Authors: Lisa See
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Thrillers, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
The longer Hulan sat here, the more she could catch snippets of conversations drifting down the hill to them. The day workers spoke only Chinese, while the students and foreigners spoke the international language of science—English. From across the way she heard an older man—American—say to a young woman with long bare legs, “You’re running out of time. If you want that to happen, then you’ve got to….” Then the young woman nodded toward Hulan. When the man turned and saw her too, the rest of his sentence evaporated. He waved, said something more to the young woman that Hulan didn’t catch, then the two of them walked over to the boulders to meet Ma’s visitors.
Ma interrupted his recitation of the Four Mysteries and introduced David and Hulan to Stuart Miller and his daughter, Catherine. Hulan didn’t need to hear Ma’s flowery praise to know Stuart’s accomplishments. He owned Miller Enterprises, a conglomerate with multiple subsidiaries, including Miller Engineering. The state-run Chinese press called Miller “a good friend to China,” who had shown his friendship in many ways. Most recently he’d signed a billion-dollar contract to provide crews, expertise, and machinery for the building of turbines for the Three Gorges Dam. He was a distinguished-looking man, in his early fifties. His daughter had gotten her good looks from her father. Catherine’s hair hung in long, lustrous brown curls. Heavy mascara and eyeliner outlined mesmerizing deep brown eyes. Voluptuous young breasts pushed against the fabric of her T-shirt. Her lips were full, and for a second Hulan wondered if she’d had silicone injections. But no, her lips matched too perfectly the rest of Catherine’s face to be anything other than natural.
“Is our leader boring you to death with his Four Mysteries?” she asked, then, to take the sting out of her words, playfully jabbed Ma’s arm.
“Maybe you can do a better job,” Ma dared her back in the same spirit. “I was on the last two.”
Catherine let her eyes rest on David, took a breath, and said, “Since we’ve found remains here from nearly every culture, time period, and dynasty, Mystery Three is: Did each era and its relics influence subsequent cultures in the gorges? Which brings us to Mystery Four: What happened to the Ba civilization? We think it originated as far back as five thousand years ago. But who were the Ba and what happened to them? We want to find the answers before the dam is completed.”
It still didn’t seem terribly interesting to Hulan, but she noticed that David looked captivated. Perhaps it was the change in narrator.
“I don’t believe,” Stuart Miller said into the silence, “that you’re here for archaeology.” Hulan turned and saw him appraising her. “Why have you come to Site 518?”
“I’m investigating Brian McCarthy’s death,” she answered. “My husband has been hired to look into the theft of relics from this site.”
Dr. Ma winced. Apparently this was not how he wanted to transmit this information to the Millers. However, they showed neither concern nor shock, which seemed very strange to Hulan.
“Brian was one of my students,” Stuart informed them. “Did you know that? I sponsor graduate students to do archaeological work in China.”
“Why?” Hulan asked.
“He’s a rapacious collector,” his daughter boasted. “Absolutely rapacious.”
“I like fine things.” Stuart’s smile didn’t break for an instant, but then he hadn’t become a billionaire by telegraphing his thoughts or emotions.
Catherine’s laugh floated out like bubbles.
“Cat,” her father warned.
“You can’t take antiquities out of the country,” David pointed out.
Stuart rubbed his forearm. “I know that. But as you’ll see, everyone here expects the worst of me because I’m a capitalist. The truth is, I support a lot of the archaeological work that’s being done on the river. We’ve got to save as much as we can before it disappears forever.”
“That’s pretty altruistic—”
“If it’s true, you mean?” Stuart finished. David shrugged, and the businessman laughed good-naturedly. “Look, I can help get things out of the ground, but I can’t get them out of the country. However, if they get out some other way and are put up for sale at public auction, what can I do? I’m a collector. If the documentation is in place, I’d be a fool not to buy something I like.”
A loud bell sounded, followed by the clank of shovels and picks being dropped. The day workers walked down the hill. The people who’d been crouching under the canopies stretched their legs, brushed the dirt off their clothes, and also began wandering down the hill.
“Lunch,” Ma explained, eager to break up the conversation. “Come, Mr. Miller. You and your daughter should be first in line.” Ma led his two guests toward an open-sided tent down by the river.
“He seems knowledgeable but awfully territorial,” David said after the threesome set off.
“He’s very clever,” Hulan agreed, “but he’s worried.” She stood and rubbed her hands together. Somewhere along the way she’d picked up something sticky. “I’ll wait for Investigator Lo’s report on the people down here, but I don’t have to read Ma’s
to know that he’s probably hiding something. As for Stuart and Catherine Miller—”
“They should be interviewed separately,” David said.
Hulan looked up at him and smiled. He took some loose strands of her hair and gently tucked them behind her ear. “Let’s go down,” he said. “I’m starved.”
And though it broke all rules of professional decorum, they walked down to the eating tent hand in hand.
THE DAY WORKERS GATHERED TOGETHER IN A THIN SLICE OF
shade formed by the shadow of the mountain, eating their lunches from tin containers. The official site workers—the Chinese students and the foreigners—sat at long tables under a canopy. A buffet of rice, noodles, and a bland-looking concoction of chicken and vegetables had been set up.
After making sure that Hulan and David had served themselves, Dr. Ma led them farther under the tent. Even here people separated themselves into little hierarchical bands. Ma passed the student tables as too lowly. He stopped at the last table, where Catherine and Stuart Miller were eating. People scooted down the bench to make room for David and Hulan, who sat together, with their backs to the mountain, the river coursing before them. Yet the appearance of two strangers didn’t seem to matter to those at the table, who didn’t pause for even a moment in their heated conversation.
