The considerable bulk of Sir Michael Henderson emerged from the first-class compartment of Cathay Pacific flight CX250 from London and was immediately greeted by a senior immigration official who called the six-foot-three, 250-pound Englishman “sir” and asked if he’d had a good flight, to which the undersecretary nodded and replied in a booming voice: “Excellent.”
The official quickly led the senior British civil servant to a door marked “No Admittance” and down a corridor that bypassed the interminable row of passport booths and led directly to the other side of the Kai Tak Airport buildings, where Milton Cuthbert waited. The two men shook hands warmly before Cuthbert showed his patron and boss to the waiting air-conditioned white government Toyota driven by Cuthbert’s chauffeur. The two diplomats settled into the backseat as the driver made for Central.
“Just in time for lunch,” Cuthbert said.
“It’s mostly lunch that I’ve come for. You’ve no idea how unbelievably awful London’s become; there’s been a measurable decline in civilized values. Nobody dares be seen enjoying a good business lunch these days for fear of incurring some bloodcurdling epithet from the limited vocabulary of the politically correct: ‘decadent,’ ‘wasteful,’ ‘conspicuous consumer,’ would you believe? I’ve even heard a minister described as sleazy because he finished lunch with a cognac. There’s a new fascism about, Milton, and it gives me the creeps. You don’t know how lucky you have been, this past decade, stationed in this bastion of flamboyant laissez-faire.”
Cuthbert smiled. “Will the club do, or would you prefer haute cuisine at Pierrot’s?”
“My dear, to this long-suffering proletarian the club is haute cuisine. I snatched forty winks on the plane, and do you know, I experienced the most vivid dream of my entire life, the salient feature of which was that silver trolley at your club bearing a huge slightly underdone slab of roast Angus with bone marrow topping, light gravy and Yorkshire pudding crisp on the outside with a wickedly seductive softness at the center. The other memorable feature was a Bordeaux. I couldn’t quite make out the label, but it looked very much like a St. Julien, or possibly a St.-Est`ephe.”
“Perhaps a St.-Est`ephe 1984, Cos d’Estournel?”
Henderson allowed his large hand to drop onto Cuthbert’s forearm and grip it. “My word, Milton, I do believe you’re developing an Oriental clairvoyance.”
Cuthbert acknowledged Henderson’s humor with a prolonged chuckle. Rank aside, Cuthbert admired the only man he knew who could solve the Times crossword more quickly than he could himself. And of course the fat man’s mental agility manifested in other equally telling ways. Inside the pampered gourmet there lurked a paper warrior of extraordinary subtlety and cunning. Even if Cuthbert hadn’t liked him, he would have been a fool not to cultivate him. The less influential desks of Whitehall were frequently manned by those who had neglected to pay homage to Sir Michael Henerson.
The driver stopped outside the revolving doors of the Hong Kong Club in Jackson Road and got out to open the rear door for Henderson. Cuthbert gestured him through the doors into the lobby of the club. To the right was a full-length portrait of the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, on the left two bored Chinese cloakroom attendants. Four eminent Englishmen whom he recognized were waiting for guests. In the lift the chief secretary of Hong Kong was waiting to ascend.
“Come along, Michael, if you dare test Japanese technology with your bulk,” the chief secretary said.
Henderson grinned broadly. “Peter, what on earth are you doing here?”
“I work in Hong Kong, Michael. Surely you knew that?”
“I did hear a rumor-some sort of secretary, aren’t you?”
“Something like that,” the chief secretary admitted. “What brings you to this quiet backwater?”
“He dropped in for lunch,” Cuthbert said as the lift doors closed.
“In that case I’m going to order on the double, before he eats the whole of the daily roast.”
The three men laughed on their way to the Jackson Room, where a Chinese ma^itre d’ greeted them with slick charm and showed Henderson and Cuthbert to the diplomat’s usual table in a corner facing the room. Every diner they passed on their way to the table was male; women were not allowed in the Jackson Room at lunch-time.
They sat simultaneously, pulled napkins from rings, glanced up at the ma^itre d’.
“Bloody Mary,” Henderson said.
“Same,” Cuthbert said. He smiled at a Chinese queen’s counsel who was lunching with the attorney general at a nearby table.
“Your chief secretary is looking haggard these days,” Henderson said, “I do hope he’s not gone on a politically correct diet.”
“I think rather it’s the future of Hong Kong that’s causing him concern.”
