Pick up

Esther was standing in the doorway of Kwan’s office. Lee wanted to turn and go, leave that troublesome, clumsy, drunk woman behind, but he knew that wasn’t an option. Like a man visiting his funeral director, he trudged slowly over to her.

Kwan’s office was brightly lit, belching light even though the shades were drawn down for privacy. Esther stepped back as he approached.

“Look” she said, gesturing with her arm.

Inside, it looked like the same person who had reorganised Bruton-Jones’ flat earlier that week had gone to work in Kwan’s office. The desk, the filing cabinets, even the potted plants had all been shoved up against the far wall. That wasn’t what Esther was so taken aback by. Lee assumed she was having trouble with the same thing as him.

In the middle of the room, stripped to the waist and tied to a chair, was a fifty-year old white male, apparently unconscious, connected up to an electrical device the size of a small fridge, hoses running from his arm into it, and a large halogen spotlight, the source of the glare coming from the room, beaming directly on his face.

“What the hell do you people do in here?”

“Esther, this is my boss’s office, not mine.” He pushed past her and looked for a switch for the spotlight. When he couldn’t easily find one, he yanked the cable from the back of it, until the other end disconnected from the wall socket and the brightness in the room faded from incandescent to supportive of vision again.

“Now what do we do?”

“I’m not sure Esther. Let me think.”

“I don’t believe we really have much time for thinking right now.”

“Ok. Well, let’s see what this chap has to say for himself, and then we’re going to head on our way.”

He stepped towards the man in the chair, almost falling as he did so, his leg giving way again, so he only stopped himself from landing in the man’s lap by catching himself on both the armrests of the chair.

“Lee, are you drunk?”

“No, I’m just … my leg … er.” He straighten up, then shook the man by the shoulders. He was surprisingly difficult to move.

“Maybe we should untie him.”

“Good idea Esther. Maybe you could give me a hand, eh?”

His arms were held down with thick leather belts, buckled around the armrests, and pulled tight enough that it was a struggle for Lee to undo them, his fingers clumsy. Esther was not having much more success, swearing and yanking at the chair without much success.

“This is no good. Look, you stay here and try to wake him up, I’ll go find a knife or something to cut through these.”

“Ok. How am I going to wake him up?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Esther. I’m sure you’ll think of something.” He turned and stumbled back out of the office, walked stiffly to the desks in the middle of the office, hoping there would be a pair of scissors or something else to cut through the bonds with. Why was there never an enormous knife in this police station when you needed one?

He heard Esther slapping the old guy, yelling at him to wake up. There were a few muffled groans. He grabbed the first thing on the desk that presented itself, and staggered back to Kwan’s office.

“Esther, do you have to make so much noise?”

“It’s not as if there’s anyone else here, is it? It’s like they’ve just gone off and left him to – why are you holding a ruler?”

Lee looked down at the steel ruler he’d picked up. “It … it will help pry things open, maybe?”

The man in the chair groaned, nodded his head.

“How hard did you hit him, Esther?”

“Well, you said to wake him up.”

“It’s not going to be much good if he’s awake but he’s also concussed.”

“Oh. Sorry.

“What did you hit him with anyway? That’s a big bruise on his face.”

“I – I only hit him on the arm. Back of my hand. I never touched his face.”

“Well, somebody gave him a good smack, didn’t they?” Lee leaned in. “Sir, can you hear me? Sir?”

He looked up for a moment, then the effort seemed too much and his head dropped again. He murmured something.

“Sir, what was that? What are you saying?”

“Get it, get it” he whispered.

“Get what?”

“Get it … out …”

Close enough to hear his words, Lee could also smell his breath. He stank. Not just like a drunk, with the rich stench of stale beer and body odour. No, there was a smell about him like mould, like … well, like the second escalator leading out of Wan Chai MTR, that one little area as you walked away from the platforms, where they never quite rid it of the mouldy smell, no matter how many people with rubber gloves scrubbed away down there.

“Get what out?”

He clenched, unclenched his hands uselessly, trapped in the chair.

“Unplug him” Esther said. “He wants you to get that drip out of him.”

“What if that’s what’s keeping him alive?”

“Lee, do you really think you’d stick a man up here for the good of his health? Your boss has obviously been torturing this guy. Come on, let’s sort him out.”

She reached past Lee, and plucked the end of the plastic line out of the man’s arm. It came out without any resistance, only a few drops of thick, dark blood following.

“Damn, Esther, can’t you be careful?”

“What? It’s not like it was doing him any good to just stand here vaci-vaci-vacillating.” She was suddenly afflicted by a bout of hiccups and had to lean on Kwan’s desk to steady herself.

