Ellie McEnroe is an Iraq War veteran living in Beijing, where she represents the work of cutting-edge Chinese political artists. She has one bum leg, a taste for dumplings and beer, and a sweet-tempered rescue mutt for a roommate. She also has Chinese Domestic Security on her tail and a dwindling number of Percocets to get her through her bad days.
And she’s about to have some bad days. The immensely powerful—and occasionally homicidal—Shanghai billionaire Sidney Cao has asked Ellie to investigate his son’s suspicious new American business partner. Ellie knows she can’t refuse, and is grudgingly swept up into the elite social circles of Sidney’s three children: debauched Guwei, rebellious Meimei, and social climber Tiantian. When a waitress is murdered at one of Tiantian’s parties, the last thing Ellie wants is to get sucked into a huge scandal involving China’s rich and powerful. But Ellie quickly becomes the most convenient suspect. She realizes she’ll have to figure out who really did it—and even that might not be enough to save herself.
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I'm eyeing the bottle of vintage Moutai on the table and wondering if it would be unforgivably rude of me to pour myself another shot.
I don't even like Moutai. But Sidney Cao singing "Feelings"? I definitely need something.
We've finished the Château Mouton Rothschild ("Genuine one," Sidney promised), and there's nothing else left on the table to drink except Pepsi.
"Feelings ... nothing more than ... feelings ..."
I'm sitting in a private room in what I'm told is one of the three most expensive karaoke bars in Shanghai. The weird thing is, it's not in a super-upscale neighborhood like the Bund or Nanjing Road, the French Concession or the riverfront in Pudong. Instead it's this area west of the Shanghai train station that looks pretty typical: grey high-rises, broad streets choked with traffic and torn up by subway construction, nothing green in sight except for the occasional strange paint job. Vendors selling socks and DVDs and steamed buns crowd the sidewalks, along with bicycles and electric scooters.
This place though, outside, it's a façade pretending to be marble that's slathered with neon, fiberglass columns, and turrets surrounding tall, fake-bronze doors. The cars double-parked in the street are Beemers, Mercedes, Ferraris, a Rolls, and a Bentley. On the inside there's a huge lobby four stories high that you have to go through a metal detector to enter, and when you do, you're surrounded by the fronts of fake buildings, like a movie set of a European village, all painted white, and everywhere you look, there are gilded planters and gold chandeliers, Plexiglas kiosks advertising luxury goods, giant ornate mirrors, and the kind of fussy carved furniture that belongs in a Three Musketeers movie with dudes wearing long powdered wigs, except instead of being white like it usually is, the furniture's painted peacock blue and neon green.
Also grand pianos. There are several in the cavernous lobby, black Steinways, sitting beneath a painted sky hanging four stories up that gradually changes from sunny blue with popcorn clouds to a garish red sunset.
No pianists, though. Maybe the pianos are just for decoration.
Our private room is pretty cozy, with fake Renaissance paintings on the red-flocked walls, which I have to say do not go very well with the peacock blue and neon green Musketeers furniture. But whatever.
I'm sitting next to Lucy Wu on one of the couches. Lucy, my sometime partner in the art business, owns a Shanghai gallery, and she dresses the part. She wears crazy designer stuff a lot, but tonight she's outdone herself outfitwise. It's this short, sleeveless, white dress with daisy-shaped cutouts and a halo of wispy white ostrich feathers, paired with red leather boots. Her shiny black hair is cut in this blunt anime style, and she's wearing bright scarlet lipstick, thick mascara, and eyeliner like on a cartoon Cleopatra.
"Feeeeelings ... Oh, oh, oh, feeeelings ..."
"One more chorus," she says to me, all the while keeping a big smile on her face.
Sidney really can't sing. I mean, I can't sing either, but I'm not the one standing up there with the microphone. So far this evening, Sidney has regaled us with "Yueliao Daibiao Wode Xin" ("The Moon Represents My Heart"), "Home on the Range," and "Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman" — "Cultural Revolution favorite!" he explains with a big laugh.
