/ Language: English / Genre:det_police, / Series: Inspector Chen Cao

Death of a Red Heroine

Qiu Xiaolong


Death of a Red Heroine

Qiu Xiaolong

Chapter 1

The body was found at 4:40 P.M., on May 11, 1990, in Baili Canal, an out-of-the-way canal, about twenty miles to the west of Shanghai.

Standing beside the body, Gao Ziling, captain of the Vanguard, spat vigorously on the damp ground three times-a half-hearted effort to ward off the evil spirits of the day, a day that had begun with a long-anticipated reunion between two friends who had been separated for more than twenty years.

It was coincidental that the Vanguard, a patrol boat of the Shanghai River Security Department, should have ventured all the way into Baili around 1:30 P.M. Normally it did not go anywhere close to that area. The unusual trip had been suggested by Liu Guoliang, an old friend whom Gao had not seen for twenty years. They had been high-school buddies. After leaving school in the early sixties, Gao started to work in Shanghai, but Liu had gone to a college in Beijing, and afterward, to a nuclear test center in Qinghai Province. During the Cultural Revolution they had lost touch. Now Liu had a project under review by an American company in Shanghai, and he had taken a day off to meet with Gao. Their reunion after so long a time was a pleasant event, to which each of them had been looking forward.

It took place by the Waibaidu Bridge, where the Suzhou River and the Huangpu River met with a dividing line visible in the sunlight. The Suzhou, even more heavily polluted than the Huangpu, looked like a black tarpaulin in sharp contrast to the clear blue sky. The river stank despite the pleasant summer breeze. Gao kept apologizing; a better place should have been chosen for the occasion. The Mid-Lake Teahouse in Shanghai Old City, for instance. An afternoon over an exquisite set of teacups and saucers, where they would have so much to talk about, with lambent pipa and sanxun music in the background. However, Gao had been obliged to remain on board the Vanguard all day; no one had wanted to take over his shift.

Looking at the muddy water, with its burden of rubbish-plastic bottles, empty beer cans, flattened containers, and cigarette boxes-Liu suggested they go somewhere else in the boat to fish. The river had changed beyond the two old friends’ recognition, but they themselves had not changed that much. Fishing was a passion they had shared in their high-school days.

“I’ve missed the taste of crucian carp in Qinghai,” Liu confessed.

Gao jumped at the suggestion. He could easily explain going downstream as a routine trip. Also, it would display his power as captain. So he suggested Baili, a canal off the Suzhou River, about seventy miles south of the Waibaidu Bridge as a destination. It was yet untouched by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, far from any main road, with the nearest village a couple of miles away. But getting there by water was not easy. Once they passed the Oriental Refinery looming above Wusong the passage grew narrower, and at times it was so shallow it was hardly navigable. They had to push away trailing branches, but after an arduous struggle, they finally reached a dark stretch of water obscured by tall weeds and shrubs.

Fortunately, Baili turned out to be as wonderful as Gao had promised. It was small, but with no shortage of water thanks to the past month’s heavy rain. The fish flourished there since it was relatively unpolluted. As soon as they flipped out the lures, they could feel bites. Soon they were busy retrieving their lines. Fish kept jumping out of the water, landing in the boat, jerking and gasping.

“Look at this one,” Liu said, pointing out a fish twitching at his feet. “More than a pound.”

“Great,” Gao said. “You’re bringing us luck today.”

The next minute, Gao, too, dug the hook out of a half-pound bass with his thumbnail.

Happily, he recast his line with a practiced flick of his wrist. Before he had reeled it halfway back to the boat, something gave his line another terrific tug. The rod arched, and a huge carp exploded into the sunlight.

They did not have much time to talk. Time flashed backward as silver scales danced in the golden sun. Twenty minutes-or twenty years. They were back in the good old days. Two high-school students sitting side by side, talking, drinking, and angling, the whole world dangling on their lines.

“How much does a pound of crucian carp sell for?” Liu asked, holding another one in his hand. “One this size?”

“Thirty Yuan at least, I’d say.”

“So I’ve already got more than four pounds. About a hundred Yuan worth, right?” Liu said. “We’ve been here only an hour, and I’ve hauled in more than a week’s salary.”

“You’re kidding!” Gao said, pulling a bluegill off his hook. “A nuclear engineer with your reputation!”

“No, it’s a fact. I should have been a fisherman, angling south of the Yangtze River,” Liu said, shaking his head. “In Qinghai we often go for months without a taste of fish.”

Liu had worked for twenty years in a desert area, where the local peasants observed a time-honored tradition of serving a fish carved from wood in celebration of the Spring Festival since the Chinese character for “fish” can also mean “surplus,” a lucky sign for the coming year. Its taste might be forgotten, but not the tradition.

“I cannot believe it,” Gao said indignantly. “The great scientist making nuclear bombs earns less than the petty peddlers making tea-leaf eggs. What a shame!”

“It’s the market economy,” Liu said. “The country is changing in the right direction. And the people have a better life.”

“But that’s unfair, I mean, for you.”

“Well, I don’t have too much to complain of nowadays. Can you guess why I did not write to you during the Cultural Revolution?”

“No. Why?”

“I was criticized as a bourgeois intellectual and locked up in a cell for a year. After I was released, I was still considered ‘politically black,’ so I did not want to incriminate you.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Gao said, “but you should have let me know. My letters were returned. I should have guessed.”

“It’s all over,” Liu said, “and here we are, together, fishing for our lost years.”

“Tell you what,” Gao said, eager to change the subject, “we’ve got enough to make an excellent soup.”

“A wonderful soup-Wow, another!” Liu was reeling in a thrashing perch-well over a foot long.

“My old wife is no intellectual, but she’s pretty good at making fish soup. Add a few slices of Jinhua bacon, throw in a pinch of black pepper and a handful of green onion. Oh, what a soup.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

“You’re no stranger to her. I’ve shown your picture to her frequently.”

“Yes, but it’s twenty years old,” Liu said. “How can she recognize me from a high-school picture? Remember He Zhizhang’s famous line? ‘My dialect is not changed, but my hair has turned gray.’”

“Mine, too,” Gao said.

They were ready to go back now.

Gao returned to the wheel. But the engine shuddered with a grinding sound. He tried full throttle. The exhaust at the rear spurted black fumes, but the boat did not move an inch. Scratching his head, Captain Gao turned to his friend with an apologetic gesture. He was unable to understand the problem. The canal was small but not shallow. The propeller, protected by the rudder, could not have scraped bottom. Something might have caught in it-a torn fishing net or a loose cable. The former was rather unlikely. The canal was too narrow for fishermen to cast nets there. But if the latter was the cause of the trouble, it would be hard to disentangle it to free the propeller.

He turned off the engine and jumped onto the shore. He still failed to see anything amiss, so he started feeling about in the muddy water with a long bamboo stick which he had bought for his wife to use as a clothesline on their balcony. After a few minutes, he touched something under the boat.

It felt like a soft object, rather large, heavy.

Taking off his shirt and pants, he stepped down into the water. He got hold of it in no time. It took him several minutes, however, to tug it through the water, and up onto the shore.

It was a huge black plastic bag.

There was a string tied around the neck of the bag. Untying it cautiously, he leaned down to look within.

“Holy-hell!” he cursed.

“What?”

“Look at this. Hair!”

Leaning over, Liu also gasped.

It was the hair of a dead, naked woman.

With Liu’s help, Gao took the body out of the bag and laid it on its back on the ground.

She could not have been in the water too long. Her face, though slightly swollen, was recognizably young and good looking. A wisp of green rush was woven into her coil of black hair. Her body was ghastly white, with slack breasts and heavy thighs. Her pubic hair was black and wet.

Gao hurried back into the boat, took out a worn blanket, and threw it over her. That was all he could think of doing for the moment. He then broke the bamboo pole in two. It was a pity, but it would bring bad luck now. He could not bear the thought of his wife hanging their clothes over it, day in, day out.

“What shall we do?” Liu said.

“There’s nothing we can do. Don’t touch anything. Leave the body alone until the police come.”

Gao took out his cellular phone. He hesitated before dialing the number of the Shanghai Police Bureau. He would have to write a report. It would have to describe the way he had found the body, but first of all, he would have to account for being there, at that time of day, with Liu on board. While supposedly working his shift, he was having a good time with his friend, fishing and drinking. But he would have to tell the truth. He had no choice, he concluded, dialing.

“Detective Yu Guangming, special case squad,” a voice answered.

“I am Captain Gao Ziling, of the Vanguard, Shanghai River Security Department. I am reporting a homicide. A body was discovered in Baili Canal. A young female body.”

“Where is Baili Canal?”

“West of Qingpu. Past Shanghai Number Two Paper Mill. About seven or eight miles from it.”

“Hold on,” Detective Yu said. “Let me see who is available.”

Captain Gao grew nervous as the silence at the other end of the line was prolonged.

“Another murder case was reported after four thirty,” Detective Yu finally said. “Everybody is out of the office now. Even Chief Inspector Chen. But I’m on my way. You know enough not to mess things up, I assume. Wait there for me.”

Gao glanced at his watch. It would take at least two hours for the detective to reach them. Not to mention the time he would have to spend with him after that. Both Liu and he would be required as witnesses, then probably would have to go to the police station to make their statements as well.

The weather was quite pleasant, the temperature mild, the white clouds moving idly across the sky. He saw a dark toad jumping into a crevice among the rocks, the gray spot contrasting with the bone-white rocks. A toad, too, could be an evil omen. He spat on the ground again. He had already forgotten how many times this made.

Even if they could manage to get back home for dinner, the fish would have been long dead. A huge difference for the soup.

“I’m so sorry,” Gao apologized. “I should have chosen another place.”

“As our ancient sage says, ‘Eight or nine out of ten times, things will go wrong in this world of ours’,” Liu replied with renewed equanimity. “It’s nobody’s fault.”

As he spat again, Gao observed the dead woman’s feet sticking out of the blanket. White, shapely feet, with arched soles, well-formed toes, scarlet-painted nails.

And then he saw the glassy eyes of a dead carp afloat on the surface of the bucket. For a second, he felt as if the fish were staring at him, unblinking; its belly appeared ghastly white, swollen.

“We won’t forget the day of our reunion,” Liu remarked.

Chapter 2

At four thirty that day, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, head of the special case squad, Homicide Division, Shanghai Police Bureau, did not know anything about the case.

It was a sweltering Friday afternoon. Occasionally cicadas could be heard chirping on a poplar tree outside the window of his new one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a gray-brick building. From the window, he could look out to the busy traffic moving slowly along Huaihai Road, but at a desirable, noiseless distance. The building was conveniently located near the center of the Luwan district. It took him less than twenty minutes to walk to Nanjing Road in the north, or to the City God’s Temple in the south, and on a clear summer night, he could smell the tangy breeze from the Huangpu River.

Chief Inspector Chen should have stayed at the office, but he found himself alone in his apartment, working on a problem. Reclining on a leather-covered couch, his outstretched legs propped on a gray swivel chair, he was studying a list on the first page of a small notepad. He scribbled a few words and then crossed them out, looking out the window. In the afternoon sunlight, he saw a towering crane silhouetted against another new building about a block away. The apartment complex had not been completed yet.

The problem confronting the chief inspector, who had just been assigned an apartment, was his housewarming party. Obtaining a new apartment in Shanghai was an occasion calling for a celebration. He himself was greatly pleased. On a moment’s impulse, he had sent out invitations. Now he was considering how he would entertain his guests. It would not do to just have a homely meal, as Lu, nicknamed Overseas Chinese, had warned him. For such an occasion, there had to be a special banquet.

Once more he studied the names on the party list. Wang Feng, Lu Tonghao and his wife Ruru, Zhou Kejia and his wife Liping. The Zhous had telephoned earlier to say that they might not be able to come due to a meeting at East China Normal University. Still, he’d better prepare for all of them.

The telephone on the filing cabinet rang. He went over and picked up the receiver.

“Chen’s residence.”

“Congratulations, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen!” Lu said. “Ah, I can smell the wonderful smell in your new kitchen.”

“You’d better not be calling to say you’re delayed, Overseas Chinese Lu. I’m counting on you.”

“Of course we are coming. It’s only that the beggar’s chicken needs a few more minutes in the oven. The best chicken in Shanghai, I guarantee. Nothing but Yellow Mountains pine needles used to cook it, so you’ll savor its special flavor. Don’t worry. We wouldn’t miss your housewarming party for the world, you lucky fellow.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t forget to put some beer in your refrigerator. And glasses, too. It’ll make a huge difference.”

“I’ve put in half a dozen bottles already. Qingdao and Bud. And the Shaoxing rice wine will not be warmed until the moment of your arrival, right?”

“Now you may count yourself as half a gourmet. More than half, perhaps. You’re certainly learning fast.”

The comment was pure Lu. Even from the other end of line, Chen could hear in Lu’s voice his characteristic excitement over the prospect of a dinner. Lu seldom talked for a couple of minutes without bringing the conversation around to his favorite subject-food.

“With Overseas Chinese Lu as my instructor, I should be making some progress.”

“I’ll give you a new recipe tonight, after the party,” Lu said. “What a piece of luck, dear Comrade Chief Inspector! Your great ancestors must have been burning bundles of tall incense to the Fortune God. And to the Kitchen God, too.”

“Well, my mother has been burning incense, but to what particular god, I don’t know.”

“Guanyin, I know. I once saw her kowtow to a clay image-it must be more than ten years ago-and I asked her about it.”

In Lu’s eyes, Chief Inspector Chen had fallen into Fortune’s lap-or that of whatever god in Chinese mythology had brought him luck. Unlike most people of his generation, though an “educated youth” who had graduated from high school, Chen was not sent to the countryside “to be reeducated by poor and lower-middle peasants” in the early seventies. As an only child, he had been allowed to stay in the city, where he had studied English on his own. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chen entered Beijing Foreign Language College with a high English score on the entrance examination and then obtained a job at the Shanghai Police Bureau. And now there was another demonstration of Chen’s good luck. In an overpopulated city like Shanghai, with more than thirteen million people, the housing shortage was acute. Still, he had been assigned a private apartment.

The housing problem had a long history in Shanghai. A small fishing village during the Ming dynasty, Shanghai had developed into one of the most prosperous cities in the Far East, with foreign companies and factories appearing like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, and people pouring in from everywhere. Residential housing failed to keep pace under the rule of the Northern warlords and Nationalist governments. When the Communists took power in 1949, the situation took an unexpected turn for the worse. Chairman Mao encouraged large families, even to the extent of providing food subsidies and free nurseries. It did not take long for the disastrous consequences to be felt. Families of two or three generations were squeezed into one single room of twelve square meters. Housing soon became a burning issue for people’s “work units”-factories, companies, schools, hospitals, or the police bureau-which were assigned an annual housing quota directly from the city authorities. It was up to the work units to decide which employee would get an apartment. Chen’s satisfaction came in part from the fact that he had obtained the apartment through his work unit’s special intervention.

Preparing for the housewarming party, slicing a tomato for a side dish, he recalled singing a song while he stood beneath the portrait of Chairman Mao in his elementary school, a song that had been so popular in the sixties-”The Party’s Concern Warms My Heart.” There was no portrait of Chairman Mao in this apartment.

It was not luxurious. There was no real kitchen, only a narrow corridor containing a couple of gas burners tucked into the corner, with a small cabinet hanging on the wall above. No real bathroom either: a cubicle large enough for just a toilet seat and a cement square with a stainless-steel shower head. Hot water was out of the question. There was, however, a balcony that might serve as a storeroom for wicker trunks, repairable umbrellas, rusted brass spittoons, or whatever could not be decently squeezed inside the room. But he did not have such things, so he had put only a plastic folding chair and a few bookshelf boards on the balcony.

The apartment was good enough for him.

There had been some complaining in the bureau about his privileges . To those with longer years of service or larger families who remained on the waiting list, Chief Inspector Chen’s recent acquisition was another instance of the unfair new cadre policy, he knew. But he decided not to think about those unpleasant complaints at the moment. He had to concentrate on the evening’s menu.

He had only limited experience in preparing for a party. With a cookbook in his hand, he focused on those recipes designated easy-to-make. Even those took considerable time, but one colorful dish after another appeared on the table, adding a pleasant mixture of aromas to the room.

By ten to six he had finished setting the table. He rubbed his hands, quite pleased with the results of his efforts. For the main dishes, there were chunks of pork stomach on a bed of green napa, thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai, and steamed peeled shrimp with tomato sauce. There was also a platter of eels with scallions and ginger, which he had ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork, and added some green vegetables to it to make another dish. On the side, he placed a small dish of sliced tomatoes, and another of cucumbers. When the guests arrived, a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle.

He was selecting a pot in which to warm the Shaoxing wine when the doorbell rang.

Wang Feng, a young reporter from the Wenhui Daily, one of China’s most influential newspapers, was the first to arrive. Attractive, young, and intelligent, she seemed to have all the makings of a successful reporter. But at the moment she did not have her black leather briefcase in her hand. Instead, she held a huge pine nut cake in her arms.

“Congratulations, Chief Inspector Chen,” she said. “What a spacious apartment!”

“Thanks,” he said, taking the cake from her.

He led her around for a five-minute tour. She seemed to like the apartment very much, looking into everything, opening the cupboard doors, and stepping into the bathroom, where she stood on her tiptoes, touching the overhead shower pipe and the new shower head.

“And a bathroom, too!”

“Well, like most Shanghai residents, I’ve always dreamed of having an apartment in this area,” he said, giving her a glass of sparkling wine.

“And you have a wonderful view from the window, “ she said, “almost like a picture.”

Wang stood leaning against the newly painted window frame, her ankles crossed, holding the glass in her hand.

“ You are turning it into a painting,” he said.

In the afternoon light streaming through the plastic blinds, her complexion was matte porcelain. Her eyes were clear, almond-shaped, just long enough to be suggestive of a distinct character. Her black hair cascaded halfway down her back. She wore a white T-shirt and a pleated skirt, with a wide belt of alligator leather that cinched her “emancipated wasp” waist and accentuated her breasts.

Emancipated wasp. An image invented by Li Yu, the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty, also a brilliant poet, who depicted his favorite imperial concubine’s ravishing beauty in several celebrated poems. The poet-emperor was afraid that he might break her in two by holding her too tightly. It was said that the custom of foot-binding also started in Li Yu’s reign. There was no accounting for taste, Chen reflected.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“ ‘Waist so slender, weightless she dances on my palm,’” he said, changing the reference as he recalled the tragic end of the imperial concubine, who drowned herself in a well when the Southern Tang dynasty fell. “Du Mu’s famous line fails to do justice to you.”

“More of your bogus compliments copied from the Tang dynasty, my poetic chief inspector?”

This sounded more like the spirited woman he had first met in the Wenhui building, Chen was happy to note. It had taken quite a long while for her to get over the defection of her husband. A student in Japan, the man had decided not to return home when his visa expired. Wang had taken it hard, naturally.

“Poetically alone,” he said.

“With this new apartment, you no longer have an excuse to remain celibate.” She drained the glass with a toss of her long hair.

“Well, introduce some girls to me.”

“You need my help?”

“Why not, if you are willing to help?” He tried to change the subject. “But how are things with you? About your own apartment, I mean. Soon you will get one for yourself, I bet.”

“If only I were a chief inspector, a rising political star.”

“Oh, sure,” he said, raising his cup, “many thanks to you.”

But it was true, or at least to a certain extent.

They had first met on a professional level. She had been assigned to write about the “people’s policemen,” and his name had been mentioned by Party Secretary Li of the Shanghai Police Bureau. As she talked with Chen in her office, she became more interested in how he spent his evenings than in how he did his day job. Chen had had several translations of Western mystery novels published. The reporter was not a fan of that particular genre, but she saw a fresh perspective for her article. And then the readers, too, responded favorably to the image of a young, well-educated police officer who “works late into night, translating books to enlarge the horizon of his professional expertise, when the city of Shanghai is peacefully asleep.” The article caught the attention of a senior vice minister in Beijing, Comrade Zheng Zuoren, who believed he had discovered a new role model. It was in part due to Zheng’s recommendation that Chen had been promoted to chief inspector.

It was only partially true, however, that Chen had chosen to translate mysteries to enrich his professional knowledge. It was more because he, an entry-level police officer at the time, needed extra cash. He had also translated a collection of American imagist poetry, but the publishing house offered him only two hundred copies in lieu of royalties for that work.

“You were so sure of the motive for my translations?” he said.

“Of course, as I declared in that article: a ‘people’s policeman’s sense of dedication’.” She laughed and tilted her glass in the sunlight.

At that moment, she was no longer the reporter who had talked to him seriously, sitting upright at the office desk, an open notebook in front of her. Nor was he a chief inspector. Just a man with a woman whose company he enjoyed, in his own room.

“It’s been over a year since the day we first met in the hallway of the Wenhui office building,” he said, refilling her wineglass.

“‘ Time is a bird. / It perches, and it flies, ’” she said.

These were the lines from his short poem entitled “Parting.” Nice of her to remember it.

“You must have been inspired by a parting you cannot forget,” she said. “A parting from somebody very dear to you.”

Her instinct was right, he thought. The poem was about his parting from a dear friend in Beijing years earlier, and it was still unforgotten. He had never talked to Wang about it. She was looking at him over the rim of her glass, taking a long slow sip, her eyes twinkling.

Did he catch a note of jealousy in her voice?

The poem had been written long ago, but its catalyst was not something he wanted to mention at the moment. “A poem does not have to be about something in the poet’s life. Poetry is impersonal. As T. S. Eliot has said, it is not letting loose an emotional crisis-”

“What, an emotional crisis?” Overseas Chinese Lu’s excited voice burst into their conversation. Lu barged through the doorway carrying an enormous beggar’s chicken, his plump face and plump body all the more expansive in a fashionable heavily-shoulder-padded white suit and a bright red tie. Lu’s wife Ruru, thin as a bamboo shoot, and angular in a tight yellow dress, brought in a big purple ceramic pot.

“What are you two talking about?” Ruru asked.

Putting the food on the table, Lu threw himself down on the new leather sofa, looking at them with an exaggerated inquiry on his face.

Chen did not answer the question. He had a ready excuse in busily unwrapping the beggar’s chicken. It smelled wonderful. The recipe had supposedly originated when a beggar baked a soil-and-lotus-leaf-wrapped chicken in a pile of ashes. The result was an astonishing success. It must have taken Lu a long time to cook.

Then he turned to the ceramic pot. “What’s that?”

“Squid stew with pork,” Ruru explained. “Your favorite in high school, Lu said.”

“Comrade Chief Inspector,” Lu went on, “emerging Party cadre, and romantic poet to boot, you do not need my help, not in this new apartment, not with a young girl as beautiful as a flower beside you.”

“What are you talking about?” Wang said.

“Oh, it is just about the dinner-how delicious it smells. I’m going to have a fit if we don’t start right away.”

“He’s just like that, he totally forgets himself with his old pal,” Ruru explained to Wang whom she had met before. “Nowadays, only Chief Inspector Chen calls him ‘Overseas Chinese’.”

“It’s seven,” Chen said. “If they’re not here yet, Professor Zhou and his wife won’t come. So let’s start.”

There was no dining room. With the Lus’ help, Chen set up the folding table and chairs. When he was alone, Chen ate at the desk. But he had bought the space-saving set for occasions like this.

The dinner turned out to be a great success. Chen had worried about his capability as a chef, but the guests finished all the food rapidly. The improvised soup was especially popular. Lu even asked him for the recipe.

Rising from the table, Ruru offered to wash the dishes in the kitchen. Chen protested, but Lu intervened. “My old woman should not be deprived of the opportunity, Comrade Chief Inspector, to display her female domestic virtue.”

“You chauvinistic men,” Wang said, joining Ruru in the kitchen.

Lu helped him clear the table, put the leftovers away, and brew a pot of Oolong tea.

“I need to ask a favor of you, old pal,” Lu said, holding a teacup in his hand.

“What is it?”

“I’ve always dreamed of starting a restaurant. For a restaurant, the heart of the matter is location. I have been looking around for a long time. Now here’s the opportunity of a lifetime. You know Seafood City on Shanxi Road, don’t you?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of it.”

“Xin Gen, the owner of Seafood City, is a compulsive gambler- he plays day and night. He pays no attention to his business, and all his chefs are idiots. It’s bankrupt.”

“Then you should try your hand at it.”

“For such an excellent location, the price Xin is asking is incredibly cheap. In fact, I don’t have to pay the whole amount, he’s so desperate. What he wants is a fifteen percent downpayment. So I just need a loan to start with. I’ve sold the few fur coats my old man left behind, but we’re still several thousand short.”

“You couldn’t have chosen a better time, Overseas Chinese. I just got two checks from the Lijiang Publishing House,” Chen said. “One’s for the reprint of The Riddle of the Chinese Coffin and the other’s an advance for The Silent Step.”

But it was not really a good time. Chen had been contemplating buying some more furniture for the new apartment. He had seen a mahogany desk in a thrift shop in Suzhou. Ming-style, perhaps of genuine Ming dynasty craftsmanship, for five thousand Yuan. It was expensive, but it could be the very desk on which he was going to write his future poems. Several critics had complained about his departure from the tradition of classical Chinese poetry, and the antique desk might convey a message from the past to him. So he had written a letter to Chief Editor Liu of the Lijiang Publishing House, asking for the advance.

Chen took out the two checks, signed the back of them, added a personal check, and gave all of them to Lu.

“Here they are,” he said. “Treat me when your restaurant is a booming success.”

“I’ll pay you back,” Lu said, “with interest.”

“Interest? One more word about interest, and I will take them back.”

“Then come and be my partner. I have to do something, old pal. Or I’ll have a crisis with Ruru tonight.”

“Now what are you two talking about-another crisis?”

Wang was returning to the living room, Ruru following her.

Lu did not reply. Instead he moved to the head of the table, clinked a chopstick against a glass, and started a speech: “I have an announcement to make. For several weeks, Ruru and I have been busy preparing for the opening of a restaurant. The only problem was our lack of the capital. Now, with a most generous loan from my buddy Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, the problem is solved. Moscow Suburb, the new restaurant, will be open soon-very soon indeed.

“From our newspapers, we learn that we’re entering a new period in socialist China. Some old diehards are grumbling that China is becoming capitalist rather than socialist, but who cares? Labels. Nothing but labels. As long as people have a better life, that’s all it is about. And we’re going to have a better life.

“And my pal, too, is most prosperous. He has not only received promotion-a chief inspector in his early thirties-but also he has this wonderful new apartment. And a most beautiful reporter is attending the house-warming party.

“Now the party begins!”

Raising his glass, Lu put a cassette into the player, and a waltz began to flow into the room.

“It’s almost nine.” Ruru was looking at her watch. “I can’t take the morning shift off.”

“Don’t worry,” Lu said. “I will call in sick for you. A summer flu. And Comrade Chief inspector, not a single word about your police work either. Let me be an Overseas Chinese in truth just for one night.”

“That’s just like you.” Chen smiled.

“An Overseas Chinese,” Wang added, “drinking and dancing all night. “

Chief Inspector Chen was not good at dancing.

During the Cultural Revolution, the only thing close to dancing for the Chinese people was the Loyal Character Dance. People would stamp their feet in unison, to show their loyalty to Chairman Mao. But it was said that even in those years, many fancy balls were held within the high walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao, a dexterous dancer, was said to have had “his legs still intertwined with his partner’s even after the ball.” Whether this tabloid tidbit was fictitious, no one could tell. It was true, however, that not until the mid-eighties could Chinese people dance without fear of being reported to the authorities.

“I’d better dance with my lioness,” Lu said in mock frustration.

Lu’s choice left Chen as the only partner for Wang.

Chen, not displeased, bowed as he took Wang’s offered hands.

She was the more gifted dancer, leading him rather than being led in the limited space of the room. Turning, turning, and turning in her high heels, slightly taller than he was, her black hair streamed against the white walls. He had to look up at her as he held her in his arms.

A slow, dreamy ballad swelled into the night. Resting her hand on his shoulder, she slipped off her shoes. “We are making too much noise,’’ she said, looking up at him with a radiant smile.

“What a considerate girl,” Lu said.

“What a handsome couple,” Ruru added.

It was considerate of her. Chen, too, had been concerned about the noise. He did not want his new neighbors to start protesting.

Some of the music called for slow two-steps. They did not have to exert themselves as the melody rose and fell like waves lapping around them. She was light on her bare feet, moving, wisps of her hair brushing against his nose.

When another melody started, he tried to take the initiative, and pulled her around-but a bit too suddenly. She fell against him. He felt her body all the length of his, soft and pliable.

“We have to go,” Lu declared at the end of the tune.

“Our daughter will be worried,” Ruru added, picking up the ceramic pot she had brought.

The Lus’ decision was unexpected. It was hard to believe that half an hour earlier Lu had declared himself “Overseas Chinese” for the night.

“I’d better be leaving, too,” Wang said, disengaging herself from him.

“No, you have to stay,” Lu said, shaking his head vigorously. “For a housewarming party, it’s not proper and right for the guests to leave all at once.”

Chen understood why the Lus wanted to leave. Lu was a self-proclaimed schemer and seemed to derive a good deal of pleasure from playing a well-meant trick.

It was a pleasant surprise that Wang did not insist on leaving with them. She changed the cassette, to a piece he had not heard before. Their bodies pressed close. It was summer. He could feel her softness through her T-shirt, his cheek brushing against her hair. She was wearing a gardenia scent.

“You smell wonderful.”

“Oh, it’s the perfume Yang sent me from Japan.”

The juxtaposed awareness of their dancing alone in the room, and her husband in Japan, added to his tension. He missed a step, treading on her bare toes.

“I’m so sorry, did I hurt you?”

“No,” she said. “Actually, I’m glad you are inexperienced.”

“I’ll try to be a better partner next time.”

“Just be yourself,” she said, “the way-”

The wind languished. The floral curtain ceased flapping. The moonlight streamed through, lighting up her face. It was a young, animated face. At that moment, it touched a string, a peg, deep inside him.

“Shall we start over again?” he said.

Then the telephone rang. Startled, he looked at the clock on the wall. He put down her hand reluctantly, and picked up the phone.

“Chief Inspector Chen?”

He heard a familiar voice, somehow sounding as if it came from an unfamiliar world. He gave a resigned shrug of his shoulders. “Yes, it’s Chen.”

“It’s Detective Yu Guangming, reporting a homicide case.”

“What happened?”

“A young woman’s naked body was found in a canal, west of Qingpu County.”

“I-I will be on my way,” he said, as Wang walked over to turn off the music.

“That may not be necessary. I’ve already examined the scene. The body will be moved into the mortuary soon. I just want to let you know that I went there because there was nobody else in the office. And I could not reach you.”

“That’s okay. Even though ours is a special case squad, we should respond when no one else is available.”

“I’ll make a more detailed report tomorrow morning.” Detective Yu added, somewhat belatedly, “Please excuse me if I am disturbing you or your guests-in your new apartment.”

Yu must have heard the music in the background. Chen thought he detected a sarcastic note in his assistant’s voice.

“Don’t mention it,” Chen said. “Since you have checked out the crime scene, I think we can discuss it tomorrow.”

“So, see you tomorrow. And enjoy your party in the new apartment.”

There was certainly sarcasm in Yu’s voice, Chen thought, but such a reaction was understandable from a colleague who, though senior in age, had no luck in the bureau’s housing assignments.

“Thank you.”

He turned from the phone to see Wang standing near the door. She had put on her shoes.

“You have more important things to occupy you, Comrade Chief Inspector.”

“Just a new case, but it’s been taken care of,” he said. “You don’t have to leave.”

“I’d better,” she said. “It’s late.”

The door was open.

They stood facing each other.

Behind her, the dark street, visible through the corridor window; behind him, the new apartment, aglow in the lily-white light.

They hugged before parting.

He went out to the balcony, but he failed to catch a glimpse of her slender figure retreating into the night. He heard only a violin from an open window above the curve of the street. Two lines from Li Shangyin’s “Zither” came to his mind: The zither, for no reason, has half of its strings broken, One string, one peg, evoking the memory of the youthful years.

A difficult Tang dynasty poet, Li Shangyin was especially known for this elusive couplet. Certainly it was not about the ancient musical instrument. Why, all of a sudden, the lines came rushing to him, he did not know.

The murder case?

A young woman. A life in its prime wasted. All the broken strings. The lost sounds. Only half of its years lived.

Or was there something else?

Chapter 3

The Shanghai Police Bureau was housed in a sixty-year-old brown brick building located on Fuzhou Road. The gray iron gate was guarded by two armed soldiers, but, like the other policemen, Chen entered the bureau through a small door adjacent to a doorman’s kiosk beside the gate. Occasionally, when the gates were opened wide for some important visitors, what could be seen from the outside was a curving driveway with a peaceful flowerbed in the middle of a spacious courtyard.

Acknowledging the stiff salute of the sentry, Chief Inspector Chen made his way up to his office on the third floor. His was just a cubicle within a large office which housed over thirty detectives of the homicide department. They all worked together, at communal desks, rubbing shoulders and sharing phones.

The brass name plaque on his cubicle door-CHIEF INSPECTOR CHEN CAO-shining proudly in the morning light, from time to time drew his gaze like a magnet. The enclosure was small. A brown oak desk with a brown swivel chair occupied much of the space. A couple of teacups had to stand on a dark green steel filing cabinet by the door, and a thermos bottle, by a bookshelf on the floor. There was nothing on the wall except a framed photograph of Comrade Deng Xiaoping standing on Huangpu Bridge under a black umbrella held by Shanghai’s mayor. The only luxury in the office was a midget refrigerator, but Chen had made a point of letting all his staff members use it. Like the apartment, the cubicle had come with his promotion.

It was generally believed in the bureau that Chen’s advance had resulted from Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s new cadre policy. Prior to the mid-eighties, Chinese cadres usually rose in a slow process, step by step. Once they reached a certain high level, however, they could stay there for a long time, and some never retired, hanging on to their positions to the end. So a chief inspector in his mid-fifties would have considered himself lucky in his career. With the dramatic change Deng had introduced, high-ranking cadres, too, had to step down at retirement age. Being young and highly educated suddenly became the crucial criteria in the cadre promotion process. Chen happened to be qualified in both aspects, though his qualifications were not so warmly regarded by some officers. To them, educational background did not mean much. Especially Chen’s since he had majored in English literature. They also felt that age signified experience in the field.

So Chen’s status was a sort of compromise. As a rule, a chief inspector would serve as the head of the homicide department. The old department head had retired, but no successor had yet been announced. Chen’s administrative position was just that of leader of a special case squad, consisting of only five people including Detective Yu Guangming, his assistant.

Detective Yu was not visible in the main office, but among the mass of papers on his desk, Chen found his report.

OFFICER AT THE SCENE: Detective Yu Guangming

DATE: 5/11/90

1. The body. A dead woman. Nameless. Naked. Her body found in a black plastic bag in the Baili Canal. Probably in her late twenties or early thirties, she had a healthy build, around 110 pounds in weight, 5’4” in height. It was hard to imagine how she had actually looked when alive. Her face was a bit swollen, but unbruised, unscratched. She had thin, dark eyebrows and a straight nose. Her forehead was broad. She had long, well-shaped legs, small feet with long toes. Her toenails were painted scarlet. Her hands were small, too, no rings on her well-manicured fingers. No blood, dirt, or skin under her nails. Her hips were broad with copious, coal black pubic hair. It’s possible that she had had sexual intercourse before her death. She didn’t look beaten up. There was only a faint line of bruising around her neck, barely discernible, and a light scratch on her collarbone, but other than that, her skin was smooth, with no suggestion of bruises on her body. A general absence of contusions on the legs also showed that she had not struggled much before her death. The small spotty hemorrhages in the linings around her eyes could be presumptive evidence of death by asphyxiation.

2. The scene. Baili Canal, a small canal on the Suzhou River, about ten miles west of the Shanghai Paper Mill. It is, to be more exact, a dead creek overhung with shrubs and tall weeds. Some years ago it was chosen as a chemical plant site, but the state plan was abandoned. On one side is something of a graveyard with tombs scattered around. It’s difficult to reach the canal, whether by water or by land. No bus comes there. According to the local people, few go there to fish.

3. The witnesses. Gao Ziling, captain of the Vanguard, Shanghai River Security Bureau. Liu Guoliang, Captain Gao’s high-school friend, a senior engineer in the nuclear science field in Qinghai. Both of them are Party members, with no criminal record. Possible cause of death: Strangulation in combination with sexual assault. When he finished reading the report, Chief Inspector Chen lit a cigarette and sat quietly for a while. Two possibilities arose with the curling rings of smoke. She had been raped and murdered on a boat, and then dumped into the canal. Or the crime had taken place somewhere else, and her body transported to the canal.

He was not inclined toward the first scenario. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the murderer to commit the crime with other passengers moving around on board. If it had been just the two of them in the boat, what was the point of covering her body up in a plastic bag? The canal was so out of the way, and most probably it had happened in the depth of night- there would have been no need to wrap the body. In the second scenario, the plastic bag might fit, but then the murder might have happened anywhere.

When he looked out into the large office again, Detective Yu was back at his desk, sipping a cup of tea. Mechanically Chen felt for the thermos bottle on the floor. There was still enough water. No need to go to the communal hot water boiler downstairs. He dialed Yu’s extension.

“Detective Yu Guangming reporting.” Yu appeared at the doorway in less than a minute, a tall man in his early forties, of medium build, with a rugged face and deep, penetrating eyes, holding a large manila folder in his hand.

“You must have worked quite late last night.” Chen offered a cup of tea to his assistant. “A well-done job. I’ve just read your report.”

“Thank you.”

“Any new information about the case this morning?”

“No. Everything’s in the report.”

“What about the missing person’s list?”

“No one on the list looks like her,” Yu said, handing over the folder. “Some pictures have just been developed. She could not have been too long in the water. No more than twenty hours is my guess.”

Chen started thumbing through photographs. Pictures of the dead woman lying on the bank, naked, or partially covered up, then several close-ups, the last one focusing on her face, her body concealed by a white covering, in the mortuary.

“What do you think?” Yu breathed slowly into his hot tea.

“A couple of possible scenarios. Nothing definite until Forensic finishes.”

“Yes, the autopsy report will probably be here late this afternoon.”

“You don’t think she could be someone from the neighboring villages?”

“No, I don’t. I have called the local county committee. There’s no one reported missing there.”

“But what about the murderer?”

“No, not likely, either. As the old saying goes, a rabbit does not browse near its lair. But he could be familiar with the canal.”

“Two possibilities, then,” Chen began.

Yu listened to Chen’s analysis without interrupting. “As for the first scenario, I don’t think it is so likely,” he said.

“But it would be impossible for the murderer to get her body to the canal without some sort of transportation at his disposal,” Chen said.

“He might be a taxi driver. We’ve had similar cases. Pan Wanren’s case, remember? Raped and murdered. A lot of resemblance. Except the body was dumped in a rice paddy. The murderer confessed that he did not intend to kill her, but he panicked at the thought of the victim’s being able to identify his car.”

“Yes, I do remember. But if the murderer raped this one in a car, why should he have bothered to hide the body in the plastic bag afterward?”

“He had to drive all the way to canal.”

“The trunk would have served his purpose.”

“Maybe he just happened to have the bag in the car.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“Well, when a rape precedes homicide,” Yu said, crossing his legs, “the motive comes down to concealing the rapist’s identity. She could have identified him, or the car. So a taxi-driver hypothesis fits.”

“But the murderer could also be the victim’s acquaintance,” Chen said, studying a picture in his hand. “With her body dumped in the canal, her disappearance would not be easily traced to him. That may account for the plastic bag, too. To conceal moving the body into the car.”

“Well, not too many people have their own cars-except high cadres, and they would not have their chauffeurs drive them around on such an errand.”

“It’s true. There’re not too many private cars in Shanghai, but the number is increasing rapidly. We cannot rule it out.”

“If the murderer was the deceased’s acquaintance, the first question we have to ask is why? A secret affair with a married man, we’ve had cases like that, but then the woman in such a case, almost without exception, is pregnant. I called Dr. Xia early this morning, and it was ruled out,” Yu said, lighting a cigarette just for himself. “It’s still possible, of course, I mean your theory.

If so, there’s probably nothing we can do until we find out her identity.”

“So do you think we should start checking with the taxi bureau-in accordance with your theory?”

“We could, but it would not be easy. There weren’t many taxis in Shanghai ten years ago-you could have waited on the street for hours without getting one. Now Heaven alone knows how many there are, running everywhere like locusts. Over ten thousand, I bet, not including the self-employed cab drivers. Maybe another three thousand.”

“Yes, that’s a lot.”

“Another thing, we’re not even sure that she was from Shanghai. What if she came from another province? If so, a long time will pass before we get information about her identity.”

The air in the small office became thick with cigarette smoke.

“So what do you think we should do?” Chen asked, pushing open the window.

Detective Yu let a few seconds go by, and then asked a question of his own, “Do we have to take the case?”

“Well, that’s a good question.”

“I responded to the call because there was nobody else in the office and I couldn’t find you. But we’re only the special case squad.”

It was true. Nominally their squad did not have to take a case until it was declared “special” by the bureau-sometimes at the request of another province, and sometimes by other squads, but more often than not, for an unstated political reason. To raid a private bookstore selling pirated hard-core CDs, for instance, would not be difficult or special for a cop, but it could get a lot of attention, providing material for newspaper headlines. “Special,” in other words, was applied when the bureau had to adjust its focus to meet political needs. In the case of a nameless female body found in a small remote canal, they would ordinarily turn it over to the sex homicide group, to whom it apparently belonged.

That explained Detective Yu’s lack of interest in the case though he had taken the phone call and examined the crime scene. Chen riffled through the pictures before he picked one up. “Let’s have this picture cropped and enlarged. Someone may be able to recognize her.”

“What if no one comes forward?”

“Well, then we must start canvassing-if we’re going to take the case.”

“Canvassing indeed,” Yu picked a tiny tea leaf from his teeth.

Most detectives disliked this drudgery.

“How many men can we call upon for the job?”

“Not too many, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Yu said. “We’re short. Qing Xiaotong’s on his honeymoon, Li Dong’s just resigned to open a fruit shop, and Liu Longxiang’s in the hospital with a broken arm. In fact, it’s just you and me on the so-called special case squad at the moment.”

Chen was aware of Yu’s acerbic undertone. His accelerated promotion was going to take some living down, not to mention his new apartment. A certain measure of antagonism was hardly surprising, especially from Detective Yu, who had entered the force earlier and had technical training and a police family background. But Chief Inspector Chen was anxious to be judged on what he could achieve in his position, not on the way he had risen to it. So he was tempted to take the case. A real homicide case. From the very beginning. But Detective Yu was right. They were short of men, and with many “special” cases on their hands, they could not afford to take on a case that just happened to come their way. A sexual murder case-with no clue or witness, already a cold case.

“I’ll talk to Party Secretary Li about it, but in the meantime, we will have the picture copied and prints distributed to the branch offices. It’s a necessary routine-whoever is going to take the case.” Chen then added, “I’ll go to the canal if I have some time in the afternoon. When you were there, it must have been quite dark.”

“Well, it’s a poetic scene there,” Yu said, standing up, grinding out his cigarette, and making no attempt to conceal the sarcasm in his tone. “You may come up with a couple of wonderful lines.”

“You never can tell.”

After Yu left, Chen brooded at his desk for a while. He was rather upset with the antagonism shown by his assistant. His casual remark about Chen’s passion for poetry was another jab. However, Yu’s critique was true-to some extent.

Chen had not intended to be a cop-not in his college years. He had been a published poet as well as a top student at Beijing Foreign Language Institute. He had his mind set on literary pursuits. Just one month before graduation, he had applied to an M.A. program in English and American literature, a decision his mother had approved, since Chen’s father had been a well-known professor of the Neo-Confucian school. He was informed, however, that a promising job was waiting for him in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the early eighties, all graduates had their jobs assigned by the authorities, and as he was a student on the president’s honor roll, his file had been requested by the ministry. A diplomatic career was not his own choice, even though such a position was generally considered fantastic for an English major. Then, at the last minute, there was another unexpected change. In the course of the family background check by the authorities, one of his uncles was found to have been a counterrevolutionary executed in the early 1950s. It was an uncle whom he had never seen, but such a family connection was politically unthinkable for an aspirant to a diplomatic position. So his name was removed from the ministry’s list. He was then assigned to a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau, where, for the first few years, his work consisted of translating a police interrogation procedure handbook, which no one wanted to read, and of writing political reports for Party Secretary Li, which Chen himself did not want to write. So it was only in the last couple of years that Chen had actually worked as a cop, first at the entry level, now suddenly as a chief inspector, but responsible only for the “special cases” turned over to him by others. And Yu, like some people in the bureau, had his com- plaints fueled not only by Chen’s rapid rise under Deng’s cadre policy, but also by his continuing literary pursuits, which were conventionally-and conveniently-viewed as a deviation from his professional commitment.

Chen read through the case report for a second time, and then realized that it was lunchtime. As he stepped out, he found a message for him in the large office. It must have been left before his arrival that morning: Hi, it’s Lu. I’m working at the restaurant. Our restaurant. Moscow Suburb. A gourmet paradise. It’s important I talk to you. Give me a call at 638-0843.

Overseas Chinese Lu talked just like that-excited and ebullient. Chen dialed the number.

“Moscow Suburb.”

“Lu, what’s up?”

“Oh, you. How did it go last night?”

“Fine. We were together, weren’t we?”

“No, I mean what happened after we left-between you and Wang?”

“Nothing. We danced a few more dances, and then she left.”

“What a shame, old pal,” Lu said. “You’re a chief inspector for nothing. You cannot detect even the most obvious signal.”

“What signal?”

“When we left, she agreed to stay on-alone with you. She really meant for the night. An absolutely unmistakable signal. She’s crazy about you.”

“Well, I’m not so sure,” Chen said. “Let’s talk about something else. How are things with you.”

“Yes, Ruru wants me to thank you again. You’re our lucky star. Everything is in good shape. All the documents are signed. I’ve already moved in. Our own restaurant. I just need to change its sign. A big neon sign in both Chinese and English.”

“Hold on-Chinese and Russian, right?”

“Who speaks Russian nowadays? But in addition to our food, we will have something else genuinely Russian, I tell you, and you can eat them, too.” Lu chuckled mysteriously. “With your generous loan, we’ll celebrate the grand opening next Monday. A booming success.”

“You’re so sure about it.”

“Well, I have a trump card. Everybody will be amazed.”

“What is it?”

“Come and see for yourself. And eat to your heart’s content.”

“Sure. I won’t miss your Russian cabbage soup for anything, Overseas Chinese.”

“So you’re a gourmet too. See you.”

Other than that, however, they did not have too much in common, Chief Inspector Chen reflected with a smile, putting down the phone. It was in their high-school years that Lu had gotten his nickname. Not just because Lu wore a Western-style jacket during the Cultural Revolution. More because Lu’s father had owned a fur store before 1949, and was thus a capitalist. That had made Lu a “black kid.” In the late sixties, “Overseas Chinese” was by no means a positive term, for it could be used to depict somebody as politically unreliable, connected with the Western world, or associated with an extravagant bourgeois life style. But Lu took an obstinate pride in cultivating his “decadent” image-brewing coffee, baking apple pie, tossing fruit salad, and of course, wearing a Western-style suit at the dinner table. Lu befriended Chen, whose father was a “bourgeois professor,” another “black kid.” Birds of a feather, comforting each other. Lu made a habit of treating Chen whenever he made a successful cooking experiment at home. After graduating from high school, as an educated youth Lu had been sent to the countryside and spent ten years being reformed by the poor and lower-middle-class peasants. He only returned to Shanghai in the early eighties. When Chen, too, moved back from Beijing, they met with the realization that they were different, and yet all those years they had stayed friends, and they came to appreciate each other’s differences while sharing their common delight in gourmet food. Twenty years has passed like a dream. It is a wonder that we are still here, together.

Two lines from Chen Yuyi, a Song dynasty poet, came to Chief Inspector Chen, but he was not sure whether he had omitted one or two words.

Chapter 4

A fter a nongourmet lunch in the bureau canteen, Chen went out to buy a collection of poems by Chen Yuyi.

Several new privately run bookstores had just appeared on Fuzhou Road, fairly close to the bureau. Small stores, but with excellent service. Around the corner of Shandong Road, Chen saw a tall apartment building, seemingly the first finished in a series of the new developments. On the other side of the street there was still a rambling cluster of low houses, remnants of the early twenties, showing no signs of change to come in the near future. It was there, in the mixture of the old and the new, that he stepped into a family bookstore. The shop was tiny but impressively stacked with old and new books. He heard a baby’s babble just behind a bamboo-bead curtain at the back. His search for Chen Yuyi was not successful. In the section of classical Chinese literature, there was an impressive array of martial arts novels by Hong Kong and Taiwan authors, but practically nothing else. When he was about to leave, he lighted on a copy of his late father’s collection of Neo-Confucian studies, half hidden under a bikini-clad girlie poster marked “For Sale.” He took the book to the counter.

“You have an eye for books,” the owner said, holding a bowl of rice covered with green cabbage. “It’s a hundred and twenty Yuan.”

“What?” he gasped.

“It was once criticized as a rightist attack against the Party, out of print even in the fifties.”

“Look,” he said, grasping the book. “My father wrote this book, and the original price was less than two Yuan.”

“Really,” the owner studied him for a moment. “All right, fifty Yuan, with the poster free, for you.”

Chen took the book without accepting the additional offer. There was a tiny scar on the poster girl’s bare shoulder, which somehow reminded him of the picture of the dead girl pulled out of the plastic bag. There were one or two pictures of her in the mortuary, even less covered than the bikini-girl. He remembered having seen a scar somewhere on her body.

Or somebody else’s. He was momentarily confused.

He started leafing through his father’s book on his way back to the bureau, a reading habit his father had disapproved of, but the subject of the book made it difficult for him not to.

Back in the office, Chen tried to make himself a cup of Gongfu tea, another gourmet practice he had learned from Overseas Chinese Lu, so that he could read with more enhanced concentration. He had just put a pinch of tea leaves into a tiny cup when the phone started ringing.

It was Party Secretary Li Guohua. Li was not only the number-one Party official in the bureau, but also Chen’s mentor. Li had introduced Chen to the Party, spared no pains showing him the ropes, and advanced him to his present position. Everybody in the bureau knew Li’s legendary talent for political infighting- an almost infallible instinct for picking the winner in inner-Party conflicts all those years. A young officer at the entrance level in the early fifties, Li had stepped his way through the debris of numerous political movements, rising finally to the top of the bureau. So most people saw it as another master stroke that Li had hand-picked Chen as his potential successor, though some called it a risky investment. Superintendent Zhao, for one, had recommended another candidate for the position of chief inspector.

“Is everything okay with your new apartment, Comrade Chief Inspector?”

“Thank you, Comrade Party Secretary Li. Everything’s fine.”

“That’s good. And the work in the office?”

“Detective Yu got a case yesterday. A female body in a canal in Qingpu County. We’re short of men, so I’m wondering if we should take it.”

“Turn over the case to other people. Yours is a special case squad.”

“But it was Detective Yu who went to examine the scene. We would like to handle a case from the beginning.”

“You may have no time for it. There’s some news I want to tell you. You’re going to attend the seminar sponsored by the Central Party Institute in October.”

“The seminar of the Central Party Institute!”

“Yes, it is a great opportunity, isn’t it? I put your name on the recommendation list last month. A long shot, I thought, but today they informed us of their decision. I’ll make a copy of the official admission letter for you. You have come a long way, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen.”

“You have done so much for me, Party Secretary Li. How can I ever thank you enough?” He added after a pause, “Maybe that’s another reason for us to take the case. I cannot be a chief inspector without solving some cases on my own.”

“Well, it’s up to you,” Li said. “But you have to be prepared for the seminar. How much the seminar can mean for your future career, you don’t need me to tell you. More important work is waiting for you, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen.”

The talk with Party Secretary Li actually prompted Chen to do some investigation before making any decision about the case. He went down to the bureau’s vehicle service group, took out a motorcycle, and borrowed a county map from the bureau library.

It was hot outside. The cicadas, napping in the languid trees, turned silent. Even the mailbox by the curb appeared drowsy. Chen took off his uniform and rode out in his short-sleeved T-shirt.

The trip to Baili Canal turned out to be rather difficult. Once past the Hongqiao Industrial Area, there were few road signs. He had to ask for directions at a ramshackle gas station, but the only worker there was taking a midday nap, his saliva dribbling onto the counter. Then the scenery became more rustic, with lines of hills visible here and there in the distance, and a solitary curl of white smoke rising like a string of notes from an invisible roof somewhere. According to the map, the canal should not be too far away. At a turn of the road, there appeared a winding path, like an entrance into a village, and he saw a girl selling big bowls of tea on a wooden bench. No more than thirteen or fourteen, she sat quietly on a low stool, wearing her ponytail tied with a girlish bow, reading a book. There were no customers. He wondered if there would be any all day. Only a few coins glittered in a cracked tin cup beside a bulging satchel at her feet. Apparently not a peddler, not one out there for profit, just a kid from the village, still small and innocent, reading against the idyllic background- perhaps a poetry collection in her hand, providing a convenience to thirsty travelers who might pass by.

