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In the tradition of Gorky Park, John Gapper’s new thriller takes readers inside the secretive and dangerous world of modern China, as a young woman makes a haunting discovery—one that forces her to choose between duty to her government and a desperate desire to learn the truth about herself.
This wasn’t just a body in a field. The corpse’s shape was hers—same length, same curves. Then she knew, and everything else receded to nothingness. All she could see was a woman with the same nose, the same eyes, and the same face.
As an up-and-coming agent of the Commission for Discipline Inspection, Song Mei probes political corruption, not mysterious deaths. But that changes when she arrives on the scene of a grim police investigation and is confronted with a crime—and a victim—impossible to ignore. Despite strict orders and threats from superiors, Mei knows she can not turn away.
Breaking protocol, Mei undertakes a covert search for the truth about the mystery woman’s death—and life—by following in her footsteps from a factory plagued by worker suicides to a luxury hotel dealing in high-end escorts to an American home haunted by tragedy. But when Mei crosses paths with an ex–CIA operative on a shadowy mission of his own, her personal quest takes a jarring turn into political and industrial espionage that pits both agents against the highest ranks of communism and capitalism.
Praise for John Gapper’s A Fatal Debt
“Rarely does one read a first novel so self-assured, sharp, and compelling. It takes off like a rocket and doesn’t stop until its explosive conclusion.”—Joseph Finder, author of Suspicion
“An enlightening and grisly tale . . . tightly plotted and fast-paced.”—The New Yorker
“An ingenious thriller about the ruthless world of high finance.”—The Washington Post
“A fast-paced book that should entertain finance aficionados and fans of detective fiction alike.”—Fortune
“A neatly crafted and well-written thriller . . . an audacious, assured debut.”—David Ignatius, author of Bloodmoney
“[Gapper] knows when to put his foot on the narrative accelerator.”—Financial Times
“Intriguing . . . suspenseful . . . a web of deceit and betrayal.”—Booklist
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
John Gapper is the author of the suspense novel A Fatal Debt, as well as these works of nonfiction: How to Be a Rogue Trader and All That Glitters, a book about the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995. He is chief business columnist and an associate editor of the Financial Times. He also has a blog on which he comments on business news. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Exeter College, Oxford University, and won a Harkness Fellowship to study at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.
Read an Excerpt
Margot grips the armrest tightly as the Southern Airlines flight descends, hardly noticing the green hills and lakes below, the lush countryside so unlike Beijing’s arid heat. She has suffered a terrifying journey in an Antonov turboprop that lumbered into the air in Shenzhen, propellers whining as it bounced westward. Only in the final, floating moments before the wheels bang onto the runway tarmac does she see the beauty of the place.
The airport is lined with fields and as the aging plane shudders toward the low-slung terminal, tooth-shaped limestone hills appear in the window. She pauses on the stairway as the other passengers leave, some staring at her western face, and breathes in the aroma of earth and humidity. This is the China that Margot loves, the one she will soon lose. She hasn’t been outside of Beijing for a long time; it is like stepping into a steam bath that soothes her clenched muscles.
Walking through the terminal, she stiffens again. Two military vehicles are parked by the exit at a bus stop, and a line of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army stands by, rifles held at a diagonal. Their faces are blank under their green peaked caps with the red star encircled in gold braid. Margot avoids their gaze. Those weapons mean death—she had heard muffled sounds of gunshots echoing across Beijing two months earlier, like fireworks in Tiananmen Square. When she ventured out of their compound the next morning, the spring’s excitement had vanished from the faces of passersby. They all kept their heads low, trying to be invisible.
The three-wheeled motorcycle taxi bumps along a potholed highway, past lines of pencil-trunked trees. As they reach the center of Guilin, bicyclists swarm them. Margot has never felt so lonely, on this journey that may change everything. He hasn’t come, and she doesn’t believe his excuse. It is his way: His was was to fix things and leave the details to others. He requires the freedom to walk away; she has seen him check the exits upon entering an unfamiliar building. Margot forces herself not to mind too much, even to laugh. But now, alone in this city, among three-wheelers piled with people and vegetables and crates of chickens, she feels betrayed.
She catches a glimpse, on one side of a boulevard, of two gilded pagodas in the morning sun, and cranes her neck to look back. The driver doesn’t slow down, speeding past a cluster of bicyclists with a muttered oath of irritation in a dialect she doesn’t understand. They must be close, she thinks, and pulls a clasp mirror from her bag and dusts her cheeks with powder, trying to spruce herself up. In the tiny bobbing circle, her face looks ashen and crumpled, hopeless, and she snaps the mirror shut.
