A Chinese Spy Story

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  1. t_co

    t_co Senior Member Senior Member

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    A piece of fiction I've been working on for a while. Read, comment, and subscribe!

    [hr][/hr]
    Sometime in 2008

    Zhang Shenghan first found me at the wedding between Patricia Kwok and her second fiance. I remember it like a movie, and--were it one--I would have been a bit player to advance the plot. There were plenty of cameras on hand, mainly because a flock of migratory hacks had landed a week ahead of the Olympic Torch, and Patricia had eloped from her first fiance in favor of a tall, lanky English diplomat. If it bleeds, it leads--and nothing bleeds like a broken heart.

    Even though it was nearing May in Hong Kong, the weather felt cool, a Venetian breeze lapping at my freshly shaven face. We stood under these white outdoor tents laden with champagne and chocolate-covered fruit, waiting for the music to start. Some Apple Daily reporter did his best impersonation of a whirling dervish, his camera trying to capture three hundred and sixty degrees of excess. I hoped I didn't stand out. My tuxedo was a rental, and there was the small issue of a briefcase handcuffed to my left wrist. "Not your right," Anson, the bespectacled secretary to Patricia's widowed mother, had told me. "You want to be able to shake hands with guys twice your age as naturally as any other young man. You want to be forgettable."

    Utterly forgettable, because being remembered was not my job that day. "Your job is to deliver the contents of the briefcase--several contracts--to Patricia, and have her sign them so our special Board meeting can begin." My phone buzzed. Anson, ever helpful, had sent me a photo of Patty Kwok. The picture included the blue contact lenses she got the prior month.

    Elton and James, her two brothers, were entertaining the other directors on the nominal 58th floor, empty because none of the other numerology-obsessed directors wanted their offices there. (If you didn't skip over the 4th, 13th, 14th, 24th, and 40th to 49th floors, that would be the 44th floor of the building.) Elton and James didn't care about those numbers. They were the new generation--one Kellogg, one Fuqua--and the only numbers they cared about were either locked in a safe thirty meters underneath the Bank of China building, or chained to my wrist. 00000001 to 99000000, around a hundred million Class B shares in one of the largest and most lucrative conglomerates south of Victoria Harbor.

    What are Class B shares, you might ask?

    Let's say that you've devoted your life to setting up an enterprise for the big time, like elder Kwok did. Somewhere over the horizon, massed like the Persians at the Dardanelles, are the waves of hot money, just itching to find a way into every single vaguely profitable, quarter-baked idea being pitched by someone who isn't White and Protestant. They call this "seeking hidden returns in emerging markets". The investment bankers across the table from you know this, and that's why, under their Hermes and fitted Armani, they're grinning like John Kerry's wife on Botox.

    1997 hasn't happened yet, the mainland and the WTO haven't finished their little dance yet, so you're the only ----ing game in town. Of course, the Nikkei's still hurting, but really, all that did was keep those poor Nipponese banks benched on the sidelines. And just in case the trust fund kiddies ever wised up and wondered where all their money was going, they even came up with a nice, sanitized name for you--"Asia ex-Japan". "Opportunity, ex-the-one-time-we-got-it-wrong," land of hopes and dreams, the Wild Wild East.

    But back to you. You're seasoned, you're a pro. You know dumb money when you see it, no matter what language it speaks. You'll take their checks, easy, no problem.

    But there's one catch. With normal equity, they can buy control. Take over enough of your public shares, and you might end up having to kiss asses every single month in board meetings. That's intolerable. Not only would that be annoying, but they'll have their hands on your company. Your baby. Your raison d'etre, your magnum ----ing opus. No way.

    You're just about to tell off the investment bankers at the other end of the table when one of them, a little cleverer than the rest, says the magic words. Class B. Create Class B shares with ten times the voting power of Class A shares, restrict the buying list to yourself, and voila, you can get the best of both worlds. All that gwailo captial, going straight into your pocket, but you'll retain 85% of the voting power in your firm.

    So you smile. They smile back. You go ahead and sign on the dotted line. It's the first time you've signed your name in English. You phone your loyal secretary Anson, ask him if he can come up for a moment, and when he comes out, he becomes the owner of a cool million Class B shares. You finish giving yourself the other ninety-nine million, and then you die.