Little things, but all of them seemed to be adding up into something like an image he had once come across in Tang and Song dynasty writings: Slender, supple, she’s just thirteen or so, The tip of a cardamom bud, in early March.

“Excuse me,” he said, pulling up his motorcycle by the roadside. “Do you know where Baili Canal is?”

“Baili Canal, oh yes, straight ahead, about five or six miles.”

“Thank you.”

He also asked for a big bowl of tea.

“Three cents,” the girl said, without looking up from her book.

“What are you reading?”

“ Visual Basics.”

The answer did not fit the picture in his mind. But it should not be surprising, he thought. He, too, had been taking an evening class on Windows applications. It was the age of the information highway.

“Oh, computer programming,” he said. “Very interesting.”

“Do you also study it?”

“Just a little.”

“Need some CDs?”

“What?”

“Dirt cheap. A lot of advanced software on it. Chinese Star, TwinBridge, Dragon Dictionary, and all kinds of fonts, traditional and simplified…”

“No, thank you,” he said, taking out a one-Yuan bill.

The CDs she offered might be incredibly cheap. He had heard people talking about pirated products, but he did not want to have anything to do with them, not as a chief inspector.

“I’m afraid I don’t have enough change for you.”

“Just give me all you have.”

The little girl scooped out the coins to give him, and put the one Yuan bill in her purse, instead of into the tin cup at her feet. A cautious teenage profit-maker in her way. She then resumed her readings in cyberspace, the bow on her ponytail fluttering like a butterfly in a breath of air.

But his earlier mood was gone.

What irony. The wistful thoughts about the innocent tip of a cardamom bud, a solitary curl of white smoke, an unlost innocence in a rural background, a poetry collection… And a lapse in his professional perspective. Not until he had ridden another two or three miles did he realize that he should have done something about the CD business-as a chief inspector. Perhaps he had been too absent minded, in a “poetic trance,” and then too surprised by the realities of the world. The episode came to him like an echo of his colleagues’ criticism: Chief Inspector Chen was too “poetic” to be a cop.

It was past two o’clock when he reached the canal.

There was not a single cloud drifting overhead. The afternoon sun hung lonely in the blue sky, high over a most desolate scene, which was like a forgotten corner of the world. Not a soul was visible. The canal bank was overrun with tall weeds and scrubby growth. Chen stood still at the edge of the stagnant water, amid a scattering of wild bushes. Not too far away, however, he thought he could hear the hubbub of Shanghai.

Who was the victim? How had she lived? Whom had she met before her death?

He had not expected much from the scene. The heavy rains of the last few days would have washed away any trace of evidence. Being at the crime scene, he had thought, might help to establish a sort of communion between the living and the dead, but he failed to get any message. Instead, his mind wandered to bureau politics. There was nothing remarkable about the recovery of a body from a canal. Not for Homicide. They had encountered similar cases before, and would encounter them in the future. It did not take a chief inspector to tackle such a case, not at the moment, when he had to prepare himself for the important seminar.

Nor did it appear to be a case he could solve in a couple of days. There were no witnesses. Nor any traceable physical evidence, since the body had been lying in the water for some time. What had been found so far did not mean much for the investigation. Some old hands would have tried to avoid such a case. In fact, Detective Yu had implied as much, and as a special case squad, they were justified in not taking it on. The possibility of a failure to solve the case was not tempting. It would not help his status in the bureau.

He sat on a jutting slab of rock, dug out a half-crumpled cigarette, and lit it. Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes for a second.

Across the canal, he then saw for the first time a tiny spangling of wildflowers, blue, white, violet in the hazy green weeds. Nothing else.

White puffs of cloud appeared, scuttling across the sky, when he started the trip back. The girl was no longer selling tea at the turn of the road. It was just as well. Perhaps she was no peddler of pirate CDs. She might just have an extra copy, and a couple of Yuan could mean a lot to a village kid.

When he got back to his office, the first thing he saw on the desk was a copy of the official admittance letter Party Secretary Li had referred to, but it did not give him the feeling of exaltation he had expected.

The preliminary autopsy report also came late in the afternoon. It produced little of interest. The time of death was estimated as between 1:00 A.M. and 2 A.M. on May 11. The victim had had sexual intercourse before her death. Acid-phosphate tests were positive for the presence of male ejaculate, but after the period of time the body had been immersed in the water, there was not enough left to isolate other positive or negative factors. It was difficult to tell whether the sexual intercourse had taken place against the victim’s will, but she had been strangled. She was not pregnant. The report ended with the following wording: “Death by strangulation in conjunction with possible sexual assault.”

The autopsy had been conducted by Doctor Xia Yulong.

Having read the report a second time, Chief Inspector Chen reached a decision: he would postpone making his decision. He did not have to take the case immediately, nor did he have to relinquish it to another squad. If some evidence appeared, he could declare his special case squad to be in charge. If the trail turned “deadly cold,” as Detective Yu expected, it would not be too late for him to turn it over to others.

He believed that this was a correct decision. So he informed Yu, who readily agreed. Putting down the phone, however, he found his mood darkening, like the screen at the beginning of a movie, against which fragments of the scene he had just visited were displayed.

She had been lying there, abandoned, naked, her long dark hair in a coil across her throat, like a snake, in full view of two strangers, only to be carried away on a stretcher by a couple of white uniformed men, and, in time, opened up by an elderly medical man who examined her insides, mechanically, and sewed the body together again before it was finally sent to the mortuary. And all that time Chief Inspector Chen had been celebrating in his new apartment, having a housewarming party, drinking, dancing with a young woman reporter, talking about Tang dynasty poetry, and stepping on her bare toes.

He felt sorry for the dead woman. There was little he could do for her… but then he decided not to pursue this line of thought.

He made a call to his mother, telling her about the book he had bought during the lunch break. She was very pleased, as it happened to be the one she did not have in her attic collection.

“But you should have taken the poster as well, son.”

“Why?”

“So that the girl could walk down from the poster,” she said good-humoredly, “to keep you company at night.”

“Oh, that!” he laughed. “The same old story you told me thirty years ago. I’m busy today, but I’ll see you tomorrow. You can tell me the story again.”

Chapter 5

S everal days had passed since the housewarming party. At nine o’clock in the morning, grasping a Shanghai Evening Post in his hand, Chen had a feeling that he was being read by the news, rather than the other way round. What engaged him was the report of a go game between a Chinese and a Japanese player, with a miniature map of the go board showing all the movements of black and white pieces, each occupying a position full of meaning, and possibly of meanings beyond the surface meaning.

This was nothing but a last minute self-indulgence before the invariable bureau routine.

The phone on his desk rang. “Comrade Chief Inspector, you’re such an important high official.” It was Wang’s satirical voice. “As the old Chinese saying goes, an important man has an impoverished memory.”

“No, don’t say that.”

“You’re so busy that you forget all your friends.”

“Yes, I’ve been terribly busy, but how could I put you out of my mind? No. I’m just so busy with all the routine work plus the new case-you know, the one I got the night of the party- remember? I apologize for not having called you earlier.”

“Never say sorry-” she changed the topic before finishing the sentence. “But I have some good news for you.”

“Really?”

“First, your name is on the list of the fourteenth seminar sponsored by the Central Party Institute in Beijing.”

“How did you learn that?”

“I’ve got my connections. So we will have to throw another party for your new promotion.”

“It’s too early for that. But what about having lunch with me next week?”

“It sounds like I am asking for an invitation to lunch.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what. Last night it rained, and I happened to be reading Li Shangyin-’ When, when can we snuff the candle by the western window again, / And talk about the moment of Mount Ba in the rain?’ And I missed you so much.”

“Your poetic exaggeration again.”

“No. Upon my word as a police officer, it’s the truth.”

“And a second piece of good news for a poetic chief inspector.” She switched the subject again. “Xu Baoping, senior editor of our literature and art section, has decided to use your poem- ’Miracle,’ I believe that’s the name of it.”

“Yes, ‘Miracle.’ That is fantastic.”

That was indeed a piece of exciting news. A poem in the Wenhui Daily, a nationally influential newspaper, could reach far more readers than one in some little magazine. “Miracle” was a poem about a policewoman’s dedication to her work. The editor might have chosen it out of political considerations, but Chen was still overjoyed. “Well, at the Shanghai Writers’ Association, few know that I’m a detective by profession. There’s no point talking to them about it. They would probably say, ‘What, a man who catches murderers should also try to catch muses?’”

“I’m not too surprised.”

“Thanks for telling me the truth,” he said. “What my true profession is, I’ve not decided yet!”

Chief Inspector Chen had tried not to overestimate his poet- ic talent, though critics claimed to discover in his work a combination of classical Chinese and modern Western sensibility. Occasionally he would wonder what kind of a poet he might have become had he been able to dedicate all his time to creative writing. However, that was just a tantalizing fantasy. In the last two or three weeks he had so much work to do during the day that evenings had invariably found him too exhausted to write.

“No, don’t get me wrong. I believe in your poetic touch. That’s why I forwarded your ‘Miracle’ to Xu- ’The rain has washed your shoulder length hair green -’ Sorry, that’s about the only line I remember. It just reminds me of a mermaid in a cartoon movie, rather than a Shanghai policewoman.”

“The poetic touch indeed-but I’ll let you in on a secret. I have turned you into several poems.”

“What! You are really impossible,” she said. “You never quit, do you?”

“You mean washing my hands in the river?”

“Last time,” she said laughingly, “you did not wash your hands, I noticed, before the meal in your new apartment.”

“That’s just another reason I should treat you to a lunch,” he said. “To prove my innocence.”

“You’re always too innocently busy.”

“But I will never be too busy to dine with you.”

“I’m not so sure. Nothing is more important to you than a case, not even whirling around with me.”

“Oh-you’re being impossible now.”

“Well, see you next week.”

He was pleased with the call from her. There was no denying that he had been in her thoughts, too. Or why should she have cared about the news of the seminar? She seemed to be quite excited about it. As for the poem, it was possible she had put in a word on his behalf.

Also, it was always pleasant to engage her in an exchange of wit. Casual, but intimate beneath the surface.

It was true that he had been terribly busy. Party Secretary Li had given him several topics for possible presentation at the seminar sponsored by the Central Party Institute. He had to finish all of them in two or three days, for the Party Secretary wanted to have someone in Beijing preview them. According to Li, the top Party leaders, including the ex-General Secretary of the Central Party Committee, had been invited to attend. A successful presentation there would get attention at the highest level. As result, Chief Inspector Chen had to leave most of the squad work to Detective Yu.

Wang’s call, however, once more brought the image of the dead woman to his mind. Little had yet been done about the case. All their efforts to learn the identity of the young woman had yielded no clues. He decided to have another talk with Yu.

“Yes, it’s been four days,” Yu said. “We haven’t made any progress. No evidence. No suspects. No theory.”

“Still no one reported missing?”

“No one matching her description.”

“Last time you ruled out the possibility of her being someone from the neighborhood. What about her being one of those provincial girls who come to Shanghai?” Chen said, “Since they have no family here, it would take a long time before a missing persons report came in.”

With new construction going on everywhere, new companies being founded every day, the so-called “provincials” formed a cheap mobile labor force. Many were young girls who came to find jobs in the new restaurants and hotels.

“I thought about that, too,” Yu said. “But have you noticed her fingernails? So professionally manicured, polished. And her toenails, too.”

“But she might have worked in one of those fancy hotels.”

“Let me tell you something, Comrade Chief Inspector. Last month, I saw a painting by Cheng Shifa,” Yu said, shaking his head. “It shows a Dai girl walking along the rough Yuannan mountain path, her bare feet flashing white under her long green skirt. Well, one of my colleagues in Yuannan married a Dai girl. Afterward, he told me he was shocked to see how calloused and cracked her feet were in real life.”

“You may have a point, Comrade Detective Yu,” Chen said, not too pleased with the way Yu delivered his lecture, “but if she had stayed long enough in one of those foreign hotels, been totally transformed, so to speak, that would still be possible, right?”

“If so, we should have had a report already. Those foreign general managers have a way of running their business, and their people, too. And they keep in close contact with the police.”

“True,” he said, nodding, “but we have to do something.”

“Yes, but what?”

The conversation left him disturbed. Was it true that they could not do anything but wait? Once more he took out the picture of the dead girl. The enlarged one. Though the image was not clear, he could see that she must have been an attractive woman. How could such a woman not be missed after almost a week? She should have had some people who cared for her. Friends, colleagues, parents, sisters and brothers, maybe lovers, who were anxious about her. No human being, particularly a young attractive woman, could be so alone that no one missed her when she disappeared for a week. He could not understand it.

But maybe she had said that she was going away on vacation or business. If so, it could take a long time before someone started wondering where she was.

He had a vague feeling that there was something about the case, something complicated, waiting for him. Something like a parallel to his writing experience…

A glimpse of a veiled face at the entrance of Beijing subway, a waft of the jasmine blossom fragrance from a blue teacup, or a particular rhythm in an attic with a train rumbling into the distant night, and he would have the feeling that he was on the verge of producing a wonderful poem. All this could turn out, however, to be a false lead, and he would end up crossing out fragments of unsatisfactory lines.

With this case, he did not even have such an evasive lead, nothing but an ineffable feeling. He pushed open the window. The early chorus of the cicadas assaulted him in hot waves.

“ Zhiliao, Zhiliao, Zhiliao…”

It was a homophone for “understanding” in Chinese.

Before he left for a meeting, he made a call to Dr. Xia, who had examined the victim’s body.

“Dr. Xia, I have to ask a favor of you,” Chen said.

“Anything I can do, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen.”

“Remember the young woman found in the canal in a plastic bag-case number 736? The body has not yet been disposed of, I believe. Maybe the plastic bag is still there, too. Check it for me, and more importantly, write a description of the victim for me. Not a report but a detailed description. Not of a corpse but of a human being. Vivid. Concrete. Specific. What would she have looked like alive. I know you’re busy, Dr. Xia. Please do it as a personal favor for me.”

Doctor Xia, who loved classical Chinese poetry and was aware that Chen wrote poems in the so-called modernist style, said, “I know what you want, but I cannot promise my description will be as vivid as a modernist work, including every possible detail, ugly or not.”

“Don’t be too hard on me, Dr. Xia. I’ve been incorporating a streak of Li Shangyin’s lyricism into my lines. I’ll show some to you over our next lunch together. It will be my treat, of course.”

Afterward, during the routine political meeting whose agenda was ”Studies of Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s Selected Works,” Chen found his thoughts wandering, unable to concentrate on the book in his hands.

Dr. Xia’s response however, came faster than he had expected. At two o’clock, there appeared a two-page fax in Dr. Xia’s neat handwriting: The following can be said about the woman who has been occupying your thoughts day and night: 1) She was thirty or thirty-one years old. She was five feet, four inches tall, and weighed about one hundred and ten pounds. She had a straight nose, small mouth, large eyes, and unplucked eyebrows. Her teeth were good too, even, white. She had an almost athletic build. Her breasts were small and slack, but her nipples large. With her slender waist, long, shapely legs, and round hips, she could have been a stunner-”so beautiful that the fish and the geese dive in shame.” 2) She must have taken good care of herself. Her body skin was soft and resilient, probably resulting from extensive use of lotions and creams. Her hair was black and shiny. Not a single white hair. There were no calluses on her hands or feet. Not a mark or blemish. Both her fingers and toes had been well-cared-for. 3) In the record of the autopsy I emphasize the following: She had not had a child and never had an abortion. She had no scars from operations, nor any other marks on her body. 4) She had sexual intercourse shortly before death. She could have been raped, but there were hardly any bruises on her body except a light abrasion on her collarbone, which could have resulted from passionate love-making. No blood, dirt, or skin under her nails, and her hair mostly in place. At least she did not struggle much when her clothes were taken off. She was not wearing an IUD. 5) She had had a meal about forty minutes before she died: pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans, and caviar.

After having read this memo, Chen worked out a new description, attached a photo, faxed it to a number of large work units, and had hundreds of copies ordered for delivery to Detective Yu, who was to post them in public places like store bulletin boards or bus stop signs where people might see them. That was all Chief Inspector Chen could think of.

The question was: How long would it take before he got a response?

Chapter 6

T he response came before the end of the week.

Thursday afternoon, the same week the new notice was posted, a call came in from Shanghai First Department Store. A store security man had received a copy of the detailed description, which reminded him of a section manager who had not yet returned from vacation. Her colleagues had not been worried since it was common for people to spend a couple of extra days on vacation. When the security man showed the picture to the people who worked with her, she was immediately recognized.

“The picture is not clear, but they are all positive.” According to the security man, this was because she was a well-known woman. “Her name is Guan Hongying. Guan, you know, for closing the door. Hong for the color red, and Ying for heroine.”

“Red Heroine. What a revolutionary name! Guan Hongying,” Chief Inspector Chen said. “It sounds familiar.”

“She was a national model worker, thirty-one years old, single, who had worked in the store for more than ten years. A Party member, of course.”

“What! A national model worker-Oh now I remember,” Chen said. “Thank you. We appreciate your help, comrade. Contact us when you have any new information.” In spite of his morning headache, Chen began to feel more hopeful than he had for a long time. Shanghai First was the largest department store in the city. A handful of security men in plainclothes were stationed there. While their main job was to deal with shoplifters, they knew how to gather information.

Sure enough, before lunchtime more information rolled in. The dead woman’s identity was confirmed. Her dental records matched her medical history. Guan Hongying, thirty-one, unmarried, head of the cosmetics section, Party member for eleven years, national model worker and attendant at the Party’s Ninth and Tenth Congresses. She had left home on May tenth for vacation and had since contacted no one.

At one o’clock, Chen got the first picture of Guan from a courier. Then the fax machine received a dozen more, as well as a huge amount of writing about her. Most of the pictures were clippings from newspapers and magazines. And all the writings were propaganda, about her commitment to her work, her noble spirit in serving the people, and her selfless dedication to the communist cause-all the familiar rhetoric of the Party’s newspapers. As he read on, Chief Inspector Chen had second thoughts about taking the case. The rape and murder of a national model worker! Such a case, if solved, might still be hushed up for political considerations, but if it were not solved, political pressure could be expected from higher authorities. Still, he started to put some data together for a new case report. NAME: Guan, Hongying DATE OF BIRTH: December 11, 1958 RACE: Han ADDRESS: Lane, Number 18, Lane 235, Hubei Rd. (Dormitory of the First Department Store) STATUS: Single OCCUPATION: Cadre (Head of cosmetics section, Party member, National Model Worker) NEXT OF KIN: (mother, Alzheimer’s patient in Ankang Nursing Home) WORK HISTORY: From 1979 to 1990

At five thirty, an emergency meeting was called in the Number 3 Conference Room of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The meeting was presided over with exacting authority by Party Secretary Li, a stout man in his late fifties, whose face was dominated by the heavy bags under his eyes. He sat upright at the head of the long oak desk. Chen arrived first. Yu came to sit beside him. Sitting at the other end of the table, Commissar Zhang Zhiqiang made an unexpected appearance. A man of Zhang’s high rank did not have to attend such a meeting. Nor was he a member of the special case squad.

“Thank you for coming, Commissar Zhang,” Party Secretary Li said, paying his tribute to the old man before he started his speech.

Commissar Zhang had joined the Party in the early forties and received an 11th ranking in the system after 1949. Party Secretary Li, on the other hand, had become a Party member in the fifties, so his ranking was much lower. As always, Chen greeted Commissar Zhang respectfully. Zhang did not think too well of Chen, and on several occasions had come close to labeling him a liberal.

“This is a case of paramount political importance, comrades,” Party Secretary Li began. “That’s why we are having the meeting today. The mayor himself has just telephoned. He believes that it could be a serious political case. This is his instruction to us: ‘Do your best, and solve the case as soon as possible. The city government is behind your work. Hold no press conferences. Do not reveal any details concerning her death’.”

Chen was amazed. The dead woman had been somebody, her name frequently mentioned in newspapers, her image often seen on TV, but she had not been so important that the mayor himself should have made a call to the bureau, and so soon.

“But it’s a homicide case,” Detective Yu said.

The Party Secretary went on, “Comrades, we must realize, Comrade Guan could have been murdered out of political considerations. She was a well-known role model for the whole country-her tragic death is a significant loss to our Party, and a symbolic blow to the public security of our socialist society.”

The Party Secretary was going too far, Chen reflected. As a party official, Li did not know much about homicide. But then, that might be the very reason Li, rather than anybody else, was the Party secretary; he was capable of seeing politics in everything.

“Besides, the way she was so brutally murdered could damage the pure image of our great Party.”

That part was not difficult to accept. Chen nodded. The Party authorities would like very much to hush up the sensational details. The picture of National Model Worker Guan’s naked body, violated and strangled, would contradict the hallowed image of a model worker fully dressed in a gray Mao suit.

Chen thought he saw an almost imperceptible smile on Yu’s face.

“So, a special case group is to be formed. Chief Inspector Chen will be in charge of it. And Detective Yu is Chen’s assistant. In addition, Commissar Zhang will be the adviser for the investigation.”

“What if it is just a homicide case?” Yu asked doggedly.

“If it turns out to be no more than a homicide case, we’ll solve it, too, of course. We just need to keep our minds open. The group will have a special budget. If more men are needed, Chief Inspector Chen can ask me.”

That, Chen thought, was perhaps the secret of Li’s success. Full of political nonsense, but not unaware of being so. So Li never forgot to add a few not-so-political words, words that made a little sense. That made Li somewhat different from other Party cadres.

Party Secretary Li was concluding his speech: “As you all know, this case has some sensitive aspects. It calls for a careful approach. So keep all information from the press. Anything that can lead to unnecessary speculation will not help our investigation.”

“I’ve got your point, Comrade Party Secretary.” Chen spoke for the first time. “With Comrade Commissar Zhang as our adviser, we will do our best and solve the case.”

After the meeting, Chen stayed on with Li, alone.

“I want you to do a good job,” Li said. “It may be a difficult case, but a successful conclusion will come to the attention of higher authorities.”

“I understand, but Commissar Zhang-” Chen did not finish the sentence.

Zhang was generally considered the most orthodox Party commissar in the bureau, a political hard-liner of the older generation.

“Commissar Zhang has reached the age for retirement,” Li said, “but what with inflation, and with the rising standard of living, it can be difficult for anyone to live on his pension alone. So the Party authorities have come up with a new regulation for the old comrades. They have to retire in accordance with the cadre retirement policy, no question about it, but as long as they remain in good health, they can do some secondary work appropriate to their age. In that way, they may still enjoy their full pay. ‘Adviser’ is an honorary position-he’ll just give advice or suggestions. You have full authority as the head of the group.”

“So what shall we do with him?”

“Just keep him informed about the investigation.”

“Ah well, I see.” Chen sighed.

Chen saw only too clearly what he was in for: four or five calls from the commissar as a daily routine, not to mention the necessity of listening to Zhang’s long lectures larded with quotations from Mao, Deng, or The People’s Daily, and the necessity of suppressing frequent yawns.

“It’s not that bad. At least he is an incorruptible commissar.”

Depending on one’s perspective, that was a good point-or a bad one.

“It’s in your interest, too, to work closely with a comrade of the older generation,” the Party Secretary concluded in a lowered voice.

When Chen returned to the main office, he saw Detective Yu scanning a group of pictures at his desk. Chen took a seat opposite his assistant.

“Was Guan that important?” Yu asked.

“A national model worker is always important.”

“But that was in the sixties and seventies, Comrade Lei Feng and all that propaganda.”

“Yes, we have been brought up with these communist role model myths,” Chen said. “In fact, such a concept is not without its root in Confucianism. Only Confucian models were called sages, whereas in the twentieth century, they are called model workers, model peasants, model soldiers. And even today, I can still sing the song, ‘Learn from the Good Example of Comrade Lei Feng.’”

“So can I,” Yu said. “There’s another one. ‘Be a Good Soldier to Chairman Mao.’ I was humming the tune the other day, and my son was totally lost.”

These songs had been very popular throughout the nation in the early sixties. Comrade Lei Feng was a model PLA soldier who served the people wholeheartedly, helped others in need, and never cared about his own interest. The Party lauded such mythical communist models to whom the people were expected to measure up, giving but not taking, contributing but not complaining, conforming but not making trouble. After the Cultural Revolution, and especially after the summer of 1989, however, few really believed in the orthodox propaganda.

“So,” Chen said, “Comrade Lei Feng may be more needed than ever now.”

“Why?”

“Contemporary social polarization. Nowadays, a handful of upstarts live in luxury beyond ordinary people’s dreams, but so many workers are laid off-’waiting-for-retirement’ or ‘waiting-for-assignment.’ Many people have a hard time making ends meet. So propaganda advocating a selfless communist model is all the more necessary.”

“That’s true.” Yu nodded. “Those high cadres and their children, the HCC, have everything and take it for granted.”

“That’s why the propaganda ministry is trying very hard to come up with some contemporary role model. Guan was, at least, a pretty young woman. A considerable improvement-in the fashion-shop window of politics.”

“So you don’t believe in the political shit either.”

“Well, so much for political myths,” Chen said. “What do you think of the case?”

“It’s anything but a political case.”

“Yes, put politics aside.”

“Guan was attacked that night on her way to a vacation. Forced to take off her clothes in a car, raped, and then strangled to death. Since she was not dating anyone at the time of her death-according to the department store-we can presume that the murderer was a stranger, probably the taxi driver.”

“So what action do you suggest?”

“Inquire at the taxi bureau. Collect the drivers’ receipts for that night, and check the records at the bureau. And of course, question those with suspicious pasts.”

It was the same hypothesis, Guan as the victim of a taxi driver. Detective Yu had discussed it with Chen even before they had established the identity of the dead woman.

At least it explained how the body came to be found in that distant canal.

“Yes, that makes sense. Cover all the areas you think worth looking into.”

“I’ll do my best,” Yu said, “but as I’ve mentioned, it won’t be easy, with so many cars running around the city nowadays.”

“In the meantime, let’s do the regular checkup as well. I’ll go to the dorm building where Guan lived, and you’ll interview her colleagues in the department store.”

“Fine,” Yu said. “It’s a special political case, I understand. But what about Commissar Zhang?”

“Well, keep him informed about our work. Whenever he wants to say something, just listen to him-as respectfully as possible,” Chen said. “After all, Zhang’s a veteran cadre, influential in his way.”

Chapter 7

D etective Yu woke up early. Still sleepy, he took a look at the radio clock on the nightstand. It was barely six, but he knew a full day awaited him. He got up, moving carefully so as not to wake up his wife, Peiqin, who curled up against the towel-covered pillow, a striped blanket tucked down to her ankles, her bare feet exposed on the sheet.

As a rule, Yu got up at seven, jogged along Jinglin Road, read the morning newspaper, had his breakfast, sent his son Qinqin off to school, and left for the bureau. But that morning he decided to break this rule. He had to do some thinking. So he chose Renmin Road to do his jogging.

His mind was on Guan Hongying’s case as he ran along at his customary pace, inhaling the fresh morning air. The street was quiet, with only a couple of old people doing Taiji on the sidewalk by the East Sea Furniture Store. A milkman was sitting in a corner, staring at a small crate of bottles at his feet, murmuring to himself, counting perhaps.

This was just another homicide case. Detective Yu would of course do his best to solve it. He had no objection to doing so, but he did not like the way the investigation was going. Politics. Nothing but damned politics. What was the difference between a model worker and non-model worker lying naked against the bare walls of an autopsy room?

According to the store’s preliminary report Guan was not involved with anyone at the time of her death. In fact, all these years, Guan seemed not to have dated anybody. She had been too busy for an affair. So it could only be one of the common rape and murder cases, and the rapist, a total stranger to her, had assaulted her without knowing her identity, and killed her somewhere on her way to vacation on the night of May tenth. With neither evidence nor witnesses, the investigation would be difficult. Similar cases they had been assigned led nowhere despite all their efforts.

Detective Yu had a theory of his own concerning rapists. Most of them were repeaters who would never rest with one or two victims. So sooner or later they would be caught and convicted. The police could do little without clues or concrete evidence. It was a matter of time. Just waiting might seem too casual, considering what had been done to Guan. But what else could a cop possibly do? Detective Yu was conscientious. He took pride in being a good cop-one who could make a difference, but he knew what could be done and what could not. It was a matter of priorities.

As for any political factors being involved in this case, that was far-fetched.

Chinese people were complaining about a lot of things these days-corruption, unemployment, inflation, housing shortages, traffic congestion, and so on, but nothing related directly or indirectly to Guan. True, Guan was a national model worker and political celebrity, yet her death would leave no dent in China’s socialist system. If so-called counterrevolutionaries had intended to sabotage the existing system, another far more symbolic target should have been chosen.

Yu was fed up with the Party Secretary’s talk.

Still, he had to play his part. It could be crucial to his career goal, which was a simple one: to do better than his father, Yu Shenglin, usually known by his nickname, “Old Hunter.” The old man, though an experienced and capable officer, was still a sergeant at retirement, with a meager pension, hardly enough to indulge himself with a pot of Dragon Well tea.

When Yu came back, panting and wiping his brow, Peiqin had already set a full breakfast on the table. a bowl of steaming beef noodle soup with a handful of green scallions.

“For you,” she said. “It’s still hot. I’ve had mine with Qinqin.”

Wearing a fluffy robe, she sat hunched with her elbows on the table, supporting her chin with her hands, and looked at him over the soup. She was a few months older than he. As an ancient Chinese saying went, “An older wife knows how to take care of a husband.” But with her long hair hanging down her back in ripples, she looked younger.

The noodles were good, the room clean, Qinqin already dressed for school, carrying a chicken sandwich with an apple in a sealed plastic bag. How could she have managed to do so many things in such a short while, he wondered.

And things were not easy for her, not just at home. She worked as an accountant in a small, plain restaurant called Four Seas, tucked far away in the Yangpu District. She had been assigned the job after coming back to Shanghai with him. In those days, the Office of Educated Youth assigned jobs, and decisions were made regardless of an applicant’s education, intentions, or location. There was no use complaining since the office had a hard time dealing with the millions of ex-educated youths who’d returned to Shanghai. Any job opening was a blessing. But she had to make a fifty-five-minute bike ride from home to the restaurant. A tortuous journey, riding three or four bikes abreast in the rush-hour traffic. Last November she had fallen after a night’s snow. She had needed seven or eight stitches, though the bike was hardly damaged, apart from a dent in the mudguard. And she was still riding the same old bike, rain or shine. She could have asked for a transfer to a closer restaurant. She didn’t. Four Seas had been doing quite well, providing many perks and benefits. Some other state-run restaurants were so poorly managed that the profits were hardly enough even to maintain the employees’ clinic.

“You ought to eat more,” she said.

“I can’t eat much in the morning, you know.”

“Your job is tough. No time for lunch today again, I am afraid. Not like mine in the restaurant.”

That was one disadvantage of being a cop, and an advantage of working at her restaurant job. She did not have to worry about her meals. Sometimes she even managed to bring home restaurant food-free, delicious, specially cooked by the chef.

He had not finished the noodles when the telephone started ringing. She looked at him, and he let it ring for a while before picking it up.

“Hi, this is Chen. Sorry about calling so early.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “Anything new-any change?”

“No,” Chen said. “Nothing new. No change in our schedule either, except that Commissar Zhang wants to meet you sometime this afternoon. Say before four o’clock. Give him a call first.”

“Why?”

“Commissar Zhang insists on doing something himself, he wants to conduct an interview. And then he would like to compare notes with you.”

“It’s no problem for me. I can set out earlier. But do we have to do this every day?”

“Perhaps I’ll have to. Since it’s the first day, you just do whatever the commissar wants you to.”

Putting down the phone, Yu turned to Peiqin with a sigh.

“You’ve got to take Qinqin to school today, I’m afraid.”

“No problem,” she said, “but you are doing too much for too little.”

“You think I don’t know? A police officer makes four hundred and twenty Yuan a month, and a tea-leaf-egg vendor makes twice as much on the street.”

“And that chief inspector of yours, what’s his name-still single, but he’s got an apartment.”

“Perhaps I was born a mistake,” Yu was trying to sound humorous. “A snake can never become a dragon. Not like the chief inspector.”

“No, don’t say that, Guangming,” Peiqin said, starting to clear the table. “You’re my dragon. Don’t ever forget that.”

But Yu felt increasingly disturbed as he stuffed the newspaper into his pants pocket, walking toward the bus stop on Jungkong Road. He had been born in the last month of the dragon year, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, supposedly a lucky year in the twelve animal cycle zodiac. According to the Gregorian calendar, however, the date was early in January of 1953, therefore the beginning of the snake year. A mistake. A snake’s not a dragon, and it could never be as lucky. Not as lucky as Chief Inspector Chen. When the bus came, however, he was just lucky enough to get a seat by the window.

Detective Yu, who had entered the police force several years earlier than Chen and solved several cases, did not even dream of becoming a chief inspector. A position within his reasonable reach would be that of a squad leader. But that, too, had been taken away from him. In the special case squad, he was only the assistant to Chief Inspector Chen.

It was nothing but politics that Chen had been promoted because of his educational background. In the sixties, the more education one had, the more political unreliability one represented- in Chairman Mao’s logic-as a result of being more exposed to Western ideas and ideologies. In the mid-eighties, under Comrade Deng’s leadership, the Party’s cadres-selecting policies had changed. That made sense, but not necessarily in the police bureau, not in Chief Inspector Chen’s case. However, Chen got the position, and then the apartment.

Still, Yu was ready to admit that Chen, though not that experienced, was an honest and conscientious police officer, intelligent, well-connected, and dedicated to his job. That was a lot to say about someone in the bureau. He had been impressed by Chen’s criticism of model myths the previous day.

He decided not to have a confrontation with Chen. A futile investigation would probably take two or three weeks. And if the case could be solved through their efforts, so much the better, of course.

The air grew more and more stuffy in the bus. Looking out the window, he realized that he was sitting there like a sentimental fool, feeling sorry for himself. When the bus arrived at Xizhuang Road, Detective Yu was the first one out the door. He took a shortcut through the People’s Park. One of its gates opened out to Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s main thoroughfare, almost an extended shopping center in itself, stretching from the Bund to the Jian’an Temple area. The people were all in high spirits. Shoppers. Tourists. Peddlers. Messengers. A singing group was performing in front of the Helen Hotel, a young girl playing an ancient zither in the middle. A billboard in big Chinese characters exhorted Shanghai residents to promote good hygiene and preserve the environment by refraining from littering and spitting. Retired workers were waving red flags at corners, directing traffic and admonishing offenders. The sun was out, gleaming on the grated spittoons built into the sidewalks.

Detective Yu thought that he was merging with all of them. And he was their protector, too. But that, he admitted, was wishful thinking.

The First Department Store stood in the middle of Nanjing Road, facing the People’s Park across Xizhuang Road. As always, the store was crowded, not only with local people, but also with people from other cities. Yu had to squeeze through the throng at the entrance. The cosmetics section was on the first floor. He stood close to it, with his back against a column, watching for a while. A lot of people flocked around the counters. Large pictures of beautiful models greeted the young shoppers, their varied body language all the more alluring under the bright lights. The youthful saleswomen were demonstrating the use of the cosmetics. They, too, looked quite attractive in green-and-white-striped uniforms, the ceaseless play of the neon lights shimmering around them.

He took the elevator up to General Manager Xiao Chi’s office on the third floor.

General Manager Xiao greeted him in a spacious office, where the walls displayed an impressive assortment of awards and gold-framed pictures. One of them, Yu noticed, was Guan shaking hands with Comrade Deng Xiaoping at the Tenth Conference of the Party Central Committee.

“Comrade Guan was an important cadre of our department store. A loyal Party member,” Xiao said. “A big loss to the Party, her tragic death. We will do whatever possible to assist your investigation.”

“Thank you, Comrade General Manager,” Yu said. “You may start by telling me what you know about her work in the store.”

“She was a manager of the cosmetics section. She had worked at the store for twelve years. She did her job conscientiously, attended every Party group meeting, and helped other people in whatever way she could. A role model in every aspect of her life. Last year, for instance, she donated three hundred Yuan to Jiangshu flood victims. In response to the government’s call, she also bought a large sum of government bonds every year.”

“What about people’s opinion of her work?”

“She was very efficient. A competent, methodical, and highly conscientious manager. People always had a high opinion of her work.”

“A model worker indeed,” Yu said, knowing that most of General Manager Xiao’s information could have been obtained from her official file. “Well, I’ve got to ask you questions about something else.”

“Yes, any question you want to ask.”

“Was she popular-with the other staff?”

“I think so, but you’ll have to ask them. I can’t think of any reason why she should not be.”

“And as far as you are aware, Guan had no enemies in the store?”

“Enemies? Now Comrade Detective Yu, that’s a strong word. She might have had some people who didn’t like her so much. So has everybody. You, too, perhaps. But you don’t go in fear of being murdered, right? No, I wouldn’t say she had enemies.”

“What about the people in her private life?”

“That I don’t know,” the general manager said, slowly tracing the line of his left eyebrow with his middle finger. “She was a young woman, she never talked to me about her personal life. What we talked about was work, work, and work. She was very conscious of her position as manager, and as a national model worker. Sorry, I cannot help you.”

“She had a lot of friends?”

“Well, she hadn’t too many close friends in the store. No time, perhaps. All the Party activities and meetings.”

“She had not discussed her vacation plans with you?”

“Not with me. It wouldn’t have been a long vacation, so she did not have to. I have asked several of her colleagues; she had not talked with them either.”

Detective Yu decided that it was time to interview the other employees.

A list of people had been prepared for him.

“They will tell you whatever they know. If there’s anything else I can do, please contact me,” Xiao said earnestly.

The interviews were to be held in a formal conference room, spacious enough to seat hundreds of people. The interviewees were waiting in an adjacent room, accessible through a glass door. Detective Yu was supposed to call them in one by one. Pan Xiaoxai, a close friend of Guan’s, was the first. With two small children at home, one of them disabled, she had to hurry back home during the lunch break. She had been sobbing in the waiting room. He could tell that from her swollen eyes.

“It’s awful-” she said bleakly, taking off her glasses and dabbing her eyes with a silk handkerchief. “I can’t believe that Guan’s dead. .. I mean-what a wonderful Party member. And to think, the last day Guan was in the store, I happened to have the day off.”

“I understand your feelings, Comrade Pan,” he said. “You were one of her closest friends, I’ve heard.”

“Yes, we’ve worked together for years-six years.” She wiped her eyes and sniffed loudly, as if anxious to prove the genuineness of their friendship. “I’ve been working here for ten years, but in the toy section first.”

In reply to Yu’s question about Guan’s personal life, Pan admitted reluctantly, however, that the deceased had not been that close to her. In all those years, she had been to Guan’s dorm only once. In fact, what they had been doing together was mostly window shopping during lunch break, comparing prices, or having curried beef noodles in Sheng’s Restaurant across the street. That was about it.

“Did you ask her anything about her personal life?”

“No, I never did.”

“How could that be? You were close friends, weren’t you?”

“Um-she had a certain way about her. Difficult to define, but like a line was drawn. After all, she was a national celebrity.”

At the end of the interview, Pan looked up through her tearstained glasses, “You will find out who did it, won’t you?”

“Of course we will.”

Zhong Ailin, who worked with Guan on the morning of May tenth, was next. She started to offer her information immediately. “Comrade Detective Yu, I’m afraid I won’t be helpful. On the morning of May tenth, we talked very little, two or three words at the most. To me, she seemed all right. She didn’t tell me that she was leaving for a real vacation. As far as I can remember, she mentioned that she was going to take only a few days off. That’s quite normal. As the department head, she sometimes worked extra hours. So she had earned a lot of days off.”

“Did she say anything else to you during that day or that week?”

“She was a national model worker, always busy, working and serving people wholeheartedly, as Chairman Mao said long ago. So most of the talking she did was to her customers, not to us.”

“Any idea who might have killed her?”

“No, none at all.”

“Could it be somebody who worked with her?”

“I don’t think so. She was not a difficult person to get along with, and she did her job well.”

According to Zhong Ailin, some of her colleagues might have been envious of Guan, but it was undeniable that she knew the ropes at the store and was a decent and reliable woman-politics aside.

“As for her life outside of the store,” Zhong concluded, “I don’t know anything-except that she was not dating anyone-had probably never dated anyone.”

Zhong was followed by Mrs. Weng, who had worked the afternoon shift on May tenth. Mrs. Weng started by declaring that the investigation was none of her business, and that she had not noticed anything unusual about Guan that last day.

“There was nothing different about her,” she said. “She might have put a light touch of eye shadow on her eyelids. But it was nothing. We have a lot of free samples.”

“What else?”

“She made a phone call.”

“When?”

“It would be about six thirty, I think.”

“Did she have to wait long before she started talking?”

“No. She started talking immediately.”

“Anything you happened to overhear?”

“No. It was short,” she said. “It was her business, not mine.”

Mrs. Weng talked more than the first two, however, offering opinions even without being asked. And she went on speculating about some information which she believed might be of interest. Several weeks earlier, Mrs. Weng had gone with a Hong Kong friend to the Dynasty KTV Club. In the semi-dark corridor, she saw a woman emerging from a private room with a tall man, practi- cally leaning on his shoulder-the woman’s clothes in disarray, several buttons undone, her face flushed, and her steps reeling. A shameless karaoke girl, Mrs. Weng thought. A private karaoke room was an open secret, almost a synonym for indecent practices. But then it occurred to Mrs. Wen that the karaoke girl looked like someone she knew. As the image of the drunken slut was at such odds with the one flashing through her mind, recognition did not come until a few seconds later-Guan Hongying! Mrs. Weng could scarcely believe it, but she thought it was her.

“Did you take a closer look at her?”

“When recognition came to me, she had already walked past me. It wouldn’t do for me to chase someone there.”

“So you’re not positive.”

“No. But it was my impression.”

Next on the list was Gu Chaoxi. Gu, though older than Guan by more than fifteen years, had been trained by Guan at the department store.

“Do you remember anything unusual about Guan before her death?” Detective Yu went directly to the point.

“Unusual-what do you mean?”

“Coming in late for work, for instance. Or leaving too early for home. Or any particular change you noticed about her.”

“No, not that I’m aware of,” Gu said, “but everything has been changing so fast. Our cosmetics section used to have only two counters. Now we have eight, with so many different products, and a lot of them made in the U.S.A. Of course, people are changing, too. Guan’s no exception.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“The first day I came to work here-that’s seven years ago-she gave all of us a lecture I still remember, on the importance of adhering to the Party’s hard-working and plain-living tradition. In fact, she had made a point of using no perfume and wearing no jewelry. But a few months ago, I saw her wearing a diamond necklace.”

“Really,” he said. “Do you think it was genuine?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m not saying there was anything wrong with her wearing a necklace. It’s just in the nineties people are changing. Another example, she went on a vacation half a year ago, last October, I think. And then in less than six months, she took a second one.”

“Yes, that’s something,” he said. “Do you know where she went last October?”

“The Yellow Mountains. She showed me pictures from there.”

“Did she travel alone?”

“I think she was alone. Nobody else was in the pictures.”

“And this time?”

“I knew she was going on vacation, but she did not tell me where, or with whom,” she said, looking at the door. “That’s all I know, I’m afraid, Comrade Detective.”

Despite the central air conditioning in the room, Detective Yu sweated profusely, watching Gu walk out. He recognized the familiar malaise that preceded a headache, but he had to proceed. There were five more names on the list. The next two hours, however, yielded even less information. He put all the notes together.

On May tenth, Guan had come to work as usual, around 8 A. M She was amiable as always, a true national model worker, toward her customers as well as her colleagues. She dined at the canteen at twelve o’clock, and she had a routine meeting with other Party members at the store late in the afternoon. She did not mention to her colleagues where she was going, though she said something about a vacation. At five, she could have left for home, but as usual, she stayed late. Around six thirty, she made a phone call, a short one, but no one knew to whom. After the phone call, she left the store, apparently for home. The last time she was seen by anyone there was around seven ten.

It was not much, and Detective Yu had a feeling that the people had been rather guarded talking about Guan, with Mrs. Weng the only exception. But then her information was not something he could count on.

It was long past lunchtime, but on his list there was still one person, who happened to have the day off. He left the department store at two forty. At a street corner minimarket, he bought a couple of pork-stuffed pancakes. Peiqin was right in her concern about his missing lunch, but there was no time for him to think about being nutritionally correct. The last person’s name was Zhang Yaqing, and she lived on Yunnan Road. She was an assistant manager working in the cosmetics section, who had called in sick for the day. According to some employees, Zhang had been once regarded as a potential rival for Guan, but Zhang had then married and settled into a more prosaic life.

Detective Yu was familiar with that section of Yunnan Road. It was only fifteen minutes’ walk from the store. North of Jinglin Road, Yunnan Road had turned into a prosperous “Delicacy Street” with a number of snack bars and restaurants, but to the south, the street remained largely unchanged, consisting of old, ramshackle houses built in the forties, with baskets, stoves, and common sinks still lined up on the sidewalk outside.

He arrived at a gray brick house, went up the stairs, and knocked on a door on the second floor. A woman opened the door immediately. She was in her early thirties, with ordinary but fine features, her short hair deep black. She wore blue jeans and a white blouse with the sleeves rolled up high. She was barefoot. She looked rather slender, and she was brandishing a huge cloth strip mop in her hand.

“Comrade Zhang Yaqing?”

“Yes?”

“I am Detective Yu Guangming, of the Shanghai Police Bureau.”

“Hello, Detective Yu. Come on in. The general manager has called, telling me about your investigation.”

They shook hands.

Her palm was cool, callused, like Peiqin’s.

“Sorry, I was just cleaning up the room.”

It was a cubicle of eight square meters, containing two beds and a white dresser. A folding table and chairs stood against the wall. There was an enlarged picture of her with a smiling big man and a smiling little boy. The Happy Family photo. She pulled out a chair, unfolded it, and gestured to him to sit down.

“Would you like a drink?”

“No, thanks.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Just answer a few questions about Guan.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, settling into another chair.

She drew back her legs under it, as if intent on hiding her bare feet.

“How long have you worked with Guan?”

“About five years.”

“What do you think of her?

“She was a celebrated model worker, of course, and a loyal Party member, too.”

“Could you be a bit more specific?”

“Well, politically, she was active-and correct-in every movement launched by the Party authorities. Earnest, loyal, passionate. As our department head, she was conscientious and thoroughgoing in her job: The first to arrive, and often the last to leave. I am not going to say that Comrade Guan was too easy to get along with, but how else could she have been, since she was such a political celebrity?”

“You have mentioned her political activities. Is it possible that through those activities she made some enemies? Did anyone hate her?”

“No, I don’t think so. She was not responsible for the political movements. No one would blame her for the Cultural Revolution. And to be fair to her, she never pushed things too far. As for someone who might have hated her in her personal life, I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it.”

“Well-let me put it this way,” Yu said. “What do you think of her as a woman?”

“It’s difficult for me to say. She was very private. To a fault, I would say.”

“What do you mean?”

“She never talked about her own life. Believe it or not, she did not have a boyfriend. Nor did she seem to have any close friends, for that matter. That’s something beyond me. She was a national model worker, but that did not mean that she had to live her whole life for politics. Not for a woman. Only in one of those modern Beijing operas, maybe. You remember, like Madam A Qin?”

Yu nodded, smiling.

Madam A Qin was a well-known character in Shajiabang, a modern Beijing opera performed during the Cultural Revolution, when any romantic passion-even that between husband and wife-had been considered to detract from people’s political commitment. Madam A Qin thus had the convenience of not living with her husband in the opera.

“She might have been too busy,” he said.

“Well, I’m not saying that she did not have a personal life. Rather, she made a point of covering it up. We’re women. We fall in love, get married, and have kids. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“So you’re not sure that she had never had an affair?”

“I’m telling you everything I know, but I don’t like to gossip about the dead.”

“Yes, I understand. Thank you so much for your information.”

As he stood up, he took one more glance around the room, noticing a variety of perfumes, lipsticks, and nail polish on the dresser, some of the brands he had seen on glamorous movie stars in TV commercials. They were obviously beyond her means.

“There’re all samples,” she said, following his gaze, “from the First Department Store.”

“Of course,” Yu said, wondering whether Comrade Guan Hongying would have chosen to keep all her cosmetics more discreetly hidden in a drawer. “And good-bye.”

Detective Yu was not happy about his day’s work. There was not much to talk about with Commissar Zhang, but he had never had much to talk about with the commissar. He called from a public phone booth, but Commissar Zhang was not in the office. Yu did not have to listen to a political lecture delivered by the old commissar, so he went home.

No one was there. He saw a note on table, saying, “I’m with Qinqin at his school for a meeting. Warm the meal for yourself.”

Holding a bowl of rice with strips of roast duck, he stepped into the courtyard, where he had a talk with his father, Old Hunter.

“A cold-blooded rape and murder case,” Old Hunter said, frowning.

Yu remembered the frustration his father had suffered in the early sixties, dealing with a similar sex murder case, which had taken place in the Baoshan rice paddy. The girl’s body had been found almost immediately. The police arrived on the scene in less than half an hour. One witness had glimpsed the suspect and gave a fairly recognizable description. There were some fresh footprints and a cigarette butt. Old Hunter worked late into the night, month after month, but all the work led to nothing. Several years later, the culprit was caught in the act of selling pictures of Madame Mao as a bewitching second-class actress in the early thirties-a wanton goddess in a low-cut gown. Such a crime at the time was more than enough cause to put him to death. During his examination, he admitted the murder years earlier in Baoshan. The case, as well as the unexpected solution-too late to be of any comfort-had left an indelible impact on Old Hunter.

Such a case was like a tunnel where one could move on and on and on without hope of seeing the light.

“Well, there could be a political angle, according to our Party secretary.”

“Look, son,” Old Hunter said, “you don’t have to give me the crap about political significance. An old horse knows the way, as the saying goes. If such a homicide case isn’t solved in the first two or three weeks, the solution probability drops off to zero. Politics or no.”

“But we have to do something, you know, as a special case group.”

“A special case group, indeed. If a serial killer were involved, the existence of your group would be more justified.”

“That’s what I figured, but the people high up won’t give us a break, especially Commissar Zhang.”

“Don’t talk to me about your commissar either. A pain in the ass for thirty years. I’ve never gotten along with him. As for your chief inspector, I understand why he wants to go on with the investigation. Politics.”

“He’s so good at politics.”

“Well, don’t get me wrong,” the old man said. “I’m not against your boss. On the contrary, I believe he is a conscientious young officer in his way. Heaven is above his head, the earth is under his feet-at least he knows that. I’ve spent all these years in the force, and I can judge a man.”

After their talk, Yu stayed in the courtyard alone, smoking, tapping the ash into the empty rice bowl with roast duck bones forming a cross at the bottom.

He affixed a second cigarette to the butt of the first when it had been smoked down, and then added another, until it almost looked like an antenna, trembling in its effort to receive some imperceptible information from the evening sky.

Chapter 8

C hief Inspector Chen, too, had had a busy morning. At seven o’clock he’d met with Commissar Zhang in the bureau.

“It’s a difficult case,” Commissar Zhang said, nodding after Chen had briefed him. “But we mustn’t be afraid of hardship or death.”

Don’t be afraid of hardship or death- one of Chairman Mao’s quotations during the Cultural Revolution. Now it reminded Chen of a faded poster torn from the wall of a deserted building. Being a commissar for so many years had turned Zhang into something like an echoing machine. An old politician, out of touch with the times. The Commissar was, however, anything but a blockhead; it was said that he had been one of the most brilliant students at Southwest United University in the forties.

“Yes, you’re right,” Chen said. “I’m going to Guan’s dorm this morning.”

“That’s important. There might be some evidence left in her room,” Commissar Zhang said. “Keep me informed of anything you find there.”

“I will.”

“Have Detective Yu contact me, too.”

“I will tell him.”

“Now what about me?” Zhang said. “I also need to do something, not just be an advice-giving bystander.”

“But we have every aspect of the initial investigation covered at present. Detective Yu’s interviewing Guan’s colleagues, and I’m going to check her room, talk to her neighbors, and afterward, if I have the time, I will visit her mother in the nursing home.”

“Then I’ll go to the nursing home. She’s old, too. We may have things to talk about between us.”

“But you really don’t have to do anything. It is not suitable for a veteran cadre like you to undertake the routine investigations.”

“Don’t tell me that, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Zhang said, getting up with a frown. “Just go to Guan’s dorm now.”

The dormitory, located on Hubei Road, was a building shared by several work units, including that of the First Department Store, which had a few rooms there for its employees. Considering Guan’s political status, she could have gotten something better-a regular apartment like his, Chen thought. Maybe that was what made Guan a model worker.

Hubei was a small street tucked between Zhejiang Road and Fujian Road, not too far away from Fuzhou Road to the north, a main cultural street boasting several well-known bookstores. The location was convenient. The Number 71 bus was only ten minutes’ walk away, on Yan’an Road, and it went directly to the First Department Store.

