The Net Conspiracy: Meijuan's Plight |

The Net Conspiracy: Meijuan's Plight

Book One in The Net thriller series

By DM Coffman

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US Embassy, Beijing, People’s Republic of China
December 26, 2000

Meijuan didn’t dare come during the day. Even at night she knew it was a risk. She pulled the collar of her thin coat up over her cheeks, clutching the lapels with her mitten-covered hands. Her breath created a frosty mist around her. She stood in the darkened alley across from the American Embassy. The warm glow of white lights along the Embassy’s roof line, like the bright stars above her home on Hainan, gave her courage. That was why she came at the western holiday time of Christmas, when all the fancy decorations were up. Others walking along the street would stop and admire the twinkling lights. She could blend in.

Terrible layout
, she thought as she studied the compound. Its location was isolated compared to other businesses along the street. Tall security gates and military guards stood in front. She knew she wouldn’t be able to make contact with an American inside without going through the guards on the outside.

Chinese guards.

Her heart pounded. She had not anticipated them at the American Embassy. Chinese officials despised her because she edited a subversive news magazine. She only printed the truth, but they hated her nonetheless. If she were caught trying to pass information to a foreign government, she would be locked away for a very long time—or worse. Her secret would not be told. She had to find a way to get the information she possessed into the hands of the American government without being seen by Chinese guards.

Standing in the alley, her coat collar pulled up around the faded facial markings of her tribal leadership, she thought about her recent visit home to Hainan Island. She had hoped to make peace with her son, Jiaoshi. But even after seven years, he had not welcomed her back. What she found instead was a hotbed of evil that, as she reflected upon it now, caused a shiver to run through her. For the first time in her life she felt intense fear—not only for herself, but for the lives of many people. And it was all her son’s fault. According to Chinese custom, that made it her responsibility too.

Must do this
, she told herself as she crossed the street to the Embassy gate. Four soldiers with rifles stood in a line in front.
As she drew closer, she could see that three of the guards were Chinese, but one was . . . Caucasian? Yes! She ran toward him.
“Halt!” the man shouted, arm raised, when she got within ten feet of him.
Meijuan froze.
He approached her slowly, then asked in English, “What is it you want?”
“I . . . I . . .,” she began in English, but no other words came to her.
Ni wei shuo Zhongwen, ma?” she asked if he spoke Chinese.
Shaking his head, he turned and yelled for one of the Chinese guards.
Meijuan panicked. Unwilling to risk being recognized, she turned and ran.
“Hey!” the soldier yelled after her.
She never looked back.

Meijuan returned to her small room at the news magazine office. Maybe the internet will provide a solution, she reasoned. She keyed in the words United States White House on the computer’s search field. After studying the list of possible websites, she finally logged on to what she thought was the official one. It listed telephone and fax numbers. Not feeling confident with her English-speaking skills, she felt it would be best, and safest, to write a letter. She would fax it to the White House. The magazine owned a small fax machine. She could easily send it when no one was around.

It took Meijuan five days to prepare the one-page letter carefully written in English. She breathed a sigh of relief as the fax machine scanned it in, signaling that contact had been made on the other end of the line. Now she would wait for the White House to send her an e-mail confirmation as she had requested in the fax. With the time difference, it would arrive in America around Monday morning, January 1. There would be New Year’s celebrations going on. Possibly no one would see her fax for a day or two.
That’s okay
. She could be patient for a few days.

* * *

The White House Communications Center, Washington, DC
January 8, 2001

The fax arrived at 10:03 PM on Sunday, December 31st. It came in without any official cover sheet, so it was placed in the Routine Incoming basket for viewing whenever Ted Farley, internal communications specialist, got the chance. Policy stated that the fax had to be forwarded within forty-eight hours of the printout date on the fax header. With New Year’s Eve celebrations going on, though, no one was in the mood to work. Consequently, by the time Farley saw the fax, it had already been sitting on his desk for more than a week.
“What the . . .?” he mumbled as he read the fax’s header date.
Farley had been written up before for taking too much time in forwarding incoming communiqués. It had cost him a point on his last annual review.
“Not again!” He tossed the paper onto his desk.
With twenty-three years of government employment behind him, Ted Farley was biding his time until retirement at the end of next year. Numbed by years of indifference, he sometimes felt that getting to work was the hardest part of his day. The last thing he needed was something disrupting his cushy routine. Life was good—that is, until he came across the fax dated December 31st.

