George Adams

















                                   For Kathy









     There are so many ways of taking vengeance on the world.    

    Sometimes literature is simply not enough. – John Le Carré.




It had been a slack morning at the office, another of those desultory periods when husbands for some reason were no longer running across the border to discover second or third wives, when schoolgirls were actually going to school rather than providing hasty sexual services in karaoke bars at lunch time to middle-aged men and when most people were paying back their loans to the finance houses. In International Plaza in Wanchai, my partner Larry Snowdon  was coming in later and later each day to go through the voice mail and post-it notes Virginia, our tall Chinese office girl and permanent frustration, had garnered the previous afternooon. Larry and I had the perfect relationship. We brought out the worst and the best of each other. Thrown out of the local police for devotion to drink, he had discovered cannabis and other substances instead. He spoke perfect Cantonese, had a devoted Filipino wife and an extraordinary knowledge of Hong Kong’s underbelly. He was both broader and shorter than myself. We looked like some seaside comedy act when in public. In private, we scowled at each other, each of us believing we had reached a new low.


“ Something for you,” he said and stuck the post-it on my glass topped desk in the little alcove overlooking a large sign outside for traditional Thai massage.


“ Lost dog? Annoying neighbour?”


“ No. Sounds rather interesting. Moneyed address if I’m not mistaken. Political connections. This could be the big break.”


“ You don’t say.”


I left the cramped, refrigerated splendour of Great Eagle Investigations ten minutes later. The note said urgent and I could call any morning before one pm. I took the mirror-clad lift down to the ground floor and stepped into the surprising freshness of October, that time of the year when the drenching humidity of Hong Kong backs off a little and fills up the airport and the bars and the shops with German commercial buyers and sensible tourists. Wanchai almost sparkled in the sunlight and I boarded a red minibus. Within twenty minutes I was standing in front of Chemchina Commercial Mansions, a huge bulging monolith surging up towards the smoggy firmament of deepest North Point. It had been opened a few months previously with all the usual fanfares and with record rents for the area. I was dressed on this occasion in my chalk-stripe three-piece suit with the unfashionably wide lapels, a newish Marks and Spencer button-collar white shirt and a sensible striped tie. My London brogues were shiny and tied neatly and my still noticeably blond hair was clipped, in control and recently washed. My partially bitten fingernails were at least clean and my face was shiny, pink and reasonably well-rested. All in all, I was everything the professional private detective ought to be. I was calling on a lot of money.


I had rung the number on the post-it and had found out that I was visiting a member of the Legislative Council called Anson Chow. She belonged to something called the Democratic Alliance for The Betterment Of Hong Kong. The party was aligned to all the Mainland’s views on Hong Kong and valued ideas like patriotism, consensus and the status quo. I vaguely remembered seeing Chow on posters and in newspaper articles, mostly at rallies or press conferences, where she espoused thoughts even more repellent than her flabby, greedy, inharmonious visage.


The security check in the vast black marble foyer was rigorous to the extent that I had to actually sign in and produce my identity card. Most foreigners are absolved the procedure. The security men were neat, trim, young Nepalis in blue berets. They actually looked as if they could secure something. Most of the security guards in Hong Kong were old men with the awareness of mummies and did double shifts. The lift was considerably smoother and more capacious than at International Plaza and for a moment I had a nostaglic reverie of Chambers in the Lippo Centre, glorious days when money came in buckets or at least generous bank transfers. Ou sont les cheques d’antan.


The lift opened slowly and smoothly and I was on Mrs Chow’s floor, the 38th. The atmosphere was surprisingly subdued and businesslike. It could have been an insurance company’s or a solictor’s. The receptionist sat at a high, short curved desk made of lacquered pine. Behind her was a composite picture of Hong Kong on a smogless day with various worthies of the DAB in heroic or jocular poses, meeting the Volk, doing good works or bantering with important personages. The slogan was in Chinese and it looked like “Forward With The People” or some such mush. On a long, blue upholstered bench there sat a collection of forlorn-looking locals, voters perhaps who had come for a consultation, redress of some kind of wrong or simply a handout. I laid my card in a small plastic tray and said:


“ I’m expected.”


“ Please take a seat, Mr Trelford.”


The receptionist was the sort of girl I would get the hots for in the old days, not because she was particularly attractive but rather because she looked such a challenge. She was kind of mousy, bespectacled but under it she had smooth skin, large eyes and all kinds of virginal hang-ups. She disappeared for several moments behind a large grey screen and there were a few murmurs, a conclusion reached and before I knew it I was being led down an anonymous-looking corridor to an equally anonymous-looking door. The girl, who I now saw had more than acceptable legs, tapped lightly and I entered. The door closed behind me with a soft swoosh but that might have been the girl’s legs.


The office was calculated to impress and reassure at the same time. You could have got all of our office at International Plaze in it and a couple of BMW parking spaces besides. The carpet was soft but you didn’t quite feel like you were wading in something. The hard wooden chairs dared you to sit in them but you couldn’t get a backache after only fifteen minutes. The light was subdued but you had a feeling that it could be turned up at a moment’s notice to or help out a visiting film crew, grill a quisling or examine the genunineness of a suitcase of hard currency 


At the head of the room, by some subtly shaded bay windows, sat Mrs Anson Chow. Her desk looked from this distance like a convoluted Korean chest and I had only spotted something similar in the office of a very old firm of solicitors which specialised in Mainland law, what little there was of it at that time. It was all brass and redwood and seemed to say “We’re Oriental, don’t you know it.” The theme extended into the lugubrious pictures of Chinese landscapes which might have been worth a fortune or could have been bought at a junk shop to fit the walls. The lines of books looked too comfortable and spoilt, as if they never had to leave home. Whatever business went on in the office, books didn’t come into it.


“ Ah, come closer Mr Trelford. Take a seat.”


The voice was of a crinkle-faced and stiffly permed dragon of a woman who might have been fifty-four or only fifty-five and lying about it. She had installed herself in an orthopaedic-looking redwood chair relieved by humane cushions at her back and padded armrests at the side.  As I approached her across the yielding, ankle-tickling carpet I saw that she was everything I had suspected. A lot of money in the shape of jewellery and dress had been applied to little result. She still looked one generation away from a Guangdong pig farm.


“ The business is very urgent and very confidential.”


I sat down in a chair too low, unrelieved by cushions, and suddenly became awake for some reason. Mrs Chow proffered a card with a lot of titles under the main name, a nice card, not too showy and no gold to be seen anwhere on it. I reached for my own, which was rather tasteful if all you had to compete with were a firm of plumbers or budget undertakers. Mrs Chow scanned it with vague disdain.


“ I see you’re a barrister, Mr Trelford.”


“ Resting, as they say in show business.”


She obviously knew why but she wasn’t letting on.


“ You’re probably wondering why I should choose a..foreign firm to handle my little problem.”


“ It had crossed my mind.”


“ Well. I assume you have people in the office who can speak Chinese. That isn’t the problem, I think. We need someone of a certain..delicacy. And the person involved is not what you could call a local person in any real sense. She’s my daughter.”


While I was taking all that in, she stood up, lent across the desk and was just about able to place a piece of paper and a glossy photograph in front of me. The face on the photograph looked more than appealing. It was the kind of face you saw in the Hong Kong Tatler, hugging a glass of orange juice with a napkin around it, looking gorgeous in an embarrassed kind of way, the way sweet and lovely twenty-something Hong Kong girls do when they have a lot of money behind them. The note attached to it was a fragment of an e-mail dated two days previously. The address had been obliterated.



Dear Mommy,


....Please don’t try and find me. I really think it’s best I left Hong Kong for a while and thought about what I am going to do the rest of my life. I’m quite safe. I’ll be in touch again soon. You don’t have to worry.


I left the Lancia with Mr Sung in Stanley. He has the keys anyway but I don’t know where he parked it. I don’t want to cause him more expense so can you pick it up for me and park it in your garage until I come back?






“ Nice English.”


“ She was educated abroad. England mainly. She’s hardly Chinese at all.”


“ So why do you think she’s suddenly run off like this?”


“ I have no idea. She’s always been an emotional girl. But steady.”


Our case files were full of the same type but I said nothing.


“ So what do you want me to do exactly?”


“ I want you to find her Mr Trelford. And tell her to come back to Hong Kong. She’s been working as a political research officer in the Southern District for some time and she used the premises of Mr Sung’s Kai Fung association for that purpose.”


“ Well, it might help to have the whole e-mail plus the address.”


“ I’m afraid I can’t give you that at present. The rest of the mail is rather personal. If you wish to communicate with her, I’d also like to see the draft of your mail first.”


“ Why would that be exactly, Mrs Chow.”


She let that go and fiddled with her blotter a moment.


“ Did she live with you?”


“Yes. Of course.”


“ Any boyfriends?”


“ None that I know of. She is of course a most popular girl.”


And probably under twenty-four-hour surveillance, I thought, but said nothing.


“ Could you possibly tell me if what she said in the rest of the e-mail gives you any clue as to why she’s run off?”


Mrs Chow’s bespectacled eyes darted a moment.


“ That has no bearing on the case.”


“ If a pretty young girl like this suddenly gets it in her head to run away, where does your motherly instinct tell you she would go?”


“ She could be anywhere. She has her own resources. Credit cards, an allowance.”


“ Why didn’t she take the car?”


“ I’m afraid I have no idea.”


I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere fast.


“ You will tell me Mrs Chow if you hear from her in any way. People often run off for all sorts of reasons and they usually turn up again. But now and again they don’t. Have you contaced the police?”


“ Why should I have?”


“ Well, they would be able to tell us right away if she had crossed the border, gone to China or taken a ferry or a plane somewhere.”


“ I couldn’t possibly do that. As I said, Mr Trelford, this is a delicate family matter and has to be handled with some caution.”


So there I was again like most of the gumshoes and shamuses throughout history with half a cock-eyed story from a clammed-up client caught between a wild goose chase and dangling at the office for another week. I decided to take the case.




Stanley that afternoon was basking in what might have been idyllic South China Sea sunshine if it had not been for the smog bank which was moving in with impressive zeal across the water. The traders had claimed yet another centimetre of the pavements and alleyways to display their silk handbags, pashmina shawls, polyester ties, fridge magnets, oversized t-shirts, marble globes, chemical hand warmers and cards with your name in Chinese hand crafted for all to see. Tired retirees from America had waddled down from the air-conditioned tourist buses and were sucking on their first Haagen-Dazs cone of the day. Feral Australian children were attempting to blind each other with laser pointers or poking each other with folding walking sticks and Mommy was selecting an embroidered silk jacket for the pooch at home. Delifrance was proposing a new type of baguette with canned peaches, Canadian bacon and crabstick mayonnaise. Watsons the chemists was offering family packs of real Swiss reject chocolate and wasabi flavoured corn snacks. The fruit stall at the crossroads was still warning people not to photograph the fruit. The Bauhaus colossus of the library cum sports centre was closed because today was a Thursday and people didn’t read or exercise on a Thursday. At the front, fish and chips and a pint of frothy cold stuff still to be had for only a hundred dollars but you had to sit downstairs because upstairs was already set for candlelight dinner at five hundred dollars for two, box wine excluded. The workers were felling a few more trees and making way for another gigatonne of fresh, dead, progressive concrete.


The epicene Little Man in the little lane below my flat, who ran the side of a wall he had usurped from another trader, had greeted me with his usual barrage of Cantonese insults for having the temerity to be seen with a varied selection of attractive local girls in broad daylight the past two years. His tribe of semi-triad friends were gathered around an enthusiastic game of cards where no money was on the table but the month’s wages hung in the air so thick you could touch them. The slavering demented son of the tired old lady had said good morning as he always said although it was now getting on for mid-afternoon. The trader twins who sold their dad’s Turner Goes Oriental seriography were lounging and playing some inane game on their new Nokias.


I approached the low bungalow of the Southern District Kai Fong and Family Advancement Association building where a few old local men were skimming through the newspapers looking for a the latest hot racing tip, or perhaps they were reading the political commentaries. It was hung with gaudy election posters. The cooks from the Thai restaurant in their Wellingtons and soiled aprons were squatting and having a cigarette. The whiff of the foul drain hit me again for a moment then mercifully passed. The fat middle-aged woman selling the genuine sterling silver jewellery gave me her usual beaming smile because I had once bought a knick-knack there years ago, or maybe because she was just naturally friendly.


Old Mr Sung’s shop was shut up already or had probably not even opened that day. He only seemed to open on rent collection days. I made my way down the alley at the side of the house. At the end I could just discern the sign for the Italian-style trattoria I had once eaten shortcrust pastry pizza in. The alley was dark and the air was still. I knew Mr Sung lived above his shop. He lived alone. His wife had died a year into my first tenancy and I still remembered the white-garbed crowd at the funeral and the huge wreaths on wooden props. I rang the bell. The metal grille was open. Sung was half-deaf, I knew, so I pushed the door. It opened slowly and ground a little on its hinges. The staircase was just as musty and dusty as my own. I made my way up it and came to the flat doorway which was festooned with red and gold banners with the usual huge Chinese characters of good luck and prosperity. No bell here so I hammered on the door. No answer. I tried the handle. It turned and I pushed the door open. It gave a foot or two then it caught on something which yielded slowly, then shifted a little. I looked around the door into the still entrance alcove. The light was still on and my breath stole away from me as I saw what had stopped the door’s progress.


He lay just the way bodies lie when they suddenly become inanimate objects rather than things which have curled up for slumber. One arm lay under him and his head was twisted the wrong way. His glasses had cracked and lay on the other side away from where his face was now looking with a calm, slightly puzzled stare. The other arm lay lifeless, cupped and palm upwards, frozen and shrivelled-looking. I put a hand to his neck and it was as cold as ice. No wound visible except a crack on the head which had not bled much. In the cramped living room through the open door ahead of me there was no sign of any unusual disorder. The plastic bags suspended on bamboo poles along the ceiling were bulging and dusty, the long wooden sofa was covered by newspapers and a solitary silk cushion. The grimy cream curtains were drawn and fluttered a little at the half-opened window. The only odd thing I noticed was a large, dead unplucked chicken on the glass topped coffee table. It smelt of nothing much at all. There were no dirty dishes in the kitchen and the bathroom towels were dry.


I found my packet of tissues in my jacket pocket and rubbed the door handles clean. I then rubbed around Mr Sung’s waxy neck. I closed the door again with the tissue still in my hand and stepped down the staircase with a gentle, slow, deliberate tread. I wiped the street door clean, the doorbell button clean and closed the door again. In the alley there was no one to be seen. I walked towards the Italian restaurant. It was closed. I feigned interest in the menu in the window a moment. My heart was thumping, my mind was racing but at the edge of all that I was numb all over and my legs were as heavy as a dead elephant.


I turned past the small memorial, the study room, the small clinic and waved vaguely to the Indians at the restaurant. Then it was past the Thai restaurant again, down the alley and up the stairs to my flat. The stalls on the way were all a blur. I sat down on the blue leather sofa a moment but it offered no comfort. Was it a set-up or did stumbling on corpses come with the territory of private detective malgre lui? It looked good in fiction but in reality it wasn’t all that thrilling. Death was ugly, rather tedious and mundane and so was the prospect of explaining to policemen in shabby Hong Kong police stations, again and again, in triplicate. I had done enough of that already. If it was all aimed at me, who wanted me out? Get a grip Trelford. Get a plan.


I shut down my laptop and put it in its bag. Then down the stairs again, a turn left and along to the top of Main Street, as the narrow lane was called. Then right and a determined stride past Delifrance, the parked vans, the silk shops and the postcard stands and the mini luggage emporium and at last I was at Watsons. Then up the stairs to that little Sitting Out Area where you couldn’t smoke but you could loiter and stare and think up your next move. I turned on the computer and it shot into action from its electric sleep. I turned on the wireless and sure enough it found the unsecured wifi connection which broadcasts all over Main Street. I was into Internet Explorer and on the Hong Kong police web site in an instant. Hong Kong police like you to contact them. They have a whole list of forms you can use online just for that purpose. There’s a Complaint of Vehicle Obstruction Form, two Lost Property forms, two Access To Data forms, one for complaining about Unjust Issue of Parking Tickets and another for reporting a Telephone Nuisance. You can even make a complain about the police themselves if you have a lot of time on your hands and you are a truly concerned citizen or simply have a more than usually bloody mind. There’s no form for reporting dead landlords.


Right at the bottom of the page though there’s a link marked General Inquiries. Click on that and your computer warnings swing into action and tell you all about suspect certificates and hostile cookies. Press on regardless. The police in Hong Kong seem to ask a lot for just an enquiry, things like where you live and what your ID card number is. Next I found that handy little Babelfish translator site where you transform basic English into basic just about anything.


URGENT: I am a friend of Mr Sung who lives at XX Stanley Main Street, Hong Kong Island above his shop. I have not seen him for many days and I cannot contact him by telephone. I am worried. He is an old man and he lives alone. Can you send an officer and see he is OK. Thank you very much.


I translated all that and pasted it into the form. I invented a likely name and a likely address somewhere in Guangdong. I clicked on the button and it was gone.


My telephone rang. It was Larry.


“ I banked the cheque. The retainer is just what we need. The Management Office was beginning to get jumpy.”


“ Don’t worry. She probably owns the building. What gives?”


“ Well our little party has a somewhat colourful past for all her twenty-five years. Not that she’s tried to break into films and music but they seem to have broken into her. Quite a few glossy magazine pics with minor entertainment mobsters so maybe she doesn’t say no all the time.”


“ It’s the butter not melting in the mouth look. Gets the guys all the time. Are we going to get hold of all the e-mail you think?”


“ I can try. There are ways.”


“ I just don’t believe the baloney we’ve been handed. Neither do you I suspect.”

“ Always best to stick to the facts. We know nothing really. Did you find her car?”


“ Not exactly.”


“ Meaning?”


“ I’ll let you know about that. In the fullness of time”


“ Don’t you go simple on me. I get enough of that already.”


He hung up.


There were two good places to park a Lancia in Stanley but perhaps Adeline chose a bad place. I had a vague memory of spotting something unusual and flashy on one of my jogs, just in front of the clinic, along by the playground, and I made my way there before the boys in green decided to tow it away. It was still there, a cute red number which had money and the Big Me written all over it. There are ways of inconspicuously breaking into a car in broad daylight but I only knew one. Larry’s patented master keys were valuable at such times but he’d left the Lancia one out of the pack. There was nothing to be seen much in the front or back seats except for the usual Hello Kitty cushions. I made my way to the boot and fiddled with it for a moment. Maybe Italian cars are all the same. Maybe they aren’t. They can’t be that difficult to steal. Italy’s the only country I ever saw where car owners walk around with their car radios in their hands. I was on my tenth key in the European ring and about to sidle away when the boot lurched and sprang open. There was a bag inside, a neat leather holdall, I picked it up. It wasn’t very heavy. A quick wipe all round with the tissues. Nothing suspicious about that. Lancia owners were such clean people.


I walked past the Sung house but it was still as before. No law anywhere, no blue and white tape, no flashing lights of any description. Bodies in Hong Kong are usually found by their smell. No one hears the blows. Call me sentimental, but I felt a little attached to Mr Sung’s corpse. I didn’t want it to start to putrefy. Outside my block the Little Man was reading something. He did that sometimes. Aberrant behaviour. You can’t get enough of it. He didn’t look up. Some of the stall staff gave my bag a glance. Now I looked at it seemed to be more than just a little chichi, not a Trelford bag at all. But maybe I was going up in the world.


Upstairs, I opened the bag, this time wearing the rubber gloves with a hundred legitimate uses in home and office. Every Hong Kong girl wants a Gucci bag but a copy will do. It shows willing. This was no copy. It contained all the things the modern girl needs but which she doesn’t necessarily want to haul around in her handbag. There was a couple of books on political theory, a hand mirror, a pair of silk pyjamas, a hair brush, a battery of make-up, sanitary towels, a folder of photos, a high-resolution digital camera without a data card and pair of slippers. There was even an electric toothbrush and a small brown cuddly bear which had taken a lot of cuddling. All in all, the kind of outfit a girl might compile if she was going to leave town for a few days.


I looked at the camera again. I turned it on. It had nothing in the memory, nothing I could see anyway but Larry might have a way of finding what had been taken recently. The photos were the usual collection of harmless-looking shots: Adeline before the White House, Adeline in front of a university, Adeline on a plane and Adeline in Lan Kwai Fong sipping a cocktail. Adeline with gorgeous young pouting girlfriends or skinny-looking, frowning young men in expensive suits. No one in particular seemed to crop up more regularly then anyone else but one of them I recognised. It was Mr Sung’s tall, shiny and somewhat incompetent son, the boy who had gone to great lengths to impress the judge at the Lands Tribunal that time with his knowledge of the law.


The sleuth in me felt along the lining. No lumps or apparent irregularities. It was a beautiful lining and all the little pockets contained nothing but dust and fragments of wrapping. I looked through the make-up bag again. It all looked very expensive and there was a number of face whitening bottles with names I recognised from the IFC mall. I held them against the light. I opened the lipstick and the mascara, the face powder and the eye lining pencil. Then I saw it. It could have gotten there by accident but I didn’t think so. Those tiny flash data chips were getting cheaper these days but they weren’t yet throwaway items. I kept mine in a little plastic box in my manbag. Putting one under the face powder was an obvious place for a detective but most people aren’t detectives.


I blew away the dust around it and reached in my bag for the USB adapter. On my laptop, the images flashed up in an instant. The same collection of college gal memorabilia but young Mr Sung was definitely in the foreground this time and seemed to be having fun. There were a lot of pictures of Stanley too and some of them seemed to be taken from within the Kai Fong building. I recognised the old lady District Councillor, the one who seemed all too chummy with the Stanley grandees. I also saw that a number of documents  had been photographed, some of them several times, just to make sure.


Wherever Adeline was, she sure knew how to leave clues.

















Chung Hom Kok sprawls like a shanty town above and below the hill line over Stanley but it isn’t a shanty town at all. It has some of the richest people in Hong Kong in its sea view or nothing condominiums, people for who panic consists of having all the servants out of the house or all of the limousines and minivans being serviced at one and the same time. They add bits to it every now and again, a new set of three-storey mini-palaces suddenly arises to give a novel skewered edge to an impossible line of perspective and whichever direction the roofs decide to go, you know it’s going to be all right. It’s crazy paving reaching for the skies.


I got Alex Sung’s address from the legal documents he had so lovingly served me on behalf of the Lands Tribunal. I wondered if he would ever forgive me for pointing out that the flat he thought he owned on behalf of his father had never actually been registered and that the suit his father had launched on his behalf had to be struck out for that rather legalistic reason. The mansionette at the end of one of Chung Hom Kok’s little treeless avenues was part of a neat series which had been named Scenic Horizons but you only got the view when you got well inside, past the high iron filigreed gates and the whitewashed walls lovingly topped with concreted-in broken bottles and scanned by a series of closed circuit cameras. All the cars were hidden in a purpose-built bunker. There was a splashing fountain in the minimalist mock-patio courtyard set within a black marble imitation of a bit of the Trevi scaled down to make way for them.


The old security man eyed me uneasily because people arriving on foot are always suspicious in Hong Kong, even large middle-aged foreigners in suits. I had to sign in yet again and then he rang to see if the party was in. He was, and he was receiving visitors even without speaking to them and knowing their business which I thought very nice of him under the circumstances. There was an election poster hanging up in the lift, for someone who looked vaguely familiar but it wasn’t Mrs Chow. I hoped that the boys in green had not yet discovered the body or at least not scratched their collective heads sufficiently to locate the relatives. I don’t like visiting a house of sorrow unless it owes me or a client a reasonable sum of money. Even then I have been known to think twice about it. They’d saved a lot of space on the lift lobbies and the corridors so they made up for it by adorning the walls with the more decent reproductions – or conceivably originals - of Boucher and his cronies and given delicate stucco reliefs to the corners and pink marble floors and gold fittings just about everywhere else. The cameras were more discreet but they still had every angle covered. The air conditioning was great for cooling down your furs.


He’d opened up already I saw as the lift doors parted and was standing there in an immaculate white terry dressing gown with a pair of brown leather slippers on his strong brown feet. He was a handsome piece of Chinese beef if ever there was one, almost as tall as myself and I felt sure he had real abdominals. Not that any of that interested me but I’m sure the girls dropped like flies as he approached and swooned even more intensely when they heard his address. His gleaming black hair was wet and combed back, there was more than suggestion of a square jaw and the eyes and brow were in the noble mould Trelford used to be before the rot set in.


“ Mr Trelford.”


“ I’m on a job. Looking for a girl you know. Can I come in. Just a few questions.”


“ A girl?”


“ Yes. I’d rather not discuss it out here. ”


He made way for me and I entered the apartment. It was large for Hong Kong, all cream and gold and glass tables, stand-up lamps and modern leather upholstery. The centre piece was the big slab of the sea view window which took up one wall with a showy balcony beyond it where some comfortable garden furniture and shrubbery in pots gave it the holiday resort feel. The beginnings of an orange sunset forcing its way through the smog gave the room a dreamy, poignant kind of look. There were the closed doorways of  two rooms down a short corridor and I assumed all the domestic business happened even further down the corridor as I could just see a small dining table and the edge of a fitted electric range.


“ How’s your father?” I asked as I took a seat on the broader than it needed to be sofa.


He froze for just a moment then let that pass for a while as he straightened up a few cushions and bought in a bottle of mineral water and a few glasses from outside.


“ Fine,” he said at last and put the water in front of me with a fresh glass. His English was ABC, fluent and mannered but don’t look too hard at the tenses and prepositions and articles.


“ Or would you like a coffee?”


“ Not for the moment thanks. You know Adeline Chow, I think. Her mother’s rather concerned about her.”


“ Her mother?”


“ You know who she is of course. Have you seen Adeline recently? ”


“ Let me think about that” but his face didn’t look as if he was thinking much at all. “It would have to be last week some time.”


“ How well do you know Adeline?”


“ Oh, well, you know, we hang out.”


“ Hang out?”


“ We see each other sometimes. She’s down here working at the moment. You know her work.”


“ Not really. Tell me about it.”


“ Well, she’s working on research for her mother’s organisation. The elections are coming and they’re anxious to get out more of the vote, that kind of thing. Plus the fact that she wants to do a Ph.D. and she can see the subject for a thesis in the political mechanisms in Hong Kong.”


“And when did you see her last?”


 “ I guess it was Sunday, now I come to think. She was at the election rally in Repulse Bay. I went along. Has anything happened to her?”


“ We don’t really know. She sent an e-mail to her mother yesterday saying she had to get away for a while but she left her car. We have no idea where she is and why she’s gone.”


He got up and went to the window and studied the horizon.


“ How long have you known Adeline, Alex?”


He turned and took a seat opposite me. The glow of the shower he had emerged from was fading. He looked as drawn and as haggard as a gym-trained hero in the peak of condition ever does.


 “ Hard to say really. I mean we played together as children. Although our families never got on.”


I looked as bemused as I could.


“ You probably never heard the Sung-Chow feud, did you? It all stared over a piece of land in Stanley in the Forties, after the war, and I was always told I could never play with them. But we did.”


“ Very heartwarming. And when you grew up?”


Another pause, a twitch in the seat and a rather involved adjustment of his dressing gown.


“ Well, we saw each other still.”


“ I see. I think I’ll have that coffee now.”


He jumped up from his seat and made his way to the kitchen down the corridor  and I tagged behind him, wondering whether to play the long shot or the ace. The long shot was the safest of course.


“ And your lady friend can come out now. All that holding your breath isn’t good for anyone in the long run.”


Sung Junior froze but his back was acting as good as Gielgud. It stood there stiff, immobile with two spread muscular legs below them, like hunks of striploin in a butcher’s window.


I turned around, I got out my pipe and filled it with Erinmore. There was going to be either a long explanation or a sudden apparition. In the end, after long, long seconds, a door opened and a tall, beautiful Chinese girl emerged in the sort of flush you only see in a woman on your pillow Sunday mornings if you are lucky.


I sat down and gave her time to decide who she was going to run to. But she didn’t run to anyone. Her high heels tinkled on the wooden floor as sexily as you could hope for. She was dressed in a neatly tailored suit in midnight blue with a short skirt which showed a lot of nice and immaculate leg. Her long black hair was slightly tousled but you didn’t look at the hair. She had a sweet baby face, full sensuous lips, large deeply-set naive eyes which looked as if they could light up at the right moment but never if anyone was watching. Her nose was almost aquiline and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine she could ever become like her mother.


“ Nice to meet you Adeline,’ I said. “Come on down and tell me all about it.”


She turned to gaze at Junior just a moment and his virile back had become a full frontal schoolboy caught stealing apples. Then she walked delicately but confidently to one of the leather armchairs and sat in it, swinging one leg over the other, which only added to her allure. I didn’t like the way she was holding her handbag.


“ My mother hired you to find me?”


“ Well, looks as if I may be out of work for a while. Case closed.”


“ But I don’t want to be found. Not yet anyway.”


Her voice had a Roedean edge to it but was far from girlish. Junior had joined us now and was reaching for a cigarette from a packet hidden in a large inlaid rosewood cigar box in the middle of the coffee table. He lit it like it was his first ever and coughed violently on the draw. I lit up my pipe and smiled a little and for no real reason except that you don’t really expect such piquant amateur dramatics in Chung Hom Kok on a Thursday afternoon.


“ Perhaps this might persuade you.”


Nothing had prepared me for what happened next. Girls with gats in all the the B-movies I had ever seen had gloved hands after all. This hand was long, ungloved, delicate and was holding a shiny new Kel-Tec semi-automatic. All that time with Larry’s booklets came back to me in a flash. Nasty little weapon the Kel-Tec semi. No safety catch and awfully easy to hide.


“ Did you get it in the Lane Crawford summer sale or was it a gift with your new platinum card?”


She didn’t even smile at that which I thought a bit mean in the circumstances. The thing was aimed right at my midriff.


“ Pardon the melodrama Mr Trelford but I’m getting to lead a rather melodramatic life. So why are you here exactly ?”


“ It might help my memory a little if you stopped pointing the gun at me. They’re nifty gadgets and no girl should be seen without one. But they are inclined to go off when you least want them to. The suit just came back from the cleaners.”


She laid the gun on her lap and it was now pointed towards the window. Junior coughed again and I looked Adeline deep into the eyes but I was the first to blink.


“ Where did you get the gun from, angel? Who’s frightening you?”


“ I thought I was the one asking the questions, Mr Trelford.”


I poked my pipe bowl with my finger a moment and looked away.


“ I was hired by Mrs Chow, Alex’s mother, earlier on today to find you. It seemed a little strange as there are lots of reasonably competent local operators to do a search job. We normally handle the expat stuff, you know, recoveries, acquisitions and a bit of dirty digging into company background before investors from abroad part with the shekels. Now and again we do some divorce work but I usually give that to my partner as I’m not a keyhole peeper by nature and I’m liable to see things from the other party’s point of view before long. She gave me half an e-mail to look at where you stated you wanted to get out of Hong Kong a while. She wouldn’t tell me the exact reason or whether she knew the exact reason but that’s par for the course with half the cases we handle. We have to believe the dollars rather than what people tell us. I happen to know Alex because his father’s my landlord and is apparently looking after your car for you. I thought Alex might know what’s going on as I can’t seem to locate Mr Sung senior.”


“ Where did you look?” she asked.


“ In all the usual places. No one knows where he’s got to.”


“ And the car?”


“ That’s still standing outside the clinic last time I looked.”


There was a pause. Not much of a pause for what was going on and certainly not a lull.


“ As I said, Mr Trelford. You don’t know what’s going on and you ought to be afraid you might get to know. I suggest you go back to my darling mother and tell her you did find me and that I’m safe and well but I just don’t want to be bothered right now. That also happens to be the truth. Hong Kong is beginning to depress me more than I can say. Everywhere you turn there’s people on the make and people on the take. They’re a shoddy bunch and I don’t think this is the place for me.”


“ So where do you think you’re going to go? Not that I’ll tell anyone and not that you have to tell me. I can’t truss you up and deliver you back to Mommy’s with a lassoo around your neck. You’re too old for that and frankly I’m not the kind of guy to do a woman like Mrs Chow’s bidding without asking a lot of questions first. She stinks.”


She laughed, a high tinkle, the sound her high heels made but in a lower key.


“ We certainly see eye to eye on that one, Mr Trelford.”


I gave her one of my cards, the one with all the contacts numbers and e-mails. She looked at it for a moment and put the gun into her bag.


“ I’m always reasonably ready to help. If you leave the gun at home. Where did you get it? ”


She was just warming to that when a telephone rang. It was Junior’s and it was one of those clam-type things I loathe. Whatever he was hearing was causing him a mixture of emotions. He stiffened a little and put it back into his pocket.


“ It’s my father,” he said at last. “He’s dead.”


There wasn’t grief, there wasn’t shock. In many ways it sounded like relief.


“ Where?” I asked at last.


“ At home. I have to go and identify the body. You’d better stay here, Adeline.”










There was still no blue and white tape and no meat wagon and no flashing lights when we got there. There was the usual man with a camera but the forensic squad hadn’t been called. There was a policemen at the door and two inside. One was an inspector. I knew him, his name was Chiu, a fleshy man the wrong side of fifty, and his English was reasonable.


“A friend of Mr Alex,” I said as I entered and he gave me a once-over which didn’t say anything much.


“ Heart attack we think,” sad Chiu in Cantonese. “ We’re very sorry, Mr Sung.”


Junior looked at the body and there was real horror showing now. His face looked panic-stricken.


“ How did it happen?” he asked.


“ Well, he fell but that probably didn’t kill him. When did you see him last?”


“ I think it must have been Sunday. The family dinner. He looked fine.”


“ You can never predict a heart attack at this age.”


All the strokes and heart attacks I’d seen looked a different colour but it was hard to gauge anything by that now. The body was the usual sickly grey quickly turning to pure translucent white. Sung Senior looked quite horrible in death.


“ So you can formerly identify him. That’s all in order then. We’re going to movc the body to the Government mortuary. You might like to inform a funeral director. Have you got a number?”


Sung Junior was still staring at the scene, saying nothing. Suddenly he raced to the bathroom and there was the unmistakable sound of vehement but largely unproductive vomiting.


“ It strikes some people that way,” I said but Inspector Chiu and I knew otherwise. Chiu said something to the the two other policemen, one of whom was closing the living room window. The chicken was nowhere to be seen, I noticed. Then more people arrived: another Sung son, a much smaller one who bore no resemblance to Junior, and a scrawny-looking girl in beige office wear who was probably his girlfriend. Then a number of the old worthies from the Kai Fong popped their heads around the door, gasped, cursed and slowly hobbled downstairs. By the time all that was over, Junior had returned from the bathroom and sat down on the living room sofa, his face like a man with a stag night hangover.


I had other thoughts in my head at that moment than being a bereavement counsellor so I made my excuses and left. As I was passing the Italian restaurant again, my telephone rang and to keep in with the mobile spirit I decided to talk as I walked to my flat. It was Mrs Chow.


“ Hello Mr Trelford. Any news?”


“ Not exactly. Did you know Mr Sung at all?”


“ Sung?”


“Yes, the man who was looking after the car.”


“ Oh yes. What about him?”


“ He’s dead.”


“ Oh really. How did it happen?”


“ The police aren’t sure. Could be a heart attack.”


“ I see. Unfortunate. Well I have good news for you. I think your job might be over. Adeline has been in touch by telephone and she says she’s quite fine but she just needs some rest at the moment. I quite understand her. She’s still in Hong Kong and well so there’s no point looking for her any more. But you can keep the retainer. I’m very grateful to you and if....”


“ What else did she say?”


“ Sorry?”


“ And when did she call you?”


“ Just a few minutes ago in fact. I was just going into a meeting.”


“ And she sounded all right?

“ Absolutely fine, yes.”


“ The reason why I ask is that until you or I have actually seen her, you can’t be a hundred percent sure she isn’t being held against her will or something of that nature. Did that explanation ever occur to you, Mrs Chow?


“ Oh I don’t think that’s the case here. She’s a rather an emotional girl. If something were wrong, I would have felt it. I think the matter is settled, Mr Trelford. And now I really must be getting on.”

The line went dead. Interesting place, Hong Kong. Come and find my daughter, Mr Trelford. Highly urgent, Mr Trelford. Take the case, Mr Trelford. Then only a few hours later it’s pull down the curtain, get off the case and shut up, Mr Trelford. But she hadn’t actually said the last part again. Perhaps she trusted me.


I was more interested in the contents of the little data chip. I sat down in Casa Trelford, ignoring the cold pipe smoke fug which hit even me as I opened the door and refusing to be depresed by the rubbish bags piling up in the kitchen, and flashed up the four sharp documents Adeline had made a point of photographing. One was the main page of her passport. The other three some of kind of balance sheet or ledger but it was all in Chinese and hand-written Chinese at that. I attached the three photographs to an e-mail and sent them to the office. I sent a back-up copy to my private e-mail just in case. Then I put the chip inside a little plastic holder and sealed it into an envelope addressed to my post box in Central. When pretty girls in Hong Kong start carrying shooters around in their Vuitton bags, you have to take all the precautions.


I was just thinking of going back to Chung Hom Kok when the telephone rang again. It was Larry.


“ Only one body today,’ I said.


“ Whose.”


“ My landlord’s. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”


“Don’t worry. I’m sure the rent roster is the first thing they’ll clear up. Did he fall or was he pushed?”


“ Hard to say. It looks like a heart attack. But not to me. I also found the little honey. But she pulled a Kel-Tec on me and said she doesn’t want to be found.”


“ So you’re off the case.”


“ Mrs C seems to think so. She gave me the kiss off. But I’m intrigued. No law against a man looking into something on his own, just as an honest concerned citizen.”


“ Doesn’t pay the rent.”


“ Well we must be all right for a month or two. The cheque cleared I take it?”


“ Find out tomorrow. But I think it’s as good as gold. Still can’t figure why she asked us.”


“ Well gwailos do make good fall guys, don’t they? At the very least, they help to gum up the works.”


“ I don’t get you.”


“ Neither do I.”


“ Shall I still try to get hold of the e-mail. Yahoo is pretty sticky about total access to holder’s accounts but you can get individual e-mails and ISP addresses if you look as if you really want them. Through the police of course.”


“ Use your contacts then. I’d like the e-mail. I’m pretty sure it was sent in Hong Kong.”


“ So where will you be if I want you?”

” In Stanley for a while. I’m going to look up an old friend.”


“ I hope you know what you’re doing.”


“ Did I ever?”


As I marched along the bay front, a strange procession was taking place. At the head of it was the old bag on the election poster which festooned the Kai Fong building. She was followed by a number of faceless minions handing out leaflets. Mrs Lee was being very loud because she had one of those mobile PA systems strapped to her withered body. She eyed me for a moment as friendly as a solictor’s letter. She was dressed mainly in red and gold which gave her message loud and clear without the amplification. It was vote for me and get rich. She had a borad sash with her name on it and her new perm was as stiff as a Presbyterian funeral. The make-up was as thick as the walls of the Reichsbank. I put a finger in one ear to show my appreciation. I was on the electoral roll after all. The procession turned left at the Blue House and the raucous rant of Mrs Lee reverberated down the tree-lined lane like a police incident room on Saturday night. Thank God we didn’t have many elections in Hong Kong.


