The time Xin Zhu spent trying to be unheard could have added up to an entire life. Hours driving extra laps through a city, watching the rearview; accumulated minutes gazing into street-window reflections and standing in queues for bread or soup he didn't even want because his stomach was in knots. Sitting behind desks, thinking through cover stories and diversions and wondering how long ago his office was last scoured for bugs. Visits to cemeteries and bars and churches and empty warehouses and parking garages, only to find that his date wasn't going to show up. Meals lost sitting for hours in dark rooms, in airports and train stations and wet public squares, waiting.
Then today, driving the dull hour and a half from Beijing to Nankai along the G020, ditching his ten-year-old Audi and taking a taxi to the train station in tree-lined Xiqing. Waiting on the platform until the Qingdao train started to roll before heaving his large body and small gray overnight bag onto the last car. Hovering in the doorway as the station passed, watching for latecomers. All this, even though this same train began life in south Beijing, not so far from where his journey began. All this, just to meet someone who, like him, lived and worked in Beijing.
The story, which his assistant could be depended on to proliferate, was that Xin Zhu was on a weekend trip to Shanghai to gain 665 miles of perspective and consider his dwindling options. By the time the masters in Beijing realized--if they realized--that the big, silent man checking into Shanghai's Pudong Shangri-La was not Xin Zhu, it would be too late.
As the train headed southeast on its five-hour itinerary, he worked his way toward the front. He was a conspicuously fat man, and when he came upon others either he or they had to squeeze into a spare seat to allow space to pass. Newspapers, covered with photos of devastation--Sichuan province, annihilation by earthquake--were folded noisily to let him by. Occasionally, when coming upon young women with children, he offered a smile of sympathy as he raised his bag above his head, and they wedged themselves past each other. Finally, he found a pair of free seats in the front row of a clean, beige-paneled car. Zhu lifted the armrest between them and settled down gratefully before spotting more photos on more newspapers, rubble and weeping.
There was no other subject in the country, which almost made him feel guilty for this excursion. Four days ago, an earthquake had struck Wenchuan, in eastern Sichuan province, powerful enough to be felt more than a thousand miles away in the capital. The nation had mobilized. Nearly a hundred thousand soldiers were deployed, two thousand Health Ministry medical staff, a hundred and fifty aircraft. The confirmed dead totaled twenty thousand, but the published estimate was at least fifty thousand, which was probably low. In the face of that, what did the future of one fat spy matter?
As he waited for his breathing to ebb and the fine layer of sweat over his blunt features to evaporate, the ash-colored outskirts of Xiqing passed. The air was better here, and would only grow cleaner as they neared the coast. He, too, felt cleaner, being out of the capital. He always felt better in the field.
The conductor, a pleasant-looking woman in an immaculate blue uniform, darkened when he said that he wanted to buy a ticket from her. "You boarded with no ticket?"
"Last-minute change in plans. I had no choice."
"We always have a choice."
He could have ended the discussion by producing his Guoanbu ID, but instead he said, "My choice was to board the train or let my mother die."
"She'll die if she doesn't see your face?"
"The Qingdao hospital is out of blood. She'll die if I don't give her mine."
He could tell from her eyes that she didn't believe him--at least, she didn't want to believe him. She finally said, "You think you can move into one seat?"
Zhu opened his hands to display his girth. "Plainly impossible."
"Then you'll have to pay for two seats."
She was modern in her hairstyle and speech, but Zhu recognized her lineage in the millions of petty dictators China had produced during the Cultural Revolution. Rules as badges, laws as weapons. He said, "Then I will pay for two seats," and reached for his wallet.
As the hours and the sinking landscape passed, he tried to put both Wenchuan and his personal troubles out of his head and watched the young couples that boarded and disembarked at each stop. They looked nothing like the peasant couples of his youth--they had clean teeth, fine clothes, modest jewelry, cell phones, and the sparkle of life about them, as if they could very clearly see what tomorrow looked like and were undeterred. He admired such optimism, even as the newspapers denied it with grisly photographs of collapsed buildings and helmeted workers digging through rubble to find corpses. The whole nation, perhaps the whole world, was watching as hope faded, and Xin Zhu was riding a train to the coast, rather than westward, to work alongside the volunteers. The first step toward helping others, he reflected with only a touch of self-consciousness, is to ensure your own survival.
