel? You wasted good tuna, clumsy boy.”
Gabriel smiled back, laying the bloody cleaver alongside the four-foot-long fish, its silver scales streaked scarlet, a pool of translucent blood forming around the sliced-off head.
“Maybe I’ll stick to human targets, Master Lo. But thank you for allowing me to learn from a true master.”
Lo bowed slightly and Gabriel returned the bow, much deeper as befitted his age relative to the older man. Fang laid a beefy arm around Gabriel’s shoulder, forcing him to adjust his stance if he was to avoid buckling under the pressure. This close, he could smell the gangster’s aftershave and beneath that his garlicky sweat.
“Come, my friend. Let’s leave the man to his work. We’ll enjoy the fruits of your labour out front.”
Fang led Gabriel out of the kitchen, with its spotless stainless-steel surfaces and hanging racks of ladles, fish slices, tongs and long-bladed knives, to their booth in the corner of the restaurant. As they made their way through the other tables Gabriel glanced around the room. He found what he was looking for a couple of tables from the front door.
Two young women, dressed in white leather outfits, were eating from plates of rice, fish and bright-green pak choi. Both wore their hair up in sleek, glossy buns. Both were attractive, with scarlet lips and large brown eyes with cat-flicks of eyeliner at their outer corners. Both were capable of relieving a man of his life at a snap of their boss’s stubby fingers, with or without a weapon. Jian never travelled anywhere without a pair of bodyguards. And although Gabriel had once heard, if not seen, an English freelance assassin named Sasha Beck kill an earlier pair, he knew Jian placed great faith in the women he called his “lotus blossoms”.
One of the women looked up and caught his glance. Stared back. Inclined her head fractionally. Gabriel nodded a greeting in return. This was Wei Mei. Beautiful Plum, in Cantonese. Their last encounter had been eventful, to say the least. Between them, they had killed three Colombian cartel members in the Moscow dacha of a Russian crime boss. Then Mei, after aiming her Uzi submachine gun at Gabriel, had fired into the ceiling and sent him diving for cover before disappearing.
Other diners looked up as Fang led Gabriel to the coveted corner booth. A few smiled greetings to the thickset man, a couple scowled, others looked hurriedly away. Friend, foe or cautious bystanders, all seemed to know the identity of this sharply-dressed man with a boxer’s build and tattoos of koi carp peeking from the golden cuffs of his dinner jacket.
Once they were seated, and a bottle of champagne ordered, Gabriel spoke.
“You said you wanted something from me, Mister Fang. Please, tell me. I am in your debt.”
“I told you once before. Call me Jian. You are not my employee. Nor one of those corrupt Party officials we all have to deal with nowadays.”
Gabriel nodded as he spread the gleaming white napkin over his lap.
“Jian, then. Though it feels disrespectful to me. How can I help you?”
“By doing what you do best.”
“Well, not cutting up tuna, that’s for sure, eh!” Another roar of laughter that drew a few more curious glances. “Ah, here is our champagne. Thank you, my dear.”
The waitress, dressed in a red sheath dress with a high collar, removed the bottle’s yellow cellophane wrapping with a crackle. She ripped the gold foil away then deftly untwisted the wire cage before squashing it and secreting all the debris in a hidden pocket in her dress. She twisted the bottle in her right hand while holding the cork steady in her left. The cork came free with a hiss and Gabriel watched as a wisp of vapour escaped. Heavier than air, it curled over the lip of the neck and flowed downwards, a spectral version of the sparkling wine that issued forth a second later.
She filled Fang’s coupe glass, then Gabriel’s, before scrunching the bottle into a floor-mounted ice bucket and laying a red cloth across its exposed upper surface. With a slight bow and an even slighter smile on her red lips, she withdrew.
