Wuhan, Hubei District, China
October 14, 2019
3:22 pm, China Standard Time
The young Chinese peasant stood beside Luoshi S Road looking across to the China Wuhan University of Science and Technology. In his hand he held a piece of paper bearing the name and address of a man at the university who might be able to help him get a job there. Zhuang Wei, holding the paper in his hand, crossed the street at the light and walked into the campus. Using a map he bought at a local pancake house, he found the science building. Once inside, he found the chemistry department where he asked the receptionist where he might find Mr. Wang Lei. The receptionist called to a young man sitting nearby. When the young man came to her desk, she told him, “Escort this gentleman through the building and out the back door to find Mr. Wang Lei. Do you know who he is?”
“I do”, the young man said. “Is he not the janitor who sits behind the building sometimes?”
“That is correct,” the young lady answered. The young man said to Zhuang, “Please follow me. I will escort you to Wang Lei.” Without waiting for a reply, the young man turned and began walking through the main corridor of the building. In a matter of minutes, the two left the building by the back door. There the young man introduced Zhuang to Wang Lei, the janitor for the chemistry department.
Wang was a stout man of about sixty years sitting on an overturned waste basket behind the building. The young man told Zhuang that, because it was late in the day, Wang would soon start his workday. Zhuang introduced himself to Wang who stood to shake his hand. Zhuang said, “My grandfather was a friend of your late grandfather who told us you were a man of some importance here at the university. My family is poor, and I have had to leave our farm to come to the city in search of a job. Is it possible you are looking for an assistant in your duties here?”
Wang studied the stoop-shouldered young peasant before him. His clothes were worn and patched but ironed and exceptionally clean. He wore typical peasant sandals, covered with dust, and carried a torn backpack over one shoulder. His hair was a little long and had obviously been cut at home with a pair of dull scissors. Wang noticed the small scar above his left eye.
“What is it you are qualified to do, young man?”
“I am only qualified to do manual labor,” Zhuang answered. “I was raised on our farm where there is always plenty of hard work to be done. Perhaps someday I will be as qualified as you are, to be the head janitor for the chemistry department, but for now, I am willing to work hard and follow instructions if you are prepared to teach me. I am not very smart, but I can learn.”
Wang said, “How did your grandfather come to know mine?”
Zhuang answered, “The two of them served together in the Red Guard during our glorious revolution. Oh, the stories your grandfather and my grandfather told me of the wonderful things the soldiers did back then! There was one other grandfather in our village who served with them, but I cannot remember his name. He died when I was a child.”
Wang asked, “Was it Zin Li?”
“Yes, that is it,” Zhuang said excitedly. “The three of them were always willing to share their stories when we were children. I so wanted to be in the Red Guard when I grew to be a man, but, alas, things are so different now.”
Wang sat on his waste basket again. “Oh, I know. So much is different. The economy is so different and there are so many opportunities to work and earn a living and be able to send money home to our families. He reached behind him and produced another waste basket. He turned it over and set it close to him. “Please. Sit.”
The two men sat and discussed China in general and Wuhan in particular. Wang said, “If I hire you, where will you live?”
“I do not know yet. I have only arrived in the city today. I shall look for a place to stay tonight.”
Wang said, “It would be rude of me to refuse to hire the grandson of my late grandfather’s friend. Follow me.” Wang led him to a small metal shack just around the corner from where they had been sitting. He showed Zhuang the inside of a small shop where there was a single metal bed, a sink, and a toilet. “You may sleep here until you have enough money from your paycheck to rent a place of your own. I go home every night to my wife and children, so no one is using this bed now.”
Zhuang asked, “Does this mean I am hired to work for you?”
“It does,” Wang said. “How can I not hire a man whose best reference is that he is the grandson of my grandfather’s closest friend?” Wang explained the duties and the pay to Zhuang.
“When may I start work?”
“You may start today. In a few moments, a bell will ring, and the workers and the students will leave the building, and I shall escort you inside and show you where you will work.”
While Wang was still talking, a bell sounded for five seconds. Immediately a flood of people began walking out of the building and in ten minutes the flood had slowed to a trickle. In another two, the trickle stopped.
“Follow me,” Wang said. He walked through the classrooms, the chemistry labs, the offices, and the restrooms. They neared a door with a sign which said “Basement” and Zhuang tried to open it. Wang said, “One cannot open this door without an electronic door key. This is mine.” Wang pulled his ID card from his pocket and swiped it through the card reader beside the door. There was a buzz and the door opened about an inch. Wang immediately grabbed the door and pushed it closed again. “However,” he said, “you are not allowed in the basement. Perhaps later you will be. I am the only janitor allowed down there.”
“What is down there?” Zhuang asked.
“There is a lab there where government scientists are doing research. I do not know what they are researching. Nor do I care,” he laughed. “I just go down there to empty wastebaskets and clean up their messes.”
