It was late Friday afternoon. Detective Yu was still at his desk, staring at the files of the special case squad.
Chief Inspector Chen was not in his office. He was serving as an interpreter and escort for an American writers’ delegation. This had been an unexpected assignment announced by Party Secretary Li the previous day. A writer and translator in his own right, Chen had been chosen as a representative of the Chinese Writers’ Association.
The announcement had come so suddenly that Yu had hardly any time to exchange information with Chen. They had missed each other on the first day of Chen’s return from Guangzhou. And early the second day, when Yu had just stepped into the large office, Chen’s new assignment had been made. Chen left for the airport almost immediately.
On the surface, it was not too bad a signal. It could even signify that Chief Inspector Chen was still a trusted Party member, but Yu was worried. Since that crab banquet, he had in Chen an ally, and a friend as well. Old Hunter had told him about the snag their investigation had struck, and the trouble Chen was in. And in the afternoon, Yu, too, had talked with Party Secretary Li, who assigned him to an important conference in Jiading County, to act as temporary security.
“What about the case?” Yu asked.
“Guan Hongying’s case.”
“Don’t worry, Comrade Detective Yu. Comrade Chief Inspector Chen will be back in a couple of days.”
“Our squad also has a lot of work.”
“Finish as much as you can before reporting to the conference on Monday. Other people will take care of things here.” Li added without looking at him, “Don’t forget to ask the accountant about the standard meal allowance. It is possible that you will be staying there for quite a few days.”
Yu had not finished much of his work by five o’clock. Files of unfinished cases were stacked high on his desk. The case of the Henan abduction ring that kidnapped girls and sold them as wives to peasants in faraway provinces, Yu thought gloomily, could be turned over to the Henan Province Bureau. As for the pilferage case at the Shanghai Number 2 Steel Plant, he did not know what to do. Factory pilferage was constant and enormous. For some workers, it was a form of additional compensation. Ordinarily, if caught, a worker would be either fined or fired. But in accordance with a recent Central Party Committee document on the damage caused by pilferage from state-run enterprises, a culprit could be sentenced to twenty years. And there were several other cases, special just because the city government wanted to make them examples to warn young people in one way or another.
Detective Yu closed the file in frustration, scattering a thin layer of cigarette ash on the desk. Justice was like colored balls in a magician’s hand, changing color and shape all the time, beneath the light of politics.
A murderer was at large, while the police officers were in trouble.
In his position, however, there was nothing Detective Yu could do-except what he was told to.
At a quarter to six, the phone started ringing again.
“Detective Yu,” he said, picking up the phone.
“What in heaven’s name are you up to, Yu?” Peiqin’s voice sounded exasperated.
“Did you remember the parents’ meeting in Qinqin’s school today?”
“Oh-I forgot. I’ve been so busy.”
“I’m not nagging, but I hate being here all by myself, and taking care of him without your help.”
“It’s been a long day for me, too.”
“I know. I’ll come home right now.”
“You don’t have to come home just for my sake. It will be too late for the meeting anyway. But remember what your father said yesterday.”
“Yes, I do remember.”
Peiqin had been worried since Old Hunter told them about Chief Inspector Chen’s trouble. So it was not just a call about his absence from the school meeting, but more about his continuing the investigation. Peiqin was too sensible to say a single word on the phone about that case.
Yu had chosen to be a cop, even though there had not been too much for him to choose from. He had not given much thought to the comfortable orthodoxy that law and order were the cornerstone of the society. He simply thought that the job was right for him, not only for his self-support, but for his self-justification, too. A capable cop, he had believed, could make a difference. Not too long after he had joined the force, however, he had few illusions left about it.
The more Yu pondered, the more upset he became about Commissar Zhang. That ancient diehard Marxist, with an always-politically-correct smile printed across his face like a postmark, must have tipped off somebody high up. Somebody who had the power to protect Wu-at any cost. Now both Chief Inspector Chen and he were practically suspended.
Outside the sun was passing behind heavy clouds. Yu hoped that he would still get a phone call from Chen. It was late, and nobody else was in the large office. He turned off the electric cup, a gift from the First Department Store, which the manager had given him in gratitude for his work on the case. At the moment, it served as an ironic reminder.
