CHINESE WHISPERS

One

 

Paris, 1996

The airbus from Geneva touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport four hours late, result of an unscheduled diversion to Zurich. By the time it arrived those who had been waiting to meet friends and family members had turned the concourse into an annexe to Hell; every seat occupied, every waste-bin full, tempers unravelling like fraying silk. Some distance apart from the chaos stood a tall Chinese man in his late thirties, overweight, dressed in a baggy tracksuit and sports shoes. He seemed exhausted, anxious for the arrival of some passenger from the delayed flight, and had placed himself so that he could be seen immediately by anyone who came through the gate. Even so, the moment he set eyes on his friend he called out to attract his attention.

"Lung Wu sin saang! Lung Wu sin saang! Daai lo! It's me, Fong - I'm over here!"

The passenger so addressed paused and glanced calmly across at him.

"Fong sei dong? What are you doing here?" He spoke as if to a subordinate who had let him down.

The tall man offered the new arrival a distracted half-bow of respect before turning to escort him towards the exit. The second man was several inches shorter and a few years older; slightly-built, well-dressed but rumpled from his journey, his expression was one of composed authority. He looked as if he would be demanding company and not given to small-talk.

"What am I doing here?" Fong repeated, sounding almost hysterical. He looked around and lowered his head before continuing in hushed tones; "I've lost everything. The money, the jewellery, the suits. They let me keep these clothes and enough for a taxi to the airport. There's nothing else left, Lung-ko."

Lung Wu's mouth set into a straight line like that of a disapproving cat. "You gambled without waiting for me?"

"I didn't think it would do any harm. I expected you to arrive at any moment."

Wu glared at him. "I was in a transit lounge at Zurich airport with a hundred Italians and no telephone," he remembered with horror.

"There's more. Do San's men are only just behind me. It won’t take them long to realise we're together."

Lung Wu glanced around. "Were you followed?"

"I don't think so, but we need a place to hide."

"I have a contact," the other man said.

"Can we get out of Paris tonight?"

Stopping to stare up at him briefly, Lung Wu lifted one expressive eyebrow and nodded acknowledgement but otherwise made no comment. Then, waiting for Fong to pick up his luggage, he turned away and strode purposefully from the concourse.

A late train brought them to Lille just before 1 a.m., to a telephone kiosk beside a row of cold metal seats. Fong slumped on a seat with his head against an advertising hoarding whilst Wu made a call organising a car, weapons, keys and directions to a safe house in a village several hours' driving time away. They left the city to the south, setting out through a Never-Never Land of empty roads, silence, darkness. Their white Renault ran between deserted fields as dawn approached; ragged shaws of woodland crept close to the road at intervals; pockmarked houses, shuttered and untenanted; signs pointing across nothingness to more nothingness. Half Europe had fought and died over this desolate brown landscape. Hundreds of thousands of men still lay where they had fallen, each occupying forever the two metres of French soil he had won. To a Chinese sensibility it hardly seemed worth the effort.

An hour into the journey, with Fong stirring slightly in his sleep, Wu pulled the Renault to a halt beside a patch of about a hundred and twenty white headstones selected at random from among many similar examples. He opened the door, letting cold morning flood the interior, and dropped his cigarette onto the gravel at his feet. Fong blinked incomprehension, brain slow to come back on-line, then glanced at their surroundings and quickly bundled out of the car. He followed Lung Wu's retreating back in the direction of the cemetery's Cross of Sacrifice; the first chill fingers of sunlight had just touched the bronze cross and the steps at its base were still ice white and inhospitable.

"Brother?" Fong whispered, catching up to the smaller figure.

Wu turned towards him, the expression in his eyes no longer guarded. "Ko Chun, what happened?"

Chun's long arms reached out towards him and for a moment enfolded him in a warm and reassuring hug. It was no more than they had shared many times before, yet perhaps this time Chun's fingers burrowed more deeply into the solid muscle of Wu's arms as they drew apart; perhaps, this time, they were not as willing to let go.

"It went almost as we planned," Ko Chun told him with a shrug. "When they saw you were not with me they took the opportunity to beat and humiliate me a little more, but they know they need me alive."

"The only thing we didn't allow for was a delayed flight. I should have left Geneva earlier."

"You would have hijacked the plane to bring you here sooner," Chun laughed, picturing his bodyguard's frustration at the situation. "if you thought it would do any good. It doesn't matter; we're in the pipeline at last."

"And you are Lee Fong, my useless brother-in-law." The slight curving of Lung Wu's lips was the equivalent of a wide smile on any other man. "I can hardly believe you're really Ko Chun." Anyone less like the famously sophisticated God of Gamblers would have been difficult to imagine; the Do San dressed expensively, his hair was always immaculate, he was never at a loss in any situation. By contrast the man who called himself Lee Fong was one of life's losers, a scruffy object low down in the pecking order, almost fit - on a good day - to wax Ko Chun's car or deliver his groceries. Although Wu had seen his employer in various disguises, he had never seen him looking quite as disreputable as this before.

Chun gripped his shoulder and looked deep into his eyes. "As long as you see Lee Fong, so will everyone else," he said, reminding Wu - who knew it only too well - of the need for consistency in their masquerade. "This may be the last chance we have to talk as ourselves."

Wu nodded. "Chow Sing Cho has spread a story that you're in Europe looking for property to buy," he said. "Chan Dagger is still with D'Onofrio's people in San Francisco."

"And you and your sister have arranged everything from the Geneva end?"

"Yes."

Ko Chun slipped a warm arm around his friend's deceptively thin shoulders. "Then I think we're ready. All we have to do now is wait for Didier's people to make contact with us."

"Yes. But first we should eat - and then buy you some more clothes. It could be two or three weeks before Didier makes his move; that tracksuit will be quite unpleasant by then."

"It's quite unpleasant now," Chun told him ruefully. "Very well, daai lo - but breakfast first, if you don’t mind!"

Lung Wu regarded him with a look of scorn. "Lee Fong, do you ever think of anything beyond food?"

Chun returned instantly to the slightly oafish persona of Fong. "Money," he said. "And sometimes women."

Looking briefly to heaven for help, Lung Wu bit his tongue on a cutting remark. Instead he said, with a show of heavy tolerance; "Get back in the car, Lee Fong. It's your turn to drive now, and my turn to sleep."

 

No traffic had passed them for some time when, late that evening, they turned off the road onto a limestone track which dipped to a shallow valley. Running on sidelights in gathering darkness, crunching slowly, senses alerted, they came to a halt outside high blue-painted gates. Chun slid out of the car, unlocked the gates, then sprinted across to open the barn. Within seconds the Renault was hidden and the gates locked again, and the two men were skirting cautiously through a walled farmyard with guns drawn. Lung Wu took nothing on trust; he was a professional who had never lost a client yet - and if he ever did, it would certainly not be Ko Chun.

They crept around the end of the house, backs to the massive stonework, inching through shadows. A cool breeze cut between buildings and ruffled their hair; a month from now this area would be a warm temperate paradise bright with hibiscus; for now the scent of winter still lingered in the air.

Wu examined the lock on the back door carefully while Chun kept a wary eye on a weed-filled tangle of garden backing onto a neglected orchard. Nothing stirred. Wu brought out the keys Didier Ferrand's man in Lille had given them, unlocked the roller shutter and slid it upwards. He then unlocked the door itself, threw it open completely and stood well back before venturing through. With a final glance around outside Chun followed him through the doorway, wound the roller shutter back into place behind him, and turned just as Wu found the switch and flooded the kitchen with light.

The habit of caution dictated they search every room immediately. The house had a master bedroom suite, a second bedroom for children and a third full of electronic surveillance equipment and closed-circuit monitors fed by cameras at strategic points in the grounds. Another bathroom, dining room, study and lounge and a well-equipped kitchen completed the appointments. It was furnished in a dreary, old-fashioned style - grimy brocade, cheap nylon carpet, polished veneer, smeared mirrors and staleness were the pervading decorative themes. It was a house that had seen a great many transient occupiers over the years who had utterly failed to take care of it.

In the kitchen at the end of the tour Wu holstered his guns with a sigh and stared around. Groceries on the table had been left with a note saying more would be brought soon. The refrigerator held milk, vegetables, bread. The freezer was stocked with prepared meals. Tins and packets lined the larder.

"Are you hungry, Lung-ko?" Chun examined packets and boxes tiredly. Their last meal had been fish and noodles in a Chinese restaurant in a provincial town at lunchtime. They had decided not to stop after that; two Chinese men travelling together would be conspicuous in a rural area.

"Yes." Wu's brow creased in puzzlement. "Why, can you cook?"

"Anything that has instructions printed on the packet." Systematically Ko Chun began sorting through the packets, formulating a scratch menu in his mind.

A weary smile, and Lung Wu slumped down onto a hard chair under the harsh kitchen light.

"Tired?"

Wu considered the question, knowing it betrayed much more about Chun than any answer would about him.

"No. After we eat you should rest. I'll keep watch."

"Yes, daai lo," Chun smiled. "How long have you known Didier Ferrand?"

"Many years. He deals in weapons, immigrants, drugs, passports ... He's a middle man."

"Trust him?"

"No."

"What did you tell him about me?"

"You're my brother-in-law, you were employed as Do San's chauffeur, you impersonated him at a casino and lost a lot of money in his name. As a result Do San's men are looking for us both."

"To kill us?"

"I suppose so."

"What exactly is this house? Obviously no-one lives here."

"It's where people go to be invisible."

"And we are now invisible?"

"Yes. Until Didier betrays us - which he will, sooner rather than later. For the time being … " An eloquent shrug.

"You don't like him, do you?"

"I don't like anyone."

"Not true, Lung-ko. You like the God of Gamblers." He had paused in his preparations and Lung Wu's flinty dark eyes fixed him with a stare, quelling the spark of mischief before it could become a flame.

"The Do San was a very good employer," Wu conceded, "but business is business. We should concentrate on the reason we're here."

Chastened but not subdued, Ko Chun suppressed the urge to tease further.

"You're right," he conceded, and returned his attention to cooking the meal without further comment.

 

When they had eaten and the plates were stacked in the dishwasher, Wu took coffee and cigarettes to the monitor room where he sat for a long time reviewing security. There were cameras everywhere, and video recording equipment that would have done just as well for taping pornography as its original purpose. Certainly the camera in the bedroom was located conveniently in a high corner above the bed and commanded a view of the bathroom door as well. He watched Chun staggering about wearily, removing his tracksuit top to reveal a white tee-shirt beneath, kicking off shoes and socks, washing in the tiny bathroom and returning with damp hair to stretch himself out face down on the double bed and fall immediately into a deep sleep. The very fact that he was visible at all was disturbing; the Do San could not be photographed unless he willed it, and pictures taken of him often turned out to be smudged or over-exposed. Only one photograph was in circulation, showing the back of his head and his shoulders; copies of it changed hands for large sums all over the world, but very few people could honestly say that they knew what the God of Gamblers looked like. Lung Wu's personal opinion was that everybody saw something different when they looked at Ko Chun; he himself had witnessed more transformations than he would ever have thought possible.

