Typhoons—“big winds” in Cantonese—start to gouge holes in the South China Sea in early April and are well into their stride by the end of the month, when the sea is already the temperature of bathwater and humidity runs at between 90 and 100 percent. Everyone avoids the water during typhoon warnings. Except fools, Chan thought.
He looked at his watch, a fake gold Rolex flaking at the edges: 3:30 P.M. Ayya! What had started as a search and recovery operation expected to last no more than a couple of hours had turned into a dangerous drift toward Chinese waters that was taking all afternoon.
Standing at the bows of Police 66, a fast motor launch belonging to the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, he moved his eyes in an arc from the sea to the sky. Darkness piling upon darkness. Sometimes the turbulence could be five hundred miles away yet drag down local clouds so dark that visibility disappeared in the middle of the day. Clouds like solar eclipses, except they lasted longer and fascinated no one.
By his side Inspector Richard Aston, twenty-four years of age, blond, imitated his movements.
“Not looking good, Chief.”
“Not good,” Chan agreed.
Ignoring the best principles of leadership, Chan failed to disguise from the young recruit that he was nervous and unsure what to do next. Alan, a tightening whorl of trapped wind spinning around a dead eye, had been more than four hundred nautical miles to the southeast when they had started out and tottering toward Taiwan. If it kept its present course, it would miss Hong Kong by a safe margin, but name a typhoon that was predictable. Name too a typhoon that did not kill at least a few people, especially at sea.
The wind was freshening. The first whitecaps were dancing on top of stubby waves. Small whitecaps for the moment, but that could change. Chan yelled in Cantonese to the captain up in the wheelhouse. Aston smirked.
Chan glanced at him. “You understand that?"
“You said, ‘Slow the fucking boat down. Can’t you see it’s as black as a Chinese vagina?’ “
Chan nodded. It was typical of a young English cop that he would know the word for the female part; it was what they learned after “please” and “thank you.” But Cantonese was rich in double meanings and the captain had understood a slightly different message: Don ‘t get us trapped in the crotch of China. Chan knew six million people who would say amen to that.
“Better go back,” he said without conviction.
“Yes, we better. Could get blown halfway up the Pearl River if we hang around here.”
“Don’t say that. “ Chan’s hand shook as he lit another cigarette. “ You see it anywhere?” Smoke and words tumbled from his mouth in a rush.
Aston gazed into the gloom. “To be honest, Chief, I can’t see a bloody thing.”
Chan grimaced. “It’s there, though.” He turned to the bridge, shouted in Cantonese: “Where are we now?”
“Due north of the Soko Islands, heading west at three knots.”
All aboard understood the tension in the captain’s voice. Every map of Hong Kong shows that the territorial waters belonging to the People’s Republic of China begin very close to the western end of the Soko Islands. Private and commercial craft from Hong Kong passed regularly across the invisible line in the sea, usually on their way to Macao, but it was forbidden for officials in uniform to do so, especially aboard craft bearing the queen’s arms. The Chinese Navy, always sensitive to foreign incursions, had never forgiven the theft of Hong Kong by bullies in British uniforms more than a hundred years before.
“A clear plastic bag, very large and of industrial quality, with apparently gruesome content,” the tourist had said. American tourists gave the most precise reports to police. They had more practice.
“Gruesome”? Neither Chan nor Aston had taken the report. The message had been redirected by the local Lantau police station to the RHKPF’s headquarters in Arsenal Street on Hong Kong Island and then on to Chan’s desk at Mongkok. It had been his first break in a triple murder inquiry with which Chan had conspicuously made no progress for over a week. With a disposition like Chan’s frustration was hard to disguise, and the nature of the crimes did not help his state of mind. “Atrocities” was the word English journalists were using.
From the boat they had seen the bag four or five times off in the distance drifting toward the west, but it had eluded them, and then the cloud had come down like a curtain.
Aston gave him another five minutes. “Well, Chief? Do we go back?”
