If Chan had not agreed to an evening meeting, he would never have guessed that the Walking Spittoon considered himself a ladies’ man. From a teahouse on Lan Fong Road Chan watched Saliver Kan in white linen slacks, white and blue suede shoes, Gucci multichrome belt, open-neck silk shirt the color of old gold. His left arm encircled a young Chinese woman who wore nothing at all. Well, almost nothing. Straps no thicker than shoelaces held up a kind of bouncing crimson tea towel joined over the buttocks by a short zip. On the other arm another woman complemented her colleague insofar as she was dressed from neck to ankles in a flesh-colored body stocking. Kan had emerged from a taxi and was walking the ladies slowly toward the rendezvous, a hotel of sorts that rented out rooms by the hour.
Such establishments were known as villas and were the brothel owners’ equivalent to a tax haven: No girls were employed on site-customers brought their own-and no offense was committed by renting out the rooms to those with an abbreviated need for shelter. Indeed, Chan knew that it was the proprietors’ constant dilemma whether or not to reduce the rental period to thirty minutes. An hour was too long in roughly 80 percent of cases, but the remaining 20 percent tended to represent the regular trade. Over in Kowloon Tong, where villas were an important factor in the economy, market research had resulted in a compromise: forty minutes with a penalty for staying over the checkout time.
“Give me half an hour after you see me enter the villa,” Kan had said. “Then check into room five. I’ll book it and the room next door. You should bring a girl, to make it look right.”
“Okay, then I’ll bring two.”
Chan wondered how the extra pair of hands would improve his cover, since she would be seen only with Kan. He had to admit, though, that the triad had developed a keen sense of security. Telephone calls had become nearly unintelligible because of Kan’s efforts to disguise his catarrh-laden voice. Chan didn’t understand what he was saying; he just knew who it was. Now Kan had insisted on a meeting on Hong Kong side, far from his usual haunts. Chan supposed that the early enthusiasm to use the reward to improve Sun Yee On finances had waned and Kan was moonlighting.
At the check-in desk Chan paid a bored middle-aged woman for an hour in room 5. Waiting for the lift, he felt her eyes upon him. Hers was an economic rather than a moral disapproval; whatever he was going to do alone, he could have done at home and saved five hundred dollars. Her gaze fixed on the flat bulge in his trouser pocket where he had slipped in his Sony Dictaphone.
The room itself was an Asian tribute to Aphrodite. The huge mirror on the ceiling reflected crimson bed linen; a note handwritten in Chinese offered a machine named magic fingers for two hundred dollars an hour, available from reception. An elaborate printed notice recorded the exceptional lengths the management went to in laundering the sheets and pointed out that the cupboard in the closet contained ten varieties of condoms in both Asian and Caucasian sizes, “on the house.” Which size would an honest Eurasian choose?
The walls were mostly mirrors too; ten thousand Chans watched ten thousand Chans draw up a chair, put his feet on the end of the bed and wait.
He saw that the room was one half of a double room, divided by a folding screen (with mirrors) that reached from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. On the other side of the screen, Kan’s unusual security arrangements were causing trouble.
“Ouch! Stop it”-Kan’s voice.
“Son of a bitch.”
“Ouch, will you tell her to stop pinching me?”
“Of course she’s pinching you. We told you, a thousand dollars each.”
“And I told you, I’m here on business. It’s a big deal; I’ll have the money early next week.”
“So why hire two girls if it’s business?”
“Front. It’s a secret international deal. You wouldn’t understand.”
“So why did you make us take our clothes off?”
Silence, followed by a snort. “A man gets curious. I didn’t do anything, did I?”
“Maybe you’re queer.”
“Don’t say that. I’ll get angry. And if that little bitch pinches me again, I’m going to hit her.”
“You hit her, I’ll scream. This place has triad protection.”
“Shit, that’s all I need. Look, here’s fifteen hundred dollars. It’s all I’ve got. I’ll give you the rest next week.”
“Fuck your mother. Better use the rest to get your nose fixed.”
“What’s wrong with my nose?”
“It doesn’t work properly; you keep sniffing.”
“Don’t get personal.”
“Don’t get personal? You saw my pussy, didn’t you? That’s personal.”
“Just get out of here.”
Sound of a zip being fastened, door opening and slamming.
