Ordinarily, the High Commissioner’s residence looks like a two-tiered colonial wedding cake, all Wedgwood coloured walls and white embellishments. Especially so when seen by moon and burning torch light during the British Mission’s much anticipated annual social.
But on this night, an air of menace hangs about it. Not only is there a strong possibility of a spoiling wind (all guests are required to bring a face mask) from Sumatran crop burnings from across the Straits, but my wife is expecting and I haven’t congratulated her yet. I mistook her pregnancy test for a pen and wore it in my top pocket, while she hurried away in fury. No, at this moment the steps to the veranda lead to a Hans Christian Anderson house of menace, albeit amongst the palms and rain trees, rather than talking conifers, and a spit north of the Equator rather than in the Black Forest.
A few people remain outside on the veranda, listening to the dance band and circulating around a podium where later an important announcement will be made. We are expecting Mr Lee, Singapore’s high poncho. A word in his shell-like ear would be handy. I’m beginning to feel somewhat out of my depth.
Inside, the diplomatic corps, their plus ones and the island state’s high society mingle in the reception rooms like bees on a frame of honeycomb. They even produce the same droning, low-intensity buzz. Movements and gestures, the type that industrious little workers use to dance directions to other bees, form telling patterns. There is a ritual to such things. Much is told, without being actually said.
I’m a bit slow with the nuances, being more of a “for God’s sake man, just tell me where the flowers are” kind of chap. I stand in a doorway, slightly baffled, wondering where to start. Fortunately, I’m tapped on the shoulder by a lush piece in royal blue whose impossible heels just about push her up to five feet in altitude. She carries a flute of champagne. She is my eighth cousin, Lotus, a colleague from our Hong Kong office.
“Spoken to anybody?” I ask.
“China, the ambassador and his wife.”
“The usual,” she replies. “I have a civic responsibility to the Queen and the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, its territories and dominions. A family responsibility to your good self but an ancestral, or did he even say ‘racial’?, obligation to the People’s Republic. I must observe my hair, skin and eyes every time I look in the mirror, which, Worth, let’s face it, I do. And then I have to think of the Chinese Communist Party and give them secrets. Which I don’t.”
When the Chinese do treachery they do it through the family.
“I’d better keep an eye on you all the same, Lotus. Incidentally, where’s Tai Tai?” I used my favourite affectation for my wife, Nicole. Singapore slang, neither quite Chinglish or Englese, ‘Tai Tai’ means a lady of a certain status who shops.
“I have to have a word with her. She gave me a pen, which turned out to be a pregnancy test, of the positive variety.”
Lotus beamed but before she could congratulate me, we were interrupted. A hand on my elbow drew my attention to The Straits Star journalist, and my next-door neighbour, Mr Paddy Fitzgerald. A doughty man of Ireland, with ink pulsing through his veins, he was on duty armed with a photographer. It was grin and grip time.
I’d always thought of Fitzgerald as being a bit of a cynic. Or at least, a bit of a cynic about the things that I was enthusiastic about. No doubt, in a vice versa kind of way, he thought the same of me. On this night, he had made the effort. He was immaculately turned out, bow tie, the lot. Further accessorised with a tiny Chinese girl carrying a giant camera, he lined up ourselves and a total stranger for a photo.
“Had a Godson went there,” said the stranger nodding at my tie. Oh dear. My own old school tie was trapped in a box in a container in storage somewhere. Rose, our maid, had bought me another in haste at the public market. Not knowing what she was looking at, I wasn’t quite sure where she’d committed my adolescent self to. Mild panic ensued. It needn’t have.
“We never talk about him,” the stranger continued, to my hearty relief. Or needn’t it? “Nasty business. Brave of you. Commiserations,” he continued.
After the snaps, a hushed confidence with Fitzgerald. No doubt he was looking for a story, fluff for the social pages or a lead towards something more substantive. Perhaps, with that in mind, he muttered to me,
“I found out about your man, the missing Mr Stein.”
“Really, I thought you’d drawn a complete blank?” I replied, taken aback.
“I did until I tried the old card index.”
