“He was dead when the firemen got here” said the constable, trying to be helpful. Lam stopped looking through the doorway and turned to stare at him. He hadn’t noticed him as he’s strode to the crime scene, mind full of annoyance at the minor aggravation of this death, at the thoughts of forms to fill, statements to take, mouldy-smelling evidence to pick through.
The constable was young, the sort you hear described as fresh-faced. The kindest that Lam could think about him was that he looked baffled by everything.
“Dead, you say?” The constable nodded.
“So the firemen didn’t get a chance to take a statement from him?”
“No final words? He didn’t happen to mumble the name of his attacker before expiring?”
“Perhaps he reached up and gave them a note with a name written on it?”
“And why do you think that was, constable?”
“Well, because …” He gestured with his arm, like he was carefully wafting away a large wasp. Helplessly. Helpfully? It didn’t make much difference.
“Because, I assume,” Lam said, “because the man in there had been shot in the back of the head and then set on fire, correct?”
“Thank you, constable. Constable … ?”
“Thank you. A little advice, early in your career, constable Yeung. Don’t talk so much. I’ve noticed from our brief exchange, that you seem to exhibit a tendency to loquaciousness.” Lam spoke the last word in English, a little sort of dramatic flourish after all his staid Cantonese.
“There you go again, Yeung. What I’m trying to say is that you talk too much. When I was called in, I was already told that Grandad there was found dead at the scene. If I look at his lamentably wet corpse, I can hardly fail to see he has a rather big hole in his head, and he also seems bit burnt around the edges. If he hadn’t been found dead by the firemen, I might have been a little surprised, taken back, even. I would have worried that if they hadn’t found him, they couldn’t have been looking carefully enough, what with him being right in the middle of the room.
“Or that perhaps you meant to reassure me that he was not still alive until they hosed him down.”
“So all I’m trying to say, constable, and I do it with the best of intentions, is that you are talking quite a lot, and I would like some peace and quiet in which to gather my thoughts.”
Yeung stood there, looking more baffled than when Lam had first arrived. That was an achievement.
“What I’m trying to say is that you’ve done a great job of standing here and keeping the scene secure until I got here. But now I am here. And I’d like some time to inspect the scene alone. So how about you walk over there and practise standing there instead?” He pointed in the direction of the centre of Tai O.
Yeung paused, then ambled off. Lam had nothing against him, he just didn’t like having an audience, especially one that came up with earthshattering revelations about people being found dead in the remains of their incinerated home, rather than being spotted dancing gaily down the strand with their brains tipping out all over the place.
Lam had to stoop to enter the hut; even though he wasn’t a tall man. The only illumination was from the doorway he had been standing in; he picked out a pencil torch from his jacket pocket and flashed it over the body on the floor.
Grandad here hadn’t been a large chap; no bigger than a healthy ten year old boy. It looked as though his left arm had been broken; the post mortem would verify that. His body was badly burnt; it had taken time for the flames to heat through to the adjoining buildings. Most of the furniture in the room was little more than ash, turned to mud when the fire brigade had arrived to put things out.
Lam sniffed, tried to decide if he could make out the smell of paraffin or some other accelerant. No. The room just smelt of non-descript fire, and of mould, and seawater, although he supposed that was from outside.
There was a metal bookcase on one side of the room, its shelves and supports twisted by the heat. No books left on it; a pile of burnt and soaked papers mashed in front of it, a clodhopping fireman’s bootmark in the middle of them. They’d made quite a mess, tracking mud in and out of the scene.
Lam wondered who would go to the bother of killing this man, and making so sure that they destroyed his house. Rich people didn’t live in Tai O, not ones with enough money to justify a bullet in the head. But still, something twitched in his subconscious, something told him that although the room was ruined, although he wouldn’t be able to prove it from any evidence, whoever had done this had stolen something, then torched the place to hide what they had done.
“What was it, Grandad? What were you keeping here?”