Mandarin Gate by Eliot Pattison is the seventh in the Inspector Shan Tao Yun mystery series (available November 27, 2012).
In an earlier time, Shan Tao Yun was an Inspector stationed in Beijing, but he lost his position, his family and his freedom when he ran afoul of a powerful figure high in the Chinese government. Released unofficially from the work camp to which he’d been sentenced, Shan has been living in remote mountains of Tibet with a group of outlaw Buddhist monks. Without status, official identity, or the freedom to return to his former home in Beijing, Shan has just begun to settle into his menial job as an inspector of irrigation and sewer ditches in a remote Tibetan township when he encounters a wrenching crime scene. Strewn across the grounds of an old Buddhist temple undergoing restoration are the bodies of two unidentified men and a Tibetan nun. Shan quickly realizes that the murders pose a riddle the Chinese police might in fact be trying to cover up. When he discovers that a nearby village has been converted into a new internment camp for Tibetan dissidents arrested in Beijing’s latest pacification campaign, Shan recognizes the dangerous landscape he has entered. To find justice for the victims and to protect an American woman who witnessed the murders, Shan must navigate through the treacherous worlds of the internment camp, the local criminal gang, and the government’s rabid pacification teams, while coping with his growing doubts about his own identity and role in Tibet.
The end of time was starting in Tibet. Shan Tao Yun’s old friend Lokesh had told him so repeatedly in recent months, reminding him just the day before as he had pointed a crooked finger toward an unnatural cloud lurking on the horizon. More than once during the past year Shan had listened, chilled, to Lokesh and their lama friends solemnly recount the ancient prophecy. Humans had been given their chance and had failed, had let their civilization become more about inhumanity than humanity. They were spiraling downward, biding their time until a more intelligent, compassionate species arose. The evidence was everywhere in Tibet, and it seemed perfectly logical to the lamas that the process was starting there, at the top of the world, the land closest to the homes of the deities.
Now, as he watched Lokesh clearing an old pilgrim path, murmuring prayerful apologies to the insects he disturbed, Shan realized he cherished the old Tibetans not just for their gentle wisdom but for the joy they showed despite the approaching clouds.
“Jamyang frolics with a goat!” Lokesh suddenly called out.
Shan saw that his friend had paused and was cocking his head toward the opposite slope. He looked across the small, high valley in confusion, making out now a running figure clad in the maroon robe of a monk. He glanced in alarm toward the road in the larger, main valley beyond. Only an hour before they had seen a police patrol. Jamyang was an unregistered monk, an outlaw monk, and it was reckless of him to show himself so close to a public road.
“He’ll be late for his own festival,” Lokesh declared with a grin, reminding Shan that the lama had asked them to join him in an hour for a meal at the little shrine by the remote hut he called home. The rest of the day was to be devoted to celebration of Jamyang’s restoration of the shrine.
Shan stepped to his truck, pulled his battered binoculars from the dashboard and focused them on the opposite slope. “Not a goat,” he reported a moment later. “He’s chasing a man.” The figure in front struggled to balance a sack and a long object across his shoulders, running with a bent, uneven gait.
With a worried, confused expression, Lokesh raised a finger and traced in the air the course of the path the running figures followed. “It is the way to that new Chinese town!” he warned, pointing to where the trail disappeared over the crest of the ridge. “He doesn’t realize where he’s being led!”
With sudden alarm, Shan studied the slope again. He had carefully avoided the town, one of the new immigrant settlements that were sprouting in the Tibetan countryside, and had warned his old Tibetan friends to stay away as well. The government had begun paying a bounty for information on unregistered monks, much more for their capture, encouraging a new breed of bounty hunters who did the work of the police in ferreting out hidden lamas. “Bonecatchers,” the Tibetans called such reviled men, for those they brought in were usually dazed, emaciated hermits who were little more than skin and bone. The bonecatcher who lured Jamyang into government hands would earn more than most Tibetans made in a year. There would be a police post in the town, with a jail. Once in the town the bighearted lama would never get out.
Shan frantically consulted the worn map on the front seat of his truck, then leapt behind the steering wheel. He called out for Lokesh to meet him at Jamyang’s shrine but as he turned the pickup truck around the old Tibetan leapt into the cargo bay.
He drove with reckless speed down the mountain, the decades-old truck bouncing and swerving in the loose, uneven gravel, fishtailing around the base of the ridge where Jamyang ran, then up the rough switchbacks of the far side to cut the fleeing man off. Shan could hear the clatter of the loose buckets and shovels in the rear, and above it the laughter of Lokesh, the gentle laughter that had helped keep Shan alive during the first terrible months when he had been thrown into a gulag barracks years before.
The old engine groaned and coughed as the truck climbed the dirt track that stretched up and over the ridge ahead of Jamyang, at last shuddering to a stop by a long defile of boulders where the trail intersected the road. Below them were open pastures and, less than a mile away, the small grid of streets that marked the new settlement.
The running man was so pressed with carrying his heavy load and watching the path behind him that he nearly collided with Shan. He gasped and tried to avoid Shan by jumping onto a ledge stone at the side of the trail. But his limp threw him off balance and he fell heavily, cursing as he twisted on his ankle, sprawling in the grass, the objects in the sack he had been carrying scattering around him.
