May the soft surpass the hard, may the weak surpass the strong
Lao Tse, sixth century BC
Val Stenton turned up the collar of his raincoat. He hated those blasted Beijing winters. ‘Why the hell did I leave California’, he wondered as the icy cold bit him right to the bone. He would have been comfortably at home that night, watching the late show, had he not arranged to meet Santana Song, his deputy, his right-hand man.
It was Stenton’s first winter in China. The CIA had posted him a few months earlier as head of Human Intelligence Gathering at their Beijing bureau.
Stenton had not returned to his home town of San Diego for a good few years. In fact, he was born 55 years earlier in Montana, but was only five when his father, a Navy officer, moved with his family to Southern California. His globetrotting had never ceased since he joined the Agency, with postings all around South East Asia, Japan and Korea. Whenever he left the Asian continent, it was only for a few days in Langley, Virginia, home of the CIA. With a career now spanning almost 30 years, the Agency regarded him as one of its top specialists in Asian affairs.
Of all the countries he had lived in, it was Indonesia that left him the strongest and most long-lasting impression. No doubt a lot of it had to do with the golden-brown skin and long silken hair of the local girls. And they, in turn explained why his marriage did not survive more than four years under these heady tropics. His wife, Alice, packed her bags and returned to the United States with their daughter Sally, who was only six at the time. Alice never managed to settle down in Asia. To her, that continent was a drug and pulled her sensitive nervous disposition to a state of depression. She just wasn’t made for that sort of life. In this respect, she was neither the first nor the last person to be thrown off the rails by a distant foreign posting.
She remarried shortly afterwards to a Chicago business lawyer, a rather shady character who ditched her after just three years. There was no blaming the tropics this time. Little Sally had grown up and was now at university reading international relations and diplomacy, like daddy. In the past 15 years, she had often come over to Jakarta or Seoul to join him during the summer vacation. They were astonishingly close for a father and daughter who had never really lived together. Sally felt perfectly at home in Asia. She did not fear insects or monkeys and loved spicy food, expeditions in the Kalimantan jungle, scuba diving in the Sarawak coves …
Stenton felt round his pocket and pressed the car key’s unlock button as he approached his Lexus. It responded with a short welcoming beep and double flash from all its blinkers. A shudder ran through him as he settled in the cold, firm leather seat of the Japanese executive saloon. Immediately after turning on the engine, he switched the fan to the highest setting, stepped up the climate control to maximum temperature and adjusted the vents to direct the flow into his face and chest. He pressed the accelerator pedal to speed up the warming process and tried to soak up the hot dry air that was beginning to blow. As his tenseness melted away with the heat, Stenton slipped into a reverie, tucked cosily in his cocoon. His gaze fell upon the passers by, all warmly wrapped and walking hurriedly to pump some calories inside their chilled bodies.
What made him come to Beijing? He had got to an age when these changes were losing their appeal. The answer was… a woman. He had given in to friendly pressure from Lorna Green, just appointed there as head of the Asia Bureau at the Agency’s Intelligence Directorate. It was a promotion to crown her previous achievements in India, a reward for her skills and efforts that were instrumental in normalising that country’s relations with neighbouring Pakistan.
While Lorna Green knew the Indian subcontinent like the back of her hand and made it her second home, she just could not get to grips with China. She had an instinctive mistrust of that country, of its impenetrable and closed society, and even of the Agency’s own men out there in the field, whom she was now in charge. She was quite aware they would grant her no favours simply for being a woman. That was why she wanted a man of confidence by her side, a man she could count on at all times. And the only person to fit the bill was good old Stenton, even if it meant dragging him from his comfortable pre-retirement posting in Japan. He accepted – or rather, he did not refuse. You just don’t say no to Lorna! They were of the same generation and shared the same values. Both began their career together as spies over 30 years back, under Nixon. The Vietnam War was the preoccupation of the time, and they were given missions to neutralise left-wing agitators and anti-war militants infiltrated into the American territory by the KGB to undermine the administration’s policies. How the world had changed since those days!
China. That had become the number one obsession of the present administration. There were always things brewing up there, and the Agency was to sense the mood of the Politburo members and leaders of the State Council – no mean feat in the world’s most opaque nation. China was for them as inscrutable as a meditating monk.
