May 6 2012 1:00pm
Don’t Cry, Tai Lake: New Excerpt
An excerpt from Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, a police procedural in the Inspector Chen series by Qiu Xiaolong (available May 8, 2012).
Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department is offered a bit of luxury by friends and supporters within the Party—a week’s vacation at a luxurious resort near Tai Lake, a week where he can relax, and recover, undisturbed by outside demands or disruptions.
Unfortunately, the once beautiful Tai Lake, renowned for its clear waters, is now covered by fetid algae, its waters polluted by toxic runoff from local manufacturing plants. Then the director of one of the manufacturing plants responsible for the pollution is murdered and the leader of the local ecological group is the primary suspect of the local police. Now Inspector Chen must tread carefully if he is to uncover the truth behind the brutal murder and find a measure of justice for both the victim and the accused.
Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau found himself standing in front of the gate to the Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center.
His vacation in the city of Wuxi was totally unexpected. Earlier that Sunday morning, Chen was in Zhenjiang, attending an intensive political seminar for emerging Party officials training for “new responsibilities,” when he got a phone call from Comrade Secretary Zhao, the former second secretary of the Central Party Discipline Committee. Though retired, Zhao remained one of the most influential figures in Beijing. Zhao was too busy to take a vacation arranged for him at the center in Wuxi, so he offered it to Chen instead.
Chen was in no position to decline such a well-meant offer, coming from the Forbidden City. So he immediately left the seminar at the Zhenjiang Party School, took a long-distance bus to Wuxi station, and then a taxi to the center.
He had heard a lot about the center, which was located in a scenic area of the city. It was something like a combination of a resort and a sanatorium, known for its special service to high-ranking cadres. There were strict regulations about the Party cadre rank required for admission, and Chen was nowhere close to that rank. Chen knew an exception was being made because of Zhao.
Qiao Liangxing, the director of the center, was not around when Chen arrived. A front desk receptionist greeted Chen and led him to a white European-style villa, with tall marble columns in front, enclosed by an iron fence with gilded spikes and a shining stainless-steel gate. The villa stood alone on a tree-shaded hill, separate from other buildings. The receptionist showed Chen all due respect, as if the villa being allocated to him determined his status rather than the other way round. Without any other specific instructions from Qiao, however, all she could do was check Chen in with a detailed introduction to the center and its location: Yuantouzhu, or Turtle Head Park.
“Our center gets its name from a huge rock projecting over the Tai Lake, like a turtle tossing its head above the water. The park was founded in 1918 and covers an area of five hundred hectares. It is a scenic peninsula on the northwest shore of the lake, surrounded by green hills and clear water; it is considered the best resort area in Wuxi. As for the center, at the south end of the peninsula, it was built in the early fifties for high-ranking cadres.”
While listening to her introduction, Chen reﬂected on the way China took for granted the assumption that the Communist Party cadres, having conquered the country, deserved to enjoy all sorts of luxurious treatment.
“Last but not the least, people staying here can easily walk into the park, but the tourists in the park may only look at the center through the gate. So enjoy your vacation here,” the receptionist concluded, smiling, leaving the key as well as a park pass on a mahogany table in the hall before she left, closing the door carefully after her.
Chen moved to the front window. Looking out, he saw part of a curving driveway lined with shrubs and evergreen, and then further down the wooded hill, another driveway for someone else’s villa. To the other side, there were rows of multistory buildings, with identically shaped balconies aligned like matchboxes, as those in a large new hotel. He didn’t have a panoramic view of the center, but his villa was undoubtedly one reserved for top Party cadres.
It was a nice, large building consisting of nine rooms in all. He had no idea what to do with all those rooms as he walked upstairs and downstairs, examining one after another. He finally put his small suitcase in the master bedroom on the first ﬂoor, which commanded a fantastic lake view. Adjacent to the bedroom was a spacious living room, featuring a marble fireplace with a copper screen in an exquisite pattern, a black leather sectional sofa, and an LCD TV. One side of the room was a wall of tall windows overlooking Tai Lake.
Also on the first ﬂoor was a study with custom-made bookshelves, some books, and a desk with a brand new laptop on it. The windows in the study were large, but looked out on the driveway and the hill beyond it.
Chen went back to the living room and started to pace about, stepping on and off an apricot Persian rug. His footsteps echoed through the entire building. Finally he decided to take a bath. He grabbed a cup and a bottle of Perrier from a silver tray on a corner table and settled himself in the master bathroom, which also had a scenic view.
Soaking in the tub, he had the luxurious feeling of becoming one with the lake, as he watched the tiny bubbles rising in his glass of Perrier.
Outside, a rock frog was croaking intermittently, and there was the murmur of an unseen cascade. Looking out, Chen discovered that the lambent melody was actually coming from a tiny speaker hidden in a rock under the window.