It is farther than she had imagined. They emerge on the other side of the city center and wind through hills before plunging into a district with roads bristling with shacks and workshops. In their ill-lit interiors, stuffed with doors, pipes, and metalwork, men check stacks or haggle over a transaction. Then onward again, past a street market with stallholders squatting in the road and ducks poking their heads through cages to gape at the customers. A school, a playing field, before the houses fall away and they reenter the countryside. The driver swerves up a long dusty track surrounded by watery fields.
“Where are you taking me?” she calls to him in Mandarin. But he does not seem to hear.
Just as she is starting to panic, he turns a final bend, stamps on the brakes, and lights a cigarette. She opens the door and climbs out. They are in the middle of nowhere, the fields stretching to hills and sky on one side—deep, luminous greens and blues, as if she is seeing them through Polaroids. From behind, she hears the high-pitched chatter of children and turns to face a concertina barrier with a sentry hut to one side and a courtyard beyond. Steps lead up to a block-like four-story building—a brutalist place whose builders lacked any sense of style. Six small children in muddy smocks watch wide-eyed, as if they have never seen anyone like her.
The doors open and a man strides down the stairs, scattering the children with a swat of his hand. He gives them a hard glance and turns to Margot with a broad, fixed smile, acting out a greeting. The expression stays in place as he walks across the yard, a young woman following a pace behind. The man is wearing a Mao tunic, his hair molded on his head as if glued down, making Margot feel even more disheveled. As they reach the barrier, a guard emerges to open it and the man bows to her.
“We were told about you. Follow me,” he says. It sounds like an order, translated into poor, mumbled English by his companion. As they walk, she grimaces at his back like a naughty student and the translator stifles a smile.
They sit on hard chairs in his office, official photographs of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping on the wall, and make small talk about her journey and his job. As they talk, she glances over his shoulder at the children walking down the hall of the Social Welfare Institute. Margot wonders how long this has been their home, why they are so quiet, and how they are punished if they misbehave. Holding her teacup on the saucer, her hand trembles as she waits for the protocol to finish. She already feels like running away from the place and she’s been there only twenty minutes. When honor is satisfied and she has signed a form she does not bother to read and smiled and bowed again, she is taken into another room. By now she is shaking.
There, for the first time, she sees her, lying inside a wicker basket, covered with a thin blanket.
Friday will be Margot’s thirty-fourth birthday, and this is every present she’s ever gotten, all wrapped into one. She’s read stories of orphanages being dumping grounds for the disabled and has tried to prepare herself for the bad side of this unexpected offer—it can’t come without complication—but the baby is perfect. The basket rests on a table, and Margot brushes back a lock of hair on the girl’s forehead as she sleeps. When she puts a finger under the baby’s hand, the tiny fingers clasp it. As if she’s been waiting for Margot to come.
A woman is close by. Margot had not noticed her yet because of her intense focus on the child. The woman is fifty, she guesses, with a broad face split by a crooked smile that reveals a missing tooth. Reaching down, the woman fusses with the blanket, tucking it in tightly.
“Hello,” Margot says in English. The woman smiles and clasps one of Margot’s hands. Then she nods and waves at the child, as if to introduce her. She reaches into the basket before Margot can say, “Please don’t bother, let her sleep”—not that the woman would understand, what is she thinking?—picks up the baby and puts her in Margot’s arms. It is such joy, after everything, that she can’t help crying. As she dabs at her face with a tissue, the older woman takes charge. The baby’s cloth diaper is wet; the woman gestures inquiringly, prompting Margot to fetch the bag she’s brought, stuffed with bottles and formula and baby clothes and Pampers from Hong Kong. She stumbles putting on the first diaper, and the woman helps her.
They return to the courtyard, where the driver is standing next to his car smoking. Suddenly remembering her camera, Margot digs into her bag. She hands it to the translator and poses with a smile, one arm around the woman’s shoulders and the other holding the gift she has received—a daughter.
The Wolf was waiting for her.
He stood in the far distance, on a ridge between two banana fields, facing Mei. The moonlight illuminated his pale face and the gray wedge of hair that marked him out from others in the fifth generation, with their black slicks of hair, red ties, and unlined faces. They looked as if the Party had granted them, along with all the other perks, eternal youth.
He was called Lang Xiaobo; his family name—狼—was the same character as “wolf.” The Commission for Discipline Inspection cadres used it as a nickname, and Mei had complied without thinking. It was then, slipping into the mud as she climbed out of the Audi A8 and cursing at herself for not having worn boots, that she realized how apt it was. He was like an animal, snout to the sky, tensed for intruders. It was midnight and the clouds had cleared, cooling the air. She was relieved to be there, not wrestling with her sheets in bed.
Mei stood at the border of the old and the new: Guangdong’s peasant past and the electronics factories of its future. In the distance she saw the lights of the giant Humen Bridge spanning the Pearl River. The glowing beads a mile or so away were trucks on the Jinggang’ao Expressway driving between Guangzhou and Shenzhen. A low coaster passed on a tributary, its backwash lapping over the shallow banks. Refineries and factories hummed on every side, separated by dark patches—the farms and rice paddies that had once covered the delta.