I found Jimmy Perry behind a glass of box red in the comfier corner of his Italian restaurant looking as usual as if he was going to have a stroke before bedtime. If I ever thought I was overdoing it in any way, I always had Jimmy to comfort me. There he was, the purple-visaged John Bull of Stanley, popping away the red like Lucozade from breakfast to late dinner and all organs still holding up. I dodged past the plastic vines and Ruffino bottles and sat down.


‘ ‘ello stranger,” he said in his Barnsley drawl.


“ Hello Jimmy. Got used to the building work yet?”


“ Oh don’t get me on. Can’t see in front of me. Who wants to come down to Stanley and sit and look at concrete mixers. It’s a scandal.”


“ But who ordered them all Jimmy. Come on, tell me who’s on the make.”


“ Oh it’s that old cow you just saw witht’ megaphone. Mrs Money Bags Lee.”


“ But how does she do it. Come on. I need to know.”


“ Need to know. You’re bloody puddled man if you don’t know. Every bugger knows.”


“ Well what does every bugger know?”


“ Well look. See that set of small traders’ places they’ve built down where temporary market used to be? Guess who dished the leases out. Bloody local committee, not government, not tender. Bloody pepercorn rent while I’m paying through the nose for this pile of crap down at this end. All the trade will sit down there and I’ll have nowt. That’s bloody socialism for you. That’s the bloody free economy too.”


“ It’s enough to drive you to drink.”


“ You can bloody well say that again.”


A glass of red was brought to me but I let it sit there.


“ Keep it up Jimmy.”


I was walking up the escalator, past the Park N Shop and all the shops selling cushions and candles and children’s books. I emerged on the Plaza walkway and was approaching the taxi rank. There was hardly ever a queue and there was nearly always a taxi roaming around, looking for a return fare. I hailed one. Then something curious happened. A black Lexus pulled up and the door swung open.


“ Get inside, Mr Trelford,” a voice said. It was a nice voice in the circumstances, a voice you found hard to connect to small, hand-held guns of any kind.


The man got in with me. He was Chinese, nicely dressed, about forty and stank of ginger, tobacco and just a hint of cologne. I couldn’t see much of the driver. He looked smart too and a lot younger.


“ Thanks for the limo,” I said.


“ No jokes please, Mr Trelford,” the man said in a local accent edged with a patina of North America.


“ Your work is over, Mr Trelford, and certain parties just want to wish you well and thank you for a job well done. They want to be generous to a struggling enterprise like your own. It can’t be easy meeting all those bills and in such a difficult area of business too, with all that competition and overheads.”


He took a thick brown envelope out of his pocket and put it in my lap.


“ Of course, certain parties just want to be assured that, on acceptance of our appreciation, your work on the matter can be brought to a formal and definite close and you can move on, to pastures new, as the saying goes, I believe.”


Here was another character who had been watching a lot of Turner Classic Movies.


“ So I just put the envelope in my pocket and walk away. Or I throw it back at you and look hard, hurt and disdainful. Or do I get bumped off in any case? Which page are we on exactly?”


“ Always the joker. And so pleasant to listen to. You have many admirers, Mr Trelford.”


“ Look, get a life and leave Warner Brothers in the DVD racks for a minute. This is 2007 if you hadn’t realized. My office doesn’t have blondes in bottles, PXs are digital, you can’t find a pawnbroker at a moment’s notice to hide your incriminating evidence and all the doctors with bags full of needles have gone legit and moved into Prince’s Building. All their clients are in support groups or are on the line to The Samaritans anyway. If you can turn off the channel, so can I.”


I think I’d lost him there. The car drove down to the Carmelite monastery, the door opened and I got out, leaving the wad of  money on the thick leather seat.


I made my way wearily down the street and up the stairs home. I needed a drink and there was some awful King Roberrt bathtub Scotch I kept for emergencies in the kitchen cupboard. I sat down on the blue sofa and inhaled a large slug of it. I turned on the CD player and surrendered to some Debussy, the Piano Fantasy, which Debussy hadn’t had the nerve to call a piano concerto or it would be more widely played than it is. Around 8 pm, with the cheap booze making my temples throb but warmng the rest of me, just as I was thinking of walking up to Cheung Hom Kok again, I was tight enough for that, my telephone rang. It was Sung Junior.


“ She’s gone,” he said without so much as a lead-in.


“ Gone?”


 “ She left a note. Gone.”


I laid down the mug of Scotch with an audible clatter.


“ What the hell. Take two Panadol and call me in the morning.”


In the films, the broads disappeared and stayed gone. They didn’t turn up, wave a gun at you and say they didn’t want to be rescued. If they did, they hung around for a while to sing a duet or at least jump into bed with you. Times had changed.





King Robert does not give you a real hangover. Its effects are more existential than that. You only notice as the day progresses and the feeling that you are about to have a massive stroke is replaced by a generalised nausea Camus or Sartre would have killed for.


“ A lot of clues. Or red herrings. What do you think, Larry? Ugly local Mainland-aligned politician possibly linked with corruption in Stanley is blackmailed by own daughter who has some nasty facts about her friends and is about to be set up for the death of a Stanley grandee to at least scare her and keep her quiet. But Mrs C backs out of that and decides to set up a dumb gwailo instead. Or is it all coincidental? Are the men in the Lexus running the show or are they just mobsters for Mrs C ?  And what happened to the dead chicken? Answers please on a postcard.”


We were in the office in what was called the conference room because it had a table, chairs and a bunch of plastic flowers in a metal vase.


“ You certainly had a lively afternoon.”


“ And now the heroine has disappeared again. Left a note apparently. Where would you disappear if you had to lie low and you had a gun and you were an intelligent Roedean girl with good legs? And why do you have the gun?”


“ How do you know she disappeared? Maybe they took her.”


“Hadn’t seriously thought of that. Hang on.”


I picked up my phone and called Junior. He answered immediately. He was on his way in to see me. All he would say right now was that  the security staff had told him Adeline left with two men in a car early yesterday evening.


“You’re right. She left with two men. Let’s assume they had a gun pointed at her. Why would anyone take her?”


“ To keep her quiet. There are elections coming up, we know that. And something potentially damaging has happened right in the middle of a bit of the DAB heartland. Either Mr Sung has been rubbed out or documents have gotten into the wrong hands, maybe more hands than just Adeline’s. Or maybe Adeline just wants to lie low for a while. Who knows what she’s been up to. She’s a loose cannon. Think of it, a girl her age walking around with a gun in Hong Kong. It’s ludicrous. When were the documents photographed? How do you know it wasn’t her suggestion to get a nice white Sir Galahad like you involved? I suggest you look at the facts. There’s one dead body and one person who is said to have disappeared but she hasn’t or hadn’t. Now we need to know more facts. Such as what was in the rest of the e-mail. And what Mr Sung died of. Then we can proceed. All the rest just stinks. It’s out of a corny set-up for something. Crooks in cars, photographed documents placed where anyone would find them after just a bit of looking. Stick to the facts, Nigel.”


I filled another pipe and despite a rather pained expression from Virginia through the glass, I lit it up.


“ Just one thing. If you wanted to hide someone in Hong Kong, how would you go about it?”


“ There are safe houses but Hong Kong isn’t a good place for that. There aren’t enough remote areas and there are too many nosy neighbours wherever you go. The place isn’t anonymous enough. If you have a pretty girl hiding out somewhere, the news gets out amongst the crooks because they’re horny as hell and there are so many of them in any given triad cell. And they know too many other people, taxi drivers, restaurant owners, newspaper stalls, minicabs. Tell you how they once did it. In the ‘70s. Her name was Pak Mei Ling. They moved her around. From brothel to brothel and hotel room to hotel room. And they made a bit of money on the side too, with the aid of some light kind of drugging. They made her into a hooker. She was never in one place for longer than a few hours. No one except her pimp knew where she was. We only tracked her down by accident. She bumped into one of our own men. We got it free for in those days if you knew where to ask and most of us did.”


“ But if Mrs C has told her contacts in low places to hide her, don’t you think Mommy will object if her precious little daughter becomes a hooker and potential junky.”


“ They only use junk when they run out of ideas. Plenty of other drugs available these days. Again you’re letting assumptions get in the way of possible facts. Now what strikes you first about Adeline? Is there one funny thing about her, one naive, first-impression suggestion of a fact that hits you when you set eyes on her or just glance at a photo? What is it? No family resemblance, right? Mrs C’s hubby is just as ugly as she is. So how did they produce this little goddess? Just think laterally. Forget your intelligence for a while. Be naivc. Pretend you’re a disappointed old flatfoot like me, just for a second.”


“ Another husband? A lover?”


“ No. Again, you’re brain is moving too fast, imagining, reasoning, speculating. And the fact is very simple when you bother to ask for it. She was adopted. Whilst you were chasing around yesterday, I did some basic uninformed thinking. Just ordinary police work, asking questions like who people are and what they are and how they came about. There’s no record of her being born in her birth year in Hong Kong.There is evidence of her stated place of birth when she got her first ID card and that was in Eastern Guangdong province. There’s also evidence of a legal adoption if you look long enough. We have the documents, or copies of them. Adeline is just for show, to complete the happy family. She’s no Chow. There’s a third fact for you to chew on. And something tells me that Mrs C doesn’t give a damn about Adeline as long as she doesn’t get in her hair. Never make even the most basic assumptions. Always get the facts.”


A potential source of fresh facts now presented itself in the doorway. It was Sung Junior who looked really spruce and dapper in one of those wispy Hong Kong jackets complemented by pristine ironed flannels and the shoes with snaffles I hated so much. He looked drawn and the glow from tennis, or whatever sport boys like himself played in the morning, was fading fast. Yet you felt he could still get the girls without all that much trouble. Loyal to her training, Virginia gave him coffee and a newspaper. As she did so, her tongue appeared ready to drop out of her soft pink mouth if he so much as looked at her full on.


“ Morning Alex. This is my partner Mr Snowdon. He’s the brains of the operation. Why don’t you tell me what you know.”


“ I got back about 7 pm and I found a note. Adeline wrote she was going and wanted to be alone for a while. I shouldn’t try to find her. She was all right and everything would be fine.”


“ Have you got the note?”


“ I tore it up.”


“ Wish you wouldn’t do that. But go on. Where do you think she’s gone?”


“ I have no idea.”


“ Any other boyfriends in the frame. Sorry to ask.”


“ She doesn’t sleep around if that’s what you mean.”


“I didn’t mean that. Just wondering where she would go if she wanted to lie low for a while.”


“No idea.”


“ And what did the car look like that picked her up?”


“ It was a Lexus.”


“ And the men?”


“ One was older, well-dressed, and the driver was a young man.”


“ All right. Now pardon me for saying so Alex but you look mightily disturbed by events, more disturbed than if you were witnessing a girlfriend running away from home and your father having a fatal heart attack.”


“ Of course. It’s only natural. You see, Mr Trelford, you’re missing one important fact. I killed my father.”


Larry looked at me with a dubious expression which could have meant anything.


“ Go on. Tell me how you did it.”


“ I didn’t mean to do it. I called round to see him to discuss amongst other things getting engaged to Adeline. He was dead set against it. We got into an argument and I pushed him. He feel, his head started bleeding. He didn’t look as if he was breathing. I called Adeline. She said she would deal with it and that I should come home and say nothing to anybody.”


“ And how did she deal with it exactly.”


“ She said her mother would know what to do. She wrote to her. Or telephoned.”


“Are you sure he was dead when you left the house? Why didn’t you call an ambulance?”


“ I don’t know. I panicked. It was all a blur.”


“ And Adeline came running and knew what to do. Lucky boy.”


He lit up a cigarette and wasn’t coughing this time.


“ How long has she been running around with a Kel-Tec automatic in her handbag?”


“ Oh, she’s always had it. Said she just carried it for fun. It was never loaded.”


“ So yesterday when she pointed it at me, she was just playing?”


“ I’m really not sure.”


“ Look Alex. I’m not in the business of covering up murder or manslaughter. That makes me an accessory. My professional advice to you is to go and tell the police. I can’t order you to do that and I don’t have to report a crime immediately or even sometimes at all, particularly when I’m on a job. Even in Hong Kong private dicks are given a certain leeway. But something about this whole business intrigues me. I was hired to find Adeline but that commission has lapsed. If you were to pick up the torch and hire me, just in formal terms, that would help to clear me for what I want to do in the near future. There’s more to this business than meets the eye.”


“ Oh please. I’m only too willing to hire you. If you think you can find Adeline.”


“ I can’t guarantee that. No one can. She may have been abducted. She may be in on something much bigger. She may think she’s running the show and she may turn out to be not quite the lovely doe-eyed girl you’ve got the hots for. I can’t guarantee I’ll deliver an angel to you. When I’m through, you may not want to walk down the aisle with her at all.”


“ I’ll take the risk. Just find her. Tell her to come back to me.”


“ Well you could start by giving me all her mobile phone numbers and all the credit card details you have on her. I have a feeling she won’t be shopping at Pacific Place for a while or making many calls but if she even leaves her phone on for a minute, we can get a trace of her location, sometimes to within a few streets. Are you going to go to the police?”


“ Not for the moment.”


“ That’s your decision. Right now we don’t have all the facts about how your father died. He may have had the heart attack coming or he may have had it subsequent to the fall. He may have had it before he fell. You may be in the clear. I can’t help you with that. The only thing you can do is to get a good lawyer. One word of advice though. Say nothing to the police. You were very fluent and forthcoming with your confession to us just now but don’t be so free and easy once they get you down to Police HQ, if ever they do. Just mention you saw your father and stick to that. If they keep asking you questions just say you want a solicitor present and say nothing more. Do you hear me? No shakes, no tears, no honest statements in front of nice concerned uniformed officers. It all comes up in court.”


He nodded and made up a list of all the numbers he knew. He got up to go. We gave him the usual forms to sign but we didn’t ask for an advance of fees. We’re nice that way- sometimes. He walked out of the office and Virginia couldn’t keep her eyes off him.


“So we have another fact.,” I said to Larry when he was gone.


“ You have, yes. The fact that he has confessed to killing his father in some way. Not that he actually did it.”


“ I see the distinction thanks. But why should he confess to us?”


“ Maybe miss sweetie drawers told him to do it. She seems to be a somewhat forceful character. He just looks plain stupid.”


Virginia winced a little as she picked up the coffee cup. Perhaps she was going to keep it in her drawer for private moments. 




The Eldorado Hotel in Mong Kok may be a terrible place to live but it’s a great place to die. Every week or two there’s a new suicide there, a bent stockbroker with the police about to sign the warrant or an old Mainland lady just plain tired of mahjong and shopping. The hotel is well situated, at the junction between Argyle Street going West and East, and Nathan Road which runs from Tsim Sha Tsui and as far north as you would want it to go. The hotel is squashed under another motorway turn-off going a completely different direction, just in case you have to make a quick getaway. You can check in any time and order two girls and a crate of Carlsberg to follow you up to the room and no one will bat an eyelid.


I’d taken one of the back-facing rooms at the end of a forlorn grey-carpeted corridor. The room had a complimentary plastic comb in a plastic wrapper and cheap shampoo in mean-sized plastic bottles and two complimentary condoms to whet your appetite on the cigarette-burnt bedside table in a neat, pink cardboard case with the hotel’s name on it. There was a deadly-looking minibar which only contained beer, salted nuts and imitation cola, a dusty air conditioner running at full pelt set into the grimy, pitted window and a dingy orange carpet fighting bravely for dominance with an ugly green bedspread which had the aura of debauch etched on it so clearly you could almost touch it. The large pristine TV set was permanently set to the porn channel.


I set up the computer at the glass-topped table by the window and selected one of the dozens of free wireless signals which crowded in on me. In a few moments I was exploring Sex141, a web site which offered you the locations, numbers and provocative photos of girls in their late teens and early twenties, all to be had at clearly marked prices. There wasn’t a picture of Adeline anywhere but that didn’t stop me looking. There were 221 girls available in Mong Kok and a tawdry set they looked. One girl brothels aren’t illegal in Hong Kong but most of the girls in them look more than shop-soiled. The true gold, I decided, was to be found on the Tsim Sha Tsui page. There were even more girls for hire there and one or two of the ads didn’t have a photo but offered attractive girls for hotel service only. The girls all had the same number so it was almost certainly an agency. All I had to do was call up, describe in broad terms what I was looking for and hope for the best. It was a long shot but perhaps I would stumble on something meaningful if I chatted to the pimps and girls long enough.


Before I dialled I snapped a towel out of the plastic wrapper in the bathroom and spread in onto the bed cover to lie down on. I took out my small Sony portable player with the inbuilt speaker and Debussy wafted towards me as incongruous as a nun in a liquor store.

I was thinking about two things mainly, neither of which was why a man with my training and character and fundamental views on life was lying in a flea-pit brothel of a hotel as part of his normal working day. One of them was the mystery of Adeline but it was less a mystery now and more that uncomfortable feeling I had when a very beautiful girl walked into my life. Leidenschaft the Germans call passion, a form of suffering, and the way in which Adeline bore on my mind and got into my imagination was filling me with feelings of dread. As if she would want a clapped-out forty something whose idea of wealth was having two hundred dollars in his pockets at the same time. As if love lasted longer for Trelford than a walk in the rain. She was certainly an interesting girl but what sort of girl exactly? She had a long story to tell and I like long stories.


The second thought which never succeeded very long in cancelling the first was the distinct impression I had been followed to the hotel, but it wasn’t the usual sort of tail. This one was foreign, a European, and he was getting on in years to say the least. I went through my memories of the trip to Kowloon again, trying to register the moments I had seen him. I felt his eyes on my back as I walked across the enclosed footbridge from Pacific Place over to Admiralty Centre. I think I glanced at him first though as he came down the ramp from the High Court and I thought he must be a barrister or minor judge I didn’t know. He was tall, wiry, withered and had that distinguished but rather seedy edge to him so I guess I must have thought him more likely a barrister. As I went down the escalator, I caught a few reflections in the chrome and he was still on me like a cheap suit. I caught him in the edge of my vision as I got my ticket and lost him a while as I went down the escalator to the platform. But there he was again a carriage away, behind a newspaper which never moved below his locks of combed-back, silver grey Brylcreemed hair. When I got out at Yau Ma Tei he almost stumbled for a moment as he fought past the rush of people, anxious to beat the beeps and get out before the doors closed.


It was too early for dial and dip so I decided I would take a look at the phone mall. If Mr Silver Fox was around he would probably show up or maybe he was working with someone. I don’t have many extra senses but I always know when I’m being followed and sometimes when I’m being lied to. I strode down the Via Dolorosa corridor and got into the Schindler. There was only a vague smell of rancid perfume in it at this time of day. The black marble lobby looked deserted but then even amateur tails don’t necessarily hang around lobbies. They can wait in a car or sit in the dai pai dong opposite over the same, sad glass of thick, scummy tea for hours. They can be studiously admiring their fingernails on a bench in the park or be dutifully perusing an arcane tome they’re holding upside down in the bookshop down the road. A lot of them stand transfixed in front of shop windows full of ladies’ garments or flick through teen magazines at Seven-11. Most of them think they’re invisible so location isn’t all that important to them.  


I crossed the road and fought my way down the street lined with lightly vibrating minibuses and wretched hawkers selling their daily catch of toys and fake handbags from Canton. The air was thick with diesel and fug and a nasty feeling of people on the make. Within a few minutes I felt him on me and I glimpsed a pair of brown brogues and some razor creases in grey cavalry twill. He’d also donned a hat which was unusual in Hong Kong unless it is a baseball cap or something with a sun visor. His was a trilby and it even had a small feather in it. The phone mall was in full swing and crowded in the way only Hong Kong can be, a pulsating swarm of short-haired heads on diminutive bodies swirling insatiably around the glass counters and overfilled windows. I didn’t want to lose him. To tease him a little I went upstairs and then did a quick turn back down. He was coming up immediately of course on the other escalator and looking the other way. After five more minutes I’d had enough so I walked up to him at as he was looking at a Hello Kitty phone as rapt as a choirmaster conducting in front of his bishop.


“ Aren’t you a bit too old for this game?” I said.


He put down the phone and smiled. I could now see he had a thin rakish moustache careering along his upper lip. His face looked like an anorexic ferret mostly but had little pink blood vessels on its nose and over the cheekbones. His deeply-set eyes were grey, sharp and clear.


“ Am I that obvious?”


“ As obvious as Santa’s beard. Care for a drink? All this footwork is mighty hard on the constitution.”


A few minutes later and we were sitting in the bar of the Eldorado being served knockout gin and tonics by a smiling Filipina with too much leg showing. The bar was empty save for us, dim, upholstered in plastic and smelled like a cat box. The Silver Fox had relaxed a lot and looked almost pally.


“ Jacques is the name but you can call me Harry. Never did much field work so no wonder you twigged so fast. I was at the ICAC twenty years until anno domini came along, as it must. Still follow the old cases in my way. Gets me out and about.”


“ So why are you following me? If I’m corrupt, where’s all the loot?”


“ Oh it’s not you at all. It’s your latest client I’m more concerned about. Mrs Chow. The woman with friends in low places.”


I let that pass. There was a buzz in my pocket and an SMS from Larry showed on my phone. I should check my e-mail and fast.


“ I just wonder why she hired you,” he said.


“ I’m not working for Mrs Chow.”


“ Oh. So why did you go and see her?”


“ Well that’s always confidential. I’m in the business of keeping an agency going, not giving myself things to do in retirement. Why don’t you tell me what you know about Mrs Chow and why she still gets you out of the house.”


His face changed for a moment and I began to see the old investigator at his desk once more, at the Independent Commission Against Corruption above the car park in Central.


“ Chow stinks to high heaven. When I was at the Commission, there was a team of five of us investigating all the various leads. The DAB came from almost nowhere and now has a network of supporters all over the territory. They sit on District Boards and liquor licensing committees and a few of them are JPs. The bus their voters to the booths with offers of free bags of rice and all sorts of other bung. They’re too friendly with the triads more than anything else and they in turn are called patriotic by Peking. It’s like the situation of the IRA and Sinn Fein. One set of front men fighting the elections and another set carving up the territory and doing all the dirty work. When the new director arrived we were simply closed down and I took early retirement. I was disgusted.”


“ So what are the recent leads you’re following.”


“ Nothing much except one thing. I’m very interested in her daughter. Too good to be true, isn’t she? One minute she’s snapped in a night club with a film producer, and we know how many of those are mobsters, and another she’s the sweet little researcher in Southern District. Have you seen her recently by the way? I’ve lost touch.”


“ What’s her name?”


“ Adeline. Awful name. Catches in your teeth, doesn’t it?”


“ And what do you think she’s up to?”


“ Hard to say. I’m particularly interested in her contacts with one man. Chung Kar-luk. Used to be the Sun Yee On’s big man on the Mainland but recently he’s moved to Hong Kong and is seen in the same places as Ms Adeline on certain occasions.”


“Got a photo?”


 “Yes. But not here. It’s in my room. I’ve a theory about Chung. Nothing I can prove but my old nose itches when I see him. I don’t know what.”


“ Where are you staying?”


“ Here. I’m in the room next door to you. I like your music. Very civilized.”


“ It’s hard to be civilized at the Eldorado.”


Ten minutes later and we were sat in his room. There was a bottle of Gordon’s and a large half-finished bottle of tonic water on the bedside table. He had the curtains drawn and one of the lamps on. The room was much the same as mine but there were more cigarette burns on the furniture.


“ Can’t seem to find it,” he said after a while, rifling through a battered black leather attaché case which I knew was Government issue.


“ How did you manage to keep the case?”


“ Ask no questions, get no lies.”


“ Bit of a giveaway, isn’t it?”


“ Gets you good service in certain quarters.”


“ But not when you’re supposed to be playing a clapped-out businessman on the bum. What other type of white man would stay here?”


“ As I say. Not a lot of field practice. Amateur really.”


So here I was, undercover with this large neon sign next door to me. We had to be the talk of the neighbourhood by now.


“ Just a minute. Have to go to the toilet. That gin’s beginning to work on me.”


“ Be my guest.”


But I didn’t use the toilet immediately. I signalled to Jacques to be quiet and reached for something in my little manbag. It was one of Larry’s favourites. A Hammerstein 3-in-one bug detector, five hundred US on e-Bay if you can find one. It scanned all the usual frequencies for you and when it had done that you could use it to check for cameras with a little infrared beam. Then it had a built-in metal detector you could run over the place to locate any recording bugs. Quite a nifty gadget as gadgets went. I went to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. Then I took my little gold pencil out of my pocket and wrote down some words on my lined journalist’s jotter for Jacques to follow. He looked shaken at first and then he began to smile. He liked playing amateur sleuth, that was obvious. He must have been in the scouts once too.


The frequency scanner came up almost immediately on the police and services band. Then I flashed the red beam around the walls and chairs and the ceiling and onto the TV set and the pictures but nothing showed.


“ Interesting weather we’ve been having.”


My smile was as false as a ten-dollar Rolex.


I switched on the metal detector and ran it around the room. It got upset at the little hot water machine but that’s only natural. I lifted it to check. Nothing showing. I ran it along the bed but there was only the weakest of glows. Then I ran it down one of the the armchairs and it glowed again. More brightly this time. Could be springs or nails but I didn’t think so. I bent down and looked. Then I saw it.  It was a neat little bug and you had to peer real close to spot it. It was in the join of the fabric and well pressed in. You wouldn’t feel it even if you had your back on it.


“ I think Hong Kong weather perfectly despicable most of the time,” Jacques said, not at all uneasily, and he offered me another drink. We started to chat about holidays and airlines and we were making a good job of it. I scribbled more on the jotter to the effect that the bug should be left in place and he’d better telephone from the lobby. He gave me the thumbs up and I left it at that.


I took my leave of Mr Jacques and went into my room, thinking that I’d better check into another hotel and fast. But what the hell, I thought after a while. Maybe the Silver Fox would be good company. Maybe he would tell me something I didn’t already know. I might even find out who wanted to bug a silly old man with too much time on his hands.

The scan I did in my room produced nothing and the password screen on my computer was still up. All seemed well.


 I logged in and checked my e-mail. Together with all the spam for penis patches and sure-thing stocks there was a note from Larry with an attachment. The attachment was an e-mail and I already knew most of it. The first paragraph was interesting.




I’ve done something foolish. I think I killed someone, not wanting to but it’s happened and that’s all there is to it. I’m deadly serious. This isn’t a joke. I got into an argument with an old man in Stanley and I  pushed him over and he didn’t get up again. I’m sure you’ll know who I mean.


I put on some Debussy and dozed off.























There was a knock at the door. I woke up. There are service knocks, money knocks and knocks from good girls who might. This was another knock, very familiar, and when I looked through the little spy hole and saw two boys in green and a large European in a black uniform I knew what was going on.


“ Come on in, boys.”


The European was a man I still recognised. I’d come across him twenty years ago when he was an up-and-coming inspector on Lantau Island, the place they sent the expats in the force they didn’t know what to do with, ones too stupid or too objectionable for all the regular postings. He interrogated everybody on the ferry rather than talking to them and people soon gave him a wide berth. He’d obviously come up in the world as he had a lot of pips on his shoulder now. He was medium sized, with medium-length hair and a hard kind of obtuse, big-jawed, blue-eyed medium Irish face. He was more than medium offensive.


“ Commander Littlejohn. I think we met once.”


I ushered then to seat themselves and the two standard issue policemen sat on the bed looking uneasy the way many policemen do when they’re asked to sit down and be gentle.


“ Oh yes. Must have been years ago. So what can I do for you gentlemen?”


“ Do you know Mr Sung of Stanley well?”


“ I wouldn’t say we were bosom pals. He’s my landlord. If we’re talking about the senior one who recently demised. I know Mr Alex Sung in a professional capacity.”


“ It’s the senior one we’re interested in at present. You know he’s dead.”


I reached for my pipe and filled it whilst I thought about that. The Commander had produced a neat little pad and pen and one of his escorts was already scribbling along too.


“ I know he’s dead, yes.”


“ Do you know how he died?”


“ I’m not certain. Seems it might have been a heart attack. I hear there’s going to be an inquest.”


“ What are you doing here at the moment?”


“ Well, I’m working believe it or not.”


“ Working on what, Mr Trelford?”


“ I would have thought that was obvious as you probably know I’m a private investigator and this hotel is the biggest open brothel in town. Now you can answer some of my questions Commander and then maybe you’ll get out of here and leave me in peace. I don’t like a posse of the local constabulary disturbing my siesta with a lot of fool questions and I don’t like being interviewed about dead men without a solicitor present or perhaps at least as a matter of courtesy knowing where it’s all going. Not that I want a solicitor really as God knows I can’t afford one but as you know I’m well versed in the law, knowing for example that when you’re invited in and you’re not making an arrest you ought to remove your caps. Police Standing Orders para. 5 section 2.”


The Commander took his hat off and his men followed suit.


“ That’s better. You seem half human already Littlejohn. You’re still interrogating instead of being nice to people I see. Bluster won’t get you anywhere here. So say what you have to say and then get out please.”


“ Just what has Mr Sung hired you to do?”


“ Well that’s confidential but you ought to be able to put two and two together.”


“ Is it related to the death of his father?”


“ I said you could say your piece, not that you could go on harassing me. If you want to invite me down for a chat at police HQ any time you’re welcome to do so and such things are easily arranged on the telephone. Here’s my card. If I see you or your men tailing me or knocking on my door or calling around for informal chats at 4 pm again I’ll apply for a High Court writ to get you from doing so again. And fast.  Read the regulations Mr Littlejohn and get off your high horse.”


I got up and went to the door. It’s nice to open it up sometimes and clear a room full of law.


“ All I will say Mr Trelford is that Mr Sung’s death is being treated as a murder investigation in view of certain findings made by the police forensics team and that we would request your cooperation in the matter. We’ll be in touch again at an appropriate juncture. Your attitude today has been noted.”


They got up to go.


“ Well I never ever scored very high on attitude, that’s for sure. Have a nice day Commander, unless you have other plans.”


They marched back down the Via Dolorosa corridor.


“ Bull’s-eye, old boy,” Jacques said in an undertone, emerging from his room. “First rate.”


I shooed him into mine.


“ Can’t find any bugs in here. Maybe they think I’m not important.”


“ Who do you think’s listening?”


 “ In your case, hard to say. Maybe it’s Mrs C and maybe it isn’t. If I were you, I’d go back home and save on the hotel bill. You’re as undercover as Dolly Parton down here.”


“ Don’t agree, old man. Best fun I’ve had in years.”


My telephone rang. It was Junior. He sounded flustered to say the least.


“ Mr Trelford, I’ve got to see you. It’s about Adeline. Something’s happened. I need your help. Please come.”


“ Where are you?”


“ At home. Please hurry. I can’t discuss it on the phone.”


“ Hold the fort, Harry,” I said. “ I have to step out for a while. And stay off the gin too, if you can manage.”


I took my manbag and my diminishing tin of Erinmore and got down to the MTR without any eyes on me that I could sense. Just to show what a big shot I was these days, I decided to get a taxi at Admiralty and the driver didn’t know the address but that was par for the course. I had enough Cantonese to direct him.


The security guard was napping at Scenic Horizons but he was able to open the door after a few insistent buzzes on the intercom. Junior was in his dressing gown but his aura was fading fast. He had been doing some kind of fitness routine and was lightly flushed. The room smelled of burnt tobacco and clean, young sweat.


“ I had a call. They’ve got her and they want a hundred thousand.”


“ Who’s got her?” I said, sinking into the sofa.


“ I don’t know but they sounded nasty.”


“ They generally do. Where’s the drop?”


“ The what?”


“ Where and when do they want you to take the money?”


“ Oh, they’re going to tell me tonight.”


“ Can you get that much together?”


“ Yes. It’s not a problem.”


I thought for a moment how nice it would be if a hundred thousand Hong Kong or any other dollars were not a problem.


“ Well I guess you should wait here and wait for instructions and tell me as soon as you know. Have the police been in touch?”


“ No. Why should they be?”


“ Nothing. Just asking. Just remember what I told you. Say nothing, casually or otherwise. Just stick to your story and don’t be bullied. And call me the moment they show up.”


“ Should we tell them about Adeline?”


“ I don’t think so. They’ll only make things worse. A hundred thousand isn’t really a ransom demand anyway unless they’re really desperate or small-time operators. Perhaps something’s gone wrong their end and they just want to get her off their hands. So you’re still sticking to your story that you killed your father?”


“ Of course. That’s the truth.”


“ As you like. But a few things don’t quite add up in your story. Like why someone else is taking the rap for it all.”


“ I don’t understand.”


“ You really must have magnificent abs.”


I thought it wasn’t a particularly good time for sweating him and in any case policemen like Littlejohn do it so much better then me. Sweating your own client is best saved for when they get a bit difficult about the bill.


“ Don’t forget to call me the moment anything happens. And don’t answer the door to any hoods, cops or travelling salesmen.”


I called Mrs C’s office and she was still seeing people if it was urgent and if you were a registered voter. I broke the bank again and took a taxi. The driver knew the address immediately this time. When I arrived, the Plaza lobby was full of people rushing out of the lifts and hanging around waiting. There was no need to sign in.


Up in the smog, the girl with swooshing legs was still there at her counter looking less of a challenge than before. It had obviously been a long day and her defenses were beginning to wilt. In the old days I might have slipped her a Chambers card and given her an unambiguous leer but I was getting beyond it.


“ It’s urgent of course. And very personal.”


“ Of course,” she said and looked nervously at the line of petitioners on the benches behind me. “ I’ll let Mrs Chow know immediately.”


I took a seat.


“ Isn’t it a scandal,” I said to an old lady beside me with a jade ring and two gold teeth in her upper gums. “ You buy a property nowadays and it just isn’t worth anything any more. Time was when you could buy a flat and it doubled in value in six months. Not that I ever lived in one of them of course. I prefer public housing. And hasn’t that gone up in price terribly the last few years? All those horrible foreigners moving in everywhere and all the improvements you have to make to your properties. You just can’t live.”


The old woman smiled at me with total incomprehension but obvious sympathy.


“ Chee-sin” said a voice behind me as I was led to Mrs Chow’s office.


Mrs Chow had had a long day too and the first layer or two of make-up were running to wherever layers of make-up run when they can’t cut it any more. The light seemed a little brighter than before but the carpet was still liable to trip you up if you weren’t careful.


“ Mr Trelford.”


“ You can call me Nigel, Mrs Chow. I think all this formality might be preventing us from getting down to basics. Like what sort of game are you pulling and how I fit into the general scheme of things.”


“ I don’t quite understand.”


“ Well let me see if I can spell it out for you in simple words like concealment, manipulation, fall guys and organised crime. Do they ring any bells?”


“ Sit down a moment, Mr Trelford, calm yourself and tell me just what is going on please.”


“ Just this, Mrs Chow. The last two days have been highly illuminating to lovers of film noir and Raymond Chandler like me. All the characters are there: the wicked old hen behind her desk feeding a private dick the wrong information, a stiff in his own hallway, a broad with a gat, a young dashing hero with as much backbone as a jellyfish and a small posse of the local Keystone cops calling round for informal chats in the afternoon. Then there’s the bumbling tail, the mysterious man in the back of the limousine and the wad of readies in the plain sealed wrapper. Have I left anything out?”


“ I wouldn’t really know.”


“ As I told the man in the limousine, I’m all in favour of reality TV, as long as I don’t have to watch it, and I adore TCM but this is Hong Kong 2007 and my patience is wearing a little thin. Live your clichés if you must but isn’t it about time you told me what’s going on.”


“ There are a lot of things you don’t understand Mr Trelford, no matter how long you live here. You don’t understand the hybrid nature of Hong Kong and what it means to be Chinese, a culture of surfaces. Do you think our way of running things is any worse than your men in Washington and London and Rome? Is everything above board there Mr Trelford? Are justice and transparency alive and well? Is there no corruption in high places, no violence at the edges, no things we shouldn’t be more than a little ashamed of?”


“ Tell me about Adeline. What is she working at. Who is she working for?”


“ Adeline is I think alive and well and need not concern you.”


“ So that’s why we’re getting the ransom demands.”


“ Ransom demands?”


“ Perhaps you don’t know as much as you think you do. But one thing I want to tell you. Everything I do has a lot people behind it. There’s not only my partner. Everything I do is backed up by a number of people in the know who get all the details sent to them at regular intervals. If I’m discovered in a burning car drunk as a skunk, if I suddenly develop a drug habit and die of an overdose or even if I have a coronary or am hit by a truck crossing the road some dark night, everyone who can arrest and destroy you will know everything within a day. You’d better pray for my health Mrs Chow and for all those near and dear to me. Do I make myself clear?”


“ Perfectly. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of people to see before I can go home tonight.”


“ Yes. The electorate, bless them. Tell me. Do they get cheques or is it all cash in hand?”


She let that one go.


“ Good night, pussy cat. Let’s do lunch.”


As I was making my way out of the lobby, Junior called. The drop was at midnight.



I’m not awfully good at holding clients’ hands, especially men’s hands. You sit with them and usually they smoke without inhaling or they inhale too deeply. They drink too much, play with their phones or just look like wild animals in the headlights waiting for some kind of deliverance. Sometimes there’s a little whimper or a sigh or a hard swallow.

They may even begin to talk about their early childhood. Anything can happen really and at such moments I feel very much like a professional, a mental health professional.


Junior was being quite good. He only went to the window every five minutes and only fussed with the cushions and the lamp shades every ten. He changed his shoes several times, as if there were ever a perfect pair for making a ransom drop. He brushed his teeth three times and washed up twice. He didn’t talk much. When he did it was mostly to offer me more soda water or more potato crisps. The TV was on but the volume was off, which is the way I nearly always watch TV.


“ It may be a long night,” I said at last. “ You might want to lie down and get some rest. No need to sleep exactly.”


“ Will it be all right? Is she still alive?”


“ I think so. They’re not interested in the money. If they were, there’d be a good chance she’d be dead by now. I think the money they’re asking is just to cover expenses and for form’s sake. And as delivering her is the main aim of the operation, they won’t harm her.”


Put like that, I half believed it myself.


“ That’s good,’ he said and stretched his length on the sofa for a whole minute before returning to his nervous cower and setting fire to another Marlboro Light. 


At last I couldn’t stand it any longer.


“ The only thing that’s gnawing at me a little, Alex, is why anyone would want to kidnap her. Can you enlighten me on that?”


“ No idea.”


“ Well, I’ll let you in on a secret. She wrote to her dear Mommy straight after you announced you had killed your father and took the blame for it. Within a few hours I’m hired to find her and play fall guy. Then along come two men in a car and take her away. Maybe they were part of the same operation.”


“ But why would anyone kidnap her?”


