Featured Excerpt: Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg
By Crime HQJanuary 26, 2021
Read on for this substantial excerpt from and Thief of Souls and comment with your first impression to enter for a chance to win 1 of 5 ARCS!
Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are “poor and blank.” This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for changes, the desire for action, and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.
—Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong
On the night the young woman’s corpse is discovered, hollowed out like a birchbark canoe, Inspector Lu Fei sits alone in the Red Lotus bar, determined to get gloriously drunk.
In keeping with the season, Lu’s beverage of choice is Shaoxing wine, served in a red earthenware jar and drunk from a rice bowl. It is twenty below outside, and Shaoxing is renowned for “revitalizing the blood” and warming the qi.
But never mind the health benefits—Lu just loves the taste. Sweet, bitter, sour, and spicy, all at once. An apt metaphor for life, fermented and distilled.
The plaintive strains of a Chinese fiddle warble through the bar’s cheap sound system. The melody plucks at the frayed filaments of Lu’s soul. He closes his eyes and pictures the moon reflecting off the rippling waters of the West Lake. Pink peony blossoms, fluttering in a summer breeze. A naked woman, her smooth skin burnished to a golden glow by candlelight.
“Yi! Er! San!” Four men in their early twenties sit at another table, the only other patrons in the bar. Lu has seen them around town but doesn’t know their names. They shout and gesticulate wildly as they play a traditional drinking game, the goal of which is to guess how many fingers your opponent will hold out at the count of three. “Drink!” one of the men demands. The loser drinks. The faces of all four are flushed bright red.
Lu sighs. There will be no peace in the Red Lotus tonight, not with these youths guzzling mao tai liquor and smoking pack after pack of Zhongnanhai cigarettes. If he were inclined to throw his weight around, he might tell them to keep it down, but it is Saturday night, and they have every right to blow off some steam.
Besides—Yanyan needs the business.
Speaking of Yanyan, she approaches, bearing a dish of boiled peanuts and a mild look of disapproval.
“Every weekend, the same thing.” She takes a seat and slides the dish over. “Drinking by yourself until you can barely see straight.”
Lu pops a peanut into his mouth. “Lacking a companion, I drink alone. I raise my cup and toast the moon. Together, the moon, my shadow, and I make three.”
Yanyan takes a peanut for herself. “Who’s that? Li Bai?”
“Correct. I’m pleased we can enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. You supply the drinks, and I provide the poetry.”
“You’re getting the better end of the deal.”
“For sure. In any case, there’s no need for me to drink with just the moon and my shadow. Bring a cup over.”
“I can’t. I’m working.”
“Call it customer service, if that makes you feel better.”
“Hey, pretty lady!” One of the young men at the other table waves his cigarette. “We need some beers.”
Yanyan gives Lu a wan smile and gets up to fetch the drinks. Lu shoots the kid a baleful stare, then pours himself another bowl of wine. He watches Yanyan collect four bottles of Harbin Premium lager from the chiller.
She is tall and long-limbed, with thick black hair, a high forehead, and large, expressive eyes. Full lips and cheeks that are always a charming shade of pink, as if kissed by the cold.
Lu has never asked her age, but he believes Yanyan is in her midthirties, a few years younger than himself. He knows she is a widow. Her husband died a few years back of some illness or another, leaving her to run the Red Lotus by herself. It is a tiny place, just four tables, serving drinks and basic snacks, nothing special. Most nights, it brings in only a handful of customers. It’s not an easy way to make a living. But for a country girl like Yanyan, it’s better than working in the fields or at some other menial, dead-end job.
Lu is secretly smitten with her. So, he suspects, are the four men playing drinking games.
And a sizable percentage of the male population in Raven Valley Township.
Yanyan carries the bottles over. One of the young men plucks at her sleeve and asks her to join them. She brushes him off, same as she did Lu. All four of them stare at her wolfishly as she walks away.
Lu finds this irritating, but understandable. He, too, cannot help but stare wolfishly at Yanyan.
His cell phone rings. It’s the paichusuo—the local Public Security Bureau station.
The PSB, in the People’s Republic, is analogous to a Western police department, with branches at the provincial, county, municipal, and local levels. PSB officers are responsible for crime prevention and investigation, traffic and fire control, public safety, household registration, and keeping tabs on foreigners and visitors.
In Raven Valley, a modestly sized township about seventy kilometers from Harbin City, the station is staffed by a chief, a deputy chief—that’s Lu’s official role—a sergeant, and a handful of constables.
But Lu is not on duty tonight. So why is the paichusuo calling him?
He answers. “Lu Fei.”
“Inspector!” Lu recognizes the voice on the end of the line. Constable Huang, aged twenty-one, excitable disposition, dumb as a wheelbarrow full of pig shit.
“What is it, Constable? It’s my night off.”
“I know, Inspector, but there’s been a . . . a . . .” “Go on,” Lu says.
Huang whispers. “A murder.”
Lu sits up a little straighter. “Why are you whispering?” “I don’t know.”
“Did you call the chief?”
Lu means Chief Liang, his direct superior. “He didn’t answer his phone,” Huang says.
Lu looks at his watch. It’s a little past nine. A bit early for the chief to be in his cups, but not inconceivable.
“Where?” Lu says.
“Where didn’t he answer?” Huang asks.
“No, Constable. Where is the scene of the . . .” He is suddenly aware of the men at the other table listening in. “Incident?”
“Oh. Yang residence. Kangjian Lane.”
That is on the outskirts of town. Lu is familiar with the area but doesn’t personally know any Yangs who live there. “Is there a suspect in custody?”
“No suspects yet.”
“Okay. I’m at the Red Lotus bar. Have someone come get me.”
He hangs up. The young men are looking at him. “What’s going on?” one of them asks. “Something exciting?”
“No,” Lu says. He does not elaborate. He swallows the last of the wine and considers pouring another round, but decides against it. He puts money on the table and stoppers the earthenware jar. “Sister Yan, please keep this jar safe until such time I am free to renew its acquaintance.”
“Of course, Inspector.”
Lu shrugs into his coat and pulls a hat over his ears. He goes to the front door and slips on a pair of gloves while he waits. When the patrol car arrives, he gives Yanyan a quick wave and heads out into the cold.
There are five police officers in the car. And it is not a large car. But the paichusuo possesses only two patrol vehicles, as well as a small fleet of scooters, bicycles, and one riot van that always reeks of boiled cabbage, although no one seems to know why.
Behind the wheel is Sergeant First Class Bing. Bing is in his early fifties, short, squat, and tough as old rhinoceros hide. Lu likes and respects him very much.
Crammed into the back seat are constables Sun, Li, Wang, and Wang. Of course, there are two Wangs. It is the second-most common surname in China.
