Read an Excerpt
Catlin barely controlled a sound of disbelief. Adrenaline pouredthrough him, ripping away the comforts of the present, revealingthe bones of the past when a woman had taught him the truemeaning of betrayal. The lesson would have cost his life had itnot been for the speed of another man. The woman had died. Theother man had died. The man known then as Jacques-PierreRousseau had lived.
He looked at the ancient Chinese coin lying in his palm. Themetal had been cut deliberately in half, sundering the vague,graceful lines of a swallow in flight, leaving a bird with onewing. Inside the cut, the copper's untarnished core shone like apale wound. The coin was both familiar and subtly alien. He wasused to seeing the other half of the swallow, the half that he carriedas a good luck charm, the half that had come into his handsa world and a lifetime ago.
Long ago, far away, in another country.
Catlin's eyes shifted from the coin to the slight, erect figureof Chen Yi.
"An interesting keepsake," said Catlin neutrally. "A shameabout the mutilation. Han coins like this are rare."
"A man of your connections could join both halves," pointedout Yi in a soft voice.
"Oh? Did you bring the other half with you?" asked Catlin,but the verbal fencing had already lost its urgency. He had theother half in his pocket. All that remained was to be sure thatYi's possession of the coin wasn't an accident or a trick to winCatlin's confidence.
Yi waited, his face asimpassive as Catlin's.
"How did you get this?" asked Catlin.
"From a man who was also named Chen."
"There are literally millions of Chens in China."
Yi took a hard pull on the evil-smelling Chinese cigarette heheld. The act was a sign of addiction, not nervousness. Yi wasnot a nervous man.
The distinctive odor of Yi's cigarette, the odd cadence of Yi'sEnglish, and the ancient Chinese coin all combined to giveCatlin a feeling of dreamlike unreality. He wasn't fool enoughto give in to the feeling. The adrenaline expanding through hisbody in a chemical shock wave told him that the night and themoment were all too real, potentially deadly.
"Which Chen gave this to you?" asked Catlin, flipping themutilated coin absently into the air, catching it, flipping it again.His voice was like his body, totally controlled, poised for whatevermight come next. Including death.
"It came with word of my" Yi stopped speaking abruptlyas he searched his memory for the exact equivalent of a Chineseword. It did not come to him. "What is the English word for myfather's brother's nephew's nephew's son?" asked Yi.
"Shirttail cousin," Catlin offered sardonically.
The sound was not the soft near-sigh used by Americans. Itwas a blunt verbal punctuation mark signifying that a point hadbeen made. That, and the ever-burning unfiltered cigarette,branded Yi as a modern mainland Chinese more surely than hisfolded eyelids or the subtle golden cast of his skin.
"The cut coin came to me with the notice of the death of myshirttail cousin, Chen Tiang-Shi," said Yi.
The name caused a chain reaction of memories in Catlin'smind. For an instant he lived again in Southeast Asia, feltagain the delicacy of Mei's hands searching over his hot flesh,smelled again the heady scent of her aroused body, knew againthe moment of blank shock when at the instant of his own releaseshe raised a gun barrel toward his head. He knew thenthat he was dead, that the woman who was climaxing beneathhim at that moment would kill him in the next, that he had beenbetrayed in ways that he could not begin to name or number.Then the shots, the convulsive leap of flesh, more shots, thered ruins of a woman he had loved lying across him. AndChen Tiang-Shi slumped at the foot of the pallet, apologizingeven as he died cursing his treacherous cousin Geneviève MeiChen Deneuve.
Later the mutilated coin had come to Catlin, bearing only themessage that one day the other half would also come to him, andwith it a small request that he could ignore or honor as he chose.
Catlin's eyes focused on the silent figure waiting for his decision."If it is in my power, it is yours," said Catlin simply. "Andthe English word to describe Chen Tiang-Shi is man. His lifegave honor to his family and to his ancestors."
Yi bowed slightly, making light stir within his fine, nearlywhite hair. "As I was told," he murmured, "no matter what nameyou wear, you are a man of great face."
Grimly Catlin waited for the flattery to end so that he couldfind out what kind of bargain he had made for the redemptionof his younger, more foolish soul.
"You no longer work in Indochina," said Yi.
It was a statement, not a question, but Catlin answered. "I nolonger work in Indochina."
