Bones of the Earth: An Inspector Shan Tao Yun Mystery

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The Baltimore Post-Examiner is pleased to present an excerpt of Eliot Pattison’s new novel, Bones of the Earth: An Inspector Shan Tao Yun Mystery.  “Pattison has never been better in depicting a brave man’s dangerous pursuit of justice in a ‘land of broken places and broken people, “Publishers Weekly said. The book can be purchased at Amazon.


The devout in Tibet wear their altars on their necks, an old lama had explained to Shan years earlier, during his early days in prison. Shan had soon learned that nearly every inmate in his gulag barracks wore a prayer amulet, a gau, hung with string or a shoelace, most of them makeshift devices of folded cloth or cardboard with a prayer sewn inside. More than a few of the imprisoned monks would point to their flimsy, makeshift altar and say, only half joking, that their lives hung by a thread. When danger lurked nearby or tormented memories overtook them they would clasp a hand around their gaus and stare toward the distant snowcapped mountains. Their long, unfocused stares had unnerved Shan at first, thinking they were seeing their deaths, but a lama in his fortieth year of imprisonment had said no, they were just consulting a higher plain of existence.

Shan found himself locked in a similarly sightless stare each time he parked at the sprawling complex before him, his hand clasped around his own little copper gau and his eyes tilted toward the square of paper draped over his steering wheel on which an intricate mandala had been drawn. At first he had cajoled himself into thinking he was engaged in meditation but eventually he had come to realize that it was more a trance that let him deny, however briefly, where he was and what he had become.

He jerked back to awareness at the sound of something striking the door of the truck he had driven from Yangkar, and he looked up into the sneering face of Major Xun Wengli, who weeks earlier had discovered Shan’s ritual and learned to respond with his own rite, loudly drumming his baton on the truck.

Shan carefully refolded the paper mandala, returned it to the glove box, and climbed out. Xun pointed with his baton at the gau that still hung exposed on Shan’s chest, laughing at Shan’s embarrassment.  Shan ignored him, stuffing the prayer amulet back inside his shirt then walking around to the passenger door to retrieve the uniform tunic that hung there. Xun looked disappointed as Shan fastened the top button of the new constable’s tunic, then gestured him toward the three-story concrete building in front of them.

Colonel Tan, governor of Lhadrung County, had not indicated why he wanted Shan in Lhadrung town, seat of the county government, but Shan had assumed he had sent Xun, his senior adjutant, to make certain Shan attended still another briefing on the latest People’s Congress or one more lecture on the new, ever-stricter law enforcement initiatives in Tibet.

To his surprise the form he was given to sign by the receptionist in the new government center had his name printed beside the signature line, and the list held fewer than twenty other names, most of which he recognized. It was to be a very private propaganda session. He hesitated when they reached the auditorium door, looking for Colonel Tan, then Xun pushed him past the door, down an unfamiliar corridor. With a chill he saw he was being taken into the new office complex for the Public Security Bureau, which was rapidly expanding its presence in the county. His mind raced as he tried to recall the other names on the registry he had signed. Some were other constables, some senior military officers under Tan—including the wardens of three of his infamous prisons—and two were names that often appeared prominently at the bottom of directives issued by the Public Security headquarters in Lhasa. One of those recent directives had announced a campaign in which officials would be required to swear new loyalty oaths to Beijing while connected to lie detectors. Is that where the gloating Xun was taking him? Shan found himself slowing, his feet leaden. If he had been summoned to be tested by a lie detector, then he would likely be back in a prison cell before nightfall, or at least unemployed and homeless.

“Quickly, Constable!” came Xun’s impatient urging. “Can’t be late!” The major motioned Shan through a pair of double doors into a large two-level chamber that had incorporated a natural rock wall on the far side. A shiver ran down his spine as he saw the faded images of a lotus flower on the whitewashed stone, and he recalled that the new government center, like many others in Tibet, had been deliberately built on the site of a former temple. The lower half of the room had been part of a chapel, no doubt one of the subterranean gonkangs where fierce, sometimes hideous, protector demons would  have been worshipped.

