Chinese Whispers (China Thrillers Series #6)by Peter May
His victims are young, beautiful and viciously mutilated. He calls himself the Beijing Ripper. The media and terror-sticken public are demanding the arrest of the Beijing Ripper and Li Yan, the head of Beijing's serious crime squad, has been put in the spotlight. American pathologist Margaret Campbell is invited to perform an autopsy on one of the victims and her… See more details below
His victims are young, beautiful and viciously mutilated. He calls himself the Beijing Ripper. The media and terror-sticken public are demanding the arrest of the Beijing Ripper and Li Yan, the head of Beijing's serious crime squad, has been put in the spotlight. American pathologist Margaret Campbell is invited to perform an autopsy on one of the victims and her results send shockwaves through the investigation. Then Li begins receiving personal letters from the killer, and his life and career start falling apart. The need to uncover the Ripper's identity becomes paramount if he is to save himself and his family. Peter May's terrifying new China thriller pits Li Yan and Margaret Campbell against an unscrupulous foe who could prove to be their deadliest enemy yet. This is the sixth book in the China Thrillers.
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By Peter May
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2004 Peter May
All right reserved.
She woke with a start, heart pounding, consciousness holding on to the distant echo of the cry which had invaded her dreams. Dreams that hardly ever took her far from the surface, lingering always in the shallows where light and hearing were only a breath away. She sat upright, drawing that breath now, eyes quickly forming shapes from shadows, broken light from the street cut in small pieces by the branches of trees. She never drew the curtains. That way she could see fast, without blinding herself with sudden light.
There it was again, tiny and muffled, and unaccountably devastating in its effect. Nature had surprised her with this sensitivity, tuned to detect the smallest sound, even in sleep, triggering the fight or flight response that had her awake and alert in seconds. There was a third cry, and then a fourth, followed by a long grizzle and a series of sobs, and her alarm subsided into a weary acceptance that she would have to get out of bed. She glanced at the clock display on the bedside cabinet and saw that it was a little after five. Chances were she would not get back to sleep.
She slipped quickly from the bed and lifted her dressing gown from the back of a chair, shivering as she pulled it on and hugged it around herself. The heating would not come on again for another hour, and she still could not get used to the fact that she had no control over it. As she opened the door, she glanced back at the bed and the shape of Li Yan curled up in the foetal position, sheets and blankets pulled tightly around him, the soft, regular purr of his breathing filling the room. And she wondered why Nature did not endow fathers with the same sensitivity.
Li Jon Campbell lay on his back. Somehow he had managed to kick himself free of the quilt and had been wakened by the cold. And now that he was awake, he would discover that he was hungry. Margaret lowered the side of the crib and lifted her son into her arms, scooping up the quilt and wrapping it around him. In another month they would celebrate his first birthday. He was already a big boy. Ugly, Margaret told Li, like his father. Thick, black hair and beautiful slanting almond eyes, he looked like any other Chinese baby. And Margaret might have doubted that there was anything of her in him except for the strangest, startling blue pupils that met hers every time he looked at her. It was odd that it should have been her eyes that she had most obviously given him. She had read that the blue-eye gene was the weakest, and that within a few hundred years would be bred out of the human race entirely. Li Jon was doing his best to redress the balance.
She cuddled and whispered to him as she carried him through to the kitchen to prepare a bottle. She had been too weak after the Caesarian to breastfeed. His crying subsided, and he contented himself with grabbing her nose and holding on to it as if his life depended on it. She pulled herself free as she took him into the sitting room and dropped into a soft chair where she could cradle him and push the rubber teat between his lips. He chewed and sucked hungrily, and Margaret took the moment, as she always did, to find a small island of peace in the shifting sea of her unsettled world.
Not that she ever consciously analysed her position these days. She had long ago stopped doing that. It was not a deliberate decision. More a process of elimination. Her whole life was focused now on her baby, to the exclusion of almost everything else. She could not afford to dwell on her semilegal status, living unauthorised in the official apartment provided by the Beijing Municipal Police for the father of her child. She survived from visa extension to visa extension without daring to think what she would do if ever her application was refused. She had no real income of her own, except for the money they gave her for occasional lectures at the University of Public Security. She had not wielded her pathologist's knife in almost a year. She was, in fact, no one she would recognise. She would pass herself in the street without noticing. She was less than a shadow of her former self. She was a ghost.
