The Fourth Sacrifice (China Thrillers Series #2)

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Overview

Margaret Campbell had finally decided to leave Beijing—-and the man she loved—-and return home to the States. She had first come to Beijing to conduct a seminar on her specialty, forensic pathology, for the city's police. The invitation turned out to ask for more than she expected; she was thrust into the search for a murderer. This was how she met and came to fall in love with the Beijing police detective Li Yan. Although they began as enemies, the attraction between them was ...

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Overview

Margaret Campbell had finally decided to leave Beijing—-and the man she loved—-and return home to the States. She had first come to Beijing to conduct a seminar on her specialty, forensic pathology, for the city's police. The invitation turned out to ask for more than she expected; she was thrust into the search for a murderer. This was how she met and came to fall in love with the Beijing police detective Li Yan. Although they began as enemies, the attraction between them was overwhelming—-until personal tragedies pulled them apart.

Now the police need an answer to a series of gruesome murders. Four men have been killed; the first three were Chinese and the fourth man was born in China but became an American in his youth. All were victims of what looks like ritual sacrifices.

The U.S. ambassador practically forces Margaret to work once more with Li Yan. She buries her pain and turns to a new admirer for her free time—-an American archaeologist who is making a television documentary. As Margaret and Li Yan investigate, they come closer and closer to finding the truth behind the killer's executions. They also come closer to a killer who will sacrifice anyone to conceal a secret.

This second in the China Thriller series is another testament to Peter May's ability to write captivating characters that move stealthily through Beijing's vibrant and dangerous setting.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
May's well-plotted follow-up to his first mystery featuring Beijing Deputy Section Chief Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell (after 2005's The Firemaker) amplifies his vivid picture of a chaotic, vital modern-day China emerging from the havoc wrought by the cultural revolution and the Red Guards. A request from the American ambassador puts Margaret's imminent departure from China on hold when a series of execution-style decapitations claims a fourth victim, a Chinese-American employed by the U.S. embassy in Beijing. She and Li join forces on the difficult investigation, which is shadowed by the romantic tension of their relationship even as handsome TV archeologist Michael Zimmerman avidly courts Margaret. May evokes the intense mutual attraction between Li and Margaret against a fascinating backdrop of the cultural divide between China and America. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

In May's sequel to The Firemaker, Chinese police Deputy Section Chief Li Yan is ordered to forget about Dr. Margaret Campbell, a pathologist from the United States, after the romantic skirmishes depicted in the first book. He has little choice in the matter since his career as a police officer is in Beijing. Campbell has waited for weeks for Li to contact her but to no avail. On the eve of her departure for home, the U.S. government orders her to conduct the autopsy of a beheaded man who was a naturalized citizen of the United States and the fourth victim in a string of murders believed to be the work of a serial killer. Li is the lead detective in the investigation. The tension between the two is offset by their professionalism and the need to solve the crimes. May spent time in China conducting research on police procedures, having been granted unprecedented access to their world. Here he delivers a clear defense of the second in a series, which some readers expect to be a disappointment. He lives in Argyll, Scotland, and France.


—Jo Ann Vicarel Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A pair of former lovers are forced into an uneasy working relationship by a series of gruesome murders. Forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell is heading stateside when the embassy calls on her to help investigate the death of one of their employees, Yuan Tao, the fourth in a series of mysterious decapitations. Margaret, deeply in love with Chinese police detective Li Yan, is bitter at his dropping her after they solved his last case, not knowing that Li, who was ordered to break off the relationship, deeply regrets his choice of career over love. Charismatic archaeologist and TV personality Michael Zimmerman introduces Margaret to the treasures of China, especially the thousands of terra-cotta figures discovered at Xi'an. In between throwing barbs at each other, Li and Margaret discover several clues. Yuan was killed by the same weapon and method as the other three but not by the same person. The earlier victims had hounded Yuan's father to death during the Cultural Revolution. Now three more remain on the death list. Margaret has decided to go home and consider Michael's marriage proposal when she discovers the meaning of a clue left at the murder scenes. After Margaret, Li, Michael and the killer all meet in a secret chamber, only two leave alive. May's second look at China past and present (The Firemaker, 2005, etc.) is an electrifying mixture of mystery, romance and history. Agent: Anthony Goff/David Higham Associates
From the Publisher
A forensic pathologist takes a short-term lecturing job in China to escape the bitter memories of her husband's disgrace and death, little knowing that her decision will change her life.

Too distraught to read her briefing papers, Margaret Campbell makes many mistakes in dealing with the tender sensibilities of the Chinese, whose customs are so different from her own. She gets off to a rocky start with Deputy Section Chief Li Yan, but her expertise with burn victims comes in handy in his investigation of three murders. She soon becomes committed to helping Li solve the murders, apparently the work of a hit man from Hong Kong. Margaret's work with Li exposes her to a broad section of Chinese culture and opens her eyes to a vastly different world that she comes to respect in many ways. With each new discovery, she and Li become more aware of a cover-up by highly placed government officials. Margaret is set up for death by an alcoholic plant geneticist, Li is framed for the death of his beloved uncle and both must run for their lives in the hope that they can tell the world what they know of a dangerous secret that could lead to disaster on a grand scale.

British TV writer May's frightening premise powers a tale that satisfies as a mystery, a romantic adventure and a fascinating look at the new China.

—Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590585702
  • Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Series: China Thrillers Series , #2
  • Pages: 239
  • Sales rank: 1,415,254
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 3.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter May has been a journalist and is the author of three major television series in Britain, one of them in Gaelic. With an extraordinary network of contacts, he has gained unprecedented access to the homicide and forensic science sections of the Beijing and Shanghai police forces. The Chinese Crime Writers' Association named May an honorary member of their Beijing chapter, making him the only Westerner to receive this tribute. The Fourth Sacrifice is the second book in his China Thriller series featuring Margaret Campbell and Li Yan. May lives in France.

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Read an Excerpt

The Fourth Sacrifice

CHAPTER ONE

I

The rain fell like tears from a leaden Beijing sky. Ironic, Margaret thought, for hers had long since dried up. From the shelter of her balcony on the sixth floor she could see, across the treetops in the park opposite, the dull reflection of a tiny pavilion in the rain-spotted lake. Above the rumble of traffic, and the mournful banter of furriers in the street below, she could hear the wail of a single-stringed violin and the sad cadences of a woman's voice breathing passion into a song from the Peking Opera.

Margaret moved back into her hotel room and slipped a light coat over her blouse and jeans. She had told herself she had chosen this hotel because of its proximity to the American Embassy. It was nothing to do with the park across the road. That's what she had told herself But Ritan Park was her last connection to him. A place where the death of a man had first brought them together and, in the end, forced them apart. Just one more failure in a life that seemed destined always to let her down. She lifted her umbrella and closed the door firmly behind her, resolved finally to act on a decision she had delayed for too long.

On the fourth floor, an elderly woman with brassy lacquered hair and too much make-up, stepped on to the elevator. Margaret saw that she was wearing a name badge on the lapel of herblue suit jacket. Dot McKinlay, it read. Margaret registered some surprise. Mostly the Ritan Hotel was filled with the wealthy but unsophisticated wives of Russian traders, desperate to spend their roubles before the exchange rate fell any further. The woman drew painted lips back across long, slightly yellowed teeth in what she clearly imagined was a smile.

'Where y'awl from?' she drawled.

Margaret's heart sank. 'The sixth floor,' she said, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the illuminated numbers above the door, willing them to descend more quickly.

But Dot just laughed, heartily, as if she had enjoyed the joke. 'Ah do like a sense of humour,' she said. 'Y'awl from the north, that's for sure. We're from the south. Louisiana. Only thing further south than us is the Gulf of Mexico.' She laughed again, as if demonstrating that southerners could be just as amusing as northerners. 'Ol' Dot's Travellin' Grannies, that's what they call us. We been all over. Just our luck to choose China during the rice crisis. Don't you just get sick of those noodles?' She leaned in confidentially. 'And if Ah'd known this hotel was gonna be so full of goddamn Ruskies, Ah'd 'a booked us in somewheres else.' She nodded emphatically. 'But it's great to know there's a fellow American on board. Even if ya do come from the sixth floor.' She grinned. 'Why don't y'awl join us for a drink tonight?'

Margaret glanced at her. 'I'm afraid that won't be possible,' she said. 'I'm leaving tomorrow.'

The doors opened on the ground floor as Dot was about to express her disappointment, and Margaret hurried away past a group of a dozen or so elderly ladies all sporting name badges. She heard Dot greeting them with, 'Hey, you'll never guess who that was ...'

