Catherine Sohon has gone undercover in the Chinese underworld, where the illegal ivory trade is at an all-time high. Posing as a foreign buyer in the backroom of the Beijing Antique Market, she’s closing in on the smuggler who has eluded her since Namibia. Then ruthless gunmen burst in, leaving death in their wake and turning Catherine into a suspect in a triad turf war.
After a close call with a king cobra on a boat full of endangered wildlife, new clues propel her across the country, from open markets to an ivory carving factory in Guangzhou to the forests of southern Yunnan, home to the precious few remaining Chinese-Asian elephants. Her quest pits her against the same vicious trafficking kingpin—only now it’s clear that even high-level officials are looking the other way as the world’s endangered species flood into China from all across Asia and Africa. And when an old lover pays a surprise visit, Catherine is forced to confront the agonizing choices that still haunt her.
As Catherine races to execute a daring sting operation along the mountainous border of Myanmar, a shocking betrayal sends her into a tailspin. Now her life depends on the bond forged with an elephant named Lu Lu. Meanwhile, in the shadows awaits a powerful new adversary—someone with far more at stake than Catherine could possibly know.
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Large blocks of ivory littered the table like fat mahjong tiles. I rotated a cube in my fingers, rubbing my thumb over the silky surface. Sweat trickled between my shoulder blades, every drip reminding me that I shouldn’t have come into the back room of an ivory stall at the Beijing Arts & Crafts Emporium with two strange men.
A match flared over my shoulder, illuminating the faint crosshatching beneath the translucent yellow surface of the ivory. The flame danced around the edge of the block, demonstrating its authenticity. Any counterfeit material would have melted.
I pushed my hair away from my face as I scrutinized the fine grain of the ivory. Even the best imitations of bone or plastic couldn’t simulate the herringbone pattern of dentine. And like a dense hardwood, the grain in ivory is indiscernible. Tragically for the elephant, its incisors carve down to exquisite detail, making it one of the most sought-after natural substances in the world.
The herringbone pattern was unmistakable, yet the yellow color didn’t ring true. It was too superficial. As if someone were trying to pass off a recent illegal shipment as “antique,” and therefore legal for certain foreign markets including many states in the U.S.
I picked up another cube and rolled it in my palm. I was stalling. I hadn’t worked out an exit strategy for posing as a buyer and getting as far as I had. With a giant bald-headed man looming over me, one enormous tattooed arm over the other, and Nigel Lofty’s largest dealer in China nodding at me from across the table, I needed to seem discerning, not hesitant.
The dealer’s eyes were expressionless, hidden within fleshy slits under a glistening bald scalp. He took a long crackling drag on his hand-rolled cigarette, the glow illuminating the room.
Ivory trinkets dotted the dusty shelves behind him. Large carved figures cast shadows like forgotten ghosts of the once-aristocratic society that could afford ivory art in the time of dynasties, long before the Cultural Revolution. Even twenty years ago, buying ivory chopsticks as a wedding present would have been considered a lavish indulgence.
Ten years ago, however, with a burgeoning middle class, larger carvings were starting to sell out of musty antique shops of questionable legal standing, or in government-operated Friendship Stores, as they were called, established for foreign buyers, before a middle class existed. And after the onetime legal sale of government ivory stockpiles from southern African countries occurred almost a decade ago, shops were unable to keep up with demand. Carving factories that had shut down were reopening and new factories were starting up. The problem was that it was getting harder and harder to distinguish legal from illegal stocks. New reports from the field indicated a rise in elephant poaching, dating back to just after the sale.
The dealer eyed me methodically. This was no time for art appreciation. This was strictly business. And there were many clambering for a piece of the action, legal or not.
Keenly aware of his scrutiny, I pushed the blocks aside and held his gaze. “I’m looking for something less processed—more . . . natural.”
“I see.” The dealer grinned with an overbite of crooked cigarette-stained teeth. “Something more . . . natural.” He sucked on his cigarette and bobbed his head. “We have a very fine new shipment in. Special price for bulk uncut stock.”
He nodded to the wall of muscle behind me and mumbled in Mandarin. The large man turned and bent down, his long black ponytail at the back of his bald head shifting sideways as he pulled a wooden trunk from a hidden compartment in the wall. He placed the trunk on the ground and opened it, revealing a false bottom to the container.
I tried not to gag at the smell of decay as my eyes adjusted to the contents. Ivory stashes were often hidden within legitimate shipments of tea or dried fish or trinkets such as wood carvings and other curios from Africa. Beneath the Chinese characters stamped on the box were words written in English reading fish meal.
