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Past, Present, No Future

By FM

Copyright 2019 FM




This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to your favourite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Contents

Other books by FM

Past, Present, No Future

Other books by FM

Please visit your favourite ebook retailer to discover other books by FM:


Short Stories

The Loan

Stories from the Village

Last Minutes


The Nameless Wanderer Series

Homecoming

Collateral


Judge Chen Series

The Temple of Yongzhou

The Elixir of Immortality

Casebook of Judge Chen


Novels

Past, Present, No Future

Disclaimer

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

In other words, nothing is real.

Chapter One


He visualised going into the phone as a string of ones and zeros, emerging on the other side and strangling the man who was currently shouting into his ear canal.

It was a good thing they weren’t meeting face to face, or he couldn’t have been sure that he would not have made his fantasy a reality. He changed the phone to this right ear as it heated up after a forty-minute diatribe, scalding his earlobe. The man on the other end went on and on about his responsibilities to the company, what he was supposed and not supposed to do, and of course, whether he’d given the new contract any thought.

He would have liked to reply that his only thought was rolling up the thick contract and shoving it up a part of the caller’s anatomy where the sun don’t shine. When he finally got off the phone, it had 2% remaining battery. He leaned back in the black high-backed leather chair, swivelled it to face the window with a view of a drab grey building identical to the one he was in, and he wondered if all this was worth it.

Then a knock came on the door and his secretary poked her head in. And his mood improved marginally at the sight.

“There’s a man downstairs who wants to see you,” she wore a white translucent short-sleeved blouse with a cut down the front, so deep that you could take a swim in it. She reminded him of the actress in If You Are the One. With a pair of black-framed glasses and a necklace with a pendant pointing suggestively downwards, she could be a twin sister of the actress who, incidentally, played a secretary in the movie.

“Who?” he shifted his eyes from the blouse to her face. He knew what she was doing. But he wasn’t in the mood for that today. “We don’t have any clients.”

“I don’t know. He didn’t say.” She leaned against the door jamb and crossed her arms, emphasising her impressive assets. 34E, he remembered she had mentioned it once in bed. He’d had a Victoria’s Secret hot red V-wire teddy delivered to her house the next day, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to see the effect for himself.

“Investor? Is it Fan Xiansheng again?” Didn’t he just get chewed out over the phone? That wasn’t enough?

“He didn’t say. Doesn’t look like it, though.” Mumu sashayed over to his desk and dropped a stack of files, leaning forward to give him a better view. Beauty and brain. She was well-endowed in the former and sorely lacking in the latter. The gods were fair.

“Who’s he then?” He massaged his temples and pretended not to get the hint of what she was offering. He had no time for that.

“He said just to tell you Sun Han, and you’d know.” She parked her bottom on the edge of the desk, wearing what could only be described as a microskirt. Any shorter, it would be a belt. “What do you want me to do?”

He didn’t hear the rest of her questions, missed the inviting gleam in her eyes and the playful finger that trailed across the back of his hand. His head swam. He grabbed the smooth lacquered surface but found no purchase.

A name he hadn’t heard of for sixteen years had found him here.

He pushed away her flirtatious hand and managed to flex his fingers, numb with shock, to type a few words on the keyboard to bring up the view from the CCTV camera trained on the front door.

It was him. A face from the past. A face he thought he would never see again, if he were lucky.

“Bring him in. Cancel whatever I have on the calendar for the rest of the day. Are the staff still here?”

“It’s 5 o’clock. They’re gone. I’m about to head out myself, but I wanted to see if you have anything else for me. Tomorrow’s the weekend.” What she lacked in intelligence and situational awareness, she more than made up for it in tenacity. She hopped off the polished oak surface and strutted around to his side of the desk. Her perfume invaded his nostrils. Were those the shoes he’d bought for her?

“You can leave. Close the door behind you after you bring him up.” He ignored her pout, pushed back from the desk and stood up. A small bathroom was attached to the office. Boss’s privileges. He washed his face and took a long, deep breath.

The face that stared back at him in the mirror was both familiar and strange at the same time. He’d lost the artsy bangs and his hairline had been receding for about one cm each year, a fact carefully camouflaged by a 200-yuan haircut every month. His skin was more tanned, a healthy glow achieved from more days spent outdoors than he would have liked. But he was still the same man, essentially.

When the day he’d been dreading was finally here, an eerie sense of calm descended over him.

He was right. The gods were fair. They never gave you anything without taking away something else at the same time. He had already been given longer than anyone else. He had a wife, kids, and a company. If an audit were to be done on his life, he believed he would still come out ahead than most of the other people.

The visitor pushed the office door open without knocking. He looked much older, but then, more than a decade and half had passed.

He took a breath to steady his trembling hands, and stood up to greet the man from his past.

Chapter Two


Shenzhen was consistently ranked as the second or third richest city in China by GDP. It was nestled in the Pearl River Delta, with Hong Kong as its neighbour and boasting the status as the first Special Economic Zone set up in 1980. Twelve million people called this place home. Add in the unregistered migrant population who floated in and out, the number edged closer to twenty million.

With so many people crowded into so tiny a space, crimes were an inevitability. Dapeng was one of ten districts in the city. It had the prettiest coastline in all of Guangdong Province, which attracted photophiles with their Fujifilm X-T1s and Nikon D810s as well as foodies with their forks and bibs. Hot on the heels of the tourists were pickpockets, scam artists, and “limbless” beggars.

When the police officers from Dapeng District Precinct One got the frantic call at 5.30 in the morning, they thought it was hoax at first. Theft, vandalism, frauds, drunken brawls, these they were used to. But a dead body?

“Are you sure?” the operator had to double-confirm with the caller, whose words were incoherent and slurred.

