The Crane and the Serpent

‘There is no greater disaster
than to underestimate one’s enemy’
Lao Tse, VIth Century BC.

Six months earlier …

Beijing, Great Wall Mirama Hotel
19 January

Jin crossed the hotel lobby with a quick step. It was one of those large establishments of glittery luxury aimed at an international clientele. She wore a business outfit, heeled shoes and tinted glasses. The archetypal executive woman who carries the right blend of class, mystery and seduction. With these clothes, she hardly drew any notice in this large hotel for businessmen, other than the sneak looks of some Westerners craving for local beauties.

Her informers hadn’t been mistaken. ‘The place is watched,’ they had warned her. She cast a quick look around, trying to spot the CIA agents from the anonymous crowd. It was no use. Her team had already screened the premises. She stepped into a scenic lift and hit the topmost button. It offered a towering view of the atrium as she rose into the upper floors. But the CIA weren’t alone in watching the place. The secret police of Commander Guo, the very discreet branch of the Ministry of Public Security, was also present. How had they been informed? Their presence complicated matters.
The man she had to watch was called Ron Baxter. He was staying at the Mirama, room 3326. This American was a specialist in mainframe computers for banks and insurance companies. He worked at IBM’s Boca Raton site in Florida. Baxter had come to Beijing under invitation of the Chinese Science Academy’s Software Research Institute. There was a problem with a mainframe, one of the large computers used by Chinese scientists to develop powerful encryption algorithms which safeguard the secrecy of the country’s military communications. The matter was ultra sensitive.
Chinese counterespionage was on tenterhooks. It was Jin who had been given the task of watching the visitor from her post at the Science Academy. This Baxter had of course been thoroughly vetted by the Chinese intelligence services operating on the American territory. He was clean. There was nothing in his records. Employed at IBM for eighteen years, a typical career path, in his fifties, married, two grown-up children, no suspicious activity. A mundane life, no mistress, no known vice, just a straight and boring guy.
The lift came to a halt on the 38th floor, which was entirely taken up by a panoramic restaurant. From there, Jin went up a staircase to a service floor under the roof of the building where her team was waiting for her: three members of the Counterespionage Action Group, hardened agents she could count on. She uttered a few words to her men on the microphone of the radio link to signal her arrival. The door opened. The room was used to store cleaning equipment and consumables. There were hundreds of miniature soap bars, perfume, shampoo and lotion flasks stretched out in large boxes.
‘Zeying, what’s the situation?’ ordered Jin in a clear voice.
The man to whom she had just spoken was her most loyal agent. He was entirely devoted to her ever since she had saved his life, at the risk of her own, during a mission that went wrong. ‘You never abandon an agent in the field’ she quoted spontaneously as he was about to thank her. That was something he could never forget.
‘The American left the hotel two hours ago. His laptop’s in his room. He’s invited out to dinner by a director of the Science Academy. He’ll be back in less than two hours.’
‘I know, I know,’ Jin said impatiently. I was the one who organised the dinner date. I haven’t got a post at the Academy for nothing, you know. Let’s press on. What else?’
Jin was determined to pay a visit to Baxter’s room. But there was no way she could pass through the door with those guards watching over in the corridors. Without waiting for her lieutenant to finish his report, she opened wide the large sports holdall Zeying had prepared for her, slid her skirt down her legs and donned a black cat suit. She then strapped a climbing harness around her, attached a rucksack, and took out a handgun and knife. The young woman would have left no-one else take on this mission of the utmost importance.

Ron Baxter had been in Beijing for a week now. His intervention at the Software Research Institute went along without incident. For Jin, who used her position as head of research as a cover for her counterespionage activities, watching over this engineer had been easy. She had had nothing to report. Until today when, at 14h00, the red alert had sounded by pure chance. A real chance indeed.
A Chinese secret agent posted in the United States had just returned to Beijing for a debriefing session. That man, the son of Sichuan immigrants, had acquired US citizenship and was an eminent genetics expert. His role was to collect information for the People’s Republic in that highly strategic sector. As he was passing along a corridor in the intelligence centre, his gaze was arrested by a face, a photo displayed on a computer screen. He knew that face, he had already seen it before. He drew closer. It was a man in Beijing here for maintenance on a mainframe, he had been told. He had been declared clean by the men posted in Washington. Baxter was indeed an IBM employee specialised in genetics. He worked on future-generation computers based on DNA configurations. Now they had just learnt that this same Baxter had in fact earlier approached this returning Chinese agent during a congress in Pasadena. He wanted to recruit him to work for his second employer … the NSA, the National Security Agency, that most secret US agency specialising in electronic intelligence and cryptography, based at Fort Meade in Maryland. The officers of the Chinese embassy in Washington who declared him clean must have got a rocket! That inauspicious computer scientist was in fact a spy working for the NSA, a spy to whom they had opened the doors to one of the country’s most strategic sites. Jin ceased her recap of the events.
‘It’s going to be tough,’ continued Zeying. ‘Commander Guo’s men have taken over the hotel. And the Americans, alerted by this deployment of force, have taken positions to protect Baxter. Guo was waiting for the occasion to seize the American and exchange him against one of his agents nabbed in the States. He desperately wants that Baxter and discreetly to negotiate an exchange with the US.’
‘OK, thanks, Zeying.’
Jin was ready and had finished adjusting her hood and leather gloves. Zeying opened the window of the store room. The cold Beijing winter air burst inside.
The young woman attached the rope to her harness.
She was to slide down the large hotel’s glass wall, between two rows of windows, from the thirty ninth to the thirty third floor, and step along a narrow ledge up to the American’s room. There she was to discover the real motive for his presence in China by checking through his time schedule.

