(Preview: 1st 14 Chapters)
The magnificent figure of Julienne St. Germaine, 17th Duke of Chevreuse, descendant of Charles of Guise, the Cardinal of Lorraine and of the mighty de Rohans of Brittany and Anjou, stood against a backdrop of rich burgundy brocade, taking in the spectacle around, below and above him that was the birthday celebrations of Madame Marie Antoinette de Lafayette, long time friend and soon to be his latest sexual conquest. At 35 Julienne struck fear in the heart of many men and lit passion in the hearts of most women. He was a lean 6ft4in with well defined muscles on his torso, arms and legs and a flat tummy that sported a six pack that caused involuntary spasms in women’s toes. He wore his raven black hair in a boyish and slightly untidy mop and his clean-shaven face bore the characteristics of centuries of aristocratic breeding, a square chin, high cheekbones and slightly too long nose. His hands were in contrast to the rest of his body; the backs of them tanned an olive brown, the fingers shorter that you’d imagine on an art connoisseur and the palms square like those of a soldier.
Expensive crystal chandeliers hung from the cosmic ceilings of the ballroom like lamp-festooned, splayed men. The light from their seemingly thousands of incandescent bulbs reflected off the gold lacquered walls and lit up the portrait faces of generations of sombre ancestors of Philippe de Lafayette, the 14th Marquis of Auvergne, Marie Antoinette’s father. Against the walls beneath them, like slaves awaiting orders, stood 144 matching Louis XVI Bergeres in gilded maple, gaudily upholstered in alternating vertical gold and green striped brocade. On these sat several high-ranking ladies, chatting elegantly to Barons, Viscounts, Dukes and other gentlemen members of the French nobility, heavily burdened under a variety of feudal titles of all flavours Le Roi and noblesse. Underneath the chandeliers, scores of party-goers danced gracefully to the beat of a Viennese waltz. In an adjacent equally impressive room, linked to the ballroom by white and gold Everestesque folding doors, decorated with Rococo imagery in soft pastels, Julienne could see more Lords and Ladies standing around chatting in small groups and pairs. They nattered enthusiastically while nibbling on delicate morsels of culinary delights, carefully gathered from the four corners of the globe and meticulously balanced on silver trays by a host of penguin-dressed servants, aiming to please their patrons’ every gastronomic whim. If one walked through this colossal room, another set of gigantic doors opened up into the entrance hall of the sprawling chateau. Analogous to the two preceding rooms, the entrance hall is also decked in gilt enamelling, sky-high ceilings, bedazzling crystal chandeliers, life-size marble statues, heavy burgundy and gold brocade drapes and period furniture akin to their royal counterparts housed in famous palaces around the French countryside. But all of this was diminished to mere trinkets by the main feature of the entrance hall, the twin sweeping marble staircases rising out of the floor in contrasting arcs on either side of the room, that came together like embracing arms at the top, trimmed with Cherry wood balustrades that sported ornately turned posts as thick as the legs of the powerful men that have climbed them through centuries of Lafayette inhabitation.
Here in the entrance hall stood the host, a tall man with a big stomach, vociferously babbling away to a plump woman with splendid breasts bursting to peer over her Rococo outfit, hiding her boredom behind a feathered mask resembling a peacock that matched her dress in both size and gaudiness. The host was impeccably dressed in a royal blue velvet coat ostentatiously embroidered around the neck, down the front and on the cuffs in gold silk floral motifs. Golden buttons festooned both the front of the jacket as well as the cuffs. The coat was complimented by a swanky opaline satin waistcoat that bulged dangerously over his rotund belly. Sixteen golden buttons strained to hold his bulk inside the waistcoat. Underneath it he wore a white silk shirt with yards of elaborate lace around his neck and wrists, the cuffs hiding the flecks of too much sun on the back of his puffy, hairy hands. His tree-trunk legs and ample bottom was wrapped in plain breeches, a shade or six darker than that of his coat. His ball mask reflected his personal perception of his character, devilishly charming, with flaming feathers and a cute little horn on either end. His name was Barnie Barnett, richest oilman in the state of Texas and recently hitched to the youthful and only daughter of the 14th Marquis of Auvergne, the beautiful Marie-Antoinette de Lafayette.
The marriage was a result of Mademoiselle de Lafayette travelling abroad in the beautiful US of A, a mere six summers ago, with her very best friend Jean-Celeste Batoni, daughter of the Vicomte de Lorme. Marie-Antoinette’s father loves her to bits and she was brought up in a caring and loving environment, taught to see the good in all things alive. Most of these observations were done in exclusive female company in a variety of France’s best all-girl schools, colleges and universities. The Marquis carefully guarded his daughter from the wiles of men, too worried that she, the picture of all innocence, will meet and fall for the wrong man one day. He ensured that the parties she attended were carefully screened and that his daughter was always well chaperoned by reputable ladies whom he could trust absolutely. Needless to say, great was his shock when his 21 year old daughter called him one middle-of-the-night from the other side of the globe, to tell him that she met the man of her dreams and that she was absolutely, positively, definitely, undeniably and most certainly in love. The Marquis aged visibly before the sun came out and had kicked the old hunting dog sleeping in front of the cold fire place three times before he had his daughter, her new boyfriend and her chaperone booked on the next flight to Paris.
The old man awaited their arrival with anticipation, all the while dreaming of and praying for all the good things his daughter’s new-found love should be; Tall, lithe, muscular, dark-haired, well-spoken, learned with a love for life and all things beautiful, especially his daughter and stinking rich. Barnie Barnett turned out to be, apart from being stinking rich, quite the opposite. He had a frame like a Bedford truck, badly accoutred with a sagging chest, a protruding belly, a mop of oily red hair, a livered complexion and teeth that could only belong to a Texan built for devouring the flesh of long-horn cattle by the cartload. He was also loud, uncouth and loaded to the brim of his 10-gallon hat with bad jokes. The Marquis was livid, but Marie-Antoinette made her name-sake proud and hotly defended her man. Despite Barnie being the richest oilman in Texas, his riches was a mere drop in the bucket compared to the accumulated wealth of the de Lafayettes and it took their respective lawyers two years to come to amicable pre-nup terms before the two lovebirds could tie the knot.
For the wedding, Barnie chartered an entire 747 from Dallas to Paris and brought 325 of his closest friends and family to Chateau Lafayette for the wedding that would be talked about in Dallas boardrooms and lunchrooms for years to come. Together with the Lafayette contingent, the wedding party topped almost 700 guests and lasted for three days. The Texans out-ate, out-drank, out-danced, out-laughed and out-brawled the French by a country mile, leaving the chateau gardens and parks in a state worse than it had ever been in the past 400 years. It took the gardeners a full year to rebuild it to their former glory. Some trees had been peed on so much, that they would never quite be the same again as before the Texans arrived. Nevertheless, life continued, for most, but not for the two greyhounds that died of alcohol poisoning on the third day of the wedding celebrations, much to the grief of the four Texans who had by that time grown quite attached to their at-first-forced drinking buddies. Marie-Antoinette set up home in Chateau Lafayette with her new husband Barnie and the Marquis moved out to a smaller hunting lodge further South where he all but torn his clothes and pulled out his hair in despair of his new son-in-law. The newlyweds did not see him for three months after the wedding, supposedly because he wanted to give them space to settle down, but rumour has it that he locked himself in his hunting lodge for all that time, not accepting any guests, not shaving, not bathing and hardly eating a balanced meal, in mourning for the travesty that afflicted his family, that was Barnie Barnett.
But four years have gone by since the wedding feast and the hefty host was not what Julienne St Germaine was looking at. Julienne abhorred the man; but not just because everyone else did. Julienne was not the type to judge a book by its cover. No, he abhorred Barnie because he looked between the covers himself and did not like what he saw at all. Since Barnie became part of the Parisian culture, he likened himself somewhat of an art collector. Art consumed exactly half of Julienne’s life. Art is his family, it is his heritage and it is in his genes. He knew the names, styles and peculiarities of all the world’s great masters by the time he was six. When he left school, he followed in his mother’s footsteps and studied at the Sorbonne under some of the greatest contemporary masters and still today, although he rarely practiced it, was an accomplished painter himself. But it is the thrill of owning and handling great pieces of art that fuelled his passion. He has criss-crossed the globe in search of the elusive and the exclusive and he has become one of the greatest and most respected art dealers in the world with galleries in Paris, London, New York, Munich and Tokyo. His hands have held and caressed famous pieces that today graced the Lourve and in his various homes around the globe hung and stood masterpieces that would bring a gasp to even the most uncivilized throat. Then came Barnie and desecrated Julienne’s temple by flaunting his wealth at the world’s prestige art auctions and revered art markets, mixing and matching respected works of art in garish ways that would cause the artists to expire out of sheer horror and disgust if they were ever to witness the travesty. At first Julienne fed his disgust in the man by helping him to sink deeper into the quagmire of ridicule he had created for himself. He sold him bad art at absurd prices and unashamedly revelled in the mockery of the man’s ludicrous enthusiasm. And the art community knew, and in their smugness approved of Julienne’s methods and shamelessly smirked behind their hands. But he soon grew tired of mocking the man and turned his sights to another form of disparage, something else Barnie had between the covers but did not quite know how to handle.
