Inspired by true events, Two Sons of China is a sweeping historical saga from a forgotten theater of World War II, an action-packed tale about an unlikely friendship between two soldiers—one American, the other, Communist Chinese—and the powerful forces that threaten to tear them apart.
In 1944, American troops have arrived in China to help fight the Japanese. Lt. David Parker loathes his assignment to isolated Chungking. The war there is stalled because Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government is corrupt and unwilling to fight. So when Parker hears of a special American mission venturing north to assist Mao Zedong’s Communist forces, he is desperate to join them. Rumors have spread that the Communists are fighting the Japanese with heroic zeal.
Lin Yuen, a reclusive and skilled Communist guerilla leader, can scarcely hide his annoyance when Lieutenant Parker is assigned to join his next dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Both men have deeply held, clashing convictions, but the battles they fight, the horrors they witness, and the brotherhood they forge ultimately transform them both. As the end of World War II forces America to take sides in an impending Nationalist-Communist civil war, Parker and Yuen find their loyalties tested. Together, they must confront a final trial—one that imperils the honor they cherish and the people they love.
“Two Sons of China takes you to WWII China, introduces you to a fascinating cast of characters, and spins a terrific tale of adventure and romance. If you love historical fiction, or any fiction, don’t miss it. A superb debut.” —William Martin, New York Times–bestselling author of Back Bay and The Lincoln Letter
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Near Wuhan, May 1944
It definitely wasn't an animal.
Lieutenant David Parker froze, mid-step, at the faint scuffling between the trees. His hand dropped to the Colt .45 at his belt, the checkered grip slippery against his sweaty palm. He squinted at the forest of hemlocks and birch, into the setting sun, which cast a swath of sparkling light across the ripple of the river.
No one. Nothing.
He lifted his foot, a step toward the men, but his boot sole made a mud-sucking sound that froze him again.
He shot a look at the three Nationalist soldiers, the ones he'd handpicked for this mission. Gong, a wiry eighteen-year-old with unruly hair, was chortling over some joke his friend Lee had made. Lee was shorter, more stocky — a former warlord's bodyguard. Lee had heard the noise too; he shoved Gong, quieting him. The last man, Cheng, clutched his box-like radio close to his chest, as if he might succeed in hiding behind it.
Now all three were alert, sitting on the trunk of a fallen oak whose upper branches touched the river.
Again, the scuffling sound. A rustle of leaves, twenty yards away, off to the left, then ... silence.
David exhaled slowly. Spread out, he motioned with his hands. Lee, quick to obey, crept deeper into the woods. Cheng set the radio down. He crouched low and slid downriver. Gong didn't seem to know where to go. He jumped at the rapid flutter of a crow alighting on a branch overhead.
Behind them: the snap of a twig and a low curse.
David spun, drawing his pistol.
Ten feet away, a balding, middle-aged Chinese man stumbled onto the riverbank. He wore spectacles with round lenses that in China suggested accountant or banker. The sleeves of his white, pinstriped shirt were rolled up and dirt-smudged.
The newcomer shook his head and a few pine needles fell out of his hair. David pointed his gun at the man, who looked up in surprise.
"They sent a white man to do such a dangerous job?" he said, addressing Gong in brisk, staccato Mandarin.
David frowned and took a step forward. "Ni wei shenme zheyang shuo?" Why should you say that? he replied evenly.
The man's brows rose. The American's fluency was unexpected. Now he studied David more carefully.
"Are you not too valuable to risk getting killed?" he said.
Ignoring the question, David lowered his pistol, but his face did not hide his annoyance. He'd expected the spy to look more ... capable. "We've come a long way," he replied. "Just tell us what we need to know."
The spectacled spy stumbled a few steps closer and whispered, "Very well, but not in front of them."
David looked toward his men.
"Why not?" he asked.
But the spy was already moving clumsily into the trees.
David followed. The ground was covered with damp pine needles and decaying leaves.
The spy stopped in a small clearing and knelt down to take off his right black leather shoe. He removed a small piece of folded paper from inside the shoe and stood up.
