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19

Lunchtime: Chan sat in his office alone with a laboratory report and two sets of photographs developed by the identification bureau at Arsenal Street. The lab report confirmed that the white contents of the plastic bag had been heroin. He turned his attention to the photographs. On the back of one set he wrote in ballpoint: Taken after laser enhancement from small plastic bag found hidden in light fitting at scene of crime. On the back of the other set he wrote: Taken from The Travels of Marco Polo, paperback book provided by mother of the victim, Clare Coletti.

Each photograph had been enlarged to three times actual size. Taking what looked like a thumbprint from one set, he set it against a thumbprint from the other. There was no point of identity between the two. Taking an apparently different print from the set originating with the plastic bag, he found again no points of similarity. There was a third thumbprint, quite different from the other two, that had been lifted from the bag by the laser beam. There were similarities even at a first glance; in both cases he noted a convergence of lines in a single delta. At the center of the print was a tight loop, the core. Working on one print, he counted the lines from the delta to the core, wrote: Ridge count 18. Other idiosyncrasies of the print included three fragments next to the core, an island, an ending in the middle of the fifth ridge line, two bifurcations, two more islands near the eleventh ridge line, some more ridge endings. Chan put the photograph to one side, worked on the thumbprint from the book. When he finished, he compared the lists. He had found eleven major points of similarity, enough to satisfy even a purist like himself. Clare Coletti had clutched the bag of heroin, perhaps had even hidden it, before she was murdered elsewhere. Then her remains, together with those of the other victims, had been returned in a vat and placed under the fluorescent light where she had hidden her dope. Chan had never come across a case that made less sense. When Aston returned from lunch, he asked him to send another fax to New York with all the prints that had been lifted from the plastic bag.

At least the exercise might have helped identify the other two victims. And Tsim, the technician, owed him fifty dollars.

The four lawyers sat in silence at one end of the huge boardroom table. Jonathan Wong looked from one to the other, waited. For the chief eunuch to the empress it was a pleasure to watch a ritual castration.

When he had joined the firm as an articled clerk, these men-Rathbone, Savile, Ng and Watson-had already been senior and highly respected. As he had grown older and wiser, he had come to despise them. As lawyers the Englishmen hid behind the pompous postures that had served the British so well. But they had been in the East a long time. Something happened to Englishmen who stayed too long. The country they came from, that little island off the cold northwest coast of Europe, had proceeded without them with its own peculiar modern history, full of football hooligans and royal scandals, as far as Wong could tell, until the mannerisms they had retained and developed had no reference outside their own narcissism.

There was Rathbone, almost fifty with an adolescent fascination with his own musculature, who liked to boast about how many hours he spent in the office. There was Savile, the music hall Englishman with the three-piece suit and the monocle, an intellectual property lawyer. And there was Watson, the prima donna in the bow tie who thought of himself as an international commercial lawyer. His Chinese assistants joked that he was incompetent in nine separate jurisdictions.

Ng was different only insofar as he was Chinese. He was a few years older than Wong, but in terms of postcolonial evolution a chasm separated them. Although Wong spoke English with an upper-class accent, any English person foolish enough to assume that he wanted to be one of them was quickly put in his place. Ng, though, had invested his life energy into growing a British carapace at the center of which, Wong was fairly sure, lay nothing at all.

Each man in his own way defied a basic law of physics, possessing height and width but no depth. But people who wondered how theyd survived so long and grown so rich underestimated the inexhaustible appetite of the very wealthy for sustained groveling. The vulgar said that the four men who gathered around the boardroom table with Wong had the brownest noses in Hong Kong. Little by little, Wong knew, he was becoming one of them.

Watson rudely gestured to Wong to pass over the sheet of paper with the names of the companies Emily had given him. He took it to a computer terminal in the corner of the room, began punching in the names with heavy stabs. The others watched him, glad to have something to wait for.

Amazing, Watson murmured.

What is?

He continued to punch in more names.

Quite incredible. He punched in some more, then hit the top of the screen with his open hand as he stood up.

Would you believe it? Taken in isolation, none of these companies is remarkable. Taken together, these hundred-odd firms represent stupendous wealth. In terms of assets they could compete with some of our biggest banks. If they really are all owned by the same people.

I think you can assume that they are, Wong said.

Its like a cancer.

Not a cancer, Wong said, an Oriental strategy. Like the game of Go, one surrounds by stealth and strangles. Clever, these Chinks.

Ng nodded slowly, as if the epithet could not apply to him.

Why would anyone want to strangle us? Rathone said, ignoring the irony.

Wong lit a cigarette, his tenth in the past two hours. Not us, Hong Kong. Or, more likely, Southeast Asia. Whoever they are, theyre taking over.

Savile glanced at Wong. Wong knew that behind the absurd monocle and the affected manners he possessed the cleverest brain of the three, which was perhaps not saying much.

I think wed better admit shes got us. If this lot took their business elsewhere, wed be bankrupt. Literally, we couldnt pay the rent.

Absolutely, Ng muttered.

Rathbone groaned, stood up, flexed his pectorals facing first left, then right, squatted with arms folded, stood, sat down again.

Wed better move fast, Savile continued. This must go no further than these four walls. What we do is agree to take the work but, when it comes in, act surprised that payment will be in cash. Let them bring the money at the last minute. Naturally we couldnt hold up the transaction, but we say we were assuming payment by check or bankers draft. Well take our fees up front. And then well see.

Savile didnt need to spell out the precautions that he and the others would be making that very afternoon: new numbered bank accounts in the Caymans or British Virgin Islands; vacations moved forward; personal effects, especially houses, put into the names of trust companies based in the Channel Islands. The storm, when it came, would take some weathering.

Rathbone looked around the table. Were agreed then?

I think we are, Savile said.

Immediately after the meeting Wong called Emily with the news.

I thought they might see it our way, Johnny. You did well.

On putting the phone down on Jonathan, Emily pressed an autodial button. A rough old mans voice answered in Mandarin.

Hell do it.

Of course he will.

But they want the money exactly one hour before each contract is signed. Not sooner or later.

The old man answered with a grunt. And the little detective?

Jonathan will set up a social meeting somehow. I might even find a way of bringing you since youre so interested in Charlie Chan.


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