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FLOWER NET

Chapter 1
January 10
Bei Hai Park

Wing Yun held tightly to his granddaughter’s mittened hand as he guided her in slow rhythmic glides across the frozen expanse of Bei Hai Lake just outside the burnished walls of the Forbidden City. On the opposite shore, Wing Yun could see the Beijing City Young People’s Speed Skaters hard at their interval training. Behind the team, shrouded in a haze of coal smoke and heavy gray clouds, he saw the Five Dragon Pavilion and the Hall of Celestial Kings. Nearby, along the walkways surrounding the lake, old people swept last night’s dusting of snow with bamboo brooms. Based on the solidity of the ice beneath the blade of his old skates and the way the air billowed and steamed with every breath he took, Wing Yun guessed that it must be -15 degrees Celsius. And this was as warm as it would get today.

Wing Yun preferred to stay on this side of the lake just inside the main entrance to the park, where the old Round City curved around what had once been a fortress protecting the residence of Kublai Khan. Very close to shore and accessible by footbridge was Jade Island. In summer, Wing Yun liked to stroll along its covered pathways, stopping at the sheltered pavilions along the way. If it wasn’t too hot or humid, he might climb to the top of the hill to the White Dagoba, an onion-shaped shrine built in the Tibetan style to honor the first visit of the Dalai Lama in 1651.

Wing Yun kept his granddaughter in the area near the loudspeakers. Old-fashioned dance music drifted across the frozen expanse. Here and there, twosomes tangoed and waltzed. Other young couples giggled together. A few even held hands, and Wing Yun thought, Ah, how life is changing. When I was young, no one, no one, could hold hands in public. Even now he wondered what the parents of these couples would think if they saw their children acting so brazenly in front of—well, in front of so many citizens. Nearby, families—mama, baba, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many children—laughed and teased one another. They made picturesque tableaux, bundled in old-style padded blue jackets and brightly colored Western-style coats, mittens and mufflers. Many of the younger children–still struggling to find their balance—held on to wooden chairs outfitted with runners. Seated on these chairs, grandparents beamed as their grandchildren pushed them along.

Wing Yun was familiar with many of the skaters, but today, as usual, a few strangers tried this bit of exercise for the first time. He and his granddaughter had nearly been knocked over by two uniformed soldiers. Wing Yun didn’t scold them as he might have. He could see they were just country boys, perhaps peasants from South China. They had probably never seen snow and ice before.

Wing Yun and Mei Mei had spent many days together here this winter. She was a good companion for him. She didn’t mind quiet and often seemed as engrossed in her own thoughts as he was in his. Right now, he could feel her fingers moving inside her mitten. She wanted to skate out on her own, but he was reluctant to loosen his grip.

“Sing to me, Mei Mei,” he said. “Sing me that song about the ice.”

She looked up at him, and he had to push her scarf down so he could see her cheeks flushed pink by the cold. She smiled at him, then began to sing “Nine Nine,” which recounted the nine phases of winter and cautioned the listener about the season’s dangers. He could remember the song from his own childhood; it was familiar to anyone raised on the North China Plain.

“One nine, two nine: hands can’t show,” she began, her voice as crisp as the afternoon air. “Three nine, four nine: on ice go. Five nine, six nine: river willows seen. Seven nine: ice crack! Eight nine: swallows back.”

Wing Yun joined in for the last line. “Nine nine and one nine more, oxen in fields encore.” The last notes faded into the icy quiet, then Wing Yun asked, “What ‘nine’ are we in, Mei Mei?”

“Three nine, because the ice is good and we can skate.”

“That’s right. And what will happen at seven nine?”

“Grandpa!” she said indignantly. “I promise not to skate then. I always tell you that.”

“I just want you to be careful,” he said. “Now, do you think you’re ready to go by yourself?”

A shy smile crept across her features, and he watched as she took a deep breath of anticipation. Then he pulled to a stop and released her mittened hand. With her narrow ankles wobbling, she edged out on her own. With each stride, she grew more confident.

“Don’t go too close to the middle,” he called out, though he knew that at this “three-nine” time in January it was perfectly safe. Still, his granddaughter slowed, then set off toward a deserted area of the lake near the shore. As Wing Yun followed, he noticed how few grooves there were here in the ice. Funny, he thought, how people like to stick together—the racing team so far away, the families gathered in groups near the main gate and no one in between.

Just as Mei Mei neared the bank, she lost her balance. Her arms flailed about her for a moment as she tried to regain her equilibrium. Then she fell forward, hard. Wing Yun hesitated. Would she cry?

