Soul of the Fire by Eliot Pattison is the 8th mystery featuring Inspector Shan Tau Yun where the former Beijing government investigator turns up in Tibet (available November 25, 2014).
When Shan Tao Yun and his old friend Lokesh are abruptly dragged away by Public Security, he is convinced that their secret, often illegal, support of struggling Tibetans has brought their final ruin. But his fear turns to confusion as he discovers he has been chosen to fill a vacancy on a special international commission investigating Tibetan suicides. Soon he finds that his predecessor was murdered, and when a monk sets himself on fire in front of the commissioners he realizes that the Commission is being used as a tool to whitewash Tibet’s self-immolation protests as acts of crime and terrorism. Shan faces an impossible dilemma when the Public Security officer who runs the Commission, Major Ren, orders the imprisoned Lokesh beaten to coerce Shan into following Beijing’s script for the Commission. He has no choice but to become part of the hated machine that is devouring Tibet, but when he discovers that the most recent immolation was actually another murder, he realizes the Commission itself is riddled with crime and intrigue.
The tear on the young nun’s cheek dripped onto the rosary in her hand. As she turned her brave, open face toward Shan Tao Yun, a shaft of sunlight burst through the port in the side of the prison wagon where they huddled, illuminating the tear like a diamond. Once, precious stones had been prized in their land for the adornment of altars and reliquaries. As Shan stared at the rosary, he realized that such tears were the new jewels of Tibet.
“Drapchi, Longtou, Chushur, Gutsa,” the old Tibetan at Shan’s side recited in a matter-of-fact tone.
Shan recognized the names of the prisons his friend Lokesh recited not because of his years as a government investigator in Beijing but due to his own years as a prisoner in Tibet. They were being transported from Lhadrung County, home of Tibet’s most infamous labor camps, toward the ring of prisons around Lhasa that were akin to medieval dungeons.
“We will have a hearing or trial or something, won’t we?” Yosen, the young nun, asked, then began patting the back of the second, older woman beside her. Pema, the grey-haired woman in the tattered felt dress of a farmer, had sat with her eyes closed for the last two hours, frantically working her prayer beads.
“There is supposed to be a chance to be heard,” Shan agreed, putting more hope in his voice than he felt. Yosen was an innocent, unfamiliar with the ruthless ways of Beijing’s Public Security Bureau.
“There will be blue papers with charges listed if they are expecting several years’ imprisonment,” Lokesh explained in the tone of an expert. “Yellow papers if it’s only an administrative detention. Yellow means no more than a year,” he added more brightly, but then cast a worried glance at Shan. The two friends could list a dozen possible charges against themselves, from sheltering political dissidents to destroying public property and concealing the Buddhist artifacts that Beijing insisted belonged to the state. Any one of those charges would send them back into the gulag for years.
“Yellow, then,” Yosen bravely said, squeezing her companion’s shoulder. “The gods will bring us yellow, Pema. We didn’t do anything. Except speak of a dead friend.”
Shan leaned toward the young woman. Yosen had said the two women were not well acquainted, that she had been pulled out of a chapel at her convent after Pema was taken from a pilgrim’s path nearby. The Public Security soldiers, the knobs, who arrested the women, had offered no explanation. “A dead friend?”
Yosen nodded and looked up as the older woman bent lower over her beads. “Before you joined us, Pema and I spoke. I asked her if she knew any reason for this—” She gestured around the rust-stained cell on wheels. “Before they took us, they asked if we knew a woman named Sonam Gyari.”
“Did this Sonam commit a crime?” Shan asked.
“Not a crime. A suicide,” Yosen replied.
Lokesh put a reassuring hand on the young nun’s shoulder. “They can’t imprison you for having a friend who died.”
Yosen shrugged. “She was my closest friend in my convent. They came last week to check our records, wanted to know if she had signed her loyalty oath. Had she recently been home with family? Had she been visited by strangers? It was the same knobs who dragged me from my prayers today.” Tears flowed down her cheeks again. “I was supposed to fill the butter lamps on the altar. What if the lamps go dark?”
Lokesh gently pulled her head into his shoulder.