Of late, Chen often felt worn out. With one “special case” after another on his hands, he hadn’t been able to take a break for months. A vacation could at least take his mind temporarily off his responsibilities and obligations.
Besides, there was nothing really important being handled by his Special Case Squad at the moment, and if something should come up, Wuxi was only an hour’s trip from Shanghai by train. If need be, he could easily hurry back. In the meantime, though, his longtime partner, Detective Yu Guangming, should be able to take care of things there.
But it didn’t take long before the chief inspector felt a slight suggestion—as if it was rising up from the still water in the tub—of loneliness, which was only magnified by the enormous size of the empty building.
The bubbles in the French water were gone, so he got out of the tub, put on his clothes, stuffed the paperback he brought with him into his pants pocket, and went out for a walk.
The center was connected, as the receptionist had said, to the park by a back entrance. Through the fence he saw tourists pointing and posing with cameras. He was not keen on becoming a tourist just yet, so he headed in the other direction, along a quiet, small road.
He had probably come in along the same route earlier, but sitting in the back of a taxi, he hadn’t been able to see much. There wasn’t anyone in the area, with the exception of an occasional car driving by at high speed. The road was fairly narrow. On one side, there was a wire fence stretching along like a wall, and a bushy, unkempt slope beyond it that stretched over to a wider road in the distance. On the other side, hills were rolling and rising upward here and there, interspersed with tourist attraction signs.
Ahead the road merged into a tiny square with bus stop shelters, a tea stall with bowls spread out on a makeshift table with a couple of benches, and a pavilion-like kiosk with a roof that was held up by vermillion posts, which sold all sorts of souvenirs. A group of people were getting off a gray bus, most of them carrying maps in their hands. The square couldn’t be far from the park.
He felt anonymous, yet contentedly so. He strolled about, taking out his own tourist map of Wuxi, which he had bought earlier at the bus station.
He hadn’t visited Wuxi for years. As a child, he and his parents had taken a day trip, riding from one tourist stop to another. Cutting across the square, he noted that it appeared quite different from what he remembered.
He was soon lost, in spite of the map. Like Shanghai, Wuxi had been changing dramatically in recent years. There were quite a few new street names that were unavailable or unrecognizable from his outdated map.
But he wasn’t worried. If he couldn’t find his way back, he could always hail a taxi. He liked walking—even more so as he slipped into the role of a tourist, a sort of different identity. Perhaps he was still not over having been pushed into becoming a cop when he graduated college years ago.
After passing a street corner convenience store with a twenty-four-hour-business sign, he ventured into a side street, and then into another one—a shabbier, somber, cobble-covered, and yet quaint one—which was almost deserted. This street seemed to fit into his memory of the city. Toward the end of it, he slowed down at the sight of a dilapidated eatery. It had a red wooden door and white walls, with a couple of rough tables and benches outside and several more inside, and an orange paper pinwheel spinning in the rustic window. Outside, there was a colorful row of wooden and plastic basins with fish swimming in some and rice paddy eels in others. Eels were usually placed in a basin without water, Chen reflected.
Perhaps because it was past lunchtime, or perhaps because of the location, Chen was the only one lingering there, except for a white cat with a black patch on its forehead, dozing by the worn-out threshold.
Chen decided to sit at a table outside, with a bamboo container holding a bunch of disposable chopsticks like ﬂowers. It was a warm day for May, and he had walked quite a distance. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he was grateful for a fresh breeze coming fitfully along the street.
An old man came shuﬄing out of the kitchen in the rear, carrying a dog-eared menu. Most likely he was the owner, chef, and waiter here.
“Anything particular you would like, sir?”
“Just a couple of small dishes—any local specialties, I mean,” he said, not really hungry. “And a beer.”
“Three whites are the local specialties,” the old man said. “The white water fish may be too large for one person. And I wouldn’t recommend the white shrimp—it’s not that fresh today.”
Chen remembered, from his Wuxi trip with his parents, his father raving about the “three whites”—white shrimp and white water fish were two of them, but he couldn’t recall what the third white was. Another local specialty he liked was the Wuxi soup buns, sweet with a lot of minced ginger. At the end of that long-ago trip, his mother carried home a bamboo basket of soup buns. He still remembered that, but couldn’t recall the third “white.” Perhaps he really was a “helpless gourmet,” as his friends called him, he thought with a touch of self-irony.
“Whatever you recommend, then.”
“How about Wuxi ribs and sliced lotus roots filled with sticky rice?”
“And a local beer—Tai Lake Beer?”
“Fine,” Chen said. The lake was known for its clear water, which could mean a superior beer.
It took the old man only a minute to return to the table with a bottle of beer and a tiny dish of salted peanuts.
“The appetizer is on the house. Enjoy. So, are you a tourist here?”
