Sometimes even in hot weather Chan had to walk to think, but it wasn’t easy. He had taken the tram up to the Peak and walked down footpaths to Pok Fu Lam. Now, at Connaught Road he was forced by construction hoardings to walk on the inland side of the street.
It seemed they had been reclaiming the harbor near Kennedy Town forever. Dredgers dragged up gushing buckets of sand, mud and gravel from the seabed; cylinders of waterproof cement higher than houses stood guard over a site of rolled steel girders, heavy lifting gear, mobile cranes, men in construction yellow plastic hats.
On the other side of the street Chan was forced to step into the road while a rice truck unloaded. Apart from the Toyota vehicle it could have been a street scene from Manchu times. Male Chinese bodies, naked except for black baggy trousers that stopped at the shins, shuffled in and out of two wholesale rice shops. On the return from the truck they bent under an impossible load of rice sacks, their faces gnarled with hate. A life as hard as that ground down every morality. Any one of them might have been induced for a small fee to hold a victim steady while someone else turned the power on. In Asia ad hoc executioners had always come cheap. But who had paid? And why? A PLA general angry about having been overcharged? Was anything from China that simple?
“Out of his depth” was an understatement. Chan felt like a piece of debris edging near a giant vortex. Just a little closer and the current would pick him up and suck him at an accelerating speed into the black center. Already he was aware of a fatal symptom: He couldn’t stop.
He took a side street to avoid the direct glare of the sun. Off Connaught Road the streets were shadowed canyons where rivers of people ambled past pawnshops, stereo stores, Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club betting shops, five-table restaurants selling only pork, duck and rice, cooked-food stalls on the street with collapsible metal tables, open-air hairdressers, one-man stalls specializing in business cards and rubber name stamps (English or Chinese), branches of Chinese banks that had no existence outside the territory.
As he drew closer to Central, the banks expanded and took over. From small shops with single electronic tellers in the wall they grew into great palaces with banking halls as lofty as railway termini. At the heart of it all rose the futuristic Hong Kong Bank with construction tubes all on the outside like a person clothed in his own intestines. And behind it, soaring above all else, the Bank of China with its sharp angles designed by the Chinese-American I. M. Pei. People who believed in fung shui (Chinese geomancy) said that the sharp edges were a Chinese thorn pressing into the heart of Hong Kong.
Chan turned left down an underpass leading to the waterfront. At the machines with the steel revolving bars he inserted some coins, joined a small crowd waiting for the next Star Ferry to Kowloon.
He sat at the front of the boat with the island and its manic skyline behind him. On Kowloon side the buildings were much lower because of the flight path to the airport. A familiar advertisement for Seiko watches was obscured by the top deck of a Viking Line cruise ship that had docked for a shore visit and refit. Sampans swarmed at the bottom of its steep walls; women with gold smiles and gold Rolex watches worked like mountaineers from flimsy platforms suspended by ropes from the decks. For speed, efficiency and economy there was no better place to repaint a large ship. Even the QE2 underwent a refit whenever she visited.
On the second floor of the Ocean City complex, under a layer of congealed sweat, he finally arrived at the Standard Bookshop, one of the few well-stocked English-language bookshops in the territory. Chan went to the travel section, tried to find authors beginning with P.
Western tourists favored glossy picture books about China featuring the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the underground army of Xi’an, but the serious China section was the most active; there was a new book about Chinese history, economy, politics almost every week. Everyone wanted to know what China would do next, not least the Chinese. Marco Polo was not there though. An assistant found him in the classics section.
He liked to handle books before he bought, dipping here and there, guessing what kind of person it was who had had the gall to commit his or her thoughts to print. In the present case he had to guess too at the kind of modern young American woman who would buy such a book. Not your average drug-and-sex Bronx street kid, or a typical corporate woman either. Ever since Moira had left, he’d been having trouble with Clare, her life and times. To lay siege to the Mafia as the last bastion of male privilege was certainly quixotic, if not suicidal. Could an eight-hundred-year-old Italian help?
