It's 1987 and in ten years' time Britain will hand back the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to China. Detective-Inspector Scrimple hasn't solved a crime in years, his bosses hate him, his friends laugh at him and he hasn't had a real girlfriend since he left England to join the Royal Hong Kong Police. But all of that is about to change. When the dead body of a prominent expatriate is found in a garbage room and Scrimple is sent to investigate, his boring, mediocre life is turned upside down as he gets involved with a gorgeous nightclub hostess, incurs the wrath of a powerful Triad boss and is finally betrayed by his colleagues.
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Hong Kong was hot and humid as Detective Inspector Scrimple came into the Report Room of Lai Chi Kok Police Station. The Duty Officer, a corpulent Chinese Station Sergeant, nodded at him as Scrimple signed himself on duty in the Occurance Book then took the lift up to the third floor where the Divisional Investigation Teams were located.
"Morning, daai-lo. You look like shit," Ah-Chan, his Junior Investigator said with a smirk.
"Feel like shit," Scrimple said and pulled the South China Morning Post out of his battered Cathay Pacific holdall.
"I already call canteen for your sandwich and coffee," Ah-Chan said. "Too much drinky last night, sir?"
"How could you guess?" Scrimple said with a hint of irony that would have been lost on Ah-Chan. The Chinese lad's English was good--and Scrimple relied heavily on him to handle the daily Cantonese workload--but not that good.
"Any cases yet?" Scrimple asked.
"Nothing, daai-lo. But lots of files brought up today."
"I can see them." Scrimple eyed the pale blue crime files that had been delivered for his review by Central Registry. He touched them briefly as if they were a pile of rotting fish and then decided to leave them lying in the brown plastic In-tray for a while longer. Nobody would be arrested from any intuitive detective work he managed this morning.
He rummaged in his holdall and produced a packet of Marlboros. Ah-Chan turned around and flicked a gold Cartier lighter and Scrimple took a long drag. A minute later an old man in a grubby lab coat bowed his way into the office and deposited the coffee and sandwich on the Inspector's blotter. The sandwich wrapper was soggy from the greaseand the coffee was made with powdered milk steeped in sugar but he had gotten used to it. He handed over a ten-dollar note and was given some change.
"I'm really not in the mood for any new crimes today, Ah-Chan. Can you make sure someone tells the Duty Officer?"
Ah-Chan turned from his desk and gave a small shrug. "If we lucky, should be okay. Duty Officer and Sergie have a good relationship so maybe we can make sure no offences are classified as crime unless really big ones."
"I don't want any more stupid car theft cases only to find that the person didn't have the car stolen but crashed it while drinking."
"Don't worry, Sergie knows how to push those away. Ten minutes in the interrogation room makes the case go away."
"Yes, make them go away. That would be really useful." Scrimple flicked the ash into his plastic bin, which was pockmarked from cigarettes that had been extinguished on its sides. Divisional Investigation Teams picked up all initial crimes that were reported. A Crime Complaints Register, the CCR, would be opened by the Duty Officer if he felt it required the involvement of the Criminal Investigation Department, the CID. Once a CCR was open it had to be investigated and brought to some kind of conclusion. The trick was in getting the Duty Officers not to classify a minor offence as a crime.
"Another bender caught in a public toilet and sent to prison," Scrimple said.
"Another homosexual person was convicted in Kowloon magistrate court for giving a blow job to a stranger last month."
Ah-Chan snorted with disgust. "That too dirty. Chinese people don't do that."
"He was Chinese. Says here in the paper."
Ah-Chan shook his head. In England the laws had been liberalised a long time ago but the crimes related to homosexual conduct were all still on the statute books in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Although many of the Cantonese movie and pop stars were gay, and it was generally tolerated by the police, nobody in the Chinese community was lobbying for the laws to be changed. Lewd conduct in a public place still resulted frequently in two or three years in prison.
Penny Fung, his Woman Detective Constable, came into the office. She wore her usual skintight jeans and leather jacket. She looked like a student who had snuck into the police station during an Open Day. In fact she was well past thirty and her innocent face belied a hardness that could terrify those who came into her custody. She'd been on holiday for ten days and this was her first day back.
"Josan, Ah-sir. You really get fat," she said then shot a paragraph of rapid Cantonese at Ah-Chan.
"Why does everybody have to comment on how I look?" Scrimple grumbled, reaching back and killing his Marlboro on the side of the bin. Penny Fung made his day bearable. But he wished she was a bit more interested in her boss. Only two things seemed to get her excited: horse racing and a good mah-jong game. She was a demon gambler.
The black dial telephone buzzed. It was Scrimple's immediate boss, the Assistant Divisional Commander (Crime).
"When you have a moment," Chief Inspector Wexhill ordered, "come into my office and we'll talk about that supposed blackmail case from last night."