    For most people, death is a round, firm, period, but if you're rich, death becomes a squirrely semicolon, followed by the endless terms that make up a professionally drafted will. If you're rich, and your relatives are also selfish assholes, death becomes a comma, running on and on until one side can no longer pay its legal bills.

    Old Man Kwok left behind a question mark. Seven businesses--two hotels; a real estate developer; a bankrupt brokerage house; a shipping line; a chemicals distributor; a media conglomerate. Three descendants--two legitimate, ungrateful, sons who split the yacht and the apartment--and one illegitimate, beloved, daughter to whom he bequath his actual legacy. Cue a collective 'hak diu' through the Hong Kong grapevine, and panicked phone calls over the hotline from Governor's House to Zhongnanhai.

    It was the media chunk we were after. Party Central had worked out deals with Elton and James; they could keep the other pieces. If you wrote in Chinese, you could write whatever you wanted, but at the end of the day, your editors had to belong to the Party.

    The first attempt was a fiasco. Intrusions into a Skadden Arps database failed to locate all the electronic copies of the will. On top of that, our 'window washer' slipped off the fog-slicked glass walls of the Cheung Kong building while trying to pull a Watergate and bisected himself on a streetlight seventeen floors below. In spite of our efforts, Patricia got her Class B shares.

    Then we played nice, and scored another goal into our own net. Six weeks before the wedding, the Bank of China, through a Cayman Islands intermediary, approached Patty Kwok with close to two billion dollars. She gave them the finger, then proudly announced she would give the media assets to her English diplomat fiance. Zhongnanhai was not amused.

    Upper management then stepped in, decided upon the Luca Brasi approach. First, the Bank of China lowered its offer by eighty percent, to just over four hundred million. The middlemen were replaced with Patty's own two brothers. They would take the four hundred million, buy the company at the ridiculously low price from their sister, and then slice the Kwok empire into pieces for public consumption at fair market value. Then, the Bank of China would offer close to a billion for just the media conglomerate--which Elton and James would bundle with the bankrupt investment brokerage to further discourage competing bids.

    Finally, yours truly would kindly inform Patty that either her signature--or her brains--would be layered on the dotted-line contracts in my briefcase. I was going to do it before her husband could have a say in the decision. The gun to her head was a fourteen-year-old Filipino boy the triad girls affectionately dubbed Ma Gor, or "Horse Brother". Patricia was a known nympho; we got it all on tape. The age of consent in Hong Kong was sixteen, and our asset was willing to testify.

    I ducked past a throng of cheongsam-clad office ladies, glanced at the photos on my phone. In the first, Patty and her boy toy were still clothed. By the fifth, she was riding cowgirl. I grinned. Then a warm hand on my shoulder turned me around.

    "Your racehorse won't make it." A smiling gentleman, weight resting casually on one foot. Cologne and vermouth and whiskey on his breath, an old-fashioned gold pen in his left hand. His right one let go of my shoulder and extended into a handshake.

    "Zhang Shenghan. You must be the gambler with the lucky streak."

    I nodded, mumbling something. Cold sweat slicked my palm. Shenghan felt it, grinned, then let go. "But your luck's run out. Listen, kid, they're fishing him out of Victoria Harbor right now. Unfortunately for you, that means he can't run at the races next month."

    Another sip of the Manhattan. I stood, numb.

    "The house won't be happy with the bets you've made. But I can fix that for you, if you put me on the line with the brothers and your man inside."

    I put him on the line to Anson. Shenghan kept one hand on my shoulder while he spoke. "Bad luck, An-xian. The horse drowned, but my boys made a tape of the jockey having an accident with him at the docks... How much? I want the chemicals firm at the four hundred million valuation... deal." Then he hung up and pressed the pen into the USB port. "The movie should be on your phone. You've got thirty minutes until they exchange vows. Now go give Patricia Kwok her Oscar for Best Actress."

    Patricia Kwok wound up signing over the shares for only two hundred million dollars.
     
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  3. t_co

    t_co Senior Member Senior Member

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    Sometime in 2011

    For a thousand years, Beijing pretended to be older than it actually was.