“ Call it protective custody if you like. To stop her going to the press. Or to the police. It’s election year after all.”


“ So you think Mrs Chow kidnapped her own daughter.”


“ Stranger things have happened.”


“ So no harm will come to her then.”


I nodded.


The call came at twenty minutes to midnight. I was listening on the speaker phone. First we heard Adeline saying a few words but it could have been a tape. The kidnapper spoke harsh low-class Cantonese with a Mainland slant to it. It was longer than it needed to be, as if they didn’t really worry about traces. Junior mentioned he had a companion and who he was. That didn’t shake their end one bit. We were to drive immediately to a lay-by where the hiking trail started, near the bridge at Tai Tam Tuk reservoir, and await further instructions. If we were followed by police or by anyone else, the deal was off. They didn’t sound menacing. They sounded calm and plain devious. I didn’t like it at all.


We went down to the car park and got into Junior’s red Alfa Romeo. It sounded smooth, aggressive and rich. We drove past the Ma Hang housing estate which looked ghostly in the calm of Stanley. Then we turned left at the bottom of the road and took the first of the grand turns on the narrow Tai Tam road. Now it was the steep bank up to the roundabout and a turn right and we were on the coast road. It was a brisk night and the promise of a chilly early morning later on. Stanley Bay to our right looked serene and almost picturesque. There was very little traffic.  A few taxis were hanging about the American Club, waiting for the late stragglers from the bar. The huge high-rise fortress of the Manhattan complex was silhouetted against a moonlit sky. Junior drove calmly, resisting the urge I could feel in him to put his foot down and release his tension. The road wound and wound, odd bushes and ferns tickled the doorway left and whispered to us like a curse or a caress, it was hard to say which. On my lap, in a Lane Crawford plastic bag, was the bundle of money in used five hundred dollar bills.


Turtle Cove below us now and the sinuous line of houses on the promontory. The beginnings of Tai Tam Tuk estuary below us and the line of the hills and the road leading to Shek O above. A pair of joy riders on motorbikes whizzed past us. Another two hundred yards and the reservoir lurched towards us like a weird gulf of big brown void, sparkling lightly in the moonlight.


We stopped in the little lay-by as instructed. To our left, there was a changing room for hikers, twenty yards down a wooded drive which skirted the reservoir, a likely observation point for a kidnap gang if ever there was one.


We waited.

We didn’t have to wait long. A slowly moving minivan approached us, paused a second and moved on past. It was jet black with tinted windows. Then Junior’s phone rang and he turned on the tinny speaker.


“ Where are you now?” said the voice in Cantonese, as bright and brreezy as a hotel telephonist.


“ At the beginning of the reservoir, Stanley side.”


“ Good. Now listen. Get out and walk to the beginning of the bridge. We’ll call again when you get there. Take the money with you. Mr Trelford should stay behind in the car. No tricks. We’re watching your every move.”


Junior looked at me. He was pale, petrified and seemed to have aged a decade.


“ You’d better do what the man says.”


I got out with him and stood by the open car door. He took the bundle of money from my hands and walked down the road. After twenty yards, he turned right and he would be at the beginning of the bridge in a matter of minutes. I then knew what I had to do. I bent down as if getting back into the car but I didn’t. I crouched down and hit my belly and slammed the door. The eyes or field glasses of any observer in the hikers’ hut must be on Junior, not me. I waddled and crawled through the gravel of the pathway leading to the hut and reached a small clump of bushes. There was the sound of rushing water down a little gully to my left and it masked nicely the sound of my knees and my feet now as I stood up and skirted the trees along the path up to the hut. The low concrete hut was brightly lit but seemed a little less than usual. They’d probably taken out one or two of the fluorescent tubes. I smelt cigarette smoke on the air and a short burst of that low static sound walkie talkies make. I wished I had a weapon but I guessed my fists and a lot of hope would have to do.


Very gently, I tiptoed across the path and clung to the back wall of the hut. There were two openings with slatted pieces of glass at the top of the wall above my head. I took off my watch and turned its back to my eyes and lifted it on its strap to the beginning of the window opening. I could just reach it. I turned the back of the watch around. Something that looked like a small wiry Asian was standing on the wooden bench,  peering through the slatted glass on the other wall. He probably had some glasses trained on the road. I couldn’t see the bulge of a weapon on him and on the bench there was only a bottle of water and packet of cigarettes. I now saw the tiny walkie talkie in his hand and he whispered something into it. He wasn’t at all jumpy.


Gently I tapped one of the slanted glass panels with my watch. He didn’t notice. Then I walked round to the side door by the pathway and tapped again. There was a short sound like the movement of feet, then nothing. I tapped again. He was playing dead. I could hear his mind working. He was thinking police, security guards or a double cross. Perhaps he saw himself back again in the prison he had been in already, eating the congee and gambling for smokes. That would break him in a minute, I knew. Or maybe he was clever and could pretend to be a birdwatcher or hiker. You probably needed brains to think that fast though.


My man didn’t have all that many. He opened the door and looked as crazy as Manson. He also looked as frightened as hell. I kicked the door and caught him with a belly punch. He fell down and from where he lay his feet came up and hit me on the left leg. There wasn’t a lot of power behind the kick and he was only wearing sneakers but there was enough for me to hurt and stagger a second. I threw myself on him and hit him again, this time on the chin, what little he had of it. His body went limp for ten whole seconds, just enough time to reach into my pocket for the little pair of cuffs, another of Larry’s Christmas presents. I snapped one cuff on his right arm and dragged him towards a water pipe I could see under the washbasin in the small Chinese style squat toilet cubicle at the far end. He was coming to now and I had to work fast. I lifted his arm and ran the short linking chain of the cuffs around the water pipe. There was hardly room enough to do it but I managed in the end. I clicked the second cuff on his left wrist. He woke up then and stared at me and spat a gob of phlegm on my face as easily as a cobra spitting venom. I wiped it off with a couple of tissue from my bag, pinched his nose a moment and then stuffed the wad harder than I needed to into his awful, gaping, half-toothed maw.


There was a crackle on the walkie talkie. I pulled out the gag and told him what to say. I had my hands lightly around his neck as he spoke the few words to say that all was in order. The other end was saying someone had arrived. My man was perfectly cooperative. People often are when you can throttle them if they aren’t. Already he was thinking of less time in Stanley prison. Good for him and good for me. I pushed a fresh gag in his mouth and signalled goodbye. I took the tiny radio and ran like a madman down the gravel path and along the road, trying to keep my body low against the bushes at the edge of the lake. Two winds in the perilously narrow road and I saw Junior standing by the proud Colonial monument to Sir Henry May who, I remembered from the many times I’d seen it, had opened the Tai Tam Tuk reservoir in 1918. It must have been quite an achievement then. The wall and bridge along it was a hundred yards long and two hundred feet high. It had little neon tubes of light running across it on the right side. On my left the lake looked huge, sinister and as indiscriminating as an act of God. On my right, down the long curved drop of the reservoir wall, I could see the lights of the estuary village below and heard the roar of the water as it rushed down into it. The hills all around shrouded the valley in a pall of grim, dark-purple nothing.


Junior saw me but didn’t move. There was nothing on the bridge. The road was not much more than two metres wide, a real traffic bottleneck in the daytime. The next minute was an agony. Time was in the grip of all that space, all that helplessness. There was nothing human about it any more. At last, we saw the dark minivan turning the curve in the road at the other end of the road. It was moving as slowly as a President’s hearse. It reached the middle of the bridge and stopped. Junior knew what to do. He wasn’t shifting feet or looking dumb this time. I wondered why he hadn’t called. Perhaps he had been instructed not to or perhaps he was in his usual funk. There was a sound of the side van door being slid open. A figure got out which didn’t look like a hoodlum. It stood there. It was impossible to say if it was being held or restrained. It just didn’t budge. Junior was marching now and he held the bag of money forward like a tribute. He reached the front of the van and its long curving windscreen caught a little under the lights. There was an exchange of words. Then it happened.


A strong figure of a man emerged from the driver’s side and rushed towards him. Another burly figure approached him from the other side. There was a struggle for a

moment and a flailing of arms. The money dropped to the ground. The men got their hands around Junior’s legs and got him on the wall. It was a grim, dirty wrestling match and Junior gave all he had, trying to free his arms, hit the ground and roll and kick. But it was no use. Something heavy hit him and he went limp. Then he was on the wall, immobile, a mere inert bundle of something or other. They pushed the bundle. It dropped. There was a thud, a scrape, then a weak splash, then nothing.


It was that easy to end someone, that easy to get the big sleep.



































Larry saved me. I’d told him what we had in mind when the ransom instructions arrived and he had said he would keep in contact but at a distance. He was now in his small Japanese imitation Land Rover just down the road in front of the American Club pretending to be waiting for someone. The day Larry waits for a rich American in his free time will be some day indeed.


The black minivan had done a fast reverse and towards the Shau Kei Wan end of the bridge and we stood as much chance finding it as winning the Mark Six lottery. We drove that direction now out of sense of loyalty or shock or whatever you do feel when your client gets wasted, which we discovered isn’t all that much in the early morning and probably wouldn’t be any other time of day. We telephoned the ambulance as most people do, when really the meat wagon is what you need. Some poor emergency nurse would be up to his thighs in pure cold Tai Tam water, feeling for a pulse where there couldn’t be one and being peered at by a swarm of local constabulary, all in the headless chicken mode they switch to when anything disastrous or dirty happens. We’d also reported the man chained up in the hikers’ hut. We supposed the car would be found at the same time as it was cute, red and shiny.


“ Murder a day Trelford, the mortician’s friend,” said Larry. “ Just follow him around and inform the coroner.”


He looked kind of funny behind the wheel of such a silly little car but I didn’t say so.


We took the left turn at the end of the road and drove down the bank into the grim streets of Shau Kei Wan and Sai Wan Ho. Another Seven-11 had opened opposite another Circle-K. Another foot and body and anything else if you asked for it massage centre had sprung up on another first floor and another set of buildings was being cleared, demolished and turned into bijou residences with shopping mall and fitness centre ensuite. The streets were still buzzing with oversized cars, empty buses, speeding taxis, gas-guzzling minivans, desultory shoppers, shuffling vagrants and bizarrely dressed Mainlanders on a spree. There were the same occasional children on errands to somewhere or just hanging around in McDonalds until their parents stopped their mahjong game. The food hawkers at the junctions were serving curried fish balls and barbecued squid on a stick. Soon the bright pencil towers of Kornhill and Tai Koo were before us on both sides, a cold, savage and treeless Metroland where people thought they were getting ahead at last on the 25-year mortgage plan.


“ For God’s sake, let’s get a drink,” I said at last as we were heading into Quarry Bay. “I’ve had enough of the City Of Life for one night.”


Tong Chong Street was a favoured hangout for the journalist and media crowd and the bars and restaurants had groups of foreigners but more often loners seeking inspiration and commiseration at the bottom of a glass.  There were yesterday’s papers in the bar and I glimpsed a picture of Mrs Chow and friends preparing for an election they believed they had a good chance of winning. It was hard to know why. After all, they were against democracy, against a fair share for all and against a welfare state.


“ How do they do it?” I asked Larry who had installed himself behind a larger-than-life glass of red wine. “ They seem to have all the wrong policies.”


“ But they do get the vote out. Vans, electoral rolls, signing up the old and the feeble and the frightened and the bigoted. Most Hong Kong people are too lazy to register and too lazy to vote. The like to march though – if the weather’s nice and they feel disgruntled. But the economy’s on the up again. No different from anywhere else I suppose.”


“ But people in Britain used to fight for their rights. Lots of them still do.”


“ Blair finished all that. Fitted carpets, central heating, EasyJet holidays, cheap lager, lots of allowances to keep the unemployable off the streets and out of your living room with a gemmy in their hand. More persuasive than Socialism wouldn’t you say? Cheers.”


“ I think we’re in a real mess right now. I’m frightened actually. I think this could be it. Former barrister found dead in doorway. What’s your theory?”


“ Well addressing ourselves strictly to the facts, it looks like a cover-up of a murder, or a manslaughter. Mrs Chow’s alarm bells started ringing when she got the e-mail. She thought you would either be a good fall guy for the job or you would actually find Adeline. She wouldn’t lose either way. She didn’t want to involve a local firm as the news would get out to everyone that way and scandal of any kind is what she and her friends really can’t use at the moment. Why they staged this trap to kill Mr Sung junior is a mystery to me. Of course he knew that Adeline had killed Mr Sung or that she had claimed to do so but it does seem a little heavy-handed. It would have been much better to get him to take the blame or set him up for the crime and leave it at that.”


“ Unless they were overtaken by events.”


“ Such as?”


“ The police seem to have cast-iron evidence that he was murdered. That didn’t seem obvious to me when I saw the corpse. I believe young Alex’s story now. I think they did have an argument and he pushed him and that he was as scared as hell. I think that’s how he persuaded Adeline to take the blame. He was a pretty hopeless kind of person whereas she, well I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. She scares me.”


“ So you think Sung senior wasn’t killed by a fall or a push?”


“ No. And I want you to find out how it was done and as fast as you can. When we know how he was killed we might find out why Alex was killed. At the moment, we’re seeing a picture but it’s the wrong picture.”


He got back into his Jeepette and went in search of elucidation in the police haunts he knew about. I walked down Tong Chong Street with the chill of autumn upon me, a relative chill because Hong Kong is never really cold. I felt shop soiled, worn and thin. There was a McDonalds open and I ate a cheeseburger without much interest and without much sensation. It is the perfect food for thinking as nothing much gets in the way. But I wasn’t thinking much. Memories of Junior in his dressing gown, memories of Junior looking pale and haggard and as frightened as a rabbit at the wheel of his car and the march towards his death. How did it feel to be tossed into the air and feel that bounce against Sir Henry May’s granite bricks? It sounded as good a way to go as any. This was no time to be sentimental about a young man gone. He wasn’t very heroic and he wasn’t all that likeable. But who was in Hong Kong - the town with the most of everything and the best of nothing.


I flagged down a taxi and felt the night upon me, harsher than before, and a million lives crowded around me, lives of mind-numbing work, cable TV, air conditioning, vague hopes and short-term satisfactions. I got out in Hennessy Road in Wanchai, where you can always find a welcome if your wallet is even half-way full. The girls stood in pairs at the junctions and at the entrances to the bars now, looking for their marks under the gaudy signs which were parodies of adventure. They eyed me hungrily now as they knew the signs of the spiritually bankrupt better than a stage psychic. Walk-in, walk-up sex never interests me in the normal run of things. It’s too much of a self-fooling to ring true, even at the bottom of a deep pit of despair or drunkenness. But some liked the self-deception and revelled in what Wanchai had to offer. The bars were always buzzing.


I sat down in the Devil’s Advocate and for no good reason had a bottle of white wine brought to me. It was all oaky vanilla and grapefruit, as mysterious as a tax demand. Thankfully, it was chilled out of all recognition and all the thrill you got was an icy kind of anaethesia in your throat and a rising sense of well, things may not be all that bad after all. They even brought me an ice bucket as they sensed a big spender and hoped one bottle wouldn’t do. Two girls at the next table, Filipinas of course, were holding on for dear life to the remains of their cocktails. It must have been a slack night.


“ Why don’t you join me? Your glasses look parched.”


They hopped over and their skirts gripped their legs like cling film. They were young for the game, eighteen going on twenty-five but it was hard to see how old they were really under all the make-up and fake jewels and stiff tied-back hair.


And we went through the usual routine. Of course they were on tourist visas and they were here visiting relatives and things were hard in the Philippines and they liked Hong Kong but it was expensive. They wanted to find jobs because they were graduates and respectable God-fearing homely girls and they didn’t really want to look after children and cook and clean for a living. They wanted to earn money and it was difficult for everyone from the Philippines where money just couldn’t be made even by nice attractive graduates with tied back hair and a horde of poor relatives all suffering from incurable conditions, the rest of the family being struck by the effects of tsunamis, fires, divorces, road accidents, collapsed buildings and vicious Chinese landlords. If there is a Hell, the Filipinos will be taking the hats and coats at the entrance and telling you all about it, largely because they want everyone to know what they escaped from. There’s no need for a heaven for Filipinos. They are happy with a clean, crisp Green Card.


Even though the ersatz wine was kicking in with a vengeance, I decided to take a rain check on a threesome or even a twosome. When faced with a choice between quiet desperation and surefire degradation with a brown fuzzy glow to it I always choose to go on suffering. Maybe I’m not an expatriate at all.


As I approached Stanley in the taxi I wondered if I could close my eyes and smell corruption in the air, the same way you can sense chaos in Italy or order in Switzerland. I opened my eyes at last as there wasn’t any clue. It was peaceful kind of place, low-rise mainly, boring mainly, a ramshackle collection of villas, market stalls and attempts at provision for tourists, a harmless little enclave where everyone got on with their business and watched the bucks quietly roll in. In that sense it was little different from anywhere else in Hong Kong. It just had better air and a lot less traffic.


I jumped out of the taxi at the entrance to Watson’s and the market looked horrid and sinister and empty the way only markets can when the people have gone. The old lady in her fluorescent striped overall was making a very late collection of the litter bins and didn’t look up as I passed. A few cockroaches skittled across my path but I was too lazy to try to crush them. It’s marvellous how a bottle of wine can make you just peachy inside and even believe that the low life has a right to go on breathing. You might even greet a policeman or a District Councillor in such a state of well-being.


I managed to keep a respectable straight line up to the street doorway and found the keyhole at first attempt. The door slammed behind me as usual with its usual metallic clang. I opened up the door, turned on the fluorescent light I always used to find the less glaring lamp and got a sudden eyeful of green uniformed constabulary sitting on my sofa, looking as peaceful as folks at a drive-in movie when it’s time to go home. But they weren’t going home.

















Police Central in Arsenal Street could be the headquarters of a respectable modern global bank because it’s tall, shiny, solid-looking and is full of computers and paper. Everyone there is in a grim and dreary business but they go about it like they’re handling loans and debits all day. I really feel sorry for coppers deep down as they joined up to fight crime or rescue children from burning buildings but they’re just paper pushers like everyone else in the end. In Hong Kong, the paper is abundant, stencilled, lined, in two languages and has a tired, cheap look to it. On the desk before me Littlejohn and two locals in plain clothes were leafing through a stack of it in a plain brown Government folder with my name on it somewhere amongst the numbers, labels and squiggles. I wonder how much they kept on the criminals.


“ Mr Trelford, thank you for coming to see us this morning. I apologise for the late hour but our enquires are rather urgent.”


It was all being taped of course and you could see the words appearing in front of the judge and him noting what a nice, polite lot the police were these days. I smiled. Littlejohn looked remarkably fresh for the hour but his Irish face looked strangely more Irish now with the beard shadow upon it. His uniform was crisp and neat and all the studs on it were bright and shiny.


“ As I told you before Mr Littlejohn when you stormed round to my hotel room the other afternoon whilst I was working, I never object to helping the police.”


“ Thank you Mr Trelford. I wonder if I you would mind telling us where you were this evening and more precisely at midnight or thereabouts.”


“ Well, before I start helping you in some way I think it would be polite of you to help me out and tell me if I am suspected of a crime and what crime that would be. I’d also like to know if I am not suspected, what crime you’re investigating within the present parameters of discussion. Not that I’ve anything to hide but you do know that I’m a private investigator and I have a duty to my clients’ confidentiality.”


“ We’re aware of that. We’re actually interested in two deaths, one of which we strongly suspect is a murder and one, the one which occurred this evening in fact, which we provisionally believe was a murder. The first party referred to is your landlord Mr Sung and the second is your client Alex Sung, Mr Sung Junior.”


“ Well, I’m quite surprised to hear you think Mr Sung senior was murdered.”


“ The autopsy had revealed that he died not from a fall or a heart attack. He died from the injection of a substance we believe to be carbolic acid which was administered directly to the heart muscle. We believe he was unconscious at the time. Although the symptoms of his death mimicked in every way those of a heart attack and the point where the needle entered the body was hard to detect, our pathologist is adamant that is how he died.”


I said nothing for a while.


“ And how can I help you with the provisionally believed murder of Mr Alex Sung?”


“ You can tell us where you were this evening.”


“ At what time.”


“ I can tell you that at around midnight and until about two a.m. I was with my friend and partner Larry Snowdon. Before that time I was assisting a client.”


“ Could you tell us a little more.”


“ Not at this stage. I’m sorry to say that my instincts as a former barrister and my present duties as a private investigator somehow mitigate against me chatting away with the police with the tape running or justifying myself in some way when there are two murders in the frame. So I will make a statement now and then you will have to decide whether you want to take it as it sits and release me or whether you want to detain me and charge me but heaven knows why and with what evidence. So here it is. I did not kill or assist the killing of Mr Sung senior and I did not kill or assist the killing of Mr Alex Sung Junior. That’s all I have to say.”


Littlejohn looked at this two local assistants who seemed to know a lot more than him, but that wasn’t saying much. I looked at the tape machine and one of them had the intelligence to turn it off. Then I looked at the two men, one by one, and then the door. They got up and left. Littlejohn looked a lot smaller without men at his side.


“ As I said, Littlejohn, I’m more than willing to help the police but it would be nice if you treated a man civilly and with just a little respect. You could have met me for a drink and nice little chat in some lobby lounge but instead you choose to drag me into this glittering, high-tech, pencil-pushing hell hole at this ungodly hour for an old-fashioned full frontal grilling. As if it’s going to get you anywhere. Man, you’re so ham-fisted you’re positively dangerous.”


“ Tell me what you know. None of this is on the record.”


“ Everything is on the record with a copper like you. I don’t trust you and I don’t like you. You have what you would call a public relations problem.”


“ So who will you talk to.”


“ No one if you’re in on it. Why don’t you hand the investigation over to someone with a bit of imagination.”

“ Who for example?”


I thought for a moment.


“ Is Jake Holloran still around?”


“ Halloran? He’s practically retired.”


“ Another good man gone then.”


“ No no. He’s still with the force. He mainly does admin and training these days.”


“ As I said, another good man gone.”


“ So if we release you, you’ll keep in touch with us and tell us where you are and chat to Superintendent Halloran when he becomes available? ”


“ Sounds like a deal to me.”


“ I can’t do anything like that without authorisation. I’m going to have to hold you until I can work things out. I’m sorry about that.”


Then Littlejohn’s two-goon support group came back in and they sat shuffling their files and notebooks and whispering away in Cantonese for a while. It’s very difficult to whisper in Cantonese as you get all the tones wrong. It’s Nature’s shouting language if ever there was one. Littlejohn’s Cantonese sounded half-way right sometimes if you used your imagination.


I was led down the blue carpeted corridor to the Schindler and taken down not to the holding cells but to a kind of visitors’ canteen with vending machines and a lot of formica-topped tables and screwed down benches where most of the relatives of Hong Kong’s scumbags had sat some time, sipping lai cha and sucking up noodles and trying to put a brave face on another pinch in the family. It was yet another place I’d seen recently to slit your wrists or at least gulp and sigh in. If only gumshoeing had more glamour, we’d all be doing it. I thought for some time how old Marlowe would have handled things and reckoned I came out at least even. They had stenographers in those days of course and he would have snarled at them and hit the desk with his hat. The rooms would have been full of tobacco smoke but now every police office just smelled of musty ink and that sickly fug of electronic gadgets overheating. There were no ashtrays anywhere and spittoons were definitely yesteryear. Otherwise the situation was about the same: dim policemen trying to work the muscle, a vaguely heroic private dick protecting his client and trying not to be the fall guy and no one anywhere besides them giving a damn really as long as they got their payoffs and it all stayed out of the papers. Film noir was definitely still in.


Around an hour later, the place started to fill up with sorry-looking molls in culottes and boots and wrinkled blouses and hair that looked as if it had been crispy fried. There were mean little men with pinched, furrowed faces and permed or tinted hairdos hugging showy mobile phones and wobbling their legs like they did when the race meetings were on. Sometimes there was a respectable looking man or woman who could have been a duty lawyer or a social worker or just an honest branch of the family no one talked about in mixed company. They tried not to look round and often they were fighting back tears. “It has come to this” hung in the air like a workhouse motto and if you wanted to write a new soap opera, all the main ingredients were there before you in the raw, but no one would buy it because it was all so mean and dull. There was shoplifting and petty gambling and drunk driving and small-time larceny as a backdrop, peppered with ketamine tablets and a bit of white angel dust if you were lucky. Nothing very fancy, nothing very noble and nothing at all even engaging about it all.


After another half hour or so, but time never really runs like a clock with the police, I was taken down to the holding cells. The two policemen who led me down looked deferential and almost apologetic as they led me down. My watch and my shoelaces and my manbag and everything else which made me human was taken away and put into a thick brown envelope or a large plastic bag. I was being processed. I asked for a pencil and a few sheets of paper and the door was slammed. I always felt like Gulliver in a cell. No one appreciates just how nice and large rooms outside the slammer really are. There were bunk beds but I was alone. I was given me some cigarettes and a lighter as a pipe could be used as a weapon, as we know, but I wondered what kind of weapon. It was dim inside, the air conditioning was brisk and dry and cold. The walls were brown with a neat snot green trim to lift your spirits. There was the luxury of a squat toilet and a tap and a stainless steel wash basin but no mirror, no complimentary toiletries, no turn-down service and no minibar. There was a small table and a chair screwed to the floor so I sat down and took one of the sheets of paper and tore it up into small pieces. I made some chessmen by writing their names on the scraps of paper with my short brown pencil. A second sheet of paper gave me the board and I sat up an elaborate defence against a hostile, knowing, relentless opponent. Somehow he seemed to anticipate all my moves. He was caught within half an hour by a delayed Kiesentzky gambit which completely nullified his elaborate Cambridge Springs defence.


The lower bunk bed looked inviting after that although it had been designed by someone who didn’t think beds were for sleeping much. It had a sliver of a mattress, springs which grated at your body and all the give of a concrete pavement. The stiff grey blanket gathered around me, I eventually dozed off into that place people go to when they are just too frustrated and angry and bored to bother too much about being human and alive any more.



I woke up when they brought in the breakfast which was a mottled orange, two slices of white bread with the smell of polythene still on them, a pat of margarine and a cup of villainous lai cha. I pecked at the bread, gagged on the tea and ate most of the orange to keep my strength up. I lit a cigarette which tasted the way cheap Chinese cigarettes do, a mixture of dandruff, belly button fluff, sawdust and shredded smelly sock. There must have been some nicotine somewhere or perhaps it was just the carbon monoxide but I jerked awake and almost felt elated for a second before I realised that I was alone, in the hole and at the mercy of people like Commander Littlejohn. I wondered if I had said too much or too little and decided I had said too much. For a moment, I saw the hideous figure of Mrs Chow in the witness box, relating how she had seen me staring at Mr Sung’s body with a needle in my hand.


I laid out another game and my opponent was doing unexpectedly well against overwhelming odds when the door opened again and all my belongings were laid on the floor beside me and I was told I was being released in an hour. I reached for my pipe and decided to run it through with cleaners before filling it with Erinmore, just to show how patient I could be under fire. It tasted like ambrosia on a stick. Funny how we need so little sometimes to remind ourselves we’re human. Outside prison, people seem to need an awful lot but maybe they’re less intent on proving their humanity than proving they can be just plain nasty if they try.


I was escorted to the lobby of Police Central where a familiar face was beaming at me with a mixture of embarrassment and genuine amusement. It was Jack Halloran of course, veteran of a thousand carouses at the Devil’s Advocate and stalwart of the Press Club and the den under the ICAC if he could remember how to get there and the taxi driver could cut through the alcoholic slurs and the Glaswegian burr. He really did look ready for retirement now, his six foot something frame drooping as much as his large unhidden stomach, which lurched forward over his belt between the edges of his open silver grey jacket like a sack of potatoes on a delivery man’s shoulder.


“ Donald, you old soak, up to your usual mischief?”


“ Nothing usual about this one, Jack. I’m beginning to check on my insurance policy.”


He looked serious for a moment and the thick creases of his crimson face rose up in a tsunami of age and concern.


“ Care to take the complimentary breakfast?”


“ As long as it’s not here.”


We found the hotel on the corner which had decent coffee and croissants which tasted as if they still had some life in them. We looked like a couple of seedy travelling salesmen discussing the night before.


“ You wouldn’t be wearing any kind of wire would you Jack? I only ask for form’s sake, you understand.”


“ Difficult to hide anything on me these days.”


“ That’s true enough. So what do you want to know?”


“ Well, just tell me what’s been happening and I’ll take it from there.”


I took a sip of coffee and a deep breath and started.


“A few days ago, when I thought I was running a nice sleazy private investigation bureau and felt like I wasn’t likely to be bumped off and found in a gutter some night, I was hired by a prominent local politician to find the whereabouts of her daughter who had suddenly gone missing or rather had decided to skip town or lie low because she was embarrassed by something. She just happened to be the girlfriend of our Mr Sung Junior and working in the association run by Mr Sung Senior. She turns up for a talk and a shake of her hips one afternoon in Chung Hom Kok. Lo and behold but soon after Mr Sung Senior is found dead, she disappears again and this time there’s a ransom demand, not for very much, to Mr Sung Junior who decides to hire me and to hold his hand although he hates my guts and dutifully goes to Tai Tam Tuk at midnight to hand over the readies and save the gal. But it all goes wrong and he’s tossed over the reservoir wall for no apparent reason. Getting it so far?”


“ I’m trying to.”


“ The girl in question carries a KelTec automatic in her handbag and likes to wave it around when the mood takes her but no one knows if it’s loaded or not. On a hunch but probably because I can think better in low-life hotel rooms, I put myself up at the Eldorado where I am followed by a retired expat ICAC man with a gin bottle in his suitcase who likes to play boy scout and has a thing about the politician who hired me in the first place and a theory about it all which he won’t tell me, probably because he hasn’t even worked it out for himself yet. His room is bugged, not very well, but mine is not. He thinks it’s all great fun and so do I within reason until Commander Littlejohn flatfoots in one afternoon with a posse and starts asking me his usual array of dumb questions he thought up after reading an old Dick Tracy story someone had lent him on the Lantau ferry all those years ago.”


“ So what’s your theory?”


“ It all depends how much guts you have. I think it’s pretty big, and an ICAC job. As soon as it gets around the police, you’re finished and even at the ICAC it’s hard to know if they have the bottle for this kind of thing nowadays. I thought it was just a bit of routine corruption that went wrong – you know, tenders for the vendors at Stanley waterfront and district councillors and upcoming elections. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think even you will be misled by the surface appearance of events. There’s little rhyme or reason to bumping off Mr Sung Senior if he only knew about or was involved in was a bit of the corruption. There was no point killing Mr Sung Junior if all they wanted to do was to keep him quiet until the elections were over. He was doing a pretty good job of keeping quiet anyway. And the disappearance of Adeline Chow, well I think that’s where the key to it lies. I don’t think she’s disappeared at all but I’d be grateful if you could let me know if she did cross the border legally, just in case. And also find out who uses carbolic acid these days. Rather unusual isn’t it?”


“ Hard to say, as it’s pretty difficult to detect normally. Not a substance people usually check for. And in the heart muscle, that’s even harder. Most of the police pathologists would have missed it. The symptoms look completely like a heart attack.”


“ Exactly. But why did they want Sung dead? He was just the normal run-of-the-mill greedy old Hong Kong duffer. Harmless really, unless you are seriously behind with the rent and even then he never sends the boys round.”


“ So you think we should pass it over to the ICAC and have them get Mrs Chow in for a grilling? Hardly likely to happen with the elections on and her being so close to the Mainlanders. That would need an order from the Chief Executive. He doesn’t have the balls.”


“ I don’t think Chow will tell you much anyway. I think it’s above her. She’s only in the shop window of something, the political wing if you like. She just takes orders.”


“ So where should we or the ICAC start looking, if we get permission to look.”


“ It’s the anti-triad bureau who has to start things off, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s a turf war or a regrouping or a manoeuvre we know nothing about. I don’t know anything much about the triads these days. I would be interested in the company Adeline kept.  She’s been seen with a few film producers and directors so that would be a start. We all know they like to be seem with pretty girls but maybe there’s more to it than that. Who knows?”


“ You think she’s a triad moll?”


“ No, I don’t think she’s a moll. But that’s the big connection you have to look at and I don’t know what the connection is. Otherwise, you could just look for robbery and corruption motives, or alibis rather, on the Sungs which won’t lead you anywhere much and after a few months you can close the books and pretend nothing’s happened. Isn’t that the usual way?”


“ That’s rather mean of you Donald laddie, however true it might be. In the old days, I would just go to McArthur-Browne and have a word and we would proceed or we wouldn’t proceed. But things are different now. The few remaining white guys are definitely on the margins and it’s all politics, not police work, believe me. I haven’t got the clout.”


“ Well just put up and shut up then. And definitely, tell Littlejohn to leave me in peace.”


The newspapers were lying around as they did in the hotels. One of the English dailies was now a free handout and this move had brought their readership into thousands at last. There was a short item about Alex Sung who was said to have been “distressed by his personal circumstances and the recent death of his father”. Nothing about being pushed over a wall at midnight by men in a black van.


“ Things are changing, aren’t they?” I said and pushed the paper to Halloran. “Or maybe they’re staying the same and I’m just realising it.”


There was nothing anyone could say to that so I left Jake at his table and thought about going into the office early but there was no one around to impress and I had had enough of Wanchai for a long time. I made my way down Hennessy Road to the MTR, dodging the stream of short men in dark clothes and sensible haircuts and shoes too big for them, and I caught sight occasionally of girls in boots and short skirts who were beginning to show and entertain even this early but there were never enough of them to beat back the feeling that I was a washed-up has-been with all the world against him in a dingy job and no money in my pocket. If that was a Monday morning feeling, I seemed to have it all week.


Yau Ma Tei was emerging from its brief torpor which must occur even there, perhaps between five and six in the morning, when all the hookers had gone to sleep and all the mahjong parlours and night clubs and snooker halls had thrown out the last guests, given things a wipe round and pulled the iron grille across the door. The detritus of it all blew about and caught your ankles – thin translucent plastic bags from the convenience stores, crushed cigarette packets, lemon tea with the straw still in the pack and tissues billowing like small sails and which had been used for who knows what. The doorman at the Eldorado was snoozing in his chair and a firebomb wouldn’t have woken him. At the desk, there was a Mainland girl in a crumpled uniform trying to get a computer to work. The bucket women were hard at it, spreading the dirt and dust around with slow-motion vigour and a kind of morose acceptance of things as they are.


The Via Dolorosa was silent as a tomb. I could actually hear my feet sticking to the carpet. I was wondering if Jacques were an early riser and whether that much gin every day allowed you to get up early and face the day. Perhaps it did if you took enough of it. Drinkers had always impressed me with their ability to bounce back from their self-induced oblivion. Maybe Harry was up already, listening to the World Service on a battered Roberts radio and doing the crossword or whatever retired, lonely old expats do in the morning to fill up the hours before the Hong Kong Club’s curry tiffin.


I knocked at the door. Silence. I knocked again, so hard this time that the door actually opened a little.







The room was dimly lit by a sliver of light from a curtain which had not been closed properly. There was also a back glow of morning light from the flimsier side window curtain which gave the room a restful, even hopeful feeling. It was hot. The air conditioning was off and had been off a long time. I knew the smell immediately and I reached into my bag for the Pak Fah Yeow embrocation to rub under my nostrils. I ran to the window with the slightly open curtain and found you could actually open it if you tried. The roar of Yau Ma Tei worked like a cheap stage effect. He was lying in his Mark and Spencer winceyette pyjamas face up on the smoothed-down counterpane looking as peaceful as a cat on a porch. He was whiter than white mostly but the yellow tinge of nature’s last lap was beginning at the edges, the creases, the little points where the features of his face met the grand picture. He was as dead as flared trousers.


I walked into the bathroom but there was nothing unusual there, just his bar of Imperial Leather and the Brylcreem and his denture box and his Steradent. He had hung his towel neatly over the rail and the shower curtain was inside the bath. On the bedside table was the bottle of Gordon’s, half gone as usual, and a dead bottle of tonic. The glass was clean and dry and empty. His cheap little radio – not a Roberts – was buzzing faintly with news of something or other he would never hear. A neatly folded copy of the South China Morning Post lay on the floor by the bedside table just as he had laid it in case he woke up and couldn’t sleep. For some reason I bent down and kissed his forehead and closed his eyes and kissed him again on the right cheek. I wondered if there was anyone close to him to inform but guessed there probably wasn’t.


I went to the closet and his Gladstone was still there but all the paper was gone. There were only his golf shoes for some reason and changes of underwear and a few frayed starched shirts. Harry travelled light. I looked for the bug but it wasn’t there any more. I was wondering already what kind of job it looked like and I unbuttoned his pyjama top and peered around the breast bone. Nothing I could discern, even with my pencil flash on it, but maybe there were other ways of killing an old soldier like Jacques and maybe he hadn’t been killed at all. I held the glass with a tissue and sniffed it. It smelt vaguely of tonic and Gordon’s and nothing besides.


I walked to the door and looked again and closed the door and went into mine. The computer was still on and I logged in. A mail from Adeline to wish me well and thank me and to assure me she was all right and there was no point looking for her. I forwarded it to Larry. Then I turned off the computer and put it into my bag and gathered all the other traces of the Trelford bivouac and tried to be as calm as I could. Then I walked down the corridor and waited for the lift. When it arrived, it had a few eager-looking men from Taiwan in it, or they could have been Japanese but I doubted it. In the lobby, I hurried out of the lift ahead of them but they took it nicely. I went to the desk and checked out and my bill came to HK$ 1,570.30. I told the truth about the minibar but found the weak beer and the generic cokes were all on the house.


The Eldorado wanted you to feel happy and welcome.







The 1952 film Macao with Robert Mitchum is a nice low-budget thriller with a barrel-chested hero set against a crooked night club owner and Jane Russell, a Hollywood dame who appears to sings for anyone if the price is right but really she’s got a heart of gold. In the end she swims off with Mitchum to a yacht and they leave the police to look after the villains. In the real world, as in the film, the police tend to look the other way too long and usually come in at the end to tag the bodies and do the paperwork. Mitchum and Russell just knew it earlier than most people. At least that’s how I felt as I sat on the jetfoil to the Macau Special Administrative Region, a small crowded prominitory and two islands which the Portugese seized and sat on and squeezed for hundreds of years until round about 1990 they suddenly realised it wouldn’t always be that way and they’d better start building a university and an airport and a few flashy buildings which weren’t casinos. Nobody and everybody knows where all the gambling money went before then. It didn’t go to the poor old ladies in Coloane village.