Shan stood and braced himself on the steel wall to look out its small port. Since Shan and Lokesh were intercepted hours earlier at the ditch where they had been working, the wagon had been driving steadily west toward the Tibetan capital, pausing only at security checkpoints and for a brief rest stop at a truck station, where the rear door was cracked open enough for bottles of water and a bag of cold dumplings to be tossed inside.
“Six checkpoints,” Lokesh said as they pulled away from yet another police barrier across the highway. “Last time on this road, it was only three.”
The news seemed to increase Pema’s foreboding. She groaned and dropped her head into her hands. The police were getting more nervous about the purbas, the Tibetan resistance, and quicker to forcefully respond to any hint of political protest. After two generations of Chinese occupation, Tibetans still refused to be broken.
“They came and demanded oaths of loyalty to Beijing last fall,” the young nun said in a tight voice. “I was away on retreat and sent mine in two weeks late. The party member who manages the convent chastised me, said such a delay could be taken as unpatriotic. I missed two lectures on the duties of citizens given by those Religious Affairs officers. I hear there are quotas now for arresting disloyal monks and nuns. If they decide to call me a traitor, I could be put away for ten or fifteen years.” She too was considering her sins against the state. It was futile, Shan was tempted to tell her, for Beijing was constantly defining new sins for people like her. It hated anyone who even hinted that Tibetans were not Chinese, but most of all it despised those who wore the maroon robes, for it was the monks and nuns who kept the people rooted in Tibetan tradition.
“I visited your convent once,” Lokesh suddenly declared to Yosen in a whimsical tone. “It was 1956, and I traveled with the Dalai Lama, who was just a boy then. He was quite taken with the flock of white goats kept by the abbess.”
Both women looked up with round, wondering eyes, and for the next hour the old Tibetan drew them away from their despair with tales of the joyful oasis the convent had been before the Chinese occupation.
Shan marveled at his friend’s comforting words, spoken with no trace of the fear they both felt. They well knew the ways of Public Security, had suffered its wrath frequently, but had always been able to avoid new prison terms. Today their luck had run out, for they were being driven away from Lhadrung County and the protection of its governor, Colonel Tan. By nightfall, Shan would be listening to his charges, then pleading for a chance to send a note to his son, Ko, himself in a Lhadrung prison. Already he was forming the words of his letter in his mind: I will find you, Ko. No matter where they send me I will find a way to return. Listen to the lamas. Ko would know he meant listen to the lamas instead of the guards. That was how Shan had survived his own five years in the gulag.
His companions were sleeping when the truck slowed for another checkpoint before entering what appeared to be a tunnel. Suddenly it stopped, reversed, and its engine died. The rear doors were unlocked and thrown open to reveal six knobs on a loading dock, leveling automatic rifles at them. An officer stepped forward and motioned Shan out. He ignored the officer and turned toward his companions, shaking each awake, calming the women as they saw the weapons.
“You will be processed first,” he whispered in warning. “Do not resist, do not argue, but do not admit to anything and do not sign anything.” He did not have the heart to tell them how first their rosaries, then their traditional clothes would be torn from them, how they would be hosed down with frigid water, then stinging disinfectant before being separated and processed into work units. Pema hastily bent over her beads, then Yosen took her hand and led the older woman into the aisle formed by the guards, leading to another prison wagon. Lokesh seemed unaware of the knobs. He was staring in confusion at the place where the women had huddled. Pema hadn’t been reciting one last desperate mantra; she had been sketching a pattern in water on the side of the truck.
No religion on earth used more signs and symbols than Tibetan Buddhism, and Shan had learned many glyphs, but not this one. It was an oval with a crescent shape intersecting the upper right edge, bending forward. He stared so intently, struggling to understand the fading sign, that he did not realize two more knobs had entered the truck until they began leading Lokesh away.
Without thinking, he reached out and grabbed the arm of the nearest guard and then, realizing what he had done, reflexively bent to receive the blow that would surely come. The soldier shook Shan off and laughed.
He gazed in despair but also confusion as the knobs escorted Lokesh into the second truck, then he leapt forward and managed to get within several feet of his old friend before the knobs seized him. “Loooo-kesh!” he cried.