    You'd be forgiven if you thought, driving down Chang'an Jie (or the Avenue of Eternal Peace) that the imposing, Imperial, maroon-brick palace facing the grand emptiness of Tiananmen Square implied that China, had, forever, been centered on its Northern Capital.

    That's intentional. It took the Ming emperors a million workers to put up that lie.

    For most of Beijing's history, it was a peripheral city. While the bureaucrats and eunuchs plotted their intrigues from Luoyang and Xi'an, and the poets composed their lyrical works in the cool streams and mountains of Sichuan, Beijing sat on the northern border, forlorn, an outpost against the barbarian tribes. The only time it got into the news was when those tribes were causing trouble on the wrong side of the Great Wall.

    First the Khitan--then the Jurchens--each time, some boy would saddle up on a messenger steed, switching horses every two hundred miles, until he arrived, breathless and dehydrated, collapsing in front of the Emperor for dramatic emphasis, and then the dynasty would convene its war council and a grand Imperial army would march out from the Central Plains to crush the invaders with sheer numbers.

    The Mongols put the kibosh on that strategy, though, by blitzkrieging all the way through Southern China too. When they were done, they made Beijing, their point of entry, the capital of their new Yuan Dynasty.

    Understandably, when Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty, finally kicked the Mongols out in 1368, he moved the capital out of the city. But his kids moved it right back, so that they could find out if someone was invading them just by looking out their bedroom window. They built a giant palace to go with it.

    It worked. In 1644, the last of Zhu's descendants saw the Manchus coming, suited up, and used a tree in the middle of the palace gardens to hang himself.

    After that, the Manchus, now called the Qing, set up their dynastic capital on the banks of the Yongding River as well. They expanded the palace some more, added a port called Tianjin, went on being the cool kids of China until the Westerners took that role. In the long night that followed, Beijing was sacked twice--first by a Coalition of the Willing, then by Japan. Then Mao came along--a Chinese peasant claimant to the throne, but one fuelled by foreign ideas and found Beijing the perfect place to start his grand experiment of the New China. By the late 70s and early 80s, Beijing was showing its age. Stalinist apartment blocks dominated between subdivided siheyuan--tile-roofed garden houses--that looked like women aged beyond any possible dignity.

    And so for the past forty years, Beijing has pretended to be younger than it actually is.

    The result? An orchestra of construction cranes and jackhammering that lasts through the dead of winter and the sandstorms of spring, pausing only for a few weeks in the summer as millions of Chinese students get ready for the college entrance exams from Hell. Mushrooming on the horizon, your usual assortment of monuments to easy credit, culminating in a seven-hundred foot headquarters for China Central Television that looks like a giant subjected to the ancient Chinese execution of yaozhan, or chopping at the waist.

    It was in one of those unfinished symphonies that my patron and benefactor, now a rising star of the New, New, China, told me his history of Beijing. Mr. Zhang Shenghan was now a vice-minister. And heading back to Financial Street in his chauffeured black Audi, underneath the smiling photos of Chairman Mao, Zhang Shenghan told me another nugget of wisdom:

    Daughters are always a bad idea.
     
  4. t_co

    t_co Senior Member Senior Member

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    Sometime in 2010

    I first met Fang Fei-Na at one of those conferences, the kind with awkward PhDs milling around the open bar trying to look cute.

    That night, I was a grad student from Fudan University. Non-official cover, the way real men do it. The lean, tanned, sly-looking guy in the corner of the Class of 2010 pic? That's me, photoshopped in. Me, with my rectangular designer glasses and designer stubble over the Tom Cruise grin.

    Fang was one of those PhDs that had beauty and brains. Usually, Lady Doctors have neither. Just trust me. When she walked through those opened convention hall doors, I swear, you could hear the conversation volume drop and the collective sound of dozens of horny grad students adjusting their pants. What do I remember from her presentation?

    DNA this, recombination that, magic happens--then boom, 100% yield increase, drastically shortened growing times, drought tolerance, disease tolerance, long permed ringlets of jet-black hair, high cheekbones flaring scarlet, thin waist, c-cup breasts, and a heavenly ass encased in a red, tailored, silk qipao. Okay, okay, I made that last part up. She was wearing a black business suit.

