Where Is This Going?
rating: +8+x

Anna sees the SOONG AND CHENG PARTNERS plaque outside the door and smiles to herself. It's not the most original workplace joke, but at least one person in this office isn't a completely humourless stick-in-the-mud. She knocks and pushes the door open on a cubicle space with a single whirring ceiling fan, as four heads swivel to look at her.

"Hi. Matthew Yok-Sing Lau? Is he here?"

A thirty-something man with tortoiseshell glasses and an immaculately trimmed beard and moustache gets up, raising his hand. "Matt Lau, that's me. You are -"

"Anna Lopez, from the New York-"

"Oh! You're Doctor Lopez. Come in, come in."

He leads her into a room the size of a large broom closet. A sleek designer glass-and-wood desk sits across the middle, incongruous in the stuffy atmosphere and peeling paint. Lau squeezes past the desk edge to sit on the other side with difficulty, causing Anna to stifle a chuckle and Lau to smile ruefully.

"Not the best layout, but I can't work without a good desk. Please, take a seat. You surprised me. I wasn't expecting-"

Anna raises an eyebrow, being used to reactions along these lines from macho Agents and MTF troopers, but Lau notices and smiles again, a little more nervously this time.

"No, nothing like that - I thought you were going to bust in here with the regional director and a full task force, you would have too if you'd seen the message I'd got about you. It had a damn O5 stamp and when I didn't respond for ten minutes bloody Zheng - ah, Director Zheng - was on the phone shouting at me to acknowledge it. Well, you're here now, welcome to Hong Kong, Doctor Lopez. Agent Matthew Lau, at your service. You need information about someone, I understand."

Anna nods. "Yes, quickly as possible. Name's Albert Ma. Moved to New York in 2000, that's why they sent me, but lived here all the rest of his life. I need everything on him, the colour of paint in his kid bedroom, how big the door to his apartment was, how many guys he whacked."

"What's stopping you from asking him?"

Anna slides a manila folder bulging with papers and photographs across the desk. "We did. The guy's in a nursing home, he can barely remember what he had for breakfast this morning. All the info we could get in the States is in here, so I had to come to Hong Kong in person."

"Bad luck. Well, we can start at the Public Records office-"

"No, you don't get it. When I said I needed the colour of paint in his bedroom I meant it." She passes him a single typed sheet of paper. "These are the specifics. We need to go in person."

To his credit, Lau is seasoned enough not to show surprise. "Hard job, but I can try. Ah, I see why they requested me for this. This will be a tricky one." He taps on a line towards the end of the list.

"Yeah, I thought so as well. Like I said, I'm on a tight schedule, so if you need to organise anything-"

Lau holds up his mobile phone and taps the send bulb on a WhatsApp message. "I know a guy who can help with that. In the meantime, let's get this other stuff out of the way. The home first?"

Anna flips the pages in the folder to a black-and-white photo of a housing complex and an address line. "Here."

"I know the place. Let's go."

A red taxi is waiting outside. Lau ushers Anna into the back seat and greets the driver. "Hi, Wong. Ma Tau Wei, Kowloon, ok?"

The driver nods wordlessly and pulls away from the kerb. The occupants sit in silence for several minutes, horns honking outside as Lau shuffles through the folder's contents.

"So, Doctor Lopez, against my better judgement, I'm dying to ask you why I'm chasing after some grandpa on O5 orders. Insurgency guy? Ex-Japanese Agency? Doesn't look like a Sarkicist to me."

Anna looks at the taxi driver with alarm, and Lau grins. "Oh, sorry, Wong is one of our guys. He's level-3 cleared, and doesn't talk much, so you can spill your secrets."

Wong gives a thumbs-up and Anna exhales. "No, he's not involved with the para-world at all. He's 14K, so we know he's shady, but no artifact trafficking or humanoid smuggling."

"Well, why, then? O5-one wants to find out about his grandpa's life or something?"