Officers Yang Xiang and Yang Kangzhan were dispatched to the scene. Dapeng District was actually a peninsula, jutting out from the southeastern edge of Shenzhen into the South China Sea. The call originated from Yangmei Valley, named after the Chinese bayberry trees that dotted the landscape. With two meandering rivers that flowed into the aquamarine sea, a white-sand beach, a cycling path lined with palm trees, and rustic farmhouses in the background, it was often voted as the best locale for wedding photography.

After the betrothed and the cameramen left, however, locals were left to pick up pieces of discarded soda cans, beer bottles, instant noodle bowls, plastic bags, and weirdly, candles and prayer incense.

The car was found behind a small mountain of rubbish.

The obsidian black metallic Mercedes-Benz S-class coupé stood out from the sea of gaudy yellow, blue, and orange, and aroused the curiosity of a group of middle-schoolers. They were kids who lived in Yangmei Village half a kilometre away from the beach. Luxury cars were a common sight here, but after sunset, most of them would be on their way back to the CBD or five-star hotels. A resort hotel had been proposed here, but it had been stuck at the blueprint stage forever. Other than fishermen who went out at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, there was usually no one else on the beach in the early hours.

Drunk on rice wine and overfed on grilled sea urchin and scallops, the group of 14-year-old boys decided to take a closer peek. They were hoping to catch a couple who, fired up after the wedding photoshoot, decided to stay and take advantage of the romantic spot to consummate their union.

But it was just a man. No half-dressed fiancée straddling his lap or giving him a passionate kiss.

The disappointed kids returned to their game of beachcombing. When they found nothing of value except a couple of crabs who’d come ashore and gotten lost in the sand, they were ready to head home.

The car was still there. So was the man.

One of kids, the de facto leader of their small clique, approached the car. Maybe the man was lost, or he’d run out of petrol. The boy’s parents ran a farmstay in the village. If he could persuade the man to come with him, there would be leniency when his dad deliberated the sentencing to be handed down once he discovered the empty rice wine jar.

The window on the driver’s side was all frosted over. The boy knocked on the glass window, lightly, then with some force. But the man didn’t respond. That was when he felt maybe something wasn’t quite right.

Still tipsy from the wine and having watched too many gangster films imported from Hong Kong, the boy immediately jumped to the scary conclusion that he was staring at a body.

Thus the mad scrabble back to his house and the call to the police. Seeing how the boy was shaken up by the (imagined) close encounter with the dangerous underworld, his parents decided to forgo any punishment regarding the wine and the sneaking out.

Officers Yang Xiang and Yang Kangzhan approached the car. It was still pre-dawn. The sun wouldn’t come up for another forty-five minutes. The mist over the window had cleared up, with condensed water dripping down at a glacial pace. Officer Yang Kangzhan gripped the car handle with his hand wrapped in sleeve—he was more used to dealing with neighbourhood disputes and petty thefts, but something told him to be more careful.

The door was locked.

“No visible signs of injury on his face or person. Clothes intact.” Yang Kangzhan peered through the window at the man on the driver’s seat. “Looks like he’s just sleeping.”

Repeated, heavy knocks on the window did nothing to rouse the immobile man inside. The glass was cool to the touch.

“The engine’s gone cold,” the younger Yang Xiang touched the hood of the car. He could see the left side of the driver’s face through the windshield. His eyes were closed. “From what the kids told us, he’s been here for at least four or five hours. Maybe he’s passed out. Shall we should break the window?” He eyed the mound of trash nearby. There would be a handy brick or a beer bottle somewhere in there.

“No need. If he’s just taking a nap, sleeping off after too much wine, he’s not going to be happy with the broken window when he wakes up.”

“We’re trying to help him.” Yang Xiang shone a torchlight through the window. The driver’s head lolled to the right, his chin resting on his shoulder. He was wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt. It was hard to tell if his chest was heaving.

“I’ve dealt with men who drive this kind of car before. They operate by a different set of rules and moral standards. Remember the news in Chengdu, where a woman locked her baby in the car and went shopping for half an hour? A passerby called the police, who smashed the window and got the baby out. You know what’s the first thing the woman did when she came back? She blamed the police for damaging her car. She didn’t check on her baby, or care about the fact that the officer’s hand was bleeding. I’m not saying everybody is like that, but this is getting to be a rather litigious society, might as well be careful. I don’t want to have to find out how much a Mercedes-Benz window costs.”

“So we just stand here and wait for him to wake up?”

“Of course not. You’re new to the precinct, but I’ve been here since the district was created back in 2011. I know basically everybody who lives in Yangmei Village.” Yang Kangzhan headed into the village and returned with a man in tow twenty minutes later.

“Do your thing.”

“Are you sure?” the man was in his fifties, with a wispy beard and a bony face. His body was hunched over, making him resemble a cooked shrimp. “I got out of the business many years ago, Officer. I swear.”

“Yes, but you couldn’t have forgotten your skills. It’s like riding a bicycle.” Yang Kangzhan said to his younger colleague, “This is Old Gu. Before his new life as a fisherman and farmstay operator, he used to be the leader of a local pickpocket gang called . . . What was it again?”

“The Black Bighead Carps, you know, like the Pink Panthers, but we do tourists and cars . . . I mean, we did tourists and cars. The gang’s disbanded now. We’re all law-abiding citizens after receiving re-education.” Old Gu didn’t slow down as he talked. He held a small black device that looked like a lithium battery pack used in old-fashioned torches, and moved it slowly over the surface of the car door without touching it. In under a minute, there was an audible clack.

“There you go,” Old Gu stuffed the device into his pocket and stood aside with an expression on his face akin to professional pride.

“Thanks. Here’s your receipt. Go to the station and they’ll pay you the standard rate of a locksmith.” Yang Kangzhan ripped off a page from his notepad and handed it to Old Gu, who refused to take it.

“It’s no big deal. I’m glad to help out. What’s this about then?” Old Gu stretched his neck to look into the car.

Yang Kangzhan stood there wordlessly, watched Old Gu back off, turn away, and start walking back to the village.

“Interesting that after he retired, he still carried that professional-looking device with him.” Yang Xiang commented.