Chen got off the bus at Zhejiang Road. He decided to walk around the neighborhood, which could speak volumes about the people living there-as in Balzac’s novels. In Shanghai, however, it was not up to the people to decide where they would get a room, but to their work units, Chen realized. Still, he strolled around the area, thinking.

The street was one of the few still covered with cobblestones. There were quite a number of small, squalid lanes and alleys on both sides. Children raced about like scraps of paper blowing in the wind, running out of one lane into another.

Chen took out his notebook. Guan Hongying’s address read: Number 18, Lane 235, Hubei Road. But he was unable to find the lane.

He asked several people, showing them the address. No one seemed to have heard of the lane. Hubei was not a long street. In less than fifteen minutes, he had walked to the end and back. Still no success. So he stepped into a small grocery store on the corner, but the old grocer also shook his head. There were five or six hoodlums lounging by the grocery, young and shabby, with sparse whiskers and shining earrings, who looked at him challengingly.

The day was hot, without a breath of air. He wondered whether he had made a mistake, but a call to Commissar Zhang confirmed that the address was right. Then he dialed Comrade Xu Kexin, a senior librarian of the bureau-better known by his nickname of Mr. Walking Encyclopedia-who had worked in the bureau for over thirty years, and had a phenomenal knowledge of the city’s history.

“I need to ask a favor of you,” he said. “Right now I’m at Hubei Street, between Zhejiang and Fujian Road, looking for Lane 235. The address is correct, but I cannot find that lane.”

“Hubei Street, hmm,” Xu said. “It was known, before 1949, as a notorious quarter.”

“What?” Chen asked, hearing Xu leafing through pages, “‘Quarter’-what do you mean?”

“Ah yes, a brothel quarter.”

“What’s that got to do with the lane I cannot find?”

“A lot,” Xu said. “These lanes used to have different names. Notorious names, in fact. After liberation in 1949, the government put an end to prostitution, and changed the names of the lanes, but the people there may still use the old names for convenience sake, I believe. Yes, Lane 235, I’ve got it here. This lane was called Qinghe Lane, one of the most infamous in the twen- ties and thirties, or even earlier. It was where the second-class prostitutes gathered.”

“Qinghe Lane? Odd-the name does not sound so strange.”

“Well, it was mentioned in the well-known biography of Chiang Kai-shek by Tang Ren, but that may well be fictional rather than factual. At that time, Fuzhou Road, still called Fourth Avenue, was a red-light district, and Fubei Street was part of it. According to some statistics, there were more than seventy thousand prostitutes in Shanghai. In addition to government-licensed prostitutes, there were also a large number of bar girls, hostesses, masseuses, and guides engaged in clandestine or casual prostitution.”

“Yes, I have read that biography,” Chen said, thinking it was time to close the “encyclopedia.”

“All the brothels were closed in the 1951 campaign,” Mr. Encyclopedia droned on. “Officially, at least, there’re no prostitutes under China’s sun. Those who refused to change were put into reform-through-labor institutes. Most of them turned over a new leaf. I doubt any of them would have chosen to stay in the same neighborhood.”

“I doubt that, too.”

“Some sexual case in the lane?”

“No. Just looking for somebody living there,” Chen said. “Thank you so much for your information.”

Qinghe Lane turned out to be the one next to the grocery store. The lane looked decayed and dismal, with a glass-and-concrete-fronted kiosk attached to the first building, which made the entrance even narrower. Droplets from laundry festooned over a network of bamboo poles overhead presented an Impressionist scene in the May sunlight. It was believed that walking under the women’s lacy underwear like that streaming over the poles would bring bad luck for the day, but with the past associations of the lane in his mind, Chief Inspector Chen found it to be almost nostalgic.

Most of the houses had been built in the twenties or even earlier. Number 18 was actually the first building, the one with the kiosk attached. It had a walled-off courtyard, tiled roofs, and heavy carved beams, its balconies spilling over with laundry dripping on the piles of vegetables and used bicycle parts in the courtyard. On the door of the kiosk was a red plastic sign announcing in bold strokes: PUBLIC PHONE SERVICE. An old man was sitting inside, surrounded by several phones and phone books, working not only as a phone operator, but probably as a doorman as well.

“Morning,” the old man said.

“Morning,” Chen replied.

Even before the revolution, the house appeared to have been subdivided to accommodate more girls, each room containing one bed, of course, if not much else, with smaller alcoves for maidservants or pimps. That was probably why the house had been turned into a dorm building after 1949. Now each of these rooms was inhabited by a family. What might have originally served as a spacious dining room, where customers ordered banquets to please prostitutes, had been partitioned into several rooms, too. A closer examination revealed many signs of neglect characteristic of such dorm buildings: gaping windows, scaling cement, peeling paint, and the smell from the public bathroom permeating the corridor. Apparently each floor shared only one bathroom. And a quarter of the bathroom had been redesigned with makeshift plastic partitions into a concrete shower area.

Chen was not unfamiliar with this type of dorm. Dormitories in Shanghai could be classified into two kinds. One was conventional: each room contained nothing but beds or bunks, six or eight of them, each resident occupying no more than one bunk’s space. For these residents, most likely bachelors or bachelor girls waiting for their work units to assign them rooms so that they could get married, such a dorm space was just a temporary solution. Chen, in the days before he had become a chief inspector, had thought about getting a dorm bunk for himself, for it could well be that such a gesture would bring pressure to bear upon the housing committee. He had even checked into it, but Party Secretary Li’s promise had changed his mind. The second kind was an extension of the first. Due to the severe housing problem, those on the waiting list could find themselves reaching their mid-or-late thirties, still with no hope of having an apartment assigned to them. As a sort of compromise, a dorm room instead of a bunk space would be assigned to those who could not afford to wait any longer. They remained, theoretically, on the waiting list though their chances would be greatly reduced.

Guan’s room, apparently of the second kind, was on the second floor, the last one at the end of the corridor, across from the public bathroom. It was not one of the most desirable locations, but easy access to the bathroom might count as a bonus. Guan, too, had to share it with other families on the same floor. Eleven of them in all. The corridor was lined with piles of coal, cabbages, pots and pans, and coal stoves outside the doors.

On one of the doors was a piece of cardboard with the character GUAN written on it. Outside the door stood a small dust-covered coal stove with a pile of pressed coal-cylinders beside it. Chen opened the door with a master key. The doormat inside was littered with mail-more than a week’s newspapers, a postcard from Beijing signed by someone called Zhang Yonghua, and an electricity bill which, ironically, still bore the pre-1949 address-Qinghe Lane.

It was a tiny room.

The bed was made, the ashtray empty, and the window closed. There was nothing to indicate that Guan had entertained any guest before her death. Nor did it look like a place in which someone had been murdered. The room appeared too tidy, too clean. The furniture was presumably her parents’, old and heavy, but still in usable condition, consisting of a single bed, a chest, a large wardrobe, a small bookshelf, a sofa with a faded red cover, and a stool that might have served as nightstand. A thirteen-inch TV stood on the wardrobe. On the bookshelf were dictionaries, a set of Selected Works of Mao Zedong, a set of Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, and a variety of political pamphlets and magazines. The bed was not only old, it was narrow and shabby. Chen touched it. There was no squeak of bedsprings, no mattress under the sheet, just the hardboard. There was a pair of red slippers under the bed, as if anchoring the emptiness of the silent room.

On the wall above the headboard was a framed photograph of Guan making a presentation at the third National Model Workers Conference in the People’s Great Conference Hall. In the background of the picture sat the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party applauding with some other high ranking cadres. There was also a huge portrait of Comrade Deng Xiaoping on the other wall above the sofa.

In the wastebasket, he saw nothing but several balls of tissues. On top of the chest was a bottle of vitamin pills, the cap still unbroken. Several lipsticks. Bottles of imported perfumes. A tiny plastic-framed mirror. He checked the drawers of the chest. The top drawer contained cash receipts from stores, some blank envelopes, and a movie magazine. The second drawer held several photo albums. The contents of the third was more mixed. An imitation leather trinket box holding an assortment of costume jewelry. Some more expensive lotions and perfumes, perhaps samples from the store. He also found a gold choker with a crescent-shaped pendant, a Citizen watch with clear stones around the face, and a necklace made of some exotic animal bone.

In the cupboard fastened on the wall, he saw several glasses and mugs, but only a couple of black bowls with a small bunch of bamboo chopsticks. It was understandable, Chen reflected. It was not a place to which to invite people. She could have offered a cup of tea at the most.

He opened one door of the wardrobe, which revealed several shelves of tightly packed clothes: a dark-brown winter overcoat, several white blouses, wool sweaters, and three pairs of trousers hung in a corner, all of them demure and rather dull in color. They were not necessarily inexpensive but seemed conservative for a young woman. On the floor stood a pair of high-heeled black shoes, a pair of oxfords with rubber spikes, and a pair of galoshes.

When he opened the other door, however, it revealed a surprise. On the top shelf lay some new, well-made clothes, of fine material and popular design. Chief Inspector Chen did not know much about the fashion world, but he knew they were expensive from the well-known brands or the shop tags still attached to them. Underneath was a large collection of underwear that women’s magazines would probably term “romantic,” or even “erotic,” some of the sexiest pieces he had ever seen, with the lace being a main ingredient rather than a trimming.

He was unable to reconcile the striking contrast between the two sides of the wardrobe.

She had been a single woman, not dating anyone at the time of her death.

Then he moved back to the chest, took the photo albums out of the drawer, and put them on the table, next to a tall glass of water containing a bouquet of wilted flowers, a pen holder, a small paper bag of black pepper, and a bottle of Crystal pure water. It seemed that the table had served as her dining table, desk, and kitchen counter-all in one.

There were four albums. In the first, most of the pictures were black-and-white. A few showed a chubby girl with a ponytail. A girl of seven or eight, grinning for the camera, or blowing out candles on a cake. In one, she stood between a man and woman on the Bund, the man’s image blurred but the woman’s fairly clear. Presumably her parents. It took four or five album pages for her to start wearing a Red Scarf-a Young Pioneer saluting the raising of the five-starred flag at her school. The pictures were arranged chronologically.

He snapped to attention when he turned to a small picture on the first page of the second album. It must have been taken in the early seventies. Sitting on a rock by a pool, one bare foot dabbling in the water, the other held up above the knee, Guan was piercing the blisters on her sole with a needle. The background showed several young people holding a banner with the words LONGMARCH on it, striding proudly toward the Yan’an pagoda in the distance. It was the da chuanlian period of the Cultural Revolution when Red Guards traveled all around the country, spreading Chairman Mao’s ideas on “continuation of the revolution under the proletarian dictatorship.” Yan’an, a county where Mao had stayed before 1949, became a sacred place, to which Red Guards made their pilgrimage. She must have been a kid, newly qualified as a Red Guard, but there she was, wearing a red armband, blistered, but eager to catch up.

In the middle of the second album, she had grown into a young girl with a fine, handsome face, big almond eyes, and thick eyelashes. There was more resemblance to National Model Worker Guan as shown in the newspapers.

The third album consisted of pictures from Guan’s political life. There were a considerable number of them showing her together with various Party leaders at one conference or another. Ironically, these pictures could have served to trace the dramatic changes in China’s politics, with some leaders vanishing, and some moving to the front, but Guan, unchanged, stood in her familiar pose, in the familiar limelight.

Then came the last album, the thickest: the pictures of Guan’s personal life. There were so many of them, and they were all so different, Chen was impressed. Shots from various angles, in various outfits, and with various backgrounds: reclining in a canoe at dusk, wearing a striped camp shirt with a fitted skirt, her face calm and relaxed; standing on her toes by an imported limousine in sunlight; kneeling on the muddy plank of a little bridge, scratching her bare ankle, bending forward over the railing, the weight of her body resting on her right foot; gazing at the misty horizon through a window, her face framed by her tangled hair, a cloud of velvety cattail blurred in a distant field; perching on the steps of an ancient temple, a transparent plastic raincoat over her shoulders, a silk scarf drawn over her hair, her mouth half-open, as if she were on the verge of saying something…

It was not just that the pictures formed a sharp contrast to her “model worker” image in the previous album. In these pictures, she struck Chief Inspector Chen as more than pretty or vivacious. She looked radiant, lit from within. It seemed there was a message in these pictures. What it was, however, Chen could not decipher.

There were also a couple of more surprising close-ups: in one, she was lying on a love seat, her round shoulders covered only with a white bath towel; in another, she was sitting on a marble table, wearing a terry robe, dangling her bare legs; in yet another, she was kneeling, in a bathing suit, its shoulder straps off, her hair tousled, looking breathless.

Chief Inspector Chen blinked, trying to break the momentary spell of Guan’s image.

Who had taken these pictures, he wondered. Where had she had them developed? Especially the close-ups. State-run studios would have refused to take the order, for some of the pictures could be labeled as “bourgeois decadent.” And at unscrupulous private studios, she might have run a serious risk, for those entrepreneurs could have sold such pictures for money. It could have been politically disastrous if she had been recognized as the national model worker.

An album page was large enough for four standard-sized pictures, but for several pages, each held only one or two. The last few pages were blank.

It was about noon when he returned the albums to the drawer. He did not feel hungry. Through the window he thought he could hear the distant roar of a bulldozer working at a construction site.

Chief Inspector Chen decided to talk to Guan’s neighbors. He first went to the next door along the corridor, a door still decorated with a faded red paper couplet celebrating the Chinese Spring Festival. There was also a plastic yin-yang symbol dangling as a sort of decoration.

The woman who opened the door was small and fair, wearing slacks and a cotton-knit top, a white apron around her waist. She must have been busy cooking, for she wiped one hand on the apron as she held the door open with the other. He guessed she was in her mid-thirties. She had tiny lines around her mouth.

Chen introduced himself, showing his business card to her.

“Come in,” she said, “my name is Yuan Peiyu.”

Another efficiency room. Identical in size and shape to Guan’s, it appeared smaller, with clothes and other diverse objects scattered round. In the middle of the room was a round table bearing row upon row of fresh-made dumplings, together with a pile of dumpling skins and a bowl of pork stuffing. A boy in an imitation army uniform came out from under the table. He was chewing a half-eaten bun, staring up at Chen. The little soldier stretched up a sticky fist and made a gesture of throwing the bun toward Chen like a grenade.

“Bang!”

“Stop! Don’t you see he is a police officer?” said his mother.

“That’s okay,” Chen said. “I’m sorry to bother you, Comrade Yuan. You must have heard of your neighbor’s death. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I cannot help you. I don’t know anything about her.”

“You’ve been neighbors for several years?”

“Yes, about five years.”

“Then you must have had some contact with each other, cooking together on the corridor, or washing clothes in the common sink.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what. She left home at seven in the morning, and came back at seven-sometimes much later. The moment she got back, she shut the door tight. She never invited us in, nor visited us. She did her laundry in the store, with all the washing machines on display there. Free, and perhaps free detergent too. She ate at the store canteen. Once or twice a month, she would cook at home, a packet of instant noodles or something like that, though she kept her stove in the corridor all the time. Her sacred right to the public space.”

“So you’ve never talked to her at all?”

“When we saw each other, she nodded to me. That’s about all.” Yuan added. “A celebrity. She would not mix with us. So what’s the point of pressing our hot faces up to her cold ass?”

“Maybe she was just too busy.”

“She was somebody, and we’re nobody. She made great contributions to the Party! We can hardly make ends meet.”

Surprised at the resentment shown by Guan’s neighbor, Chen said, “No matter in what position we work, we’re all working for our socialist China.”

“Working for socialist China?” her voice rose querulously. “Last month I was laid off from the state-run factory. I need to feed my son; his father died several years ago. So making dumplings all day is what I do now, from seven to seven, if you want to call that working for socialist China. And I have to sell them at the food market at six in the morning.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Comrade Yuan,” he said. “Right now China is in a transitional period, but things will get better.”

“It’s not your fault. Why should you feel sorry? Just spare me a political lecture about it. Comrade Guan Hongying did not want to make friends with us. Period.”

“Well, she must have had some friends coming to visit her here.”

“Maybe or maybe not, but that’s her business, not mine.”

“I understand, Comrade Yuan,” he said, “but I still want to ask you some other questions. Did you notice anything unusual about Guan in the last couple of months?”

“I’m no detective, so I do not know what’s usual or unusual.”

“One more question,” he said. “Did you see her on the evening of May tenth?”

“May tenth, let me think,” she said. “I don’t remember seeing her at all that day. I was at my son’s school for a meeting in the evening. Then we went to bed early. As I’ve told you, I have to get up to sell the dumplings early in the morning.”

“Perhaps you’d like to think about it. You can get in touch with me if anything comes to you,” he said. “Again, I’m sorry about the situation in your factory, but let’s hope for the best.”

“Thank you.” She added, as if apologizing in her turn now, “There may be one thing, now that I think about it. For the last couple of months, sometimes she came back quite late, at twelve o’clock or even later. Since I was laid off I have been worried too much to sleep soundly, so once or twice I heard her coming back at such hours. But then, she could have been really busy, such a national model worker.”

“Yes, probably,” he said, “but we will check into that.”

“That’s about all I know,” she said.

Chief Inspector Chen thanked her and left.

He next approached Guan’s neighbor across the corridor, beside the public bathroom. He was raising his hand toward the tiny doorbell when the door was flung open. A young girl dashed out toward the stairs, and a middle-aged woman stood furiously in the doorway, with her hands firmly on her hips. “You, too, have to come and bully me. Little bitch. May Heaven let you die a thousand-stab death.” Then she saw him, and stared at him with angry, pop-eyed intensity.

He immediately adopted the stance of a senior police officer with no time to waste, producing his official identity card and flashing it at her with a gesture often shown on TV.

It caused her to lose some of her animosity.

“I have to ask you some questions,” he said. “Questions about Guan Hongying, your neighbor.”

“She’s dead, I know,” she said. “My name is Su Nanhua. Sorry about the scene you have just witnessed. My daughter’s seeing a young gangster and will not listen to me. It’s really driving me crazy.”

What Chen got after fifteen minutes’ talk was almost the same version as Yuan’s, except Su was even more biased. According to her, Guan had kept very much to herself all those years. That would have been odd in a young woman, though not for such a celebrity.

“You mean that she lived here all these years and you did not get a single chance to get acquainted?”

“Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” she said. “But it’s true.”

“And she never talked to you?”

“Well, she did and she didn’t. ‘It’s fine today.’ ‘Have you had your dinner?’ So on and so forth. Nothing but those meaningless words.”

“Now what about the evening of May tenth, Comrade Su?” he said. “Did you see her or speak to her that evening?”

“Well, that evening, yes, I did notice something. I was reading the latest issue of Family quite late that evening. I would not have noticed her leaving the dorm, but for the sound of something heavy being dropped just outside my door. So I looked out. There she was, going to the stairs, with her back me, and I did not know what she had dropped. All I could see was that she had a heavy suitcase in one hand. So it could have been the suitcase. She was going downstairs. It was late. I was curious and looked out of the window, but I saw no taxi waiting for her at the curb.”

“So you thought she was taking a trip.”

“I guessed so.”

“What time was it?”

“Around ten thirty.”

“How did you know the time?”

“I watched Hope that evening on TV. Every Thursday evening, in fact. It finishes at ten thirty. Then I started reading the magazine. I had not read much before I heard the thump.”

“Had she talked to you about the trip she was going to take?”

“No, not to me.”

“Was there anything else about that night?”

“No, nothing else.”

“Contact me if you think of anything,” he said, standing up. “You have my number on the card.”

Chen then climbed up to the third floor, to a room almost directly above Guan’s. The door was opened by a white-haired man, probably in his mid-sixties, who had an intelligent face with shrewd eyes and deep-cut furrows around his mouth. Looking at the card Chen handed him, he said, “Comrade Chief Inspector, come in. My name is Qian Yizhi.”

The door opened into a narrow strip of corridor, in which there were a gas stove and a cement sink, and then to another inner door. It was an improvement over his neighbors’ apartments. Entering, Chen was surprised to see an impressive array of magazine photos of Hong Kong and of Taiwanese pop singers like Liu Dehua, Li Min, Zhang Xueyou, and Wang Fei on the walls.

“All my stepdaughter’s favorite pictures,” Qian said, removing a stack of newspapers from a decent-looking armchair. “Please sit down.”

“I’m investigating Guan Hongying’s case,” Chen said. “Any information you can give about her will be appreciated.”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” Qian said. “As a neighbor, she hardly talked to me at all.”

“Yes, I’ve spoken to her neighbors downstairs, and they also considered her too much of a big shot to talk to them.”

“Some of her neighbors believed she put on airs, trying to appear head and shoulders above others, but I don’t think that is true.”

“Why?”

“Well, I’m retired now, but I’ve also been a model teacher for over twenty years. Of course, my model status was only at the district level, by no means as high as hers, but I know what it’s like,” Qian said, stroking his well-shaved chin. “Once you’re a role model, you’re model-shaped.”

“That’s a very original point,” Chen said.

“People said, for instance, I was all patience with my students, but I was not-not all the time. But once you’re a model teacher, you have to be.”

“So it is like a magical mask. When you wear the mask, the mask becomes you.”

“Exactly,” Qian said, “except it’s not necessarily a magic one.”

“Still, she was supposed to be a model neighbor in the dorm, wasn’t she?”

“Yes, but it can be so exhausting to live with your mask on all the time. No one can wear a mask all the time. You want to have a break. Back in the dorm, why should she continue to play her role and serve her neighbors the way she served her customers? She was just too tired to mix with her neighbors, I believe. That could have caused her unpopularity.”

“That is very insightful,” Chen said. “I was puzzled why her neighbors downstairs seemed so biased against her.”

“They do not really have anything against her. They are just not in a good mood. And there’s another important factor. Guan had a room for herself, while theirs was for the whole family.”

“Yes, you’re right again,” he said. “But you have a room for yourself too.”

“No, not really,” Qian said. “My stepdaughter lives with her parents, but she has an eye on this room. That’s why she put up all the Hong Kong star pictures.”

“I see.”

“People living in a dorm are a different lot. In theory, we are staying here just for a short transitional period. So we are not really concerned about relationships with our neighbors. We do not call this home.”

“Yes, it must be so different, living in a dorm.”

“Take the public bathroom for example. Each floor shares one. But if people believe they are going to move away tomorrow, who’s going to take care of it?”

“You’re really putting things into perspective for me, Comrade Qian.”

“It has not been easy for Guan,” Qian said. “A single young woman. Meetings and conferences all day, and back home alone at night-and not to someplace she could really call home.”

“Can you be a bit more specific here?” Chen said. “Is there something particular you have noticed?”

“Well, it was several months ago. I was unable to fall asleep that night, so I got up and practiced my calligraphy for a couple of hours. But I remained wide awake afterward. Lying on my bed, I heard a strange sound coming from downstairs. The old dorm is hardly soundproof, and you can hear a lot. I listened more closely. It was Guan sobbing-heart-breakingly-at three A.M.. She was weeping inconsolably, alone.”

“Alone?”

“I thought so,” Qian said, “I did not hear another voice. She wept for more than half an hour.”

“Did you observe anything else?”

“Not that I can think of-except that she was probably like me, and didn’t sleep too well. Often I could see light coming up through the cracks in the floor.”

“One of her neighbors mentioned that she came back quite late many nights,” Chen said, “Could that be the reason?”

“I’m not sure. Sometimes I heard her footsteps late at night, but I had hardly any contact with her,” Qian said, taking a sip at his cold tea. “I suggest you talk to Zuo Qing. She’s a retired cadre, but keeps herself busy taking care of the utility fees for the building. She’s also a member of the Neighborhood Security or something. She may be able to tell you more. And she also lives on Guan’s floor, just on the other side of the corridor, close to the stairs.”

Chief Inspector Chen went downstairs again.

An elderly woman wearing gold-rimmed glasses opened the door wide and said, “What do you want?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, Comrade Zuo, but I’ve come about Guan Hongying.”

“She’d dead, I’ve heard,” she said. “You’d better come in. I’ve got something on the stove.”

“Thank you,” he said, staring at the coal stove outside the door. There was nothing being cooked on it. As he stepped into the room, she closed the door behind him. His question was almost immediately answered. Inside the door was a gas tank with a flat pan on it, smelling very pleasant.

Zuo was wearing a black skirt and a silvery gray silk blouse with the top button open. Her high-heeled shoes were gray too. Gesturing to him to sit on a scarlet plush-covered sofa by the window, she continued her cooking.

“It’s not easy to get a gas tank,” she said, “and dangerous to put it in the corridor along with other people’s coal stoves.”

“I see,” he said. “Comrade Zuo, I was told that you have done a lot for the dorm building.”

“Well, I do volunteer work for the neighborhood. Someone has to do it.”

“So you must have had a lot of contact with Guan Hongying.”

“No, not a lot. She’s a popular celebrity in her store, but here she was not.”

“Why?”

“Too busy, I would say. The only time there was any conversation between us would be the occasion,” she said, flipping the egg over in the pan, “when she paid her share of the utility bill on the first day of every month. She would hand over the cash in a white envelope, and say some polite phrase while her receipt was prepared.”

“You never talked about anything else?”

“Well, she once mentioned that since she did not cook much in the dorm building, her equal share of the utility bill was not fair. But she did not really argue about it. Never mentioned it again. Whatever was on her mind, she kept to herself.”

“She seemed to be quite secretive.”

“Look, I don’t mean to speak ill of her.”

“I understand, Comrade Zuo,” he said. “Now on the evening of May tenth, the night she was murdered, Guan left the building around ten thirty-according to one of her neighbors. Did you notice anything around the time?”

“As for that night,” she said, “I don’t think I saw or heard her go out. I usually go to bed at ten.”

“Now, you’re also a member of the Neighborhood Security Committee, Comrade Zuo. Did you notice anything suspicious in the dorm or in the lane, during the last few days in Guan’s life?”

She took off her glasses, looked at them, rubbed them on her apron, put them on again, and then shook her head. “I don’t think so, but there’s one thing,” she said. “I’m not sure whether you’d call it suspicious.”

“What’s that?” He took out his notebook.

“About a week ago, I was watching Office Stories. Everybody is watching it, it’s hilarious. But my TV broke down, so I was thinking of going to Xiangxiang’s place. And opening the door, I saw a stranger coming out of a room at the end of the corridor.”

“Out of Guan’s room?”

“I was not sure. There are only three rooms at the end of the corridor, including Guan’s. The Sus happened to be out of town that night, I know. Of course, the stranger could have been Yuan’s guest, but with only one dim light at the landing, and all the stuff stacked in disorder along the corridor, it’s not that easy for a stranger to find his way. It’s a matter of course for the host to accompany the guest to the stairs.”

“A week ago. Then this was after Guan’s death, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, I did not even know that she was dead.”

“But this could be an important lead if he was coming out of Guan’s room, Comrade Zuo,” he said, putting down a few words in his notebook.

“Thank you, Comrade Chief Inspector,” she said, flattered by his attention. “I checked into it myself. At that time I did not think about it in connection with Guan’s case. Just that it was suspicious, I thought, since it was after eleven o’clock. So I asked Yuan the next day, and she said that she had had no guests that night.”

“Now what about the public bathroom at the end of the corridor,” he said. “He could have been coming out of there, couldn’t he?”

“That’s not likely,” she said. “His host would have to accompany him there, or he would not be able to find it.”

“Yes, you have a point. What did this man look like?”

“Tall, decent looking. But the light’s so dim I could not see clearly.”

“How old do you think he was?”

“Well, mid-thirties, I should think, perhaps forty. Difficult to tell.”

“Anything else about his appearance?”

“He seemed neatly dressed; I may have mentioned it.”

“So you think he could have been coming out of Guan’s room?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I’m not sure.”

“Thank you, Comrade Zuo. We’ll investigate,” he said. “If you can think of anything else, give me a call.”

“Yes, I’ll do that, Comrade Chief Inspector,” she said. “Let us know when you solve the case.”

“We will, and good-bye.”

Walking down the stairs, Chen shrugged his shoulders slightly. He had been to the public bathroom himself without being accompanied by anybody.

At the bus stop on Zhejiang road, he stood for quite a long time. He was trying to sort out what he had accomplished in the day’s work. There was not much. Nothing he had found so far presented a solid lead. If there was anything he had not expected, it would be Guan’s fancy clothes and intimate pictures. But then-that was not too surprising, either. An attractive young woman, even if she was a national model worker, was entitled to some feminine indulgence-in her private life.

Guan’s unpopularity among her neighbors was even less surprising. That a national model worker would be unpopular in the nineties was a sociological phenomenon, rather than anything else. So, too, in the dorm building. It would have been too difficult to be a model neighbor there, to be popular with her neighbors. Her life was not an ordinary one. So she did not fit into their circle, nor did she care for it.

There was only one thing he had confirmed: on the night of May tenth, Guan Hongying had left the dorm before eleven o’clock. She had a heavy suitcase in her hand; she’d been going somewhere.

Another thing not confirmed, but only a hypothesis: She could not have been romantically involved at the time of her death. There was no privacy possible in such a dorm building, no way of secretly dating someone. If there had been anything going on behind her closed door, her dorm neighbors would have known it, and in less than five minutes, the news would have spread like wildfire.

It would also have taken a lot of courage for a man to come to her room. To the hardboard bed.

The bus was nowhere in sight yet. It could be very slow during this time of the day. He crossed to the small restaurant opposite the lane entrance. Despite its unsightly appearance, a lot of people were there, both inside the restaurant and outside it. A fat man in a brown corduroy jacket was rising from a table outside on the pavement. Chief Inspector Chen took his seat and ordered a portion of fried buns. It was a perfect place from which to keep his eyes out for a bus arriving, and at the same time, he could watch the lane entrance. He had to wait for quite a few minutes. When the buns came, they were delicious, but hot. Putting down the chopsticks, he had to blow on them repeatedly. Then the bus rolled into sight. He rushed across the street and boarded it with the last bun in his hand. It then occurred to him that he should have made inquiries at the restaurant. Guan might have sat there with somebody.

“Keep your oily hand away from me,” a woman standing next to him said indignantly.

“Some people can be so unethical,” another passenger commented, “despite an impressive uniform.”

“Sorry,” he said, aware of his unpopularity in his police uniform. There was no point in picking a quarrel. To hold a pork-stuffed bun in an overcrowded bus was a lousy idea, he admitted to himself.

At the next stop, he got off. He did not mind walking for a short distance. At least he didn’t have to overhear the other passengers’ negative comments. There was no way to prevent people from making such comments about one.

Guan, a national model worker, was by no means an exception. Not so far as her neighbors’ comments went. Who can control stories, the stories after one’s life? The whole village is jumping at the romantic tale of General Cai.

In this poem by Lu You, the “romantic tale” refers to a totally fictitious romance between General Cai and Zhao Wuniang of the late Han dynasty. The village audience would have been interested in hearing the story, regardless of its historical authenticity.

There is no helping what other people will say, Chief Inspector Chen thought.

Chapter 9

I t was Wednesday, five days after the formation of the special case group, and there had been hardly any progress. Chief Inspector Chen arrived at the bureau, greeted his colleagues, and repeated polite but meaningless words. The case weighed heavily on his mind.

At the insistence of Commissar Zhang, Chen had extended his investigation into Guan’s neighborhood by enlisting assistance from the local police branch office and the neighborhood committee. They came up with tons of information about possible suspects, assuming this was a political case. Chen was red-eyed from poring over all the material, pursuing the leads provided by the committee about some ex-counter revolutionaries with “deep hatred against the socialist society.” All this was routine, and Chen did it diligently, but there was a persistent doubt in his mind about the direction of the investigation.

In fact, the choice of their number-one suspect exemplified Commissar Zhang’s ossified way of thinking. This suspect was a distant relative of Guan’s with a long-standing personal grudge, which had originated from Guan’s refusal to acknowledge him, a black Rightist, during the Cultural Revolution. The rehabilitated Rightist had said that he would never forgive her, but was too busy writing a book about his wasted years to be aware of her death. Chief Inspector Chen ruled him out even before he went to interview him.

It was not a political case. Yet he was expecting another of Commissar Zhang’s morning lectures about “carrying out the investigation by relying on the people.” That morning, however, he had a pleasant surprise.

“This is for you, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Detective Yu said standing at the door, holding a fax he had picked up in the main office.

It was from Wang Feng, with a cover page bearing the Wenhui Daily letterhead. Her neat handwriting said “Congratulations,” on the margin of a photocopied section of the newspaper, in which his poem “Miracle” appeared. The poem was in a conspicuous position, with the editor’s note underneath saying, “The poet is a young chief inspector, Shanghai Police Bureau.”

The comment made sense since the poem was about a young policewoman providing relief to storm-damaged homes in the pouring rain. Still holding the fax in his hand, he received his first call from Party Secretary Li.

“Congratulations, Comrade Chief Inspector. A poem published in the Wenhui Daily. Quite an achievement.”

“Thank you,” he said. “It’s just a poem about our police work.”

“It’s a good one. Politically, I mean,” Li said. “Next time, if there’s something in such an influential newspaper, tell us beforehand.”

“Okay, but why?”

“There are a lot of people reading your work.”

“Don’t worry, Party Secretary Li, I’ll make sure that it is politically correct.”

“Yes, that’s the spirit. You are not an ordinary police officer, you know,” Li said. “Now, anything new in the investigation?”

“We’re going all out. But unfortunately there’s not much progress.”

“Don’t worry. Just try your best,” Li said before putting down the phone, “And don’t forget your seminar in Beijing.”

Then Dr. Xia called. “This one is not that bad, this ‘Miracle’ of yours.”

“Thank you, Dr. Xia,” he said, “your approval always means such a lot to me.”

“I especially like the beginning-’ The rain has soaked the hair / Falling to your shoulders / Light green in your policewoman’s / Uniform, like the spring / White blossom bursting / From your arms reaching / Into the gaping windows- / ‘Here you are!’”

“It’s a true experience. She persisted in sending out relief to the victims, despite the pouring rain. I was there, too, and was touched at the sight.”

“But you must have stolen the image from Li He’s ‘Watching a Beauty Comb Her Hair.’ The image about the green comb in her long hair.”

“No, I didn’t, but I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s from another two classical lines- With the green skirt of yours in my mind, everywhere, / Everywhere I step over the grass ever so lightly.” Our policewoman’s uniform is green, and so, too, the spring, and the package. Looking out in the rain, I had the impression of her long hair being washed green, too.”

“No wonder you’ve made such an improvement,” Dr. Xia said. “I’m glad you are acknowledging your debt to classical poetry.”

“Of course I do. But so much for the poetics,” Chen said. “Actually, I was thinking of calling you, too. About the black plastic bag in the Guan case.”

“There’s nothing to recover from the plastic bag. I made some inquiries about it. I was told that it is normally used for fallen leaves in people’s backyards.”

“Indeed! Imagine a taxi driver worrying about the fallen leaves in his backyard!”

“What did you say?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said. “But thank you so much, Dr. Xia.”

“Don’t mention it, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, also Chinese imagist poet.”

Out of the black plastic bag, her white bare feet, and her red polished toenails like fallen petals in the night. It could be a modernist image.

Chen then dialed Detective Yu.

Entering his office, Yu, too, offered his congratulations, “What a surprise, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen. A terrific breakthrough.”

“Well, if only we could say that about our case.”

Indeed they needed a “miracle” in their investigation.

Detective Yu had come up empty-handed. Following his theory, Lu had made inquiry at the taxi bureau. To his dismay, he found that obtaining anything close to reliable information for the night was impossible. There was no point in checking the taxi drivers’ receipts. Most drivers-whether the taxi company was state-run or private-kept a considerable portion of their money by not giving receipts to customers, he was told, so it was possible for a driver to claim to have driven around for the night without being able to pick up one single passenger-thus avoiding taxation.

In addition, Yu had checked all the customer lists of Shanghai travel agencies during May. Guan’s name had not been on any of them.

And Yu’s research with respect to the last phone call Guan had made from the department store was not successful either. Many people had used the phone that evening. And Mrs. Weng’s recollection of the time was not accurate. After spending hours to rule out other calls made roughly around the same time, the one most likely made by Guan was to weather information. It made sense, for Guan had been planning her trip, but that only confirmed something they had known.

So like Chen, Yu had not gotten anything, not even a tip worthy of a follow-up.

And the more time that elapsed, the colder the trail became.

They were under pressure, not just from the bureau and the city government. The case was being buzzed about among people in general, in spite of the low-profile treatment it had been given by the local media. And the longer the case remained unsolved, the more negative impact it would have on the bureau.

“It is becoming political,” Chen said.

“Our Party Secretary Li is always right.”

“Let’s put something in the newspaper. A reward for information.”

“That’s worth trying. The Wenhui Daily can run the request for help. But what shall it say? This is so sensitive, as Party Secretary Li has told us.”

“Well, we don’t have to mention the case directly. Just ask for information about anything suspicious around the Baili Canal area on the night of May tenth.”

“Yes, we can do that,” Chen said. “And we’ll use some of our special case group funds for the reward. We have left no stone unturned, haven’t we?”

Detective Yu shrugged his shoulders before leaving the cubicle.

Except one, Chief Inspector Chen thought. Guan Hongying’s mother. He had refrained from discussing this with Yu, who did not get along well with the commissar.

The old lady had been visited by Commissar Zhang, who had gotten nothing from her. A late-stage Alzheimer’s patient, she was totally deranged, unable to provide any information. It was not the commissar’s fault. But an Alzheimer’s patient might not be deranged all the time. There were days when the light could miraculously break through the clouds of her mind.

Chen decided to try his luck.

After lunch, he dialed Wang Feng. She was not in the office, so he left a message expressing his thanks to her. Then he left. On his way to the bus stop he bought several copies of the Wenhui Daily at the post office on Sichuan Road. Somehow he liked the editor’s note even more than the poem itself. He had not told many of his friends about his promotion to chief inspectorship, so the newspaper would do the job for him. Among those friends he wanted to mail the newspaper to, there was one in Beijing. He felt that he had to say something about his being in this position, an explanation to a dear friend who had not envisioned such a career for him. He thought for a moment, but he ended up scribbling only a sentence underneath the poem. Somewhat ironically self-defensive, and ambiguous, too. It could be about the poem as well as about his work: If you work hard enough at something, it begins to make itself part of you, even though you do not really like it and know that part isn’t real.

He cut out the section of the newspaper, put it into an envelope, addressed it, and dropped it into a mailbox.

Then he took a bus to Ankang, the nursing home on Huashan Road.

The nursing home arrangement was not common. It was not culturally correct to keep one’s aged parent in such an institution. Not even in the nineties. Besides, with only two or three nursing homes in Shanghai, few could have managed to move in there, especially in the case of an Alzheimer’s patient. Undoubtedly her mother’s admission had been due to Guan’s social and Party status.

He introduced himself at the front desk of the nursing home, A young nurse told him to wait in the reception room. To be a bad news bearer was anything but pleasant, he reflected, as he waited. The only cold comfort he could find was that Guan’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, might be spared the shock of her daughter’s violent death. The old woman’s life had been a tough one, as he had learned from the file. An arranged marriage in her childhood, and then for years her husband had worked as a high-school teacher in Chengdu, while she was a worker in Shanghai Number 6 Textile Mill. The distance between the two required more than two days’ travel by train. Once a year was all he could have afforded to visit her. In the fifties, job relocation was out of the question for either of them. Jobs, like everything else, were assigned once and for all by the local authorities. So all those years she had been a “single mother,” taking care of Guan Hongying in the dorm of Number 6 Textile Mill. Her husband passed away before his retirement. When her daughter got her job and her Party membership, the old woman broke down. Shortly afterward she had been admitted to the nursing home.

At last, the old woman appeared, shuffling, with a striking array of pins in her gray hair. She was thin, sullen-faced, perhaps in her early sixties. Her felt slippers made a strange sound on the floor.

“What do you want?”

Chen exchanged glances with the nurse standing beside the old woman.

“She is not clear here,” the nurse said, pointing at her own head.

“Your daughter wants me to say hi to you,” Chen said.

“I have no daughter. No room for a daughter. My husband lives in the dorm in Chengdu.”

“You have one, aunt. She works in Shanghai First Department Store.”

“First Department Store. Oh yes, I bought a couple of pins there early this morning. Aren’t they beautiful?”

Clearly the old woman was living in another world. She had nothing in her hand, but she was making a gesture of showing something to him.

Whatever might happen, she did not have to accept the disasters of this world. Or was she merely such a scared woman, anticipating such dreadful news, that she had shut herself up?

“Yes, they are beautiful,” he said.

She might have been attractive in her day. Now everything about her was shrunken. Motionless, she sat there, staring vacantly ahead, waiting for him to go. The look of apathy was not unmixed, he reflected, with a touch of apprehension. There was no point trying to gather any information from the old woman.

A worm safe and secure inside its cocoon.

He insisted on helping her back to her room. The room, holding a dozen iron beds, appeared congested. The aisle between them was so narrow that one could only stand sideways. There was a rattan rocker at the foot of her bed, a radio on the nightstand. No air conditioning, though a single ceiling fan for the whole room was working. The last thing he noticed was a dried bun, partly chewed, shriveled, on the windowsill above her bed. A period to a life story. One of the ordinary Chinese people, working hard, getting little, not complaining, and suffering a lot.

What influence could such a life have exerted on Guan?

The daughter had taken a different road.

There was something about the case, Chief Inspector Chen felt vaguely, something mystifying him, challenging him, and drawing him in an unknown direction. He decided to walk home. Sometimes he thought better while walking.

He stopped at a traditional Chinese pharmacy and bought a box of Jinsheng pills. A halfhearted believer in Chinese herbal medicine, he assumed that frustration had somehow eroded the balance of his essence. And he needed something extra to bolster his whole system. Chewing at a bitter Jinsheng pill, he thought that a possible alternative approach to the case would be to find out how Guan had become a national model worker. In the literary criticism he had studied, it would be termed the biographical approach. Only its result might not be so reliable, either. Who could have expected that he would have become a chief inspector of police?

It was almost seven when he reached home. He turned on the TV and watched for a while. Several Beijing opera players were doing a series of somersaults, flourishing sabers and swords in the dark. The Cross Road, a traditional Beijing opera, he recollected, about fighting at night without knowing who’s who.

He dialed Commissar Zhang. A formality, since Chen did not have anything to report.

“Believe in the people. Our strength comes from our close connection to them,” Commissar Zhang concluded their conversation. It was inevitable: Commissar Zhang had to give such an instruction.

Chen got up and went into the kitchen. There was half a pot of steamed rice left in the refrigerator. He took the rice out, added some water, and put it on the gas stove. The kitchen wall no longer appeared immaculately white. It would not take too many weeks to turn it into an oil-and-smoke-stained map. An exhaust fan could solve the problem, but he could not afford one. He looked for some leftovers. There were none. Finally, he dug out a tiny plastic bag of dried mustard, a present from his aunt in Ningbo. He put a few pieces on the rice, and swallowed the watery meal trying not to taste too much of it.

“Chef Kang’s Instant Noodles.” A TV commercial flashed through his mind as he stood by the gas stove. The plastic-bowl- contained-noodles might be a solution, he reflected, putting the dried mustard back. Again, the problem was his tight budget. After the loan to Overseas Chinese Lu, Chief Inspector Chen had to live like Comrade Lei Feng in the early sixties.

At the level of a chief inspector, his monthly pay was 560 Yuan, plus all his bonuses under various titles, which added up to 250 more. His rent was fairly inexpensive. Together with utilities, it was less than 100 Yuan, but he had to spend half of his income on food. As a bachelor, he did not cook much at home; he ate at the bureau canteen.

A great help in the last few years had been the advances he earned from his translations, but at this moment he was not working on anything. He had not had the time, nor the energy- nor even the interest-since he had taken over the Guan case. The case did not make sense, not the sense he found in the mysteries he had been translating. Still, getting another advance was possible. He could promise the editor that he would complete the job by October. He needed such a deadline for himself, too.

Instead he started to summarize on a piece of paper beside the bowl what he had learned so far about the case. All the odds and ends of information he had been collecting and storing during the week, without having them sorted out and pieced together to consider where they could possibly lead, filled a sheet of paper. In the end, however, he tore up the paper in frustration. Perhaps Detective Yu was right. Possibly it was just one of those “insoluble” sexual murder cases. The bureau had had enough of them.

He knew he could not fall asleep. Often insomnia was the effect of little things coming together. A poem rejected without a rejection slip, a crazy woman cursing in a crowded bus, or a new shirt missing from the wardrobe. This night, something about the Guan case vanquished sleep.

The night was long.

What might have crowded into Guan’s mind during such a long night? He thought of a poem by the mid-Tang dynasty poet Wang Changling: Boudoir-sheltered, the young lady knows no worries, Fashionably dressed, she looks out of the window in spring. What a view of green willow shoots-all of a sudden: She regrets having sent her love away fighting for fame.

So after the flashlight along the corridor, after the shadows shifting on the sleepless wall, after the cold sweat in the dark, solitary dorm room, Guan, too, could have been thinking of the price paid for fame.

What’s the difference?

In the Tang dynasty, more than a thousand years earlier, the girl had been unable to console herself because she had sent her lover far away in pursuit of fame, and in the nineties, Guan couldn’t because she had kept herself too busy pursuing fame.

What about Chief Inspector Chen himself?

There was a bitter taste in his mouth.

Sometime after two, when he had slid into that floating area between sleep and waking, he felt hungry again. The image of the dried bun on the window came back to his mind.

And another image with it.

Caviar.

Only once had he tasted caviar. It was years earlier, at the International Friendship Club in Beijing, where at the time only foreign visitors were admitted and served. He was there with a drunken English professor who insisted on treating him to caviar. Chen had read about it in Russian novels. Actually he did not like it too much, though afterward the fact he had tasted caviar took Overseas Chinese Lu down a peg or two.

Things had been changing. Nowadays anybody could go to the International Friendship Club. A few new luxurious hotels also served caviar. Guan could have had it in one of those hotels, though not too many people could have afforded to order it-on that particular night.

It would not be difficult to find out.

Caviar-he jotted the word on the back of a matchbox.

Then he felt ready to fall asleep.

Chapter 10

It was a humid Friday morning for May.

Detective Yu had slept fitfully, tossing and turning half of the night. As a result, he was feeling more tired than the night before, with patches of partially forgotten dreams hovering in his mind.

Peiqin was concerned. She made a bowl of sticky rice dumplings, a favorite breakfast for him, and sat with him at the table. Yu finished the dumplings in silence.

Finally, as he was ready to leave for the bureau, she said, “You’re burning yourself out, Guangming.”

“No, it’s just I’ve not slept well,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

When Yu stepped into the bureau meeting room, the restless feeling surged up again. The topic of the meeting, which had been requested by Commissar Zhang, was the progress of the investigation.

A week had passed since the special case group had taken the case. The team, formed with such a fanfare of political jargon, had made little progress. Detective Yu had been working long hours, making numerous phone calls, interviewing a number of people, discussing all the possible scenarios with Chief Inspector Chen, and making quite a few reports to Commissar Zhang, too. Yet there was no breakthrough in sight. In routine police work when a case went beyond a week without a solid lead, it might as well be thrown into the “open” file. Yu had learned from experience. In other words, it was the time to close the case as unsolved.

It was not the first time in the bureau’s history that this had happened, nor would it be the last.

Yu sat beside the window, smoking a cigarette. The streets of Shanghai were spread out beneath his gaze, gray and black roofs with curls of peaceful white smoke undulating into the distance. Yet he seemed to smell crime smoldering in the heart of the city. Skimming a copy of the bureau newsletter, he read of several robberies, each bigger than the other, and seven reports of rape in the last night alone. And then new cases of prostitution, even in the upper area of the city.

As the other divisions were so short of manpower, a number of cases had been designated as “special” and pushed over to their squad, but they were in no better shape. Qing Xiaotong had come back from his honeymoon, but with that dreamy look in his eyes, not really back to work, and Liu Longxiang was still recovering from his injury. With Chief Inspector Chen’s increasingly busy schedule of meetings and other activities, Detective Yu had to take on the main responsibility for the squad.

Why should they spend so much time on one case?

Political priority, of course-Yu knew the answer. To hell with politics. It’s a homicide case.

But others did not think so. Commissar Zhang, for one, sitting straight at the head of the table, wearing the neat but nondescript Mao suit, high buttoned as always, holding a pen in his hand, and leafing through a leather notebook. The commissar had never discussed anything with him, as far as Yu could remember, except politics. What could possibly be up that grizzled, skinny commissar’s sleeve, Yu wondered.

Looking at Chief Inspector Chen, who nodded at him, Detective Yu was the first to take the floor, “We have already put a lot of hours into the investigation. For my part, I’ve talked to the general manager of the First Department Store as well as Guan’s colleagues. In addition, I have checked with the Shanghai Taxi Bureau and a number of travel agencies. I’d like to sum up some important aspects of my work.

“A national model worker, Guan lived a model life, too, dedicated to the Communist cause, way too busy with all her Party activities for anything else. She seemed never to have dated anyone, nor was she involved with anyone at the time of her death. Needless to say, she did an excellent job at the store. With her position there, she might have been the envy of some people, but there’s no reason to suspect that this made her a murderer’s target.

“As for her activities on the day she was murdered, according to her colleagues, there was nothing unusual about her during that day. All routine work. Lunch at the canteen around twelve o’clock, and a Party meeting in the afternoon. She mentioned to a colleague that she was going to take some vacation time, but did not say where. Not too far away, not for long, it was assumed. Otherwise she should have submitted a written request to the general manager. She didn’t. The last time she was seen in the store was around seven ten, after her shift, which was not unusual for her. She went back to the dorm, where she was last seen at about ten thirty or a bit later, carrying a suitcase, alone, presumably leaving for her vacation.

“Now comes the difficult part. Where was she going? There are so many tourist groups nowadays. I’ve checked all of the local travel agencies, but Guan’s name was not registered with any of them. Of course, she could have chosen to travel by herself. To travel by air would have been out of the question. Guan’s name was not registered with any of the airlines. She might have gone to the railway station. In her neighborhood, no bus goes directly to the station. She might have walked to Xizhuang Road for Bus Number Sixty-four. The last scheduled bus arrives there at eleven thirty-five; after that there’s one every hour. Again it’s rather unusual for a young woman alone to carry a heavy suitcase along the street, when she might easily miss the last bus.

“So whether she was going to travel with a group or by herself, there’s reason to assume that she got into a taxi after leaving the dorm. But she did not finish the trip. Somewhere along the way, she was attacked and murdered by someone, who could be no one other than the driver. That also explains how her body came to be found in the canal. A taxi driver would have the means of transporting the body to dump it into a distant canal. That’s my hypothesis, and that’s why I have been conducting my investigation at the taxi bureau.

“My original plan was to check copies of all drivers’ receipts for the night to focus on those who failed to show any transaction during those few hours of the night. But according to the bureau, taxi drivers do not always give receipts, so there is no way to account for their activities. In fact, a considerable number of the drivers showed no business for the whole night-for tax avoidance reasons.”

“Hold on, Comrade Detective Yu,” Commissar Zhang interrupted. “Have you done any investigation into the political aspects of the case?”

“Well, as for the political aspects, I don’t think I have seen any. The murderer would have been a stranger to her. For her part, there would have been no reason for her to reveal her identity to a taxi driver. So it’s possible that he might not know her identity yet.”

“So what’s your suggestion for the next stage of the investigation?” Zhang continued, without changing his position in the chair, or the expression on his face.

“At present, with no evidence, and no witness,” Yu said, “there’s not much we can do. Let the case run its natural course. A rapist is a repeater, so sooner or later he will strike again. In the meantime, we will keep in close touch with the taxi bureau and travel agencies; hopefully, some new information will turn up. In fact, the taxi bureau has promised to give me a list of possible suspects, those drivers with something suspicious in their history. I have not gotten it yet.”

“So basically we’re not going to do anything until the criminal strikes again?”

“No, we are not going to close the case as unsolved. What I’m saying is-um, it’s not realistic to expect a quick solution. Eventually, we should be able to find the murderer, but that takes time.”

“How long?” Zhang asked, sitting even more upright.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s an important political case, comrade. That’s something we should all be well aware of.”

“Well-” Yu paused.

There was a lot more Yu wanted to say, but he knew it was not the moment. Chief Inspector Chen had not yet made any comment. As for the commissar’s position, Yu thought he understood it well; this might well be the old man’s last case. So naturally the commissar wanted to make a big deal out of it. Full of political significance. A finishing touch to his life-long career. It was easy for Zhang to talk about politics, of course, since he did not have to attend to the daily work of the squad.

“There may be something in Comrade Yu’s analysis.” Zhang stood up, opening his notebook, and cleared his throat before he began his formal speech. “It is a difficult case. We may spend hours and hours before seeing any real progress. But it’s not an ordinary case, comrades. Guan was a model worker of national renown. She dedicated her life to the cause of communism. Her tragic death has already had a very negative impact. I’m a retired old man, but here I am, working together with you. Why? It’s a special case assigned by the Party. People are watching our work. We cannot fail. So we have to find a new approach.”

