Authors: James Church
Tags: #Noir fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage, #Mystery & Detective, #International Mystery & Crime, #Korea, #Police Procedural, #Political
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For my mother, who likes a good mystery
This book was written thanks to the initial and persistent nudging of David Straub, who finally convinced me that although James Church and Rex Stout certainly never met, Inspector O and Nero Wolfe might well have.
Deep thanks as well to the gracious people I met during my stays in Mongolia. They are rightly proud of their country, and bravely looking to the future at a time when the rest of us are shaking in our boots.
SEOUL, JULY 13 (YONHAP)
—A Seoul appellate court on Wednesday sentenced a fraudulent seal maker to three years in prison for defrauding the government in a project to make the nation’s newest state seal.
… The state seal scandal has jolted the nation for months after a police probe revealed that the craftsman had embezzled gold from the state seal project and did not have traditional skills as he had claimed while producing the state seal.
… The state seal is used by the president on official documents and national certificates, for proclaiming constitutional amendments, and for ratifying international agreements.
Fang Mei-lin was the most beautiful woman in the world, and for weeks rumors had been flying around that she might show up in our neighborhood. Naturally, there was a pool at Gao’s on who would spot her first. The bet doubled on when the first sighting would be. It tripled on the location. That meant there was a lot of money in the pool, but no one bet that she’d show up on my doorstep on Tuesday, the day I always stay home to make lunch for Uncle O. You would have been crazy to make a bet like that; too bad I didn’t.
Since no one collected, Old Gao took the money for the house. There was no grumbling. Everyone knows that Gao runs the most serious gambling establishment in northeast China, and he makes the rules. He’s also very careful about the sort of betting that goes on in his place.
“No can do,” he says if I offer odds on something he considers unusual. Then he frowns and puffs on one of his awful cigarettes, an Egyptian. Boxes of them show up at his door a few times a year, payment for a bet someone lost long ago. The tobacco smells like a large animal died, but Gao doesn’t care. His only concern is making sure nothing interferes with the cash flow—in.
Given whom you can bump into at Gao’s—which is to say, a surprising number of high-level officials from the better stations in life—the place isn’t much to look at, just a shabby, one-story building off an alley in Yanji, a barely awake city thirty kilometers from the North Korean border. On the inside, Gao’s is even less impressive—three tiny rooms, each with a beat-up round table and five or six folding chairs. The walls used to be red. They still might be, but no one can tell because the old man doesn’t believe in paying a lot for electricity. Even when all three rooms are full, the place has the noise level of a tomb. People who come to Gao’s are serious about losing money, which they almost all do. Gao makes sure the experience has nothing to recommend it—no drinks, no snacks, no music, no women. You come in, you lose what you’re going to lose, and you leave. Anyone who wins keeps his mouth shut.
The iron house rule is that the betting stays simple—only horses, dogs, or cards. A sign taped to the wall spells it out for newcomers:
NOTHING ELEGANT, NOTHING WEIRD.
A week ago, I ignored the sign and tried to convince Gao to give me odds on something out of the ordinary. He snorted. “I don’t take money from children or idiots. Go away, Bingo. If I need your pathetic savings, I’ll come knocking.”
That might be why when there was a knock on the door Tuesday around noon, I assumed it was Gao, though I didn’t figure he wanted my money. More likely, I thought, he wanted to tell me a sad story about how Ping Man-ho, a lowlife with a taste for expensive Hong Kong suits, had stiffed him again. But when I opened the door, there was no fog of Egyptian tobacco. Instead, a delicate cloud of perfume enveloped me, followed by an eyeful of the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. My nervous system figured it out before my brain delivered the news.
If Fang Mei-lin was on my doorstep, that meant she was in my territory, referred to in official Ministry of State Security correspondence as YS/SB, shorthand for Yanji Sector/Special Bureau. YS/SB doesn’t look like much on the map. It doesn’t cover a lot of real estate. It’s just a strip of mostly empty land, twenty to thirty kilometers wide, that starts at the flyblown town of Tumen perched on the narrow, winding river of the same name. From there the sector heads north and east along the river, which loops aimlessly a few times like an adolescent dragon before finally making up its mind, turning south and east toward Russia and the East Sea. YS/SB stops at a raggedy place called Quanhe, the easternmost of China’s bridge crossings into North Korea. From that crossing to the Russian border, barely twenty kilometers away, is another MSS sector chief’s headache, usually someone junior and therefore unhappy.
