The Hamlet Murders
It started with Fong in the shower, naked and covered in soap, when the water in his rooms on the grounds of the Shanghai Theatre Academy suddenly, for no apparent reason, just stopped. It ended with four people dead, one unaccounted for and love in tatters. But love, even torn and shredded and stomped on like something disgusting that crawled out of a sewer grate on Fuxing Donglu – even just the hope of love – remained the only thing that made getting out of bed in the morning worth the bother, whether there is any water in the shower or not. And love, even in the secular kingdom of the People’s Republic of China, still needed a miracle to lure it out of the dark cool shadows into the hot light of day-especially in the intense heat and humidity that is August in Shanghai.
Fong pushed aside the shower curtain and reached for a towel, and because he could see even less than usual with the soap in his eyes, he actually missed it. On his second attempt, he grabbed the towel, scraped the soap off his chest and then shouted,
“Such language,” the ancient house warden shouted back from the courtyard outside his window. “And who exactly is it that you want to tickle your privates, Detective Zhong?” The crone cackled at her own cleverness then added, “Those renovations before the condo conversion you voted for are coming along just fine, don’t you think?” More of her throaty laughter came next, then a choking sound, then a horking and finally the distinct sound of something moist splatting to the cracked courtyard pavement.
Fong tried the taps a second time – no water. He was going to swear again, but really, what was the point? He wrapped the towel around his waist then headed back into the bedroom. Opening the blinds, he saw two paunchy white men wearing expensive raw silk jackets, the backs of which were turned up at odd angles like the pages of a paperback novel left out in the rain. Bum wings, the Shanghanese called them. As Fong wondered what idiots would bother with raw silk in the sweltering reality of a Shanghai summer, one of the men pulled a set of blueprints from a long tube and unfurled it. “Ah, contractors,” Fong thought. The man began gesticulating with his arms as if he had stepped on an open 220-volt line. Fong revised his assessment, “Ah, French contractors.” The French, Fong found, often spoke no Mandarin and only very bad English. For some reason, they expected people in the Middle Kingdom to learn French. Why? There were one point three billion of us, how many were there of them?
Before he could answer that question, a middleaged Han Chinese male emerged from the scene shop across the way with a steaming jar of tea. No doubt he was the Frenchmen’s Beijing keeper. Foreigners tended to look on their keepers as tour guides. They aren’t. They are ranking party officials who keep tabs on the comings and goings of powerful foreigners in the People’s Republic of China. The Beijing keeper turned his head. Almost the entirety of his left cheek and much of his chin was covered by a dark raspberry-coloured stain. Florid stain, bad suit, worse teeth, and probably enough power to have whole areas of the city closed down with a single phone call. Looking at the trio, Fong grinned. They sure deserved each other. All they had to do was add a full-dress mullah – are there any other kind – to make a full deck, or whatever the proper name was for a complete set of incompetent but powerful morons.
Then Fong noticed that the Henry Moore-esque statue, which had contaminated his view in the courtyard for many years, had been turned around. He squinted to be sure he was right. He was. Now the round hole, instead of the abundant curve, faced Fong’s rooms. Who would bother to turn the stupid thing around? For a moment, Fong wondered if that meant that the drunken student actors who frequented the statue would be closer to his rooms or farther away. In either case, they were too close.
Could this really be the beginning of the threatened renovations that were to precede the conversion of his building to condos? Water off, statue moved, three grownup idiots in the courtyard – yep, this could be it.
If it was, then this was the day that Fong had dreaded. He had been offered the “special insider’s price” to buy his rooms, but this was still way beyond his means. And he couldn’t leave here. It was here that he had known his first wife, Fu Tsong. Known her. Loved her. Come alive with her. He couldn’t even think about leaving here. These rooms had been Fu Tsong’s. Then they had belonged to both of them. Then just to him. But these rooms would always be Fu Tsong’s and he knew it – and gloried in it – too much. And he knew that too.
