The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee Series #1)
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The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee Series #1)

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by Ian Hamilton

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In Ian Hamilton's The Water Rat of Wanchai, we meet forensic accountant and martial arts expert Ava Lee in her early days working for the mysterious businessman Uncle as they track down large sums of money that have disappeared. One of Uncle's longtime friends has requested help for his

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In Ian Hamilton's The Water Rat of Wanchai, we meet forensic accountant and martial arts expert Ava Lee in her early days working for the mysterious businessman Uncle as they track down large sums of money that have disappeared. One of Uncle's longtime friends has requested help for his nephew, who needs to recover five million dollars from a business deal that went sideways. Ava steps in and immediately is off on a global hunt for the missing money that has her dodging shady characters.

On a journey that takes her from Seattle to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Guyana, and the British Virgin Islands, Ava encounters everything from the Thai katoey culture to corrupt government officials. In Guyana she meets her match: Captain Robbins, a godfather-like figure who controls the police, politicians, and criminals alike. In exchange for his help, Robbins decides he wants a piece of Ava's five million dollars and will do whatever it takes to get his fair share.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
American fans of Ava Lee, a Toronto-based forensic accountant who specializes in finding and recovering missing money, will welcome Hamilton’s first in the series, whose publication in the U.S. follows that of the fourth entry, 2013’s The Red Pole of Macau. When her Chinese business partner, Uncle, asks her to help a friend’s nephew, who has lost $5 million to an unscrupulous seafood distributor, Ava embarks on a multicountry quest to track the funds. She travels to Hong Kong, where the deal originated, then follows the money trail to Bangkok and Georgetown, Guyana. In the seedy South American capital, she bribes Captain Robbins—the de facto power behind the government, military, law enforcement, and the criminal underworld—to help her reclaim the money from Jackson Seto, who masterminded the seafood scam. Despite a somewhat anticlimactic ending, this is an enjoyable romp with a feisty, ingenious heroine whose lethal martial arts skills are as formidable as her keen mind. Agent: Gillian Fizet, House of Anansi (Canada). (May)
From the Publisher
Praise for the Ava Lee Novels

“Hamilton makes each page crackle with the kind of energy that could easily jump to the movie screen.”—Rachel Kramer Bussel, Penthouse

“Formidable...Ava Lee is unbeatable at just about everything....She’s perfect.”—The Toronto Star

“Ian Hamilton really knows his stuff, offering intriguing insights into a secret world and a heroine as fascinating as she is fierce. A fantastic read, I can’t wait for the next one.”—Simon Lewis, author of Bad Traffic

“Slick, fast-moving escapism reminiscent of Ian Fleming.”—Booklist

Kirkus Reviews
A prequel to the Ava Lee series takes the jet-setting accountant into foreign lands and considerable danger. When Ava, a Toronto-based forensic accountant, gets a referral from her elderly business partner, she hesitates to take the case. Should she help Andrew Tam recover a $5 million investment in a seafood company that has disappeared along with unpaid money and unreleased inventory? Although she's so loyal to her partner that she gives him the courtesy title Uncle, Ava is also shrewd, objective and cautious about signing up for the job until she's done her homework about Seafood Partners. By the time Ava locates the money through a clever deception, she's also learned more than she ever dreamed she would about the shrimp industry. Satisfied that the money, if not the shrimp, is retrievable, she travels to Hong Kong and Bangkok to track down the two scamming partners. Much of her initial work is a waiting game that leaves her time to shop, work out and order food, until she blackmails the less-important conspirator into giving up the location of his partner, Jackson Seto. When Ava follows Seto to his bolt-hole in Guyana, she encounters levels of power and corruption she hadn't anticipated. But the adversaries who dismiss her as a fragile Chinese doll find out how much they've misjudged her and underestimate how far she'll go to honor her commitment to Uncle and her client. Hamilton (The Red Pole of Macau,2013, etc.) is as methodical as his cool-headed heroine in laying the groundwork for this adventure tale—too methodical, since it takes nearly half the book for Ava to hit her stride. Once she does, buyer beware this elegantly ruthless debt collector.

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Product Details

Publication date:
Ava Lee Series, #1
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Water Rat of Wanchai

An Ava Lee Novel

By Ian Hamilton


Copyright © 2014 Ian Hamilton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03227-0


When the phone rang, Ava woke with a start. She looked at the bedside clock. It was just past 3 a.m. "Shit," she said softly. She checked the incoming number. It was blocked. Hong Kong? Shenzhen? Shanghai? Or maybe even Manila or Jakarta, where the Chinese hid behind local names and were often all the more Chinese because of it. Wherever the call originated, Ava was sure it was somewhere in Asia, the caller ignorant about the time difference or just too desperate to care.

