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CHIEF INSPECTOR CHEN CAO of the Shanghai Police Bureau found himself standing in front of the gate to the Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center.
His vacation in the city of Wuxi was totally unexpected. Earlier that Sunday morning, Chen was in Zhenjiang, attending an intensive political seminar for emerging Party officials training for “new responsibilities,” when he got a phone call from Comrade Secretary Zhao, the former second secretary of the Central Party Discipline Committee. Though retired, Zhao remained one of the most influential figures in Beijing. Zhao was too busy to take a vacation arranged for him at the center in Wuxi, so he offered it to Chen instead.
Chen was in no position to decline such a well-meant offer, coming from the Forbidden City. So he immediately left the seminar at the Zhenjiang Party School, took a long-distance bus to Wuxi station, and then a taxi to the center.
He had heard a lot about the center, which was located in a scenic area of the city. It was something like a combination of a resort and a sanatorium, known for its special service to high-ranking cadres. There were strict regulations about the Party cadre rank required for admission, and Chen was nowhere close to that rank. Chen knew an exception was being made because of Zhao. Qiao Liangxing, the director of the center, was not around when Chen arrived. A front desk receptionist greeted Chen and led him to a white European-style villa, with tall marble columns in front, enclosed by an iron fence with gilded spikes and a shining stainless-steel gate. The villa stood alone on a tree-shaded hill, separate from other buildings. The receptionist showed Chen all due respect, as if the villa being allocated to him determined his status rather than the other way round. Without any other specific instructions from Qiao, however, all she could do was check Chen in with a detailed introduction to the center and its location: Yuantouzhu, or Turtle Head Park.
“Our center gets its name from a huge rock projecting over the Tai Lake, like a turtle tossing its head above the water. The park was founded in 1918 and covers an area of five hundred hectares. It is a scenic peninsula on the northwest shore of the lake, surrounded by green hills and clear water; it is considered the best resort area in Wuxi. As for the center, at the south end of the peninsula, it was built in the early fifties for high-ranking cadres.”
While listening to her introduction, Chen reflected on the way China took for granted the assumption that the Communist Party cadres, having conquered the country, deserved to enjoy all sorts of luxurious treatment.
“Last but not the least, people staying here can easily walk into the park, but the tourists in the park may only look at the center through the gate. So enjoy your vacation here,” the receptionist concluded, smiling, leaving the key as well as a park pass on a mahogany table in the hall before she left, closing the door carefully after her.
Chen moved to the front window. Looking out, he saw part of a curving driveway lined with shrubs and evergreen, and then further down the wooded hill, another driveway for someone else’s villa. To the other side, there were rows of multistory buildings, with identically shaped balconies aligned like matchboxes, as those in a large new hotel. He didn’t have a panoramic view of the center, but his villa was undoubtedly one reserved for top Party cadres.
It was a nice, large building consisting of nine rooms in all. He had no idea what to do with all those rooms as he walked upstairs and downstairs, examining one after another. He finally put his small suitcase in the master bedroom on the first floor, which commanded a fantastic lake view. Adjacent to the bedroom was a spacious living room, featuring a marble fireplace with a copper screen in an exquisite pattern, a black leather sectional sofa, and an LCD TV. One side of the room was a wall of tall windows overlooking Tai Lake.
Also on the first floor was a study with custom-made book shelves, some books, and a desk with a brand new laptop on it. The windows in the study were large, but looked out on the driveway and the hill beyond it.
Chen went back to the living room and started to pace about, stepping on and off an apricot Persian rug. His footsteps echoed through the entire building. Finally he decided to take a bath. He grabbed a cup and a bottle of Perrier from a silver tray on a corner table and settled himself in the master bathroom, which also had a scenic view.
Soaking in the tub, he had the luxurious feeling of becoming one with the lake, as he watched the tiny bubbles rising in his glass of Perrier.
Outside, a rock frog was croaking intermittently, and there was the murmur of an unseen cascade. Looking out, Chen discovered that the lambent melody was actually coming from a tiny speaker hidden in a rock under the window.
Of late, Chen often felt worn out. With one “special case” after another on his hands, he hadn’t been able to take a break for months. A vacation could at least take his mind temporarily off his responsibilities and obligations.
Besides, there was nothing really important being handled by his Special Case Squad at the moment, and if something should come up, Wuxi was only an hour’s trip from Shanghai by train. If need be, he could easily hurry back. In the meantime, though, his longtime partner, Detective Yu Guangming, should be able to take care of things there.