Feet up, Chan reflected that the life of an underworld playboy was not all milk and honey. He lit a cigarette while Kan grappled with the divider. Slowly the triad emerged, shoulder to the screen, forcing it back on protesting rollers to reveal a room identical to the one Chan was in. Sweat had stained the golden silk of his shirt, and a severe red pinch mark discolored one cheek; otherwise the killer appeared unruffled, even smug.
“You hear all that?”
“Just the odd word.”
“Two women-it’s not easy.”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
Kan grinned and took out a comb. A thousand Kans checked jet black coiffure, rescued a stray hair, made sure their pants fell properly at the back, hitched their Gucci belts, hoicked deeply. He examined the swelling on his cheek with regret and pride.
“Which room shall we use as an office?” Chan asked.
Kan held up a finger. Chan watched while he checked light fittings and peered into mirrors.
“These places, often they have a blackmail option,” Kan explained. He spoke in a near whisper. “This thing of yours-I have information.”
“Somehow I thought so.”
“Somebody talked, but they want a cut.”
“Two million gives you something to play with.”
“I need some more.”
Kan examined him for signs of weakness.
Chan remained cool, immobile and secretly intrigued. Two million dollars had focused the foot soldier’s mind in a way that he found miraculous. Most killers had the attention span of goldfish; their crimes were the final expression of a buildup of rage or avarice when the personality took a backseat to primal, preintellectual man. Watching Kan conspire with something akin to applied intelligence, Chan wondered what could not be achieved in criminal reformation with the right approach. At two million a shot, though, it was cheaper to let them go on killing each other.
Kan sighed. “You’re hard.”
“I should never be let loose on sensitive types like you.”
Kan blinked. “This is no joke. The guy I spoke to is very scared. Fear is expensive to overcome.”
“I said no.”
Kan’s face expressed deep hurt. He leaned forward. “I’m betraying my own people. The Sun Yee On were involved.”
Chan took a long draw on his cigarette. Truly the power of money was boundless. “Another two hundred thousand, and that’s it.”
Kan smiled. “Okay. This is it. I know what happened.”
Chan nodded. “That’s good.”
“So, how about an advance?”
“Definitely not. You know the formula: Information leading to the arrest-”
“Okay, okay. So, three people were minced up alive by triads.”
“You don’t say.”
Kan’s whisper was fraught with sincerity. “It was a subcontract. Sun Yee On got the order, and 14K carried it out. Ever heard of anything like that before?”
Chan shook his head.
“And no foot soldiers were involved. It was top secret. Red Poles did all the work. Generals from both sides showed up to make sure it all went smoothly.”
Clearly Kan was overawed. It was as if Roosevelt and Churchill had attended at an Allied ambush.
“Where did it happen?”
“New Territories. West. I’m going to find out exactly where and take you. There’s a complication, though. Some people are hiding out up there. I’m not too clear on the details.”
Chan masked the sudden increase in his interest with a long draw on the cigarette. “You brought me here to tell me you’re not too clear?”
Kan lowered his voice still further. “No. I brought you here to arrange a rendezvous. Here’s a paper with five addresses, numbered one to five. When I phone you, I’ll just say a time and number and hang up. That’s where you’ll pick me up. Get it?”
Chan took the sheet of paper and looked at Kan. He was finally absorbing Kan’s main message: The killer was scared.
“And you show up alone. In a car alone. If not, it’s all off.”
Chan folded the paper, put it in a pocket. “Whatever you say.”
“I’m going now. You stay for another twenty minutes. When you leave, try to look like you had a good time. Frankly, you always seem like you’ve just spent twenty years in a monastery. Kind of dried up like a prune.”
“I’ll try. I just don’t have your way with women.”
Kan accepted the homage solemnly as he stepped back across the line between the two rooms. Chan watched him push the folding screen back into place. When he was sure that Kan had left, he took out the Sony Dictaphone, laid it on the bed. He needed another cigarette before he could face the grille. He lit up, switched on the machine.
“File one-two-eight/mgk/HOM/STC Memorandum to be classified secret and forwarded by hand to Commissioner Tsui and copied to the political adviser Mr. Milton Cuthbert. At nine P.M. on fifteenth May 1997 I attended at a meeting in a well-known villa in Lan Fong Road, Hong Kong Island, with informant Kan, a foot soldier in the Sun Yee On Triad Society. It is possible that Kan will be able to lead me to the present location of suspects Clare Coletti, Yu Ningkun and Mao Zingfu…”