home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add



38

As a bilingual Eurasian Chan suffered, and on occasion inflicted, racial prejudice from both sides of the wall; in a bigoted mood he could be ambidextrous. The English were red-faced, blustering, arrogant, poor, infantile, given to incomprehensible failures of nerve that they called compassion. On the plus side they were good administrators, fair, and their women had large breasts. The Chinese were obsessed with money, callous, slant-eyed, incorrigible litterbugs, superstitious and rude. Nevertheless, they were resourceful, industrious, respected the family unit and had a genius for making money that left the rest of the world slack-jawed with envy.

Chan had tried to explain it to his politically correct English wife, when hed had one: In Hong Kong nothing one race said about the other could dent that other races conviction of unassailable superiority. To weep over the nasty things the two nations sometimes said about each other was like feeling sorry for Everest because K2 called it a dwarf-or vice versa.

One frequent observation made by the Chinese about the English, though, was neutral in character and endured in the mythology of the Raj because it was true. While the Chinese only collected information that could be used in the pursuit of commerce or malice, the English compiled records for the sake of it.

As he had risen through the ranks of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force Chan had become increasingly aware of this quirk. Often it seemed to him that 90 percent of what they knew was not made available even to senior police officers, yet someone somewhere possessed and leaked information on a need-to-know basis.

Chan had personal experience of this Whispering Wall school of administration through the more important cases he had been given to solve. He had noticed that when failure to catch the perpetrator of a crime was particularly embarrassing to the government-a spectacular kidnapping and murder of a famous billionaire by a renegade Communist group, for example-leads and background detail fell from some exalted but invisible source with obscene plenitude. Investigations into atrocities that failed to attract publicity or lacked political overtones had to limp on without such executive-level support. It was difficult, in the end, to resist the conclusion that a small group of men at the top of government had access to a database so extensive that they knew almost everything about the six million official inhabitants of Hong Kong and used this knowledge in accordance with a logical but restrictive policy. And who more likely to control such a committee than the political adviser? So why had Chan not yet confronted the great mandarin to demand a sharing of this secret knowledge? Chan knew why.

Irrational terror of authority was not merely a Confucian virtue; it was the bones of the Masters system that had molded the Han mind since 500 B.C. Only one administrative tool had held together the imperial system with its nine grades of mandarin, its eighteen ranks of civil and military officials, its rules of precedence for princes of the blood, wives, concubines and pirates: paranoia. It was the flaw in Sino psychology.

Chan remembered a trial of thirty counts of rape on separate women by a slim Chinese man about five four with the physical presence of a twig. His MO was simple. He obtained the names of housewives from the telephone directory: Good morning, Mrs. Wong, Im from the government medical department, and I have reason to believe you are having trouble with your marriage. I would like to visit you at a convenient time to perform a medical examination When he arrived, he always closed the curtains and turned out the lights. Rape without violence. Only thirty of more than a hundred victims would give evidence. More than half didnt know that they had been raped. Put another way, what was the difference? The Chinese had been raped by Authority for five thousand years. Kung Fu-tse-Confucius, as the West called him-was an anal retentive who had a lot to answer for.

Thats why it took me so long to get to this point, Chan muttered to himself as he was shown into the commissioners office.

Chan smiled after he had presented his request, added: Confucius stole my nerve.

Tsui shook his head. Slowed you down, perhaps. Well, youre here now.

Every facility, Chan said, still cursing his own timidity. That fax you showed me in your car after the meeting with Cuthbert and the others said every facility.

The commissioner leaned back in his chair, gazed at the chief inspector.

Youd better tell me what you know-just so that were sure were talking about the same thing.

Everyone knows. The British love information. In Hong Kong theres hardly a pig roasted without the British knowing about it.

And you think that will help your inquiry, knowing the rate of pig mortality?

Chan thanked his Chinese genes for a condition of implacable stubbornness that turned him into rock from time to time. Every facility. Thats what the fax said.

Still half astonished at his own temerity, half ashamed at his earlier timidity, Chan lit a cigarette without asking permission.

Tsui scratched his head. I wasnt supposed to show it to you, though. The fax, I mean. He thought for a moment, then picked up a telephone. Get me the political adviser, please. When he had arranged a meeting with Cuthbert, Tsui looked at Chan and smiled.