Two rows of seats were arranged to overlook the lower, stagelike level, and Major Xun directed Shan to the only one that was still empty, the last chair in the first row. All the other chairs seemed to be occupied by the others who had signed the registry. One of the gray-uniformed Public Security officers, which the Tibetans called knobs, stepped to a podium at the edge of the little balcony they sat in, nodding to some- one out of sight below. As the officer began to read in a rapid, singsong voice from a file before him, Shan studied the lower chamber. Long ago, shelves had been chiseled into the stone face where figurines of lesser deities would have been arranged. The whitewash on the back wall did not entirely conceal the soot stains that started halfway up the wall, where for decades, probably centuries, butter lamps would have burned on an altar, tended night and day by novice monks. Through the whitewash Shan could now make out dim ghostly images of de- mons which had been painted over the altar. Some of the old Tibetans believed that the demons actually resided in the old gonkangs. One of the protector demons was being crushed by the concrete wall of the new construction. The central figure showed through only faintly, but as Shan studied it he made out a feminine shape with four arms, two of which held a bow and arrow.

When the knob finished droning about some criminal enforcement matter, a door could be heard opening below him and a Tibetan janitor appeared. The gallery watched with a strange fascination as he uncoiled a hose then leaned a mop in the corner where the ledge met the concrete wall before disappearing and returning with a metal armchair. A murmur of nervous laughter rippled through the audience as he stumbled on the hose before placing the chair near the back wall. Shan looked again for Colonel Tan, governor of the county, who had ordered him to the compound, but saw neither the colonel nor his steadfast matronly assistant Amah Jiejie. Xun caught his gaze with a thin, expectant grin. A Public Security sergeant appeared below, leading  a middle-aged Tibetan with thinning hair whose face seemed empty, devoid of expression. The Tibetan shook off the knob’s hand, then straightened his clothing, marched to the chair and sat. He looked up at his audience, briefly fixing his intelligent, piercing gaze on each of the men and women in the chairs. Shan was last, and the man’s gaze lingered on him, with a hint of curiosity in it now. As he looked at Shan he loosely curled the fingers of one hand and held them briefly over his chest. Another, younger, Public Security officer appeared, a lieutenant whose hair had unusual tinges of auburn in it. He bowed his head to the spectators before turning to the Tibetan. The young knob’s thin lips were set in stern determination, but Shan thought he detected a hint of amusement in his eyes.

“Chou Folan?” the lieutenant asked.

The prisoner ignored him. A Chinese name had been assigned to him but he refused to acknowledge it.

The lieutenant glanced up at the officer at the podium, who gave an impatient nod.

“Metok Rentzig,” the lieutenant stated. “Yes,” the Tibetan replied in a melancholy tone. Then he suddenly twisted toward the ghostly demon on the wall behind him. “Om Kurukulla hrih hum svaha!” he called out, defiance in his voice now.


Shan’s heart wrenched as he saw the weapon in the young officer’s hand. With a quick upward motion, the knob leveled the pistol and shot Metok in the head.


Shan had no idea how long he remained sitting, staring down into the sacred chapel that had been converted into an execution chamber. The other witnesses had quickly filed out the door after the man at the podium had declared the ceremony adjourned. Major Xun had been the last of them to leave, closing the door with a cackling laugh aimed at Shan. Two attendants appeared with a gurney and hauled the body away. Shan watched, numbed, as the old Tibetan janitor limped in and hosed down the floor. When the water was not running Shan could hear him whispering a mournful mantra. The janitor hesitated as he saw the blood and gray tissue spattered on the back wall, then moved a few steps back and sprayed it away. He missed a spatter higher up the wall below the eye of the faded goddess. She seemed to be weeping blood.

The janitor was nearly finished mopping up the pink-tinged water when a hand clamped around Shan’s shoulder. He looked up into the icy eyes of the county governor.

“This was not my idea, Shan,” Colonel Tan said. “I didn’t know until Amah Jiejie told me where you were. I came as soon as I heard.”

“You invited me.”

“To my office, not to this. This was Major Xun’s doing. It was a case run out of Lhasa, but they asked him for a quiet place for the execution. He heard you were coming and had her tell you to come here, then added an extra chair to the official witness gallery. He seemed to think it a good joke.”

