THE COUSINS OF TAWIAN -SAMPLE
The brush strokes were those of a master. The black ink on the handmade Xuan calligraphy paper was alive. Composed of a xi on the right and a symmetrical xi on the left, the flowing Chinese character was a timeless symbol for marriage: two perfectly matching and harmonious halves, side by side.
Haifeng nodded contentedly on seeing that the symmetry was not quite perfect. The artist had worked his brush with a hand inhabited at one moment by yang energy and then by yin; and the constantly shifting pressure of the brush on the fine-grained paper was perceptible. Most pleasing of all was the way the tip had departed from the paper on completing the final stroke like a wild goose lifting off from Hangzhou’s West Lake, water droplets falling from its webbed feet and onto the shimmering surface.
He felt her hand upon his as he traced a finger across the poetry that was written in a single word.
“Admiring Uncle Jiang’s gift yet again, Haifeng?”
“I don’t usually give a damn for art, but this…”
“A beautiful pair of characters.”
“Yes, we are.”
He got a discreet slap on his backside for the pun, and then a tug on his hand.
“Come on, joker. Can’t have the guests thinking you are ignoring them. It’s your job to get them drunk.”
Haifeng turned and met Bao Yu’s eyes, unable to decide what he liked best in her. At fifty-three-years old and seven years his senior, she was stunning. Her graceful face invariably radiated self-confidence and her gritty yet melodic Beijing accent rarely failed to get a smile out of Haifeng. He had never worked out what the successful international executive had found in a widowed Nanjing cop with a face of a Tibetan peasant.
“The perfection on this paper will never alter, but you are constantly shifting from one perfection into another,” he found himself saying, and at the same time wondered where the hell this new eloquence had come from.
“The guests have got you drunk, instead. Hurry up; we have another change of clothes to do.”
Haifeng turned his eyes from the calligraphy and towards the round banqueting tables. There were eight tables of eight, the perfect number. Adorning them, there was ji xia yu rou – chicken, shrimps, fish and meat, the complete festive fare; and there was fine red wine, vintage maotai and champagne.
The guests were being suitably loud and honouring his marriage with manifest good humour. His teenage son Wei was stripped of his jeans and tee shirt for the occasion and was watching his manners. Little sister Haiting, sitting at the same table, was red-cheeked – flushed from the alcohol and the laughter. Moving away from the apartment he had shared with Haiting for all these years would be a big change; she was a wonderful substitute mother for Wei. Around three tables he counted his Public Security Bureau colleagues with their wives and sweethearts. There was one unoccupied red upholstered seat and a wine glass was missing. Haifeng scanned the room and quickly found junior officer Jin Yun, glass in hand, his lanky figure squeezed in between two apparently mesmerised young women, making it a table of nine. Eight was lucky, but Haifeng knew Jin Yun didn’t need any extra luck with women. Scanning the room again, he was pleased to see old Divisional Head Hu Tang sitting at a table of honour, his small frame lost in an ill-cut suit and his keen eyes magnified by his thick-rimmed glasses. He had not opened the divisional head’s envelope, but had no doubt that his wedding gift would be considerable. He hoped it would be; the wedding ceremony had knocked him back three months of salary. Thinking of the cost, he squeezed Bao Yu’s hand under the table and grinned. He wouldn’t have forgiven himself if he hadn’t been extravagant for her.
He heard the tapping of a chopstick on a glass and braced himself for another lengthy toast and an inevitable cry of gan bei forcing him to finish his glass in one gulp.
It was Jiang, Bao Yu’s maternal great uncle from Taiwan, and the only family member she had managed to trace since she had returned to Asia. Living in Taipei, the eighty-year old had never met his niece before, but he lauded praise on his kin, impeccably respecting etiquette and punctuating his speech with lines from the classics. He made a brief toast and sixty-odd guests raised and then emptied their glasses.
“Change clothes again before we all get drunk,” Bao Yu reminded him.
