When a mass grave containing eighteen mutilated female corpses is discovered in Shanghai, detective Li Yan is sent from Beijing to establish if the bodies are linked to an unsolved murder in the capital. Here, Li will be working with Mei Ling, deputy head of Shanghai's serious crime squad.
Mei Ling is a formidable woman: a fact that is not lost on Li's on-again, off-again lover, forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell. But when Campbell, vulnerable and still grieving the death of her father, learns that the victims were subjected to "live" autopsies, she swallows her pride and joins Li Yan and Mei Ling in the hunt for the murderer.
As Li, Campbell, and Mei Ling enter the arena of a sickening nemesis they are forced to confront each of their very worst nightmares.
Release date: June 14, 2012
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 336
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The Killing Room
The rain, like tears, streaks his view of the world from the back seat of his limousine. A blue-grey view smudged by this chilly sub-tropical November deluge. The American has come to celebrate a union spanning continents, a powerful conjoining of East and West. But all the money in the world cannot protect him from the horrors that are only minutes away.
Towers of steel and glass rise into the mist around him, insubstantial and wraith-like. They remind him of something strangely incongruous. A remote and rugged coastline on the north-west extremes of Europe. A trip made in search of his roots to a distant Scottish island, where fingers of stone reach for the sky in strange circular arrangements. Standing stones raised in worship to who knows what God.
Beyond the colossal pagoda-like Jin Mao Tower, its peak lost in cloud, more towers loom out of the misted distance, rising from the ashes of Mao’s dream of a communist utopia. The once desolate marshlands of Pudong, fed by their privileged status of ‘special economic zone’, now sprout tower blocks like weeds, watched in wonder by the Shanghainese across the river, a whole generation thinking, what next? The American looks up at these twenty-first century standing stones, and knows that the only God worshipped by those who raised them is Money. And he smiles. A sense of satisfaction in this. For he worships at the same altar.
They pass a high, sweeping wall painted salmon pink and topped by spiked black railings. His limo draws in behind others it has been following. Umbrellas, black and shiny, cluster immediately around his door. He steps out on to red carpet, and water pools around his feet as the weight of his steps squeezes rain from the pile.
Through open gates, the site unfolds before him, a forest of steel rods rising out of the concrete blocks already sunk there. On the far perimeter two tiers of workmen’s huts rise from the mud. Pale oriental faces gather in the rain to watch with dull curiosity as the party makes its perilous way across the quagmire, red carpet submerged now in liquid mud that sloshes over black shiny leather, spattering the bottoms of freshly pressed trousers. The American feels cold water seeping between his toes and curses inwardly. But his outward smile remains, fixed and determined for his Chinese hosts. They are, after all, partners in the biggest Sino-American joint venture yet attempted, although it is hard for him to believe that this sodden site will support the massive construction of steel and glass that will become the New York-Shanghai Bank, the tallest building in Asia. But he is reassured by the knowledge that his position as its chief executive officer will make him one of the most powerful men on earth.
He climbs the stairs to the stage, protected from the rains by its huge canvas awning, and steps into the glare of the world’s press, television lamps flooding this grey winter morning with a bright blue-white light, cameras flashing in the rain like fireflies. His PR people have done their job.
Strings of coloured bunting hang limp in the wet as his Chinese opposite number, smiling, approaches the microphone to begin the obligatory speeches. The American lets his mind and eyes wander. Above the temporary construction of the stage, a huge hopper leans over, its snout pointing downwards to the deep trench below. When he steps forward to release its lever, tons of concrete will pour from its mouth into the bowels of what will be his bank – a ceremonial foundation stone upon which he knows he will build a future of unparalleled success.
A sprinkling of applause, like water pouring from a jug, breaks into his thoughts. A hand on his elbow steers him towards the microphone. Fireflies flash. He hears his own voice, strange and metallic, through distant speakers, words he has learned by heart, and he cannot help but notice that the trench below him is rapidly filling with water, thick brown water like chocolate, boiling in the rain.