“Bigger fish,” Yang Kangzhan put two of his fingers under the driver’s nostrils, then checked his pulse. The interior of the car was cold, like the inside of an ice cream truck. Kangzhan straightened up, and took off his cap. “He’s dead.”

Chapter Three


Yang Xiang had joined Precinct One in May, after passing the civil service exam on the third try. He was 25 years old. His first arrest was a drunkard for public affray last month.

The transition from tussling with men smelling like baijiu and fermented beancurd, to coming face to face with a dead body, albeit a relatively presentable one, had caught him off guard.

Yang Kangzhan left him retching to one side and called it in. Precinct One wasn’t equipped with dealing with dead bodies. The dispatcher said he’d had to borrow a forensics team and a coroner from the nearby precinct. Estimated time of arrival was an hour and half.

The sun was slowly making its way over the horizon now, painting the sky with the colour of overcooked egg yolk. Wedding photographers typically showed up in the early afternoon when the lighting was better. And the car was hidden from view by the trash. He didn’t have to worry about curious onlookers, at least for a while.

Nonetheless, Kangzhan got out a roll of barrier tape and asked Yang Xiang to set up a perimeter.

Kangzhan stood one step away from the open car door on the driver’s side and visually inspected the scene. The seat belt was taut across the man’s chest and abdomen. His eyes were closed. His cheeks and lips had a healthy pinkish hue. He looked almost serene. His clothes looked expensive, though a bit crumpled. A black briefcase rested on the backseat. He wore a Patek Philippe watch on his left wrist. A wallet peeked out from his right pants pocket.

The interior of the car was immaculate. An Autodoc bamboo charcoal air freshener swayed slightly, hanging from the mirror above the dashboard, which was free from clutter. Other than a few smudges of dirt in front of the passenger seat, the floor mat was squeaky clean. The upholstery was beige nappa leather. Kangzhan wasn’t a car enthusiast, but he’d seen and dealt with enough rich men to give a rough estimate of the car’s price. A 2-door coupé like this would fetch anywhere from one point five to two million yuan.

The forensics team showed up first. There were four of them. Kangzhan had worked with them before. There was no need for introduction.

The lead crime scene investigator was a man in a wrinkled white shirt that had been washed too many times. His hair was uncombed and wisps of it were pushed this way and that by gusts from the ocean. He looked like everybody’s favourite grandpa, with the mild manner and a kind smile to match.

Huang Junliang did an initial walk-through of the scene. He circled the car, visually examined the hood and the trunk without touching them, and made a note in his pad.

The car was parked some distance from the sandy beach. The ground was packed with small pebbles and jagged rocks.

“I hear a kid found the car?” He asked Kangzhan while another technician took photographs and drew sketches. A third member was holding up a camera on his right shoulder, documenting the scene in video format.

“Kids. Four of them thought it would be a good idea to wake up early and come to the beach. They had a barbecue not far from here and got drunk. They were combing the beach for valuables—rings, diamonds, whatnot, when they saw the car.” Kangzhan watched the fourth member of the team, a woman in her forties, kneel down beside the car and running a handheld light wand over the door. “It might very well turn out to be a case of suicide. I’m afraid you might have come out all the way for nothing.”

“Oh? What makes you say that?” Junliang opened the passenger side door with a gloved hand, bent down to examine the footwell and came back up with something between his fingertips. “Dirt.”

“His key’s in the ignition,” Kangzhan pointed to the dashboard. “No visible signs of trauma on his body. His clothes are intact. Car doors were locked. When we came, the windows were frosted on the outside. I bet the battery’s dead now. When we charge it, we’re going to find that the air-conditioning has been turned on.”

“So you think carbon monoxide kill him?” Junliang asked with the patient tone of a professor, showing neither agreement nor objection.

“Cars like this have batteries that last up to four or five hours. If he stayed inside for that long, the build-up of gas would reach a concentration high enough to kill.” Kangzhan saw Junliang shake his head. “You disagree?”

“No, not about what you said. But that’s for the coroner to decide. My job here is done.” Junliang checked with his technicians to make sure everything was bagged and tagged. They would be sent back to the lab, awaiting orders for test. “If the coroner rules this a suicide, there would be less work for me and my team. I was just admiring the car. It looks almost brand new. Such a shame. To think that someone who gets to enjoy a car like this would choose to end his life. Maybe he’s depressed. After all, he was in the most beautiful coast in all of Guangdong, and he didn’t bother to raise the hardtop roof to get a better view.”

One of the technicians whispered something in his ears. Junliang frowned. “Are you sure? Do it again. Check both door handles. The key fob, the steering wheel.”

“What’s the matter?” Kangzhan asked.

“She didn’t find any prints on the front part of the car. The two doors, the key fob, the steering wheel, the touchscreen control.”

“Are you sure?”

“That’s why I’m asking her to check again. There’re prints on the hood and the latch of the trunk. But the places where you’d expect the most prints are coming up empty.”

The results were the same. The front part of the car had been wiped clean. No patent or latent prints.

“Hmm,” Kangzhan was tempted to wield the light wand himself for a third check.

“That’s what the scene shows. As for what it means, I’ll leave it to you.” Junliang patted Kangzhan on the shoulder amicably.

The coroner arrived just as the forensics team was leaving.

Qin Ruoyun was the only coroner serving four precincts covering a population of two hundred thousand, and that was not counting the three hundred thousand visitors who came to the peninsula every day. Suicides, accidental drownings, assaults, heart attacks . . . Every dead body in the district had passed through his hands.

So it was understandable that he always looked harassed. He gave a curt nod to Kangzhan and ordered two of his underlings to get the body onto a steel gurney.

“Last time I saw you was three days ago. Couldn’t you keep people in your precinct from dying?” Ruoyun had been called to the house of an 83-year-old woman who passed in her sleep. Her sons refused to believe that she’d died naturally and the coroner had to be summoned by the police for an examination. “The old woman’s body is still lying in my locker. You keep this up, soon I’d have to petition for a bigger morgue.”

