The Shanghai Murders - A Mystery of Love and Ivory

BOOK: The Shanghai Murders - A Mystery of Love and Ivory
3.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Published by Nero Books,
an imprint of Schwartz Media Pty Ltd.
Level 5, 289 Flinders Lane
Melbourne Victoria 3000 Australia
[email protected]

First published in Canada
by McArthur & Company, Toronto, 2002
First published in the United States
by St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998

Copyright © 2009 David Rotenberg

All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mech anical, photo copying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

The National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Rotenberg, David.

The Shanghai murders : a mystery of love and ivory

ISBN 9781863954235 (pbk.)

 Shanghai (China)—Fiction.


Design & Composition: Mad Dog Design Inc.

Printed in Australia by Griffin Press

For Susan, Joey, and Beth


I owe a debt to many people for their help with this endeavour. On the practical side, Charlie Northcote, whose support of the original manuscript brought it to Susan Schulman’s attention; Ms. Schulman’s unstinting faith in the manuscript, which got it to St. Martin’s Press; Ruth Cavin, without whose skill this book would have never reached its present form. On the less practical side, the support of my parents and brothers was always there for me when I needed it. Robert’s efforts on the part of the book went well beyond sibling obligation. My friends Bruce, Ron, Deb, Amanda, Geoffrey, and Brenda all played far greater parts than they realize. I’d also like to thank the acting faculty at York University who picked up the slack for me when I left on this voyage—especially David and Ron. Finally, I’d like to thank the faculty of the Shanghai Theatre Academy for their patience with this impatient Long Nose, the talent of a brilliant young Chinese actress who played the lead in
Rita Joe
for me, and my fabulous translator and much valued friend (and the original Zhong Fong) Zhang Fang.

A note on Chinese names:
They have been simplified as much as possible to resemble the spelling that we would use in the West. There are a few exceptions. For real people and places, the standard spelling is used. With such names, if you remember that
in Chinese is roughly the equivalent of our
you will end up with a pronunciation close to the original. Hence Fuxing Park sounds nothing like an English obscenity. Mandarin is also spoken in four tones so even if you get the sounds right, it is unlikely that a Chinese speaker would be able to understand what you are trying to say. Fortunately, in a novel this is not a problem.


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.




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 more there was to do in Shanghai. He had been paid a substantial sum of money and hence assumed that there would be more work than just the dismembering of the American policeman. But that was not his concern. He had been paid for the week and for the week’s work.

He looked out the small vertical bathroom window. Shanghai sat at his feet, its neon lights blinking a welcome. While across the Huangpo River the new Pudong industrial area was lit by ghostly, high-intensity mercury vapour lights. The better for the night shifts to build by.

After a moment Mr. Lo crossed over to the toilet. He lifted the cover, stood on the rim, and squatted. Like everything else in his life Mr. Lo controlled the working of his bowels with complete certainty. As he climbed down he wondered how a westerner could sit to take a shit.

It would never have occurred to Mr. Lo to think about the incongruity of the two cultures he embodied; evacuating in the way of his Asian ancestors, about to don an extravagant English suit. It would never have occurred to Mr. Lo that he was in the employ of some extremely unsavory people. Mr. Lo was a pure being, an immaculate conception, an idea set into motion when he was taken as a child from his loving mother’s arms so many years ago in far off Yan’an province. As the rest of the country went through the throes of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Lo had been put through the rigours of a different kind of change: The boy who loved was replaced by the man who killed. He never knew the people who paid for this transformation. He only knew the teachers. He had known that he was in Taipei but did not know exactly where. He knew that he was valued but didn’t know for exactly what. He knew that he had passed his physical tests and that had pleased his teachers. He knew that he had passed their cultural training and that had pleased them as well. He well remembered the first man that they brought for him to kill. He remembered the resistance of the man’s windpipe as he crushed it beneath his heel. He remembered that he hadn’t felt anything when the light went out in the man’s eyes. He remembered the clean incision that parted the man’s breastbone. He remembered the crack as the ribs separated under his fingers. He remembered cleaving the still-twitching heart in two. Then he remembered the taste of the piece of the man’s heart that had been placed in his mouth by his favourite teacher.

