The short-term investment was now being led to the same interrogation room that Tommy and Zhang had only moments before occupied. Before slinking away, Tommy had pointed Brig out to Zhang and snuck off before Brig had a chance to see him.
Officer Zhang stood as tall, erect, and intimidating as he could, placing both hands behind his back and intently scanning the crowd. He saw that it was Officer Pang leading Brig towards the interrogation room, along with two other young officers whose names he hadn’t yet learned. Zhang had known Pang for many years and thought him a bitter and spiteful man, who disliked his job, and sometimes took his dissatisfaction out on the unfortunate souls that passed through his immigration line. Nevertheless, Pang knew his place and was adept at identifying those that were willing and able to pay the toll.
“Good morning Officer Pang, what have we here?” Zhang asked.
Officer Zhang looked Brig up and down with obvious contempt.
“Good morning, sir,” Officer Pang responded in the overly enthusiastic way a fearful subordinate addressed his superior. To Pang, Officer Zhang was an ass-kissing bureaucrat, but he was also his commanding officer. Zhang could and would make Pang’s life miserable if he displayed any hint of insubordination. “Nothing really. Just a nervous, suspicious looking foreigner. I thought I would take him into the room and have a look at what he has in his bags.”
Ordinarily, Brig would have protested more demonstrably about the way he was being treated, but the situation was far from ordinary. He looked around for Tommy but to no avail. Where is he? Brig wondered.
“Business or pleasure?” Zhang asked Pang.
“He says he imports condoms into the US. His large pack looks high-end, but the rest of him looks like a beggar. Something isn’t right with this one.” Usually, Chinese immigration officers avoided interrogating Westerners for fear of causing an international incident, but Brig looked inordinately on edge, afraid, maybe on drugs. Pang was confident that this Westerner was hiding something, and if he was hiding something, he would probably pay to keep that something hidden.
“Does he speak Mandarin?”
“I don’t think so. He said ‘Neih hao?’ (Translation: “How are you?” A common greeting in China) But that was it, so hard to say. He was impatient and was trying to avoid going through my line.”
“O.K. I’ll take him from here. Back to your posts,” Zhang commanded. “Officer Pang. Tell the foreigner to follow me.” The two younger officers responded with a loud, “Sir!” and hurried away as they wanted little to do with the quick-tempered Zhang. Pang stayed silent and remained where he was, hoping that Zhang would reconsider and invite him to join the interrogation as he sometimes did. Pang felt that Zhang shared the enjoyment of seeing the fear in the eyes of the interrogated as much as he did.
“That will be all Officer Pang,” Zhang ordered with a hint of annoyance. Zhang knew why Pang had lingered, but this was one interrogation he would do himself. He would give Pang a cut, a small cut, for his role in identifying the mark, but Pang would never know the details.
Pang handed Zhang Brig’s passport and turned to address Brig for the last time. “You will go now with this officer.” Though Brig didn’t like Pang, for reasons he didn’t understand, he feared this other man even more.
Officer Zhang walked ahead, towards a door that Brig hadn’t noticed until now.
“Please sir, what is this? What did I do?” Brig pleaded for an answer.
Officer Zhang stopped and opened the door into the small room, motioning for Brig to enter first. Brig took one last look for Tommy, who was nowhere to be seen, lowered his head, and complied.
It was a small room, approximately eight square feet. A small, rectangular table stood in the middle of the room, adorned only with an ashtray brimming with burned cigarette butts. Chinese lawmakers had banned smoking in public places earlier in the decade but had not yet gotten around to enforcing the law. There was even a “No Smoking” sign in the interrogation room, but nobody paid attention to it, particularly the chain-smoking Zhang. Two uncomfortable looking metal chairs were placed on each side of the table. The room was made even more uncomfortable by the sickly yellow, industrial, fluorescent tubes that gave light and emitted a low, incessant buzz.
Officer Zhang entered the room and closed the door behind him. “Sit,” he commanded Brig. Brig moved slowly to one of the chairs, laid his packs down at his feet, and sat.
“Please. Can you tell me what I’ve done? I traveled all the way from America to spend my money, contributing to your…”
“Quiet!” Zhang interrupted and pretended to study Brig’s passport.
“What?” Brig asked, hearing but not understanding.
“Shut! Up!” Zhang yelled at Brig, in perfect English. Zhang lit another cigarette. Intentionally ignoring Brig, Zhang paced the room, slowly flipping through the pages of Brig’s passport and occasionally taking a long, thoughtful drag. He surmised that it was impossible for the American, raised on the perception of free speech, to remain quiet for long. The silence begged to be filled.
“As I was…” Brig began again.
Zhang, who had been waiting for Brig to say something, leaped at him like a lion to its prey, bringing his face within inches of Brig’s. Nose to nose, Zhang screamed at Brig in a mix of Mandarin and English, “Shut up! You will only speak if spoken to, you dumb piece of shit. I don’t yet know what you’ve done, but I’m sure you have done something. You think you can come over here and wave your money around, and the Chinese people will blow you? You know nothing about China. Do you understand?”
