The taxi came to a halt in the main square of Shek O, a clump of houses and a blocky municipal facility of the kind that were scattered across Hong Kong, abutting the beach. There were only a few weak yellow street lamps here, and everyone seemed to have gone to bed. The place had the ambience of a seaside resort a month after the tourists had left, that strange essence of shoddy plastic buckets and rubber inflatables for children to play with, the smell of seawater and ineffective suntan lotion.
As soon as the three of them were out of the taxi, the driver slammed the door shut and sped back the way he had come, down a dark and winding road.
“This way.” He started walking away from the square down a darkened alleyway. Alfie began shuffling in the same direction, as Esther ran over to catch up.
“Wait. You haven’t even told us your name. Or shown me any ID, for that matter.”
“Here.” He pulled out his warrant card. “Lee. Inspector Anthony Lee. Famous throughout the Hong Kong Police Force for his skilful solution of the Kowloon Wallpaper Murders.”
“You don’t sound so pleased about that.” She turned the card over a few times in her hands, trying to read it properly in the poor light.
“A millstone. I sometime wonder if I was meant to find those bodies. Nobody has ever been that pleased that I did, and nobody has ever let me forget it.”
“It was a new housing development, between TST and Mong Kok. These two domestic helpers went missing, and – no, you don’t want to hear about it.”
“Maybe I do.” She looked around. “There doesn’t seem to be much other entertainment in this town, does there?”
Lam tried to laugh, failed. “OK, it was like this. They only gave me the case because I was a rookie, they figured that I wouldn’t solve it. That’s the only reason I can think of. Give it to somebody with no experience, let him mess up, it wasn’t anyone that anyone cared about anyway. But – well, I suppose I messed up. I started looking through accounts, through records, joined up the parts that -”
“What?” I don’t follow you. Parts that what -”
“Hang on.” He took his phone out of his pocket. “Shit.”
He showed her his phone. “Missed calls. My partner. Something must be up.” He started to tap into the keypad. Up the street, Alfie was looking distracted, scuffing his shoes against a wall as he stumbled towards them.
“No reception” Lee said, shaking his head. “Come on – we’re close to the house now.”
The house was a small one storey cuboid of cement, with a metal door that Lee pushed open.
“There’s no lock? That’s not very secure?”
“Nobody knows about this place. That’s what makes it secure.” She followed him in. “There should be a torch by the door. Stay here with your brother, I’m going to climb up on the roof and see if I can get any reception on this phone.”
Alfie groaned and slumped down against the wall of the safe house.
“Great” said Esther. “This is turning out to be one hell of a holiday.” Alfie grunted, but made no other response.
She played the torch over the room; there were a pair of wooden chairs, a table folded away in the corner, and what appeared to be a deflated rubber dinghy. Lee had brought them to stay in a boathouse? She stepped over to it, prodded it with her toe. An inflatable mattress. Well, that was terrific; there was a perfectly good bed in a hotel room waiting for her, and she was in a concrete shed with a blow up bed and her brother making whistling noises as he breathed.
“Alfie, are you asleep?”
He muttered at her noncomittally. Great. Just absolutely great. She supposed Dennis would be laughing at her if he knew about this. Hell, Dennis would probably be laughing at her anyway.
She heard Lee clumping about on the roof. Shortly, he reappeared at the doorway.
“I’ve spoken to my partner – I have to go.”
“He’s in Tai O. I’ve got to get out there. He said your brother was right – you mustn’t drink the water here, whatever you do.”
Lee turned to go.
“So you’re just going to leave us here?”
“That’s right. I’ll be back in the morning. It’s safe out here, nobody knows where you are. Just sit tight.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“What? No, stay here.”
“Lee, I’m not staying here all night in a beach hut with a rubber bed and nothing else. I’m coming with you.”
“Because it’s not safe. You two need to stick together.”
“Stick together? Like you’re sticking together, wandering off on your own?”
“I’ve got to find my partner. You’ve got to stay with Alfie.”
“Alfie’s not going anywhere: just look at him.”
“So, does your boss know you’re on to him?”
“Probably he suspects something.”
“So he’ll have people looking for you. They won’t be looking for a couple.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll be your disguise. That will throw them off the scent.”
Lee looked dubious.
“Come on. You know you can’t make me stay here. I may as well be doing something useful.”
“This could be dangerous, you know.”
“I won’t get into any trouble, Lee. I just don’t think I’m going to be doing anything useful sat here in some deserted beach town, waiting for you to come back and tell us everything is alright.”
She walked out of the beach house and started back down the alleyway to the square.
“What about Alfie?” Lee said, walking after her.
“He’ll sleep. I know Alfie, when he’s drunk a certain amount and then then thrown up, he’ll sit tight until the morning. We don’t need to worry about him. Now what about your partner?”
“We’re going to the station” Lee said. “I need to pick some things up before we go to Tai O.”