The University of Hong Kong at Pok Fu Lam boasts some of the best colonial architecture in the territory. Neo-Roman arches beckon to cloisters and courtyards where the furious sun hardly penetrates. There is a clock tower of the kind beloved by predigital Europe. Quarters for senior academics enjoy high ceilings and an allocation of floor space of a magnitude that the commercial world reserves for the CEOs of multinationals. Even though the age of air conditioning had grafted onto it the usual low-ceiling designs from the rectangle school of architecture, the new wings were hidden as far as possible behind the original buildings.
Chan always enjoyed visiting the university, breathing the air of disinterested inquiry into the nature of reality. In a different age and with different luck he might have brought his natural flair for detection to bear on a subject more uplifting than the squalid murder of three losers in Mongkok. In any event it was a pleasant early-morning fantasy with the sun on his back as he climbed the long stairway to the science wings.
He showed his police identity card to the security guard at the block of laboratories that conducted research into radioactive substances. The three-bladed orange symbol for radiation twirled from every surface. In case the message was unclear, there was a skull and crossbones and warnings in English and Chinese. In addition to the usual security at the doors, Chan saw armed tall Englishmen in exceptional physical condition standing in twos at various points along the corridor. Cuthbert wasn’t taking any chances.
He was led to room 245. Vivian Ip, thirty-three years old with cropped black hair and tiny diamonds in her ears, was bending toward a lead-glass screen. Her arms were thrust into two white concertina cylinders that penetrated the glass and ended in various steel instruments intended to replicate the functions of the human hand. She nodded to Chan, who stood and watched while she fumbled with a brush and white powder.
“This has got to be the weirdest thing anyone has ever asked me to do in a radiation lab.”
On the other side of the screen Chan recognized the trunk he had first seen on the bottom of the ocean. Its lid had been left open; in front of it were its contents. Three of the world’s more sophisticated small arms lay together: a Czechoslovakian Skorpion; an Israeli Uzi; an Italian Beretta. Next to them were three fragmentation grenades. To one side lay a long, narrow lead box. To another side was a small block of gold.
Chan stared at the lead box, which he knew contained a bar of uranium 235, the highly enriched isotope that had killed Higgins and the two divers. The box looked harmless enough; one could imagine a musical instrument inside, a silver flute perhaps, or a clarinet. He studied the Skorpion. Compact black with a thick snout. He’d never heard of a Skorpion in Hong Kong, but it was a Chinese as well as an English adage that money attracts the best.
He left the guns to focus on another item.
“Any idea yet what that is?” He pointed to something reddish and shapeless about the size of a paperback.
“No. It’s malleable and keeps whatever shape you give it. It has absorbed a lot of radiation. There’s no way I can analyze it at the moment.”
Chan stared at the dust in the cabinet. “I thought you were going to use the laser?”
Vivian nodded toward an instrument with a long barrel in carbon black plastic and gleaming steel on a heavy-duty tripod. A lens gleamed like a single eye.
“Laser stands for ‘light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation.’ Argon ions are used to control the wavelength of the light. I’d be willing to bet my last dollar that it wouldn’t have any effect whatsoever on uranium two-three-five. I’d bet there wouldn’t be any reaction at all. I can’t even think of a reason why there would be. Nor can anyone I’ve spoken to. But there’s no literature on it, and I don’t really want to try. Do you?”
Chan remembered the two divers in the hospital. Higgins. The funerals. “No.”
“Exactly. So I thought I’d go back to the Stone Age.”
As she spoke, the steel pincers dropped the brush.
Vivian removed her small hands from the cylinders. “Sure, you’ve had more practice.”
Chan slipped his hands into the cabinet, tried to use the brush to paint the fingerprint dust over the handle of the Skorpion. The brush fell from the grip of the steel jaws.
“Shit.” He withdrew his hands.
Vivian Ip cocked her head to one side. “Just out of interest, how likely is it that any prints would be left after immersion at sea, retrieval by divers and exposure to radiation?”
“I really have no idea,” Chan admitted. “But as the British say, you never know. Did you try the gold? People love to handle gold.”
