THE FATHERS OF XINJIANG - SAMPLE
The peasant spat and wiped his brow with the back of his hand, leaving a muddy streak that ran from his forehead to his ear. He took off his worn Mao-style cap and turned to contemplate the long strip of peat that he had dug out since breakfast. As he usually did when he had a decision to make, he ran a hand through his unkempt hair. His stomach was groaning, but he needed to get more peat out before the morning drizzle turned to a downpour. With electricity prices soaring in Jiangsu province, the demand for his slow-burning fuel had been shooting up, and he wanted to cash in quickly.
He took hold of his spade again and muttered ‘Di shui chuan shi’ – perseverance will lead to success.
He was out only to make a quick penny and so the proverb was hardly appropriate, but it was one of the very few he could remember. Spitting to mark his decision, he plunged the spade into the peat.
The first two sods came out easily. He sliced out a third wedge and was about to sling it onto the edge of the pit when an orange-red stain in the section caught his eye. He prodded at it with the blade of the spade and then scraped a little. He squinted at what looked like mud-caked fibres and then bent down and gave them a tug, but they wouldn’t come.
‘Crap in my peat! Zhen dao mei! That’s all I need.’
He swiped at the section with the spade, but met some resistance. With another curse, he shifted his aim to the right, eased off a clod of peat and then staggered back. His empty stomach convulsed, filling his mouth with bile. He gagged again, but nothing more came out. Abandoning the spade next to the contorted face that was staring out of the peat, he scrambled out of the trench.
Senior Inspector Tian Haifeng of Nanjing C.I.D. was at an illegal gambling den in the outskirts of Nanjing when he heard the message. If it hadn’t been for a fatal stabbing that he had been called in to investigate three months earlier, he would never have heard of the sleazy basement club that raked in the losses of drunkards and small-time gambling addicts. He could have closed the place down, but he reasoned it would simply spring up elsewhere. The owner, a new arrival from Guangdong, had openly offered Haifeng a monthly kickback if he didn’t interfere with business. Haifeng had slapped the man across the face leaving him with an ugly welt that ran from lip to ear. After pulling him up from the ground and offering him a cigarette, he suggested he donate twenty thousand Yuan to the struggling primary school in the nearby village of Heiban. He didn’t mention that it was the impoverished village he had grown up in.
Two months later, the school had new tables and desks, two computers and a concrete basketball court that was also used as a village threshing floor. On the way back from visiting the school, Haifeng hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to pay the Guangdong owner another visit. He wasn’t offered a kickback and Haifeng didn’t slap his face. Instead, he shared a beer and a smoke. Asking a few indirect questions and getting some indirect answers, he confirmed his suspicion that the man was being bled for protection money. It was no big deal, but Haifeng noted the information. His bladder full of the local Jingling Beer, he slipped out to the backroom toilets.
The filthy squat toilet stank, and so Haifeng emptied his bladder quickly rather than taking his time as he usually did. As he was dashing back to his car through a heavy downpour, still struggling with his fly, he heard a muted voice coming from the car radio. On opening the car door, he caught the name of Fuling, a local village, and the request for a squad to check out a body that had been found in a ditch. Realising he wasn’t far from the spot, Haifeng called in, noted the name of the peasant who had dug up the body and told the Public Security Bureau communications handler to hold back until he had taken a look.
Haifeng had seen more corpses than he could remember since joining the Public Security Bureau CID and trusted his second nature when it came to sniffing out a murder case. It was common knowledge that peasants and labourers went down like flies in work-related accidents and he knew unscrupulous factory and mine bosses wouldn’t blink twice at disposing of a body to avoid compensation claims. Violent disputes between workers were common enough too. Haifeng wondered whether, in this case, the spade really had gone in before or after death.
Following imprecise driving directions on his GPS, the further he got out of the city, the more abysmal the state of the roads became. He knew he had found the village when his car started rocking from side to side as he steered in vain to pick out the rare patches of asphalt between the potholes and broken bricks. He pulled up in front of a dilapidated row of brick hovels where a line of grubby children were sheltering from the rain.
‘Peasant Zhu Jiang, where,’ Haifeng yelled.
They pointed towards a fork in the lane that dropped down to the grim-looking backside of the village.
‘Why do corpses always end up in the most squalid places,’ Haifeng complained to himself, as he turned into the lane.
The last rare patches of asphalt turned to mud and the potholes became pools of murky water that left him guessing as to their depth. Inevitably a front tyre took a plunge, filthy water cascaded down on the bonnet and Haifeng banged his head on the side window. With the windscreen wipers struggling against the black sludge, he wound down the window and steered his way towards an isolated brick house. He pulled up by the house, got out and immediately spotted someone crouched in a field several hundred metres away. Haifeng reached back into his car and pumped the horn.
He watched as the figure, dressed in filthy overalls and matching cap, stood up and then started stumbling across the field, shouting for him to be quiet. Haifeng weighed up the peasant – his clothes, his gait, and complexion, and especially noted the large flat spade he was trailing behind him.
‘Tamada! Quiet! You’ll have them all here nosing around,’ Haifeng heard the man complaining angrily on approaching the car.