The Great Wall Mirama Hotel bar had everything to please the American. Soft lights, a cosy atmosphere and waitresses in long narrow skirts slit up to the waist moving in all directions along the carpeted floor. His poor tastes were fulfilled. He did not regret the journey, even if this evening’s alert had forced him to change his schedule.
Val Stenton swallowed his tumbler of bourbon in one go. He had to keep warm. The CIA’s chief of intelligence in Beijing had taken his functions just a few months ago. He couldn’t get used to these hard winters. What did the Chinese want from this Baxter? That utterly boring computer scientist had come to fix one of their computers which they hoped to use to develop an encryption algorithm sufficiently powerful to hold the NSA in check! All was going well and then, without reason, the Chinese flip their lid. According to them, Baxter is spy. They must be kidding! The NSA had intercepted alert messages sent to the Chinese embassy in Washington. Baxter had apparently come to spy on the Science Academy; he had to be stopped!
For Stenton, this was hard to swallow. For once the CIA was not in the know! Baxter was a genuine computer scientist. He was here to service an IBM mainframe, full stop. Val Stenton sank down a second bourbon. Since then, Beijing had been on full alert. Their secret police, the equivalent of the FBI, had gone into action straight away with its typical discretion. Guards disguised as grooms on every floor, agents in the lobby … the Great Wall Mirama had become a fortress. There was no doubt about it: they wanted to catch that dangerous spy. Not to mention Counterespionage, which would also be lurking in the hotel. A nice diplomatic imbroglio in the offing. The CIA had had to reinforce Baxter’s protection and deploy its own men in the hotel. Hence the presence there of Stanton and his men.
‘Song, what’s the latest on our computer bod?’ he snapped.
The person Stenton had just spoken to stayed in the shadow. He had lightly curled hair that betrayed his Eurasian origins. His face was pockmarked with dozens of little craters.
‘He’s coming back to the hotel. His dinner date’s been cancelled…’
‘Did you see the guard of honour? The hotel’s swarming with police!’
‘They’ve no reason to arrest him. They must have a pretext.’
‘I know. He’s returning to the States tomorrow. We can’t let things go wrong.’
‘Don’t worry, we’re keeping him under close watch.’
Song moved away, discreetly as always.

Jin stepped over the window and began her descent. Looking up, she saw Zeying’s face disappear as she went down suspended in the air. She counted down the floors. When she reached the thirty third, she locked the lowering mechanism and felt with her toes for the steel ledge along the base of the windows. It was an elbow’s width at the most. Her heart was beating fast. Too fast. She didn’t like it. She struggled to turn round, and now had her back to the wall, facing the void and the night, facing the city lights and the starry sky. She breathed in deeply the frozen winter air. The light breeze which blew at this height hummed gently in her ears.

The city was at her feet, with its lit-up skyscrapers, broad avenues and tinsel of vehicles. She could almost reach out and embrace the buildings. Within the space of second, she felt like leaping out from up high in a flash of euphoria. She now had her breathing under control. A calm voice spoke to her in the earpiece.
‘Jin, the American didn’t go to his dinner appointment. The Director of the Science Academy called it off at the last minute. He’s returning to the hotel. I repeat: he’s returning to the hotel. Operation cancelled!’
With regret, she left that magnificent sight and began to turn round, facing the glass wall.
‘Negative, the operation’s maintained. Keep our customer under watch. If he hasn’t dined, he’s bound to go to the restaurant.’
Despite the risk, Jin unfastened the cable from her harness, certain that such an occasion would never turn up again.

Song made sure the CIA was adequately deployed on the scene. Satisfied, he moved out of the darkness and made his way to the shopping mall. He threw a quick glance inside the ladies’ toilets and caught sight of a woman putting on her make-up in front of the mirror.
‘In two minutes. By the lifts.’
She acknowledged with the bat of an eyelid. It was a Chinese woman, tall and sensual. She had met Baxter the night before at the hotel bar. It was Song who had introduced them. They chatted for an hour. She came across as reserved but attentive. A touch shy. Just what it needed to seduce. He had told her his life story, his anxieties, the problems that threatened his marriage, a blend of tedium and frustration. The usual cocktail.
‘You know what you’ve got to do?’ muttered the Eurasian, at the risk of being spotted.
The woman nodded curtly, looking dark and decided. They both went off in their respective directions.

