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Authors: Charles McCarry

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BOOK: The Shanghai Factor
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American businessmen, I discovered, were just as paranoid as spies. I learned a lot of secrets while traveling with Chen Qi, but they were business secrets, which accounted for the Americans’ suspicions. How did they know that I hadn’t been planted on Chen Qi by some rival U.S. company that was paying me to conduct industrial espionage? They would pour me drinks and interrogate me—all the standard questions, always getting around to how come I spoke such good Chinese. Where had I learned it? “In bed,” I would reply. They would laugh as if they actually believed the lucky dog.

It never occurred to me to report what I learned to Burbank. For one thing, though neither Chen Qi nor the American executives would have believed it, Headquarters was prohibited by law from spying on American citizens, and it took this taboo seriously. For another, reporting anything to Burbank meant being in contact with Burbank—the last thing he or I wanted.

I had last seen him a year before, at Mother’s graveside service. Somehow she managed to live almost a year after our dinner at the Four Seasons. Because she didn’t want anyone who knew her to watch her die, or to look at her wasted body after she died, I never saw her again. Twelve people attended the obsequies, as she called her burial rites—my dotty Aunt Penny, the anorexic recovering addict who had been Mother’s cook and gardener, the Guatemalan cleaning lady, three women Mother played bridge with, an assistant undertaker, my stepfather’s former law partner, me—and, lurking behind the monuments, Burbank. Naturally no clergyman was present. Aunt Penny, in good though quavering voice despite the November cold and the wind and the graveside mud on her shoes, read an Emily Dickinson poem—the one about Death driving his passenger in a carriage to the next world. The law partner spoke about the beauty and grace and unfailing kindness of the deceased, and about her brilliant, almost Olympian horsemanship as a young woman. The gravediggers waited some distance away, hidden, except when they peeked around a corner, by a marble crypt the size of a delivery van. As Mother’s coffin, the urn of ashes inside, was lowered into the grave, Aunt Penny said in a loud voice, “I hope Sis didn’t insist on being buried with her jewels. Those fellows just steal them. Strip them off the corpse’s fingers after the family has left.”

When it was over, everyone except me drifted away. I stayed beside the grave for a while, giving Burbank time to saunter among the headstones and take himself out of sight. I followed and saw a car—not the Hyundai—parked with the motor running, Burbank at the wheel. I got in.

Burbank said, “Do you have a cell phone on you?”

“No,” I said. “Do you?”

“No,” Burbank said. “No GPS in this car, either.”

Dusk was upon us. Until nightfall we drove aimlessly on country roads, going nowhere, saying nothing, spotting no surveillance. Back in the village, we parked three blocks from Mother’s house and walked the rest of the way by separate routes. Tradecraft to the max was the rule of the day—everything but chalk marks on utility poles. Because these techniques were a dead giveaway, I hadn’t used them for more than two years except when I was in the United States. Burbank got lost, of course, as spies sometimes do because they’re concentrating on what’s behind them instead of where they’re going, but eventually he found his way to the door. I let him in, threw the dead bolts, and led him past furniture covered by sheets to the windowless basement, where on weekends my stepfather used to watch ball games on television. The room was soundproof, so as not to bruise Mother’s eardrums with the roar of the crowd and the babble of the announcers. It had a well-stocked bar and a microwave and a cabinet filled with canned chili and other guy food. Burbank sat at the bar. I went behind it, unplugged the telephone, and poured two glasses of Laphroaig. I drank mine at a swallow, poured myself another, and handed him his.

Burbank lifted his glass and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Was he now? As usual when I was with Burbank, words it would be wiser not to speak came to mind. However, I lifted my glass in thanks, and this time sipped rather than gulped the sublime, peaty varnish.

“So,” Burbank said. “How’s it going?”


He nodded as though that was precisely the word he had been hoping to hear. He smiled with his lips together. He commiserated. He understood. He had often been bored himself when operational. It was part of the game. It made the good moments better when they came, as they always did. He said, “Some guy wrote that the craft is like being in love—long periods of frustration, suspicion and loneliness, punctuated by brief moments of intense gratification, or words to that effect.” He changed the subject. There were housekeeping details to discuss. I had been promoted to GS-13 (“It’s a bit early in the game, but you’re a special case”), not that it mattered, aside from the honor of the thing. Because Chen Qi was paying me more than twice as much as my government salary, and I was being allowed for cover purposes to keep that money for the time being, Headquarters’s bookkeepers had offset my official salary against my cover earnings, so I was being paid nothing by the government. So far the bookkeepers had not come up with a way to compute the dollar value of my benefits, which admin regarded as part of my compensation.