Wu's former employer, Sheung Shan, had introduced Chun as an urbane gambler - talented, perhaps, but nothing unusual. That was before an accidental head injury had reduced him to the mental level of an eight year old child, an episode Wu had heard all about from Chan Dagger. Shorn of his sophistication and cosmopolitan trappings Chun had become desperately vulnerable, his apparent idiot-savant cardsharping abilities getting him into more trouble than either he or Dagger knew how to deal with. Fortunately Wu's intelligence network had not failed him; he'd found Chun and Dagger hiding out in a whorehouse in Kowloon and rescued them, despite the child-Chun's obvious terror of guns. Lung Wu had seen the man at his most vulnerable, then, and had quite simply lost his heart. He'd taken two bullets for him that time, but had been amply repaid when a recovered Chun saved his unworthy life. From then on the God of Gamblers had not been merely a client to him; he had become the one client Lung Wu cared for above all others.

The man on the screen now was Lee Fong, failure. Even knowing that the alteration was for their current project Wu could not help feeling a stab of anxiety when he saw his idolised employer in such a pitiful state. Ko Chun in mass-produced denim rather than Armani, wearing a Mickey Mouse watch instead of his Rolex, looked ten years younger than his true age and was the very picture of a minor crook involved in a game where the stakes were higher than he could ever have imagined. Ko Chun seen through a distorting mirror was Lee Fong, and Lee Fong was visible to cameras everywhere.

 

Wu stepped a few paces along the landing to the master bedroom. The light in the en-suite bathroom was still on although the bedroom itself was dark. He drew the gun from his shoulder holster and set it on the nightstand, safety off, inches from his right hand. He wore another in an ankle holster and a third in the small of his back. He sat beside the window, listening to Chun's even breathing in the silent, stuffy room.

"There are no enemies coming tonight, daai lo," Ko Chun whispered, before Wu even realised that he was awake. "We're safe."

"Why do you say that?"

"It's going to rain; enemies won't attack while it's raining." It was the kind of logic child-Chun might have come up with. Wu let it go without comment.

"Go back to sleep," he advised. "Let me worry about enemies."

"There aren't any," Chun repeated stubbornly. "Not tonight. Come and sit on the bed."

It ran through his mind to refuse, but Ko Chun wriggled across to one side to make a space for him and Wu found himself kicking off his shoes and sitting on the bed, propped by an unyielding painted headboard. After a moment he found that he was in fact quite comfortable and there was no reason why he could not watch just as effectively from the bed as from the chair. Then Chun's right hand snaked across him and fastened briefly around his waist in an affectionate squeeze. His left hand came to rest on Chun's shoulder, gripping comfortingly. It would not quite do for the austere Lung Wu and his inept protégé Lee Fong to be caught in such a compromising position, but there was something beguiling about the way the competent and self-assured Ko Chun sometimes turned to him for reassurance. Back in the Taiwan casino, just before the showdown with Chau Siu-chee, Ko Chun had embraced him and held him close for a moment and he had felt in his own chest the agitated beating of Chun's heart as he psyched himself up for the biggest game of his life. Outwardly serene, inwardly seething, Chun had let no-one else witness his most private emotions since the death of his wife. That closeness had grown so slowly, so gradually, that it had always felt entirely natural - and so he was not completely aware that he had let his free hand stroke softly through the silken black strands of Chun's rumpled hair, soothing him as one would a restless child or a startled cat, and like a child or a cat Ko Chun responded to the comforting. His lips curved slightly and he snuggled in to Wu's side, face pressed against his waist.

Bemused, Wu continued the stroking, aware only vaguely that it was as restful to him as to his friend. That Ko Chun should forget his sorrows for an hour or two seemed to him the only thing that mattered now. If that meant sitting here all night, slowly stroking the man's hair, it seemed a small enough price to pay.

 

The sound of falling water woke him several hours later. It was not the promised rainfall - in fact he had slept through a downpour which drenched the garden and turned the surrounding fields into promising rice-paddies - but the shower in the little bathroom. Wu rolled off the bed fully-clothed, still armed, feeling stale and slept-in. Only when he was on his feet and ready to face whatever might present itself did he spare any thought for the night that had just passed.

Despite himself he had subconsciously accepted the assurance that there would be no attack and allowed himself to rest in the knowledge that he was beside Ko Chun if danger threatened. More than that; he had a hazy, incomplete memory of his arms being around Ko Chun and Chun's breath on his cheek and of falling asleep like that, wrapped up like a pair of lovers in a warm embrace.

Like lovers.

Not that he had ever slept with a lover. There had never been a woman - or a man, for that matter - who stirred his soul the way the God of Gamblers did; deny it as he might, he cared for Ko Chun more than he knew how to say. Chun knew it, too, although neither of them had ever alluded to it except obliquely.

He managed to ignore the sounds in the bathroom. He did not particularly want to think of Ko Chun standing beneath the shower with drops of water clinging lovingly to his golden skin; sometimes there were visions much like that in his lonely dreams, although he was never sure whether they were wholly from his imagination or the product of some almost telepathic bond between them. If the latter then the process was apparently working both ways, because when Chun stepped into the room wearing only a pair of jeans, bare-chested and with a midnight-blue towel around his broad shoulders, the grin that spread across his features at the sight of his bodyguard was one for which Lung Wu would cheerfully have walked naked through Hell.

"The dragon that never sleeps," Ko Chun teased softly, walking towards him and reaching out to wrap both arms around his waist. "You looked so peaceful, I didn't want to disturb you."

"I … " About to apologise for dereliction of his duty, by some miracle Wu found that his hands were on Chun's shoulders and that they were drawing one another into a version of the embrace in which they had spent the night. As their mouths drew closer together Lung Wu's heart began to race alarmingly, knowing how he had yearned for this to happen. The need to hold and be held by - to kiss and be kissed by - the fabulous Ko Chun had grown in his mind and heart throughout the long days of their friendship, throughout their recent agonising separation, until it had become an almost painful physical yearning. He was human, the humblest of creatures, reaching out towards one who at the very least had supernatural powers; if he was fated to be consumed by some other-worldly flame it would be no more than he deserved - except that Ko Chun had some similar yearning towards him, and that his arms were opening to Wu and the look on his face was soft and welcoming and promised more, much more.

Suddenly a sharp whisper of terror like the sound of a sword blade through silk touched icily at the back of his mind and he forced himself out of Chun's arms, trying not to notice the pain flooding his dark eyes.

"Visitors," he hissed, drawing the gun from the small of his back so quickly that Ko Chun could not follow the movement. A heartbeat and Wu was tiptoeing towards the door, body braced in expectation of attack.

Before Wu had taken three steps Chun had cast the towel to the floor and forced his damp upper body into a tee-shirt and by the time he had the door open Ko Chun had taken the gun from the nightstand and was at his shoulder. Bodyguard and body guarded moved silently, side by side, moods and thoughts attuned and never in the least doubt of one another; two bodies directed by a single will, as if neither could for a fraction of a second contemplate an existence that did not include the other.

Stalking along the landing they negotiated the stairs, registering that a person had got into the kitchen - had opened the roller shutter and the door and walked through the lower storey - while they had been concentrating on one another. Through the crack of the door they caught sight of an elderly Frenchman examining the contents of the larder and refrigerator and apparently making a shopping list. They stepped into the room and flanked him. The man froze, hands in the air, the muzzle of a gun at each temple. Chun and Wu exchanged glances across the top of his head.

Only one, Wu's eyes confirmed silently. In French he said aloud; "Who are you?"

"I work for Didier Ferrand. My name is Blanc."

Chun patted the man down. He was carrying only a small camera and a bunch of keys and appeared harmless.

"What do you want?"

"You need passports, don't you? I'm the forger. I also have orders to check the security cameras and bring your provisions."

Slowly Lung Wu lowered his gun, returning it to its holster. Chun backed off a little, allowing the man to turn around and face them, but kept his gun trained on the Frenchman and let Wu take the lead in the conversation.

"You must be Mr Lung," Blanc said, dismissing the ill-dressed Chun as an employee. "And this presumably is Mr Lee. I understand you're running from Do San. Didier will get you on a cargo ship, but it's going to cost you a lot of money."

"How much?"

Blanc pursed his lips. His face was thin and weaselly with wisps of streaky grey hair around the crown and an artistic straggle of a few strands of beard clinging to his chin. He looked utterly dishonest in any language.

"Five hundred thousand francs," he said. "Each. The Do San's involvement increases the price."

Lung Wu shook his head. "We don't have that kind of money. Just get us the passports, we'll go to Spain and try our luck there."

"One million francs. That's the price. Although I'm instructed to tell you that if your brother-in-law here," a contemptuous sneer in Chun's direction, "cares to impersonate Ko Chun one more time your travel to Hong Kong will be free of charge."

"And the passports?"

"And the passports."

Wu dared to meet Ko Chun's gaze. "What do you think, Fong? Can you do it?"

Truculently Chun shook his head. "I'm on a losing streak. No-one will believe I'm the God of Gamblers."

Blanc's contempt could not have been more obvious. "Losing is precisely what we want you to do," he sneered. "We want you to lose heavily when and to whom we tell you. Perhaps you can manage that?"

Face grey with fatigue, Chun accepted his fate. "I can lose money in the mentor's name," he conceded. "I do that all the time. But I'll need clothes. The Do San dresses well - I used to steal his suits."

Blanc nodded. "I'll see to it. Now, I need photographs for the passports."

Wu noticed a momentary tightening in the muscles of Chun's left hand and thought he could almost feel the fingernails digging into his friend's palm. The idea of being photographed, of being mortal enough to need identification, must be one of the more humiliating aspects of this imposture. "I'll go first," he said, thinking to spare Chun a moment or two longer.

"I don't care who goes first." Blanc retrieved his camera, placed one of the kitchen chairs back against a white wall and gestured for Wu to sit down. Ko Chun watched in silence, and then without further comment handed the gun to Wu, took his place, and calmly permitted himself to be photographed.

 

Before leaving, Blanc noted down details of the imaginary Lee Fong's date and place of birth and the other information for the passports, as well as the requirements for a suit in which to impersonate Do San. When he had gone there was a dismal slope to Chun's shoulders and a cloud of grey defeat over his head that mingled with the smoke of his cigarette.

"We allowed ourselves to be distracted," he commented sadly, reverting to Cantonese in relief. His French was more than adequate but the mental gymnastics involved in the translation had soon given him a headache.

"It was my fault. I didn't mean to fall asleep."

Lung Wu was sitting at the table in the security room, Chun standing behind him. "I won't let you take the blame," he said quietly. "I wanted you to sleep beside me. Why shouldn't we be lovers, if we both feel the same way?"

