Viscount Hastings knew reaching out to Ms. Black smacked of desperation, but Sedona’s disappearance didn’t afford him the luxury of fretting over appearances.
He glanced over the dusty landing. A black cat scowled and scurried away. Two parallel fluorescent tubes flickered overhead. He wiped sweat from his brow, peered over the banister and down into the shadowy vestibule. A couple of meaty types in dark suits had been following him in the traffic, and through the back-lanes, but there was no sign of them when he entered the office block.
He checked the address on Ms. Black’s card again. International Relations Consultant. Level 5, 42 Tengok Street, Pm Pn.
Up one more flight.
“It’s about time.” She switched on the landing light. “Get inside. I made coffee.”
He advanced and glanced around the premises. Certainly, it did not have the appearance one would expect of a consultant’s office. She’d decorated every space and corner of the floor with the most curious jumble of objects. Yellow sandstone obelisks, Arabic gourds and an assortment of antiquated woodwind instruments. A row of marble busts lined a side shelf. Tropical plants of all size and tint sprouted from a dozen or more elephant foot vases.
“Still a damn hot breeze blowing out there,” said Ms. Black. She slid shut a barred window. Silky pink drapes tumbled extravagantly to the floor. “Wish the cool midnight winds would pick up.”
He moved further inside towards a life-sized sandalwood statue of an ogre, haunting the center of the room. Its limbs were twisted. It wore a petrified expression. Scheherazade played on a seventies ghetto blaster. The dramatic strains of Rimsky Korsakov combined with the eccentric décor to exude an air of the gothic.
Hastings frowned at the statue and committed to giving the woman ten minutes to come up with some answers. If unsatisfied, he’d exit gracefully. Perhaps he’d then turn his attention to locating the two shadows and enquire politely–with gun in hand–as to the basis of their interest in him.
The only evidence of consultation was a glass and metal boardroom table, peppered with overflowing ashtrays, and running the entire length of the back wall. On it sat a wide screen television. Blood red ceramic tiles covered the floor, and the abundant florae filled the air with a sharp aroma of lemons.
She placed two cups on the table and filled them with steaming coffee. “Well grab a chair and take a load off.”
“Thank you.” He tried not to stare at the old lady but caught himself in the act of examining her from head to toe. She wore an emerald dress, tied off with a black silk sash. Her face was immaculately made up, although her eyes were fatigued, and she had a fluffy pair of slippers on her feet. Lashings of silver hair hung loosely and gathered on her shoulders.
She slipped on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and pushed them up over her forehead. Adjusted the volume on the ghetto blaster and said, “Your timing’s shit, my boy. I was at a dinner party earlier and thinking about heading out for a drink.”
“My apologies for the intrusion, ma’am.” He put his cigarettes on the table and gazed at a massive aquatint image adorning a screen covering the back wall. It featured hellfire, devils and fleshy maidens. “You really work here, ma’am?”
“Live and liaise.” She ran a hand across the top of the television set. Pointed her finger over his head. “I liaise here and live in there.”
The door behind him had a heavy bolt on it. “And who, may I ask, do you liaise with? Hieronymus Bosch?”
“You’re a funny guy. Did you bring the clasp?”
“Don’t have it.” He placed the coffee cup to one side and approached a glass case two square feet in size, fixed to the wall behind her. On display were two pistols with rifled barrels and silvered butts. “Those are Queen Annes, am I right?”
“Eighteenth century. Locked and loaded. Them bad boys could take your eye out, sonny.”
“Beautiful weaponry.” The ceiling above had been frescoed with deities and conquerors from the age of classical antiquity. He tore his gaze from it and blurted, “I’m not here to discuss firearms or jewelry. My enemies have kidnapped Sedona Li.” Not appreciating her failure to respond, he turned to leave. “If you can’t bloody well assist me I’ll be on my way.”
She slapped one finger down on the ghetto blaster, abruptly cutting off the classical music, and pointed at the seat. “Sit yourself down and we’ll see what we can do.”
The fan overhead went around and around. He stared into it, exhaled and slumped back down into the chair. The fury of losing Sedona was giving way to exhaustion. “Sorry I…I didn’t mean to be rude.”
She took a seat opposite him, sipped on her coffee and stared into the cup. “What do you mean kidnapped?”
He pulled out his cellphone, powered it on and slid it across the table. “Read that. It came from her phone.”
