Although it was fairly late in the evening before a slot could be found when all three men would be free, the commissioner for security, the commissioner of police and the political adviser all considered the matter sufficiently urgent to meet that night. Tsui picked up Caxton Smith, the commissioner for security, in his chauffeur-driven white Toyota. Together they entered the lift lobby of the government buildings in Queensway, which, at 10:00 P.M., were almost deserted. On the twenty-first floor they walked down the corridor to the office of the political adviser.
Of all the many hundreds of English men and women working for the Hong Kong government, only the political adviser was appointed directly by the Foreign Office in London out of its diplomatic service. He answered not to the governor but to the colonial masters in London and was intended to be the mother country’s eyes and ears. He oversaw every action by the colonial administration that could conceivably have an effect on the precarious relationship between London and Beijing.
Like the political adviser, the commissioner for security also spent 90 percent of his time preoccupied with Chinese matters, but for opposite reasons. Almost all of Hong Kong’s frontier, land and sea, was shared with the PRC and it was the C for S’s job to deal with the many border incidents that arose, from smuggling to illegal immigration to calculated border intimidation by Beijing.
Tsui, who had come from home, wore an open-neck shirt and casual trousers. The two Englishmen were still in their business suits. They sat at a long table in an anteroom to the PA’s main office.
Milton Cuthbert looked up from the short briefing Tsui had been able to send over before the meeting.
“Tell me, Ronny, about the murders first. That seems to be where it all begins.”
Tsui cleared his throat and hesitated a moment before speaking. “Apart from the sensational aspect, not that remarkable. You read about them in the papers. The so-called Mincer Murders. A vat of human flesh, which forensic analysis showed to be the product of three different bodies, was found decaying in a warehouse in Mongkok. The bodies had been put through an industrial mincer and were therefore totally unrecognizable. Further examination showed that all three had been minced while still alive.”
Cuthbert jerked his head up and raised his eyebrows. “You can tell that?”
“It’s all a question of the condition of the nerve endings and blood composition. When the body is in extreme pain, the nerves literally shrink in terror, just like the owner himself, and some sort of chemical is secreted into the blood. The mincer left fairly large chunks, permitting a minimal forensic examination. The mincemeat in the vat showed consistently clenched, terror-stricken nerves, and blood analysis supported the view that the victims were alive when minced.”
“Dear God,” Cuthbert said.
Caxton Smith rubbed his knees nervously. “Dreadful business.”
“Go on, Ronny.”
“There was one other startling revelation by forensic. The bodies had been decapitated during or after the mincing. That is to say that the heads were not minced. No cerebral matter at all was found in the vat.”
“Just a minute,” Caxton Smith said. “These victims were still alive whilst being minced, but decapitated?”
Tsui shot Smith a sharp glance. “Hardly. The only explanation is that at a certain point in the mincing-probably when the victims had already bled to death-the heads were removed.”
“And not found by the investigating team until today?”
“Evidently not,” Cuthbert said, “but let’s not jump the gun. Historical sequence, if you don’t mind, Ronny.”
Tsui paused to take a cough sweet out of a small box before proceeding. He sucked it as he spoke. “Preliminary investigations suggested that the murders were drug-related. At first we assumed the triads-who else? The district commander at Mongkok appointed Chief Inspector Chan to lead the inquiry. However, with the intense media interest and the discovery by Chan that his telephone was tapped and that someone had been copying the case files without his consent, I gave instructions that Chan should report directly to headquarters, a precaution I habitually take with high-profile cases. I appointed Chief Superintendent Riley to supervise the investigation.”
“How did he discover the illegal copying?” Cuthbert asked.
Tsui smiled. “Chan’s basically a streetfighting man. He came up through the ranks and has a hundred tricks up his sleeve. I seem to remember he pasted a hair over the file-something like that. I forget exactly what, but it was sufficient to convince him that there had been some copying done.”
“What was done about it?”
“The tap was removed, and the files were kept in a safe from then on. As far as we know, there’s been no further interference-at least until today.”
“The coastguards and all that?”
“Yes-it’s all in the briefing paper I sent you.”
The three men sat silently for several minutes. Caxton Smith was the first to break the silence. “Just to set my mind at rest, Ronny, why did you think it was a drug-related case?”
