The German, as Nathan referred to Hans because of how he played into the stereotypes of the country, sat on the sidewalk, a yellowed, thirty-year old German newspaper fully open in front of him, a bottle of local Chinese beer warming by his foot. Only the tuft of white hair above and the bent knees below were visible to passersby.
Since the rabies fiasco had begun, Nathan had broken from his morning ritual of meeting the German for a bottle of green tea to end his morning bike ride around the third ring road.
But his progress was stalling and he’d run out of leads. Thus, Nathan found himself back in front of a tiny one-room shop, The Beijing Golden Fortune, hoping unconsciously that his reunion with routine and sharing the case with his friend would jump-start some new strategies.
Without interrupting Hans from reading his paper, Nathan Troy ducked inside the small shop, grabbed a cold green tea from the cooler, and waved it toward the middle-aged woman who owned the shop. Xiao Tian smiled and nodded from behind the counter and made a small note on a pad of paper, deducting it from the 100 kuai Nathan had paid onto a tab for just such a purpose. These small relationships were what made him feel connected with the city. He ducked out again and crossed the sidewalk to the small folding stool Xiao Tian had left out. He and the German comprised her two most faithful morning customers, and knowing she had still set his stool out, even though he hadn’t been very devoted as of late, made him feel at home again.
When Nathan sat down, the German lowered his paper just enough to see over the top.
“I thought perhaps you’d been deported,” he said, no irony in his voice. It had taken a while for Nathan to realize that the absence of a smile didn’t always mean the older man wasn’t joking.
“I’ve been working on something,” he said, answering a question the German hadn’t posed. He unscrewed the top of his green tea and took a sip. He wasn’t in the mood for tea, but he needed something, even as banal as a bottle of tea, to occupy his hands. Unscrew the cap, drink, return the cap to the bottle, twirl the bottle absently. These small actions created a tangible outlet for the frustration of a mental block.
The German folded his paper in half, and half again. He laid it on one leg and ran a hand over his white moustache, smoothing the whiskers down to the tips of their curls.
“I see,” he said, purposefully not leading with a question about what could have broken Nathan’s otherwise strict routine. The German frequented the shop on a daily basis every summer while visiting his son’s family. Between the articles in his vintage Frankfurter Allgemeine papers, he and Nathan had gotten to chatting here and there, as expatriates do when they bump into each other in the less common corners of the expat-world. In time, Nathan had started to use the German as a test audience for some of the articles he wrote. He would share the opinions he was preparing to turn into print, and the two of them would have a lively morning debate, the German always playing dissenter for the sake of a good argument. Nathan almost always came away with either a stronger conviction or changed opinion, both helpful to his work. During the weeks the German was there in the summer, Nathan made a point to pass by Xiao Tian’s on his ride, even if he didn’t always have an argument that needed hammering out. The German’s camaraderie had proven to be a valuable asset for Nathan when the wisdom of age and a memory for historical occurrences could be used to keep current events in perspective.
That is, until the last several days, during which time the German had seen neither hide nor hair of the American. But it wasn’t his way to inquire into Nathan’s, or anyone’s, personal life, despite their friendship. If there was something Nathan wanted to share with Hans, he had better just share it. Otherwise, the German would assume it wasn’t his business. When Nathan questioned him about it once, Hans had replied that the American custom of asking about whatever struck one’s interest, be it private, personal or public knowledge, still took him by surprise.
“I got caught up in something—” Nathan said, trailing off again, wanting to explain where he’d been, but unsure of how to start. He felt childish, sitting on the toddler-sized stool, knees pointing to the sky. He twisted the bottle in his hands as if the action could help him unlock the answer to his current quandary.
“Oh?” was all Hans offered.
Nathan let out a heavy breath and shrugged his shoulders.
“What has caught you up?” Hans asked, shifting his weight on the stool with the awkwardness of a question.
Nathan set the bottle of tea on the sidewalk next to his foot, exhaled, then launched into a tale of suspicious doctors, mad patients, a virus that didn’t look as it should, and a beautiful French woman. He didn’t dwell on the female lead, but the German had read enough mystery novels to realize she played a not insignificant role in Nathan’s current state of frustration.
As he spoke, it occurred to Nathan that he had underestimated the hole Helene had left when she’d disappeared from the city. Not just because she had rattled his emotions, or because she had destabilized the balance he’d struck in his emotional distant and transitory expat life. Nathan realized that when she was around, he had been only the sounding board for all of her swirling questions. It had been her project. Now that she had left, he was the de facto lead on an investigation that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Until this moment, in laying out recent events to the German, he had not internalized how much Helene had shouldered the burden of responsibility.
The German was quiet while Nathan told his tale. When he finished, Nathan too, lapsed into silence. He stared blankly out into the street, not seeing the morning traffic, remembering instead the taxi ride from the Temple of Heaven, sitting next to Helene, the tension in the air thicker than the worst Beijing pollution. He’d noticed every movement, every word she’d spoken, his senses on hyperalert.
“She said she can’t be in contact with me while the case is still open in Geneva,” Nathan said to the street. His throat tightened as he relived that last taxi ride. You’ll be on your own, she had reiterated, as if he hadn’t understood. I’m sure the Chinese will want the case closed within a couple of weeks, but— her voice had trailed off. I have no idea how long it will actually be. I don’t know when I can contact you again.
I know, was all he could whisper, his eyes locked straight ahead, watching the tail lights of the car in front of them.
He brought his attention back to the German, and realized uncomfortably that the older man had been studying him, as if able to see the images that had just run through his head.
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