The little girl sat up, stared at the ice before her, and began a high-pitched wail that cut through the romantic waltz music, the soft conversations of the young lovers, and the jovial teasing of the family groups. Wing Yun skated quickly to his granddaughter. Once he reached her side, he, too, wanted to scream. Before his granddaughter, a man lay embedded in the ice. He stared up at Wing Yun and Mei Mei, wide-eyed but unseeing. He was a white ghost, a foreign devil, a white man.

#                                  #                                  #

Two hours later, Liu Hulan arrived on the scene. The atmosphere had changed dramatically since the body had been discovered. All of the skaters were off the ice and being held as witnesses in one of the pavilions on the shore. Local police guarded the perimeter of the crime scene. Within their loose circle, Hulan could see other men in plainclothes, some looking for evidence, others standing and talking to a citizen and a small child. At the very center of the circle, a man hunched over a dark shape lying next to a small mound of what appeared to be shaved ice. Liu Hulan sighed, pulled her scarf and the collar of her lavender down coat up over her ears, and set out across the ice.

She seemed oblivious to the ripple her arrival caused among the men. If they could have gotten their nerve up to say what attracted their attention to her, they might have pointed out that she was too beautiful for her job, that she dressed differently from other women they knew, that she was vain, that she always held herself apart. In just a few answers the men would have moved from the hazardous territory of sex to the safe realm of political criticism that they knew so well.

It would have been easy to attack her on her physical presentation, except that she didn’t seem particularly interested in the Western-style fashions that had been available in the city in recent years. She preferred to wear pre-Revolutionary clothes: long skirts tailored to fit her sleek shape and cream-colored embroidered silk blouses of antiquated Chinese cut that crossed at her breast. In winter, she added cashmere sweaters made in villages along the Mongolian border and dyed to soothing tones of coral, aqua, and winter white. These colors set off her complexion in ways that brought to mind all the time-honored descriptions of women in China: Her skin was as translucent as fine porcelain, as delicate as the rose petal, as soft as a good-luck peach.

Liu Hulan would have laughed at any such comparisons. She dismissed her beauty. She never wore makeup. She didn’t perm her black hair, wearing it, instead, in a blunt cut that reached just below her shoulders. It was always slipping forward over her ears in silky waves. A few strands always seemed to stick straight out from her head as though electrified. More than one man had wanted to run his hands through them. But none of her male colleagues would have ever risked touching, even casually, Inspector Liu Hulan.

As she reached the circle, she held up her credentials from the Ministry of Public Security and was waved through. Walking these last few steps, she braced herself for what she would see. She had been with the MPS for eleven years now but still had not hardened herself completely to the sight of the dead, especially those who had died violently.

Fong, the pathologist, looked up from the body. “Another pretty one for you, Inspector,” he said, grinning.

The victim, a young white man, had been laid on a clean white sheet. The workers, whose gruesome task was to chisel the body out of the lake, had done their job carefully. The corpse was still encased in a thin shroud of ice. His form was straight and flat. Only one arm twisted awkwardly away from his torso. His fingernails were dark purple. His eyes and his mouth were open. Everywhere else on the body, the icy shroud showed pure white, but here, in the victim’s mouth—where his teeth appeared as horrible black pearls—as well as his nostrils, the ice was tinged pink. Other than this, Liu Hulan could see no external signs of injury.

“Have you turned him over yet?”

“What do you think?” Fong retorted. “This is my first case? Of course I turned him over. I don’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean I won’t find something when I get him back to the lab. I can’t get all of the ice off of him out here without damaging the body. So we’re just going to have to wait. Let him thaw out, then I’ll know something.

“But what do you think?”

“Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he came out here on the night before the big freeze. Maybe he stumbled. Maybe he hit his head. I don’t see any signs of this, but it’s possible.”

Liu Hulan thought about that scenario, then said, “He looks pretty young to me. If he fell in the water, or even though the ice, wouldn’t he have had the strength to pull himself out?”

“Okay, Inspector, lesson time,” Pathologist Fong said, his voice sharpening. He never liked it when she questioned his expertise. He stood and stared up at her. He was several inches shorter than Liu Hulan, and he didn’t like that either. “You take an average person. I’m talking about a man of average height for a foreigner, maybe five feet ten inches. He’s wearing everyday clothes. In this case, I see he’s wearing just jeans, a shirt, a sweater.”

“So?”

