A LOYAL CHARACTER DANCER
By Qiu Xiaolong
SOHO Copyright © 2002 Qiu Xiaolong
All right reserved. ISBN: 1569473013
Chief Inspector Chen Cao, of the Shanghai Police Bureau, found himself once again walking through the morning mist toward Bund Park.
In spite of its relatively small size, about fifteen acres, the location of the park made it one of the most popular places in Shanghai. At the Bund's northern end, the front gate of the park faced the Peace Hotel across the street, and its back gate connected with the Waibaidu Bridge, a name that remained unchanged since its completion in the colonial era, meaning literally Foreign White Crossing Bridge. The park was especially celebrated for its promenade of multicolored flagstones, a long curved walkway raised above the shimmering expanse of water which joined the Huangpu and Suzhou rivers. From its height, people could look out to view vessels coming and going against the distant Wusongkou, the East China Sea.
The front gatekeeper, a gray-haired, red-armbanded woman surnamed Zhu, yawned and nodded to Chen on that April morning as he tossed a green plastic token into the token box. Several of the people who worked there knew him well.
That morning, Chen was one of the earliest birds to arrive in the park. He walked to a clearing in the central area that was surrounded by poplar and willow trees. The white European-style pavilion with its spacious verandahstood out in pleasant relief against the newly painted green benches. The dewdrops clinging to the foliage glistened in the dawn light like a myriad of clear eyes.
The appeal of the park was enhanced for Chen by its associations. In his elementary-school years, he had read about the park's history. The official textbook of the time said that at the turn of the century the park had been open only to Western expatriates. There had been signs on the gates saying: No Chinese or dogs allowed, and red-turbaned Sikh guards stood there to bar the way. After 1949, the Communist government considered this a good example of Western powers' attitudes in pre-Communist China, and it was often cited in patriotism education. Had this actually happened? It was hard to establish the truth now, as the line between truth and fiction was always being constructed and deconstructed by those in power.
He mounted a flight of steps to the promenade, breathing in the fresh air of the waterfront. Petrels glided over the waves, their wings flashing in the gray light, as if flying out of a half-forgotten dream. The dividing line between the Huangpu River and Suzhou River became visible.
The park appealed to Chief Inspector Chen, however, for a more personal reason than its beauty or history.
In the early seventies, as a waiting-for-assignment high-school graduate, out of school, out of a job, he had come to practice tai chi in the park. Two or three months later, one mist-enveloped morning, after yet another halfhearted attempt at copying the ancient poses, he came upon a worn-out English textbook on a bench. How the book came to have been left there, he failed to discover. People sometimes placed old newspapers or magazines on the seats as protection from the dampness, but never a textbook. He carried the book to the park for several weeks, hoping someone might claim it. No one did. Then one morning, frustrated with an extremely difficult tai chi pose, he opened the book at random. From then on, he studied English instead of tai chi in the park.
His mother had worried about that change. It was not considered in good political taste to read any book except Quotations from Chairman Mao. However, his father, a neo-Confucian scholar, predicted that studying in the park might be propitious for him, in accordance with the ancient theory of wuxing: Among the five elements in Chen, water was lacking a little, so any place in association with water would benefit him. Years later, when he tried to look up that particular theory, Chen could not find it. Perhaps it had been made up for his benefit.
Those mornings in the park sustained him through the years of the Cultural Revolution. And in 1977, he entered Beijing Foreign Language University, having obtained a top English score on the newly restored college entrance examination. Four years later he was assigned, through another combination of circumstances, to a job at the Shanghai Police Bureau.
In retrospect, Chen's life seemed to be full of the ironic causalities of misplaced yin and yang, like that misplaced book in the park, or his misplaced youth of those years. One thing led to another, and to still another, so the result could hardly be recognized. The chain of causality was perhaps more intricate than Western mystery writers, whose works he translated in his spare time, would care to admit.
On the cool April breeze, a melody wafted over from the big clock atop the Shanghai Customs Building. Six thirty. It had played another tune during the Cultural Revolution: "The East Is Red." Time flowed away like water.
In the early nineties, under Deng Xiaoping's economic reform, Shanghai had been changing dramatically. Across Zhongshan Road, a long vista of magnificent buildings, which had once housed the most prestigious Western companies in the early part of the century and then Communist Party institutions after 1950, were now welcoming back those Western companies in an effort to reclaim the Bund's status as China's Wall Street. Bund Park, too, had been changing, though he did not like some of the changes. For example, the postmodern concrete River Pavilion stood like a monster beside him, slouching against the first gray of the morning, watching. So, too, had Chen changed from a penniless student to a prominent chief inspector of police.
