Today's Reading

Sergeant Bing parks the car, and everyone disembarks. Lu glances up at the row of telephone posts arranged along the lane. The People's Republic has embarked upon an ambitious plan to blanket much of the country with an extensive network of surveillance cameras. Already, major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are nearly 100 percent covered. But in Raven Valley, this technology is available only in the center of town.

While Lu has mixed feelings about the surveillance program, he cannot help but admit it would make his job easier if there were one or two cameras here to capture the events that have recently transpired.

He takes a minute to get his bearings, then starts issuing orders. He posts Sun at the entrance to the front yard. He dispatches Yuehan Chu and Fatty Wang to canvass the neighborhood to the east, Big Wang and Li the Mute to canvass to the west. He opens the trunk of the patrol car and roots around for a box of latex gloves. He and Sergeant Bing each slip on a pair.

They enter the yard and make their way toward the house, Lu motioning for Sergeant Bing to watch where he puts his feet. The ground is covered with a layer of dirty iced-over snow, and Lu wants to avoid trampling on any tracks the suspect may have left.

There is a white banner draped over the front door, signifying a recent death in the family.

Two deaths, Lu amends silently.

Lu opens the door and they enter. It is nearly as cold inside the house as it is outside. Traditional northern homes like this one lack central heating—they are warmed by means of a kang—a brick-and-clay platform used as a bed or sitting area with a hollow space beneath where a fire is lit. But no fire has been kindled at the Yang residence today.

Despite the chill, Lu picks up the scent of a dead body immediately. An odor reminiscent of raw pork. Sergeant Bing takes a cotton face mask out of his coat pocket and strings it over his mouth and nose.

"Did you bring one for me?" Lu says.

"We can take turns."

They are standing in a short hallway. To the right is a living room, and to the left, a bedroom. Straight ahead, the open mouth of what Lu assumes is the kitchen.

Lu and Sergeant Bing make an initial sweep.

In the living room, Lu notes the kang, heaped with padded quilts and cushions, a large cabinet, two wooden chairs, a low stand draped with a tattered quilt, a space heater, and, brightening the drab plaster wall, a New Year's couplet on red paper and a giveaway calendar printed by Raven Valley's largest corporate agricultural enterprise, Abundant Harvest Industries.

The cabinet looks to be an antique, its dark varnish cracked and peeling. The bottom half is a closed compartment decorated with chipped mother-of-pearl inlay and a painting of flowers and butterflies. Above this is a shelf where a black-and-white funeral portrait of a middle-aged lady and her ancestral tablet have been placed, along with an urn for incense and a few offerings of food and drink. Lu leans in to read the tablet—it is inscribed with the name Yang Hong. He assumes this is the recently deceased mother of Yang Fenfang.

Behind the shelf are irregularly sized niches stuffed with little treasures—carved figurines, a cloisonné jar, a porcelain flower vase, a lacquered wooden box shaped like a peach, and so on.

The bedroom is tidy but cramped, with a bed, a cheap wooden vanity (its mirror covered with red cloth), a chest of drawers, a plastic zip-up wardrobe, a floor fan, another space heater, and other furnishings.

Heading down the hallway to the kitchen, Lu and Sergeant Bing pass the bathroom door, slightly ajar. By unspoken agreement, they do not look inside.

Not yet.

The kitchen is large and serves as a combination food preparation area, dining room, and all-purpose storage space. There is an ancient wood-burning stove, the walls above it blackened by the smoke of a thousand home-cooked meals. Cabinets and racks are stuffed with crockery, cooking ingredients, tins of biscuits, and so on. Rice sacks and plastic water jugs sit on the floor. Lu sees a few appliances of recent manufacture on the counter—a rice cooker, a deep fryer, an electric teakettle. A dining table dominates the center of the room. An electric scooter leans against one wall. A dog's sheepskin-lined bed lies underfoot. The atmosphere is one of organized chaos.

Sergeant Bing tries the door leading to the backyard. "Still locked." They return to the living room and search it more thoroughly, kneeling to peek under the furniture and inspecting any stains or markings on the floor and walls. There are no obvious signs of a struggle. No blood, no mess. But some of the objects in the cabinet are slightly askew—as if they've been jumbled or knocked over, then set back in place.

"The suspect and victim fought and knocked up against the cabinet?" Sergeant Bing suggests.

"Could be."

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