Brisbane - Saturday October 19th, 1996
Carol Monk surreptitiously eased a tired foot from its high-heeled sandal and rested it in the thick, soft carpet which luxuriated over the floor of Babs’ apartment from wall to elegant wall. She’d been on her feet all day and longed for a vacant chair, but Babs’ parties were always well attended and the chairs were all in use.
Carol turned her attention back to the man who was earnestly describing some film he’d seen. She tried hard to appear interested but her restless fingers twisted the scarf tied, gipsy-fashion, around the waist of her long, multicoloured skirt. She nodded encouragingly and the mop of red-gold curls which clustered around her pale, heart-shaped face, glinted in the light from the crystal chandelier directly overhead.
Over his shoulder, she noticed someone stand up from a sofa and hail a friend. Carol’s clear green eyes flickered and their direct gaze slid away from his face.
‘Fascinating,’ she murmured. ‘I must see it. Oh, is that ..? Yes! Excuse me, I must ...’ He reluctantly moved aside and looked for another audience. Carol fought her way across the crowded room and sat down thankfully. The sofa’s other two occupants were inextricably entwined and ignored her, fully engrossed in discovering as much of each other as their public surroundings would permit.
The party flowed around Carol, now mostly over her head. Snatches of irrelevant conversation drifted past her, escaping momentarily from the background noise of Babs’ CD player and the buzz of chatter and bright bursts of laughter.
Near the sofa the laughter was loud, mostly male and centred on a Chinese woman. Her slim, graceful body was poured sensually into a full-length jade silk evening dress, her long black hair piled in artistic folds on top of her perfect head. A heavy gold necklace showed richly against the dark apricot of her skin, and gold and jade hoops hung from her small, neat ears. Her laughter rose above the muted roar of the room like crystal wind chimes. The women around her openly admired her and vied for her attention; the men just as openly lusted after her. Carol watched with interest the delicacy with which she managed to hold the situation well in hand - those small, birdlike hands with their long, scarlet nails and gentle, fluttering postures - centring everyone’s attention neatly on her exquisite self.
To the women, her amused looks seemed to be saying, ‘Ah, we know, we girls, how men are, but don’t worry. I’d really rather be talking to you, sharing secrets.’ At the same time her eyes told the men, ‘I feel the same, but regretfully - you see how it is - but, if it were possible, yes, you’d be the one, for sure.’
‘Wanda only has eyes for Pat,’ one of the men teased. ‘Why do you stay with him, princess? He’s too dull for a wild bird like you. Now I could show you a good time you wouldn’t forget in a hurry.’ There was a male chorus of good-natured protest.
Babs Dawson joined the group, claiming the woman’s seemingly willing attention. They moved away, arm in arm, Wanda’s dark, exotic beauty contrasting sharply with Babs’ sturdier curves and short, honey-gold hair shaped neatly to her head. The others were left disconsolate, to disband and drift back into the mêlée.
Just for a moment Carol experienced a flash of unease, a brief tremor of anxiety, as her friend claimed the Chinese woman for herself. Then she thought, Pat? But his name was Jon. She looked around the room but there was no sign of the tall, fair, worried man she’d been introduced to earlier.
Wanda and Jon. They’d arrived together and Babs had insisted Carol meet them. Then Carol and Jon had been pushed aside by Wanda’s court. Now he seemed to have decamped altogether.
I don’t blame him, Carol thought. He obviously adores her and no doubt has to watch Little Miss Super Star holding centre stage wherever they go.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Suddenly, in the close artificially-controlled atmosphere, the lights were too bright, the music too loud, the laughter too shrill. Time to escape myself, she thought and abandoned the sofa to the passionate duo.
Neatly capturing a full champagne flute from a passing tray, Carol edged through the party and made it unscathed to a pair of French windows which framed a spectacle of multicoloured jewel-lights blazing in the high-rise city skyline. Carol stepped onto the balcony and shut the windows behind her. The noise cut off immediately.
The October night was warm and humid, stirred only by an occasional passing breeze. The pale night sky was almost devoid of stars, which had given up trying to hold their own against the brilliant neon competition. Below, the Brisbane River, busy with Saturday night traffic, looped its way through the city. A paddle steamer restaurant, party lights reflected in the dark water, moved slowly downstream, faint music floating up from its resident jazz band.
