Authors: Qiu Xiaolong
“To fight corruption in the Party,” Liu echoed, “particularly among high-ranking Party officials, is a top priority for us. No one can question that…”
Chen listened to the official harangues. Though not really registering what they were saying, he nodded like a wound-up toy soldier, seemingly in agreement.
But Wei, not as accustomed to the official language, began losing patience.
“What about the security videotape?”
“There was nothing on the tape. I checked,” Jiang said.
Liu took a small sip of tea in silence.
“We have to study it,” Wei said.
Jiang said nothing in response.
“So nobody heard or saw anything unusual during the night?” Wei stubbornly went on.
“Both Liu and I have already talked to the hotel staff,” Jiang said, ignoring his question. “And I will double check with them.”
With the death of Zhou, Liu and Jiang weren’t supposed to remain at the hotel anymore, since they could offer no help to the investigation. But they showed no sign of departing anytime soon or of leaving the case to the police. Chen supposed both of them might be waiting for new orders from above. As a result, the two cops were not in a position to proceed as they would have preferred.
“I think the two of us have to go back to the bureau,” Chen said, rising. “Inspector Liao was collecting a file on Zhou. We’ll study it with him. And then when it arrives, we’ll study the autopsy report too.”
Surprise flickered across Wei’s face, but he didn’t say anything.
“Contact me as soon as you find out anything,” Jiang said, also rising.
“Yes, certainly,” Chen said. “And I’ll report to you too, Comrade Liu.”
With that, the two cops took their leave.
Walking out of the hotel, Chen pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Wei.
“Oh, you smoke China,” Wei said, reaching for one. It was an expensive brand, though not as exorbitant as 95 Supreme Majesty. “What do you think, Chief?”
“If it was suicide, we don’t have to be here, but if it was murder, they don’t have to.”
“Well put,” Wei said, taking a deep draw on the cigarette. “Besides, they were here much earlier, and have all the information we don’t.”
“So we’ll have to go our own way.”
“You’re right about that. You’re busy with so many other things, Chief Inspector Chen. Let me do all the legwork, and I’ll keep you posted.”
“You’re the one in charge of the investigation, Wei,” Chen said, wondering at the possible note of sarcasm in Wei’s words. “I’m just a consultant to your team. You may call on me at any time, of course.”
Wei took his leave and headed on; Chen stayed behind and smoked. As Wei’s figure disappeared into the crowd around the corner, Chen looked up at the overpass ahead and pulled out a cell phone.
Chief Inspector Chen was sitting in his new office-a larger one assigned him because of his new position as deputy Party secretary-and was busy polishing off a stack of administrative paperwork. He usually put off such paperwork until the last minute, but today he was taking perverse delight in doing it.
Something from Professor Yao’s lecture echoed in his mind. An enigma, the problems involved in the characteristics of China, he reflected as he skimmed through the documents on his desk-just glancing at the title more often than not-and signed them.
He wondered whether or not Zhou’s death might be such an enigma. The chief inspector hadn’t yet done much about the case. For one thing, Chen had practically nothing with which to work. The “folder of information” he had mentioned at the hotel was only an excuse to get away. There was no lack of pre-scandal information about Zhou. A pile of newspaper clippings sat on the corner of his desk, but all of them were from official media and were about his exemplary work as director of the Housing Development Committee.
Zhou had enjoyed a spectacular rise concurrent with the amazing transformation of the city. He went from being an ordinary worker in a small neighborhood production group in the late seventies to the director of the Housing Development Committee. Zhou launched an incredible number of new housing projects that, in fairness, dramatically changed the city’s landscape. Even as a Shanghai native, Chen found himself frequently lost among the new skyscrapers, which had appeared like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. So it was surprising that a crowd-sourced investigation about a pack of cigarettes could have toppled a Goliath like Zhou.
According to Party Secretary Li, what was discovered on the Internet led to the disclosure of Zhou’s other problems, which resulted in his detention. But all these details were totally missing from the pile of newspaper clippings on his desk. Chen tapped the pile and heaved a long sigh.
