The Runner (China Thrillers Series #2)by Peter May
A top Chinese swimmer kills himself of the eve of an international event - shattering his country's hopes of victory against the Americans. An Olympic weightlifter dies in the arms of his Beijing mistress - a scandal to be hushed up at the highest level. But the suicides were murder, and both men's deaths are connected to an inexplicable series of "accidents" which… See more details below
A top Chinese swimmer kills himself of the eve of an international event - shattering his country's hopes of victory against the Americans. An Olympic weightlifter dies in the arms of his Beijing mistress - a scandal to be hushed up at the highest level. But the suicides were murder, and both men's deaths are connected to an inexplicable series of "accidents" which has taken the lives of some of China's best athletes. In this fifth China Thriller, Chinese detective Li Yan and American pathologist Margaret Campbell are back in Beijing confronting a sinister sequence of murders which threatens to destroy the future of international athletics.
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By Peter May
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2003 Peter May
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe walls were a pale, pastel pink, pasted with posters illustrating exercises for posture and breathing. The grey linoleum was cool beneath her, the air warm and filled with the concentrated sounds of deep breathing. Almost hypnotic.
Margaret tried to ignore the ache in her lower back which had begun to trouble her over the last couple of weeks. She sat with her back straight and stretched her legs out in front of her. Then she slowly bent her knees, bringing the soles of her feet together and pulling them back towards her. She always found this exercise particularly difficult. Now in her mid-thirties, she was ten years older than most of the other women here, and joints and muscles would not twist and stretch with the same ease they had once done. She closed her eyes and concentrated on stretching her spine as she breathed in deeply, and then relaxing her shoulders and the back of her neck as she breathed out again.
She opened her eyes and looked at the women laid out on the floor around her. Most were lying on their sides with pillows beneath their heads. Upper arms and legs were bent upwards, a pillow supporting the knee. Lower legs were extended and straight. Expectant fathers squatted by their wives' heads, eyes closed, breathing as one with the mothers of their unborn children. It was the new Friendly to Family Policy in practice. Where once men had been banned from the maternity wards of Chinese hospitals, their presence was now encouraged. Single rooms for mother and child, with a fold-down sofa for the father, were available on the second floor of the First Teaching Hospital of Beijing Medical University for Women and Children. For those who could afford them. The going rate of four hundred yuan per day was double the weekly income of the average worker.
Margaret felt a pang of jealousy. She knew that there would be a good reason for Li Yan's failure to turn up. There always was. An armed robbery. A murder. A rape. A meeting he could not escape. And she could not blame him for it. But she felt deprived of him; frustrated that she was the only one amongst twenty whose partner regularly failed to attend; anxious that in her third trimester, she was the only one in her antenatal class who was not married. While attitudes in the West might have changed, single mothers in China were still frowned upon. She stood out from the crowd in every way, and not just because of her Celtic blue eyes and fair hair.
From across the room she caught Jon Macken looking at her. He grinned and winked. She forced a smile. The only thing they really had in common was their American citizenship. Since returning to Beijing with a view to making it her permanent home, Margaret had done her best to avoid the expat crowd. They liked to get together for gatherings in restaurants and at parties, cliquish and smug and superior. Although many had married Chinese, most made no attempt to integrate. And it was an open secret that these Westerners were often seen by their Chinese partners as one-way tickets to the First World.
To be fair to Macken, he did not fall into this category. A freelance photographer, he had come to China five years earlier on an assignment and fallen in love with his translator. He was somewhere in his middle sixties, and Yixuan was four years younger than Margaret. Neither of them wanted to leave China, and Macken had established himself in Beijing as the photographer of choice when it came to snapping visiting dignitaries, or shooting the glossies for the latest joint venture.
Yixuan had appointed herself unofficial translator for a bewildered Margaret when they attended their first antenatal class together. Margaret had been lost in a sea of unintelligible Chinese, for like almost every class since, Li had not been there. Margaret and Yixuan had become friends, occasionally meeting for afternoon tea in one of the city's more fashionable teahouses. But, like Margaret, Yixuan was a loner, and so their friendship was conducted at a distance, unobtrusive, and therefore tolerable.
As the class broke up, Yixuan waddled across the room to Margaret. She smiled sympathetically. 'Still the police widow?' she said.
Margaret shrugged, struggling to her feet. 'I knew it went with the territory. So I can't complain.' She placed the flats of her hands on the joints above her buttocks and arched her back. 'God ...' she sighed. 'Will this ever pass?'
'When the baby does,' Yixuan said.
'I don't know if I can take it for another whole month.'
Yixuan found a slip of paper in her purse and began scribbling on it in spidery Chinese characters. She said, without looking up, 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, Margaret. You have only a few more left to take.'
'Yeh, but they're the hardest,' Margaret complained. 'The first one was easy. It involved sex.'
'Did I hear someone mention my favourite subject?' Macken shuffled over to join them. He cut an oddly scrawny figure in his jeans and tee-shirt, with his cropped grey hair and patchy white beard.
Yixuan thrust her scribbled note into his hand. 'If you take this down to the store on the corner,' she said, 'they'll box the stuff for you. I'll get a taxi and meet you there in about ten minutes.'