Li Jon was asleep by the time she laid him back in his cot, making sure he was well wrapped and warm. But now she had lost all her own heat and hurried back to bed, dropping her gown on the chair and slipping between sheets which had also grown cold. She shivered and slid across the bed to the heat radiating from Li Yan's back and buttocks and thighs, and felt his skin burning against hers. He grunted, and she felt the reflex of his muscles as he tried to move away from this source of cold. She tucked in tight and held on.
'What are you doing?' he mumbled sleepily.
'Oh, so you're not dead,' she whispered, and her voice seemed inordinately loud in the dark. 'Or deaf. Or completely insensitive.'
'What?' And he half-turned toward her, still drowsy and heavy-eyed, clinging to the last vestiges of what had been a deep, dark slumber.
She slid a cold hand across his thigh and found, to her surprise, a full erection. 'What the hell were you dreaming?' she demanded.
He became aware of her cold, and his heat, and felt a warm flood of arousal fill his belly. 'I dreamt I was making love to you,' he said.
He flipped over so that he was facing her. 'It's been a while.'
'It has,' she acknowledged. She squeezed him and smiled. 'But I see that everything's still in good working order.'
'Maybe we should give it a run out, just to be sure.'
'Maybe we should. It might generate a little more warmth than the central heating.'
'Just a little more ...' He nuzzled against the cold skin of her neck and felt her shiver as he breathed on her. She felt him grow harder as he dragged his lips across her breast to find a nipple, puckered and hard with cold and arousal. He flicked at it with his tongue and then bit until she moaned, and he ran a hand over her belly in search of the soft blonde hair between her legs. He felt the long, vertical weal of her scar, still ugly and livid. No cosmetic bikini-cut, this. And he knew that she was still self-conscious about it. He moved up to find her lips and the warmth of her mouth, flipping over again to lie between her open legs, and then, half crouching, let her guide him inside her. He felt a shudder running through her whole body, like the deepest sigh, and his cellphone began playing Beethoven's Ode To Joy.
'In the name of the sky,' he hissed into the darkness, and immediately felt her go limp beneath him. It was a long time since she had asked him not to answer a call, a final acceptance of the way the dice had fallen. For both of them. And for the briefest of moments, he was tempted himself to let his answering service pick it up. But Margaret was already turning away, the spell broken, the moment lost. He snatched the phone from the bedside cabinet.
Margaret listened bleakly as he had a quickfire exchange in putonghua Chinese. A bizarre four-toned cadence that she had never made any real attempt to learn. And yet she knew it was a language her son would speak, and she did not want there to be any part of him she could not understand. Of course, she would teach him English. She would speak to him always in English. But she also knew from her years with Li that there would always be that something Chinese about him that would remain just out of reach.
Li hung up and dropped the phone on the table, rolling on to his back and staring silently at the ceiling. There was a lengthy silence. Their passion had not been spent, but it was gone. Finally he said, 'There's been another one.'
She felt her stomach flip over. 'Another mutilation?' He nodded and she ached for him. She knew how much they troubled him, these killings. It was always worse with a serial killer. The longer you took to catch him, the more people died. In this case young women. Young, fresh-faced prostitutes trying to eke a living in this new, money-driven China. Every new killing was like an accusation of failure. Li's failure. And eventually the guilt would get to him, and he would start to feel responsible for every death. Like he had killed them himself. Like now.
Zhengyi Road was empty as he cycled north in the dark beneath the trees, dry leaves crunching under his tyres. Up ahead, in the brightly lit East Changan Avenue, the first traffic of the day was already cruising the boulevard: buses packed with pale, sleepy faces, taking workers to factories across town; trucks on the first stretch of long journeys on new roads, carrying the industrial produce of the north to the rice fields of the south; office workers in private cars getting in ahead of the rush hour. Where once the cycle lanes would have been choked with early morning commuters, only a few hardy souls now braved the cold on their bicycles. Car ownership was soaring. Public transport had improved beyond recognition—new buses, a new underground line, a light rail system. The bicycle, once the most common mode of transport in Beijing, was rapidly disappearing. An outmoded transport.