“I wasn’t laughing.”

“No. I don’t suppose you were. I’m sorry. Major Xun is the most efficient adjutant I’ve ever had but he can be overzealous at times.”

Shan did not reply, but as he walked silently, a step behind Tan, he realized that in all their time together he could not recall ever hearing the colonel apologize to him. Tan led him outside toward his waiting car, a worn, boxy Red Flag limousine that should have been retired twenty years earlier. Once Tan got in beside Shan, the driver sped onto the paved road that led out of the expanding government compound and into a landscape of barley fields and grazing sheep.

Tan stared out the window and did not turn when he finally spoke. “I need you, Shan.”

Shan heard the unexpected worry in the colonel’s voice and realized Tan had sensed his desolation. Had he sensed the words that had been on Shan’s tongue since the moment Tan touched his shoulder in the execution chamber? I resign, Shan silently mouthed, then swallowed down the rest. I can no longer be a gear in Beijing’s monstrous

machine. I can no longer be a law enforcement official in your soulless empire.

He had practiced such speeches several times in recent months, but each time the words choked away with the grim realization that he could not walk away from Tan. He hated Tan for being the tyrant who ran the most infamous camps in the Tibetan gulag, but he owed the man his freedom, his job, his housing, his life. He would never be able to find another job, another place where he could legally reside or, most importantly, ensure the safety of his son Ko, an inmate in one of Tan’s brutal prisons.

“His name was Metok Rentzig,” Shan said at last. “I didn’t understand what the assembly was for. I thought it was just going to be one of those testimonials from a rehabilitated Tibetan. Charges must have been read. I wasn’t listening.”

“Metok was a senior official at the new hydroelectric project. He took bribes. It was in the papers.”

Shan searched his memory, recalling now that he had seen mention of corruption at the Five Claws Dam, the huge project in the far north of the county, thirty miles from his station at Yangkar. “I remember reports at the time of his arrest. Nothing since then.”

“Corruption at such a high level is an embarrassment to Beijing.

Public Security is told to handle such things quietly.”

“You mean a hidden trial,” Shan suggested. “Then a hidden execution.”

“What I mean,” Tan shot back, “is proceedings that appropriately protected the interests of the motherland. The Party took jurisdiction and the investigation was conducted out of Lhasa. We weren’t involved.”

Shan spoke toward the window. “Corruption isn’t a solitary crime.

Yet only one man is charged and executed. A Tibetan.”

A rumbling sound of irritation came from Tan, but he vented his anger by tearing open a pack of cigarettes and lighting one. After having a lung removed he had been under strict orders to stop smoking. A few months earlier he had broken the nose of a nurse who had tried to wrestle a cigarette from his hand.

They drove in uneasy silence for several minutes, then Shan saw the towers of the compound they were approaching and stiffened. “I have seen enough of the ‘People’s Justice’ today,” he said in a tight voice.

“Not like this,” Tan muttered, then flicked the stub of his cigarette out the window as they slowed at the security gate. The guards offered nervous salutes to the military governor then darted to open the gate of heavy timber and barbed wire.

A freshly painted sign by the entrance declared they were entering Camp New Awakening. Shan had always known the facility as the 105th Reeducation Brigade, although most inmates called it the Shoe Factory. Its residents were all prisoners, but they were considered salvageable and split their days between memorizing Party dogma in class- rooms and manufacturing footwear for the People’s Liberation Army.


They parked in front of the main administration building and for the second time that day Shan was escorted to a small reviewing stand, this one just a modest foot-high temporary platform with ten chairs. A military march erupted from the public address system as junior officers took seats in the back row. Shan and the colonel were directed to seats beside an overweight, nervous officer whom Shan recognized as the warden. As they sat the gate in the inner fence of razor wire was opened, and prisoners began filing through under the watchful eyes of armed guards, forming in barracks companies a hundred feet in front of the little reviewing stand. For the most part, these were not the long-term prisoners found in Tan’s hard labor brigades, located in more remote sections of the county, but only the nuisance makers sentenced to forced reeducation. A Public Security officer could sentence a man to up to a year of such servitude with just his signature, and the power was applied liberally whenever a gathering of Tibetans even hinted at political protest. Scattered among them, however, would be a few hard labor prisoners in transition, who were near the end of their sentences or sometimes just the end of their lives.