More applause, and he steps forward from the cover of the awning on to a small, square projecting platform, a Chinese at his right hand holding an umbrella above his head, beaded curtains of water tumbling around him. He takes the lever in his hand, and with a sense of absolute control of his own destiny, draws it down. All faces lift expectantly towards the hopper. For a moment, it seems, everyone is holding their breath. Only the tattoo of rain on canvas invades the sense of expectation.
The American feels something shift beneath his feet. There is a loud crack, then a strange groaning like the rattle of a dying man’s last breath. The struts supporting the boards of his tiny platform give way as the walls of the trench below collapse inwards. He turns, clutching in fear at the sleeve of the arm holding the umbrella, but already he is pitchingþ
forward through the curtain of rain. The sensation of falling through space seems to last an eternity. His own scream sounds disconnected and distant. And then the shock of cold liquid mud takes his breath away. The whole world appears to be falling in around him as his flailing arms endeavour to prevent him from being sucked under. He sees an arm reaching out towards him and thinks, thank God! He clutches the hand and feels its flesh oozing between his fingers. But he has no time to consider this. He pulls hard to try to haul himself from the mud, but the outstretched arm offers no resistance, and as he falls back again he realises that it is not attached to anything. He lets go immediately, repulsed and uncomprehending. He can hear voices shouting above him as he flips over in time to see a woman’s breasts emerging from a wall of mud, followed by her shoulders and belly. But no arms, no legs, no head. His own arms windmilling in panic, he kicks away again, only to find himself staring into a face with black holes where the eyes should be, long dark hair smeared across decaying flesh. He feels bile rising in his throat with his scream, and as he looks upward in a desperate appeal for help, he sees again the standing stones rising over him in the mist. Only now he sees them quite differently, clustered together like headstones in a cemetery.
The cold, dry earth rattled across the lid of the coffin as it left her mother’s hand. Margaret, too, stooped to lift a handful and felt the frosted dirt stick to her skin. She let it fall from her fingers into her father’s grave, and lifted her eyes to a pewtery sky. The first snow of winter fluttered on the edge of an icy wind that blew in across the distant lake and she shivered, pulling her coat tight around herself to contain her grief.
She turned away from the handful of mourners at the graveside, a few relatives and friends, a representative from the university, some old students of her father. There was something primitive about the ritual of burial that seemed somehow absurd to Margaret. Placing a person in a wooden box in the ground and leaving them to rot. She had seen enough bodies in various states of decomposition to have decided long ago that when her turn came she would be cremated. It was simpler, cleaner. More final, somehow. She knew the stages of decay that the body they had buried would undergo, and she did not want to think of her father like that.
The wind rattled the branches of the empty trees, stark in their winter nakedness. The last leaves of fall lay rotting on the ground, silver edged by the previous night’s frost. Somewhere, away to their left among the rows of tombstones, she knew, lay the graves of famous gangsters from the city’s colourful past. Alphonse Capone, and his father and mother; the infamous John May and his wife Hattie; ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn; Antonio ‘The Scourge’ Lombardo; and dozens more Italian immigrants and their descendants who had helped sow the seeds of America’s organised crime in this windy place. Her father had kept better company in life.
But his family had all been buried here at Mount Carmel, to the west of Chicago, a ragtag bunch of undistinguished antecedents of Scots and Irish origin. Her mother’s family were of German descent, and she supposed that’s where she got her pale freckled skin and fair hair. Her father had had Celtic black hair in his youth, and incongruously blue eyes. It was a comfort to her that she had inherited at least some of his genes.
News of his death had reached her in Beijing in a short, cold phone call from her mother, and she had sat for a long time in the tiny apartment provided by the University of Public Security, aware of a peculiar sense of emptiness, disturbed by her lack of emotion. It was nearly two years since she had last seen him, and they had spoken a mere handful of times on the phone. It was only when she awoke to her own tears in the middle of the night that she discovered the grief she feared might not be there.
Now she was at a loss. The tragic circumstance of her father’s death had finally forced her to break her ties with China, fragile ties held in place only by a man she thought she loved. And now that she was ‘home’, she would have to make decisions she had been putting off for far too long. Decisions about where her future really lay. Decisions she did not want to face.
