Part 6: The Work-in-Progress

     “Thank you for the breakfast.” My voice wobbled. I forced a smile as I got out of the car.

     Martin smiled but his eyes were hard. “Safe trip,” he said.  His voice was clipped and cold.

     I lowered my head and walked briskly to the elevator. Hot tears welling at the rims of my eyes.

     I packed my luggage fussily.  Rolled hosiery to stuff the extra pair of flats. Shower caps over soles of trainers. Blazer sleeves socked into each other. Clean clothes into travel compression bags. A dryer sheet to absorb smells in the dirty clothes bag. Three weeks’ living out of a rolled-on cabin luggage. I never checked-in any luggage.

     I decided to leave for the airport early.

     The queue at the hotel check-out desk was inordinately long.  A team of foreign rugby players was checking out.  Brawny jocks jostled playfully.  Normally, I would happily entertain myself with oggling at eye-candy.  But today, I felt the makings of a headache throbbing.  The Concierge who was not at the Priority Desk.

     Damn!   

     I went back to my room; popped a painkiller and set my phone alarm for an hour’s shuteye.

     I woke up with a start. My room phone was ringing. Thinking that it was the front desk reminding me to check out, I let it ring for a few times while I pushed the groggy cobwebs of sleep away.

     “Hello, is that Aubergina?” a hesitant voice asked.  My heart skipped. “Can I come up and talk to you for awhile? If you don’t mind, I mean.”

     I looked at my watch. I needed to leave for the airport in two hours’ time. “I’ll meet you at the lobby”, I said quietly.

     The elevator door opened.  I walked into the lobby where my Big Boss – the Investment Bank’s CEO – was waiting.

 

     The CEO went straight to the point. Someone spotted me with Martin this morning.  He wanted to know my strategy for “onboarding Mr Lam”.

     “Strategy? Mr Lam invited me for breakfast as a friend.  He didn’t know that I was an investment banker.  What strategy are you talking about?”

     “Calm down. I am just asking.” He smiled coyly.

     I buried my face in my hands and rubbed the edge of my palms on both sides of my face furiously.

     “You guys are so frigging unbelieveable.”

     The CEO stood up to leave. “Think about it, Aubergina.  See you in the office on Monday,” he said dryly.

 

..to be continued.

Part 5: The Work-in-Progress

     Martin was waiting for me at the hotel lobby. We looked at each other and laughed. 

     I wore my pastel pink Chanel tweed suit, and Martin was in a pink polo t-shirt with beige khaki pants.  I blushed, feeling a tad overdressed.

     “Great minds think alike. You looked gorgeous,” he said, greeting me with a hug and a kiss.

     I lingered at his neck. He smelt refreshingly sharp and reminded me of Earl Grey tea.  Bergamot with a touch of lemon, I mused. 

     He took my hand and led me to the entrance where a car was waiting. “Come let’s go somewhere for breakfast. This place will be full of investment bankers soon. I heard there’s an Investment Conference going on.”

     “Where are we going?” I asked, trying hard to sound casual. He was still holding onto my hand at the backseat; and I was so afraid to move, just in case he let it go.

     “I am going to bring you to this small private family restaurant which serves whatever the chef got from the market at 3AM,” he chuckled.

     “Is it like an underground Supper Club?”

     “You’ve been to a Supper Club?”

     “No. But I heard of it.”

     “Perhaps if you are available for dinner tonight, I can bring you to one.”

     I shook my head slowly. “I am flying home this evening.”

     He looked genuinely disappointed.

     

     The cafe was hidden at a cul-de-sac in a leafy residential area of terrace houses.  It had five coffee-stained wooden tables, black and white mosaic tiled flooring and a huge taoist altar laden with fruit offerings against the side wall.  A zinc roof jutted out into the front yard, sheltering us from the sun’s glare and cawing crows.

     “I hope you like Xiao Long Bao.  The chef used to work in a famous restaurant in Shanghai,”  Martin said as he gingerly lifted the chinese soup dumpling into my bowl.