“Oh, that! Yes, he always was a worrier, even at Eton. That’s why I advised him to come out here, you know. Jolly glad I did; he’s never looked back. He didn’t have quite the sangfroid or the gravitas for the home team. Don’t tell him I said so, though.”
“Is that why you sent me out here, Michael?”
Henderson placed his large hands together on the table as if he were about to say a prayer. “My dear, you’re out here because you are the only one who does have the nerve to preside over the last hours of the Holy British Empire-the runt of it anyway.”
“Really? You said at the time it was because I spoke Cantonese and Mandarin. ‘Like a coolie’ was the phrase you used, as I recall.”
Henderson tutted. “You never believed that was a reason. You know how I am about languages, especially Asian ones. How on earth you can have a decent crossword with ten thousand characters or whatever it is, I just don’t know. Chinese cuisine, though, that does command one’s deepest respect. Anyway, as I remember, you were keen as mustard. I assumed, to your credit, it was the food you were after, the Paris desk having been bagged by old Moffat.”
“The food-and China.”
Henderson allowed his eyes to rest on Cuthbert for a moment. “Yes, China. Well, shall we postpone business until after the main course? You know how strict I am about priorities.”
Discreetly Cuthbert checked his watch. Just after one. From the way Henderson watched the sommelier open the St.-Est`ephe, Cuthbert guessed it would be late afternoon before the undersecretary was ready to talk shop.
Jonathan Wong also checked his watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. The trucks were due at one o’clock but had probably been snarled in the traffic on Queen’s Road. He saw that Sowcross, the director whom the bank had appointed to oversee the operation, was also anxious. Twenty of the bank’s usual security guards with pump-action shotguns stood in half attention around the underground entrance to the vaults, but Wong was most curious about five white men whom the bank had hired from a different kind of security company. They had taken up their own strategic positions in and around the vault and were waiting after their own manner. They slouched against walls and pillars, but Wong saw alert eyes constantly moving in lean faces. Black machine pistols with wire stocks hung around their necks. The white men had been flown in especially, according to Sowcross.
He heard a shout at the same time as he heard the security truck approaching the gate. Sowcross pressed a button on the wall behind the entrance to the vault; the steel gate rolled up; the small armored truck trundled up a ramp to the area next to the vault. Sowcross pressed another button; the steel gate rolled down. They were alone with the first consignment. Wong watched while some of the security guards unloaded crude cardboard boxes with Chinese characters on the side. Wong exchanged glances with Sowcross and followed him into the vault, where a team of clerks was waiting. Each clerk sat at a bench set against the wall; next to his or her right hand an automatic bill-counting machine also waited. Wong knew that the aperture of the machine could be adjusted for different-sized notes and the dial was adjusted to the currency.
Although it had underpinned and structured every aspect of his life for the whole of his life, having usurped the role that some cultures still reserved for God, Wong had never seen money in this quantity before. All around the room the machines whizzed through stack after stack of banknotes, many of them the dull green, black and white of the American currency, others the lurid colors of the Australian dollar, some French francs with the head of Delacroix, plenty of British pounds expressing the national obsession with their queen, small German marks, Dutch guilders, Italian lire, Spanish pesetas, Singaporean dollars-it seemed that all over the world crime paid. Wong realized that he was surrounded by money in all its mind-numbing banality. People died, slaved, prostituted themselves for this monotony. He saw that Sowcross was not of the same mind. The Englishman stared at the mountains of cash, impaled by fascination. When the last machine stopped whizzing, he roused himself to check the dials and enter the numbers on his pocket calculator. Having traveled in a circle, he returned to Wong.
“We’ll do double and treble checks, of course, but on the first count I have two hundred million American dollars in various currencies.”
Wong nodded. “Two more trucks.”
“You’ll have to sign-unless of course you want to check it yourself?”
He held out a form on a clipboard. Wong signed, on behalf of his firm, for the receipt and onward delivery to the bank of two hundred million dollars, broken down into various currencies. In his turn Sowcross gave Wong a receipt. With nothing further to say to each other, they went outside to wait for the next truck. On Queen’s Road Central Wong finally recognized the sound that had been accumulating under the ground all his life. Too low to be detectable by the human ear, it nevertheless worked subliminally, exerting a remorseless power. The thunder of money.
