‘Make your projects as obscure and impenetrable as the night.
But when you decide to move, fall on the enemy like lightning.’
Sun Zi, The Art of War, 5th Century BC.
Beijing, Ministry of Information Industries
26 August. Morning.
‘Mr. Tang, there’s the Order to sign…’
Yaping was trying to bring Tang Jinghua back to earth. She found him decidedly off colour that morning. The civil servant was clasping a school pupil’s fountain pen – it belonged to his daughter, he once explained – and seemed to be holding back the moment of signing the documents she had placed under his eyes. And yet signing administrative orders was a daily routine for him. Bao Yutai, the Director of Regulations, had been asking for that document and she could not keep him waiting any longer.
‘Mr. Tang, you’ve got to sign the order! Mr. Tang?’
The bubble in which he seemed captive finally burst. He raised his fearful eyes at her.
‘Oh yes. Yes of course…’
He first gave a test scribble on a blank portion of his diary, just to check that the old pen would do for the job. Then he raised the nib and dropped the tip at the bottom of the page of the Order, just above his name:
Deputy Director, Software unit, Department of Policies, Laws and Regulations, Ministry of Information Industries.
He slowly traced out the three fateful characters that made up his name. There. It was over.
He held out the sheets to Yaping. She let out her satisfaction with a beaming smile. Tonight, she was going out with Li Cheng, her date from accounts. Provided, of course, their respective bosses let them leave sufficiently early. There was now that big meeting to prepare for the next day, and the whole department was mobilised. It was bound to have something to do with that Order she had so much trouble in getting him to sign.
Beijing, the same day
Beijing was once more hit by a heat wave. Tom and Jin were lazing in the shadow of a century-old tree in the gardens of Beijing’s Summer Palace. Despite having been advised by the American embassy men not to maintain personal relationships with members of the Chinese delegation outside the GSP sessions, Tom could not imagine working another day alongside Jin without seeing her otherwise than with her eyes riveted to a PC screen. Those three weeks far from the young woman seemed like an eternity to him. The day was too gorgeous and the heat of the office too stifling for them not to make the most of the afternoon. They had slipped away during the lunch hour as the work groups were breaking up.
They had found a corner of the lawn, partially screened from the sun by the foliage of large tree. Tom pulled out from the bottom of his bag the personal iPod MP3 player he always carried around with him. They lay side by side, face down on grass, like two students.
‘This is what they used to play on the radio when my parents arrived in America: Dedicated to the one I love by The Mamas and The Papas.’
He held an earphone out to her.
While I’m far away from you, my baby,
I know it’s hard for you, my baby,
Because it’s hard for me, my baby,
And the darkest hour is just before dawn.
Jin pressed the pause button.
‘It sounds like Abba! And Sorry to say that, Tom, but isn’t the girl off key?’
Tom straightened and stopped the player.
‘She doesn’t keep the note very well, that’s true, but it’s her style. That’s the way the song’s meant to be! And we’re talking about Mama Michelle! Michelle Philips! She was a stunning babe, a real top model. All the guys were in love with her. My mum looked like her, with long blond hair parted at the centre… And this song, it’s about two people in love but far away from each other…’
He stole a look at the young girl who seemed lost in her thoughts.
‘You know, July and August 1967 was called the Summer of Love in California. And not just there, throughout America, in Europe; all over the world, in fact.’
She remained silent. He failed to see the shadow of sadness cross her face.
‘As a matter of fact, my sister was born nine months later, in May 1968! No kidding! One thing’s for sure, she was conceived in an atmosphere of love, by the power of flowers, by the grace of music and peace! Of course, I came much later. My arrival wasn’t scheduled then!’
They had turned on their sides, face to face, their bent knees forming a symmetrical figure. Their gazes drew closer, fused, fled and once more locked, this time with force and abandon. Shaking off her unease, she asked:
‘So, 1967 was the big year?’
‘Yeah, absolutely, a fantastic year, it was the height of pop music. You should’ve been around at that time, Jin! Listen, this is a less well-known Beach Boys song…’
‘I don’t know any,’ she thought to herself.
‘It’s from their album ‘Smile’ recorded in 1967, but which only came out in 2004. Back then Brian Wilson was so deep down in depression he was unable to finish it!’
They were now feeling comfortable in their eye contact. Their gazes no longer wanted to flit away. The last barriers had crumbled, leaving behind nothing but unfailing mutual confidence.
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
A children’s song
Child, child, child, child, child
A child is the father of the man
‘I don’t understand these lyrics.’
‘It’s a bit obscure,’ conceded Tom…
‘You mean what happened to pop music after 1967? Well, as from 68 the wonderful flower began to fade, then wilted altogether. Nothing was the same anymore; all innocence had gone, society turned to a destructive form of cynicism…’
‘No, I mean your father, your parents…’
His expression turned blank, as if covered by a veil. He flipped on his back, rested his hands on his chest and stared for a few seconds at the sky turning red in the setting sun.
‘They stayed in California for a few years. My father was a musician. He studied literature, but his real interest was music. He played the drums and was in a few bands that were fairly popular at the time. But that wasn’t enough to make a living. And then… you know…. like a lot of them, he got into drugs…’
Tom’s voice darkened slightly.
‘It was my mother who brought home the money, and I think my grandparents out in Scotland sent him some too. In 1972 they left California for New York.’
Jin let him talk, listening with interest. She sensed the pain he felt at these evocations, but he needed to free himself from that past. He obviously did not often have the occasion to confide in someone.
‘My father was deeply involved in politics; I guess everyone was into politics at the time! He was against the Vietnam War, or more exactly against Nixon; he was an active anti-war militant; I mean he didn’t just join the protests. Because he wasn’t American, he didn’t have to go out there. He was a journalist and part of the underground movement.’
He turned his head towards her and seemed to be calling for help. She did not have the least idea what that movement could be, but let him carry on. She gave a look of acknowledgement, as if to encourage him.
‘Towards the late 70s, he worked for a TV station, leading investigations on somewhat sensitive issues, you know, the arms lobby, the power of the media, and those sorts of things. That was about the time when I was born, in 1976!’
‘And after that?’
He again looked up to the sky, which had taken a dark blue tint, and watched some seagulls flying by.
‘After, early in 1981, in winter, my father died. A road accident. A collision with a truck. He had taken drugs and alcohol. My mother never talked about it. I wasn’t yet five… I can hardly remember… It’s all very hazy… I came back to England with my sister and mother and everything went back to normal… well… my mother never married again, and our life was calm and without problems. My sister first went to New York for her studies. Then it was my turn to fly out to Berkeley. My mother now lives in Scotland, in her family house in Strathaven, about fifteen miles south of Glasgow. As for myself, I settled down in California! There, I think you now know everything about me.’
He had turned round towards her, visibly relieved to have got it over. She once more wanted to run away from her own feelings, to break this intimacy that made her vulnerable. Perhaps avoid having to talk about herself. She needed to get back on firm ground and change the course of this conversation which had become too intimate.
‘And how was it in California?’
Her eyes were burning with curiosity.
‘You know, I was very fortunate. I arrived in 1994, the year when the Internet really took off. I never knew anything else! I was right where the action was; I took part in all the important developments while I was still only 18 or 19. And with the Internet, I felt I was somehow reliving the 60s! The same libertarian ideals invented by the hippy movements were reviving thanks to the networks, universities, the free exchange of knowledge.
‘So why Microsoft, Tom?’
Tom marked a pause. The remark had certainly disconcerted him, but not for the reasons she imagined. The paradox had never in fact crossed his mind! He had never been struck by the clash between the libertarian and disinterested world he had just described and the monopolistic and mercantile universe of Microsoft!
‘Why not Microsoft?’ he retorted ‘It’s a company like any other. They came to me when I was only 18. They had done a complete U-turn a short time beforehand; they needed to catch up the lost time; they were lagging behind, would you believe! In 1994, Microsoft knew nothing of the Internet. They undertook impressive efforts and managed to achieve something remarkable. It’s more difficult for an aircraft carrier like Microsoft to do a U-turn than for a light vessel. In fact, it was a real exploit!’
Night had fallen without Jin and Tom appearing to realise it. The temperature had dropped to become gentle and pleasant.