No, Margaret thought as she pushed through glass doors and out into the sticky, warm rain, they never would. Not in a million years. The two security men at the gate glowered at her as she opened her umbrella on the way out. It was only in the last couple of weeks that Western newsmen had stoppedhanging about the gate in the hope of getting photographs or an interview. The security guards in their brown uniforms, privately hired by the hotel, had been forced to take their duties seriously, instead of sitting around all day smoking and looking important. They didn't much like Margaret.

She ran the gauntlet of some half-hearted stall owners who thought she might be Russian and interested in the furs that hung row upon row under dripping canopies. But most of them knew her by now and didn't give her a second glance, sitting folded up on tiny stools, nursing jars of cold green tea, smoking acrid-smelling cigarettes and spitting noisily on the sidewalk. Everywhere you looked here, the names of shops and restaurants were written in the distinctive Cyrillic Russian alphabet. You could almost believe you were in some seedy corner of Moscow, if it wasn't for the Chinese faces. Someone had lit a brazier, in preparation for an early lunch, and smoke mingled with the mist and rain. Margaret almost stepped into the path of several bicycles, alerted only at the last moment by a flurry of bells. Oriental faces glared at her from glistening hooded capes. She grasped the railing at the edge of the pavement and held tightly, overcome by a moment of giddiness. She breathed deeply and steadied herself. She had not realised until now just how stressful this was going to be.

To delay the moment, she took the route through the park, although she would have denied, if asked, that she was procrastinating. But she knew immediately it was a mistake. The place was too full of memories and regrets. She hurried past small damp groups of people practising tai ch'i under the trees, and out through the south gate. Again she took a circuitous route, along Guanghua Road and down Silk Street, past the new visa block in the Bruce Compound of the American Embassy. Women in white masks and blue smocks swept wet leaves from the gutters with old-fashioned brooms. Dismal marketeers sat under the shelter of trees opposite their empty stalls, tourists kept away by the rain.

A young woman with cropped hair approached Margaret hopefully. 'CD lom?' she said. 'CD music? Looka, looka, I have new ones.'

Margaret shook her head and hurried by. A very thin young man in a dark suit and white shirt with no tie approached. 'Shanja dollah?'

'No!' Margaret snapped at him, and stepped briskly away along Xiushuibie Street. There was no point in delaying any further. Past the Consular Section of the Bulgarian Embassy, the US Commercial Section, she stopped outside the gate of San Ban, No. 3 Building of the American Embassy. The Chancery. She pushed open the door of the gatehouse and found herself facing a scowling Chinese security guard.

'Margaret Campbell,' she said. 'I have an appointment with the Ambassador.'

 

An unsmiling marine in dress uniform watched her from behind the glass booth just inside the front door of the Chancery. A young Asian woman appeared at the door to her left and it clicked open to the accompaniment of a long electronic buzz. She smiled at Margaret. 'Come on through,' she said. Margaret entered and heard the door shut behind her as the woman held out her hand. 'Hi. I'm Sophie Daum. I'll be looking after you for the next while.'

'Will you?' Margaret looked at her suspiciously. Small, short dark hair, beautifully slanted eyes, sharp but not unattractive features, she barely looked old enough to be out of high school. 'What happened to the Regional Security Officer?'

'Oh, Jon Dakers is pretty well tied up these days. I'm the new assistant RSO.'

'You don't have a very oriental name for a Chinese-American.'

'Vietnamese-American,' Sophie corrected her. 'And I was adopted by a very old-fashioned, old-money family from California.' She led Margaret up a flight of stairs lined withpictures of previous ambassadors to China. 'I guess you probably think I look too young for the job. Everybody does.' She was trying to sound bright, but Margaret detected more than a hint of weariness in her voice.

'Not at all,' she said. 'You look at least old enough to be in the second grade.' She glanced across at the girl and saw that her smile had frozen on her face, and she immediately regretted the jibe. 'I'm sorry. You caught me on a bad day.'

Sophie stopped and turned on the stair. 'Look, Dr Campbell,' she said, the smile gone, the eyes suddenly cold and hard. 'I'm being polite here. But I'm twenty-three years old. I got a degree in criminology, and I'm straight off the security staff of the Secretary for Defense. I got a black belt in tai kwondo, and I could kick your ass all the way down the stairs. I don't need your bad days, I got enough of my own.'

'Hey,' Margaret held up her hands. 'I believe you. Sounds like you've got enough bad days to make up a whole week. PMS can be a real bitch.'

And to her surprise, Sophie's face broke into a reluctant grin. 'Yeah, OK, maybe I got that coming. But it's PCS I'm suffering from, not PMS. Post China stress. You know? I've been here a month and all I've heard is I don't look old enough to be out of high school. It's bad enough when I get it from the guys without the women turning on me, too.'

'And how many of the guys have you threatened to kick down the stairs?'

'Oh, just you,' Sophie said breezily.

'I'll take that as a compliment.'

Sophie grinned, a rapport established, and opened French doors into the Ambassador's outer office. To their right, the secretary to the Deputy Chief of Mission was talking on the telephone. To their left, the Ambassador's secretary's desk was empty. She was just emerging from the inner sanctum.

'Oh, hi.' She held the door open. 'Go straight on through. The Ambassador's expecting you.'

Margaret followed Sophie into the carpeted hush of the Ambassador's office. It was a big room - high ceilings, tall windows, a large polished desk facing the door, the US flag hanging limply from a pole behind it. Margaret had been in here several times, but it still intrigued her. The walls were lined with photographs of the Ambassador with the President and his family. It was said they were close friends whose friendship predated politics. There was a picture of the President at his inauguration, smiling to the heavens, an appetite whetted by the prospect of supreme power. Something to be savoured and enjoyed.

To the left was a sofa and several armchairs around a coffee table, pictures loaned from some US art gallery on the walls, Chinese chests lined up as filing cabinets. The Ambassador, in shirtsleeves, and another, younger, man wearing an immaculately tailored dark blue suit, rose to greet them.

'Margaret,' the Ambassador nodded curtly. He was an attractive, dark-haired man. A senator for nearly twenty years, he clearly felt more at home in the rarefied atmosphere of high politics than at this, more mundane, level of real life. 'I think you know First Secretary Stan Palmer.'

'Sure,' Margaret said, and they all shook hands and sat down. The First Secretary poured them coffee from a tray that had just been brought in.

The Ambassador sat back and cast his eye curiously over Margaret. She looked tired, older than her thirty-one years, her pale blue eyes strained and dull, fair hair falling listlessly over her shoulders in big sad waves. 'So,' he said. 'You've reached a decision.'

Margaret nodded. 'I want to go home, Mr Ambassador.'

'When?'

'Tomorrow.'

'That's very sudden, isn't it?'

'It's been on my mind for some time.'

The First Secretary leaned forward. 'Have you told the Chinese?' His tone was sniffy, almost superior.

Margaret hesitated. 'I was hoping you would do that.'

The Ambassador frowned. 'Why? Is there a problem?'

Margaret shook her head. 'No, I ... I've just had enough. I just want to go home.'

'You could have gone home ten weeks ago. You know that.' The Ambassador's tone was faintly accusatory. 'After we secured your release.'

'Sure.' Margaret nodded. 'It was my decision to stay on and co-operate with them. I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. I still do. But I spend night after night sitting alone in a hotel room watching CNN, and day after day being debriefed on the same old stuff. I'm tired of it. I didn't think it would go on this long.' She paused, a horrible thought occurring to her for the first time. 'I am free to go, aren't I?'

'As far as I'm concerned, you are.' The Ambassador leaned over and put a reassuring hand on her arm. 'You've done more than your fair share, Margaret. More than they had any right to expect.' He turned to the First Secretary. 'Stan'll tell the Chinese, won't you, Stan?'

'Of course, Mr Ambassador.'

But Stan was none too pleased, a fact betrayed by his demeanour as they descended the stairs. He didn't like playing messenger boy. He ignored Sophie as if she wasn't there - she was clearly an irrelevance - and addressed himself to Margaret. 'So ...' he said, 'the charges have been dropped against your Chinese policeman.' He ran a hand back through thinning but perfectly groomed blond hair.

'Have they?' Margaret feigned indifference.

'Didn't you know?' Stan feigned surprise.

'For a start,' Margaret said, tetchily, 'he's not my Chinese policeman. And the authorities have told me nothing.'

'So you haven't had any contact with him?'

'No, I haven't. Nor do I intend to.' In spite of herself she couldn't keep the hurt and anger out of her voice.

Stan was quick to capitalise. 'Really? You surprise me.' He smiled. 'I'd heard that you and he were ... well, how shall I put it? Close.'

