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They. In Chans dream they can change shape, race, sex; they can even manifest as animals or spirits. He has seen them pass through walls; no matter how fast he runs, they are by his side, one step to the left and half a step behind. In some legends from ancient Chinese sorcery, death approaches from the left too. Are they fundamentally Chinese? At first he thought so. Little by little, though, they acquired some British attributes; one of them even appeared with a red face and a monocle. They stalk him. When he can stand it no longer, he turns to face them, daring them to kill him. They seem baffled by such behavior. He turns away; they resume their positions by his side, half a step behind. Its not exactly a nightmare, not even a dream, because when he wakes, they are still there. The explanation is simple. He is going insane.

He knows why. He saw it on the face of Chief Inspector Jack Siu. Brushing past other senior officers in the corridors of Mongkok Police Station and even more so at Arsenal Street, he notices a change in manner, a subtle distaste that they try to hide. Little by little it has filtered down to the lower levels. When the rumor, whatever it is, reaches inspector level, they will pounce. Just because youre paranoid doesnt mean theyre not after you. Two days after Emilys body was found he felt the atmosphere like a glass wall between him and the other officers. As he entered the police station, faces averted, then stole glances after him. In his office Aston wouldnt look up when he entered.

Any messages?

Aston, red-faced and embarrassed, raised his eyes. Just something from Siu at Arsenal Street. Theyve made an appointment for you to go over there at eleven this morning.

Aston lowered his eyes. In the canteen Chan saw that the rumor had descended to the tea lady. For traditional Chinese, bad luck is a social disease. She would not look in his eyes and disappeared into the pantry as soon as she had given him his tea. He heard her whispers to the other staff: bad joss. From the canteen he walked downstairs to the front doors and out into the street. In the crowds he found a way to bury his disgrace. He sat at a caf'e smoking until ten-thirty, then took the underground to Arsenal Street.

At reception it was obvious that he was expected. He was shown into a large conference room where Commissioner Tsui headed a small group of senior officers, including Riley. Jack Siu was the least senior. He sat in the middle of the table with a thick file on his left. On his right lay a transparent plastic evidence bag containing a womans black patent leather Chanel belt. Chan was told to sit at the far end of the table, opposite Tsui. Tsui said something about asking Riley to begin. A shorthand reporter whom Chan had not noticed in a corner of the room began writing with pencil in a notebook; she also used a tape recorder, which she switched on while Riley was saying something about deep regret and embarrassment. After a long, rambling speech he turned to Jack Siu.

Your prints were on the belt that was around her neck, Siu said, looking Chan in the eye. There may be an innocent explanation. If not, were going to charge you with murder.

Normally I would suspend you from duty until conclusion of this matter, Tsui said, avoiding Chans eyes. However, in view of the pressure on the mincer case, you will proceed with that and that alone-until further notice. Youll need a lawyer. Dont try to leave Hong Kong; youre on the stop list. You can go.

| The Last Six Million Seconds | c