“It’s not a question of what I think. You simply have to start with a reasonable hypothesis to give your investigation direction, and drugs were the only one. First, Mongkok is a notorious triad center. Second, with the premeditated torture of three people it just doesn’t look like a crime of passion. Third, the perpetrators would have had to buy or borrow a large industrial meat mincer-an indication that money was no object. There are plenty of cheaper ways to intimidate and murder. Fourth, there had to be a degree of organization. Organized crime is financed in large part by drug dealing.”
“But it could have been a gangland vendetta?”
Tsui sucked loudly on his sweet. “Which brings me to my fifth and probably best reason. There have been no gangland reprisals as far as we know, and our intelligence is pretty good. Which suggests that the victims were murdered by their own organization.”
Tsui shrugged. “Who knows? Betrayal? Hands in the till? Knew too much? Tried to usurp someone higher up the triad pyramid?”
Cuthbert tapped the table. “Very well, three drug-related murders seem an eminently reasonable hypothesis. That doesn’t encroach on my patch at all.”
Tsui looked at him with something approaching amusement. Caxton Smith also smiled. Cuthbert looked from one to the other.
Caxton Smith spoke. “You know very well it doesn’t encroach on your patch, Milton, until you include in your list of suspects the world’s largest criminal organization specializing in the transportation and sale of heroin in Southeast Asia. Some call it the biggest triad of all.”
Tsui swallowed the last of his cough drop. “I believe he’s talking about the People’s Liberation Army, Milton.”
Cuthbert sat back in his seat, looked from one of his colleagues to the other, then fell into thought. One of the advantages of working for a benevolent dictatorship, which was what the colonial system amounted to, was that there was not a great turnover of personnel at the top. One saw the same faces at meetings year after year until what was left unsaid became more significant than anything in the minutes. There were also disadvantages. It was really not possible, for example, for him to maintain that the rumors of the extensive criminal interests of the People’s Liberation Army were untrue. All three men knew perfectly well that PLA generals these days sold sophisticated weaponry to the highest bidder by taking the Middle Eastern potentate, terrorist, whomever on a tour of his army and having him pick out the rocket, bomb, grenade, tank, whatever of his choice. And all this without the consent of anyone in Beijing. And then there were drugs.
The fact was that ever since Deng Xiaoping had seen what Mikhail Gorbachev had seen in the USSR-namely, that a conventional socialist economy sooner or later ends in bankruptcy-the natural genius of the Chinese people for every aspect of capitalism had been unleashed. And one of the commodities of the bad old times introduced by the British themselves-namely, opium, these days in the form of heroin-was suddenly doing a roaring trade all along the old route from northern Burma through Yunnan and overland to Hong Kong and Shanghai, hence by ship to just about anywhere west. In Yunnan the army was openly involved, but in Hong Kong the generals had to make use of the triads.
The problem, if you were political adviser to the governor of Hong Kong, was how to play down the delinquency of the three-million-man Communist army in order to avoid confrontation between the forces of law within the colony and the crooks in green over the border. This was the meaning of the silence around the table: The commissioner of police had brought with him the nightmare Cuthbert had been carefully sidestepping for the past ten years.
Caxton Smith broke the silence. “Let’s face it, it was bound to happen, sooner or later.”
Cuthbert grunted then stared at Tsui for a moment. “I think we need to know more about Chief Inspector Chan.”
Tsui nodded. From a slim plastic folder he drew a single sheet of paper.
“Chan Siu-kai, nicknamed Charlie by just about everyone after the ridiculous fictional character, is thirty-six years old. Divorced-from an Englishwoman. No children. He’s half Chinese, half of Irish extraction, but his loyalties and identity are entirely Chinese. His father disappeared without marrying his mother although he stayed long enough to provide Chan with a younger sister, Jenny Chan Wong. She’s a celebrated beauty and an ex-Miss Hong Kong, by the way, married to a wealthy Chinese lawyer.
“Most of Chan’s early life was spent in a squatter hut in the New Territories, not far from Sai Kung on the east coast. There’s a tragedy, I’m afraid. After the Irishman left her, Chan’s mother was killed by Red Guards during an ill-advised return to her native village in Guangdong. Charlie was fifteen years old at the time. Charlie and Jenny were left to be brought up by an aunt, who also lived in a nearby squatter hut. Chan joined the police as a constable when he was seventeen and rose steadily to his present rank of detective chief inspector. He’s not thought to be especially ambitious. His relatively rapid promotion has been due to a natural intelligence, tenacity in solving crimes and willingness to work long hours. Not especially social. Only hobby as far as we know is scuba diving, although in his twenties he won the police karate championship. Spends even more time at work now that his marriage has failed.”
