This is the first chapter of the novel Black Holes, translated by Emily Jones and reprinted thanks to the kind permission of the author and the translator.
Read the Chinese here.
Miss Song brought in a cup of coffee. She placed it on the desk and, with a flowing movement, turned and raised her right hand as if to swear an oath.
‘I’ve something to declare, Boss.’
Hong Jun, a talented – if academic – practitioner of the legal profession, had stretched out his hand for the cup. He withdrew it when his beautiful assistant made her declaration. ‘Which is?’ he said.
‘I want to be a lawyer.’
‘And why is that?’ Hong Jun asked.
‘Everyone wants to get on in life don’t they?’
‘If you want a better job, you could get one somewhere else.’
‘Why can’t I be a lawyer here, with you?’
‘Because, for one thing, you’re an exceptionally talented secretary.’
‘Maybe I’d be a talented lawyer too,’ said Miss Song, whose full name was Song Jia, as she rolled her eyes. There was a hint of petulance in her voice. ‘Though I could never be as good as you of course,’ she remedied. ‘Hear me out Boss. Normally people with good looks have no power and people with power are downright ugly. I remember, when I was at school, my dad used to say: “Just because you’re pretty doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard.” He was comparing me with the star students in my class. So guess what I used to say back to him.’ Despite the speed at which she spoke, Song Jia’s voice was clear and crisp.
‘I used to tell him: it wasn’t hard work that made them ugly.’
‘How insightful,’ Hong Jun said, his voice mellow. He always chose his words with care – except when talking about his work, when he preferred not to beat about the bush. The truth was he knew, from having worked with her for so long, that she possessed a razor-sharp mind, and would make a fine lawyer.
‘It’s true!’ she went on. ‘People come to you because there are so few lawyers like you. Look at how we’re snowed under right now. So I’ve decided to study to become a lawyer. If I don’t you’ll just have to hire another one anyway.’
‘Not many people want to be a criminal lawyer.’
‘Haven’t you heard of the Salvage Gang?’
‘Who on earth are they?’
‘They’re a group of lawyers who only take on criminal cases. Apparently it doesn’t matter what you’ve done or how big a mess you’re in, they’ll get you out of it. And they charge fixed fees. Their cheapest job is a couple of hundred thousand, and their biggest ones get them millions. They’re very hot right now.’
‘Hmm. Fire is dangerous you know.’
‘Who cares, when you earn that sort of money? I want to study law.’
‘It’s not easy to pass the exams.’ Hong Jun paused and then said, ‘How about I test you first?’
‘Test me on what?’
‘Something simple. Look here.’ He pulled out the previous day’s issue of the Beijing Evening News and opened it, pointing to one article. ‘Here’s a report on a traffic accident.’
Song Jia went over to Hong Jun’s side of his desk and read aloud: ‘Eighth of April nineteen ninety-five, Beijing. A cyclist was injured in a hit and run incident at approximately three p.m. on the service road to the Third Ring Road, just west of Beitai Pingzhuang. According to eyewitness reports, the car was a dark blue VW Santana. There is a large scratch on the green number plate at the front of the vehicle, the last three digits of which are either two eight three or two eight five. Police have appealed for further information—’
‘Stop there.’ Hong said. ‘Now, was the last number of the licence plate three or five? I’ll give you a few minutes to think about it.’ He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip.
‘Three or five?’ Song Jia took the paper and stepped back in front of the desk. She put it back down and glared at him. ‘A dark blue Santana? Boss, isn’t that your car? Huh, no it can’t be, your plate number is different.’
‘You’re wasting time.’
Song Jia put her hands together in front of her mouth as if praying and creased her eyebrows. She paced around the room. ‘Two eight three . . . two eight five. . . two eight three. . . two eight five. . . Three plus five is eight. Five minus two is three. Three multiplied by five is fifteen. Five multiplied by three is also fifteen. But—’
‘Stop procrastinating!’ Hong Jun looked at his watch.
‘Come on Boss, give me a hint! At school, the teacher would tell us if we were in the ballpark at least.’ She cocked her head.
‘Your time is up.’ Hong Jun’s face showed a satisfied smile. ‘You’d better remain a talented secretary.’
