Bones of the Earth is Edgar Award-winning author Eliot Pattison’s much anticipated tenth and final installment in the internationally acclaimed Inspector Shan series.
After Shan Tao Yun is forced to witness the execution of a Tibetan for corruption, he can’t shake the suspicion that he has instead witnessed a murder arranged by conspiring officials. When he learns that a Tibetan monk has been accused by the same officials of using Buddhist magic to murder soldiers then is abruptly given a badge as special deputy to the county governor, Inspector Shan realizes he is being thrust into a ruthless power struggle. Knowing he has made too many enemies in the government, Shan desperately wants to avoid such a battle, but then discovers that among its casualties are a murdered American archaeology student and devout Tibetans who were only trying to protect an ancient shrine.
Soon grasping that the underlying mysteries are rooted in both the Chinese and Tibetan worlds, Shan senses that he alone may be able to find the truth. The path he must take, with the enigmatic, vengeful father of the dead American at his side, is the most treacherous he has ever navigated. More will die before he is able to fully pierce the secrets of this clash between the angry gods of Tibet and Beijing. The costs to Shan and those close to him will be profoundly painful, and his world will be shaken to its core before he crafts his own uniquely Tibetan form of justice.
About the Author
ELIOT PATTISON is the Edgar Award-winning author of nine previous Shan novels. A frequent visitor to China, his books and articles on international policy issues have been published around the world. He lives in Oley, Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
The devout in Tibet wear their altars on their necks, an old lama had explained to Shan years earlier, during his early days in prison. Shan had soon learned that nearly every inmate in his gulag barracks wore a prayer amulet, a gau, hung with string or a shoelace, most of them makeshift devices of folded cloth or cardboard with a prayer sewn inside. More than a few of the imprisoned monks would point to their flimsy, makeshift altar and say, only half joking, that their lives hung by a thread. When danger lurked nearby or tormented memories overtook them they would clasp a hand around their gaus and stare toward the distant snowcapped mountains. Their long, unfocused stares had unnerved Shan at first, thinking they were seeing their deaths, but a lama in his fortieth year of imprisonment had said no, they were just consulting a higher plain of existence.
Shan found himself locked in a similarly sightless stare each time he parked at the sprawling complex before him, his hand clasped around his own little copper gau and his eyes tilted toward the square of paper draped over his steering wheel on which an intricate mandala had been drawn. At first he had cajoled himself into thinking he was engaged in meditation but eventually he had come to realize that it was more a trance that let him deny, however briefly, where he was and what he had become.
He jerked back to awareness at the sound of something striking the door of the truck he had driven from Yangkar, and he looked up into the sneering face of Major Xun Wengli, who weeks earlier had discovered Shan's ritual and learned to respond with his own rite, loudly drumming his baton on the truck.
Shan carefully refolded the paper mandala, returned it to the glove box, and climbed out. Xun pointed with his baton at the gau that still hung exposed on Shan's chest, laughing at Shan's embarrassment. Shan ignored him, stuffing the prayer amulet back inside his shirt then walking around to the passenger door to retrieve the uniform tunic that hung there. Xun looked disappointed as Shan fastened the top button of the new constable's tunic, then gestured him toward the three-story concrete building in front of them.
Colonel Tan, governor of Lhadrung County, had not indicated why he wanted Shan in Lhadrung town, seat of the county government, but Shan had assumed he had sent Xun, his senior adjutant, to make certain Shan attended still another briefing on the latest People's Congress or one more lecture on the new, ever-stricter law enforcement initiatives in Tibet.
To his surprise the form he was given to sign by the receptionist in the new government center had his name printed beside the signature line, and the list held fewer than twenty other names, most of which he recognized. It was to be a very private propaganda session. He hesitated when they reached the auditorium door, looking for Colonel Tan, then Xun pushed him past the door, down an unfamiliar corridor. With a chill he saw he was being taken into the new office complex for the Public Security Bureau, which was rapidly expanding its presence in the county. His mind raced as he tried to recall the other names on the registry he had signed. Some were other constables, some senior military officers under Tan — including the wardens of three of his infamous prisons — and two were names that often appeared prominently at the bottom of directives issued by the Public Security headquarters in Lhasa. One of those recent directives had announced a campaign in which officials would be required to swear new loyalty oaths to Beijing while connected to lie detectors. Is that where the gloating Xun was taking him? Shan found himself slowing, his feet leaden. If he had been summoned to be tested by a lie detector, then he would likely be back in a prison cell before nightfall, or at least unemployed and homeless.
"Quickly, Constable!" came Xun's impatient urging. "Can't be late!" The major motioned Shan through a pair of double doors into a large two-level chamber that had incorporated a natural rock wall on the far side. A shiver ran down his spine as he saw the faded images of a lotus flower on the whitewashed stone, and he recalled that the new government center, like many others in Tibet, had been deliberately built on the site of a former temple. The lower half of the room had been part of a chapel, no doubt one of the subterranean gonkangs where fierce, sometimes hideous, protector demons would have been worshipped.