Jin shifted one foot after the other, slowly, very slowly, along the narrow steel ledge. She had now covered the two metres that separated her landing point from Baxter’s room. She pulled out from her pocket a key to unlock the window. She had only one. No question of letting it drop. The windows were locked from the inside, as in most air conditioned hotels. With carefully-controlled movements, Jin inserted the key into the window frame aperture and turned it. The heavy glass panel seemed to hesitate and then, slowly, it pivoted on its right edge and the window opened. Jin straddled over the sill and found herself in room 3326, behind a thick printed cloth curtain. She pushed back the window, without closing it completely, to keep the warmth in the room.
‘Jin,’ murmured the voice in her earpiece, ‘the American’s just arrived at the hotel.’
‘Warn me immediately if he goes up to the thirty third floor.’
‘If he does, you’ll only have one minute to leave the room. Oh, and I forgot to mention: Baxter isn’t alone.’
‘What?’
‘He’s with a woman, a Chinese girl, the forward kind of…’
In the semi darkness, she did a quick reconnoitre: the bed, desk, dresser, cupboard…
‘Jin,’ the voice crackled, ‘he’s gone up to the thirty ninth floor, to the restaurant. He’s asked for a table for two. Your ground is clear.’
She lit just one lamp, the one on the small desk in the corner. It was a spacious room, fitted out in classical Chinese style furniture, with statues of a warrior, knee to the ground, and a reproduction of a horse of the great buried terracotta army of Xi’an.
‘He’s at the bar with the girl, waiting for his table to be ready,’ the voice announced.
Jin quickly got down to work. She pulled out a digital camera from one of her pockets and began photographing all she could not physically take with her. She gathered together everything that might be important: handwritten notes, restaurant bills, tickets, anything that could possibly help reconstruct the NSA agent’s time schedule. Whom did he meet during his stay in Beijing? Did he have accomplices on the spot? Had he recruited agents from Chinese research laboratories? Had he bought information? Her counterespionage services ruled out no possibilities.
The American’s laptop lay on the sideboard inside its soft nylon case. It was bound to be protected by umpteen codes. ‘Something for our specialists to sink their teeth into,’ she thought. It would be an interesting challenge for her Chinese colleagues to get inside the PC of a National Security Agency computer expert. Jin overlooked nothing; she went through the American’s suits, luggage, bin and ashtrays with a fine-tooth comb. She had gathered together her pickings on the desk and was getting ready to slip them into her light rucksack.
‘Alert!’
The voice hollered in Jin’s earpiece.
‘Baxter’s no longer in the restaurant. He’s not in the bar. We’ve lost him. Jin, he may be on his way back to his room…’
The young woman seized hold of the laptop and stuffed it into her rucksack.
There was the sound of a card key pulled out of its slot, followed by the door opening, bursts of talk and laughs. It was too late. Jin just had the time to scramble behind an armchair in a corner, near the desk. Baxter was now in the room with the girl, a Chinese woman dressed in a narrow black skirt. They didn’t exchange a single word. She tossed her handbag on the large sofa and was now coiling up against Baxter, panting lightly. She kissed him furiously, frantically, while her delicate hands were unfastening his clothes, as if in tempo with a musical score. Baxter followed suit, at the peak of excitement.
‘How could a professional spy fall for it so easily? Did he know that girl? Had she popped into his glass one of those pills that can make any male powerless to refuse the advances of a young beauty?’ wondered Jin. Cramped behind the armchair, she held her breath, lost in the thoughts racing through her mind, waiting to leap.
The American had lain back, elbows dug into the sofa. The girl came up, lascivious like a snake. She slid along Baxter’s legs, rising slowly up to his thighs. Straightening up, she pivoted round, lips pouting, and cast another ravenous look at Baxter before turning her back to straddle him. Baxter could now only see her wholesome buttocks and hips rising and falling rhythmically and, above, her slender waist and the long black hair she had just freed by delicately removing an ornate clip. But he could not see she had kept the latter in her hand. Her rhythm seemed to have accelerated, her navel now making circular movements. Baxter was on the verge of ecstasy. She drew the clip to her mouth and, with her teeth, pulled out a cusp that covered a fine needle. She swallowed the small piece of plastic to leave no trace. Continuing her up-and-down movements, she brought her two hands between her legs to place her fingers around the man’s hardened phallus. In a quick skilful movement, she planted the short needle into the base of his penis and emptied a cartridge of liquid in the blood-gorged member. Baxter savoured the last moments of pleasure that separated him from death. He let out another four groans of pleasure. The fifth sounded nothing like an orgasm. A last spasm had just seized his heart.
The girl got up without showing the slightest sign of emotion. She was tall and had a perfect figure. Her small proud breasts projected from her muscular body. Her black pubic fleece was carefully trimmed. She threw a quick look at the American who lay lifeless on the sofa, eyes contorted. The poison had acted very quickly. It would be virtually undetectable and leave no trace. As for the needle prick, it was so small that it drew no blood. The autopsy would conclude on a heart attack. She tossed the empty poison cartridge into her handbag and took out an elastic ribbon which she used to tie her hair back. She inspected the room. In three minutes, she’ll give the alarm. She’ll take the phone, feign panic and call for help in a stricken and frightened voice. Her client, an American she had just met, has died of a heart attack. They would find an overdose of a sexual stimulant in his blood. The American and Chinese services would avoid giving too much publicity to the matter. And then she could vanish after a cursory identity check.
She stepped towards the desk and spotted the small pile of documents Jin didn’t have the time to conceal. Her eyes searched for the laptop. She had instruction not to touch it to avoid any suspicion around Baxter’s death. A draught of cold air caused her to shudder. She drew the window curtains aside. The pane was open and a stream of icy air penetrated the room.
These windows were sealed and the client couldn’t have opened them. Somebody must have come into the room from outside. An intruder who didn’t have the time to close the window behind? Nor take the documents on the desk? The enemy was still in the bedroom, she could feel it; he was here. She shuddered again. Not from fear, but rather by animal instinct. Her body was no longer that of a professional seductress. Her shoulders were now arched, her breast had sunken in, her leg muscles tensed. She was ready for the confrontation.
Where was he hiding? She scanned the room from the bathroom door to the curtains. She went back to the centre of the room and picked up her underwear, her muscles still tense. Just as she was slipping into her panty, a silhouette pounced from behind the sofa. Quick as a tiger, Jin threw herself at the girl.
The two women rolled on the floor. With the advantage of surprise, Jin quickly got the upper hand. She pinned down the killer firmly to the floor, pressing her right arm against her throat. With her left hand, she seized the dagger she had fixed along her leg. She pointed the weapon at the girl’s throat.
‘Who do you work for?’ asked Jin.
A burst of insults in Cantonese was her only answer.
‘Who do you work for?’ repeated Jin, pressing down even harder on the girl’s neck.
Suddenly, with awesome violence and brutality that took Jin by surprise, the girl arched her back in a loud roar and freed herself from the body lock. She struck Jin in the throat with the side of her hand and leapt up, elastic, before grabbing hold of the dagger. The two women were face to face in combat positions, feline. The Cantonese was the first to attack. Naked though she was, her aggressiveness was unfettered. She made three sweeps in the air with her weapon, Jin dodging each of them, keeping her eyes riveted to her assailant. She was going to fight for her life. The girl repeated her attack, which Jin countered by seizing her enemy’s wrist. In return, she received a thundering punch on the chin, flinging her head rearward. Jin fell on her back. The attacker was lunging towards her. Unable to get up, Jin managed to deflect the weapon directed against her. Grabbing the woman’s wrist with both hands, Jin managed to turn the blade round just as her attacker lunged for her final assault. With hardly a sound, the sharpened blade impaled the murderess. Their two faces confronted, almost touching each other. The dying woman’s last stare was on Jin’s eyes, the only part of her face left exposed by her hood. Jin sensed a look of terror as she exhaled a last breath. Without waiting, she dragged the naked woman against the American’s body. She cast an anxious look towards the door. Fortunately, its heavy wooden structure and the thick-pile carpeting had deadened the sounds of the struggle. She pulled out the dagger from the wound and placed it in Baxter’s hand. ‘That would make a nice little piece of stagecraft for Commander Guo’s police to work out…as well as the CIA investigators,’ she thought.
Jin imagined how they would reconstruct the scenario: the IBM engineer brings a young girl into his hotel room. After a sex romp, they get into an argument; he lethally stabs her and dies of a heart attack… At least that would be a start to the enquiry, and she wished them good luck. Her mask wrinkled as she smiled. Jin took out some tissues from the bathroom and swabbed some of the prostitute’s blood before inserting them in a polythene bag. Then she took the girl’s handbag and some documents lying on the desk and tossed them inside her rucksack.
Jin quickly took a few more pictures before leaving the scene.
She opened the window and delicately placed her bag on the outer ledge. She stepped over the sill and got out in the freezing winter’s cold. She pulled out her key and locked the window. Now it would now be difficult for the investigators to find clues indicating that a visitor had broken into the bedroom. The city noise came up to her. She edged along the two metres that separated her from the cable and attached her harness to it. The cable was pulled taut in response to her call. The young woman ascended along the wall, pulled by the electric hoist. When she got to the thirty ninth floor, Zeying helped her get her footing into the store room. Jin cast off her hood and harness. Her team had already changed clothes. She did likewise.
‘I suppose a helicopter’s waiting for us on the roof of the building to evacuate us,’ she quipped to ease the atmosphere a bit.
‘Only the service lift, I’m afraid,’ replied Zeying. We’ve blocked it. ‘A delivery truck parked in the basement will take us away.’
She held out her rucksack to another member of the team.
‘We’ve got meat on our plate for the next six months. A PC from the NSA!’
She finished buttoning her tunic. They got out of the store room. The goods lift wasn’t far.

