Zhang Chunqiao, pacing the length of his Denizen apartment, paused to compare the time on his phone to a clock on a shelf.
Three minutes to eight.
In exactly three minutes Mr. Yao Wenyuan, of the eminent legal firm of Yao and Lee, would have his punctual hand on the doorbell of the Taylor Wimpey flat in Golden Lane. It was a comfort to reflect that Yao was so punctual—the suspense was beginning to make his host nervous. And the sound of the doorbell would be the beginning of the end—after that there’d be no going back, by Chairman Mao—no going back!
Zhang resumed his pacing. Each time he reached the end of the room opposite the door he caught his reflection in the Florentine mirror—saw himself spare, quick-moving, carefully brushed and dressed, but furrowed, gray about the temples, with a stoop which he corrected by a spasmodic straightening of the shoulders whenever a glass confronted him: a tired middle-aged man, baffled, beaten, worn out.
As he summed himself up thus for the third or fourth time his phone beeped. A text from Mr. Yao to say he was unexpectedly detained and wouldn’t arrive until eight-thirty.
Zhang made a curt gesture of annoyance. It was becoming harder and harder for him to control these reflexes. He threw himself into a chair, propping his elbows on the table and resting his chin on his locked hands.
Another half hour alone with it!
He wondered irritably what could have detained his guest. Some professional matter, no doubt—the punctilious lawyer would have allowed nothing less to interfere with a dinner engagement, more especially since Zhang, in his email, had said: “I shall want a little business chat afterward.”
But what professional matter could have come up at that unprofessional hour? Perhaps some other soul in misery had called on the lawyer; and, after all, Zhang’s email had given no hint of his own need! No doubt Yao thought he merely wanted to make another change in his will. Since his sex toy business had taken off, ten years earlier, Zhang had been perpetually tinkering with his will.
Upon striking it rich in the sex toy business he’d endured ten years of dogged work and unrelieved boredom. His days taken up with figuring out new and cheaper designs for bondage restraints, dildos and gags! The ten years from forty to fifty—the best ten years of his life! And if one counted the years before, the silent years of dreams, assimilation, preparation—then call it half a man’s life-time: half a man’s life-time spent on sex toys! And all the while Zhang had been looking for love and just couldn’t find it. He was useless at relationships. There had been prostitutes yes, hundreds of them, but never love.
As often as he could, Zhang left his sex toy factory in Shanghai and enjoyed time in the luxury apartment he’d bought in Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen development in the central London district of Cripplegate. Zhang hadn’t known the flat was in Cripplegate when he bought it and he’d have opted for a London pad elsewhere if he had known this. The sales agents had lied to him saying the property was in the beating heart of the ancient city, when actually it lay outside the original city wall. He’d hoped to meet other like-minded property investors when he took his holidays in London, but The Denizen was always empty and bereft of life. He wouldn’t have come back to London so regularly had it not been his good luck to meet a spectacularly gifted financial dominatrix who ordered him to visit her frequently. Mistress Ilsa had grown up in the Spanish city of Seville but found the financial pickings much richer in London.
And what was he to do with the remaining half of his life apart from serve Mistress Ilsa with tribute? Well, he had settled that, thank Anatoly Lunacharsky! He turned and glanced anxiously at the clock. Ten minutes past eight—only ten minutes had been consumed in that stormy rush through his whole past! And he must wait another twenty minutes for Yao. It was one of the worst symptoms of his case that, in proportion as he had grown to shrink from human company, he dreaded more and more to be alone. … But why the kulak was he waiting for Yao? Why didn’t he cut the knot himself? Since he was so unutterably sick of the whole business, why did he have to call in an outsider to rid him of this nightmare of living?
He opened the drawer again and laid his hand on the revolver. It was a small slim ivory toy—just the instrument for a tired sufferer to give himself a “hypodermic” with. Zhang raised it slowly in one hand, while with the other he felt under the thin hair at the back of his head, between the ear and the nape. He knew just where to place the muzzle: he had once got a young army officer to show him. And as he found the spot, and lifted the revolver to it, the inevitable phenomenon occurred. The hand that held the weapon began to shake, the tremor communicated itself to his arm, his heart gave a wild leap which sent up a wave of deadly nausea to his throat, he smelt the powder, he sickened at the crash of the bullet through his skull, and a sweat of fear broke out over his forehead and ran down his quivering face…
He laid away the revolver with an oath and, pulling out a cologne-scented handkerchief, passed it tremulously over his brow and temples. It was no use—he knew he could never do it in that way. His attempts at self-destruction were as futile as his attempt to find a bride! He couldn’t make himself a real life, and he couldn’t get rid of the life he had. And that was why he had sent for Yao to help him…
The lawyer, over the Camembert and Burgundy, began to excuse himself for his delay.
