Opium: Chan knew all about it. The story begins with a field of poppies in the Shan states on the border between Laos, China and Burma. Hmong tribesmen collect the sap first in small wooden bowls, then bundle it in tiny bamboo parcels: raw opium. Chinese traders of the Chiu Chow clan exchange salt, iron bars, silver coins for the harvest that begins each year in February.
As a seventeen-year-old cadet he’d taken part in busts of some of the last opium divans of yesteryear. He remembered small rooms with bunk beds, bamboo pipes with bowls a third of the way up the stem, spirit lamps and the sweet, heavy smell. Emaciated prostitutes combined the vices, selling in one market, buying in the other. Whores aside, the clients were mostly men, often middle-aged. Chan remembered his first corpse. Everyone else in the divan was so stoned they had not noticed the old man die. The old man hadn’t noticed either, to judge from the look of rapture on his face.
Opium was a subtle high that left the American warrior spirit unsatisfied, so when the number of GIs stationed in Vietnam increased to the hundreds of thousands, the Chiu Chow sought ways to improve their product. Encouraged by Ho Chi Minh, who saw the proliferation of the debilitating drug among the Americans as a legitimate war aim, and even by the CIA, which participated in the opium traffic from Laos to help pay for the war, the traders saw a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity. In factories hidden in Hong Kong, Thailand, South Vietnam, Taiwan-anywhere but Communist China during its puritanical phase-raw opium was added to drums of hot water and dissolved with lime fertilizer and ammonia: morphine. Boil the morphine with acetic anhydride for six hours at eight-five degrees Fahrenheit: brown heroin, known as brown sugar or simply Number 3. Asians smoked it or injected it like that and were satisfied, but the West needed a bone-jarring jolt to raise it from its strange despair. Add the Number 3 to alcohol, ether and hydrochloric acid. Sometimes there was an explosion that carried away the triad “cook” and most of his factory, but if performed well, the process produced Number 4 or pure white heroin; the American armed forces had found their high.
A hundred thousand GIs took their habit home, where it multiplied. The Chiu Chow adapted quickly to the huge new market on the other side of the world. With profit margins at over 1,000 percent they hardly bothered to smuggle plain opium anymore, and as a consequence nobody used it.
Well, almost nobody. Emily’s secret package continued to baffle him. A setup? A test? A gift? Why opium?
It was close to midnight by the time Chan’s taxi turned into Emily’s drive. Expecting a servant to open the door, he was surprised that the mistress herself stood in the doorway leaning against the frame. She held the top of a green silk kimono together with one hand.
“I know.” Chan held up a cheap black fiberglass briefcase. “I brought your gift back.”
She let him in and closed the door behind him. He watched her lock all three bolts and switch on an alarm at a console by the door. A minute red light started to flash.
“Burglars are a risk, I guess?”
“Kidnappers. You know that.”
She led him through the house to the veranda at the back. On a long marble table she had set out an opium pipe and a spirit lamp. He sat at the table, unlocked the black briefcase, took out the plastic bag with its sticky black contents, which he placed in front of her, locked the briefcase again.
He said: “I thought you were setting me up.”
“I was. I was going to have you busted by an ICAC officer who wants promotion after June; then I changed my mind. Wasn’t that nice of me?”
“Xian told you to get me under control?”
“Something like that.”
“What changed your mind?”
She touched his cheek. “Oh, you’re such a pretty boy I couldn’t stand to see you get into trouble.” She said it without a smile, almost mournfully. “I told him it wouldn’t work. You’re the martyr type: better death than compromise.”
Chan scowled. “Just out of interest, why opium?”
Emily looked away over the Lamma Channel. “It’s a family tradition. My father smoked; so did my grandfather. I never knew that Dad indulged every Friday night until Milton Cuthbert told me. When I confronted my father, he explained that working for the British, you need something to remind you from time to time that you’re Chinese. For him, smoking was a way of making contact with the ancestors. For me, it brings relief from stress.”
“I should arrest you.”
“Why don’t you?”
“You’d tell your friend Xian. He’d threaten to explode an atom bomb in Central.”
