Jan Fraser glanced idly out of the window of her twentieth-floor office and watched the scenery. Several Star Ferries moved across the busy Hong Kong harbour from the Central Piers to TST in Kowloon. From her vantage point they seemed like ants scurrying about their business. Not far from the shore a rubbish sampan snagged some weeds and a bag of goodness knows what from the murky water and a police boat went by on its way to some business or another.
She adored it. Every last, bustling, noisy inch of downtown as well as the tranquil hills and trails of the islands and New Territories.
Home. It was a satisfying thought, and one she gave thanks for on a regular basis.
It was no secret she loved her life as it was. Work, a great social circle, perfect—albeit tiny—house in Sai King, a lovely fishing village in the New Territories, and the knowledge of a holiday due to her. She relished the thought—and the joy—of getting out her suitcase and deciding which holiday clothes to pack. The downtime was well overdue.
All of which made her more determined to discover—why her? Why did life decide now was the time to throw some curveballs in her direction? Why had two things put spokes in her wheels?
The first, admittedly, was only an annoying gnat of a spoke. An ex who out of the blue was about to descend on her—or so he thought. Which would have been a not-so-pleasant surprise if his sister hadn’t warned her. Not a long text. Just, ‘Thomas in HK soon 4 filming. Arr Thurs. Sez will call u. Has yr wrk addy, not from me!’ The last three words had been highlighted and written out in full. As Ari was a supporter of ‘text speak’, it showed how she’d wanted to emphasise the fact.
His forthcoming presence was irritating, but not the end of the world. Surely she was far enough over him—as in, the other side of the world over him—to be cool, calm, collected and civilised if he did turn up? Say ‘hello, no thanks, I don’t want a meal, or a drink, to go up the peak on the tram or take a trip to Disney World’. Don’t add I’d rather swim with sharks or eat worms than spend my free time with you. Life is too short. Be polite and distant and hope I don’t see him around the place. Be courteous and show him he means nothing to me anymore. Even if the events that led up to them splitting still gave her the shakes.
Sod him. Why couldn’t he accept I had the chance of a lifetime as well as him? That surely we could survive for six months apart, and if we couldn’t it was as well to find out sooner rather than later? As it had happened, they hadn’t needed to find out. Thomas had used the old chestnut ‘if you loved me you’d come with me’. Jan had refrained from retorting ‘if you loved me you’d accept how important my opportunity is as well’, and instead said ‘thanks but no thanks, I’m taking my chance of success as well’. In her mind his attitude had been selfishness in the extreme. It was her opinion that a relationship meant give and take, not one give and one take. Or at least not the same one doing all the taking and the other having to do all the giving.
Now it seemed he was about to appear in her life again.
Sod it. This time she’d be the selfish one, and if—if—they did meet up, it would be on her terms. She grimaced then smiled reluctantly. She was reading an awful lot into the fact an old…old what?…acquaintance—she refused to call him anything more intimate—was probably going to drop by to say hi. It could be no more than that.
What if it was, though. Argh. Enough. Jan gave herself a mental shake. Why worry about what might never happen?
If all that wasn’t enough to keep her awake at nights, her boss had just dropped another bombshell on her. On a Friday afternoon no less. Just before they’d all departed the building for the weekend. No doubt on purpose. May could go home with a clear conscience, having discharged her duty. However, Jan thought savagely, not her. Bugger May. Now she, Jan, would spend all weekend trying to wriggle out of what was wanted from her.
And it was a bombshell she had an idea she couldn’t really get out of. Not if she wanted to fulfil her job description properly. Mind you, if she were honest, would she really want to if it didn’t mean the postponement of her holiday? Jan thought about that for a second or two and admitted to herself—reluctantly—probably not.
The door behind her opened and she turned to smile at May, her friend and boss, who waved a white hanky in the air.
“Is it safe to come in?”
Jan shook her head in amusement. “Yes, and you might well wave that. I could go off on you big time. Rotter.”
“That’s rotter, boss.” May grinned. “Sorry, but who better to send? It is in your job description isn’t it, even if not in so many words? I accept it means putting your holiday off for a few weeks, but A, we’ll pay for all the extra expense, B, you were heading over there anyway, and C, you know darned well you’re the one person who will break balls if need be.”
“Sounds gruesome. And, and, note, I’m not due to be heading there until I’ve had a month in Portugal,” Jan pointed out. “You’re asking me to go to Scotland, the west of Scotland, in the main midge months. I’ve sold my midge net hat and run out of repellent. I’ll be eaten alive.”
May shook her head and laughed. “Buy a hat and repellent and put the cost on expenses. If we left it until after midge months, you’d have the hot humid summer here to contend with first.”
“I’d be in Portugal. Hot and not humid.” Not like here.