At least, that was what the municipal government thought. They had issued an edict to every police station demanding a response time to all incidents of just twelve minutes, an edict well nigh impossible to achieve given the gridlock that seized up the city's road system for most of the day. Some stations had brought in motor scooters, but the municipal authority had refused to license them. And, almost as an afterthought, had also denied officers permission to attend incidents on bicycles. A return to the bike would be a retrograde step, they said. This was the new China. And so police cars sat in traffic jams, and average response times remained thirty minutes or longer.
Li had a healthy disregard for edicts. If it was quicker by bike, he took his bike, as he had done for nearly twenty years. As section chief he always had a vehicle at his disposal, but he still preferred to cycle to and from work and get motorised only when required. And no one was about to tell the head of Beijing's serious crime squad that he could not ride his bike if he wanted to. This morning, however, as an icy wind blew down Changan Avenue from the west and cut clean through his quilted jacket, he might have preferred to have been sitting behind the wheel of a warm Santana. But that wasn't something he would ever have admitted. Even to himself.
He tucked his head down and pedalled east into the heart of the upmarket Jianguomen district of the city, a flyover carrying him across the Second Ring Road, past a towering blue-lit section of restored city wall. He could see the floodlights illuminating the new City Hall building just to the south. The roar of traffic and exhaust fumes rose up to greet him from below. He quite consciously avoided the thought of the scene that awaited him. They had told him she was the fourth. And with the previous three, whatever his experience and imagination had prepared him for, it had not been enough.
Half a dozen police vehicles were pulled up on the sidewalk at the entrance to the Silk Street Market, engines idling, exhaust fumes rising into the cold morning air. There was a forensics van from Pau Jü Hutong, and Li recognised Pathologist Wang's car parked up beside the body bus from the morgue. It must have broken all speed limits on empty roads to get there before Li, all the way from the new pathology facility out on the northwest perimeter, near the Badaling Expressway. Another planning coup by the municipal government. By the time a detective got there and back, it could take him the best part of a day to attend an autopsy.
The police activity had attracted a large crowd: local residents, curious commuters on their way to work. Numbers had already swelled to over a hundred and were still growing. Not even subzero temperatures could diminish the eternal curiosity of the Chinese. Two dozen uniformed police officers made sure they stayed behind the black and yellow crime scene tape that whipped and hummed in the wind. Li saw the red digital display on the clock tower flash up a temperature of minus six centigrade. He held up his maroon Public Security ID and pushed his bike through the onlookers. A cold-looking officer with a pinched red face saluted and lifted the tape to let him through. Two hundred metres up the alley, Li could see the photographer's lights illuminating the spot where the body had been found. A bunch of detectives and forensics officers stood around it, stamping to keep warm. As Li approached, someone spotted him coming, and they moved aside to let him through, opening up like the curtain on a stage to reveal a scene that looked as if it had been set for maximum theatrical effect.
Wang Xing was crouched beside the body, making a careful examination, latexed fingers already sticky with blood. He turned his face toward Li, pale and bloodless, like a mask from a Peking Opera, and for once had nothing to say.
The girl lay on her back, head turned toward her left shoulder, revealing a seven-inch gash across her throat. Blood had pooled around her head like a ghastly halo. Her face had been so savagely slashed it would be almost impossible to make a visual identification. Her black leather jacket lay open, revealing a white, blood-spattered blouse beneath it. The top few buttons of the blouse had been undone, but it did not otherwise appear to have been disturbed. The girl's arms lay by her side, palms up. Her left leg extended in a line with her body, her right leg was bent at the hip and the knee. Her skirt had been cut open and pulled away to expose the abdomen which had been hacked open from the breastbone to the pubes. The intestines had been drawn out and dragged over the right shoulder, one two-foot piece completely detached and placed between the body and the left arm. What struck Li, apart from an extreme sense of shock, was the impression that this body had been very carefully laid out, as if by some grotesque design. There was something bizarrely unnatural about it. He turned away as he felt his stomach lurch and wished that he still smoked. As if reading his mind, someone held out an open pack. He looked up to see Detective Wu's grim face, jaw chewing manically on the ubiquitous gum. Li waved him aside and stepped out of the circle of light. The image of the dead girl was burned by the photographer's lights on to his retinas, and he could not get rid of it. She could only have been nineteen or twenty. Just a child. He felt Wu's presence at his shoulder, breathing smoke into the light. 'Who found her?'