Constable Sun is female, midtwenties, generally cheerful and competent. She scored well enough on her national exams to attend a top university in Heilongjiang Province. Lu is mystified as to why she elected to join the Public Security Bureau. Better she had majored in accounting or business and gotten moderately wealthy. Now she is doomed to a life of high risk and low reward in a profession dominated by men who crack crude jokes and compulsively scratch at their balls as if they were lottery tickets.
Constable Li is thirty, cadaverously thin, and never speaks unless spoken to. His colleagues call him Li Yaba—“Li the Mute.”
Wang number one’s given name is Ming, but as he’s a few kilos over his ideal weight, he is known to most folks as Wang Pang Zi—“Fatty Wang.” He takes no offense to this. On the contrary, it’s considered an affectionate nickname in the People’s Republic.
The second Wang’s given name is Guangrong. He is the kind of man who became a police officer out of some deep-seated insecurity, believing the uniform would provide him with the deference and respect he so desperately craves.
Sadly, after a thousand-plus years of corruption, abuse, and incompetence, many Chinese citizens regard the institution of law enforcement as equivalent to a pit of quicksand. A hazard that is largely avoidable—but if you are careless enough to step in it, you’re probably screwed.
At 185 centimeters and 83 kilos, Wang Guangrong is a big man, even for a northern boy raised on wheat, mutton, and pork. As a consequence, everyone calls him “Big Wang.”
“Are you drunk?” Sergeant Bing says by way of greeting when Lu climbs into the passenger seat.
“When presented with wine, one should sing,” Lu quotes. “For who knows how long you might live?”
“Is that a yes?” “I’m sober. Ish.”
“Sorry to call you on your night off. We tried to raise the chief, but you know how that goes.”
“No problem. It’s my duty.”
On the drive to Kangjian Lane, Sergeant Bing brings Lu up to speed.
“The neighbor—a Mrs. Chen—claims the Yangs’ dog has been barking incessantly since last night. She finally got fed up and went over to complain and found the dog shivering in the yard. She knocked on the front door, but no one answered, so she went inside. She found the victim in the bathroom.”
“What do we know about her? The victim?”
Sun leans forward and reads from a notepad. “Ms. Yang Fenfang. Aged twenty-three. Single. High school graduate. Born and raised on Kangjian Lane. For the past three years, residing in Harbin City. Her father died eight years ago and her mother just recently. A week ago, in fact. No criminal record.”
Lu nods. Already, his mind is swirling with possible motives and potential suspects, but for now he prefers to ignore such thoughts and evaluate the crime scene without any preconceived notions.
Kangjian Lane is one of the last residential streets before Raven Valley proper yields to expansive grain fields leased by huge corporate agricultural conglomerates. The houses here are old and ramshackle, with sizable yards where the locals keep small vegetable gardens and perhaps a few pigs or a handful of chickens.
The paichusuo’s other patrol car is parked in front of the Yangs’ property, and a constable sits inside it, with the engine running, smoking a cigarette. His surname is Chu. Like Big Wang, Chu is a bully. Lu has taken to calling him Yuehan Weien, after the American actor with the round belly who made cowboy movies and always played a heroic tough guy. Chu does not like this nickname, but given Lu’s seniority, there isn’t much he can do about it.
Sergeant Bing parks the car, and everyone disembarks. Lu glances up at the row of telephone posts arranged along the lane. The People’s Republic has embarked upon an ambitious plan to blanket much of the country with an extensive network of surveillance cameras. Already, major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are nearly 100 percent covered. But in Raven Valley, this technology is available only in the center of town.
While Lu has mixed feelings about the surveillance program, he cannot help but admit it would make his job easier if there were one or two cameras here to capture the events that have recently transpired.
He takes a minute to get his bearings, then starts issuing orders. He posts Sun at the entrance to the front yard. He dispatches Yuehan Chu and Fatty Wang to canvass the neighborhood to the east, Big Wang and Li the Mute to canvass to the west. He opens the trunk of the patrol car and roots around for a box of latex gloves. He and Sergeant Bing each slip on a pair.
They enter the yard and make their way toward the house, Lu motioning for Sergeant Bing to watch where he puts his feet. The ground is covered with a layer of dirty iced-over snow, and Lu wants to avoid trampling on any tracks the suspect may have left.
There is a white banner draped over the front door, signifying a recent death in the family.
Two deaths, Lu amends silently.
Lu opens the door and they enter. It is nearly as cold inside the house as it is outside. Traditional northern homes like this one lack central heating—they are warmed by means of a kang—a brick-and-clay platform used as a bed or sitting area with a hollow space beneath where a fire is lit. But no fire has been kindled at the Yang residence today.
Despite the chill, Lu picks up the scent of a dead body immediately. An odor reminiscent of raw pork. Sergeant Bing takes a cotton face mask out of his coat pocket and strings it over his mouth and nose.
“Did you bring one for me?” Lu says. “We can take turns.”
They are standing in a short hallway. To the right is a living room, and to the left, a bedroom. Straight ahead, the open mouth of what Lu assumes is the kitchen.
Lu and Sergeant Bing make an initial sweep.
In the living room, Lu notes the kang, heaped with padded quilts and cushions, a large cabinet, two wooden chairs, a low stand draped with a tattered quilt, a space heater, and, brightening the drab plaster wall, a New Year’s couplet on red paper and a giveaway calendar printed by Raven Valley’s largest corporate agricultural enterprise, Abundant Harvest Industries.
The cabinet looks to be an antique, its dark varnish cracked and peeling. The bottom half is a closed compartment decorated with chipped mother-of-pearl inlay and a painting of flowers and butterflies. Above this is a shelf where a black-and-white funeral portrait of a middle-aged lady and her ancestral tablet have been placed, along with an urn for incense and a few offerings of food and drink. Lu leans in to read the tablet—it is inscribed with the name Yang Hong. He assumes this is the recently deceased mother of Yang Fenfang.
Behind the shelf are irregularly sized niches stuffed with little treasures—carved figurines, a cloisonné jar, a porcelain flower vase, a lacquered wooden box shaped like a peach, and so on.
The bedroom is tidy but cramped, with a bed, a cheap wooden vanity (its mirror covered with red cloth), a chest of drawers, a plastic zip-up wardrobe, a floor fan, another space heater, and other furnishings.
Heading down the hallway to the kitchen, Lu and Sergeant Bing pass the bathroom door, slightly ajar. By unspoken agreement, they do not look inside.
The kitchen is large and serves as a combination food preparation area, dining room, and all-purpose storage space. There is an ancient wood-burning stove, the walls above it blackened by the smoke of a thousand home-cooked meals. Cabinets and racks are stuffed with crockery, cooking ingredients, tins of biscuits, and so on. Rice sacks and plastic water jugs sit on the floor. Lu sees a few appliances of recent manufacture on the counter—a rice cooker, a deep fryer, an electric teakettle. A dining table dominates the center of the room. An electric scooter leans against one wall. A dog’s sheepskin-lined bed lies underfoot. The atmosphere is one of organized chaos.