Beijing, in a Taoist temple
6:45 the next morning

Colonel Zhou breathed in deeply the icy air. The winter was harsh and the cold penetrating. His gaze settled on the small frozen lake that lay in front of him while his outstretched right foot seemed to describe an almost perfect circle. Slowly, his two hands together, he pushed back an invisible enemy, his chest continuously letting out a long vaporous breath. A few steps away, another silhouette fought against another imaginary being. A light mist skimmed across the barren shrubs, dimly lit by the moon, as dawn had yet to fill the sky.

The mist dissipated, revealing the scene in its entirety. Eight men braving the rigour of winter to practise Tai Chi Chuan, that Chinese discipline which slowed down the movements of the body as if to stop time. Zhou turned up two to three times a week to this ancient Taoist temple bathed in calm and peace. Although he also practised other, more offensive, forms of martial art as part of his training as a special agent for the Chinese government, he liked the gentleness and philosophy of Tai Chi which, by contrast with the explosiveness of other arts, privileged an inner approach to energy.
Zhou then seized an unsharpened sword. It was an heirloom from his father. He had always seen him, early in the morning, practise with that sword, finely crafted like a work of art. It was light and perfectly balanced. He was now standing on one foot, stock still, the smallest of his muscles under control. His left knee moved up above his thigh, toes turned skyward, his left hand palm turned frontward while his right hand, hovering above his head, held the sword pointed at an invisible enemy. A few steps away, a young pupil waited for the end of the session, squatting down on her heels, knees clasped between her arms, to inform the master of the arrival of his friends. She was shivering.
Colonel Zhou was an enigmatic figure. His name figured in no official organisation chart of the Ministry of State Security. And rare were those who could boast of knowing him. Yet it was he who supervised all intelligence operations over the Chinese territory in matters of technology and information. He belonged to no particular department; or rather, he belonged to them all: to the 6th Bureau in charge of counterespionage, the 10th for scientific and technological intelligence, and to the 11th Bureau that analysed information from Electronic Intelligence, the ELINT, for which he was in charge of computer systems security.

The Tai Chi positions followed each other like a series of depicted hunting scenes, limpid, natural, smooth and untamed, poetic. As Zhou was finishing his ‘wind curving the lotus leaf’ movement, the young pupil timidly called out to her master.
‘Master Zhou, I hope you don’t mind, your visitors have arrived. They’re waiting for you in the temple.’
Zhou slipped into a thick eider-lined jacket and made his way slowly to the building with red pillars and varnished tiles. Turning towards his pupil, still bowing in front of him, he made her a sign straighten up.
‘Thank you Yen. Bring them into the small lounge as I requested.’
‘They’re already there, Master. They gave the password.’
‘That’s fine. You can bring us some hot tea.’
The young pupil acquiesced and left running towards the temple, heading for the warmth of the kitchen. Learning Tao sometimes called for sacrifices.
This temple, which served as a martial arts school, was a very discreet meeting place. Zhou entered the building and pushed open the heavy door to the lounge. Five men and women were seated.
‘Please don’t bother getting up,’ began Zhou as he drew close to them with a determined step.
He greeted at length Bao Yutai, the Director of Regulations and Standards Department at the Ministry of Information Industries, his closest ally, his right-hand man. He recognised the President of the State Commission for Science, Technology and Industry, the number two at the Science and Technology Ministry, the Deputy Director of the Chinese Academy of Science, his colleague at the Chinese Institute of Communications, and other heads of working groups of State commissions in charge of State intelligence or economic development.
These were ‘The Renegades’, as they liked to call themselves, who, like he, had a common goal: free China from its dependency on foreign technology. China should count only on its own forces, and not let multinationals impose their standards, patents and technologies. Their lobbying actions were often fruitful, or at least they made a significant impact on final decisions.
China had developed and adopted home-grown technologies in matters of telecommunications, video compression and DVD format.
In other domains too, China was on the way to acquiring it independence.
But there remained the issue of computing and Microsoft. Microsoft, the number one enemy, on whom they were now to concentrate all their efforts. Windows was gradually losing ground to Linux in state administrations and state-owned companies. Indeed, while imposing a purchasing policy on the ministries was something relatively easy to do, replacing Windows in private business and the home environment was altogether a different matter. For Windows still held 90% of the market share of professional and home operating systems. And it would be much more difficult to dislodge the Redmond giant in that market. It would take many years, at least a decade, before a national Linux could snatch a significant slice of the pie.
The members of the group were all faithful and loyal servants of the State, patriots whose only objective was to ensure China’s security and prosperity. They all had for model the Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu, the very one who stood up to the British and attempted in 1839 to put an end to opium trafficking in Canton.

