With two weeks to go before the release date of Dragonfly [File No. 6], I thought you might like a preview to sharpen the anticipation, so I’ve posted chapter one below [on my website]. As I haven’t sent out any advance copies of Dragonfly, you’ll be the first to read it.
ONE Who are you?
THE GREEN AND WHITE TAXI STOPPED AT THE KERBSIDE on Justice Drive outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong, and Xing also known as Mosquito stepped out, clutch bag in hand. She walked to the entrance, and her stiletto heels tapped on the dry pavement and made her calf muscles flex, and her bust and buttocks more prominent. Holding up her black hair, the silver fazan [fazan: Chinese hairpin, an important symbol in Chinese culture] caught the sunlight and glinted provocatively.
The security guard took longer over confirming her identity and entry authorisation than he needed, but Xing was unconcerned. Dressed as she was and looking like a mischievous intervention by Eros, the son of Aphrodite, and the Greek god of sexual attraction, it was only to be expected. As she walked inside, a sharpened perception wasn’t necessary to know the guard’s eyes followed every movement of her athletic body in the short, clingy dress.
Two sociable youthful men on the Consul General’s staff organised his hosted receptions. They kept the calendar, they sent the invitations, and they arranged the catering, which today was champagne cocktails (a sugar cube splashed with drops of Angostura bitters, cognac, ice-cold Champagne, and an orange slice) accompanied with silver platters of Japanese-influenced amuse-bouche.
About eighty standing guests filled the first-floor reception room, and their cocktail chatter, between bites of the fishy mouth amusers, mingled remarkably well with Bach’s orchestral suite no. 2 in B minor. On the surface, it appeared as refined elegance, but underneath, Xing wasn’t so sure. The surface of many things is shiny, she thought, lifting the sparkling champagne flute from the tray. The hamachi, salmon roe, and basil palate pleaser lived up to its name.
Walking the room, unhurried, and with a reserved expression that needed little effort, she sauntered past a lively group of well-dressed guests and stopped. Snapping open the clutch bag, she took out her phone and held it up in their direction. A woman in the group angled her face perfectly. Xing captured the image and then lowered the phone. A minute or two later, she made a call.
‘My dear and how is Hong Kong Island this fine spring day?’ Bartholomew Meriwether said, his voice quick and confident.
‘Hong Kong doesn’t have seasons like the UK,’ Xing said. ‘It’s monsoon-influenced, sub-tropical, and humid. And it hasn’t been called Hong Kong Island since you gave it back to China in 1997, which some people think marked the official end of the British Empire.’
‘Now, now, my dear, don’t be like that. The fine spring day to which I refer is the one here in London. To me, it will always be Hong Kong Island. It’s the People’s Republic of China. And the British Empire ended considerably earlier than 1997.’
‘The woman’s here,’ Xing said.
‘What’s the face recognition percentage?’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now, tell me, why hasn’t a visit to your hometown improved your mood?’
‘I’ll call you with an update,’ she said and cut the connection.
The woman in the group appeared absorbed in the social interaction, the genuineness of which didn’t concern Xing. The woman’s cocktail dress had pleats. It was black. Xing returned her phone to the bag and selected the black coloured device from the range of colours she had brought. It was no bigger than a honeybee. She removed the backing and held it concealed in her cupped hand.
Holding the champagne flute in her other hand, and her bag tucked under her arm, she walked towards the group. The trip was genuine, or so the woman thought. Xing went down hard onto her knees, screamed, almost dropped the champagne flute, and instinctively grasped at the pleated dress beside her.
‘Bozhe moi, are you all right?’ the woman said.
The Russian exclamation betrayed her nationality much more than her spoken English, which was almost accentless. She bent automatically in a gesture of help.
Xing muttered a curse in Cantonese and then looked up. ‘Yes, thank you,’ she said. ‘It’s these goddamn heels.’ The pout was apologetic.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘No, I’m fine.’ Xing stood, rubbed one knee, and then after another look of embarrassed apology walked away. The “honeybee” was in place. She went to the Ladies room, took out her phone and checked the signal. The GPS tracker worked perfectly.
Xing returned to the reception. She took another amuse-bouche from the plate and glanced at the woman who, once again, was socially occupied in a conversation. Xing ate the bite-size fishy treat and slowly scanned the room and saw nothing unusual. She called London.
‘The tracker is on her dress. There’s no way of knowing how long she’ll keep it on. Your intelligence, it better be good.’
‘Don’t worry, my dear, it is,’ Meriwether said. ‘At or directly after the reception. Please, be successful.’