She had been back in Chicago for nearly three days, and not once had she ventured to the north side to check on her apartment in Lincoln Park. She had left neighbours collecting mail and watering house plants. But she had been gone for more than eighteen months, and she was afraid of what might greet her there. Afraid, too, of a past she did not wish to revisit, memories of a man she had lived with for seven years. The man she had married. Instead she had opted for the safety of her old bedroom in the redbrick house where she had grown up in the leafy suburbs of Oak Park. Everything there was familiar, comforting, filled with recollections of a time when she had no cares or responsibilities, and life had still held the promise of something magic. She was, she knew, just hiding.
‘Margaret.’ Her mother’s voice carried to her on the wind and had the same chill edge to it. Margaret stopped and waited for her to catch up. They had barely spoken in the last three days. They had embraced briefly, but without warmth. There had been the polite enquiries about their respective well-being, the mechanical exchanges of necessary information. It wasn’t that they had ever really fallen out, their relationship had simply been sterile for as long as Margaret could remember. Loveless. A strange relationship for mother and daughter. ‘You’ll help me serve up the food when we get back to the house?’
‘Of course.’ Margaret didn’t know why her mother was asking. They had been through all this earlier. Perhaps, she thought, it was just for the lack of something else to say.
They walked to the gate in silence then, side by side, a space between them that a husband and father might have filled. As they reached the cars her mother said with a tone, ‘So what now? Back to China?’
Margaret clenched her teeth. ‘I don’t think this is the time or place, Mom.’
Her mother raised an eyebrow. ‘I take it that’s Margaret code for “yes”.’
Margaret flashed her a look. ‘Well, if I do go back, it’ll probably just be to escape from you.’ She opened the rear door of the hired limousine and slipped into the cold leather of the back seat.
‘Deputy Section Chief Li.’ The defence lawyer spoke slowly, as if considering every syllable. ‘There is no doubt that if one compares these shoe prints with the photographs of the footprints taken at the scene of the murder, one would be led to the conclusion that they were made by the same pair of shoes.’ Photographs of the footprints and the corresponding shoe prints were laid out on the table in front of him.
Li Yan nodded cautiously, uncertain as to where this was leading, aware of the judge watching him closely from the bench opposite, a wily, white-haired veteran languishing thoughtfully in his winter blue uniform beneath the red, blue and gold crest of the Ministry of Public Security. The scribble of the clerk’s pen was clearly audible in the silence of the packed courtroom.
‘Which would further lead one to the conclusion that the owner of these shoes was, at the very least, present at the crime scene – particularly in light of the prosecution’s claim that traces of the victim’s blood were also found on the shoes.’ The lawyer looked up from his table and fixed Li with a cold stare. He was a young man, in his early thirties, about the same age as Li, one of a new breed of lawyers feeding off the recent raft of legislation regulating the burgeoning Chinese justice system. He was sleek, well groomed, prosperous. A dark Armani suit, a crisp, white, button-down designer shirt and silk tie. And he was brimming with a self-confidence that made Li uneasy. ‘Would you agree?’
‘I’m sorry, did you speak?’
‘No, I nodded my agreement.’ Irritation in Li’s voice.
‘Then, please speak up, Deputy Section Chief, so that the clerk can note your comments for the record.’ The Armani suit’s tone was condescending, providing the court with the erroneous impression that the police officer in the witness stand was a rank novice.
Li bristled. This was a cut-and-dried case. The defendant, a young thug up from the country who had claimed to be looking for work in Beijing, had broken into the victim’s home in the north-east of the city. When the occupant, an elderly widow, had wakened and startled him in the act, he had stabbed her to death. There had been copious amounts of blood. The warden at a workers’ hostel had called the local public security bureau to report that one of the residents had returned in the middle of the night covered in what looked like blood. By the time the police got there the defendant had somehow managed to dispose of his bloody clothes and showered away all traces of blood from his person. No murder weapon was recovered, but a pair of his shoes matched footprints left in blood at the scene, and there were still traces of the victim’s blood in the treads. Li wondered what possible reason this supercilious defence lawyer could have for his apparent confidence. He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
‘You would further agree, then, that the owner of these shoes was most probably the perpetrator of the crime.’
‘I would.’ Li spoke clearly, so that there could be no ambiguity.
