9780312204785 / 0312204787

The Skull Mantra (Inspector Shan Tao Yun)


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Publisher:St. Martin's Minotaur, 1999



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ISBN: 0312204787 TITLE: Skull Mantra AUTHOR: Pattison, EliotEXCERPT: OneThey called it taking four. The tall, gaunt monk hovered at the lip of the five-hundred-foot cliff, nothing restraining him but the raw Himalayan wind. Shan Tao Yun squinted at the figure to see better. His heart clenched. It was Trinle who was going to jump--Trinle, his friend, who just that morning had whispered a blessing on Shan`s feet so they would not trample insects.Shan dropped his wheelbarrow and ran.As Trinle leaned outward, the updraft pushed back, ripping away his khata, the makeshift prayer scarf he secretly wore around his neck. Shan weaved around men swinging sledgehammers and pickaxes, then stumbled in the gravel. Behind him a whistle blew, followed by an angry shout. The wind played with the dirty scrap of white silk, dangling it above Trinle`s reach, then slowly twisting it skyward. As it rose, the prisoners watched the khata, not in surprise but in reverence. Everyaction had a meaning, they knew, and the subtle, unexpected acts of nature often had the most meaning.The guards shouted again. But not a man returned to his work. It was a moment of abject beauty, the white cloth dancing in the cobalt sky, two hundred haggard faces looking upward in hope of revelation, ignoring the punishment that would surely come for even a minute`s lost time. It was the kind of moment Shan had learned to expect in Tibet.But Trinle, hanging at the edge, looked downward again with a calm, expectant gaze. Shan had seen others take four, all with the same anticipation on their faces. It always happened like this, abruptly, as if they were suddenly compelled by a voice no one else could hear. Suicide was a grave sin, certain to bring reincarnation as a lower life form. But opting for life on four legs could be a tempting alternative to life on two in a Chinese hard labor brigade.Shan scrambled forward and grabbed Trinle`s arm just as he bent over the rim. Instantly Shan realized he had mistaken Trinle`s actions. The monk was studying something. Six feet below, on a ledge barely wide enough to accommodate a swallow`s nest, lay a glittering gold object. A cigarette lighter.A murmur of excitement pulsed through the prisoners. The khata had scudded back over the ridge and was plummeting to the slope fifty feet in front of the road crew.The guards were among them now, cursing, reaching for their batons. As Trinle moved back from the edge, now watching the prayer cloth, Shan turned back to his upset wheelbarrow. Sergeant Feng, slow and grizzled but ever alert, stood beside the spilled rocks, writing in his tally book. Building roads was in the service of socialism. Abandoning one`s work was one more sin against the people.But as he plodded back to accept Feng`s wrath, a cry rang out from the slope above. Two prisoners had gone for the khata. They had reached the pile of rocks where it had landed but were on their knees now, backing away, chanting feverishly. Their mantra hit the prisoners below like a gust of wind. Each man dropped to his knees the instant he heard it, taking up the chant in succession until the entire brigade, all the way to the trucks at the bridge below, was chanting. Only Shan and four others, the sole Han Chinese prisoners in the brigade, remained standing.Feng roared in anger and shot forward, blowing his whistle. At first Shan was confused by the chant, for there had been no suicide. But the words were unmistakable. It was the invocation of Bardo, the opening recitation for the ceremonies of death.A soldier wearing four pockets on his jacket, the most common insignia of rank in the People`s Liberation Army, trotted uphill. Lieutenant Chang, the officer of the guard, spoke into Feng`s ear, and the sergeant shouted for the Han prisoners to clear the stack of rocks discovered by the Tibetans. Shan stumbled forward to where the khata lay and knelt beside Jilin, the slow, powerful Manchurian known only by the name of his province. As Shan stuffed

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