By two forty-five Henderson had finished the last of his Stilton and was sipping his second glass of Dow’s. It was usually over the cigar, Cuthbert remembered, that the fat man’s booming voice turned quiet, discreet and serious. Sure enough, as soon as the waiter had clipped the Romeo y Julieta and lit it, Henderson leaned back slightly, looked around him in an unexpectedly quick movement and said: “So?”
“It usually is, Milton. Almost for as long as I can remember.”
“This time it may be difficult to contain him. In the past he was merely teasing us with his infantile need to test our patience. Now I really do think he’s angry about something.”
“Something we’ve done?”
“Strangely enough, I don’t think so.”
“You’d better begin at the beginning, Milton. I have the greatest respect for your economy of speech. In any event we have all afternoon.”
The diners at other tables in the Jackson Room had dwindled to a hard core of five or six. With the discretion of Edwardian butlers the Chinese waiters avoided Cuthbert’s table; they would be left alone until six if necessary.
“Very well. I shall go right back to the beginning, if you don’t mind. Point one, Xian and his sixteen cronies run southern China. Two, the major blunder of the Foreign Office when negotiating the return of Hong Kong to China was in failing to include Xian in the discussions. Three, as soon as the Joint Declaration between London and Beijing was made public, Xian threatened to open the borders and allow Hong Kong to be flooded by ten million or more immigrants unless we negotiated some kind of secret protocol with him. I went to you, you went to the foreign secretary, the FS went to the PM and the PM had the most godawful tantrum-”
Henderson nodded, tapped his cigar on the heavy bronze ashtray. “She was about to bring us to a state of war with the PRC. They wheeled me in to speak to her myself. It took me damn near all day, and I had to lunch with her on those deeply pathetic sandwiches they eat at Number Ten these days to prove they are busy, politically correct neurotics just like everyone else. The indigestion, Milton, nearly cost me a full night’s sleep.”
Cuthbert refused to smile. “With your usual consummate skill you eventually persuaded Mrs. Thatcher that China was indeed not comparable to the Falklands, that even if it were possible to win a war against the People’s Liberation Army using superior technology-a premise doubtful in itself-the political implications of mowing down a million or more Chinese soldiers to protect a little piece of rock we should never have stolen in the first place was too daunting for even the prime minister to contemplate. I don’t know quite what she said to you, but I remember vividly how you put it to me.” Henderson raised his eyebrows. “You said that throughout history empires had moved through similar stages. Stage one, pioneers from the fatherland make contact with less developed peoples in far-off lands. Stage two, the pioneers are followed by commercial adventurers eager to make profits. Stage three, the aboriginal peoples lose much of their innocence and start to demand more in return for being exploited. Stage four, the fatherland sends in the army. Stage five, the exotic foreign lands are colonized and administered by second-rate expatriates from the fatherland. Stage six, the military and political will of the fatherland begins to decline-time to get out. Stage seven, the twilight period between the decision to leave and the final exit is marked, in the case of the fatherland, by a schizophrenic need to grovel in private whilst posturing in public.”
“Did I say all that? It must have been after lunch.”
“I took you to mean, Michael, that I was to grovel. And that is what I’ve been doing. Every time that barbarian wants something, which is more or less every week, I-metaphorically speaking-go down on my knees in the name of the queen and lick his arse.”
Henderson coughed on his cigar. “Good Lord.”
“Only yesterday-and this is no more than an example-I had to allow five hundred million dollars to cross the border. Half a billion! Of course the lout’s just provoking us. The only time I refused him outright was when he asked for military assistance to move his morphine from the border to his warehouses in Kowloon.”
“It’s in one of my minutes to you-“for your eyes only,” of course. He has a number of factories in Yunnan; he buys the opium from Burma or Thailand or, more and more frequently, grows it himself on his farms. The whole operation is overseen by the People’s Liberation Army using a workforce of slaves. He sells to various Mafia groups throughout the world. It’s his most lucrative operation, but of course not the only money spinner. Arms sales to the Middle East also bring in a fair profit, I daresay.”
Henderson rested his eyes on Cuthbert for a long moment while he pulled on the cigar. “I daresay. In any event, you managed to avoid participating in the heroin trade without precipitating an invasion-congratulations.”
“He said he didn’t need us anyway; he would use the local triads instead. And so he did. We’ve had to watch helplessly while local organized crime, especially the 14K and Sun Yee On triad societies, has been allowed to grow and prosper under the protection of the People’s Liberation Army.”
