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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
CHINA IS ABOUT TO ERUPT IN CHAOS!
Archaeology Professor James Acton simply wants to get away from everything, and relax. A trip to China seems just the answer, and he and his fiancée, Professor Laura Palmer, are soon on a flight to Beijing.
But while boarding, they bump into an old friend, Delta Force Command Sergeant Major Burt Dawson, who surreptitiously delivers a message that they must meet the next day, for Dawson knows something they don’t.
China is about to erupt into chaos.
Foreign tourists and diplomats are being targeted by unknown forces, and if they don’t get out of China in time, they could be caught up in events no one had seen coming.
USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy takes history once again and turns it on its head, sending his reluctant heroes James Acton and Laura Palmer into harm’s way, to not only save themselves, but to try and save a country from a century old conspiracy it knew nothing about.
"James Acton: A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"
Though this book is part of the James Acton Thrillers series, it is written as a standalone novel and can be enjoyed without having read any of the previous installments.
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
"A writer who tells what we are thinking but sometimes afraid to say." — Bruce Ford
"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
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"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
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On April 15, 1989, students began to occupy Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital of Beijing. These gatherings were initially to mourn the death of a liberal reform politician, Hu Yaobang, but over the next seven weeks expanded into a general protest demanding freedom and democracy for the Chinese people, with several hundred thousand students and residents participating.
On June 3rd, hundreds of thousands of troops from the Chinese 27th and 38th armies were sent into Beijing with orders to clear the square by 6:00am on June 4th. They were opposed by thousands of Beijing residents and students, who erected barricades to block their progress.
At 10:30pm troops opened fire, and the tanks rolled over the barricades and their guardians.
And the rest is history.
In the West we call it the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
In China, it is known as the June Fourth Incident.
Today, China is thought to be a country with little dissent. What isn’t reported in the Chinese press, and rarely in the Western press, is that in 2010, it is estimated that over 180,000 separate “Mass Incidents” occurred, ranging from flash mobs to organized protests.
Dissent is alive and well in today’s China.
And dissent in today’s China, is still not tolerated.
Court of the Tongzhi Emperor The Forbidden City, Beijing, China January 13, 1875
“Get Our son out of here, now!”
Li Mei bowed to her emperor, deeply, and rushed to the crib holding the most precious thing she had ever had in her charge. The future emperor. The future Son of Heaven, and God’s ruler of all under Heaven. She was only fifteen, but already trusted with the care of the most valuable child in all the world. It had been a shock, she a mere servant in the nursery, but when the surprise announcement had been made that the Emperor had a son, she had been chosen to care for it. The newly selected wet nurse, and one of her best friends, Yu, had said it was the very fact she was so young that she had been picked.
She was too young to have yet been corrupted.
Screams from outside the door, and the sound of a blade being drawn startled her. She looked at the heavy wooden entrance, and knew the Empress Dowager’s troops were just outside, pounding on the thick oak.
“Do Our bidding!”
Her eyes darted to her glaring master, and she immediately dropped them in fear. Never look your Emperor in his eyes. It implies equality, of which there is none. “Sorry, my Emperor.” She bowed then turned back to the crib, reaching in and picking up the little bundle.
A cracking sound.
She spun toward the door, and she could see the head of an axe being worked out from the other side in preparation for another blow.
She froze and a moment later the shadow of her Emperor graced her being. He rubbed his thumb over his son’s forehead. She dared not look to see if the boy’s last vision of his father was that of a smiling man, or a terrified man. Smiling. He’s nearly a God, what does he have to fear?
“Take him out the tunnels, keep him hidden, and when the time is right, tell him who he is. For he is the future. Today We may lose the seat of power to Our mother, but We will never lose the divine right to rule this land. Today We die, so that Our son may live to rule another day. Tell him it is Our wish that someday he return here, return here and take his rightful place on the altar of power, to lead his people into this new, maddening world.”
“My Emperor, the door!”
They both turned to see one of the Imperial Guards pointing. The sturdy wood had done its job, delaying their besiegers, but it was ready to give, it finally able to take no more.
She felt a hand on her back, and she almost dropped to her knees to beg forgiveness for touching her Emperor, but it pushed her forward. “Now go!”
She bowed, then ran, joined by a dozen guards, and another dozen servants, all who provided the daily care their future emperor required, and would provide it tomorrow, should they succeed in escaping.
