As always, change is unavoidable.
One of the truisms perpetuated by the despised traditional publishing industry is that once you’re “branded”—i.e., once you’re known for a certain product lines—breaking out into other products is difficult, in not outright impossible. I’d always thought that was a load of crap, but after several years of plugging away and finding that some of my richer fare doesn’t sell very well…hmm, maybe those “taste makers” in the traditional industry might be onto something.
Yeah, just one thing, so let’s not all get excited. Apparently, every dog really does have his day and a broken clock is right every twelve hours.
This observation isn’t particularly new to me. I have some great product out there under the name Stephen Knight that doesn’t sell at all, like White Tiger and Charges. Both generally have good reviews, but after three or four people buy them, that’s it. I’ve been trying to breathe new life into Charges with a fully immersive audio book, and while that seems to be coming along nicely, it’s also a brand-new release—I need more time to evaluate how successful this very expensive addition to the product line will pan out.
And Stephen Knight is known primarily as a zombie apocalypse guy. It was never meant to be that way, of course—The Gathering Dead was done on a lark. It was just going to be a one-shot deal, done for fun, without a great deal of deliberation behind it. Instead, it spawned a franchise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. There are worse things a guy can do than provide some high-octane zompoc adventure every now and then. And Earthfall was the single best standalone work I’ve released, so that’s a bright ray of sunshine all by itself. If I released one of those every year, I’d buy the Playboy empire and restore it to its former glory.
Unfortunately for Knight? I’m bored shitless writing about zombies.
After The Last Town and even These Dead Lands: Immolation, I feel that I’m really just writing the same thing over and over and over again. While I do my best to people the stories with different characters, the story line is almost identical: zombies, fear, build, defend, collapse, retreat. Purists complain when you introduce new elements, even though what they complain about is the province of motion picture zombies, not literary. Thank God I have Earthfall 2 on the rack, because otherwise I’d be spending more time browsing vintage collectible tequilas online than I would be writing.
And it comes down to this: I want to write other stuff.
Enter Stephen Moore and Stephen Garrett.
Moore is my real surname; Knight is the professional alias I boosted from my father, as astute followers might have divined by now. Garrett is a family name from my mother’s side of the ancestral tree. For the longest time, I eschewed using my real name, as I a) don’t have an ego that needs to be fed with that kind of exposure, and b) I’m not sure I want to surrender my usual real-life anonymity in meatspace. (And also, Moore just isn’t as cool a moniker as Knight.) But Moore will be the guy who writes the police procedurals and techno-thrillers, and the odd dramatic work that parallels those worlds but doesn’t cross over into them, such as the still-nascent Hackett series. Moore’s first foray, aside from rebranding White Tiger with a new cover to kick things off, will be a police procedural about NYPD Detective Nick Avvento. Been wanting to do this one for years, and I have some great characters and a blood-chilling story line to go with it. There’s also some potential to release an upcoming work, Tribes, under this name; it’s a techno-thriller adventure story that was originally slotted for Knight, but I might change it up.
Garrett will be the hard, clanking science fiction guy. This is my native territory, writing stories about exploration, faraway places, bug-eyed aliens, and the thrill of adventure splashed across a canvas as wide as the universe itself. I’ve touched on it in past works under Knight, but only just barely. I’m itching to get into this. I have a huge series planned here, called The Reaches. Also some more free-booting military SF stuff which I have done, though it’s a bit dated and will need to be refreshed. Most of these are in my Continuum of Conflict story line which I’ve not revealed previously, and will be more “consumer-friendly” than The Reaches. Consider CoC will be more like the works of Robert Heinlein, while TR will be more like those by David Brin.
But it’s far from curtains for Knight. I—he?—still has to finish the next edition of The Retreat, and of course These Dead Lands will need to be completed. Then there’s the final installments of The Gathering Dead series, with the prequel Whispers of the Dead and the finale, Echoes of the Dead. And Earthfall 2, of course, along with the continuation of the Charges trilogy. So that’s like eight books, right there.
Does this sound confusing? It probably does, but it’s out of necessity, not preference. I’ve spent a lot of time getting Stephen Knight established; spinning off into new names doesn’t exactly thrill me.
Hopefully some of you will come along for the ride. I’ll keep you updated here as things begin to manifest themselves, but for the short term, don’t be alarmed.
One of the best books I think I’ve ever written is called White Tiger, a sexy thriller about revenge, international intrigue, and good, old-fashioned martial arts action with gunplay thrown in for good measure. I co-authored this piece with the redoubtable Derek Patterson, and our approach was pretty simple: I wrote about Manning, and Derek wrote about SFPD Inspector Hal Ryker. About 70% of the way through, Derek had to drop off, so I picked up the rest–sad, since there’s no telling what magic Derek could have brought to the finale. It took a long time to pull this one off, due to the copious research that was required, even though I was very careful to pick locations I know personally (San Francisco, Japan, and China), but the end product is worth it. All for nothing, though–White Tiger barely sells more than Family Ties, which if I sell one copy every two months is almost cause for celebration.
Just the same, I consider White Tiger an overlooked jewel in the firmament of my literary endeavor, so I thought I’d give it some face time. So meet the story’s main protagonist, Jerome Manning, fixer extraordinaire:
The Fujianese weren’t that hard to detect, even for a supposedly hapless gaijin like Jerome Manning. They sat in their parked car across from the Mansions at Azabu Towers, an extended-stay facility in Tokyo’s Minato-ku ward less than a mile from the crowning indelicacy that was Tokyo Tower. Despite having risen from the ashes of World War II under American stewardship, the Japanese loved all things European; Tokyo Tower was nothing more than a copy of Paris’s Eiffel Tower, although substantially less romantic. Manning had long grown used to the ugly up thrust—after all, his own home in Japan was just another half mile past the tower. Manning wished he was there now, kicking back on the couch and watching some inane Japanese TV show. Regrettably, work prevented that.
The men in the Toyota sedan sat and smoked, unaware of Manning’s covert surveillance even though he was only twenty feet away. One of them, sitting in the passenger seat, spoke into a cell phone endlessly. Manning made him as the team leader, and took several pictures of him with his smartphone. The Chinese did not notice this.
Time for some close-ups, Manning thought to himself as he approached the car from the rear. He put the phone to his ear and pretended to be in the middle of a difficult conversation, speaking a spattering of Serbo-Croatian curses he had learned some years ago. He paused next to the vehicle and took three quick photos while still holding the phone to his ear, pretending to listen carefully to the nonexistent conversation. He then slid the phone inside his jacket pocket, his fictional conversation over. The men in the car looked at him. Not in suspicion; it was just something to do while waiting.
Guess they don’t recognize me …
Manning took a gamble and approached the car as if noticing it for the first time. The passenger window was open, and the man with the cell phone looked at him as he strolled up to the vehicle.
“Roshia Taishikan wa doko ni aruka gozonji desuka?” he asked in less-than-perfect Japanese. Excuse me—where is the Russian embassy?
The man barked back something in a language that was neither Japanese nor English, or even Mandarin, yet Manning deciphered it as a Chinese provincial dialect. Fujianese, he was certain. Manning stared back, perplexed for a moment, then the man motioned him away from the car. Manning bowed slightly, and resumed his walk up the street. He crossed it and walked to the slab-like Azabu Towers main building. He pushed through the glass doors. There were several people milling about in the lobby—some were definitely Chinese, but their presence didn’t necessarily implicate them as associates of the Fujianese thugs outside. While waiting for the elevator, Manning kept his eyes on the marbled lobby, hands clasped behind his back. No one seemed unduly interested in him.
One man, sitting in an overstuffed lounge chair with a copy of the Daily Yomiuri on his lap, was chatting into a cell phone. While he wasn’t apparently interested in the tall foreigner in the elevator bay, he was in a perfect position for reconnaissance. Manning watched him from the corner of his eye. Was the man Chinese? He couldn’t tell, though he had an eye for such things; then again, Asians mistook each other all the time. Koreans would approach a Chinese thinking he was a fellow Korean; Japanese might be approached by a Taiwanese. Manning frowned. It could have been entirely coincidental, and how often did one see an Asian man using a cell phone? Asians lived or died by the gadgets.
The man disconnected and placed the phone on his lap. He picked up the Japanese-language newspaper and thumbed through the pages. He wasn’t reading it, just gazing at the pictures.
The elevator arrived and Manning stepped inside. Chinese.
He rode alone in the elevator to the ninth floor. The hallway was deserted; it was early afternoon, and most of the guests and residents were out. Manning walked to his suite, rapped on the door once, and dipped his keycard into the lock. He opened the door slowly.
“Ke jian bao Bái Hu,” he announced as he stepped through. It is the White Tiger.
Chen Gui, his current charge, stood in the short hallway inside. He was a short, cherubic Shanghainese with a potbelly who enjoyed wrapping himself in extravagance like a fine coat. He also held a Taurus .380 pistol with both hands. The barrel wavered back and forth. Chen Gui was trembling.
Manning closed the door behind him. “Put that down,” he said evenly.
Chen Gui let out his breath in a rush and nodded. He lowered the pistol and pulled a kerchief from his jacket pocket. He used it to dab at the sweat that beaded on his shaven head.
“Where’s your nephew?” Manning asked. He remained standing by the door.
“Chen Song!” Chen Gui barked. “Guo lai!”
From the small hallway leading to one of the bedrooms, a tall Chinese man stepped into the clear. He wore all black and gray, and his long hair was tied back in a ponytail. Raffishly handsome, he looked at Manning with a smirk as he slid his Beretta 92 pistol into a shoulder holster.
Manning didn’t bother to smirk back, just pushed past the two men and walked into the living room. The drapes had been closed; Manning opened them slightly.
“Don’t do that!” Chen Gui shouted in English. “They can see us in here!”
Manning looked back at him. “This is the only room with closed drapes,” he said. “That’d be a pretty big clue right there, don’t you think?”
Chen Gui wiped his face with his kerchief. “You saw them?”
“Four on the street. One downstairs in the lobby.” Manning pulled his phone and showed the pictures to Chen Gui. “Recognize them?”
Chen Gui scrolled through the photos, looking at them carefully. “Yes, all of them. All Fujianese.” Manning reclaimed his phone as Chen Gui stalked to the cream-colored sofa and threw himself onto it.
“Damned Fujianese! We Shanghainese are too charitable—I should have had them killed years ago!” he said, holding his face in his hands.
Manning checked his watch. Chen Gui looked up at him from the couch as Chen Song slipped into the matching love seat. His movements were as sinuous as a cat’s.
“How did they find us?” Chen Gui asked.
Manning pointed at Chen Gui. “Wearing a flame red suit probably wasn’t such a good idea,” he said. And it was true; Chen Gui, lover of all things ostentatious, was indeed wearing a red suit. It looked ridiculous, especially to a Westerner like Manning. But to a Chinese, red was the most auspicious of colors, the color of good fortune.