Sergeant Bing tries the door leading to the backyard. “Still locked.”
They return to the living room and search it more thoroughly, kneeling to peek under the furniture and inspecting any stains or markings on the floor and walls. There are no obvious signs of a struggle. No blood, no mess. But some of the objects in the cabinet are slightly askew—as if they’ve been jumbled or knocked over, then set back in place.
“The suspect and victim fought and knocked up against the cabinet?” Sergeant Bing suggests.
They return to the bedroom. Lu unzips the plastic wardrobe. He finds a bipolar assortment of apparel—half somber working clothes and half chic outfits. Lu guesses the former belonged to the deceased mother and the latter to the deceased daughter.
“How did Mother Yang die?” Lu asks.
“Don’t know, but must have been natural causes or there’d be an incident report. Why? Think it’s related to this?”
“Let’s just remember to check the death certificate.”
While Sergeant Bing roots through the chest of drawers, Lu inspects the vanity. He removes the cloth covering the mirror and finds a strip of photo booth prints showing a young woman striking different poses. It’s hard to tell if she’s pretty, because the prints are overlaid with fuzzy filters and flourishes—a cartoon cat nose, whiskers, artificially enlarged eyes. But Lu figures this must be Yang Fenfang.
Sitting on top of the vanity are a supply of cosmetics, a hairbrush, two cell phones, one newish and one an older model, and a jewelry box. Lu opens the box. He finds earrings, necklaces, rings. Some of them might be of value, but Lu doesn’t have an eye for such things.
He picks up the newer cell phone. It is charged but requires a pass code. The screensaver displays another photo, likewise highly filtered, of Yang Fenfang. The older cell phone is out of power.
Beneath the vanity, resting on the floor, is a purse. Lu tugs it out. He searches for a wallet and finds one. He opens it and removes Yang Fenfang’s identity card. He shows it to Sergeant Bing.
“She looks just like Fan Bingbing,” is Sergeant Bing’s generous assessment.
“Really?” Lu holds the ID card up to the ceiling light and takes a closer look.
Fan Bingbing is famous not only for her beauty and her status as the highest-paid actress in the Chinese film industry but also for mysteriously disappearing from public view after being accused by the government of tax evasion. Rumors spread that she was under house arrest or even that she’d fled to the United States. When she did resurface, ten months later, she issued an apology in typical Chinese fashion: “I failed the country which nurtured me. I failed the society which trusted me. I failed the fans who loved me. I beg everyone’s forgiveness!”
Lu half laughs to think about it. Less than a decade ago, Hollywood was the undisputed king of the international box office. Now China is the fastest-growing film industry in the world, with annual revenues and audience numbers that far exceed North America.
And with first-world status comes first-world problems. As the People’s Republic is discovering on a daily basis.
While Lu doesn’t see the resemblance to Fan Bingbing, he can’t deny Yang Fenfang is—was—an attractive young woman. He slips the card into his pocket.
In the chest of drawers, Sergeant Bing finds clothes, folded and mothballed. Papers, receipts. Jewelry and personal items that likely belonged to Mother Yang. And her identity card, which he hands to Lu. Lu is struck by how young she looks in the photo, but then realizes if Yang Fenfang was only twenty-three, her mother was probably still in her forties when she died.
“Hard to tell if anything is missing,” Sergeant Bing says. “Want to keep searching?”
“We should probably . . . you know.”
Sergeant Bing nods toward the door. “After you, boss.”
In the hallway, Lu takes a breath, holds it, then pushes open the bathroom door.
The room is small and rudimentary, with cement walls, a squat toilet, a shallow water basin fed by a rubber hose, and a sink with a mirror hanging over it.
Yang Fenfang’s body lies on the floor. She wears a yellow silk dress. Her hair is coiled into a neat bun. Her face is fully made-up. Powder, lipstick, eye shadow.
She looks, truly, like a porcelain doll. Even down to the cold, dead eyes.
The translucent white of her skin contrasts with angry red welts encircling her neck and wrists.
Lu doesn’t step into the room. He peers at the floor, walls, and ceiling, searching for any visible evidence. There is nothing.
“Looks like she was dressed for a date,” Sergeant Bing says.
“Don’t say it,” Lu warns.
“A date with death.”
“I would never,” Sergeant Bing says. “Only a sick mind would even think of such a joke.”
Guilty as charged, Lu thinks. “Seen enough?” “More than enough.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
Lu and Sergeant Bing walk down the lane to interview the neighbor, Mrs. Chen. She lives with her elderly mother, adult son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. The entire family is present for the interview. Lu suggests that perhaps the grandson be taken into the bedroom or kitchen, to no avail.
Mrs. Chen’s daughter-in-law serves them tea. Her son smokes and fidgets. Her mother watches a large television with the sound cranked up. The grandson runs around the room like a dervish on amphetamines. Yang Fenfang’s dog cowers under a table. Lu is generally fond of dogs, but this one is extraordinarily ugly. Small, pig-faced, rat-tailed,
with a rhinestone-studded collar. A city dog, for sure.
Mrs. Chen is a frumpy woman of about sixty. Lu asks where her husband is.
“Working, in the city,” Mrs. Chen says. She tells Lu what he already knows. The dog was barking most of Friday night, today, and this evening. Finally, she could stand it no longer and went over to complain.
“Yang Fenfang doted on that dog,” she says. “He ate better than most humans. He was always a yapper, but it wasn’t like her to not pay the little beast any attention.” She goes on to relate the discovery of the dog shivering outside and then Yang’s body in the bathroom, pausing to weep for effect. The dog, right on cue, begins to bark at the grandson. The grandson screeches like a barn owl. The TV blares.
“Have you seen any strangers around recently?” Lu asks.
“Not really, but I’m usually in bed by nine. If strangers are prowling around in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t know.”
“Any idea who might do this to Yang Fenfang?”
Mrs. Chen blows her nose and shakes her head.
“What can you tell me about her?”
“She wasn’t too smart, but she was pretty. A couple of years after graduating from high school, she moved to the city to find work. The younger generation—none of them want to live in the country anymore. Make an honest living. Get dirt under their fingernails. They think if they move to Harbin, grains of rice and gold coins will drop from the sky into their pockets.” She gives her son a sidelong glare. He picks at his nose and holds the cigarette in front of his face like a shield.
“What kind of work?” Sergeant Bing says. He is taking notes in neat block characters.
“I don’t know, but I can guess. When she returned to visit her mother—which was almost never—she wore these skirts up to here and these shirts down to there.” She demonstrates with a hand that shifts from crotch to navel. “Slathered makeup all over her face. And high heels! Who in their right mind would wear high heels in our little neighborhood?”
Lu declines to speculate. “But she recently moved back home?”