His friend gazed back at Shan with impossible serenity. “Lha gyal lo,” the old man called back as the guards shoved him inside the truck. It was the mantra of battered Tibetans: May the gods be victorious.
Suddenly Shan was alone with the knobs. They did not present the expected manacles, did not produce the usual batons, only motioned him with bored expressions toward a metal door. They climbed a dank cinder block stairwell, exiting into a brightly lit hallway of offices beside a washroom. The officer opened the door and pointed to a row of pegs on the wall. “Five minutes,” he announced, then stepped back into the hall. They had a different punishment in mind for Shan.
Shan stared at the door as it swung closed, then at the white shirt and grey slacks on the pegs. He knew from agonizing experience that Public Security was at its most treacherous when it did the unexpected. Something very disturbing was happening, something that hinted of a permanent shift in his life, which he desperately did not want. The few hardened criminals who served among the aging political prisoners of his gulag prison had told Shan that there was always a final run point, a place where a prisoner could still flee before the state’s iron grip closed around him. Shan could still run, could lose himself in this strange office building. But he would never be able to help Lokesh by resisting or fleeing. He forced himself to step to the sink to wash off the stench of the meat wagon and began unbuttoning his shirt.
A new escort awaited him in the corridor—a short, lean man in his thirties with long, carefully groomed hair—wearing a suit and tie. “My name is Tuan Yangdong. I am here to assist you, Comrade Shan,” he offered in an earnest tone, and gestured down the hall.
Shan responded with only a nod.
“You must be excited to have this opportunity,” Tuan offered as they walked.
“I would be excited to be back in my ditch in Lhadrung,” Shan replied. Tuan looked at him uncertainly, shrugged, and remained silent as he led Shan to a corner conference room. It was midafternoon, and they were high enough above the ground for an unobstructed view of their surroundings. Shan quickly stepped to the row of windows and found himself overlooking a large compound of nearly identical grey buildings. As his escort poured tea from a large thermos, Shan looked back at the door. It had no locks.
“You have me confused with someone else,” Tuan suggested as he extended a steaming cup to Shan.
“You mean a different Public Security Bureau?” Shan asked. “If you want to help, then tell me where my friend is going.”
Tuan shrugged again. “I am just with the Religious Affairs.”
Shan hesitated. The Bureau of Religious Affairs was the agency that strictly, often ruthlessly, regulated the practice of Buddhism in Tibet. “Half those working for Religious Affairs are seconded from Public Security. Does that include you, Comrade Tuan?”
The question caught Tuan off guard. “Not exactly,” he said awkwardly. “Not anymore. The Party says we must consider Public Security like a college,” he offered with surprising candor. “Religious Affairs officers are encouraged to spend two or three years with Public Security to better understand the challenges the motherland faces in Tibet.” A small, tentative smile appeared on his face. “You seem well versed in the ways of the government for one brought in from such a remote county as Lhadrung.”
When Shan gave no reply, Tuan sighed and busied himself straightening a stack of tablets on a side table. Shan turned back to the windows. They were in a town that was dominated by a dozen four-story glass and concrete buildings and surrounded by a high wall of painted cinder blocks. It was one of the self-contained enclaves for government workers that were being erected all over Tibet, cornerstones for Beijing’s expanding structure in the region. Inside the walls would be command centers, offices, apartments, and even shops and cafés for the bureaucrats shipped in from the east.
“Welcome to Zhongje,” Tuan said over his shoulder. “A model town, a settlement of the new age designed to meet all the needs of its residents. Just rocks and grazing sheep three years ago, and now look—a showcase for the motherland!” He pointed out the small square planted with spindly trees that was the town park, an electrical substation, a constable post by the gate, a compound of garages with street maintenance equipment, even a town incinerator. “A taste of what waits all loyal Tibetans.”
Shan stepped to the windows facing north, pulled back the drapes that obscured them, and froze. On the adjacent slope, less than a mile away, there was another, much larger walled compound.