Once a month at the Shoe Factory the prisoners were assembled for what the camp administration called its graduation ceremony. Shan braced himself for the usual patronizing speeches by the warden and leading pupils, who would read a prepared speech to express their collective gratitude to the motherland for correcting the wayward paths of their lives. The music faded, and a young officer rose with a megaphone to announce awards, praising one unit for the cleanest barracks, another for the best scores on Chinese history exams. Half a dozen such announcements were made, then a list was handed to the officer and he began reading the names of those to be released. Eight names were called and the prisoners warily marched forward, each accepting a rolled paper that would be proof of completing the Party’s curriculum and one of the little red books of Mao’s quotations that were ubiquitous in reeducation camps. The books were all in Mandarin, which Shan doubted any of the graduates could read. Each man gave a respectful bow to the warden then was escorted to a van waiting by the administration building, where duffel bags sat on the ground, no doubt holding the belongings they had arrived with.

The officer with the megaphone cast an anxious glance at the warden, who nodded, and one more name was called.“Yankay Namdol,” the officer stated over his megaphone. “Come and be recognized.”

At first Shan thought the old man who broke out of the ranks was one of the transferred hard labor inmates, for he hobbled as if lame, one shoulder seemed strangely crooked, his unruly hair was mostly gray, and his face was lined with age. But as he approached the platform he grew more erect and his limp became less noticeable, as if he were growing younger before their eyes. He cast a long glance at the gate, where a young Tibetan woman had appeared, holding the reins of two horses.

The warden seemed oddly relieved as the man named Yankay Namdol obediently bowed his head, as if he had feared the graduate would behave disrespectfully in front of Tan. A soldier dropped a soiled drawstring bag at his feet, then the warden handed him his diploma and little red book. Yankay bowed his head to the gathered officers then backed away as he extended a hand into his bag, extracting a tattered coat, one of the sheepskin chubas favored by herders. The scores of witnesses watched with a strange, silent fascination as he put it on over his pajama-like prison tunic. He turned toward the brigade of prisoners, held the book over his head and made a deeper bow to them, raising a murmur of amusement in the ranks. Then he waved toward the woman at the gate and began walking in her direction, then paused to watch as several dogs ran out of the storage sheds behind the office building and began barking. A team of mules hitched to a cart of night soil bolted, their teamster running down the road after them. Shan saw the hint of a smile on the old man’s face, and when he continued toward the gate his limp had nearly disappeared.

Shan did not fully understand the little drama he was watching.

He bent toward Tan. “What was his crime?” he asked. “He killed two soldiers.”

Shan stared at the colonel in disbelief. A Tibetan who killed two soldiers would not even be alive a year later, let alone be walking out of a light duty education camp.

Tan frowned. “There were complications,” he added.

But Shan only half-listened, for he was now watching the strange motions of the Tibetan. Thirty paces from the gate he paused and pulled from his bag a bundle of dried sticks. He extended the bundle to each of the four directions then dragged his heel in the dirt, inscribing first a six-foot-wide circle then a series of short lines like tangents along its edge, before continuing on. The warden cursed under his breath and leaned toward a subordinate, pointing toward the circle in the earth and sending him to erase it. But at a sharp command from Colonel Tan, the young officer halted.

Every man in the compound watched in silence as the gate opened and Yankay climbed onto one of the horses as the young woman mounted the other. No one moved until they began trotting away.

“Return to assigned duties,” the warden said with obvious relief, and the young officer conveyed the order through the megaphone. The prisoners had begun to file back behind the inner wire when several shouted and pointed. Some were indicating the released prisoner, who had dismounted on a nearby hill and was doing a strange dance along its summit, again waving the bundle of twigs over his head. Others were pointing to the tall wooden flagpole in the center of the wide yard. The pole had started to sway.

