The southwest furthers.
The northeast does not further.
It furthers one to see the great man.
Perseverance brings good fortune. - I Ching, hexagram 39
Every policeman in Central Headquarters had avoided the Chief Inspector yesterday; he had arrived at work in a nastier mood than usual, collected a number of files and then left on a trip to the capital to meet with the Commissioner of Police. And though he had abominably maltreated everyone who had the misfortune to cross his path, nobody really blamed him because they knew the reason for that meeting. And now, as the Chief Inspector waited to be called in to his superior’s office, he was fervently wishing that he could be almost anyplace but here.
Fortunately, he did not have long to wait; he was admitted to the beautifully-appointed office he had last seen just after his promotion five years ago and bowed deeply. The Commissioner acknowledged him with a perfunctory nod, gestured toward a chair in front of his desk, and began speaking as soon as he was seated.
“As I told you in our communication yesterday, I have observed a most strange anomaly in the figures for prostitution arrests in your city,” he began, pointing at a computer screen to his left. “You assured me that you could explain, but that it would be better for you to do so in person. Accordingly, I have made time for you in my busy schedule. Please proceed.”
The Commissioner always spoke that way. He was a former Professor of Criminology, renowned for his erudition and problem-solving ability, and had been rewarded for years of distinguished service with this choice political appointment. So although he was not a large man, he could be extremely intimidating, especially to a lower official with an apparently-insurmountable problem. “Yes, sir. Well, sir, I’m afraid I must begin by telling you that the situation is actually worse than the official figures make it appear.”
“Oh?” he asked, with the barest trace of annoyance. “Considering that your city has the largest red-light district in the entire country, yet for the past several years has had the lowest number of prostitution arrests by a considerable margin, I am at a loss to understand how it could be worse.”
He swallowed hard. “Well, sir, those arrest figures have actually been, ah, inflated somewhat. They’re not even as high as reported.”
“And how many have there been, actually?” That last word was as menacing as a gun-barrel.
“Um, well, it’s been dropping for a long time, and in the past six months there have been very few, but then this month we reached an all-time low of, ah, none.”
“Considering that your performance of your duties has been exemplary in every other way, I am absolutely certain you have some credible explanation for your pronounced deficiency in this particular area. As you well know, our foreign aid from the Americans requires the production of sufficient human trafficking arrests to satisfy their moral crusade.”
“Yes, sir, I’m aware of that, and when I first took over the post from my predecessor I noticed the numbers were quite low and resolved to correct the situation. So I increased the number of raids, and instituted harsh discipline against any man caught taking bribes from the madams. Yet still, the numbers kept shrinking, for no discernible reason.”
“What do you mean, ‘no discernible reason’? Surely all the prostitutes didn’t mysteriously vanish?”
“But that’s just it, sir; it was as though they had. Whenever I sent a squad out to raid a brothel, they found it locked and shuttered. When officers were dispatched to a bar, they found only men drinking. When they went to bring in street women, they found all the usual areas deserted. Even when informants told us of activity taking place, it was not so by the time we arrived. It was as though someone was warning them that we were on the way.”
“Obviously, the pimps and madams have a confederate inside your office.”
“That was what I thought at first, sir, so I tried not announcing the raids; I would just suddenly come in, order a group of men to follow me, and take them to the red light district myself. I found the same thing that had been reported to me: locked doors and deserted streets. I assumed that it was a trick, and that there was some secret way of gaining admittance; so we started breaking down doors, only to find the buildings empty. Yet my informants told me they were doing a thriving trade again the next day, all doors and windows open.”
The Commissioner no longer appeared angry; now he was the professor again, considering the complexities of an abstruse problem. “What did you do next?”
“I reshuffled the entire department, bringing new staff into my office and reassigning the entire vice squad. Then I took officers from other divisions on the raids, to no avail; the numbers continued to drop. Every arrest we have had in the past year was obtained by officers bringing in known prostitutes who were buying groceries, eating in restaurants or riding in public conveyances, or else beggars we charged with prostitution to hide our disgrace.”
“Do you have any theory at all to explain this strange phenomenon?”
