Originally published in Issue #7 of Typehouse Magazine
Mr. Chen lived close enough to the Three Gorges Dam that he could see all of it from top to bottom, and to him the dam was, you’ll excuse him, a structure unlike any other. Staring at it as he often did, he found that its mood changed depending on its distance from the river: the spillway was as grim and humorless as a prison wall where it let the water out, its massive jaw clamping down on the Yangtze. But at the top, along its mighty parapet, quaint-looking platforms sprouted up as red as coxcombs, their color so vivid, so striking, it was as if they were blushing at their own grandeur.
For three years, ever since his retirement, he’d take the half-hour walk from his modest flat in Dabagou to the riverside ballast and absorb the immensity of it. The dam had split the Long River clear in two and flooded any little village or corporate park that dotted its shadow. It had been a great controversy, that. Still was. But as Chen often reminded himself, there is no space for the old good when newer ones beckon. The damn was far too great and far too important to tolerate the lesser, quainter feats of man that presumed to bask alongside it. They could no longer be allowed to exist. They had to be erased, buried, drowned.
On typical days, Mr. Chen would admire the dam for an hour, two in good weather, and then amble back to Dabagou to indulge in his usual breakfast of congee and eggs. He lived a widower’s life, and with no children of his own he was forced to discipline himself to keep time’s nagging hole – so small in our youth but stretching wider and wider every year, even as we ignore it – from swallowing him up. The job was good for that, certainly, but after he hung up his hat he turned to routine. There were walks in the morning, then gardening on his small, square balcony at midday, afternoons for exercise and light napping or perhaps cleaning when it was absolutely essential, then always a light dinner since money was tight, perhaps reading after that, and then early to bed so he had long, leisurely nights to dream the dreams of a more reckless man, who drank and swore and smoked and took what he wanted – from women, from the world, from creation. He was imagining himself as Old Liu, that mangy dog.
Liu was one of Chen’s former colleagues, the wildest of wild cards there ever was, retiring out of the blue after he spent years swearing he’d die on the job. He disappeared as quietly as he worked. Chen liked to imagine him now, freed from his habitual violence and off in the great yonder, in lands glazed by the amber of a more romantic time, having all the adventures and affairs he was sure he’d never muster the courage to enjoy himself.
So it went for three years, living quietly and modestly and dreaming wildly, until one day, a stormy-looking kind of day, Mr. Yu arrived. He was dressed the same as when Mr. Chen was still in his employ – a three-piece suit perfectly fitted to his scarecrow figure, black like the color of coal, with a white shirt underneath so clean and so starched that it looked to be carved from pearl. Mr. Yu smiled at him when he opened the door, his thin, scraggly mustache fanning across his lips.
“Ni hao, Chen,” Yu said. He held up his black, lustrous parasol as a kind of pointed salute.
Chen was silent, as usual, nodding slightly.
“What, you’re not happy to see me?”
“It’s been a while,” Chen said quietly. He added, “I’m retired.”
“Yes, I know,” Yu said dismissively. He leaned in and peered into Chen’s apartment. “May I come in?”
He did before he had heard the answer, blowing in through the door like he was marching to war. The flat was sparse and small and as white as a hospital and the furniture just as petite, matching the diminutive size of the potted plants, each of them barely rising more than two feet from the floor, all finely pruned. Several books were stacked on a corner chair and on top of those was a framed photo of Chen’s late wife. The light that soaked it all came in from the windows bright and gray.
Yu scanned over everything, one eyebrow arched. “You didn’t retire at all, Chen,” he laughed. “This has to be a cover. Where’s the rest of you live?”
“How’s that?” Chen still waited at the doorway.
“I’m saying this, all this, is much too boring.”
“Well, I’m happy with it,” Chen said simply.
Yu nodded his confused face and set his parasol down against the wall. He kept glancing around and sighing, silently judging the one-room flat as he straightened out his jacket, pulling harshly at the front flaps. Chen watched the veins on the tops of his hands stricken up as he did it. Looking at the whole of him, he thought Yu resembled some vulgar mix of Charlie Chaplin and Doc Holliday, with a drunk-but-not-so-drunk lean to the way he walked and violently exaggerated arm movements that bent like a boxer’s. Chen watched as his former employer swept away the seat of a nearby chair and then, sitting, beckoned Chen to join him. Chen did, wordlessly.
“I’m here on business,” Yu announced, unbuttoning his jacket by one notch. “You already knew that, though.”
Yu bore one hard eye on him. “I don’t quite understand the hostility, Mr. Chen.”
“I’m retired,” Chen asserted in his polite manner.
“Right, I realize you’re retired. You’ve made that clear. But I’m looking around right now and, honestly, do you know what I see? Chen? Honestly now.”