Chen raised the map in his hand, nodding.
“Staying at Kailun?”
Kailun might be a hotel nearby, but Chen didn’t know anything about it. “No, at the Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center. Not far from here.”
“Oh,” the old man said, turning back toward the kitchen. “You’re a young man for that place.”
The old man was understandably surprised: the center was only for high-ranking cadres, most of whom were old, while Chen looked only thirtyish.
Though the vacation had come as a surprise to Chen himself, he didn’t say anything in response, but simply took out his book and put it on the table. Instead of reading it, however, he started sipping his beer.
Life could be more absurd than fiction. In college, he had majored in English, but upon graduation he was state-assigned to a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau, where, to the puzzlement of others as well as himself, he had been rising steadily through the ranks. At the Zhenjiang Party School, some predicted that Chen had a most promising official career ahead of him, that he was capable of moving much further than his current job as chief inspector.
But here, he was quite content to be a nameless tourist on vacation, with a bottle of beer and a mystery novel. Su Shi, one of his favorite Song dynasty poets, had once declared it regrettable to “have no self to claim,” but at the moment, at least, Chen did not find it so.
The old man was bringing the dishes Chen had ordered.
“Thank you,” Chen said, looking up. “How is business?”
“Not too good. People are telling stories, but it’s really the same everywhere.”
What stories? Chen wondered. Presumably about the poor quality of the food. That wasn’t uncommon for a tourist city, where customers seldom go to a restaurant a second time, stories or not. But the ribs were delicious, done nicely with plenty of mixed sauce, rich in color and taste. The sliced lotus root, too, proved to be crisp, fresh, yet surprisingly compatible with the sweet sticky rice filling.
It was a rare privilege to be the only customer in a place, he thought, crunching another slice of the pinkish lotus root. Soon, he had a second beer, without having opened the book yet, and his mind began wandering.
So many days, where have you been—/ like a traveling cloud / that forgets to come back / unaware of the spring drawing to an end?
Shaking his head, he pulled himself out of the unexpected wave of self-pity, and took out his cell phone. He dialed Detective Yu back in Shanghai.
“Sorry, Yu, that I didn’t come back to Shanghai before leaving on vacation. Zhengjiang was simply closer to Wuxi.”
“Don’t worry about it, Chief. There are nothing but small cases here, and none of them special, either. There’s nothing for our Special Case Squad.”
“Was there any reaction to my extended absence in the bureau?”
“With your vacation having been arranged by Comrade Secretary Zhao, what could Party Secretary Li say?”
Party Secretary Li had become increasingly wary of Chen, whom he was beginning to see as a threat to Li’s position as the top Party official in the bureau. Li was headed to retirement, but—if things worked out his way—not that soon.
“Keep me posted, Yu. Call me anytime you like. I don’t think there is anything for me to do here.”
“Are you so sure?”
Chen knew the reason for his partner’s skepticism. Chen had had vacations before—unplanned, unexplained vacations—that turned out to be nothing more than a pretext for an investigation. What’s more, Chen had once investigated a highly sensitive case under Zhao’s supervision.
“Zhao didn’t mention anything to me,” Chen said. “Remember the anticorruption case? He promised me a vacation then, and I think that’s what this is about.”
“That’s good, boss. Enjoy your vacation. I won’t bother you unless it’s an emergency,” Yu said, then added, “Oh, you know what? You have a fan in Wuxi. I met a recent graduate from the Police Academy in a meeting two or three months ago. Sergeant Huang Kang. He bugged me for stories about you.”
“He’ll never forgive me if I don’t tell him that you are vacationing in Wuxi.”
“Let me enjoy myself in peace for a couple of days first. Once Huang knows, he, as well as others, may come over, bringing with them cases they want to discuss. My vacation would become anything but a quiet one,” Chen said. “But what’s his number? I’ll call him later, and say that you insisted on it.”
Chen copied the number into his notebook. There was no hurry. He would wait until a day or two before the end of his vacation to call.
Chen put away his cell phone and turned his attention to the book he’d brought with him. It was a novel with an interesting title: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and a Guangxi publisher had been pushing him to translate it. Mysteries had begun to sell well, and the contract they were offering for the translation wasn’t bad. However, in comparison to the occasional business translations that he did for his Big Buck businessmen acquaintances, it was nothing.
Chen had read only two or three pages when he noticed someone approaching the eatery. Looking up, he glimpsed a young, slender woman, who glanced in his direction, dipping her head like a shy lotus ﬂower in a cool breeze.
She appeared to be in her mid-twenties. She was wearing a black fitted blazer, a white blouse, jeans, and black pumps, and she carried a satchel slung over her shoulder. She moved to the other outside table. She had a bottle of water in her hand, ignoring the proprietor’s sign objecting to customers bringing in their own drinks. Instead of calling for a menu, she shouted, “I’m here, Uncle Wang.”