“Several times a year parties of traders arrive with pearls and precious stones and gold and silver and other valuables, such as cloth of gold and silk, and surrender them all to the Great Khan. The Khan then summons twelve experts, who are chosen for the task and have special knowledge of it, and bids them examine the wares that the traders have brought and pay for them what they judge to be their true value.”
Not a romantic Italian after all; the book was more an early edition of the ever-popular Trading with China. He paid for it and telephoned his office from the bookshop. He had wanted to speak to Aston, but Riley answered. The instructions he had intended for Aston he gave to Riley. The chief superintendent seemed grateful to run the errand.
When he returned to the station late the same afternoon, he found Riley waiting in the small evidence room in the basement of Mongkok Police Station marked CHIEF INSPECTOR CHAN: MURDER ENQUIRY, NO ADMITTANCE. It seemed to Chan that he was standing as far away as possible from the large industrial mincer that squatted like a heavy gun emplacement on a trestle table in the middle of the room. Chan looked at two plastic Eski boxes, one large and one medium size, from which Riley was also distancing himself.
“The morgue didn’t have anything suitable, so I had to buy these out of petty cash. Actually, the total was over my limit for petty cash, but there wasn’t anyone around to ask approval, so I went ahead anyway. Got a ten percent discount on the two.”
“Perhaps you’ll countersign the form in due course?”
Chan grunted again. Ever since the great police scandals of the seventies and the founding of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, senior officers had talked like checkout girls.
“Sure. You did well.”
Riley tried a beam, settled for a frown. “Bit gruesome. Not that it bothers me, seen some things in my time, I can tell you. I expect it’s just routine for you?”
Chan picked up the larger of the boxes, placed it on the table next to the mincer. “You should see my fridge.”
He opened the box. Two frosty Chinese heads lay broken face to broken face on a misty layer of dry ice. White smoke rose from the box like a dragon. With both hands Chan lifted one head out, closed the box.
The mincer’s funnel was inches out of reach.
“Would you mind?” Chan said.
Riley rushed to find a chair.
“Another. I’d like you to look.”
Standing on chairs on opposite sides of the table, Riley and Chan peered into the funnel. Their nostrils filled with the hearty odor of the sea. Apart from a battering at the edges and scraps of seaweed, the machine bore no signs of its sojourn at the bottom of the ocean other than a smell like oysters. Chan studied the shape of the funnel that narrowed toward the large screw that pulled in the meat and forced it against the double grinding blades beneath. Chan held the head by its black hair, now matted with frost. Jekyll-or was it Hyde?-had lost color during his stay in the morgue. His eyes were glazed, and his cheeks gray as stone.
Riley’s nerves made him garrulous. “Seems to be grinning. I suppose that’s because they cut off his lips. Damned wicked thing to do, in my view. You know, I just don’t think… I mean-”
“You mean it’s not the sort of thing a white man would do?”
“Yes-I mean no. Of course that’s not what I mean.”
Of course. “Imagine a nose, would you? How far out would it stick? A little Chinese nose, I mean, not a great Caucasian conk.”
Riley looked at Chan’s nose, which managed to be small, flat, cruel and aquiline at the same time.
“Add a half inch for ears too. Now, watch.”
Chan lowered the head into the funnel. It slid in neatly until the frozen section of neck rested on the screw.
“Even with a half inch each side for ears and, say, three quarters of an inch for the nose, it would still mince-don’t you think? Riley?”
Chan left the head in the bottom of the mincer, ran around to the other side of the table, caught the tottering chief superintendent.
“Steady, sir.” Chan sat him down in the chair, shook him. Riley groaned.
“Good Lord.” Set into a bland face, a child’s frightened eyes looked up at Chan.
Chan walked back to the other side of the table, climbed back on his chair, retrieved the head from the mincer, placed it on the trestle, took out the other. Like his companion, the small Chinese fitted the bottom of the mincer with millimeters to spare. Clare’s head was larger, however. It would not have minced without further mutilation.
Chan replaced Clare’s head in the icebox, looked at Riley, who was staring at him.
“An interesting experiment, without any firm conclusion,” Chan said.