At the long table in the anteroom to Cuthberts office, Chan waited patiently for the political adviser to deny everything he had just said and was even prepared to relish the elegance of the diplomats lie. On instructions from Tsui, Chan had not mentioned the top secret fax the commissioner had shown him.

Cuthbert tapped the table, turned to Tsui, the only other person in the room.

What dyou say, Ronny?

Nothing, Tsui said.

Cuthbert pursed his lips. Yes, I thought youd say that. He gave the appearance of thinking hard for a moment. He turned to Chan. Well, I know when Im beat. I may as well face it, youve just about cornered me. He tapped his nose and winked. Of course you realize that everything youve just told us, this fantastic notion of some sort of systematic invasion of privacy by Big Brother, is just so much nonsense?

Of course, Chan said, surprised. He liked the British principle of magnanimity in victory.

Its close to lunchtime, Cuthbert said. If youd allow me? He raised eyebrows at Tsui. Ronny-

Im afraid I have a lunch appointment, Tsui said, taking Cuthberts hint. Ill leave you two to talk. At the door the commissioner grimaced, like one who has reluctantly delivered a lamb to a tiger.

Chan was not surprised that Cuthbert led him to the car park of the government building, where he expected the political adviser to summon one of the chauffeur-driven white Toyotas that were a privilege of the most senior ranks in government. The Englishman, though, led him to a vintage Jaguar XJ6 in English racing green with properly scuffed leather upholstery and a sun roof. After opening the front passenger door for Chan, Cuthbert slipped into the driving seat with a soft aspiration of pleasure.

They were screeching around a bend on the way to the Peak when Cuthbert turned on the CD player. Male voices unaccompanied by instruments chanted through the speakers in Latin. Chan guessed it would be to a speeding green XJ6 filled with Gregorian chants that upper-class English bachelors would graduate when they died. Cuthbert, as usual, was one jump ahead.

Near the top of the mountain, above the level where Chan and Moira had once sat, exclusive settlements of low-rise, low-density, high-value apartments with spectacular views accommodated the great and the rich. About half were owned by government. Cuthbert stopped in the outdoor car park to Beauchamp Villas, led Chan to a lift that waited with open doors. On a brass plate with the list of floors the word PENTHOUSE appeared next to the number 5. Cuthbert pressed 5.

The diplomats penthouse flat was to light, air and space what Chans was to darkness, asphyxiation and cramp. A huge sitting room with bay windows gave views over every part of Hong Kong Island. Orchids pressed against the inside glass; bougainvillaea cascaded over wrought-iron balcony railings; hibiscus tongues licked more orchids in window boxes; frangipani danced in the sunlight. On a tripod by a window a nautical brass telescope cocked a single eye at the sky.

While Cuthbert disappeared to find someone called Hill, Chan collected other evidence of an eccentric and discerning colonial mind. Turkish kilims, Afghan and Persian rugs were scattered haphazardly over the parquet; five shelves of a polished rosewood case with glass doors held the best collection of opium pipes Chan had seen outside an antiques dealers showroom. On one wall, a set of classic Chinese rugs and tapestries, framed and behind glass as if they were pictures. On the opposite wall in what may have been the place of honor, a nineteenth-century long-barreled rifle with its worn and torn canvas case and another, slimmer brass telescope. Cuthbert returned in an open-neck shirt and slacks, pointed to one of the rugs.

Kansu saddle rug with fret and floral medallion, cloud band border. I imagine it on the back of a bandits horse somewhere along the silk route between Samarkand and Beijing.

He led Chan into an annex off the sitting room where a small Italian marble table was laid for lunch. Surrounding the table were huge terra-cotta pots from which small rubber, coffee, caocao, teak and mahogany trees grew. As he sat down at the table, Chan supposed the humidity in the room was deliberate. It was like picnicking with the viceroy of India, somewhere between Maharbellapuram and Kashmir.

Hill appeared. Unlike Emily, the Englishman did not require his servants to wear uniforms. The Filipino wore jeans, an open-neck short-sleeved shirt.

Been with me years, Cuthbert said when Hill was out of earshot. Damned fine chap. Half Chinese, from Luzon, up in the north somewhere. Lives with his wife just down the road where shes a maid with a Chinese family. Perfect arrangement. I get Hill all day; Im alone at night. He smiled.