But that was still in question.
Yells erupted from behind them, followed by bloody screams at the sound of the door splintering open. Then the shouts of her brave emperor cut through the din of chaos as his mother’s troops broke through. Swords clashed, steel on steel, the shouts of the brave men fighting to save their Emperor, the shouts of those same brave souls falling to the superior numbers. But it was the thought of her Emperor, bravely choosing to remain behind, to delay the troops long enough for them to get away, that filled her heart with pride and sorrow. He knew if he fled with them, through the only escape route available to them, they would be pursued. But by remaining behind, he gave his son a chance to live.
One must die, for the other to carry on the family dynasty.
Then there was silence, the swords still, and a voice, saying something she couldn’t hear, the only noise now their own padded feet as they rushed down the corridor as stealthily as they could.
There was a thud, as if something blunt had hit something soft. A cry of pain and the clatter of a sword hitting stone. Another thud, another cry, and she knew it was her Emperor being hacked to pieces. She gasped as her chest tightened. She felt as if she would pass out, and nearly dropped the now Emperor she clutched to her bosom.
Hands grabbed her by the arms as she collapsed, someone else reaching for the baby. She held on tighter as she took a deep breath. Be strong for the little one. “I’m alright,” she whispered, as she regained her legs, and continued around the corner, and farther from the horror she had just heard.
They reached the end of the hall and a guard held aside a tapestry depicting the birth of the Dragon King, one of her Emperor’s favorites, as another pushed aside a secret panel. Through the opening she rushed, followed by the others, then they waited as one of their guards sealed the secret passage, locking it from their side so no one could pursue, or flee, should they know where it was.
For they had been betrayed.
Betrayed by someone amongst them. It was the only explanation for the ease of entry into the Forbidden City. And it was her new, greatest fear, for she had been given the honor of raising the young emperor, this tiny creature who was the greatest threat to the future of the Empress Dowager Cixi’s reign, this tiny creature who would be worshipped by millions of loyal subjects, none of whom would be pleased once they discovered how brutally, and dishonorably, their Emperor had been murdered.
She eyed each of the soldiers and servants as they rushed down the dimly lit passage, the only light from torches carried by several of the guard.
Which one of you is the traitor?
East Chang’an Street, Approaching Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China Today
“If there’s anywhere we’re safe, it’s Beijing.”
Famous last words.
Charles Redford looked at his boss sitting across from him, Ian Davidson, the US Ambassador to China, with a frown. “You read the security assessment by the specialists, sir. You know there’ve been specific threats made against foreign ambassadors over the past couple of weeks. And there have been dozens of reports of foreigners being attacked and murdered. Something’s happening that the Chinese don’t want us to know about.”
“Nothing’s happening, Charlie. You worry too much.”
Somebody has to.
There had been whispered reports from all across the country for weeks, mostly rumors on the Internet, nothing in the official press, which didn’t mean much. The official press in China was a joke. It was the State’s messenger of all that was great about the Party. It was hardly a news source for anything internal. But the Internet was so tightly controlled, that even the whispers of troubles were being quickly quashed.
It wasn’t until tourists stopped showing up for their return flights, stopped arriving home, that the alarm bells began to go off. That was one week ago. The first real requests for investigations had begun to arrive two days later, then the specialists had arrived to do a security review to ensure the safety of the American contingent in Beijing.
And their preliminary report had sent shivers down his spine.
That’s what Mr. White had said about their security. The words echoed in his head as they drove toward the official residence. The weakest part of their security. White had said the embassy itself was fine, and the residence was fine, but it was the travel to and from that was woefully inadequate. It was Ambassador Davidson’s insistence on driving by Tiananmen Square every day on his way home. And his insistence on lowering the window while doing so.
“Are we at least going to follow Mr. White’s advice?”
Ambassador Davidson chuckled.
“Mr. White.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice. “You do realize that’s an alias.”
Redford nodded. “Of course. I just assumed he’s CIA or something.”
Davidson shook his head. “No, we wouldn’t risk bringing them in so obviously. No, these are Delta Force—”
The panel separating them from the driver lowered. “Sir, we’re almost there.”
Redford moved aside as the Ambassador changed positions so he could lower the window and get a good view.
“Are we really going to do this, even after what Mr. White said?”