I'm just about to reach for the Moutai when the song ends. Lucy smiles, showing her perfect tiny teeth, and claps. I smile and nod and clap.
Vicky Huang, the fourth member of our party, sits straight backed, not smiling, because this is serious stuff apparently, and she's staring up at Sidney and applauding like she's witnessing the Second Coming.
Sidney beams and approaches our little group of couches, microphone in hand. As he does, our very own private waitress, dressed in a French maid's outfit, emerges from the shadows of the back wall, where she'd blended in like one of the paintings.
Smiling, without saying a word, she refills the tiny crystal flutes reserved for the Moutai.
"Ganbei!" Sidney says, raising his glass.
"Oh, thank God," Lucy Wu murmurs in my ear.
I lift my glass. We clink. And Lucy, who is about the size of an anorexic hobbit, downs hers in a single "Ganbei."
I don't do as well. I know this is expensive stuff and prized in China, but it's about 110 proof and tastes like sweet and sour paint thinner, with maybe a dash of soy sauce. The Moutai catches in my throat, and I cough.
"Now, Ellie, I think it is your turn!" I look up, and there's Sidney holding the microphone in his outstretched hand.
"Oh, no, that's okay," I say. "I'm ... you know, I can't really sing."
"Everyone can sing! You only must express what's in your heart!" Believe me, buddy, you don't want to know.
"I ... uh, my throat's kind of sore."
"Then you should have more Moutai!" He doesn't even need to raise his hand. He merely flexes his fingers, and the waitress rushes over to refill our glasses.
"Just sing something!" Lucy hisses in my ear.
"Why don't you sing something?" I hiss back.
"Because he asked you."
"What shall you sing, Ellie?" Sidney asks.
I really don't want to sing. But a good rule of thumb? Don't piss off Chinese billionaires.
Especially don't piss off Sidney Cao.
I mean, it's not like he seems scary. He's wearing his usual golf shirt, slacks, and ugly designer belt, this sixtyish guy with prominent cheekbones, a bony nose, and crooked teeth. Which he could obviously fix if he wanted to. But he doesn't seem to care.
"I ... um, where's the book? I'll take a look."
The waitress quickly fetches the Big Book of Karaoke Tunes, a red leather binder with an embossed gold crest on it, some kind of made-up coat of arms. I start flipping through it. I have no freakin' clue what to sing. "My Heart Will Go On"? I don't think so.
"While you decide, I will sing," Vicky Huang announces. She rises.
I think of Vicky as Sidney's enforcer. I doubt that she'd actually break my kneecaps, but she'd know who to call. Like the dude in the nice suit standing sentry by the door. There's nothing about him that sticks in your head. He's just this slightly taller-than-average Chinese guy with a thick neck and a crew cut.
Vicky, on the other hand, stands out. She's wearing an outfit that might look cute on a young, thin, twenty-something girl: brown leather hot pants over black leggings and a tight, fuzzy pink sweater. On a middle-aged, chubby woman with a cloud of teased, dyed black hair sporting red highlights, not so much.
Sidney hands her the mike like he's passing a loaded gun. I drink my Moutai, which I've decided is not so bad, at least situationally.
She takes her place in front of the giant flat-screen karaoke monitor. Stands there with this deadly serious expression, like she's facing a firing squad or has otherwise found Jesus.
The music begins. Swells. Building up to something big. On the screen there are random nature scenes and a young couple sitting on bright green grass, staring at each other, holding hands. Cartoon hearts drift up into the pixelated sky.
Vicky Huang opens her mouth, and out comes, "The hills are aliiiive ... with the sound of muuuusic ..."
What I wasn't expecting: Vicky Huang can actually sing.
Sidney claps wildly.
Lucky me, Vicky gets on a roll and sings four songs, and by the time she's done, Sidney's ready to bounce. This whole long night, he hasn't said one word about why he wanted me and Lucy to meet him in Shanghai for karaoke, but that's the way business gets done here a lot of the time.
When we gather in the lobby, next to a Lucite display advertising Rolex, the fake sky is black, with a full moon and clusters of stars. A jazz combo plays around one of the grand pianos, a song that would be kind of mellow if it weren't amplified to the point of distortion.