"You no longer work for your government."
This time Catlin hesitated, counting all the gradations of lie upto the final truth. "I don't work against my government, either."
"Ah." Yi noted the caveat, absorbed it and continued. "Youowe no loyalty to family, community or tradition."
"Not in the Chinese sense," agreed Catlin.
"You walk in no man's shadow."
"Not if I can help it," Catlin said dryly. "I love the sun."
Yi looked at him with black, shrewd eyes set wide in a facethe color and texture of parchment. Yi was clean shaven; thePeople's Republic of China had little use for the thin beardsthat had been the Chinese style since Confucius. Yi's nails,though long for Western tastes, were not so lengthy as to drawimmediate attention. Although his hair had little black left init, and his voice was breathy from a lifetime of cigarettes, hiseyes as they probed Catlin were those of a young manclear,quick, intense.
Catlin underwent the scrutiny with patience, sensing thatYi was trying to understand him by describing him. To a Chinese,Catlin's lack of blood and community ties was unthinkable,abhorrent.
"You worship neither the Christian God, the Muslim Prophet,the Buddha, the silent Tao, the once-voluble Mao nor your ownancestors," continued Yi. "Yet you are a man of great face. Aman of honor."
Catlin made a gesture with one hand that could have signifiedagreement, disagreement or anything between.
"I am grateful to Chen Tiang-Shi," murmured Yi, "that yousurvived a woman's treachery to enlighten this poor intellect onthe true nature of the impossible."
Impassively Yi continued studying the much larger, muchmore powerful man whose name had once been whispered intones of fear and admiration throughout Indochina. Yi noddedabruptly, having reached a decision. He lit a crumpled cigarettefrom the ragged stub of the previous one and began to talk aboutevents more tangible than honor, enlightenment and the natureof impossibility.
"You are familiar with the archaeological explorations atXi'an?" asked Yi.
Again, it was more statement than question, but again,Catlin answered.
"I no longer collect Warring States bronzes," Catlin said deliberately,"but yes, I know about Xi'an and the Emperor's Army. Itis arguably the greatest archaeological find in the history of man."
Yi looked for an ashtray, found none and tossed the thinlysmoking butt into the fireplace.
"If you did collect such bronzes," asked Yi, "what would youpay for a charioteer, chariot and horses inlaid in gold and silver,half life-size, from Emperor Qin's own grave?"
Catlin didn't bother to conceal the swift intake of his breath,for he knew that his interest would already have been revealedby the equally swift dilation of his pupils. He hadn't had to liveundercover in several years. He had gotten out of the habit ofmaking his body live the same lies as his mind.
And the offer itself was breathtaking. It was like asking an avidEgyptologist if he would like to own King Tut's solid gold coffin.
"If I were still collecting, I would pay whatever I had to forsuch a bronze," Catlin said quietly.
"Five hundred thousand American dollars?" pressed Yi.
"One million American dollars?"
"If I had it. And if I were sure that the bronze was neitherfraudulent nor available in quantity." Catlin smiled rather grimly,thinking of the Chinese government's stand on the exportationof antiquities. "Given the PRC's position on the illegal exportof cultural treasures, I don't think that Emperor Qin's bronzeswill be a drug on the art market anytime soon. Unless there hasbeen a change of policy?"
Yi's dark glance didn't waver. "There has been no change."
"Then this discussion is, as we say, academic."
The cigarette glowed urgently between Yi's narrow lips.
Catlin waited, sensing that the Chinese had approached apoint of no return.
"It should be," Yi said curtly. "It is not."
"And I'm not a collector of Chinese bronzes." Catlin's voicewas smooth and hard, leaving no doubt that he meant each word.
Yi's hand moved in a sharp gesture, trailing smoke. "This isknown. But you once were. If you were again to become a collector,would you be approached by people selling Qin bronzes?"
"Under the name of Catlin? I doubt it. It would take time toestablish myself as a collector of that magnitude."
"If the name were Jacques-Pierre Rousseau?" Yi asked, his normalstaccato delivery making the question sound even more blunt.
"Didn't you hear? The poor fellow died. Somebody chuckeda grenade into his hotel room a few years back. Must have beena hell of a mess."
