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Feeling mild excitement, Chan ordered a car to take him out to the fishing village of Sai Kung on the east coast of the New Territories; an English senior inspector had called with news of a possible sighting of a meat mincer on the seabed.

Once he was out of the vast conurbation that stretched from the tip of Kowloon in the south to Choi Hung, the land was green and relatively free of development. The road expanded into a turnpike that lifted up to the hills on the east coast.

At nine-thirty in the morning sunlight hurt. Behind them Kowloon radiated its usual glaucous haze, but up ahead the sky was the deep blue of glazed Ming. Under the solar onslaught the world wobbled. Silver pools shimmered in hollows in the road. Green tiled roofs undulated. Chan and the driver put on sunglasses, turned up the air conditioning.

Chan flicked the radio on to a Cantopop station and winced. Please release me, let me go lost everything in translation. He turned to an English-language information program. Visibility good, fire risk extreme, a voice said in a London accent. Chan switched off.

The driver pointed to two large military helicopters racing from a funnel of smoke twisting up behind a hill to the left. Huge buckets hung from chains attached to their underbellies and swayed against the direction of the choppers dashing for the sea.

Bad one. Started yesterday.

By campers?

Probably. Its in the bush, not near any villages. No ones been evacuated yet, but the bush is very dry.

At the top of the hill the sea came into view: the Pacific coast of China. There was not much between here and Japan, Chan remembered, and if you missed Japan, America was probably the next stop. Not that the ancient Chinese had seen any reason to go even a fraction of that distance. The Middle Kingdom had been the center of the earth, where everyone wanted to be. Only Europe could have produced a Columbus, a man so dissatisfied his own continent wasnt big enough. Or a Marco Polo.

They turned right along a coast road called Hirams Highway by the British, the road to Pak Sha Wan by the Chinese. Nobody knew who Hiram had been, not even the British, but Pak Sha Wan was a tiny fishing village with a large boat club. Each year the boats and the club grew larger and more expensive. Million-dollar sailing yachts hung in the heat next to cigar-shaped speed machines that the Cantonese called snakeheads. As a general rule Europeans owned the sailing yachts and Chinese owned the snakeheads. On a windless day like this the boats faced in all directions, their mooring ropes drooping. Sampans chugged between the floating parking lots, taking swimmers to beaches across the bay.

You know this area? Chan said.

No, you?

Yeah. I was brought up near here. In a squatter hut overlooking the sea.

That so? You were lucky. You got fresh fish and fresh air. I was brought up in Hak Nam, the Walled City. Nothing fresh there. Especially not the whores.

Chan laughed. Five years ago the government had knocked down the Walled City, a square mile of unplanned triad-built apartments with open sewers, fat rats, prostitution and drug addicts. But some people had loved it, as he had loved his wooden hut.

Youre right. I was lucky. I lived there with my kid sister. I told her stories about sea-monsters and taught her to swim. We never wanted to go to school. Didnt seem any reason to.

The driver nodded.

| The Last Six Million Seconds | c