“We have Sedona Li.” A raised eyebrow. She continued, reciting, “We want the clasp. You’ll get instructions for a trade in 24 hours. Be around Riverside.” Scrolling down, she said, “Not exactly a diplomatic reply—Hurt Sedona and I’ll drink your blood for breakfast.”
“I’m an honest chap.”
“Why would they think you care that much about her?”
“Their leader knows something of the history I share with her family.”
“You gonna trade the clasp for her?”
“That’s the problem, ma’am. I do not have it.”
A sudden look of desperation flashed in her eyes and she avoided his stare. “You’d better convince me you can get it.”
Not wishing to underplay his hand, he considered his answer. “I can, but it’ll take time.” He leaned across the table. “I just need the police to back off me. The gang who took her, well, I think they’re connected. Can’t be getting arrested. Can you talk to the local cops?”
She took a sip of her coffee, smiled ruefully and lit a cigarette. “The cop who keeps criminals awake at night is Deputy Chief Sang Rith. He’s a killer.”
“You know him?”
“I gave you a deadline and you ignored it, but now you think I’ll help. What do I get, buster?”
A tiny smoke ring rose from her lips, she spoke to the ceiling. “You just said you don’t have it.”
“I’ll get it.” He cursed, moved to the window and gazed at the city lights. “Sedona’s out there somewhere right now.” “Why of all people did they have to target my daughter?”
A certain heaviness hung in the atmosphere. The old lady carried herself with an air of superiority he didn’t appreciate. She directed his attention to a pot plant in the corner. “See that leafy red shrub?”
“My favorite. They call those flowers love lies bleeding. Keats wrote about ‘em. For the Aztecs, it made up a chunk of their diet. You like it?”
He nodded, his expression unmoving.
“When the Aztecs enslaved the Tiacotin tribe, they didn’t do it with vulgar fighting. No. They took away the one thing the tribe needed. They wiped out their love lies bleeding crop. That emptied their bellies and got ‘em focused.”
Overhead the fan made a wuz wuz wuz sound. Low, she said, “De la Vere knows the one thing you really need to keep you going is Sedona.”
Having his vulnerabilities pointed out to him did not make Hastings comfortable. He made a swift change of topic. “What’s so special about that ruddy clasp anyway? Its rightful owner is a fellow called Alex. Am I wrong? Do you deny that?”
“Alex, ha!” Ms. Black eyed him like he was a naughty boy, crushed her cigarette in an ashtray and gleefully rubbed her hands together. “Alright, Sherlock, you asked for the straight dope, now you’ll get it.” She reached under the table and pulled out an iPad and a remote. Further down she reached, groaning but managing to wrap her hand around a bottle of whiskey. She pressed the remote. The wide-screen television flickered to life. “Turn off the light, sit back down and have a real drink. The glasses are in the dishwasher so use your coffee cup.”
A knock at the door. “Gimme a sec.”
They were making progress of a kind. As he dropped back into the chair, his eyes followed her across the room. The two gentlemen were the minders who had her back when she’d invited herself to his breakfast table. Additionally, they were the chaps who’d been following him all evening. He sized them up as they shared a whispered conversation in the doorway. Could probably knock both of them out without too much trouble.
She directed them back outside and flicked the landing light off.
“You had them follow me after I called, didn’t you ma’am?”
Like a ghost drifting through a room filled with coal black darkness but for the flickering light on the television screen, she approached the table. “Pour yourself a damn whiskey.”
A real drink was definitely in order and he grabbed the bottle.
She connected the iPad to the television by cable. Pulled her spectacles down, adjusted them on the bridge of her nose and ran a finger across the iPad. “Pay attention.” A series of images flickered on the television screen. Grandiose monuments, ancient tyrants and sensual beauties. “Recognize that?”
He leaned back in his chair, mumbled Sherlock, sipped his drink and scrutinized the dramatic oil painting that dominated the screen. An older woman pleading at the feet of a noble warrior. “I believe the military chap is Alexander the Great.” A knowing smile lit up his face. “So that’s our Alex.”
“That’s our Alex,” she echoed.
“His mother is begging him for mercy. A French piece, no?”
“French, yeah, but technically Sisygambis was not his mother.” She filled her cup without taking an eye off the oil painting. “When Alexander conquered Persia, the defeated king fled, leaving his mother Sisygambis to fend for herself. She pled for her family. Alexander would adopt the frightened woman and her granddaughter Stateira. When he killed her son the king, Sisygambis famously said—”
“I know what she said.” Hastings folded his arms, glanced upwards and delivered a quote to the ceiling. “I have only one son, Alexander, and he is king of all Persia.”
