Fang Mei-lin was the most beautiful woman in the world, and for weeks rumors had been flying around that she might show up in our neighborhood. Naturally, there was a pool at Gao’s on who would spot her first. The bet doubled on when the first sighting would be. It tripled on the location. That meant there was a lot of money in the pool, but no one bet that she’d show up on my doorstep on Tuesday, the day I always stay home to make lunch for Uncle O. You would have been crazy to make a bet like that; too bad I didn’t.
Since no one collected, Old Gao took the money for the house. There was no grumbling. Everyone knows that Gao runs the most serious gambling establishment in northeast China, and he makes the rules. He’s also very careful about the sort of betting that goes on in his place.
“No can do,” he says if I offer odds on something he considers unusual. Then he frowns and puffs on one of his awful cigarettes, an Egyptian. Boxes of them show up at his door a few times a year, payment for a bet someone lost long ago. The tobacco smells like a large animal died, but Gao doesn’t care. His only concern is making sure nothing interferes with the cash flow—in.
Given whom you can bump into at Gao’s—which is to say, a surprising number of high-level officials from the better stations in life—the place isn’t much to look at, just a shabby, one-story building off an alley in Yanji, a barely awake city thirty kilometers from the North Korean border. On the inside, Gao’s is even less impressive—three tiny rooms, each with a beat-up round table and five or six folding chairs. The walls used to be red. They still might be, but no one can tell because the old man doesn’t believe in paying a lot for electricity. Even when all three rooms are full, the place has the noise level of a tomb. People who come to Gao’s are serious about losing money, which they almost all do. Gao makes sure the experience has nothing to recommend it—no drinks, no snacks, no music, no women. You come in, you lose what you’re going to lose, and you leave. Anyone who wins keeps his mouth shut.
The iron house rule is that the betting stays simple—only horses, dogs, or cards. A sign taped to the wall spells it out for newcomers: NOTHING ELEGANT, NOTHING WEIRD. A week ago, I ignored the sign and tried to convince Gao to give me odds on something out of the ordinary. He snorted. “I don’t take money from children or idiots. Go away, Bingo. If I need your pathetic savings, I’ll come knocking.”
That might be why when there was a knock on the door Tuesday around noon, I assumed it was Gao, though I didn’t figure he wanted my money. More likely, I thought, he wanted to tell me a sad story about how Ping Man-ho, a lowlife with a taste for expensive Hong Kong suits, had stiffed him again. But when I opened the door, there was no fog of Egyptian tobacco. Instead, a delicate cloud of perfume enveloped me, followed by an eyeful of the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. My nervous system figured it out before my brain delivered the news.
If Fang Mei-lin was on my doorstep, that meant she was in my territory, referred to in official Ministry of State Security correspondence as YS/SB, shorthand for Yanji Sector/Special Bureau. YS/SB doesn’t look like much on the map. It doesn’t cover a lot of real estate. It’s just a strip of mostly empty land, twenty to thirty kilometers wide, that starts at the flyblown town of Tumen perched on the narrow, winding river of the same name. From there the sector heads north and east along the river, which loops aimlessly a few times like an adolescent dragon before finally making up its mind, turning south and east toward Russia and the East Sea. YS/SB stops at a raggedy place called Quanhe, the easternmost of China’s bridge crossings into North Korea. From that crossing to the Russian border, barely twenty kilometers away, is another MSS sector chief’s headache, usually someone junior and therefore unhappy.
Yanji Sector has been described as a bad dream spilling over onto 3,000 square kilometers. Sometimes, in especially bad times, it expands to 3,250 square kilometers. The exact configuration changes depending on who at Headquarters in Beijing has just looked at pins in the map and decided that rearranging sector responsibilities is urgent to prevent things along the border from getting worse than they already are. They are always already bad. Bad is the best they ever are.
When I was handed the assignment to head Yanji Bureau, the betting at Gao’s was that I wouldn’t last a year. MSS billets on the border with North Korea usually go up in flames for one of three reasons—stress, corruption, or, as true of my predecessor, unexplained and permanent disappearance. Yanji Bureau directors rarely last eighteen months. To everyone’s surprise, this was my seventh year. I was becoming a legend in Headquarters, which meant I couldn’t get a transfer out of Yanji no matter what I tried.