The spate of terrorist attacks on US soil had painfully revealed the limits of total reliance on so-called Electronic Intelligence Gathering. The agency had since gone back to the good old ‘human’ intelligence gathering methods. And Stenton, like those of his generation, knew all the ins and outs of traditional spying. Moreover, his deep knowledge of China made him the ideal man for the job.
In recent years, Korea, Japan and China had sought a convergence of their technologies, and this alliance was going much too far to Washington’s liking. The Chinese market was bringing much-needed oxygen into the Japanese economy. As for Korea and Taiwan, these two dragons were irresistibly drawn by the sheer mass of the Chinese giant.
And it did not stop there. A new form of Far-Eastern nationalism was beginning to rise to the surface, a dangerous cocktail of thirst for revenge and severance from the West, topped with new ambitions on a global scale. If unchecked, this wave would slowly but surely carry away America’s best allies in the region – Japan and Korea – from being their natural protector to forging new alliances with their awesome neighbour. This trend could already be observed in several fields of technology: electronics, computing and telecommunications, not to mention fundamental research. In all these sectors, the three Asian countries sometimes made no bones of their connivance and common interests, even at the risk of upsetting the United States.
It was to wonder whether America, with its blinkered eyes trained on the geopolitical landscape of the oil-producing Middle-Eastern countries, had not neglected its western flank, from where tomorrow’s threats and challenges were in fact most likely to come. Fortunately, it could always lay its hopes on regional antagonisms, rivalry and historical contentions to allay its worst fears. All the countries in that region regarded China both as a lure and a predator. For instance, its political rapprochement with Tokyo failed the test of time: the Chinese people nurtured too much resentment towards the Japanese nation. The age-old bitterness seeped through and rotted all the bridges that had been painstakingly built by the politicians. The US greeted this fiasco with a sigh of relief. The Japanese, for their part, also considered themselves vastly superior to the other Asian nations and were not minded to be so easily supplanted by the Chinese. In Taiwan, the population saw the mirage of a peaceful return to the mother country recede and give way to nationalistic fervour for independence – again a welcome political change for the US strategists.
And thus, from Hokkaido to Sumatra, China was growingly perceived as a menacing ogre to be constantly watched and kept in check.
All this promised a rich crop of conflicts that would shield America from the risks of having these Asian Nations create alliances and form a united front.
It had just turned 11 p.m. when Stenton forced himself back into the real world. Spotting a lull in the traffic, he pulled out and headed along the window-lit boulevard. He was heading for the diplomatic district of Sanlitun, which also had a large concentration of late-night bars. He had his favourites. The bar he picked that night was also one of Santana Song’s haunts. Stenton could always rely on him whenever it came to crossing the red line. Song had his little army of over thirty agents beneath him, all recruited by the CIA and working under cover in various public and ministerial bodies around Beijing.
Song was an unsavoury character, a necessary evil who had been neglected by Stenton’s predecessor, a man with little taste for his unorthodox methods. Song’s father was Chinese, a native of Hunan, while his mother was born in Macau of a Eurasian family with Portuguese origins. It was said that she gave him the name Santana on account of her fondness of the eponymous Latino rock band. But much to her dismay, this son preferred making sounds with a 45 mm calibre gun than a guitar. He would certainly have become a gang member or a hit man had the CIA not recruited him 10 years before. He was a cool cat, crafty, never short of ideas and never weighed down by compunction when it came to killing. He was recommended by an old friend of Stenton’s, an ex-member of the Agency who had spent nearly all his working life in Beijing. Stenton always felt grateful for this to his friend, who had since joined the NSA.
One of Stenton’s jobs – and perhaps one of the most sensitive – was to keep track of Microsoft’s relations with China: two titans vying for global dominance.
Being the monopolistic giant that it was, Microsoft approached China as if it entered conquered territory. It gave itself the role of first showing those little Chinese the wonders of computing and then beauty of the Internet. And it attached a high price tag to that mission. Microsoft’s condescending attitude hardly helped it establish a positive corporate image. In fact, it understood nothing of Chinese culture and – worse – did not even appear to want to.
