Chapter 1 / Agent Ai
“Deceive the Heavens to Cross the Ocean”
Hide objectives by adopting false goals.
ON THE EVENING I arrived in Beijing, smog covered the city, muffling my footsteps and obscuring me from the masses. Stretching my legs, I descended from the Trans-Mongolian Express that had smuggled me into the country and stepped onto the platform. I was tired and hungry, having eaten nothing all day except a tub of instant noodles, rehydrated at the samovar at the end of the carriage. Money was also a problem, my pockets filled with only a few scraps of Mongolian tugrik.
Hoping my contact would reimburse the expense, I jumped in the back of a cyclo-rickshaw and set off towards the rendezvous.
The driver spoke not a word as he peddled into the befogged hútòng, the aging brick alleys of traditional buildings built cheek by jowl in the heart of China’s capital. Soon, the squeaking of the front wheel became the only sound, replacing the drone of buses and cries of hawkers. Grey shadows flickered down tight alleyways, while in the air, the smell of low-grade coal dust briquettes lingered unpleasantly. In the distance, the bark of a dog echoed; it felt like I was under surveillance.
With no luggage other than a small rucksack, clasped tightly throughout the trip, I was travelling light and we soon came to rest by a nondescript door, loosely covered in peeling red paint. After a wait that seemed to last minutes, my knocks were answered by an old Chinese man who ushered me inside, ‘Jìn lái, jìn lái,’ come in, come in, and into the presence of Ho.
Ho was a tall, slim man, smartly turned out, with a shock of dark hair and, despite his Chinese name, distinctly Caucasian features. In a relaxed frame of mind, he placed his copy of Cáijīng finance magazine on the table and straightened his tie. With a flurry of Mandarin, he dismissed the attending man and invited me to sit opposite him on a darkly varnished rosewood settee. Despite its unimpressive exterior, the rooms bore the marks of modern design while embracing pieces of classic Chinese furniture: different within from without, like many things in China, I would learn.
Ho’s helper paid the driver a few kuài and returned bearing tea and sunflower seeds.
‘We’ve been expecting you, George,’ Ho said, examining me. ‘You know, the first thing we ought to do is lose that name. It’s too conspicuous. We thought it best if we call you Mr. Ai. That’ll do for a handle when introducing yourself. It means “friendly”; people will love that, they take good omens very seriously.’
‘Xièxiè,’ thank you, I said, removing my panama, sadly misshapen from the journey.
Mr. Ai. The name sounds funny, too short.
‘I didn’t know you spoke the lingo,’ Ho interjected, scrutinising my rudimentary Mandarin. ‘It wasn’t on your file.’
Before I could respond, a knock sounded at the door, the same all clear pattern I’d been instructed to use. The elderly man shuffled in his black plimsolls towards the silhouette of the visitor, barely visible through frosted glass panels. He opened the door—at first by no more than a single measure of whisky—before confirming the guest’s identity and ushering him inside.
Ho rose to his feet, even taller than I first expected. ‘I don’t believe you’ve met my associate Mr. de Havilland,’ he said, greeting his second guest. ‘Pierce has been an invaluable asset in recent years and will be an excellent contact during your time in the Middle Kingdom.’
Dressed in a linen suit, chestnut brogues, and clutching a leather briefcase, de Havilland slapped Ho on the back before pumping my hand enthusiastically, his powerful grip and collegiate manner indicators of an exclusive upbringing. We sat and tea was poured, ‘The finest Yunnan Oolong only,’ Ho explained before the questioning began.
‘What exactly is the nature of your interest in China, George, or should I say, Ai?’ inquired de Havilland, who had the habit of de-shelling sunflower seeds using his incisors before spitting the fragments to the table.
Pierce de Havilland: to be in his presence was nothing short of exhilarating. His story, for years now, was the stuff of legend; in bars from Sabah to Seoul, all across East Asia, expatriates traded unreliable information about his background.
De Havilland is an aristocrat; he arrived with nothing. De Havilland is a millionaire; his business is in trouble. De Havilland went to Eton; he has no education. Occasionally local interest was also piqued, with threads appearing, then quickly disappearing, on unauthorised Internet bulletin boards. De Havilland likes Chinese girls; his lover is in England. De Havilland is a British agent; he’s a double. De Havilland is dangerous; he’s in danger.
My mind cast back a few years to the first time I heard his name. I was a junior reporter at The Phnom Penh Daily, jointly staffing the economic and political desk. With one eye on regional affairs, the other we focused on the bar’s dwindling stock of beer. Drinking a few bottles over a round of Phnom Penh Pick-up on the veranda of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, I sat with Sound of America stringer, Dusty Phelps, as he outlined the origins of de Havilland’s adventure…
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Wreford.