But it didn’t take long before the chief inspector felt a slight suggestion—as if it was rising up from the still water in the tub—of loneliness, which was only magnified by the enormous size of the empty building.
The bubbles in the French water were gone, so he got out of the tub, put on his clothes, stuffed the paperback he brought with him into his pants pocket, and went out for a walk.
The center was connected, as the receptionist had said, to the park by a back entrance. Through the fence he saw tourists pointing and posing with cameras. He was not keen on becoming a tourist just yet, so he headed in the other direction, along a quiet, small road.
He had probably come in along the same route earlier, but sitting in the back of a taxi, he hadn’t been able to see much. There wasn’t anyone in the area, with the exception of an occasional car driving by at high speed. The road was fairly narrow. On one side, there was a wire fence stretching along like a wall, and a bushy, unkempt slope beyond it that stretched over to a wider road in the distance. On the other side, hills were rolling and rising upward here and there, interspersed with tourist attraction signs.
Ahead the road merged into a tiny square with bus stop shelters, a tea stall with bowls spread out on a makeshift table with a couple of benches, and a pavilionlike kiosk with a roof that was held up by vermillion posts, which sold all sorts of souvenirs. A group of people were getting off a gray bus, most of them carrying maps in their hands. The square couldn’t be far from the park.
He felt anonymous, yet contentedly so. He strolled about, taking out his own tourist map of Wuxi, which he had bought earlier at the bus station.
He hadn’t visited Wuxi for years. As a child, he and his parents had taken a day trip, riding from one tourist stop to another. Cutting across the square, he noted that it appeared quite different from what he remembered.
He was soon lost, in spite of the map. Like Shanghai, Wuxi had been changing dramatically in recent years. There were quite a few new street names that were unavailable or unrecognizable from his outdated map.
But he wasn’t worried. If he couldn’t find his way back, he could always hail a taxi. He liked walking—even more so as he slipped into the role of a tourist, a sort of different identity. Perhaps he was still not over having been pushed into becoming a cop when he graduated college years ago.
After passing a street corner convenience store with a twenty-four-hour-business sign, he ventured into a side street, and then into another one—a shabbier, somber, cobble-covered, and yet quaint one—which was almost deserted. This street seemed to fit into his memory of the city. Toward the end of it, he slowed down at the sight of a dilapidated eatery. It had a red wooden door and white walls, with a couple of rough tables and benches outside and several more inside, and an orange paper pinwheel spinning in the rustic window. Outside, there was a colorful row of wooden and plastic basins with fish swimming in some and rice paddy eels in others. Eels were usually placed in a basin without water, Chen reflected.
Perhaps because it was past lunchtime, or perhaps because of the location, Chen was the only one lingering there, except for a white cat with a black patch on its forehead, dozing by the worn-out threshold.
Chen decided to sit at a table outside, with a bamboo container holding a bunch of disposable chopsticks like flowers. It was a warm day for May, and he had walked quite a distance. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he was grateful for a fresh breeze coming fitfully along the street.
An old man came shuffling out of the kitchen in the rear, carrying a dog-eared menu. Most likely he was the owner, chef, and waiter here.
“Anything particular you would like, sir?”
“Just a couple of small dishes—any local specialties, I mean,” he said, not really hungry. “And a beer.”
“Three whites are the local specialties,” the old man said. “The white water fish may be too large for one person. And I wouldn’t recommend the white shrimp—it’s not that fresh today.”
Chen remembered, from his Wuxi trip with his parents, his father raving about the “three whites”—white shrimp and white water fish were two of them, but he couldn’t recall what the third white was. Another local specialty he liked was the Wuxi soup buns, sweet with a lot of minced ginger. At the end of that long-ago trip, his mother carried home a bamboo basket of soup buns. He still remembered that, but couldn’t recall the third “white.” Perhaps he really was a “helpless gourmet,” as his friends called him, he thought with a touch of self-irony.
“Whatever you recommend, then.”
“How about Wuxi ribs and sliced lotus roots filled with sticky rice?”
“And a local beer—Tai Lake Beer?”
“Fine,” Chen said. The lake was known for its clear water, which could mean a superior beer.
It took the old man only a minute to return to the table with a bottle of beer and a tiny dish of salted peanuts.
“The appetizer is on the house. Enjoy. So, are you a tourist here?”
Chen raised the map in his hand, nodding.
“Staying at Kailun?”