"Wei, Ava Lee," a male voice said in Cantonese. It was a voice she didn't recognize.

"Who is calling?" she said in his dialect.

"Andrew Tam."

It took a second for the name to register. "Can you speak English?"

"Yes, I can," he said, switching. "I went to school in Canada."

"Then you should know what time it is here," she said.

"I'm sorry. Mr. Chow gave your name and number to my uncle and told him I could call you anytime. He also said you speak Mandarin and Cantonese."

Ava rolled onto her back. "I do, but when it comes to business, I prefer English. There's less chance of confusion, of misunderstanding from my end."

"We have a job for you," Tam said abruptly.


"My company. Mr. Chow told my uncle he was going to discuss it with you." Tam paused. "You are a forensic accountant, I'm told."

"I am."

"According to what Mr. Chow told my uncle, you have an amazing talent for finding people and money. Well, my money is missing and the person who took it has disappeared."

"That is rarely a coincidence," Ava said, letting the compliment slide.

"Ms. Lee, I really need your help," Tam said, his voice breaking.

"I need more information before I can say yes. I don't even know where or what the job is."

"It's a bit of a moving target. We're based in Hong Kong and we were financing a company owned by a Chinese, which has offices in Hong Kong and Seattle and was doing production in Thailand for a U.S. food retailer."

"That isn't very helpful."

"Sorry, I don't mean to be so vague. I'm actually better organized than I sound; it's just that the stress right now is —"

"I understand about the stress," Ava said.

Tam drew a deep breath. "After talking to my uncle about your company yesterday, I forwarded a complete package of information to a family member who lives in Toronto. Could you free yourself later today to meet?"

"In Toronto?" It was an oddity for her work to involve her home country, let alone city.

"Of course."


"How about dinner in Chinatown?"

"I would prefer something earlier. Dim sum, maybe."

"All right, I'm sure dim sum will be fine."

"And not in the old Chinatown downtown. I'd rather go to Richmond Hill. There's a restaurant, Lucky Season, in the Times Square Mall, just west of Leslie Street on Highway 7. Do you know the area?"

"Yes, I do, generally speaking."

"Tell them to meet me there at one."

"How will they recognize you?"

"I will recognize them. Tell them to wear something red — a shirt or sweater — and to carry a copy of Sing Tao."


"Man or woman?"

"A woman, actually."

"That's unusual."

He hesitated. She sensed that he was about to launch into another explanation, and she was about to cut him off when he said, "My uncle tells me that Mr. Chow is your uncle."

"We're not blood relatives," Ava said. "I was raised traditionally. My mother insisted that we respect our elders, so it's natural for me to call our older family friends Uncle and Auntie. Uncle isn't a family friend, but from the very first time I met him it seemed appropriate. Even as my business partner he is still Uncle."

"He's a man whom very many people call Uncle."

Ava knew where Tam was headed and decided to cut him off. "Look, I'll meet with your contact later today. If I'm happy with the information she brings and I think the job is doable, then I'll call my uncle and we'll confirm that we're taking the job. If I'm not happy, then you won't hear from me again. Bai, bai," she said, putting down the phone.

She struggled to find sleep again as Tam's voice, with its too familiar sound of desperation, lingered in her ears. She pushed it aside. Until she took possession of his problem, that's all it was: his problem.


Ava woke at seven, said her prayers, stretched for ten minutes, and then went to the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee, using hot water from the Thermos. She considered herself to be Canadian, but she still clung to habits engrained by her mother, such as an always full rice steamer and a hot-water Thermos in the kitchen. Her friends made fun of her taste in coffee. She didn't care. She didn't have the patience to wait for it to brew and she hated waste; anyway, her taste buds were strictly attuned to instant.

She emptied instant coffee into her cup, poured in the water, and went to fetch the Globe and Mail at the door. She brought it in and settled onto the couch, turning on the television to a local Chinese channel, WOW TV, that had a current affairs show in Cantonese. There were two hosts: a former Hong Kong comedian who was trying to extend his best-before date in the boondocks, and a pretty young woman without any showbiz pedigree. She was low-key and seemed intelligent and classy — not a usual combination for women on Chinese television. Ava had developed a slight crush on her.

When the show broke at eight for a news summary, Ava dialled Uncle's cellphone number. It was early evening in Hong Kong. He would have left the office by now, maybe had had a massage, and would be sitting down to dinner at one of the high-end hotpot restaurants in Kowloon, probably the one near the Peninsula Hotel.

He answered on the second ring. "Uncle," she said.

"Ava, you caught me at a good time."

"Andrew Tam called me."