Yu enjoyed a reputation as a detail man: patient, meticulous, sometimes even plodding. It was possible to waste time, he knew, on ninety-nine leads and to break the case on the hundredth. That was the way of almost all homicide investigations. He had no objection to that. They just had too many cases on their hands. But there was no “new approach”-as Commissar Zhang called it-except the ones in those mysteries Chief Inspector Chen translated.

“Rely on the people,” Zhang was continuing. “That’s where our strength lies. Chairman Mao told us that long ago. Once we get the people’s help, there’s no difficulty we cannot overcome…”

Yu had had it. It was more and more difficult for him to concentrate on the commissar’s lecture filled with such political rhetoric. At the bureau political education sessions, Yu sometimes could choose to sit in the back of the room and let the speaker’s voice lull him while doing meditation exercises. But that morning he could not.

Then Chief Inspector Chen took the floor. “Commissar Zhang’s instruction is very important. And Comrade Yu Guangming’s analysis makes a lot of sense, too. It is tough, especially when we’ve got so many other cases on our hands. Comrade Yu has done a lot of work. Most of it, I would say. If we have so far made little progress, it’s my responsibility. There is one point, however, that has just come to my attention. In fact, Comrade Yu’s analysis is bringing it into focus.

“According to the autopsy report, Guan had a meal between one and two hours before her death. The food she had consumed included, among other things, a small portion of caviar. Caviar. Expensive Russian sturgeon caviar. Now there are only three or four top-class Shanghai restaurants serving caviar. I’ve done some research. It’s hard to believe that she would have chosen to dine at one of those expensive restaurants by herself, with a heavy suitcase at her feet. Think about the timing, too. She left home around ten thirty; she died between one and two. So the meal would have to have been eaten around midnight. Now, according to my investigation, not a single restaurant served caviar to a Chinese customer on that particular night. If this information is accurate, it means she had caviar somewhere else. With somebody who kept caviar at home.”

“That’s something indeed,” Yu said.

“Hold on,” Zhang raised his hand to interrupt Chen. “So you are suggesting the murderer could be somebody Guan knew?”

“Yes, that’s a possible scenario: perhaps the murderer’s no stranger to Guan. After she left home, they met somewhere and had a midnight meal together. Possibly at his home. Afterward they had sex-remember, there were no real bruises on her body. Then he murdered her, moved her body into his car, and dumped it in the canal. The plastic bag would make sense, too, if the crime was committed at the murderer’s home. He was afraid of being seen in the act of moving the body-by his neighbors or other people. Furthermore, that also explains the choice of that far-away canal, where he hoped that the body would never be found, or at least not for a long time. By then no one might be able to recognize her, or remember with whom she was involved.”

“So you don’t think it’s a political case either,” Zhang said, “though you are offering a different theory.”

“Whether it is a political case or not, I cannot say, but I think there are some things worth further investigation.”

Yu was even more surprised than Zhang by Chen’s speech.

The plastic bag was not something new, but the caviar was something they had not discussed. Whether Chen had purposely saved it for the meeting, Yu was not sure. It appeared to be a master stroke, like in those of western mysteries Chen had been translating, perhaps.

Was Chen doing this to impress Commissar Zhang?

Yu did not think so, for Chen did not like the old man either.

It was nonetheless a crucial detail Yu had overlooked, that portion of caviar.

“But according to the information at the department store,” Yu said, “Guan was not seeing anyone at the time of her death.”

“That puzzles me,” Chen said, “but that’s where we should be digging more deeply.”

“Well, do it your way,” Zhang said, standing up to leave. “At least, that’s preferable to waiting for the criminal to act again.”

So Detective Yu was placed in an unfavorable light. A cop too lazy to attend to the important details. Yu could read the negative message in the old man’s knitted brows.

“I overlooked the caviar,” Yu said to Chen.

“It just occurred to me last night. So I have not had time to discuss it with you.”

“Caviar. Honestly, I have no idea what it is.”

Afterward he made a phone call to Peiqin. “Do you know what caviar is?”

“Yes, I’ve read about it in nineteenth-century Russian novels,” she said, “but I have never tasted it.”

“Has your restaurant ever served caviar?”

“You’re kidding, Guangming. Ours is such a shabby place. Only five-star hotels like the Jinjiang might have it.”

“Is it very expensive?”

“A tiny dish would cost you several hundred Yuan, I think,” she added. “Why your sudden interest?”

“Oh, just something about the case.”

Chapter 11

C hief Inspector Chen woke with a slight suggestion of headache. A shower did not help much. It would be difficult to shake off the feeling during the day. And it happened to be a day in which he had so much work cut out for him.

He was no workaholic, not in the way some of his colleagues claimed. It was true, however, that often it was only after he had successfully forced himself into working like a devil, that he felt the most energetic.

He had just received a rare collection of Yan Shu’s poems-a hand-bound rice paper edition, in a deep blue cloth case. An unexpected present from Beijing, in return for the copy of the Wenhui Daily he had sent.

There was a short note inside the cloth case. Chief Inspector Chen: Thanks for your poem. I like it very much. Sorry I cannot send you anything of my own in return. I alighted on a collection of Yan Shu’s poems in Liulichang Antique Fair a couple of weeks ago, and I thought you would like it. Also, congratulations on your promotion.

Ling

Of course he liked it. He recalled his days of wandering around in the Liulichang Antique Fair, then a poor student from Beijing Foreign Language Institute, examining old books without being able to buy any of them. He had seen something like it only once-in the rare book section of the Beijing Library where Ling had compared his ecstatic sampling to that of the silverfish lost in the pages of the ancient volumes. Such a hand-bound collection could be very expensive, but it was worth it. The feel of the white rice paper was exquisite. It almost conveyed a message from antiquity. Like his, Ling’s note did not say much. The choice of such a book spoke for itself. Ling had not changed. She was still fond of poetry-or of his poetry.

He should have told Ling about the seminar in October, but he did not want her to think that he had thrown himself into politics. For the moment, however, he did not have to think too much about it. There was nothing like spending a late May morning wandering about in the green ivy-covered world of the celebrated Song dynasty poet.

He flipped through the pages. Helpless the flowers fall, The swallows return, seemingly no strangers.

A brilliant couplet. Often people see something for the first time, but with the feeling of having seen it before, of deja vu. Such a phenomenon had been attributed to the effects of half-remembered dreams or else to misfiring neurons in the brain. Whatever the interpretation, Chen, too, had a feeling-both strange and familiar-like the swallows in Yan’s lines, of having visited Guan’s world. As he held the book in his hand, the feeling was mixed with the elusive memories of his college years in Beijing…

It was disturbing. Guan no longer represented an esoteric character. The case had somehow become a personal challenge. People had seen Guan as a national model worker, ever politically correct, an embodiment of the Party’s much propagandized myth. But he did not. There must have been something else, something different in her. Just what it was, he could not say yet, but until he was able to explain it to himself, he would continue to be oppressed by an indefinable uneasiness.

It was not just because of the caviar.

He had talked to a lot of people who seemed to have thought well of her. Politically, of course. Personally, they knew practically nothing. It seemed that she had so committed herself to her political role that she could play no other part, personal or otherwise. A point Detective Yu had made.

She had no time, perhaps. Eight hours a day, six days a week, she had to be busy living up to what was expected of her. She had to attend numerous meetings and to make all the presentations at Party conferences, in addition to the long working hours she put in at the store. Everything was possible, of course, according to Communist Party propaganda. Comrade Lei Feng had represented just such a selfless miracle. There was no mention at all of his personal life in The Diary of Comrade Lei Feng, which had sold millions of copies. It was revealed in the late eighties, however, that the diary was a pure fabrication by a professional writing team commissioned by the Central Party Committee.

Political correctness was a shell. It should not, could not, spell an absence of personal life. And that could have been said of himself as well, Chief Inspector Chen thought.

He suspected he needed a respite from the case, at least for a short while. And at once it came to him that what he wanted most-one of his first thoughts on awakening-was to be with Wang Feng. He put his hand on the phone, but he hesitated. It might not be the right time. Then he remembered her call earlier in the week. A ready excuse. A breakfast invitation would commit him to no more than a pleasant morning. A hard-working chief inspector was entitled to the company of a reporter who had written about him.

“How are you this morning, Wang?”

“I’m fine. But it’s early, not even seven o’clock.”

“Well, I woke up thinking of you.”

“Thank you for telling me this. So you could have called earlier- three o’clock if you happened to roll out of your bed then.”

“I’ve just come up with an idea. The Peach Blossom Restaurant is serving morning tea again. It’s quite close to your home. What about having a cup of tea with me?”

“Only a cup of tea?”

“You know it’s more than that- dimson or Guangdong-style morning tea, along with a wide variety of delicacies.”

“There’s a deadline I’ve got to meet today. I’ll feel drowsy after a full meal, even at ten o’clock in the morning. But you can meet me on the Bund, close to Number Seven dock, opposite the Peace Hotel. I’ll be practicing Taiji.”

“The Bund, Number Seven dock. I know where it is,” he said. “Can you make it there in fifteen minutes?”

“I’m still in bed. You really want me to come running to you barefoot?”

“Why not? See you in half an hour then.” He put down the phone.

It was an intimate allusion between them. Arising from their first meeting. He was pleased with the way she had said it over the phone.

He had met Wang about a year earlier. On a Friday afternoon, Party Secretary Li told him to go to the office of the Wenhui Daily, saying that a reporter named Wang Feng would like to interview him there. Why a Wenhui reporter should be interested in seeing a junior police officer, Chen could not figure out.

The Wenhui building was a twelve-story sandstone edifice located on Tiantong Road, commanding a magnificent view over the Bund. Chen arrived there about two hours late, having been delayed with a traffic violation case. At the entrance, there was an old man sitting at something like a front desk. When Chen handed over his name card, he was told Wang was not in her office. The doorman was positive, however, that she was somewhere in the building. So Chen took a seat in the lobby, waited, and started to read a paperback mystery, The Fallen Curtain. It was not much of a lobby, just a small space for a couple of chairs in front of an old-fashioned elevator. There were not too many people coming and going at the moment. Soon he was lost in Ruth Rendell’s world until a clatter of footsteps caught his attention.

A tall, slender girl was walking out of the elevator with a pink plastic pail over her bare arm. Wenhui must have a shower room for its staff, he thought. She was in her early twenties, wearing a low-cut T-shirt and shorts. Her wet hair was tied up with a sky-blue kerchief. Her wooden slippers clapped crisply against the floor. Probably a college student doing an internship, he thought. She certainly scampered like one. And then she stumbled, pitching forward.

Throwing away the book, he jumped up and caught her in his arms.

Standing on one slipper, her hand on his shoulder for balance, she reached one bare foot out to the other slipper which had been flung into the corner. She blushed, disengaging herself from his embrace. It took her only a second to regain her balance, but she remained deeply embarrassed.

She did not have to be, Chen thought with a wry humor, feeling her wet hair brushing against his face, her body smelling of some pleasant soap.

In traditional Chinese society, however, such physical contact would have been enough to result in a wedding contract. “Once in a man’s arms, always in his arms.”

“Wang Feng,” the doorman said. “The police officer has been waiting for you.”

She was the reporter who had summoned him there. And the interview afterward led to something he had not expected.

Afterward, he had joked about her coming barefoot to him. “Coming barefoot” was an allusion to a story in classical Chinese literature. In 800 B.C., the Duke of Zhou, anxious to meet a wise man who would help him unify the county, ran barefoot out of the hall to greet him. The phrase was later used to exaggerate one’s eagerness to meet a guest.

It did not apply to them. She had happened to fall, walking out of the bathroom, and he had happened to be there, catching her in his arms. That was all. Now a year later, he was walking toward her again. At the intersection of the Bund and Nanjing road, the top of the Wenhui office building shimmered behind the Peace Hotel. The morning’s in the arms of the Bund, her hair dew-sparkled…

The Bund was alive with people, sitting on the concrete benches, standing by the bank, watching the dark yellow tide rolling in, singing snatches of Beijing operas along with the birds in the cages hung on the trees. A light haze of May heat trembled over the colored-stone walk. A long line of tourists stretched out, leading to the cruise ticket offices, near the Bridge Park. At the Lujiazhui ferry, he saw a swarthy sailor coiling the hawsers as a small group of students looked on curiously. The boat appeared crowded, as always, and as the bell rang urgently, men and women hurried to their destination, and then to new destinations. A tunnel project was said to be under construction beneath the river, so people would soon have alternative ways to get across the water. Several petrels glided over the waves, their wings glistening white in the sunlight, as if flying out of a calendar illustration. The river, though still polluted, showed some signs of improvement.

Exhilaration quickened his steps.

There were groups of people doing Taiji along the Bund, and he saw Wang in one of them.

History does not repeat itself.

One of the first things he noticed was the long green skirt covering her feet. She was striking a sequence of Taiji poses: a white crane flashing its wings, a master strumming the lute, a wild horse shaking its mane, a hunter grasping a bird’s tail. All the poses were in imitation of nature-the essence of Taiji.

A mixed feeling came over him as he stood gazing at her. Nothing was wrong with Taiji itself. It was an ancient cultural heritage following the Taoist philosophy of subduing the hard by being soft, the yin-yang principle. As a means to keep fit, Chen himself had practiced it, but he was troubled by the fact that she was the only young woman in the group, her black hair held back by a blue cotton scarf.

“Hi,” he greeted her.

“What are you staring at?” Wang said, walking toward him. She was wearing white casual shoes.

“For a second, you were walking to me out of a Tang poem.”

“Oh, here you go again with your quotations and interpretations. Am I seeing a poetry critic or a police officer this morning?”

“Well, it is not we who make the interpretation,” Chen said, “but the interpretation makes us-a critic or a cop.”

“Let me see,” she said, breaking into a smile. “It’s just like Tuishou practice, isn’t it? It’s not that we push Tuishou, but the practice pushes us.”

“You’re no stranger to deconstruction.”

“And you’re good at spouting poetically deconstructive nonsense.”

That was just another reason her company was always so enjoyable. She was not bookish, but she had read across a wide range of subjects, even the latest ones.

“Well, I used to be quite good at Taiji. At Tuishou too.”

“No kidding?”

“It’s years ago. I may have forgotten some techniques, but try me.”

Tuishou-or push-hand sparring exercise-was a special form of Taiji. Two people standing opposite each other, palms to palms, pushing and being pushed in a slow, spontaneous flow of rhythmic harmony. There were several people doing that near the Taiji group.

“It’s easy. Just keep your arms in constant contact,” she said, taking up his hands, pedantically, “and make sure that you push neither too little nor too much. Harmonious, natural, spontaneous. Tuishou values dissolving an oncoming force before striking a blow.”

She was a good instructor, but it did not take her long to find out that he was actually the more experienced. He could have pushed her off balance in the first few rounds, but he found this experience, with his palms pressed against hers, their bodies moving together in an effortless effort, too intimate to bring to a quick stop.

And it was really intimate-her face, her arms, her body, her gestures, the way she moved and was moved, her eyes shining into his eyes.

He did not want to push her too hard. But she was getting impatient, throwing more force into it. He rotated his left forearm to ward off her attack by turning his body slightly to the side. With a subtle technique of neutralizing her force, he drew in his chest, shifting his weight onto his right leg and pressing her left arm downward. She leaned forward too much.

He took the opportunity of pushing her back. She lost her balance, staggering forward. He reached out to take her in his arms.

She was blushing deeply, trying to disengage herself.

Since their first meeting, he had been resisting the temptation to hold her in his arms again-this time not by accident. Initially he was not sure what she might think of him. Perhaps he had a touch of an inferiority complex. What reason was there for him to believe that a pretty, promising reporter, almost ten years younger, would be interested in an entry-level cop? Then he learned that she had been married, a fact he had since been trying to overlook, for she had been married-he had kept telling himself-only nominally. Two or three months before their first meeting, her boyfriend, Yang Kejia, was about to leave for an approved study program in Japan. His father, lying in the hospital, gasped out his last wish to the two young people: that they would go to the city hall for a marriage license, even though the wedding could be postponed until after Yang’s return from Japan. It was a matter of Confucian significance that he leave this world with the satisfaction of seeing his only son married. Wang did not have the heart to say no, so she agreed. In a couple of weeks her father-in-law passed away, and then her husband defected in Japan, refusing to return to China. That was a terrible blow to her. As a wife, she was supposed to know everything about Yang’s movements, but she was totally in the dark. Chen believed the defector would not have discussed it with her in long-distance calls which could be tapped. But some Internal Security officers did not credit this, and she was questioned several times.

According to a colleague of hers, it would serve Yang right if, having left her in such a situation, she divorced him. But Chen had not discussed this with her. There was no hurry. He knew he liked her, but he had not made up his mind yet. In the meantime, he was happy to be with her whenever he could find the time.

“You know how to push,” she said, her hand still in his.

“No, I’ll never push you. It’s just the natural flow. But on second thought,” he said, gazing at her flushed face, “I do want to push you a little. What about a cup of coffee in the Riverside Cafe?”

“In full view of the Wenhui Building?”

“What’s wrong with that?” He could sense her hesitation. There was the possibility of their being seen together by her colleagues passing along the Bund. He himself had heard of gossip about them in the bureau. “Come on, this is the nineties.”

“You don’t have to push for that,” she said.

The Riverside Cafe consisted of several chairs and tables on a large cedar deck jutting out above the river. They climbed a silver-gray wrought-iron spiral staircase and chose a white plastic table under a large flowered umbrella that offered a wonderful view of the river and the colorful vessels coming and going slowly along its eastern bank. A waitress brought them coffee, juice, and a glass bowl of assorted fruit.

The coffee smelled fresh. So did the juice. She picked up the bottle and raised it to her mouth. Loosening the kerchief that secured her hair, she looked relaxed, her foot hooked over the horizontal bar of the chair.

He could not help wondering at the change in her face in the sunlight. Every time he met her, he would seem to perceive something different in her. One moment she appeared to be a bluestocking, nibbling at the top of a fountain pen, mature and pensive, with the weight of fast-developing world news on her shoulders; the next moment she would come to him, a young girl in wooden sandals, scampering down the corridor. But on this May morning, she appeared to be a typical Shanghai girl, soft, casual, at ease in the company of the man she liked.

There was even a light green jade charm dangling on a thin red string over her bosom. Like most Shanghai girls, she, too, wore those small, superstitious trinkets. Then she began chewing a stick of gum, her head leaned back, blowing a bubble into the sunlight.

He did not feel the need to speak at the moment. Her breath, only inches away, was cool from the minty gum. He had intended to take her hand across the table, but instead, he tapped his finger on the paper napkin in front of her.

A sense of being up and above the Bund filled him.

“What’re you thinking about?” he said.

“What mask are you wearing at this moment-policeman or poet?”

“You’ve asked that for the second time. Are the two so contradictory?”

“Or a prosperous businessman from abroad?” she said, giggling. “You’re certainly dressed like one.”

He was wearing his dark suit, a white shirt, and one of his few ties that looked exotic, a gift from a former schoolmate, an owner of several high-tech companies in Toronto who had told him that the design on the tie represented a romantic scene in a modern Canadian play. There was no point in sitting with her in his police uniform.

“Or just a lover,” he said impulsively, “head over heels.” He met her gaze, guessing he had made himself as transparent as water. Not the water in the Huangpu River.

“You’re being impossible,” she said, smiling, “even in the middle of your murder investigation.”

It did slightly disturb him that he could be so sensitive to her attractiveness when he should have been concentrating on solving the case. When she was alive, Guan Hongying might have been as attractive. Especially in those pictures in the cloud-wrapped mountains, Guan posing in a variety of elegant attire, young, lively, vivacious. All in such a sharp contrast to that naked, swollen body pulled out of a black plastic garbage bag.

They sat at the table, not speaking for a couple of minutes, watching an antique-looking sampan swaying in the tide. A wave shook the sampan near the parrot wall, bringing down a cloth diaper from a clothesline stretched across the deck.

“A family sampan, the couple working down in the cabin,” he said, “and living there too.”

“A torn sail married to a broken oar,” she said, still chewing the gum.

A bubble of metaphor iridescent in the sun.

A half-naked baby was crawling out of the cabin under the tarpaulin, as if to satisfy their expectation, grinning at them like a Wuxi earthen doll.

For the moment, they felt they had the river to themselves. Not the river, but the moment it starts rippling in your eyes…

He was on the track of a poem.

“Your mind is on the case again?”

“No, but now that you mention it,” he said, “there is something puzzling about it.”

“I’m no investigator,” she said, “but talking about it may help.“

Chief Inspector Chen had learned that verbalizing a case to an attentive listener was helpful. Even if the listener did not offer any constructive suggestions, sometimes questions alone from an untrained-or simply a new-perspective could open fresh paths of inquiry. So he started talking about the case. He was not worried about sharing information with her, even though she was a Wenhui reporter. She listened intently, her cheek lightly resting on her hand, then leaned forward across the table, gazing at him, the morning light of the city in her eyes.

“So here we are,” Chen said, having recapitulated the points he had discussed in the special group meeting the previous day, “with a number of unanswered questions. And the only fact we have established is that Guan left the dorm for a vacation around ten thirty on May tenth. As for what happened to her afterward, we have discovered nothing-except the caviar.”

“Nothing else suspicious?”

“Well, there is something else. Not really suspicious, but it just does not make sense to me. She was going somewhere on vacation, but no one knew where. People are usually so excited about their vacation that they will talk a lot about it.”

“That’s true,” she said, “but in her case, couldn’t her reserve result from a need for privacy?”

“That’s what we suspect, but the whole thing seemed to be just too secretive. Detective Yu has checked with all the travel agencies, and there’s no record with her name registered either.”

“Well, she might have traveled by herself.”

“That’s possible, but I doubt that a single young woman would travel all by herself. Unless she had some other people, or one man as her companion, I think it unlikely. That’s my hypothesis, and the caviar fits. What’s more, last October she had made another trip. We know where she went that time-the Yellow Mountains. But whether she went there by herself, with some- one, or with a group, we don’t know. Yu has researched that, too, but we have no leads.”

“That’s strange,” she said, her eyes half closing in thought. “No train goes there. You have to change to a bus in Wuhu, and to get from the bus terminal to the mountains, you have to walk quite a distance. And then to find a hotel for yourself in the mountains can be a headache. It saves you a lot of money, and energy, too, to go with a tourist group. I’ve been there, I know.”

“Yes, and another thing. According to the records at the department store, her vacation in the mountains lasted about ten days, from the end of September through the first week in October. Detective Yu has contacted all the hotels there. But her name did not appear on any of their records.”

“Are you sure that she went there?”

“Positive. She showed her colleagues some pictures from the mountains. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few in her album.”

“She must have a lot of pictures.”

“For a young pretty woman, not too many,” he said, “but some are really good.”

Indeed, some of the pictures appeared highly professional. Still vivid in his mind, for instance, was the one of Guan leaning against the famous mountain pine, with white clouds woven into her streaming black hair. It would do for the cover of a travel brochure.

“Are there pictures of her with other people?”

“A lot of them, of course. One with Comrade Deng Xiaoping himself.”

“Pictures from that mountain trip?” Wang said, picking up a grape with her slender fingers.

“Well, I’m not sure,” Chen said, “but I don’t think so. That’s something-”

Something worth looking into.

“Supposing Guan made the trip all by herself,” she was peeling the grape. “She could have met some people in the mountains staying in the same hotel, talked about the scenery, taken pictures for each other-”

“And taken pictures together. You’re absolutely right,” he said. “And some of the tourists would have worn their name tags.”

“Name tags-yes, that’s possible,” she said, “if they were traveling in a group.”

“I have looked through all the albums,” he said, stealing a glance at his wristwatch, “but I may do it all over again.”

“And as soon as possible,” she was putting the peeled grape into his saucer.

The grape appeared greenish, almost transparent against her lovely fingers.

He reached across to take her hands on the table. They had a sort of mutual understanding that he appreciated: Chief Inspector Chen had to investigate.

She shook her head, looking as though she was about to say something, but changed her mind.

“What is it?”

“I’m concerned about you.” She withdrew her hand with a small frown.

“Why?”

“Your obsession with the case,” she said softly, standing up from the chair. “An ambitious man is not necessarily obnoxious, but you are going a bit too far, Comrade Chief Inspector.”

“No, I’m not that obsessed with the case,” he said. “In fact, you are just reminding me of two lines- ’With the green skirt of yours in my mind, everywhere, / Everywhere I step over the grass ever so lightly’. ”

“You don’t have to cover yourself by quoting those lines,” she said, starting to move toward the staircase. “I know how much your work means to you.”

“Not as much as you think,” he said, imitating the way she shook her head, “certainly not as much as you.”

“How is your mother?” she was changing the subject again.

“Fine. Still waiting for me to grow up, get hitched, make her a grandma.”

“Work on growing up first.”

Wang could be sarcastic at times, but it might just be a defense mechanism. So he laughed.

“I am wondering,” he said, “if we can get together again-this weekend.”

“To talk more about the investigation?” she teased him goodhumoredly.

“If you like,” he said. “I also want to have dinner with you at my place.”

“Fine, I’d like that, but not this weekend,” she said. “I’ll check my calendar. I’m not a gourmet cook like your ‘Overseas Chinese’ pal, but I can work up a pretty good Sichuan pickle. How does that sound?”

“It sounds terrific.”

She turned to him with an enigmatic smile, “You don’t have to accompany me to my office.”

So he stood, lit a cigarette, and watched her crossing the street, coming to a stop at the central safety island. There she looked back, the green skirt trailing across the long curve of her legs, and her smile filled him with a surprising sense of completeness. She waved to him before she turned into the side street leading to the Wenhui building.

Of late, he had been giving some thought to the future of their relationship.

Politically she would not make an ideal choice. Her future would be affected by her so-called husband’s defection. Even after her divorce, the stain in her file would remain. It would not have mattered that much if Chen had not been a chief inspector. As an “emerging Party member cadre,” he knew the Party authorities were aware of every step he was making. So were some of his colleagues, who would be pleased to see his career tarnished by such a union.

A married woman, though no more than nominally married, was not “culturally desirable,” either.

But what was the point of being a chief inspector if he could not care for a woman he liked?

He threw away his cigarette. One decision he had made: he was walking to Qinghe Lane instead of taking a bus. He wanted to do some thinking.

Crossing the safety island, he stepped over the green grass lightly.

Chapter 12

This May morning was bright and despite the early heat the air was fresh.

The traffic wound itself into a terrible snarl along Henan Road. Chief Inspector Chen cut his way through the long line of cars, congratulating himself on his decision to walk. New construction was under way everywhere, and detour signs popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain, adding to the traffic problem. Near the Eastern Bookstore, he noticed another old building being pulled down. In its place, a five-star hotel would soon arise. An imported red convertible rolled by. A young girl sitting by the driver waved her hand at a postman late on his round.

Shanghai was changing rapidly.

So were the people.

So was he, seeing more and more meaning in his police work, though he stepped into a bookstore, and spent several minutes looking for a poetry collection. Chief Inspector Chen was not that obsessed with the case, nor with its political significance for his career.

There was, perhaps, one side of him that had always been bookish, nostalgic, or introspective. Sentimental, or even somewhat sensual in a classic Chinese version- ”fragrance from the red sleeves imbues your reading at night.” But there was also another side to him. Not so much antiromantic as realistic, though not as ambitious as Wang had accused him of being at the Riverfront Cafe. A line memorized in his college years came back to him: “ The most useless being is a poor bookworm.” It was by Gao Shi, a well-known general, successful in the mid-Tang dynasty, and a first-class poet at the same time.

General Gao had lived in an era when the once prosperous Tang dynasty was torn by famine, corruption, and wars, so the talented poet-general had taken it upon himself to make a difference- through his political commitment-for the country.

Today, China was once more witnessing a profound change, with significant challenges to the established systems and views. At such a historical juncture, Chen was also inclined to think that he could make a more realistic difference as a chief inspector than just as a poet. A difference, even if not as substantial as General Gao’s, which would be felt in the lives of the people around him. For example, by his investigation of this crime.

In China, and perhaps anywhere else, making such a difference would be more possible from a position of power, Chief Inspector Chen thought, as he inserted the key into the lock of Guan’s dorm room door.

To his dismay, the hopes that led him to make a second visit to Guan’s room were evaporating fast. He stood there under the framed portrait of Comrade Deng Xiaoping, musing. Nothing seemed to have changed in the room. And he could find nothing new in the photos, either, though there were several showing Guan in the mountains. He took these out and arranged them in a line on the table. Vivid images. Sharp colors. Standing by the famous welcoming pine, she smiled into the camera. Looking up at the peak, she lifted up her arms to the white clouds. Sitting on a jutting rock, she dabbled her bare feet in the mountain stream.

There was also one in a hotel room. Perching on the window sill, she was dressed rather scantily, her long, shapely bare legs dangling gracefully beneath a short cotton skirt. The morning sun shone through her thin cotton tunic, rendering it almost transparent, the swell of her breasts, visible beneath the material, suggesting the ellipse of her abdomen. Behind her, the window framed the verdant mountain range.

No mistaking her presence in the mountains. There was not a single picture, however, of her together with somebody else. Could she have been that narcissistic?

The idea that she’d made the trip by herself did not make sense, as Wang had pointed out at the cafe. But supposing she had, there was another question-Who had taken all the pictures of her? For her? Some had been taken at difficult angles, or from a considerable distance. It was hard to believe that she could have managed to have taken them by herself. There was not even a camera left among her few belongings. Nor a single roll of film, used or unused, in the drawers.

Comrade Deng Xiaoping himself appeared to be leaning down out of the picture frame, beneath which he stood, frustrated at Chen’s frustration.

One metaphor Chen had translated in a mystery came to his mind. Policemen were like wind-up toy soldiers, hustling here and bustling there, gesticulating, and chasing around in circles, for days, months, and even years, without getting anything done, and then suddenly they found themselves put aside, shelved, only to be wound up for another time.

Something about this case had been winding him up. It was a nameless impulse, which he suspected might not totally be a policeman’s.

Suddenly he felt hungry. He had had only a cup of black coffee at the Riverside Cafe. So he headed out to the shabby restaurant across the street. Choosing a rickety wooden table on the sidewalk, he once more ordered a portion of fried buns plus a bowl of beef soup. The soup came first with chopped green onion floating on the surface, but like the last time, he had to wait for the buns. The place had only one big flat wok for frying them.

There’s no breakthrough every day for a cop, he thought, and lit a cigarette, inhaling the fragrance of Peony mixed with the fresh air. Looking across the street, he became fascinated by the sight of an old woman standing close to the entrance of the lane. Almost statuesque on her bound feet, she was hawking ices from an ancient wheelbarrow, her shrunken face as weatherbeaten as the Great Wall in a postcard. Sweating, she was swathed in black homespun, like an opaque piece of smoke-darkened glass for watching a summer sun eclipse. She wore a red armband with Best Socialist Mobile Service Woman in Chairman Mao’s calligraphy. Perhaps she was not in her right mind, or she would not have worn that antique armband. Fifty or sixty years earlier, however, she could have been one of those pretty girls, standing there, smiling, her bare shoulders shining against the bare wall, soliciting customers under the alluring gas lights, launching a thousand ships into the silent night.

And in time, Guan might have become as old, shrivelled, ravenlike as the peddler, out of touch with the time and tide, unstrung, unnoticed.

Then Chen noticed that there were, indeed, several young people hanging around the dorm building. They seemed to be doing nothing in particular-crossing their arms, whistling off key, looking at the passersby along the road. As his glance fell on the wood-and-glass kiosk attached to the dorm, he realized that they must be waiting for phone calls. Looking into the cubicle, Chen could see the white-haired old man picking up a phone, handing it to a middle-aged woman outside, and putting coins into a small box. Before the woman finished speaking, the old man was picking up another phone, but this time he wrote something down on a slip of paper. He moved out of his cubicle toward the staircase, shouting upwards, a loudspeaker in one hand and the slip of paper in the other. Possibly he’d called the name of some resident upstairs. That must have been an incoming call. Due to the severe shortage of private phones in Shanghai, such public telephone service remained the norm. Most people had to make phone calls in this way.

Guan, too.

Chen stood up without waiting for the arrival of the fried buns and strode across the street to the dorm.

The old man was in his late sixties, well-preserved, well-dressed, speaking with an air of serene responsibility. Against a different office background, he might have looked like a high-ranking cadre. Lying on the table amid the phones was a copy of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms with a bamboo bookmark. He looked up at Chen.

Chief Inspector Chen produced his I.D.

“Yes, you’re doing the investigation here,” the old man said. “My name is Bao Guozhang. Folks here just call me Uncle Bao.”

“Uncle Bao, I would like to ask you a few question about Comrade Guan Hongying,” Chen remained standing outside the cubicle, which could hardly seat two people. “Your help will be greatly appreciated.”

“Comrade Guan was a fine member of the Party. It’s my responsibility to help your work as a member of the Residents’ Committee,” Uncle Bao said seriously. “I’ll do my best.”

The Residents’ Committee was, in one sense, an extension of the local district police office, working partially, though not officially, under its supervision. The organization was responsible for everything happening outside people’s work units-arranging weekly political studies, checking the number of the people living there, running daycare centers, distributing ration coupons, allocating birth quotas, arbitrating disputes among neighbors or family members, and most important, keeping a close watch over the neighborhood. The committee was authorized to report on every individual, and the report was included as confidential in the police dossier. Thus the institution of the Residents’ Committee enabled the local police to remain in the background while maintaining effective surveillance. In some instances, the Residents’ Committee had actually helped the police solve crimes and capture criminals.

“Sorry, I did not know that you’re a member of the committee,” Chen said. “I should have consulted you earlier.”

“Well, I retired three years ago from Shanghai Number Four Steel Factory, but my old bones would have rusted if I did nothing all day. So I started working here. Besides, the committee pays a little, too.”

While a few officials of the committee were full-time cadres, most members were retired workers on pensions, receiving a little extra pay in return for their community service. In view of the high inflation in the early nineties, an additional stipend was most welcome.

“You’re doing something important for the neighborhood,” Chen said.

“Well, in addition to the public telephone services here, I also keep an eye on the dorm building security,” Uncle Bao said, “and on the whole lane, too. People cannot be too careful these days.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Chen said, noticing two phones ringing at the same time. “And it keeps you pretty busy.”

There were four phones on a wooden shelf behind the small windows. One phone was labeled “FOR INCOMING CALLS ONLY.” According to Uncle Bao, the public phone service had been originally put in for the convenience of the dorm residents only, but now people in the lane could also use the phones for just ten cents.

“When a call comes in, I write down the name and call-back number on a pad, tear off that page, and give the message to the intended recipient. If it happens to be a dorm resident, I just need to shout the name at the foot of the stairs with a loudspeaker.”

“What about the people who don’t live in the building?”

“I’ve got an assistant. She goes out to inform them, shouting with her loudspeaker under their windows.”

“So they come here to return the call, right?”

“Yes,” Uncle Bao said. “By the time everyone gets a phone at home, I will really be retired.”

“Uncle Bao.” A young girl burst into the cubicle with a gray loudspeaker in her hand.

“This is the assistant I’m talking about,” Uncle Bao said. “She’s responsible for delivering the messages to the lane residents.”

“I see.”

“Xiuxiu, this is Comrade Chief Inspector Chen,” Uncle Bao said. “Chief Inspector Chen and I need to talk about something. So take care of things here for a while, will you?”

“Sure, no problem.”

“It’s not much of a job for her,” Uncle Bao sighed, moving across the street to the table where Chen had been waiting. “But that’s all she can find nowadays.”

The fried buns had not arrived yet, but the soup was already cold. Chen ordered another bowl for Uncle Bao.

“So, any progress with your investigation?”

“Not much. Your help may be really important to us.”

“You’re welcome to whatever I know.”

“Since you’re here every day, you probably know who has a lot of visitors. What about Comrade Guan?”

“Some friends or colleagues might have visited, but not too many. On one or two occasions I noticed her with people. That’s about all I saw-during my three years here.”

“What kind of people were they?”

“I cannot really remember. Sorry.”

“Did she make a lot of calls?”

“Well, yes, more than other residents here.”

“And received a lot?”

“Yes, quite a lot, too, I would say,” Uncle Bao said reflectively. “But then it’s little wonder, for a national model worker, with her meetings and conferences.”

“Anything unusual about those phone calls?”

“No, nothing that I noticed. There’re so many calls, and I am always busy.”

“Anything you happened to have overheard?”

“It’s not proper and right, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Uncle Bao said, “for me to listen to what other people say.”

“You’re right, Uncle Bao. Forgive me for this improper question. It’s just because the case is so important to us.”

The arrival of the fried buns interrupted their discussion.

“But-as for anything unusual-now that you mention it, there might be something, I think,” Uncle Bao said, nibbling at a tiny bun. “The working hours for a public phone service station are, generally, from seven A.M. to seven P.M. For the benefit of the residents here, several of whom work the night shift, we extend our service hours- from seven A.M. to eleven P.M. Guan made quite a number of calls, I remember, after nine or ten P.M. Especially during the last half year.”

“Was that wrong?”

“Not wrong, but unusual. The First Department Store closes at eight o’clock.”

“Yes?”

“The people she called must have had private phones at home.”

“Well, she might have talked to her boss.”

“But I wouldn’t call my boss after ten o’clock. Would a young single woman?”

“Yes, you’re very observant.”

The R.C. member had ears, Chen nodded, and brains, too.

“It’s my responsibility.”

“So you think that she was seeing somebody before her death?”

“It’s possible,” Uncle Bao said after a pause. “As far as I can remember, it was a man who made most of the phone calls to her. He spoke with a strong Beijing accent.”

“Is there any way to trace the phone numbers, Uncle Bao?”

“Not with the phone calls she made. There’s no way of knowing the number she dialed out. But for the calls she got, we may recover some from our record stubs. You see, we put down the number both on the slip and the stub attached to it. So if people lose their slips, we can still recover the numbers.”

“Really! Have you kept all the stubs?”

“Not all of them. Most are useless after several days. But for the past few weeks, I may be able to dig out some for you. It will take some time.”

“That will be great,” Chen said. “Thank you so much, Uncle Bao. Your information is throwing new light on our investigation.”

“You’re most welcome, Comrade Chief Inspector.”

“Another thing. Did she get a phone call on May tenth? That is, the night she was murdered.”

“May tenth was-a Thursday, let me see. I’ll have to check the stubs. The phone station drawer’s too small, so I keep most of the stubs at home.”

“Call me immediately if you find anything,” Chen said. “I don’t know how to express our appreciation.”

“Don’t mention it, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Uncle Bao said. “What’s an R.C. member for?”

At the bus station, Chen turned back and glimpsed the old man busy working in the cubicle again, cradling a phone on his shoulder, nodding, writing on a piece of paper, his other hand holding another piece out the window. A conscientious R.C. member. Most likely a Party member, too.

It was an unexpected lead: Guan might have been seeing somebody before her death.

Why she should have made such a secret of it, he did not know yet. He no longer had any conviction about its being a political case. It was Wang, with the green jade charm dangling from a thin red string round her neck, who had inspired him to pursue this line of investigation. But the moment he squeezed into the bus, he ran out of luck. Wedged among the passengers at the door, he pressed forward only to be crushed against a middle-aged fat woman, her florid blouse soaked in sweat, wet, nearly transparent. He tried his best to keep some distance, but to no avail. What was even worse, with new construction under way everywhere, the condition of the road was not smooth. The incessant bumps made the ordeal almost unbearable. More than once the bus came to an emergency halt, and his fleshy neighbor was thrown off balance, colliding with him. It was no Tuishou. He heard her cursing under her breath, though it was not anybody’s fault.

Finally he gave up. Before the bus reached the bureau, he got off at Shandong Road.

The fresh breeze was heavenly.

Bus Number 71. Possibly the very bus Guan used to take to the department store, and back, day after day.

Not until Chief Inspector Chen returned home, took off his uniform, and lay down on his bed, did he think of something that could have been a cold comfort-for Guan. Though single, Guan had not been too lonely-at least not toward the end of her life. She had someone to call after 10 P.M. He had never tried to call Wang so late in the evening. She lived with her parents. He had only visited her home once. Old, prudish, traditional, her parents were not too friendly because they were aware of his attentions to their married daughter.

What was Wang doing at the moment? He wished he could call her, tell her that success in his career, gratifying as it appeared, was no more than a consolation prize for the absence of personal happiness.

It was a serene summer night. The moonlight was lambent among the shimmering leaves, and a lonely street lamp cast a yellow flickering light on the ground. A violin could be heard from an open window across the street. The melody was familiar, but he could not recall its name. Sleepless, he lit a cigarette.

A young woman, Guan must also have experienced her moments of surging loneliness-sudden sleeplessness, in that small dorm room of hers.

The ending of a poem by Matthew Arnold came swelling to him in the night-air: Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

It was a poem he had translated years earlier. The broken and uneven lines, as well as the abrupt, almost surrealist transitions and juxtapositions, had appealed to him. The translation had appeared in Reading and Understanding, along with a short critical essay by him, claiming it as the saddest Victorian love poem. Whether it was really an echo of the disillusioned Western world, as he had maintained in the essay, however, he was no longer so sure. Any reading, according to Derrida, could be a misreading. Even Chief Inspector Chen could be read in one way or another.

Chapter 13

Saturday in late May was once again clear and fine.

The Yus were visiting the Grand View Garden in Qingpu, Shanghai.

Peiqin was in her element, carrying a copy of The Dream of the Red Chamber. It was a dream come true to her.

“Look, that’s the bamboo grove where Xiangyuan takes her nap on the stone bench, and Baoyu stands watching her,” she said, turning the pages to that part of the story.

Qinqin was in high spirits, too, running about, losing and finding himself in a traditional Chinese garden maze.

“Take a picture of me by the vermilion pavilion,” she said.

Yu had the blues, but he was making a gallant effort to conceal his mood. He held up the camera, knowing how much the garden meant to Peiqin. A group of tourists also came to a stop in front of the pavilion, and the guide began elaborating on the ancient architectural wonder. Peiqin listened intently, oblivious to him for the moment. He stood among the crowd, nodding, but pursuing his own thoughts.

He had been under a lot of pressure in the bureau. Commissar Zhang was unpleasant to work with, all the more so after the last group meeting. Chief Inspector Chen was not intolerable, but he obviously had something up his sleeve. The Party Secretary, while gracious to Chen and Zhang, brought all the pressure to bear upon Yu, who was not even the lead investigator for the case. Not to mention the fact that Yu actually had the main responsibility for the other cases in the squad.

Little had come out of his renewed focus on the taxi bureau and travel agencies. The reward offered for information about any suspicious driver seen that night near the canal was a long shot. No response came, as Yu had expected.

There was no progress from Chen either, with respect to his theory about the caviar.

“The garden is a twentieth-century construction of the archetypal idea exhibited in The Dream of the Red Chamber, the classical Chinese novel most celebrated since the mid-nineteenth century.” The guide was speaking glibly, holding a cigarette with a long filter tip as he delivered his introduction. “Not only are the lattice windows, doors, or wood pillars exactly of the same design, the furniture also reflects the conventions of the time. Just look at the bamboo bridge. And the asparagus fern grotto, too. We’re truly living in the novel here.”

Indeed, the garden was a draw to fans of the novel. Peiqin had talked about visiting it five or six times. There had been no putting off this visit.

A moss-covered winding path led into a spacious hall with oblong windows of stained glass, through which the “inner garden” appeared cool and inviting, but Yu was in no mood for any further expedition. He felt stupid and out-of-place, as he stood by Peiqin in the crowd, though he pretended to be interested like everybody else. Some people were taking pictures. By a strange-shaped grotto stood a makeshift photography booth where tourists could rent so-called Ming dynasty costumes and jewelry. A young girl was posing in a heavy antique golden headdress, and her boyfriend was changing into a dragon-embroidered silk gown. And Peiqin, too, was being transformed by the splendor of the garden, as she busily compared the chambers, stone pavilions, and moon-shaped gates with the pictures in her mind. Looking at her, he almost believed that she belonged there, expecting Baoyu-the young, handsome hero of the novel-to walk out of the bamboo grove any minute.

She also seized the opportunity to share her knowledge of classical Chinese culture with Qinqin. “When Baoyu was your age, he had already memorized the four Confucian classics.”

“The four Confucian classics?” Qinqin said. “Never heard of them in school.”

Having failed to elicit the expected response from her son, she turned to her husband. “Look, this must be the stream where Daiyu buries the fallen flower,” she exclaimed.

“Daiyu buries her flower?” he said, at a total loss.

“Remember the poem by Daiyu-‘ I’m burying the flower today, but who’s going to bury me tomorrow?’”

“Oh, that sentimental poem.”

“Guangming,” she said, “your thoughts are not in the garden.”

“No, I am enjoying every minute of it,” he assured her. “But I read the novel such a long time ago. We were still in Yunnan, you remember.”

“Where are we going now?”

“To be honest, I’m a bit tired,” he said. “What about you and Qinqin going ahead to the inner garden? I’ll sit here for a few minutes, finish my cigarette, and then I’ll join you there.”

“That’s fine, but don’t smoke too much.”

He watched Peiqin leading Qinqin into the quaint inner garden through the gourd-shaped gate, effortlessly, as if she were moving back into her own home.

He was no Baoyu, and never meant to be. He was a cop’s son. And a cop himself. Yu ground out his cigarette under his foot. He was trying to be a good cop, but he was finding it more and more difficult.

Peiqin was different. It was not that she complained. In fact, she was contented. As a restaurant accountant, she earned decent money, about five hundred Yuan a month with perks. Enjoying a nice little niche, she did not have to work with the customers. And at home, small as it was, things were smooth and satisfactory, too, she had often said.

But her life could have been different, he knew. A Daiyu or a Baochai, just like one of those beautiful, talented girls in the romantic novel.

In the beginning of The Dream of the Red Chamber, there were twelve lovely girls who lived out their romantic karma as preordained in Fate’s heavenly register. According to the author, a love affair is predestined for lovers sauntering under the moon in the Grand View Garden. Of course that’s fiction. In real life, however, things might be stranger even than in fiction.

He tried to extract another cigarette, but the pack was empty. A crumpled Peony box. The monthly ration coupons allowed him only five quality-brand packs, such as Peony and Great Wall, which he had already finished. He reached into his jacket pocket for a metal cigarette case, in which he kept some cigarettes he had rolled himself, a secret from Peiqin, who was worried about his heavy smoking.

They had known each other since their early childhood. “Playmates on stilted bamboo horses, / Chasing each other, plucking green plum blossoms.” Doctor Xia had copied the couplet from Li Bai’s “Zhanggan Song” on two red silk streamers for Yu and Peiqin’s wedding.

But that innocently romantic childhood had not been exactly true for them. It was just that her family had happened to move into the same neighborhood in the early sixties. So they became schoolmates in grade school, and then in high-school, too. Instead of seeking each other’s company, however, they’d kept their distance. The sixties was a revolutionary puritan period in China. It was out of the question for boys and girls to mix together at school.

Another factor was her bourgeois family background. Peiqin’s father, a perfume company owner before 1949, had been sent to a labor-reform camp in the late sixties, sentenced to a number of years for something unexplained, and died there. Her family, driven out of their Jingan District mansion, had to move to an attic room in Yu’s neighborhood. A thin, sallow girl with a tiny ponytail secured with a rubber band, she was anything but a proud princess. Though a top student in their class, she was often bullied by other kids of working-class family background. One morning, several Little Red Guards were trying to cut off her ponytail. It went too far, and Yu stepped forward to stop them. He exerted a sort of authority over the neighborhood kids as the son of a police officer.

It was only in the last year of their junior high-school that something occurred to bring them together. The early seventies witnessed a dramatic turn of the Cultural Revolution as Chairman Mao came to see the Red Guards, once his ardent young supporters, standing in the way of his consolidation of power. So Mao said it was necessary for the Red Guards-then called “educated youths”-to go to the countryside to “be reeducated by the lower and middle-poor peasants,” so that the young people would be gone from the cities, unable to make trouble. A nationwide campaign was carried on with drums and gongs sounding everywhere. In their naive response to Mao’s call, millions of young people went to the far-away countryside. To Anhui Province, to Jiangxi Province, to Helongjiang Province, to Inner Mongolia, to the northern border, to the southern border…

Yu Guangming and Jing Peiqin, though too young to be Red Guards, found themselves labeled as educated youths, despite the fact that they had received little education, with copies of the shining red Quotations of Chairman Mao as their textbook. As educated youths, they, too, had to leave Shanghai to “receive education in the countryside.” They were to go to an army farm in Yunnan province, on the southern China / Burma border.

On the eve of their leaving home, Peiqin’s mother came to see Yu’s parents. The two families had a long talk that night. The next morning Peiqin came to his place, and her brother, a truck driver at Shanghai Number 1 Steel Mill, took both of them to the North Railway Station. They sat in the truck, facing each other, staring at the cheering crowds, holding on to two trunks-all their belongings- and singing a Chairman Mao quotation song: Go to the countryside, go to the frontier, go to where our motherland needs us the most…

It was a sort of arranged engagement, Yu guessed, but he accepted it without too much thought. The parents of the two families wanted them, two sixteen-year-olds sent thousands of miles away, to take care of each other. And she had grown into a pretty girl, slender, almost as tall as he. They sat shyly beside each other in the train. They did take care of each other there. There was no alternative for them.

The army farm was tucked into a faraway region called Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, in the depths of southern Yunnan Province. Most of the poor and lower-middle peasants there were of the Dai minority; they spoke their own language and held to their own cultural traditions. To keep themselves above the dank and humid earth, the result of frequent tropical rains, the Dais lived in bamboo shelters raised off the ground on solid stilts, with pigs and chickens moving around below. In contrast, the educated youth stayed in the damp and stuffy army barracks. It was out of the question for the young people to receive reeducation from the Dais. A few things they did learn, but not what Chairman Mao might have wanted. The Dai convention of romantic love, for instance. On the fifteenth of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar year came the Water Splashing Festival, which was supposed to wash away the dirt, death, and demons of the previous year, but it was also an occasion when a Dai girl would declare her affection by pouring water on her beau. The beau then came to sing and dance beneath her windows at night. If she opened the door, he would be her bed partner for the night.

Yu and Peiqin were shocked upon first arrival, but they learned fast. It was not a matter of choice. They needed each other’s company during those years, for there were no movies, no library, no restaurant: no recreation of any kind. At the end of long working days, they had only each other. They had long nights. Like so many educated youths, they began to live together. They did not get married. It was not because they had not grown affectionate towards one another, but because there might still be a chance, while their status was still recorded as single, for them to move back to Shanghai. According to the government policy, the educated youth, once married, had to settle down in the countryside.

They missed Shanghai.

The end of the Cultural Revolution changed everything again. They could return home. The movement of educated youths going to the countryside was discontinued, if not officially denounced. Once back in Shanghai, they did marry. Yu “inherited” his police position as a result of his father’s early retirement, and Peiqin was assigned the restaurant accountant job. It was not what she wanted, but it proved fairly lucrative. One year after the birth of their son Qinqin, their marriage had slipped into a smooth routine. There was little he could complain about.

Sometimes, however, he could not help missing these years in Yunnan. Those dreams of coming back to Shanghai, getting a job in a state company, starting a new career, having a family, and leading a different life. Now he had reached a stage where he could no longer afford to have impractical dreams. A low-level cop, he would probably remain one all his life. He was not giving up on himself, but he was becoming more realistic.

The fact was, with his poor educational background, and with few connections, Detective Yu was in no position to dream of a future in the force. His father had served twenty-six years, but ended up a cop at the entry level. That would probably be his lot, too. In his day, Old Hunter had at least enjoyed a proud sense of being part of the Proletarian Dictatorship. In the nineties, the term “Proletarian Dictatorship” had disappeared from the newspapers. Yu was just an insignificant cop at the bottom, making the minimum wage, having little say at the bureau.

This case served only to highlight his insignificance.

“Guangming.”

He was startled from his reveries.

Peiqin had come back to his side, alone.

“Where is Qinqin?”

“He’s having a good time in the electronic game room. He won’t come looking for us until he spends all his coins.”

“Good for him,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about him.”

“You’ve something on your mind,” she said, perching on a slab of rock beside him.

“No, nothing really. I have just been thinking about our days in Yunnan.”

“Because of the garden?”

“Yes,” he said. “Don’t you remember Xishuangbanna is also called a garden?”

“Yes, but you don’t have to say that to me, Guangming. I’ve been your wife for all these years. Something is wrong at work, right?” she said. “I should not have dragged you here.”

“It’s okay.” He touched her hair gently.

She was silent for a while.

“Are you in trouble?”

“A difficult case, that’s all,” he said. “I’m just preoccupied.”

“You’re good at solving difficult cases. Everybody says so.”

“I don’t know.”

She stretched out her hand and placed it over his.

“I know I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to. If you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, why not quit?”

He stared at her in surprise.

She did not look away.

“Yes, but-” he did not know what else to say.

But he would think about her question, he knew, for a long time.

“No progress with the case?” she was changing the subject.

“Not much.”

Yu had mentioned the Guan case to her, although he rarely brought up police work at home. Running criminals down could be difficult and dangerous. There was no point in dwelling on it with his family. Besides, Chen had emphasized the sensitivity of the case. It wasn’t a matter of trust, but more of professionalism. But he had been so frustrated.