'Had you? I'm surprised that a man in your position would waste his time listening to gossip like that - never mind give it credence.'

'Ah, well, that's where you're wrong, Margaret.' Stan was so smooth he positively shone. 'Gossip is the lifeblood of the embassy. I mean, without it how else would we know what was going on? After all, diplomats and politicians never tell one another the truth, now, do they?' He shook her hand. 'Have a good trip home.' And he disappeared into the hushed interior of the building.

'Prick,' Sophie muttered.

'Oh, you noticed?' Margaret grinned ruefully. 'If I'd had your talent for kicking ass I'd have practised it on him.'

'Yeah, well he's pretty high up my list of ass-kicking priorities, too.' And they shared a moment of juvenile amusement - for Margaret a brief release, a breath of fresh air after weeks, months, of relentless intensity.

The marine pressed a button and the door clicked open. Sophie followed Margaret out on to the steps. 'Listen,' she said. 'What are you doing tonight?'

'You mean apart from packing and watching CNN?'

'Yeah, apart from that.'

'Not much. But you know, I'd probably have to consult my social calendar to know for sure. Why?'

'There's a reception on at the Ambassador's residence for Michael Zimmerman.'

'Who?'

Sophie pulled a face. 'Aw, come on, you're kidding, right?' Margaret shook her head. Sophie said, 'You don't know who Michael Zimmerman is?'

Margaret continued shaking her head. 'Keeping asking won't change that.'

'Where have you been for the last five years? Don't you ever watch television I mean, other than the news?'

'Not in a very long time, Sophie.' And Margaret couldn't remember the last time she had watched anything but CNN in a Chinese hotel room. 'So who is he?'

'Only the most sexy man alive - at least, according to a poll of Cosmopolitan readers.'

'I thought that was Mel Gibson.'

Sophie shook her head. 'You are out of date.' The rain had stopped and they walked slowly to the gatehouse. 'Michael Zimmerman's an archaeologist.'

'An archaeologist?' Margaret was taken aback. 'That doesn't sound very sexy to me. What is he, real life's answer to Indiana Jones?'

Sophie smiled dreamily. 'Well, not far off it. He's made a whole bunch of documentary series for NBC on great archaeological finds around the world. He gets better ratings than the top cop shows.'

Margaret looked sceptical. 'The great American public finally discovers culture. So, what's his secret?'

Sophie shrugged. 'There's something about him ... I don't know, he just brings the whole thing to life.' She paused, giving it serious thought for a moment. 'Plus, he's got a great ass.'

Margaret nodded seriously. 'Well, when it comes to culture, that definitely helps.' She went into the guardhouse and retrieved her purse and umbrella and stepped out on to the sidewalk. Sophie walked out after her. Margaret said, 'So why's the Ambassador holding a reception for him?'

'It's a pre-production party. Shooting starts tomorrow at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing. Some new documentary series on one of China's most revered archaeologists. Some guy I never heard of. But it's a big deal here. The Chinese have been bendingover backwards to facilitate the shoot, so the Ambassador's just doing his bit.'

'And Zimmerman's fronting the series?'

'Yes. It's his production company that's making it.' Sophie paused. 'So do you want to come? I can get an invitation sent round to your hotel.'

Margaret thought about it for a moment. It wouldn't take her long to pack, and it wouldn't break her heart to give room service and CNN a final miss. 'Sure,' she said. 'Why not? I can run a rule over Mr Zimmerman's ass and see if it measures up.'

 

Margaret left Sophie at the consular section on the corner of Silk Street, grateful that the assistant RSO had had the sensitivity not to ask her the questions that everyone else she had met over the last ten weeks had asked. She pushed her way down through the narrow market lane, past great bolts of silk and racks of dressing gowns and shirts and dresses, to the six-lane Jianguomenwei Avenue that cut through the east-central city like an open wound. Here, twenty-first-century towers of glass and marble rose above the roar of traffic into the pall of pollution that hung low over the capital, and from their upturned Chinese eaves looked down on the crumbling remains of a disappearing city: the hutongs and siheyuans where street and family life bled one into the other; the real Beijing that was in danger of being swept away on the tide of financial success generated by a new devotion to the free-market economy.

She had no plan, no real notion of where she was going or what she wanted to do, other than the certain knowledge that she did not want to return to her hotel room. There was some desire in her, some need, to drink in this city for the last time, to let it wash over her, to feel its vital, vibrant life. She realised, with a dreadful ache, that she would miss it, with all its noise and pollution and traffic, its shouting, spitting, staring people, its sights and sounds and sometimes awful smells. But then sheknew, too, that none of it meant anything without the man who had steered her through it, taught her to love it.

Why had he never been in touch? There was as much anger as hurt raging inside her. Not a call, not a letter. Nothing. Despite what she had led the First Secretary to believe, she had heard about Li's release. They had told her, during one of those countless debriefings, that he had been reinstated. She had expected him to contact her. It was one of the reasons she had made no attempt to integrate with the social life of the embassy, despite umpteen invitations. Instead she had waited night after night by the phone in her hotel room for a call that never came. Once, she had phoned the offices of Section One of the Criminal Investigation Department in Dongzhimen and asked, in English, for Deputy Section Chief Li Yan. The request had caused some consternation at the other end of the line. Finally, someone speaking halting English had asked who she was, then told her that Deputy Section Chief Li was unavailable.

The No. 4 bus appeared out of the haze, and Margaret jostled with the Chinese in the queue to climb aboard and hand her five fen to the bus conductress, who scowled at her suspiciously. Yangguizi, foreign devils, never travelled by bus. Margaret ignored the faces turned towards her in unabashed curiosity as she clung to the overhead rail, squeezed in among all these bodies. It was extraordinary, she thought, how it was possible to feel so alone in a city of eleven million people.

She battled her way to the door and got off just past the Beijing Hotel, from where Western journalists had watched the tanks heading for their confrontation with demonstrating students in Tiananmen Square eleven years before. She crossed to the other side of East Chang'an Avenue via an underpass. This was foolish, she knew, a needless, self-inflicted pain. But still her feet carried her to the corner of Zhengyi Road, and she turned down into its tree-lined seclusion, away from the thunder of traffic on the main avenue. On her right, the compound of the Ministry of Public Security was hidden away behind a highstone wall, occupying the former home of the British Embassy. Further down, the apartment blocks provided for senior police officers rose above the still-lush green trees of early fall.

She felt sick now, and there was a lump in her throat as if something she had swallowed was stuck there. She had no difficulty identifying Li's apartment on the second floor, the three rooms he had shared with his uncle. She smiled, remembering the night they had spent there, when they might have made love but hadn't because she had drunk too much. And she remembered a cold, damp railway carriage in some anonymous siding in the north of the country where she had finally lain in his arms and they had declared their love. When they had returned to Beijing to reveal why three men had been murdered, and to clear Li of the accusations levelled against him by frightened men, he had told her to wait for him. He had told her he loved her. And she had waited. And waited.

She wiped the tears from her face and became aware of the security guard at the gate watching her curiously, this strange blonde-haired, blue-eyed yangguizi, standing weeping on the sidewalk, staring up at an anonymous apartment building. She turned quickly away. This was futile, stupid. It was history, and she was leaving in the morning. Her life was too full of pain for there to be any pleasure in looking back. She could only go forward.

A small, red taxi cruised slowly up the other side of the street. She called, and waved, and ran across the road. The taxi stopped and she jumped in. 'Ritan fandian,' she told the driver, and for a moment marvelled that he knew immediately what she meant. And then straight away felt saddened. China, its language, its people, had taken a long time getting into her soul and under her skin. And now that it had, she had no further use for it.

As the taxi headed back up towards East Chang'an Avenue, a tall broad-built Chinese man with close-cropped hair wheeled a bicycle out from the apartment compound. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt tucked into dark trousers at a narrowwaist. He stopped for a moment, feeling in his pockets. Then he turned to the security guard. 'You got any cigarettes, Feng?'

The security guard was uncomfortable. None of the other officers in the compound even spoke to him, never mind knew his name.

'Sure, Deputy Section Chief,' he said, taking an almost full pack from his pocket. 'Here, have it. I've got plenty.'

Li took it and smiled. 'I'll bring you a replacement on the way back tonight.'

'No need,' the guard said.

Li grinned. 'Yes there is. My uncle always told me a man with a debt is a man with a burden. See you tonight.' And he lit a cigarette and pushed off on his bike following, oblivious, in the wake of Margaret's taxi.

