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A China Maroc Novel
By Eric Van Lustbader
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Eric Van Lustbader
All rights reserved.
WINTER — SPRING PRESENT Hong Kong/Beijing/ Washington/Moscow
JAKE AND BLISS WERE down in the Hole. In the night, the sounds of Hong Kong came to them as through a mist. They were so near the harbor they could hear the lap-lap, lap-lap of water against pilings. The high-pitched squeal of rats came to them now and again through walls of packed earth and rotting timbers.
The sounds of gambling took precedence over everything else. That was the essence of the Hole, a warren of underground chambers linked by low tunnels: gambling. The only legal gambling allowed in Hong Kong was the horse races at Happy Valley. But the Chinese were insatiable gamblers.
It was very dark down in the Hole. Jake had no love for it but it was the spot insisted upon for the rendezvous.
"How well do you know this man?" Bliss asked him.
Jake stared at her. "He is one of the half-dozen I have been running for the past six months." He caught her tone. "I trust him."
Bliss shivered a little. "I don't like this place," she said, echoing Jake's own thoughts.
"He must have a reason for meeting us here," Jake said.
Bliss looked around. "Easy to get trapped down here."
"Just as easy to get lost," Jake said. "Don't worry."
She gave him a little smile. "Just nerves." He could see the long sweep of her beautiful neck. "I don't like to be underground."
"You could have stayed home. I told you."
"Not after what your contact hinted at." She moved and the hollow of her throat filled with shadow. "Jake. Do you really think he's that close to the spy who has infiltrated our inner circle?"
Jake was watching the low-ceilinged corridor. There had been some movement there. "Like I said." Click-clack-click of the ivory mah-jongg tiles. "I vetted him himself." Cigarette smoke, blued in the bare bulb light, thick as fog. "As I do all my operatives." Jumble of Cantonese, rising, as the bidding became more heated. "I trust him." Shadow and light, moving. "I wouldn't be down here otherwise."
Bliss turned her head. Jake could feel the tension come into her frame. "Is that him?"
Jake looked at the thin Chinese with slicked-back hair. He was young to be down here. The Hole was generally the province of the older men, who remembered when smugglers used these tunnels. "No," Jake said, watching the thin Chinese stand there, observing the mah-jongg game. When he began to joke with the participants, Jake turned his attention elsewhere.
"He's late," Bliss said, "your contact."
"He'll be here."
"You've had leads before," Bliss said.
"They've all been dead ends," Jake said. He was looking beyond the gamblers. "My operatives get so far, then it's as if a door gets slammed in their faces."
"Time to take another tack."
Jake considered this. He knew how smart Bliss was; that was part of what he loved about her. Maybe she was right. Maybe he should —
He began to move forward. "He's here."
Jake was in the light, and the stocky, mustachioed Chinese saw him. He motioned for Jake to stay where he was. Movement at the mah-jongg game was furious, as the last of the tiles were laid out.
The contact made his way past the gesticulating gamblers. His movements were quick, darting. Then he seemed to stumble, and with a cry, he fell forward, into the midst of the gamblers. The ancient wooden table collapsed beneath his weight, tiles scattered, and the old men shouted, lurched out of their chairs.
Then Jake saw the young Chinese with the slicked-back hair; he was racing back along the tunnel down which the contact had just come.
Jake sprang toward the jumble of the gamblers and their ruined game. Bliss shot past him as he bent over the stocky Chinese, his contact, and turned him over. There was blood everywhere. Jake saw the knife and thought, He got the heart; he's a professional — a good one.
There was nothing in the stocky man's eyes: no recognition, no intelligence; the spark had been extinguished in a second. Life to death, without warning.
Ignoring the shouts of the gamblers, Jake took off after Bliss and the assassin. I should have kept my eye on him, Jake thought. I should have known. Why didn't ba-mahk alert me?
Instead he had put Bliss into great danger.
She slammed around a corner and, catching sight of the Chinese with the slicked-back hair, she raced after him. The cloying scent of opium was strong in the air, almost masking the acrid odors. The sweat of feverish gambling was as dense as mist in the subterranean air.
Through a clot of thin old men playing fan-tan. They turned, cursing at her: What was a woman doing down in the Hole anyway? Get back to shelling shrimp where you belong, they shouted. Leave men to their important business.
She ignored them as she had ignored similar poison all her life. She had seen the man with the slicked-back hair dart around to the left and, pushing aside several gamblers adrift on opium currents, she ran into shadows at top speed.
He was waiting for her; a curled arm like steel smashed downward, and Bliss gasped as she felt the pain sweep through her collarbone and neck. Her legs went out from under her and she slid onto the corridor's earthen floor.
Half stunned, she felt herself being dragged into a small, evil- smelling room. The soft stirring of the opium addicts came from all around her. She could barely make out supine shapes in the darkness. Here and there miniature fires were lit; the tears of the poppy was burning in the tiny bowls of long-stemmed pipes.
