Chapter Forty-Four

True Confessions

“My name is Michelle Chen, also known as Ming-Mei, and I have come for my son, Joey.”

I can’t speak for the others, but our mystery guest’s mastery of English shocks me almost as much as her ethereal, porcelain beauty. Clearly both the cat lady and Clare had got that part wrong, because while Ming-Mei’s very slight accent suggests that she’s foreign born, it also becomes abundantly clear as the evening progresses that she’s been speaking English for many years, if not for most of her life. This is no traditional Mandarin doll, and her perfectly tailored Western-style suit is linen, not silk.

“Miss Chen is eager to assist us in our efforts,” Naomi says carefully. “She has had a very long flight and must be exhausted, but I’m hoping she can give us some background before the jet lag kicks in.”

“No jet lag,” says Ming-Mei with a resolute shake of her head. “I slept on the plane. The Gulfstream was most comfortable. Tell me where my son is. Find him, then I will sleep.”

“As we discussed by phone, Miss Chen, we’re working on that.”

Ming-Mei turns to boss lady with something like fire in her big, gorgeous eyes. “You know who took him, right? Who keeps him?”

Naomi, who has yet to take a seat, nods her agreement and explains to those of us who are still a bit stunned by our guest’s arrival: “I shared the video clip with Miss Chen. She did not recognize Kathleen Mancero, but the Harvard Bridge area is very familiar to her.”

Ming-Mei says, “Joey and me, we walked along the river when he was an infant. He was in a sling, you know, that carries in front? And when he heard the water he would become very excited. It pleased him to listen to the river, even as a tiny baby. To him it was music. This woman who has him, does she know about the music? Does she know he will starve without his music?”

At this point Ming-Mei, who has been holding herself very erect, collapses into a puddle of tears, and begins to cry in that way that can make it hard to breathe, so strong are the convulsions of grief.

Jack, ever gallant, leaps up to console our beautiful young guest, but Naomi quickly dismisses the notion, as if she already knows what Ming-Mei will tolerate and what she won’t. Physical comforting from a male stranger is apparently out, and the most Jack is allowed to do is provide her with a clean white handkerchief. Ming-Mei covers her face with it, tips her head back, and gradually her chest stops heaving. She sighs deeply, removes the tear-soaked handkerchief and with a much less imperious voice says, “Twenty hours on the plane, I don’t cry, not once. Now I can’t stop. Because all the time I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be a nice surprise if Joey is waiting for me? In my dream you found him while I was en route. That was my hope.”

“I’m so sorry, Miss Chen. Had such a happy event occurred, you would have been informed immediately.”

“I know,” she says, weeping freely. “But still I hope.”

“Take your time, Miss Chen. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to give my people a more informed introduction. As far as they’re concerned, you’ve dropped out of the clear blue sky.”

This elicits a faint smile. “Oh, but I did.”

“I suppose you did at that,” Naomi says. She tilts her head slightly, in that certain way that signals she expects us to pay close attention. “I was able to locate Miss Chen with the help of an intermediary. This person, who shall remain nameless, contacted a certain staffer in the U.S. Embassy in Hong Kong, who in turn put me in touch with a local investigator familiar with the entertainment industry. As it turns out, the singer Ming-Mei is well-known on the club circuit. She was contacted through yet another intermediary. Miss Chen’s performance contract happens to be owned by one of the most powerful triads, so getting through to her was a delicate matter. As you may or may not know, the ancient triad societies of Hong Kong have gained power under the new regime by establishing relationships of mutual benefit with certain high-ranking Communist party members. This particular triad is heavily invested in the entertainment industry, and protects those investments with the usual strong-arm tactics, up to and including murder. Which meant that contacting Miss Chen presented certain difficulties.”

Ming-Mei says, “She means my old boyfriend, Sammy Lee. He’s a four eight nine, okay? Triads have numeric codes. That way names are not used, for protection in case of arrest. Four eight nine is the dragon head. He’s the big boss. You must do what the dragon head wants, no question. When I went with Sammy the first time, I was seventeen years old and more than anything I want to be a big Cantonese pop star like Gillian Chung, and sing songs on TV and be a movie star.” Ming-Mei laughs ruefully. “I was a very stupid girl.”

“You had ambition,” Naomi points out.

“Oh yes, ambition. But no brains. I thought, just let me succeed, let me have a hit song, I can separate myself from Sammy Lee, no problem. But that is impossible. It doesn’t work that way. Once a dragon has you in his claws, he holds on tight.”

“Tell us about Professor Keener,” Naomi suggests. “How it all started.”

