《Fatal Weakness》CHAPTER ELEVEN: Life and Death
With a ka-cha, the cuffs are on me, and I'm suddenly reminded that it was with this exact same sound that Li Jun told me he lost his freedom. It's a bit uncomfortable, but I still manage to keep a straight face. The two of them press close to me from both sides, covering my cuffed hands with a jacket as they escort me down the stairs.
When we arrive at the secret MOSS
I look at the handcuffs locked around my wrists with a bit of curiosity; a toy I'm more than familiar with, back when I'd just entered the MOSS, I used to play around with my pair. When we had time, we'd have competitions to see who could pick them and get them off themselves the quickest. Because the locks weren't very sophisticated, the fastest time I ever pulled was 58 seconds. Back then, gun control laws for us were strict, we didn't have authority to carry arms while off-duty. So when we'd get off work, a lot of us would stick a pair of handcuffs on our belts, and bend over whenever any girls walked by, just far enough for them to see it. This was the way us young agents showed off back then. Later, I got the idea from one porn tape to start cuffing my girls to the bed or wherever, and that's when I really got into playing sex games. But Chinese handcuffs are purposely built with the inner bolt holding the hands together to be able to sustain rough beatings, so whenever I put them on and things got too excited, their wrists would always end up raw and bloody. I had one girlfriend who almost took my division to court, claiming damages for what, whenever we had sex, she said were 'workplace injuries'. Recently I've heard that now among the toys bondage fetishists in the West and in
But today is my first time to be on the receiving end of being cuffed and observed. If you said I used to be just a Dom on the outside of the bondage scene, being a Sub on the inside now isn't all that much fun.
It's dead quiet here in the safe house, so I think to get up and move around a bit. But it's like no matter if I pace around or stretch or crouch down, the feeling of having the cuffs around my wrists only gets more and more discomforting, a kind of unnatural feeling I've never had before. Inconvenience quickly turns into impatience, and this impatience continues up my wrists and throughout my whole body, spreading quickly into my head. Then I start feeling more and more jittery.
It feels as though a few years have gone by, and wrinkles have formed on my forehead. Jitteriness and not knowing what's about to come brings a sense of fear, one I haven't had since the three weeks I spent in police custody a few months back. Of course the police hadn't kept me handcuffed then. And while I did end up losing three weeks of freedom, my arms and legs were free to use, my thoughts free to race along. Now, I've only had handcuffs on for three hours, and they don't just feel like they're bolted into my bone marrow, but it's like they've already choked the life out of my all thoughts. Suddenly it occurs to me: this is what fear feels like.
Director Zhou's voice rings out in the corridor, and I let out a long, relaxed sigh. The door opens and Director Zhou pushes in, his faces as somber as a
There's just us two in the room now, and I feel a little ballsier now. Rubbing my red, swollen wrists, I timidly ask Director Zhou how he's doing.
He makes a snorting noise, then raises his eyes and stares threateningly at me for a moment before continuing: "Yang Wenfeng, Yang Wenfeng! What would you have me say to you right now? You beat up two cops, took their guns, and then threatened them for over two hours. Who do you think you are? You know if you hadn't panicked and yelled that you were a MOSS agent, a second later and they'd have blown your head off. Hmph! Playing off their fear of making a fatal career move, and their leniency. Did you really think your kung fu's that good? that you can just go around tying up police officers against their will? They were afraid you might really have been on a mission, and that's why they hesitated, giving you the upper hand. What's come over you? MOSS agent? What in the hell made you think you could say something like that? I could go out there right now and tell them the MOSS has never heard of you, and for your little 'hero saves the babe' performance stunt this morning, you'd get at least fifteen years!"
Thinking of the fading feeling of having the cuffs on me just now, a tremble of fear runs through me. "Director Zhou, I had no choice, I——"
"What is this, no choice? Deceived cops into coming inside, snatched their guns, and then held them hostage so that Guo Qingqing could get away. Does this sound like having no choice? Because it sounds like a crime to me! I'm gonna give you a chance now though, if you tell me right this second the name in Guo Qingqing's passport. Or you can give me her photo. If I phone Customs right now, and they head her off, your sentence might just be a little lighter. If you don't, I'm gonna nail you for all of this."