Suddenly Shan knew where he was. Sangpu Abbey had once been the home of one of the largest Buddhist colleges in Tibet, where scores of lamas trained thousands of novices for the spiritual life. But in the early years of the Chinese occupation, it was converted into the largest prison in Tibet and renamed Longtou, Chinese for Head of the Dragon. Its meditation chambers had been stripped to bare stone and used for solitary confinement, its chapels transformed into squalid cell blocks. Shan himself had spent several days behind its bars before being assigned to his death camp in Lhadrung County. His gaze fell on the long, low mounds that cascaded down the slope below the prison. A casual observer might dismiss them as old bunkers or terraces, but Shan had been assigned to a work crew clearing a path for a new road being cut through the mounds. When Beijing had begun crushing the Tibetan Buddhist establishment, Sangpu was one of its starting places. Shan had worked with a horse cart, gathering bones from an exposed mound for shipment to a fertilizer factory. The monks of the abbey had been lined up by the open pits and mown down with machine guns. He recalled now the positioning of the mounds and with a shudder, realized that those near the bottom of the slope had been leveled for construction of the Chinese town. Zhongje, it was called, meaning Peace and Justice.
The tap of a spoon on a porcelain cup broke the silence. Shan turned to discover a Tibetan man and two Chinese women seated at the table, staring at him. Tuan sat along the wall beside a sinewy, balding man in a knob officer’s uniform who was lighting a cigarette. A row of overhead lights had been switched on, casting circles of harsh light on the table. Here at last was his interrogation team.
A file folder had been placed before the chair in front of Shan. He dutifully sat, sensing now the familiar ground. Inside would be a list of his crimes and a confession ready for his signature.
“I am Commissioner Choi,” the elder of the two women announced in a stern voice. “You are Comrade Shan Tao Yun of Beijing and Lhadrung County.”
“Just Lhadrung County,” he replied in a flat voice. “Beijing was another life.” The woman who spoke, in her late forties with her hair tightly tied at the nape, had the air of an austere professor, the younger woman at her side that of an attentive student. The Tibetan man, in an ill-fitting business suit, was anxiously watching the two men seated at the wall.
Choi quickly introduced the others. “Miss Zhu,” she said with a nod to the young woman, then indicated the Tibetan. “Comrade Kolsang.” She nodded to the two men at the wall. “We are fortunate to be assisted by Major Sung and Comrade Tuan. And Miss Lin,” she added as an attractive young Chinese woman in a business suit entered the chamber, “manages our day-to-day needs.” Lin, whose high, rouged cheeks gave her the air of a courtesan, acknowledged Shan with a cool nod of her own.
“We are told you speak Tibetan,” Madam Choi continued, “and that you know the ways of the Buddhists.”
Shan impassively studied the strangers at the table. Just as the Tibetans had words and tones that signaled the beginning of one of their many rituals, so too did senior Party members. “If this is a tamzing, comrade,” Shan said, referring to the struggle sessions in which the subject confessed his sins against socialism, “I should have a pad and paper. Even better, a chalkboard. I once wrote ‘The Party is my Mother and Father’ five hundred times in thirty minutes.”
Kolsang, the Tibetan, grinned. Miss Zhu nervously looked down as if suddenly needing to examine the file in front of her. Major Sung’s head snapped up.
“No, Comrade Shan,” the woman replied in a patient voice. “This is no tamzing. And we call them self-criticism workshops now.”
Questions came in rapid-fire succession from both Chinese women. Had he indeed served a prison term in Lhadrung County? Had he once been a senior Beijing investigator assigned to the Council of Ministers? How many years had he served in his hard labor camp? Was it true that he had been rehabilitated sufficiently to be trusted with a position in the county government?
“Sufficiently trusted to be the ditch inspector for the northern district,” he clarified.
“A man of the people, then.” Choi folded her hands over the papers before her and looked at Kolsang, whose long face was raised toward Shan.
The Tibetan set his teacup down. “Would you by any chance be able to name the tashi targyel,comrade?” he tried.
Shan stared in surprise at the man, not understanding the trap he was surely being led into. “The Eight Auspicious Symbols are the Banner of Victory, the Knot of Eternity, the Lotus Flower, the White Conch Shell, the Golden Fishes, the Precious Parasol, the Treasure Vase, and the Wheel of Dharma,” he recited slowly.
Kolsang cocked his head. “And how many beads in a rosary?”