This haughty attitude did not stop the Chinese from adopting Microsoft. With a piracy rate in the region of 90%, the software editor’s penetration into the Chinese market could indeed be regarded as successful. To the Chinese, Microsoft’s incursion was perceived as the modern form of the 19th century opium trade, where the drug was handed out to the masses in the view of subjecting them. From this perspective, the Chinese saw it as a civil duty to make illegal copies of Microsoft’s software. In short, they did not refuse the company’s opium; they simply refused to pay for it. There lay the difference.
Of course, free – or open source – software was not foreign to the Chinese, in particular the Linux operating system. But, as in other emerging countries such as Brazil and India, it did not go beyond some niche applications and never reached the general public. By contrast with those countries, the Chinese government harboured a form of suspicion towards Microsoft that verged on paranoia. Some members of the government’s administration imagined that they were constantly spied upon the moment they switched on a Microsoft program, even if it was such a benign application as PowerPoint.
Much of this was fuelled by old conspiracy theories concerning a secret backdoor through which ill-intentioned people could gain access to an online PC. The popular belief held that nothing could be easier than to bundle into Windows OS some undetectable code providing a secret passage, whereby foreign agencies could peer into any PC and even control the nation’s computers. Stenton himself was convinced the NSA would jump at the possibility of remotely accessing and controlling any computer worldwide. After all, the US administration could easily have imposed this magic backdoor on Microsoft in exchange for turning a blind eye to abuses from its dominant position. Such a win-win deal was too tempting to be refused…
And now China and USA were both head-to-head contenders for the number one world superpower position. In its bid to conserve that title, the latter adopted the strategy of strengthening its military and economic superpower status. China, on the other hand, regarded the confrontation as a revenge over its past, a fight to acquire the world leading position it should always have had.
For China remained persuaded that the western world – i.e. the United States – was at the centre of a plot to rob it of the greatness and prosperity it rightly deserved.
‘What extraordinary lack of self-confidence from a civilisation dating back over 5000 years,’ thought Stenton as he churned these thoughts in his mind. He tried to gauge how much today’s collective consciousness still suffered from the ravages of China’s enforced opening of its frontiers to foreign traders after losing the Opium War – a situation also endured by Japan with Commodore Perry’s gunboats.
He knew the humiliation of these disastrous episodes was passed on from generation to generation, nurturing a desire for revenge and recognition, never satisfied, never appeased.
The main European nations had proved their superiority in technology, military hardware and industrial capacity. China learnt that it was to be in those fields that it should restore its prestige.
Stenton slammed the car door behind him and walked at a brisk pace, head bowed to shelter from the cold night air. The bar he was heading for was discreet and safe… and warm.
The Eurasian was already there, slumped in a crimson couch inside a small private booth decorated like a 19th century opium den. On the low table in front of him stood a bottle of Jack Daniels with a good third already missing and dry roasted peanuts and crisps in red lacquered bowls. Next to him, sitting sidelong on her heels, was a young girl in a provocatively short mini skirt making a half-hearted attempt at massaging his shoulders and arm muscles. If she was professionally skilled, it was obviously not in therapeutic massages. Seeing Stenton arrive, Song pushed her roughly aside and signalled her to leave.
‘Hi, Santana – sorry if I picked an awkward moment!’
Stenton was one of a few who called him by his Christian name. Most refrained from any form of intimacy, rebutted by the ruthlessness in his expression, highlighted by his short-cropped hair and pockmarked skin, a legacy from a badly treated childhood disease. But what struck people most was the incredible mobility of his small pale eyes, always darting around on the lookout, as if he were about to commit a crime. He may not have been a beguiling character, but it was better to count him as a friend.
‘Any news on this Baxter business?’
‘Nope, nothing at all. Apparently no-one’s convinced he died from over-exertion while on the job. But this conclusion seems to suit both governments. In any case, no-one knows who orchestrated it all. This Baxter guy isn’t in any of our catalogues.’
‘Hasn’t Langley found anything on him?’
‘Nope. They’ve got next to nothing in their files. Only that he was a scientist working for IBM and involved in programming for genetic engineering. It looks like Beijing’s fretting over nothing.’