"I don't know what name she has in her passport, I didn't ask. And I don't have her photo. Honestly."
"You...ha!" Director Zhou can't get the words out he's so worked up.
I deliberately look at my watch, and then Director Zhou gets it, and sighs. It's just an hour and a bit from
"Just what's gotten into you?" says, sounding hurt, looking at me with a steely expression so full of expectation that I find both touching and absurd.
"Director Zhou, just hear me out on this." I struggle to keep my voice steady, and begin to explain: "we'd already figured it out. Guo Qingqing isn't the one who's been landing our classmates in trouble. But as strange as this sounds, she definitely is now wrapped up in all this. In my estimation, her involvement just might have been planned by someone else, possibly someone seeking to frame her. But it's just as possible that whoever it is is after me. I say this because all of our classmates know of the relationship she and I have. But without the proof we need, nobody will believe us; yet all that seems is out there to be found all points directly back at Guo Qingqing. And what's more, when you got whatever intelligence you did that suggested Guo Qingqing might be a spy, when you sent me to go investigate, that is exactly when our classmates started getting into trouble. On the surface it looks like Guo Qingqing is the cause of all this, sure, but from what I've seen and heard, I've been able to deduce that this guy was just using Guo Qingqing as bait to get our attention, and to take up our time and energy, making it easier for him to carry out his real plan. Right now, if we go and arrest Guo Qingqing, we'll be playing right into the enemy's trap, and he'd know we were onto him——"
"What? 'Tip the snake off?' So you're saying it's not even up for consideration? Listen, if she's not a spy, we'll give her her freedom back, let her go."
"Director Zhou, you and I both know, when have we ever let a suspected spy go that easily? Or when have we ever publicly admitted to having caught the wrong person? And we've never cleaned anybody's record. With the way things are going now, as complicated and confusing as they are, the chances of Guo Qingqing ever being ruled innocent and let go are like... zero to none. Or are you saying you're not worried about losing your perfect conviction record?"
"My perfect conviction record? Little Yang, it seems you've forgotten that in China the rate of cases which get successfully solved is much higher in the US, where many cases get dragged out for years on end."
"You're right, but that can happen here in
"Balderdash! What is this nonsense you're spouting? You're making less and less sense! Do you think all this gets you off the hook for using armed force to make the police let an espionage suspect get away?"
"Of course not, but, the only reason you were following her in the first place was because of me, and the help I gave to you in even finding her. I have the responsibility to make sure she doesn't get arrested for something she didn't do. Aye, you actually had bugs planted in my room? Hmph is right. Weren't we supposed to be trusting each other?"
"Oh that's a good one!" Director Zhou smacks the table with the file again. "We said that we would be listening in on and investigation this whole class of yours. What makes you think you'd be an exception?"
"You——" I'm too furious at hearing that to go on.
"You're Li Jun's classmate too, aren't you? And of course many other of your classmates are special agents themselves, some of whom have been educated in
"I——" Can't think of anything to say.
"You what? I've told you many times: national security comes first. Whenever we're dealing with something which touches upon national security, we absolutely cannot allow for any personal feelings to come into play. Just look at yourself, you've gone and let your feelings spill all over. Your Shanghai State Secrets Bureau classmate Deng Kehai came to you for a talk in confidence, after he'd had a few too many to drink, wanting to share some secret with you. Wasn't that what you and I agreed would be the purpose of having this class reunion? And in full knowledge that there would have been listening devices planted in the room, you instead then took him out to a far corner on the patio to continue your talk. What was so important to lead you to do something like that? You're not going to act as a shield for another one of your classmates again, are you? You should probably find some time to sit down and explain this to me, or else I'll have them pick you up, lock you away, handcuffs and all, and get your parents to come get you out!"
A tiny upwards smile appears on Director Zhou's face just as pauses to let the words sink in. Cold sweat feels trapped in my skin; just the thought of my parents, nearly eighty and wholly reliant on me taking care of them, having to come visit me in prison brings me close to a mental breakdown.