As they left Jinan, one of his cell phones buzzed. "Shen An-ling," he said into it, his tone one of a man on vacation, "Shanghai is beautiful."
"So I've heard, Xin Zhu," came his assistant's thin voice. "I have also heard that, while you've checked into the hotel, you've barricaded yourself in the room. Might I suggest taking in the sights?"
Shen An-ling was pushing the cover a little too hard, which meant that he wasn't alone. "For the thinking I have to do, distractions will just get in the way."
"Nature, time, and patience are the three great physicians," Shen An-ling said, banally--and uncharacteristically--quoting proverb. "Don't think it can be rushed. You should get some air."
"I'll open the window. Is the office running smoothly?"
"We've been honored by a visit from Yang Qing-Nian."
Of course--Yang Qing-Nian, the right hand of Wu Liang. Who else would have asked why Xin Zhu was not leaving his hotel room? "Does he bring good news from the Supervision and Liaison Committee?"
"He brings good wishes … and a request for you to visit the committee at nine o'clock on Monday morning."
"I look forward to it," Zhu said with as much conviction as he could muster. "Make sure Yang Qing-Nian is comfortable. The best tea for Yang Qing-Nian."
His thoughts now utterly derailed, he hung up and took from his bag a small box of rice balls his young wife had prepared. He began to eat them, one by one, imagining Yang Qing-Nian in his Haidian District office, sniffing and touching everything, storing every detail away for his report to Wu Liang. The place is a mess. They work like English clerks, noses to their screens. Stuffy, no open windows, and it stinks of cigarettes and peanut sauce. The place could do with a good cleaning.
The irony was that Yang Qing-Nian and his master, Wu Liang, believed that they, in themselves, were enough to inspire fear. They believed that the appearance of Yang Qing-Nian, or anyone from the Ministry of Public Security, the domestic intelligence service, could throw him off his game, or leave him worrying all weekend in Shanghai about a Monday morning scolding. Were they his only worry, he actually would be in Shanghai, at a rooftop bar, enjoying a cognac and a Hamlet. Instead, all he could do now was ask a passing uniformed girl for one of her overpriced bottles of water.
It was nearly five when they pulled into Qingdao Station, which had been renovated for the Olympic boating competitions that would descend in the coming months. As he wandered the platform, bumping into hunched men lighting cigarettes, he gazed up at the freshly ubiquitous spiderweb ceiling of steel and glass. How much had it cost? With all the bribes and evictions that had riddled the great cities' expensive facelifts, no one knew for sure. Then, across the hall, he saw a long but orderly queue leading to a temporary Red Cross counter, handing over donations. Yesterday, the newspapers reported that donations for the earthquake victims had reached 1.3 billion yuan. Zhu walked toward the counter, paused, then approached a wet-faced old woman near the front of the line and gave her ten hundred-yuan notes, about 150 dollars, to add to her offering. She was speechless.
Outside, a bright late-afternoon sun was tempered by the Yellow Sea breeze. He set down his bag, took out a cigar tin, and lit a filtered Hamlet before joining a crowd of young people crossing Feixian Road. They passed two bright, packed restaurants--Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's--on their way to Bathing Beach #6. The teenagers raised their voices and hurried down to the water, while he remained on the sidewalk, smoking and watching their lean, young bodies prance across the sand and dive into the sea.
Though his own people had been from the mountains, he had always felt sympathy for coastal people. They shared the pragmatic objectivity of their mountain brothers. He watched the out-of-towners flop in the water while the stoic locals looked on and sold them fried things from steaming carts.
The #501 bus was half empty, and he took a pair of seats in the back for the hour-long journey. An entire life could be filled doing these things.
