00:58 am, Central, Hong Kong, 29 September 2017
A refreshing, late summer shower fell on the city as a group of giggling girls crossed the street. They hopped over puddles and rivulets making their way down the gutters and sought refuge from the rain in a nearby bar. It was almost one in the morning but the area was still busy, even though it was only a Thursday. Music blared from one venue to the next in a raucous cacophony. Lan Kwai Fong was one of two main clubbing and entertainment districts on Hong Kong Island. Created in the 1980s, it continually reinvented itself over the years. It had seen endless changes in bars and restaurants, but a handful of longstanding favourites were still going strong. They never ceased to channel a steady flow of patrons.
Visitors and foreign residents made up much of the clientele and many of those who came there did so as respite from the punishing hours they had to work. Conversely, the money was good, even if the generous packages of the past had by now largely been discontinued, and the tax regime was one of the world’s sweetest. Overall, it was a satisfying life, especially when compared to one in a Western world depressingly stuck in deflation and unemployment. Bar the odd typhoon, the weather was also much nicer.
The rain finally stopped. Andrew Short, a tall, fair-haired Australian in his late thirties finished his beer and tossed the empty bottle of Beck’s in a street bin. He followed D’Aguilar Street and then Wellington Street towards his home, in the nearby district of Sheung Wan. It had, yet again, been a boozy evening and, by now, he had really had enough. Things had started with late afternoon drinks at the Captain’s Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with fellow bankers. A team dinner at a private kitchen had followed. It had ended far too late. Against his best judgment, his senses already dulled by the alcohol, he had gone to Lan Kwai Fong with some of his colleagues for a nightcap.
Andrew passed the Kee Club, a members’ only nightclub, whose premises were located above a Chinese restaurant. Glossy roasted geese hung, all lined up in the kitchen window, almost a mirror image of the queue of people trying to get in. He walked up towards Lyndhurst Terrace and crossed the street, now within spitting distance of the Mid Levels escalator. At that time the moving walkway was still and silent. It would start again at 6 am, when it would ferry commuters for the best part of a kilometre, down to the business district of Central. Later, it would switch directions, back up to the high-density blocks of condos.
Andrew passed the concrete staircase that led up to the escalator and followed Gage Street. It was badly lit and quiet, a marked contrast to the noisy daytime hawkers selling everything from mangoes and orchids to razor clams. The air was damp, with a faint smell of rotting food. Above, a shingle with Chinese characters advertising a noodle shop creaked, swaying in the light breeze, water dripping from its metal bars.
Andrew’s apartment was nearby. He had bought it at a depressed price at the height of the SARS crisis, after relocating to Hong Kong in 2003. He was now sitting on a substantial paper profit, which he looked forward to cashing in one day as a tax-free capital gain.
He was almost home when a silhouette behind an arcade pillar caught his attention. The man was of average height. He was dressed in dark colours, blending in with the shadows. He wore a surgical mask, a common sight in the city. For some reason, even partly hidden, the face looked familiar. What was most unusual, however, was the stranger standing completely motionless, looking straight at Andrew with a strange intensity.
The banker did not unduly worry and stopped paying attention. Hong Kong was one of the safest places in Asia, if not the world, certainly compared to New York and some of the other cities he had lived in. Perhaps the man was drunk, not an unreasonable assumption at this late hour. Or maybe he was high on drugs. Either way, it would be best to just ignore him. Sheung Wan was simply not an area to fret about mugging, even at night. Andrew searched with his right hand in his trousers pocket to retrieve his keys. He sensed the stranger had now moved and positioned himself just behind him. Maybe there was more to it than he had first thought.
He slowly turned his head to investigate and heard a high-pitched scream. All he saw next was a flash of metal. He felt a punch to his gut. His knees buckled and he collapsed on the floor, banging his head hard on the pavement. Dizzy and now lying in a puddle, he brought his trembling hand to his lower abdomen. He felt a warm liquid and a wet, gelatinous mass trickle down his fingers. The rain had started falling again. The man was gone. Andrew’s vision started to play tricks, blurring surrounding objects in a growing vortex of flashing lights. It suddenly dawned on him, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was going to die, alone in this soaked alleyway. Terror filled his mind. Then sounds started to fade away. He was cold. He could not feel his feet and fingers anymore. He kept blinking, fast, his breathing increasingly laboured. Finally, darkness took over and everything went black.