Xing paused and glanced again at the woman. ‘I’ll call you when it’s over,’ she said. Bartholomew was not like any other “boh si” she had known. In his position, chief of British Intelligence, running an operation, any operation, as he did, was a surprise to Xing. In her previous work, the Mountain Master of her triad group would never have done it, nor would the Minister of State Security of the People’s Republic of China. They both had underlings to carry out such everyday tasks. Dirty hands were for others, not for them. Perhaps, she thought, Bartholomew, figuratively, wore gloves, Savile Row, of course.
Her contemplation about the chief was interrupted by the appearance in the room of a stocky man with cropped brown hair wearing an ill-fitting suit and a face that had stern East Slavic features: pale eyes, pale skin, and a head shaped from solid granite. The man was Russian, or Ukrainian, or Belarusian, Xing thought. It didn’t matter which. Over half the people in the room came from one of those three countries, but this one stood out, and not just because of his late arrival but because he moved with a resolve as if diplomatic niceties were not the reason for his attendance.
Xing watched him, and despite his subtleness, she saw him mark the Russian woman. Bartholomew’s intelligence was right, of course.
‘You’re not supposed to stand on your own at these things.’ The man’s voice blended concern and humour in the way only an Englishman with an Oxbridge accent can. His tall, thin frame and gaunt but friendly face waited politely for a response.
‘I don’t know anybody,’ Xing said.
‘That’s easy to put right. My name is Roger Buckley-Rodgers. How do you do?’ He held out a bony hand. Xing took it.
‘If your surname is Rodgers why did your parents name you “Roger”?’
‘Oh, they didn’t.’ He paused. ‘I mean, they did, but my surname isn’t Rodgers. Until I got married, my name was just Roger Buckley. Rodgers is my wife’s family name. Buckley-Rodgers is hyphenated.’
Xing nodded and glanced through the crowded room at the woman. The East Slavic-looking man, “Ivan” as Xing had named him in her mind, was close to her and trying to look nonchalant. Xing looked back at Roger. ‘Is your wife here?’ she asked.
‘Oh no, I’m working. I’m a consular attaché, Miss—?’
The woman had moved. Xing searched for her.
Ivan, too, was gone. She scanned the room and glimpsed Ivan disappearing around the corner to the Ladies room. Xing abandoned Roger and flew. She weaved with urgency through the guests.
The Russian woman had no idea Ivan was behind her. She passed through the second door, leaving it to close by itself, and then turned towards the mirrored wall. His unseen attack was rapid and professional. Circling her neck with his forearm and forcing his weight and strength against her, he hooked her feet with his and locked her body. The trained aggression was overwhelming, and the woman was pinned unable even to struggle. The chokehold closed her airway and carotid artery, immediately causing hypoxia in her brain. After a few seconds, she was unconscious. The woman slumped to the floor in his arms. He rolled her over, found the drug-filled auto-injector in his pocket, pulled up her dress, and aimed it at her right buttock.
Xing flew through the second door, took in the situation on the move, and without stopping, slammed into Ivan with an elbow-led shoulder barge. Ivan went over but managed to keep hold of the injector. Without pause, Xing attacked. She danced and spun, a swinging kick, accurate and venomous, striking Ivan on the hand, and sending the injector sliding across the marble floor. Stilettos were not her first choice of footwear for kung fu fighting, but they weren’t going to stop her. She attacked again. The leading foot of her standing leap stamped hard onto Ivan’s chest, and the dagger-like heel sank deep and caused real pain, more than Xing’s one hundred and nineteen pounds merited.
Ivan, twice the weight of his opponent, pinned by the stamped foot, and in trouble, had to focus urgently on defending the assault or risk never getting up again. As an operative of Zaslon, the elite Special Operations Group within Directorate S of the SVR, the Russian agent wasn’t about to lose a fight to a Hong Kong girl barely older than his daughter wearing high-heels and carrying a clutch bag.
With her standing foot planted on Ivan’s chest, Xing kicked out with the other aimed at his throat. The improvised toe punt would have made Bobby Tambling proud and struck Ivan’s larynx and caused pain that matched the throbbing in his chest. He choked and tasted blood. Xing jumped again. Ivan threw up his arms to defend the next kick and got lucky. His wrist bone caught the stiletto in mid-flight where the heel meets the sole, and the strength in his forearm was enough to unbalance Xing and topple her to the floor. He had a chance, and he wasn’t going to lose it. The body roll away and onto his feet was instinctive as was pulling the Kizlyar knife from its ankle sheath and holding the dark coloured blade out at his waist like a second cock.
