The Shanghai Murders

David Rotenberg

The Shanghai Murders

LETTER INTERCEPTED FROM THE POST BOX AT THE SHANGHAI INTERNATIONAL EQUATORIAL HOTEL

Dearest Sister,

I went on a dead man’s walk today, breasting the air that the murdered man had pushed before him, not two days earlier. His name was Ngalto Chomi and he was a six-foot seven-inch black man from Zaire. He was hacked to bits in an alley off Fu Yu in the old city. The temple gods in their shrine around the corner did him no good. This city simply opened a crack and accepted his soul without a pause in its race toward oblivion.

None of this came clear to me until I saw the merchant skin the snake in the marketplace. Skin the snake while it still lived. Skin the snake as he had skinned another snake two days earlier while the black man had watched. Watched because he had bought the snake and taken it with him to a restaurant to be cooked.

But it wasn’t the snake that brought home the meaning. It was the skin. Still alive with electrical pulses, it lashed back and forth on the ground, seemingly unaware that its life, its core, was now in the hands of a man with a knife. I thought of Richard. Like the skin of the snake, on the ground, a knife already having removed his life from him with one deft stroke. Dead, but he didn’t even know it. Like the chimera of life in the skin of the snake.

Amanda

TO BE SHREDDED

DAY ONE

The body on the Hua Shan Hospital’s morgue table looked as though it had all the right pieces-but they seemed to be in the wrong places. A divinely challenging jigsaw puzzle awaiting the Maker’s few spare moments. At least that’s what struck Inspector Zhong Fong, head of Special Investigations, Shanghai District, as he took his pack of Kents from his shirt pocket.

As he lit up, he noticed that the paper of the cigarette was soaked through with his perspiration.

At forty-four, Zhong Fong was the youngest man to head Special Investigations in Shanghai, PRC. He knew he was good at what he did, but he also knew that he was the beneficiary of history. The Cultural Revolution had removed many older police officers who in the past would have stood in his way for dozens of years.

So Mao wasn’t all bad, he thought, as he mentally reconstructed the human form in front of him. White male, probably over thirty, definitely under fifty, at one time over six feet tall and probably in excess of two hundred pounds but just now eviscerated, carved up, lopped off and very, very dead. Fong blew out a long trail of bluish smoke while the others waited for him to speak.

Finally he said, “I don’t suppose we have any idea who this thing used to be, do we?” The aged coroner only grunted and turned toward the bloodstained industrial sink. The ashen-faced young cop, who had found the body parts only a few hours earlier, felt he had better say something, so he said, “No, sir.”

“I would never have guessed,” said Fong. This evidently left the young cop confused, but Fong had bigger things on his mind than the confusion of a rookie. “Call the consulates.” The rookie took out his notebook and began to write. “Start with the Americans, they like to be first. Tell them what we have here: foreign national, Caucasian, no identification, male, thirty to fifty, cut up and ready for dim sum.”

The young cop looked up.

“Don’t write that. Say badly mutilated,” said Fong.

“Pieces are too big for dim sum,” chimed in the old coroner as he spat in the sink and turned on the tap.

As Zhong Fong finished his instructions to the rookie cop and prepared to leave the morgue, he noticed the brownish tap water dripping from the coroner’s ancient hands. In a passing thought it occurred to Fong that those hands would shortly take apart what was left of this human being in an effort to find out how, if not why, anyone would go to the trouble of hacking another human being to bits-be they dim sum-size or not.

Although it was after midnight, the traffic outside the hospital was the normal congested reek of smoke and splutter that was Shanghai. For a moment Fong wondered where he had left his car. Then he remembered that he hadn’t taken it since the call had come to his apartment on the grounds of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, just around the corner.

His wife had been an actress who periodically taught at the school, and when they married he moved into her two second-story rooms on the academy campus. The rooms looked out over a small patch of grass on which stood, or rather reclined, a Henry Moorish humanesque bronze with one breast pushed in and one pushed out. It had a doughnut ring for a head.