“The air-conditioning must have been running at full blast. The body’s gone stiff.” Kangzhan kept the idea of possible suicide to himself. He didn’t want Ruoyun to accuse him of wasting his time again.

“Who’s the new guy?” Ruoyun tilted his chin at Yang Xiang, who’d been standing ten metres away from the car. Kangzhan had tasked him with perimeter control, though no one other than the forensics team and the coroner had shown up here. It was 7.40 am.

“His name’s Yang Xiang, just joined three months ago.”

“Same surname, a relative of yours? Cronyism much?”

“Not related. FYI, there are over thirty million people in the country with the surname of Yang.”

“What kind of name is Xiang? It literally means ‘shit’.”

“His character Xiang means ‘flying’, not the other Xiang. What kind of name is Ruoyun?” Kangzhan felt the urge to defend his young partner. They shared a surname, after all. “Ruo means ‘like’. Yun means ‘cloud’. ‘Like a cloud’, isn’t it kind of a girly name for a man like you?”

Ruoyun gave him the evil eye and stalked away.

“When will I know the cause of death?” Kangzhan shouted after the old man.

“You’ll know it when I know it.”

“Let’s call the precinct. Get someone to tow the car back. I got a photo of his wallet before the forensics team took it away. I have his name and home address. Wu Gang.”

“Like the man in the story who’s been banished to the moon and has to spend eternity cutting down an osmanthus tree, that Wu Gang?”

“Same name. We’ve got his phone as well, but it’s password protected, no use to us. We’d have to pay a visit to his house. Are you still up for it?” Kangzhan said.

Yang Xiang nodded, “Sorry about earlier. That was unprofessional. I know there’s no blood or gore or anything, but still, a dead body looks nothing like the ones you see on TV.”

“It’s your first dead body. Understandable. At least you didn’t puke all over the car.”

“Do you really think he killed himself?” Yang Xiang had caught the early part of Kangzhan’s conversation with the crime scene investigator.

“Could be, but we’re not rushing into any conclusion, especially in light of the missing fingerprints. Talking to his family and friends will help us figure out more.”

“Where are we going?”

“315 Xinqu Avenue, Longhua District. A condo project called Yuanjing Gardens.”

“I hear an apartment there costs more than what I make in a lifetime.”

“Wrong. You and me combined, our lifetime salary could probably buy a bathroom there. Brace yourself. We’re no longer dealing with unruly tourists or small-time thieves.”


Chapter Four


The two Yangs went back to the precinct first to give a brief account to Deputy Director Fan Liang.

Since the director was always stuck in endless meetings, Fan Liang effectively ran the station. He was a tall, gaunt man, his eyebrows perpetually locked together like he was deep in serious thought, even though he was just deciding on which soda he wanted from the vending machine. He held a white porcelain cup with both hands as he listened to the report.

“So you think it’s suicide?” he asked the older Yang. Kangzhan had been with Precinct One since the day it was created. Before that, he worked as a police detective in the larger district of Bao’an. Transferring to a station in a tourist area was his way of retiring from the front line without actually leaving the force.

“Looks that way. We’re still waiting on the coroner’s report. I’ve searched for Wu Gang’s IC number in the system. He’s married to a woman named Zheng Ping. They have two kids, age 8 and 6.”

“Okay. Go do your thing. Be gentle with the family. If the wife wants to see the body, call ahead to the morgue to make sure it’s presentable. I hear Ruoyun has just gotten a new trainee. You know what he’s like. His motto is to teach through practice. I don’t want the body to be cut in pieces with guts spilled all over the place when the family arrives.”

“Speaking of the coroner, would you mind giving him a call for an update? I know it’s still early, but I would like to be able to give the family something when I go talk to them. You know how Qin is. He doesn’t have time to spare for lowly cops like me.”

“He just talks that way, but he thinks highly of you.”

Kangzhan just shrugged.

“Ruoyun and I go way back. He once told me, in confidence, that is, that you have brought the performance of the entire precinct up a whole other level. He doesn’t judge based on clearance rate. He judges by the absence of bodies in his morgue. He said since you’ve come to Precinct One, he’s had more free time, and even an occasional holiday.”

Kangzhan didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll give him a call.” Fan Liang dialled as the two officers saluted and left. He was planning to call Ruoyun anyway. They had planned a get-together this evening. “How’s the autopsy going?”

“What autopsy?” came the gruff reply. Maybe because he spent so much time with the dead, Qin Ruoyun didn’t have the patience to talk to mortal beings who talked back.

“The thirtyish male found dead in a car on the beach outside Yangmei Village.”

“That was two hours ago!”

“I know, but my officers are on their way to notify the family. Anything you can give me?”

“I haven’t cut him open yet, if that’s what you’re asking. But he’s been drinking.” Qin Ruoyun said. His phone was on speaker as he examined the body, stripped bare on the autopsy table. “His teeth are stained purplish red. So is his tongue. Likely red wine, and not a small amount of it. From the time of the police call and the time of me getting there, he had to be dead for at least three, four hours. Yet I could immediately smell the wine when I pried open his lips.”

“Drunk driving?”

“Maybe. I’ll have to test his blood for alcohol content to be sure how much he drank. He also has several scars on his left arm, though they look old and have already healed.”

“Kangzhan suggested that he could have killed himself. Locked doors, closed windows, and a running air-conditioner.”

“It’s looking that way,” Qin Ruoyun acknowledged begrudgingly. “The telltale cherry-pink colour of liver mortis. Though if you ask me, a better way would be to drive the car straight into the sea.”

“Better as in, no body for you to examine?”

“That, plus it’s much faster for cause of death ruling. Even if I know it’s carbon monoxide poisoning, I still have to do blood tests for alcohol and carboxyhaemoglobin levels. While there’s another, more interesting body waiting for me on a nearby gurney. Car crash. Half of his upper body gone. His guts slowly slipping onto the floor as we speak.”

