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The Trail to Buddha's Mirror

Don Winslow

  The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror

  Don Winslow

  To Mark and Marcella

  A NOTE ON PROPER NAMES: We have used the Chinese pinyin system of Romanization except in cases in which the older forms are more familiar to Westerners, such as Chiang Kai-shek, Kuomintang, etc.

  Formerly I constructed a thatched hut in the mountains, and

  passed several summers and winters there, subduing my

  passions and destroying desire.

  —Sheng Ch’in, A Guidebook to Mount Emei






























  Dad’s Knock

  He never should have opened the door.

  Neal Carey knew better, too—when you open a door, you’re never really sure what you’re letting in.

  But he had been expecting Hardin, the old shepherd who came every day at teatime to sip whiskey with him. It was raining—had been raining for five solid days—and by all rights Hardin should have arrived for “a bit of wet to take the chill off.”

  Neal pulled his wool cardigan tighter around his neck, edged his chair a little closer to the fire, and hunched down lower over the table to read. The fire was waging a brave but losing battle against the cold and damp, which was miserable even for March in the Yorkshire moors. He took another hit of coffee and tried to settle back into Tobias Smollett’s Ferdinand Count Fathom, but his mind just wasn’t on it. He’d been at it all day, and now he was ready for a little conversation and a spot of whiskey. Where the hell was Hardin?

  He looked out the small window of the stone cottage and couldn’t see a thing through the mist and driving rain, not even the dirt road that climbed up from the village below. His was the only cottage on this part of the moor, and on this afternoon he felt more isolated than ever. He usually liked that—he only hiked down to the village every three or four days to pick up supplies—but today he wanted some company. The cottage usually felt snug, but today it was suffocating. The one electric lamp didn’t do much to brighten the general gloom. Maybe he just had cabin fever; he had been up there for seven months, alone save for Hardin’s visits, with only his books for company.

  So he didn’t stop to think when he heard the knock. He didn’t look out the window, or ease the door open, or even ask who was there. He just got up and opened the door to let Hardin in.

  Except it wasn’t Hardin.


  “Hello, Dad,” Neal said.

  That’s when Neal Carey made his second mistake. He just stood there. He should have slammed the door shut, braced his chair against it, jumped out a back window, and never looked back.

  If he had done those things, he never would have ended up in China, and the Li woman would still be alive.


  The China Doll


  Graham looked miserable and ridiculous standing there. Rain sluiced off the hood of his raincoat and down onto his mud-caked shoes. He set his small suitcase down in a puddle, used his artificial right hand to wipe some water off his nose, and still managed to give Neal that grin, that Joe Graham grin, an equal measure of malevolence and glee.

  “Aren’t you glad to see me?” he asked.


  Neal hadn’t seen him since August at Boston’s Logan Airport, where Graham had given him a one-way ticket, a draft for ten thousand pounds sterling, and instructions to get lost, because there were a lot of people in the States who were real angry at him. Neal had given half the money back, flown to London, put the rest of the money in the bank, and eventually disappeared into his cottage on the moor.

  “What’s the matter?” Graham asked. “You got a babe in there, you don’t want me to come in?”

  “Come in.”

  Graham eased past Neal into the cottage. Joe Graham, five feet four inches of dripping nastiness and guile, had raised Neal Carey from a pup. Taking off his raincoat, he shook it out on the floor. Then he found the makeshift closet, pushed Neal’s clothes aside, and hung up the coat, under which he wore an electric blue suit with a burnt orange shirt and a burgundy tie. He took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, wiped the seat of Neal’s chair, and sat down.

  “Thanks for all the cards and letters,” he said.

  “You told me to get lost.”

  “Figure of speech.”

  “You knew where I was.”

  “Son, we always know where you are.”

  The grin again.

  He hasn’t changed much in seven months, Neal thought. His blue eyes were still beady, and his sandy hair was maybe a touch thinner. His leprechaun face still looked like it was peeking out from under a toadstool. He could still point you to the pot of shit at the end of the rainbow.

  “To what do I owe the pleasure, Graham?” Neal asked.

  “I don’t know, Neal. Your right hand?”

  He made the appropriately obscene gesture with his heavy rubber hand, which was permanently cast in a half-closed position. He could do almost everything with it, except Neal did remember the time Graham had broken his left hand in a fight. “It’s when you have to piss,” Graham had said, “that you learn who your friends are.” Neal had been one of those friends.

  Graham made an exaggerated pantomime of looking around the room, although Neal knew that he had absorbed every detail in the few seconds it had taken to hang up his coat.

  “Nice place,” Graham said sarcastically.

  “It suits me.”

  “This is true.”


  “You got a clean cup?”

  Neal stepped into the small kitchen and came back with a cup, which he tossed into Graham’s lap. Graham examined it carefully.

  “Maybe we can go out,” he said.