Fang picked up his glass, waited for Gabriel to clink rims, then drained it. Belching loudly, he refilled his glass. Gabriel took a mouthful of the champagne. Fang had ordered the most expensive bottle on the menu, a Louis Roederer Cristal. It tasted of apricots, hazelnuts and, oddly, Danish pastries, though Gabriel preferred his own, and Winston Churchill’s, favourite, Pol Roger.
Fang set his glass down carefully on the starched white tablecloth.
“Now, Gabriel. We have, what do you English say, wetted our whistles? Here is my problem. I have a new contact from the mainland, though he is based here now. A very important man. As in, extremely important. You can guess his occupation?”
Gabriel took another sip of the Cristal while he thought. Fang rarely asked a question unless it tested the person answering in some way. Fang had mentioned corrupt officials only a few moments earlier. Party officials.
Fang’s deep-set eyes widened for a fraction of a second, giving Gabriel a glimpse of their dark-brown, almost black irises.
“Exactly. The Communist Party of China. Although, quite honestly, what that lot have to do with Communism is beyond me. Poor old Mao must be spinning in his grave.”
Reflecting that “poor old” wasn’t quite the phrase he would use for a dead dictator with the blood of tens of millions on his hands, Gabriel confined himself to another sip of the champagne.
“More billionaires than any other country except the US,” he said.
“And half of them with copies of the Little Red Book on their nightstands. Anyway, it’s all good business for us.”
“And your contact has a business problem?”
Gabriel was envisaging some other heavy mob putting the hard word on this Party high-up, threatening blackmail or worse.
“No! His business interests are perfectly all right. No,” Fang repeated, shaking his head and knocking back the rest of his champagne before refilling for the second time, “he has a public relations problem.”
Gabriel frowned. Fang surely knew it was a long time since Gabriel had been engaged in anything existing even vaguely under the umbrella term “public relations”. These days, the idea that the public might catch even a whiff of what he and his fellow assassins at The Department got up to would be the occasion for a UK-wide media blackout rather than the crafting of a press release. It reminded him of one of his boss’s catchphrases. “If we let the hyenas smell blood, we’ll have to pack up our toys and vanish, old sport.”
“What kind of public relations problem?”
“I will let him explain. He is coming out here tomorrow to meet you. Now, drink up!”
Gabriel drank some more champagne, wondering what sort of PR challenge a Communist Party official would have that he could possibly help with.
A MISSILE BATTERY, NORTHEASTERN CHINA
Colonel Na kneels at his altar to perform his devotions. For the ceremony, as always, he has changed out of his People’s Liberation Army uniform, which now lies, in a neatly-folded olive-green pile, on the chest of drawers in his bedroom. In its place, a priest’s robe, sewn by a village woman to a design of his own devising. Purple for immortality and divinity. Black for death and destruction.
Around his considerable waist is tied a gold sash, from which a gold silk purse dangles. The purse bulges, and it rattles when he moves. It’s the knuckle bones inside that make the noise. No longer than the nail of his little finger, the tiny cylinders are bleached to a whiteness that makes him think of winter snows.
The village woman is dead long since. She was his first. A sweet old lady. And even though he resisted initially, the experience taught him a valuable lesson. The ancestors would not mind if he took baby steps at first, just so long as he complied with their wishes.
They are gathered around him now. Shuffling, whispering, urging him on to ever greater acts of devotion. They made their wishes clear to him a long time ago. He must unite the three kingdoms. Of Heaven, of Earth and of the Underworld, where the demons reside. With sufficient sacrifice, he may achieve their goals, and, at that point, ascend into Paradise. They have warned him what will happen if his efforts are insufficient. He tries to avoid thinking of that.
His altar has grown more complex over the years. Once, a simple lacquered bowl holding a few white blossoms sufficed. Then the ancestors let it be known that he should begin the process of unification by including materials from living creatures. He had started with dead beetles and snail shells, bird skulls and feathers, little tokens gleaned from his walks into the countryside around the village. But although these pacified the ancestors for a few weeks – or was it months? – they hungered for more. Always more.
