Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are “poor and blank.” This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for changes, the desire for action, and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.
—Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong
On the night the young woman’s corpse is discovered, hollowed out like a birchbark canoe, Inspector Lu Fei sits alone in the Red Lotus bar, determined to get gloriously drunk.
In keeping with the season, Lu’s beverage of choice is Shaoxing wine, served in a red earthenware jar and drunk from a rice bowl. It is twenty below outside, and Shaoxing is renowned for “revitalizing the blood” and warming the qi.
But never mind the health benefits—Lu just loves the taste. Sweet, bitter, sour, and spicy, all at once. An apt metaphor for life, fermented and distilled.
The plaintive strains of a Chinese fiddle warble through the bar’s cheap sound system. The melody plucks at the frayed filaments of Lu’s soul. He closes his eyes and pictures the moon reflecting off the rippling waters of the West Lake. Pink peony blossoms, fluttering in a summer breeze. A naked woman, her smooth skin burnished to a golden glow by candlelight.
“Yi! Er! San!” Four men in their early twenties sit at another table, the only other patrons in the bar. Lu has seen them around town but doesn’t know their names. They shout and gesticulate wildly as they play a traditional drinking game, the goal of which is to guess how many fingers your opponent will hold out at the count of three. “Drink!” one of the men demands. The loser drinks. The faces of all four are flushed bright red.
Lu sighs. There will be no peace in the Red Lotus tonight, not with these youths guzzling mao tai liquor and smoking pack after pack of Zhongnanhai cigarettes. If he were inclined to throw his weight around, he might tell them to keep it down, but it is Saturday night, and they have every right to blow off some steam.
Besides—Yanyan needs the business.
Speaking of Yanyan, she approaches, bearing a dish of boiled peanuts and a mild look of disapproval.
“Every weekend, the same thing.” She takes a seat and slides the dish over. “Drinking by yourself until you can barely see straight.”
Lu pops a peanut into his mouth. “Lacking a companion, I drink alone. I raise my cup and toast the moon. Together, the moon, my shadow, and I make three.”
Yanyan takes a peanut for herself. “Who’s that? Li Bai?”
“Correct. I’m pleased we can enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. You supply the drinks, and I provide the poetry.”
“You’re getting the better end of the deal.”
“For sure. In any case, there’s no need for me to drink with just the moon and my shadow. Bring a cup over.”
“I can’t. I’m working.”
“Call it customer service, if that makes you feel better.”
“Hey, pretty lady!” One of the young men at the other table waves his cigarette. “We need some beers.”
Yanyan gives Lu a wan smile and gets up to fetch the drinks. Lu shoots the kid a baleful stare, then pours himself another bowl of wine. He watches Yanyan collect four bottles of Harbin Premium lager from the chiller.
She is tall and long-limbed, with thick black hair, a high forehead, and large, expressive eyes. Full lips and cheeks that are always a charming shade of pink, as if kissed by the cold.
Lu has never asked her age, but he believes Yanyan is in her midthirties, a few years younger than himself. He knows she is a widow. Her husband died a few years back of some illness or another, leaving her to run the Red Lotus by herself. It is a tiny place, just four tables, serving drinks and basic snacks, nothing special. Most nights, it brings in only a handful of customers. It’s not an easy way to make a living. But for a country girl like Yanyan, it’s better than working in the fields or at some other menial, dead-end job.
Lu is secretly smitten with her. So, he suspects, are the four men playing drinking games.
And a sizable percentage of the male population in Raven Valley Township.
Yanyan carries the bottles over. One of the young men plucks at her sleeve and asks her to join them. She brushes him off, same as she did Lu. All four of them stare at her wolfishly as she walks away.
Lu finds this irritating, but understandable. He, too, cannot help but stare wolfishly at Yanyan.
His cell phone rings. It’s the paichusuo—the local Public Security Bureau station.
The PSB, in the People’s Republic, is analogous to a Western police department, with branches at the provincial, county, municipal, and local levels. PSB officers are responsible for crime prevention and investigation, traffic and fire control, public safety, household registration, and keeping tabs on foreigners and visitors.
In Raven Valley, a modestly sized township about seventy kilometers from Harbin City, the station is staffed by a chief, a deputy chief—that’s Lu’s official role—a sergeant, and a handful of constables.
But Lu is not on duty tonight. So why is the paichusuo calling him?
He answers. “Lu Fei.”
“Inspector!” Lu recognizes the voice on the end of the line. Constable Huang, aged twenty-one, excitable disposition, dumb as a wheelbarrow full of pig shit.
“What is it, Constable? It’s my night off.”
“I know, Inspector, but there’s been a … a…”
“Go on,” Lu says.
Huang whispers. “A murder.”
Lu sits up a little straighter. “Why are you whispering?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you call the chief?”
Lu means Chief Liang, his direct superior.
“He didn’t answer his phone,” Huang says.
Lu looks at his watch. It’s a little past nine. A bit early for the chief to be in his cups, but not inconceivable.
“Where?” Lu says.
“Where didn’t he answer?” Huang asks.
“No, Constable. Where is the scene of the…” He is suddenly aware of the men at the other table listening in. “Incident?”
“Oh. Yang residence. Kangjian Lane.”
That is on the outskirts of town. Lu is familiar with the area but doesn’t personally know any Yangs who live there. “Is there a suspect in custody?”
“No suspects yet.”
“Okay. I’m at the Red Lotus bar. Have someone come get me.”
He hangs up. The young men are looking at him. “What’s going on?” one of them asks. “Something exciting?”
“No,” Lu says. He does not elaborate. He swallows the last of the wine and considers pouring another round, but decides against it. He puts money on the table and stoppers the earthenware jar. “Sister Yan, please keep this jar safe until such time I am free to renew its acquaintance.”
“Of course, Inspector.”
Lu shrugs into his coat and pulls a hat over his ears. He goes to the front door and slips on a pair of gloves while he waits. When the patrol car arrives, he gives Yanyan a quick wave and heads out into the cold.
* * *
There are five police officers in the car. And it is not a large car. But the paichusuo possesses only two patrol vehicles, as well as a small fleet of scooters, bicycles, and one riot van that always reeks of boiled cabbage, although no one seems to know why.
Behind the wheel is Sergeant First Class Bing. Bing is in his early fifties, short, squat, and tough as old rhinoceros hide. Lu likes and respects him very much.
Crammed into the back seat are constables Sun, Li, Wang, and Wang. Of course, there are two Wangs. It is the second-most common surname in China.
Constable Sun is female, midtwenties, generally cheerful and competent. She scored well enough on her national exams to attend a top university in Heilongjiang Province. Lu is mystified as to why she elected to join the Public Security Bureau. Better she had majored in accounting or business and gotten moderately wealthy. Now she is doomed to a life of high risk and low reward in a profession dominated by men who crack crude jokes and compulsively scratch at their balls as if they were lottery tickets.
Constable Li is thirty, cadaverously thin, and never speaks unless spoken to. His colleagues call him Li Yaba—“Li the Mute.”
Wang number one’s given name is Ming, but as he’s a few kilos over his ideal weight, he is known to most folks as Wang Pang Zi—“Fatty Wang.” He takes no offense to this. On the contrary, it’s considered an affectionate nickname in the People’s Republic.
Copyright © 2021 by Brian Klingborg