This was a different Cuthbert. From the moment they had entered the apartment the diplomats manner had subtly changed. A new kindness, an attentiveness to his guest, a commitment to some lost tradition of hospitality soothed even Chans nerves. He agreed to a gin and tonic, along with Cuthbert.

Emily. Smart girl, Cuthbert said suddenly, as if in answer to a question. He proceeded to butter a roll. Of course, trying to talk to her about anything other than money is like trying to get an orangutang to play the sitar. Firmly believes shes Chinese. I keep telling her, Youre not Chinese, dear; youre Hong Kong. And she is. She simply couldnt have been produced anywhere else in the world. Dyou know shed made four million American dollars profit by the time she was twenty-six? On a single transaction at that.

Cuthbert sipped his gin and tonic, stared at the stem of his rubber tree. Damn, fungus. I just dont know how we manage it, Hill. It never bothered the planters in Malaysia, I know because I once asked one. We must be doing something wrong.

Chan watched Hill cross the room with the same smile on his face. With a tolerant yes, sir, like a batman to an officer, he placed a small earthenware hot plate filled with glowing charcoals on the table and left the room.

Chan replaced his glass on the table. What kind of transaction?

Cuthbert stood up, bent over another of the trees for a moment, then sat down again. Well have to back up a little. Emilys family, the Pings, theyve been helping us for decades. Her father fled Shanghai in 49 but kept his connections there. During the sixties Beijing wasnt officially talking to us at all. To do business, we had to use go-betweens. Nothing unusual about that, the Chinese invented the go-between system-like everything else. Emilys an only child. Old Man Ping coached her to take over from him. When I was posted here twelve years ago, I gave her her first job: Xian. I knew I had to get in with him on the ground floor or the whole process of handover would be in jeopardy, and Emily seemed like a good choice. She knew Shanghainese, Xians mother tongue, was well connected in southern China and already respected in Hong Kong. Cuthbert sipped his gin and tonic reflectively. Women. Doesnt matter if its business or bed, theres always a complication. Wheres Hill?

The Englishmans mind, Chan realized, raced at the same dangerous speed as his Jag. The diplomat left the room while he tried to catch up. Chan acknowledged that Cuthbert was answering a question: Chans. Back in Cuthberts office Chan had asked generally about the availability of top secret information for his inquiry; Cuthbert had commenced providing that information, using his own need to know criterion. Emily, it seemed, was a part of the answer.

Chan stood up to look for a bathroom. In the hall he glimpsed Cuthberts library. Not for him a few dozen paperbacks rotting in a cupboard. Not even the cultivated mans set of bookshelves. It was a real library with shelves from floor to ceiling, a small oak stepladder, an oak lectern in front of a window for a man who liked to read standing up. Next to the lectern an ashtray on a pedestal. At another window a cigar-colored leather chesterfield awaited a readers pleasure.

Cuthbert was back when Chan returned to the table. He resumed before Chan had sat down. Hill appeared at the same time with a wok of stewed lamb with dry bean curd, which he placed on the hot plate.

The complication was her greed. She saw an opportunity. Shed bought the lease to a two-story Chinese house in Central out of her own money, but she didnt have the funds to redevelop. Banks werent going to lend a twenty-six-year-old girl twenty million to build a high-rise, and her old man, being Chinese, wasnt either unless he owned a majority of the shares in the company. Spirited girl, cant deny it. Xian was only too pleased to help. He loaned her the money; she built her office block, made her four million profit-and discovered with a jolt that Xian owned her. The old devil had found the ideal way of laundering his ill-gotten gains; Hong Kong real estate. And Emily was the perfect front. Xians not the kind of chap you say no to, not if you want to live in this part of the world. The next time he needed to find a home for a few hundred million, he used Emily. Gave her all the status, all the face, all the profit she wanted. But she wasnt free. I cant count the number of times Ive had to talk her out of a suicidal depression. Lamb?

Emily depressed?

