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Afterburn: A Novel

Afterburn: A Novel

5.0 4
by Colin Harrison

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A high-voltage international thriller about a millionaire businessman catapulted into a world of criminal intrigue, sexual obsession, extortion, and death.

Charlie Ravich is a survivor whose brutal experience as a POW in Vietnam has more than prepared him for the cutthroat world of global commerce. Now a wealthy Upper East Side executive in his late fifties,


A high-voltage international thriller about a millionaire businessman catapulted into a world of criminal intrigue, sexual obsession, extortion, and death.

Charlie Ravich is a survivor whose brutal experience as a POW in Vietnam has more than prepared him for the cutthroat world of global commerce. Now a wealthy Upper East Side executive in his late fifties, Charlie has only one problem: his family is dying out. His wife teeters on the edge of Alzheimer's; their son has succumbed to leukemia; and their daughter, Julia, is unable to bear a child. Charlie is being trumped by time.

Enter Christina, a beguiling Columbia University dropout-intelligent, selectively dishonest, filled with desire. Her affair with Rick Bocca, a member of a big-time truck-theft ring run by mobster Tony V., has landed her in prison. After four years in Bedford Hills, she is suddenly released by the Manhattan D.A.'s office-perhaps because she is innocent, perhaps not.
Warned by a detective that Christina is being set up by Tony V., Rick begins a desperate, bungled search to warn Christina, who has lied her way into the high-flying world of Charlie Ravich. But her past catches up with her, and Rick's catches up with him, setting off a harrowing chain of betrayals that leaves only one person with any hope of a future.

At once smart, sexy, and graphically violent, Afterburn spans the mean streets of New York's underworld and Hong Kong's corridors of high finance, and stands as Colin Harrison's most commercial work yet

Editorial Reviews

Our Review
Be Forewarned
Colin Harrison's fourth novel, Afterburn, recounts the violent convergence of three desperate, very damaged people, all of whom are searching for the missing element -- love, personal safety, an end to guilt, a sense of genetic continuity -- whose absence dominates their lives. It is a powerful -- and powerfully written -- thriller, but it is also a dark, graphic, and occasionally desolate one. Readers in search of a light, suspenseful diversion should consider themselves warned and look for something else.

Afterburn opens with an extended prologue set in Southeast Asia in 1972. With great narrative immediacy, Harrison shows us the dark heart of the American experience in Vietnam by zeroing in on a single character: Charlie Ravich, an American pilot who has flown nearly 100 bombing missions over enemy territory. On his final mission, Charlie is shot down and captured by North Vietnamese troops. For an unspecified period that has the timeless quality of a nightmare, Charlie is imprisoned, questioned, and tortured, before being accidentally rescued and very nearly killed by a roving company of marines. These early scenes of extreme cruelty set the tone for much of the rest of the book.

The second section moves the action forward to the fall of 1999. Charlie Ravich, scarred and battered but still a survivor, is once again in the Far East, this time in Hong Kong. Charlie is now the founder and CEO of a telecommunications development company called Technetrix and has come to China to negotiate a loan that will enable him to build a state-of-the-art factory on Chinese soil. By bizarre coincidence, Charlie finds himself first on the scene when billionaire industrialist Henry Lai suffers a fatal heart attack. Within minutes of Lai's death, Charlie parlays his insider's knowledge of that death into a stock market transaction that nets him an instant $16 million profit. Here, and everywhere else in Afterburn, blood and money are inextricably connected.

Windfall profits aside, the Charlie Ravich of these later years has fallen on hard times. On a professional level, he is engaged in a constant struggle to keep his company alive and viable in a fiercely competitive market. On a personal level, he has suffered an irreversible series of losses. His wife, Ellie, is behaving erratically and appears to be entering the early stages of Alzheimer's. His son, Ben, is dead, killed by leukemia at the age of 19. His daughter, Julia, is incapable of bearing children. Unable to face the prospect of his bloodline dying out, Charlie decides that, one way or another, he will father a new child, and he initiates a clandestine search for a suitable surrogate mother.

Charlie's story is one of three primary narratives that alternate and, eventually, intersect. One of these concerns Christina Welles, a 27-year-old Columbia dropout with a head for numbers and a complicated past. As the novel opens, she is serving a seven-year sentence for her part in a series of truck thefts performed under the auspices of local Mob boss Tony Verducci. When her sentence is suddenly commuted after four years, she goes underground in New York City, believing, with good reason, that the vengeful, unpredictable Verducci has unpleasant plans for her.

The third major protagonist is Rick Bocca, a former bodybuilder who was once Christina's lover, as well as her partner in the truck theft ring. Rick has spent four years brooding over Christina's incarceration, believing that she received the punishment that should have been reserved for him. Before the novel is over, he will receive more than his fair share of extreme, and belated, punishment.

The driving force behind the plot is Tony Verducci's conviction that Rick will lead him to Christina, who will lead him, in turn, to a cache of money he believes was stolen from him years before. When Charlie Ravich meets Christina in a New York City bar, he enters into a brief, unplanned relationship with her, then finds himself trapped in someone else's nightmare, victimized by forces he can neither understand nor control. By the end of the novel, all of the players have come together in a single room, a modern-day torture chamber in which the rules of the civilized world are suspended, in which everything -- without exception -- is permitted.

In the end, Afterburn is a novel about many things: fate, guilt, grief, greed, and the blind human struggle to survive under the most appalling conditions and to establish some connection with the bleak, uncertain future. It is also, at bottom, a novel about cruelty: the unconscious cruelty of the universe and the deliberate, studied cruelty of men who will do anything in the name of money. With a directness and a clarity of expression that is reminiscent -- and worthy -- of Robert Stone, Colin Harrison stares into the abyss of human misery and does not flinch. In Afterburn he has created a grim, graphic, darkly memorable thriller that is difficult to put down and even more difficult to forget.

--Bill Sheehan

USA Today
A dark tale...A complicated, smart story.
Scott Tobias
Though the term rarely applies, Colin Harrison's Afterburn is a literary thriller in the best sense of both words, a deceptively intricate study of man's basest instincts told in ferocious, compulsively readable language. With his characters constantly hanging on the precipice between life and death, Harrison frees himself to cut to the gristle of human experience, forging a story from blood, sex, torture, and vanity. But beneath all the shows of hyper-masculinity--even the women here are masculine--the book conveys an undercurrent of sorrow, as three protagonists come to terms with their past transgressions. Principal among them is 58-year-old Charlie Ravich, Harrison's man in full, a Vietnam veteran and electronics tycoon whose killer instinct segues from a jungle hooch in 1972 to a formal banquet in 1999 Hong Kong. In one early scene, he watches a gambling mogul choke to death, uses this inside information to short-sell the man's stock, and walks away with $8 million in profit before the markets close. But his life back home in Manhattan is deeply troubled: With his son recently succumbing to leukemia, his wife in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and his daughter unable to conceive a child, Ravich takes out an ad for a surrogate mother to keep his genetic stamp alive. Enter Christina Welles, a fiercely intelligent 27-year-old released from prison under mysterious circumstances, especially considering that she was really guilty of involvement in a mob-backed truck-theft scheme. Her tough but slow-witted ex-husband scours the city determined to protect her from gangsters who need her phenomenal skill with numbers to pull off their elaborate heists. Like any good thriller, Afterburn effortlessly tangles their stories into a tight knot, but Harrison has more on his mind than a handful of (admittedly nasty) twists. Ravich's quest to have a child, for example, seems to be driven by appalling hubris when he proposes to support it through the age of 21 without ever laying eyes on it. But his genetic contribution becomes a poignant response to the death and decay within his family and within himself. Afterburn opens with an epigram from Sartre about how torture is not the route to people's real secrets, then proves in virtuoso style that they can only access them when brushing against their own mortality.
The Onion's A.V. Club
Peter Kurth

