The Hua Shan Hospital Murders

David Rotenberg

The Hua Shan Hospital Murders


Fong reached over and touched Lily’s cheek. A smile creased her face as, without waking, she tried to kiss his fingers. “Don’t get up, Lily,” he whispered.

She rolled over and snuggled into his side. “Mine,” she sighed.

Fong permitted himself a moment of satisfaction. Their three-month-old daughter Xiao Ming had given them a break. She’d actually slept for five straight hours – a record. Fong pulled back his side of the covers and stood on the ancient wooden floor. He slid his bare feet back and forth along the smoothness of the boards – an old familiar thing.

He looked back at Lily. In sleep her features were so soft. He was grateful for her and Xiao Ming and for the rarest of all things – a second chance.

He entered the bathroom and lit the flame beneath the small rusting water heater connected to the shower. Then he went to see if there was anything to eat. No apartments had kitchens in Shanghai but there was an old breadbox. Inside was a half-eaten pastry that Lily told him was called a palmier. He took a tentative bite then put it back. Wheat-based products were new to him and he didn’t care for them. Lily, on the other hand, seemingly couldn’t do without them.

He unbuttoned his pyjama top and headed back toward the shower. The glint of light off a polished picture frame on the table drew his eye. So, Lily had finally gotten back the photos and even had one framed.

He lifted the picture and angled it toward the large window that overlooked the courtyard. Laughter burped from his mouth. There he was in a costume from the American Civil War with Lily at his side wearing a very wide green dress with a tight bodice and blond curls – nine-plus months pregnant.

“This itches, Fong,” Lily had said as she took a handful of crinoline and yanked it away from her butt.

“Whose fault is that?” said Fong smiling and striking the pose the photographer had shown him.

“Need picture, we do,” said Lily changing to English so the photographer couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then again even if the photographer spoke English it was doubtful that he could follow Lily’s own particular variant of the language. “Proof for baby that I married me.”

“You sure did, Lily.” Fong’s English was textbook perfect. It had to be in his position as head of Special Investigations for the Shanghai district.

“Stand still,” shouted the exasperated photographer in highly accented Shanghanese.

“What’s with the costumes, Lily?” asked Fong in English.

“Very modern, Fong. Do it everybody in Shanghai. Everybody who everybody. Do this. Modern. Hop. Very hop.”


She scowled at him.

Okay, I think I get that. So who am I supposed to be?”

“Rhett Butler in Pffftf with the Wind.”

Pffftf with the Wind?”

“Name of film famous. Famous famous famous.”

“Ah that Pffftf with the Wind. And who are you supposed to be?”

“Scarlet Hara.”


“Ah, yourself.”


“Okay.” Lily straightened her wig trying to get two very long blond curls out of her face. In Shanghanese she said, “You look very handsome, Fong.”

“And you look quite unusual.”

Lily looked at him, not sure what he meant.

“Please,” the photographer shouted.

Lily said in English, “Play part Fong. Play part!”

“Please,” the photographer pleaded.

“Yeah, Lily, behave yourself.”

She made a face and yanked at her crinolines again.

“Still itches?”

“Like mice nibbling my privates.”


“More with the ah’s from you, husband.”

The photographer clapped his hands. “Folks, this is costing you a small fortune. Why not just take the pose, say the line, and I’ll shoot you?”

Fong took the pose. “What’s the line again, Lily?” he asked under his breath.

“Frankie, my dear I didn’t do a dam.”


She nodded, stomped her foot and with her best I-love-you-but-I’ll-kill-you-if-you-fuck-this-up look said, “Yes, really.”

“Who played these roles, anyway?”

“Clark Kent played you. Famous actor, Clark Kent and very good-looking.”


“And Vivien Laid play me or Janet Laid – somebody laid played me.”

“Ah – I’m sure she did and I’m sure she was.”

“What, Fong?”

“Ah, nothing, Lily, ” he said putting the prop cigar into his mouth and puffing out his chest as he had been told to do.

“One too many ‘ah’s’ from my leading man, you having way too much fun,” said Lily as she stomped down hard on his foot.