Macken glanced at the note and grinned. 'You know, that's what I love about China,' he said to Margaret. 'It makes me feel young again. I mean, who can remember the last time they were sent down to the grocery store with a note they couldn't read?' He turned his grin on Yixuan and pecked her affectionately on the cheek. 'I'll catch up with you later, hon.' He patted her belly. 'Both of you.'
Margaret and Yixuan made their way carefully downstairs together, holding the handrail like two old women, wrapped up warm to meet the blast of cold night air that would greet them as they stepped out into the car park. Yixuan waited while Margaret searched for her bike, identifying it from the dozens of others parked in the cycle racks by the scrap of pink ribbon tied to the basket on the handlebars. She walked, wheeling it, with Yixuan to the main gate.
'You should not still be riding that thing,' Yixuan said.
Margaret laughed. 'You're just jealous because Jon won't let you ride yours.' In America Margaret would have been discouraged at every stage of her pregnancy from riding a bicycle. And during the first trimester, when the risk of another miscarriage was at its highest, she had kept it locked away in the university compound. But when her doctors told her that the worst had passed, and that the baby was firmly rooted, she had dug it out again, fed up with crowded buses and overfull subway carriages. She had been at more danger, she figured, on public transport, than on her bike. And, anyway, women here cycled right up until their waters broke, and she saw no reason to be different in yet another way.
Yixuan squeezed her arm. 'Take care,' she said. 'I'll see you Wednesday.' And she watched as Margaret slipped on to her saddle and pulled out into the stream of bicycles heading west in the cycle lane. Margaret's scarf muffled her nose and mouth against the biting cold of the Beijing night. Her woollen hat, pulled down over her forehead, kept her head cosy and warm. But nothing could stop her eyes from watering. The forecasters had been predicting minus twenty centigrade, and it felt like they were right. She kept her head down, ignoring the roar of traffic on the main carriageway of Xianmen Dajie. On the other side of the road, beyond the high grey-painted walls of Zhongnanhai, the leadership of this vast land were safe and warm in the centrally heated villas that lined the frozen lakes of Zhonghai and Nanhai. In the real world outside, people swaddled themselves in layers of clothes and burned coal briquettes in tiny stoves.
The restaurants and snack stalls were doing brisk business beneath the stark winter trees that lined the sidewalk. The tinny tannoyed voice of a conductress berating passengers on her bus permeated the night air. There were always, it seemed, voices emitting from loudspeakers and megaphones, announcing this, selling that. Often harsh, nasal female tones, reflecting a society in which women dominated domestically, if not politically.
Not for the first time, Margaret found herself wondering what the hell she was doing here. An on-off relationship with a Beijing cop, a child conceived in error and then miscarried in tears. A decision that needed to be taken, a commitment that had to be made. Or not. And then a second conception. Although not entirely unplanned, it had made the decision for her. And so here she was. A highly paid Chief Medical Examiner's job in Texas abandoned for a poorly remunerated lecturing post at the University of Public Security in Beijing, training future Chinese cops in the techniques of modern forensic pathology. Not that they would let her teach any more. Maternity leave was enforced. She felt as if everything she had worked to become had been stripped away, leaving her naked and exposed in her most basic state—as a woman and mother-to-be. And soon-to-be wife, with the wedding just a week away. They were not roles she had ever seen herself playing, and she was not sure they would ever come naturally.
She waved to the security guard at the gate of the university compound and saw his cigarette glow in the dark as he drew on it before calling a greeting and waving cheerily back. It was nearly an hour's cycle from the hospital to the twenty-storey white tower block in Muxidi which housed the University of Public Security's one thousand staff, and Margaret was exhausted. She would make something simple for herself to eat and have an early night. Her tiny two-roomed apartment on the eleventh floor felt like a prison cell. A lonely place that she was not allowed, officially, to share with Li. Even after the wedding, they would have to continue their separate lives until such time as the Ministry allocated Li a married officer's apartment.
The elevator climbed slowly through eleven floors, the thickly padded female attendant studiously ignoring her, squatting on a low wooden stool and flipping idly through the pages of some lurid magazine. The air was dense with the smell of stale smoke and squashed cigarette ends, and piles of ash lay around her feet. Margaret hated the ride in the elevator, but could no longer manage the stairs. She tried to hold her breath until she could step out into the hallway and with some relief slip the key in the door of number 1123.
Inside, the communal heating made the chill of the uninsulated apartment almost bearable. The reflected lights of the city below crept in through her kitchen window, enough for her to see to put on a kettle without resorting to the harsh overhead bulb which was unshaded and cheerless. If she had thought this was anything other than a temporary address, she might have made an effort to nest. But she didn't see the point.
Neither did she see the shadow that crossed the hall behind her. The darting silhouette of a tall figure that moved silently through the doorway. His hand, slipping from behind to cover her mouth, prevented the scream from reaching her lips, and then immediately she relaxed as she felt his other hand slide gently across the swell of her belly, his lips breathing softly as they nuzzled her ear.
'You bastard,' she whispered when he took his hand from her mouth and turned her to face him. 'You're not supposed to give me frights like that.'