Cuthbert paused. He had excluded any tone of outrage from his narrative; there was nothing Henderson loathed more in his people than an assumption of high moral ground, a vulgar exercise properly reserved for politicians.
Henderson looked at the cigar that was darkening at the end with delicious tar. He rolled it appreciatively between thumb and forefinger, smiled.
“You know, I don’t think there’s anything in my life that I’ve ever regretted, but what I congratulate myself on most of all is having read history at Oxford. It not only gives one a sense of perspective, it provides, to the connoisseur of human blunders, a fine nose for the basic predilections of place. When I retire, I shall write a short treatise to bear out my theory. It’s not people, Milton, it’s something that comes out of the ground in certain parts of the world that has an effect on the human psyche, causing man to react in exactly the same way generation after generation. South China, it seems, is the corner of the world the gods ordained to be the center for piracy and, most of all, drug running. The Chinese are merely doing to us what we did to them a hundred years ago. And in exactly the same spot, down to the half inch: warehouses in Kowloon. Fascinating.”
“I’ll look forward to reading your treatise. However, you may find that recent events were not adumbrated by anything in history.”
Henderson nodded slowly, like a rocking horse. “Pray continue.”
“I’ve had to piece things together as best I can. My tentative conclusion is that our latter-day Genghis Khan got it into his head that he’d like an atom bomb for Christmas, and one of the local triads, the 14K, I suspect, used international criminal contacts to find a supplier of enriched uranium of warhead quality.”
If Cuthbert had been hoping for a glimmer of concern, he was disappointed. Henderson merely nodded again, although Cuthbert was aware of the fat man’s full attention.
“Ah!” Henderson said eventually.
“Something, I know not what, went badly wrong in the deal, because the uranium was dumped along with some small arms and other criminal artifacts that need not concern us. Apparently related to the importation of uranium into this colony was the discovery some weeks ago of a vat full of human remains-minced human remains. I’m afraid that before I was able to do anything about it, the district commander at Mongkok Police Station put his best man on to it-”
“Because Chief Inspector Chan is a fanatic who never gives up. If it were not for him, the uranium would never have been discovered. I tried to intimidate him yesterday by implying to the ICAC that he had something to do with the importation itself-it’s a long story-but he had a watertight alibi. A pity. I’d hoped both to get him off the case and to save his life.”
Henderson drew on his cigar, exhaled appreciatively, stared affectionately at the stub, knocked it on the ashtray and cleared his throat.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do seem to recall reading a memo from one of our chaps to the effect that this Chan was not to be removed from the case?”
Cuthbert coughed. “Yes, well, I’m afraid that the writer of that memo was not gifted with a towering intellect. Anyway, that was before the discovery of the uranium. I hardly need to emphasize how cosmically inconvenient it would be if that was made public before midnight on thirtieth June.” On the verge of making a moral point, Cuthbert retreated into the third person. “You know, there are those who might consider the present scenario the realization of mankind’s worst nightmare.”
“You mean an atom bomb in the hands of an Asian warlord? I suppose the melodramatic would see it that way. I’m not a liberal, Milton, nor do I look with particular favor upon the contributions certain ethnic minorities have brought to our country, but there are forms of racism that to me lack any objective justification. The day of Asian Man is upon us. Can we really look upon our own day as having been so terribly successful? Two world wars, irreparable environmental damage, inner cities torn apart by social unrest, AIDS, collapse of family life, Eurosclerosis et cetera? If our friend waves his bomb under everyone’s nose, Uncle Sam will take him out, I daresay. And if Uncle Sam won’t do it, the Japanese will probably wake up to their regional responsibilities, given their phobia about this sort of thing.”
Cuthbert frowned. For the first time in his career it occurred to him that the fat man might not be on his side in an important Whitehall struggle. He waited while Henderson rolled smoke around his mouth.
“The connection between the human remains in the vat and the uranium?” Henderson said.
“Is Xian himself. Ever since that vat was discovered, he’s been plaguing me. Hardly a day passes when he does not demand a progress report on Chan’s investigation, although he never explains the reason for his interest. I think he’s got it into his head that at least two of his own most senior people were the victims. I happen to know that two senior cadres were kidnapped at about the time that the murders must have taken place, although why Xian should see a connection is beyond me. Everything in Chan’s investigation indicates that the victims were the importers themselves-Mafia or triad members.”
Henderson seemed to concentrate for a few seconds.