“Talk to me, Guangming. As your detective father often says,” she said, “talk always helps.”

So he started to summarize what had been puzzling him, focusing on his failure to get any information regarding Guan’s personal life. “She was like a hermit crab. Politics had formed her shell.”

“I don’t know anything about criminal investigation, but don’t tell me an attractive woman-thirty or thirty-one, right- could have lived like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“She never had affairs?”

“She was too busy with Party activities and meetings. Too difficult- in her position-for her to find someone, and difficult, too, for someone to find her.”

“Laugh at me, Guangming, but I cannot believe it-as a woman. The thing between a man and a woman, I mean. It’s the nineties.”

“You have a point,” he said. “But I have talked to most of Guan’s colleagues again since Chen raised the issue about the caviar, and they’ve just confirmed our earlier information. They say she was not dating anyone at the time of her death, and as far as they could remember, she had not had a boyfriend. They would have noticed it.”

“But it’s against human nature. Like Miaoyu in The Dream of the Red Chamber.”

“Who’s Miaoyu?” he asked.

“Miaoyu, a beautiful young nun, lives a life devoted to the abstract ideal of Buddhism. Proud of her religious cultivation, she considered herself above romantic entanglement of the red dust.”

“Sorry for interruption again, what is the red dust?”

“Just this mundane world, where the ordinary folk like us live.”

“Then it is not too bad.”

“Toward the end of the novel, while Miaoyu’s meditating one lonely night, she falls prey to her own sexual fantasy. Unable even to speak in the throes of passion, she’s easily approached and attacked by a group of bandits. She’s not a virgin when she dies. According to literary critics, it’s a metaphor: Only the demon in her heart could lure the demon to her body. She’s a victim of her long sexual repression.”

“So what is the point?”

“Could ideals be enough to sustain a human being, especially a female human being, to the end? During the final moments of her consciousness, I believe, Miaoyu must be full of regret for her wasted life. She should have devoted hers to cleaning her house, going to bed with her husband, fixing school lunches for her children.”

“But Miaoyu is just a character in the novel.”

“But it is so true. The novel shows brilliant insight into the nature of human beings. What is true for Miaoyu, should also be true for Guan.”

“I see,” he said. “You’re full of insight, too.”

Indeed, politics seemed to have been Guan’s whole life, but was that really enough? What Guan read in People’s Daily would not love her back.

“So I cannot imagine,” she said, “that Guan could have lived only for politics-unless she had suffered some traumatic experience earlier in her life.”

“That’s possible, but none of her colleagues ever mentioned it.”

“Well, most of her colleagues have not worked too many years with her-haven’t you told me that?”

“Yes, that’s also true.”

Guan had been at the store for eleven years, but none of the interviewees had worked there for so long a time. General Manager Xiao had been transferred from another company just a couple of years earlier.

“Women do not want to talk about their past, especially a single woman to younger women.”

“You’re certainly right, Peiqin. I should have interviewed some retired employees as well.”

“By the way, what about your chief inspector?”

“Well, he has his ideas,” he said, “but no breakthrough, either.”

“No, I mean his personal life.”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

“He’s in his mid-thirties, isn’t he? A chief inspector at his age must be a most eligible bachelor.”

“Yes. Some people say a woman reporter from the Wenhui Daily has been seeing him. For an article about him, he says.”

“Do you think that he would tell people if it were for something else?”

“Well, he’s somebody in the bureau. Everybody is watching. Of course he will not say anything.”

“Just like Guan,” she said.

“There may be one difference.”

“What’s that?”

“She was more well-known.”

“All the more reason she would not say anything to others.”

“Peiqin, you’re extraordinary.”

“No, I’m an ordinary girl. Just lucky with an extraordinary husband.”

A light breeze had sprung up.

“Sure,” he said ruefully, “an extraordinary husband.”

“Oh, Guangming, I still remember so clearly those days in Xishuangbanna. Lying alone at night, I thought of you coming to my rescue in elementary school, and it was almost unbearable. I have told you that, haven’t I?”

“You never stop amazing me,” he said, squeezing her hand.

“Your hand in my hand,” she said with twinkle in her eyes, “that is all I ask for in the Grand View Garden. I’m so happy sitting here with you and thinking of those poor girls in the novel.”

A soft mist drifted away outside the antique chamber.

“Look at the couplet on the moon-shaped door,” Peiqin said. Hill upon hill, the road seems to be lost, Willows and flowers, another village appears.

Chapter 14

Saturday morning, Chief Inspector Chen had arrived at the bureau earlier than usual, when the old doorman, Comrade Liang, called out of his cubicle by the iron gate, “Something for you, Chief Inspector Chen.”

It was an electronic money order, 3,000 Yuan, a substantial advance for his translation from Lijiang Publishing House. After the loan to Overseas Chinese Lu, Chen had written to Su Liang, the editor in chief, mentioning his new position and apartment as causing him extra expense, but 3,000 Yuan was still a surprise. Enclosed was also a short note from Su: Congratulations. With the current inflation, we believe it is fair to give an author the largest advance possible. Especially you. As for your new position, don’t worry about it. If you don’t take it, those turtle eggs would jump at it. Which is the worse scenario? That’s what I told my self when I took my job. I like your poem in the Wenhui Daily. You are enjoying the “fragrance from the red sleeves that imbues your reading at night,” I have heard.

Su Liang

Su was not only a senior editor who had helped him, but also an old friend who had known him well in the past.

He phoned Wang, but she was not in her office. After he put down the phone, he realized that he did not have any specific topic. He’d just had an impulse to speak to her after he had read the note. The reference to “the fragrance of the red sleeves” could have caused it, though he would probably not talk about it. Wang would guess his mind was on the case again. But that was not true.

Detective Yu was having the day off. Chen was resolved to do something about the routine work of the squad. He had been giving too much time to Guan. Now he found it necessary to make a wholehearted effort, at least for half a day, to clear off the arrears of paperwork piling up on his desk before he gave the case another thought. He took a perverse delight in shutting himself up, polishing off a mass of boring administrative work, signing his name on Party documents without reading them, and going through all the mail accumulated during the week.

The effort lasted for only a couple of hours. He did not have his heart in it. It was a beautiful, sunny morning outside. Chen went to Guan’s dorm again. He had not yet received a phone call from Uncle Bao, but he was eager to know if there was anything new for him.

The early summer heat, with no air conditioning, dictated a sidewalk life. At the lane entrance, several retired old men were playing a game of mahjongg on a bamboo table. Kids were gathered around a small earthen pot that contained two crickets fighting each other, the crickets chirping, the children cheering. Close to the dorm building, a middle-aged woman was leaning over a public sink, scrubbing a pan.

In the phone booth, a young girl was serving as the operator. Chen recognized her, Xiuxiu. Uncle Bao was not there. He thought about asking for Uncle Bao’s address, but reconsidered. The old man deserved a Saturday off with his grandchildren. So he decided to take yet another look at Guan’s room.

Once more he went through all the albums. This time he discovered something else tucked inside the backcover of the most recent one. It was not the picture of Guan in the mountains, but a Polaroid of a gray-haired lady standing underneath the famous Guest-Welcome pine.

He took out the picture, and turned it over. On the back he saw a small line: To Comrade Zhaodi, Wei Hong October 1989.

Comrade Zhaodi. Who was that?

Could Zhaodi be another name for Guan?

Zhaodi was a sort of common pet name, meaning “to bring a young brother into the world.” A likely wish to have been cherished by Guan’s parents, who had only one daughter. Some Chinese parents believed in such a superstitious name-giving practice. As Confucius once said, “Naming is the most important thing in the world.”

The date seemed to fit. It was the very month that Guan had made the trip to the mountains. Also fitting was the unmistakable Guest-Welcoming pine in the background. If it had been meant for somebody else, why should Guan have kept the picture in her album?

He lit a cigarette under the portrait of Comrade Deng Xiaoping before he put the photo into his briefcase. Downstairs, he looked into the small window of the phone station again. Still no Uncle Bao.

“Is Uncle Bao off today?” he asked.

“You must be Comrade Chief Inspector,” the girl said, eyeing his uniform. “Comrade Bao has been waiting for you. He wants me to tell him as soon as you are here.”

In less than three minutes, Uncle Bao came trotting in with a big envelope in his hand.

“I have something for you, Comrade Chief Inspector.”

“Thank you, Uncle Bao.”

“I’ve called you a couple of times, but the line was busy.”

“Sorry, I should have given you my home phone number.”

“Let’s have a talk. My place is quite close, you know, but it’s a bit small.”

“Well, we may talk over a pot of tea in the restaurant across the street.”

“Good idea.”

The restaurant was not crowded on Saturday morning. They chose a table inside. The waiter seemed to know Uncle Bao well, and he brought over a pot of Dragon Well tea immediately.

The old man produced several stub books, which covered the period from February to early May. Altogether, there were more than thirty stubs showing that Guan had received calls from the number 867-831, quite a few of them after nine o’clock. The caller’s surname was Wu.

“So all are from the same number,” Chen said.

“And from the same man, too,” Uncle Bao said. “I’m positive.”

“Do you know anything about the number, or the man?”

“No, I don’t know anything about the number. As for the man, I think I told you already, he’s middle-aged, speaking with a clear Beijing accent, but he is not from Beijing. More likely a Shanghainer who speaks the Beijing dialect a lot. He’s rather polite, too, calling me Old Uncle. That’s why I remember that the most calls came from him, and the records prove it.”

“You’re doing a great job for us, Uncle Bao. We’ll check the number today.”

“Another thing. I don’t know who Guan called, but that person did not use the public phone service. Most likely it was a home phone. Every time she dialed, she got through immediately. And she made a number of calls after nine or ten o’clock at night.”

“Yes, that is another important point,” he said. “Now what about the night of May tenth?”

“I’ve found something.”

Uncle Bao produced a small envelope, which contained just one stub.

It was just a simple message: We’ll meet as scheduled. And it was from a caller surnamed Wu, though with no phone number written underneath it.

“These may not be his words exactly,” Uncle Bao said, “but they were to that effect.”

So a couple of hours before her trip, Guan had received a call from a man surnamed Wu, evidently the same one who had called more than thirty times in the period from February to May.

“Why is no phone number recorded on the stub of May tenth?”

“Because the caller did not request a call back,” Uncle Bao explained. “In such cases, we just put down the message for the recipient.”

“Do you remember anything else he said that evening?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Well, you’ve already helped us such a lot,” he said. “It is definitely a lead for our investigation. I don’t know how we can ever thank you enough.”

“When the case is solved,” Uncle Bao said, “give a me call.”

“I will. And a long call, you bet.”

“And we’ll have another pot of tea. At Mid-Lake Teahouse, my treat.”

“Yes, we will. So see you soon-” Chen said, standing up, “at Mid-Lake Teahouse.”

Chapter 15

C hief Inspector Chen hurried back to his office.

The first thing he did was to call the Shanghai Telephone Bureau. He told the operator that he wanted to check out the owner of the number 867-831.

“That is not a listed residential phone,” the operator said. “I’m not authorized to reveal the owner’s name.”

“It is crucial for our investigation.”

“Sorry. You need to come with an official letter from your bureau, proving that you’re engaged in a criminal investigation. Otherwise we are not supposed to tell you anything.”

“No problem. I’ll be over with an official letter.”

But there was a problem. Pan Huizhen, the bureau assistant clerk in charge of the official seal, happened to have the day off. Chen had to wait until Monday.

Then he thought about the photo of the gray-haired lady tucked into Guan’s album. Was she Wei Hong?

At least that was something he could do.

Detective Yu had compiled a detailed list of travel agencies with phone numbers and addresses. Chen had a copy of it. It just needed some narrowing down.

Chen called the Shanghai Tourism Bureau. He had to wait about ten minutes before anyone answered. But he got the information. There were five travel agencies that sponsored Yellow Mountains trips.

So he dialed these agencies. All the agents were busy, and it was out of the question for them to provide offhand the information he requested. Some promised to call back, but he suspected that it would take them days. The manager of East Wind Travel did call back, however, within twenty minutes. She had found the name Wei Hong in her computer.

“I’m not sure if she’s the one you are looking for,” she said, “but you can come and take a look.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m on my way.”

East Wind Travel Agency occupied a single office suite on the second floor of a colonial-style building on Chengdu Road. In front of the reception desk were gathered a group of people with various pieces of baggage, which made the office appear even more congested. All of them had plastic name tags on their lapels. It looked like a group that had just arrived and was waiting for a guide. Several people were smoking. The air in the office was bad.

The manager threw up her arms in an apologetic gesture to Chen, but she lost no time in giving him a computer printout. “We have the name, date, and address here. We do not store photos in our database. So we cannot say if this Wei Hong is the one you’re looking for.”

“Thank you so much for your information. Also, I’m looking for another person.” He showed the manager Guan’s photograph, “Guan Hongying.”

“A couple of weeks ago, somebody else in your bureau inquired about her, but we do not have the name in our records,” she said, shaking her head. “The national model worker-we should have recognized her. You think she traveled together with Wei Hong?”

“That’s possible.”

“Little Xie was the escort for that group. She may be able to tell you whether Guan was one of the tourists. But Little Xie no longer works with us.”

“What about Zhaodi?” he asked. “Was there someone named Zhaodi traveling in the group?”

“I’m afraid you have to check for yourself.” She pounded several times on the keyboard, gesturing for him to sit down. “I’ve got so many people waiting here, you see.”

“That’s all right, I understand.”

The agency did a good job of storing data. He started searching by date. After pulling up that October’s records, he found the name of Zheng Zhaodi listed for a trip to the Yellow Mountains. The information was not complete, however. There was no entry for her address or occupation. But there were also a few others with missing addresses, too. To key in all the data in Chinese was a time-consuming job.

Wei Hong was listed for the same trip.

Before he took his leave, Chen also asked for Little Xie’s address. The address was Number 36 Jianguo Road, 303, and her full name was Xie Rong. Since she lived not too far away, he decided to go there first.

His destination was at the end of a small apartment complex built in the style of the mid-fifties. The staircase was dark, damp, difficult. There should have been a light on even during the day. He failed to detect the switch. He knocked at the door, which was opened a little, though still secured with a chain from inside. A white-haired woman wearing a pair of gold-rimmed glasses peeked out.

He told her who he was, showing her his card through the door. She took it and studied it carefully before admitting him. She was in her early sixties, and she wore a pearl-colored blouse with a high pleated neckline, a full skirt, stockings and oxford shoes, and carried a foreign-language book in her hand.

The room had little in the way of furniture, but he was impressed by the tall bookshelves lining the otherwise bare walls.

“What can I do for you, Comrade Chief inspector?”

“I am looking for Xie Rong.”

“She’s not here.”

“When will she be back?”

“I don’t know. She’s left for Guangzhou.”

“For a trip?”

“No, a job.”

“Oh? What kind?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re her mother, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must know where she is in Guangzhou.”

“What do you want with her?”

“I want to ask her a few questions. About a homicide case.”

“What-how could she be involved in a homicide case?”

“No, she’s a witness, but an important one.”

“Sorry, I don’t have her address for you,” she said. “I received only one letter from her when she first arrived there, just the address of the hotel where she was staying. She said that she was going to move out, and that she would send me her new address. Since then I’ve heard nothing from her.”

“So you do not know what your daughter is doing there?”

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “She’s my only daughter.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be, Comrade Chief Inspector,” she said. “It’s the Modern Age, isn’t it? ‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold’.”

“Well, that’s true,” he said, surprised at the old woman’s literary quotation, “from one perspective. But it is not necessarily that anarchy is loosed upon the world. It is just a transitional period.”

“Historically, a transitional period is short,” she said, in her turn surprised, but animated for the first time in the course of their conversation, “but existentially, not so short for the individual.”

“Yes, you’re right. So our choice is all the more important,” he said. “By the way, where do you work?”

“Fudan University, comparative literature department,“ she added, “but the department is practically gone. And I’m retired. No one wants to study the subject in today’s market.”

“So you are no other than Professor Xie Kun?”

“Yes, retired Professor Xie Kun.”

“Oh, what an honor to meet you today! I have read The Modernist Muse.”

“Have you?” she said. “I had not expected that a high-ranking police officer would be interested in it.”

“Oh, yes, in fact, I have read it two or three times.”

“Then I hope you did not buy it when it first came out. I came across it the other day on a broken rickshaw, marked on sale for twenty-five cents.”

“Well, you never know. ‘Green, green grass spreading out everywhere,’” he said, pleased to make another quick-witted allusion which suggested that she had readers and students everywhere who appreciated her work.

“Not everywhere,” she said, “not even at home. Xie Rong, for one, has not read it.”

“How can that possibly be?”

“I used to hope that she, too, would study literature, but after graduating from high school, she started working at Shanghai Sheldon Hotel. From the very beginning, she earned three times my salary, not to mention all the free cosmetics and tips she got there.”

“I’m so sorry, Professor Xie. I don’t know what to say.” He sighed. “But as the economy improves, people may change their minds about literature. Well, let us hope so.”

He decided not to tell her about his own literary pursuits.

“Have you heard that popular saying-’The poorest is a Ph. D., and the dumbest is a professor.’ I happen to be both. So it is understandable that she chose a different road.”

“But why did she quit the hotel job to work for a travel agency?” he said, anxious to change the subject. “And then why did she quit the travel agency to go to Guangzhou?”

“I asked her about that, but she said I was too old fashioned. According to her, young people nowadays change jobs like clothes. That is not a bad metaphor, though. The bottom line is money, of course.”

“But why Guangzhou?”

“Um, that’s what worries me. For a young girl to be there-all alone.”

“Has she talked to you about a trip to the Yellow Mountains last October?”

“She did not talk to me much about her work. But as for that trip, I do remember. She brought back some green tea. The Cloud and Mist tea of the mountains. She seemed a bit upset when she got back.”

“Did you know why?”

“No ”

“Could that be the reason she changed her job?”

“I don’t know, but soon afterward she left for Guangzhou.”

“Can you give me a recent picture of her?”

“Certainly.” She took a picture out of an album, and handed it to him.

It was of a young slim girl standing by the Bund, wearing a tight white T-shirt and a very short pleated skirt rather ahead of current Shanghai fashion.

“If you find her in Guangzhou, please tell her that I’m praying for her to come back. It can’t be easy for her, all alone there. And I’m alone here, an old woman.”

“I will,” he said, taking the picture. “I’ll do my best.”

As he left Professor Xie’s home, the earlier excitement he had felt about the new development was fading. It was not just that Xie Rong’s having moved to Guangzhou-without leaving an address-added to the difficulty of the investigation. It was the talk with the retired professor that had left him depressed.

China was changing rapidly, but with honest intellectuals now viewed as “the poorest and dumbest,” the situation was worrisome.

Wei Hong’s address was Number 60, Hetian Road, a new apartment complex. He pushed the doorbell for several seconds, but no one answered. Finally he had to bang on the door with his fist.

An elderly woman opened it and looked at him with suspicious eyes. “What’s the problem?”

He immediately recognized her from the photo.

“You must be Comrade Wei Hong. My name is Chen Cao,” he said, producing his I.D., “from the Shanghai Police Bureau.”

“Old Hua, there is a police officer here.” Wei turned round, speaking loudly into the room before she nodded to him. “Come on in then.”

The room was a tightly packed efficiency. He was not so surprised to see a portable gas tank stove inside the doorway, for it was the same arrangement as he had seen in Qian Yizhi’s dorm room. There was a pot boiling above the gas jet. Then he saw a white-haired old man rising from an oyster-colored leather sofa. There was a half-played game of solitaire on the low coffee table in front of him.

“So what can we do for Comrade Chief Inspector today?” the old man said, studying the card Wei had handed him.

“I’m sorry to bother you at your home, but I have to ask you a few questions.”

“Us?”

“It’s not about you, but about somebody you knew.”

“Oh, go ahead.”

“You went to the Yellow Mountains several months ago, didn’t you?”

“Yes, we went there,” Wei said. “My husband and I like traveling.”

“Is this a picture you took in the mountains?” Chen took a Polaroid picture out of his briefcase. “Last October?”

“Yes,” Wei said, her voice containing a slight note of exasperation, “I can surely recognize myself.”

“Now what about the name at the back-” he turned over the picture. “Who is Zhaodi?”

“A young woman we met during the trip. She took some pictures for us.”

He took out another picture of Guan making a presentation at an important Party meeting in the People’s Great Hall.

“Is she the woman named Zhaodi?”

“Yes, that’s her. Though she looks different, you see, in different clothes. What has she done?” Wei looked inquisitive, as he took out his notebook and pen. “At our parting in the mountains, she promised to call us. She never has.”

“She’s dead.”

“What!”

The astonishment on the old woman’s face was genuine.

“And her name’s Guan Hongying.”

“Really!” Hua cut in. “The national model worker?”

“But that Xiansheng of hers,” Wei said, “he called her Zhaodi too.”

“What!” It was Chen’s turn to be astonished. “Xiansheng”-a term rediscovered in China’s nineties-was ambiguous in its meaning, referring to husband, lover, or friend. Whatever it might have meant in Guan’s case, she’d had a companion traveling with her in the mountains. “Do you mean her boyfriend or husband?”

“We don’t know,” Wei said.

“They traveled together,” Hua added, “and shared their hotel room.”

“So they registered as a couple?”

“I think so, otherwise they could not have had the same room.”

“Did she introduce the man to you as her husband?”

“Well, she just said something like ‘This is my mister.’ People do not make formal introductions in the mountains.”

“Did you notice anything suspicious in their relationship?”

“What do you mean?”

“She was not married.”

“Sorry, we didn’t notice anything,” Wei said. “We are not in the habit of spying on others.”

“Come on, Wei,” Hua intervened. “The chief inspector is just doing his job.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Do you know that man’s name?”

“We were not formally introduced to one another, but I think she called him Little Tiger. It could be his nickname.”

“What was he like?”

“Tall, well-dressed. He had a fine foreign camera, too.”

“He did not speak much, but he was polite to us.”

“Did he speak with any accent?”

“A Beijing accent.”

“Can you give a detailed description of him?”

“Sorry, that’s about all we can-” Wei stopped suddenly, “The gas-”

“What?”

“The gas is running out.”

“The gas tank,” Hua said. “We’re too old to replace it.”

“Our only son was criticized as a counter revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution, and sentenced to a labor camp in Qinghai,” Wei said. “Nowadays he’s rehabilitated, but he chose to stay there with his own family.”

“I’m so sorry. My father was also put into jail during those years. It’s a nationwide disaster,” Chen said, wondering if he was in any position to apologize for the Party, but he understood the old couple’s antagonism. “By the way, where is the gas tank station?”

“Two blocks away.”

“Do you have a cart?”

“Yes, we have one. But why?”

“Let me go there to fetch a new gas tank for you.”

“No, thank you. Our nephew will come over tomorrow. You are here to question us, Comrade Chief Inspector.”

“But I can be of some service, too. There’s no bureau rule against it.”

“All the same, no,” Wei said. “Thank you.”

“Anything else you want to ask?” Hua added.

“No, if that’s all you can remember, our interview is finished. Thank you for all your information.”

“Sorry, we have not helped you much. If there are some questions-”

“I’ll contact you again,” he said.

Out on the street, Chief Inspector Chen’s mind was full of the man in Guan’s company in the mountains.

The man spoke with a clear Beijing accent.

So did the man with an unmistakable Beijing accent in Uncle Bao’s description.

The man was tall, polite, well dressed.

Could it also be the same tall gentleman that Guan’s neighbor had seen in the dorm corridor?

The man had an expensive camera in the mountains.

There were many high-quality pictures in Guan’s album.

Chief Inspector Chen could not wait any longer. Instead of going back to his office, he turned in the direction of the Shanghai Telephone Bureau. Luckily, he had carried in his briefcase stationery with an official letterhead. It took him no time to pen an introduction on it.

“Nice to meet you, Comrade Chief inspector,” a clerk in his fifties said. “My name is Jia. Just call me Old Jia.”

“I hope that’s enough,” he said, showing his I.D. and the letter of introduction.

“Yes, quite enough.” Jia was cooperative, keying in the numbers on a computer immediately.

“The owner’s name is-Wu Bing.”

“Wu Bing?”

“Yes, the numbers starting with 867 belong to the Jin’an district, and-”The clerk started fidgeting. “It’s the high-ranking cadre residential area, you know.”

“Oh, Wu Bing. Now I see.”

Wu Bing, the Shanghai Minister of Propaganda, had been in the hospital for most of the last few years. Wu Bing was out of the question, but somebody in his family… Chen thanked Jia and left in a hurry.

To find information about Wu’s family was not difficult. A special folder was kept for every high cadre, along with his family, in the Shanghai Archive Bureau where Chen happened to have a special connection. Comrade Song Longxiang was a friend he had made in his first year in the police force. Chen dialed Song’s number from a street corner phone booth. Song did not even ask why Chen wanted the information.

Wu Bing had a son whose name was Wu Xiaoming.

Wu Xiaoming, a name Chen had already run across in the investigation.

It was in a list Detective Yu had compiled of the people he had interviewed or contacted for possible information. Wu Xiaoming was a photographer for Red Star magazine; he had taken some pictures of Guan for the People’s Daily.

“Do you have a picture of Wu Xiaoming?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Can you fax one to my office? I’ll be there in half an hour, waiting by the fax machine.”

“Sure. You don’t need a cover letter, do you? Just a picture.”

“Yes, I’ll call you as soon as I get it.”

“Fine.”

Chen decided to take a taxi.

He soon had a faxed copy of Wu Xiaoming’s picture. It might have been taken a few years ago. But clearly Wu Xiaoming was a tall man.

It was urgent for Chief Inspector Chen to move forward.

He did two more things that late afternoon. He made a phone call to the Red Star editorial office. A secretary said that Wu was not in.

“We’re compiling a dictionary of contemporary artists, including young photographers,” Chen said. “Any information about Comrade Wu Xiaoming’s work would be helpful.”

The tactic worked. A list of Wu Xiaoming’s publications was faxed to him in less than one hour.

And Chen went to visit the old couple again. The second visit turned out to be less difficult than the chief inspector had expected.

“That’s him,” Wei said, pointing at the fax copy in Chen’s hand, “a nice young man, always with a camera in his hand.”

“I’m not sure if he’s nice or not,” Hua said, “but he was good to her in the mountains.”

“I’ve got another picture,” Chen said, taking out Xie Rong’s picture. “She was your guide in the mountains, wasn’t she?”

“Yes, actually-” Wei said with an inscrutable smile, “she may be able to tell you more about them, much more.”

“How?”

“Guan had a big fight with Xie in the mountains. You know what, Guan called Xie a whore.”

Chapter 16

S unday morning, Chief Inspector Chen took more time than usual brushing his teeth, but it was a futile attempt to get rid of the bitter taste in his mouth.

He did not like the development of the investigation. Nor his plan for the day: to do a day’s research in the Shanghai Library.

It was evident that Guan Hongying had had an affair with Wu Xiaoming. Though a national model worker, Guan had led a double life under a different name in the mountains. So had Wu. This was far from proving, however, that her death came about as a result of the clandestine affair.

Whatever complications might be involved, Chen was determined to solve the case. He could not be a chief inspector without taking up the challenge. So he planned to learn more about Wu Xiaoming by examining his work. The approach could be misleading; according to T. S. Eliot’s “impersonal theory,” Chen recollected, what could be learned from a creative artist’s work was nothing but his craftsmanship. Nonetheless, he would give it a shot.

In the reading room of the Shanghai Library, Chen soon found that there was a lot more for him to do. The list he had received the previous day included only the work published in the Red Star magazine; as for Wu’s publications elsewhere, the list gave only the total number with abbreviated magazine names minus dates. As most of the magazines had no year-end index for photographs, Chen had to go through them issue by issue. The back issues were in the basement of the library, which meant a long wait before he could get what he ordered.

The librarian was a nice woman, moving about briskly in her high heels, but a stickler for library rules. All she could give him at one time were the issues of one particular magazine for a year. For anything more, he had to write out a new order slip and to wait for another half an hour.

He sat in the lobby, feeling idle on a supposedly busy day. Every time the librarian came out of the elevator with a bundle of books on a small cart, he would stand up expectantly. But they were other peoples’ books. Waiting there, he felt disturbed, distantly…

How long ago it was-the fragments of the time still book-marked- another summer, another library, another sense of waiting with expectations, different expectations, and the pigeons’ whistles fading in the high, clear Beijing sky… He closed his eyes, trying not to conjure up the past.

Chief Inspector Chen had to pull himself back to the work of the present.

At eleven thirty, he concluded that he had accomplished little for a morning; he packed up all his notes and went out for lunch. The Shanghai Library was located on the corner of Nanjing Road and Huangpi Road. There were a number of fancy restaurants in the neighborhood. He walked to the north gate of the People’s Park, where there was a young vendor selling hot dogs and sandwiches from a cart on the sidewalk sporting a Budweiser umbrella, an imported coffee maker, and a radio playing loud rock-and-roll music. The chicken sandwich he bought was not cheap. He washed it down with a paper cup of reheated, lukewarm coffee, not at all like what he had enjoyed with Wang at the River Cafe.

When he returned to the library, he phoned Wang at Wenhui. He could hear a couple of phones ringing at the same time in the background as he chatted a little about her heavy responsibility on Sunday as a Wenhui reporter before he switched topics.

“Wang, I have to ask a favor of you.”

“People never go to a Buddhist temple without asking for help.”

“They do not grab Buddha’s legs unless in desperation,” he said, knowing she enjoyed his repartee. A cliche for a cliche.

“Grab or pull Buddha’s legs?” She giggled.

He explained the problem he had with his library research.

“With your connections, maybe you can help. Of course, only as long as you are not too busy at the moment.”

“I’ll look into it,” she said. “I’m busy, but not that busy.”

“Not too busy for me, I know.”

“When do you need it?”

“Well… as soon as possible.”

“I’ll call you.”

“I’m in the library. Beep me.”

He resumed his reading. For the next twenty minutes, however, he did not come across a single issue containing Wu’s work, and he had to wait again. So he started reading something else. A collection of Bian Zilin’s poems. A brilliant Chinese modernist, Bian should have enjoyed much more recognition. There was a short one entitled “Fragment” Chen especially liked-” Looking at the scene from the window above, / You become somebody else’s scene. / The moon decorating your window, / you decorate somebody’s dream.” He had first read it in the Beijing Library, together with a friend. Supposedly it was a love poem, but it could mean much more: the relativity of the things in the world.

Suddenly his beeper sounded. Several other readers stared at him. He hurried out into the corridor to return the call. “Have you got something for me already, Wang?”

“Yes, I contacted the Association of Photographers. As a member, Wu Xiaoming has to fill in a report every time he publishes something.”

“I should have thought of that,” he said. “You’re so clever.”

“Too bad I’m not a detective,” she said, “like that cute little girl in the French movie. What’s her name-Mimi or something? Now, how can I give the list to you?”

“I can come to your office,” he said.

“You don’t have to do that. I’m on my way to a separator factory in the Yangpu District. I’ll change to Bus Number Sixty-one on Beijing Road. If the traffic’s not too bad, I’ll be there in about forty-five minutes. Just meet me at the bus stop.”

“How far is the factory from there?’

“Another fifty minutes, I think.”

“Well, see you at the bus stop.”

Chen then dialed the bureau’s car service-a privilege he was going to enjoy for the first time in the investigation.

It was Little Zhou who answered the call. “Comrade Chief Inspector Chen,” Little Zhou said, “you have hardly used our service at all. If everybody were like you, we’d all be out of a job.”

Little Zhou, a former colleague of Overseas Chinese Lu, had applied for a position in the bureau at the beginning of the year. Chief Inspector Chen had put in a word for his friend’s friend. That was not the reason, however, Chen hesitated to use the bureau car. All the bureau cars were used-theoretically- only for the official business of high cadres. As a chief inspector, Chen was entitled to a car. With the snarl of traffic everywhere, and buses moving at almost a snail’s pace, it could be a necessary privilege. He was aware, however, that people were complaining about high cadres using the cars for all kinds of private purposes. But for once, Chen felt justified in requesting a car.

“You’re so busy, I know. I hate to bother your people.”

“Don’t mention it, Chief Inspector Chen. I’ll make sure you have the most luxurious car today.”

Sure enough, it was a Mercedes 550 that arrived at the entrance of the library.

“Superintendent Zhao is attending a meeting in Beijing,” Little Zhou said, opening the door. “So why not?”

As the car pulled up at the bus stop on Beijing Road, he saw a surprised smile on Wang’s face. She moved out of the line of passengers waiting there, some squatting on their heels, some eying her with undisguised envy.

“Come on in,” he said, reaching out of the window. “We’ll drive you there.”

“So you’re really somebody nowadays.” She stepped in, stretching her long legs out comfortably in the spacious car. “A Mercedes at your disposal.”

“You don’t have to say that to me.” He turned around to Little Zhou, “Comrade Wang Feng is a reporter for the Wenhui newspaper. She has just compiled an important list for us. So let’s give her a ride.”

“Of course, we should help each other.”

“You’re going out of your way,” she said.

“No, you’re going out of your way for us,” he said, taking the list from her. “There are-let’s see-four pages in the list. All typed so neatly.”

“The fax is not that clear, with all the magazine names in abbreviation, and things added here and there in pen or pencil. So I had to type them out for you.”

“It must have taken you a lot of time.”

“To tell you the truth, I have not had my lunch yet.”

“Really! I, too, have had only a sandwich for the day.”

“You should learn to take care of yourself, Comrade Chief Inspector.”

“That’s right, Comrade Wang,” Little Zhou cut in, turning over his shoulder with a broad grin. “Our chief inspector is a maniac for work. He definitely needs somebody to take good care of him.”

“Well,” he said smiling, “there’s a small noodle restaurant around the corner at Xizhuang Road. Small Family, I think that’s the name. The noodles there are okay, and the place is not too noisy. We may discuss the list over there.”

“It’s fine with me.”

“Little Zhou, you can join us.”

“No, thank you,” Little Zhou said, shaking his head vigorously, “I’ve just had my lunch. I’ll wait for you outside-taking a good nap in the car. We had a mahjongg game until three this morning. So enjoy yourselves.”

The noodle restaurant had changed. He remembered it as a homely place with only four or five tables. Now it appeared more traditionally fashionable. The walls were paneled with oak, against which hung long silk scrolls of classical Chinese painting and calligraphy. There was also an oblong mahogany service counter embellished with a huge brass tea urn and an impressive array of purple sand teapots and cups.

A young, fine-featured waitress appeared immediately, slender and light-footed, in a shining scarlet silk Qi skirt with its long slits revealing her olive-colored thighs. She led the way to a table in the corner.

He ordered chicken noodles with plenty of chopped green onion. She decided on a side dish of fried eel with plain noodles. She also had a bottle of Lao Mountain spring water. She slipped her blazer from her shoulders, put it on the chair back, and unbuttoned the collar button of her silk blouse.

There was no ring on her left hand, he observed.

“Thank you so much,” he said.

He did not open the list in his hand. Enough time for him to read it in the library. Instead, he put it down and patted her hand across the table.

“You know who Wu Xiaoming is,” she said, without taking back her hand.

“Yes, I do.”

“And you’re still going on with the investigation.”

“I’m a cop, aren’t I?”

“An impossibly romantic cop who believes in justice,” she said. “You cannot be too careful with this case.”

“I’ll be careful,” he said. “You’re concerned for me, I know.”

Her eyes met his, not denying his message.

At that hour, they were the only customers, sitting in the corner as if enclosed in a capsule of privacy.

“They should have put candles on the table,” she said, “to match your mood.”

“What about dinner at my place tomorrow night?” he said. “I’ll have candles.”

“A dinner to celebrate your enrollment in the seminar?”

“No, that’s in October.”

“Well-a lot of people may wonder what our chief inspector is doing-over a candlelit dinner.”

She was right, he admitted to himself. An affair with her was not in his best interest at the moment.

“What’s the point of being a chief inspector,” he said, “if I cannot have a candlelit dinner with a friend?”

“But you have a most promising career, Comrade Chief Inspector. Not everybody has your opportunity.”

“I’ll try to be discreet.”

“Coming to a restaurant in a bureau Mercedes,” she said, “is not the best way of exercising discretion, I’m afraid.”

The arrival of the noodles forestalled any reply he was going to make.

The noodles were as good as he had remembered. The green onion in the soup smelled wonderful. She liked it too, wiping the sweat from her brow with a pink paper napkin.

Afterward, he bought a pack of Kents at the counter.

“Not for me,” he said to her.

He handed the cigarettes to Little Zhou.

“Thanks, but you don’t have to, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Little Zhou said. “By the way, Superintendent Zhao is going to retire toward the end of year. Haven’t you heard?”

“No, but thanks for your information.”

In the backseat, they were sitting close to each other. Feeling her nearness, he was content with a light brushing of her shoulder as the car bumped along. They did not talk much. She let him take her hand. The car passed the black dome of the new city stadium, then swung around Peace Park. Little Zhou explained why he had to make such a detour. Several streets had just been declared one-way.

It would take them much longer to get there, but Chief Inspector Chen had no cause for complaint.

But she was already telling Little Zhou to pull up. In front of them was the separator factory, about which she was going to write a report.

“Thank you,” she said, “for the lift.”

“Thank you,” he said, “for the opportunity of giving you a lift.”

When he got back to the library, it was already three thirty. He sent Little Zhou back to the bureau. He had no idea how long it would take him to work on the new list.

An impressive list it was, including most of the influential journals and newspapers, containing detailed information with dates and page numbers. In addition, it noted a number of awards Wu had won.

The late afternoon research was much more effective. Three hours of reading produced quite a revelation. Wu Xiaoming was apparently a productive photographer who had published widely, from the top magazines to the second or even the third-class ones. Wu’s photographs also showed a broad range of subjects, but could be classified into two major categories.

The first was the political. With his family background, Wu had obtained access to a number of powerful people who had no objection to seeing the publication of their pictures, which could be symbolic of their stay in power, and, in turn, contribute to Wu’s career.

The second consisted of what might be called the artistic, which showed remarkable professional expertise. One feature in this category was Wu’s characteristic arrangement: a group of pictures with the same subject taken from different perspectives. Wu seemed to enjoy producing so-called “subject sequences.”

A group of Guan’s pictures in the Xingming Evening Post, for instance, could be seen as such a thematic sequence. These were pictures of Guan at work, at meetings, and at home. There was one of her cooking in the kitchen. Wearing an embroidered apron around her waist and scarlet slippers, Guan was frying fish, with beads of sweat visible on her brow. The kitchen apparently was somebody else’s: bright, spacious, sporting a dainty half round window above the sink. The picture focused on the soft, feminine side of a national model worker, balancing the other pictures in the group.

Most of Wu Xiaoming’s subjects were also well known in their respective fields. Chen particularly liked the group of Huang Xiaobai, a celebrated calligrapher. The pictures showed Huang in the act of brush-penning the different strokes in the formation of the Chinese character cheng -a horizontal stroke, a dot, a slant stroke, a vertical stroke-as if each stroke represented a different phase in his life, culminating in the character meaning “truthful.”

What came as a surprise was a sequence about Jiang Weihe, an emerging young artist, whom Chen had met on several occasions. In one of the photographs Jiang was working on a statue. Wearing short overalls, standing bare legged, she was absorbed in the effect. The statue portrayed a nude photographer, having nothing but a camera held in front of him, focusing at her. The title was “Creation.” The composition was original.

In addition to these pictures, there were also some pieces for fashion magazines. Most of the subjects were young beautiful girls. Semi-nude or even nude photos were no longer censored in China, but still they were controversial. Chen was surprised at Wu’s extraordinary journey into the field.

In a small provincial magazine called Flower City, Chen saw a sleeping nude on her side. Melting into the background of the white sheet and white wall was her soft body with all its soft curves. A black mole on the back of her neck was the only accent, enhancing the effect. Somehow the woman in the picture struck him as familiar, though he could not see her face. Then he remembered. Frowning, he put down the magazine.

Chen had not finished his research at the library’s closing time. He borrowed the copy of Flower City. The librarian was gracious, offering to put all the other magazines on hold, so that Chen could resume his work without waiting the next day. He thanked her, wondering if he could afford to spend another day in the library. Besides, he found it hard to concentrate there. Something subtle in the atmosphere disturbed him. Or in his subconscious? Chief Inspector Chen did not want to analyze himself-not in the middle of the case.

It could be the first important breakthrough in the investigation, but he was not lighthearted. Wu Xiaoming’s involvement was leading to something more than Chen had expected.

It meant a confrontation with Wu.

And quite possibly, with Wu as a representative of the HCC- high cadres’ children.

Back in his office, he made a call to Wang. Luckily she was still there.

“Thank you so much for your help.”

“Don’t mention it.” Wang’s clear voice sounded close. “Any progress?”

“Some,” he said. “Are you alone in the office?”

“Yes, I have to meet a deadline,” she said. “I’ve also done some additional research on your suspect, but you may already know a lot about him.”

“Tell me.”

“In terms of his position, Wu’s just a member of the staff of Red Star in Shanghai, but he may be far more important. As everybody knows, the magazine is the mouthpiece of the Party Central Committee, which means he has direct contact with some people at the very top. What is more, the publication of these people’s pictures puts him in close relationship with them.”

“That much I suspected.”

“Also, there is some talk about him being promoted to a new position-acting cultural minister of Shanghai.”

“What?”

“Yes. People say Wu is both ‘red and expert’-young, talented, with a degree from an evening college. He is also on the list for the same seminar you’re going to attend.”

“Well-as an ancient saying goes,” Chen said, “‘foes must meet in a narrow path.’ I’m not worried about that, only-”

“Only-what is the problem?” She was quick to catch him.

“Well, let me put it this way. In an investigation, one important link is motive. There must be one reason or another for people to do something, but I cannot find it.”

“So without the motive, you cannot go forward in the investigation?”

“Yes, that’s it,” he said. “Circumstantial evidence may point to Wu, but there’s no convincing theory explaining why he would act in such a way.”

“Maybe we should have another cup at the Riverfront Cafe,” she said, “to talk more about the case.”

“At my place, tomorrow evening,” he said. “You haven’t said no to my invitation, have you?”

“Another party?”

“No, just you and me.”

“With romantic candlelight?”

“If there’s a power failure.”

“You never know,” she said, “but I’ll see you.”

Chapter 17

Monday morning Chief Inspector Chen had a meeting at the city hall.

On his way back to the bureau, he bought a piece of transparent rice cake from a street vendor and ate it without really tasting it.

Detective Yu was not in the large office. Chen picked up a manila envelope delivered that morning containing a cassette tape that bore the following label: Examination of Lai Guojun held at Shanghai Police Bureau, 3:00 P.M., June 2, 1990. Examining Officer Detective Yu Guangming. Also present at examination, Sergeant Yin Wei.

Chen popped the tape in the recorder.

Detective Yu, too, had a lot to do, dealing with all the routine work of the squad, even on Sunday. The tape was probably made about the time when he and Wang talked in the noodle restaurant. The tape started with Yu’s voice making the introduction, and then came another voice marked with an unmistakable Ningbo accent. Chen began listening as he propped up his legs on the desk, but after no more than a minute, he jumped up and rewound the tape to the very beginning:

YU: You are Lai Guojun, thirty-four years old, living at Number Seventy-two Henan Street, Huangpu District, Shanghai. You are an engineer, having worked for ten years at People’s Chemical Company. You are married, with a daughter of five. Is that correct?

LAI: Yes, that’s correct.

YU: I want you to know that you are helping with our inquiry. We appreciate your help.

LAI: Please go ahead.

YU: We’re going to ask you some questions about Guan Hongying. She was murdered last month. You have heard of that?

LAI: Yes, I’ve read about it in the newspaper. So I guessed your people would come to me-sooner or later.

YU: Some of the questions may involve the intimate details of your life, but nothing you say in this room will be used against you. Whatever it is, it will be confidential. I have talked to your boss, and he, too, believes that you will cooperate. He suggested that he himself be present at the interview. I told him No.

LAI: What choice do I have? He has talked to me, too. I will answer any question you have for me.

YU: You can make an important contribution to the case, so the person or persons responsible for the murder will be captured and punished.

LAI: That’s what I want. I’ll do my best.

YU: When did you get to know Guan?

LAI: It was about ten years ago.

YU: The summer of 1980? LAI: Yes, in June.

YU: Under what circumstances did you meet each other?

LAI: We met at the apartment of my cousin,

Lai Weiqing.

YU: At a party? LAI: No. Not exactly a party. A colleague of Weiqing’s knew Guan, so they had arranged for us to meet there.

YU: In other words, Lai Weiqing and her colleague acted as matchmakers. They introduced you to each other.

LAI: Well, you could say that. But not so formally. YU: How was your first meeting?

LAI: Guan sort of surprised me. With arranged introductions, you can hardly expect to meet a pretty young girl. More often than not, those you get introduced to are plain, over thirty, and without education. Guan was only twenty-two and quite attractive. A model worker, and taking college correspondence courses at the time. You know all that, I believe. I have never figured out why she consented to such an arrangement. She could have had a lot of men dancing around her.

YU: What other impressions did you have of her that day?

LAI: A moving awkwardness. Innocent, almost naive. Obviously she was not used to such meetings.

YU: Was it her first date?

LAI: I was not sure about it, but she had no idea how to express herself in my company. She was literally tongue-tied when we were left alone.

YU: Then how did things work out between you?

LAI: Well, we clicked, as some people would say, without talking much to each other. We did not stay long the first time, but we did go to a movie the next week, and then had dinner in Meilong Zheng.

YU: She was still tongue-tied the second time?

LAI: No, we talked a lot, about our families, the lost years in the Cultural Revolution, and the common interests we had. A few days later, I went to one of her presentations at the Youth Palace without her knowledge. She seemed to be a totally different person on the stage.

YU: Interesting. How different?

LAI: Well, she seldom talked about politics in my company. Once or twice, maybe, I tried to bring the topic up, but she seemed unwilling to talk about it. On the stage, she appeared so confident, speaking with genuine conviction. I was glad that she did not talk politics to me, for we soon became lovers.

YU: Lovers-in what sense?

LAI: What do you mean?

YU: Physically?

LAI: Yes.

YU: How soon?

LAI: After four or five weeks.

YU: That was quick.

LAI: It was sooner than I had expected. YU: Was it you who took the initiative?

LAI: I see what you mean. Do I have to answer questions like that?

YU: I cannot force you, Comrade Lai. But if you do, it may help our investigation. And it may also save me another trip to your boss.

LAI: Well, it was a Friday night, I remember. We went to a dancing party in the western hall of the Shanghai Writers’ Association. It was the first year when social dancing was publicly allowed in Shanghai. A friend of mine had obtained the tickets for us. While we were dancing, I noticed that she was getting excited.

YU: Excited-in which way?

LAI: It was obvious. It was in the summer. Her body was pressed against me. Her breasts-I noticed-you know, I really can’t be more precise.

YU: And you? Were you also excited?

LAI: Yes.

YU: What happened afterwards?

LAI: We went back to my place with a group of friends. We talked and had some drinks.

YU: Did you drink a lot that night?

LAI: No, only a cup of Qingdao beer. In fact, I shared the cup with her. I remember that because later-later we kissed. It was our first time, and she said we smelled of each other-from the same cup.

YU: That sounds really romantic.

LAI: Yes, it was.

YU: And then?

LAI: People were leaving. She could have left with them. It was already twelve thirty, but she stayed on. It was a terrific gesture. She wanted to help me clean up, she declared.

YU: So you must have been terribly pleased with her offer?

LAI: Well, I told her to leave everything alone. It was not a night to worry about dirty dishes and leftovers.

YU: I guess you would say that.

LAI: She would not listen to me. Instead, she started hustling and bustling in the kitchen. She did everything, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, wrapping up the leftovers, and putting them in a bamboo basket on the balcony. She said that the food wouldn’t go bad that way; I did not have a refrigerator at the time.

YU: Very domestic, very considerate.

LI: Yes, that’s exactly what a wife would choose to do. So I kissed her for the first time.

YU: So you stayed in the kitchen with her all the time?

LAI: Yes, I did, watching in amazement. But after she finished, we moved back into the room

YU: Go on.

LAI: Well, we were alone. She did not show any intention of leaving. So I suggested I take a few pictures of her. I had just got a new camera, a Nikon 300. My brother had bought it for me in Japan. YU: That’s a fancy one. LAI: She was reclining on the bed, saying something about the transience of a woman’s beauty. I agreed. She wanted to have some pictures that would capture her youth. After a few shots, I proposed to have a picture of her wrapped in a white towel. To my surprise, she nodded and told me just to turn around. She started taking off her clothes there and then. YU: She undressed herself in your presence?

LAI: I did not see. I did, of course, afterward.

YU: Afterward, of course. So what happened afterward? LAI: Well… I guess you don’t have to ask.

YU: Yes, I have to. You’d better give us an account, as detailed as possible, of what happened between you and her that night. LAI: Is it necessary, Comrade Detective Yu?

YU: I understand your feelings, but the details may be important to our investigation. It’s a sexual murder case, you know.

LAI: Fine, if you think that can really help.

YU: Did you have sexual intercourse with her then?

LAI: She made herself really clear. It was she who gave the unmistakable signal. So that was the only natural thing for me to do. You are a man, aren’t you? Why should I say any more?

YU: I understand, but I still have to press for some details.

LAI: More details. Heavens! YU: Was it the first time for her, or for you?

LAI: Not for me, but for her.

YU: You were sure about that? LAI: Yes, though she was not too shy.

YU: How long did she stay that night?

LAI: The whole night. Well, more than that. Early next morning, she phoned the department store, asking for sick leave. So we had practically all the next morning in the room. We made love again. We did some shopping in the afternoon. I chose for her a white wool sweater with a red azalea on the right breast.

YU: Did she accept it?

LAI: Yes, she did. And I started talking about marriage.

YU: And how did she react?

LAI: Well, she seemed unwilling to talk about it that day.

YU: You talked about it again, I believe.

LAI: I was head over heels-laugh at me if you want-so I did mention it a couple of times. She seemed to avoid the subject every time. Finally, when I tried to discuss it with her seriously, she left me.

YU: Why?

LAI: I did not know. I was confounded. And terribly hurt, you can imagine.

YU: Did you quarrel with her?

LAI: No. I didn’t.

YU: So it was all of a sudden? That’s really something. Did you notice any sign of it before she said anything about it?

LAI: No, it happened three or four weeks after that night- that night we slept together. Actually, she had come to my place a number of times during the period. Eleven in all, including the first night. I can tell you how I remember. Every time we stayed together, I drew a star above the date on my calendar. We never quarreled. Then, out of the blue, she dumped me-for no reason at all.

YU: That’s strange indeed. Did you ask her for an explanation?

LAI: Yes, but she would not say anything about it. She kept saying that it was her fault, and she was really sorry.

YU: Normally, when a young girl, especially a virgin, has slept with you, she will surely insist on your marrying her. To make a chaste woman of her, so to speak. But she didn’t, saying it was her fault. What fault?

LAI: I did not know. I demanded an explanation, but she would not give any details.

YU: Could there be another man involved?

LAI: No, I did not think so. She was not that kind of woman. In fact, I inquired about it through my cousin, and she said not. Guan simply left without giving a reason. I tried to find out, and at first I even thought that she might be a nymphomaniac.

YU: Why? Was there anything abnormal about her sexual behavior?

LAI: No. She was just a bit-uninhibited. She wept and cried the first time she came. In fact, after that she came every time, biting and screaming, and I believed that she was satisfied. But now she’s dead, I really should not say anything against her.

YU: It must have been hard for you when you broke up?

LAI: Yes, I was devastated. But I gradually came to terms with it. It was a losing game for me anyway. She was not the type of woman I could afford to make happy in the long run. Failing that, I myself would not be happy. But she was a wonderful woman in her way.

YU: Did she say anything else at your parting?

LAI: No, she kept saying that it was her fault, and she actually offered to stay that night with me if I wanted. I said No.

YU: Why? I’m just curious.

LAI: If her heart’s going to leave you forever, what’s the point of having her body for one more night?

YU: I see, and I’d say that you’re right. Have you tried to contact her again since then?

LAI: No, not after we parted.

YU: Any form of contact-letters, postcards, phone calls?

LAI: It was she who dumped me. So why should I? Besides, she became more and more of a national celebrity, with big pictures in all the newspapers, so I couldn’t avoid her national model worker image.

YU: Male pride and ego, I understand. It has been a difficult subject for you, Comrade Lai, but you have been most helpful. Thank you.

LAI: You will keep it confidential, won’t you? I am married now. I’ve never told my wife anything about it.

YU: Of course. I said so in the beginning.