II

It was almost dark when Margaret passed through the security gate of Yi Ban, No. I building of the American Embassy on Guanghua Road, west of Ritan Park. On the right was the main administration block housing the Press Office and the Department of Cultural Affairs, a huge satellite dish oriented south-west on the lower roof. Straight ahead was the Ambassador's residence, a plain two-storey building with a brown tile roof. It stood at the end of a paved drive bordered by immaculately kept flowerbeds and silently weeping willows. On a tall flagpole the Stars and Stripes fluttered listlessly in the gentle evening breeze. From the street Margaret had heard the sounds of traditional Chinese music drifting languidly from the direction of the residence. Now, as she approached the double red doors at the front, she could see, through a latticed wall off to her right, the musicians - three men and two women - playing on an illuminated terrace.

The Ambassador himself met her at the door, accompanied by his wife, an attractive, statuesque woman in her middle-fifties. Margaret hadn't met her before, and the Ambassador made the introductions.

'Oh, yes,' his wife said, regarding Margaret with curiosity. 'You're the rice lady. I've heard so much about you.'

Sensing Margaret's embarrassment, and perhaps knowing something of her unpredictability, the Ambassador ushered her quickly inside to the cool of a dark marble-floored hallway. At the far end, a green-carpeted staircase curled up to the second floor where the Ambassador's family had their private apartments. Off to the left was a cloakroom and a guest bedroom. Through a square arch to the right, came the sound of voices lubricated by alcohol, early inhibitions already washed away. Margaret had not come early.

From the cloakroom, she saw the Ambassador having a quick word with his wife. Perhaps he was telling her that for a diplomat's wife she had just been very undiplomatic. Whatever he said, she did not seem impressed and strode away into the main lounge to rejoin her guests. He, however, remained unflappable, and took Margaret by the arm and steered her across thick-piled Chinese rugs through a passage towards a long lounge crowded with people. They passed a square room on their right, opulent classical Chinese furniture facing in to an ornately carved low table inlaid with mother of pearl. 'Our little reception room, specially for the Chinese,' he said. 'They do like us to make a little fuss. Makes 'em feel like honoured guests.'

The lounge was a subtly lit oblong space with full-length windows down one side, sofas and armchairs neatly arranged in ordered groups. White walls were hung with pastel-coloured silk and paper collages, different coloured discs representing ancient seals dangling from each like pendulums. The Ambassador followed Margaret's eyes to the pictures. 'Produced on paper handmade by master papermakers in Annhui Province. The works of Robert Rauschenberg.' He smiled his regret. 'Just onloan, sadly. Like most of the pieces in the house. Part of the State Department's Art in Embassies Program. Great idea. Just a pity we've got to give 'em back.' He signalled a waiter with a drinks tray. 'What'll you have?'

'Vodka tonic with ice and lemon,' she told the waiter. He nodded and melted away.

Meantime, the Ambassador had contrived some hidden signal, and Sophie emerged smiling from the crowd. 'Hi, glad you could make it.'

'I'll leave Sophie to introduce you to folk,' the Ambassador said. 'Got to keep mixing.' And with a smile and a wave he was gone. Margaret was relieved. There was something about him that always made her slightly uncomfortable - her sense that somehow he felt uncomfortable with her.

'You hungry?' Sophie asked, steering her towards the top of the room and through another square arch to a dining room which made a T with the lounge. Beneath a regimented array of photographs of vases and artefacts, a very long table groaned with salads and cold meats, and hot trays with bubbling Chinese dishes. Everything looked delicious, but Margaret had little appetite.

'Maybe later,' she said, looking around for the waiter and her drink. A group of guests had spilled out through open French windows on to the terrace where the quintet was playing. 'Who is everyone?' She was beginning to wonder why she had come. There was no one here who looked remotely as interesting as Sophie's description of Michael Zimmerman, and she wasn't really in the mood for making small talk.

'Oh, there's some senior members of the production team, representatives of the companies who're sponsoring the series. That bunch of Chinese over there ...' she nodded towards a group of men standing uncomfortably in suits and holding glasses of wine like they didn't know what to do with them, ' ... they represent the various government departments that have facilitated the shoot.'

'Excuse me, I think this is yours.'

Margaret turned to find a young man in a dark suit holding her vodka tonic. 'Oh, thanks,' she said, taking it from him.

'My pleasure,' he said and leaned across her to Sophie. 'Sophie, I think the Ambassador's looking for you.'

Sophie jumped. 'Oh. Is he?' She raised her eyebrows to Margaret in apology. 'Be right back.' And she hurried off.

Margaret took a long pull at her vodka and was slightly disconcerted to find that the young man was still there.

'Don't you just hate these things?' he said, tugging uncomfortably at his collar.

'Sure,' said Margaret, a little surprised. 'But in my case it's self-inflicted. At least you're getting paid to be here.'

He gave her a very odd look. 'I'm sorry?'

A sudden cloud of apprehension descended on her. She waved her glass at him. 'Well, aren't you ...? Didn't you

...? ' She didn't have the courage to finish, and he laughed suddenly.

'You thought I was the waiter?' And his face lit up with amusement, dark warm eyes twinkling at her.

'Oh, my God.' Margaret couldn't bring herself to look at him. 'I am so sorry.' But when she did sneak a glance, it was clear he had not taken offence.

'I'm afraid I'm a self-inflicted guest, just like you.' He had dimples either side of a wide smile, strong eyebrows below shiny auburn hair swept back from his temples. He was older than Margaret had first supposed, she saw now. Mid, perhaps even late, thirties. There was just the hint of grey streaked through his hair. 'The waiter was looking for you down the other end of the room. He said you were with Sophie, so I took the drink off him and figured if I could find Sophie I'd find you. And I did.'

Margaret was still overcome with the embarrassment of her faux pas. 'I'm so sorry,' she said again, at a loss for anything else to say.

'Don't be. It's my own fault really. I was so keen to meet thewoman who wanted to ...' he paused for effect, ' ... run the rule over my ass, that I completely forgot to introduce myself.'

Margaret felt her face flush with embarrassment.

He held out his hand. 'Michael Zimmerman.'

It was one of those few times in her life when Margaret was at a complete loss for words. She shook his hand, feeling like a total idiot. How could he possibly know about her conversation with Sophie? How could she possibly mistake him for a waiter? She didn't know which was more embarrassing. And those smiling eyes of his continued to hold her relentlessly in their gaze. She might have sunk without trace, but recovered just in time. 'Actually, the only way I'd measure anything of yours would be on an autopsy table.'

'Ah, yes,' he said, 'Sophie told me. We both deal in death, you and I.'

'Do we?'

'You cut them up, I dig them up.'

Margaret fixed him with a steely glare. 'And I've been set up, haven't I? Sophie hadn't even appeared when I ordered my drink. Who is she anyway, your little sister?'

'Close,' Michael said. 'She went to school with my little sister. Had a crush on me since she was three and I was fifteen.' He lifted a glass of red wine from the table and took a sip. 'She thought you needed cheering up.'

'Oh, did she?' Margaret wasn't sure she liked being an object of pity.

'Hey, don't be hard on her. She's a good kid. Smart, too.' He took another sip of wine. 'She just couldn't believe you didn't know who I was.'

'And neither, presumably, could you. Must be a bit of a blow to the celebrity ego to find that not everyone in the world knows who you are.'

'Hey ...' Michael grinned. 'Now don't start getting chippy on me. I said I would only participate in this childish prank if you turned out to be drop-dead gorgeous.'

In spite of herself, Margaret couldn't resist a smile. 'Oh, did you?'

'So I watched for you coming in, and ...'

'And ...? '

'Well, I just figured anybody that ugly sure as hell needs cheering up.'

Margaret laughed, and was surprised to find herself attracted to him. Which was disturbing. Was she really drawn to the same stereotypical male that appealed to the readership of Cosmopolitan? The thought filled her with horror. But then, she consoled herself, the readership of Cosmopolitan had never met him in the flesh. It wasn't the image she found attractive, but the man. And she had no preconceived perception of him as a media personality. She'd thought he was a waiter, for God's sake! Anyway, it was a long time since she had indulged in a little harmless flirting. 'I should have realised,' she said. 'A real waiter would have had more class.'

'I'm sure he would,' Michael said. 'It's what my critics accuse me of. A lack of class. You know, the kind of snobbish elitism that would normally consign a documentary on archaeology to some obscure cable channel watched by a handful of people.'

'Ouch,' said Margaret. 'Did I touch a nasty contusion just beneath the skin?'

'No,' Michael grinned. 'A great big open wound. I just got mauled by the TV critic of the New York Times, who thinks I reduce history to the level of soap opera.'