Ming-Mei’s small, perfect chin thrusts out. “Four eight nine will kill me if he finds out, but I don’t care. He won’t help me find Joey, and you will, is that not so?”

Naomi says, very carefully, “If Joey can be found, we’ll find him.”

Ming-Mei registers the chilling subtext, but it does not deter her from continuing.

“Okay,” she says, hands folded primly in her lap. “Three years go by. I don’t have a hit song yet, I’m not a movie star, but I sing in Sammy Lee’s clubs five nights a week and he pays for acting lessons and provides me with a flash apartment and spending money, even a car and driver. The driver is there to keep an eye on me, of course. He’s a forty-nine, a triad soldier, and everything I do or say, he reports to the dragon head. It makes me feel very important because, like I say, I’m a stupid girl with only one thing on her mind, becoming famous like Gillian Chung. I have a good voice. Not good enough to sing opera, but good enough for Cantonese pop, which is more about the look of the singer, okay? And even more about the producer, what song they choose, the beat, how they arrange the sound. Without a good producer, there is no chance of success, and Sammy, he keeps promising he will find me a top-cat producer. That’s what he calls them, ‘top cats.’ But it’s all a lie because by then I am too old for Sammy Lee, he wants only girls seventeen and younger. When he stops coming to my apartment for sex I don’t complain. Why should I? He’s disgusting. But then when I try to find a producer on my own, Sammy sends his four two six, his enforcer, to make sure the producers all know who owns me. He threatens to take away my apartment and make me a prostitute if I don’t stay in his clubs and obey. The dragon head owns many prostitutes, so this is no idle threat. I want to run away but I don’t know where to go and I have no money. Stupid girl, what was I thinking?

“Then one day everything changes. The dragon head comes to my apartment, but this time not to threaten. Suddenly he’s acting very nice, very gentlemanly, and this is because he wants a big favor. He has important friends in government, and these friends are looking for a girl like me, he says. No, not to be a whore, he says, not like that. More in the line of acting, okay? All I have to do, be beautiful and pretend I have no English. The no English part is important, they stress that. Plus, if I do what they want, if I ‘play the game,’ someday I will have a real record producer. Of course I know the dragon head is lying, but what can I do? They fly me to the U.S.A., to Boston, and one of the government people, a woman, she makes sure I’m dressed in traditional clothing, which I have never worn, and sends me to a party on a big boat in Boston Harbor. Lots of people, some of them very rich, but many just young and beautiful. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t exciting. The colonel, she tells me I’m part of something very secret and very important to all Chinese people. And all I have to do is make eyes at this sai yan, this important Western man who will be there. Just look. No talk, no touching, no sex.”

“Joseph Keener?”

“Yes,” she says with a sad nod. “That was the first time I met poor Joe. Right away I knew something was strange about him. Most men-all my life it’s the same-they want to touch me, if only to shake my hand. Not Joe. He’s very shy. Not just shy, but different from other men. He never wanted to be touched, even when later on we had sex. I know that sounds impossible, but believe me, it is not. But that is much later. The first night all I do is look at the man and make my eyes do this.”

Ming-Mei poses with her eyes downcast, and slowly looks up through her thick eyelashes, making eye contact.

Jack sighs and says, “He didn’t stand a chance.”

If Teddy’s jaw drops any farther it will be unhinged. Men.

“The one who hosted the party, this was Jonny Bing?” Naomi asks.

She nods. “He was very nice to me. I went there excited, but afraid, you know? I have never been to the U.S.A., I’m being watched by the triad people and Chinese government spies and I don’t know what they really want. But Jonny told me not to worry, he would do everything, all I had to do was be beautiful and be quiet. Can you do that? he asks, and I say, yes, no problem, I can do that. At the party nothing really happens. I make sure the sai yan sees me, and knows that I see him, and that’s it. That night, after the party, Jonny tells me they will take care of everything.”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” Naomi says. “But who is ‘they’?”

“Jonny and the government woman. I won’t tell you her name-I’m sure it wasn’t her real name in any case. Later I learn she’s a colonel in the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, and a spy, but at the time all I know is dragon head wants me to do what she says. I have no choice. What happens next, they put me in a small apartment in Chinatown and tell me to wait. The PLA colonel stays with me, to make sure I don’t leave Chinatown. Those are the orders. Mostly we sit all day in the apartment and watch American television, which I like very much. It’s almost like me and the spy woman are becoming friends. Two weeks later she has me dress up in traditional clothes and pack up all my things and takes me to the airport. Naturally I assume I’m being returned to Hong Kong. But no, that is not the plan. The PLA colonel says to me, so you want to be a pop star? You want to sing and act like Gillian Chung? Now is your chance. This is your scenario: you have been emailing the sai yan professor for the last two weeks, with the help of a friend who speaks English, and your relationship has progressed. He wants to see you again and has sent you a ticket. You have just arrived in Boston and in five minutes he will come through that door to greet you. Are you ready for the rest of your life? Then she laughs, very cruel. ‘Are you ready for the rest of your life,’ that comes from a game show we’ve been watching together.

