Serpent's Smile

The Story

Blake Spencer is an American trouble-shooting engineer teaching two brief seminars at Wuhan University.

The invitation came from a beautiful acquaintance he thinks of as China Doll, and when she unexpectedly shows up at the airport, the possibilities are intriguing. They fly across the Pacific together, and share an overnight tryst in Shanghai before flying on to Wuhan where Blake begins his assignment.

A week later while exploring the neighborhood on his own, he stumbles into a grisly murder. Later, a massive explosion on the campus kills dozens of students.

Through all this, China Doll is mysteriously resistant to his desire to get out of China. Instead, she coerces him to stay.

Later when they are finally leaving the country, she is kidnapped at gunpoint.

Blake flies to Singapore to rescue her, and becomes involved in the penultimate terrorist assault that is intended to eclipse the Twin Towers attack of 9/11 and dethrone the Chinese Communist Party.

Blake must choose between China Doll and thousands of lives, guilty and innocent.


On a business trip to Wuhan China in 2003, I taught two, five-day computer seminars at Wuhan University.

On the intervening weekend, I had Sunday to myself, and as I often do with a down day, I decided to explore the neighborhood. I headed for Luojia Mountain that is within the University’s confines. Hiking up early in the day, I was completely alone.

Before leaving the United States, I had been cautioned by others that if I inadvertently did something I wasn’t allowed to do–aiming my camera at some unknown-to-me secret military (or viral research?) facility, I could be arrested, deported, or thrown into a Chinese prison for the rest of my life.

At the top, a trail followed Luojia’s meandering crest. I surveyed my surroundings–trees, birds, a gentle breeze–and realized I was truly completely alone. No one was following, no one knew where I was, and no one could possibly know what I was, or wasn’t, doing.

What if,” the thought came to me, “I came across a dead body?”

Would they think I did it?

One of my students had confidentially mentioned the plight of the Uyghur’s in Xinjiang Province. At the time, I was completely ignorant of it and said as much. The topic was dropped and it was only after I returned to the US that I learned how many of Xinjiang’s inhabitants were being locked up in re-education facilities.

And when the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square confrontation between students for democratic reform and China’s regular Army forces came up did I start to wonder what had happened to that movement.

Those are the core ingredients of this story.



Wuchang, China

“Lili,” Sartaq blustered into the cell phone that scrambled their Cantonese, “I no have spare suicide bombers!”

He swept an empty hand back across the black hair on the side of his head. The white bristly whiskers from the long scar made a crackly sound.

“I making five ready for Singapore,” he continued. “They almost done. But more? No. Not ready for year.” He remembered his confrontation with Wang yesterday. The boy’s increasing resistance made him doubt the choice. “Maybe longer,” he added.

A long, narrow boat rowed by eight students with alternating oars, left then right, hissed past on Donghu Lake.

Sartaq scowled at the sight. Foreign things, especially American, were a favorite at Wuhan University. And with seventy thousand students, they’d taken over most of the suburb of Wuchang containing the main campus. Across the bridge, downtown Wuhan was even more changed. There was little he or Lili remembered from forty years ago.

Morning, Twelve Hours Later

Surprise, Arizona

Blake Spencer straddled his red Cannondale bicycle in the pre-formed concrete tunnel beneath Bell Road. Here on the west side of the Agua Fria, he was in the town of Surprise, his home, that split the dry riverbed with Phoenix.

He moved a hand to block the glare beaming in and read the text message on his cell phone.

$7000 2 wks China?

A car slapped on the expansion joints overhead as it passed, the sound reverberating from the tunnel’s rectangular concrete walls.

“When and where?” he said in annoyance. “China’s big.”

Standing in one place, even in the shade under the roadway, the Sonoran Desert’s heat was fierce. At least when he was moving, the air whisked away his sweat and with it the calories, the joules of energy from his body. But down here, there was no convection. Sweat dripped from his nose, from the underside of his arms, and on the inside of his thighs.

Surprise, where Julie’d insisted they buy a house, would hit a hundred and fifteen today.


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