“Full of surprises, aren’t you boy? That’s right. In return for this, Alexander acknowledged her as his mother.” She ran her finger across the iPad screen and examined his reaction closely. “An erudite Oxford man should recognize this.”
Yes, he recognized it. The image was ancient, blood-soaked and horrifying. A ravenous maiden clutched a wrist, hacked from a dismembered female body in a sea of mutilated corpses. Hastings raised his eyebrows. “Now that’s a cheerful scribble. Roxana kills Stateira.”
She nodded, sipped her scotch and sipped again as if waiting for him to fully absorb the fierce intensity of the atrocity. “Alexander returned from battles with the Pashtun of Afghanistan to present Sisygambis with a stunning golden clasp adorned with a flush of rare gems. Possibly it originated in the house of Hatshepsut, the first female ruler of Egypt a thousand years earlier. Whatever, it represented his pledge to marry Stateira, the granddaughter of Sisygambis.”
“And they all lived happily ever after.” He lit up a cigarette and blew smoke at the screen. “I’m almost out of time. Can you—”
“No, I can’t.” She slid an ashtray his way, as her eyes told him you’re going to hear this. “A decade later, on hearing of the death of Alexander, his other wife Roxana wasted no time. She killed Stateira. Here she is, taking the clasp from her butchered arm.”
What did this have to do with solving a kidnapping? Was the lady preparing him to face up to the reality of Sedona’s fate? “That is not a pretty picture.”
“Well Roxanne’d borne a son to Alexander. Would have wanted no competition as mother to an heir.”
He thought to have a sip of scotch, but changed his mind as the bloody tale began to draw him in. “Continue.”
“It turned up briefly in the Kushan empire. By this time, it was known as the Clasp of Stateira. It had gained mystical significance when gifted between the generations. Let’s skip forward to the 19th century.”
He tapped his cigarette on the ashtray. “Oh yes, indeed, lets.”
A blatantly facetious comment; Ms. Black ignored it and continued. “Somehow, some way, the legend of the clasp spread to St. Petersburg. Interestingly, this is where we find the first link to your family.”
Instinctively he displayed no emotion. “Really, ma’am?”
“Oh yes.” She brought up the next image; a replica of an oil painting. “Recognize him?”
He felt his chest tighten. “I do. Graf von Harengberg…”
“Princess Catherine Dolgorov was receiving guests at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Harengberg was one of them.”
“Harengberg is a bestowed title, and the link to my lineage is on my mother’s side and only tenuous.”
“Fair enough.” For a few moments, neither spoke as Ms. Black acquired the appearance of someone not knowing whether it would be appropriate to tell a joke that had come to mind. She took one of his cigarettes, lit it and smirked. “You know the crimes of ancestors always puts the British on the defensive.”
“Perhaps.” They shared a stare through the clouds of smoke. His eyes were adjusting to the light, or lack of it. She had the sharp teeth of a predator. “You were saying, ma’am?”
“Yes, well Harengberg recognized the clasp on the wrist of a countess. Some days later, a lady-in-waiting to the Countess would steal it.”
His fist slowly closed into a tightly wound ball. “Are these details really necessary? I’m looking for Sedona.”
“The lady-in-waiting stole it for Harengberg.”
“So that was that.”
“So that was a silly mistake. The Countess’ family, fearing disgrace, challenged Harengberg to a duel over the clasp. Seems your Great Uncle Harry Harengberg turned chicken, and was—”
“I know about the duel too, and I’m here to talk about Sedona and don’t need you to—”
“Let me finish!”
Witnessing the flash of temper jarred him, but he composed himself. “Go ahead, ma’am, I’m still here.”
“After his cowardly display, Harengberg disappeared to Ulyanovsk.”
Hastings avoided her eyes. “If I remember correctly, he drowned in the Volga.”
“Cowards didn’t get a pass in them days.” She ran a finger around the rim of her cup. “The locals bought him the big drink.” A trace of a smile crossed her lips. “But it wasn’t the real clasp. He threw away his life for nothing more than a fake. Fast forward to 1978 and I’m on assignment for Uncle Sam in Kabul. A team excavated a site known as the Hill of Gold up in the north of the country. Boy did they find some treasure.”
