THE SISTERS OF BEIJING -SAMPLE
With the summer floodwaters still months off, the Yangtze River was running low, slow and dirty. Almost six thousand kilometres from its source, it appeared sapped of its energy. It lapped lazily at the low dyke of plastic bottles, cans and driftwood that lined the muddy beach as if the trash was all it had left to offer.
Wo zai gan shenme, I shouldn't be here, Miqing thought, but didn't dare say it out-loud. What was she doing on the filthy beach in her new patent leather shoes, her pressed knee-length dress and white lace tights? Her perfume was wasted with the overpowering stench of the filthy river. She tried to smile, but couldn't. The man had said it would be only a short walk – enough to stretch their legs and digest the evening meal, enough to get to know each other better. Better than the noisy avenues of Nanjing, he had said with his charming grin.
She was still unsure about the date; with the last two she had known within ten minutes that they would go no further– one with a middle-aged traffic policeman and the second with a clerk with the Public Security Bureau. This time, they had chatted on line for a couple of weeks. The local cop had entertained her, charmed her and, she admitted, had turned her on. Only it felt different now.
She looked back – an involuntary movement expressing her regret at having followed the cop down to the water's edge. In the distance, shrouded in mist, she picked out the silhouette of the Nanjing Yangtze Bridge and imagined a taxi driving her across to the west bank and back home.
And she was tired. As a plastic bottle crumpled under her foot, her mind drifted to the next morning; she would be presenting the marketing plan for the new collection of children's clothes to line manager, Hu Xiling. The stickler for detail would nit-pick, criticise and humiliate her and then present her ideas to top management as being his own. Still, she would get her salary at the end of the month..
She heard the cop's voice, or was it his breathing? She was thinking about marketing – so much for charm. Had he noticed that her mind was wandering?
Night was falling quickly and the illuminations on the double-decker bridge came on, serving to brighten the bridge. They also plunged the Yangtze into a colder, sombre darkness.
Miqing shivered. The man's hand was on her shoulder, only it didn't warm her. She shivered again as his palm dropped, uninvited, from her shoulder to her breast, gently first but then more insistently as she stiffened.
“Bu yao le – no, not now,” she protested, suddenly aware of the man's odour as he pressed his body against hers.
They say it's the odour that attracts or repulses, she recalled, somehow dwelling on the futile fact she had read in a magazine. And then terror gripped her, triggered by some deeper instinct. Perhaps the man sensed it too, as his fleshy, but powerful hands also took hold of her.
Could she not breathe because his hands were on her throat, or because she was stunned by the shock?
He was a PSB officer, he was humoristic, he was charming, he flattered her, he was hurting her. Her clothes bit into her flesh as he ripped them off. Her nails sunk into flesh. The animal yelped. She felt a dull thud on her forehead. Was it a rock or his fist? The mud felt sticky and warm, or was it her own blood? Her head tilted and was held to the ground as if in a vice, she saw the illuminated bridge sideways-on.
And she was five years old, arriving at Nanjing for the first time by bus with her parents, her tired head resting on her mother's lap as the bus jolted along the river-side road. She had seen the bridge in the same way – bright fascinating and sideways-on, rising from ground to the heavens.
“Mama, Baba,” she cried out to her parents, as her hands struggled in vain with the powerful bulk that was upon her.
Did the Yangtze stink all those years ago?
She was looking for love. Why was he doing this?
Senior Inspector Tian Haifeng of Nanjing central CID reluctantly opened his eyes and stared at his grubby desktop computer screen. The web page he had opened half an hour earlier was still there and the cursor was still blinking accusingly at the head of the menacingly empty box marked Member Profile.
“Curse this! I’m no poet,” he grumbled out-loud, knowing he was alone in the office.
After fifteen years with the Public Security Bureau, Haifeng had learnt to be wary of fancy words. Whether on the tongues of criminals or of Party cadres, they hid more crimes than a thick Yangtze fog.
Describe yourself as you wish to be seen, the web page prompted.
Having recently put on weight, Haifeng knew he should use the word fat to describe himself, rather than the two characters fa fu – meaning to emanate good fortune. Having no woman in his life, he recognised he was starved of sex and not of yun yu – meaning clouds and rain as scholars obliquely referred to it. And now he admitted he was using a desperate method to find a woman and not jie ze er yu – meaning emptying the pond to catch a fish. Only to find a woman, he would need some fancy words, and it felt like fraud.
The cursor continued to blink where he had last clicked. The help rubric was no damned help at all. How the hell was he supposed to relate in five hundred characters why a middle-aged widowed cop living with his sister and bringing up his teenage son alone would be the perfect catch for an attractive, understanding and available woman? He could emanate all the good fortune he wanted, but there’d be no clouds and rain or fish coming his way. It was pure bloody fiction.