LAI: When I think of the affair, I am still confused. I hope you will catch the criminal. I don’t think I will ever forget her. There was a long silence. Apparently the conversation came to an end. Then he heard Yu’s voice again: Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, I found Engineer Lai Goujun through Huang Weizhong, the retired Party Secretary of the First Department Store. According to Huang, Guan had made a report to the Party committee when they first started dating. The Party committee had looked into Lai’s family background and discovered that Lai had an uncle who had been executed as a counterrevolutionary during the Land Reform movement. So the Party committee wanted her to end the affair. It was politically incorrect for her, an emerging model worker and Party member, to get involved with a man of such a family background. She agreed, but she did not make a report to Huang about her parting with Lai until two months later, and she did not give any details about it. I’m collecting more information about Lai, but I don’t think he is a suspect. It was so many years ago, after all. Sorry I cannot stay in the office this morning; Qinqin is sick. I have to take him to the hospital, but I’ll be home after two or two thirty. Call me if there’s anything you need.

Chen punched the off button. He slumped back in his seat, wiping the sweat from his forehead. It was getting hot again. He took a cola out of the little refrigerator, tapped on the top, but put it back. There was a small fly buzzing in the room. He poured himself a cup of cold water instead.

That was not what he had expected.

Chief Inspector Chen had never believed in such a mythical embodiment of the Communist Party selfless spirit as Comrade Lei Feng. A sudden wave of sadness washed over the chief inspector. It was absurd, Chen thought, that politics could have so shaped a life. If she had married Lai, Guan would not have been so successful in her political life. She would not have been a national model worker, but an ordinary wife-knitting a sweater for her husband, pulling a propane gas tank on her bike rack, bargaining for a penny or two when she bought food in the market, nagging like a broken gramophone, playing with a lovely child sitting on her lap-but she would have been alive.

If Guan’s decision appeared absurd in the early nineties, it would have been most understandable in the early eighties. At that time, someone like Lai who had a counterrevolutionary relative was out of the question. Lai would have brought trouble to the people close to him. Chen thought of his own “uncle,” a dis- tant relative he had never seen, but it was that uncle who had determined his profession.

So it could be said that the decision of the First Department Store Party committee, however hard, was made in her interest. As a national model worker, Guan had had to live up to her status. That the Party should have interfered in her private life was by no means surprising, but her reaction was astonishing. She gave herself to Lai, then parted with him without having revealed the true reason. Her act was intolerably “liberal” according to the codes of the Party. But Chen thought he could understand. Guan had been a more complicated human than he had supposed. All that had happened, however, ten years earlier. Could it have anything to do with Guan’s recent life?

It might have been a traumatic experience for her, which would explain why she’d had no lover for years until she crossed Wu Xiaoming’s path.

Also, Guan had been one who dared to act-despite the shadow of politics.

Or was there something else?

Chen dialed Yu’s home.

“Qinqin is much better,” Yu said. “I’ll come back to the office soon.”

“You don’t have to. Nothing particular is going on here. Take good care of your son at home.” He added, “I’ve got your tape. A great job.”

“I’ve checked Lai’s alibi. On the night of the murder, he was in Nanning with a group of engineers at a conference.”

“Has Lai’s company confirmed that?”

“Yes. I’ve also talked to a colleague of his who shared the hotel room for the night. According to that colleague, Lai was there all the time. So his alibi is solid.”

“Did Lai contact Guan in the last half year-via phone calls or whatever?”

“No, he said not. In fact, Lai’s just got back from America. He’s worked at a university lab there for a whole year.” Yu added, “I don’t think we can get anywhere in that direction.”

“I think you are right,” he said. “It’s been so many years. If Lai had wanted to do anything, he would not have waited for such a long time.”

“Yes, Lai nowadays works with American universities once or twice a year, earning a lot of U.S. dollars, enjoying a reputation in his field, living happily with his family. In today’s market society, Guan, rather than Lai, should have been the one who rued what happened ten years ago.”

“And in our society, Lai can be seen as the one who got the advantage from the affair-a gainer rather than a loser. In retrospect, Lai might not be too unhappy about his long-ago affair.”

“Exactly. There was something surprising about Guan.”

“Yes, what a shame!”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it was politics for her then, and politics for us now.”

“Oh, you’re right, boss.”

“Call me if you find anything new about Lai.”

Chen then decided to make a routine report to Commissar Zhang, whom he had not briefed of late.

Commissar Zhang was reading a movie magazine when Chen entered his office.

“What wind has brought you in here today, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen?” Zhang put down the magazine.

“A sick wind, I’m afraid.”

“What wind?”

“Detective Yu’s son is sick, so he has to take him to the hospital.”

“Oh, that. So Yu cannot come to the office today.”

“Well, Yu has been working hard.”

“Any new leads?”

“Guan had a boyfriend nine or ten years ago, but, following the Party’s instruction, she parted with him. Yu has talked to retired Party Secretary Huang of the First Department Store, who was her boss then, and also to Engineer Lai, her ex-boyfriend.”

“That’s no news. I have also talked to that retired Party Secretary. He told me the story. She did the right thing.”

“Do you know she-” he cut himself short, not sure what Zhang’s reaction to Lai’s version might be. “She was very upset when she had to part with him.”

“That’s understandable. She was young, and perhaps a little romantic at the time, but she did the right thing by following the Party’s decision.”

“But it could have been traumatic to her.”

“Another of your Western modernist terms?” Zhang said irritably. “Remember, as a Party member, she had to live for the interests of the Party.”

“No, I was just trying to see its impact on Guan’s personal life.”

“So Detective Yu is still working on this angle?”

“No, Detective Yu doesn’t think Mr. Lai is involved with the case. It was such a long time ago.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“You’re right, Commissar Zhang,” he said, wondering why Zhang had not shared this information with him earlier. Was Zhang so anxious to maintain the communist puritan image of Guan?

“I don’t think that’s the right direction. Nor is your theory involving caviar,” Zhang concluded. “It’s a political case, as I have said a number of times.”

“Everything can be seen in terms of politics,” Chen got up, pausing in the doorway, “but politics is not everything.”

Such talk was possible now, though hardly regarded as in good taste politically. There had been opposition to Chen’s attaining promotion-something expressed by his political enemies when they praised him as “open,” and by his political friends when they wondered if he was too open.

Chapter 18

As soon as Chief Inspector Chen got back in his own office, the phone started ringing.

It was Overseas Chinese Lu. Once more Lu declared that he had successfully started his own business-Moscow Suburb, a Russian-style restaurant on Huaihai Road, with caviar, potage, and vodka on the menu, and a couple of Russian waitresses walking around in scanty dresses. Lu sounded complacent and confident on the phone. It was beyond Chen to comprehend how Lu could have done so much at such short notice.

“So business is not bad?”

“It’s booming, buddy. People come swarming in all day to look at our menu, at our vodka cabinet, and at our tall, buxom Russian girls in their see-through blouses and skirts.”

“You really have an eye for business.”

“Well, as Confucius said thousands of years ago, ‘Beauty makes you hungry.’”

“No. ‘She is so beautiful that you could devour her,’ ” Chen said. “That’s what Confucius said. How were you able to dig up these Russian girls?”

“They just came to me. A friend of mine runs a network of international applicants. Nice girls. They earn four or five times more than at home. Nowadays China is doing much better than Russia.”

“That is true.” Chen was impressed by the pride in Lu’s voice.

“Remember the days when we used to call the Russians our Big Brothers? The wheel of fortune has turned. Now I call them my Little Sisters. In a way they really are. They depend on me for everything. For one thing, they’ve got nowhere to stay, and the hotels are way too expensive. I’ve bought several folding beds, so they can sleep in back of the restaurant and save a lot of money. For their convenience, I’ve also put in a hot water shower.”

“So you are taking good care of them.”

“Exactly. And I’ll let you into a secret, buddy. They have hairs on their legs, these Russian girls. Don’t fall for their smooth and shining appearance. A week without razor and soap, those terrific legs could be really hairy.”

“You are being Eliotic, Overseas Chinese Lu.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing, it just reminds me of something by T. S. Eliot.”

Something about bare, white, braceleted legs which suddenly appear in the light to be downy.

Or was it by John Donne?

“Eliot or not, that’s none of my business. But it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes-a bathtub full of golden and brown hair.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Come and see for yourself. Not just the legs, the business, of course. This weekend, okay? I’ll assign you one of the blondes. The sexiest. Special service. So special that you want to devour her, too. Confucius’ satisfaction guaranteed.”

“That will be too much for my wallet, I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean? You’re my greatest friend, and part of my success, too. All on me, of course.”

“I will come,” Chen said, “if I can spare one evening next week.”

Chief Inspector Chen wondered if he would go there even if he could spare the time. He had read a report about the so-called special service in some notorious restaurants.

He looked at his watch. Three thirty. There would probably be nothing left in the bureau canteen. The conversation with Overseas Chinese Lu had made him feel hungry.

Then he thought of something he had almost forgotten. Dinner with Wang Feng. In his apartment.

Suddenly everything else could wait until tomorrow. The thought of having her over for a candlelit dinner was making his pulse race. He left the bureau in a hurry, heading for a food market on Ninghai Road, which was about fifteen minutes’ walk from his apartment.

As always, the market presented a scene of crowds milling about with bamboo baskets on their arms, plastic bags in their hands. He had consumed his ration of pork and eggs for the month. He hoped he could get some fish and vegetables. Wang liked seafood. A long line stretched back from a fish stall. Aside from the people standing there, there was also a collection of baskets, broken cardboard boxes, stools, and even bricks-all of them placed before or after the people in line. At every slow forward step, the people would move these objects a step farther. Placing an object in line was symbolic, he realized, of the owner’s presence. When a basket drew near to the stall, the owner would assume his or her position. Consequently, a line of fifteen people might really mean fifty people were ahead of him. At the speed the line was moving, he judged, it would probably take him more than an hour to be waited on.

So he decided to try his luck at the free market, which was just one block beyond the state-run Ninghai food market. The free market remained nameless in the early nineties, but its existence was known to everybody. The service there was better; so was the quality. The only difference was the price, usually two or three times more than the Ninghai.

A peaceful coexistence: the state-run and the private-run markets. Socialism and capitalism, side by side. Some veteran Party cadres were worried about the inevitable clashing of the two systems, but the people in the market were not, Chen observed, as he came to a stop at the colorful display of green onions and ginger under a Hangzhou umbrella. He picked up a handful of fresh green onions. The peddler added a small piece of ginger without charging for it.

Chen spent some time choosing what else he thought necessary for the dinner. Thanks to the advance from the Lijiang publishing house, he could well afford to buy two pounds of lamb, a pile of oysters, and a small bag of spinach. Then, on an impulse, he left the market for the new jewelry store at Longmen Road.

The shop assistant came up to him with a surprised expression. He was an unlikely customer, Chen realized, a cop in his uniform, with a plastic bag of food in his hand. But he turned out to be a good customer. He did not spend much time choosing among the dazzling items on display. He was immediately attracted by a choker of pearls placed on silver satin in a purple velvet box. The jewelry cost him more than eight hundred Yuan, but it would suit Wang well, he thought. Ruth Rendell would probably be pleased, too, with the way he spent the money earned by his translation of her work. Besides, he had to give himself some additional motivation to complete his next translation, Speaker of Mandarin.

Back in his apartment, he realized for the first time-to his astonishment-how unpresentable a bachelor’s room could be. Bowls and dishes in the sink, a pair of jeans on the floor beside the sofa, books everywhere, gray streaks on the windowsills. Even the brick-and-board bookcase flanking the desk struck him as unsightly. He threw himself into the task of cleaning up.

It was the first time she had accepted his invitation to dine with him-alone, at his place. Since the night of the house- warming party, there had been some real progress in their relationship. In the course of the investigation, he seemed to have been finding more and more things about her, too. She was not only attractive and vivacious, but intelligent-intuitively perceptive, even more so than Chen himself.

But it was more than that. In the course of this investigation, he had raised more questions about his own life. It was time for him to make up his mind-as Guan should have made up her mind, years earlier.

Wang arrived a few minutes before six o’clock. She was wearing a white silk blazer over a simple black dress with two narrow shoulder straps that looked more like a slip. He helped her take off the blazer; her shoulders were dazzlingly white under the fluorescent light.

She brought a bottle of white wine with her. A perfect gift for the occasion. He had a set of glasses in the cabinet.

“What a spick-and-span room for a busy chief inspector!”

“I had the right motive. It’s rewarding to keep the place neat,” he said, “when a friend is coming over.”

The table was set with a white tablecloth, folded pink napkins, mahogany chopsticks, and long-handled silver spoons. The dinner was simple. A small pot of water boiling over a portable gas burner. Around it, paper thin sliced lamb, a bowl of green spinach, and a dozen oysters were laid out on a platter decked with lemon wedges. There were also vinegar-marinated cucumber and pickled garlic in little side dishes. Each of them had a small dish of sauce.

They dipped the slices of lamb into the boiling water, took them out after just a second or two, and dipped them into the sauce, a special recipe he had learned from Overseas Chinese Lu, a mixture of soy sauce, sesame butter, fermented bean curd, and ground pepper strewn with a pinch of parsley. The lamb, still pinkish, was tender and delicious.

He opened her bottle of wine. They touched glasses before sipping the sparkling white wine under the soft light.

“To you,” he said.

“To us.”

“For what?” he asked, turning the lamb over in the sauce.

“For tonight.”

She was peeling an oyster with a small knife. Her fingers, small, delicate, maneuvered the knife and cut loose the hinge muscle. She lifted the oyster to her mouth. A wisp of green seaweed still clung to its shell. He saw the glistening inside of the shell, its matchless whiteness against her lips.

“That’s good,” she sighed with satisfaction, putting down the shell.

He gazed at her over the rim of his cup, thinking of the way her lips touched the oyster, and then the cup. She sipped at her wine, dabbed at her mouth with the paper napkin, and picked up another oyster. To his surprise, she dipped it in the sauce, leaned across and offered to him. The gesture was terribly intimate.. Almost that of a newly married wife. He let her insert the chopsticks into his mouth. The oyster immediately melted on his tongue. A strange, satisfying sensation.

That was a new experience to him, being alone with a woman he liked, in a room he called his own. They spoke, but he didn’t feel that he had to make conversation. Nor did she. They could afford to gaze at each other without speaking.

It had started drizzling, but the city at night also seemed more intimate, peaceful, its veil of lights glistening into the infinite.

After dinner, she murmured that she wanted to help him clean up.

“I really enjoy washing dishes after a good meal.”

“No, you don’t have to do anything.”

But she had already stood up, kicked off her sandals, and taken over his apron that hung on the doorknob. It was pleasant to see her breezing around effortlessly, as if she had been living here for years. She appeared intensely domestic with the white apron tied tight around her slender waist.

“You are my guest today,” he insisted.

“I can’t just watch you doing everything in the kitchen.”

It was not really a kitchen, but a narrow strip of space with the gas burner and the sink squeezed together, barely large enough for the two to move around in. They stood close to each other, their shoulders touching. He pushed open the small window above the sink. His feeling of well-being-in addition to the effects of the good food and wine-came from a sense of being, not just in a scantily furnished apartment, but at home.

“Oh, let’s just leave everything here,” he said, untying the apron. “That’s good enough.”

“Soon you will have roaches crawling all about in your new apartment,” she warned him with a smile.

“I already have.” He led her back into the living room. “Let’s have another drink-a nightcap.”

“Whatever you say.”

When he came back with glasses, she was rocking back and forth in the rattan chair near the couch. As she sank deep into the chair, her short dress revealed a glimpse of her thighs.

He leaned against the cabinet, his hand touching the top drawer, which contained the choker of pearls.

She seemed to be absorbed in the changing color of the wine in her hand.

“Would you mind sitting by me for one minute?”

“Easier to look at you this way,” he said, smelling the intoxicating scent from her hair.

He remained standing with his glass of wine. A “nightcap.” To translate it into Chinese was difficult. He had learned its romantic connotation in an American movie, in which a couple sipped the last cup of wine before going to bed. He was intoxicated with the atmosphere of intimacy that had sprung up between them.

“Oh, you’ve forgotten candlelight,” she said, sipping at the wine.

“Yes, I could use it now,” he said, “and Bolero on a CD player, too, would be great.”

That was also in the movie. The lovers, while making love, put on their favorite record: the rhythm of ever-approaching climax.

She held a slender finger against her cheek, scrutinizing him intently, as if for the first time. She reached up, taking the elastic band from her ponytail, and shook the black hair loose. It tumbled freely down her back. She looked relaxed, comfortable, at home.

Then he kneeled down on the floor at her feet.

“What’s that?”

“What?”

His finger touched her bare foot. There was a sauce stain on her small toe. He rubbed it off with his fingers.

Her hand slid down and grasped his. He glanced at her hand, at her ring finger. There was a lighter band of flesh below the joint where she’d once worn a wedding band.

They remained like that, holding hands.

Gazing at her flushed face, he felt he was looking into an open, inviting book. Or was he reading too much?

“Everything’s so wonderful tonight,” she said. “Thank you.”

“The best is yet to be,” he said, echoing a half-forgotten poem.

He had been waiting for this moment a long time.

The soft light silhouetted her curves against the sheer fabric of her dress. She looked like another woman, mature, feminine, and seductive.

How many different women could there be inside her, he wondered.

She rocked back, away from him, and touched his cheek with the palm of her hand. Her palm was light as cloud.

“Is your mind on the case again?”

“No. Not at this moment.”

It was a true answer, but he wondered why he had been so occupied with the case. Was it because of the raw human emotions involved? Perhaps his own personal life was so prosaic that he needed to share the passion of others. Or perhaps he had been yearning for a dramatic change in his own life.

“I have to ask you a favor,” she said.

“Anything,” he said.

“I don’t want you to misunderstand.” She took a deep breath, then paused for a moment. “There’s something between us, isn’t there?”

“What do you think?”

“I knew it when we first met.”

“So did I.”

“I had been engaged to Yang, you know, before I met you, but you have never asked me about it.”

“Nor have you ever asked about me, have you?” he said, gripping her palm. “It’s not that important.”

“But you have a promising career,” she said, with the emotion visibly washing over her fine features. “That is so important to you, and to me, too.”

“Promising career-I don’t know-” Those words sounded like a prelude, he could tell. “But why start talking about my career now?”

“I’ve had all the words ready to say, but it’s harder than I thought. With you here, being so nice to me, it’s more difficult… a lot more difficult.”

“Just tell me, Wang.”

“Well, I went to the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute this afternoon, and the school demands compensation for what they have done for him, for Yang, you know-compensation for his education, salary, and medical benefits during his college years. Or I won’t be able to get the document for my passport. It’s a large sum, twenty thousand Yuan. I wonder whether you could say something to the passport department of your bureau. So I could get one without the document from the Foreign Language Institute.”

“You want to get a passport-to go to Japan?”

That was not at all what he had expected.

“Yes, I’ve been applying for it for several weeks.”

To leave China, she needed a passport. So she had to present an authorized application with her work unit’s approval. And her marriage to Yang, even though only a nominal one, necessitated some document from Yang’s work unit, too.

It might be difficult, but not impossible. Passports had been issued without work unit authorization before. Chief Inspector Chen was in a position to help.

“So you are going to him.” He stood.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“He has obtained all the necessary documents for me to join him. Even a job for me at a Chinese TV station in Tokyo. A small station, nothing like here, but still something in my line. There’s not much between him and me, but it’s an opportunity I cannot afford to miss.”

“But you also have a promising career here.”

“A promising career here-” Wang said, a bitter smile upon her lips, “in which I have to pile lies upon lies.”

It was true, depending on how one chose to perceive a reporter’s job in China. As a reporter for the Party’s newspaper, she would have to report in the Party’s interest. First and foremost, the Party’s interest. She was paid to do that. No question about it.

“Still, things are improving here,” Chen said, feeling obliged to say something.

“At this slow pace, in twenty years, I might be able to write what I want to, and I will be old and gray.”

“No, I don’t think so.” He wanted to say that she would never be old and gray, not in his eyes, but he chose not to.

“You’re different, Chen,” she said. “You really can do something here.”

“Thank you for telling me this.”

“A candidate for the seminar of the Central Party Institute, you can go a long way in China, and I don’t think I can be of any help to you here.” She added after a pause. “For your career, I mean. And even worse-”

“The bottom line is-” he said slowly, “you’re going to Japan.”

“Yes, I’m going there, but there will be some time-at least a couple of months-before I can get the passport and visa. And we’ll be together-just like tonight.” She raised her head, putting a hand up to her bare shoulder, lightly, as if to pull one strap down. “And some day, when you’re no longer interested in your political career here, you may want to join me there.”

He turned to look out of the window.

The street was now alive with a surf of colorful umbrellas. People hurrying along in different directions, to their destinations, and then, perhaps, to new ones. He had been telling himself that Wang’s marriage had failed. No one could break up a marriage unless it was already on the rocks. That a man had left this woman in the lurch was a proof of it. But she still wanted to go to that man. Not to him.

Even though it might not be so for tonight and, perhaps, for a couple of months more.

That was not what he had expected, not at all.

Chen’s father, a prominent professor of Neo-Confucianism, had instilled into his son all the ethical doctrines; it had not been a useless effort.

He had not been a Party member all these years for nothing.

She was somebody’s wife-and still going to be.

That clinched it. There was a line he could not step over.

“Since you are going to join your husband,” he said, turning to look at her, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to see each other-this way, I mean, in the future. We will stay friends, of course. As for what you asked me to do, I’ll do my best.”

She seemed stunned. Speechless, she clenched her fists, and then buried her head in her hands.

He shook a cigarette from a crumpled flip-top pack and lit it.

“It’s not easy for me,” she murmured “And it’s not just for me either.”

“I understand.”

“No, you don’t. I’ve thought about it. It is not right-for you.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But I will do my best to get your passport, I promise.”

That was the only thing he could think of saying.

“I know how much I owe you.”

“What’s a friend for?” he said, as if an invisible record of cliches had dropped onto the turntable of his mind.

“Then I’m leaving.”

“Yes, it’s late. Let me call a taxi for you.”

She lifted her face, showing glistening tears in her eyes. Her pallor made her features sharper.

Was she even more beautiful at this moment?

She bent to pull on her shoes. He helped her to her feet. They looked at each other without speaking. Presently a taxi arrived. They heard the driver honking his horn in the rain.

He insisted that she wear his raincoat. An ungainly black police raincoat with a ghostly hood.

At the doorway, she halted, turning back to him, her face almost lost under the hood. He could not see her eyes. Then she turned away. Nearly his height, she could have been taken for him in the black police raincoat. He watched the tall raincoat-wrapped figure disappearing in the mist of the rain.

Zhang Ji, a Tang dynasty poet, had written a well-known couplet: Whistling to himself, Chen opened the top drawer of his file cabinet. He had not even had a chance to take out the pearls, which shone beautifully under the light. “Returning your lustrous pearls with tears in my eyes, / Lord, I should’ve met you before I married.”

According to some critics, the poem was written at the moment when Zhang decided to decline an offer from Prime Minister Li Yuan, during the reign of Emperor Dezhong in the early eighth century. Hence there was a political analogy.

There’s nothing but interpretation, Chen thought, rubbing his nose. He did not like what he had done. She had made herself clear. It could have been the first night that he had longed for, and there would have been more. And he would not have placed himself under any obligation.

But he had said no.

Maybe he would never be able to rationalize his reaction, not even to himself.

A bicycle bell spilled into the silence of the night.

He could be logical about other people’s lives, but not about his own.

Was it possible that his decision was precipitated by the report he had read in the afternoon? There seemed to be a parallel working in his subconscious mind. He thought of Guan’s willingness to give herself to Lai before parting with him, now of Wang’s offer before leaving to join her husband in Japan.

Chief Inspector Chen had made many mistakes. Tonight’s decision might be another he would come to rue.

After all, a man is only what he has decided to do, or not to do.

Some things a man will do; some things a man will not do. It was another Confucian truism his father had taught him. Maybe deep inside, he was conservative, traditional, even old-fashioned-or politically correct. The bottom line was no.

Whatever he was going to do, whatever kind of man he was going to be, he made a pledge to himself: He was going to solve the case. That was the only way he, Chief Inspector Chen, could redeem himself.

Chapter 19

Finally Detective Yu arrived home for dinner.

Peiqin had already finished cooking several main dishes in the public kitchen area.

“Can I help?”

“No, just go inside. Qinqin is much better today, so you may assist him with his homework.”

“Yes, it’s been two days since I took him to the hospital. He must have missed a number of classes.”

But Yu did not move immediately. He felt guilty at the sight of Peiqin busy working there, her white short-sleeved shirt molded to her sweating body. Squatting at the foot of a concrete sink, she was binding a live crab with a straw. Several Yangchen crabs were crawling noisily on the sesame-covered bottom of a wooden pail.

“You have to bind them, or the crab will shed its legs in the steaming pot,” Peiqin explained, noticing his puzzled look.

“Then why is all the sesame in the pail?”

“To keep the crabs from losing weight. Nutritious food for them. We got the crabs early in the morning.”

“So special nowadays.”

“Yes, Chief Inspector Chen is your special guest.”

The decision to invite Chen over for dinner had been Peiqin’s, but Yu had seconded it, of course. She had made it for his sake, since it was she who had to prepare everything in their single room of eleven square meters. Still, she had insisted.

Last night, he had told Peiqin about the bureau Party Committee meeting the previous day. Commissar Zhang had grumbled about his lackluster attitude, which was not something new. At the meeting, however, Zhang went so far as to suggest to the Party Committee that Yu be replaced. Zhang’s suggestion was discussed in earnest. Yu was not a committee member, so not in the position to defend himself. With the investigation bogged down, switching horses might help, or at least shift responsibility. Party Secretary Li seemed ready to agree. Yu did not have his heart in the case, but his removal would have caused a domino effect. His fate would have been sealed- according to Lieutenant Lao, who had attended the meeting- but for Chief Inspector Chen’s intervention. Chen surprised the committee members by making a speech on Yu’s behalf, arguing that different opinions regarding a case were normal, reflecting the democracy of our Party, and that it did not detract at all from Detective Yu’s worth as a capable police officer. “If people are not happy with the way the investigation is going,” Chen had concluded, “I’m the one to take responsibility. Fire me.” So it had been due to Chen’s emotional plea that Yu remained in the special case group.

Lao’s information came as a surprise to Yu, who had not expected such staunch support from his superior.

“Your chief inspector knows how to speak the Party language,” Peiqin said quietly.

“Yes, he does. Luckily, this time on my behalf,” he said.

“What about inviting him to dinner? The restaurant is going to have two bushels of live crabs, Yangchen Lake crabs, at the state price. I can bring a dozen home, and I will just need to add several side dishes.”

“That’s a good idea. But it will be too much work for you.”

“No. It’s fun to have a guest once in a while. I’ll make a meal that your chief inspector won’t forget.”

And more or less to his surprise, Chen had accepted his invitation readily, adding that he would like to discuss something with Yu afterward.

It was really turning out to be too much work for Peiqin, Yu stood there thinking somberly, watching her moving busily around in the confined space. Their portion of the public kitchen area contained no more than a coal stove and a small table with a makeshift bamboo cabinet hung on the wall. There was hardly room for her to put down all the bowls and plates.

“Go into our room,” she repeated. “Don’t stand here watching me.”

The table in their room, set for dinner, presented an impressive sight. Chopsticks, spoons, and small plates were aligned with folded paper napkins. A tiny brass hammer and a glass bowl of water stood in the middle. It was not exactly a dining table though, for it was also the table on which Peiqin made clothes for the family, where Qinqin did his homework, and where Yu examined bureau files.

He made himself a cup of green tea, perched on the arm of the sofa, and took a small sip.

They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house-an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flanked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.

Yu’s room was on the southern end of the eastern wing on the first floor. Old Hunter had been assigned to that wing in the early fifties with the luxury of having one extra room as a guest room. Now in the nineties, the four rooms accommodated no fewer than four families: Old Hunter with his wife; his two daughters, one married, living with her husband and daughter; the other thirty-five, still single; and his son, Detective Yu living with Peiqin and Qinqin. As a result, each room functioned as bedroom, dining room, living room, and bathroom.

Yu’s room had originally been the dining room, about eleven square meters in size. It had not been ideal since the northern wall had only a window no bigger than a paper lantern, but it was worse as an all-purpose room, and especially inconvenient for visitors, for the room next to it was Old Hunter’s, which had originally served as a living room, with the door opening into the hall. Thus a visitor had to walk through Old Hunter’s room first. That was why the Yus had seldom had a guest.

Chen arrived at six thirty, carrying in one hand a small urn of Shaoxing sticky rice wine-Maiden Red. The perfect wine for crabs. Chen had his black leather briefcase, as usual, in his other hand.

“Welcome, Chief Inspector,” Peiqin said, a perfect Shanghai hostess, wiping her wet hands on her apron. “As an old Chinese saying goes, ‘Your company lights up our shabby room.’”

“We have to squeeze a bit,” Yu added. “Please take your seat at the table.”

“Any crab banquet room is a great room,” Chen said. “I really appreciate your kindness.”

The room was hardly large enough to hold four chairs around the table. So they were seated on three sides, and on the fourth side, their son Qinqin sat quietly on the bed.

Qinqin had long legs, large eyes, and a plump face, which he hid behind a picture book on Chen’s arrival. But he was not shy when the crabs appeared on the table.

“Where is your father, Old Hunter?” Chen asked, setting his chopsticks on the table. “I haven’t greeted him yet.”

“Oh, he’s out patrolling the market.”

“Still there?”

“Yes, it’s a long story,” Yu said, shaking his head.

Since his retirement, Old Hunter had served as a neighborhood patroller. In the early eighties, when private market peddlers were still considered illegal, or at least “capitalistic” in political terminology, the old man made himself responsible for safeguarding the holiness of the state-run market. Soon, however, the private market became legal, and was even declared a necessary supplement to the socialist market. The government no longer interfered with private businessmen as long as they were willing to pay their taxes, but the retired old cop still went there, patrolling without any specific purpose, just to enjoy a sense of being useful to the socialist system.

“Let’s talk over our meal,” Peiqin cut in. “The crabs cannot wait.”

It was an excellent meal, a crab banquet. On the cloth-covered table the crabs appeared rounded, red and white, in small bamboo steamers. The small brass hammer shone among the blue and white saucers. The rice wine was nicely warmed, displaying an amber color under the light. On the windowsill, a bouquet of chrysanthemums stood in a glass vase, perhaps two or three days old, thinner, but still exquisite.

“I should have brought my Canon to photograph the table, the crabs, and the chrysanthemums,” Chen said, rubbing his hands. “It could be an illustration torn from The Dream of the Red Chamber.”

“You’re talking about Chapter Twenty-eight, aren’t you? Baoyu and his ‘sisters’ composing poems over a crab banquet,” Peiqin said, squeezing out the leg meat for Qinqin. “Alas, this is not a room in the Grand View Garden.”

Yu was pleased that they had just visited the garden. So he knew the reference. “But our Chief Inspector Chen is a poet in his own right. He will read us his poems.”

“Don’t ask me to read anything,” Chen said. “My mouth’s full of crab. A crab beats a couplet.”

“The crab is not really in season yet,” Peiqin apologized.

“No, it’s the best.”

Apparently Chen enjoyed Peiqin’s excellent cooking, relishing the Zhisu sauce particularly, using up a small saucer of it in no time. When he finished eating the golden digestive glands of a female crab, Chen was sighing with pleasure.

“Su Dongbo, the Song dynasty poet, said on one occasion, ‘O that I could have crabs without a wine-supervisor sitting beside me.’”

“A wine-supervisor of the Song dynasty?” Qinqin spoke for the first time during the meal, showing his interest in history.

“A wine-supervisor was a low-ranking officer in the fifteenth century,” Chen said, “like a medium-rank police officer nowadays, responsible only for other officials’ behavior at formal feasts and festivals.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that, Chief Inspector Chen. Drink to your heart’s content,” Peiqin said. “Our meal is informal and you are Yu’s supervisor.”

“I’m really overwhelmed by your dinner, Mrs. Yu. A crab feast is something I have been missing for a long, long time.”

“It’s all to Peiqin’s credit,” Yu said. “She managed to get all the crabs at the state price.”

It was a well-acknowledged fact that no one could be so lucky as to buy live crabs at a state-run market. Or at the official price. The so-called state price still existed, but merely in newspapers or government statistics. People paid seven or eight times more in the free markets. However, a state-run restaurant could still obtain one or two baskets of crabs at the state price during the season. Only the crabs never appeared on the restaurant’s tables. The moment they were shipped in, they were divided and taken home by the restaurant staff.

“To finish off today’s meal, we’ll have a bowl of noodles.” Peiqin was holding a huge bowl of soup with slices of pink Jinghua ham floating on the surface.

“What’s that?”

“The across-the-bridge noodles,” Yu said, helping Peiqin place a big platter of transparent rice noodles on the table, along with several side dishes of pork slivers, fish fillets, and green vegetables arranged around the steaming hot soup.

“Nothing fancy,” Peiqin said, “just something we have learned to make as educated youths in Yunnan Province.”

“Across-the-bridge-noodles-I think I’ve heard of that unusual dish.” Chen showed a gourmet’s curiosity. “Or I have read about it somewhere. Very special, but I have never tasted it.”

“Well, here’s the story about it.” Yu found himself explaining. “In the Qing Dynasty, a bookish husband studied in an isolated island cottage, preparing for the civil service examination. His wife made one of his favorite dishes, chicken soup with noodles. To bring the noodles there, his wife had to cross a long wooden bridge. When she got there, the noodles were cold, and had lost their fresh, crisp taste. So the next time she carried two separate bowls, one bowl of hot soup with surface layer of oil to keep the heat in, and one bowl of rinsed noodles. She did not mix the noodles with the soup until she was in the cottage. Sure enough, it tasted wonderful, and the husband, feeling energetic after finishing the noodles, did a good job of preparation, and succeeded in the examination.”

“What a lucky husband,” Chen said.

“And Peiqin’s an even better chef,” Yu chuckled.

Yu, too, had enjoyed the noodles, the soup rippling with the memories of their days in Yunnan.

Afterward, Peiqin served tea from a purple sand pot on a black-lacquered tray. The cups were as dainty as lichee. It was the very set for the special Dark Dragon tea. Everything was as wonderful as Peiqin had promised.

Over the tea, Yu did not say anything to his guest about the Party committee meeting. Nor did Peiqin make any reference to their work. They just talked about trivial things. Chief Inspector Chen did not seem to be a status-conscious boss.

The tea leaves were unfolding like satisfaction in his small purple sand cup.

“What a wonderful meal!” Chen declared. “I almost forget I’m a cop.”

It was time to talk about something else-a subtle signal- Detective Yu got it. That was probably why Chief Inspector Chen had come. But it might be inconvenient to have the subject brought up in the presence of Peiqin.

“I left quite early yesterday,” Yu said. “Did something come up at the office?”

“Oh, I’ve just received some information-about the case.”

“Peiqin, can you excuse us for a minute?”

“That’s all right. I’m going out with Qinqin. He needs to buy a pencil sharpener.”

“No, I’m sorry, Mrs. Yu,” Chen said. “Yu and I can take a walk outside. It may not be a bad idea-after a full meal.”

“How can you think of it, Chief Inspector? You’re our guest for the first time. Have a few more cups of wine, and talk with Yu here. I’ll be back in about an hour-to serve you our home-made dessert.”

She put on a blue denim vest, and walked out with Qinqin.

“So what’s up?” Yu said after he heard the door close after Peiqin.

“You talked to Wu Xiaoming,” Chen said, “didn’t you?”

“Wu Xiaoming-yes, I remember, the photographer of the Red Star. Just one of the people who had known Guan. A routine checkup at the time.” Yu took out a notebook, thumbing through a few pages. “I made two phone calls to him. He said he had taken a few pictures of Guan. The pictures appeared in the People’s Daily. A political assignment. Anything suspicious about him?”

“Quite a lot,” Chen sipped at his tea, while summing up the new development in his investigation.

“That’s really something!” Yu said. “Wu lied to me. Let’s get hold of him.”

“Do you know anything about Wu’s family background?”

“Family background?”

“His father is Wu Bing.”

“What are you saying?”

“Yes, no other than Wu Bing, the Shanghai Minister of Propaganda. Wu Xiaoming is his only son. Also the son-in-law of Liang Guoren, former governor of Jiangsu Province. That’s why I want to talk to you here.”

“That bastard of an HCC!” Yu burst out, his fist banging on the table.

“What?” Chen seemed surprised at his reaction.

“These HCC.” Yu was making an effort to calm himself down. “They think they can get away with anything. Not this time. Let’s issue a warrant.”

“At present, we only know there was a close relationship between Guan and Wu. That isn’t enough.”

“No, I don’t agree. So many things fit. Let’s see,” Yu said, draining his tea, “Wu had a car, his father’s car. So he was capable of dumping her body in the canal. The plastic bag makes sense, too. Not to mention the caviar. And as a married man, Wu had to keep their affair a secret, and for the same reason, so did Guan. That’s why Guan made such a point of concealing her personal life.”

“But all this is not legally sufficient proof that Wu Xiaoming committed the murder. What we have so far is just circumstantial evidence.”

“But Wu has been withholding information. That’s enough for us to interrogate him.”

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about. A lot of politics will be involved if we are going to confront Wu Bing’s son.”

“Have you discussed it with Party Secretary Li?”

“No, not yet,” Chen said. “Li’s still in Beijing.”

“Then we can go ahead without having to report to him.”

“Yes, we can, but we have to move carefully.”

“Is there anything else you know about Wu?”

“Just these official files.” Chen produced a folder out of his brief case. “Not much, general background information. If you want, you can read it tomorrow.”

“I would like to read a few pages now if you don’t mind,” Yu said, lighting a cigarette for Chen and then one for himself.

So Yu began to read the documents enclosed in the folder. The most comprehensive one was an official dossier Chen had obtained from the Shanghai Archives Bureau. The dossier did not offer much of immediate interest, but it was more thoroughly compiled than what Yu had been used to seeing in ordinary bureau files. Wu Xiaoming was born in 1949. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father Wu Bing was a high cadre in charge of the Party’s ideological work, living in one of the most luxurious mansions in Shanghai. Wu Xiaoming grew to be a “three good” student in his elementary school. A proud Young Pioneer with the streaming red scarf and then a Communist Youth League member with a golden badge shining in the sunlight of the early sixties. The Cultural Revolution changed everything. Wu Bing’s political rival, Zhang Chunqiao, a Party politburo member, was merciless toward his opponents. Wu Xiaoming saw his parents dragged out of the mansion, handcuffed, and thrown into prison, where his mother died a miserable death. Homeless, Wu and his sister were left struggling on the streets. No one dared to take care of them. For six or seven years he labored as an educated youth in Jiangxi Province. In 1974 he was allowed to move back to Qingpu County, Shanghai, on the grounds of his father’s poor health. In the late seventies, the old man was let out of jail, and rehabilitated-more or less symbolically, since he no longer had the strength for his office. Wu Xiaoming, too, had been assigned a good position. As a photographer for Red Star, he had access to the top Party leaders and made several trips abroad. With praiseworthy diligence, the report went on in some detail about Wu Xiaoming’s own family. Wu was married in Jiangxi province in his educated youth years. His wife, Liang Ju, was also from a high cadre family. They came back to Shanghai together. Liang had a job in the city government, but suffering from some serious neurosis, she stayed at home for several years. They had no children. As Wu Xiaoming had to take care of his father, he and his wife lived in his father’s mansion.

In the part about Wu’s work, Yu found several pages of more recent date, the “cadre promotion background checkup” filled out by Wu’s current boss, Yang Ying. Wu was described as the magazine’s photo editor and “ace photographer,” who had produced several pictures of Comrade Deng Xiaoping in Shanghai. The report highlighted Wu’s dedication to his work. Wu had demonstrated his political commitment by giving up holidays to carry out special assignments. At the end of the report, Yang Ying gave his “full recommendation for a new important position.”

When Yu finished reading, he found his cigarette totally burnt out in the ashtray.

“Not much, eh?” Chen said.

“Not much for us,” he said. “What will his new position be?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“So how shall we proceed with our investigation?”

“A difficult investigation, even dangerous,” Chen said, “with Wu’s family connections. If we make one mistake, we’ll be in serious trouble. Politics.”

“Politics or no politics. Do you have a choice?”

“No, not as a cop.”

“Then neither have I,” Yu said, standing up. “I am your assistant.”

“Thank you, Comrade Detective Yu Guangming.”

“You don’t have to say that.” Yu moved over to the cabinet and returned with a bottle of Yanghe. “We’re a team, aren’t we? Drink up. It’s a bottle I’ve saved for several years.”

Yu and Chen drained their cups.

In The Romance of Three Kingdoms, Yu remembered, the heroes would drink wine when vowing to share wealth and woe.

“So we have to interview him,” Chen said, “as soon as possible.”

“It may not be too good an idea to startle a snake by stirring the weeds. And possibly a poisonous snake,” Yu said, pouring himself another cup.

“But it’s the route we must follow, if we make him our main suspect,” Chen said slowly. “Besides, Wu Xiaoming will get wind of our investigation one way or another.”

“You’re right,” Yu said. “I’m not afraid of the snake’s bite, but I want to finish it at one blow.”

“I know,” Chen said. “So when do you think we should act?”

“Tomorrow,” Yu said. “We may be able to take him by surprise.”

By the time Peiqin returned with Qinqin, Yu and Chen had finished the bottle of Yanghe and agreed on the steps they would take the following day.

The dessert Peiqin had promised was an almond cake.

Afterward, Yu and Peiqin accompanied Chen to the bus stop. Chen thanked them profusely before he boarded.

“Was everything okay this evening?” Peiqin said, taking Yu’s arm.

“Yes,” he said absentmindedly. “Everything.”

But not quite everything.

Once back, Peiqin started cleaning up the kitchen area. Yu moved out into the small courtyard, lighting another cigarette. Qinqin was already asleep. He did not like smoking in the room. The yard presented an unlovely sight-like a battlefield with each family trying to occupy the maximum space. He stared at the mound of coal briquettes, twenty at the bottom, fifteen above, and then seven at the top, confronting him like a large letter A.

Another achievement of Peiqin’s.

She had to carry all of them from a neighborhood coal store, to store them in the yard, and then, every day, to carry a briquette in her hands to the stove. In The Dream of the Red Chamber, Daiyu carried in her hand a white basket full of fallen petals.

And he turned to find Peiqin scrubbing the pots over the sink under the glaring light. It was hotter there. He could see the perspiration on her brow. Humming a tune, though off-key, she stood on tiptoe to put the dishes back in the makeshift wall cabinet. He hurried over to help. After closing the cabinet door, he remained standing close behind her, slipping his arms round her waist. She nestled back against him and made no attempt to stop him as he slid his hands up her back.

“Strange, isn’t it,” he said, “to think Chief Inspector Chen should come to envy me.”

“What?” she murmured.

“He told me what a lucky husband I am.”

“He told you that!”

He kissed the nape of her neck, feeling grateful for the evening.

“Go to bed now,” she said smiling. “I’ll join you soon.”

He did, but he did not want to fall asleep before she came to bed. He lay there for a while without turning off the light. Out in the lane, all sorts of vehicles could be heard moving along Jingling Road, but once in a while came a rare minute when all the traffic faded into the night. A blackbird twittered nostalgically in the maple tree. His neighbor’s door slammed closed across the kitchen area. Somebody gargled at the concrete common sink, and he heard another indistinct sound like swatting a mosquito on the window screen.

Then he heard Peiqin snapping off the kitchen lights, and stepping lightly into the room. She changed into an old robe of shot silk that rustled. Her earrings clinked into a dish on the dresser. She pulled a plastic spittoon from under the bed and put it in the corner partially sheltered by the cabinet. There was a gurgling sound. Finally she came over to the bed and slid under the towel blanket.

He was not surprised when she pressed herself against him. He felt her moving the pillow to a more comfortable position. Her robe fell open. Tentatively, he touched the smooth skin on her belly, feeling the warmth of her body, and pulling her knees against his thighs. She looked up at him.

Her eyes mirrored the response he had expected.

They did not want to wake up Qinqin.

Holding his breath, he tried to move with as little noise as possible; she cooperated.

Afterward, they held each other for a long time.

Normally he would feel sleepy afterward, but that night he found his mind working with intense clarity.

They were ordinary Chinese people, he and Peiqin, hardworking and easily contented. A crab dinner like tonight’s could make them happy, excited. In fact, little things went a long way for them: a movie on the weekend, a visit to the Grand View Garden, a song on a new cassette, or a Mickey Mouse sweater for Qinqin. Sometimes he complained like other folks, but he counted himself as a lucky guy. A marvelous wife. A wonderful son. What else mattered that much on this earth?

“Heaven or hell is in one’s mind, not in the material things one has in the world,” Old Hunter had once told him.

There were a few things, however, Detective Yu would like to have. A two bedroom apartment with a bathroom, for instance. Qinqin was already a big boy who needed a room of his own. He and Peiqin would not have to hold their breath making love. A propane gas tank for cooking instead of coal briquettes. And a computer for Qinqin. His own school years were wasted, but Qinqin should have a different future. ..

The list was quite long, but it would be nice to have just a few of the items at the top.

All of these, it had said in People’s Daily, would come in the near future. “Bread we will have, and milk, too.” So said a loyal Bolshevik in a movie about the Russian Revolution, predicting to his wife the marvelous future of the young Soviet Union. It was a movie seen many times in his high-school years-the only foreign movie available at the time. Now the Soviet Union was practically gone, but Detective Yu still believed in China’s economic reform. In a few years, maybe, a lot would improve for the ordinary Chinese people.

He dug out the ashtray from under a heap of magazines.

But those HCC! That was one of the things making life so hard for the ordinary Chinese. With their family connections, HCC could do what other people could not dream of doing, and rocketed up in their political careers.

A typical HCC, Wu must have thought the world was like a watermelon, which he could cut to pieces as he pleased, spitting other people’s lives away like seeds.

Life’s not fair to everybody, a fact Detective Yu had long accepted. Family background, for one thing, made a huge difference everywhere, though nowhere so much as in China in the nineties.

But now Wu Xiaoming had committed a murder. Of that, Yu was convinced

Staring up at the ceiling, Yu thought he could see exactly what had happened on the night of May tenth: Wu made the phone call, Guan came to his house, they had caviar and sex, then Wu strangled her, put her body in a plastic garbage bag, took it to the canal, and dumped it there…

“Your chief inspector has a lot on his mind,” Peiqin said, cuddling against him.

“Oh, you’re still awake?” he said, startled. “Yes, he does. The case is tough, involving some important people.”

“Perhaps something else.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m a woman,” she said, her lips curving into a suggestion of smile. “You men do not notice things written on each other’s faces. A handsome chief inspector, and a well-published poet, too-he must be a highly eligible bachelor, but he looks lonely.”

“You, too, have a soft spot for him?”

“No. I already have such a wonderful husband.”

He hugged her again.

Before he fell asleep, he heard a faint sound near the door. He lay listening for a moment, and he remembered that several live crabs remained unsteamed in the pail there. They were no longer crawling on the sesame-covered bottom of the wooden pail. What he heard was the bubbles of crab froth, bubbles with which they moistened each other in the dark.

Chapter 20

Early the following morning, Detective Yu and Chief Inspector Chen arrived at the Shanghai office of Red Star. The magazine was housed in a Victorian building at the intersection between Wulumuqi and Huaihai Roads, one of the best locations in Shanghai. No wonder, Yu thought, considering its political influence. Red Star was the voice of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Every staff member working there seemed highly conscious of the prestige of his position.

Sitting at a marble reception desk was a young girl in a neat polka-dot dress. Intent on her laptop, she did not stop vigorously punching at the keys on their arrival. The two police officers’ introductions made little impression on her. She told them that Wu was not in the office, without asking why they wanted to see him.

“You must know where the Zhou Mansion is-the Wu Mansion nowadays, needless to say,” she said. “Wu is working at home today.”

“Working at home?” Yu said.

“At our magazine, it is not unusual.”

“Everything at Red Star is unusual.”

“Better call him first,” she said. “If you want, you can use our phone here.”

“No, thanks,” Yu said. “We have our car phone.”

Outside, there was no car waiting for them, let alone a car phone.

“I could not stand it,” Yu grumbled. “She gave herself such airs.”

“You’re right,” Chen said, “Better not to call Wu beforehand, so we can take him by surprise.”

“Well, a surprised snake will bite back,” Yu said. “The Wu mansion on Henshan Road is not too far away. We can walk there.”

They soon came to the midsection of Henshan Road, where the Wu Mansion stood looming behind high walls. Originally it had been owned by a tycoon surnamed Zhou. When the Communists took over in 1949, the Zhou family fled to Taiwan, and Wu Bing’s family moved in.

The mansion and the area of Henshan Road around it was in a part of Shanghai Yu had never come to know, even though he had lived in the city for so long. Yu had been born and brought up in the lower end of Huangpu District, an area mainly inhabited by mid- and low-income families. When Old Hunter moved there in the early fifties, an era of communist egalitarianism, it was a district considered as good as any other in Shanghai. Like the other kids there, running in and out of those small lanes, playing games on the narrow cobblestone paths, Yu believed that he had everything possible in his neighborhood, though he knew that there were other better ones in Shanghai, where the streets were broader and the houses larger.

In his high-school years, often after a day’s class of Chairman Mao’s Quotations, Yu would join a group of his schoolmates in their campaigns-roaming the various areas of the city. Sometimes they would also venture into stores, though they did not shop for anything. Occasionally they would end their excursion by treating themselves at some cheap snack bar. Most of the time, however, they just wandered through one street after another, walking aimlessly, talking energetically, and basking in their friendships. So they had become familiar with various parts of the city.

Except one area. That was the one around Henshan Road, which they had seen only in the movies before 1949-movies about the fabulous rich capitalists, imported cars, and uniformed chauffeurs, young maids in black dresses with white aprons and starched caps. Once they actually ventured into the area, but they felt out of their element immediately. Visible behind high walls, the mansions appeared the same as in the old movies, so impressive, but so impersonal. In front of them, Henshan Road stretched out silent, solemn, and almost soulless-except for some armed PLA soldiers standing still at the iron gates. It was a residential area for high cadres, they knew, a level of existence way above theirs. Still it came as a shock to them that in such a large mansion, there lived only one family, while in their own neighborhood, a much smaller house could be partitioned out to accommodate a dozen families. The environment struck them as the setting of an unfriendly fairy tale. Perhaps they lingered, wondering a bit too long. An armed soldier came over, asking them to leave; it was not an area they belonged in. The realization dampened their interest in going there again.

Now on an early June morning, Detective Yu found himself there again. He was no longer a school kid, but the atmosphere of the area was still oppressive. A PLA soldier raised his hand in salute as they passed through. Not the same soldiers as so many years ago, of course. But these people now living behind the high walls were not entirely different.

The white wall enclosing the Wu mansion appeared unchanged too, except here and there it was ivy-mantled. Out on the street, people barely glimpsed the red-tiled roof shining among treetops. The lot on which the house stood was immense. Now there was no soldier standing at the wrought-iron gate embellished with spiraling pinnacles, but it seemed to correspond all the more closely to the impressions of Shanghai seen in old movies.

Detective Yu placed his hand on the bell at the side of the gate and rang.

Presently a woman opened the gate a couple of inches. She was probably in her mid-thirties, dressed in a black-and-white top with a brief matching skirt. Her eyelids were adorned with false eyelashes and powder-blue eyeshadow, and she stared at them questioningly. “Who are you?”

“We are from the Shanghai Police Bureau,” Yu said, flashing his I.D. “We need to talk to Wu Xiaoming.”

“Does he expect your visit?”

“No, we don’t think so. We are investigating a murder.”

“Come with me. I’m his younger sister.”

She led them through the gate.

So Detective Yu saw the mansion in its entirety for the first time. A magnificent three-story building, it looked like a modernized castle, with the pinnacles and towers of its original design, and the porches and glass verandahs added in recent renovations. The lawn was immense and well-kept, sporting several flowerbeds. In the middle, a shell-shaped swimming pool of clear blue water shimmered against light blue tiles.

Following her up a flight of steps, they crossed a large hall and came to a colossal living room with a staircase curving up to the left. Opposite a green marble fireplace, there was a black leather sectional sofa, and a coffee table with a thick plate-glass top.

“Please sit down,” she said. “Would you like anything to drink?”

“No, thanks.”

Yu was vaguely aware of the flower arrangement on the mantelpiece, of the carpet gleaming against polished wood, of the subdued ticking of a mahogany grandfather clock, as he looked around, sinking deep into the sofa.

“I’ll tell Xiaoming that you are here,” she said, disappearing through another door.

Wu Xiaoming came out immediately. A man in his early forties, Wu was tall, broad-chested, but surprisingly ordinary-looking. His eyes were keen and wary under heavy lids, just like his sister’s, with deep creases around the corners. He had none of the artistic airs of professional photographers portrayed on TV. It was difficult for Detective Yu to associate the man before him with the HCC who had taken pictures of nude models, slept with Guan, and perhaps a lot of other women, too. But then Yu sensed something else in Wu’s presence-not so much in his appearance, but something emanating from him. Wu looked so successful, confident in his talk and gestures; he emitted a physical glow characteristic of those enjoying and exercising power at a higher level.

Could it be the glow that had drawn so many moths?

“Let’s talk in the study,” Wu said when they had finished their introductions to one another.

