“Damn bureaucrats!” he said slamming down the phone. “They can’t run a project to save themselves but they want to tell me how to run mine! Why can’t they just leave me alone to do what I need to do?”
“What’s wrong Mr Bob?” asked Stephanie, his Chinese secretary.
“Bloody Ministry of Forestry in Beijing again. Can’t stop sticking their fingers into everything. Worse than the bloody Asian Development Bank and the World Bank put together!”
He rubbed his chest. Damned indigestion. He popped a pill from his top drawer. He’d barely got back from a big lunch with the local ministry officials when the phone had rung from their bosses in Beijing. He’d thought he’d fobbed them off but obviously not. He’d have to get them drunker next time. Maybe he would have to get more creative.
His mobile rang. He recognised the number. Sydney. “Hi darling, how are you?…..How’s the kids?”
Stephanie looked away.
“That’s great…..” His wife rang almost daily with updates, and to ask him when he was coming home. She seemed to be getting antsy, or maybe a little suspicious.
“I’ll do my best honey. I’ve got to finish this stage 2 report. Then I can come back for a couple of months while the AusAID review it and make themselves feel needed. …..Ok love you too.”
He looked at Stephanie again.
He was forty eight, overweight and unfit, but still handsome enough to attract younger women. Stephanie was half his age, pretty, enthusiastic in bed, and she actually seemed to care about him.
He watched her trying to look busy at her desk. He didn’t think of it as being unfaithful or going behind his wife’s back. It was different over here. It felt like he had two separate lives. Here he drank and smoked as much as he wanted and bedded the secretary several times a week. He preferred younger women.
Back home he was quite different. Ok, he still drank, but he was a good husband and father, when he was there. His wife and kids seemed to think so anyway, mostly.
He turned his head and looked out the window. Grey thunderclouds loomed over the drab, ugly skyline. It was a dusty, polluted provincial capital in northern China and tried hard to look prosperous, but drive an hour in any direction to the hills and you saw enough poverty and environmental degradation to keep a development consultant employed for years. And he had been. First in Thailand, then Cambodia, Vietnam. For some reason China had sucked him in and didn’t want to let go. He loved the food, the culture, the cheap booze and cigarettes, and, he had to admit, the women.
Bob’s eyes roamed over the grimy white tiled building opposite topped with huge incongruous billboards advertising jewellery, cars and other stuff most the people in the city couldn’t afford. He turned back to his computer and sent an email to Stephanie. Can you come to the hotel tonight, for dinner and …?
She replied quickly. Sorry, my mother make me meet some boy. Maybe lunch tomorrow?
He nodded to her when she turned to look at him. He looked at his inbox. Fifteen unread emails since before lunch. Just stop hassling me so I can get on with it, for goodness sake.
Boss from development consulting company – Almost feel he wants me off the job. New guy just trying to impress, or maybe get one of his mates in?
AusAID project case manager – Demanding the draft report again. Two months late blah blah. If not for me it would be much worse. Stop changing the rules will ya…
Local official – complaining again about the amount of land involved. They were scared the project would cut their timber kickbacks. Less money for banquets, booze and massages…The project was replanting trees on denuded and eroding hillsides, plus some agricultural improvements to offset the farmer’s drop in income. He had got the locals on board, they could see the damage to their land, but the officials weren’t so keen.
Justin Greenwood – Hmmmpf. He opened the email. “Hi Bob, Hope things are going well. Just wondering if you can give me an update. I’m in Beijing now and I’m keen to know when I can start on the project. Best regards, Justin.” Justin was a young guy who wanted to get into the international development business. He had good qualifications and some volunteer experience in Africa, even spoke some Chinese. Getting in was tough though. He reminded him of a former self, still idealistic, full of enthusiasm, out to save the world.
As team leader he was able to get his own people on projects, as long as the AusAID or whoever was happy with the team as a whole. He’d promised the kid he’d get him on the project to get a few months experience. Trouble was the new project manager wouldn’t let him. The jerk only wanted his own people on the job, even though they knew nothing about China. He’d tried to think of ways to get around it but it just wasn’t going to happen.
He felt sorry for him. He didn’t like to break his word. But he had to learn that this industry was not as nicey nicey as he thought it was. Most projects were one step forward, half a step back, if they went well. More likely one step forward and one back. Sometimes, and he had a bad feeling about this one, it was two steps back and whole lot of grief.
He clicked ‘block sender’. Sorry mate. Go and teach English for a while or something. He wondered for a moment when he stopped being one of the good guys. Then he turned to his more pressing problems.

The next morning he had a ten minute shouting match with the project manager. He was flying up from Sydney next week to “sort things out.” Shit. Got to get this report done before then.
The AusAid contact in Canberra rang too, wasting another half an hour. I’m doing my best to get a good result for the government’s money. Give me a break here…
Then he’d read a draft report from one of the technical experts and spent two hours rewriting it. “Effing drongo.”
He looked at his watch. Almost lunch. Stephanie was looking at him out of the corner of her eye, her hand playing with the expensive gold bangles he had given her a couple of months before. Nothing comes for free here.
He nodded at her and headed for the door. “I’m out for lunch.” he announced to the rest of the office.
He walked to his hotel a few blocks away along crumbling uneven footpaths. The dull humid air wrapped around him, sweat stains sprouted under his arms.
He rode the lift to his floor and left the door to his room slightly ajar. Stephanie joined him a discreet fifteen minutes later carrying some takeaway food in plastic bags. She filled him in on the office gossip while they ate then closed the curtains, undressed and slipped into bed.
Soon she was lying beneath him moaning as he thrust into her. He loved the way she responded so well to his efforts.
There was a click and the door opened quietly. Suddenly there was flash, then another and another, blinding him. “What the..??!!”
Stephanie screamed.
“Shit, sorry.” the figure said then left the room. The door closed again with a click. Bob withdrew from Stephanie and sat on the bed rubbing his eyes to get rid of the lights bursting in his vision.
Who was that? Who sent them? A damn set up! What did he say? “Shit, sorry.” A foreigner? Must be sent by that arsehole from the consulting company. Nice touch using the old Chinese honey-pot trick. He knows more about China than I thought.
“You bitch!” he shouted at Stephanie. “You set me up!”
“No. no.” She pulled the sheet up to cover herself. “Not me, Mr Bob, not me.” She burst into tears.
“Bloody hell.”
If not the boss then who? AusAid? No way. Not their style. The ministry? The locals wouldn’t use a foreigner. And why bother. They get their cut regardless of who is team leader. Maybe the local government protecting their revenues? He’d give them as good as he got. They were hardly boy scouts. His wife? Surely not. No, she didn’t know anyone here to organise such a thing. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense!
“Shit, shit, shit!” He shouted. He rubbed his chest. Damned indigestion. He groped for his pills before he remembered they were still in the office.
Stephanie’s eyes widened, “Mr Bob, you ok?”
He pressed his hand to his chest again. His arm felt strange now too. He looked at her with glazed eyes. “Call an ambulance.” he said and slumped to the floor.