Freelance journalist Danni Knight, is befriended by an elderly Chinese woman, Cynthia Shan. The wealthy Ms Shan has lived in a penthouse apartment in the notorious Kings Cross since the 1940s and is known and loved by many. Ms Shan enlists the reluctant Danni in a search for a runaway teenager, known as Britney. Intertwined with the story of the search is that of Britney as she lives homeless in Sydey.0
Crime / Suspense / Mystery / Thriller
Maggie Aldhamland (Australia)
‘I’m so glad you could join me,’ said Ms Shan on the first morning I joined her at her table. ‘My name is Cynthia Shan.’
Something about Ms Shan required a more formal greeting than my usual ‘Hi’.
‘I’m so pleased to meet you, Ms Shan.’ I held out my hand. ‘I’m Danni Knight.’
‘Then I shall call you Danielle,’ she replied as she clasped my hand. ‘So much prettier than Danni, don’t you think? And you must call me Cynthia.’
She reminded me of a dowager empress who takes obedience as her birthright. I would have preferred Danni but gave in gracefully. What’s in a name anyway?
‘You’re a movie buff, I gather?’ I said, recalling her reference to Apocolyse now.
‘I’ve always had an interest in movies, yes,’ she replied. ‘I mostly indulge through DVDs these days. I don’t go out at night as often. And DVDs are so easy to order on the Internet, don’t you think?’
‘Is Apocalypse now one of your favorites?’
‘Loathe it, actually. Not my thing at all, but some quotes do stick in the memory, wouldn’t you agree?’
I smiled and sipped my coffee, unsure what to say next.
‘You haven’t lived here long, have you?’ she asked saving the conversation.
‘No, I’ve just moved to Elizabeth Bay and I walk past here on my way to the station.’
‘If it’s not too intrusive, can I ask what kind of work you do? You don’t seem to pass this way at the same time everyday.’
‘No I often work from home. I’m a freelance journalist, so it depends on the assignment.’
‘And what are you working on presently?’
I hesitated for a moment as I was on my way to interview a researcher who had trained a dog to sniff out koala scat as a way of tracking the illusive marsupials. I wasn’t sure poo-sniffing dogs was a suitable subject for this refined old lady. However, going by her chuckle when I told her, she was delighted with the topic.
As I sipped my coffee, I entertained her with stories of other amusing jobs I’d had. There were plenty of tales left to tell when I finished my coffee, but as I replaced mycup on its saucer, she leaned forward to pat my hand.
‘Well, it’s been lovely chatting but I mustn’t keep you from your work.’
I was startled. Had I bored her and she was getting rid of me before her eyes glazed over and her head began to spin? Later I learned from others who took coffee with Cynthia, that this was her normal method of dismissing her breakfast companions. Apart from the young girl, whom I sometimes saw tucking into a cooked breakfast, she never allowed us to linger past the end of our first coffee.
Once, I tried gaining the upper hand.
‘It’s been lovely chatting with you,’ I said, holding onto my empty cup. ‘But it’s time I was on my way.’
Her dark eyes looked directly into my green ones, and narrowed momentarily. ‘Yes dear, I know.’
I didn’t try any more tricks after that. She was far too sharp.
Sometimes, she would drop a snippet of information about herself but mostly she interrogated her companions about their lives. On one of those revealingoccasions she ferociously tapped the Fin Review that she’d set aside when she beckoned me over.
‘I see they’re complaining about Asian immigrants again,’ she said and tutted disapprovingly. ‘You’d think by now they’d have got used to us. We’ve been here long enough, a lot longer than many of the so-called true-blue Australians.’
She sat up straight and proud. ‘Don’t they know we contributed to the building of this country while many of those Europeans were still seething in the slums of their homeland?’
I’d noticed her dark, almond-shaped eyes on the rare occasions she took off her sunglasses and her straight black hair peeping from under her turban, but it hadn’t occurred to me to connect these features to a Chinese ancestry. As I found out later in our relationship, her great grandfather had arrived from China around 1850 together with his wife disguised as a boy because Asian women were not welcome in those early days. The British colonists wanted to make sure the men went back to China rather than bringing their families to Australia and settling permanently. Cynthia’s descendants had thrived and gone on to marry at different times both European and Chinese partners, which accounted for her unique beauty. As generations assimilated, the family name evolved along with their DNA from Chang to Shan.