‘So what leads you to believe that my client was the perpetrator?’
Li frowned. ‘They’re his shoes.’
‘They were found in his room at the hostel. Forensic examination found traces of the victim’s blood in the treads, and footwear impressions taken from them provided an exact match with the footprints found at the scene.’
‘So where are they?’ The lawyer’s eyes held Li in their unwavering gaze.
For the first time Li’s own confidence began to falter. ‘Where are what?’
‘The shoes, of course.’ This delivered with an affected weariness. ‘You can’t claim to have found a pair of shoes in my client’s room, tying him to a crime scene, and then fail to produce them as evidence.’
Li felt the blood pulsing at his temples, a hot flush rising on his cheeks. He glanced towards the procurator’s table, but the prosecutor’s eyes were firmly fixed on papers spread in front of him. ‘After forensics had finished with them they were logged and tagged and––’
‘I ask again,’ the lawyer interrupted, raising his voice, a voice of reason asking a not unreasonable question. ‘Where are they?’
‘They were sent down to the procurator’s office as exhibits for the court.’
‘Then why are they not here for us all to see?’
Li glanced at the procurator again, only this time it was anger colouring his face. Clearly the prosecution’s failure to produce the shoes had been well aired before Li had even been called to give evidence. He was being made to look like an idiot. ‘Why don’t you ask the procurator?’ he said grimly.
‘I already did,’ said the Armani suit. ‘He says that his office never received them from your office.’
A hubbub of excited speculation buzzed around the public benches. The clerk snapped a curt warning for members of the public to remain silent or be expelled from the court.
Li knew perfectly well that the shoes, along with all the other evidence, had been dispatched to the procurator’s office. But he also knew that there was nothing he could say or do here in the witness box that could prove it. His eyes flickered towards the table next to the procurator, and met the hate-filled glare of the victim’s son, and he knew that when the defence was done with him he would have to face the wrath that the victim’s representative would be entitled to vent. He felt every eye in the court upon him as the defence lawyer said, ‘Surely, Deputy Section Chief, it must be obvious even to you, that without the shoes my client has no case to answer?’
Li closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
He pushed through glass doors, brushing past a row of potted plants that lined the top of the steps, and started angrily down towards the car park. The procurator chased after him, clutching a thick folder of documents. Above them rose the five storeys of Central Beijing Middle Court, topped by a huge radio mast. Off to their left, where armed officers guarded the vehicle entrance to the holding cells, the red Chinese flag hung limply in the winter sun over the Ministry of Public Security badge of justice. Justice! Li thought not. He pulled on a greatcoat over his green uniform as he hurried down the stairs, and hauled a peaked cap down over his flat-top crew cut, his breath billowing before him like fire in the cold morning air.
‘I’m telling you, we never got them,’ the procurator called after him. He was a short, spindly man with thinning hair and thick glasses that magnified his unusually round eyes. His uniform appeared too large for him.
Li wheeled around halfway down the steps and the procurator almost ran into him. ‘Bullshit!’ Even although the procurator was on the step above, Li towered over him, and the smaller man positively recoiled from Li’s aggression. ‘You would never have brought the case to court if we hadn’t provided the evidence.’
‘Paper evidence. That’s all you sent me,’ the procurator insisted. ‘I assumed the shoes had been lodged in the evidence depository.’
‘They were. Which makes them your responsibility, not ours.’ Li raised his arms with his voice, and people flooding out of the court behind them stopped to listen. ‘In the name of the sky, Zhang! My people work their butts off to bring criminals to justice …’ He was distracted momentarily by the sight of the Armani suit and his exultant client passing them on the steps. He had a powerful urge to take his fist and smash their gloating faces to a pulp. But then, he knew, justice and the law were not always compatible. He turned instead to the procurator to vent his anger. ‘And you fucking people go losing the evidence, and killers walk free. You can expect an official complaint.’ He turned and headed off down the steps jamming a cigarette in his mouth as he went, leaving Procurator Zhang fuming and only too aware of the curious faces regarding him. Policemen did not speak to procurators like that, certainly not in public. It was a humiliating loss of mianzi – face.
