The bar was small, quiet, out of the way. It was not grand, as Sam's place was; it didn't have paintings of The Three Graces frescoed onto the wall. Instead it had posters of movie stars stuck into place with tacks and yellowed tape. A battered screen in front of the tiny dance floor showed a Tom and Jerry cartoon. On the bar itself was a potted bamboo that drank more Tsingpao than water. Even when the lights all worked, the place was dimly lit, a fact that suited the majority of customers just fine.
Chan Wing Yan sat on a banquette and slumped over his sixth beer of the evening. The slump was habitual, more a reflex of avoidance than of weariness. Every low-ranking gangster acquired the pose, unless they were crazy, like Keung, or unless they were delusional about their job, like Piero. It was easier for Yan to slump. Sometimes he felt as if he had too much weight on his shoulders. Besides, a policeman always had good posture. He didn't. He liked to live the irony.
The ashtray in the middle of the table held sixteen butts, four of them his. Yan wondered if he was slipping. He took his cigarettes out of his leather jacket and dropped them onto the table, pushing them towards the two men who sat opposite.
"No, thanks. Got my own. Hate those things; they taste like shit," Piero said.
"I'll have one." Keung helped himself to two.
Yan sat still and silent.
"Did Sam talk to you?" Keung asked, leaning across the table. His bedraggled dreadlocks fell forwards, and he pushed them back impatiently. "He said he was going to use new guys for the next job. Not that I'm complaining, mind; but I don't like the idea of new guys. You can't trust them."
"Use your brain, man! With the mole around, we can't trust the old guys, either," Piero said.
Yan smiled and took a swig from his bottle. The beer was still cold, but its taste was fading fast on his tongue. He wondered: if he had another cigarette, would the beer regain its taste, or would it get worse?
"I heard this theory the other day," Keung said.
Piero looked over at him. "What theory? Not your cop theory?"
Yan glanced up as he reclaimed his cigarettes. "Cop theory?"
"Forget it, man. You don't want to hear it," Piero said, his tone suggesting a long acquaintance with Keung's strange ideas and theories.
Yan smiled, and shook a cigarette from the carton.
"It's not the cop theory. This is something else - I didn't make it up," Keung protested. "I saw it on TV."
Piero crowed and lifted his bottle of beer in salute. "Hey, then it must be true!"
"What is it, Keung? Tell us," Yan said, gently.
Keung stared at him seriously, and then said: "Parallel universes."
Piero snorted. "The fuck!"
"It's a good theory. I like it," Keung said, looking hurt. "You know, that there's another world out there -"
"There are two worlds," Yan said, lighting his cigarette and blowing out a stream of smoke. "The heavenly and the secular. Isn't that what the Buddhists say?"
Keung scrunched up his face in bemusement. "I don't know."
"The boss would know."
"You going to go asking Sam about religion?" Piero said, shaking his head. "Shit, Yan, you're getting even crazier than Keung."
Yan lifted his shoulders. "Maybe."
"This theory," Keung said loudly, banging his beer-bottle on the table, "it's not just one other world, there's lots. And on every one of them there's another one of me, and you, and him -" he held the neck of the bottle and swung the base towards Yan and Piero respectively, "and every one of those other versions of us does something completely different to what we're doing now."
Yan thought about it, but stayed quiet. He smoked his cigarette and watched them, keeping a docile, smiling expression on his face.
"You mean, somewhere in the universe I'm doing Cecilia Cheung? Man, I can cope with that," Piero said with a grin.
"Yeah. And maybe somewhere I'm a millionaire businessman, or a TV game-show host. And Yan - I'll bet that somewhere, he's a cop."
Piero shook his head. "Your obsession with cops, man. It's crazy." He got to his feet. "I'll get the next round in."
Yan looked at Keung, still smiling. "Why would I be a cop?"
"I dunno." Keung squirmed under Yan's steady gaze. "It was just something to say. The opposite of what you are. Like a cosmic balance."
"I wonder if that's what keeps us sane," Yan said. "Knowing that we have another life lived out elsewhere."
"Yeah. Too much beer." Yan swilled the remainder around in the bottom of the bottle. "I don't like cops. I wouldn't be a good one, even in another life."
"Maybe over there you work traffic division."
Yan laughed and nodded. "Yeah. That sounds right."
Keung grinned. "Or a desk job."
Yan's smile faded. "That's my idea of hell."
His desk was anything but immaculate. Lau Kin Ming hated the mess he'd made, but it was necessary. He could not seem to slow down his charge through the files as he searched, ostensibly, for Sam's mole within the police force. A foolish search, as he knew exactly where he was. Ming had always had more problems with the question of 'who' rather than 'where'.
The office was empty. He found he worked better when he was alone, and so, like any hard-working cop, he'd taken to staying late, scouring through the files both paper and electronic for the identity of the police mole in Sam's organisation.