“So, our average man here—dressed in street clothes and in good physical health—should be able to last about forty-five minutes in water that’s less than about two degrees Celsius. Something kept him from fighting his way to shore.”

“You think it’s alcohol?”

“Could be. Could be drug overdose.”

“Suicide?

“I can think of better ways,” Fong said and grinned again as he squatted back down next to the body.

Liu Hulan bent over to get a closer look at the victim. “What’s this blood in his mouth? Does that have something to do with freezing to death?”

“No, I don’t know what caused that. Maybe he bit his tongue. Maybe he broke his nose in the fall. I’ll let you know later.”

“Does it bother you that he isn’t wearing a coat? Could he have been dragged out here and dumped?”

“Everything about this case bothers me,” the pathologist answered, “but if you’re thinking murder, you’re just going to have to wait for the results of the autopsy.”

“One last question. Is it him?

“I haven’t been able to get in his pockets yet, but it sure looks like the photos they gave us.” He jutted his chin over to the shore. “I’ve been waiting for you to get here. I think you’d better deal with them.” Liu Hulan followed his gaze and saw a Caucasian couple sitting on a wrought-iron bench.

“Shit.”

Fong snorted. “Are you surprised?”

“No.” Liu Hulan sighed. “But I wish I wasn’t the one who had to tell them.”

“That’s why the vice minister sent you.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” As an afterthought, she asked, “How did they know to come?”

“Their son has been missing for over a week, and the victim appears to be the right age, the right race. The vice-minister called you after he sent the car for them.”

Hulan absorbed the political implications of this information and said, “I’ll come down to the lab later. And thanks.”

She looked at the body one more time, then over to the shore. The Caucasian couple would have to wait a few more minutes.

As she usually did at a crime scene, she began stepping backward away from the body. With each step, her view of the scene widened. Although digging out the body had been a difficult job, the workmen had meticulously kept the excess ice in one neat pile adjacent to the shallow grave. And although there had been dozens of people on the scene, the ice was so hard that it still appeared utterly smooth except for two sets of skate tracks. One set etched deep grooves, the other only lightly scraped the surface. Liu Hulan could see no signs of a struggle, no blood, or any other imperfections in or on the ice.

She turned now and walked briskly to where an old man and a little girl huddled together. The old man’s arm was draped protectively over the child’s shoulder. They were still wearing their skates.

“Good afternoon, uncle,” Hulan said, bestowing a polite honorific on this stranger.

“We didn’t do anything,” the old man said. She could see he was shivering.

Liu Hulan addressed a guard. “Why do you have this man here? Why haven’t you taken him inside and given him tea?”

The police officer’s features twisted in embarrassment. “We thought—”

“You thought incorrectly.” She refocused her attention on the pair before her. She leaned down until she was at eye level with the little girl. “What’s your name?”

“Mei Mei,” the girl answered through chattering teeth.

“And who’s this?”

“Grandpa Wing.”

Liu Hulan straightened again. “Grandpa Wing, ni hao ma, how are you?”

“They said we would be detained. They said we would go to jail. They said—”

Liu Hulan looked at the police officer, who lowered his gaze. “You must forgive the zealousness of my colleagues. They have been very rude to you, I’m sure.”

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” the old man repeated.

“Of course you didn’t. Please, don’t be afraid. Just tell me what happened.”

When the old man finished his story, she said, “You’ve done a good job, Grandpa Wing. Now why don’t you take your granddaughter home?”

The look of relief in the old man’s eyes told her just how terrified he had been. “Xie-xie, xie-xie.” He thanked her again and again. Then he took his granddaughter’s mittened hand in his and they slowly skated away.

She turned back to the police officer. “You! You get over to where they’re holding the other skaters. I want them released immediately.”

“But—”

“They obviously had nothing to do with this. And one more thing. I’d like you to make a self-criticism to your superior. When you’re done, I’d like you to tell him that I do not wish to have you assigned to my cases.”

“Inspector, I—”

“Get moving.”

She watched his retreating back, regretting the need to maintain a cruel façade to protect her position and ensure her status at the ministry. Mao had said that women hold up half the sky, but Chinese men still held the most powerful positions in the workplace.

As Hulan began walking toward the shore, the Caucasian couple gradually came into focus. They were in their mid-fifties. The woman wore a mink coat and a matching hat. She looked frightfully pale, and even from a distance Liu Hulan could see she’d been crying. The man was, as newspapers customarily reported, extremely handsome. His face, even in the middle of a Beijing winter, was tan. His rugged good looks evoked the prairies and dry winds of his home state, where he had been first a rancher and then a senator.