In that moment, the lady’s connection to the case became apparent. “You saw the clasp?”
“Oh yes. Verified by the best experts in town.” Her face lit up. “Some say it’s cursed, but—”
“Well it certainly sounds like it is.” His eyes glazed over. He ran a hand across his rough, unshaven chin and took a swig of his scotch. It scorched the back of his throat. With every slaying and quirk of history attached to the clasp, he’d experienced an escalation in his concern for Sedona and now a deep, dark well of dread spilled over within him. Where was she?
Ms. Black drew her fine gray brows together in thought. “What are you thinking about? You got demons in your eyes.”
He banished the furrow from his brow and straightened himself up. “Forget it. Are you finished with the history lesson?”
She cursed under her breath. “No. The Soviets invaded, and the glorious cache disappeared.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I am aware that a certain relative of mine relocated to that region for a time. Is this going where I think it is?”
“It’s going where your cousin Count de la Vere went.” With anger in her eyes, she powered off the television, switched on a table lamp and strolled to the window, speaking with her back to him. “Your cousin, keen to expand his network of human cargo was actively—”
“Just a moment, ma’am. Human cargo? Please be certain of your—”
“When I accuse him of being a human trafficker, I mean it.” She spun around and glared at him. “De la Vere got right in with a bunch of wealthy Afghans. Nothin’ good to say about any of them.”
Instinctively his loyalty to family surfaced. “These are all allegations Ms. Black. Please, do not sound so sure of yourself. It’s tiring me out.”
She let out a long sigh, moved her chair closer to his, sat down and slumped ever so slightly to one side. “We’re all getting tired…” She tapped her fingers on the table. “I don’t know what to make of you. De la Vere’s a player. Have you thrown in with him?”
“Absolutely not.” The woman had a curious sensuality that may have dimmed with age, but the appeal was not lost on Hastings. He examined her reclining figure and the emerald dress, with its half-gown half-negligee design, and then turned away to face the vivid depiction of hellfire in the print on the wall. “It’s been a trying day. You’ll forgive me if my manner is at all brusque.”
She took a short sharp swig of her scotch and refilled his cup. “Right. Somewhere along the line the clasp re-appeared. A prominent family in Kabul were guarding it in concert with the local government.” The pace of her rhetoric picked up. “Not long ago, your cousin turned up back in Kabul. No doubt he senses some special ownership privileges regarding the clasp, possibly with your ancestor Harengberg in mind.”
“He had his sidekick, a young rascal called Freddy, steal the clasp, then they abruptly relocated to one of your family homes in Hong Kong. You know the rest.”
His eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t be putting this on me now, would you?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “You’d better not be working for de la Vere or his enemies.”
“Truth is I’m going to kill him.”
“Does he have the clasp now?”
She ran her hand across his knee. “Sedona and you are quite the pair.”
What the hell was she up to now? He slapped the hand away and with a bead of sweat running down his forehead, he blasted, “I just need you to tell me where the hell to start looking for her. Am so worried.”
“I’d be more worried about your loved ones.”
“Pardon?” Her opaque reference made no sense.
“I thought maybe you were working with de la Vere. Can see now that you’re not.” Her expression went hard, like that of a general ordering an elite brigade into battle. “Alright buster, this is what you’re up against.” She snapped her fingers in his face, turned to the hellfire painting on the wall, and pressed the remote. The image transitioned from one resembling Dante’s Inferno to a digital map on a screen in a war room. “The Indochinese peninsula.”
The color came back to his face. “Well, well, well…”
“The mountain ranges extend from the Tibetan Plateau. Three major river systems running in a north–south direction. You see those areas shaded in black?”
“Minefields. Six million unexploded pieces of ordnance scattered around the countryside. Many of them three days journey from the nearest hospital. And more snakes than you’d step on at a mafia convention.” She stood behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Now look at the Cardamom mountain range. Parts of it are impenetrable.”
“What’s the significance of those red lines running across the ocean and pointing north?”
“Human trafficking routes. Humanity is pretty much back in the seventeenth century, courtesy of renegades like your cousin.” A whisper in his ear. “Look at the green zones. Jungle.” She squeezed his shoulder, grabbed the bottle, poured them both another drink and spoke to the whiskey as it went glug glug glug. “Don’t bother searching for your girl in the soupy heat of that wilderness.” She pressed the remote, the screen transitioned back to the hellfire image. “She’s possibly on her way to a mysterious haven of carnality called The Harlot Corridor. No finding that joint, so forget it.”
