Brisbane - Friday December 20th, 1996
Carol dug her toes into the sand and tossed a chip to a hopeful seagull. It dived on the offering and entered into a frantic argument with several of its fellows about rights of ownership. She popped the last scrap of fish into her mouth, licked her salty fingers and tidily folded the paper.
Carol was lunching with Babs on a low stone wall which separated tiny Kodak Beach from the adjacent parkland. Lovely day, she thought contentedly, ignoring her friend for the moment. She looked around at the city skyline and wriggled her feet, scattering white sand.
The beach was peacefully uncrowded. A few people splashed about in the clear blue water. Carol only came here on weekdays; weekends at Southbank were frenetic with crowds, and rival amplifiers forcing loud, distorted music on the long-suffering public.
Although it was school holidays, there were only five days to Christmas. Anyone who had any time off at all was spending it traditionally at the real beach, either the Gold Coast or the less expensive Sunshine Coast, and all points in between. This little beach, complete with palm trees and lifeguard, was an oasis of sanity amid the commercial hurly-burly, separated from the city centre by the wide brown Brisbane River which flowed calmly about its business a few metres away.
Babs took a tissue from her bag and wiped her own perfectly manicured fingers. ‘You do find some strange places to have lunch,’ she complained. ‘What’s wrong with a nice restaurant? Why fish and chips out of paper, for heaven’s sake?’
‘Do you good.’ Carol reluctantly brought her attention back. ‘You’re getting far too prissy, Babs.’
Babs prodded the sand with her toe. ‘Hmmm. This is quite nice, I suppose. But, Carol, what am I supposed to do?’
Carol thought there was nothing Babs could do. Wanda had dropped her, just as she’d dropped Pat, then Jon. Babs was better off without her.
‘I don’t believe it,’ Babs argued. ‘We were really good friends and she promised.’
Carol sighed. ‘She probably found things were different, back at home, among her own friends. She was homesick here. And you’re such a darling, so sympathetic and loving. Wanda used you as a shoulder to cry on.’
Babs blushed. ‘Oh, Carol, don’t. But I know she really meant it. She said Hong Kong is wonderful at Christmas. All the shops do displays of lights; they’re really worth seeing. She was going to make arrangements then call me with the details. And she and Pat were going to take me everywhere and show me all the sights.’
‘Well, she let you down, Babs. You’ll just have to forget the whole thing.’
‘You don’t understand.’ Babs clutched Carol’s arm; a frown marred her pretty face. ‘I think something’s wrong.’
‘What could be wrong?’
‘I don’t know, but she was terribly upset. She didn’t want to go back; it was a matter of conscience.’
‘She reads too many romantic novels,’ Carol said dryly. ‘She didn’t strike me as being particularly moral.’
Bab’s blue eyes widened earnestly. ‘She was scared, I know she was. She didn’t need to tell me.’
‘But she did tell you?’
‘Yes.’ Babs sounded defensive. ‘I asked her what she was afraid of. She wouldn’t say, at first. Then she told me she thought Pat would kill her.’
Carol shook her head. She couldn’t see it, herself. Pat Langford sounded like a pussy cat.
Babs anxiously twisted a strand of her honey-blonde hair and told Carol of her various failed attempts to contact Wanda. The Langfords denied all knowledge of her. Wanda’s own mother told Babs not to bother her again. The Embassy and the police weren’t interested. ‘The truth is,’ she finished dramatically, ‘a few days after she arrived, Wanda just disappeared.’
Carol was sceptical. ‘How do you know?’
‘No one’s seen her,’ Babs reiterated, ‘First they say she’s gone away, but they don’t know where. Then they say Macau but I don’t think they really know. And they all practically told me to drop it.’
‘What does Pat say?’
‘He’s not there. He’s away on business.’ Babs lowered her voice, although there was no one close enough to hear her. ‘What if Wanda really got into trouble? What if Pat’s murdered her?’
Carol hastily suppressed a laugh.
