The first thing he noticed was a rattling noise. It was somewhere up and to his right. He recognized the sound; it was the hotel room’s air conditioner. He lay on his back, cockeyed across the bed with his left knee over the side. A sheet covered him but he was still fully clothed, shoes and all.
Above, two mercury-vapor blue rectangles angled across the ceiling, illuminated from the street lights 11 stories below. On the wall to his right, a plastic frame held a picture of droopy trees around a hazy lagoon. The frame was caulked to the wall, he knew, discovered when he tried to correct its slight tilt his first night there.
Pulling off the sheet, he rolled and put his left hand on the bed to push himself up but quickly snatched it back when intense pain shot up from his hand. Looking at the palm in the dim blue light from outside, dark blood filled a newly opened crack in a huge scab that covered the entire palm. His other hand looked almost the same.
He remembered his panic, his flight down the mountain, the sudden skid across walkway pavement on his hands and chin, and his precarious limp back to the hotel. He remembered hiding behind rocks on the mountain and being transfixed as a living, breathing man’s head was cut off, not in a single quick execution, but in five long, slow, ever deepening slashes.
He remembered that in the moments after the body collapsed, he’d seen the killer arch his back, inhale deeply and slowly close his eyes. Moments later, he relaxed forward, panting for air.
Out his hotel window, the black sky told Spence hours had passed.
He turned on the bedside lamp and looked at his wristwatch: 8:30PM.
He noticed his jeans; there were dots and streaks of gray. Sniffing first his shirt sleeve, everything smelled of charcoal.
Ash from the bushes and trees, he thought.
He stood but found the end of the bedcover twisted around his left foot. Unwinding and pulling it off the floor, he paused trying to decide where to put it now that it was covered with dust from the floor but realized he’d added his own share to the bed already. He threw it on the bed before retrieving the pillow with its dried streaks of blood from the dressing table and adding it to the pile.
In the bathroom, he flipped the switch and the fluorescent light flickered on.
Spence stopped, hardly recognizing his own image in the mirror.
His face looked pale, a powdery gray except for clean streaks down his cheeks. His eyes were red like he’d been drinking cheap Scotch. Dark lines — scabs, he felt with his fingers — ran jagged across his forehead, cheeks and over the bridge of his nose. He probed his chin, black with the blood caked in his beard, but the sudden pain of that light touch caused him to grimace which, in turn, cracked open the chin in a second sharp wave of pain.
Undressing broke open most of the cuts and scrapes. The hot shower alternated between wonderful and agonizing.
His wounds clean and the ash washed down the drain, he patted himself dry and then carefully put on fresh clothes.
Returning to the window, Spence leaned close to the glass, cupped his hand and looked to the North. Mount Luojia was there in the dark across the wide, brightly lit avenue. Somewhere in the black, lay the body in a clump of leaves and, a dozen or so yards further down the hill, sat the head.
There were no flashing lights of Police cars in or around the mountain. He saw no flood lamps of a murder scene nor the flicker of detectives with flashlights.
A murder scene in the United States took hours and hours to process.
Maybe nobody’s found it?
I should call the Police.
They’ll want to know what the guy looked like.
His eyes, … His eyes were too far apart. Short black hair. Chinese-looking but with a darker complexion. What else? I better write it down.
Spence took out the notebook computer, opened the lid and created a new folder on his Desktop, naming it “Serpent’s Smile” after the Geocache he’d intended to find which now seemed like a very silly, very immature thing for a grown man to be doing.
By the time he finished getting every detail entered and saved, the computer’s desktop clock inched toward 10:30 PM.
The Police will keep me all night. I haven’t eaten since, … breakfast. And I threw that up in the elevator.
I need food before taking on the Police.
The restaurant closed at 11:00 PM along with the lobby commissary. If he was going to eat anything tonight, it needed to be in the next few minutes.
But Spence had learned that being in a foreign country thousands of miles from home meant being doubly careful.
Such as being careful of where you hike, dummy.
What if the Chinese Police think I did it? How can I make sure I am protected, that my story, my whole story, gets to the right people?
I need to call the US Embassy. That’s what they’re for. I’m a citizen of the United States.
Opening a browser, he typed “US Embassy Wuhan China” into Google.
Sure enough, the first hit was a link to “US Consulate General of the United States, Wuhan, China.”
He clicked it and, when the webpage loaded, he scanned the webpage. Finding a tab for “U. S. Citizen Services,” he click it.
But the first paragraph stopped him.
“At the moment, there are no consular services available in Wuhan …”
Reading on, the second paragraph said, “For deaths, arrests, …”
It said he should contact the Beijing office. There was a phone number and an email address.
“Email!” he said aloud.
Email would be gone in a few moments and he could go eat whereas a phone call with someone at the Embassy would take much, much longer.
Hold on, another part of his mind started to reason.
I don’t think they’ve discovered the body. What if it goes a couple of days like that? Once I get involved, it’s going to be many, many hours before I get loose even with the Consulate’s help. Maybe even days or weeks if they think I’m involved.
I’m supposed to be out of here next weekend.
What if I send what I know to the consulate?
Without saying who I am?
How do I send email anonymously?
Spence Googled “send anonymous email” and clicked the first link.
