The Lake Ching murders

David Rotenberg

CHAPTER ONE

A TELEGRAM FROM ANOTHER LIFE

Lily’s English was, at the best of times, difficult to understand unless you knew a lot of English and a whole lot of Lily. Zhong Fong possessed the requisite knowledge in both instances. So when he retreated to the crumbling cinder-block structure that passed as the village’s police station, he was reasonably sure he could decipher what Lily was trying to tell him.

Just fifty-four months ago Fong had been the head of Special Investigations, Shanghai District. Lily had been his inside source and confidante in forensics. But that was fifty-four months ago. A past life – or so it had seemed until the arrival of Lily’s missive. Fong slowly tilted the telegram forward to catch the rays of the setting sun through the sheet of cracked plastic that took the place of a windowpane. He needed as much light as possible to read these days.

Lily’s voice spoke in his head as he read her words: HEY HO SHORT STUFF [stop] HOW FAR NORTH IS EATING YOU? [stop] CAR FULL LET YOUR RICHARD FREEZE NOT [stop] WATCH OUT [stop] TONS OVER HEAD GOING DOWN ON YOU SOON [stop] REAL SUCKING TONS, YOU NEED A HAT [stop] YOURS WHENEVER, WHYEVER [stop] WHATEVER – LILY.

Lily loved to speak, but only sort of spoke, English. She had an ear for the idioms and a nose for the slang, but no sense of how the language really worked. Unlike Fong, who had studied it seriously, Lily had picked up her English from TV and tourist hotels. The combination of Jerry Springer-speak and pimp lobby-hustle produced an extremely unique form of the language.

The telegram’s surface darkened. Fong looked up. A cloud had drifted in front of the sun. He rubbed his eyes with his calloused fingers and returned to Lily’s words. Communication of any sort was a rarity for him since he’d been banished to internal exile west of the Wall. There were no telephones in the village. There were no fax machines or computers. He was allowed into the telegraph office, but was not permitted to send messages, just to receive them – and this had been the only one since he’d arrived. He had no access to a vehicle and, as a convicted political felon, he wasn’t allowed beyond a two-mile perimeter of the town. His only contact with what he had taken to thinking of as “the great over there” was the weekly Communist Party newspaper. It gave him just enough information to let him know that he was completely cut off from anything that really mattered. And that was exactly as Beijing intended.

In theory he was still a police officer, but that was just some bureaucrat’s idea of a joke. In fact, all he was allowed to do was wait – indefinitely if Beijing wanted it so – to plant his feet deep in the dusty soil of this far distant edge of civilization, wither and then to rot in obscurity. A just reward for a traitor.

The cloud passed and an oblique ray of sunlight hit the paper. HEY HO SHORT STUFF, the first line, he knew was nothing more than a jab at his stature. The second line he assumed was the result of a common Mandarin mistake. Because there is no “ree” sound in Mandarin, the “tree” sound in English often went missing. So Lily wasn’t asking how the Far North was eating him, but rather how the Far North was treating him.

“Just great,” he said aloud.

CAR FULL LET YOUR RICHARD FREEZE NOT puzzled him. CAR FULL was no doubt careful, but he couldn’t figure out RICHARD. LET YOUR RICHARD FREEZE NOT? Richard freeze not?

Then he remembered the night he and Lily had begun their unusual relationship. It was in Fong’s fifth year on the Shanghai police force. He’d already established himself as a comer, the force’s new black-haired boy. Until that evening he had known Lily only as an attractive, if gangly, techie who worked in the forensic labs.

The head of the crime site unit, Wang Jun, had sent him to forensics with a vial of unidentified pills found in the hotel room of a dead Tibetan. When Fong arrived at the lab, he was surprised to find the door unguarded. After a moment’s hesitation he entered the large dimly lit room. This place had always struck him as otherworldly. But that night its emptiness and silence made it even more surreal. Then, beyond the aisles and aisles of bottle-covered desks, he saw a large figure moving in the shadows at the far end. He was about to call out, but something warned him to hold his tongue. He crouched down and moved silently closer.