Apart from the lies, words meant flaunting emotions. Flaunting emotions meant losing face, he argued. That morning, whilst standing at a urinal in the bureau’s men’s room, a niggling voice in his head told him it was a feeble excuse. He was simply scared to open up to someone again, especially with words. Pulling up his zip, he told the voice to bugger off.
Grabbing hold of another excuse, he then blamed junior officer Jin Yun. The young CID officer had put him up to signing on to the Nanjing Public Security Bureau dating web site a week earlier, but Haifeng’s member profile still remained eloquently blank. Jin Yun’s profile, on the other hand, was full of damned words. The kid knew how to sell himself and he had been scoring every week since the site had gone on-line.
The Nanjing Public Security Bureau had imaginatively and patriotically named the site “Catch a Single Policeman – Date a National Hero”. They had copied the initiative from a PSB station a thousand miles away in Chengdu. The city had thousands of migrant police officers who were cut off from home and working unsociable hours. As a result, a growing army of frustrated uniformed singles was turning to drink and prostitutes. In a bid to embrace modernity and social harmony, Party cadres in Chengdu gave the go-ahead for the internet site. Within its first two weeks on-line, it attracted forty thousand members. Nanjing followed suite six months later, and junior officer Jin Yun boasted that the Nanjing site had twice as many members as Chengdu’s. Haifeng suspected the young stud could keep most of the female members satisfied all on his own.
He stared glumly at the empty member profile again and lit up a pricey Zhonghua cigarette for consolation.
“Lost bloody cause! This is polishing coal to make diamonds,” he muttered, blowing out a plume of smoke at the computer screen.
“We’re in the land of fakes, here, Haifeng. It’s all about appearance. Sell yourself right and it won’t be your lumps of coal the ladies will be rubbing – believe me.”
Suppressing a grin, Haifeng didn’t bother turning to greet junior officer Jin Yun.
“You set me up on this cursed thing, son,” he barked, instead.
“What’s the fuss, Haifeng? You write what they want to hear, you get in contact with them and then you sell the goods – charm. That’s all it takes. It works like a charm for me!”
Jin Yun, placed a transparent flask of tea on Haifeng’s desk and pulled up a swivel chair to get a better view of the computer screen.
“You mistake charm for what you have in your pants, Yun. That’s not what I’m after.”
“Pu’er tea. Great for melting fat. And don’t lie about what you want. Here, let me see that.”
Haifeng managed a chuckle. He accepted more cheek and familiarity from Jin Yun than he did from his own teenage son. He worked closely with the youngster whom he had taken under his wing two years earlier when the rookie officer had been assigned to Haifeng’s Nanjing Central CID division. He had quickly understood that the lad performed better when unrestrained by protocol. Under Haifeng, Jin Yun got laughs where other officers got booked for insubordination. It also meant Haifeng could straight-talk to him whenever he screwed up on a job.
Jin Yun pulled the computer keyboard closer and began typing.
“Give me ten minutes and I’ll have you up and running,” he promised Haifeng.
“Ten minutes is all both of us have. Then we’re back to work. I want the Bei Miqing murder file on my desk.”
Fifteen minutes later, Haifeng was scrolling down Jin Yun’s prose and grunting his dissatisfaction at what he was reading. Even half of the facts were wrong.
“Of course it’s you. Who wants the truth? Dating is all about dreams – sell the dream first and then compensate for the reality with your charm when you actually meet the girl.”
“If this is me, then I’ve lost three years, ten kilos and one son. I’ve gained a religion and a university education. Plus I’ve given up bloody smoking!”
“Only temporarily. You can start up again when you’ve got her dating. Tell her it’s the stress of the job – hero stuff. It works for me.”
“What’s this blood group drivel?”
“I put you down as AB – they’re smart and sociable. Forget A – too austere and cerebral. Definitely avoid O – they’re drunkards and junkies. All women today know that. They want to hear AB, so give it to them. Look Haifeng, this is how your future conquest wants to see you. You’re not lying, you’re doing her a favour.”
“Do me a favour and open up that Bei Miqing file instead.”
While Jin Yun eased out a thick folder from a rickety heap of files on his desk, Haifeng read on: The senior detective is a strong and sensitive leader of men. Diligent and faithful in public and private life, this uniformed champion is at the peak of his form and of his career. Intelligent, witty and romantic, he is seeking to share his life – his experience, wisdom, strength and tenderness – with the perfect partner.
“There’s a limit to the cheek I’ll take from you, Yun. Have you written this for a bloody bet with those bastards you hang out with in the road traffic police? A thousand Yuan to make a fool of me?”