Carol leaned over the rail and watched the river drift past with its bright cargo; dinner cruises, tourist excursions, private launches. In the distance the city rose, a shining, pulsating giant, throbbing with noise and traffic, music and people; restaurants, pubs, discos, buses, taxis; and so close … yet she couldn’t hear it from here. It was like a great painted backdrop, utterly silent.
She took a deep breath and caught the acrid scent of cigarette smoke. She turned and, her eyes now adjusted to the dark, saw a man’s outline. He was sitting on one of the white cast-iron lace work chairs at the far end of the balcony, quietly watching her, his long pale face sharply etched in the gloom, his even mouth an expressionless line. The tip of a cigarette glowed between his fingers resting on the table.
‘It’s Hong Kong weather.’ His voice was deep and almost wistful. ‘Looking over there; the city, the reflections in the water, you could almost believe ...’ He stopped.
Carol moved closer. God, he looked awful. And he probably didn’t want company.
As if he’d heard her, the man abruptly jerked another chair out from the matching table. ‘Join me,’ he offered. ‘Are you hiding from the party? It’s peaceful out here. I won’t talk if you’d rather not.’
Carol set down her glass and took the proffered chair. ‘I don’t mind. It’s - Jon, isn’t it?’
‘Jonathan Price.’ He nodded. ‘We met inside. You’re Carol.’
Carol sipped her wine slowly, remembering. ‘Babs told me about you. You’re with Langford-Price, the construction people.’
‘Construction, property development, shipping; you name it, LP’s involved somewhere.’
‘You’re the - manager?’
‘State manager, Queensland only.’
‘And you hate parties.’
‘Not true. I like parties. I’m just a bit burned out tonight.’
He looks close to a complete breakdown, Carol thought. That selfish little wife of his probably hasn’t even noticed. Or, if she has, she isn’t letting it spoil her fun.
Jon consigned his cigarette butt to a heavy glass ashtray and lit another, cupping his hands around the lighter as if for extra warmth. As he bent his head to the little flame his blond hair fell across his forehead.
Carol noticed a slight shake in his fingers and felt an irrational annoyance towards the Chinese woman. She said quietly, ‘You should go home. Surely your wife wouldn’t mind ...’
‘My what?’ He looked nonplussed for a second. ‘Ah, you mean Wanda.’
There was enough light on the balcony for Carol to see his smile twist painfully, but his voice was calm.
‘She isn’t my wife. Wanda’s married to Pat Langford. Pat’s my partner; the firm’s senior partner. He’s the one who loathes parties. I - fill in for him sometimes, escort Wanda.’
‘I see.’ Carol thought she spoke the truth.
Jon gave an abrupt laugh. ‘I don’t know what’s got into me tonight. You must think I’m a complete moron.’ He thrust his hair back impatiently. ‘I’ve got every reason, believe me, to be in there celebrating. Pat’s just handed me a major promotion, but that’s still hush-hush, so please don’t … ’ Carol shook her head quickly ‘ … and something even better; but that’ll be broadcast soon enough, I’ve no doubt. Anyway, things couldn’t be better. I probably just need a good sleep.’
He stopped, aware of Carol’s sympathetic interest. He thought that it was a long time since a woman, and a pretty woman at that, had watched him with genuine concern for his welfare.
It didn’t matter. He was finally getting his chance; he was happy to take a back seat. Just a few more hours and he’d have it all. To have and to hold, from this day forward - no, not that, not sanctified, not approved, but he couldn’t help that. He couldn’t help any of it. She belonged to him now. Her own words. She - belonged - to - him. And the rest didn’t matter, couldn’t matter, any more.
Carol grinned. ‘Who’s winning?’
He smiled back, liking her expressive face with its candid green eyes, determined chin and the wide mouth that looked as if it laughed a lot. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Well, you looked as if you were having an argument in your head.’
‘We reached a compromise.’ He stubbed out the cigarette. ‘I think we’ve talked about me quite enough. What do you do for a crust? Or are you one of Barbara’s set?’
Carol shook her bright curls and said regretfully, ‘Ladies who lunch? Sadly, no. I earn my crust as a private investigator.’ She watched him expectantly.
He looked amused. ‘What?’
‘I was waiting for you to say, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a job like that?”’
He laughed. ‘Sorry, it didn’t occur to me to say that.’
‘Ah! An original.’
‘I assume there must be female investigators. I expect that’s why you notice - things.’