“Yes, sir, but I was afraid to tell you lest you think me mad.”
Now the Commissioner was intrigued. “Do go on.”
“Well, sir, I asked the same question of all my senior officers; I even promised a promotion to the one who could explain it. Finally a group of them came to me one afternoon, and told me that they knew exactly what was responsible.”
He hesitated for so long the Commissioner finally spurred him on with, “Yes…?”
“It’s because of, um, a spirit.”
“Do you actually expect me to believe that the ghost of some dead prostitute is going around warning her colleagues about our raids in time for them to flee?”
“Well, not exactly, sir. I mean, yes and no. We don’t think she’s that kind of spirit.” This time the Commissioner did not prod him, so he swallowed and went on. “You see, sir, I was so desperate by this point that I was willing to try anything, so I brought in a priest to perform an exorcism.”
“A novel solution to a novel problem, but clearly it failed.”
“I’m afraid so, sir. The priest went to the red-light district, and talked to the prostitutes, and performed some sort of spiritual investigation, including research in many books. And then he came to me and said, ‘I cannot help you; this is not a restless spirit reluctant to be reborn, but rather the guardian spirit of the area. As such, it would be wrong for me to attempt to drive it out even if I could.’ I know this priest, sir; he is a wise and holy man, and I trust his judgment on this matter.”
The Commissioner thought for a moment. “This district has been associated with the flesh trade for centuries, yet nobody has ever seen this spirit before.”
“Well, sir, that’s not exactly true. Part of the priest’s research was historical, and he showed me records telling that though the spirit has never appeared during a time when prostitution was tolerated, it has often been seen during periods of intolerance. In fact, the priest warned me that the manifestations would become more powerful, and more dangerous to my men, should we persist in harassing the women and their business.”
The Commissioner grew quiet. He turned in his chair to look out at the rain; then he rose and paced back and forth for a few minutes. Several times he looked as though he were about to ask a question, then thought better of it. After a while he sat down and worked on his computer, intently examining the data displayed on the screen. Then he turned sideways in the chair again, fixing his eyes on one of the awards on his wall, and sat quietly for a time. The Chief Inspector did nothing to disturb him; he merely prayed silently, grateful he had not been fired on the spot.
Finally, the Commissioner spoke. “We will turn this to our advantage. First, you will announce that the human traffickers have grown so dangerous, you can no longer allow representatives of NGOs to go into the red-light district unless accompanied by a police officer; if this spirit warns the prostitutes of our approach, that will allow us to later demonstrate to the Americans that we have ‘cleaned up’ the district, since there will never be any prostitutes about when they go to look.”
“A brilliant idea, sir! But, won’t they want to see the women we’ve ‘rescued’?”
“I was coming to that. I will announce – completely unrelated to your announcement, of course – that we are expanding opportunities for women in the police force, and will begin actively recruiting them immediately. This will also please the Americans, who will no doubt provide some grant to help us train them. We will then disguise the new policewomen as prostitutes, send them out to the district, pretend to arrest them, and send them to a new ‘rehabilitation center’; we will keep NGO members away from the center due to ‘concern for the women’s privacy’ so they can’t discover that it is a false front. Then we send the same women out again to be ‘arrested’ again, until we can credibly claim to have ‘rescued’ a large fraction of them. The Americans will be happy; our government will collect more money; you will be lauded as a champion against trafficking; the prostitutes will be free to work in peace; the men will be able to hire them without fear of exposure; and the spirit will be placated.”
“Magnificent! What a plan!” the Inspector cried, rising spontaneously to his feet. “I am a fool for not having brought this problem to you sooner.”
“Nonsense. You are a practical man, trained to deal with mortal criminals; it would be unreasonable of me to blame you for fearing my reaction.”
The Chief Inspector, now smiling like a child with a new toy, bowed excitedly, thanked the Commissioner again, gathered up his documents and set forth to implement the new plan, relieved of the burden under which he had struggled for so long. And once he had gone, the Commissioner silently thanked the Buddha for a most interesting mental exercise and asked his secretary to bring him a pot of tea.
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