“One minute,” the old man said, sticking his head out. “Do you have to work this weekend, Shanshan?”
“I’m just checking a new test at the office, but it’s getting more complicated. Don’t worry. At most it will be a couple of hours in the afternoon.”
Apparently she was no stranger here. The old man, surnamed Wang, was probably not a relative, or she would not have prefixed Wang with Uncle.
The old man shuffled out with a steaming plastic container, which must have been microwave-warmed. She had probably left her lunch here earlier in the day, and it might have been a common arrangement. In the course of the economic reform, state-run companies had been shutting down their employee canteens as a money-losing business practice. So she probably had to find a way of eating somewhere else.
She opened the plastic container and inside, on top of white rice, lay an omelet with lots of chopped green onion. She pulled a pair of bamboo chopsticks out of her satchel.
“The green onion is fresh from my own garden,” Uncle Wang said with a toothless grin. “I picked it this morning. Totally organic.”
Organic—an interesting word to say here, Chen thought as he sipped his beer in silence.
“That’s so thoughtful of you, Uncle Wang.”
Uncle Wang went back into the kitchen. The two of them were left alone.
She started eating in a leisurely manner, adding a small spoon of hot sauce to the rice. She pulled a crumpled newspaper out of her jean pocket and began reading. A frown started to form in her delicate eyebrows. Chen caught himself studying her with interest.
She was attractive, her oval face framed by long black hair and animated with a youthful glow. Her mouth subtly curved under her delicate nose, and there was a wistful look in her clear, large eyes.
The characters printed on the satchel said: Wuxi Number One Chemical Company. Perhaps she worked there.
Occasionally, Chen liked to consider himself a detached aesthetic, like the persona in those lines by Bian Zhilin: You are looking at the scene, / and the scene watcher is looking at you. It was an ingenious way to describe one’s scene-eclipsing beauty. Bian was a contemporary poet he had studied in college, but was something of a Prufrock in real life. Chen considered himself different from that. Still, there was nothing improper, he reassured himself, in a poet watching in detachment. Not to mention that, as a detective, he was in a natural position to observe.
Chen laughed at himself. A worn-out cop on his first day of vacation couldn’t automatically switch back into being a vigorous poet.
He was in no hurry to leave. Having finished the ribs and lotus root, however, he thought it might not appear proper for him to sit too long with nothing left on the table. So he rose and went over to the rice paddy eels squirming in the plastic basin close to her table. As he squatted down, examining, touching the slippery eels with a finger, he couldn’t help taking in her shapely ankle ﬂashing in the background above the somber water in the basin.
“Are the eels good?” he asked loudly, still squatting, turning over his shoulder to direct his voice toward the kitchen.
The young woman unexpectedly leaned over, whispering to him, her hair nearly touching his face. “Ask him why he keeps the eels in water.”
Chen took her suggestion.
“Why do you keep the rice paddy eels in water?” he called toward the kitchen.
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s for the benefit of our customers,” Uncle Wang said, emerging from the kitchen. “Nowadays people feed eels hormones and whatnot. So I keep them in water for a day after they’re caught, to wash out any remaining drugs.”
But could drugs really be washed out of their systems that easily? Chen doubted it, and his appetite for eels was instantly lost.
“Well, give me a portion of stinking tofu,” Chen said. “And a lot of red pepper sauce.”
Presumably, stinking tofu was a safe bet. Chen looked up only to see the young woman shaking her head with a sly smile.
He restrained himself from asking her to explain. It wouldn’t be so easy to talk across the table with the old man going in and out of the kitchen. There was something intriguing about her. She knew the proprietor well, yet she didn’t hesitate to speak against the food here.
Soon, Uncle Wang placed a platter of golden fried tofu on the table along with a saucer of red pepper sauce.
“The local tofu,” he said simply, heading back the kitchen.
“The tofu is hot. Would you like to join me?” Chen turned to the young woman, raising the chopsticks in a gesture of invitation.
“Sure,” she said, standing up, still holding the water bottle in her hand. “But I have to say no to your stinking tofu.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, signaling the bench opposite and pulling out another pair of chopsticks for her. “Some people can’t stand the smell, I know, but once you try it, you may not want to stop. How about a beer?”
“No thanks,” she said. “The local farmers use chemicals to make that tofu, though perhaps it’s a common practice now. But what about the water they use to make it—and to make the beer? You should take a look at the lake. It is so polluted, it’s undrinkable.”
“Unimaginable!” he said.
“According to Nietzsche: God is dead. What does that mean? It means that people are capable of doing anything. There is nothing that is unimaginable.”
“Oh, you’re reading Nietzsche,” he said, impressed.
“What are you reading?”
