It was after midnight when Yao left Zhang’s Denizen apartment in Golden Lane. His hand on his friend’s shoulder, as he turned to go—“Criminal justice be hanged! See a doctor, see a doctor!” he had cried and with an exaggerated laugh had pulled on his coat and departed.
Zhang turned back into his Taylor Wimpey investment property. It had never occurred to him that Yao would not believe his story. For three hours he had explained, elucidated, patiently and painfully gone over every detail—but without once breaking down the iron incredulity of the lawyer’s eye.
At first Yao had feigned to be convinced—but that, as Zhang now perceived, was simply to get him to expose himself, to entrap him into contradictions. And when the attempt failed, when Zhang triumphantly met and refuted each disconcerting question, the lawyer dropped the mask suddenly, and said with a good-humoured laugh: “By Grigory Zinoviev, Zhang you should be writing novels not making sex toys. The way you’ve worked this all out is a marvel.”
Zhang swung about furiously—that last sneer about writing fiction inflamed him. Given his experiences the only type of novel he was qualified to write was some kind of contemporary variation on the Stalag!
“I did it, I did it,” he muttered sullenly, his rage spending itself against the impenetrable surface of the other’s mockery; and Yao answered with a smile: “Ever read any of those books on hallucination? I’ve got a fairly good medico-legal library. I could send you a PDF or two if you like…”
Left alone, Zhang cowered in an armchair and stared vacantly ahead. His eyes didn’t take in the moonlit view of Fortune Street Park through his undrawn curtains. He understood that Yao thought him off his head.
“By Lev Kamenev—what if they all think me crazy?”
The horror of it broke out over him in a cold sweat—he sat there and shook, his eyes hidden in his icy hands. But gradually, as he began to rehearse his story for the thousandth time, he saw again how incontrovertible it was, and felt sure that any criminal lawyer would believe him.
“That’s the trouble—Yao’s not a criminal lawyer. And then he’s a friend. What a fool I was to talk to a friend! Even if he did believe me, he’d never let me see it—his instinct would be to cover the whole thing up… But in that case—if he did believe me—he might think it a kindness to get me shut up in an asylum…” Zhang began to tremble again. “By Li Zhisui! If he should bring in an expert—one of those damned psychiatrists! Yao and Lee can do anything—their word always goes. If Yao drops a hint that I’d better be shut up, I’ll be in a strait-jacket by tomorrow! And he’d do it from the kindest motives—be quite right to do it if he thinks I’m a murderer!”
The vision froze him to his chair. He pressed his fists to his bursting temples and tried to think. For the first time he hoped that Yao had not believed his story.
“But he did—he did! I can see it now—I noticed what a queer eye he cocked at me. By Jiang Qing, what shall I do—what shall I do?”
He started up and looked at the clock. Half-past one. What if Yao should think the case urgent, rout out a shrink, and come back with him? Zhang jumped to his feet, and his sudden gesture brushed the morning paper from the table. Mechanically he stooped to pick it up, and the movement started a new train of association.
He sat down again, and reached for his smartphone.
The new idea in his mind had revived his flagging energy. He would act—act at once. It was only by thus planning ahead, committing himself to some unavoidable line of conduct, that he could pull himself through the meaningless days. Each time he reached a fresh decision it was like coming out of a foggy weltering sea into a calm harbour with lights. One of the queerest phases of his long agony was the intense relief produced by these momentary lulls.
“Hello, Wang… Yes, Chunqiao Zhang. … Just caught you? Going straight home? Can I have a talk? It’s rather urgent … yes, might give you some first-rate ‘copy.’ … All right!” He hung up the receiver with a laugh. It had been a happy thought to call up the journalist from the China Daily— Wang Hongwen was the very man he needed…
Zhang put out the lights in his Denizen apartment—it was odd how the automatic gestures persisted!— put on his hat and overcoat, and let himself out of the flat. Taking the lift, Zhang passed out into the street. The Uber ride he’d called was waiting outside. Soon the long thoroughfare of Green Lanes stretched before him, dim and deserted, like an ancient avenue of tombs. But from Wang’s house a friendly beam fell on the pavement, and as Zhang sprang from his cab the editor turned the corner.
The two men grasped hands, and Wang, feeling for his latch-key, ushered Zhang into the brightly-lit hall.
“Disturb me? Not a bit. You might have at ten tomorrow morning … but this is my liveliest hour … you know my habits of old.”
Zhang had known Wang Hongwen for fifteen years—watched his rise through all the stages of journalism in Shanghai to the Olympian pinnacle of the foreign reporter based in London. In the thick-set man with grizzling hair there were few traces left of the hungry-eyed young reporter who, on his way home in the small hours, used to “bob in” on Zhang, while the latter sat grinding at his sex toy designs. Wang had to pass Zhang’s flat on the way to his own, and it became a habit, if he saw a light in the window, and Zhang’s shadow against the blind, to go in, and discuss the universe.