Farms lingered among the rail lines and freeways on messy patches of land that had not yet been ripped up for industry or grabbed for apartment blocks. Here, peasants still grew bananas, strawberries, and lychees, damming the mud in ridges to irrigate the crops. They built ponds, where they raised fish and eels caught at sea or in rivers until they were big enough for the tanks of seafood restaurants. A few huts perched at the water’s edge. Inside one, a lantern flickered.
Her concentration broken, Mei looked across at the young man on the far side of the Audi. He was bending over in annoyance to scrape mud from his polished shoes, a lock of hair falling over one eye.
“What’s wrong, Yao?”
“I’d rather be in bed.”
“Having fun, were you?”
Mei stepped past a makeshift barrier erected by the uniformed personnel of the Dongguan Public Security Bureau to warn off intruders. There was no need—nothing had driven on the road since their arrival. But it gave the cops something to do, she supposed. One kid stood alert in his blue and white uniform—he’d found a job and wasn’t about to give it up. He offered a white-gloved salute, snapping his fingers to his cap and staring ahead, not daring to demand Mei’s card. She nodded, enjoying his subservience. He looked well suited to the job: high school diploma, not so bright. The kind who had once bullied her but wouldn’t get that chance again.
Yao joined her. “Who’s your boyfriend?” he said, gesturing with a thumb over his shoulder to the guard.
“Him?” She was half-listening to Yao, but her mind was on the scene in front of her. She didn’t understand why they were there. Corruption among Party officials, backhanders, sweetheart deals, soft loans, stock transfers—these were the bread-and-butter work of the Commission. Trying to make the elite behave itself, in the face of all the temptation, but nothing that required a bunch of police in a marsh at night. The glow of the Wolf’s cigarette lit his face briefly before he tossed it into the water. His brand was Chunghwa, the Shanghai tobacco with the scent of plums that had been favored by Mao himself.
“That boy was checking out your ass.”
“He can dream.”
“Why did that turtle’s egg drag us out here?” Yao muttered as he gazed into the marsh at the dark shape of the Wolf.
“Dragged me. He didn’t ask for you.”
“Ouch.” Yao grinned.
Mei frowned at him. His casual attitude toward the job got under her skin. Yao didn’t care about anything but chasing skirts. His father was a PLA general, and he was a princeling, one of the Party’s modern-day nobility whose grandparents and great-grandparents had fought alongside Mao in the 1949 Revolution. He was immune from trouble, and he knew it.
The call had come an hour before, breaking the silence in her apartment. She had clambered from her bed in a cotton shift and extricated her phone from the raincoat hanging on the door.
“Comrade Song?” The voice had been husky, unrecognizable; the formality of expression had thrilled her. The curtness meant business—something for which she was needed.
“Yes.” She had gulped, repeated the word louder.
“This is Secretary Lang. I . . .” He had paused, and for the first time Mei had felt vulnerable. The Wolf was alone. He’d had a wife but she was dead, it was said. Nobody explained, and it was best not to probe that generation unless they invited it. “I need you. I’ll send a car.”
The ambiguity of his summons had made her panic. He couldn’t mean that, could he? As she’d pulled on her clothes, she had thought of how to chaperone herself. She’d bring Yao, whose room was a floor below.
When she had knocked on his door, he had answered the door in a robe. “Hello, partner.” He had worn a self-satisfied grin; she’d seen a shape moving in the room behind him.
Three cops waited in a huddle fifty feet down a shallow hill, under a floodlight. The flickering lantern had been shuttered, and the huts were dark. Dongguan loomed on the horizon, a city of eight million stuck between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, to which migrants had first come in the Qing dynasty. Now, it was a Las Vegas of hotels, clubs, and prostitutes that drew business people from across China and all over the world to trade during the day and to play at night.
The Wolf, noticing company, trudged back toward them along the ridge. The two little groups—Mei and Yao, and the Dongguan police—waited in silence. Dressed in a long overcoat, he walked up the hill, beckoning as he spoke.
“Inspector Wen, I have asked Comrade Song to help with my inquiry. You will permit us.”
It was a statement, and the officer’s chubby face stiffened before nodding. He knew that the Party took priority over the state authorities. The Wolf turned his attention to Yao, regarding him impassively, as if waiting for a good explanation of his presence. Yao brushed back his hair and straightened his back.
“Secretary,” Mei said. “This is Comrade Zhang Yao. I thought he could assist.” She waited for a rebuke, but the Wolf nodded, as if bored with the topic.
“Follow me,” he said, turning toward the fields. Mei obeyed and Yao stepped forward with her.
“Not you,” the Wolf said brusquely, walking away. “Her.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The interesting setting (modern China), unusual plot, & strong female characters make this a worthy read. aj west