Wu led the way across the hall into a spacious room, austerely furnished except for a single gold-framed picture on the wall suggestive of the owner’s taste. Behind a mahogany desk, the French window displayed a view of a lawn and blossoming trees.

“This is my father’s study,” Wu said. “He’s in the hospital, you know.”

Yu had seen the old man’s picture in the newspapers, a lined face, sensitive, with a high-bridged nose.

Tapping his fingers lightly on the desk, Wu sat comfortably in the leather swivel chair that had belonged to his father. “What can I do for you, comrades?”

“We’re here to ask you a few questions,” Yu said, taking out a mini-recorder. “Our conversation will be recorded.”

“We’ve just been to your office,” Chen added. “The secretary told us that you’re working at home. We’re engaged in a serious investigation. That’s why we came here directly.”

“Guan Hongying’s case, right?” Wu asked.

“Yes,” Chen said. “You appear to be aware of it.”

“This officer, Comrade Detective Yu, has made several phone calls to me about it.”

“Yes, I did,” Yu said. “Last time you told me that your relationship with Guan was one hundred percent professional. You took some pictures of her for the newspaper. That’s about it, right?”

“Yes, for the People’s Daily. If you want to see those pictures, I’ve kept some in the office. And for another magazine, too, a whole sequence, but I’m not sure I can find them here.”

“You met her just a couple of times for the photo sessions?”

“Well, in my profession, you sometimes need to take hun- dreds of pictures before getting a good one. I’m not so sure about the exact time we worked together.”

“No other contact?”

“Come on, Comrade Detective Yu. You could not shoot, shoot, shoot, and do nothing else all the time, could you? As a photographer, you have to know your model well, tune her up, so to speak, before you can capture the soul.”

“Yes, the body and soul,” Chen said, “for your exploration.”

“Last October,” Yu said, “you made a trip to the Yellow Mountains.”

“Yes. I did.”

“You went there by yourself?”

“No. It was in a tourist group sponsored by a travel agency. So I went there with a number of people.”

“According to the record at East Wind Travel Agency, you bought tickets for two. Who’s the other one you booked the ticket for?”

“Er-now you mention it,” Wu said. “Yes, I did buy a ticket for another person.”

“Who was it?”

“Guan Hongying. I happened to mention the trip. She, too, was interested in it. So she asked me to buy a ticket for her.”

“But why was the ticket not booked in her own name?”

“Well, she was such a celebrity. And she did not want to be treated as such in a tourist group. Privacy was the very thing she craved. Also, she was afraid that the travel agency might put her picture up in its windows.”

“What about you?” Yu asked. “You did not use your own name either.”

“I did it for the same reason, my family background and all that,” Wu said with a smile, “though I am not such a celebrity.”

“According to the rules, you must show your I.D. to register with a travel agency.”

“Well, people travel under different names. It is not something uncommon even if they show their true I.D. s. The travel agency is not too strict about it.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” Yu said. “Not as a cop.”

“As a professional photographer,” Wu said, “I have traveled a lot. I know the ropes, believe me.”

“There’s something else, Mr. Professional Photographer for the Red Star.” Yu could barely control the mounting sarcasm in his voice. “You not only registered under the assumed names, but also as a couple.”

“Oh, that. I see why you’re here today. Let me explain, Comrade Detective Yu,” Wu said, taking a cigarette out of a pack of Kents on the desk, and lighting one for himself. “When you travel with a group of people, you have to share rooms. Now, some tourists are so talkative, they would never give you a break all night. What is worse, some snore thunderously. So instead of sharing the room with a stranger, Guan and I decided it might be a good idea to share a room between ourselves.”

“So the two of you stayed in the same hotel room during the trip?”

“Yes, we did.”

“So you knew her inside out,” Chen cut in, “knowing that she would keep her mouth shut when you were in no mood to listen, and that she slept sweetly, never snoring or tossing about in bed. Vice versa, of course.”

“No, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Wu said, tapping his cigarette lightly over the ashtray. “It’s not what you might think.”

“What do we think?” Yu detected the first slight sign of discomfort in Wu’s voice. “Tell me, Comrade Wu Xiaoming.”

“Well, it was all Guan’s idea,” Wu said. “To be honest, there’s a more important reason why she wanted us to register as a couple. It was to save money. The travel agency gave a huge discount to couples. A promotional gimmick. Buy one and get the second at half price.”

“But the fact was that you shared the room,” Yu said, “as man and woman.”

“Yes, as man and woman, but not as what you are implying.”

“You stayed with a young, pretty woman in the same hotel room for a whole week,” Yu said, “without having sex with her. Is that what you’re telling us?”

“It surely reminds me of Liu Xiawei,” Chen cut in. “Oh, what a perfect gentleman!”

“Who is Mr. Liu Xiawei?” Yu said.

“A legendary figure during the Spring and Autumn War Period, about two thousand years ago. Liu once held a naked woman in his arms for a night, it is said, without having sex with her. Confucius had a very high opinion of Liu, for it’s against Confucian rules to have sex with any woman except one’s wife.”

“You don’t have to tell me these stories,” Wu said. “Believe it or not, what I’m telling you is the truth. Nothing but the truth.”

“How could the travel agency have permitted you to share a room?” Yu said. “They are very strict about that. You must show your marriage license, I mean. Or they will lose their own business license.”

“Guan insisted on it, so I managed to get some identification materials for us.”

“How did you manage that?”

“I took a piece of paper with the company’s letterhead on it. I typed a short statement to the effect that we were married. That’s all. We did not have to show a marriage license. Those travel agencies are after profits, so such a statement is enough for them.”

“It is a crime to fabricate a legal document.”

“Come on, Comrade Detective Yu. Just a few words on an office letterhead, and you call it a legal document? A lot of people do it every day.”

“It’s nonetheless illegal,” Chen said.

“You can talk to my boss if you want. I did play a little trick, using a piece of paper with the official letterhead. It’s wrong, I admit. But you cannot arrest me for that, can you?”

“Guan was a national model worker, a Party member with high political consciousness, and an attendant at our Party’s Tenth National Congress,” Yu said. “And you want us to believe she did it just to save a couple of hundred Yuan?”

“And at the cost of sharing herself, an unmarried woman,”

Chen added, “with a married man for a whole week.” “I’ve been trying my best to cooperate with you, comrades,”

Wu said, “but if all you want is to bluff, show me your warrant. You can take me to the bureau.”

“It’s an important case, Comrade Wu Xiaoming,” Chen said, “We have to investigate everyone related to Guan.”

“But that’s all I can tell you. I took a trip to the mountains in her company. It did not mean anything. Not in the nineties.”

“It’s definitely more than that,” Yu said. “Now, what is your explanation for your phone call to her on the night she was murdered?”

“The night she was murdered?”

“Yes, May tenth.”

“May tenth, uh, let me think. Sorry, I cannot remember anything about the phone call. Every day I make a lot of calls, sometimes more than twenty or thirty. I cannot remember a particular call on a particular day.”

“We’ve checked with the Shanghai Telecommunications Bureau. The record shows that the last call Guan got was from your number. At nine thirty P.M. on May tenth.”

“Well, it’s possible, I think. We did talk about taking another set of pictures. So I might have called her.”

“What about the message you left for her?”

“What message?”

“‘We’ll meet as scheduled.’”

“I don’t remember,” Wu said, “but it could refer to the photo session we had discussed.”

“A photo session after nine o’clock in the evening?”

“I see what you are driving at,” Wu said, flicking cigarette ash at the desk.

“We are not driving at anything,” Chen said. “We’re just waiting for your explanation.”

“I forget the exact time we scheduled, but it could be the following day, or the day after that.”

“You seem to have an explanation for everything,” Yu said. “A ready explanation.”

“Isn’t that what you want?

“Now where were you on the night of May tenth?”

“May tenth, let me think. Ah, I remember. Yes, I was at Guo Qiang’s place.”

“Who is Guo Qiang?”

“A friend of mine. He works at the People’s Bank in Pudong New District. His father used to be the deputy director there.”

“Another HCC.”

“I don’t like people to use that term,” Wu said, “but I do not want to argue with you. For the record, I just want to say that I stayed at his place for the night.”

“Why?”

“Something was wrong with my darkroom. I had to develop some films that night. I had a deadline to meet. So I went there to use his study instead.”

“Haven’t you got enough rooms here?”

“Guo likes photography, too. He dabbles in it. So he has some equipment. It would be too much of a hassle to move things around here.”

“A convenient answer. So you were with your buddy for the whole night. A solid alibi.”

“That’s where I was on May tenth. Period. And I hope it satisfies you.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Yu said. “We will be satisfied when we bring the murderer to justice.”

“Why should I have killed her, comrades?”

“That’s what we’ll find out,” Chen said.

“Everybody’s equal before the law, HCC or not,” Yu said. “Give us Guo’s address. We need to check with him.”

“All right, here it is. Guo’s address and phone number,” Wu said, scribbling a few words on a scrap of paper. “You’re wasting my time and yours.”

“Well,” Yu said, standing up, “we’ll see each other soon.”

“Next time, please give me a call beforehand,” Wu said, rising up from his father’s leather swivel chair. “You won’t have any problem finding the way out, I believe?”

“What do you mean?”

“The Wu mansion is huge. Some people have lost their way here.”

“Thank you for your important information,” Yu said, looking at Wu squarely. “We’re cops.”

They had no problem finding the way out.

Outside the gate, Yu turned back for another look at the mansion still partially visible behind the tall walls, and set off without saying anything. Chen walked beside him, trying not to break the silence. There appeared to be an unspoken understanding between them: The case was too complicated to talk about on the street. They continued to plod in silence for several more minutes.

They were supposed to take Bus Number 26 back to the bureau, but Chief Inspector Chen was not familiar with this area either. At Chen’s suggestion, they attempted to take a shortcut to Huaihai Road, but found themselves turning into one side street after another, and then to the beginning of Quqi Road. Huaihai Road was not visible. Quqi Road could not be far from Henshan Road, but it appeared so different. Most of the houses there were the cheap-material apartment buildings from the early fifties, now discolored, dirty, and dwarfed. It was there, however, Detective Yu was finally able to shake off his feeling of oppression.

The weather was splendid. The blue sky above seemed to transform the sordid look of the back street through which they were passing in silence. A middle-aged woman was preparing a bucket of rice field eels by a moss-covered public sink. Chen slowed his step, and Yu stopped to take a look, too. Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately. She might be an eel woman for some nearby market, making a little money. Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.

“No question about it.” Yu came to an abrupt halt. “That bastard’s the murderer.”

“You handled him quite well,” Chen said, “Comrade Young Hunter.”

“Thank you, chief,” Yu said, pleased with the compliment, and even more so with the invention of this nickname by his boss.

At the end of the side street, they caught sight of a dingy snack bar.

“Can you smell curry?” Chen sniffed the air appreciatively. “Oh, I’m hungry.”

Yu nodded his agreement.

So they made their way into the bar. Pushing aside the bamboo bead curtain over the entrance, they found the interior surprisingly clean. There were no more than three plastic-topped tables covered with white tablecloths. Each table exhibited a bamboo beaker of chopsticks, a stainless steel container of toothpicks, and a soy sauce dispenser. A hand-written streamer on the wall limited the menu to cold noodles, cold dumplings, and a couple of cold dishes, but the curry beef soup was steaming hot in a big pot. It was two fifteen, late for lunch customers, so they had the place to themselves. A young woman emerged from the back-room kitchen at their footsteps, wiping her flour-covered hands on a jasmine-embroidered white apron, leaving a smudge on her smiling cheek. She was probably the proprietress, but also the waitress and chef in one. Leading them to a table, she recommended the special dishes of the day. She brought them a complimentary quart of iced beer.

After unwrapping the paper covers from their bamboo chopsticks, and placing a generous helping of curry sauce in their soup, the proprietress withdrew to the kitchen.

“A surprising place for this area,” Chen said, chewing at the aniseed-flavored peas, as he filled Yu’s beer glass.

Yu took a deep draught and nodded in agreement. The beer was cold enough. The smoked fish head was also tasty. The squid had a special texture.

Shanghai was indeed a city full of wonderful surprises, whether in the prosperous thoroughfares or on small side streets. It was a city in which people from all walks of life could find something enjoyable, even at such a shabby-looking, inexpensive place.

“What do you think?”

“Wu killed her,” Yu repeated. “I’m positive.”

“Perhaps, but why?”

“It’s so obvious, the way he answered our questions.”

“You mean the way he lied to our faces?”

“No question about it. So many holes in his story. But it’s not just that. Wu had a prompt answer for everything, way too prompt-didn’t your notice? It echoed of research and rehearsal.

Just a simple clandestine affair would not have been worth all that effort.”

“You’re right.” Chen said, sipping at his beer. “But what could Wu’s motive be?”

“Somebody else had entered the picture? Another man? And Wu got insanely jealous.”

“That’s possible, but according to the phone records, almost all the calls Guan got in the last few months came from Wu,” Chen said. “Besides, Wu is an ambitious HCC, with a most promising career, and a number of pretty women around him- not only at work, I would say. So why should Wu have played the jealous Othello?”

“Othello or not, I don’t know, but possibly it’s the other way around. Maybe Wu had another woman or women-all those models, naked, from his work to his bed-and Guan could not take it, and made an ugly scene about it.”

“Even so, I still cannot see why Wu had to kill her. He could have broken off with her. After all, Guan was not his wife, not in a position to force him into doing anything.”

“Yes, that’s something,” Yu said. “If Guan had been found to be pregnant, we might suppose she was threatening him. I’ve had a case like that. The pregnant woman wanted the man to divorce his wife for her. The man couldn’t, so he got rid of her. But Guan’s autopsy report said she was not pregnant.”

“Yes, I’ve also checked that with Dr. Xia.”

“So what will be our next step?”

“To confirm Wu’s alibi.”

“Okay, I’ll take care of Guo Qiang. But Wu will have arranged things with him, I bet.”

“Yes, I doubt if Guo will tell us anything.”

“What else can we do?”

“Interview some other people.”

“Where are they?”

Chen produced a copy of the Flower City from his briefcase, and turned to a full page picture of a nude female reclining on her side. She showed only her back to the camera, but all her lines and curves were soft, suggestive, her round buttocks moon like. A black mole on her nape accentuated the whiteness of her body melting into the background.

“Wow, what a body,” Yu said. “Did Wu take the picture?”

“Yes, it was published under his pseudonym.”

“That S.O.B. surely has had his share of peach blossom luck!”

“Peach blossom luck?” Chen went on without waiting for an answer. “Oh, I see what you mean. Luck with women. Yes, you can say that again, but this picture is a sort of artwork.”

“Now what’s that to us?”

“I happen to know who the model is.”

“How?” Yu then added, “Through the magazine?”

“She’s a celebrity, too. It is not surprising that Wu, a professional photographer, uses nude models, but why she chose to pose for him, I cannot figure out.”

“Who is she?”

“Jiang Weihe, a rising young artist.”

“Never heard of her,” Yu said, putting down the cup. “Do you know her well?”

“No, not really. I’ve just met her a couple of times at the Writers and Artists Association.”

“So you’re going to interview her?”

“Well, perhaps you’re a more appropriate officer for the job. At our previous meetings, we discussed nothing but literature and art. It would be out of place for me to knock on her door as a cop. And I would not be able to exercise the necessary authority, psychologically, I mean, in cross-examination. So I suggest you go to see her.”

“Fine, I’ll go there, but what do you think she will tell us?”

“It’s a long shot. Maybe there is nothing. Jiang’s an artist herself, so it’s no big deal for her to pose without a shred on. It’s just her back, and she thought no one would recognize her. But if people know that it is her naked body, it will not be too pleasant for her.”

“Got you,” Yu said. “So what are you going to do?”

“I’ll make a trip to Guangzhou.”

“To look for Xie Rong, the tour guide?”

“Yes, one thing in Wei Hong’s statement intrigues me. Guan called Xie a whore. It’s really something unusual for Guan, a national model worker, to have used such language. Xie, too, might be involved in some way, or at least she knows something about the relationship between Wu and Guan.”

“When are you leaving?”

“As soon as I can get a train ticket.” Chen added, “Party Secretary Li will be back in two or three days.”

“I see. A general can do whatever he wants if the emperor is not beside him.”

“You surely know a lot of old sayings.”

“I got them from Old Hunter,” Yu said with a laugh. “Now what about our old Commissar Zhang?”

“Let’s have a meeting tomorrow morning.”

“Fine.” Yu held up his brimming cup. “To our success.”

“To our success!”

Afterward, Chief Inspector Chen was quick to grab the bill from the small tray on which it was presented, and to pay for them both. The proprietress stood smiling beside them. Yu did not like the idea of arguing in front of her. As soon as they got outside, Yu started explaining that the total bill amounted to some forty-five Yuan, so he insisted paying his share. Chen waved away the proffered twenty.

“Don’t say anything more about it,” Chen said. “I’ve just received a check from the Wenhui Daily. Fifty Yuan, for that short poem about our police work. So it’s proper and right that we use the money for our lunch.”

“Yes, I saw it on the fax sent you by the Wenhui reporter- what’s her name-it is really a good one.”

“Oh, Wang Feng.” Chen then said. “By the way, when you talked about peach blossom luck, it reminded me of a Tang dynasty poem.”

“A Tang dynasty poem?”

“This door, this day / -Last year, your blushing face, / And the blushing faces / Of the peach blossoms reflecting / Yours. This door, this day/-this year, where are you, / You, in the peach blossoms? / The peach blossoms still/here, giggling / At the spring breeze.”

“ Does the expression come from this poem?”

“I’m not sure, but the poem is said to be based upon the poet’s true experience. The Tang poet, Cui Hu, was broken-hearted when he failed to see his love after his successful civil service examination in the capital.”

That was just like Chief Inspector Chen, rhapsodizing about a Tang dynasty poem in the middle of a murder investigation. Perhaps Chen had had too much beer. A month earlier, Detective Yu would have taken it as an instance of his boss’s romantic eccentricity. But he found it acceptable today.

Chapter 21

Commissar Zhang had had a totally rotten day.

Early in the morning, he had gone to the Shanghai Number One Old Cadre Club to choose a gift for a comrade-in-arms’ birthday.

The club had come into being as a byproduct of the cadre retirement policy-an embodiment of the Party’s continuing concern for the revolutionaries of the older generation. The old cadres, though retired, were reassured that they did not have to worry about changes in their living standards. Not every cadre could go there, of course. Only those of a certain rank.

At first, Zhang was quite proud of holding a membership card, which earned him immediate respect, and also a number of privileges then unavailable elsewhere. It had enabled him to buy much-in-demand products at the state price, to book vacations in resorts closed to the general public, to eat in restricted restaurants with security men guarding the entrance, and to enjoy swimming, ball games, and golf at the huge club complex. There was also a small meandering creek where old people could angle away an afternoon, reminiscing about their glory years.

Of late, however, Zhang had not made many visits to the club. There were more and more restrictions on the bureau’s car service. As a retired cadre, he had to submit a written request for a car. The club was quite a distance away, and he was not enthusiastic about being squeezed and bumped all the way there in a bus. That morning he took a taxi.

At the club shop, Zhang searched for a presentable gift at a reasonable price. Everything was too expensive.

“What about a bottle of Maotai in a wooden box?” the club shop assistant suggested.

“How much is it?” Zhang asked.

“Two hundred Yuan.”

“Is that the state price? Last year, I bought one for thirty-five Yuan.”

“There’s no state price anymore, Comrade Commissar. Everything’s at the market price. It’s a market economy for the whole country,” the assistant added, “like it or not.”

It was not the price, or not just the price. It was the assistant’s indifferent attitude that upset Zhang more than anything else. It seemed as if the club had turned into an ordinary grocery store which everybody could visit and Commissar Zhang found him- self to be no more than an ordinary old man with little money in his pocket. But then, it should not be too surprising, Zhang thought. Nowadays people valued nothing but money. The economic reforms launched by Comrade Deng Xiaoping had created a world Zhang failed to recognize.

Leaving the shop empty-handed, Zhang ran across Shao Ping, a retired old cadre from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. They grumbled about market prices.

“Now, Comrade Shao, you used to be the Party Secretary of the Economics Institute. Give me a lecture on the current economic reform.”

“I’m confused, too,” Shao said. “Everything’s changing so fast.”

“Is it good to have all this emphasis on money?” Zhang said.

“No, not so good,” Shao said. “But we have to reform our old system, and according to the People’s Daily, a market economy is the direction to go in.”

“But people no longer care about the Party leadership.”

“Or maybe we are just getting too old.”

On the bus, Zhang got an idea that somewhat comforted him. He had been taking a class in traditional Chinese landscape painting since his retirement. He could choose one of his paintings, have it presentably framed, and make a surprising, meaningful gift to his old comrade-in-arms.

However, the special case group meeting turned out to be very unpleasant.

Chief Inspector Chen presided. In spite of Commissar Zhang’s superior cadre rank, it was Chen who had the most important say in the group. And Chen did not seek his advice frequently-not as much as he had promised. Nor had Chen adequately informed him of the developments in the investigation.

Detective Yu’s presence in the meeting room troubled him, too. It was nothing personal, but Zhang believed that the political dimension of the case required a more enthusiastic officer. To his chagrin, Yu had remained in the group, thanks to the unexpected intervention of Chief Inspector Chen. It was an outcome which served to highlight, more than anything else, Commissar Zhang’s insignificance.

The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. He did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist- influenced by Western modernism. He had also heard that Chen was romantically involved with a young reporter whose husband had defected to Japan.

While Zhang was still musing, Chief Inspector Chen finished his introductory remarks, saying in a serious voice, “It’s an important new direction. We have to go on with our investigation, as Commissar Zhang has told us, unafraid of hardship and death.”

“Hold on, Comrade Chief Inspector,” Zhang said. “Let’s start from the very beginning.”

So Chen had to start all over again, beginning with his second search of Guan’s dorm room, his attention to those photographs of hers, to the phone records, and then to the trip she had made to the mountains-all those leading to Wu Xiaoming, who was not only the frequent caller, but also Guan’s companion during the trip. After Chen’s speech, Yu briefed them on the interview they had had with Wu Xiaoming the previous day. Neither Chen nor Yu pushed for conclusion, but the direction of the investigation was obvious, and they seemed to take it for granted.

Zhang was astonished. “Wu Xiaoming!”

“Yes, Comrade Wu Bing’s son.”

“You should have shown me the pictures earlier,” Zhang said.

“I thought about it,” Chen explained, “but they might have turned out to be another false lead.”

“So Wu is now your main suspect, I presume?”

“Yes, that’s why I suggested the meeting today.”

“Why didn’t you discuss your interview with me earlier, I mean, before you went to Wu’s residence?”

“We tried to contact you, Comrade Commissar, early yesterday morning,” Yu said, “around seven o’clock.”

“Oh, I was doing my Taiji practice,” Zhang said. “Couldn’t you have waited for a couple of hours?”

“For such an important case?”

“What will be your next step?”

“Detective Yu will go and interview some people connected with Wu,” Chen said. “I am leaving for Guangzhou.”

“For what?”

“To find the tourist guide, Xie Rong-a witness who may know more about what happened between Guan and Wu.”

“What led you to the guide?”

“The travel agency gave her name to me, and then Wei Hong told me about the fight between Xie and Guan in the mountains.”

“Couldn’t that have been just a squabble between a tourist and a guide?”

“Possibly, but not probably. Why did Guan, a national model worker, call another woman a whore?”

“So you think that the trip will lead to a breakthrough?”

“At this point, there are no other clues, so we have to pursue this one.”

“Well, supposing Wu had had an affair with Guan,” Zhang said, “What have you got to connect him with the murder? Nothing. What could Wu Xiaoming’s motive be?”

“What are we detectives for?” Yu said.

“That’s exactly what I want to find out in Guangzhou,” Chen said.

“What about Wu’s alibi for the night of May tenth?” Zhang said.

“Guo Qiang, one of Wu’s friends, provided Wu’s alibi. Guo told Yu that Wu was with him that night, developing film at Guo’s home.”

“So an alibi isn’t an alibi, comrades?”

“Guo’s just trying to cover up for Wu Xiaoming.” Chen added, “Wu has all the equipment at home. Why should he have chosen that night to be with somebody?”

“Come on, Commissar Zhang,” Yu cut in. “Guo is just another HCC, though his father’s not that high, no more than thirteenth level, and retired, too. That could be the very reason that he has to curry favor with Wu. Those HCC are capable of anything.”

“HCC-” Zhang burst out, his temples throbbing and his throat hurting, “high cadres’ children-that’s what you mean, I know, but what’s wrong with these young people?”

“There’re so many stories about those HCC.” Yu was not ready to give in. “Haven’t you heard any of them?”

“A few HCC, as you call them, may have done some things improperly, but it is an outrageous lie that there are so many corrupt HCC, or a whole group of them, in our socialist China. It is utterly irresponsible to base the case upon your own concept of HCC, Comrade Detective Yu.”

“Comrade Commissar Zhang,” Chen said, “I would like to make one point for myself and Comrade Detective Yu. We have nothing but respect for our old high cadres. There is no prejudice whatsoever against the HCC involved in the investigation.”

“But you’re still going to search for your witness in Guangzhou?” Zhang said.

“That is the direction to go in.”

“Now if it proves to be a wrong direction,” Zhang said, “have you considered the possible consequences?”

“We are not issuing a search warrant or arresting anybody right now.”

“Political consequences, I mean. If the word gets around that Wu Bing’s son is a homicide suspect, what will people’s reaction be?”

“Everybody’s equal before the law,” Chen said. “I see nothing wrong with it.”

“If there’s no further evidence, I don’t think your trip to Guangzhou is called for,” Zhang said, standing up. “The budget of our special case group does not allow for it.”

“As for the budget,” Chen said, also rising from the table, “I can draw on my Chief Inspector’s Fund for an annual amount up to three hundred fifty Yuan.”

“Have you discussed your plan with Party Secretary Li?”

“Li is still in Beijing.”

“Why not wait until Li comes back?”

“The case cannot wait. As the head of the special case group, I assume full responsibility.”

“So you must have it your way?”

“I have to go there because there’re no other leads for us. We cannot afford to ignore a single one.”

Afterward, Zhang sat brooding for a while in his own office.

It was lunchtime, but he did not feel hungry. He went through the contents of a large envelope marked with the date. In addition to notices for several conventional old cadre meetings, there was also an invitation to a restricted neibu or inside movie at the auditorium of the Shanghai Movie Bureau. He was in no mood for a movie, but he needed something to take his mind off the investigation.

At the ticket window, he turned in his special old cadre pass with the invitation. Tickets had been reserved for old high cadres like him, one of the few privileges he still enjoyed.

But he saw several young men approaching him near the entrance.

“Do you want a ticket? R-rated.”

“Nudity. Explicit sex. Fifty Yuan.”

“A boost to an old man’s bedroom energy.”

It was not supposed to happen, Zhang thought, that those young rascals, too, held tickets in their hands. The movie was not supposed to be accessible to ordinary people. The bureau should have put some cops at the ticket window.

Zhang hurried in and found himself a seat at the rear, close to the exit. To his surprise, there were not as many people as he had expected, especially in the last few rows. There were only a couple of young people sitting in front of him, whispering and nestling against each other. It was a postmodernist French movie with an inexperienced interpreter doing a miserable simultaneous translation, but with one graphic scene after another, it was not too difficult to guess what was happening to the people in the movie.

He noticed the young couple continuously adjusting their bodies, too, in front of him. It was not difficult for him to guess what they were doing either. Soon Zhang heard the woman moaning, and saw her head sliding down the man’s shoulder, and disappearing out of sight. Or was this a scene from the movie? There were explicit images being juxtaposed on the screen…

When the movie was finally over, the woman got up languidly from the man’s arms, her hair tousled, and buttoned up her silk blouse, her white shoulder flashing in the semi-darkness of the theater.

Commissar Zhang strode out of the theater, indignant. It was hot outside. There were several cars waiting on the street- imported cars, luxury models, shining in the afternoon sun. But not for him. A retired old cadre. Marching along Chengdu Road, Zhang sensed the cars rushing past him like stampeding animals.

Back home, he was exhausted and famished. He had had only a bowl of green onion instant noodles in the morning. There was nothing but half a dry loaf left in the refrigerator. He took it out and brewed himself a pot of coffee, using three spoonfuls. That was his dinner: bread that tasted like cardboard and coffee strong enough to dye his hair. Then he took out the case file, though he had already read it several times. After a futile attempt to find something new, he took out the magazines he had borrowed from the club in the morning. To his surprise, there was a poem by Chief Inspector Chen in Qinghai Lake. It was entitled “Night Talk.” Creamy coffee, cold; Toy bricks of sugar cubes Crumbling, a butter blossom still Reminiscent of natural freedom On the mutilated cake, The knife aside, like a footnote. It is said that people can tell the time By the change of color In a cat’s eyes- But you can’t. Doubt, a heap Of ancient dregs From the bottle of Great Wall Rests in the sparkling wine.

Zhang could not understand it. He just knew that some images were vaguely disturbing. So he skipped a couple of stanzas toward the end, to reach the last one. Nothing appears more accidental Than the world in words A rubric turns by chance In your hands, and the result, Like any result, is called history… Through the window we see no star. Mind’s square deserted, not a pennant Left. Only a rag picker of the ages Passes by, dropping scraps Of every minute into her basket.

The words “mind’s square” suddenly caught his attention. Could that possibly be an allusion to Tiananmen Square? “Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?

Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.

Zhang decided to sleep on his misgivings, but his brain kept churning. Around eleven thirty, he got out of bed, turned on the lights, and donned his reading glasses.

The apartment was so quiet. His wife had passed away at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Ten years, the living, the not living. It’s more than ten years. Then the telephone on the nightstand rang.

It was a long distance phone call from his daughter in Anhui. “Dad, I’m calling from the local county hospital. Kangkang, our second son, is sick, his temperature is 104. The doctor says that it is pneumonia. Guolian has been laid off. We’ve got no money left.”

“How much?”

“We need a thousand Yuan as a deposit, or they won’t treat him.”

“Give them what you have. Tell the doctors to go ahead. I’ll express mail it to you the first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you, Dad. Sorry to touch you like this.”

“You don’t have to say that.” He added after a pause, “I’m the one to blame for all this-all these years.”

So Zhang believed. For whatever had happened to his daughter, he held himself responsible. Often, with unbearable bitterness, at night he would recollect the distant moments of taking her to school, hand in hand, back in the early sixties. A proud child of a revolutionary cadre family, a bright student at school, her future in socialist China was rosy. In 1966, however, all that changed. The Cultural Revolution turned him into a counterrevolutionary, and her into a child of a black capitalist roader family, a target of the Red Guards’ revolutionary criticism. As a politically discriminated-against educable educated youth, she was sent to the poor countryside in Anhui Province, where she worked for no more than ten cents a day. He could never imagine what had happened to her there. Other educated youths received money from their families in Shanghai, or came back for family reunions at the Spring Festival, but she couldn’t. She had no family; he was still in jail. When he was finally released and rehabilitated in the mid-seventies, he could hardly recognize his child, now a sallow, deeply wrinkled woman in black homespun with a baby on her back. She had married a local mine worker- a survivor’s choice, perhaps. In those years, a mine worker’s monthly salary of sixty Yuan could have made a world of difference. There she soon became the mother of three. In the late seventies, she passed up the opportunity to return to Shanghai, for Party policy forbade any ex-educated youth like her from bringing her husband and children to the city with her.

Sometimes he felt that, by torturing herself, she was torturing him.

“Dad, you shouldn’t blame yourself.”

“What else can I do? I have not taken good care of you. Now I’m too old.”

“You don’t sound well. Have you overworked?”

“No, it’s just the last task before my retirement.”

“Then take care.”

“I will.”

“Next time I come to Shanghai, I’ll bring a couple of Luhua hens for you.”

“Don’t bother.”

“The folks here say Luhua hens are good for an old man’s health. I’m raising half a dozen. Genuine Luhua.”

Now she was sounding more and more like her poor and lower-middle-class peasant self again.

A click. He heard her putting down the phone. And the empty silence. She was thousands of miles away. So many years had passed since he talked to the daughter in his heart.

Slowly he moved back to the desk. The file was still lying there, and he turned to the notes he had made during the meeting, going over everything again. Stretching out across the desk to get a cigarette, he found only an empty pack beside the pen holder. He reached into his pocket. The only thing he found, however, was something he did not immediately recognize.

It was a number on a piece of paper crumpled into a small ball. He must have put it there himself-it was in his own handwriting. Why? He was lost. For a moment, he felt he was much closer to Wu Bing, alone, lying unconscious on a hospital bed. All his life, Comrade Wu Bing had fought for the cause of communism. And what then? A vegetable, unable to do anything to protect his son from being targeted as a suspect. His opposition to the direction of the investigation, Zhang hastened to tell himself, did not stem from the kinship he was feeling with Wu Bing. Nor was it the young people coming to the fore, upstarts making tons of money, or Chief Inspector Chen challenging his authority. To build the investigation on such a biased concept about HCC was part of a social trend questioning the correct leadership of the Party.

What if Wu Xiaoming had committed the murder? Whoever had committed the crime should be punished, of course. But then, would that be in the interests of the Party? With such a social trend, news of the investigation would certainly add fuel to the fire.

Zhang could not find an answer.

It had never been difficult, however, for him to find an answer in the early years when he had first joined the Party. In 1944, a promising college student, he went to Yan’an without finishing his studies, experiencing all the hardships of a donkey-back trip. Life there was harsh-sharing a Yan’an cave with four other comrades, working twelve hours a day, and reading by candlelight. After three months, he could barely recognize his reflection in the river. Gaunt, unshaven, undernourished, scarcely any trace left of a young intellectual from the big city. But he believed he had a satisfactory answer in the changed reflection. He knew he was doing the right thing for the country, for the people, for the Party. And for himself, too. Those were the happy years.

In the following years, though Commissar Zhang’s career had not been too smooth, he had never doubted the answer.

But now-

Finally he decided.

He would write a report to Jiang Zhong, an old comrade-in-arms who still held an influential position in Internal Security, thus leaving the question to the higher Party authorities. They should know how to handle a sensitive case like this, whether Wu Xiaoming was guilty-or not. In the best interests of the Party.

He also enclosed a copy of “Night Talk,” underlining some words in the poem. He felt it was his responsibility to share with the higher authorities his concern about Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. In spite of his efforts, he was not sure what Chen had tried to say in the poem, but what really mattered would be the interpretation of the reader. If anyone could associate the “square” in the poem with the one in contemporary politics, then it should not have been written at all. So with the investigation, people’s responses would be a matter of crucial concern for the Party.

Commissar Zhang was not unaware of the possible impact his report might bring to bear on Chief Inspector Chen. But then, it need not necessarily mean the end of the world for a young man.

Chapter 22

Guangzhou.

Chief Inspector Chen stood under the sign at the railroad station, which was swarming with travelers from all over the country. The economic and cultural center of South China, Guangzhou was fast becoming a second Hong Kong.

Ironically, Guangzhou had a much longer history according to a travel guide in Chen’s hand. It had come into contact with Western barbarian businessmen when Hong Kong was still a fishing village. For thirty years after 1949, however, since Guangzhou was so near to Hong Kong, it had been put under special ideological surveillance, and as a result, its cultural and economic development lagged. It was not until Comrade Deng Xiaoping toured the southern provinces in the early eighties, pushing forward the Open Door Policy, that things began to change. With the rapid rise of free markets and private business, an economic revolution transformed Guangzhou and its surrounding cities. Guangzhou, like Shenzhen, a neighboring special zone city of commercial skyscrapers, became “special”-in the sense that most of the orthodox socialist codes were not applied to it. Now the advantages of socialism were redefined in terms of a better, more prosperous life for the people. Foreign capitalists and investors swarmed in. Its close connection to Hong Kong was further accentuated by a newly built railway.

That explained why so many people came to Guangzhou, including Xie Rong, Chen reflected. At one end of the station, travelers were lining up along the platform, waiting for the new Guangzhou-Hong Kong express train. The local newspapers were full of discussions about a country with two systems. Peddlers were shouting “Hong Kong roast goose” and “Hong Kong barbecue pork,” as if everything, once labeled “Hong Kong,” immediately became more desirable.

The issue that Chen was musing over was not, however, how to get to Hong Kong like those excited people on the platform. After 1997 when Hong Kong came under Chinese rule, he would probably visit there, and Hong Kong would still be capitalist in theory. At this moment, he had to find a place to stay in Guangzhou-a place within the bureau’s socialist budget.

His budget plight had been further complicated by Commissar Zhang in the special case group meeting, where Chen had given a number of reasons for making the trip. Actually, there was one he had not mentioned. Maybe it was not that important, but it was there. He had intended to keep himself busy working on the case, so busy that he had no time to think about his own personal problem. And for that, an investigative trip away from Shanghai for a few days was just the thing. But in Guangzhou Chen found the budget situation worse than he had expected. Owing to price reforms, a small, shabby hotel room in a not-too-inconvenient location would cost forty Yuan per day. Chen had already used one hundred fifty Yuan for the round-trip train ticket. The remaining two hundred Yuan was inadequate even for five days. As a chief inspector, he got a maximum of five Yuan for his standard meal allowance, but a tiny bowl of shrimp dumplings and noodles eaten at a sidewalk stand would cost him more. The only solution was to find a cheap guesthouse with a small canteen.

After spending twenty minutes at the station hotel service desk, he decided to make a phone call to Ms. Yang Ke, the head of the Guangzhou Writers’ Association.

“Comrade Yang, it’s Chen Cao speaking.”

“Little Chen, I’m so pleased that you’re calling me,” Yang said. “I recognized your Shanghai accent.”

“So you still remember me?”

“Of course, and the article you wrote about the movie, too. So where are you?”

“I’m here in Guangzhou. And I want to say hi to you, a greeting to the well-known established writer from an unknown young writer.”

“Thank you, but you’re not that unknown. And it is not common nowadays for the young to be respectful to the old.”

A novelist in her mid-sixties, Yang had written a bestseller, The Song of Revolution, in the early sixties that was later made into a popular movie, showing Daojin, a revolutionary goddess, as a young heroine. Chen was too young to see the movie when it was first released, but he kept clippings from several movie magazines. Both the novel and the film were banned during the Cultural Revolution. When the movie was re-released afterward, Chen hastened to see it. To his great dismay, it was not at all the movie he had dreamed of. The story struck him as a stereotyped propaganda, the colors of the movie unreal, the heroine too serious, stiff, moving about with gestures familiar from revolutionary posters. Still, Chen wrote an essay arguing for the historical merit of the novel.

“What has brought you here?”

“Nothing particular. People are all saying that Guangzhou has changed a lot. So I want to see for myself, and hopefully find something to write about.”

“Exactly, that’s why so many writers are coming here. So where are you staying, Chen?”

“I’ve not decided yet. In fact, you’re the first one I’m calling in Guangzhou. The hotels seem quite expensive.”

“Well, that is just what our Writers’ Home is for. You’ve heard of it, haven’t you? Let me make a call for you. Just go there. The location is excellent, and you will receive a huge discount.”

“Oh yes, now that you remind me.”

A guesthouse had been made from the original building of the Guangzhou Writers’ Association, a virtue made out of necessity. Nominally an unofficial organization, the Writers’ Association had always been funded with government money to support professional writers and activities. In recent years, however, the funding had undergone huge cuts. As a last resort, Yang had turned the office building into a guesthouse, using the profit to support the association.

“You know, that’s the very argument I made to the local authorities to get approval. Since Guangzhou’s changing so fast, writers will come here to experience life, and they have to stay somewhere. The hotels are too expensive, and our Writers’ Home charges about only one-third their price for the members of the Writers’ Association. It’s in the interest of socialist spiritual civilization.”

“What a wonderful idea!” he said. “The Writers’ Home must be a great success.”

“See for yourself,” Yang said, “but I won’t be able to meet you there today. I’m leaving for a PEN conference in Hong Kong. Next week I’ll arrange a welcome meal on behalf of the association, Guangzhou branch.”

“Don’t bother, Chairman Yang, but I certainly would love to meet you and other writers.”

“You joined the National Writers’ Association a long time ago. I voted for you, I remember. Bring your membership card with you. The people there need to see that, for the discount.”

“Thank you.”

Though he had been a member of the National Writers’ Association for several years, Chen still could not figure out how he had been enrolled in the first place. He had not even applied for membership. His poems were not popular among some critics, nor was he such an ambitious writer as to look forward to seeing his name in print every month. Perhaps he had been selected for membership in part because of his position as a police officer. It was in accordance with part of the Party authorities’ favorite propaganda: Writers in socialist China came from all walks of life.

It did not take him long to arrive at the Writers’ Home, which was not exactly a dream house as it had been described in some newspapers. Located at the end of a winding road, it displayed a classical colonial facade, but its surface was broken and pockmarked. In contrast to the other new or recently refurbished buildings on the slope, it looked modest, even a bit shabby. Still, its position on a hillside provided a splendid view of the Pearl River.

“My name is Chen Cao,” he said to the front desk clerk, producing his card. “Comrade Yang Ke suggested I come here.”

On the card, beneath his name, was his title, POET, in golden characters. The card, originally designed by the Writers’ Association, did not indicate his professional title as CHIEF INSPECTOR-an omission he had insisted on.

The front desk clerk looked at Chen’s membership card and said, “So you are the well-known poet. General Manager Yang has just called. A very quiet room is reserved for you. Full of light, too, so you can concentrate on your writing.”

“General Manager Yang?” Chen was amused at the new title of the elderly novelist. He was also pleased that, for once, his poet’s card would stand him in good stead.

“Number Fourteen.” Chen looked at the receipt. “That’s my room number?”

“No, that’s your bed number. It’s a double room, but right now you are the only one there. So you can have the room to yourself. All the single rooms are full.”

“Thank you.”

Chen crossed the lobby to the gift shop for a copy of the Guangzhou paper. Tucking it under his arm, he made for his room.

It was a corner room at the end of the corridor, quiet, and peaceful, as the clerk had promised. And reasonably clean. There were a couple of narrow beds, nightstands, and a small desk, the top covered with cigarette burns-reminders of a writer’s hard work. The room smelled of laundry soap-like new shirts that have been hung in old closets. The bathroom was the smallest he had ever seen. The toilet flushed with a tarnished brass chain hanging from an overhead tank. There was no air conditioner. No TV either. Only an old-fashioned electric fan stood at the foot of the bed, but it worked.

He walked over to the bed assigned to him. A pair of plastic slippers stood underneath it. An iron-hard bed covered with a thin sheet, which somehow reminded him of a go board.

Despite the fatigue of the journey, he was not ready for a nap. So he decided to shower. It was a suddenly-hot-and-cold one, due to the vagaries of the electric water heater, but it refreshed him. Afterward, with a bath towel wrapped around his waist, he propped himself up on the bed with a couple of pillows and closed his eyes for just a few minutes. Then he called the front desk, asking how to get to Guangzhou Police Bureau. The clerk seemed a bit surprised, but Chen explained that he wanted to visit a friend there. So he got directions, dressed, and left.

Inspector Hua Guojun received him in a bright, spacious office. Hua was a man in his late forties, with a broad smile constantly on his face. Chen had faxed Hua some information before he left Shanghai.

“Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, I welcome you on behalf of my colleagues here.”

“Comrade Inspector Hua, I appreciate your cooperation. It’s my first trip to Guangzhou. As a total stranger here, I cannot do anything in Guangzhou without your help. Here is the official letter from our bureau.”

Chen explained the situation without mentioning Wu Xiaoming’s family background. Leafing through the file folder, he produced a picture. “That’s the girl we are looking for, Xie Rong.”

“We have made some inquiries,” Hua said, “but with no success yet. You are taking this very seriously, to come all the way from Shanghai, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen.”

It was true. Normally a fax to the Guangzhou police bureau would have been enough. The local officers would do the job in their way. If it was important, a few more phone calls could be made. But no more than that. A chief inspector’s presence was uncalled for.

“At present, she is our only lead,” Chen said, “and it’s such a political case.”

“I see, but it is a difficult search. Heaven knows how many people have come to Guangzhou in the last few years. And only about one-fourth of them, or even fewer, have showed their identification cards or other documents to local neighborhood committees. Here is a list of the people we’ve checked, but your potential witness is not included.”

“So she could be among the others,” Chen said, taking over the list. “But why don’t they report themselves?”

“They come with no intention of showing their identification cards. It’s not illegal for them to come, but some of the professions they’re engaged in are illegal. They just want to make money. As long as they can find someplace to stay, they will not bother to report themselves to the local authorities.”

“So where can we look for her?”

“Since your witness is a young girl, she may have landed a job in a small hotel or restaurant,” Hua said. “Or maybe in a karaoke club, massage salon, or something like that. These are fashionable professions for these gold-diggers.”

“Can we check those places?”

“Since the case is so important to you, we’ll send a couple of people around to check. It may take weeks, and it will probably be futile.”

“Why?”

“Well, the employer and employee are both trying to avoid taxes. So why should they tell you who works there? Especially those karaoke clubs and massage salons, they will shun you like plague.”

“What else can we do?”

“That’s all we can do right now. Patience pays.”

“And what can I do-in addition to being patient?”

“It’s your first trip to Guangzhou, so just relax and enjoy yourself here. Special zones like Shengzhen and Shekou are close by. A lot of tourists go there,” Hua said. “Check with us every day if you want. But if you want to look around yourself, why not?”

Perhaps Chen had been taking the case too seriously, as Inspector Hua had implied. Outside the Guangzhou Police Bureau, Chen made a call to Huang Yiding, an editor at a local literary magazine that had published some of his poems. Huang had quit to run a bar called Nightless Bay in the Gourmet Street, a young woman who answered the phone said. It was not too far away. So he took a taxi there.

The so-called Gourmet Street was a living menu. Underneath a multitude of signs, a variety of exotic animals were exhibited in cages of different sizes outside the restaurants along the street. Guangdong cuisine was well-known for its wild imagination. Snake soup, dog stew, monkey brain dip, wildcat, or bamboo-rat dishes. With the live animals exhibited in the cages, customers would have no doubt about the freshness of the fare.

Nightless Bay was there, but he was told that Huang had left for a new career in Australia. That meant the end of Chen’s connections in Guangzhou. Strolling along the street, Chen saw people eating and drinking, inside as well as outside the restaurants. Some of the wildlife delicacies might have come from endangered species, he suspected. The People’s Daily had recently reported that, in spite of government policies, a large number of restaurants were still serving them to their customers.

He turned around, aimlessly, walking toward the river, and then to a landing stage. Along the shore stood a row of wooden benches, and several couples were waiting there for their turns in the boats. He was not in the mood to row alone. After sitting on a bench for a few minutes, he left for the hotel.

A mass of black clouds was gathering along the horizon. The hotel room was sultry. He made himself a cup of green tea from the lukewarm water in the thermos flask. After he had a second cup of tea, it started to rain, with thunder rumbling in the distance. Outside, the streets were covered with muck. There was no point in trying to go out. He decided to have something in the hotel canteen. The dining room was clean, the tables set with starched cloths and shining glasses. There were few choices on the menu. He had a portion of rubbery fish with steamed rice. The food was not the greatest, but it was edible. More important for him, it was inexpensive. Soon, however, he found the lingering aftertaste of fish not so agreeable. He poured himself another cup of tea, hoping that it would quiet his stomach, but the lukewarm water did not help. There were still two or three hours to kill before bedtime.

Leaning against the bed, he turned on his portable radio. The local news was broadcast in the Guangdong dialect, which he could hardly understand. He turned it off. Then he heard footsteps moving down the corridor and coming to his door. There was a light knock, but before he could say anything, the door was pushed open. In came a man in his early forties, tall, gaunt, prematurely bald, wearing an expensive gray suit with an imported label still attached to the sleeve-a sign of his wealth-and an embroidered silk tie. He had no luggage except for a leather briefcase.

A popular novelist with one or two books on the bestseller list, Chen guessed.

“Hi, I’m not disturbing your writing?”

“No, not at all,” Chen said. “You are also staying in the hotel?”

“Yes, and in the same room too. My name is Ouyang.”

“Chen Cao.” He handed over his card. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“So you are a poet-and whoa-a member of the Association!”

“Well, not exactly.” Chen was going to explain, but he thought better of it. There was no point revealing his identity as a police chief inspector. “I’ve written just a couple of poems.”

“Wonderful!” Ouyang extended his hand to him. “Fancy meeting a poet today.”

“You are a novelist, then?”

“No, I am not-um, as a matter of fact, I’m a businessman.” Ouyang fumbled in his vest pocket and came out with an impressive card. His name was printed in gold beside a long list of companies. “Every time I come to Guangzhou, I choose to stay here. The Writers’ Home is not just open to writers. You know why? I come in the hope of meeting writers. And my dream has come true tonight! Oh, by the way, have you had your dinner?”

“Yes, down in the cafeteria.”

“What? That cafeteria’s an insult to writers.”

“I did not eat much.”

“Good,” Ouyang said. “There’s a sidewalk restaurant just a few two blocks away. A small family business, but the food there is not too bad. The rain has ceased. So let us go then, you and I.”

The evening was spreading out against the sky, Chen observed, as he followed Ouyang to a street lined with red-and-black-lettered food booths illuminated by paper lanterns. Pots were broiling over small coal stoves, several labeled with signs advertising “stamina” or “hormone” or “male essence” in Guangdong style. These food booths, like other private enterprises, had mushroomed in Guangzhou’s streets since Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the south.

The booth Ouyang took him to was rather simple: several wooden tables with seven or eight benches. A big coal-burning stove and two small ones comprised the open kitchen. Its only sign was a red paper lantern with the traditional-style character “happiness” embossed on it. Beneath it were live eels, frogs, clams, and fish squirming and swimming in water-filled wooden basins and buckets. There was also an impressive glass cage with several snakes of various sizes and shapes. Customers could choose, and have their choice cooked in a specified way.

A middle-aged woman was peeling a water snake by the cage. With its head chopped off, the snake was still twitching in a wooden basin, but in a couple of minutes, a coil of white meat would be steamed in a brown earthware pot. An old man wearing a white hat was flourishing a ladle and frying a carp in a sizzling wok. A young girl was serving the customers, bustling about with several platters placed on her slender bare arm, her wooden sandals clacking on the sidewalk. She called the white-hatted cook Grandpa. A family business.

More diners were arriving; soon every table was occupied. The place obviously had a reputation. Chen had seen the booth ear- lier in the afternoon, but he had guessed that the cost was beyond his standard meal allowance.

“Hi, Old Ouyang. What favorable wind has brought you here today?” The young girl coming over to their table appeared to know Ouyang well.

“Well, today’s favorable wind is our distinguished poet, Chen Cao. It’s really a great honor for me. As usual, your special dishes. And your best wine, too. The very best.”

Ouyang took out his wallet and put it on the table.

“The best, of course,” the girl echoed, walking away.

In less than fifteen minutes, an impressive array of bowls, dishes, pots, saucers, and platters appeared on the rough, unpainted table.

The paper lantern cast a ruddy light on their faces and the tiny cups in their hands. In Guangzhou, Chen had heard, there was nothing with four legs that people had not found a way to turn into a delicacy. And he was witnessing such a miracle: Omelet with river clams, meatballs of four happiness, fried rice field eel, peeled shrimp in tomato containers, eight-treasure rice, shark’s fin soup, a whole turtle with brown sauce, and bean curd stuffed with crabmeat.

“Just a few simple dishes, sidestreet cooking,” Ouyang said, raising his chopsticks, and shaking his head in apology. “Not enough respect to a great poet. We’ll go to another place tomorrow. It’s too late today. Please try the turtle soup. It’s good for yin, you know, for us men.”

It was a huge softshell turtle. No less than two pounds. At about eighty Yuan per pound in the Guangzhou market, the dish must have cost more than a hundred Yuan. The exorbitant price arose from the medical folklore. Turtles, stubborn survivors in water or on land, were considered to be beneficial to yin, hence a possible boost to human longevity. That it was nutritious Chen could accept, but why it was good for yin, in terms of the yin and yang system in the human body, was totally beyond him.

But Chen didn’t have time to muse. An eager host, Ouyang kept putting what he believed were culinary delights on Chen’s plate. After the second round of the Maotai wine, Chen, too, felt a sense of elation rising in him. Excellent food, mellow wine, the young waitress serving, light-footed, radiant as a new moon. The aromatic breath of the Guangzhou night was intoxicating.

Perhaps more than anything else, Chief Inspector Chen was intoxicated with his new identity. A well-established poet being worshipped by his devotee.

“‘ By the wine urn, the girl is the moon, / Her bare arms frost-white. ’” Chen quoted a couplet from Wei Zhuang’s “Reminiscence of the South.” “I’m tempted to think that Wei was describing a scene in Guangzhou, not too far from this booth.”

“I have to put down those lines in my notebook,” Ouyang said, swallowing a spoonful of shark fin soup. “That is poetry.”

“The image of a street tavern is quite popular in classical Chinese poetry. It could have originated from the Han dynasty love story of Zhuo Wenjun and Sima Xiangru. At the lowest point of their life, the lovers had to support themselves by selling wine in a side street tavern.”