There. It had been said. The words had been unleashed, the thought given voice. Lung Wu trembled at the prospect of being desired by someone who had seemed further above him than the stars, knowing that Ko Chun's gentle generosity would make any act of love between them a thing of paradisal beauty and desperate to know once, just once, in his arid life how it would feel to be wanted - but his love and loyalty extended far beyond the gratification of any immediate need. He had a duty, tragic and hateful though it was; he had sworn to put Ko Chun's safety before his own, and if that meant denying them the consummation they both obviously desired that was what he must do.

"There are many reasons why not, Lee Fong," he said hollowly, finding the courage to look up at last. "You know as well as I do it isn't safe. Not now. Not here. One day, if we both live long enough, you may ask for anything you want and you will not be refused."

He stood, closing the distance between them, his eyes focusing on Chun's mouth as though what he desired was simply to feast upon that generous lower lip for the rest of his natural life.

Chun bowed his head briefly, eyes downcast, the gesture eloquent of respectful obedience and an attempt to return to the subordinate role of Lee Fong for the all-seeing cameras. He did not speak but squeezed Lung Wu's arm briefly and affectionately before turning away.

Wu let him go, painfully aware of the effort this weary retreat was costing. He had known from the first handshake that he would fall in love with the God of Gamblers, even though he had never known how it felt to be in love before that; Chun's first half-shy smile had guaranteed it long before the man had even opened his mouth to speak. What he had never suspected, though, was that Ko Chun might perceive that love and want to respond to it with physical affection. It was not something his life hitherto had encouraged him to expect; war and violence and harshness had been all he knew, tenderness was a language he had yet to learn. With Ko Chun as his teacher he suspected he would soon acquire the basic vocabulary, but proficiency would take a lifetime's practice.

Teach me, Ko Chun, he begged silently, even as he watched the man walk away.

He did not hear the answer; it fell into his heart like a jewel into a lake and the ripples washed outwards to touch every part of his soul.

In time, daai-lo, the God of Gamblers seemed to be telling him. In time, we'll teach each other.

 

In the days that followed a way of life evolved, gradually. Between them they prepared meals, looked after the house and made lists for Blanc, who called in regularly with provisions. They strove to find ways of keeping their minds occupied, determinedly relegating their feelings for one another to locked compartments not to be opened again without mutual consent. Both became restless, pacing the house, running over and over in their minds every aspect of their strange and ill-defined situation.

Neither trusted Blanc; usually when he visited Chun sat upstairs and watched the screens whilst Wu dealt with him, in keeping with the roles they had assumed. Between times Chun worked hard at cultivating patience and - in his own eyes - failed. He slept alone. Lung Wu sat up in the security room at night observing whatever stirred on the lonely country road; during the day he often slept in the children's room amid posters of French football stars, and sometimes a tall figure stood broodingly in the doorway and watched him sleep.

After nearly two weeks of inactivity Blanc's arrival with a carload of strangers was almost a relief. The men with him were large and armed, hired muscle. The two Chinese were instructed to pack up to leave the house, and when they had done so they met with Blanc in the kitchen.

"I have your passports," he told them brusquely.

Wu regarded him without emotion. "We want to see them," he said.

The Frenchman produced two blue British passports. "William Yung, Lewis Wong," he said, throwing them onto the table. "Your mothers wouldn't recognise you."

Chun picked up his and made the acquaintance of the fictitious Lewis Wong, flicking the passport in Wu's direction for his approval.

"Did you get my suit?" he asked Blanc.

"It's waiting in Marseilles. The game is at noon tomorrow. You will be gambling against an American named D'Onofrio. He's someone Didier wants to do business with, so you'd better not mess it up." Blanc glanced around at the muscle, confirming orders the Chinese had not heard him give. "Surrender all your weapons to me now," he added. "I don't want any … accidents."

Chun's eyes met Lung Wu's, and Wu nodded. As his friend handed over two pistols and a vicious thin-bladed throwing knife, Chun drew his own pistol and gave it to the fourth man.

"Search them," Blanc instructed the man, who patted them down thoroughly. Then Blanc addressed Chun. "You'll drive the Renault. I'll be beside you. You," he continued, to Lung Wu, "will be in the Citroën with Jules and Alain. They have some business with you before we leave."

Wu's eyebrows rose slightly, but he did not comment.

"Lung-ko?" A note of uncertainty, not entirely false, had entered Chun's tone.

"Go while you can, Fong," Wu advised him, calmly. "I'll see you again soon." He spoke in Cantonese, the last words barely audible, his attention not leaving Jules and Alain who both dwarfed Lung Wu's smaller frame.

The fourth man had Ko Chun's pistol in his hand, holding it casually pointed at Chun as though he had intended to put it away but got distracted. The intent was unmistakable.

"Outside," Blanc said.

"I won't leave."

Lung Wu turned to him, eyes filled with icy arrogance. "Do as you're told, Lee Fong," he ordered. "Do I have to remind you who is the daai lo here?"

Ko Chun had indeed needed to be reminded. In his anxiety for his friend's safety he had come dangerously close to sabotaging the mission he had been at such pains to set up. Duly chastened he bowed his head and turned to Blanc, knowing that everything he felt could be clearly read in his face.

"If you hurt him I won't gamble," he said, fear adding a raw edge to his words.

"If you don't gamble, you'll both die," was the calm retort. "We are not fools, messieurs, whatever you may think. Mr Lee, you and I will now walk slowly towards the barn and you will drive the Renault out into the yard. In a few moments we'll be leaving, and I don't intend to leave any trace of you behind."

A chill ran down Ko Chun's spine. He looked briefly in Wu's direction, but his friend was ignoring him and focusing on the ugly light fitting in the centre of the ceiling. Slowly Chun picked up his small holdall of clothes and possessions and obediently carried it out to the Renault, leaving Wu alone in the kitchen with Alain and Jules. He heard the first kicks and blows land before he was out of the house.

Somehow Ko Chun put one foot in front of the other, dragging himself across the yard, opening the barn doors, unlocking the Renault. He waited in the car with Blanc beside him, trying to block out the sounds of violence from inside the house. He could tell that Lung Wu was not making any attempt to defend himself; if he had done so he would have killed at least one of the men, possibly both. That would defeat their purpose, however; there was more at stake than the life of one man. Lung Wu had known that all along, and he had seemed to expect this assault. He had failed to mention it to Ko Chun, however, presumably in order to save him a further burden of anxiety. That Lung Wu would stoically take a beating and offer no resistance in order to further their cause would never have occurred to him; that there might have been unfinished business between his friend and Didier Ferrand should certainly have done so.

Several minutes passed that seemed like hours before Jules and Alain emerged from the house dragging Lung Wu between them, apparently more dead than alive, and flung him into the back seat of the Citroën. Jules took the wheel and moved the car out onto the road. Within seconds both vehicles had drawn away smoothly from the entrance to the farmyard, and shortly thereafter they were over the ridge on the limestone track and had left the safe house behind them for the last time.

 

The first two hours of the journey were agony for Ko Chun. The driving helped, giving him something to keep his mind occupied, and at least he knew Lung Wu was still alive, but it did not take much imagination to picture him slumped in the back of the Citroën, head hanging, face a mass of bruises. He tried asking Blanc about it, but the white-haired Frenchman silenced him with disdain and spoke only to give directions. In the back seat Thierry, the fourth man, was stripping and cleaning a pistol methodically in a way designed to remind Chun than he was a professional gun user who would not hesitate to demonstrate his skills. Chun viewed this manoeuvre without emotion; whilst they were thundering along the péage at 130 kph he was safe enough from everyone with the possible exception of other drivers.

On the outskirts of a city they pulled into the forecourt of a drive-in where Thierry ordered burgers and fries for all. Glancing across to the other car Chun realised that Lung Wu now seemed to be sitting upright, although he could not catch his friend's eye. He worried about concussion, and about whatever Wu had not told him about Didier Ferrand. So much of this scheme had been Wu's that Chun had felt he only needed to turn up and play his part. It had never occurred to him that Wu had withheld anything about Didier because he hadn't expected Wu to hide anything from him. He never had before; there had never been less than complete honesty between them. It had crackled from Lung Wu's hand to his at their first meeting when he felt the sudden realigning of Wu's allegiance to himself as though the generous Sheung Shan had been something temporary in his life and his real purpose had arrived at last.

This is Mr Dragon, Sheung had said. He'll fix any problem but gambling. He doesn't gamble and he doesn't drink.

He doesn't go with women, either, he had added slyly, later in the conversation. He had seemed to think that there was tremendous irony in that; the dragon, the signifier of manly virtue, of the masculine principle, should, in Sheung's opinion, be a voracious womaniser. That Lung Wu was not interested in women struck him as hysterically funny. Chun had failed to see the humour in it at the time, but later he had begun to recognise Lung Wu's extraordinary devotion to him for the kind of love it truly was.

Scanning the rear view mirror again his eyes flickered to the Citroën, tucked sedately behind the Renault, matching its speed and movements precisely. Wu was staring directly ahead of him and it was difficult to tell whether he saw Chun or not. He seemed to have suffered no further hurt since the farmhouse; the French must know that if Wu were killed or seriously injured they would not be likely to get Lee Fong's co-operation, and if they wanted to net a high roller like Cesare D'Onofrio they needed to be able to produce a reasonable facsimile of the God of Gamblers.

Until the game was over they were both likely to remain alive and more or less in one piece. For the time being, that would just have to do.

 

From the eighth floor of a fifteen-storey block which had a pizza parlour and a supermarket underneath even the most sparkling city in the world would have looked like just another set of road junctions, car parks and flat roofs. It was dark before they arrived and the two Chinese were hustled straight up to a suite comprising two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a central living area. They were bundled into a bedroom and their meagre luggage dumped in after them. The promised suit, wrapped in plastic, hung on the outside of the wardrobe attracting opprobrium like a tasteless remark.

"You'll stay here until the game," Blanc said.

Ko Chun did not glance towards Lung Wu. He did not want to be unnerved by his friend's pain. "We're hungry," he said firmly. "I don't intend to gamble on an empty stomach - not even to lose."

"You'll be fed." With this bleak assertion Blanc left the room, and they heard the click of a key. Then Chun turned around and, for the first time, looked properly at Lung Wu. His mouth was cut, one eyebrow split, his hair ragged and his clothing filthy. He moved awkwardly, shying away from Chun's intense scrutiny.

"You're hurt," Chun said, unnecessarily.

Wu did not look in his direction. "My shoulder is dislocated."

Two large strides took Chun across the room to him. "You had to let them beat you," he said. "Of course I understand that. I wish you could have warned me, but I know why you didn't. You were afraid I'd try to prevent it … "

" … and get hurt yourself. Yes." Wu looked tired, rubbing his eyes with his largely uninjured left hand. "Didier's wanted to have me beaten for years. I gave evidence against him once. In Vietnam. He kicked one of my men half to death in a fight. Crippled him. Didier spent fifteen years in a military prison. There were other charges too - prostitution, drugs - but he blames me. This was the price for his involvement, Chun-ko. It was my decision."