The population of Yanji City can fit into a few square blocks of apartments in Shanghai. What it lacks in size, though, Yanji makes up for in hyperactivity. Rumors constantly pour in, swirl around, and stream out. Paying attention to them is a good way to waste a lot of time chasing ghosts to nowhere. That’s why it didn’t mean much when my office suddenly started picking up the rumors that Fang Mei-lin would be in northeast China. Some of these graduated from rumors to agent reports, unusually detailed about her travel plans. A few even listed Yanji as a probable destination. That gave us a good laugh. What would anyone like Fang Mei-lin want with a town like Yanji? I put a little in the betting pool at Gao’s to be friendly, but otherwise I forgot about the rumors as quickly as they crossed my desk. There was plenty else to do at the time, and my mind was focused elsewhere. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
A week or so after the rumors died down, Beijing sent out a barrage of flash messages, three of them in quick succession. Flash messages are considered very urgent on a scale of how rattled your teacup should get when one arrives. All three of them screamed at us that the lady was definitely in our neighborhood. We were to inform Headquarters immediately—immediately!—about potential threats to her safety. I did what I always do with flash messages, which is not much.
Ignoring high-priority Headquarters messages is not easy. They arrive via special couriers riding big, thundering motorcycles. The couriers all look like they’re bred on a farm where they get a diet of good genes. They all wear the same outfit—high black boots, show-off leather gloves, and a helmet with a reflective visor they don’t like to flip up so you rarely get to see their eyes. The only thing missing is trumpets when the courier walks into the office. In case motorcycles and boots don’t get the requisite attention, every flash message comes in a special envelope, double wrapped with two thick black stripes around the middle. Across the flap is the best sealing tape money can buy. The tape has been specially designed by the Ministry’s technical department to tear the hell out of any fingers careless or untutored in removing it.
In mid-May, three couriers showed up one right after another; three envelopes were signed for; three messages duly read. Then, as I said, I tossed them aside. I wouldn’t say I ignored them; I just didn’t focus.
Now, planted in my doorway, I was paying attention to nothing else. Slowly, I looked Fang Mei-lin over from head to toe, making sure there were no threats to her safety. I had gone crown to foot and was coming up the other way when she spoke. I’d heard sultry voices before, but hers was in a class by itself.
“May I come in? Or do you need to frisk me first?”
As she brushed past, her perfume hung in the air. It was the expensive stuff, and it took up all the space the little oxygen molecules are supposed to occupy. Even without oxygen, it registered that she had on a silk suit, pale blue, with matching high heels and a pearl necklace that must have cost plenty. The pearls were perfect against her skin. They were the sort of pearls that make you think oysters know what they’re doing.
“I take it you are Bing Zong-yuan.” She didn’t wait for a response. “I need to see your uncle.” Standing in the narrow hall, she looked like she owned the place and was thinking of tearing it down to build something better.
“Not possible,” I said without having to give it a second thought, which was good because I was still breathing more perfume than air. As soon as the words were out I mentally lunged to take them back. It seemed a shame—a crime, actually—to say anything that might cause this image of perfection to turn and walk out the door. The problem was that I knew my uncle would see no one, not even a goddess from Shanghai, without an appointment. From the tilt of her chin, I knew that my fears were unfounded. She wasn’t about to be brushed off so easily. In case she changed her mind, I went quickly to Plan B—a spoonful of honey.
“If you’ll follow me into the library, we can discuss what this is about. Then we’ll put our heads together”—I paused to let my heart recover from the image of her face close to mine—“and devise a request for him, my uncle, if you follow my meaning, to consider on an emergency basis. I can pull out all the stops when necessary.”
“Don’t be a fool.” The sultry voice had been checked at the entrance, replaced by one with a good deal of brass. “Your uncle and I are old friends. Just tell him I’m here. I’ll wait.” She looked at me. “Shall we close the front door? Or would you like all the flies to come in?”
I reached around her and pulled the door shut.
