The Gentleman from Japan: New Excerpt

The Gentleman from Japan by James Church
The Gentleman from Japan by James Church
The Gentleman from Japan by James Church is the 6th book in the Inspector O series (Available December 6, 2016).

Under the guise of machinery for making dumplings, a Spanish factory near Barcelona is secretly producing a key component in the production of nuclear weapons. When information finds its way to the inboxes of Western intelligence agencies that this “dumpling maker” is meant for North Korea, orders go out that the shipment must be stopped. Either the machine must be disabled while still in the factory, or the transportation route must be discovered so the equipment can be intercepted before it reaches its destination. An old friend recruits Inspector O to assist in the complex operation designed to disrupt the plans for shipping the machine.

Carefully planted bits of information and bizarre events have led both the Spanish factory and those trying to intercept the machine to conclude that Japanese criminal organizations are involved in buying and transporting the “dumpling” machine in order to hide the involvement of North Korea. A flurry of murders puts the focus on the northeast Chinese city of Yanji, near the border with North Korea, where O’s nephew Major Bing is the Chief of State Security. Bing has his own problems dealing with a corrupt local mayor who is out for his head, coping with a new deputy who cannot be trusted, and figuring out why a Chinese gangster he’s worked for years to chase away has suddenly returned.

Chapter One

By the time the sun had set on Thursday, there were seven corpses in four of the city’s ragged collection of restaurants, cafés, tea shops, “bakeries,” and illegal lunch stands. Four eateries, seven bodies. It goes without saying that couldn’t be good for business. The mayor would be calling, probably after one of his big dinner parties. The police had quietly sent me the guest list. They weren’t supposed to, but they knew I was interested in seeing who kept company with the mayor. None of the names on the list rang bells.

The sketchy details on the events at the four restaurants were laid out in the field reports appearing on my desk late that evening. As a matter of standard procedure, we didn’t deal with local murders: wife conks husband on head; drunk knifes companion over who gets the next turn at the bottle; burglar panics on being discovered and strangles renter. As the local office of the Ministry of State Security, we routinely got copies of the police reports. On rare occasions one of these incidents had some link to our concerns. Mostly, the reports were filed without a second glance.

These particular reports did not give me a warm feeling. Initial observations by the local police were often a problem. This time, to make things worse, in the upper right-hand corner of a couple of the reports there were notations indicating that they had been copied—unedited—to the Ministry of State Security in Beijing. Nothing is supposed to go to Beijing right away. Raw reports, especially, should never go to my headquarters in Beijing. The higher-ups don’t know how to read them. Whatever the original problem, it is always compounded by distant superiors who think they understand local events on the basis of barely accurate, and even more likely completely mistaken, first reports. I made a mental note to complain to the local police chief.

There were four field reports, one for each incident. I read them quickly, and then again more carefully to make sure I hadn’t missed anything remotely important:

—Working-class neighborhood near edge of town, three elderly males at adjoining tables slumped over bowls of noodles—two daily specials and one of the new Vietnamese-style considered trendy. No one else on premises when patrol showed up. Owner of the noodle shop (identified as “Uighur with a limp and wisp of a mustache” by cashier who appeared out of nowhere a few minutes later) has disappeared.

FIELD COMMENT: No further information.

—One otherwise (apparently) healthy middle-aged male—well dressed, no tattoos or scars—leaning back in red leather banquette of upscale restaurant in Yanji’s finest hotel, never having gotten past appetizer from the looks of it. Maybe autopsy? Chef in custody, but not talking.

FIELD COMMENT: Still working him over.

—Couple of hookers taking a break before work found dead as doornails behind back alley dim sum joint. Best guess judging from scene: sharing steamed buns and red tea. Shop claims it doesn’t make dim sum on site. Buys off truck every other day. Manager insists “they don’t have phone number” of supplier and (surprise! surprise!) none of staff can remember anything, even color of truck.

FIELD COMMENT: Asking around.

—One tourist, blond, female, discovered on washroom floor of new Mongolian tearoom across from train station. When turned over, funny look on face. Passport nowhere to be found. No Yanji hotel has record of anyone with her description checking in. Smaller inns still being canvassed.

FIELD COMMENT: This may take a while.

I looked at my watch. The mayor would be calling soon, but even before that, the first message from Beijing would arrive, something along the lines of “From time to time someone dies in a restaurant, but seven in one night?”

I contemplated eating at home for a few months. The idea survived a nanosecond until it ran into the realization that this would mean spending evenings with Uncle O.

2

“Major Bing!” After a halfhearted salute, my new deputy, tall and gaunt, dropped a fresh sheaf of papers on my desk. “The mayor says he wants all leave canceled. Do I type up a memo to that effect? Or do I use my discretion?”