By the time I had got to Stanley, Larry was on the phone and informed me that the e-mail from Adeline appeared to come from a server in Macau which gave me a passable excuse to up sticks again and head acoss the water. He was hard at work getting the ISP, the actual user address of where it was sent from and he said it sounded like an Internet cafe. Adeline had laid enough red herrings already for me to be dubious but I thought it would do no harm to get out of Hong Kong for a while before Littlejohn or someone else decided to call on me for a cosy chat. There was still no mention of murder by injection in Stanley or of suspicious death at Tai Tam Tuk in either of the English rags so my theory looked right:  Hong Kong was as bad as they always believed. People could get knocked off and leave no trace if it was convenient for certain important parties. The war against triads, if it existed at all, was confined to renegades and small fry. There appeared to be a link between local politicians and the triads and it could even be that one particular political party was only a front for the real power at work. That was a bit hard to swallow for Donald Trelford and for anyone else in clean, prosperous Hong Kong 2007 but as I looked back on all the strange cases I knew or had heard about it, it seemed to make perfect sense. Funny how things fall into place when you just stop believing the swanky offices, the shiny uniforms, the white shirts, the big cars, the vaguely cultured accents and the spotless facades. Perhaps it was time to go back and live in a place where the corruption was called sleaze and people didn’t usually get bumped off.


I wondered hard how such a state of affairs had come about but I realised that they had not just come about. The problem was that I had not seen how things were before. And it was not hard to see that a large conspiracy wasn’t needed. There wasn’t a conspiracy. There were simply a few people somewhere who decided not to make too much of a fuss and perhaps follow orders but there wasn’t anything coercive or oppressive about it. We only really know what we read in the press and see on TV and as far as the English press and TV is concerned in Hong Kong, that’s all sown up. The Chinese media are at the mercy of the police really. They can suspect a lot but they don’t have access to confidential files and coroner’s reports and crime scenes. The death of an old man in Stanley isn’t really big news, especially when it looks like a heart attack, and if a couple of policemen find a nice young man’s body under a bridge, they like to think suicide because murder is just too much of a headache in the end and isn’t the natural way to interpret events. Hong Kong has more suicides than road traffic victims for one thing and murder, as in Japan, is rare. I suppose it only takes a word from someone high up in the chain of command to say such and such a thing is so and Hong Kong police just go along with it. They are a very subservient force on the whole and I never heard of a whistleblower, unless that is he’s charged with something. Who likes to stick out in Hong Kong and go out on a limb? I never heard of it. So I fought back the anger and the disgust and the depression and wondered what I could do and whether I should do anything at all but grow up and go on living like everyone else.


The jetfoil drew into the thick, dull water of Macau harbour on the East side and it looked a lot more glitzy than my first trip there twenty years ago when the landings were all on bamboo stilts. My fellow passengers were the usual mix of short, seedy men who could have been extras in any triad movie and fattish middle-aged women of an ugliness or at best plain non-descriptiveness which made them kind of interesting if you were interested in what occupies the minds of people obsessed by gambling and quick bits of money. There were also a few careful, bemused, quiet expats or tourists with slightly shocked and wary expressions on their face, hugging the Lonely Planet China bumper edition or struggling with pushchairs and a gaggle of neat, sweet kids. The grime had aleady set in deep into the ferry building’s red walls and sticky turquoise carpet. The long, squalid queues at immigration were a direct contrast to Hong Kong and made you feel as if you were entering something shady, wicked, Third World and chaotic. If you were a rookie out East you would love it. If you were a jaded veteran like me it just made your skin creep.


The taxi touts and tour operators were plying their wares in the round, domed lobby of the ferry pier. Hong Kong men often came for a package weekend of girl, room and seat at the local casino but it was hard to say which order it came in. The tours could be booked at the Hong Kong end in the Shun Tak Centre just in case you couldn’t wait and you could see a plastic folder full of the girls to take away any sense of spontaneity and fun Macau could possibly have. In fact, it never had any. The night life was all paid for like the smiles of the girls in the casinos. But that was the big attraction for the hordes of visitors from Japan, the Chinese Mainland and Hong Kong.


I found my way to the taxi queue and found myself in the back of one of the sinister black and white cabs which was as greasy inside as a pimp’s patter. The streets of Macau were unrecogniasable as they always were as new plazas and traffic solutions arose all around you. We went past one clump of buildings twice and saw the Sands. It looked as if it had been designed by Liberace and executed by a gang of blind Irish trolls. Just over the road was the old golden towers of the Lisboa which looked positively tasteful in comparison. After a few more pointless loops in the road we were staring at the Bank of China building and beginning the slow ascent of the Taipa causeway. In the old days, the Hyatt Regency hotel was the biggest thing on Taipa and the big draw for all the expats seeking a weekend of what they called the Mediterranen experience. Portugal, of which Macau was thought to be an imitation, is more Atlantic than anything else but things like that never got in the way of the advertising cliches. The Hyatt now was dwarved by the New Century which had been renamed the Power Of Greek, a caveman’s idea of Grecian splendour complete with Cecil B Demille plaster giants, Busby Berkeley pools, twenty yard long murals and columns so thick you could practice bazooka shots on them. The night club had survived, the New Century Boss, but most of the letters of the lights had gone out and it now read “Tury Bo”.


The Hyatt had gone down in the world and was called something else but I still wanted to call it the Hyatt. The lobby filled me with poignancy. I saw my three-year-old daughter running along the polished red brick floor with the same showpiece carpet and glimpsed the ghost of the beautiful smile of my former wife somewhere in the aura of it all. In those days, Macau was part of the Trelford slide to divorce by overdose of concupiscence and I remembered so well slipping away in the evening to seek a girl who wasn’t to be had for just a smile and the promise of dinner and never finding one. The desk clerks looked seedy and wore the same shabby uniforms which must have come with the building. The doors swung with a creek and the lady in an immaculate white suit who used to clean up all the time was gone. You should never go back. I knew that now.


The rooms of the Hyatt had been built in a factory in Delaware and assembled one on top and beside each other, ten storeys high. There was the entrance with the bathroom left, stained and mildewed now, and the minibar fridge and the little black statuette of something and the mirror and the cupboard behind Meditteranean lattice. There was the longer chest of drawers with the glass top, scratched and ringed now, and the TV set on top of it, another mirror, a set of brass arms with lamps at the end which could be dimmed and the mobochrome paintings of Chinese native scenes. There were the twin beds with the heavy turquoise bedspreads and the rattan bedboard. The windows had latticed shutters which stuck and caught your fingers and the phone had buttons, two for room service and six for massage when the wife was out. Beautiful days of guilt, stolen pleasures, a bottle of Vinho Verde in the ice bucket. There are so few pleasures in being a bachelor and it quickly turns you to celibacy, even quicker then being married. Unlike marriage, it also gets you used to loneliness. The freedom of loneliness, overrated I think, as much as marriage is.


I lay back on the bed and thought about Adeline. Sentimental old clapped-out Trelford, dreaming once more of the girl who would solve everything. She clearly had something in her, if only the hint of villainy, if only a courage to flash a revolver around in the afternoon. That’s why I was there. I saw it now. The unmarriable in full pursuit of the unwilling. Last Tango in Macau, or Mong Kok or wherever she happened to be. All the other issues were strong and appealing but not as appealing as Adeline, the mystery of her, the darkness of it all and the hope of incandesent glory with her lying beside me somewhere or at least sitting with me enjoying a glass and a joke and telling me how she had arrived at her present state of being kidnapped or playing along with a deeper scheme of things with cheap hoods in a black van at midnight. I set up the computer. There was only dial-up at the Hyatt but I got through on something called i-Pass Connect. I punched up one of the pictures of her onto the screen and forwarded it to my Hotmal account. Then I set it as my desktop background on the computer screen.


Larry said the address she had delivered from was an Internet cafe down from the Leal Senado. I wondered whether I should write back to her but wondered what I could possibly say: “Meet me for drinks at the Hyatt” didn’t seem a plausible invitation. She would suspect I was waiting with a gang of police or worse. No, I would have to be a bit more patient and circumspect than that. No doubt news of my presence in Macau would filter through to the parties involved and I would be bumped off in the shower or bundled off home on a slow sampan or the boys from Macau Constabulary would appear with sharpened truncheons and a black Maria. In the meantime there were all the many pleasures of Macau to take in: the caldo verde, the cod balls, the bacalhau and the African chicken, all washed down with cheap plonk free of real taxes and any real distinction, just like the food.


In the old days, I often had a fantasy about coming to Macau for the summer with just my computer to write with and possibly get to know some girls online. But the girls in Macau weren’t online. They were in the massage parlours, the night clubs and sometimes the lobbies of hotels. My Macau fantasy wasn’t just about sex. It was the freedom of getting away from Hong Kong and being in a place which still had a vestige of something unknown, rough-edged, a little bit sleepy and relaxed. Macau was a restful place at that time and had a certain romantic mystique. Now it was all building site. Taipa had apartment blocks rising on it all over and I knew Coloane would be next. The air was laced with concrete powder. I coughed a little as I walked over the road to the entrance of the Power of Greek. It didn’t improve as you got closer to it. Groups of businemmen in suits were gawping at the splendour of it all and perambulating the harsh stone park or they stood around the grand entrance waiting for a taxi or they squatted at the edge of the road with cigarettes in their hands. The lobby lounge didn’t go very far as the wide staircase met you pretty soon with its thick stairs and wide railing and thick red carpet peppered with blackened spots of chewing gum and cigarette burns. Upstairs I could see the security men and the type of electronic screener walk-through they use at airports for deciding if you are a terrorist or not. Either side of them there were tall bored girls in red and gold cheongsams and thick tan stockings who stared down at me with only the beginnings of interest which probably didn’t get better much no matter how close you got to them. I decided to take a rain check on the casino and sat down in one of the few armchairs which didn’t have a Guangdong businessman or a Hong Kong scumbag in it. The whole lobby was not for sober men but I wasn’t in the mood for drinking.


I left the lobby and joined what looked like a queue for taxis. I waited and one stopped and I got in. I said Leal Senado but the driver had no idea where that was so I said Lisboa and reached for my pipe, filled it and even lit it. The Lisboa had the same taxi usher in male Portugese national dress scampering around and he even opened the taxi door for me although I though I looked very little like a high roller or an expat on a spree. I walked down the ramp leading to the hotel steps and turned right. The Leal Senado, the ancient building which was the seat of Macau’s legislature, was about fifteen minutes away and there was nothing much to see on the way except jeweller’s emporiums full of Rolexes and improbable rings, flashing neon signs, pawn shops, nascent traffic jams and hordes of the Macau gaming set, toothpicks, phones, glittering belts and all. I decided to stop looking at them but so much gunge in one place is kind of hypnotic.


The street across the road from the Senado had been transformed into a pedestrian zone and there was the usual collection of boutiques and and restaurants and a nice little cafe you could sit down in on the right and pretend you were in Europe somewhere. The lane the Internet cafe was in was not hard to find as there was a small flashing sign saying it did e-mail, just past a Sloppy Joe pastelleria which said that it sold the best egg tarts in Macau but then they all said that. The Internet joint was smoky and had lots of guys in their teens and twenties stuck in front of the monitors playing games which featured all sorts of battlefields and kung fu kickers and soccer robots. The noise was deafening. I speculated that if I sat at one of the tables in the main street I might be able to see who came and went but I couldn’t be sure. The owner was an old wizened guy with a woollen hat on his head and a jade ring who looked as if he would be better off behind the counter of a pawn shop. I flashed the Chinese side of my work card and slipped two five hundred pataca notes to him and asked him to call me if he saw a beautiful tall girl wanting to use the machines. I punched up her picture on the screen and he printed it out for me, one for him and one for me. I said there was another thousand in it for him if he called me and gave him my number. He pocketed the money and looked as if he had been doing it all his life.


At last the deafening noise of Mortal Kombat was behind me and I sat myself down at the al fresco and ordered a coffee which was remarkably good. I couldn’t see the cafe from where I sat but I could see most of the lane. I didn’t fancy doing a twenty-four hour stake-out so I thought hard and guessed Adeline would use the phone like everyone else these days to check her mail and probably only came near a computer when she had to send an attachment or download one. As far as I knew most good phones would display most attachments unless they were in some strange or cumbersome format so I went back to the Internet cafe and sent her a note saying she had to take a look at what I had sent her. It was a zip file of some useless anti-spyware software which was a credible joke in the circumstances and I doubted phones could download it.


I also gave her my phone number again because she wasn’t the sort of girl to keep people’s numbers. They would always want to call her back and if they didn’t she probably didn’t care. There’s a bitch born every minute in Hong Kong.



I got back to the hotel and thought about a massage but the nostalgie de boue wasn’t working too well that afternoon so I just had a swim instead. The pool was freezing and I didn’t stay in long. The towels were the same but they were grimy and scratched you now as you rubbed yourself down. The changing room looked like a lowlife massage parlour and the lockers were falling apart through lack of maintenance. I wondered how long the Hyatt had to go before it was knocked down and turned into the Power of Babylon.


I entered the lobby feeling reasonably refreshed when I saw her. There aren’t a lot of long-limbed blondes hanging around in lobbies in Macau. This one I’d spotted down at the pool and I put her in the category of visiting expat wife who couldn’t get in at the Mandarin. Wives like that usually have the hubby close at hand or they have a couple of kids in attendance. After I emerged from the book shop, which now looked like a Friendship store in old China, she was still there, reading a magazine with her eyes but it was clear her mind was elsewhere. I sat down and reached for my pipe. She looked up and smiled, a beautiful smile with an opal face and liquid blue eyes and that natural glow girls get when they’ve been swimming hard.


“ Marina Alonskya,’ she said and offered a hand which was long, without nail polish and as soft as silk.


I held on to the hand longer than was necessary.


“ Nice weather we’ve been having, Miss Alonskya.”


She smiled again.


“ Starting a little early aren’t you? This place is dead as disco. You’d be much better off working the Power of Greek. A girl like you can get laid from breakfast to late dinner there.”


“ Oh, so direct. You spoil my mood. And I do not work such low-class places. The men all smell of garlic and ginger. Disgusting”


“ It’s a disgusting world. This part of it anyway. Care for a coffee? The cafe here probably changes the beans every week in low season.”


She laughed, a high tinkling laugh, like bells running up a scale. I’d neard the laugh before. Perhaps all really pretty girls have it.


“ Good heavens. Such a fast worker. It’s impossible to refuse.”


And we installed ourselves in the cafeteria which was practically empty apart form a couple of old Chinese ladies studying newspapers and helping themselves to cream cake.


‘ Look honey. I need a girl right now as much as a kick in the face. No offence but if you’re looking for a customer, I’d really be wasting your time.”


“ Never heard of the day off? Or don’t they have days off in England?”


Day off. I wondered what Russian hookers in Macau did on their day off if it wasn’t paying off the pimps and tending to their bruises.


“ Well I’m really pleased you choose me to spend your leisure time with. Is the Country Club being renovated?”


She laughed again, a lower pitched tinkle this time.


“ Tell me Marina. Where do you hang out usually?”


“ The Tower. I also have a room there.”


“ The Tower? Never heard of it.”


“Oh, it’s the best. You have to see it. Very small and intimate. For serious players.”


“ And full of Russian ladies like yourself.”


“ Well, where else do you expect us to go? Hang around the Sands car park?”


“ I wonder if old Forsgate met his Nemesis down there.”




Andy Forsgate was a charming but libidinous Australian barrister who had fallen in love with a Muscovite hooker in Macau and had tried to buy her free of the Russian mafia in Vladivostok of all places years ago. The money he put up hadn’t worked for him as he was found in an oil barrel near the docks just as work was picking up in his chambers. We all liked to think he had died happy. The girl was never heard of again.


“ Before your time I expect.”


“ Lots of things happened before my time. An accident of birth, you could say.”


 “ Your English is very good. And you know how to use it.”


“ I studied it. And I am pleased to be able to use it with someone who can follow what I have to say.”


She smiled a million pataca or perhaps a million ruble smile. I’d lost touch with exchange rates of late.

‘ I’m sure Andy’s honey trap was a lot more tongue tied.”


“ As you like. But I still haven’t a clue what you’re on about.”


“ Two idioms in one sentence. Quite a gal.”


“ I always got top marks for oral.”


“ Well you don’t have a chance here. Thank your boss anyway. I’ll call at the Tower tonight and thank him in person if I may. I don’t have any money but I have a lot of collateral.”


She laughed again but it was definitely in the lower registers.


There was lunch to be thought about and a brisk walk down the road to what remained of Taipa’s food street was in order, looking in on the supermarket which sold pipe tobacco for a third of Hong Kong prices but you had to wake up one of the shop assistants to open the glass door they keep it behind next to the whiskies and more expensive ports. I’d never seen a pipe smoker in Macau so you had to look at the sell-by dates. Most of it looked all right so I bought a dozen tins of Erinmore and a pack of Borkum Riff for light relief. I was on holiday after all. Added to that was the thought that if I was going to be bumped off, I ought at least to look solvent.


Of course, I was being followed. These guys were real amateurs. They had been sitting around the lobby, both rather short and skinny and looking ill at ease in oversized suits and platform shoes. I wondered what they did the rest of the time – probably collecting the kickbacks from the taxi and minibus drivers but they wouldn’t be able to use much muscle. Now they were following me with all the aplomb of a navvy at Ascot, fiddling with their portable phones and staring aimlessly in the other direction being the height of their cover preoccupations when I glanced their way. Perhaps that was the aim of it all – to make certain I knew I was being followed. If so, the mastermind behind them had struck the jackpot.


I was just poking my first cod ball in Pinocchio’s when my phone rang. It was my man near the Leal Senado. Adeline had shown up and checked her e-mail. She was alone, looked smart and was well. I hadn’t expected otherwise. Perhaps she had sent the two goons, who were now pretending to drink beer at the bar. I felt sorry for them so I thought I would give them something to do. After lunch I left some banknotes to cover the bill on my table and went to the toilet. It was down a little corridor and the kitchen door was open. At the end of the corridor there was what looked like a delivery door where an old lady was scrubbing away at dishes in a plastic bucket, just like they do in Hong Kong. I simply strolled past her out onto the lane outside, did a neat turn to the left and I was back in the main street before the goons had realised what was going on. I went to the square at the end of the street and found a taxi. It sped off without a sign of my two tails anywhere.


The Leal Senado was crowding up for the shopping afternoon. Gangs of atavistic Mainlanders, apparently bred in captivity and only now glimpsing the daylight, mingled with the throng. Adeline was in red and black, my man told me, so I decided to stroll around the pedestrian zone and see if I could spot her. I wondered vaguely what Adeline shopped for or if indeed she shopped at all. Was she like the Mainlanders who apparently treated shops outside the home country like some Ark of Truth which they had only five minutes in their lives to raid and remain removed from forever? What else could account for their odd selection of shoes, blouses, handbags, jackets, all mismatched like a schizophrenic going to a fancy dress party? I had started looking again. Bad idea.


O, to breath again the charm of old Macau, to scent the silk stockings of the dockside gals of the 1960s who made Suzie Wong look like Mrs Pankhurst. To see the old nullahs with their cat corpses and the occasional dead body, to glimpse the fat libidinous Portuguese priests giving their benedictions to the huddling masses of opium-inhaling peasants, to cut a swathe through the pirates and renegades and fortune seekers of the poisonous Pearl River Delta. To sip some Dao and eat some civet cat, the latter hauled from the cage you saw as you entered the restaurant and lightly killed in the villainous, pestilence-filled restaurant by some scabby, grasping cook taking time off from his brothel keeping and gun running. To breathe again the air of a hundred thousand despairs and a million blind hopes. To truly be in the Old East and see Life in the raw. But prosperity had come to town and branches of all the consumer icons had taken up residence. People eschewed congee and noodles and now drank homogenised coffee at Starbucks and ate totally recovered meat topped with plastic cheese slices at Burger King. There were only the ghosts to sense and the bizarre followers of the new to amuse and make you think. Perhaps Cambodia or Vietnam or Laos was for the true seekers of sensation in the East now but soon they too would be swallowed up by the march of reasoned globalization.


My phone rang and I slid it open to answer. It was the voice of Adeline in the ether rescuing from my melancholy, the authoress, if only she knew it, of a new chapter of romance and adventure for one particular jaded hack called Nigel Piers Trelford.


“ Welcome to Macau Mr Trelford.”


I said nothing for a moment.


“ Pleased to be where you are, Adeline. If indeed you are in Macau.”


“ Oh, I am. Whatever brings you here?”


“ Tying up a few loose ends.”


“ Well beware they don’t tie you up in the end. Have you any idea who you are dealing with?”


“ That’s one of the mysteries I hope to solve.”


“ You’ve certainly got guts. And a charmed life.”


  Not as charmed as yours, I’m sure. When are you going to tell me all about it?”


“ Where are you staying?”


“ At the old Hyatt on Taipa. You must be the last person in town to know.”


She laughed a laugh that could have meant anything.


“ You’re interesting. I’ll come and see you soon. Don’t turn off your phone.”


And she was gone. I was left in the middle of a group of tourists from what seemed to be Mongolia or at least the Gobi. They were curious to see me and I felt that if I lingered they would extend hesitant palms to touch the hair on my arms and peer deeply into my mutant blue eyes.


I found a record shop and they had discs I had been eager to buy for years, the complete Dvorak string quartets played by the Prague Quartet. I had downloaded them all but in a late homage to the ugly Czech who had been born at the right time, the right place and was thus able to have all the intensity of Beethoven and all the rhythm and melody of folk music, I bought the discs and left the shop with much more satisfaction than I had had for days. Sometimes in your life you do something right.






The evening bore down on Macau harbour as heavily and deliberately as a sentence hearing. A few scabby herons picked their way along the remnants of the old Praia, the bits the dredgers had missed and the barges had not splashed yet with a fresh tonne of ballast. The failing sun was hidden behind a miasma of sulphur and concrete dust. There was murder and mayhem and the darkest depression in the air if you were so inclined but the gloaming fitted any other mood if you squinted hard enough. You could have even have got to be romantic if you’d drunk enough Grao Vasco or XO brandy at lunch time and the numbers had been running your way recently. There’s no such thing as an inherently sinister landscape but Macau was getting there each time you looked at it.


One by one the lights came on and the tired Las Vegas of Asia throttled into another night of money making, one night stands and savage meals in savage halls. The hookers were scurrying to their vantage points and letting their make-up cake hard in the air conditioning. The con men and grifters were eyeing up their marks and dodging the hhouse dicks and frisk-down men at the entrance gates. The punters from all points North were buying their chips, some with a slight poignancy as they realised they would never make it and the slow grind of mind-numbing work beckoned them homewards the next day or the day after that. The inexorable morality car wash of the casinos would go on churning, turning insane moments of hope into cold hard cash for old men fitted with pacemakers and wearing expensive toupees and pristine false teeth in Shanghai, Peking, Hong Kong, New York, Chicago and Detroit.


The Tower was set above an innocuous-looking four-storey shopping mall half way along the Via Santa Lorenzo, a short walk from the first crossroads on the way to the Leal Senado. There was a small discreet brass sign in the lift lobby and it could have been a business centre or a dentist’s for all the attention it attracted. There was an ape in a suit hanging around who wasn’t the normal security man and he looked me over for a moment with that look apes in suits have when they sense trouble of some kind. After a short consultation with his sleeve, he smiled and directed me to one of the lifts.


The entrance to the Tower looked like the front desk of the old JJs discotheque at the Hyatt Regency in Hong Kong. Discreetly dressed blondes in evening dresses beamed smiles of welcome, edged with wariness and a slight embarrassment. The place looked like rather homely and intimate, as if someone were playing at casinos for a while and going to the expense of having one in their drawing room. There was only one roulette table, several sides tables where the card games were being played and one corner for the dice throwers. Most of the place was given over to discreet booths and alcoves where a lot of drinking and slouching and chatting to the hostesses took place but the main interest was definitely the roulette wheel which was already well attended by a wide spread of players which  could have made up a United Nations of gamblers. There was a bald European man in a black suit so tight it threatened to break at the seams any moment. There were a number of neatly dressed and bespectacled Japanese men also in suits and a large Chinese gentleman in a blazer and cravat who looked as if he had just stepped off his yacht. There was an elegantly dressed African man looking much the worse for wear at one end of the table and, at the other, looking pinched and nervous, a German or Swiss or Austrian man in a brown suede jacket and yellow tie. Each of the players at the table had a pile of mainly brick-shaped chips in front of them and as I approached I saw that they were marked with five hundred thousand and even a million dollars Hong Kong. I felt immediately both pitifully poor and also rather frightened that so much money was being used for amusement and mere play. Nothing like a good casino for cutting you down to size. I’d had the experience before.


I installed myself in one of the booths which gave me a reasonable view of the entrance and the chance to see the roulette wheel players in action. There wasn’t much excitement to be seen anywhere as it was still early and the players could well be pushing off to make way for the high rollers. I really had no idea. Perhaps they had been there since breakfast. I ordered a gin and tonic and looked at the dish of canapés which had been hauled to my table by a languorous looking European brunette with slim hips and pert jutting breasts. The Tower loved its status symbols.


“ Is Marina in? I asked as the girl placed a swizzle stick in the ridiculously large tumbler.


“ Marina? I’ll check.”


I slung back the drink, which I would probably live to regret. The room began to seem like a place you could have a good time in and possibly also lose your shirt. I didn’t have many shirts to lose and I never gambled to lose them. When Marina appeared, blinded by her false eyelashes and hardly able to breathe in her skimpy black dress, I wondered why you would need to gamble at all to be happy. She looked like all you needed.


“ So Mr Trelford. You found your way.”


She slunk into the booth and crossed one leg over the other.


“ I can never resist a smoky room full of broads. It comes from all those films I watch. But it’s a shock to discover everything’s in colour now, not black and white.”


“ Ah, as I suspected. You are a hopeless romantic. A casino is not for you. You need moonlight and roses. Casinos are for people who have passed that stage.”


“ Or never bothered to look that way in the first place. How about you?  Never fell in love?”


“ Love? It’s a luxury some people can’t afford Mr Trelford. You probably think I’m just hard and bitter, but to know all is to forgive all.”


“ What time does the boss get in? Or is he in there already counting the takings?”


“ All in good time. I’ve been told to give you this.”


She took a white envelope out of her bag. There were a lot of round chips in it, amounting to at least half a million but there could have been more.


“ What if I win?”


“ If you win? Well, you can walk out into the moonlight. But people never win really at the Tower. They keep coming back to feel hope and at the top of events for a moment but soon they get to feel the way they want to feel, like everyone else.”


“ Poor and downtrodden?”


“ They get to feel unromantic, Mr Trelford.”


The only game I knew how to play was pontoon, or blackjack as some people called it, and there was a couple of men playing it at one of the side tables. I took up a chair and put up one fifty thousand chip which was the minimum bet. The cards came as smart as a whip and I decided to play wisely at first, sticking on sixteen or seventeen but it wasn’t any fun trying to get rich that way. The bank would always beat you in the end. So I played like the guys either side of me who were losing steadily and they looked at me with a sort of conspiratorial friendliness as my small pile of chips dwindled. Then I decided to play conservatively for a while to bring up my reserve and it paid off. I had slightly more than I had started off with when we were joined by a man who was the man I had been waiting to meet. He was Chinese, slim, above medium height, immaculately dressed in Armani and as handsome as Asian men ever got to my eyes. He cut a swathe of importance through the place with a palpable aura built up of almost nothing much you could put your finger on, turns of the head of the bar staff and croupiers and knowing nods from the apes in suits at the doorways. He sat there as impassable as the Buddha and only occasionally I caught his eye on my hands and once or twice on my face. He knew how to play his own game or perhaps the dealer was letting him win in some way I couldn’t work out. After fifteen minutes he got up, patted me on the shoulder and I looked round. He was all smile now, the smile which said “My friend” in the mafia style without him having to say anything and you felt your blood freeze a little even though you’d seen that kind of smile before.


“ Mr Trelford, isn’t it?”


“ Last time I looked.”


“ Care to step into my office? The atmosphere there is much more relaxed.”


I got up and followed him past the innocuous looking doorway by the bar and through two large gates made of shining steel which you had to open by means of fingerprint locks and a combination. I caught myself thinking that dead clients were getting a better deal than they deserved.


 The office was small, practical but had a few nice touches, like a long leather sofa which had probably seen a lot of wear as a casting couch and a bookcase full of respectable-looking volumes, some bound in leather to match the sofa. There was a whisky decanter on a side table and he poured me one without prompting though I hardly ever touched whisky. It was yet another scene from the B movies and I yearned for a new script and a new plot and a few original lines.


“ The name is...”


“ Cecil Lau. I own the Tower. Glad to welcome you.”


“ Are you sure? Or does that mean you haven’t come up with a good way to get rid of me yet? I think I told some of your friends that if I go, they all go. Only two dozen journalists and policemen and government agencies know I’m here tonight.”


“ Yes, we all know about your precautions, Mr Trelford. No need to tell us. Very wise of you if I may say so. Very wise.”


“ So what’s the news, Mr Lau?”


“ News? Nothing much I dare say. I just wonder why you’re in Macau. Your last client seems to be dead and no longer in need of your services.”


“ Call it nostalgia then. Or maybe I need a break from all the bodies.”


“ Yes, we all need to relax sometimes. Get away from our wives, our sweethearts, our boring official lives.”


“ And you provide the services. Not that you create any of the demand for them of course. Or that you profit from people’s misery in any way.”


“ Mr Trelford. Just tell me straight. How can I be of assistance to you?”


“ Well for a start you or the people who run you might like to tell me what all the bodies in this case have in common. I’ve tried looking for the common denominator but it just doesn’t seem to add up whichever way I stack the shelves. I know my old British friend hated Mrs Chow but then lots of people did. I don’t think Mr Sung senior hated her more than usual and his son was too prosaic a personality to hate his future mother-in-law all that much. Even if they all hated her they couldn’t do much about it, even in election year so how come they all get bumped off in dramatic and elaborate ways?”


Lau looked blank. I lit my pipe and went on.


“ Then there’s the gorgeous little girl called Adeline.”


Here Lau looked more intent, as if I had at last begun to say something interesting.


“ Very hard to figure out without a set of Tarot cards and a ouija board, isn’t she? There she is rubbing Sung junior’s temples and taking the rap after he’s had a nasty shock at home. Then she does a bunk with the help of men in a black van but she turns up again to see her beloved tipped over the wall at Tai Tam Tuk. Not a romantic type at all in the end. As all the best hoods around here are squeezed into Macau, I thought there must be a few leads here if I looked around for a week or two but lo and behold, the afternoon of my arrival and I’m looking at a Forsgate honey trap Mark II in my own hotel lobby, Russian hooker and all working on her day off. News travels fast, don’t it?”


“ Have you heard from Adeline?”


“ Can’t say I have. Is she in Macau at present?”


“ Not that I know of.”


“ Well give her my regards if she turns up some time for martinis and a roll of the dice, but I’m sure she’s a home loving girl at heart.”


I got up to go and Lau didn’t try to stop me. The bells were ringing as loud as a jeweller’s alarm in his lovely, immaculately coiffured head but I had enough things ringing in my own to pay much attention. I had gained the idea that Adeline was much more of a free agent than I had given her credit for and that kind of intrigued me to say the least.


I walked for a while down the strip leading to the Lisboa and the Sands, feeling a thousand eyes on my back but there was probably only a dozen or so. Even with all the insurance I thought I had, stranger things have happened in Macau than a dead middle-aged former barrister disappearing into the harbour in a concrete suit. I wondered how much of the reclaimed land of the new Macau was composed of hapless gamblers on the run from their loan sharks and how much time the local police would devote to a report of a missing white man who could only find the money to put up at the old Hyatt.


I took a taxi at the back of the Lisboa and Macau in the night looked drab and heartless. I longed for a nice stretch on one of the beds in my hotel room, a bottle of chilled Vinho Verde and the second Dvorak quartet. Dvorak at least never lied.














She was lying on the bed closest to the window when I turned on the light, trying to look coy with her body folded towards me, one thigh over the other and her high heels still on. The flashing lights of the Power of Greek were working over her naked legs as I had forgotten to blot out their glare with the shutters.


“ Marina. Working overtime again?”


She smiled and I saw she wasn’t wearing make-up this time.


“ I’m not working at all. It’s a social call. I think you got me all wrong and I came up to apologise.”


“ Accepted. Now can you get your lovely behind off my bed and let me lounge a little. Even shamuses need a rest now and then.”


“ Shamuses?”


“ It’s an old word for private detective. I’m trying not to use one particular ‘d ’ word. It might get me into trouble.”


She laughed her tinkling laugh and showed no signs of moving.


“ Why not pour me a drink?”


I looked at the dresser. There was a bottle of the Verde - the sort in a regular bottle so it might just be drinkable - in an ice bucket and two glasses beside it on a little tray.


“ How much leg did you have to show to get the pass key?”


“ Oh legs don’t interest people as much as a few names and a banknote. You’re always so romantic, Nigel.”


I went to the bottle, took out the cork with the corkscrew and filled the glasses. I carried one of them to the bed and I sat down on the other bed trying to look like Marlowe might have looked but not managing it as usual.


“ So what have you come for this time? Your boss is a real hard seller.”


“ He’s got nothing to do with it. He’s not my boss. Like all romantics, you assume so many things. Too much imagination in your brain.”


“ People are always telling me that. Just like they’re always telling me I’m intelligent. But if I’m so intelligent, why am I so poor?”


“ You’re poor. Ha, you have no idea of poverty I think.”


“ Let me guess. Poor family in the suburbs of Moscow with a bright pretty daughter selling her ass abroad so she can send the rubles back to Mommy. Or were you promised a job as a waitress or nanny and given the needle in transit?”


“ More romantic notions. As if anyone is ever really innocent or ever really wicked.”


 “ Well, I’d really love to discuss comparative morality with you but it’s getting late and I have some letters to write. To Mommy of course. She worries so.”


“ Don’t you want to hear about Adeline?”


I took a large quaff of my wine and slipped off my shoes and lay down on the other bed with my head up at the bedpost.


“ Fire away. I’m all ears. Do you know her?”


“ We became acquainted. She really likes you for some reason. But she’s also very afraid for you.”


“ Women get that way sometimes. I’m very touched.”


“ No, seriously. She’s a nice girl at heart. You don’t know her story I guess.”


“ Go on.”


“ Well she’s got some connections she’d rather not have and she tries hard to live down but you’d better believe that she’s not evil one bit.”


“ That’s rather vague. Just who are her connections?”


“ If I told you that I’d have a very short shelf life. A lot of her problem is being Chinese of course, the sort that gets to be educated and modern and ethical even though her baseline and her affections are grounded in the big Chinese vat of rotten connections.”


“ So just who is she loyal to?”

” Adeline? She believes in the future I would say. She’ll be something really big one day and then you’ll see changes in Hong Kong I think. If you live long enough.”


“ Oh, so you’re a frightener after all.”


“ Not really. No one sent me here. I’m just being a friend to you. You interest me.”


And she looked at me with real passion on her eyes.


“ But I’m so romantic. You think so anyway. Just focus a bit more for a while longer. All right? Why is Adeline in Macau?”

“ She’s here?”


“ Come off it. You know she’s here.”


“ Perhaps I do.”


“ And why should she be here? To escape the police asking her a lot of fool questions?”


“ That’s partly it. As far as I know, her boyfriend’s death has been classified as a suicide.  She’d rather not return to Hong Kong and be in all the glossy magazines.”


“ Just when her mother is fighting the elections you mean?”


“ Not only that. She’s a shy girl actually. Just like me.”


She tinkled another laugh along her long lovely throat.


“ You’re as shy as an arms salesman in Baghdad.”


The big problem pressing on my mind, apart from why Adeline liked me and whether I was indeed to become fodder for the Macau soles in the harbour was what to do with a white woman. I hadn’t had sex with one for years. The last time, and I still remember the day, was the time I had sired my daughter for no other reason than I thought it was the right thing to do. European women either go home from Hong Kong with a Korean chest or a baby. In the end mine had gone home with both. I remembered visiting the flat I had left to shack up with my twenty-something down the road and colliding with the furniture my former wife had acquired, shiny brass fittings on hard wooden panels.


“ Would it hurt you terrifically if I told you I don’t find European women attractive?” I said at last.


“ Why’s that?”


“ I suppose I’m colour struck you know. Conditioned to all those lovely, obedient, manageable girls with the almond eyes and slightly brown skin. Don’t take it personally.”


“ People always say that when they’re being really mean.”


“ So you haven’t acquired a taste for the Asian male? I feel sorry for you then.”


“ They disgust me actually.”

“ Why?”


She reached for her handbag for a moment and sought some urgently needed cream for her hands. It was the female equivalent of reaching for a pipe or a cigarette packet.


“ The same reason why you can’t get it up for European women.”


And she laughed again.


“ I suppose I could get it up, but I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”


There was a pause. As if on cue, the fridge by the doorway kicked into action, refreshing the air inside after the strain of being opened recently.


“ Fair enough. I’d better be going then.”


“ If I ever turn back to round eyes, you’ll be the first to know.”


I shouldn’t have said it as it wasn’t funny in the circumstances. Even call girls get lonely sometimes, I suppose. Perhaps they are always lonely. I don’t know.


She winced a little and walked silently to the door.


“ Keep healthy, English man” she said just as the door snapped shut.




Breakfast next day was in a room next to the main restaurant. The guests of the hotel, mainly Taiwanese and Mainlanders I thought, crowded into the small fuggy annex which used to be the overspill from the restaurant in the glory days. The old crockery and cutlery was still on show: worn, chipped, scratched and like the hotel, bravely struggling to keep up appearances. The toast was nice but the chipolata sausages looked deadly. Out near the pool afterwards, a few lizards were working their way up the side walls, glad of the new cracks and crevices to be found in the mouldering plaster work. The mirrors by the attendant’s little alcove were corroded at the edges now and speckled with blotches like the face of a very old woman.


My telephone rang.


“ Meet me at the entrance to the hotel in twenty minutes. I’ll be in a taxi.”


It was Adeline. She sounded calm as always and I enjoyed the timbre of her voice which seemed like all voices to carry the pattern of a personality like a watermark on paper. Hers was strong but reticent, girlish at the edges and pure in the top registers. I wondered where she was hiding her gun this time. In Macau you probably didn’t need to hide a gun at all. I went up to my room and put on more after shave than I needed to and even combed my hair again. I was dressed rather casually in jeans and a black denim jacket. I didn’t look like a sugar daddy or rich uncle. I looked like a German tourist on his uppers. Perhaps Adeline liked a bit of rough.


The taxi had been waiting for me. Even at a distance, I could see Adeline’s shape in the back seat, smaller than I remembered, and wearing mainly black. As the car drew nearer I saw her hair was held by a thick band across her brow and she had neat little diamonds in each lobe. Her legs were brown and long and lovely. She was smiling. The door opened and I was sitting next to her, silent and inquisitive I thought but I probably looked doubtful and sinister.


We said nothing at all until the car turned round the Africaine restaurant at the beginning of the bridge and turned back again from whence we had come. Then she spoke.


“ Have you any idea how much danger you’re in, Mr Trelford?”


“ I do in a way. Everyone is being so nice to me. Blonde in the bedroom, free chips in the casino and all the Vinho Verde I can drink.”