She felt his presence like a heat above her. She knew he would kill her, just as efficiently as he had killed the contact.
As he stood over her, she knew what she must do. In her mind she could hear the ancient gamblers screaming at her: What's a woman doing down in the Hole anyway? This man was no different from the rest. She would use it against him.
She could hear his panting; it contrasted with the slow, deep exhalations of the addicts among whom she lay.
Bliss lifted a hand, curled it around his neck, brought him down against her face. She could see slivers of yellow light reflecting in his eyes. She could scent his arousal. Killing sometimes did that to people, she had heard.
She needed time: to recover, to fix on a strategy. Bliss opened her legs, thrust her breasts up. All the while the hand she had placed behind his head was moving, ever so slowly. She twisted her breasts beneath his hands. Now the pad of her thumb was just over the right side of his neck. She must give no pressure, no warning.
Bliss knew that she would only get one chance. If she did not get it dead on, he would kill her. She had absolutely no doubt of that.
She concentrated on what she had to do. The carotid. She knew the nerve meridian well. Still she hesitated. So much was riding on the split second of her commitment. Death was waiting for her.
She felt him against her soft flesh and she had had enough. She summoned all her inner strength; she concentrated her qi down to this one point on his anatomy. The carotid meridian.
Opened her mouth wide and shouted, as Jake had taught her; simultaneously, she pressed inward at the meridian juncture.
The effect on the assassin was astounding. He jumped, a fish on a line. His eyes flew open; she could see the whites all around. They began to bug out as the color drained from his cheeks.
Realizing what she was doing, he responded instinctually; he hit out. His fists were like blocks of iron. They struck Bliss; tears of pain welled up in her eyes.
Dizzy, grinning, the man hit her again; he laughed. He was enjoying this. Perhaps he was still as hard as he had ever been.
Bliss abandoned the carotid meridian and smote the underside of his rib cage with the heel of her hand. She heard the sickening snap as the two lowest ribs shattered.
Jake, having heard Bliss's cries, slammed around the left turning, racing down the near-deserted corridor of shadows. His peripheral vision brought him the movement of the struggle and he leapt into the opium den.
He grabbed the man with the slicked-back hair and jerked him backward. Bliss, so focused that she was still unaware that he had come into the room, saw her opening and jammed her hand into her assailant's abdomen. As Jake had taught her to do she used her rigid fingers to puncture skin, muscles, organs, all in one blurred motion of such power that it was unstoppable.
"No!" Jake cried, as he saw her begin the lethal blow, but he was too late. She had been fighting for her life, and had become an organism too busy with the business of surviving to be concerned with outside stimuli.
The assassin spit blood and bile as he died. Reaching down, Jake scooped Bliss up off the floor and put the side of his face against hers. He kissed her on the lips. "Bliss. Are you all right?" "Jake." Her head against his chest.
"Brave one," he said softly, and took her out of there.
Bliss sat in their apartment, a neat Scotch in her hand. Jake Maroc was in her eyes. He was stretched out at her side, his long legs crossed at the ankles.
"I messed it up," she said softly.
"He was going to kill you," Jake said. "You did what you had to do. You had no choice. Not too many people would have been able to survive that, let alone succeed. Concentrate on that."
"But if I'd just disabled him we would have been able to question him." The whiskey was against her opened lips. "Maybe we would've even found out who the spy is."
"He was a professional, Bliss. Chances are we would have gotten nothing from him. I'm just glad we're both okay."
The Repulse Bay crescent was not far away but they were too high up to hear the crying of the gulls. A huge black kite sat in the treetop outside the window, the early morning sunlight turning its feathers iridescent.
"Another dead end," she said, and swallowed half her Scotch. She had taken a long, hot bath, and then she and Jake had made love. That was what she had wanted the most.
"My father," Jake said, staring at the kite. "He must be up for hours already."
Bliss watched from her long almond eyes. After a long time she stirred, as if making up her mind. "Jake, you don't understand. I am part of the yuhn-hyun, the inner circle. I am part of you. If I can't be of help ..."
Jake turned his head and smiled. He reached out, took her hand in his. "What would I do without you, Bliss. Joss that my contact was killed; joss that his murderer was, too. If I hadn't wanted you with me I'd have made damn sure that you stayed behind."
He frowned. "I need you with me. I don't know what I'd do otherwise, in the middle of the night." He was talking about the long ordeal he had so recently been through. For the entire nine months since he had returned to Hong Kong from Washington, where he had killed Henry Wunderman, Jake had been able to sleep only an hour or two a night. Near midnight he would pass out as if drugged, and Bliss, in the middle of reading, would quickly turn out the lights and slide down next to him.
Between one and two his animal cry of terror would start her awake. He could never remember the nightmare that had gripped him, but Bliss was certain that his guilt at having killed his surrogate father was the source.
Bliss reached out now, her long cocoa-colored fingers twining about his slender waist: They traced the network of long, flat muscles. Out of the corner of her eye she watched the worry lines etch themselves across his face. "The hospital," she said.