“He’s a lunatic!” the stranger groaned with a fearful glance down the trail as he rubbed his ankle. “Raging at me like some crazed yak!” He began quickly gathering the objects in the grass.
Shan studied the man a moment. He was a tough wiry figure in his thirties with a long scar over his left eye that disappeared into shaggy black hair. His tattered fleece vest and cap seemed to mark him as a shepherd, but under the vest the Tibetan wore a black T-shirt with the image of a skeleton holding a sickle. Shan took off his hat.
The stranger stiffened as he recognized Shan’s Chinese features. “He’s not registered, Comrade!” the Tibetan cried out in a thin voice as he retrieved a small copper offering bowl. “He can’t be, hiding in that hut like some wild animal.” He pulled himself up, wincing as he put weight on his foot, then inched toward the largest of his burdens, two planks, as long as his arm, tightly wrapped with the ribbons used to tie together the wooden plates carved for printing Tibetan scriptures.
Shan took a quick inventory of the other objects the limping man gathered. A rolled deity painting, a small bronze figure of a dakini goddess, two sections of a ritual trumpet, and a silver gau, one of the amulet boxes devout Tibetans wore around their necks with secret prayers inside. With the printing blocks, such antiques would fetch enough on the black market to feed the man for weeks.
The shepherd began to lift the blocks to his shoulder, then gasped and stepped backward as he saw the tall lean man in the maroon robe who had materialized beside him. Jamyang smiled. “Lha gyal lo,” he said to the thief. “May the gods be victorious.”
The stranger raised the blocks in front of him like a shield. As Jamyang put a hand on the blocks he pulled them back, struggling to wrest them free of the lama’s grip. “There’ll be a bounty for the sorcerer!” he cried to Shan, then gestured to the settlement below. “There’s a police post in town, right there in Baiyun!”
The man, Shan realized, was genuinely afraid of the gentle middle-aged lama. Jamyang had appeared at his side, not from the trail, but as if out of thin air, without being in the least winded. Tibetan tradition included many tales of lamas who could magically transport themselves.
“What is the bounty for thieves?” Shan asked the stranger.
The man turned his makeshift shield toward Shan, then toward the end of the truck where Lokesh now stood. He sagged and lowered the blocks but as his gaze settled on the faded insignia on the truck door his chagrin faded. “You’re just a damned inspector of ditches,” he said.
“I am the damned official inspector of ditches,” Shan replied, “and that is the closest to the government of the People’s Republic you want to come today.”
The Tibetan stared at Shan for a few heartbeats then frowned and looked up in confusion as Jamyang, one hand still on the blocks, extended the little bronze dakini with the other. He released the blocks, grabbing the figurine and stuffing it into his pocket before placing the other stolen objects on the tailgate of the truck. After a moment Lokesh began to help him, then good-naturedly directed the thief to sit on the tailgate and pushed up his pants leg to examine his ankle. Lokesh sighed and glanced at Shan. The man may have sprained his ankle but his leg had already been twisted from a fracture that had not properly healed.
“You should have a crutch,” Jamyang declared, and glanced about the slope. The nearest trees were far below, along the stream that ran by the new settlement.
“I will drive him,” Shan said.
“Of course you won’t,” Lokesh quickly rejoined. “You will take Jamyang back and begin the celebration. By road it is miles to the town but by this sheep path it is a short walk. I will be his crutch, then meet you at the shrine later.”
Shan gazed with foreboding at the old Tibetan, knowing it was futile to argue. “You have your papers?” he asked his friend. Police were appearing with alarming frequency in the valley, checking and rechecking registration cards, even laying unexpected traps on back roads. The people of the valley were steeped in Tibetan tradition, which made them inherently suspect to the government. Lokesh gestured to his shirt pocket and nodded, then pressed his fingers on the gau that hung from his neck, as if to indicate the real source of his protection.
Shan gave a hesitant nod. “Lha gyal lo,” he offered. “We will wait for you before the evening meal.”
The shepherd held up a hand as Lokesh helped him onto his feet. He reached into his pocket and extended the bronze goddess to Jamyang. “No,” the lama said, “I gave it freely. It is an auspicious day,” he declared.
The thief’s face clouded. He remained silent, watching the lama with wide eyes as he limped away, one arm braced over Lokesh’s shoulder. Shan too gazed in confusion. The little dakini had been one of the oldest, most valuable pieces from Jamyang’s shrine.
Without another word the lama moved around the battered truck and climbed into the passenger seat. By the time Shan settled behind the steering wheel, Jamyang was staring at his prayer beads, working them with a strange intensity as he murmured a mantra, a long repetitive invocation that Shan did not recognize.
The silence between them was strangely brittle. Shan began to wonder whether the lama felt Shan had unnecessarily interfered with the thief, whether he grasped the new threat raised by such a man knowing the location of his hut. “You don’t always understand how dangerous it is,” he offered in an apologetic tone.