‘My teachers at Berkeley recommended me for that job. They needed an IP and networks specialist who could very quickly grasp the sophisticated architecture of their software to find out where and how to introduce the Internet layer. It seemed I was the only one who fitted the bill. They accepted all my conditions, that I should finish my studies, that I should work only as a consultant… And so I continued after graduating. Still to this day I don’t belong to Microsoft!’
Tom had again shown this to be true that afternoon by ignoring the recommendations the embassy was trying to impose. Jin broke out into a hearty laughter, a joyful laughter, face turned towards the sky now beginning to glitter with the stars. That marvellous brain capable of absorbing millions of lines of code had found refuge in such a pure and beautiful soul.
He turned towards her, his expression more puzzling than usual.
It was the first time he called her by that name.
‘I have a song for you… Listen, it’s by Donovan.’
Imperceptibly, they had drawn up close, so much so that they were now in body contact. He pressed the play button.
Jennifer Juniper lives upon the hill,
Jennifer Juniper, sitting very still.
Is she sleeping? I don’t think so.
Is she breathing? Yes, very low.
Whatcha doing, Jennifer, my love?
Jennifer Juniper rides a dappled mare,
Jennifer Juniper, lilacs in her hair.
Is she dreaming? Yes, I think so.
Is she pretty? Yes, ever so.
Whatcha doing, Jennifer my love?
They were both laughing together, uncaring, as Donovan reeled out his sweet and tender song.
‘You’re my Jennifer,’ whispered Tom in Jin’s ear.
She settled her hand on the young man’s hair. His eyes were glowing in the twilight.
‘OK, but who’s Juniper, then?’ she asked in a silky voice, trying to prolong a game she knew to be love.
‘Juniper is a plant from which they make gin, an alcoholic liquor. The juniper plant. Do you see the connection…?’
She had drawn up closer to him and stroked his fair hair.
‘Sort of, but what’s the link between a girl called Jennifer and a plant used for making alcohol?’
He thought for a moment and found the best possible answer:
‘Actually, there isn’t any, Jin. It’s just to make up the rhyme, Jennifer, Juniper, Jin.’
Their mouths finally met and joined in a long kiss. They stayed that way for several minutes, in the shadow of the large tree, prolonging their embrace.
It was 6 pm. Cheng and Yaping had met up at the canteen of the Ministry to share a bowl of duck noodles. Since the page of the document he had managed to photograph a few weeks earlier, Cheng was not getting much, apart from the expense forms of the Director, Bao, which he regularly checked for conformity to procedures.
This dearth probably meant that there was nothing new, just a calm period. But Song was not ready to swallow that sort of an explanation. For him, there was always something going on: secret meetings, a conspiracy against the interests of foreign information technology companies… They had to suspect everyone, doubt everything, go in and search, never stop seeking, without knowing what, without knowing why. That was the very purpose of his activity in this Ministry.
He had asked Yaping to go out that evening, but her day’s work was not yet over. Cheng was surprised himself at his initiative, and wondered if the alluring black miniskirt she was wearing have something to do with it.
‘Listen, I’ve got to stay in the office a little while. There’s an important meeting tomorrow afternoon, something unexpected, but ever so big. All the top brass will be there. It’s the biggest meeting of year!’
Cheng took on a falsely detached air and asked:
‘Nothing serious, I hope?’
‘No, but important! It’s certainly got something to do with the Order which is to appear tomorrow,’ she answered with the look of excitement of someone who knows but cannot say anything.
He tried his luck using a light-hearted tone, seeming just playful.
‘Well?’ he asked with a wink, ‘What’s this Order about?’ without expecting an answer.
‘Confidential,’ she retorted, looking amused.
She appeared to like riddles. All right then, he would just have to continue.
‘Now let me see …. it concerns Tang Jinghua or Bao Yutai?’
He continued without waiting for the answer.
‘Now, if it’s Tang Jinghua, let me see… he’s concerned with software, and that can only mean… Microsoft?’
He stopped while looking at her quizzically. She smiled, her air now doubly mysterious. He had hit the bull’s eye, he was sure of it. He finished off saying that it suited him fine, he had some work to catch up, and he would wait for her.
‘I’ll call you as soon as I’ve finished; will you come to collect me?’
Tom and Jin slipped inside the tiny streets which crisscrossed the old Beijing. Tom had the impression of entering a time warp in the middle of this traditional setting where silk stores, medicinal plant and jade shops and small poorly-run restaurants all intermingled. Some tourists were enjoying this folklore steeped in poverty and walked with eyes riveted to their camera.
Jin pulled him into a little inner courtyard, protected from the street by a heavy, finely crafted gate.
‘And how about some home cooking?’ Jin suggested archly.
Tom suddenly drew her to him, convinced that even if they were watched, no-one could have followed them up to here, and kissed her passionately. A crazy idea flashed through his mind.
‘Jin, let’s run away. Let’s leave, both of us.’
She did not have the strength to rebut him. On the contrary, all her being was reaching out to him. But did she only have the right to go? It was not so much her mission she was thinking of. No, she was in fact wondering if she deserved the happiness that was coming to her…
‘Come on Jin, come, let’s just pack everything!’
She suddenly thought of her childhood. She searched her memory in vain for memories of a true love, the trace of a consuming passion. She found none. Was she made for happiness? Why was she asking herself those questions when it was there in front of her? Her eyes were filled with tears; she hugged him in her arms. Then, without a word, she took his hand and drew him once more, hurriedly, into the little street they had just left. They entered a large restaurant which took up the whole frontage of a deep, square house. Jin quickened her steps, crossed the dining room and continued towards the kitchen where a dozen men and women were at work, sweating in the greasy smoke rising from enormous woks. She broke into a run, under the astounded looks of the staff, pulling Tom through the deliveries door in her wake.
They reappeared in a street even narrower than the one they had just left. She cast a look to the right then to the left, spotted a wooden door left slightly ajar, framed by large bins filled to the brim with vegetable crates. ‘The back of another restaurant,’ she thought. Squeezing Tom’s hand stronger still, she pulled on the door and burst in without wasting a moment. They found themselves in the toilets of the premises. Once again, they crossed several dining rooms and emerged in an open-air bar where a group of Chinese in shorts and vests were sipping beer with ice cubes. Jin did not stop. She had already sighted a taxi at the corner of the street and pushed Tom inside while checking that no-one was leaving the bar in their pursuit.
She gave out a brief order to the driver who tore away immediately.
‘Jin, I’ve left my bag in your car… I’m without my ID card…’
‘Don’t worry, you won’t need one where we’re going.’
She was still clasping his hand, snuggled against him as they slipped into the night.
She too had made her choice.
She asked the taxi to pull up in front of the entrance to a shopping mall. They entered the precinct, passing along the closed shops, and arrived in front of a bank of lifts. Jin took him up to the twentieth floor. She asked him to wait for her and returned almost immediately with a key card.
This modern and comfortable hotel occupied just the top storeys of the tower block; she sometimes used it for transactions in certain intelligence operations. The room was on the twenty-eighth floor. She closed the heavy door behind her. The glittering lights of the city skyscrapers filled the view from the large bay window. The bed was open, a rose resting on the pillow.
They were alone in world.
They stripped off while kissing and caressing each other passionately. Tom drew her to the large white marble bathroom. With one hand, he turned on the shower tap while gently pressing Jin against the wall. Jin, more sensual than ever, pushed back Tom, inviting him with her feline eyes to let her take over. She delicately soaped him, stooping down in front of him, entirely submissive, washing his feet before moving up along his legs. Tom felt his manhood awakening; he wanted to have her there, up against the cold marble of the shower. She slipped away again, preferring to prolong the preliminaries.
It was past 10pm when the young secretary called Cheng. Making his way along the corridors separating the two offices, wondered again how he could lay his hands on the contents of the Order. Since leaving Yaping a few hours earlier, he was running through his mind all the possible schemes to snatch away that document, convinced that his mission could not succeed all the while the secretary was putting so much zeal in keeping her world under wraps.
However, as he entered Yaping’s office, he felt he had an undreamed-of occasion to get what he was looking for. The young woman, still perky despite the late hour, had just lifted the phone. When she saw him, she put the phone back down with a weary hand, looking dejected.
