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46

The Grand Hyatt is Renaissance Rome with more money and less God: vaulted ceilings, lamps held up by brass cupids at every elbow, more polished marble than you could point a spray can at, prices to bankrupt nonmembers of the millionaires club. The Gem Traders Society of Hong Kong is holding its annual bash in the main reception room on the ground floor.

Just my luck that neckties are fresh out of style among the gem-trading elite. Black Nehru jackets with high collars set off with sparkling diamonds in gold or silver are de rigueur, though you can sport rubies, sapphires, lapis lazuli, jade, pearls, opals, and even amber as long as the settings are the highest examples of the jewelers art; aquamarines and other species of beryl are not big in the Far East, but at the end of the day its all about the four Cs: color, cut, clarity, and carat. After a few minutes Im sure I hear those words in English and Cantonese repeated all over the room.

As far as male fashion is concerned, farang, at this kind of function if you are gauche enough to wear a thousand-dollar sports blazer, whatever you do dont wear a tie with it; no, sir, you just leave the top two buttons of your five-hundred-dollar shirt undone to reveal the independence of your spirit and the success of your business-and perhaps the bijou body-art tattoo just below your throat. Neckties are for the salaried masses and carry the stigma of middle management. So why dont I simply pull mine off? Because if I did they would start focusing on my jacket and pants; better they think Im just a decade out of date. How did I get into the party? Well, in a town where everyone knows everyone else, security is not that tight. I noticed how the guests casually flipped their gold-embossed invitation cards into an enormous silver bowl in front of a waiter in a starched white jacket, whom I distracted by playing with my gigantic garish tie with my left hand, flopping the end of it in front of him like a silk fish, while I clipped one of the cards from the silver bowl with the other. Oh, you want the invitation card? I exclaimed. Here it is. No billionaire ever chucked a gold-embossed invitation card into a silver bowl with more panache. I deeply impressed the waiter, who allowed me in with a respectful bow.

One thing for sure about Johnny Ng: hes as gay as a fairy light. I spot him from a distance behind a gigantic ice diamond about a yard wide which dominates the central buffet table. Except its not a diamond, is it? The ice has been dyed orangey pink, and the facets send slivers of light all over the enormous room. One catches Ng as he makes queenly gestures that cause his filigree gold bracelets to shake while he plays with the long thin gold chain around the neck of his Nehru jacket. Were separated by an army of narcissists, though. A lot of the men, all of whom are Chinese, have decked themselves out in jewelry just like Ng, although most are more conservatively dressed businessmen in tuxedos. This night is really for the women, however. I already know from my research that to the cognoscenti diamonds are common rocks compared to the incomparable padparadscha. I see plenty of them, along with other corundums hanging from long elegant Chinese necks of flawless alabaster. As everyone knows, the purpose of gems is to make girls eyes glitter, and so it is tonight: the whole place is ablaze with photons bouncing from polished stone into black Chinese eyeballs and out again. Theres not a female in the room who does not find herself irresistible. Some wear the traditional silk cheongsam, where dragons compete for nipples and there is a tantalizing slit all the way up one thigh, but the vast majority are sporting the very latest products from the best haute culture ateliers of Milan and Tokyo.

The crowd is excited by its own wealth and beauty and it takes me a while to work my way through to the main table: Chinese-style crispy pork and duck; wonton soup; snow fungus soup; dim sum; roast beef, English style; wok-fried vegetables of all kinds; blanched kaylan in oyster sauce; steamed fish in lemon sauce; spareribs with watercress and apricot kernels; scallops with ginger and garlic-Im describing just that corner of the table nearest to me. When I catch sight of the shellfish stand on the other side of the room, I decide to load up on oysters before approaching Ng, but I get distracted by the sushi table-then I see that the dessert booth includes cr^epes suzette made to order by the short-order chef in the tall white hat, and I gulp. Ive not eaten cr^epes suzette since Monsieur Truffaut entertained Nong and me at the Lucas Carton, off the place de la Madeleine in Paris. Exquisitely torn between the Sydney rock oysters on the one hand and the cr^epes on the other, I pause in the middle of the room-and notice I am being watched. Well, with so much wealth adorning peoples bodies youd expect the society would have taken care of its own security: there are quite a few Chinese men in tuxedos between the ages of thirty and forty with faces like rocks who are not participating in the high-pitched gossip and are certainly not interested in seducing anyone. At least two of them are staring at me. Under such pressure, one is forced into quick decisions. I go for the cr^epes suzette and wait patiently while the chef pours the mixture into the pan and adds the orange sauce, prodding the pancakes in the approved way until they are soaked in Cointreau. Conscious, now, that my remaining time as a privileged member of the global billionaires club is short, I stride as quickly as I can across the room in the direction of Johnny Ng, holding my plate piled high with cutely folded sauce-soaked pancakes that reek with the divinely fragrant sauce. The two bodyguards also adopt fast strides as they converge toward me, and it so happens that we all meet on the other side of the ice padparadscha, where Ng is playing with his gold chain and flirting with a younger man. I just have time to say, Good evening, Mr. Ng, hoping I pronounced the Ng right, when the two heavies, taken aback because I seem to know one of the stars of the evening, say something softly but firmly to Ng in Cantonese. Now, farang, if you think Thai is a singsong kind of language, try getting your ear around Cantonese. Its impossible to tell anything at all by Ngs tone when he gazes at me quickly and shrugs at the security guards. Then he turns to me and says in perfect English, Would you mind telling me who the hell you are?

I feel like Clark Kent when he removes his shirt as I pull at my tie to yank it off-its an identity issue-then take out my wallet to flash my cop ID. What Im interested in, of course, is his reaction to the Thai script and the royal emblem on the card. Sure enough, his expression flattens and his eyes harden when he looks up at me from examining the card. He says something firm and not at all fey to the two men, who nod and stand on either side of me. Go with them, Ng says. Ill join you shortly. Then, with the kind of contemptuous benevolence only the best crooks can muster, he glances at my cr^epes suzette and adds, You can take that with you. Anyone of good breeding would have been crushed, but his disdain has no effect on me at all. Im still holding the plate and munching on the last of the cr^epes when we reach the underground garage, the heavies and I.


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