She smiled again. The car was heading towards Taipa village and then on to the precarious causeway to Coloane. When we had finally installed ourselves in the restaurant garden run by the rude Portuguese man with a moustache who used a bushel of salt in everything, she began to tell her story.



I was born in the summer of 1982. No one seems to be certain when it was and we had to invent a date on my ID card and my passport. I don’t have many early memories. The first thing I remember is seeing a street. It must have been in Hong Kong but I know I wasn’t born there. It’s a crowded street with a sort of flyover and shops opposite and a few cars but that’s as much as I remember. Does anyone remember anything about their first years?


The next thing I remember is my nurse Mei. I never remember my mother looking after me. Mei was a big solid woman from Sichuan with short hair and a big round face which beamed at me always. She was fond of children as she did not have any of her own. Our house was a large one in the Peak Road. It’s gone now and there’s a block of flats where it used to be but when I was growing up it was one of the last which still had just two storeys, a garden, a swing and room for pets. I had a rabbit, a turtle and a Siamese cat with blue eyes who would tap on the window of my bedroom to be allowed in from the rain or just because she wanted to be near me. I remember being very happy, alone, cared for and with the wind running through trees and the soft murmur of traffic beyond them.


It was time for school and there most of my memories begin. I think it’s important for you to see how I grew up and how I became they way I am now. From the very first day I knew I was special as all the girls and boys in the kindergarten, which was just a short drive down the road, seemed rather slow and to have a lot of things in their lives which struck me as rather odd, like fathers who picked them up and hugged them and brothers and sisters who stole their toys and played with them. I was always alone. My father is a lawyer and he was never around. He seemed to regard me at a distance, like something that has been foisted on him and my mother was kind but never very close to me. Should I tell you why now? You probably know. I was adopted. I suppose many of the children who are adopted become like a normal child in a family but looking back I always knew that my parents were somewhere else. I was being looked after but I wasn’t really in a family. I  wasn’t really touched by a sense of loss. I didn’t know anything different. I only look back now and feel a terrible longing for something. I have a feeling not of loss but of a presence which was far away. That’s not the same thing. Somewhere I  knew there was someone who wanted me and I used to invent a whole family for myself. I was a princess who had been lost. My favourite fairy story was the Ugly Duckling but I  was never really ugly. I felt that I would turn into something else when I grew older. It was something I knew without knowing it, a feeling I had inside. It gave me comfort.


I’ll tell you two stories to indicate how things were for me then. I remember a birthday party. I must have been about six or seven. The party was at home of course and all the kids from my school class were invited. My mother had ordered food from a hotel in town and the biggest cake I had ever seen with my name on it in pink icing and a gold card springing up from it with my age on it. The kids dutifully arrived and strode around the house looking at everything, picking up all the objects which had nothing of childhood in them. The whole house was so adult. My bedroom was also so adult, neat and clean and all the toys, the few I had, neatly packed into those little plastic boxes people use for storing their winter things. One girl began to cry. Mei called us down into the living room for the party and the kids tried to eat the vol-au-vents and cream puffs but they couldn’t. The cola went round and Mei started to make us  all sing but the kids didn’t want to. They started throwing the food around out of boredom and they wanted to go home. I was expecting my mother and father to arrive just after the party started but they never came. The kids left and I gave them little going away presents at he door, each tied with a gold ribbon and containing the same educational Fisher Price toy. I never heard of the toys again. I think they were too young for them all, the sort you give to babies.


Another time I’m at the beach in Repulse Bay and besides us on the beach there is a family from one of the housing estates with three noisy kids in cheap ill-fitting little bathing trousers. It is a beautiful day. The wind must have been blowing from the South. There were only light streaks of cloud in the sky and the beach was full. Perhaps it was a public holiday or some time in the summer. The kids are all as happy as hell to be with their parents so far away form home and eating crisps and paddling in the water. I walk over to two of them and say hello and we start to play on the sand. I have a bucket and a spade and the kids take turns to turn over little moulds of sand from the bucket and build a ring around me. I think it’s fun. It stays in my mind as one of the happiest moments of my life, just sitting there in the sunshine and playing with two kids who never had half of what I had. Then my father comes over and he wrenches the bucket and spade out of the hands of the kids and carries me back to where he and my mother are sitting. The kids begin to cry and my father says something to me I will never forget: “ They should have their own toys.” I feel something die in me. I sit for a long time and watch the kids at play. The looks on their faces as they look at me are horrible. For the first time in my life I cry inside, silent tears running through my mind but my face remains still and dry and strong.


Life as a child  is what you live in your parents’ house and only much later do you find out what you missed, what was strange and what didn’t add up. Children are perfectly adaptive and can even learn to live without love. I got all my love from Mei. Have you ever read that story David Copperfield and Peggerty? She was my Peggerty and my father was certainly Mr Murdstone but without the beatings. I suppose he was the ultimate husband of convenience. He knew what to say when people called and he knew how to be quiet when he accompanied my mother to all her social outings. He had his little girls here and there but I think they were all bought, just as he had been bought. He did hardly any work and spent most of his time in Thailand or Taiwan on spurious business trips but he never said what the business was. He was terribly vain. A short thin man with hardly any shoulders or legs to speak of, his suits were too long in the trousers and too wide at the top. I hated his stomach which seemed to be out of proportion to the rest of him. He loved ties of all description and sometimes wore a bow tie. That’s when I hated him most of all. I think he had a secret passion towards me but never expressed it. Everything about him was underhand, unnatural and somehow paid for. He was incapable of natural expression of anything except his greed.


My mother, what can I say except that she is as cold as anything you see still breathing. But how can you hate your mother? It kills you inside if you do that so despite everything I learnt to love her, to want to please her and as much as she could she reciprocated. She kissed me sometimes, a dry and wrinkled kiss I always thought as if she were puckering her lips and pressing them upon me despite herself. I think she really wanted a child of her own and she tried to make me hers but she knew it couldn’t work.


The time came when I began secondary school in England. I was one of the rich orphans bundled onto a plane and sent to proxy mothers and fathers on the other side of the world because it was good for me in the end, they said. There I stood at Kai Tak airport like a child of the Kindertransport, a bundle in flannel too hot for Hong Kong and blue tights which I took off in the toilet as a rare demonstration of truculence and rebellion. Of course, mother and father were too busy to come and see me off. Mei stood at the barrier as all of my documents as an unaccompanied minor  were inspected by the immigration officials and a Cathay Pacific escort in crimson uniform took my hand. I remember the lanolin of her hand. I looked so young like all Chinese girls so they offered me silly presents on board like a drawing book and crayons. I never learnt how to draw. I preferred reading. The hostesses thought me strange, sitting there next to an oversized French lady, jealous of her personal space and imbibing whisky, as I read Jane Austen’s Emma. I loved the ordered world of Jane Austen where the expression of love always came in restrained surprise.


To be taken from the world of Hong Kong to a hamlet in Cumbria where the biggest building is my school. To join the daughters of admirals and career civil servants, tycoons, barristers and judges. To be surrounded by sheep and hills and fresh air. To grow into the future husband of a rich young man, something in the city or one of the professions. One girl arrived in a helicopter. They were all so capable, so tall and so sophisticated. I was the Chinese Pooh Bear, the relatively round-faced little sweetheart they wanted hug and lift up to the netball hoop. There were other Chinese girls of course. Some of them had been in private schools abroad from the age of seven. They weren’t as much in love with the sheep as I.  I would leave the dorm in my long school coat and brave the wind and rain of Bronte country to go see the sheep sitting in the field. They were as innocent and sweet and stupid as many of the people I would see in life but had more grace and tenacity then people.


The school was a very physical place with great emphasis placed on sports of all kinds. Hockey and rugby were particularly aggressive and I regularly dislocated my arm and I broke my leg once. Such injuries were accepted as natural events in the formation of the Northton girl. I remember freezing at the first gusts of winter an wondering if people in England were of another biology, a hardier race with their own fur on the inside and a special heating system deep in their bones. How weak Chinese are in Hong Kong where temperatures never descend for long under twenty degrees centigrade and where snow and frost and bitter cold are things they see on their flat panel TV.


I became a popular girl in fact because for the first time in my life I felt like I had a family. I loved just being with other girls and I blossomed inside. There was nothing I would not do for my friends. To have another friend was something wonderful for me. One girl’s particular manner of expressing her friendship was strange to me but even that I accepted. She would run into my room, even when I was asleep, and throw herself on me and hug me, just to relieve some sort of tension. I submitted to her wild displays of affection. I don’t think there was anything lesbian about it and there was never anything sexual. I loved her spontaneous embrace, the open show of affection.


I grew up. I was a very capable student. Girls always got ‘A’s at this school and I was one of them. I found maths and economics easier than anything. It seemed to be bread in my bone. Soon our social life began. We were bussed to boys’ schools where we were groped and fondled by tall teenage lads with all the delicacy of a brothel. Scandalous things went on in those social gatherings with the pop music and the soft drinks. We were always chaperoned by teachers but there were always stories of girls discovered in intimate embrace on store rooms and toilets and car parks. I was developing into a rather presentable and pretty young piece of exotica with my big brown eyes and cherubic face. Boys pestered me for my phone number and would send me pager messages and SMSs when I had my own portable. I never warmed to any of them. Western boys seemed to be biological oddities to me, young wild lions in clothes, but I did fantasize about involvement with them. 

































My parents never came to see me. In my vacations I spent time with my friends’ parents’ homes, sleeping in university student dorms and eating sandwiches from Subway. My parents never gave me enough money, not because they didn’t have it. They just forget to send me any mostly and I was too proud to ask. I suppose I learnt to appreciate very small things in life. My favourite places at that time became Bristol and Edinburgh. I was fascinated by Western boys who would whistle at me and my friend as we crossed the road. It was all very new and strange to me. Some men we met took me to be Japanese as the UK seems to attract a certain kind of ordinary Chinese girl. They had no idea of a Chinese girl except as something weird and Oriental in the extreme. If I was wearing a skirt I was approached by all kinds of men, even when doing harmless things like waiting at a railway station. The usual aim  was to get my phone number which I used to give out just to be friendly. I quickly found out that it was dreadful to do so. In Hong Kong, dirty old men – and many not so old -  would approach me in the street and ask for my selling price even though I wasn’t wearing make-up and was dressed in a very ordinary way. I learned to live with it. I suppose I have turned into something attractive to men.


I always remember my Oxford interview. I got to St Edward Hall at nine o’clock in the morning and a friendly middle-aged woman talked to me about my life for forty-five minutes. I had applied to study law whilst most of my Chinese friends at school had chosen accountancy. My other friends had chosen to study English or Modern Languages. I chose law not because I wanted to be like my father but because I wanted to be better than him. I wanted to prove that you could do something with law rather than help people sign documents and collect fees. I was also a little outraged by what I now saw to be the horrible injustice and corruption of Hong Kong. Does that seem strange to you? I don’t think so. I had learnt to hate my parents. No, I didn’t despise them. Graham Greene says you can only really hate your equals. You despise everyone else. But I believe that if you despise anyone strongly enough and you have seen what they have tried to do to you, you end up hating them. Despising them isn’t enough. People like my mother and father don’t care anyway if someone despises them. They don’t care much wither of someone hates them. They care slightly more though as that person may turn out to be dangerous one day.


I got into Oxford. I don’t know how. As far as I  can see, all the men and girls who applied to Oxford at my interview were all star students. I think Oxford selects on whether they like your face. Or whether your face fits. Fortunately, I have a very pretty face but as I told you, that doesn’t make you happy as a matter of course. You just have to live with it. Everyone thinks you are some kind of bimbo and it’s useful to play that sometimes but it’s never real. I fitted into Oxford rather well. St Edward Hall is a small and rather crowded place, a tiny quadrangle with towering blocks of student quarters behind it. It can be too cosy for comfort and sometimes it was hard to get any work done. There was always so much going on. But I made a deal with myself that I wanted to leave the place with a decent law degree rather than a congratulatory third although the lure of Pimms, strawberries and cream, Hall Balls and Eights Week was strong.


Curious thing to tell you. I went to a meeting of the China Society one evening. It was a nice get together with dim sum on sticks and jasmine tea in New College which meant we had a bit of room to walk about in. There was a bigwig civil servant over from Hong Kong talking about the dangers of globalization and my God was he boring. I felt slightly ashamed about his English too. There were the kind of people I expected to see: students from Hong Kong and China mainly and lovers of the vibrant Orient who were planning trips to China in order to become wise and profound with a backpack and a copy of the Lonely Planet guide or Paul Theroux’s Riding The Iron Rooster in their hands. Then outside in the quad, just as everyone was preparing to go home and the bodyguards buzzed about for the vesting bigwig and whispered into their sleeves, I was approached by this strange man in a fawn overcoat and a trilby who looked like something out of a Boulting  Brothers comedy. I couldn’t tell whether he was putting it on or whether he really was the way he was but you meet a lot of people like that at Oxford: young  people who wear cloaks, cravats or smoke cigarettes through holders. It’s part of the scene. But this one was serious. He said he was in business in Hong Kong and was always looking for contacts, no matter how little I knew about business. That wasn’t the problem. He was willing to pay for any kind of research paper which said anything significant about the place. Useful way of paying off the student loan and that kind of thing. Could lead to some good contacts of his own and would I give him a call. Perhaps he could ask me over to the Randolph for lunch the day after. Nothing ulterior you know, strictly business.


 So I turned up at the Randolph because I often did things like that at that time and it was only lunch and I had to eat lunch anyway. Hall meals were kind of drab. Nothing drab about Mr Finch. He did himself very well indeed and it was all glittering silver and crisp napkins at a window seat opposite the Taylor Institute. I remember thinking him something of a cad, you know, the type with a dozen blondes on the Edgeware Road or shares in massage parlours. Then I got it. He reminded me of Alec Guinness in that film set in Haiti, The Comedians. The one who says he is an arms dealer but is really a cheat. I was pretty sure he didn’t do business with Hong Kong. He knew Hong Kong well but it was all Foreign Correspondents Club, the British Council and trains up to Shenzhen to meet people but he never explained what the people did exactly. He did have business card: Hong Kong International Investments and it looked as vague and as dubious as he was. 


I suddenly had an idea. The aim of giving me this silly old man was not to recruit me into British or some other  intelligence. It was to see if I wanted to be recruited by someone. Or to see if I was really an agent for the other side. If I were an agent, I would have gone along with the invitation and played a gorgeous double game with MI5 or whoever. If I declined, it meant I may be harmless and above board, or working for the Chinese. As far as I could see, it was mainly an intelligence test as in IQ. If you were not capable of seeing through the silly facade of Mr Finch, you were of no use to anyone much. I think I passed with flying colours as I never saw Mr Finch again. Nice lunch though.


The other thing to tell you about Oxford, apart from the fact that I got an un-vivaed First without a star for distinction, was the wandering hands of the dons, hard to believe when you consider how many of them are confirmed bachelors, a nice way of saying that they are queer as coots. One man in the law department was one of those queers in cavalry twills and brogues and a tweed jacket. You didn’t know whether he was an old guy pretending to look young or a young guy trying to look older. He had his eyes solidly on my tutorial partner’s crotch the whole hour but then mostly my tutorial partners were young men. I was very popular with my fellow law undergrads. Young lawyers always give me the willies so there was nothing doing there. Someone said that lawyers are permanent six year olds, their Little Professor inside forever preserved in all its stunning and precocious brightness. For me, they are mainly people without any charm. The fundamentals of charm are vulnerability and mystery. Lawyers like to think they are invulnerable and as clear as crystal.


The wandering hands of the dons came in strange ways – invites to their expansive mansions in North Oxford to peruse old cases in leather-bound volumes whilst my sherry glass was filled every two minutes and the wife was down in London spending all his money. Or there was the feigned interest in the Far East or reminiscences of the same. Many wanted me to teach them Chinese but I always told them my Mandarin was zilch, which was perfectly true. That fact didn’t put all of  them off  though and there’s something really pathetic and wildly funny about a brilliant mind trying to get his voice around Cantonese tones just because he wants a bit of Oriental legover.


Then I met Alex. He was up in Oxford trying to get through his A Levels at a dreadful tutorial school next to Carfax. Rather than ask my parents for more money, I decided to get a job there. He was everything you could possibly want from a beau at Oxford. He had a car, a nice flat and he stopped the guys pursuing you as he was insanely jealous and built like a young Schwarzenegger. He spent nearly all day at the gym. Once I’d been seen with him a few times, the assumption was that I wasn’t interested in Europeans, which was far from true. I wasn’t really interested in anyone.


Although Alex was as intellectually stimulating as an episode of the Gilmore Girls, he was a great source of information. He told me things. He said Hong Kong was ruled by other things than law and that I should be studying martial arts and economics if I really wanted to get to the heart of things. He told me about his family. his father had a shop which didn’t really do any business because he didn’t need to. He lived off the rents of various properties he owned. In the 1930s Stanley was a sleep little fishing village with a garrison of soldiers on the peninsula. Although the “indigenous” villagers of the New Territories had been squeezing land and other privileges out of the colonial government for years, no one had really tried it on in Stanley. The only indigenous people there were a few families of bandits and pirates which had been washed up during the Opium Wars. The Sungs were neither as they had migrated from the pig farms of Canton largely because they had lost their holding to some vicious landlords. They pleaded with the District Officer and at last several of the male members of the clan got 700 square foot plots to build on. The buildings later had shops below them and the rooms were rented out to families so the income was substantial in the end. The Sungs preferred to live on subsidized housing estates. They used some of the income to buy more buildings and in the war years they willingly let some of those out to the Eurasians and Japanese soldiers  looking for a comfortable billet. Old Mr Sung used to poke vegetables through the wire of Stanley Internment Camp and was paid with jewellry and old bits of gold. He always said that his vegetables were below market price and that was as close as anyone in the Sung clan got to idealism. After the war they were first in line at all the compensation hearings and even hired a lawyer in Tokyo to sue the Japanese for all the damage they had left behind and the stacks of worthless banknotes they had given them.


When the 1960 arrived the Sungs were the grandees of Stanley and many of them headed the Kai Fung association and a few mixed with triads but the latter had never really taken hold in Stanley as it was too remote a place and had none of the quick outlets for cash: gambling, brothels and opium dens. It was about this time that the feud started with the Chows of North Point who had bought a house close to one of the Sung’s properties and had sued the Sungs when their dilapidated property had caved in and left a hole in the wall. The Sungs never maintained any of their properties and were even proud of the fact. They knew a local team of job builders who could do wonders in patching up a flat before the tenants moved in, literally filling up the holes in everything with newspaper and plastering and painting over the top. In the 1960s, all the building inspectors were tea money men who often didn’t even turn up to sign the documents. By the 1990s the buildings were all worth a fortune as the portable phone companies had all been persuaded by the Kai Fung to site their transponders on the top of Sung properties and paid swinging rents for the privilege.


All this talk disgusted me in a way. But I was more disgusted when I heard about how my mother operated. She was the triads’ mouthpiece, one of the main ones at any rate. The triads had always been one foot away from the Communists Party, often described as “patriotic” and the communists had done many deals with them in Canton and in Hong Kong during the war years to ensure supplies of armaments and get hold of hard currency. As Hong Kong approached the handover, the Mainland had a different strategy. It wanted to form an alliance between the triads and a political front organisation to run Hong Kong behind the scenes. The political party would campaign for support in the old heartlands of mainland support – Kowloon City and Western and North Point – and the triads would provide enforcement and all the slush money. Every time a new development went up, the shops and stalls would be handed out to the political organisation’s supporters. Step by step, they would run Hong Kong from the shops and stalls and the triads would continue to rule the minibuses and taxis and brothels and night clubs.


Old Mr Sung had seen off the triads in Stanley on a number of occasions and once it became clear that the Chows were the mouthpieces in legal and political terms for the Sun Yee On, he was revolted, not out of a sense of idealism but because the triads had taken sides with his old enemy, the Chows. Nevertheless, he played along with them and had no real objection to them winning elections in Stanley. He knew that elections were rather meaningless in Hong Kong anyway as it has never had a real democracy up and running. Real power lay with the landlords and the intricate ties of the clansmen. Sung certainly had that little world in Stanley all to himself.


But I am getting sidetracked. I want to tell you more about myself. Let’s have lunch and then I’ll tell you.




I did some Family Law in my second year at Oxford. Most of family law is devoted to divorces and the mad scramble for money and children. Almost a footnote is adoption. Mostly it’s a formality but it does take some time, six months in most cases. Yes you’re right, it’s the Adoption Ordinance and the Adoption Rules Cap. 290. I dare say you had very little to do with it. It’s solicitors’ work mainly and there’s rarely any litigation.  Do you remember Section 5? It says that adoption is barred “without  the consent of every person who is a guardian of the infant or  who is liable by virtue of any order or agreement to contribute to the maintenance of the infant.” I was adopted at the age of five as you know and I was curious to know who was maintaining me up to then. I hadn’t come form an orphanage. The story I had been told was that my parents had died when I was two, in a car accident, and that I was brought by a distant relatives of the same in a village in Guangdong province, somewhere in the East. I located the file at the District Court and that particular document was missing, I mean the affidavit from the auntie or whoever looked after me. I found that rather strange. Perhaps she had actually appeared at the hearing and then her appearance would appear in the transcript but transcripts from such hearings are not kept for long. The judge in the case had retired to New Zealand and taken his notes with him. All that the order said was that “due permission being obtained by the present guardian” which could mean anything. My mother’s firm was the practice which had handled it all and I asked my mother to see the file but she said it all been lost when the practice  moved to North Point.


I was interested in the case of course from the point of view of knowing my heritage but I was also intrigued as to why I had been adopted at all. My mother and father didn’t seem to like children much. The many voids in their lives were not going to be filled by a bundle of joy or a toddler. Of course, I had supposed for a long time that a daughter fitted her image as a family-conscious politician but I never figured very large in the elections. I was never at her side when the photographs were taken and I was hardly mentioned  in her official biographies.


I write to the judge in New Zealand. He had indeed taken all his notes with him and wrote back to say that his record of the case was that he had been shown a statement in Chinese which had been translated for him in court. The statement was one from one Yuen Oi-ling of Pak Tau village in Guangdong and that’s as much as he knew. I had stayed in his mind as a sweet and lovely little girl, perfectly well-behaved and already attached to my new parents. He wished me well.


I spent part of a long vacation exploring Guangdong in my car. There are four villages called Pak Tau in eastern Guangdong. Two are nothing else but hamlets with a few pig farms and a shop and a bus stop. One has been absorbed into the city of Shantou. There were a lot of Yuens around in all of them. The fourth village, which was definitely a village still, sprawled down a hillside with part of a motorway at the bottom. It didn’t seem to have any agriculture left. There were rows of neat little houses built in the Hong Kong colonial style, the sort you used to see in Kowloon Tong, with gardens at the back and lots of shrubbery out front. Large cars with two sets of plates were parked outside them. Most of the village had become a hideaway for the rich, for Hongkongers who wanted a little place in the country and for Guangdong businessmen who couldn’t yet afford that kind of expansive place in Hong Kong.


I remember sitting down one hot afternoon in what passes for the village square. It had a primitive kind of restaurant with benches and rough dark tables and a few chickens were running around my feet. I thought I had reached the end of nowhere. A large banyan was shading me and the sun darted through the leaves like flashes of silver. Then I saw the car. It was one of those huge Mercedes which looked even huger on the opposite side of the square. One of the windows was wound down and two men in dark glasses who looked like parodies of gangsters were doing nothing in particular in such an obvious way that you had to watch just to make certain they were real. One of them got out eventually with a long duster made of chicken feathers and started to rub down the chrome work at the front and back but there was little need to do so. He glanced over to me every now and again and I felt a sickening feeling in my  stomach, not a feeling of fear exactly, more a feeling of disgust. Whoever he was, he had an electrifying effect on the old man who was about to serve me. He looked at me with a mixture of terror and servility and was caught between a wish to make me welcome and a headlong desire to see me gone. The drink I ordered was half spilled before it got to my table.


“ Do you know anyone called Yuen Oi-ling,” I asked at last.


  Gone,” he said before the sentence was even out of my mouth. “ Gone. “


“ You mean she died?”


“ Yes. Dead. Never lived here. Gone.”


“ What did she do?”


The man shifted from one foot to the other.


“ I don’t know.”


“ Did you know her?”


“ There aren’t many Yuens in this village. We are all called something else.”


“ No need to worry about the men in the car. They’re with me.”


The man sighed and his body fell into a posture of visible relief.


“ So why do you want to know about Oi Ling?” he said at last.


“ Relative.”


“ Oh I see. You are Overseas Chinese?”


“ Yes. Looking up my ancestors.”


“ I see.”


He sat down. He still looked frightened but it wasn’t quite  the fear of death any more.


“ Oi Ling is very old now. Very old. Are you her niece? She used to have one. That was before they built the road.”


“ Do you know where she lives?”


“ She lives here.”


He gestured  to the house behind the restaurant which a shuttered and looked empty.


“But she’s asleep and not very well. You’d better come back later. She usually wakes up for dinner.”


“ How long has she lived here? Are you related?”


“ No. She moved in when she became infirm. She’s a boarder. Her bills are always settled. They’re settled by the men in the car.”


“ That’s good. I knew she was being looked after but I didn’t know where. Can you take a note to her? Don’t let the men in the car see. They’ll think I’m interfering. They’re very proud of their job. I’ll leave the note here when I go.”


I thought I had at last stumbled across my coveted child smuggling ring. Let me explain. I’d long harboured the notion that I was not Cantonese, that I had been taken from a family in Guangxi or Jiangxi, two of the poorest provinces in China which bordered on Guangdong. His would explain I thought the length of my bones and the shape of my face. Have you never wished as a child to be born to different parents., to discover that you are really an orphan or the child of someone rich and powerful? Actually, I just wanted to find someone, somewhere, someone who could give me a sense of background and identity. With my so-called parents in Hong Kong I felt not so much a foundling as a nullity, something empty and without any fixed identity. Ein Maedchen ohne Eigenschaften? German, yes, I know. When you have no identity, only the identity you have gathered around yourself,  the one you have half invented, you don’t feel free exactly, you don’t feel magnificent. You feel a terrible longing to discover you are ordinary and you would willingly call a street sweeper mother if only you knew for certain she was. Do you understand? You don’t want a specific shape. You just want a shape.

So at that moment I believed that the village, and Oi Ling and the men in the cars were part of what we read about in the newspapers, one of the long traditions China does not talk about that much, the tradition of selling your children and transporting them to where they are wanted and where they can be fed. It’s not such an unrespectable tradition as you may think. Just practical, like a lot of things Chinese.


I drove around the ponds and pig sties and new shopping malls which were springing up in the middle of nowhere all over the prefecture. I watched a whole family playing Millionaire For A Day around a department store and wondered for a moment whether families and identity were everything they were cracked up to be. Perhaps we should be brought up in communes. I got back to the restaurant as darkness fell which is pretty early out there, around seven o’clock. The man I had talked to was nowhere to be seen. A sudden errand in town, a sick relative. I didn’t wait for elaboration.


I looked up at the house. Did I see the flutter of a curtain, the shape of the mysterious Oi Ling?


Look, you want to know the end of the mystery. You want to know why all those people died in Hong Kong and I can’t tell you now. I may never be able to tell you. If you know, you are almost certainly a dead man. They believe me when I tell them who I’ve told. If I tell you secrets, they will certainly kill you like all the rest. I just want to tell you that I have very little to do with it. It’s like fate. It’s a burden I carry. If you get to near to it, you will disappear. You think you are invincible with all the people you have told. But you’re not. They don’t care how many people know really. They just care that they’re silenced and that they say nothing. Explaining your death might be difficult for them but they will do it, believe me, if they are pressed. The only reason you’re still alive is that, is that...I like you, let’s say. To be honest, I didn’t like Alex. He was a fool. Can you really like fools? I don’t think I should have told him but he insisted. That’s why he was a fool. You won’t insist will you? Will you go back to Hong Kong and get on with your life and forget me?  You’ll be safe of you do. If you stay here, I can’t guarantee that you won’t be killed. There are big things at stake. To know what things is to make you a dead man. Drop it Larry. Can I call you Nigey? You’re so good Nigel. So good.


And there, right in the middle of the restaurant, she started to cry. She picked up my hand and drew it to her cheek and she pressed it hard and the tears came streaming down her face. I knew another secret. It was an unlikely secret but it had to be stared in the face and seen for what it was. For no good reason, against all the odds, in the midst of all that intelligence and the burdens she said she carried, Adeline had been struck by a feeling which was as surprising to me as it was to her. There are no real words in love. It’s a wordless experience when it’s real. So she sat there now, her face contorted and wet and wonderful and staring at me with the silence which speaks volumes if you will only let it and skip the jokes and the clichés and the copouts.







I ought to have been walking on air but I wasn’t. I took her back to just in front of the Lisboa where she got into another taxi. She said nothing more. There was definitely a car following us. I felt it like a knife in my back. When she got out at the Lisboa, I wondered for many moments whether that was the last I would see of her and whether it was to be yet another unconsummated affair in the life of Nigel Trelford, unacknowledged master of theoretical happiness. She didn’t seem to be scared at all. I needed a drink of water badly to flush away the bushel of salt I’d consumed at Jose’s restaurant in Coloane so I walked down to the Leal Senado thinking it might be nice to sit in the square and burn some Erinmore whilst I figured out what it all meant and whether I was going to be dead meat by supper time.


My telephone rang.


“ Larry, what’s happening.”


“ Rather a lot. I’m in Macau. Where are you?”


“ I’m sitting at the little al fresco just in front of the Leal Senado.”


“ Be there in five minutes.”


And he was. Larry was barely recognizable. He was wearing a sort of brown trench coat Mac and a blue beret and his thin little moustache had gone. He looked like the slob of a secret police boss in To Have Or To Have Not just before Humphrey Bogart got all idealistic and held a gun to his head, but ten times more frightened.


“ Circus in town, Larry?”


“ You don’t like the beret?”


“ Just wonder who you’re trying to be. You look like a private dick on a case trying to look inconspicuous. The problem is that you don’t.”


“ Nigel, I’m scared. Really scared. I think this is it.”


“ Can I have your pocket organizer if they clip you?”


 “ It isn’t funny.”


  So what is it, if I may ask?


  They’ve been following me ever since you left for Macau. I’ve had the phone calls, the dead fish in the rolled-up newspaper and the chicken blood in the lobby but that could have been incidental. My number’s up.”


“ Really?”


I blew a cloud of Erinmore towards him just for effect.


“ Didn’t you once tell me that if they want to rub you out, they don’t leave messages?”


“ Not necessarily.”


“ Come on. You’re being had. They’re probably watching you now and doubling up.”


“ Look. We’d better not talk here. I’m staying in a little place down by the docks. Follow me but wait until I get across the square and make sure no one’s tailing you. I’m going to walk around a bit just to make sure.”


For the next twenty minutes, I followed his trench coat Mac down some of the dingiest streets Macau had to offer. There were little shops with dried shrimps in huge cardboard boxes and desiccated salted fish tied up in string and cellophane hanging from the ceiling, There were the offices of bonesetters and stalls selling Chinese opera videos. Mangy cats with a hundred diseases crossed my path and tired old ladies with bags of nothing sat in the doorways of dusty dilapidated mansions waiting for the miracle that never happened. Faded neon lights showed occasionally and the lobbies of hotels behind windows frosted or covered in plastic so that a passer-by would see nothing inside. Then the girls appeared, at corners, against railings and sometimes just standing there in the middle of the street looking eager, distracted or simply lost.


“ Mandarin full again?” I said as we entered a low-lit and shabby lobby carpeted with linoleum.


“ This place has the advantage that everyone you see is a crook. You don’t have to eliminate anyone.”


The man at the desk was eyeing us viciously but I could tell it wasn’t personal. The Schindler was rickety and smelled of unmentionable human substances. There wasn’t much room for it when both of us got in. At last it stopped at the seventh floor and with some ingenuity in logistics both of us got out and tramped along to the end of the corridor. The room was not only a perfect place to commit suicide, it seemed to induce it. The bed had a permanent curvature from all the humping it had taken and was draped with a faded crimson silk bedspread with a yellow dragon motif to give it an extra edge of sordidness. The window was caked with grime, the chairs were rickety from all the immoral uses they had been put to and the air conditioner was humming with that plaintive cry that they get when they have had their very last possible service. It all smelled like the air out of a vacuum cleaner.

“ Very classy,” I said at last and sat in the one armchair which received me like a sack of flour. “ If they decide to waste you, you’ll go very well with it all.”


Larry reached for a purple plastic bag on the dresser and snapped open a can of Carlsberg.


“ Drink?”


“ I never do on duty.”


“ Pardon me then.” And he gulped down a few draughts and burped in a careless kind of way, without irony.


“ So what’s been happening with you?”


“ Oh me. Falling in love, being propositioned by a Russian hooker, getting a free offer from the same but turning her down, playing the tables, being scared off by an ape in a suit and enjoying the flashing lights of Power of Greek. Just an ordinary awayday. ”


“ Any sign of the girl with a gat?”


“ Indeed. She almost told me her life story, leaving out the reason why you and I are both in a shitty hotel in a shitty town and looking at each other as if it might be our last conversation. And what’s been happening in Hong Kong?”


“ Not much. The first Sung murder is going ahead very low key and the second isn’t even a murder. Your friend in the hotel is being treated as natural causes. Maybe it was.”


“ I don’t think so. Too much coincidence. Point is we have to find out what they had in common, apart from being pathetic. I don’t think it’s difficult.”


“ Didn’t Adeline tell you?”


“ Well if I know for certain why they may want to kill me and why they killed the others, that would be the end of me, or so she says, so whilst I like to read the last page in most thrillers, this one will have to wait. Nothing to stop us surmising though.”


“ How is she mixed up in it all?”


“ I think she’s just a victim like everyone else.”


“ So who’s the persecutor. And why?”


“ Someone pretty big. And not the regular kind of Hong Kong triad. He may not even be a triad. He’s a different league all together. He not only terrifies the police, he shuts up the press and has connections at the highest levels in Hong Kong and Macau. I think we’ve only seen the surface. If he was just a hoodlum, we’d be dead meat by now. He’s something else.”


“Any clues?”


“ I only have one name. That’s the name our friend in the hotel gave me. If I give it to you, you may be dead as much as me. Adeline is his daughter.”


“ So why is it such a big secret?”


“ That’s the part I don’t quite get. I think they have plans for her. Plans that don’t include getting any attention drawn to her.”


“ You think she’s some kind of sleeper for them? Getting into a position of power then taking over Hong Kong on behalf of Daddy?”


“ If she wanted to do that, she went about it all wrong. Getting evidence on her mother, trusting dumb idiots like Alex Sung and confiding to Mr Sung senior.”


“ What do you mean?”


“ Well why else was the old fool bumped off? And why was he let in on all Adeline’s secrets? Seems she was trying to lay as many mines for her daddy as possible.”


“ So you really think the big name is Adeline’s father?”


“ Nothing else makes any sense. Only that fact gives her the power she enjoys. Otherwise she would have been wasted long ago. And she keeps on being protected, even when she takes up with clapped out old renegades like you and me.”


“ So how is it all going to end? Is she going to sabotage the whole operation? Is that what she wants?”


“ I think she wanted it at one time but she’s not so sure now. She’s begun to see that it’s more difficult than she supposed. Perhaps she really believed that she could do it by gathering enough information and telling it to as many people as she could. Perhaps she’s turned back the other way and hopes that one day she can legitimize the triads. I really don’t know. I think she’s in limbo more than anything else.”


“ So what do you suggest we do?”


“ The first thing to do is to make sure you’re not on any hit list or get you taken off if you’re on one.  I think I can swing that easily enough. Then you’ll be able to take off that ridiculous beret and stop going undercover in flop houses like this one. The second is to get talking to Adeline again.”


“ Who’s suddenly fallen in love with you.”


 “ Stranger things have happened. Jealous?”


“ No. Just perplexed. But hang on a minute. If Adeline has decided to go along with the grand design and become the big triad sleeper in order to clean up the whole operation once and for all some time in the future, what’s to stop her sacrificing a couple of old gwailos on the way? If she’s got the grit to do one thing, she might have the courage to do the other. I’m too young to die.”


“ I doubt it. Well, it’s a risk we have to take until we know the truth. I thought you liked living dangerously.”


“ Not as dangerously as this.”


“ Well to take a bet on it, I would say that if they wanted you rubbed out they would have done it before now. So I think you’re safe. I’ll send Adeline an e-mail to make certain though.”


“ Thanks.”


“ You’re welcome. I never did like your pocket organizer.”




“ Marina.  What are you doing here?”


She was sitting at the window in my hotel room looking like she had just crawled from a six vehicle pile-up. Her face bore a bruise down the left side which was purple now but would be black by the morning. Her clothes looked as if she had rolled down a hillside for fun.


“ Nigel, you have to help me. I have nowhere else to go.”


“ You took a big risk coming here on your own the last time. I don’t think even you know who you’re dealing with.”


“ But I do. I must tell you one big secret. Then I think I must die. They will kill me.”


“ Don’t tell me then. If it’s the secret I think it is, it’s not worth dying for. Is it about Adeline’s father?”


“ Yes. How did you know?”


“ Even dumb gumshoes like me have moments of insight. Tell me about him anyway. The damage is done already. You can’t make it worse.”


She straightened up a little and made for the glass of whisky she had poured herself from the minibar. She was still beautiful under the bruises.


“ He is more powerful than you can ever imagine. He buys and sells people’s whole lives. He is everywhere and nowhere. You are only alive now because of a whim of his. Be careful Nigel. I am nothing. You I think are something. You can do good. I can do only more silly tawdry nonsense. No one will miss me when I am gone. I am one of the dirty pretty things.”


“ Well try and skip the great Russian soul bit and give it to me straight. I’ve had enough melodrama recently. For a start, what does he look like?”


“ He is not a very tall man but he is physically very strong. He is about fifty, your age more or less. He is vital and handsome. There is much of Adeline in his face and in his eyes. He keeps himself rather fit. He does not drink and smokes cigars occasionally. He likes to swim, run and play tennis. He is not an educated man exactly but has certain refinements. He knows his own limits. He is very intelligent but not very knowledgeable. He reads a great deal. His English is faltering but generally accurate.”


“ And how often do you see him?”


“ He turns up at the club occasionally. He never gambles. He likes to watch people. He is fascinated by people and the weaknesses they have. The whole of his life seems to be some kind of watching game. He always seems to know what people are going to do next.”


“ And you were his girl?”


“ Yes.”


“ How long did it go on?”


“ I arrived in Macau when I was twenty. I think you can guess. He has recently taken up with a new model, quite literally. I’m no longer even part of the extended harem.”


“ But you have had a good ride, if you’ll excuse the pun. You must have amassed a small sum for your old age.”


“ But Kar-luk – there you are, I have at last spoken the name – doesn’t let go that easily. He doesn’t feel secure with former women in odd parts of the world telling his secrets to strangers. He likes to hang on to them, at arm’s length of course and reasonably well cared for. I will die in Macau if he has his way, by natural or unnatural causes.”