"I know. And you were right not to tell me." Ko Chun took hold of the front of Wu's leather coat, assisting him to extricate himself from it. Wu's black turtleneck presented more of a problem; after a moment's contemplation Chun ripped it apart along one seam and slipped it from unprotesting shoulders, revealing to the world a torso resembling a vandalised ivory statue. Bruises purpled Wu's pale chest, back and arms, and the right shoulder hung unnaturally low with the shape of the joint distorted. It should be re-set, and quickly.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Grip my hand tightly in yours and don't let go until I tell you." Wu lifted his hand towards Chun as though offering a handshake. Chun took it, fingers caressing the palm and wrist with its elegant dragon tattoo before tightening into a vice-like squeeze which Lung Wu was unable to reciprocate.

"Ready?"

Wu's body cracked like a whip, forcing the dislocated shoulder back into position with a vicious crunching sound. His fingers fell from Chun's and Wu turned his back on his friend, head lowered, free hand covering his face. A tiny prickle of cold sweat broke out across neck, shoulders and brow, a shudder of remembered pain assaulting every nerve-ending simultaneously. Then he was enveloped in the warmth and reassurance of a loose embrace, Chun's arms moving cautiously around him until they were chest-to-chest and holding one another as closely as they dared. Wu's eyes closed and his cheek rested on Chun's strong shoulder as in momentary weakness he allowed his employer to comfort him. They were so intent on one another that the unlocking of the door made no impact on their senses and they did not pull apart. Jules stood in the doorway with a pizza box balanced on the flat of one hand, choking on a contemptuous laugh.

"Faggots!" he yelled, delighted by the discovery. "They're faggots!" He tossed the take-away food in its soggy box and greasy paper bag onto what passed for a dressing-table. "Eat it," he said with an additional sneer. "It's all there is."

Ko Chun lifted the edge of the pizza box cautiously and looked inside without enthusiasm. "I'd rather eat the box," he said.

"Please yourself," the Frenchman growled. As he locked the door again a chorus of cat-calls and wolf-whistles came from the room beyond. The French were imitating the sounds of fucking, with someone crying out "Oh, Lee Fong! Oh, Lung Wu!" as though in the throes of ecstasy.

A twisted fragment of a smile crossed the Dragon's thin, weary face. "I'd like to kill them all," he said softly, with an air of disappointment as though he had hoped not to be driven to such extremity. "I want to watch them all die."

Ko Chun's fingers touched tentatively on his cold, bare shoulder, the merest hint of a caress before he returned his attention to the food.

"Dear Lung-ko," he said, sadly, "it's only a pity you can't kill them all twice."

 

They choked down semi-congealed pizza and garlic bread somehow, wondering that even a Frenchman would pay good money for such inadequate fare, and when they had finished Chun took a vicious pleasure in mangling the wrappings into a spiral and throwing them into the bathroom wastebin.

"That was disgusting," he commented mildly, lighting first Wu's cigarette and then his own to banish the smell and the taste of the food. He pulled back heavy blue curtains across the barred window and stood for a long time looking out at a panorama which in some ways reminded him of Hong Kong; the black chasm of the harbour chained in by lights of traffic on the autoroutes and the blinking red of commercial airliners angling across the sky seemed somehow familiar, but the place was so alien that his heart ached. He had loved France once, living in secluded retirement with his wife Yau. Since her murder he had hated the country and everyone in it, and he would have gone mad long ago had it not been for the reassuring presence of Lung Wu never far from his side.

Wu was observing Chun intently, his face impassive as he monitored the play of emotions across Chun's eloquent profile. Eventually he ground out the stub of his cigarette in an ashtray and said softly; "Tell me your thoughts, Chun-ko."

"I was thinking about the game in Taiwan," Chun said, his tone calm and even. It was a subject he had often returned to in his mind; one which had provided him with a still deeper insight into Wu's feelings towards him. "Do you know how I felt after I killed Chau Siu-chee and looked up to see you watching me?"

"Yes." No prevarication or dissimulation; if there had ever been a moment of mutual revelation in their relationship, the game in Taiwan had provided it.

Chun moved from the window, crossing to sit beside Lung Wu on the bed so that his view of his friend was a profile and one angular shoulder. Wu was bare-chested, the remnants of his sweater draped nonchalantly around his shoulders like a college student's scarf, and Chun risked the lightest of caresses, fingertips tracing a prominent vein in one strong upper arm. Despite his slender physique Wu had superb muscle definition; he had worked and trained since earliest childhood and was fitter and stronger than anyone else Ko Chun knew.

"It was not my fortune you were worried about, my Dragon, was it?" Chun asked tenderly, repeating the delicate caress almost hypnotically.

"No, it was not," Wu faltered, unable to suppress the tremor in his voice. "You have won and lost a dozen fortunes, Chun, and you will win and lose a dozen more, but you will only ever have one pair of eyes. How could you risk something so ... precious?"

Such openly expressed emotion was a new feature in their relationship. When Wu had shed tears for him back in the Taiwan casino he had not been able to find words to explain his feelings; Chun had taken on trust everything that was there in his boyguard's expression. Seeing them together then, an observer would have been unable to tell which was the protector and which the protectee; Ko Chun had not managed to resist sliding a consoling arm around his friend's shoulders and letting sheer physical reassurance say what words could not.

The same mechanism operated now. The lost look was there again on Wu's thin face, and the desire to soothe away his fears welled up in Chun's heart. He reached around to untie the sleeves of the torn sweater and let it fall to the floor, allowing his fingertips to stray to Wu's throat and down his neck, not really surprised that there was no response. Lung Wu remained still, self-possessed, not turning to meet his eyes; he kept his counsel and allowed Ko Chun to touch and stroke him however he pleased. Chun concentrated on the thrilling sensation of skin against skin, on the feeling of the palm of his own long-fingered hand whispering across Lung Wu's muscular shoulders.

"I almost wish I had lost my eyes that night," he breathed, close to Wu's ear. "You would have led me around by the hand and guarded my miserable life as if it was your only pearl. I knew you loved me, you have never tried to hide it, it's always been there in your eyes - but that was the first time I realised how much. I should have kissed you then, in front of all those people. It went through my mind. Did you want me to? I thought you did."

"Of course." A barely perceptible whisper, a heightening of Wu's calm heartbeat and an exquisite flush of arousal throughout a body so battered and weary it was nearly incapable of responding to Chun's caresses. "I almost thought you would." He remembered the way the beat of his heart had suddenly accelerated as he saw Ko Chun's mouth drawing closer to his own. A first kiss, there and under such scrutiny - outrageous! But Ko Chun had not kissed him, and in a way they were both sorry. "It would have been … " his breath caught as he contemplated the spectacle in his mind, " … very beautiful."

"Then perhaps I should kiss you in public, where hundreds of people can see us. Can see that I love you, and that you love me."

"Perhaps," Wu conceded, accepting the prospect with an equanimity hardly to have been expected in a man who had guarded his own emotions with such care. The prospect of being openly identified as Ko Chun's lover did not seem to worry him in the least, as though he was perfectly secure in his own sexuality and nothing could disturb that.

"And what will you do, if I kiss you?" As though to punctuate the question, Chun dropped the smallest of kisses onto the cool shoulder and, when this was not rejected, followed it up with another closer to the base of his friend's neck. "When I kiss you?"

"Kiss you back." Logical, cool, simple words with the power of an earthquake.

"And if there are no people to see us? If you and I are alone in the darkness, and I kiss you - will you still kiss me back, my Dragon?"

"With all my heart, Chun," Wu whispered, turning in his arms. One cool, steady hand slid around the back of Ko Chun's neck and drew his head down, the other took up station on the broad plane of his chest, and Ko Chun's soft words blew away like incense on a spring breeze as lips that had never known the comfort of a lover's touch opened to his, and a mouth that had never kissed or been kissed before met his in perfect equality.

Lung Wu's mouth was cool and passionate, inexperienced but willing, cautious but holding nothing in reserve. Having sworn to give himself completely to Chun he now rested easily in the mentor's arms, allowing his employer to make all the decisions, not merely passive but all-accepting. When the time came for him to make demands of his own he would do so, but for now he was content to take whatever Ko Chun was willing to give him and concentrate on learning what pleased his master.

Chun was easing him back down to the bed, strong arms surrounding him, kisses overwhelming him, body length for length with his. Wu's arms reached around him, holding him firmly, signifying consent to anything and everything Chun might require of him, but his strength was beginning to fail and eventually he lay rag-doll limp in Ko Chun's firm embrace and simply let it happen, let Chun's kisses fall where they would, let Chun's hands wander wherever they pleased.

Breathless, Chun wrapped him tighter still and made a supreme effort to resist his own desires.

"You're tired, my Dragon," he whispered. "You've been hurt."

"I'm exhausted, dearest Chun." Even after the travails of the day, any confession of weakness came as a surprise. "And I would rather not … " he paused, choosing his words. "Ko Chun, this is an ugly place full of ugly people. Do you really want to make love here? Now?"

"Yes!" Chun grinned, kissing him almost playfully. "No. You're right. We deserve something better than this second-class room and this third-class bed. But all the same I want to sleep with you, Lung-ko. Just sleep. Let me hold you close tonight, just in case … "

"In case … ?"

"In case there is never another chance."

Lung Wu's look of utter devotion as he settled more comfortably in Ko Chun's arms was all the response this request received - and quite as much as it required.

 

Late in the grey morning, with reluctance and a modicum of mild embarrassment at the previous night's romantic extravagance, they tore apart and had washed and dressed before Thierry put in an appearance bearing a prosaic assemblage of stale croissants, jam and fruit juice. As breakfast it was singularly unpleasant but the sugar content brought a boost to flagging energies and when they were alone again, with instructions to be ready to leave by eleven thirty, a barrier seemed to have been lifted and the intimacy of the night before took the place of the morning's caution. The door closing behind Thierry seemed to be the signal for Wu to move towards Chun, locating again his place in his employer's arms and being kissed very completely as their bodies wrapped together without error.

"I love you," Chun whispered. If he lived to be a thousand he would never tire of repeating it; the truth always sounded fresh to his ears despite the constancy of the emotion.

"I never doubted it," was the response. In any other man it would have been smugness; not in Lung Wu, who dealt only in literal truth.

Chun smoothed a hand through Wu's always tidy hair, wanting to prolong the moment but uncomfortably aware of the passage of time.

"We should be getting ready. I don't think we can put it off much longer."

Wu glared briefly at the suit hanging on the wardrobe door. It did not look particularly impressive and the thought of Ko Chun being forced to exhibit himself in such a sartorial nightmare was almost as painful as the notion of him sacrificing his eyes to Chau Siu-chee's greed.

"Perhaps that suit is the worst part of this charade," he observed, without humour.