Someone knocked on the door.
The young pupil ushered in two new visitors, high dignitaries from the State Informatization Leading Group, the SILG, and from the Ministry of Foreign Trade & Economic Cooperation, the MOFTEC. The Lin Zexu group was now in full session.
At first sight, it could appear as secret society, but here there was no plotting or conspiracy. They all operated within the law and within the scope of their functions inside the large administrations to which they belonged. They represented an active and influential pressure group; an obscure – yet organised – force intent on making its visions triumph and swaying the policy of the Chinese Administration in the direction it judged most favourable for the country. Colonel Zhou was tacitly recognised by all as that group’s leader. His high position within Chinese counterespionage gave him a privileged vantage point over the technologies sectors.
The exclusive information he obtained though his networks served to gauge the forces at play.

‘Now that we are all here, perhaps we can start,’ suggested the President of the State Commission. ‘We have again discovered security breaches in the different versions of Windows. This month, Microsoft has once more sent out two security alerts.’
‘Microsoft offers patches which users can download and install on their PCs.’
‘How can we know what’s in these upgrades?’ enquired Zhou.
‘Impossible to know. These pieces of software are downloaded by the users. Sometimes without their knowing it. The software system enlarges, grows and transforms by collecting additional bits of code from its creator. An operating system developed and updated from a foreign country is a mortal danger for our economy. It’s the middle layer of all our information systems which is at stake.’
Zhou listened in silence, concerned and concentrated.
‘We have obtained very positive results in the past months,’ added Bao. ‘The Administration is migrating its systems to Linux. And the three countries of Northern Asia, namely China, Korea and Japan, have agreed to develop together a regional Linux.’
‘I can’t see anything coming of this North Asian Linux,’ commented the man from the MOFTEC. ‘Our governments will never come to an agreement on a definite solution to the problem. I don’t trust the Japanese.’
‘The Japanese are sold off to the Americans!’ echoed a dull voice.
There were more and more voices calling for a radical departure from past practises to safeguard the country’s medium and long term independence and security. They weren’t by any means alone. Beyond the ‘Lin Zexu Group’, they knew they could count on influential friends occupying high posts in various State commissions, ministries, and even up to the Central Committee. But they had to reckon against the forces of inertia. And they were the most powerful at the moment. They came from an alliance between the conservative fringe of the administration and the business circles which, above all else, wanted to preserve stability. Stability! For the new capitalists, nothing should disrupt the flow of foreign investments into China, nor the extraordinary momentum of the growth rate that has been propelling the country during the last eleven years. China should be given time to strengthen, to develop its army, its navy, its electronic surveillance networks. Gain time, gather strength, acquire wealth, such were the objectives of that ‘Shanghai Cartel’, as their opponents liked to call them!
‘Bao, what are the actions in store for the months to come?’ asked Zhou as the young pupil entered into the room to serve tea.
‘In April, we are invited at the Ministry of Science and Technology. We shall demonstrate at the meeting how software pirating in fact presents a greater danger for China than for Microsoft. We’ll also be analysing the contents of the new version of Windows.’
‘Things should get moving, then?’
‘We have convincing arguments: the future Windows includes a digital rights management system that’s generalised and managed from the United States.’
‘So we should block that version?’
The Deputy Director of the Science Academy began to speak.
‘Zhou, it won’t be simple. The relations between China and Microsoft are now normalised! Just look at the meetings of the Government Security Program, the GSP workshops, which are due to resume in March. On this occasion, Microsoft is to bolster its team. They’ve announced the arrival of a high-flying specialist, a leading expert in matters of security, a star who’s not turned thirty.’
‘And what’s his name?’ enquired Zhou.
‘Tom Bailey. He will not only take part in the GSP activities, but also study how to adapt the future Windows to Chinese specifications as regards security. And that is potentially very dangerous.’
Zhou thought a moment. With eyes half closed, he brought the cup to his lips and drew in the hot tea in small sips.
‘We must keep a watch on the GSP. It’s strategic.’
‘If Microsoft manages with this Bailey chap to integrate routines developed in China, and to convince our leaders that the information systems are protected in this way, then we are moving away from our objective. I would even go to say we run the risk of vanishing off the horizon.’
‘What security procedures does Microsoft propose to integrate? It wouldn’t be professor Mok’s modules, by any chance?’
‘No, professor Mok’s work is reserved for the Linux versions supplied to our administrations and certain army units. For Microsoft, they’re routines developed by the China National Computer Software & Technology Service Corp. in collaboration with Beijing’s Microsoft Research Center.’
‘The matter’s very serious! We risk seeing one day a new version of Windows which incorporates Chinese security modules! Modules produced by private concerns and different from those run by our administrations!’
‘Even with these security modules, Windows still remains Windows, a black box in the hands of the NSA!’
‘Exactly. The situation would be dramatic. We’ve got to stop it at all cost.’
The deputy director of the Science Academy was stirring in his chair.
‘This isn’t official, but I can confirm it to you. We have a version of Linux for the general public that integrates Professor Mok Mengma’s security procedures.’
Zhou had got up. Day had now broken, but the fog, having thickened, was limiting the visibility. The small lake had vanished; scarcely a few dry trees could be made out.
‘Gentlemen, it seems to me a matter of priority to stymie Microsoft’s actions. We cannot allow the next version of Windows to integrate security modules coming from China. That would be exceedingly dangerous.’
‘And how do you propose to go about it?’
‘I’ve got my plan, concluded Zhou.’
It was eight o’clock. The ‘Lin Zexu Group’ broke up.