The dealer waved a hand over his goods and smiled slyly. “A sampling.”
The dealer lit a dim overhead lamp, revealing putrid flesh hanging in shards from the base of slender, blood-streaked tusks, riddled with bullet holes. Judging from the range in sizes—none of them very big—these tusks probably originated from a whole family gunned down at one time.
An illegal haul like this with bullet holes used to be common in the ’70s and ’80s, prior to the ivory ban in 1989, when poaching with automatic weapons in Africa had been at an all-time high. The ban had put a stop to that over the next decade or so, but after another sale and another rise in poaching in the last few years, shipments like this were becoming increasingly common again. I had seen two such caches in Namibia, both from fresh poaching incidents, including one I witnessed while flying over the border of southern Angola.
As I stared at the ivory, I couldn’t help imagining the scene of the crime—starting with the explosive rapid-fire popping from AK-47s—the Russian automatic weapon that most poachers in Africa seemed to have access to. A family group of elephants roars, screams, and trumpets as they suddenly find themselves surrounded by gunfire.
The matriarch charges and is immediately sprayed with bullets. She can’t sustain the amount of lead that penetrates her body from all sides. Her back legs buckle. From a crouched position, she tries to hold herself up, waving her trunk at her assailants, but in her weakened state, her outrage is quickly subsumed by pain.
Bellowing at the sight of their downed beloved leader, the others rush toward her and try to hold her up with their tusks as they, too, are sprayed with bullets. Tusks cradle the matriarch as her family surrounds her faltering body, trying to lift her up. But each family member suffers the same fate. None can sustain the deadly pummeling from the firing squad. They no longer have the strength to pull up their leader, nor can they escape death themselves.
The matriarch goes down first. And then the others.
It is silent for a moment after the last shot is fired.
When it’s clear that the deed is done, urgent voices call out as the poachers rush the spoils with their machetes.
And in a matter of minutes, centuries worth of knowledge—an entire family culture—is lost, elephant faces hacked off to remove their incisors.
Shaking off this horrible vision, I took a deep breath. I knew this dealer was dirty, but I had no idea he was this dirty. How could this man show a new buyer such a blatantly illegal supply so casually? This kind of hard evidence was exactly what my boss, Craig, was looking for from this dealer.
I no longer had any doubts about what I was doing in this store—and in China. I had to stop the slaughter of elephants from happening, no matter the risk.
I waved at the tusks dismissively. “I’ll need more volume than this. And clean. No bullet holes. I understand you can get access to certain”—I paused—“government stocks?”
He nodded eagerly. “I have excellent sources in Uganda.”
“And natural mortalities of big tuskers? The conscientious buyer will pay more, of course.”
“Yes, yes, of course. We provide all the necessary documentation.” He smiled. His emphasis on the word “documentation” seemed to imply that any amount of false documentation could be prepared at any time for any shipment as needed.
“Good.” I returned a measured nod, pretending to be satisfied with this impressive new contact.
I took note of his mention of Uganda. These were the sources we needed—high-level government officials—whose activities could help us build a case against the kingpins like Nigel Lofty, who I followed here from Namibia. But I couldn’t do any more now. I needed to figure out how to extract myself.
Craig had contacted the police to inform them of my presence in Beijing in case I needed assistance, but I hadn’t anticipated this scenario to unfold as it had and wasn’t sure how long it would take them to respond.
The dealer rubbed his bony hands together deliberately. “Now, on the matter of payment . . .”
“I’ll be in touch about—” As I worked on a plausible excuse to leave, I was distracted by a noise outside the door.
The dealer’s eyes jerked toward the door. Sounds of a distant scuffle came through the dense wood, followed by a bang and a thump—like the sound of a body hitting the floor. As much as I didn’t want the police ruining my cover, their appearance would solve my extraction problem.
I swung around to see the big man behind me reaching for something strapped under his armpit as he turned toward the door. I saw the glint of stainless steel in his hand the moment before the door smashed inward in a blinding flash.
Dark silhouettes burst into the room wearing night-vision goggles and shouting in Mandarin. I ducked as the dealer’s henchman fired three rounds over my shoulder from behind and missed the intruders.
Two red laser–guided shots were fired at the dealer and his crony in rapid succession. My ears rang as the impact of a third shot penetrated my chest.
My head hit the concrete—the floor giving way, leaving me breathless and heavy, like I was sinking fast in a cold dark body of water. The sharp taste of blood washed over my tongue as I curled into a ball and hugged my knees to my chest until I couldn’t hold on any longer.