Chan flicked his cigarette into the South China Sea. “I guess.” There was nothing to be achieved in a state of blindness; only gravity provided a guide to the difference between up and down. But the cloud did seem to be slowly dissolving and growing lighter, from black to slate gray. “Five more minutes, okay? Want tea?”
They stood together at the bows, drinking green Chinese tea from two tall glasses the boat boy brought. As they drank, the cloud in front of them dispersed, leaving a heavy cloud bank to stern, not necessarily a good omen. The freshening wind was cutting the mist into scarves that floated around the boat and tore against the radio mast to reveal a corpse-gray sky. The only unchanging element was the heat. In a short-sleeved white shirt with epaulets, shorts, long socks, Aston leaned gratefully into the spray that had started to rinse him every time the bows bashed against the burgeoning waves. Chan was in plain clothes: a pair of shorts and a money belt where he kept his wallet and police identity card. His naked torso was olive. A small blue butterfly hovered on top of one bicep and covered most of the faded Chinese characters of an earlier tattoo, now illegible. His feet were bare, the better to grip the wooden deck.
A shout went up from the crew. Aston had seen it too at the same time as everyone else, gray and almost entirely submerged about two hundred yards to the west. It appeared and disappeared with the rhythm of the waves: the top of a bag with a dab of green from the ropes that tied it.
On the bridge bank notes changed hands, those who had bet against finding the bag again paying out to those who had gambled that it would be found.
From the bows Chan called over his shoulder: “Slowly ahead. Get the nets. No hooks. Don’t damage the evidence. No more gambling.”
About ten minutes later in a world without coordinates it seemed to Aston that it was the floating bag that drifted alongside the boat, rather than the other way around. He watched as three Chinese constables leaned over and with little trouble captured it in a large green nylon net attached to a long bamboo pole. Cantonese expletives exploded in the muggy air when those closest saw what was in the bag. Then, as they drew it up, Aston saw too and retched loudly over the side.
When Aston had choked up the last of his stomach’s contents, he turned again, half disbelieving, to look at the bag, now sitting on the center of the foredeck not two yards away from him. Three waterlogged and decapitated heads with drooping mouths and wide-open eyes stared out through the transparent plastic like the distorted faces of children pressed against glass. Revulsion, and the curiosity it inspired, took him two steps closer. To judge by the shapes, two pairs of eyes were Chinese, one pair Caucasian. But the mouths were not drooping; he’d been misled by seawater trapped between gray folds of plastic. The faces had no lips at all. Or noses. The eyes were staring because the eyelids had been cut off. So had the ears.
The Chinese constables who had recovered the bag from the sea retreated to the other end of the deck. They stood in navy blue shorts smoking and swearing copiously, making jokes Aston could not follow, although he understood enough to guess at their obscenity. Behind the obscenity, fear. Behind the fear, awe. Extreme cruelty was a manifestation of power, after all.
“Help me,” Chan said. “Bloody Chinese won’t touch it. Bad luck.”
Aston swallowed hard and grunted. With Chan holding one side of the bag, which was tied at the top with thick polyester rope, and Aston the other, they picked it up. The change in pressure forced gases out through the closed mouth of the bag. Both dropped it at the same time, gagging. A cloud of nauseating sweetness hung in the air for a moment before the wind blew it away. Holding his breath, Chan bent the opening of the bag over on itself, used the ends of the nylon rope to retie it. They started again and were carrying it slowly toward the cabin, lurching to accommodate the rolling of the boat, when the staccato rattle of a submachine gun rang out across the water.
Half cocooned in mist, its motor still inaudible over the threshing sea, another launch, similar in size but older and less well kept, rolled with the waves not more than fifty yards to stern. Three Chinese men in shabby green uniforms, one of them with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and an AK-47 cradled in his arms, stood staring at them across the water. Aston made out a red star painted on the bows of the boat. Chan signaled to Aston tout the bag down. The heads made a squelching sound as they hit the deck. Aston put out a foot to stop the bag from rolling and trapped dark blond human hair between the plastic.