"If you don't co-operate, I will do it," Director Zhou says in his most serious voice, and this time I can see he means it from the haughty look on his face. "I just want to make it crystal clear to you, that this whole case revolves around Guo Qingqing now. Every day that goes by where haven't caught her is just another day more that we haven't gotten to the bottom of this. I suggest you co-operate with us and bring Guo Qingqing back."
"Director Zhou, listen to me. Since the class reunion, I've noticed that the problem now is far more complicated and serious than we predicted at the time. You've got to let your people overseas know. Just like my classmate Lil'
"Wait, slow down." Director Zhou cuts me off with a wave of his hands, and a sneer actually shifts onto his face. With exaggerated movements, he pulls a small note out of the file and hands it to me, "take a look for yourself. That e-mail of his you gave us? We got in touch with Yahoo! and traced it back to one specific IP address, and this is what we dug up on it."
I just gape when I see it, "but...you can't ignore the other facts just because of this. One after the other, classmates of mine keep getting set up. If we don't take emergency measures, I'm afraid that number is just going to keep going up. You must take action."
"Take what action? Little Yang, I think you've been reading too many spy novels since you quit working here. We're the MOSS, our job is to protect the nation. Even though nearly all our so-called intelligence-gathering is done through open research, only the vast minority is brought in through human intelligence. Most of it is collected through technology. Our intelligence, for the most part, serves only a defensive role. We don't do invasions, and we don't actively dispatch or recruit citizens of other countries to work for us. What's happened to your classmates is unusual, I'll admit that, and it's something we've never come across here before, but what would have me do? Guo Qingqing is the one most tightly wound up in this right now, and you let her go. And then you turn around and point the finger at us. Hmph! You're getting sloppy, and naive!"
I look at the paper in my hand, and a rush of mixed feelings hits me. What Director Zhou's said makes sense, so I decide to accept that I'm wrong, and stop pushing it. It seems I'm at the end of the road anyway. If the truth isn't found out immediately, Guo Qingqing will just go deeper into hiding, I'll become their prime suspect, and my classmates will keep getting taken down, one-by-one. Director Zhou was right, with the way things are going now, the only thing the MOSS can do at this point is to lock their target on Guo Qingqing and hope for the best. It seems I'm the only one who can take action now, to regain my innocence, to get Guo Qingqing her freedom back, and to stop that evil bastard from framing any more of my classmates. I must——
I raise my head and freeze when I see the knowing, suggestive look in Director Zhou's eyes.
Director Zhou only smirks, though, and stares at me while he lets out a long, long sigh, and then: "you go home now. If we need anything I'll call you myself. And if you notice any developments, or get any new ideas, just call me directly. However, and I think I made it clear enough here today, that until I come looking for you, until I explicitly assign you to a new assignment, no matter what you decide to do from this point on, it has no connection to the MOSS whatsoever. You got me? If you try imitating a MOSS special agent even just one more time, the police who catch you aren't going to let you go. And I won't forgive you a second time. Are we clear? You get out of here now. But when you go out just remember to keep your head up; I can't have you walking out of here looking like you just go reprimanded. Didn't I teach you anything while you were still working here?"
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Except for my parents' home, I don't have anywhere else to stay now. That small room I have still reels in the scent of Guo Qingqing. Ah Hua, rather. And maybe it always will. The mood in my parents' house, though, isn't doing much to put me at ease either. Planning and preparing three meals every day is mom's grand mission in life, and her greatest joy is watching dad and I wolfing down like an ambush of tigers, the dishes she's just put so much energy into making for us. Just when I decide to go help mom make dinner, dad taps on the chair next to him, motioning for me to come over. I hesitate, but then go sit down beside him.
"So Ah Hua's gone?"
I nod, then dad sighs. I try and think why he would just sigh at hearing this, but then my alerts immediately go up. Whenever dad wants to talk about something heavy, it always starts with a sigh of despair just like that one. Back in high school, this was always dad's way of setting up for a deep talk, and then he'd launch into something like how if I didn't get my ass into gear and pick my grades up, I was going to find myself on a dead-end street. I didn't know how to farm, and no production brigades would ever have wanted me, and if you believed dad, a barefoot doctor in some backpaddy village was where I was going to end up.
"Your mom said, Ah Hua wasn't going to stay here forever anyways. That girl was just too good to be true," dad says.
