They called her Polly because they had found her in a polythene bag. Her two Chinese companions Aston named Jekyll and Hyde: English humor.
The forensic artist, Angie, healed all wounds. With an airbrush she blew new life into Polly and restored her youth. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, not much over thirty anyway. Green eyes with generous lids smiled above high cheekbones, bouncing hair parted in the middle over a noble brow. Her new nose was fine and Anglo-American; it pointed to the sky. From her cheeks Angie released postmortem swelling; with a pencil she cured the bruises over her temples. She placed small pearls in holes in her brand-new ears. She took special care over Polly’s new lips: thin with a knowing curve.
Aston fell in love with her. Chan stared at her in preference to Jekyll and Hyde. Who was she? He propped up the posthumous portrait with those of her two companions on the left side of his desk, in front of the photograph of a very young Eurasian constable receiving an award for bravery from the then Governor Sir Murray Maclehose.
A black industrial-quality government telephone dominated the other side of the desk. Nothing had changed in police offices during the past twenty years. There were the same metal shelves, gray filing cabinets, buff-colored cardboard files, crumpled law manuals, a small metal wardrobe where Chan had kept the same white shirt and tie for ten years. Forensic science had made giant strides, but the only effect technology had had on Chan’s personal environment was the typewriter; it had disappeared. Nobody trusted cops with word processors, which were jealously guarded by the typing pool. The old black Smith Coronas that had faithfully recorded the worst of human nature for seventy years had been thrown on the scrap heap, and with them had disappeared the lightning two-finger stab that police officers had shared with newspaper reporters. Another hard-won skill superannuated in this breathless century, Chan thought, like Himalayan trance jogging and platonic love.
The typewriter had been replaced by a Sony Dictaphone. One look at the tiny plastic grille froze his thoughts like stage fright. Sometimes Chan couldn’t believe how Chinese he was. When the wheel was invented, the guy who said it wouldn’t catch on was surely named Wong, Kan-or Chan.
The artist’s impressions of the three victims had arrived that morning. Every twenty minutes or so Aston found an excuse to walk around behind Chan’s desk and stare at Polly. The exercise was accompanied by a pursing of the lips and an inward hiss at a frequency where anguish and lechery meet.
“What a waste!” Aston said on his fourth visit.
Chan sighed and looked up from the file. “In old China to fall in love with the dead was considered one of the worst fates. Ghosts can sap your strength, Dick. Be careful.”
Aston grunted mournfully. “No safe sex even with the dead.”
Chan leaned back in his chair. “Didn’t you get laid last night? I’ve noticed that stressful cases seem to activate your gigantic allocation of hormones.”
“D’you blame me? On a case like this you need all the R and R you can get.”
“As long as the lay was not procured by waving around your police identity card?”
Aston’s features flattened. “Course not, Chief. I know how you feel about that sort of thing.”
“Me and the commissioner of police. Just a sniff, the slightest suspicion, and you’re on the plane back to Romford, Essex. I’m not getting heavy, just advising; it’s part of my supervisory duty.”
“Back to Romford?” Aston feigned unendurable distress. “I’d rather cut it off.”
Chan nodded gravely. “Your preference for castration rather than repatriation is noted. By the way, what’s so terrible about Romford, Essex?”
“Nothing… until you’ve been somewhere else. Even Luton. When you’ve been here… I tell you, honest, I’d give ten years of my life to stay on here.”
“On this filthy, polluted, Chink-infested, superficial, crass, materialistic, overheated rock?”
“You know why? Life! The place is buzzing with it, night and day. It’s crawling with it, bursting. People flying all over the place earning a crust, nobody has time to sit around moaning. England’s on Valium, America’s on Prozac, here people still act human. There’s youth, ambition, drive. Eighty percent of the population is under thirty.”
“So it has nothing to do with the women?”
Aston passed a hand through his hair. “Now I didn’t say that, did I? I explicitly didn’t say, ‘Nothing to do with the women.’ ”
Chan watched the young man’s eyes stray once more to the sketch of Polly.
“I think I understand. Would you mind taking your erection back to your own desk now, before you have an accident?”
At his desk opposite Chan’s Aston checked through The Murder Investigator’s Bible, an American publication that Chan refused to touch. He had Aston refer to it on his behalf.
“DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid,” Aston explained.
Chan didn’t ask what RFLP stood for, or even PCR. It was enough to know that PCR was the short DNA test; you got the results in a day. RFLP took much longer but was more reliable. A detective was put to an election between the two only when he had a shortage of specimens. Chan had a whole vat full, a vat and three heads. Already he had the PCR results and doubted that the RFLP would produce any surprises.