Emily winced. “I know nothing about that. I heard the rumor about weapons-grade uranium from someone in government only yesterday. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
“You asked me up here just to tell me that?”
She opened the package, lifted it up to her face, inhaled, set it down again.
“You must have spoken to Milton by now. I’ve heard that your investigation has expanded.”
“It’s becoming a very Chinese investigation. It grows without progressing.”
She smiled thinly without looking at him. “You think I’m the world’s biggest bitch?”
“Laogai,” Chan said.
It was like hitting a fairground target and causing loud bells to ring, except that the bells were violent tears. Chan thought of a child in deep pain, searching for comfort while its body contorted with sobs. A dedicated interrogator would drive home the advantage. Chan looked away, waited.
“Excuse me.” She held the tears long enough to rise from the table and walk quickly into the house. Chan heard a door bang and more sobs muffled by the building. It took her fifteen minutes to recover herself and return. She had switched kimonos. This one was an austere black drawn tightly up to her neck.
She sat down again more or less composed. “Perfect timing. I must congratulate you.”
“You wanted to know what I knew. Now you know. You want me to go?”
Her eyes hovered over the opium. “Such a reluctant detective. And everyone said you were a fanatic.”
Chan lit a cigarette. “I don’t like wasting time. You can help my investigation because you know something about Clare Coletti. This even a dunce like me can deduce. You are Xian’s main front in Hong Kong, so you know why he’s so damn interested in this case. Either you want to talk or you don’t. I can’t make you do things. You belong to Xian. He bought you ten years ago.”
Until he had spoken, Chan had not realized how angry he was. He was begging a possible accomplice to provide information because she was rich and powerful enough to despise the law. This was all wrong. No, it wasn’t wrong; it was Chinese. Refusing to look at her, he stared into the billion-dollar night. Below, moving lights-red, green and white-traced the movements of tankers. He felt her hand move over the table, slip over his own.
“Sleep with me.”
“How about underwater? We can use the pool.”
He faced her in surprise.
She smiled. “Joke.” She touched her hair. “Is disliking me more difficult than you thought?”
“Yes,” Chan admitted. “But I won’t sleep with you.”
She withdrew her hand. “Then if you want your answers, you’ll have to share a different pleasure with me. You’re right, there’s nothing in the world you can do to make me talk. Only the guilt can do that. Without opium I don’t think I’ll have the guts; we can’t all be righteous heroes. Why should I smoke alone? If you want to solve your case and save the world, a little smoke is no price at all to pay.”
She held his chin between finger and thumb and pulled his head around. “That no wasn’t half as convincing as the first. I think you like the edge. I think you made love to me eighty feet under water because you’re as curious about death as I am. Opium can take you into death. It’s a privilege the poppy offers people like us. With the body anesthetized, you walk through a door, and there it is: eternity in all its glory. Who knows what a man like you might find there?”
He watched her skilled fingers roll a tiny piece of the opium into a ball. She heated it on a pinhead over the spirit lamp. Her movements were too quick to follow. In less than a second she was holding the pipe up, tilted sideways over the spirit lamp. She sucked while jabbing the bubbling black ball with the pin to allow air to pass. She consumed the first dose in a second.
“Don’t try it so you’ll never know how good it is, isn’t that what they say? To someone like you, though, that’s an inducement. Take the pipe.”
“I can tell you everything you want to know. Not just about the case. I know so much. I’m weary with all this knowledge. I want to share it with a true hero who will know what to do with it.”
She touched his hair delicately with the tips of her fingers. It was eerie how her personality had begun to alter. He sensed a burden not of knowledge but of loneliness. She seemed almost shy. Her voice was softer and slower with a girlish lilt of longing. “Your friend, for example, that old man in Wanchai-I know about him.”
“I knew about him long before I knew about you. So many times I’ve been on the point of going to see him. I have information he could use, a whole head full. When you protected him, I admired you. I wanted to be like you. I wanted even more to be like that old man. Can you imagine, the purity of his soul? To live at peace with oneself like that…”
Her arm was around his shoulders. In her other hand she held the pipe. “It’s not like sex, my friend. I promise you, you’ll feel no connection, no obligation afterwards. Just a wonderful peace.”