“Fool? It worked for me. Given my age, I just said I was at the beginning of a blossoming career, not at my peak yet. Apart from that, the rest is the same. And I’ve not had a quiet night since. Press that confirm button and you’re on line. They’ll be queuing up for you.”
“Maybe I’m old fashioned, Yun, but I once thought love could have something to do with being truthful.”
“Truthful? If I had been truthful, I’d still be in chunan” Jin Yun quipped, making his birthplace near Hangzhou sound like the slang for a male virgin.
Haifeng placed the curser on the save button and hesitated. If the kid told anyone else in the department about this, then he’d have his balls. In a rare flash of verbosity, he recalled the proverb miao zai bu yan zhong − charm lies in what is left unsaid. Seizing the lyrical excuse, he clicked on the cancel button instead and then closed the web page. If ever he got around to it, he would write his own profile. If there wasn’t a woman out there looking for a man of few words, then that was their loss. Anyway, the Bei Miqing murder case was going to be a time-consumer and he’d probably never get a chance to write his five hundred characters.
If there was any truth in miao zai bu yan zhong, then Haifeng found it. He had left everything unsaid, yet had apparently managed to charm someone. The five hundred characters never got written and he never had the chance to lie or to be truthful about his 80-kilo, cigarette-smoking body that had already fathered one son. He hadn’t even got around to uploading a seductive photo of himself to the web site that allowed for one dressed in uniform taken by an official police photographer and four dressed in civvies. Despite Haifeng’s silence and anonymity, there was a message in his member’s in-box; she was called Bao Yu – Precious Jade, and she was interested in member 0695. Curious to familiarise herself with 0695, she invited the said officer to view her profile and to log on at his convenience for an on-line chat.
Definitely a practical joke. Yun’s setting me up, Haifeng suspected as he clicked on Bao Yu’s profile one evening at home. His younger sister, Xiao Ting, had gone out to play Mah Jong and his son, Wei, was still at the high school gymnasium. Seizing the rare opportunity of having the flat to himself, he pulled up the woman’s profile, and then let out a whistle.
“A good looker!”
Haifeng’s caution quickly kicked in, though. Photographs were no more truthful than words. He knew the wonders photographers could do with software. The framed picture of Xiao Jing that stood on her bed-side table gave her only half her age and none of her wrinkles. His sister had become the stuff of film stars in a few clicks and for a few Yuan. Still, the large oval eyes, regular features and full lips of member Bao Yu were irresistible. Seeing the marble-effect background to the head shot was jade green, he wondered if the photographer had enquired about her name.
“Precious Jade, I’ll give you thirty years old. Add the Photoshopping and that makes you forty.”
Studying her face before clicking on the member information, Haifeng let his instinct guide him.
“Intelligent eyes. A trace of sadness, despite the smile. An atypical hair style – perhaps western rather than Chinese. Does she work in fashion?”
He let his eyes scrutinise the photograph, resisting the reflex to click on the member information. Haifeng knew he was good at faces and rarely misjudged a person’s character. He felt good about what he saw, he tentatively concluded.
“Which makes it look all the more like a bloody set up. Why would a woman like you be interested in a faceless, nameless, profile-less male on a dating site? Prostitute? No. You’ve caught my interest anyway, Precious Jade.”
He clicked on Bao Yu’s profile, and in a partially completed information box he read: Who wants words? I don’t. I want Mr Right.
The rest of the web page was blank. A woman of few words.
“Bu keneng! Bloody perfect!”
And it was. He liked her. She was a straight-talker. She tolerated just one web-site chat session, telling him that she refused to do video and didn’t want a flow of meaningless chatter.
“We meet. We like or we don’t like. No need to play games. Deal?”
At their first face-to-face meeting three days later in Xanwu Park below the Zhongshan scenic area, she asked him to fill in at least a few of the blanks about who he was, what he liked and what he disliked. Haifeng lit up a cigarette in guise of an answer and he saw her grin. She then teased him about a detective being unable to figure out why she had homed in on his blank member profile on the web site.
While Haifeng studied her face, he made a stab at an answer.
“Because you like mysteries,” he suggested, hopefully.
“Try again, detective.”
A dozen erroneous guesses later, she owned up. He could thank a certain officer Jin Yun, she told him.
“You mean you dated a kid almost half our age and who happens to work under me!”
“Jealous already, Officer Tian Haifeng? Anyway, I haven’t told you my age yet. Not dated. He contacted me on the web site, failed in a brief attempt to charm me, and then told me the truth about why he had buzzed me on the chat-line.”
“I can only think of one reason for Jin Yun to ply his charm.”