“Okay okay, enough details. I’ll let you get back to the ‘interesting’ body. But if you already know it’s car crash, what makes it more interesting than the suicide?”

“I know why he died. Now I need to know how he died. Which part of the car cut into his body. At what angle. Whether the medication he’d been taking had any effect on his judgement and reaction time. The other driver came away unscathed, and he’s claiming the dead man rammed into him instead of the other way round. Dead man’s a retired teacher. His family is still waiting for a verdict.”

Fan Liang simply nodded, though he knew Ruoyun couldn’t see it. He called Yang Xiang, since Kangzhan was mostly likely the one driving. The commute from their police station to the deceased’s house would take at least an hour and half, over a tolled expressway. It was 9 o’clock now. Rush hour in the city hadn’t ended. He didn’t expect them to arrive at the house until 11.

Stuck behind a long line of cars waiting to pass the toll towards the CBD, Kangzhan asked Yang Xiang to get more data on the place they were going to. “You know how to work with those tablet things faster than I do.”

Some colour had returned to the young officer’s pale face. Kangzhan could have left Yang Xiang in the station. They needed to know more about the deceased: occupation, work address, prior records, if any. But the soon-to-be widow Kangzhan was driving to meet had two small kids. It was Saturday, they would mostly likely be home. Kangzhan would need an extra pair of hands.

“I got the condo’s website. Yuanjing Gardens is a residential project. Phase Two was finished in 2009. Eighteen buildings, each thirty-one to thirty-three stories. A total of 786 units. Close to Line 4 of Shenzhen Metro. Three parks within walking distance. Twenty-two kindergartens, six primary schools, nine middle schools, and three high schools within a 10-km radius. Three hospitals, two clinics, and ten neighbourhood health centres. Supermarkets like Walmart, Renrenle, and Coco City within walking distance.” Then he whistled.

“What?”

“You know how you said our salaries combined could maybe buy a bathroom there? Well, only if the bathroom is intended for a cat. If they sell units by the square centimetres, we’d be living on a doormat.”

Kangzhan was quiet.

“What are you thinking?”

“Wu Gang drives an imported car, has an apartment in one of the most expensive districts in Shenzhen, has a wife and two kids. Would you say he’s a successful man?”

“By most people’s definition, sure.”

“Sounds like you don’t agree with most people.”

“His car and house could have come with a mortgage. He may be having arguments with his wife. Or his kids give him headaches. All I know is that there’s not necessarily an equal sign between success and happiness. The most obvious evidence is what we have just seen: if he was really happy, he wouldn’t have killed himself.”

“I’m no longer so sure it’s a suicide. The missing prints don’t make any sense. If you are killing yourself, why would you wipe down the car first?”

“What if he’s a germophobe who’s obsessed about cleanliness? He could be wiping the car without even being conscious of it.”

“No discarded napkins or wet wipes found on him or near the car. Besides, only the front part of the car was wiped down. There’re plenty of prints on the back seats and trunk.”

Yang Xiang tapped his fingers on the tablet. “What if someone killed him and then wiped down the places they’d touched? They didn’t wipe the other parts because they didn’t touch them.”

“That’s what I’m thinking as well. It makes more sense than the suicide scenario.” Kangzhan nudged the car forward. “But if Wu Gang was murdered, where are the injuries? You’ve seen him. He looks like he’s just taking a nap and might wake up any moment.”

“You said he likely died of carbon monoxide poisoning, right? There wouldn’t be any external signs of trauma.”

“Hopefully by the time we get back to the precinct, the coroner’s preliminary report will be waiting on my desk.” Though Kangzhan knew the chance of that happening was slightly lower than him winning the lottery.

Upscale was an inadequate word to describe the building they were standing in front of. The uniformed security guard at the entrance gave them no trouble—he was a retired police officer. After getting their badge number and license plate and handing over a visitor’s badge to each, he waved them through. Kangzhan drove through a garden with benches and flowerpots and dogs sunning themselves around a small fountain in the centre, past a fitness corner with a retiree riding a stationary bike.

He parked the car in a visitor’s lot on basement level 2 and climbed the stairs to the lobby. There was an intercom at the glass door. He was about to call up Wu Gang’s unit when a woman opened the door from the inside and walked out, a Chihuahua in her arms. She gave the two uniformed officers a skeptical look before strutting off.

They took the lift to the 28th floor. Yang Xiang checked his reflection in the gilt mirror. A red velvet stool sat in one corner. “It feels like we’re going into a KTV lounge.”

Each floor housed two units. The marble hallway floor was carpeted. Aromas of fried food came from the neighbouring unit. Kangzhan’s stomach growled. His last meal was more than twelve hours ago. Straightening his uniform, he pressed the doorbell.

A musical tune started playing on the other side of the door.

A minute later, a woman opened the door, “Why didn’t you call up from—”

She was holding a giant pair of shears in her hand.

Kangzhan’s hand went for his gun.

Chapter Five


The woman was wearing an apron smudged with dirt. Her sentence ended halfway when she realised the visitors weren’t who she was expecting.

Years of training kicked in at the sight of the sharp-edged weapon in her gloved hands, Kangzhan’s hand instinctively went to his holster, then he remembered that he wasn’t carrying a gun.

He took out his badge instead. “I’m Officer Yang Kangzhan. This is Officer Yang Xiang. We are from Dapeng District Precinct One. Are you Zheng Ping?”

She nodded. Realising the officer’s eyes on her hands, she put the shears down, “Sorry, I was pruning the houseplants. I thought you were the deliveryman. What’s this about?”

“Can we come in?”

“Sorry sorry, sure.” She wiped her hands on the apron, and led the way past the hallway into the living room, flooded with midday sunlight. Several potted bonsai were scattered on the balcony, some of them with their stems cut. Two young girls sat inside a colourful playpen in a corner of the living room, building a castle with Lego blocks. They stopped what they were doing and looked up at the strangers curiously.