Kailun might be a hotel nearby, but Chen didn’t know anything about it. “No, at the Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center. Not far from here.”
“Oh,” the old man said, turning back toward the kitchen. “You’re a young man for that place.”
The old man was understandably surprised: the center was only for high-ranking cadres, most of whom were old, while Chen looked only thirtyish.
Though the vacation had come as a surprise to Chen himself, he didn’t say anything in response, but simply took out his book and put it on the table. Instead of reading it, however, he started sipping his beer.
Life could be more absurd than fiction. In college, he had majored in English, but upon graduation he was state-assigned to a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau, where, to the puzzlement of others as well as himself, he had been rising steadily through the ranks. At the Zhenjiang Party School, some predicted that Chen had a most promising official career ahead of him, that he was capable of moving much further than his current job as chief inspector.
But here, he was quite content to be a nameless tourist on vacation, with a bottle of beer and a mystery novel. Su Shi, one of his favorite Song dynasty poets, had once declared it regrettable to “have no self to claim,” but at the moment, at least, Chen did not find it so.
The old man was bringing the dishes Chen had ordered.
“Thank you,” Chen said, looking up. “How is business?”
“Not too good. People are telling stories, but it’s really the same everywhere.”
What stories? Chen wondered. Presumably about the poor quality of the food. That wasn’t uncommon for a tourist city, where customers seldom go to a restaurant a second time, stories or not. But the ribs were delicious, done nicely with plenty of mixed sauce, rich in color and taste. The sliced lotus root, too, proved to be crisp, fresh, yet surprisingly compatible with the sweet sticky rice filling.
It was a rare privilege to be the only customer in a place, he thought, crunching another slice of the pinkish lotus root. Soon, he had a second beer, without having opened the book yet, and his mind began wandering.
So many days, where have you been—/ like a traveling cloud / that forgets to come back / unaware of the spring drawing to an end?
Shaking his head, he pulled himself out of the unexpected wave of self-pity, and took out his cell phone. He dialed Detective Yu back in Shanghai.
“Sorry, Yu, that I didn’t come back to Shanghai before leaving on vacation. Zhengjiang was simply closer to Wuxi.”
“Don’t worry about it, Chief. There are nothing but small cases here, and none of them special, either. There’s nothing for our Special Case Squad.”
“Was there any reaction to my extended absence in the bureau?”
“With your vacation having been arranged by Comrade Secretary Zhao, what could Party Secretary Li say?”
Party Secretary Li had become increasingly wary of Chen, whom he was beginning to see as a threat to Li’s position as the top Party official in the bureau. Li was headed to retirement, but—if things worked out his way—not that soon.
“Keep me posted, Yu. Call me anytime you like. I don’t think there is anything for me to do here.”
“Are you so sure?”
Chen knew the reason for his partner’s skepticism. Chen had had vacations before—unplanned, unexplained vacations—that turned out to be nothing more than a pretext for an investigation. What’s more, Chen had once investigated a highly sensitive case under Zhao’s supervision.
“Zhao didn’t mention anything to me,” Chen said. “Remember the anticorruption case? He promised me a vacation then, and I think that’s what this is about.”
“That’s good, boss. Enjoy your vacation. I won’t bother you unless it’s an emergency,” Yu said, then added, “Oh, you know what? You have a fan in Wuxi. I met a recent graduate from the Police Academy in a meeting two or three months ago. Sergeant Huang Kang. He bugged me for stories about you.”
“He’ll never forgive me if I don’t tell him that you are vacationing in Wuxi.”
“Let me enjoy myself in peace for a couple of days first. Once Huang knows, he, as well as others, may come over, bringing with them cases they want to discuss. My vacation would become anything but a quiet one,” Chen said. “But what’s his number? I’ll call him later, and say that you insisted on it.”
Chen copied the number into his notebook. There was no hurry. He would wait until a day or two before the end of his vacation to call.
Chen put away his cell phone and turned his attention to the book he’d brought with him. It was a novel with an interesting title: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and a Guangxi publisher had been pushing him to translate it. Mysteries had begun to sell well, and the contract they were offering for the translation wasn’t bad. However, in comparison to the occasional business translations that he did for his Big Buck businessmen acquaintances, it was nothing.
Chen had read only two or three pages when he noticed someone approaching the eatery. Looking up, he glimpsed a young, slender woman, who glanced in his direction, dipping her head like a shy lotus flower in a cool breeze.