Farley picked up the sheet again and quickly scanned the contents. The English was poor, but clearly made reference to terrorist groups . . . in China . . . that’s a new one, he thought as he scratched his balding head. Important information . . . Oh, no! The anti-terrorism task force had given specific instructions that any incoming communiqués on the subject of terrorism, particularly from overseas, were to be sent immediately to the director of the task force committee.
Maybe the date will go unnoticed
, Farley considered. Things had been chaotic during the transition to a new president.
He couldn’t take the chance.
Probably a hoax anyway
, he rationalized as he ran the fax through the document shredder.

* * *

Beijing, People’s Republic of China
January 9-15, 2001

Frustration was setting in for Meijuan. Nine days had passed since she had sent the fax. She guessed that she was not going to receive any response from the White House.
She desperately needed to make contact with an American. But where? She couldn’t approach the American Embassy, and her fax to the White House had gone unanswered. Then she remembered an article she had written two years earlier titled “The Silencing of Counterrevolutionary Attitudes of Students at Peking University.” In her research she had learned that Peking University used foreign teachers. On the off chance that some of them might be American, she telephoned the English Department at Peking University. A young woman answered.

“Wei, ni hao.
” Meijuan then explained that she needed an American English teacher for assistance in writing a news article.
“We have an American couple here,” the secretary replied. “However, our semester ends this week and they will be transferring to another school.”
“May I have the information for contacting them?” Meijuan asked, hoping the woman wouldn’t ask any questions.
“All of our foreign teachers stay in the Shao Yuan Hotel on campus.”
“And the name of the American couple?”
Xie xie ni.” Meijuan thanked the woman and quickly hung up the phone.
It didn’t take long to track down the telephone number and hotel room for the Americans. But, once again, her efforts proved unsuccessful. On the phone, neither one could understand the other. When she showed up at their door, they wanted to use a Chinese interpreter. She couldn’t take that risk. It didn’t matter. They were refusing to help her . . . something about not being one of their students. Even when Meijuan showed them the letter she had faxed to the White House, they wouldn’t help her.

* * *

Frustration turned into discouragement. Meijuan sat in her office reviewing news clips, trying to assuage her feelings of failure. If her English language skills had been better, she could have conveyed the vital information. There wasn’t any more she could do.
Just then, in the China Evening News, two headlines caught her attention. The first one discussed the US President’s upcoming inauguration celebration, and the second one announced: The United Nations Council has enacted sanctions against Afghanistan’s extremist movement . . . The United States and Russia are leading the drive to block travel by and supplies of arms to extremist members . . .
Aiya! Not sanctions
, she thought. They will retaliate. More people will die. This was much worse than she ever imagined.
She had to keep trying. She had to find a way to communicate the information to the White House herself.
But not from Beijing.
Too dangerous. An international call from Beijing would surely be monitored. Nevertheless, only the biggest cities in China had telephone lines that could handle an international call. She decided on the city of Tianjin.

* * *

Tianjin, People’s Republic of China
January 23, 2001 (Chinese New Year)

The train from Beijing to Tianjin was unusually crowded. It seemed everyone was traveling to be with their families for the Spring Festival holiday—China’s New Year. Meijuan had counted on it. Everyone would be busy with holiday plans. Less chance for notice, she had rationalized. The unfortunate part of such an important holiday, though, was that most shops and businesses were closed or fully booked for the celebration. Only by settling for a bed in a windowless room with no heat or plumbing was Meijuan able to find shelter for the night.

She waited until dark. Then, feeling it was safe to make the international call, she went looking for a public telephone in a vacant section of Tianjin. Many of the telephones (which were nothing more than a handset mounted to a pole with an orange, bubble-shaped overhang) were broken or missing. After three attempts she found one that worked. She dialed the long-distance number. Fearful of her surroundings, she cautiously glanced around. There were only a few people on the street. No officials. No parked cars.

A chill ran through her body as the strange-sounding language came across the line. She hesitated before trying to mouth the words she had so carefully practiced.
“Um . . . is this . . . American . . . White House?” she said as she twisted the phone’s cord, her voice barely a whisper. It took her full focus and every ounce of courage to communicate with the American on the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, she didn’t understand much of the reply.
“I have . . . important . . . information,” she said, speaking as loudly as she could, given the occasional passerby still on the street. Somehow, while struggling with English, she let down her guard. She was unaware of the stranger who had taken notice of her.

* * *

The Neighborhood Committee director prided herself on knowing everything that went on in her section of town. And this strange woman, who had rented a room alone during the Spring Festival holiday and who appeared very nervous, frequently looking over her shoulder, was obviously not from around there. As Neighborhood Committee director she felt it was her duty to monitor this strange woman’s activities. So, she followed her. And when the woman stopped at the street phone, she watched.

