Nobody really minded when triad foot soldiers murdered each other. Chan theorized that a self-regulating mechanism operated as it did with rats. If it had been possible to maintain daily figures for triad membership in Mongkok, then probably one would be able to tell with precision when ranks had swollen to the point where bloodletting was inevitable. If nothing else, it provided entertainment for Aston, whose squeamishness did not extend to the cruel ends frequently met by male professional killers.
Chan was in time to watch his assistant draw a chalk line around the body.
“A classic,” Aston said.
The victim lay faceup on the ground in a small concrete children’s park bounded by Oak Street, Anchor Street and Palm Street. Shorts and T-shirt were torn; plastic thongs lay together under a swing. Blood had gushed from a wound in the area of the jugular. A Chinese man’s hard face about thirty years old, a man who had fought to the death without expecting mercy; on the victim’s forearms Aston had found some of the arcane markings of the 14K. At the iron fence around the park uniformed police kept a small crowd at bay. Chan’s eye scanned the park, took in the swings and seesaw embedded in the concrete. Aston watched him proudly. Nobody did triads like the chief.
Chan bent closely over the body, beckoned to the young Englishman. “What kind of tear marks, would you say?”
Aston studied the shorts and T-shirt without touching them. “Not a knife. Not really a rip at all.”
“The material’s kind of worn around where it’s torn.” He struggled against excitement, lost. “It’s just like when they throw them out of cars.” He looked around the park. “They couldn’t have got a vehicle in here, though.”
“True. Anyway, the material’s not that worn. Looks like he hit the concrete more than once.”
“They chucked him around a bit, like?”
“Exactly. Did you see the beer cans?”
“Beer cans?” Aston rubbed his temple. “Sherlock, what beer cans?”
Chan did not raise his eyes from the body. His profession offered so few opportunities for practicing the art of detection in its cinematically correct form.
“By the swings, Watson. And around the perimeter fence. There’s one about five yards behind your left foot too.”
Aston looked around the park. “Okay, beer cans. Looks like mostly Carlsberg and Tsingtao. By the way they’ve been crushed and bent I would deduce that they’re all empty. So what?”
“And cigarette ends. I hope you didn’t miss those?”
Aston repeated his scan. “Okay, there are butts all over the place. I didn’t miss them exactly; I just don’t see how they help. I mean, this is a public park. Nighttime all sorts come here.”
“But look at the concentrations.”
Aston walked carefully around the small park. “Mostly around the edge. More than you’d expect-so?”
Chan stood and gestured at the body. “Now tell me about the bruises.”
Aston brightened. “Got them down straightaway.” He pulled out a small notebook. “Upper arms, forearms, all had marks consistent with being held tightly by hands. Severe bruises caused by hard object, probably metal or plastic, in the area of the abdomen. Scorch or burn marks on the thighs.”
Chan nodded, paused for a moment over the legs. Long blackish lines about an inch thick streaked from both knees toward the crotch. He sighed, stood up.
“And the wound at the jugular?”
“Black and purple. Wound not caused by knife. Puncture marks consistent with biting by teeth.”
“Very hard, especially around the instep. A Thai kick boxer or a karate expert.” Aston closed the book.
“So now tell me about the beer cans and the fag ends?”
Chan walked to the perimeter fence, slouched against it, facing the body, lit a cigarette, which he held in one hand, and mimed the act of drinking beer from a can.
Aston frowned, scratched at his arms. “I don’t-ah! Chief, you’re a genius.” Chan smiled. “The boys all came to watch a fight, right? A sort of gladiatorial battle between triad foot soldiers?”
“That would be my guess.” Chan watched the ambulance arrive next to the park gate. Two orderlies jumped from the back with a stretcher. At the body they asked Chan if he was finished. He gestured for them to continue. When they rolled the body onto the stretcher, Chan said: “Does his back look broken?”
An orderly ran a finger down the spine, looked at Chan and nodded. Aston stared in wonderment.
“Just a lucky guess.” Chan avoided Aston’s gaze. “Go back to the station; fill in the forms. You’re in charge for the moment. I’ll be a while.” He watched while the young Englishman began to issue instructions. Within minutes he found himself alone in the park with the body outline clearly drawn in white on the concrete: Death was here. The uniformed police on the outside looked to him for instructions.
