day 25: "escape"
Zetian’s phone rang twelve minutes past three, when she was in the middle of an argument with Qieluo about the safecracker.
“—need to find someone else, this man destroyed our evidence,” Zetian said as she pulled her phone out of her pocket.
“You find a new safecracker,” Qieluo snapped back. She was standing back with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face, side-by-side with Zetian as they watched the techs try to clean up what was left of the safety deposit box that, until about three minutes ago, contained the only confirmed evidence they’d managed to hunt down of a currency forging ring doing business across half the country. There was a bit of plaster dust still in her hair, and more clinging to her jacket, across one shoulder and the arm she had thrown up to shield her face. Zetian gave her a narrow look, raising her phone to her ear, and Qieluo made a sarcastic gesture, as if bowing to a queen.
“Agent Wu,” Zetian said, keeping her voice calm as she flipped Qieluo off.
“Agent Wu, we have a problem,” said her boss. Qin Zheng was the kind of man who had looked about thirty-five when Zetian met him, right after she started ten years ago and shortly before he was promoted, and who looked almost identical now, except for the scarring that marred half his face. There was an ongoing quest in the office to find even one piece of photographic proof that he had ever been a child, and hadn’t come into existence as a handsome man with dark hair and an unlined face.
Even by Qin Zheng’s standards of competence, three minutes was a bit quick for him to know that something had gone wrong. So, instead of plunging directly into the details of the situation with the bank vault, Zetian flicked a glance at Qieluo and asked warily, “Sir?”
“Li Shimin escaped,” Qin Zheng said crisply, with no trace of hesitation. “You’re being pulled from your current case until he’s found.”
Zetian stared blankly at the open vault and fumbled around for something to say for several minutes before she settled on, “…shit.”
“Currently the prison staff are attempting to find any evidence of how he broke out of a maximum security prison,” Qin Zheng went on, with an admirable lack of response to Zetian’s sudden failure of professional reserve. “We’re moving to place the usual roadblocks and surveillance at public transit stops, but…” There was an eloquent pause, and Zetian could picture the shrug, as if to say you know how it is.
Zetian did, in fact, know how it was.
“But you’re not going to catch Li Shimin with roadblocks and wanted posters, so you want me to get involved,” she finished for him. Above her and to the right, Qieluo made an inarticulate noise of shock and outrage, and Zetian glanced up at her again, this time in commiseration. With Zetian pulled off their current case to hunt down a man who, by all rights, wasn’t even a problem for the white collar unit, Qieluo would inherit this entire debacle—complete with vault full of debris.
Fighting with Qieluo was almost a hobby, at this point, but Zetian knew that she could count on the other woman to close ranks when she was needed—and Zetian had needed her, the first time she was chasing down Li Shimin. Taking over one case was nothing in comparison. Qieluo would take up the slack without letting anything fall through the cracks, but it felt cruel to drop it on her while the dust was still settling, literally.
“The theory seems to be that, since you caught him once, you can catch him again,” Qin Zheng said. “The prison’s expecting you.”
“I’m leaving now, sir.”
Zetian hung up, and looked over to Qieluo, ready to apologize. To her surprise, though, Qieluo didn’t look frustrated—she looked uneasy, brows drawn sharply together and lips pressed thin.
“Li Shimin escaped?” Qieluo demanded, and then blew past Zetian’s attempt to answer, almost leaning over Zetian with the force of her concern. “Are you going to be all right? Do you need me to send some of them with you?” She jerked her head at the younger agents, who had stood well back from Qieluo and Zetian’s regularly scheduled argument.
“I’ll be fine,” Zetian said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “I don’t need a bodyguard. Help yourself to the files at my desk, you’ll probably get back to the office before I do. And I only need one of the babies, someone who doesn’t mind playing driver for a while.”
Qieluo didn’t look happy about it, but summoned a young man with one of her best imperious gestures and informed him that he was being promoted to Agent Wu’s personal taxi. Zetian heard his name and discarded it almost immediately as she took his phone with quick fingers and pulled up the address of the prison.
“There,” she said, handing the phone back. He reached for the back of her wheelchair, and Zetian stopped him cold with a raised eyebrow.
“That’s Agent Wu,” Zetian corrected, spinning in place and starting toward the door. “Come on, we’re leaving.”
Her new Qieluo-assigned driver jumped at every instruction as if Zetian were liable to set him on fire the moment he was less than satisfactory, and hovered nervously at the door of the car as if she might suddenly swoon in the process of stepping out of her wheelchair and into the seat. She was relieved to discover that he was, apparently, too appalled with himself for being caught trying to manhandle her chair to attempt small talk on the drive, giving her an uninterrupted thirty-eight minutes to sit in silence and think.
