Read Painkillers Online

Authors: Simon Ings

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

Painkillers (9 page)

BOOK: Painkillers
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The striking of a match brought me back to reality.

There was a boy on the footbridge. He was sitting astride a mountain bike, lighting a cigarette. He took in a lungful of smoke, and blew it over the match. The flame guttered and died. He flicked the dead match idly into the water.

He didn't take his eyes off me once.

I dropped the branch. The leaves, hitting the gravel, made a sound like rain. The boy tapped ash over the rail.

I walked along the canal towards him. Silhouetted by streetlight, his face was unreadable. I avoided his eyes and kept walking, under the bridge and out the other side. I heard the rhythmic clicking of his back wheel as he rocked back and forth on the bike. As I came out from under the bridge I looked up, nervously, expecting to see him there, but he wasn't. The towpath opened out for a strip of grass and some benches, some trees: the ground was white with blackthorn blossom. I looked back again. The bridge was empty.

The Narrowboat was barely five minutes' walk upstream. I looked for a way up to street level, but it turned out I didn't need one: the pub had a narrow yard which gave onto the towpath; the door was open and spiral stairs led up to a veranda with a view of Wenlock Basin. Inside, blackboards offered 'good food', board games, and After Noah playing live on Friday night. I ordered a large Lamb's and used the wallphone by the bar. I lost my only small change straight off because I didn't realise it was one of those phones you pay only when the other party answers. Which meant getting more change from the barman and another double.

I said, 'Is he back yet?'

'No. Where the hell are you?'

'I've been round everywhere. You sure he's not in the garden or something?'

'Adam, I don't understand this. I'm sure he didn't get out while I was upstairs. You'd have seen.'

'Maybe I didn't.'

The jukebox kicked in.

'What's that music?'

'The Champions, I think.'


'It had William Gaunt in it. Look, I'm coming home. I can't drive much more with this hand.'

'Is that a jukebox?'

'I'll see you in a few minutes.'

'You're in a pub!'

'Well of course I'm in a bloody pub,' I said, 'It's got a bloody phone, hasn't it?'

She slammed the phone down on me.

I got a third large one, stared down the barman, and looked for somewhere quiet to sit. The back room was carpeted and done out like a barge, with wooden sloping walls and a wooden ceiling. There were old prints of canals on the walls, and a photographic blow-up of a rustic lock-gate on the back wall. Most of the tables were free: a table of students, one of whom thought Merce Cunningham was 'crap'; a middle-aged couple in pebble glasses, nursing their drinks in silence until the woman started describing the pins and needles down the backs of her knees.

I nursed my rum, working up the courage to open that morning's letter. It had been burning a hole in my pocket all day. Finally I got it open.

It was official enough. On ICAC letterhead, no less. They were even offering to pay my air fare. They had a contact number for me to ring in London 'at your earliest convenience'. Underneath there was a PS.

'Call me first - DW.'

Daniel White: typical of him, still keeping things so friendly so long after the event. I missed him. I screwed the letter up and dropped it in the ash tray.

Which left me with my only other alternative.

I got my wallet out and counted through my small change.

Directory Enquiries had no number listed under Money or Jimmy Yau.

'Try Yau Wai-hing,' I said, and spelled it out, stretching the operator's patience. Yau Wai-hing - Money's Cantonese name.

'Here's your number,' she said.

I let the number repeat, so I had it. I took a deep breath - and I dialled
Hong Kong



When I first arrived in Hong Kong, in March 1989, it was with the idea that I'd be lecturing on management culture or business ethics or some such thing - a junket, basically. It was a view my boss, Frank Hamley, seemed happy to encourage. He wasn't a policeman - he had no law enforcement background at all - but had joined the Serious Crime Group straight from a stint pen-pushing for Legco. When I arrived, Hamley's unlikely empire consisted of a handful of underpaid, overworked pen-pushers in an annex off the old Serious Crime Group building. Massive expansion in the Far Eastern exchanges had snapped the old lines of corporate accountability; nobody, inside or out of these vastly distended companies, knew how to maintain effective control of them.

'We're the ones with our fingers in the dike,' Hamley told me proudly, over deep-fried oysters on the terrace of a restaurant in Lau Fau Shan. 'We're the ones at the sharp end,' he added - he had an unhappy knack of mixing his metaphors.