“Not yet. I was hoping you would be a better duster than I am.”
Chan pulled out a box of cigarettes, remembered the strict rules, replaced it in his pocket. He tried again with the steel jaws. The trick was knowing exactly how much pressure to apply. There were no nerve endings in the instruments; it was all trial and error. When he was able to maneuver the small brush, he found it easier to dust the gleaming surface of the gold than the more complicated surfaces of the guns. Little by little it became clear that there were no prints on the gold.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d keep trying.”
“But there may be no prints at all?”
Chan hesitated. “That could be important too.” Vivian raised her eyebrows. “If there are not only no prints but no signs of handling except by the divers who wore gloves, that’s a negative indication.”
It was difficult not to feel embarrassment under the Chinese woman’s steady American gaze.
“Negative indication? Am I right in thinking that’s copspeak for it would prove that someone wiped all the evidence?”
“Okay, I’ll do it myself if you think it’s a waste of time.”
Vivian waved her hands. “No, no, please. I don’t mind. It’s kind of interesting. It’s like science. Half the time you’re setting up ways of proving you’re wrong. Hoping you’ll be proved right, of course.”
Chan wished he could conduct the conversation over a cigarette. “The case is a puzzle. If this evidence was carefully wiped, that would at least help to confirm the nature of the puzzle.”
Vivian was gazing at him again, that American stare that tested ego.
“Would you like to go outside where you can smoke? I did some lab assistance work once to help pay for my graduate degree. Nicotine on rats, withdrawal et cetera. You’re showing all the signs.”
“You must have learned a lot about people, working with rats.”
Outside they walked across an open space to the canteen. Over a Styrofoam mug of coffee, a cigarette in his right hand, Chan watched the youth of Hong Kong. There were a few foreigners, Americans and Europeans, the odd Indian and quite a few Eurasians; the vast majority, though, were local Chinese. He wondered how they felt, growing up under one of the most aggressive capitalist systems in the world, knowing that within two months they would have to learn a new system under new masters. Probably they felt the way he felt: cheated and scared.
“What do the kids say, about June?”
Vivian looked around at the young faces in the canteen. “That they’ll have to adjust. Mostly they’re glad to be free of the stigma of colonial rule, but they know it’s not going to be easy. I guess they don’t realize how tough, though.”
“I saw corruption in the Chinese community in the States before I came back. I can guess what it’s like over the border. No one seriously expects anything else here after June thirtieth.”
“These kids look so innocent.”
“Actually, they are. Compared to the States, they’re pure beings who only aspire to develop their minds, be good sons and daughters, bring up their children in the traditional way. They hardly drink or smoke; the drug problem is mostly related to other nationalities; they’re careful about sex. I came back here from a research post in Berkeley like a good Chinese because my parents wanted me with them. I was kind of ashamed how many vices I’d managed to pick up in the States. Compared with these people, I’m contaminated by the wicked West. Tell me about your puzzle.”
Chan continued to gaze at the students. He had always been envious of people with university educations. He imagined unlimited opportunity to climb up a ladder of thought built by giants to an intellectual garden of curiosities where one spent three or four years in perpetual fascination. How Chinese. What Westerner would be that naive? He sipped his coffee.
“Let’s assume there are no prints on the items in your collection. If that’s so, we have almost a perfect crime. The assassins minced up three bodies and left the remains in a vat. At first I thought that indicated stupidity or arrogance. Then I saw it was clever. Once they’d minced up the bodies, practically all identification was impossible. So why take further risks in disposing of the remains? DNA is eaten by bacteria. With luck the remains might be consumed before they were found, but even if they were not, what’s the use of DNA without evidence to match against it? All clothing had been removed from the bodies first and probably burned. The state of the warehouse where the vat was left bears out my theory. There’s not a print anywhere near the vat, no signs of struggle. Then we have the weapons and the uranium. It was a billion to one chance that we found them under a hundred and fifty feet of water near the Chinese border. From the point of view of the perpetrators, dumping those items there was an acceptable risk. Likewise the mincer. So, we have a crime by sophisticated professionals with considerable resources at their disposal, perfectly executed, except for one flaw. Against basic common sense they place three heads in a plastic bag and dump it in the sea for a tourist to discover. Thanks to the heads, we know the name of one of the victims.”