If you like your novels mean, tough, ugly and male, you're going to love Afterburn, Colin Harrison's latest exercise in New York noir. Harrison is deputy editor at Harper's magazine, a creamy stylist and crack storyteller whose previous books, Break and Enter, Bodies Electric and Manhattan Nocturne, established him as a master of the "literary" thriller. I put the word in quotation marks because -- let's be serious -- Tolstoy he ain't.

"The drill went into the outside of his left ankle," Harrison writes, "just above the boot. It was worse this time, the bit grinding into the joint capsule until it punctured through the tendons on the other side, then continuing through the flesh until the spinning tip spurted through the inside of his ankle. 'Oh, God, please,' Rick cried, gripping the table and squeezing his eyes. 'Oh! Fuck, fuck!'"

Speaking of that: "He'd routinely fucked her for ninety minutes straight, like running ten miles, the sweat pouring off his face and chest, riveting down his arms, soaking the bed…And she could take it, she could take anything he did, any position, any degree of force. If you remembered that, it kept getting more mysterious." Harrison writes about sex with a ponderousness that might be expected from the husband of Kathryn Harrison, author of the incest memoir The Kiss: "The idea that he had fucked her into unconsciousness was so exciting that he just blasted himself away into her."

Well, all right -- this is what you want in escapist fiction. Afterburn tells the story of three lost souls whose lives entwine in a web of crime against a backdrop of millennial hedonism, money-grubbing soullessness and cruelty. Charlie Ravich is an aging New York electronics executive, a former Air Force pilot and Vietnam POW haunted by guilt for his role in the war and desperate to continue his genetic line after the death of his son from leukemia. Christina Welles is a cool, brainy Columbia dropout and small-time grifter, haunted by a childhood rape, "insatiable" lust and what she worries is her "hard heart." And Rick Bocca is Christina's iron-pumping former boyfriend and partner in crime, haunted by the fact that Christina took the rap for him after a failed truck hijacking and now has the mob on her heels. Everyone in Afterburn is haunted by something -- Harrison's New York is a barren, hopeless place. He seems to be making a moral point, but damned if you can tell what it is amid all those power dicks and severed limbs.

"When I die," Christina reflects, "my space will be filled right away, others will sit in the subway seat, wear the shoes I would have worn, bite the apple I would have bitten. Like I was never there." Charlie, too, is obsessed with his pending oblivion: "One more child, God…Give me one more child. Correct the flow of time, God. Let me roll the dice again." And Rick -- no Einstein, as the saying goes -- ponders the nature of truth and lies and comes up with "a web of maybes. Most of them too complicated. He'd learned that if a plan had too many twists and turns it usually broke down."

It's a measure of Harrison's skill as a writer that Afterburn doesn't break down, despite the popcorn philosophy and endless orgasms of its characters. Harrison is an old-fashioned novelist with a gift for sharp characterization and a sense of pace that keeps you reading even when you know it's all hokum. Just skip the ruminations and go for the thrills. As Harrison writes, "Every girl has a story…but you can ride only one at a time."

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Writing like an angel, Harrison in his new thriller (after Manhattan Nocturne) casts human existence as demonic, in a scenario as fierce as any imagined by Goya. The horror begins as American pilot Charlie Ravich is taken prisoner in 1972 in Vietnam, to be rescued by GIs who maim him in the process. Jumping to the present, the narrative focuses on another prisoner, Christina Welles, suffering behind bars in upstate New York for her role in a mob-directed theft ring. Charlie, too, is in pain; though now a wealthy electronics mogul, he's under attack both professionally, by larcenous contractors and a rival firm (like Harrison's Bodies Electric, this is a finance thriller as well as a crime novel), and personally--his wife is exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's, and he mourns the death of his only son. Then there's Rick Bocca, Christina's lover, inadvertently responsible for her imprisonment; he's hiding from the mob on Long Island, good as dead. When the mob, looking for $5 million that Christina stole from them in her final heist, engineers her release in hopes of snatching her to retrieve their loot, Harrison sets in motion a daringly complex tale of chase-and-hunt, of villainy, sacrifice and redemption, that unites these three main figures, and the gangsters who will go to any length--including monstrous torture, detailed by Harrison to the point of sensationalism--to get their money. As smartly orchestrated as the action is, it's Harrison's achingly real characters who empower the novel, as well as his prose: is there a noir novelist alive who can match his wattage? That's not always a virtue, though, as Harrison too often lets rip passages that, though rhapsodic or acutely observant, retard narrative flow. If not always expertly paced, however, the novel astonishes throughout, as much for its moral force as for its storytelling dazzle. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
His son dead, his daughter infertile, and his wife wiped away by Alzheimer's, rich executive Charlie is losing his family; but there's even more to lose when he encounters Christina, who's managed to do time both at Columbia and in prison. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Sephen Dobyns
Harrison writes extremely well, and sections of ''Afterburn'' are as elegant as you'll hope to find in any novel...Afterburn provides an exciting ride, although without Harrison's graceful prose some parts of the story would be nothing but data. It's his ability to make what he's learned come alive through exact description -- and his stylish way of incorporating it into a sentence -- that creates the novel's sense of authenticity.
The New York Times Book Review
G. Gorychka
Afterburn is a far more ambitious and disturbing novel than its thriller trappings might avow—it is a harsh exegesis of the legacies of both torture and mendacity...Afterburn is less a conventional thriller than a passionately orchestrated death march.
The Voice Literary Supplement
Tom DeHaven
Afterburn (is) not just a tightly structured novel of suspense but a rich and textured tale of character-as-destiny...This is a serious, stylish, generously humane work of fiction.
Entertainment Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
The handy cliche alleging that a thriller is so good it transcends its genre has rarely been truer than in the case of this breathtakingly suspenseful meditation on the interwoven ambiguities of life and death. Two terrific set-pieces open the story. The first, a Prologue set in Vietnam in 1972, recounts in nerve-shattering detail the capture, imprisonment, and eventual rescue of fighter pilot Charlie Ravich. Then, we observe Charlie 27 years later in Hong Kong, now the wealthy CEO of a telecommunications company, as he turns his "insider's" knowledge of the death of an influential Chinese businessman into a multimillion-dollar profit. At that point, the focus shifts to Christina Welles, a college-educated beauty just released from prison, where she served four years for her part in a truck-theft ring masterminded by mafioso Tony Verducci. Shifting with masterly ease among his protagonists, Harrison (Manhattan Nocturne, 1996, etc.) explores Charlie's desperation to perpetuate his name (his only son dead, his only daughter infertile) as he seeks a surrogate mother; Christina's wary flight from the avenging Verducci (who, she intuits, suspects she's double-crossed him, and has arranged her release); and the search for Christina that's being undertaken by her former lover (and criminal partner), bodybuilder Rick Bocca—who aims to get to her before Tony does. In crisp scenes rendered in trim declarative sentences, Harrison traces his characters' separate paths while simultaneously analyzing their individual obsessions and guilts: Charlie's belief that the obliteration of his name may be punishment for the death he rained on the Vietnamese; Rick's compromised Catholic senseof sin; and Christina's weary surrender to her own "hardness" and amorality. The story's climax (which includes several graphic torture scenes) and devastating finale brilliantly underscore Harrison's commanding central irony: that in the midst of life we are in the presence of death. A practically perfect literary thriller with a bitter lingering "afterburn" indeed.

