Sydney - Saturday December 21st, 1996
The yellow cab drove over-fast down Macquarie Street, playing tag with traffic lights and causing irritated drivers to brake more sharply than they’d intended. Carol pressed her foot to the floor on an invisible brake pedal as they flashed past Government House and the Conservatorium, once the governor’s stables. She closed her eyes as the driver ran an amber light flashing to red, and nervously smoothed the skirt of her cream linen suit.
The taxi plunged into the harbour tunnel entrance. The prefabricated tunnel looked unnervingly fragile. Eerie yellow lights set into the curved ceiling did nothing to alleviate the claustrophobic, bizarre feeling of being under tonnes of churning blue water crowded with ferries, yachts, tall ships, cruise boats; every conceivable type of water craft.
One crack and she’d have a hydrofoil in her lap. The thought made Carol feel slightly sick.
They shot out into the bright afternoon sunshine. She turned to look back at the busy harbour, the bridge, the Opera House on Bennelong Point. The taxi wound up through streets lined with purple-blue jacarandas, past elegant harbour-side homes, and pulled up outside a white mansion with Mediterranean-blue trimming and wide balconies making the most of the harbour outlook.
Carol paid the driver and got out. He made a squealing U-turn and sped away.
She walked up to the house and rang the bell. The door was opened promptly by a white-coated Filipino.
‘Jesus?’ Carol asked. ‘I’m Carol Monk.’
He nodded. ‘Yes, miss. Mr Price told me to talk to you.’
He led her through the house, up to an elegant sitting room on the next floor, whose wide picture windows gave a spectacular view of shimmering blue water and the city beyond. A low polished wood coffee table was set with glasses and a tall glass jug, invitingly frosted, filled with fruit punch. Jesus poured Carol a glass of punch and stood waiting.
She sipped the cool drink in silence for a moment while she considered the young man. Then she set the glass down and smiled. ‘I wanted to ask you about the day Mrs Langford had the bad news from home. Tell me what happened?’
Jesus met her eyes blandly as he told his story. Mrs Langford had been outside on the balcony. He’d brought the mail and an iced punch; she’d opened her letters and started screaming.
A note of distaste crept into the smooth voice. ‘I ran to see what was wrong. She threw the glass at me, smash!’
Carol had the impression he was hiding something. ‘Do you know what upset her?’ she asked casually.
He shook his head. ‘She threw down all the letters and ran out. I picked them up.’
Carol persisted. She didn’t mean to imply that he’d read Wanda’s letters, but he might have noticed something? Who they were from? Anything?
She waited. The man’s eyelids flickered slightly. ‘I saw invitations,’ he admitted, ‘a letter from Hong Kong, airmail, from Mrs Langford’s mother. In Chinese,’ he added cautiously.
‘Was that all?’ Carol’s tone held only innocent interest.
Jesus bit his lip. ‘Second airmail letter, from Mr Langford,’ he said at last.
‘From Pat Langford? Her husband? From Brisbane?’
He was puzzled. ‘No, from Mr Guy Langford, Hong Kong. In English.’
‘Ah! Forgive me for asking, but you didn’t happen to read the letter, did you?’ Carol asked delicately.
He had the grace to look embarrassed. ‘It was all about business going well and Mrs Langford should come home. Mr Langford was unhappy that she was with Mr Price. No good, he said, with Mr Pat going home.’
Carol let out her breath. ‘Was that all?’
Jesus nodded. ‘Mrs Langford came back, saw me looking. Slapped my face and took the letters away.’
‘What happened then?’
‘She screamed at me, said filthy things,’ Jesus said indignantly. ‘Then said she was going back to Hong Kong. That’s all.’
There was a silence, then Carol asked baldly, ‘Do you know where Mrs Langford is now?’
He shrugged wordlessly.
‘Mr Price hasn’t received any letters from her?’
‘No, miss, he doesn’t know where she is. He rings Hong Kong, talks to people. He’s worried.’
Footsteps sounded on the stairs and the door opened. Jonathan Price came in and quickly crossed the room. ‘Carol! How nice to see you again.’ They shook hands. ‘Has Jesus been any help?’
She smiled at him. ‘Yes. Thanks for letting me talk to him.’
Jon nodded towards his houseman. ‘You can go, Jesus, and thank you.’
‘Okay, no worries, Mr Price.’ The door closed quietly behind him.
Jon poured himself a drink and motioned Carol to sit down. She found herself observing him closely, aware of a subtle difference in his bearing from the first time they’d met. He seemed more confident, more in control of his life. It was barely noticeable but Carol registered it and tucked it away.