“I see desperation.” He dug his pointer into his square knee and then dug it again with each word. His pants were so well-ironed and rigid that there was neither a wrinkle nor any sort of impression left. “I see a man who wants a chance to be something again, even if it’s in secret. Because what’s better, really, than a secret that doesn’t need to be shared? Confident in its own value. Tell me that, Chen.”
Chen nodded to be civil, but his eyes held his thoughts – unimpressed, tired, and waiting eagerly to say no so that this awkward little reunion could be cut short.
“Listen,” Yu said, sitting forward, his mouth twitching like some invisible hook was pulling at it, “I know finances might be a concern. Why not leverage your talents from time to time, live more comfortably? Much more comfortably.”
“I’m retired,” Chen said again.
Yu scoffed in an explosion of breath. He made more conversation, of course, but they were merely parts of a larger filibuster, biding the time to see how well they could wear down Chen’s resolve. Every day for the next two weeks went the same. Yu would visit and plead, and Chen would politely refuse. The skinny little man would be everywhere in Dabagou, waiting on a corner or in a shop, often never saying a word, begging silently with his leer of a face.
On the first day of the third week, however, Yu came round again, but this time Chen gave no answer. Instead he looked at Yu, really looked at him. He knew him well, knew his persistence and his tenacity, that he would haunt someone like a ghost just to get a favor. That he was deceptively ruthless, malicious even. He’d be at Chen’s door every day, every week, for years and years, for eras untold, needling him until his will broke under the aggravation. Chen would say no such thing out loud, of course, but truth be told, he could think of no purer hell than constant company. He wanted to be left alone to his walks and his garden and his dam. The master of his own days with all the wide-open possibilities that it promised. Old Liu.
“Excuse me,” Chen said that final time, ever courteous, “but if I agree to this, free of charge, will you leave me alone? That can be the deal.”
“No pay?” Yu asked, surprised.
“That is pay,” Chen declared. He folded his hands together, modest as always but satisfied with himself. “Yes?”
Yu smiled, his eyes suddenly bright, brighter even than the midday sun. “Yes, yes, of course. Peace and quiet, for sure. For sure.”
Chen stood up silently and went to his little stove, no bigger than one of those miniature fireproof safes, tucked away in the corner of the flat. It was glazed in a shellack of bright teal paint. The stove had been Mrs. Chen’s favorite, an odd junkyard relic that she had sussed some charm out of. Chen thought of the daily affection she had shown it as he pulled a hot kettle from one of its burners and poured Yu and himself some tea. The drink came out golden and writhing with steam and it filled the tiny apartment with a spicy aroma, like the inside of a smokehouse.
“What will I need to know?” Chen asked, handing Yu a cup.
Yu took it gratefully, almost eager. “Xie xie.” His thin hands folded over it as if he were protecting it. “The town is local,” he said cheerfully. “Kaixian. You know, actually it’s no town at all. That great big dam of yours drowned it.” He laughed. “I’d say you could walk there, but in this case, you’ll have to row.”
“The mark is there?” Chen asked, confused.
“Yes,” Yu said, fanning his eyebrows and sipping his tea for dramatic effect. All his efforts of the past three weeks were paying off, and it showed. He touched his lip as a bit of the gilded liquid dripped out but even that was slightly celebratory. “Your target, Mr. Chen,” he intoned, “is a dead man.”
The tall apartment buildings in Kaixian poked out of the water like a set of gray, crooked teeth, angling up from some hidden depth from which they were anchored. They were rotted just the same, either dark and peeling or calcified, sometimes both, crumbling away into the black soup. Fossils now. Vestiges. The mist moved on the surface of it all like smoke from a bomb, and indeed, whenever a strong enough wind rode through to clear the mist away the debris and the shattered rock and the tangled pieces, both manmade and earthly, looked as though they had suffered through a parade of world wars. The town had been conquered by an army of water.
Mr. Chen navigated it with a narrow, shabby motorboat Mr. Yu had purchased for him. They had held the briefest of conversations before he left the river’s edge.
“I’m not saying for sure it’s a jiangshi,” Yu told Chen as handed him a flotation vest and a push pole. “That would be ridiculous, right?”
“I’ve seen ridiculous,” Chen said nonchalantly.
“If the dead rose from their graves to steal from the bastards who wronged them, I’d be the poorest man on earth.” He planted his spitshined loafers on the edge of the boat to steady it as Chen sat down. “Anyway, my guess is it’s just a grifter dressed like a ghost.”
“So why even bother with him?”
