Authors: Qiu Xiaolong
“Don’t worry about the distant future, Peiqin,” Yu said, with a lame smile.
“You think only about your cases, but I have to think about our son. In today’s Shanghai, a young man with no apartment means no possibility of dating a young woman, let alone marrying her. People are all so realistic in this materialistic age,” she said, frowning, and turning back to Chen. “Back to your question, do you know why the housing prices keep rising?”
“Because of greedy developers.”
“No. Because of the even more greedy Party officials. The land belongs to the government. Under their control, it is sold off through a so-called auction system where the rights go to whichever developer has the highest bid. Rising revenue from the sale of the land keeps pushing up the city’s GDP, which the city officials point to as proof of their hard work-without mentioning that a substantial amount goes into their own pockets. Who gets the land, how, and at what price-it is all the result of shady dealings. Not too long ago, the premier made a statement about cooling down the overheated real estate market. Some developers, nervous about a possible downturn in the market, offered to bring prices down a little. Zhou, worrying about a snowball effect, highlighted the importance of keeping the market stable in his speech that day. He said that if some companies reduced prices irresponsibly, the government would punish them for causing economic trouble. Not only was this reported in several newspapers, they also ran a picture of him tapping a pack of cigarettes. That was the pack of 95 Supreme Majesty.
“That speech was like kicking a hornet’s nest. Zhou was supporting the interests of the city government, or the Party officials, but not those of the ordinary people. That picture of the 95 Supreme Majesty pack, once it was posted online, provided a perfect excuse for people to vent their anger and frustration.”
“Well done, Peiqin,” Chen said, raising the cup of Qingdao beer, “I’ll drink to that. Please go on.”
“Now, according to the official propaganda, a Party cadre is the ‘people’s servant’ and earns about the same as an ordinary worker. For one in Zhou’s position, the monthly salary would be about two or three thousand yuan. But a carton of 95 Supreme Majesty costs more than that. A photoshopped version of the picture showed up on the Internet with the retail price of a pack written underneath. It was posted as the evidence of an official living extravagantly beyond his means. It was both a legitimate criticism and an implied question: How could Zhou, if he wasn’t corrupt, afford that pack?
“The original post drew a flood of responses in no time. As if responding to a call to arms, the offers to help with a crowd-sourced search swamped the Internet. If Zhou could afford the cigarettes, what else?
“It seemed justifiable for people to approach the search from this angle. Before Zhou could come up with an explanation for the cigarettes, another picture popped up. This time he was wearing a Cartier watch. Then, in breathtaking succession, more and more pictures were posted online as irrefutable evidence of Zhou’s decadent lifestyle. Those were shots of the three luxury cars registered in his name-two Mercedes and one BMW-and of his son studying at Eton, a private school in London, and driving an Audi there. There were also more than five properties in the city under his name. Some capable hackers even managed to get hold of copies of the title deeds to his properties. Soon it was impossible for Zhou to defend the wealth he had amassed in the last five or six years.”
“I’m beginning to understand, Peiqin. It was a master stroke, that crowd-sourced search.”
“Yes, it really backed the government into a corner. They knew only too well why Zhou was being targeted. But with so many people protesting, without a legitimate excuse for his sudden wealth, and with the irrefutable evidence of it all, they found it hard to shield him anymore. They realized it was more important to protect the Party’s image, so they put Zhou into shuanggui-over a pack of 95 Supreme Majesty.”
“Thank you so much, Peiqin. You’ve thrown much light on the background of the situation.”
“So it’s a case you’re investigating?”
“No. Not exactly,” Chen said with a wry smile. “Shuanggui is not the territory of the police. It’s believed that Zhou committed suicide while under detention at a hotel. I’m simply serving as a consultant to the team investigating the cause of death.”
“Yes. It will be announced in the newspapers soon.”
“This will cause another storm on the Internet. Suicide while under detention. How will people online react?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“You’ve been talking so much about Internet searches, Peiqin,” Yu said, changing the subject, “but what I’m searching for is the dessert.”