Yi looked into eyes that were the pale, clear amber of a wintersky just after sunset. But there were no stars to illuminate thedepths of Catlin's eyes, only the certainty of night to come.Dragon's eyes, alive with predatory intelligence.
"There were people who doubted that a man of Rousseau'sabilities would so easily die," said Yi, pulling sharply on his cigarette."There were rumors."
"There always are." Catlin hesitated, then shrugged. The manwho had brought him the other half of the Han swallow deservedthe truth. "Rousseau could be more trouble to you alive than heis dead," Catlin said bluntly. "He wasn't exactly a friend of thePeople's Republic of China."
Yi thought about that possibility for several silent minutes."When the nest is overturned," he murmured, "all eggs are broken."
Catlin smiled thinly. "The nice thing about Chinese sayingsis that they can mean everything. And nothing. Whose nest?Whose eggs? And who's turning things upside down?"
With an abrupt motion Yi threw his spent cigarette into the fireplace."Is it necessary for the tool to know the mind of the artisan?"
Catlin weighed the half coin in his hand. An image came tohim: China's beautiful Li river at twilight, when the fishermenlit lanterns on their narrow rafts and poled out onto the river. Attheir feet were cormorants that had been hand-raised from birthto answer to their master's distinctively pitched cry. When therafts were joined in a circle, fish rose to the fascinating shimmerof lantern light against the dark surface of the water. Thenthe cormorants were released into the river to dive and fish. Astring tied around each bird's throat prevented it from swallowingthe fish it caught. The cormorant returned to its master's raft,surrendered the fish, then swam back down into the black waterto hunt again. When the master's basket was full, the strings wereremoved from the birds and they fished for themselves.
"Tell me, Chen Yi. When the fisherman of Li take their cormorantsout onto the dark river, do they tie the throat string sotightly that the birds strangle?"
Yi's response was seen only in the slight hesitation before heflicked open a lighter whose design hadn't changed since theChinese first learned how to copy Zippos. "The string shouldbe tight enough that the bird cannot swallow the fish it catches,"said Yi, drawing sharply on the fresh cigarette. "Any tighter andthe bird is useless." The lighter snapped shut with a metallicclick. "Any looser and the bird eats his master's meal."
"I'm more intelligent than a cormorant."
"And therefore far more dangerous."
"How badly do you want to catch fish?"
Yi replaced the lighter in the pocket of his very Western suitcoat. He looked again at the half coin resting on Catlin's hardpalm and remembered just a few of the things he had heard aboutthe man called Rousseau.
Trustworthy. Intelligent. Quick. A man of great face. Deadly.
"Perhaps if you told me what fish you wanted to eat," offeredCatlin, "I could suggest ways of catching and cooking it."
Yi looked around the room as though orienting himself. Heknew that the apartment belonged to the Pacific Rim Foundationand was used when its employees came to give expert testimonybefore Senate committees or more private advice to thepowerful men who worked in Washington, D.C. Yi also knewthat Catlin was the Pacific Rim Foundation. Despite Catlin's experiencesin Asia, or perhaps because of them, the foundationhad gained a reputation for being neither advocate nor enemyof Asian aspirations.
There was nothing Chinese in the room, neither modern norancient, to hint that Catlin had spent a decade and a half of hislife immersed in a foreign culture. Yet even so, Yi sensed somethingin the room that made him comfortable. In the design andplacement of the furniture there was an austerity and disciplinethat recalled the great Chinese calligraphers. In the richness offabric and rug there was the same celebration of the senses thatcharacterized imperial silks.
It was apparent that Catlin was a man of taste and intelligence.And power. Deadly power. But then, that was why Yi had soughthim out. Yi needed a man both intelligent and deadly.
Unfortunately, it was rather like fishing with a dragon insteadof a cormorant.
Yi pulled at his cigarette, swallowed the smoke and said,"There is a woman."
Catlin smiled sardonically, remembering his own past."There usually is."
Without smiling, Yi looked amused. "She is American, raisedin China. Her parents were Christian missionaries in the Shaanxiprovince until 1959." He noted Catlin's surprised expression andnodded. "Yes, even after we became the People's Republic. Herfather was Canadian and her mother was American, althoughfew people knew about her mother. It was too dangerous. Americanswere not" He hesitated, searching for a word that wouldnot be insulting. "Applauded."