Beijing, counterespionage office
10:30 am

The Baxter affair was only just beginning. Jin had asked for all the objects recovered from the American computer specialist’s bedroom to be laid out on large tables. She had discovered a wad of receipts and bills in the lining of his suitcase. An IBM employee on a business trip had to keep all these vouchers in order to have his expenses reimbursed. That was what he did. But he hadn’t been able to get rid of compromising details in time. Jin gave the instructions.
‘I want two people working full time on these items. Take as many days as it needs, but I want you to reconstruct that American’s itinerary and time schedule. Don’t neglect any detail, any lead. He spent a week in Beijing. I want to know where he ate, with who, when he went out, when he came back. I leave you to it.’
‘What about the computer?’
‘Don’t touch that. I’ll give it to our special services. It’ll take some time to make it talk. Weeks. Months more likely. It’s more difficult to penetrate inside an NSA computer than the Pentagon’s web server. The first exploitable results will come from you guys out on the ground, not from data processing. Two people died last night. There must have been a good reason for it.’
She had alerted Zhou, but her operations chief had remained silent. She’ll try again later.

Jin stepped out of the shower. She halted on the bath rug a few moments to let the larger drops slip slowly down her body. It was chilly. She had goose dimples and her nipples were hard. She wiped her body, arms, breasts, legs and waist. The contact with the warm fabric gave her an intense sense of well being. Wasn’t life after all made of such small pleasures? Zhou had phoned; he was to come at around 10 pm. He uttered only a few words, as per his usual self. A terseness, an economy of speech, which many women must have found unbearable. She had got used to it and preferred to see in this a form of bashfulness, a semblance of feelings in that self-controlled man, hardened never to let anything through. You had to read between the lines, despite the paucity of words. She tied her towel under her arms and settled in front of the mirror. Her long silky hair cascaded down over her shoulders and revealed a large light forehead. She began to brush the tips of her damp locks. She had chosen a discreet tint for her hair, giving it light tan reflections.
With Zhou, sex was no amorous outburst, nor an expression of tenderness. It wasn’t simply a physical act either. Rather, it was a ritual that rested on meditation and ecstasy. But with him, its enactment was well worth the while. She liked to feel his lean, lithe body mingle with hers. At this evocation, she felt a ripple of desire rise in her. She had worked for Colonel Zhou for five years, since she left university, and had known no other employer than the Directorate of Counterespionage for the Republic of China.
The men of the secret services had come on the day of the degree ceremony for her PhD in computer systems architectures. They listened with interest when she defended her research thesis which she undertook under the direction of Professor Mok Mengma, a brilliant computer scientist who had received the highest accolades for his contribution to national security and independence. They had approached her without waiting for the debate among the jury, while she was biting her nails in the corridor, waiting for the ‘verdict’.
Jin looked at herself in the mirror. She held her hand suspended, hesitating whether to put on makeup or to remain faithful to her tomboy image. With a streak of her crayon, she underscored the edge of her eyelids with a simple straight black line to balance the yin and the yang and illuminate her alabaster face. She had a lovely little straight nose that was enough to turn hundreds of millions of Chinese girls green with envy. In the mornings, she applied a light reddish tint on her prominent cheeks, rising up towards the temples. For her lips, she settled for a dash with an apricot-coloured stick.
She remembered the degree ceremony as if it were yesterday. There were two of them, a man and a woman; two spies. She had just finished her studies and knew nothing about the secret services. As a matter of fact, she knew nothing of life. They spoke to her of a demanding job involving reflection and investigation, action and danger. They needed her, the best student of professor Mok. She had to put her talent at the service of her country and its defence. It was her duty. She said nothing. How could she? She was ready for anything except that encounter. The men from the shadows were the first to become interested in her, before all the country’s computer service firms, before the banks and insurance companies, before the ministries and IBM. She thought it over at first, putting into her pocket the business card the woman tended to her.
She who had lost her parents at a very early age, killed in one of the many violent episodes of China’s tortured history, felt as if she had found a new family. She dialled the number of the special services. They came on the day of her graduation, they were there, where her parents should have been; they had held out their hand. It was a sign. She turned up at an army building in a suburb of Beijing that sheltered the Chinese counterespionage services. There, she discovered a world she never suspected, met teams of analysts who probed intelligence gathered from the four corners of the world, personnel in charge of monitoring foreign agents on Chinese soil, those who protected strategic sites. On that day, they tried to convince her, to win her over. But to her, all this was much too new, a step into the unknown. It was at that moment, at the end of the day, that she came upon Colonel Zhou, the head of Action Group.
He didn’t try to convince her, even less to seduce her. Quite on the contrary. At first, he scrutinised her with a penetrating look, so peculiar. He exuded an animal-like strength, perfectly in control. He spoke little. He observed. He warned her that if she were to join the Action Group, she would have to go through an intensive program of weight training and combat techniques, and remarked that he doubted whether she would be up to it. He searched into her student looks, seeking an exceptional personality, without finding anything of the sort in her. What he wanted was courage, a cool head, guts. In other words, you had to be ‘special’ to enter the secret service. On the looks of it, she didn’t have the mettle for the job. Such was the conclusion of Colonel Zhou after his short appraisal.
Jin left, indelibly marked by this encounter. Strangely enough, the Colonel’s negative comments made her grin. As if, by instinct, she had been convinced of the opposite. She came to see the Colonel the next day to give her answer. She was never to leave him. He rose in rank; so did she. Two years after entering the counterespionage services, she was at the head of her own team.
She parted the flaps of her towel and observed her naked body in the mirror. She had changed considerably in the space of five years. Martial arts and yoga had fashioned an athlete’s figure which nevertheless remained very feminine. Her small breasts, flat stomach, buttocks and hips gave no tell-tale sign of the intense physical training she went through every day. She slipped on a cotton panty, a large woollen pullover directly over her skin and track suit bottoms. As time went by, Zhou had become her lover occasionally, her friend always, and her family above all.