Forty-five minutes later, Yu remained sitting doggedly at his desk, with a piece of blank paper in front of him, a reflection of his mind.
The telephone started ringing. He snatched it off the hook with an uncharacteristic eagerness.
“Special case squad.”
“Hello, I want to speak to Detective Yu Guangming.”
It was a stranger speaking with a gurgling voice.
“Speaking. This is he.”
“My name is Yang Shuhui. I work at Shanghai Number Sixty-three Gas Station in Qingpu County. I think I have some information for you.”
“What kind of information?”
“The information your squad has offered a reward for.”
“Hold on.” Yu immediately became alert. There was only one case in which he had offered a reward. “About the corpse in the canal, right?”
“Yes, that’s it. Sorry, I forget the case number.”
“Listen, Comrade Yang, I happen to be on my way out, but I would like to meet you today. Tell me where you are right now.”
“At home, near the Big World, on Huangpi Road.”
“Good, I have to pick up something at Jingling Market, not too far from there. There is a Hunan restaurant on the corner of Xizhuang Road. Yueyang Pavilion, that’s the name, I think. If you can be there in about forty-five minutes, we will see each other.”
“Is the offer of a reward still good?” Yang asked. “It’s been some time. I happened to read about it in the old newspaper today.”
“Yes, three hundred Yuan. Not a cent less. And your telephone number?” Yu added almost automatically. “Oh, well, don’t worry. We’ll meet, I’m leaving right now.”
At the bureau gate, the old doorman Comrade Liang reached out to him with an envelope in his hand. “Got something for you.”
“This morning Chief Inspector Chen received his assignment package here. There were some tickets along with the schedule. Some extra tickets, in case some others wanted to join the group at the last minute, but no one did. So he left two Beijing Opera tickets for me, and two karaoke tickets for you.”
“The Shanghai Foreign Liaison Office spared no expense arranging activities for the Americans,” he said. “It’s very considerate of him.”
“Yes, Chief Inspector Chen is a really decent man.” Comrade Liang then said. “You are his assistant, and you have your work cut out for you.”
“Yes, I know. Thank you, Comrade Liang.”
Putting the tickets in his pocket, Yu hurried toward the restaurant.
The meeting with comrade Yang turned out to be more fruitful than Yu had expected. After interviewing this witness for more than one hour, and taping his testimony on a micro-cassette recorder, he thought of one of Old Hunter’s favorite old Chinese sayings: “The god’s net has large meshes, but it lets nothing through.”
What would be the next step? Whatever Detective Yu was going to do, he had to contact Chief Inspector Chen. It was even more urgent as he was going to be stationed in Jiading County the following week.
Chen must have discovered something in Guangzhou, and so had he, here in his interviews with Jiang and Ning, along with the newest information he had just gotten from Yang. Only as a team could he and Chen hope to ride out the crisis.
It was not easy, however, for him to reach Chen. As an escort for the American Writers’ delegation, Chen had to accompany the guests from one place to another. Besides, it was not safe for Yu to call the Jinjiang Hotel where Chen stayed with the American guests.
A case had already been rigged against Chen, according to Old Hunter. Yu’s movements might be watched as well. Signs of their continuing the investigation would prompt further reaction. It was not that Detective Yu hesitated to take a risk, but they could not afford to make any mistakes.
There had to be a way to discuss the situation with Chen, a way discreet enough not to arouse any suspicion.
At the bus stop, several people were lining up along the railing. Yu stood behind them. They were talking excitedly about some new exotic show in the Meixin Theater, but he listened absentmindedly, without really making sense of their conversation.
His mind was still a blank when he got back home.
There was no light in his room. He knew it was already past ten o’clock. Qinqin had to get up early for school. Peiqin had had a busy day all alone. At six, he had promised her he would come back immediately. He felt guilty as he closed the door behind him. He was surprised to see Peiqin still awake, waiting for him.
“Oh, you’re back,” she said, sitting up.
He slumped onto a bamboo stool to take off his shoes. She came over to him, barefoot. Lightly, she sank to her knees to help, bringing her head to his level.
“You’ve not had your supper, Yu?” she said. “I’ve kept something for you.”
It was a steamed rice ball stuffed with minced pork and vegetables.
She sat with him at the table, watching him in silence.