Tsui put the paper down, waited.
“I see.” Cuthbert pressed his lips tight until the corners of his mouth turned down. “I did rather wonder why a perfectly ordinary chief inspector had bothered to stand up to some Communist thugs in their own waters. He hates them, I suppose?”
“I’ve never asked him. But how would you feel about the organization that directly or indirectly murdered your mother?”
Cuthbert glanced sharply at the commissioner. “Quite. But that does rather make him unsuitable for the present case, doesn’t it?”
Tsui’s features went flat. “You could say that. Although an administration with a little backbone might take the opposite view.”
Cuthbert stared at Tsui. Tsui stared back. Caxton Smith stared at the floor. There was a long silence.
“I think I understand Ronny’s point, Milton. And I agree with him,” Caxton Smith said eventually.
“Oh, really! What point is that?”
“That when it comes down to it, we British can be the world’s most nauseating cowards.”
Cuthbert looked from one to the other, tapped his pad, muttered unintelligibly, stood up, went to a window, stared out. The large ships in the harbor were lit up from stern to bow in garlands of light, like Christmas trees. Beyond them lay Kowloon, the other part of the colony of Hong Kong. And thirty miles to the north lay the People’s Republic of China where lived one quarter of the world’s population with an army of over three million and an enduring resentment against Great Britain dating back to the Opium Wars. Unlike the other two men, he regarded the land over the border as part of the constituency with which he worked. He understood Tsui’s point of view, but as a senior diplomat one had… other considerations.
He turned back to the table, drew his chair near to Tsui, who was sitting stiffly. When Cuthbert spoke, it was in a soft, almost consoling voice.
“Think about it, Ronny. If he finds out who was behind the killings, and he probably will, and if it’s who we think it might be, he’ll find a way to tell the world. I really can’t have a chief inspector with a twenty-odd-year-old grudge against the Communists upsetting the relationship between Great Britain and China. Not now, not barely two months away from the handover of power. Anyway, suppose the cat is let out of the bag. What is Britain supposed to do? Arrest the Red Army?”
It was Tsui’s turn to stand up. “Maybe letting the cat out of the bag is what matters. I’m Chinese; you’re not. On fourth June 1989 those old men in Beijing ordered the massacre of thousands of peaceful young demonstrators. They ran over them with tanks-minced them up, you might say. In eight weeks’ time those same old men will be running this place, where six million of my people have sought refuge. Every one of us sitting here will be gone. I’ll be retired, and you’ll be following your careers elsewhere. We can afford to make a fuss now, when there’s a chance of focusing world opinion on the problem. I would consider it a betrayal of my people to miss an opportunity to expose the nefarious activities of those thugs over the border. However, I’ve taken my oath to the queen and all that, and I’ll obey orders. But if you want me to take Chan off the case, I want it in writing, signed by the governor.”
Cuthbert’s face hardened. “Very well, Ronny. You’ll have your orders. Signed by the governor. But I’ll have to fax London first. Just hold Chan off for twenty-four hours, would you? And in the meantime I suggest you appoint this Chief Superintendent Riley to work closely with him. Just in case he gets a little too creative even for your taste.”
In the glacial silence that followed, it was Caxton Smith once more who intervened.
“What’s he like, this Chief Superintendent Riley?”
Tsui coughed. “Reliable, hardworking, sensitive to political nuances.”
“That sounds like an official line, Ronny,” Cuthbert interrupted. “Off the record, what sort of man is Riley?”
Although bilingual, Tsui thought first of a Cantonese word that he took a couple of seconds to translate into the English vernacular.
“He’s a jerk.” He looked from one to the other. “If that’s all, perhaps you’ll excuse me, gentlemen? Caxton, d’you mind finding your own way home?”
“Not at all, Ronny,” Smith said. He smiled.
“Good night, Ronny.” Cuthbert was able to sound cheerful, as if there had been no disagreement at all.
Tsui paused at the door. He seemed about to say something, then thought better of it and left. Cuthbert and Smith exchanged glances, like two men who after a long wait could finally get down to business.