Back at the office, away from the foulness of the alleyway, Lee found himself thinking not of the case, but of the weekend just passed. Every time he managed to take the weekend off, he finished it wishing he’d been working. They’d taken Alfred to Ocean Park; he’d been whining all week that his friends had all visited some new exhibit, but when they gave into him, taken the MTR to Sheung Wan and then sat in traffic round to Aberdeen, he’d just grumbled about being too hot and too uncomfortable and wanting to stay home.
Lee had hoped that Alfred would not complain once they actually got to Ocean Park, but the new exhibit turned out to be a tank full of spectacularly mundane squid; all dirt brown or grey, limply floating in water that looked like it should have been cleaned. Alfred had whined and muttered in the way that he always did, the way that made Lee think that his four year old son was possessed by the spirit of a seventy-year-old misanthrope. Then of course Chrissy had been nothing but tetchy with him, asking why Lee wasn’t acting relaxed, as if you could be relaxed by your child demanding you waste an hour of your day travelling to a bunch of dirty octopi that he didn’t even want to look at.
Thus at the end of the weekend, after the last arguments had run down into an aftermath of catty comments and occasional needlings, Lee had quite been looking forward to going to work. Yet, as with every day, he was just depressed and annoyed. All these untidy people, wandering blithely through Hong Kong, generating all sorts of loose ends that it was his responsibility to clear up.
He sat there at his desk, drinking water and chewing gum and still not able to get the taste of vomit out of his mouth, thinking that people could be a real nuisance. This wasn’t misanthropism, just the consequence of form-filling. He had a list, of all those people found dead under mysterious circumstances, or just not found at all, and he could not stop himself taking it all personally. The list was a series of failures and difficulties, things Lee hadn’t managed to solve or pass to somebody else, and with the addition of Tuesday’s body, it looked as insoluble as ever.
There was the US Marine captain, in town for a weekend of R&R, never to be seen again. There were rumblings about that from above: it wasn’t good to lose an American. From a diplomatic viewpoint it was carelessness, but it wasn’t as if they were nannies, meant to follow every drunk soldier on his holidays in Asia. Probably wasn’t missing; probably woke up drunk one morning, decided the military life wasn’t for him, and had wandered off to Bangkok or somewhere else out of Lee’s purview.
Australian backpackers, (2). Last seen going into Chungking Mansions, three weeks ago. No phone calls or emails home since, first time abroad, family desperately worried. Lee sighed. Although the touts could be quite pushy, nobody would spend three weeks being outfitted for a suit. Then again, since all white people looked fairly identical, the chances of them being identified by anyone in TST was slim.
A French woman, working for a Dutch bank, living in Kowloon Bay. Hadn’t shown up for work for two weeks, no messages. Well, if you worked for a foreign bank but still had to live in Kowloon Bay, you weren’t likely to value your job highly. Probably just asleep at home, phone turned off and dreaming of fresh baguettes.
German tourist, 46, never showed up for flight home.
David Barnes, English, 38, rumoured to be out on a boat in typhoon.
Half the trouble was that these people were untidy, forgetful. The Australian backpackers were probably home in Perth by now, had never remembered to notify the Hong Kong authorities that they were no longer missing, didn’t need to be searched for. And yes, there were all those high technology security gates at the airport, but they only read Hong Kong ID cards, and even if they did have some record of some Australians leaving, that would not be something that Lee or the rest of the Hong Kong police would hear about. At best, if he really wanted, he could wander down to the airport and sit in an unventilated room for three days, looking through stacks of paper departure cards, all filed alphabetically by the third character of the person’s middle name. So forget about the missing persons. They would only tend to stop being missing at the most inconvenient times.
On to the dead, who had the advantage of usually staying in one place long enough to be compatible with Lee’s departmental filing system.
So: deaths, suspicious. Lee picked out a blue ballpoint pen, a pad of yellow paper, set them down on his desk. Apparently it was easier to read from yellow paper, rather than white. This was important, because if you were going to read a list of suspicious deaths, it was as well to have as few impedimenta as possible. He’d write the names and locations down of all the recent ones, then let them stew there for a while. There was a pattern; there had to be a pattern.
There was a more innocent time, he supposed, when visiting professors of linguistics would just keel over from old age. Very inconvenient for them, Lee supposed, but on the other hand, no paperwork for him. Sure, a doctor might have to sign things, but they did that anyway.
Whereas these days the professor was bound to die in the wrong bed, with drugs in his system and an unidentified foreign worker vanishing down the hallway with the cash from the learned professor’s wallet. It showed a real lack of thought for others, Lee felt. Why did so many otherwise respectable men fly to Hong Kong, and then die in suggestive circumstances where he would have to tidy them up?
He started to scribble the names on the pad:
Frederick Jones-Wade, Professor of Ancient Mesopotamia. Dead in bed, Metropolitan.
Bradley Parish, principal of some high school in nowhere, Illinois. Dead in bed, Kowloon Grand Residence.
Martii Hyppothekiis, Turku Police Commissioner, retired. Dead in bed, Gold Charm Guesthouses.
Three deaths in, and Lee was already aggravated. You would expect some professional courtesy from a police commissioner, even one from Finland with a name like a spelling mistake. Couldn’t he have saved dying until he was back home? The cold wastes of Finland had to be worse for your health than Hong Kong.
Janet Madeley, junior research fellow in life sciences. Dead in bed, Goldwater Beach Hotel. That was an optimistically named establishment if ever there was one. Lee had gone there once for a wedding, five years ago. A traipse around the roads of Lantau for too long, and then a never ending ceremony and thank you speech. If Lee had known he could have just crept up to a room and expired, leaving no physical signs of distress, rather than … But he didn’t want to be hypocritical. He could hardly get mad at Mattii and then wish he’d taken Miss Madeley’s place in order to avoid six hours of jibber-jabber and cheap-but-costly food. Lee had been the man getting married, after all.