Zhang shouted lamely at Li’s back, ‘I’m the one who’ll be making the complaint, Deputy Section Chief. To the Commissioner. You needn’t think you can live in the protective shadow of your uncle forever.’
Li stopped dead and Zhang knew immediately he had gone too far. Li turned and fixed him with a silent stare filled with such intensity that Zhang could not maintain eye contact. He turned and ran up the steps, back into the safety of the courthouse.
Li stared after him for a few seconds, then hurried through the parked vehicles to the street, struggling to control his rage. The urge to hit someone, anyone, was extremely powerful. A group of people standing at the notice board where the week’s trials were posted in advance looked at him curiously as he strode past. But he didn’t notice them. Neither did he see the vendor at the corner of the street offering him fruit from under a green and yellow striped awning, nor smell the smoke rising from lamb skewers cooking on open coals in the narrow confines of Xidamochang Street. He turned instead towards the roar of traffic on East Qianmen Avenue, not even hearing the honk of a car’s horn sounding behind him. Only when its engine revved and the horn sounded again did he half turn, and an unmarked Beijing Police Jeep drew up beside him. Detective Wu leaned over to push the passenger door open. Li was surprised to see him. ‘What d’you want, Wu?’ he growled.
Wu raised his hands in mock defence against Li’s aggression. ‘Hey, Boss, I’ve been waiting for you for over an hour.’
Li slipped into the passenger seat. ‘What for?’
Wu grinned, jaws grinding as ever on a piece of leathery gum that had long since lost its flavour. He pushed his sunglasses up on his forehead. He was the bearer of interesting information, and he wanted to tease it out, make the most of the moment. ‘Remember that case during Spring Festival? The dismembered girl? We found her bits in a shallow grave out near the Summer Palace …’
‘Yeah, I remember the case,’ Li interrupted impatiently. ‘We never got anyone for it.’ He paused. ‘What about it?’
‘They found a whole bunch more just like her down in Shanghai. Some kind of mass grave. Maybe as many as twenty. Same MO.’
‘Twenty!’ Li was shocked.
Wu shrugged. ‘They don’t know how many exactly yet, but there are lots of bits.’ He relayed this with a relish Li found distasteful. ‘And they want you down there. Fast.’
Li was taken aback. ‘Me? Why?’
Wu grinned. ‘’Cos you’re such a fucking superstar, Boss.’ But his smile faded rapidly in the chill of Li’s glare. ‘They think there could be a link to the murder here in Beijing,’ he said quickly. ‘And there’s big pressure to get a result fast on this one.’
‘Why’s that?’ Li had forgotten his courtroom debacle already.
Wu lit a cigarette. ‘Seems there was this big ceremony down there this morning. Concrete getting poured into the foundations of some big joint venture bank they’re building across the river in Pudong. Anyway, the CEO of this New York bank comes to do the ceremonial bit on the building site. All the top brass are there. Place is bristling with American Press and TV. Only it’s pissing from the heavens. The building site turns into a swamp, and the platform they built for the VIPs tips this American exec right into the hole they’re going to fill with concrete. And he finds himself floundering around in the mud with bits of bodies coming out of the walls, like they just dug up some old burial site. Only the bodies are not so old.’
Li whistled softly. He could picture the scene. A media feeding frenzy. Not the Chinese press, they would only print what they were told. But there would be no restraining the Western media. ‘TV cameras?’ he asked.
‘Beaming right out of there, live on satellite,’ Wu confirmed, enjoying himself. ‘Apparently the powers that be are in a real state. Bodies in the bank vault are not good for business, and apparently the Americans are talking about pulling out of the whole deal.’
‘I’m sure the victims will be sorry to hear that,’ Li said.
Wu smirked and reaching over to the rear seat heaved a fat folder into Li’s lap. ‘That’s the file on the girl we found in Beijing. You’ll have time to refamiliarise yourself with it on the flight, which leaves …’ he checked his watch, ‘… in a little over two hours.’ He grinned. ‘Just enough time for you to pack an overnight bag.’
