Lam hadn’t ever thought of himself as an optimist before, but he was starting to conclude that was what he must be.
Nobody with an ounce of realism would have clambered under a rickety, half-rotten wooden platform over the water, in the dark, and assumed they’d be able to see what they were doing. Sure, there was the occasional glimmer of moonlight on the sea, but that didn’t translate into distinguishing one dark shadowy mass from another down there.
He inched along one of the horizontal beams under the house, not trusting his footholds in those unfamiliar shoes. Both his hands were employed in holding on, rather than falling off his perch, which left his flashlight useless in his jacket pocket.
Why hadn’t he waited till daylight? Why didn’t he bring a headlamp with him?
At least slipping and sliding along like this in the dark he didn’t give away his presence. If he was lucky, he might even fall off, break his leg and drown, and nobody would be any the wiser that he’d been down there.
That’s right Andy, think positive.
He risked letting go of the edge of the platform with his left arm, let his hand flop down beside his hip, flexing his fingers until the blood seeped back in them, while all the time his right arm, above his head, grew more numb. He fiddled with the zip of his jacket pocket, struggling to open it and pull out his flashlight.
His fingers began to slip on the old wooden planks. Quickly, panicking now, he put the flashlight between his teeth, then swapped hands to give his right arm a rest. Now he was standing in the dark, wobbling over the edge of the murk, with a cylinder of cold metal stuck in his mouth. What an ignominous way to go.
This was not the time to bemoan his position. He brought up his right hand, turned the light on, and moved his head to look around. The narrow beam he had been standing on, parallel with the rear edge of the platform, was the end of a T-shape with a longer beam running back to the shore. Gingerly, he stepped forward with his left foot, then moved his right foot slightly wider, until he felt more stable, braced on the two pieces of wood. Slowly, carefully, he released his grip on the platform, let both arms drape at his sides.
Holding the flashlight in his mouth was beginning to make him gag, and didn’t provide much illumination. He ignored the pain in his biceps, reached up and extracted it, then shone the beam across the underside of Wong’s house.
The light was fading; the batteries reallu were about to die, but he thought he made out something. It was hard to see: black wood, black tar, black mould – but yes! – there in the centre, something wrapped in an oilskin, tied to the floor of Wong’s penultimate resting place.
He reached out. No, too far. Unless he could will his arms to extend by another three feet. He was going to have to go get it.
Slowly, he moved his feet together, then began to inch along the central beam, holding his arms to either side to keep balance, like some kind of badly equipped highwire performer. A distance that would have taken moments to cross at ground level, seemingly extending for an eternity.
As he reached the package, he heard footsteps on the path; two, maybe three people approaching. He could hear Cantonese, but it was too indistinct to make out what. The conversation stopped. The footsteps continued, walking into the hut. Lam returned the flashlight to his pocket, stood stock still.
Powerful lights clicked on overhead. A few strands of light slipped though cracks in the floor. And then shouting, panicked.
The hero who ran away with the gold? The mouth? Something something tampered with something call …
Did he hear Kwan’s name? Did he just imagine it? Never mind – there was a thunder of boots on the floorboards and then he heard them running down the path, away from the huts.
He realised he’d been holding his breath, allowed himself to exhale. Well then. He was committed now. He reached up, took hold of the package. Ir was slippery with condensation, hard for him to gauge the size by feel alone. He ran his hands over it, finding two buckled leather straps.
Now his hands were clumsy, part from fatigue, part from stress. He struggled to undo the buckles, fiddling far harder than he should have needed, before freeing the package. But then he had it, gripped in both his hands, a tight lump of something, something heavy. Now to leave Tai O and discover what he had missed the first time.
He began to walk back along the beam, and perhaps it was because he had allowed himself to relax, or perhaps he was wondering how he was going to pull himself back up onto the platform, or perhaps it was because he was just thinking of how he was going to get back to civilisation when the only way out of Tai O was an hourly bus service, when he slipped and fell.
For a moment, he seemed to hang in the air, clawing at it for a non-existent hold, his legs thrashing, before he made his descent. He could have grabbed out at the beam, but he was too intent on holding onto the package, and so he fell.
