Telephone

He sat there for a long time, trying to decide what to do.

He couldn’t walk out, hop on a bus and head back to the island. He couldn’t wait it out until morning; with the cold spreading into his body from the bite, he didn’t think he’d last that long. His gun was locked away in his desk, keeping it out of harm’s way.

He did still have his phone. He rifled through the pockets of the jacket until he found it. Then he waited, trying to decide whether to turn it on or not. It wouldn’t make a noise, and he didn’t think the light from its screen would alert anyone, but he was scared that when he did try, he’d find that the battery was dead, or he’d killed the thing when he’d fallen in the water.

Maybe it was better to lie there, with some hope that the phone would work, rather than be faced with the certainty that it was broken and that he had no way to escape.

Lam pinched his face, bit his tongue, punished himself for being such a pessimist. He wasn’t dead until he was dead, and if the phone didn’t work, he’d just have to find another way out. He pressed his thumb down on the power button, and it came to life, the screen oozing a pallid glow.

It chirped as a text message arrived to tell him he was on China Telecom, then chirped again as a contradicting message arrived telling him he was with his Hong Kong telephone operator. Lam swore under his breath, battled with the phone to silence it. He hadn’t noticed how his hands were getting numb, his fingers clumsier than they’d been a few hours ago.

He paused. No sound from anywhere around him. Perhaps there wasn’t anybody there to hear. He waited, a minute, another minute, watching the signal strength on his phone waver between one bar and two, never approaching anything near full. The battery indicator flickered on and off to let him know that he was wasting time.

When he felt certain that there was nobody out there, nobody who had heard him turn on the phone and was waiting for him to speak so they could accurately locate him, he dialled Lee’s mobile.

It rang, and rang, and rang. No answer. Eventually, it went to voicemail. Inspector Lee’s phone, waiting for your call, please leave a message and I’ll return to you as soon as possible. He almost threw the phone away in disgust.

Then, shaking his head, Lam dialled Lee’s phone again. Three rings, then voicemail.

He tried a third time: three rings, then voicemail. Lee must have his phone on silent, or have left it somewhere, or just wasn’t paying attention.

He didn’t really want to die out here, surrounded by idiots and poisoned by an evil crustacean, to be found by hikers in twenty years time, his skeleton still clutching a book written by a homicidal madman who seemed to claim he had graffittied China with dead bodies for over half a century. Mostly, he did not want to die, particularly not alone, when there was so much left undone, so much unsaid.

He looked again at the telephone screen, stared at it, willing Lee to call him back. Nothing. He waited, then dialled again.

One ring. Two rings. Three –

“Hello? Who is this?”

“Grace” he whispered. “It’s me.”

“Who is this? Are you some sort of pervert? What, you going to start heavy breathing down the phone? Want to know what I’m wearing? My dad’s a policeman, he’ll find you and -”

“Grace” he said, risking a little more volume. “It’s me. Your father.”

She stopped in mid gabble. “Dad? Why are you whispering? I didn’t recognise your number. What do you want?”

“Grace, this is my staff phone – look, it’s not important. I just wanted to tell you – ”

“Have you been drinking?”

“No -”

“Well you sound like you’ve been drinking, your words are coming out all slurred – ”

“Grace.” He found it difficult to speak, wasn’t sure if he was choking up because of the bite, or because he was struggling to talk to his daughter, to say the right words. “Grace, I’m not drunk. I just wanted to say I was sorry about the other night, about your birthday. I know me and your mother haven’t always got along, and I know how hard that is, but I just wanted to say that …”

“What, Dad?”

“That, uh … ” The phone was vibrating in his hand. He looked at it. Lee was calling him back. “I got to go. Talk soon.”

Panicking that he would lose the call from Lee, he slipped and almost dropped the phone in his lap as he swapped to the waiting call.

“Lee. Thanks for calling back.”

“Andy? Is that you?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you?”

“Tai O. Up in the old police station. Listen, I’ve found things.”

“What things?”

“Stop interrupting, maybe I could tell you. There were books, hidden under the floor of the hut. Evidence of something, a confession. Somebody’s been murdering people all across China, for decades, to form some sort of pattern.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain. It’s not exactly written clearly, but he seemed to have been working towards something.”

“This is something to do with Kwan?”

“I don’t know yet. I think so. Everyone here seems to be involved – the police, the villagers – they’re onto me.”

“Do you need help? You want me to come over?”

“Lee, I’ve been bitten by something. I don’t know how much longer I can last. I’m going to hide some books in the old police station, under a rock. Come look for them in the morning. Then I’m going to drag myself as far from here as I can, so they don’t find things.”

“A book? Drag? What are you talking about?”

“Southwest corner, under some rocks, covered in earth. Come find them. And – ” He remembered something the book had seemed unequivocal about. “Don’t drink any water. Whatever you do, water is apparently a very bad idea.”

“Lee, you’re not making any sense – ”

The phone switched itself off.

So that was that. He put the phone in with the books, wrapped them back up in the oilskin, and shoved it under some rubble piled up in the corner of the police station. He hoped Lee could figure it out. He hoped he still knew which direction was south-west.

The chanting began to get louder. It sounded as though the crowd was approaching. Lam pulled himself onto his hands and knees, and began to crawl away, further into the remains of the police station, hoping for a back way out up the hillside.

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