Authors: Simon Ings
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General
Her knowing was the last thing I needed.
When Jimmy Yau Sau-Lan died, no one as much as phoned me. That's how far out of the loop I was. That's how unimportant I had become. I had to find out through the newspaper, and that was only by chance.
Several days after his death - when the news of it was quite stale - the South China Morning Post happened to carry a story about the worsening Triad situation in Macau. With pictures. After that, I knew it was only a matter of time before things started falling in on top of me. What Jimmy Yau was doing in Macau that day no-one seemed to know. But there probably wasn't any mystery in that. It's only a ferry ride away from Victoria Harbour; I used to take day trips there to sample the restaurants.
What is mysterious is how his attacker knew where and when to hide, to catch Jimmy as he drove his hired convertible along the Rua das Lorchas. The grenade fell short, blowing a two-foot-deep hole in the tarmac; it was the shock wave lifted the vehicle over the rail and dumped Jimmy into the Porto Interior. Witnesses said they saw the upturned car plunge in on top of him. The police had divers and dredgers out there all day but they never found his body.
Four days after Hamley's short, sharp visit, Brian and Eddie - Jimmy Yau's sons and heirs - came bounding into the cafe. You could tell they were the men of the family now because Eddie had got himself a sensible haircut.
I was in the kitchen, making sandwiches, when I heard the prang and clatter of the table football machine. We'd really only put it in the cafe for decoration, and it was so near our busiest time, the players must have been treading everyone underfoot as they rushed from handle to handle. I carried in an order of Italian chicken baguettes to the counter. Hannah was spooning froth into the cappuccinos. She placed them one at a time onto a tray. Her hand was shaking.
Then again, her hand was always shaking. People frightened her. The only reason she worked here was her mother arranged it one summer holiday for her and she hadn't the self-confidence to move on. I asked her what was wrong. She nodded at the boys capering about the table. 'Is it all right, Adam?'
I glanced at them, saw who they were, and stretched my mouth into a rictal smile. 'Of course it's all right, Hannah. Can you look after this lot? Table two.' I nudged the tray towards her. Reluctantly, she took it up and headed into the room. She eased uneasily past the brothers. Eddie spun the handles with a flourish and stepped back into her. She dodged out the wayjust about. Eddie grinned. Brian scored.
'Fuck me,' said Eddie, surprised.
'Fuck yourself,' said Brian, his accent thick and catarrhal, and tossed the ball back into the centre. Brian was faster than his little brother, and more patient. Eddie was smarter. He hunted for an advantage. At a crucial moment he tilted the table by the handles. The legs juddered and scored the floor. Hannah was still handing out plates and cups to table two, bending from the hips in an unconscious, neurotic display of sexuality. The tourists she were serving - they were so amorphously big, they could have modelled for Gary Larsson - took no notice.
Eddie did. He said something to Brian. Brian studied the backs of her knees. Unable to put it off any longer, I went over. 'Fancy a sandwich?' I said. They turned to me. Eddie smiled for the both of them. Smiling wasn't in Brian's vocabulary.
'Hey,' said Eddie. He came over and slapped my shoulder. He was wearing a blue and red skinny-rib jumper, rolled up to the elbows. I glimpsed the tangle of scars up his arm, the circular burn-marks from fat cigars. No wonder people weren't eating much. 'Adam, man.'
'Hi, Eddie,' I said.
Brian was wearing a black shirt and black jeans. His hair was black. So were the pupils of his eyes; it was like he was frozen in a state of dumbfounded astonishment.
'Are we making a noise here, Adam?'
'It's okay, Eddie.'
'We didn't mean to hurt your table,' said Brian - a truculent child making a rote excuse.
'It's had worse.'
'Hey Brian, it's cool, right?' said Eddie. Jimmy Yau had sent Eddie to study in London, and Eddie had picked up most of his English from parties in Hoxton and raves in posh squats off the M25.
'Yeah,' I said, 'it's cool.'
'Cool.' Brian blinked. It was impossible to say how much Brian understood. It never seemed to make any difference to what he did.
There wasn't anything anyone wanted to say after that, so I went back to the counter.
'Is everything all right?' Hannah squinted across the room, like she was trying to tune out the parts of it that worried her.
