THE MOTHERS OF YUNNAN - SAMPLE
Xiao Ku’s faded monk’s habit flapped behind him in a freak gust of wind. He grabbed the fabric and pulled it down to hide the soiled underwear that he had been sleeping in for over a week. The same gust swayed the branches of the tree above him, causing sunlight and shadow to dance across the stubble on his ill-shaven head.
He could taste bile in his mouth produced by the cocktail of fear and excitement that had come upon him the moment he had entered theme park He had never before stepped foot outside of China, and now realised there was an illicit feel to it. His elder brother had applied for an exit visa to go to Australia two years earlier, only to be refused. Xiao Ku had never even obtained the authorisation to leave his home village to seek work in the city of Kunming, just 500 miles away. And now, here he was, with the whole world displayed before him. It was all false and miniaturised, but it represented the outside world, and was as close as he reckoned he would ever get to the real one.
Craning his neck, he gazed at the towering metal construction that dominated the park. Its tall, slender and pleasingly curved form reminded him of a gigantic calligraphy of the Chinese character ren that depicted man. It had been one of Xiao Ku’s favourite characters – both simple and elegant, and produced by just two brush strokes. As he stared at the iconic monument, the calligraphy suddenly seemed wrong to him: man was neither elegant nor simple, so neither should the character. His eyes dropped from the tower to the worn-out training shoes he had been wearing for the last year.
“A screwed up life needs a screwed up character,” he muttered.
He doubted whether the years spent in the monastery had taught him anything at all. He had never found a way to become detached from this world or from his own desires. Worst of all, he admitted despondently, had never found refuge from the past and the nagging guilt and fear that haunted him day in and day out.
Closing his eyes to shut out the metal tower and his filthy shoes, Xiao Ku visualised what he needed to do. He had already played the scene through his mind countless times as if it were a mantra. Being in the park made it feel different, though.
“Won’t foul up today,” he promised himself, speaking the words slowly and with determination in his native dialect.
Opening his eyes, he checked the ten-Yuan watch he had bought from a road-side vendor years ago. Its battery still worked and it showed what the sun had already told him – it was midday and he would have to wait a couple more hours in its unbearable heat before the woman arrived. Everything here in the coastal city of Shenzhen was foreign, he mused, including the heat. Both his home and his monastery had been built on the roof of the world in northern Yunnan, where the day’s warmth would escape at night to leave the crisp chill of the mountain behind, or where incessant rain would wash the mountain clean. Here, though, the air was sultry and Xiao Ku felt it clinging to him.
He wiped his brow with his shabby red sleeve. He would need to drink soon. He had seen water on sale at a stand, but at prices he had never imagined possible. A toilet, perhaps, he told himself. Cool off and drink in a toilet. Yes, he definitely needed a toilet. Fear and excitement had started tormenting his bowels.
He ventured further along the pavement towards the tower and overheard two visitors pronouncing its name ai-fei-er – Eiffel. Beyond the tower he saw an impressive avenue of fountains bordered by neatly kept lawns, and beyond them, an imposing stone French arch. He found it all so grand and neat – a world away from the haphazardly tumble of temples and houses that clung to the steep hillside around the monastery. There were no toilets though. The visitors were talking about seeing the château where a great French king had once lived. The Sun King, Xiao Ku heard one of them say.
“Toilets,” he asked, hoping his northern Yunnan accent would be understood by the tourists.
Badly disguising her disgust, either at the mention of toilets or at Xiao Ku’s appearance and body odour, one of the women pointed beyond the metal tower.
As he upped his pace, he tried in vain to picture a sun king. Men were no gods, he brooded. They were animals. He had abandoned his own goddess long ago. She had ruled over the lake for generations, yet he had betrayed her. As he accelerated on seeing the sign to the toilets, he told himself that all he could hope for now was to help one of the goddess’ daughters when she arrived.
“Gou pi! Men are dog farts, dog farts every one of them,” he moaned, out-loud, using the first Mandarin curse he had learnt as a child.
Squatting in the cubicle, Xiao Ku repeated his curse. He tried to picture the woman again. What if she refused to speak to him? What if he wasn’t able to get to her? Maybe he would only have the chance to slip her a message on a piece of paper. There was an abandoned packet of paper tissues on the floor of the toilet. Xiao Ku slid one out from the plastic packaging and rummaged in the leather pouch that contained his few possessions. He found a black felt-tip pen that he had picked up in an alley behind one of the monastery’s kitchens. Squatting, and placing the tissue on his knee, he tested the pen. It still contained ink and the tip did not tear the tissue. In as careful a hand as he could manage, he began tracing a line of pictograms.