Jamyang turned and tilted his head at Shan as though surprised at the words. A tiny smile flickered on the lama’s face and he ran his hand through his short black hair. “You don’t always understand how dangerous it is,” the lama repeated in a whisper, then resumed his mantra.
After several minutes the lama seemed to relax and as they edged along a long ledge he raised his hand in a tentative motion. His voice was as light as a feather. “I think I should say words at your pilgrim shrines. Just a few moments.”
They had reached a sharp curve at the edge of one of the steep switchbacks, with an unobstructed view of Yangon, the sacred mountain that reigned over the long valley, the majestic peak that was believed to anchor the local people to the old ways and the old, sleeping deities. Four rock cairns, restored by Lokesh and Shan, rose up from near the road. Built with mani stones, rocks inscribed with prayers, they marked not only the road’s intersection with one of the valley’s many pilgrim paths, but also a semicircular flat above a steep drop-off where the earth was packed hard. The overlook had been used by pilgrims for centuries to pay homage to the land deities.
The lama was out of the truck before Shan brought it to a stop, an energetic bounce in his long stride as he stepped to the rim of the ledge, throwing his arms out as if to embrace the mountain. As Shan watched he spoke in a low confiding voice toward the peak, then turned to visit each of the cairn shrines.
It was a day of rare beauty, the mountain’s snowcap shimmering under the cobalt sky, its slopes alive with the hues of early summer. Shan’s anxiety began to fall away, giving way to a new contentment as he watched the lama. It was not the first time they had saved Jamyang from detection by the authorities, and today had been the closest yet. Each time it happened, Lokesh would later explain that the lama was not destined for bonecatchers, that he and Shan had been chosen by the deities to help save Jamyang for a greater destiny, to help keep the old ways alive.
Shan plucked a sprig of heather and set it on the cairn next to Jamyang. He wasn’t certain the lama knew he was at his side until Jamyang suddenly spoke. “I read once about the age of the planet. It has taken us four billion years to get to where we are,” he said with a melancholy smile.
Shan had grown to deeply care for the lama in the months since he and Lokesh had first encountered him, restoring a wall of mani stones along a lonely track in one of the high side valleys. Jamyang was in his late fifties, a few years older than Shan, not nearly so old as Lokesh. Like many of the lamas he would never speak of his background but it was obvious he was highly educated, not only in the Buddhist scriptures but in history and literature and the ways of the world. Shan knew his old friend had begun to regard Jamyang as something of a bridge, as one of the rare independent, untainted teachers who would survive another generation after Lokesh and the others of old Tibet were gone. Jamyang never joined in when others spoke about the end of time. He still nurtured hope, Shan knew, even though that seed was beginning to dry up and die in so many other Tibetans.
“Lokesh and I climb up the slopes some nights,” Shan offered, “just to sit with the sky. Last month we watched showers of meteors. They all seemed to land on Yangon, as if they were being called into the sacred mountain.”
Jamyang nodded. “The mountain and its deity have always been there. They will always be there, long after all of us. Man cannot change that, can we?”
Shan studied the lama a moment, not certain if he understood. “No,” came his tentative reply, “we can’t.” He watched in silence as Jamyang walked to the truck and retrieved a copper tube, one of the trumpet sections the thief had taken. He pulled away a plug of wood and extracted a small roll of cloth tied with string. It was a line of prayer flags, handmade flags, each bearing a sacred image and an inscription in Jamyang’s own hand. He gave Shan one end and silently they fastened the line between two of the rock cairns, anchoring the ends under the cap rocks. Each flap in the wind would renew the prayers.
The lama offered a grateful nod when they were done, then gestured toward a cluster of crumbling structures in the distance, on the floor of the main valley. “There are probably signs of visitors on such a day,” he said. It took Shan a moment to realize there was inquiry in Jamyang’s tone. He retrieved his binoculars and trained them on the ruins. The local farmers and shepherds had begun restoration work on the ancient, abandoned convent a few months earlier, working in their spare time. Others, like Lokesh and Jamyang, usually worked there under the cover of night.
“Yes,” he reported, “I see a truck.”
The lama offered another silent nod. “I will join you in a moment,” he said, motioning Shan to the truck. Shan climbed behind the wheel and watched as the lama paced along the prayer flags, touching each in turn, murmuring the words to empower them in their task, then turned to the mountain and abruptly dropped to the ground, prostrating himself to Yangon as a pilgrim might.
It was late afternoon by the time they had parked the truck and climbed the half-mile trail to the lama’s hut. The little structure where Jamyang slept, originally a shepherd’s shelter, was as spare as a hermit’s cell. The lama spent most of his time in the shallow cave above, where he had restored an ancient bas-relief depicting several deities and sacred signs.
Shan coaxed the smoldering embers in the hut’s brazier back to life, adding some of the dried yak dung the lama collected for fuel. They silently shared some tea, then Jamyang filled a small wooden pail with water and they moved up the trail to the shrine.