I said, “You mean I’m going to owe you money when all this is over?”

“Of course not,” Burbank said. “It will be written off, but admin wanted you to be up to speed on the technicalities, as they put it. They have no idea who you are or what you’re doing. They just go by the book.”

Burbank pointed to his glass. I poured him another whisky. He was unflustered. He was supposed to be. Agents got upset. The drill was to radiate calm and assurance, to reassure them, to set their minds at ease, to suggest but never say that a vast, powerful, invisible force was looking out for them every minute of the day and night, and you were personally making sure that the force would keep them from harm no matter what.

“Enough trivia,” Burbank said. “What exactly have you been up to since the last time we met?”

With some omissions and some additions, I told him what I have already told you. As usual, he paid rapt attention. You could almost see the 1s and 0s, or whatever binary code the human brain employs, combining into data and speeding to their various destinations inside the vault of Burbank’s bony skull.

“It sounds like things are working out pretty much as we hoped,” he said. “Do you agree?”

“I see no sign of progress, but maybe I’m too close to it. It’s not easy to know what Chen Qi and friends are up to. It’s tricky enough, keeping a grip on your sanity, locked up in a tower with a bunch of people to whom you look and smell like an ape.”

“You believe that’s really the way they feel?”

“The Chinese are racists like everyone else, only more so,” I said. “They see nothing wrong with it. I overhear remarks. I see the looks on faces. I know how I smell to them because they let me know.”

Burbank was examining me with a new look on his face “Beware paranoia,” he said.

He was telling
Burbank was director of paranoia for the most hated intelligence service in the world. He lived and breathed paranoia. He was Headquarters’s therapist, never dismissing the possibility, nursing the hope that his worst suspicions might turn out to be justified. The reality was, Burbank would have been a pretty poor chief of counterintelligence if he wasn’t paranoid.

He refused a third whisky. I didn’t ask if he was hungry. It was early still, and remembering the tofu sandwich, I guessed he wouldn’t be much interested in what my stepfather’s ghost had to offer. For long moments, he seemed lost in thought. Then he said, “You didn’t mention getting laid.”

“Should I?” I asked.

“Everything is relevant. For example, are you still screwing that wild woman you met on the Bund?”

I said, “No, but I miss her. She was good for the mission. She taught me Mandarin. Also
You advised me to concentrate on both.”

“Then you and I have reason to be grateful to her. Her name again?”



“I have no idea.”

“Why not?”

“As you know, we exchanged no personal information.”

“Just secretions.”

I said, “That’s disgusting.”

Burbank said, “What word would you choose to describe an agent under discipline and deep cover who slept with a foreign woman for two and a half years and never officially reported that fact to Headquarters?”

“Discreet. I thought you must be running her. Now I’m even more suspicious.”

“You are?”

With a smile
(“I’m joking!”)
I said, “If I never mentioned her, how would you know about her?”

“Many matters come to my attention.” Burbank waved a hand—weakness noted, subject closed, sin locked in the appropriate safe. Let’s move on.

“So what are you doing for poontang now?” he asked.

“For what?”

“Pussy—pardon the twentieth-century slang. This wild woman is not welcome in the tower, I assume.”

“I have never seen her there. Or anywhere else since I got back to Shanghai. As you know, because I have reported it, I now sleep with a somewhat more conventional female.”

“The Wellesley girl? The one who works for Chen Qi?”


“Was provided by Chen Qi?”

“That’s my assumption, unless you know otherwise.”

“Have you chosen the next bedfellow?” Burbank asked.

“I didn’t choose the other two,” I said. “I’m hoping for yet another nice surprise.”

Suddenly Burbank laughed, a bark followed by a snort. It was startling to hear such sounds issuing from this mirthless being. Then, in his sudden way, he shut up and got lost in thought. For a moment I thought the conversation was over.