The sun was low in the west when he got out in front of a high-rise on a broad avenue in Laoshan, at the foot of Laoshan Mountain. He was one of five passengers to disembark: two old women, a nervous pregnant woman, and a teenaged boy in a camouflage T-shirt. The old women left the bus stop together, the teenager was met by his mother, and the pregnant woman was met by no one. She sat on the bench, an empty polypropylene bag clutched to her large stomach, and lowered her eyes to the ground. She was, he suspected, crying.
Behind the high-rise he found the inconspicuous dirty-white Citroën Fukang in a small lot full of a variety of makes in a variety of conditions. Behind the wheel, a fifty-six-year-old man smoked with his eyes closed.
"Wake up, Zhang Guo," said Zhu.
Zhang Guo didn't jump; he was too full of himself for that. It was one of his most wonderful traits. Instead, he cracked his eyes and said, "You're late."
"Not by much."
"This whole thing is ridiculous, you know."
"So you're doing well, Zhang Guo?"
"The doctor says my prostate is preparing to explode."
Zhu tossed his overnight bag through the open rear window, then went around to the passenger's door. As he climbed in, the car groaning on its shocks, he said, "So things are about normal for you."
"I should be back in Beijing now, with Chi Shanshan; might as well fill my last days with her."
"I think she'll manage a day without your loving ways. Your wife will be the one suffering."
"How about Sung Hui? Is she as beautiful as last summer?"
"More so. She sleeps a lot."
"Good for her, but not for you."
"Perhaps it is good; my prostate is fine."
Zhang Guo flicked his cigarette out the window, then started the car. "It's remarkable how a man with less time than me can make jokes."
Zhu stared through a crack in the windshield at overgrown grass and more high-rises.
Zhang Guo said, "I'm not driving up the mountain."
"It's a good place to be alone."
"So is this car."
"Then let's drive around the mountain."
Zhang Guo sighed, put the car in reverse, and pulled out.
They began talking while they were still in town, stopping behind trucks and cars in worse shape than their Citroën, idling at lights as clouds of black exhaust billowed around them. Zhu brought up the earthquake, and they compared bleak estimates of fatalities, wondering aloud whom they knew in Sichuan, and which ones they'd heard from. It was a dismal topic, as well as unconstructive--the dead would not be raised by their concern--so Zhu asked some personal questions, giving Zhang Guo license to complain about life in his prestigious neighborhood of Beijing's Dongcheng District, his unbearable wife, his jealous mistress, and the atmosphere of paranoia that was enveloping the Supervision and Liaison Committee. "It's a place full of bad news," he said as they finally left town and started down the seaside highway that skirted the base of Laoshan Mountain and its famous spirits. To their right, the Yellow Sea opened.
"You heard about Wu Liang?" asked Zhang Guo.
"That he's preparing to destroy me?"
"The other thing."
"He's taking over Olympic security."
"And it's a smart decision. Jiang Luoke wasn't organized enough."
"Jiang Luoke made the truce with al Qaeda."
"Which is only as good as the paper it's written on."
"It's not written on any paper."
Zhu clapped his hands twice.
Zhang Guo leaned into a turn as they entered the mountain's shadow. "Maybe we should have pushed your name," he said lightly, then shook his head. "Oh, that's right. You're the one who started a war with the CIA, then accused the esteemed Ministry of Public Security of harboring CIA vipers. I'd forgotten."
"You're being melodramatic."
"Xin Zhu, you killed three dozen CIA agents."
"Not quite. A few got away."
Zhang Guo showed him a pair of raised brows and flat yellow teeth, then returned to the road. "Of course, your mistake wasn't slaughtering the CIA. It was letting our masters learn of it."
"I didn't tell anyone."
Again, those eyes and teeth. "I'm guessing that your assistant, the one with the girl's name, boasted like a peacock after too many glasses of baijiu."
"An-ling is a unisex name. It's the kind of name you get when you're cursed with parents from the artist class."
"This is what happens when you hire from the artist class, Xin Zhu."
"Shen An-ling said nothing."
