Hong Kong - Tuesday December 3rd, 1996
BJ leaned back and closed his eyes, oblivious of Nathan Road and its crowded pavements, festive decorations, the glittering neon-decked facades of endless fashion shops, hotels, restaurants; and more and more shops selling every conceivable make of electronic goods, cameras, watches and jewellery. This was Hong Kong’s ‘Golden Mile’, the bustling Broadway of the colony.
As his driver skilfully wove through the traffic, heading for the Yau Ma Tei District, he tried to sort out in his mind for the umpteenth time what he was going to say to David.
What to tell him and how much? That was the question. And there was no immediate answer. He’d start with the skip and play it by ear.
The police car drew up outside the building site, nipping in front of a line of cement trucks that waited by the main gate. The lead driver immediately engaged in a lively debate with a site worker in overalls and a yellow hard hat.
Attached to the gate a large sign in English and Cantonese proclaimed LP Constructions was not hiring at the moment. Beyond it was a bustling hive of activity. Vans, delivering all the necessities of the job, churned the muddy ground. Workers hurried back and forth. The air was loud with the sound of shouts, machinery, whistles, and the hiss of welding as, behind the bamboo scaffolding which looked dangerously fragile but was surprisingly strong, cement walls rose slowly in artistic curves around great gaping holes awaiting grey glass windows.
Like eye sockets in a skull. The unwanted thought bothered BJ. ‘We’ll go through to the car park,’ he told the driver, who was explaining sharply that he’d get out of the way of the cement trucks when and if his inspector decided on a course of action.
The site worker thankfully signalled the security guard in the pill box by the gate to let the car through. Behind them the first truck banged across the gutter and was directed to the next pour.
Guy Langford’s red Porsche was parked next to David’s silver-grey Rolls. BJ grimaced. In spite of his outburst to the King, it wasn’t so easy to divorce friendship from duty when the two became entangled. He opened the car door. ‘Wait here. If you’re hungry, you’d better get a takeaway.’
The site office was reached over a plank walkway which protected the management from the worst of the mud holes. Through the window, BJ could see Guy at his desk, his handsome head bent over the building plans.
Guy looked up as the door opened and broke into his quick, attractive smile. ‘Good heavens, they’ve got you on the job now?’ The two men shook hands. ‘We’ve already had your mob swarming all over the site. I didn’t think there was anything left to see.’
‘I’m just following up, routine, you know,’ BJ said vaguely. ‘Chance to see David, as well.’
‘He’s buzzing about somewhere. Any news yet?’
‘Not a lot. I’d like to hear the story from you, Guy. I’ve heard everyone else’s version.’
‘Take a seat, then, and I’ll unburden myself. It’s a rotten business. I’m as mad as hell about it.’
Guy took a few restless paces across the office then flung himself back into his chair and spread his hands in a helpless gesture. ‘All I know is, I was hauled out of bed at three in the morning to explain why a load of guns was found in one of the site’s skips. I couldn’t tell them. Anyone could have stashed them there. Langfords would be the last place anyone’d look, right?’
He raised his brows, inviting agreement. BJ’s expression remained blandly non-committal. Guy gave a brief laugh and answered his own question. ‘Right. We’ve always carried out our business legally. David and I are on the police liaison committee, so catch us allowing anything suss. I heard some gang tipped off your mob that there was a cache of weapons here - here.’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘Mind you, in hindsight, it was a bloody marvellous place to hide them. Who’d suspect?’
Undeterred by BJ’s silence, Guy offered his own theory. ‘They could have been put there during the day by a worker. The locals stick together, do each other favours, grease a palm here and there. Temptation for a man on a labourer’s pay to smuggle the guns in, stash them. People aren’t searched coming in, only going out, to prevent thefts from the site. And anyone with a bit of nous could get over the fence at night, if he watched the dog’s routine a bit. Maybe someone’s been using the bin for weeks. My God, we’ve tightened up security now. Catch them putting us through that again.’