"Thank you for the lovely evening," Lucy says to Sidney. "Please let me know if there's anything I can do for you while you're in Shanghai."
"Of course, of course! We will talk. Perhaps tomorrow?"
Vicky Huang consults her iPad. "Two p.m." It is not a suggestion.
Lucy doesn't miss a beat. "I believe I'm available." She turns to me. "Ellie?"
"Oh. Yeah. Sure." I mean, what else am I going to do, other than try to score soup dumplings? Which sounds like a great idea, actually.
I'm the one who hooked up Lucy and Sidney. And even though Lucy thanks me for the connection, I feel a little queasy about it. Because I like Lucy a lot. We work together. She's a friend. And getting involved with Sidney is a really mixed bag.
"Shall we meet at the gallery?" Lucy asks. "I have a show up now with an emerging artist who may interest you."
"Of course, of course." Sidney sounds distracted. "Vicky will arrange."
Sidney Cao, in addition to being a ruthless billionaire guy, is seriously obsessed with collecting art. He has a collection that blows a lot of museums out of the water. Everything from Vermeer to Warhol. More recently he's gotten into contemporary Chinese art, which is how our paths happened to cross. I manage the works of an important contemporary artist: Zhang Jianli, my friend Lao Zhang. "Lao" means old, which he's not; he's maybe forty, but it's also a term of respect and friendship.
A lot of people respect Lao Zhang.
My ending up as his representative was kind of an accident, and though I've come around to thinking that the art gig isn't bad in theory, some of the complications — drinking tea with Domestic Security, karaoke marathons with a homicidal billionaire — are starting to wear on me.
Okay, maybe "homicidal" isn't fair. Maybe he just told his muscle to do whatever it takes to arrange a meeting with me to discuss Lao Zhang's art a couple of months ago, and what it happened to take was ... well, killing people. Stuff happens, right?
Besides, I'd probably be dead if he hadn't. I was in the middle of some serious shit at the time, and the people his men killed weren't exactly my friends.
"Can I drop you at your hotel?" Lucy asks me. She drives a cute MINI Cooper.
"That'd be great." I'm staying at my usual Shanghai rack, this funky, sprawling nineteenth-century hotel at the north end of the Bund. It's getting kind of pricey, over seventy bucks a night, but I have this thing where I get comfortable someplace and that takes the edge off the ol' PTSD hypervigilance, especially in a city as crazy big as Shanghai. This hotel, I know where it is, how to get there, I know the menus at their bar and café, even a couple of the staff, who recognize me when I check in. I feel, if not exactly safe, safer.
"Ellie, do you still have time tonight?" Sidney asks. Suddenly. "For a night cap?" Emphasis on "cap." He giggles. As if he's nervous.
Sidney, nervous? I've never seen that before.
I'm not liking this at all. And I'm past ready to go to my familiar hotel and burrow under my queen-size comforter.
Don't piss off the billionaire.
"I, uh ... Sure."
* * *
We end up at some club over in Pudong, driven there in Sidney's Bentley, the driver a rent-a-thug I don't recognize, the plain-wrap bodyguard riding shotgun. The club is in the penthouse of a crazy high-rise that looks sort of like a giant bottle opener, on the bank of the Huangpu River. Floor-to-ceiling windows a couple stories tall. A huge aquarium that takes up an entire back wall, containing a pair of sea turtles, a stingray, and a hammerhead shark. I guess they all get along.
Sidney and I sit in a high-backed, private booth up against one of the windows overlooking the river. I have to admit it's a pretty cool view, the old, restored European buildings on the Bund, science-fiction skyscrapers lurking behind them like invaders from another planet, obscured by mist. Boats tool up and down the river.
The whole time on the ride over here, Sidney made small talk — about his museum plans, about art he wants to buy. Whatever it is he wants to talk to me about isn't something he's willing to bring up in the backseat of his Bentley. Apparently it has to wait for another overpriced drink in some pretentious hangout for assholes with too much money.
"What can I get you for drink, Ellie?" Sidney asks.