Julienne’s expert blue-grey eyes were trained on his quarry; Mrs Marie-Antoinette Barnett on the landing at the top of the stairs, where she chatted vivaciously with the Countess de Rouget about one of the Countesses pet projects, saving the Pyrenean Ibex. Marie-Antoinette was the fairest-skinned, longest-limbed French nymph he has ever laid eyes upon. Many years ago, Julienne literally let her slip through his fingers. It was at a garden party at De Chambord. She was but a young girl at the time and as young girls do, she played running games with the others. Flirting with a pimple-faced boy whilst skipping through the throngs of people in the garden, she didn’t look where she was going and tripped over the feet of the Comte de la Rey and fell straight into the arms of the unsuspecting Julienne. He managed to catch her and she hung awkwardly for a few seconds before he realised that he was holding her firmly around the chest, a small budding breast cupped in each hand. She turned her face to him and gave him the most indignant “Monsieur!” anyone has ever managed before he let her slip from his grasp to land on the grass with a thud. Today, she posed the most stunning picture in the room, dressed in a close-fitting ball-gown that matched her husband’s jacket in colour and shine that hinted more of 1930’s Art Deco than Rococo; but then, Marie-Antoinette had always been a rebel under that porcelain-white skin of hers. The dress accentuated her petite but perky breasts and for a moment he could rather imagine her as a young Angelina Jolie, with her flowing mane of ebony curls falling coquettishly over her shoulders and down her back. They had been flirting covertly the entire evening and she had glanced down at him three times in the last five minutes or so from her elevated marble perch to where Julienne stood alone with his back against a heavy drape. For weeks now, Julienne has pursued her at every opportunity that availed itself. He had been sending her trinkets adorned with little poems, which expressed his lust for her in no uncertain terms. He reminded her of how her body felt in his hands that day at Chambord and that he had been thinking about it often. He had sent her evocative messages through numerous waiters at a dozen parties that he normally would not have attended and he flirted with her as if she was the only woman on earth. Tonight she was his quarry. Tonight, he aimed to put those little demons to rest that have been conjuring up lurid images of her in his mind since that day at De Chambord. Tonight, he aimed to take a little from that sham-aristocrat husband of hers that came here and stole her, to forever put a smudge on the name of de Lafayette and the art world at large. The last time she looked down at him, he could feel those icy-blues pierce straight into his own eyes and he could detect the faintest of smiles on her ruby lips. He knew his lean physique, dressed in a Rococo suit of burnished gold, would be etched definitively against the dark burgundy of the drapes behind him. He stared back openly and when he let his face break into a wide smile, she flushed and hurriedly looked away; but seconds later, her clear laughter rang out like a bell ensemble from above and he knew that though it might have been because of something the Countess said, it was meant for him, a kind of concession that she had been caught out staring at him; once again. The laughter told him that tonight was the night he had been waiting for. Marie-Antoinette was by now completely besotted with him and tonight she would like clay in the potter’s hands. Julienne took a small notepad and a pencil from one of his jacket pockets and wrote a short note. “You’re the most beautiful Ibex in the house. Meet me upstairs.” He slipped the note to a passing waiter with an instruction in his ear to deliver it promptly to the Lady of the Chateau. He then casually lifted a fresh flute of champagne from another waiter’s tray, his eyes following the one with the note as he ascended the stairs. When he reached her, the waiter bent over slightly to whisper something in her ear, at the same time obscuring his hand with which he passed her the note from the vision of the aging Countess with his body. Julienne appreciated the fluid and practiced manner in which he did it; a good soldier is a live one, is but one of the mottos he lives his carefully planned life by. Julienne was momentarily disturbed by a jovial fellow party-goer, whom he quickly appeased and brushed off with charm and equal joviality. When he looked back at his prey, she had disengaged herself from the Countess and was standing alone near the topmost newel post, her long fingers resting on its cap. She smiled faintly and then winked at him quite unabashedly. All Julienne could think of, were his fingers unravelling the laces of her bodice, smoothing the locks of her raven hair, brushing over her full lips and caressing her waxen breasts. She turned her back to him and strolled nonchalantly to a set of stairs at the far end of the landing that Julienne knew, led to the west wing of the Chateau, where the lady’s private living quarters were located.
The boy walked. He was not tired, but his heart was broken. Tears streamed from his eyes, leaving crooked trails across his dusty cheeks. The cause was not the girl with the big brown, dreamy eyes that waited for him every Saturday morning at Al Faisaliah, but a woman, nevertheless. His feet dragged and held him back, but he knew he had to go on. He looked at his watch. He dared not be late. The asphalt stretched out before him like the shafts of many arrows from an Al Saud quiver, all perfectly arranged, point to nock, one after the other with the furthest point quite out of the sight of the boy. One taxi after the other sped past him, dusty clones of each other. He could easily flag one of them, their white-clad drivers’ eager gazes flitting from one pedestrian to the other, like cobras hunting for unsuspecting dessert rats, but his arms were heavy; he could not get himself to lift one up. His tears were for his mother, for what they would do to her when he told them what she did; that she had warned him against them and that she tried to persuade him to turn away and help them not; that she threatened to go to the police, if he dared to go to their meeting. But the flame of the cause burnt strong in him and there was no turning away from it. Forsaking it would be the akin to the abandonment of his very own soul. Better that his mother pay for her own sins; may Allah protect her.
On the north-western outskirts of Riyadh, where city and desert met in a mesh pot of semi-dissolved mud bricks of abandoned buildings, the sand that is slowly devouring them and few date palms, stood the ruins of Al Diriyah, the old city of the Al Sauds. Most of this ancient stronghold of the Royals have been neglected to ruin but some parts, like the Mosque of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab have been meticulously overhauled, the restorers taking great care to emulate the skill and art of the original builders. It is here where his unwilling feet dragged him. It was here where he was to receive his final orders tonight.
The entrance to the mosque was deserted. An unsuspecting passer-by would have thought the building empty, like all the rest of the muddy monotone structures around him. But it was not; inside a small crowd have gathered already, waiting in a mist of whispers for their leader to appear, to further inspire them to greatness. Anis, the boy, pushed open the large doors that led to the main prayer hall. They were ornately carved with symmetrical circles and triangles, arranged in repeating patterns of orderly tranquillity. The colour of the wood blended perfectly with the surrounding sandstone of the walls and echoed the unity of the hearts of the men contained inside them. The boy surveyed the men seated cross-legged on the richly carpeted floor with their back to him. They were all ordinary men. A few looked around, others continued to whisper unperturbed at the intrusion. Tariq Abdullah was a short, stocky man with a beard that rivalled that of most Mutawa. His round face, pearling with late afternoon sweat, was adorned with a flat nose on which perched very precariously, a pair of small, round, gold-rimmed spectacles, through which he peered nervously over his shoulder as the boy called Anis, entered the main hall. The relief in his eyes said that he truly expected George Bush to walk through the large, carved wooden doors. He was a baker and he had been up since two hours before Morning Prayer, to ready the bread and sweets for the early morning shoppers. He pumped Eyad Alnuweiri, a tailor from Dhabab next to him, in the ribs and whispered something in his ear. He too, peered over his shoulder, yet a tad more nonchalantly. He raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement to Anis, and then furtively adjusted his ghutra as if to hide the gesture. Anis felt his chest swell. These men knew who he was. They knew how important his contribution to their cause was. Even the ones that did not look around knew he was there as their whispers became almost revered as he walked through them, to take a seat on the far right of the front row. The room was large, about 50 meters square, with plain sandy-coloured walls, the Eastern one broken by an opening through which the Imam will come. To the left of the opening was a small raised lectern from where the Imam will deliver his speech, next to it, his personal prayer mat from where he would lead the Maghrib and Eshaa prayers. The entire room whispered of plainness, with few adornments and above all, no microphone, for the proceedings in this Mosque were intense yet revered, enthusiastic yet restrained, animated yet hushed. The ceiling soared high above the heads of the gathered men and in the vast expanse of the room, the assembly of devotees looked like little children huddled in a small group on the floor of a day-care centre; attendance was by invitation only. When the Imam entered the room they stood and bowed their heads in reverence but sat down again as soon as he ascended the podium. Ahmed Saeed was a scrawny, dwarf-like character with a grey-flecked beard that reached down almost to his navel. He looked like 80 but was in all probability far closer to 50. His white robes were covered by a purple cape embroidered with a rim of gold. He gazed at his congregation, looking each hard in the eye as if he wished to penetrate their very souls to learn their true reason for being there. His spider-like eyes surveyed his prey before he employed his craft to transform the ink of the Holy Scriptures into venom and inject their brains with it. Cunningly, he used his zeal to help spread the venom until he could see by the fieriness of their eyes that it had inflamed their hearts with the hatred he craved so much against the infidels of the West. Tonight the time was right to put his great plan into motion, to pit the infidels from the East and West against each other, so that they may destroy each other and allow the Children of Allah to reign supreme on this earth forever. Spittle formed at the corners of his mouth as he preached and prayed, prodded and implored, all the time driving his herd closer to his goal. Finally he quietened down, his shoulders bowing forward as if tired, but his eyes came to rest on Anis, the young man that possessed the knowledge, which he needed so badly to execute the final stage of his grandiose plan.