‘Cheng, I’m really sorry… I’ve got to go down to the eighth floor to finish off the preparations for the meeting tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be about twenty minutes, half an hour at the most.’
She made her way towards the door.
‘You will wait for me, won’t you?’ she asked playfully. It’ll only be half past ten or so. Come, I’ll collect you at your office when I’ve finished.’
She was holding the office key in her hand and clearly intended to lock it once they had left. But Cheng refrained from protesting.
‘I’ve locked up everything in my office!’ he said, taking on a dejected look.
He could not let such an occasion go by. All the documents of the department were at hand, there for his taking!
‘I’ll wait for you here. I’ll be reading the paper, OK?’
Yapping seemed disconcerted. She never let anyone alone in her office. She had far too many confidential documents to risk having a visitor fall upon them. But, she thought, the risk would be negligible this evening, given that they were all tidily put away in their cupboards. It was only Cheng, after all. She went over to the PC. It contained many sensitive documents files; she at least had to switch it off. She cast a tender look at Cheng. He had already settled in her chair, feet on the table, reading the newspaper. ‘Just like at home,’ she thought with a slight pang.
The undreamed-of occasion had indeed come up; the young secretary turned her heels, cast a long, affectionate look at Cheng and decided to forget the security procedures for a moment.
‘Don’t touch anything, Cheng, I’ll be back in half an hour at the most.’
‘I’ll keep watch over your office, don’t worry, I won’t let anybody in!’ he answered in a tone that tried to inspire trust.
She gave him a last tender look and left him hurriedly.
Cheng was now alone. He looked at the PC. The lift door was closing. He let two minutes go by, folded his newspaper and got down to his task. In a few seconds he had reaped the benefits of six months’ patient labour in taming the girl, overcoming her caginess, breaking her inhibitions and creating a deep emotional dependence. Great artistry!
He had left the office door slightly ajar, switched off the ceiling light and lit a lamp on the desk so as not to draw attention. He pulled out from his pocket a USB key, a 16 GB memory which he plugged into the computer while going through in the document explorer the list of the last twenty files Yaping had worked on. Microsoft! Five mails concerned Microsoft. He sent them over to the printer lying to the right on the desk. He could not believe his eyes; he had hit the jackpot! While the printer was churning out the sheets, his eyes were riveted to the PC screen. The memo was signed Tang Jinghua, one of Yaping’s bosses, the one in charge of software regulation. Now what was in that note? China was apparently about to make a decision that would rock the course of the world. For a brief moment he thought of immediately calling Santana Song. But that would be impossible from this office: all communications were bound to be tracked and recorded. The long, painstaking investigations and information gathering tasks he had been conducting for months were now beginning to bear fruit, beyond all hope. That would be one in the eye for Song, who had openly expressed doubts on his competence.
He continued to type frenziedly on the keyboard, searching for other documents. The printer continued its job, serving as Cheng’s faithful clerk. No longer bothering to sort out the files, he sent frantically dozens of reports and memos to his USB key. He did not notice the silhouetted figure before him, but a fruity perfume wafted up to his nose. He raised his eyes and started.
The young woman was livid.
‘But you weren’t supposed to be back before half an hour!’ he muttered.
Jaw agape, she was breathing fast and nervously, staring at the scene before her in utter disbelief. Her face had now taken on a grey, earthen, tint in the pale light from the lamp. The printer was finishing its job. A sheet with the letterhead from the Ministry, covered in Chinese characters, twirled round for a moment before falling at Yaping’s feet. Cheng could find nothing to say; he nevertheless mumbled a few words, almost inaudible, like a schoolboy caught red-handed.
‘Listen, I just wanted to organise your PC a bit better…’
Yaping remained silent. Her gaze was flicking alternately from the computer to the printer. That man was riffling through her files, through her work! And he was printing pages! Who was he really? A thief? A spy? And to think she had given him her trust, her love. He had betrayed her. Her feelings went way beyond any sentimental heartache or amorous deception. First, she was angry at herself for having given in to sentiments, to have neglected her duty and the security of the Ministry.
‘Leave that computer… Get out immediately,’ she finally managed to blurt out in a rasping and commanding voice.
Cheng rose and came up to her.
‘Yaping, my sweetheart, what’s come over you?’ I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m from the Ministry, he said in a soft tone trying to inspire trust while he placed his hands on Yaping’s shoulders.
He did not have time to continue with his explanations. The young woman broke away and reached for the phone. Cheng watched astounded, as if he discovered for the first time the strong will of the secretary he had been abusing for so long. She was going to call security, the police. They were going to arrest him, throw him into prison like any common spy. He would be condemned for betraying his country, executed… Pulling himself away from his torpor, Cheng sprang upon her, snatching the phone from her hands and putting it back on its cradle.
‘Oh no you don’t!’ he said threateningly.
She resisted, wanted to grab hold of the receiver, but he was too strong. He thrust her back violently into a corner of the office. She looked at him and for the first time saw his real face. A hard, brutal face. She leapt up like a spring.
‘Help!’ she hollered through the door opening.
But before she could repeat her plea, Cheng threw himself at her and held the young woman in a body lock against the floor, with a hand pressed hard against her mouth to stop her from screaming. She was trying to breathe, her chest heaving compulsively. She was struggling, but could not break away from Cheng’s grip.
Cheng had no other solution. Yaping’s determination, her professional conscience, had condemned her. With his free hand, he grabbed hold of the young woman’s skull and suddenly yanked it round to the left. He felt her neck muscles on that side tighten to resist the movement while as they slackened on the other. He was going to use this to advantage. Changing the direction of his pull, he exerted a rapid movement, pivoting Yaping’s head violently to the right, as he had been taught. The head went past its limits. There was a sharp and sinister snap, followed by a second one as Li Cheng alternated his movement, almost mechanically.
Jin let out a cry, and another as she felt ecstatic pleasure burst in her lower waist, in her lower back, in her breasts and ripple along her spine up to her shoulders. In turn, Tom’s body tensed under the effect of an enormous spasm. She was on top of him, and he was clutching her breasts in his large hands. She abandoned herself, vanquished, and lay over his moist chest, kissing his mouth, searching for his tongue, exploring his ears, mingling her hair with his.
Their mutual abandon was so deep, so complete, that they both fell asleep, unaware of still being in that position.
He had just broken her neck.
When Cheng removed his hand from her mouth, Yaping let out a sigh, almost of surprise, as if astounded by what was happening to her. And then nothing. Her body slumped down to the floor, one leg in front, the other pulled back behind her, a poor, lifeless marionette. Her miniskirt was pulled up to her thighs, revealing a red lace panty that she had chosen specially for him. He looked at Yaping’s body for a few seconds, remembered the tenderness of her kisses, her generous body.
He suddenly wanted to protect her, take her in his arms, blow Chi, the pulse of life, into her, by her mouth, by her nose, anything to bring her back to life…
But there before him was a sad, dislocated marionette. Just what had he done? Only this morning, he was still Cheng, that polite, shy and charming accountant, the friend of the Yaping, the cheerful secretary. Now, he was Li, the cold and cynical murderer in front his victim who had paid with her life a secret too heavy to bear.
He held back a sob forming in his throat and pulled the secretary’s body by the feet to hide her. His watch showed ten past eleven. The department directors were in the lower floors preparing the meeting for the next day. They could burst into the office at any moment to ask her to type a letter or prepare a document. If they were to discover her lifeless body in the middle of the room, they would immediately give the alarm. Ling Cheng looked around to find the best place to hide the body and slid Yaping under her own desk, hunching up her body to take up the least amount of space. He picked up her glasses that dropped during the struggle and put them on the girl’s nose. No need to wipe out the fingerprints, Cheng was known by everyone in the premises. Everybody was so glad Yaping had finally found a steady boyfriend.
He picked up from the printer tray the pages he had selected, folded them and put them away in his pocket. He stopped the computer abruptly, using the power switch, pulled out the USB key and left. He met no-one in the lift down to the ground floor. For a moment, he hesitated before the heavy security door. He knew that to use his badge would be like signing his crime. But did he have an alternative? He inserted his magnetic card and found himself in the Ministry building forecourt. He walked towards his car and a few moments later drove straight past the entrance gate watched night and day by a security guard.