The thing was, she had no idea why Li Shimin would run. In theory, yes, a life sentence might be something people ran from. Li Shimin was likely to die in prison, even though he had escaped a death sentence. But he had been in prison for five years, and there had been no reports of any real problems that reached Zetian. He had stared at his hands and said nothing during his sentencing hearing, had kept his mouth firmly shut when the prosecution tried to tempt him with a decreased sentence in return for discussion of his co-conspirators, for any discussion of the short but blazing career of theft, forgeries, and cons that followed his disappearance. He had been silent except to plead guilty to the only crimes they could actually prove he had committed.
Li Shimin was one of the most prolific con artists that Zetian had encountered in her career, and yet she and her department couldn’t prove a single thing. They couldn’t prove that he had forged so much as a postage stamp. They couldn’t prove that he had stolen art or antiquities or money. They couldn’t prove that he’d ever even touched a fake document, let alone used them.
No, the only crimes they could prove he had ever committed were the only crimes he never repeated.
When he was sixteen years old, two years before the start of Li Shimin’s real criminal career, his brothers and father were all found murdered in their house. There was enough evidence there that the greenest novice could have gotten him convicted and still been home before lunch. Except, of course, that Li Shimin himself hadn’t been there. He hadn’t been there, and it had taken eight years for someone to catch him.
Everyone knew that the prosecution had only been willing to offer a plea deal because they were hoping to wring more information out of him, regarding everything that hadn’t made it onto the list of charges.
Zetian sometimes wondered what made a person who was capable of a triple homicide at sixteen turn into a thief whose marks liked to call him shy. She’d met Li Shimin a number of times before they figured out who he actually was, and her primary takeaway had always been that he was extremely tall, very strong, and probably less harmless than he liked to portray himself. Truth be told, she had been vindicated by the revelation of the murders.
But Zetian still had to grant that, even when she had showed up to arrest him, unsteady on her feet because she couldn’t get her wheelchair into his safehouse, Li Shimin had been…quiet. He hadn’t fought her.
Something about that didn’t strike her as being the type to break out of prison and go on the run.
Zetian was still absorbed in her thoughts when they pulled up in front of the prison. She waved away the nervous hand of her driver, and told him to leave the wheelchair where it was—she’d been here before, and it was just going to frustrate her to navigate her way into the security office in her chair. Everyone would just have to deal with walking slowly enough for her, for an hour or two.
By the time Zetian wobbled into a chair at the main security desk, catching herself expertly on the table as she sat down, she already had questions in mind.
“So,” she said briskly to the room of blank faces. There were few advantages to her condition, but it did throw people markedly off-balance, watching the agent they expected to look like the star of an action movie stagger along with a cane in hand. It meant that she almost always had long seconds of silence after she entered a new room, and Zetian had perfected the art of using that time to take command of a situation. “You all lost a murderer. That looks very bad for you. I am here to help you fix that failure. I need a list of everyone who ever visited Li Shimin in prison. I know that might take a while, but I’m happy to look at the security footage you’ve managed to isolate while we wait.”
Shimin wasn’t surprised when Wu Zetian found him. He hadn’t really been hiding, to tell the truth.
She walked out alone to the grave, without any of the reinforcements he could see tucked away into the treeline, tottering in that way he’d finally managed to stop flinching at, every time she lifted her cane and looked dangerously like she was about to topple over. She took her time about it, walking slowly, watching her feet so that she didn’t turn an ankle on the grass. He sat there on the grass, his stolen suit pants growing damp and his shoulder leaning against the headstone, and didn’t try to run.
He really wished he had something to drink. But there hadn’t been time before the funeral, and—
And Wende had always hated it when he drank. She had raged in whispers against An Lushan, and had always said that the only good thing about Shimin’s arrest was that prison had forced him to detox, one way or another.
Shimin’s gaze tracked Wu Zetian as if without his permission, following her slow progress toward him, the neat way she turned to avoid the edge of the freshly laid sod, the unconscious shift of her weight onto her cane as she stopped in front of him.
“Agent Wu,” he said quietly. “Long time.”
Wu Zetian tipped her head, pointing with her chin toward the headstone. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks.” Shimin sighed, tipped his own head until it met the stone, looking up at her. Like this, her standing straight and him sitting slumped on the ground, she actually had a decent amount of height on him, but she still looked so—small. Not like Wende, who had always looked fragile, but compact. Wu Zetian was a woman who kept everything she was strapped down tight, and she radiated the sense that the slightest eruption might take out a city block. “I, um. Expected you to catch me sooner.”