‘And what do you make of all this?’
The Eurasian put on a knowing look.
‘If you ask me, look no further than Chinese security.’
‘You mean the secret police?’
‘No, not the secret police. Their men were called out all over the hotel, you could smell them a mile off. That’s not the way they’d go about if they wanted to physically eliminate Baxter.’
‘So who, then?’
‘I’d put my money on Chinese counterespionage. They got a false alert from their embassy in Washington but didn’t take it seriously. Seeing the secret police had beaten them to it, they set about to mount a ‘homicide’ operation that turned sour in the end.
Stenton remained dubious. This matter was niggling him. He needed the key element to solve the mystery.
‘What about the girl?’
‘No-one knows her either. The Chinese police aren’t leaking out anything on that.’
Song poured Stenton a generous glass of whisky and grimaced in guise of a smile. Seeing no point in pursuing the matter, Stenton moved on to another subject.
‘Now, Santana, I’ve come across some disturbing information. Two days ago, there was a big meeting at the Ministry of Information Industries and guess what it was all about?’
‘Pornography over the Internet? No? … Okay, give me another guess. Microsoft?’
‘Right. It was all hush-hush. No agenda, no minutes, as if it were never supposed to have taken place. It gathered some of the top brass from a good half-dozen state institutes, and even a few ministries…’
Stenton dropped two ice cubes into his glass and took a large sip. The liquor seemed to glow as it went down and helped him unwind. Feeling loosened, he continued with marked agitation:
‘Microsoft yet again! And always the same obsessive themes: the rallying calls for technological independence, the refusal to accept foreign standards… all that crap. I managed to get hold of a short summary of what was discussed from a contact …’
‘And I suppose we had all the usual suspects present: all the top notch and representatives of the Public Security Ministry, the Centre for Security Certification, not to mention one or two of their damned institutes.’
‘But it’s always the same person who seems to be pulling the strings: the director of Standards and Regulations, a certain Bao Yutai. Being in this position, he can be really dangerous.’
Song tried to play things down:
‘Give over! He’s due for retirement in two years. You don’t think he’s going to take any risks, do you? I know these civil servants and, believe me, I can’t see him orchestrating all this.’
Stenton had a perplexed expression. He lifted his eyes and rested his gaze on the girl in a miniskirt, now perched on a bar stool.
– Does the name ‘Lin Zexu’ mean anything to you?
– Nope, never heard of it.
‘And they say the Chinese all have a passion for history…,’ thought Stenton.
‘Tell me now,’ asked Stenton with marked interest, ‘what was your family doing in Macau during the Opium War?’
The Eurasian feigned to gather his thoughts and then blurted out angrily:
‘Hey, you leave my family out it! We never traded in opium back home! OK, we weren’t all angels and some of us got involved in prostitution and illegal gambling. But selling drugs and destroying ordinary folk …never!’
As he spoke, Song seized the bottle of bourbon and shook it threateningly at an uncomfortable distance from Stenton’s face.
‘And what if I asked you what your family was doing during the Prohibition in Chicago? Was it running illegal gambling dens or distilling bootleg?’
‘Lin Zexu was in fact a customs official,’ said Stenton trying to calm things down and not to sound patronising.
‘Well you need have no fears on that score, there aren’t any customs officials in my family, that’s for sure!’
‘Don’t worry, I believe you! This Lin Zexu was a solid and honest guy, someone you could call an untouchable, since you mentioned the Prohibition! I can’t imagine you having family ties with him. For your knowledge, it was this customs official who, in 1839, set about to end the opium trade the British were conducting.
‘What about it?’
Stenton was no longer in the mood for humouring his companion.
‘Well, that’s where you come into the scene. I want you to dig up asap all you can possibly lay your hands on concerning a secret organisation that calls itself the ‘Lin Zexu Group’. They’re pushing from the sidelines for China’s outright rejection of all international standards.’
Santana Song was slightly piqued at discovering his ignorance of this subversive group from Stenton’s mouth.
‘A secret organisation, you say! And where did you get that from?’
‘Not from your agents, that’s for sure! It came from one of our Korean agents who overheard it from one of his very own members during a gathering in Tokyo. They’d all been over-indulging in sake at some karaoke bar, I gather.’