By then Riley was on his feet, a hand over his mouth. Chan opened the door for the chief superintendent on his way to the washroom. Pensive, Chan lifted the Chinese head from the trestle by the hair. Thawed now, the jaw dropped open as if the owner had finally decided to talk. Chan noticed the broken incisors and, toward the back, tiny flecks of something dark jammed between gaps in the teeth. On checking the other two mouths, he found similar particles. From a secretary’s desk outside the evidence room he called Dr. Lam. It was late Friday, but the odontologist seemed happy to meet at the morgue the following morning.
Shades of gray: steel gray for the bench top; government gray for the walls; blue-gray for the blades of butcher’s instruments hanging from hooks above the postmortem table. The air, tinged with formaldehyde and ether, was gray too. Chan wouldn’t have minded if he could have had access to nicotine, but a No Smoking sign was strident in blood red on stark white. He watched while Lam pulled the heads out of a gray steel box packed with dry ice and tossed them onto the bench with professional flamboyance. Frozen now, the mouth that had seemed to want to speak the day before was resolutely shut and resisted Lam’s strenuous efforts to open it. Chan used his eyes and chin to indicate the door.
Only thawing would overcome postmortem omert`a, and smoking was permitted in the gray canteen on the first floor. When they returned ten minutes later, hinge joints had warmed and freed, but new condensation on the metal table formed a piste on which the heads skied away from Lam’s reach. The dentist looked around. Everything except a head clamp apparently. Chan grunted. From the opposite side of the bench he leaned over and with his face turned away held open the jaws while Lam probed. Through the bones in his hands Chan felt the vibrations as the dentist began to scrape with a steel instrument. Every few seconds Lam cleaned the point on a stiff sheet of transparent plastic. In less than ten minutes the dentist was tossing the heads back into the box.
“You’re right, there are particles in the mouths that might not be food.” He pointed to a minuscule pile of scrapings on the plastic.
“What could it be?”
“Impossible to say. There’s not enough of it for anyone in Hong Kong to analyze properly. You’d need Scotland Yard to take it down to molecular level.” He gave the scrapings a glance and shrugged. “Up to you.” He adjusted the thick glasses on his nose. “You could feel pretty stupid if it turns out to be bay leaf or some herb that was in a meal they shared before they died.”
At the steps of the morgue Chan lit a Benson while he watched the dentist be driven away by his chauffeur in his black Mercedes. And they said cops were insensitive. With a plastic bag in his pocket containing the scrapings he took a taxi to Arsenal Street, left the bag with forensic and walked up to Riley’s office to fill out the forms: RHKPF form hm91: “request for permission to seek scientific assistance overseas (if the agency you wish to consult is not Scotland Yard, give reasons). This form should be typed in quadruplicate.” Chan looked around Riley’s empty office: no typewriter, no carbon sheets, only a state-of-the-art printer. He completed the form in black ballpoint and left it in Riley’s in tray.
Most of the rest of Riley’s corridor echoed with Saturday morning vacuum. He was surprised to see Angie on the stairs in jeans and T-shirt, taking a mug of tea back to her studio. She turned away quickly when she saw him, then changed her mind and faced him with an exaggerated pout. Brought to a halt on the stairs, Chan fidgeted, tried a grin.
“You bastard.” She said it with a sly smile, though.
“I should have phoned. Sorry.”
She sighed. “That’s all right, mate. I understand. Come here a minute. I’ve got something to show you.”
He followed her into her studio. She nodded at the easel, where she had clipped a wad of sketches. Angie sipped from her mug. “You were right about one thing.”
From the easel the blond boy smiled out. It was an excellent likeness.
“Check the others.”
Chan lifted the sheets one by one. Blond boy in T-shirt, blond boy in bed, blond boy with erection, blond boy in centerfold pose.
“You’ve captured him very well.”
She curled her lips into a sneer. “At least Australians know what our bodies are for.”
Chan steered a course across the room and around her, back to the door. “Sooner or later the rest of the world will catch up.”
“Wanker.” The word bounced off the walls as he hurried down the stairs.