Beijing Payback

A Novel

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“Propulsive. . . . Highly enjoyable. . . . It sets up a sequel, one that I very much look forward to reading.” –The New York Times Book Review

A fresh, smart, and fast-paced revenge thriller about a college basketball player who discovers shocking truths about his family in the wake of his father’s murder

Victor Li is devastated by his father’s murder, and shocked by a confessional letter he finds among his father’s things. In it, his father admits that he was never just a restaurateur–in fact he was part of a vast international crime syndicate that formed during China’s leanest communist years.

Victor travels to Beijing, where he navigates his father’s secret criminal life, confronting decades-old grudges, violent spats, and a shocking new enterprise that the organization wants to undertake. Standing up against it is likely what got his father killed, but Victor remains undeterred. He enlists his growing network of allies and friends to finish what his father started, no matter the costs.


Note on Language

Any dialogue in this story introduced with Chinese transliterations is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, and all subsequent dialogue between the same characters can be assumed to be in Mandarin unless otherwise indicated.

The Chinese names in this text are rendered in the pinyin transliteration system, which is standard in mainland China but not phonetic. The meanings and pronunciations of many Chinese characters vary with context, and the following nonexhaustive guidance is solely intended to assist the reader in becoming acquainted with the Chinese names in this novel.

Xiao (小), a common character in given names, means "small" or "young." It is pronounced, roughly, as "shee-ow" (ɕi̯ɑʊ̯). Zhou (洲) means "continent" and is pronounced, roughly, as "joh" (tʂɤʊ̯). Thus, Victor's Chinese name, Xiaozhou, sounds like "shee-ow joh."

Lian (莲) means "lotus" and is pronounced as a diphthong: "lee-enne." Ying (英) means "brave." Juliana's Chinese name, Lianying, sounds like "lee-enne ing" (liɛn iŋ).

Sun (孙) is a common surname that can mean "descendent." It is pronounced as "swuhn" (su̯ən).

Syllables ending in -ng have a soft, nasal vowel sound. Peng is pronounced "Pung" (fəŋ); Ouyang is pronounced "Oh-yahng" (ɤʊ̯ i̯ɑŋ); Dong has a long o sound and is pronounced "Dohng" (tʊŋ).


I wiggle my fingers, wiggle my toes, will blood into the frigid appendages of my body. I heave deep breaths to jump-start my lungs and diaphragm. Where am I? Wherever I am, it stinks of urine. Thanks to whatever the Snake Hands Gang injected me with—was it ketamine?—my neck feels like I spent a week on a roller coaster wearing an iron helmet. I winch my eyes open for a fraction of a second, then quickly squeeze them shut again. The white light above my head is too bright, the space too tight, and I can't change the position of my body. My clothes are still wet from the rain, so I must not have been unconscious for long.

I replay events in my head, searching for the signs I missed, the turnoffs on this winding path that could've precluded this outcome. Maybe Jules was right: Maybe my loyalty had blinded me. I had seen my choices too simply, seen only what I wanted to see. Maybe I shouldn't have come to Beijing at all.

Maybe it's too late to be having second thoughts.

This isn't the end, I tell myself, rocking my chin from side to side, scrunching up my face, expending major willpower to suppress the urge to cry. I knock my forehead against the frigid metal like I'm hitting the side of a TV, trying to change the picture. You'll get out of this. Snake Hands won't want the attention that comes with killing an American. The police will catch up with them. Sun Jianshui is already on his way.

Dad didn't send you to China for you to die in this hole.

Part One

United States of America

Six Days Earlier


Bounce bounce squeak squeak—the only sounds in the dark arena are the little meetings between the glossy wood floor and the round orange ball, the wood floor and my sneakers. Twice up and back spin moves, twice up and back crossovers, twice up and back behind-the-back dribbles.

I go through the routine like I have every day for a thousand days, not thinking at all, just doing the drills. My mind is empty except for the rhythms of the ball and my shoes. In the dim green glow of the emergency EXIT signs, I roll out the Shoot-A-Way gun and position it beneath the rim, its giant net stretching upward like an open talon, a mechanical maw. I shoot threes from the top of the key, and the gun fires the ball back to me every three seconds, two hundred shots in ten minutes, until my forearms start to ache. I move on to floaters, the little man's shot, the hardest in the game: floaters from the paint, floaters from the foul line, soft banked floaters off baseline drives. I miss, I calibrate, I try to relax: "Cóngróng zìruò, cóngróng búpò—Find yourself, don't force yourself," Dad would say.