‘And so this ‘Lin Zexu Group’ wants to fight against Windows, is that right?’
‘You get the drift. And I think we both know the name of one of its members.’
This time, the Eurasian had no trouble in identifying the character.
‘Don’t tell me, Bao Yutai, the Director of Standards and Regulations?’
‘You got it. Your doddery civil servant about to retire. I just can’t see him in that role, mind you. Now it’s up to us to pick up the pieces of the puzzle and get the general picture.’
Stenton poured himself another bourbon – this one in memory of his hypothetical bootlegging forbear of the 1930s – and went on to top up Song’s glass.
‘Assuming this Bao’s a member of the ‘Lin Zexu Group’, I guess we can just put him under watch to follow the thread. That way, we’ll get to the core and neutralise their actions; you OK with that?’
‘Fine by me.’
They clinked glasses for the umpteenth time.
‘And that’s where I want your agent to come in. You know, the one I asked you to plant inside the Ministry of Information Industries.’
‘The guy’s been placed there for over two weeks, now. He’s been given the job of setting up a new accountancy system there, would you believe! We just told him that he was spying for the Federation of Computer Industries, nothing more.’
Stenton did not wish to know his name. His confidence in Song in these matters was total. He could count on his skills.
‘Where did you get hold of him?’
‘It’s a guy I picked for the job precisely because he isn’t employed at the Ministry. He’s an outside contractor they hired as a consultant. We dug into his past and found he was involved in some dodgy business a few years back in Nanjing – fraud, corruption, that sort of thing… He ran away leaving his wife and daughter behind and tried to find work in Beijing. We couldn’t hope for anything better. We held a file that thick over his head… and his greed did the rest. What’s more, he seems to have acquired a taste for spying. He’s a real two-faced pathetic little creep… Exactly what we need. We gave him the minimum possible information – he should be okay.’
‘We’ve got to put him to task right away. I want him to camp outside Bao Yutai’s office and stay all day in there. I want to know how he spends every minute of his day and every person he contacts…’
Stenton made a sign to beckon the girl on the bar stool. When she got close to him, he asked her in a soft voice whether she had a female friend, now they were two… Within a few seconds a second local beauty in tight jeans joined the party and nonchalantly passed an arm around the American’s shoulders as she sat close to him. The work meeting had come to an end.
Ministry of Information Industries
‘Everything is possible this year for the agile monkey.’
Yapping knew it, this was going to be her year. Not that the previous one had been so bad for her – or at least her happy, easy-going nature couldn’t see anything to complain about. But it had been a dull, monotonous year without any real highlights. In fact, she would have been hard put to invoke a single meaningful event in her life over the past 12 months. She had settled into a comfortable routine, like into an old pair of slippers. Of course, Yaping had been yearning for something else; she wanted a makeover in her lifestyle, some action, surprises and – why not? – romance.
She had spent the previous evening surfing astrology sites on the net, trying to discover what good things were in store. She had selected some material on her sign to print out and show to her office colleagues at the ministry.
Standing inside the crowded bus that morning, she read through the articles: ‘Those born in the year of the monkey are funny, lovable and fun loving, always full of beans. Monkeys are also very astute…’
That was her exactly!
She looked at another: ‘Monkeys love having fun, going out and partying. They are adorable creatures, always full of energy. Their happy and outgoing disposition always guarantees they’ll be the heart and soul of the party.’
Yaping let out a triumphant smile. They had got it so right! She was always so popular; everyone just wanted to be with her! She was constantly amazed by the accuracy of astrology. How could it describe people so precisely without personal contact with them?
She picked another sheet: ‘Monkeys love socialising and lead very active lives.’
Now this site didn’t get it quite right. Of course, Yaping did go out, quite often in fact, but always among her secretary colleagues at the Ministry of Information Industries. They had fun and giggled and laughed at everything. Usually, they would go out to the huge shopping mall near the Ministry and browse around the many fashionable clothes shops. They would spend hours listening to pop music while flicking through magazines. Then they would go to one of their favourite cheap restaurants and order chicken with fried noodles or duck with Cantonese rice. Occasionally, to ring the changes, they would go to an American fast food chain outlet to have a pizza, hamburgers or just a coffee. It sometimes made her wonder what people did before these shopping centres.