Ko Chun shook his head sadly, eyeing the lifeless example of shoddy back-street tailoring that no-one with a modicum of sophistication could mistake for Armani. "I'm glad you brought a decent suit," he commented ruefully, beginning to remove his casual clothes. "At least one of us will be well-dressed."

The cheap black suit would have been perfect for the clarinettist in a dinner orchestra, but for the God of Gamblers it was a disaster. The shirt was so thin Chun's glowing golden skin tone was apparent through the fabric, the tie a ready-made abomination on an elastic loop. Chun examined himself in the dressing-table mirror with raised eyebrows, and when he met Wu's gaze he knew that his friend was laughing at him although not a muscle twitched in his solemn face.

"I spend more on one tie than they spent on the whole outfit," he remarked mildly.

Wu removed a small package from his garment carrier, unwrapped it and held out towards him a fold of black silk.

"Perhaps this will help," he offered. "You lent it to Siu La Bar, who asked me to return it to you."

Chun recognised one of his own ties, and tore off the elasticated monstrosity. Moments later he was again examining himself in the mirror.

"Better?" he asked. "A little less like a croupier on a cruise liner?"

Dragon regarded their shared reflection thoughtfully. "A little. You look exactly like a cheap crook pretending to be the God of Gamblers. Let's hope Signor D'Onofrio does not know good cloth from bad," he added, fingering the harsh fabric of the jacket's sleeve. "I doubt this … thing … cost more than the pizza."

"Cheap bait is good enough for the likes of D'Onofrio," Chun told him, tone affectionate. "The real God of Gamblers would be much too rich for his blood."

* * *

 

Two

 

Didier Ferrand's Club Chinois was close to the commercial waterfront of Marseilles. Part-restaurant and part-casino, its clientele comprised expatriate Chinese, homesick merchant seamen and anyone who wanted a touch of traditional culture but was not scrupulous about authenticity. It was the epitome of a European's daydream of a Chinese gambling den, its only conspicuous lack being a back room full of pigtailed men in skullcaps and embroidered robes smoking opium pipes; one would really not have been surprised to find the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu lurking somewhere about the premises.

The club was several city blocks from the anonymous hotel in which Chun and Wu had spent the night; the journey afforded them time to review in their minds the arrangements made with Chan Dagger and with Wu's sister, Lung Kau. If they had both succeeded in their respective parts of the operation they should meet shortly, and after that it would simply be a question of keeping their nerve - not something that usually troubled the God of Gamblers. Nevertheless when they arrived outside the phoney Dragon Gate entranceway with its muscular guardians and neon kanji, Chun met Wu's eyes briefly with a look that seemed grateful the waiting and planning were over at last. Wu's fingers tightened around his in the back of the car and Chun squeezed back reassuringly, not betraying by so much as a flicker of his facial muscles that comfort had been both sought and given.

As the car pulled up at the kerb Blanc, suited and trimmed and pressed for the occasion and looking indeed almost presentable, turned around in the front passenger seat and said icily: "Remember, you are the God of Gamblers."

Chun nodded, a barely perceptible movement of his head.

"Disgrace us and you won't live to regret it," Blanc added menacingly.

Chun's voice was soft and his expression soothing. "If you expect anyone to believe that I am the God of Gamblers," he said gently, "you had better start treating me appropriately." He looked away as though closing the conversation.

"What do you mean?"

There was no reply. Blanc squirmed in his seat and addressed Lung Wu.

"What does he mean, treat him appropriately?"

Wu's expression did not alter. He leaned forward to where Thierry sat in the driving seat and, in a voice as cold as liquid nitrogen, said; "You are chauffeur to the God of Gamblers. Surely you don't expect him to open the door for himself?"

A withering look from Blanc was enough to propel Thierry from his seat. Less than smoothly he opened the rear door for Chun, whilst Blanc did the same for Lung Wu. As he got out of the car Chun ran a hand across his hair, assuring himself it was perfectly in place, and as he stood upright and squared his shoulders Wu became aware of a change in his manner. The show had begun; Lee Fong the phoney had vanished and in his place stood Ko Chun, the greatest gambler in the world - and where would Lung Wu, protector of the God, be but at his side? Blanc formed up in echelon and, with the disgraced Thierry behind, they moved side by side into the foyer of the Club Chinois.

 

Inside there was a buzz of anticipation. The usual lunchtime crowd had assembled, augmented by a dozen Italian-Americans who talked quietly among themselves. In the gaming room a single large table stood in the centre set up for an encounter between two gamblers. Didier Ferrand surveyed his preparations with satisfaction. In his mid-forties, tall and suave, deeply tanned, he dressed expensively but without taste and his hands were encrusted with jewellery which caught the light whenever he moved - a deliberate reminder to everyone who saw him that he was wealthy and successful and would not make a good enemy. Just at the moment, however, he had the world pretty much the way he wanted it. The Club was making money; if he could finalise the deal with D'Onofrio's people he could open up a franchise in San Francisco and quadruple his profits overnight. Whatever he had to pay Don Cesare would be little enough for a foothold on the West Coast; it would be closer than trucking his immigrant Chinese halfway round the world, and anyway they all wanted to go to America and make fortunes and be movie stars.

Didier's eyes slid sideways to take in the range of talent behind the bar; several pretty Chinese girls, any one of whom would be only too glad to do whatever he asked in return for a chance to travel, better accommodation, an introduction to one of his influential friends. In eight years he'd never met a Chinese girl who'd refused him, except Karla. Still, Karla was useful in other ways; she ran the bar and kept the other girls in order, and for the time being that was all he wanted from her.

There were sounds from the outer lobby as if someone of importance was being ushered through. Not a moment too soon; D'Onofrio was tired of drinking coffee in the office and had started to suspect that the God of Gamblers was afraid to meet his challenge. Whatever this Lee Fong was like he should at least be good enough to hoodwink a Mafioso who had rarely set foot outside the USA - and it wasn't as if the fake Ko Chun was even expected to win anything. The best way to flatter Don Cesare into feeling well-disposed towards the Club Chinois and its West Coast franchise would be to let him walk out of here at the end of the day with a large wad of cash seemingly taken in fair battle from one whose reputation was whispered wherever cards were dealt. And afterwards - with D'Onofrio safely on his way back to San Francisco - Didier could have a little fun of his own with his old adversary Lung Wu and that brother-in-law of his.

Anthoine Blanc said the two Chinese had spent their night in the hotel screwing one another. That surprised Didier only inasmuch as he couldn't imagine the austere Lung Wu relaxing enough to screw - or, more bizarrely still, be screwed by - anyone or anything. Back in Vietnam he had lived like a monk with only his weapons for company; without sex, drugs, alcohol or any other form of recreation as far as one could tell. His only occupation seemed to be minding other people's business, snooping into their private trading or sexual arrangements, depriving them of comforts that helped the time pass more pleasantly. If he had hopes, prayers, dreams or ambitions he had not confided them to anyone the Frenchman knew of - and he'd made enquiries, looking for any weakness he could exploit. He'd considered homosexuality along with all the other possibilities, but the bait he'd thrown down had failed to attract Lung Wu's attention and Ferrand had quickly abandoned the idea in disgust.

It was bizarre to think that the virtuous Major had now sunk so low as to make advances to his sister's husband. Ferrand had heard talk of the younger sister and his imagination had conjured up a nightmare of a woman with her brother's stern expression and complete absence of humour. Poor Lee Fong, caught between such a harpy and her hypocrite brother; disposing of him really would be doing him a favour.

He chuckled, looking around the room in amusement: Cesare D'Onofrio and Lung Wu under one roof, and the opportunity to score points with one whilst finally getting even with the other! He was going to make the most of every second. He was going to take his revenge spoonful by spoonful and savour every drop.

In short, Didier Ferrand was going to have the time of his life.

 

Blanc escorted the God of Gamblers and his bodyguard into the gaming room with a theatrical flourish. The office door opened and D'Onofrio stepped out, followed by some of his minions; to Ferrand's mild annoyance the Mafioso had provided himself with a Chinese interpreter in the shape of a tall and rather striking-looking young man in a white jacket. It was he who stepped ahead of his master, bowed slightly to Chun, and addressed him in respectful tones.

"Do San sin saang, I'm Mickey Chow. Signor D'Onofrio doesn't speak Cantonese, and he asks if you would prefer to conduct business in English or French?"

Chun looked past Chow to the squat Italian and bowed his head only a fraction. It was really rather impressive from where Ferrand was standing; Lee Fong would have made a very good confidence trickster had he thrown in his allegiance with the right people.

"English," he said, in that language.

"Then, Mr Ko, I present Mr Cesare D'Onofrio from the United States of America who will be your opponent this afternoon."

Chun exchanged a cool handshake with D'Onofrio. The white-haired Italian regarded him with suspicion, which Chun returned. It was all very civilised, extremely polite, but like two tigers shaping for battle they looked one another up and down assessing strengths and weaknesses and backed away without breaking eye contact.

"Shall we start, messieurs?" Ferrand, with all the polished obsequiousness of a superior maitre d', waved a chivalrous hand to each of his guests. "Signor D'Onofrio, Mr Ko, please be seated."

Chun's seat gave him a clear view of the bar and its complement of Chinese waitresses, many of whom cast encouraging glances in his direction. D'Onofrio occupied the place across from him whilst the Asian clientele, admitted to supply an admiring audience for his triumph, mustered at a respectful distance from the scene of the confrontation. The table had been set with two identical piles of chips, each representing one million dollars US; Chun's instructions were to lose as much of this sum as possible - all of it, for preference - to the sour Italian opposite.

The dealer produced five wrapped packs of brand new cards and offered them to D'Onofrio. The Italian selected a pack, tapping it with a fingertip, and then returned his steely attention to Ko Chun. At the same time he took advantage of the hiatus while the dealer opened and shuffled the deck to draw a cigar from his pocket and go through an elaborately calculated ritual of sniffing, cutting and lighting it like a poker player in any one of a hundred inferior Spaghetti Westerns. Only when D'Onofrio had finished this pantomime did Ko Chun make any response, and then it carried the insolence of total disregard. Without breaking the Italian's gaze he lifted his left hand in a languidly imperial gesture, and the hand was taken affectionately by Lung Wu who stood only inches from his shoulder.

This was no mere gesture of solidarity, however. Slowly, so that there would be no mistaking his movements, Wu slid a ring carved of solid jade onto the littlest finger of Wu's left hand. It was one of the legendary trademarks of the God of Gamblers; high rollers might come and go, but the man who wore the jade ring was known throughout the world as the best there had ever been.

Wu's movements were businesslike but infinitely gentle; there could be no mistaking his feelings towards the supposed God of Gamblers, and the lack of embarrassment as he slid the ring onto Chun's finger underscored the symbolic as well as the practical significance of the gesture. It did not require a massive leap of the imagination to find a secondary interpretation for it, and very little intuition would have been required to decipher the calmly possessive expression on the Dragon's stoical face and understand his precise position in Do San's retinue. After a nicely calculated interval he released Chun's hand and stepped back to take up a position one pace away; he was still a bodyguard and should be no further than this from his master's side.