The Party authorities chose to punish its officials selectively and secretively, with few details made available to the public.
Chen tried to research Zhou on the Internet. To his surprise, access to several Web sites was blocked. Even on sites he could go to, no entry involving Zhou’s case would load, showing up as an “error” instead. The only available information on Zhou consisted of two or three lines reposted from the Party media. State control of the Internet wasn’t news to Chen, but the extent as well as the effectiveness of it was alarming.
He settled back into plowing through the boring paperwork, which eventually began to wear him out. He rubbed his temple with a finger, and then with two, his glance wandering over to a time-yellowed copy of the
, a Buddhist scripture his mother had given him. It was about how everything in this world was illusion, and it emphasized the practice of nonabiding and nonattachment. He wondered whether he could make some time to visit his mother in the hospital that afternoon.
He stood up to go over and pick up the scripture when Detective Yu barged into his office, not bothering to knock.
Yu was a longtime partner and friend. Nominally, Chen was the head the Special Case Squad, but since he was frequently away, Yu was in practical charge.
It wasn’t the first time Yu had been in the new office. Still, he glanced around and took in the impressive furniture one more time before he commented on the twenty-five-inch LCD screen on Chen’s steel desk.
“It’s the same size as the one on the Party Secretary’s desk, Chief.”
“You didn’t come here to talk about that, did you?”
“No. Peiqin just called, asking whether you could come over for dinner this weekend.”
Yu’s wife Peiqin was a wonderful hostess and cook. Chen was no stranger to her culinary skill.
“What’s the occasion, Yu?”
“We’re celebrating Qinqin’s acceptance to Fudan University. We should have done it months ago.”
“That’s worth celebrating. A top university like Fudan will make a huge difference in his future prospects. But I’m not sure about this weekend. I’ll check my schedule and let you know.”
“That would be great. Oh, she also wants me to say that you’re most welcome to bring anyone with you.”
“Here she goes again.” Chen knew what she meant-she wanted him to bring a girlfriend-but he chose not to dwell on it. “She’s as anxious about it as my old mother.”
“By the way, I ran into Wei this morning. He was just assigned a case, and he was saying that it should have been assigned to you.”
“What case was he talking about?”
“A Party official who committed suicide during shuanggui.”
“Oh, that one. We’re actually both assigned to it, but I’m serving merely as a special consultant to the team.”
“Is foul play suspected?”
“Not really; it seems to be only a matter of formality,” Chen said. “Since we’re on the topic, do you know anything about 95 Supreme Majesty cigarettes?”
“Have you never smoked them?”
“I have heard of the brand.”
“But you’ve smoked Panda, haven’t you?”
“In the eighties, Panda was the brand exclusively manufactured for Deng Xiaoping. It was the best in the world.”
“And earlier, China was name of the brand manufactured for Mao,” Chen said, nodding. “In ancient China, items like that were called imperial product-gongping-and were for the emperor alone.”
“Nowadays, both China and Panda are available on the open market as long as you can afford them. Each of the provinces also manufactures a special brand of cigarettes designed exclusively for the top Party leaders in the Forbidden City, such as 95 Supreme Majesty. It’s even more expensive than China and Panda.”
“Yes, that makes sense. Think about the very name ‘95 Supreme Majesty.’ The emperor complex inherent in the name works marvelously for an age of conspicuous consumption.”
“But how is 95 Supreme Majesty connected to the case?”
“Zhou was exposed because of a human-flesh search-which is basically a crowd-sourced investigation-that was triggered by a picture of a pack of 95 Supreme Majesty sitting in front of him.”
“Interesting. I think Peiqin was talking about this. A Party cadre who was shuangguied and saw the writing on the wall. It isn’t too surprising that he chose to end his life.”
“That’s true,” Chen said, without trying to elaborate.
“Let me know when you will be available,” Yu said as he took his leave.
* * *
In the afternoon, Detective Wei came to Chen’s office.