"How did you find him?"

"He speaks English very well. He was polite."

"How did you leave it?"

"I'm meeting with someone today who has details about the lost funds. I told Tam I'd talk to you after I had the information and then we'd decide what to do."

Uncle hesitated. "It isn't so straightforward from my end. I'd like you to make the decision about whether or not we take on the job."

Ava tried to think of some other time when she'd been the sole decision maker on a job. She couldn't. "Why leave this up to me?" she asked.

"Tam is the nephew of a friend, an old and very close friend. We grew up together near Wuhan, and he was one of the men who swam here from China with me."

She had heard the tale of the swim many times. Over the years the danger that Uncle and his friends encountered during those eight hours in the South China Sea, escaping the Communist regime, had become a distant memory, but the brotherhood they had forged remained all-important. "So it is that personal?"

"Yes. I knew it would be hard for me to be objective, so I thought it would be best for the nephew to tell you what happened, and then you can decide if the job is worth taking on its own merits. And Ava — don't agree to do it if it doesn't have merit."

"What about our rate?" she asked. It was usually thirty percent of what they recovered, split evenly between them.

"For you, yes, but for me ... I can't take my share. He's too close."

She wished he hadn't said that. It made it even more personal, and they tried to keep the personal out of their business.

"Call me when the meeting is over," Uncle said.

Ava hung up and puttered around the apartment, answering emails, catching up with bills, looking into winter holiday packages. She debated what to wear to the meeting. Since she didn't need to impress anyone, she decided on a black T-shirt and black track pants. No makeup, no jewellery.

She looked at herself in the mirror. She was five foot three and her weight hovered around 115 pounds. She was slim but not skinny, and her running and bak mei workouts had given her legs and butt nice definition. She had large breasts for a Chinese woman, large enough that she didn't need a padded bra for them to get noticed. In the T-shirt and track pants her shape got lost; the outfit made her look smaller and younger. There were times when looking young worked to her advantage. There were also times when a different look was needed, so she had a wardrobe of black form-fitting linen and cotton slacks, knee-length pencil skirts, and an array of Brooks Brothers shirts in various colours and styles that showed off her chest. The slacks and shirts, worn with makeup and jewellery, were her professional look: attractive, classy, capable.

At eleven she called downstairs and asked to have her car brought up from the garage.

Ava's condo was in Yorkville, in the heart of downtown Toronto. Like the properties around Central Park in New York, Belgravia in London, and Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, it boasted the city's most expensive real estate. She had paid more than a million dollars for the condo — in cash. Her mother, Jennie Lee, had been pleased by her choice of location, and was even prouder that her daughter wasn't carrying a mortgage. The condo came with a parking spot in which she had deposited an Audi A6. It was a waste of money, that car. Most everything she needed was within walking distance or, at worst, a five-minute subway ride. The only time she used the car was to visit her mother in Richmond Hill.

At ten after eleven the concierge called to say that her car was available. As Ava drove east along Bloor Street, she passed five-star hotels, innumerable restaurants, antique dealers and art galleries, and high-end retailers such as Chanel, Tiffany, Holt Renfrew, and Louis Vuitton — stores she rarely ventured into. She knew that if she did, any mention of her mother's name would set off a serious round of kowtowing.

She took the Don Valley Parkway north towards Richmond Hill, and for once the traffic was flowing smoothly. She got to Times Square half an hour early. The mall was named and modelled after one in Hong Kong; its main building, fronting Highway 7, was three storeys high. The parking lot in the back was encircled by stores selling Chinese herbs, DVDs, and baked goods, and by restaurants serving every type of Asian cuisine.

Toronto has a huge Chinese population — half a million or more — and Richmond Hill is its epicentre. About twenty kilometres north of downtown, Richmond Hill is a sprawling expanse of suburban tract housing and malls. East and west along Highway 7, the malls are almost exclusively Chinese. Once a traditional European-Canadian suburb, Richmond Hill is a place where English isn't needed anymore. There isn't a service or commodity that can't be acquired in Cantonese.

It wasn't always this way. Ava could remember when there was only the old Chinatown downtown on Dundas Street, just south of where she lived now. In those days her mother had been a bit of a pioneer, one of the first Chinese people to settle in Richmond Hill. Every Saturday she still had to drive Ava and her sister, Marian, into Toronto for their Mandarin and abacus lessons. While the girls studied, she shopped for the Chinese vegetables, fruit, fish, sauces, spices, and ten-kilo bags of fragrant Thai rice that made up their diet.

