The crowd at the bar had started out as a pulsating mass of bodies, crammed onto the small dance floor, jumping up and down in time to the dance-hall reggae mixed by a skinny white boy in a backwards baseball cap. But it was well past midnight, and the crowd had now thinned to a smattering of die-hard drinkers, clustered around a few tables, talking in hushed tones occasionally punctuated by a laugh or a yell or the slam of a shot glass on the bar as a final round was ordered. The music calmed by degree, the dance hall giving way to Toots and the Maytals, giving way finally to Chinese folk rock by the Wild Children.
I sat with my boyfriend, Jun and the barkeep, Old Liu, and with another foreigner, an Australian named Blake. Jun was slumped drunkenly on the table, head resting on his forearms, while Blake and Old Liu talked quietly about what seemed to be a grave situation. I placed my hand gently on Jun’s back, and his eyes fluttered open.
“Let’s go,” I said, and he nodded.
I turned and took my bag from the back of my chair, and fumbled for my wallet so that I could settle up at the bar. I found my wallet, but noticed with a start that my cell-phone was gone. It was small Sony-Ericsson, cheap and functional, but precious nonetheless as my only means of communication in this country where cell-phones had replaced land-lines a good decade before they would do so back home. “My phone’s gone,” I said, panic entering my voice. Old Liu and Blake halted their conversation.
“When did you last see it?” Old Liu asked.
“I checked the time maybe a half an hour ago,” I said, frowning.
“The thief must still be here,” Old Liu declared. “No-one has left since then.” He looked around the room and narrowed his eyes at one table. Standing up he wasn’t much taller than me, but authority filled every inch of him as he swaggered over, pointing his finger at one man in particular. I recognized the man. He was an oddball sort who had been hanging around various tables all evening, latching on to foreigners to practice his English, but who didn’t seem to actually know anyone in the room.
“You,” he said, pointing aggressively at the man. “Empty your pockets.”
The man, intimidated, backed up, and the people at his table dispersed, disavowing him immediately, as if to say ‘we’ve nothing to do with this guy.’ “I didn’t do anything,” the man protested.
“Like hell,” Old Liu said. “I’m calling the police — you’re a thief.”
I shook Jun, who had fallen asleep again. “Jun,” I said. “Wake up. My phone is missing and Old Liu is picking a fight with that weird loner from earlier.”
“Shenme shiqing? What’s going on?” He rubbed his eyes and sat up.
“Look,” I said. Old Liu now had the man in a hold and was marching him over to the bar, where the bartenders were darting their eyes back and forth at each other.
“Call the police,” Old Liu barked at them, and then to me, he added “Gen, come over here. I’ve got your phone thief.”
I pulled Jun up out of his chair and towards the bar with me. “Are you sure this is him?” I looked skeptically at Old Liu, who was holding the man’s arms behind his back. For his part, the man, a scrawny thing with thick glasses, shaggy hair, and an ill fitting blazer, looked terrified.
“I’m telling you, I didn’t take it,” he said.
“Where is the phone?” I asked, to no one in particular.
“He handed it off already,” Old Liu said, and spat on the floor. “But he’ll tell us where it is, don’t worry. The cops are on the way.”
“How do you know it is him?”
Old Liu fixed me with a frustrated look, and turned to Jun as if he could somehow explain this to me in a way I would understand. “This guy doesn’t know anyone, but he’s been hanging around all night long. If he’s not a thief, what the hell is he doing here?”
“I was just wanting to make some foreign friends,” the man’s voice rose an octave, in a panic. “I’m not a thief!”
“Shut up, thief,” said Old Liu. “Jun, want to give me a hand here?”
I don’t think Jun even heard Old Liu, as he was leaning heavily on my shoulder. “Tou hao yun,” he said. “My head is spinning. Can we get out of here?”
Old Liu sighed and rolled his eyes towards the heavens. “Unbelievable,” he said.
Luckily, or unluckily for the accused thief, the police appeared, and Old Liu explained the situation to them, while they wrote things in their little notepads. Jun slumped against me, barely awake.
“Gen, we need to go to the station and give them a statement,” Old Liu said.