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Chapter One

China Club, Hong Kong

September 7, 1999

HE WOULD SURVIVE. Oh shit, yes, Charlie promised himself, he'd survive this, too—his ninth formal Chinese banquet in as many evenings, yet another bowl of shark-fin soup being passed to him by the endless waiters in red uniforms, who stood obsequiously against the silk wallpaper pretending not to hear the self-satisfied ravings of those they served. Except for his fellow gweilos—British Petroleum's Asia man, a mischievous German from Lufthansa, and two young American executives from Kodak and Citigroup—the other dozen men at the huge circular mahogany table were all Chinese. Mostly in their fifties, the men represented the big corporate players—Bank of Asia, Hong Kong Telecom, Hang Seng Bank, China Motors—and each, Charlie noted, had arrived at the age of cleverness. Of course, at fifty-eight he himself was old enough that no one should be able to guess what he was thinking unless he wanted them to, even Ellie. In his call to her that morning—it being evening in New York City—he'd tried not to sound too worried about Julia. "It's all going to be fine, sweetie," he'd promised, gazing out at the choppy haze of Hong Kong's harbor, where the heavy traffic of tankers and freighters and barges pressed China's claim—everything from photocopiers to baseball caps flowing out into the world, everything from oil refineries to contact lenses flowing in. "She'll get pregnant, I'm sure," he'd told Ellie. But he wasn't sure. No, not at all. In fact, it looked as if it wasgoing to be easier for him to build his electronics factory in Shanghai than for his daughter to hatch a baby.

    "We gather in friendship," announced the Chinese host, Mr. Ming, the vice-chairman of the Bank of Asia. Having agreed to lend Charlie fifty-two million U.S. dollars to build his Shanghai factory, Mr. Ming in no way could be described as a friend; the relationship was one of overlord and indentured. But this was to be expected, and Charlie smiled along with the others as the banker stood and presented in high British English an analysis of southeastern China's economy that was so shallow, optimistic, and full of euphemism that no one, especially the central ministries in Beijing, might object. The Chinese executives nodded politely as Mr. Ming spoke, touching their napkins to their lips, smiling vaguely. Of course, they nursed secret worries—worries that corresponded to whether they were entrepreneurs (who had built shipping lines or real-estate empires or garment factories) or the managers of institutional power (who controlled billions of dollars not their own). Privately the entrepreneurs disdained the tedious, risk-adverse probity of the managers, who, in turn, stood burdened by the institutional reputations of the dead. True, the managers had not made something from nothing, but they had carried bucket upon bucket of obeisance to nurture a gigantus. As with the distinction between a sapling and an ancient tree, their spreading, limb-heavy corporations had known fierce political winds, diseases of managerial orthodoxy, the insect-hollowing of internal bureaucracy. And yet, Charlie decided, the men were finally more like one another than unlike; each long ago had learned to sell high (1997) and buy low (1998), and had passed the threshold of unspendable wealth, such riches conforming them in their behaviors; each owned more houses or paintings or Rolls-Royces than could be admired or used at once. Each played golf or tennis passably well; each had purchased a Canadian or British passport; each possessed a forty-million-dollar yacht, or a forty-million-dollar home atop Victoria's Peak, or a forty-million-dollar wife. Like the wealthy businessmen on New York's East Side, the Chinese executives hired more or less the same doctors and antique dealers and feng shui mystics to advise them. Each had a slender young Filipino or Russian or Czech mistress tucked away in one of Hong Kong's luxury apartment buildings—licking her lips if requested—or had a secure phone line to one of the ministry buildings in Beijing, or was betting against the Hong Kong dollar while insisting on its firmness—any of the costly mischief in which rich men indulge.

    The men at the table, in fact, as much as any men, sat as money incarnate, particularly the American dollar, the euro, and the Japanese yen—all simultaneously, and all hedged against fluctuations of the others. But although the men were money, money was not them; money assumed any shape or color or politics, it could be fire or stone or dream, it could summon armies or bind atoms, and, indifferent to the sufferings of the mortal soul, it could leave or arrive at any time. And on this exact night, Charlie thought, setting his ivory chopsticks neatly upon the lacquered plate while nodding to the uniformed boy to take it away—on this very night he could see that although money had assumed the shapes of the men in the room (including him, of course—his shoes, his dental work, his very shit), it existed in differing densities and volumes and brightnesses. Whereas Charlie was a man of perhaps thirty or thirty-three million dollars of wealth, that sum amounted to shoe-shine change in the present company. No sir, money, in that room, in that moment, was understood as inconsequential in sums less than one hundred million dollars, and of political importance only when five times more. Money, in fact, found its greatest compression and gravity in the form of the tiny man sitting silently across from Charlie—Sir Henry Lai, the Oxford-educated Chinese gambling mogul, owner of a fleet of jet-foil ferries, a dozen hotels, and most of the casinos of Macao and Vietnam. Worth billions—and billions more.

    But, Charlie wondered, perhaps he was wrong. He could think of one shape that money had not yet assumed, although quite a bit of it had been spent, perhaps a hundred thousand dollars in all. Money animated the dapper Chinese businessman across from him, but could it arrive in the world as Charlie's own grandchild? This was the question he feared most, this was the question that had eaten at him and at Ellie for years now, and which would soon be answered: In a few hours, Julia would tell them once and forever if she was capable of having a baby.

    She had suffered through cycle upon cycle of disappointment—hundreds of shots of fertility drugs followed by the needle-recovery of the eggs, the inspection of the eggs, the selection of the eggs, the insemination of the eggs (recorded on videotape—another needle squirting into a dish), the implantation of the eggs (also recorded on tape with an ultrasound screen), the anticipation of the eggs. My eggs, my eggs—Julia's sad mantra. She'd been trying for seven years. The blockage of her fallopian tubes might be due, she'd said, to her use of an IUD years prior. Abortion, Charlie knew, could also cause the problem, but he'd never asked and his daughter had never told. Now Julia, a woman of only thirty-five, a little gray already salting her hair, was due to get the final word. At 11:00 a.m. Manhattan time, she'd sit in her law office and be told the results of this, the last in vitro attempt. Her ninth. Three more than the doctor preferred to do. Seven more than the insurance company would pay for. Almost as if she was trying for all of them, after what had happened to Ben, trying to bring new life to the family. Good news would be that one of the reinserted fertilized eggs had decided to cling to the wall of Julia's uterus. Bad news: There was no chance of conception; egg donorship or adoption must now be considered. And if that was the news, well then, that was really goddamn something. It would mean not just that his only daughter was heartbroken, but that, genetically speaking, he, Charlie Ravich, was finished, that his own fishy little spermatozoa—one of which, wiggling into Ellie's egg a generation prior, had become his daughter—had run aground, that he'd come to the end of the line; that, in a sense, he was already dead.

