The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry

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An American spy in China.
Status: Sleeper.
Name: Unknown

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I had cycled to my meeting with Steve and when I emerged from the hotel garage, wheeling my bike, there they were, well back in the crowd, two men and a woman, ready to leap into the saddle. It was five or six kilometres from the hotel to my place, so they switched riders every click or so. In their clockwork way they always did this just as I turned a corner and they were out of sight for a moment. Then they would pop up again in my mirrors. The bikes were always the same, so a keen-eyed operative like myself was able to keep track of the familiar faces in my wake. Taking advantage of Steve’s expert advice to just be my dim-witted fictitious self, I made no attempt to shake them.
    It was almost dark when I reached my building. I was warmed by the thought that Mei would soon be home. It had been a hot day. I was sweaty but Mei liked me that way, or so she said – every once in a while she took one of my smelly T-shirts home with her as a nightgown – so I decided not to take a shower. She usually arrived at about seven for my Mandarin lesson, and then we would have supper and a couple of beers, and then Mei would test my Mandarin again, and tonight we would watch a DVD of ‘Destry Rides Again’ that I had bought on the street because, as I planned to tell her, no one can understand U.S. English properly unless she can unscramble the lyrics when Marlene Dietrich sings “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have.” That was the routine. I liked everything about it. I liked everything about the life that Mei and I were living – even the tiny pre-Mao apartment I had rented as an element of my cover as a poor, feckless if somewhat overage student. The walls bulged, the concrete floor had waves in it so that the furniture tipped, the spluttering plumbing had air pockets, the electricity came and went.
    Waiting for Mei, listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing the blues, I fell asleep. I woke at nine. No Mei. This was a disappointment, but I felt no stab of panic. Sometimes, as when her period started or she had an impulse to skip me for a night, she just didn’t show up. I had no phone number for her, no address, no true name, no hope of finding her in a city of twenty-three million in which maybe a million of the females were named Mei and the Mei I knew was almost certainly not named Mei. I waited another hour, spent repeating my memorization for the day (a passage from Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’) into a recorder. By now I was hungry. Because I had no refrigerator, Mei always brought supper with her, collecting exactly my half of the cost before we ate, and since I had eaten the leftovers for breakfast, there was no food in the house. I decided to go out. It would serve Mei right if she arrived and found me gone, though I fervently hoped she’d hang around until I got back.
    The night was almost as suffocating as the day had been. Chemical odours, so strong that you could almost see their colours, wafted on a sluggish breeze. The endless waves of humanity rolled by more slowly than usual. On this night they looked a little different, smelled a little different, as if wilted after a day in the glare of the sun. Something else was different – there were no familiar faces. I searched the crowd to make sure I had not missed them. They just weren’t there. Why? My watchers had been with me earlier in the day. They had never before deserted me. Had they decided I wasn’t going anywhere tonight, and gone home? Had they been replaced by a bunch whose faces I would have to learn? Were they shadowing Steve? I felt a certain unease. Breath gathered in my lungs. Life as a spook under cover in a hostile country is aged by the fear that the other side knows something you don’t know and cannot possibly know no matter how well you speak the language or how much at home you tell yourself you feel. You are an intruder. You can never be a fish swimming in their sea, you are always the pasty-white legs and arms thrashing on the surface with a tiny unheeded cut on your finger. Meanwhile the shark swims toward the scent of blood from miles away. At any moment you can be pulled under, eaten, digested, excreted, eaten by something else and then something else again until there is nothing left of the original you except a single cell suspended in the heaving darkness.
    Oh so melancholy, and no Mei to laugh at me. However, the fact remained that I was hungry, so I set off into the night and walked, only half conscious of where I was going, until I found myself in front of a noodle place Mei and I liked. She called it the Dirty Shirt after the proprietor’s soup-stained singlet. I ordered a bowl of noodles and slurped them down. One doesn’t savor fast food in China, where everyone except the Westernized elite, seldom seen in this neighborhood, takes care of bodily needs as unceremoniously as possible and gets right back to business. I paid and left and went into another place a few blocks away and gulped a tepid beer. Still no sign of my watchers. When I emerged I saw a face or two I might or might not have seen earlier. I memorized these possibles and decided to take a longer walk to see if they were still with me when I got to where I was going. My plan was to travel in a circle that would bring me back to my building in about an hour. Because there was little elbow room on the street, I had to travel at the same speed as the shouting, spitting multitude in which I was embedded. Nor was there much chance of using shop windows as rear-view mirrors because there were few shop windows and most of them were dark. Now and then I crossed the street so I could look behind me, and sometimes I thought, although I did not really trust my eyes, that I spotted one of the suspects passing through the glow spilling out the door of the open door of an all-night shop. The street lighting on main arteries in this part of Shanghai was dim, and even dimmer in the side streets, which appeared as mere slits of darkness between the gimcrack buildings. I gave them a wide berth. The Chinese plunged into them as if they were wearing miner’s caps.
    I was almost home when they – whoever they were – made the move. Two men in front of me slowed their pace, the two on either side moved in and seized my arms. They were big fellows for Chinese, not as tall as me but solid meat. There were four of them until suddenly, as I stepped back, thinking to make a break for it, I realised  they were six as the two behind me moved heavily against me. I felt a mild sting in the vicinity of my right kidney, then the heat of an injection. I lurched as if trying to break free. The phalanx squeezed in tighter. I might as well have been nailed in a box and there was as little point shouting for help as if I really were in a coffin. I began to feel faint as the injection took effect. Would it kill me? It seemed possible. I was losing my senses one by one – first to go was touch, then hearing, then sight, and finally taste as my tongue and lips went numb. I could still smell. How odd, I thought, in the instant before I lost contact with my brain.

Copyright © Charles McCarry 2013