“Wenjun and Xiangru,” Ouyang exclaimed. “Oh yes, I have seen a Guangzhou opera about their romance. Xiangru was a great poet, and Wenjun eloped with him.”

The dinner turned out to be superb, accompanied by a second bottle of Maotai that Ouyang insisted on ordering toward the end. Chen was becoming effusive, talking poetry shop. In the office, his literary pursuit was regarded as a distraction from his profession, so he seized the chance to discuss the world of words with such an eager listener.

The young waitress kept pouring wine for them, her white wrists flashing around the table, her wooden sandals making pleasant sounds in the night air, the same sights and the sounds that Wei Zhaung had been intoxicated by thousands of years earlier.

Over the cups and chopsticks, Chen also pieced together parts of Ouyang’s life story.

“Twenty years ago, it’s just like yesterday-” Ouyang said, “as fast as a snapping of your fingers.”

Twenty years earlier, a high-school student in Guangzhou, Ouyang had set his mind on becoming a poet, but the Cultural Revolution had smashed his dream as well as his classroom windows. His school was closed. Then, as one of the educated youths, he was sent down to the countryside. After a total waste of eight years, he was allowed to come back to Guangzhou, an unemployed returned youth. He failed the college entrance examination, but succeeded in launching his private enterprise, a plastic-toy factory in Shekou, about fifty miles south of Guangzhou. A prosperous entrepreneur, Ouyang had everything now but time for poetry. More than once he had thought about quitting the business, but his memory of working ten hours a day for seventy cents as an educated youth was too fresh. He decided to make enough money first, and in the meantime tried various ways to keep his literary dream alive. This trip to Guangzhou, for instance, was made for business, but also for a creative writing seminar sponsored by the Guangzhou Writers’ Association.

“The Writers’ Home is worth it,” Ouyang said, “for I have finally met a real poet like you.”

Not really, Chen reflected, tearing the turtle leg off with his chopsticks. But sitting beside Ouyang, he felt he was a poet, a “pro.” It did not take him long to discover Ouyang to be an amateur, seeing poetry as no more than an outpouring of personal sentimentality. The few lines Ouyang showed him presented a spontaneous flow, but suffered from a lack of formal control.

Ouyang obviously wanted to spend more time discussing poetry. The next morning Ouyang brought up the topic again over their morning tea- dimson in the Golden Phoenix Restaurant.

A waitress came to a stop at their table with a stainless-steel cart presenting an amazing display of appetizers and snacks. They could choose whatever they wanted in addition to a pot of tea.

“What would you like to have today, Mr. Ouyang?” the waitress said.

“Steamed ribs with bean sauce, chicken with sticky rice, steamed beef tripe, mini-bun of pork, and a pot of chrysanthemum tea with sugar,” Ouyang said, turning to Chen with a smile. “These are my favorites here, but choose for yourself.”

“We’re having too much, I’m afraid,” he said. “It’s just morning tea.”

“According to my research, morning tea originated in Guangzhou, where people used to have a cup of good tea the first thing in the morning,” Ouyang said. “‘Better to have something that goes along with the tea,’ somebody must have thought. Not a full meal, but a delicious bite. So these tiny appetizers were invented. Soon people became more interested in the variety of the small dishes. Tea’s secondary now.”

The room was abuzz with people talking, drinking tea, discussing business, and eating appetizers, carts of which were continuously wheeled around. Young waitresses kept introducing the new dishes. It was not an ideal place for a poetry discussion.

“People are so busy in Guangzhou,” Chen said, “so how can they afford the time for the morning tea?”

“Morning tea is a must.” Ouyang smiled expansively. “It’s easier for people to talk business over their tea. To cultivate the feeling before they cut the deal. But we can just talk poetry to our hearts’ content.”

Chen was a bit disturbed, however, when he was not allowed to pay. Ouyang stopped him with a passionate speech: “I have made some money. But what then? In twenty or thirty years, what will be left? Nothing. My money will be somebody else’s. Dog-eared, worn-out, and torn in half. What did our dear Old Master Du Fu say? ‘Nothing but your writing lasts forever.’ Yes, you are a nationally known poet, so let me be your student for a couple of days, Chen, if you do not consider me below your standard. In ancient times, a student was also supposed to offer a whole Jinhua ham to his teacher.”

“I’m not a teacher, nor a well-known poet.”

“Well, let me tell you something. Last night I did a little research in the library of the Writers’ Home-that’s one of the advantages there, open shelf, all night. You know what? I’ve found no less than six essays about you, all praising your poems highly.”

“Six! I did not know there were so many.”

“Indeed, I was so excited, as it says in the Book of Songs, ‘Turning and turning in bed, I cannot fall asleep’.”

Ouyang’s allusion to the Book of Songs was not exactly right.

It was actually a love poem. Still, there was no doubting his sincerity.

After morning tea, Chen went to the hotel where Xie had stayed. The hotel had a run-down facade, a likely choice for job-hunting girls. The desk clerk looked stoically through the register until he found the name. He pushed the book across the desk so that Chen could read it himself. Xie had left there on July 2. Where she went, no one knew.

“So she left no forwarding addresses?”

“No. Those young girls don’t leave any forwarding address.”

So Chen had to resort to his door-knocking technique, going from one hotel to another, holding a picture in one hand and a city map in another. In an unfamiliar and fast-changing city, it was a much tougher job than he had expected, even though he had a list of the names of the possible hotels.

The answer came, invariably, with a head-shaking.

“No, we don’t really remember…”

“No, you should try the Metropolitan Security Bureau…”

“No, I am sorry, we have so many guests here…”

In short, no one recognized her.

In the afternoon, Chen went into a small snack bar tucked away in a side street and asked for a bowl of shrimp dumplings with several steamed buns. Sitting there, he became more aware of something characteristic of Guangzhou. It was not one of the main streets in the city, but business was good. People were moving in and out all the time, picking up plastic boxes of various lunch combinations, and starting to eat with disposable chopsticks on their way out. Chen was the only one sitting there, waiting. Time seemed to be more important here. Whatever might be said about the changes in the city, Guangzhou was alive with a spirit that could hardly be called socialist, in spite of the slogan “Build a socialist new Guangzhou” seen everywhere, even on the gray wall of the small restaurant.

Guangzhou was indeed turning into a second Hong Kong. Money was pouring in. From Hong Kong, and from other countries, too. So young girls came there. Some came to find jobs, but some came to walk the streets. It was not easy for the local authorities to keep close control of them. They became part of the attraction of the city for the people from Hong Kong or abroad.

So what could Xie Rong be doing in this city, a young girl all by herself? He understood why Professor Xie was so worried.

He called the Guangzhou Bureau, but there was no new information. The local police were none too enthusiastic in their cooperation. They had their problems, Inspector Hua explained, with insufficient manpower to take care of their own cases.

At the end of the third futile day, Chen went back to the Writers’ Home, totally exhausted, and Ouyang offered to take him to the Snake King Restaurant for a “special dinner.” Chen had almost despaired of completing his mission in Guangzhou. The last few days had been too frustrating. Holding a picture in his hand and asking the same question, like a displaced Don Quixote, moving from one hotel to another, attempting the impossible, knowing it, but still going on. So he thought, not without a touch of self-deprecatory irony, that a great meal might be able to bolster up a battered chief inspector.

They were led into a private room with white walls and a flight of cherubim painted in blue tones across the high ceiling, which struck him as a direct import from Hong Kong. The delicacies printed in the menu included roast suckling pig and bear paws, but the chef’s special was Tiger-Dragon Battle. According to the waitress, it was an enormous platter of assorted snake and cat meats. At Ouyang’s request, she started listing the wonderful effects of the snake. “The snake is good for blood circulation. As a medicine, it is useful in treating anemia, rheumatism, arthritis, and asthenia. Snake gall bladder proves especially effective in dissolving phlegm and improving vision.”

Chen’s mind was not on the chef’s special. Holding the menu in his hands, he was having second thoughts about the trip. A wild goose chase? But Xie was the only lead. Giving up on her might well mean giving up the whole investigation.

Ouyang put a spoonful of the snake soup onto Chen’s plate, saying, “It’s definitely a must. The Tiger-Dragon Battle.”

The waitress brought a bottle of wine for their inspection.

“Maotai,” she said, turning it so that they could see the label.

Ouyang sipped the sample, and nodded to indicate that it was drinkable. The liquor was strong. Chen, too, drained his in one sip.

As a man of the world, Ouyang must have noticed Chen’s mood, but he did not ask about it directly. It was not until after a few cups that Ouyang started to talk about his own business in Guangzhou. “Believe it or not, you’re my lucky star, Literature Star. I’ve just received a huge purchase order. So this is a celebration.”

And it was a wonderful meal. The Tiger-Dragon Battle proved to be as fantastic as its name. Between the “dragon” and the “tiger” was a boiled egg-symbolic of a huge pearl.

“By the way, what’s your business here, I mean, apart from poetry?” Ouyang asked as he placed the cat meat in Chen’s saucer with his chopsticks. “If there is something you want to do in Guangzhou, I may be able to help.”

“Well, nothing particular-” Chen hesitated before drinking another cup. The fourth or the fifth-it was unlike him.

“You can trust me,” Ouyang said.

“Well, it’s just something small, but maybe you can help me- with your local connections.”

“I will do my best,” Ouyang promised, putting down his chopsticks.

“I’ve come here to collect some material for my poetry,” Chen said, “but a professor from my college years also wants me to find some information about her daughter. The daughter came to Guangzhou several months ago, but has not contacted her home to give her address and phone number here. The old professor is worried. So I promised I would try my best to find her. And here is the daughter’s picture.”

“Let me have a look.”

“Her name is Xie Rong. When she came here about three months ago, she stayed in a hotel called the Lucky Inn for a couple of days but left without a forwarding address.”

Chen was not sure that Ouyang believed his story. It was not a total invention, but he was obliged to keep the investigation confidential.

“Let me have a try,” Ouyang said. “I know several madams around here.”

“Madams?”

“It’s an open secret. I’ve dealt with a number of them. Business necessities; one cannot help it. They’re well informed about new girls.”

Chen was more than astonished. According to regulations, he should report the madams, and even report Ouyang’s connection to them. He chose not to do so. The success of his mission depended on Ouyang’s help, a kind of help that was not readily available from the local authorities.

And as Ouyang promised, the snake feast was the most exotic meal Chief Inspector Chen had ever had.

Chapter 23

Detective Yu hesitated before pressing on the owl-shaped door bell as he stood on the landing overlooking an upper-class neighborhood just a few blocks north of Hongkou Park. The front door was locked, so he had come up an iron back staircase.

He was not comfortable with his share of the division of labor. Yu was to visit Jiang Wehe, an emerging artist, while Chen was away in Guangzhou. It was not that Yu had wanted to go to Guangzhou, which was most likely to be a tough trip-a wild goose chase. It was just that Detective Yu had never dealt with an artist before.

And Jiang Weihe happened to be a well-known one, and avant-garde enough to pose nude for Wu Xiaoming.

Before he placed his finger on the bell, a woman opened the door, and stared inquiringly at him. She was in her early thirties, tall, well-built, with a long graceful neck, a narrow waist and terrific legs. A nice-looking woman, with a sensual mouth, high cheekbones, and large eyes, her hair in an unruly mass of tangles. The smooth flesh beneath her eyes was smudged with black shadow. She was wearing a paint-smeared coverall drawn in at the waist by a black leather belt, and standing barefoot.

“Sorry to interrupt you at your work,” Yu said, quickly taking inventory and producing his I.D. “I want to ask you a few questions.”

“The police?” She put her hand up to the door frame and studied him intently without making a gesture of invitation. There was a look of confident maturity about her. Her voice was deeply pitched, bearing the trace of a Henan accent.

“Yes,” he said. “Can we talk inside?”

“Am I under arrest?”

“No.”

“Do you have a warrant or something?”

“No.”

“If not, you’ve no right to push your way in here.”

“Well, I’ve just a few questions, Comrade Jiang, about somebody you know. I cannot force you to talk, but your cooperation will be greatly appreciated.”

“Then you cannot force me.”

“Listen. Comrade Chief Inspector Chen Cao-you know him-is my boss. He suggested I come to you this way first. It is in our common interest.”

“Chen Cao-why?”

“The situation’s quite delicate, and you are well known. It would not be a good idea to draw publicity to you. Unpleasant publicity. Here’s a note from him.”

“I’ve had plenty of publicity,” she said. “So why should I care?”

But she took the note and read it. Then she frowned, standing with her head slightly bowed, gazing at her bare feet, which were spotted with paint. She must have been working.

“You should have mentioned Chief Inspector Chen earlier. Come in.”

The apartment was a studio but also served as a combination bedroom, dining room, and living room. Apparently she did not care much about the appearance of her room. Pictures, newspapers, tubes of paint, brushes, and clothes lay scattered all over the place. Dozens of books were shelved against the wall in different positions and at various angles. There were also several books on the nightstand, with a bottle of nail polish among them. Shoes, most of them separated from their mates, had been abandoned around the bed. The other furniture consisted of a large working table, a few rattan chairs, and an enormous mahogany bed with tall posts. On top of the table were glasses of water, a couple of containers filled with wilted flowers, and a shell ashtray containing a half-smoked cigar.

On a pedestal in the center of the room stood a half-finished sculpture.

“I’m having my second cup of coffee,” she said, picking up a mug from the table. “What would you like to drink?”

“Nothing. Thank you.”

She pulled over a chair for him, and another for herself which she set opposite him.

“Questions about whom?”

“Wu Xiaoming.”

“Why me?”

“He has taken pictures of you.”

“Well, he has taken pictures of a lot of people.”

“We’re talking about those-in the Flower City- ”

“So you want to discuss the art of photography with me?” she said, sitting up in her chair.

“I’m a common cop. So I’m not interested in talking about these pictures as art, but as something else.”

“That I can understand,” she said with a cynical smile. “As a cop, you must have done some research work.”

The shadows beneath her eyes somehow gave her a debauched look.

“Well, it’s to Chief Inspector Chen’s credit, I have to admit,” he said.

But how Chief Inspector Chen recognized her, Detective Yu did not know.

“Really?”

“Yes. So we believe you may want to cooperate.”

“What do you want to know about Wu?”

“What you know about him.”

“You are asking for quite a lot,” she said. “But why?”

“We believe Wu’s involved in a murder. It’s the case of Guan Hongying, the national model worker. There’s a special investigation under way.”

“Ah-I see,” she said, without registering too much surprise on her face. “But why does your Chief Inspector Chen not come to interrogate me himself?”

“He is away in Guangzhou, interviewing a witness.”

“So you are serious?”

“Yes, we are.”

“You must know something about Wu’s family background?”

“That’s why we need your help.”

Detective Yu believed he detected a change in the artist’s tone, and also a subtle sign of it in her body language, as she slowly stirred her spoon in the coffee mug, as if measuring out something.

“You’re so sure?”

“Chief Inspector Chen has made a point of excluding your name from the official file. You will be an understanding woman, he says.”

“Is that a compliment?” She took a long swallow of the coffee, the cream leaving a white line along her upper lip. “By the way, how is your chief inspector? Still single?”

“He’s just too busy, I think.”

“He had an affair in Beijing, I’ve heard. It broke his heart.”

“Well, that I don’t know,” Yu said. “He has never talked to me about it.”

“Oh, I don’t know much about it, either. It was such a long time ago,” she said with an unfathomable smile on her lips. “So, where shall we start?”

“From the very beginning, if you please.”

“First, let me make a point. The whole thing’s in the past tense. I met Wu about two years ago, and we parted one year later. I want to emphasize this, not because of his possible involvement in a murder case.”

“Understood,” he said. “Now, how did you get to know him?”

“He came to me, saying that he wanted to take my picture. For his magazines and newspapers, of course.”

“Few would turn down such an offer, I bet.”

“Who would say no to have one’s own picture-free and published?”

“So the pictures were published?”

“Yes, the pictures turned out to be of high quality,” she said. “To be fair, Wu’s a gifted photographer. He’s got the eye for it, and the instinct, too. He knows when and where to get the shot. A number of magazines are eager for his work.”

“What happened afterward?”

“Well, as it turned out, I was his personal rather than professional target-that’s what he said to me over a lunch. Believe it or not, he posed for me, too. One thing led to another. You know what happens.”

“A romantic involvement?”

“Is that a sort of euphemism?”

“Is it?”

“Are you trying to ask if we slept together?”

“Well, was it a serious relationship?”

“What do you mean by ‘serious relationship’?” she said. “If it means that Wu Xiaoming proposed to me, then it wasn’t, no. But we had some good times together.”

“People have different definitions,” he said, “but let’s say, did you see each other a lot?”

“Not a lot. As a senior editor for Red Star, he got assignments from time to time, to go to Beijing or other cities, even abroad on one or two occasions. I am extremely busy with my work, too. But when we had time, we were together. For the first few months he came to my place quite frequently, two or three times a week.”

“Days or nights?”

“Both, but he seldom stayed overnight. He had his car-his father’s, you know. It was convenient for him.”

“Did you ever go to his place?”

“Only a couple of times. It’s a mansion. You must have been there. You know what it is like.” She continued after a pause, “But when we were together, I wanted to do what we were together for. So what was the point of staying somewhere without any privacy? Even if we could shut ourselves up in one of the rooms, I wouldn’t have been in the mood-with his people walking around there all the time.”

“You mean his wife?”

“No, she actually stayed in her room all the time-she’s bedridden. But it’s his father’s house. The old man was in the hospital, but his mother and sisters were there.”

“So you knew he was a married man from the very beginning.”

“He did not make a secret of it, but he told me that it had been a mistake. I believe it was true-to some extent.”

“A mistake,” he said. “Did he explain it to you?”

“For one thing, his wife’s been sick for several years,” she said, “too sick to have a normal sex life with him.”

“Anything else?”

“Marriage in those years could have been a matter of convenience. The educated youths were lonely, and life in the countryside was extremely hard, and they were far, far away from home.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said, thinking of his years with Peiqin in Yunnan, “but you had no objection to an extramarital relationship?”

“Come on, Comrade Detective Yu. We’re in a new decade, a new time. Who lives any longer like in the Confucian books? If a marriage is a happy one, no outsider could ever destroy it,” she said, scratching her ankle. “Besides, I never expected him to marry me.”

Maybe he was an old-fashioned man. Yu certainly felt ancient sitting beside the artist, to whom an affair could be just like the change of her clothes. But he also felt it tempting to imagine the body under her loose coverall. Was it because he had seen it in the picture? And he also noticed the black mole on her nape.

“But if he’s so unhappy with his marriage, what kept him in it?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I don’t think a divorce would do him any good, politically, I mean. I’ve heard that somebody in his wife’s family is still influential.”

“That’s true.”

“I also had the feeling that he cared about her in his way.”

“What made you think so?”

“He talked to me about her. She had come to him in his most miserable days-as an educable educated youth of a capitalist roader family. She took pity on him, and she took good care of him, too. But for her, he once said, he could have fallen into despair.”

“She might have been a beauty in her day,” he said. “We have seen some pictures of her in earlier years.”

“You may not believe it, but part of the reason I came to care for him was that he showed some loyalty to his wife. He was not a man devoid of responsibility.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But I’ve got another question about him. Does he earn a lot from these pictures-not of his wife, of course.”

“As an HCC, he probably has his ways to get his money. Some people would pay him handsomely, for instance, to have a picture published in the Red Star. He does not have to make a living by selling the pictures. As far as I know, he spends generously on himself, and he’s not mean to his friends.”

“What kind of friends?”

“People of similar family background. Birds of a feather, if you want to put it that way.”

“A pack of HCC,” he grumbled. “So what do they do together?”

“They have parties at his place. Wild parties. It’s a shame, they would say, not to have parties in such a mansion.”

“Can you give me the names of his friends?”

“Only those who have given me their cards at those parties,” she said, turning toward a plastic box on the shelf.

“That will be great.”

“Here they are.” She spread out several cards on the table.

He glanced through them. One was Guo Qiang, the man who had confirmed Wu’s alibi for his whereabouts on May tenth. Several cards bore impressive titles under the names.

“Can I borrow them?”

“Sure. I don’t think I’ll need them.”

Taking out a pack of cigarettes, he lit one after she nodded her approval. “Another question, Miss Jiang. Did you know anything about Guan Hongying while you were with Wu? For instance, did you meet her at his mansion, or did he mention her?”

“No, not that I remember,” she said. “But I knew there were some other girls.”

“Was that the reason why you broke things off?”

“Well, you may think so, but no,” she said, taking a cigarette from his pack. “I did not really expect anything out of that relationship. He had his life, and I had mine. We had made it clear to each other. A couple of times I confronted him about his other girlfriends, but he swore that he only took pictures of them.”

“So you believed him?”

“No, I didn’t-but ironically, we parted because of his pictures.”

“Pictures of those girls?”

“Yes, but not like those-artistic work-you have seen in magazines.”

“I understand,” he said, “but how did you find them?”

“By accident. During one of those parties, I was with him in his room when he had to answer a call on the telephone in his study. It was a long conversation, so I looked into his drawer. I discovered a photo album. Pictures of nude girls, you would expect, but much more than that-so obscene-and they were all in a variety of disgusting positions-even in the midst of sexual intercourse. I recognized one of the models. A well-known actress, now living abroad with an American millionaire, I’ve heard. She’s gagged in that picture, lying on her back with her wrists handcuffed, and buried between her breasts was Wu’s head. There were quite a number of such terrible pictures, I did not have the time to look at them all. Wu had printed them out like professional fashion photographs, but there was no use his protesting that they were artistic work.”

“Outrageous!”

“Even more outrageous was the way he kept records on the back of those photos.”

“What kind of record?”

“Well, in a Sherlock Holmes story, a sexual criminal kept pictures of the women he had conquered, along with descriptions of their positions, secrets, and preferences in bed-all the intimate details of the sexual intercourse he had with them-oh, come on, Detective Yu, you surely know the story well.”

“Chief Inspector Chen has translated a few Western mysteries,” Detective Yu said equivocally, having never read the story himself. “You can discuss it with him.”

“Really, I thought he wrote only poems.”

“Now what could Wu have wanted to do with these pictures?”

“I don’t know, but he’s not just a Don Juan who wants to satisfy his ego by looking over his naked conquests.”

“That S.O.B.,” Yu cursed, not familiar with Don Juan either.

“I could live with a Don Juan, but that kind of cold-blooded cynicism really put me off. So I decided to part with him.”

“You were wise to make that decision.”

“I’ve got my work to do,” she looked down somberly. ”I did not want to be involved in a scandal. Now I’ve told you all I know.”

“That’s really important information. You’re helping us a lot, Comrade Jiang. We’ll make sure that your name will never be mentioned in the official investigation record.”

“Thank you.”

She stood up, accompanying Yu toward the door. “Comrade Detective Yu.”

“Yes?”

“I may have something else for you, I think,” she said, “but I need to ask you a favor.”

“As long as it’s in my power.”

“Wu and I have parted. Whatever grudge I have against him, I should not throw stones into the well where he is drowning. So I won’t tell you anything I’ve not seen or heard myself. But I happened to know one of Wu’s girls at the time we parted.”

“Who is she?”

“Her name is Ning Jing. How Wu had picked her up, or what he saw in her, I’ve no idea at all. Perhaps just another object for his camera’s eye, to be focused, shot, and pasted into his album.

I’m mentioning her because she may know something about Wu and Guan. Guan could have been the next girl after her.”

“Yes, that may be an important lead, Comrade Jiang. I’ll definitely check it out. But what can I do for you?”

“If it is possible, please try not to involve her in any publicity. That’s the favor I’m asking. I have had my share, and a column more or less in tabloid magazines does not make much difference to me. But she is different. She’s going to get married soon, I’ve heard.”

“I see,” he said. “I will do my best. Do you have her address?”

“She has her name listed in the phone book,” she said, taking down a directory. “Let me find it for you.”

He got the name, address, and phone number.

“Thank you. I’ll tell Chief Inspector Chen about all the help you’ve given us.”

“And say hello to Chief Inspector Chen.”

“I will. And good-bye.”

At the foot of the stairs, Yu turned around and saw her still standing barefoot on the landing. But she wasn’t looking at him. She was gazing at the distant horizon behind the multi-colored roofs.

A nice woman, though her philosophy of life was beyond him. Perhaps it was the price one pays for being an artist, Detective Yu suspected. Being different.

Just like Chief Inspector Chen-who was nonetheless a capable cop.

With Wu Xiaoming, however, it was more than being different.

Yu decided to go to Ning Jing’s place immediately. It would not be a pleasant visit, nor would it be easy.

Jiang Weihe had been cooperative, but only after the combined pressure of “the hard and the soft.” The threat of revealing her identity as the nude in the magazine, and the note from Chen. But with Ning, Detective Yu had nothing to use. Nothing but the scanty information from Jiang who, despite her declaration, might well have harbored a personal grudge against Ning. So the only card he could play would be that of bluff, one of the effective tactics to bring a potential witness around, especially with the possibility of a “peach-colored scandal.” A phone call to her work unit from the Shanghai Police Bureau would be enough to start a wildfire of gossip, finger pointing, head shaking, saliva spitting on her back, and whatnot. It need not take a formal investigation to put her under suspicion.

Ning’s apartment was on Xikang Road, close to the Gate to Joy, a nightclub that had been rehabilitated and reopened.

A young woman appeared at the door where he rang the bell. “What do you want?”

Ning wore a white T-shirt several sizes too large that completely covered her shorts. It was difficult to guess her age. The way she dressed was almost like a teenager, or else it was too fashionable for him. She had wide black eyes and a straight nose; her hair was pulled back and held in place by a kerchief. Her full lips were moist, sensuous, even somewhat wanton.

“I’m Detective Yu Guangming, of the Shanghai Police Bureau. I need to ask you a few questions.”

“What have I done?”

“Not about you, but about someone you know.”

“Show me your identification,” she said. “I’m on my way out.”

“It won’t take long.” He produced his I.D. “We’d appreciate your help.”

“Okay, come in.”

It was a small, cozy apartment, but unkempt for the home of a young single woman. A creased bedspread lay over the unmade bed. On the table was an empty but unwashed ashtray. There were no framed pictures, but a number of magazine photographs of cars and movie stars were taped to the wall. On the floor were two pairs of shoes, peeping out from under the bed. There was one thing in common between Jiang and Ning. Each had an apartment to herself.

“What do you want from me?” she said after he seated himself on a rattan chair.

“A few questions about Wu Xiaoming.”

“Wu Xiaoming-why me?”

“You’re his girlfriend, right?”

“No, he’s just taken a few pictures of me. For his magazine.”

“Really?”

“Yes, that’s all.”

“Then you don’t have to worry about answering my questions. If you cooperate, everything you say will be kept off the record.”

“Now what do you mean, Comrade Detective?”

“Wu is involved in a murder case.”

“Heavens, what…” Her black eyes grew even wider now. “How?”

“We don’t know everything yet,” he said. “That’s why your help would be appreciated.”

“But I cannot help you. I hardly know him at all.”

“You can refuse to cooperate, but then we’ll have to go to your work unit,” Yu said. “Huanpu Elementary School, right?”

“Go there if you want to. That is all I will say,” she said, standing up and making a gesture toward the door.

She was beginning to irritate him with her attitude, so damned antagonistic. And he did not like this way of conducting the interview. There was some hard object on the rattan chair beneath him, which made him feel even more uncomfortable as he sat opposite her.

“But there is more than that, I’m afraid,” Yu said. “We’re not talking about your pictures in magazines, but about the ones in his album. Surely you know them better than I.”

“What are you talking about?” She flinched involuntarily, but she covered it well. “Show them to me.”

“We will show these pictures to your principal, every one of them.” He was bluffing now. “They’re by no means decent for a schoolteacher. And a number of other people will see them, too.”

“You’ve got no right.”

“Yes, we have every right. We’re here in socialist China. The Party authorities are calling on the people to fight Western bourgeois decadence. These pictures will serve as a good example.”

“How could you do that!”

“We can do whatever we want with them,” he said, “as evidence in a criminal investigation. We also have a witness who can testify to your relationship with Wu. Since you’re obstructing our inquiries, we’ve no choice.”

She sat completely straight on the edge of the sofa, her knees tightly together. She was not only red in the face now. There were small drops of perspiration along her hairline in spite of her effort to hold herself together.

“What do you want me to do?” she finally said with a note of panic in her quivering voice.

“Tell us everything about your relationship with Wu,” he added, “including all the details, like a paperback romance.”

There was a bit of sarcasm he could detect in his own voice. No point, he told himself, to putting her through too much of an ordeal.

“Where shall I begin?”

“At the very beginning.”

“It was about a year ago, I think. Wu came to me as a photographer from the Red Star. He asked if he could photograph me, claiming that I had a typical high-school teacher’s face, and that he was working up a proposal for People.”

“A typical highschool teacher’s face,” he repeated.

“It’s not very flattering, but he had his ways of pursuing people.”

“So the pictures were published?”

“Yes, but actually he had little interest in the publication, as he told me later. He just wanted to meet me.”

“The same old dirty trick,” he said. “And everybody fell for it.”

“But he had talent and kept his word. These pictures in People helped my position at school. So we came to know more of each other.”

“And it began to develop into an affair?”

“Yes, we started dating.”

“You did not know that he was married?”

“I did not know at first, but he did not try to cover it up. On our third or fourth date, he told me about his marriage, saying he was not happy with it. I could understand why-with his sick, neurotic wife. What mattered most, he said, was the time we shared. So I believed we might work something out eventually.”

“Did he take the initial step in the sexual relationship between you?”

“Do I have to answer that question?” she said, twisting her fingers.

“Yes. If you answer now, it will save you a great deal of unpleasantness later.”

“Well, he invited me to a party at his place, and afterward he asked me to stay on for a while. I agreed. I was a bit drunk.”

“Then he took advantage of you while you were drunk.”

“No, he did not force me.” She hung her head low, wringing her hands in a helpless gesture. “I was willing, hoping that sooner or later he would change his mind.”

“Change his mind?”

“Yes, I hoped he would choose to marry me and divorce his wife.”

“How long were you together?”

“A couple of months.”

“Were you happy… with him?”

“At first, when things went smoothly.”

“How often were you together?”

“Two or three times a week.”

“What kind of man was he?” Yu asked. “Sexually, I mean.”

The question came as a shock to her. She pulled at the hem of her T-shirt as she said in a whisper, “Normal.”

“Weren’t you afraid of becoming pregnant?”

“Yes, but I was always careful.”

“Then why did you end it?”

“He chose not to divorce his wife.”

“Did you discuss the issue with him?”

“Yes, but to no avail.”

“You could have sued him, or approached his work unit.”

“What’s the point?” she said with a tear trickling down her cheek. “With his family background, who would have listened to me? Besides, I was a ‘third party’ to begin with.”

“So you just let him get away with it?”

“I argued with him, and he did the most horrible thing. Those pictures-you have seen them, haven’t you? If I continued to harass him, he threatened to show them to other people.”

“That HCC bastard!” He stood up, looking over her head toward a dismal, gray sky out the window, taking a cigarette out of his pocket, lighting it, before he seated himself again on the hard rattan chair. “But how could you have let him take those photos?”

“I had posed for him on a professional level,” she said sobbing. “Later on, I allowed him to take more intimate… He had his own darkroom and equipment, so I was not worried. But those horrible nude photos, those were taken while I was sleeping. And he posed on top of me without my knowledge.”

“Oh, I see.” So those pictures were not just of Ning herself, but of her and Wu together. Yu needed some time to think about this new information. Apparently Wu had taken and kept the pictures for a purpose: to get rid of somebody when he no longer desired her.

“So that was the end of your affair?” Yu asked.

“Yes. He never contacted me again.”

“Just one more question: Was Wu Xiaoming seeing somebody else when you parted with him?”

“I was not sure, but there were other girls at those parties.”

“Did you know someone named Guan Hongying among them?”

“No. Guan Hongying-isn’t she the national model worker? Heavens.”

Yu took a picture of Guan out of his pocket. “Do you recognize her?”

“Yes, I think so. I saw her only once at Wu’s place. I remember her because she clung to him all the evening, but I did not know her name at the time. Wu did not introduce her to anybody.”

“Wu certainly would not have done that,” he said. “Do you know anything else about her?”

“No, that’s all.” She fumbled in her bag and found a handkerchief.

“Contact me if you can think of anything, Comrade Ning.”

“I will.” She then added, “You won’t tell other people?”

“I’ll try my best,” he said.

She accompanied him to the door, her face streaked with tears, her head hung low, no longer the hostile antagonist of an hour ago, her hands nervously pulling again at the lower edge of her oversized T-shirt.

Detective Yu had succeeded in bluffing her and getting information he had not expected. But he was not elated. Ning, too, was a victim.

He began the long walk home. The new facts, instead of diminishing the puzzle, seemed to add to its complexity.

What an HCC monster! So many women in his life. Even in his most intimate moments with a woman, Wu had not forgotten to take those horrible pictures for his ulterior purpose. But what was the point of conquering so many women if there was no future with any of them? What was the point?

There had been only one woman in Yu’s life-Peiqin. But Yu was a happy man because of it.

Was there a woman in Chief Inspector Chen’s life? There had been one-according to Jiang-in Beijing, years earlier. Yu had never heard anything about it, but it was said that of late there was a female often seen in Chen’s company. According to the bureau housing committee, however, there was no one. Otherwise Chen would surely have tried to make a point of it when applying for an apartment.

Even Jiang seemed to have a soft spot for the chief inspector. At least she changed her attitude abruptly because of his note. The fact that Chen had recognized her in the picture also intrigued him. Nothing but her bare back showed in that photograph. Was it the black mole on the nape of her neck that had revealed her identity to him?

Could there be something between the two? Immediately Yu hoped he was wrong. He had come to think of Chen as a friend. It was time for Chen to settle down, but not with somebody as modern as Jiang.

Chapter 24

It was Chief Inspector Chen’s fifth day in Guangzhou. He had awakened to find a note on the nightstand. It was just an address with a short line underneath it. Xie Rong. 60 Xinhe Road, #543. You will find her there. Have a wonderful day.

Ouyang

Xinhe Road was not one of the main streets. Walking past a run-down Turkish bathhouse with a pasty-faced girl in the doorway and a pretentious coffee shop with several computers on the glass-topped tables beside a sign saying “Electronic Mails,” Chief Inspector Chen reached a tall building at the address given him.

Old and dilapidated, the building was neither an office building, nor was it residential. Yet, there was a doorman sitting there, sorting mail at the entrance desk. He stared up at Chen over his reading glasses. When Chen showed him the address, the doorman pointed at the elevator.

Chen waited for about ten minutes without seeing any sign of the elevator coming down. He was about to climb the stairs when the elevator arrived with a thud. It appeared even more ancient than the building itself, but it carried him to the fifth floor and bobbed to a stop.

As he stepped through the squeaking door, he had a weird feeling of stepping into an old movie from the thirties. Song Girl -he recalled its name. There was a narrow corridor, smelling of dead cigars, lined with a number of suspiciously closed doors, as if General Yan of the movie, still wrapped in scarlet silk pajamas, would pop out of a door in the next minute to take a bouquet of roses from a flower girl. The flower girl had been played by Zhou Xuan, so breathtaking in those days.

Chief Inspector Chen knocked at the door marked 543.

“Who is it?” a young girl’s voice called out.

“Chen Cao, Mr. Ouyang’s friend.”

“Come on in. The door is not locked.”

Pushing the door open, he found himself in a room with a half drawn velvet curtain. The room contained little in the way of furni- ture: a double bed, a large mirror on the wall just above the headboard, a towel-covered sofa, a nightstand, and a couple of chairs.

Propped up on cushions, a young girl was reclining on the sofa, reading a paperback. She wore a blue-striped bathrobe that showed most of her thighs; her bare feet dangled over the sofa arm. On the coffee table was a crystal ashtray with lipstick-marked cigarette butts.

“So you are Chen Cao.”

“Yes, has Ouyang told you about me?”

“Sure, you’re special, he’s told me, but it’s a bit early for me, I am afraid,” she said, moving to a sitting position. “My name is Xie Rong.” She got to her feet, not embarrassed as she straightened her robe.

“I should have called first, but-”

“That’s okay,” she said. “A distinguished customer is always welcome.”

“I don’t know what Ouyang has told you, but let’s have a talk.”

“Take a seat.” She gestured toward the chair beside the bed. He hesitated before sitting. The room smelled of strong spirits, cigarette smoke, cheap cosmetics, and something faintly suggestive of body odor.

Walking barefoot across the carpet, she poured some coffee from an electronic coffee pot, and handed him a cup on a Fuzhou lacquered tray.

“Thanks,” he said. Chief Inspector Chen was in for something he had not expected, or not even imagined, he realized. Maybe that was why Ouyang had left the address with no explanation. A poet searching for a young girl in a large city could have appeared suspiciously “romantic”-enough for Ouyang to bring him and the girl together in a flight of best-seller fantasy. There was no use blaming Ouyang, who had meant well.

“So let’s get on with it.” She climbed onto the bed, sitting there, her arms folded across her knees, studying him intensely, in a posture rather suggestive of a Burmese cat. It was not a repulsive association. In a way, she reminded him of someone.

“A first-timer, eh?” she said, misreading his silence.”Don’t be nervous.”

“No, I’ve come here to-”

“What about something to relax you first? A Japanese massage- a foot massage-to start with?”

“A foot massage-” he echoed. A foot massage. He had read about it in a Japanese novel. One of Mishima’s, perhaps. Something of an existentialist experience, though he had never liked Mishima. But it was a temptation. He would probably never come here again. Whether he was stepping over the line he had drawn for himself, he did not know. It was too late, however, for him to back out-unless he flashed his I.D. and started questioning her as a chief inspector. But would that work? To Xie Rong, as well as to other ordinary Chinese people, HCC like Wu Xiaoming led an existence far above them, and above the law, too. So it was quite likely she would not dare to say anything against Wu. If she refused to answer his questions, Chief Inspector Chen could not do much in Guangzhou. One thing he had learned in the past few days was the unreliability of his local colleagues.

“Why not?” he said, flashing a few bills.

“What a generous tip! Put it on the nightstand. Let’s go to the bathroom.”

“No.” He was still trying to draw a line somewhere. “I’ll take the shower by myself.”

“As you please,” she said casually. “You’re so different.”

She scrambled down, knelt at his feet, and began to unlace his shoes.

“No,” he protested again in embarrassment.

“You have to take your shoes off-that’s only civil.”

Before he could say or do anything, she reached out to unbutton his shirt. Feeling the heat of her breath on his shoulder, he took a step back. She then took a bathrobe from behind the door and threw it to him. He hurried into the bathroom, still wearing his clothes, the robe draped over his shoulder, thinking to himself that he must resemble some character in a movie.

The bathroom was no larger than the one at the Writers’ Home; it contained an oval tiled tub with a rotatable shower head and a large towel on a stainless-steel rack. A mirror hung over a cracked blue porcelain sink. A worn rug was spread out in front of it. There was no lack of hot water, though.

He had agreed to her proposal because he needed time to think, but he knew he could not stay in the bathroom too long. With a few ideas, half-formed in the vapor of shower, he emerged wearing her scruffy flannel bathrobe, the frayed belt brushing against his bare legs.

She was waiting, sitting cross-legged on the bed, painting her toenails a bright vermilion. The window filtered the light onto the plain white coverlet. Then she thrust her legs out in front of her, flexed her toes luxuriantly, lifted one foot above the other, waggled the toes at him, and giggled.

“Ah,” she said, “much better.”

There was a small bikini-girl poster above the sofa, and underneath it was a line in bold characters: TIME IS MONEY! a new political slogan he had seen in Guangzhou.

“Take off your robe,” she said, putting a finishing touch on her toenails with a steady hand. She then capped the polish bottle tightly, and put it aside on the nightstand. To his surprise, she lay down on her back, and waved her feet in the air as if doing synchronized swimming. Her red toenails arced in the air.

“Must I?”

“Must I help you?”

He was flabbergasted as she jumped up and helped him off with the bathrobe. Luckily, he had put his shorts back on. She guided him to the bed where he lay down, and then she turned him over. Lying on his stomach, he was very nervous as he became aware that she, too, had gotten onto the bed.

She put both her hands on a stainless-steel bar suspended from the ceiling. With the bar bearing the weight of her body like a gymnast, she started massaging his back with her toes.

It was a bizarre experience. The first two or three minutes, he was perspiring with trepidation. Any second, she could stamp down violently on his bare back, a complex of vertebrae, discs, ligaments, and nerves. But soon he started to have mixed feelings. Her bare toes and heels pressing upon him elicited sensations of ice and fire all over him. His pleasure was actually heightened by his trepidation.

She must have had some professional training. Her toes concentrated on his trouble spots, working kinks out of his back, and reducing the tension in his body. He didn’t feel so bad anymore. Not about the case, nor the budget, nor the politics involved.

“You make my feet warm.” She was finally finished, her face flushed with exertion, her brow beaded with sweat.

“Marvelous,” he said.

“It’s good exercise for me, too.”

“It’s the first time for me.”

“I know,” she said, her hand lightly touching the knot of her robe. “What about the full service now?”

That was something he could not do. A line he must not cross. This was the time to flash his I.D. Chief Inspector Chen should now take her to the police bureau and charge her with prostitution. But what about Professor Xie? He had given her his promise. News of what had become of Xie Rong would be too terrible a blow to the old intellectual who had already suffered a lot. The arrest would also incriminate his new friend Ouyang. Also, once she was taken into custody here, he was not sure if his local colleagues would help with his investigation. He was not sure that he could work out a deal for Xie in exchange for her information about Wu Xiaoming.

“You are sweating all over.” He sounded more like a client so that she would not grow suspicious. “Take a good shower yourself. I’ll stay here and close my eyes for five minutes.”

“Yes, there is nothing like taking a short nap,” she said. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

The moment she disappeared, he took a mini-recorder out of his briefcase and put it under the pillow. He put his shirt back on and buttoned several buttons before he closed his eyes for just a minute. In spite of himself, he dozed off. When he was awakened by the slamming of the bathroom door, it took him a few seconds to realize where he was.

She stepped out of the bathroom, naked except for a large bath towel draped around her shoulders. Fine-limbed and thin, she looked more like a high-school girl waiting for a regular checkup-except for a broad patch of black hair spreading over the lower part of her abdomen. She examined herself in the mirror, the water beading on her skin under the fluorescent light, which turned her face opalescent. Then she caught him gazing at her in the mirror. Startled, she pulled the towel down to cover her hips, but then she shook her wet hair, and gave him a long, steady look.

She started slowly toward the bed. He smelled the soap on her skin, still wet from the shower. Clean, fresh. Her body glowed.

“You are special,” she said.

He was so acutely aware of her, it took all his willpower to stop her from touching him.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

“No,” she touched a finger to his mouth, “you don’t have to say anything.”

“We don’t know each other yet.”

“Haven’t we talked enough?” she said. “Unless you want to talk about money.”

“Well-”

“Mr. Ouyang has paid for a whole day’s service, and you’ve given me a handsome tip,” she said. “So you can have the whole day, and the night, too. You don’t have to worry about it. If you want to buy me a dinner afterward-”

“No.” He sat up resolutely. It was not just all the years studying the People’s Police Morals Manual that had made Chen immune to such provocation. “I want to talk to you about something else.”

“What?”

“I’m a cop.” He produced his official I.D. “I’m here to ask you some questions.”

“You S.O. B!” She put one hand over her breasts and the other over her pubic hair.

It struck him as an absurd attempt at modesty, as if his being a cop had suddenly changed her identity, too.

“You won’t get into trouble if you cooperate with me,” he said. “I give you my word.”

“Then why didn’t you say so from start?”

“When I came to you, I was not prepared to see you like this. Ouyang had just told me that you were the one I’ve been looking for. I was surprised, and you did not give me a chance to say anything.” He handed the bathrobe over to her. “Put it on before you get cold.”

“I don’t trust you,” she said, taking the bathrobe. “Why should I cooperate with you?”

“I can have you arrested,” he said, taking out the recorder from under the pillow. “Once you are put in jail, you’ll have to talk anyway, but that’s not what I want to do.”

“What a treacherous sneak!”

“I’m a police officer.”

“So why don’t you go ahead and put me there?”

“Ouyang is my friend. Besides-”

“Why did you lie to Ouyang about being a poet?”

“No, I didn’t. I am a poet.”

It took him some time to ferret out his Writers’ Association membership card from his wallet.

“Then what the hell do you want with me?”

“Just a few questions.”

“You are so horrible.” She broke down, sobbing with fear and humiliation. “When I was ready-”

He had attained authority over her with his surprise revelation of his official identity. But they were still involved in a highly dramatic scene. He, in his half-buttoned shirt and underpants; she, in a bathrobe. The knowledge of her nakedness under the robe, soft and bulging in the right places, was disturbing. He poured her a cup of tea to calm them both.

Sipping at the tea, her painted toes like fallen petals on the carpet, she regained some control.

The touch of her toes was still fresh in his memory.

“Let’s go to a restaurant,” he suggested. “I’m hungry.”

“What?”

“You mentioned dinner afterwards.”

“Why? More of your dirty tricks?”

“No. I Just want to buy you a meal. What about the White Swan Hotel? It is quiet there, Ouyang’s told me. As for your time-”

“Don’t worry about that. Ouyang has paid for the whole day.”

“So the least I can do is pay for the lunch.”

He had saved enough to be able to afford this gesture, thanks to Ouyang, who had bought him so many morning teas and dinners.

“Why can’t we stay here?”

“Listen, I’m a cop,” he said, “but I’m a man too. If I stay here with you, just the two of us, I won’t be able to help feeling distracted.”

“So I’m not repulsive to you?”

“We need to have a good talk.”

“Fine, if that’s what you want.”

She got up and went into the bathroom without closing the door. Her robe fell to the floor in a heap around her feet, her bare breasts and hips were vivid in the mirror. He turned to the window.

When she came back, she had put on a white summer dress and slung a small purse over her shoulder. She did not wear a bra, so her nipples were almost imprinted on the dress. He considered asking her to put on something else, but he held the door open for her.

On the street, he noticed she kept looking back over her shoulder, as if anxious to make sure there was no one following them. There was actually a man walking behind them at a distance, but Chief Inspector Chen did not see why they would be followed.

The White Swan Hotel was a new building on the southeastern coast of Shamian Island. It was an immense white tower, like a transplant from Hong Kong across the water. There was a dazzling waterfall in the lobby. Several Western-style restaurants were located in the eastern wing of the building, and the Chinese restaurant was tucked behind the waterfall. There was a slender hostess standing at its entrance, smiling.

He was not going to indulge himself, but he felt obliged to spend some money. He did not like the idea of having Ouyang pay for everything, even for Xie Rong’s “service.” And he had to admit the so-called foot massage had been an exciting experience,.

They selected a private room-the Sampan Chamber. It proved to be a cozy room shaped like the cabin of a sampan on the Pearl River and decorated like one, too. The table and chairs were made of cedar-rough, unpolished, like those he’d seen in early black-and-white movies. The soft scarlet carpet on the floor was the only difference, but it was a necessary one, to give the customer a feeling of luxury. They could talk here without fear of being overheard.

A young waitress came in. She was wearing an indigo blue homespun top and a miniskirt, barefoot, with silver bangles jingling around her ankles, exactly like a fishing girl in the southern provinces-except for the menu in her hand.

He turned the menu over to Xie. She surprised him by choosing several inexpensive dishes, and shaking her head at one of the chef’s specials-fish-fragrance-sauced pigeon-recommended by the waitress.

“No, it’s too expensive.”

“Anything to drink?”

“Just a cup of water for me.”

“Well, we’ll have two iced beers then.”

“You shouldn’t. They charge three or four times more than they should for drinks,” she added after the waitress had left, almost like a virtuous wife who wanted to save every penny. Good. Chief Inspector Chen was starting to worry about the expense.

“I thought you’d take me to the police station,” she said.

“Why should I?”

“Maybe you will.” She reached into the leather handbag, took out a cigarette, but did not light it immediately. “Sooner or later.”

“No, whatever you do, it’s not my business-not here. But I don’t think it a good idea for you to stay… in that profession.”

“You are being genteel,” she said. “I do not like what you do either, but it is not so bad that I won’t have lunch with you.”

Smiling, she raised her glass toward him, relaxing as more dishes arrived on the table. The restaurant was known among Guangdong people for its excellent cooking.

At one point, their chopsticks crossed each other in an attempt to get hold of a large scallop on a bed of green snow beans.

“Please, you have it,” she said.

“It’s yours,” he said, “after all your work.”

The scallop looked like her big toe. White, soft, round.

She ate with relish, finishing four pancakes rolled up with roast duck and green onion, a bowl of shrimp dumplings, and almost the entire serving of beef tripe. He himself did not eat much but he put morsels in her saucer and sipped at his cup of Qingdao beer.

“Do you always eat this little?” she asked.

“I’m not hungry,” he said, afraid there would not be enough food for both of them.

“You are so romantic,“ she said.

“Really?” That was a strange compliment, he thought, to a police officer.

There was something touching his knee under the table. As it slowly traveled up, he knew it was her bare foot. She had removed her shoes. He clasped her leg where it was thinnest, and his hand became an ankle bracelet, slipping down. The shape of her smallest toe, bending with the adjoining ones, was distracting him in a way beyond his comprehension. Gently, he put her foot down.

Confucius said, “To eat and to mate is human nature.”

“What about a special dessert?” he asked.

“No, thank you.”

They shared segments of a Mandarin orange and sipped at the jasmine tea-compliments of the restaurant.

“Now I’m full,” she said. “You can start your questioning. But tell me first, how did you find me here?”

“Well, I had met your mother. She has no idea what you’re doing in Guangzhou. She’s so worried.”

“She’s always worried-all her life-about one thing or another.”

“She’s disappointed, I believe, that you did not take her path.”

“Her path, indeed?” she said. “Dear Comrade Chief Inspector, how can you go about investigating people without seeing the change in society? Who’s interested in literature anymore?”

“I, for one. In fact, I’ve read a collection of her essays.”

“I do not mean you. You’re so different, as Old Ouyang said.”

“Another of your bogus compliments?”

“No, I think so, too,” she said. “As for my mother, I love her. Her life’s not been easy. She got her Ph. D. in the United States. What happened to her when she came back in the early fifties? She was declared to be a rightist, and then a counterrevolutionary in the sixties. Not until after the Cultural Revolution was she allowed to teach again.”

“But she is teaching at a prestigious university.”

“Well, as a full professor at Fudan University, how much can she earn in a month? Less than what I made as a tourist guide for a week.”

“Money is not everything. But for a joke of fate, I might have studied comparative literature.”

“Thank heaven for that joke-whatever it was.”

“Life can be unfair to people-especially so for your mother’s generation-but we have reasons to believe that things won’t be so bad in the future.”

“For you, maybe not, Comrade Chief Inspector. And thank you for your political lecture, too,” she said. “I think it’s time that you start asking your questions.”

“Well, some may be difficult. But whatever you say will be kept confidential, I give you my word.”

“I’ll tell you whatever I know-after such a meal as you’ve just given me.”

“You had worked as a tourist guide before coming to Guangzhou.”

“Yes, I quit that job a couple of months ago.”

“On one of the Yellow Mountain trips, you met a man named Wu Xiaoming?”

“Wu Xiaoming? Oh yes, I remember him.”

“He had a girlfriend with him during the trip, hadn’t he?”

“Yes,” she said, “but at first I did not know it.”

“When did you come to know this?”

“The second or the third day of the trip. But why, Comrade Chief Inspector? What makes me worth your trip to Guangzhou?”

“She was murdered last month.”

“What?”

He produced a picture out of his briefcase. She took it over, and her fingers holding the picture trembled.

“That’s her.”

“She was Guan Hongying, a national model worker, and Wu Xiaoming’s our suspect. So what you know about the two of them may be very important.”

“Before I say anything,” she said, looking into the glass in her hand, and then up at him, “I want you to answer a question.”

“Go ahead.”

“Are you aware of his family background?”

“Of course, I’m aware of that.”

“Then why do you want to pursue the investigation?”

“It’s my job.”

“Come on, there are so many cops in China. You’re not the only one. Why are you so dedicated?”

“I’m… a romantic cop, as you have said. I believe in justice. Poetic justice if you want to call it that.”

“You think you can bring him down.”

“We have a good chance. That’s why I need your cooperation.”

“Oh,” she said softly, “you really are special. No wonder Old Ouyang likes you so much. Now that you have answered my questions, I will answer yours.”

“What was your first impression of them?”

“I cannot remember exactly, but one of the first things I noticed about them was their assumed names.”

“How could you tell?”

“Wu registered for both of them in our office. He had to change a character stroke in his signature.”

“You’re very observant,” he said. “No one makes a mistake with his own signature.”

“What’s more, they registered as a couple, asking for a double room, but instead of showing their marriage license, he only provided me with a statement on official letterhead. Normally, it would be much easier to show the license.”

“I see.” He nodded. “Did you talk to your boss about your suspicion?”

“No, it was just an idea that crossed my mind. In the mountains, I noticed something else.”