“Yanyan, Nannan, go play in your bedroom.” The woman said.

“But mom, we’re hungry.” The older girl stood up and climbed over the low railing. “Where’s the pizza?”

“I’ll call you when it comes. Now take Nannan into your bedroom. You can watch Peppa Pig.”

Yanyan helped her sister out of the playpen and paddled off barefoot.

“Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee? I also have diet Coke and Perrier. Sorry the house is such a mess.” She swept Barbie in a pink tutu and a Princess Elsa doll off the glass-topped coffee table and wiped the surface with a piece of tissue paper. Then she covered her mouth with her hand and sneezed. “Excuse me. Do you want ice in your drinks?”

“We’re fine, really, thank you.” Kangzhan sat down and almost sank into the soft plush sofa. He chose to perch on the edge instead. The woman sitting across from him had long, black hair tied into a ponytail behind her back. Underneath the apron, she was wearing a pink off-shoulder top with straps and matching pink shorts. She had the slim build typical of a southern girl, but her skin was porcelain white instead of tanned. She wore light blue nail polish, and the two silver bangles on her left wrist jingled with her movement. She had on light makeup. She sat straight-backed with her knees together and her hands clenched.

“What is this about?” She asked again, her eyes darting from one officer to the other and back.

The intercom rang with a jovial tone before Kangzhan could speak. She shot up from the sofa. “That’s the deliveryman. Excuse me.” She walked over to the wall to buzz the deliveryman in, then she stood in front of the door waiting for the man to come up, her back to the two officers.

Kangzhan took the opportunity to size up the house. Other than the hallway they’d come in, there were two more that led off from the living room. The one the girls had walked down earlier must be leading to the bedrooms at the back. The other one led to the kitchen, presumably. The floor plan Yang Xiang had pulled up earlier showed this to be a 4-bedroom unit, with two full bathrooms, a half-bath, a study, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a storeroom, and what was labelled as a “recreation room”.

Despite Zheng Ping’s apology, the living room was impeccable. Kangzhan’s son was a grown man now, but his living room walls still retained the boy’s childish doodles of tanks and space battles. From ages 5 to 9, once summer came, the boy would start taking off his clothes piece by piece the moment he came through the door, like a lizard shedding its skin. The living room floor would be littered with safety hazards: belts, shoes, wooden blocks, crayons, and toy swords.

Zheng Ping had raised her daughters well.

She busied herself with taking delivery of the food, signing for it, closing the door, disappearing into a room where the girls were, and coming back out ten minutes later, the apron gone and her hair done up in a knot.

“Sorry, the girls are starving. Are you sure I can’t get you anything?” She finally sat down again, sweating slightly despite the air-conditioning.

“It’s fine. We would like to ask you some questions about Wu Gang. He’s your husband, correct?”

She nodded.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Yesterday morning, when he left for work. Why?”

“Did he come home last night?”

“No.”

“You’re not worried?”

“What for? It’s not the first time. He runs a startup. The work is demanding. His office is in Longgang District. It’s a forty-minute drive each way. Sometimes if it gets too late, he crashes in the office.”

“But today is Saturday.”

“There’re no fixed timetables for a startup, Officer Yang. He works when there’s work to do.”

“Do you have a photo of Wu Gang?”

“Of course I do,” she unlocked her iPhone, swiped, and turned the phone to face the officers. “What’s this about?”

The man with his arms around Zheng Ping in the photo looked fairer than the man in the car, but that could be simply due to retouching. Meitu Xiuxiu was a powerful photo editor.

“I’m sorry to inform you that your husband has been found dead this morning.” Kangzhan paused to let that sink in. Families of the deceased often had trouble processing what they heard the first time round.

“ . . . When?” Zheng Ping was handling it much better than he’d expected. At least she didn’t faint or break down in tears. Maintaining decorum was obviously important to her, though her trembling shoulders betrayed her true feelings.

“His body was found early this morning, around 5.45 am.”

“How did he . . .?”

“We’re still waiting on the results of an autopsy.” Kangzhan omitted the part about the wine and missing prints. No point confusing her even more at this time. “We would need you to come down to the morgue for a formal identification.”

“Now?”

“If you’re ready. Do you have someone who can look after the kids?”

“I gave the nanny the day off. I’ll, I’ll call her.”

Qin Ruoyun had covered the body with a white sheet. Zheng Ping identified the deceased as her husband, Wu Gang, 38 years old.

Kangzhan got her mobile phone number and offered to take her home. She refused.

He had many questions for her, but held off, given the state she was in.

“Two kids. Both so young. Can’t imagine how she’s going to handle all that now.” Yang Xiang watched Zheng Ping leave. Her high heels clicked on the cement floor of the morgue, reverberating in the narrow hallway.

“We can’t help her raise the kids, but we can find out how her husband died. At least give her some closure.” Kangzhan patted Yang Xiang on the shoulder. “Come on, Qin Ruoyun has something to tell us.”

“Do I have to watch the autopsy?” Yang Xiang’s face turned white again.

“You can stand with your back to the body.”

Chapter Six

Qin Ruoyun ran his morgue like a military establishment.

The bodies were stored in the order they were taken in. Bigger pieces of equipment— electric bone saw, skull breaker, sternal saw, rib shears, and speculum, were lined up on a wooden shelf based on frequency of use. Smaller ones, like scalpels, toothed forceps, and skin blades were laid out in a neat row by size. Sharpened pencils and capped pens were collected in stainless holders with the writing tips pointing up.

It was mid-afternoon when Kangzhan and Yang Xiang had returned to the morgue from Zheng Ping’s house. Qin Ruoyun was parked in front of a table full of test tubes and chemical sets, while his two assistants busied themselves at another table nearby.