Chan staggered to the rail, held on while he shouted to the other boat in Cantonese. “What’s the problem?"
“Problem, Firstborn, is you’re lost. This sea belongs to the People’s Republic of China. What did you just pick up from it?”
“Lap sap [rubbish]. And we’re not lost.”
“I don’t think it was lap sap, Firstborn. And you’re in China. How about you just give us that bag and we’ll let you run back home instead of arresting you like we should?”
“Okay.” Chan made no effort to move.
Chan pushed his hair back. “Okay, arrest us. Arrest us and eat shit for the rest of your life. Because we’re in Hong Kong waters.”
“Frog shit, Firstborn. Ask your crew for a compass reading.”
Chan summoned an expression of profound disdain. “We have satellite positioning, good to the half inch. Hey, Captain, tell the man in green where he is.”
From the bridge the captain yelled a set of numbers in Cantonese.
The three coastguards on the other boat conferred, shook their heads. Chan’s captain was no fool. To a man the crew of the police boat maintained implacable stares focused just above the Communist launch.
“That’s not our reading.”
“So where was your compass made?”
The three coastguards conferred again.
“Just give us that bag, Firstborn, and stop insulting the Revolution. Ten years ago we would have killed you.”
“Why do you want it?”
The coastguard shrugged. “Orders.”
“Did your orders tell you to cross into Hong Kong waters?” The coastguard took a long drag on his cigarette, threw the remains into the sea.
“What’s your name, Firstborn?”
“What?” The coastguard tried to repeat Chan’s rendering of his nickname. “Gar-ha-lee?”
“Don’t they teach you anything over there?” “I told you, don’t insult the Revolution.” The coastguard pulled the trigger of the AK-47. Chan and Aston hit the deck. Chan heard guffaws from across the water.
“Power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” the coastguard said.
Chan used the rail to pull himself to his feet. “I bet you made that up yourself.”
The coastguard stiffened. “No, Chairman Mao.”
“I’m warning you, Firstborn.”
Chan held up a hand. “Don’t shoot, I have bad nerves. Look, it’s teatime in Hong Kong. Let’s all go home.”
“Give us the bag, Firstborn.”
“We could discuss it over a beer.”
“Nothing to discuss. You picked up something from Chinese waters. It belongs to us.”
“A thousand dollars,” Chan said.
“And two cases of Carlsberg.”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Nothing you want.”
“We have orders.”
“Don’t tell them you saw us. Look, there’s a typhoon. We have to get back. So do you.”
The coastguard rubbed his hand on the stock of the gun, then looked at the sky.
“What’s in that other bag, the one protecting your crotch?”
“A thousand dollars.”
“I think there’s at least two thousand dollars in there keeping your balls warm.”
The crew on the Communist boat chuckled.
Chan’s twitch subsided somewhat. “Okay.”
“And all your beer.”
“Now tell us what’s in the bag.”
“Three human heads.”
The coastguards guffawed again.
“You’re a real comedian, Firstborn. How’re you going to bring the money and beer over here?"
Chan gestured toward the stern. “I’ll send the tender.”
He ordered the inflatable lowered from its davits. The crew didn’t need to be told to hurry; they had the outboard roaring within a second of its entering the sea. Two constables handed some twelve-packs of Carlsberg to the crew in the tender. Chan extracted all the notes from his money belt and borrowed some more from Aston. The wind had started to moan.
“Did he say, ‘Ten years ago we would have killed you’?” Aston spoke in a half whisper.
“He was being macho. It’s not true.”
“Right.” Aston waited while Chan watched the tender reach the Communist boat, his black eyes fixed like stones. He relaxed as soon as he saw the beer unloaded and the tender put off again from the other boat.
“Twenty-five years ago they would have killed us, though.” Chan caught Aston’s gaze. “During the Cultural Revolution it wasn’t a good idea for Hong Kong police to stray over the border.”
Excerpted from The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett. Copyright © 2012 by John Burdett. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.