That would be the third change since the day had begun. He had started the day in his worn-out jogging suit for an early-morning tai chi session to calm his nerves. Next, he had taxied to the hotel in a brand-new Western-style slate-grey suit for the wedding ceremony in the banqueting room. Promises, presents and photos went on forever until he slipped up to his hotel room, half-way through the banquet, and donned his emperor disguise. He had complained unconvincingly to Bao Yu about the disguise, but now he admitted that the emperor’s embroidered silk jacket looked damned good on him – especially the nine dragons that emblazoned the yellow silk. When she had appeared beside him in a magnificent red silk empress garment with its embroidered golden phoenix, the banqueting room had erupted into a riot of noise.
And the joyful noise had not ceased all evening. Above the din, there was a burst of raucous laughter from the table nearest to the double doors. Haifeng spotted a CID colleague leaning back in his chair, wiping tears from his eyes. The woman next to him was shaking her head in mock disapproval. The CID’s brand of black and smutty humour and alcohol went well together. The colleague pulled a face, no doubt to illustrate his story, and the whole table burst into unbridled laughter again. All but one. To the left of the officer, Inspector Li Da’s countenance changed as he held a cell phone to his ear. Haifeng watched as he got up, coaxed the overweight Inspector Xi Gufang from his seat, whispered something onto his ear and led him out of the double doors.
He felt Bao Yu tugging on his arm.
“Chunchun will help me change in her room. You go up to our room and get your traditional Han costume out, will you? I’ve got an olive-green qipao waiting for me. We’ll make out entrance again in fifteen minutes.”
“Just when I was enjoying being dressed like an emperor.”
“Not just any emperor. This is Emperor Kangxi’s gown. Back then, you’d have been executed for wearing his nine-dragon motif. Anyway, you look good in anything, my emperor.”
“You look especially good in your...”
“Don’t say a word. You’re not bad in your yi si bu gua birthday suit either!”
Yi si bu gua – not one silk thread hanging; chuckling at the expression, Haifeng exited the banqueting room and strode to the hotel foyer, testing his legs as he did so. Convinced he was holding his alcohol well, he headed towards the elevator to ride up to the eighth floor, room 808. He arrived to find a coach party with enough suitcases to fill a cargo boat waiting for the lift.
“Bugger this,” he said, enjoying his first curse of the day and made for the head of the corridor where he found the service stairway.
Despite his stocky frame, he easily climbed to the second and third floors and then went straight to the fifth, the hotel having left out the unlucky number four. Arriving at the floor six, he stopped to get his breath and also congratulated himself for being in reasonable shape for an inebriated forty-five-year-old emperor. As he paused, his hands on his hips, he heard Inspector Li Da’s voice coming from the corridor beyond the service door. Li Da was not booked into the hotel for the night and his wife was in the banqueting room. Preferring not to know what the inspector was up to, Haifeng decided to continue his climb to the seventh floor. Three steps up he clearly heard a curse that was followed by shouting – three voices at least. He dropped down to the sixth floor, pushed open the door onto the corridor and walked into a pool of vomit.
A room service boy was sat on the floor, his back propped up against the wall and his head in his hands. He saw the characteristic chubby silhouette of Li Da in the open doorway to a bedroom. And then he caught a whiff of a sickeningly familiar odour.
“Fucking animal! Fucking, fucking animal!”
CID Inspector Xi Gufang staggered from the room, and shoved Li Da out of his way. He held out a hand to the wall, groaned and vomited. His ejection was followed by another curse. Li Da turned and his eyes met Haifeng’s. He shook his head and held out his hand.
“Not on your wedding day, Haifeng. Get out of here.”
“Drink. Too much drink,” Gufang complained.
The hell it was. Gufang could drink a Mongol peasant under the table. Haifeng steadied himself. He was supposed to be changing his clothes. Was his mind working clearly? He felt Li Da’s hand on his chest, holding him back.
“Get back to your guests, Haifeng. You are not here.”
“Who’s in there? Not one of my guests...” he blurted out.
“Ask the butcher,” came the reply from Gufang.
And Haifeng’s mind cleared. Gufang was as tough as pair of PLA boots and handled a cadaver a week, and here he was puking down the hotel’s willow and chaffinch motif wallpaper. He stepped forward, but Li Da’s hand was still on his sternum – a rough shove telling him to get back to his own wedding.