"No, this is big. My team needs this info for skip containment."

"Big? How big?"

"Double Ks." Seeing his nonplussed face, Anna has to explain her own workplace slang. "Keter and K-class big."

A low whistle. "What's the number?"

Anna shifts uncomfortably. "I'm not supposed to say. It doesn't matter-"

"Look, I know you have to keep opsec, but if you're having me chasing after K-class scenarios, you can't keep me in the dark. I need to know what we're walking into, if there's going to be memetics, coghazes, the neighbours are going to try and eat our faces off."

"Like I said, there's nothing. Absolutely nothing. This is a normal guy and we need to know about his normal life. No para-shit. Not unless you know about it and I don't, this is your city."

"I get you, but if that's how it is, normal is my job is while you're here. If you start speaking in tongues and your head spins 360 degrees, I'm taking the afternoon off."

"Deal," Anna laughs.

"We're here."

"How do we get in? What's our cover?"

"This is my dad, I'm writing a book about his life, you're my American wife."

Anna rolls her eyes. "Always the husband-wife cover. Do all you field agents take the same creative writing classes?"

"We use a standard handbook, but at short notice I can't do much better. I could have gone with 'documentary film crew' but I didn't time to get the equipment, and 'police investigation' has the benefit of partial truth but not when you're asking about triads. Do you have a better idea?"

"Not really. Just keep your hands to yourself."

"Noted. How's your Cantonese?"

"Uh, not the best - m goi, ngo hai mei gwok -"

Lau winces. "I see why you need me for this op. At least no one is going to cross-check our cover."

The pair exit the taxi outside an aging block of flats. An uncharacteristic burst of activity for a Sunday morning is going on, as the beginnings of a summer downpour spur washing being pulled off the balconies and children running indoors. Lau pops the boot open and extracts a telescoping umbrella and a plastic bag filled with ripe mangoes.

"No thanks, mangoes give me hives."

"Not for you." Lau rubs his thumb and forefinger together. "This is our master key. More natural, less likely to raise suspicions than cash."

The seventeenth-floor apartment is occupied by an elderly widow of unexpectedly tall and straight-backed stature. She peers with worried eyes across the security chain, but Lau's clean-cut appearance, the novelty of an American visitor to this dreary building and a ripe fruit defuse the tension rapidly, and Lau has to contend with a barrage of questions about his life punctuating his interview about the life of his false father. Anna roams as best you can around a single-bedroom apartment, jotting down notes in a pad. The old woman happily accepts her intrusion as foreign custom, only briefly broken by her producing a tape measure and beginning to measure the bedroom doorframe's dimensions.

"One hundred and eighty centimeters by seventy-five-" She notices the room has gone silent, and turns to see a puzzled grandmother and Lau's face contorted into something halfway between deep thought and suppressed laughter. A hurried Cantonese explanation later and the conversation resumes.

"What did you tell her about the door?" Anna asks in the corridor, as they extricate themselves from a dinner invitation.

"My dad used to say he grew up in a room so small he had to touch his knees to get in. I mean, not my dad. This guy. You know."

"Nice."

Lau answers a beep from his phone. "My contact has replied. Best not to keep him waiting."

Thirty minutes later, the taxi stops outside the Mandarin Oriental, a gleaming contrast to the crumbling Kowloon tenements. A smiling old Eurasian man in an Armani suit is sitting in the lobby lounge, stirring a cup of white tea with exacting precision.

"Hello, Uncle Choy," Lau calls out on approach.

"Matthew, my boy, always a pleasure. Who is this lovely lady?"

"This is Doctor Lopez, a colleague of mine from America." Anna shakes the man's hand; his smile never leaves his face, but he shows no teeth.

"Charmed, my dear. Your practice?"

"Oh, I'm not a physician - I have an economics PhD."

"Wonderful." A waitress arrives with two more cups of tea and a tray of petits-fours. "Now, I assume this is not a purely social call."

