Tai O By Night

It got dark in the outerlying islands in a way that Lam wasn’t accustomed to. He was used to Hong Kong Island, where the shops poured light and frigid air onto the street until midnight, attempting to create a well-lit polar wonderland in a sub-tropical setting. Once you got on a ferry and left Central behind, and then took a bus out from Mui Wo to the other side of the island, you were far from the neon lights and noise of civilisation.

He could have got to Tai O more quickly by taking the MTR out to Tung Chung and then getting a car, but he was worried about being followed; he’d taken a circuitous route to the ferry piers, always looking out for a tail, and on the boat he’d stared at his fellow passengers. Perhaps Kwan would have somebody stationed at the ferry terminal in Mui Wo, waiting for him, but that seemed less likely. He hadn’t done anything yet to suggest to Kwan that he was checking up on him.

Then again, Kwan had been the one to rub Sammy’s death in his face. Perhaps he should assume that Kwan was going to be more proactive. But then there was only so much he could do. He’d put on a baseball cap to hide his face from cameras, was wearing clothes that were as anonymous as could be: a brown nylon windbreaker, a pair of black jeans, running shoes without any visible brand. All things that he’d borrowed from the evidence room, plucked at random. Nobody would look at those clothes and connect them with him.

He walked away from the bus station, over the humpbacked bridge that led into the market. Now all the dried fish stalls had been shut up and the people hawking overpriced boat rides had gone home for the night, the lane was wider and quieter than he was used to.

There were lampposts spaced through Tai O, but the pools of light they cast were shallow and dim. It didn’t matter; the road was flat and without anything to trip over. He followed it round towards the coast, past the police station. No light was on: perhaps Constable Yeung was out on the beat. More likely, he considered, Constable Yeung was asleep. There wasn’t much for a policeman to do out here, no crimes to solve. Apart from somebody being shot and set on fire, but that had been delegated to the police from the proper department, back in Hong Kong.

I’m special, Lam thought. I’m the guy who gets his job done. And Yeung’s job too.

He slowed his pace as he reached the edge of the village. There was a cool breeze blowing in from the sea, bringing the smell of brine with it, intermingling with the stench of rotting fish. As he passed each collection of blue plastic barrels, the stink intensified. All day, the ground up shrimps would have been festering in the sun, slowly transmuting into paste for people to spread on their dinner. Lam had never liked the taste of Tai O shrimp paste, but his ex-wife had loved the stuff, spooning it onto soup noodles, mixing it with her congee, probably stirring it in her coffee in the mornings. There was only so much fish a person should have in their diet.

The villagers were not immune to the stench either; each clump of houses was a little way from the barrels, rather than tight up against it. He pulled the jacket zipper up to his throat, feeling chillier as he walked on.

It took longer to read Wong’s place of residence than he remembered, but he had been dragging his feet, putting off getting here. There had been something here that had got Sammy killed. Was he going to be able to see it? Did he have the eyes Sammy had for spotting the tell-tale clue?

There was crime scene tape fluttering around the doorway, but it had already been torn open by somebody: the ends of it flapped in the breeze. He took out the flashlight from his trouser pocket and thumbed it on.

The view through the doorway, much the same as when he’d left; the mud, the ash, the broken furniture. The beam of light yellowed, flickered. Lam cursed himself for not checking the batteries before heading out. He shook the torch, and that restored power for a few moments. Lam stepped into the hut.

His shoes squelched on the muddied floor. There was still the outline of Wong’s body, where the floor was drier than the rest of the room. He stepped around that, moved to the left wall. All the accumulated trash, or burned belongings, or smashed bookshelves, had been moved out of the way.

That hadn’t been like that when he had first been on the scene. He played the light over the wall: nothing, just soot stains. Crouching down, he began to examine the floor again.

It was hard to tell in the dark, with everything uniformly black, but there seemed to be a carpet covering the floor; Wong hadn’t merely lain on bare boards. He reached down, felt around in the dirt for the edge of the carpet.

The carpet slurped as he pulled it up, offering little resistance. Somebody else had already moved it; it wasn’t fastened down (unless the heat of the fire had melted the tacks). Had that been Sammy?

But if it had been Sammy, and he’d found something under the carpet, he would have mentioned it yesterday, when they had met at the bank. Unless Sammy hadn’t thought it was important, or it was something he didn’t want to say in front of Lee … Hypothesising now was pointless. He gripped the flashlight in his teeth, freeing both his hands to roll the carpet back.