     I popped the delicate purse of dough with the side of my chopsticks and steaming hot broth flowed out from inside.

     “Why are you cutting your bao in half? That is not the way to eat it!” Martin stared at me.

     “You should scoop it with your spoon and put the whole thing into your mouth.”  He lifted his spoon in the air to demonstrate.

     I flushed.  “I am afraid that the soup in the dumpling will scald my tongue,” I laughed nervously, lifting a slice of pork from inside the dumpling with my chopsticks and blowing on it softly to cool.

     He smirked, “same as my grand daughter. Too scared of burning the tongue.”

     He has a grand daughter?

     I choked into a coughing fit. 

     Martin instinctively reached out and patted my back lightly.

     “You have a grand daughter?” I croaked.  I was certain that he was single when I googled him last night. 

     “Eat slowly,” he fussed and went back to enjoying his bao;  closing his eyes to savour the velvety broth as the bao burst inside his mouth.

     I waited for his answer to my question but he ignored me.

     “This bao has a delicate skin,” I remarked, trying to hide my disappointment.

     He chuckled. “This is an excellent bao. Not too dense that it sticks at the roof of your mouth; or too thin that the ingredients will spill out the moment you lift it up.”

     Martin excused himself to answer a phone call. His face tightened before he stood up and walked out to the front yard to continue the conversation. 

     When Martin returned, his eyes were blazing.  He clenched his jaws. He inhaled deeply and thundered, “How much are they paying you to chat me up?”

     I was stunned.  Confusion raced through my mind. 

    “What are you talking about?” I retorted.

     “Stop playing dumb.  How much is the Investment Bank promising you to sign me up?” he hammered.

     “Nobody is promising me anything. Have you forgotten? It was you that invited me for breakfast.” I snapped.

 

..to be continued

 

Part 4: The Work-in-Progress

     Eyes darted furtively at my direction when they thought I was not looking. By now, the news of my chance conversation with Martin Lam, the bank’s ultimate Tier One target, would have reached the ears of the Bank’s CEO.  I expect him to “have a word with me” soon.  Dread bubbled inside me. 

     Past midnight and I am wide awake.

     Isn’t there a Japanese legend that says: If you can’t sleep at night, it’s because you are awake in someone else’s dream?

     Is he thinking of me? Is he awake too?

     Those eyes. Those lips. Oh God, he is so handsome!  

     Outside, the lights of the city were fading away.  I counted them..he likes me, he likes me not, he likes me, he likes me not, he likes me, he likes me…hmm… I looked around and saw three small red beacons on top a telecommunication tower at the far corner. He likes me.  I laughed happily and hugged my pillow tightly.

     The first thing I did this evening was to fuss over what to wear for tomorrow’s breakfast.  After trying on several combinations, I decided on my just-in-case-I-have-a-formal-meeting outfit. It would definitely be over the top for breakfast but what the heck!

     I skipped the evening’s dinner with my friends, citing fatigue. The truth was I wasn’t tired. Adrenalin gushed through my veins. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.

     Alone, with my mind replaying the picture of Martin Lam with his bowl of ramen at breakfast this morning.

     Alone, with the picture of him smiling at me in the elevator this evening.

     I giggled.

     He wants me to join him for breakfast, my heart sang.

 

..to be continued.

Part 3: The Work-in-Progress

     “How did the meeting go?” Wenn Siang asked.

     Martin snorted at his PA and slumped into the overstuffed sofa.  

     Wenn rinsed the teapot and cups with the first batch of brewed tea. The clay teapot hissed as it was refilled with boiling water, and overflowed deliberately onto the latticed tea board below. His movements were measured and precise; treating the tea with utmost respect.

     Outside, the Hong Kong skyline slowly turned to dark cutouts. It had been an awkward meeting. The investors of Theodora Capital were in a mutinous mood.

     Over the last 20 years, all eight private equity funds managed by the company had chalked up annual returns in excess of 50% from the initial listing of several investee companies on booming Asian bourses.