“Are you crazy?” a man with steel-rimmed glasses asked, his German accent heavy. “The Nine Tripods? There’s no way—”
they exist? Why couldn’t they be
?” This came from a blond woman with an English accent.
“How about because eight of them disappeared in a fire over two thousand years ago?” the German shot back. “And by that time one had already been lost on the Sie River, which is
In just these few moments, Hulan realized that the lunch conversation would be sprinkled with specialized interests discussed in professional jargon. She and David would need to listen carefully, discarding what was unimportant and homing in on what was vital to their respective cases.
Catherine seemed to sense this, and she addressed David. “They’re talking about the bronze vessels that Yu the Great made to create a visual map of his empire,” she explained. “Each tripod looked like a bowl standing on three legs. Together they passed from dynasty to dynasty as emblems of power. What happened to the Nine Tripods is intriguing to archaeologists like us, but most people have never heard of them.”
The Englishwoman picked up again as though Catherine hadn’t spoken. “Artifacts have disappeared throughout history. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or that they can’t be found or even that they’re where we think they should be. Think of King Tut’s tomb or the terra-cotta warriors—”
Dr. Ma put his hand over the woman’s hand and asked, “Lily, can we put aside Yu the Great and your lost tripods for a few minutes so I can introduce all of you to our newcomers?”
Ma began with team members at the far end of the table. Professor Franz Schmidt, the German, was a heavyset semiologist from the University of Heidelberg. Next to him sat Dr. Annabel Quinby, a dour-looking archaeologist from Harvard. Across from her was a much older man with a bad sunburn and a peeling bald head. Dr. Paul Strong had retired long ago from Cambridge, where his specialty was linguistic anthropology. Six Chinese sat at the table, one of whom was Chinese American. Dr. Michael Quon, Ma explained, had many fields of expertise, and they were honored to have him visiting the site from his home in California. The other five Chinese were representatives from different provincial museums. “We call them the five vultures, isn’t that right, gentlemen?” Ma asked.
The five nodded wearily. Apparently they’d heard this opening many times before and knew where it was going. So had the foreigners, who listened with only moderate interest.
“They sit in their cave day after day, waiting for us to open a tomb with spectacular finds”—Ma lowered his voice confidentially—“and hoping that the relics will go to
museums. But do you hear how I say the word
Inspector? Hope is all our vultures have, because if we ever find anything significant, then I’ll decide what goes where.”
Hulan searched the faces of the Chinese men for a raised eyebrow or an unconscious flinch when Ma called her “Inspector” but saw only bland indifference.
“You should see the gifts they bring me thinking they can curry favor!” Ma went on. “A roast pig. A bottle of VSOP cognac. A carton of cigarettes.”
“Bribes?” Hulan asked.
“Of course,” Ma answered cheerfully.
Hulan followed up with “And you accept them?”
“Someone has to take them.”
Were things so corrupt down here?
“But enough of this. Let me introduce you to the rest,” Ma said. “To your left, Inspector, is our favorite little hothead, Lily Sinclair.”
The phrasing was demeaning, and Lily reddened. She looked to be about thirty. Although her blond hair was short, the cut was expensive. She wore a gold ring on her right hand, a diamond bracelet, and a gold chain around her neck. Her outfit superficially looked like everyone else’s—shorts, T-shirt, and work boots—except she’d probably purchased hers at a Hong Kong boutique. Again, everything simple and very expensive.
“Lily’s from London but works at Cosgrove’s in Hong Kong,” Ma continued. “Do you know Cosgrove’s?”
“It’s an auction house,” Hulan replied. She felt David’s thigh resting alongside her own. He put his hand under the table and gently squeezed the flesh just above her knee. The warmth of his hand penetrated through her clothes.
“I wouldn’t expect an inspector from the Ministry of Public Security to know about the international art market,” Ma commented, “but you aren’t the usual, are you, Inspector?” He didn’t wait for an answer but went on a bit longer about Cosgrove’s and how it had made its reputation almost two hundred years ago by selling works that were a cut above the more commercial objets d’art that were part of the China trade.
Dr. Ma now circled back to his earlier confession. “Inspector, things aren’t as bad as I make them sound,” he confided. “If I accept the gifts, then I have some control over what happens on my site. Those bribes have gone a long way in boosting morale in the camp. How many day workers get to experience the Red Prince life by drinking a shot of brandy? I think our method—though dishonest on the surface—keeps everyone more honest down deep.”
“Honest?” Stuart asked, his voice high and mocking. “Who at this table is here for honest reasons? Certainly not Miss Sinclair.”
“Oh, Stuart, are we going to do this again?” Lily asked dolefully.
Ma sighed theatrically, then explained to David and Hulan. “Every day and at every meal these two have the same conversation—”
“That’s because she’s trying to get her hands on your artifacts so she can sell them at Cosgrove’s.” Stuart’s accusation was lighthearted, teasing.
“You know perfectly well that I could never get an artifact out of the country even if I wanted to, which I don’t,” Lily admonished, clearly taking Stuart seriously. “I for one don’t plan on ever spending a night, let alone an hour, in a Chinese prison. I’m just here to increase my knowledge of Asian art.”
Stuart and a few of the others laughed. He leaned forward across the table and asked, “Then how do you explain the sale of the
last spring at Cosgrove’s?”
“That was perfectly legitimate and you know it!” Lily’s cheeks flushed pink, and she held her back straight.
Stuart glanced over at David and grinned. “She’s cute when she’s upset.”
?” David asked.
“A ritual wine container,” Lily answered huffily.
The others at the table laughed again. They enjoyed razzing Lily, and apparently she took the bait every time.
Annabel Quinby explained: “It so happens, Mr. Stark, that last summer we found a very beautiful bronze
but it disappeared before measurements or photographs could be taken. Two months later Cosgrove’s auctioned it.”