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Authors: Olen Steinhauer

Tags: #Milo Weaver

An American Spy (10 page)

BOOK: An American Spy
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“We’re dead,” Shen An-ling said once they were inside his office at the far end of the floor. “Wu Liang has been building up to this for a long time.”

“Nothing’s done yet,” Zhu told him, lighting a Hamlet as he settled behind his desk.

It was true. Sun Bingjun had refused to settle on a course of action, and Feng Yi had agreed. Zhang Guo, disappointingly, had remained neutral during the discussion, which was perhaps an attempt to position himself as the crucial vote, or a way of hiding his association with Zhu. So within this microcosm of five committee members, there was a perfect balance of indecision, which led to Feng Yi suggesting that Zhu be given some time to present his rebuttal to the charges. “Five days” had been Wu Liang’s immediate suggestion. Sun Bingjun, proving once again that rumors of his alcoholic decline were greatly exaggerated, had laughed at this.

“Give Xin Zhu a chance, however small.”

“We only have two weeks,” said Shen An-ling, dropping into a chair. “Two weeks to chase our tails. We’ve lost our best American source, and whatever intelligence the Ministry of Public Security has isn’t going to make it to us. We’re fucked.”

Zhu smoked and gazed past him at the blinds, through which his employees worked away at their haystacks of facts and half-truths and lies. He didn’t even react to Shen An-ling’s atypical cursing, for it only showed that the younger man saw the situation for what it was: a disaster. Not only were they stuck with two weeks, at Wu Liang’s insistence they’d been saddled with daily progress reports to those five committee members. Yes, it was a disaster, but there was no time for emotional nonsense. He would give Shen An-ling another five minutes to compose himself.

He tried to hold the situation up before himself and see its interlocking parts from different angles. The ex-Tourist Leticia Jones, looking pointlessly at Sung Hui and more pointedly at an Islamic terrorist. The fact that there was a leak in the Ministry of Public Security. The fact that Wu Liang had long been waiting for such a chance to strip him down like a paper tiger.

What about Bo Gaoli? Had shame for an unproven crime really been that hard to take? Though they were only acquaintances, Zhu had met Bo Gaoli on many occasions and had been taken by the man’s cool, businesslike attitude toward his counterterrorism work for the Ministry of Public Security. Had Zhu wanted to reach out to someone in the ministry for help, Bo Gaoli would have made his short list. Yet this same man—a respected administrator and a husband of forty years—had killed himself for something he had not done?

Or had he done something? Had he leaked to the Americans, or had he committed some unrelated crime that he feared would be exposed under interrogation?

Shen An-ling found a pack of Hongtashan and lit one up, waving away the pungent smoke. He said, “What if we were wrong? What if there’s no mole in the ministry?”

“What if there are two, or five?” Zhu answered without looking at him. “The Americans got that information somehow. It was too varied to be from intercepted communication, or even from a single lower-level office. We agreed on that.”

“How many times have you told me that dependence on beliefs is the ruin of intelligence?”

One of Shen An-ling’s finest traits was his ability to throw Zhu’s own words back at him. “If our belief was wrong, the fault was in assuming that all the information came from one source, which is why we believed—no,
concluded
—that the leak was high in the administration. Five lower-level sources could supply the same information.”

When Shen An-ling said, “It feels like we’re holding on to something because we want to believe it,” Zhu wished he would shut up but said nothing. Again, this was the young man’s great value, his constant agitation against Zhu’s assumptions. It kept the dialectic in motion, never allowing Zhu to rest, and it reflected Chairman Mao’s greatest maxim: the need for perpetual revolution.

“Okay,” Zhu said, placing one hand on the desktop. “What if we
are
wrong? What if there is no leak in the ministry? What follows?”

“It follows that we’re fucked,” Shen An-ling said behind a cloud of tobacco smoke. “It follows that we’ve ostracized an entire section of the government for no good reason, and that we can reasonably be held responsible for a man’s suicide. It follows that you will be removed from the Pit, and either we’ll be castrated and absorbed into the rest of the Sixth Bureau, or some friend of Wu Liang will appear to take over.”