Li sat on the edge of the bed, watery sunlight slanting in from the street through the last dead leaves clinging to the trees that shaded Zhengyi Road in the summer. A kindly face smiled down at him from the wall, a tumble of curly black hair, streaked with silver, swept back from a remarkably unlined face – his Uncle Yifu, with whom he had lived for more than ten years on the second floor of this police apartment block in the Ministry compound. Li still missed him. Missed the mischief in his eyes as he endeavoured to trip Li up at every turn, imparting the experience of a lifetime, teaching him to think laterally. While the devil might be in the detail, therein also lies the truth, he used to say. Li still ached when he remembered the circumstances of the old man’s death. Woke frequently in the night with the bloody image skewered into his consciousness. This had been Yifu’s room, and now it was Xinxin’s. She often asked Li to tell her stories about the old man who smiled down at her from the wall. And he always made the time to tell her.
Now, reluctantly, he stood up and wandered back to his own room. He was destined, it seemed, to be forever haunted by Yifu. With every failure, his uncle was cast up to him as an example he should follow. While every success was attributed to the old man’s influence. Those who were jealous of his status and achievements put them down to his uncle’s connections. And those senior officers who had worked with his uncle made it clear that his footsteps were much too big for Li to walk in. And through every investigation he felt the old man’s presence at his shoulder, his voice whispering softly in his ear. No use, Li, in worrying over the might-have-beens. The answer’s in the detail, Li, always in the detail. It is a good thing to have a broken mirror reshaped. Where the tiller is tireless, the earth is fertile. He’d have given anything to hear that voice again for real.
Quickly he stripped out of his uniform and felt the freedom of release from its starched constraint. He pulled on a pair of jeans, a white tee-shirt and his favourite old brown leather jacket, and began packing some clothes into a holdall. One of Xinxin’s books lying on the chest of drawers caused him to pause. He would need to arrange for Mei Yuan to look after the child while he was gone. And there was no Margaret to step into the breach.
He sat for a moment lost in thought, then reached over and lifted Margaret’s hairbrush from the bedside table and teased out some of the hair trapped in its teeth. It was extra fine and golden in the pale sunlight. He put it to his nose and smelled her perfume, experiencing a moment of acute desire, and then emptiness. He ran his hand lightly across the unmade bed where they had so often made love, and realised that he missed her more than he knew.
Margaret had never quite understood the Irish concept of the wake – a celebration of the life, rather than a mourning of the death. How could you celebrate a life that was gone, something that once was vital and full of hope and warmth and giving, that now was cold and dead? Like the procession of bodies that had passed through her autopsy room, all animation extinct, just meat on a slab.
She could not bear to think of her father like that. She had not even had the courage to view his body, laid out in his coffin, colour carefully applied to his face by the mortician in an attempt to create the illusion of life. In any case, she knew, it was not her father who lay there. He had long vanished, existing now only in the memories of others, and in flickering, fading images on old home movies from the days before video tape. They had never bought a video camera.
There were always the family photo albums. But Margaret felt that these fixed, two-dimensional images rarely caught the person. They lacked the spirit that was life and character, a personality. They were just moments in time without any reference point.
She heard voices raised in laughter coming from the living room, the chink of glasses, and felt resentful that these people should come into her father’s home on the day he was buried and take his passing so lightly. She slipped out of the kitchen and moved down the hall to the room at the back of the house which had been his den. She shut the door on the sounds of the wake and listened to the silence. The room was laden with it, what little light remained of the late afternoon soaked up by the heavy net curtains. If there was anything left of him, it was here in this room where he had spent so much time. She breathed in the smell of him in the dry, academic atmosphere of his own private space. Everything had been left as it was from the day he dropped dead in his lecture room at the university from a massive coronary thrombosis. Quick, painless, completely unexpected. The best way to go, Margaret thought, except for those who remained, devastated by the suddenness of it, left to cope with the huge hole it made in all their lives.
She wandered around touching things. His books, hundreds of them gathering dust on the shelves. All the great modern American writers. It had been his subject, his speciality. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and, of course, Hemingway, who had grown up just a few streets away in this quiet upscale Chicago suburb. All thumbed and marked and annotated. She picked one out. Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories by Sherwood Anderson. The pages were yellowing now around the edges, the paper dry, almost brittle. It fell open at a story called Hands. She remembered it. A sad story about a simple man whose love of children led to a tra
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