“Sorry, I forgot,” Peiqin said, rising in haste. “A friend from Beijing brought me some green bean-paste cakes, supposedly from Fangshan, the Forbidden City.”
“That restaurant in the North Sea,” Chen said, “on the island where chefs used to prepare all the delicacies for Dowager Empress Cixi toward the end of the Qing dynasty. The name of the restaurant alone, Fangshan, is more than enough to evoke the imperial majesty complex and its privileges from China’s collective unconscious. It’s just like the brand name of 95 Supreme Majesty.”
“Don’t worry, Chief. I’m not a Party official. The green bean cakes are just a gift from an old friend.”
“I know who it is,” Yu said with mock seriousness. “He was a secret admirer of Peiqin from the days when we were educated youths during the Cultural Revolution. He’s not an official, just an ordinary clerk in the Beijing Travel Bureau, otherwise I would be really worried.”
“But I am worried,” Chen said, putting a tiny cake in his mouth. “If the government is anxious to conclude that Zhou’s death was suicide, then why was I chosen to consult on the investigation?”
“You’ve conducted several high-profile anticorruption cases, which a lot of people know,” Peiqin said, putting the remaining green bean-paste cakes into a box for the departing guest. “So if you’re involved, people will believe the official report.”
“Having you on the case is an endorsement of their conclusion,” Yu cut in again.
“Thank you, Peiqin and Yu, for the meal, for the cake, for the lecture about the Internet and crowd-sourcing, and for everything else,” Chen said, rising. “Now I have your endorsement, I think, for what I’m going to do next.”
As a special consultant, Chief Inspector Chen wondered about his role in the investigation: what was left for him to do, and what was not. As the old proverb says, there’s no point in or justification for cooking in another’s kitchen. Detective Wei, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind that much.
But Wei wasn’t the one and only chef in there. Jiang was another, and he was following his own recipe. Then there was the city Party Discipline Committee team, even though it looked like Liu wasn’t at the hotel most of the time.
Chen began to have second thoughts about this assignment after his dinner with the Yus.
The city government might not be able to convince people with just an announcement that Zhou had committed suicide. A police investigation into his death could be a necessary show, one that had best be performed in convincing earnestness. So as Yu had put it, Chen’s role as a consultant could simply be to endorse the conclusion.
If so, Chief Inspector Chen was in no hurry to do anything.
What made the situation even more complicated was the divergent investigations of Wei and Jiang.
Judging from his discussions with Wei, the stubborn detective was more and more inclined to conclude that Zhou had been murdered. This persistence had to be an annoyance to Jiang, who, to protect the interests of the city government, wanted a conclusion of suicide.
Chen didn’t think that he had to confront Jiang right away. Still, he felt compelled to do something on the case, so he settled on a visit to Zhou’s widow.
The Zhous lived in Xujiahui, just a block away from the Oriental Commerce Center. For a Party cadre with Zhou’s position, their three-bedroom apartment might not be considered too luxurious-that is, if one didn’t take into consideration the other properties he owned.
Mrs. Zhou opened the door in response to Chen’s knock. She was a fairly buxom woman in her early forties, and the way she was leaning against the light-flooded doorframe was suggestive of something soon to go out of shape, like a full blossom at the end of the summer. She was wearing a white blouse and white pants, with a black silk crepe on her sleeve. She looked Chen up and down with undisguised hostility.
“How many times are you cops going to snoop around here?” she snapped. “Why aren’t you out trying to catch the real criminal?”
How could she tell that he was with the police before he even said anything? There must be something that tipped people off about him, whether he was in uniform or not.
“My colleagues have already talked to you, I believe.”
“Yes. Several of them,” she said, then added in mounting frustration, “Different groups of them. They searched the apartment repeatedly, turning the whole place upside down. And what did they find? Nothing.”