Davidson smiled at him, as if he were something to be pitied. “Mr. White is paid to panic. I’m not.”
The statement was matter of fact. Even if it’s true, maybe he’s got reason to panic. Redford looked out the back window, the bullet proof glass at least providing some comfort. Their escort vehicle was close behind, four armed men, in addition to the four in the lead vehicle. Plus their driver and one escort in the passenger seat up front.
Ten armed, highly trained men, all to protect one man.
Redford had no illusions that he would be anything but cannon fodder if the Ambassador’s life were at stake, and it didn’t really bother him that much. Dying did, and of course he would try to save himself as best he could, but he was also a realist. He was a plebe compared to the Ambassador.
“Here we go, sir!” called Tom from the front.
Redford watched Davidson press the button, the window lowering as they slowed. Tiananmen Square. It was beautiful. And massive. And a tomb to hundreds if not thousands of forgotten souls, the memory of the massacre that had taken place here in 1989 washed away by the communist state, and conveniently forgotten by Western governments eager to do business with the burgeoning economy.
It was almost sickening.
But it hadn’t stopped him from jumping at the job. But then again he wasn’t even in high school when the massacre had happened. He remembered it vaguely, but those memories might have been mixed in with his more recent viewings of all things China when he had first heard of his assignment.
That was two years ago.
And he had to admit, he loved it here. It was a mix of ancient history, with modern day wonders. The pollution knocked your socks off some days, the crowds could be intense, the cyclists infuriating, but you couldn’t go ten feet without seeing something older than anything back home.
It wasn’t the words, but the tone of Tom’s voice that caused him to snap from his reverie.
“What is it?” asked Redford, the Ambassador apparently not having heard it, or simply not concerned.
“Holy shit!” It was the agent in the front this time. Redford followed his gaze and saw a person flying backward, then skidding twenty or thirty feet along the concrete of the square.
“What the hell was that?” asked Ambassador Davidson as his head jerked back in the window.
They all flew forward as Tom slammed on the brakes. Redford picked himself up off the floor of their hardened limo. “What the hell happened?”
But there was no response. Tom’s head had turned back, and at first Redford thought he was checking on them, but when he tumbled forward again he realized the car was now in reverse, the accelerator pressed hard as the engine protested and the car raced away from whatever was happening.
“Holy shit!” exclaimed the agent in the front, whose name Redford couldn’t remember at the moment.
“What’s going on?” demanded the Ambassador.
“We’re under attack!” yelled Tom. “Lead vehicle has been taken out. Shit!”
Brakes squealed and the rear seat passengers tumbled again. Redford took the opportunity to shove himself into the nearest seat and strap in. The car jerked forward again, and Ambassador Davidson rolled backward, slamming into the seat. Redford reached over and grabbed him, pulling him into the seat and strapping the disoriented man into place.
“You’re bleeding, sir!”
Redford leaned forward, retrieving a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the gushing wound on his boss’ forehead. A shattering sound from up front, then something hit Redford in the back of the head. He gasped as the Ambassador’s face was smeared in a red, sticky goo.
It was the agent. Redford’s head spun toward the front and he gagged.
There was a six inch hole in the front windshield, and Tom’s head wasn’t where it should be. In fact, it was completely missing.
The driverless car jerked to a halt, hitting something, but Redford’s seatbelt held him in place.
“What do we do?” he yelled at the agent, who was on his radio, providing their status. Something hit the car, then the windshield was blocked slightly as someone jumped on the hood. Redford’s heart slammed into his chest and he reached down to unbuckle his seatbelt.
A gun shoved through the hole and began to belch led as he dove to the floor.
The Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China January 13, 1875
Li Mei urged the little bundle in her arms to stop crying, her heart a lump in her throat as her eyes, filled with fear, probed the gardens they now ran through. It was an area of the city she wasn’t familiar with, much of the life she remembered having been spent in the service of her Emperor, confined within the walls of the Forbidden City, with little time to enjoy its treasures.
Please be quiet!
The poor creature wailed, and Li Mei knew the tiny thing was terrified. She was sure he could sense the fear they all felt. It was palpable. Shouts of anger, screams of pain, were mere hedgerows away, and if the future emperor didn’t quiet himself soon, they risked being discovered.
“Give him to me,” said Yu, the wet nurse and her friend. Mei immediately handed him over, and the silence that ensued when placed on Yu’s breast was a relief to them all.