“ Sounds tough. And now he wants you dead. Not a nice way to deal with one’s former love. He doesn’t seem awfully romantic.”


“ Please, please. Don’t joke about it. I need help. You’re the only one who can help me. Plead with him. Save me. I am harmless to him.”


“ But you’re not. You know too much and your mouth has started to open. There may be other people you’ll open it to. He has a lot of leaks to plaster over in his organization. The problem is he only knows one sure way of doing it.”


She gulped down some more whisky and raided the fridge for more. She found a half bottle of Alentejo white which was now made with screw-off caps. Even the Portuguese were moving on.


“ Look. There’s only one thing for it. You have to get out of Macau to somewhere you can be safe. Where’s your money?”


“ It’s deposited abroad. Not here.”


“ You can’t leave the hotel. Have you got your passport?”


“ Yes. He thinks he has it but I had a copy made. That’s easy to do in Macau.”


“ And he has the copy?”


“ Yes.”


“ Smart girl. He probably runs that little operation too. You were taking a big risk.”


“ I know.”


I sat and thought a while then I went over to the laptop, tapped the password to break the electronic lock, connected the phone line into the modem and dialled up the Macau connection on i-Pass. Then I found the Macau airport web site. I held my finger to my lips and got out my bug detector, ran it all over the room but there was no signal from anything.


“ We’re in luck. There’s a Tiger Air – horrible name - flight to Singapore tonight. I’m going to be good to you Marina but you have to follow what I say and not get scared and never ever run unless I say so. What does alcohol do to you? You’re not going to get jumpy I guess but I don’t want you weeping at Immigration either. We’d better order a coffee. A strong one. Can you pull yourself together? I need you with nerves of steel tonight. Russian steel.”


 “ Staliniska. My new name. I love you Nigel.”


“ You may change your mind if your guts get splattered over the lobby. Now go and have a long cold shower like a good girl and leave things to Uncle Trelford.”


I dialled three and ordered the coffee. It came up in only ten minutes so it probably tasted awful. Then I called Larry. He sounded wary and more than a little frightened.


“ How’s deep cover?”


“ Not all it’s cracked up to be. Did you send the e-mail?”


“ Not yet. It’s next on the list. I want you to come to the hotel for dinner. The least I can do in the circumstances.”


“ That’s very kind of you.”


“ I already said I would pay. By implication.”


“ The Hyatt still do a good mixed grill?”


“ I’ll ask. Just one more thing. Stop by Watson’s and get me my teinture de cheveux.”


“ Feeling your age Nigel?”


C’est pas pour moi. Don’t ask questions. Just do it. Noir. Tres noir.”



“ Je vous en prie.”


The splashing sound of the water from the bathroom brought back happy memories for a while. I sent the mail to Adeline and amazingly I got a reply which said simply “will do” with a kiss. There were three whole crosses after that. I felt a warmer glow than I had felt in years. Then I booked a massage. I requested in-room and that I wanted a tall girl, someone around five feet ten. They would see what they could do. My credit was still good so I booked and paid for the ticket online. It was at a horrible price and just to show why I would never become rich, I booked it First Class. It was a return ticket in order to arouse too much extra suspicion. The flight left at 8.20 which would give us enough time.


“ What have you been doing?” asked Marina with a towel around her which brought out her curves so much I seriously wondered for a moment whether I should cash in my rain check. But I held firm.


“ Don’t worry. I’m not selling you out. The flight is at 8.20. We have to work fast but not too fast. Here’s the plan. We have a very seasoned accomplice who will be arriving soon. His name is Larry Snowdon. You will change into the disguise I’m going to get hold for you in a short while and get into character. Never, ever run, no matter what happens. We’re going to have a cosy little dinner in the room and then Larry and I are going to go over to the Power of Greek and take in the splendour for a while. At 7 pm precisely you will get to the front of the hotel and wait for a taxi with us in it to pick you up. Don’t rush. Look normal. You’ll be safe if you follow what we tell you to do and we’ll be with you every step of the way from then on. We’ll get to the airport at 7.20 which will give you ample time to get to the gate where your ticket is waiting for you. You’re going to Singapore. Have you got any money”


“ Lots.”


“ But not so much that they’re going to think you’re doing a runner or into currency fraud.”


“ No, not quite that much.”


“ Have you ever been held at customs or immigration before?”


“ What do you mean by stopped?”


“ Searched, detained.”


“ No, never.”


“ Let’s hope they haven’t swung it and put you onto the stop list. This is Macau after all. Ten thousand dollars goes a long way.”


“ Well I can top them if it comes to that.”


“ Good.”


“ Did I hear you order a massage? I could do that for you.”


“ You’ll see why I ordered one in good time. It’s all part of the plan.”


She sat down next to me and put her arms around me.


“ I am so grateful.”


There was a knock at the door. I looked through the eye in the door and saw it was the masseuse.


“ Come in,” I said and opened the door.


She wasn’t as tall as I liked but I thought she would do. She was a sweet-looking Filipina girl, in her thirties, all dolled up under her faded pink and beige uniform. She was carrying all of her necessaries – towels and oils and whatever else -  in a little basket.


“ Sit down,” I said.


The girl looked alarmed. She hadn’t expected to see a woman in the room but I suppose she had handled a few similar situations, kinky couples of various descriptions.


“ Look, we’re in a bit of a difficult situation and want you to help us out. We’ll make it worth your while. What time do you go off shift?”


“ I’m here all night.’


“ My wife has just arrived and is running around the hotel looking for us. I guess you get the situation. I’d like to borrow your uniform and basket a while for my friend here and see if we can get out of the hotel without being seen.”


The girl smiled a big red-lipsticked smile. She hadn’t believed a word of it.


“ I guess you want the uniform right?”


She said it like she sold ten a week.


“ Correct. Will a thousand do?”


“ Sure. Do I get it back?”


“ Not really.”


“ Well it will have to be more, sir. I lost another recently. They cost money”


“ Two thousand.”


“ Hong Kong dollars or petacas?”


“ Dollars.”


“ OK,” she said, more hastily than she should have.


Marina reached into her bag and gave the girl a rather too fetching cocktail dress. It was a tight fit on the girl but she didn’t complain.


“ Thank you sir,” she said as I handed over the notes.


“ And five hundred for the shoes.”


“ I’m size six,” said the girl.


“ I’m a five” said Marina.


“ Close enough, “ I said. “ And you’re less likely to run in floppy-fit shoes.”


The girl left. Marina was warming to the situation and lifted up the uniform to her body and looked in the mirror. I let another remnant of desire wash over me.


“ There will be two goons already in the hotel. One might be at the end of the corridor but I doubt it. They’re probably in the lobby, kicking their heels and playing with their phones. They’ve slipped a word and a few notes to the back door man so they think they’ve got the place sealed up pretty well. Another two will probably arrive with Larry but they’ll begin to feel uncomfortable and only one of them  might stay on. Or perhaps two of them will stay on and one of each couple will go for dinner or a game of cards at the Power of Greek. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”


“ Sort of.”


“ You’re going to have to dye your hair, gorgeous. I think Immigration will understand. You’re originally brunette anyway, according to your passport photo. Do you mind going ebony for a while?”


“ Anything to get out of this town, Nigel.”


“ Right. How hungry are you?”


“ I couldn’t eat a thing.”


I picked up the in-house dining menu and found it was still doing all the old favourites.


“ You’re getting the Singapore noodles. To give you a good send-off. Larry will probably eat them for you. He’s very much a clean plate man.”


I picked up the phone and pressed number three again. The food would be ready in twenty minutes which probably meant thirty.


I turned on the TV and watched CNN’s coverage of Barack Obama in South Carolina. I wondered how long it would be before he found a bullet in his head. I wondered also if there was any real point to being heroic and making speeches on anything in a world which seemed to be run by men with millions in their hands and hired gunmen at their beck and call.


There was another knock at the door. It was Larry. He had lost his Mac and beret but he still looked frightened. His blue suit gripped him around his barrel of a midriff like a vice. He smiled when he saw Marina.


“ Fast worker, Nigel. Have I been introduced?”


“ Save it. This is Marina. Did you bring the hair dye.”


“ Politburo standard issue. I think they sell a lot of it.”


He handed me a little plastic bag. I gave it to Marina.


“ Marina is a good girl and she’s on the run. I won’t go into the details but she’s on our side if she’s on anything.”


 I took a pen and paper and wrote down the flight time, just to be certain I hadn’t slipped up with my bug detector.


“ I get the picture,” said Larry and beamed from ear to ear. I picked up the bottle of Alentejo and poured him a glass. Then I smiled back at him and said, as breezily as I  could manage:


“ In Macau, like anywhere, you can always make your own entertainment.”





The dinner was wheeled in and standards had definitely slipped but we made the best of it. Food gets a funny taste to it when you’re frightened. It sticks to your mouth and there’s a strange delay to it getting to your taste buds. The only thing to do is to revive your mouth with quaffs of wine but we made do with what was left in the minibar. As a reformed alcoholic, Larry couldn’t be trusted near booze anyway. He seemed rather mellow that evening and I wondered if he had been rationalizing himself into thinking he could touch more than a glass of it again. Marina’s hair dye suited her in a bizarre way, making her skin look paler and almost translucent. Diaphanous is the word people use in fiction but diaphanous people don’t get by thugs in hotel lobbies when they’re supposed to be Filipina masseuses so the dark powder and creams she applied went a long way to turning her into a very credible Asian if you ignored the clear blue eyes. I advised her to keep them hooded, which means half closed in terms people can understand.


“ You’ll have to put some make-up on your hands too, I’m afraid” I said as I finally gave up on my dish of breaded pork chop which was as far removed from Schnitzel as pork chop could get and still not be chicken. Larry had downed his meal in five minutes flat.


“ I’m pretty certain the goons will be sitting together on the back sofas to the right of the front desk as they think that gives them a better view of the front so go out through the far door, the revolving one. Your shoulder bag looks OK.”


“ I’ve got a dress and shoes and money in it but that’s all.”


“ That’s all you’re going to need. Keep your hair brushed forward. Let it fall. Your face is still the big giveaway. They’ll get a brief side view then all they will see is your back. Carry the bag over your left shoulder and have it hanging forward, over your chest. It looks too expensive and there’s an off chance one of them will remember it. I’ll give you two vibrates of your phone just as our taxi leaves the Power of Greek. Stand outside and lose yourself from view until you feel the phone going. If for any reason you’re recognized, run to the front desk and tell them you’re being molested. If they draw a gun, run through to the back office behind the desk, smash the fire alarm if there is one and call us. Can you remember all that?”  


“ Sure.”


“Here’s my phone Marina. It’s set on vibrate. Any problems, just press the last number or if you lose that search for Larry in the contacts. Let’s set our watches. It’s 6.33. Everyone happy with that?”


Larry and I got up to go.


“ Bye angel. Remember, never run. Slowly does it. You’re a tired girl going home after a long dreary day.”


“ Something occurs to me,” Marina said suddenly. “Don’t the staff hand in their uniforms before they go home?”


“ That’s OK. Some do and some don’t. I saw that already. It’s not unusual to go home in uniform at this hotel. Trust Uncle Nigel on this one.”


I gave her arm a quick grip and we were gone. On the way down in the lift I caught various reflections of Larry and myself in the mirrors and concluded that we looked ridiculous, a vaudeville act which could probably reduce the audience to laughter before the first joke. He small and tubby, myself tall and angular at the edges anyway, the contrast was bound to draw attention even if you were not being tailed. 


“ Why did we never go into show business?” I asked at last to break the tension.


  I don’t think we would have got on longer than half an hour. It all comes down to deciding who’s the star and who’s the stooge in double acts.”


“ Something tells me we’re both stooges in this one.”


The lobby had a group of mainland tourists in it who were taking the splendour of it all. They also gawped at us as we passed. Playing nonchalance is never easy but the idea of Snowdon and Trelford as a comedy turn appearing at some holiday camp or seaside theatre certainly helped. Then I thought about what acts could precede and follow us: performing seals, a knife thrower, a magician complete with a blonde in a swimsuit to divert the audience’s attention from the crucial moment of legerdemain. This time the roles were reversed. Larry and I were the blonde in a swimsuit. The actors didn’t quite suit the part.


I knew were being followed as I could always feel such things. The air outside the hotel had a distinct chill.


“ Don’t look round Larry. Play it easy. Assume we’re being followed. I’ll be very surprised if we’re not.”


There was no convenient or even safe way to get to the Power of Greek, no pedestrian crossing and no real pavement. You had to force your way through the speeding minibuses and taxis to cross the road. Then you made your way as best you could towards the roundabout, clinging to the grass verge and reaching the broad entrance road. As I looked left and right to cross, I saw the two goons following us at a distance. One was speaking into his phone. I hoped to God he wasn’t sending a man up to my room. No, I guessed they wouldn’t try to kill Marina yet. Not in my room at any rate. That would be breaking some rule we had established. Or perhaps the rules were about to be broken and rewritten. I may have got it all wrong.


It was growing dark minute by minute. Night rests easy on Macau. The forlorn gloom of the city gained on us as we walked, wrapping us up in a dark velvet at once comforting and stifling, filling me with a sense of foreboding. Another bus glided by, laden with that part of Macau which was trying to hold jobs down and go about life on the grim regular plan, without selling themselves at the casinos or the massage parlours and I thought not for the first time how ridiculous it was to be my age and playing cops and robbers with cheap hoodlums in the backwaters of a corrupt little hellhole in Asia. I ought to be sitting at my swimming pool hacienda in Florida, leafing through the papers of my unit trusts and contingency funds and deciding where to go for dinner. Instead, I had the puffing, improbable Larry Snowdon at my side, cursing the drivers as usual and looking like Abbott or Costello, I forget which.


“ When we get to the hotel, just follow me up to the casino and look casual. You’re sweating like a pig. That’s bad.”


“ A man that doesn’t sweat’s like a dog with a dry nose.”


“ I’ll remember that when they fish you out of the harbour.”


“ My money’s on you going first.”


“ Thanks for the encouragement.”


“ What are partners for?”


“ I never knew we were partners. Seems like no one else would have either of us. Is that a relationship?”


“ It’s a good start. Most of the great marriages are like that. My parents for example. Fought like cat and dog all their lives but stayed together because no one else wanted them. How was it with yours?”


“ I don’t know if the prospect of imminent death is a good time to go over old ground like that but I do remember that my parents shared something like a common bond of affection. Something we sadly lack, don’t you think?”


“ I’ve always had the highest regard for you.”


“ That isn’t quite the same thing. It’s too objective. One day you might just have to say you like me.”


“ Now steady on.”


“ Exactly.”


The Power of Greek loomed up before us like a Liberace review. Slouching toe rags of businessmen stood about the entrance in their crumpled suits, shiny belts and scuffed shoes. The lobby was a brilliant study in cold-hearted glitter, splendid and luxurious if you ignored the dank cigarette smoke, the human lizards lurking on the thick leather sofas and the grime and dead bodies swept under the butt-burnt carpets.


“ Here’s the plan. It’s 6.47. We have to move fast but easy. Let’s go up the escalator and have a look around the main room for a moment. Then I’m going to leave you and pretend I’m looking for some cigarettes. That will split up the tails. One of them will be up here and one of them will follow me down. I’ll try to lose mine somehow. You should do the same. Go to the toilet or something. At 6.55 precisely get to the taxi queue and meet me. I may be in a car already. Don’t run. Look casual. Slow and easy all the way. Got that?”


“ Word perfect.”


After the frisk at the top of the escalator, we looked around the Power of Greek main gambling hall for as long as it takes to remind yourself that all such joints look the same: the tawdry waitresses, the punch-drunk punters way past redemption, the hideous carpet and decor, the momentary insight into existentialism which quickly turns emetic. I used the amateur acting school gesture of tapping my pockets and even bringing out my lighter so that even the apes who had followed us in would get the message. Then I excused myself from Larry, who looked stunned for a moment, not I suppose from my acting, and strolled down the slowly moving escalator into the lobby.


As I turned a brisk left, I caught a back glimpse of my tail. I found the gift shop cum tobacconist which was full of all the essential purchases of the mainland gambler on a roll: cans of New Zealand abalone, dried Sungi in gift boxes, showy handbags which might have been genuine and a rack of what looked like dog furs. There were cartons of Panda and Double Happiness cigarettes too but I just took a packet of the latter. I mimed a restless pensive look and wandered through the lobby to the little petrified stone garden outside, just by the taxi queue. It smelled of rain and dog’s piss. The centre of it all was what looked like a bonsai maker’s attempt at a stone mountain, eerie now in the half light, with a fountain hissing somewhere against it and spraying you if you got too close. To accommodate the dogs, who were obviously regulars, there were three little grottoes at the far end where they could sniff about and take a quiet dump before their owners could admonish them. The light died away as I approached and I must have been almost invisible now from the entrance. I dodged into one of the grottoes and heard a rapid step on the gravel. My man was in some sort of panic and was running about the park looking for me. At last he came to my grotto and peered in. The half-light caught his face for a few seconds and I decided it was now or never. A quick kick to the shins and the cuffs were on him. I gave him one to the jaw for good measure and he didn’t have a lot to resist it. Then I dragged him towards the railing and shackled him there. He was as light as a feather. I pushed his tie into his mouth and almost got bitten in the process. Then I socked him again in the jaw and he lay still and limp once more.


 I glanced at my watch. It was just before seven. I straightened my tie and strolled out into the taxi queue in front of the hotel. Larry was by the lobby door, miming something impenetrable or highly subtle or perhaps he was only looking confused. I saw a car approach and there was a moment of doubt in my mind as a pair of fat men carrying cardboard boxes made towards it but I thought this was China so what the hell and jumped into it before they could reach for the door handles. Larry saw me and walked through the glass doors as fast as you could without running and the car lurched a little as he slammed down into the back seat.


“ Where were you?” he said.


“ I was walking the dog. Where’s your goon? Lost him?”


“ No. He was on me like a cheap suit all the way.”


“ Doesn’t matter. By the time he finds his friend, we’ll be at the airport. You can call Marina now. Just let it ring twice and hang up.””


The taxi took us to the Hyatt in a very long, unnaturally long minute. Marina was nowhere to be seen and various alternatives flashed through my mind in a moment like memories of a nightmare. There were two or three people standing about the steps, the lobby looked normal and there were no goons I could see hanging around with guns or choppers drawn. That ought to have cheered me up but it didn’t. Then I saw her, cowering behind a flower basket at the edge of the short staircase into the hotel. She looked as pale as death.


“ Go get her. She’s petrified.” I said and Larry opened the door.


Marina unfroze then and walked towards the car, stiff and furtive, and I hoped no one was watching her.


“ Limousine service,” I said as she joined Larry in the back. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”


Marina said nothing for a while. Then she took out a packet of cigarettes, trembled and fumbled for a light, then took a large lungful, coughed a little and then I heard her speak.


“ No one saw me. It worked, I think.”


“ Well done. I had to tie up one of them. I’m getting to like that sort of thing. It’s worrying.”


“ Where?” said Larry.


“ In the fairy grotto. It doesn’t take much to make them quiet. I should have done it years ago. Think of all the hassle I’d been spared.”


“ With clients you mean?”


“ Oh yes. And wives, judges, opposing counsel. A good sock on the jaw really solves a

lot of problems, at least in the short term.  Marlowe was right.”


“ Who’s Marlowe?” asked Marina.


“ You owe him more than you’ll ever know.”





For no reason at all it started to rain, an intermittent spit on the windscreen at first which the driver did nothing to deal with. Perhaps he enjoyed the lights of the shops and traffic running into each other and all that neon miasma you see in the process but I guess he was just half asleep. We were riding down the narrow road which passed the food street and the little square I remembered hiring a bicycle that time when I was convalescing from something and my ex-wife thought a spin amongst the high volume traffic might shock me into well-being. They still hadn’t done anything much to the accident-prone causeway linking Taipa to Coloane but luckily we didn’t have to risk it that evening. The turnoff to the airport lay just before the causeway began. It was a modern empty dual carriageway, which almost convinced us we would arrive in one piece.


“ What would you do if you were our goons?” I asked anyone who might be listening in the back.


“ You think he’s found his friend in the grotto?” asked Larry.


“ Probably not. I gave him quite a wallop. He may be out for an hour.”


“ Well I guess the men at the Hyatt are making enquires in our room and when they find out no one’s there they’ll probably call their boss for instructions. They must know you or more probably Marina is doing a runner so they’re probably on their way to the airport too, if they have any sense.”


“ So Marina darling, don’t waste any time at the airport. Hide yourself whilst I get your ticket. Are you taking your make-up off back there?”


I smelled the lanoline and cocoa butter at work.


“ It’s nearly all off. I hope they believe my story about the hair.”


“ I think they’ve probably seen it all down there. If all else fails, just flash a bit of the cleavage. It’s done wonders with immigration police before today. Are you going to change your clothes somewhere?”


“ I’ll run into the ladies.”


“ Good. And stay their until I call you one the phone. I’ll be at the departures entrance. If the goons show up, just walk as if nothing’s happening. I doubt if they’ll have orders to shoot you there. If they do, there are enough cops around to deal with them. Just hit the floor and let us handle it. Keep the phone until you’re on the plane and away. Send us a text at least to tell us you’re taking off.”



Macau International is a boutique airport if ever there was one. Like the university and the general hospital, it seems an afterthought, a grudging concession to the idea the little enclave might be a city with a purpose after all. That evening, through the gradually accelerating raindrops, it looked little more than a provincial railway station with a greater number of lights on than usual. The tower they’d constructed for effect somewhere in the distance was hidden by the walls of rain and mist which were slowly descending in billowing banks of obscurity, but you could have read more into them if you’d had the time and you were in the mood for such reverie.


We got out of the taxi. A clock somewhere held our breaths on the downswing of its pendulum. Empty trolleys stood around like props in an absurd drama. In the distance the ghostly echo of the tannoy, trying to sound comforting but never managing it as usual. In a few moments Marina would be splattered all over the shiny marble of the departure hall or gliding away to the rest of her life. If the deal was straight she would be doing the latter but in Macau there are too many slights of hand, marked cards and jokers springing up when you least suspect them to. Our joker took the form of  a huddle of clothes under one of the arches on the departure hall walkway which suddenly stirred into life as we approached.


It was a woman with a child strapped to her back. The child was asleep. The woman extended her arms to us in the usual way. It was her expression that was unusual. She seemed completely at the end of her tether, wretched, deserted and forlorn. She was young but her whole face was wrinkled and puckered into an expression of the deepest grief and despair. We ought to have strode on. Asia hardens the hardest hearts, after all. I think Larry and I were prepared to do so but Marina suddenly stopped and searched in her bag for her purse and we stood there in a grim moment of absurdity, the rain hitting us now from all sides and the clock within us ticking at a different pace.


“ I only have notes, “ she said at last and the rain was running down her face.


She found one, a hundred patacas, and placed it gently into the woman’s outstretched hand. Of course it was a mistake. Just then we heard the throb of a minivan pull up behind us. Two short but bulky men got out and without a word they stood there, their guns bulging in their side pockets and their legs set aside like soccer heroes taking the fans’ salute from the stands.


“ Don’t run,” I said to Marina who clung close to me for dear life.


I turned. Marina did it next, and she was looking into my eyes the whole time, giving herself to me in an embrace more vivid than sex. Then Larry turned. I never knew he had it in him. We began walking. If they were going to waste us they would do it there and then or they’d let us be. That’s what I thought in the spur of the moment. Great men have ended quickly that way, on a spur of the moment decision. Some of them I’d known well. They’d all trusted someone and they’d all been afraid.  If you didn’t give a damn, you might just hold on and hug your grandkids one day. I remembered also what I had read somewhere, that stabbing didn’t feel like stabbing, it feels like you’ve been hit by a brick. It’s gunshots that feel like stabs, then they burn you, then you pass out. It sounded a reasonable way to go. I’d had enough of running and doubting and watching my back.


We kept on walking. The pendulum had shrunk to no motion at all. If I lived, all my life would contain that walk, the lifting of the feet one by one, ordinary really, everyday activity that the doctors recommend. There couldn’t be any harm in it. You just had to keep going and not think about it, like breathing. If you think about it, you were bound to come to a dead halt. If you stopped you were dead meat.


The door swung open. There were noises but we didn’t hear them.


“ Stick together. It’s all or nothing babe. I’m kissing you right to the end. Keep hoping and keep going.”


Words came out at the Tiger Air counter and a credit card appeared on the desk. There were lips moving and papers being shuffled and I caught a few sounds which didn’t make any sense. The girl might have asked us if we were all right and she may have been wishing us Merry Christmas. I didn’t hear. My breath was still coming though it didn’t want to. I wanted some menthol to suck on and wished my tie wasn’t so tight around my neck. The whole room was a blur and was emptying of air fast. My legs were pillars of jelly and my viscera were on automatic. I tightened my sphincter to stop the inevitable. It worked.


We turned. The men were watching. We looked once then we marched on towards the gate, a crazy threesome heading off on a spree. Marina did us proud. She was erect, she was strutting, the back streets of Moscow or wherever were shining. Her two deadbeat private dicks slunk and slouched and staggered and looked as pale as death. She showed her ticket. It was all in order. She walked alone through the frosted glass partition and I turned round and shielded her the best I could. I wanted the bullet now. I was a coward and I was shaking and death would be relief. If the goons could read faces, they’d know the signs they must have seen so many times before on all the welchers and pimps and junkies they’d iced over the years. I looked them straight in the eyes. Take me now, I’m yours.  I want it.


There was only one way out for them. They’ve seen us squirm and they’d seen the look of death on us but they hadn’t done anything. Either we were cowards or they were. But it was we who had shown the fear and trepidation, not them. So first the slightly bigger hoodlum smiled, then his friend broke out with an even bigger flash of the ivories. Then the laughter came. It was a joke. Two scared-stiff foreign jelly babies filling their pants with fear for no good reason. I didn’t care. I didn’t have any face to lose. I was just glad to be alive.


Then they left. The hall suddenly came back and the noises began, the stirrings of trolleys, the resounding echoes of the tannoy announcements and the high pitches of Cantonese staccato. We were in the land of the living again. I felt the sweat on me now like a cold layer of grime all over my skin. The air was also getting back into my lungs. Slowly.


“ And the Sir Galahad award goes to...” said Larry.


“ How about Two Chumps in Macau. A much better title for this little episode.”


We stood and waited until the final call came through. Then there was a vibration in my pockets and I looked at the message and handed Larry back his phone.


“ A nice memento for you.”


The message ran: “ I am on board and safe. I didn’t have time to change. The men sitting next to me think I am one of the crew. I will call you from Singapore. I love you always. Marina.”


“Now wasn’t that worth waiting for?” I said.


We rode back to the hotel. The rain had eased up and had rinsed some of the dust out of the air. Macau almost looked romantic. It was a perfect moment to be stepping out for coffee or a drink so that’s what we did. Taipa’s food street was teeming with the tour groups and the cake shops were doing a roaring trade. I didn’t look round to see if we were being tailed. I felt invincible now, or at least fifty per cent bullet-proof.


“ Why didn’t they shoot?” asked Larry over a pile of pastries and an anaemic coffee in the only place we could find that wasn’t heaving with clientele.


“ She’s small potatoes in the scheme of things. Public shootings are only bestowed on the very rich and important in Macau. One of the delights of being here I suppose.”


“ So where do we go from here?”


“ How’s business?” I asked after a pause, helping myself to the edge of one of the egg tarts before they all disappeared.


“ Brisk actually. The divorce season is picking up. The young snapper we hired has a tendency to mist up the lens as he likes the air-conditioning. When he goes out into the street his lenses cloud up immediately. But he’s learning fast.”


“ And Virginia?”


“ Icy. Still in mourning for Sung junior of course. I doubt if the black ever extends to the lingerie.”


“ I think it’s time to get out of Macau for everyone’s sake. The place is beginning to bore me actually, apart from the odd entertainment like tonight. If you don’t drink the wine all the time and you don’t gamble, Macau’s a very dull place.”


Larry gave me one of his looks.  The plate of pastries was gone and the Bluemchenkaffee was cold and way past redemption. So there was only one thing for it.


“ To the ferry then,” he said.






Whenever you come back to Hong Kong from a trip abroad there’s a whole week or often longer when you’re not really there. You’re towelling yourself down at the pool in Phuket, trying not to look too German, or you’re gliding down empty, tree-lined streets in London or Zurich where you don’t meet an obstruction of any kind for maybe a hundred metres. Once you’re back, you’re oblivious for a while to the jack hammers, the diesel fug, the chatter of the people and all those sidesteps you have to do just to get anywhere. The backs of your shoes get scuffed again because all the steps are too cramped for real shoe sizes. Your nose fills up with gunge and the first knuckle of each finger gets a blotch of ingrained grime. Then the cough comes back to you even if you don’t smoke. Your mind spins away from all media which are not electronic and you begin thinking a two hundred yard walk is exercise enough for one day. When the jet lag fades and the memories of life in the outside world are just improbable digital images on your computer screen, you’re back in the huge spinning maelstrom of money interspersed with easy lays and a full belly.


I was sitting in the office feeling numb but dutiful. There was a postcard for Marina on my desk:


Sorry I did not call. Your phone does not work any more. No one knows how to fix it either. I’m very well and have a new job answering the phone and talking to men in the United States mainly. I will call you when you least expect it some rainy afternoon and we can think about what we didn’t do together. I love you, English man.




I opened up my e-mail and there were fifty or so of them, mostly offering me patches and pills for various changes to my life. There were touching epistles from the relatives of dead African potentates offering me huge sums of money in exchange for  the details of my bank account. There was also a mail from Adeline.


Nigel Dearest,


I heard about the latest incident at the airport. You must be more careful darling. Even cats can run out of lives. I am no longer in Macau. I am in China! Do you remember that? I think you know where I am. I’ll be here waiting for you. Is there a chance we can all forget where we came from and where we are and just look at where we are going? I want to go there with you. Hurry.


That ought to have had me glowing all morning but the warmth faded fast. I had enough on my plate what with the rent for the offices looming up due once again and all the easy cases coming in. Perhaps Larry was getting tired of my obsession with unpaid work. Perhaps there was no solution to the Sung case. Perhaps I just had an iron-clad resistance to leaving things as they are. Like anywhere else, there’s enough trouble in and around Hong Kong if you look for it and together with the possibilities for making money, there are also endless opportunities for wasting your time, getting nowhere and pursuing unreachable dreams. I simply had to go to China.


“ Just a few things I have to tie up on the Sung case,” I murmured sheepishly to Larry as he was waiting for a call to go through. “ I may be gone a week.”


“ Don’t expect me to rescue you all the time,” he said and I let that one lie as it would only have gotten us into a whole series of unfinished arguments.


 “ Have you got a new phone?”


“ Yes. It’s Taiwanese and it’s only as long as my finger. It plays music as well.”


“ That should come in handy. All that hanging around you’re going to do.”


I scribbled down the number for him. The call cut in at that point and with a smile to Virginia I was gone.


Anticipating a streak of Wanderlust coming on that morning I’d packed my usual bag. It contained the laptop, one change of underwear and socks, a shirt and two t-shirts, a denim jacket for looking like a tourist, the music machine, the electric chargers, a battered antique edition of Bleak House which I’d picked up in London many years ago and which was still unread, and a tiny short wave radio set. I’d also recently invested in one of Dell’s handy little Pocket PCs and loaded the data cards with dozens of works I always wanted to read, my favourite operas in MP3 plus a chess programme which always seemed to beat me even when I set it at “Novice”. If you can’t be baffled by technology you can at least lie down and accept defeat.


In twenty minutes I was milling around the crowd at Kowloon Tong MTR feeling weary already. I was wondering about the big sleep again, whether it would come in darkness and a burning sensation in my temple or whether I would just chug along invincible again until I collapsed one morning over my cornflakes in Worthing or East Bletchley or wherever impecunious old hack lawyers go to check out. Then there was another fantasy, Adeline and I at the beach, watching the sunset, sipping long drinks with leaves in them and playing with a gaggle of attractive, obedient and devoted children. The pipe I had inserted into my mouth on the platform helped me along nicely and I almost felt happy for whole long moments.


I was also going through my mind what Adeline had said to me and decided with my rational self that she was one sick little kitten at heart. Raised by the Chows and with a mysterious father somewhere in the blue yonder looking down on you doesn’t exactly make for a well-adjusted personality. I wondered what she clung to in her mind, what she thought of before she fell asleep, what her final vision of life was. And why in heaven’s name did it include me?


I was listening to the overture to Cenerentola on my headphones and thinking that it was spelling out PAV-ARR-OT-I in the insistent rhythm of its catchy theme. It could well have been spelling out GET-A-LIFE-MATE but I stuck to my first instinct and thought the only joke I could make up about the great fat man was that opera fans had indeed lost a great tenor but they were not the first people to lose a tenner. It was a bad joke but as I sat in the train and looked around me I needed a lot of cheering up. The Mainland was approaching and I suspected by what I saw in the carriage that it was as I had left it all those years ago but it had grown rich, which probably made it all worse. There was the chatter of course – even three Cantonese together can fill the Albert Hall with noise – and the way they lounged about without any grace or dignity – but the way ladies removed their shoes and revealed their nylon ankle stockings was probably the most off-putting part of it all. Or was it the men with their greasy hair and appearance of having slept in their imitation Gucci suits in a brothel somewhere? After all these years, the principle element of my reaction to the Chinese was still disgust. Perhaps they felt the same when they saw us beer-sodden, hairy, libidinous foreigners.


The New Territories was less fish ponds and car dumps and more neat little settlements and new glittering outposts of Metroland. The air was clearly fouler even than Wanchai with a grim grey edge well before the horizon composed of God knows what but probably pure concentrated poison. I thought of all the plastic garden gnomes and TV sets and portable phones, the dog toys and household gewgaws that had been produced just a few minutes away, the tonnes of plastic and silicon and copper needed to fuel the great consumer splurge of prosperous Europe.


There was another white man in the carriage. He looked neat enough, American, mid or late twenties, fresh-faced, eager yet distracted at the same time, with a well-thumbed Lonely Planet guide to Asia in his hand. He was also eating something. It looked like yoghurt and he was adding oatmeal or muesli to it from a little plastic bag.


“ Bon appetit,” I said.


“ Are you French?”


“ I try not to be.”


“ So you are?”


“ Not in the least. I’m from England. Food is so grim there that you don’t say anything before a meal there. You just grit you teeth and chow it down.”


“ I see.”


“ Where are you from,” I asked.


“ I’m from Newton, Connecticut. Just passing through.”


“ There’s an awful lot of China to pass through.”


“ Yes. I’m going to Beijing to see the Wall and the Palace and everything,  then on to Shanghai to see the monorail and the Bund.”


“ There’s a lot in between those two as well.”


“ Yes, it’s all fascinating isn’t it?”


“ What is?”


“ The Chinese. They’re so wise. So different”


I let that soak in a minute.


“ I think that they believe they’re different. And I think that Westerners like to see them as different. But they may be just like Uncle Bob and Auntie Mary deep down.”


“ You think so?”


“ I know so. I’ve lived here twenty years.”


“ Cool.”


“ Not that I’m still not surprised by them sometimes. But nearly everything that shocks me is just that they’re like people in the West yet you don’t expect them to be somehow.”


“ They’re awfully polite.”


“ They might be to you. But imagine yourself half your size and Chinese. I think you might change your view.”


“ Really?”


“ Really.”


I wasn’t in the mood for spoiling youthful enthusiasm and I didn’t think I could correct an American positive attitude towards the universe in one ride on a train. Perhaps I should have grown up there and learned to smile, wish people a nice day and shine, shine, shine. Americans looked happy people, healthy, sturdy, prosperous and progressive. Britons were always looking around for something to complain about. They were never satisfied with anything but second or third best. Even now I was thinking about what could go wrong with Adeline rather than what had clearly gone right.  I was running away from happiness as it looked too good and too simple. I believed that all happiness was gotten on loan, with a library card stuck in it and a heavy date stamp inside. You could hold it, flick through the pages, turn it this way and that but in the end you had to go to the counter and give it back. No renewals possible.


Guangzhou railway station wasn’t as confusing as I remembered. There was a train leaving for Shantou in an hour and there were even tickets available for it. The man at the counter didn’t ask me for a passport or a work unit identity card or even a bribe. Things had certainly changed. People were living private lives at last. There was even wireless broadband at Starbucks but no BBC in English for my old Pocket PC. They were still trying then.


Then I saw him. He was sat behind a large and elaborate frothy something, untouched, still foaming, and looked up just a moment as I came in. I had a feeling he had been watching me through the window but you are always watched in China, sometimes by crowds at doorways or even around you which amass when you’re not looking. You look back at them and they’re gone. His perusal was different. He was thirty-something, well-groomed.  At first sight he looked like a Japanese or a Taiwanese hunting for a golf course with his Lacoste shirt and loafers. But there the similarity ended. He had one of those hideous leather clutch bags with him which could contain a gun or contraband or just a filofax and some tissues. You never know with the clutch bag men. He had a flashing Bluetooth earpiece in the left ear which golf men don’t usually wear, even the very silly ones. And he was seated all wrong. He was trying to look relaxed but he was bolt upright in the armchair. His knees wobbled a little as if he ought to have been studying the race form, but he wasn’t. Then I noticed the white socks, formerly the trademark of triads the world over. Some of them still wear the white shoes to go with them but they’re a dying breed and usually well down in the pecking order. Well, well I thought. Hoods to badger you. Hoods to chase you. Hoods to watch you. There were always enough hoods.


I got out my little pocket computer and went to my e-mail. I typed the following to Adeline:


Change of plan. Now in Guangzhou. Was coming to Shantou but that’s no good. Being followed again. Will go to Meizhou today. Sounds nice at least. Phone me as soon as you can. Kiss, Nigel.


Meizhou was more in the hills, not on the coast like Shantou, and I would have to get off before the train turned. I hoped it stopped. I have never jumped from a moving train although lots of them have made me want to. In Sicily I once sat for six hours next to a delirious old lady wrapped in black who prattled on to me in Italian dialect about something or other, or possibly everything. But I had stayed put. Clearly, I could put up with trains.


White Socks picked up his coffee, sipped some of the froth then looked as if he might possibly gag there and then. I had forgotten that many Chinese don’t like coffee, which is why I suspect all the dreadful concoctions Starbucks invents were so popular in Hong Kong. He hadn’t been well trained but then most of the hoods that had followed me were as obvious as toothache. I got up and wandered over to the newspapers. The train was leaving in ten minutes. Perhaps it would be on schedule. He may not have overheard me at the counter. There was always that chance. There might also be another one who had. They usually worked in pairs, after all. The Shantou train left on platform two and that was on the same concourse as platform one. Platform one’s train was leaving later, I remembered. It was going to Peking. I supposed it has my American on it, or was he exploring Guangzhou? No matter. I didn’t want to get him involved.


