Prologue

 

  There it was again. Zhao Meng briefly caught sight of the hooded figure over the sea of heads before he was pushed down three steps into the vast hall. The file of men ahead formed a silent snake that shuffled forward intermittently. He recognised two faces from his neighbourhood but they deliberately avoided his gaze. A hum of activity from the front did nothing to relieve the depressing hush.  Darkness was falling for the second time since he had been brought here so it must be 23rdFebruary. The soldiers marshalling them wore nametags and blank expressions. Zhao Meng passed the time trying to commit to memory their names and faces.

  The queue edged forward again and then there it was, right before him.  The figure loomed, static as a memorial sculpture save for the occasional nod or shake of its head. The shroud was a silk of deep crimson but Zhao Meng doubted the colour would bring its usual good fortune. A fist in the small of his back shoved him forward a pace. He stumbled past the apparition, unable to take his eyes off it. Of the face inside the hood there was no sign yet Zhao Meng felt its stare. Two fingers drummed impatiently on the desk in front of him, their owner looking enquiringly at the crimson figure alongside. The head nodded. The nod shivered its way down through the folds of the cloak and fell out into the empty air above the shoes.  The shoes! They were familiar, tantalisingly so.  Zhao Meng felt a strong grip on his right forearm now stamped with a purple triangle.

  He was marched through the door to the left of the desk and out across a courtyard to an open truck.  The huddle of men already on-board left little room for Zhao Meng. The rear flap slammed behind him cutting into his shoulder. The engine spluttered grudgingly into life and dragged its dismal load out into the darkness. 

  The truck lurched and slewed its way through the night; on they went each clutching at his neighbour to stay upright.  Zhao Meng watched the stars; they were headed north. The axle below him periodically grumbled unheeded complaints about the driving, the road or both. 

 Without warning the driver braked violently.  Before Zhao Meng had regained his feet he was pulled down roughly onto sandy ground.  A new moon shimmered in the ripples of a gentle sea; maybe this was Punggol. Zhao Meng’s arms were tied together behind his back and strapped to two complete strangers. He could not see their faces. 

  They were pushed down the slope of the beach; perhaps it was Changi. Onward and downward they staggered, half a pace late in their stumbles. Water splashed on his face as they stamped around in the shallows. Quickly it was up to his waist. He was tugged off balance as all three struggled instinctively but pointlessly against the ropes binding their arms. 

  A loud crack pierced the night sky. The man to his left slumped tightening the ropes.  They lurched sideways. A second crack. A ghastly scream deafened Zhao Meng’s right ear.  The bundle of men toppled into the sea and rolled into deeper water. He struggled against all the dead weight around him to get his head above the water.  He never heard the third shot.

Chapter 1

  The River Dee knew roughly where it was going without being quite sure how to get there.  Its halting progress through Chester fascinated onlookers as it tripped over itself, splashing against the stepped embankment of the Groves on one bank and tumbling over the weir towards the other. Katie Lamb inhaled the calm evening air but Denson was always warning her that important events have a habit of happening when you least expect them.  She scanned around.  A family was feeding the swans on the river by the bandstand. Two tour guides, impatient to get home to their families, were herding the last day-trippers onto coaches. A crowd of delinquent black-headed gulls played their special version of dare, floating towards the weir, taking off at the last possible moment then swooping around only to bob down again past the pleasure steamers moored for the night on their buoys in the centre of the river. 

  She scanned around preparing herself for the questions she knew Denson would fire at her.  She could see three people up on the suspension bridge; an old chap was leaning over the rail in the centre and a couple of schoolgirls at the far end were nudging each other and giggling.   She climbed the steps to the side of the bridge leading up into the park.  The benches were empty save for a discarded copy of the local newspaper that Katie tossed into a litterbin. 

  It was just as the paper rattled its way down the metal cage that the scream rocketed up into the evening air. Stuttering at first, and then quickly reaching a crescendo, it bounced off the water scattering the gulls and encircling Katie. She froze, her feet refusing to move, her head twisting this way then that, her eyes wide open demanding a clue. Her brain searched for an appropriate response and reminded her that she was on duty, her first solo patrol. 

  She turned and broke into a run, retracing her steps around a bend in the path. The two schoolgirls hurtled towards her off the bridge.  One was screaming hysterically; the other, some way behind, was affecting an attitude of impatience.  The first girl charged headlong into Katie clutching wildly at the skirt of her uniform.

  ‘He’s dead, he’s dead,’ she choked between sobs.

  ‘Calm down now,’ said Katie patting her head as the poor thing clung to her leg, burying her face and trembling with fear, ‘who is dead?’

  ‘The old fella on the bridge,’ sniffed the second girl between chews on her gum.