“You can open the park as soon as they’ve been back to clean up the blood.”
He walked slowly down Anchor Street, allowing himself to be carried along by the crowds. Taking precautions to ensure he was not followed, he pursued a circuitous route to a narrow alley that led to the computer store open at both ends. On the other side of the shop he walked quickly to the metal door of the lockup garage and executed an elaborate tattoo.
“I’m very angry with you,” Chan said when he was inside the garage.
Wheelchair Lee looked away, seeming to find something of absorbing interest halfway up a wall. Chan crossed the floor, placed both hands on the back of the chair, leaned over to whisper forcefully in Lee’s ear.
“If I had the evidence, I’d charge you, understand? You said it wouldn’t happen again.”
Lee whipped the chair around so fast Chan almost fell. The cripple was facing him now. His eyes glittered at the detective.
“It was a fair fight. He was a volunteer. And he had legs. Go ahead, charge me. No jury’s going to convict a cripple after a straight fight with a known triad. They’ll probably give me a medal.”
“I’m sorry, okay? Of course I refused at first, so they taunted me; you know how they are. They claimed I’d lost my nerve. And he was 14K, which is always a selling point for me. I guess I let them persuade me. What the hell, they were going to waste him anyway.”
Chan lit a cigarette, walked up and down in front of Lee. “Do they share the prize money with you at these events? Just curious.”
Lee leered. “I do it for love, my friend. You know that.”
“Don’t take it personally. Let me make it up to you. I figured you’d be cross, so I did some work.” Lee rubbed his hands together, grinned. “Ever heard of half a billion dollars?”
Chan grunted. “What kind of question is that?”
“I mean, specifically, all in one lump. Cash. Sure, in the abstract everyone’s heard of the number. But find someone who’s actually seen it or touched it or charged that much for a service. No, huh?”
“Well, I have. I’ve heard of someone very naughty who over-charged someone very powerful for delivery of a certain commodity because they thought that very powerful someone was a typical PRC jerk who didn’t know his ass from his elbow. And the story I heard is that the powerful PRC peasant in question got very, very angry.” Lee smiled. “That’s as far as I’ve got. When I know more, I’ll tell you.”
Once outside the garage, Chan hurried down the street. He could not escape his imagination that insisted on reproducing the fight, however: It’s party time in Mongkok, the major triads declare a truce for a few hours before dawn; shadows move under the street-lamps that line the park; senior men post lookouts; huge sums of money change hands; rough hands of killers grab free beer from crates near the entrance; a hundred men or more, flattered to have been invited, hush and jeer in a sadistic rhythm; the 14K bosses goad the man they’d decided to waste: “He’s a cripple in a wheelchair; you’ll rub him out in five minutes.”
The homicidal freak called Lee, mad as a dog with anticipation, wheels in tight circles in his corner. In the opposite corner the triad slips off his thongs; he’s proud of those killer feet. Someone hits a Buddhist gong, the triad tries a jump-kick, contemptuous of the half-man they’ve given him to kill. Lee grabs a foot in one hand and throws him to the ground. The triad tries again, more cautious now. Lee toys with him to entertain the troops. Too late the triad realizes he’s been set up. Lee’s speed in that chair is amazing: his tactics are outlandish; the power in his arms is unbelievable.
The fights were all over when Lee succeeded in grabbing his opponent around the waist. After breaking his back, he liked to make a circuit in front of the audience, still hugging the victim while dead legs dragged on the chair’s wheels. He would keep his opponent alive for twenty minutes or so, a paraplegic now, just like Lee. When the money had changed hands and the party was nearly finished, Lee buried his teeth in the jugular.
It had taken Chan years to understand why the 14K, Lee’s sworn enemies and the very men who had mutilated him, did not simply kill him. Graduation came when he realized that they loved him. The triads were about violence, and Lee was an extreme example of the genre, an icon. It was part of the magic to produce him every few years at a prizefight, an example of unrestrained ferocity.
After each fight Chan wrestled with his conscience. If he scrupulously gathered evidence, he would probably find enough to charge Lee with manslaughter. Lee sensed his struggle and would become unusually forthcoming with useful information.