The man had arrived by train Tuesday afternoon straight from his previous assignment in the city of Tianjin, which sits close enough to Beijing so that anyone posted there feels superior to all of us in the northeast sector. They feel that way even though Tianjin is widely considered in the Ministry a poor sister, badly run. A few of the more suspicious also think it is a city marked for doom—one year a huge earthquake, another year an unbelievably destructive explosion.

Still fresh from Tianjin and with an air of superiority trailing him as if he were Ying Zheng in the flesh, the new man had spent his entire first day wandering through the office asking a lot of questions. Whether he should use his discretion was the caboose on most of them. His height, which went beyond what most people would consider reasonable, only drew attention to his shoes, which were brown, thick soled, and badly scuffed.

“This isn’t our affair,” I said, contemplating the shoes. They had started life as patrol boots, but it looked as if halfway through they changed their minds and made a stab at being fashionable. If Ministry of State Security officers in Tianjin dressed like this, no wonder—disasters aside—it was a city near the bottom of most people’s list for transfer assignments. Only my sector and the two others near mine in the northeast ranked lower in the Ministry’s beauty contest. Almost no one wanted to be assigned way up here. The general impression was that this was a place filled with country bumpkins with nothing to do during the long winters but drink.

“Let the local police here in the wilds of Yanji do some work once in a while.” I looked up from the shoes. “Besides, it’s almost midnight. We only type memos in the morning.” I paused before giving him a tight smile. “It’s a Manchu tradition.”

The man was too tall for sarcasm to go over his head, but there was no sign anything had registered.

“When I was in Tianjin,” he said solemnly, “the mayor had a lot of clout. He could have canceled leave anytime he’d wanted. He never did, of course, but he could have.” A pompous fog enveloped this pronouncement. While it dissipated, I sat back and pondered. If the mayor of Tianjin had so much clout, why didn’t he order people to polish their shoes? I wasn’t a martinet, but I insisted my officers show a little pride in how they looked. It was not just fussiness. Suspects react badly when interrogated by trouser legs that drag on the floor, or get slapped around by frayed shirt collars.

I pushed my mind back to the problem at hand. “That may be, ah…” For some reason I couldn’t place the new man’s name. “But our mayor can’t cancel leave, not for anyone in this office, anyway.”

I did not normally lecture new arrivals on their second day. It was always better to let them get comfortable for a week or two. In this case, however, it seemed crucial to set a few guidelines before the scuffed shoes went over a cliff, dragging along a few of the impressionable members of my staff.

“You might as well file this away for future reference: We don’t take orders from the locals. That includes the mayor.” I said this evenly enough, as if I wasn’t constantly locked in combat with the mayor, who was crooked, and lecherous, and beyond my reach because he was so well connected in ways that, even after trying for several years, I couldn’t trace.

I indicated to the new man that he should stand against the wall rather than take a seat. It wouldn’t be smart to let him feel too cozy in my office. If we were in for an ugly period of house-to-house fighting—and I already knew that was where things were headed—I wanted him off balance every time he walked through the door.

“You may have to adjust a little to the way things work here on the ragged edge of civilization, Tang.”

His name had popped back into my head. It was Tang Xin-ho, or at least that was what had been stamped on the front of his personnel file, which I’d received and skimmed without much interest weeks ago. The file itself was an odd color, not the normal light green, and it was stuffed with commendations. That had instantly sent up warning flares. It meant every office he’d ever worked in couldn’t wait to get rid of him. The first page in the file made clear that he was a direct assignment to me from the Ministry personnel office. That was stapled to a second page with red stripes along the top meant to carry the unmistakable if unspoken message that it didn’t matter what I thought of him or his file—he was mine, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Tang’s shoulders stiffened at my warning. He flushed to an ugly shade of red but quickly regained his composure. I could tell that he had almost clicked to attention but then, in a fit of anger or stubbornness, decided instead to test me.

Just try it, I thought. Nothing he could do would match what I faced every day at home. I sat back, making sure to look relaxed but mentally girding for a long campaign. I’d break his bureaucratic neck in the end, but it had to be done slowly, imperceptibly, by degrees, until one day he’d walk out of my office with his head at an odd angle, not quite realizing what had happened.

“Normally,” I said quietly, forcing him to lean toward me, “we don’t even get the full police reports on this sort of thing. Bicycle thefts, bad checks, and murder—none of them our business. We keep our eyes focused on the border, record what comes over, and spend the rest of our time tracking all of the foreign ducks and geese that make their way up here under one sort of cover or another in order to watch each other watch the border. A lot of them spend their time in the South Korean coffee shops that keep popping up, or hanging around the North Korean restaurant here. The food there is all right, and you’re allowed to accept one meal a week. Understood?”