Anonymousemail.me brought up a form and said to fill in the “To” address, make up a “From” address using an existing domain to get past the spam checkers, and then add his message in the large text box.
I’ll use whitehouse.gov, he smiled.
There was also an “Attachment” checkbox and a place to upload the file from his computer.
Is it really anonymous? Let’s find out.
Clicking send, the web page flashed back, “Email sent.”
Moments later, KMail on his desktop dinged with the arrival of a new message.
Carefully checking the header, there was nothing to indicate him or his location.
Encouraged, he decided to take it one step further.
I’ll give myself a little breathing time and, in so doing, leave a clue I can later claim if there’s any doubt.
Spence launched a command line shell and, in the “Serpent’s Smile” directory, typed in an old school Linux command he’d used many times to hide data from prying eyes.
tr ‘A-Za-z’ ‘N-ZA-Mn-za-m’ < witness.txt > witness_encrypted.txt
The resulting description of everything he had seen was now encrypted against casual readers but not serious hackers who would recognize the simple rot-13 transformation.
Ready now, Spence created the real email for the US Consulate in Beijing and attached the encrypted text file. In the body of the email he typed, “See attached, as witnessed by a U.S. Citizen who will contact you.” After double- and then triple-checking everything, he clicked the Send button on the webpage. The upload of the attached file finished a few seconds later and, again, the web page reported, “Email sent.”
10:45PM — Just enough to get something to eat.
And a beer!
It was close to 11:30PM before he got back to the room.
Spence realized he’d better call Megyn.
If this goes bad, I’m going to need someone I can trust. She’s Chinese and has family here. She’s sharp, fluent in English after working in Silicon Valley for a couple of decades, and also in Cantonese, and Mandarin if we need that.
Spence hesitated because of the hour but then thought, “Nope, this really is an emergency.”
He dialed the number saved in the phone’s address book when she’d called him. It took several seconds to connect through China to the United States, back to China and finally to the cell tower near her parent’s home.
“Megyn, this is Spence. Sorry to call you so late.”
“Spence? What? What time … Is something wrong?”
Wow, he thought, she wakes up quick!
“Uhm, sort’a. … Actually, yeah. I … Uhm, I may need your help.”
“What’s happened? Are you hurt? Where are you?”
“Slow down. I’m OK. I’m at the hotel and I’m safe and sound. Well, a little scratched up, actually, but that’s not why I called.”
It took two minutes to tell her the major features.
“Spence, call the Police!”
“Megyn, I don’t think they even know a crime has been committed. I could be out of here before they find the body.”
Megyn’s voice seemed to rise an octave as she said, “Not hiding anything? Of course you’re hiding something; you’re hiding the fact that a murder has been committed. In America that’s ‘aiding and abetting’. I don’t know exactly how that will play out here because I haven’t lived in China for twenty years but I’m sure the Police — maybe even the National Police — are going to be very angry!”
Spence felt his stomach sinking. She wasn’t seeing eye to eye with him.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, part of his mind said.
“Not only that, Spence,” she went on, “but what about the killer? If he saw you, he’ll know you saw him. You could be in serious danger.”
Megyn streamed on, one idea plowing up the next.
“And you, … you, … Dammit, Spence, you really stand out, you know? Everything about you screams ‘American.’ If the murderer got even a flash, he’ll know you’re Caucasian. And if he saw your clothes, then he’ll know you’re an American. Your jeans, those shirts and — you had on your running shoes, didn’t you? — All he’s gotta do is ask a couple of students on the campus — you stand out, Spence. Someone will know you’re at ISS and, if he then asks one of the computer students, … almost all of them are in your class, you know? He’ll have your name, where you are staying, when you are leaving … For Heavens sake, Spence, hang up and call the Police. They can protect you.”
Megyn turned practical but continued without pause.
“I’ll come over and help you through this. Oh, and call the US Embassy, I think there’s one in Wuhan — No, on second thought, call them first and then do what they say. I think they’re going to tell you to call the Police but check with them first. I’ll leave here in … five minutes. I’ll be there by, let’s see, 1:00 or 1:15 AM at the latest. Meet me in the lobby — there are people around and you’ll be safer there. Go there now. If the Police get there first, tell them I’m coming to translate for you. If they won’t wait, do what they say. I’ll find you. But call the Embassy now and then do whatever they say.”
Spence decided this was not a good time to mention that the closest US Embassy that could help a US citizen was actually in Beijing not Wuhan, that he had already sent them a full account by email, anonymously, and that the message was encrypted so they wouldn’t be able to read it right away.
“All right, Megyn. I’ll meet you in the lobby. But this is complicated. I’ve got to think this through before I do anything else. Another hour won’t hurt.”
“What do you mean, ‘anything else?’”
Spence bit his lip before answering and hoped she would forget the “anything else” part.
“Uhm, … Megyn, I’ve started down this road and, before I change direction, I want to be double-sure that it’s the right thing to do.”
“Yeah, no kidding. Spence, please know I will do anything for you. I’m in love with you, God help me. For your sake — and it really is for your sake — think what you’re doing. I’ll be there as quick as I can.”
“Thanks, Megyn. I’ll owe you a lot for this.”
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