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A woman FBI agent tracks a book thief who targets special collections and rare manuscripts across the Midwest. The thief, an aging former academic, is "managed" by two dangerous Russian thugs.
Tough, linguistically gifted Annie Cheng has just turned 40 and her life and career are going downhill fast. Her husband wants a divorce. Her latest partner wants a transfer, and her bosses at the FBI headquarters in Manhattan have grown weary of her. Despite solving cases in Brighton Beach (nexus of Russian mafiya), she’s been posted to Cleveland, Ohio, and given a low-level case—or so she thinks at first. Someone has been stealing priceless books and illustrations from rare book collections in public and university libraries all across the Midwest. With millions of dollars of the world’s cultural history being sold on the black market, it’s only a matter of time before the stakes are raised to a more violent enterprise.
Prologue: Forty-thousand feet above the Finger Lakes . . .
The man occupying the window seat finally gave up trying to make conversation with her, which consisted entirely of his bragging about his software ventures in Prescott, Arizona and new house in Lake Tahoe. At last he cranked back his seat and burrowed his head into the mini-pillow the airlines provided, grumbling about the “crappy service” of today’s air travel.
As a schoolgirl strolling along the Wang Pu, she had come across an old man from the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province. He wore a faded Mao jacket and cap and moaned to the indifferent passersby he had been rudely cheated by a young man in the Bund who had sold him a “broken water machine.” He held up a rusted-out spigot as proof. He had seen water pouring out of these everywhere he went, he said, and he wanted to take one of these magic machines back to his village. She wondered what that old man would have thought of her hurtling through frigid skies five miles up at four-hundred miles an hour while sheathed in nothing more than a shiny aluminum tube with padded seats.
Long enough. She had waited long enough . . . It was time to open it.
An hour earlier she had almost torn the envelope flap open while awaiting her boarding call at JFK, but discipline was her forte and so she tucked it inside her handbag while desultory fragments of cell-phone conversations drifted past. As much as she traveled, she had learned to take the tedium of modern airports in stride. Concourses like this one, awash in a forced jollity of bright colors as faceless people sat in plastic chairs with cell phones clamped to their ears, were a necessary part of it. Airports brought out a primal need for connection to people in transit.
She knew when it arrived it was a birthday card; after all, it was her fortieth and Reggie had never missed a birthday no matter where she was or happened to be in the world at that time. She tried to recall the last time they were actually in close proximity on her birthday—four years? No, five. Not that it mattered anymore, she realized. Even the strongest, most hurtful memories had been shredded to mere tatters by time now.
She opened it. A Hallmark Greeting card festooned with roses along the border. Her least favorite flower, as if Reggie would ever have asked, a feat not to be contemplated; from their first days of courtship onwards through marriage, he had always implied that, au contraire to his every other modern sensibility, that his tastes were hers, if she would only take the time to realize it. On their honeymoon at the Drake in San Francisco, he had criticized her shoes and that was the beginning of the end. Inside the card she found the expected platitude, which she doubted Reggie had even bothered to read; he once sent her a Mother’s Day card by mistake. All that mattered was enough white space so that he could compose his thoughts and express his feelings—mostly about himself at that moment.
She read the lines scrawled at the bottom in his handwriting. She used to infuriate him by correcting his schoolboy Mandarin and his atrocious French accent. Typical of his ego, too, that that he didn’t bother to credit Rabandrath Tagore. That was the trouble, she thought. She saw everything by the light of death nowadays—her career, her marriage, her aging—and it was eating her heart.
Special Agent Annie Cheng, forty years and some minutes old, was being whisked across the skies far from her beloved apartment overlooking the Guggenheim. She had fallen in love with New York the moment she took her first wild taxi ride through the Upper East Side. The driver’s name on the ID tag clipped to the visor said Sutin Lathi—Thai, she guessed, but his features belied it.
She had a hunch and tried out a few words in Bisu, spoken in the way her linguist father tried to teach her with the rapid fricatives and glottal stops. The driver whipped his head around so fast he sent a bike messenger careering into a knot of pedestrians. He studied her in the mirror and then broke into a huge smile that showed blackened teeth. Their conversation, however, was one-sided because her vocabulary was limited to the words of greeting she spoke.