Still, it remained his park. In spite of a heavy work load, he managed to come here once or twice a week. It was close to the bureau, a fifteen-minute walk.
Not too far away, a middle-aged man practiced tai chi, striking a series of poses: grasping a bird's tail, spreading a white crane's wings, parting a wild horse's mane on both sides ... Chief Inspector Chen wondered what he might have become had he persisted in practicing. Perhaps he would now be like that tai chi devotee, wearing a white silk martial arts costume, loose-sleeved, red-silk-buttoned, with a peaceful expression on his face. Chen knew him. An accountant in an almost bankrupt state-run company, yet at that moment, a master moving in perfect harmony with the qi of the universe.
Chen took his customary seat, a green-painted bench which stood under a towering poplar tree. Carved on the back of the bench in small characters was a slogan that had been popular during the Cultural Revolution: Long Live the Proletarian Dictatorship. The bench had been repainted a couple of times, but the message showed through.
He took a collection of ci out of his briefcase and opened to a poem by Niu Xiji. The mist disappearing / against the spring mountains, / the stars few, small / in the pale skies, / the sinking moon illuminates her face, / the dawn in her glistening tears / at parting.... It was too sentimental for the morning. He skipped several lines to reach the last couplet: With the green skirt of yours in my mind, everywhere, / everywhere I step over the grass so lightly.
Another coincidence, he mused, tapping his fingers on the bench back. Not too long ago, in a riverfront café on the Bund, he had read this couplet for a friend, who now stepped over the green grass far, far away. Chief Inspector Chen had not come here, however, to indulge in nostalgia.
The successful completion of a major political case, involving Baoshen, the vice mayor of Beijing, had led to unexpected repercussions in his professional work, and in his personal life, too. He was still emotionally as well as physically drained. In a recent letter to his girlfriend Ling, he had written, "As our ancient sage says, `Eight or nine out of ten times, things go wrong in this world of ours.' People are no more than the chance products of good or bad luck in spite of their intentional efforts." She had not replied, which did not surprise him. Their relationship was strained because of that case.
A gray-Mao-jacketed figure appeared behind him and addressed him in a serious, subdued voice, "Comrade Chief Inspector Chen."
He recognized Zhang Hongwei, a senior park security officer. In the seventies, Zhang had worn a Mao badge on his jacket, patrolling energetically as if steel springs had been installed under his feet, casting mistrustful glances at the English textbook in Chen's hand. Now a bald, wrinkled man in his fifties, Zhang walked with a shuffle, his gray Mao jacket unchanged, except for the missing Mao badge.
"Please come with me, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen."
He followed Zhang to a corner partially obscured by a cluster of evergreens level with the embankment, about fifteen feet away from the back gate. Lying on the ground, supine, was a mutilated body with multiple wounds, from which blood had spread in a surreal web. A line of red spots led from the bank to the place where the body lay.
Chief Inspector Chen had never dreamed that he would be called to examine a murder scene in Bund Park.
"I was making my morning round when I came upon it, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen. You often come here in the morning, we all know," Zhang said apologetically, "so-"
"When did you make your rounds this morning?"
"At about six. Immediately after the park opened."
"When did you make your rounds last night?"
"Eleven thirty. We checked several times before closing. No one was left here."
"So you're sure-"
Their conversation was interrupted by a peal of laughter ringing from the bank near the gate. There, a young woman posed with a Japanese umbrella for a young man's camera. Sitting on the embankment wall, she leaned her upper body out over the water. A dangerous pose. Her cheeks flushed, and the camera flashed. Possibly a young couple on a honeymoon trip. A romantic day starting with picture-taking in Bund Park.
"Vacate the park and close it for the morning," Chen ordered, frowning. He wrote a number on the back of a bookmark. "Dial this number from your office. Detective Yu Guangming's number. Ask him to come here as soon as possible."
As Zhang hurried away, Chen began to examine the body. A male in his early forties, of medium height and build, dressed in expensive-looking white silk pajamas. His face was blood-smeared and bore deep cuts, and the left side of his skull had been smashed by a heavy blow. It was hard to imagine what he might have looked like alive, but it did not take a medical examiner to see that he had been hacked more than a dozen times with some sharp and heavy weapon, heavier than a knife. The cuts on his shoulders were deep, to the bone. Considering the multiple wounds, there was surprisingly little blood on the ground.
