In his twenty-five-hundred-year-old masterpiece The Art of War Sun-tzu exalts one principle above all others: Cover your back. Chan supposed government servants worldwide lived by that motto, whether they’d read Sun-tzu or not. At his desk in Mongkok he dictated a memorandum to the Commissioner of Police the Right Honorable Ronald Tsui, JP, copied to Chief Superintendent John Riley.
The deceased, Madame Emily Ping Lin-kok, was known to me both socially and as someone who may have had information relevant to the above investigation. On 11 May 1997 at around midnight (no earlier time for the interview could be arranged) I visited her at her mansion on Old Peak Road. We sat together at a marble table on her veranda near her swimming pool. Unfortunately Madame Ping was unable or unwilling to provide any information relevant to the investigation, and I left sometime later. It is likely, therefore, that my own fingerprints will have been lifted from the aforementioned marble table.
Signed: Chan Siu-kai, Chief Inspector, Homicide
On the front page of the South China Morning Post Jonathan Wong read of Emily’s death. The report hinted strongly at suicide although the investigation was not complete. He read the follow-up feature in the middle pages-a flattering resume of her life with testimonials to her commercial genius (a genius that, it was suggested, may have contained seeds of imbalance)-then put the newspaper on his desk.
Poor Emily… just like a woman, to play hard ball harder than anyone else and then expect to be forgiven, even loved for it. My friend the bitch is dead.
He stood up, walked around his desk with an eye fixed on the newspaper article. He searched his heart for sorrow but found instead a kind of hysteria that broke on his face in the form of a grin. The empress was dead, just as the old man had predicted. Wong wondered if the old man had killed her. It seemed unlikely, somehow. He was not that kind of psychopath.
Now was the moment to make his choice. He ought to reflect, go home and discuss it with that beautiful wife whom he had rescued from the gutter and who despised him.
Instead he picked up the telephone and dialed a number that he had written on a scrap of paper, something he rarely did.
“I would like to see you,” he said into the receiver. After listening for less than twenty seconds, he replaced it again. Even so are decisions made that bend souls. Well, he would not expect to be loved-or even forgiven.
He stood up, took advantage of the harbor view that was a privilege of partners in his firm. He watched a Star Ferry cross to Kowloon and a 747 take off from the airstrip that jutted into the water. Still standing, he pressed one of the internal autodial numbers on his telephone. The LED display showed that he was calling Rathbone, the senior partner.
“I’m going to need to see you. It’s about the matter we discussed. You’ll have to bring the other three. No, not now. When I tell you. Just stand by. And call a full partners’ meeting for next week. Just do as I say.”
He retrieved his jacket from a wardrobe behind his chair, walked around his desk and paused again at the view. He’d gazed upon it so often for so long it was a kind of inner landscape. There was nothing, not his flat, his wife’s body, the palm of his hand, that he knew better, but it had changed overnight. It was like a bar of music that one has heard for years; suddenly someone has the idea of playing it in a different key, and the meaning is altered forever. To his eyes the harbor view was as alluring as always, but darker and infinitely more powerful. Come to think of it, it was even more entrancing than before.
“I’ll be about an hour,” he told his secretary, and walked quickly to the lift lobby.
On Statue Square he strolled to the Hong Kong Bank building, walked under it, crossed Queen’s Road, passed in front of the Hilton until he reached Cotton Tree Drive, which he crossed; a few hundred yards later he was at the Bank of China. At the reception desk he gave his name and the name of the man he had come to see. The old security guard nodded respectfully and, after making a telephone call, gestured to the private lift at the back. A Chinese secretary arrived to escort Wong to the top floor. She spoke to him in Mandarin with a Beijing accent. Her manners were not as good as a Hong Kong secretary’s would have been, but he liked the look in her eye and the way she stood: military style with legs apart, hands behind her back. Conquest was a state of mind.
Xian wore almost the same clothes as he had on Emily’s boat: black shirt, creased slacks, worn sneakers that rested at angles on the Italian leather two-tone pouffe. The general was lighting a cigarette as Jonathan approached. From the glass-roofed cocktail lounge the view was much better than from Jonathan’s office: higher, more panoramic, more commanding.
Xian pointed to a leather armchair. “Women have everything except strong nerves,” the old man said. “You’ve come to accept my offer…”
When Xian had finished speaking, Wong stood, bowed and left the room.
On returning to his office, his secretary told him that a meeting had been arranged with the senior partners in the main boardroom.
Rathbone stood in front of the board table with his legs planted apart and his arms folded-like a bouncer in a nightclub, Wong always thought. Ng, Watson and Savile stood in various contemplative postures around the large boadroom. Ng half leaned on a polished teak credenza near the window; success meant a saturation of harbor views. Wong could see the uncertainty in the eyes of the three Englishmen. Ng was less concerned. Wong strode to the head of the board table, where he took a chair. The others sat near him.
“I’ve just come from the general,” Wong said. Watson looked away; Ng nodded respectfully; Savile blinked; Rathbone stared at his hands. On the way back from Xian, Wong had debated with himself how to run the meeting. He had toyed with various subtle approaches, then abandoned them. He was developing mainland ways.
“He’s offering us work.”
“Good,” Rathbone said.
“Excellent,” Ng said.
“Well done indeed,” Savile said.
“You all know that Xian and his friends will be running this place after June. They practically run it already. So it’s not quite an offer exactly. It’s an order. The work we’ll be required to do is somewhat unorthodox for a firm of solicitors.”
Wong paused to look into each man’s face. What he was about to say could not really shock them; they were nothing if not shrewd. They must have worked it out at least in part. He ought to have been surprised that none of them had talked about resigning. After all, they were each of them stupendously rich already, the poorest of them being worth at least ten million U.S. dollars. Greed was a fascinating study. It afflicted mediocrities more than most. It caused the mind to fixate not on what one had but upon what one was about to acquire. Even as they sat at the table, each man was silently calculating.
“With the death of Emily Ping,” Wong continued, “Xian needs a representative and a comprador. This firm will fulfill that function. We shall import on his behalf. In strict secrecy, of course.”
“May one inquire what?” Savile asked with a foolish beam.
“Weapons of mass destruction.”
Savile looked pensive. “Something will have to be said at the full partners’ meeting next week. It’s going to take a little finessing.”
“Tush,” Wong said. “They’re commercial lawyers, aren’t they? Subhuman apparatchiks, in other words, powered by greed. They’ll follow the money.” He looked into Savile’s porcine eyes. “Just like you, Cecil.”