After a long shower Fong stood at his window, a towel around his waist. In the courtyard two half-drunk student actors were throwing stones at the statue from across the way, each trying to be the first to get one through the statue’s head. Since his wife’s death, Fong had seen many things go through that metal orifice. Perhaps the most interesting was the erect member of one of the acting teachers, which had been met by the hand of one of the student actresses in a caress that brought out a surge of envy in Fong’s heart, like a weed in spring bloom.

The phone rang behind him. He let it ring as one of the boys, tiring of the game’s difficulty, ran up to the statue and shoved his stone through the hole. Despite the fact that what he had done took no skill, he celebrated as if he had defeated the elements themselves.

Fong breathed on the windowpane. A slight mist etched and then retreated into oblivion. Like Fu Tsong- the idea arrived full blown in his consciousness. It was followed quickly by the thought that seemed to be his constant companion of late: He had shared neither his wife’s art nor her concern. Perhaps all he had ever really shared with Fu Tsong were her rooms. Just her rooms. He picked up the phone on its fifth ring and lived to regret that he hadn’t let the thing ring until it tired of ringing altogether.

Some six blocks down Nanjing Road from the Hua Shan Hospital at the Shanghai Centre, built in 1990 by American and Japanese money, Christie’s of London was celebrating its Shanghai opening with a gala display of its wares. On view were a third-rate Picasso, a tenth-rate Dali, and several quite notable Chagalls, including La Sainte-Chapelle. There were also some turn-of-the-century Chinese scroll paintings and exquisite Qianlong seal-marked vases.

In a smaller case to one side were two customs excise stamps, dated and appraised. Most of the patrons ignored them. But one young westerner with a backpack pointed at the case and said, “Old letters.” And indeed they were old letters. Old letters with old secrets. Not the least of which was that one of the two was a forgery.

Passing behind the case with the forgery and making his way toward the back of the exhibit was a small Han Chinese male in a beautifully cut, conservative business suit. His Italian shoes were freshly buffed. His delicate hands (nails polished, right pinky almost an inch long) emerged from his coat pockets. His name was Loa Wei Fen. He marveled at what he saw. So many westerners here now. So pale and with such overripe figures, so awkward in a crowd. And Shanghai was nothing if not a crowd.

He passed by the assembled mass of people around a Pissarro and stopped in front of La Sainte-Chapelle. The painting’s cityscape blue orb, with a lady in a high window and a rooster looking in both directions as the moon rose over its shoulder, arrested his eye.

It reminded him eerily of earlier in the evening. A man in an alley so full of fear that his head appeared to be looking both left and right at the same time. Both ways. So Loa Wei Fen-Mr. Lo to his business associates-had given him his wish. . . he had first cut him so that he could indeed look both ways at once. And the moon shone overhead, and there was a lady in a window, and the city that grows even as it sleeps moved slightly in its slumbers to permit the passing of another being from its midst. That was just over two hours ago.

The Christie’s exhibit was closing. It was one o’clock, late for some businesses in this town to stay open, but not for those that were serious about being part of Shanghai’s economic miracle.

Loa Wei Fen glanced one more time at the Chagall, then made his way out of the Shanghai Centre, which sits like a tortoise in its shell over the wall of water that fronts the Portman Hotel. A uniformed northerner nodded toward the revolving door as he approached.

Mr. Lo passed through the lobby, heading toward the elevator. He got off at the second floor and watched the bank of elevators to see if any other stopped at that floor. None did. He then walked to the end of the hall and, pushing open the stairway door, headed up.

His room was on the twenty-seventh floor. He took the stairs two at a time and arrived without a trace of sweat on his person. The hotel room always surprised him. So much space, so unnecessary. But being a guest at the Portman disguised his mission well.

He removed his clothing and went into the bathroom. He examined his torso in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. Sinew, not muscle, dominated as it should. The lithe movement of tendons beneath the skin as he raised his arms pleased him-like snakes inside. With a breath he released the snakes and felt the life surge within him and flare on his back. The life that for now feeds on others.

He had booked a week at the Portman. He had no idea how much mo ...

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