“A couple of months ago, when Sister Yang’s condition started to get worse.”
“What was the nature of Mrs. Yang’s illness?”
Mrs. Chen shrugs. “Who knows? The doctors sure didn’t. Better you light incense at a temple than go to a hospital.”
“I’m inclined to agree, Mrs. Chen,” Lu says. “So . . . Yang Fenfang returned to care for her mother.”
“Yes, and Sister Yang died a week ago. I’m surprised Fenfang isn’t—wasn’t—already back in the city. I expected her to run off the second her mother was cremated.”
“Perhaps she was observing a period of mourning.”
Mrs. Chen dabs at her eyes. “Better she was here to care for her mother when she was alive than sitting alone in an empty house when she’s dead.”
Mrs. Chen’s evaluation of the victim strikes Lu as ungenerous. Yang Fenfang had obviously forged a life for herself in Harbin. One that probably afforded her a standard of living she could never hope to achieve in a township like Raven Valley. Yet when her mother had grown ill, she’d immediately returned, as a filial daughter should.
“While your parents are alive, comply with the rites in serving them,” Lu quotes. “When they die, comply with the rites in burying them.”
“What?” Mrs. Chen says. “Master Kong.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Chen dismisses Confucius, the most influential philosopher China has produced in over four thousand years of continuous civilization, with an indifferent wave of her hand.
Lu grows anxious to wrap up the questioning. The grandson, dog, and TV are conspiring to give him a migraine. “Did Yang Fenfang have a boyfriend that you know of?”
“Well, I don’t really know what she was getting up to in the city. Perhaps she had lots of boyfriends.”
“I mean locally.”
“Oh. In high school, I think she had one. His surname was Zhang. He lived over on Yongzheng Road. I don’t know the family personally; I just remember Sister Yang talking about how he was always following Fenfang around like a lost little puppy.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Chen. You’ve been helpful. We’ll probably be back to ask more questions, but that will do for now. I’m very sorry for the shock you experienced this evening.”
This elicits a fresh bout of weeping. Lu and Sergeant Bing hastily take their leave.
Outside, Lu rubs his temples. “Good thing I don’t carry a gun or I might have started spraying bullets.”
“Did you see the son? He was bouncing around like there was a fistful of hot chestnuts stuffed up his ass.”
“A vivid description, Sergeant, but yes, I agree—he seemed nervous. Perhaps it was our uniforms. Anyway, I’m curious about the boyfriend Mrs. Chen mentioned.”
“I’ll have Constable Huang check the hukou records, see if we can pin him down.”
The hukou is a mandatory household registration system that categorizes citizens, according to birthplace, as either urban or rural residents and tracks all births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and relocations. Its lawful purpose is to “maintain social order and be of service to the establishment of socialism.” In practice, it is very much a means to keep tabs on China’s huge populace.
As they make their way back up toward the Yang residence, Sergeant Bing places a call to Constable Huang and tells him to run a search for a Mr. Zhang, approximate age twenty-three, who lives on Yongzheng Road.
After the chaos of the Chen household, Lu enjoys the soft crunch of his shoes on the frozen ground and the scent of woodsmoke in the frosty air. The neighborhood is still and silent, and the windows of most residences are dark, apart from the occasional soft blue glow of a television set. It’s early to bed and early to rise this far north.
Lu considers the boyfriend a viable lead. More than half the murders committed in rural China are the result of a love affair gone wrong. Perhaps Yang Fenfang dumped this Zhang kid soon after moving to Harbin. That sort of thing isn’t at all unusual. A country girl finds herself in the big city, and suddenly her paramour back home seems unspeakably bumpkinish in comparison to the more worldly—and well-heeled—men she encounters.
By now, the constables dispatched to canvass the lane have returned and are sitting in one of the patrol cars, smoking cigarettes with the windows up and the engine on, sheltered from the bitter cold. Lu inquires if the neighbors saw or heard anything suspicious.
The neighbors did not.
Lu assigns Li the Mute and Big Wang to keep watch over the house. “Get some crime scene tape out of the trunk and cordon off the front and backyards.”
“How long do we have to stay here?” Big Wang asks. “Until further notice.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Just what I said.”
“Are you going to at least leave us one of the cars?”
“We’ll freeze to death!”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Constable Wang. You can stay in the living room of the house. But make sure you don’t touch anything, and do not, under any circumstances, enter the bathroom. If you have to take a piss, do it outside. And don’t trample around the yard. The suspect might have left footprints or some trace evidence behind.”
Lu starts to walk away, then turns back.
“Oh, and keep your eyes and ears pricked for anyone skulking around,” he says. “Sometimes, as they say, the murderer returns to the scene of the crime.”
Li the Mute gulps audibly. It is the first vocalization Lu has heard him make in over a week.
Lu tells Yuehan Chu and Fatty Wang to take one of the patrol cars and go home. “Keep your phones handy, though. You’re on call if anything else happens tonight.”
“I’m not supposed to be working this weekend,” Chu grumbles.
“That makes two of us.”
Sergeant Bing finishes speaking to Constable Huang. “Only one family on Yongzheng Road with an individual surnamed Zhang who is of the right age.”
“What’s the kid’s full name?” Lu asks.
“All right, let’s go over there now,” Lu says.
He, Sergeant Bing, and Constable Sun pile into the remaining patrol car and drive to Yongzheng Road.
Zhang lives in a broken-down house on a modest patch of land enclosed by a crumbling brick wall. Lu searches for surveillance cameras mounted on the telephone wire posts outside, and as he expects, there are none.
He turns to Sergeant Bing. “Why don’t you head around back?”
Sergeant Bing nods and wordlessly slips off into the darkness. Lu walks through the front gate and motions Constable Sun to follow.
The yard is cluttered and unkempt. A dormant Harbin pear tree rises out of the earth like a skeletal hand emerging from a grave. Piles of old bricks, broken farm tools, empty feed sacks, scraps of rotten vegetables, and broken plant urns litter the ground. Along one part of the wall, someone has erected a do-it-yourself outbuilding that defies the laws of physics. Lu can hear the soft cluck of chickens coming from inside it.
The house is very old—brick walls, waxed paper windows, and a timber-and-tile roof supported by heavy wooden posts.
Lu sees weak light bleeding through the paper windows, flickering and pulsating. He waits a few moments, giving Sergeant Bing time to get into position. Then he extends a hand to Sun. “Give me your baton.” She does so. “Wait outside until I call you,” he says.
“I’m not a delicate flower, Inspector,” Sun protests. “Please don’t feel obligated to protect me.”
Lu stops to consider her words. Although firearms are exceedingly hard to come by in the People’s Republic—even Lu does not routinely carry one in his capacity as a police officer—every Chinese home maintains a collection of kitchen knives and cleavers. Most rural households also have access to a range of potentially lethal farm implements—machetes, sickles, and the like.