“One hundred eight.”
The Tibetan seemed to have his own rehearsed questions. “Why does the Wheel have eight spokes?” he asked, then, “In what direction do you walk a pilgrim’s circuit?”
“If you follow the old ways, then counterclockwise,” Shan began, “but most of the faithful will—”
“Enough!” the knob officer interrupted. Sung took a last drag on his cigarette, flung it into a wastebasket, and stood. The others instantly fell silent. The major paced along the table, studying Shan with a hungry stare. His face was like a hatchet.
“Who, Comrade Shan, are the New York Yankees?” he demanded in English.
Shan stared at Sung, more frightened than ever. “A team from American baseball,” he replied, also in English.
“Describe an American breakfast,” the major shot back.
“Bacon and eggs. Coffee, not tea.”
“Name five American presidents.”
“Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln.” Shan returned the man’s steady gaze. “Theodore Roosevelt. He kept wild animals in the presidents’ house.”
For the briefest instant, uncertainty flickered in the officer’s eyes. He studied Shan with the gaze of a predator. “Are you afraid of the dead, comrade?”
“I have more friends among the dead than the living.”
Sung’s smile was as cold as ice. He reached into a pocket and tossed a piece of red cloth in front of Shan. “The position of reformed criminal has been filled,” he announced, then pointed to the file in front of Shan before marching to the door. “Five minutes,” he stated, and stepped into the hall.
When Shan touched the cloth, the others took it as a signal. They all produced identical red swaths from their pockets and proceeded to slide them over their wrists. Armbands. Shan straightened the cloth to see the embroidered image of Lhasa’s Potala with the Western letters PICPO over it and the Chinese words for “ PEACE AND ORDER ” underneath. He hesitantly slid the band up his arm and opened the file.
On the left side was fastened a press announcement dated three months earlier, declaring in Chinese and English, the formation of the People’s International Commission for Peace and Order. The Commission, comprised of four citizens from China and three from the West, was “dedicated to eliminating the criminal acts of self-aggression that undermine harmonious coexistence in ethnic geographies.” Western members of the Commission, operating under the auspices of the United Nations, had arrived in Lhasa six weeks earlier. A larger photo showed the smiling Commission members posed on the steps of the Potala, the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama.
Clipped to the opposite side of the folder were two internal announcements in Chinese only. The first, dated the day before, reported that Deng Bao, the Administrator responsible for the smooth functioning of the Commission, had been called away by sudden illness in his family. Shan looked back at the photo, which listed names in the caption. Deng was a stout man with black-rimmed glasses. Deng’s interim replacement as Administrator would be Major Sung Xidan of Public Security, the announcement stated. The second report, from three days ago, announced the unexpected death from natural causes of Commissioner Xie. The opening created by the tragic loss of Commissioner Xie would be filled imminently, it said, so the Commission’s urgent and noble business would be undisturbed. Shan’s gut tightened as he read again the obtuse wording of the original press release. The Commission’s business was to eliminate the self-aggression that was undermining harmonious coexistence in ethnic geographies. It was the kind of code Beijing used when launching new political campaigns. Ethnic geographies meant the original provinces of Tibet. Undermining harmonious coexistence referred to Tibetan dissidents. The reference to self-aggression, he could not decipher.
He lifted the press release to find a folded piece of paper underneath, encasing three black-and-white photographs. The images were of another conference room, larger than the one he sat in and dominated by a table bearing a row of miniature international flags along its center. He glanced up at the air ducts at the corners of the room. The grainy photos had been taken by a camera near the ceiling and bore time and date stamps showing they were taken three days earlier. Public Security had been spying on the room. He glanced up nervously, realizing that someone had slipped a very unofficial secret into his official file. The first photo showed the Commissioners seated at the large table, all wearing the red armband. The second showed all but one of them rising so quickly their motions were blurred. The last figure—a slender man of mixed Tibetan and Chinese features, with long, thinning hair—remained seated, his head resting on his upraised hand as he stared emptily at the table. The third photo showed the others pushing to get through the door while Administrator Deng struggled to get inside. The balding man’s head had fallen to the table, his eyes still open.