Lau passes Choy a handful of photographs. "This is Albert Ma. He used to be a 14K enforcer."

Choy spreads his hands in mock despair. "You see he only calls this poor man when he wants something. I may have seen him before. What is the problem?"

"Did he ever kill anyone in the 14K?" Anna asks. Lau sucks in air through his teeth. Choy is still smiling, but an unpleasant gleam has appeared in his eyes.

"My goodness, your lady friend is direct. I thought you had finished with the Triad Bureau for good, Matthew? If you think Inspector Teng is going to look after you still, without a badge-"

"No, no, it's nothing to do with the Bureau," Lau interjects hurriedly. "This is entirely Foundation business. No police, no charges, no consequences for you, or for Mr Ma. Information only."

"You want to know who a man has killed, and there will be no consequences?" Choy shakes his head and turns to Anna. "There are always consequences. Well, young Matthew is foolish, but a poor liar, so I do believe he is not wearing a wire for the Hong Kong Police." Lau withers with another glance. "You, young lady, are another matter. What is this in aid of?"

"As Agent Lau says, it's Foundation business. I promise you, nothing will come back to cause trouble for you or Mr Ma in any way."

"Mr Ma's fate does not interest me. Foundation business, Foundation business, enough with this fucking bullshit." The smile cracks ever so slightly.

"I don't know," Anna replies. "We've collected information like this before. It gets filed away, and nothing ever happens. If it isn't filed…" She mimes an explosion with her hands. "You clearly know about our organisation. We can't always explain why we need these things."

Choy stares her down for a good twenty seconds, after which the smile returns to its former serene state. "So well educated, and yet still no ideas. You Foundation are all the same. At least you admit it. Matthew, in the next two weeks one of my trucks is crossing to Shenzhen. I will have one of the boxes marked. Your people will not inspect this box."

"What's going to happen to this box?"

"No consequences for you or the young lady will result."

Lau sighs. "It's done, then."

"Good. I see your sense has not completely been addled. I will tell you, then; Mr Albert Ma never harmed a living soul. Well, I suppose he might have roughed some people up, but I can't keep track of that."

"Nothing at all?" asks Anna in surprise.

"That's what I said. Goodbye, young lady, goodbye, Matthew. Ask before bringing your friends next time."

Back in the taxi, Lau dabs at his forehead with a handkerchief. "Uncle Choy's Christmas gift is going to be big to make up for this one."

"What does he mean about the boxes?"

"Oh, he does some artifact trading - MC and D, private collectors, that sort of thing. Occasionally he lets us know about something dangerous, we take it away. So he doesn't attract attention from the PSB if it blows up in someone's face."

"I get the feeling that's not all he does."

"Best not to know. Do we have everything now?"

"Yeah, we're done. Thanks for your help. Sorry about upsetting your guy there."

"It's fine, I'll smooth it over. Look, you have to tell me now you have all the info. What's the big reveal here? Why do you need it?"

"I'll show you. Pass me the folder and stop at the next post box."

Have you ever been responsible for the death of a sapient being?

YES/NO/NOT APPLICABLE

She puts a neat circle in blue ballpoint around the NO and seals the folder in an A3 envelope, flipping it around to show Lau the front.

There is no address. Anna pulls the metal flap of the post box open and heaves the envelope in, where it settles with a dull thud.

"And? Now what?"

"When I told Choy I couldn't explain what happens to the information, I was telling the truth. We have no fucking clue where this is going. If we don't do it, though…"

"Jesus Christ." Lau laughs and buries his head in his hands. "That's really it?"

"That's it."

"When do you fly out?"

"Not till Tuesday."

"Great. Well, my orders are to assist whatever business you have in Hong Kong, and I think the next order of business is finding something to eat. I know a place not far from here…"

"Just as long as it's not back at the Mandarin Oriental."

One of a thousand red taxis joins the mass of Harcourt Road traffic, and disappears into the night.

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