On the Roof of the World, where ice and fire have reigned alongside each other in heavenly harmony for as long as time could remember, where the people we know today as Tibetans chose to create a society devoted to peace and serenity, there lurks an evil so great that if unleashed, it could destroy all life on earth and would continue to kill for thousands of years. The crisp mountain air and the refreshing crystal clear streams that flow forth from the life-giving glaciers that litter the moon-like landscape of the Tibetan Plateau, served as a derisory disguise for the nuclear monsters that lay hidden deep in the granite below. Here, amidst the Qilian and the Nan mountains, at an elevation of 3,200 meters, lies Qinghai Lake. With a surface area of roughly 6,000 square kilometres, it is the largest lake in modern China. Formed about 500 millennia ago in a shallow depression left by the catastrophic upheavals of the Indian tectonic plate sub-ducting steadily and speedily underneath its Asian counterpart, she’s fed by the fresh waters of melting glaciers yet miraculously retains the saltiness of the ocean floor she once was. Today she gorges herself on the waters of two dozen rivers that flow from as many glaciers down into the womb-like depression in the mountain that she inhabits, giving a home to scores of species of fish, sanctuary to thousands of birds and hope to the people that journey to her soothing shores to find peace, tranquillity and many times, themselves.
About sixteen kilometres East of Quinhai Lake lays the town of Xihai, covering 1,100 sq. kilometres and comprising of 890,000 sq. meters of buildings, more than 40 km of railway lines which converge with the Qinghai- Tibet Railway Line, nearly 80 km of standard highways and one thermal power plant with an annual generating capacity of 110 million kWh. Originally built in 1958, it used to be the site of the development of China’s first nuclear arsenal. At the time it carried the formal state designation of State Plant 221, but it was also known by many other names such as Factory 221, the Qinghai Provincial Mining Zone and the Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research & Design Facility. In 1987 it was officially closed by the State Council and redeployed as a “small” zone for national economy development. For all intents and purposes, the plant stopped producing nuclear weapons and in 1995, it was renamed to Xihai Town. But the advent of the space age brought satellite images that told a different story; one of unusually high activity in the area including DF-3 nuclear missile training. Since 2000, no satellite imagery of the area has been available from either of the close-range satellite systems, the Russian KVR-100 system or the CARTERRATM Archives. But for those in the know, State Plant 221 was alive and well under the Tibetan Plateau and to those who lived and died within its confines it was known as the Ninth Academy, which resided under the top secret jurisdiction of the Ninth Bureau. It was clear that Xihai Town had a secret that it wanted kept hidden at any cost.
Deep in the heart of the complex, a man sat behind a desk. The lights in his office were not yet on and the setting sun cast long shadows over everything. He closed the thick manila file in front of him with a heavy sigh and reached out for a black leather attaché case with DIPLOMATIC COURIER stamped in Mandarin Chinese across the front flap in official gold lettering. He placed the manila file into the case and locked it with a small key that he kept on a bunch in his pocket. When he had finished, he pressed a button on his intercom. When the secretary answered, he barked an order down the wires. A few seconds later, a young, smart-looking lieutenant entered the office. He came to a halt in front of the desk and saluted. Colonel Xiao waved his hand and the young man relaxed. “There is a truck leaving the Academy in an hour from C149. This is going to Beijing.” The Colonel pushed the attaché case across the desk. “Your orders are in here.” A small leather dispatch folder followed the case. “You are to deliver it personally to the addressee and to no one else, understand?”
“Yes Colonel!” The lieutenant answered. Xiao looked sternly at the lieutenant. Lieutenant Wei was a trusted servant.
“No one else, you understand? The content is Top Secret - For the recipient’s eyes only!” In a way there was no reason to emphasise that. Most dispatches from the Academy were of that nature.
“I understand, Sir!”
After a stern look and an unnecessarily lengthy pause, the Colonel said, “dismissed!” The lieutenant saluted, turned on his heel and left the office without another word. Colonel Xiao remained motionless at his desk for a full fifteen minutes before he opened the top drawer and pulled out a sheaf of documents, which he stuffed into another briefcase. He looked at his watch. The car would be waiting to take him to the station. Tomorrow, he had a plane to catch. He looked around the office and grimaced. There was nothing in here that he would miss; not one little bit. He closed his office door behind him and gave the secretary a curt nod as he left the building and the desolate plateau for the last time.
Somewhere on a lonely stretch of the 80km standard highways, a dilapidated and squeaky old military truck, daubed in khaki, its load hidden beneath a similarly-coloured tarpaulin, crossed a section of the 40km of special railway line that serviced the Ninth Academy. The occupants of its cab looked weary and their khaki uniforms appeared grimy, and they grimaced against the setting sun as they trekked the last few kilometres to their destination. The driver slowed down and took a left turn onto a dusty trail that one could easily miss if you have not been down there at least a dozen times before. As if out of nowhere a glistening, galvanised mesh-wire gate appeared, three meters high and twice as wide, guarding a break in a seemingly endless fence that stretched off into the distance in both directions. At the gate it was a beehive of activity when the truck arrived. Guards moved briskly, waving automatic weapons and checking the IDs of the truck’s occupants. One grabbed the cargo manifest from the driver, and then walked briskly around to the back of the truck. He poked the flap with the barrel of his AK47 and then flipped it aside with one hand while still pointing the gun into the back of the truck. He shouted something into the opening, but it got blown away by the wind that gusted over the emptiness of the steppe-like environment. He quickly closed the flap again and hurried back to the little shelter that was momentarily provided by the bulk of the truck. He signalled the driver that all was in order and waved the lumbering truck through the gates. As it disappeared around the corner of a building, the gates closed again behind it, to wait diligently on the next interruption of its day. The guard that waved the truck through, furtively glanced at his watch, although he knew exactly what the time was; an hour and 15 minutes before the end of his watch. The job of guarding the main entrance to Compound 149 afforded a man a lot of time to glance at his watch.
Somewhere deep inside Compound 149, the truck stopped in front of a large grey building, constructed entirely from corrugated iron. Its one side sported a door big enough for a jet plane to enter. It opened slowly, to allow the truck to enter. The roller door closed again behind it with a clamour of chains and ratchets. The driver of the truck finally switched off its engine. It rattled and rumbled for a few seconds before it died, leaving a large puff of black smoke hanging in the air behind it. Armed solders ran up to the back of the truck, shouting loudly and ripping at the rope that tied the canvas. As soon as it was open, two of the soldiers jumped inside. Suddenly the truck heaved as if a sleeping bull had been awakened inside. Within a few short moments the truck spilled its cargo; 40 bedraggled men and women, hands bound brutally behind their backs and ankles manacled together with leg irons, lay sprawled on the cold, hard cement floor of the hanger. The soldiers jumped on them like wild dogs and tore into the prisoners with boots and rifle butts. They got them up on their feet and push-marched them down a ramp that disappeared down into the bowels of the earth. When the last one disappeared down the ramp, a soldier jumped from the back of the truck and shouted a command but it was too late, the steel doors that was to separate the one below and the ones above was already closing. His officer turned to see what the commotion was about. The soldier’s upper body disappeared into the back of the truck and appeared again after a moment, dragging something with him. A body fell on the ground, bound like the others, but this one was still. It was a woman, in her early twenties, with shoulder-length hair and dressed in army-style overhauls. The officer kicked her in the ribs, but it elicited no reaction. Her eyes were closed and a smear of dried blood covered her chin. Another officer walked up and knelt next to the woman. He felt her pulse. It was feint and erratic. He held his hand before her mouth and could almost not feel the feint breath of air that came from her nostrils. He got up and shook his head. The officer shouted an order. The foot soldier came to attention. He handed his pistol, a TT33, to the soldier. A single shot to the back of the young woman’s head made her the luckiest ex-occupant of the truck that stood patiently with its back to the whole drama, a silent, impartial and mechanical participant and witness to the indignity visited upon the latest surge of supposed opposers of the Party.
When Julienne entered Madame Barnett’s private chambers after a brief knock and a cautious glance down the corridors to make sure no one saw him, he was mildly surprised to find the lady of the house stretched out on her bed, wearing only a diaphanous night gown with nothing but the voluminous folds of the sheer fabric to hide her assets. It failed to do a good job of it and his eyes were absolutely, automatically and involuntarily drawn towards her shapely derriere’. Perfection that rival that of Venus de Milo stared back at him and he was suddenly compelled by a deep animalistic desire to kiss the faint V in the small of her back that poured forth from the cleft between her buttocks where it was just discernable through the white fabric. But Julienne was not one for rushing into things. So instead of jumping onto the bed like his urges demanded, he casually strolled to the small Louis XV giltwood cabinet that should contain a small variety of the Lady’s favourite beverages. He threw off his jacket and waistcoat, draping them over the arm of a heavy brocaded chair. Inside the cabinet, he found a single bottle; bourbon. He frowned. He expected more lady-like concoctions.