Spending the evening with these friends was all well and good, but it not lead up to very much.
She turned to another article: ‘Monkeys can forgive even if they never forget.’
If only it could be true of her! Of course, she knew she was good natured, but there were limits. When people deliberately took advantage of her generosity or played mean tricks on her, she could bear a grudge that simply would not go away. Perhaps people should talk about ‘having a monkey’s memory’! She was particularly sensitive about her professional attitude. Woe betides anyone who put it into question or even joked about it. As a perfectionist, her work was irreproachable despite the amount piled upon her. She was always snowed under with files, specifications and minutes of meetings to write up. In fact, she worked for two persons: her direct boss, Tang Jinghua, the head of the software section of the Regulations Department, and Bao Yutai, the director of the whole department, for whom she also acted as secretary.
Yaping had an innate gift for putting things away neatly and tidily. She could instantly retrieve even the oldest of dockets that poor Mr. Tang would hunt around for ages among the scattered piles all over his desk.
From another printout she read: ‘What others think matters little to Monkeys.‘
That was plain wrong! She wondered whether the writer had not got his signs mixed up.
Finally: ‘They have a lively love life….’
Now that was going too far, a sheer waste of paper and expensive printer ink.
And that ended her morning read; she was almost at the end of her daily bus journey to work. The young woman got off at the next stop, conveniently just opposite the entrance to the Information Industries Ministry building. It was now time to put away her astrological musings and get ready for a day’s work.
Yaping raised her eyes from the screen. A man had just entered her office, almost noiselessly, and stood awkwardly at some distance. He had an elegant expression, a straight nose and glossy jet-black hair combed towards the back. ‘He must use hair gloss to get such shiny hair’, she thought to herself.
His large frame, flat stomach and wide shoulders could not hide his bashfulness. He was obviously looking for someone, and almost seemed apologetic about his presence. Yaping beamed a warm, welcoming smile at him.
‘Hello, what can I do for you?’
‘Oh, good morning, I’m Li Cheng from the accountancy department. We’re in the process of setting up new accountancy procedures and I’m afraid I have to go round all the Ministry departments to draw up a list of the changes to be implemented…’
Yaping devoured him with her eyes. She always melted in front of men who let their feelings show, who were strong yet fragile at the same time, both vulnerable and protective, just as she couldn’t stand swaggering, overconfident males.
‘I hate to disappoint you, but I’m afraid we don’t do accountancy in this department. Our job is to draft specifications for standards used in computer equipment and telecommunications.’
A look of dismay flashed through his face. She felt sorry for him and regretted having been so negative. Fortunately, he wasn’t short of arguments.
‘Well, actually, everyone does some accountancy, even if they’re not always aware of it.’
‘I suppose you’re right!’
‘I’m sure your department has to keep accurate accounts. I imagine you have to keep trace of disbursements, manage your operating budget, etc.’
‘Yes, of course. You’re right,’ she said.
‘And I’m sure that at the end of the month you have to fill out your boss’s expenses form, unless I’m mistaken.’
‘Yes, you’re absolutely right! Come to think of it, I do indeed dabble in accountancy a bit!’
The young woman was delighted at discovering this. Then she added, with a hint of apprehension in her voice:
‘So, you’ve got some new methods to teach me?’
‘I’m very much afraid so… we have to change everything from top to bottom… but perhaps I should first explain our training program to your boss?’
‘Oh don’t worry about that. First, I’ve got two bosses and both have complete confidence in me. I can take care of explaining all this to them and how important your mission is.’
‘That man is so polite, so nice and well educated. What a change from all the guys who usually ask me out,’ she thought.
‘And how can I contact you, Cheng?’
There would be no risk of her loosing the number of his office extension…
‘Oh, well in fact I’m the one who’s supposed to call you, Miss…’
‘Yaping. My other name’s Li, just like you …Li Yapping!’
‘Well, Yaping, I’d be delighted to organise your training schedule. Perhaps we can see each other again next week.’
