At the identification bureau at Arsenal Street, Chan had no trouble persuading one of the technicians, Raymond Tsim, to give up his lunch break. It was a Chinese deal: Chan would buy and deliver the takeaway noodles and pay two to one on Tsim’s bet that the plastic bag would carry no prints in common with The Travels of Marco Polo.
In the lunchtime crowds Chan knew where he could have Tsim’s noodles in their Styrofoam box under his arm in less than five minutes. But Tsim was particular about his noodles. It was Mimi’s or the deal was off.
Chan didn’t blame him. Mimi’s had all the characteristics of a restaurant the Cantonese respected. The waiters wrote nothing down but remembered the orders with precision. There was a deafening noise of chopsticks on plates, plates being stacked, customers sucking loudly on fish heads and egg yolks. Spittoons on the floor awaited the products of the incessant hoicking that provides background birdsong throughout Asia. The noodles were, quite simply, the best in the world. For every seated customer there was at least one other standing behind him, breathing down his neck and exerting whatever psychological pressure he could devise to make the seated one finish quickly. All over the restaurant taste buds were mercilessly excited by steaming dim sum baskets wheeled around on trolleys by scowling old ladies, who used the spittoons from time to time.
Chan joined the takeaway line and tried to resist the temptation to jump the queue. After five minutes he took advantage of a distraction caused by the collapse of a construction of plates on a trolley near the kitchen. While everyone stared and laughed, he slipped in behind a woman who was about thirty places closer to the front. Even so it was twenty minutes before he returned to the identification bureau with the noodles.
He was disappointed that Tsim had not yet begun the tests. The technician was absorbed in a glossy magazine with airbrushed centerfold. Chan crept silently up to where Tsim sat on a stool at his bench and admired the sensuous lines of the new IBM Thinkpad with Pentium chip, active matrix screen and sixteen megabytes of RAM with a 1.2 gigabyte hard disk.
“Noodles,” Chan shouted in his ear.
In a process that had more in common with inhalation than digestion Tsim finished the noodles in less than eight minutes, burped five times, put away the computer magazine, switched on the terminal by his right hand.
Even a technological Neanderthal like Chan had come to pronounce one acronym with awe: CAFIS. With imported software Chan could use the computer assisted fingerprint indexing system to cross-check in seconds with every print known to central records, a task that in his early years with the RHKPF had taken days with a high risk of error. All you needed was the print from which to start the inquiry.
Here there had been advances too. Dusting powder was still extensively used, but many of its limitations had been overcome through the use of other techniques: the marvelous Magna Brush, the astonishing argon-ion laser, iodide fuming, silver nitrate, ninhydrin and superglue. With each new invention the rate of detection spiked for a while, until the crooks caught up.
With tweezers Tsim lifted the plastic bag (emptied of its contents, which had been sent to the chemists at Arsenal Street) out of the cardboard box that carried the case reference number and Chan’s name. With Chan watching intently by his side, Tsim jammed the top of the bag in a clamp on a small tripod. He lifted the tripod into a glass box the size of a small wardrobe and closed the box door. From outside the box Tsim was able to adjust the focus of the barrel of the laser that was inside. Also inside were a camera that automatically focused with the laser and a metal dish of superglue. With the laser focused Tsim pressed a switch that heated a hot plate under the superglue. Fumes rose and clung to tiny impressions on the plastic bag, which impressions were enhanced by the laser. Tsim pressed another switch, and the camera flashed several times.
The technician peeled a pair of plastic gloves onto his hands, took a small retractable cutter from a drawer and sliced off the cover of The Travels of Marco Polo. Flicking arbitrarily through the thirteenth-century masterpiece, he cut out thumbed pages from the “Prologue,” “The Middle East, Kublai Khan” and “From Peking to Bengal.”
At a chair further along the bench he used Chan’s cigarette lighter to light a small spirit lamp under a glass box. At the bottom of the box was a grill under which iodine crystals had been placed. He opened the lid on the box, inserted the front cover of the book. When violet fumes rose from the grill, Tsim blew out the spirit lamp. Chan watched while fatty matter absorbed some of the fumes. In a minute the secret record of the book’s handlers appeared: a mass of prints one on top of another as if a word-hungry army had fought over it. It was unlikely that Tsim would be able to retrieve ten clear points of identification from the chaos, but he took a photograph anyway. He removed the cardboard cover and replaced it with the first page that he had cut out.
As Tsim worked, Chan saw that at its heart the book, handled by many, had known only one lover. The same fine finger- and thumbprints appeared at the top or bottom of each page. In the bottom corner a slim thumb had spread the spine. Chan held his breath. Here she was at last, that troubled young woman with the short hair. Still calling for help? Chan continued to look even after Tsim had taken all the pictures he needed. The violet whorls were like ridge lines on an ordnance survey map; each print was a tiny mountain of identity.
Back in his office in Mongkok, Chan remembered to ask Aston to find the telephone numbers of the New York Police Department and New York University.
By midafternoon Chan was restless. Moira hadn’t telephoned. That was understandable; what was there for her to say to him? But still he worried. How to explain the suicide of a victim’s mother in the apartment of the investigating detective? His twitch was at maximum mobility by the time he reached his apartment, sweating from the effort.
She was sitting on the couch poring over the file and only grunted when he entered. He stood behind her, tried to see how far she’d read.
“It’s all right. I already read it twice. I appreciate you doing it this way-much better than to have to break down in front of you. I already did that too-break down, I mean.” She looked up. “But you do good work over here. File’s in better shape than I’ve seen in a long while. Real quality control.”
He glanced at the floor. The bottle of scotch was half empty.
“I’m sorry.” His English was perfect but, on occasion, stale. There must be some other phrase gweilos used at moments like this? He said it again: “I’m sorry.”
She grunted, stood up. Her legs were not as steady as her voice. She staggered a little on the way to the window.
“No.” He started forward, but it was too late. She swung the window open until it crashed against the frame.
Essence of Mongkok flooded the flat: diesel, burned monosodium glutamate, fried rice, fried noodles, dry cleaning fluid, burning rubber, burning petrol, fumes from the underground railway ventilator, hamburger, cooking oil, every human odor. In Mongkok nobody opened windows.
Moira leaned out, screamed at the world once at the top of her lungs, coughed violently, closed the window.
“That’s what I was waiting for you for. Didn’t trust myself to do it alone.”
She walked back across the room toward him, steadier now. Her arms embraced him, clutched him tight. Her tears flooded down his neck. She made hardly any noise apart from the soft sucking sound of the sobs. It was minutes before he heard her voice, her face in his ear so close he could feel the fine hairs around her mouth. The voice was soft, caressing, comforting, as if the pain was his.
“I’m going to ask you to do a terrible thing, Charlie. You can say no. But when you come home tonight, will you make love to me? I think if I don’t do one life-affirming thing today, I’ll just dry up forever.”