Chen Gui looked down at his suit, and his face hardened. “How dare you make fun of me at a time like this!”
Manning waved for him to be silent. “Keep your voice down.”
Chen Song looked up at the taller American with hard eyes. “Watch how you address my uncle,” he said.
Manning looked directly at him. “I don’t work for you, dipshit.”
Chen Song got to his feet, facing Manning. His eyes flashed with anger; Manning did nothing more than cross his arms.
“Stop!” Chen Gui hollered in Chinese. “No fighting now!”
Chen Song looked from Manning to his uncle and back again. After a moment of internal debate, he slowly settled back into the love seat’s embrace, but his thin smirk said it all: This is not yet over.
Manning remained unperturbed. He knew it would infuriate Chen Song more than anything else; like his uncle, he was a vain man, but his vanity centered on his masculinity. Not being taken seriously would bug him. Manning liked that.
“How will we get out of here?” Chen Gui asked.
“The first thing you need to do is change out of that damned suit. You too, Chen Song—both of you have to dress more, ah, casually.”
“I have other clothes with me,” Chen Gui said crossly. “What about the men in the street? And the one in the lobby?”
“There’s only one way out of here, and that’s down the driveway. We could make a break for it and try to get to one of the Azabu Juban stations, but frankly, I’d rather not be tied to public transportation.”
“Agreed. You have a car?”
“Good.” Chen Gui seemed placated for a moment, then suddenly remembered his original questions. “But the men—”
“The men on the street are less important to me than the one in the lobby. He’s the trip wire. The elevators come out right in front of him, and there’s no way for him to miss you.”
“So what to do about him? Can’t you just kill them? Isn’t that what we pay you for?” Chen Gui was becoming agitated again.
Manning looked at the smaller man. His face was still composed into a placid mask, but there was steel in his voice when he spoke.
“I kill when I have no other options,” he said. “And the reason I picked this place as a safe house is because they can’t move on us. The Russian embassy is right up the street, and so is a police station. There are cameras everywhere, and people of all races mix here. But the things that make this place reasonably safe also prevent me from doing what you ask. Understand?”
Chen Gui fell back against the sofa and seemed to deflate. “So what do you want to do? Just wait?”
“I have a plan. We’ll wait for about an hour or so, then we’ll make our move. In the meantime, let’s get you something to wear that’s a little less … loud.”
The hour passed with lethargy. Chen Gui groused about the outfit Manning insisted upon—a pair of khaki slacks and a dark polo shirt, over which he would wear Chen Song’s jacket. Chen Song had no issue changing into a similar outfit. Then Manning took their bags—they had one suitcase each, as he had told them—down to the lobby. The Fujianese man was still there, thumbing through a magazine, his cell phone in his lap. He did not look up as Manning toted the bags past him and to the bellhop, where he arranged for a Japan Airlines pickup. The bags, at the very least, would be ready for the 7:05 p.m. flight to Shanghai.
Manning then returned to the room and briefed the two Chinese on his plan. They listened attentively and quietly, and if they disagreed with the plan, they kept it to themselves. They had very little choice in the matter. All because they had crossed the rival Fujianese gang by undercutting the prices of illegally-transported merchandise, which in turn was sold on the market by their yakuza partners. Japan was still in the grips of a decade-long recession, and with quality consumer goods available at a markedly reduced price, the Japanese crime bosses enjoyed a wonderful revenue stream. But Chen Gui’s connections were better than his Fujianese counterpart’s, and he had been able to import more goods at lower prices. Logically, the competition had been enraged at being shut out, and the resulting three-day killing spree had gutted Chen Gui’s operation. Thirty-seven Chinese had been quietly murdered, and the Japanese police were just beginning to discover the bodies.
Chen Gui and his nephew had waited too long to return to China, and the noose had almost closed around them. And that was where Manning had come in, catching a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo two days ago.
He hoped he would be able to make it back alive.
“Any questions?” Manning asked after he was finished.
“Let’s get this over with,” Chen Gui said moodily. “I want to get out of this place.”
Chen Gui did as instructed. He walked out in plain view of the Fujianese in the lobby and strolled directly to the lobby restroom. The Fujianese paused only to make a quick telephone call, then followed the portly Shanghainese with quick, sure-footed steps. His face was a blank mask as he concentrated on nothing more than the next few minutes that lay ahead of him.
He did not notice the tall Westerner standing in the elevator bay fiddling with his phone, nor did he notice Manning enter the restroom behind him.
Chen Gui was standing before a urinal. The Fujianese walked into the restroom and reached inside his jacket, his pace quickening as he closed in on the Shanghainese crime boss. Chen Gui did not turn to look behind him, merely faced the wall.
The Fujianese pulled his weapon—a suppressed Ruger .22 pistol—from its holster.
He never made it. Manning was upon him in an instant, as fast and powerful as a hurricane. He slammed the Fujianese into the next urinal and expertly punched him in the side of the neck, delivering a brachial stun strike. The Fujianese gasped raggedly; his pistol fell to the floor, clattering on the tile. Manning lashed out with both hands and caught the smaller man beneath his armpits, then threw him into one of the toilet stalls. He closed the stall door behind him, then tossed the man’s gun into the wastebasket.
“Let’s go, Chen Gui.”
“Is it over?”
“Yes, let’s go now.”
“A moment,” Chen Gui said.
“What the hell for?”
“Ni yan xia le! Mei kanjian wo zai fangbian ma?” Chen Gui fairly shouted. Your eyes are blind! Can’t you see I’m pissing?
Chen Song met them in the lobby as he had been instructed. Manning mostly ignored him as he scanned the lobby for any more Fujianese he might have missed. He did take note that Chen Song’s haughty expression had fled in favor of a more suppressed appearance that fit the situation. After all, it took a strong man to maintain arrogance when he was only a few steps away from being dead.
They were apparently unobserved by anyone more malicious than the staff, which politely bowed to Manning and his charges as they headed for the door. Manning spared them only a curt nod—bad manners in Japan, but he had no time to waste. His car, a very sedate three-year-old Honda Legend, was in the nearby parking garage. Manning rushed the two Shanghainese into the vehicle, and within seconds, they were off.
“Going smooth,” Chen Gui commented, sitting in the left front passenger seat. “You can drive on the left side of the road?”
“If I can’t, we won’t be exactly inconspicuous. I want both of you to get down. Now.”
“Get down?” Chen Song echoed from the back seat.
Both men did as he instructed immediately. As they pulled past the hotel, Manning saw the group of Fujianese jogging toward the entrance. One of them glanced at his car as he drove past with more interest than he would have liked. A glance in the rearview mirror explained it; the man had seen Chen Song peeking above the doorsill.
“Smooth move, Ex-Lax,” Manning said sourly. “He just made us!”
“Ex-Lax?” asked Chen Gui.
“Never mind.” Manning gunned the Honda’s six-cylinder engine, abandoning all hope of making a clean getaway as he wrenched the car into a sharp left-hand turn down Azabudai. He checked his rearview mirror again, and caught a quick glimpse of the Fujianese running to their car. They ran right through the hotel’s well-maintained garden, trampling all matter of flora. Clearly, subtlety was not one of their hallmarks.
Fight’s on, he thought.
“We’re going to hit the highway,” he told his passengers. “Hopefully these guys will be too cheap to want to follow us through the tolls.”
“If only they were Shanghainese!” Chen Gui wailed. “Fujianese spend money like madmen!”
“I’ll remember that,” Manning responded dryly as the car accelerated past the Tokyo American Club. He took his first available right, then his first left, then left again, proceeding on for three blocks before turning left once more against a traffic signal. Horns blared and hazard lights flashed; Manning ignored the commotion. Within moments, he was guiding the car onto the Shuto Expressway. He checked his rearview mirror for the Fujianese; he remembered their car to be an older silver Toyota Grand Saloon. The problem was, the car was fairly ubiquitous in Japan, like its brother the Camry was in the US. It was a rental agency favorite, and it was relatively affordable, so he was nonplussed to see there were at least three silver Grand Saloons in the lanes behind him.
“Where are we going?” Chen Gui finally asked.
“You killed that man back there. In the hotel. Why?”
“I don’t know why you’d care, but I didn’t kill him,” Manning responded evenly. “On the other hand, I don’t get paid if you die.” He kept his eyes on the road, checking both the rearview mirror and side view mirrors regularly. He kept the speed up over one hundred kilometers an hour, which was only slightly faster than the rest of the Tokyo traffic. Finally, he found a large gravel truck he could use as cover. He switched lanes quickly and sidled up on the other side of the truck.
Chen Gui seemed shocked by the revelation. “Why didn’t you kill him?”
“I charge extra for killing.”
“Two more questions,” Chen Gui said after a time.
“Can we get up now, and what is ‘Ex-Lax’?”
The trip to Narita International Airport was quiet. Chen Gui was content to stare out the windshield, gazing at the passing scenery as Manning switched off the Shuto and onto Route 1. They hurtled past Tokyo’s fabled shopping mecca, Ginza, and past Chiba. In the distance, the Saitama River could be seen, lazily flowing into Tokyo Harbor, miles to the south.
For his part, Manning drove at a fast clip, keeping a sharp eye out for his would-be pursuers. He instructed Chen Song to keep watch out the rear window; he’d seen the car too, so he might yet prove useful.
“Aren’t you driving a little fast?” Chen Gui said at last. “The Japanese highway police are very vigilant, after all!”
“I’d rather take my chances with the police than with our Fujianese pals,” Manning replied smoothly as he switched lanes. He tucked his car in on the far side of an ambling tanker truck and reduced his speed.
“So why are you slowing, then?” Chen Gui asked.
“Just putting some bait in the trap,” Manning said. “If they’re after us, they’ll be rolling up pretty quickly. Chen Song! See anything?”
“No,” Chen Song said.
“Don’t just look behind us. Look around. Look under the tanker’s trailer. You see anyone pacing us from the other side?”
Chen Song was silent for a moment, and Manning could see him craning his neck, looking this way and that.
“Nothing,” he said after a time.
“So we lost them.” Chen Gui sighed in relief.
“Looks like,” Manning said. “Chen Song, keep your eyes sharp.” With that, he accelerated away from the truck.
The Higashi Kanto Expressway eventually led them to the Shin Kuko Expressway, and then Narita International itself. Manning merged onto the Shin Kuko Expressway interchange. Traffic was thick at the tollgate; Manning weaved his way in and out of the flow, almost brushing against a filled airport limousine bus in the process. He aimed the Legend’s grille in the general direction of the Terminal 2 car park, the only multistory parking facility at Narita.
“Even in traffic, you drive like mad!” Chen Gui groused. “You make my driver in China look like a considerate man!”