'And do you?'

'Well, yes, actually I probably do,' Michael nodded. 'But, you know, what that guy missed is that good soap opera is just good storytelling, and history is bursting with good stories to be told. I mean, you're a forensic pathologist, right?' Margaret nodded. 'So nobody knows better than you. Every crime has its story, motivated by any number of things - greed, lust, jealousy

... And it's your job to peel away the layers that obscure thatstory, to piece together, bit by bit, the trail of evidence that will lead eventually to the truth.'

Margaret laughed. 'You make it sound almost exciting. I can assure you, most of the time it's pretty dull.'

He had become quite intense, focused, as if holding something in his mind's eye that required absolute concentration to describe. 'Of course it is. It's a painful, painstaking process that requires endless patience and a clear vision of where it's leading. But the truth is never dull - that extraordinary mix of human passion and frailty, maybe darkness, that leads to the commission of the crime. Do you see what I mean?'

Margaret shook her head. She had no idea where he was leading her. 'I'm afraid not.'

'It's what I do,' he said. 'The same thing as you. It's what archaeology is all about. Peeling back the layers - usually of time - to uncover the evidence, all the little clues left us by history, that will lead eventually to the truth. And how extraordinary that truth can be. How compelling and emotive, and filled with the same human passion and frailty and darkness that motivates the crimes that you investigate. Why shouldn't I bring those stories to people? They're good stories. A good story is always worth telling. And if you tell it well you'll get an audience.' He stopped suddenly, as if surprised by his own outburst and uncertain as to where it had led him.

Margaret shrugged. 'So ... the TV critic of the New York Times can stick it up his ass?'

There was just a moment before Michael burst out laughing, an uninhibited, infectious laugh. 'Now why didn't I think of that? I could have saved myself a lot of hot air.'

But in that 'hot air', Margaret had caught, perhaps, a glimpse of what it was that had made him so successful on the small screen: the passion and personality that compelled you to listen, to hear his story, an intensity that in life, she thought, could become wearing. Although in Michael's case, she considered,his sense of humour might just be a mitigating factor. That, and a great ass.

He drained his glass and lifted another, nodding towards the terrace. 'You want to step outside? It's getting a bit airless in here.'

They followed the dark marble tiles out from the dining room through the French windows on to the terrace. It was immediately cooler, a light breeze stirring the hanging fronds of the willow that in daytime would provide much needed shade from the sun.

'Two moons out tonight,' Michael said, and Margaret immediately looked up, but could see nothing through the dark haze of pollution and cloud. He smiled at her consternation and nodded towards the quintet playing intently, lost in their own world, at the far side of the terrace. He leaned towards her, confidentially. 'The two guitar-like instruments with the circular sound boxes - they're called ruans, or sometimes "moon guitars". You can see why.' And Margaret could, particularly out here on the terrace, the pale wood of the perfectly round sound boxes flashing in the reflected light of discreet overhead lamps, for all the world like two moons dancing in time to the music. She liked the analogy. There was something pleasing about it. She finished her vodka.

'Shall I get you another?' Michael asked.

'No. It would only encourage me to get drunk.' She paused selfconsciously, then added quickly, 'And, besides, the waiters in here aren't up to much.'

He smiled, but had sensed in her the melancholy she had immediately tried to disguise. He said, 'You've had a rough few months.'

She flashed him a look, more defensive than hostile. 'And you'd know all about that.'

He shrugged. 'No. All I really know is that you're the lady who put out those scare stories on the Net about genetically contaminated rice.'

'They weren't scare stories,' she almost snapped.

'they,' he said, and raised his palms protectively. 'I don't know about you, but I figure that claims that half the population of the world is at risk are pretty scary.'

She relented a little and forced a half-hearted smile. 'We feared the worst. You should just be glad it didn't turn out that way in the end. But don't underestimate it. OK, so the virus wasn't there in all the rice, and thank God a lot of people turned out to have a natural immunity, but there are still millions of people at risk.'

'I read they think there's a cure just around the corner.'

'Well, let's hope they're right.'

There was an awkward pause. Then Michael said, 'So, I suppose it's you to blame for us having to eat all these goddamn noodles. Boy, that must have made you popular with the Chinese.'

She grinned sheepishly. 'Another few weeks and the first new crop'll be in. They just went back to the old, natural seed. And they can harvest three crops a year, so they'll get their precious rice back soon enough.'

They stood in silence then, listening to the strange cadences of the traditional Chinese music, the wail of the two-stringed erh hu violin, the haunting breath of the purple bamboo flute, the two moons dancing, and the twang of the dulcimer. Margaret had no idea what to say. She had just dismissed the last three months of her life in a sentence, and made light of it, as if none of it had ever really mattered. She was aware of Michael's sheer physicality as he stood silently at her shoulder. How was it possible, she wondered, that she could be attracted to this man when her relationship with Li had left her so raw? The thought scared her a little. And she remembered what it was most people usually forgot - that there was no such thing as harmless flirting.

'I'd better go,' she said.

'You've only just arrived.'

'Yeah, but it's your party. I don't want to monopolise you.'

'You can monopolise me any time.'

She glanced at him, looking for the smile, but he wasn't smiling, and she felt a flutter of fear in her breast, like a butterfly trapped just beneath the skin. But, then, suddenly she felt him relax again.

'Look, why don't you come out to location tomorrow? We're setting up some dramatic recreations at the Ming Tombs. It's only an hour out of Beijing.'

'I'm sorry, I can't,' she said. 'I have a flight to catch in the morning.'

He frowned. 'Where are you going?'

'Home,' she said simply.

He seemed confused. 'Home being where?'

'Chicago.'

'When'll you be back?'

'Never,' she said, and the finality of the word struck her like a blow, bringing her to her senses. 'I really do have to go.'

'Hi, how are you two getting on?' They both turned at the sound of Sophie's voice as she stepped on to the terrace.

'You didn't tell me she was leaving tomorrow,' Michael said, almost a hint of accusation in his voice. He turned to Margaret. 'And we haven't even been properly introduced.'

'Probably better that way,' Margaret said. 'If you never say hello, you never have to say goodbye.' She turned to Sophie. 'Thanks for the invite. I've enjoyed it. But I still have my packing to do.' She forced a smile and nodded, and pushed off through the dining room, bumping shoulders with guests down the length of the long lounge. She retrieved her things from the cloakroom and hurried through the big red doors and down the steps into the cool evening.

In the street she stopped for a breath. The sound of the music had receded to a distant tinkle. She put a hand on the wall to steady herself. It had been her first encounterwith real life, with normality, for far too long. And it had been much too heady. Like the first draw on a cigarette after years of abstinence. She would have to break herself in more gently.

III

He heard Margaret calling for help. Long, insistent cries. But he couldn't see her - only a flickering glimmer of light somewhere beyond this darkness that enveloped him like a web, entrapping him in its blind, sticky mesh. But the plaintiveness of her voice was gut-wrenching, and he knew he could not reach her, could not help. He sat bolt upright, suddenly awake, lathered in sweat, entangled in the bed sheet. And the long, single ring of the telephone in the living room pierced his consciousness. He leaped quickly out of bed and was halfway down the hall, intent on reaching the phone so it wouldn't waken his uncle, before he remembered that Yifu was dead. And the memory came like a blow in the solar plexus, painful, sickening. He almost cried out from the pain. He clattered breathlessly into the living room, and in the darkness knocked over the tiny telephone table. The phone rattled away across the linoleum, the receiver tumbling from its cradle. He could hear a strange and disembodied voice in the dark. 'Wei ... wei ...' Scrambling naked across the floor, struggling to see in the reflected glow of the streetlight outside, he finally found the receiver. 'Li Yan.'

'Deputy Section Chief, this is the duty officer at Beixinqiao Santiao. There's been another murder.'

Li had retrieved the rest of the phone by now and turned on a lamp beside the sofa. He sat down and glanced at his watch. It was 4 a.m. 'Another beheading?'

'Yes, boss.'

'Where?'

'An apartment on the fourth floor at No. 7 Tuan Jie Hu Dongli in Chaoyang District.'

'Who's out there?'

'Detective Qian left a few minutes ago. Do you want me to send a car?'

'No, it'll be as quick by bike. I'm on my way.'