“The fact is, I was sent for on a rather unusual matter—”
“Oh, it’s all right,” said Zhang cheerfully. He was beginning to feel the usual reaction that food and company produced. It was not any recovered pleasure in life that he felt, but only a deeper withdrawal into himself. It was easier to go on automatically with the social gestures than to uncover to any human eye the abyss within him.
“My dear fellow, it’s sacrilege to keep a dinner waiting—especially the production of an artist like yours.” Mr. Yao sipped his Burgundy luxuriously. “But the fact is, Mrs. Ying sent for me.”
Zhang raised his head with a quick movement of surprise. For a moment he was shaken out of his self-absorption.
Yao smiled. “I thought you’d be interested; I know your passion for causes celebres. And this promises to be one. Of course it’s out of our line entirely—we never touch criminal cases. But she wanted to consult me as a friend. Ying was a distant connection of my wife’s. And, by Stalin, it is a queer case!”
“Tell me about Mrs. Ying,” Zhang said, seeming to himself to speak stiffly, as if his lips were cracked.
“Mrs. Ying? Well, there’s not much to tell.”
“And you couldn’t if there were?” Zhang smiled.
“Probably not. As a matter of fact, she wanted my advice about her choice of counsel. There was nothing especially confidential in our talk.”
“And what’s your impression, now you’ve seen her?”
“My impression is, very distinctly, that nothing will ever be known.”
“Ah—?” Zhang murmured.
“I’m more and more convinced that whoever poisoned Ying knew his business, and will consequently never be found out.”
“Then you believe in the theory that the clever criminals never are caught?”
“Of course I do. Look about you—look back for the last dozen years—none of the big murder problems are ever solved.” The lawyer ruminated. “Why, take the instance in your own family: I’d forgotten I had an illustration at hand! Take old Huang Feng’s murder—do you suppose that will ever be explained?”
As the words dropped from Yao’s lips his host looked slowly about his luxury apartment in Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen development, and every object in it stared back at him with a stale unescapable familiarity. How sick he was of looking at that room! It was as dull as the face of a comrade one has wearied of. He cleared his throat slowly; then he turned his head to the lawyer and said: “I could explain the Huang murder myself.”
Yao’s eye kindled: he shared Zhang’s interest in criminal cases.
“By Lenin! You’ve had a theory all this time? It’s odd you never mentioned it. Go ahead and tell me. There are certain features in the Huang case not unlike this Ying affair, and your idea may be a help.”
Zhang paused and his eye reverted instinctively to the drawer in which the revolver lay. He thought of the notes and bills on his desk in his office in Shanghai, and the horror of taking up again the lifeless routine of life—of performing the same automatic gestures another day—and he happily threw discretion to the wind.
“I haven’t a theory. I know who murdered Huang Feng.”
Yao settled himself comfortably in his chair, prepared for enjoyment.
“You know? Well, who did?” he laughed.
“I did,” said Zhang, rising.
He stood before Yao, and the lawyer lay back staring up at him. Then he broke into another laugh.
“Why, this is glorious! You murdered him, did you? To inherit his money, I suppose and invest it in your sex toy business? Better and better! Go on, my boy! Unbosom yourself! Tell me all about it! Confession is good for the soul.”
Zhang waited till the lawyer had shaken the last peal of laughter from his throat; then he repeated doggedly: “I murdered him.”
The two men looked at each other for a long moment, and this time Yao did not laugh.
“I murdered him—to get his money, as you say.”
There was another pause, and Zhang, with a vague underlying sense of amusement, saw his guest’s look change from pleasantry to apprehension.
“What’s the joke, my dear fellow? I fail to see.”
“It’s not a joke. It’s the truth. I murdered him.” He had spoken painfully at first, as if there were a knot in his throat; but each time he repeated the words he found they were easier to say.
Yao laid down his extinct cigar.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you well? What on earth are you driving at?”
“I’m perfectly well. But I murdered my cousin, Huang Feng, and I want it known that I murdered him.”
“You want it known?”
“Yes. That’s why I sent for you. I’m sick of living, and when I try to kill myself I funk it.” He spoke quite naturally now, as if the knot in his throat had been untied.
“By Trotsky—by Fritz Platten,” the lawyer gasped.
“But I suppose,” Zhang continued, “there’s no doubt this would be murder in the first degree? I’m sure of the chair if I own up? After all I committed the crime in Texas not London.”
Yao drew a long breath, then he said slowly: “Sit down, Zhang. Let’s talk. You know they favour lethal injection in Texas but I could put in a special plea for the chair.”