Jamyang had arranged two crude benches like altars below the old rock sculptures, which were now covered with offerings. No special prayers would be offered, no celebration begun, until all the offerings were cleaned. Jamyang returned the items recovered from the thief before filling an offering bowl with water. Then he produced a rag and began reverently wiping the objects on the altar. Shan emptied the ashes from a small ceremonial brazier and walked down the slope to collect some of the fragrant juniper wood whose smoke attracted the deities. As he worked he puzzled over the somber, unsettled mood that had settled over the lama on the drive back. Jamyang had seemed eager to say something to Shan yet he had never found the words. But now the lama was home, at his secret shrine, and serene once more.
It was indeed a day for celebration. Now that rehabilitation of the simple, elegant shrine was complete, Shan knew Jamyang and Lokesh would begin bringing local Tibetans to worship there, to show them that the old ways were not forgotten. The risk to the lama would become ever greater. Shan would have to make them understand that they should never bring more than a handful of worshippers at a time. To assemble more would risk attracting the authorities. Beijing worked hard to scour all vestiges of Tibetan tradition from the land but it would never succeed as long as men like Lokesh and Jamyang existed. In recent weeks devout Tibetans elsewhere in the valley had taken to defying the police by holding impromptu prayer gatherings, marking them by sounding the long, deep-throated duncheng horns that once had summoned worshippers to temples. The daring group that was doing so would no doubt come to Jamyang’s shrine and no doubt taunt the authorities with their horn from the site. He found himself studying the landscape like a soldier, considering where he might stand as an unseen sentinel when worshippers came, marking routes where Tibetans might flee when police began climbing the mountain.
Half an hour later, as the fragrant smoke drifted upward into the calm, clear sky, Jamyang sat, legs crossed under him, and began reading scriptures to the stone-carved deities. As he spoke all vestiges of worry left the lama’s face. Shan sat beside him in the position of the novice, keeping the long loose pages in order, holding them down when the breeze freshened. His eyes wandered along the makeshift altars. Jamyang was an accomplished artist in the traditional style, and he had taken to adorning everyday objects with religious signs. Along the rim of a tea churn he had painted a conch, a leaping fish, a vase, and the other Eight Auspicious Signs of Tibetan ritual. A large eye stared out from a copper pitcher. The handle of a small barley scythe sported a vine with lotus flowers.
Suddenly Shan froze. At the center of the bench nearest Jamyang was something new, a black and alien object. A small automatic pistol. It was impossible that Jamyang would have such a weapon, but then he saw that it too had been adorned with a flower and the mantra to the Compassionate Buddha was painted along its barrel. Shan struggled with the urge to leap up and fling the treacherous, ugly thing down the slope. He told himself that this was just another of Jamyang’s ways of pacifying the world, that to the lama the gun was one more of the everyday objects that could be purified with sacred words. Once purified, the old ones believed, such a weapon would never cause harm again.
Shan fought against his impulse, tried to quiet his pounding heart. More than once in his imprisonment he had seen a monk executed with just such a pistol, kneeling and reciting mantras as the executioner hovered over him. He reminded himself that others would be visiting the shrine, others who knew possession of such a weapon was a serious crime, others who might not understand Jamyang’s ways. Where could the lama have found the weapon? Shan pushed down his fear, reminding himself that Jamyang’s naïveté was in its own way a gift, part of the pureness of the teacher. He settled back, deciding not to disturb the ritual but resolving to return in the small hours of the night to dispose of the pistol.
They sat in the pool of late-afternoon sunlight, watching as the shifting shadows gave movement to the deities on the rock, the sweet smoke wafting over them, the only sound now that of Jamyang’s low mantra and the occasional song of a lark. Shan relaxed again, letting his consciousness embrace only the reverent words as the lamas had taught him. A door in the back of his mind opened and he began hearing the chanted prayers of the monks of his former prison barracks, the sound once more soothing his troubled spirit. For the moment it did not matter that there were brigades of Chinese police seeking to ferret out men like Lokesh and Jamyang, two of the gentlest, kindest humans he had ever known. It did not matter that bonecatchers roamed the hills, that outsiders were settling in the valley, pushing out Tibetan families who had been rooted there for centuries. He could forget for now the nightmares of death that increasingly disturbed his sleep. He would not even let thoughts of his son, locked in a gulag camp thirty miles away, cloud the day. Shan had been learning from his friends to accept that what mattered was the here and now, the experience of this moment. And this moment, in the company of the prayerful lama, his heart filled with anticipation of Lokesh’s arrival and more reverent hours to follow, was perfect.
As if reading Shan’s mind, Jamyang looked up from his meditation. “The gods are content enough,” the lama declared with a serene smile. He reached through the fragrant smoke and squeezed Shan’s hand. “I take strength from you being here now,” Jamyang whispered, and wrapped his rosary around his fingers.
Then the lama picked up the pistol and shot himself in the head.
The nightmare of death had seized Shan once more. He had to be having one of his soul-splitting visions that haunted his sleep with images of tortured lamas and executed monks. A low sobbing moan echoed in the shallow cavern and he glanced frantically about for its source before realizing it came from his own throat. Then he saw the crimson rivulets rolling down his hand where blood had sprayed on him. He leapt to Jamyang’s side.