There was nothing surprising about searches having been conducted here. The first one was probably right after Zhou was put in detention, and then they continued after his death.
“I was just assigned to the case,” Chen said, taking out his business card. “My colleagues may not have told me everything. In fact, I’m only serving as a consultant to the team. But first let me express my sincere condolences, Mrs. Zhou.”
She examined his business card; then a visible change of expression came over her face.
“Oh, come on in,” she said, holding the door for him. “It’s so unfair, Chief Inspector Chen. Zhou did a great job for the city. All this happened because of a pack of cigarettes. I just don’t understand.”
Chen sat down on a black leather sofa in the spacious living room, and she perched herself on a chair opposite.
“I must have met Zhou at some government meeting, but I didn’t know him personally. Nonetheless, there’s no denying all the work he did on new construction in Shanghai,” said Chen.
“But no one has taken that into consideration. People talked about nothing but that pack of 95 Supreme Majesty. It was given to him by an old friend. He told the Party Discipline officials all about it. They should have let him explain to the public, but instead they rushed him into shuanggui. No one would help him. All those buddies of his in the city government only wanted to save their own necks. The police did nothing.”
“Shuanggui is not within the police force’s domain,” he said, somewhat taken aback by her unconcealed resentment. “I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. The discipline team and the city team had moved into the hotel with him days before I was told anything about the case.”
“If there was anything improper or wrong about his decisions at work, it shouldn’t have been reported as his responsibility alone. He worked directly with the people above him, and without their approval, he couldn’t have done anything. You know how much of the city’s GDP last year was due to the real estate sector alone? More than fifty percent.”
“It’s huge, I understand,” he said vaguely, wondering about the accuracy of her claim.
“People are complaining about housing costs. Zhou knew that only too well. But if the property price fell dramatically, it could have a domino effect that would be disastrous for the economy of the whole city. So Zhou emphasized the market stability, but it was in everybody’s interest.”
Apparently, she was aware that the pack of 95 Supreme Majesty wasn’t the real issue.
“I haven’t paid much attention to the fluctuations in the real estate market, but I agree with you, Mrs. Zhou, that it wasn’t fair for Zhou to have been targeted just because of a pack of cigarettes. Now, I just have some routine questions for you. For starters, did you have any contact with him during the last few days of his life?”
“They didn’t permit me to visit him at the hotel. The phone there was tapped, and most likely, so is the one here in the apartment as well, and he knew better than to call back regularly or talk too much.”
“When did you last talk to him?”
“Sunday. The day before his death. He hardly said anything, except that he was fine, and that I’d better not call the hotel or talk too much.”
“Did you notice a drastic change in his mood?”
“It was such a short conversation, it would have been difficult for me to tell. I don’t remember noticing any change.”
“When did you last see him?”
“The day before he was shuangguied.”
“How was he?”
“He was terribly upset at being targeted on the Internet. It was a cold-blooded lynching.”
“Did he say anything specific about it?”
“He wondered how the government could allow mobs on the Web to go on like that. He thought the government should have exercised total control over the Internet.”
“What did he mean by that?”
“He thought they should order all the Web sites to shut up about 95 Supreme Majesty, and delete all posts about it. If the authorities had really wanted to do that, they could have. In fact, they’ve taken actions like that on previous occasions. But they were unwilling to do this for him.”
“Well, it could be difficult,” Chen said vaguely. He didn’t know what else to say.
“‘When the rabbit is caught, the hound will be stewed too,’ Zhou always said, quoting an old saying. I know for a fact that particular speech that started his trouble had been approved by the people above him. It’s not fair that he shouldered all the blame.”
Her complaining didn’t surprise Chen, but the object of her complaints did.
“You mentioned that many people have come to your place. Can you tell me more about them?” Chen asked, shifting the focus of the conversation.
“Yes, various teams showed up over many weeks. I was too shocked to remember their names. They looked through the things Zhou left behind, then took away the computer and other stuff that they claimed was possible evidence.”