    And now, as if mocking his very thoughts, came the fish, twenty pounds of it, head still on, its eyes cooked out and replaced with flowered radishes, its mouth agape in macabre broiled amusement. The chief waiter displayed the fish to the table, then whisked it away to a sideboard, where another waiter brandished gleaming instruments of dissection. Charlie looked at his plate. He always lost weight in China, undone by the soy and oils and crusted skin of birds, the rich liverish stink of turtle meat. All that duck tongue and pig ear and fish lip. Expensive as hell, every meal. And carrying with it the odor of doom.

    Then the conversation turned, as it also did so often in Shanghai and Beijing, to the question of America's mistreatment of the Chinese. "What I do not understand are the American senators," Sir Henry Lai was saying in his softly refined voice. "They come over here and meet with us and say they understand that we only want for China to be China." Every syllable was flawless English, but of course Lai also spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, and a dialect spoken by his parents, who fled Shanghai in 1947 as the Communists approached. Sir Henry Lai was reported to be in serious talks with Gaming Technologies, the huge American gambling and hotel conglomerate that clutched big pieces of Las Vegas, the Mississippi casino towns, and Atlantic City. Did Sir Henry know when China would allow Western-style casinos to be built within its borders? Certainly he knew the right officials in Beijing, and perhaps this was reason enough that GT's stock price had ballooned up seventy percent in the last three months as Sir Henry's interest in the company had become known. Or was it that GT had developed an electronic version of mah-jongg, the betting game played by hundreds of millions of Chinese? Lai smiled benignly. Then frowned. "These senators say that all they want is for international trade to progress without interruption, and then they go back to Congress and raise their fists and call China all kinds of names. Is this not true?"

    The others nodded sagely, apparently giving consideration, but not ignoring whatever delicacy remained pinched between their respective sets of lacquered chopsticks.

    "Wait, I have an answer to that," announced the young fellow from Citigroup. "Mr. Lai, I trust we may speak frankly here. You need to remember that the American senators are full of—excuse my language—full of shit. When they're standing up on the Senate floor saying all of this stuff, this means nothing, absolutely nothing!"

    "Ah, this is very difficult for the Chinese people to understand." Sir Henry scowled dramatically. "In China we believe our leaders. So we become scared when we see American senators complaining about China."

    "You're being coy with us, Mr. Lai," interrupted Charlie, looking up with a smile, "for we—or some of us—know that you have visited the United States dozens and dozens of times and have met many U.S. senators personally." Not to mention a few Third World dictators. He paused, while amusement passed into Lai's dark eyes. "Nonetheless," Charlie continued, looking about the table, "for the others who perhaps have not enjoyed Mr. Lai's deep friendships with American politicians, I would have to say my colleague here is right. The speeches in the American Senate are pure grandstanding. They're made for the American public—"

    "The bloodthirsty American public, you mean!" interrupted the Citigroup man, who, Charlie suddenly understood, had drunk too much. "Those old guys up there know most voters can't find China on a globe. That's no joke. It's shocking, the American ignorance of China."

    "We shall have to educate your people," Sir Henry Lai offered diplomatically, apparently not wishing the stridency of the conversation to continue. He gave a polite, cold-blooded laugh and looked about the room. The laugh was repeated and the room relaxed.

    "But it is, yes, my understanding that the Americans could sink the Chinese Navy in several days?" barked the German from Lufthansa.

    The man should have known better. "That may be true," answered Charlie, "but it is also irrelevant. Sooner or later the American people are going to have to recognize the hemispheric primacy of China, and that—"

    "Wait, wait!" Lai interrupted good-naturedly. "You agree with our German friend about the Chinese Navy?"

    The question was a direct appeal to the nationalism of the other Chinese around the table.

    "Can the U.S. Air Force destroy the Chinese Navy in a matter of days?" repeated Charlie. "Yes. Absolutely yes."

    Sir Henry Lai smiled. "You are knowledgeable about these topics, Mr."—he glanced down at the business cards arrayed in front of his plate—"Mr. Ravich. Of the Teknetrix Corporation, I see. What do you know about war, Mr. Ravich?" he asked. "Please, tell me. I am curious."

    The Chinese billionaire stared at him with eyebrows lifted, face a smug, florid mask, and if Charlie had been younger or genuinely insulted, he might have recalled aloud his years before becoming a businessman, but he understood that generally it was to one's advantage not to appear to have an advantage. And anyway, the conversation was merely a form of sport: Lai didn't give a good goddamn about the Chinese Navy, which he probably despised; what he cared about was whether or not he should soon spend eight hundred million dollars on GT stock—play the corporation that played the players.

    But Lai pressed. "What do you know about this?"

    "Just what I read in the papers," Charlie replied with humility.

    "See? There! I tell you!" Lai eased back in his silk suit, smiling at the other men, running a fat little palm over his thinning hair. "He has no direct knowledge! This is a very dangerous problem, my friends. People say many things about China and America, but they have no direct knowledge, no real—"

    The conversation! There it went! He had heard virtually the same talk the night before, in Shanghai, and he was not interested, again, in who controlled what percentage of the container-shipping ports in Hong Kong's harbor, or whether Shanghai would supersede Hong Kong and why, or the future of retail banking in China, or conditions in western China, where peasants still toiled in medieval suffering, or when a nominally democratic Taiwan might be reunited with a nominally Communist China. And he was especially not interested in the balance of trade between China and the U.S. Why discuss it? Everyone in the room, even the fucking waiters, for God's sake, most of whom were probably speculating in the Chinese stock markets or smuggling stolen truck engines, knew! Knew that the Chinese would and could do as they wished. It was their world—if not now, then soon.

    Mercifully, the boys in red uniforms and brass buttons began setting down spoons and bringing around tea and coffee for dessert. Charlie excused himself and headed for the gentlemen's restroom. The boys watched him, not gawking at his height—the Chinese were getting taller, Charlie had noticed—so much as trying to understand the subtle hitch in his stride, why he stepped across the carpet with deliberate care, like a man who had been taken apart and then not quite been put back together. Well, let them stare. It didn't bother him, for he no longer actually limped, this accomplishment having taken ten years and eight operations, one a spinal fusion, one an artificial knee joint, one of them botched. And he had learned that it was simply easier if he kept his weight at about one hundred and eighty; above that, the old pains returned to his back and leg, bringing with them certain other old pains of a different nature, and on the whole, he had decided that he was far more interested in the wide, unfurling future than in his own small past. That past could go to hell; the future was the thing.

