Hong Kong - Tuesday December 3rd, 1996
Commander Peter King sat back in his chair, his thoughts in turmoil. He focussed his eyes on the window, rather than the face of the man who sat watching him across the desk. The winter morning’s pollution whiteness made visibility lousy, shrouding the buildings opposite until the crowded concrete apartment blocks looked almost ethereal. Tiny balconies crammed with furniture, pot plants, and washing strung in lines or on poles over the street, a myriad of TV aerials, and dozens of square backsides of air-conditioning units, loomed mistily.
BJ waited, his shrewd gaze fixed unwaveringly on the commander’s face. The King was a man of medium height. His once spare frame had denoted a hard man of action, but now tended to gain unwanted flesh which he ruthlessly controlled with a daily game of tennis at his club after work. He played obsessively, driven by the need to maintain pride in his muscular, if no longer lean, figure. The skin under his arctic blue eyes was heavily pouched, but he emphasised the frontier soldier illusion with a neatly clipped, military-style moustache. Here, too, time defeated him, peppering the brown with grey and thinning his sparse, close-cropped hair.
King fought to regain his usual composure. Until he was sure his face was once again the bland mask which was his trademark, he continued to stare at the slowly rising smog.
That’s shaken him rather badly, the inspector thought sardonically. He let that ice-cool of his slip and I wasn’t supposed to see that. Recovered quickly, though. BJ wasn’t surprised King was bothered; this was just the sort of trouble they didn’t want, not now. But it had to be dealt with and he’d make a bet who got that little job. Damn! Damn the tongs and damn the guns and damn Beijing and damn politics and especially, damn the King, who’d send BJ to do the dirty work and keep himself out of it, if he could.
He grinned to himself. So would he, in the King’s shoes. The commander would be retiring soon, back to his cosy English cottage. And we’ll be left with the transition, BJ mused sourly. Oh, hell!
The commander was known as the King among his colleagues. It wasn’t a compliment and it was used strictly behind his back, although he knew all about it. In an irritating way, it pampered his ego. He turned back to his desk and once again picked up the file. It was marked to the inspector, ‘top secret, your eyes only’.
‘How’d you get this info?’
BJ said evenly, ‘Sources.’
‘What sources?’ the cold voice snapped.
‘You’re asking me to reveal ..?’ the inspector’s eyebrows rose gently. ‘You know I can’t do that.’
‘But you think it’s true.’ It was a statement, not a question, and the inspector made no comment.
‘Damn it, do you think it’s true?’
‘I haven’t any evidence to refute its accuracy.’ Why else would I bring it to you? BJ thought crossly. Do pull yourself together. Perhaps the rumours were true and the King was past it after all.
‘I’d advise caution,’ he said.
King opened the file and checked through the pages again, running his eyes quickly down the headings. It wasn’t a long report but what it did say, in concise, uncompromising terms, brought the frown back to his face. He looked up at the inspector, not bothering to lift his expression.
‘You know David Langford well, don’t you? Went to school with him and all that?’
‘That’s right.’ And you know it perfectly well and I’m not offering, BJ thought grimly. You’ll have to bloody ask.
‘We can’t turn Langford-Price over. Langford’s arguably one of the most powerful business men in Hong Kong. This report,’ he flicked it with his thumbnail, ‘is ambiguous as to his involvement. He needs to be sounded out - off the record. Damn it, this suggests the complicity of at least three, possibly more, international companies, all based here, with Langford-Price as the chief instigator, dealing with the Triad’s top dragons in heroin trafficking and gun-running ...’ He stopped, appalled to hear himself stating out loud what he couldn’t bring himself to even contemplate. ‘Of course, you’re checking all of this - these groups, the Hong Kong Democratic Union, the Free Citizens for Democracy?’
‘Naturally, yes. Keep me informed at every step. And talk to Langford. You can do that quite legitimately. Some of the guns were found on one of his construction sites. Start from there.’
‘I can’t believe David’s involved. I know the man ...’
‘Yes, inspector, you know the man, which is why you’re the ideal person to question him. He’ll talk to you. I don’t give a stuff what you think about him personally. I’d have to say, you’d be naturally biased in favour of an old friend.’
The inspector stiffened. ‘That’s insulting, Peter. My friendship gives me an insight into David’s character, so it’s a completely valid reference point. However, it does not interfere with my impartiality as a police officer or create a conflict of interest in any way. If you’re suggesting it makes me incompetent, you’d better talk to him yourself. No one could accuse you of bias towards David Langford.’
The two men glared coldly at each other, past enmity remembered, never forgiven, only set aside for the sake of the job that demanded they work effectively together. Then the commander gave a sharp nod and forced himself to say, ‘Point taken. I apologise. Now, get off your high horse and go and see Langford.’
The police car inched its way along Connaught Road, coming to a precipitous halt opposite the double blue glass tower of Exchange Square. Horns blared as the traffic snarled.
BJ peered ahead. ‘What’s the hold up?’
‘Accident, probably, sir.’ The driver pointed to a couple of uniformed constables running along the pavement, their attention focussed on a point up the road. ‘Do you want me to get out and see?’
