Chan finally rose from the swimming platform. He’d been there so long his buttocks were numb and there was no feeling in his feet. He had to hold on to a stanchion to wait for the circulation to return. Orion was directly overhead now. It was after midnight. The intensity of the stars had steadily increased until they cast dim shadows. Thinking of Moira, he pulled down his shorts, dived naked into the black sea.
When he climbed out, he was wide-awake. He showered using the hose on the swimming deck, returned wet to his cabin, where he dried himself with a fresh towel, dug out the only book he’d brought with him. He lay on his bunk. Idly he read the blurb.
“His travels began in 1271 when he accompanied his father and uncle on their second visit to China. There he worked as a diplomat, undertaking numerous missions in the service of Kublai Khan. Despite piracy, shipwreck, brigandage and wild beasts, Polo moved in a world of highly organized commerce. He loved describing precious gems, spices and silks…”
The book had an elusive relevance, like the Bible. Still, apart from Moira’s testimony it was all he had.
Clare’s American nationality was a problem. Whenever he’d looked at it on a map, America seemed so distant. New York especially seemed in the middle of nowhere stuck on the North Atlantic seaboard as far away from Asia as it was possible to be yet with an ocean between it and Europe. He hadn’t known many Americans, except in the movies. They could be the opposite of Chinese people. There was no respect for age or elders; they were promiscuous; they believed firmly in self-gratification; they were individualists and in that they possessed great courage. There was something called the American Dream: two young men on Harley-Davidson motorbikes with girls riding pillion and drugs hidden in the batteries. A film.
The more he thought about it, the more elusive America became. There was a wealth of conflicting images with no center: over-muscled GIs humping weapons up jungle trails in the Vietnam War; the assassination of President Kennedy. There were alligators in the sewers; homosexual movie stars did strange things with gerbils.
There was a principle Americans talked about the way the British talked about fairness. Anyone, no matter how humble his origins, could become president. Imagine: Charlie Chan, president of the United States.
A wonderful principle, magical. Consider how it must affect fools and villains. You were brought up to believe you could be anyone you liked: Clark Gable, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington. Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde. Just wear the right hat and buy a gun. Marco Polo? He flicked casually through the text.
“When the Sheikh desired the death of some great Lord, he would first try an experiment to find out which of his assassins were the best. He would send some off on a mission in the neighbourhood at no great distance with orders to kill such and such a man. They went without demur and did the bidding of their lord. Then, when they had killed the man, they returned to court-those of them that escaped, for some were caught and put to death… Thus it happened that no one ever escaped when the Sheikh of the Mountain desired his death.”
It was a famous passage, Chan had heard it quoted in a film with Mick Jagger. But what did it mean?
He was disturbed in his thinking by sounds from Jenny and Jonathan’s cabin next door. Someone moved, groaned lightly. People didn’t realize: Boats were not like houses; the walls were often millimeter-thick fiberglass moldings that amplified sound.
More groans, the sounds of bodies turning.
“Can’t sleep?” It was Jenny’s voice.
“No, I nodded off, but now I’m wide-awake.”
“Something bothering you?”
“Want to tell me?”
“Well, you disappeared tonight. Everyone wondered where you went. It was kind of rude, you know.”
“I was with Charlie. He disappeared too, didn’t he?”
“He’s just a cop, and he’s got a personality problem. You’re my wife; things are expected of you.”
“Personality problem? Because he doesn’t suck up to people?”
“I don’t like the way you look at him. It’s weird.”
“You want to start a fight, is that it? What’s wrong with you? You’re jealous of my brother?”
“Why d’you look at him like that?”
“Like he’s a god or something.”
“We were very close as kids. We went through trauma together. He saved my mind. Some of those people you suck up to, like Xian, they killed our mother.”
“Isn’t this just a little too blue-collar?”
“All this vendetta stuff. I mean, okay, you had a traumatic adolescence, but life goes on. It was over twenty years ago.”
“You don’t understand. You have no depth of feeling.”
“Depth? Is that what he has?”
“Okay, you want it straight, this is it. After they told us Red Guards had killed Mai-mai, I lost my mind. He was all I had. He dedicated his whole time to me, never went to school, never left me alone, not for a single minute. Something happens when you get that close. When I look at him, I remember. What I remember is love winning over hate. Not something a lawyer would understand.”
A long pause, then Wong’s voice, meaner and more dogged than when he was putting on the charm. “I guess I need you to tell me if he raped you or not.”
Jenny’s outraged voice: “What did you say?”
“If it happened and you were under sixteen, that’s rape. Even if you consented. It happens a lot in-well, the poorer Chinese families. It’s the great unreported crime of Southeast Asia. I did a lot of family law when I was starting out, I know about these things.”
“You’re one sick lawyer. I tell you what, Charlie would rather have died than taken advantage of me. But if he’d asked me, I would have done anything. Anything at all. And I probably would have loved it. Happy now?”
“Calm down, relax. It was a natural question.”
“No, it wasn’t. It was a dirty lawyer’s question. You have all these artistic pretensions, but you’re just another money snob, like everyone else in Hong Kong.”
“Don’t raise your voice. Let’s just forget it, okay?”
“I won’t forget it. Rape? Maybe you’re the one with the problem.”
Chan grinned at the wall. She always did have a way of turning things around. She wouldn’t stop until she’d extorted an unconditional surrender.
“Look, I don’t want an atmosphere all day tomorrow. I know how good you are at doing that. I’m very sorry I cast an aspersion on your bighearted, macho, crime-busting brother, okay? Can we drop it now?”
“Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you with peasant emotions in front of your friends-or are they clients? I can never tell the difference somehow.”
Chan shook his head and got up. The argument next door had stirred his thoughts, and there was no way he was going to sleep now. He pulled on some shorts and wandered up to the top deck, where he sat on the electric windlass and tried to make out the anchor line as it disappeared into the sea. It was a night of perfect calm. The line slid cleanly into the water as if set in marble. Likewise the hands that came from behind slid cleanly under his arms and lifted him up high in the air. The second bodyguard appeared also from behind and held Chan’s legs just as he started to struggle.
“Be calm,” a voice said in English. There was no doubt about the Beijing accent, but the owner had certainly spent time in England.
The hands set him down again after carrying him two yards toward the wheelhouse. From the shadows a gruff peasant voice spoke in Mandarin.
“We apologize,” the first voice said. “We saw you leave your cabin. We’ve been waiting for you. We wanted you to come into the shadow so that we would not be seen talking to you.” Chan assumed that this was a translation of the old man’s words.
Chan shook himself, waited. The old man cleared his throat.
“You like this boat?” This time there was no translation. The old man himself had spoken. The effect of the stunted, near-unintelligible English was of brutish stupidity. It could have been the opening gambit in an argument about pig feed.
“Yes,” Chan said.
“You want it?”
“How about an apartment block?”
There was a grunt. “When you find out, you tell me, okay?”
“Find out what?”
Another grunt. “What you think?”
Chan stood still. His Mandarin was good enough to understand the old man telling his bodyguards to follow him belowdecks. No more than a craggy shadow, the old man turned at the last minute.
“By the way, I don’t kill your mother. Red Guards, not army. Okay?”
“No,” Chan said, but he spoke into a void.
He shook himself again, only half believing. It took minutes for the mind to catch up: I have been mugged by China. He walked around the cabin toward the stern of the boat.