The lama’s eyes were open, aimed at the carved deities above the altar. But he was beyond seeing. The bullet hole in the center of his forehead was neat and round, like a third eye. The place where the bullet had torn out the back of his skull was a bloody knot of bone and tissue.
Tears ran down Shan’s face as he cradled the dead lama in his lap, “Recognize the radiant light that is your death.” He had heard the words of the Bardo, the traditional Tibetan death rite, so often that they left his tongue unbidden. Jamyang’s soul would be confused, would be terrified at the difficult journey it was so abruptly beginning, and the living had to comfort it. “Recognize that your consciousness is without birth or death.” The words came in tiny choked breaths, lower and lower until finally they died away.
He did not know how long he sat, paralyzed with his grief, did not know how long Lokesh had been there, but when he looked up his friend was standing a few feet away, staring at the dead lama with a stricken expression.
“We had cleaned the offerings,” Shan explained in a forlorn whisper. “I had never seen this pistol before. I was going to get rid of it tonight. But he picked it up and pulled the trigger so suddenly I couldn’t—” Lokesh stepped forward and knelt by the body. Shan’s question came out in a hoarse croak. “Why, Lokesh? Why? We were going to celebrate his gods . . .”
With a trembling hand the old Tibetan lifted Jamyang’s head from Shan’s lap and they laid the dead man out on the earth before the shrine. Lokesh stood motionless, staring at the body, then, as if the reality finally struck him, he sagged and fell onto his knees. Shan’s heart wrenched as he watched his friend press the dead man’s head to his breast and rock back and forth. Backing against the stone face he slid to the ground, numb with the horror before him, as he began reciting anew the words of the Bardo chant. The old Tibetan did not bother to wipe at the tears that flowed down his leathery cheeks.
At last Shan rose and stepped to the pail, splashing cold water on his face before stepping away, out into the cool wind, lifting his face toward the sky. The souls of the purest lamas were said to ascend toward the sky in a rainbow stream of light. But there would be no rainbow for Jamyang. At the end of his pure life he had committed a grave sin, an impure act that would condemn his soul to be reincarnated among the lowest of life-forms. In their prison the old Tibetans had called it “taking four,” finding release from the agony even though it meant reincarnation as a four-legged creature. Shan choked away another sob. What had been Jamyang’s agony? He had had so much to live for. Impossibly, inexplicably, Jamyang had taken four.
He had to push his fear and grief away, he knew. There was much to be done, and grave risks to be taken.
“The farmers and shepherds could come anytime,” he said to Lokesh. “It will be impossible to hide this.” Word of an unregistered monk dying of a bullet in his head would attract too much attention. “The knobs will learn of it,” he said, referring to the dreaded Public Security bulldogs, the elite of Beijing’s many enforcement arms. They both knew that if the knobs discovered that one of the monk outlaws had been living here protected by the local Tibetans they would use it as an excuse to round up two or three dozen and ship them to one of Beijing’s new pacification camps.
Lokesh looked up from his task with query in his tear-soaked eyes.
“We have to carry him to the hut so he can be cleaned,” Shan continued. “I will go and bring back help from the hermitage.” The hermitage of nuns, five miles away, was tiny but he knew its inhabitants had shared Jamyang’s secrets. “We have to remove him quickly, before word leaks out. If the knobs discover the shrine they will destroy it.” Shan looked at the little bas-relief deities with new torment. Only a week ago Jamyang had said they had to treat every such shrine as if it were the last in Tibet, the last in all the world, for someday one of them would be. Beijing did not abide such secret places of worship. The knobs had special teams, godkiller squads, who used dynamite, even portable air hammers, to destroy them. “Jamyang would not want that. He was the opposite of a godkiller.”
All this time Lokesh had not stopped whispering the Bardo, mouthing the ancient words as Shan spoke, but now he paused. “The old convent ruins are closer,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Nuns from the hermitage are likely there, working on the restoration.” He lifted Jamyang’s shoulders, and gestured for Shan to take his feet.
Shan eased his truck to a stop by a wide, sloping ledge and quickly climbed to the edge, checking to be sure there were no new vehicles at the abandoned convent, largely destroyed fifty years before. He took one look toward the ruins below and shrank back in alarm. Quickly he retrieved his binoculars and crept back up the ledge, dropping to a prone position as he reached the top.
The site was alive with activity. He had expected to see the truck he had seen from a distance earlier in the day, and perhaps some of the tractors and donkeys used by the local Tibetans. Instead, parked beside the truck by the front gate were an ambulance and three of the utility vehicles favored by the police. Uniformed figures were gathered in the courtyard inside the front gate.
He turned onto his back and gazed toward the southern horizon, toward the distant mountain that marked the gulag camp where his son Ko, his only flesh and blood, was imprisoned. Shan had long ago given up on his life as a high-level investigator, had declined offers to return to Beijing even after serving years in the gulag himself. But he would never give up on his son. He lived in two-week intervals, for the first Sundays of each month on which he was permitted to visit Ko and the midmonth letter he was permitted to write to him. Colonel Tan, the ironfisted military governor of the county, had made it clear that Shan would lose all visiting rights if he stirred up new problems for Tan. He would never give up on his son, but he would also never give up on the old Tibetans.