“Sand flies, burnt nose, sweat rash.”
“I thought you said nose picker.” May snorted. “I got over that ages ago. Well, three at least.”
“Wow.” Jan opened her eyes wide. “That long ago?”
“Still bite my nails, though.”
“Who doesn’t?” Jan looked at her own red—as in fire engine-coloured—nails. She didn’t—often—and had discovered if she got her nails done she was less likely to put a finger in her mouth and nibble. “Seriously, though, it’s not the time I’d prefer to spend around forest and water, posh hotel or not. After all, I doubt I’d be allowed to wear a midge net and smell of eau de citronella all the time.” That, Jan admitted, was her preferred mode of dress during the height of the midge season. “With my trousers tucked into my socks and my hands up the sleeves of my jumper. I swear, the little blighters take one look at me, rub their wings or whatever together and think ooohhh dinner. And breakfast, lunch and all snacks in between.” She scratched her arms. “Makes me itch just thinking about it.”
May dipped her head. “Okay, point taken. You and midges do not go well together. But, Jan, we really do need you at the hotel.” She was all seriousness now. “The new owner is adamant he wants our help to pitch it to the right people. He doesn’t want to close it to the public—well, not all the public—but there’s a big, as in massive, superstar movie about to be filmed around there, and he needs advice on the best way to handle the situation. Not to antagonise anyone in any way. Especially the people who own some of the bungalows there. They’re the biggest flies in the ointment.”
“Close it for renovation,” Jan said promptly. “Facilities and all. There, sorted. Portugal, here I come.”
May laughed and shook her head. “Good try. He says not. There are a lot of people who own cottages and stuff in the grounds. He can’t stop those people turning up. They’ll presume they’re free to use the facilities as normal. You can’t be expected to accept there’s no golf or gym or whatever when it’s in the deeds of your house you have unlimited unrestricted use.”
“Well, not if it’s something dangerous that’s closed, whatever.”
“Nope, but it isn’t, and they’d know that. Plus, to do the regular safety checks required they have to give a minimum of three months’ notice to the punters. This place is seriously select.”
“Hmm.” Jan thought for a moment. It sounded intriguing, but she wasn’t going to mildly give in and say okay. “I’d say he’s got a problem if it’s all true.”
“It is. In the deeds. He’s checked and so have our law people. Not a cat in you-know-where’s chance of wriggling out of it. If anything is broken or whatever the hotel is liable, and it costs them money, not the house owners. The perks of paying top whack for rather gorgeous holiday homes.”
“I can see that could be a problem.” Jan stared out of the window and nodded as she thought furiously. A cruise ship was in the process of docking on the other side of the harbour and tugs and little boats were moving fussily around it. She never lost her sense of marvel at how busy the harbour was and how all the different types of craft managed to go about their business. A sampan dodged a tourist junk and she bet someone shook a fist in the bigger boat’s direction. Jan smiled. How she wished she could hear the conversation going on there. Swearing was recognisable in any language.
May coughed. “Earth to Jan.”
“Where exactly are we talking about?” Jan asked and dragged her mind back to the subject in question. “It might help to know that. After all, it could be on the east coast and nigh-on midgeless.” She didn’t think so for one minute, not the way May had been talking. “So?”
“That sadly is on a need-to-know basis,” May replied in a regretful, ‘sorry but it’s not my doing’ sort of way. “If you agree to head over and spend a month or two checking things out, giving advice and so on, I can, after you’ve signed a confidentiality clause, tell you where you’ll be going. Not before and unless—” She broke off and held her hands up in the air. “I know, I know, it should be you know what you’re letting yourself into before you agree, but this isn’t my decision. I can tell you it’s all above board and the directors are adamant they want you. As a colleague I say that, as a mate I agree I’d be as fed up as you are over it all and inclined to tell me and them—to F off. If a bit more politely.”
Jan stared at May as she tried to remember something Arietta, her friend and warner of Thomas’ imminent arrival in the city, had mentioned. Something about her—Arietta’s—husband Moss possibly filming close to where they had a house in the west of Scotland and a lot of kerfuffle over it. Something to do with the film company not wanting there to be any chance of rubberneckers and the new owner of the nearby hotel adamant it couldn’t shut its doors while the filmmakers faffed about in the extensive grounds. No contracts had been signed, including Moss’, and everyone was getting, in Arietta’s words, “a wee bit antsy”. Could it be that?
“Oh,” Jan said much more nonchalantly than she felt, “Romansa Castle. Gaelic for romance. Moss Kirby’s next movie. I heard there was a wee bit of a hoo-ha about if it was to be filmed there.”
May jumped and stared at Jan for several seconds. “What are you? A super sleuth? Where did you get that info? That’s supposed to be top secret. Both the hoo-ha and the place.”