“Time’s a little short, I’m afraid,” Manning replied. “And the quicker we get out of here, the better.” The fact of the matter was that the slow traffic made Manning feel extremely vulnerable. The Fujianese had guns, items that were quite difficult to obtain in Japan. That they had evidently been willing to shoot Chen Gui in the hotel restroom meant that their grudge against him was something they weren’t about to give up easily, and that also meant Manning himself would be a primary target. In many ways, being a gaijin was a benefit in Japan, but being able to remain inconspicuous was not one of them. The quickest way for the Fujianese to get a tally on Chen Gui would be to sight Manning himself, and if he was caught in slow-moving traffic, there was no easy way to defend himself … or his charge.
In the back seat, Chen Song suddenly stirred.
“I see them!” he announced.
“Aiyah—!” Chen Gui began.
“Bie shuo le!” Manning snapped—Be quiet! He looked in the rearview mirror, but a commuter van had just merged in behind them. “Chen Song, where are they?”
“Two cars behind us,” Chen Song replied, a little breathlessly. “They definitely saw us—both men in the front of the car locked eyes with me!”
“What will we do?” Chen Gui fairly shrieked. “You can’t let them catch up to us!”
“I’m not about to. Please relax.” Manning checked the rearview mirror again, but saw nothing other than the commuter van still tailing his car. He thought he glimpsed a silver-colored car through the left side view mirror, but couldn’t be sure.
“Chen Song, is the car silver?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, the same as before!” Chen Song snapped. Manning heard the unmistakable sound of metal sliding across leather. A glance in the rearview mirror confirmed that Chen Song had drawn his Beretta from its holster and was gripping it in his right hand.
“Ba ni de qiang fàng hui qu!” Manning shouted, making both Chen Song and Chen Gui jump. Put your gun back! was the closest Manning could come to saying Put your fucking gun away! in Mandarin, and cursed the common trait shared by both Mandarin and Japanese: neither language was direct enough to suit an American.
The situation apparently wasn’t desperate enough for Chen Song to feel any particular urgency.
“I don’t take orders from a hired man!” he snarled.
“Do as he says!” Chen Gui said, turning his head this way and that nervously. “We don’t have time to argue, and I don’t want to wind up in a Japanese jail! Keep an eye on the Fujianese, you fool!”
“But what if they pull up next to us?” Chen Song asked reasonably.
“We bail out of the car,” Manning replied. “It’s that simple. Then we get lost in the confusion.”
“And if we get separated?” Chen Gui wanted to know.
“Get on the rail system. Anywhere out of Narita, then phone me when you can. I’ll come and collect you as soon as I’m able. Hao ma?”
Chen Gui merely sighed and tried to lean back in his seat and collect himself. He had started to sweat profusely.
Slowly, inexorably, the car drew nearer to the Terminal 2 parking garage. Manning jockeyed his car in and out of lanes, trying to give the following Fujianese the impression that he was headed for the departure level. Horns blared, and some drivers even shouted epithets. The noise volume grew when the following Fujianese emulated Manning, though far less artfully. Manning caught glimpses of the silver Camry in his car’s mirrors; the Fujianese were causing quite a stir, and Manning hoped that the airport police would take notice.
At last, they approached the car park ramp. Manning timed it just right, scooting past an airport shuttle bus and charging for one of the entry lanes. It would buy them a few moments, unless the Fujianese had an accident trying to follow. Manning pulled up to the gate and took a ticket; the gate lifted, and he accelerated into the parking garage, much to the consternation of the parking attendants. One of them waved Manning up to the second floor, which was his intention anyway.
“Chen Song, keep an eye out for our friends,” he ordered, accelerating up the ramp. “They’re not going to have much of a choice but to follow us.”
On the second level, more parking attendants waved Manning toward the third level. Manning ignored them and charged into the parking area, even though multilingual signs proclaimed it to be full. The parking attendants shouted and one of them trotted after Manning’s Legend for a few moments before deciding it wasn’t worth it.
“Where are we going?” Chen Gui shouted. “There’s no room here!”
“Keep calm,” Manning insisted.
Chen Gui elected to do otherwise. “There, stop there!” he shouted, pointing at the elevators that would invariably lead to the departure area. They were clearly visible, painted in whites and blues, with a mural of a cartoon seal cavorting on the doors. Manning jerked the steering wheel to the left, tires screeching as he pulled the Legend down the lane. Each space was filled.
“Where are you going?” Chen Gui screamed.
“Do as my uncle says, you fool!” Chen Song added angrily. “Are you an incompetent?”
Manning jammed on the brakes, and the tires squealed again as the Legend came to an abrupt halt. He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a key ring. He held it over his shoulder to Chen Song.
“Make yourself useful and get to that black Friendee.” Manning pointed to the late-model Mazda van, one of Japan’s more ubiquitous transports, the equivalent of a soccer mom ride in the United States. “Back it out so I can park this car in that space. Be quick about it.”
When Chen Song hesitated, Manning turned and threw the keys at him. “Hurry! Kuài dian, you idiot!”
Chen Song swallowed loudly and took the keys. “But I can’t drive,” he said finally, an admission that cost him much face, given the circumstances.
Manning didn’t know whether he should slap the younger man or just shoot him and his uncle and get out of the entire situation.
“It’s an automatic,” he told Chen Song. “Just start it, put your foot on the brake, slide the shifter in the center to reverse, and back out. That’s all you have to do.”
Chen Song grunted and threw open the door. He ran to the black, square-shaped Friendee and tried to open the driver’s door. He dropped the car keys while fumbling with the lock, then finally opened the driver’s door. Manning put the Legend in reverse and backed up quickly, giving Chen Song a little extra room. He watched as Chen Song groped about the cabin awkwardly, then finally got the Mazda started. Seconds rolled by.
This kid’s slower than a fucking glacier in February.
“Shall I get out?” Chen Gui asked nervously. His hand was already on the door handle.
“Sit tight.” Manning ran a hand through his dark brown hair. His scalp was moist with sweat and the muscles in his shoulders and back were tense.
The Friendee’s reverse lights flicked on, and the van suddenly lurched out of the space, its front tires chirping as they spun momentarily on the concrete. The Friendee pulled out and crossed the entire lane, tapping the rear bumper of another Mazda, setting off its car alarm. The horn blared and lights flashed. Chen Song looked almost panic stricken, but he had enough presence of mind to put the Friendee in DRIVE and lurch into a right-hand turn, giving Manning enough room to park the Legend. Manning gunned the engine and did just that.
“Let’s go!” he said to Chen Gui as he threw open the driver’s door. Chen Gui needed no additional hastening, though he did find it difficult to exit the Honda while still wearing his seatbelt. With a whispered curse, his pudgy fingers fumbled with the release. The belt snapped free and retracted into its recess.
Manning ran for the Friendee and threw open the driver’s door, then yanked open the van’s sliding door, shoving Chen Gui into the passenger compartment. He then tugged Chen Song out of the driver’s seat with perhaps more force than was necessary; Chen Song fell to his knees. The Friendee lurched forward. Chen Song had left it in gear.
“For the love of God!” Manning jumped in and stomped his foot on the brake. The Friendee lurched to a halt.
“Get down on the floor, where you can’t be seen! Chen Song, get in and close the door, damn it!”
Chen Song struggled to his feet and leapt into the Friendee, driving his uncle to the floor.
“Aiyah! Get off of me, you oaf!” Chen Gui screamed in Chinese.
“Sorry, Uncle!” Chen Song apologized, groping for the door. He found the handle, and yanked on it with all his strength. The door slid forward and slammed closed.
Tires squealed as the silver Camry crested the entry ramp. The Fujianese were driving a little too fast; the car rubbed paint against a cement support pillar.
“Stay down!” Manning ordered, dropping the Friendee into gear. Hanging from the mirror was a blue New York Yankees baseball cap; he slapped it on his head, then donned his sunglasses. He braced the Friendee’s steering wheel with one thigh and shrugged out of his jacket. It was the closest he could come to a disguise.
The car full of Fujianese slowed after brushing the pillar, and it now ambled down the parking aisle as the car’s occupants looked for Manning’s Legend. Manning accelerated toward the exit ramp slightly; the car alarm was still wailing, and it wouldn’t take long for it to attract the gang’s collective attention. Manning hoped they would find his car and spend a few moments milling about it before trying to actively reacquire their quarry.
By that time, Manning intended to be far away.
“I don’t understand, where are we going?” Chen Gui asked hotly. He was still lying on the floor before the second row of seats, right behind Manning. “Aren’t we getting on a plane?”
“Not from Narita,” Manning answered. He maneuvered the Bongo Friendee back onto the Shin Kuko Expressway, heading back in the general direction of Tokyo. He kept his speed centered around eighty kilometers per hour. Not terribly fast, but not terribly slow, either. He figured if the Fujianese were still on them, he’d find out soon enough.
“Then where are we going?” Chen Gui demanded.
“Haneda. And from there, you’ll go to Kansai, then onward to Dalian.”
“Dalian?” Chen Gui cried. “Why Dalian and not Shanghai? I hate Dalian!”
“Shanghai’s just a little hot right now, Chen Gui. You’d be better going into Dalian, and then lying low for a few days. I’ll arrange for transportation on the other side. I trust that Lin Feng is still the appropriate contact?”
“Yes, yes, Lin Feng is still—wait, you’re not coming with us, Bái Hu?”
Manning shook his head and checked the mirrors. “I’m afraid not. I don’t have a visa.”
“Wah! Poor planning on your part—what am I paying you for?” Chen Gui wailed.
“There’s no way the Fujianese can get to you in Dalian, so long as you’re still in good with Boss Tao,” Manning said. He checked his watch. He preferred to stay in the slow lane—that made for leaving only one side of the van open to a strafing run from a passing car, if it came to that. But the flight he had booked for his two charges would depart Haneda within a few hours, and it would take a good seventy-five minutes to get there. He had to burn up some time.
“Of course I’m still in good with Tao! That toad owes me more than I should have ever allowed him!” Chen Gui said.
“Then tonight you’ll collect on some of that,” Manning told the Shanghainese gangster. “Boss Tao won’t be able to say no, and in two days you’ll be back in Shanghai. The Fujianese might be able to tag you at the airport, but that’s the only chance they’ll get, and you won’t be there, anyway.”
“I see.” Chen Gui was silent for a long moment. When he finally spoke, there was a more respectful tone in his voice. “Bái Hu, your mind works in ways I can’t fathom. I’ve always acknowledged your professionalism, but now I must say I find it … respectable.”
Most Americans would have accepted the praise with pride; Manning knew enough about Chinese ways to be more mindful of how he responded.
“Thank you for your words,” he said in Mandarin, “but perhaps you should save them for after you get to Shanghai, yes?”
“My words are nothing, Bái Hu. I know what it is you value, and you’ll have it. As I said before, we Shanghainese are a generous people. You’ll see.”
“Can we get up now?” Chen Song asked from the very back.