The windows opened and Wanda stepped onto the balcony. A burst of music and cool air accompanied her but she seemed not to notice, letting the conditioned atmosphere escape if it wanted to. Her black almond-eyes narrowed as she saw Carol.
She spoke impatiently to Jon. ‘I’m bored. I want to go home.’
He rose immediately but said, ‘Wanda, you remember Carol?’
‘Of course.’ She smiled and her face was transformed. ‘Hello again. Are you talking secrets, all alone out here?’
‘Just getting a breath of fresh air, and a rest from the noise.’
Wanda ignored the hint. ‘Well, come on, Jon, let’s go.’
He turned to Carol. ‘Goodbye, then.’
She smiled at them both. ‘You’re friends of Babs; no doubt we’ll meet again.’
His mouth tightened. ‘Possibly not. Goodnight.’ He turned to Wanda and said deliberately, ‘Right, let’s get you home to Pat.’
They went inside and Jon closed the window behind them. Carol stayed where she was, thoughtfully watching the river and the dark, smooth lawns which ran down to its banks, lit by golden globes on tall iron columns. The gardens were for the exclusive use of the apartments’ owners, and several couples were strolling there.
The windows opened again and Barbara Dawson came out. She managed to juggle two glasses of wine and close the party back in. Her pretty blue eyes, their colour highlighted by her sky blue jacket and skirt, held a reflective smile.
‘Jon told me you were hiding out here. He thought you’d like a refill.’ She sat down and handed Carol a glass. ‘Cheers!’
They drank together then Babs sighed. ‘Isn’t Wanda gorgeous?’
‘She’s certainly beautiful. Stunning.’
‘And tremendous fun. She’ll do anything for kicks, absolutely anything. I can’t keep up with her.’
‘Nor can Jon, it seems. Is escorting the boss’s wife a regular duty?’
Babs hitched her chair closer. ‘Don’t think he minds,’ she said quietly. ‘Pat’s a bit of a fool. He doesn’t like socialising but he never stops Wanda going with Jon. You’d think he’d put a stop to it, seeing as ...’
‘As Jon’s obviously head over heels,’ Carol supplied.
‘I said it’s obvious. I’m surprised her husband doesn’t put his foot down, preferably on her beautiful head.’
Babs’ eyes widened. ‘You don’t like her?’
‘I don’t know her,’ Carol said shortly. ‘But she does seem to crave the limelight and she didn’t leave early because Jon was looking like death warmed up. That man’s living on his nerves.’
Babs looked troubled. ‘He’s having an affair with Wanda, has been for months. And he’s Pat’s best friend as well as his partner.’
‘Then, if Wanda loves him, she should look after him better. Jon seems a sensitive man. I’d say he’s bitten off more than he can chew.’
‘It won’t last.’ Babs turned her glass around slowly. ‘Wanda won’t leave Pat. She - she’s had other men - well, so she says - but she always stays with Pat in the end.’ She saw Carol’s expression. ‘Don’t judge her; she’s had a rotten life. She’s had to look after Number One since she was a child.’
‘Tell me.’ Carol propped her chin in her hands and watched her friend’s anxious face as Babs unfolded the story.
Langford-Price had been founded in Brisbane by Pat’s grandfather and a friend. They moved into the Pacific and Hong Kong and the company was now one of the largest in Asia. With Hong Kong’s imminent transfer to China, the company was relocating to Australia, just maintaining a presence in the colony until they saw how the situation developed.
Pat Langford had a cousin, Guy. Both men were tall, blond and handsome, alike enough in appearance to be brothers, but totally different in temperament. Babs had met Guy a few months previously when he was in Brisbane on business.
‘He’s not quiet and staid like Pat, even though …’ Babs considered for a moment … ‘I rather like Pat. He’s really deep. I could go for him in a big way if he showed the slightest inclination.’
‘Get on with it, Babs!’ Carol recommended.
She giggled. ‘Well, Guy’s got style and heaps of charm but Wanda told me she hated him and wouldn’t see him. She said she was sold to Guy as his mistress when she was only fourteen, by her mother.’
‘Guy’s being a Langford-Price director gave Wanda’s family a lot of face, prestige.’ Babs said doubtfully. ‘She did her best, tried to do what was expected - honestly, Carol, she was just a sex object! - then, when Guy married, he threw her over. Chucked her out!’