“Well—this is like old times—a good old habit reversed.” The journalist smote his visitor genially on the shoulder. “Reminds me of the nights when I used to rout you out… How’s the sex toy business, by the way? There is a new design, I suppose? It’s as safe to ask you that as to say to some men: ‘How’s the baby?’”
Wang laughed good-naturedly, and Zhang thought how thick and heavy he had grown. It was evident, even to Zhang’s tortured nerves, that the words had not been uttered in malice—and the fact gave him a new measure of his insignificance. Wang did not even know that he felt flattened by life! The fact hurt more than Yao’s irony.
“Come in—come in.” The journalist led the way into a small cheerful room. He pushed an armchair toward his visitor, and dropped into another with a comfortable groan.
“Now, then—help yourself to a drink. And let’s hear all about it.”
He beamed at Zhang. Then the sex toy magnate turned, and began: “Wang, I want to tell you—”
The clock ticked rhythmically. Once the hour struck—then the rhythmical ticking began again. The atmosphere grew denser and heavier, and beads of perspiration began to roll from Zhang’s forehead.
“Well—go on,” Wang said. His composure exasperated Zhang.
“There’s no use in my going on if you don’t believe me.”
The journalist remained unmoved. “Who says I don’t believe you? And how can I tell till you’ve finished?”
Zhang went on, ashamed of his outburst. “It was simple enough to commit murder, because no one was going to suspect me. But he fell ill—perhaps the fates were going to do it for me! By Lin Biao, if that could only be!”
“Then came word that he was better; and the day after, I found my cousin’s laughing over the news that he was to try a bit of melon. The doctor himself had picked out the melon, one of the little French ones that are hardly bigger than a large tomato—and the patient was to eat it at his breakfast the next morning.
“In a flash I saw my chance. It was a bare chance, no more. But I knew the ways of the house—I was sure the melon would be purchased the day before and put in the fridge. If there were only one melon in the icebox I could be fairly sure it was the one I wanted. Yes, I felt pretty sure of my melon … and poisoning was much safer than shooting. It would have been the devil and all to get into the old man’s bedroom without his rousing the house; but I could get into the kitchen without any trouble.
I groped my way to the fridge, opened it—and there was the little French melon… only one. I stopped to listen. Then I pulled out my bottle and syringe, and gave each section of the melon a hypodermic. It was all done inside of three minutes.”
At length Wang asked: “Why did you want to tell me this?”
The question startled Zhang. He was about to explain, as he had explained to Yao. But suddenly it occurred to him that if his motive had not seemed convincing to the lawyer it would carry much less weight with Wang. Both were successful professional men, and their type of success outside of trade does not understand the subtle agony of being a magnate in the sex toy industry. Zhang cast about for another reason.
“Why, I—the thing haunts me … remorse, I suppose you’d call it…”
“Remorse? Bosh!” Wang said energetically.
Zhang’s heart sank. “You don’t believe in—remorse?”
“Not an atom in the man of action. The mere fact of your talking of remorse proves to me that you’re not the man to have planned and put through such a job.”
Zhang groaned. “Well—I lied to you about remorse. I’ve never felt any.”
Wang’s lips tightened skeptically. “What was your motive, then? You must have had one.”
“I’ll tell you—” And Zhang began again to rehearse the story of loathing trade, of the drudgery of designing sex toys day after day. “Don’t say you don’t believe me this time … that this isn’t a real reason!” he stammered out piteously as he ended.
Wang meditated. “No, I won’t say that. I’ve seen too many queer things. There’s always a reason for wanting to get out of life—the wonder is that we find so many for staying in!”
Zhang’s heart grew light. “Then you do believe me?” he faltered.
“Believe that you’re sick of your role as a sex toy entrepreneur? Yes. And that you haven’t the nerve to pull the trigger? Oh, yes—that’s easy enough, too. But all that doesn’t make you a murderer—though I don’t say it proves you could never have been one.”
“I have been one, Wang—I swear to you.”
“Perhaps.” He meditated.
There was a long silence between the two men. Zhang, with a throbbing heart, watched Wang. The editor, at any rate, did not sneer and flout him. After all, journalism gave a deeper insight than the law into the fantastic possibilities of life, prepared one better to allow for the incalculableness of human impulses.
“Well?” Zhang faltered out.
Wang stood up with a shrug. “Look here, man—what’s wrong with you? Make a clean breast of it! Nerves gone to smash? I’d like to take you to see a chap I know—an ex-prize-fighter—who’s a wonder at pulling fellows in your state out of their hole—”
“Oh, oh—” Zhang broke in. He stood up also, and the two men eyed each other. “You don’t believe me, then?”
“This yarn—how can I? If somebody else had accused you, the story might have been worth looking into. As it is, a child could have invented it. It doesn’t do much credit to your ingenuity.”