Shoot, I hope I haven’t got Arietta in trouble. She didn’t say it was for my ears only. Blast, damn and fig rolls. “Really? Since when? And I am right then.” She said that as a statement, not a question.
“Since when what?” May prevaricated. “What do you mean?”
“Since when is it top secret,” Jan replied in a patient way. “That wasn’t mentioned. Just that the hotel felt it couldn’t shut. The film company had discussed it with the previous owners, I believe. If I’ve got it right, they were offered a deal that the majority felt they couldn’t turn down and then as the film company hadn’t got anything signed, he…she…they said there was nothing to honour. Or something,” she finished lamely. Moss had been a part owner and had been so disgusted by the mentality of some of his co-owners he’d sold his share willingly. He’d said he was relieved to let the whole sorry arguments and the stupid mess be sorted out by someone with more time. It might have been a house associated with his family, but any thoughts of hanging on to his bit of it were long gone. He’d still got his new home and a fair bit of land nearby where he and Jan had a gorgeous house and lived whenever possible and was happy with it. Weirdly, Arietta had informed Jan, the land Moss still owned was not the land the film company wanted to use. If it had been, life would perhaps have been simpler all round.
“So how are you in the know?” May persisted.
“I was brought up nearby when it was just a big posh house, though Mum and Dad moved from the area years ago.” She grinned. “So have I.”
May snorted. “You don’t say. Go on.”
“Well, I’m not really in the know, but know someone who knows someone from around there.” A lame reply but the best she could come up with on the spur of the moment. “Sort of. I know a lot of knows but don’t know a lot.”
“A lot of knows there when there shouldn’t be, eh?” May chuckled then sobered straight away. “Damn and blast.” She sat down on Arietta’s desk chair with a thump. The chair rocked, slid several feet backwards and spun around to face the wall. One of May’s coveted Jimmy Choos flew off her foot and headed towards the ceiling.
With a leap that would have done justice to any rugby player, Jan caught it in mid-air and presented it to her friend with a grin. “Cinderella, your shoe.”
May nodded regally. “Cinderella’s would have stayed on,” she pointed out as she stroked the soft leather a few times before she slid her foot back into it, and grinned. “Gah, I always forget your chair does that. Mine sticks.”
“I make sure I do a full spin,” Arietta said. “Might as well enjoy a wee burl around.”
“Spin. I forget you’re not up to speed with your Scottish slang.”
“I’m learning. Fair enough, but not now. Any more nuggets to share?”
Jan shook her head. “Don’t think so.”
“Then how about it? It’s not compulsory, but—” May hesitated and worried her bottom lip with her teeth. A sure sign she was worried. “I honestly can’t think of anyone better to go and advise them. Him. Or whoever. Plus, I’ve got a promise you can go first class both ways and to Portugal or wherever after the work part is done. If we do a good job, it could lead to a lot more prestigious contracts. Let’s face it, we know we’re good and doing well, but we can always try to do better.” She winked. “Bigger bonuses.”
Jan couldn’t decide if she had made her mind up or it had been made up for her. Either way, it appeared her immediate future was settled. “If, just if, I head there and try and see what can be done, then I go on holiday straight after?” She could go to Europe on the same plane she’d booked—she’d decided to fly via the Netherlands—and head to Scotland instead of the Algarve. Work could sort out the logistics—and any extra flights and accommodation. Portugal in September instead of July and August would probably be a better temperature anyway. “Then back to my job here?”
“Of course,” May said promptly. “Why, yes.”
Too promptly? Hmm.
“Why do you not sound so sure?” Jan asked on impulse, and with growing suspicion noticed a look of guilt flash over May’s face. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing.” May didn’t sound very convincing.
“If you don’t fess up, the next time you walk out of one of your Jimmy Choos I’ll accidentally heave it out of the window, or down the loo.”
“Cruel.” May sighed and wriggled her feet deeper into her footwear as she tucked her legs under the chair. “Okay, they did sort of wonder if you’d sort of want to do an extended stint with them, still work for us but go on loan to them.”
“What?” Jan’s voice rose in a screech. “Stop over there and… Definitely no, no and no again. My home is here. I do not want to go back to Scotland to work for however long.” Although if she could do part time there and the rest of the time in Hong Kong, she could be tempted. However, she had no intention of saying so. Not at that moment. It had been so long since she’d lived in Scotland she might find it wasn’t to her liking anymore. “What a crackpot idea. I might be crap at what they want anyway. Next.”
“All right, keep your hair on. I’ll pass that on in politer terms. If you get everything sorted faster, then you can add the rest of the time onto your holiday. Don’t be surprised if someone tries to persuade you, though. And before you ask, no, I don’t know why you, etcetera. I mean, do they know your nasty habits?”