The lights come on when I'm up in the nosebleeds running the steps. Andre is waiting for me. When I step to the free throw line for the last part of my routine, he stands under the basket, rebounds as I hit two foul shots and a hard drive to the rim. Five times in a row, all ten foul shots all net. At 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, I may not be a lock for the pros like Andre is—"Yěxǔ nǐ xiāntiān tiáojiàn bùzú—Perhaps your innate characteristics are insufficient," Dad once told me, laughing—but that's not because I miss free throws.

After I swish the last one, my workout is over. But I still feel like someone's holding a live wire to the base of my skull. I'm not finding myself; I'm not finding anything. I'm fighting away thoughts about last Friday night, the game in this very building, and then, as I sat wrapped in a towel in the boisterous locker room, the phone call from the police. The yellow tape across the front door of the house I grew up in.

Andre flicks the ball back to me, and I hurl it into the stands with all my strength, all my fury. Without saying anything, Andre dutifully walks into the stands to retrieve it. When he comes back, I'm lying supine on the hardwood.

"Number three add guac?" he says.

"Okay," I say. "Let me shower first."

After breakfast burritos, Andre drives me to meet Dad's lawyer in West Covina. We make a couple of U-turns on Glendora Avenue before we figure out that the law office of Perry Peng is signlessly tucked between a boba tea café and an Asian supermarket in the corner of a U-shaped strip mall, one of the hundred such strip malls that line the wide boulevards of the most Chinese part of Los Angeles County.

"You want me to pick you up later?" he asks.

I shake my head. "I'll ride home with Jules."

He pulls away, and I get comfortable leaning against the mall building, a tan stucco horseshoe. The February sun hangs low in the southern sky, casting jagged reflections off the pristine windshields of the late-model minivans and family sedans in the parking lot. I start a game with myself guessing how late my sister will be, counting down from 444, but she exceeds expectations: I'm somewhere around negative 250 when I spot her little Japanese hatchback a block away.

Juliana parks, then steps out of her car and slings a messenger bag over her shoulder in one fluid motion. Jules has always dressed herself well, and most recently she's nailed grad-student chic: flowy natural fabrics, minimal makeup, disordered cloud of layered black hair. Even though her eyesight is fine, she has taken to wearing thick-rimmed eyeglasses, which, combined with the upturned nose she got from Mom, tend to lend her an inquisitive look. The sole other member of our halfie-halfie tribe, Jules has the same skin as me, smooth with no hint of pink, but her eyes are lighter, more hazel, more confusing. If our parents were here, it would make some sense, like: Oh, hey, white mommy and Asian daddy, I get it. But they're not. They're dead.

"Hey, Jules."

She hugs me, then holds me away at arm's length and smiles up at me. Puffy eyes, white teeth.

"Are you ready to inherit some restaurants?" I say.

She glances down at her hands, inspects her fingernails. "I was kind of hoping you would take care of that."

"You had a more senior position when we worked there in high school."

"As a hostess?"

"I mopped the bathrooms. And stirred the duck sauce."

Jules's chin begins to quiver, and she blinks a few tears out onto her cheeks. She pulls me back into a hug. "This sucks so unbelievably much," she manages to say, her voice breaking.

I wish I could think of something to say back, something better, something comforting. But I can't find the words, so I just frown back my own tears as hers soak into the shoulder of my shirt. I stand there with my arms around Juliana's small frame, my eyes squeezed shut, and wish with all my willpower for some other reality to present itself when I open my eyes.

But when Jules's breathing evens out, when she steps back from me and I have no choice but to open my eyes again, the same shitty reality is still right here. There's nothing to do but dab our cheeks, blow our noses, and push through the tinted glass door into Dad's lawyer's office.

The waiting room is clean, carpeted, and hospital bright with fluorescent light. Mr. Peng is perched on the side of his receptionist's large white desk. He walks over to us with some special sympathetic expression on his face, his hands out wide.

"Liányīng, Xiǎozhōu, jīngwén lìngzūn císhì, wŏ shēngǎn tòngxī—Lianying, Xiaozhou, I am very sorry for your loss."

"Duōxiè, Péng lǘshī, ní hěn ānwèi wŏmen—Thank you, Lawyer Peng. You comfort us."