The director moved in closer to hear what was being said. She had studied English enough in school to recognize the language although she couldn’t understand the words.

She placed a call on her cell phone.

* * *

Meijuan’s conversation with the White House was not going well. She had so carefully written out the sentences, checked her grammar, and practiced the pronunciations, but her nerves kept getting in the way. She could only hope that the operator would put into the right hands the little bit of information she had been able to impart. There was more to say, but the sudden glare of headlights stopped Meijuan instantly. The unmarked car careened toward her. She knew she was in trouble. She dropped the phone and ran.

Finding a door slightly ajar, Meijuan stepped across the threshold of a darkened hutong alley. She glanced back at the telephone. The handset was still dangling from its cord. Two men in black suits got out of the car and walked to the phone. As one of the men put it to his ear, a middle-aged Chinese woman dressed in a dark blue Mao jacket and floral print pants came running up to them. She handed them a piece of paper then pointed in Meijuan’s direction. The man hung up the phone. They moved toward the place where Meijuan was hiding.

Meijuan had seen the woman outside the room she had rented for the night, so the woman knew where Meijuan was staying. The address was probably on the piece of paper she had given the two men. There was no way Meijuan could return there. And it was too late to find another room or catch a train back to Beijing. She would have to spend the night on the streets of Tianjin.

Hunkering down into a dark corner of the abandoned hutong, she wedged herself between an old bicycle and a stack of crumbling bricks. The unsettled dust filled her nostrils. She stifled the urge to sneeze.
This is all Jiaoshi’s fault!

Thoughts of her corrupt son brought back painful memories. It had been seven years since he forced her to flee her beloved village on Hainan, where her ancestors had ruled for generations. She bore the Li facial tattoos to prove it, as did her mother and grandmother before her.
“You have interfered with my business affairs for the last time,” he threatened his mother. “You saw what happened to your friend,” Jiaoshi had said to her. “The same could happen to you if you don’t leave here.”
“She was innocent!”
“No matter,” Jiaoshi said with a wave of his hand. “She did not do as she was told, so she was punished.”
“At least provide papers so I can register in Beijing,” Meijuan had begged her son, realizing there was no other option.
“You don’t think they will recognize your leadership ability by your facial tattoos?” he had mocked.
“Jiaoshi, you are a cruel man! You know these marks are known only on Hainan. They are our family’s honor,” she defended with tears welling up.
“It is a foolish tradition.”
“Please prepare my registration papers and I will leave Hainan,” she had conceded.
But the papers never came.

Without hukou papers Meijuan had no value. She did not exist in the eyes of the government. Although she had been a leader in Hainan, anywhere else she was no more than a peasant. And life on the streets of Beijing could break the strongest of wills. What she hated most was the weather. Beijing winters were brutal. She would gather up scraps of cardboard or plastic sheeting—anything that would block the bitter wind—and seek shelter in hidden street corners. At least the freezing cold lessened the acrid smell of urine on the building walls.

When life became unbearable, Meijuan would dream of her childhood on Hainan Island. Remembering the soothing ocean sounds and warm, star-filled nights brought her peace. No matter what else she sacrificed, she would not compromise her heritage: the love of her village, her responsibilities as a leader, and the values her ancestors believed in. Those were her constant companions. She would not lose face to them.

She had eventually secured work with a small, counterrevolutionary magazine on the outskirts of Beijing. It didn’t pay much, but it provided her shelter and a bed. She worked hard, learning all she could about news reporting. After a few years she became the editor.
But her troubles didn’t stop there.
“You absolutely must stop distributing negative statements about the government!” officials warned her many times. As editor of an underground publication she had contact with similar organizations from which she learned many hidden facts—ones the government didn’t want printed. On several occasions they shut the magazine down. Once, she was even arrested and beaten. Yet she had been determined to report the truth.

Despite the government’s harassment, she enjoyed her work. But squatting in a dark, cold, and cramped hutong corner in Tianjin, alone on Spring Festival day, brought back the harsh realities from those earlier years in Beijing. In an unfamiliar city, fearful for her safety, Meijuan hoped she could secure passage on a train and be out of Tianjin before the authorities began looking for her in the morning.

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About DM Coffman

DM Coffman specializes in clean suspense thrillers (no offensive language, graphic sex or extreme violence). Strange experiences while living in China inspired The Net thriller series, and many unusual truths are interwoven into the stories of espionage and international intrigue. It's up to the reader to figure out where truth ends and DM's imagination begins.

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