This was met with sullen silence.

“If North Korean soldiers cross the river and kill a few of our people during a robbery, we listen, we observe, we gather information, we look for patterns, and then we put the whole thing in a file and forget about it. Understood?”

Silence, even more sullen than before. I let that hang around the room for a few seconds before continuing. “But according to this note”—I picked up a piece of paper and let it float back down to my desk—“the chief of detectives seems to think in this case there is something odd going on.”

“And you don’t?” Tang raised an eyebrow. Apparently, that was how they communicated doubt in Tianjin.

“As I said, we have plenty to do”—my voice dropped to a near whisper—“without worrying about food poisoning.”

I leafed through the papers he’d delivered, letting him stand there like a slightly bent potted tree. The new reports contained more preliminary speculation on several key issues for which the local coroner still had no good answers. First and most obvious among the questions was what had caused seven people to abandon all signs of life more or less at the same time, assuming the coroner’s thermometer could be trusted. Someone had written “ptomaine?” in the margin of one of the pages.

“I admit,” I said at last, “the hookers have me a little worried.”

“I was thinking of the dim sum.” Tang looked thoughtful.

“How do you know it wasn’t the red tea?”

“There’s that, too.”

3

No sooner had Tang edged out of my office than the special phone in the top drawer of my desk buzzed. Only a few people had the number, and no one except me had physical access to the phone. The drawer was secured with a special lock, and I was the only one who was supposed to know how to get it open.

I let the phone buzz twice as I searched for the key, then opened the drawer and lifted the receiver. When it was first installed, I had tried to make the phone actually ring instead of buzz, because the buzz was annoying, as if an insect were trapped in the drawer. Beijing sent instructions that I was not to fiddle with the phone. It buzzed, I was informed, because that was what the regulation said it was supposed to do. Calls on that phone were strictly official; they might as well have been from poisonous bugs.

The voice on the other end was a bug, a mosquito at midnight.

“Qin here.”

More bad news. It was the mayor, and the lack of even a minimally polite greeting was meant to suggest that I should leap to my feet and salute.

“Qin?” I pretended to be searching my memory.

“Listen closely, Bing. I’ve just been in touch with Beijing, and your superiors at the Ministry agree that for the next month, maybe more, your resources are to be fully at my disposal.” He paused. “Cancel all leave.”

I closed my eyes. “What is this about, Qin?”

“You know what it’s about, Bing. It’s about a lot of bodies showing up where they don’t belong.”

“What about your police, Qin? Am I misinformed, or isn’t this what they get paid for, investigating mysterious events? Everyone knows this dysfunctional city has more than its share of them.” I sensed the mosquito revving up again, so I kept talking. “The issue here, as far as I can tell, is unexplained deaths, several more than normal, one supposes, but numbers by themselves do not make them my concern. My concern is with matters of state security—spies, terrorists, smuggling across that damned river. You know, the sort of things that are probably minor in your constellation of corruption. Feel free to send over the results of the police investigation about the murders, if that’s what they were, when you have something. I have work to do. Ciao, as they say in Milan.” I paused for two beats. “That’s Italy.”

“I know where the fuck Milan is, Bing. We have a new Italian restaurant in town, or haven’t you noticed? No, forget it, you’re not slipping away so easily. What we have here is not just the normal triad stiffs laid out in a pizza parlor.”

The sound of papers being shuffled came across the line. I knew he was trying to figure out where the bodies had actually been found, and whether he was in danger of losing the new restaurant, which he thought added class to the city. No doubt it added to his personal revenue as well. The mayor skimmed from the tax receipts, I was sure of that, but being sure and finding evidence was not the same thing.

The mosquito came back on the line. “Murder? What we have here is terrorism. I don’t doubt it’s your cousins from across the river. Maybe even friends of your uncle. If you can’t stop these people, Bing, we’ll build a wall. That’s what I just told them in Beijing, build a fucking wall and be done with it!”

The mayor pointed to my Korean blood at every opportunity. This was, he whispered into a thousand ears, a source of dangerous pollution. It was true, he would say, his city was filled with Koreans whose families had been here for decades, centuries in many cases. “I’m friends with them all”—he would always say that as if wounded by the thought he might not be their friend and benefactor. They belong here, he would exclaim, which was another way of saying he could squeeze money from them and they would not complain. The point, he would say gravely, was that he knew to the marrow of his pure Chinese bones that it was a travesty, in fact a mortal danger, that someone charged with security in this sensitive part of the country was not pure-blooded.

And now he thought he had finally found a perfect way to get rid of me.