A twig snapped, then a branch. Mei froze, as did Yu, but the four guardsmen in the lead continued forward, their swords drawn, their pace slowed, but only slightly.
They all knew they needed to get out of the gardens and into the prearranged shelter until nightfall. Two guardsmen took up position on their left, another two on their right, horn bows drawn, arrows in position, strings drawn back tight. Mei looked at the rear where the remaining four guardsmen, swords at the ready, warily walked sideways, their heads as if on pivots, looking about as they covered their escape.
Then all hell broke loose.
Shouts from all sides were heard, and the tall hedge began to shake, the branches snapping, loud against the tranquil garden, and the baby wailed as Yu spun toward a sound, her nipple popping free of his mouth.
“We need to move, now!” hissed Fang Zen, a well-respected warrior who had fought, and survived, many of the battles his Emperor and Empress Dowager had ordered him to. And in the ultimate indication of their Emperor’s faith in him, he had named the warrior personal guard to his heir, and most prized possession. His son.
They moved forward, quicker now. Mei’s world narrowed to the armor of the soldier directly in front of her. The sounds became distant, her ears consumed by the adrenaline fueled panic pounding inside her. She heard curious whooshing sounds to her sides, and distant screams, along with the blurred motions of the guards at her sides as they reached behind them for another arrow from their quiver.
A cry from beside her caused her to turn. It was too close to be one of the unseen enemy fighting its way through the thick hedge, the escape route having been grown over centuries, nursed lovingly by gardeners who intentionally guided the branches amongst each other, intertwining them over the years to create an almost impenetrable barrier. A single, long alley from the secret exit in the palace, through the heart of the gardens, and outside the city walls.
A secret passage, that no one knew about, even the gardeners segregated to work on it from the outside only, then once a year, a group of peasants would be selected from a distant province, and brought in, under blindfold and threat of death, to trim the interior, then returned, never to have known they were actually in the Forbidden City.
It was a total secret, a secret that no one knew except a few of the inner circle. A secret that had been revealed to the closest of the Emperor’s staff only last night, out of necessity. A secret that someone had obviously revealed, if they were now under attack.
The source of the cry became evident as Yu began to fall to the ground. Mei reached forward as a look of horror spread across Yu’s face, not at her impending doom, but at the baby now falling. Mei stopped, her slippers sliding on the gravel, causing her to fall to the ground. She watched the baby slip from Yu’s grasp, wailing in confusion. Mei reached forward in a desperate bid to catch the child before he hit the ground, pushing with her toes against a rut her feet had caught in their slide. She fell toward the ground, arms outstretched, and barely managed to get her fingers under the tiny bundle before it hit. She pulled the baby to her chest and felt hands on her shoulders, dragging them both to their feet, as the group continued to silently move forward, the swoosh of arrows, the cries as impacts were made, the only sounds.
She looked ahead, and could see their destination, and wondered what awaited them there. If they had been betrayed already, and their route revealed, how could they possibly assume it would be safe ahead. She glanced over her shoulder, at the palace they had just fled, and knew they had no choice. They had to move forward, there was no going back, there was no remaining.
Whatever their fate would be, it would be decided at the end of this hedgerow.
And suddenly it stopped.
The shouts, the cries of arrows finding their targets, the sound of air being shoved aside as an arrow loosed. All silent. She looked at Yu, confused, but Yu wasn’t looking at her. Her eyes were red from crying, and were focused on the baby, still clutched in Mei’s arms. Mei reached out and squeezed Yu’s shoulder with a reassuring smile. She looked up for a moment, and was about to say something when the column stopped.
Mei looked ahead, and saw they were at a rather nondescript door, a plain, heavy wood, unpainted, but reinforced with metal on this side at least.
And secured by a simple latch.
The sword wielding guardsmen rushed forward, leaving only two at the rear, the staff still flanked by the archers. The lead, Fang Zen, looked at his men, then pulled open the door, stepping back and out of the way as the door swung open.
Mei heard footsteps, and it took a moment to realize her eyes were squeezed shut, her heart, slamming against her ribcage, refusing to settle. “Let’s go!” hissed someone. She stumbled forward, then forced her eyes open for the child’s sake, and breathed a sigh of relief. The room on the other side of the door was empty. They had been betrayed, but even their betrayer must not have known where the hedgerow ended.