Who knows what awaits them inside Zhang’s house? A madman wielding an ax?
But as Chairman Mao Zedong once said, “Women hold up half the sky.”
“Fine,” Lu says. “But since I have the baton, stay behind me.”
Lu doesn’t bother to knock. In the People’s Republic, private property remains a loosely interpreted concept. He opens the door and yells, “Public Security Bureau!”
He finds himself in a filthy room with cracked plaster walls, a tiled floor, and exposed beams overhead. A huge kang, large enough to sleep a family of four, is built into one wall. A fire must be lit under it, because the room is stiflingly hot. A TV sits opposite the kang.
The TV is on, with the sound off. It’s showing a hoary old classic: The East Is Red. A 1960s song-and-dance extravaganza that is something of a cross between Beijing Opera and a classic American musical—West Side Story or perhaps Oklahoma!—dished up with a generous serving of Maoist propaganda.
The film is just now reaching its climax—dozens of apple-cheeked agricultural workers, proletariats, and People’s Liberation Army soldiers cavort in front of a backdrop depicting an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the front gate of the Imperial City.
As a schoolchild, Lu was subjected to multiple viewings of The East Is Red in his political and moral education classes. It was on constant repeat in waiting rooms at doctors’ offices and the lobbies of government buildings, anywhere that required ideologically innocuous entertainment. During public holidays, it frequently preempted the cartoons that Lu preferred, such as Black Cat Detective or The Gourd Brothers.
As a consequence, Lu hates the film.
“Inspector,” Sun says. She points.
There is a man lying on the kang. Lu didn’t notice him at first because he is nearly hidden beneath a heap of blankets. The man has not reacted to Lu’s intrusion. Not a peep. Not a twitch.
Lu takes a step closer.
The man looks to be about eighty. His eyes are half-closed. The action on the TV screen is mirrored in the tiny slivers of cornea that are visible between his wrinkled and sagging eyelids.
“Ta ma de,” Lu says. Literally, this means “his mother,” but in this context, it is like saying, “Oh shit!”
Lu’s first thought is that, despite his age, the man is Zhang Zhaoxing’s father, and Zhang has murdered him in addition to the Yang girl. He feels a shiver of dread. Dead things are unclean. Dead things bring bad luck.
He knows, logically, that this isn’t true—he’s studied biology in university, he’s aware that death is simply the cessation of bodily functions. As his favorite Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi once said, “Life and death are like day and night. Death and life have the same root, like twins.”
Simple as that. Part of nature.
But despite his thoroughly modern education, come the seventh month of the lunar calendar, when tradition holds that the gates of heaven and hell open and spirits are free to roam the earth, Lu is hard-pressed to ignore the creeping suspicion that invisible entities stalk the night, prowling for offerings of rice and incense.
E gui. Hungry ghosts. Those unfortunate souls who died without descendants to provide for them in the afterlife.
The man suddenly shocks Lu with a sharp cough, then begins snoring.
“Cao!” Lu mutters.
So not dead, after all. Apparently, the old geezer just sleeps with his eyes open.
Lu spies a doorway leading to the back of the house, with a thread-bare blanket acting as a partition. He uses the tip of the baton to pull it aside cautiously. He slips through, into the kitchen.
Lu sees an old-fashioned wood-burning stove, and next to it, a bamboo rack holding an assortment of cooking oils and condiments and a motley collection of bowls, dishes, and utensils. A small round table and three stools sit in the center of the room. Directly ahead is a door leading to the backyard. Pushed up against the side wall is a cot.
A young man lies sideways on the cot, his back to Lu. He is looking down at something.
Lu motions for Sun to be quiet as she comes in behind him.
“Zhang Zhaoxing,” Lu says.
Zhang—if that is indeed he—does not respond.
“He’s wearing earphones,” Sun remarks.
Lu steps over and taps Zhang’s shoulder with the baton. Zhang looks up at Lu, his eyes go wide with surprise, and he springs off the cot. The phone in his hand goes flying.
“Easy!” Lu says, holding out a hand. “Public Security Bureau. Are you Zhang Zhaoxing?”
Zhang stares at Lu in abject terror.
“Are you Zhang Zhaoxing?” Lu repeats.
“I’m looking for Zhang Zhaoxing. Are you him?”
“Who are you?”
“Inspector Lu. Public Security Bureau.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“So you are Zhang Zhaoxing?”
“Are you carrying a weapon?”
Zhang’s eyes skitter wildly in their sockets.
“Are you carrying a weapon?” Lu says again. “A knife?”
“I . . . No.”
“Get down on your knees.”
“On your knees!”
Zhang sinks to the floor, his joints cracking.
“Open the back door for Sergeant Bing,” Lu says.
Constable Sun opens it, and Bing comes in, baton in hand.
“Search him, please,” Lu says.
Sergeant Bing holsters his baton and frisks Zhang.
“Constable Sun, check the bed,” Lu says.
Sun runs her hands across the blankets, over the pillow, and under the thin mattress.
Neither Sergeant Bing nor Sun find anything of note.
Lu points to the cot with the baton. “Sit down.”
Zhang reaches for his phone.
“Leave it!” Lu says.
Zhang reluctantly sits on the cot. He shakes and trembles like a cold, wet dog. Constable Sun retrieves the phone and hands it to Lu.
“I didn’t do anything,” Zhang says.
Lu gives him the once-over. Zhang is large for a Chinese country boy. Not as tall but perhaps heavier than Big Wang. His hair is cut short and amateurishly so—there are big bald patches where the electric razor has followed a scorched earth policy. He has a round face, flat nose, thick lips. A scatter of acne across his cheeks and chin. His eyes are the color of mud.
It is the face of an ox. Slow. Vacant.
“Who is that in the other room?” Lu says. “The elderly man?”
“Is he all right?”
“When we came in, he didn’t move or say anything. Is he sick?”
“No.” Zhang says. “Just old. And deaf.”
“Where’s your mother and father?”
Zhang gives Lu a quizzical look. “Dead.”
“How did they die?”
“They got sick.”
“At the same time?”
“When, then, Zhang Zhaoxing?”
“My mother, when I was a boy. My father, when I was in high school.”
“What kind of sickness?”
“Where’s your identity card?” Lu asks.
“There.” Zhang points to the round table. Lu sees an ID card, an empty bottle of lemon-flavored soda, some crumpled yuan, a set of keys. Lu picks up the card, looks at the picture. It’s Zhang, all right. He puts it in his pocket.
“So it’s just you and your grandfather, then?” Lu asks.
“You’re not married?”
“What’s that mean?”
“I asked you a question. What do you mean, ‘not yet’?”
Zhang covers his mouth. It seems to Lu that he’s stifling a grin.
“I have a girlfriend,” Zhang says.
“I can’t say.”
Lu isn’t sure if Zhang is being purposely evasive or if he suffers from some kind of mao bing—mental defect.
