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11

The party was worse than hed expected. Male lawyers and businessmen, Chinese and British, talking about money and vintage wine stood in small groups with their women hanging on their arms in pearls and low-cut dresses. The women lawyers wore somber-colored business suits, shared negative judgments about their male colleagues and waited to see who would come to seduce them. About one half of the room was filled with Chinese people who Chan could tell were even richer than the lawyers; they wore the same kind of clothes and jewelry, but their eyes never bothered to check if they were impressing clients or colleagues. They were safe in their castles of cash, and it was the worlds job to impress them.

Chan knew that he was being measured, in the second it took to blink at him, against a scale of money-and instantly discarded, with a sardonic turn of the head. Dress had a lot to do with it. The men wore suits with labels like Kent and Curwen, Ermenegildo Zegna, Yves Saint-Laurent; Chans white and blue butchers stripe had been hip when hed bought it for Jennys wedding, but sweat darkened it in patches under the arms, and there was a small stain on the left lapel. He could have carried it off, though, if like these people, hed lived with money long enough for it to slow his movements, mellow his nerves, condition all his reactions as if life consisted of swimming through liquid gold.

Instead he endured the sort of rudeness that justified homicide. While Angie visited the bathroom, he leaned against a wall with a glass of beer in his hand and conjured from memory gratifying cameos of murderers he had known: gunmen, knifemen, stranglers, bludgeoners, kickers, artists of the four-inch meat cleaver. Such expertise wasted on domestic disputes and gangland vendettas when it could have been put to good use at a party like this.

The Chinese waiters in white jackets, hired for the evening, disconcerted him. With the alertness of fighter pilots they could spot an empty glass from the other side of the room and close in from behind with a fresh shot. Their courtesy and dedication were impregnable and, to Chan, profoundly depressing. When he was seventeen, his aunt had given him a choice between two careers: police constable or waiter. It could have been he in the white jacket with the obsequious smile masking malice aforethought.

When Angie returned, he showed her around the apartment, dwelling longer in the emptier rooms. The new flat was too big for just one couple and servants, but that was the point. No amount of expensive Italian furniture, which his sister and her husband already owned anyway, could make the statement as well as a four-thousand-square-foot flat. Most families lived in spaces one tenth of that size. In Hong Kong real wealth expressed itself through space.

Pushing open a door to a fourth spare bedroom, Chan heard a murmur, an intake of breath. Angie held back, but Chan entered the room just long enough to glimpse a couple, a Western man with a Chinese woman, in an airtight embrace. It was the man, apparently young and blond, who was showing the most flesh with his shirt nearly off, backed up against a window while the woman pushed against him. The woman turned at the disturbance, raised her eyes at Chan, then turned back to the man. Chan had glimpsed a long jaw on a Chinese face; from the back she was mostly black hair, strong shoulders and a silver dress that shimmered like water and revealed 80 percent of her vertebrae. He closed the door with care until the last inch, which he completed with a malevolent bang. Angie grinned.

They returned to the party, but after forty minutes Angie admitted she was hating it too. The women sneered at her cheap cotton dress, and the British men cringed at her accent. The Chinese noticed only that she didnt have money and ignored her.

Chan used his chin to point to the door. Lets go.

Angie gave him a grateful smile. Its all right, I can stand it for another twenty minutes. Hadnt you better talk to your sister and your brother-in-law?

I guess.

Thats why were here, isnt it?

Chan shrugged. You know parties. I dont know why she invited me.

Angie looked baffled. But shes your sister, Charlie. She loves you, mate.

Chan nodded. Sure, youre right.

He found a criminal defense lawyer he knew for her to talk to while he went to the kitchen to hunt for Jenny. She was there supervising the Filipino maid. Her husband, Jonathan Wong, was talking to a famous Chinese woman whom Chan now recognized from newspaper stories about the glitterati. He recognized her from her dress too. It was silver and shimmered like water.