Professor Mok Mengma felt particularly bitter that his best student should leave him. He had always thought that she would stay to continue alongside him in his research on secure computer architectures. Hadn’t he, in his own way, given her a family substitute?
So why turn away from him?
Even she could not say. In fact, she had never looked into the inner motivations that drove her to seek her freedom. She had an affectionate thought for professor Mok. Life hadn’t spared him. His wife had left him, one year after the birth of their baby daughter. The infant contracted an illness, a very rare and often fatal genetic disease. She had undergone several treatments, none of which had been positive. It was shortly after that Jin claimed her independence and joined the Special Services. Mok had then begun to withdraw from existence progressively. His character had changed; he grew sombre and pessimistic. He had come to the end of his work on secure systems. And then, at the end of last year, to everyone’s surprise, he stepped out of active life. A young retiree of 48, generously rewarded by his country for outstanding services rendered to the nation. Since the beginning of the year, he had stayed most of the time locked up at home, by his child’s bedside, refusing all visits and contacts with the outside. Jin had often reproached herself for not having given him enough support in his ordeal. But hadn’t he refused her compassion every single time? Professor Mok was proud to the point of no longer wishing to see Jin since her leaving the laboratory. The wound was deep and refused to heal.

Zhou arrived shortly before 10 pm. As he entered the room, he took off his shoes and heavy coat before pressing Jin against his body, feeling a shiver.
‘Where were you today?’ enquired the young woman with concern, without really expecting an answer. ‘Are you aware that …?’
Zhou had read the report. He stroked her back gently as Jin continued.
‘Guo’s police was out there to nab that Baxter. The hotel was plagued with American agents to protect him, and yet that woman managed to approach and liquidate him before we could interrogate him.’
‘Who was that girl? Have you got any clues?’
‘Not yet. She was from southern China. She spoke Cantonese.’
‘Hong-Kong?’
‘Not sure. A professional assassin. She used a very powerful poison, probably hidden in a hairpin she wore.’
‘Who would want to kill that Baxter?’ asked Zhou.
‘Off hand, I would eliminate Guo’s police; too visible on the scene. They wanted Baxter alive. So I would tip in favour of the CIA.’
‘The CIA would have wanted to shut him up, is that what you’re thinking?’
‘It’s the only explanation. Even if I find it hard to believe. I can’t see the CIA bumping off an American agent in front of everyone without a good reason for it. It’s not like them.’
‘So who, then?’ he enquired
‘That’s what we’ve got to find out. This business hides a mystery of capital importance.’
He had drawn her to him and stroked her breasts with both of his powerful hands, having slid them inside her pullover. He was behind her and murmured into her ears.
‘Jin, these are nothing but suppositions.’
‘Zhou, he had access to the teams that work with professor Mok. He was able to penetrate inside the most sensitive computer room of the country. They killed him because he was about to be unmasked.’
He let a few seconds pass before answering, still murmuring into Jin’s ear.
‘I want you to step out of this case…’
Jin was ready for everything. Except this. Give up the case! She turned round and faced him, her face marked with disbelief and incomprehension.
‘But why?’
‘Jin, let the enquiry follow its course. I’ve got other projects for you.’
‘But you can’t do this. It’s priority. We’ve got to find out what this Baxter was doing in China.’
‘Jin, I’ve got other priorities. Do you remember the GSP?’
‘Of course, she replied reluctantly. Microsoft’s Government Security Program. It’s a public relations exercise of no interest. Surely you don’t see it as a priority?’ Jin put on a sulky pout.
‘The program’s entering a new phase. Microsoft wants to integrate security procedures developed in China into its future version of Windows. If Microsoft succeeds, if it manages to convince the government its solutions are reliable, we’ll reduce our chances of blocking their path.’
‘So. Why me? What am I supposed to do?’ she asked, half reconciled, fearing to understand.
‘Microsoft is bringing in one of their top brains, a genius. He’s only 29, apparently. It’s a sign the firm is taking matters very seriously and putting all the trumps in its hand to succeed. His name’s Tom Bailey. He’ll be here in two months. That’s the time you’ve got left to prepare your mission.’
‘I’ll introduce you into the GSP group, and you’re the one who’s going to work with Tom Bailey.’
‘But I don’t know enough about Windows, nor the security procedures they’re proposing to insert into it…’
He drew her into the bedroom and pushed her onto the bed while he finished undressing. He lay over her and pulled the heavy quilted duvet over their heads. He kissed her, nibbled her lips.
‘You’ve worked with professor Mok. You’re the best, you’ll succeed… Security and digital rights are two highly strategic areas.’
The young woman’s breath became quicker. When their lips parted an instant, he added:
‘You’re the one whose going to watch this young computer bod’s every movement.’
‘Yes,’ she whispered into his ear, ‘yes, yes.’
She crossed her legs behind him, against his lower back, then uncrossed them slowly moving down along his body. Their skins became moist and electric.
‘So, the mission… do you accept it?’
‘I don’t suppose I’ve got any choice. But Zhou, you’re making a mistake…Baxter…he was assassinated to cover up something very big…Baxter…’
Suddenly, she froze, clasping him like a limpet on a rock, mouth wide open drawing in air. The ensuing gasps took over her entire being.

Tokyo, Kabukicho district
End of January

The large Toyota minivan stopped in front of a karaoke bar in the Kabukicho district, not far from Shinjuku station.