“It’s fine,” I protested. “Really, I’ll get a new phone. It isn’t a big deal.”
Wrong answer. Old Liu glowered at me. “I caught your thief, now we have to make sure he is punished.”
“Look at him though,” I said, gesturing to Jun. “He’s barely conscious.”
“Put him in a taxi and send him home! He’s not your responsibility.”
“He’s my boyfriend,” I said, and Old Liu scoffed.
I narrowed my eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, nothing. Come on, we’ve got to go.”
Knowing I was beat, I shook Jun off of my shoulder once again. “We need to go to the police,” I said. “I’ll meet you back at home, ok?” I turned to Blake, who was still standing by, watching the entire scene play out, looking equal parts amused and alarmed. “Help me get him home,” I said. “You know where I live.”
“Of course Gen,” said Blake. “You go deal with this thief, your boy will be fine, I’ll tuck him in for you safe and sound.”
I frowned, not sure if Blake was mocking me or not, but too tired and annoyed with the entire situation to care. “Let’s go,” I said to Old Liu.
We followed the police around the corner, walking to the station, which was perhaps a block or two away, not far. This was one thing I loved about our city in those days. It was imminently walkable. We passed a late night barbecue stand, and my stomach grumbled at the smell of roast mutton. Maybe I’d get a few meat sticks on the way back, I thought.
When we arrived at the police station, the police had me fill out a report, which I only managed with the help of Old Liu filling in the characters I couldn’t remember. Then, one policeman, an older man, perhaps fifty, with greying hair and a potbelly, took Old Liu aside and said something to him quietly, gesturing down the hall, and then gesturing towards me. I couldn’t hear the details of their exchange, but it made me nervous nonetheless. Old Liu walked over and placed a hand on my shoulder. “We should interrogate the suspect now,” he said.
“We?” I said, confused. “You mean the police?”
“No, not the police. Me. You.”
“I don’t want to interrogate anyone,” I said, panicking now. “I don’t know how to do that.”
“We don’t interrogate with words, Gen,” he said. His manner was patient, but I felt the fool anyhow, unable to grasp this seemingly simple situation. He sighed. “I can do it, you watch.”
It dawned on me what Old Liu meant, and I shook my head. “I don’t want to watch.”
Old Liu nodded, as if my frailty in this regard was altogether expected, and he was simply waiting for the confirmation he needed. “Then you wait out here, I will do it.”
I didn’t answer him, not wanting to appear as if I condoned this turn of events. I felt, at once, deeply uncomfortably with what was likely taking place, and the gin I’d drank early churned in my stomach. I didn’t quite understand why Old Liu was so intent on punishing this maybe-thief, and I was even less clear as to why the police were allowing him to interrogate, as he put it, the man himself. I paced the hallway, wondering if perhaps I should just go home, when finally he emerged, knuckles clenched and reddened, and nodded at the police officer who stood at the doorway. “He’s yours now,” Old Liu said. “I’m done.”
“Is that it? Did he confess?” I tried to peer through the doorway, but the officer was blocking my view.
Old Liu shook his head. “Stubborn goat,” he said. “Ready?”
“Yes,” I said, eager to leave this place. The fluorescent lights were too bright, the walls too white, and I had a strong sense of wrongness, of being somewhere I was not meant to be, seeing things not meant for my eyes. With a nod to the police officers, Old Liu and I went out into the cool night air, leaving the thief behind us.
I passed by the barbecue stand again on the way back, but I turned away, now the opposite of hungry, and hurried down the street. At the corner, I bade Old Liu goodbye, and thanked him for his help.
“Yinggai de,” he said, and belatedly, I understood. He’d done his duty, shown me his loyalty. I was a friend, and for me, he would do what needed to be done. The thief himself was inconsequential.
When I returned to my apartment, I found Jun sprawled facedown on my bed, still in his clothes and shoes. I quietly untied the laces and pulled them off, and then, kicking my own shoes and jeans off, I curled up next to him. He stirred slightly beside me and turned around, pulling me tight into his arms. I buried my head in Jun’s chest, breathing in the cigarette smoke and whiskey scent of him, and tried to forget the frightened eyes of the thief.