“Yeah…yeah.” Wu Zetian let out a long breath and then lowered herself, in a practiced motion, to the ground, so that she was kneeling in front of him. She didn’t seem bothered that her crisp pantsuit was getting damp with muddy water, just sitting back on her heels and resting her cane across her thighs. “It—let’s just say it took longer to round up people willing to come collect you than I anticipated.”
Shimin tried to muster a smile at that. He was a career criminal, a con artist. He should be able to smile at her. From the steady, strangely sad way she watched him, he didn’t think he’d managed it. “That was, uh, nice of you, Agent Wu.”
“Yeah,” Wu Zetian mumbled again. “You know—I never knew about her. Wende.”
Shimin closed his eyes. “Mn. I’m a…really good liar.”
“I know.” Wu Zetian sounded faintly amused by that, but mostly just…tired. She sounded so tired. Shimin was so tired, weighed down by the feeling of hopelessness at the center of his chest. His hands ached. It was supposed to rain later, and the scars and old breaks always hurt when the air grew heavy like this.
He wanted something to feel normal, to feel okay, for just a moment, and so Shimin stirred himself to open his eyes and sit up straight again.
The smile that twisted over Wu Zetian’s lips looked sad, maybe even a little sorry, but she didn’t call him out on it. “He’s really good,” she said. “We got a cat, he loves that thing. If you were any other criminal, I would think you asking about my husband was some kind of threat, you know.”
“Mm,” Shimin hummed. “You like the cat?”
“She knows that jiejie is the one with her best interests at heart,” Wu Zetian said. “Yizhi is too soft with her, always gives in and slips her scraps. She likes me better, though.”
“Yeah,” Wu Zetian agreed, her smile growing, helpless. He had always been charmed by the way she and her husband smiled for each other, even though he’d never met Yizhi in person. Wu Zetian kept a picture of them in her wallet, and he’d spent so long looking at it, the first time he picked her pocket, that she almost arrested them then and there. Their honest delight with each other was just so—captivating, so obvious that he could read it even in an old photograph. He wished—
“They’re going to, um, get annoyed.” Shimin made a small gesture toward the reinforcements he probably wasn’t supposed to have noticed. Wu Zetian didn’t look surprised—her smile just faded into a professional mask as she nodded.
“They are. Are you planning to run off again?”
Wu Zetian nodded, and Shimin pushed himself up from the ground. She took a moment to plant her cane, clearly planning to stand up, and he took a half-step forward, automatic.
“Do you—want a hand?”
She gave him a skeptical look, up through her lashes, and then jerked her chin down, once, in an aborted nod. Her face was set and stiff, but when Shimin extended a hand, she took it in hers, and he pulled her easily up, setting her gently on her feet with her cane in place. She wasn’t as light as Wende, the last time he had been able to hug her, but then—but then Wende had been dying for a long time, before it finally caught up with her.
Something glimmered on Wu Zetian’s shoulder and Shimin reached out, thoughtlessly. She tensed, a little, but didn’t flinch from him as he plucked a shimmering thread off her shoulder.
“Sorry,” he murmured, holding it out on a palm to show her what it was.
“Ah, get rid of it,” she huffed, waving him away with her free hand. “We all got covered with them earlier today and no one can figure out what the hell they are. I only spent five minutes looking at them and I already hate them.”
“Oh.” Shimin stared at the fiber in his palm for a moment, then looked up at her. “You…want to know what it is?”
Wu Zetian stared at him unapologetically this time, lips parted. “Do you know what it is?”
“Sure,” Shimin said, shrugging. “It’s a security fiber. Used in high dollar paper currency. This one looks—” he took a moment to be sure, tilting his hand back and forth in the overcast light “—American, maybe.” Wu Zetian held her hand out, face still astonished, and he set the fiber in her palm without hesitating.
Wu Zetian looked at the fiber for a long moment, and then looked back up at Shimin with a calculating look in her dark eyes. He found it inexplicably concerning.
“Come on,” she said, abruptly closing her fist around the fiber and stuffing it into her suit pocket. Her hand came out with a pair of handcuffs. “We’ve got about thirty seconds before they bring out the cavalry.”
Shimin nodded mutely and let her cuff his hands behind his back, and then Wu Zetian’s reinforcements came down on them like a hammer.