    The future, in fact, would be most improved by the news that his daughter was going to have a child. Please, God, he thought, it's a small favor, really. One egg clinging to a warm pink wall. He and Ellie should have had another child, should have at least tried, after Ben. Ellie had been forty-two. Too much grief at the time, too late now.

    In the men's room, a sarcophagus of black and silver marble, he nodded at the wizened Chinese attendant, who stood up with alert servility and attended to a silver tray of colognes, breath mints, hair sprays, combs, brushes, and toothpicks. Charlie chose the second stall and locked the heavy marble door behind him. The door and walls extended in smooth veined slabs from the floor to within a foot of the ceiling. The photo-electric eye over the toilet sensed his movement and the bowl flushed prematurely. He was developing an old man's interest in the regularity of his bowels. He unbuckled his pants and eased down, careful always to favor the right side of his back, the old problem there so unforgiving that he had spent years learning to play golf as a left-hander.

    He shat then, with the private pleasure of it. He was starting to smell Chinese to himself. Happened on every trip to the East.

    And then, as he finished, he heard the old attendant greeting another man in Cantonese.

    "Evening, sir."


    The stall door next to Charlie's opened, shut, was locked. The man was breathing as if he had hurried. Then came the sound of pants being unbuckled, some loud coughing, an oddly tiny splash, and the muffled silky sound of the man slumping heavily against the wall he shared with Charlie.

    "Sir?" The attendant knocked on Charlie's door. "You open door? Open door?"

    Charlie buckled his pants and slid the lock free. The old man's face loomed close, eyes large, breath stinking.

    "Not me!" Charlie said. "The next one!"

    "No have key! No have key! Climb!" The old attendant pointed to the top of the wall between the stalls, pushed past Charlie, stepped up on the toilet seat, and stretched high against the glassy marble. His bony hands pawed the stone uselessly. Now the man in the adjacent stall was moaning in Chinese, begging for help. Charlie pulled the attendant down and stood on the toilet seat himself. With his arms outstretched he could reach the top of the wall, and he sucked in a breath and hoisted himself. God, how his arms had gotten weaker. Grimacing, he pulled himself up high enough so that his nose touched the top edge of the wall. But before being able to look over, he fell back.

    "Go!" he ordered the attendant. "Get help, get a key!"

    The man in the stall groaned, his respiration a song of pain. Charlie threw his jacket to the floor and stepped up on the seat again, this time jumping exactly at the moment he pulled with his arms, using the ancient knowledge of a boy, and then yes, one and two, he was up, right up there, hooking one leg over the wall, his head just high enough to peer down and see Sir Henry Lai slumped on the floor, his face a rictus of purpled flesh, his pants around his ankles, a piss stain spreading across his silk boxers. His hands clutched weakly at his tie, the veins of his neck swollen like blue pencils. His eyes, not squeezed shut but open, stared up at the underside of the spotless toilet bowl, into which, Charlie could see from above, a small silver pillbox had fallen, top open, the white pills inside of it already scattered and sunk in the water—scattered and sunk and melting away.

    "Hang on, guy," breathed Charlie. "They're coming. Hang on." He tried to pull himself through the opening between the wall and ceiling, but it was no good; he could get his head through but not his shoulders or torso. Now Sir Henry Lai coughed rhythmically, as if uttering some last strange code—"Haa-cah ... Haaa!-cah ... Haaa! Haaa!"—and convulsed, his eyes peering in pained wonderment straight into Charlie's, then widening as his mouth filled with a reddish soup of undigested shrimp and pigeon and turtle that surged up over his lips and ran down both of his cheeks before draining back into his windpipe. He was too far gone to cough the vomit out of his lungs, and the tension in his hands eased—he was dying of a heart attack and asphyxiation at the same moment.

    The attendant hurried back in with two waiters and Sir Henry's bodyguard. They pounded on the stall door with something, cracking the marble. The beautiful veined stone broke away in pieces, some filling on Sir Henry Lai's shoes. Charlie looked back at his face. Henry Lai was dead.

    The men stepped into the stall and Charlie knew he was of no further use. He dropped back to the floor, picked up his jacket, and walked out of the men's restroom, expecting a commotion outside. A waiter sailed past with a tray of salmon roses; the assembled businessmen didn't know what had happened.

    Mr. Ming watched him enter.

    "I must leave you," Charlie said graciously. "I'm very sorry."

    Mr. Ming rose to shake hands.

    "My daughter is due to call me tonight with important news."

    "Good news, I trust."

    The only news bankers liked. "Perhaps. She's going to tell me if she is Pregnant."

    "I hope you are blessed." Mr. Ming smiled, teeth white as Ellie's estrogen pills.

    Charlie nodded warmly. "We're going to build a terrific factory, too. Should be on-line by the end of the year."

    "We are scheduled for lunch in about two weeks in New York?"

    "Absolutely," said Charlie. Every minute now was important.

    Mr. Ming bent closer, his voice softening. "And you will tell me then about the quad-port transformer you are developing?"

    His secret new datacom switch, which would smoke the competition? No. "Yes." Charlie crinkled his face into a mask of agreeability. "Sure deal."

    "Excellent," pronounced Mr. Ming. "Have a good flight."

    The stairs to the lobby spiraled along backlit cabinets of jade dragons and coral boats and who cared what else. He hurried past Tiffany glasswork and mahogany paneling. Don't run, Charlie told himself, don't appear to be in a hurry. But he was holding his coat-check ticket before he hit the last step. In London, seven hours behind Hong Kong, the stock market was still open. He pointed to his coat for the attendant and then, after dropping thirteen floors in the club's elevator, nodded at the first taxi waiting outside. The back door opened mechanically, and he jumped in.


    "Foreign Correspondents' Club?"

    "Right away."

    It was the only place open at night in Hong Kong where he knew he could get access to a Bloomberg box—that magical electronic screen that displayed every stock and bond price in every market around the globe. He pulled out his cell phone and called his broker in London. He kept his trading account there so that he could straddle the Asian, European, and American markets.

    "Jane, this is Charlie Ravich," he said when she answered. "I want to set up a huge put play. Drop everything."

    "This is not like you."

    "This is not like anything. Sell all my Microsoft now at the market price, sell all the Ford, the Merck, all the Lucent, all the Wal-Mart and Deutsche Telekom. Market orders all of them. Please, right now, before London closes."

    "All right. Now, for the tape, you are requesting we sell eight thousand shares of—"

    "Yes, yes, I agree," he blurted, for the purposes of the automatic recording device. "Just hurry."

    Jane was off for a moment, getting another broker to carry out the orders. "Zoom-de-doom," she said when she returned. "Let it rip."

    "This is going to add up to about one-point-oh-seven million," he said. "I'm buying puts on Gaming Technologies, the gambling company. It's American but trades in London."

    "Yes." Now her voice held interest. "Yes."

    "How many puts of GT can I buy with that?"

    She was shouting orders to her clerks. "Wait ..." she said. "Yes? Very good. I have your account on my screen. All those stocks are going to cash. We're filling those at the market, waiting for the—yes. The sells are showing up ..." He heard keys clicking. "We have ... one million seventy thousand, U.S., plus change. Now then, Gaming Technologies is selling at sixty-six even a share—"

    "Is the price dropping?"