     With the global economic slowdown,  two co-investors were instigating the others to wind-up non-performing funds. “Why wait until our invested capital hits negative?” they argued.

     Martin held the teacup and inhaled the tea’s sharp earthly fragrance. He sipped and swirled the delicately matured flavour around in his mouth. “Spring puerh, I believe. Where did you get this from?” 

     Wenn beamed with pride. “Specifically, chun jian puerh tea from Fengqing County in Lincang Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Great stuff, eh? I am wondering if I should make a bid for their last disc of 15-year old puerh.”

     Martin leaned back and closed his eyes. Wills has been his most trusted aide since Theodora Capital was set up more than 20 years ago.  Once, when the Fund was on the brink of bankruptcy following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Wenn tapped into his network of tea connoisseurs for emergency capital.

     Visions of Aubergina twirled in Martin’s mind.  Those beautiful almond eyes.  The way she giggles when she is nervous.  The way she turns all red. She’s cute. And curvy. Very curvy.  Damn! 

     “Hey, that lady who was talking to me at breakfast this morning? I want you to run a background check on her.  I think she said her name is Aubergina.”

    Wenn raised his eyebrows and laughed.  “Aubergina? As in the  ‘Aubergina butterfly’? Sounds exotic.”

     “She’s joining me for breakfast tomorrow.”

    Wenn regarded Martin for a moment.  

     “Looks like you have jumped the gun on this one.  She must be something special, eh?  Usually it’s – Wenn, please identify this candidate.  Wenn, please run a background check.  Wenn, please contact candidate for a date.”  Wenn rattled the standard operating procedures like a drill sergeant. 

     Martin grunted, unable to hide his irritation at Wenn’s candor.

    Wenn cupped his hands around his teacup and said quietly. “I hope you have not forgotten your priorities.  Time is running out, Martin.”

 

..to be continued

Part 2: The Work-in-Progress

     The changing numbers flashed rapidly at the top of the elevator.

     “Hello”

     I turned and saw Martin Lam. His lips curled like a bow.

     He was in a dark grey suit, white shirt and a lemon-yellow tie. He ran his hand through his gray hair and rubbed the back of his neck.  

     “Thanks for tip this morning. I was worried I had to give the ramen egg a miss,” he said, smiling sheepishly.  

     “No worries. I couldn’t wait any longer. I was hungry.” I gushed.

     The elevator doors opened and we stepped right to the back. Four ladies in pareos and fancy straw hats followed, sweaty and with a can of beer in their hands.

     Then, one of the ladies started singing “Tell me when will you be mine. Tell me quando quando quando. We can share a love divine. Please don’t make me wait again…”.

     I glanced sideways at Martin. His eyes were closed. He was standing perfectly erect and seemed to be controlling his breathing. He had side-burns.

     Side-burns!  Like a carefully trimmed strip of lawn running down the side of his face, stopping abruptly in a line at right angles to the lobe of his ear.

     The elevator door opened and the four sweaty ladies stumbled out, still singing drunkenly.

     I stifled a chuckle. He opened his eyes.

     “Oops, sorry for being rude. I’m Aubergina,” I squeaked.

     He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Martin. Pleased to meet you.” 

     I felt an exhilaration run down my spine as he shook my hand.

     “Are you here for business?” I asked, fighting the urge to straighten my shirt collar.

     He nodded and closed his eyes; his head thrown back slightly.

     “My stop here. Have a good evening.”  I tittered in an unnaturally high-pitched voice.

     “Join me for breakfast tomorrow?” He looked at me expectantly, running his fingers through his hair.

     I hesitated.

     And what, Aubergina? Lead him on all the way to the Bank’s claws? He is Tier One priority target, remember?

     “That would be nice” I heard myself say.

     “See you at the lobby at 7AM?”

     I nodded. My heart was pounding.

 

…..to be continued

Part 1: The Work-in-Progress

1

     Anna and I were second in the queue at the egg station.

     The young chef fished the cracked egg from the pot and threw it into the bin.  A gleaming Trainee tag was pinned on his chef whites.