This is my notorious detective brother-in-law, Wong said when he saw him. Charlie Chan, meet Emily Ping. Chan summoned a smile for the famous Chinese woman, who looked into his eyes, winked once and held out her hand. Pleased to meet you.

Chan glanced around the kitchen for her blond friend. Apart from the Filipino maid there were only Chinese in the room. Hi. Look-

It must be fascinating to have a lawyer and a detective in the same family, Emily Ping said. What do you talk about?

She was tall for a Chinese woman, over five feet seven, but she would have been striking at any height. Her black hair was swept back from a high forehead, the silver dress dipped almost as deeply in front as at the back, revealing most of two ivory globes that Chan found difficult to ignore; she stood straight as a post with a jaw you could hang a Chinese lantern from. More Rambo than bimbo, Chan decided. She was older than he would have guessed from that first glimpse. Mid- to late thirties with an unbroken history of money and power; only the very rich were quite so shameless. She gazed at him for a moment with a kind of nonspecific lust, then smiled. The blond boy? Eaten and forgotten already?

Oh, he has all the interesting cases. We only talk about his work; mines too boring for words. Wong spoke in English with an impeccable Oxford accent. He pretended not to see the brazen gaze in Emilys eyes.

What are you working on right now, for instance? Emily asked Chan.

The Mincer Murders. Maybe you read about them. Three people fed live into an industrial mincer.

She was tough. She blinked, smiled again. How interesting. Yes, I remember. In Mongkok, wasnt it?

Where else?

And have you solved the mystery yet?

Despite himself, he was held by the authority in her manner. In an unbroken motion he drew a packet of Benson & Hedges from his pocket, flipped open the top, knocked it against the palm of his left hand, withdrew the cigarette with his lips, lit it with the lighter hed lodged in the other hand in preparation: the expertise of an addict. Then he looked into those fearless Chinese eyes. To his surprise they seemed genuinely interested.

No. We dont even know who the victims were. No fingerprints, no ID tags-nothing to go on. They were shredded. All we have is a vat full of human hamburger. He didnt mention the heads. He was keeping them out of the public domain for the moment.

The other people in the kitchen had stopped to listen. There were muted squeals and winces all around, except from Emily Ping. She was amused by his provocation. Or perhaps she enjoyed gore. The rich could have strange tastes.

Chan turned to Jenny, drew her into a corner. Im sorry, Ive got to go. He spoke in Cantonese, exaggerating tones to carry his point.

She made a face. Is it really that bad? Jonathan had to invite all these people; its business. Youre my only real guest.

I dont believe you. They all love you, and youre a perfect hostess. Look, its just me, isnt it? Im sure theyre all great, wonderful, warmhearted, humble-like most billionaires.

Jennys eyes pleaded. Dont go yet. Lets go somewhere private for a moment. I need a real person to talk to, and I have news.

Her eyes searching his face expressed something close to adoration. He noticed Wong looking at her, a husbands complaint in his expression: You never look at me like that.

Okay.

Chan followed her to the same corridor and eventually the same room as that where the seduction of the blond young man had so recently taken place. Chan sniffed at a fading odor of sex and perfume and told her about it as they entered the bedroom together. Jenny winced as she closed the door.

She has a hell of an appetite. I think Ill lock the door. God knows what people would accuse us of if they came barging in. She looked up at him and cocked an eyebrow.

She turned a bolt, then held his hand to lead him to a small window with a view over a mountain at the back of the apartments. The room was unlit except for safety lights from the grounds of the apartment building and from lamps that lined a mountain road. About every thirty seconds a car rounded a certain point in a bend and illuminated the room. He stood still while she kneaded his hand. Her dress was a deep crimson that contrasted with her black hair. It was as expensive as any other womans, but, on her, twice as beautiful. Standing so close to her, he could smell her perfume and underneath it a faint musk that he remembered from childhood. Odors could be like fingerprints.

Her voice was full, rounded, confident; she was a natural princess who found it easy to charm these people. When she was in the mood, anyway. Tonight there was a glint in her eye.