“Do I make myself clear, Bing? Terrorism! Not just your murderous thugs from across the river, but terrorism!” The word shot across the phone line like a piglet running from a carving knife. “And this terrorism is a big fat concern of the state, as you so rightly point out. Not only that, it’s going to ruin the livelihood of the citizens of my city, citizens that the authorities in Beijing want to protect and see prosper. With terrorism here, tourists won’t come. Businesses will go elsewhere. We’re supposed to get a new dumpling restaurant later this year. I signed the papers the other day. It’s Japanese. Big name, big revenues. Nothing like those trash heaps we have now. It will drive that North Korean eatery with its flashy girls out of the city.”

The mayor waited, apparently sure he had gained the upper hand. In fact, I was mildly surprised by his terrorism gambit, but even more by his complaints about the North Koreans. Once in a while he beat that drum, but had to be careful because he pocketed plenty from Chinese businessmen sending too much of one thing or another across the river, and doubled that from North Koreans who needed favors on this side of the border. If he was complaining so loudly, it must be because he’d heard from his network in Beijing that it was time to put the squeeze on again. At this point, unless someone else was writing his script, I figured his next move would be to accuse me of incompetence.

“A concern of the state,” he repeated, with minimal reverence. “Regrettably, in this backward corner of the country, that means you. Or has a miracle happened without my lifting a finger and you’ve finally been replaced as head of the State Security detail in my city? Let me point out that neither the state nor my city is secure if people drop dead all of a sudden, especially tourists. It’s your job to protect us. The police obviously aren’t doing it, but they’re not your affair. I’ll attend to them, and that monkey’s ass of a police chief, later. What I’m most concerned about is you, Major, you and your incompetence.”

Whenever Qin used my rank, it was always with a sneer, as if he had friends who could demote me as soon as he wanted it done. In turn, I made a point of never calling him “mayor,” not to his face anyway. I knew that rankled him. For years, every conversation I’d had with the man had been a form of guerrilla warfare. I should have been used to it by now, but his constant references to “my city” always got under my skin. He talked as if he owned the place, which to a large extent was true. What was worse, he liked to parade that in front of me, secure in the knowledge that I still hadn’t figured out how the mayor of a flea-bitten town got away with bribery, mendacity, moral turpitude, malfeasance, and—very often—murder, sometimes all on the same day.

If I could step on this insect I would. At the moment, all I could do was argue a technicality. “You said State Security ‘detail,’ Qin. Let me remind you, this isn’t a ‘detail.’ It’s an ‘office.’ In fact, it’s a ‘special office.’ That’s why it says on our letterhead ‘Yanji Special Office.’ You know what that means? It means we keep files on everyone.”

I paused to let that sink in, though I knew I’d laid it out for him several times before. Once, when we met in my office and I was for some reason feeling expansive, I had even let him see the two thick file folders we had on him. I had pretended to be surprised when he walked in and had made a show of moving the files off my desk, but not before I had seen him smirk when he read his name on the cover sheet. I still don’t know what I thought that would accomplish. It hadn’t been much.

“And another thing,” I said, “according to this stack of reports in front of me, we’re only talking about one tourist, nothing plural. Just to be clear, in case the main point hasn’t come through”—I was picking up a head of steam—“even if I had a direct order to listen to you from the minister of security himself, I wouldn’t do it. Not in a thousand years, not even if Qin Shi Huangdi rose from the grave and delivered it in person. If he does come back, maybe you should ask him for his plans for a wall, though it wasn’t a great success if I recall.”

There was a brief pause. I would have bet a week’s salary the mayor was smoothing his hair, something he did in moments of stress.

“I’ll have you sacked,” he said finally.

“Good. Perfect.” Not for the first time it struck me that the mayor thought he was born too late, that he should have been a prince in the kingdom of Qin, standing near the emperor, taxing the hell out of the peasants. “Sacked—nothing would please me more. It would mean finally getting out of this town. While we’re waiting for you to send the request for my transfer, I’ll wager a year’s salary that there is not a shred of paper on my desk giving you any special powers over me. Notice I said paper. If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist. People say all sorts of things over the phone, and sometimes the connection is not so good, so you can never be sure. Beijing is a big city, by the way. I don’t know who would possibly have fed you such a line. Face it, Qin, you are mayor of a boring town at the faraway edge of the empire. My resources are and will never be at the disposal of any minor local official, and that includes you. Especially you. On top of which, terrorists don’t mess with noodles. I think I can guarantee that. On the outside chance we pick up rumors suggesting a change in their tactics, noodle bombs or whatever, I’ll be in touch.”

It was a long speech, longer than I normally make, and I’m not sure the mayor heard the whole thing, because the line had clicked halfway through. No matter, it was on the record somewhere.