“Good morning, Mr. Ambassador, Mrs. Watson. I’m Inspector Liu Hulan,” she said in virtually accentless English. She shook hands with both of them.

“Is it our son? Is it Billy?” the woman asked.

“We don’t have identification yet, but I believe it is.”

“I want to see him,” Bill Watson said.

“Of course,” Liu Hulan agreed. “But first I have a couple of questions.”

“We’ve been down to your office,” the ambassador said. “We’ve told you all we know. Our son has been missing for ten days and you haven’t done a thing.”

Liu Hulan ignored the ambassador and looked into Elizabeth Watson’s eyes. “Mrs. Watson, can I get you anything? Wouldn’t you rather wait inside?” As the woman resumed her weeping, her husband strode to the edge of the lake.

Hulan held on to Elizabeth Watson’s hands for a few minutes and watched as she willed herself back to a seeming indifference. Speaking as the political wife she was, Elizabeth Watson said, “I’m sure you have your duties. It’s okay, dear. I’m okay.”

Liu Hulan rose and went to Watson. They stood side by side, neither speaking, just gazing out across the icy expanse to where the body had been found.

Without turning to face the ambassador, Liu Hulan broke the silence. “Before you identify the body, there are some things I need to ask.”

“I don’t know what more I can tell you, but go ahead.”

“Did your son drink?”

The ambassador allowed himself a small laugh. “Inspector, Billy was in his early twenties. What do you think? Of course he drank.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but I think you know what I mean. Did your son have a drinking problem?”

“No.”

“Have you ever known him to use drugs?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Let me put it to you this way, Inspector. The president of my country would not have appointed me to this post if there were drug problems in my family.”

Good, Liu Hulan thought. Get angry. Get angry and tell me the truth.

“Was Billy despondent?”

“What are you implying?”

“I’m wondering if he was happy here. Often people in our expatriate community, especially the spouses and children of those who have been sent abroad, become lonely or depressed.”

“My wife and son love China,” he said, his voice rising. “Now I’d like to see if that person out there is Billy.”

“I’ll take you, but before we go, I’d like to explain to you what will happen. Our customs here may be different from what you’re used to in America.”

“I’m not accustomed to having my son die either in China or America, Inspector.”

“Bill,” his wife pleaded softly.

“Sorry. Go on.”

“We’ll be taking the body back to the Ministry of Public Security.”

“Absolutely not. Mrs. Watson and I have been through enough. We want to take our son home for burial. We need to do that as quickly as possible.”

“I understand your desire, but there are some things that are unexplained about your son’s death.”

“There’s nothing ‘unexplained.’ He obviously had some type of accident.”

“How can you possibly know that, sir? How”—and here she hesitated—“how can you be so sure that that is your son out there?”

“I’m telling you that if that’s my son, I’m taking him home to Montana, where we’ll bury him.”

“I have to apologize to you again, because that’s not going to happen anytime soon. You see, sir, I want to know why this young man—if he was your son—was out in the middle of winter without proper clothing. I want to know why he didn’t simply swim to shore. We need to do an autopsy and determine the true cause of death.”

“Let’s just see if we’re even talking about my son,” Watson said, then strode out across the ice.

As Liu Hulan and Ambassador Watson reached the circle, the human cordon parted and the pair walked through. Fong stood and stepped away from the body. The ambassador stopped, looked down, and nodded. “That’s Billy.” He exhaled heavily. Liu Hulan waited. Finally Watson spoke again. “I want my son. I want him fully clothed and untouched by you or anyone in your department.”

“Ambassador—”

He held up his hand to silence her and continued. “I don’t want to hear any of your bureaucratic nonsense. This was an accident. You and your superiors are going to treat this that way.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You will do it!”

“Ambassador, I know this is painful, but look at your son. Something happened here.”

Bill Watson returned his gaze to the frozen form of his son’s body, seeing the open eyes, the ice-filled mouth and nostrils tinged with blood. The ambassador then looked up and contemplated the lake, the ancient buildings, the leafless willow trees. Liu Hulan wondered if he was memorizing this panorama as the last sight that his son had seen. Then Bill Watson addressed the group.

“This was an accident,” he said in the even tones of a polished politician.

“How do you know that, sir? How can you be so sure?”

But he turned away and walked wordlessly toward his waiting, pale wife.

Liu Hulan called out after him. Her words seemed loud and harsh in the cold silence. “I’m not going to drop this, sir. I’m going to find out what happened to your son, then you can take him home.”