“It must be wonderful to be so smart and to know so many things about this university. I do not think I will ever be smart enough to do what you do and to know what you know.” The two men continued their walking tour of the chemistry department and Zhuang made mental notes of each part of the lab, especially the door to the lower levels which was his main target.
After Zhuang had worked there five days, Wang approached him while he was cleaning a restroom. “Tonight,” Wang said, “we must dispose of some dead pigs. Every Friday, the scientists conduct tests on three pigs. Apparently, the tests kill all three and, late in the evening, it is my job to dispose of the three carcasses. I get the keys to a truck before everyone leaves and later, I back it up to the door, load the pigs using the winch and drive them away.”
Wang looked around to make sure no one was near, then said quietly, “I am required to load them into the incinerator and stay there until they are completely burned. However, I take the pigs to the market center where my brother has a butcher shop. He pays me a little for the pigs. I shall share the money with you if you are willing to help me and stay silent about our little business venture.”
“I am willing,” Zhuang said. “And I can use the extra money.”
An hour later, the two men were on their way to the central market area of Wuhan with three dead pigs in the back of the truck covered with a tarp. Zhuang asked, “Why are the pigs killed?”
“I have no idea. Sometimes on a Friday I hear three gunshots, then I know the pigs are ready to leave.”
In five minutes, they were stopped in front of a meat market at the center of the market district. When Wang stopped the truck, two men came out and pulled the tarp from the pigs. The two men carried all three pigs inside. After the last pig was inside, another man came out and embraced Wang, then stood staring at Zhuang. Wang said, “This is my new assistant of whom I spoke. He will help me load and transport the pigs. Sometimes I may just send him alone to make the delivery.”
The man counted out money to Wang and returned to the market without uttering a word. Wang counted the money and gave half to Zhuang. Zhuang counted his share and saw it was about half of his weekly pay. The two men returned to the university where they parked the truck and continued their regular duties.
The next day, Zhuang talked with Wang about the beautiful sights in the city of Wuhan. Zhuang asked him, “Are we allowed to take photographs of these sights?”
“Yes, surely,” Wang said, “but first, look closely for any sign which forbids photographs. They will be prominently displayed, so you cannot miss them.”
Zhuang spent his next day-off taking pictures in and near the campus. He learned the students called it “The University in the Trees” because most of the buildings were hidden from sight by the overhead canopy of trees. He suspected this was intentional to foil enemy satellites. He had seen the satellite photos of the campus, especially the building where the chemistry lab was located. The overhead canopy of trees was obscuring much of the campus.
When Zhuang returned from his day off, he found Wang sitting in his usual spot waiting for the population of the building to go home. While they waited, he told Wang, “I think I shall make some tea. Would you care for a cup?”
“I would,” Wang said. “Thank you.”
Zhuang walked to the little metal building and turned on his hot plate. When the tea had been brewed and steeped, he removed a small plastic vial from his pocket. He unscrewed the cap and emptied the contents into Wang’s cup. He stirred it until he was sure there was no residue showing then carried both cups out to the sitting area. He gave Wang one cup and sat on his own wastebasket. In ten minutes, the bell rang, and Wang upended his tea and stood. “Would you like for me to return your cup to the shop?”
“I would,” Zhuang said, “and thank you.”
The next afternoon when Zhuang returned for work, Wang was not there. As he sat on his wastebasket waiting for Wang to appear, a tall man with close-cropped hair came out of the building and approached him. “Are you Zhuang?”
Zhuang stood and said, “I am, Sir. How may I help you?”
“Come with me,” the man said and immediately turned and walked down the hall. When they arrived at the basement door, the man used his ID card to open it, and Zhuang followed him inside. They walked down two flights of metal stairs and into an office marked “Lieutenant Qui.” The man went in and sat, motioning for Zhuang to do the same.
He said, “Mr. Wang is in hospital. His wife called about an hour ago and said he has food poisoning and will be in the hospital several days. Until he returns, you must do your work and his. There are few replacement janitors we can use. Have you been down here before?”
“No, Sir. Mr. Wang told me I was not allowed down here,” Zhuang said, looking around the spacious office.
“He was right to tell you that.” He handed Zhuang an electronic key. “Unfortunately, until he returns, we must allow you down here to clean the place. Do you know what to do here?”
The man stood and said, “Follow me.” He led Zhuang down a long hallway to a narrow room which was cluttered with electronic equipment. “This part of the lab is still being constructed. The workmen are required to clean up every day before they leave. However, they sometimes ‘forget’ to do so. Every day you must come in here and, if necessary, sweep and mop the floors and dust the desks.
“Other than that, you must empty the wastebaskets and put all the papers from the collection waste boxes into the shredder outside my office. Do you understand your instructions?”
Zhuang said, “I do, Sir.”