There could be any number of reasons the police had descended on the ruined convent—the most likely one being that they suspected smugglers were scavenging it for artifacts—but if the officers chose to interrogate any of those helping to restore the old buildings, the frightened Tibetans could well tell them about Jamyang’s shrine. A new and terrible possibility occurred to Shan. If the police found Lokesh with the body and an illegal pistol, it would be the end of the gentle old man, a thought that Shan could not bear. He had to know what the police were doing, had to keep them away from the ridge, had to find a way to keep Jamyang’s irreplaceable relics out of the hands of the godkillers. He slipped down the ledge to his truck and began brushing off his clothes.
Half an hour later he stood in the shadows at the rear of the ruins, having left his truck in the rock outcroppings behind the complex. Quickly he recalled his mental map of the old convent. Although it had been small, it had rigidly adhered to Buddhist tradition in its construction. Below the courtyard was the dukhang, the main assembly hall with ancillary chapels arranged along the walls. At the rear had been two kangtsang, residence halls, and the small, somber chapels reserved for protector demons, where the restorers had been sheltering some of the most important artifacts recovered from the rubble. In the center of the courtyard was a chorten, one of the ancient relic shrines resembling an onion topped with a steeple, which had been the first structure to be restored. Only a few weeks before, by the light of a rising sun, he and Lokesh had helped Jamyang whitewash the chorten. He ventured a glance from the corner of one of the crumbling buildings toward the front of the compound. Nearly a dozen figures stood on the opposite side of the courtyard, most in uniform, facing away, looking into the shadow of the shining white chorten. He stepped purposefully across the open ground separating him from the closest of the old demon shrines, his heart pounding as he reached the rear of the little stone building. Leaning against the wall, calming himself, he glanced back through the gap in the rubble that used to be the rear gate, wondering whether he should try to rescue some of the artifacts secreted in the building. Anything the police found would be declared property of the state, destined for destruction or removal to some dusty warehouse in the east.
“They say these old ruins are filled with ghosts.”
He spun about to face the woman who had spoken. Her uniform looked freshly pressed, the red enamel star on her cap recently polished.
“More and more all the time,” the Public Security lieutenant added absently as she glanced up at him then returned to scanning the ground near Shan’s feet.
Shan struggled to keep his voice steady. “People lived here for centuries. Lived and died.”
The woman, in her mid-thirties, glanced up again long enough to cast him a cool grin, as if he had made a joke, then bent and studied the patterns of shadows in the dirt around them. “Even a shallow footprint can speak to you when the light is right,” she declared in a professional tone.
As she knelt Shan saw the latex gloves folded into her belt, beside a small automatic pistol. He fought the compulsion to bolt toward the outcroppings, then retreated a step toward the corner of the stucco-walled building and found his hand resting on a faded religious symbol, painted in another century. An all-seeing eye.
“You’ll never lift prints from a wall like that,” the officer said as she rose, straightening her uniform.
“But rough surfaces can snag a fiber from a passerby.” Shan felt a flush of shame that the words of the former Beijing investigator would leap so readily to his tongue. He had forsaken that life, left it far behind after finding his new incarnation in Tibet.
The woman cocked her head at him, assessing him, studying for a long moment his tattered clothes and scuffed boots, then offered a hesitant nod of agreement and reached into one of the deep pockets of her tunic. With a chill he watched as she produced several cellophane bags and handed them to him. Each was imprinted with a single line along the bottom: Public Security Bureau Evidence. “Major Liang is a stickler for procedure,” she stated as he took the bags, then she moved on, scanning the ground again as she disappeared around the corner.
Shan stared with foreboding at the bags in his hand. The woman was not there to destroy the convent, not looking for smugglers. And why had she accepted him so readily? She had assumed, despite his shabby appearance, that he somehow was helping with an investigation. He stepped away from the building to study the figures gathered in the central square fifty yards away. Beyond the cluster of uniformed men, plumes of dust rose from the road. More vehicles were approaching. He wanted to run. He had to run. Then he remembered Lokesh, waiting at the shrine with the body of their friend. Jamyang had seemed unusually interested in the ruins that afternoon. Shan pressed his hand against the eye of the deity again, murmuring a quick prayer, then began a slow, deliberate circuit toward the police gathered in the square.
He feigned interest in the ground as he walked along the stations where large prayer wheels had once been spun by pilgrims, pausing at a pile of carpentry tools left by the restorers, lingering again at a small circle of red paint drops by one of the few remaining wheels where a paint pot had apparently rested. Someone had been painting the cradle of the wheel and been interrupted. On the wall behind it red paint was spattered. A worn brush, its bristles congealed with paint, lay on the ground at the base of the wall. The spatters formed a high arc, except for one patch in the center that was a slightly different hue, the identical color of a small drying puddle six feet from the wall. He covered a hand with one of the bags and used it to insert the brush in another bag, then dropped the brush back into its original position. As he looked up he felt the stare of a Public Security officer sitting on a bench in the shadows by the front gate. His cold, flinty expression did not change when Shan offered him a nod. He kept staring at Shan as a subordinate trotted to his side, kept staring even as he listened to the junior officer and snapped out a curt reply that sent the younger knob retreating like a frightened courtier.