Commissioner Xie had not simply died; he had died during a Commission meeting. Shan fingered his armband—Xie’s armband—with new foreboding. An anonymous hand had reached out to force Shan to replace the dead man.
Major Sung seemed interested in the way Shan stared at his file. He rose and was approaching Shan when Miss Lin nodded to someone outside the open door, then bent over Choi’s ear. The Chairman instantly stood and the other members of the Commission dutifully rose and followed her out of the room. The knob officer, his eyes lit with warning, motioned Shan to follow.
The delegation proceeded up a wide set of stairs and into a richly appointed lobby with faux marble walls. The banners of China and the United Nations flanked double glass doors that led into a much larger conference room bearing the row of miniature flags Shan had seen in the photos. Shan, tightly gripping his folder, entered behind his companions and took the chair indicated by Sung. Miss Lin directed several young women wearing blue uniforms and white gloves to distribute cups of tea. As they worked, Shan considered the angles for the camera in the ventilation duct and with a chill realized he had been placed in the chair where Commissioner Xie had died.
The major leaned over him. “You have nothing to say beyond formal greetings. It was not possible to reschedule the session. You will be properly prepared later.”
“I am confused, Major,” Shan replied in a low voice, speaking English. “Am I supposed to be promoting peace or order?”
The officer’s lips curled in a silent snarl, and for a moment Shan thought Sung might strike him. Then the knob turned to the other Commissioners, all of whom were staring at him, and the fire left his face.
Sung bent close to Shan’s ear. “I told them the old dinosaur was crazy. You can sleep tonight on the soft bed in the guest apartment reserved for you or on a metal slab with a piss bucket beside you. Your choice.” He retreated as the doors opened. The Western contingent had arrived.
A tall, rangy man with wire-rimmed glasses whose shaggy blond hair held hints of grey led the foreigners, followed by a thin woman with long brunette hair, then a plump, squarish man who energetically shook the hands of the other Commissioners with the air of an eager businessman. Shan looked down at the group photo. The six Commissioners who were still alive sat before him. He studied the names inscribed across the bottom. The square-shouldered man was Heinrich Vogel, the German who co-chaired the Commission. The tall man, Benjamin Judson, and the brunette woman, Hannah Oglesby, were both Americans.
Vogel lowered himself into one of the two chairs at the head of the table, smiled at Miss Lin as she set tea in front of him. As Sung lit another cigarette, the American woman shot him a sour expression, then rose to open a window. On her wrist Shan saw a string of dzi beads, a Tibetan talisman against demons.
“We call to order this eighteenth official session of the Peace Commission,” Vogel intoned in English with a flat voice. Miss Zhu, sitting between Choi and Vogel, expertly translated into Chinese.
The German nodded to Shan. “We wish to acknowledge our new member, Mr. Shan Tao Yun of Lhadrung. We welcome you to the historic and hopeful work of the People’s Commission.”
Shan nodded back. “I would be honored to help the people find hope.”
The two Americans grinned. Madam Choi’s eyes went round. Kolsang, the Tibetan, looked up in surprise. Tuan, sitting at the wall, seemed to cringe. Shan had spoken in Tibetan. Major Sung rose and advanced toward Shan as Shan repeated the words in English.
“Excellent! A true believer, then!” Vogel hastily declared.
As the German leafed through his file as if looking for the script Shan spoke from, the major lowered himself into the chair beside Shan. Sung laid a cell phone on the table and pushed it toward Shan. On its screen was a photograph of Lokesh. It had been no more than ninety minutes since Shan last saw his friend, but the knobs had been busy. The old Tibetan sat in a cell of naked stone and wore the uniform of a hard labor prisoner. One eye was swollen shut. A finger was bandaged and splinted.
Shan’s world went dark. Despair welled up again. He had seen Lokesh suffer many times, each incident more wrenching than the last. This time, Shan now knew, Lokesh was suffering because of him. He had been beaten and imprisoned, his finger broken, merely to establish Sung’s hold over Shan.
He gripped his cup of tea in both hands, fighting the impulse to turn and look at the prison on the hill behind them.
“File Fifty-seven. Dorje Chugta,” Vogel read, stumbling over the Tibetan name as Lin distributed a single-page report to each Commissioner. “Age twenty-three. A novice nun at Wokar convent.”
