“Hostage swap?” I repeated.
“Yes, hostage swap. You’re going to be late,” said the voice at the other end of our Dumfries Street townhouse street gate intercom.
I shouted to my Chinese cousin, Lotus, who was rearranging the front room furniture to adjust the feng shui on account of a broken vase and a binned arrangement of house flowers.
“Are we expecting a hostage swap?”
“Of course not.”
Rose, also one of Mr Lee’s finest agents, scampered from her maid’s room, beside the indoor kitchen, looking concerned.
“Oh, Mr Worth,” she spluttered uncharacteristically, “What time is it? You should open the gate and let them in. Think of the weather.”
I pressed the gate release button and as I did, pulled the front door open and peeped into the storm looking for our unexpected visitors.
It was early morning in the Kovan subdivision of Singapore. My pregnant wife, Nicole, was on the middle floor, in our bedroom, sobbing in time with the pouring rain clouds. Billowing ash from the crop burnings across the straights in Indonesia coloured the sky. Even inside, the atmosphere was acrid. The tang of smoke burnt the back of my throat.
Coming up our path, hunched against the wind, were two drenched figures, one tall, one small. The small one clutched a handbag.
Beyond our porch, wires swayed back and forward in the storm. In the distance, a telegraph pole transformer exploded showering sparks across a parked and swaying van.
The two bedraggled souls arrived at the doorstep, one lofty, one short.
“Hostage swap,” said the smaller.
“You’d better come in.”
“There’s no time, Mr Worth, you’d better come out. Now this minute,” the figure demanded.
I turned to Rose, who was standing in the hall barefoot.
“It’s Dora Clogg of the Explorer Bank,” I whispered to her, “Also thought to be of the Spanish secret service. And her dippy husband, Nicolaas. You didn’t realise the Spanish had a secret service did you, Rose? You’re not supposed to.”
I tapped my nose.
“Let them in,” Rose urged.
Mr Clogg was hunched as though defeated. Dora Clogg was on tiptoes, clinging to her handbag as if on a mission. A clap of thunder shook the hallway. Dora pushed her husband, causing him to stumble into our house.
“Chop, chop, Mr Worth, No time for a coat,” Dora barked. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “I’ll bring your husband back later Mrs Worth, keep mine as a hostage. A thousand apologies.”
Rose was beside me, the top of her head touching my shoulder. She pressed a hand about my back and guided me gently out of the door.
“I’m so sorry, Mr Worth, you must go. Mr Lee, Mr Lee, Mr Lee thinks ….”
Aware of the significance of what took place between the ears of Singapore’s head poncho, I felt obliged to ask,
“What does Mr Lee think?”
“I’m so sorry, Mr Worth, you nice man.”
She began to sob.
Mrs Clegg grabbed me by the arm and pulled me outside. As she did so, Rose caught my trailing hand and not only squeezed it but pressed something into its palm.
“Good luck, Mr Worth,” was the last thing I heard her say as I was pulled down our path by the redoubtable Mrs Dora Clogg.
A Lexus was parked beside the school for savants opposite our house. I tiptoed towards it trying to keep the worst of the torent of floodwater below my ankles. Within minutes we were on the other side of Singapore, having torn through the island state’s deserted streets with alarming haste. Mrs Clogg’s driving was both alarmingly female and unsettlingly Iberian. She navigated corners on two wheels and took no notice of which side of the street she was on. She was even wearing high heels.
An overturned lorry nearly caught her out on the Toll Road as did a chicane of collapsed scaffolding on Havelock Road. Somehow we survived, despite her precious handbag hanging around her elbow as she steered. Women and their accessories.
“All men are useless,” she exclaimed, “You can’t even read a carpet.”
Both puzzled and in fear of my life, I summoned my inner district commissioner visiting an underperforming banana plantation near Penang.
“Now listen here, Mrs Clogg, what the hell’s all this about? I want an explanation and I want it now. Otherwise, you can stop the car, let me out, and the British High Commissioner, who is in regular correspondence with Her Majesty, will hear all about this nonsense.”
“Your head will be on the chopping block before you’ve had a chance, even at this speed, to get to your minion’s desk on the General Franco floor of the Explorer Bank Tower in Marina Bay.”
“All men are stupid,” she replied. That generalisation included her own husband. She mimicked his voice, “Mr Worth will know all about it. Mr Worth will be there on time.”
She began to growl.
“No, he won’t Nicolaas. We’re going to have to go for him. You can be a hostage for the day. It will oil the wheel with Mrs Worth,” she snapped, now driving along the pavement to avoid a fallen billboard.
After a ninety-degree turn at Hong Lim Park, we screeched to a halt at the quiet, Chinatown commercial, end of Geylang Road.
“The carpet,” she explained. “Mr Stein’s Turkish carpet in your front room. Prime numbers. I’m a banker, I obsess with numbers. The coloured stitching in batches of prime numbers. The night myself and my husband came to your home to answer your advertisement in the Straights Star.”
“I said to Nicolaas, Mr Worth must know and he is keeping it to himself. Or perhaps not? When I got back to our flat I made a Cisini cube from the prime numbers and decoded the message. It revealed a grid reference to bring us here, a date and a time, and four other mysterious characters.”
She pointed to Lexus’s dashboard clock.
“Nearly seven, nineteen and twenty-three seconds already. Quick!”
Standing beside the car we hesitated, taking in the smallest and oddest shophouse in Singapore, if not the entire Chinese speaking world. Squeezed between two taller buildings, its lower floor was open to the elements and had been trashed by the storm. All kinds of detritus (wheely bins, stools, plant pots, cardboard boxes) lay sodden on a floor where one would expect a workbench and cabinets of wares. Between the lower and upper stories hung a skin coloured sign adorned with bright red characters.
Despite my posting, my Mandarin was a bit rusty. The locals had fallen into the bad habit of practising their English with me and I’d fallen into the bad habit of letting them.
I haphazardly guessed at, “The Lucky Saddle Craft Company.”
Above that, the building was only wide enough to accommodate two tall, arched windows. A fan design filled each arch. Beneath, half louvered and half solid closed shutters denied a view of the upstairs residential room. The shutters were white within a brown frame. At the top of the building was a squat appendage to the roof containing three small windows, like a lookout or a crow’s nest. Was there a face at one of them? I couldn’t tell. No, I don’t think there was. The rest of the roof was of ancient clay tiles leading to guttering painted a gaudy shade of Chinese State Railways green.
If the building were a face, it were the creased features of an Imperial Chinese dowager who had lived too long and seen too much.
Mrs Clogg waded into the debris, still clutching her handbag. She urged me to follow. At least I’d be out of the rain. Beside a counter were steep wooden stairs, leading upwards, steep enough to be a ships ladder. Mrs Clogg put a foot upon the first rung but then hesitated.
We faced each other. I raised an eyebrow. She frowned. She tapped her other high heel on the floor. It made a hollow, ringing, sound. The pair us began to clear, to pile storm-lashed rubbish to one side.
“There’s your other four mysterious characters,” I said.
We had revealed a hatch with, where you might expect a handle to be, a keypad sunk into the wood.
Mrs Clogg knelt and typed from memory the extra four digits deciphered from Mr Stein’s Turkish rug. Silently the hatch began to rise. As it did, the two of us could peep into the darkness below. As if still stationed in Spanish Saraha in the 1980s, Dora always carried a pocket torch. She flicked it on and pointed the beam downwards.
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file