Thirteen years later, the case of the Aocheng Chemical Plant still nags at me like an unsolved riddle. It was broad daylight, the workers standing in the cracked concrete yard, lunch boxes in hand, voices rising and falling as they murmured how it had been fine last night, now it was gone. The Aocheng Police Department had sent Sergeant Zhao Dezhong, along with two trainees—Li and myself. We arrived to see a handcart lying there, its tire gone, looking as pathetic as an amputee robbed of his prosthetic limb.
According to the chief security of officer, theft of the tire would have the same level of difficulty as a bank heist. The plant was surrounded by a wall over a meter high, topped by a wire fence to a height of two meters. There was only one gate, which was vigilantly monitored in shifts 24 hours a day, and there were patrols inside the factory at night. At the time of the incident, a number of employees were doing overtime in the brightly lit workshop.
They’re simply mocking us, we thought.
Sergeant Zhao had been in reconnaissance during his time in the army, and he’d once court-martialed his own comrades for stealing important supplies. He quickly concluded that this was a simple case of an inside job. A precondition for burglary, he told us, was the ability to case the joint, and from the look of things an outsider would be hard-pressed to find out where everything was stored or what the layout was. Besides, statistics showed that 65 to 80 percent of factory thefts were carried out by the workers themselves.
Luckily for us, Sergeant Zhao said, these workers live in dorms, they haven’t taken a single step out of the compound.
We worked with the security chief to come up with a plan. He would gather all the managers, who in turn would summon their team leaders, who would then get their workers together, and we would interrogate them group by group. There would be two questions: What were you doing between three and five in the morning? What proof can you provide that you were asleep or at work?
Their answers weren’t important; we were interested in their physiological responses during the questioning. Sergeant Zhao detailed Li and me as human lie detectors, and we soaked up the workers’ body language as they spoke. But they came in, one after another, their expressions exactly the same— flustered, they looked around the office, didn’t know what to do with their hands, and were too scared to look directly at us. A few came under suspicion simply because they were young or had the wrong sort of hairstyle, but they all had the perfect alibi: ask Old Wang. When Old Wang, a down-to-earth guy, showed up, he confirmed that they’d all been working late, and hadn’t so much as gone for a piss.
The fox is more cunning than us, said Sergeant Zhao. We’re dealing with a cool customer.
After our investigation, the factory security chief said it was time for dinner. Sergeant Zhao insisted that he couldn’t relax and eat until we were certain not a single worker would leave the premises. The chief said not to worry. He led us to a private room in the canteen where our meal was laid out, four dishes and a tureen of soup. The dishes were the size of washbasins, piled high with fish and meat and an entire chicken. Little soft-shelled turtles floated in the soup.
The chief opened a bottle of liquor and pulled a folded-up American dollar bill from inside the cap. He said to his men, Whoever finishes this gets the greenback. Sergeant Zhao said he was a lightweight, but was nonetheless persuaded to down three glasses, after which he tipsily slurred: That’s enough for today, let the workers go if they want to go. Keep a tight patrol tonight, otherwise the thief might try to off-load the goods.
We returned to the factory the following afternoon. The security chief said he’d kept a close eye on the factory, but nothing had happened. Our sergeant said, That’s good, that means the tire hasn’t been fenced. Next, we examined every corner of the plant, with the quiet confidence of people who’d lost their keys but were certain they’d find them. We expected the tire to turn up behind some old, broken-down piece of machinery, or else tucked into the tarpaulin over some cesspool. When we passed by a storage shed, Sergeant Zhao hopped up, trying to see what was on the roof, but barely got off the ground. He asked me to try, but I couldn’t do it either. I told Li to jump, and he did manage to clear the roof, but said there was nothing up there except crumbling asbestos tiles.
We even considered the possibility that the thief had hidden the tire up a tree, but among the abundant leaves and branches of the few trees in the compound, we found nothing but innocent birds building their nests. We finished the day in a despondent mood, and were still distracted when it came time for dinner. I don’t remember what the chief said to us, or what we ate; I recall only that lettuce, after so much greasy food, was a godsend.
It was time for a change of strategy. Back in the station, realizing his reputation as an “elite reconnaissance soldier” had been tarnished, Sergeant Zhao tugged at his hair and raged at himself. After a long while, he said wearily: The tire isn’t in the factory. We have to consider more scenarios—that it was an outside job, or an outsider in cahoots with someone on the inside.
First thing the following morning, we walked around the boundary wall instead of entering the compound. Sagebrush grew abundantly outside the factory, dew still glistening on it. The sergeant instructed us to look for signs of crushed plants. A tire might weigh 20 pounds, and if someone flung it over the fence it would surely leave a mark. We searched all morning but found nothing except some sanitary pads, black and crusty with blood, and a few dead mice, clouds of flies rising from them as we approached. Maybe sagebrush is too springy, said Sergeant Zhao. We should go have a look at the reeds.
We walked downhill, away from the wall, and split up as we entered the reed groves. We seemed to have entered a gloomy, mysterious world that stretched on forever. Soon, our shoes had disappeared into the mud. I walked and walked, until I’d worked up an appetite. I wondered if a scaly rodent might pop out of the ground and blink at me. I’d enjoyed a fair bit of wild game like that in Aocheng. I did see burrows, but they were all flooded. I muttered sternly to myself, a tire, a tire, you’re looking for a tire—but I kept getting distracted. Just as it seemed that I would walk into the void, walk into night, Li’s figure appeared in the last rays of light. He was having a piss.