"Yes, sir," Scrimple said. Inwardly he groaned, knowing he must have screwed something up. He hated blackmails because they were never simple and all the parties always lied. Then the bosses asked questions and he looked foolish. At least Liverpool had won their match, he thought, folding the newspaper and tossing it under his desk along with the others from the previous days.
"Ah-Chan, is the AP still being detained?" Scrimple asked.
"Good. I didn't like his attitude. Hope he gets sick from the food."
Technically Scrimple would have to sign the release of any Arrested Person but sometimes he confused cases or forgot, so his sergeant sometimes sorted things out to protect his boss. Occasionally the 'Sergie' didn't bother telling his boss that he'd forged his signature.
Wexhill's office was a few doors down the corridor. There were pale blue crime files all over Wexhill's desk, on all the chairs, on the floor ranged in foot high piles, on the window ledge and in his lap. The ADVC Crime had the authority to close down cases and he did not wield this responsibility lightly.
"You're looking worse than usual, Scrimple," Wexhill said in his strong Irish accent with a gentle smile playing around his lips.
"So I've been told, sir."
"Takes the stress out of the job, I suppose?" Wexhill fiddled with a pipe that had not been lit for nearly a year.
"That's what they say."
Scrimple thought if it hadn't been for Wexhill his job would have been unbearable. The ADVC Crime forgave him his inadequacies--the lack of attention to detail, the sloppiness of presentation and the excessive delegation to his subordinates.
"All right. The DVC wasn't very happy at morning prayers today. He believes there's more to this case than blackmail. Did you consider criminal intimidation?"
Scrimple said nothing. He looked sheepish. The Divisional Commander, Sammy Chung, was a stickler for procedure and all he cared about was that the crime figures made him look good in the eyes of his boss, the District Commander.
Wexhill flicked the file shut. "You're just not concentrating, lad. This stuff is important and the bosses on the upstairs floors are seeing your name too often on sloppily compiled files."
"I know, sir."
"Do something about it then or you won't be in CID much longer." Wexhill smiled to show that it was well-meant advice. Then he indicated at the door with a nod of his head. The meeting was over.
It was time to visit the Cynic, Scrimple decided, one of his few friends in the station. The Cynic had been banned to the subterranean office of the Miscellaneous Enquiries Sub-Unit, one of the worst admin jobs in the police station for an Inspector.
"Hello, Fat Boy," Steve Burnough said as Scrimple entered the damp room that served as his office. Heating pipes ran along the ceiling and grey paint was peeling from many places on the walls. The fluorescent light was harsh and the smell reminded visitors that this had been and would eventually return to being a storage room. "And what brings you down to see us cave dwellers?"
"Just got bollocked again by Wexhill," Scrimple said, throwing himself into the stiff wooden armchair. He sighed. "Can't say I don't deserve it but these bloody little minor issues that the bosses are always raising. What does it matter how the crime is classified? We're not going to prosecute anyway. What a wank."
Burnough laughed quietly. He'd been reading a slim volume of poetry by Roger McGough with his feet up on the table. The Cynic was a skinny fellow with intense eyes, a long academic face and a sharp nose. Usually dressed in brown kakhis, desert boots, sleeve-less shirts and the same thin black tie, he was now in pale green standard summer uniform. On his shoulders was the single pip of a probationary inspector. His cap and Sam Browne belt were hung up neatly on the back of the door. His shoes were polished to a high gleam for which the Inspector paid his room-boy a regular stipend.
The Miscellaneous Sub-Unit was where the bosses sent dubious men with attitude problems before the end of their contracts. It dealt with minor police complaints such as breaches of the summary offences ordinance, as well as death reports and licence checks. Burnough took the boring work in his stride knowing that he was on the home stretch. He had completed most of his three-year contract and had no intention of renewing it. He had other plans, Scrimple knew, but what they were was anybody's guess. Burnough had been a journalist before joining the force but all types of people from plumbers to philosophy graduates had made it through the doors of Grafton Street in London where the RHKP recruited its expatriate officers.
"How's the mad bitch?" Scrimple asked.
"Normal. Yapping and whining," the Cynic replied. "You can't smoke in here you know," he added, seeing Scrimple fingering his packet of Marlboros.
Burnough's immediate boss was the ADVC Admin, a woman who rarely left the station before eleven at night and drove everyone crazy with her pedantic manner and vicious temper.
"Did you know that homosexuals can't whistle?" the Cynic said, reaching for a pair of nail clippers he kept in his desk drawer.
"That's what they say."
"I think it's bullshit."
"Could be true though, couldn't it? But you wouldn't know because you don't hang out in places like Disco-Disco. You're not enlightened enough."
Scrimple snorted. "I just prefer not having my bum groped."
"You'd be lucky to have your bum groped, let alone be propositioned. It's not a very nice bum."
"They say Danny Chan, the famous Canto-Pop singer is a bender."
"Scrimple," Burnough said with resignation. "You embody everything that is bad and pathetic about this prejudiced colonial police force."