“You don’t have to look at the body,” Kangzhan made the promise, before Yang Xiang stepped into the morgue reluctantly. He only relaxed when he saw Qin Ruoyun’s chemistry lab. The coroner rolled his eyes at the young officer.

“What have you found?” Kangzhan asked.

“We discovered the body early. Rigour mortis is just setting in. Body temperature puts time of death at 6 to 8 hours ago, though the air-con in the car could have slowed down the decomposition process. Add another two hours to it. I started the autopsy at 9.23 am, which means you’re looking for someone who was with the deceased from midnight to about 2 am this morning.”

“You said someone. So it’s a murder?” Yang Xiang had been taking notes diligently like a student on his first day in school, though the autopsy report would be compiled and delivered to the station later anyway. He raised his hand to ask the question.

“Let me finish, will you?”

“Sorry.”

“Deceased is 38 years old, 1.75 m, 75 kg. Appears healthy enough, all the organs are functional, though it’s obvious he led a sedentary life. The ABV of typical red wine is from 12% to 14%. Assuming he started drinking at shortly before midnight, and working from his current blood alcohol level backwards, he had to have downed at least one bottle of wine, or more likely two. He should be having trouble walking upright. Confusion, disorientation, nausea. Some people would have passed out at this stage.”

“How could he have driven himself to Yangmei Valley? The car doesn’t have a scratch on it. Even someone sober might have trouble navigating the hard pebbles on the beach at night.” Kangzhan said.

“That’s for you to figure out. His COHb—” Ruoyun paused and glanced at Yang Xiang “—His carboxyhaemoglobin level is 58%. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Kangzhan nodded. No surprise there.

“Other than alcohol, I also found chemicals in his blood.”

“Drugs?”

“Not the kind you mean. Compound paracetamol, amantadine hydrochloride, artificial ox bezoars, chlorphenamine, and caffeine. These are common ingredients in over-the-counter medicine. Flu, cold, running nose, cough, and mild allergies. I found a tiny puncture mark on the man’s upper right arm. Could be he had a flu and got an injection.”

“We’ll check with his wife on that.” Kangzhan made a note.

“But there’s a lot of it. It flooded his bloodstream.”

“Does that mean he overdosed on flu medication? And why would he drink so much wine when he was taking medication at the same time?” Yang Xiang wondered out loud.

Ruoyun shrugged.

“What’s your verdict?” Kangzhan asked.

“All I can tell you is that the cause of death is carbon monoxide poisoning. He was likely already unconscious at the time, based on the amount of medication and wine he consumed. As for whether he took them himself, or someone poured the wine down his throat and forced the medicine on him, that’s your job. Though I can tell you there’re no signs of external trauma.”

“What do you think?” Kangzhan asked his younger partner after they left the morgue. Their next stop was the police impound lot.

“I’m still trying to process the information,” Yang Xiang flipped through his small notepad. “Getting drunk and then turning on the AC in the car is a typical suicide move, but the wiped-down doors and windows don’t fit. There’s another problem. I searched online. It takes about twenty to thirty minutes to fill up a closed garage with enough carbon monoxide for it to be fatal. Wu Gang’s car was parked outdoors. Even with the doors closed, the exhaust gas would have been released through the pipe. There couldn’t have been a gas build-up inside the car unless—”

Kangzhan nodded, “Not bad. That’s why we are going to the impound lot next. I’ve asked them to charge the car battery.”

The S-class coupé stood out among the sea of dark blue and sedated grey. Kangzhan got into the driver’s seat, which felt cramped even though he was about the same height as Wu Guang. The key was still in the ignition. He turned it. The coupé came to life with a purr.

The AC setting was turned to the lowest temperature. The Recirculation button was lit.

He got out and walked to the back of the car. The CSI team had taken the boxes of files from the trunk. He knelt down to look into the dark, unblinking eye of the exhaust pipe. With a gloved hand, he ran his finger along the inner surface of the pipe.

Tiny particles had stuck to the glove. They looked like sawdust. Kangzhan carefully scraped them into an evidence bag.

“I guess we’re going back to the wife,” Yang Xiang said.

Kangzhan nodded, “Conclusion?”

“Murder.”

“Reason?”

“Someone put something in the exhaust pipe to block it and prevent gas from leaving the car. If Wu Gang did it himself, he wouldn’t have been able to remove whatever it is afterwards.”

“Not bad.”

Chapter Seven

Zheng Peng met them in a café near the condo.

“The girls are with the nanny, who’s not too happy about having to work on a Sunday.” She smiled weakly. She ordered espresso. The tiny cup suited her delicate hand. A carefully applied layer of powder tried its best to camouflage the dark circles under her eyes. “I still haven’t told them about their father. What do you say to a 6-year-old, who’s still waiting on her daddy to play Kaleidoscope Junior with her? Or an 8-year-old, who’s dying to show off her papercut rhino? What if they ask me what happened? I don’t even know what happened.”

“We found presence of sleep-inducing chemicals in his blood, and a large amount of alcohol. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning.” Through his years of dealing with families of deceased, Kangzhan found that there was no such thing as an ideal approach. Simple, factual statements might hurt in the short run, but they also helped families to move along the stages of grief.

“You mean, like a gas leak?”

“Something like that.”

“But why? Why would he kill himself?”

“Why do you think he killed himself?”

“The wine, the drugs, the gas . . . I thought . . . It’s just that he’s been under so much stress lately . . . Are you saying it wasn’t suicide?”

Kangzhan didn’t answer, “Can you tell me more about the stress? Is it work-related?”

“I guess. I don’t get involved in his work, but I hear things now and then. He’s running a company, well, a team, really, that’s doing a project about book sharing. Which sounds like a quaint idea, I know. You’ve heard of Ofo and Mobike?”

Yang Xiang nodded. “You download an app, scan a QR code to unlock the bike, and you can ride it. It costs a few yuan each ride.”

