In the corner of an office in an old-fashioned building in Beijing's Chongyang District, the fan was humming loudly, like an elderly man angry at his own impotence. Mei and Mr. Shao sat across a desk from each other. Both were perspiring heavily. Outside, the sun shone, baking the air into a solid block of heat.
Mr. Shao wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. He had refused to remove his suit jacket. "Money's not a problem." He cleared his throat. "But you must get on it right away."
"I'm working on other cases at the moment."
"Do you want me to pay extra, is that it? You want a deposit? I can give you one thousand yuan right now." Mr. Shao reached for his wallet. "They come up with the fakes faster than I can produce the real thing, and they sell them at under half my price. I've spent ten years building up my name, ten years of blood and sweat. But I don't want you talking to your old friends at the Ministry, you understand? I want no police in this."
"You are not doing anything illegal, are you?" Mei wondered why he was so keen to pay her a deposit. That was most unusual, especially for a businessman as shrewd as Mr. Shao.
"Please, Miss Wang. What's legal and what's not these days? You know what people say: 'The Party has strategies, and the people have counterstrategies.'" Mr. Shao stared at Mei with his narrow eyes. "Chinese medicine is like magic. Regulations are for products that don't work. Mine cure. That's why people buy them."
He gave a small laugh. It didn't ease the tension. Mei couldn't decide whether he was a clever businessman or a crook.
"I don't like the police -- no offense, Miss Wang, I know
you used to be one of them. When I started out, I sold herbs on the street. The police were always on my tail, confiscating
my goods, taking me into the station as if I were a criminal. Comrade Deng Xiaoping said Ge Ti Hu -- that individual traders were contributors to building socialism. But did the police care for what he said? They're muddy eggs. Now things are better. I've done well, and people look up to me. But if you ask me, the police haven't changed. When you need protection, they can't help you. I asked them to investigate the counterfeits. Do you know what they told me? They said they don't do that
kind of work. But whenever there is a policy change, an inspection, or a crackdown, you can bet they'll jump on me like hungry dogs."
"Whether you like the police or not, we must play by the book," Mei said, though she knew her voice was less convincing than her words. Private detectives were banned in China. Mei, like others in the business, had resorted to the counter-strategy of registering her agency as an information consultancy.
"Of course," agreed Mr. Shao. A smile as wide as the ocean filled his face.
After Mr. Shao had left, Mei walked over to stand next to the fan. Slowly, the faint breeze flowing through her silk shirt began to cool her. She thought of the time when she was "one of them," working in the police headquarters -- the Ministry of Public Security. Most of their cases were complex or politically sensitive; otherwise, they would not have been sent up by the Ministry's branches. There were always a lot of agents, bosses, and departments involved. At first Mei liked the excitement and buzz. But as the years went on, she began to feel lost in the web of politics and bureaucracy. It was hard to know what was going on and how to figure out all the pieces of the truth.
Mei moved a little to get the full benefit of the fan. She looked around. Her office was a small room, sparsely furnished and with a window overlooking the dirt yard. Next to it was an entrance hall. Everything inside the agency said low budget and secondhand. Yet she was happy. She liked being her own boss and having full control of the jobs she took on and how she went about them.
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