Madam Choi took up the story. “A tragic case. She had confessed to harboring unpatriotic thoughts. A specialist from the Bureau of Religious Affairs was urgently dispatched to intervene. But unfortunately, arrangements could not be made in time. Her psychosis overwhelmed her. Expert forensic investigators also confirmed the presence of hallucinogenic drugs in her blood.”
Shan studied the other Commissioners. All but the Americans were busy writing notes. Judson and Oglesby simply sat with their hands folded in front of them. Did they understand how preposterous it was to suggest that a nun had imbibed hallucinogens?
As if reading Shan’s thoughts, Judson cleared his throat. “Once again, the lab report seems to have been misplaced. Surely we are entitled to see the direct facts, not some summarized conclusions.” As the American spoke, he turned toward Shan. Shan sensed the invitation on his face and edged forward in his chair. Then Sung pushed the phone image closer, and Shan sagged, looking down at the table.
Judson cast a disappointed glance at Shan and turned to Choi. “I am confused once again, Madam Chairman. Was it psychosis or was it drugs?”
Choi forced a patient smile, as if accustomed to inane questions from the American.
Several minutes of discussion followed, in which Zhu and Choi spoke in a familiar code. Zhu reported that the woman had come from a reactionary family with known links to several old gompas, meaning the nun’s family had provided nuns and monks for generations. Choi read a report that the dead nun had been entered into an assimilation program while still a young student, meaning she was given a new Chinese name and sent to a Chinese boarding school. But she had run away, back to her family. Vogel handed the folder to Choi, who held it in midair as if considering what to do with it. Shan now saw that there were two stacks of files in front of her. “A close question. Mental illness, I think,” she declared, and dropped it onto the larger stack.
As she did so, Shan leaned back in his chair with his folder, taking it out of Sung’s view. Under the pretense of examining the case report, he opened the folded sheet with the photographs again. He noticed now there was writing on the paper behind the photos, what appeared to be two separate verses: You won’t see the jewel of my faith, stated the first, Just the gems that are my gleaming bones. The second simply said:It took this long for me to learnhow frightened they are of flames.
“File Fifty-eight,” Vogel continued. Shan closed the folder and straightened in his chair. “Kyal Gyari, originally from a herding family. Investigators confirmed that he had no monastic registration and no current residency permit. Shreds of blue and red cloth were found.” He handed the file to Madam Choi, who held it over the smaller stack.
“Nomads are known to move around,” Hannah Oglesby suggested. “They might not understand the need to register a tent.”
“The facts speak for themselves,” Choi intoned in the special sugary voice she seemed to reserve for the Americans. “He gave up his citizenship rights. Therefore, he was an outside agitator working terrorism against the state.”
“Do you have evidence that he left the country?” Judson asked.
“His citizenship lapsed. Therefore, he was an outsider.” Choi dropped the file onto the smaller pile.
The pattern became clear as two more cases were reviewed. One of a schoolteacher who had refused to punish children for speaking Tibetan in her classroom, the other, an old farmer who siphoned fuel from his tractor to cause a disturbance in his town square after his son had been imprisoned. Shan gazed at Choi in confusion as questions leapt to his tongue. Why would the farmer need fuel for a disturbance? Why worry about shreds of cloth? What did the schoolteacher have in common with a psychotic nun? What did these incidents have to do with the acts of self-aggression mentioned in the press release? He opened his mouth to speak when a scream from outside interrupted.
Shan shot up and darted to the open window. The scream sounded again from somewhere on the far side of a large truck that had stopped on the road outside the town wall, blocking their view. Then came shouts from onlookers running past the truck. Pedestrians on the road stopped to turn toward the prison. Major Sung spat a curse and tried to close the drapes over the window, but Judson stepped close, pressing his hand against the glass to stop him. A siren began to whine and constables ran out of the post by the gate. Government workers streamed out of the buildings, pointing up the slope.
Then the truck pulled away and Shan had his answers. A monk in a maroon robe sat on one of the burial mounds, an arm stretched beseechingly toward the sky. He was engulfed in flames.
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