It’s important to know whom you’re dealing with. It helps to have dealt with them before.
Predictably, Amy and Mr Lee have fallen out. They had very different personal visions for the opium den. Amy has left to set up on her own. Mr Lee has aggressively removed all traces of her time there. The cushions and the covers have gone. The benches are bare wood again.
My stakeholders prefer it like this, he said.
Who are the stakeholders of an opium den, I asked. The owners? The users?
The owners and the suppliers. Of course it’s all the same families. And it’s very bad if they are not happy. I know from my experience.
Amy talks, as did the Corleones, of going legitimate. Certainly hers is a kefir joint and there is no opium to be seen on the premises. When I visited the place (I decided to keep a foot in both camps) I did wonder if it was entirely legitimate. The appeal court judge was there. He has switched allegiance. The centrepiece of the room is a divan, covered in rich Chinese cloth, kelims, more invitingly woolly rugs from the mountains of Afghanistan and cushions from Turkey. The judge was lying there, in an advanced state of kefir-induced narcolepsy. Amy was spooning the liquid into his mouth. Her shirt was unbuttoned and between mouthfuls of the kefir he would fasten onto her right breast. His teeth rested in an exquisite porcelain bowl on a lacquer table by his side. It was almost translucent, which is how I could tell that it contained his teeth.
The judge’s clothes were also unbuttoned – a loathsome sight.
Amy is admirably direct and told me once that a useful trait of some Chinese women was the length of their nipples. She said that she shared this characteristic. It was handy in maintaining attachment on the part of men with whom she became involved. I had not really wanted to know this, and still didn’t, but as the judge slid into unconsciousness and his head fell to the divan I could see that it was true, or at any rate had been so up to the point at which his attachment failed. She wiped off the excess kefir, covered herself and joined me at the bar.
Are you OK, I asked.
Oh yes. I have good business, entirely new business. Old China hands still go to Mr Lee. My clients more modern, more new.
A pity perhaps, she suggested, about the judge following her.
Do you know Mr Lee’s stakeholders? Will they mind?
They mind about judge. He very value to them. Yes I know Mr Lee stakeholders. From China many years. They very bad people.
And so we left it. Curiously, a day or two later I heard of the judge again. I was having a bottle of port in El Vino’s with my friend Rodney, a barrister. Rodney of course knows nothing of the judge’s tastes. He merely remarked that the old man was clearly going off the rails. The other day I was before him on a trade mark matter and he took a most eccentric view of Section 9, he said; time he retired.
I wondered why. Perhaps he had fallen in love with Amy. That would have been far less of a risk in the bracing atmosphere of Mr Lee’s opium den. Perhaps he would retire. Perhaps his usefulness to Mr Lee’s stakeholders would cease. Perhaps they would blame Amy for it. I truly hoped not.
Of course things came to a head. They usually do. I was not there but a couple of informants were.
Amy was invited to attend on Mr Lee at a particular time and place. She was given to understand that representatives of Mr Lee’s stakeholders would be there; non-attendance would be taken amiss. A brave girl, she resolved to attend alone, but she did leave word of where she would be.
The meeting started badly. There were three of Mr Lee’s stakeholders, small unobtrusive men, but with expressions that were implacable and admitted of no possibility of pity. It was clear that the judge’s switch of allegiance was not forgiveable and that she was to blame.
The conversation modulated to the next part, which would comprise what was to be done about it.
Mr Lee’s stakeholders’ mistake, an understandable one, was to assume that they would be the ones doing the doing. Given his enormous frame and the creaky nature of the old Soho floorboards it is astonishing that no one had any warning of Aubergine Small’s approach. He burst into the room. He was still dressed as a washerwoman (a disguise adopted, it will be remembered, in order not to arouse suspicions on the part of the authorities, who are seeking him for the bisection of a Revenue man). In front of him he brandished a sign:
THE DOOR WAS OPEN SO I CAME STRAIGHT IN
As they gasped he brandished a second one, at Amy:
I AM HERE FOR YOU
It would be nice to say that he dealt with Mr Lee’s stakeholders before they could get into their martial arts first position. In fact they had, and they rained deadly kung fu blows onto him, but he took absolutely no notice. One went through the window as a warning to the people and the other two were left on the floor. They will not walk again.
He showed me the signs later, when Amy told me the story. To my surprise they were printed rather than written.
I keep a number, which are appropriate responses to frequently asked questions, he scribbled. Otherwise I write them specially, but that takes longer, which is a problem when bursting into rooms. He showed me the most used:
ALTHOUGH MUTE I CAN HEAR YOU QUITE CLEARLY
And how did you know, I asked, that Amy needed to be rescued, that her case was urgent. He shuffled the pile and pulled out another printed sign:
I HAVE ENCOUNTERED SUCH MEN BEFORE