There was only one pocket in the pajama top. Chen reached into it. Nothing there. Nor could he see any clothes label. Carefully, he touched the parts of the corpse's lower jaw and neck not covered in blood. Rigidity was noticeable, but the rest of the body was still relatively soft. There was some lividity in the legs. At the pressure of his finger, the discolored purplish spots blanched. So death had probably occurred four or five hours earlier.
He pulled up the dead man's eyelid-a bloodshot eye stared at the sky, which was dappled with clouds. The corneas were not yet opaque, reinforcing his estimate that death was recent.
How did such a body come to be found in Bund Park?
There was one thing Chief Inspector Chen knew about the park's security management. The security officers as well as the retired volunteer workers made their evening rounds diligently, looking in all directions, shouting over loudspeakers, "Hurry up! It's time!" and flashing their flashlights at lovers in shadowy corners before the gate was closed. They had once made a special report to the bureau about it, trying to justify extra funding for their night work. With the severe housing shortage in Shanghai, the park lent itself to the romantic yearning of young people who had no privacy at home and could easily forget the passage of time and the public nature of the space. Security did a thorough job here. Zhang had been adamant in ruling out the possibility of anybody hiding in the park before it closed, and Chen believed him.
Alternatively, people could have sneaked in after closing time; it would not have taken much effort to climb over the walls. One could have killed the other, then fled. However, traffic and pedestrians passed the area all night. Surely such an incident would have been seen and reported. The scene around the bushes did not support this hypothesis, either. There was no sign of a struggle. Two or three broken twigs were about all Chief Inspector Chen could discover. The fact that the body was dressed in pajamas further suggested that the murder had occurred earlier, in a room, from which the dead body had been moved into the park. Perhaps the body had been thrown from the river. The embankment was not high. At night's high tide, a body hurled from a boat could have landed on the embankment and rolled down into the bushes, which would also explain the line of the dark spots left on the bank.
But there was something puzzling Chen. No one would have tried to dispose of a body here without foreseeing its immediate discovery. The park was at the center of Shanghai, visited daily by thousands of people. Why transport the corpse here?
It was then that he saw the familiar figure of Detective Yu striding through the haze with a camera slung over his shoulder. A tall man of medium build, with a rugged face and deep-set eyes, Yu was his well-seasoned assistant, though Chen's senior by a couple of years. Yu was also his only colleague who did not grumble behind his back about the chief inspector's rapid rise, attributable to Deng Xiaoping's new cadre policy favoring those with a formal education. Yu had been a friend to him since they had solved the National Model Worker case.
"Here?" Yu said, without formally greeting his boss.
Yu started shooting pictures from different angles. He knelt by the body, zoomed in for close-ups, and examined the wounds carefully. Producing a ruler from his pants pockets, he measured the cuts on the front of the body before turning it over to check the wounds on the back. Yu then looked up at Chen over his shoulder.
"Any clue to his identity?" he asked.
"Triad killing, I am afraid," Yu said.
"Why do you think so?"
"Look at the wounds. Ax wounds. Seventeen or eighteen of them. There's no need for so many. The number may have a specific meaning. A common practice with gangsters. The blow to his skull would have been more than enough for the job." Yu stood up, putting the ruler back in his pocket. "An average wound length of two and a half to three inches. That bespeaks a steady hand with a lot of strength. Not amateur work."
"Good observations." Chen nodded. "Where do you think the killing took place?"
"Anywhere but here. The guy's still in his pajamas. The killer must have brought the body here. As a special warning. It's another sign of a triad killing. To send a message."
"Perhaps to somebody in the park," Yu said. "Or somebody who will learn about it in no time. To spread the news fast and wide, there is no better place than the park."
"So you think the body has been left here to be found?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Then how shall we start?"
Yu asked a question instead. "Do we have to take the case, Chief? I'm not saying that the bureau should not take it, but as far as I remember, our special case squad takes only political cases."
Chen could understand his assistant's reservations. Normally their squad did not have to take a case until it was declared "special" by the bureau, for stated or unstated political reasons. "Special," in other words, was the label applied when the bureau had to adjust its focus to meet political needs.
"Well, there's been talk about setting up a new squad-a triad squad, but this might be classified as a special case. And we are not yet sure that it's a triad killing."
"But if it is, it will be a hot potato. A hand-burning one."
"You have a point," Chen said, aware of what Yu was driving at. Not too many cops would be interested in a case related to those gangs.
"My left eyelid kept twitching this morning. Not a good omen, Chief."
Excerpted from A LOYAL CHARACTER DANCER by Qiu Xiaolong Copyright © 2002 by Qiu Xiaolong
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.