“Sir? Sir?” No response. Lee took the edge of the ruler and used it to lever open one of the belt buckles. He moved round to the other side, snagged the ruler on the other buckle.

“Esther, is there anything in here that might tell us what they’ve been up to?”

She turned and began to flick through the papers on Kwan’s desk. “Nothing about tying up old men and torturing them here.”

“Anything about Tai O?”

“Er…” She scuffled through the papers. “Either I’m still very drunk, or I don’t read Chinese, Lee.”

“Oh, of course. Look, you concentrate on undoing him, I’ll take a look.” He moved round, brushing past her, and began to flick through the papers on the desk, looking for a brown file like the ones that Sammy would have used. Nothing. Just a series of reports on …

It took him a while, staring at it like he was on the edge of an abyss, dizzied by the heights, before his brain allowed him to make sense of it. Kwan’s desk was covered in his reports, his missing persons, maps of their last known locations, another larger map of Hong Kong, all the deaths he’d been investigating scribbled on with a purple marker, a long line carefully drawn to go through every one of them.

The man groaned again, mumbled something, and Esther swore at him. “I’m doing my best to get you out of this” she snarled at him. “If you think you could do better, maybe you can try and do it yourself.”

“Esther, keep calm. We need to get him out of here, and if we keep making noises, we’re not going to have much chance of that.”

“He was saying something.”

“Was he criticising your untying technique?”

“No …”

“Well then don’t get in a huff.” Lee turned round and tried to assist by fiddling with the cable ties used to hold the man’s neck against the headrest of the chair. “We just need to get him out of here.”

Drink…

“What?” Lee and Esther asked simultaneously.

“Drink” the man wheezed. “Get me a drink.”

“Sure” Lee said. “Soon as we get you out of this chair we’ll get you a drink, eh? A nice glass of water or something, huh? Maybe sir would like a bottle of Evian?”

The man groaned again.

“I didn’t get into this job to feed half-naked men drinks, you know.”

“What?

“Never mind.” Lee fumbled with the cable ties, managed to get one loose, pulled it open. The other one was easier; after that was done, the man’s head was loose and it flopped forward onto his chest.

“How you doing, Esther?”

“Fine” she said. “Just fu – ah. Done.” She stood up, triumphant. “Arms undone, legs undone.”

“Super. Now … now we just have to shift a half naked man out of here without anyone seeing us.”

“Well, it’s not like we’ve been disturbed so far.”

“I know, Esther, but that’s because nobody works up here at night. Apart from my boss when he wants to do terrible things to people, apparently.”

“What was that thing he was attached to?”

“I don’t know. Take a look.” He waved at the machine, feeling vaguely helpless. This really wasn’t in the training manual.

Esther pushed past him. She had to bend down to look at the machine. He tried to avoid staring as her skirt bunched up around her thighs.

“Just a load of numbers, nothing that says what it is. Hey, do you think it came in this box?”

She turned, holding up two halves of a large cardboard box.

“It looks about the right size.” He peered at it. Was that a cargo manifest sticker on the side?

“Look, we don’t have time to figure this out now. See the office over on the other side, by the window?”

Esther put her head out of the door. “Sure.”

“Go in there, squash that box down flat and hide it behind the filing cabinet in there. I’m going to try to find something for our chap here to make him feel better.”

“Great, I get all the exciting jobs, huh?” She wobbled out, stalking over to his office with the cardboard. He heard ripping sounds as she dealt with the box.

Lee bent down to the man again. “We’re going to get you out of here.” He picked the man’s head up in his hands, lifted it to look at him. The eyes that stared back were bleary, bloodshot, confused, but still aware. Well, awake, anyway.

“Need … drink” he whispered.

“Sure. There’s some water round here, soon as we – ”

“No … not water. Beer. Have to have beer …”

Another one. Oh well. “Sure. We’ll get you a beer. You look the sort.”

He looked behind the door to Kwan’s office. There was a jacket hanging up there – the man in the chair was a big fat lump, but that was no problem. Kwan was a big fat lump too. Maybe a chief inspector’s jacket would be just the thing for an alcoholic torture victim.

Esther reappeared at the doorway.

“Done?”

“Done.”

“Great. Help me put this jacket on him, then we’ll get going.”

They picked him up out of the chair – unsportingly he let Esther take most of the weight – and then pulled the jacket on, fastening the buttons so that the man appeared at least half way decent.

“Do you think you can walk?”

The man groaned. Lee took it to be an affirmation. “Ok. Slowly now. We’re going to head down to the stairs.”

They began to walk him out the office, carrying him between them like an inconvenient piece of furniture. Then Lee heard the lift doors clanking open at the other end of the office.

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