“I’m Public Security Bureau,” Lu says. “You have to answer my questions.”
“She told me not to tell anyone.”
“I’m not in the mood for games. Answer me or I’ll take you down to the station and let the sergeant here pry off a few toenails.”
Zhang’s eyes nearly pop out of his skull. “Her name’s Fenfen.”
“What’s her full name?”
Lu and Sergeant Bing exchange a look.
“When’s the last time you saw this Yang Fenfang?” Lu says.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, I need you to be sure. When?”
“Her mom’s funeral.”
“When was that?”
“A week ago.”
“Ta ma de,” Lu says. “Where was the funeral held?”
“The funeral home. Outside of town. There’s only one.”
“When was the last time you were at the Yang residence?”
“I don’t know. Can I have my phone back?”
“No. How long since you were at the Yang residence?”
“I can’t remember.” Zhang digs a finger into his ear.
“A month? A year?”
“Maybe . . . maybe a few months.” “Where do you work, Zhaoxing?”
“The pork processing plant.”
“And what is your job there?”
“I work on the separation station.”
“What’s the separation station?”
“It’s where we cut the meat into different parts for packaging.”
“Describe exactly what you do there.”
“Why?” Zhang says.
Sergeant Bing leans over and whaps Zhang across the top of his head. “Just answer the inspector’s questions!”
“That won’t be necessary, Sergeant Bing.”
“Yes, Inspector. Sorry.”
“Why don’t you search the next room? Don’t bother the elder Zhang if you can avoid it.”
Chastened, Sergeant Bing slides through the curtained doorway.
Lu pulls a stool out from under the table and sits down. “Go on. Tell me about your job.”
Zhang rubs his head and shrugs. “The pigs come down on a conveyer belt. We cut them into pieces. The shoulder, the hock, trotter, loin, ribs. Then they get packaged.”
“How long have you worked there?”
“Since high school. I started out cleaning up pig shit. Then I moved to the bloodletting station. I’ve only been on the separation station for eight months.”
Zhang rolls his eyes. “After the pigs are stunned, we cut their throats and drain the blood out.”
“You use a knife for that?”
“What else would we use?”
“Answer the question,” Lu growls.
“Yes. A knife.”
“Did you work this Friday?”
“I work every Friday, except Lunar New Year.”
“And what did you do after work? This past Friday?”
“And then what?”
“And then nothing. That was it.”
“You didn’t go out?”
“Where would I go?”
“How about to see your girlfriend?”
Zhang shrugs, his go-to response.
“Yes or no, Zhang Zhaoxing?”
“No. I just came home.”
“This is where you sleep? In the kitchen?”
“Yes,” Zhang says. “My grandfather snores. And sometimes he pisses himself.”
“And he’s deaf, you said?”
“He can’t hear a single thing.”
If what Zhang says is true, he could easily come and go at night through the back door with his grandfather none the wiser. “We’re going to have a look around. You will sit right there on the bed. Do not get up. Understand?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Just sit still.” Lu returns the baton to Constable Sun. “If he misbehaves, give him a thump.”
Lu goes into the front room. Sergeant Bing has found nothing in his search. Grandpa Zhang remains sound asleep.
“Let’s look around the property,” Lu says.
“Do you think it’s safe to leave Constable Sun alone with him?” Sergeant Bing says.
“We shouldn’t treat her any differently from how we would one of the other constables.”
“I wouldn’t trust most of them to be alone with him, either.”
“True, but the kid doesn’t strike me as dangerous.”
“That’s who you have to watch out for. The ones who don’t strike you as being dangerous—until they actually strike you.”
“You’re on a roll tonight, Sergeant Bing. I think she’s fine. Come on.”
They sniff around the yard, then enter the jury-rigged outbuilding. Inside is a chicken coop, some gardening tools, a bicycle, assorted junk. And, hanging from the rafters, a set of white plastic coveralls.
Lu borrows Sergeant Bing’s flashlight and closely inspects the coveralls. There are small discolorations and smears that might possibly be blood around the snaps and cuffs, places where it would be hard to clean them thoroughly.
“Can you get a bag out of the car and put these coveralls in it?” Lu asks. “Make sure to wear gloves.”
“Yes. What are we going to do about the kid?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
Lu returns to the kitchen. Zhang is quietly sitting on his cot.
“Any trouble?” Lu asks Sun.
“We found a set of coveralls where you keep the chickens,” Lu tells Zhang.
“Those aren’t mine.”
“Those coveralls aren’t yours?”
“So . . . someone snuck in there and hung up a set of coveralls?”
“I don’t know.”
Lu eyes his watch. It’s getting late. He takes a seat on the stool and looks down at Zhang’s phone. “What’s your pass code?”
“So I can look at your phone. Why do you think?”
“Are you allowed to do that?”
“Don’t be difficult.”
“Pass code. Now.”
Zhang resists. They have a brief staring contest. Zhang loses. He gives Lu the pass code. The screen opens to show a webcam site. The kind where pretty women flirt with customers and sometimes take off articles of clothing in exchange for digital money.
Lu looks at Zhang. Zhang keeps his eyes on the floor. Beads of sweat have broken out on his pimply upper lip.
Lu quickly reviews Zhang’s phone log. It is devoid of calls, made or received. Zhang has either erased them or he has no friends with whom he corresponds. Either is a distinct possibility. Lu opens Zhang’s camera app.
He is shocked to find a dozen or so photos of nude women—legs apart, openly displaying their most private anatomy for the camera. The photographs are high quality, airbrushed, professional. Lu suspects they have been downloaded from the internet.
Pornography is forbidden in China, but enterprising web users have discovered a variety of ways to get around restrictions. Videos and pictures are shared through online forums or gaming platforms. Live-streaming apps have become popular. Young women, called anchors, film themselves doing mundane tasks, such as eating, painting their nails, applying makeup, changing their clothes—but also perform special acts for viewers who pay them through virtual coins.
Lu has mixed feelings regarding such technology. Pornography is misogynist, exploitative, and antithetical to socialist values. But in a country where men outnumber women by thirty-four million, and a poorly educated, poorly paid, and socially awkward country boy like Zhang will find it nearly impossible to find a suitable mate, any means to lighten the burden of loneliness and vent a little pent-up tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Better porn than drinking and fighting.
But perhaps that’s just the cop in him talking.
Besides the nude pics, the cell phone also contains photos of a young woman in a setting that looks very much like Kangjian Lane. The photos are not of the best quality—Lu assumes they were taken by Zhang using the digital zoom feature on his phone.
But there is no doubt. The woman is Yang Fenfang.
That means two things. First, Zhang has been taking candid snaps of Yang, probably without her knowledge. And two, while he may be telling the truth in a literal sense when he says he hasn’t visited the Yang household in several months, he has certainly been to Kangjian Lane more recently than that.
