Tucked away up a flight of stairs, Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong is surprisingly nondescript, especially given the international speculation surrounding the small store and its employees.
Since October, five of its employees have mysteriously disappeared. And the plot is only thickening, with many of the city's residents believing the employees were abducted by Chinese secret agents as retribution for selling controversial books that criticize the ruling authority.
Formerly a British colony, Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 and is now a "special administrative region of China," BBC explains. However, the territory has maintained a high level of autonomy and has its own government. While China technically has political vetoing power, the expectation is that the country won't dramatically interfere with Hong Kong politics.
Most recently, one of the Causeway Bay Books shareholders, Lee Bo, went missing on Wednesday. Lee's wife reported his disappearance, but when she eventually heard from him, the bizarre nature of the call only added fuel to the conspiracists' fire.
"He said he wouldn't be back so soon and he was assisting in an investigation," Lee's wife allegedly told Hong Kong's Cable Television, BBC reported.
Not only did he sound beleaguered, but he also communicated in the official Chinese language, Mandarin, as opposed to his usual Cantonese, his wife also said, according to the Economist.
"Mrs. Lee said her husband had called from Shenzhen, a mainland city bordering on Hong Kong," the Economist reported. "Yet police in Hong Kong say they have found no record of him having crossed the boundary. Mr. Lee did not take his mainland travel permit, his wife said."
According to a Reuters and Vice News report, the Taiwanese Central News Agency published a handwritten note Lee faxed to his wife.
"Due to some urgent matters that I need to handle and that aren't to be revealed to the public, I have made my own way back to the mainland in order to cooperate with the investigation by relevant parties," the note apparently read. "It might take a bit of time. My current situation is very well. All is normal."
Four other colleagues affiliated with Causeway Bay Books have also gone missing under mysterious and similar circumstances, except for one of the employees who was vacationing in Thailand upon his disappearance.
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is widely regarded as a stooge for mainland China's central government, surprised many during a Monday press conference with his open criticism of such practices.
"The freedom of the press, the freedom of publication and the freedom of expression are protected by laws in Hong Kong," Leung said. "It is unacceptable if mainland legal agencies enforced law in Hong Kong as it is against the Basic Law."
Still, Leung's noted there was "no indication" Chinese agents had been abducting Hong Kong residents.