As soon as I hung up, the phone buzzed again. “Major, it’s Po. Can we talk? If you haven’t eaten yet, maybe I can buy you a late dinner.”

Po Dawei was the chief of the Yanji City police. He’d been promoted two years ago after the last chief ended up in a ditch with an odd, totally fatal, and yet-to-be-explained wound on his neck. The other candidates for the job all declined, so it fell to Po, who was only a lieutenant at the time, and not actually in line for advancement. He was bright in a plodding sort of way, but too honest ever to get such a promotion. To everyone’s surprise, he got it anyway. The two of us kept our meetings few and far between. We were on cordial terms mostly because we stayed away from each other—that and the fact that he didn’t get along with the mayor. Po wasn’t much to look at, medium height, medium build, medium gait, even-tempered almost to the point you wanted to punch him just to see him react. The most distinguishing thing about him was his strange laugh, like a small dog being strangled.

“Before we get started, Po, your people sent a couple of the reports directly to Beijing. How many times have I told you not to do that?”

“They were stressed, Major. A lot of bodies all at once will do that.”

“Second,” I said, “if this is about terrorism, don’t waste your breath. I don’t want to hear it.”

“I guess you’ve already talked to Qin. Listen, he’s breaking my back on this, worse than ever. Can you help me out, loan me someone part-time maybe, just for a day or two so we can go through the motions of coordinating? Just the motions, you know what I mean. I’d owe you a favor.”

“Sorry, can’t help, Po, my basket of favors is empty. I’m shorthanded, and believe it or not, my office has work to do. The border isn’t going to take a rest while I look for a food nut with a grudge.”

Po laughed. It sounded worse over the phone than it did in person. “Is that what you’ve concluded? A food nut? I don’t think so. Maybe I’m only a local cop, but I know what I know, and I don’t think so. I also don’t think it’s ptomaine, whatever our crazy coroner says. I’ll grant you, I’m not sure if it’s terrorism, but it sure is as close to a massacre as anyone has ever seen around here. Seven bodies, maybe eight, all in one night. It’s going to get press attention—tongues are already wagging out there, and neither of us is going to be happy at the end of the day if foreign reporters from Beijing come up here nosing around.”

“You’re the chief of police,” I said. “Do whatever you want. If you ask my advice, shut down every restaurant in the city for a few days. If there’s no food, they’ll have to go home.”

There was silence on the line, so I figured he was thinking it over. Finally he cleared his throat, something he always did before announcing a decision. “I can’t touch the hotel, the mayor wouldn’t like it, but I guess we can shut down all the noodle shops for a few days until we’re sure we know what happened.”

“Excellent. And while you’re at it, double your flying squads. Have them break a few dishes and turn over some tables when they barge in. It doesn’t hurt to have people sore at you. Not really angry, just irritated.”

“You telling me my job, Major?”

“See? You’re irritated.”

“I’m always irritated. Every morning I wake up and the first thought, always the first thought, is that some time during the day I’ll have to deal with the mayor.”

“Listen, if your boys find dual-use items under the sink in any of the kitchens, let me know and I’ll send a special team over, but I’ll bet you it’s just dirty cutlery that caused those deaths. I can’t say sanitation is a strong point in this city.”

“I take it,” the chief said, “this means you don’t want dinner.”

“You mentioned other bodies?” An eighth corpse was not what I needed.

“That’s right. I can tell you more when I see you.”

“Noodles are out. So is Italian.”

“Let’s meet in Fuzhou Alley in about fifteen minutes. There’s a little place right on the corner you may not have tried. It hasn’t been around long. The food isn’t great, so not a lot of people go in. That means it’s quiet. It stays open late. All night, actually.”

“I don’t care how many go in,” I said, “as long as the same number come out. Upright.”

“So far, you’re in luck.”

4

There was a full moon over Yanji that night, but it had skipped over Fuzhou Alley. A rat rummaged around in a trash can nearby. Otherwise the place was dead quiet. After a minute or two, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I sensed a soft footstep behind me.

“Nice to see you, Major. I hope I’m not late.”

I turned around to face the chief of police. “Even if you were late, Po, how would I know? I can’t see my arm, much less my watch. Isn’t it against the law for a street to be this dark?”

“We like it this way. Breeds crime.” He laughed. The rats screamed and scurried away at the sound.

The chief led the way to the restaurant. The floor was littered with discarded food and paper. It had the charm of a tomb that a lower class of robbers had looted. Vermin of all types would consider it homey. I hesitated before following Po in. My office was supposed to know all the dingy, dirty eateries in the city, but this one had fallen through the cracks. I’d never heard of it. I made a mental note to open a file and get an investigation under way, starting with simple things like who owned this hole, and what did they have against brooms?