“My only real instruction is that I am to speak only a few words of English. I ask her why no English, wouldn’t it be easier for me to talk to the sai yan in his own language? She doesn’t really explain this part to me, but I figure it out after a while. Speaking only Chinese makes me appear more exotic to him, and allows him to make up his own mind about who I am. It relieves him of having to make conversation, which he is very bad at. Also the colonel will be able to control what I say, because she will act as my interpreter-it’s really she who has been emailing him all along, pretending to be me. Or this exotic, traditional version of me.

“It all goes according to the script. Joe arrives at the airport, accompanied by his good friend Jonny Bing. Everybody is very formal. We do a lot of bowing, which I think is very funny but I don’t dare laugh because everyone else is being so serious. We all go to a teahouse in Chinatown and have a traditional tea, and the arrangement is worked out through my ‘interpreter.’ Joe agrees to lease me an apartment-the same place I have been staying all along! — and will pay for a tutor to teach me English-that would be the PLA colonel, of course. Even on that first meeting there is talk of an eventual marriage, but right away the colonel tells him I’m married to a very bad man who has abandoned me, and divorce is difficult. This is something they had already discussed in the emails, and he accepts it. It isn’t until we’re finally back at the apartment that the colonel tells me what she really wants.”

“A baby.”

“Yes,” says Ming-Mei. “I haven’t even kissed this strange man, and already they are talking about when I have the baby.”

“They?”

“She and Jonny. This has been their plan all along. So of course I respond with a temper tantrum. How dare they! I am not a whore paid to have babies! And so on and so forth. They played it like on American TV. Good cop and bad cop. She was the bad cop. Fail to cooperate and I would be sent to a ‘reeducation camp’ in one of the northern provinces. And Jonny would be sweet and understanding and explain that everything would be okay, and that having a baby didn’t mean I couldn’t be a big star like Gillian Chung.”

“So you agreed to the plan.”

“Yes, to my shame, I did.”

“And eventually you got pregnant.”

She nods.

“Did Professor Keener ever discuss his company with you? What he was working on at QuantaGate?”

“No, never.”

“So you don’t know what he was developing.”

She shrugs. “Something to do with computers, that’s all. Please understand, everything changed when I got pregnant. The stupid girl who wants to be like Gillian Chung? She grew up. All she could think about was the baby, the baby. So that’s what we talked about, Joe and me. By then I had ‘learned’ enough English to have a real conversation. In a strange way, I began to like him. I say strange, because he was like no man I had ever met before. I understood that he was a great genius in his work, but at home, in his personal life, he was more like a child. In social matters he was very unsure of himself. He knew he didn’t really understand other people, or how they think, but there was nothing he could do about that.” She pauses, once again with her eyes downcast and her hands folded palm up in her lap. “The thing I am most ashamed of is not seducing poor Joe, because that’s what I did, I seduced him in every way a man can be seduced. No, it was making him think he could trust me, and knowing that when I lied he would believe me. I lied to him about everything. This was shameful. Because even if they didn’t tell me why they wanted me to have Joe’s baby, I understood that it had to do with tricking him, using him.”

“He would be compromised.”

“Yes.”

“Because he would want to protect you and the baby.”

“Yes.”

“And is that what happened?”

“More or less. The strategy was to keep him off balance. While I was pregnant I stayed here in Boston and saw him every few days. He went with me to the birthing center the day Joey was born, although he could not make himself witness the delivery. After a few days he held the baby, briefly, but I could tell he really didn’t like it.”

“He didn’t like Joey?” Naomi says, surprised.

“No, no. He loved Joey in his way, of this I am sure. It was the holding part he didn’t enjoy. He kept saying, ‘I’m afraid I’ll break him.’ He was frightened. I was frightened, too, but not about holding Joey. I loved that part right from the start. It was being a mother that scared me. I had no idea what to do, not at first.”

“It’s our understanding that soon after giving birth you returned to Hong Kong.”

“Yes, true. When Joey was about a month old I went home.”

“This was your idea?”