"Wait."

The dealer had been about to offer the cards to Chun to cut, but now he was interrupted from a surprising direction. Mickey Chow, the smart young man acting as D'Onofrio's Cantonese interpreter, had intervened.

"Signor D'Onofrio has heard that Mr Ko likes to eat chocolate while he gambles," he said. "He hopes this is the correct kind?" He snapped his fingers and one of the waitresses - Karla, his bar manager, Ferrand was annoyed to notice - came forward carrying a tray. She put the chocolate down close to Ko Chun's elbow and he flickered a glance in its direction before raising his eyes to her and giving her a little nod of acknowledgement. He opened the pack and unwrapped a square of dark chocolate, cramming it into his mouth. Wu had once teased him about his weight, and about the amount of chocolate he ate; before Yau died he had been so contented that he had piled on the pounds, and would no doubt have gone on doing so if life had permitted him the chance. Yet the chocolate, like the jade ring, was a talisman; lacking either of these, the God of Gamblers was less likely to succeed.

Rather than retreating, Karla stepped towards D'Onofrio and bowed her head respectfully. "May I bring anything for you, Signor?" she asked, in French.

D'Onofrio shook his head, then changed his mind and ordered brandy. When Karla brought it he warmed the globe in his hand, sniffed appreciatively and savoured the taste, every movement carefully choreographed to impress upon those around them that here was a sophisticated man of the world and there, at the far end of the table, a child who ate chocolate and was not ashamed to have his hand held by his minder in a public place.

When all the by-play had finished the dealer took up the cards again, shuffled through them once more, gave them to Ko Chun to cut, and at a nod from Didier Ferrand dealt to each a single card face down and a second face up; D'Onofrio received the Seven of Hearts, Ko Chun the Eight of Diamonds. Neither blinked.

"The bet is with you, Monsieur," the dealer told D'Onofrio. The Italian lifted the edge of his hole card, studied it without emotion for a second, then opened conservatively for thirty thousand dollars.

Ko Chun examined his own hole card briefly. It was the Eight of Hearts. He matched the bet, and the dealer dealt again - this time the Ten of Hearts to D'Onofrio and the Ten of Spades to Chun.

The pot increased once more, and the next deal brought the Jack of Spades for the Italian and the Three of Diamonds for Ko Chun. It seemed neither had much chance of making a hand worth having, although for the spectators there was no way of guessing what cards each might have concealed face down on the table. Tension began to mount in the room as the two gamblers added to the pot, each trying to bluff the other into backing off; but Cesare D'Onofrio was not a man who had ever stepped away from a challenge and it was apparent he had met his equal in Ko Chun.

The last deal brought the Four of Diamonds to D'Onofrio and the Five of Diamonds to Chun. Two hands full of nothing, as it seemed, although it was now obvious that each must hold a pair. The question was, of what value? If Chun held tens and D'Onofrio only fours, the hand would go the way of the God of Gamblers. Most of those spectating - used to the reputation, if not the actual presence, of the Do San - expected nothing less.

Still the elaborate bluff continued, the value of the pot rising by small increments until eventually D'Onofrio called the hand and, somewhat sheepishly, Ko Chun turned over his hole card. At the beginning of the hand it had been the Eight of Hearts, which would have given him a pair of eights. Now it had mysteriously become the Four of Spades, and he shrugged uncomfortably at the gasps of astonishment that rang around the room. Apparently he had bluffed on an empty hand, raising the stakes and the temperature in the room, and the best he could hope for now was that D'Onofrio had done the same and that the stake would remain on the table for the next hand.

This hope was shattered when the Italian turned over his own hole card, the Seven of Diamonds. He had taken the hand with a pair of sevens.

Smiling, Ko Chun pushed the chips across the green baize towards his opponent and called for a glass of water. As the hubbub among the audience increased, Didier Ferrand leaned back against the wall, glanced briefly at the smiling Mickey Chow, puffed on a cigar and reflected on the successful working out of his own extremely ingenious plan. Everything was going just as he predicted; he would have his West Coast dens up and running before the end of the year, and after that greater success in the USA could be only a matter of time.

 

Each successive hand seemed to produce a similar result. There were minor victories for Ko Chun, just enough not to make it too obvious that he was losing deliberately, but early in the tournament his easy-going confidence held firm. Indeed, he had been through far worse ordeals than this; games in which not only money was at stake. Playing against Chan Kam Sing, the Singapore King, on a floating casino seven years previously, he had been very much aware that the game would end in bloodshed. At his side then had been his cousin, Yee, the friend of his heart, with whom he had grown up. He had entrusted Yee with everything he held dear; not only with his own life but also with that of his girlfriend, Janet. Yee and Janet had been with him at the dinner when Sheung Shan had given him that most generous of presents, ownership of a taciturn individual by the name of Lung Wu. Chun remembered being deeply embarrassed by the gift, saying with a soft laugh that he did not need a bodyguard - yet the intent look in Wu's eyes even back then had reached inside his soul, and when Wu had given him his card and quietly asked him to call if ever he needed help Ko Chun had known that one day he would do just that. When he had called and had seen Lung Wu in action for the first time, he had known that he would need no other protection for the rest of his life.

Throughout the nightmare that followed he had occasionally seen in his mind the image of a small, serious-looking man, a man who did not smile but who nonetheless made him feel safe. Somehow Lung Wu had found him in the Kowloon whorehouse and had brought him - and Chan Dagger and the rest of their little gang - safely through a hail of bullets that had started in the nearby shopping mall. The fight had continued to a conclusion which had left Lung Wu, bleeding from two gunshot wounds and surrounded by bodies, crumpled on the floor of the car park. Ko Chun, with a bullet in one shoulder and a vicious head wound, had staggered dazedly into the path of an oncoming car and been thrown over onto its bonnet, sustaining still further injuries. The two men, employer and employee, had ended up in adjacent rooms in the same hospital.

It was while Ko Chun had been recovering that Yee had come to him, held him in his arms like the lover he could so easily have been, and told him that his beautiful Janet had vanished.

Returning afterwards to the villa he and Janet had shared, Ko Chun had wandered from room to room in a trance. His recovery had been slow and lonely with only Yee for company - but Yee had been everywhere, looking after him, attending to his every material need and trying to supply the companionship he otherwise lacked. One telephone call had been his only contact with Lung Wu during that time, but he had already known that physical presence or absence had very little to do with the feelings that had begun to grow between them. Wherever they may have been, together or apart, he was aware that Lung Wu was the one man in the whole world on whom he could rely without hesitation; all the more necessary and valuable to him in the face of what he had soon recognised as Yee's hideous betrayal.

Yee had been sympathetic and supportive over the disappearance of Janet. He had sworn vengeance against anyone who harmed her. Easy words. Snake words. For it was Yee himself who had destroyed Janet, and had sunk even lower, beyond the level of the most abject beasts, when he had violated her still-warm corpse. Determined to enjoy her one way or another, he had thrown himself upon her newly dead body and raped her over and over until he had worked through all his aggression and lust and seething resentment of the God of Gamblers. He had disposed of her so well that she had not been found until several months later, when Yee himself was dead and the God of Gamblers was reputed to be in Brazil. At any rate Ko Chun had not returned for Janet's funeral but had sent Lung Wu to represent him, for by this time the legends of the Do San and his faithful bodyguard had already become inseparably intertwined and no-one now thought of one of them without also thinking of the other.

Memories of Yee faded as quickly as they had arisen. Since Yee it had been Lung Wu always at Chun's side, except during the period of his exile in France and his marriage to Yau. Lung Wu had been doing his boss's bidding then in a different way, overseeing Chan Dagger - who had earned himself the title Knight of Gamblers - and Chow Sing Cho, now known as the Saint of Gamblers, as they carried his reputation forward.

Chun himself had officially retired from gambling, preferring to remain out of the limelight. Yee's betrayal had scarred him, and in settling for quiet domesticity with Yau in France he had hoped to avoid any more violent confrontations. Unfortunately a determined rival named Chau Siu-chee had resolved to prove himself against the legend and had eventually brought about the bloody murder of Yau, together with the Do San's unborn son, in order to provoke him out of hiding. He'd emerged in a way no-one expected, bringing with him a cheap conman called Siu La Bar and a mainland Chinese police captain, who had ultimately proved themselves to be strong allies.

Nevertheless it was to Lung Wu that he turned in a crisis, and Lung Wu who had been at his side in the Taiwan casino when Ko Chun had been goaded into betting his eyes on the last turn of the card. No-one who had seen the resulting scene between Chun and Wu, when Chun had gently wiped a tear from his bodyguard's cheek, could have doubted for a moment that their feelings for one another went far beyond simple affection. Love was written in every line of that gesture, and if it had never so far been expressed with any great physicality that was because they were savouring the slow and inexorable escalation of their emotional commitment and gradually adjusting their shared world to take account of a new reality.

That reality was no mystery now to anyone present in the Club Chinois. Mutual affection was written into every look they shared as the pile of chips in front of Ko Chun diminished by stages. His gambles became increasingly reckless, as if he felt he could recoup the whole pot with one extravagant success, but D'Onofrio wore away at him like water at stone and his decisions became increasingly erratic. At one point he called for a break, staggered from the table, and calmly permitted Lung Wu to wipe his sweat-soaked brow with a folded handkerchief. He clung to Wu's arm with fingers that were white and shaking, and in the end it was Wu who detached the hand gently when time was called, briefly gripped it tight over his own heart, and turned Ko Chun back to the game with a comforting word.

 

After Ko Chun had resumed his seat the dealer shuffled the cards again. He dealt hole cards to each, and then the Two of Diamonds to D'Onofrio and the Ace of Hearts to Chun. Chun flicked one glance at his hole card, then turned to smile a soft, reassuring smile towards his protector.

"The bet is with you, M'sieur," the dealer reminded D'Onofrio.

The Italian, taking a quick look at his hole card, inhaled deeply and surveyed the chips in front of him.

"I have one million, nine hundred thousand dollars US here," he said. "That's almost twelve million francs. You, Do San, have one hundred thousand dollars - six hundred thousand francs, not much more. I have twenty times what you have," he added, rubbing home the message for the audience in the club. "What do I stand to gain if I win this hand? Nothing worth having."

Ko Chun stood up and bowed. "If you want to end the game, Signor, I will not refuse you."

D'Onofrio waved him back to his seat. "No," he said. "But I hear that in Taiwan you risked your eyes on the turn of a card. Would you be willing to do that again?"

A sharp intake of breath from Lung Wu was the only response this remark provoked. Ko Chun considered it coolly, then nodded his head.

"Good. Then perhaps you can be persuaded to raise the stakes still further and gamble something you would be even less willing to lose?"

"You mean my life?" Chun surmised, determinedly cool. He shrugged. "If I lose that, I lose nothing."