“The Bái Hu will tell us when it’s safe to get up, Chen Song!” Chen Gui roared. “Now be quiet! I need to think of some things.”
For a moment, silence reigned. Then Chen Song let out a heavy sigh.
“But I have to piss,” he said, almost whining. “My kidneys are floating!”
Manning grinned. Japan had some very fine roads, but he was determined to hit every bump he could find on the way to Haneda Airport.
A little over an hour later, the black Bongo Friendee pulled into a parking space at Haneda Airport, just outside of Tokyo. It had been Japan’s primary international gateway, until the busier Narita International opened up some seventy kilometers to the northeast. However, Haneda still offered limited international traffic, though it was designated as the primary domestic hub serving the greater Tokyo area.
As they left the Friendee, Manning collected Chen Gui and Chen Song’s weapons. They most certainly couldn’t make it through the security checkpoints while carrying them, and they were no longer of any use. It was unlikely the Fujianese could catch them, since they still believed the two Shanghainese were in the Narita area. And even if they did have lookouts at Haneda, they would be covering the international terminal, not the domestic. The Fujianese couldn’t be everywhere, and it was doubtful the Japanese yakuza would wish to get involved in something as bloody as what lay ahead.
Chen Song demurred when it came to handing over his Beretta. He looked at Manning’s open hand as if it were a snake, his handsome face set in hard lines.
“Give him the gun, Nephew,” Chen Gui said tiredly.
“I’d rather throw it in the trash can,” Chen Song spat, “than give it to this yinwĕi wàiguórén!”
The insult was more than Manning was prepared to take. Before Chen Song could do more than summon a nasty look, Manning clipped him in the right arm, knocking his hand away from his holstered Beretta. He then grabbed Chen Song’s wrist and yanked him forward; off-balance, Chen Song could do nothing more effective than stammer a quick curse before Manning snatched him up in morote-jimē, a three-point judo chokehold. Even Chen Gui had just started to inhale to speak by the time Manning had flung Chen Song onto his back and shoved his head into the triangle formed by his left arm. Chen Song struggled at first, but Manning merely increased the pressure; he anticipated Chen Song’s strike at his eyes, fingers curled into claws. Manning blocked the move with his right fist, rapping his knuckles into Chen Song’s wrist. After that, it was over—Chen Song began to choke out, losing consciousness. To his credit, he did so without sound, but Manning’s senses were finely attuned and he could sense the microscopic muscle relaxations cascading through Chen Song’s body as his awareness ebbed.
“Bái Hu!” Chen Gui finally gasped. “People will notice!” He cast a worried look at the parking attendants, standing in the next aisle.
Ever the practical man, Manning mused. Only Chen Gui would be more worried about attracting attention than the fact a white barbarian is choking the life out of his nephew.
Manning released Chen Song before he lost consciousness completely. He came to his senses a few moments later as oxygen returned to his brain. Chen Song’s brow clouded with anger, and as he rolled to his feet, he reached for his holstered Beretta, eyes on Manning. It was no longer strapped to his side.
Manning lifted his right hand and showed Chen Song the weapon, still in its holster.
Chen Song’s lips compressed into a thin, hard line. Even though the Beretta was mere feet from him, it might as well have been a million miles away. He could no more take it from Manning than he could jump to the moon.
“Never call me a filthy foreigner again,” Manning said. “You owe me far too much for that.”
“So you think,” Chen Song hissed.
“Enough of this fighting! We need to leave here, now!” Chen Gui snapped. “Chen Song, wipe off your pants—there’s dust all over them! You look like a street beggar!”
Chen Song looked down and slapped at the filth on his dark trousers angrily. He avoided looking at Manning as the taller man tossed the Beretta to the Friendee’s rear floorboard.
“Bái Hu, how much time?” Chen Gui asked. He checked his watch nervously.
“Not much. We need to hurry. I’ve paid for the tickets, but we still need to get them.”
“Let’s go,” Chen Gui said, and he began striding toward the elevators. They were painted with yellow flowers. Chen Song shuffled after him, casting a baleful glance at Manning. Manning kept his expression blank.
Next time you won’t be so lucky, sonny-boy.
Manning handed the E-tickets to Chen Gui and pointed out the gate information to him. Chen Gui nodded and handed Chen Song his ticket, which he accepted sullenly.
“You should go now,” Manning said. “You’ll need to hurry—your flight’s boarding in less than fifteen minutes, and you still need to get through security.”
“Chen Song, go ahead. I’ll meet you at the gate,” Chen Gui said.
Chen Song looked surprised. “Uncle?”
“Do as I say! No discussion!” Chen Gui snapped.
Chen Song hesitated for a moment, then made a hissing noise through his teeth and spun on his heel. He marched toward the security checkpoint.
Chen Gui turned to Manning. His eyes, while mindful of the environment and virtually every passerby, were no longer full of panic and fear. The old Chen Gui, Shanghai crime lord, had returned.
“Bái Hu, I’ll transfer your fee into your account by tomorrow morning. But I would like to know if you might be interested in another task while I’m in transit.”
“What would that be?”
“I need you to take care of my problems here in Japan. I need that done very, very quickly. Can this be done in less than twelve hours for … say, one hundred thousand dollars?”
Manning cocked a brow. One hundred thousand dollars was twice his usual “assistance” fee, which Chen Gui was obliged to pay in addition to his annual retainer.
“That could compromise my ability to assist you further here in Japan,” Manning answered. “As you know, whites stand out here quite a bit.”
“Yes, silly of me to be so miserly at a time like this—my ancestors would be most displeased. One hundred seventy-five thousand, then. And another twenty-five thousand if it’s done before midnight.”
Manning took a deep breath. “Two hundred thousand dollars? But Chen Gui—you can pay your own people pennies to do this, in comparison.”
“I have no one left in Japan, and the quicker this gets done, the quicker I can make my reappearance. The Yakuza are timid, but they will fall in with the first gangster who resumes the flow of goods. You know the Taiwanese are angling for the territory, and once they know I’ve left, they’ll move in immediately … once the Fujianese snake’s head is dead. Dŏngdé ma?”
“Shi. But I’ve had no contact with the Fujianese—I wouldn’t know where to find them, much less their leader.”
Chen Gui reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a card. He pressed it into Manning’s hand.
“I have a special relationship with a young girl,” Chen Gui said. “She’s very young, very lovely, but plays both sides of the fence. She’s Japanese, but she runs with the Fujianese. She is also enamored of me, because, as I’ve told you, we Shanghainese are quite generous. Do you know what I mean?”
“You have an enjo kōsai partner,” Manning replied, using the Japanese term which loosely described “assisted dating” between a young, school-aged girl and a middle-aged man. Despite the fact that it was a distasteful practice—it was practically underage prostitution, after all—Manning was nevertheless impressed that Chen Gui had managed to navigate such culturally tricky waters; most foreigners lacked the required finesse to successfully negotiate a compensated dating package with a Japanese schoolgirl.
“Yes. She is quite sweet, but requires much attention.”
“Then I can understand why you would be in a hurry to return to Tokyo. Enjo kōsai is one of the more valued and least understood relationships between a man and a young woman. I’m impressed that you successfully completed the arrangements.”
Chen Gui smiled tightly and clasped his hands behind his back, pleased with himself and pleased that Manning understood the skill that had been required in closing such a deal. Manning allowed the plump man his moment to gloat while he scanned the card. While it was written in hiragana, he could make it out. The telephone number was certainly understandable.
“Noguchi Chisako?” he confirmed with Chen Gui.
“And you say she knows where the Fujianese are? And that she would give me the information? May I ask how this might be expected to work out?”
“As I said, Bái Hu, she requires much attention, and the Fujianese snake head is far less indulgent of her tastes than I am. And she was the one who warned me to leave Tokyo immediately, as she learned of the Fujianese gang’s movement against my nephew and myself. So you see, she is truly awaiting my return.”
“I see.” It was an odd arrangement, for sure. Manning didn’t like the smell of it, but …
“You’ll do as I ask, Bái Hu?”
Manning thought about it. He looked at the card again, lips pursed.
“Once I know you’re out of Japan, I’ll make the arrangements,” Manning agreed, finally. “It will happen before midnight.”
The talented and just plain old über-cool Jeroen ten Berge turned in his cover for the print edition of Earthfall yesterday, and I have to say, it’s a nice one. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, he’s probably most widely known as Blake Crouch’s artist of choice–check out his covers for Blake’s excellent novels Pines, Abandon, and Snowbound, as well as the trendsetting illustration for RUN.
Some thanks to Craig DiLouie for his cover blurb, and of course, the long-suffering Derek Paterson for his work on the product description, something I’m horrible at. Additional kudos to Joe LeBert, ultra-amazing author Fred Anderson, Scott Wolf, and ton of other folks.
And, oh yeah…thanks to those of you who bought Earthfall and actually liked it! It’s always a thrill to see a release creep up the charts, especially in a different genre.
Errata: the free period for White Tiger came to a close yesterday, and the numbers were almost 3,000 downloads in the US, and a surprising 685 in the UK. While giving away books for free seems like a dumb business move, it actually translated into some great sales–5 in the US in one day, and 14 in the UK. That’s a month’s worth of sales right there, and it’s also generated a few borrows through Amazon’s Prime program, for which I’ll get a couple of bucks as well. If this trend continues, Derek and I will have the best month ever for this book. Not a tough feat, since the highest sales numbers to date have been 21 in one month.
I’ve pulled The Gathering Dead from the other ebook sites and entered it into Amazon’s Prime program, as well. This gives me the opportunity to offer it for free, with the hope that it would spawn substantial sales of Left with the Dead and the two The Rising Horde books. I haven’t decided when–or even if–I’ll take this step, since The Gathering Dead is still my primary money-maker, but it is something to consider.
Anyway, that’s all for now, crew. Thanks for your patronage, and I hope this weekend is full of fun and excitement for all.
For the next five days, the book I co-authored with Derek Paterson is available for free on Amazon. Here’s the product description:
Even Predators Can Be Prey.
International security consultant Jerry Manning has a lucrative sideline: he kills people for the Chinese Mob, so quickly and so effectively using his martial art skills that the Chinese call him the White Tiger, a nickname born out of respect–and fear.
When wealthy Chinese businessman James Lin’s son is brutally murdered in a San Francisco penthouse where he was engaged in an illicit affair with a beautiful actress, Manning is hired to fly back to the States to help track down the killer. But closely guarded family secrets are reluctantly dragged into the light. Lin’s older son was also recently murdered in Shanghai, with the same M.O., suggesting that the real target was always James Lin, and that the killer is an assassin with skills every bit as deadly as Manning’s.
S.F.P.D. detectives determined to uncover the truth behind the murder are on a crash course with Manning, blocking his view as the elusive assassin slashes her way through Lin’s defenses, intent upon exacting old-fashioned blood vengeance upon her hated victim, whose past crimes have finally caught up with him.
