Into the Suanpan

8 Nov

Hua Ling was thoroughly puzzled by the assignment given him.

Why was Shanghai Silknews sending him up the Yangzi to Wuhan to investigate what was clearly criminal fraud being perpetrated on the innocent and gullible?

Riding an ultra-express maglev headed westward, he had time to read the secret report taken out of police files in the triplet river cities.

“Temporary escape and disappearance is the definition of what is promised to the paying customers. No one will be able to locate you, because you will be gone through our suanpan. So claimed the public advertisements introducing the population to the racket.”

The appeal was highly popular and growing according to all that Hua Ling could find out.

The police in Wuhan had accomplished nothing yet. Were they being paid off?

Hua hoped that as an outsider he could penetrate into this strange phenomenon. What drew even the educated into this trap? Why were intellectuals and the mentally troubled attracted to it?

The surprising factor to Hua was the identity of the person he was to meet with and interview first once he arrived in Wuhan. He was set to have an appointment with Guo Ziao, head captain of the organized crime syndicate in the Central Yangzi Region.

There was a tone of the inappropriate in such an unusual consultation, thought the veteran investigative correspondent.

Wuhan was the result of the merger of three separate cities.

On the north shore of the Yangzi, there were Hankou and Hanyang, divided by the Han River. The frequent flooding of the Han led to the construction of enormous earthen dikes and embankments to control water overflows.

Across the Yangzi, on the southern bank, lay Wuchang. Because the great river took a sharp southwest turn here, Wuchang was to the east of both Hankou and Hanyang.

Wuhan served all of Central China as its industrial powerhouse. A river-based trade in tea established the city’s importance early in the 19th century. Iron and cotton mills dominated its early industrialization. In time, nanoferrum and vitrified fiber replaced these products. Silk glass from Wuhan revolutionized China’s technology and eventually the entire world’s communication and computer systems. Particle electronics came to make its home here. Wuhan came to have over ten million inhabitants. It was called the second Shanghai, a serious rival to the eastern metropolis.

The hotel where Hua settled was the Jianghan, a relic of the old foreign concession area of central Hankou. British, French, Russian, German, and Japanese settlements had once existed on this northern shore of the Yangzi. Steamers from overseas had once hauled opium to Wuhan, the reporter reminded himself.

There had always been illicit aspects to this river port, he remembered. Do not be surprised by anything you uncover, Hua said to himself continually.

The contemporary city had constructed four vertical levels of decks to house its factories, laboratories, and residential apartments.

In the distant past, enormous pleasure boats had plied up and down the Yangzi. Theater boats had offered plays, operas, and vaudeville shows. Hua knew that in his own day there were floating hotels, tea houses, restaurants, and bordellos with their home here in Wuhan. Their tours took them to the far ends of the Yangzi. Night clubs, gambling dens, and brothels were berthed on the river docks of the triple city.

Hua wave-phoned to announce that he was on his way to the appointment with Guo Ziao. The latter lived on his large river steamer, the Blue Tortoise, which was painted a brazen aquamarine. A taxi pod took him to the wharf where the ship was docked. The personal secretary of the gang leader met Hua and told him that his employer was awaiting him in his business office. The correspondent followed him into the luxurious syndicate center.

Guo turned out to be a surprisingly lanky man of middle age. An infinite number of wrinkles crossed his long, narrow face. A brilliant smile came from his thin lips. He invited Hua to sit down at a large, round Beijing table and told his secretary to bring them some jasmine tea.

“You are interested in the suapan business and wish to learn about its secret operations?” began the casino-owner. “There isn’t much known about what they do except by rumor and chance statements and revelations. For instance, the public that visits the Blue Tortoise numbers many members of an underground cult. Yes, that is what I can it, a cult. Those involved are pledged to absolute secrecy. But things leak out and these clues can be combined into a general, vague picture of what goes on there.”

“Their practices, I understand, have to do with escape from their customary social ties and family relationships for a period of days or even weeks. That much has been uncovered by the authorities,” noted Hua Ling. “The individuals involved disappear from their ordinary social ties, but their whereabouts remain a mystery to everyone.”

Guo Ziao bent his head down and murmured in a lowered tone. “Do you happen to know what an old-fashioned suapan was?” he asked the correspondent.

Hua racked his memory to find some answer to the question. “It was a sort of computing reckoner frame used for the ancient abacus calculating device. For ages our merchants used them in figuring and keeping accounts. How can that term be applied today in connection with this cult?”

“I have learned from my informants that a special apparatus similar to a suapan is so large that a person can walk into and though it,” explained Guo. “That is what every candidate for membership in the cult must first do. Once that movement is completed, one becomes an initiate in the secret society. Whenever the need arises, he or she may go back and disappear into the suanpan as often and as many times as one wishes. That is what I have learned by direct conversation and at second hand from figures in the shadows.

“Their strange activity about their suanpan affects the patronage aboard ships such as this, because those who join the cult are obliged to give up all gambling and river boat entertainment. That is part of the new discipline that they come under when they join with Jiang Yao, their founder and chief leader.”

“So, this cult with a suanpan has an effect upon your business,” concluded Hua aloud.

The gang boss answered with a large, vigorous nod.

“How can I come into contact with the directors of this group?” asked the reporter.

“My bodyguards have located their secret address and can take you there whenever you wish.”

Hua Ling indicated he would like to visit the suanpan and its adherents as soon as possible that evening. He stood up, bowed to Guo, and made his way out.