Leaning back into the car, he held down the horn while he stared unblinkingly at the peasant. A flock of birds as dark and ominous-looking as the flat, waterlogged landscape took fright at the cacophony and circled over the field where Haifeng supposed the corpse would be found. With his head cocked on his thick muscular neck and the burnished skin of his face creased into frown, he continued to hold his gaze until the peasant cringed and lowered his eyes. Satisfied that he had got their roles sorted out, he released the horn and demanded to see the body.
The two men trudged across a flat and springy expanse of stubby vegetation. The birds swooped down and settled on a distant fence as if to watch. In what could have been the centre of the vaguely defined field, the peasant stopped and pointed with his shovel. There was a trench over twenty metres long and nearly a metre deep cut into pitch-black peat.
‘I store it by the house,’ he offered in response to an unasked question.
Haifeng turned and saw that one side of the house appeared to be shored up by a small mountain of the black stuff.
‘Burn some of it, sell most though. Good prices at the moment. The country’s burning everything.’
Haifeng didn’t need reminding that China was back to another energy crisis. The great Yangtze Dam collapse had rocked the nation and left it short of power. The peasant had obviously decided it was time to cash in on his small peat reserve.
Shifting his attention to the field, he followed the clean-cut and perfectly straight trench with his eyes to where it opened out into an irregular pit. It looked as if someone had taken offence at the absurdly neat feature that had appeared on the otherwise messy landscape.
‘It’s there, comrade officer,’ the peasant said, more demurely now.
‘Senior inspector,’ Haifeng corrected matter-of-factly, and bounced along the vegetal mattress to the newly opened grave.
The hole had been cut differently from the rest of the trench, with straight lines abandoned and irregular lumps of turf scattered at its edge. The body was there, but Haifeng’s trained eyes first saw both slices made by a shovel and marks left by clawing hands. A knee of the crouched body protruded over the otherwise neat line of the trench. It told a clear tale: the man had been slicing away when his shovel had met some resistance – a kneecap. The rest of the body would have been in the trench wall. With shovel and hands, the man had then half dug the thing out.
‘You didn’t find it like this,’ he stated, shifting his eyes to the peasant.
Haifeng caught a hint of uncertainty in his voice. He folded his arms and waited for a better answer.
‘I mean I puked at first, but then came back and got some of the peat off it. Needed to be sure. Didn’t want to call the police for nothing. Did my duty.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that.’
Haifeng crouched on the edge of the pit and grimaced – a facial complaint about the state of his new leather shoes and the probable workload ahead of him. He dealt with his shoes first, scraping their soles on a brick and shouting for the peasant to bring him a couple of plastic bags as makeshift rubber boots.
Whilst waiting for the peasant to run his errand, he stared again into the pit, and then creased up his face in incomprehension; he had never seen a corpse like this before. The face was curiously deformed, its eye sockets empty and its mouth gaping as if gasping for air. The hands and nails were caked with dirt, suggesting the victim had struggled in vain to claw its way out of the waterlogged grave. The skin, wherever it was exposed, was so deeply creased and leathery it could have been the work of a tanner. Haifeng saw that the head was leant to one side and the legs pulled up in a crouch as if the body were awaiting birth. In guise of an umbilical cord, there was a rope looped tightly around the neck, its loose end lying suggestively where the navel would be under the mud-encrusted garment.
‘What the hell’s this?’
‘What you asked for,’ the peasant grunted, proffering two plastic bags and answering the wrong question.
Handing over the bags, he noisily cleared his throat of phlegm.
Attired in his new footwear that now advertised Xin Wei Noodles, Haifeng eased himself into the shallow pit only to see the bags sink deeply into the sodden peat. He would have spat out a curse on feeling the murky chilled water seep defiantly down his socks, but in the intimacy of the grave, he was caught by a fleeting tug of sympathy for the victim. Drawn by the face, he squatted and then steadied himself with one hand on the edge of the hole.
It was the face of a woman, of that he was sure, but he found her disconcertingly impossible to age. For though the high cheekbones, the slender nose and elegantly arched eyebrows were those of a young beauty, the weathered skin could have convinced Haifeng that she had lived a dozen lives.
‘She’s dead,’ the peasant offered stupidly as he peered into the pit and over Haifeng’s shoulder.
Haifeng heard nothing. For an instant, he was captivated by the woman he was crouched over – a peculiar sensation he would later find impossible to define. With uncharacteristic diffidence towards a corpse, he restrained himself from touching her.
The peasant farted loudly, awakening Haifeng from his reverie. The long expulsion of gas continued and Haifeng shook his head to come to his senses and to a crime scene. He signalled curtly to the peasant to help him step out of the pit, but on reaching up he lost balance, slipped in the black sludge at his feet and toppled onto the body.
‘Tamade,’ he spat out accusingly at the peasant.
He rolled off the body and into black mud, now worrying more about messing up the scene than his once clean trousers. Sitting in soggy peat, he opened his hand and looked at its contents, first with horror, then with disbelief, and finally with an explosion of laughter.
‘She’s coming to pieces! It’s a damned archaeologist you want, not the PSB. Get me out of here!’
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