Mice and voles, then rabbits and foxes, ducks and wild geese: all fed the flames. Growing tired of his pathetic attempts to please them, the ancestors, in the person of his Great-great- grandmother, made themselves perfectly clear.
“It is people you must bring us, little Keng. You must spill their blood on the ground and then you must unify yourself with them. Only then will you become pure enough to bring together the three kingdoms.”
Na rocks back on his heels then forwards again until his broad forehead touches the gold cloth in front of the altar. A fan of rib bones extends outwards from the base like the rays of the setting sun. They draw in energy towards the centrepiece, a female pelvis in which nestles a screw-topped jar containing a child’s heart suspended in rice spirit.
The eyes are there to help him see clearly. Eight pairs, floating in more rice spirit, arranged according to the principles of feng shui – facing north, east, south and west – for good luck and spiritual balance. A skull, perfect in every way except for the starred bullet hole between the eyes, sits atop the altar, gazing out and, from time to time, issuing instructions to Keng.
And behind the altar, forming a watchful backdrop to his morning and evening prayers, more skulls, set with lime mortar into a six-foot-high wall, each empty socket housing a shell, or a second, tiny skull, or a ring, a tooth, a dried ear, or a gold coin, or a fragment of a Party card or a lock of a child’s hair.
He intends to add to the altar. The ancestors must be placated. He must pay another visit to the village. He stands, turns and leaves the temple. Outside, the temperature has plummeted to an unseasonal five degrees Celsius – some freak of nature, or else they have commanded the weather to change. Na shivers as biting specks of cold rain sting his cheeks. The latest captive, a monk on pilgrimage, slumps in his bindings, his bald head hanging down on his saffron-robed chest. His plait descends like a greasy black rope from a point at the base of his skull.
Na looks around but all the doors are barred and the windows curtained. If his subjects are peeking, they are being extremely careful not to let him notice. But he sees them, nonetheless. He sees their hungry faces, their red-rimmed eyes glowing with that crimson inner fire that Great-great-grandmother possesses.
He marches over to the unconscious monk and hauls his head up by his plait. Slaps him. Hard. Across the cheeks, left, right, left again.
“Hey, monk!” he shouts into the man’s face. “Wake up!”
The monk’s eyes flutter open, revealing whites spotted with red where the tiny blood vessels have burst.
“Please, don’t kill me, my son. Whatever evil you have done here, I promise I won’t say anything. Just let me go.”
Na grins into the monk’s face, wondering whether the chattering teeth please the ancestors or if they merely find them irritating, as he himself does.
“I have to kill you. They want me to. There is no other way.”
Na draws a ceremonial knife from a scabbard concealed in a fold of his robe. The monk’s eyes open wider until Na can see white all the way round the irises.
“Please,” the monk begs.
Na grabs the plait and winds it around his left fist. He presses the knife against the monk’s throat. Pauses for a moment. Then, as the monk screams from a stretched mouth, draws the long curving blade steadily from left to right in a backhand motion, severing the thick, ropy muscles, tendons, veins and arteries, and the gristle protecting the windpipe and oesophagus.
The monk dies with a gurgle and a hiss of outrushing breath. Blood spurts out in thick scarlet jets, splashing Na and soaking into his robe. The contrast in temperature between the scalding liquid and the icy-cold air makes him laugh. He saws at the dead monk’s neck until he reaches the spine. Finding the cartilaginous disc between two vertebrae, he slices hard through the tough, fibrous tissue until it parts around his blade. A few more sawing cuts are all that he needs to separate the head from the shoulders. The body falls back. Na throws the knife to the ground, where it sticks, point-first, in the earth.
He turns to the ancestors, all of whom have gathered in a semicircle around him and are now smiling and nodding their approval. He holds the head aloft by the plait, so that it swings left, right, forwards, backwards, like a divining rod. They applaud politely, tapping their left palms with three fingers of their right hands.