We found our way to a table, not difficult because there were only six of them, all empty. As soon as we sat down, the place started getting on my nerves. For some reason, it reminded me of the old-fashioned morgues out in the countryside, the ones with small restaurants out front. They were strictly illegal, not to mention unhealthy, but so are a lot of things.

“I said the food was bad, but that might be unfair, Major.” The chief looked around for someone to take our order. “My only advice is, avoid the soup.”

“OK, no soup.”

“Sometimes the fish dumplings are good.”

I wasn’t in the mood for dumplings. “They come off a truck?”

“No, we make them here,” a young woman said, emerging from the gloom. She gave me the once-over. “But we’re out of dough, so you’ll have to sit here until tomorrow afternoon when we get some more. Or, if you want something sooner, I have fish head soup.”

Po held up his hand. “We’ll skip the soup.”

The woman laughed, not what you’d call musical, but not in the same league as Po.

“Who owns this place?” I asked. “It’s filthy.”

“You a sanitation expert?” She swept some dried noodles from the next table onto the floor. “I don’t own it. I’m the manager. In other words, I manage things. I’m in charge of operations.” She looked around and muttered something under her breath. “I also serve the food and entertain the cook when we don’t have any customers. You want to eat, or do you want to chat? We have bills to pay, you know.”

“Sure,” said Po evenly, “we want something to eat. Just not soup. How about pork? And rice.” He looked at me.

“Fish,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

I shrugged. “OK, and make sure it’s a nice fish, the whole thing, not just the head. You got something fresh? Bring it out here first. I want to see its eyes.”

“You want one with blue eyes or brown?” She tossed her head. “From what I hear, you got problems, and not with fish.”

“Is that so?” Po asked gently. I knew the chief’s eyelids drooped when he was getting cozy with someone he thought might have information. They were drooping. “I got problems?” His voice had turned silky, an even more advanced sign that he was closing in for the kill. “Listen, darling, my problems are your problems. But you already know that. You want to tell us what you’ve heard about blue eyes?”

“Nothing, I was just making conversation, that’s all.” The woman shrugged. “Let me go find the cook and then wake up the fish. I’ll make soothing noises so it won’t suspect anything. Maybe hum a tune. You want him smiling or just with a fish expression on his face?”

The woman disappeared again. Po frowned and jotted down a note on a tiny paper napkin. “She’s from out of town, Harbin we think. Came here about six months ago. We’re still looking for her file. Harbin says it was transmitted, but it never got here.”

“You believe them?”

“The Harbin police are earnest.”

“But…”

“But not always very efficient. Anyway, we have been watching the lady, testing to see if we can use her. A dark place like this will sooner or later turn into a meeting place for troublemakers.”

“And?”

“She’s very combative, never gives an inch. The consensus is that she is probably too hard to control. The fish is usually OK, though. It’s from the river.”

“Not much you can do wrong with river fish.” I didn’t want to get off into a long conversation about food preparation, and police sources were none of my business. “Over the phone you mentioned another body.”

“I did, but we’re not sure yet if it’s connected with the others. Actually, we’re not sure how many bodies it might be. That’s why I needed to talk to you.”

“I told you, I don’t want to hear you say the word ‘terrorism.’”

“All right, I won’t. How about the word ‘bomb’?”

I sat back. “That’s the second word I don’t want to hear. Go ahead.”

“This other body, or bodies … There wasn’t much, not that we could find on first look, anyway. It was already past sunset, and there was no sense taking our big light trucks out there when it’s dark. Runs the hell out of the generators. We found the place about fifteen kilometers north of town. Some farmers in the area called and said they heard an explosion. Four or five calls, all at once. The dispatcher says the calls came in just about the time we got the first reports about the bodies in the restaurants, maybe a couple of minutes later. Incidentally, those calls about the restaurant bodies also came in all at once. Might be coincidence. Might not.”

“Not much there, you said. Enough to identify?”

“Hard to say. We’ll go looking for more bits and pieces as soon as the sun is up. I’ve told the local patrol to put tape around the scene, but that won’t keep anyone out, so we might lose a little evidence overnight.”

“A little?”

The chief shrugged. “Maybe most of it. Want to come along to see what’s left?”

No, I did not want to come along to see what was left. Until they were sure it was a bomb, it was police business, and I wasn’t about to get pulled into it. “Apart from the timing of the calls, what makes you think this has anything to do with the bodies in the restaurants? The initial field reports were not very useful as far as I’m concerned.”

“They were early, Major.” He wasn’t taking offense. “You can’t expect miracles from the street cops up here. They don’t get paid much, not after all the deductions.”