D'Onofrio smiled. He had no doubt that his opponent's casualness was perfectly genuine and that he truly did not care whether or not he lost his own life, but there were ways of emphasising a victory that appealed to him far more than death or disfigurement. The permanent and irredeemable loss of all honour was the option he favoured.

"Not your life," he replied, mercilessly. "That."

The Italian's casual disdain was bewildering. For a moment it was impossible to follow his train of thought, but then his head jerked dismissively in the direction of the man who stood at Ko Chun's shoulder and a sensation of astonishment ran rapidly around the room. Of them all, perhaps only the Chinese truly understood what D'Onofrio was asking; that the God of Gamblers should hazard his famously close relationship with his protector on the turn of a card. None of them, however, expected any answer but the one he gave.

Bowing slightly, Chun let his mouth form a joyless smile. "No," he said. "I can't do that."

Relief filled the room. It seemed almost that the rigidity left Lung Wu's spine as his eyes locked with those of Ko Chun. The mentor's expression was cold, concerned, more than a little preoccupied, as if the situation was developing beyond his ability to control it.

"Then walk away from the table and lose your reputation for all time," D'Onofrio challenged.

"As you wish." Once again Ko Chun rose to his feet, bowed respectfully - and when he raised his head again it was to find a gun pointed at him. One of the Italians had him covered, and as he turned quickly to his left he realised that another held a gun to Lung Wu's head in similar fashion. The audience in the club had suddenly gone very quiet; a pin could have been heard to drop anywhere in the large, packed room.

"Or perhaps lose your head … and that of your boyfriend," D'Onofrio suggested lightly. The last word was a deliberate insult which betrayed a lifetime's revulsion for any man he considered even mildly effeminate. "His death will be the last thing you see. But I'm a reasonable man," he added, signalling to his hired muscle to back away a fraction. "I'll take his contract from you fair and square. I understand a certain Mr Sheung owned him and gave him to you as a present, so you are free to give him away or lose him at cards as you please. If you want to have any chance of walking out of here alive, Mr Ko Chun, you'll be smart and put the man's contract on the table. As he's obviously so very precious to you I'll be generous and allow you five million dollars on him."

"Five million?" Chun whispered, amazed.

"What's the odds? I've heard you once staked thirty million dollars Hong Kong on a private game with a friend."

So he had. Chun wondered how on earth that little titbit had leaked out. He'd won, too.

"Five million dollars US?" Apparently hypnotised by the sum, Chun repeated the words numbly. "Nearly forty million Hong Kong?"

"Thirty seven and a half," D'Onofrio confirmed. "Get out of jail, Mr Ko. Last chance."

Ko Chun's head lowered to his hands. He looked again at his hole card and bit his lower lip a time or two, silently admiring the Machiavellian twist of D'Onofrio's mind. Either the God of Gamblers was man enough to risk what he cared about most, or he was not; if not, then he ridiculed himself before his countrymen. If he wagered and lost he walked away with nothing - if he was allowed to walk away at all. If he wagered and won, however, it still did not follow that D'Onofrio had anything to lose. All in all, it was a very satisfactory strategy.

"Lung Wu against five million dollars US," he repeated, after due and agonised consideration, fully conscious that he had been backed into a corner. He could not look in Lung Wu's direction. "Very well, I have no choice. I agree."

A gasp of anguish was torn from Wu's throat as he took a half-step forward, only to be restrained by the Italian. "Chun, no!"

"I'm sorry." Chun muttered the words without turning, his head low on his chest, his eyes seeing nothing but the green baize of the table and the single red heart that seemed to throb on his upturned card. He was staking a lot on that concealed Queen of Spades, and he had nowhere safe to look while the dealer set out the third cards. "I'm sorry, Wu." Sniggers from some of the Italians followed this remark; they were all strong and manly types, and to see the Chinese behaving in this manner only reinforced their view of Asians in general. It did not matter how well they could fight; people who could conduct themselves like these two had no right to try and describe themselves as 'men'.

Lung Wu subsided, unwilling to watch and yet unable to look away as the Two of Clubs fell to D'Onofrio and the Ace of Clubs to Ko Chun. He let go of the breath he had been holding; with two aces in his hand surely Ko Chun could not lose now?

Chips had been piled like a traitor's gold pieces at Ko Chun's elbow and he now grudgingly pushed forward a further two million, the expression on his face that of a rebellious child told to eat its vegetables. D'Onofrio matched the bet, all amusement gone from his face. He had long ago passed the point where the monetary value of his win held any significance for him; now he was looking to humiliate a rival. Didier Ferrand, in supplying him with an opportunity to do so, had earned himself a substantial reward.

The deal this time was Two Spades to D'Onofrio, Six Hearts to Ko Chun. Both men sat back in their chairs and contemplated this development carefully. Now, at the very least, D'Onofrio held a pair of twos and Ko Chun a pair of aces; unless D'Onofrio already had a two in the hole or drew one as his last card, it looked very much as if Ko Chun had the winning hand. More chips migrated to the centre of the table, D'Onofrio again following Ko Chun's bet, not calling nor raising not yet even folding although he was now in a perilous position. He could attempt to bluff Ko Chun into folding, although that was something the God of Gamblers had seldom been known to do, or he could match the stake and hope for better things on the last deal. This was the option he chose.

The dealer turned over the last two cards. With a sinking heart, but no visible alteration to his facial expression, the Italian picked up the Four of Hearts. Ko Chun received the Eight of Clubs.

Something like a communal exhalation of relief ran around the room. Most of the Asians present were on the side of the God of Gamblers, although sundry French businessmen who had wandered in for a lunchtime drink and remained to swell the numbers in the audience seemed disposed to favour D'Onofrio.

Regaining something of his earlier confidence, Ko Chun stroked his fingertips across his cards where they lay on the table.

"Everything," he said, softly. "Everything on this hand. Either fold your hand or match me and we'll open the cards; winner to take Lung Wu and all the money. What do you say, Signor D'Onofrio?" As if Lung Wu were merely an artefact, a possession like any other possession, an object that could be lent or given away without expressing any opinion of its own.

The Italian pursed his lips. He had been placed in an impossible position; he had drawn to a pair of twos against a pair of aces, a bold enough move at the best of times but now, with the equivalent of $75 million Hong Kong dollars on the table, an almost suicidal gamble. The only thing that kept him going was the knowledge that the discredit would be close to fatal for whoever lost; the loser of this game would never again lift a card in anger, and his reputation would be shattered beyond repair. That loser might well be himself; but it was just as likely to be Ko Chun. So, after all their manoeuvring, after all the tactics and the emotion of the game, it all turned on his hole card and Ko Chun's; a fortune on two small scraps of pasteboard neither worth a dime.

He could not back down. He had not been born to back down, and he did not intend to start now. With a sigh he pushed the pile of chips forward, toppling them into a heap in the middle of the table. When the last fallen chip had rolled to a halt, the dealer spoke calmly but with authority.

"Open your cards, gentlemen, Mr Ko first."

With a serene smile and a confident glance in Lung Wu's direction, the first since he had made the decision to bet the man's contract on this card, Ko Chun lifted and turned his hole card; the Queen of Spades. It declared his hand as a pair of aces, and unless D'Onofrio held another two in the hole it looked very much as though he had won the hand and regained everything he had lost - including that most precious of all gambles, the life of his beloved minder.

Reluctantly, knowing his hole card to be the Three of Clubs, D'Onofrio picked it up, held it in his hand for only a moment, and then let it drop face up onto the table.

By the time it fell, it was the Two of Hearts.

"What?" The gasp of disbelief came from Lung Wu. "Si foo, please, no!"

Agony passed across Ko Chun's face. This public humiliation, the pleading of his friend, the jeering of the crowd in the room all bore down on him like a cloud of angry bees, each bringing its own peculiar sting. He had lost. He had lost everything he cared about. His head dropped into his shielding hands as pandemonium broke out all around him. Italians and French were congratulating one another, Didier Ferrand shaking hands enthusiastically with D'Onofrio. The Italian roared an order for champagne and began scraping together his winnings, barely getting started before signalling Mickey Chow to take over and complete the task.

D'Onofrio did not understand how it could have happened. Had he mistaken Two Hearts for Three Clubs? Was his eyesight so bad suddenly? Had his memory failed him? Was he so tired and confused that he had simply not recognised what he had seen? However it had happened, it had enabled him to bluff like a champion, bringing to light at last a card that beat anything the supposed God of Gamblers held in his hand. No doubt some power beyond himself was watching over him; it was nice to have the Almighty step in and validate his lifestyle like that from time to time - he must remember to buy some candles and have some prayers said on his behalf when he got home. Meanwhile, there were the loose ends of his victory to be tidied up.

"Why don't you take this God of Gamblers along on your freighter?" he suggested to the French, indicating the hunched form of Ko Chun. "I'll keep the other one with me. He may be of some use. If not … " he shrugged. The winning bet had been far more a question of depriving Ko Chun of something he cared about than of actually wanting it for himself. "If not, then perhaps you will be able to use him yourselves. Apparently he's quite used to rendering intimate services."

 

Revolted by the words and the implication behind them, Lung Wu screwed up his face into a mask of disapproval. He could bear any degredation D'Onofrio chose to offer him, but he could not stand to see Ko Chun looking so hurt. Not since the death of Yau had he felt such pain emanating from his master; then, as now, he had an overwhelming desire to wrap his arms around Chun and comfort away the hurt. Then, as now, it had been a complete impossibility.

Chun had somehow got to his feet. He was leaning on the table, his face pale, his eyes haunted, as Mickey Chow raked the last of the chips over to where some of D'Onofrio's people were stacking and counting them into piles.

"This is dishonest money," he said, his voice very small and weak. "If you attempt to take it out of France, you will be arrested."

Briefly the Italian stopped accepting congratulations from his toadies and glared back at him.

"You are a poor loser, Mr Ko Chun," he observed self-righteously. "And a fool if you think there is anyone who can stop me. All police and customs officers can be bribed, if only one has … " a gloating glance passed across his pile of winnings on the table " … enough money."

"Perhaps not all police," Ko Chun countered humbly.

"Oh yes, I assure you. All police, and in all countries." He had turned away, dismissing the conversation, when Ko Chun spoke again.

"Not all, Signor, I am sorry to say. And certainly not … these."

Around the room, the sound of weapons being drawn and cocked. Everywhere, literally everywhere, behind the bar, among the audience, at all the entrances and exits and even close around the table itself there were men and women with pistols, men and women each of whom had a selected target; instantly the French and Italian gangsters were all at gunpoint, from D'Onofrio himself on down to the humblest of his sidekicks. It was Mickey Chow the interpreter who held the gun at the Mafioso's head, and it did not waver. Several feet away Lung Wu caught Mickey's eye and managed a smile and a nod of approval. It had gone precisely as they planned. Nothing had been left to chance in preparing for this moment.

The only person moving in the room now was Karla, Ferrand's bar manager. She had set her tray down on the edge of the card table and was removing her apron before walking over to D'Onofrio.

