Today's Reading

There are five police officers in the car. And it is not a large car. But the paichusuo possesses only two patrol vehicles, as well as a small fleet of scooters, bicycles, and one riot van that always reeks of boiled cabbage, although no one seems to know why.

Behind the wheel is Sergeant First Class Bing. Bing is in his early fifties, short, squat, and tough as old rhinoceros hide. Lu likes and respects him very much.

Crammed into the back seat are constables Sun, Li, Wang, and Wang. Of course, there are two Wangs. It is the second-most common surname in China.

Constable Sun is female, midtwenties, generally cheerful and competent. She scored well enough on her national exams to attend a top university in Heilongjiang Province. Lu is mystified as to why she elected to join the Public Security Bureau. Better she had majored in accounting or business and gotten moderately wealthy. Now she is doomed to a life of high risk and low reward in a profession dominated by men who crack crude jokes and compulsively scratch at their balls as if they were lottery tickets.

Constable Li is thirty, cadaverously thin, and never speaks unless spoken to. His colleagues call him Li Yaba—"Li the Mute."

Wang number one's given name is Ming, but as he's a few kilos over his ideal weight, he is known to most folks as Wang Pang Zi—"Fatty Wang." He takes no offense to this. On the contrary, it's considered an affectionate nickname in the People's Republic.

The second Wang's given name is Guangrong. He is the kind of man who became a police officer out of some deep-seated insecurity, believing the uniform would provide him with the deference and respect he so desperately craves.

Sadly, after a thousand-plus years of corruption, abuse, and incompetence, many Chinese citizens regard the institution of law enforcement as equivalent to a pit of quicksand. A hazard that is largely avoidable—but if you are careless enough to step in it, you're probably screwed.

At 185 centimeters and 83 kilos, Wang Guangrong is a big man, even for a northern boy raised on wheat, mutton, and pork. As a consequence, everyone calls him "Big Wang."

"Are you drunk?" Sergeant Bing says by way of greeting when Lu climbs into the passenger seat.

"When presented with wine, one should sing," Lu quotes. "For who knows how long you might live?"

"Is that a yes?"

"I'm sober. Ish."

"Sorry to call you on your night off. We tried to raise the chief, but you know how that goes."

"No problem. It's my duty."

On the drive to Kangjian Lane, Sergeant Bing brings Lu up to speed.

"The neighbor—a Mrs. Chen—claims the Yangs' dog has been barking incessantly since last night. She finally got fed up and went over to complain and found the dog shivering in the yard. She knocked on the front door, but no one answered, so she went inside. She found the victim in the bathroom."

"What do we know about her? The victim?"

Sun leans forward and reads from a notepad. "Ms. Yang Fenfang. Aged twenty-three. Single. High school graduate. Born and raised on Kangjian Lane. For the past three years, residing in Harbin City. Her father died eight years ago and her mother just recently. A week ago, in fact. No criminal record."

Lu nods. Already, his mind is swirling with possible motives and potential suspects, but for now he prefers to ignore such thoughts and evaluate the crime scene without any preconceived notions.

Kangjian Lane is one of the last residential streets before Raven Valley proper yields to expansive grain fields leased by huge corporate agricultural conglomerates. The houses here are old and ramshackle, with sizable yards where the locals keep small vegetable gardens and perhaps a few pigs or a handful of chickens.

The paichusuo's other patrol car is parked in front of the Yangs' property, and a constable sits inside it, with the engine running, smoking a cigarette. His surname is Chu. Like Big Wang, Chu is a bully. Lu has taken to calling him Yuehan Weien, after the American actor with the round belly who made cowboy movies and always played a heroic tough guy. Chu does not like this nickname, but given Lu's seniority, there isn't much he can do about it.

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