'I know them, Hannah. It's fine.' I plucked a handful of slips from the hook by the coffee machine. 'Are these fresh orders?' Without waiting for an answer I returned to the kitchen. If they wanted to say something to me, they were going to have to say it. I didn't have time for their Joe Pesci impressions. It didn't take them long to start fucking the place about again. When Hannah came in to tell me, she gripped the door-jamb like it was the only thing keeping her upright.
'Get him another coffee,' I told her. 'Sponge him off and calm him down.'
'He wants to complain.'
'So let him.'
I followed her out of the kitchen in time to see a blue Mondeo pull away from the kerb.
'Hey, we're sorry, man,' Eddie said.
The other customers looked like the only reason they were still here was Brian had nailed them to their seats.
'It was an accident, Mr Wyatt,' Brian glowered.
'No problem,' I said.
Hannah meanwhile had fetched a cloth, and she began to mop up the table where Brian had backed into it. Then she knelt and ran the cloth over the floor. Brian had a good long look at her arse.
'That's enough,' I said.
Brian looked at me like I was the one with the problem.
Eddie played diplomat.
'Do you have ten minutes?' he said.
We walked down Stoney Street, past the Clink to the river. The sky was clear, and there were pockets of warmth wherever the sun found a way through to ground level.
Eddie said, 'They listened to Hamley yesterday.'
'Was I mentioned?'
He hadn't wasted any time. I said, 'What's going to happen to me?'
Eddie shrugged. 'Frank knows a little bit. It's nothing Top Luck's lawyers can't chip to shit.'
'He said I knew about the money?'
'He said you turned a blind eye to certain things.'
The road led under Cannon Street railway bridge and slewed right, to meet the embankment. The Thames was still black and gelid, like it had bubbled up from an ice cave. A Japanese family were hesitating outside the Anchor, intimidated by the pub's authentic interior: a warren of gloomy snugs. The pub is set back from the river. 'Trading In The British Tradition', runs the sign above the door; sadly, it doesn't say what it's trading it in for. There's a raised, paved seating area looking over the river, and sometimes on summer evenings I sat out there, watching St Paul's mellow out in the dying light, while around me the Germans and Japanese tucked into 'Good 'Ole Fish & Chips' and 'Dr Boswell's Lamb & Mint Pie'. I picked us a table in the shadow of the rail bridge.
I insisted on going in and buying; that way Eddie wouldn't be there to see me pouring one double into another. A thin stream of Coke filed off the pungency of the rum. While Brian and Eddie's lagers were pouring, I drank off a finger's-worth and added some ice.
'Mum wants your help,' said Eddie, when I got back.
Money. Great name, scary woman. I liked her, as much as you can like someone you don't trust.
'She wants you to come round for dinner.'
'I can't see what use I can be to her,' I said.
'Don't worry about that,' said Eddie. 'Think what use she can be to you.'
I thought about Jimmy Yau's promises to me, and I thought about Macau. I thought about Frank Hamley in Hong Kong, telling tales.
'I'll try and make it,' I said. 'Things are busy right now.'
'She's doing eels and bitter melon,' said Eddie. Like this would tempt me. I wondered if their sister would be there. 'When?' I said.
I shook my head.
'You can make time for it,' Brian said.
'It's Justin's birthday,' I told him.
Brian blinked, like, So what? But Eddie was all heart. 'Hey, man, we didn't know. How old is he, anyway?'
We walked back to the cafe. I thought they were just going to get back in their car, but Brian whispered something in his brother's ear, and after a short conference, conducted out of my hearing, they followed me in.
There was a queue waiting to pay stretching almost to the glass partition, and Hannah had given the till a nervous breakdown. Eddie and Brian waited patiently while I sorted her out and helped her get through the line. When the counter was free, Eddie and Brian came and leant there. Eddie with me, Brian with Hannah: he had drills for eyes. Hannah couldn't meet his stare. She turned her back on him and started wiping down the juicer. He watched her backside.
'I'll get mum to suggest another night, then.'
'Sure,' I told Eddie. 'Right.'
'My name is Brian,' said Brian, startling us both. Eddie watched his brother. 'We're in film,' Brian said. The object of Brian's affections ducked down out of sight and changed the CD in the machine. And changed it again. It was a good machine - a Nabeshima - and it had lots of buttons... Brian knew when he was being snubbed. He shoved his fists in the pockets of his jeans and tried to act casual.