“Pour me one too, s'il vous plaît monsieur.” She said without turning her head away from the book that she was reading. Julienne cocked his head slightly and smiled. “Straight, no ice.” She said again and turned a page. Julienne poured two shots in short heavy bottomed glasses and walked over to the bed. He almost felt awkward in the presence of his oh-so-willing prey. For a moment he paused next to the bed to take in the beauty of her. Her shoulders pirouetted daintily down to her narrow waist; lithe muscles ran down both sides of her spine, suggesting years of horse-riding and ballet training and her firm buttocks formed a shapely heart above the divergence of her legs. These were so long that it seemed as if they never ended; but they did, in the most perfect pair of feet that Julienne imagined he has ever seen.
“Louis XV. I should have guessed.” Julienne said while holding out one glass to her. She turned onto her right side, facing him, propping up her head with the one hand while discarding the book on the nightstand with the other.
“Come on Julienne, you did not come here to admire my boudoir, did you? Marie-Antoinette looked over her shoulder. The movement caused the sheer material of the nightdress to glide softly over her body, almost tenderly, and he yearned to reach out and touch it; but not yet.
“Such a beautiful room should have many admirers, mon cher.”
“And indeed it has, Julienne, but tonight, only you.” She smiled coyly and reached out to take the proffered drink from his hand. She took it and swung back the glass in one fluid movement. No sooner had the amber liquid touched the back of her throat than she swallowed it. “Drink up, Julienne,” she ordered softly. As if mesmerised, he did as he was told and when he put his glass on the nightstand, she said, “Come here, my ravisher, now kiss me,” and she pulled him down towards her. “This is not the way it was supposed to be,” was the last thing Julienne thought before his lips smashed into hers and he was lying sprawled on top of her, the sheerness of the nightgown in his one hand and the deliciousness of her flowing black hair in the other. The nightgown had only one small button in the front, almost between her breasts. His deft hands found it, undid it and he swept the gown away while she tugged at his shirt to free him for what he came here to do. He helped her when it came to the many buttons of the pants and soon, much sooner than Julienne anticipated, they were both naked. She smelled of expensive soap and Julienne let his discerning nose and mouth slide over her entire body. He couldn’t get enough of kissing her, this woman who was a child the last time he held her, whom he pursued for weeks on end to deliver her uncivilized husband a final blow for Société’s sake. Viva les Nobles! But no, he soon realised that this act was not for Société and it was not entirely his doing either. No matter how much he tried to fool himself, she was in charge here and she executed as if she had planned this down to the minutest detail. At one time, when he surfaced for breath, she continued to slide down underneath him, flicking her tongue lower and lower down his taught abs. Raised on his arms, he spotted the book she left open on the bedside table. It was a richly illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra and the page where she left it open, made him smile. This was her design, after all! Julienne turned over onto his back, carefully, so as not to let Marie-Antoinette loose her rhythm, and sagged back against the soft, white pillows. Dumbfounded, he stared up at the silk folds of the canopy of her bed, while he succumbed to the wiles of the woman above him, reluctantly admitting to himself that this time he had been outfoxed by his prey.
Zhu Luyang scrutinized the data again and again. He can’t wait any longer. He has to tell someone. He looked up from the papers spread across his desk and glanced at the map of the Yangtze River on the wall of his small office. The office is no more than a cubicle with barely enough space for his desk, two upright metal filing cabinets and two chairs, one on either side of the desk. Not that many people came to see him in his cubbyhole; at least not the type that wants to sit down, anyway.
The river on the map meanders like a giant blue serpent through arid yellow desert landscape. Its mouth reaches for the cool waters of the East China Sea while its tail sweeps across the glaciers of the mighty Himalayas. On its banks and in its valleys fed by its blessed waters, lived, procreated and died one-third of the Yellow Nation. It’s almost 6500km long and home to strange creatures like the mighty Sturgeon and the ancient Chinese Alligator. It is also the home of the Three Gorges Dam. With a lake of 660km long and covering 632 square km of land, it is the largest hydroelectric power station in the world. It was also an imminent danger to all of China.
Zhu and his team of meteorologists at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAREERI, CAS for short), have been following the impact of global warming on the glaciers of the Himalayas that fed the Yangtze for five years. The project started in 1999, but then Zhu was only a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At 29 though, he was the youngest professor in his department and commands the respect of many of his peers.
The problem that faced him now though, was a career cruncher for sure. How does one tell the Chinese Central Government that the brainchild of the Father of the Nation, supported by the Father of the Kuomintang and nurtured by the Founding Father of the Republic was a mistake? Certainly, so many Fathers could not have been wrong. But did they have all the facts? In 1919 when Sun Yut-sen envisioned a large dam across the Yangtze, global warming was not even a word. Even in 1932 when Chiang Kai-shek started the preliminary work on the dam, no one gave glaciers a second thought and even in 1956 when Mao authored his famous poem “Swimming” embodying his fascination with Sun’s vision, glacial retreat was the furthest from the minds of the Chinese people. When construction started in 1994, it was too late. Everyone knew about global warming but few worried about it and no one in the Chinese Government was going to stand up and say “stop that dam!”
No. Zhu Luyang knew he was alone in his plight.
In 2005, long before the completion of the dam, rumours of possible shifts in the earth’s crust due to the volume and weight of the dam’s water circulated the scientific circles. Some of the more vociferous, who came to the attention of the Government, were imprisoned as dissidents. In 2008 some blamed the Sichuan earthquake on the Three Gorges Dam and again, people disappeared. But in May 2009 all hell broke loose when almost 50,000 cubic meters of dirt plunged into the flooded Wuxia Gorge and the following year 97 significant landslides were recorded in the three gorges reservoir area, directly attributed to increased water levels. The situation was worsening and Zhu Luyang knew why. Whether his message of doom would be heeded or land him in jail, is the only question left with no answer.
Zhu Luyang’s predicament was like this: The Himalayan glaciers retreat at the rapid rate of 15 meters per year. This has so far resulted in more than 230 glacial lakes, many reaching dangerously high water levels and about to burst and overflow. These dams are feeding the Yangtze and are literally gorging it to the point of consternation. The landslides are but the first symptoms. Landslides brings with it increased sedimentation; sedimentation that before the dam would have fertilised the downstream valley, but is now stopped by the dam wall to the tune of 60 million tonnes per year. With no agreed sedimentation management plans, this holds dire consequences for the farmers and other inhabitants of the downstream valley. No sediment means that the downstream banks becomes more vulnerable to flooding, and since Shanghai sits on a sedimentary plain, it will eventually slowly sink away into the South China Sea, like Venice. Furthermore, the sediment is eroding the upstream face of the dam and continued earthquake-induced peak ground acceleration coupled with the immense weight of the reservoir, will eventually split the dam wall in two like an overripe watermelon, spilling the full upstream volume down into the valley like a raging dragon, intent on devouring everything in its path including the sacred city of Shanghai. When this happens, Zhu knew, China will lose a third of its population, more than half of its arable land including more than two-thirds of the country’s rice production capability and almost all of its major factory cities. Polluted water will wash away half of the country’s fishing industry and famine and disease will sweep the land to the proportions of what the Biblical Faroe of Egypt could never imagine. But Zhu also knew that what would follow all of that would be much, much worse.
His mind left the doom of the Yellow Nation for a moment to conjure up a face he had been pondering upon all morning. Xu Xian was the energetic, resourceful, almost boyishly beautiful daughter of General Xu Sheng, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission. To her father, she is the apple of his eye, the successor to his kingdom and the embodiment of his aspirations. To Zhu, she is the object of his secret and awkward obsession, the girl he would love to take to bed had he the guts to make the first move and the one he feels he should share his burden with at this point in time, as she would be the one person within his reach that could make a difference to the life of his Nation, as he knew it. He reached for the phone buried amongst the doom and gloom on his desk and dialled her personal mobile number that he knew off by heart.
Lieutenant Xu Xian got out of the shower and rubbed her hair with a standard PLA issued towel. She peered into the small mirror that served as a medicine cabinet door mounted on the grey wall of the barracks bathroom. Was that another new freckle? She stopped rubbing her hair to take a closer look. Her eyes glanced down at her naked reflection in the mirror. A strict daily exercise regime kept her petite 25-year old body trim and devoid of flabby fatty deposits and loose skin. She pinched her thigh and felt the taught muscle underneath her skin, still quivering after her hour-long run. After scrutinizing her face again carefully for offending freckles, she nodded appreciatively to her reflection in the mirror and continued to dry her hair. Her size 4 feet left wet imprints on the worn linoleum floor as she moved around the tiny bathroom tending to her morning ablutions. She carefully selected and applied various creams and ointments to her face and body from her kit. She viewed this as more of a necessary regime of cleanliness than a beauty regime because. Since she spent most of her time in army fatigues, beauty is furthest from her mind. She prefers to think of herself as proficient, self sufficient and efficient in what she does. She used a small purple blow-dryer to dry her raven hair, which she kept short as it is easier to manage under the strict military regulations on the hair of female members. Finally she donned the step-out uniform of the Second Department of the PLA General Staff and got her things together.