What was he going to do now? The documents he had in possession were dynamite; he had to pass them on straight away to his superiors. It was midnight already, he needed to call his contact Santana Song. But he had just killed a young woman and before dawn all the police forces of China would be at his heels. With a bit of luck, he had five or six hours in front of him. The Ministry’s cleaning services turned up at daybreak to dust the offices and empty the waste bins. They were bound to notice Yaping cramped under the desk, stiff with rigour mortis. He just had time to call home and gather up in a suitcase some clothes and any compromising documents that could still be lying around.
He parked his car in front of group of small, three-storey buildings where he had taken residence during his stay in Beijing. The path was clear; no-one was in sight. He darted up the stairs four at a time up to his apartment door. He hesitated. And what if they had already discovered the body, if the alarm had been given? Perhaps they were there already, waiting in the dark inside his apartment? He turned the key slowly in the lock. The door creaked. Cheng rushed to the light switch. He was alone.
While he was gathering his belongings, the face of his wife back at Nanjing flashed through his mind. He wanted to call her, but could not use his home phone, which was bound to be tapped, without endangering himself… and his wife. He got back to his car and drove towards Beijing’s nightlife district. He parked close to a few overcrowded bars where he could lose himself amid the anonymous mass of people.
He spotted a phone cabin. His first call would be for his wife, Mei. It was almost one in the morning, she would be fast asleep. It took five rings to get her to answer with a sleep-laden voice:
‘Darling, it’s me, Cheng.’
‘Cheng… where are you? What time is it?’
She had sensed fear and anxiety in her husband’s voice. She immediately understood there was something going on.
‘Now, I want you to listen carefully, I haven’t got much time. I’m going to be out of touch for a few days, a few weeks perhaps…’
‘How long for?’ she asked anxiously.
‘I don’t know, dearest, two months, three months, possibly more… You’ll get a call, someone will contact you to give you instructions, you’ll see. But now, I’ve got to leave.’
‘Cheng, what’s going on? Did you do something wrong? Tell me…’
‘I can’t tell you…’
The young woman began to sob, he had neither the heart nor the words to reassure and comfort her.
‘Mei, don’t cry, you’ll see, things will get sorted out very quickly, and you’ll receive some money, you won’t have any concerns on that score.’
She continued to sob slowly, sensing the gravity of the situation.
‘Please, don’t make things more difficult for me, I can’t tell you anything for the moment. Give a big hug to our darling little daughter for me, OK?’
‘I love you Cheng, please take care of yourself. Promise me that.’
‘I promise you Mei, I promise.’
He put the phone down. He was choking with emotion and could not continue the conversation any longer. He put a second coin in the slot and dialled the mobile phone number Santana Song had given him. He let it ring several times until he got the answering service. He left a brief coded message asking to be called back as a matter of the utmost urgency. He repeated the operation from one of his mobile phones to send Song a coded SMS.
He entered a bar frequented Asian businessmen. The premises were dimly lit. Behind the bar, a bottle cabinet was glowing in blue, red and green light. The rest of the room bathed in soft light. Cheng moved up to the bar area, making sure his phone was still able to pick up a signal. He ordered a Scottish whisky, a Glen something or other, on the rocks, European style. The alcohol warmed his body and helped sooth the tension gripping his stomach. With his mind absorbed, he stripped some peanuts from their shells, thrust them nervously into his mouth and let the scraps drop on the floor.
His gaze scanned the room. Three or four girls were at the bar waiting for a customer to engage a conversation. At a table behind him was seated a group of group of Chinese surrounding three Japanese visitors. They were talking in poor English, the Chinese making a demonstration of courtesy and respect to persuade their neighbours to make some heavy investments.
Cheng tried once more to contact Song. What the hell could this Eurasian be up to at two in the morning when the documents he had on him amounted to nothing less than a bomb ready to explode? He lit a cigarette. He thought of Yaping. It had cost him dearly to start off a relation with that girl. He had got attached to her as time went by. It was not love, nor even a particular physical attraction, but she had definitely entered his life. She should never have died. He chased the idea from his mind and again pulled out his packet of cigarettes to offer one to the girl sitting next to him.
Her hair was dyed blond; she could scarcely have been over twenty. There was not much else to do when you came from the country with nothing to sell other than your body. She probably came from southern China. These girls rarely conducted their activity in their native province and preferred to move away. A bit like him, in a way. They both had the same job…
Song was still giving no sign of life. He ordered a Singapore Sling for his neighbour, who must have been heavy-eyed too. The girl gave him a sweet smile. She was very young. He plunged his eyes into hers and hung on to them for a seconds, like a drowning man clinging a lifebuoy.
The phone finally rang. Song was to collect him within ten minutes in a dark blue Toyota. Cheng had to wait for the signal, a single ring, to leave the bar and leap inside the vehicle.
He settled the drinks, took his suitcase and moved away slowly.
The Toyota was parked at the street corner. The Eurasian was there, accompanied by a bulky Chinese character, a huge guy, a mountain of muscles and fat. Cheng got in front, suddenly relieved. He could now talk to his boss and unburden himself of those secrets that weighed him down so much. He blurted out what he had to say nervously, excitedly, muttering quickly. His nerves were starting to give but he did not even try to brace himself. He went into all the fine details of the evening, the documents he had printed, the text of the Order about to be published and, finally, the secretary who had caught him out and whom he had to eliminate. Song’s face remained impassive. He did not even flap when he admitted having murdered a woman inside the Ministry building. When he had finished, Song simply looked at him and let out three words:
‘Nice work, Cheng.’
That was enough to calm him down slightly.
Song wasted no time. He had flicked through the ten printed sheets and handed them over to the Chinese colossus in the back seat.
‘Cheng, from now on we’ll look after everything. You’re going to give your car keys to Ming and tell him where you’re parked, OK?’
Cheng proceeded obediently.
‘Did you call round at your place?’
‘Yes, I took everything which could be compromising and put it in this briefcase and small suitcase.’
‘Forget the suitcase; give Ming the keys to your apartment. You stay with me, I’m taking you to a safe place. It’s nice work, Cheng,’ he repeated.
The enormous Ming left with his keys. Song began to head towards the residence where they were obviously going to hide him before getting him out of China. He was taken in charge. Little by little he was regaining his calm. He realised he had forgotten to talk about the USB key, that tiny memory which contained hundreds of pages of documents in digital form. He had it in his jacket pocket. He was about to mention it but had second thoughts. It was always wise to keep some ammunition, something to sell, to capitalise on, to exchange. Just in case. For there still remained his wife and daughter back in Nanjing. Someone had to look after them, to get them out of China like him, in a few months, possibly a year…
He must have looked pretty bad, given the way Song watched him from a corner of his eye.
‘Here, take these, you need them.’
The Eurasian dipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a tube of tablets. He popped up the lid with a flick of the thumb and got out two small grey pills.
‘Swallow them, you’ll see, they’ll calm you down…’
Jin had slept for two hours, three hours at the most. It was a light and superficial sleep. She was thinking of the next day, the days that followed, the future, her house, Zhou, the American intelligence services which were going to track down Tom. She was battling against thousands of questions that eluded answers. She had broken every rule in the book and now found herself in unchartered territory.
Tom was there, lying against her in that double bed, sleeping peacefully. They said that men revealed their true nature when they were asleep, stripped off the masks they put on during the day. She looked at him and smiled. In any case, she only had to turn her gaze to him to switch on a smile instantly. He had an appeasing effect on her that no meditation exercise could match. She found him to be just like he always was, handsome, gentle, generous; yet there was something, something she was not yet familiar with, a form of strength, a stalwart solidity. She was perhaps seeing the man he was turning into…
She was unable to get back to sleep. She dropped a gentle kiss on his lips, then got up to the bay window which occupied an entire wall of the room. Her naked body was reflected against the glass. She contemplated the myriad lights at her feet. Day was about to break.
Cheng felt his body loosen under the effect of the drugs. The anxiety gripping his heart began to fade, giving way to a soothing sense of well-being. He could hear Song’s voice but did not have the energy to answer him. The vehicle headlights cut through the fine mist and eternal drizzle. He tried to fix his gaze on the cones of light that swept across the damp and shiny tarmac. Some images flashed on his retina, snapshots of night activity. A truck carrying pigs poking their heads between the boards, a road safety marshal waving a light wand to signal road works, a man on a bicycle towing a trailer heaped with wood.
