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7

When Chan emerged from Central underground station that same evening in response to Tsuis summons, Typhoon Alan had meandered a hundred miles closer. The wind had freshened, and the meteorological office had issued a Typhoon Signal Number Three. Although it was now past eleven oclock in the evening, workmen were fitting vertical wooden slats to protect the plate glass windows of the shops all along Queens Road. Planters, portable advertising signs, anything unable to resist hundred-mile-an-hour gusts had already disappeared from the streets.

Chan walked up the slope under the Hong Kong Bank, crossed the street, took the stairs by the side of the branch post office to the officers mess, where Tsui liked to hold informal meetings. The commissioner was standing at the bar talking to the Chinese barman when Chan entered. After ordering a pint of lager for Chan, Tsui led the way to a small table far from the bar. He carried his own glass to which a cardboard beer mat had attached itself.

Quite an adventure you had today, Tsui said.

Chan twitched. Mind if I smoke? He lit a Benson & Hedges. Scared me.

Tsui watched Chan closely. You know, you have quite a reputation.

Me? What for?

Fanaticism. Is that what possessed you to go into Chinese waters today?

I wasnt checking our position. It could only have been a few yards. We needed that bag for the investigation.

Tsuis frown conflicted with the pride in his eyes. But you could have got yourself killed. You know what theyre like.

Chan swallowed the first inch of the lager, was about to put it back on the table, then gulped another inch. Look, you tell me to stop the investigation, Ill stop. Until then-I mean, Im not going to be the one to give in to them. The British can, you can, but I wont. Under the commissioners gaze he added reluctantly, Unless ordered, of course.

Of course obedience was a Confucian virtue. During the siege of Nanking, Chan had read, Japanese machine gunners had fired down narrow streets into charging Chinese soldiers until the roads were blocked with mountains of bodies like sandbags and some of the guns had melted. Any other race would have taken cover after the first casualties, but the Chinese kept coming. Why? Because they had been ordered to. It was this self-obliterating obedience the British would rely on when they turned six million free people over to the criminal regime in Beijing. Anywhere else the riots would have started long ago.

Tsui dropped the frown. He smiled. Chan wondered if the tiny diamonds in his eyes were the beginning of tears. You have my support-and my blessing. But please remember, we are a small tribe.

Chinese?

No-free Chinese. And Im afraid theres a compromise that has to be made. Chan swallowed more beer. If the case is allowed to go ahead, youll have to work more closely with Riley.

Chan used a Cantonese word. It was identical to the one Tsui had recently translated in his head. Tsui laughed.

When they left each other on Queens Road, Central was deserted. Chan walked aimlessly down the main street in a western direction. It was fear, not the time of night, that had cleared the city of people: The tropical storm had intensified, and there was a rumor that it would go up to eight during the night. Even though the wind was not yet at typhoon level, it pulled at Chans hair, and he leaned into it as he pressed on all alone with his thoughts. Arabs feared the sun, Russians the cold, Californians earthquakes; in Southeast Asia wind could become a ferocious beast stronger than buildings. He had read a contemporary Chinese poem in which wind was a billion invisible people in a stampede, smashing everything in their path. The poet had not needed to stress the point: In ancient mythology wind was a manifestation of the Dragon; the Dragon Throne had belonged to the emperor of China.

Tonight, though, Chan had a feeling that Alan had changed course, as typhoons often did, leaving him the freedom of the streets. He could not remember the last time he had experienced space to spare. It was an eerie sensation, as if the lights of the city had been left on exclusively for him. A chrome-plated pillar on Connaught Road curved the light streaming from an empty Pekinese restaurant; in the bright pillar five hundred fragmented and windblown Chans populated a town full of lurid lights, small restaurant tables and the illuminated Chinese character for Beijing, repeated to infinity.


| The Last Six Million Seconds | c