Two rows of seats were arranged to overlook the lower, stagelike level, and Major Xun directed Shan to the only one that was still empty, the last chair in the first row. All the other chairs seemed to be occupied by the others who had signed the registry. One of the gray-uniformed Public Security officers, which the Tibetans called knobs, stepped to a podium at the edge of the little balcony they sat in, nodding to someone out of sight below. As the officer began to read in a rapid, singsong voice from a file before him, Shan studied the lower chamber. Long ago, shelves had been chiseled into the stone face where figurines of lesser deities would have been arranged. The whitewash on the back wall did not entirely conceal the soot stains that started halfway up the wall, where for decades, probably centuries, butter lamps would have burned on an altar, tended night and day by novice monks. Through the whitewash Shan could now make out dim ghostly images of demons which had been painted over the altar. Some of the old Tibetans believed that the demons actually resided in the old gonkangs. One of the protector demons was being crushed by the concrete wall of the new construction. The central figure showed through only faintly, but as Shan studied it he made out a feminine shape with four arms, two of which held a bow and arrow.
When the knob finished droning about some criminal enforcement matter, a door could be heard opening below him and a Tibetan janitor appeared. The gallery watched with a strange fascination as he uncoiled a hose then leaned a mop in the corner where the ledge met the concrete wall before disappearing and returning with a metal armchair. A murmur of nervous laughter rippled through the audience as he stumbled on the hose before placing the chair near the back wall.
Shan looked again for Colonel Tan, governor of the county, who had ordered him to the compound, but saw neither the colonel nor his steadfast matronly assistant Amah Jiejie. Xun caught his gaze with a thin, expectant grin. A Public Security sergeant appeared below, leading a middle-aged Tibetan with thinning hair whose face seemed empty, devoid of expression. The Tibetan shook off the knob's hand, then straightened his clothing, marched to the chair and sat. He looked up at his audience, briefly fixing his intelligent, piercing gaze on each of the men and women in the chairs. Shan was last, and the man's gaze lingered on him, with a hint of curiosity in it now. As he looked at Shan he loosely curled the fingers of one hand and held them briefly over his chest. Another, younger, Public Security officer appeared, a lieutenant whose hair had unusal tinges of auburn in it. He bowed his head to the spectators before turning to the Tibetan. The young knob's thin lips were set in stern determination, but Shan thought he detected a hint of amusement in his eyes.
"Chou Folan?" the lieutenant asked.
The prisoner ignored him. A Chinese name had been assigned to him but he refused to acknowledge it.
The lieutenant glanced up at the officer at the podium, who gave an impatient nod.
"Metok Rentzig," the lieutenant stated. "Yes," the Tibetan replied in a melancholy tone. Then he suddenly twisted toward the ghostly demon on the wall behind him. "Om Kurukulla hrih hum svaha!" he called out, defiance in his voice now.
Shan's heart wrenched as he saw the weapon in the young officer's hand. With a quick upward motion, the knob leveled the pistol and shot Metok in the head.
* * *
Shan had no idea how long he remained sitting, staring down into the sacred chapel that had been converted into an execution chamber. The other witnesses had quickly filed out the door after the man at the podium had declared the ceremony adjourned. Major Xun had been the last of them to leave, closing the door with a cackling laugh aimed at Shan. Two attendants appeared with a gurney and hauled the body away. Shan watched, numbed, as the old Tibetan janitor limped in and hosed down the floor. When the water was not running Shan could hear him whispering a mournful mantra. The janitor hesitated as he saw the blood and gray tissue spattered on the back wall, then moved a few steps back and sprayed it away. He missed a spatter higher up the wall below the eye of the faded goddess. She seemed to be weeping blood.
The janitor was nearly finished mopping up the pink-tinged water when a hand clamped around Shan's shoulder. He looked up into the icy eyes of the county governor.
"This was not my idea, Shan," Colonel Tan said. "I didn't know until Amah Jiejie told me where you were. I came as soon as I heard."
"You invited me."
"To my office, not to this. This was Major Xun's doing. It was a case run out of Lhasa, but they asked him for a quiet place for the execution. He heard you were coming and had her tell you to come here, then added an extra chair to the official witness gallery. He seemed to think it a good joke."
"I wasn't laughing."
"No. I don't suppose you were. I'm sorry. Major Xun is the most efficient adjutant I've ever had but he can be overzealous at times."
Shan did not reply, but as he walked silently, a step behind Tan, he realized that in all their time together he could not recall ever hearing the colonel apologize to him. Tan led him outside toward his waiting car, a worn, boxy Red Flag limousine that should have been retired twenty years earlier. Once Tan got in beside Shan, the driver sped onto the paved road that led out of the expanding government compound and into a landscape of barley fields and grazing sheep.
Tan stared out the window and did not turn when he finally spoke. "I need you, Shan."
