Song watched and waited miserably in the small car, his long legs jammed painfully under the steering wheel, chin buried in his scarf, as the snowflakes tumbled from the night sky and settled on his windscreen. Beijing’s snow was desert snow, desiccated and fine, like the yellow sand that would blow in from the Gobi when spring came. Song’s hands were rammed deep into the pockets of his sheepskin, his fingers stiff around a digital camera. The temperature had dropped to eight below zero. Normally he would have kept the engine running and the heat on, but for the sake of his mission he was attempting to become a non-person – the non-driver of a non-car. He concentrated for a moment. He could feel nothing from the waist down. His legs had become non-legs, his feet non-feet.
He tried wiggling his toes but he could sense only a distant twitch. He was risking frostbite for the client who had given him his orders in a voice like nails dragging across a black-board.
‘They say you’re clever, well, don’t get clever with me. Just follow my husband like a dog follows a bitch.’
So here he was, faithful bloodhound Song pursuing the faithless husband, who had disappeared twenty minutes earlier into a brothel, waiting in a car parked opposite a public toilet. The outer wall of the toilet had turned into the unofficial neighbourhood dump and rubbish was overflowing from the pavement into the gutter. In this weather even the stench was frozen solid, along with the crap and the snot and the maggots. The cold had driven almost everyone off the streets to huddle inside, but a scavenger – a man – was picking through the mess, a basket over his shoulder. He glanced up at Song with fear in his eyes, then looked away. Song remembered how, during the summers of his youth, he and his neighbours had slept on makeshift beds in the open air to escape the stifling heat of their homes. Now the world was full of strangers and paranoia was rife. Neighbours had been uprooted by order of the city government and replanted at opposite ends of the city. They installed steel security doors and bars at their windows to fend off burglars, real or imaginary. Official notice boards in the streets warned women not to go out alone at night. In the past few weeks, tales of rape and murder and theft had spread across the city. No one knew what was true and what was not, and now everyone looked at strangers with… well, like the scavenger had looked at him.