Arsenal Street Police Headquarters was only a short walk from Wanchai, where Chan had trained as a cadet. On the surface the area was a red-light district of international renown, but Chan was intimate with its other features. He liked the old-style low-rise apartment blocks in the narrow back streets with their external chaos of air-conditioning units, hanging gardens, illegal balconies, chicken-wire aviaries and satellite dishes. In a side alley he opened his lungs to Chinese odors. Every neighborhood had its essence; Mongkok, where he lived and worked, was a full-bodied diesel with nuances of glutamate. Wanchai’s was a lighter palette: fried cabbage, stale beer and hundred-year-old sex.
Despite his Caucasian features, he merged effortlessly with the pavement beggars and bag people, the street vendors and the small shop owners who rarely closed their narrow roll-down shutters before ten o’clock at night. Culture was a matter of personal history expressed through subliminal gestures; within seconds people who had never met him before accepted him as Chinese. His mastery of the street slang helped. He sank gratefully into a feeling of ethnic belonging. Speaking the language his mother had spoken to the kind of people she had spent her life with, he became almost loquacious. In the vegetable market that meandered for a quarter mile the length of Wanchai Road he bargained for pleasure at stalls selling half-black eggs that had been buried in the ground, jackfruit, garlic, ginseng, live frogs and chicks. He watched three women pick at bean sprouts; he discussed next Wednesday’s racing at Happy Valley with men he knew to be triad members and matched them expletive for expletive. Chan would have turned down the governorship of Hong Kong so long as he could always be Chinese in an Asian street market.
He basked in anonymity for forty minutes before he admitted to himself that he had come to see the old man. He turned down a side street in which five men strolled toward him in single file, each carrying a bamboo bird cage containing a tiny yellow bird. A few yards down the narrow street he stopped at the Kwong Hing Book Store Ltd. The name of the company was the only Roman lettering in the store. Every book was printed on a Chinese press in Chinese characters. Chan liked the smell of Chinese books, subtly different from Western books. There were no pictures on the heavy paper covers, no commercialism at all; the print was everything. It was the way books should always smell: paper, binding and words, no frills.
There was no counter and no register at which to take money, only a cheap wooden desk in one corner and behind it an old Chinese man with a gray beard constructed of sparse hairs, some of which reached as far as his T-shirt, which was black and bore a portrait of John Lennon. He looked up.
Under the beard the skin was stretched over unfleshed bones. The eyes glinted like water at the bottom of a well. It was a face that shocked; it bore no sign of physical abuse, yet Chan could not look at it without seeing suffering beyond that which humans were designed to endure. The old man nodded.
“Well, well.” He spoke English with an American accent.
“I was just passing.”
“Aren’t you pleased to see me?”
“The man who saved me from exile? Sure. I thought you’d dropped me. It’s been a long time.”
“Only six months.”
“Too long.” The deep eyes flashed at Chan. “I scared you last time, huh?”
“You scare everybody.”
The old man sighed. “Not me. Truth. That’s what scares everybody.” Chan nodded. “But you came back. I knew you would.”
The old man chuckled. “Actually, no. But I hoped you would. You’re not an ordinary Chinese. You’re half Irish. Sometimes the Irish are attracted to truth. It’s a kind of minority reaction against the main bias of their culture.” He smiled. The American English was perfect and somehow dated. Chan thought of American films set in small towns in the fifties. “And then there was my little problem last year. You showed character. You’re different, for sure.”
“They were abusing the law. You were right.”
“ ‘They’ being the government of Hong Kong. Your employers, as a matter of fact. They were looking for a pretext for deporting me, and you spoke up for me. It could have damaged your career. That showed guts.”
Chan shrugged. “They didn’t hold it against me. The British aren’t vindictive.”
The old man turned his head thoughtfully as if considering the point. “True. They’re hard to like, but they have definite qualities. If the Third World had remained at the emotional age of thirteen the British Empire could have lasted a thousand years.”
“You’ve been writing?”
He nodded emphatically. “I’ve found a new publisher in San Francisco. Outrage doesn’t sell the way it did in the sixties, but he thinks the whole China thing is more marketable than it was.” He held up his hands. “I do what I can.”
Chan smiled, despite a sense of doom. “If they try to deport you again, they won’t listen to a cop like me telling them you’re an honest citizen and you loved your mother. They’ll find a way. The British only take so much democracy; then things happen behind closed doors. They’re like that.”
The old man harrumphed. “I would like them to deport me for publishing a book. Think of the publicity. Someone might actually buy it.”
Chan nodded. “Well, no one can say you’re a quitter.”
The old man frowned. “I told you why. You steal a man’s soul only once. Second time he fights to the death. I told you that.”
“Yes. I remember.”
“That’s what scared you?”
“So what scared you? I like to know these things; it helps refine my marketing.”
“The photographs, of course. Photographs scare more than words.”
The old man looked at Chan. “I don’t really believe I scared you. I know every shade of fear, every nuance. I’m a world authority on fear, and you weren’t afraid. You were upset but not afraid.”
Chan shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps I need to see them again. You still have them?”
“Even more. I get photos like that almost every month now.” Chan remembered the old man’s curious way of sliding his eyes over him. It was like a radar scan that was over in less than a second. Chan knew it as a survival skill developed by long-term prisoners. “Something happen to you today?” The old man looked away as he said it.
Chan shrugged. “Just a case I’m working on.”
“There’s a China dimension; at least there might be.”
“Ah! The dragon blew on you. Now you want to know more about the dragon?”
“Maybe those pictures will focus what I’m feeling. I don’t know.”
With difficulty the old man stood up. “You’re a good boy. A little slow but good. I’ll show you those pictures, and some new ones, on one condition. I have a potential recruit coming next week with his wife. I would like you to be here.”
“Don’t pretend to be dumb. On my own I’m an eccentric old fart with poor Cantonese and an American accent. I’m also a world-class loser, according to the value structures of this city. With a chief inspector of police in the room, though, I could look almost respectable.”
Chan looked the old man in the eye. “You’re ruthless.”
“You mean I’m using you? Of course. Not for any hope of personal gain, though. You’ll come?”
Chan remained silent.
The old man smiled again. “You’re a real old-style Chinaman, even if you do have Irish genes. You bury gold under old rags. I bet I’m the only one in this whole town who knows you have the heart of a saint.”
“You’re right, you need to refine your marketing. Me as saint isn’t even vaguely credible.”
He followed the old man into a tiny bedroom adjacent to the bookshop. The old man pointed at black-and-white photographs strung on lines across the bed. Chan gave the old man a sharp glance.
“You took them out of the box?”
“I sleep with them,” the old man said gruffly. “Weird, huh?”
Chan did not answer. In the picture in front of his nose he recognized the fallen features of someone condemned to death. A printed caption at the bottom of the photograph read: “Female prisoner being escorted by military policemen in an execution parade held in Baise Municipality of Guangxi Autonomous Region on August 29, 1990.” As his eye took in the other photographs on the string, he saw that each one recorded an execution. Some of the captions recorded executions that had taken place as recently as a month ago.
The old man’s hand was gripping his arm because Chan had started to shake. Blinking down tears, Chan pulled himself free. “I better go.”
The old man followed him back into the bookshop. He looked into the black tunnel eyes. The old man made his features plead. “Try to make Thursday.”
At the door Chan left without saying good-bye. Out in the street he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. China: The Hong Kong experience was like camping in the mouth of a cyclops’s lair. Survival required meticulous study of the creature’s habits, but everyone came sooner or later to the same conclusion: The cyclops was insane.