    "No, no, it's up an eighth last trade, two minutes ago, in fact."

    "How many puts can I buy with one-point-on-seven?"

    "Oh, I would say a huge number, Charlie."

    "How many?"

    "About ... one-point-six million shares."

    "That's huge, all right." A put was the option to sell a stock at a certain price by a certain time. Because the cost of each put was a fraction of the share price, a small amount of money could leverage a huge sum.

    "You want to protect that bet?" Jane asked.

    "No. The stock is going down."

    "If you say so."

    "Buy the puts, Jane."

    "I am, Charlie, please. The price is stable. Yes, take this one ..." she was saying to a clerk. "Give me puts on GT at market, immediately. Yes. Hang on, Charlie. One-point-six million at the money. Yes. At the money. I'm giving my authorization."

    The line was silent a moment. He had just spent more than a million dollars on the right to sell 1.6 million shares of GT at $66 a share.

    "You sure, Charlie?"

    "This is a bullet to the moon, Jane."

    "Biggest bet of your life, Charlie?"

    "Oh, Jane, not even close."

    Outside his cab a silky red Rolls glided past, its license plate indicating it was owned by an officer of the People's Liberation Army. Hong Kong was like that now, the PLA—vulgar and dangerous and clever—getting rich, forcing corruption through the pipes. "Got it?" he asked.

    "Not quite. You going to tell me the play, Charlie?"

    "When it goes through, Jane."

    "We'll get the order back in a minute or two."

    Die on the shitter, Charlie thought. Could happen to anyone. Happened to Elvis Presley, matter of fact.



    "We have your puts. One-point-six million, GT, at the price of sixty-six." He heard the keys clicking. "Now tell me?" Jane pleaded.

    "I will," Charlie said. "Just give me the verbal confirmation for the tape."

    While she repeated the price and the volume of the order, he looked out the window to see how close the taxi was to the FCC. He'd first visited the club while on leave in 1970, when it was full of drunken television and newspaper journalists, CIA people, Army intelligence, retired British admirals who had gone native and were no longer welcome in their own clubs, crazy Texans provisioning the war, and just about every other expat lonesome for conversation; since then, the rest of Hong Kong had been built up and torn down and built up all over again, but the FCC still stood, tucked away on a side street.

    "I just want to get my times right," Charlie told Jane when she was done. "It's now a few minutes after 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday in Hong Kong. What time are you in London?"

    "Just after 2:00 p.m."

    "London markets are open about an hour more?"

    "Yes," Jane said.

    "New York starts trading in half an hour."


    "I'll be able to watch the market from here, Jane."


    "But I need you to stay in your office and handle New York for me."

    She sighed. "I'm due to pick up my son from school."

    "Need a car, a new car?"

    "Everybody needs a new car."

    "Just stay there a few more hours, Jane. You can pick out a Mercedes tomorrow morning and charge it to my account."

    "You're a charmer, Charlie."

    "I'm serious. Charge my account."

    "Okay, will you please tell me?"

    Of course he would, not only so that she could score a bit of the action herself, but because he needed to get the news moving. "Sir Henry Lai just died. Maybe fifteen minutes ago."

    "Sir Henry Lai ..."

    "The Macao gambling billionaire who was in deep talks with GT—"

    "Yes! Yes!" Jane cried. "Are you sure?"


    "It's not just a rumor?"

    "Jane. This is Charlie you're talking to."

    "How do you know?"

    "Jane, you don't trust old Charlie Ravich?"

    "Please, Charlie, there's still time for me to make a play here!"

    "I saw it with my own—"

    "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

    "—eyes, Jane. Right there in front of me."

    "It's dropping! Oh! Down to sixty-four," she cried miserably. "There it goes! There go ninety thousand shares! Somebody else got the word out! Sixty-three and a— Charlie, oh Jesus, you beat it by maybe a minute."

    He told her he'd call again shortly and stepped out of the cab, careful with his back, and walked into the club, a place so informal that the clerk just gave him a nod; people strode in all day long to have drinks in the main bar, a square room with many of the famous black-and-white AP and UPI photos of Asia: Mao in Beijing, the naked little Vietnamese girl running toward the camera, her village napalmed behind her, the sitting Buddhist monk burning himself to death in protest, Nixon at the Great Wall. Inside sat several dozen men and women drinking and smoking, many of them American and British journalists, others small-time local businessmen who long ago had slid into alcoholism, burned out, boiled over, or given up.

    He ordered a whiskey and sat down in front of the Bloomberg box, fiddling with it until he found the correct menu for real-time London equities. He was up millions and the New York Stock Exchange had not even opened yet. What do you know about war, Mr. Ravich? Please, tell me. I am curious. Ha! The big American shareholders of GT, or, more particularly, their analysts and advisers and market watchers, most of them punks in their thirties, were still tying their shoes and kissing the mirror and reading The New York Times and soon—very soon!—they'd be buying coffee at the Korean deli and saying hello to the receptionist at the front desk and sitting down at their screens. Minutes away! When they found out that Sir Henry Lai had collapsed and died in the China Club in Hong Kong at 8:45 p.m. Hong Kong time, they would assume, Charlie hoped, that because Lai ran an Asian-style, family-owned corporation, and because as its patriarch he dominated its governance, any possible deal with GT was off, indefinitely. They would then reconsider the price of GT, still absurdly stratospheric even after its ride down in London, and they would dump it fast.

    Maybe it would go that way. He ordered another drink, then called Jane.

    "GT is down almost five points," she told him. "New York is about to open."

    "But I don't see panic yet. Where's the volume selling?"

    "You're not going to see it here, not with New York opening. People may think New York will buy before they know the news. I'll be sitting right here."

    "Excellent, Jane. Thank you."

    "No, thank you."


    "I got in with my own account at sixty-four and out at sixty-one, so I made a nice sum this afternoon, Charlie."

    "Why didn't you hold?" he asked. "I think it's going down further."

    "Maybe I don't have your guts."

    "Jane. Jane. You think old man Charlie is going over the edge—I can hear it in your voice."

    "Not at all. Call me when you're ready to close out the play."

    He hung up, looked into the screen. The real-time price of GT was hovering at fifty-nine dollars a share. No notice had moved over the information services yet. Not Bloomberg, not Reuters.

    He went back to the bar, pushed his way past a couple of journalists.

    "Another?" the bartender asked, perhaps noticing the scar on Charlie's hand.

    "Yes, sir. A double," he answered loudly. "I just got very bad news."

    "Sorry to hear that." The bartender did not look up.

    "Yes." Charlie nodded solemnly. "Sir Henry Lai died tonight, massive heart attack at the China Club. A terrible thing." He slid one hundred Hong Kong dollars across the bar. Several of the journalists peered at him.

    "Pardon me," asked one, a tall Englishman with a riot of red hair. "Did I hear you say Sir Henry Lai has died?"

    Charlie nodded. "Not an hour ago. Terrible thing to witness. I just happened to be standing there, at the China Club." He tasted his drink. "Please excuse me."