“A mystery novel. By the way, my name is Chen Cao. It’s nice to meet you,” he said, then added with a touch of exaggeration, in spite of himself, “As in the old proverb, it’s more beneficial to listen to your talk for one day than to read for ten years.”
“I’m simply talking shop. My name is Shanshan. Where are you from?”
“Shanghai,” he said, wondering what kind of work she did.
“So you’re on vacation here. A hard-working intellectual, reading English in a Wuxi eatery,” she said teasingly. “Are you an English teacher?”
“Well, what else can I do?” he said, reluctant to reveal that he was a cop. Teaching was a career he had, in his college days, imagined for himself. And he felt an urge, at least for a while, to not be a cop. Or not be treated as a cop. Police work had become a bigger and bigger part of his identity, whether he liked it or not. So it was tantalizing to imagine a different self, one that wasn’t a chief inspector—like a snail that didn’t carry its shell.
“Schoolteachers earn quite a lot, especially with the demand for private tutoring,” she said, casting a glance at the dishes on the table.
He knew what she was driving at. Chinese parents spared no expense for their children’s education, since that education could make a huge difference in an increasingly competitive society. Detective Yu and his wife Peiqin, for instance, spent the bulk of their income on private lessons for their son. A schoolteacher could make a small fortune by giving private lessons after hours, sometimes squeezing ten students or more into a small living room.
“No, not me. Instead, I’m debating whether or not to translate this book for a small sum.”
“A mystery,” she said, glancing at the book cover in English.
“Occasionally, I write poems too,” he responded impulsively. “But there is no audience for poetry today.”
“I used to like poetry too—in middle school,” she commented. “In a polluted age like ours, poetry is too much of a luxury, like a breath of pure air or a drop of clear water. Poetry can’t make anything happen except in one’s self-indulgent imagination.”
“No, I don’t—”
Chen’s response was interrupted by the shrill ringing of a cell phone in her satchel.
Taking out a pink phone and putting it to her ear, she listened for a moment. Then she stood up, her face quickly bleaching of color in the afternoon light.
“Something wrong?” he said.
“No, it was just a nasty message,” she said, turning off the phone.
“What was the message?”
“ ‘Say what you’re supposed to say, or you’ll pay a terrible price.’ ”
“Oh, maybe it was a prank call. I get those calls too,” he said. But usually nothing that specific, he didn’t add.
Her brows knitted again. She seemed to know the call was more than a practical joke. She looked at her watch.
“I’ve got to go back to work,” she said. “It’s nice to have met you, Mr. Chen. I hope you will enjoy a wonderful vacation here.”
“You have a good weekend—”
He thought about asking for her phone number, but she was already walking away, her long hair swaying across her back.
It was probably just as well. It was only a chance meeting, like two nameless clouds crossing each other in the sky, then continuing on with their respective journeys. That was probably not a metaphor of his invention, but he couldn’t recall where he’d read it, Chen mused as he watched her walk.
She turned before crossing the street and said, waving her hand lightly, “Bye,” as if to apologize for her abrupt exit.
“Another beer?” Uncle Wang said, coming back to the table. He noticed the platter had hardly been touched. “I can refry the tofu for you.”
“No, thanks. Just a beer,” Chen said. “Do you know her well?”
“I know her parents well, to be exact. She was assigned a job here upon graduation. She is alone in Wuxi, so she comes here for lunch. I just warm up the food that she brings by in the morning.”
“What kind of work does she do?”
“She’s an engineer. Something to do with environment. She works hard, even on weekends. She left rather suddenly. What did you two talk about?”
“She got a phone call and she left. A nasty prank call.”
“There are some people who don’t like her.”
If that was the case, then, the phone message could be a warning, not a practical joke. Still, who was he to worry about it? He hardly knew her.
He finished his second beer and was ready to leave. He decided to curb his cop’s curiosity. After all, he was on vacation.
The next morning, Chen woke with a start. He thought he heard first a knock on the door, then heard the doorknob turning. Still disoriented, he sat up in bed, thinking that he must have been dreaming.
A young attendant came in bearing a sweet smile and a silver tray of coffee, toast, jam, and eggs. She had clear features, a slender figure, and a willowy waist. She might have been specially selected to appeal to high-ranking cadres.
He got out of bed and tried to find some change for a tip in the pocket of his pants draped over a chair, but she had already left the tray on the nightstand and had withdrawn light-footedly.
The coffee tasted strong and refreshing. This was like staying in a five-star hotel, except that it was even more sumptuous. A whole villa to himself. He sipped at his first cup of coffee in bed, looking out the window at an expanse of lake water shimmering in the morning light.
Then his phone began tinkling, as if rippling up from the dainty coffee cup.
It was Comrade Secretary Zhao in Beijing.
“I know you’ve been working hard, so enjoy the vacation, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, and don’t worry about things back at the bureau.”
