Chapter 1, “The Ruby Chronicles: A Tale of Tragedy”

“The Ruby Chronicles: A Tale of Tragedy”

“The Ruby Chronicles: A Tale of Tragedy”

“The body was found at 4:40 p.m., on May 11, 1990, in Baili Canal, an out-of-the-way canal, about twenty miles to the west of Shanghai Standing beside the body, Gao Ziling, captain of the Vanguard, spat vigorously on the damp ground three times—a half-hearted effort to ward off the evil spirits of the day, a day that had begun with a long-anticipated reunion between two friends who had been separated for more than twenty years. It was coincidental that the Vanguard, a patrol boat of the Shanghai River Security Department, should have ventured all the way into Baili around 1:30 p.m. Normally it did not go anywhere close to that area.

The unusual trip had been suggested by Liu Guoliang, an old friend whom Gao had not seen for twenty years. They had been high-school buddies. After leaving school in the early sixties, Gao started to work in Shanghai, but Liu had gone to a college in Beijing, and afterward, to a nuclear test center in Qinghai Province.

During the Cultural Revolution, they had lost touch. Now Liu had a project under review by an American company in Shanghai, and he had taken a day off to meet with Gao. Their reunion after so long a time was a pleasant event, to which each of them had been looking forward. It took place by the Waibaidu Bridge, where the Suzhou River and the Huangpu River met with a dividing line visible in the sunlight.

The Suzhou, even more heavily polluted than the Huangpu, looked like a black tarpaulin in sharp contrast to the clear blue sky. The river stank despite the pleasant summer breeze. Gao kept apologizing; a better place should have been chosen for the occasion. The Mid-Lake Teahouse in Shanghai Old City, for instance. An afternoon over an exquisite set of teacups and saucers, where they would have so much to talk about, with lambent pipa and sanxun music in the background.

However, Gao had been obliged to remain on board the Vanguard all day; no one had wanted to take over his shift. Looking at the muddy water, with its burden of rubbish—plastic bottles, empty beer cans, flattened containers, and cigarette boxes—Liu suggested they go somewhere else on the boat to fish. The river had changed beyond the two old friends’ recognition, but they themselves had not changed that much. Fishing was a passion they had shared in their high-school days.

“I’ve missed the taste of crucian carp in Qinghai,” Liu confessed. Gao jumped at the suggestion. He could easily explain going downstream as a routine trip. Also, it would display his power as captain. So he suggested Baili, a canal off the Suzhou River, about seventy miles south of the Waibaidu Bridge as a destination. It was yet untouched by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, far from any main road, with the nearest village a couple of miles away. But getting there by water was not easy.

Once they passed the Oriental Refinery looming above Wusong, the passage grew narrower, and at times it was so shallow it was hardly navigable. They had to push away trailing branches, but after an arduous struggle, they finally reached a dark stretch of water obscured by tall weeds and shrubs.

Fortunately, Baili turned out to be as wonderful as Gao had promised. It was small, but with no shortage of water thanks to the past month’s heavy rain. The fish flourished there since it was relatively unpolluted. As soon as they flipped out the lures, they could feel bites. Soon they were busy retrieving their lines.

Fish kept jumping out of the water, landing in the boat, jerking and gasping. “Look at this one,” Liu said, pointing out a fish twitching at his feet. “More than a pound.” “Great,” Gao said. “You’re bringing us luck today.” The next minute, Gao, too, dug the hook out of a half-pound bass with his thumbnail. Happily, he recast his line with a practiced flick of his wrist. Before he had reeled it halfway back to the boat, something gave his line another terrific tug. The rod arched, and a huge carp exploded into the sunlight. They did not have much time to talk. Time flashed backward as silver scales danced in the golden sun. Twenty minutes—or twenty years. They were back in the good old days.

Two high-school students sitting side by side, talking, drinking, and angling, the whole world dangling on their lines. “How much does a pound of crucian carp sell for?” Liu asked, holding another one in his hand. “One this size?” “Thirty Yuan at least, I’d say.” “So I’ve already got more than four pounds. About a hundred Yuan worth, right?” Liu said. “We’ve been here only an hour, and I’ve hauled in more than a week’s salary.” “You’re kidding!” Gao said, pulling a bluegill off his hook. “A nuclear engineer with your reputation!” “No, it’s a fact. I should have been a fisherman, angling south of the Yangtze River,” Liu said, shaking his head. “In Qinghai, we often go for months without a taste of fish.” Liu had worked for twenty years in a desert area, where the local peasants observed a time-honored tradition of serving a fish carved from wood in celebration of the Spring Festival since the Chinese character for “fish” can also mean “surplus,” a lucky sign for the coming year. Its taste might be forgotten, but not the tradition.

“I cannot believe it,” Gao said indignantly. “The great scientist making nuclear bombs earns less than the petty peddlers making tea-leaf eggs. What a shame!” “It’s the market economy,” Liu said. “The country is changing in the right direction. And the people have a better life.” “But that’s unfair, I mean, for you.” “Well, I don’t have too much to complain about nowadays. Can you guess why I did not write to you during the Cultural Revolution?” “No. Why?” “I was criticized as a bourgeois intellectual and locked up in a cell for a year. After I was released, I was still considered ‘politically black,’ so I did not want to incriminate you.” “I’m so sorry to hear that,” Gao said, “but you should have let me know. My letters were returned.