After night had fallen, we took a shortcut back to the station. Suddenly we saw someone on the edge of a distant field waving a flashlight. When we got closer, it turned out to be the factory security chief. He said, Sorry to have caused you so much trouble. The flashlight beam wobbled down to our feet and he added, in a tone of deep regret, Your shoes, just look, they’re covered in mud. Sergeant Zhao said, It’s nothing, if little things like this bothered us, we’d have no business being cops.
Naturally, we went back to the chemical plant for dinner. A deputy manager came over to keep us company. After saying a few words, everyone abruptly fell silent. The manager’s silence was due to a deep sense of remorse. Our silence was, likewise, due to a deep sense of remorse. Finally, both sides spoke at the same time. The deputy manager said, We’re grateful, so very grateful. Sergeant Zhao said, Look, we’ve made no progress at all.
The security chief immediately smoothed things over: Eat, eat.
Leaving the canteen, I saw several white-haired workers in filthy overalls, banging metal spoons against porcelain jars. They seemed to be drumming out some old song, one of those our generation had never heard. As we approached, the beating quieted down; then it got louder again as we passed.
Back at the station, Sergeant Zhao didn’t wash or change his shoes; he just slumped on the couch and sighed. We were going to comfort him when he jumped to his feet and said, Quick, get a flashlight, let’s go up the hill and have a look. Li and I sulked; our legs were swollen from walking all day. The sergeant could see our reluctance and snapped, Fine, I’ll go by myself. Of course, we had to follow him.
There was some moonlight as we switched on our flashlights and, passing through sagebrush and the reed swamp, we found ourselves on a dirt track: a road of no return. Let’s imagine the thief rolled the tire along this path, said Sergeant Zhao. You two keep an eye out for tracks, I’ll be damned if he carried it the whole way on his shoulder.
We saw nothing at all, and only got more tired. As we shuffled along sleepily, Sergeant Zhao suddenly shouted: Found it! We snapped to attention and squatted down, and sure enough there was a track, with a pattern down the middle like ~~~. Wasn’t that precisely the pattern of the tire?
Smiling like a child, Sergeant Zhao said, He must have finally taken the tire off his shoulder.
We continued in high spirits for another five or six minutes, until a mud hut loomed out of the darkness. By its window was a handcart, and next to that a tire. Elated, Sergeant Zhao went up and started kicking the door. Startled awake, the farmer turned on a light and opened up, and we went in, carrying the tire. The lamplight inside was so weak that we turned on our flashlights. Now we could see three leather patches on the tire, like ringworm scabs, which didn’t fit the description of the stolen one. But anyone can disguise evidence—murderers know to change their hairstyles, for instance. Sergeant Zhao started ripping off the patches, while the farmer complained piteously, You can’t do that.
But our sergeant tore them off with no hesitation. When they wouldn’t lift easily, he scratched at them with his fingernail until they peeled away. He rubbed at the surface and examined it closely. It looked as if the patches had been genuine. Still uncertain, he poked at a spot with his penknife and, pressing too hard, cut into the tire, which deflated with a whoosh.
Sergeant Zhao said: This tire’s too decrepit, you’re obviously innocent, the tire belongs to you. Roll it to the station tomorrow, I’ll get someone to fix it.
On the way back, I put an arm over Li’s shoulders and leaned like a wounded man. The sergeant kept muttering to himself, So strange, how’d something that big vanish? So strange, like magic or something.
Over the next few days, we set up roadblocks, searched junkyards, dispatched people to gather intelligence, but none of these things turned up any leads. Every day, though, we had our lunch and dinner right on schedule at the factory. After a week of this, we hung back at the station, only to have the security chief turn up in person. He said they’d booked us a table at Jade Cloud Restaurant. Sergeant Zhao looked mortified, and said we’d eat when we’d earned it.
The chief said: What are you talking about, you’ve all made an enormous contribution.
The sergeant said: What contribution? A tire’s worth 50 yuan, and we’ve eaten at least 2,000.
The chief said: You can’t look at it that way. If you leak 50 yuan and don’t plug it today, tomorrow you’ll lose 5,000, 50,000, 500,000 yuan: huge quantities of state property disappearing just like that.
The sergeant said: But we can’t even explain what happened to the 50 yuan.
The chief said: At the very least you’ve put the fear of God into the guilty party.
The sergeant said: I’m not going, you can ask them if they will.
The chief said: If you’re not going, I’m not leaving.
The sergeant said: You’re welcome to stay.
The security chief went and spoke to our police chief, who listened with feet planted and hands behind his back, nodding and humming like Justice Bao, and when the chief was done, he yelled, Zhao, Ai, Li, let’s go.
The four of us went to Jade Cloud Restaurant, where steam was rising from two dozen dishes already on the table, and two dozen people stopped chewing sunflower seeds and stood to greet us. The security chief made the lengthy introductions, saying, This is Factory Manager Zhu, this is Factory Manager He. Our station chief waved and said, Thank you, thank you, good to know you all. Then, rather timidly, the security chief introduced the next table: This is my wife, my kids, that’s Chief Officer Yang’s wife, everyone’s here.
The police chief stretched out a large hand, saying, How do you do, how do you do.
Later on, Sergeant Zhao used his own money to buy a second-hand tire, and sent Li and me to deliver it to the chemical plant. The security chief said, That’s it, that’s the one. Then he rolled it happily out into the concrete yard. At a distance I could see the bereft cart, waiting forlornly for the return of its limb.
Translated by Jeremy Tiang.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.