Wu spoke softly, as if to speak normally might disturb the dead. Li was surprised. Wu did not usually show such sensitivity. 'Shift worker on his bike, taking what he thought was a short cut home.'
Li frowned. 'He didn't know they'd fenced off the road at the other end?'
Wu shrugged. 'Apparently not, Chief. He almost ran over her. You can see his tyre tracks in the blood. They've taken him to hospital suffering from shock.'
'Did you get a statement?'
'Detective Zhao's gone with him.' He took a drag on his cigarette. 'We also spoke to the PLA guard at the embassy end. He was on duty all night.'
Li looked back up the alley. It could only have been a hundred metres. Maybe less. 'And?'
Li shook his head. Still the girl was there. Every time he blinked. Every time he closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. 'Do we know who she is?'
'Found her ID card in her purse, along with a couple of hundred yuan. Her name's Guo Huan. She's eighteen years old. Lives in Dongcheng District, not that far from Section One.' He carefully removed an evidence bag from his pocket and held it up to the light for Li to see. 'We also found this ...' Trapped between the sheets of clear plastic was what looked like a cutting from a newspaper or magazine. Li took it and held it to catch the spill-off light from the photographer's lamps and saw that it was a two-line ad from the personal columns of one of Beijing's what's-on magazines. Cute Chinese Girl looks for Mr. Right. I am slim, well-educated and work in antiques. Please send me e-mail. Or telephone. Thinly disguised code for a prostitute seeking customers. There was an e-mail address and a cellphone number. Wu blew smoke through his nostrils like dragonfire. 'He's making a fool of us, this guy, Chief. We've got to get him.'
Excerpted from Chinese Whispers by Peter May Copyright © 2004 by Peter May. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter May won the Scottish Young Journalist of the Year Award at the age of 21, and had his first novel published at 26. He then left journalism and became one of Scotland's most successful and prolific television dramatists. Returning now to novels, his outstanding China Thrillers series of books are winning critical acclaim. To research the series, Peter May makes annual trips to China. As a mark of their respect for his work, The Chinese Crime Writers' Association made him an honorary member of their Beijing Chapter. He is the only Westerner to receive such an honour. Peter May is married to writer Janice Hally and lives in France.
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I was sorry to read the last of Peter May's China Thrillers Series. I have enjoyed each one, although they were almost too violent for me. What I liked best was the detail the author gave the reader of life in China, with its people, places, sights, smells, sounds,and tastes. May has a good understanding of Chinese culture, at least from my perspective after living in China for four years. The author's only failing is to occasionally put British idioms into the mouth of the American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell. That didn't stop me from devouring the page-turner China Thrillers.
The Chinese authorities try to conceal the serial killings of four prostitutes by the Beijing Ripper, whose methods are reminiscent of the late nineteenth century notorious Victorian psychopath. They actually were somewhat successful until the victim is visiting Chinese American Professor Lynn Pann, in Beijing to show new law enforcement tools using the Mermer brain scan method to the Municipal Police Chief of CID Li Yan. Li investigates the latest homicide with plenty of superiors watching his every move. He thinks the motive is related the Mermer method. As he begins to follow the clues based on the American finding something about one of her subjects, someone with power is trying to destroy him by denying his American lover's visa renewal, kidnapping their son, arresting his sister for drug trafficking and finally firing Li. As an expert falls from a window, Li works the case unofficially, which in China means illegally. This is a gripping at times gruesome Ripper police procedural with the freshness being the Communist authorization government interfering in Li's investigation and his romance with his beloved American. The story line is fast-paced on both fronts as Li struggles with ending a serial killer's murder spree while confronting all sorts of assaults on his loved ones from an unknown adversary with a grudge and highly connected. Fans will appreciate this super Chinese serial killer police procedural and seek previous Li Yan cases (see THE FIREMAKER, KILLING ROOM and SNAKEHEAD); especially those in Beijing. Harriet Klausner