I should have guessed.” “It’s all over,” Liu said, “and here we are, together, fishing for our lost years.” “Tell you what,” Gao said, eager to change the subject, “we’ve got enough to make an excellent soup.” “A wonderful soup—Wow, another!” Liu was reeling in a thrashing perch—well over a foot long. “My old wife is no intellectual, but she’s pretty good at making fish soup. Add a few slices of Jinhua bacon, throw in a pinch of black pepper and a handful of green onion. Oh, what a soup.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting her.” “You’re no stranger to her. I’ve shown your picture to her frequently. “ “Yes, but it’s twenty years old,” Liu said. “How can she recognize me from a high-school picture? Remember He Zhizhang’s famous line? ‘My dialect is not changed, but my hair has turned gray!” “Mine, too,” Gao said. They were ready to go back now. Gao returned to the wheel. But the engine shuddered with a grinding sound. He tried full throttle. The exhaust at the rear spurted black fumes, but the boat did not move an inch. Scratching his head, Captain Gao turned to his friend with an apologetic gesture. He was unable to understand the problem. The canal was small but not shallow.

The propeller, protected by the rudder, could not have scraped bottom. Something might have caught in it—a torn fishing net or a loose cable. The former was rather unlikely. The canal was too narrow for fishermen to cast nets there. But if the latter was the cause of the trouble, it would be hard to disentangle it to free the propeller. He turned off the engine and jumped onto the shore.

He still failed to see anything amiss, so he started feeling about in the muddy water with a long bamboo stick which he had bought for his wife to use as a clothesline on their balcony. After a few minutes, he touched something under the boat. It felt like a soft object, rather large, heavy. Taking off his shirt and pants, he stepped down into the water. He got hold of it in no time. It took him several minutes, however, to tug it through the water, and up onto the shore. It was a huge black plastic bag. There was a string tied around the neck of the bag. Untying it cautiously, he leaned down to look within.

“Holy—hell!” he cursed. “What?” “Look at this. Hair!” Leaning over, Liu also gasped. It was the hair of a dead, naked woman. With Liu’s help, Gao took the body out of the bag and laid it on its back on the ground. She could not have been in the water too long. Her face, though slightly swollen, was recognizably young and good looking. A wisp of green rush was woven into her coil of black hair. Her body was ghastly white, with slack breasts and heavy thighs. Her pubic hair was black and wet. Gao hurried back into the boat, took out a worn blanket, and threw it over her.

That was all he could think of doing for the moment. He then broke the bamboo pole in two. It was a pity, but it would bring bad luck now. He could not bear the thought of his wife hanging their clothes over it, day in, day out. “What shall we do?” Liu said. “There’s nothing we can do. Don’t touch anything. Leave the body alone until the police come.” Gao took out his cellular phone. He hesitated before dialing the number of the Shanghai Police Bureau. He would have to write a report.

It would have to describe the way he had found the body, but first of all, he would have to account for being there, at that time of day, with Liu on board. While supposedly working his shift, he was having a good time with his friend, fishing and drinking. But he would have to tell the truth. He had no choice, he concluded, dialing. “Detective Yu Guangming, special case squad,” a voice answered. “I am Captain Gao Ziling, of the Vanguard, Shanghai River Security Department. I am reporting a homicide. A body was discovered in Baili Canal. A young female body.” “Where is Baili Canal?” “West of Qingpu. Past Shanghai Number Two Paper Mill. About seven or eight miles from it.” “Hold on,” Detective Yu said. “Let me see who is available.” Captain Gao grew nervous as the silence at the other end of the line was prolonged. “Another murder case was reported after four thirty,” Detective Yu finally said.

“Everybody is out of the office now. Even Chief Inspector Chen. But I’m on my way. You know enough not to mess things up, I assume. Wait there for me.” Gao glanced at his watch. It would take at least two hours for the detective to reach them. Not to mention the time he would have to spend with him after that. Both Liu and he would be required as witnesses, then probably would have to go to the police station to make their statements as well. A The weather was quite pleasant, the temperature mild, the white clouds moving idly across the sky. He saw a dark toad jumping into a crevice among the rocks, the gray spot contrasting with the bone-white rocks. A toad, too, could be an evil omen.

He spat on the ground again. He had already forgotten how many times this made. Even if they could manage to get back home for dinner, the fish would have been long dead. A huge difference for the soup. “I’m so sorry,” Gao apologized.

“I should have chosen another place.” “As our ancient sage says, ‘Eight or nine out of ten times, things will go wrong in this world of ours’,” Liu replied with renewed equanimity. “It’s nobody’s fault.” As he spat again, Gao observed the dead woman’s feet sticking out of the blanket. White, shapely feet, with arched soles, well-formed toes, scarlet-painted nails. And then he saw the glassy eyes of a dead carp afloat on the surface of the bucket. For a second, he felt as if the fish were staring at him, unblinking; its belly appeared ghastly white, swollen. “We won’t forget the day of our reunion,” Liu remarked.”

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