All his muscles gradually relaxed, his arms drooped from his body. He offered no resistance and closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep, sleep and forget everything, sink into a deep slumber, slip away… At that moment, a feminine silhouette appeared. She had her back turned. Her long black hair fell upon her shoulders. Her waist was slim. She was wearing a short skirt and high heels which enhanced her shapely legs. It must be Mei, his wife, she was so worried about him. What was to become of her and their little daughter, all alone for several months no doubt? He wanted to tell her all was well, that he was no longer frightened, that he was calm. The silhouette turned round in the murkiness of his mind. No, it was not his wife. Her face became more distinct and he recognised her. It was the face of Yaping, as she was yesterday when the Chi, the energy of life, was still flowing in her. The young woman was smiling. She was speaking to him as if nothing had happened. And besides, what happened? He searched his memory, trying to pick up some fragments. He did not have the time. She held out her hand playfully to him to lead him away. Where did little Yaping want to go? Sing in a karaoke like last month? The girl’s face was now right close. He noticed a few quirks, certainly nothing more than slight oddities, just some slight details, but they were becoming sharper and more visible by the second. Her neck, normally so slender, was swollen, puffed, covered in yellowy-blue marks, as if dislocated. Her head pivoted to the right seemed locked in that position. It was unnatural. He now turned to her eyes, as if to seek an explanation to what he was seeing. He found her glasses but, behind them, no pupils, just deep black circles surrounding the white ovals of turned eye globes. Despite the paralysis gaining every muscle of his body, he managed to muster what seemed like a feeling of terror. He wanted to scream.
The young woman was still holding out her hand. He noticed the swollen lips, browny-red and dishevelled. She was leading him somewhere, but there was nothing beyond, just a dark and chilly nook. His heart was beating, but very slowly, imperceptibly…
Song turned the car into a track covered in potholes, without slowing down, racking the shock absorbers of his Toyota. Cheng’s disarticulated body was swaying from left to right, held only by his seat belt. He finally came to a huge building site from which sprang half-finished multi-storey dwelling blocks. Song managed to distinguish the concrete pillars, the steel reinforcements and the planks on the scaffolding under the light of the projectors.
He drove his car towards an enormous trench in which rested the foundations of several buildings. He parked in a shadowy corner, away from the lights. He could not be seen by the night shifts at work. He unfastened the seat belt which was holding back Cheng and took his pulse. He was dead.
The drug had done its job. It plunged the victim in a deep torpor which ended by a cardiac arrest, in the same way as the venom of the most dangerous snakes. A swift method that left no trace. In the present case, that did not matter, his body would never be found. He got out of the car and opened the passenger door. He pulled out Cheng’s lifeless body and searched him thoroughly. He placed the accountant’s personal belongings on the car seat: a wallet, two mobile phones which were turned off, a notebook, and then he came across an unfamiliar object. He took a torch from the glove compartment and shone the light on it. It was a USB key.
He pulled out a dark-coloured sheet and some nylon string from the boot of the Toyota. In a few seconds, he had wrapped the body and tied it up. He did not want to linger in that place and, in any case, he hated that drizzling rain. Song stepped around to inspect the site. There was a large metal cylinder churning out concrete from the surface to form the foundation bed. He looked to determine the direction of the floodlights, spotted the part of the trench that was next in line to be filled and returned to the car. He grabbed hold of Cheng’s body and hauled it up to the edge of the crater, unable to make out the bottom which must have been at least 30 metres below. He rolled the bundle over the top but did not hear the sound of the fall, drowned by the din of the cement mixers.
He lit a cigarette and waited for a few minutes to see the metal gusher submerge Cheng’s body as it spewed out its concrete.
He got back into his car and skirted round the site until he found what he was looking for: a fire for burning timber and material the builders no longer needed. The glowing embers danced in the night. He tossed the contents of Cheng’s briefcase into the fire.
Song looked at his watch. It was past four in the morning. He stopped his car along the avenue where the beefy Ming was already waiting for him. The burly figure opened the door and settled at the back of the Toyota.
‘You done everything?’
‘The accountant’s apartment is now clean. There’s nothing left.’
‘What about his car?’
‘I left it in front of the station. They’ll think he took the train to run away.’
‘Good. That’s good,’ he repeated.
He stayed silent for a few seconds. He wanted gauge the situation precisely. It was now two hours since Cheng had alerted him. Two hours since he had come to know in detail the events of the night and had in his possession the explosive text of that Order which was to be published in a few hours.
And now, what next?
Inform the Agency? That would be running the risk of seeing the operation called off. The USA would then have extra time to apply pressure on China and deter it from going into a war situation. America had sufficiently persuasive arguments to compel Beijing to step down without losing face…
There remained the other option. Wait until the morning, for the matter to break out. A secretary working for the Ministry would be found dead, assassinated by a spy. They were bound to point the finger at the CIA. The Order would then be made public. That would smack of retaliation to an act of aggression.
A rather appealing scenario. But, regretfully, he had to set it aside. How could he have the Agency believe that he knew nothing? That the accountant had acted without first informing him? That after he had got himself in this mess he had not called him, his boss? This story would not wash.
He would be drawing too many questions and suspicions on him. He was wary of Lorna Green. That poor Stenton had up to now been his shield protecting him from the reproaches of that woman. But for how much longer still? He hardly had any choice. It was now up to him to set off the storm. He handed over to Ming the three sheets containing the Order as he finished drafting a handwritten message on his tablet PC.
‘I want you to scan these pages and send all that to Stenton, OK?’
He pulled out a large satellite phone from the glove box and dialled the US agent’s number. Would the latter hear the ring tone if he was in one of those lewd massage parlours he often spent his nights in?
Beijing, Sheraton Hotel
27 August, 4:20 am
A ring broke the silence of the night. It was not really a ring, but rather a familiar tune poorly interpreted by a monophonic synthesiser. Lorna knew that tune; it was the one she had chosen for her cell phone. She lifted her eyelids. The darkness was almost total. The only source of illumination came from the city lights filtering through the thick curtains of her room. The volume of the melody intensified as the seconds went by. The phone was now vibrating. The obsessive sound was amplified by the bedside table. She grabbed the phone the Agency had given to her for her trip to China. She read with difficulty the time displayed on its colour screen: 4:22! Who could be calling at such an odd time?
‘Lorna, wake up.’
She recognised Stenton’s voice.
‘Are you crazy? D’you know what time it is? I hope you’ve got a good reason…’
‘Something new’s come up,’ interrupted Stenton. ‘It’s dynamite! I’ll be in front of your hotel at 5 am sharp, bye.’
He said nothing more. Did that man ever sleep? She placed her hand on the shoulder of the young Chinese girl who had fallen asleep against her and attempted to wake her up as gently as possible. There was not a minute to loose. The girl put out reproachful noises in Mandarin, turned over and tried to go back to sleep.
‘Up we get, baby, it’s time to go,’ insisted Lorna with more firmness that time.
She was rather frail, with a very pale skin. The girl sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed her eyes like a kitten.
‘Sweetheart, you’ve got to move out, I don’t have the time to explain why.’
Lorna dropped her a quick kiss on the forehead, then another on the lips as the girl wrapped her arms around her waist. She was thin, very delicate, with long limbs that seemed endless.
She just had the time to get dressed, grumbling again, and already the bedroom door was closing back on her.
Lorna took a shower with cold water to wake her up for good and went down. It was still dark. A few girls were still pacing in front, looking for a client. She recognised Stenton’s black Lexus crawling along on the other side of the street. He did a U-turn to stop in front of her. She got in and he pulled away immediately with a screech of the tyres.
‘Well, Stenton, what’s going on?’
His face was closed and grave.
‘We’ve been conned like beginners! The Chinese have come out with an Order that imposes their own operating system.’
She did not grasp straight away.
‘They did that some years ago, if I’m not mistaken!’
‘Years ago, Lorna, but only for computers used by their public services, the army and the ministries… This time, it concerns all the computers in the country, Lorna!’