Were going through a bad patch, Jonathan and I. Im not sure how much of all this socializing I can take. He lost his rag with me when I refused to wear a triple string of pearls that he bought me last week.

How selfish of him.

I refuse to be got up like a pet poodle. I dont mind the odd party, but its every night, sometimes cocktails at one place followed by dinner at someone elses-its so artificial. What are you grinning at?

The problems of the rich-how can you stand it?

Im serious. Well have to reach a compromise.

Two strings of pearls?

Smart-ass. You know, sometimes I feel, living this life, that Im being disloyal to Mum.

He lit a cigarette without offering her one. That is a little farfetched.

Is it? Okay, you being so street-wise, tell me what you noticed about all those people out there tonight, especially the Chinese.

Apart from wealth, arrogance and a serious lack of depth, nothing. They all looked disgustingly happy to me.

She lowered her voice. Exactly. Theyre mostly Emilys people. Jonathan invited them because of her. Her main business is with the PRC; shes well in with some big shot general called Xian. Only two months to go till the Communists march in, and these people alone are happy, not a care in the world. Why no June neurosis? Because theyve made their connections, their guanxi, as everyones calling it now, with the killers over the border. Their positions are secure after June. Thats why theyre so happy.

Chan shrugged. Theres no money in heroic resistance. Theyre smart; to survive an invasion, you have to befriend the invader.

Jenny scowled. You dont really think that; youre just saying it because you know Im stuck with these people, for better or worse. To me, its like collaborating. She looked him in the eye. You loathe them as much as I do. More, probably. You dont really approve of Jonathan. Why did you encourage me to marry him?

Smiling, Chan looked her in the eye; she knew the Chinese answer to that question. Since her early twenties her looks had raised her above her class. She was a natural member of the aristocracy of beauty. Not only her looks; her grace, elegance, a kind of poise that cut through social strata. It would have been stupid not to capitalize while she could. How many attractive women from their background ended by working in bars and nightclubs? That would have broken his heart. It wasnt the job of older brother to be romantic on younger sisters behalf; his duty was to save her from poverty and shame, a duty hed discharged in a rare act of social shrewdness by persuading her to enter a beauty competition. Quite amazing, the respectability that a title could bestow: Miss Hong Kong. The wealthy suitors alone would have filled a house. Not all eligible from Jennys point of view, though; Wong had been among the prettiest.

She was safe now; even if the marriage didnt work, shed be protected by a share of Wongs money. Chan was still proud of himself. Would marriage to a pauper have been less stormy?

Okay, he was a good catch, and you were being the Chinese patriarch. Well, I have real news. Im probably pregnant.

Whoopee.

Right word but not much feeling. Are you pleased or not?

Of course Im pleased.

Youre going to be the godfather.

Honored.

And in addition to your usual duties, you will make sure that he or she grows into a real person. If I catch them prancing around like those creeps out there, youll be in trouble.

Agreed. Ill be a blue-collar street-cop uncle. Weekends well spend at the morgue.

She smiled and kissed him, held his arms while she gazed into his face. He made to move away, but she held him still. She wore no pearls, no jewelry at all. A neckline like that could not be improved.

No one compares to you. She said it in a hurried whisper, before he could stop her.

He admonished her with a finger, tutted, returned to the door to release the bolt, let Jenny out first. She led him back down the hall to the huge reception room, which had filled since hed left it. You didnt even introduce your new girlfriend, Jenny said.

Chan looked for Angie over the heads of the other guests. Finally he saw her talking to the young blond man, who was now fully dressed. Shes not. This is the first night-I mean, shes a colleague.

Jenny smiled. Im so glad. I hope she stops you smoking.

Chan pushed his hair back. Its not that serious.

He saw Angie say something to the young man while keeping her eyes on Chan. The blond boy-he was hardly more than that-took his leave of her before Chan arrived. A pity, Chan thought, they seemed to go well together. The boy looked Australian too.

We can go, Chan told Angie, feeling suddenly nervous; it was so long since hed had to entertain a Western woman on his own.


| The Last Six Million Seconds | c