“Have it your way,” I said, smiling to show how I wasn’t nonplussed in the company of women like her. Actually, it was the first time I’d been in the company of a woman like her, and I had the feeling that if I didn’t watch my step it might be the last. “This may take a while,” I said as I led her down the hall. “Maybe you should come in and count rose petals while I go explain the situation to him.”
Wrong approach. Her jaw was too delicate to clench, but the sparks from her eyes made it clear that I was treading dangerously. I’m smart enough to know when quiet is good, so I played dumb the rest of the way to the room we used for business. It wasn’t much of an office, more like a sitting alcove with two small desks, two upholstered chairs for clients, and numerous bookcases of various shapes that my uncle churned out on a regular basis. There weren’t many books on the shelves, mostly papers in untidy stacks, and a vase or two filled with long-forgotten flowers. Some people called them dried. I called them dead.
I pointed to a red velvet chair against the wall. “Why don’t you sit there? It’s the most comfortable seat in the place. I’ll try to find some tea. Today is the maid’s day off.”
This was an approximation of the truth, but I didn’t think she’d mind. There had been a maid at one time, but I couldn’t pay her after my wife took all the cash—including what had been buried in the backyard—and skipped town with a Japanese pastry chef. The maid left for Beijing a week later, hard on the heels of one final, noisy argument with my uncle and considerable slamming of doors. Shortly before she disappeared, she announced to the neighborhood at the top of her lungs that if she had to stay in the northeast for one more day, it was a good bet she would die of boredom assuming that she didn’t end up in jail for throttling my uncle first. The two of them had hissed at each other on first sight. I never figured out what it was; chemistry maybe, the sort of thing that makes one king toss another into boiling oil.
After locating a teapot and a clean cup, I left Fang Mei-lin in the office, walked down the back hall to a side door, crossed the tiny courtyard filled with squash vines, and entered an annex building through a low entrance that my uncle had made into his workshop. Scraps of wood were everywhere, nails and screws of different descriptions, rasps, hammers of varying sizes, a saw from Turkey of all places, a giant metal T-square leaning against the wall, and pots of varnish huddled together on a shelf. Bookcases in varying stages of completion occupied three of the four corners.
“You couldn’t just tell her to leave. You felt compelled to invite her in.” My uncle did not appear impressed or surprised when I explained who was waiting in the library. He was on a bench raised a few centimeters by wooden blocks under each of the legs, allowing him to sit while at his workbench. “The beauty of the flesh is fleeting, you know, or maybe you don’t. On the other hand, this”—he held up a length of dark wood—“will be beautiful for a very long time. It’s from a rain forest somewhere, but don’t ask me where. All I know is what they told me at the lumberyard in Harbin, and for once I believe them. It’s hard wood, dense, completely resistant to rot, unlike this so-called beauty that has made you gasp like a mudfish in summer. Those bandits in Harbin charged me an arm and a leg for it. I’m saving it for the right project.”
I didn’t think Fang Mei-lin’s beauty could be described as so-called, but this was no time to argue. When I didn’t give my uncle the satisfaction of a reaction, he continued. “She might have caused hearts to flutter once, mine included, but that didn’t last long and anyway it was years ago. This, however, is not fleeting. With this you could knock someone out for a week, maybe even permanently.” He tapped the piece of wood lightly on his head. “Want to try?”
“Possibly a good use for it,” I said, “but let’s perform the test later. I’ll make things simple. Yes or no. Do you or do you not want to see her?”
“I don’t suppose you have a rain forest in this grand country of yours?”
This caught me a little off guard. “What?”
“We used to have a map around here.” He looked at the walls, which had waybills and receipts tacked to them in no particular order. “It was one of those elaborate things, with different colors for vegetation, forests, grasslands, and I don’t know what. Did you take it down?”
“Me? I haven’t touched anything in your workshop. I never do. Everything is sacred. I’m surprised we don’t perform sacrifices to the gods in here.”
“My jade knife is out being sharpened.” Uncle O pointed to a half-finished chair. “Sit down if you want to talk. Talking like this is uneven, with me sitting and you standing. It makes you fidget. Don’t fidget, sit.”
“Thank you, I will.” I sat.