She still failed to grasp the magnitude of the event. It had to be incredibly important seeing how Stenton was shifting in the seat of his Lexus. In fact, she had never seen him in such a state. You could get nothing out of her at five in the morning, her brain simply refused to work. If all exams were taken at dawn, she would surely be without the slightest qualification. ‘The operating system… and what are your conclusions on this?’
Stenton nearly choked and had to slam on the brakes to stop at the lights.
‘Wake up, for goodness sake, Lorna. D’you know what an operating system is?’
He had turned red, almost shouting.
‘Do you happen to know that an American company has 90% of market for office PC operating systems? You may even have heard of that company; it’s called Microsoft!’
‘Of course! OK, calm down!’
‘And that company’s operating system is called Windows! And China wants to ban Windows! China has just banned Windows,’ he repeated, uttering each word with a pause. ‘Finished, finito, goodbye.’
It was the crazy hypothesis she had put out a few days previously while considering it absurd.
‘Are you sure of that? Do you realise what you are saying?’
‘Why do you think I’m getting you up at five in the morning? What did you think? That it was to invite you to go jogging along the Great Wall?’
She remained speechless for a few seconds. She was now wide awake and her brain was working at full speed. She was reviewing methodically all the consequences of that new event. Like a chess player, she was laying out all the combinations, moving the pieces. The heavy car passed silently along the wide avenues deserted at that early hour.
‘We’ll go straight to the embassy,’ she said at last.
‘And where d’you think I’m going?’
‘That will do, Stenton,’ she snapped sharply. ‘Now tell me, how did get this information in the middle of the night?’
‘We have an agent on the spot, at the Ministry of Information Industries. An accountant. It was by sheer luck… the Order was typed yesterday; it carries today’s date and should therefore be published in the coming hours. Santana Song was told hardly an hour ago.’
‘You mean to say he’s impossible to get hold of before dawn, is that right?’
He tried to defend his collaborator.
‘You’re being unfair. In fact things turned out bad. The accountant was caught red handed by the secretary. He had to eliminate her, he had no choice. Then he panicked. After having killed the girl, he got scared of Song’s possible reaction. He wandered around for three hours before calling for his help.’
‘I hope that guy’s no longer around!’
‘Don’t worry, Song saw to his disappearance. It’s impossible to go up any further.’
He pulled out a few sheets of paper from the breast pocket of his jacket.
‘Here, read the translation of the Order. It has today’s date.’
‘In your opinion, will it will be made public in the coming hours?’
‘Quite likely. The matter’s just too huge. Once you’ve set off the fuse, it’s just got to explode.’
‘So, we’ve got next to no time in front of us!’
They were both thinking about the same thing. Neither of them belonged to that caste of analysts, these bureaucrats who spend their days seated on a chair going through notes, writing reports, setting up strategies hardly adapted to real-life situations. It was because people like these that the CIA dropped its guard, relying completely on electronic intelligence to the detriment of human intelligence. The awakening was brutal. But for them, the men and women on the field working in the shadows, the war against terror had been 100% beneficial. It restored the status of human intervention and rehabilitated the good old methods.
They had to make the most of those few hours before them. All the while the decision was not official, it did not exist. It was just gas, pictograms on a piece of paper.
‘Who did you inform?’
‘Only my men… plus the military attaché and the cultural attaché.’
‘Not the ambassador?’
‘Not for the moment, no, it’s a matter for the CIA.’
‘We’ll get the Langley guys to work through the night; they should still be at the office with the time difference.’
They arrived at the US embassy, protected like a fortress by closely-spaced GIs. They parked their car behind the main building. It was 5:45 am; they had just a few hours to stop the bomb whose exact time of detonation was still unknown to them.
Ministry of Information Industries
It was half past seven when Bao Yutai called him on his cell phone, using a number that changed very frequently.
‘There are some serious, very serious, things going on. My secretary has just been murdered… Someone may have searched through the computers…’
Zhou could not believe his ears. Getting so close to the goal and seeing the beautiful order of events rocked by such a macabre event…
‘I’m coming straight away,’ he answered.
The matter was too serious. They had to avoid at all cost having the Order concerning China’s policy on operating systems put into question or postponed. He decided to go to the crime scene himself. He could not remain in the shadows, given what was at stake.
Everything seemed to have accelerated since his talk in Shanghai with the Vice-Chairman of the Military Commission scarcely a month before. He and his friends had kept a low profile, keeping away from interfering in a situation now beyond them.
Only a week ago, Bao had informed him that the decision had been agreed in principle and that a date had even been set. To cover it up, the administration had given a new impetus and dimension to the collaboration with Microsoft. They were now negotiating China’s adaptation of a hardware-based digital rights management system. And to avoid all risks of leaks, the administration did not set up a work group, nor organise preparatory meetings. They were to decide first, and only after get down to implementing it. Only some logistical aspects were already in place, like the stocks of hard disk drives piling up in the provinces. The Order, which was only one or two pages long, had been drafted three days previously. No-one knew about it.
Bao Yutai greeted Zhou in the entrance hall of the Ministry building and drew him into a discreet corridor.
‘Zhou, someone’s broken into my secretary’s office. The intruder printed out several files, the ones concerning Microsoft, and opened others. We have the history on the computer. Yaping must have surprised him and the poor girl paid for it with her life…’
It was distressing to see his sadness. Who outside could be aware of the imminence of the publication of the Microsoft Order?
‘Did the murderer leave any marks or clues?’ asked Zhou faithful to his methodical manner.
‘Our suspicions rest on an employee of the Ministry, an accountant who had been dating my secretary for several months.’
‘Then it might just be a simple crime of passion? Did they often have rows?’
‘No, the guy was very gentle and shy, at least in appearance. And then there are those files which have been opened and printed…’
‘Apart from you, does anyone know about these files?’
‘Yes, my deputy Tang Jinghua and a couple of other people.’
Too bad. It was becoming impossible to disguise this murder as a crime of passion. Bao lowered his eyes to express an apology.
‘I’m to blame…we’re all to blame; you see, we encouraged this relationship, we treated that man like one of us; he could come and go in the office as it pleased him.’
‘And why do you suspect him?’
‘The security system is very reliable. We keep track of people entering and leaving through their magnetic badge. And last night, at eleven pm, there were over fifteen people staying behind to prepare this afternoon’s meeting. The accountant left the Ministry shortly after eleven pm, but without Yaping. The body was discovered this morning by the cleaners at around six thirty. We have no trace of him since. The police have already been round to his apartment. It’s empty, he took everything with him. He’s gone. Vanished.
‘Who could have introduced a spy in the Ministry several months ago?’ Zhou asked himself. He could identify only two enemies: one was in China, that was the lobby of some business circles, and the other came from outside – the CIA.
The enemy from within was the most dangerous, the most insidious, the most unpredictable. As for the CIA lead, he was going to handle it himself…
‘Bao, nothing is lost. We’ve got to remain calm and keep the meeting as scheduled. Those who stole the documents now know the contents of the Order. They’re going to act, exert pressure and want it cancelled before it’s published. Who else knows about it?’
‘About fifteen people in the Ministry.’
‘We’ve got to make sure no-one can establish a link between this murder and the Order. If, as I fear, our enemies from within are behind all this matter, then they’ll try to call off the meeting under the pretext of leading the murder enquiry.’
‘What do you suggest?’
‘Do you have the list of the stolen documents?’
Bao thought for a moment.
‘Yes, there were seven documents printed and around ten others opened. According to the times displayed, that would match. The secretary was on the eighth floor with us then, and not in her office. If the murderer is indeed a spy, then he could have taken other documents on an external storage device, but the PC keeps no trace of that.’
‘OK, run through those documents and select ones referring to some sensitive matter, like WiFi security procedures. Then we can present the theft as the one most likely to interest enemy foreign intelligence services. It’s essential to have the suspicions turned on the CIA.
‘You don’t think it’s the Americans?’
‘I can’t see how they could know. Believe me, if they knew, they’d already be out there putting on the pressure. The relations between Microsoft and China are still rosy. No, the operation comes from within, from inside the country.’
They took the lift to the twelfth floor.
‘What time’s the meeting?’ asked Zhou.
‘Two pm sharp.’
‘We’ve got to hold fast till the public announcement of the Order, cost what may. Do you get that?’