A lid bound with iron bands covers the wooden vat he uses to clean the bones. He pulls it towards him and lets the heavy disk fall to the ground where it spirals slowly like a clumsily spun coin before coming to rest. Na peers into the acid, which suspended particles have turned cloudy. He intones a prayer.
“O ancestors! Grandmothers and grandfathers, great-grandmothers and great- grandfathers, all you who have honoured me with your trust, hear my plea. Tell me when I have done enough to unite the three kingdoms that I may join you.”
Then, suppressing a giggle, which he feels is inappropriate to the sacred task with which they have entrusted him, he lowers the head by the topknot into the acid, which fizzes on contact with the exposed raw flesh of the neck. Just before it disappears below the foamy surface, the head rolls upwards and the monk’s sightless, filmy eyes point directly at his own. Na stares back, wondering if the monk will blink first. He does not, but sinks, instead, into the blackness.
Na returns to the wooden post and yanks the knife from the cold embrace of the kingdom of the earth. He sets to work.
* * *
Later that evening, after he has eaten, he opens his Party-supplied laptop, protected, as all PLA units are, by a specially developed rubber case, and types out an email.
Esteemed Comrade Tan,
Morale on the base remains at above-optimal levels, as mandated by the Rules for Party Military Commissars, Section Seven, Sub-section Nineteen. I inspected the missiles this morning myself and found them to be in 100% operational order, ready to repel any attack by our enemies.
No disciplinary matters to report. Missile Battery Command #371 functions at peak readiness, and ideological purity is unsullied by Imperialist Western infiltration.
Colonel Na Keng
Commander and Party Commissar
People’s Liberation Army Missile Battery Command #371
HONG KONG | 1983
The two kidnappers observed the diplomat’s house. They were dressed from head to foot in slate-grey: hoods, face masks, cotton outfits and plimsolls. Only gweilo – westerners – thought black gave the best concealment in dim light.
Both men were low-level members of the Four-Point Star triad. One was thirty, the other still in his teens. One was happy to spend his days beating people up or sitting around drinking and smoking dope. The other, ambitious for more, envisioned himself running the group one day. And if not the Four-Point Star, then another triad. The Coral Snakes, perhaps.
Despite the difference in their ages, the younger man was in charge of the operation. The seventeen-year-old had graduated from running fifty-dollar bags of weed all over the city to more serious crimes. In the process, he’d dropped his old nickname, which he now considered silly. He much preferred his new handle: “Snake”. It fitted his ability to slither and slide his way through impossibly narrow or improbable entrance-points. And, he liked to think, his cunning and his ruthlessness.
His partner in this piece of wickedness, a man he’d picked for his brawn and not his brains, went by “Donkey”. He’d earned the soubriquet for his braying laugh, though he told anyone who asked that it was for his devastating win chung kicks. Kick or laugh, neither man would be making a sound until the operation was concluded. Each was armed, not heavily, but with deadly intent, should force become necessary. They carried Chinese-made 9mm pistols, Norinco Type 54s, and daggers on their belts.
Inside the house, unaware it would be the last time she’d ever touch her daughter, Lin Wolfe finished nursing the five-month-old baby. She sat her upright and gently patted her back, just the width of Lin’s hand, until she emitted a comical little belch that smelled of the milk she’d just swallowed. She settled her down in her pink-blanketed cot to sleep.
“Night-night, Tara. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Not that we have bed bugs. Daddy would never allow it.”
Lin crossed to the window and raised the sash by a few inches to let in some air. Her own mother had told her she’d never closed Lin’s window all the way, even on the rare occasions when snow lay on the ground.
With the nursery bathed in a soft orange glow from a nightlight plugged into the wall, Lin tiptoed from the room, smiling at the sound of her daughter’s snuffling breaths. At least Tara was a good sleeper. Sometimes Lin had to prod her to make sure she was still alive. She walked along the landing to her bathroom, where she took off her fluffy towelling bathrobe and stepped into the shower.
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