I’d heard that excuse before. These “deductions” were vaguely worded. I was sure they went via a circuitous route into the mayor’s pocket, and I figured the chief thought so, too, though we’d never discussed it. “You’re breaking my heart, Po. Any results from the interrogation of the chef in the hotel? Any more information on the tourist?” It wasn’t my business, but I didn’t want any unpleasant surprises.

“The chef says he didn’t even know anyone was in the restaurant. He was preparing a sauce, he says.”

“A sauce. Anyone check to see what kind of sauce? What about the serving staff? Were they preparing sauces, too?”

Po turned toward the kitchen just as the woman walked out holding a medium-sized fish that was moving its tail and looking around the room.

“It jumped into my arms,” she said. “I didn’t whistle or snap my fingers or nothing. When your time is up, it’s up, I guess.” The fish goggled at us. It didn’t look all that healthy to me.

“Throw it back,” I said. “It might be someone’s mama. We’ll just have pork and rice if you have any. And go easy on the pork fat. I know it was Chairman Mao’s favorite dish, but tonight I’m not in the mood for a heart attack.”

The woman looked at Po. “You want me to throw this fish back? And order pork in a fish restaurant?”

Po shrugged. “You and the cook make yourself a meal of it if you’re hungry, but it’s on your tab. The major and I are granting it a limited pardon.”

5

We finished dinner without much conversation. When we were done and outside again in the dark, my mobile phone rang.

“Yes.” No phone number showed up, but I knew who it was even before I heard the voice. “Yes, uncle, I’m working late. There were noodles and vegetables on the counter if you had wanted something. No, you won’t starve. Eat some crackers, then. I’ll call when I’m on my way.”

Po shook his head. “You should get a housekeeper or something to look after the old man. Make it easy on yourself.”

“We had a housekeeper. In fact, we already had three this year. They can’t stand it. They say my uncle is from another planet, and no amount of money will induce them to stay.”

“But he’s still with it, right?” Po tapped his finger on his temple. “All there, from what I hear.”

“And what exactly do you hear?”

“Just this and that, Major. Nothing special. Yanji is still like a small town, and we keep our ears open.”

“That’s good, Po. If your ears hear any more explosions going off, let me know. Otherwise, no reason to keep me up to date on your investigation, unless you run across signs of a noodle bomb. Thanks for dinner.”

“What about some cooperation? You have a new deputy, don’t you? He’ll be useless for a few weeks. Why not send him over to me for a couple of days? I’d be grateful.”

As far as I could tell, the new deputy would be useless to me for more than a few weeks, but I didn’t want the locals poaching on my staff. It set a bad precedent. Anyway, Tang might pick up a few bad local habits, and that would only make things worse. He already seemed to have brought along baggage from his previous assignment that I was going to have to pitch overboard.

“Sorry, Po, nothing I can do for you right now. You handle the mayor; he’s the stone in your shoe. I have problems of my own. We’ll be in touch again next week, sooner if something big comes up. I’ll keep my eyes open, though I doubt if there is anything in this business that falls under my jurisdiction.”

“What about the tourist? Foreigners are in your jurisdiction, aren’t they?”

“I’m specifically enjoined by Beijing from dealing with anything that has blue eyes. Headquarters has its reasons, I suppose. Good night.”

I decided to swing back to the office, but the long way, not through Fuzhou Alley. A good walk would give me time to think, and with luck, Uncle O would be asleep by the time I finally got home. He’d sleep most of the morning, then about noon drift into his workshop to plan bookshelves for the rest of the day. He planned more than he built, but he had built plenty in the three years he’d lived in my back room. I told him to stop until we found a way to deal with the ones already stacked up around the house. Besides which, we could barely afford the lumber. On this, as on almost everything else, he ignored me.

Back at the office, I went into the file room to see if there was anything on the owner of the dirty restaurant. There was nothing on the owner, but at the very back of one of the cabinets was something better—an old-style piece of folded cardboard containing a single yellowed paper with entries on both sides, typed on an old typewriter. According to the paper, the place had been a large and prosperous silk shop during the Japanese occupation. Soviet Red Army troops had looted it when they came through in 1945. It was looted again and partially burned down when the Kuomintang troops hurriedly left town in 1948. The PLA took possession of what was left of the building and turned it into a local police headquarters. During the war in Korea a small wing to the main building and an underground storehouse were added, turning it into an intelligence base, which doubled as a medical supply station when the fighting got heavy. It remained in the army’s hands until the Cultural Revolution, when gangs of Red Guards, who terrorized the Korean autonomous region and ran roughshod through Yanji, took it as their base of operations and an interrogation center that was broken up into a series of small underground torture cells. When things returned to normal in the mid-1970s, there was another fire, this time burning the back half of the building to the ground. The last entry on the paper noted that in 1979 the place became a restaurant whose full ownership, very curiously, could never be determined. The only operating certificate dated back to 1985, which meant it had expired several times over. I was tempted to close the place down on security grounds, but decided to leave well enough alone for the moment.