How long they could count on not being found, was anybody’s guess, but she was certain it couldn’t be long. She stepped through the door, which was then secured by a large wood bar, hooked across the frame.
No one else would be able to follow, without breaking down the door.
“Quickly, everyone change!”
Mei looked about, and saw the room split in two, Fang Zen urging the women to one side, behind a large screen, his men already stripping out of their armor. She followed Yu behind the screen, and found dozens of peasant’s outfits, their dull blue almost an assault on her senses, she so accustomed to the opulent designs and colors of the imperial court.
But today was a day to blend.
She handed Yu the baby, then stripped out of her clothes as Yu removed the baby from his swaddling clothes, a wrap far too opulent for the masses. It took longer to disrobe than it did to put the simple outfit on, and when she was done, the baby was ready and handed to her as Yu began to change. Mei gave the little boy a kiss, her still hammering heart thankful he had remained quiet during the entire changeover.
It was Fang Zen on the other side of the screen.
Mei looked about at the women, and all nodded.
Fang Zen rounded the screen, followed by his men. He turned to face them all. “Beyond this door”—he pointed at a small door she hadn’t noticed before—“is the city. We will leave in pairs. One guard for each woman, separated by a one-hundred-count. Turn right, and walk this street until you reach a fountain. In that square there’s a butcher’s shop. Enter, and say, ‘Our people have stood up.’ You will be taken to the back, and to safety.” His hand gripped the door handle. “Try to be calm, try not to run, and for the sake of our Emperor”—he nodded toward the tiny bundle Mei held—“remember who you are pretending to be. You are now commoners, amongst commoners. Don’t forget that. Don’t take on airs you are accustomed to when walking amongst these people, otherwise you will be spotted instantly.”
He pointed at Yu. “You and I will go first.” He pointed at his second-in-command, Su Ming. “You go with the boy next. Count to one-hundred before leaving.”
Su Ming nodded, and Mei stepped over to him, trying not to squeeze her charge too tight in her fear.
Suddenly there was pounding on the door to the hedgerow. Yu yelped, and someone on the other side yelled, “They’re still in there!”
Fang Zen lowered his voice. “Forget the one hundred count. Make it twenty. We can’t all be seen leaving in a jumble. If they break through, those who remain, leave, but go left. Try to meet us at the butcher’s shop later. But if you are captured, I expect you all to do your duty, and die for your Emperor.”
With that he opened the door, peeked outside, then nodded at Yu, the two disappearing. Mei counted to twenty in her head, apparently quicker than Su Ming, who waited another full ten-count by her calculations, the door behind them beginning to splinter, several of the men having gone back to try and hold it in place. Now she knew why it opened toward the gardens. It was designed to keep people out of here.
She felt Su Ming’s hand on her arm, and the door opened as he dragged her into the dusk. He gripped her arm tight as she tried to run, then as she looked about, she realized why his grip continued to tighten. They were surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of people. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she was about to scream when she felt herself being pulled to the right. She looked at Su Ming, who had his head down, his eyes looking at the ground, a sad look on his face.
She looked around again, and realized they weren’t surrounded, they were merely amongst the regular throngs of people that inhabited the city. It had been so long since she’d been outside the palace walls, she had forgotten how crowded the city actually was. Her heart began to calm, and she dropped her head, falling in beside Su Ming as he established a steady pace that went with the flow of the crowd, rather than trying to push ahead.
His grip eased as he apparently realized she was okay, and eventually he released her. Mei, her head still bowed, tried to look up, to see if she could spot Fang Zen and Yu, but she couldn’t, and she took that to be a good thing. She risked a quick glance over her shoulder, and saw a door open where she thought they had just come from, and two people exit.
She wondered who they might be.
And how many more would escape.
A scream rang out, and she looked back to see the same door thrown open and several women run out, a couple to the right, the rest having the presence of mind to go to the left, followed by a group of men, the guardsmen in disguise. She felt the hand grip her arm again, urging her forward, as she felt herself begin to become faint.
“Don’t look,” hissed Su Ming.
But she couldn’t help it. The Empress Dowager’s men were now appearing through the door, spreading out in all directions, and chasing after anyone that was running away.
She felt a hand on her chin redirect her head away from the scene.
“You must remain calm, or you will get us all killed!” he whispered.