“Allow me to summarize, Milton, and please don’t hesitate to interrupt if I’ve got anything wrong. Now, Chan appears to have stumbled on, or be about to stumble on, a criminal conspiracy of fairly serious dimensions. You have been doing your damndest to deflect him, even to the point of intimidation, because as political adviser to the governor of Hong Kong your perspective transcends the mere detection of crime. Your objectives are twofold: Firstly, you must give Xian everything he wants in order to avoid any fuss before handover in less than nine weeks; secondly, you must avoid any public scandal likely to incense opinion in England and indeed worldwide that might oblige the British government to do something about Xian’s activities. Correct so far?”
“Chief Inspector Chan is sufficiently gifted to be able to penetrate the depths of the case in hand, which will inevitably sooner or later result in just the revelations one wishes most to avoid?”
“You have therefore conscientiously tried to deflect, sideline or eliminate the chief inspector from the inquiry?”
“Now, there I lose the logic. It is right, is it not, that our friend Xian very much wants Chan to continue with the investigation-doubtless because Xian wants to be sure one way or the other if some other agency has had the mind-boggling audacity to bump off his own chaps?”
“That would appear to be it.”
“Therefore, by having Chan removed from the case, you risk incurring the wrath of our master?”
Henderson held up a fat forefinger. “The flaw in your reasoning, Milton, is to assume that a scandal will inevitably follow from Chan’s solving of the mystery.”
“Oh, perhaps I should have mentioned, it’s in one of my minutes, Chief Inspector Chan-”
Henderson held up the same finger. “I know, has a lifelong grudge against the Commies and is unlikely to keep his mouth shut. I do sometimes read your faxes, Milton. Et alors?”
There followed a long silence during which Cuthbert sat dumbfounded. “I don’t-” he began, then lapsed back into silence. “So your instructions are that I allow him to conclude the investigation and then take steps to ensure his silence?”
“Milton, there’s an old Chinese proverb, isn’t there, ‘When rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it’? Since we have opened our legs as wide as physiologically possible, it were churlish now to complain about the size of the aggressor’s member. Xian believes he’s entitled to exploit the situation for historical reasons. Rape is a dangerous hobby. People get hurt, quite apart from the victim. But that, as they say, is on the rapist’s account, not ours. Let’s just enjoy it, shall we?”
Cuthbert watched in silence while Henderson gestured to the sommelier and ordered a bas Armagnac. Cuthbert refused, finding himself without appetite. At the end of the meal he said: “I’m afraid I’ve rather stuck my neck out in my campaign to get rid of Chan. Perhaps some written countermand would be in order?”
Henderson smiled. “Milton, your wit has not deserted you. I’ll have one of the team send a stiffly worded reprimand for you to show around.”
In the car after the meal Cuthbert said, “Xian got to you, didn’t he?”
Henderson looked straight ahead at the crowds flowing like molasses through the heat. “Let’s say that delighted though he is with the way you’ve conducted yourself over the past decade, there are certain matters he feels require an overview from headquarters. Nothing personal, I’m sure.”
Cuthbert crunched on a molar. “But it’s just a squalid murder inquiry, for God’s sake!”
Henderson seemed genuinely surprised by Cuthbert’s tone. “Milton, you are no mean student of colonial history yourself. Can you think of a single occasion when we’ve handed back a colony to someone who did not appear to be clinically insane?”
During the ride through the harbor tunnel Cuthbert subsided into depression. When the time came for Henderson to get out at the Peninsula Hotel, he asked quietly: “So when the time comes, will we silence Chan or will they?”
Henderson popped his head back inside the car. “Undecided as yet.”
Before he could pull away, Cuthbert reached out with a quick, catlike movement to hold his shoulder. He leaned across the seat, closer to the fat man.
“Michael, before you go, let me share just one last thought. If Xian’s suspicions are correct and two of his favorite cronies were minced up by someone or other, have you thought how very spectacular, how telegenic indeed his revenge is going to be?”
Henderson patted Cuthbert’s hand. “Of course, my dear. Why d’you think we pay you all this money and lavish upon you a lifestyle that would be the envy of the president of the United States if not to deal with unpleasant little incidents attractive to the verminous media? Thanks for lunch, by the way. Enjoyed it enormously.”
Cuthbert watched him stride through the high brass doors held open by Chinese in white uniforms. On the way back to Central he found himself wondering what Chief Inspector Chan was doing now that he had so much time to himself.