Several months after Ms Shan first introduced herself to me, she invited me to her apartment for afternoon tea. As far as I was aware, from conversations I’d had with her other café companions, I was the only one to receive such an invitation. I was honoured and most curious.
The girl, her blouse torn and a cut above her unbruised eye, finally escapes the boys. She runs down a passageway she hopes leads out of the station onto the street above. But she’s out of breath before she reaches the exit. She stops and slides down the wall until she’s sitting on the ground.
Suddenly, a pair of sturdy black boots stops centimetres from her toes. Two smaller pairs plant themselves on either side of the larger ones. The girl lifts her head, noting ripped jeans and a rotund stomach hanging below a tight black t-shirt. Her neck cracks as she looks all the way up to fierce blue eyes and fuzzy blond hair.
‘You’re on our pitch,’ says the blond.
‘Our pitch. Where we sit.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’ The girl cringes, anticipating another beating.
‘Yeah, well you do now, so piss off,’ says a girl of about eleven with cinnamon skin. All over her head are thin plaits finished at the ends with coloured beads.
‘What you doin sittin there anyway?’ asks big boots.
‘I…I…don’t know.’ The girl drops her head back down and waits for the kick she knows will come.
She doesn’t answer.
‘Yah shirts ripped. And your face is messed up. How come?’
‘Some boys did it. They stole my pack.’
‘And I s’pose everything was in it. Yer money and all.’
The girl nods.
‘Never put everything in the same bag. Keep money close to yer heart or in yer shoe. It’s Rule Number one. Wanna phone home?’
The girl shakes her head vigorously.
‘You a runaway?’
‘Better off home, but.’
‘It’s not my home any more and I’ll never go back!’ Her hands close into fists and her shoulders are rigid.
‘All right, all right. What’s ya name?’
‘Better lose that fer a start. They’ll find you easy as. Never give yur real name. That’s number two rule.’
‘Britney,’ says the fairer of the two smaller girls. ‘She could be Britney.’
The blond laughs. ‘Yeah, why not? I’m Cas. That’s Dread and this here’s AC, short for Attack Cat.’
AC takes up a fighting pose and kicks out with one leg. She is the same height and build as Dread and has the same tiny plaits standing out from her head, but her skin is pale and her hair almost white. She’s like a negative image of her companion.
‘You hungry?’ asks Cas.
‘I don’t have any money,’ says the newly dubbed Britney.
‘No worries. Still time at the van but we gotta hurry.’
They emerge into a square where people are already seated on benches and on the grass. Plastic forks in hand, they rapidly shovel food into their mouths from transparent containers held close to their bodies. Lone diners crouch on the edge of the crowd, heads down and shoulders hunched over their food.
Cass marches to the shortest of the ragged queues in front of the food van and the three girls line up behind her.
‘Sorry, only sandwiches left,’ says a woman behind the counter when they reach the head of the queue.
‘That’ll do, ta. There’s four of us,’ says Cas pointing behind her at AC, Dread and Britney.
‘Coffee or tea?’
‘Britney? Coffee or tea?’ asks Cas.
Dread nudges her. ‘Coffee or tea, Brit-ney?’ she asks, pronouncing the newly minted name loud and clear.
‘Um tea, please.’
‘Four teas. Two sugars in each,’ orders Cas.
‘Always take sugar,’ says Cas once they are seated on a bench that a ragged couple have just left. ‘Good for energy.’
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t really like sugar in my tea,’ says Britney.
‘You will. And careful where you eat. Here’s fine. But some places have spies. They’re always on the look-out for under sixteens.’
‘They dob’em inta family and community services—FaCS,’ says Cas.
‘You’ve had it if Fux gets ya,’ says AC sweeping her eyes around the diners.
‘Yeah,’ says Dread. ‘They’ll send you home or into fosta.’
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