The job excited him. You could see it was a game with him. He didn't have to work. Hamley had money

- he was born into it. With that came certain social expectations, which he seemed determined to foil. Still, joining the Serious Crime Group hadn't seemed to spoil his social life any. Had he joined an outfit more obviously targeted at the Establishment - the Independent Commission Against Corruption, say reactions would have been quite different. Hamley did a lot of entertaining, those first few weeks of my stay, and he was never slow to show me around. I shook hands with Chris Patten and talked dogs with his wife Lavender. A minor Jardine invited me to Bermuda. At a piano recital in the China Club Hamley, staggeringly drunk, insisted to David Bonavia that I was the man he had to talk to for his latest volume of punditry. Everyone wanted the novelty of knowing him. Even minor royalty like Victor Pang.

'I met him at Jardine's,' Hamley told me. He had a way of talking about his business contacts as though he'd stumbled across them at a cocktail party. 'Miserable old sod. Mind, his daughter's good for one.'

Victor Pang Ka-Shing was an anomaly. Born in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation, he was brought up by his mother in Shanghai. A fervent and romantic Maoist in his teens, he joined the PLA straight from school, and it was only during the Cultural Revolution that he fled to Hong Kong. A self-made man, he proved himself as much of a workaholic as any of his peers. But he broke the mould early on, using his money to create a private world far away from their influence. They despised him for that. In the Lusitano Club he had become a 'character', for which crime his wife had never forgiven him. But that wouldn't stop the Lusitano Clubnor his wife, come to thatdriving here tonight and eating his food and drinking his brandy.

While we ate, the sun mellowed into late afternoon over the Chinese mainland. On the shoreline, a hundred metres off, the waves spat and rattled, sculpting dunes from the town's beach of a billion discarded oyster shells.

'So what went wrong in Rio?' Hamley said.

Rio was my last job - a consultancy post with KPMG. I enjoyed the city more than my job, but Hamley's question mystified me. 'Nothing went wrong,' I said, pursuing an oyster round my plate. I looked up at him. He'd gone back to his food. A drop of sauce ran down his slightly receding chin - he wiped it off with his hand. He leaned back into the late sunlight. Tiny crumbs of golden batter clung to the chest hairs poking luxuriantly out of his open-necked shirt. 'You left pretty suddenly, they said.'

'My contract expired.'

'Our friend Harold said you're an adventurer.'

Harold was my old boss. It was his reference had got me my posting.

'A bit of a buccaneer, he said.' He shovelled rice into his mouth and swallowed it without chewing. 'Only you don't know it yet.'

I pushed my plate away. 'Very Harold,' I said.


'Dramatic. He spends his weekends writing screenplay proposals.'

'I didn't know that,' Hamley admitted.

'They don't sell,' I said.

Essentially, the Serious Crime Group were an anti-Triad office, fielding two hundred detectives - many of them in deep cover - all over the New Territories. They had few establishment connections, and no background in finance. So how had they managed to recruit Hamley, a leading market consultant?

Today, the arrangement seems quite natural, because we're much more used to the idea of crime as an industry. The south-east Asian crash of '97-'98, for example, is directly related to a global criminal recession: between ten and thirty per cent of all Japanese non-performing bank loans are gang debts. Back in '89, though, the arrangement was unprecedented, and not a little spacy. Somewhere - working undercover in a hong, ransacking secret data cores - an SCG detective (this is what I fantasised) had stumbled across something. A hint of what was to come. I imagined it: a laundering network so big, the markets themselves were at risk!

I ironed my shirts very diligently in those days, and trawled Golden Arcade for the most fuck-off counterfeit RayBans I could find.

'The Rolex too?'

Coyly, I flashed my fifty-dollar timepiece in the sun.

Hamley shook his head. 'I can never keep my focus in those places. The last time I went in for a watch I came out with a Shrap Elsmate calculator and a five-CD set of Anita Mui.'

Before sunset, we drove on. Hamley wrestled the Saab through eddies of traffic bound for Un Long and Sheung Shui. It was turning seven when we turned left onto a gravel road and wound round a hill bright with suburban overspill and night-time construction. Another turn-off took us onto an older road, once metalled, now pitted and rough. The Saab's cultivated suspension wallowed and pinged in distress. I pulled the shade down against the setting sun. We were driving straight into it now, away from the suburbs of Yuen Long and into a region of market gardens.