He watched her prepare the pipe again. “Imagine, eight whole hours free from the demon that drives you. It will be the only holiday of your life.” She caressed his head. “Be kind to yourself for once; it’s only addictive if you do it a lot.”
When she had finished preparing the pipe, he hesitated, then bent forward to inhale. In the bowl of the pipe the black ball burned away.
He was disappointed to find that the drug had no apparent effect, except for a mild improvement in his patience. He slipped a hand into his pocket to flick a switch on the microphone that would activate the tape recorder and waited until she had smoked another pipe of her own. The receiver was locked with the tape recorder in the black briefcase.
“Milton told you he used me. But I’m sure he didn’t tell you what for?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“I was a go-between. Xian wasn’t happy about the Joint Declaration between London and Beijing; nobody had consulted him about it. He insisted on a secret protocol. Milton had to agree to his demands. There’s no border control on anything Xian wants to move out of China into Hong Kong. That was the deal. Of course it’s not the sort of thing anyone wanted written down, and neither Xian nor Milton was openly talking at that stage. That’s why they used me.”
Chan sat still, trying to absorb a simple phrase: no border control. He should have guessed; the most appalling answers are often correct. So much fell into place when the message of those three words was properly absorbed. He saw the outline of a fine historical irony: England as reluctant comprador; a drug that was steadily corroding Western societies.
“They let him bring anything in?”
“Anything at all. And he can ship from here too. Of course, once it leaves Hong Kong, it’s his risk.”
“And he runs the army in southern China?”
“He and sixteen other generals. Little by little they’ve bought up more than half the major public companies in Hong Kong, using proxies, of course. They’ve bought Hong Kong. It’s simple, but it’s brilliant. Shanghai collapsed in ’49 because the West took all its money away. They won’t do that this time because half the local companies are supported by Chinese shareholders with unlimited funds. As the British found last century, nothing is more reliable than narcotics.”
“You’re their agent. You launder the money, procure the proxies, set up the companies. That’s what you do?”
She nodded. “When it started, I didn’t know anything about laogai. I’d like you to believe that.”
It was possible. Laogai even now was hardly more than a rumor. The press rarely mentioned the slaves in the gulag over the border. In Mongkok it was no more than a Chinese whisper. Chan thought of an old man with wispy beard, John Lennon T-shirt and tunnels for eyes.
After the second pipe Chan felt a deep relaxation penetrate to the core of his being. Nerves that had been clenched for a lifetime stretched like cats and purred.
Emily carefully replaced the pipe on the table. “Before Milton I was a normally romantic twenty-six-year-old. I’d had only one other lover. Since him I’ve had hundreds, but no one even comes close. It was a bizarre triangle. I found him fascinating. Xian needed me. Milton was transfixed by Xian. At first I didn’t understand. Milton’s the most cultivated man I’ve ever met. His Mandarin is better than mine; his Cantonese is perfect; his Latin and Greek are not half bad. His main hobby is translating classical Chinese poets. Xian is a rough peasant with no education, twenty words of English and the heart of a butcher. But Xian’s instinct for power is infallible. Only Mao came close, and he’s dead. Milton told me once that he’d trade a lifetime’s erudition for one minute with a finger on a true lever of power. He’s a bystander, and Xian’s a major player; that’s the difference. Another pipe.”
“It’s the price you must pay, Chief Inspector. Nothing is free in Hong Kong, and you have nothing to offer except your virginity.”
He watched while she prepared the pipe and found himself dutifully inhaling the sweet smoke once again.
“Sex and opium are the best anesthetics. With sex you forget everything for a moment; with opium you remember even your worst transgressions with pleasure.”
“Clare Coletti,” Chan said. The words emerged slowly as if from another mouth in a graveyard tone. “She’s still alive, isn’t she?”
He had saved the question until now, expecting a dramatic reaction, but Emily appraised him as if checking his level of intoxication. She looked away, ignoring the question. “Milton taught me to smoke, of course; Dad warned me not to. But I guess Milton knew I would need it. He said if it was good enough for Thomas De Quincey and Sherlock Holmes, it was good enough for him. He’s very disciplined about it, of course.”