As he dragged his pants on, he reminded himself that it was only money – something that two of the three idiots in the courtyard, unlike himself, probably had. Then again, he had clothing appropriate to Shanghai’s summer and they clearly did not. For now, that would have to be enough.
His phone rang. “
The mincing voice on the other end of the line was an annoyance from his past, a Party hack’s son or cousin or nephew or pimple or something, who evidently had been reassigned to Special Investigations. Fong had managed to get him moved elsewhere years ago, but clearly he had returned like a bad yuan note. Back then, Fong had dubbed him Shrug and Knock and restricted the man’s communication to shrugging his shoulders and knocking on his desk. This phone call was evidence that the man’s communication boundaries had been breached.
“What is it?” Fong asked.
“A reminder, Detective Zhong. It’s eye time.”
Fong flipped open his desk calendar and groaned. His departmentally mandated eye exam was today. He had avoided it for months even though he knew it was getting harder and harder for him to read reports, let alone the morning paper.
“You’re to be at the Ukrainian Eye Centre on time and a full report is to be submitted in triplicate to the commissioner’s office. Have a nice day, Detective Zhong.”
Every time this man talked, Fong felt like he was chewing tinfoil. Fong reminded himself that behind Shrug and Knock’s nasty facade was an even nastier self, so he should watch his step. He made a mental note to inform Captain Chen to watch his mouth around this snake, then he checked the eye doctor’s address and headed out into the already scorching morning heat – toward his ocular fate.
A hand-painted sign on the oddly coloured blue-and-yellow door read: Ukrainian Eye Centre-Because Ukrainians Look Best. A plaque to one side of the door proclaimed: Only a Free Ukraine Makes Moscow Think Twice. Fong read the signs a second time just to be sure that his failing eyes hadn’t misled him. They hadn’t. He rang the bell. The door opened. A large white man in a double-breasted blue blazer stood there; apparently he was Ukrainian. A Ukrainian in Shanghai? What was a Ukrainian doing in Shanghai? And he was not just white, he was the whitest person that Fong had ever seen. And round. Not a single angle on him anywhere. And to top it off, pear-shaped.
He did something with his face that Fong took for a smile, held out his pudgy white hand and said in truly awful Mandarin, “I’m Dr. Morris Wasniachenko. You can call me Dr. Wasniachenko, if that’s easier for you.”
Fong looked at the man and couldn’t help smiling. Was he for real? Was that Mandarin he was speaking? If it was, it was the most unusual approach to the language he had ever heard. In English, Fong asked, “Do you speak English?” The man looked at Fong as if he had morphed into something really peculiar and very small. Perhaps a baby mouse.
As close as Fong could guess, the next thing the man said was, “Do you not speak the common tongue?” Before Fong could attempt an answer, the man pulled a short white jacket over top of his blazer and lit a cigarette. “D’ya mind?” he asked, Fong guessed in reference to the cigarette, not the jacket. “Well, do you speak the common tongue?” This time Fong was sure that was what he asked.
“I speak it. What is it that you’re speaking?” Fong asked on impulse.
The man made a sound that may well have been laughter. Of course, it could also have been the preamble to some sort of Ukrainian folk dance. A Ukrainian in Shanghai. A Ukrainian eye doctor. How the fuck had he, the head of Special Investigations for the entire Shanghai district, ended up here? The guy must have given the department a group rate or something.
Dr. Wasniachenko parked himself on a stubby black stool that he had rigged up on wheels. Then he used his feet to trolley over to a tiny desk. His butt hung over all sides. He pulled open a tiny drawer in the desk and took out a pair of thick glasses, put them on and looked at Fong again. Fong smiled. A visually challenged Ukrainian eye doctor! The man turned and raised his head very high so that he was looking down his bulbous nose at Fong as if trying to get the glasses to focus properly for him. Then he barked out, “You’re not Mrs. Jian!”
Fong laughed out loud and wondered who in his office had set this appointment up for him. He would have to return the favour in kind sometime and very soon.
“You don’t look like Mrs. Jian,” the good doctor said ...