Today's Reading

Shan watched the dust cloud for several breaths. "You forget, Colonel," he said. "These days I specialize in finding stray yaks and settling disputes in the farmers' market. Last week I had to decide whether a chicken was worth ten heads of cabbage or fifteen."

Tan gave a grunt that may have been a laugh. Then he set his own eyes on the receding dust cloud and sobered. "A small convoy was coming through to Lhadrung from Sichuan Province, just two army trucks and two Public Security vehicles in escort."

"You mean some very special prisoners were being transferred to one of your establishments." In all of China, Tan was reputed to have the best prisons for making inmates disappear forever. It had been the reason Shan had been sentenced to the 404th People's Construction Brigade years earlier.

Tan didn't disagree. "Only six prisoners, three in each truck, with two guards in the back of each, Public Security cars in front and back. The Public Security officer in charge, who had just been assigned to Lhadrung, decided to take one of the old roads through the high mountains, though damned if I know why. If they had bothered to ask, I would have told them those roads are too unreliable, subject to landslides and worse." He drew on his cigarette again. "An old man appeared on the road as they rounded a curve, waving and doing a strange dance. He stopped every few moments and shook his bundle of twigs toward the sky, which rapidly grew darker.

"The Public Security officers in the front car and two of the escorting soldiers got out, shouting at the man to move, but he seemed not to hear them. They fired pistols in the air, but his only reaction was to laugh and point toward the sky. As they approached him hail began to fall. Not little pea-sized balls, but huge balls of ice, the size of apples. Windows shattered. The escorts ran. The two Public Security men made it back into their vehicle, one with a broken collarbone. But the two soldiers had farther to run to get into their trucks. Too far. They only wore soft fatigue caps and their skulls were quickly shattered. They died instantly. By the time it stopped their bodies looked as if they had been pounded with hammers."

"And the old man?"

"You just saw him ride away on a horse. One of the escorts said he disappeared as the hail began but was back on the road as soon as it stopped, then went to the dead and began chanting something before he was arrested."

"Arrested?"

"Lieutenant Huan, the chief Public Security officer, insisted the man had directed the hail onto them and charged the man with murder. But not even the tame judges used by Public Security would buy that story. How could the government formally acknowledge that there are Tibetan sorcerers, the judge asked the officer. I was there, Huan replied, and Yankay Namdol killed them as surely as if he had aimed a gun at them. The judge cited a report that said the road Huan had taken was so well known for hail that the local people called it Ice Ball Alley. He dismissed the case, and the officer was deemed responsible for negligently causing the deaths. I saw to it that he was taken off the promotion lists for three years and transferred out of Lhadrung before he even settled into a job here. Before he left he had the last word, by assigning the old Tibetan to administrative detention. One year at the Shoe Factory."

"Which expired today."

Tan turned and looked back at the camp, where prisoners were hauling away the wreckage of the tower. "Expired rather dramatically." He pulled out another cigarette. His doctor, resigned to Tan's stubbornness, had insisted that he at least buy filtered cigarettes. Tan broke the filter off and threw it into the brush before lighting the cigarette. "How the hell could he cause an earthquake?" he growled.

In his mind's eye, Shan replayed the scene of the prisoner marching to the warden and receiving his belongings. His old chuba had been tattered, its fleece lining soiled. On the back and sleeves there had been faded images, some of them complex geometric designs and others depictions of deities, too small and too faint for Shan to recognize. On his march to the gate Yankay had drawn another design. Shan bent and in the sandy soil in front of him he drew a smaller version with his finger, a circle with four equally spaced short tangent lines. "He's a hail chaser," Shan said.

"A hail assassin, according to Public Security," Tan said.

"In old Tibet there were such men," Shan explained, "usually senior monks who had moved on from their monasteries to roam the countryside and tap the power of the earth deities, the ones who control land and sky. They were paid by farmers to influence the weather. Mostly it was to chase away hail, which could destroy a year's crop in minutes, but the best ones were said to be able to call in hail as well. Some were even said to be able to summon the deities in the earth as readily as those in the sky."

"The earth gods who make earthquakes," Tan suggested.

Shan looked at him in surprise. "They're only old tales, Colonel. Folklore, really."

"Of course they are, damn it!" Tan's temper could instantly flare and cool just as quickly. "It doesn't matter what I think. The man has a following. It's like they found a loophole in the law."

"By using gods?"

Tan's face tightened again. "Don't play the fool with me! It doesn't matter if the gods aren't real to you or me. What matters is that so many believe they are!"

"I'm not sure what we're talking about," Shan confessed.

Tan motioned with his cigarette toward the fading cloud of dust. "He's on a line toward the project."

"The project?"

This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition. ...

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