Jan laughed now the tense moment was over. “Rash statement, boss of mine. I might rush things so as to get more tanning time—or invent some really nauseous idiosyncrasies.”
“Not you,” May said shrewdly. “You’re too conscientious.”
“Ain’t that true.” Jan gave into the inevitable with, if not good grace, a resigned acceptance. “Okay, I give in…sort of. I’ll do the month. When do I leave?”
“End of next month, and be prepared for two months.”
“Nope. One or no can go.” Why was she being so ornery? Jan had no idea except for one of those something-weird-is-up itches she sometimes got. Usually when whatever she had to do and didn’t want to went pear-shaped. Or she cocked up.
“Hard woman. I’ll pass that on. What if they say you have to give them the option of another month?”
Jan high-fived herself. “Then I stay here and go on holiday. Remember, there’s nothing in my contract that says this sort of stuff is compulsory. I might be a facilitator or an arbitrator or just an administrator, whichever hat you need, but that’s for this company here. It’s a favour, no more no less.” She thought for a moment. “And for goodness’ sake tell me exactly what they are going to call me. I need to get the right hat on.”
“Eh?” For a moment May appeared flummoxed by Jan’s reference to hats, then her face cleared.
“Hmm. Right.” May sounded almost resigned. “What role you’re needed for. I get you. How we’ve got it so far gives you almost seven weeks to sort stuff out here, and hand over anything that can’t wait. I’ll check what they’re going to call you in Scotland and get a detailed description of what’s to be done there. Right. Now that’s sorted, head off early and have a great weekend.”
Jan looked at the clock. “Not exactly early,” she pointed out. “It’s five to.” What was she heading off to anyway? A great weekend with a lot to think about? However, Jan smiled at May. It wasn’t the other woman’s fault that Jan had to use one of her granny’s favourite expressions, ‘got her knickers in a twist’. “Yeah, you too.”
One thing, it was a relief to know that she’d got that length of time at home before she headed overseas. Still grumpy at the way May had convinced her she’d have to do the job and wondering what she’d got herself involved in—and with who—Jan logged off and closed her computer. Tidied her desk and got her bag before she headed to the bank of lifts and waited for one to arrive and deposit her on the ground floor of the office block where she worked. The lift was prompt, and before long she arrived in the foyer, headed for the main door and paused.
Taxi, bus or boat? She had a choice of transport to take to get home and swapped between them depending on her mood, the time of day and the weather. Whichever mode she chose it would take her a good hour to get to Sai Kung, the fishing village where she lived, but she reckoned it was worth it. Especially at weekends when she could wander down to the water’s edge and choose what fish she fancied for lunch. Watch the seller pick it out of its tank and hand it up to her wrapped in paper and a plastic bag, via a long-handled hook. Co-workers and friends said they envied her, but never appeared to lose the opportunity to try to get her to move closer to the city centre. When she demurred, they extoled one of the other densely populated areas, where they said she would have lots of things to do and more people to socialise with. She didn’t bother to point out she had plenty of friends and enough things to do where she lived. Just resisted their attempts at getting her to move. She enjoyed the contrast and didn’t want hustle and bustle all the time. Plus, the journey to and from the central business district and her home was perfect for reading.
Just before she reached the door of the building, Martin, a colleague, hailed her. ”Drink at the pier? Half a dozen of us going.”
“Why not.” It was Friday, she had nothing planned, and the convenient little red minibuses ran from Central to the end of her street until almost midnight. Taxis of course were 24/7, but most locals would shun them if there was any other way to travel.
The tiny bar was situated by the piers where the ferries to a couple of the islands that dotted the sea around Hong Kong docked. It was laid back, friendly and always busy. Jan thrust her arm through the crook of Martin’s arm as they fought their way through the usual crowds in the CBD area of Central and made their way to the harbourside with their co-workers. May had declined with a ‘got me my man and a hot date in front of the TV’. Her husband was something high up in a bank and frequently overseas.
As ever, the throng sounded like a flock of cheerful parrots. It seemed as if all languages were represented, and she found it amusing to see how many she could identify. With a wry grin, Jan realised she could understand quite a lot of cuss words as well as ‘excuse me’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in most of them. It was said that as long as you knew those words and a few other essential phrases—could I have a wine or a beer or a soda’, ‘where are the restrooms please’, and ‘may I have the bill please, thank you’, in several languages, you could get by anywhere. She hadn’t tried every language she knew them in up until then, but it had been so far, so good with the ones she had.
An itch down her spine made her turn and look behind her, but she couldn’t see any reason for it.
She mentally shrugged and put it down to Arietta’s text and an errant hair that had decided to come loose and tickle her.