The sign was in eleven languages including Arabic, German, Dutch, English, Russian, and both Mandarin and Cantonese variants for the locals. The English interpretation read:
Welcomes Its Honored Guests
In any language the message was clear: Keep Out.
If this polite suggestion was vague, the men keeping watch over all ingress and egress were heavy with implied threat. They were all uniformed members of the People’s Armed Police Force, carrying the authority of the Central Military Committee. Dressed in tightly belted army greens, they bore both sidearms and automatic weapons; in comportment they looked the same as the officer directing the hectic traffic mere blocks away, not far from the world-famous bronze statue of Mao Tse-Tung pointing boldly toward the future. The statue still stood outside the Peace Hotel on the Bund, though Mao’s historical significance had lately been overshadowed by the political and economic reforms of his successors.
At night the Bund is brilliant with golden light, presently competing with an ever-increasing array of garish neon advertisements in all languages. The most unusual building found on the Bund sits in Pudong Park in Lujiazui. It is called "the Pearl"—short for the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. It looks like a recently landed spaceship from another planet. A massive tripod base supports three nine-meter-wide columns of stainless steel that encase a variety of metallic spheres and globes. The topmost globe, at an elevation of nearly 1,500 feet, is called the "space module." From the large lower sphere, one can see all the way to the Yangtze River. The design aesthetic was to create "twin dragons playing with pearls," derived from the presence of the Yangpu Bridge to the northeast and the Nanpu Bridge to the southwest.
The Pearl is home to commerce, recreation, and history. The Shanghai Municipal History Museum is housed in its pedestal. The topmost sphere features a revolving restaurant. In between are shops, more restaurants, hotel facilities and the transmission headquarters for nearly two dozen television channels and FM radio stations. The Pearl is so dominant on the Bund that it can be seen from twenty miles inland; lit up at nighttime, it is a truly eerie, otherworldly sight.
Zhongshan Road was seething with traffic—everything from skate-sized diesel automobiles to pedicabs and bicycles (thousands of bicycles)—binding and blending with pedestrians (thousands more). Every twenty minutes the Sin Shan Ferry brought more people, more vehicles. A roiling, complex sea of humanity.
At night the abundance of artificial light from the Bund, and from the Pearl, makes the Huangpu River appear almost black.
Qingzhao Wai Chiu, whose given name meant "clear illumination and understanding," understood appearances and how to manipulate them. Klaxons sounded for the docking ferry, and she debarked, pulling her little wheeled suitcase behind her.
There was a beggar trying to negotiate the upward slope of the ferry ramp. It was a legless old woman, hauling herself along on a wheeled platform by means of wooden blocks, totally alone on the concrete ramp until the steel mesh gates withdrew and the complement of ferry passengers surged toward her in an unbroken wave. She kept her eyes down, as is common for beggars. Inevitably her cup was jostled and a few meager coins pinwheeled down the ramp or disappeared beneath the shoes of the incoming.
The disparity between the old wretch and Qingzhao could not have been more striking. Qingzhao was tall for a Chinese woman—five foot nine, rendered even taller by expensive spike heels so new the soles were barely scuffed. Unlike many women, she knew how to walk in those heels. Her stride itself could be a weapon, a statement. Her full, lush fall of ebony-black hair concealed many scars. Her gaze could be as steely dark as espresso but it was shielded now behind tinted glasses. She walked with a purpose.
She tucked a one hundred-yuan note into the beggar’s cup, noticing the depth of the ragged woman’s platform. It was designed to conceal her lower legs. She was a fake. She looked skyward and off-center at the sound of paper rustling in the cup and Qingzhao saw her milky, cataracted eyes. She probably was not really blind, either. No matter. Qingzhao was faking, too.
The beggar was swallowed by the crowd as Qingzhao made her way toward the rocketship, the TV tower—the Pearl.
The policemen flanking the sign ate her up head-to-toe with expressions just shy of leering. She knew what they were thinking: An entertainer, probably a prostitute. That was what she needed them to think.
First hurdle cleared.
In the Tower lobby there was more security on behalf of the reception for the CCC—double guards and a walk-through booth twice the size of an airport scanner. Qingzhong knew this was a recently emplaced piece of Japanese technology that could present a body scan in X-ray schematic.
The scan of her trolley case revealed that it contained, among other things, a flamboyant, metallic wig—the sort of thing a dancer might wear. Or a stripper.
The guards made her open the case anyway, mostly so they could sneak peeks down her cleavage. Her silk blouse and leather jacket had been strategically chosen and just as strategically deployed. These baboons would never see the big X of scar tissue beneath her left breast, or care.
Qingzhao was waved toward a lift with brushed aluminum doors. The car shot up just shy of a quarter mile; she felt her ears pop.
Second hurdle cleared.