He whistled through his teeth, starling himself at the noise he made. The whole village was silent, as if it was waiting for him to do something, discover the secret of Wong’s hut. No radios blaring, nobody shouting at their television set. As though all the inhabitants were holding their breath, listening to him in Wong’s hut.

Underneath the carpet, under where Wong’s body had been, stained and distorted by the fire but still quite visible, was a series of interlocking geometric shapes, carved into the floor. Lines twisted and turned in some sort of mandala across the whole area of the flat; snakes or eyes, or intricate diagrams of internal organs. It was hard for Lam to look at. In the centre of it all, eyes seeming to blaze as they glared up at the ceiling, despite being nothing more than grooves scored in the floor, was the hard face of a cruel man, moustache carefully curved, head shaved, arrows radiating out from his jaw in every direction. Lam was standing in a shrine of some sort. He crouched on his haunches. A shrine, with a deep groove around the face of this man, whoever it was.

Lam reached out and rapped on the floor with his knuckles. The sound startled him, breaking the silence. He hesitated, stopped holding his breath, tapped again on the face, half expecting it to rise up and bite him. The face didn’t react to this defiance, remained just a carving on the floor.

The sound was hollow, though. He took the flashlight out of his mouth, ran it over the floor to get a better look.

The face was big – roughly eighteen inches in diameter, and the groove that surrounded it looked like there was some purpose to it. A trap door? But there was no obvious handle to pull it open. He ran his hand across the face, searching for a secret lever to pull or press, something to make the face open up. Nothing. Nothing except the mouth, frozen in a permanent growl beneath the finely etched moustache.

Lam stood up, peered down at the face again. It looked so familiar to him, and yet he couldn’t place it. Why would an old man like Wong have spent all that time carving the face of an angry bald man into the floor of his hut, and then cover it up all the time?

Then again, Wong was a very old man when he’d died. Perhaps he’d had a long time in his hut to carve this strange religious depiction of … of an angry man with a moustache? Lam shook his head, trying to remember where he knew the face from.

He’d figure it out later. He’d come back tomorrow with a camera, get a photograph, run that through the files. But in the meantime, there was still the question of what was underneath. The mouth was almost the size of his hand – it was a dark hole in the floor, calling for him to put his fingers in. He bent down again, reached out, then stopped.

It was too obvious. There was almost bound to be some kind of booby-trap there. If he just stuck his hand inside, he’d either lose a finger or be stuck in a trap until the morning came, bleeding to death. If he yelled for help, the old people on either side would probably just turn up their televisions and ignore him. He scanned the floor of the hut, looking for something he could push inside the hole.

There was a strip of twisted aluminium from the bookshelves, scraped shiny at some point and standing out in the murk. Lam fetched it and fed it into the mouth. He poked around inside the hole, feeling for some sort of catch, until there was a crunch and something inside bit onto the metal strip. He pulled on it, but the metal was slippery and it was stuck fast. Better that than his fingers, of course. He stood up and chuckled – now it looked like the angry mystic in the floor was sticking his tongue out at him.

Standing here laughing at the crime scene wasn’t going to solve anything though. And leaving things as they were wasn’t necessarily such a great option any more. If somebody else came by and saw that the face had been tampered with – if they’d even known that the face was in the floor – then their suspicions would be up. He needed to get inside the floor tonight, before he left.

Then again, the house was on stilts. Maybe there was no need to get into the floor from above. Lam walked outside again.

Still, silence. There wasn’t even a dog barking out there tonight. The waves made a quiet lapping down below, but there was no wind, no noise from the deceased Grandad Wong’s neighbours. The moon was peeking out from the clouds, giving him a little bit of light to work with outside. He walked round to the back of the houses; there was a wooden platform running behind them, jutting out over the water. He put his flashlight into the outside pocket of his jacket, zipped it up, and then sat down on the edge of the platform, looking down into the sea. He guessed the water wasn’t very deep, but he didn’t want to fall ten feet into it, sprain his ankle, and then try to climb back out again.

He looked back at the lights of Tai O, glimmering in the distance. From here he could see all the way back round the bay to where he’d walked in. Part of him wanted to turn then, walk home, maybe be able to forget that conversation with Kwan, carry on as if everything was normal. But he knew he wasn’t about to do that. He moved back from the edge of the platform, lay down and looked underneath it for a handhold. Like it or not, he was going to have to go under the houses and start poking around.

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