“Yes. An American.”
“And the other two victims?”
“Chinese. Identities unknown.”
“Well, that only leaves about one point four billion possibilities. Good luck. Can I make a suggestion?” Chan inhaled, nodded. “Did you ever think that maybe someone just fucked up? Sorry about the American.”
Chan shrugged. “Most crimes are committed by fools. But those kind of fools don’t have access to Skorpions or uranium. I’m out of my depth. Would you mind telling me about the uranium?”
Vivian Ip took a long swig of coffee, thrust her head back as if she were reading a text from the sky. “Uranium two-three-five is a rare isotope. When you build a bomb, you want to have two subcritical masses that, when brought together using conventional explosives, become supercritical. Nothing does it like uranium two-three-five or plutonium two-three-nine. The problem is getting hold of them. What the Manhattan Project was really about-the group of physicists and mathematicians under Oppenheimer who developed the atom bomb in New Mexico during World War Two-was getting hold of enough uranium two-three-five or plutonium two-three-nine. The bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was uranium two-three-five. Fat Boy, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was plutonium two-three-nine.”
“Extracting the uranium two-three-five is what it’s all about?”
Vivian shrugged. “There are plenty of ways to sophisticate and economize on your core. The U.S. has improved the yield-to-weight ratio and the yield-to-volume ratio enormously since the fifties. But for a really crude bomb, yes, all you need is enough uranium two-three-five.” She looked at him. “To be threatening, without necessarily having a whole bomb, all you’d need is proof that you had, say, twenty-five kilograms of two-three-five so long as it was highly enriched. The stuff you found is ninety percent-nearly the best.”
“And how much is in that lead case?”
“About three kilos.”
They looked at each other.
“Where could it have come from?”
She looked into her plastic cup, then into his eyes. “In theory, quite a few reasonably developed countries. France, England, India, Pakistan, China, Israel, United States-the list gets longer every few years.”
“In practice, nuclear arms development is one of the few genuine security successes of most governments. Even democratic governments illegally assassinate scientists or others who leak atomic secrets, never mind sell two-three-five. You’d have to look to a country whose security has totally collapsed.”
“The word is that people with the right connections can buy anything there. Anything at all. Even weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.”
“What sort of people have the right connections?”
“You tell me, Chief Inspector. Sounds like a policing problem. But there’s one thing that occurs to me. Okay, on first sight, all that stuff they found in that trunk on the bottom of the ocean, the guns, uranium, et cetera, it all looks pretty impressive. But if you think about it, it’s all junk.”
“Sure. There’s no ammunition for the guns, and in any case, three guns don’t make an arsenal. Fragmentation grenades can be bought on the black market, I’m sure. The uranium is exotic, but three kilos are useless to anyone wanting to build a bomb. Gold aside, that trunk contained a bunch of extremely illegal, highly exotic junk. The only smart thing to do with it was to dump it. Or if it wasn’t junk, how about samples?”
“Why not? Suppose a criminal traveling salesman, showing samples of what he can deliver to selected clients. I guess even crooks need to have some kind of sales promotion.”
Chan listened with concentration. Truly, a disciplined mind was a wonderful tool. It made him proud that she was Chinese, nervous that she was a woman, disturbed that the power of her intellect seemed to have something to do with her liberated American background.
He felt the need to speak in Cantonese. “It’s an honor to share the fruits of your learning. Is there anything else you’ve thought of in relation to this case?”
Her quick black eyes surveyed him for a moment. “The bag you found the heads in-did you say it was clear plastic?”
“So the people who so meticulously minced the bodies didn’t mind you finding the heads?”
“I’ve thought of that. Mutilated heads, though.”
“From which you were able to construct dental profiles?”
Chan nodded again. It was a mystery.
From Vivian’s office he telephoned Aston, who told him that a fresh new homicide had just come to light, a “basic Mongkok killing with your name on it,” Aston explained.