As she opened the door that divides the small bathroom from the almost smaller office that she occupied for most of the previous night, her mobile phone buzzed. She kept it on vibrate when she was on the base so as not to disturb her colleagues. What they did here, collecting intelligence and planning clandestine operations, required total focus and concentration and she knew exactly how irritating the unexpected ringing from a mobile phone can be; especially if the thing starts dancing around on an unoccupied desk to the tune of the latest pop song. She quickly reached for it and smiled at the caller ID displayed on the illuminated screen.
“Wei, Luyang.” She said as she answered the phone.
There was a moment of awkward silence then a man stuttered lamely, “Good morning to you too, Xian. Glad I caught you...how are you today?”
“Well, still vibrating a little after my morning run, but you have impeccable timing, Luyang. I’m done with my nightshift and about to go home.”
The man on the other side sucked in his breath. “Is this a good time?”
“No, I mean, can we talk for a moment, are you all done? Ready to go? Shall I call back later...?”
“All done? Oh, oh, you mean done. Yes, yes, all done, showered, shampood, dressed, keys in my hand.”
“You’re about to drive? Are you sure I should not call back later?” he asked awkwardly.”
No way Luyang, I’m a woman, remember, I can multitask. Besides I have Bluetooth!” She laughed that infectious laugh that tied the strings of his heart in a messy knot that caused him to cease up, unable to get out another word. “Luyang, are you still there?” She waved at some colleagues as she strode to the car park where her blue Prius was awaiting her arrival patiently.
He cleared his dry throat. “Yes, I’m still here, sorry, something fell off my desk,” he lied and his voice sounded to him as squeaky as that of a schoolboy entering puberty.
“So what can I do for you on this lovely morning, Luyang? I hope you are not calling me to save the world, it may be a little early for that kind of thing!” She laughed again.
His heart sank under his desk at her light-hearted joke. Saving the world; if only she knew. “Ah nothing, I just wanted to hear the sound of your lovely voice,” he wanted to say nonchalantly; but he couldn’t. Even if he wasn’t carrying the fate of the whole Chinese nation and quite possibly the financial future of the entire world on his shoulders, he could never say that to her. Instead, he said, “I have some...important news I want to share with you...”
“Aah?” she interrupted him. “Your Mother coming to the big city at last?” she asked.
“No, no, not my Mother,” he laughed in staccato. His mother is 68 years old and has never left the village she grew up in. Not even for any of her sons’ graduation ceremonies – and there were many. “It’s something...about my work that I want to talk to you about.”
“The weather? Luyang, talking about the weather is never going to get you to a girl’s heart!” She said with little devils dancing in her voice.
Luyang could feel the heat creeping into his face. She’s not even in the room and she could make him blush! He tried to laugh at her light-hearted little joke but felt the gravity of her words press down heavily on his voice box. She was right, he could talk about little other than “the weather” when he as with her. He always tried his best to keep conversation light, non-descript, bland and as far away as possible from anything that could be construed as romantic. Immediately he was angry with himself. He wanted her more than anything in the entire world and yet, he was too much of a coward to let her know how he felt. He has known her forever, they grew up in the same village together, went to school together and when she grew up, she dated his friends. He chose to admire her from a distance, longed for her romantic company but became her older brother instead. Her confidante, her shoulder for when the other boys made her cry; that’s all he ever was to her. Finally he said, “well, perhaps it is better if we discuss this face to face; perhaps dinner...or something, since you are not working today...unless you already have plans...”
“Are you asking me on a date, Zhu Luyang?”
“He heard those little devils dancing in her voice again. “No...not a...”
“No?” She enquired with mock-shock in her voice. “You do not want to go on a date with me?”
Luyang was flabbergasted. “No...I mean yes...if that’s what you want...a date...”
“Good! Pick me up at 7pm. I’ll be at my Dad’s place. He’s here in Shangai for the weekend and I’m not working.”
“But maybe we should do it at another time then...I mean, I don’t want to take up any father-daughter time.”
“You won’t, he’s not arriving until tomorrow morning. A meeting in Beijing or something.”
“So I am the stand-in?” She could hear the mock shock in his voice and smiled. She did not give him the satisfaction of an answer.
“Dinner and a movie, no less.”
“OK, 7pm. I’ll be there...”
“And a chat. You need to learn to chat to a girl...small talk, you know? Else you will never get a wife, Luyang!” Luyang was like a brother to her; the tongue-tied older brother that a younger sister must introduce her friends to. Over the years Xian has introduced many of her friends to Luyang, but has not yet managed to find one that lasted more than one date. He always had an excuse. Too fat, too thin, too unimaginative, too square (?!) too dumb, talks too much, drinks too much, smokes...she’s heard all the excuses.
Luyang sighed. He has no defences against this girl. “And a chat...”
“And no weather-talk!” She said sternly.
“Okay, no weather-talk...but what I want to tell you...the purpose of the date...!”
“Luyang, the weather is never going to get you in a woman’s bed, not unless it is a raging storm and you are caught in it locked in your apartment for a week...alone!”
“Maybe not your apartment – I’ve seen that – perhaps her apartment.” Before he could utter another nonsensical syllable, she added, “Alright, you can tell me what’s pressing on your heart tonight, but not the entire night. You have to think of other things to say too, okay?”
“Okay,” he smiled a little, relieved that the conversation seemed to be coming to an end.
“Okay, I’ll be expecting you at seven, don’t be late.”
“I won’t be late,” he said, “and Xian,”
“Zai Xian!” he shouted with a boyish glee but thankfully she had already pressed the little red button on her phone.
The hand that held the phone was trembling so violently, he almost let it fall but finally managed to drop it back into its cradle. “A DATE!” his mind cried out, “a date with Xian!” For a few moments the Himalayas, the melting glaciers and the crumbling walls of the Three Gorges, indeed, the fate of the Yellow Nation was banished from his mind to make space for unknown feelings of euphoric giddiness and hot waves of rollercoaster-aliveness that coursed through his veins like a raging river.
Julienne lay on his back. Above him the soft silkiness of Marie Antoinette’s bed canopy swirled before his eyes. His head was giddy and his limbs heavy in the aftermath of the wild encounter he just had with the vixen beside him. There was no doubt in his mind. She outfoxed him. She led the charge and she alone called the shots. It was a strange feeling for Julienne, used to being in charge all his life. From the day he was born, he knew he would be a leader. The men in his lineage always were.
His mother disgraced the family when she fell pregnant with him while she was only sixteen. His Grandfather, Colonel Jean-Christophe St. Germaine who fought the Germans at Montcornet with De Gaulle in 1940, was so ashamed of his daughter’s indiscretions that he took a posting in the Central African Republic and took his wife and daughter with him, to hide her growing belly from the Parisian gossipmongers. Julienne saw Paris for the first time when he was five. His Grandmother wasted no time to leave the hellhole her husband dumped them in when he suddenly died on the morning of his 65th birthday of a heart attack on a dusty parade ground in full view of 5000 soldiers. He was buried in full battle dress, his corpse carried on a cannon carriage drawn behind 12 black horses, in the family crypt near the Château de Chambord.
He looked at Marie Antoinette, stretched out on her tummy, her head buried in her pillows, strewn with trusses of black hair. Her skin was a pale, almost translucent white and in the semi darkness of her room, he could swear that she shimmered, like moonlight falling on the surface of a still lake in those quiet moments before midnight. She reminded him of another beauty, one from his dim past, one that has not surfaced in many years but nevertheless, not diminished in vividness despite all the myriads of beauties in the years in between. She was a delicate rose from across the channel, one who tutored him in more than English Literature. She came to Chambord when Julienne was 15 and though he was not inexperienced at all as far as girls was concerned, she was quite different to the buxom and bubbly French governesses and chambermaids that were Julienne’s primary teachers. She sounded different, she carried herself different and she smelled different; and that intrigued him to no end.
They spent a year together before they were caught in an amorous act by one of Julienne’s spinster aunts who didn’t take the ravishment of the French Aristocracy by a lowly English commoner lightly. His Grandmother, Marie Aimee de Montbazon, duchesse de Chevreuse, had the girl packed and shipped off to the train station, to be bound for the coast within the hour. He never saw or heard from her again but through all the years, he still remembered the sound of her voice and she read Geoffrey Chauser, still remembered the smell of her skin in the afterglow of love as they lay in the meadow and he still remembered the tilt of her head as she smiled at him coquettishly, inviting him into her bed chamber for the very first time.
The nymph by his side stirred. His heart pumped faster. Was it time to go yet? Julienne knew they could not linger too much longer. He intended to leave by a back door and bid the evening of festivities farewell, now that he had accomplished his goal. But she would be missed, soon. He propped himself up on an elbow.
