Hong Kong - Wednesday December 18th, 1996
A week before Christmas, the colony was in full swing, celebrating the festive season with fervour. Central and Kowloon blazed with fantastic light displays; buildings shimmered with gold and silver decorations, and giant-sized animated figures caused children to stop and stare in bewilderment in the crowded streets.
Once again the inspector parked his white Volvo in Langford Drive and walked up the terraced garden to one of the season’s most exclusive events, the Langford’s pre-Christmas dinner party. The guest list was prestigious and the big dining room was rearranged to cram in extra tables and chairs. Sideboards groaned under the weight of traditional Christmas fare, tables sparkled with cut glass and silver on crisp white cloths.
BJ was seated on Jean’s right at the main table, a place of honour which had been his for many years. Next to him was the Australian Ambassador’s wife, Faye Ryder, then her husband, Donald. The room was loud with the buzz of conversation and the chink of cutlery and glasses.
As BJ did justice to the turkey and roast vegetables, he glanced at Jean. As always, she was the perfect hostess, elegant in a green brocade sheath, her shining hair brushing her shoulders. But BJ had noticed that her oval face was devoid of colour and her eyes were dark and lacked their usual sparkle. She’d drunk hardly any soup and now toyed with her meal, listlessly pushing the food around.
Faye’s attention was caught by her husband and BJ leaned towards his hostess, keeping his voice low.
‘What’s up, Jean?’
Her eyes widened anxiously, then she laughed overbrightly. ‘I’m sorry BJ, I thought you were occupied with Faye. I didn’t mean to neglect you.’
He made a gesture of impatience. ‘As if that mattered. I’m concerned about you. You look exhausted and you’ve hardly touched your dinner.’
Jean put up a hand that wasn’t quite steady and pushed back her hair. ‘What sharp eyes you have, detective inspector. I am a little tired. The preparation for the party … you know.’
‘No, I don’t know,’ BJ said softly. ‘We’ve been friends for too long, Jean. I do know when you’re not all right.’ He caught the glint of a tear in her eye.
She blinked rapidly, shook her head, then smiled at him. ‘Don’t, BJ, or you’ll have me in floods.’ She controlled herself with an effort then continued with a small shrug, ‘I’m disappointed, that’s all. It’s been a year since we were with Pat. I don’t count the few days he’s been back; he’s been so different; moody, preoccupied. I wanted us to be all together at Christmas.’
She gave a self-deprecating laugh. ‘David calls me a mother hen, but I do like my chicks around me to see the lights and go to church on Christmas Eve.’
BJ nodded, watching her closely.
‘David received a fax from Pat today.’ Jean’s voice shook. ‘He - he won’t be home after all. He’s been invited to stay with the Chows in Shanghai. Lin-chi and his wife are old friends, of course, but all the same ...’
BJ quickly laid a hand over hers. ‘Poor Jean.’ Privately he thought it was bloody unfeeling of Pat, and unlike him. He could visit Lin-chi any time, blast the boy.
Jean withdrew her hand gently. ‘Pat’s changed. David says he’ll snap out of it. I think he might have, if Wanda hadn’t come home, stirring him up again. I just wish ...’ She stopped and bit her lip, then turned, smiling, to her other neighbour.
BJ turned back to Faye. Donald leaned forward. ‘I heard Wanda’s name. I don’t like to ask the family, seeing as she’s persona non grata. I don’t suppose you know where she is at the moment?’
BJ shrugged. ‘At home with Alice Lee, I suppose. I haven’t heard anything of her lately.’
‘I’m being hounded by a friend of hers,’ Donald pursued. ‘Woman in Brisbane, Barbara Dawson. She’s in a right tizz, wants to know where Wanda is and what are we doing to find her?’
‘Surely Alice will know, if Wanda isn’t at home. Anyway, what business is it of the embassy?’
‘Wanda’s an Australian citizen by marriage. To keep the peace and show goodwill, I rang Mrs Lee. She said Wanda’s gone away for a bit until things quieten down for her.’
‘I hope that satisfied Miss Dawson?’
‘Not at all. She said Wanda promised to put her up over Christmas then didn’t get in touch. Reckons something’s happened to her and no one will tell her anything.’
Faye cast up her eyes. ‘Isn’t it silly? Don has quite enough on his plate without trying to soothe Wanda’s friends.’
‘It sounds as if Miss Dawson is indulging in a flight of fantasy,’ BJ said. ‘Tell her to leave a message with Alice to have Wanda ring her when she gets back. I don’t see what else she can expect you to do.’
He turned back to Jean, more concerned with her obvious distress than with Wanda’s doings.
After dinner, the guests circulated, a band arrived and dancing started up in the ballroom. Some of the younger people braved the cold night to walk or sit and chatter on the terraces which were decorated for the occasion with strings of coloured fairy lights.
BJ found Bob Lee and drew him aside. ‘Have you heard anything of Wanda lately?’
Bob shook his head and said resignedly, ‘Why, what’s she done now?’
‘Nothing, apparently. Ring your Auntie Alice and find out what the situation is.’
Bob eyed BJ curiously. ‘Why all the sudden interest in Wanda? Jon Price rang me from Sydney on Monday, asking if I knew where she was. She’d promised to call him as soon as she got back to Hong Kong but, of course, she didn’t. Jon’s been ringing Auntie but she’ll only say Wanda’s gone away for a few days.’
He paused then went on slowly, ‘Jon sounded bothered. He’d rung the firm but they didn’t know anything. Pat’s in China and ...’
‘And he’s not coming back for Christmas,’ BJ put in deliberately.
Bob stared. ‘He’s due back on the nineteenth. Tomorrow.’
‘He’s spending Christmas in Shanghai with the Chows.’
‘But the twenty-first. Saturday. The Langford Cup!’
‘Exactly. The biggest event of the racing season and Pat’s got the Pride entered against Guy’s Lass.’
‘He’ll be back,’ Bob predicted confidently. ‘Pat won’t miss seeing the Pride walk off with the Cup under Guy’s nose. He’s on a hat trick, third year running.’
‘It looks as if he will miss it.’ BJ’s eyes narrowed. ‘Don Ryder’s being bothered by one of Wanda’s friends in Australia. She’d planned to join Wanda for Christmas but hasn’t heard from her.’
Bob frowned. ‘That’s odd. Wanda loves to entertain. She’d be in her element, taking a friend about.’
‘Unless she was too embarrassed, given the current climate?’
‘Well, she hasn’t contacted her friend or Jon. What the devil is she doing?’
‘I’ll ring Auntie Alice, and I’ll ask Jimmy if Sylvia knows anything.’
BJ nodded. ‘Yes, do that. It was rumoured that Wanda and Pat were getting together to sort out their differences the day before Pat left. What would send Wanda off into limbo and make Pat miss the two most important events for his family?’
Bob studied his boss. ‘You’re worried?’
‘I’m angry. Jean’s upset and Pat’s treating her in a bloody cavalier fashion. I won’t stand by and watch him hurting his mother. I’ve a good mind to ring him and tell the young idiot to get back home.’
‘Jean wouldn’t thank you for interfering.’
‘Jean wouldn’t know anything about it.’ BJ snapped. ‘I’m surprised David hasn’t taken a stand. It’s time Pat pulled himself together and thought of his family.’