When the knob finished droning about some criminal enforcement matter, a door could be heard opening below him and a Tibetan janitor appeared. The gallery watched with a strange fascination as he uncoiled a hose then leaned a mop in the corner where the ledge met the concrete wall before disappearing and returning with a metal armchair. A murmur of nervous laughter rippled through the audience as he stumbled on the hose before placing the chair near the back wall.
Shan looked again for Colonel Tan, governor of the county, who had ordered him to the compound, but saw neither the colonel nor his steadfast matronly assistant Amah Jiejie. Xun caught his gaze with a thin, expectant grin. A Public Security sergeant appeared below, leading a middle-aged Tibetan with thinning hair whose face seemed empty, devoid of expression. The Tibetan shook off the knob's hand, then straightened his clothing, marched to the chair and sat. He looked up at his audience, briefly fixing his intelligent, piercing gaze on each of the men and women in the chairs. Shan was last, and the man's gaze lingered on him, with a hint of curiosity in it now. As he looked at Shan he loosely curled the fingers of one hand and held them briefly over his chest. Another, younger, Public Security officer appeared, a lieutenant whose hair had unusal tinges of auburn in it. He bowed his head to the spectators before turning to the Tibetan. The young knob's thin lips were set in stern determination, but Shan thought he detected a hint of amusement in his eyes.
"Chou Folan?" the lieutenant asked.
The prisoner ignored him. A Chinese name had been assigned to him but he refused to acknowledge it.
The lieutenant glanced up at the officer at the podium, who gave an impatient nod.
"Metok Rentzig," the lieutenant stated. "Yes," the Tibetan replied in a melancholy tone. Then he suddenly twisted toward the ghostly demon on the wall behind him. "Om Kurukulla hrih hum svaha!" he called out, defiance in his voice now.
Shan's heart wrenched as he saw the weapon in the young officer's hand. With a quick upward motion, the knob leveled the pistol and shot Metok in the head.
Shan had no idea how long he remained sitting, staring down into the sacred chapel that had been converted into an execution chamber. The other witnesses had quickly filed out the door after the man at the podium had declared the ceremony adjourned. Major Xun had been the last of them to leave, closing the door with a cackling laugh aimed at Shan. Two attendants appeared with a gurney and hauled the body away. Shan watched, numbed, as the old Tibetan janitor limped in and hosed down the floor. When the water was not running Shan could hear him whispering a mournful mantra. The janitor hesitated as he saw the blood and gray tissue spattered on the back wall, then moved a few steps back and sprayed it away. He missed a spatter higher up the wall below the eye of the faded goddess. She seemed to be weeping blood.
The janitor was nearly finished mopping up the pink-tinged water when a hand clamped around Shan's shoulder. He looked up into the icy eyes of the county governor.
"This was not my idea, Shan," Colonel Tan said. "I didn't know until Amah Jiejie told me where you were. I came as soon as I heard."
"You invited me."
"To my office, not to this. This was Major Xun's doing. It was a case run out of Lhasa, but they asked him for a quiet place for the execution. He heard you were coming and had her tell you to come here, then added an extra chair to the official witness gallery. He seemed to think it a good joke."
"I wasn't laughing."
"No. I don't suppose you were. I'm sorry. Major Xun is the most efficient adjutant I've ever had but he can be overzealous at times."
Shan did not reply, but as he walked silently, a step behind Tan, he realized that in all their time together he could not recall ever hearing the colonel apologize to him. Tan led him outside toward his waiting car, a worn, boxy Red Flag limousine that should have been retired twenty years earlier. Once Tan got in beside Shan, the driver sped onto the paved road that led out of the expanding government compound and into a landscape of barley fields and grazing sheep.
Tan stared out the window and did not turn when he finally spoke. "I need you, Shan."
Shan heard the unexpected worry in the colonel's voice and realized Tan had sensed his desolation. Had he sensed the words that had been on Shan's tongue since the moment Tan touched his shoulder in the execution chamber? 'I resign', Shan silently mouthed, then swallowed down the rest. 'I can no longer be a gear in Beijing's monstrous machine. I can no longer be a law enforcement official in your soulless empire'. He had practiced such speeches several times in recent months, but each time the words choked away with the grim realization that he could not walk away from Tan. He hated Tan for being the tyrant who ran the most infamous camps in the Tibetan gulag, but he owed the man his freedom, his job, his housing, his life. He would never be able to find another job, another place where he could legally reside or, most importantly, ensure the safety of his son Ko, an inmate in one of Tan's brutal prisons.