As Shan watched in confusion, the pole snapped and the Chinese flag fell into the dirt. Then the ground itself swayed. It was not a large earthquake, only one of the minor tremblers that struck parts of Tibet every few weeks, but prison staff began running in panic out of the administration building. One of the junior officers gasped and ran frantically toward a guard tower. Two soldiers leapt off the tower stairs as the support struts split with a loud crack. The tower toppled onto its side, followed by another loud crack behind the stand. Shan turned to see that the posts holding up the short roof over the entranceway to the administration building had snapped, slamming the stubby roof into the door, blocking the entry. Then the earthquake ended as abruptly as it began.

The prisoners, filing back toward their barracks, began to sing. The song had the rhythm of one of the work songs used when prisoners were digging ditches or breaking rocks in roadbeds. But after a few verses Shan realized it had been adapted to sound like such a chant to please the guards. The words were those of an old song that gave thanks to protector demons.

He became aware that the warden, standing in front of them now, was speaking. Tan was still staring in the direction of the now-empty hill where the released prisoner had danced. “Sir?” the warden repeated.

Shan touched Tan’s elbow and the colonel turned toward the warden, then looked past him at the toppled guard tower. To Shan’s surprise, the look on his gaunt face was not anger but rather fascination. “Carry on, Major,” he said to the worried warden, then added, “Have the flag back up before nightfall.”

Tan had the driver stop his car a hundred yards past the gate. Without a word he opened his door and began climbing up the hill where the prisoner had danced. Shan paused as he opened his own door. “Who was that prisoner who was released?” he asked the driver, an old sergeant who had served Tan for most of his career.

The sergeant gestured to the fallen tower. “A  sorcerer,” he replied in a worried voice. Shan remembered how when they had first met years earlier, the driver had always spoken of Tibetans in dismissive, deprecating tones, as Tan himself had. Neither did anymore.

Shan caught up with the colonel at the summit of the hill, where he was sitting on a large flat boulder, smoking another cigarette. There was no sign of the Tibetan sorcerer other than a dust cloud in the direction of the northern mountains.

Tan inhaled deeply on his cigarette then emitted twin streams of smoke from his nostrils. “There’s going to be trouble,” he declared.

Shan sat beside him. “What kind of trouble?” he asked, gazing at the cloud of dust. To the north lay his own remote jurisdiction, the town of Yangkar and its surrounding township, and he saw with relief that the track of the horses was veering east, out of his domain, toward the tallest of the distant snowcapped peaks.

“Your kind of trouble.”

Shan watched the dust cloud for several breaths. “You forget, Colonel,” he said. “These days I specialize in finding stray yaks and settling disputes in the farmers’ market. Last week I had to decide  whether a chicken was worth ten heads of cabbage or fifteen.”

Tan gave a grunt that may have been a laugh. Then he set his own eyes on the receding dust cloud and sobered. “A small convoy was coming through to Lhadrung from Sichuan Province, just two army trucks and two Public Security vehicles in escort.”

“You mean some very special prisoners were being transferred to one of your establishments.” In all of China, Tan was reputed to have the best prisons for making inmates disappear forever. It had been the reason Shan had been sentenced to the 404th People’s Construction Brigade years earlier.

Tan didn’t disagree. “Only six prisoners, three in each truck, with two guards in the back of each, Public Security cars in front and back. The Public Security officer in charge, who had just been assigned to Lhadrung, decided to take one of the old roads through the high mountains, though damned if I know why. If they had bothered to ask, I would have told them those roads are too unreliable, subject to landslides and worse.” He drew on his cigarette again. “An old man appeared on the road as they rounded a curve, waving and doing a strange dance. He stopped every few moments and shook his bundle of twigs toward the sky, which rapidly grew darker.

“The Public Security officers in the front car and two of the escorting soldiers got out, shouting at the man to move, but he seemed not to hear them. They fired pistols in the air, but his only reaction was to laugh and point toward the sky. As they approached him hail began to fall. Not little pea-sized balls, but huge balls of ice, the size of apples. Windows shattered. The escorts ran. The two Public Security men made it back into their vehicle, one with a broken collarbone. But the two soldiers had farther to run to get into their trucks. Too far. They only wore soft fatigue caps and their skulls were quickly shattered. They died instantly. By the time it stopped their bodies looked as if they had been pounded with hammers.”