Patiently, Zhu said, “So if this is the case, and we’re wrong, how did we end up at this point? What was the poor logic that brought us to this terrible end?”

Shen An-ling waved smoke away. “I suppose we were blinded.”

“By?”

“By our dislike for Wu Liang.”

“That doesn’t explain how the Americans got their information. Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is this the only thing we don’t know?”

Shen An-ling frowned, puzzled. “There are plenty of things we don’t know.”

“Such as?”

“Such as Bo Gaoli’s reasons for killing himself.”

Zhu nodded thoughtfully. “Yes.”

“We don’t know why the American was looking into your wife’s life.”

“But we do know that she met with Alan Drummond and his friends,” Zhu reminded him. “That’s something that Wu Liang does not know.”

“But Wu Liang’s question is a fair one, and I’m ashamed that I didn’t ask it first—if they have a ministry source, then why did she ask questions?”

“There are more important questions,” Zhu said, finally saying aloud what he’d been thinking during Wu Liang’s extended monologue. “Why did Leticia Jones leave before she could get her answers? And most crucially: Why did she ask her questions so clumsily?”

Slowly, Shen An-ling lowered his cigarette from his face to his knee and said, “Talks to an unsecured consular officer, who talks to a deadbeat rock and roller, who talks to the daughter of a seamstress. Certainly she knew we would trace it back to her.”

“Certainly.”

“She wanted us to know. Yet did she want us to know that she didn’t care about the answer? Did she want us to
know
that it was a ruse?”

They let that sit between them, each staring at separate points in the mid-distance, until Shen An-ling remembered aloud another of Zhu’s sayings, “Do not always assume motive where human error will suffice.”

The phone on Zhu’s desk rang, and when he picked it up his gaze settled on the white box of rice balls Sung Hui had prepared for him. “Wèi,” he said.

He Qiang’s dulcet tones came at him. “Comrade Colonel Xin Zhu, I have returned from Xinyang.”

“The family is in good health?”

“Yes, Comrade Colonel.”

“You said you were bringing a cousin back to Beijing. Did that go well?”

“Yes, Comrade Colonel. She’s staying with me until we get her papers sorted. Shall I come to the office today?”

“No,” Zhu said, because he had no doubt that Wu Liang and Yang Qing-Nian had stationed some street vendors outside the building, or were simply watching through one of the three hundred thousand surveillance cameras installed throughout the city under the Grand Beijing Safeguard Sphere program, which would one day ensure that no one could find solitude outside their own shower cabins. “You take care of your cousin, and we’ll talk again tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Comrade Colonel.”

When Zhu hung up, Shen An-ling opened the office door to admit a new girl, whose name Zhu couldn’t recall. She carried a tea set, but when she began to pour Zhu distractedly sent her away. Shen An-ling thanked her as she left.

“Before we proceed,” Zhu said, “we must fill in as many of the gaps in our knowledge as possible. Let’s make a list.”

Shen An-ling half-stood, reaching out to grab a hand-sized notepad from the desk, saying, “We only have two weeks.”

“Panic is one of the symptoms of belief, Shen An-ling. We will not be rushed.”

He’d considered going out in one of his employees’ cars, or taking one of the more obscure exits to hide his departure, but there seemed little point when his destination was one of the more watched areas of the capital. So, a little after four, he climbed into his Audi, which one of his people had helpfully collected from Nankai Saturday morning, left the underground garage, and drove north of the center, just inside the Fifth Ring Road. High above, sand was blowing in from the deserts of Inner Mongolia, hazing the afternoon sky, but it hadn’t touched down yet. It hovered like a quiet threat.

It was on a long stretch that the traffic suddenly vanished, and only when he noticed the lines of cars parked on both sides of the road did he realize it was 2:28, precisely one week after the earthquake. He sighed and drew to the side of the road, parked behind a vegetable truck, and settled back in his seat.

At first, probably like most people, he fought it. His head was too full of panicked self-interest. Three minutes is a long time, though, and during that last minute his head was finally in the middle of the country, in the mountains, with the devastated homes, schools, factories, hospitals, shops, roads, and tunnels, and the many, many thousands of people whose lives had been irrevocably scarred at 2:28
P
.
M
. one week ago.