She nodded, and they continued moving forward. Footsteps pounded by them, and she recognized two of the servants from the court, ignoring their instructions to flee in the opposite direction.
More shouting, more foot falls, then someone grabbed her by the shoulder, twisting her around and pushing her into Su Ming. She nearly dropped the baby, but Su Ming reached out and caught him, pushing him back into her arms, as he put his other arm over her shoulders and pulled her to the side of the road as the Empress Dowager’s troops rushed by. They stood and watched, heads low, much like the rest of the throng caught in this moment of history.
A cry, a voice she recognized immediately as Yu’s, tore through the narrow road. A shout from Fang Zen, the sounds of blades clashing, then a groan as someone’s blade successfully penetrated. More clashing, and Mei swore she saw sparks fly into the air as if fireworks were spewing from their blades, then Yu rushed by them, two of the Empress’ guards chasing her. Yu gave Mei a quick glance, the terror in her eyes causing a pit in Mei’s stomach to open up and swallow any courage she might have had.
Su Ming’s hand rose slightly off her shoulders and pushed her chin away from the pursuit of Yu. And he was right. If she paid too much attention, it might make them a target. Another groan from the right, and her head darted to where Fang Zen had been fighting. Swords continued to clash, grunts of exertion, moans of pain filled her ears, but the fact the fight continued gave her hope that Fang Zen might still prevail. He was the most skilled fighter she knew, and if anyone stood a chance against the Empress Dowager’s guardsmen, he did.
Even if it was six to one.
Su Ming pulled her toward the fighting, but continued to hug the edge of the street. As they moved past the scene, she could see four of the guardsmen on the ground, either dead or writhing in pain. Blood flowed freely from Fang Zen’s left shoulder, but his sword, wielded from the right, continued to swing smoothly, and a fifth man went down. Su Ming urged her forward, and for a split second she saw Fang Zen make eye contact with her, as he plunged his sword behind him, burying it into the belly of his final opponent. With a twist, he yanked it out, then fled down the street, ducking into an alleyway.
Mei wondered if she would ever see him again.
Meridian Gate, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China Two weeks ago
Deniz stared up at the doors, his mouth agape. He reached forward and found his hand resting on one of the dozens of golden door nails, arranged in a nine by nine array, that adorned the massive entrance to the Forbidden City. Just the name had always sent a chill down his spine, and now that he was here, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. It had been a trying time. His wife, Alex, had lost her job during the follow-on to the Great Recession, and he had barely scraped by, having to take a pay cut just so the company could stay afloat.
But they had managed. They had made it through. He still had his house, albeit the price they could get for it was scarcely higher than what he owed the bank, but he had never missed a payment. Some days it had meant Kraft Dinner and tuna for supper, but since they didn’t have kids at home to try and explain the tough times to, they simply made do. Cable had been cut, cellphones cut, home phone features scaled back, car sold and downsized to a tiny Mazda 2, and public transport used whenever possible.
Life had been tough.
He held out an arm and he felt Alex tuck herself under, the warmth of her touch bringing him all the comfort he had ever needed in those hard times. He squeezed her against him and sighed, still staring up at the massive doors.
“Amazing, isn’t it.”
She pressed her head harder against his chest.
He looked down and kissed the top of her head, inhaling her scent, so familiar after almost thirty years of marriage. She looked up at him and smiled. Her eyes were starting to show her age, and her golden blonde hair was a little more dull, but to him, she was still the beauty he had married, and all he saw was her brilliant smile that conveyed the love they still shared, and the golden curls he had so desperately wanted to run his fingers through when he first met her in college.
“I can’t believe how lucky we are,” she whispered.
He leaned in and gave her a peck.
And they had been. There was no way in hell they could afford this vacation, but on a whim she had entered a radio contest, and six months later, here they were. An all-expense paid ten day trip to China. They had debated trying to sell the trip to someone else, but in the end had decided they should take it themselves. They hadn’t been able to afford to travel for years, and had no idea when they’d be able to travel again. This might be their last chance, so they were treating it like a second honeymoon, their first, back when they were dirt poor, searching the cushions on the couch for change to go grab an ice cream, was a trip to Atlantic City for the weekend.
They hadn’t gambled, except for a dollar in the slots. And once that had been eaten sixty seconds later, Deniz had said ‘Never again’ and left the casino. Instead, they spent their time on the boardwalk, hand in hand, stealing kisses whenever they could, and in their room, stealing a lot more.