Zhang Guo took a dark, heavy hand off the wheel and patted at his shirt pockets until he'd found another cigarette. "The point," he said after slipping it between his lips, "is that Wu Liang has you cornered. He's got his ministry as well as the whole committee in a panic. Yang Qing-Nian is boasting that he'll get you dismissed."
"Yang Qing-Nian is a child, and he's terrified of the CIA."
"We're all terrified of the CIA. All except you, of course. People think you've gone mad. You realize that, don't you?"
Through squinted eyes, Zhu gazed at the long mountain shadow reaching across the water, smothering rocks and sailboats and white brushstrokes of wave. If he was mad, would he know? Or would it only take a coordinated effort by those he'd angered over the years to give him a proper diagnosis? Wu Liang and Yang Qing-Nian of the Ministry of Public Security, both ranking members of the Supervision and Liaison Committee, the Party organ that, among other things, oversaw discipline in their particular profession. Zhang Guo was also a member of that committee, from the Supreme People's Procuratorate, while Xin Zhu was merely a Guoanbu foot soldier. Could men such as these properly diagnose something he would never see in himself?
He said, "The committee also thinks the future of espionage lies in hacking California tech companies. They're afraid of their own shadows."
"That's possible," Zhang Guo said, "but now you've dragged me out to the edge of the country because you're afraid of them. What are we doing here?"
"The committee wants to talk to me on Monday morning."
"Does this surprise you?" When Zhu didn't answer, he said, "They want to know what all of us want to know, Xin Zhu. They want to know why. Why you set up a mole inside that secret Department of Tourism, and then, once the mole was uncovered, you killed thirty-three of their agents in all corners of the world. Without requesting permission. They think they know the reason--revenge. For the death of your son, Delun. But that wasn't the CIA's fault. It was the fault of some Sudanese farmers with machetes and sunstroke."
To their right, a peninsula reached out into the water, marking the halfway point of their journey around these mountains, pointing in the direction of South Korea. Zhu said something.
Zhu turned back. "We've had this conversation before. Theirs is a causal responsibility. They killed an opposition figure in order to disrupt civil order in Sudan. Therefore, any deaths that result from that disorder are their fault."
"You can't treat a bureaucracy like an individual. Imagine if we were treated that way."
"I'd expect no less from the fathers of our victims," Zhu said, knowing as he said it that they would all be dead if that really came to pass. He waved at a parking area up ahead, a scenic outpost. "Pull over."
As they slowed and parked, two cars passed. One had Laoshan plates, the other Beijing. Zhang Guo nodded at them. "You don't think…"
"I have no idea," Zhu said, then gazed out the open window. Sea, horizon. He said, "It wasn't just revenge, you know. Everyone thinks that's what it was--the committee, you, probably even the Americans. Revenge factored into it, but it was also a practical decision. That's something I'll have to explain on Monday morning. By eradicating one of their secret departments, we have sent a serious message to the Americans, the same message we want to send with the Olympic Games. That we are the primary force in the world. We are a nation that has suffered long enough--that's the past. The present is this: We are a superpower of unfathomable riches, and we will not stand for interference, particularly from a country on the other side of the planet that still refers to itself as the world's only superpower."
Zhang Guo let that sit a moment before shaking his head. "Then they see fifty thousand die in Sichuan. Is this how a superpower takes care of its people?"
Zhu didn't answer, because he'd had this thought himself. Instead, he turned in his seat as best he could, reaching toward the bag he'd left in the back, but his hand only batted air inches from its handle. An involuntary grunt escaped his lips.
"Just sit back," Zhang Guo said, sighing.
Zhu did so, and, without looking, Zhang Guo reached his long right arm back and deftly snatched the bag. He tugged it up to the front and handed it to Zhu.
Zhang Guo watched another car pass, then got out and walked around to where slanted trees framed the view of the sea. Inside the car, Zhu unlatched the strap and fingered at a thin file inside, finding a 4R-sized blowup of a passport photo. Here was the real reason for this meeting. He sat staring at it a moment, at the black woman, midthirties, before opening his door and placing his feet on dirt. The freshness of the salty breeze was a shock after the car's smoky interior. Down below, surf raged. "Come look at this."