The water was only waist deep, not much to cushion the impact, but he landed on soft mud, and it was the cold that was the shock to him. He yelped, and then realised in triumph that he was still upright, unbroken, and could just wade out. He could feel the mud sucking at his shoes, but he pulled himself, step by step, back towards the shoreline. He’d just clamber up the side of the stilts and onto dry land, and then get away.
The mud, though, that continued to suck at him. He had to keep moving, lest he sank in the ooze, got stuck fast in it and then had to wait for the tide to come in and drown him. That wouldn’t be the way to go. He waded, using one hand to pull himself along by grabbing hold of the stilts of Wong’s hut, and then climbing up them.
“You shouldn’t have come back”.
A light was shining down on him from above. He looked up, but couldn’t see who was pointing it at him. He kept climbing up, he’d fix this problem when he got to it.
“I said you shouldn’t have come back.”
It didn’t matter. In fact, the light made it easier for him to see footholds, their shadows standing out as black shapes in the white of the beam. He put his foot into a hole in the edge of the sea wall, continued to heave himself up. Water continued to pour out of the bottom of his trousers.
“You weren’t to come back!”
“Yes, wonderful,” said Lam. “Be with you in a minute and – ”
He yelled out in pain. Something had bitten into his leg. There was a sharp jab of pain up his body. He looked down. Something was moving across his leg, something with lots of legs and –
It bit him again. He shrieked with pain – this time it was close to his groin, and moving closer. He scrambled up onto the edge of the sea wall.
“Again! Bite him again!”
There was a lobster, or something like it, clamped around his leg, jabbing him with its claws. He slapped at it with his free hand, failing to dislodge it, and it snapped at him again. It made a hissing noise, tried to bite him again, and he smacked it with the package, knocking it away from him. Cloth ripped as the claws that were already dug into his thigh were pulled out, and the thing bounced on the ground. Lam looked at it, disgusted. The thing was the size of a small dog. One of its antennae was broken. It stared back at him,hissed, and began to skitter forward. Lam paused, then kicked it as hard as he could, and it arced through the air and splashed back into the water.
“Show some respect!” The voice growled at him, shone the light so he couldn’t see who it was. Angered, Lam strode forward, out of the cone of light, and swung a punch. He connected hard with somebody’s jaw, and the light crashed to the floor, rolling away and falling down into the water.
Lam punched again: he was struggling to see, his eyes burning from the light, but his opponent was blind in the dark too, so they were almost even. Lam only had one free hand, but he’d spent a lot of time fighting. He felt a hand going for his face, ducked it, stood straight back up, driving his elbow into the other’s nose, then grabbing his head and pulling it down onto his rising knee. As he did so he felt a pain in the leg that had been bitten, cried out as the muscles spasmed. He let go of the other, and he fell to the floor.
Lam sat on the other man’s body, rubbed his eyes with his free hand until vision returned.
The man was wearing a ridiculous get-up – robes like some sort of Qing dynasty councillor. He could only half make them out in the dark, but he was covered in runes, strange writing.
“I told you, you shouldn’t have come back” he sneered.
Lam looked up. He could see lights moving, coming down the path from Tai O towards the hut. Lots of lights.
Yeung started to laugh, or wheeze, or try to laugh and end up wheezing. “You’re going to die, Inspector!”
“I’m not scared of you and your mates. What have you got, a fishing rod to beat me up with?” He slapped him across the face.
“It’s not us you need to be scared of. You’ve been bitten by He Who Walks The Waves. You’re not going to last long now.”
Lam struggled upright. His left leg, the one that had been bitten, didn’t feel good. There was a patch of numbness spreading from it, up into his abdomen. He looked over into the water. The light was still on, floating there. The water was full of things, just like what had bit him, thrashing, churning the water.
“He’s here!” Yeung yelled, coming onto his knees. “Hurry! Come quick!”
Lam thought about running there and then, but he could tell his leg would give way soon and he didn’t need Yeung giving advice to the others. He walked around him and kicked Yeung as hard as he could between the buttocks, knocking him to the edge of the path. Yeung cried out, tried to struggle, but a second kick sent him headfirst into the water. The churning intensified, along with a horrible rasping sounds of shells smacking together. Yeung didn’t scream for very long.
Lam began to limp away from Tai O, down the path to the ruins of the old police station, hoping he had enough of a headstart on the people coming from the town, hoping that the cold in his leg wouldn’t spread any further.