Yanji Sector has been described as a bad dream spilling over onto 3,000 square kilometers. Sometimes, in especially bad times, it expands to 3,250 square kilometers. The exact configuration changes depending on who at Headquarters in Beijing has just looked at pins in the map and decided that rearranging sector responsibilities is urgent to prevent things along the border from getting worse than they already are. They are always already bad. Bad is the best they ever are.
When I was handed the assignment to head Yanji Bureau, the betting at Gao’s was that I wouldn’t last a year. MSS billets on the border with North Korea usually go up in flames for one of three reasons—stress, corruption, or, as true of my predecessor, unexplained and permanent disappearance. Yanji Bureau directors rarely last eighteen months. To everyone’s surprise, this was my seventh year. I was becoming a legend in Headquarters, which meant I couldn’t get a transfer out of Yanji no matter what I tried.
The population of Yanji City can fit into a few square blocks of apartments in Shanghai. What it lacks in size, though, Yanji makes up for in hyperactivity. Rumors constantly pour in, swirl around, and stream out. Paying attention to them is a good way to waste a lot of time chasing ghosts to nowhere. That’s why it didn’t mean much when my office suddenly started picking up the rumors that Fang Mei-lin would be in northeast China. Some of these graduated from rumors to agent reports, unusually detailed about her travel plans. A few even listed Yanji as a probable destination. That gave us a good laugh. What would anyone like Fang Mei-lin want with a town like Yanji? I put a little in the betting pool at Gao’s to be friendly, but otherwise I forgot about the rumors as quickly as they crossed my desk. There was plenty else to do at the time, and my mind was focused elsewhere. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
A week or so after the rumors died down, Beijing sent out a barrage of flash messages, three of them in quick succession. Flash messages are considered very urgent on a scale of how rattled your teacup should get when one arrives. All three of them screamed at us that the lady was definitely in our neighborhood. We were to inform Headquarters immediately—immediately!—about potential threats to her safety. I did what I always do with flash messages, which is not much.
Ignoring high-priority Headquarters messages is not easy. They arrive via special couriers riding big, thundering motorcycles. The couriers all look like they’re bred on a farm where they get a diet of good genes. They all wear the same outfit—high black boots, show-off leather gloves, and a helmet with a reflective visor they don’t like to flip up so you rarely get to see their eyes. The only thing missing is trumpets when the courier walks into the office. In case motorcycles and boots don’t get the requisite attention, every flash message comes in a special envelope, double wrapped with two thick black stripes around the middle. Across the flap is the best sealing tape money can buy. The tape has been specially designed by the Ministry’s technical department to tear the hell out of any fingers careless or untutored in removing it.
In mid-May, three couriers showed up one right after another; three envelopes were signed for; three messages duly read. Then, as I said, I tossed them aside. I wouldn’t say I ignored them; I just didn’t focus.
Now, planted in my doorway, I was paying attention to nothing else. Slowly, I looked Fang Mei-lin over from head to toe, making sure there were no threats to her safety. I had gone crown to foot and was coming up the other way when she spoke. I’d heard sultry voices before, but hers was in a class by itself.
“May I come in? Or do you need to frisk me first?”
As she brushed past, her perfume hung in the air. It was the expensive stuff, and it took up all the space the little oxygen molecules are supposed to occupy. Even without oxygen, it registered that she had on a silk suit, pale blue, with matching high heels and a pearl necklace that must have cost plenty. The pearls were perfect against her skin. They were the sort of pearls that make you think oysters know what they’re doing.
“I take it you are Bing Zong-yuan.” She didn’t wait for a response. “I need to see your uncle.” Standing in the narrow hall, she looked like she owned the place and was thinking of tearing it down to build something better.
“Not possible,” I said without having to give it a second thought, which was good because I was still breathing more perfume than air. As soon as the words were out I mentally lunged to take them back. It seemed a shame—a crime, actually—to say anything that might cause this image of perfection to turn and walk out the door. The problem was that I knew my uncle would see no one, not even a goddess from Shanghai, without an appointment. From the tilt of her chin, I knew that my fears were unfounded. She wasn’t about to be brushed off so easily. In case she changed her mind, I went quickly to Plan B—a spoonful of honey.