I got up and took my little bag and headed to the platforms. The Peking train was already overflowing. People stood in the alcoves between the carriages and I thought that looked even better than I had hoped for. I got on board, colliding with a lady, but it could easily have been a man, who was muffled up in a thick down jacket despite the sunshine and the crush. She had short hair and a ruddy complexion and was as attractive as a slum. I squeezed past. I didn’t want to get too jammed in though. Once you were in a Chinese train it was even harder to get out. There were ducks and chickens in plastic bags I noticed, some of them squirming and pecking as I passed. There were tiny children strapped to chests and sleeping like lifeless dolls on the backs of mothers and grandmothers. There was a group of peasant men in green and blue cotton jackets, smoking and playing a game with those truncated sets of cards the Chinese use. They looked at me with fear and enforced deference. One of them even offered me his seat. Perhaps someone had reserved it and he was simply covering himself for my objections and enquires. Perhaps he was just being nice.


The train opposite got that look of imminent departure. Doors were being slammed shut and there was an ecstasy of hurried little movements from men discarding their cigarettes and hurrying aboard. There was a shabby little man with a whistle and tattered flag. White Socks was nowhere to be seen. He must have gotten aboard. I forced my way back through the scrum and somehow extricated my bag from between the heads of two crouching old ladies who lay side by side on the floor, eating pumpkin seeds from a piece of newspaper. Then it was past the ruddy-faced lady or gentleman in the padded jacket and I was on the platform. The doors in the train opposite were all closed. I scurried to one of them. I jerked it open. There were seats on this train and I thrust myself into one of them, panting as only middle-aged smokers can. The carriage jolted, throbbed and we left the station.




I had no way of knowing if they managed to get another man aboard to follow me but I doubted it. In another sense though I didn’t really care. Foreign stiffs were something of a rarity on the Mainland and the sanction for the perpetrators was a bullet in the back of the neck. Running off to Hong Kong wasn’t an option either for any hood who wanted to kill me. They usually returned murderers to the Mainland and let them face the swift and unsympathetic ministrations of the People’s Court. No mitigation accepted. The real problem was knowing where to get off the train as there wasn’t a stop in Meizhou. The guard who punched my ticket wasn’t much help either. He appeared to think I was a little mad. In the end though I got the mention of a town called Xingning and I left it at that. I had a wad of Hong Kong dollars in my pocket and that ought to go some way to persuading a taxi driver.


The scenery outside was alternately fascinating and harrowing. Little villages had roaming herds of pigs around them, children in the peasant ragamuffin look and old crones shuffling about the fields with no particular aim obvious to a casual observer. Then the scene would change and a six-lane motorway would loom up below or beside us with trucks and dirty cars and the omnipresent white vans of small-time commerce. Guangdong was obviously on the make, taking over from Hong Kong the position of frontier town of capitalism. I could see the factories with their chimneys splurging their surrounding areas with acrid yellow or grey smoke. Besides each long, hideous structure was a set of dormitories with laundry at the windows on poles or simply hanging there, fluttering in the dust and smog. Dickens had come to China and the satanic mills were all at full pelt.


At last there was a sign and it said Xingning in a small Pinyin addition below mammoth ideograms. The train stood at the entrance of the station for half an hour or so in the grand manner of trains everywhere whilst they sort out which platform to arrive at, or perhaps they already knew and were keeping up tradition. The passengers were just as impatient as they are in Hong Kong, standing up and rushing to the exits as soon as the town emerged into view, clutching their suitcases, satchels, packages and bags of what could have been birds but most of them looked subdued and inert if they were. I was reminded of my Mandarin teacher in Zurich who assured me that Chinese were given live chicken at the Migros hypermarket at Limmatplatz in Kreis Chaib – the “rubbish quarter” - as the inner-city area of hookers, bars, foreigners, druggies and lipstick lesbians was known. I remembered trying to summon up the courage to ask at the fresh meat counter but I never got round to it. I had however once hung up a whole Peking duck to dry at my window in Schwamendingen, which had outraged the neighbours even more than all my strange visitors.


Outside the station, I was immediately struck by the contrast with Hong Kong. There were mopeds and bicycles, dust rather than smog in the air and a look of sleeplessness on the inhabitants’ faces. They were Hong Kong people down the line, a generation removed perhaps, the ones who had missed the bus to the big city. I wondered if they were more polite or more resourceful than the people who now clambered around Hong Kong. They didn’t look more cheerful. When I was in Nanchang, teaching English to a dazed class of trainee teachers, I hardly saw anyone smile. I was told that the Chinese did not have much to smile about and that was certainly true in Jiangxi province where life was a struggle for warmth in the winter and cool in the summer and where the shops seemed to be clearing houses for defective goods no one could sell elsewhere. In Guangdong by comparison they seemed to have rather a lot. The breeze of capitalism blew in all directions. There were Hong Kong magazines at the kiosk and the shops in the street opposite the broad station concourse looked as if they might easily slot into a part of Hong Kong. There were no bicycle rickshaws or men carrying bundles on poles. There were vans speeding everywhere and people looked purposeful behind the overwhelming fatigue etched on their faces. In Nanchang my impression was that many people lived in a deep freeze of development, waiting for something to germinate their inner selves. They looked immature, arrested in their natural ageing and kept a naive nubility well into their thirties. Those who had determined to take on the world rather than to wait quickly aged and had streaks of silver grey in their hair in their late twenties. The people in Guangdong just looked worn out.


A taxi driver flashed a smile. I took the invitation. He would accept Hong Kong dollars willingly. The sparkling Toyota had that slight creaking sound of the very new car, before the joints and seams and screws were all set. The inside smelt of PVC. The factory seat covers were still in place and I stuck to them slightly as the car lurched at the junction leading to the broad main street of exotic Xingning. Very few of the buildings exceeded ten storeys but every now and again a steel and concrete tower shocked you by its startling modernity, set as it usually was against a set of grim and grey tenements. We quickly found a traffic jam. Policemen in their green uniforms stood about at the junctions not doing anything in particular and certainly not attending to the traffic. My driver had turned on the radio and I bathed in a plaintive erhu melody for a while, feeling like the man from Del Monte being taken to a new plantation. But there weren’t any plantations. Xingning was a sprawl, a heap of concrete and cars and people heading towards the next yuan. The smell of diesel permeated the air-conditioning and added to the other chemical fug I was inhaling, I began to feel nauseous.


“ Meizhou,” I said. “ Fai di, m’goy.”


You should never ask a taxi driver to drive more quickly. He either sulks because he can’t or he drives you like a madman. My driver was the cheerful madman type anyway I suspect. Sitting down all day in a steel box with nothing to do but listen to local radio would certainly drive me mad in Hong Kong. My man took up the challenge with an odd glint in his eye. Zipping between the lanes and crossing every light on amber, we were soon on the motorway. I got talking to him in my waiter’s Cantonese. Meizhou it appeared was not as beautiful as it sounded. It had lots of industry and was similar to Xingning. My eyes began to scout for a hotel or even a boarding house. Then I saw it. It was one of those showy heaps of well-disguised concrete you usually see blocking the view in Penang or Phuket. It looked oddly out of place in the desolate post-rural landscape.


“ Stop here.”


We drove in and more illusions began to fade. Obviously, the company that had begun building had run out of money before the hotel was complete. The large yellow fountain in the main driveway was empty and motionless and full of the junk building sites attract and accumulate: odd bits of broken plank, glass, powdered cement and the litter of a thousand navvies’ breakfasts, lunches and cigarette breaks. The lawns looked parched and were turning to dust at the edges. The neon sign of Meizhou Palace Resort was already rusting and the pink paint, which had been applied thinly and far too late, was flaking and warping along the steel rods which held it clamped to the side of the faded yellow stucco-effect walls of the entrance lobby. Can there be anything more jolting to the nerves than staying in an unfinished hotel? Yes, putting up at an unfinished hotel in China.


The large scale of the place would have led you to expect at least two liveried door openers but they had either never been measured up for their uniforms or had never been interviewed for the job in the first place. The lobby stank of damp, sawdust, glue and new paint. It was dark and dank and depressing and anyone in half their minds would have done a turn on their heels there and then. But if you were a melancholy old English hack on the run, looking for a last tango and wanting to lie low it was better than the Ritz. At last I spied a few light bulbs to my right and below them there was what looked like a counter. A young man in a crumpled uniform who could have been a porter had suddenly appeared and was starring at me helplessly to my left. I smiled at him but I doubt if my teeth were visible to him in the melancholy gloom of the Palace Resort. There was a girl at the desk and she looked pretty if slightly terrified when I asked for a room. She stood there for a moment, perfectly still, then grimaced and disappeared behind the small door behind her. A grim middle-aged man with greased-back hair and a bow tie holding together a grimy collar appeared and smiled and asked me how long I would be staying. I said a week and that I’d be paying cash and could he make me an offer. He did and it was at least half what a crumby hotel costs in Hong Kong so I smiled, signed, paid a large deposit and prised a key card from his wet, chubby paw.


The lift was Japanese and efficient. It still had some of the plastic wrapping on the padded silk ceiling and the showy brass handrail. I had been given the eighth floor, always a sign in China that the hotelier believe you were hardly likely to decamp with the sheets and the contents of the minibar. The room, a large and sunny one if the sun ever emerged through the smog, was at the end of a green-carpeted corridor which smelt lightly of cat pee and mosquito coils. It looked like a sepia portrait of what a truly splendid room should look like because all the colours were fading fast with an endemic and creeping damp which left little rings of moisture on the walls. There was a thin layer of dust everywhere, not so noticeable that you could call the room uncared for but it was clear that occupancy gave cause for concern at the Palace Resort. I had not seen a single guest.


I drew back the nylon lace curtain and walked onto the balcony. The view was over a sinister looking oval-shaped pool and a collection of empty plastic reclining chairs. Beyond that there were attempts at greenery but the plants and trees looked parched and forlorn. There was no birdsong. The only sounds were the distant roar of the highway and a lightly chugging cement mixer at some distance. I walked back inside and turned on the TV. The only station apart from the Chinese ones was CNN. I was surprised to see that there was wireless Internet in the room and there were instructions for its use in a photocopy of a photocopy in English on a plastic laminated sheet by the television. With some intricate tapping of the screen, I eventually found that I could listen to RTHK Radio 4, the classical station from Hong Kong, through the tinny speaker of my pocket computer. I lay back on the bed and lit a pipe.


There was an e-mail from Adeline:


I will call you soon. Does your phone work there? Please check.  Things have become a little difficult here. I will explain everything when I see you. Don’t smoke so much. Even Englishmen get cancer. Kiss kiss, A.


I took out my phone. It was working and in contact with a station but the reception was variable as I walked about the room. I decided to deposit it next to the window where the signal was strongest.


Adeline, Adeline. What was her role in the deaths of two old men and a young lover? What had she known and what did she know?  And why oh why has she fallen in love with a silly old man like me? Must I disabuse her and surrender her to a better destiny? Trelford on the tarmac of a mist-shrouded airport urging her to follow a higher purpose and live with a man worthy of her great soul. Then there was Trelford and Adeline braving the insolent glares of the populace as they sauntered down the boulevards of Monte Carlo. Trelfrord and Adeline embracing, two great hearts against the world, with sinister joo-joo men in raincoats following them about, awaiting their opportunity for horrible mayhem and revenge.


The swimming pool looked only moderately poisonous so I found the Trelford modesty swimming trousers and braved the odours of the eighth floor corridor to the lift. In the lobby, there was another tourist, a sad-looking Taiwanese I thought to judge by the baseball cap but I could have been wrong. Perhaps he was one of the Overseas Chinese returning to the ancestral home. I wonder what he thought of it all now that China had more money than the US and looked as if it would earn even more. His wife was wandering around the hotel gift shop with the look certain women get when they have a lot of money in the purse and nothing to spend it on. She looked as if she had spent a lot already with what looked like a real Prada bag and real Gucci sunglasses. The glasses gave her a sinister kind of look but I wondered if she cared.


The pool was lukewarm because the water hardly ever left the basin. No one else was around the pool although there seemed to be the ghosts of a thousand giddy Germans and Australians on the plastic recliners. The design of the hotel had been lifted from Phuket all right, maybe the Golden Sands, the place I had gotten so bored and depressed at all those years ago, I had decided to divorce. Ever since, I had steered away from resort hotels or anything that looked like them. You never know a woman until you divorce her of course but it is a painful way to deepen your relationship. You might get rid of a boring drag on your life but the woman usually takes you to the cleaner’s. When they take your child away from you, systematically and slowly, it’s even worse. I thought of Priscilla now, the person I had made but never owned, hating her father the more for wanting to hang on to her. When you give somebody a diet of undiluted love, they don’t thank you for it. They just complain about the bits they didn’t get or the bits you spoiled.

That was another unpleasant fact in the Trelford filing cabinet of memories to mull over as the waves lapped at the stained sides of the murky pool.


There were three gardeners filling in their time raking and prodding in the flowerbeds and bushes at the edge of the pool area. One of them seemed to be looking at me longer than was usual. I just caught a glimpse of him as my head came up from the water. I guess he believed that I was as short-sighted as most people in Guangdong and China so I wouldn’t notice him but of course I did. Perhaps he had a crush on me. Perhaps he was bored. Perhaps he had never seen a white man.


I got out of the water and felt suddenly a hundred years old. I needed a drink, a smoke and a lie down in no particular order. Some food would be nice too and I thought I would sample the room service just to see if they really had some. I was just reaching for the fluffy white pool towel when my phone rang. It was Adeline.


“ Where are you Nigel?”


She sounded hurried, flustered almost.


“ It’s called the Meizhou Palace Resort. I’m in 818. They must like me.”


“ I will be there in an hour. Look for my car. It’s a red one. Porsche.”


“ A bit showy but I like rich women.”


“ Nigel. You sound relaxed. That’s good. “


“ You don’t.”


“ Relaxed? I hope I can make u feel that way. Let’s have dinner. It sounds lovely.”


She had that Roedean edge to her voice now, or some such public school. Assured and confident in the dorm.


“Well don’t expect the Ritz. Someone forgot to finish the Palace. It hasn’t made up its mind whether it’s a going concern yet. But it suits me.”


She laughed her high tinkle. And at that moment I knew that all I had ever wanted in life was girls, hundreds of them. One terrified me. Love terrified me. I was trying to think Adeline could be one of the hundred. But it didn’t work. She rang off and I felt great. I wasn’t in love as you can’t be in love at fifty. You have too many memories. You only take refresher courses in everything, updates and reruns or the emotions. There’s sex month and there’s the falling in love special feature for this week only on Trelford TV. Everything gets relative after forty and even putting on your socks is full of associations. You’ve had all the emotions and most of them run out on you in the end. You’re a turtle swimming in the water and your shell is getting heavier all the time. You’re not a sunflower any more. You realise this is why people live to be a hundred at most and don’t go on for ever. They’ve had all the emotions already and the crusty shell keeps getting thicker and weighing them down. Mortality isn’t a physical thing. It’s a psychological phenomenon.


I opened my room door easily, wondering if the two little paper wedges I had placed on top of the door were still in place. They weren’t. One of them had rolled under the armchair and the other was nowhere to be seen. The housekeepers, if they had any, hadn’t been in as the bed was still unmade. I went to the desk by the window and looked at the alignment of the Pocket PC, the magazine and the lamp. They were slightly askew and not as I had left them. I turned on the Pocket PC. It had jammed again but that was nothing unusual. I suppose anyone could have copied the flash cards but they contained only music and e-books. I turned on the little music machine and had a think. I zipped open my man bag and found the bug detector. I dismantled the telephone too and looked at the TV set. Nothing wireless was in evidence but just to be safe I unplugged it and took out the signal cable from its socket. They certainly moved fast here in Guangdong.


I lay back on the bed and listened to Mario del Monaco blare the way only he could. They buried him in his Otello costume. I wondered for a moment how they would bury me, Nigel Trelford, the man who had the open goal always before him but who never got the ball between the posts, and who would turn up for such an event anyway: a few stragglers from my bedroom liaisons, now married with children around them and a fat hubby who although was not witty and adventurous, at least paid the bills, something Trelford had never had it in him to do with any consistency.  There would also be Larry, bereft of his Abbott, and having to think up his own gags to get him through the day. Then there would be the tombstone with “Was That It Then?” as the inscription.


I must have dozed off. The phone rang its tremulous chirp and I woke to hear that Adeline was on her way up. I caught a glance of myself in the gilt-framed mirror which still had little polystyrene triangles in the corners. I looked like an old jailbird who had been just been sent down for another ten years.





There was a knock and I opened the door. She looked radiant in a short purple skirt, a tight black blouse and bare legs which shone and glowed in her beautifully simple Italian high heeled sandals. I looked at her for a moment and drew her towards me. She yielded gently like someone at last come home. I drew her to the bed and felt an erotic chill in her mouth. The inevitable happened and her gaps and sighs seemed to reverberate around the room long after we were finished. She jumped into bed with her underwear on like good Chinese girls do for some reason and she drew up the covers around her breasts for extra comfort and security.


“ You know something, Adeline. I’m not what you need but maybe I’m what you want. That’s great.”


She smiled.


“ And never forget that saying by Stevie Smith. If you cannot have a man as a sofa, breadwinner or a hot water bottle, you can at least use him as a cross to bear.”


She laughed.


“ Nigel, that’s why I love you. You always make me laugh. I wonder what percentage of your brain is full of sayings like that.”


“ The disk is filling up fast.”


“ Whatever makes you think girls like young men? They’re so boring. Take young Sung for example. I will miss him of course. He was beautiful. But can you imagine what it was like talking to him? “


“ There must have been lots of pregnant pauses.”


“ He was a chump.”


“ But why did he have to die Adeline? Idiots don’t deserve to be thrown off bridges, particularly when they are being so loyal and so kind.”


“ You’ll never believe me but I had no idea that was going to happen. I thought it was part of the plan they had. We’d get the money and then I’d be released and then everyone would have a believable story. I had no idea they’d kill him.”


“ And did you care?”


She thought a moment and looked towards the window with a hard look on her face, the face that I had seen with a gun in her hand.


“ I ought to say I did. But I’m getting to be more honest these days. No I didn’t.”


“ And if one day you come back home and find old Nigel with a bullet in his temple, will you weep a brief tear on the way to the hairdresser’s?”


“ I’ll do more than that. I’ll find the person who did it and I’ll shoot him.”


“ Yes, I think you probably would. Bless you for that anyway.”


Someone started up a drill outside, in the distance.


“ But I’d still like to know why old Mr Sung got it. And the old Englishman in the hotel playing private detective. ”


“ Do you really want to know? 


“ I’m curious.”


“ Well let’s just say they got too close. Like you’re too close. And if I tell you everything I know, you’ll be out of it too. That’s the way things happen. So it’s best if you don’t know.”


“ Can I make some educated guesses?”




“ Well, all in all I think you’re one sick little kitten. I think you have a daddy complex but it’s more than that. I think you debated for some time whether you wanted to part with daddy for good. I mean that big criminal who’s got his fingers in all the pies and even arranges for his little darling to be adopted and brought about by his front men and women in Hong Kong to show how much he loves you. You tried to get the goods on him and your stepmother but in the end you just couldn’t go through with it. You splashed the news of who your father was to old Mr Sung one day to keep him quiet or to get hold of more information about the cosy little rackets Mrs Chow has going in Stanley. That was a death sentence for old Mr Sung and you knew it. You pushed him over or hit him with your gat but you never really had to. All you had to do was tell someone he know who your father is and he’s cooked goose. ”


 She reached into her bag and pulled out a packet of those long thin menthol cigarettes girls who look stylish are supposed to smoke. She lit it with grim determination and as she exhaled on her first swallow she suddenly looked like a down-at-heels hooker.


“ As for Alex, he was someone to open car doors for you and to hug sometimes in the darkness when you were in something like a normal phase. But he didn’t fit the bill. How could he? Far too normal and far too young. Then along comes big cuddly Mr Trelford and bingo, you think you’ve at last met the great patsy, the one who’s going to sink daddy for good. But I’m not up to it. I can’t even sink a rubber duck in the bath.”

“ You think I need a shrink?”


“ Well, most people do. It’s largely a matter of whether they can afford one. And whether the need is really that great. I know some very respectable psychiatrists.”


“ And what would a shrink advise me to do?”


“ Well, I think you’ll have to consider shopping your daddy. And Mrs Chow. And all the rest of them. Then you might be free. But I doubt if you’ll ever do that.”


“ Do you think anyone will really believe me?”


“ They might if you tell it to them straight. But really sick people, and a good many not so sick ones, like living in limbo. The tension keeps them going. And who can blame them really. It’s boring living without your complexes and just having happiness and health and a reasonable frame of mind all the time. Most people choose to go on being neurotic. It’s so much more fun.”


She laughed her high tinkle and drew on her cigarette as if it were her last.


“ Is that how you get the girls? By psychoanalyzing them?”


“ Well, some need it. Most need it come to think of it. But normally I just leave people alone. Unless I really care about them.”


She brushed back her hair with her hand in what she tried to make a careless gesture.


“ So tell me how I can be free. Who do I have to talk to and what do I have to do. Just supposing I mean. Do I hold a press conference or something.”


“ To be honest I haven’t really thought about it. It has to be done right of course. If you go to the police they could tie you in knots until the end of time. If you just go to the press, they might not touch it with a bargepole. Far too dangerous for most of them. And even daddy has a survival instinct. Maybe he will panic and do something desperate. He seems pretty good at that.”


“ And what do I tell them exactly?”


“ I think you’ll do enough when you tell them you know who murdered three people. And how you are related to it all. But now it’s starting to get very dangerous. Can I check your bag a minute?”


I ran the scanner over it. It was clean.


“ Well, let’s at least have lunch together whilst we think about how to end our lives sharply and suddenly. That’s the way it’s generally done isn’t it?”


“ I think we’ll be all right to Hong Kong.”


“ I’m not too sure about that. They’ve rumbled me here already and they may put two and two together. Try and look in love rather than determined, if you can.”


“ That will be easy.”


She turned to me and gave me a look to die for.


“ I thought I was the one for the honeyed words.”


“ I’m learning fast.”


We sat in the dismal chrome and teak of the lobby dining area with a thrill of anticipation glowing in the air around us. Some people would read it as love. The food was expensive, lifeless and synthetic Western fare which tasted as if the chef had observed a Parisian restaurant through a telescope once but had been lax with his note-taking. I couldn’t taste mine properly anyway. Pipe smokers slowly destroy most of their tongue and palate and anxiety stultified the rest of my taste buds.


“ There are just a few people I would trust with such a story,” I said. “The BBC man for one and the man from the Herald Tribune. Trouble with journalists is that they always want an exclusive when all most people want is blanket coverage exclusive to all newspapers. They’ll probably think you’re mad but I already told you that so the sting will fade fast. As for the authorities, the best bet is if you go to the ICAC. The police will just lock you up and ring for an ambulance.”


“ Sounds exciting.”


“ Thought you might say that. Get one thing straight though. This isn’t one of your stunts. You might just get a surprise when daddy is up against it. Everyone gets to be pretty expendable when gangsters like him feel the noose around them. Are you listening to me?”


She had one of her crazy looks again, partly like a teenage girl who is planning a midnight party in the dorm. That was the charming side of it. The disturbing part was that I suddenly knew who she really reminded me of: a beautiful nymphomaniac Austrian girl I had known in Zurich who got all the guys but was bitter and torn at the edges, marked by something she could never express. She had a brilliant father, a professor, and she was always hinting darkly at him, a ghost never laid in every conversation. I heard years later she had succumbed to a heroin overdose.


“ Yes, daddy. Your girl will be on her best behaviour.”



Checking out was easier than I believed. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I had paid in advance. There were no questions about the minibar, possibly because it had nothing in it. I hadn’t checked. Adeline looked quite stunning behind the wheel of her car. Cars like that are made to set off girls like her, I suppose. I sat back and watched the miles fade away. She drove like a demon. I just sat there and looked morose. I felt even worse. We were just outside Guangzhou when she turned to me and said:


“ We’re being followed. Did you know?”


“ Really. Well, I’m getting used to it. Which car? The black job I guess. Looks sinister enough.”


“ Yes. He’s been on us since we left the hotel.”


“ You could try to shake him off. But to tell you the truth, why bother. I’m sure they have another one ready.”


“ I’ll see what I can do at the ring road when we get to it.”


“ Couldn’t you just stop the car and have a word with them. I mean you are sort of queen in a manner of speaking. They think you’re on the same side anyway.”


She took her foot off the accelerator a moment.


“ Nigel. Do we have a future together? Is it possible?”


“ Are you serious?”


“ What do you mean?”


“ I mean that quite a lot things speak against it. There’s going to be a long investigation and it could be that your role in the murders will come under scrutiny. You could plead diminished responsibility and you may even get away with it, I’m no expert in murder defences actually, but somewhere along the line you might find a lot of fingers being pointed your way. I mean you’re not quite the innocent party you pretend to be are you? I mean as other people may see it I mean. You can be as white as snow with me. I’ll be there when it’s all over I guess. But you could be looking at a long stretch in Tai Lam. Hong Kong isn’t really into plea bargains. ”


“ That’s ridiculous. How could they prosecute me? I’m handing them the killers.”


“ That may come into mitigation and lower your sentence but let’s just look at the Sung senior murder for example. You admit you pushed him and he fell. All right, but then you must have know that when you told your story to Mommy that there would be the hell to pay. I guess you told her that you’d spilled the beans about Daddy right?”


“ Not in so many words.”


“ But enough to make sure he got the injection. And then you didn’t quite get too upset about that did you and you played along with the kidnap hoax which was aimed at getting you in the clear and luring Sung junior for the big drop at Tai Tam Tuk. Don’t tell me you didn’t know what was going on.”


“ But I didn’t push him.”


“ I wouldn’t like to argue that point too much in court if I were your brief. You were in the van and you did nothing to stop it. It’s called joint enterprise. The differences between that and actually pushing him over are purely academic.”


“ But I had no idea they were actually going to kill him.”


“ Speaks volumes for you at the trial. Let’s hope you get a sympathetic jury. But you’ll have to take off the jewellery and look humble. You can manage it I think. Where’s the gun by the way? Carrying one of those around in your handbag doesn’t build up your character profile.”


“ I still have it. And it’s loaded.”


“ Can I suggest you ditch it before you turn up at police HQ?”


“ Of course.”


“ And don’t go toting it around in front of the journalists. Most people would like to shoot a journalist dead, especially when they’re giving them an exclusive. They tend to ask such awkward questions. And they expect you to do all the work for them.”


We were heading into a traffic jam. Lorries and vans were jockeying for position in the three lanes and trying to make them into five. Adeline had gone quiet, the kind of quiet which was beginning to show even in her skin. The corners of her eyes began to get tiny wrinkles and there was an odd pallor at the cheekbones.


“ Nigel. You don’t mean all that about the courts do you. They won’t put me through all that surely. I’m their key witness.”


“ I think the question is less what they will put you through and what you’ve actually done. I know life’s treated you hard, and pain and loneliness and villainy are things you grew up with. They gave you a kind of distance from events. Most people feel it’s all right if others get to feel the way they have felt. It’s natural. But it doesn’t make it right.”


“ What do you mean?”



“ I mean darling that you can’t treat people like little pawns in a chess game of your own making and you can’t wipe out people that bore you slightly or appear to be meaningless and small. You can’t play games like kidnap and ransom and manslaughter and hit man with his efficient little needle full of happy juice as if it’s some sort of pastime of the rich and famous and beautiful. You’re going down for it and I’m not going to save you.”


“ Nigel, you’re joking. Tell me it’s a joke.”


The traffic was moving again, slowly, but never fast enough to kill the tension in the air which was as heavy and palpable as monsoon rain.


“ I’m deadly serious, unfortunately.”






The car suddenly slowed and lurched right. Then it came to an abrupt halt on a mud verge which appeared to be the beginnings of some dirt track or other leading into one of Guangdong’s many car graveyards. A small mountain of scrap metal was visible in the middle distance, silent and strangely serene.  The roar of the traffic behind us gave it a monumental, almost noble aspect. The gun was in her hand again and this time it was pointing straight at my chest. I remembered reading somewhere that women usually shoot you there. Men, being more intellectual animals, prefer to blow your brains out.


“ Get out.”


“ Look Adeline. This isn’t going to do any good. If you shoot me, you’ll certainly get a bullet in the neck yourself. At least Tai Lam has three meals a day and the prospect of parole.”


“ You’re just scum. You never loved me. You just want a roll in the hay, wham bam, thank you mam.”


“Thank you daughter, surely.”


“ Well hear this. I’m one crazy kitten and I’m as angry as hell and I’ve a loaded gun in my hand. You ought to be sweating a little.”


“ True enough. But you forgot that I’m numb inside. I doubt even a hollow-nosed bullet would hurt that much. They say being shot is just like being hit with a brick. Seems as good a way as any to check out. So many people have wanted to brick me, you know.”


“Get out. You disappointed me.”


“ Because I won’t play the patsy? Surely there must be others around. You can always go back to daddy. To his welcoming arms.”


“ Shut it, shut it. Get out and walk.”


And that’s what I did. I turned sideways as that would give me a better chance in case she actually meant to fire her gun. The move wasn’t all that fast or all that determined though. I felt proud of myself for a moment. Perhaps that was the only sense of deliverance I would get before the bullet struck.


It never did. The car revved up and there was the sound powerful tyres make when they are splashing mud and not moving forward as fast as madam wants. But soon the car was back on the highway again, an anonymous demon in the infernal flow of modern progress. I stood there a minute reflecting on another monumental Trelford foul-up. Of course, I should have played her along and got her to Hong Kong to make a statement to someone or other. Even the press would have done. There was even the chance that Trelford and Adeline would walk into the sunset together, their children gambling about in glee before them, and that psychotherapy and romance would win the day. God knows, stranger things have happened. All I had now was my wallet, my pipe, a phone, my trusty pocket computer and a whole lot of absurdity to deal with. Nigel Trelford, always on the muddy verge of life, never on the freeway. So I started to laugh, the best laugh I’d had in months. In the distance a dog from the junk heap struck up a rasping accompaniment for a moment. Then all the dogs joined in, a cruel kind of chorus in the circumstances. Now I knew why the Chinese ate dogs.


In Nanchang they taught us that if you wanted to hitch a lift, all you had to do was throw a packet of cigarettes into a passing lorry. I doubted if a half smoked pipeful of Erinmore would do. Fortunately, there are charitable, or merely curious, souls even in modern Guangdong and soon I was heading to the centre of town inside a white van which appeared to be carrying air conditioners. The driver was a youth with permed hair an a gold necklace who looked far too villainous to be a real villain. He was listening to a tape of Air Supply on his stereo which was a small discomfort to bear for his generosity towards me. I jumped out at the railway station and he refused payment of any kind.


The car which had been following us was clearly following Adeline now, wherever she was heading. There were no hoods of any kind around that I could see. I found the Starbucks and had a coffee and a chicken mushroom pie which both tasted like heaven because my tongue was beginning to be able to taste things again. I bought a packet of cigarettes and blew their smoke out in vehement puffs of denial that I could ever begin smoking cigarettes regularly again. There were lots of trains to Hong Kong and I took the second one as I couldn’t see the point in rushing.


The tower blocks and warehouses and shopping malls of modern Guangdong flitted past and soon the unmistakable stink of Shenzhen wafted through the air conditioning system. Lo Wu was next and I braced myself for the crowd. In fact, there was a kind of lull and the queue was only a dozen yards long. The smart uniforms of the Immigration Department Hong Kong were somehow reassuring. I took my permanent ID card out of its government issue plastic sheath and proffered it to the youth behind the Perspex.


“ One moment, sir,” he said.


And then all hell broke loose. The barrier behind me slammed shut and the gate before me closed with a crash. Two large policemen entered the space between the gate and barrier behind me from a small trap door under the counter. They took me by the arm. Then another two policemen, less bulky and considerable younger appeared and looked towards me with that mixture of embarrassment, deference and concentration you get from the local constabulary if you happen to be a white man.


“ This way please,” said one of the bulkier men and I was guided through the opening gate into the police custody of free Hong Kong.


“ Am I under arrest?” I asked.


There was no answer to that for some time.


“ I mean you have in fact arrested me so there’s no point in that question really is there? But I’ll ask it again so we can get the record straight. Am I under arrest? If so, what’s the charge?”


I was led to a plain wooden chair. The four men stood around me, silent, alert, not in a threatening matter I had to say, but far too close for comfort. The office was cool and cramped with all the trimmings of the police in action: the glass-topped desks, the filthy computer monitors, the reams of notices and print-outs and photocopied mug shots pasted to the wall. I supposed they could hold me on some fictitious anomaly in my ID card. Does anyone look like their picture? Is any computer system free of errors? I’m sure they had all the bases covered on that one.


They offered me a paper cup of water. I drank. Then a uniformed inspector, tall and slim and young, arrived with his shiny buttons and highly polished shoes.


“ Mr Trelford?” he said.


I said nothing.


“ If you wouldn’t mind waiting a minute.”


His English was easy, a university graduate at least. His glasses caught the light for a

moment as he came towards me, playing with a handful of papers.


“ You’re wanted for questioning in connection with some very serious matters. We’ve been told to take you Central HQ. The car will be arriving in a moment.”


He was as good as his word. They led me to a plain black Honda and put me in the back seat. They hadn’t handcuffed me which was always a good sign. The two bulky officers sat either side of me and the inspector sat in the front with the driver who I saw wasn’t in uniform. No one spoke. A light drizzle had begun to fall and as we came out of the Lion Rock tunnel it had turned to a heavy shower. Hong Kong at least looked clean and credible.


The entrance to Arsenal Street HQ bends around the old complex and comes to a barrier where even police have to stop for a moment. Then it’s through to the hideous car park with its doorways leading to the cells or upwards to the grilling rooms. I was taken to the grilling rooms. I ought to have been reassured by the appearance of Commander Littlejohn and Jake Halloran, who had already installed themselves behind their desks, but I wasn’t. My mind was on Adeline and wondering yet again if I had done the right thing. I comforted myself with what a Swiss doctor had told me once: that you have to make a decision, even though it might not be the right decision. He hadn’t explained however how you live with a bad decision.

“ Nigel” said Jake and got up to offer his hand. I gave him one back. Littlejohn busied himself with several folders, his favourite occupation at any time.


“ Good cop, bad cop. Very nice.”


“ Oh no, Nigel,” said Jake Halloran. “ We don’t play games like that with old pros like you.”


Littlejohn snorted and closed his folder.


“ Look Trelford. I know you think this whole business is some kind of vast amusement but I’m sorry to say that it’s reached the handcuffs and choky stage now and we want straight answers to straight questions.”


“ I never give anything else. Fire away.”


“ For starters, do you know where Adeline Chow is at present?”


“ No idea.”


“ And why wouldn’t you have any idea?”


“ Because I just don’t know.”


“ Do you deny that you know the girl?”


“ I don’t deny that, no. But there’s a big difference between that and knowing where someone is at my given moment. Do you know precisely where your wife is at present?”


“ I’m divorced, Mr Trelford. How would I?”


First point to Littlejohn. And a lot of points to Mrs Littlejohn. I hoped the alimony demands were huge and persistent.


“ Sorry to hear that Littlejohn.” I said. “ Marriages are made in heaven.”


“ There are three mysterious deaths we are presently investigating. I want you to tell us what you know about them.”


“ Well, it might help if you tell me who we’re talking about. Or am I supposed to tell you?”


“ The names are well known to you I think. The two Sungs, senior and junior, and one Harry Jacques, former investigator with the ICAC. You seemed to have been one of his drinking partners at that salubrious hotel in Yau Ma Tei you frequent on occasion.”


“ So you think the deaths may be linked in some unfathomable way.”


“ Indeed yes. And the main course of our enquiries at present is that they all seem to have been intimately involved at some point or other with you, Mr Trelford. More than bad luck, wouldn’t you say? More than a passing jinx on the renegade barrister turned private detective? Rather deleterious for trade I would have thought to have your clients and investigatees dying around you with such regularity.”


“ I wouldn’t say it happened regularly. They all came pretty much together.”


“ A very bad patch then. Poor you.”


 I looked out of the window for a second where the rain was still sheeting down.


“ Look Jake,” I said at last. “Think you can help me out with some decent questions and possibly a bit of information? I’m in a singing mood today in point of fact but if Littlejohn keeps up with the heavy-handed satire I might just dry up for good.”


Littlejohn gave a slight cough and a swallow and turned his head to where Halloran was sitting.


“ For one thing Jake I’d really like to know if Commander Littlejohn and all of you are really serious about me being suspected as the perpetrator of three deaths and whether you think I even vaguely had anything to do with them except possibly as an observer or innocent bystander. If that’s the case, I’m just going to say nothing.”


Halloran shifted his huge bulk in his chair a moment. He glanced at Littlejohn with a mixture of deference and lightly-veiled scorn.


“ I don’t think anyone genuinely suspects you in that way, Nigel.  We’re just, er, annoyed that you seem to be keeping so many cards close to your chest.”


“ Well who wouldn’t with big-footed Littlejohn on the prowl looking for easy fall guys rather than the genuine suspects. Come on, Jake, this is an ICAC job. You know it and I know it. The police just aren’t up to it. Are we going to drive round there or do we walk?”


Halloran was silent. Littlejohn was mulling what I had to say. Then he spoke.


“ So you will speak to them? And not to us.”


“ Well, with the greatest respect to the force, Commander, your performance so far doesn’t make me believe you have what it takes to crack a major racket involving some very highly-placed people in Hong Kong. The police just shuffle too much paper these days. Great loss of face I know handing an investigation over to the ICAC but what’s the alternative? More aimless interviews like this?”

Littlejohn, like a lot of pompous people, looked quite deflated by even a glimpse of the truth. Halloran looked down at his hands clenched on the desk in front of him.


“ I think Mr Trelford has a point, Commander. This is a difficult one. Let the ICAC take it on.”


Littlejohn rose at last, walked to the window and stared down into the rain.


“ Excuse me a moment,” he said at last and left with two or three of his cohorts.


“ Well Jake. Good to see you again. Seriously, what’s been going on since I left.”


He got up, went to the wall and pressed a few red buttons.


“ No need to go on the record with this, is there? Of course we know it’s all linked up Nigel and of course we know the triads are behind it. The way they polished off Sung senior and junior has the Sun Yee On written all over it. Even Littlejohn could see that. Next Media has been hard on us with the threat of an Eastweek exposé. They’ve given us a week. And of course the politicians have been in touch, indirectly. And the Chief Executive. And the Chief Justice. All very roundabout and indirect of course but with big hands off signs uppermost. They want it all swept well and truly under the carpet. Public interest and so on.”


“ And what do you think?”


“ Well, believe it or not, I’m with you on this one. The Sun Yee On have really fucked up. They can’t keep three dead bodies quiet. Not if they come together all at once. The inquests have been very dodgy. We had to seek postponements. Even the South China Morning Post has shown some interest.”


“ Things must be bad then.”


“ Do you know where Adeline is?”


“ No idea. She’s nuts. Could be anywhere. A loose cannon, almost literally. Wear your bulletproof vest if you have to bring her in Jake. She can get nasty.”