Li hung up and sat for a moment, heart pounding, breathing hard. Another murder. He felt sick. Then he wondered if he would ever get used to his uncle not being there. That quiet voice so full of calm and reason, a wisdom and intelligence that Li knew he could never aspire to. He rubbed his face vigorously to try to banish the final vestiges of sleep, and the cloud of depression that hung over him whenever he thought about Yifu. He wished he believed in ghosts. He wished that Yifu would come back and haunt him, not just be there in his mind, in his memories. And yet he knew that a part of his uncle lived on in him. He still had a responsibility to him, and a hell of a lot to live up to. It had never been easy to walk in the footsteps of one of the most revered police officers in Beijing while he was alive. It was even harder now that he was gone.

Li went back to his bedroom and pulled on his jeans, a pair of trainers and a white tee shirt. He took his black leather jacket from the wardrobe and checked that he had cigarettes and his maroon Public Security ID wallet. He lit a cigarette and screwed up his face at the foul taste of it. He paused for a moment, then on an impulse he went into his uncle's bedroom. He'd left it just as the old man kept it when he was alive. Personal things laid out neatly on the dresser, pictures on the wall; a photograph of Yifu as a young police officer setting off for Tibet in 1950; a picture of Yifu and his wife - the aunt Li had never met; a photograph of Yifu at his retirement banquet, his round face beaming broadly below a mop of curling black hair, a glaze over his normally bright eyes - he had drunk far too much beer. Li smiled and touched the picture, as if in touching the image of his uncle he could somehow reach him again in some other life. But it wasjust glass beneath his fingers, cold and lifeless. He turned quickly and switched out the light, and hurried from the apartment.

The night-shift security guard nodded as Li wheeled his bike out into Zhengyi Road and headed north up to East Chang'an Avenue. There was very little traffic about at this time, the odd private car, the occasional convoy of great rumbling trucks hauling coal south from the pits north of the city. There were virtually no other cyclists, and Li had the cycle lane to himself. He pedalled hard through the dappled light of streetlamps shining through the trees. Most of the neon and coloured arc lights that illuminated so many of the new buildings at night were turned off at this time. It was the darkest hour of the night. And Li fought to keep the darkest thoughts from his mind.

This was the fourth beheading in what were, as far as anyone knew, the first ever serial killings in Beijing. Four murders in as many weeks. Bloody, execution-style killings, each following the same bizarre ritual, chilling in their cold, calculated and entirely premeditated nature. He tried to shut out of his mind the scene that he knew would confront him. He had seen many murder victims in his time, and victims of all manner of accidental death, but never had he seen so much blood. It was hard to believe the body held so much. And when it was such a vibrant, freshly oxygenated red, the effect was shocking.

Li passed under the flyover of the second ring road and continued east, past the CITIC building and the China World Trade Centre, before turning north again on the third ring road. In a couple of hours, the city would be waking, bleary-eyed cyclists jamming the cycle lanes heading for work. The traffic would start to build, so that by eight almost all the main arteries would have ground to a halt, and row upon row of frustrated motorists would peep their horns and rev their engines, belching filthy, unregulated fumes into the already toxic atmosphere. Cycling in Beijing had long since ceased to be a pleasure.

But as yet the third ring road was still deserted, not a single vehicle or cyclist along its length as far as Li couldsee. He could almost believe he was alone in the city. Until he turned east into Tuan Jie Hu Dongli and saw, about two hundred yards along this normally secluded, tree-lined street, a crowd of several hundred people gathered around a phalanx of police and forensic vehicles drawn into the sidewalk at Building No. 7. These were people from up and down the street, woken from their sleep by the sirens of police and ambulance. Hastily dressed figures, some still in slippers, pressed around the official vehicles, puffy faces below tousled hair straining for a sight of what was going on. Several dozen uniformed officers assigned to crowd control were already erecting temporary barriers. More people were emerging all the time from tenement closes. Li had to force his way through to the barriers, and a po-faced young uniformed officer would not let him through until he had flashed his Ministry ID. Another officer, this time one Li recognised, stood sentry by the entrance to the close.

'Where's Detective Qian?' Li asked.

The officer jerked his thumb over his shoulder. 'Up the stairs. Fourth floor.'

The walls of the close were scarred and dirty. They had probably never been painted since the apartments were first built in the seventies. There was a damp, airless smell in the stairwell, a faint whiff of urine. Rusted old bicycles jostled for space on each landing, doors to apartments shuttered behind steel grilles. Li climbed the stairs two at a time. A number of uniformed officers stood smoking on the fourth landing, a couple of forensics men, wearing tell-tale white gloves, leaned on the rail and watched him come up. Bright light spilled out from the apartment.

Li nodded grimly and squeezed in the door, past a tiny kitchen on his left, a toilet on the right. There were a couple of flimsy flip-flop sandals by a cabinet just past the kitchen door - a change of footwear for the interior in more fastidious times. Beyond was a narrow room with built-in cupboards at the far end, and a table littered with the detritus of everydaylife: newspapers, cigarettes, an overflowing ashtray, dirty dinner plates waiting to be cleared away. To the left, interior windows gave on to a bedroom filled with light from the streetlamps outside. To the right, a tiny living room with a sofa and TV, and a screen door opening on to a glassed balcony. There was a smell of stale cigarettes and cooking, and the merest hint of something strangely sharp, almost sweet, that Li could not identify.

The body was in the living room. Li smelled the blood before he saw the crouched shape of the fallen decapitated figure, the head two feet further away, lying on its side, eyes staring back towards him. The flash of the police photographer's camera unexpectedly burned the image into Li's brain, the great pool of red made more vivid in the sudden blinding light.

Detective Qian's gaunt face swam into view. He nodded grimly. 'Just the same as the others, boss.'

Qian was nearly ten years older than Li, considerably more experienced. But he didn't have Li's flair or imagination, which is why Li, at the age of thirty-three, had been promoted ahead of him. But Qian had had no ill feelings. He knew what his limitations were, and he was a good judge of others' abilities. He was absolutely dependable, and Li leaned on him heavily. Besides which, he was as straight as they come. There was no side to Qian. What you saw was what you got, and Li knew there was never any danger of their misunderstanding each other.

'When the photographer's finished let's clear this place,' Li said. 'There's too many people in here.'

'Sure. I think he's just about done. The doc's looking at the body now.' Qian immediately started moving people out.

Dr Wang Xing, the duty pathologist from the Centre of Criminal Technological Determination in Pao Jü Hutong, was crouched over the body. He had an unlit cigarette clamped between pursed lips and blood on his white gloves. He stood up and slowly peeled them off, stepping carefully over an area of floor where the linoleum had been pulled back and floorboards lifted. Avoiding the great pool of blood that had drained intothe hole, and the characteristic spatter patterns left by the jets of blood that had shot from the carotid arteries, he picked his way out into the hall. The cigarette had stuck to his lips and he peeled it carefully away and grinned. '"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you" ...'

'Rudyard Kipling,' Li said.

'Ah,' said Pathologist Wang. 'A man of letters.'

'My uncle had a book of his poetry.'

'Well, of course ... He would, wouldn't he?' The pathologist dropped his soiled gloves into a plastic bag and almost sang, 'You're going to have to catch this guy, Li. Or it'll be your head.' He pulled a lighter from his pocket.

'Don't light that in here,' Li said. 'I don't suppose there's any need to ask you about the cause of death?'

Pathologist Wang shrugged and put his lighter away. 'Well, it's pretty obvious that someone cut his head off. Not quite as cleanly as the previous victims - but it might just be that his blade's starting to get a little blunt.' Li ignored the jibe. 'From the amount of blood I think you could safely say that his heart was still beating when the blow came. So, yes, I'd happily put money on decapitation being the cause of death.'

'But only,' said Li, 'if the government ever decides to legalise gambling.'

Pathologist Wang smiled. His addiction to cards and mah jong was well known. 'I was speaking figuratively, of course.'

'Of course,' said Li. He would not have been surprised if money changed hands at Pao Jü Hutong on the outcome of autopsies. 'What about time of death.'

'Ah,' said Wang. 'Now that really is a lottery.'

'Your best guess, then.'

The pathologist scratched his chin thoughtfully. 'It takes about twelve hours for rigor mortis to reach its stiffest. He's not quite there yet.' Wang looked at his watch. 'About nine hours, maybe. Say ... eight, eight-thirty last night, give or take two or three hours.' He waved his cigarette at Li. 'I'm goingoutside for a smoke if you need me for anything else.' He pushed out on to the landing.

Li stepped carefully into the sitting room and surveyed the scene. Qian followed at his shoulder.