“I made no objection-I wanted to go home, to resume my old life-but no, it was not my idea. They arranged it. I was to tell him I wanted to show the baby to my relatives and then I would simply keep making excuses and never get around to coming back to the U.S.A. Their intention was that Joe would want to visit me and the baby in Hong Kong and they would make contact with him there.”

“This is what I find puzzling,” Naomi says. “According to what you’ve told us, Jonny Bing was cooperating with this woman spy who acted as your translator. He was also partners with Professor Keener, so why couldn’t Keener simply be induced to pass information through Mr. Bing?”

Ming-Mei says, “They felt it was important that Joe not suspect Jonny, or he would also suspect that the whole relationship with me was arranged for that purpose. Which it was, of course. Also Jonny told me he was always under surveillance, they were keeping an eye on him because he was Chinese-American.”

“A Chinese-American deeply invested in a company developing a secret computer system for the Pentagon.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“And you remained in Hong Kong for about a year?”

“Thirteen months.”

“Why did you return?”

“Because he never came to visit! They couldn’t get over it. The colonel made sure I kept sending video clips of Joey, to induce him into visiting, but eventually it became clear that for him the video clips were enough. He loved seeing the pictures but it didn’t make him want to visit us in person. So then the decision is made, and I am to return to U.S.A. We are to live in a very nice condo Joe has purchased in Arlington. At first I refuse, and that’s when the colonel makes it clear exactly what my situation was.”

“They threatened to take the baby.”

Now it’s Ming-Mei’s turn to look shocked. “How did you know?”

“Because that’s the logical choice. The baby gives them leverage over you, even if it hasn’t yet worked with the professor.”

“I had no choice. But it turns out to be maybe the best thing I did. Because Joey does get to know his father a little bit, for a little while. And that’s when he discovered music.”

“Music?” I ask, piping up from the peanut gallery.

“Did you not know? Like his father my son is a genius. Not a science or math genius, a musical genius. In other ways Joey is normal, he is a regular little boy who likes to have his mi ma hold him and fuss over him and tickle his tummy and read him stories. But what his father did, he played some classical music on a CD, and Joey got so excited-he was two years old at the time, a toddler-that his father went out and bought a little piano keyboard, with special child-size keys. It was like watching magic happen. His father shows him how to hit two keys, an octave apart, and Joey right away starts using six fingers, three on each hand, to make simple chords. He liked it so much it made him laugh. By the time he’s three he’s making up his own music. He’s spending so much time at his keyboard, playing for hours, that I’m worried, but his teacher tells me not to worry, this is the way it is with true musical prodigies, you can’t keep them away from the music, it’s opening up whole new worlds and they want to explore.”

“Professor Keener’s birth parents were both musicians,” Naomi points out. “You’re a singer, and therefore musically inclined. I’m not really surprised that music is in the boy’s DNA.”

“That’s what Joe said,” Ming-Mei says, nodding eagerly. “He said, ‘on my side it skipped a generation.’ It helped both of them, I think. Joe still didn’t want to pick up Joey, but the music was a connection. He was fascinated by Joey’s progress, and very pleased, very proud.”

“Okay, let me see if we understand the chronology,” Naomi says. “On your second visit you and Joey stay at the Arlington condo for about a year and a half, is that correct?”

Ming-Mei nods firmly. “Yes.”

“And then, abruptly, you return again to Hong Kong. Why was that?”

“The excuse, my grandmother has taken ill. In reality, both my grandmothers died long ago. The colonel was by then very eager to get Joe’s cooperation. They thought he had bonded so much with his son that he would surely visit us in Hong Kong, where they could spring their trap and make him share secrets. I was not to send him videos or emails, if he wanted to see Joey he would have to come to us. And six months later, he did.”

“What happened, exactly?” Naomi says, a little too casually. Those familiar with her technique pick up the signals-she’s about to bore in, shaking out something crucial to the case.

“Everything went wrong,” Ming-Mei says with a sigh. “That was the beginning of the end. At first it was very nice-he was so glad to see Joey, so amazed by his musical progress-by then Joey was starting to read music, and practicing some of the simpler Mozart sonatas. He came every day to watch and listen, and seemed to me to be as happy as I had ever seen him. Then one day he comes and I can see right away that he’s very upset. Some Chinese men came to his hotel and threatened him in some way, or said something that made him suspicious. He has decided that I am part of this conspiracy and I don’t admit it, but of course he’s right. Suddenly he’s looking at me like he looks at everybody else in the world, like I’m not quite there.”

“He knew?”

“He knew something was wrong. He became very angry and left us and went back to the U.S.A.”

“So they tried to recruit him but he refused to cooperate.”