“But the vacation was supposed to be for you.”
“I’m retired, so I’m practically on vacation every day. You should take it. It’s also an opportunity for you to observe—do social research about China’s reform. Keep your eyes open to new things and any problems that might arise in the current economic development. You have to prepare yourself for new responsibilities—not necessarily as a policeman, and not just in Shanghai. At the end of your vacation, write a report and turn it in to me.”
It was a hint, but a positive one. It was the Party’s tradition for a young cadre to do “social research” before being promoted to a higher position.
“But I’m a stranger here. People might not talk to me.”
“I’m not looking for anything special. In the report, I mean. Just your impressions and observations. I’ll make sure that the people in Wuxi know that I asked you to come.”
“Thank you, Comrade Secretary Zhao. I’ll keep my eyes open and report to you.”
After the call, Chen was vaguely disturbed. Zhao might simply want to see things through his eyes, so to speak, but he might want something more. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Chen to have something like an emperor’s sword, however, in case he really wanted to do something while he was in Wuxi. In ancient times, a trusted minister might receive from the emperor a sword, a symbol of supreme empowerment that enabled that minister to do whatever he thought was right and required in the emperor’s name.
In the meantime, he was going to enjoy the treatment usually reserved for high-ranking cadres. There was no point looking a gift horse in the mouth. He didn’t have any specific plans for this vacation, which might be the very thing to tune himself up—to get his body’s yin and yang rebalanced, according to Dr. Ma, an old Chinese-medicine doctor he knew in Shanghai.
Chen once again looked out the window to the lake. He took a deep breath, dimly aware of a tang in the air, which might be characteristic of the lake. The water looked green under the morning sunlight. He thought of a line in a poem entitled “South of River,” an area including Wuxi: When spring comes, the water is bluer than the skies—
The doorbell rang, interrupting his thoughts. He went to open the door, and saw a gray-haired, stout man standing there, smiling, holding up a bottle of champagne.
“I’m Qiao Liangxin, the director here at the center. I’m so sorry, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen,” Qiao said with sincerity. He stepped in and turned on the air conditioning. “I was in a meeting in Hangzhou yesterday, so I didn’t know about your arrival—not until I got Comrade Secretary Zhao’s message. He called again this morning and said that you’ve been doing a fantastic job for the Party and that you should have a wonderful vacation. A vacation like the one he himself enjoyed a few years ago. I hurried back, but you were already here. I really apologize.”
“You don’t have to, Director Qiao,” Chen said, seeing no need for Qiao’s apology. Qiao’s Party rank was higher than Chen’s. For that matter, so were the ranks of most, if not all, of the other cadres staying at the center.
“This is the best building in our center. These are premium accommodations reserved for the top leaders from Beijing. The exact same arrangements have been made for you as would be for him.”
“I am overwhelmed, Director Qiao.”
“If there’s anything else you need, let me know. We’re going to assign a young nurse to you too.”
“No, don’t worry about a nurse. I’m just a little overworked, that’s all. But I do need to ask you for a favor,” Chen said. “Keep my vacation here as quiet as possible. The presence of a chief inspector may make some people uncomfortable.”
Chen had conducted several high-level investigations, and this place was crowded with high-ranking cadres. He had no idea what some of them would think; he wasn’t that popular in the system.
It was not always easy to be, or not to be, Chief Inspector Chen.
“You make a good point, Chief Inspector Chen,” Qiao said. “So I won’t call you Chief Inspector in the presence of others. Our old Comrade Secretary mentioned that you have a lot of important work on your hands. Do you have anything special planned during your stay here?”
Apparently, Qiao was having suspicions about the purpose of Chen’s visit.
“No, it is just a vacation.”
“Wonderful. Let me arrange a welcome lunch for you—a banquet of all the lake delicacies. I’ll summon the other executives and some local officials too.”
“No, please don’t do that, Director Qiao. You have so many things on your plate already.” Though not a stranger to lavish meals at the government’s expense, Chen shunned the prospect of spending two or three hours at a banquet table, saying things in official language that he didn’t want to say, in the company of oﬃcials he was in no mood to spend time with. He came up with an excuse. “Besides, I have a lunch appointment today.”
“Then another time,” Qiao said, moving to the door. “Enjoy your day in Wuxi. There is a lot to see.”
After Qiao’s visit, Chen felt obliged to leave the villa and head out to his “lunch appointment.”
He had planned to go to the park, but he changed his mind when he saw that it was packed with tourists. He could go there another time, preferably in the evening, when it would be less crowded. Instead he made a right turn again, following the same route as the day before.
He noticed weather-beaten tourist attraction signs along the way, but there were no tourists walking there. At a turn in the road, a black limousine sped past him at full speed. He had to quickly flatten himself against the hillside. The road must have been built so that Party officials could enter and leave the center without having to walk through the crowded park.