The corners of the lawyer's mouth flicker at the not very fluent register of Jules's formalities in Mandarin. Perry Peng is a sleek vision in grays and silvers—short gray hair, trim gray suit, shiny silver tie clip—and he has a comforting, familiar odor, bay rum or beeswax. He leads us back into his immaculately feng shui'd office. In front of his large desk, two beige sofas face each other across a low glass table, and we sit on these. Long scrolls of calligraphed poetry hang on the walls beside classical ink wash paintings: mountains and forests, poet-hermits drinking from gourds. The receptionist brings in a pitcher of hot water. Peng plucks an enameled canister from the elegant ceramic tea set on the glass table and starts scooping silvery green needles into the pot.

"Wŏmen xiān yìqǐ hē bēi chá—First, we'll drink tea together," he says. As we sip the jasmine brew from small porcelain cups, Mr. Peng offers his condolences for our sudden loss, saying how shocked he was by the violent tragedy and how unfortunate it is to have to discuss trivial matters of estate at such a sad time. And so on.

Then he puts on a pair of rimless reading glasses and clears his throat.

"As you probably know, medical bills absorbed most of your parents' savings—"

"Excuse me," Jules pipes up. "Can we use English? I'm afraid my Chinese is a bit rusty."

The lawyer glances up at her, then back to his papers. "Certainly. As I was saying, most of your parents' savings were absorbed by medical bills during your mother's illness. In addition to that, your father refinanced your house at the time. The house and his remaining savings will now belong to you, Lianying." He hands Juliana a thin sheaf of papers.

We look over the summary on the first page. The numbers are decidedly unsexy. Dad was thrifty but not quite financially literate, and he had perfectly mistimed the housing market.

"We should sell it," Jules murmurs to me.

"Fortunately, that is not all," Peng interjects. "Your father also had a life insurance policy through the parent company of his restaurants." He hands Jules a thicker sheaf of papers, this one printed in Chinese.

Jules glances at me, then back to Peng. "Did you just say 'parent company'?"

The lawyer nods. "I recall that he said you might not know he did not own the restaurants. You see, there were other investors in the Happy Year Restaurant Company, people in Beijing who took on risk in the early years of the business. Vincent Li was the chief executive, and the company paid his salary."

"But Mr. Peng," Jules says, "our father always acted as the owner of those restaurants. He built each one of them, he designed the menus, and he trained all the managers and the chefs. What you're telling us—I can't even—it comes as a complete shock."

Mr. Peng's mouth forms a tight line. He removes his rimless glasses. "As you know, your father and I worked closely for many years, and I am intimately acquainted with his affairs. I can assure you that these arrangements are exactly as he intended. Please review the life insurance policy. It includes instructions for filing a claim."

With that, he stands up and bows to us once more.

My teacup is still half full, and I'm staring dumbly at the jasmine sediment. Taking the hint, Jules nudges me and stands up, too.

"We understand, Mr. Peng," she says coolly. "Thank you for your time."

As we pass through the waiting room, Peng takes me by the elbow and steers me aside. He pulls an envelope from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and hands it to me.

"This is something your father wanted you to have in the event of his death," he says. "Xiaozhou, I know you and your father were close, and this is a difficult time. Please rest assured that you and your sister have nothing to worry about."

Nothing to worry about. Parent company. The words enter through my ears, bypass my brain, and travel straight to my stomach, where they begin building little nests of confusion and anger.

"Thank you, Mr. Peng. We're just a little mixed up right now."

The lawyer smiles and waves his hand between our faces as if to whisk away any idea of a misunderstanding.

"Think nothing of it," he says.

Out in the heat on the other side of the tinted glass door, I follow Jules to her car. She puts the key in the ignition, but she doesn't turn it.

"What the hell was that?" she says.

"I don't know. It doesn't make any sense."

"A parent company. Just like Dad to fail to mention that for, like, our whole lives. Classic Asian parenting move."

She pulls the insurance policy out of her messenger bag. "Can you read this? My Chinese is so shitty."

I stare through her windshield, seeing nothing. "I'll do it later."

"Victor, this is important."

Important? The insurance policy is important? Last week Dad was alive, and now he's dead. Nothing to worry about. I want to demolish Mr. Peng's tea set, tear Jules's car apart with my fingers, my teeth. Instead I clench my jaw shut, lean my head back, and close my eyes. A raw silence fills the car until Jules quietly says, "Fine."