     “C’mon. Be quick. My ramen is getting cold,” said the man in front of us.

     The trainee blushed, re-filled a small pot with water and put an egg in.

     I shook my head. “Wait! You have to let the water boil. Then you use a spoon to gently put the egg in.”

     The trainee frowned. “It will crack!” 

     “No. Listen. Let the water boil. Put the egg in slowly. Wait for 7 minutes. Take it out and put it in an ice-bath,” I repeated slowly.

     “Show off,” Anna scolded. “You speak as though you are an expert. This is a hotel coffeehouse. Not your grandmother’s kitchen.”

     “I have done this ramen egg thing before,” I said, before lowering my voice and giggling into her ear, “once

     Seven minutes and the egg was fished out.

     The trainee halved the egg and smiled. The white was set perfectly with the sunny shiny yolk wobbling happily inside.

     I laughed nervously.

     “Fluke!” Anna made a face.

     The man standing in front of us turned and thanked me.  I gawked.

     He smiled and walked away.

     I took a deep breath.

     Anna nudged me sharply. “Hello woman, you are holding up the queue.”

     I groaned as my ears grew hot.

     

     “I didn’t know you knew Martin Lam.” Matilda eyed me with a quirk in her smile.

     “Who?”

     She raised her eyebrows. “That guy you were talking to at the egg station.” 

     Matilda Kong was my immediate superior and Senior VP of Investment Research at the Bank.  Today, she wore a white ruffled blouse buttoned all the way up to the neck. Her navy blazer hung lazily on the back of the chair. A rebellious strain of gray stood upright at the top of her carefully coiffured hair, defying the pull of styling gel.

      She leaned forward against the table and at once, the outline of her black lacy bra appeared in sharp focus beneath the sheer fabric.

     “Martin Lam is the Founder of Theodora Capital. One of the largest private equity fund company in Asia. He is Tier One Priority target. We…..The Bank has courted him for ages.  He is a tough nut.  This is your chance to reel him in,” she purred.

      “No.” I answered, hacking through my eggs with way too much aggression.

     Her smile froze. Her eyes flashed angrily.

     “Please do the necessary.” My boss barked. “We have to start downsizing if things don’t improve soon.”

     I kept my head down and focused on the eggs which were messing up the bacon and buttered toast.

     I heard her chair scraped against the floor. Her napkin crumpled in front of me.

 

….to be continued

The Attic

.     “What time are we going up to the attic?” I asked over breakfast.

     “Huh?” Percival regarded me suspiciously.

     “Don’t play stupid. You promised.” I shot my boyfriend the look

     “I was drunk. It is unfair to hold a drunk man to a promise.”

      “Wasn’t it you who said that a promise is a promise, no matter what?” I smiled.

     He lowered his eyes and stared at his fingers for a long time. Finally, he walked to one of the drawers and took out a bunch of keys. He chose the one with a small porcelain rose and walked up to the attic.

     He flicked the light switch.

     I gasped.

     A sepia photo of a lady in an embroidered baju panjang stared at me.  Her white hair was gathered in a bun at the top of her head and clasped with bejewelled hairpins.  

     A chill pricked my neck.

     I saw the resemblance rightaway…the prominent jaw, the high hairline and the V-shaped dip at the centre of the broad forehead.

     Below the photo was a rich brown teak mantelpiece. On it stood an exquisite jade green Straits Chinese jar.  It had a phoenix and a pink peony on the front. On its lid was a crouching qilin, the mystical hooved chimera creature regarded as the Chinese unicorn.

     I touched the jar. It was cold.  

     Percival cleared his throat from behind me and said, “my mum sleeps in there.”

     An antique writing desk stood to my right. It was made of mahogany with designs from the Edwardian era. I gently slid the roll-top. Inside were dried-up watercolour half-pans and sable brushes, sketches of flowers and unfinished artwork. I ran my fingers along the textured grains of cold-pressed paper.  An ache tugged my heart.  I closed the roll-top and stepped away.

     I looked at the smiling photo and ornate jar again; clasped my hands and bowed.