The six men got out, laughing noisily and speaking in broken English. Two Chinese, a Korean and three Japanese gathered under a cooperation treaty of their respective countries to develop an Asian version of Linux. They were computer scientists, specialists in Linux, the open source operating system which, they had been repeating since the start of the day, was going to knock a serious dent in the world domination by Microsoft and Windows. The six specialists had spent a week on improving Linux’s handling of pictograms, kanji, and other hiragana characters, not forgetting the Korean alphabet; a task that was far from being a priority for Western Linux distributions.
The Japanese had entertained their colleagues for their last night in the Japanese capital. And what could tie people from Asia closer together than a karaoke club to shrug off the weariness and stress of those last days of intensive work? They entered the premises where they were welcomed by the usual mamasan in a kimono bowing in front of them. She led them into a private lounge which could accommodate about fifteen people in its large dark red velvet seats. The light was deliberately kept dim to maintain the cosy atmosphere of the place. They settled in comfortably. They had already generously accompanied their Japanese meal together with sake, but the evening was just getting started.
‘Ho, go on, you choose the first song,’ encouraged Kim the Korean.
They had decided to call each other by their surnames, generally shorter and easier to remember for the Japanese than their Chinese given names.
Ho Youfang had quickly become the life and soul of the group. He didn’t need to drink much for his extraverted nature to take over.
Ho then showed off his talents as a public entertainer. The first notes rang out.

You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips.
And there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips.

A waitress in a kimono came into the room pushing a trolley and placed on the table three bottles of Black Label, some tumblers and sparkling drinks. Ho was standing in front of his colleagues, singing and miming the words of that dramatic song with all his body.

You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling,
Whoa, that lovin’ feeling,
You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling,
Now it’s gone… gone… gone… wooooooh.

Another mamasan, older than the first one, drew up close to Takagi, the head of the Japanese mission. He was the one treating his colleagues to this evening out. It was he who was to foot the bill at dawn.
She muttered a few words in his ear. There was mention of hostesses. The speciality of the house was the ‘schoolgirl’ look, a classic, an all-time favourite attire, and a guaranteed success among ‘salary men’.

It was the Chinaman’s turn to get up and sing. The third bottle of whisky was now only good for casting a message out at sea.
‘Kampei!’ called out the second Japanese, raising his glass of whisky and Coke.
‘Kampei!’ they all shouted out in unison.
Their cheeks were turning scarlet.

Hi hi hi, beautiful Sunday
This is my my my beautiful day
When you said said said said that you loved me
Oh my my my its a beautiful day.

The popularity of J-Pop and K-Pop had spread beyond the frontiers of their home countries, but hadn’t yet hit the computer community. To their greatest delight, they were forced to dig up from the selection of international standards. The heavy door which deadened the sound opened once more. Half a dozen young girls in sailor outfits and navy blue pleated skirts entered in single file, followed by the inevitable mamasan.
Four of them sat on the quilted red velvet, receiving the favours of the two Chinese and the Korean; the Japanese men dutifully shared a respective girl each wearing long pigtails. Four fresh bottles of whisky and cans of soft drinks were brought in.
‘Yamseng!’ hollered Ho.
He was soon joined by his pal.
‘Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamseng!,’ re-echoed Ho.
He had lost count of the toasts he had raised, now to the 22-year-old little schoolgirl quietly seated against him, knees tight together, in her blue miniskirt, now to Takagi who had nothing to envy.
‘To Linux, and to the day when it’ll definitely replace Windows!’ blurted out the Japanese.
This virtual declaration of war triggered off a chain reaction in poor Ho’s head.
‘And that day, it’ll be China that will rise, I’m willing to bet on that; sooner than you think.’ he stammered. ‘We’re on the verge of wiping Windows away from China…’
The girls were trained to watch the level of drink in the tumblers, which was to remain constant despite the succession of kampeis and yamsengs.
‘To the downfall of Windows!’ they all roared in chorus.
Takagi had also gone way over the limit. He turned an eye towards his colleagues. They were in the same state of drunkenness, fascinated by the hostess’s clasped knees which they were all stroking gently.
‘To Commissioner Lin Zexu!’ roared out Ho once more.
Takagi this time became puzzled, contenting himself with sipping a dose of that Scottish poison.
Did he actually say ‘Commissioner’?
It was now the turn for one of the girls, the one who kept company to the other Chinese, to show the extent of her talent, microphone in hand.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings
Trying to forget my feelings of hate

‘To the Zin Lexu Group which’ll boot Microsoft out of China!’ shouted Ho.
He turned towards the girl and repeated his declaration. She smiled and nodded her head gently. She understood nothing but was very well paid for this.
‘Who’s this Lin whatchamacallit?’ Takagi managed to slur.
He had to holler to cover the voice of the ‘singer.’

Feelings, feelings like I never liked you
Feelings like I want to kill you
Live in my heart

Ho had said too much, but the alcohol had freed his tongue. An alarm signal rang in his brain but he didn’t hear it.
‘Lin Zexu’ is a group, there’s a whole group of us in China; we’re going to ban Microsoft. Completely. Boot them out of China!’
To his left, Kim the Korean had pricked up his ears. Nothing of these confidences had escaped him, except the name of the character.
‘Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaamseng!’ intoned Ho.
The toast was raised by all, including the four Japanese hostesses filling the tumblers. The singer had just stopped. Ho continued in his momentum.
‘To Commissioner Lin Zexu!’
‘Yes, but who is this Lin?’ enquired Kim.
‘Lin Zexu, Lin Zexu…’
Ho tried to gather his thoughts. ‘By the way, who was Lin Zexu?’ he asked himself all of a sudden. He couldn’t remember. He hesitated for a few moments, completely haggard, blanked out, before answering.
‘He was the commissioner who put an end to the opium traffic in China. He chucked the British into jail. He burnt the opium, Lin Zexu!’
He picked up his tumbler.
‘And now it’s the turn for Windows, the new opium the Americans are sending us. We’re going to ban it! Just like Lin Zexu! We’re all Lin Zexus!’
The girls were delighted to see such animation.
‘We’ve gotta ban the Windows opium,’ they all repeated together, brandishing their glasses. One of the Japanese got up, microphone in hand. The other two Japanese were not sufficiently drunk to ignore the danger. The worst was to fear.
Takagi was almost stunned back into being sober again. He would have given anything not to have to endure him singing that:

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spat it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way.

‘Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamseng!,’ screamed Ho from his left.

‘I should have taken a hostess for myself too,’ he thought to himself…

 

A book by JF SUSBIELLE   – Translation by Dominic KING

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