His heart raced slightly at the memory.
God, to be young and in love again.
“Shall we?” he asked, holding his arm out toward the interior of the Forbidden City.
They stepped across the threshold, and into the massive, ancient city. It was stunning. The bright reds, oranges and golds, the ancient structures, painfully preserved, impressive in their detail, left him breathless. He looked down at Alex, and was about to say something when she was torn from his arms. His head spun to follow her as she was dragged away from him, outside of the city, the expression on her face one of shock.
Then a loud cracking sound, as if the end of a whip had snapped inches from his face, echoed through the walls of the mighty palace, sending a chill through him that rippled goose bumps up his arms, his hairs standing on end. He turned to run toward her, his mouth opening to cry out her name, when he felt something shove against his back. He jerked forward, his body picked up from the ground, and he found himself racing toward his wife, now prone, with, to his horror, a gaping red hole, grapefruit sized, in her stomach.
He collapsed unceremoniously beside her, and tried to reach for her, only inches away, but couldn’t move his arms.
Then the pain hit.
Excruciating, all-consuming pain, radiating from his back. He lay, unable to move, the only fortunate thing he could find in the situation the fact his head was facing his beloved Alex. Her head turned toward him, the pain and fear in her eyes evident. Her mouth moved, but no sound came, then he gasped as he watched the last of the life drain from her face, her eyes dimming, the golden locks he had loved so much, seeming to tarnish before his eyes.
But he couldn’t move his own lips. The pain was gone now, as if drained away from him, along with any energy he might have once had. He heard voices yelling, footsteps pounding, and his own heart, beating in his ears, a dull remnant of what it should be, a pace so slow, he knew he was dying.
With one last effort, he willed his arm to move, and his last vision, his last sensation of any kind, was the feeling of his hand on his wife’s face, as everything went black, his heart taking one final beat, sending a burst of blood toward his outstretched hand, so he could feel her soft cheek one last time.
Outside the Forbidden City, Beijing, China January 13, 1875
Li Mei, her priceless bundle, and Su Ming, the second-in-command of the Imperial Guard, and her sole protector, stood at the mouth of an alleyway, staring at the fountain gently gurgling not twenty feet away. And beyond that, their sanctuary.
“Why don’t we go?” she asked quietly.
“Wait,” was the whispered, abrupt reply.
Mei chanced a look up at him, and saw his eyes darting back and forth, as if he were examining every corner of the square, every face that occupied it. She looked at the fountain, and realized that she had looked at nothing but since they arrived.
She decided to help.
She started on her left, her eyes peering in every window, every doorway, any place a guardsman might hide, and found nobody who appeared to be hiding, simply the residents of this area going about their business.
Then she turned her attention to those residents. She figured if they were moving, then they were probably not watching the butcher’s shop, they were merely innocent bystanders.
Instead, she focused on those not moving. Those standing. Sitting. Lying in wait. To her left, a man squatted on the curb, his ratty blue pants all he wore, no shirt in sight to conceal a weapon. She dismissed him. Next candidate. A younger man, standing with a woman, both with their heads held low. The woman fidgeted, her sandaled foot kicking at a stray rock. She looked up.
And Mei gasped.
“It’s Xiao!” she hissed.
“I know. And Zhu, one of my men.”
She felt butterflies in her stomach as she realized they had been behind them, and had fled away from the butcher shop. If they had been able to make it, then perhaps there was a chance others had as well.
She immediately frowned. Perhaps a little too much. She tried to relax, but she couldn’t. Her heart was pounding harder and harder, and she felt her legs and feet twitching, wanting to make the desperate race across the square and into the safety of the butcher’s shop themselves, her brain be damned. She leant forward, and felt the grip on her arm tighten slightly.
“Yes, I ordered them to.”
“With a nod of my head.”
Mei was impressed. Zhu’s eyesight must be much better than hers, as she wasn’t certain she would be able to see someone nod their head slightly from that distance, with so little light left. She watched, her mouth agape for a moment before she realized and snapped it shut, as Xiao, led by Zhu, strolled across the square, and into the butcher’s shop, as if with a purpose. No hesitation, no looking about, simply a husband and wife going to the butcher’s.
And no one followed.
Her twitching increased ten-fold.
The grip on her arm only tightened slightly.