“Leaving already, my darling?” Her voice came from the pillows. “No sooner have you ravished the lady of the castle and you are ready to sheath your sword and leave?
Julienne smiled in the almost darkness. The room was lit only by a few strategically placed candles. He could see the open Karma Sutra on the table beside the bed, but he could not make out any detail form where he lay. Shadows cast by the naked flames danced in the gilt of some of the exquisite pieces of furniture around the room, but the dark colours of the walls are shrouded from view. “I am going to China.” He said simply.
“China? Why so far? Don’t you like me?” She turned and pouted at him, raising herself on one slim elbow.
“No, no, no, Ma Cherie. On the contrary, this trip is for you.”
“For me? What could I possibly want from China? Tea?” She giggled at her own little joke. Julienne got up and walked over to where he dropped his jacket earlier. From an inside pocket he pulled a white envelope. Then he came back to sit next to the woman who ravished him moments ago. He opened the envelope. She moved closer, inquisitively. From the envelope he pulled a single photograph.
“What is this?” she asked in a low, husky voice.
“This, ma Cherie, is the Bao Dai pearl, sacred obsession of the last emperor of Vietnam.” The colour of the pearl was an intense orange, like the flesh of the papaya and it seemed perfectly round, about the size of a golf ball. Its surface was smooth and exuded a strange light, which could be a reflection of the deep red velvet on which it lay, encased in what appeared to be a rosewood box of simple design.
“And you’re going to China to fetch this...for me?” Marie Antoinette seemed out of breath. Julienne looked down at her face. She seemed so beautiful, he could almost kiss her. But he was well aware of what would happen next.
“This pearl is like you, Marie. It is unique. It is one of a kind. Therefore you and it belongs together.” She reached for the photo to look at it closer. “I leave in the morning. You can keep the picture until I return with the real thing.” Suddenly, he felt awkward. A little like the schoolboy from long ago, befuddled by lust and the look in his English teacher’s eyes.
“Julienne; it is beautiful. I’ve never seen one like this before in my life.” She sat up next to him. “Tell me, how long will you be away for? Where in China are you going? Is it going to be dangerous” She sounded like an exited little girl, bombarding Daddy with questions before a business trip. Julienne chuckled.
“So many questions! Only a week, Shangai and no, my line of business is never dangerous!”
“Ooh! But you are a soldier, from a long line of important soldiers! Surely, you must be a dangerous man to be dealing with, Julienne!” Now she was mocking him. His life as a high flying French aristocrat and his work, which he preferred to think of as a hobby, as an art dealer to the world’s rich and famous, was one mostly defined by beauty, serenity and enjoyment; a life very far removed from the quarrelsome existences of his cantankerous and militant forefathers. Handling exquisite pieces of fine art that had been lovingly created by some of the most brilliant minds in the history of mankind and that took copious amounts of time and patience to create, so fastidiously invested, was a fabulously leisurely and flamboyantly noble way of passing the time. No one has ever been able to describe that as dangerous. Julienne laughed again softly.
“The most dangerous situation I could possibly find myself in, Cherie, is to be caught naked in your boudoir by your bombastic husband! But in his heart of hearts Julienne knew that even the coveting, pursuing and conquering of a nubile quarry like Marie Antoinette is far less dangerous than the part of his life she knew nothing about.
Zhu Luyang believed in all things practical; the value of a sober lifestyle, the simplicity of the weather and reliability of Japanese cars. His late 90’s Toyota sedan sped along the highway at a speed of 5km/h under the speed limit. He also believed that people, who spent their time washing their cars, had nothing else to do and must therefore, live extremely boring lives. So he opted for a practical colour, pale blue, that did not show up dust and dirt as easily as a red one or a black one. The last thing he’d admit to would be a boring lifestyle; especially with the number of butterflies fluttering around in his tummy that he has not been able to quiet down since he finished his conversation with Xian two hours ago. There must be a thousand of them in there!
In between a blend of thoughts flitting between Xian and the Himalayas, he surfaced to take in his surroundings. Exactly how he got onto the Hukun Expressway was a bit of a mystery to him. Not that it bothered him. He was used to travelling on autopilot with his thoughts miles away pondering problems far less mundane as navigating the roads system of Songjiang University City, where he has his office at the College of Environmental Science & Engineering of Donghua University. General Xu Sheng kept an estate near Tangkou for the odd times when his busy schedule takes him to Shanghai. The villa sits on a hillside overlooking the river which once must have been an enviable view, but now closely resembles the putrid large intestine of a dead animal. It was close enough to the city for him to attend meetings but far enough not to have to listen to its eternal heart beat all night long when an old man needed his rest the most. It was going to take Luyang an hour to get there and another hour to get to the restaurant he picked out. He looked at his watch and pushed the pedal down a little harder, sending the speedometer steadily towards the speed limit mark.
Picking the restaurant was a serious affair for Luyang. It couldn’t be too ostentatious, Xian was beautiful, but a plain girl in many respects. When it came to clothes, cars and restaurants, she preferred it toned down. Neither should it be too cosy, lest she construed it as romantic. Luyang had tried that one before. She immediately translated it into a deep seated need for a serious relationship, his, and for four weeks, arranged the one date after another with the most boring women one could ever imagine. It should not be too frivolous; no French or Italian or any other continental cuisine for that matter. Those places got too crowed and too noisy on a Friday night and for tonight, he’d prefer a little quiet so that they could talk about...well...the weather. After Googl-ing away the best part of the morning, he decided on a small traditional place about an hour’s drive from Xian’s father’s place that served good local dishes, had a number of good reviews and one of his colleagues confirmed that the food was good and that the place could not be remotely mistaken for being romantic. From the photos on their website he could see they had booths that afforded some privacy but most importantly, would cut the noise factor in half. He had booked one of booths towards the rear of the restaurant, away from the main traffic and patted himself on the shoulder for being so clever.
When he arrived at the General’s house, Shu Weng answered his call from the gate. The old man’s voice sounded tinny over the small speaker in the gate wall and Luyang could see a remote surveillance camera swivelling in his direction from the top of the gate arch.
“Ni hao Zhu Luyang, the Little Miss is expecting you,” the old man said and the gate swung open silently. Shu Weng has been with the family for over 30 years. He came from the same village as Xian’s father and would kill for any of the family. He was more like the head of the household for Xian’s father employed 13 other household staff here, over which Shu Weng ruled with the iron fist of a Mother Superior.
“Luyang!” Xian shouted and she came running down the front steps of the castle-like house. Standing broad-shouldered amongst ancient trees, like a General amongst his warriors, it looked for like the fortified dwelling of a feudal lord than the town house of a State Official. No sooner had he got out of the Toyota, when Xian jumped up, swung her arms around his neck to hung on to him like a little girl seeing her daddy after a long road trip. She gave him a peck on the cheek and said, “Come, I’m not done yet,“ as she dragged him up the stairs past a unperturbed Shu Weng. “Shu Weng will get you a Club Soda.”
“Ni hao, Shu Weng!” he shouted in the passing. The old man merely nodded his head with the patience of a Buddha. Like a whirlwind, she left him standing in the hallway as she raced up the sweeping double staircase to finish whatever it is girls do before going out to dinner and a movie. Like a ghost, Shu Weng appeared in his peripheral vision off to his left, complete with silver tray and a tall glass filled with Club Soda and ice. Just the way he liked it.
Julienne had a driver drop him off at the airport an hour before departure. He used the Bentley Continental for short travel, a superb vehicle in black with toned down lines that allowed him to move around public places without too much attention. He absolutely hated the ostentatious way in which his peers flaunted limos. It’s so American. Besides, he liked the Bentley’s badge. It reminded him of Batman.
The airport was crowded, as usual. He had already completed the check-in procedures in the car when he arrived and now made his way to the Virgin Clubhouse. He glanced at his watch. He travelled light, no luggage apart from a briefcase which for the most part, contained the electronic gadgets that he could not operate without. Everything else could be procured as and when required and could be disposed of just as easily. For a man who owned more wealth than what six generations of families of a thousand ordinary men could ever hope to amass, Julienne surely disliked baggage.
There’s enough time for a coffee and a bit of reading before he had to board. He ordered a coffee and a newspaper to the roof garden and was surprised to find that he had it all to himself. While he waited, he made a few phone calls; the last to his contact in Shanghai. He wanted everything to be perfect; in and out, no spills. Shipping of the pearl after the conclusion of the deal has already been arranged and all he needed was one day to conclude the transaction and a few days to enjoy the countryside. After all, relaxation is the reason for his trip and let no man say otherwise! When he returned to Paris in a week’s time, the pearl of Bao Dai will be waiting for him in a bank vault, ready to fulfil the next phase of Marie Antoinette’s seduction.