Shan heard the unexpected worry in the colonel's voice and realized Tan had sensed his desolation. Had he sensed the words that had been on Shan's tongue since the moment Tan touched his shoulder in the execution chamber? I resign, Shan silently mouthed, then swallowed down the rest. I can no longer be a gear in Beijing's monstrous machine. I can no longer be a law enforcement official in your soulless empire. He had practiced such speeches several times in recent months, but each time the words choked away with the grim realization that he could not walk away from Tan. He hated Tan for being the tyrant who ran the most infamous camps in the Tibetan gulag, but he owed the man his freedom, his job, his housing, his life. He would never be able to find another job, another place where he could legally reside or, most importantly, ensure the safety of his son Ko, an inmate in one of Tan's brutal prisons.
"His name was Metok Rentzig," Shan said at last. "I didn't understand what the assembly was for. I thought it was just going to be one of those testimonials from a rehabilitated Tibetan. Charges must have been read. I wasn't listening."
"Metok was a senior official at the new hydroelectric project. He took bribes. It was in the papers."
Shan searched his memory, recalling now that he had seen mention of corruption at the Five Claws Dam, the huge project in the far north of the county, thirty miles from his station at Yangkar. "I remember reports at the time of his arrest. Nothing since then."
"Corruption at such a high level is an embarrassment to Beijing. Public Security is told to handle such things quietly."
"You mean a hidden trial," Shan suggested. "Then a hidden execution."
"What I mean," Tan shot back, "is proceedings that appropriately protected the interests of the motherland. The Party took jurisdiction and the investigation was conducted out of Lhasa. We weren't involved."
Shan spoke toward the window. "Corruption isn't a solitary crime. Yet only one man is charged and executed. A Tibetan."
A rumbling sound of irritation came from Tan, but he vented his anger by tearing open a pack of cigarettes and lighting one. After having a lung removed he had been under strict orders to stop smoking. A few months earlier he had broken the nose of a nurse who had tried to wrestle a cigarette from his hand.
They drove in uneasy silence for several minutes, then Shan saw the towers of the compound they were approaching and stiffened. "I have seen enough of the 'People's Justice' today," he said in a tight voice.
"Not like this," Tan muttered, then flicked the stub of his cigarette out the window as they slowed at the security gate. The guards offered nervous salutes to the military governor then darted to open the gate of heavy timber and barbed wire.
A freshly painted sign by the entrance declared they were entering Camp New Awakening. Shan had always known the facility as the 105th Reeducation Brigade, although most inmates called it the Shoe Factory. Its residents were all prisoners, but they were considered salvageable and split their days between memorizing Party dogma in classrooms and manufacturing footwear for the People's Liberation Army.
They parked in front of the main administration building and for the second time that day Shan was escorted to a small reviewing stand, this one just a modest foot-high temporary platform with ten chairs. A military march erupted from the public address system as junior officers took seats in the back row. Shan and the colonel were directed to seats beside an overweight, nervous officer whom Shan recognized as the warden. As they sat the gate in the inner fence of razor wire was opened, and prisoners began filing through under the watchful eyes of armed guards, forming in barracks companies a hundred feet in front of the little reviewing stand. For the most part, these were not the long-term prisoners found in Tan's hard labor brigades, located in more remote sections of the county, but only the nuisance makers sentenced to forced reeducation. A Public Security officer could sentence a man to up to a year of such servitude with just his signature, and the power was applied liberally whenever a gathering of Tibetans even hinted at political protest. Scattered among them, however, would be a few hard labor prisoners in transition, who were near the end of their sentences or sometimes just the end of their lives.
Once a month at the Shoe Factory the prisoners were assembled for what the camp administration called its graduation ceremony. Shan braced himself for the usual patronizing speeches by the warden and leading pupils, who would read a prepared speech to express their collective gratitude to the motherland for correcting the wayward paths of their lives. The music faded, and a young officer rose with a megaphone to announce awards, praising one unit for the cleanest barracks, another for the best scores on Chinese history exams. Half a dozen such announcements were made, then a list was handed to the officer and he began reading the names of those to be released. Eight names were called and the prisoners warily marched forward, each accepting a rolled paper that would be proof of completing the Party's curriculum and one of the little red books of Mao's quotations that were ubiquitous in reeducation camps. The books were all in Mandarin, which Shan doubted any of the graduates could read. Each man gave a respectful bow to the warden then was escorted to a van waiting by the administration building, where duffel bags sat on the ground, no doubt holding the belongings they had arrived with.
The officer with the megaphone cast an anxious glance at the warden, who nodded, and one more name was called. "Yankay Namdol," the officer stated over his megaphone. "Come and be recognized."
At first Shan thought the old man who broke out of the ranks was one of the transferred hard labor inmates, for he hobbled as if lame, one shoulder seemed strangely crooked, his unruly hair was mostly gray, and his face was lined with age. But as he approached the platform he grew more erect and his limp became less noticeable, as if he were growing younger before their eyes. He cast a long glance at the gate, where a young Tibetan woman had appeared, holding the reins of two horses.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bones of the Earth"
Copyright © 2019 Eliot Pattison.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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