“Don’t lean back! The back isn’t attached.”
I leaned forward. “We don’t need an involved conversation, uncle. This isn’t a complicated issue.” Conversations with my uncle were rarely simple. There was a lot of bobbing and weaving. He did not see the utility in getting straight to the point. In fact, he was sure it could lead to nothing good. I sometimes worried that trait was beginning to rub off on me.
“Then go ahead and explain,” my uncle said. “Why are we dancing around the fort while the enemy is without?”
“This woman doesn’t have an appointment, and I know that normally means you won’t see her, but I couldn’t simply tell her to go away, could I? First of all, she’s gorgeous.” That was also second of all, and maybe third. “She said you were old friends. It crossed my mind that she could be making this up in order to get a meeting, but somehow I wasn’t sure, so I thought I should check with you before I booted her out. By the way, how does she know my name?” That I would never have booted out Fang Mei-lin we both understood without saying.
“Admit it,” my uncle said, “the real problem is she’s so tough you couldn’t tell her to leave even if you wanted to. You turned into a puddle as soon as you opened the front door.” He snorted. “She’s not even fifty, I don’t think. We never established exactly.” He smiled to himself. “How could we be old friends? And you’d better realize right now, she does her homework. She probably knows your sock size.”
I stood. “Actually, I would have bet she was quite a bit younger than fifty.”
That drew the hint of a frown. “Gambling rots the mind, I’ve told you that. Even as a figure of speech, it’s debilitating.”
By now I knew enough not to take that barbed hook. He didn’t like my gambling, and he made it a point to say so regularly. “I have to get back to work, so after she’s out the door, I’ll fix you some noodles for lunch and be on my way.”
“You think you can get rid of her that easily?”
That should have been warning enough, but I passed it off with a wave of the hand. “I’ll tell her you are indisposed, something to do with your bowels, and to make an appointment for tomorrow or the next day. She won’t be happy, that’s pretty plain. She seems to have an iron will.”
“More like titanium.” He turned to the pile of tools on his workbench. “Why is there never a file around when you need it?”
When I returned to the office, the red velvet chair was empty, and Miss Fang was standing near the window. In silhouette, she had the look of a Tang princess wondering whom to poison next. Very tough, I told myself, beneath those pearls. What was she doing here? Why did she need to see my uncle? And nagging atop everything: How did they know each other?
“Your uncle is on his way?” She turned away from the window, so the light from the back created the hint of a halo around her head. “May I suggest you don’t want to be in the room when he gets here. He and I have a few things to discuss.” She made “a few things” sound like rubies and pearls rolling across the naked backside of a five-hundred-yuan hooker on Dooran Street.
“Actually, he’s not available.” I sat down at the desk that I used when we had clients and pulled an appointment calendar from the bottom drawer. “He has a full schedule today.” I made a show of studying the pages and then brightened as if I’d found good news. “There is time tomorrow morning, though. Shall we say ten o’clock?”
“Oh, come now,” she said and fingered her pearls with a hint of annoyance. “Let me be direct.” She glided to the desk and leaned over. “I’m told being direct is one of my most attractive features.”
Some might quibble over what was her most attractive feature. I shrugged noncommittally.
“I must see your uncle today, within the hour.” She looked at the watch on her wrist. The watch was expensive; I didn’t think it was a copy of anything. The wrist was beautiful, leading to a graceful hand and long, slim fingers. She waved the fingers in my direction. “It’s not a question of choice. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. This is urgent. So, why don’t you trot back to his workshop, which I’m sure is where he’s sitting at this moment, and tell him to pull his nose out of those boards and get in here.” She smiled at me, a ravishing smile that would paralyze a racehorse heading for the finish line. “You can do that for me, can’t you?”
My uncle made her wait twenty minutes, in the polite range but on the edge of irritating. When I told him what she had said, he gave me a hard look. “Lucky for you I’m not paying you a salary, or you’d be fired. Never mind, I knew you couldn’t do it. Don’t feel bad. No one could. She’s implacable when she wants to be.” He shook his head. “That and insatiable.”