“None of my guests are on the sixth floor.”
“It’s nothing to do with your wedding, Haifeng. Piss off, now.”
“The call – you got a call in the banqueting room.”
“From the CID dispatcher. Officer Jia will be over with a reserve team. Only he knows fuck all. The dispatcher knew we were all at the hotel and so he warned me.”
Haifeng told himself to get up to the eighth floor and into his next wedding outfit. There were a thousand guests in the hotel. This wasn’t his murder. He trod in the vomit again and turned back.
“What the hell is in there, Da?”
“You don’t want to…”
“Officer Jia is holding the shop while we all get drunk at my wedding. The kid can’t handle a crime scene.”
“And neither can you tonight...”
Haifeng ducked under Li Da’s outstretched arm and into the doorway of room 608, and then he stopped dead.
His mind flashed back to seeing his so-called father clandestinely butcher an adult pig. The eight-year-old boy had stood and watched the ugly business that was executed in a grimy outhouse. His stomach tightening at the memory; he recalled the unearthly and unbearable shrieking of the beast, the flash of the blade and the splattering of blood on his own face. He had yelped and turned, and the blood had continues to spray over him, plastering his close-cropped hair. And there was the shriek that came after. He turned to see the pig, its snout lopped open in a grin, and his father with the same bloody leer on his face. He had taken Haifeng’s face between his bloody hands and with his alcohol breath had told him that death was a bloody affair – and get used to it.
He took two steps into the hotel bedroom, but ventured no further, if only to save his embroidered wedding shoes from the slithers of flesh and viscous splatter of blood that peppered the tiled floor. He sunk into a crouch and lifted his eyes to the ceiling to momentarily escape the scene of butchery. He swore and quickly closed them on seeing that the ceiling was also pebble-dashed with flesh and blood. He let out a sigh instead of a curse and kept his eyes closed; he let his shoulders relax and his breathing slow down. Finding some inner calm, he prepared to scan the room just once more to let his experienced eye take in what others might miss, and then he would go. Officer Li Da was right – not on his wedding day.
He forced his eyes open, stood up, and panned the bedroom. With the first scan, he deliberately avoided the body, not because it was grotesque, but because it was a distraction. Taking his time to look around, he grunted some conclusions to himself and then let his eyes rest on the mutilated body. He knew enough of pathology to know that the hacking had been performed on a living body and not on a cadaver. The ropes that had restrained the victim face down on the wooden desk had protected the few bands of skin that had not been attacked. Without shifting his feet, he pushed open the bathroom door to his right. On the white tiled floor he saw a blood-stained bra and a pair of panties. Streaked footprints told of someone bare-footed slipping on the floor. In the corner, the glass-door of the shower also bore traces of streaked blood. Small feet, panties and the hacked-up body of what appeared to be a man strapped to the desk. A woman, a man, butchery.
“It’s my wedding day,” he heard himself mutter.
In the bathroom mirror he stared at the reflection of an emperor in an embroidered silk gown embellished with emblems for success and fortune. A dead man’s flesh was on the walls and ceiling; it was an auspicious start to his wedding. Suddenly sensing queasiness in his stomach, he took control of his breathing again, carefully turned on his feet to avoid any blood splatters and retreated to the hotel corridor.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Li Da swear an apology to him. He let the sympathetic grip guide him to the stairwell.
“Get on with your wedding, colleague. Do it for her and do it for us. You’re a tough fucker, Haifeng. Put on a smile and spoil her – you both deserve it. This isn’t your business now.”
Haifeng climbed the stairs. A quick shower, a change of clothes, and come out a new man. Empty your mind, Haifeng. Think only of her face. His phone beeped.
“Hurry up, handsome. I’m missing you already. Meet in the foyer in fifteen minutes to make a new entrance.” he read.
Shuaige – handsome. Nobody had called him that before. A smile came to his face and he felt his stomach settling. A wedding, a honeymoon and a vow to bring happiness to each other. He made the vow again and reminded himself that for the next two weeks only two people would exist in his universe.