Cheng knew he had to tread softly, play ‘hard to get’. His fish had scented the bait and was swimming about excitedly; he now had to wait for it to home in and take its final bite. So far, everything was turning out just fine.
Reluctantly, Jin had resumed her work at the Chinese Science Academy’s software research Institute.
She kept thinking of the Baxter affair. Who exactly was this IBM scientist sent to Beijing on a mission for the NSA, the National Security Agency? What was his real role? What could have been that mission so important to warrant bumping him off as he was about to be unmasked?
Two questions haunted her: ‘what was he doing in Beijing?’ and ‘what was his real function?’
For the past month, she had been analysing the source code of the Chinese security module. Both Microsoft and the Chinese controlling body, the CNITSEC, agreed to integrate it into the new version of the operating system. If only those obsessive questions would stop impeding her much much-needed concentration for that task… She kept running through the facts: one, a compromising character had been eliminated, two, the hotel at the time was swarming with agents of Commander Guo’s secret police and three, there were almost as many security agents from the American services at the time. Despite this formidable deployment, ‘they’ had decided – and managed – to kill Baxter on that night. Who could have pulled off such a feat? The NSA? But why then would the Americans have dispatched so many of their people to protect him? Or could it be that the NSA was acting alone and informed and no-one of that mysterious mission. No-one?
Jin shook herself back to the lines of code displayed on the monitor. She had to be ready before the arrival of that Tom Bailey, the star programmer sent by Microsoft to take part in the GSP sessions. From what she had gathered from his track record, he was bound to be another one of those acne-faced introverted and unsociable geeks…
Several days had passed since their first meeting. Cheng spotted his prey from afar, sitting at one of the long Formica tables at the Ministry canteen. With his tray in hand, he made his way up to Yaping and put on that bashful air that worked so well with girls.
‘Do you mind if I sit with you?’
Yaping could hardly contain her thrill at this unexpected encounter. And in the presence of her work colleagues! She was flanked by two secretaries from other departments who tried hard not to appear to be looking at the young man.
‘No, by all means do! These are my friends, Weileng and Xiufong,’ she said putting a hand lightly on their shoulders. ‘And this is Cheng,’ she said giggling as the new arrival nodded his head by way of greeting.
She was clearly taking great delight at introducing this handsome young man, and was trying to recall if she had already mentioned him to them.
As he seated himself, Cheng spotted next to one of the trays a magazine opened at the horoscopes page. He did a quick reckoning: according to his fact file, the girl was born in 1980, so that would make her a monkey. That would be a good conversation opener…
‘Ha ha, I see you’ve been reading the horoscopes, what does this new year hold in store for us?’
‘Are you into astrology, Cheng?’ broke in Yaping excitedly.
‘Bull’s eye!’ thought Cheng.
‘No, not really. All I know is we changed sign a few days ago, but that’s about as far as it goes, I’m afraid!’
‘That’s right, we’re now in the year of the monkey, and so everything’ll be possible for us monkeys!’
‘Well, I guess you’ll have to make the most of it… try out new things and seize new opportunities.’
‘You can bet on it! If I could step into the unknown now, I’d leap right away! And what about you, what’s your sign?’
Cheng pretended to think for a moment, pinching his chin between his fingers.
‘I’m not too sure… I was born in 1972… would that make me a rat? I’ve been told before but I still get mixed up with these creatures.’
The young girl quickly grabbed the magazine and checked for his sign, her two friends dipping in as she feverishly turned the pages. Suddenly, she stopped and looked at him in amazement.
‘That’s right, you are a rat!’
Cheng feigned indifference and continued calmly to prepare a new mouthful of noodles with his chopsticks. He had cheated a little over his age, but it was all for a good cause. He had carefully checked beforehand the best matches for different signs. For a monkey, it was a rat, so he had to produce the corresponding year within his age group.
‘He’s rat!’ repeated Yaping in her mind.
Cheng put on an air of concern and looked on either side of him, as if to make sure no-one had heard that revelation. After all, he was not to know that this should be regarded as complimentary, let alone complementary.
‘Well? Is there something wrong with that?’