The thin curve of Catlin's smile told Yi that Catlin was wellaware of just how dangerous it was to have been an Americanin China during the first years of the People's Republic.
Yi smiled widely, quickly, a sign of embarrassment rather thanamusement. With a curt "Ah!" he dismissed the years when to bean American in China was to be under a death sentence. "New governmentsare like children. They must learn," continued Yi. "ThePeople's Republic has learned the value of harmony between distantrepublics. That is why I am here. The harmony is endangered."
Ghostly fingernails traced Catlin's spine and stirred the tinyhairs along the back of his neck. As both part owner and full-timeemployee of the Pacific Rim Foundation, his job was to project,predict and advise the foundation's powerful clients on the subjectof relations with Asia in general and China in particular. Yethe had heard no rumors, no hints, nothing to indicate that the delicatemutual courtship of the U.S. and the PRC was faltering.
Yi studied Catlin through a curl of blue-gray smoke. Nothingshowed on Catlin's face or in the set of his body. There was no physiologicalclue as to whether one of America's foremost and least-knownexperts on Asian affairs was surprised by the blunt statementthat there could be a rupture in the tenuous fabric of diplomacy thathad been woven so carefully between the two countries.
"Where does the woman fit in?" Catlin asked quietly.
"She is the key in the lock."
"Does she know it?"
Catlin waited. Only silence came to him, and then more silence.Chen Yi was reluctant to part with more information thanhe had to. Catlin understood the Chinese's discomfort; it was thenature of secrecy to perpetuate itself.
"Keep talking." Catlin smiled grimly. "The string isn't longenough for fishing yet."
"Will it ever be, Rousseau?" Yi's laughter was a short, harshsound. In the apartment's restrained light, Catlin's eyes werethe color of hammered gold. They offered no comfort, simplyunderstanding.
"My name is Catlin."
"Your name is dragon," muttered Yi, puffing savagely at the lastburning length of his cigarette before flinging it into the hearth.
"But I'm your dragon," retorted Catlin, flipping the half coinhigh into the air, watching the flicker of untarnished metal in thewound. "Or as we say in AmericaI may be a son of a bitch,but I'm your son of a bitch. For now." He caught the ancientbronze coin easily, looked at it and decided that it was time torattle Yi's cage just a bit in the hope that unexpected informationwould fall out. "Will you have some tea, Chen Yi, ComradeMinister of Archaeology, Province of Shaanxi, People's Republicof China?"
If Catlin hadn't been looking for the betraying flicker of Yi'seyelids, he would have missed it.
"How long have you known?" asked Yi.
"Since you asked about Qin bronzes. There are millions ofChens in China, thousands with the name of Chen Yi; but onlyone of them controls access to the richest archaeological find inhuman history." Catlin caught the half circle for the last time andslipped it into his pocket with the other half coin he had carriedfor many years. "Tea?" he asked politely.
Yi hesitated, showing his surprise, silently telling Catlin howdisturbed the Chinese was.
"Thank you," said Yi.
"Chinese or English?"
"Do you have lemon peel?"
"English, please. It has been many years ..."
Catlin gestured toward a chair that was near the fireplace,which Chen Yi had preempted as an ashtray. In a few minutesCatlin returned with an elegant scarlet-and-gold porcelain teapotand matching cups on a lacquer tray. When Catlin lifted the potto pour fragrant, steaming tea, a dragon was revealedsinuous,malevolent, powerful. Savage intelligence gleamed from thedragon's hammered gold eyes.
Yi dropped two sugar cubes and a twist of lemon into his tea.He showed no surprise when Catlin did the same. Using lemonpeel rather than juice was customary in the part of Indochinawhere Catlin had once worked. It was the Asian way of comingto terms with the brutally strong tea that the English preferred.Although Catlin didn't brew his tea until it was the color and consistencyof tar, the acquired taste for lemon's piquancy remained.
"Your English is very good," Catlin said matter-of-factly. Despitethe odd tonality and staccato delivery that were quintessentiallyChinese, Yi's words were easily understood. Nor did heemploy the euphemisms, honorifics and circumlocutions thatmany Chinese used when speaking a second language. There wasan unusual flavor to Yi's speech, though. He had an elusive accentand a turn of phrase that was more British or Canadian than American.And yet there was definitely an American flavor to Yi's English,too. Perhaps he had had teachers from more than one country."Did you attend school in Vancouver before the revolution?"