    Fang researched rice. You know, the beige-colored cereal crop that brown people cook to a golden yellow, yellow people polish to a gleaming white, and that white people prefer to eat au naturel. Her project was paid for by one of those giant biotech companies--no need for government funding, not with an idea that hot. Fang's English name was Persephone, daughter of the Goddess of Grain.

    My job was to ---- her.

    I'm one of three male honey traps in the Tenth Bureau. The only spear-chucker on the team though, because there are so few female scientists around. The other two guys took it up the ass for the motherland. My case officer, an owlish fifty-year old who wrote his dissertation on British-American Tobacco and deadpanned censored jokes, assigned me the callsign 'Lucky Strike'.

    Anyhow, so we were at the open bar. Long faux-wood strip packed off to one side of the convention hall, tuxedoed undergrads serving alcohol they couldn't legally drink themselves. A few clumps and pairs of people, then this huge crowd of guys wrapped around Persephone. Sperm and an egg. Classic setup, easy lay. I ordered a scotch and an advocaat, then closed the tab.

    I walked over real slow, waited for one of those moments. You know what I'm talking about. Those moments where a dozen unrelated conversations simultaneously arrive at the same pause. Then her giggle rang out, tinged with a certain claustrophobic hysteria.

    I chuckled. "Guess an angel passed."

    She chuckled back, vocal cords a little tense. Forty envious eyes turned in my direction. I shrugged, flashed my Tom Cruise grin, and reached over all of them, passing her the advocaat.

    Her voice was innocent. "What is this?"

    I lip-synced a bogus reply.

    Know your enemy, after all. If she's spent a whole lifetime indulging her curiosity, make her guess to figure out what you're saying.

    She moved closer, out of the crush of guys, and I told her it was 蛋黄酒.

    She asked why. I said it was because she was surrounded by 精英.

    She laughed, this time without reservations, and took my hand. I walked with her, shoulders straight, no swagger. After all, it's just business--no need to spike the football.

    Our night together stretched into morning, into tickets at the ferry port and my first trip through Boston proper. The rain kept up, beading on her plastic jacket, shrouding Boy Scouts marching past the monuments to American liberty in matching brown uniforms like the ghosts of Nuremberg past, until she'd stood with me in the midnight clatter of a college bar, and held my hand like a child.

    She was twenty-seven. She was twenty-seven, and both her mother and father were dead.
     
  5. t_co

    t_co Senior Member Senior Member

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    Sometime in 2011
    Politics, as they say, is a cruel, jealous mistress. Maybe that's why Old Zhang was single. Not just single--he never made a move. Never ever, ever. Bad mission efficiency, I say, but he would always sit there, one eye on us, another on his phone, flipping through whatever work he had for the day. The prior year, he'd traded his trademark Manhattans for cocktail glasses filled with ice water.

    And there he would be, this hotshot forty-year-old cadre of vice-ministerial rank, with a resume longer than my--well, you get the idea--straddling a corner couch in some dark, strobe-lit Beijing nightclub, paying for everyone else's drinks while twentysomethings around him pissed away mommy and daddy's money trying to get laid. Sure, sometimes a girl or two or three would crowd him, ask him what he did, try to get a rise out of the old man, but soon they'd grow tired of his monotonic, monosyllabic answers and leave.

    He said he liked to hang out with us, that we made him feel young again. Once, as he was leaving the club and walking us to his black Audi, his Burberry trenchcoat flapping behind him like the wings of an enormous bat, I caught him wiping away tears with one gabardine sleeve.

    Then he met Persephone. It was one of those moments, you know? Something corny out of a Matthew McConaughey flick. One minute, Shenghan was sitting at our table, making love to his ice-water martini, the next, he was talking to Ms. Fang.

    Talking.

    To a girl.

    With complete sentences.

    I nearly dropped the scotch and advocaat I was bringing back from the bar.

    We had just wrapped things up with Persephone that last Friday. I'd installed a keylogger into her laptop and swapped her cell for a hacked model. I was going to let her go that night, break it to her gently. Shenghan solved that problem for me.

    Mr. Zhang stopped joining us at the club. A few months later, I caught him at a coffeeshop, holding her hand. She had a ring.

    The old man and I never mentioned Persephone with each other, even though she was a newly important piece of his personal jigsaw puzzle, and a fading piece of mine. Instead, we busied ourselves with work. I was his bagman by that point, gathering dirt for Old Man Zhang on a dozen other people.