Brig responded in Cantonese, “I don’t understand you! I don’t speak Mandarin!” and then in English, “I don’t understand.”
Zhang stood up straight, still looking down at Brig, and straightened his jacket. He placed Brig’s passport inside one of his many pockets, and from that same pocket retrieved a pack of cigarettes. He tapped one slightly out of the pack, paused, and looked at Brig. For a second, Brig thought Zhang was going to offer the cigarette to him. Instead, Zhang moved the pack to his mouth and pulled a cigarette out with his lips. Placing the pack of cigarettes back in his pocket, he pulled out a lighter and lit up.
With the freshly lit cigarette clenched between his teeth, Zhang knelt down and pulled the mountaineering pack towards him. He unzipped the top of the bag for inspection. Brig panicked, realizing that if officer Zhang found his bloody t-shirt buried in the bottom of his pack his journey was over. The bloody t-shirt would raise questions, which would lead them to Hong Kong, which would lead them to a dead man, which would lead them back to Brig. Using what little courage he had left, he placed his hand over the top of the pack.
“You can’t do that…even here, I have rights. I’m an American.” Brig knew full well that the rules were different here, and that Zhang likely had every right. In fact it was his job to search suspicious bags. But it had the desired effect. Zhang discontinued his search and let his eyes drift slowly from the pack to Brig’s face. His face flushed red with rage. He stood up to his full five foot eight inches, towering over Brig who cowered in his seat. Zhang bent at his waist, bringing his face level to Brig’s. Only the burning cigarette that dangled from Zhang’s mouth separated the men.
“You piece of American mother fucking shit! I am going to send you to a prison so far from here that you will never be found.” Zhang railed. “Rights? You think you have rights? Do you know where the fuck you are? This is communist fucking China, and the only rights you have are the ones that I give you, and right now the only right you have is to breathe my second-hand fucking smoke!” Zhang inhaled deeply, then exhaled a billowing cloud of smoke directly into Brig’s face. Brig held his breath, determined not to cough.
Brig didn’t understand a word, but the sentiment was clear. This guy is going to kill me. And then it dawned on Brig. What did he care? He was trying to kill him himself anyway. Yes, he wanted his death to be on Everest, but this might be even more satisfying – if the dead could be satisfied. His father would be mortified, and what a political firestorm it would create. Brig drew strength from the realization he had nothing to lose.
As Zhang was finishing his tirade, a hot ash fell from Zhang’s cigarette and onto Brig’s lap. Brig jumped up reflexively, surprising and unnerving Zhang who stepped back. Now Brig towered over Zhang. A flicker of concern crossed Zhang’s face.
“You know what little man? Do what you have to, because I no longer give a fuck. I have absolutely no idea what you just said, but I’m pretty sure you understand me. So understand this. I am the son of a very rich and important man in the United States of America. If you touch me again, your career will be over. I will spend more money burying you than you will earn in your lifetime. Understand?”
Zhang understood and realized that he had somehow lost control over the situation and needed to get it back before Tommy entered the room. Intimidation almost always worked. What had changed? Though Brig was taller, Zhang was confident he could overpower the skinny American. Zhang lowered his head in mock defeat, and replied in English, “Yes. I understand.”
Then with surprising speed and strength, Zhang grabbed Brig by the throat and pushed him back, pinning him against the wall. Brig’s head hit with such force that his knees buckled. The room’s walls were solid concrete. Zhang held him up. Brig gasped for air and made a futile attempt to push Zhang away.
A light knock came from the door. Zhang released his grip and Brig’s bruised and battered body slid to the ground. As if in a dream, Brig watched as the door opened and Tommy entered. Tommy ran to Brig, kneeling down to make sure Brig was all right. Seeing that Brig’s eyes were open and that he was breathing, it was now Tommy’s turn to be angry. Though Brig didn’t understand the language, there was no mistaking what was being communicated. Brig watched as Tommy screamed at Zhang. Zhang retreated to a corner and lit yet another cigarette.
Tommy pointed at Brig and then at Zhang. Brig sat up. Zhang pulled Brig’s passport from his pocket and handed it to Tommy. Brig was confused. Where had Tommy come from, and how did he dare speak to this high-ranking Chinese immigration officer so belligerently?
“Are you OK? Can you stand?” Tommy asked Brig.
Brig stood and rubbed the back of his head. He felt a knot beginning to swell. “I’ll be O.K.”
Tommy held Brig’s right arm with his good hand as they shuffled past Zhang. Several of Zhang’s lackeys ran towards them, but he waved them away. As a last act of defiance, Brig gave Zhang the bird. Zhang sneered, held up his right hand and rubbed his thumb against his index and middle fingers, gesturing to Brig that it was just about money, adding to Brig’s bewilderment.