This one’s not for kiddies, folks–it’s a sexy, balls-to-the-wall thriller full of all the good stuff, for which I scored a custom acronym: MV/ASP (Massive Violence/Actual Sexual Penetration). So if anything over PG-13 offends you, prepare to curl your toes in shock! You have been warned.
I hope everyone’s doing well, and are healthy and happy!
I’ve been pretty quiet lately, but it’s not because I’ve lost interest, have been abducted by aliens, or wound up as Scarlett Johansson’s newest boy toy. (Though she apparently does like dalliances with older guys, so I might still have a chance at that.) While I needed some downtime after moving heaven and earth to knock off The Rising Horde books, I’ve also been busy at work on other related projects that I’ll briefly detail here.
Sales for The Rising Horde: Volume 1 and The Rising Horde: Volume 2 are moving right along, especially on Amazon. Even better, their release caused some renewed interest in The Gathering Dead and, to a substantially lesser extent, Left with the Dead. I’m very, very happy with the pace of the sales of all the titles, but I see the spillover hasn’t touched any of the non-zombie books. I’m a bit concerned about this, because it makes me wonder if I’m going to wind up as a one-note writer: those guys who can only sell one specific type of property. I have a widely divergent list of interests and skills, and I’d hoped to be able to tap into that for fun and profit in the years ahead. But when I see some pretty rich fare such as City of the Damned and White Tiger essentially withering on the vine, it does make me take pause. This is a business for me, after all, not a hobby. So I need to be mindful of what I can and can’t do.
Which leads me to wonder if I should release Tribes, a decidedly non-zombified science fiction adventure novel set in the Antarctic, under the Stephen Knight monicker or if I should consider breaking out with another name. There’s a lot to be said for this approach, and there is some data that indicates folks only buy specific books from specific authors. While I like writing about zombies, their retinue is fairly limited, and I’ve already encountered resistance even to my mild attempts to spice up the genre by inserting some feral intelligence into some of the stenches. I get the desire on the part of the reader to want to enjoy similar good experiences, but as a writer, it does leave one feeling a bit boxed in. This is stuff I’ll have to contemplate strongly over the next couple of months as I finish Tribes and send it into the editorial stage.
After that, I have several other projects waiting for my tender ministrations. I haven’t decided which one I’ll do next, though I do have a lot of folks clamoring for more Gathering Dead-like fare. Will I, or won’t I? I’m afraid I don’t know myself, just yet.
Oh! And if you’ve read any of my stuff, please do leave a review wherever you purchased it. That’s always a thrill!
Yeah okay, the Indiegogo crowdfunding stuff is kind of sucking wind. But that’s all right, because at the end of the day, I wasn’t expecting a groundswell of support from that venue. The Gathering Dead is a very specialized product in that it deals with the military response to the zombie apocalypse, then specializes it even further by focusing on Army Special Forces. A lot of folks know about SEAL Team 6 (which hasn’t been called that in years, by the way), but the last time the Green Berets were on anyone’s mind was during the Vietnam War and because John Wayne played one who miraculously took in a glorious sunset where the sun somehow set in the South China Sea. But to that end, look for an Indiegogo Version 2.0 campaign sometime in the summer. By then, I’ll have my multi-thousand dollar trailer locked and loaded, and I’ll be able to better show people what I’m looking to do.
And about the trailer? Work is coming along nicely. Very nicely, but it’s not stuff that I can easily show. This is going to have to cook for another couple of months, and to reveal anything that’s not fully formed is going to hurt the initiative more than help it. I haven’t even shared it with my partners yet, because I know seeing partially-formed footage is going to be something of a downer at this point in time. They want something they can use to raise funds, and gray scale polygons and non-rigged animatics ain’t gonna do the trick. So I need to wait, and let the effects team do what they need to do.
But, there are other things happening on this front as well. I can’t speak about them directly just yet, but people are beginning to take notice of my little zombie picture and are inspecting it here and there. Some of these people are quite famous people as well, people the casual reader of this blog would know and say, “Really? XYZ is interested in The Gathering Dead? Wow!”
But interest is a fleeting thing, and balances are all very delicate. So for now, the less I say on that, the better. But things are continuing to progress in this area, albeit in more stealth mode than I would normally like.
I’m still following up on converting The Gathering Dead into a 100+ page graphic novel. Since I’m a bit of a control freak, I need to ensure that I fully vet the possible printers out there and understand their requirements fully. The folks who print my current books, Lightning Source, aren’t really adept at this kind of product, so I need to determine just who the final contenders will be and move from there.
In addition, I’ll need to assemble the following team:
Overall, it looks like the project will have an out-of-pocket pricetag of around $7,500-$15,000, which is enough to make me take it slowly and ensure that I take the right steps in the right order. Because hey, I really don’t want to have to spend twice as much as I need in order to get this done.
And for all three projects, it’s pretty much the same set of circumstances. I’m committed to doing as much by myself, for myself as I possibly can. Why? Because it’s my property, and while I recognize I’m going to need the participation of others–especially for the film!–I’m not going to cede any control unless it’s absolutely necessary. Because at the end of the day, everyone else gets to walk away from these projects with money in hand. I’m the one who has to shoulder the mistakes and failures, while everyone gets to share in the glory.
And my aim is ensure there’s more of the latter than the former. Approaching it in any other way is just looney, and I’m sure you guys would agree!
Anyway, more to come. Stay tuned, folks.
For giggles and perchance for your entertainment, I present herein a chapter from White Tiger, a thriller cum police procedural cum martial arts fest I wrote with the ardent wordsmith Derek Paterson. This is a bit of a departure from my normal fare, in that there are no zombies, vampires, attack helicopters unmasking from behind intervening terrain, and no Army Special Forces shooting up the place while yelling “Hooah!”
San Francisco, California
For just a moment Hal Ryker thought the world had gone to hell in a handbasket and no one gave a damn any more, but then he saw a familiar face behind the hotel reception desk, talking to a pair of elderly Japanese. The clerk glanced at him briefly, then ignored him. Her name was … damn, he couldn’t remember, why was he so awful with names? … and she’d gotten her inspector’s shield six months ago, he remembered the frosted donuts and the coffee salute as everyone welcomed a new gladiator to the arena. He wondered what she thought of him—not that it mattered anyway because they worked out of the same precinct and only an idiot crapped in his own nest. Ryker didn’t know a cop-on-cop relationship that had ever worked out to anyone’s satisfaction, most especially his own, and he sure as hell wasn’t going down that bumpy road again … even if the bogus hotel clerk did have eyes a man could drown in and legs that went all the way up to her armpits.
Chee Wei stood waiting for him by the bank of elevators, one of which lay open with a printed Out Of Service sign on the frame. Ryker nodded hello and they stepped into the elevator. The young Chinese turned a key that was already in the control panel, then thumbed a button. The doors slid shut and the elevator climbed smoothly. The distant hum of motors and cables provided a background to Chee Wei’s inevitable question: “So, did you get any over the weekend?”
“Damn right I did. Your sister dropped by,” Ryker said, not taking his gaze from the display as the numbers got higher and higher, heading for the thirty-eighth floor. “I’m going to have to buy a new bed, she busted the springs. Neighbors were banging on the ceiling all night. Hey, I’ll bring in the tape. You can show it to your folks so they know what a talented daughter they have.”
“Tell me how much a new bed costs, they’ll want to pay for it,” Chee Wei said without change of expression. “Of course, my sister’s eye operation will have to be postponed. We’ll just buy her a guide dog instead. It’s cheaper.”
“Speaking of eyes, who’s that behind the desk downstairs?”
“That would be Sandra Raymond. Locker room says she likes girlie stuff, but that’s because she hasn’t had a solid date in over a month. You thinking about punching her ticket?”
“We have anyone else down there, or is she it?”
“Two plainclothes from the Bay area. Jackson, you know him, and a guy called Blacque, with a ‘q.’ You walked right past them.”
“I meant aside from them.”
The corner of Chee Wei’s mouth turned up, telling Ryker his bluff hadn’t worked. Then again, he hadn’t seen Jackson since spring last year when they’d rubbed shoulders on a double homicide. “Uh-huh. Couple of uniforms on permanent station round the corner with their radios open. We whistle, they come running. That’s assuming some crazy guy with a knife shows up looking for more dicks to cut off.”
The elevator slowed to a stop and the doors opened. Ryker nodded to the uniform waiting for them. The cop jerked a thumb over his shoulder indicating a cluster of bodies at the far end of the huge room, just in case they couldn’t find the corpse on their own. The dimensions of the place staggered Ryker. And the décor didn’t just impress him, it took his breath away. The furniture, the flooring, the rugs, the wood paneling, even the chandeliers hanging ten feet above his head each cost more than he made in a year. No, two years. The stench of wealth assaulted his nose. Just being here made him feel like some bum who’d wandered in off the street. He had an urge to take off his shoes out of respect, but that would only leave an embarrassing trail of foot-shaped sweat marks across the polished wood.
Chee Wei said, “You’re thinking, how much does this cost per night?”
Ryker shook his head. “No, I’m thinking what kind of loony-toon cuts a guy’s dick off.”
“A frustrated wife? A scorned lover?”
“See, you’ve solved the case already. Round up the usual suspects. You can start with my ex-wife, those alimony payments are crippling me.”
“Did Adrienne cut your dick off too?”
“She still keeps my balls in a glass jar beside her bed, that’s for sure.”
As Ryker and Chee Wei approached the emperor-sized bed, the small crowd dispersed to let them have a better look. Ryker recognized three forensics among the cops, one of them a Korean girl he’d only recently learned was hardcore lesbian. That thought was enough to send a man running to get a sex change. She walked to the top of the bed and took more photographs with her digital camera, the strobing flash turning the room into a disco. She had eyes for no one in the room except the naked Chinese lying on his back and decorated by a rusty film of dried blood. The forensics team leader, a crew cut named Klein, said, “We’re still trying to figure cause of death, but it looks like he was—” Klein paused momentarily for the appropriate comedic timing “—dismembered.”
Ryker understood only too well that humor at a grisly crime scene was essential. A well-timed joke could often stop a stomach from heaving and spilling its contents, adding to the disgust. He found himself chuckling and welcomed the emotional release, even if it was the diametrical opposite of what he felt at that exact moment.
The other forensics guy had his toolbox-cum-chemical lab open on a table. He saw he had Ryker’s attention and said, “There’s semen trace on his stomach. Looks like he came just before his assailant cut it off. And there’s trace in his mouth, too.”
“Is the semen in his mouth his own, or someone else’s?” Ryker asked, even as his brain, paralyzed by the sight of a dead man apparently eating his own penis, told him it was too soon for results to be available.
“Samples are on their way to the lab.”
“Too bad it happened last night,” Klein said. “If we’d gotten here within thirty minutes of ejaculation we could have put the two semen groups together on a slide. That would have told us whether they were exclusive.” He bent his arms at the elbows and made the motions of flapping wings, grinning all the while.
