Ridley Pearson

The Risk Agent

© 2012


September 17




Lu Hao, a slim, well-dressed man in his twenties, stood on the roof of a subcompact car the size of a toaster, peering over a ten-foot-high concrete-block wall and into the parking lot outside an aging tannery.

There was almost too much going on for the senses: the acrid smell of tar, the clamor of dump trucks and road rollers, the din of Chinese spoken in machine-gun staccato.

Lu Hao had been schooled from an early age about the role chance and fate played in one’s life. If he hadn’t driven past that particular fuel station at that exact time, he would have never recognized the foul Mongolian, a man he knew from his deliveries over in Shanghai; would have never followed him to the remote location. Would have never witnessed the meeting where three men went into a factory building, and only two came out. He had watched through a crack in the hanging doors as the smallest, youngest of the three argued with a portly Chinese man wearing an expensive suit. With a nod from the businessman, the younger guy was then bludgeoned by the Mongolian.

A moment later, back outside, the Mongolian shook the hand of the businessman, who then walked over to a black Audi sedan and was driven away. As the license plate flashed in the glare of a floodlight, Lu gasped: the plate carried only the number 6, indicating a person of extreme importance, a high-ranking official without question. Why here, of all places?

Trembling now, Lu Hao clung to the wall. Refusing to move and risk attracting attention. Terror rippled through him: opportunity, risk, reward. Chance. Fate.

A part of him wished he could forget what he’d seen, wished he could sneak off in the Chinese-made subcompact. He was about to do just that when the Mongolian, inspecting the paving job, jerked his head up quickly in the direction of the yard’s far corner.

Lu Hao looked in the same direction.

Cao! he cursed silently. A glass lens winked from above the wall. It belonged to a sizable video camera in the grip of a pair of white-skinned hands. A waiguoren-a foreigner!

Lu Hao dropped from the wall like a stone, fumbled for his keys and was into his car in a heartbeat. No more! He would determine how to best use this information later, when he could be calm and reasonable. He might appeal for help.

He might go to the temple and burn incense.

But for now, he’d get gone, return to Shanghai, and hope that he, too, had not been seen.


September 23


4:30 P.M.



Lu Hao rode his lovingly restored CJ750 motorcycle, its sidecar seat covered by an oilcloth tarpaulin hiding a duffel bag that minutes earlier had contained cash. A good deal of cash. The kind of cash Lu Hao needed in order to repay his father for his own foolish mistake. But now the duffel was nearly empty-a few thousand yuan was all that remained. He returned his eyes to the street. To glance away from Shanghai traffic for more than a second could prove fatal.


The middle lens of a Shanghai traffic light was an LCD timer that counted down to the light change, giving motorists on both sides of the intersection time to at least consider the traffic laws. Not that anyone obeyed them. The traffic laws in Shanghai were offered more as suggestion than enforceable law.

Lu Hao revved the bike-a thing of beauty, a sound like that. He drew a few envious looks.


Hundreds of waiting vehicles crawled forward. A Darwinian exercise commenced in the wide bike lane to the right: motorcycles assumed the lead, followed by motor scooters, electric bikes and finally bicycles. Not a horn sounded. Not a curse was thrown. Everyone knew their place.

Lu Hao turned off Yan’an Road, a ten-lane arterial, and traffic immediately lessened. A few more turns, and he entered a time machine: Shanghai as it was a century before.

Laundry hung like colorful prayer flags from bamboo poles jutting from apartment windows. There were more pedestrians than vehicles on the street. He slowed, straddling the motorcycle’s sonorous rumble. A delivery man had dumped a half-dozen fifteen-gallon water cooler bottles off his motor scooter, stopping traffic.

Lu Hao swung right again down a narrow street lined with stalls. Old, toothless men in white undershirts commandeered second-floor windows. The spirited laughter of a mahjong game echoed down the lane, mixing with an out of tune piano implausibly working through Gershwin.

He caught movement from his left: a man running toward him at top speed, head down. An ambush, forced upon him by the spilled water bottles. The lane was a choke point. He glanced to the sidecar and the hidden duffel.

His attacker led with his shoulder, connecting with Lu Hao and knocking him off the bike. Two more men appeared. They grabbed hold of him. He was dragged, facedown, barely conscious, and thrown into the back of a microvan, where yet another man slapped duct tape over his mouth and pulled a plastic tie around his wrists.

Then everyone started shouting at once.

Clete Danner wore the motorcycle helmet’s mirrored visor down to hide his American face. He bent into the handlebars to disguise his size-there weren’t many Chinese who were six-three and two-thirty. When the threat came from Lu Hao’s left, Danner vaulted the bike and, in an infinitesimal misjudgment, caught the toe of his right shoe on the frame. He overcompensated, suddenly finding himself off-balance and thrown back on his heels only a few meters from the van.

A nunchaku came at him like an airplane propeller, its aluminum cylinder striking his raised right forearm. He felt a bone snap. He went light-headed and a deep purple overtook his vision.

He cocked his right leg and kicked. The nunchaku connected with his upper thigh, but the man holding it went

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