Previously, I had asked the ink-stained Irish hack to do a quick scout about regarding Mr Stein, my missing landlord. So short of leads, Fitzgerald had been reduced to putting an advert in his own newspaper, which had only had one response. The dreadful Mr Nicolaas Clogg, a European Community diplomat, and his horrid Spanish banker wife, Dora, had landed at our townhouse unexpectedly and given me a haranguing. Which reminded me, the pair of them would be at the social that very night, possibly accompanied by their gruesome superior from Brussels, the oily Sir Julian Minsk.
“I thought I’d drawn a blank as well,” Mr Fitzgerald continued. “There was nothing in the computer index but when I came to look through the old card index, we’ve been having trouble with the IT, everybody has. When I looked Stein up in the old card index, there he was. A few references that I could follow up in the back copies. The ink and paper versions. The online archive is all messed up too, gobbledygook a lot of it. You do realise they’re blaming the Singapore Consultancy for this IT screw up? That means you, Worth. It was the talk of the room before you walked in.”
I didn’t so much change the subject, as get back onto it,
“And, Mr Stein?”
“He was in an association, it had meetings, this kind of thing,” he swept his hand around the room at the chatting groups of Singaporean high society in their finery, “but for artisans, not diplomats. Electricians, mechanics, engineers, that side of things. I think. It was all a bit too technical for me.”
“Hardly surprising,” I replied. “He was something in the nuclear industry, in the defence sector. That’s why his disappearance rings alarm bells.”
“Look, Worth, I wouldn’t pretend to know for a minute what all of this is about, but if you genuinely think there might be a bit of a story in this, I can do a lot more research.”
I reminded Fitzgerald that all of this had started with a Mr Hong Gildong, who’d gatecrashed our house party and taken an unnatural interest in Mr Stein’s artwork, which turned out to be amateur oils of nuclear test sites. Not his real name, we’d called the strange chap ‘Mr Gildong’ as if a North Korean ‘John Doe’.
“He left a business card when returning a borrowed umbrella. He appeared to belong to a shipping company that Lotus, my cousin, knew to be a front for the North Korean secret service.”
Fitzgerald had been at the house party too.
“Yes, big chap,” the Irishman re-called. “$2,000 business suit, fake Rolex, a tie a bit like yours and a slightly built wife with two gold teeth.”
“You’ve a good memory, Fitzgerald,” I remarked. “And remarkable powers of deduction. How do you work all that out? His wife wasn’t there. And anyway, if he does have a wife she’ll be back in North Korea, more or less being held hostage, while he’s over here on secret service business. Very wary of defections is the democratic worker’s paradise.”
“Deduction doesn’t come into it, Worth, he’s just entered the room with a wife-like companion and is making a beeline for us. Well, you. I’m out of here.”
With that, Fitzgerald turned on a sixpence, his photographer in tow, all smiles towards anyone in the room except me.
Meanwhile, the gatecrasher formerly known as Mr Hong Gildong was stepping towards me, accompanied by a slim woman in a dark dress, dripping in jewellery, tall for a North Korean. She bared her teeth rather than smiled, displaying those two of gold that Fitzgerald had spotted from a distance. Now, at closer quarters, one could be seen to be decorated with an immodestly large inlaid diamond.
There are little flick books that lie about our Singapore Consultancy’s office in Marina Bay. They contain snapshots and keys facts about people of interest resident in, or likely to be passing through, this territory. I didn’t need one of them. The lady in question was well known. Although camera-shy, her description was well circulated amongst diplomatic circles, both here and in all points around East and South East Asia.
She was reputed to be dispatched from Pyongyang by her father, as important intelligence missions arose. Usually, she was followed by a trail of blood and destruction. I now knew who Mr Hong Gildong really was. He was this lady’s bodyguard. The lady being Kim Jo Long, daughter and favourite child of the Second Supreme Leader of the Democratic Republic of Korea, the murderous tyrant Kim Jong-il.
“Mr Worth,” she announced to me, in immaculate Swiss finishing school English, whilst offering a limp hand of long fingers finished in blood-red nails. “My colleague from the Chong Chon Shipping Corporation informs me that we have a mutual acquaintance. How interesting.”
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file