“I’m late, Peiqin. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to say that to me. I should not have been so fretful this afternoon.”
“No, you were right. The rice ball is so good,” he said between the bites. “Where did you get the recipe?”
“Remember our days in Yunnan? Those Dai girls sang and danced the whole night. When they were hungry, they took rice balls out of their pockets.”
He remembered, of course. In those long nights of Xishuangbanna, they had watched the Dai girls dancing against the rugged line of the Dai bamboo bungalows, nibbling at their rice balls at the intervals. And they had both thought that the rice balls were a good idea.
At that instant, holding the rice ball in his hand, Detective Yu had an idea.
“Have you heard of a Dai-style restaurant at the Jingjiang Hotel?” he asked. “A fabulous one, called the Xishuang Garden.”
“Yes, the Xishuang Garden,” she said. “I’ve read about it in the newspapers.”
“What about going to the Xishuang Garden tomorrow evening?”
He experienced a twinge of regret at her surprise. It was the first time he had asked her out for a date since they had Qinqin. Now he was going to do so, but with an ulterior motive.
“No, I’ve just got an urge to go there. You have no other plans for tomorrow night, have you? So why not go out and have fun?”
“Do you think we can afford it?”
“Here are a couple of all-inclusive tickets, covering drinking, dancing and singing-along, or karaoke. You know what it is, so fashionable nowadays. Free tickets.” Yu took the tickets out of his shirt pocket. “A hundred and fifty Yuan for each, if we had to pay out of our own pocket. So it would be a shame not to go.”
They were the tickets Chen had left for them. Perhaps Chen just did not want to waste the tickets. But perhaps Chen had meant for him to go there.
“Where did you get the tickets?”
“Somebody gave them to me.”
“I’m no dancer,” she said hesitantly. “And I’ve no idea how to karaoke.”
“It is easy to learn, my wife.”
“Easy for you to say.” She was not untempted with the prospect of a special night. “We’re already an old husband and wife.”
“There are older people dancing and singing in People’s Square everyday.”
“But why are you asking me out all of a sudden?”
“Why not? We deserve a break.”
“It does not sound like you, Comrade Detective Yu, to enjoy a break in the middle of an investigation.”
“Well, that’s exactly where we are, in the middle of it,” he said.
“And that’s also why I want you to be there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to pass some information to Chief Inspector Chen. He may be there, too. It’s not a good idea for us to be seen together.”
“So you are not inviting me out to a party,” she said, making no attempt to conceal her disappointment. “On the contrary, you are asking me to join your the investigation.”
“I’m sorry, Peiqin,” Yu said, reaching out to touch her hair. “I know you are worried about me, but I want to say one thing for Chief Inspector Chen-and for myself, too. This is a case that really gives meaning to our job. In fact, Chen is ready to sacrifice his career for justice.”
“I understand.” She took his hand. “Chief Inspector Chen shows his integrity as a police officer. So do you. Why apologize to me?”
“If it upsets you so much, forget it, Peiqin. It may just be another lousy idea of mine. Perhaps it will be my last case. I should have listened to your advice earlier.”
“Oh no,” she protested. “I just want to know what kind of information you want me to pass to him.”
“Let me make one point clear: As soon as this case’s over, I’ll start looking for another job. A different job. Then I can have more time with you and Qinqin.”
“Don’t think like that, Guangming. You’re doing a great job.”
“I’ll tell you about the case, and then you can tell me if it’s really a great job or not.”
So he started to tell her everything. When he came to the end of his account after half an hour, he reemphasized the necessity of exchanging information with Chen.
“It’s a job worth your effort, and Chief Inspector Chen’s, too.”
“Thank you, Peiqin.”
“What shall I wear?”
“Don’t worry about that. It’s a casual event.”
“But I’ll come back home first. We may be out quite late. I need to prepare supper for Qinqin.”
“Well, I have to go straight from the office. Not in my uniform, of course. We’ll see each other at the Xishuang Garden, but let’s pretend to be strangers there. Afterward we can meet outside.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “To be cautious, you should not go at all.”
“No, I’d better be there, in case something unexpected happens to you, but I don’t think that’s likely.” He added after a pause, “I’m sorry to bring you into this.”
“Don’t say that, Guangming,” she said, “If it’s for you, it’s for me, too.”