I smile bitterly. Then I hear mom humming in the kitchen, some ditty from the fifties.
"But I told your mother, your problem isn't whether or not Ah Hua's the right one for you," and dad pauses, "your problem is that you never wanted to get married to begin with."
We can hear mom talking to herself in the kitchen. At least I can, and my heart suddenly skips a few beats. I want to say to him that my problem might just be that I have a father who always seems to think he understands his own son's problems better than his son himself. If he hadn't made those threats against me, and I'd ended up a gynecologist in some village somewhere, examining different women's vaginas from morning until night, that might not have been so bad either. I keep that one to myself, though, and just gaze at my father, wishing he'd get to the point already."
"You don't want to get married, is it because you're scared? What is it that scares you?" Dad's turn to stare at me now.
Mom's not just rambling gibberish to herself; I notice she's actually got some order to it. Like how when she's got something to do, she'll turn the name of each task into a song, and sing it out while she does it. Back in the countryside, all the people she'd grown up with had one-by-one passed away, leaving mom with nobody to socialize with. Mom's not like dad, she can't speak Mandarin, so since she came here to Guangzhou she's had no one to talk to, and it didn't take long for her to start talking to herself. Dad says he's okay with this. He says it keeps her from getting Alzheimer's.
"It's not that I'm scared," I say. Dad just sighs again, and I start to feel irritated and a little angry. So I turn it back on him: "I don't scare that easily. In fact, I'd say it was you who were always scared. Can you tell me, why you were always so afraid back then?"
"Back during the Cultural Revolution. You were always the first to confess, always willing to let the rebels smack you around. I've been waiting for this day, when you tried calling me afraid. I guess it's just something I inherited from you."
Dad hangs his head, I guess he doesn't want to bring back those memories. But after just a minute of silence, he lifts his head, and I see tense thought in his clouded eyes. Then dad slowly continues:
"The truth is, from when I was young until the day you were born, I had never even considered death, never mind fear it. You were born in 1965, the same year the Cultural Revolution began. I admit that I had gotten caught up in the several movements prior to then, but all the politics had left me feeling that the Cultural Revolution was something the likes of which we'd never seen before. Your mother and I had to live separately; she was a barefoot doctor, living in the People's Commune Health Clinic, and often had to go away on business, so you and your brother and sister often had to come live with me at the school. Your sister was eight then, and your older brother five. Because I'd been born into the wrong kind of family, as well as the fact that just being a teacher had become a crime in itself, and that's why I was getting bullied by the rebels so often. I thought about it at the time, and I felt like I had a little choice, I could have easily gone and joined up with a faction, throwing myself into the middle of the frenzied political struggles going on at the time. In that place where we lived, you see, I was one of the many intellectuals who never bothered to finish reading The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, and most likely one of the few who really understood the spirit behind the Cultural Revolution. On top of that, I was tall and strong, one of the biggest guys around; if I'd gotten in with the right faction, I would have easily and quickly risen to the top. Only then I would have been faced with two problems. One would have been whether or not to join in the beating—maybe even killing—of people. But even if I had managed to avoid clubbing people to death, whatever I wrote with my pen would have been just as deadly. Another result would have been that if the faction I chose ended up losing, then it's very possible I would have been beaten to death. I had already stopped caring by that point, my only concern was that if I did get killed or sent to jail, where would that leave you and your brother and sister? So it was this in mind that I chose to stay neutral, to stay out of any factions. It sounds easy now, but I'll tell you, staying neutral to keep out of it in those days wasn't even allowed. So what happened was whenever one faction lost to another, they'd drag me down to the public struggle session to denounce and interrogate them one day, then the next day a school somewhere would be occupied by rebels, and I'd get pushed up on stage to do it all over again. They tortured me from time to time, making me kneel on a washboard, or sometimes broken glass. I am human, after all, and was born with a bad temper. I don't know how many times I said to myself, 'any minute now, and they'll be getting it.'; I was bigger than any of them, I could easily have taken at least one you. Two if I was lucky."
I just gape as I listen, and watch as dad moves his bony, scrawny hands as he talks, making the motion of strangling a rebel by the neck. Seeing dad's saggy skin start to tighten, I start to relax.