The inspector smiled slightly. ‘I doubt it’ll happen again. They’ll find another drop point.’
‘The worst thing.’ Guy spluttered, ‘is that these guns are apparently part of a plot to bring a bloody arsenal into the colony, arm the locals against the Chinese takeover. It’s madness.’
He banged the desk emphatically. ‘I know people are twitchy but it’ll all die down after the transition. China needs Hong Kong the way it is. It’s a gold mine. She can’t afford to upset the status quo, not with all the money she’s invested in the colony. I’m very optimistic, you know. I think we’ve got a great future. But we can’t have citizens being armed. I mean!’ He spread his hands once more in a mute appeal to heaven.
‘Who told you it was a plot to arm the people against China?’ The inspector asked gently.
‘Rumours.’ Guy grinned. ‘What we all thrive on. Who gets the news first corners the market and makes the big wins on the Exchange.’
‘It could be just the tongs arming for a bit of gang warfare.’
‘Oh? I’d heard it was bigger than that.’ Guy looked interested. ‘Hasn’t this been going on for some months?’
‘Rumours again?’ BJ asked. ‘Is there anyone you suspect might have been involved?’
Guy cast up his eyes. ‘We hired a lot of extra help. Half of them weren’t needed any more so they were paid off last week. Your men took all their details. Could have been anyone, not even a worker, if it’s true about the tongs. They could have just picked us as a safe drop.’
The door opened and Foreman Lo entered the office. He gave the inspector a quick, sideways glance and said abruptly to Guy, ‘You’re wanted, Mr Langford.’
Guy got to his feet at once. He picked up a couple of hard hats from a bench and tossed one to BJ. ‘I’ll take you to David.’
The three men left the office and crossed to the embryo complex, Guy enthusiastically describing how it would look on completion.
BJ interrupted him. ‘Are you planning to hire any more men?’
‘Next week. We’ll need extra labourers then. Why, do you think the bastards’ll try it again?’
‘It’s very unlikely, as I said. Lightning won’t strike you twice, I’m sure.’
‘It’d better not. Can’t afford any more hold ups.’ Guy pointed overhead. ‘There’s David. Chin, take the inspector up, will you?’
BJ followed the silent foreman. They found David Langford, white overalls protecting his office clothes, on a platform high in the scaffolding, studying a blueprint with one of the overseers. He caught sight of BJ, handed back the plans, and moved towards the inspector, his hand outstretched in welcome.
David had the long, handsome face, cleft chin and attractively crooked mouth of all the Langfords. His height disguised a slowly thickening figure, his blond hair under the hard hat was greying at the temples, but his eyes were still the clear, intense blue of the boy BJ had grown up with. They were lit now with the same charmingly twisted smile as David advanced.
‘Well, I’ll be!’ he grasped BJ’s hand warmly. ‘It’s about time we saw you. You’re on business, about the guns?’ he added ruefully. ‘Susan phoned. Guy’s given you an earful, no doubt. As Constructions Manager, he feels responsible.’
BJ returned the strong clasp and said calmly, ‘He shouldn’t. It can’t reflect on him.’
‘You tell him. He won’t hear it from me. Went around tightening security and driving us all demented. You can’t get a single nail in or out now, without his knowing about it.’
The inspector looked down from his precarious perch on a strip of planking far above the ground and took a firmer hold of the makeshift railing. ‘I promised Susan I’d make you eat, so get me down from here and I’ll buy you lunch.’
‘You’re on.’ David grinned. ‘I might as well be married to Susan, too. She and Jean get together and gang up on me.’
Ten minutes later the two men faced each other across the sparkling Formica tables and plastic trays of the nearest McDonalds. The place was packed with lunchtime crowds and they were lucky to grab the last table. A queue formed instantly as hungry folk waited for a space.
‘You call this food?’ The inspector prodded his Big Mac.
‘I do, Jean doesn’t.’ David grinned, his mouth full. ‘You’re coming on Thursday? Jean’s excited. Rushing about like a whirlwind, driving the caterers crazy.’