Zhang suddenly bolts up from the bed, shoves Constable Sun—she goes flying into a wall—and knocks Lu off the stool. Before Lu can scramble to his feet, Zhang has yanked open the back door and fled into the night.
Zhang moves fast for a big man. Lu has to chase him fifty yards into a field of winter wheat. But Zhang is dressed only in socks and a ratty sweat suit, and he soon grows tired and cold. He slows, stumbles, and drops into a furrow. Lu finds him curled into a ball.
When Constable Sun and Sergeant Bing arrive, the three of them get Zhang up and back to the house. Zhang does not resist. He staggers along submissively, quietly blubbering.
They put Zhang in the back of the patrol car and wake up his grandfather to tell him they are taking Zhang to the paichusuo. The old man does not seem to comprehend their message.
Sergeant Bing whispers in Lu’s ear, “Perhaps he has dementia.”
“Runs in the family,” Lu says, then immediately regrets making the comment.
They run Zhang in, process him, and stick him in a holding cell. Lu is obligated to inform Zhang that Yang Fenfang has been murdered and he is a suspect.
Zhang bursts into tears. “Fenfen? Dead?”
“Calm down, Zhaoxing,” Lu says. “Is there anyone we should call? Family members? Perhaps someone to come stay with your grandfather?”
It is some time before Zhang is collected enough to give Lu the name of a relative. Lu sends Constable Sun off to phone her.
Lu hands Zhang a packet of tissues. “Wipe the snot off your face, Zhaoxing.”
Zhang blows his nose, leaving bits of soggy paper ringing his nostrils. “I didn’t do it, I swear.”
“Then don’t worry.”
“But what will happen to me?”
“You will be detained while we carry out our investigation. At a later time, you’ll have an opportunity to speak to a lawyer. Is there anything you’d like to tell me now?”
“I didn’t do it!” Zhang wails.
Lu leaves Zhang sobbing in his cell and checks in with Constable Huang. Besides the discovery of Yang Fenfang’s body, it has been an uneventful night. Lu stops by the canteen to add hot water to his thermos, then goes into his office and makes himself a cup of instant coffee.
Lu looks up Yang Fenfang’s biographical data. Her date of birth, marital status (single), reproductive status (no children), educational background (high school graduate). The house on Kangjian Lane is still listed as her official place of residence.
He sees that she is employed at a place called the Hei Mao—“Black Cat.” Sounds like a bar to Lu. Not the kind of job that requires any particular qualifications beyond a pretty face and a sociable nature.
Lu makes a note of the bar’s address in his cell phone.
He pulls up Zhang Zhaoxing’s information. Again, nothing of note. High school. Place of employment. The house on Yongzheng Road. For good measure, he runs a quick check on Mother Yang. No criminal record there, either. Cause of death is listed as kidney disease. No obvious connection to her daughter’s murder.
Lu calls the Ministry of Public Security headquarters in Beijing. When the operator answers, he gives his name, rank, and ID number and asks to be connected to the Criminal Investigation Bureau. The operator transfers him, and a CIB duty officer picks up. Lu explains the situation. The officer says someone will call him back.
Thirty minutes pass. Lu considers going home to bed, but then the phone rings.
“I’m looking for Inspector Lu,” a man says.
“I’m Inspector Lu.”
“This is Superintendent Song, deputy director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau.”
“Thank you for calling me back.”
“I understand you have a homicide case.”
“Yes.” Lu gives Song a quick rundown.
“Right,” Song says. “This suspect—you haven’t officially questioned him yet, is that correct?”
“Not officially, no.”
“You canvassed the neighbors?”
“Nobody saw anything.”
“Any camera feeds in the area?”
“All right. I’ll gather my team, and we’ll fly up in the morning. Probably be there around noon. For the time being, just sit tight. Don’t question the suspect any further. Don’t search the house. Just seal it off and wait. I don’t want your people compromising evidence.”
Lu gets the sentiment but is annoyed by Song’s tone. “Yes, Deputy Director.”
Song abruptly hangs up without saying goodbye. Lu stares at the receiver for a moment, shocked at Song’s rudeness, then places it back in the cradle.
Two minutes later, Lu’s cell phone rings. It is Chief Liang. “Hello, Chief.”
“What’s this about a murder?” Liang’s speech is slurred and guttural. Loud music plays in the background. Lu pictures the chief at a seedy karaoke joint, a microphone in hand, singing sad country tunes with his cronies, drunk on Johnnie Walker. Perhaps with a plump bar girl in a short skirt sitting beside him, her hand resting on his thigh.
“A young woman on Kangjian Lane. Yang Fenfang.”
“Don’t know her. What’s the family’s background?”
By this, the chief means, “Was the family connected in local business or politics?”
“Average citizens. Mother and father are deceased. Mother just died, actually.”
“Any suspects yet?”
“We have a suspect, but he’s iffy.”
“Did you alert Magistrate Lin or Party Secretary Mao?”
Lin and Mao are the two most senior government officials in Raven Valley Township.
“Not yet. No reason to bother them on a Saturday night. We can call first thing in the morning. I did contact the Crime Investigation Bureau, though. A team arrives tomorrow.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“Because we lack the tools and expertise for a case like this, Chief.”
“Those bastards will come up here with their noses in the air and lord over us like little emperors.”
“We need their help. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Chief Liang belches into the phone. “It was probably some sex-crazed farmer who saw the girl on the street and followed her home.”
Lu’s gut tells him it wasn’t just a libidinous farmer. “We’ll see about that, Chief. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“My evening is already ruined.” Liang hangs up.
Lu hopes the chief is nearly done drinking for the night. It will be a huge loss of face for the Raven Valley PSB if he shows up to greet the CIB reeking of booze and cheap perfume.
Lu finishes his coffee and briefly considers going home. Instead, he takes one of the patrol cars and drives to Kangjian Lane. He sits outside the Yang residence for a few minutes, listening to the engine tick, watching the neighborhood sleep. Then he gets out, opens the trunk, collects a pair of latex gloves, ducks under police tape, and approaches the front door of the house.
“It’s me,” he calls out. He doesn’t want to give Big Wang and Li the Mute a heart attack by just barging in. He opens the front door and enters.
Wang and Li stand at attention. Li runs a hand across his tousled hair. Clearly, both have been sleeping, despite the cold and their initial fear of being left alone in the house.
“What did I miss?” Lu asks.
“Some nosy neighbors came by,” Big Wang says. “Asking questions and so on. I had to shoo them away.”
“Okay, you two can go home,” Lu says. “But first, return the patrol car parked out front to the station, and be in before noon tomorrow. We have a team arriving from Beijing, and I need all hands on deck.”
“I’ve been on duty since eight this morning,” Big Wang says. “That’s sixteen hours, and you want me to work tomorrow too?”