The police were already on the site and several agents were keeping guard, forbidding access to the office. Zhou inspected the room. Yaping’s body was still there, resting on the floor, covered in a white sheet. He lifted the cloth and the young woman’s head appeared, slightly turned to the right. The neck was swollen and the top vertebra was broken.
Having arrived at seven forty five as usual, Tang Jinghua, Yaping’s second boss, had learnt the news. He was shattered and was pacing round his office, his eyes reddened.
Zhou asked for the list of stolen files and went through it carefully.
‘Mr. Zhou! Well fancy that! And what brings you here to the scene of a crime?’
The voice was coming from behind him, an unpleasant voice he dared not recognise. He turned round. It was Guo, the chief of secret police of the Ministry of Public Security. They knew each other well and shared a mutual contempt.
‘And who had informed comrade Zhou?’ spoke out Guo, glaring at each of the members of the Ministry in turn, waiting for one of them to own up.
But it was Zhou himself who answered, moving to face the police chief.
‘It was the Beijing police. This investigation appears to be a matter for counterespionage.’
There was a persistent rivalry between the secret police and Ministry of State Security, which was in charge of counterespionage. Zhou often stumbled upon Guo in his work. There was a lot of resentment between the two men and Zhou knew he could expect no favours from Guo.
‘Here is the list of the stolen items.’
Zhou held out the document to Guo. Without even waiting for his response, he asserted in a mysterious tone he did not even recognise himself in:
‘A foreign power is trying to find out China’s policy in matters of technology.’
Guo displayed a shark-like smile.
‘Perhaps, but for the time being, it’s still to be considered a crime within the Ministry. The number one suspect is an accountant who was dating the girl. I’m sure you won’t object to the police doing its work!’
‘Go ahead, it’s your job to find the culprit and discover the motives.’
Zhou was already moving away when Guo stopped him.
‘Just a moment, Colonel…’
Zhou turned round.
‘Perhaps you could you explain to us what your photo is doing in that poor girl’s drawer?’
It was indeed his photo. Not flattering. Where did it come from, who took it and – above all – what was it doing in that secretary’s drawer? First this murder, now this photograph; someone was to trying to compromise him to take him off the scene. But who? Only be the business circles, the ultra liberals allied to Guo, could dream up such a plan. They wanted to forestall the Order and bring his downfall by the same occasion. This photo came at the wrong time. He had to find an explanation, quickly.
‘I’ve already been inside the Ministry, someone must have photographed me…’
‘May be… may be. We’ll check this out,’ muttered Guo looking dubious.
‘We’re going to enter this exhibit in the file,’ he added dryly before moving off.
Now that put Zhou in an awkward position. The police chief would not fail to exploit it to his own advantage. Bao saw everything that was going on. He drew Zhou aside.
‘Keep a low profile, Zhou. You’re too exposed. You’re upsetting a lot of circles. They’re not going to miss you. Go back into the shadows, it’s safer.’
But Zhou knew where his place was. The situation was critical and could swing one way or the other. It was up to him to give the decisive impulse to this mission, failing which all his plans would come to nothing. Bao sensed that he could not make him change his mind.
‘This meeting is going to take place, nothing’s going to stop it!’ asserted Bao, apparently still had not taken in the scale of the previous night’s events in his secretary’s office.
‘I don’t share this view, Bao,’ replied Zhou. ‘But we’re going to give fate a helping hand…’
He had just had an idea. Those who imagined they had made him powerless were in for a surprise.
‘Here’s my plan. In less than one hour, all the press agencies around the world will spread the news of this murder. Suspicions will inevitably fall on the CIA, and then we’ve got it made. Because, believe me, if there’s the slightest hint of possible American interference in our affairs, everyone will definitely want this afternoon’s meeting to take place…’
Upon these words, he left the Ministry.
Beijing, CIA office
The bulletin arrived mid morning: a secretary of the Ministry of Information Industries was murdered in her office late last night. The evening papers were going to spread that information and comment on it. But already people were talking about a spy scandal. The presumed murderer had disappeared, taking several documents with him. The article described the suspect as the archetypal international spy. The Agency was never cited directly by its name, but anyone could read between the lines. Who else could have such a keen interest in China’s secret technologies that they were prepared to kill an innocent secretary? All the ingredients were there to make the front page of the Chinese tabloids.
‘They’ve wrong-footed us!’
Lorna Green could not keep her anger down. For three hours she and her Beijing office team had been imagining all sorts of scenarios to force the Chinese to back off. She spared no effort to make sure that Langley would get the true measure of the events about to take place, of the effects of the bomb about to explode.
Thanks to her, the CIA’s chief Doug Chandler had finally taken the matter most seriously. He had alerted the Secretary of State, the Secretary for Commerce and the National Security Adviser. They had set up a crisis cell and were ready to in their office through the night. The time delays in which to react were very short, far too short. They had to make an immediate decision, within the hour, something which the administration was not accustomed to. Indeed, the nature of the threat was economical and concerned the private sector. For the National Security Adviser, the matter should rather be treated within the scope of the World Trade Organisation.
The United States had, of course, a whole raft of pressure-inducing measures, capable of coercing a country even the size of China. But all that took time and preparation; it involved setting up the appropriate channels for those ‘diplomatic exchanges.’ It was impossible to cancel an administrative meeting in China and prevent the publication of an Order concerning a regulation in the computer sector at the drop of a hat.
Lorna leant in favour of a commando type of action. They had to use coercion, threaten the country with military intervention, an oil embargo, a commercial blockade… And even so, there was nothing to guarantee China would be sensitive to those arguments.
The American State Department did not like one single bit all this story about a secretary being assassinated by a secret service agent. The Americans were here signing their crime by revealing they had a copy of the Order in their possession. And the diplomats took exception to being put on the spot during a negotiation that promised to be tough. The State Department was aware of all the facts of the matter. The girl was called Yaping. She was only a simple secretary, but she had lost her life, and this crime seriously undermined the position of the United States of America at a time when it had to engage in a decisive battle for the future of an entire sector of its industry.
For the time being, the preventive measures suggested by Washington were not at all to Lorna’s liking. It was the United States ambassador in Beijing who had the task of convincing the State Council and the Prime Minister, to make them backtrack using some compelling arguments… Reasons that would not leave them indifferent. He had a few trumps in his hand. There was the question about the straits of Ormuz, Malacca, or Lombok, of the persistent terrorist threat looming and risking to jeopardise their oil supplies, of powerful electromagnetic waves affecting telecommunications infrastructures, all with graphic explanations and chosen examples.
They were in the course of arranging a meeting for the end of the morning.
And then the news burst out. One hour beforehand. It put into question the entire strategy they had just elaborated. The media coverage of that secretary’s murder had shuffled the cards. If only that girl hadn’t died! But the agent infiltrated by the CIA had lost his bottle. Lorna turned towards Stenton.
‘They did this media coverage with a precise purpose. Stenton, we’re dealing with well-organised individuals carrying out a cleverly-orchestrated plan. Normally, matters of espionage are settled quietly behind the scenes.
Stenton appeared just as embarrassed as his boss. That girl’s murder had all the hallmarks of a lover’s tiff that took tragic turn. The suspicions were bound to fall on the accountant. He got scared and ran away. End of enquiry. That was the optimistic scenario. Unfortunately, there was the computer. It must have kept trace of certain operations, such as the files printed out. And that changed the nature of the crime; the motives were now different.
‘You’re not answering my question! Why are they making all this affair public?’ asked Lorna.
‘That’s true, it’s not their usual way of doing things. This event gives them a free opportunity to embarrass us and make us powerless.’
Lorna was hardly optimistic. Getting officially into contact with the Chinese administration was recognising implicitly the CIA’s involvement in this murder case. The Order formed part of the printed documents.
The ambassador entered the room. Seeing his expression, she understood there was nothing left to hope for.
‘I’ve just had the definitive response from the State Department. This thing about the secretary being murdered is not making things easier. Under these conditions, envisaging preventive measures has become an extremely complex task, especially within such a short time frame. We have no choice. The Order will be published, we cannot stop that. We’ll act afterwards. After all, nothing proves this Order will be implemented. In any case, believe me, we’ll do everything in our power to make sure it isn’t…’
Ministry of Information Industries
27 August, 14:00
Bao Yutai now knew his confidence was well placed. Nothing colonel Zhou had imagined came to disrupt the smooth running of the operations. Guo was quick to adopt the hypothesis of an intrusion in the Ministry’s computer system by a foreign power. And all looks turned to the CIA, even though there was not the slightest piece of evidence to support the suspicions. The police chief was all too pleased to poach on territory of the Ministry of State Security, which had slipped up in this matter. Zhou need not have worried.