BJ nodded. ‘Does Pat know about this business with the guns?’
‘We had a chat on the phone yesterday. He’s shocked of course. We all are.’
BJ made no comment. He sipped his coffee in silence for a moment, then said quietly, ‘Guy’s enthusiastic about the transition.’
David shrugged. ‘He’s very sanguine. Thinks capitalism will be so entrenched in China by then that they won’t rock the boat. He sees no problems.’
‘But you do?’
‘Not necessarily. I’m on the fence at the moment.’ David hesitated. ‘There’s quite an underlying panic, though, among the hongs, in spite of the calm surface.’
‘Panic?’ BJ raised a slow eyebrow.
‘Well, say uncertainty. Mistrust.’ David took a long swallow of his own coffee and set down the Styrofoam cup. ‘The brain drain’s well under way. Capital’s moving abroad. When Thatcher failed to renew the lease, it was a major shock to realise that Hong Kong wasn’t going to last forever.’
‘Suddenly the 1997 deadline was a very real issue?’
‘People remember Saigon in ‘75 when the business community woke up one morning to find the communist troops were already there and it was too late. Who can blame them for wanting to quit Hong Kong?’
BJ nodded. ‘But Langford-Price held firm.’
‘Like most of the hongs, we’ve kept our options open; but we’re transferring capital to other bases - Australia, Canada, the UK. If we have to get out in a hurry, we won’t lose.’
‘You think it’s likely?’
‘We’re playing safe,’ David said grimly. ‘You can’t predict what Beijing’ll do in the future. We like to think China needs us as its outlet to the Western world. These days, no man - or country - is an island, entire of itself.’
‘Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main?’ BJ grinned. ‘Or every country?’
‘Yes, but if the bell tolls, we’d rather it didn’t toll for us.’
‘So you’re taking steps?’
David looked puzzled. ‘You’re fishing most uncharacteristically. What are you getting at?’
‘The Hong Kong Democratic Union.’ BJ watched his friend’s face. ‘A new political party.’
‘A new company.’
‘It’s the same thing. You’re the chairman.’
‘That’s no secret. Are we being investigated?’
‘We’re interested in any such movements. Guy mentioned the status quo.’
‘The HKDU isn’t doing anything more than the United Democrats or the Hong Kong Alliance. There hasn’t been a great demand for democracy to date; we’ve all been happy living in our free economy. But now, if people want to ensure their future freedom, who can blame them?’
‘It makes Beijing very twitchy.’ BJ commented.
David gave a short laugh. ‘Beijing twitches with great regularity. It’s a nervous time for everyone.’ He leaned earnestly across the table. ‘Chris Patten has the right idea; better late than never. The more democratic institutions we can set into the law before June, the harder it will be for China to undo them, and they’ll serve as an example to the mainland Chinese.’
BJ said evenly, ‘But within the law, David.’
‘Ah, that’s what this is about.’ David leaned back and studied BJ’s face. ‘Guy told me the rumour. No, you’re barking up the wrong tree well and truly. The HKDU is only interested in promoting democracy, not violent resistance. Christ! We don’t want a repeat of the Kowloon riots. I’m told you’ve found some very interesting and professional weapons in large numbers.’
‘Guy’s rumours again? Where’s he getting these stories from?’
David pounced. ‘So that’s what they are? Just stories?’ He nodded slowly as BJ’s face closed. ‘I see not. Peter King sent the wrong man to interview me. I could always read you like a book. Have another burger.’
‘You have one if you want to wreck your insides.’ BJ sighed. ‘I told the King you wouldn’t be involved.’
‘He’d love to implicate me, you know that. He’d blacken me any way he could and deport me like a shot.’ David lifted his coffee in a toast. ‘Here’s confusion to the King.’
His friend drank it. ‘Although you’ll outlast him, you know. He’s off back home next year.’
David chuckled. ‘In that case, I’ll keep my nose very clean. I’d hate to be deported before I get the chance to see off Peter Bloody King.’