At Asian borderlands immovable objects meet irresistible forces and come to arrangements. The irresistible force of communism had been reaching lucrative agreements with immovable British capitalism for almost fifty years-before Thatcher and the Joint Declaration, before and even during the Cultural Revolution.
Chan used his police ID card to cross the checkpoint into the restricted zone in the extreme northeast of the New Territories. From his taxi he recognized the first evidence. Huge quantities of cardboard boxes under corrugated iron shelters were to smuggling what aluminum foil and outsize cigarette papers were to marijuana: not conclusive proof of possession but a reliable indication. Human figures with crates moved in and out of blinding lights like stagehands.
The taxi dropped him farther down the road outside an unmanned office; the title CUSTOMS COMPOUND in English and Chinese was surely facetious. Behind the office the black Lexus on the end of a hook belonging to a small pickup truck seemed to his expert eye to have suffered damage only to its license plates; they were missing. As his vision adjusted to the mixture of halogen glare and primeval night, he saw that he stood on plain earth over which had been built a contraband town of open ironwork with sloping sheetmetal roofs. Articulated flatbeds waited with diesels running in deep shadow or under a white glare: the chiaroscuro of sophisticated crime. Instinctively he slipped into shadow from which he peered at the frontier hypermarket. The PRC section was mostly vegetables, fruit, cotton products, down-filled garments and low-quality ironware for kitchens and workshops. The nearest Hong Kong shelters stacked boxes of videos on boxes of televisions on boxes of laptops. Entrepreneurs with clients in the Communist state browsed ranks of Mercedeses, which respectful salesmen offered tax-free for cash, so long as it wasn’t renminbi, the official People’s currency that nobody wanted.
Despite the concentration of people, Chan was pleased to note an un-Chinese hush over the market town, a kind of lip service to nonexistent law enforcement. Apart from quietness, though, numbers of people, amounting here and there almost to a crowd, moved around with the kind of freedom that exists only in no-man’s-land. With so much democratic openness, where would a man in a wheelchair hide? Chan made for the desktops warehouse fifty yards in the direction of China.
Hide a leaf in a forest, hide a spy on a border: Lee was no fool. Men dressed only in shorts and clearly in a hurry unloaded boxes bearing famous names in information technology from five large vans carrying no advertising and no illumination over their number plates, even though their lights were on and engines running. Many languages described the contents of the boxes as “monitors,” “CPUs,” “keyboards,” “CD-ROM players” and “speakers.” Lee had never told him of this other side of Wheelchair Enterprises. The sixth van was shut at the back. It waited about ten yards from the others. Chan tapped an elaborate tattoo on the rear door and climbed in when it opened. From his chair Lee beamed with a sadist’s goodwill. Chan checked the interior of the van: a cripple, his wheelchair, another chair, a tower CPU on the floor, a desk and monitor glowing with the tropical colors of Windows 95.
“You work all hours,” Chan said.
“For the pleasure you have brought me, I’d give up sleep for the rest of my life. It’s not often a man gets the opportunity to start a war. And when the war is between the two groups he hates most in the world…” Lee raised his arms, kissed his fingers and dropped his hands in his lap. Chan had never seen him so close to peace.
“I know about the couriers-the American girl and her two Chinese friends,” Lee said.
“That’s what I mean-I know.”
Chan stared. “You know?”
“This morning some British soldiers shot them. It’s the advantage of information technology: I network, people E-mail me.” He opened his palms. “Kids talk to kids who talk to parents.” Lee’s eyes glistened. “News travels at twenty-eight thousand eight hundred bps, and that’s a relatively slow modem these days.”
Chan dragged the spare chair from a corner and sat.
“What else do you know?”
Lee leaned forward. “I told you, half a billion dollars: it was for a few kilos of uranium. The 14K burned him in a big, big way. He’s not a total clown, though. How do you check the market price of weapons-quality uranium if you are a Communist general who has never been further west than Yunnan? Stealthily, of course. It takes weeks. By the time he was sure that he could have found another supplier to sell him the stuff for a mere few million, he’d already paid. Ever seen a megalomaniac lose his temper? I wish I’d been there; it must have been electric. He gave orders to kill the couriers as soon as the stuff was delivered, see?”
“Almost.” Chan thought about it. “Well, not really.”
“So whom does the richest and maybe most powerful man in Asia use to assassinate triad couriers in Hong Kong, all of whom are American citizens? Not the People’s Liberation Army; the situation is still too sensitive for that.”
“Correct. And this is where it gets beautifully Chinese. He paid the Sun Yee On ten million to shred the 14K couriers as slowly as possible: revenge in the name of the people. He’s a Communist with no sense of history. The Sun Yee On were the biggest supporters of the Nationalists in the Civil War and the biggest losers when they all had to flee Chongqing in ’49. The Sun Yee On hate the Communists even more than the other triads do. They took the money and leaked the deal to the 14K. The 14K, naturally, were disappointed. They’d had a commercial arrangement; if he hadn’t liked their price, he could have gone elsewhere. The 14K are passionate about market forces.”
“Market forces,” Chan repeated.
“They make the world go round. The 14K pay the Sun Yee On another ten million to forget their contract with him. The 14K will take care of everything. They promise the Sun Yee On that they won’t regret it. The Sun Yee On agree. The main point is that it will look just like the Sun Yee On carried out the executions.”
“Probably the 14K would have gotten away with it if they hadn’t been so creative. The first thing they did was fail to deliver the uranium-they made it look like something went wrong and it had to be dumped-so they could pick it up later. But that’s not the best thing they did, is it? You have to admire their guts. Of course he suspected, but he had no proof, and for someone like him to act hysterically shows poor statesmanship. Even I admire their guts-can you believe I’m saying that?”
“It must have been pretty inspired, whatever they did to make you say that. And I need a cigarette before you tell me.”
Lee looked startled while Chan lit his Benson. “You mean, you still don’t know? The British didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“When the three couriers first disappeared, at the same time two of his best cadres were kidnapped in Guangdong.”
Chan spoke softly. “Say that again.”
“It’s true. It’s known. It’s probably even on the Internet. The bodies in the vat were unidentifiable, right?”
Slowly Chan exhaled. “Right.”
“So if the three couriers weren’t minced…”
Through smoke he saw a blinding light that illuminated the past few weeks: Xian’s clumsy approach on the boat, Cuthbert’s obsession, the tapping of his phone, the behavior of the coastguards, five grim SAS assassins specially flown in, the whole strange fraught atmosphere of the case; simplicity wasn’t always beautiful. This revelation was like looking in a shopwindow and seeing Fear, Greed, Loathing and Wrath as artifacts, carefully backlit.
“The third victim, the female? She wasn’t a cadre. She was Caucasian.”
“A backpacker they picked up in Thailand. Just some kid. They told her they were going to use her to smuggle heroin from Hong Kong to New York.”
“And now he knows for certain that his own men were shredded?”
“After today, when you found the real couriers? Of course he knows for certain. I phoned him and told him myself, gleefully. I couldn’t resist. I mean I really rubbed it in.”
“You know Xian?”
Lee shrugged. “We do a little business from time to time.” He spit on the floor. “So what? I do business with the 14K, but I still hate them.”
Chan buried his head in his hands.