“The reason was you. He lauded so much praise on his marriage-worthy superior that I just had to meet him. Told me we were the perfect match. Didn’t his superior have a keyboard or a tongue, I asked him. Too humble to advertise his qualities, he told me and then went on to give me a potted history of your life and a dozen good reasons why I’d be a fool to miss this opportunity. I was impressed by what he said. That young officer admires you. I was amused and intrigued.”
“In other words, the bugger set you up,” Haifeng blurted out, stunned by what he heard, “What tales has he been spinning? I’ll have the kid’s ass when I next see him at the station. I apologise. This really is diu lian – please don’t feel you’ve lost face, I have.”
“He also told me you didn’t care about losing face. He said you did the right thing, whatever people thought of you. Do you know what true diu lian is? It’s not the trivial stuff, it’s when someone you trust betrays you. I like truth, Haifeng. So, do you care about losing face or not?”
“I like truth, if that’s what you mean. It’s important to me.”
“So let’s make a deal. We don’t lie to each other. If we don’t want to answer a question, then we ignore it, but never lie.”
“You’re very direct, Xiaojie. I like that.”
Haifeng peered at her through his cigarette smoke. He offered her one and to his surprise she accepted it, holding his gaze as she did. He realised as he was looking at her that he was playing the policeman − weighing up the person in front of him, consciously and unconsciously reading clues from voice, dress and body language. He held her stare and saw it was the same face he had seen in the photo. Flattering lighting and careful hairdressing had been the only artifices used. No need for Photoshop. A Northern Chinese face, he reckoned, with attractive high cheekbones and wide-set eyes that unblinkingly returned his gaze. Today her straight black hair was elegantly parted on the left, with locks falling to her right shoulder, leaving the left side of her slender neck bare. He looked for the trace of sadness in her eyes that he had detected in the photograph but instead caught a sparkle of mischief. He sensed intelligence, intensity yet also frailty, or was that just him fantasising? Her voice was gentle, yet conveyed energy. She spoke with economy, yet was not taciturn. The words confident, lively and educated came to his mind. The accent also told him northern China, perhaps Beijing.
“Am I looking at you or are you looking at me,” Bao Yu asked, taking a drag on her cigarette.
It wasn’t a question, and Haifeng simply nodded his understanding. She hadn’t looked surprised or awkward on seeing his burnished Tibetan-Mongol type face. There had been no internet photo to warn her, but she had greeted him with a relaxed smile. Over the years, Haifeng had got used to people taking him for an uneducated peasant from some mountainous border province. Many a Han woman would not look twice at a man with his face, but her tone and manner told him she felt at ease with him. Seeing her arrive in the park at the Nuona Tower rendez-vous point, he had noted that she was smartly attired but not over-dressed. She had stridden confidently towards him in a matching beige knee-length skirt and lapelled jacket. Her apple-green blouse was set off with a tangerine silk neck scarf that danced in the gentle breeze blowing over the park. Now, sitting next to her, he saw that neither her clothes nor her leather handbag flaunted any brand names. Her make-up was discreet too. She is an elegant but not a flashy woman, Haifeng decided, conscious that she was scoring points with him. Sitting so closely to her, and out of politeness, he refrained from letting his eyes wander over her body, but he noted her relaxed posture.
“So what else haven’t you guessed right about me,” she taunted with a smile as her lips released a puff of smoke.
Always note how you feel in the presence of a suspect. Feelings reveal more than the words you hear and they are more reliable, he had taught Jin Yun when he had joined the team. He stubbed out his cigarette and recognised that after just ten minutes he felt good.
“If you must know, I feel good about you,” he heard himself say, and instantly wondered how he could have let his tongue wag so quickly.
Bao Yu simply smiled again and slid on a pair of sunglasses apparently making light of the remark. He followed her gaze across the Xuanwu Lake from the small Huan Island and towards the imposing Ming Dynasty city walls that still encircled a large section of the city. In a metropolis where skyscrapers sprouted up like grass in spring, there was something comforting in the walls that defied time and change. Beyond the walls, and reflected in the vast expanse of Xuanwu lake, the lush-green Zhongshan Mountain dominated the city, it too reassuring Haifeng. When he came to Xuanwu Park in a good mood, he could fool himself that it would all last forever.
Wondering whether they were sharing the same sensations, Haifeng accepted the hiatus in their exchange and enjoyed the moment.
“Smoking is bad for our health, you know. How about a row to get some air into our lungs,” he eventually said with a grin.
“The miniature lake. Let’s take a boat out and we can talk more.”
“And you can get a better view of my legs. You haven’t looked yet. The young officer also said you could be good mannered when necessary.”
He saw the mischief in her eyes again and wondered where it would take them.