Concentrate, Lee, concentrate!
Joseph Chang, Chinese-American, company director. Pleasant Rest Hotel, Causeway Bay. Visiting his factories in the Special Economic Zone, stopping in Hong Kong on the way back to San Diego.
And Ivan, no last name, no apparent profession, washed up on Shek O beach. Ivan because of the tattoos, and because someone swore blind that his mouth was indicative of Russian dentistry.
None of these, officially at least, were suspicious deaths. In the interests of cordial diplomatic relations, it was best not to shout loudly about the tendency of people to die here. Worse if people thought foul play was involved, that they too could catch a nasty dose of being dead.
So it was strange, Lee ruminated, that he’d been assigned these cases. These dead cases, with nothing to solve for here, no success to point out if he did the impossible and found the killer, a killer, any killer, since everyone was in clear agreement that these were not murders, just deaths. He was being set up to fail, clearly by somebody jealous of his english vocabulary or his intelligence and resourcefulness. The next thing they would do, he was sure, he realised in a burst of paranoid lucidity, was to make him work the streets, talking to every person that came across his path, denied even the comfort of air conditioning.
Lee looked at the list, twiddled his pen between his fingers. He straightened the list so that the edges of the paper aligned exactly with those of the desk. Then a gust of air moved the list, almost imperceptibly. He began to get up to adjust the air conditioning, then realised how ridiculous that would be.
“Instead of successfully prosecuting this case, I spent most of the day ensuring that rogue waves of air did not affect the correct alignment of items of paper upon the departmental desk.”
Maybe he needed lunch. He’d probably think better on a full stomach. 10:30. Dammit. The day was plodding along, sluggish as ever. Would he ever do something with his life?
He twirled a pen between his fingers to try to help himself concentrate, then let it slip. It bounced on the desk and then fell to the floor.
Lee cursed, looked for his pen. He went down on his hands and knees, searching for it.
Picking it up, he banged his head on the desk and cursed again.
“Having a productive day, Lee?”
Lee stood up, rubbing his head. Inspector Kwan stood there in the doorway to Lee’s office, regarding the scene with blithe fascination, as though the sight of one of his subordinates hit his head on furniture was one of the wonders of the modern world.
“Just dropped a pen” said Lee. “There’s not much progress on these missing persons. Or on the deaths you’ve got me looking into.”
Kwan stepped into the room. Lee wished he wouldn’t. He was a short man, but wide and bulky, filling out the blue suit that he always wore. The blue suit that Lee suspected Kwan always wore, even to bed. The particular, rotten tooth smell of Kwan’s breath drifted toward him. What was he eating to produce that smell?
Kwan looked Lee up and down. “Well, you know that we regard these cases as of utmost importance.”
“Yes, but -”
“But what, Lee?”
“I’ve been through this before, sir. I can’t see the point in these. There’s no particular evidence of foul play, nothing to connect the different deaths. If they were all in the same area, or the same kind of person, we might think there was some coincidence, but as far as I can see, it’s just six dead people, plus six people missing. And people go missing all the time. This is a big city.”
“It is a big city,” said Kwan. “As such, it deserves big city policemen, don’t you think?”
“Just because these people may be hard to find, or because they don’t have friends in the world, does not mean they become any less important.”
“When did you acquire a moral mission?” Lee asked. He didn’t understand how Kwan could have so much spare time in his day that he could wander round to his underlings, watch them hit their heads on inanimate objects, and then patronize them.
“There’s nothing moral about it” said Kwan. “I have instructions from those above me that you’re to keep looking for those people. I don’t know if that means that they’re connected, or if there’s just a lot of work for a man like you to be getting on with, but I know about following orders. Do you know about following orders?”
“That’s not the point” Lee protested.
“Well, what is the point, Lee? What have you been doing lately to progress the cases? All I see is reports of another dead person showing up, somebody else that we have to squash before I have the tourist board on my back telling me that we’re getting all the foreigners frightened off.”
“I’m following up leads.”
“You’re following up leads? It looks a lot more to me like you’re scrambling around on the floor of your office. Or are they hiding under the desk?”
Kwan bent over and bellowed a loud hello at Lee’s chair.
“Hmm. Doesn’t seem like you have any midgets down there.”
“I’m going out tonight to talk to somebody.”
“Good. Am I meant to be impressed by your social life? Are you going to go to a nice bar with them, get them drunk? Or maybe you’ll go and sing some karaoke? That would be good, wouldn’t it?”
“A contact, sir. It’s not a social engagement.”
“Good.” Kwan stared at him. “It seems to me that you haven’t really been putting in the effort of late, have you? Maybe it’s about time that you started paying a bit more attention to work. It’s not as though you can rely for all your life on having found two dead whores behind some inept interior decorating, is it?”
Kwan belched and sauntered out of the office.
So that was it then. Somebody high up in the department had it in for him, had given him these unsolvable cases, and now they were going to have Kwan tear it out of him for failing, when they knew that was what they were making him do. Wonderful. Well, he’d go to the club that this strange phone call had told him to tonight. There wasn’t much else coming in for him in terms of helpful clues to do with dead or missing gweilos. What a week. What a year. At least it would be a while before he had to go back to face Chrissy again.
Then Kwan returned. “Ah, yes, and that dead gweilo from today.”
“Down by Queens Road?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I think of you as my gweilo specialist, Lee. Make sure there’s no fuss. The last thing we want to with Sevens weekend coming up is some fuss about a murder. Keep a lid on this. I want it solved fast, and I want you to keep it quiet.”
Lee was about to thank him for this Tuesday morning gift, but Kwan was already gone.