He cut through the small square and took several unfamiliar turns, but to his surprise, he found himself heading toward Uncle Wang’s place again.
It couldn’t be because of her, Chen assured himself. The food there was not bad, he thought, trying to rationalize his return to Wang’s. Also, there was the quiet, anonymous atmosphere. He was nobody there, and there was nobody else there, either.
As for the possible food contamination she had warned him against, it would probably be the same everywhere.
Uncle Wang didn’t seem surprised at his reappearance.
“You’re early, Mr. Chen. What would you like today?”
“It’s not quite lunchtime yet. Perhaps a pot of green tea first.”
“Sure, a cup of tea to start. Whenever you’re ready to order, let me know.”
Soon, a pot of tea was placed on the table, along with a dish of fried sunﬂower seeds and a light blue ashtray half full of cigarette butts, presumably the same one as yesterday.
He sat sipping his tea and looking around the street.
Not far away, a family of three was eating brunch out on the street, sitting in a circle consisting of a plastic chair, a wooden stool, and a bamboo recliner, without a table in the center. The little boy was gazing up at a brightly colored kite dangling from a tree while being chided by his mother, who was insistently pushing the bowl up to his mouth. His father was enjoying a leisurely smoke, looking over his shoulder. All of them seemed contented and at peace with their surroundings.
Past the family, there was a middle-aged peddler squatting over a piece of white cloth, on which he exhibited an array of souvenirs and knickknacks. It was a strange place to have chosen. On a side street not frequented by tourists, there would hardly be any customers for his goods. Still, the peddler, dressed neatly in a short-sleeved white shirt, looked contented, like someone relaxing in front of his own house. But then Chen didn’t know this area, so his interpretations of these people could well be wrong.
Anyway, they seemed to be ordinary people and ordinary scenes, and they calmed him.
Ready to settle down to work, he took out his notebook. He conceived some lines on the experience of being a non-chief inspector here. For the past few months, he had been writing less and less, with the always-present excuse of his heavy workload.
Where else are we living—/ except in our assumed identities / in others’ interpretations. / So you and I are zoomed, posing / against a walnut tree whispering / in the wind or a butterﬂy soaring / to the black eye of the sun. / Only with ourselves in the proper light, / and the proper position too, / can we be recognized as meaningful, / as a woodpecker has to prove / its existential values / in the echoes of a dead trunk . . .
The lines moved in an unanticipated direction, growing inexplicably melancholy. He slowed down, yet he persisted. It was something worth doing, he told himself.
Uncle Wang came over to add hot water to his purple sand teapot.
It was probably close to the lunch hour, but Chen remained the only customer. It was none of his business, but he thought of the young woman again. Holding the pen, he was bothered by something she had said—about the irrelevance of poetry in today’s society. Maybe reﬂecting on identity was a sort of “luxury” affordable only to a nothing-to-do tourist like himself. People were too busy getting whatever they could in today’s society. Who would care about these metaphysical ideas? Besides, it hardly mattered whether being a cop was fulfilling or not. What else could he possibly do?
“Take your time,” Uncle Wang said, coming back to the table with a menu. “No hurry.”
Having read through the one-page menu describing local freshwater fish, shrimp, lilies, and chestnuts, Chen decided on the white water fish. It was “live, fresh from the lake, recommended,” according to a smaller line of print in parentheses. There was no way to add hormones to the lake, he figured.
“Good choice, the fish is medium-size today,” Uncle Wang said. “Live.”
It was quite an experience seeing the old man prepare the fish outside. It wasn’t a large one, but it was still struggling, its silver scales shining and tail thrashing. The old man finished his job in two or three minutes and he threw the fish into a wok full of sizzling oil.
Soon after, the fish was served, still steaming hot, its skin golden and crisp, its appealing white meat tender. It was lying sensually atop a bed of red peppers.
“Not too many people today, Uncle Wang?” Chen asked, raising his chopsticks.
“Well, most of my customers come from the chemical company nearby. The food in their canteen is no good. But this morning something happened at the plant.”
“What—you mean Shanshan’s company?”
“Yes, several police cars rushed there early in the morning. Someone was murdered, I heard. I didn’t think the employees would come out for lunch today.”
“Oh . . .” Chen said, putting down the chopsticks. He hastened to remind himself that it was not his business—not here in Wuxi.
He was aiming his chopsticks at the fish again when Shanshan appeared, crossing the street to the eatery.
Uncle Wang greeted her in a loud voice, “Shanshan, you’re late today. Your friend has been waiting here a long while.”
It was true that Chen had been sitting here for quite a while, but he had not been waiting for her. He chose not to contradict the old man, instead smiling and waving his hand at her. She had to have taken him for a bookish tourist. Why not continue to play the role?