The large conference room of the Ministry was now full. There were about one hundred people, the top brass of the administration, universities and the computer industry. As usual, it was impossible to guess the real points of meeting from the agenda.
The session was to be short, in line with the concise message to be delivered by Shan Yunli, the Minister of Information Industries.
As the Minister was walking up to the lectern, a large white screen displayed the title of the presentation:
‘Policy of the People’s Republic of China in regard to operating systems for personal and office computers’
‘Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have to face the fact that our computers systems are no longer secure. Computers the world over have been the target over the recent years, and in particular these last months, of massive attacks through software viruses.
These attacks are the deeds of pirates who exploit weaknesses in the security of the operating systems and communications software.
Everything leads us to believe that this is only the start of a phenomenon of great magnitude. The rapid development of computer networks and their interconnection on a worldwide scale are going to put questions of security, secrecy and digital rights at the centre stage of preoccupations facing every country.
China has not been spared by these recent attacks, and it has been unable to defend itself effectively because it does not control the technology of these operating systems, which are foreign.
After having conducted a deep examination of this problem, the People’s Republic of China concludes that the long-term security of our computers calls for the complete and total control of all the technologies that go into their operating system.
In view of the foregoing, we have decided to adopt the following measures:
The People’s Republic of China shall take in its charge the development, standardisation and updating of a Chinese National Operating System, to be known by the acronym CNOS. CNOS shall be totally compatible with the Linux open source system. It shall embody all the procedures responsible for security, encryption and access to communications networks. All of these technologies are to be developed by State laboratories of the People’s Republic of China.
The CNOS operating system shall be distributed free of charge.
All office computers and home computers installed in the territory of the People’s Republic of China shall be required, in the short term, to operate under CNOS.
Servers and mainframe computers shall be required to communicate with external systems through a machine operating under CNOS.
The transition shall be effected in stages.
This measure concerns only the operating system. As for graphic user interfaces, or GUIs, and application software, these shall remain in the competitive sector in accordance with the commitments taken by China within the framework of the World Trade Organisation. They shall nevertheless be required to run communication and security procedures defined by China.
For reasons of efficiency, security and logistics, the deployment of CNOS shall take place within a very short time frame. We have defined two distinct phases:
A preparation phase which is due to start in two weeks as from today.
In this phase we shall distribute version 1.0 of CNOS and supply its communication procedure programming specifications and interfaces to applications editors.
It shall last for one month and be followed immediately by the operational phase.
The implementation of CNOS shall then become compulsory for all new computers sold on the territory of the People’s Republic of China.
Likewise, it shall be compulsory for all machines connected to the Internet, within a period of one month for administrations and state-owned companies, and within a period of three months for private companies and individuals.
The implementation of CNOS shall also be compulsory for all machines connected to a local or private network which is itself connected to the Internet, within a period of three months for private companies and individuals.
After a period of one year, all computers of the People’s Republic of China shall be required to operate under CNOS.
Gentlemen, you have a heavy schedule before you. An enormous task will have to be accomplished in the course of the coming months. We will need to organise the transition from the present to the future, convert tens of millions of computers to our new operating system and oversee the distribution and updating of the software.
The challenge is a tough one, but that is the price to pay for the security of our information systems.
I am counting on you.’
There were some murmurs in the room. Some exclamations of surprise and satisfaction greeted the resolute decisions of the Minister. But some judged the extremely short terms for their implementation unrealistic. Despite this, all the audience was won over by the notion of the liberation of China’s computer system, released from its dependency on a foreign power, and saw in that a national cause. All the directors of the administration, the chiefs of state-owned companies who, only the day before, would have voiced violently their opposition to such a change, were now unanimously behind the governmental project.
China had refused to be enslaved by American technology; it was now taking its destiny in its own hands, and all this flattered its nationalistic ego.
The Minister knew he could count on them. He never doubted that. What about the private sector? Its close-knit links with the semi-public sector should, in principle, limit its reaction to oppose. Moreover, the logistics had been planned with care. The Minister, flanked by several specialists, was ready to answer the questions from the audience. They came from all sides.
‘How are we going to go through with the migration of the applications?’
‘CNOS is 100% compatible with Linux and, as you know, there is a large selection of Linux applications already available on the market. We have already adapted most of these applications to the CNOS communication and security procedures, given that these same procedures are implemented in Linux versions that have been used for a number of years by some of our administrations. In any case, this adaptation should only take our editors a few days. The latecomers thus have sufficient time to place the compulsory ‘CNOS compatible’ marking on their products. As for the data, these can be directly extracted and exploited under CNOS.’
‘In concrete terms, how do you propose to make hundreds of million PCs currently working under Windows migrate to CNOS?’
‘Over the last few weeks, we have built up a large stock of hard disk drives: around fifty million in total. These disks are preloaded with CNOS, together with a basic suite of applications collected by the Chinese Association of Open Source Software. There is software for communication, office applications, games… These disks are sold for 250 yuans and can be installed as master disks in the PCs, the existing disk becoming the slave disk. Users will also have the possibility of exchanging their old disk against a new one for the sum of 50 yuans, after having saved their data on a CD ROM, for example. We are relying on all computer retailers and service firms, and on the cooperation of the country’s computer departments to make sure this transition takes place under the best possible conditions.’
‘Your decision amounts to excluding Microsoft from the market of the People’s Republic of China!’
‘That is absolutely not the case. We are excluding no-one from the market, quite on the contrary! All we are making compulsory is a software layer which allows the machine to communicate, to ensure data security and to manage applications. It falls under our duty, in a world that is becoming ever more dangerous, to guarantee our country’s security and independence. China must have the means to control all the elements that go towards this security. We could have integrated our security modules into an existing operating system, such as Windows. We did actually consider this possibility, and in fact our teams have worked for several months with their Microsoft counterparts to evaluate its feasibility. I take this opportunity to give my warm thanks to Microsoft Incorporated for its total involvement in this project. They did not hesitate to open every door of their software and spared no effort. Unfortunately, after having carefully weighed the pros and cons of that solution, we had to discard it. An operating system calls for a permanent dialogue with its publisher, who frequently sends updates downloaded on line. A portion of these updates serves to correct security failures exploited by viruses. You will immediately understand that we had to bring under China’s purview the task of effecting updates and the entire responsibility for the protection of our machines. This meant the solution had to be 100% national. Of course, our friends from Microsoft shall remain our partners. We will work hand in hand to make planetary computing safe for the world. We invite them as from now to join us in international forums to establish tomorrow’s computing standards.’
‘And what about application programs? What’s to become of Microsoft applications?’
‘Sir, allow me to thank you for your question, which gives the opportunity to clearly state our policy. CNOS is unquestionably the most open operating system on the market. We welcome and invite program publishers everywhere in the world to develop the richest and most varied applications for it. They can be assured that we will apply fully transparent and equitable procedures! The same set of unique specifications shall be sent to every publisher. We shall be particularly vigilant in seeing that no one publisher shall be privileged over another. Each will receive the same tools and after that, may the best man win! We’re sure that Microsoft will be in winning situation, thanks to its twenty-year presence on the market and the outstanding quality of its products.’
At the back of the room, several people blanched as they heard these words. The director of Microsoft’s Beijing research centre, his deputies, the director of the sales subsidiaries, all of them received the Minister’s speech like a sharp punch in the face. They were stunned, shattered. Like other heads of Chinese companies in that sector, they had been invited to hear this important declaration on the administration’s policy concerning computer security. They were ready for anything but this. Protection against spams, regulations over websites or Internet access providers, yes, but certainly not this shockingly brutal measure which definitely barred them from the Chinese market.
They felt a taste in their mouths, like earth, accompanied by nausea. That was caused by the last statements of the Minister concerning Microsoft. A sickening blend of sycophancy, cynicism and provocation. Their stomach was tied in a ball of anxiety and anger.
A book by JF SUSBIELLE – Translation by Dominic KING