"I'll tell you first about the bridge. It's around the bend ahead, only three hundred meters upriver." He pointed toward a tall granite escarpment that was visible through the trees. "Leave the raft here. Hide it. Haul charges along the bank. Then go into the water after dark."
"Okay, good." David looked back at the men. Lee punched Gong on the shoulder, both of them laughing at another inane joke. Do those two ever get serious? He stretched his neck to see that the crates of explosives were still bundled on the raft.
"You might like to know there will be a train at six minutes after six in the morning," the spy added.
"A train. I checked the schedule myself. The Japanese always run on time. If it is scheduled to leave the local station at six, it will take six minutes to reach the bridge."
"Why would they run a train so early in the morning?"
The man's dry expression transformed into something resembling both pride and resignation. "It may have to do with the other thing I've found out. They are moving many men and supplies because of something new — a new offensive."
"You mean an attack?"
The spy nodded.
"But the lines here haven't changed for years. Are you sure? How do you know?"
The Chinese man's eyes flickered with irritation as he glanced at his watch. "I have no time to explain. The Japanese want your American airfields, especially the one at Hengyang. American planes are sinking ships around Formosa. Many ships."
David let the surprising news register and felt a grudging respect for the spy. He thought of the war being waged in the Pacific and the long Japanese lines of supply. He searched for a reason to doubt the man, but in his gut, he knew it was the truth. It's exactly what the Japs would do.
"You must warn them," the spy said. Beads of sweat glistened on his brow. "I do not know when the attack will begin, but it will come."
David didn't reply. He was still thinking of the implications.
Suddenly, the spy clenched the front of David's army jacket. "You must understand the importance of this! Warning Changsha is far more important than blowing up a bridge."
David forced an awkward smile. Then he took a step back and the man let go of his jacket.
"Don't worry. We'll get this job done and make it back, too. I'll deliver the message."
He waited for the spy to say more, but now the man just stared at him, as if weighing David's trustworthiness all over again.
We're some pair. David thought. He's worried about me; I'm worried about him.
"All right then. Thanks for your help," David said as he turned away from the spy. There was still a lot of work to do before sundown.
"Wait," the spy hissed, glancing over his shoulder to check the soldiers by the raft. Now he brought forth the small piece of folded paper that David had forgotten about.
"I risked my life many times to compile this list," he whispered. "The names of double agents in Wuhan and Shanghai."
"You mean —"
"All the Nationalist spies who have been turned by the Japanese. They were captured. Most were tortured. Now they send back bad information while still pretending to work for Chiang Kai-shek's network. This is one reason Chiang does not know about the attack."
David reached out for the paper, but the man held it back.
"You must understand. The enemy has eyes and ears everywhere: in the Chinese army, among the people. Their spies are more likely to be paid-off Chinese than Japanese. You cannot show this to anyone until you return to Chungking. When you arrive there, show your American general ..."
"Stilwell," David said.
"Yes, Stih-weh," the spy repeated. "No one can see it before Stihweh."
He held out the small square of paper. David wiped his palms on his pants, took the paper, and unfolded it. In neat, formal characters there were more than a dozen names.
"Put it away," the spy said. "Do not let your men see."
David slipped the paper into his inside jacket pocket. This could be big. He pictured himself handing the paper over to Stilwell, basking in the Old Man's approval. Then, glancing at his unit, he saw they were still goofing off. God, they're just a bunch of kids ... How the hell am I supposed to pull this off by myself?
He exhaled, then drew a deep breath. They'd been tramping through the backcountry with heavy explosives for almost a week. Tonight, they would accomplish their mission. But this odd spy had complicated things. David wanted to ask him about his cover and how he'd managed to sneak away to this riverside rendezvous, but when he turned around, the spy was gone.CHAPTER 2
The river's long ripples drifted out of focus. David blinked and wiped away the sweat, trying to clear his vision, but a fog of exhaustion clouded his brain. He rubbed his forehead and slumped against a large granite rock, pressing its coolness against the side of his face. I should close my eyes. The others will tell me when to get up. He shut his lids, surprised at the effort to keep them down despite their heaviness. They opened. No use.
