BEIJING CAPITAL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
SEPTEMBER 9, 2012, 7:45 P.M.
“Wait a minute—I’m in first class. Take me to first class,” Edison Cheng said contemptuously to the flight attendant escorting him to his seat.
“This is first class, Mr. Cheng,” the man in the crisp navy uniform informed him.
“But where are the cabins?” Eddie asked, still confused.
“Mr. Cheng, I’m afraid British Airways does not have private cabins in first class.*1 But if you’d allow me to show you some of the special features of your seat—”
“No, no, that’s fine.” Eddie tossed his ostrich leather briefcase onto the seat like a petulant schoolboy. Fucky fuck—the sacrifices I have to make for the bank today! Edison Cheng, the pampered “Prince of Private Bankers”—famous in Hong Kong society pages for his bon vivant lifestyle, his dapper wardrobe, his elegant wife (Fiona), his photogenic children, and his superb lineage (his mother is Alexandra Young, of the Singapore Youngs)—was unaccustomed to such inconveniences. Five hours ago he had been interrupted during a luncheon at the Hong Kong Club, rushed aboard the company jet bound for Beijing, and then hustled onto this flight to London. It had been years since he had suffered the indignity of flying commercial, but Mrs. Bao was on this godforsaken plane, and Mrs. Bao needed to be accommodated.
But where exactly was the lady? Eddie expected to find her seated nearby, but the chief purser informed him that there was no such person by that name in the cabin.
“No, no, she’s supposed to be here. Can you check the flight manifest or something?” Eddie demanded.
Minutes later, Eddie found himself being led to row 37, seat E of the aircraft—economy class—where a petite woman in a white vicuña turtleneck and gray flannel slacks sat sandwiched between two passengers.
“Mrs. Bao? Bao Shaoyen?” Eddie inquired in Mandarin.
The woman looked up and smiled wanly. “Are you Mr. Cheng?”
“Yes. So glad to meet you, but I’m sorry we had to meet like this.” Eddie smiled in relief. He had spent the past eight years managing the Bao family’s offshore accounts, but they were such a secretive lot, he had never met any of them until today. Even though she looked rather tired at the moment, Bao Shaoyen was much prettier than he had imagined. With alabaster skin, large eyes that slanted upward at the edges, and high cheekbones accentuated by the way she wore her jet-black hair—pulled into a tight, low ponytail—she did not look old enough to have a son in grad school.
“Why are you seated here? Was there some mix-up?” Eddie asked urgently.
“No, I always fly economy class,” Mrs. Bao replied.
Eddie couldn’t hide his look of surprise. Mrs. Bao’s husband, Bao Gaoliang, was one of Beijing’s top politicians, and what’s more, he had inherited one of China’s biggest pharmaceutical firms. The Baos weren’t just one of his regular clients; they were his ultra-high-net-worth clients.
“Only my son flies first class,” Bao Shaoyen explained, catching Eddie’s look. “Carlton can eat all the fancy Western food and, being a student under so much pressure, he needs all the rest he can get. But for me, it’s not worth it. I don’t touch airplane food, and I can never sleep on these long flights anyway.”
Eddie had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. Typical Mainlanders! They lavished every penny on their Little Emperor and suffered in silence. Well, look where that got them. Twenty-three-year-old Carlton Bao was supposed to be at Cambridge finishing his master’s dissertation, but had instead spent the previous evening doing his best Prince Harry impersonation—running up a £38,000 bar tab at half a dozen London nightspots, wrecking his brand-new Ferrari, destroying public property, and almost getting himself killed. And that wasn’t even the worst of it. The worst of it Eddie had been explicitly instructed not to reveal to Bao Shaoyen.
Eddie faced a conundrum. He urgently needed to go over the plans with Mrs. Bao, but he would sooner endure a colonoscopy than spend the next eleven hours slumming it in coach. God in heaven, what if someone recognized him? A picture of Edison Cheng crammed into an economy-class seat would go viral within seconds. Yet Eddie grudgingly realized that it would be unseemly for one of his bank’s most important clients to remain here in steerage while he was up front, stretched out on a flatbed recliner, sipping twenty-year-old cognac. He eyed the spiky-haired youth slouching dangerously close to Mrs. Bao on one side, and the elderly woman clipping her nails into the air sickness bag on her other side, a solution springing to mind.
Lowering his voice, Eddie said, “Mrs. Bao, I would of course be happy to join you in this cabin, but as there are some highly confidential matters we need to discuss, would you allow me to arrange a seat for you up front? I’m certain the bank would insist that I upgrade you to first class—at our expense, of course—and we will be able to talk much more privately there.”
“Well, I suppose—if the bank insists,” Bao Shaoyen replied a little hesitantly.
After takeoff, when aperitifs had been served and they were both comfortably ensconced in the sumptuous, pod-like seats facing each other, Eddie wasted no time updating his client.
“Mrs. Bao, I was in contact with London just before boarding. Your son has been stabilized. The surgery to repair his punctured spleen was completely successful, and now the orthopedic team can take over.”
“Oh thank all the gods.” Bao Shaoyen sighed, easing back in her seat for the first time.
“We’ve already lined up the top reconstructive plastic surgeon in London—Dr. Peter Ashley—and he will be in the operating room alongside the orthopedic team attending to your son.”
“My poor boy,” Bao Shaoyen said, her eyes getting moist.
“Your son was very lucky.”
“And the British girl?”
“The girl is still in surgery. But I’m sure she will pull through just fine,” Eddie said, putting on his peppiest smile.
• • •
Barely thirty minutes earlier, Eddie had been on another plane parked in a private hangar at Beijing Capital International Airport, taking in the grim details during a hastily arranged crisis-management meeting with Mr. Tin, the gray-haired head of security for the Bao family, and Nigel Tomlinson, his bank’s Asia chief. The two men had climbed aboard the Learjet as soon as it landed, huddling over Nigel’s laptop while an associate in London gave the latest update via secure-feed videoconference.