He came out into the blinding sunlight feeling refreshed and relieved. The worry was still there in the pit of his stomach, but he willed himself to ignore it. Maybe he could enjoy the world for one single hour. He studied the map he had picked up at the entrance and saw he had the choice of almost every country on the planet. He read the evocative names out-loud, savouring their sounds: Egypt, Greece, Cambodia, USA, Italy, Australia, Korea, Denmark. Denmark? What’s Denmark? Its two Chinese characters signified red oats. The map placed it next to Australia on the far side of theme park. I’ll go to Denmark, he decided, remembering the grain harvests of his youth, and feeling a new lightness in his mood.
He skirted Japan, cutting through a garden with classical arched red bridges that spanned ornamental streams. He heard the chanting of the mock Japanese Taoist priests and scowled. He had had enough of chanting, mock or genuine. Years of repeated mantras had not been enough to wash away his memories. He walked on, drawn by a dazzling white dome beyond a hedgerow. Looking at the map, he saw it wasn’t Denmark, but the Taj Mahal in India. He found the domed mosque impressive, mistaking its towers for minarets. A lama had taught him that Buddhism had come to China from India, so why a mosque? He bent down at an elongated stretch of water that led to the mosque like a liquid carpet, and splashed his face.
“Ni gan ma? Brother, don’t play with the water.”
Xiao Ku raised his head to see a park keeper waving a broom in his direction and again recognized the look of both disgust and respect that he had been getting since he had left the monastery. Even in the modern cities, there was still an unwritten reverence for monks and lamas, but not for the scruffy and the poor.
“Where’s Red Oats,” he shouted out, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
The broom and a nod of the park keeper’s head told him to follow a pathway beyond the water.
The path led him to an artificial lake. There, he easily spotted Australia’s grand arched bridge and white-roofed concert hall to the west. Turning to the east, he could see only a solitary, tiny statue where Denmark was supposed to be. He sighed with disappointment.
Xiao Ku knew that endless hours of meditation at the monastery should have rid him of man’s obsession with all that is big and of his derision for all that is small, but it hadn’t. A shrunken, aching stomach had repeatedly taught him that a big pouch of rice was better than a small one, and chilled bones had convinced him forever that a thick blanket was better than a threadbare one. So Denmark was minuscule; he had even fouled up in his choice of country, choosing the puniest in the park.
Having come this far, he pushed himself on to see it, anyway. He crouched in front of it, then let out a whistle and grinned. She was beautiful, with perfect pointed breasts, long braided hair and a face as gentle as any he had ever seen. His eyes ran over her body until they came to the fish tail. A tingle of astonishment ran over him, and despite the stifling heat of the day, the hairs on his forearms stood erect as he realised he was looking a shen nu – a goddess that looked over a lake.
“Shen nu, yi wei shen nu” he whispered to himself, with the conviction that fate had brought him here.
His mind went painfully back to the day he had betrayed the goddess of his own lake and had damned himself. Now he had come to make some amends for what he had done, and fate had brought him to a lake goddess. With this clear sign, Xiao Ku now felt confident. All he had to do was give the woman his message, even if he expected no mercy from her in return. Within an hour or two, it would be done.
On arriving at his third-floor office in Nanjing Central CID, Haifeng glanced at the new name plate that was screwed to the door frame and grimaced. The old brass plate had read office 3:16, the new plastic one read Senior Inspector for Criminal Affairs, Tian Haifeng. It reminded him of the signs on cages at the Nanjing Hongshan Zoo that informed visitors of the age and genus of the imprisoned specimen.
“Tian Haifeng, a forty-two year-old ill-tempered bear,” he muttered, pulling off a piece of cellophane film that was still attached to the shiny plate.
He had been feeling like a caged-up animal for a couple of months and had put it down to the insufferable muggy and polluted air of Nanjing. A week of violent storms had since cleared the heat and smog, but not his irritability. Even his favourite strolls along the banks of the Yangtze, chucking stones into the dirt-dark floodwaters had failed to calm him. Hide your problem in a stone, throw it, and let it disappear into the dragon’s mouth. The dragon will take it away for you, son, his mother had once told him. He had never shaken off the habit, but this time could not shake off his foul mood.
Pushing the office door open with a shoulder, he lobbed the plastic sachet containing his steamed breakfast pork dumplings onto his desk. The dumplings slid to a halt against one of the piles of folders that crowded his work space. The collision was enough to dislodge a paper folder on the top of the pile. Haifeng watched helplessly as the papers glided to the floor and landed in a puddle of grimy water that had accumulated under the struggling air conditioning unit.