‘What did she do?’
Pat had been in love with Wanda, Babs said, and she agreed to marry him. His family was furious, his parents never accepted her. Then Wanda discovered Pat wasn’t the mild, gentle lover she had thought him, but a violent man with a savage temper. In Hong Kong, she’d had her mother and family to protect her, but bad management in the Queensland office had forced Pat to come out and reorganise.
Babs’ gentle face was marred by a frown. ‘He put Jon in as manager but Wanda says Pat likes Brisbane. He hated the social life they had in Hong Kong and wants to keep her away from her family. She’s scared and lonely, homesick, and pretty well unprotected. She really needs good friends. No wonder she turned to Jon. I don’t blame her.’
Carol thought about this. ‘I thought you said you liked Pat.’
Babs flushed at the note of scepticism. ‘I do. He’s always been nice to me. But I’ve only seen him in company and then his manners are perfect. It’s a bit different from living with someone.’ She shivered.
Babs laughed uncertainly. ‘I don’t know. An angel walking on my grave.’
‘Are you sure Wanda isn’t just exaggerating? Winding you up? She strikes me as a lady who’s well able to look after herself.’
‘She puts a good face on it. She’s fairly innocent, I think. Says everything will turn out, then she’ll be happy. She’s fascinating. Honestly, Carol, people can’t take their eyes off her. She can’t help it if she’s beautiful and exotic.’
And a shallow little miss. The irrepressible thought came unbidden. Carol frowned. ‘We ought to see each other more, Babs.’
‘I’d love to. I’ve been a bit tied up with Wanda lately. She says I’m the only one she can really talk to and ...’
Carol listened to her friend while her mind worried, She’s infatuated. How does that woman get such a hold?
She felt her skin prickle. Hell! she thought. I’ve just been visited by Babs’ angel.
Wanda paused by the open study door and watched Patrick Langford as he worked. It was after midnight and he was still at it. Except for his casual slacks and open-necked sports shirt, he might have been at the office. So devoted, she thought bitterly, the perfect company man. Then her eyes softened at the sight of his strong, handsome face with its cleft chin and the slightly crooked Langford mouth. His hair had the sheen of sun-ripened wheat.
Once, all Wanda’s desires had been tied up in Pat. A sudden self-doubt shook her. She closed her eyes and clutched the door frame. If only she had someone to advise her. Her mother would know what she should do. Wanda, caught in a miasma of conflicting emotions, could only grasp greedily for the thing she thought would make her happy, be the best for her. But what if she’d got it wrong? How could she know?
Too late. She’d made her decision, given her word. It would work out, it would. She pulled herself together and resolutely stepped forward.
Aware of a movement at the door, Pat looked up as his wife came tentatively in. He smiled, enjoying the sight of her. ‘Was it fun, the party?’
She went to perch on his desk, a long slit in her skirt exposing her perfect legs. Gold sandals with four inch heels emphasised her slim feet. ‘It was wonderful. You should have been with us, Patrick.’
‘I had work to do.’
She hesitated, concerned that she might be about to waken a wild thing which she’d sometimes caught lurking in the back of her husband’s deep blue eyes, but which she could never quite seem to rouse. But I’ve never hurt him before like I’m going to hurt him now. He’ll be simply furious.
Her sense of danger both alarmed and thrilled her. If she made him angry he might beat her. She’d once seen him beating a houseboy he’d found mistreating a dog; and she’d shrunk from his rage at a hated business rival’s attempt to ruin Langford-Price.
He could kill me, she thought, and licked her lips in nervous anticipation. No, I can control Pat. Haven’t I always?
‘I want to talk to you,’ she murmured.
He put down the papers he’d been reading, a hint of impatience in his gesture, but his voice was, as always with her, deep and smooth. ‘What is it, Wanda?’
She drew a quick breath, her dark eyes watching his face for any sign of danger. ‘Pat, I can’t stand this anymore,’ she said in a rush. ‘I’m so bored. I’m dying in this backwater.’
‘Brisbane’s hardly a backwater,’ he protested. ‘You’ve got art galleries, theatre, the casino; and parties enough to keep even you satisfied, I’d have thought ...’
‘You never come with me,’ she flared. ‘It’s always, “Go ahead, Wanda, have fun and tell me all about it later.”’ She mimicked his voice. ‘There’s nothing like the life at home. Even Sydney would be better, but David will give that to Jon because you never fight for anything. You don’t care about how I feel at all.’