“And the old man?”

“You just saw him ride away on a horse. One  of  the escorts  said  he disappeared as the hail began but was back on the road as soon as it stopped, then went to the dead and began chanting something before he was arrested.”


“Lieutenant Huan, the chief Public Security officer,  insisted the man had directed the hail onto them and charged the man with murder. But not even the tame judges used by Public Security would buy that story. How could the government formally acknowledge that there are Tibetan sorcerers, the judge asked the officer. I was there, Huan replied, and Yankay Namdol killed them as surely as if he had aimed a gun at them. The judge cited a report that said the road  Huan had taken was so well known for hail that the local people called it Ice Ball Alley. He dismissed the case, and the officer was deemed responsible for negligently causing the deaths. I saw to it that he was taken off the promotion lists for three years and transferred out of Lhadrung before he even settled into a job here. Before he left he had the last word, by assigning the old Tibetan to administrative detention.  One year at the Shoe Factory.”

“Which expired today.”

Tan turned and looked back at the camp, where prisoners were hauling away the wreckage of the tower. “Expired rather dramatically.” He pulled out another cigarette. His doctor, resigned to Tan’s stubbornness, had insisted that he at least buy filtered cigarettes. Tan broke the filter off and threw it into the brush before lighting the cigarette. “How the hell could he cause an earthquake?” he growled.

In his mind’s eye, Shan replayed the scene of the prisoner marching to the warden and receiving his belongings. His old chuba had been tattered, its fleece lining soiled. On the back and sleeves there had been faded images, some of them complex geometric designs and others depictions of deities, too small and too faint for Shan to recognize. On his march to the gate Yankay had drawn another design. Shan bent and in the sandy soil in front of him he drew a smaller version with his finger, a circle with four equally spaced short tangent lines. “He’s a hail chaser,” Shan said.

“A hail assassin, according to Public Security,” Tan said.

“In old Tibet there were such men,” Shan explained, “usually senior monks who had moved on from their monasteries to roam the countryside and tap the power of the earth deities, the ones who control land and sky. They were paid by farmers to influence the weather. Mostly it was to chase away hail, which could destroy a year’s crop in minutes, but the best ones were said to be able to call in hail as well. Some were even said to be able to summon the deities in the earth as readily as those in the sky.”

“The earth gods who make earthquakes,” Tan suggested.

Shan looked at him in surprise. “They’re only old tales, Colonel.

Folklore, really.”

“Of course they are, damn it!” Tan’s temper could instantly flare and cool just as quickly. “It doesn’t matter what I think. The man has a following. It’s like they found a loophole in the law.”

“By using gods?”

Tan’s face tightened again. “Don’t play the fool with me! It doesn’t matter if the gods aren’t real to you or me. What matters is that so  many believe they are!”

“I’m not sure what we’re talking about,” Shan confessed.

Tan motioned with his cigarette toward the fading cloud of dust. “He’s on a line toward the project.”

“The project?”

“That damned hydroelectric project. The  Five  Claws  Dam, they call it. Biggest investment the government has ever made in this region. Two more years to complete and they already have its dedication on the Chairman’s schedule. Five miles farther north and it would have been out of my county,” he spat. “They’re following a new model. Fast track, where national strategic interests are involved. Keep the approval process quiet, start construction before the public even knows about it. Which means they started without even talking with me, let alone asking my permission.” Shan glanced at Tan. Corruption was a minor sin compared to slighting the colonel’s authority.

“Started. Meaning what?” Shan asked.

“Reshaping the valley. Leveling some old ruins.”

Suddenly the earlier events of the morning came back to Shan. He had watched the execution of a man who worked at the hydroelectric project. “A few miles farther west and it would be in my township,” Shan whispered, relieved that the strange Tibetan was not riding into his little piece of the county. But why had Tan even invited him that morning? Why had he been made to get up in the middle of the night and drive the long hours to Lhadrung town?

He inwardly shuddered at the thin smile that appeared on Tan’s face. “Right,” Tan said. “As the constable of Yangkar you need not worry. But—” he reached into his tunic and extracted an envelope, extending it to Shan.