The body had toppled forward from a kneeling position, and then fallen on to its side, so there was something oddly foetal about its final resting position. Except for the fact that the arms were pinned behind the back, tied at the wrist. Li crouched to have a closer look. Silk cord. Just like all the others. As he stood up and moved carefully round the body, he saw the eyes of the disembodied head watching him. They gave the disconcerting impression of following him as he stepped across the room. He looked away, and his eyes fell on a once white placard lying partially in the main pool of blood. The cord with which it had hung around the neck of the victim had been severed and was stained dark red. Carefully, Li lifted an unbloodied corner of the placard to reveal characters daubed in red ink on the other side. A nickname, Digger, was written upside down and crossed through. Above it, three single, horizontal strokes. The number 3. All so familiar.

Li stood up and looked around the room and realised that something wasn't right. There was a sofa, a table with a lamp, a TV cabinet with a small set on top. The sofa was old, but it didn't look sat in. There were no knick-knacks, personal belongings of any sort, papers, mail. Li picked his way carefully around the body and saw that a wastebasket by the TV cabinet was empty. He opened the cabinet. Nothing.

'What is it, boss?' Qian asked.

Li went out into the dining area and opened the built-in cupboards against the back wall. There were a couple of jackets, a pair of trousers, a couple of pairs of shoes. They were big cupboards, but they seemed very empty. 'Do we know who he is yet?' Li asked, and he went through to the kitchen.

'Still working on it, boss,' Qian said. 'It's a privately owned apartment. The guy had been renting for about three months,but none of the neighbours knew who he was. They hardly ever saw him.'

'What about the street committee?'

'They don't know either. Since the apartment wasn't provided by his danwei ...'

Li cursed the move to privatise housing. It might be desirable for people to own their own homes, but it was breaking down the traditional structure of Chinese society. The opposite ends of the new economic spectrum, home ownership and unemployment, were creating a large, unregistered, floating population that was almost impossible to keep track of. It was proving a breeding ground for crime. He threw open the kitchen cupboards. Apart from a few cans, and some prepackaged dried noodles, they were empty, too.

'Who raised the alarm?'

'Couple in the flat below.' Qian wrinkled his face 'The guy woke up to find the top sheet of their bed soaking wet. He thought for a minute he'd pissed himself during the night. Till he got the light on. The sheet's bright red. He starts screaming, thinking it's his own blood. His wife wakes up and she starts screaming, too. Then she sees the big red patch on the ceiling, and the blood dripping through. They were both pretty shaken up.'

He followed Li through to the bedroom and watched him as he carefully pulled back the top covers and examined the sheets, then checked inside the bedside cabinet before getting on his knees to look under the bed. 'What is it you're looking for, boss?'

Li stood up and was thoughtful for a moment. 'No one's been living here, Qian,' he said. 'Someone's been using the place, cooking the odd meal, staying over the odd night. But it's not been lived in. There are no clothes or personal stuff, no food ...'

Qian shrugged. 'There's washing hanging out there on the balcony.'

'Let's take a look.'

They moved with great care back through the living room and out the screen door on to the glassed balcony. A circular drying rack was suspended from the ceiling, and hanging from it were a shirt and two pairs of socks. Li put out his arm to stop Qian from touching it. He rummaged in his pockets and brought out a small pocket flashlight. He shone it towards the ceiling above the drying rack, and in its light they saw the complex silver traces of an elaborate cobweb. A big, fat, black spider scurried away from the light. Li switched it off. 'There was certainly a washing done here. But it was some time ago.' He looked thoughtfully at Qian. 'Let's talk to the folk downstairs.'

 

The officer who'd been sitting with old Hua seemed glad to get away. As he passed Qian on the way out he put his hand up to his chest and made a mouth with it that opened and closed, and he raised his eyes to the heavens. The apartment was the same layout as the one above, but old Hua and his wife used it differently. They dined in the same central room, shelves of crockery hidden behind a checked drape, but slept in the smaller back room, and lived in the front room that looked down on to the street. The contrast with the apartment above could not have been greater. Here was a place that was lived in, every corner crammed with furniture, every surface cluttered and piled with the stuff of daily living. There were family photographs pinned to the wall, a calendar, some old posters from the twenties and thirties advertising soap and cigarettes. The place smelled of soiled clothes and body sweat and cooking. It smelled of life.

'Have some tea.' The old man waved his hand at the table. 'The water's still hot.' But Li and Qian declined. From the bathroom they heard the sound of running water. 'That's her third shower,' old Hua said. 'Silly old bitch thinks she's still got blood on her. I told her she was clean. But she won't listen.'

The old man was almost completely bald. What little hair remained he had shaved into his scalp. He was wearing bluecotton trousers and a grubby-looking white shirt that hung open, exposing a buddha-like belly and breasts. He had nothing on his feet and was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

'I mean, it's not as if I'm not used to death,' he said. 'I was only scared when I thought it was my blood. Other people's blood doesn't bother me.'

Li pulled up a chair. 'How is it that you're used to death?' he asked. He had encountered death himself, many times, and had never got used to it.

Old Hua grinned. 'I work for the Public Utilities Bureau,' he said. 'Have done for thirty years. It's not unlike your Public Security Bureau. We're both in charge of people. Only with you it's the living. With me it's the dead.'

Qian frowned. 'Public Utilities ... You work at a crematorium?'

'I don't just work there,' Hua corrected him. 'I'm a mortician,' he said proudly. 'It's a long time since I went round with the wagon fetching corpses from their homes. I dress up the bodies now - for the benefit of the living, of course. Taught myself from books on cosmetics and barbering. Mind you, it's not so easy with some of these accident victims. You know, when the face is all smashed up and you've got to use cotton wool, and paper pulp, and plaster and the like to re-make it—.'

'Yes, well right now,' Li interrupted him, 'we're all dealing with the dead.'

Old Hua jerked his head toward the ceiling. 'Him up there?'

'How well did you know him?'

'I didn't. I passed him on the stairs, maybe twice. Didn't look like he had that much blood in him. A washed-out sort of face he had, pasty and pale. What did they do to him to make him bleed like that?'

'They?'

'Well, whoever did it.'

'So you didn't see anyone coming or going last night?'

'Not a soul.'

'And you didn't hear anything?'

'Not a thing. The wife's half deaf, you know. We have to have the television up at a terrible volume. We never hear anything from above or below.'

'When did you go to bed?'

'That would be about nine o'clock. I'm normally at my work by six.' He scratched his belly and stubbed out his cigarette.

So there was no sign of the blood at nine. Li guessed that beneath the floorboards there wouldn't be much of substance between floor and ceiling. That amount of blood would have soaked through fairly quickly. Which would put the killing perhaps a couple of hours later than the doctor's estimate.

'When did you wake up?'

Old Hua started rolling another cigarette. 'I don't know for sure. About three, half-three maybe.' Which narrowed the time of the murder to a six-hour window.

Li said, 'How long do you think the blood had been dripping on you?'

Hua shrugged. 'Who knows. Usually I sleep like a baby. And the wife takes pills, so it takes a bomb to wake her. But it was pretty sticky, so it couldn't have been that fresh.'

Maybe around midnight, then, Li thought. When the street would be deserted and most people in their beds. He jerked his thumb towards the bedroom. 'Do you mind if we take a look?'

'Go ahead.' Hua finished rolling and lit his cigarette.

Li and Qian went to the bedroom door and surveyed the dark stain on the ceiling, the blood drying brown on the crumpled bed sheet below.

'Just who's going to clean up all that mess?' the old man shouted through. 'That's what I want to know.'

Li turned back into the hall and was startled by the apparition of old Hua's wife, stark naked, emerging from the bathroom clutching a towel. She let out a tiny scream of frightand with a judder of old and sagging breasts, hurried back into the bathroom and slammed the door.

Old Hua just laughed. 'Not a pretty sight, eh?'

Li and Qian exchanged glances and suppressed smiles.

'Thank you, Mr Hua,' Li said. 'We'll take full statements from you and your wife later.' He paused at the door. 'One more thing. Do you have any idea who owns the apartment upstairs?'

'Nope. The guy who had it died about a year ago and left it to some relative who's been renting it out. Just like the old landlords, eh? We had a revolution to get rid of these types. Seems like we've just come full circle.'

As Li and Qian re-entered the victim's apartment on the fourth floor, two assistants were manoeuvring the corpse into a body bag for removal to Pao Jü Hutong, where the autopsy would be carried out in a few hours' time.

'Once forensics are finished, I want the apartment sealed off,' Li said. 'No one gets in here without referring to me first. And I want to know who the hell owns this place. If anyone knows who our John Doe is, it's got to be the guy who rented him the apartment.'

A sudden commotion in the back room distracted him. One of the assistants called out, 'Is Deputy Section Chief Li still around?'

'Here,' Li said, and crossed quickly to the room.

The assistant stood up and handed him what appeared to be a small, dark blue notebook. 'It was hanging out his back pocket.'