Pat raised his brows slightly. ‘Wanda, you know my father needs me here. I’m getting things straightened out, appointing new men, good men, in senior positions, but I couldn’t go to Sydney now. I suggested Jon. He’s a good, sound man. I thought he should have a shot at the top job, not just a state branch. Once I’ve got Queensland sorted -’
‘You’ll never leave here.’ Wanda’s voice was shrill. ‘You’ll do a good job because you always do, but it suits you here. Do you think I can’t see that?’ She allowed a note of hysteria to rise. ‘Well, it doesn’t suit me, Pat.’ She threw out her arms and the gold on her fingers and wrists flashed in the light. ‘I’ve had enough. You’re selfish and beastly and you keep me in this frightful, dull place. You don’t care about me.’ She thrust her face close to his, throwing her words at him like darts. ‘I’m leaving you, do you hear? I won’t stay with you another minute. You can live your hermit’s life in your country town and go to hell.’
Pat half rose, then sat slowly back, his eyes scanning his wife’s flushed, angry face. ‘You don’t mean that, Wanda. You’ve threatened that before.’
‘Well, it’s not just talk any more. I’ve been seeing Jon behind your back for months and you never knew. I’m going away with Jon and you can’t stop me.’
I knew, Pat thought. He maintained his calm expression despite the anger growing inside him. I smelled him on you, tasted his cigarettes on you; but it’s been that way before, with how many others? And you always lost interest long before it came to this.
He spoke, his voice sounding dully in his own ears, only just audible above the pounding of the blood in his veins. He was vaguely surprised at the sudden cold rage which had settled inside him like an icy stone in his gut. ‘Is that really what you want?’
‘Too jolly right it’s what I want.’ She swung herself down with a sharp click of her heels on the polished floor. ‘We arranged it tonight. Jon’s taking me to Sydney. I’ll be a queen down there. And I’ll make Jon so successful he’ll be head of Langford-Price worldwide and we’ll go back to Hong Kong and I’ll be even more famous than I was before.’ Her laugh taunted him.
Pat held himself in his chair, steeling his body to be outwardly calm. Steady, steady. If I let her goad me I’ve lost her forever. She’s scared of me, a little, because I don’t react. She doesn’t know what I’m thinking and she wants to provoke me. She’ll get tired of him, poor bugger, and drop him after she’s ruined his life. I should warn him. It’s not Jon’s fault. No one can help themselves with Wanda. She just happens to one like a strange, sick, devastating addiction.
He said quietly, ‘I’ve always wanted you to be happy, Wanda. I love you very much but I can’t change for you. If I’m not enough for you the way I am, then I can’t help you. I’m sorry. Truly, deeply sorry.’ He rose and came around the desk, taking took both her hands in his. They twisted restlessly, her long nails pressing into his flesh.
‘I hope with all my heart you’ll be happy with Jon.’ He doesn’t deserve this, the thought flickered. ‘If he can please you, make you happy, then go with my blessing, my darling.’
Fury contorted her face. She snatched her hands back. ‘You don’t want me? You’re letting me go, just like that?’
His smile was strained. ‘Let’s part good friends, Wanda. I’ll always be your friend, you know that. We’ll see Jon tomorrow, talk it over, make arrangements. I won’t stand in your way.’
With a muted cry of rage, Wanda turned on her heel and swept out of the room, slamming the door behind her. Pat sank back into his chair, hands clutching the edge of the desk, willing himself not to go after her. His eyes were fixed on a framed photograph he always kept there; he and Wanda, laughing, aboard his yacht Dancing Lady, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club in the background.
Upstairs, in the privacy of their bedroom, Wanda picked up a valuable porcelain vase and deliberately smashed it on the floor. Then she threw herself onto the bed and gave way to a wailing paroxysm of grief.
He doesn’t want me, her mind chattered. He didn’t fight for me. I told him I was going with Jon and he didn’t even care. He has a heart of stone. ‘Oh, oh, oh!’
She wailed aloud, then sat up, conscious of how she’d look with swollen, tear-stained eyes. He can’t make me lose face like this, she promised herself furiously. I’ll make him sorry. I’ll humiliate him so bad he’ll wish he’d killed me. He’ll just want to die himself. Then I’ll leave him for good.’