The second file I wanted to see was on the noodle shop where the three old men had been found dead. Whether they had actually died there, I didn’t know. I also didn’t know exactly what I was looking for in the file. Mostly, I wanted to make doubly sure that seven local deaths, more if Po was right, weren’t going to cause me trouble I didn’t need. The noodle shop’s file was fuller than the first one because for some time we’d had a low-level watch on the Uighur who supposedly ran the place. Uighurs were rare up here in the northeast. They were from the western fringe of the empire, not Han people, largely Muslim, and considered more and more by Beijing to be troublemakers. Uighurs thought China was occupying their land, oppressing them. I didn’t have to make a judgment on that, so I didn’t. All I knew was we were supposed to keep an eye on them if they showed up in our area, so that’s what we did. Alert bulletins from Headquarters arrived at least once a month to remind us in case we forgot.

In the file there were several elliptical reports about characters we didn’t like moving in and out of the restaurant, taking an overly long time with their noodles, leaving newspapers they hadn’t read on the tables when they walked out without paying their bills. It was one of only three noodle shops in Yanji that an ex-triad chief who called himself Mike hadn’t put the arm on. The two other shops which he hadn’t touched were both run by the Russian mafia. We knew Mike was afraid of the Russians. We also knew he was looking for new opportunities. Noodle shops were small potatoes.

We’d sent the file on the Uighur’s place to Beijing for review along with a request for a technical team to be sent up to wire the place. The file and the request sat there for nearly half a year, and then three months ago the file had come back with a note: “No interest.” That surprised me. It also annoyed me enough that I hadn’t lifted the watch. How the Uighur left town without my knowing it was something I needed to find out, assuming he had actually left town. I didn’t have to close the place. Three dead customers would probably be enough to queer the business for a while.

The file on the upscale hotel where the chef had been making a sauce while his sole customer keeled over was missing. There was no recent signature on the checkout sheet. The last record was from three years ago, signed out to my former deputy. “Former” because he had been shot in the head by a local gangster working for someone—another of our local thugs—my uncle had soon afterward tossed into the hold of a coal freighter. My uncle hadn’t actually done the tossing himself, but he was the proximate cause. Both of the thugs—the gangster and his boss—had been in Mike’s employ; they were supposed to pass along to him whatever money they got from whatever rackets they ran, minus what they thought they could keep without his finding out. What Mike did with his money I didn’t know. He didn’t throw it around. He only had a shabby apartment in Yanji, which was his base for shaking down noodle shops throughout the northeast.

The only thing I like less than the triads, even ex-triads, is missing files. I made a mental note to ask the file clerk if she had any idea what was going on in her file room.

That was enough for one night. I was going out the front door when the duty officer glanced my way.

“Anything up, Major? You’re here late, or early depending on how you look at it. The sun will be up before you know it.”

“Late,” I said. “I’m here late. Have you looked at the duty log recently? We’re hemorrhaging diners.”

“Yeah, I heard about it when I ate before I came in.”

“Oh? Where was that?”

“My usual place, an Indian restaurant. It’s called the Bay Leaf, very artsy interior.”

“And the food?”

“Some people call it ‘curry from hell.’ It’s OK if you need to sweat.”

“What was the rumor?”

“Someone is poisoning restaurants to get them to pay protection money.”

“Nice theory.” I stepped over to the duty desk. “Too simple. By the way, there’s a file missing.”

“Uh-oh.” The duty officer knew what I thought about the sanctity of the file room. “Want me to do anything? Look around for it?”

“Just keep your bottom glued to that chair until your relief arrives. And answer the phone, will you? If it’s the mayor, don’t tell him I’m at home.”

“No, sir. You want me to call you?”

“You know that the only time you’re supposed to call me at home is if the entire North Korean Politburo paddles across the river in a rubber boat and asks for asylum.”

He grinned. “And if you don’t answer?”

“Leave a message. No, wait; cancel that. No message.” I didn’t want my uncle waking me with a sly look on his face as he said he had something I might find interesting.

I took a roundabout route home, past the new department stores with the names of swank European designers plastered across the front, and stopped off in a bar I visited sometimes. I liked the place. It stayed open until dawn, and no one ever bothered to look up when I walked in. A long drink later, I felt prepared to face Uncle O.

 

Copyright © 2016 James Church.

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James Church (pseudonym) is a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia. He is the author of the Inspector O series, including A Corpse in the Koryo, A Drop of Chinese Blood, and Hidden Moon. He has wandered through Korea for years. No matter what hat he wore, Church says, he ran across Inspector O many times.

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