He knew the silence was over because its end was marked by horns blaring long and low up and down the road. All over the city, all over the country, cars, trains, ships, and air defense alarms were screaming into the sky.

He waited until the sound faded and the cars around him had headed off before finally starting the Audi and driving on.

His destination, a kilometer north of the complex that had hosted the 1990 Asian Games, went by the name of Ziyu Shanzhuang, the Purple Jade Villas, a 160-acre resort of green fields, pools, forests, wildlife, and the superrich. It was one of more than thirty such walled compounds nestled in the green upper reaches of the capital, a world away from the Beijing that he knew most intimately. The guards at the gate seemed to sense his unfamiliarity, or perhaps it was just the clanking noise his car was making these days, and even his Guoanbu ID did little to scare them into submission, a fact that gave him serious pause.

He took the long drive to the villas at a leisurely speed, rolling down his window and taking in the cool air that was freshened by long stretches of trees cultivated to perfection. Across a field he saw women with children that ran wildly around baffled goats and peacocks, and it felt, until he raised his gaze above the tree line to take in Beijing’s skyline of towers beneath the gathering dust storm, as if he were deep in the countryside, far from prying eyes and ears. It was a magical illusion.

The guards at the gate had called ahead, so when he climbed out of his car Hua Yuan was already opening the front door, squeezing her hands together in front of her stomach. Her hair was in an amateurish bun, and he got the sense that she’d dressed in a hurry, which immediately gave him the picture of an old woman stuck in a claustrophobic, dusty house, in perpetual mourning for the husband who had killed himself. Nevertheless, she smiled as he approached.

“Hua Yuan, thank you for seeing me. I’m Xin Zhu.”


Colonel
Xin Zhu,” she said, holding out a small hand that he shook.

“You know of me?”

“We met once at a Workers’ Day event. Briefly.”

“I’m honored you remember.”

She seemed to want to say something else, but changed her mind and asked him to come inside.

He’d been wrong about the claustrophobia and dust. It was an immaculate home, cleaned no doubt by a legion of workers, and open in its architecture—modern, almost American. She brought him through the foyer into a sitting room with blocky but comfortable sofas, a closed television cabinet, long, low shelves full of plants and books, and a large square window overlooking the fields. The window was framed by ivy that was threatening to grow madly across the view.

“This is a beautiful place,” he said as he sat down.

“Tea?”

“Yes, thank you.”

She left him alone for a moment, then returned and settled across from him in a matching chair. “We didn’t use this place very much. Buying it was a favor for a friend of my husband’s, one of the original Purple Jade investors. We were usually in town or the countryside—the real countryside. I’ve come here because it’s easy. That’s something I appreciate now. Ease.”

A teenaged girl in a white uniform arrived with a tray and poured chrysanthemum tea for them both. Beside Hua Yuan’s cup, he noticed, was a white plastic drinking straw. Once the girl was gone, Zhu began, “Hua Yuan, I was hoping to speak with you about your husband’s death.”

“His suicide.”

“Exactly,” Zhu said. “Over the last weeks the question of
why
has been troubling me. If it’s something personal between the two of you, then it is certainly not my business, but if it had to do with his work, then I would like to better understand it.”

She examined him, as if he had arrived wanting to sell her something, and placed one end of the straw into her tea. She took a sip. “Xin Zhu,” she said, “you obviously know everything about that.”

“About what?”

“About Bo Gaoli’s work. He was very excited.”

Zhu stared at her damp lips. “Excuse me, Hua Yuan, but I knew very little about your husband’s work.”

“He talked to you about it.”

“No, Hua Yuan, he didn’t.”

Her head fell to the side, taking in this information. “He
wanted
to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“About his work. You know, he had become so excited that I thought he had a mistress. He shaved his shoulders that day. He was very hairy, you know. I thought he was shaving for some young thing. Funny, no?”

Zhu stared a moment. “Bo Gaoli was excited about something to do with his work, and he wanted to talk to me?”

“Was I not clear?”

“Well, we hardly knew each other. We’d met a couple times, but we were barely acquaintances. I would have been surprised to receive a call from him.”

“But he was preparing to meet you, Xin Zhu.”

“When?”

BOOK: An American Spy
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