She starts the engine. I allow my eyes to fall open, gaze out the window. We cruise along Badillo Street, wide lanes lined first by single-story stores and offices, then by big houses and apartment buildings built too close to each other. The street is partially shaded by fan palms and holly oaks, the sentinels of planting strip and median, which seem to ignore our loss, or buffer it. And then we're back at the house Mom and Dad bought when we moved to the States, a sterile and carpeted subdivision McMansion with all the comfort and predictability of the slow deaths they'd both been denied. Porch swing, gas grill, big fish tank. Jules parks in the wide driveway next to my regal old sedan, a high school graduation present from Dad, its battery probably dead now after a winter of disuse. We let ourselves in and go cry in our own bedrooms, comforted by the proximity of the other, perhaps, but in no mood for company.

And then I remember. I pull out the envelope and tear it open.

Inside there is a thick plastic card with a hole punched in it, a thin leather cord running through the hole. Also attached to the cord is a small wrought-iron figurine of a monkey. The card is blank except for some scuff marks and a little round sticker. A sticker with the number 14 written on it in ballpoint pen.

I take another look at the envelope, and this time I notice Dad's tiny handwriting in one of the corners: "Chateau Happiness Spa, Temple City."


I call Andre for a ride, and he says he'll leave right away. Andre's been my best friend since the summer before seventh grade, when we met at a basketball camp. We weren't the two best players, but we were the two most intensely competitive, and our first matchup led to a tussle that might've ended in biting had the coaches not pulled us off of each other.

Basketball was the center of our sullen lives. We were those teased children compelled by fretful parents to bring home stellar report cards, craning our skinny necks on the fringes of middle school life, worrying the hems of our T-shirts with our fingers. In the absence of other diversions, we exhausted ourselves on the street in front of my house, playing H-O-R-S-E, bump, tips, crunch, and endless games of one-on-one. Then we went inside, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and resumed our endless deathmatch on my video game consoles.

Andre Osipenko didn't have a console, a tablet, a television in his room, or even a phone of his own. His parents ran a housekeeping service. Infertile immigrants from Warsaw, they adopted Andre when he was a runty two-year-old and seemed to live solely to feed him, to kiss him, to envelop him in warmth. But grade school tested their steely family bond. Being a shrimpy black kid with a Polish accent and steamed beef tongue in your Pokémon lunch box just wasn't a recipe for popularity. And Andre craved acceptance. He chafed against Lucjan and Halina's highly contagious uncoolness. For him, like me, the court was a refuge.

Then, during our first two years of high school, he stretched out to six feet ten and moved from shooting guard to center. And as he stretched, he mellowed. He became that slow-moving man-child in sweatpants and huge headphones. He still did his schoolwork if he was enjoying it, but he didn't read textbooks that bored him when he could be lifting weights, watching tape, or balancing on one foot with his eyes closed, visualizing made free throws. Or napping—he was always napping, about to nap, just finished with a nap.

If anything, Andre's growth spurt allowed us to grow closer, to complement each other better both on and off the court. We helped each other improve, watching hours of YouTube videos, dissecting Chris Paul's spin dribble and Chris Bosh's mid-post step-back. I know some people think I only got a basketball scholarship to San Dimas State University because of Andre, but I don't let that bother me. He wouldn't have set the district scoring record and been written up in Sports Illustrated our senior year of high school if I hadn't been tossing him all those pretty lobs.

Now, in our final season of college ball, Andre's leading the Cal-10 conference in points, rebounds, and blocks. He's got a separate phone just for the agents and pro scouts who shouldn't be calling him yet. As for me, I ride the pine behind Howie Miller, our bigger, faster, stronger starting point guard, even though he's a year behind us. At least I did until last week.

"So where did you say we're going?" Andre says as I climb into his Detroit-made truck, an aging juggernaut, hula girl on the dashboard. He's finishing one protein bar and unwrapping another. Andre hasn't treated me any differently in the past week, and someday I'll figure out how to thank him for that.

"A massage place in Temple City. Look at this. The lawyer gave it to me." I show him the contents of the envelope.

"What's with the monkey?"

"I dunno. Dad and I were both born in the Year of the Monkey."

"So what does that mean?"

"Monkeys are supposed to be clever and stubborn. If you believe in that sort of thing."

"Clever and stubborn, huh? Sounds like you on the court."

"It doesn't mean anything to me. Half the people I know were born in the same year. Including you, and all you do is dunk on people."

Andre splays his hand on his chest in mock indignation. "I'd like to think I dunk on people in an intelligent way."

Andre starts the truck, and Regime Change, his latest conscious hip-hop obsession, pounds out of his stereo system.