“Good. And you may not discuss with anyone what you see or hear down here. Is that clear?”
“It is, Sir.”
Qui barked, “Any questions?”
“Just one, Sir,” Zhuang said. “What do the people do down here with all this equipment and am I supposed to clean the equipment?”
“No,” he said, “you do not touch the equipment and what we do down here is certainly not any of your business. Why did you ask that question?”
Zhuang answered, “I am trying to learn so that someday I might become as smart as Mr. Wang and be better at my job.”
Qui looked at him for a moment and then made a face like Zhuang was a simpleton. He said, “That is the first time anyone asked such a question.” As he climbed the stairs, Zhuang thought to himself, “And I bet that is the first time you have invited a CIA spy into a secret lab and given him a key to the place.” He smiled as he climbed.
Wuhan, Hubei District, China
October 15, 2019
8:32 am, China Standard Time
The next day, Lt. Qui Din Wa of the Chinese Peoples’ Army knocked on an unmarked door in the basement of the chemistry building. When Colonel Husan Ling said, “Enter”, Qui came in and sat down. Colonel Husan said, “Did you talk to the janitor?”
“I did,” Qui said.
“What do you think?”
Qui said, “I think we have finally found the one man in China who is more stupid than our regular janitor.”
“Will he fit the job?” Husan asked.
“I am sure he will. He is interested in learning what he can from Mr. Wang so that he can be as smart as Wang,” Qui said with a chuckle.
“As smart as Wang? Our janitor Wang?” Both men laughed. Husan asked, “Did you make contact with anyone back in his village, in Sho Ping?”
“No, Sir. I finally discovered the name is actually Zhaopan. It is an exceedingly small village about 100 kilometers northwest on the G-70. He didn’t even know how to spell the name of his own village. There is a catfish farm there and the owner of the farm, Mr. Chung, is also the town magistrate. He said Zhuang sometimes works for him during his busy season, seasonal work. He described him as a good worker, but in his words, ‘dumb as a brick’. He said the boy takes great pride in his work with his limited intelligence. He is basically a farmer on his parents’ farm.”
Husan asked, “Did you get a good description of him?”
“I did,” Qui said. “Right down to the small scar above his left eye. I am satisfied.”
“Good,” Husan said. “What is the latest news on Mr. Wang’s health?”
“I went to the hospital this morning on the guise of checking on him. He is very sick. He retched the entire time I was there. He is pale, has a mild fever and has begun to lose weight. It is my opinion he is legitimately ill. I do not think he could fake that,” Qui said.
As Qui and Husan were talking, Zhuang, secluded in his little tin hut and out of ear shot of the Chinese Army investigators, lay on his bunk contemplating his deception. When his cell phone rang, he retrieved it from under his mattress and closed the door to his shed. “Zhuang here.”
“It is Chung. You were correct. A lieutenant named Qui called me last evening. He said he is assigned to the university in Wuhan and was checking references on a man named Zhuang Wei. I told him what you instructed me to tell him, and we both had a laugh about how stupid you are.” He laughed. “I described your looks to him, concentrating on the little scar above your left eye. He seemed to be satisfied.”
“Thank you,” Zhuang said. “Very soon someone will arrive with your…reward,” and disconnected.
Two days later, when Zhuang arrived for work, he was summoned by a lab assistant to Lieutenant Qui’s office. He knocked and waited for the lieutenant to say “Enter”, then went inside. The lieutenant said, “Please sit down, Mr. Zhuang.” When he sat, Qui said, “I fear I have some distressing news to share with you today, Mr. Zhuang. I received a telephone call this morning from Mr. Wang’s wife. Mr. Wang died during the night.”
Zhuang sat back in his chair with a worried look on his face. “I am so sorry to hear that, Lieutenant. I really liked Mr. Wang and he was teaching me so much.”
Qui said, “I know this is shocking news for you Zhuang, but it seems what was first thought to be food poisoning was actually a peptic ulcer. In effect, Mr. Wang bled to death internally.”
“Does this mean, Sir, I will lose my job here since he will not be able to teach me anymore?”
Qui had to stifle a laugh. “No, Mr. Zhuang, I think you have learned enough already to be able to continue your work here if you so desire.”
“Oh, I do, Sir,” Zhuang said. “But…” He stopped.
“But, what?” Qui said.
“I am not sure how I should ask, Sir, but…”
Qui said, “Just ask!”
After a pause, Zhuang said, “Was there anything about his work here which caused Mr. Wang’s death?”
“No,” Qui said. “Not at all.”
Zhuang sighed heavily. “That is a relief.”
Qui asked, “Do you have any questions for me?”
“Yes, Sir,” Zhuang said, “I have helped Mr. Wang haul the pig carcasses to the incinerator, but I do not know where he got the key to the truck.”
“You will get the key from my secretary.”
Zhuang stood and thanked the lieutenant and left the office.