"Your Chinese is very good, I am told," retorted Yi. "Did youattend school in Beijing?"
"No." Catlin smiled slightly at Yi's riposte. "Not even whenit was still called Peking."
"Did you kill many Chinese?" asked Yi without warning. Itwas an interrogator's trickthe unexpected, deadly questiondropped in the midst of neutral chatter.
"Did you spend much time torturing English-speaking prisonersin North Korea?" countered Catlin, his tone uninflected.
Yi and Catlin exchanged impassive stares while tea steamedupward between them like dragon's breath.
"An unhappy past," said Yi finally, touching the fragile rim ofthe teacup with sensitive fingertips. "It is our duty to see that ourgovernments do not repeat past errors of fear and greed."
"Are we on the verge of doing that?" asked Catlin. "Repeatingpast errors?"
There was a metallic click, the hiss of flame, then anotherclick as Yi closed the lighter. "Yes."
Catlin was silent for a long time, weighing the urgency thatmust be driving the outwardly calm Chinese official sittingacross from him and sipping tea. Yi's bluntness was unusual inthe extreme. The Chinese people had lived under gradations oftyranny and despotism for thousands of years. Such governmentstaught people a hundred ways to say yes and none to sayno. Indirection and lying were the very arts of survival, as thoughthe people themselves had to live undercover in their own land.The modern age had been no kinder to the Chinese. First theWest humiliated them, then followed the horrors of civil war anda political fervor indistinguishable from religious ecstasy.
Unfortunately, ecstasy made lousy economics. Twenty millionChinese starved while Mao found his feet as a leader. Whenhis feet began slipping again, millions more Chinese were uprooted,displaced and disgraced in the Cultural Revolution. Ecstasycontinued to make lousy economics. When the fervorburned to ash, the survivors blinked and looked around. Thespecter of fiscal ruin blinked and looked back. Deng Xiaopingstepped into leadership, bringing with him very delicate murmuringsof rewards based on work rather than need.
Capitalism, in a word.
The word was never used except by enemies of Deng Xiaoping.The flirtation with capitalist heresy continued, encouragedby the sudden spurt in output from farm plots "owned" by peasantfamilies. The courtship broadened as American and Canadianbusiness advisers were invited to the People's Republic toteach the fine art of making money while paying lip service tothe spinning ghost of Mao. With each new factory, with each newcommune in which peasants earned profits as well as food fortheir cooking pots, the relationship between the U.S. and thePeople's Republic deepened into one that had the potential forbecoming a fine and enduring marriage of mutual interests:China's entry into the twentieth century's technological sweepstakes;and the West's entry into a market that comprised one-quarterof the population of earth.
There was no public announcement of connubial bliss betweenAmerica and China, simply a gradual withdrawal of running-dogs-of-capitalismrhetoric. Chinese Communists sat downto dinner with Western capitalists, and all participants used longspoons, for wise men knew there was no other way to sup withthe Devil from a communal pot. It was an interesting meal allaround, one that gave promise of fattening the participants.
"Who's pissing in the soup?" asked Catlin.
Yi looked utterly blank. "Please?" he asked, jarred from hisnearly perfect command of English.
"An idiom," said Catlin with a hard smile. "It means to ruinthings for everyone, including yourself."
"Ah! So! Pissing in the soup." Yi grinned. "Very good. Thankyou. That I will remember."
Catlin had no doubt Yi would remember. At an age whenmost Americans were embracing the precarious salvation of SocialSecurity, Yi was still expanding his own grasp of the increasinglycomplex world around him.
"I do not know who is pissing in the soup. Ah! I do know thatpiss is present in my bowl. The smell is very bright."
"Strong," Catlin said automatically.
"Strong. Ah." Yi murmured an apology. "It has been manyyears since I speak English with an American. Very difficult."
"You speak better English than nine-tenths of the natives do,"said Catlin quietly, "but if it tires you, we could try Mandarin,French or Cantonese instead."
"Or Vietnamese?" asked Yi, his voice bland and his eyesimpenetrable.
Excerpted from TELL ME NO LIES by ELIZABETH LOWELL. Copyright © 1986 by Two of a Kind, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.