Cuthbert used a large wooden spoon to serve the lamb. Mmm. Wouldnt believe it, would you? But you see, Xian is a life sentence. Even when he dies, shell never be free; theres a whole army standing in line behind him. Its not that easy to live with, if youre the independent type. Of course, I couldnt use her again for anything delicate. Its part of my job to keep the lines open with Xian, though. It didnt much matter. Xian and I reached a kind of modus vivendi. We talk almost every day. Theres a lot to do when youre delivering six million people to someone else for safekeeping. The Englishman studied Chan for a moment. I believe you know quite a lot about laogai?

I have a friend who does.

I know, that tiresome old man in Wanchai.

Who spent most of his life as a slave in the laogaidui.

Quite. Then youll understand Emilys self-disgust. She launders money for an organization that derives much of its profit from the use of slaves. Slaves to grow the opium, hump the guns, cook the morphine. Chinese slaves, just like in the Middle Ages. Poor girl, there is absolutely no way out for her. She really is a divided soul. Tough as nails on the outside, riddled with self-loathing on the inside. Difficult to live with.

Sometimes Chan couldnt believe how stupid he was. He should have seen it on the boat, should have caught the subtle clues in tones and eye contact, should have guessed, at least, when Cuthbert had warned him not to sleep with Emily. It was his job, after all, to detect.

Hed been misled, largely, by the Englishmans personality. One pictured him so much more easily with a cricket bat or a rifle or a leather-bound tome than a woman. The phrase talk her out of a suicidal depression echoed in his mind. An ex-lovers phrase; the sort of duty a gentleman acknowledges toward a woman hes dropped. Chan saw Emily, ten years younger, less promiscuous, more of a prudish Chinese girl perhaps, wandering through this bachelors flat, trying to follow Cuthberts encyclopedic conversation. Their arguments would have been worth listening to.

Cuthberts revelations about Emily were fascinating but, on reflection, failed to carry the investigation any further.

Mr. Cuthbert, I dont understand.

Oh?

Under the diplomats raised eyebrows, Chan flustered. He sensed that he was being manipulated with a finesse that produced a twinge of nostalgia for the rough killers of Mongkok. He felt his chin jutting, along with other symptoms of a vulgar belligerence.

Perhaps youre trying to help me by supplying this information about Emily Ping. But I dont see how it fits.

Cuthbert leaned back in his chair, smiled. But surely thats your job, old chap?

Chan felt his tongue start to trip on a stutter. I-I-I thought, in fact Im sure, theres information somewhere, secret, in a computer You know? All these people, Xian, Emily Ping, Clare Coletti-they must be known to M16. I thought you would persuade the committee to give me access. I thought thats why I was invited here to lunch, to discuss it further.

Too late, Chan realized hed used a fatal word.

Committee? You mean some sort of hypersecret little group of gray men who know everything? Come on, Charlie, I thought back in my office wed agreed that such a notion was fantastic, absurd?

I thought you were being ironic when you denied it.

Cuthbert wrinkled his brow, rubbed the side of his cheek. You know, its a hard thing for a man like me to admit, but I do believe youre just a tad too subtle for me.

Chan felt hairs prickle at the back of his neck. Cuthberts mastery of diplomatic humility or sarcasm-with the English there was hardly a distinction-was effortless. Chan couldnt decide if it would have been worse if the political adviser were Chinese. As a Eurasian one did not always know which race one preferred to be screwed by.

Ive been told that Im to be given every facility. Stubbornness was the last resort of the outclassed.

Cuthbert opened his arms. Which is exactly why I invited you to lunch. Treat me like the horses mouth. Ask away, anything you like, anything. I promise Ill do my best to answer. Havent I just divulged half a file full of top secret information?

With zero risk, Chan muttered, looking away. And I daresay nothing Emily Ping wont tell me herself when I question her. Which I suppose is why you told me at all.

That evening at his desk in Mongkok Police Station Chan wrote on a piece of scrap paper: What do General Xian, Emily Ping, Moira Coletti, Mario Coletti, Clare Coletti have in common? Were they all invented in China? Does Cuthbert know?

To clear his mind, he walked to the warehouse to check the cameras. To his surprise, some of the film had been exposed. Someone had been in the warehouse and stood close enough to the fluorescent light fixture to interrupt the infrared beam. When he called forensic the next morning, a technician told him there was a queue for the lab; development of the film would take a few days.


| The Last Six Million Seconds | c