She appeared to be in her mid-twenties. She was wearing a black fitted blazer, a white blouse, jeans, and black pumps, and she carried a satchel slung over her shoulder. She moved to the other outside table. She had a bottle of water in her hand, ignoring the proprietor’s sign objecting to customers bringing in their own drinks. Instead of calling for a menu, she shouted, “I’m here, Uncle Wang.”
“One minute,” the old man said, sticking his head out. “Do you have to work this weekend, Shanshan?”
“I’m just checking a new test at the office, but it’s getting more complicated. Don’t worry. At most it will be a couple of hours in the afternoon.”
Apparently she was no stranger here. The old man, surnamed Wang, was probably not a relative, or she would not have prefixed Wang with Uncle.
The old man shuffled out with a steaming plastic container, which must have been microwave-warmed. She had probably left her lunch here earlier in the day, and it might have been a common arrangement. In the course of the economic reform, state-run companies had been shutting down their employee canteens as a money-losing business practice. So she probably had to find a way of eating somewhere else.
She opened the plastic container and inside, on top of white rice, lay an omelet with lots of chopped green onion. She pulled a pair of bamboo chopsticks out of her satchel.
“The green onion is fresh from my own garden,” Uncle Wang said with a toothless grin. “I picked it this morning. Totally organic.”
Organic—an interesting word to say here, Chen thought as he sipped his beer in silence.
“That’s so thoughtful of you, Uncle Wang.”
Uncle Wang went back into the kitchen. The two of them were left alone.
She started eating in a leisurely manner, adding a small spoon of hot sauce to the rice. She pulled a crumpled newspaper out of her jean pocket and began reading. A frown started to form in her delicate eyebrows. Chen caught himself studying her with interest.
She was attractive, her oval face framed by long black hair and animated with a youthful glow. Her mouth subtly curved under her delicate nose, and there was a wistful look in her clear, large eyes.
The characters printed on the satchel said: Wuxi Number One Chemical Company. Perhaps she worked there.
Occasionally, Chen liked to consider himself a detached aesthetic, like the persona in those lines by Bian Zhilin: You are looking at the scene, / and the scene watcher is looking at you. It was an ingenious way to describe one’s scene-eclipsing beauty. Bian was a contemporary poet he had studied in college, but was something of a Prufrock in real life. Chen considered himself different from that. Still, there was nothing improper, he reassured himself, in a poet watching in detachment. Not to mention that, as a detective, he was in a natural position to observe.
Chen laughed at himself. A worn-out cop on his first day of vacation couldn’t automatically switch back into being a vigorous poet.
He was in no hurry to leave. Having finished the ribs and lotus root, however, he thought it might not appear proper for him to sit too long with nothing left on the table. So he rose and went over to the rice paddy eels squirming in the plastic basin close to her table. As he squatted down, examining, touching the slippery eels with a finger, he couldn’t help taking in her shapely ankle flashing in the background above the somber water in the basin.
“Are the eels good?” he asked loudly, still squatting, turning over his shoulder to direct his voice toward the kitchen.
The young woman unexpectedly leaned over, whispering to him, her hair nearly touching his face. “Ask him why he keeps the eels in water.”
Chen took her suggestion.
“Why do you keep the rice paddy eels in water?” he called toward the kitchen.
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s for the benefit of our customers,” Uncle Wang said, emerging from the kitchen. “Nowadays people feed eels hormones and whatnot. So I keep them in water for a day after they’re caught, to wash out any remaining drugs.”
But could drugs really be washed out of their systems that easily? Chen doubted it, and his appetite for eels was instantly lost.
“Well, give me a portion of stinking tofu,” Chen said. “And a lot of red pepper sauce.”
Presumably, stinking tofu was a safe bet. Chen looked up only to see the young woman shaking her head with a sly smile.
He restrained himself from asking her to explain. It wouldn’t be so easy to talk across the table with the old man going in and out of the kitchen. There was something intriguing about her. She knew the proprietor well, yet she didn’t hesitate to speak against the food here.
Soon, Uncle Wang placed a platter of golden fried tofu on the table along with a saucer of red pepper sauce.
“The local tofu,” he said simply, heading back the kitchen.
“The tofu is hot. Would you like to join me?” Chen turned to the young woman, raising the chopsticks in a gesture of invitation.
“Sure,” she said, standing up, still holding the water bottle in her hand. “But I have to say no to your stinking tofu.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, signaling the bench opposite and pulling out another pair of chopsticks for her. “Some people can’t stand the smell, I know, but once you try it, you may not want to stop. How about a beer?”