He sipped the warm, black coffee slowly while perusing the newspaper. He felt no need to glance at his watch; he knew the concierge will ensure him boarding the plane on time. Despite owning about a dozen private jets of all shapes and sizes, he preferred flying commercial for clandestine buying trips. The art world is not entirely without prejudice and jealous traders have been known in the past to go rogue and harass, maim or kill other traders for the want of an elusive piece. In 2007 Galliano Mancini was stabbed to death in his Goan apartment by an Italian rival after winning a fierce bidding war over a fabled diamond necklace from the Bourbon dynasty, in 2009 the illustrious ruby collector Arendt Schmidt disappeared from the face of the earth along with several million dollars worth of his favourite collectible and only last year a prominent dealer from London was killed execution style in a theatre toilet cubicle and relieved of his house keys. A safe in the house of which not even his wife knew, was later found ransacked. So to Julienne’s reckoning, the changing of hands of something as big as the Pearl of Bao Dai does not need to attract any unnecessary attention. History has taught him that keeping a secret is easier of you keep it in broad daylight and it would be easier for him to be inconspicuous in a crowd that in a private jet; not to mention a more unlikely target.
The concierge was a short man with a barrel chest and branch-like arms carefully camouflaged underneath a starched shirt and red waistcoat, who looked like he would be more comfortable in a Bond movie. He was nevertheless courteous and almost jovial and bowed as he beckoned Julienne to board his flight to Shanghai.
As he turned towards the first class passenger suites at the entrance to the cabin, a man behind him attracted his attention. He was 5’6”, of stocky built, about 170 pounds and wore a bespoke black pinstripe suit. The man was looking at him but averted his eyes suddenly when Julienne turned his head to face him. He carried a black leather briefcase and the unobtrusive thin titanium chain that linked it to the man’s arm made it look awfully diplomatic. Something portentous tugged momentarily at a chord deep inside Julienne’s lizard brain; but only for the briefest of moments before it let go again. He shrugged off the feeling and headed for the comfort of his cabin, thinking about the cognac and the extra pillow he was about to order.
Aimee St. Germain was named after her maternal Grandmother; a stoic woman who suffered the hardships her soldier husband bequeathed upon her from the day they got married. Shortly after consummating the marriage he left her to wake up alone, crying and pregnant in their honeymoon bed. She moved into the family home, learning how to run the household like a lady and dreaming of the day when her handsome husband will return. But four months into the Parisian summer, he sent word for her to join him in a godforsaken hellhole called Casablanca in torrid Africa, a place which bore no resemblance to the romanticism embellished by the 1942 film of the same name. There she stayed for thirteen years raising her noble and only child amongst savages. Monique grew up to be a rebel. In three short years after returning to Paris at the age of thirteen, she disgraced the family by falling pregnant to a dashing young French Lieutenant, whom her father made sure she promptly married. Julienne was the result. Tragically, the dashing young French Lieutenant was killed in a skirmish in Africa before Julienne was born. Monique mourned him for the rest of her life and fed her restless soul with the immoral offerings of the fashion world. It would be nineteen years before she brought Aimee into the world a girl that would have been largely overlooked by Julienne because of the generational gap, was it not that Monique died of an overdose that same year, naked and blonde, wrapped in silk sheets with a look of eternal endearment on her face, just like Marilyn Monroe.
“Absolem!” Aimee looked up startled from the book she was reading where she sat in the bay window of the salon, catching the warm rays of the morning sun. She smiled when she realised it was a familiar voice.
“Jean-Luc! You shouldn’t creep up on a lady like that; it could get you into a heap of trouble!” She said jokingly as she put the book down. “Anyway, why are you calling be Absolem?”
“Because, you look just like Alice’s big blue caterpillar, Absolem with your book all curled up in the window like that!” He chortled. Jean-Luc worked in the school’s admin office as a general gofer. Apparently he was left on the steps of a Parisian orphanage shortly after birth; presumably because his mother did not want to be burdened with the difficulties of raising a baby with Down syndrome. At the age of 18, L'Ermitage took him in as part of a State sponsored employment & re-education program.
“You big dummy, caterpillars are fat!” she laughed.
“Yeah but, this one’s also blue and your big blue cardigan makes you look fat!” Jean-Luc laughed so hard, he doubled over and held his tummy.
“Oh so now I am fat? Watch it! Incomiiiing!” Aimee grabbed him around the waist and wrestled him in a mock tackle to the ground. “Now you are going to get it!” She screamed and tickled his ribcage enthusiastically.
“No, no, no!” He shouted, “I’m going to pee in my pants!” She rolled off him and got up while straightening out the loose-fitting cardigan, still laughing. Jean-Luc had trouble getting his rotund shape into a vertical position. Back on his feet, he scratched his head. “Oh! I almost forgot. You have visitors down at the office.
“Visitors? Who would visit me on a Sunday morning? That’s odd.”
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen them before. It’s not Julienne!” He laughed again. “I know because the woman is not pretty enough!” Once more, he cried with laughter at his own joke.
“Well, we better get back to the office then,” she said and turned around to go. As they walked the path that led through the garden to the school’s main office block, she asked, “Jean-Luc, how long have you been with the school?”
“Uuh, much longer than you Aimee, that’s for sure, let me see, I think...you mean this year?”
“Yes, how many years have you been with the school?
“Let me see, I was 18 when I came here and this year on November 25th I will be 29...so almost 11 years! How old are you Aimee? “
“That’s no proper question to ask a Lady, Jean-Luc! “She looked at him with her most stern face. “But since you are my best friend, I’ll tell you; I am 16.” She said in a most conspiratorial voice. Jean Luc seemed to mull over this new information. She could almost see the calculations blitz in and out of focus in his eyes.
“So you were 5 years old when I started here,” he said proudly. “See, you were not even in school yet!” He shouted triumphantly.
“Oh but indeed I was,” Aimee said, “I was in the Lower School, way down there and you don’t work there, see?” She pointed to a place in the yonder somewhere past the gardens and way on the other side of the massive 148 acre estate.
“There’s a Lower School?” was all he said before they reached the office and Aimee was pointed in the direction of a man and a woman of oriental descent waiting in one of the ante chambers.
“Miss St. Germaine,” the man said when she entered the room. He bowed graciously as if to a Princess. “My name is Cheng and this is Miss Xiuling. We are with the Chinese Consulate in Marseilles.
“Yes?” She said in an inquiring voice.
“We are here on a rather delicate matter, Miss St. Germaine. Your brother...the Duke of Chevreuse...have asked us to accompany you to the Consulate on official business.”
“Julienne? Why? Official business with the Chinese?”
“Miss St. Germaine, it is a delicate matter and we would appreciate it if you come with us now. We have very little time.” The woman said.
“What’s wrong; is Julienne okay? Is he in danger?” Panic rose in Aimee’s throat.
“He’s fine, Miss St. Germaine.” The man looked through the open doors of the small waiting room they were in. He stepped around Aimee to close the door. “It is a delicate matter...it concerns the Pearl of Bao Dai.”
“The pearl of Boa Dai?” Aimee looked over her shoulder to the now closed door.
“Do you bear knowledge of the pearl, Miss St Germaine?”
Of course I do! It is only the most famous pearl in the world! What I don’t know is what has Julienne got to do with this?”
“Not here.” The man said, “Can we talk in the garden? Less...ears.”
“Sure, sure.” Aimee turned around and opened the door. She smiled at the woman on duty at the front desk as she led the way out to the gardens.
Once the man was sure they were out of earshot, he said, “Miss St. Germaine, the pearl of Boa Dai was stolen recently. Your brother is, as you know, a famous dealer of fine arts and antiquities and well connected in the art world. He recently contacted us with information about the whereabouts of the pearl.”
“Why would he contact the Chinese? The pearl is of Vietnamese origin and when I last heard, belonged to a Russian oligarch.”
“Quite correct, Miss St. Germaine. The Russian has unfortunately, lost it 3 months ago along with his life. We believe, according to intel provided by your brother that the pearl is in China.”
“Okay, but so what? Why does Julienne want me to go to the Chinese Consulate and why today and why with you? Whom I don’t know from a bar of soap, I may add?” The man paced impatiently.
“I understand your concerns, Miss St. Germaine. But your brother also believes that the perpetrators got wind of him sharing their details with us and he has reason to fear that someone has already been dispatched to kidnap you!”
“Kidnap me? Oh my God! I can’t be kidnapped now, it’s Sunday morning! I’ve got an English test tomorrow morning and I’m only half way through my weekend assignment!” She started marching back towards the office. From somewhere inside the big blue Absolem cardigan, a cell phone appeared and Aimee shouted over her shoulder, “I want to speak to my brother first!”
The man sighed and before Aimee could press the speed dial button for her brother, the man said in a stern voice. “Miss St. Germaine! I’m afraid we do not have much time!” The cold tone of his voice made her stop. Aimee turned. In the man’s hand was a gun. A big black pistol with what Aimee was sure was a silencer screwed onto the end of the barrel.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! You’re going to kidnap me! I was sure Julienne wouldn’t send someone I did not know form a bar of soap to fetch me!” she squealed in a whispery voice.