"Signor," she said, "I am Senior Inspector Lung Kau of the Hong Kong Police, on attachment to Interpol. You are under arrest for fraud and evasion of currency regulations, and also for receiving stolen property." She exchanged warm smiles with Mickey Chow as she passed, patting him on the shoulder. "Monsieur Ferrand, we would also like to talk to you about your immigrant smuggling operation and the disappearance of several young Chinese women recently employed in your organisation. Perhaps you know where we might be able to find them?"

Ferrand lifted his eyes and briefly caught sight of Jules and Alain, being handcuffed by men he had imagined to be French businessmen but who now all seemed to be wearing Interpol identity badges. Jules and Alain had frequently taken young men and women along on the freighter - those who wished to return to Hong Kong. Few of them had got further than half way. Somewhere in the deep ocean there was a hidden repository of waitresses and bar staff, failed prostitutes and the occasional velvet-skinned boy who had been used repeatedly on the journey and then, when they were of no further use, simply dropped, still kicking, into the water. If they were really unlucky, it could take anything up to half an hour to drown.

"You'll get nowhere," Ferrand said firmly. "None of my people will talk." Jules and Alain, close-mouthed as ever, nodded receipt of this instruction. Blanc, loyal to the end, had not needed to be told. It was Thierry, the youngest and least competent of Ferrand's minions, who responded with sheer offensive delight.

"You're too late," he said proudly. "One of us already has."

"Thierry told us about your plans to ingratiate yourself with the Mafia," Senior Inspector Lung Kau smiled. "It was an opportunity we couldn't afford to miss. Without Thierry none of this would have been possible - but you have also incriminated yourself out of your own mouth a dozen times over, Signor."

The murderous look Didier Ferrand shot in his direction let the helpful Thierry know in no uncertain terms exactly how much his contribution had been appreciated. It was to be hoped that Interpol had provided him with a new identity and a flawless cover, otherwise the remainder of his life would be rather short and not particularly pleasant.

"Inspector Lung, the transport has arrived," a policeman called out from the doorway.

"Good. Take these people to Headquarters, we'll process them there." She supervised the handing over of D'Onofrio to one of the police officers, and then ensured that the interpreter had dealt safely with his borrowed gun before throwing her arms around his neck. "Dagger!"

"Lung Kau, I missed you!" The Knight of Gamblers, Chan Dagger, hugged his fiancée enthusiastically, only letting her go when he caught sight of the mildly disapproving expression on her brother's face. "What, Lung-ko, still don't like me?"

But Lung Wu took a step forward and shook him warmly by the hand. "You did very well, Chan-ko. So did you, Karla. You know, you should keep that name. I think it suits you."

"Yes!" she agreed with a grin. "Thank you, brother. I'm so sorry you were hurt."

Lung Wu shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I … " Suddenly tongue-tied, he found that he was breaking off the conversation to look across to the other side of the table. Something electric in the atmosphere told him that Didier Ferrand was looking in his direction, and on the man's face was such an expression of hatred and derision that his features seemed scarcely strong enough to bear it.

The policeman who had handcuffed Didier was trying to drag him out of the building, but the Frenchman's feet stopped moving as he reached Ko Chun, standing again with his head bowed, leaning on the end of the table as though waiting for the madness in the room to die down.

"You are not some pathetic chauffeur, are you?" Ferrand spat. "Who are you?"

Ko Chun sighed. "Allow me to give you my card," he said, politely. He reached out to pick up the Two of Hearts that had won the game for D'Onofrio. In full view of everyone in the room Ko Chun flicked the card over in his hand, then turned it face up again; it was the Ace of Spades when he presented it to the Frenchman.

"Do San," Ferrand concluded.

"The same." Chun bowed as though they had just been introduced.

"There never was a chauffeur named Lee Fong?"

"Never. And incidentally I object to you making me wear this suit, Monsieur."

Ferrand looked the suit over with an experienced eye and nodded thoughtfully. "It makes you look like a circus clown," he said, with a bitter laugh. "How very appropriate," he added as the policeman led him away.

A moment later, Lung Kau was hugging Ko Chun. "Daai lo, thank you," she yelled into his ear as the noise level in the club escalated. "We've got them all. We can clear up more than a dozen murders, smash their immigrant smuggling operation and trace all their illegal currency dealings. I can never thank you enough."

"Don't thank me, Karla," he said, his voice wavering a little as he unwound his arms from around her waist. "Just give me permission to spend the rest of my life with your brother. We almost left it too late this time; I don’t want the chance to slip away again."

"My poor brother," she whispered. "You will take good care of him, Ko Chun, won't you?"

"I will take care of him if he will promise to take care of me," Chun smiled down at her; although she was tall for a Chinese woman, she did not even begin to approach his height.

"He will," Karla vowed on her brother's behalf. "If he has any sense, he'll never let you out of his sight again. He loves you so much, Ko Chun."

"I know that, sister," he told her kindly, "but thank you anyway."

At last he detached himself from her joyful embrace and took a few steps - three steps, around the end of the card table, to find that Lung Wu had taken three steps towards him. Ko Chun opened his mouth to speak, but a wave of the hand from his bodyguard stopped him before he started.

"So," Lung Wu said, his expression solemn, "you thought you could give me away, Chun-ko? Lose me on the turn of a card? You needn't go to so much trouble; when you want me to leave you, you have only to ask."

"Leave me?" Alarmed, Chun reached out and drew Lung Wu into his arms. "Never. I want you never to leave me, Lung-ko. My Dragon. Never."

"Then you must never again put my contract on the table, Chun, do you understand?" But at the same time as he spoke these harsh words Wu's arms were reaching around his master's body and he was holding Chun just as tightly as Chun was holding him.

"I'm sorry, my Dragon, there wasn't time to ask you. You took it very well, though. You seemed genuinely afraid to be parted from me."

"Because I was. I know only too well what it's like to be without you and to be afraid for you," Wu said into the harsh black cloth of the cheap suit. "I don't want to experience that again." Not for the first time, he knew he was probably going to disgrace himself by crying in public. He knew perfectly well that Ko Chun could take care of himself - hadn't he once cut a table in half with a sword simply to kill the man who stood behind it? - but it had never stopped him being afraid that something would happen to Chun and he would be unable to save him. "I wish you would try harder not to get into these situations."

"Hmmm. Well, maybe I'll retire again," Chun suggested, drawing back so that he could see Wu's face. One fingertip lifted a tear from black eyelashes and examined it as though it were a diamond. "I could laze about in the sun eating chocolate and making love to you all day long. Do you think you might like that?"

"I … I think I might," was the cautious response. "If I could just be where you are, that would be enough."

"Then you had better come and live with me," Ko Chun told him. "In France, in England, in Hong Kong or wherever you choose. Please."

"Yes, Chun-ko. Of course I will."

"Good."

And then Ko Chun did as he had wanted to do back in the Taiwan casino, and as he had threatened to do the previous night in the grim waterfront hotel. He took Lung Wu's face delicately between his two large, capable hands and, in front of a room full of strangers, kissed him deeply and passionately on the mouth. And, just as he too had threatened, Lung Wu wrapped his arms around his mentor's neck and returned the kiss as an equal, as a lover, as a partner who has never doubted his value in his beloved's life.

Lung Kau clapped both hands over her mouth to keep from crying out, but the glow in her eyes as she turned to look at Dagger could have lighted the whole city of Marseilles and most of the country for a dozen kilometres in any direction. Only the grave responsibilities of her senior police rank prevented her jumping up and down on the spot like an over-excited twelve year old. For almost seven years she had known this moment would come eventually and now that it had she could not get enough of looking at the pair of them. And how fitting it was that after all this time the God of Gamblers should make his public profession of love to her brother here, in a casino!

Beside her, Dagger watched with quiet amusement. Almost since Ko Chun had quite literally tumbled into his life, falling into a trap set for someone else, he had been aware of the quiet but dependable presence of Brother Dragon at his side; it had taken him longer to see that their feelings for one another ran quite this deep, but when he had he had wanted to do whatever he could to help. Relief at the successful outcome of their plan had almost blinded him to anything else - fear for Lung Kau's safety, the equal of hers for him, had been uppermost in his thoughts for months - but now that it was truly over it seemed there were more futures to be built than only theirs. And Chun and Wu were obviously so lost in one another, and Karla was obviously so thrilled both for them and by her own success, that someone would have to start acting like an adult around here before they all made complete fools of themselves.

Somehow Chun and Wu had managed to pull apart, both looking more than a little dazed. Neither seemed to have much idea where they were, but Lung Wu made what amounted almost to a recovery and attempted to speak.

"It … was," he said, irrelevantly.

"What?"

"Very beautiful. As you promised, my Chun."

Ko Chun smiled his most indulgent smile and seemed all set to reclaim Lung Wu's mouth and repeat the experience just to make sure for himself that it had indeed been beautiful when Dagger made haste to forestall him.

"Si foo, Brother Dragon, there's a suite waiting for you in a first class hotel not five minutes away from here," he said, urgently. "Wouldn't you like some dinner, a bath, a change of clothes?" He did not add that the suite had one of the most magnificent raised beds he had ever seen in his life, nor that the bed and windows were hung with floor to ceiling green velvet drapes and the room would be full of the scent of peach incense. They knew how to treat someone of the Do San's status there - and how not to ask questions when he could not keep his eyes or his hands off his besotted and very masculine bodyguard.

"Karla has organised a car," he added, persuasively. Of course he understood that they would probably not be able to stop themselves kissing like teenagers in the back of the police car, and that Karla would never hear the last of the resultant teasing - her brother and his boyfriend, on police property! - but it seemed a small enough price to pay for what they had all achieved today.

Ko Chun and Lung Wu had been through a lot together. They had earned all the hotel rooms and hot baths and good food and expensive suits and soft beds and peaceful retirement their weary souls could handle. More than that, they had earned whatever happiness they could find with one another, for however long it lasted. Dagger had an idea that even eating chocolate and making love all day might lose their appeal after a while, and that it would not be too long before the God of Gamblers would be out seeking new adventures with his Dragon once again at his side, but he would not for the world have interrupted their idyll with his cynical prediction. Instead, he gently prompted them into departing from this very public arena while they were still capable of doing so.

"Do San?"

"Yes, Little Knife," the Do San said, his voice husky and hoarse. He was very far from being his usual confident self. Love had done in the end what threats and pain and torture never could; it had reduced the legendary God of Gamblers to emotional rubble. "You're quite right, of course. Lead the way."

Dagger grinned at both Chun and Wu, and then gripped his fiancée's hand in his own and turned to direct them all away from the premises.

They shouldered past the still-milling audience in the gambling hall as if those hundreds of faceless people did not exist for them, and hand-in-hand and hand-in-hand they walked out beneath the plastic Dragon Gate and past the flickering pink neon kanji, and at long last took their departure from the Club Chinois.

 

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