All of that had changed when Hong Kong began to prepare for the end of British colonial rule in 1997. The uncertainty of life under Communist China hadn't exactly caused panic, but many felt it would be prudent to have other options, and Canada made it easy for those with money to establish a second home. Toronto's downtown area couldn't accommodate the influx of new Chinese immigrants, so Richmond Hill became the next best landing spot — and why it was chosen was simple.

For years, Vancouver, British Columbia — more specifically, the nearby suburban city of Richmond — had been the most desired location for Chinese immigrants coming to Canada. Its name evoked wealth and was therefore considered auspicious. Ava's mother was no exception; she had lived in Richmond during her first two years in the country. When Toronto began to supplant Vancouver as the economic hub of Canada, western Chinese-Canadians migrated to Richmond Hill because they assumed it would be like Richmond, B.C. — that is, Chinese. Eventually, as always with the Chinese, more begot more, until you could walk into nearby Markham's Pacific Mall and believe you were in Hong Kong.

Ava had to circle the Times Square parking lot twice before she found a spot. The Lucky Season was full, and she had to wait ten minutes before getting a table. Her mother had introduced her to the restaurant, which on weekdays offered every dim sum dish for $2.20. A party of four could drink all the tea they wanted, stuff themselves for an hour, and still spend less than thirty dollars on a meal. It was remarkable, Ava thought, and all the more remarkable because the food was excellent and the portions traditional dim sum size.

Her mother ate there two or three times a week, but this was Tuesday, and Ava knew she had an appointment with her herbalist, followed by her weekly session with the manicurist. Still, she did a quick scan of the room just in case.

Ava sat at a table facing the front door. There was a steady stream of people, none of them too rich or too poor to pass up two-dollar dim sum. It amazed her to what lengths the Chinese would go to for perceived value. You could put four restaurants serving almost identical food beside each other, and for reasons that seemed beyond logic, one of them would develop a reputation for being the best. That restaurant would be besieged by long lines, creating endless waits, while the others would be almost blissfully empty. Her mother epitomized that mentality.

Jennie Lee was a constant presence in Ava's life. It was something she had grown to accept, although her sister had problems with it, mainly because she was married to a gweilo — a Caucasian with British roots — and he couldn't understand their mother's need to maintain such close contact with her daughters. He didn't have any concept of family Chinese-style: the constant intrusions, being joined at the hip for life, the obligations children had to their parents. He also couldn't fathom the life that had brought their mother and them to Canada.

Their mother had been born in Shanghai and, though raised in Hong Kong, considered herself to be a true Shanghainese — which is to say strong-willed, opinionated, and loud when required, but never rude, never tacky, and never pushy, like Hong Kongers. She had met their father, Marcus Lee, when she worked in the office of a company he owned. He was from Shanghai too. She became his second wife in the old style, which is to say he never left or divorced the first. Ava and Marian became his second family, acknowledged and cared for but with no hope of inheriting anything more than their names and whatever their mother could put aside for them.

When Ava was two and Marian four, their mother and father had become embroiled in a dispute, and Jennie's presence in Hong Kong became too much of a burden. Ava learned later that a third wife had emerged, and though her mother accepted subservience to wife number one, she wasn't about to play second fiddle to a newcomer. In any event, their father decided that the farther away they were, the happier his life would be. He relocated them initially in Vancouver, a direct flight from Hong Kong if he wanted to visit but far enough away for them not to be a nuisance. But her mother hated Vancouver; it was too wet, too dreary, too much a reminder of Hong Kong. She moved the girls to Toronto, and there were no objections from the Hong Kong side.

They saw their father maybe once or twice a year, and always in Toronto. He had bought their mother a house, had given her a generous allowance, and looked after any special needs. When he did come to visit, the girls called him Daddy. Their mother referred to him as her husband. For one or two weeks they would lead a "normal" family life. Then he was gone, and the couple's contact would be reduced to a daily phone call.

It was, Ava realized later, a businesslike relationship. Their father had got what he wanted when he wanted it, and her mother had the two girls and a notional husband. He would never deny her or the family, and her mother knew that; so she deliberately set about squeezing him for every dollar's worth of security she could get. He must have known what she was doing, but as long as she played by the rules, he was okay with it. So she had the house, she had a new car every two years, and she was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy that would replace her monthly allowance (and then some) if anything happened to him. He paid all the school fees, and she made sure the girls went to the most expensive and prestigious schools she could get them into. He paid separately for family vacations, dental work, summer camps, and special tutoring. He bought each of the girls their first car.


Excerpted from The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 Ian Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Ian Hamilton has been a journalist, a diplomat, and traveled the world as a businessman. He is the author of three previous books in the Ava Lee series, The Disciple of Las Vegas, The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, and The Red Pole of Macau. He lives in Burlington, Ontario, with his wife.

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