Earlier, he'd stepped into the partition between the two doors that led into Internal Affairs. There, held trapped between the sterile gleam of polished glass, he could still smell the trace of Superintendent Wong's cigarettes. Ming hated smoking. Only gangsters and desperate men indulged in such a habit, and he was neither of those things. But still he found himself inhaling deeply, catching the distant scent: and he did not know whether he felt guilt at Wong's death, or desire for a cigarette.
He fetched another mug of coffee and pushed aside a pile of paper so he could set it down. Blinking tiredly beneath the strip lighting, Ming picked up a pen and made a few notes on a yellow legal pad. The telephone rang beside him. He let it ring while he finished writing his sentence, and then he picked up the receiver.
It was Mary. She began by asking his whereabouts.
"I'm at work. Sorry," he said; and he was sorry, if only for the fact that there wasn't anybody with him. "I won't be home until later. Much later."
She asked him if he'd eaten anything.
Ming looked down at his desk, at the mug of coffee. "Yes," he lied. He kept answering her in short, concise sentences, aware that he was at work, aware that he was being ridiculous. There was nobody to hear him talking to his fiance. He could say whatever he wanted.
But he didn't want to say anything. He'd grown to prefer their communication via sticky yellow Post-Its, a dialogue mostly one-way that failed to move him towards guilt, but reminded him instead of yet another thing he had to do.
She spoke about her day, apparently oblivious to his disinterest. He made the appropriate noises in the appropriate places when she talked about the furniture, and the curtains, and the funny sound the air-con unit made when she'd turned it on.
Then she mentioned her novel. She was thinking, she said, about her main character, the one with the twenty-eight personalities.
"What about him?" Ming asked.
Statistically, she said, one of those personalities will be gay. Just the same as one should be a child, and maybe two or three should be old, or female.
"Why not an old gay woman?" he joked, just to annoy her.
She tutted. Asked him to be serious. What did he think?
"A straight guy with a gay personality? I don't know. You're the writer."
It was what he always said whenever she asked him a question about her novel, and so she sighed and told him to call her later, and then she hung up.
Ming put down the phone, and then he frowned. He realised that during his conversation, he had drawn a series of parallel lines on the notepad. Usually he doodled triangles and boxes, shapes within shapes, or else he drew inwards spirals: but this was different. Parallel lines.
Mary had read a book, once, about graphology or some such thing, and she'd taken to analysing his doodles and his handwriting. She'd declared that his doodles were indications of a bored mind; but his handwriting, she said, showed that he was the perfect subject for analysis: his Chinese and his English characters showed no correlation. "It's like they're written by different people," she'd said, and she'd smiled at him as if proud of this achievement.
Ming had been frightened by the revelation. He didn't like the idea of having a fractured personality, no matter how intriguing it seemed to an outsider. These days it seemed as if he felt more fractured with every passing moment. There had been only one time recently when that feeling had receded, even vanished completely; and that had been when he'd gone into the stereo shop downtown.
The guy in the shop had been friendly and helpful. Ming had the feeling that this guy wouldn't rip him off. He knew his stuff; spoke knowledgably about the systems and the amps and the leads. They'd sat together in front of the stereo and listened to Cai Qin's heaven-sent voice in a perfect intimate moment of companionship in music and shared enthusiasm: and Ming had been able to forget who he was, what he was, because of the simple acceptance of the guy in the shop.
Later, he discovered that the guy in the shop had been one of Sam's men.
"I met a guy the other day."
Keung paused in the act of lifting his next bottle of beer to his lips. "Huh?"
"A guy?" Piero sniggered. "What happened - had they run out of masseuses and so you had to have a guy?"
Yan took it peacefully. He lit a fresh cigarette and waited for the teasing to fall off. "It was in a stereo shop."
"Good place to pick up guys," Keung affirmed, nodding.
"And you know this, how?" Piero cuffed the back of Keung's head. "Shut up, man. I want to hear this story."
"Not much of one to hear," Yan said. He took a drag on his cigarette, thinking back to the meeting. "I was dropping off some stuff. This guy walks in, looks around. You know how there's some guys that just stroll about a store like they're waiting for something to jump out at them and scream 'Buy me!'? Well, this guy wasn't like that. He knew what he wanted. He just didn't know how to get it."
"What d'you mean?" Keung asked, frowning comically. "If a guy wants to buy a stereo, then he wants to buy a stereo. That's all there is to it."
"You reckon?" Yan gave him a suddenly sharp look. "I don't think so."
"C'mon already, what happened with this guy? Did you do him over the stereo or what?" Piero said, and then he laughed at his own humour.
Yan ignored him. "We listened to Cai Qin."
Yan shook his head and stubbed out his cigarette half-smoked. He regretted starting the story, because he didn't know where it would end, and Keung and Piero were the kind of guys who liked endings.
"Was he cute?" Keung asked, and then he swore when Piero cuffed him around the head again.