The assignment was supposed to be simple: a single target, a Russian female without any formal self-defence training. At the briefing, the Deputy Director had clearly stated that she was unprotected, and she was unaware of any threat. The location, too, made it simple. A Russian diplomatic pass into the British Consulate in Hong Kong to a social reception where the host was serving champagne cocktails. A quick and unseen needleless injection. The dosage was measured and effective. Time enough to walk her out and then get her away in the waiting van. What could be simpler? Now, though, the assignment was compromised.
Who was this girl? He could still inject the Russian woman with the drug and complete his assignment but what to do with the girl? Killing her was unprofessional but so was leaving her alive.
Xing was on her feet quicker than Ivan. She balanced for an attack, but it didn’t come. The knife caught her attention like a barking dog in the night. She studied Ivan’s face and knew what he was thinking. His delay was a result of indecision. Xing’s instructions from Bartholomew were simple. She was to keep the woman safe, no matter what. Without fear, she charged. Ivan hadn’t expected it, and she was quick, very quick. Using her size as an advantage, Xing went under the blade. Fast, she dropped low and executed a spinning sweep kick. Rarely used in real fights, it caught Ivan by surprise, and he was slower than he should have been. The brutal contact with his tendon caused a reflex action that brought him, literally, to his knees. With seamless skill, Xing swung a wicked roundhouse kick, and the knife flew from Ivan’s hand.
On the floor, regaining consciousness, the Russian woman groaned, lifted her head, and then rubbed the side of her neck.
‘Don’t move,’ Xing said. Her words caused a split-second delay in her scissor kick and allowed Ivan to protect his neck and deflect Xing’s leg giving him the opening to stand. He took it. They faced each other. Ivan’s anger knotted his features into a patchwork of crimson lumps. I’m going to kill her, he decided. Then he moved forward in his fighting stance.
With the woman conscious, Xing needed to end the fight quickly. When Ivan came at her with his feet apart, squat, fists up, she moved immediately to meet him, drawing him in. Ivan feigned with the left and threw the right.
Xing was already moving the other way, turning her body. The punch flew past her head. She was inside his embrace, her back against him, and her arm clenched. She timed the strike flawlessly. Her elbow travelled backwards with the force of a bolt gun and sunk unstoppably into Ivan’s abdomen, literally, knocking the wind from his lungs. His radiating nerve fibres sent signals of intense distress around his body and Ivan, unable to refill his lungs, close to passing out, and in great pain, collapsed gasping to the floor. A man trained in the British SAS had taught Xing the move. The same man was the cause of her black mood.
Xing moved swiftly. She pushed Ivan’s head over to expose his neck, then pulled the fazan from her hair. The stylish Chinese hairpin doubled as a razor-sharp weapon. With Ivan pinned by her knee, she was ready to slit his throat when the door opened, and a woman entered, stopped, screamed and then ran out. The consulate security staff would likely be there in minutes. Did she need to kill him? Xing turned to the Russian woman who was now sitting up. ‘Can you walk?’ Xing said.
‘You’re the girl who tripped,’ the woman said.
Xing released Ivan’s head and returned the fazan to her hair.
Bartholomew didn’t like unnecessary dead bodies. He complained about the work they caused. ‘We must leave,’ Xing said.
The Russian woman was already standing. ‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘I work for British Intelligence, and they sent me to protect you,’ Xing said. ‘The more interesting question is, who are you?’
Back at the reception, everything looked the same. Xing scanned the room for the woman who had screamed, couldn’t see her and calculated that she was probably looking for a security guard. ‘We’ll go down the stairs,’ Xing said.
‘Where are you taking me?’ the Russian woman said.
‘To a safe house.’
The man guarding the entrance watched them walk past. Xing gave him a cursory glance. Outside, the humid air hung over the taxi rank like a pollutant’s carbon cocktail. ‘No, leave them,’ Xing said, eyeing the unmarked van further up. ‘We’ll take the Queensway bus. It’s a short walk. This way.’
Before they turned left onto Park Avenue, Xing called London. ‘I have her. Your intelligence was right: a single operative. She’s unharmed. We’re on our way to the safe house. Under thirty minutes.’
‘Who was the operative?’ Meriwether said.
‘An SVR man, probably Zaslon. He pulled a knife—’
‘Did you kill him?’
‘Ha, don’t worry, I haven’t made you any work.’
‘Thank you,’ Meriwether said.
‘What for, not killing him?’
‘No, for protecting her.’
Xing was silent.
‘I’m putting you on a flight,’ Meriwether said. ‘I need you back in London. It’s something that might improve your mood.’
‘What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with my mood,’ Xing said.
End of excerpt