Xi Ping

"I don’t suppose there's any chance they really don't know who you are," I say. Xi Ping sighs in frustration. "No, no," he says, "they absolutely know it's me."

"Because," I say, "you might be able to bring some copies of your books with you to show the customs authorities your picture printed on the covers."

"That's not the issue," he says. "They definitely know who I am. They've decided not to let me travel outside the country."

"Couldn't you just call your publishers?" I say. "Email? Text? Write them a letter?"

He shakes his head. "I've already told you, they've cut me off. I mean completely. Nothing gets through. I'm two weeks late for the book tour already, but nobody out in the world knows what's become of me. God knows what they’re thinking. Please. Please. I really need you…I really need someone to take this out for me." He holds the letter out to me again. The way he’s standing over me makes me uncomfortable. I get up and move around the hotel room.

"Look," he says, "I'm really sorry to have to involve a total stranger in all this. But that's why you should be perfectly safe. They won't suspect you. No connection."

"I sure don't want to end up like that Warmbeer kid," I say.

"That was North Korea, not China," he says.

"They're all Communists," I say.

"A whole different situation," he says. "North Korea only exports to China—nothing to lose. But if China starts arresting and torturing random Western businesspeople, they'll put their whole export economy at risk."

"Just my luck to be the one exception," I say.

Xi Ping is silent for a moment. He puts the letter back in the inside pocket of his suit coat. "Okay," he says, "would you at least contact my publishers when you get home? You don't have to carry anything. No evidence. Just email or call—whatever you're comfortable with—to let them know you saw me and I'm being detained: I have no idea why or for how long. Could you at least do that for me? You don’t even have to reveal your identity."

"What if the authorities figure out you've contacted me?" I say.

"They won't. I promise you: I've been exceptionally careful."

"I'm sure you have," I say, "but they’ve got their ways. They know a hell of a lot more than we think. And what if they arrest me at the airport and put me on a lie detector or, I don't know, shoot me up with some kind of truth serum? Or just torture the hell out of me till I confess?"

"I've told you," he says, "none of that is going to happen." He thinks for a second, then says, "How about this? Suppose I don't even tell you how to get in touch with my publishers? That way, even if they do torture you, which they won't, you'll know nothing. I won't even tell you what company publishes my stuff? All right? So then when you get home, all you have to do is Google me, find out who my publishers are, get their contact information, and let them know."

I walk over to the window and finger the pink curtains. Outside, Shanghai spreads toward the Pacific, which looms dark blue in the distance.

"What if they find out?" I say. "This is my career. I might need to come back some day. And they'd be waiting."

"Okay," he says, exhausted. "I get it. Look. Forget the whole thing. All right? Forget you ever saw me. Forget I asked. Can you manage that?" Before I can respond, he adds, "Have a good life." He strides to the door, cracks it, peers down the hall in both directions, and slips out, closing the door silently behind him.

I stare at the door, stunned. Xi Ping. I actually met Xi Ping, the world-famous author. Too bad I don't have any evidence of our meeting: no selfies, no signed copies of his books, not even a business card. Still, decades from now, after he's dead, this will be a story to tell my grandchildren.

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