“I wouldn’t care,” Yu explained, “except that Kaixian is an important route. The most important one, in fact. You know how hard it is to get that shit, what’s it called –”
“Right! Thank you, yes. I’m glad you still remember. Anyway, you know how hard it is to move that? With the way it smells?” He barked a laugh out. “Hard as hell, Chen. This is the only place you can do it without attracting a crowd. No one’s watching the flood zone.” He put his hands on his hips like he was about to do a dance. Again, Chen had always thought him a strange little man. “But the smugglers won’t move it if they see a jiangshi hopping around,” he said. “They’re superstitious fucks.”
As Chen revved up the sputtering motor Yu lifted his foot off the boat. It drifted away peacefully from the shore.
“Why not just get Old Liu on it?” Chen called, perhaps one last stab at getting out of the whole thing.
“The old crow man?” Yu laughed. “You know he’s nowhere to be found. You thinking of pulling a disappearing act, Chen? If the jiangshi is still hopping around come tomorrow, I’ll know it was him who talked you into it.” Then he waved him off, half congenial and half dismissive, smiling his salesman’s smile.
Like everything else Chen had owned or operated, the boat was modest but serviceable. Much the same could be said of himself. He was dressed in his usual work wear, the oxford-slacks-oxfords combination, with nothing else on him but what he had carried to every job for three decades – his scuffed Black Star pistol and a medium-sized chef’s knife, crossed and tucked into his belt on the small of his back. An out-of-place look, for sure, but only passably dangerous. The human hairballs that were Kaixian’s scavengers watched him with a kind of guarded curiosity as they dipped their nets into the dark water, skimming for anything of value. He did not belong here.
Chen navigated the jutting leviathans carefully, shutting off the engine where necessary so that he might guide himself safely with his push pole. The depths were cratered and snaggled where they hid, grabbing at the pole and coughing up whatever had slipped beneath the depths: Pants and shoes, much of them toddler-sized, dog collars, newspapers and books, tangles of appliance cords, buckets, scarves, umbrella fabric and bits of pine, buckleless belts, moldy bedsheets, even nests of hair that must have gathered from all the drainpipes in the village and congealed into one black mass. Each item had been damned or forsaken in its own way, streaked with black silt dried like tear stains and twisted or balled and made impossibly dense by the amount of water they’d soaked up. When the sun had set he could no longer see them but he still felt their weight on the end of the pole.
After an hour or so of that he was finally able reach a clear span of water further south. The boat puttered up again and through the lazy fog he could see his destination – a pinnacle rock, knotted and gray, signaling to him from further down the river. On the tip of the rock he thought he saw a figure, shadowed against the blue night. There was no light to see it by except the cold glow of the moon but as he neared the great wall of stone that reared up there were suddenly volleys of orange and red strobing the sky. Flares from the scavengers and fishermen, by the looks of it. Shot up to help them spot abandoned treasure floating in the dark. Their soft light exposed the jiangshi, as well, and from where he sat it was no more than an immobile, faceless creature, even when the flares cracked. No dancing zombie or ghoul, just a body chained to a stone.
Chen tied to his boat to an exposed stump and then climbed up the tower of rock, using his hands in places where the wet stone defied him. The spidery light of the flares revealed his path. At the top was a bare ledge mounted by a higher peak, some girder perhaps, the last one standing on this now-unrecognizable structure, and it was here where the body was fastened. Chen knew, even before he stood to examine the face, who it was. Indeed, Old Liu’s bloated eyes, so sapped of their impudence as to be docile, stared back at him. The light of the flares shooting up went dead in their centers – no reflection, no chance spark. Just ash and void. He had been done a while back, a year as far as Chen could tell, and by the distended fade of the crow-shaped tattoo beneath his left eye it was clear he had been left in the elements to rot and wither the whole while. Even the bird tattoo had blotted and dried like a purple tear.
“People will know me by my voice,” he used to say to Chen when they saw each other, smiling his black-toothed smile, “like the crow. I don’t say much, but when I do, it’s death.”
And on that word, death, the body before him began to writhe, an unholy life conjuring up from its rotten flesh, summoned almost. Chen knew it was a vision just by the way the air shimmered and the light blurred. He must have inhaled something in the sea of junk, some drowned gas line leaking up over the surface, or maybe fumes coming off a cache of anhydride. At least, that’s what he told himself as he watched the dead man come back to life. Its jaw flapped and its skin wriggled and the teeth, worn down to pebbles, chattered out words. Its eyes were still lifeless as it spoke.
“You’d done a foolish thing,” it told Chen.
“I know,” Chen answered simply. “Walked right into a trap. Just like you before me, from the looks of it.”
“Well if it’s not broke,” it laughed, sounds like a profane, ear-shattering cough. “Listen, you know they’ll just keep on doing it until one of us smartens up.”