“Auspicious start to the day, boss.”
“Don’t bait me this morning or I’ll have your ass,” Haifeng growled.
Junior officer Jin Yun, lounging in a swivel chair, dropped his feet from the desk and quickly folded away the magazine he had been leafing through, but not quickly enough for Haifeng to miss the flash of naked flesh on the glossy paper.
Ignoring what he had just seen, Haifeng dropped into his chair, not bothering to pick up the sodden papers that would need to be reprinted. Picking up a dumpling instead, he leaned back in his seat and eyed up the teetering piles of unfinished paperwork. Even when a case was wrapped up, the paperwork continued as if it had a life of its own.
Without needing to sort through the heaps, Haifeng knew each case. Munching on his breakfast, he ran the list of files through his mind, selecting the ones he would delegate and the ones he would put on hold whilst on his summer leave in three days time.
The sodden papers contained his report on the brutal murder of the middle-aged female bank executive. Even though no Party members or influential officials were involved, Haifeng had insisted on carrying out extensive forensic work. Divisional head Hu Tang had complained about the cost and the manpower involved, but had given in to Haifeng’s stubbornness. The findings had confirmed what his instinct had told him − that the apparent break-in to the woman’s home, her rape and the ransacking of the place had been staged by her husband. Either because he knew that forensic work in murder investigations was rarely used by the PSB or because he had not watched any American police series, the pot-bellied, fifty-year old middle-manager had not bothered to scrub his hands and nails after slaughtering his wife. The only attempt at intelligent aforethought was the murder weapon – a twenty-centimetre kitchen knife which did not come from the set in the apartment kitchen. Having employed the knife with the nervous and cruel ineffectiveness of an amateur and then in a gory frenzy on seeing his wife refuse to die after the first thrust, he had then abandoned the object next to her mutilated body. Haifeng’s forensic work had concluded that the blade had never been used before, the only striations on the blade having come from the domestic butchery.
The staged burglary would have been good enough to satisfy many a CID investigation team, but it was insultingly obvious to Haifeng that the whole thing was awry. Would a burglar really come armed with a newly-acquired kitchen knife? Would he smash a door down after bypassing the electronic codes on the building’s entrance and elevators? Surprised by the owner, would a burglar opportunistically rape the woman rather than simply flee?
The husband had reported the absence of several pieces of jewellery he had bought for his beloved. Haifeng had detected avarice more than bereavement when interviewing the man who stood to benefit from a modest life insurance pay-out and the penthouse flat. A little more investigating had revealed that he had three young concubines and a bank account with a hole as big as the three could dig. He had also found some of the jewellery around the neck of the youngest concubine. The dim-witted Shanghainese girl was more preoccupied by the loss of her sugar daddy’s financial support than the killing of his wife. Crestfallen, she cursed the bastard when she realised she could have raked more money out of him if it hadn’t been for two other concubines she had unknowingly been competing with.
The case had depressed Haifeng. His only satisfaction had been in letting his instinct and stubbornness drive him on to the truth instead of accepting the story that had been written for him. The woman hadn’t been raped and mutilated by a stranger in a tragic concordance of circumstances; she had been betrayed and violently slaughtered by someone she trusted. The difference meant a lot to him. He would send the file to the procurer that morning once he had printed out a clean copy.
A pile of papers fell onto Haifeng’s desk.
“Thought you’d like a dry copy instead of the one on the floor, chief.”
The bear managed a grunt and tossed his second dumpling towards Jin Yun, who swallowed it in two bites.
Haifeng grunted again.
“I’ve finished The Central Daily if you want it.”
“Shift your ass with the tea, son. The only thing we’ll be reading this morning is that railway hub case. The folder is yellow − huangse de,” he added, finishing with a pun and letting Jin Yin know that he had spotted the porn magazine earlier.
Haifeng suppressed a grin. He could too easily treat the youngster like his own teenage son if he wasn’t careful. The kid was insolent and couldn’t keep his trousers up or his mouth empty, but he was the smartest junior assistant that he had teamed up with. Though he wouldn’t tell him, the kid usually got a grin out of him at some point in the day, whatever his mood.
“More than I can say for you, Wei,” Haifeng complained, pulling out his cell phone and checking for messages.
There were none.
Looking through his sent messages, he counted six in the last three days sent to his son who was already on summer vacation in Shenzhen. Not one answer.