“Then you know about the sharing economy. Wu Gang wants people to read more. He has persuaded a group of investors to back his idea of a book sharing app. He’s already got the financing for it, but the infrastructure, something to do with the online platform, has run into problem. I’m not sure about the details. It’s all too technical for me. My college degree is in philosophy. Taking care of the girls is my full-time job now. With him gone, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to pull it off . . .”

Kangzhan directed her thoughts back to the present. “Do you think the stress was getting to him?”

“I honestly don’t know. I mean, I know there’s a lot of money riding on the project, but I don’t believe Wu Gang would kill himself over something like that. He’d talked about going hiking with the girls next week.”

“When was the last time you spoke with him?”

“Face to face? That would be Friday morning, when he left for work.”

“Did he look more stressed than usual? Anything strange happened the night before?”

“No, nothing. He got home after I’d put the girls to bed. He was so tired, he slept without taking a shower. And I was busy getting the girls ready for school in the morning. We didn’t really talk much. He texted me that afternoon, saying he was going to be late.”

“Did he say why?”

“I didn’t ask. It’s not the first time. I know he’s taking a lot of heat from the investors, so I try not to add to his stress by being too pushy. I don’t want to be one of those wives who text and call their husband every minute, you know? I trust him.” The espresso had gone cold. She hadn’t taken a single sip. “He doesn’t even like hiking. He’s more of an indoor person. He only promised to go because Yanyan badgered him into it.”

“Did he have a cold or flu recently?”

“I don’t think so. He’s always had a strong constitution. Anybody else working under that kind of pressure would have broken down a long time ago.”

“Trouble sleeping?”

“No. Like I said, he’s been so busy this part couple of months, he could fall asleep on his feet.”

“Can you think of anyone who might be holding a grudge against your husband?”

“You mean does he have enemies?”

Kangzhan nodded.

“No. And I’m not just saying that because that’s what a wife always says. Wu Gang is, was, a very quiet person. Reserved. Shy, even. He’s more of a doer than a talker. Other than family and work, he doesn’t even talk to other people that much.”

“But I thought you said there was a problem with the project he was running.”

“There is, but I doubt anyone would try to hurt him over that. I mean, it’s an app for sharing books. How controversial can it be?”

“What about the investors? You said the project involves a lot of money. Can you give me a figure?”

“I don’t poke my nose into Wu Gang’s business. You’d have to ask people in his office for that.” She texted the address to Kangzhan. “Wu Gang is the CEO, though that’s just a glorified title. The entire company consists of eight employees. Wu Gang does most of the work.”

“What about outside of work?”

“He lives his life along a straight line. On one end is the office. The other end is home.”

“Is there any trouble at home?”

“No, of course not.” She spoke quickly. “Sure, sometimes I complain about him not being home. His secretary sees him more often than I do. But I understand the burden on him to provide for a family of four. The landscape of tech startups in Shenzhen is incredibly competitive. Did you know that Huawei’s headquarters is here? I know he works hard, and I’ve never given him any grief over it.”

Feeling he’d gotten all that he could out of the wife, Kangzhan thanked her for her time and cooperation. “Do you have the contact information of Wu Gang’s parents? It’s not in our system.”

“He’s an orphan,” she smiled wistfully. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place. I know it sounds cold, but an orphan means no complicated in-law issues to deal with.”

“Where to next?” Yang Xiang volunteered to drive on the way back.

“The office is in Longgang District. I doubt they’re still open on Sunday. We’ll pay them a visit tomorrow morning. What do you make of the wife?”

“She is clearly upset, but I’m not sure if it’s over her husband’s passing, or over something else. She says she has no complaint about his work, but she also says Wu Gang’s secretary spent more time with Wu Gang than she did. She claims to not know much about the company, yet she knows they have eight employees, and can write out the address from memory.”

Kangzhan nodded, “A wife who doesn’t get upset when her husband is habitually not home, and doesn’t even ask why or when he’s coming back, is either a saint, or—”

“Or she doesn’t love him, at all.”

Kangzhan glanced at the photo of Zheng Ping in his file. “And did you notice? She thought Wu Gang had committed suicide, but then I raised questions about his enemies. She never asked why we thought it wasn’t suicide.”

“We should probably look into Wu Gang’s finances. Title to the house, insurance policies, bank accounts.”

“Don’t forget prenup. I hear it’s popular these days.”

Chapter Eight

Deputy Director Fan Liang listened to the report from Yang Kangzhan with his favourite tea cup in hand. August was one of the hottest months in Shenzhen. That didn’t deter Fan Liang from enjoying his freshly brewed hot tea. Today it was longjing.

“ . . . Which is why we concluded that Wu Gang couldn’t have been the one driving, not under a state of extreme intoxication, not after taking enough medication to put down an elephant.” Kangzhan stood in front of the desk, a paper file in his hand. “Someone drove the car with Wu Gang in the passenger seat, parked on the beach, switched seats with Wu Gang, who was most likely unconscious at that time, and switched on the AC.”

“He could have driven the car to Yangmei Village when he was still conscious, parked, then consumed the wine and medication.” Fan Liang trusted Kangzhan’s work, but he liked to play devil’s advocate. He had come up through the ranks himself, and paper pushing, though necessary, was never his favourite part of the job.

“We considered that possibility,” Kangzhan said, “But there’s the exhaust pipe to consider. Someone removed the material used to block the pipe. It couldn’t have been Wu Gang himself. The murderer probably stood there and watched Wu Gang die, before removing the stopper. That’s another thing that tells me we’re looking for an amateur, someone who hasn’t killed before. They put Wu Gang in the driver’s seat to try to make it look like a suicide, but they wiped down the car and took away the stopper because they were afraid they’d left behind incriminating evidence.”

“It takes, what, twenty, thirty minutes for someone of Wu Gang’s size to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Standing there all that time, watching the life slowly leave the victim’s body, that’s cold. There are fishermen who live at the village. A lot of them get up early. I want you to interview them, ask if anyone has seen or heard anything at that time.”


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