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From Western spoors strange cultures grew. As a kid Chan had visited the west of the New Territories often, mostly to go clamming. He remembered paddy and duck ponds with fish. The symbiosis of the ponds fascinated his Chinese side: All day ducks sat on the still water and shit. Their droppings fertilized the ponds, causing algae and other vegetation to burgeon, which in turn were eaten by the fish. Either you fed the fish to the ducks or you sold the fish and the ducks at the end of the season. It was an example of money growing from nothing, Oriental magic at its best.

The ducks, though, didnt pay half so well as the container companies. Coming over a low hill, he saw it now, a horizontal city floating in the heat; closer, it was a necropolis of steel tombs, stacked two high, that came in two sizes: twenty feet by eight feet by eight feet or forty feet by eight feet by eight feet. Roll on, roll off, abbreviated to roro, had entered the Cantonese language. It was a mantra that conjured money from nowhere. Nothing defecated, nothing grew, but the rent came rolling in. In twenty years Hong Kong had become the second-busiest container port in the world, after Rotterdam, and those outsize trunks had to be put somewhere. Southern China, the destination of most of the goods, had no facilities for moving containers around, so the contents were emptied onto trucks in the container yards, and the containers left to wait in the parks until a ship needed them again. Roro, ho ho: it had happened so quickly the government hadnt any legislation in place for regulating this particular use of land.

Photographed from the air, it could look eerily regular in layout; on the ground a certain Chinese chaos intervened. Paths between the rectangular boxes lurched, some of the steel was rusted; in the older, discarded containers families had begun to keep pigs and chickens; some of the newer containers were raised on jacks to provide shelter for domestic pets and, occasionally, ducks. Old cars, stolen cars, disemboweled cars crouched in the shadows. The narrow corridors that were created, lengthened or closed off each time a container was parked remained uncharted and changeable; only local children were reliable guides.

Good place to hide, Chan, murder suspect, had to concede. Driving an unmarked car with Saliver Kan beside him in the passenger seat, he had no plan how to proceed. He slowed down as they came alongside the first huge double-stacked boxes, which carried the EVERGREEN logo. It was like being a child again, unable to see over the furniture.

Shit, Saliver said, lowered the window, spit.

On the top of the car an antenna sent signals from a transmitter installed in the dashboard instead of a radio. Chan wore a smaller antenna and transmitter that he was under orders to turn on as soon as they left the car.

Chan was more than ever mystified. The Hong Kong Police Force had its own unit of highly trained men to attack, disarm and, if necessary, kill dangerous fugitives or terrorists, and Chan had heard that Commissioner Tsui had wanted to use them for this operation. Cuthbert had persuaded the governor to overrule him: the uranium again. The men receiving Chans radio signals were all British Special Air Services officers, hard, white, fine-tuned killers with the personalities of anvils. The investigator had turned bird dog. Well, ever since his last meeting with Jack Siu and the commissioner, Chan was just thankful for any excuse to get away from the office.

His early intuition after the standoff with the Communist coastguards that day on the police launch had been that Beijing would exert pressure and the investigation would be aborted. As with so much in this case, he had been completely wrong. All of a sudden the Raj had woken up and was in a rage; at least Cuthbert was. Chan was forced to carry a machine pistol strapped to a harness around his chest. It was heavier than it looked and under pressure from the seat belt began to chafe. When they were strapping it on, Cuthbert had whispered in his ear: Dont be afraid to use it, Charlie. There wont be any inquiries; you have my word. There was a hunters eagerness in his tone.

Chan shifted the harness with one hand. I thought you knew where it was? he said to Kan.

Here. Its here, Kan waved at the containers. I didnt know there were this many. He hoicked thoughtfully. Imagine what you could hide here.

Chan slowed to fifteen miles per hour, tried to guess what Kan was thinking.

Well have to ask someone, Kan finally said.

Ask them what?

Theres a pattern made by the containers where theyre hiding. Distinctive. Im not telling you what. I know what youd do. Youd cut me out.

Chan stopped the car for Kan. He watched while the killer crossed the pavement to talk to a young girl about twelve years old. She had large oval eyes, a fringe of hair like a black velvet curtain, a smile to melt meat cleavers. Saliver returned cursing.

Can you believe that little bitch? He shook his head in philosophical disbelief.


She wants a thousand dollars.

So what are you waiting for?

Saliver stared at Chan as if he were stupid. For her to come down, of course.

Kan stood by the car with his back to the girl. Chan watched as she ambled closer, hit the murderer softly on his forearm.

Okay, nine hundred, she said.

It comes out of your reward, Chan said to Kan, and smiled at the child. Getting out of the car, he remembered to switch on his radio.

| The Last Six Million Seconds | c