“It’s not the bloody hot weather,” Haifeng muttered, admitting the truth for the first time.
How long had it been since he had had a decent conversation with the sixteen-year-old? Since the Chinese New Year, Wei had been sporting a sulk and meshes of hair that hid his forehead and left eye. It was the year of the dog, Wei’s birth year – a miserable creature judging from what Haifeng could see.
Sighing to himself, he realised that despite all his efforts, he was struggling to bring up Wei alone. What’s the point of adolescence, anyway? He remembered stepping straight out of childhood and in to the hell of police college when his mother had sent him away to escape a drunken father. He hadn’t had the luxury of time to sulk, sigh and pull his hair over his eyes. Nowadays it seemed to be a fashion. Fashion or not, Haifeng realised he was irritated by the knowledge that something he couldn’t control was gradually cleaving them apart.
Jin Yun returned to the office with two flasks of tea, handed one to Haifeng and then pulled out a thick yellow file from the pile on the desk.
“Railway hub,” he said, tapping on the file and settling down in a seat opposite.
Haifeng’s cell phone rang. Little sister Xiao Ting never contacted him at work. Puzzled, he took the call.
“Xiao Ting. What’s happening? You shi ma?”
He listened to her brief message whilst scribbling on a notepad.
“She wouldn’t say what it was? Give her my number and tell her to call me. I’ll take care of it, little sister. Call you back later. Bye.”
“Trouble,” Jin Yun asked, whilst sorting through the case file.
“It’s Xiao Ting’s cousin in Shenzhen. My boy’s staying with her until I arrive with Xiao Ting for our summer break.”
“Strange choice for a summer holiday. We’ve got sun and pollution here. Why Shenzhen?”
Haifeng shook his head as if regretting a decision.
“Xiao Ting wants to see her young cousin. She works at that Window of the World theme park. We get free accommodation and unfortunately we get to do some shopping across the bay in Hong Kong. After all she does for me, I owe little sister a holiday.”
“Shopping? That’s a high price to pay. And that cousin – good looking?”
“The Railway Hub case file, Yun. Let’s get to work.”
Before Haifeng could pull the file over to his side of the desk, his cell phone rang again.
“Cousin Lin! How are things,” he asked cheerfully, though expecting to hear a complaint about his son, “Not so good? Wei’s not causing you too many problems, I hope… You saw a what?”
Haifeng stood up and began pacing the office floor.
“When was this, Lin? Tell me about it,” he said, reaching for his notepad again.
Five minutes later, he cut the call and looked at what he had jotted down during the conversation. The notes were unnecessary, but after years in the CID, it had become a reflex to grab a pen at the same time as the phone. Jin Yun, curiosity getting the better of him, leaned over and looked at them too.
“Murder. A monk in a theme park? Who the hell would kill a monk,” Jin Yun asked, reading the notes out-loud.
“I want some leave, Yun, not another bloody case,” Haifeng complained with a sigh.
“Shenzhen isn’t our beat, anyway.”
“You’re right, son. None of my business,” Haifeng agreed, screwing up the paper and dropping it into a waste basket beside the table and returned to the computer.
“The kid’s upset, though. She saw the monk dying – stabbed to death apparently. I’ll need to have a word with her to help her through it.”
“Stabbed? Messy, but she’ll get over it.”
“Our problem is that we get accustomed to seeing it, Yun. Take my advice and don’t get used to it. Back to the railway hub case. Pull out the surveillance section, will you?”
As Yun searched through the thick file, Haifeng’s mind went back to the first murder victim he had seen when he had been fresh out of police college. What had shocked him was not a mutilated corpse. All he had seen was a scorched hole in the shirt where the bullet had passed through, and what he took to be a look of mild surprise on the murdered youth’s face. Nor was it death, for he had already attended many wakes and funerals. What had shaken him was the realisation that someone had snatched away the boy’s life. It had never occurred to him that it was so easy to do, so swift and so irreversible. The author of that crime had never been caught, and that was something Haifeng had never got accustomed to.
“She’s a sweet kid. I’ll with her in a couple of days. I’ll talk with her. I’ve dealt with a lot of murder witnesses. There are things to say and things to hear.”
“Nothing. The file. You need to get your head around this. Divisional Head Hu Tang will be overseeing it during my absence, but I’m counting on your knowledge of the file to guide him. He’ll deal with the politics and you with the details. So keep your pants up and your mind clear! Got it?”
“Got it, chief. You just enjoy your leave, and especially the flight. You could also try getting your pants down a bit.”
“You bugger, you know I hate flying.”