“Quiet!” The man hissed. “Come now Miss Germaine, as long as you do exactly what we say, no harm will come to you.” By now his voice was as sharp as an icicle and Aimee knew they meant business. She stood frozen to the spot, sprouting from the grass still wet with the morning’s dew, like a marble statue.
“Miss Xiuling will escort you to the front desk to sign you out for the rest of the day. Don’t worry; she has official papers and ID to help her with that. Then she will escort you to our limousine waiting out front. I will be out of sight, but not far away.” He lips curled into a cruel smile. “Miss St. Germaine, no funny business, please. Miss Xiuling is well versed in the art of killing silently and she is well armed. She is what you may term, a psychopath and won’t bat an eyelid, even if she has to kill everyone on campus” The woman moved her coat to reveal a similar weapon to the one pointed at Aimee’s forehead. “Besides, we have your brother. One wrong move and you will be an only child.” In one fluid movement and before Aimee could muster a scream, the man who called himself Cheng turned on his heel and disappeared between the trees. Suddenly Aimee and the Chinese woman, who now looked more like a missing link in a wetsuit, were alone.
A few minutes later Aimee sat stuffed between Mr Cheng and the missing link in the wetsuit, her eyes as large as wagon wheels with no idea where they were headed with her.
4000 km to the west, Qinghai Lake sat on the Tibetan Plateau like a huge mother goose guarding her eggs.
The room had no windows and was lit up only by the luminescence of a myriad of computer screens. They were attached to the bare earth walls, they were stacked on top of each other and they were seemingly randomly placed all around the room on tables of all descriptions, some that would be better suited to support a red and white chequered tablecloth and a picnic basket. The rest of the small space was occupied by a few office chairs on wheels and filing cabinets, some open, some locked. The ceiling was low and if the boy was to stand, he would have to stoop in order not to bump his head on the rough surface. It was lumpy, as if it had been hewn out of rock or raw earth. So were the walls. The floor was the only part of the room that seemed smooth, at least smooth enough to allow the chairs to roll across it. It was impossible to see what was stored underneath the tables as these spaces were covered in shadows. Only a few boxes here and there were visible, where they were pulled out from their hiding places to cough up some of their contents, then not pushed back under again. Against one wall, above a bank of glowing screens, was a large dime-store map of the world. Permanent marker lines crossed the North Atlantic in big arches between China and the United States. Smaller arches spanned from China to England and France, with a few going in the other direction, towards Australia, and pointing at the cities of Perth, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. Anis counted eighteen lines in total. Each line was labelled with a code in roman letters and numerals, ranging from DF-41-346 to DF-41-363. Anis knew what they meant. They were the identification numbers of eighteen of China’s largest Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, ICBMs, each carrying a nuclear yield of 2.4 Mega tonnes. Each missile carries 6 separate re-entry vehicles, each with its own warhead. The DF-41 could travel 12,000 km if required, at a speed of Mach 23, which Colonel Xiao said is about 24,000km/h. That meant that America had about 40 minutes to live from the second that they were launched. They were important to Anis. They were important because they had everything to do with his mission. He stared down at the open manila folder on the desk beside him. His hands caressed the keyboard. He read the numbers on the page over and over again. If this was homework, he’d probably score full marks in a test. But school was the furthest thing from his mind. The numbers on the page made big arches through the night sky, trailing flames, heading for their respective destinations with the mechanical surety of zero deviance. He imagined the huge explosions that they will cause when they crushed their intended targets and he could feel a premature swell of pride in his chest, because all of the glory that will be brought by the destruction of the enemies of Allah will be heaped upon him! Deftly, his fingers glided across the keys. First, he breached the brittle security of a small North American University; from there, he penetrated the Chinese Government secure internal network, using an anonymous IP address from within the university’s library system. Next, he uploaded a Storm worm to hunt out high security accesses to certain parts of the 9th Bureau by known profiles from the manila folder and to strip off user names and passwords. From the result set he found what he was looking for: Access patterns to the servers that controlled the launch activities of the nuclear war missiles. From this he sifted out an access code and password through a maintenance hatch into the main computer software. Now he was where he wanted to be; unobserved, untraceable and anonymous. The time has arrived to test the missile launch codes, so carefully accumulated, sold and smuggled by Colonel Xiao through various diplomatic bags, out of China and into Saudi Arabia, now lying open on the desk next to Anis. He found the right access page and typed in the launch code at the top of the page, which happened to be the one for ICBM DF-41-348. Forty kilometres north of where Anis was going about his glory business, an assassin stood by to dispatch the good colonel Xiao, where he lay sleeping in his big bed, his thick legs entwined with those of two recently deflowered virgins, in the event that the codes proved to be worthless.
But they were not. Far away from the Arabian Desert, roughly 5900km as the crow flies, if it could ever fly that far, chaos erupted below the green gassy knolls of the Tibetan Plateau. Eardrum-piercing sirens howled, stroboscopic lights cast menacing, red glows over everything that came within reach and men and women dashed about in frantic plights to do something useful. Soon after the initial moments of confusion, when the central munitions computer took on a mind of its own and computer screens started spitting launch codes, officers took control of the chaos, and began to issue order that seemed to bring order to the confusion in the underground nuclear facility of the Ninth Academy. A voice boomed from hidden loudspeakers over the din of the commotion. It said, “This is not a drill, please report to your station immediately”, over and over again.
Lieutenant Sian Xe burst through the security controlled door of the Ops room, a kilometer below the surface. Inside the large oblong room, mostly old men with phosphoric faces sat around an oval table that could seat a hundred, easily. Behind and around them electronic maps of the world flashed green and red dots and computer screens rolled out data like there was no tomorrow. General Bang Huang looked up from the computer screen built into the table top that he was staring at intently. An aide to his left cut off his speech flood abruptly and looked up at the Lieutenant too.
“General! There’s been a security breach! Twenty-four missiles are in the process of arming and preparing for auto launch!”
“Lieutenant! Tell us something we don’t know yet!” Huang barked. “What are you doing about it?” Sian Xe was as calm as a pond windless summer’s day. He answered while keeping his gaze four inches above the General’s head and standing to attention.
“Technicians have been dispatched to manually disarm the units and we have activated the Lone Wolf.” The General nodded once. He had no idea who the current Lone Wolf was, but if he was capable of doing what the General expected, he would be their only hope at averting this disaster. The Lone Wolf was a specially trained software expert, with the sole purpose of overriding the Nuclear Armament system. Not the officers entrusted with the passwords, not the ones entrusted with the launch codes, not the keepers of the launch keys, not even a single one of the grey heads around the Ops table had the knowledge or the power to stop the launch sequence once it had been initiated. Their only saving grace was manual de-activation or the Lone Wolf. Every country that had nuclear capability had one. “We have time on our side, General.”
“I better call Beijing,” the old man said and nodded again to dismiss the young Lieutenant.
Far above their heads, from the direction of the main complex, where the now missing Colonel Xiao held office until not so long ago, a black M998-Humvee pulled out from an underground garage. It made a few hasty turns ignoring a host of road signs, until it came onto the black top of the main road leading to Compound 149 and the underground complex where the services of the Lone Wolf was required. Then it pulled out all the stops and raced at full speed towards it destination. The front seats was occupied by two soldiers who looked so similar, they could’ve passed for identical twins. Both were bald-headed, barrel-chested, tree-trunk-legged and squint-eyed and wore matching uniforms with matching insignia. Behind them in the backseat sat a lone figure, a tall Chinese young man with a floundering fringe that hung over one eye, a pair of black framed glasses with extra thick lenses, long bony fingers clutching a worn black leather satchel and dressed in the traditional sloppy white shirt, black suit and sneakers of the absent-minded geek. Though it was cool in the Humvee, his white collar was stained dark with the sweat of a troubled man.
Three miles up the road, a crane stalked small frogs in the tall grass. It passed a grey-green bush without noticing the camouflaged figure disguised inside. The only giveaway was the symmetrical lines of the portable anti-armour rocket launcher clenched in the man’s hands. For the rest of it, he could well be invisible. He could hear the sound of the approaching M998. It came fast, its engine straining against the efforts of the driver. It was on time. The man looked at his watch, and the crane cocked its head at the moving bush. Not much time to get out of there. The M998 appeared on the horizon and the assassin prepared himself for his part in the drama. He took aim and waited. 30 seconds later, he pulled the trigger and launched the small heat-seeking rocket. It left the tube with a high-pitched whistle and raced straight for the Humvee. Too late the driver saw the thin trail of blue smoke and stepped on the brakes. But apart from the assassin and the crane, the Humvee was the only source of heat within sight and the rocket adjusted its trajectory only ever so slightly. It struck the Humvee squarely on the front, drilling through steel for at least two feet before it exploded and engulfed the vehicle and its occupants in a ball of flames. The assassin jumped from his hiding place and ran towards the vehicle. He peered inside the burning wreckage and pumped three bullets into each of the mangled bodies to make sure they won’t rise up and walk the rest of the way. Then he looked towards the sky and waited, and hoped, and prayed that the promised helicopter will come soon to take him as far as possible from the plateau as is possible in 50 minutes.