Jake smiled absently. "I remember. What a shock to see you again after all that time."
"We were childhood sweethearts, in the streets of Hong Kong."
"Is that what we were?" He pulled himself close to her.
"I always thought so."
"That's because you were precocious." The palm of his hand slid along her cheek. "To me you were my best friend."
Bliss laughed. "You see what I mean? What other boy would think of a girl as his best friend."
"I guess you're right," Jake said. "I must have been in love." Watching as Bliss's eyes closed. To his caress or his words? He was not certain it mattered. "Or crazy!" Her eyes flew open and now it was his turn to laugh.
"I'm glad you're not angry with me," she said.
"Why should I be angry?" he said, sliding out of bed.
"Because when I came back into your life a year ago, it was as an agent of your father ... because I was forbidden to tell you about certain things, the inner circle included, before a specific time."
Jake's extraordinary copper-colored eyes were hooded, as dark now in their centers as lead. "You were chosen by my father to lead me back to my family. Because of you, I found my half-brother, Nichiren. I found my real father, Shi Zilin. Because of you I am part of the yuhn-hyun, the inner circle of people who will control all of Asia someday."
"You are much more than that, my darling," Bliss said. "You are Zhuan. Your father is preparing you to be the new leader. Don't you see, you are becoming the most powerful and influential man in the entire Eastern Hemisphere."
Jake looked away, and Bliss thought, What is wrong? He went barefoot into the bathroom. He did not bother to close the door. Bliss heard him urinating, then the tap water going. She drew her knees up to her chin and watched his shadow blocking the bathroom light. It fell upon the tiles in sharp angles.
When he came out of the shower, he looked into her beautiful face and seemed to see right through to the core of her. "No one else in the world could have done what you did," he said. "You fought at my side against spies and assassins. Like tonight. The extreme danger never fazed you."
"My father trained me well," Bliss said. But her mind was far away. She was thinking of how Jake had changed since Zilin had arrived in Hong Kong. He had become at once more in command and more secretive. She wondered whether the one was part of the other, and found herself fervently hoping that was not true.
Jake was very close to her. She felt the force of him. It was like being bathed by the noonday sun.
"The struggle is just beginning." His voice was very quiet. "It's on a larger scale than any of us could have dreamed. Before it's over, Bliss, we'll all need every ounce of strength we possess."
His words fell like hammer blows. Bliss felt her heart beating fast. "What's happening, Jake? What aren't you telling me?" He smiled suddenly, and kissed her hard on the lips. "Nothing," he said, and kissed her again. "Speaking of your father," Jake said, "I'll need to see Three Oaths Tsun this afternoon."
"Do you wish to see the inner circle's other tai pan, or just my father?"
What was it, she wondered; what was darkening Jake's thoughts? She could feel it. Was it the specters of the dead he had so recently buried? For just an instant, she had a premonition; a remarkable sword of light pierced her consciousness. There was something more. Something that even he might not be aware of. She felt a chill of fear run through her. If Jake was out of phase with his environment or with himself, the consequences could be disastrous. He needed all his concentration in order to formulate his own strategy within the inner circle — and to try to discern the strategies of his enemies. If his qi was not in harmony, his decision-making prowess would be in serious jeopardy.
"No. I want to see Three Oaths Tsun alone," Jake said. "Will you set it up for three o'clock?"
Bliss nodded. "Of course." She thought of Three Oaths Tsun as her father because he had brought her up. Bliss had never known her real father, and remembered her mother only as a distant blur, like a badly out-of-focus photograph.
"And don't forget the emergency meeting Andrew Sawyer has called for noon," Bliss said. "That was the soonest all the tai pan could be rounded up." Jake nodded.
"Do you know what that's all about?" she asked anxiously. "Andrew sounded quite upset when he called."
Jake said, "Andrew's always upset about one thing or another."
She opened her mouth to tell Jake that she wanted to help him more, but he had turned away; she sensed that he was gone from her just as surely as if he had already walked out the door. His mind, no doubt, was already on this morning's meeting with his father, the great Jian, Shi Zilin.
Before Henry Wunderman, Jake's surrogate father, Jake had had foster parents. Solomon and Ruth Maroc, Jewish refugees in Shanghai, had taken him and his mother in. She had been sick and dying. The Marocs cared for Athena and her frightened child.
By that time, Jake's real father, Shi Zilin, had already gone with Mao, giving up his family, all that he held dear, in order to direct the fate of the new China.
Zilin worked behind the scenes with Mao, consolidating his power, entrenching himself through all the agonizingly bloody years of revolution and struggles for power, through the fall of Mao, the Gang of Four, the abrupt end to the Cultural Revolution. Until he was beyond all the infighting, the internecine warfare that led, inevitably, to the purges. Philosophies eddied and flowed around the seat of power in China. But because he was secreted away from it, Zilin was always spared.
Excerpted from Shan by Eric Van Lustbader. Copyright © 1986 Eric Van Lustbader. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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