‘What? You can’t count the time we were talking Boss. You’ve got to give me another couple of minutes! Are you saying that the probability of those two numbers—’
‘You’re on the wrong track.’
‘Then are you talking about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony?’
‘It’s far simpler than that.’ Hong Jun smiled. ‘What month is it?’
‘There’s your solution.’
‘Bloody hell Boss! What kind of an answer is that? And, I might point out that, so far, this test has got nothing to do with the law.’
‘I don’t know where you picked up that language but if people heard you, they’d think I bullied you.’ Hong Jun stood and went to the window. ‘Ah, my client has arrived.’
‘You’re changing the subject!’ Song Jia said, as she rose to answer the ringing doorbell. Just before she did, she turned and said, ‘Soon as he’s gone, you’re going to tell me the answer.’
Hong Jun smiled, his face still towards the window, then turned to greet a tall, well-built man in his forties who had just come into the room. He had a square face framed by busy sideburns to below his ears, his chin was covered by stubble and his eyebrows were so thick and black they almost joined together. Despite the abundance of facial hair there was hardly any on the top of his head, just a few long strands draped over a smooth crown. He introduced himself as Mr Xia, Xia Dahu, the owner of an interior design company called Meihu. ‘Mr Hong, I read your name in the paper and decided to come and see you.’ There was a trace of the northeast in his accent.
Hong Jun knew Xia was referring to a report about his success in Heilongjiang Province, which happened to be in northeast China, the year before. He’d defended a man called Zheng Jianguo, rescuing him from ten years of wrongful imprisonment. It was his first case in China since he’d returned from the United States. He’d been pleased with how it had turned out though to Xia he said, ‘Oh, that was nothing much.’
‘I bet it meant more than nothing to the man and his family!’
A smile flitted across Hong Jun’s face. Although his visitor was trying to appear relaxed, he was visibly nervous. ‘Let’s talk about what brought you here,’ he said.
‘It’s my son, Xia Zhe,’ Xia Dahu began. ‘He plays the stock market. He has an account at a state-run securities firm. He’s done well, but he’s just lost a huge amount of money in a deal and now he’s been arrested by the police. I didn’t know why until the day before yesterday when I found out his case will go to court. He’s been accused of fraud. This is why I have come to see you Mr Hong. I mean, I’ve been thinking about it, these stocks and shares. Well, it’s the same as in business isn’t it? Sometimes you make a profit, sometimes a loss. Now if you make a profit from someone else’s money, well, I can see how that might be fraud. But my son lost money – his own – and it seems someone else’s too. How can they call that fraud?’
Hong Jun sat down at his desk and indicated that Mr Xia should take the chair opposite. ‘It all depends on the details,’ he said. ‘To see if your son has committed fraud, we need to check his trading records for evidence of trying to illegally obtain money, or any misleading or dishonest behaviour.’
‘He just buys and sells shares through a brokerage house. Who could he cheat? If you’re saying he’s a risky speculator, I could accept that. But dishonest? I don’t agree.’
‘Do you have a copy of the indictment?’
‘Yes I do.’ Xia Dahu rifled through his briefcase before raising his head, embarrassed, ‘Ah… I must have left it in my office. There’s been so much to deal with recently, I’m all over the place.’
‘Is there a court date?’ Hong Jun asked.
‘Yes, it’s next week. I’ll have to check which day.’
‘You’ve waited two days already. Time is tight. Usually there are only seven days between the date the court sends out the copy of the indictment and the hearing. Can you remember what the charges are?’
‘To be honest, I’m completely ignorant about the stock market, so I didn’t really understand what it said. I’m just so worried about my son.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Twenty-one. He’s at that difficult age when he just won’t listen to his parents. I won’t lie to you: sometimes I wonder if having children is really worth the effort. I certainly think I’d live a bit longer if I were childless!’
Without thinking, Hong Jun laughed, ‘Sometimes it’s simply a case of bad timing.’
‘Oh? What makes you say that?’ Xia Dahu stiffened and his tone sharpened.
‘I apologise if I’ve offended you.’ Hong Jun moved the conversation on. ‘Your son is very young to be playing the stock market. I imagine he must be highly intelligent.’