‘No, I’ll walk. When you’re clear, wait outside the Langford-Price building.’ He left the car and plunged into the crowds thronging the pavement.
Tourists jostled with business people and shoppers as the Central District got on with doing what it did best; making money. A group of school girls, looking fresh and sweet in their crisp green uniforms and snow white blouses, sold him a sticker for some charity or other and he allowed one to stick it to his lapel. She tiptoed with absorbed concentration to get it straight while the others giggled. The little incident cheered him somewhat.
A beggar, his arms made into stumps by leprosy, mumbled and hunched over his begging bowl. The inspector threw him a coin as he strode past under the thousand-odd round windows of Jardine House which gave the building its unfortunate local name of the ‘house of the thousand arseholes’.
Reaching his destination, BJ paused outside the cream multistorey tower which was Langford-Price. On either side of the front steps Chinese lions, carved in marble, witnessed to the diplomacy of the Langfords and the Prices, who’d been among the early traders into Hong Kong.
The girl at the reception desk looked a little apprehensive as the inspector crossed the foyer but that was nothing new. He was a well-known figure, easily recognised. She probably equated police with trouble. He leaned over the counter and watched her shrink slightly. He made his request kindly. It wasn’t his business to scare David’s staff. If any of them were implicated in this bloody mess, others would do that far more effectively.
‘Sorry, inspector, Mr Langford’s out.’
‘Then tell Susan Yeung I want to see her.’
The receptionist pressed buttons on the phone, spoke briefly, then smiled at him, her poise restored. ‘Please go up, sir. Top floor.’
‘I know. Thanks.’
The lift raced him smoothly skywards and decanted him in a quiet foyer hung with beautiful embroideries from the Ming Dynasty. In a glass case, a tall porcelain vase from the same period was displayed, mythical sea creatures gambolling in cobalt waves around its vast girth. Wide windows overlooked Hong Kong Harbour with its bustling water traffic, the high-rises of Kowloon, just visible through the mist and, unseen today, the New Territories beyond. On a clear day, this was one of the best and most expensive views in the world.
Susan Yeung, David’s personal assistant, came at once to meet him, petite and elegant in her Amari suit with its tailored black and white checked jacket. Undaunted by his imposing height, she smiled and shook his hand. ‘BJ! How nice. David’s been saying we haven’t seen much of you lately.’
He knew it. He’d been deliberately keeping clear of David. Even before the fatal report had come across his desk, there’d been rumours. He’d begun quietly to carry out his investigations, saying nothing until he’d shown the file to Bob Lee.
It hadn’t been a wise move, perhaps, to avoid David, but he hadn’t known how to approach his friend, aware his concern would be instantly communicated to the man he’d known since his school days.
He smiled at Susan. ‘They tell me David’s not around?’
She shook her smoothly coiffured head. ‘You should have rung. David’s over on Kowloon side at the new construction site on Nathan Road.’
‘Yau Ma Tei?’
She nodded. ‘The new shopping complex. Past Waterloo Road.’
‘I’ll drop by there. I’m on my way to Kowloon, anyway.’ I am now, he told himself.
‘Make him have some lunch, then.’ Susan smiled again. ‘Jean’s been complaining that, with Pat away, David’s too tied up on the site and forgets to eat.’
‘I thought the construction company was Guy’s baby?’
‘Yes, but Pat controlled the transport side of things and David’s taken that on. It gives him a wonderful excuse to be a little boy again, except he gets to play with real building blocks and cement.’
They both laughed. ‘I’ll tell him to eat,’ the inspector promised. ‘Surely Pat’s due back anytime now? I got an invitation for Thursday.’
Susan’s face lit up. ‘Wednesday. Tomorrow. Oh, it will be good to have him home, and without little madam.’ Embarrassed, she put a quick hand to her mouth. ‘I shouldn’t have said that, but you’re such an old friend, I expect you know.’
‘That Wanda left Pat? Yes, Bob Lee told me at length. He was very upset.’
‘It’s a big loss of face for the Lees,’ Susan said gravely. ‘Wanda won’t be popular, I can tell you. Even her friends will drop her, when she comes home.’
The inspector was startled. ‘She wouldn’t come back, would she? Not until the scandal’s died down.’
‘Don’t you believe it.’ Susan shrugged. ‘When’s Wanda ever bothered about the trouble she stirs up? This is where she wants to be and I’ll make a bet with you that she’ll run back fast, once Pat’s home, all contrite and wanting to make it up. And, like a big fool, he’ll take her back. You men!’
Don’t include me, BJ thought. I wouldn’t have Wanda as a gift. My sympathies have always been with Pat. ‘I’ll be off then, he said.’ You might let David know I’m on the way.’
‘Purely social? I see, you won’t say. I expect it’s this terrible business with the guns, isn’t it? David’s got nothing whatever to do with that, I’m sure of it. The Langfords aren’t going to get involved with anything so dangerous, particularly at this time. We have excellent trading ties with China and we wouldn’t risk them in such a way. Guy’s furious. He said it reflected on him. You find out who put them there and we can all be easy again.’
‘I’ll do that,’ BJ promised. ‘Goodbye, Susan.’