The windscreen was tinted, browning out the sunset, and mellowing the raw electric lights of the villages. The road dipped sharply. We rounded a bend, and the sea came back into view. It burned like blood in the dying light.

'A pretty place, don't you think?'

I nodded.

'Make the most of it. Most of our clients have land deals round here. Here and Shenzhen.'

'Pang actually lives around here?'

'Why not?'

'It's a way out of town,' I said. I'd expected an exclusive retreat; I was disappointed.

'He got fed up of Shek O,' Hamley said. 'or maybe he got fed up of his wife. She lives there, anyway, doing the Shek O thing.'

About half way down the hill we joined the queue of big cars pulling into sandy lots along the beach. Flames leapt from iron drums, screwed into the shingle every twenty metres. Hamley led me up the bank, hands shoved casually in his trouser pockets, and down again towards the party. Old oil drums gave way to bespoke iron braziers, camp fires to barbecues. The coconut matting laid over the beach must have run to a couple of acres. Paper lanterns, swinging in the sea breeze, lit the way from pavilion to pavilion, barbecue to barbecue. Tibetan prayer-flags fluttered against bamboo poles, marking the tide line.

We passed a servant in whites carrying a silver tray. Hamley picked up a couple of glasses and handed me one. I drank, and snorted, as the champagne went up my nose.


Victor Pang stood sentinel at the head of the path, absurdly formal in a black linen suit and a shirt so flat and shiny it might have been made out of plastic. He had one of those childlike, despotic faces you find leering through the fog in old Sherlock Holmes serials. Hamley introduced me. Pang squeezed the blood from my hand.

Hamley and Pang caught up while Pang greeted the new arrivals. They came from private islands off Lantau, from casinos in Macau and car dealerships in Shenzhen and private galleries in Central. They'd acquired their wives the way you acquire expensive sports cars - late in life and with a degree of embarrassment. Their wives, like their cars, had a skittish look about them, as though at a sharp bend they would cheerfully tramline and send you flying over the crash barriers.

'Come on,' said Pang, already bored of his role as host, 'Let's eat.'

The first fire we came to stank of burnt feathers. Foetal chickens lay in neat rows, charring over white charcoal.

'Try it,' Pang insisted. 'Go on.'

I glanced at Hamley but he wasn't going to help me.

I capitulated. A soft baby skull burst its sweetness over my tongue.

'Come on, Frank,' said Pang.

'You must be kidding,' Hamley laughed. We followed Pang to the next barbecue. Hamley took me by the arm and whispered in my ear. 'Don't try and compete with this monster. You'll end up eating cat.'

Pang heard. 'Cat? That peasant crap?' A boy in whites handed him a plate of spare ribs. He offered it round. 'Monkey, Adam?'

I looked at him.

'He's only joking,' Hamley said.

'Come on,' said Pang, 'meet the vultures.'

I hovered at a discreet distance, fascinated by the women, picking their way uncomfortably across the shingle. They were dressed to impress, their simple, sleek clothes sculpting mere wayward flesh into forms out of Vogue and Tatler. Their ungainly approach I found disarming, though I wondered if the beach setting - the raw smoke and the uncertain ground - were not some subtle misogynistic joke on Pang's part. The men talked to me, found my salary wanting, smiled and moved on; their wives, wise to me from a glance, struck a pose, as pretentious as fashion models and somewhat thinner. I kept trying to withdraw but Pang, presumably because I'd arrived with Hamley, had taken a shine to me.

'You're going to have to come up with a job title,' he said. 'You're frightening everyone off.'

I should have found it patronising, being talked to like this. Maybe Pang's irony was seductive; maybe I was just intimidated.

'But I don't have a job description.'

'You can't keep saying you're a consultant. Nobody will ever trust you.'

'What do you suggest?'

'How about "spy"?'

'That'll make people trust me?'

'Oh Adam, we're all spies or thieves here. You should read your le CarrŽ.'

A guttural croaking interrupted us. It was supposed to be laughter. 'Talking of the honourable schoolboy, where's Patten?'

BOOK: Painkillers
9.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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