‘No, no, that’s fine! There’s no such thing as a bad sign, in fact. They’re just different, that’s all.’ She was blushing under the emotion. ‘A rat, how incredible, Cheng is a rat!’ She could hardly believe it. A monkey and a rat, she knew, formed the best couple of the whole astrological zoo. She had once read that there was 98% compatibility between monkeys and rats – what better guarantee of love and harmony could she hope for? She now felt terribly embarrassed for openly revealing what amounted to an intimate detail. It was as if all the looks had converged upon her and everyone guessed her secret! She quickly changed the subject.
‘And… when will you come over to show us you all new accountancy procedures?’
Her two colleagues were both very interested in accountancy.
‘Oh, so you’re going to train all the secretaries?’ exclaimed one.
‘I’d dearly love to, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time; I can only train one or two people in each department. Then, in turn, they’ll have to pass on the information to the others. So far, for the Standards and Regulations department, I’ve already chosen Yaping.’
The two other girls exchanged disappointing looks between them.
Yaping had been waiting for too long; the question was burning her lips, she just had to know.
It was now three weeks since they had met and she still knew nothing about that charming young man’s personal life. Cheng was a bachelor – her female instinct told her that – but surely he had a steady or a sweetheart… It was not that he was particularly mysterious, he was in fact quite open, but his shyness made him refrain from evoking much about his private life.
And so she had decided to get to the bottom of it. She seized the opportunity at the end of a training session on travel expenses by dropping a well-rehearsed innocent question:
‘Is your wife an accountant, too, Cheng?’
Hardly a model of subtlety, but it was the best she could think of.
‘I… I’m not married,’ he blurted, feeling a pang of shame at the enormity of that lie.
‘Oh,’ she said with mock surprise, it’s just that I thought a smart young man like you would have been spoilt for choice.
Cheng bowed his head down in an attempt to appear modest, and also to hide his uneasiness.
‘In fact, I’ve only had very few relationships and, to be honest, only one that really mattered to me.’
The poignancy of that statement and its delivery caught even Cheng by surprise. He raised his head slowly and saw Yaping’s searching look marked with compassion. He continued, wondering if there was not an undiscovered budding actor hidden in him.
‘Yes, we were both very much in love, or at least I was, but it didn’t work out.’
Yaping touched his forearm lightly.
‘We knew each other since high school… it seemed as if we were made for one another… and started really going out together at University. And then, seven years ago, when we were in Nanjing, I came back one day to the apartment we were sharing and there… there she was in the company of another man…’
Yaping’s features reverberated with compassion and tenderness as she took in these words.
‘I… I felt as if the ground had dropped… it broke my heart. I think it was only then I realised I loved her more than myself.’
All this was so awful, yet so beautiful, just like in the romances she read in magazines. She blinked a few times as she felt her eyes moisten.
‘I just couldn’t believe it was all over. For the next three or four years, I did everything I could to try to win her back. Sometimes she would swear it was really me she loved and we’d get back together, but each time it never lasted more than a few months.’
Cheng was now almost enjoying playing this role. He looked at Yaping intently, putting on an air of sincerity as he meted out some personal philosophy:
‘You see, Yaping, for me, love has to be exclusive… uncompromising. It’s the total fusion between two beings.’
‘My exact vision of what love is all about’, thought Yaping.
‘And… what happened in the end?’
‘The heartache was just too much. It was eating me up from inside. I was living like a zombie. When I was at my lowest ebb, my closest friends encouraged me to turn a new leaf. I was lucky in this respect… they gave me a lot of support, helped me sever all links with the past and start a new life. And that’s how I came to leave Nanjing and land myself here in Beijing.’
He seemed utterly devastated and helpless. Yaping instinctively felt like taking him in her arms to console him.
‘And wasn’t there another woman who came by to make you forget all that?’
‘The pain is still too present for the moment. I need some more time for the wound to heal, for the pain to subside. For me, it’s like it happened yesterday.’
‘Now, I know you may not realise this just now, but I’m sure if you found yourself a woman who really, really loved you, you’d very quickly find a taste for life again…’
By then, Cheng looked totally dejected, without having to act.
‘Thanks. I know you’re right… but would I ever be able to fall in love again?’
A book by JF SUSBIELLE – Translation by Dominic KING