But it wasn’t. Burbank’s eyes refocused and he said, “About the Chinese ladies, enjoy yourself. I think your dingus may lead us in an interesting direction.”

We talked a little more, pleasantly enough for a change, just passing the time of day. Before Burbank left by the cellar door, he wiped the fingerprints from his whisky glass, then dropped it into his coat pocket. Mother would not have been pleased. The glass was crystal with the Dartmouth coat of arms engraved upon it, a present from her, and my stepfather had been very fond of it and the eleven others—now ten—just like it.


On my return to Shanghai, Zhang Jia, sitting in a straight chair with her knees primly together, told me that she had met a prospective husband, a civil servant who was a fellow graduate of her university in Beijing, and that our friendship must come to an end. She wanted to have a child. For the sake of its future, its father could not be an ape. Her prospective husband was intelligent, upstanding, the son of workers, a loyal Party member. Wifely to the last moment, she cautioned me against being too much alone after she left. Until I found another woman, I should have lunch and dinner in the cafeteria. The food was nourishing and there were plenty of nice, educated people to talk to. Her friends would welcome my company. Perhaps I would meet another girl while shoveling noodles. At the very least, communal dining would be good for my Mandarin. I was speaking so much English while traveling with Chen Qi that I was beginning to make small but unfortunate mistakes in syntax. I needed to converse with people who would correct my errors in a friendly way. If the overwhelming relief that consumed me on hearing the news of her imminent departure showed in my face, Zhang Jia gave no sign that she noticed. When she finished her presentation she stood up, bowed ever so slightly in my direction, as if animated by some genetic memory of female submissiveness, and walked out. We did not hug or kiss. We had never kissed. Zhang Jia just left, closing the door quietly behind her. It was the most civilized breakup I’d ever had.

Not long after that, CEO Chen called me in and told me that he had decided that he needed a personal representative in Washington, and I was his choice for the job. My assignment was to keep in touch with his American customers. I should travel around the United States as much as necessary, keeping an eye out for new business opportunities, new American ideas, and the tides of American politics. Sometimes he would ask me to join him in the States or in other countries. The corporation had an office in Washington, and I would have a desk there but would not belong to that office. I would continue to report directly to him. I should avoid fraternization with the other people in the office. Chen Qi would keep in touch by telephone and e-mail. I would be provided with a new smart phone to be used for communicating with him and for no other purpose. I should carry the phone on my person at all times. After Chen Qi told me this news, he dropped his eyes and went back to what he was doing. To him, I was now invisible. Minutes later, when I was back in my office, a man I had never seen before brought me the new phone and an Internet confirmation for an Air China flight two days hence to New York. No one in the tower said good-bye to me.

A car took me to the airport. Another met me at Dulles. In the corporation’s offices on Connecticut Avenue, a stocky, plain young woman with china-doll bangs and buttonhole eyes who introduced herself as Sun Huan, my assistant, showed me to my office. No one else made an appearance. All other doors were closed. The made-in-China Scandinavian-style furniture in my corner office was handsome in its way. The room was a most desirable space, filled with light. Someone—my first in-house enemy, no doubt—must have been moved out to make room for me. Sun Huan gave me the keys to my apartment, located a mile up the avenue, and told me the doorman’s name. Very convenient, Sun Huan said. She lived in the same building and walked to work every day with her roommates.

Now that I was back in my own country, where only the FBI, the NSA, and various agencies of the Department of Homeland Security read other people’s mail, I sent Burbank a handwritten letter, using an accommodation address I had memorized at our last meeting. I received no reply. No pay phones that worked remained in Washington, a serious loss to spies, whose three essential qualities when on the sidewalk were said, in pre-cell phone days, to be an accurate watch, a strong bladder, and a pocketful of change for coin telephones. One evening I took a chance, rode the Metro to Bethesda, and paid cash for a cheap throw-away, no-GPS cell phone in a shopping mall. On another day I took the Red Line to the zoo, and from the men’s room called Burbank’s old contact number. It rang twelve times. Nobody answered. I tried again a couple of hours later. Again, no reply. I flushed the phone’s memory card down the toilet at the zoo and dropped the rest of it, wiped as clean as if Burbank had done the job himself, into a trash can in a movie theater miles away. Very wasteful, the clandestine life.

BOOK: The Shanghai Factor
9.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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