Eddie sighed. 'Good to see you, Adam,' he said.
Eddie led his brother out of the cafe. At the doorway he turned. 'Hey, Adam' He held up something small and shiny. Oblique sunlight cast strange, intagliated shadows over his scarred arm. 'Catch.' He threw it to me. I snatched at it and missed. It ricocheted painfully off my thumb and bounced across the floor. It was the ball from the football table.
Eddie grinned. 'Too much Coca-Cola, mate,' he said.
I was already half-way up Hemingford Road before I remembered that tonight was Eva's dinner party. Angelica Loh and her husband had already arrived, drinking brandy from Eva's best glasses. They I could cope with; they were the least pretentious of Eva's Hong Kong friends. Loh Han-Wah was a patents lawyer with run-down offices in the City. Angelica had resigned from her stylist's job at Elle Decoration to look after their second baby and was well into her second year of domestic contentment. They had left Hong Kong in 1995, eighteen months before we did, and had been good to us when we first arrived. The others, who arrived in dribs and drabs over the following hour, were people I could have lived without - women who spent their lives giving each other dinner parties to help out various fashionable charities.
How they'd rolled up in London I was never too sure; the Handover hadn't triggered the exodus some British newspapers had expected, and most of the colony's smart money had stayed put. Maybe their stockbroker husbands had caught wind of the depression soon to sweep over East Asia. Princesses from mansions overlooking Shek O, they had emigrated en masse to Little Venice and the King's Road, acquiring, after a couple of British winters, the lost and ludicrous aspect of exotic birds shivering their lives away in a municipal zoo.
This evening Eva - ever ready to bind herself to the rack of social disappointment - had invited them over for supper in our tiny, petit-bourgeois kitchen.
While Eva poured brandy in the living room for David Kwok, the art dealer, and Flora Chau and Brenda Lai, Loh Han-Wah followed me downstairs to the kitchen and helped me set the table. His eyes twinkled behind round wire-framed spectacles as we worked. 'What's for dinner Adam?'
'I've no idea,' I admitted, my mind still occupied with the day's disastrous trade at the cafŽ. 'Here, we'll need an extra spoon, apparently.'
'Ah,' he said. He liked me, but my reputation made him uneasy. He always seemed to be about to make some devastating witticism, but he never did.
'Business going well?' I asked. A client of his was contesting rights to a minidisc format. His firm and the suits from Nabeshima had been head-to-head for months.
'I think we're ready to settle.'
'Shall we come down?' This from Eva, peering at us from over the banister. Loh smiled vaguely at her. His glasses, reflecting the hob light, hid his eyes.
'Sure,' I said.
'Darling, you're always so enterprising,' said David Kwok. Kwok ran an off-Bond Street gallery of antique oriental fabrics, prints, and what the decoration magazines call 'artefacts'. It was all unbelievably nasty stuff. Since shifting operations from Hong Kong's Hollywood Road to London's West End he had begun to fancy himself as a connoisseur, which for him meant adding a nought to everything and screaming abuse at the poor sods at Phillips whenever a piece didn't make its reserve. 'And how long has it been open?' He tented his fingers in front of his mouth, waiting for the response. His hands, smooth and plump as a child's, always unnerved me.
'Eighteen months,' Eva told us. 'The returns are excellent, especially with all the work that's going on in Greenwich.'
The trouble with Eva was, she had to talk everything up. She had to compete. Our cafe wasn't anywhere near Greenwich - the Millennium Dome was two whole bends in the river further east - it was in Southwark. When the new Tate opened at Millbank, then we'd have more trade than we could cope with. But we'd spent the past eighteen months serving sandwiches to road builders, and olives and focaccia to a handful of corporate refugees from Sea Containers House. It was a slow business but a promising one. In fact the reality of it was much more exciting than all her nonsense about the killing we were making but weren't.
But oh no, Eva had to compete. 'It's a bit of fun,' she said, with a casualness any fool could have seen through. 'Just while Adam gets started again.'
I stared at her. Brenda and Flora exchanged glances. Loh fixed me with his speculative smile.