He resolved to stay awake. Still, he couldn't keep his mind from drifting. And there was Rita Hayworth, reclining on a chaise lounge in a gossamer négligée, lips puckered up to the end of a cigarette. David enjoyed the image for a moment, but the pin-up soon evaporated, becoming one with the last wisp of low-lying fog.
Turning on his right side, he peered over the rock at the bridge. The red-orange dawn now lit its top, the railing and span in bright contrast to the strong timbers below, which remained cast in shadow. Crisp, cool air filled David's lungs and he shivered, his clothes still damp from the night swim. He moved his arms and legs, working the stiff joints.
Gong was up ahead, thirty yards closer to the bridge and more easily seen with the light of dawn. Too close, David thought again, until he remembered the cord wouldn't let out any farther. He smiled as he remembered Gong's eager face glowing in the moonlight just hours before, when he'd suggested Gong blow the charges. Nationalist soldiers were rarely rewarded for their initiative, and these men had risked much for this moment.
Close by, to his left, David saw Lee lying flat on his stomach behind a rotting log. Sleeping? Grains of sand mixed with Lee's stringy, black hair. Cheng, the radioman, crouched behind a boulder five yards back. In the shadows, his grease-darkened face made him almost bat-like, the whites of his eyes faintly blue in the dim light, eyes that were glued to the bridge.
"Ni ting jian shenme ma?" Hear anything? Cheng whispered to David.
David shook his head.
Suddenly, the thuddish sound of steps on the bridge made David sink low, hand going for the trigger guard of his M-3 submachine gun. Tilting his head back and right, he saw the sentry again, lazily walking the span for the second time that night. He's about to get the surprise of his life, David thought. Then he remembered what the spy had said and felt inside his jacket to make sure of the list. Still there. He raised his watch close to his face. Almost six o'clock already. He said six after six. Again, David questioned himself.
It's not too late tojust blow the bridge and leave.
He rubbed the tiny grains of wet sand between his fingers.
No, too late to play it safe ... Could've pulled it off two hours ago ... We aren't leaving now.
A flock of sleeping pigeons erupted into flight from the top of the bridge, their wings thrumming the air. David risked another look, careful to spot the sentry, who was almost out of sight on the far side. He scanned the bridge, the river. Quiet. Yet the wing beats of the birds echoed in his mind.
Then, a low mechanical hum gradually rose out of the dark silence. It grew in volume and turned into a sluggish, but persistent, chugging sound. The train! Gong glanced back from his position by the bridge. He'd heard it too. David nodded. He flicked some sand at Lee, who sat up with a start, his hair matted from lying close to the ground. David pointed to his ear.
The chugging sound came on stronger, more uniform.
The earth rumbled and pebbles near the water trembled like loose marbles. David gripped the stock of his M-3, checking to make sure the action was clear of sand.
The sound of the train amplified.
Still crouched behind the boulder, David stared at the empty space, to the right, waiting for the engine to appear. The sentry was jogging back to the near side of the bridge. Clenching his hands, as if he could feel the cold metal himself, David saw Gong raise the detonator handle.
The black locomotive steamed into view, huffing slow and loud, puffing smoke and steam, one above, one below. The sentry stood to the side, staying clear of the huge cowcatcher. The coal car followed, then a rusty brown freight car.
Blow it! Blow it now! David hollered in his head.
Upwind, he saw Gong staring, frozen.
What the hell's wrong?
The locomotive seemed to slow at the midpoint of the bridge.
Now! David's inner voice screamed.
Gong plunged the handle down.
The locomotive was almost across with four cars in view.
Then — two bright flashes at the waterline.
Twin explosions thumped the air.
David ducked behind the boulder, eyes closed, and saw the after-image — the sudden incandescent flashes — followed by the dullish thuds of explosion. Then he was up and looking again. Huge timbers were bent, split apart. The span quivered, then buckled. Pieces of wood hit the river, followed by a storm of splinters that knifed the black water in an ever-widening circle.
