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Ian Hamilton

The water rat of Wanchai

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(1)

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.

“We?”

“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.”

“When?”

“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.”

“Okay.”

“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.

(2)

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 a sachet of Starbucks VIA Ready Brew 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 even- ing 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.”

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