“Your commitment to the citizens of Raven Valley is noted, Constable Wang,” Lu says dryly. “See you tomorrow before noon.”
Big Wang and Li the Mute take their leave, the former grumbling under his breath on the way out.
Lu sits on the kang and takes a moment to attune himself to his surroundings. A dog, possibly Yang Fenfang’s, barks in the distance. Outside, the patrol car starts up and drives away. The house creaks as its old bones shift.
Is it his imagination, or is the corpse stench growing stronger?
Truth be told, Lu resents the brusque, dismissive manner in which Deputy Director Song addressed him on the phone. Raven Valley Township is his jurisdiction, and Yang Fenfang’s murder is his responsibility. Lu isn’t about to just cool his heels and wait for Song to show up, discover crucial evidence, and wave it under Lu’s nose as proof of his investigative incompetence.
He slips on the latex gloves and conducts a thorougher search of the living room. He finds nothing.
He returns to the bedroom. In a moldering box under the bed, he discovers a collection of old photographs. None of them date to before the early ’70s. That is not surprising—during the Cultural Revolution, photography was approved only for propaganda purposes, and very few citizens had access to cameras or film. Besides, most people were too busy not starving to death to worry about something as frivolous as posing for snapshots.
The first photo in the stack is a faded formal portrait of a young girl and her parents. The girl is perhaps eight. She sits on her mother’s lap, wearing a sweater, her hair in pigtails. Her parents are both dressed in dark tunics and cheap Mao caps with red stars above the brim.
Lu assumes the girl is Yang Hong, Yang Fenfang’s mother.
Next is a class photo, eighteen female middle school students posed in three rows of six each. They wear a motley assortment of tunics, some with pins featuring Chairman Mao over their left breasts. None of them are smiling. Yang Hong is in the front row, on the right. Sans Mao pin.
Following this is another family portrait, with Yang Hong in her late teens now, her parents looking thin and gray.
And then, magically, the sullen schoolgirl has blossomed into a happy bride. Yang Hong and her husband pose in street clothes in front of a wall of silk roses, displaying their identification cards for the camera. They are a handsome couple. No wonder Fenfang was such a looker.
This is followed by a new family portrait—baby Yang Fenfang and her parents. Gone are the tunics and Mao caps of yesteryear. Fenfang appears happy and healthy. Fat cheeks and a toothless grin.
But a lean, hungry look lingers in the faces of Mother and Father Yang.
Lu shuffles through the rest of the stack. Yang Fenfang slowly grows up before his eyes.
There are photos of her in middle school, wearing a white shirt with a blue collar. In high school, posing with her mother beside a portrait of Fenfang’s father. A pair of white flower wreaths, probably plastic, bookend the portrait. Fenfang’s eyes are red and swollen. Mother Yang is stone-faced.
The occasion is obviously Father Yang’s funeral.
The final series of photographs are ones that Fenfang must have taken herself and sent to her mother. In them, she has already moved to Harbin and appears to be enjoying city life. Eating garlic oysters. Posing in front of the Saint Sophia Cathedral, lovely in the yellow dress—the same one her corpse wears now—coltish on six-inch stiletto shoes. Wearing a red skirt and white faux fur coat, and the same shoes again, standing in the public square in front of Harbin’s Dragon Tower.
Lu pockets a few recent pictures of Fenfang and puts the others back in the box.
He returns to the wardrobe, runs his fingers through the pockets and along the seams of Fenfang’s clothes. She seems to have spent a great deal of money on her outfits—or perhaps someone, a boyfriend or suitor, bought some of them for her? He sees the faux fur coat and red skirt from the photographs. Western jeans, silk tops, more dresses and skirts, boots, sneakers, and high-heeled shoes.
Lu pulls Fenfang’s purse out from beneath the vanity, removes her wallet, and spreads its contents across the bed. There is a subway pass, a Chinese UnionPay bank card, and a smart card for something called Harbin Good Fortune Terrace, which Lu assumes to be an apartment building. He photographs the card with his phone and puts it back into the wallet.
Lu inspects the kitchen. As previously noted, the rice cooker, deep fryer, and electric teakettle are new. Lu assumes Fenfang’s work in the city provided the money for them.
It occurs to him that there is one item he might have expected to find, even in a rural home like this one, but hasn’t—namely, a television. Nearly 90 percent of Chinese households have electricity—and of those, almost all have a television. A TV is usually the first modern appliance a family will buy.
Lu returns to the living room. There is a low table facing the kang that might have served as a TV stand. Behind it, Lu finds disconnected electrical and cable wires.
He spends another twenty minutes searching, but finds no smoking guns, no bloodstained murder weapons. He decides to leave the bathroom and Yang Fenfang’s body for the CIB forensic experts. He knows he is not qualified to process a murder scene.
Lu lies down on the kang and closes his eyes. Eventually, he nods off, only to have a vision of Yang Fenfang hovering in the mouth of the hallway, her porcelain skin smeared with blood, her head dangling by its long hair from her hand like a grotesque parody of a child’s paper lantern.
Lu sits up with a start. He walks through the house. It is empty. He does not look inside the bathroom.
At 5:00 a.m., he calls Yuehan Chu and Fatty Wang and tells them to be at the house in one hour. They arrive, tired and cranky, at 6:15. Lu appropriates their patrol car and drives to his apartment.
He sets his alarm for 8:30, strips, and climbs into bed. He dreams of Yang Fenfang as a little girl, in pigtails and a yellow dress, rolling down a conveyor belt to where Zhang Zhaoxing waits to dismember her with a butcher knife.
Not far from where Lu Fei sleeps uneasily, there is an oddly shaped room, slope-roofed, windowless, lit by a single naked, flickering bulb, devoid of furniture apart from a makeshift wooden altar. The altar is painted red—a color that traditionally symbolizes good fortune, happiness, youth. This is rather ironic, given the objects presently arrayed on its surface: dishes of fruit; bowls of rice with chopsticks planted vertically in them like tiny flagpoles; cups of sweet tea.
Offerings to the dead.
The room is cold and smells strongly of incense, but underneath this sweet perfume, there is another odor. A pungent, unpleasant, chemical tang that leaks from a row of big-bellied glass jars that rest on the altar behind the rice and fruit. Shapeless lumps of gray matter float in these jars.
A man kneels in the center of the room. He has prepared a metal brazier, stacks of joss money, and paper funeral goods, including a tiny house, clothes, jewelry, even a replica of a BMW. He lights these objects on fire, one by one, and tosses them into the brazier. As he does so, he mutters a benediction. A promise. A warning. A mea culpa.
“I pray for your swift and smooth journey to the underworld. I solemnly swear to provide for your every need and comfort in the afterlife. I adjure you with the power I wield over your immortal soul to do me no harm. And”—here the man bows down and knocks his forehead on the floor—“I beg you to forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.”
Copyright © 2021 by Brian Klingborg.
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