Yan shrugged. He supposed they would think it meant 'I don't know, I don't care', but to him it meant 'I'm not telling you'. The guy in the stereo shop had been too concentrated to be cute. He'd been good-looking, maybe even handsome: sharp-featured, his eyes intense. His whole body had been strung tight until they'd listened to the song. That diluted him, made him sag into the chair with his head tilted back and the line of his throat exposed.
And suddenly, Yan had found him fascinating. Such abandon, in such a public place! It was so unguarded, unstudied, that Yan found himself mimicking the pose: he closed his eyes and felt the music go through him. More than that - he allowed it into him, and he relaxed into it.
Cai Qin's deep, passionate voice had throbbed around them. It was so good that Yan felt like he'd had some sort of revelation, an aural orgasm. Afterwards, he'd looked at the guy seated beside him and they'd smiled and laughed, conspirators in a shared moment that neither of them would ever be able to describe to anybody else.
He'd checked the signature when the guy paid for the stereo, not just because it was expected of him, but because he wanted to know his name. Lau Kin Ming. He'd looked at the final character, the sun and the moon together, and then glanced up at Ming's face. Yes, yes: he was well named: as bright as the sun, as clear as the moon, no cloud, no shadow. And yet...
"I liked him," Yan said. "He seemed a nice guy. He knew about music."
"Then I saw him later that night. The business with the Thais, when you went to the bay to pick up the stuff." Yan tipped another cigarette from the packet and idly rolled it between his thumb and forefinger. "He was a cop."
Keung and Piero stared at him for a moment, and then Keung said, "And that's it? You met a cop? So what! We meet cops all the time! And sometimes we kill them, and sometimes they arrest us!"
"It wasn't just that he was a cop," Yan said. "You can usually tell a cop a mile off, but I couldn't tell with him."
"Even cops go off-duty," Piero said.
"No, they don't," muttered Keung. "They're always watching, even when they're doing something else."
"I said, it wasn't just because he was a cop, okay?" Yan said, annoyed.
"Then what was it?"
Yan put the cigarette between his lips and snatched up Piero's lighter from the table. After he'd lit up, he held the lighter for a moment, staring at the tiny flame that flickered only slightly at its tip.
"It was... it was that we shared something. Just for a minute. And it made me think - maybe, in one of your parallel worlds, him and me are friends. The cop and the gangster. You know? It could be possible."
Keung almost sighed. "I like that."
"You're as crazy as he is," Piero muttered. "I think you need to go for a massage again. And make sure it's with a woman, this time."
There was an angle-poise lamp on his desk. Ming switched it on, looking away from the sudden glare as the light bounced up at him from the desk and the spread of bright white papers spread out upon it.
He nursed another mug of coffee, turning it in his hands. It was too hot, and so he put it down to give his attention to the file he'd pulled from the cabinet on the other side of the office.
Ming knew he could have looked it up on the computer, but he wanted to do this the old-fashioned way. The buff-coloured file, the records of form going back almost ten years, the black and white photographs. He saw his own name a couple of times in there, as duty officer or arresting officer. He wondered why he hadn't recognised this guy before.
Chan Wing Yan.
Ming traced the lines of the photographed image with a fingertip. Yan had a long, mournful face, but he had smiled a lot in the stereo shop - when they weren't playing at being cop and gangster, when they were just customer and vendor. Or had that been an act, too?
Ming didn't know anymore. He rubbed his eyes wearily and took another look at the picture. He'd seen more mugshots than he cared to remember, and usually the criminals that stared back at him from the pictures had contempt in their eyes, or bravado, or sometimes even fear. Yan's gaze was different. Underneath that tumble of hair, his eyes were deep and soulful. He looked like he could see through the lens and into Ming's heart. That gaze said he understood.
"Idiot," Ming said aloud. The sound of his own voice startled him, and he looked up from his desk, away from the comforting pool of light.
He closed Yan's file and placed it neatly on top of his out tray. Before he switched off the lamp, he put his hand on the notepad and felt the heat of the bright light warm him. He drank the remainder of his coffee, grimacing at the cold, cloying taste but unable to waste it.
When he put down the mug, he saw again the series of straight, parallel lines that he'd drawn earlier. He looked at them, at the way they went across the page, clean across without any deviation: and then they disappeared.
Ming had the thought that he and Yan - maybe even he and Mary, or he and Sam, or he and anybody - were like those lines. They continued on their path, but never merged. Forever lonely, forever trapped in one direction. Parallel lines never meet, except at a vanishing point.
He stood up and put on his jacket. At the door, he stood in the partition and pressed his nose to the glass, looking out of the window. The street was far below him: the pavement lost in the night, the edges of the world blurred by neon lights and street lamps.
For a moment, before his breath fogged the glass and obscured his sight, Ming felt giddy. He wondered how Wong had felt in that moment when he was flung from the twenty-fourth floor: if he'd embraced his fate, or if he'd died denying it.
If only I had the courage, he thought: but he did not know what he meant.