"That might be true but at least I've got an office with a window."
"I won't be here long. Just waiting for my gratuity and then it will be hasta la vista baby and fuck you all and especially Mr. 'High and Mighty' Bottle and the Commissioner of Police." He smiled cunningly and tossed the nail clippers back where they belonged. "I've got a few things up my sleeve. Anyway, what else is new?"
Scrimple said, "Nothing much. Same old boring crap. Day in and day out."
"You should get a girlfriend."
"Yeah, right. Look at me. I'm a fat, balding git with glasses and body odour."
"Well, you don't have to be. You could go down to Kai Tak and run around the Police Recreation Club jogging track everyday. I heard the District Commander does it every night."
"You try and work CID. Not only do I get Wexhill, the leprechaun, wagging his finger at me, I've also got to worry about that bastard Bottle who reads every word in every teleprinter message sent out and his tame chog poodle Sammy Chung. Soon as you are about to come off duty some case walks in the door and you spend another four hours doing all the statements."
Burnough shrugged. "You chose to be in CID."
Scrimple nodded ruefully. Whereas he had never learned to play the internal politics necessary to keep his record clean and his reputation wholesome, Burnough had never even made the effort. He thought the Police Force was a farce and he had never taken a day's work seriously. At Police Training School he had constantly been given punishment drills, which he had cheerfully accepted. He went on and off-duty wearing his supercilious smile, which infuriated his superior officers and had landed him where he was now, quietly shunted aside in one of the worst jobs a Division could offer.
"Anyway, the reason I popped down," Scrimple said, "is that my air-con's broken. So what do I do about it? Where do I take it?"
Burnough laughed dryly. "The simple answer is you don't take it anywhere. You have someone come around and look at it. Sometimes they just fiddle with it and fill it up with more freon, or they might take it away for a few hours and give it a steam wash."
"Oh. So how do I do that?"
"Call 'em up."
"And say what?"
"Tell them you want someone to come around."
"But they won't be able to speak English."
"Well, your Cantonese is fluent, isn't it?"
"Yeah, and the Pope shags black hookers. Have you got a number?"
"No. Try the phone book. Ask your JI."
"It's not the sort of thing I want to get Ah-Chan to do."
Burnough sighed and got up from his seat. He walked over to the dark brown steel filing cabinet and picked up the yellow pages lying on top. He flicked through them for a minute while Scrimple watched. His friend then pulled over the phone and dialed the numbers. At this moment, Scrimple's long silver government-issue pager made a sudden burp. It meant Ah-Chan was looking for him.
"Hermitage 15C, right?" Burnough asked.
Burnough had come top in his Cantonese class. He spoke to the person that answered the phone, explained what was needed, haggled over the price for a minute and then put the phone down.
"Okay, they'll come around tomorrow after you finish A-shift. Three hundred honks."
"That's bloody expensive."
"Sleep with the bloody fan on then."
Scrimple rolled his eyes. It was still summer and the humidity and heat at night were unbearable.
"So, we going for a few toots tomorrow?" the Cynic asked.
"I guess so. Help me find a girlfriend," Scrimple said with a sneer.
"Someone nice and gorgeous and yummy will come along. Be positive."
"And the Queen will intervene and we won't give Hong Kong back to the Commie bastards in '97. Anyway, I've gotta go. I'm sure there's some exciting snatching case waiting for me. Why don't I get the good ones? Like a juicy hostess girl rape and she'll be so grateful for my sensitivity she'll shag me silly and only charge half-price."
"You really live in your own dreamworld, don't you?" Burnough said.
Scrimple shook his head. The Cynic was famous for his rudeness to people but he was a good guy really, just out of place in the RHKP. He should have stayed in more intellectual circles.
"Anyway, thanks for the help, mate," he said and left, making his way back up the stairs from the basement. In a way he envied Burnough who, on returning to England would have choices. The only choice Scrimple had was to stay on in Hong Kong or go back to his old job as a constable on the beat. Of course he could also go out and find some rich heiress and marry her. Or lose forty pounds and become a go-go boy in one of the Ladies' Clubs in Taipei. Apparently Westerners could make shit-loads of money there pleasuring the rich, neglected wives of wealthy Chinese businessmen. But not him.
He strode into his office and found a worried JI and Sergeant yabbering at each other in Cantonese while Penny Fung was using the phone.
"What's all the excitement?" he asked.
"A Dead body case. Sub-Unit Commander just call back. Dead body with suspicious."
"Oh shit, just what I need. And they just found it?"
"Mei Foo San Chuen, garbage room."
The Sergeant spoke up, "This not good Ah-Sir. Console just say it looks like the dead body is a gwai-lo."
"What the fuck's a white bloke doing in Mei Foo getting killed?"
"Maybe dangerous drugs casey."
"Maybe a frigging nightmare casey. I can just feel this is going to be a real pain in the arse."