Shan fought a shudder as he broke away from the man’s icy gaze and walked around the end of the chorten. Then he froze at the butchery before him.
He had seen death in Tibet more times than he wished to recall, had seen it that very day, but he had never seen anything like the death that had come to the old convent. Three bodies lay sprawled on the ground in a pool of red. They were arranged in the pattern of a U, the two largest lying beside each other, four feet apart, the third lying perpendicular to them, under their feet. The head of the man farthest from Shan lay against its owner’s shoulder, nearly severed, the flesh chopped and sliced with repeated blows of a heavy blade.
The body closest to Shan had no face. The man’s head had been hacked at, so that his face and the sides of his head were nothing but raw, torn flesh. His skull glinted white between shades of red. Most of the red wasn’t blood, Shan realized. The two bodies were nearly covered in paint. In the center, their hands, one left, one right, were held down by a stone. The worn hiking boots of the closest man lay on the belly of the third body, which Shan now saw was a Tibetan woman wearing a wool cap. The expensive athletic shoes of the second man lay on her legs.
The mechanical click of a camera stirred Shan from his paralysis. Two officers were taking photographs of the corpses. He stepped behind them then circled the bodies, forcing himself to look at the gore. The woman had a bullet hole in her chest. He saw now that it was not simply a pool of red the men lay in, it was a rectangle, and the killer had not just used red paint. In the upper-left corner there was a large yellow-spiked blotch with four smaller ones, in an arc at its lower right. The brown eyes of the man whose face had been sliced away gazed lifelessly at the chorten, a pool of blood under a bullet hole in his neck. The figure whose head hung by a few ligaments lay with his face toward the shrine, locked in a brooding, angry expression. He was Chinese. A Chinese man, a Tibetan woman, a faceless monster; all three murdered in the shadow of the mountain where a lama had just killed himself.
One of the police taking photographs suddenly clutched his stomach and darted away to retch up his last meal. A young officer scolded him and shoved him back toward the bodies. “We must have complete images of the murder scene!” he barked at the cowering policeman.
“Scenes.” Shan had whispered the word to himself, unmindful of the silence in the courtyard.
“You dare to correct me?” the officer snarled. “You . . .” He studied Shan in confusion.
Shan turned to retreat and found himself looking into the thin face of the female officer he had encountered earlier. She returned his gaze expectantly, then broke away to address her colleague. “I am not sure jurisdiction has been established,” she declared, as if to defend Shan. The officer winced at the words, and for the first time Shan took note of the different uniforms. The young officer who had challenged him wore the olive of the People’s Armed Police, the thugs of Chinese law enforcement. The green apes, many Tibetans called them. The woman wore the grey of the Public Security Bureau. Two other men, both Tibetans, wore the blue of the local constables, still others the light green of medical attendants.
Jurisdiction. The woman was savvy enough to understand that those who wielded the most power in the People’s Republic wore no uniforms at all. It was the slender thread by which Shan’s freedom now hung. He would be arrested in an instant if he were found to be there on false pretenses. Those who impersonated police were shot.
The lieutenant turned back to Shan with a questioning look. He had no choice but to continue with the charade. Shan took a deep breath, then pointed to the man with the mangled face. “Only this one was killed here. He was bleeding from a bullet that pierced his jugular. Only he has a pool of blood under him.” Shan pointed to the woman. “She has a bullet hole in her chest but no pool of blood.”
The woman looked unconvinced. “But it’s all red. How can you know?”
“Look closer. The blood is darker. It dries differently.” He pointed to where the two shades of red met. “The difference is subtle for now but noticeable. In another hour the blood will be nearly brown. The wounds on the other two did not bleed out here. There would have been marks showing where they were dragged from but—” He shrugged and gestured toward the feet of the assembled police. The ground all around the courtyard had been trampled by their boots.
Shan’s gaze lingered for a moment on a pot of red paint at the base of the chorten, then turned back to the red rectangle with its pattern of yellow spots. The killer had gone to a lot of trouble in arranging the scene, as if for a message. A chill crept up his spine as he at last recognized the rectangle constructed under the bodies. It was the Chinese flag, red with one large and four smaller yellow stars in the upper-left quadrant.
“Fools!” the young officer barked at the others, then he quieted at the sound of footsteps behind him, the anger on his face suddenly replaced with fear. The gaunt older officer had risen from the shadows. For a moment Shan thought the man in the green uniform was going to drop to his knees.
“Everyone back!” the older knob growled. “You and your men,” he declared to the officer in the olive tunic, “will have site security. One at the gate, the rest to set up a roadblock half a mile up the road.” What had the knob lieutenant called the senior officer? Major Liang.
The young officer shrank back, then murmured hurried orders to his men. The men in blue, the local constables, retreated toward the gate without another word. As the men in green marched away, two more men in grey appeared out of the shadows. The question of jurisdiction was resolving itself.