Fong howled and chomped down on the cardboard cigar. That was the exact moment captured in the photograph.

Fong laughed out loud, put the picture back on the table, and headed toward the shower.

As he did, a distant roll of thunder echoed across the human vastness that was Shanghai – and Xiao Ming began to cry.



Fong looked down at the bones of the half-exposed skeleton that protruded from the slanted side of the Shanghai construction pit – then at the local detective who had called for him. The man was an old-style cop. Almost bald. Definitely tough. Probably right most of the time, but in this case dead wrong. “Officer, I have no idea why you contacted me. It’s a skeleton, yes, and at first glance I’d agree that whoever this used to be was a victim of extreme physical trauma . . .”

“You mean he may have been beaten to shit by a fat club or something?”

Fong wouldn’t have used those exact words but that was the gist of what he thought. He nodded. A shaft of light pierced through the heavy cloud cover and lit Fong. “Yes officer, this person was probably killed in an assault with a blunt instrument.”

“Fuckin’ murdered.”

Fong liked the man’s aggressive gruffness. It made him want to laugh, but in the presence of death, even ancient death, laughter dies quickly. “Yes, that would be my guess officer but I’m with Special Investigations not homicide. I only investigate . . .”

“. . . crimes against foreigners, Detective Zhong. I know that.” The man spat into the thick mud of the construction pit.

“Then why did you call me?”

“I think the guy – this guy – this dead guy – was wearing this.” The cop opened a large, calloused paw. Nestled in the fleshy portions of his hand was a tarnished metal cross on a thin silver chain. Although it was more equilateral than most crucifixes, Fong assumed it was a Christian cross of some sort. Fong took it in his hand. It was surprisingly heavy. Its heft was oddly pleasing. “Was it around his neck?”

“Hard to tell. I found it in the mud behind the neck bones which you might have noticed were crushed.”

Fong leaned in closer to the skeleton. No, he hadn’t noticed.

The officer held out a Polaroid. It clearly showed the position of the cross stuck in the mud behind the neck bones.

Fong looked up at the officer and raised his shoulders – the pan-China gesture for, “So?”

“You want my guess?”

“I do, officer. Take a guess.”

The man picked briefly at his brownish teeth. When he spoke his face revealed nothing, but his voice was a little further forward than before. “Not many Chinese Christians. This was probably some crazy Long Nose who got himself in a bit of trouble.”

Fong closed his fingers around the cross. Its weight was suddenly not so comforting.

“How long has the body been here, officer?”

“My forensic guy thinks long. How long? On that he’s got no guess.”

Fong looked up the wall of the almost completed construction pit that had yielded up the dead man, then back toward the yawning cavity behind him. “What’re they building here?”

“Something big. Who knows what?”

Fong nodded. Shanghai was full of empty pits that quickly became big who-knows-whats.

“So I was right Detective Zhong to call you in?”

“Yes. I guess you were, officer.”

“Good. Then the case is yours. I’ll send you a copy of the initial findings.”


The cop began moving up the steep side of the construction pit.

“Where are you going, officer?”

“Home. It’s going to rain.”

Fong looked up at the sky then down at his hand. The equal-sided cross sat flat on his palm. A fat raindrop spatted right at the crossing of the crucifix’s arms. Fong looked up. It wasn’t going to rain. No. It was going to pour.

After calling in his forensic team, Fong made his way through the muck of the construction site to the supervisor’s hut.

The large man who greeted him there was a classic of his type. A foreman whose only concern was completing the project on schedule, safety be damned – fuck the poor men from the country who lifted and hoisted and toiled in the mud for next to nothing. This kind of man had been put in his place after the liberation but had emerged from his hole to make money in the “New China.”

Fong was no card-carrying Communist, but human beings are not animals. They are not meant to be worked from before dawn til after dusk, seven days a week, at labour that might actually kill some of them.

“How long, Mr. Police Man?” barked the foreman.

“As long as it takes,” Fong answered – happy to ruin the man’s day.