It was not one figure as he had first thought, but two. The one with his back to him was the young cadet who should have been guarding the door. The one pressed against the table was Lily. Her skirt had been thrown aside, her panties were in shreds at her feet, her eyes were closed tight. Hurt and fear etched cruel patterns across her face.

Fong leapt forward. As he did, Lily’s eyes snapped open. They locked on him. But there was no plea for help there.

She signalled him to go away, to creep away.

He did.

Later – much later – he returned to the lab and found her sitting on the floor in a darkened corner, a mug of steaming tea in her hands. He crossed the room to her and, not knowing what to do, stood over her. She looked up. Her face was pale. There was a welting sadness in her eyes.

“You saw.” It was a statement of fact. Her voice was harsh and carried accusation in its depths.

“Yes. I’m sorry.” He took a breath and asked, hopefully, “He is your boyfriend?”

The laugh that came from Lily hurt both of them. It was a Chinese laugh – one that understands that the world is a complex place. He turned away, but she reached out and grabbed him by the leg, “Don’t leave.”

He looked down at her, unsure whether he ought to kneel. “He’s not your boyfriend,” he said slowly.

“You’re not too bright, are you?”

“I’m not . . .”

Then in English she added, “Or too tall.” She put down her tea, pressed her back against the wall and rose to her full height.

“Too tall for what exactly?” he responded in his textbook English.

A flicker of a smile danced across her face. She went on in English, “To buy friend me.”

“To boy friend you?” he asked, confused.

“No! Or what stupid you? To buy friend me,” she shouted at him, her long arms whipping about like the strands of a canvas windmill after a heavy storm.

“Oh, you mean to be my friend … I think.”

She snapped back in staccato Shanghanese, “I said that. You deaf and short, or what?”

In Shanghanese he replied, “Maybe it would be better if we spoke in the Common Speech.”

Angrily, she shot back, “My Engrish enough good not you for?” Her chin was stuck out so far that Fong almost laughed. But he was glad he didn’t because that chin soon began to quiver and tears fell quickly from her deep, dark eyes. She moved past him and leaned against one of the long lab tables. A sharp cry escaped her lips before her hand could seal her mouth shut. Then she rolled forward, curling her spine.

He watched her and, as he often did, marvelled at the beauty of the female form. Its simple rhythm and flow. Its planes and contours. He stood in the darkened room for a long time until her crying cooled to tiny whimpers and then finally stopped.

“If he assaulted you, I’ll arrest him.”

She turned back to him, a twist of anger on her strong features. In her beautiful Shanghanese she hissed, “Yes, he assaulted me.”

Fong took out his notebook and pen and began to write. “What’s his name? I’ll find where he lives and …”

“And nothing. You won’t do anything.” She grabbed his book and pulled out the page. In response to Fong’s stunned look, she continued, “He’s named Tong Tzu. He lives off Nanjing Road near Xian. But you’re to do nothing with this information. He’s a party boss’s son.” Fong took back his book and headed toward the door. “Don’t be a jerk,” she said. “I’ll have justice in my own way.”

Fong turned back and took a long look at Lily. He didn’t know why, but he believed her. Six months later, when Tong Tzu was found blind and raving in a K-TV room at a tourist hotel, his body fluids almost 0.7 percent rubbing alcohol, Fong’s admiration for this wiry woman increased. It was Fong’s second major lesson in Shanghanese justice: bosses who overstep their bounds must be dealt with – but in an appropriately surreptitious manner.

Fong pocketed his notebook and asked in Shanghanese, “Do you want anything?”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

“A promise you’ll not talk about this even to that gorgeous actress wife of yours.”

He was surprised that she knew about his marriage. “I promise.”

“Good, and one more thing.”

“What?” he asked totally at a loss as to what he could do to help Lily.

“A hug.” She opened her arms. He moved to her. The pain was still in her body – he could feel it. He held her close. Tremors began to take her then subsided. When they stopped, she hugged him harder then pushed him away, saying in English, “One of you Richards is enough for one night.”

He looked at her – lost again.

“Richards! Don’t talk Engrish yous?” she shrieked. The glass beakers on the desk behind him rattled in their stands.

“Richards?”

She s ...

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