The bridge began to list. Freight cars derailed and disconnected.
The locomotive, leaning sideways, gave an iron cry and cranked to one side, as if begging to stay. Then it tumbled over, rolling mid-air, wheels revolving, smoke billowing. It struck the river with a volume of spray that seemed like white horizontal rain.
The center of the bridge had collapsed. Water boiled brown with wood and steel detritus. David scarcely believed the plan had worked. He glanced up and to the right. Intact freight cars stood atop the remains of the broken bridge.
Lee shook his shoulder. Eyes wide, he jabbed the air with his thumb. Get back? David thought. Yes, we should. He took one last look at the bridge, a smoking ruin. A sense of accomplishment suffused his tired body.
"Zou ba," Let's go, he said in Mandarin, signaling for Lee and Cheng to get up. Cheng turned around and bent low to put his arms through the straps attached to the bulky radio; its long antennae was bent in a loop and hooked to the bottom of the box.
Then David heard the rolling rumble of many footsteps on the bridge.
"Sokoni irukara ute!" The Japanese words were clear in the crisp air.
A rifle shot cracked. David ducked and froze, his back to the bridge. The bullet splattered sand three feet to his right. Cheng looked back, surprised. His hands came up, hurrying to cinch his straps. Another shot rang out. The bullet struck the radio on Cheng's back, throwing him forward onto the sand.
David spun around. Japanese troops were crowding the bridge railing. More streamed out of the freight cars. Fingers pointing, rifles raised, soldiers taking aim. He was close enough to see their angry faces. His eye caught the movement of one soldier bending down to adjust a metal tube. Another dropped a ball into the tube, followed by an immediate, silent puff of smoke.
A wave of panic coursed through David's body. We're too close, too exposed. We've got to move back.
The close explosion deafened him, but his eyes saw the shattering of Cheng's leg. This image he took into darkness as he squeezed his eyes shut against the sand that stung his face.
A second mortar shell exploded on his right.
This blast carried David off his feet; he landed hard on his back, three yards away. Pain burned deep within his right thigh.
I can't hear.
He touched his right ear. Nothing.
He rolled onto his stomach and opened his eyes. Cheng was asprawl at several different angles. Dead.
In his left ear, oddly echoing, David heard bullets whine and stab the cratered sand. The riverbank was narrow. A fifty-foot-high granite wall rose abruptly near the water's edge to a flat plateau above. The rock face that had concealed their advance to the bridge now limited their movement. He had to move. He looked for Lee and saw him crouched behind the rotten log. Lee wasn't firing; he stared at David, frozen, eyes full of fear. David clambered to his side.
"What now?" Lee shouted. David looked ahead and saw Gong, closer to the bridge, firing toward the Japanese.
"We must go!" Lee screamed, unconvinced he was being understood. He grabbed David's arm and pointed at the forty enemy soldiers scrambling down the ridge near the bridge.
David shouted at Gong but could not be heard above the gunfire and explosions. Gong's attention remained forward. David made a decision. The sense of purpose dampened his fear.
"We can't leave him."
Lee protested, but in an instant, David was moving forward.
Something was wrong with his first step. His right leg bowed. He looked down. Blood drenched his pant leg and soaked the laces of his boot. Against his skin the blood felt cold, like ice. He lurched forward. He was fifteen yards behind Gong. Ten. Five. Gong looked back. Their eyes locked and David gestured empathically with his free hand. "Get back!" he yelled, desperate to be heard above the piercing explosions. He clenched Gong's khaki shirt, jerking him backward. The two scrambled back toward Lee, who was emptying a clip at the soldiers on the ridge above.
Their only chance was the raft. It was tied up two hundred yards downriver. The previous day had been an exhausting upriver effort, but now the current could be their ally.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Two Sons of China"
Copyright © 2014 Andrew Lam.
Excerpted by permission of Bondfire Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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