‘Yes, he’s a bright kid. He did well at school, to start with at least, but towards the end of high school he became fascinated with this stocks and shares business. It affected his grades, so much so that he couldn’t get into university. I have an old friend who’s the general manager of Hongyuan Securities, where my son spent all his free time and more besides. Then one day he told me he wanted to set himself up as a speculator, make a career out of it. I didn’t agree, but I was no match for the fight he and his mother put up. I gave him a hundred thousand yuan and told him I didn’t expect him to make a fortune, just pay for his own way in life. That was over two years ago. He’s done really well, made lots of money and hardly lost a cent.
‘Do you know how much he made?’
Xia looked sheepish, and shrugged. ‘I’ve never really asked him how much money he has. All I know is that he spends it pretty freely. He’ll spend thousands on clothes….’ Xia sighed. ‘He’s really gone and blown it hasn’t he? He’s not only lost everything I gave him, he also owes Hongyuan money too. What a stupid fucking mess! Oh, Mr Hong, I’m sorry. That was rude of me.
‘How much did he lose?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know that either, but I’ve a feeling it’s not small change.’
Hong Jun sat in silence for a while, running his fingers slowly through his hair. It was a habit he’d picked up that he only did when he was thinking hard. Suddenly, he brought his hand down and said, ‘Mr Xia, I’ll accept the case. Please send over a copy of the indictment papers as quickly as possible.’
‘Could you come with me now? To get them? Maybe I could . . .’ Xia Dahu hesitated.
‘Is there something else?’
‘No, nothing.’ There was a pause before Xia Dahu went on. ‘I just thought I could, uh, invite you to lunch.’
Hong Jun looked at his watch. ‘Thank you but it is rather early in the day, and I still have quite a bit of work to get on with. It’d be best if you just sent the papers over.’
Hong Jun called in Song Jia and asked her to see Xia Dahu out. Once she’d done so she returned to Hong Jun’s office. With a straight face, as if she was addressing a famous monk she said, ‘Reverend Master, I am merely an ignorant student. I humbly beseech you to explain everything to me patiently.’
‘You’re still young. There is much you don’t understand.’ Hong Jun played along.
‘Come on Boss, seriously. Explain this two eight three and two eight five thing.’
‘Haven’t you worked it out yet?’
‘Here’s what I’ve worked out: you want me to spend all day thinking over it and then you’ll tell me it was a wind-up. I’m not stupid. I don’t know why I always fall for your tricks.’
‘Which only proves that I’m more intelligent than you. I wasn’t “winding you up”. It was a genuine intelligence test.’ Hong Jun indicated that Song Jia should sit in the chair Xia Dahu had just vacated. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘You know the Beijing municipal government is replacing the old green number plates with new blue ones, yes?’ Song Jia nodded.
‘Well the plates are replaced when a car is taken in for its annual check, and the checks, as I’m sure you know . . .’ Hong Jun raised an eyebrow. Song Jia mimicked him without realising it. ‘ . . . are scheduled according to the last digit of the number plate. If it’s a three, then the check – and the change of plates – is in the corresponding month, which is March, the third month of the year. If it’s a five, it’s May. Right now it’s April, and that car’s number plate was one of the old green ones, so the last digit must be a five, not three. Miss Song, do you now accept that I wasn’t winding you up?’
Song Jia hated to admit it, but she was beaten. Her cheeks flushed. Hong Jun had outclassed her again, and her respect for him was intensified by a feeling that was much more personal.
Oblivious to the goings-on in Song Jia’s head, Hong Jun’s thoughts returned to Xia Dahu. As he sipped his coffee, he mused aloud. ‘I wonder, Miss Song, if Mr Xia came to see us to tell us about his son’s troubles, or something else?’
‘He did seem a bit distracted. I find it hard to believe he would forget to bring documents as important as his son’s indictment papers to see the lawyer who he intends to hire to defend him. And then there was that odd way he started to invite you to lunch and his office, and then he stopped – sorry, the door was open. I couldn’t help but overhear…’
‘Yes it was rather odd. I have a feeling there is more to this case.’ Hong Jun clenched his right hand and rotated it once and then a second time. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m going to take a look at this Hongyuan set-up, see how it works. Have you ever bought shares Miss Song?’
‘Ha! As if you paid me enough to bet it on the stock market!’
With that, Song Jia turned and walked to the restroom. She flipped the sign on the door from ‘Gentlemen’ to ‘Ladies’.