"Whatever you're having," I say, and immediately regret it. Because what if it's more Moutai?
Instead the waitress, a drop-dead-gorgeous woman wearing a skintight black dress, brings us this fancy cut-glass bottle of liquor the color of bloody amber. She pours two glasses — snifters, I guess they're called — about a quarter full.
"Courvoisier L'Esprit," Sidney announces, holding his snifter up to the table lamp, this glowing, egg-shaped thing that I guess looks pretty cool but that doesn't cast enough light so you could actually read a menu by it.
I lift up my snifter, too, wait for Sidney to clink and take a little sip.
Well, okay, this tastes pretty good. Like smoked apricots and honey.
"I am investor here," Sidney explains. "So they keep a few things I like for me."
"It's really delicious," I say.
He turns and stares out the window. The mist has thickened, making everything seem out of focus. Unreal. I look the other way and watch the hammerhead shark slowly cruise the length of the aquarium with a couple flips of its tail, one rubber black eye peering out in our direction.
I read somewhere that hammerhead sharks are actually pretty harmless — they just look deadly.
"Maybe you wonder why I want to talk to you this evening, Ellie," Sidney finally says.
"I, uh ... art?" Because I figure it must have something to do with Lao Zhang. Sidney's been dying to get a few of Lao Zhang's pieces for his collection. Like I found out a couple of months ago, he's willing to go to a lot of trouble to get them. The problem is, because of some recent complications with China's Domestic Security Department, I can't really sell him any. We made this arrangement where I donated him one (long story), but now I'm thinking one wasn't enough. That he wants a different piece, maybe one I can't donate in good conscience, one of Lao Zhang's major works that could bring him a lot of money — if he were allowed to sell it anyway.
"No," Sidney says. "It's because of Gugu."
"Guwei," Sidney says, shaking his head. "I must correct myself. Gugu was his child name."
"Your son?" I ask.
"Yes. The younger one."
Sidney has three children. For a guy as rich as Sidney, China's official one-child policy is more like a mild suggestion.
Two boys and a girl. That's all I knew about Sidney's kids. Now I know that one of them's named Gugu. Guwei, that is.
"Oh," I say. "So Guwei, he's interested in contemporary Chinese art?" Because I can't think of anything else I'm involved with that a son of Sidney's might care about. It's not like I have connections with Ivy League colleges, or Wall Street firms, or really much of anything, other than Beijing dive bars and cheap dumpling restaurants.
Sidney sighs and lifts his hand. Immediately the waitress appears. She pours us both more of the fancy cognac.
"No," he says. "He does not care for the art. He cares for the expensive cars and clothes. Girls. Things like that."
Not my MOS, that's for sure.
Sidney leans forward. "I think maybe he falls into some bad company." A reluctant confession.
"I see," I say, but of course I really don't. So the kid's a spoiled little emperor, driving hookers around in his Ferrari or whatever. What's that got to do with me?
"I warn him, but he doesn't listen. I tell him maybe I take away his money, but he already has his own. 'I can make more,' he tells me. 'I don't need anything from you.'"
The way Sidney hangs his head, I feel a little sorry for him. A guy so rich he owns his own ghost city, and he still can't get his kid to listen up. Which doesn't answer the essential question: Why me? Because I'm such a fuckup that he thinks maybe I can give him advice on how to deal with another one?
"I think it is because of this American," Sidney says suddenly. Like it's a curse word. "I think he is the bad influence on my son."
"Oh," I say. "Sorry." Maybe I'm supposed to be apologizing for the sins of my countryman.
"I investigate him," he says, jabbing a finger in the air. "He is a businessman. A consultant." He spits that last word. I kind of don't blame him. It's harder to be a total con-artist foreigner than it used to be, but there are still plenty of sketchy white dudes calling themselves "consultants," or "market-intelligence strategists," or whatever.
"What does he want with Gugu?" I think to ask.
"Don't know. Gugu won't say."
And all of a sudden, I'm getting a feeling why Sidney invited me out tonight.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dragon Day"
Copyright © 2015 Lisa Brackmann.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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