Zhang Guo wandered back and took the photo. "Pretty," he said after a moment, "for one of them." He passed it back.
"You've seen her before?"
"Should I have?"
There was no sense being coy with Zhang Guo. "She's one of the ones who survived."
"One of the Tourists?"
"She went by the name Leticia Jones. We never did learn her real name."
"Why are you carrying around her photograph?"
Zhu sniffed. "A week ago she landed in Shanghai on another passport--Rosa Mumu, Sudanese."
A bang sounded as Zhang Guo hit the roof of the car with his fist, then walked away, feeling his chest for another cigarette. Once he had it lit, he turned back. "Where is she now?"
"She left Beijing last week, flying to Cairo. As for the week she spent here, we're just starting to piece it together."
"But why would she be here? An agent on her own can't expect to do anything, particularly one that's blown."
"She did elude us for a week, all by herself. I only found out that she'd been here once she was gone. A border guard heard her speaking English to another Sudanese. The Sudanese tried to speak Arabic with her, but she didn't know it. It wasn't reason enough to hold her, but the guard noted her name for later examination. Someone from Sun Bingjun's department passed it on to me, as a query. I recognized her photo from my Tourism files."
Zhang Guo cursed loudly.
"It means little at this point," Zhu said, as much for himself as for Zhang Guo, "but she wouldn't be here without a reason; something operational, or just to scout opportunities."
"Opportunities for what? For an act of revenge against the great Xin Zhu?"
Zhu slipped the photo back into his bag. "I have no idea. I don't even know if she works for the CIA anymore."
"She had a forged Sudanese passport."
"The CIA doesn't have a monopoly on forged passports."
"Perhaps she's working for Wu Liang," Zhang Guo suggested.
"I've considered that."
"It was a joke, Xin Zhu."
Zhu gave a smile, but it wasn't a joke to him. None of this was. Wu Liang and the Supervision and Liaison Committee, the CIA, or any number of agencies he'd given trouble to over the last decades could be after him. After enough years, the idea of "the other" becomes faceless and broad, its tentacles ubiquitous enough to hide in every crevice.
"So what do you want from me, Xin Zhu?"
"I'd like to know what I'll be facing on Monday morning. Specifics. The precise examples they will use against me."
Zhang Guo nodded. "You'll have it by Sunday."
"As for the woman, I'll need to know if the Ministry of Public Security has anything on her."
This time Zhang Guo hesitated. He took a long drag and exhaled smoke that was instantly swept away by the wind. "Xin Zhu, two months ago you claimed that the Ministry of Public Security was harboring a Western mole, and then you cut it off from your intelligence product. When asked to show your evidence, you handed the committee notes detailing Chinese information owned by the Department of Tourism, information you said could only have been gathered by an inside source. The information could not be verified because the CIA had closed the Department of Tourism after your assault, but did that stop you? No. You demanded that the committee freeze the ministry's entire administrative section until someone had been arrested."
"I was ignored," Zhu pointed out.
"But not forgotten. You don't run the Guoanbu. You don't even preside over a core department. You've always been on the fringe, and you've always made enemies. My suspicion is that, on Monday morning, you'll be sent to preside over some township collective near Mongolia while your office is closed down to make room for an elementary school. You're more trouble than you're worth."
"Does that mean you won't ask if they have anything on the woman?"
Zhang Guo stared at him, eyes large, then threw down his cigarette. He started to laugh. "Okay. I'll talk to the Ministry of Public Security. I've got someone who might help, just as long as he doesn't know that it's for you."
"And you have no idea what this Jones did during her week here?"
"We have the hotel. We have one night at the hotel restaurant," Zhu said, which was not necessarily a lie, only a misleading omission. "What we need is help."
"What you need is to prepare a defense for Monday morning."
"What I need is a drink. Shall we?"
Zhang Guo approached and placed a hand on Zhu's thinning scalp. "You are one ugly, fat bastard. Sung Hui must be blind."
"Finally, we're in agreement."
AN AMERICAN SPY. Copyright © 2012 by Olen Steinhauer.