Ming-Mei nods. “The colonel was very angry, too, and at first she tried to blame me. But they had bugged my apartment and they went over the audiotapes, which proved that I never said anything to make him suspicious. So they came up with another plan. And this was the most cruel thing of all. This is my curse, which has come back to haunt me.”

“You pretended that Joey was kidnapped,” says Naomi, glancing around to make sure we’re all paying strict attention.

“Yes. Yes, I did.” Ming-Mei weeps freely, her lovely cheekbones glistening with tears. “That’s what I pretended. And then it really happened.”

“Please explain,” Naomi says, as if for our benefit. “The timing and sequence of this is, I believe, crucial to any possible recovery of your son.”

Ming-Mei sniffs, but doesn’t attempt to blot away the tears. “It was the colonel’s idea, but I obeyed. I knew what I did was evil. I let Joe believe that little Joey had been taken from the mall. That the authorities believe he had been stolen to be sold as a replacement child.”

“But Joey wasn’t stolen then.

“No. He was fine. I told him he had to stay with his piano teacher for a few days, for special lessons, and he was very enthusiastic. Of course, his father came to Hong Kong, very upset, and he did everything possible to find Joey.”

“He hired private investigators to search for the boy.”

“Yes, but that was all part of the plan. They used their own people. They led him to the mainland and told him if he didn’t cooperate, Joey would never be seen again. He called me from Beijing, so upset I can hardly understand what he is saying. Of course the call is being monitored, but he doesn’t care. He says he has failed, because he has no secret to share. He would give them anything they want, but he has nothing to give. Then the call is cut off and that’s the last I ever heard from him.”

“He had no secrets to share.”

“That’s what he said, and I believed him.”

“That was a year ago. When was Joey really kidnapped?”

Ming-Mei takes a deep breath, apparently determined to keep it together, no matter how difficult the subject matter. “Three weeks ago. As usual I took him for his piano lessons, but when I go to pick him up, he’s already gone. I find his teacher tied to a chair in her practice room. Three men came to take him away, moments before I arrived.”

“Could she identify them?”

Ming-Mei shakes her head. “Only that they were sai yan, Western. And that they were very quick and efficient, like soldiers.”

The confession concluded, Naomi sits back and surveys us, satisfied that we’ve all been sufficiently impressed by the revelations. “Gatling’s men,” she concludes. “I’d stake my life on it.”

Midnight on the roof deck. Apparently I’m not the only one who can’t sleep, because there’s a red glow bobbing when I get there. Jack Delancey, having himself a fine cigar. Then I hear murmuring and realize he’s not alone. Teddy, in his dark clothing, fully blended into the night.

“Sorry,” I say. “Didn’t realize this roof was occupied.”

“Don’t be silly,” Jack says. He makes a welcoming gesture. “Join us, please. I was trying to explain to young Ted about the Benefactor.”

“Oh?” I sink into a chair, glad of the breeze, which is wafting the smoke elsewhere.

“He was surprised, shall we say, that our mystery guest could be so easily summoned.”

“I doubt it was easy,” I say.

“My point exactly. Just because the boss didn’t leave the residence doesn’t mean she wasn’t working the case, and working it hard. I’ve also been suggesting that, tempting as it might be to peek behind the curtain, it would be a mistake to try and identify the Benefactor.”

“I believe we all signed contracts to that effect.”

Teddy pipes up, “No, no, I wasn’t looking, not like that. Just speculating.”

“Maybe an ambassador, he was thinking,” says Jack, taking no position. “Or someone from the Justice Department.”

“Maybe,” I say. “Or maybe an eccentric billionaire using us as his giant game of ‘Clue.’”

Teddy makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a giggle. “That would be cool. Are there secret passages in the residence?”

Jack clears his throat.

I say, “As a matter of fact, there are.”

I like it that he doesn’t ask where. In the dark I can almost feel his young mind racing. It’ll give him something to do, other than obsess on the identity of the person who makes this all possible, and who obviously has the power to move a game piece halfway around the globe.

“Busy day tomorrow,” Jack says, standing up. “The boss has plans.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll stay for a few minutes,” I say when the two men get up to leave.

“Suit yourself.”

“Good night, Miss Crane. I mean Alice.”

“Away with you both.”

The lights of the city usually have a calming effect, as if some grand purpose is being illuminated from within, but tonight the calm part isn’t working. I keep thinking about helicopters hovering silently, painting targets on a screen, and men in black masks, and an assassin’s bullet crashing into the residence, and a few minutes later I hurry down to bed, if not to sleep.

Contents