“Her hands,” Shan said, gesturing to the dead woman. “That is red paint on them, not blood. She was painting the old prayer wheel by the wall. The paint is spattered in an arc where her brush went flying. Under the arc is a pattern of blood. She was shot there, taken by surprise as she worked, facing the wall. I think you will find that bullet went through her back. It came out her chest and is probably in the wall. Unless the weapon was a revolver there will be a bullet casing on the ground nearby.”
The female lieutenant spoke in quick, clipped syllables, and the knob soldiers moved toward the wall. Major Liang shot Shan a warning glance, then followed the squad.
Suddenly Shan was alone with the bodies. He gazed for only a moment as the police retreated around the far side of the chorten, then moved quickly, letting old instincts take over. He knew from experience that such officers could do strange things with the truth of such killings, could make inconvenient murders disappear. Worse still, they could use murders at such a holy place as an excuse to destroy what was left of it. He owed it to Jamyang, to Lokesh, and all the old Tibetans, to understand what had happened.
He ran his fingers over the dead flesh, lifting limbs, testing for rigor mortis and temperature. They had been dead for four or five hours. He stooped over the faceless man, clenching his jaw at the butchery. The face had not been simply sliced off, the flesh and skin at the front and sides of the skull had been hacked away, like bark being chipped off a log.
The pockets of the man with the nearly severed head held only car keys and a package of unfiltered cigarettes. A bird, perhaps a crow, clutching a snake in its talons was tattooed inside his forearm. The savage blows that had nearly taken off his head had ripped apart another tattoo at the base of his neck, a creature with scales that might have been a dragon. Shan saw now the dirt caked on the heels of the man’s expensive shoes, bent to study the direction of the trail made by the heels before it disappeared, stomped away by police boots. The man had been dragged from somewhere near the front of the compound, perhaps even from the gate. He lifted one of the shoes that lay on the woman to examine the dirt embedded in its heel, then felt something more at the ankle and pushed up the pant leg. He paused in surprise. He had not seen an ankle holster for years. It was a subtle, hidden thing seldom seen outside the big cities of the east. There was no subtlety about the use of guns in Tibet. The holster held nothing but a piece of folded paper jammed in the bottom. He glanced back to confirm the police were still out of sight then stuffed the paper in his pocket. He rose and leaned over the body once more, pushing his fingers deeper into the pockets. He tapped the half-empty cigarette pack and felt a hard, unyielding surface. A piece of iron slid out of the pack, an intricately worked trapezoid with Buddhist prayers etched around two large holes in its narrow end. A flint striker. The dead Chinese wearing expensive clothes was carrying a primitive Tibetan tool for lighting fires.
He stuffed the striker back into the pocket then looked more closely at the two hands at the center of the flag. It wasn’t a stone that held them down, it was a weathered fragment from the ruined carvings that had been scattered around the grounds before the restoration had started, an image of one of Tibet’s Eight Auspicious Signs. He bent and saw the lines that represented stacked garlands of cloth. It was the Banner of Victory, which hailed the triumph of Buddhist wisdom over ignorance.
Shan moved hesitantly to the woman, knowing likely he had no more than another minute before the knobs returned. She appeared to have been in her fifties, with a delicate face, though her tattered brown frock and rough hands were those of a farmer. The necklace strand around her neck had been severed, probably when the killer had dragged her body. With two fingers he gently closed her unseeing eyes and murmured a prayer.
Quickly he found the bullet hole in her tunic, over her heart. It was a large, ugly wound, the hole of the bullet’s exit. She had indeed been shot in the back. The bullet’s exit had pushed out threads of other fabrics, red and white. He pried at the fabric and found that her chest had been bound with a length of cotton. A small stiff rectangle the size of an identity card extended from underneath. With a guilty shudder he lifted the cloth and extracted the rectangle, quickly stuffing it inside his pocket without taking the time to look at it. If they knew who a Tibetan victim was, they could make life very uncomfortable for the family, whom they would have always assumed hid information about the dead. He was taking a terrible chance.
The knobs would be back at any instant, furious if they found him interfering with the bodies, but he did not trust them with the evidence, and felt strangely unable to leave the woman. He pulled at her frock, awkwardly trying to cover her grisly wound. For the first time he saw that her frock had dried paint on it, in several colors. It was a just a work frock. She had put it on over her dark red dress.
Run, a voice screamed inside, flee into the maze of rocks. Lokesh needs you.
With another anxious glance in the direction of the knobs, he bent to study the severed necklace. It had been made of tightly braided yak hair. He tugged on one end, releasing from under her shoulder an ornate silver box. A gau. She had been wearing a traditional necklace with a traditional amulet box.
Another siren rose in the distance, rapidly approaching, but still he did not move. With a shudder he pushed off the wool cap on her head and saw the short brush of black hair, then he pulled back the work frock.
A small choking sob escaped his throat as he recognized the maroon cloth. It was a robe. At the ancient, ruined convent, a Buddhist nun had been murdered and placed under the feet of two Chinese men. He grabbed her gau and fled.
Eliot Pattison is the author of The Skull Mantra, which won the Edgar Award and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, as well Water Touching Stone and Bone Mountain. Pattison is a world traveler and frequent visitor to China, and his numerous books and articles on international policy issues have been published around the world.