Ryker nodded; he’d seen the training film, dubbed “Cock Fighting” by the forensics fraternity. He knew the case’s history. A female student had been attacked on her way back to her dorm and raped by two men. When semen samples were examined under the microscope they were found to be very much alive—and fighting each other like crazy. Until then Ryker had assumed that semen had one purpose in life and one purpose only, to swim toward and fertilize the female’s egg. But, put those feisty little tadpoles in along with semen from another man and half of them would stop swimming and fight a rearguard action to prevent the egg being fertilized by the competitor.
Klein went on. “I’m estimating time of death at twelve thirty, give or take sixty minutes. Blood loss would have killed him soon enough. But before it did, this happened.” He pointed a gloved finger to a dark spot directly above the dead man’s heart. “Stab wound. From above, straight down. Slipped between the ribs, smooth as silk, and into the heart. You might call it a surgical strike. Either the knifeman, or the knifewoman, was very lucky not to have the blade turned by a rib—or they knew exactly what they were doing.”
Ryker examined the chest and stomach. “Just one puncture?”
“That’s affirmative,” Klein said. “There’s severe bruising around the wound, caused by the hilt impacting the flesh. Bam! Like Travolta and Uma Thurman, you know? We only have to insert a measurement probe into the hole to discover the exact length of the blade.”
“Do that,” Ryker said. He looked for Chee Wei and found him standing over by a window, looking out across the sprawling city, his back to the crime scene. Ryker joined him. He rarely got to see San Francisco from such a vantage point. Sometimes he forgot just how beautiful his adopted city was.
“I assumed, you know, this was some bi or gay thing,” Chee Wei said. “I didn’t consider the possibility that his own semen might have found its way into his mouth from his penis.”
“Just adds to the charm, don’t it?” Ryker said. “What else do we know about him?”
“Got his name from the register. It’s Danny Lin.”
He couldn’t have surprised Ryker more if he’d put on a clown’s nose and started dancing around the room. Danny Lin, aka Lin Dan, aka the son of James Lin, multi-millionaire Chinese industrialist and personal friend of at least two United States senators.
Ryker looked closely at the dead man on the bed and finally recognized him. The pale, bloated features had fooled him.
“Thought that would get your attention,” Chee Wei said. “Didn’t you have some kind of—” He broke off in response to Ryker’s stare, and held up both hands, palms outward.
Klein came up behind them and said, “We’d put Kyung on the suspects list but she has a solid alibi, she was working last night.” He meant the Korean girl. She’d moved round to this side of the bed and was close enough to have heard Klein, but if she did then she gave no sign.
“You’ve used up your funny allowance for the month,” Ryker said, perhaps too sharply. “Have you found the weapon?”
Klein frowned, suddenly serious. “No, but I’ll tell you this. We’re talking a damn sharp blade. It went through the guy’s dick like a laser beam. Perfect cut, absolutely no tearing or bruising.” He made a horizontal chopping motion with his hand. “With knife wounds, usually you can tell if it’s left-to-right or right-to-left. Not this time. Cross-section’s the cleanest I’ve seen. A machine couldn’t have done a better job.”
“It couldn’t have been a machine,” Chee Wei said. “The Three Laws clearly state that a machine can’t harm your dick, or through inaction allow your dick to come to harm.”
Klein laughed but Ryker rolled his eyes at such intellectual humor, and went to speak with the Korean forensics girl. She’d taken shots from every possible angle. Now she displayed them in batches of twelve on her camera’s 3.5-inch LCD, tilting it so Ryker could see. “What resolution?” he asked.
“Twelve megapixels, and it’s got a ten-by zoom,” Kyung said. “Not to mention a whole range of light enhancement settings. Which is how come I noticed this.” She expanded one of the thumbnails and indicated the wall section behind and above the bed. The writing was barely visible to the naked eye because of the natural shadows cast by bright daylight falling onto the floor beside the bed.
“Can you read it?”
Kyung shook her head. “Nah, I’m an American. It’s probably Chinese.”
They both looked at Chee Wei. He joined them and Ryker indicated the camera, then the wall. Kyung manipulated controls with her thumb so the characters painted on the wall in blood expanded to fill the display. Chee Wei’s eyes widened.
“Are they Chinese?” Ryker prompted him.
“Is the Pope Catholic? Sure they’re Chinese. Bu zhan bu he.” He frowned, then repeated the sounds, “Bu zhan bu he.”
“Is that somebody’s name?”
“What? No, no, it’s something, I’m trying to remember where I might have heard it before. It means, eh, it means no war, no peace. Bu zhan bu he. No war, no peace.”
“Does that have any special meaning in Chinese?”
Chee Wei thought about. “Not that I know of.”
Ryker looked at Kyung, who shrugged and moved away to talk to the forensics guy with the toolbox. She glanced back over her shoulder and caught Ryker looking at her butt. He pretended to have something in his eye even though he knew he wasn’t fooling her for an instant. Feeling like a dumb schoolboy, he turned to Chee Wei.
“Okay. The victim lost his cherry around twelve thirty. Who found him, and when?”
Chee Wei didn’t even consult his notebook. “Room service got here at eight thirty, breakfast trolley and wake-up call rolled into one. Knocked on the door, didn’t get an answer, used his pass key. He called the day manager using the room phone, the manager called nine one one. Uniforms arrived at eight forty-seven and sealed off the floor. The night manager is on his way back in, but when I talked to him on his cell phone, he didn’t know a damn thing about this. The room service logbook doesn’t list this suite after nine p.m., at which time Mr. Lin called down to order breakfast from the Chinese menu, to be delivered this morning promptly at eight thirty. If he had company with him, I guess they brought their own wine and food.”
“Or maybe he intended to order food after he had sex,” Ryker suggested. “Only he didn’t get that far.”
“Makes sense. Need to show you something.” Chee Wei headed for a door that led to a luxurious marble-tiled bathroom the size of Ryker’s apartment. The bath could have held a football team. Chee Wei indicated the wash basin. Ryker didn’t know what he was supposed to be looking for, but then the light caught something in the drain plughole. He bent down and moved over to the other side so he could see it more clearly.
“We need a plumber,” Ryker said.
“On his way. I’ll have him take out the pipe and put a bucket underneath. We’ll flush it down.”
Ryker straightened and nodded; Chee Wei had everything covered, as usual. Feeling superfluous and twenty years too old, Ryker said, “You know, I miss the good old days. You’re too young to remember, but once upon a time the only people who wore earrings were women.” He wanted to rip the sink apart and get his hands on whatever was down there. It looked like a stud diamond set in silver but maybe he wasn’t seeing all of it.
“Whoever dropped it didn’t stick around to call a plumber, that’s for sure. They were in a hurry.” Chee Wei frowned. “Now, if it belongs to the murderer, he or she would have tried to retrieve it, or flush it away so no one would ever find what might be a telling piece of evidence. But … and forgive my presumption … if the owner wasn’t concerned with leaving trace and hoped she might be able to return at some time in the future to pick it up …?”
Ryker noticed how Chee Wei had assigned the unknown earring owner a sex, following Ryker’s thoughts exactly. “Take it one step further. How would she get access to this place?”
“Hotel staff. Cleaning staff. Maintenance.”
“If our plumber turns out to be a girl, slap cuffs on her and hold her on suspicion.”
They both looked back over their shoulders as a huge shadow filled the doorway. The guy wore coveralls and carried a toolbox and a plunger. He must have weighed three hundred pounds. He looked from Ryker to Chee Wei and said, “Someone report a blocked sink?”
Chee Wei negotiated the mid-morning traffic in silence, giving Ryker a chance to think about the Lin family and in particular James Lin, father of the deceased. James Lin owned shipping, electronics, real estate. He had ties with several influential US senators eager to broaden profitable trade links with China, the growing economic and industrial giant that was gearing up to take over the world. Ryker had also heard through the private grapevine that James Lin had ties to various criminal figures, both in the US and Asia. That didn’t concern Ryker. What did concern him, and still irritated him greatly, were the events of six months ago.
An actress named Shannon Young had died at a party thrown by Danny Lin for some big shot friends of his up from LA for the weekend. The strikingly beautiful blonde had the bad manners to overdose in her host’s bathroom. The coroner’s report said the heroin she’d injected into her veins was almost pure, which suggested that someone who didn’t know what the hell they were doing had supplied the gear. The finger of suspicion didn’t just point at Danny Lin, it shoved itself all the way up his ass and tickled his prostate.
Ryker had disliked Lin instantly, not because of his father’s wealth or even because of his unconcealed arrogance and his general contempt for Westerners. No, it was because Danny Lin regarded Shannon Young as nothing more than an unpleasant smell that was stinking up his bathroom. He didn’t care that she’d died, he just wanted her removed and the place cleaned up so his party could continue. For this reason alone Ryker had intended to make things as unpleasant for Danny Lin as possible, starting with a very public arrest, and not forgetting his partying friends, not a single one of whom claimed to know the dead girl.
But suddenly the order had come down from above like a blazing meteor, commanding all concerned to regard Sharon Young’s death as an accidental misadventure, with no one to blame except herself. As if that wasn’t bad enough, twenty-four hours later Ryker had been bewildered to read an addendum to the crime scene report detailing how substance traces had been found in her purse and in her Mercedes, intimating that she had brought her own heroin to the party. When Ryker queried this anomaly, his own captain told him bluntly to stop asking damn fool questions and let it go, the case was closed. It was obvious as all hell that James Lin had used his power to derail the investigation. Equally obvious was the fact that no one could do a damn thing about it.
Which brought them to the present. What steps would James Lin take to cover up the manner in which his son had died? Ryker could well imagine. A single phone call to the mayor’s office, or perhaps even the governor’s office, and Ryker and his people would be pulled off this case too. A special team would be brought in, part investigator, part diplomatic mission. For Christ’s sake don’t piss off the mega-rich Chinese businessman. What could Ryker do about it? Absolutely nothing, but until he received the order to abandon ship he intended to operate the pumps to the best of his ability. And if his actions somehow pissed James Lin off just a little bit, then he felt he would have earned this month’s pay. Which was why he and Chee Wei had passed Japantown and Pacific Heights and were heading along California Street on their way to the Sea Cliff District, to Danny Lin’s house overlooking the beach and the Pacific Ocean. A subtle telephone inquiry had confirmed that Mrs. Valerie Lin was home. Not only had she agreed to see Ryker, she had also accepted his unwillingness to discuss the matter in detail over the phone, which Ryker thought must make her the most incurious woman in the city. He intended to find out why.
His cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number but accepted the call. “Ryker.”
“This is Sandra Raymond.” It took Ryker all of three seconds to remember the detective working hotel reception so she could keep an eye on everyone coming and going. Whose idea was that anyway, hers? He wondered whether her bed skills matched her cleverness. “You wanted to know about an earring?” She sounded uncertain, probably because Ryker was taking so long to respond.
