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chinese whispers - extract


PROLOGUE

She sits in the lobby watching the Western women drift by, heady strands of exotic scent lingering in their wake. They mask their age with dyed blond hair and painted faces, drape themselves in haute couture and walk with style on heels that would kill. Skin as pale as ivory, eyes green or blue or hazel. Startling. Bizarre. They have everything she aspires to. Money, men, carelessness with a freedom they take for granted. But it is an aspiration she will never realise. For she will never see tomorrow.

She catches a glimpse of her reflection. So much light and glass, polished steel and shining marble. She is everywhere she looks. And, by contrast, she is shocked by her plainness. It is only too apparent to her, even beneath the veil of make-up; the slash of red on her lips; the eyes she has tried to make seem a little less slanted; the curl she has attempted to tong into limp black hair. She feels dowdy, ugly.

She becomes aware, then, of a man leaning against the desk at reception undressing her with his eyes, anxious to catch hers so that she knows what is in his mind. He is not ashamed of his lust and it makes her uncomfortable. She has good legs, long and slender. Her skirt is short to make the most of them. But she uncrosses them now, and presses her knees firmly together. She knows what it is he wants, and she knows it is not her.

A voice speaks her name. Close by. Soft, gentle. She turns, startled by its intimacy, and he is smiling down at her. He is older than she imagined, but his hair is full and dark and he is not unattractive. And there is something reassuring about his being Chinese, too. She jumps to her feet, drawing full lips back over white teeth in her brightest smile. He will be no ticket to a better life, but neither will he make false promises, and he will know the value of the money he puts in her hand when it is all over. So simple. The undulating melody of her cellphone bringing his response to her two-line ad in the Beijing paper. A price agreed, a rendezvous arranged. She glances over her shoulder as he sweeps her towards the revolving door, and sees the disappointment in the eyes of the Westerner at reception. Unfulfilled fantasies. And she feels the power of denial.

She is shocked by the cold of this late fall night, lulled into a false sense of warmth by the extravagant heating of the foreigners' hotel. The municipal government has only just turned on the city's heating system, a week later than usual to save money. She pulls her leather jacket more tightly around herself and slips her arm through his, hoping it will be warmer in his car.

But if he has a car, it is nowhere nearby. They walk east on Jianguomenwai for a long time, late night traffic dwindling on the boulevard, the occasional bikers drifting past them like ghosts in the dark of the cycle lane. All the time he talks to her, like he has known her for years. About some new restaurant in Chongwen district, a hat he bought in Wangfujing. He is easy company, but she wishes they would reach his car soon. The digital display on the clock on the far corner of Dongdoqiao Road, above the Beijing Yan Bao Auto BMW franchise, shows a quarter past midnight. It flashes alternately a temperature reading of minus two. The lights go out in Sammie's Café, which claims to be the place in Beijing where East eats West. The last burger chomping patrons have long gone, probably on the last subway train at eleven-forty. The gates of the Beijing Subway are drawn now and padlocked, the ticket hall beyond brooding in silent darkness. The sidewalk is deserted here, shutters drawn on supermarket windows, a news-stand battened down for the night. Gold characters on red hoardings reflect light from distant street lamps. Xiushuimarket. Silk Street. A gaping black hole leading to a narrow alleyway where stallholders closed up for the night hours ago.

To her surprise, they turn into the tiny market street, and are swallowed up immediately by its darkness. She hesitates, but his grip on her arm only tightens, and her surprise turns to alarm. She wants to know where they are going. Where is his car? He has no car, he tells her, and he cannot take her home. Here they will not be disturbed. She protests. It is too cold. He promises to keep her warm. And perhaps another hundred yuan...

She is slightly mollified, and reluctantly allows him to lead her deeper into the alley. Here, in the day, thousands of people clamour and haggle for bargains, stallholders shouting and spitting and throwing the dregs of cold green tea across the flagstones. She has been here many times, but never seen it like this. Cold, deserted, shuttered up. Above the stalls, on the east side, the lights of apartment buildings seem to plunge the alley into even deeper gloom. On the west side, three-storey luxury apartment blocks lie empty, as yet unsold. She glances back. The lights of the boulevard seem a long way away. Up ahead, the street lamps lining the road outside the US Embassy Visa Office seem feeble, devoured by the night.

Her eyes are adapting now. She can make out signs for silk carpets, fresh water pearls, "cloisonné", seal carving. She wishes she were somewhere else, fulfilling the fantasies of the man at the reception desk, perhaps. In some warm hotel room.

They are almost at the far end of the alley when he turns her into an opening, and she feels the freezing cold of metal gates pressing up against her back. She feels his breath on her neck, lips grazing her skin, and she tenses for the inevitable. It never gets any easier. But he steps back and says she should relax. He takes a pack of Russian cheroots from his coat pocket and his lighter flares briefly in the dark. She fumbles in her purse for her cigarettes and he lights one for her. She is still shivering from the cold, but less scared now. He leans against the wall, talking about the demolition in the north of the city and the new apartment blocks they are building there. He blows smoke into the air and watches it drift past a banner forbidding smoking. He asks her where she lives, and if she has a day-job. And she tells him about the antiques stall at Panjiayuan, and about her mother, and has no inkling of the contempt he has for her. She thinks his smile reflects his interest. She thinks his eyes are kind.

She finishes her cigarette and he tosses his cheroot into the darkness. Embers scatter as it hits the ground. He steps closer, a hand slipping into the warmth beneath her jacket, his hand searching for small breasts pushed up into fullness by the Wonderbra sent by God for Chinese women. Hot breath on her face. She can smell the bitter smoke of his cheroot. His hand lingers only briefly at her breast before gliding up to her neck, fingers softly encircling it as he finds her lips with his and she chokes back her repugnance. Only, she has no breath. And she cannot speak. And for a moment she wonders what has happened to her, before realising that his fingers have turned to steel and are crushing her windpipe. She struggles to free herself, but he is far too strong. His face is still close to hers, watching as she fights for a life that is fading so quickly. His eyes are wide and full of something she has never seen before. She cannot believe she will die like this. Not here. Not now. Lights flash in her eyes, and the fight in her starts to ebb. Too fast. Too easy. All too easy. Then darkness descends like a warm cloud. And she is gone. To a place she has never dreamed of.

Her slight frame has become a dead weight in his arms, surprisingly heavy in lifelessness, as he lowers her to the ground, arranging her carefully on the paving stones. He glances quickly each way down the alley, and can hear the guard stamping his feet just beyond the far end of the market street, where embassyland stretches off into silent darkness. There is a frisson for him, knowing that there is someone so close. So oblivious. It somehow emphasises his superiority. Crouching beside her, he looks at the dead girl on the ground and runs fingertips lightly over the features of her face. She is still warm. Blood still oxygenated. There is a tiny smile on his lips as he draws the knife from beneath his coat.

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© Peter May 2004