“No thanks,” she said. “The local farmers use chemicals to make that tofu, though perhaps it’s a common practice now. But what about the water they use to make it—and to make the beer? You should take a look at the lake. It is so polluted, it’s undrinkable.”
“Unimaginable!” he said.
“According to Nietzsche: God is dead. What does that mean? It means that people are capable of doing anything. There is nothing that is unimaginable.”
“Oh, you’re reading Nietzsche,” he said, impressed.
“What are you reading?”
“A mystery novel. By the way, my name is Chen Cao. It’s nice to meet you,” he said, then added with a touch of exaggeration, in spite of himself, “As in the old proverb, it’s more beneficial to listen to your talk for one day than to read for ten years.”
“I’m simply talking shop. My name is Shanshan. Where are you from?”
“Shanghai,” he said, wondering what kind of work she did.
“So you’re on vacation here. A hard-working intellectual, reading English in a Wuxi eatery,” she said teasingly. “Are you an English teacher?”
“Well, what else can I do?” he said, reluctant to reveal that he was a cop. Teaching was a career he had, in his college days, imagined for himself. And he felt an urge, at least for a while, to not be a cop. Or not be treated as a cop. Police work had become a bigger and bigger part of his identity, whether he liked it or not. So it was tantalizing to imagine a different self, one that wasn’t a chief inspector—like a snail that didn’t carry its shell.
“Schoolteachers earn quite a lot, especially with the demand for private tutoring,” she said, casting a glance at the dishes on the table.
He knew what she was driving at. Chinese parents spared no expense for their children’s education, since that education could make a huge difference in an increasingly competitive society. Detective Yu and his wife Peiqin, for instance, spent the bulk of their income on private lessons for their son. A schoolteacher could make a small fortune by giving private lessons after hours, sometimes squeezing ten students or more into a small living room.
“No, not me. Instead, I’m debating whether or not to translate this book for a small sum.”
“A mystery,” she said, glancing at the book cover in English.
“Occasionally, I write poems too,” he responded impulsively. “But there is no audience for poetry today.”
“I used to like poetry too—in middle school,” she commented. “In a polluted age like ours, poetry is too much of a luxury, like a breath of pure air or a drop of clear water. Poetry can’t make anything happen except in one’s self-indulgent imagination.”
“No, I don’t—”
Chen’s response was interrupted by the shrill ringing of a cell phone in her satchel.
Taking out a pink phone and putting it to her ear, she listened for a moment. Then she stood up, her face quickly bleaching of color in the afternoon light.
“Something wrong?” he said.
“No, it was just a nasty message,” she said, turning off the phone.
“What was the message?”
“‘Say what you’re supposed to say, or you’ll pay a terrible price.’”
“Oh, maybe it was a prank call. I get those calls too,” he said. But usually nothing that specific, he didn’t add.
Her brows knitted again. She seemed to know the call was more than a practical joke. She looked at her watch.
“I’ve got to go back to work,” she said. “It’s nice to have met you, Mr. Chen. I hope you will enjoy a wonderful vacation here.”
“You have a good weekend—”
He thought about asking for her phone number, but she was already walking away, her long hair swaying across her back.
It was probably just as well. It was only a chance meeting, like two nameless clouds crossing each other in the sky, then continuing on with their respective journeys. That was probably not a metaphor of his invention, but he couldn’t recall where he’d read it, Chen mused as he watched her walk.
She turned before crossing the street and said, waving her hand lightly, “Bye,” as if to apologize for her abrupt exit.
“Another beer?” Uncle Wang said, coming back to the table. He noticed the platter had hardly been touched. “I can refry the tofu for you.”
“No, thanks. Just a beer,” Chen said. “Do you know her well?”
“I know her parents well, to be exact. She was assigned a job here upon graduation. She is alone in Wuxi, so she comes here for lunch. I just warm up the food she that brings by in the morning.”
“What kind of work does she do?”
“She’s an engineer. Something to do with environment. She works hard, even on weekends. She left rather suddenly. What did you two talk about?”
“She got a phone call and she left. A nasty prank call.”
“There are some people who don’t like her.”
If that was the case, then, the phone message could be a warning, not a practical joke. Still, who was he to worry about it? He hardly knew her.
He finished his second beer and was ready to leave. He decided to curb his cop’s curiosity. After all, he was on vacation.
Copyright © 2012 by Qiu Xiaolong