“That’ll be the day.”
“And that’s why it works so well, Chen,” Liu’s corpse intoned. It peeled mouth looked like it was smiling. “We’re like slaves on a chain, all of us cleaners. We don’t deserve any better because we never had a will of our own. Just eager fingers on a trigger. That’s the joke – the big joke. All those guys we took out, they never knew it, but we had just as much control as they did. Less even. Less than the mark. That was us.”
Chen nodded, looking up and down at the Crow Man, noting how his flesh was somehow both swollen and withered. The little miracles of death.
“Speaking of jokes,” Liu’s corpse went on, “there’s one here somewhere about you imagining up a conversation with a fake jiangshi.” Another laugh clattered out. “That name – it ain’t so funny now, is it? How different am I now than I was when living? Eh? I’m dangling from a noose, just like the old days. Nothing more than a corpse either way.”
After that the body was silent. Chen collected his thoughts and looked out onto the great, flooded expanse of Kaixian, glowing under the red lights and then fading to black again. He already knew it was too late. He had lived too many years and looked down the barrel at too many gangsters to pretend otherwise. There were already two such men behind him, both surefooted. He never turned to face them, nor ever tried. There was never even an effort to run.
When the shot rang out it was a like a dull explosion and before he ever felt the pain he smelled the sour burn of the gunpowder and flinched just slightly from the heat of the blow, small enough that in the dark it didn’t happen at all. He knew his death would be a messy one. The bullet entered near the back of his right ear and came straight out the other side of his face, driving its hot odium through any tissue and muscle that dare stood in its way and splitting through the cheek hard enough to send the bone reeling into his eyes. Truthfully, he felt more annoyed than anything else. The messy ones were needless – the job was both art and science, demanding cleanliness and speed and efficiency. Suffering wouldn’t do, at least not for its own sake. Whoever did it would have to learn. Pity it would not be Chen who would teach him.
So at last when Chen fell he fell facing the sky, his eyes filled up with blood, his lungs drifting into soft whips of breath. He saw them now, difficult as it was. The first man was Yu, of course, silent and watching. His nameless, equally well-dressed associate was nearby – a young man, this one, his long, black hair strapped up into a bun. The scavengers were there, as well, but they preferred to keep their distance. There was not much to say, at that point, as they waited for the steady hand to die, the last of his kind after Old Liu, just a dying man staring up at the stars that blinked and burned in their archaic rhythm.
Only when Chen’s eyes had petrified did Yu muse out loud, looking out over the water that had drowned Kaixian.
“Three years.” He chuckled lightly, though his voice was heavy with thought. “If they ever talked to each other, all of the cleaners, they’d know what was coming after three years. Shit, maybe they knew anyway.”
The young man was much more practical, and his voice sound put-upon. “I don’t get it – why not just kill ‘em the day they leave?”
Yu scoffed as loud as he could. “You have to let them relax,” he explained. “These are contract killers. There’s an instinct that lets them smell it a mile away. Better to think you’re coming out of desperation, you know, one last do-me-a-favor job.”
“Yeah? Is that what’s waiting for me?” the young man laughed.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, kid,” Yu snapped. “This kind of thing is reserved for the legends.” He looked down on Mr. Chen’s body, into the flooded eyes, to see if there was anything left. There wasn’t. “He took out over a thousand men. You believe that? Almost as much as Old Liu over there. And all he wanted was some peace and quiet.”
“No shit. Well you gave it to ‘im, at least.”
Yu nodded absently. “Funny we need to put them down this way. Treat the old dogs just like the strays.”
“Old dogs know too much,” the young man agreed. “All the warm spots in the house, where the food is stored, where the master sleeps. They lived any longer, they wouldn’t be dogs anymore.”
Yu grunted out his agreement begrudgingly. Together they cut Liu’s body from the rock and then heaved it over, watching as it bubbled down beneath the black water, interned to its tomb. As for Chen, he had the distinction of being the next man to take up Old Liu’s foul duty. Yu and his young handler wasted no time in putting him on the black, oily throne, the blood still seeping out of his hardening body as they secured the rope. He was tied just the same as all who had come before him, a man balancing on a stone peak, a piece of bait strapped to its hook in wait of the next unfortunate catch.
But Chen’s dead eyes looked on. The sclera were dull at the edges but the insides were full with the long, flat shape of the dam and the dread mist rising up from the bottom of its spillway. The gray and cream girders leaking out with water like the baleen of a whale. The river snaking on towards the sea somewhere beyond the blue smog. They all beckoned from their distances, goading him, flaunting their might. There he was to wait, watching it as though he were still living, watching and waiting until the sun swallowed the earth and the Yangtze no longer distilled the various acts of men.