He cocked an eyebrow. 'Who else would be interested in molesting some ugly fat foreigner?'
'Bastard!' she hissed again, and then reached on tiptoe to take his lower lip between her front teeth and hold it there until he forced them apart with his tongue and she could feel him swelling against the tautness of her belly.
When they broke apart she looked up into his coal dark eyes and asked, 'Where were you?'
'Margaret ...' He sounded weary.
'I know,' she said quickly. 'Forget I asked.' Then, 'But I do miss you, Li Yan. I'm scared of going through this alone.' He drew her to him, and pressed her head into his chest, his large hand cradling her skull. Li was a big man for a Chinese, powerfully built, more than six feet tall below his flat-top crew cut, and when he held her like this it made her feel small like a child. But she hated feeling dependent. 'When will you hear about the apartment?'
She felt him tense. 'I don't know,' he said, and he moved away from her as the kettle boiled. She stood for a moment, watching him in the dark. Lately she had sensed his reluctance to discuss the subject.
'Well, have you asked?'
'And what did they say?'
She sensed rather than saw him shrug. 'They haven't decided yet.'
'Haven't decided what? What apartment we're going to get? Or whether they're going to give us one at all?'
'Margaret, you know that it is a problem. A senior police officer having a relationship with a foreign national ... there is no precedent.'
Margaret glared at him, and although he could not see her eyes, he could feel them burning into him. 'We're not having a relationship, Li Yan. I'm having your baby. We're getting married next week. And I'm sick and tired of spending lonely nights in this goddamn cold apartment.' To her annoyance she felt tears welling in her eyes. It was only one of many unwanted ways in which pregnancy had affected her. An unaccountable propensity for sudden heights of emotion accompanied by embarrassing bouts of crying. She fought to control herself. Li, she knew, was as helpless in this situation as she was. The authorities frowned upon their relationship. Nights together in her apartment or his were stolen, furtive affairs, unsanctioned, and in the case of her staying over with him, illegal. She was obliged to report any change of address, even for one night, to her local Public Security Bureau. Although, in practice, no one much bothered about that these days, Li's position as the head of Beijing's serious crime squad made them very much subject to the rule from which nearly everyone else was excepted. It was hard to take, and they had both hoped that their decision to marry would change that. But as yet, they had not received the blessing from above.
He moved closer to take her in his arms again. 'I can stay over tonight.'
'You'd better,' she said, and turned away from him to pour hot water over green tea leaves in two glass mugs. What she really wanted was a vodka tonic with ice and lemon, but she hadn't touched alcohol since falling pregnant and missed the escape route it sometimes offered from those things in life she really didn't want to face up to.
She felt the heat of his body as he pressed himself into her back and his hands slipped under her arms to gently cup her swollen breasts. She shivered as a sexual sensitivity forked through her. Sex had always been a wonderful experience with Li. Like with no other. So she had been surprised by the extraordinarily heightened sense of sexuality that had come with her approaching motherhood. It had hardly seemed possible. She had feared that pregnancy would spoil their relationship in bed; that she, or he, would lose interest. To the surprise of them both, the opposite had been true. At first, fear of a second miscarriage had made them wary, but after medical reassurance, Li had found ways of being gentle with her, exploiting her increased sensitivity, taking pleasure from driving her nearly to the edge of distraction. And he had found the swelling of her breasts and her belly intensely arousing. She felt that arousal now, pushing into the small of her back and she abandoned the green tea and turned to seek his mouth with hers, wanting to devour him, consume him whole.
The depressingly familiar ring tone of Li's cellphone fibrillated in the dark. 'Don't answer,' she whispered. And for a moment she actually thought he wouldn't. He responded hungrily to her probing tongue, hands slipping over her buttocks and drawing her against him. But the shrill warble of the phone was relentless and finally he gave in, breaking away, flushed and breathless.
'I've got to,' he said, and he unclipped the phone from his belt, heavy with disappointment, and lifted it to his ear. 'Wei?'
Excerpted from The Runner by Peter May Copyright © 2003 by Peter May. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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As China prepares to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the country is filled with pride and excitement even though traffic will be stopped for the Games. However, as the countdown begins to the contests, gold medal contender Sui Mingsham is found dead by the pool; an apparent suicide. Soon afterward an Olympic weightlifter is found dead. Three more top level athletes have also died. Pressure is on Beijing police Section Chief Li Yan to solve ASAP what appears to be the work of a serial killer as five accidents/suicides seems improbable before nations pull out of the Games out of fear for the safety of their athletes. He asks his pregnant American fiancée forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell for help on solving the deaths that he believes are murders. Complicating their lives is his father and her mother have come to Beijing for the wedding. This is a great entry in one of the best police procedurals on the market today. The story line is faster than Usain Bolt can run the 100 yet also contains a deep look at Beijing on the brink of hosting the Olympics. The lead couple is a terrific pair as their cross Pacific romance grows stronger. Fans will relish this super saga while seeking the backlist that includes The Firemaker, Snakehead and Chinese Whispers (which apparently occurs after The Runner since the lead pair has a baby son in that tale). Harriet Klausner