“Yes. What about it?” The plumber had removed the wash basin pipe and caught the diamond stud as it fell out. It was on its way to the forensics lab together with other evidence from the Taipan Suite, but first Ryker had showed it to a jeweler in the hotel mall who’d given the single piece a four-figure value, and estimated the matching pair would have cost no less than thirty thousand dollars. The jeweler had similar merchandise but was certain these earrings hadn’t come from his store.
“Kyung printed a picture,” Sandra Raymond said. “We’ve been showing it around. Bingo, one of the room maids remembered seeing earrings just like these.”
“Time and place,” Ryker demanded, prompting Chee Wei to glance at him.
“The maid was working the thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth floors within an hour of our murder. Sheer luck we got hold of her, she’s covering early shift for a friend whose daughter’s getting married today. She describes a Chinese woman, twenties, tall, film star looks. Could have been around the Taipan Suite elevator. Mulholland’s got his laptop, they’re putting together an identikit.”
Breaks like this came only rarely; Ryker had learned to appreciate them as little acts of God. “Wire it to me as soon as they’ve got something. We’re on course for the vic’s wife.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“You’ve done enough. Take the rest of the month off, hop a plane to Hawaii and charge it to the department.” She laughed before Ryker disconnected. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and told Chee Wei, “Some maid remembered seeing the earring. And the good-looking Chinese woman who wore it.”
Chee Wei grinned. “Shouldn’t take too long to interview every hooker in San Francisco. One of them is bound to confess.”
“Think about it for a minute,” Ryker said. “Put yourself in Danny Lin’s shoes.”
“Hey, no thanks, I like my dick just where it is, attached to the rest of me.”
“You’ve booked one of the most luxurious—and expensive—suites at the grandest hotel in town. Why? You’re not going to breeze through Chinatown and hope you pick up some street hooker on the way there.”
“No you’re not, because you’ve already arranged a very special night with your mistress.”
Chee Wei laughed. “Oh come on. Quick, Watson, a Hansom cab! I’ve solved the case!”
“Would you give a pair of thirty-thousand-dollar earrings to a one-night stand?”
“Depends how good she is. Okay, maybe not. Maybe you’re onto something. So maybe someone knows who Lin Dan’s mistress is. I’ll shake a couple of trees, see what falls out. Hey, the wife finds out about the mistress. Gets a little pissed. Takes a kitchen knife to the hotel and, zzzziiittt.” His hand slashed the air, complementing the sound effect.
“Klein said it was a damn sharp knife.”
“Twenty bucks and postage’ll get you a boxed set of ninja steak knives.”
Remembering Klein’s statement, Ryker wasn’t at all sure whether the Shopping Channel had supplied the hardware that had separated Danny Lin from his manhood, but he let it go for the moment as Chee Wei’s portable navigation system instructed them to take the next turn, and they moved down among the big, rich houses that comprised Sea Cliff District. Chee Wei’s fascination with modern electronics had compelled him to spend good money on a state of the art journey planner, a combination satellite-fed Global Positioning System and street map that boasted details of every city, town, street, “points of interest” and ATM in the United States and Canada. Ryker was duly impressed but given that Chee Wei hadn’t set foot outside of San Francisco in ten years the gizmo seemed like a waste of money that could have better spent on his other interests, gambling and hot women. Then again, money was the last of Chee Wei’s concerns. His parents owned a profitable restaurant and worked their asses off eighteen hours a day for the sole purpose of accumulating wealth for their number one son. It didn’t seem to concern them that Chee Wei would rather wear a shield than an apron and had no interest in their endeavors; the Chinese family dynamic was all that mattered to them.
“My parents are pissed with me,” Chee Wei said at that moment, surprising Ryker, who wondered whether some kind of telepathy was at work. “I mean, what era do they think we’re living in, the 1920s?”
Ryker had no idea what Chee Wei was talking about so he contented himself with admiring the packed mansions on either side of the car as it crawled along the street, headed for Danny Lin’s humble abode.
“It’s like they think I’m still a kid who can’t decide things for himself.”
“How many guesses do I get?” Ryker said. He pointed at a house half-hidden behind a high wall with overhanging trees. Chee Wei nodded and pulled in just past the driveway, occupied by a Range Rover SUV and a gleaming black Audi A8 with tinted windows. They got out and climbed the winding rock bordered path that led up to the front door. Ryker noted a carefully sculpted ornamental pond filled with fish that glinted silver and gold, which he was sure hadn’t been there the last time he’d had occasion to visit. A stooped, white-haired Asian man tended a patch of garden ablaze with warm colors.
“So who is she?” Ryker asked, arriving at the door. He thumbed the button and listened for a noise within the house, but didn’t hear anything. He wondered if the doorbell was broken and looked around for the old Chinese gardener, but he was gone. Maybe he was stealing the hubcaps off the department Crown Vic.
Chee Wei made a sour face. “I don’t know. We were betrothed when I was five years old. My mother waved the contract under my nose as if it was some kind of legal document I’d signed. Twenty-two years later, I’m supposed to marry this total stranger from another country. She’s mainland Chinese, from Guangzhou, they still go in for that stuff.”
“Maybe she’s rich,” Ryker said. “Maybe she’s good looking. You should find out.”
“Did I ever tell you I’m allergic to marriage?”
Ryker cupped his hands around his eyes and peered through the glass. A shadow moved inside the hall, coming closer, resolving itself into someone wearing a maid’s uniform. “You just haven’t met the right girl yet,” Ryker said. The maid stopped as a second shadow appeared. Something was said; the maid turned and went away.
“Oh, so you’d recommend the institution, would you?”
It was Ryker’s turn to make a sour face just as a lock clicked and the front door opened. The most gorgeous Chinese woman he’d ever met stared at him, her delicate brows coming together to form a frown that did nothing to detract from her looks. Ryker fumbled for his badge while thinking, Danny Lin was seeing other women instead of coming home to this? He found the concept difficult to believe. His badge eluded his questing fingers and he had to open his jacket wide to show it to her, at the same time exposing his Glock 17 riding in its armpit holster. Her gaze flashed to the weapon.
“I presume you’re the policeman who telephoned earlier,” she said, her English perfect and her accent almost nonexistent, the result no doubt of expensive classes. He understood that many Chinese businessmen insisted their wives learn to speak fluent American English and lose all trace of the “old country” lest they be thought rustic. “I’m Valerie Lin.”
“I’m Inspector Hal Ryker, SFPD. This is Inspector Fong Chee Wei. I hope I didn’t alarm you.” Was she smiling or was that just wishful thinking on his part?
“Not at all. Won’t you please come in?” She stood aside, inviting him to enter.
“Mrs. Lin,” Chee Wei said, just as Ryker began to move forward. “Wouldn’t you like to know why we’re here?”
Her expression didn’t change. “I presume you’re just about to tell me.”
She led them along the hallway and into a lounge that instantly reminded Ryker of the Taipan Suite. The scale was much reduced but the decor, including hand painted silk screens and jade carvings and statuettes, added up to an impressive collection that could have graced a museum. Among this moved the slim figure of Mrs. Lin Dan, widow, dressed in dark slacks and a cream silk blouse, her black hair twisted up and held in place by a silver filigree clasp. Her earrings were twin pearls, simple but effective. Ryker supposed it would have be too easy to have found her wearing only one diamond earring, the mate of the earring Danny Lin’s killer had left behind. But part of him had lived in hope. …
She sat down and invited them to sit facing her on a couch. The maid who’d almost answered the door appeared. Ryker guessed she must be in her fifties, though it was hard to tell. “Will you take tea, or coffee?” Valerie Lin asked. She exuded imperturbable calm.
“This isn’t a social call, Mrs. Lin,” Ryker said.
She dismissed the maid with the smallest of gestures. “Very well. Then let’s get down to business, shall we? What has my husband done, Inspector, and how much will it cost to make it go away?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ll write you a check. Or would you prefer cash? That may have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Mrs. Lin, when did you last talk to your husband?”
“Oh, that would be, sometime in 1997, I think.” She turned her head so she was looking out the window, lost in her own thoughts. Rain clouds had gathered out in the bay and seemed to be moving closer to land. “Yes, I remember the occasion. It was his brother’s wedding. Everyone had moved out into the garden. I was having a conversation with some of the other wives. We were all so very happy to be there.” Her lips twitched. “We don’t get out much, you see. We were discussing how beautiful the bride’s dress looked when my husband pushed through the crowd and berated me for talking too much.”
The silence stretched over a dozen heartbeats. Ryker exchanged glances with Chee Wei whose eyebrow rose a millimeter. Taking a deep breath, Ryker said, “Mrs. Lin, do you happen to know where your husband was last night?”
“I have no idea. I knew he was in town but I didn’t know where. Or with whom. I realize that must sound awful. You must understand, my husband answers to no one except himself. And to his father in business matters, of course.”
“Your husband rented a suite at the Mandarin.”
“Is that a crime? He is a sophisticated man with expensive tastes.”
“He was not alone.”
“Are you determined to shame me, Inspector?”
“What I am determined to do, Mrs. Lin, is find out who murdered him.”
Heavy raindrops spattered the window. The sudden clatter made her flinch visibly. Her face looked terribly pale. Water ran down the window in rivulets as she clasped her hands on her lap, the tightly clenched fingers turning white and pink with pressure. In that frozen moment of time, Ryker knew beyond all shadow of doubt that Valerie Lin had not murdered her husband. The rain washed away his suspicions and replaced them with a profound sympathy that manifested itself as a desire to move to her and take her hands in his and apologize for bringing such grief to her door. His mental turmoil sent confused signals to his groin which began swelling immediately, much to his embarrassment. He wanted to laugh out loud just to gain the relief such an outpouring of emotion would offer him. He leaned forward, placed his elbows near his knees and clasped his own hands, hoping that this perfectly natural posture would conceal his erection, which over the space of only seconds had grown steel hard. He made a mental resolution there and then to masturbate at least twice every morning from now on before leaving for work. And twice more during the day. That would be easy—all he’d have to do was think about Valerie Lin with her tiny breasts, narrow waist and inviting hips with a black triangle marking the entrance to Heaven.
“Mrs. Lin,” Chee Wei said. “This is just a formality, you understand, but we must ask if there are any witnesses—family, friends, employees—who will be able to attest to your whereabouts around midnight last night.”