"Back then, every time I got rounded up by the rebels to go denounce people, I had no idea if I'd be coming home that same night. So every time before I went out the door, I'd call your sister over and tell her to take care of things while I was away. I'd tell her that if daddy didn't come home, that first thing in the morning she was to take you and your brother and go out and beg until you had enough money to go find your mother. I wrote a note, putting a copy into each one of your pockets. It asked for any kind people who read it to lend a hand, show the kids the way, give them a bite to eat. Your sister was always the sensible one, she took the note and kept it safe. But you, you were just three, you just wiped your nose with it or shoved it in your mouth——"
At having said this, dad's brow unfurrows, and a smile appears. With the the smile, though, come tears. Mother is still in the kitchen talking to herself. I start to feel a bit distressed.
"I knew what I had to do, I knew that I couldn't let myself die. If I died, what would my kids do? I saw there were a lot of intellectuals just like me, upholding their principles by supporting the Communist Party, by maintaining their faith. Others who didn't control their tempers, who butted heads with rebel factions or offended any little Red Guards, those who didn't just end up getting beaten to death were destroyed personally. Those who died, they died for a just cause; they'd blink, and then their suffering would be over. But their kids? The suffering had just begun for them. Those moms and dads who got locked up or had to endure inhuman torture, their kids suffered all the bullying and humiliation you can imagine back at their schools. Those who couldn't take it killed themselves. Those unfortunate enough to survive were for the most part stripped of their right to be educated. It wasn't that I couldn't see the cruel reality of the time, okay? I was just lucky that after having weathered the years of political storms right after 1949, I was already mature enough by that point to discard all the ideals that we'd been indoctrinated with. If any, the only ideal that I managed to keep with me was hope. My children, you were all I had, my only hope."
I slowly mull over what dad's just said. I never imagined this man could have ever had any ideals, and it turns out I was one of them.
"Just as long as I was able to see my kids grow up safely, I was ready to do anything! This was what I had resolved myself to do. So for the duration of the Cultural Revolution, I kept my hands by my side and my thoughts in my head. If they called on me to confess, I'd just put my head down, reflect, and then write a self-criticism. During the most dangerous times, I was afraid those rebels would lose patience, so I'd bring you and your sister and seat you in the front row, where you could see me up on the stage, head down, sign hung over me, taking my denouncements. There were more than a few times when the rebels would be denouncing me that they'd get worked up to no end, and would start roughing me up, inches away from killing me. But they were still human, after all. They'd see your sister with three-year-old little you sitting down below the stage, and they'd lighten up a little, start pounding me on the head or knocking me in the abdomen like a punching bag instead of kicking me in the kidneys or spleen. But you know, even when they knocked my lights out, leaving me covered in blood, just seeing the two of you sitting there out of the corner of my eye, I'd clench my teeth and stand up, letting them go on beating me. It was knowing that you were there that kept me going time after time. Because I knew deep inside that if I didn't stand back up for more, that my kids, my ideals, everything, would be lost. So now, just look at your sister and you two boys. You didn't just get to go school, but you've all got good jobs. So when I say now that those rebels never came close to beating me, do you get it?"
Dad grins a big triumphant smile, and it's too much for me to take. I pretend to rub my eyes, like I'm holding back tears. I always thought he was so scared of death, when actually he's the bravest father on this earth.
"Only in the years after that, I became to afraid every little this or that, afraid to the point that fear just became who I was," dad says freely, "and even your mom just cut into me the other day, 'look at you Mr. Afraid-to-die, running scared your whole life. I'm just afraid you've gotten used to it', stuff like that. Haha. I think she's right, though. Last time we went back to
Dad actually starts giggling like a child now. From mom's babble pouring out of the kitchen, I can tell the food's almost ready.
"It was actually your mom who pointed it out to me. She said, 'Old Yang, you old fud, what are you so scared of?', and that's when it hit me."
"Dad," I ask, curiously, "if we were the ideals that kept you going all those years, would you say now that you ever saw them realized?"