     Percival stood at the door. He looked sad and distant. I took his hand and led him out, gently closing the door behind us.

 

 

     “Percival showed me his mum’s resting place.”  I squinted for Bibi’s reaction as I squeezed lemons over anchovy fillets.

     Instead, the housekeeper continued prodding the pork roast in the oven, pretending not to hear me.

     “He looks like her,” I continued, noting her silence.

     She closed the oven door and lifted her arms backwards to stretch her back. Then, she opened the cupboards in quick succession.

     “What are you looking for?” I asked.

     She turned to look at me quizzically. “I forgot.”

     I laughed.

     “So are you going to tell me something about her?” I stuck my tongue markedly inside my right cheek.

     She sighed. “I think it’s better if Sir talks to you about his mother.”

     “I thought you were her primary care-giver?”

     “Yes. But I still think it’s only proper that you hear it from Sir,” she answered. 

     I looked at her wistfully.  “I have a feeling he doesn’t want to talk about her.” 

     She knitted her brows in a pained look and walked out of the kitchen.

     “Hey, where are you going? You haven’t answered my question!” I shouted.

     “Ask him yourself,” she waved the back of her hand at me impatiently, like she was swapping flies.

     Then, she stopped, half-turned her head to my direction. “Her name was Rosemary.”

 

 

     Last night I dreamt of Rosemary Fredericks, again.

     Her eyes were wide in horror. There was blood spouting from all parts of her body.  She was screaming but I could not understand a thing. Then, she grabbed me and pulled me down with her.  

     I jolted as my shoulder was shaken violently.  Percival was peering anxiously at me.  I could not move my arms and legs. My lips were parched. My body bathed in cold sweat. 

 

 

     Today was Bibi’s day off.  I opened the drawer to look for the key with the porcelain rose token. It was not there.

     I went into Percival’s study to look for it.

     “C’mon Rosemary, you have to help me here. Show me the attic key, please,” I muttered under my breath, as I tried the drawers at Percival’s desk. 

     Something caught my eye as I was leaving the study.  

     A piece of paper peeped from behind a photo frame which was face-side down on the side table. I turned it over and peered at the photo. It was an old black and white photo of Rosemary with a toddler on her lap. I tugged at the piece of paper.  The cardboard backing gave way, causing the glass front to slip and shatter on the floor.

     Damn!     

     My phone rang.

     Unknown number. Must be some cold caller.

     I let it ring.

     A text message beeped.

     “What are you doing in my study? Get out now!”

     Damn! I forgot the CCTV. 

     I called Percival.  “No! I will not leave until you tell me exactly what happened to your mother. Nobody wants to tell me anything.”

     “What do you want to know about her?” he replied

     “I dreamt of her twice this week. TWICE!  I WANT TO KNOW HOW SHE DIED,” I yelled.

     After a long silence, he said quietly, “You don’t have to shout at me.  You are very rude. 
 I will asked Bibi to tell you everything you want to know about mum.”

 

 

The newspaper cutting was dated 20 April 2009.

Socialite dies in freak accident

BY CATHERINE YEW 

20 APRIL 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, April 20:  The body of reclusive socialite Rosemary Fredericks, 72, was found yesterday lying in a pool of blood with a broken neck in her rose garden. According to house staff who had requested anonymity, Mrs Fredericks was trimming her prized white roses when her pet dog, a Golden Retriever called Matt, chased a stray cat and crashed into the wooden plant support structure; causing it to topple and collapse onto Mrs Fredericks.

Mrs Fredericks who was believed to be recovering from breast cancer, died on the spot.

     I closed my eyes and breathed sharply. 

     Taken away without a goodbye.

     Is that why she looked distressed in my dreams?

     Is her soul wandering aimlessly in the garden?

     “It was Sir’s idea to have that plant support structure,” Bibi said.

     “Who? Percival? Is that why he blames himself?”

     She nodded.

     I looked out to the front yard. “What happened to the rose garden?” 

     “Sir took a machete and slashed everything to the ground.”

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