“Sherlock Holmes used cocaine,” Chan said, and almost giggled. He remembered the diplomat’s extreme languor on the boat that night. He felt Emily’s eyes studying him.
“It had to be you; there’s really no one else I can talk to. And it had to be opium because by morning this will be no more than an opium dream. You won’t even be sure if you’re remem bering correctly. You’ll have no proof.” She gave a short, humorless laugh. “For your purposes it really would have been preferable to screw me.”
“Clare…” He found he had difficulty remembering the last name. How odd, it was a surname he’d been living with for weeks.
“Coletti.” Emily placed both hands palms down on the marble table, stared at them for a moment. She heaved a great sigh. “Is she still alive? Perhaps she is. Does it matter that much? Let me start at the beginning. For years Xian had been thinking about linking up with an overseas organization on a permanent footing. He started negotiations with people in New York. He never mentioned anything to me about weapons-grade uranium. Then all of a sudden the most ridiculous woman in the world shows up, and-”
He had been exerting all his will to concentrate on what she was saying. He tried to convince himself that it was important, but somewhere in the middle distance other events of far greater significance were taking place. It was rude to ignore Emily, and there was his professional reputation at stake; he bent his mind back to the case. In his bending it, a tension grew that he was unable to control.
It happened suddenly, like a door springing open that had been locked for an age. In a blink he was not with Emily anymore. It was a summer’s day, and he was with Jenny on their old sampan. He noticed the colors-golds, blues and greens-how perfect they were, like the finest porcelain. Jenny was pointing to something in the water. He followed the direction of her arm. Mai-mai floated under the surface of an emerald sea. He thought at first that she was dead, but she turned her head to the sky. When she saw him, she smiled and beckoned eagerly. In slow motion he stood at the end of the sampan, gathered his energy and sprang in a perfect dive into the sea. He followed where she led, down, down, slowly down into the depths of a friendly ocean.
When she saw that the chief inspector had slipped away into an hallucination, Emily stood up. She stared at him transfixed. Under the influence of the drug the tension that normally afflicted him had fallen away. He looked boyish, naive-and beautiful. For a moment she toyed with a wicked thought, before discarding it as impractical. Some sins really were for men only. With a sigh she walked slowly toward the swimming pool. The problem with opium was the speed with which one built up a resistance. She would need ten pipes before she could reach Chan’s rapturous state. But for that kind of excess, one paid a price. Sometimes in place of rapture these days she often found demons: a line of gray, emaciated Chinese slaves with their hair in queues, stretching to infinity. Before each ghoul she knelt to ask forgiveness, and each one promised to forgive her as soon as she had been forgiven by his neighbor. It was a form of mental torture by repetition that exhausted her, when in the past the drug had always left her refreshed.
Even with the low dosage of the drug in her blood she could feel the slave-ghosts around her, a whispering army no more substantial than wind and just as persistent, calling her name with voices dry as grass. Quickly she returned to the table and her opium pipe. The only cure for opium phantoms was more opium. Sherlock Holmes and Thomas De Quincey both knew that.
Chan emerged from the opium dream in exactly the position in which he had entered it: elbows on the marble table, leaning forward eagerly, determined not to miss some compelling drama taking place in the middle distance. Even his brow was furrowed in the same way as five hours before. It was daylight now, and as the drug receded, he began to sweat in the glare of the sun. He searched the house, which was empty. Not even a servant appeared from the quarters at the back. Suddenly remembering and delving in his pocket, he found that the miniature microphone and transmitter were gone. The black briefcase that had contained the receiver and tape recorder was under the table where he had placed it. It was open-and empty. For ten minutes he stood motionless while every word and event from the previous night, both imagined and real, faded like a construction of mist even as he tried to grab at it with the open fingers of his mind. She had made a fool of him, this billionairess who was above the law, but he was still too opiated to care.
The swimming pool was empty too, and more tempting than money. He stripped, dived naked into the perfect blue: down, down. The beauty of opium was that the next day you felt as if you’d had the best sleep of a lifetime, even if someone did steal your dignity while you were dreaming. Still beautifully relaxed, he dressed and went to work.