First he looks at me like he doesn't understand, but then laughs: "I did, I did! Which day was it again? Oh, right. It was July 23rd, 1983, the day that the People's Commune sent your university acceptance letter. I was making dinner at the time when the sound of gongs and drums began, getting closer and closer. Only I didn't hear it, drowned out by the sound of my own heartbeat. First some kid ran into the kitchen, yelling 'Teacher Yang! The People's Commune has come to give you some good news! Little Yang's been accepted at
I remember that day clearly. The rice didn't get burnt, and dad actually only made me two poached eggs—this was still the early eighties, remember. I'll never forget the sight of him, excited and hands shaking as he used chopsticks to place the eggs in my bowl. I don't know why, and I don't really want to think too much into it, but down in my heart I suddenly feel that from this day forth, I'm going to start doing as much as I can to make sure I don't ever disappoint dad, to make him happy again, and keep him that way for the few years he's got left.
Right then, though, I suddenly think back to what Director Zhou had said to me about fatal weaknesses, that mysterious, smug look in his eyes every time mention of my own weakness came up, as well as his "threat", that if I messed up again, he'd make my dad come down in person to get me out. And I think I understand now. Director Zhou's known all along what the biggest fear in my heart is: to let my father down. Letting dad's hope perish is the last thing that I'll ever let happen, and he's always known; he just had to threaten me to get me to realize it myself. If the two cops at the station had tried threatening me with something like that, that if I didn't confess they would tell my dad I was a murderer, that I'd been prepared to marry a prostitute, things like these, then they would have had me right where they wanted me. Realizing this now, I just laugh to myself.
"Dad, seeing as how I've already helped realize your dreams by going to college, well, I just truly hope that from now on you can just be happy, and not have to worry about us——"
Dad stops smiling, and scoffs: "sure, our dreams have been realized. And now your mom and I have none. No dreams, no hope. We're not afraid of dying now, all we want is just to enjoy a few more a years of this quiet, happy life."
"I get it!" I say, cutting dad off. 'I got it' is what I really want to say, though. Today isn't the first time that I've heard dad's story, it's just that even psychologists can't say for certain what growing up watching one's dad get publicly denounced can do to a kid's head. I think sub-consciously I'm aware of all the heavy sacrifices and abuse dad went through for us kids, and this is what's left me grown up and afraid of getting married and having kids. I just don't know if I could protect my kids like my dad protected his. Sure, the madness and the harm the rebels wreaked on society in the time dad lived through was historically unprecedented and will never happen again, but this world is just as full of danger as it was then, only now we have nuclear weapons, biological weapons, SARS, AIDS, and avian flu keeping parents today worried to death, not to mention the things they've never had to worry about: merit-based school enrollment, unemployment, inflation; I can get by okay dealing with all these things, but I'm not confident that I can raise my kids to be the same. Maybe it is just like my dad said, the reason I haven't gotten married is because I'm too scared. Dads are dads, after all; you can surpass them on knowledge, experience, even position, but the one thing you can never beat your father on is knowing who you yourself are.
What's even more shocking, though, is the love dad has for me; all the sacrifices he's made for us kids has really resonated all the way down to my bones. And the love I have for my parents has now become the aim of my life. I won't ever do anything that will hurt my parents, instead I want everything I do to just make them proud of me. But because of this, I'll have to be much more careful in life and work from now on, stop taking risks. News of any "failure" I might have, could very easily be fatal for my elderly parents.
"Your mom and I, our dream is you, you and your brother and sister. You've all grown up now, and you have dreams of your own. If we feel like struggling with what dreams we have left, that's our business, not yours. Just like when we used to do everything for you, we knew even then that everything you did was all just in pursuit of your own dreams. The three of you have moved on, and so have we, so don't worry about your mom and I. We have no dreams now, all we have are a few more years left to live. So go do what you feel you need to be doing. Just, if possible, try and bring Ah Hua back to see us. Your mom and I really liked her. You could say she's our final dream!"
It seems dad's taken to talking to himself now too. But I think seriously over the last thing he's just said, and I think he's right. Sure, mom and dad are happy, they've accomplished everything they ever dreamed of. Maybe now it is time for me to go my own way, time for me to accomplish my own dreams, and save Ah Hua, Guo Qingqing, from injustice.
Big plans begin to take shape in my head.