Vitrification plants where silk thread was processed into glassified fiber lined the Yan River, tributary of the Yangzi. His syndicate companions left Hua off in front of what appeared to be an empty, deserted white brick factory on the old Hubei Road, under the shadow of the high city decks of Hanyang.

What shall I say or do? the investigator asked himself. Before he could answer, an aluminum door to the derelict facility opened and a short man in a gray work jacket came out toward him.

“You are here for your introduction?” asked the stranger.

“Yes,” meekly answered Hua, uncertain what was going on.

“Follow me into the tang, then,” said the other.

The journalist did as he was ordered, trailing the man into a high, spacious hall that looked empty.

Hua at once spied a gigantic wooden frame at the end of the enormous room. A small group of about a dozen sat in front of the big device.

Comprehending what was expected of him, the newcomer took a position at one end of a bench. He waited in silence along with the others staring up at the great, high frame.

All at once, a fat figure in a shining white suit appeared in front of the structure as if out of nowhere. His dark eyes sparkled with inner spirit.

“Welcome to our beloved suanpan, my friends. We all know why you have come: to flee from the troubles of everyday life, to absent yourselves from the torture of deadening surroundings.

“That is what this great frame of oblivion is for. It allows you to withdraw, then return at your own choice when the wish to renew life comes back to you.

“The suanpan offers a respite, a vacation from the pain of existence. You are gone, and so are the hostile forces that bedevil you. Your escape into nothingness will permit rest and revival to occur.

“So, I ask you to line up for your trek into the suanpan. We shall begin the journey at once.”

What am I to do? the investigative correspondent asked himself.

He had not foreseen such an immediate movement into actual use and application of the frame.

Hua joined the line of participants near its end. He watched as they proceeded into the darkened region within the large wooden frame. The interior area grew darker and darker. Nothing could be seen beyond the overhanging structure.

He suddenly realized that the people in the line ahead of him were disappearing as they crossed over into the suanpan.

In a few moments, it was his turn to step into the unknown.

With a deep breath, he moved into the space beyond, as those before him had.

His mind went blank as if entering the deepest of possible comas.

There was no memory of what had happened before the moment in which he returned.

Looking about, Hua saw the high frame immediately behind him.

In confusion, the journalist decided to distance himself from the mysterious apparatus.

As he hurried away, he saw a pudgy figure in white standing beside what must be the exit door.

Jiang Yao, creator of the suanpan, smiled warmly, confidently at the returner from the unknown.

“I am happy to see you back so soon,” said the fat man. “It means that you are ready to live life again. I think that you are going to do something important for all who are going to move through the suanpan frame.”

Hua stared in wonder at the leader, uncertain what to say. Finally, he asked a question.

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

Jiang grinned like a cat. “That you came here from the Blue Tortoise is not a secret. Neither the fact that you were sent to Wuhan by Shanghai Silknews. I did not interfere with your mission , not at all. You believed that we saw you as a regular member of the interested public.

“But now you will return to your employers and give them an accurate account of the miracle of the suanpan. That it is real, not a trick or fraud.

“And you are to carry a message for us to Guo Ziao. Do you agree to do so?”

“What am I to tell him?” asked the confused, fearful Hua.

“He and his syndicate are not to interfere with the functioning of the suanpan frame. If they should try to harm any of us, I promise to destroy all his ships and the affiliated rackets. I already have working agreements with the Young Daggers and the Han Chimera. These organizations enjoy much power and have contracted to maintain peaceful relations with our suanpan movement. Guo Ziao must do likewise, or else there will be a painful, costly price to pay.”

“I shall do what you say,” slowly muttered Hua, then made a speedy exit from the large hall.

The reporter learned at his hotel that he had been gone five days.

A wave-phone call to the Blue Tortoise arranged for a meeting next day with the gambling lord.

Sitting in the same office as the first time, Hua gave Guo the warning from the man in white.

The reaction was one of angry indignation on the part of the owner of the river boat.

“Who does he think he is, threatening me? Tell me this: does his cursed frame work? Can it take a person out of life and existence for a spell?”

“It happened to me, sir,” muttered the reporter with conviction. “I intend to write about it on our national silkline. All of China will have the information.”

“That will be up to you,” grumbled Guo. “I myself have my own duties to perform, wherever they may lead.”

Hua Ling was back in Shanghai only three days when a piece of news came over his silkline monitor in blazing headlines.

“Mysterious blast in Wuhan. The headquarters of a certain suanpan cult was destroyed at dawn this morning by a gigantic explosion. Police are investigating and cannot locate the head of the movement, a Jiang Yao. There is no sign or trace of him anywhere.”

Stunned and disoriented, Hua kept his eyes on the silkscreen without respite for over an hour.

What happened to the suanpan founder? he wondered. Did he survive?

It seemed clear to him that Guo Ziao was somehow connected to the deadly explosion.

Only after a lengthy spell did a second piece of news appear before his eyes.

“Casino boat explodes in Wuhan dock. All who were aboard instantly killed. The Blue Tortoise, famed gambling steamer on the Yangzi, destroyed with crew and patrons.”

Hua looked away as soon as the news report ended.

Did the underworld allies of the suanpan accomplish the act of vengeance?

The correspondent recalled his own journey there and the blank hiatus of his in time and memory.

Was Jiang Yao now in that realm of silence? Was he ever going to return from there?

The more he thought about the matter, the more certain Hua Ling became that someday the creator of the suanpan would be back in Wuhan, again operating his opening into oblivion.

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