Hypocrite give a shit about material things

Fur collar, faux baller, illegitimate bling

When the shit hit the fan boy that ice don't swing

'Cause you can't see me and your bird can't sing

"So would you believe me if I told you that my dad didn't actually own any of his restaurants?"

"For real? I mean, your dad is those restaurants."

"That's what the lawyer just told us. Jules is worked up about it. But I can't muster two shits about anything. I can't think about anything but—" I grasp at something in the air with both hands. "I guess I'm still in shock."

"Well." Andre checks his mirrors, hops the curb to pull a sweeping U-turn. "I'm still in shock."

"He always said he had sold a restaurant back in China. We came here and he started setting up Happy Year right away. I never thought twice about it. We had an English tutor, and Jules went to private school. Turns out it wasn't his money. I mean, who shows up fresh off the boat from China with a fat wad of U.S. dollars?"

Andre contemplates this new fact. "I guess I always assumed it was your mother's inheritance or something."

I shake my head. "Her parents aren't dead, at least as far as I know. They run a megachurch in Missouri. They basically disowned her when she decided to marry Dad."

"Cuz he's Chinese?"


Andre lets out a low whistle.

"I thought I'd told you that before."

"Maybe you did and I forgot," Andre replies, nonchalant, as he coasts into the middle of two parking spots.

"Can you wait here?" I slide out of the car. "I'll be quick."

Chateau Happiness is another squat stucco establishment that shares its chunk of suburban sprawl with a Taiwanese shaved ice shop, a martial arts academy, and a travel agency. Cheaply printed posters advertising the spa's various services—massage, facial, reflexology—cover the windows completely. The Southern Californian sky above the short buildings is stupid azure blue, huge, breezy.

In the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday, the whole block seems deserted. Glancing from one empty storefront to another, I wonder how these places earn enough to stay in business. And then I see a guy standing in the window of the shaved ice shop: a slight Asian guy wearing a Lakers cap and a black T-shirt, standing halfway concealed by the window frame. Looking right at me. I glance around to see whether there's something worth viewing behind me, but it's all the same, the spectrum of worn taupes, tans, and asphalts of the San Gabriel Valley, without a soul in sight.

When I look back, the guy is gone.

I push through the door of Chateau Happiness into a shallow reception room with a desk, a watercooler, and some folding chairs. There are more posters on the walls: Chinese diagrams of the nervous system, the spine, the foot. There's a waist-high plastic fountain decorated with tiny bodhisattva figurines and colorful LED lights. The permed hair of the bespectacled woman behind the desk is dyed a light-suckingly matte shade of black.

"Massaji?" she says.

"Uh, no, thank you. I'm here because I found this." I pull out the cord and hand it to her. She peers at the card, then the monkey, then pulls off her glasses and examines the card more closely.

"Where you find this?" she demands.

"I—" But as I start to talk, a wave of pain crashes over my guts, and I shut my eyes for a second and put my hands on the desk to collect myself. "I'm sorry. It belonged to my father, Vincent Li. I mean, Li Renyan?"

Her face falls when she hears Dad's name. She heaves a sigh and cocks her head at a sympathetic angle. Then she rolls her wheely chair over to the beaded curtain beside the desk, sticks her head through, and hollers something in Cantonese.

"Ailan will help you," she says to me.

On cue, a petite woman in slippers, a fitted red V-neck, and silky white pajama pants slips through the beaded curtain. She looks a few years older than me, with clear, quite white skin and straight hair that falls nearly to her waist. The lady says something to her in Cantonese, and Ailan's curious smile turns into one of those sad faces I can't seem to avoid.

"Jiéāi—I'm sorry for your loss," she says to me in Mandarin. "Your dad was a really kind person." She has a cute southern Chinese accent to go with her cute southern Chinese everything else.

"It's okay," I reply, just to say something.

Ailan has me remove my shoes and don slippers of my own, and then she leads me down a dim, narrow hallway with dingy walls. She stops in front of an unmarked door.

"This is the VIP changing room. Your father's things are in there."

As she turns to go, her words replay in my head—her voice, her tone—and something makes me wonder who it was that she knew as Vincent Li, and how well she knew him.

"Ailan? Did my dad come here a lot?"

She turns back to give me a tight-lipped smile and a one-shoulder shrug.

"Yeah," she says in English, and then she walks away.

On Sale
Jul 23, 2019
Page Count
320 pages