The Chinese Cooperative Confederation was the brainchild of a financier who had changed his name to Kuan-Ku Tak Cheung, although Qingzhao knew the man was Russian by birth. It represented a new sociopolitical horizon for 21st Century China, which irritated all the traditionalists and old Party members but represented an enticing commercial future for China’s so-called "new generation." As far as the old school was concerned, giving Cheung a political foothold would be akin to the Mafia fielding a presidential candidate in the United States. But it did not really matter as long as the correct palms were silvered. And Cheung, ever the tactician, was perpetually developing inroads to curry the favor of his harshest opponents.
Of course, politics had nothing to do with the reasons Qingzhao had come to kill Cheung, whose real name was Anatoly Dragunov.
The noise level was painfully high in the midsection of the Moire Club, overlooking the Huangpu from the midsection of the Pearl.
On a revolving chromium stage, expressionless dancers in white bodystockings and face-paint moved like robots, tracking the gyrations of naked men and women being projected onto them from hidden lenses.
At least five hundred guests and noteworthies were portioned into pie-wedge areas sectioned by hanging panes of soundproof karaoke glass. In the midst of chaos, silence could be had. The glass was also bulletproof, grade six, arranged to accommodate any sized group and isolate them in plain sight. Each alcove of glass was a different projected color. The support wires could also transmit billing information from any of the glass-topped scanner tables.
The servers were all Takarazuka—female Japanese exotics dressed as tuxedoed men, supervised by a matron dolled up in an elaborate fringed gown and a mile-high pile of spangled hair, himself a transplant from a Dallas, Texas drag show where he had specialized in Liza Minnelli.
At the mâitre d’ station there was another body scanner. Even an amateur could have picked out guest from bodyguard. The watchdogs were too confident, too arrogant, too chest-puffy. They had seen too much Western television and been inspired by too many Western films.
Ivory was disappointed by this crew, but it was not his place to say so. His job was not only to watch the crowd, but to watch the watchers. He was a dark-haired, sharp-eyed son of Heilongjiang Province—although those records had been erased long ago. His current name was Longwei Sze Xie— nickname, "Ivory," source unknown—and he looked like he was in charge of everything.
An immaculate, six-foot blonde Caucasian woman had just raised the hackles of the mâitre d’ at the scanner. She was packing a sleek .380 in a spine retention holster just below the elaborate calligraphy of the tattoo on the small of her back. Vistas of exposed flesh, yards of leg, a good weight of ample bosom, and yet she could still artfully hide a firearm inside the slippery, veiled thing she was almost wearing.
Ivory quickly interceded: "She’s one of Cheung’s." Meaning: Her gun is permitted. Just like the similar gun concealed amidst the charms of her opposite number, an equally statuesque African goddess named Shukuma—Cheung’s other arm doily for the evening.
Kuan-Ku Tak Cheung, a.k.a. Anatoly Dragunov, was holding forth from a VIP area near the center of the swirling carnival. Ivory put the man to be in his mid-fifties; barrel chest, huge hands, a face like unfinished sculpture. From his vantage Ivory could see that Shukuma had Cheung’s back at all times. Good. Either she or the blonde, Valentina, would signal if Ivory needed to be called into play.
Down in the VIP pit, Cheung placed a denominational bill on the glass table before each of his honored guests, four in focus: Japanese yen for Mr. Igarishi, a new Euro for Mr. Beschorner, modern rubles for Mr. Oktyabrina, and good old U.S. of A. dollars for Mr. Reynaldo.
Mr. Igarishi said, "We are equally honored." He spoke with a Kyoto inflection.
Cheung said, "I respect the charm of a gesture." Turning to Beschorner, he added, "True wealth is invisible, ja?" in Frankfurt German. To Mr. Oktyabrina he added, "Ones and zeros are what we are really after," and completed the sentence in English for the benefit of Mr. Reynaldo: "ůso we cannot deny the purity." He had just delivered an unbroken speech in four languages. He was showing off. They were all multilingual. But it helped to choose a negotiative tongue that could not be readily comprehended by, say, the average waiter.
"Paper currency is almost extinct," he told his familiars. "What you see is the last gasp of that outmoded idiom, and I guarantee it will pass muster anywhere in the world. Paper currency will erect our economical siege machine. In the aftermath of what we do, digital currency will make us all wealthy beyond the belief of ordinary human beings."
"If you can deliver China as promised," said Beschorner.
"I anticipate all phases complete within the next two years," said Cheung.
Ivory monitored all this via earbud. New dancers, tricked out in painfully complex PVC fetishwear, had taken the circular chrome stage.
Then somebody opened fire on Cheung, Ivory’s boss, and people started diving for cover. Except for Ivory, still standing, eyes unfazed, gun already drawn.