The PCR test had been positive for all three. That is to say, the unique double helix that God stamped like an engine number on the nucleus of every human cell matched. Matched what? Three different double helixes had been identified in the mess in the vat, and each of these was replicated by DNA found in the hair follicles of one or other of the heads. Polly, Jekyll and Hyde were the mess in the vat.
Aston faxed all the foreign consulates in Hong Kong with all three faces, emphasizing Polly because she was probably from overseas. For the American and West European consulates he added a special request to check for missing persons thought to have disappeared on vacation in the Far East. He checked available missing persons lists for Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Taipei and Bangkok, the four closest cities most popular with foreigners.
Chan read the odontological report and understood little. He lit a cigarette and dumped the paper on Aston’s desk. “You did the course recently; what does he mean, ‘Her upper sixteen has amalgam missing’? Which is the upper sixteen?”
Aston read aloud. “ ‘First bicuspid lower 28, crown missing. Central incisors 9, 24, 25, 8, all broken. Also lateral incisors 10, 23, 26 and 7.’ Also what? Broken? Those bastards punched her in the mouth?” Alert now, Aston stared at Chan.
Chan held out his hands, caught the report, turned the pages. “Same for the others. Look. They all got punched in the mouth?”
With Aston standing by his shoulder he flicked through the report, studied the front and back pages. He looked up at Aston.
“No idiot’s summary.” He sighed. “It’ll mean going over to Arsenal Street.”
Aston grunted and with the capriciousness of youth lost interest. From Chan’s desk his attention was drawn to the large diagram on the wall between the desks.
Chan followed Aston’s gaze. The title of the diagram read “Hierarchical Organization of a Typical Triad Society.” Underneath someone had scrawled, “What do fireworks, foot-binding, noodles and organized crime have in common? Answer: They were all invented in China.”
Chan had no idea where the diagram had come from. It had appeared one day years ago, and he’d never bothered to take it down. It was the shape of an emperor in a traditional gown. The emperor’s toes were the foot soldiers, or sze kau, who were referred to as 49’s. The value of the numbers rose with status so that a general, known as a red pole, was a 426. Still-higher status attracted higher numbers until the emperor’s head was reached.
Aston asked: “Is it true that organized crime started in China?”
“Don’t you know?”
Usually English recruits came equipped with detailed knowledge of triads: the rebellion of the black monks of the Shao Lin Monastery, the ancient triad city of Muk Yeung Shing and all the medieval paraphernalia of bloodstained white robes and the initiation ceremony that went on for days. Half the gweilo detectives who had passed through his hands planned to write novels featuring the triads and the drug trade.
“Well, I know about the rebellion of the monks at the Shao Lin Monastery, the Five Tiger Generals-all that.”
“Of course you do. Have you started your novel yet?”
Chan leaned back in his chair, looked up at Aston. “China didn’t need to start organized crime; people did it all over the world all by themselves. Our triads authenticate themselves through history because they’re Chinese. But it’s easy, you just find someone who knows the story and appoint him the incense master. If it wasn’t easy, there wouldn’t be so many of them.”
Next to the diagram was a list of most of the known triad societies operating in Hong Kong: Sun Yee On; United Bamboo; 14K; Fei Lung…
“But they do go back a long way, the triads. They were political, right?”
“So they say. Certainly they supported the Kuomintang during the Civil War. But then organized crime and Communists usually hate each other.”
“Is that still true? The Commies hate the 14K and all that?”
“They’ve always loathed each other. The 14K is huge; worldwide it’s as big as the People’s Liberation Army. Maybe bigger. And they’re sophisticated capitalists these days. Sure, they despise the Communists, and the Communists hate them.”
Chan was aware of Aston’s continued gaze. Fascination was so stubborn in the young. No use explaining that the exotic was a function of ignorance and distance; sooner or later the Chinese screen would rip, and that gleam in Aston’s eye would fade.
“So there’ll be some fireworks in a couple of months if the 14K are still here?”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.” Aston raised his eyebrows. “I’m not an expert, but the rumor is that they’ve found some kind of uneasy accommodation. After all, now that the Communists are not really Communists and the 14K are sophisticated businessmen, maybe they’ve seen the wisdom of working together.”
“It’s just a rumor. In Hong Kong rumors are usually true.”
Aston stood when he saw Chan do so and inwardly girded himself for the coming struggle. It had taken him a while to accept that certain acts that were simple enough in less crowded places in Hong Kong required mental preparation; leaving the police station was an example. Even the compound was crowded day and night with police in and out of uniform: antitriad squads; regional traffic teams; community relations and staff relations officers; police tactical unit; narcotics bureau members; and of course civilians who were allowed to join the mess and who would come and go in various states of inebriation at any time of the day or night.