    He returned to the Bloomberg screen. The Englishman, he noticed, had slipped away to a pay phone in the corner. The New York Stock Exchange, casino to the world, had been open a minute. He waited. Three, four, five minutes. And then, finally, came what he'd been waiting for, Sir Henry Lai's epitaph: GT's price began shrinking as its volume exploded—half a million shares, price fifty-eight, fifty-six, two million shares, fifty-five and a half. He watched. Four million shares now. The stock would bottom and bounce. He'd wait until the volume slowed. At fifty-five and a quarter he pulled his phone out of his pocket, called Jane, and executed the option to sell at sixty-six. At fifty-five and seven-eighths he bought the same number of shares he'd optioned, for a profit of a bit more than ten dollars a share. Major money. Sixteen million before taxes. Big money. Real money. Elvis money.

    The whiskey was finding its way around his brain, and now he was prepared to say that soon he would be drunk.

IT WAS ALMOST ELEVEN when he arrived back at his hotel, which loomed brightly above him, a tinkle of music and voices floating out into the gauzy fog from the open-air swimming pool on the fourteenth floor. The Sikh doorman, a vestige from the days of the British Empire, nodded a greeting. Inside the immense lobby a piano player pushed along a little tune that made Charlie feel mournful, and he sat down in one of the deep chairs that faced the harbor. So much ship traffic, hundreds of barges and junks and freighters and, farther out, the supertankers. To the east sprawled the new airport—they had filled in the ocean there, hiring half of all the world's deep-water dredging equipment to do it. History in all this. He was looking at ships moving across the dark waters, but he might as well be looking at the twenty-first century itself, looking at his own countrymen who could not find factory jobs. The poor fucks had no idea what was coming at them, not a clue. China was a juggernaut, an immense, seething mass. It was building aircraft carriers, it was buying Taiwan. It shrugged off turmoil in Western stock markets. Currency fluctuations, inflation, deflation, volatility—none of these things compared to the fact that China had eight hundred and fifty million people under the age of thirty-five. They wanted everything Americans now took for granted, including the right to piss on the shoes of any other country in the world. The Chinese could actually get things done, too; they were rewiring with fiber-optic cable, they were tearing down Shanghai, a city of fourteen million, and rebuilding it from scratch. The central government had committed a trillion dollars to the effort, bulldozing any neighborhood deemed standing in the way of progress. If you didn't like it, and announced as much, the Chinese tied you spread-eagle to a door for a month or so. With a hole to shit through. They knew America didn't care—not really. There was too much money to be made—he could see that right now, the boats on their way north, the slide of time.

    But ha! There might be some consolation after all! He pushed back in the seat, slipped on his half-frame glasses, and did the math on a hotel napkin. After commissions and taxes, his evening's activities had netted him close to eight million dollars—a sum grotesque not so much for its size but for the speed and ease with which he had seized it—two phone calls!—and, most of all, for its mockery of human toil. Well, it was a grotesque world now. He'd done nothing but understand what the theorists called a market inefficiency and what everyone else knew as inside information. If he was a ghoul, wrenching dollars from Sir Henry Lai's vomit-filled mouth, then at least the money would go to good use. He'd put all of it in a bypass trust for Julia's child. The funds could pay for clothes and school and pediatrician's bills and whatever else. It could pay for a life. He remembered his father buying used car tires from the garage of the Minnesota Highway Patrol for a dollar-fifty. No such thing as steel-belted radials in 1956. Charlie-boy, I'm going to teach you how to fix a broken fan belt. Kinda useful thing to know. See, you could be on some road somewhere and ... He'd shown his father an F-105 in 1967, told him that NASA would make it to the moon in a couple of years. His father had never believed it. He'd told his father that he'd carried a small nuclear warhead in test flights in 1970. His father had never believed that, either. You cross borders of time, and if people don't come with you, you lose them and they you. Now it was an age when a fifty-eight-year-old American executive could net eight million bucks by watching a man choke to death. His father would never have understood it, and he suspected that Ellie couldn't, either. Not really. There was something in her head lately. She was going some other direction. Maybe it was because of Julia, but maybe not. She was anxious and irritable these days, jabbering at him about retirement communities, complaining that he traveled too much. She seemed distracted, too. She bought expensive vegetables she let rot in the refrigerator, she kept changing her hair color, she took Charlie's blood-pressure pills by mistake, she left the phone off the hook. He wanted to be patient with her but could not. She drove him nuts.

HE SAT IN THE HOTEL LOBBY for an hour more, reading every article in the International Herald Tribune and eating a piece of chocolate cake. He wondered how Mr. Ming knew about the quad-port transformer. The factory Ming was financing would initially manufacture Teknetrix's existing line of datacom switches, not the Q4. It was possible, of course, that one of the company's salesmen had bragged about the Q4, or the tech research people had let slip some information at one of the industry conferences. His main competitor, Manila Telecom, might know of the research on the product—Charlie's company certainly knew of theirs.

    He wouldn't worry the question now. Julia was more important. He checked his watch and finally, at midnight, decided not to wait for her call and pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed her Manhattan office.

    "Tell me, sweetie," he said once he got past the secretary.

    "Oh, Daddy ..."


    A pause. And then she cried.

    "Okay, now," he breathed, closing his eyes. "Okay."

    She gathered herself. "All right. I'm fine. It's okay. You don't have to have children to have a fulfilling life, I just keep reminding myself. It's a beautiful day outside. I can handle this. I don't want you to worry about me."

    "Tell me what they said."

    "They said I'll probably never have my own children, it's probably impossible, they think the odds are—I haven't even told Brian, I'm just sitting here, not even—I mean, I can't work or think or anything, all I know is that I'll never hold my own baby, never, just something I'll never, ever do."

    "Oh, sweetie."

    "We really thought it was going to work. You know? I've had a lot of faith with this thing. They have these new egg-handling techniques, makes them glue to the walls of the uterus, and they say it increases the odds."

    They were both silent a moment. He rubbed absentmindedly at the scar on his hand.

    "I mean, you kind of expect that technology will work," Julia went on, her voice thoughtful. "It's the last religion, right? They can make a sixty-three-year-old woman give birth. That's the actual record. They can pull sperm out of a dead man. They can clone human beings—they can do all of these things and they can't—" She stopped.

    The day had piled up on him, and he was trying to remember all that Julia had explained to him previously about eggs and tubes and hormone levels. "Sweetie," he tried, "the problem is not exactly the eggs?"

    "My eggs are pretty lousy, also. You're wondering if we could put my egg in another woman, right?"

    "No, not—well, maybe yes," he sighed, the thought of it abhorrent to him.

    "They don't think it would work. The eggs aren't that viable. You could have someone go through a year or two and fail, just on the basis of the eggs."

    "And your tubes—"

    She gave a bitter laugh. "Daddy, they could poke the perfect eggs of some eighteen-year-old girl into me. But the walls of my uterus are too thin. The eggs won't stick."


    "I'm barren, Daddy. I finally understand that word. I can't make good eggs, and I can't hatch eggs, mine or anyone else's."