Li held the corner of it between thumb and forefinger, and his heart skipped a beat as he recognised the silver crest on the front. It wasn't a notebook. It was a passport. He eased it open and looked at the photograph inside, then at the head still staring back at him from the floor. His eyes flickered down the page to the name, Yuan Tao.

'Shit,' he whispered, realising the implications.

'What is it?' Qian asked anxiously over his shoulder.

'This might be the same as the other murders in almost every other detail. But there's one very big difference.' He held up the passport and Qian immediately recognised the eagle crest. 'This guy's an American.'

IV

'This had better be good.' Margaret strode across the floor of the lobby in the Ritan Hotel, glancing at her watch, Sophie hurrying in her wake. 'I've got exactly two hours to finish packing and get to the airport.' She stopped at the glass doors and turned to Sophie. 'Anyway, how can you not know what it's about?'

'Because they haven't told me anything. Honest, Margaret. All I know is the RSO's been in with the Ambassador for the last two hours and all engagements for the rest of the morning have been cancelled.'

They ran down the steps to where a sleek black embassy limousine idled quietly in the damp morning air.

'And they didn't need to send a car, for God's sake!' said Margaret. 'It's just a couple of streets away.'

'They said it was urgent.' Sophie opened the door for Margaret and then slid in after her.

'This isn't one of your little jokes, is it?' Margaret said, suddenly suspicious. The car drew away from the steps and swung out of the gate, past the glowering security guards.

'Of course not,' Sophie said. Her tone was defensive, even hurt. 'I'm sorry if my little bit of fun backfired last night.'

'It didn't,' Margaret said quickly, but she avoided meeting Sophie's eye. 'Bit of a coincidence, though, you being his little sister's best friend.'

'Not really. Michael was out here most of last year shootingthe series that starts back home next month. It was he who encouraged me to apply for the posting. China sounded, well ... a bit exotic. And so here I am.'

'And so is he - for the next few months if he's just starting filming. I don't suppose that had anything to do with your decision to apply for the job?'

Sophie turned and smiled. 'I can always dream, can't I? But I'm sure he'd much rather spend time with you than me. He was disappointed that you left so early last night.'

Margaret checked her watch again and changed the subject. 'I hope this isn't going to take too long, Sophie, or the American government will be picking up the tab for me missing my flight.'

Sophie shrugged. 'Who knows - maybe the Chinese have refused you an exit visa.'

Margaret turned, genuinely shocked. 'They couldn't do that, could they?'

 

The Ambassador's secretary led them straight into his office. The Ambassador, in his customary shirtsleeves - rolled up this time - was standing with hands on hips looking out of the window. Stan Palmer sat at the coffee table sipping black coffee, papers spread in front of him. His normally smooth facade seemed a little ruffled.

Jon Dakers, the Regional Security Officer, was perched on a corner of the Ambassador's desk, talking into the telephone. He sounded agitated. 'Well, get them to give me a call as soon as they've got it. And fax it direct to the embassy.'

The Ambassador turned as Margaret and Sophie entered. 'Thank you for coming so promptly, Margaret.'

'What's this all about, Mr Ambassador? I need to be at the airport in less than two hours.'

'And I need a favour, Margaret.' He crossed the room and indicated that she should take a seat. She did so, reluctantly. The Ambassador remained standing. He paused for a moment.Then, 'A member of the embassy staff, a Chinese-American called Yuan Tao, was murdered last night,' he said. 'Someone decapitated him.'

'Jesus,' Margaret said.

'And it gets worse,' Stan said, raising what looked suspiciously like a plucked eyebrow.

'Really?' said Margaret. 'I can't think of anything much worse than decapitation.'

'For us, not for him,' Dakers said, crossing the room to stand beside the Ambassador. The RSO was a solid, square man, an ex-cop, bald and aggressive, with a close-cropped silver-grey beard. 'He was murdered in an apartment he'd been renting in the Chaoyang District.' He paused, as if this should mean something to Margaret.

'So?' she asked.

Stan said, 'Embassy staff are allocated apartments in special embassy compounds. In Yuan Tao's case, a two-room affair in a block just behind the Friendship Store.'

'Technically,' Jon Dakers said, 'he was breaking the law.'

'Yeah, I know,' Margaret said. She had bitter experience. 'You got to register where you're staying with Public Security, and they get pretty pissed if you spend even one night somewhere else.'

'And the Chinese are, indeed, pretty pissed,' said the Ambassador.

'They're embarrassed,' Dakers corrected him. 'An American citizen's been murdered on their patch. They're looking for any way to pass the buck.'

A sudden worm of suspicion worked its way into Margaret's mind. 'Wait a minute. When you say this guy was "a member of the embassy staff", is this some kind of euphemism?'

The Ambassador chuckled grimly. 'He wasn't a spy, if that's what you mean.'

'And, of course, you'd tell me if he was.'

'No,' the Ambassador said, 'but I'm telling you he wasn't.He was a low-level official. Only been out here about six months, working on the visa line.'

'Which probably gives a few thousand people a motive for doing him in,' Stan said.

'We're waiting on the State Department sending his file,' Dakers said.

There was a pause, then, that no one seemed anxious to fill. Margaret glanced around the faces looking expectantly at her.

'So what's any of this got to do with me?' she asked.

The Ambassador rounded the sofa and sat down. 'The Chinese police believe they have a serial killer on their hands. They think Yuan Tao is victim number four. The other three were Chinese nationals. But this guy's an American citizen. And we'd like you to carry out the autopsy.'

'What?' Margaret was stunned.

'You've worked with them before,' Dakers said.

'Look,' Margaret said, 'I came here last spring to lecture for six weeks at the University of Public Security. I did one autopsy as a favour - and spent the next three months regretting it. I do not want to get involved again.'

'Margaret, I understand perfectly.' The Ambassador leaned forward earnestly. He was drawing on all his powers of diplomacy. 'But there's no way we can get anyone else out here fast enough. Besides which, the Chinese trust you.'

'Do they?' Margaret was amazed.

'Well, they've agreed to let you do the autopsy - or, at least to assist.'

'And if I refuse?'

'We all have certain obligations to our country, Margaret.' The Ambassador sat back, playing his trump card - the appeal to her patriotism.

Margaret had always wondered what all that swearing allegiance to the flag and singing the national anthem at school was about. Now she knew. She sighed. 'I'll have to rearrange my flight.'

'Already taken care of,' Stan said smugly.

'Oh, is it?' Margaret threw him a hostile glance and stood up.

'Oh, and one other thing,' Stan said, and she saw a strange look of anticipation brighten his eyes. 'The officer in charge of the case is Deputy Section Chief Li Yan of the Beijing Municipal Police.' He beamed at her. 'I think you know him.'

THE FOURTH SACRIFICE. Copyright © 1999 by Peter May. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2005

    OK America...Here it comes!

    My husband and I fortunate to be living in Shanghai, Chinafor the next 18 monthes. With a limited amount of western bookstores,we were VERY LUCKY to find this series! America, discover Peter May! Firemaker is the first in the series followed by 5 other equally entertaining books that I hope will be published in the USA!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    excellent Chinese police procedural

    In Beijing, the police are baffled by the serial killing with the fourth beheading having just occurred. Forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell is tired of China especially her hotel room so she asks the American Ambassador to help her leave immediately. Her plans to go home to the states change when the American Embassy asks her to help the cops with the latest murder, an employee, Yuan Tao. Reluctantly she agrees as she knows her skills might help prevent another beheading. To her dismay, Margaret is teamed up with Chinese police detective Li Yan. They met during an investigation into a murder in nearby Ritan Park and fell in love, but he ended their relationship abruptly. She is unaware why he did that as he has not told her that his superiors warned him to do so or face termination of his career. Angering Li is that renowned archeologist Michael Zimmerman, whom Margaret met at a party in his honor, seems to want her as he shows her the exciting terra-cotta figures found at nearby Xi'an. A jealous Li and upset Margaret argue over Michael¿s attention even as they begin to find clues that prove THE FOURTH SACRIFICE was done by a different person than the previous three and the tie between the four is the death of the last victim¿s father during the Cultural Revolution. Michael proposes while he, Margaret and Li rendezvous in a hidden chamber where death waits for them from a friendly source. --- This is an excellent Chinese police procedural starring a strong American protagonist and a powerful support cast. The story line is fast-paced yet enables the reader to understand the emotions especially of the heroine and the cop, who return from the terrific FIREMAKER tale. However, the star of this exciting thriller is China as Peter May brings to life the rich heritage and present of a wide awake giant. --- Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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