Jon took the chair next to hers. ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here to meet you. We had a ship arrive yesterday; there were some things I needed to take care of.’ He stretched out his long legs and loosened his tie. ‘That’s better. It’s a warm afternoon. I was planning a trip home over Christmas to get away from the heat but I’ve a big workload here and, with Wanda ...’ his voice tailed off.
‘You haven’t heard any more?’ Carol owned to a slight feeling of surprise at Wanda’s prolonged silence.
Jon shook his head. ‘Not a word. I believe society was pretty hard on her when she got back. She seems to have gone to Macau until she can re-establish herself. Mrs Lee refused to give me her address or phone number.’ He grinned suddenly. ‘I can’t really blame her for that.’
‘Babs Dawson says Wanda is afraid of Pat,’ Carol probed.
‘She never knows what he’s thinking,’ Jon said. ‘She can’t run rings around Pat, not like she did with me. God, I was an idiot!’ He smiled ruefully. ‘Pat did his best to warn me. He’s a good friend. I’m more sorry than I can say.’ He continued reflectively, ‘Funny, after she’d gone, I was devastated at first. Now I’m relieved it’s over. I really hope she and Pat make it up, get together again.’
‘You think it’s possible?’
‘Well, he’s a quiet sort, doesn’t show his emotions. Wanda had affairs in Hong Kong ... I think to get attention more than anything.’ He gave a half shrug. ‘Pat wouldn’t play along. He knows how to handle her; but make no mistake, he knew about the others and he hated it. Privately, it drove him mad.’
‘Babs seems to think he has a violent temper,’ Carol persisted. ‘Wanda told her Pat beat a man nearly to death.’
Jon looked uncomfortable. ‘No, no, he did punish the man but that was fully justified. A houseboy belted one of Pat’s dogs. The dog was badly injured. Pat took it to the vet but it had to be put down. Pat came home and gave the man a taste of his own medicine. It was nowhere near as bad as Wanda makes out. The story’s been exaggerated in the many tellings. Pat has enormous self-control.’
Carol studied Jon thoughtfully. ‘He wouldn’t - beat Wanda?’ she asked. ‘Perhaps injure her without meaning to? I’m told they had a fight the day before he left for China.’
‘That’s what one of his servants told me.’ Jon made a dismissive gesture. ‘But he also said Pat then drove her back to her mother’s, where she was staying. What are you suggesting?’
Carol continued her calm scrutiny. ‘I’m not suggesting anything. Babs asked me to investigate. I gather you’re concerned, as well?’
Jon sat forward, his hands cradling his empty glass. ‘What really surprised me was that she didn’t come back here,’ he admitted. ‘If she was rejected by her friends and thrown out by Pat, it would have been very much in her character to turn up here again, all contrite, with some dramatic story.’
‘Perhaps she thought you’d reject her, too.’
He grimaced. ‘No, she knew how to get around me. I’d probably have taken her back. I could never refuse Wanda.’
‘Then, perhaps she couldn’t,’ Carol suggested with subtle emphasis.
Jon grinned. ‘Ah, Babs’ theory. Pat’s supposed to have lost his temper and killed her. It’s ludicrous. Is that really what Babs thinks?’
‘Babs said Wanda thought Pat might kill her, She’s naturally concerned.’
‘Do you think ...?’
‘I think Wanda’s probably bitten off more than she can chew this time and has gone away, perhaps to worry Pat enough to take her back,’ Carol said frankly. ‘As I gather he’s in China, he may not even know she’s missing, if indeed she is, so she’s probably messed that up as well.’
Jon looked thoughtful. ‘You know, that’s odd, too.’ He saw her look of inquiry and explained about the Langford Cup.
‘Perhaps Pat’s the one who’s in hiding, from Wanda,’ Carol suggested, tongue in cheek, but Jon’s expression was suddenly serious.
‘For him to remain in China ...’ Jon broke off, frowning. ‘Hell! What if something funny is going on, after all?’
‘You mean, did he kill Wanda and take refuge across the border? Is that likely?’
‘He has friends there. We’ve always traded with the mainland,’ Jon looked grim. ‘I’m beginning to wonder.’
‘You’re saying Babs may be right?’
‘No!’ Jon flushed slightly. ‘I don’t know what to - I’m sure Pat wouldn’t - yet, there it is.’ He met her gaze worriedly. ‘I’m glad you’re going over, Carol. Perhaps you’ll get to the bottom of it.’