    Then I got transferred to the Third Bureau, hunting people doing what I used to do. Takes a thief, as they say. My initial assignment was in Shenyang. It was there that I had another first: Zhang Shenghan and I would have to work with each other on an official basis. We pretended like we were friendly strangers instead of strange friends. It worked.

    The firm was some research consortium with a prototype factory attached. They had trouble making high-performance turbine blades for the engines of fighter jets--more trouble than normal, and they thought something was up. All the bad news had drained their balance sheet, too, and Shenghan's equity fund had been brought in as a white knight. The old man told me that before he would open his purse, however, he "needed to figure what the ---- was going on out there."

    For once, my official duties and side business coincided. Promotion and a payoff? Hell ----in' yeah.

    But life, as they say, is never that easy.

    [hr][/hr]
    I started with the project files. Pins and needles stuff, spreadsheets, diagrams, tolerances flowing from one end of a network to the other, returning as nacelles, turbine blades, fuel mixtures. Down memory lane, banks of corporate data dancing at my fingertips, ring fingers sensitive on the heat-based touchpad like those of a safecracker.

    Spiderweb. Silk, spider, and her cocooned prey. Bundles of information suspended in an empty network, IP-logged ghosts. Footprints leading to a proxy in Wenzhou, three jumps from leaving the Great Firewall. I found myself pinging off a low-security university server in St. Petersburg, what the old-timers still called Leningrad. Then the trail ran as cold as the Siberian winter that hit my face as I transferred flights through Sheremetyevo.

    Time to call in outside assistance. I found him forking up bits of pelmeni with smetana in a streetside cafe, one foot hooked at an odd angle, ready to run. He saw me, raised one hand to grasp mine, put the other in his pants at the same time. His face looked like it had been shaped in a wind tunnel: ears very small, plastered flat against his narrow skull, and large front teeth, revealed in something that wasn't quite a smile, canted sharply backward. From Nevsky Prospekt, I heard the digitized bleat of the trolley rattling off Slavic subway stations. From somewhere below the table, I heard him snap off the safety on his antique Makarov.

    "A repeat customer," he said, straightening up, "is not good for my business. You know the rate, Genghiz."

    "I need a scan, Adolf. For rats."

    He ordered us a bottle of vodka with one hand, took the resulting cocktail napkin, and jotted numbers. Two columns of numbers that started off matching, but ended different. He pushed it over. "You know, it was not rats that brought the Black Death. It was the fleas they carried."

    Through the glass of eighty-proof, I saw an imp dancing through the Shenyang computer system, fudging with the casting dimensions, fractions of a millimeter off, hairline fractures after six hundred flight hours instead of the advertised three thousand. He followed with a single number, then a street named for some long-gone Bavarian dynasty, the kind that spread royalty across five centuries and eight countries.

    Landing in Munich, I walked brisk into the lobby of the German tech conglomerate, presented my third identity of the week. The smiling brunette behind the desk led me into a frosted-glass conference room, and I pretended to sleep through the presentation, just another bored Chinese executive taking in the wonders of PLM techniques and the miraculous benefit of integrating all your R&D under one data-sharing network, courtesy of German engineering.

    Somewhere on the Frankfurt-Beijing nonstop, tracing the old Silk Road, I saw Persephone staring back at me from the cramped confines of an economy-class magazine holder on the seat-back in front of mine. The Lady Doctor, the Rice Queen. She promised an end to world hunger. I fell asleep midway through the article.

    The rest of the job was a blur. Fingerprints on the German digital lifecycle project matched one nervous thirty-six year-old design engineer. He gave us what we needed, then called his parents and pregnant wife and admitted his sexual orientation. I offered him a drink, a medal, and a pension, the latter two posthumously. He hung himself one month before his son was born. I reported back to my real boss, a gorgeous co-worker accompanying me so I wouldn't have to feel like a third wheel at dinner with Beijing's newest power couple. Shenghan ordered us four glasses of champagne, and, together, we sang a toast to our dreams.
     
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  6. srikanth

    srikanth Regular Member

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    @t_co

    Interesting, but I couldn't understand some Chinese words and there were some spelling mistakes.
     
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