‘It’s all very well for you.’ Babs was offended. ‘You didn’t talk to her. She thought he was dangerous. It’s very suspicious.’
‘It sounds to me as if Wanda spun you a story to get your sympathy and, once home, decided to drop her connections here. She’s told people to put you off because she doesn’t want to be bothered.’
Babs protested that Carol was too hard. And how did she account for the fact that Jon had also been unable to contact Wanda? That Pat and Wanda had the most horrendous row? That the next day, Pat left for China and Wanda hadn’t been seen since?
Carol tried to look interested, for Bab’s sake, but doubted that Jon would be told anything. He was the bad man of the scenario, the lover Wanda had left Pat for. If they’d thought he was trying to get her back, of course they wouldn’t tell him anything.
‘He’s not trying to get her back.’ Babs patted her hair into place. ‘He said he always knew she’d leave him one day; he was just a distraction.’
‘They wouldn’t know that, though, would they?’ Carol pointed out. ‘They’d see him as a threat to Pat and Wanda’s future.’
Babs shook her head. ‘I’m not convinced. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Wanda’s dead, I know it. They had a fight and he killed her and everyone’s covering for him because he’s rich and powerful.’ She drew a deep breath and faced her friend firmly. ‘I want to hire you to investigate Pat Langford. I’ll pay for you to go to Hong Kong - whatever it takes.’
Carol rose and shook out her skirt. ‘Come off it, Babs.’ She grinned. ‘Why don’t you go, if you’re so convinced? Go over, have a holiday, meet Wanda’s friends. I’ll bet you find I’m right and she’s living it up as usual.’
‘I can’t.’ Babs bent to put on her sandals. ‘I’m not a detective; I wouldn’t know the right things to do. Anyway, now I’m not going to be away, I’ve committed myself to help Molly with some fund-raisers.’ She stood up. ‘Please, Carol, go for me.’
‘How can I?’ Carol asked practically. ‘I’ve got no authority to go around asking questions in a foreign country. That’s the job of their police. They obviously aren’t worried, so why should you be? No, Babs, I love you dearly, but I can’t do it!’
‘And then I let her talk me into it.’ Carol raged. She clutched her copper curls. ‘I must be losing my mind. I actually listened to her lunatic story and agreed to go.’
‘Do sit down, dear, and stop pacing about,’ her mother begged. ‘You’re like a caged tiger. If you had a tail you’d lash it. Babs is quite right. She and I are very busy right now. She can’t go chasing off after Wanda.’
‘But it’s all right if I waste my time? I can’t believe I said yes.’
‘Darling, it’s heaven sent,’ Molly enthused. ‘You’ve been looking a bit peaky, and you said work had slowed down. Now a free trip to Hong Kong falls into your lap and you’re angry.’
Carol sat down and grinned affectionately at her mother. ‘And you’ll never understand me?’
‘Well,’ Molly said fairly, ‘I can see why you’re annoyed, but count your blessings. Let Babs shout you a lovely holiday and you can relieve your feelings by telling that spoilt little miss a thing or two when you find her.’
‘That, at least, will be a pleasure. I’ve no doubt I will find her, at some party or other, breaking her precious marriage vows with yet another poor sucker - and I’ll tear strips off her! She’s thoroughly selfish and shallow. Babs was a darling to her, looked after her, introduced her to her society set, was her best friend, because Babs is so innocent and couldn’t see through all the games; then Wanda just dumps her after promising her a treat she obviously never meant to fulfil. What a little cow she is. I’m surprised Pat hasn’t murdered her. I’d like to myself.’
‘I’ll be a witness at your trial,’ Molly promised. ‘I’ll tell them she’d driven you temporarily insane.’
‘No jury would ever convict me,’ Carol said grimly. ‘Honestly, Molly, I’m a pushover. I rush off on some wild goose chase because Babs is so wound up and worried. How could Wanda treat her so casually?’
Molly came around the desk and kissed her. ‘You’re a good and caring friend. The sort people know they can turn to in time of trouble.’
‘Heaven help me, then,’ Carol groaned.