Qingzhao quickly approached the backstage corral as the white-bodystockinged dancers hustled off. She smiled as her "fellow performers" passed. Half of them returned her expression, no doubt thinking: What was her name again? I’m sure I’ve met her. The men got deferential avoidance of eye contact, otherwise they might spend too much time later trying to place her face.
The hosed and goggled PVC outfits had been wheeled to the prep floor on a giant mobile rack whose casters creaked with the weight of the gear. All the evening’s entertainments had been calculatedly androgynous, and this would work to Qingzhao’s advantage when she blended into the troupe that was to go on in another ten minutes.
The only privacy backstage was found in the staff toilets. Performers had a splendid nonchalance about nudity, which meant that Qingzhao could use her breasts, ass, and million-watt smile as further distractions from the fact that she was not supposed to be there at all. She stripped off her wrap skirt, her jacket, her blouse, while striding purposefully toward her destination. On the way, she lifted one of the PVC costumes from the rack.
In the loo she cracked open her little wheeled suitcase. The wig inside matched the gear for the PVC dancers.
After opening the case handle, popping the hidden seam on the heavy-duty hinges, and unclicking a concealed hatch on the wig mount, Qingzhao assembled the components for her pistol—a big AutoMag IV frame jazzed up to resemble the prop space guns that were also part of the forthcoming presentation. A steel tube disgorged a full magazine’s worth of specialty ammunition. They were heavy-caliber loads with black and yellow hazard striping on the cartridge casings.
Miraculously, the assembled gun actually fit the holster that was part of the stage costume—an unanticipated plus, there.
The white facial pancake and black lipstick and liner she rapidly applied made her indistinguishable from the others, male or female. This, she had counted on.
Feeling like an ingénue in a chorus line, she filed onstage with the rest, having no idea whatsoever about marks, timing, position, or the number to which they were supposedly herky-jerking around. It did not matter. She needed five seconds, tops, before she was blown.
Outside the Pearl, a dirigible bloated with neon circled the convex windows.
In a single liquid move, Qingzhao pivoted, crouched, sighted, and fired.
The bullet rocketed across the room and hit the plexi about a foot away from Kuan-Ku Tak Cheung’s head. The tempered material spiderwebbed but did not shatter. The round left a broad, opaque splatter like a paintball round.
Which began to effervesce. Acid.
Immediately, Ivory, Shukuma and Valentina triangulated to shield Cheung, guns out.
The highly paid bodyguards of Cheung’s international guests lacked such reaction time. They were still unholstering their weaponry and trying to acquire a target. By the time they found their senses, Qingzhao had fired twice more.
The compromised plexi disintegrated and the unfortunate Mr. Igarishi took a round in the head that nearly vaporized his skull.
Ivory brought up his pistol in a leading arc and returned auto-rapidfire through the breached glass single-handedly—something not many men could do with a sense of control. The OTs-33 "Pernach" in his grasp stuttered, instantly reducing its double-stack 27-round mag by half in the first burst. "Pernach" meant "multivaned mace" in Russian, and a jagged line of Parabellum rounds chased Qingzhao’s wake as she dived off the stage.
Ivory did not pause in astonishment as Qingzhao hit the circular lip of the stage, shooting back while in mid-fall.
Valentina’s shooting arm violently parted company with her body, the spray causing everyone to duck. The hanging plexi all around the club was jigging now with bullet hits as other enforcers tried to determine what threat, from where, and filled the night with panic fire.
Ivory broadsided Cheung and caught two hits in the chest. He did not go down. It took him less than a tenth of a second to register the acid and he quickly stripped his jacket, which was lined with whisper-thin body armor of Japanese manufacture. Spotlights exploded above him.
Ivory and Shukuma bulldogged Cheung into the body scanner at the mâitre d’ station and slid the emergency panels shut, enclosing him. Cheung’s skeleton showed on the screen in blue, but no bullet could harm him there. The less-lucky mâitre d’ was slumped across the dais, having interrupted the travel of several conventional rounds fired by other bodyguards.
Ivory only had eyes for Qingzhao, who was now boxed in near the panoramic windows with no place to run. The blimp cruised past behind her, flashing advertising in polyglot: CortCom. Vivitrac. Eat Nirasawa-Mega-Output Beverage!
Qingzhao brought an entire framework of glass panels down on Ivory’s head. Then she put the rest of her clip into the big curved window, which disassembled itself and succumbed to gravity.
Ivory had her dead in his sights as she jumped. He spent the rest of his clip trying to wing her on the way out.
He ran to the window, icy night air scything inward. From this high up, the light of the Bund made it impossible to see the river. No parachute, no falling body, just blackness.
Qingzhao, Ivory knew, would have counted on that.
Copyright © 2009 by Winterfall LLC.