She stopped and nodded at him before turning to Uncle Wang.
“No time for lunch today, Uncle Wang. I have to hurry to the ferry. Leave the lunch in the refrigerator for me, please?”
“But you have to eat something. Let me warm you a couple of steamed buns. You can eat them on the way.”
Uncle Wang dashed into the kitchen, leaving the two of them alone. She took a glance at his notebook spread out on the table. A question seemed to start rippling in her large eyes, eyes that were serene, clear like lake water. The metaphor came to mind before he realized it was inappropriate given what he’d heard of the lake water here.
“I thought you might come here for lunch,” he said.
“Something happened in the factory. A mess. Now I have to catch a ferry.”
She wouldn’t talk to an almost stranger about a murder, a reluctance that was quite understandable.
“Well, what do you think of my choice today?” he asked, trying to change the topic. “It’s one of the three special whites in Wuxi.”
“Really! The white fish came fresh from the lake. It was recommended on the menu.”
“You’re from Shanghai, so you don’t know. Local farmers raise fish in enclosed ponds, and they add drugs to the water to increase production. For instance, antibiotics, lots of them—so the fish won’t get sick,” she said. “Now let’s suppose, instead of being pond-raised, the fish is caught in the lake. You should take a good look at the lake. The water is so polluted that it is totally undrinkable. How could the fish from there be any good?”
He had heard stories of serious environmental problems throughout the country, not just here in Wuxi.
“Is the water really so bad? Not long ago I heard a song about the beautiful water of Tai Lake. You know it.”
“Yes, they play it on TV,” she said, pausing before she went on. “You’re a tourist, so you may not know. Have you seen or heard of the green algae blooms in the lake?”
“No, I haven’t been back to Wuxi in years, and I only arrived yesterday. I haven’t been able to walk around the lake yet.”
“The whole lake is covered with a thick, foul-smelling canopy, leaving people without drinking water for the last several days.” She raised the bottle of water.
“Have people tried to do anything about it?”
“What’s the use? The city government calls the outbreak a ‘natural disaster’—due to the warm weather, the bacteria ‘exploded’ at rates unseen in the past. Whatever reason they may make up, though, you wouldn’t believe it if you saw pictures of the factories dumping waste into the lake. The local residents form long lines to buy bottled water, and the neighboring cities shut sluice gates and canal locks to prevent the contamination from spreading. Still, the local oﬃcials won’t do anything because Wuxi’s economic boom has been built on the ever-increasing revenue of the factories around the lake. Economic miracle indeed. The only standard for success in today’s China is money, so people are capable of doing anything and everything.”
She wasn’t just being fastidious about food or jumping on one of the fashionable trends of vegetarian diets or organic food. Instead of simply doing the job she’d been assigned, checking on environmental problems, it seemed that she had made efforts to look into the social and historical causes too.
“Oh, I shouldn’t be such a wet blanket,” she exclaimed, noticing the fish sitting untouched on the platter.
“From my window at the center, the lake appeared okay. Like in a Tang poem, the spring water ripples bluer than the sky.” At least one advantage of an identity as a bookish tourist was that he could quote poetry at length, letting it say what might otherwise be too difficult. Serious, yet not that serious.
“Where are you staying?”
“Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center.”
“But that’s a place for high-ranking cadres, and you’re—you told me you’re a schoolteacher.”
“Someone gave me his vacation package. A small potato like me couldn’t afford to let it go.”
“I see,” she said, eyeing him up and down. “For free?”
“For free.” He wondered whether she believed him. But it was true, and he noted that she was not in a hurry to leave—not yet.
“You’re going to the ferry,” he said on the spur of the moment. “How about letting me walk you to the ferry? You can tell me more things about the lake.”
And something about the murder too, he thought but didn’t say.
“I’m not a good guide for a tourist.”
“No, perhaps not for a tourist, but what you said about the lake interests me,” he said, pointing at his notebook before he closed it. “As I said, occasionally, I write poetry too. The image of the horribly polluted lake may serve as a poignant background, like in ‘The Waste Land.’”
She studied him with a sort of mixed expression, and then changed her mind.
“Fine, let’s walk there. But I have to warn you, it’s not the part of the lake you can see from your window at the center.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” he said. He rose and left some money under the platter on the table. “Let’s go.”
They were already close to the end of the street when Uncle Wang hurried out of the kitchen, waving his hands, shouting out to them.
“Your white fish, Mr. Chen, and your steamed buns, Shanshan!”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re going to the lake,” he said, waving back at him. “I’ll buy something for her on the way.”
Copyright © 2012 by Qiu Xiaolong
Qiu Xialong is a poet and author of several previous novels featuring Inspector Chen as well as Years of Red Dust, a Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2010. Born and raised in Shanghai, Qiu lives with his family in St. Louis, Missouri.