The traditional dark wood and red leather dining room in the private club in Kowloon had plenty of tables set with crystal and silver ready for the dinner service. It was 9 p.m. and the place should have been packed, but there was only one diner. Two of CK’s bodyguards met Mann at the door and escorted him to his seat. CK was sitting with his elbows on the table, fingertips pressed together, a man in careful deliberation. As slight as CK Leung was, he had the presence of a powerful man. Like Mann, he was an immaculate dresser, although he favoured the traditional Mandarin-collared suit.
CK had been the Dragon Head of the Wo Shing Shing for as long as Mann could remember. He had already been in his mid forties when Mann joined the police force. Then, he was a freshly hatched Dragon Head-building up his empire. Now, at sixty-two, due to his business expertise, his foresight and his total lack of ethics, he headed the largest triad society in Hong Kong, with ambitions to take over the triad world. Mann hated CK and all he stood for, but the animosity between them was more complicated than that. Someone within the Wo Shing Shing had been responsible for ordering the death of Mann’s father. Mann believed that CK knew who it was.
Mann walked across the empty dining room and sat opposite CK, who handed him the menu.
‘I recommend the Japanese dishes-the fugu is a personal favourite.’
Mann snapped the menu shut.
‘The fugu it is.’
It took seven years of training for a chef to hold an official licence to be able to prepare the deadly paralysing puffer fish for the table. One fish could kill thirty people-it was a thousand times stronger than cyanide. It poisoned at least six diners a year by paralysing the nervous system. The victim could neither move nor breathe, but remained fully conscious till death.
‘Why have you returned without my daughter?’
‘I don’t mind playing a game when I know the rules. You sent me halfway across the world when you knew the dice were thrown here. The only thing we both know for certain is that the stakes are high. All leads come back to you. It seems you hold your daughter’s fate in your own hands. What is it they want from you, CK?’
‘I have told you all I know.’
‘That’s not entirely the truth, is it? There is a lot of talk around town. There’s a new society stepping on toes, not least yours-if they are responsible for the kidnap of your daughter, we need to know what they want.’
CK sat back in his chair and waited whilst the waiter unfolded the thick starched napkin, flicked it out, laid it neatly across CK’s lap and stepped back.
‘I have heard of this new society, the White Circle. Yes, I believe that they are responsible for the kidnap of my daughter, but I do not know what they hope to gain from it and I do not know anything about them. I have not been crossed in this way before. It is…new territory for me. You are the detective, you find out.’
The fugu arrived; the fillets of white fish were still twitching. They were arranged in the shape of a chrysanthemum-the funeral flower.
CK looked at Mann and smiled.
‘Tonight we have two chefs to prepare the dish. One of them has been preparing the dish for years, the other has just started his training today.’ Barely a smile flickered across CK’s face. ‘Life is precious, but it is not worth living if it has no risk involved, don’t you think?’
‘I will always take the risk if it’s my life I stand to lose, but I don’t gamble on the lives of others. What do you know about the arson attack in London that killed twelve young women?’
‘I heard about it-tragic.’
‘Did you order it?’
CK met Mann’s stare. Mann picked up the convulsing fillet in his chopstick and dipped it into hot green wasabi and soy sauce. It shivered as he placed it into his mouth. He swallowed. ‘Twelve women and children burned to death-sex workers trafficked from the Philippines to Hong Kong and on to the UK. If you knew where to light the match…’ CK held a piece of fugu fillet suspended in his chopsticks and watched it twitch ‘…you must know who your enemy is. But by forcing their hand with the fire you may have caused the death of your daughter. Not everyone responds well to intimidation.’
CK’s eyes fixed on Mann. His face remained expressionless, but a light of anger flashed into his eyes.
‘If I knew the man who had my daughter I would strip the skin from his flesh in small sections and feed it to my whore’s lapdog whilst he watched. I know nothing of the fire. I heard about it but I did not order it. I agree it was bad timing. I would not have made such a mistake.’
‘So, someone else ordered it to please you. Did you release Stevie Ho from the Wo Shing Shing?’
‘Stevie knows what he has to do to fulfil his oath to me, then I will release him.’
‘The oath is for life. When was it changed?’
‘Times are changing, Inspector. We have to change with it. Many societies that were once enemies are now friends.’
‘They work together only when it serves a common purpose-that’s not friendship. I hear your members have been annihilating senior members of other societies.’
CK’s face was stony. He sat back in his seat and stared hard at Mann, who stared back.
‘Why did you involve me, CK, if you don’t intend to work with me? You are playing with your child’s life.’
The last dish to be brought to Mann was a soup made from the fish bones and head and anything else that could possibly be left. As Mann finished it he felt his tongue tingle and his lips go numb-a small amount of the poison had escaped into the stock. He felt nauseous and dizzy. The fugu was working its way into his system-the poison was giving him palpitations. He ordered a large vodka on the rocks. When it came he held on to the glass, felt the cool of the condensation. He looked over at the door. The bodyguards were still there. He saw CK watching him. There was no antidote, but if he hurried he might be able to empty his stomach, stop it getting worse. But he wasn’t going to do that. He wouldn’t give CK the satisfaction of seeing him squirm; instead he practised his breathing, held the ice in his mouth and hoped the poison would stabilise. He hoped he would be able to speak.
‘Let us conclude this meal with an understanding,’ CK said. ‘You are a man I trust, and I trust you to find my daughter in whatever way you decide, and…’ he sat back ‘…I will pay you whatever it takes…’
Mann could see that he was being studied. CK was watching him cope with the poison.
‘If I get your daughter back I would expect something else in return-not money.’ Mann felt his pulse stabilise, his lungs relax, his heat quieten-the poison was dissipating, just his mouth still tingled. CK inclined his head in an ‘I’m listening’ mode. ‘That the Wo Shing Shing ceases all human trafficking. That you shut down the whole chain right from recruiters to snakeheads.’
‘If I admitted to such a thing as the trafficking of human beings that would be a high price…’ CK lowered his head in a gesture of agreement. ‘You have three days-seventy-two hours from midnight tonight, Inspector. If my daughter is not returned by that time I will presume that she is dead, and I will wage the biggest war ever seen here. The streets of Hong Kong will run with blood.’ CK rose and bowed.
Mann stood and faced CK. He returned the bow. Even faced with a man he hated, etiquette had to be observed.
‘That is not all I want. There’s something else.’