She didn’t appear to hear him. Chee Wei opened his mouth to speak again but Ryker gave a little shake of his head. They waited. Ryker sucked in long, deep breaths and tried to calm himself, willing his erection to go down. With primitive cunning his penis has slipped down one leg of his boxers before swelling to strain up against the material of his pants leg, like some monstrous leviathan rising from the deep. Moving his left forearm to either side would reveal his rigid manhood. How would Valerie Lin react? He imagined her eyes widening in shock. Ryker bowed his head, trying not to giggle. For Christ’s sake, focus! The thought that he’d probably tell Chee Wei about this on their way back to the station house only made matters worse. His stomach muscles trembled in anticipation of a mighty guffaw that he simply could not allow. He concentrated on the implications of such unprofessional behavior. James Lin would undoubtedly learn of it. Shortly thereafter, Ryker would be summoned to Captain Jericho’s office and thrown across the big oak desk for the butt-fucking of a lifetime.
That did it—the leviathan groaned, rolled over and descended back into the inky ocean depths. He began to relax, then realized Valerie Lin was looking directly at him. Did she know? Or had she said something, only he was too lost in his juvenile fantasy to hear? He chose a neutral gambit—“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lin ….”—and deliberately allowed his voice to trail off. She could interpret it one of several ways: I’m sorry for your loss. Could you say that again please? Someone chopped off your husband’s penis, stuffed it into his mouth, then stabbed him through the heart.
“My housekeeper should be able to verify … I did not leave the house. I also made a telephone call, to my sister-in-law. We talked for some time. That must have been around …” She shook her head, sighed, then shook her head again. “Does my father-in-law know? Have you told Lin Yubo?”
“We thought we should break the bad news to you first, Mrs. Lin.”
Something changed in her. Ryker couldn’t quite put his finger on it but the temperature of the air between them dropped a couple of degrees. “You don’t know who murdered my husband,” she said. “You came here to judge my reaction. You suspect I may be responsible.”
“Those are exactly our reasons for being here, Mrs. Lin.” She blinked in surprise at his unexpected candor but Ryker saw no reason to sugarcoat it. “The first thing we do when someone’s husband suffers an unnatural death is call on the wife. Ten will get you twenty that she did it, or knows something about it. My first impressions of you are favorable. I don’t believe you murdered your husband. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically dismissed from the list of suspects. But if you let us talk to your housekeeper and your sister-in-law, and if what you just told us checks out, we won’t bother you again unless we absolutely have to.”
Chee Wei looked bemused, which was fair indication of how far Ryker had crossed over the line. But he wasn’t a robot any more than Chee Wei was a virgin. He was also on totally unfamiliar ground. Valerie Lin spoke good English but was, first and foremost, Chinese. Was he supposed to break the news as he would to an American wife whose American husband had been found dead? Or was he doing the right thing by laying all his cards on the table? Would she take this as it was intended, as a gesture of respect, or would she take insult instead? He held his breath and waited, only too aware of the risks involved.
“Thank you, Inspector,” she said at last. “For being so honest.”
He inclined his head, a quarter-bow rather than a mere nod.
“My sister-in-law is in China,” she said. “She lives in Shanghai.”
Ryker knew that Chee Wei would have the telephone company records pulled and Valerie Lin’s claim either verified or refuted within the hour. These days all calls going through the international switchboards were electronically recorded as a matter of course and scanned for keywords that might reveal terrorism at work, before being compressed and copied to permanent storage media. He wondered if Homeland Security would give them access to that particular data stream?
“I’ll go talk to the housekeeper,” Chee Wei said. He got up and left the room. Ryker immediately felt awkward at being left alone in the presence of this beautiful woman who had captivated him from the instant she opened the front door, and who made him feel like a schoolboy caught up in the first stomach churning blossom of puppy love.
“Are you from Shanghai, Mrs. Lin?” he asked, feeling the need to make polite conversation that would put her at ease.
“I lived there soon after we were married, before we moved to San Francisco, but I am from Chongqing. Are you familiar with China, Inspector?”
“A little. Just enough to know Chongqing is a long way from Shanghai.”
“Most people don’t even know that much.”
“I was only a kid when the Bruce Lee thing hit the States like a whirlwind, but it left a lasting impression. Kung Fu schools were springing up everywhere. I became a student so I could learn how to beat up entire roomfuls of Japanese karateka. It didn’t quite work out that way, but my teacher was an elderly Chinese who introduced his pupils not only to the martial arts, but also to the history and traditions of his country. His family was from Wuhan Province. His name was Chen.”
“You surprise me. Truthfully, I didn’t think any Americans cared enough to learn about China. I once met a woman, the wife of one of my husband’s American business associates, who thought Japan and China were …” Her words became a convulsive gasp. She covered her face with her hands and closed her eyes. Ryker looked away, not wishing to embarrass her. She sobbed once, just once, and then she said, “I apologize for my unseemly behavior.” When he looked at her she was perfectly composed.
He wanted to tell her it was okay, he understood and sympathized, but again that would probably embarrass her so instead he said, “May I ask your advice? On the matter of your father-in-law. As far as I know, he is unaware of your husband’s death. Would he—would you—prefer it came from us? I don’t know how your family works. I will be the one who tells him. It’s my duty. But, if you would prefer to convey the news, if it would, I don’t know, gain him, or you, some measure of release? Rather than coming from a stranger. Please forgive me if I’m being too presumptuous.”
“Your concern is greatly appreciated, Inspector. Thank you. Truly. But … if I am being honest … I do not relish the thought of telling my father-in-law that he must bear the pain of loss for his second son. Coming so soon. I would much rather … if it is not too much to ask … I would much rather it came from you.” She rose with fluid grace and moved to the window. There she stood with her back to him and her arms wrapped around her own body as if for comfort, her white knuckled hands visible, the fingers pressing into the fabric of her blouse. If ever there was a perfect moment for him to go to her and take her in his arms and tell her she would never again have to worry about anything for as long as he lived, this was it. A hard pulse beat in his own throat and surf waves crashed inside his ears as he actually contemplated implementing this insane physical action that would destroy his career and probably his life. Such was the power this woman had over him and she didn’t even know it.
The bubble popped when Chee Wei appeared in the doorway, flipping his notebook shut. He slipped it inside his jacket along with his pen, and nodded when Ryker threw him a curious look.
Ryker reluctantly got up. “Thank you, Mrs. Lin. If we need to speak to you again, we’ll call first. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
She didn’t answer or turn from the window. The rain had stopped, only a brief shower, leaving the garden gleaming and fresh. Chee Wei turned to leave but Ryker stopped halfway to the door, a sudden thought having surfaced.
“Mrs. Lin. If I were to say, ‘No war, no peace,’ would that mean anything to you?”
For a moment he wasn’t sure whether she’d heard him or not. Chee Wei was watching her too, looking for some gesture or change in body posture that might reveal knowledge. But all she did was shake her head, the slightest of movements. Ryker realized she was watching his reflection in the window glass. He forced himself to stop drinking in every line and curve of her body, and followed Chee Wei out. Leaving her alone with her grief made him feel nauseous.
The maid, or housekeeper, opened the door for them and bade them farewell with a tight smile. Ryker and Chee Wei made their way back to the car. But as they neared the end of the path something made Ryker stop and turn and look back at the house.
He couldn’t see Valerie Lin at the living room window, not that he thought she was responsible for the unsettling feeling that had literally sent a shiver up his spine. His eyes searched the trees and, among the shadows, he found the white-haired gardener they’d seen on the way in. The old man stood motionless, his hands folded within his jacket sleeves. Ryker didn’t know what to make of it.
Chee Wei said, “If that’s how they build them in Guangzhou, maybe this arranged marriage bullshit won’t turn out so bad after all.” He unlocked the car with his remote. “Yeah, right, what are the chances? Her nickname’s probably Elephant Butt.” He climbed in behind the wheel. Ryker studied the gardener for a moment longer, then walked to the car and climbed in the passenger side, still feeling strange about what had happened.
“Yeah, four hundred pounds of blubber. I’d lose my dick in the folds of her fat,” Chee Wei continued. He turned the key, started the engine. “The housekeeper says they had a quiet night in. Watched some Chinese soaps on satellite TV, then went to bed around ten thirty. Then they had their nightly lesbian fest. Mrs. Lin got hers first. The housekeeper says she likes it rough, right up to the elbow. She squeals like a pig when she comes. Hey, you listening?”
Ryker was listening but with only half an ear. He was thinking back to the night Shannon Young had died in this very house. Valerie Lin had been out of town. Ryker didn’t recall seeing the housekeeper then either, or the gardener. Were they employees or family? Did they travel with her? He knew someone must have checked it out, just as he and Chee Wei were checking on Valerie Lin’s whereabouts around midnight last night. Maybe the records still existed. Or had James Lin conspired to have them erased, as he’d so easily erased the minor problem of his son being charged with supplying tainted drugs that led to Shannon Young’s overdose?
“So I’m guessing you’re thinking about Mrs. Lin. Maybe she’s just your type. Maybe you’ll get the chance to talk to her again. Who knows where it might lead? A quiet dinner for two. Touching knees under the table. An electric spark. An invitation back here for a night cap. With any luck her husband’s slippers will fit. Maybe his robe and his pajamas, too.”
“Let’s go talk to James Lin,” Ryker said, and Chee Wei put the Crown Vic into gear.
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Bu Zhan Bu He.These chinese words written on a hotel room wall represent the only evidence left behind at the scene of a particular gruesome murder which opens the thriller ‘White Tiger.’ With action that begins in the Asian underworld, and ends on the streets of San Francisco, White Tiger follows Sargeant Detective Hal Ryker and security specialist (and former special forces operative) Jerome Manning as they both search for a killer who moves like a ghost, and hasn’t yet stopped killing.Manning’s character is developed early in the novel against the backdrop of Tokyo, and reminded me of with the Deckard character from Blade Runner: lost, world-weary, cynical. Having lost his family in a car accident while deployed abroad in special forces several years earlier, Manning lives in Tokyo, works for the Chinese mob, and speaks Japanese & Mandarin fluently. Contracted to clean up some mob business, collateral damage haunts Manning, further damning him. Redemption isn’t an option.
Having earned the titular nickname due to his effectiveness while remaining anonymous and discrete, Manning’s mob contacts are ordered by the Godfather of the Shanghai underworld to send the White Tiger to San Francisco to find and kill whoever murdered his (less favored) son.
Meanwhile, Detective Ryker responds to the opening murder, hoping only to solve the case quickly. He has a history with the murder victim and his powerful father, James Lin – the man who hired Manning. Partnered with the inexperienced Chee Wei, a chatty younger detective whose chinese ethnicity helps the case move along (but also ultimately dooms him), the two chase down leads and introduce a number of supporting characters to the story.
Much like DeNiro and Pacino’s characters in the movie Heat, Manning and Ryker have very few interactions with each other, but find a common ground of respect for each other.
There is plenty of action, lots of steamy sex, and great set pieces. Stephen Knight is a very cinematic writer, but layers his visual action with a lacquer of impressionism which coats this reader’s mind with the feel of the places about which he writes.
The ending is satisfying, and leaves wiggle room for a potential sequel, with plenty of plausible motivation for both main characters to continue the story. I highly recommend this book!