Sitting in a chair opposite Chen, Wei started his briefing with a slight hint of hesitation, which was uncharacteristic of the experienced cop. According to Wei, both Jiang and Liu were still staying at the hotel, supposedly continuing their investigation of Zhou’s problems. It was a parallel investigation to the police inquiry into Zhou’s death. That was making things difficult for Wei. Jiang and Liu were both further up in the Party hierarchy, so Wei was expected to comply with their investigation, rather than to collaborate with them or work on his own.
“Liu went back to the Party Discipline Committee this morning, but Jiang shows no sign of decamping. He won’t give me any specifics about why they shuangguied Zhou. Yes, his corruption was exposed on the Internet, but what specifically triggered shuanggui? Jiang said that he’d been focusing on how the pictures came to be posted online in the first place, but he hasn’t revealed anything to me.”
Chen knew what Wei was driving at. In the case of murder, the perpetrator usually has a motive. Revenge, for example. The person who landed Zhou in the trouble on the Internet might be someone holding a grudge and could have been the one who murdered him at the hotel.
But with Zhou already shuangguied, why was the second step necessary?
“I don’t know what Jiang really wants. Zhou’s death could easily have been declared a suicide. Jiang didn’t have to drag us into this.”
Seeing that there was no point in trying to interject any observations for the moment, Chen sat back and listened.
“And the hotel itself is a very strange one,” Wei went on. “From time to time, it will close to the public-either in part or entirely-in order to serve special needs of the Party. For instance, the need to temporarily house shuangguied officials. For them to isolate that particular floor where Zhou was staying, other guests had to be moved out. The hotel employees have been specially trained, and visitors have to register before being admitted into the building, as you saw.
“I managed to talk to some of the hotel staff without the other two present. Zhou was last seen around ten twenty in the evening by a room service attendant who delivered a bowl of cross-bridge noodles to his room. His statement was supported by the videotape from a security camera on the third-floor stair landing. The video showed that no one came up after the attendant left.”
“This level of extraordinary security isn’t entirely incomprehensible for a shuanggui investigation. The Party always worries about the details of cadre corruption leaking out,” Chen said. “Now, what about the autopsy?”
“A fairly large concentration of sedatives was found in Zhou’s body. According to his family, he slept badly and he often took sleeping pills. He could have swallowed a handful of them before going to bed-”
“But something doesn’t add up here, Chief Inspector Chen. Zhou had noodles around ten, so let’s assume he took the pills shortly after that. Call it ten thirty. Now, the time of death was estimated at around midnight, about an hour and a half later. With that amount of sedatives in his bloodstream, he should have been fast asleep at the time.”
“Perhaps he took the pills before the noodles?”
“Who would take sleeping pills before ordering room service? What if he had fallen asleep before the noodles were delivered? A more likely theory is that he took them after eating the noodles.”
“He still could have been unable to sleep, despite the pills-presuming he took them after eating the noodles.”
“But could he, after having taken the pills to try and sleep, suddenly have jumped up, discovered a rope somewhere in the room, made a noose, tied it tightly to the beam, and hanged himself?”
“No, one isn’t likely to find rope in a hotel room. On that point, you’re right,” Chen said. “But what other possible scenario do you suggest?”
“According to the hotel staff, Zhou didn’t appear depressed or in any way different that evening. The hotel menu is of a very high quality, and he didn’t seem to have lost any of his appetite. He had finished a large portion of Yangzhou fried rice with beef soup for dinner that night, and about three hours later, ordered a large bowl of noodles to be delivered to the room.”
Now something began to dawn on Chen. From the very beginning, he assumed that the Party authorities wanted Zhou’s death declared a suicide, which would be a plausible conclusion under the circumstances. For that, Chen hardly needed to do anything. The suggestion that a shuangguied official had been murdered would result in more headaches for the city government, yet that seemed to be the direction that Detective Wei was leaning. Publicly acknowledging that such a thing was possible could be seen as against the interests of the Party, which was probably why Jiang wouldn’t collaborate.
But Wei was a cop, so it was his duty to look into the possibility. And Chen was a cop too.