“All right, all right. She says it’s urgent. We’ll accept it is urgent because she’s not one to exaggerate. Don’t call her Miss Fang to her face, though. It will only flatter her. She’s Madame Fang to you.”
“Are you going to meet her like that?” I pointed at his trousers, which were covered with sawdust, and his shirt, with spots of dried glue down the front.
“She’s seen me in worse.”
“Not in less, I hope.”
He smiled faintly. “Hope crosses many rivers,” he said and brushed the sawdust from his pants. “You go in first and tell her I’ll be right there. Then sit and keep quiet. Don’t engage in chitchat. Don’t hum a happy tune. Just sit.”
“Is she married?”
“Why, are you going to propose while you’re waiting? She’d eat you alive and then look around for dessert. Keep your distance. Didn’t you learn anything from your former wife?”
I winced twice, once at the mention of dessert, and again at the reference to my wife. “That wasn’t called for,” I said. “I’m assuming you won’t drag out this meeting too long.” I looked at the clock on the wall. It was from the Harbin lumberyard my uncle visited occasionally. Two pine trees served as the hands, with the face of the clock a slightly blurry photo of the forests of Changbai Mountain. Fortunately, they hadn’t done anything cute with the numbers or it would have been completely unreadable. “I’ll take notes, but don’t forget, I have to be back at my office by two o’clock. If I’m reading those pine branches right, I don’t have much time.”
There was no danger of chitchat. While we waited, Madame Fang sat and looked out the window as if I did not exist. Around one forty my uncle came through the door. He had changed his shirt and pants and combed his hair.
“Fang Mei-lin,” he said and extended his hand. It was scrubbed clean. “No less beautiful than the last time we met.”
The woman remained seated. “I am less beautiful, but much richer, and I didn’t come here for your honeyed tongue.” She put out her own hand and touched his lightly. I could see her palm was sweating.
“You said it was urgent?” My uncle cocked his head slightly when he said the last word. It was his way of seeming temporarily to cede ground. “A problem, perhaps? You’ve already met my nephew, Major Bing.”
“We’ve met.” She glanced in my direction and then focused back on my uncle. “I have a few things to discuss, things that are urgent and extremely private. And don’t cock your head around me.”
My uncle smiled in an ingratiating way that he hadn’t demonstrated in the nearly two years he’d been in my house. “Whatever you say to me you say to my nephew. He does most of the work, so he has to know all the details. That’s the way we handle things. If you can’t accept it, then I’m afraid we can’t do business.”
I held my breath while I waited to see how Madame Fang would react to such a direct challenge.
“Goodness, who said anything about business?” She smiled back, the ravishing one directed at my uncle and then another, less lustrous, at me. “I don’t need a private detective. I need advice, that’s all, another viewpoint. I thought yours might be valuable. If your nephew has learned anything from you, perhaps his views might be interesting, too. Of course, I’ll pay.”
I looked at the small clock on my desk. I’d won it in a bet with the man who eventually ran away with my wife. Charming fellow, smooth as they come, superb at making desserts with tiny flowered vines made of green sugar climbing walls of chocolate bricks. He made tiny chocolate bricks! What a bastard! Why didn’t I smash the clock with one of my uncle’s hammers, and scatter the pieces up and down the river for a hundred kilometers? Why didn’t I?
The hands on the clock were climbing toward two o’clock, and my office was near Renmin Road, a half hour away by bicycle. It took less than that by car, but my wife and her brick-making paramour had taken the car with them.
“I’m sorry to say that I can’t stay to watch this reunion unfurl,” I said. “One of us has to earn steady money.” I put the emphasis on “steady.” “I’m sure we’ll meet again, Madame Fang.” My bow in her direction seemed inadequate; I should have been groveling at her feet. I turned to my uncle. “There’s a pack of instant noodles on the table near the stove. The cabbage is in the sink, if you want to throw some in. You can boil the water yourself?”
The woman looked out the window and smiled faintly.
I stopped at the door. “Dinner will be at the usual time, uncle, unless you have other plans.”
My uncle gazed for a moment at Madame Fang, the tide of memory tugging at him. “No, I’m sure there will be no other plans.”
Copyright ©2012 by James Church