The letter was simply addressed to Shan Tao Yun, Yangkar Township. Shan accepted it with a knot in his stomach. As he read Tan produced a small black leather folder and set it on the rock beside him. Shan stared intensely at the letter, as if he could will the words to disappear.

“You’ll still be constable, still have your station, but I’m bumping your pay by fifty percent.”

Shan read the title Tan was bestowing on him. “Special Inspector for the County Governor’s Office. There’s no such thing.”

“There is if I say so.”

“I would have no authority.”

“Amah Jiejie composed a decree for the file. The governor has the same police powers as Public Security within the scope of his jurisdiction. And my own jurisdiction has been expanded to matters related to supply of army material, consistent with Lhadrung becoming the regional depot for the military.” He pushed the wallet toward Shan. “Open it. It was her idea. She said it would help you.”

The leather folder contained a brass badge mounted on one side and a laminated card on the other. The card, signed by Tan, said Shan Tao Yun, Special Inspector then, underneath, By Appointment of the Governor, Lhadrung County.

“I don’t accept,” Shan said.

“You have no choice.”

“Why?” The question was unnecessary. They both knew the reasons why. Shan, the disgraced renegade investigator from Beijing, had been released years earlier from the gulag prison where he had been sent to die. His sentence had been indeterminate, which for those in disfavor with the State Council meant life in prison, preferably a sharply curtailed life. But five years into his sentence he had done Tan a favor and the colonel had released him, on his own authority, without the approval of any official in Beijing. Shan also had no permission to live outside Tan’s county, and no employment except that which Tan gave him. But the most important reason was his son Ko, who was an inmate in Shan’s former prison. The warden and guards had hated Shan, and Ko would be in grave danger without the protection of Tan and Amah Jiejie, who visited Ko so regularly the staff referred to her as Ko’s aunt.

But Tan surprised Shan. “I need you, Shan,” he said for the second time that day. Theirs had been a complex relationship through the years, starting as bitter enemies then slowly evolving toward a grudging mutual respect. Shan had saved Tan more than once from disgrace, and once from execution for a crime he had not committed. Tan had protected Shan from the merciless, often ruthless hand of Beijing. In the last year, after he had learned from Shan that a revered general, a godlike Hero of the People, was a corrupt murderer, Tan had begun showing signs that he, like Shan, no longer trusted his government. He had killed the general in front of Shan, creating a new bond between them.

“The Five Claws Dam is a national project, run by Beijing. Metok was prosecuted out of Lhasa,” Shan reminded Tan.

“It’s my county, damn it!” There was a reason why some people

referred to Tan as the warlord of Lhadrung. He had been the governor of the huge county, larger than some eastern provinces, for so long, ruling with an iron fist, that it had become more like his personal kingdom.

They sat in silence. The clouds cleared over the distant mountains

and the sunlit their white snowcaps. On the lower slopes of the nearest peaks Shan could make out several points of white, as brilliant as the snow above. They were chortens, structures consisting of a dome on a block with a spire on top, ancient shrines that the local Tibetans had been secretly restoring. The line of chortens stood like sentinels against the prison camps in the valley. There were still very old, very hidden secrets in the mountains.

Tan gestured toward the diminishing cloud of dust and spoke in the grim, knowing tone of an old warrior. “Metok’s execution was not an ending, it was a beginning. There’s a reason the hail chaser is riding toward the Five Claws.”

Shan realized that Tan had expected the Tibetan to go north. “I don’t quite understand, Colonel,” he said.” Are you asking me to start investigating crimes that have not yet been committed?”

He expected an angry reply, but Tan considered his words for several long breaths. “Tibet is a land of broken places and broken people,” he said in a contemplative voice. “And you, Shan, are better at fitting those pieces together than any person I know.” Without another word the colonel rose and began walking back to his car.

A young officer from the camp awaited them. “The warden said you should be aware. The earthquake ruptured our cisterns,” he reported to Tan. “We have no water. We’ll need tankers. And the new mural of the Chairman on the wall of the instruction hall has cracked, split down his face.”

Tan cast another pointed glance at Shan. Camp New Awakening had become one more broken place.

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