“ I thought you were in love.”


“ At my age? Give it a rest. I need a psycho in bed with me like I need a kick in the head. I’m sure I would end up face down in the harbour one day if I hung on to her.”


I reached for my pipe.



“ Any chance of sending out for some tobacco for me Jake? There must be a flunky around somewhere with nothing to do. Every time I come here there seems to be more of you. A lot more.”


“ I’ll see what I can do. Here, have a cigarette.”




And we sat there for some time in a blue and hazy phatic communion. At last, Littlejohn bustled in with something approaching a reasonable look on his face.


“ We’re going over now. Of course they know all about it. They’ve been investigating us, not the case. They already have a war room up and running.”


“ Well, well” I said. “Good old ICAC. Almost makes you feel proud, doesn’t it?”


Jake and I got up at the same time.


“ I wouldn’t go that far,” he said.





There were four of us in the little black Honda  - Littlejohn, Halloran, myself and a taciturn plain-clothed driver - as it swung out of long driveway into Arsenal Street. Arsenal Street is a hundred yard long lane connected to four thoroughfares. Left, at one end of the street, you have the roaring urban motorway called Gloucester Road which has four lanes either direction. At the other end there’s Hennessy Road, the original waterfront road before the harbour began to be reclaimed. It’s nearly always choked with cars, delivery vans, taxis and Hong Kong’s double decker buses. In between Hennessy and Gloucester and parallel to them lie the two red light streets of Hong Kong Island  - Jaffe Road and Lockhart Road – but the bar owners don’t want the police to lose too much face so Crazy Horse and Waikiki and all the other half-naked Filipina-on-a-pole places are a few hundred yards down the street. Every now and again someone gets it into his head to open a bar further up the street but it usually closes down within a few months. That’s respect for you.


The rain had thickened into a real stream, viscous and tepid if you bothered to venture out and sample it. The traffic lights were a miasma ahead of us and the shop fronts had small groups of people huddled in front of them with that look of forlornness people get when they are drenched and may get even more drenched if they cross the street. Taxis flitted about us, plying for trade. In the old days, they used to put up “Not for Hire” signs and press passengers for extra money to save them from the rain but there were so many cabs on Hong Kong streets now it didn’t work any more. It was nice that Littlejohn had placed himself in the front seat. He even had his hat on which made it a little easier not to be drawn into conversation with him. Somehow, the prospect of badinage with Littlejohn gave me the willies.


Something caught my eye. It was the two silvery CDs displayed in the back window of the cab in front of me, the sign the Sun Yee On used to use to indicate that the cab was one of theirs. I hadn’t seen it for some time and I was just about to remark on the fact to Halloran when the doors of the taxi opened and three men got out. They had objects in their hands and even through a thick sheet of rain it was clear what those objects were. Two were iron bars. The other was a gun. Littlejohn moved first, surprisingly. He was fumbling for his police revolver. Then the driver’s side window crashed as an iron bar hit it with more force than was necessary, but it still held fast. The other two men stood on the left side of the taxi and one was beating the window with a series of swipes which were getting him nowhere. I guess the strategy was to break the glass and get a better shot at me, or perhaps at all of us. Then Littlejohn did something which I never knew he had in him. People can surprise you like that. With his gun in his hand, he opened his door and fired. The man holding the gun dropped to the floor but the man with the bar in his hand hit Littlejohn with a thud that sent his gun flying over the bonnet of the car. Meanwhile, more men appeared and the window at the driver’s side was now quite gone. The driver had taken a bash in his face and was slumped over the wheel.


“ Push the driver out or throw him over here, fast” shouted Halloran and Littlejohn winced as his hand spurted blood all over his nicely pressed uniform cuffs.


Halloran stood up as much as he could and dragged the unconscious driver into the back on top of us, then to our feet.


“ Drive,” he said and Littlejohn slid over to the driver’s seat, nursing his hand as best he could. He hit the accelerator like Michael Schumacher. He was a demon one-handed driver but then Hong Kong already had so many.


Reverse was the only option as the drivers behind us had u-turned away as soon as they saw what was happening. Then somehow Littlejohn got the car moving forward and we were on the wrong side of the road in Lockhart Street for a moment before he clipped a taxi, wobbled a moment and stopped, crashing into a litter bin which rolled into the road with a lurching and ponderous thud, the perfect piece of ridiculousness for a brush with the big sleep.


“ Get in the back” said Halloran. “The driver needs hospital. And so do you by the look of it. How are you Nigel?”


I was sitting there immobile, thinking faster than I had thought for some time. Littlejohn was holding his injured arm with a very sorry expression on his face and I almost felt sorry for him.


“ Sorry I couldn’t be more help.”


“ You got into scrapes like this all the time. Quite surprised you sat there. Thought you might show us how it’s done, “ said Halloran


“ In my experience, if you’re in a car and they want to kill you, the best thing to do is to pray. Or duck slightly.”


“ But you did neither.”


“ Maybe I’ve got a death wish. Anyhow, thank you boys. It’s easy to see why they call you Asia’s finest.”


Littlejohn stirred a moment from his posture of pain.


“ But it’s nice sometimes,” and he paused to grimace and pant and bleed a little more onto his cuffs, “ if we get some help...from the citizenry.”


There wasn’t much I could say to that so I sat back again and thought about my next move, in fact several moves.


“ You can let me out here if you like, Jake.”




“ They’re probably on the way to the hospital now. Or do you want a real bloodbath?”


We were on the island fast lane leading into Kornnhill and Halloran took his foot off the accelerator. He was boxing clever by going to Eastern Hospital I guessed but my argument still held for someone of his intelligence and experience.


“ You think they’ll follow us to Pamela Youde?”


“ They’ve probably got men at all the hospitals, or soon will have. I never noticed a shortage of hoods the past weeks.”


“ But you’re...under...arrest,” said Littlejohn.


“ Point taken, Chief, and I’ll try to conduct myself accordingly. But I’d rather arrive at the ICAC in one piece if you don’t mind.”


“ And you won’t abscond, “ said Halloran.


“ I’ll be at the ICAC long before you two I think.”


“ Make..damn...sure...you do,” said Littlejohn before he slumped sideways, in a sleep of some kind which could have been unconsciousness and probably was. As he did so I located his wallet in his trouser pocket and removed his warrant card. Such things can easily get lost after all. Some can even fall into the wrong hands.


“ Better get him to hospital quick. And the driver doesn’t look too good either.”


He had begun to squirm a little at my feet and was babbling lightly in Cantonese.


Halloran took the next turn off and drove slowly through the somnolent streets of residential Tai Koo. He set me down in front of an anonymous-looking tower block which could have been anywhere at all. Schoolkids were walking in little groups along the pavement, their uniforms crumpled and creased after a hard day at the cramming factory. The rain was slowing up and an even more unbearable humidity was taking hold of the air as it gradually soaked up the downpour from the ground.


“ Go straight to the ICAC. Ask for Jerry Brown. Don’t hang about and don’t get into any trouble, “ said Halloran but I think he knew I would.


“ How about some money and my phone and wallet,” I asked.


Halloran fished around the car for a moment and found the thick polythene bag they had put all my belongings into at the usual frisk-down at the station.


“ Here. You can have the lot.”


And he was gone.


I flagged down a taxi and got to North Point. Mrs Chow’s building looked positively pristine in the sunlight emerging through the thin clouds above. The office fodder were beginning to leave for the day, the luckier ones anyway. I drifted past the control desk and the guards didn’t challenge me. The waiting room on Mrs Chow’s floor was filling up nicely with the usual rag tags and bobtails. I wondered if I could get onto the payoff list and what the qualifications were.


The girl at the desk said Mrs Chow wasn’t seeing anyone. In fact, she wasn’t even there. She was at home. She looked a bit worried about something, more than she would look if an English private detective asked her where her boss was anyway. She looked frightened.


“ Are you all right?” I asked in my best bedside manner.


She obviously wasn’t.


“ Look sweetheart. Is there somewhere we can talk?”


She looked about her for a moment and then down at her hands and her eyes filled with the beginnings of tears.


“ Come this way.”


She led me down the familiar anonymous corridor and unlocked Mrs Chow’s office. It was dark. The lights came on. The room was in that sort of disorder which tells you immediately something was awfully wrong. The carpet was turned up at one edge and was ruffled. There were the marks shoes leave on parquet when they are scraped along it. The desk drawers were open and papers were strewn around it. The filing cabinets had been rifled and emptied and the drawers thrust back willy-nilly and some were jammed half way inside.


“ Why didn’t you call the police?”


“ I didn’t know what to do. I came back at lunch time and found it like this. Mrs Chow left a note to say she had been called away on urgent business. I’ve been cancelling her appointments all afternoon. I tried telephoning her but the phone line is dead. I tried to reach her at home but there’s only the answering machine.”


“ Did anyone see her leave?”


“ I asked at the desk and they said her last appointment was with  Mr Tang who was her friend and he did not have an appointment.”


“Anyone with him?”


“ I didn’t ask.”


“ So no one saw them leave.”


“ There’s a private entrance. Here.”


She walked me to the back off the room and I saw a doorway which I’d assumed led to a bathroom or some sort of titivating chamber all of Mrs Chow’s own.


“ It leads to the fire escape.”


“ Very neat. So you never know if she’s here or not. Keeps you all on your toes, I bet.”


She had begun to whimper now and I did what strong-chested men have done through the centuries when faced with similar situations. She put her head on my shoulder almost lovingly, her tremor stopped and she slowly began to melt into my arms.


“ So come on, sweetheart. Tell me where she lives. I need to know fast.”


She told me. I wrote the address down on a piece of Mrs Chow’s headed notepaper I found on the floor, a piece curiously with a trace of a footmark on it at one corner which wasn’t my own.


“ Look honey. You’d better go home. Even better, go to the police. Right now. I’ll take you if you like. I’m sorry to say your life may be in danger. You may have guessed Mrs Chow isn’t quite as straight as she pretends to be. Well, someone is calling in all his debts and calling them in fast. You’re mixed up in it too as you know too much, who came and went, who the payments went to and you may even know why. You’re a smart girl beneath all the blushing. So believe me, get to the police and ask for Superintendent Halloran and no one else.”


I spelled the name to her.


“ Got it?”


She nodded meekly and started to cry again.


I took her hand and we went through the private door. The fire escape had the gritty feel of new concrete beneath out feet and the stale odour of cardboard and paint and must. I was praying that it was a real fire escape and that the lower floors were not the usual firetrap of pails, mops, carpets, janitor camp beds, cat nests and abandoned derelicts’ shakedowns. We were in luck. The doorway was not secured by a brass lock and the bar gave way to our push. An alarm rang but we didn’t pay it any attention. We were in a narrow squalid lane full of rubbish collectors’ trolleys. I glimpsed King’s Road at one end and we strode towards it, dodging the stinking trolleys and blue plastic buckets, trying to look as if we were on a Sunday school picnic but not quite managing it.


A taxi stopped almost immediately.


“ In you get sister,” I said.


We drove to Wanchai police station. I figured Mrs Chow had North Point HQ all sown up. I dropped the girl and I even waited to see if she would go in. She did.


“ The Peak, “ I said.


I found my phone and dialled Larry. He picked up almost immediately and didn’t sound well at all.


“ Don’t tell me,” I said. “You’ve had the boys round.”


“ We’ve had everyone round. ICAC, CID, the plod and of course the concerned incorporated owners who admire our work and want to alert us to the difficulty of renewing our lease or even continuing out tenancy.”


“Any hoods?”


“ Not as such but I think the incorporated owners looked a little as if they could be allies of Mrs C or her friends in low places.”


“ I get you.”


“ Well I think you should get out of the office now and watch your back. There’s a lot of action directe going on right now and anyone could be on the list. Je vais visiter la vieille femme. Elle a eu quelque embarras dans son bureau. Question de sa sante personelle a ce moment. L’adresse c’est numero quinze Rue Vieux Montagne. Tu peux m’aider?”


“ I get you.”


And he started to hum the Twin Peaks theme by way of acknowledgement that I wanted him to join me at Old Peak Road.


“ Exactement mon brave. Meet you at the Star Ferry in half an hour.”


He hummed another refrain from Twin Peaks so I knew he had got it.


Normally Larry and I only used French in the office when there was a more than unusually difficult client or we wanted to be rude about Virginia. He’d picked up a smattering of it working in France before he came out to Hong Kong.

I started humming the Twin Peaks theme too but soon for some reason I was just sitting there with a look of dumb horror on my face.


The taxi driver thought I was plain mad.



It looked a little as Adeline was described it. It was big, hidden, rambling and bespoke millions. It had been built some time in the twenties when the pukkah British still had money to spend on imitations of Weybridge. All that was missing was the tennis court and the garden gnomes. There was a gravel track leading down to it and you would miss it completely if it weren’t for the white wooden gate which stood open although you were pretty certain it was padlocked if not nailed shut most of the time. The brick walls around the front garden had the usual broken glass on top of them and a camera scanning the length of them. There was a bell and communication device and a small number on a post just by the gate. Apple trees and a huge banyan shaded most of the cropped lawn and ugly granite bird bath cum fountainette. The windows of the house had discreet, even ornate, iron shields to them which didn’t quite obscure the view. There was a paved patio in the front which looked unused. To the left, in front of a grandish porticoed door in massive teak with a brass knocker were a collection of vehicles: a black Japanese minivan, which looked like Garth Vader when viewed full on, a flashy old grey Jag and an anonymous looking sedan. What caught my eye though was the red Lancia which had been parked with the wheels askew as if the driver lived there and didn’t give a damn, or had arrived in a hurry and cared even less.


I left the gate open and strolled to the front door. I buzzed the bell which may have sounded somewhere but I didn’t hear it. No one came to the door. I walked to the front patio and peered through the lace curtains. Everything looked in order. There were huge bits of oriental furniture, long velvet sofas, a leather recliner and a huge Bang and Olufsen TV which wasn’t on. I tapped gently but then I remembered that a loud tap was less suspicious than a quiet one so I gave the window a good pounding for a few seconds. Nothing happened.


I tiptoed round to the back. There was a latticed doorway shutting off the back and connecting the house to the fence. It was locked. I took out my Swiss knife and jammed it into the lock. It didn’t give. I leaned on the door and  it stayed shut. Then I just kicked it, once lightly then with full storm trooper gusto. It opened with a sigh and a click then a thud as it caught something behind it which sounded like a plastic bin. I walked through into what was clearly a garbage dumping point as there were two large dustbins with black bin liners peering over their rims. I looked inside on of them. There were shredded documents, a few wine cooler bottles and the remains of what must have been quite an expensive seafood dinner. The other held a lot of cut grass and hedge trimmings.


The house door opened behind me. In the doorway stood Adeline. She looked unnaturally calm.


“ Nigel,” she said hesitatingly. “Come in.”


I looked at her long and hard for a moment. As I got closer to her, I almost wanted to kiss her again but I thought about dead men, the furies I had seen her in and somehow I held on to that, even though she looked more desirable than I had ever seen her. Verklaert, that was the word which came to my mind. Transfigured.


My impulse to embrace her cooled considerably when I got into the kitchen. There were two uniformed Filipinas tied to wooden kitchen chairs. They were dead. They had tightly tied plastic bags on their heads and the blood from the headshot wounds had filled the bags to their chins.


“ I didn’t do any of that,” said Adeline and I believed her.


I slumped down into another chair and leant forward and looked at my feet. They were still feet. Real feet. And they were on a real floor. Strange how things around you can stay the same, even when you’re living through a nightmare. Next to one of the table legs was a piece of cheap lined paper and it bore the childish biro scrawl of a shopping list: “breakfast serial”, “pots” which I supposed were potatoes, and probably for her and her friend, and “liqued soap”. The maids’ handbags were on the table before them, both in shiny leatherette, bulging, scuffed and amazingly pathetic. The contents of the bags spilled out onto the table: a brush clogged with hairs, a pink Hello Kitty mirror, a half-used pack of tissues and a lot of supermarket saver cards with little stamps attached to them.


“ More tears in the Philippines this evening or whenever the police get round to informing people who don’t matter very much in their eyes. So who did it, angel?”


She walked to the sink which was by the wide, clean window which looked out onto the garden. A bulbul was pecking at something on the branch of a tree outside as calmly as a judge at breakfast.


“ I can’t...tell you,” she said and there was a quiver about her mouth.


“ Must say, it doesn’t quite look your style. And you prefer other people to do the dirty work for you, don’t you angel? Men preferably. Father figures.”


“ Leave my father out of this.” she screamed almost.  Then, much calmer, she said:  “Please.”


I got up and I was still breathing. My heart was still beating; chug, chug, chug. I could still hear my own voice and I could decide what it was going to say. I was still Nigel Trelford, deadbeat private eye with a knack for finding corpses, and I was still in a very sick dream.


“ Anyone else in the house?”


“ Yes. Take a look in the dining room.”


I swung open the heavy-looking door which was made to look like oak but it was too light in my hands to be the real article. Mrs Chow was sprawled with half her ass showing below her salmon pink twin-set and pearls. She lay face down, the neck to her left side, her glasses still on her as she glimpsed her last piece of this or probably any other world. She looked startled. The wounds were in her back, a lot of them and some could have been done by a knife or fingernails after the fatal blow. The back of her jacket was torn and bloodied and smeared as if someone had enjoyed a very frenzied afterglow.


“ This looks more like your kind of work, angel. Care to tell me about it? A house such as this must have a cool something in the fridge and I’m completely free this evening.”


The light from the window was fading fast now as it does in the sub-tropics. The bulbuls and the magpie robins and probably some common sparrows with visiting rights to the area were singing their plaintive evening chirps as the sun went down somewhere deep over the Pearl River Delta. We couldn’t see it. These days, very few people saw it. The air conditioning clicked then purred a little weaker and the clock from the kitchen suddenly chimed seven. Elvie or Ruby or whatever the maid were called ought to have been thinking about running a long bath for ma’am and getting her swizzle sticks ready.


Adeline came into the dining room as sweetly as a milkmaid and sat down at the table. She had two cans of Coke Lite in her hands. She went to the little dresser with all the glasses and fancy porcelain and took out two immaculate tumblers.


“ Who killed her?” I asked as I clicked open the can. The froth ran over my fingers. I still wasn’t shaking, which once again was more numbness than hardness of mind.


“ Does it matter. The bitch is dead. I should have done it years ago.”


“ But that still doesn’t explain the job in the kitchen, does it? And why your darling mummy was kidnapped from her office today by friends of your father. Where are they now? Chilling in the freezer?”


“ They left.”


“ How very nice. They left so you could finish off Mommy yourself. Was that part of the deal?”


“ We never had a deal.”


“ You did once. Remember Junior?”


She flinched and tossed back her hair. Then she put her glass down and went for her handbag. She still looked beautiful.


“ Got the gat in there? It must really heat up when you pump a whole magazine into someone. Am I next? Did you have time for a reload?”

“ See for yourself. It’s not loaded.”


She opened her bag and threw it to me. I sniffed it. It had been fired, and very recently. I wiped it and dropped it to the floor.


“ So go on angel. Tell me the whole story. When did you arrive?”


“ He called me.”


“ Your father?”


“ Yes.”


“ He was here?”


“ Yes.”


“ And...”


“ When I got here she was sitting just where you are now and there three of his men here too. The maids were already dead. They had been beating her. She looked frightened. She wasn’t saying anything. Then he asked me if I wanted to do it. I said yes. Then they left.”


“ As coolly as that. Finish her off, my dutiful daughter. I’ve saved her for you. Here she is.”


“ No. It wasn’t like that.”


“ No, of course not. This one was different wasn’t she? You couldn’t use the needle this time. It was going to be a lot messier.”


She reached into her bag and produced the menthol cigarettes. She lit one and threw one leg over the other, tense now, paler and getting to be more dangerous by the minute.


“ I mean it was you that slipped Mr Sung the needle, wasn’t it? Guys like your daddies’ playmates don’t use needles. They bag ‘em and shoot ‘em, not usually anyway. There are two in the kitchen if you don’t believe me.”


She looked really frightened now, like a rabbit caught in the headlights.


“ You can’t prove that. You’re just...”


“ Come on honey. Tell me the real story. I know the rest. I told you there are places for people like you. Whatever you’ve done can only harm you if you don’t tell the whole story. So out with it.”


“ You’ll never understand. I felt confused. There he was lying there. I didn’t know what to do. I called daddy. He said he would send someone. They’d try to make it look like natural causes. A doctor he knew.”


“And he came and he gave you a needle but he wasn’t going to do any murders for you. Is that how it was, angel?”


“ Yes. And I didn’t want to do it. Then I heard him stirring. He was waking up. I panicked. I can’t remember.”


“ I think you can remember everything. You had the needle in your hand and you used it. You liked using it. Tell me I’m wrong.”


She was shrieking now, in a panic, shaking at the shoulders and the neck as the truth hit her like a knife.


“ All right. I’ll tell you. It felt good. I felt sane again. Good again. I felt like I had something in my life now, I was in control. Everything made sense. All the things I’d always struggled against. The power of it. You can call it that. I felt alive.”


I stared at her for a long moment, into the abyss of her.


“ That might have taken them six months in Siu Lam to wheedle out of you. Keep it coming Adeline darling. I’m your only chance. Give me more.”


“ There isn’t any more. Everything after was a cover-up. Cleaning up. Getting things straight again. Then you came along and for whole weeks I thought there was just a chance.”


“ A chance of what? That you might be sane one day? You’ll never be sane, angel. They’ve done for you. You had a lot in your blood I guess but they sure fouled you up as best they could just to make sure. Daddy must be proud of you. You’re one of his at last.”


“ Stop it. Stop it. I told you to leave my father out of it.”


She broke into tears, real ones. They ran down her contorted face and for just a moment she was deathly ugly.


“ Come on,” I said at last. “ No use festering here. You want me to drive you?”


“ Where?”


 “ To the ICAC. There’s just a chance you might make good if you tell it straight and tell it good. You’re sick angel, can’t you see that. You need help. You need the help I can’t provide. Perhaps no one can provide it. But you have to try.”



She rose slowly. She took her bag from the table. She looked almost contrite.


“ Just one thing I don’t get,” I said as we slammed the house door shut and walked towards the cars.


She stopped suddenly. She was tense again but was trying to look relaxed.


“ What’s that?”


“ Why they left the vehicles. I mean the van must be your dad’s runabout right? The shaded windows, the Mainland plates.”


She was thinking fast.


“ He said it was hot. He was going to leave it here.”


“ So how did they all leave?”


“ They had another car.”


“ And four of them got in it.”


“ Yes.”


I walked towards the black minivan. I reached out for the side door handle. Her bag hit me on my hand and made me smart with pain. I tried again. She was gripping my hand with more strength than I would have given her credit for and we struggled a while before the van door slid open and we saw what we saw.


He was lying in the back on his side, quite lifeless, blood everywhere from a heavy stomach wound. The car doors inside were plastered with blood and vomit and mucus and all the other signs of a sorry and protracted departure from the living. If only people died nicely. But they seldom do.


“ Nigel,” I heard her say.


Then I felt a sharp jab in my back. I turned round. I tried to reach where it had struck but failed. It was still stinging but I was getting groggier by the second. I felt warm and lovely, it was all right, it was all going to be all right, it had always been all right, and I started to smile and perhaps even to laugh, I don’t really know. Then it all went dark and I dived into a deep hole edged with flame and shadows.








Larry once told me about his recurring dream. He got up every morning and found that someone or something had defecated on his doormat. Whatever he did to stake out the mat with video cameras and twenty-four hour surveillance was to no avail. He could never catch the culprit. Every morning a fresh steaming pile was there on the mat, reminding him, he said, that he was the loser in life, the man who did everything twice.


My dreams as I lay there were mainly all right. I was travelling somewhere and as usual I was going to miss the plane. The somewhere was hard to say at first but it was probably Tai Tam Tuk. The dam and the bridge road were there but the estuary had gone and we were by a placid lake which wasn’t a reservoir. There was a child with me and we wanted to spend more time together. The tears filled my eyes and then the panic set in. The flight was leaving at seven but it may have been seven thirty. I wanted to look at my ticket to check but somehow I couldn’t. There were so many things to do before the plane left but then at five thirty I suddenly realised we had so little time so we tried to board a tram which could have been in Zurich or it could have been in Hong Kong. The child with me was no longer my daughter but a full-grown Chinese woman. I woke up with an erection. That part of me was still functioning at any rate.


I was in a hospital bed in a private room which was slightly bigger than my flat or perhaps the same if you put in my books and CDs and blue leather sofa and the big white desk by the window. There was a man sitting in a chair on my left and there was another dark figure by the wall and I saw he was a policeman. The man in the chair by my bed was Littlejohn.


“ Thanks for coming to see me,” he said. He had his left arm in a sling and he almost looked human in a default, generic kind of way.


“ Welcome,” I said at last. “They patched you up then. How’s the driver?”


“ He’ll live. But he’s already put in for a transfer. Pity really.”


“ Where’s Halloran?”


“ Oh, he’s about. I thought I would talk to you first. If you’re feeling all right. Are you?”


“ How long have I been here?”


“ Just a day. It’s late afternoon. You slept most of the time. How is it being high on morphia? I always wanted to try but never got round to it.”


I sat up and propped myself in the starched pillows. I helped myself to a paper cup of water from the plastic jug. It tasted warm, dusty and sickly.


“ Not all it’s cracked up to be. You only get high for a few moments on that kind of dose. Where’s Adeline.”


“ We were hoping you could tell us. We found the gun. Hers I suppose. She’s wanted for murder.”


“ How many?”


“ Well at least four but we’re not quite sure if she did all of them. In fact, we only think she did two of them. But that’s unofficial of course.”


“Of course.”


“ And the ICAC?”


“ Oh, they’ve still got their files open. Baffled like everyone else. Only you can save them, I fear.”


I looked around for something to eat or smoke but there wasn’t anything.


“ Perhaps I have the munchies. Any chance of a cup of coffee, a tuna fish sandwich and some tobacco?”


“ In that order?”


“ Yes.”


He spoke some dreadful Cantonese to the policeman and gave him some money from his wallet. The policeman took the money, his hat and marched out.


“Did you get your warrant card back? Sorry about that,” I said as he sat down again.


“ Yes thanks. I had no idea you loved me that much. Keeping souvenirs of the victim. Whatever next? Did it help you in any way?”


“ Obviously not. What are the press making of it all?”


“ It’s been classified as a robbery homicide. They don’t know about you. Your friend Mr Snowdon turned up and took you to hospital. If they hadn’t given you some supportive measures you might never have woken up. Good man Mr Snowdon. Ex-police of course.”


“ In a tenuous sort of way yes. But he’s come on a lot since then.”


Littlejohn looked amused for a moment. I really had underestimated him.


“ Where are my clothes?”


“ In the bathroom. We had them cleaned for you. All part of the service.”


I staggered up and the room span a little. I had a bad hangover but I was used to that. I found my clothes on neat little hangers by the bathtub cum shower. The shoes had been polished and the socks and underwear were in one neat plastic bag.


“ Nice suite,” I said, drawing on my socks. Gentlemen put them on first but I had long ceased being a gentleman.


“ This is usually reserved for top-notch civil service. But we thought it best to keep you out of the public eye.”


The sandwich, execrable, and the coffee, bitter and burnt, arrived. I devoured them both by the window which looked out into grey and cheerless Chai Wan. Then I lit up an awful cigarette but Littlejohn said nothing about it.


“ She didn’t do the maids. That was her father’s crew.”


Littlejohn came over to where I was sitting and looked me full in the face.


“ Go on.”


“ She’s as crazy as hell. Don’t shoot her for God’s sake.”


“ I’m afraid she’s classified as armed and dangerous. Once there’s a gun found we always assume they have a stockpile of them. Standard procedure. Sorry.”


“ So you’ll shoot her on sight.”


“ We never do that.”


“ Except when you do.”


“ We haven’t shot anyone for years. The force still uses hollow-nosed bullets of course. Very messy. It’s really in everyone’s interests if you find her for us.”


“ Look Littlejohn. If you shoot her then that will make you a murderer. Tell your men to leave off.”


“ And in return?”


“ I’ll find her. I’ll calm her down and bring her in gift-wrapped and ready to talk.”


“ Third time lucky?”


“ What do you mean?”


“ We heard about China. You’ve already lost her twice. What makes you think you’ll bring her in this time? Even if I could persuade the Chief Constable to give you another shot at it. If you see what I mean.”


“ Perhaps I’m the man who does everything thrice.”


Littleton looked puzzled and raised his bushy Irish eyebrows.


“Skip it. Look. Give me twelve hours. I’ll find her. But I need my phone and I need you to stay away.”


“ Rather a tall order. I’ll have to take advice. Put your feet up a moment. Your phone’s in the drawer and your bag’s under the bed. Oh and er..don’t go anywhere for the moment. There are two armed men outside. You’re classified as dangerous too. And local policemen with guns gets so nervous in such circumstances, don’t they?”


I called Larry.


“ Thank you for turning up and delivering me here.”


“ Welcome. I gather there were more stiffs inside. I saw le père d’Adeline but thought you needed hospital rather badly so didn’t take the tour.”


“ Advisable under the circumstances. I’ll be in touch. Brush up on your French. I think we’ll be talking rather a lot of it.”


Bien sûr, mon capitaine.”


I dangled a little bit longer and searched my bag for some aspirin. It always paid to bring your own medicines into hospital. Getting mild drugs, and often any drugs at all, out of the hands of the doctors was almost impossible in hospital at any rate. They killed you or they ignored you. A little like women I thought. I wondered what a female doctor would be like. Then Littlejohn returned with a hopeful expression on his broad face.


“ This is your last chance, Trelford. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. But telling it three times is pushing it a bit. In my opinion, your clock stopped years ago. You’d better make use of your privileges this time. The boss says you have twelve hours then you’re to be taken into ICAC custody if the case isn’t solved. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”


“ I don’t seem to have any choice.”


“ Look. Just cuff her or gag her or truss her and bring her in. Pretend you’re a policeman for once. Isn’t that what private eyes all like to do, deep down?”


I just smiled at that but I think he knew what I meant.


So within half an hour I was walking into the warm murky air of Chai Wan and looking for a taxi. I was driven  through the eerie valley leading to Tai Tam Tuk and then to Stanley and noted the pillboxes and gun emplacements from the last war at the Shek O junction with a special kind of poignancy. For a moment I saw the lines of Japanese advancing along the road as they did only sixty-odd years ago and felt the horror in the air. It had never struck me so much as then. I knew the history of the area of course but freshly emerged from hospital and my morphine trip, my mind buzzed with more negative capability than usual. Turtle Cove looked morbid and full of ghosts. I looked over towards Stanley prison and knew that just behind it the Japanese had raped the nurses and bayoneted the patients in St Stephen’s. As I got out of the taxi opposite the old police station which was now a Wellcome supermarket, I noted the charnel house extension to it the Japanese had built to house all the corpses and which so few knew about, the locals least of all. I hoped I never took morphine or heroin or whatever it was again. It was a dreary experience coming round from it.


I needed a drink and smoke so I went into the supermarket and bought a bottle of plonk and I got some cigars from my man at the stall near Pacific Coffee. Wreaths had appeared at the Family Advancement Association’s building, the big black and white ones on little trestles. I fought my way past the T shirts and curios and silk this and that and went upstairs to my flat. I threw myself onto the bed, opened the bottle and drank from it. Then I lit a cigar, turned on the air conditioner and stared at the ceiling.


I didn’t have to wait for long. The phone rang. I pressed the button and there was a lot of static and distortion on the line. I often got a lousy signal in my flat but I held on rather than hanging up. There was a silence and then a voice from miles and miles away came on and I wouldn’t have known it was Adeline if I had stopped to think about it. But I knew it was her all the same.


“ Nigel?”


She sounded a little hoarse. She was almost whispering.


“ Adeline. How are you?”


“ Good. Not bad anyway. Considering.”


And there was a short imitation of her high tinkling laugh which lost a lot on the poor line. Then there was a cough.


“ A lot of people are looking for you. You know that? Where are you?”


Another silence.


“ I’d better not say. Where are you?”


“ At home. You know, the place you go to when you have no money. Or no energy. Look, when are you going to give yourself up? Do you want me to go in with you? It’s hopeless sweetheart. You still have a great story to tell. They all want to hear it. You’ll get a fair hearing. You’ll get well. I’ll be waiting for you, whenever that happens. I promise I will.”


“ I’m sorry Nigel. I’m so sorry. I never wanted to hurt you. Are you really all right?”


“ Like a butcher’s dog.  No need to explain. I had it coming to me. It’s all in the past. We have to think about your future. I never had any.”


“ Nigel. I’m so alone. I can’t take it. I’m all washed up. Really I am.”


“ Nonsense. You’re never finished until you say so yourself. Even better in your case, until I say so. Hear me? You don’t have my permission to give up. I forbid it. Look, it’s your Big Daddy speaking here.”


There was another silence, then a cough and what could have been a sob.


“ I’ll meet you,” she said at last.


“ Where? When?”


Another silence.


“ You know where. You know when. I’ll go in with you but no one else. Hear me?”


“ Loud and clear sweetheart. Just hang on till then. I have another twelve hour pass from the powers that be. The cops won’t be there. If they are I’ll throttle them one by one and stack them at your feet.”


“ Promise?”


“ Daddy’s word. Kiss kiss honey. Chin up. You have a lovely chin.”


The line went dead.


There was no one’s hand to hold this time. I cooked myself some eggs and ham and toast and ate them with some decent coffee in the little alcove below the brilliant Technicolor print that visiting Israeli did all those years ago called I Love Hong Kong. There was everyone in it if you looked closely: heroes and villains, street sleepers, the black sailor hugging the Filipino maid and all the fornicating businessmen counting their beads. But that evening I preferred to gaze at the picture opposite which was a decent serigraph of Miro’s The Gift. The movement was right to left, a swirl in primary colours that began with cells and wombs and ended with a woman holding a baby, at least that’s what it looked like to me. Most people didn’t see it. But then, I thought, in anothe wisp of reverie, most people didn’t know why polar bears don’t eat penguins. I put that question to so many people and ninety percent of people said the same thing: the bears couldn’t catch penguins, they didn’t like the taste or they simply couldn’t swim. One little girl at a party gave me the best answer of all. “Polar bears don’t eat penguins because they’re friends.” My eyes filled with tears as I recalled the naive beauty of what the child had said. Poor emotional deadbeat Trelford, awash with memories, false hopes and daydreams. I was still hanging on to Adeline. Because we were friends.


I went through all the music I put on when I needed to mope or feel elated: the Tippett Fourth Symphony slow movement, the Korngold arias and Placido Domingo singing in Andrea Chenier. But I thought better of it after a while and put on the Bach concertos for three or four pianos, the ones no one plays and never performs because who wants to feel that abstract and wants to pay three or four soloists when all people want is solid tinkling Baroque. But it certainly was music to fix your attention and get you away from introspection for a while.


Ten thirty came round as it always does, sooner than you know it and with a feeling that you are getting nowhere but at least you’re still breathing, just.  And then it was shortly before eleven and I thought I should set out and see if I could get a bus which I know left at five past. So I grabbed what I thought I needed which was my manbag and my phone and the cuffs. There was no one at the bus stop. The number 14 was already there and the driver looked like ten hours’ sleep wouldn’t hurt him. I threw ten dollars into the slot and I sat upstairs, alone, anxious and with a numbness inside which was growing from my stomach and extending into my limbs. No one joined us at all at any of the stops. The driver knew it was a graveyard sweep so he drove like they do when they have their lai cha and nap at the depot in mind, which is to say like a camel jockey on benzedrine. It was a bright moonlit night, not far from full moon and there it was over Stanley Bay, darting the waves with spangled flashes every now and again and making you believe in some kind of beauty.


The driver must have been startled when I got off at Tai Tam Tuk but didn’t show it. The air hit me with a clammy softness. I heard the frogs in their chorus of belches and perhaps they were singing something I knew but I couldn’t tell. It was eleven twenty and only a few cars were racing along the bridge. I was cowering half way along it by the little pumping tower which smelt of dog piss and rain. Perhaps someone would stop and peer at me or even call the police but I doubted it. I lit a cigar and filled my lungs with thick smoke which didn’t make me feel any better. Over the estuary I thought I saw a hawk losing its way and I spotted a bat sipping in insects over the water of the reservoir. The water looked sullen, unfathomably deep, unforgiving and yearning for something. I hoped it wasn’t me.


Suddenly she was there, walking from the other direction, picking her way uneasily but still holding herself erect and still visibly an attractive form in jeans and a sweater I thought and with a small handbag on her shoulder. I wondered for a moment whether she had found another gun and whether it was loaded and whether I was going to be the last stiff in the series called Adeline before therapy. It made perfect sense after all. The final destruction of the father figures, the last act of vengeance and betrayal. Love is whatever you still have to betray. Who had said that?   


She lifted one arm to beckon me and all at once I felt more hopeful. We were going to walk into the sunset after all. She would get a light sentence and she’d respond to all the cures. I’d be sixty by then but undeniably hale and hearty. She would still be young but no longer a very young woman and she would be chastened, experienced and well again. She stopped. I walked towards her, hugging the wall at my side and tottering every now and again. At last we stood face to face, in a glimmer of moonlight and she looked sad, beautiful, serene and kind. I held her tight for a moment and we said nothing. Then I kissed her and she responded and even then I wanted her.


“ Darling. It’s going to be all right But you have to be a good girl. A very good girl. It won’t be easy. But you’ll get over it. Be strong. I’ll be with you all the way.”


 “ I’m going to be good. I promise,” she said at last. Then we embraced again and there was silence and breathing and another kiss, long and probing. Then she drew away for me and her mood changed. She was her old self again, the one I felt was more real than any of her other selves, the self I had seen in her home with all the dead people around her, hopeless and lost.


“ Nigel. Do you think there are people who were never made for this world. People who just don’t belong here?”


“ No. I think everyone belongs here. Not everyone fits in but they just have to make room for themselves. Do the best they can.”


“ I’ve done the best I can. I really have. Tell them I tried, won’t you. I really tried.”


“ They’ll believe you, angel. I believe you.”


“See if you can stop a car then. Over there.”


I turned a moment and then it was all too late. She jumped up onto the wall. I spun round and tried to catch her but she lifted both legs and threw herself and I looked down as her hips then her head struck the massive curved wall of the dam. She bounced again as she fell and her body turned slightly on the bank of the little river below before it finally stopped for good. I could see her face caught in the moonlight. Her mouth was open and it trembled for a moment in a paroxysm of pain. Then there was nothing. All around and especially below me it was terribly still and my brain seized up and was more numb than it had ever been.




























































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































We do not offer miracle cures, quick fixes or mindless cramming.

Our aim is to produce a better-prepared student who can cope with anything the examiners may confront them with.
We do not crowd our students into stuffy, noisy cubicles in Central.
Instead we mainly offer home visits, office tutorials or teach wherever the student feels comfortable.
ALL our tutors are Oxford graduates or are of similar academic standing.