  “Maybe we can cut the dance short and you can tell me what you’re doing here.”

  “It’s time for you to get back to work.”

  Neal gestured to the books stacked on the floor around the fireplace.

  “I am at work.”

  “I mean work work.”

  Neal listened to the rain dripping off the thatched roof. It was odd, he thought, that he could hear that sound but not recognize Graham’s knock on the door. Graham had used his hard rubber hand, too, because he had been holding his suitcase in his real hand. Neal Carey was out of shape and he knew it.

  He also knew it was useless trying to explain to Graham that the books on the floor were “work work,” so he settled for, “Last time we talked, I was ‘suspended,’ remember?”

  “That was just to cool you out.”

  “I take it I’m cooled?”


  Yeah, Neal thought, that’s me. Ice. Cold to the touch and easy to melt. The last job almost chilled me permanently.

  “I don’t know, Dad,” Neal said. “I think I’ve retired.”

  “You’re twenty-four years old.”

  “You know what I mean.”

  Graham started to laugh. His eyes squinted into little slits. He looked like an Irish Buddha without the belly.

  “You still have most of the money, don’
t you?” he said. “How long do you think you can live on that?”

  “A long time.”

  “Who taught you how to do that—stretch a dollar?”

  “You did.”

  You taught me a lot more than that, Neal thought. How to follow a mark without getting made, how to slip in and out of an apartment, how to get inside a locked file cabinet, how to search a room. Also how to make three basic, cheap meals a day, how to keep a place clean and livable, and how to have some respect for myself. Everything a private cop needs to know.

  Neal had been ten years old the day he met Graham, the day he tried to pick Graham’s pocket, got caught, and ended up working for him. Neal’s mother was a hooker and his father was an absentee voter, so he didn’t have what you’d call a glowing self-image. He also didn’t have any money, any food, or any idea what the hell he was doing. Joe Graham had given him all that.

  “You’re welcome,” Graham said, interrupting Neal’s reverie.

  “Thanks,” said Neal, feeling like an ingrate, which was exactly how Graham wanted him to feel. Joe Graham was a major-league talent.

  “I mean, you want to go back to gradu-ass school anyway, right?” Graham asked.

  He must have talked to my professor already, Neal thought. Joe Graham rarely asked a question to which he didn’t already know the answer.

  “You’ve talked with Dr. Boskin?” Neal asked.

  Graham nodded cheerfully.


  “And he says the same thing we do. ‘Come home, darling, everything is forgiven.’”

  Forgiven?! Neal thought. I only did what they asked me to do. For my troubles I got a bundle of money and a stretch in exile. Well, exile’s fine with me, thank you. It only cost me the love of my life and a year of my education. But Diane would have left me anyway, and I needed the time for research.

  Graham didn’t want to give him too much time to think, so he said, “You can’t live like a monkey forever, right?”

  “You mean a monk.”

  “I know what I mean.”

  Actually, Graham, Neal thought, I could live like a monk forever and be very happy.

  It was true. It had taken some getting used to, but Neal was happy pumping his own water, heating it on the stove, and taking lukewarm baths in the tub outside. He was happy with his twice-weekly hikes down to the village to do the shopping, have a quick pint and maybe lose a game of darts, then lug his supplies back up the hill.

  His routine rarely varied, and he liked that. He got up at dawn, put the coffee on, and bathed while it perked. Then he would sit down outside with his first cup and watch the sun rise. He’d go inside and make his breakfast—toast and two eggs over hard—and then read until lunch, which was usually cheese, bread, and fruit. He’d go for a walk over the other side of the moor after lunch, and then settle back in for more studying. Hardin and his dog would usually turn up about four, and the three of them would have a sip of whiskey, the shepherd and the sheepdog each having a touch of arthritis, don’t you know. After an hour or so, Hardin would finish telling his fishing lies, and Neal would look over the notes he had made during the day and then crank up the generator. He’d fix himself some canned soup or stew for dinner, read for a while, and go to bed.

  It was a lonely life, but it suited him. He was making progress on his long-delayed master’s thesis, and he actually liked being alone. Maybe it was a monk’s life, but maybe he was a monk.

  Sure, Graham, I could do this forever, he thought.

  Instead, he asked, “What’s the job?”

  “It’s chickenshit.”

  “Right. You didn’t come all the way over here from New York for a chickenshit job.”

  Graham was loving it. His filthy little harp face shone like the visage of a cherub whom God had just patted on the back.

  “No, son, it really is about chickenshit.”

  That’s when Neal made his next major mistake: he believed him.

  Graham opened his suitcase and took out a thick file folder. He handed it to Neal.

  “Meet Dr. Robert Pendleton.”