“Surely some districts must be modernized, I mean I could use Google Maps.”
“You just don’t know where you are, do ya?” The chair scraped the tiles as she dragged it to one side and placed the whiskey bottle under the table. “They only found the source of the Mekong River in 1994. That’s how mysterious certain parts of Indochina still are, my boy.”
He shot up to his feet and paced the room with his hands deep in his pockets. “Well what am I supposed to do? In eighteen hours, they’re expecting me to show up with the clasp.”
“Do what I did with you.”
He dropped into the seat beside her. Raised an eyebrow. “What you did?”
“With you. Find a key contact and convince them to work with you.”
“No good. Sedona aside, I roll alone in this world.” He grabbed the cup and skulled the scotch in one.
“You’ve got money, right?”
“Buy yourself a key contact.” She closed the iPad, switched the overhead light on, and let out a very deep and rasping yawn. “I’ll speak to the Chief of Police and buy you one week’s grace. Homicide in Boston need to speak to Sedona too. If you find her bring her in.”
“You’re referring to the investigation into her mother’s murder?”
“That’s right. I can do all this for you because I represent respectable NGOs. Now you find me that clasp. It belongs with the Afghan people.”
“Sedona’s my priority, then dealing with my cousin and a distant third is finding your ruddy clasp.” He stood up and straightened his jacket. “I’ll do my best.”
“You’d better.” She gave him a matronly gaze and moved slowly to the window. “Whatever you do, steer clear of Deputy Chief Sang Rith. He’s Blackbeard in a uniform and he’ll put you in the ground.”
“And don’t mention your murder plans again. That ain’t how we roll.” The window rattled as she pushed it open. A sultry breeze blew across the room. “When de la Vere’s in town, there’s a regular party called Soft Parades. Last we heard one of the tramps in the mall over that side of town had taken it over.”
“There’s probably a Soft Parades event tonight. Head to Sen Sok. The mall in the main shopping center. It’ll be held at one of the bars near the water fountain.”
“I’ll find it. May I ask why you or the authorities don’t put a stop to all these heinous activities?”
“I’m just a go-between for governments in the developing world who’ve lost their heritage and want it back.” She approached him and whispered in his ear as if to convey a precious secret. “Rich tourists in town means well-needed revenue. That means no scandals and the Chief of Police pays his Deputy Sang Rith to keep the peace by any means necessary.”
Was the collective indifference of the boys in blue a strategy agreed upon across international lines? It riled him, but he mumbled, “I understand.”
Having her place one hand on his shoulder did not please him, as she walked him across the room. “You’ll have to give yourself in to INTERPOL next Saturday evening. Be at the Afghan Center adjacent to the main post office. The only way I can buy you some time is by assuring them you’ll show up.” At the open door, one of the two minders stepped inside and stood beside her.
“I’ll be there,” said Hastings.
“That info I gave you about those tramps and Soft Parades. If you can clarify it, call me. Hate to say there’s probably no finding Sedona, but if you do I want an immediate SMS confirming it. You got that?”
“I get it now,” he said with a smile. “These gents are Afghans.”
“That’s right. This guy’s name is Latif. Neither of these guys have much time for Brits, but I tasked them with keeping an eye on you. Keeping you safe.”
He shared an icy stare with Latif. Both men appeared to regard him as a figure of fascination, but Ms. Black maintained her matronly, superior air, pointing her finger directly in Hastings’ face. “Think you can manage?”
Being constantly spoken to like a subordinate had ground his patience down to a blunt nub, and it was time to let her know who held the talking pillow. “Do you carry a blade, Latif?”
“May I see it?”
Latif’s eyes asked Ms. Black if he should comply and she nodded. Then with a certain glee, the Afghan produced a small, stout, hunting knife. Hastings, in a blinding gesture, swiped it from his hand, turned and drove it through the air. The blade penetrated the forehead of the petrified statue, a dull thud rang out and the statue shook violently. Latif moved for him, but the old lady smirked and placed her hand on the man’s chest.
Hastings nodded respectfully. “I can manage. Goodnight.” He went down a flight then ducked to one side and listened carefully to what Ms. Black was saying upstairs.
“In eight hours, I expect you both to share my bed.” A pause. Then Ms. Black said, “Well what are you waiting for? Don’t let that bastard out of your sight.”