Mr. Lo knew that he was an investment, a dearly nurtured commodity. What he didn’t know was that he was an expendable weapon in the war to bring capitalism to this country of socialists.

The body pieces had been found in an alley off Julu Lu near the former residence of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. As with so many of the tourist sites in Shanghai, Fong had never bothered with it or its historical significance. His wife had dragged him to the YuYuan Garden in the Old City shortly after they were married, but to this day he’d never been to the Temple of the City God, which so fascinated tourists.

Fong didn’t expect the crime site to reveal anything of interest except a large red stain and perhaps some small body bits that the rookie cop had missed. The idea of finding something like a fingerprint in a Shanghai alley was a joke.

So Fong was surprised when he entered the alley to find that the crime scene unit had sectored the area with lines of string and was investigating each square meter with great care.

Showing his badge, Fong passed by the cop at the mouth of the alley. The unit had set up three strong over-head lights, which cast hard-edged shadows on the rough pavement. Although late April, it was a cool night and Fong pulled his coat tightly around himself as he moved toward the CSU head, Wang Jun.

He noted that Wang Jun wasn’t smoking, which was odd. He also noted that the older man’s usually stoic face seemed slightly amused by something.

“What?” said Fong as he came into Wang’s light.

“What, what?” snarled back Wang Jun.

Wang Jun was Fong’s senior by twenty years, maybe more, and didn’t take kindly to the flippancy that he perceived in Fong. However, a grudging respect for Fong had grown, over time, into real friendship. They had worked together on several troublesome cases in the past, and Fong’s instincts had proven invaluable in solving some that Wang Jun had thought were beyond solution.

“You look like you swallowed a snake,” said Fong.

“I like snake, cooked properly, of course,” replied Wang Jun.

He signalled Fong over to one side. When they were out of the light and away from the prying eyes of the others, Wang Jun reached into his pocket and pulled out a wallet in a crime scene plastic bag.

“This is the victim’s wallet?” blurted out Fong, openly surprised.

“So it seems,” replied Wang Jun with a cold smile.

“Hence the sector search?”

Wang Jun nodded.

Fong held up the wallet inside the plastic bag. “It wouldn’t tell us, by any chance, who the victim was, would it?”

“It would if you believed it.”

“And you don’t?” asked Fong.

Wang Jun popped a cigarette in his teeth and lit it. After a beat, he spoke. “I hate this.”

“What? Murder?”

“No. Murder I’ve grown to appreciate. It’s this,” he said, pointing to the wallet. “This I can’t stand.”

“Would you care to elaborate?”

Ignoring the comment Wang Jun charged on. “Did you see the body?“

“Yeah, I saw the pieces,“ replied Fong.

“Do you know that the guys are calling him the Dim Sum Killer?”

“No I—”

“It’s better not to make jokes with rookie cops, Fong,” rasped out the older man.

“Point taken.”

“Good, now get this,” he said, grabbing the wallet.

“The person or persons who sliced and diced this guy were pros. They carved him up like a side of beef, and my bet is they knew exactly what they were doing. It wasn’t even that late when it happened and there are people out here at all hours. So this was done fast. This was thought through. This was done by a pro, agreed?”

Fong nodded, noting that Wang Jun had already dropped the “or persons” part of his earlier statement.

Wang Jun held up the evidence bag with the wallet and asked, “Then what the fuck was this doing near the body parts, happy as a leech in a rice field?”

Fong took the bag and used a pen from his notebook to fish out the wallet. Then, laying it flat on the plastic bag, he flipped it open. With a set of tweezers he removed a New Orleans Police Department ID. Holding it up to the light he said, “My guess is that our killer’s sending a message. He wants it known that—” Fong tilted the plastic card toward the light and read the name in his singsongy English—“that Richard Fallon of the New Orleans Police Department met his end in a Julu Lu alley and that he was filleted like a fish.”

BOOK: The Shanghai Murders - A Mystery of Love and Ivory
3.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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