  Pendleton’s photo looked as if it had been taken for a company newsletter, one of those head-and-shoulders shots that sit above a caption reading, MEET OUR NEW VICE-PRESIDENT IN CHARGE OF DEVELOPMENT. He had a face you could cut yourself on: sharp nose, sharp chin, and sharp eyes. His short black hair was thinning on top. His gallant effort at smiling looked like an unnatural act. His necktie could have landed airplanes on a foggy night.

  “Dr. Pendleton is a research scientist at a company called AgriTech in Raleigh, North Carolina,” Graham said. “Six weeks ago, Pendleton packed up his research notes, computer disks, and toothbrush, and left to attend some sort of dork conference at Stanford University, which is near—”

  “I know.”

  “—San Francisco, where he stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. The conference lasted a week. Pendleton never came back.”

  “What do the police have to say?”

  “Haven’t talked to them.”

  “Isn’t that sort of SOP in a missing-person case?”

  Graham grinned a grin custom-made to hack Neal off. “Who said he was missing?”

  “You did.”

  “No, I didn’t. I said he didn’t come back. There’s a difference. We know where he is. He just won’t come home.”

  All right, Neal thought, I’ll play.

  “Why not?”

  “Why not what?”

  “Why won’t he come home?”

  “I’m pleased to see that you’re asking some better questions, son.”

  “So answer it.”

  “He’s got himself a China doll.”

  “By which you mean,” Neal asked, “that he’s in the company of an Oriental lady of hired affections?”

  “A China doll.”

  “So what’s the problem and why are we involved?”

  “Another good question.”

  Graham got up from the chair and walked into the kitchen. He opened the middle cabinet of three, reached to the top shelf, and pulled down Neal’s bottle of scotch.

  “A place for everything, and everything in its place,” he said cheerfully. “Another thing I taught you.”

  He came back into the sitting room, reached into his case, and came out with a small plastic travel cup, the kind that telescopes out from a disk into a regular old drinking vessel. He poured three fingers of whiskey and then offered Neal the bottle.

  “Damp in here,” Graham said.

  Neal took the bottle and set it on the table. He didn’t want to end up half in the bag and take this job out of sentiment.

  Graham lifted his cup and said, “To the queen and all his family.”

  He knocked back two fingers of the scotch and let the warmth spread through him. If he had been a cat he would have purred, but being a cretin, he just leered. Braced against the chill, he continued, “Pendleton is the world’s greatest authority on chickenshit. AgriTech has millions of dollars sunk into chickenshit.”

  “Let me guess,” Neal said. “Does the Bank have millions of dollars sunk into AgriTech?”

  Graham’s sudden appearance was starting to make sense to Neal.

  “That’s my boy,” Graham said.

  That says it, too, Neal thought. I’m Graham’s boy, I’m Levine’s boy, but most of all, I’m the Bank’s boy.

  The Bank was a quiet little financial institute in Providence, Rhode Island, that promised its wealthy clients two things: absolute privacy from the prying eyes of the press, the public, and the prosecutors; and discreet help on the side with those little problems of life that couldn’t be settled with just plain cash.

  That was where Neal came in. He and Graham worked for a secret branch of the bank called “Friends of the Family.” There was no sign on the door, but anybody who had the necessary portfolio knew that he could come into the back office if he had a problem and talk to Ethan Kitteredge, and that Ethan Kitteredge would find a way to work things out,
free of charge.

  Usually Kitteredge, known to his employees as “the Man,” would work things out by buzzing for Ed Levine, who would phone down to New York for Joe Graham, who would fetch Neal Carey. Neal would then trundle off to find somebody’s daughter, or take a picture of somebody’s wife playing Hide-the-Hot-Dog in the Plaza Hotel, or break into somebody’s apartment to find that all-important second set of books.

  In exchange, Friends had sent him to a toney private school, paid his rent, and picked up his college bills.

  “So,” Neal said, “The Bank has a humongous loan out to AgriTech, and one of its star scientists has taken a sabbatical. So what?”


  “Yeah, right. What’s the big deal about chickenshit?”

  “Not any chickenshit. Pendleton’s chickenshit. Chickenshit is fertilizer, right? You spread it on stuff to make it grow, which sounds pretty fucking gross to me, but hey…. Anyway, Pendleton’s been working for umptedy-zumptedy years on a way to squeeze more growing juice out of chickenshit by mixing it with water treated with certain bacteria. This, by the way, is called an ‘enhancing process.’

  “Now it used to be that you couldn’t mix chickenshit in water because it would lose its juice, but with Pendleton’s process, not only can you mix it with water, but you get something like triple the effect.

  “Naturally, this would make a nice little item on AgriTech’s shelf. I might even buy you some for Christmas. You could rub it on your dick, although I doubt the stuff could be that good.”

  “Thank you.”

  “But don’t get your hopes up, because just when Doc Guano gets this close,” said Graham, holding his thumb and forefinger a sliver apart, “to inventing Supershit, he goes off to this conference and meets Miss Wong.”