    He watched the lights of a tanker slide along the oily water outside. Say something useful, he thought. "I know it's too early to start discussing adoption, but—"

    "He doesn't want to do it. At least he says he won't," she sobbed.

    "Wait, sweetie," Charlie responded, hearing her despair, "Brian is just—Adopting a child is—"

    "No, no, no, Daddy, Brian doesn't want a little Guatemalan baby or a Lithuanian baby or anybody else's baby but his own. It's about his own goddamn penis. If it doesn't come out of his penis, then it's no good."

    Her husband's view made sense to him, but he couldn't say that now. "Julia, I'm sure Brian—"

    "I would have adopted a little baby a year ago, two years ago! But I put up with all this shit, all these hormones and needles in my butt and doctors pushing things up me, for him. I mean, I've done Lupron nine times! I made myself a raving Lupron bitch nine times, Daddy. That has got to be more than any other woman in New York City! And now those years are—Oh, I'm sorry, Daddy, I have a client. I'll talk to you when you come back. I'm very—I have a lot of calls here. Bye."

    He listened to the satellite crackle in the phone, then to the return of the dial tone, then the announcement in Chinese to hang up. His flight was at eight the next morning, New York seventeen hours away, and as always, he wanted to get home, and yet didn't, for as soon as he arrived, he would miss China. The place got to him, like a recurrent dream, or a fever—forced possibilities into his mind, whispered ideas he didn't want to hear. Like the eight million. It was perfectly legal yet also a kind of contraband. If he wanted, Ellie would never see the money; his brokerage and bank statements were filed by his secretary, Karen, and Ellie could barely be troubled to sign the tax returns each April. She had long since ceased to be interested in his financial gamesmanship, so long as there was enough money for the necessities: Belgian chocolates for the elevator man at Christmas, fresh flowers twice a week, the farmhouse and pool in Tuscany. But like a flash of unexpected lightning, the new money illuminated certain questions begging for years at the edge of his consciousness. He had been rich for a long time, but now he was rich enough to fuck with fate. Had he been waiting for this moment? Yes, waiting until he knew about Julia, waiting until he was certain.

    He called Martha Wainwright, his personal lawyer. "Martha, I've finally decided to do it," he said when she answered.

    "Oh, Christ, Charlie, don't tell me that."

    "Yes. Fact, I just made a little extra money in a stock deal. Makes the whole thing that much easier."

    "Don't do it, Charlie."

    "I just got the word from my daughter, Martha. If she could have children, it would be a different story."

    "This is bullshit, Charlie. Male bullshit."

    "Is that your legal opinion or your political one?" She was tough, old Martha.

    "I'm going to argue with you when you get back," she warned.

    "Fine—I expect that. For now, please just put the ad in the magazines and get all the documents ready."

    "I think you are a complete jerk for doing this."

    "We understand things differently, Martha."

    "Yes, because you are addicted to testosterone."

    "Most men are, Martha. That's what makes us such assholes."

    "You having erection problems, Charlie? Is that what this is about?"

    "You got the wrong guy, Martha. My dick is like an old dog."

    "How's that? Sleeps all the time?"

    "Slow but dependable," he lied. "Comes when you call it."

    She sighed. "Why don't you just let me hire a couple of strippers to sit on your face? That'd be infinitely cheaper."

    "That's not what this is about, Martha."

    "Oh, Charlie."

    "I'm serious, I really am."

    "Ellie will be terribly hurt."

    "She doesn't need to know."

    "She'll find out, believe me. They always do." Martha's voice was distraught. "She'll find out you're up to something, then she'll find out you're advertising for a woman to have your baby, and then she'll just flip out, Charlie."

    "Not if you do your job well."

    "You really this afraid of death?"

    "Not death, Martha, oblivion. Oblivion is the thing that really kills me."

    "You're better than this, Charlie."

    "The ad, just put in the ad."

    He hung up. In a few days the notice would sneak into the back pages of New York's weeklies, a discreet little box in the personals, specifying the arrangement he sought, the benefits he offered, and Martha would begin screening the applications. He'd see who responded. You never knew who was out there.

HE SAT QUIETLY then, a saddened but prosperous American executive in a good suit, his gray hair neatly barbered, his body still trim even if it had a dozen steel pins and plates and screws in it, and followed the ships out on the water. One of the hotel's Eurasian prostitutes, dressed not too conservatively, watched him from across the lobby as she sipped a watered-down drink. Alert to the nuanced, late-night moods of international businessmen, and perhaps sensing a certain opportune grief in the stillness of his posture, she slipped over the marble floor and bent close to ask softly if he would like some company, but he shook his head no—although not, she would see, without a bit of lonely gratitude, not without a quick hungered glance of his eyes into hers—and he continued to sit calmly, with that stillness to him. Noticing this, one would have thought not that in one evening he had watched a man die, or made millions, or lied to his banker, or worried that his flesh might never go forward, but that he was privately toasting what was left of the century, wondering what revelation it might yet bring.

What People are Saying About This

Peter Blauner
Peter Blauner, Author of The Intruder and Man of the Hour

Colin Harrison is a writer of uncommon grace and velocity. His stories have a rare combination of moral weight, suspensefulness, and dangerous glamour. Afterburn may be his best book yet. Don't miss it.

Meet the Author

Colin Harrison is the deputy editor of Harper's and the author of Bodies Electric, Break and Enter, and Manhattan Nocturne. He lives with his wife, novelist Kathryn Harrison, in Brooklyn.

Colin Harrison is the author of the novels Break and Enter, Bodies Electric, Manhattan Nocturne, Afterburn, The Havana Room, The Finder, and Risk. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Afterburn 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Almost three decades have passed since Charlie Ravich¿s life was nearly destroyed in Nam. The scars of his capture by the enemy have never left his mind even though he is a very successful CEO of an international company. The Manhattan resident wonders if he is the victim of some form of cosmic revenge because of his actions in Viet Nam. His son is dying from leukemia. His daughter is infertile. Even his wife is ailing suffering from Alzheimer¿s. There is nobody to carry on his legacy after he dies. Desperate for a blood heir, he turns towards the concept of a surrogate mother providing him with a new child. He plans to ignore his child until it reaches adulthood.

Christina Welles has just been released from prison. She sees Charlie¿s twisted but desperate plight as an answer to her own troubles. Her former employer, Mafioso Tony V wants to insure her silence. Her former lover tries to warn her but instead sets in motion a series of double-crosses that will leave everyone burned.

Although not for all readers, AFTERBURN is a thought-provoking thriller that questions the legacy individuals leave behind. Filled with graphic violence, the complex story line cleverly blends together several subplots into a non-stop thriller that leaves little doubt that Colin Harrison is one of the sub-genre¿s grandmasters. The central theme will remind the audience of a scene from Dead Poet¿s Society when Williams shows the pictures of former students who have one thing in common; they are all now dust. Mr. Harrison will receive many accolades and awards for intelligently using that philosophy as the underlying focus of this triumphant but violent thriller.

Harriet Klausner

Guest More than 1 year ago
Bought this at a used bookstore for $.99. I can't wait to read Harrison's other books!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nuff said.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago