“The Ruby Chronicles: A Tale of Tragedy”
At four thirty that day, the Homicide Division of the Shanghai Police Bureau remained unaware of the case’s details, and Chief Inspector Chen Cao, in charge of the special case, had no information about it.
The day was sweltering, a hot Friday afternoon. The distant sound of cicadas could occasionally be heard from a poplar tree by the window of his new one-bedroom apartment, situated on the second floor of a gray-brick building. Through the window, he had a view of the sluggish traffic along Huaihai Road, a comfortable and quiet distance away. The apartment was conveniently located near the center of the Luwan district, a place where he could reach Nanjing Road to the north or the City God’s Temple to the south in less than twenty minutes. On clear summer evenings, he could even catch a hint of the tangy breeze from the Huangpu River.
Although Chief Inspector Chen should have remained in the office, he found himself alone in his apartment, engrossed in a task. He was reclined on a leather-covered couch, legs extended and resting on a gray swivel chair. In his hands was a small notepad with a list on its first page. He jotted down a few words and then crossed them out, gazing out of the window. In the bright afternoon sunlight, he observed a towering crane silhouetted against another building that was still under construction, roughly a block away. The apartment complex was not yet completed.
The issue occupying the chief inspector’s thoughts, amid being recently assigned this apartment, was his forthcoming housewarming party. Acquiring a new apartment in Shanghai was an event that called for celebration. He himself was quite delighted about it. Spontaneously, he had sent out invitations for the event. Now, he was contemplating how to entertain his guests. A simple meal wouldn’t suffice, as his friend Lu, nicknamed Overseas Chinese, had cautioned him. For such an occasion, a special banquet was necessary. He reviewed the names on the party list once again—Wang Feng, Lu Tonghao, and his wife Ruru, Zhou Kejia and his wife Liping. The Zhous had called earlier to express uncertainty about attending due to a meeting at East China Normal University. Nevertheless, it was wise to be prepared for all potential guests.
The telephone positioned on the filing cabinet rang, and he crossed the room to answer it.
“Chen’s residence.” “Congratulations, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen!” Lu’s voice came through the line. “Ah, I can already smell the delightful aroma in your new kitchen.” “Overseas Chinese Lu, I hope you’re not calling to say you’re running late. I’m counting on you.” “Rest assured, we’re on our way. The beggar’s chicken just needs a few more minutes in the oven. The finest chicken in all of Shanghai, I guarantee.
Cooked only with Yellow Mountains pine needles for that unique flavor. Don’t worry, your housewarming party is a must-attend event for us. You lucky fellow.” “Thank you.” “Make sure to have some beer chilling in the fridge, and glasses too. It’ll make all the difference.” “I’ve already stocked half a dozen bottles.
Qingdao and Bud. As for the Shaoxing rice wine, it won’t be warmed until you arrive, correct?” “You’re inching your way toward becoming a gourmet. Maybe even more than that. You’re certainly a quick learner.” This comment was entirely characteristic of Lu. Even from the other end of the line, Chen could detect the excitement in Lu’s voice whenever food was the topic. Lu rarely engaged in a conversation without steering it toward his favorite subject—culinary delights. “With Overseas Chinese Lu as my mentor, I should be making some progress.” “I’ll give you a new recipe tonight, after the party,” Lu announced. “What incredible luck, dear Comrade Chief Inspector! Your ancestors must have been burning tall incense bundles for the God of Fortune. And maybe the Kitchen God too.” “Well, my mother has been burning incense, although I’m not entirely sure which god she’s worshiping.” “Guanyin, I know.
I remember her kowtowing before a clay image—this was more than a decade ago—and I asked her about it.” In Lu’s eyes, Chief Inspector Chen had stumbled upon good fortune—or whichever god from Chinese mythology brought luck. Unlike most of his generation, Chen, despite being classified as an “educated youth” and completing high school, hadn’t been sent to the countryside for “reeducation through labor” during the early seventies. As an only child, he had been allowed to remain in the city, where he self-taught himself English. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, he gained admission to Beijing Foreign Language College with an impressive English entrance exam score.
This led to a position at the Shanghai Police Bureau. And now, his good luck continued with the allocation of a private apartment.
“It was not luxurious. There was no real kitchen, only a narrow corridor containing a couple of gas burners tucked into the corner, with a small cabinet hanging on the wall above. No real bathroom either: a cubicle large enough for just a toilet seat and a cement square with a stainless-steel shower head. Hot water was out of the question. There was, however, a balcony that might serve as a storeroom for wicker trunks, repairable umbrellas, rusted brass spittoons, or whatever could not be decently squeezed inside the room. But he did not have such things, so he had put only a plastic folding chair and a few bookshelf boards on the balcony. The apartment was good enough for him.
There had been some complaining in the bureau about his privileges. To those with longer years of service or larger families who remained on the waiting list, Chief Inspector Chen’s recent acquisition was another instance of the unfair new cadre policy, he knew. But he decided not to think about those unpleasant complaints at the moment. He had to concentrate on the evening’s menu. He had only limited experience in preparing for a party. With a cookbook in his hand, he focused on those recipes designated easy-to-make. Even those took considerable time, but one colorful dish after another appeared on the table, adding a pleasant mixture of aromas to the room. By ten to six he had finished setting the table.
He rubbed his hands, quite pleased with the results of his efforts. For the main dishes, there were chunks of pork stomach on a bed of green napa, thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai, and steamed peeled shrimp with tomato-sauce. There was also a platter of eels with scallions and ginger, which he had ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork, and added some green vegetables to it to make another dish. On the side, he placed a small dish of sliced tomatoes, and another of cucumbers. When the guests arrived, a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle. He was selecting a pot in which to warm the Shaoxing wine when the doorbell rang. Wang Feng, a young reporter from the Wenhui Daily, one of China’s most influential newspapers, was the first to arrive. Attractive, young, and intelligent, she seemed to have all the makings of a successful reporter. But at the moment she did not have her black leather briefcase in her hand. Instead, she held a huge pine nut cake in her arms. “Congratulations, Chief Inspector Chen,” she said. “What a spacious apartment!” “Thanks,” he said, taking the cake from her. He led her around for a five-minute tour.
She seemed to like the apartment very much, looking into everything, opening the cupboard doors, and stepping into the bathroom, where she stood on her tiptoes, touching the overhead shower pipe and the new shower head. “And a bathroom, too!” “Well, like most Shanghai residents, I’ve always dreamed of having an apartment in this area,” he said, giving her a glass of sparkling wine. “And you have a wonderful view from the window,“ she said, “almost like a picture.” Wang stood leaning against the newly painted window frame, her ankles crossed, holding the glass in her hand. “You are turning it into a painting,” he said. In the afternoon light streaming through the plastic blinds, her complexion was matte porcelain.
Her eyes were clear, almond-shaped, just long enough to be suggestive of a distinct character. Her black hair cascaded halfway down her back. She wore a white T-shirt and a pleated skirt, with a wide belt of alligator leather that cinched her “emancipated wasp” waist and accentuated her breasts. Emancipated wasp. An image invented by Li Yu, the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty, also a brilliant poet, who depicted his favorite imperial concubine’s ravishing beauty in several celebrated poems.
The poet-emperor was afraid that he might break her in two by holding her too tightly. It was said that the custom of foot-binding also started in Li Yu’s reign. There was no accounting for taste, Chen reflected. “What do you mean?” she asked. “‘Waist so slender, weightless she dances on my palm!” he said, changing the reference as he recalled the tragic end of the imperial concubine, who drowned herself in a well when the Southern Tang dynasty fell. “Du Mu’s famous line fails to do justice to you.”
“More of your bogus compliments copied from the Tang dynasty, my poetic chief inspector?” This sounded more like the spirited woman he had first met in the Wenhui building, Chen was happy to note. It had taken quite a long while for her to get over the defection of her husband. A student in Japan, the man had decided not to return home when his visa expired. Wang had taken it hard, naturally. “Poetically alone,” he said. “With this new apartment, you no longer have an excuse to remain celibate.” She drained the glass with a toss of her long hair. “Well, introduce some girls to me.” “You need my help?” “Why not, if you are willing to help?” He tried to change the subject. “But how are things with you? About your own apartment, I mean. Soon you will get one for yourself, I bet.”
“If only I were a chief inspector, a rising political star.” “Oh, sure,” he said, raising his cup, “many thanks to you.” But it was true, or at least to a certain extent. They had first met on a professional level. She had been assigned to write about the “people’s policemen,” and his name had been mentioned by Party Secretary Li of the Shanghai Police Bureau. As she talked with Chen in her office, she became more interested in how he spent his evenings than in how he did his day job.
Chen had had several translations of Western mystery novels published. The reporter was not a fan of that particular genre, but she saw a fresh perspective for her article. And then the readers, too, responded favorably to the image of a young, well-educated police officer who “works late into night, translating books to enlarge the horizon of his professional expertise, when the city of Shanghai is peacefully asleep.” The article caught the attention of a senior vice minister in Beijing, Comrade Zheng Zuoren, who believed he had discovered a new role model. It was in part due to Zheng’s recommendation that Chen had been promoted to chief inspector. It was only partially true, however, that Chen had chosen to translate mysteries to enrich his professional knowledge.
It was more because he, an entry-level police officer at the time, needed extra cash. He had also translated a collection of American imagist poetry, but the publishing house offered him only two hundred copies in lieu of royalties for that work. “You were so sure of the motive for my translations?” he said.“Of course, as I declared in that article: a ‘people’s policeman’s sense of dedication’.” She laughed and tilted her glass in the sunlight. At that moment, she was no longer the reporter who had talked to him seriously, sitting upright at the office desk, an open notebook in front of her.
Nor was he a chief inspector. Just a man with a woman whose company he enjoyed, in his own room. “It’s been over a year since the day we first met in the hallway of the Wenhui office building,” he said, refilling her wineglass. “‘Time is a bird, / It perches, and it flies,’” she said. These were the lines from his short poem entitled “Parting.” Nice of her to remember it.
“You must have been inspired by a parting you cannot forget,” she said. “A parting from somebody very dear to you.” Her instinct was right, he thought. The poem was about his parting from a dear friend in Beijing years earlier, and it was still unforgotten. He had never talked to Wang about it. She was looking at him over the rim of her glass, taking a long slow sip, her eyes twinkling. Did he catch a note of jealousy in her voice? The poem had been written long ago, but its catalyst was not something he wanted to mention at the moment. “A poem does not have to be about something in the poet’s life.
Poetry is impersonal. As T.S. Eliot has said, it is not letting loose an emotional crisis—” “What, an emotional crisis?” Overseas Chinese Lu’s excited voice burst into their conversation. Lu barged through the doorway carrying an enormous beggar’s chicken, his plump face and plump body all the more expansive in a fashionable heavily-shoulder-padded white suit and a bright red tie. Lu’s wife Ruru, thin as a bamboo shoot, and angular in a tight yellow dress, brought in a big purple ceramic pot.
“What are you two talking about?” Ruru asked. Putting the food on the table, Lu threw himself down on the new leather sofa, looking at them with an exaggerated inquiry on his face.
Chen did not answer the question. He had a ready excuse in busily unwrapping the beggar’s chicken. It smelled wonderful. The recipe had supposedly originated when a beggar baked a soil-and-lotus-leaf-wrapped chicken in a pile of ashes. The result was an astonishing success. It must have taken Lu a long time to cook. Then he turned to the ceramic pot.
“What’s that?” “Squid stew with pork,” Ruru explained. “Your favorite in high school, Lu said.” “Comrade Chief Inspector,” Lu went on, “emerging Party cadre, and romantic poet to boot, you do not need my help, not in this new apartment, not with a young girl as beautiful as a flower beside you.” “What are you talking about?” Wang said. “Oh, it is just about the dinner—how delicious it smells. I’m going to have a fit if we don’t start right away.” “He’s just like that, he totally forgets himself with his old pal,” Ruru explained to Wang whom she had met before.
“Nowadays, only Chief Inspector Chen calls him ‘Overseas Chinese’.” “It’s seven,” Chen said. “If they’re not here yet, Professor Zhou and his wife won’t come. So let’s start.” There was no dining room. With the Lus’ help, Chen set up the…”folding table and chairs. When he was alone, Chen ate at the desk. But he had bought the space-saving set for occasions like this. The dinner turned out to be a great success.
Chen had worried about his capability as a chef, but the guests finished all the food rapidly. The improvised soup was especially popular. Lu even asked him for the recipe. Rising from the table, Ruru offered to wash the dishes in the kitchen. Chen protested, but Lu intervened. “My old woman should not be deprived of the opportunity, Comrade Chief Inspector, to display her female domestic virtue.”
“You chauvinistic men,” Wang said, joining Ruru in the kitchen. Lu helped him clear the table, put the leftovers away, and brew a pot of Oolong tea. “I need to ask a favor of you, old pal,” Lu said, holding a teacup in his hand. “What is it?” “I’ve always dreamed of starting a restaurant. For a restaurant, the heart of the matter is location. I have been looking around for a long time. Now here’s the opportunity of a lifetime. You know Seafood City on Shanxi Road, don’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve heard of it.” “Xin Gen, the owner of Seafood City, is a compulsive gambler—he plays day and night. He pays no attention to his business, and all his chefs are idiots. It’s bankrupt.” “Then you should try your hand at it.” “For such an excellent location, the price Xin is asking is incredibly cheap. In fact, I don’t have to pay the whole amount, he’s so desperate. What he wants is a fifteen percent downpayment.
So I just need a loan to start with. I’ve sold the few fur coats my old man left behind, but we’re still several thousand short.” “You couldn’t have chosen a better time, Overseas Chinese. I just got two checks from the Lijiang Publishing House,” Chen said. “One’s for the reprint of The Riddle of the Chinese Coffin and the other’s an advance for The Silent Step.” But it was not really a good time. Chen had been contemplating buying some more furniture for the new apartment. He had seen a mahogany desk in a thrift shop in Suzhou.
Ming-style, perhaps of genuine Ming dynasty craftsmanship, for five thousand Yuan. It was expensive, but it could be the very desk on which he was going to write his future poems. Several critics had complained about his departure from the tradition of classical Chinese poetry, and the antique desk might convey a message from the past to him. So he had written a letter to Chief Editor Liu of the Lijiang Publishing House, asking for the advance. Chen took out the two checks, signed the back of them, added a personal check, and gave all of them to Lu. “Here they are,” he said. “Treat me when your restaurant is a booming success.” “I’ll pay you back,” Lu said, “with interest.” “Interest?
One more word about interest, and I will take them back.” “Then come and be my partner. I have to do something, old pal. Or I’ll have a crisis with Ruru tonight.” “Now what are you two talking about—another crisis?” Wang was returning to the living room, Ruru following her.
Lu did not reply. Instead he moved to the head of the table, clinked a chopstick against a glass, and started a speech: “I have an announcement to make. For several weeks, Ruru and I have been busy preparing for the opening of a restaurant. The only problem was our lack of the capital.
Now, with a most generous loan from my buddy Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, the problem is solved. Moscow Suburb, the new restaurant, will be open soon—very soon indeed.
“From our newspapers, we learn that we’re entering a new period in socialist China. Some old diehards are grumbling that China is becoming capitalist rather than socialist, but who cares? Labels. Nothing but labels. As long as people have a better life, that’s all it is about.
And we’re going to have a better life. “And my pal, too, is most prosperous. He has not only received promotion—a chief inspector in his early thirties—but also he has this wonderful new apartment. And a most beautiful reporter is attending the house-warming party. “Now the party begins!” Raising his glass, Lu put a cassette into the player, and a waltz began to flow into the room. “It’s almost nine.” Ruru was looking at her watch. “I can’t take the morning shift off.”
“Don’t worry,” Lu said. “I will call in sick for you. A summer flu. And Comrade Chief inspector, not a single word about your police work either. Let me be an Overseas Chinese in truth just for one night.” “That’s just like you.” Chen smiled. “An Overseas Chinese,” Wang added, “drinking and dancing all night.” Chief Inspector Chen was not good at dancing. During the Cultural Revolution, the only thing close to dancing for the Chinese people was the Loyal Character Dance. People would stamp their feet in unison, to show their loyalty to Chairman Mao. But it was said that even in those years, many fancy balls were held within the high walls of the Forbidden City.
Chairman Mao, a dexterous dancer, was said to have had “his legs still intertwined with his partner’s even after the ball.” Whether this tabloid tidbit was fictitious, no one could tell. It was true, however, that not until the mid-eighties could Chinese people dance without fear of being reported to the authorities. “I’d better dance with my lioness,” Lu said in mock frustration.
Lu’s choice left Chen as the only partner for Wang. Chen, not displeased, bowed as he took Wang’s offered hands. She was the more gifted dancer, leading him rather than being led in the limited space of the room. Turning, turning, and turning in her high heels, slightly taller than he was, her black hair streamed against the white walls. He had to look up at her as he held her in his arms.
A slow, dreamy ballad swelled into the night. Resting her hand on his shoulder, she slipped off her shoes. “We are making too much noise,” she said, looking up at him with a radiant smile. “What a considerate girl,” Lu said. “What a handsome couple,” Ruru added. It was considerate of her. Chen, too, had been concerned about the noise. He did not want his new neighbors to start protesting.
Some of the music called for slow two-steps. They did not have to exert themselves as the melody rose and fell like waves lapping around them. She was light on her bare feet, moving, wisps of her hair brushing against his nose. When another melody started, he tried to take the initiative, and pulled her around—but a bit too suddenly. She fell against him.
He felt her body all the length of his, soft and pliable.“We have to go,” Lu declared at the end of the tune. “Our daughter will be worried,” Ruru added, picking up the ceramic pot she had brought. The Lus’ decision was unexpected. It was hard to believe that half an hour earlier Lu had declared himself “Overseas Chinese” for the night. “I’d better be leaving, too,” Wang said, disengaging herself from him.
“No, you have to stay,” Lu said, shaking his head vigorously. “For a housewarming party, it’s not proper and right for the guests to leave all at once.” Chen understood why the Lus wanted to leave. Lu was a self proclaimed schemer and seemed to derive a good deal of pleasure from playing a well-meant trick. It was a pleasant surprise that Wang did not insist on leaving with them. She changed the cassette, to a piece he had not heard before. Their bodies pressed close. It was summer. He could feel her softness through her T-shirt, his cheek brushing against her hair. She was wearing a gardenia scent. “You smell wonderful.”
“Oh, it’s the perfume Yang sent me from Japan.” The juxtaposed awareness of their dancing alone in the room, and her husband in Japan, added to his tension. He missed a step, treading on her bare toes. “I’m so sorry, did I hurt you?”
“No,” she said. “Actually, I’m glad you are inexperienced.” “I’ll try to be a better partner next time.” “Just be yourself,” she said, “the way—” The wind languished. The floral curtain ceased flapping. The moonlight streamed through, lighting up her face. It was a young, animated face. At that moment, it touched a string, a peg, deep inside him. “Shall we start over again?” he said. Then the telephone rang. Startled, he looked at the clock on the wall. He put down her hand reluctantly, and picked up the phone.
“Chief Inspector Chen?” He heard a familiar voice, somehow sounding as if it came from an unfamiliar world. He gave a resigned shrug of his shoulders.
“Yes, it’s Chen.”
“It’s Detective Yu Guangming, reporting a homicide case.” “What happened?” “A young woman’s naked body was found in a canal, west of Qingpu County.”
“I—I will be on my way,” he said, as Wang walked over to turn off the music. “That may not be necessary. I’ve already examined the scene. The body will be moved into the mortuary soon. I just want to let you know that I went there because there was nobody else in the office. And I could not reach you.” “That’s okay. Even though ours is a special case squad, we should respond when no one else is available.”
“I’ll make a more detailed report tomorrow morning.” Detective Yu added, somewhat belatedly, “Please excuse me if I am disturbing you or your guests—in your new apartment.” Yu must have heard the music in the background. Chen thought he detected a sarcastic note in his assistant’s voice. “Don’t mention it,” Chen said.
“Since you have checked out the crime scene, I think we can discuss it tomorrow.” “So, see you tomorrow. And enjoy your party in the new apartment.” There was certainly sarcasm in Yu’s voice, Chen thought, but such a reaction was understandable from a colleague who, though senior in age, had no luck in the bureau’s housing assignments.
He turned from the phone to see Wang standing near the door. She had put on her shoes. “You have more important things to occupy you, Comrade Chief Inspector.” “Just a new case, but it’s been taken care of,” he said. “You don’t have to leave.” “I’d better,” she said.
“It’s late.” The door was open. They stood facing each other. Behind her, the dark street, visible through the corridor window; behind him, the new apartment, aglow in the lily-white light. They hugged before parting.
“He went out to the balcony, but he failed to catch a glimpse of her slender figure retreating into the night. He heard only a violin from an open window above the curve of the street. Two lines from Li Shangyin’s “Zither” came to his mind:
The zither, for no reason, has half of its strings broken, One string, one peg, evoking the memory of the youthful years.
A difficult Tang dynasty poet, Li Shangyin was especially known for this elusive couplet. Certainly it was not about the ancient musical instrument. Why, all of a sudden, the lines came rushing to him, he did not know.
The murder case?
A young woman. A life in its prime wasted. All the broken strings. The lost sounds. Only half of its years lived.
Or was there something else?”