Anna switched off her electric typewriter and slipped her diary into the top drawer of her desk. As she patted the morning’s paperwork into a neat pile, she did a mental check of what she’d completed: there were six letters to be signed by Mr Williams, an expense report for him to review, and the itinerary for his trip to New York.
Picking up her handbag, she took out her kid gloves and pulled them on, smoothing the soft leather over her fingers. As she stood up, she glanced automatically towards Mr Williams’ door, even though she knew he’d left nearly an hour ago for an early lunch appointment. She could have stopped work then too, but at that stage the itinerary hadn’t been finalised – and she was not the kind of secretary who let the morning’s tasks carry over into the afternoon.
Collecting her coat, she headed for the lobby. There was a lunchroom for the office staff, but she preferred to have some fresh air. She liked to eat her sandwiches in the little square near the library, sitting on one of the park benches with pigeons pecking crumbs around her feet. At this time of the year the sun was still warm, with only a hint of the chill to come.
Outside the building, Anna paused in front of the plate-glass window, gold-tinged and overlaid with the words Williams, Gordon & Sons. She took in her reflection, turning a little from side to side, admiring the cut of her new pink coat. It was daringly short – a new style by Mary Quant, fresh from London. Pure wool and silk-lined, it had cost her half a month’s pay, but was worth every penny. Even seeing it hanging in her wardrobe made her feel like someone else: the kind of woman who was brave enough to stand out from the pack. She tightened her belt, showing off her waist. It was then that she noticed a man standing nearby. He was watching her, as men do – his gaze travelling over her body, up and down. She let her eyes slide past his as she turned and walked away.
Reaching the street corner, she waited in a crowd of pedestrians for the lights to change. Car fumes mingled with an overpowering waft of Chanel No 5. Anna glanced behind her to see who could be wearing such strong perfume during the daytime. Before she had the chance to find out, she found herself looking straight at the man from outside the office. She recognised his blue jacket and dark curly hair. As her gaze met his, he looked quickly away, studying the passing cars. There was tension in his face, as if he were focused on a crucial task. Anna eyed him uneasily and when there was a break in the traffic she hurried on.
Turning down the street that led to the library, she stopped and pretended to search in her handbag. The man strolled past her – but before long he paused, looking around as if he’d lost his way. Then he bent to re-tie his shoelace. Anna walked on. When she glanced back he was shadowing her again. She quickened her step. Not far away was an Italian bistro where the secretaries sometimes met for a drink after work. When she reached the open doorway, she ducked inside.
‘Bella signorina!’ An Italian waiter in a full-length white apron approached with a welcoming smile, ushering her to a table. He hovered over her, offering water. She felt safe here. Half of the staff looked as if they could have been in a gangster film – broad-shouldered, dark-haired, eagle-eyed. They wouldn’t put up with anyone bothering a customer.
Anna sank back in a leather-cushioned chair, removed her gloves, and lit a cigarette. Drawing in deeply and then exhaling slowly, she let the hum of lunchtime conversation flow over her. Soon her anxiety about the stranger began to seem ridiculous. She stretched out her hands, idly checking her manicure. Her nails were as long as was practical, allowing for accurate typing. She was wearing a new shade of lacquer: Satin Summer Rose. As she eyed the colour approvingly her gaze settled on her left hand, where a thin band of tender white skin still marked the place where her engagement ring had been. Three months had passed since she’d slid the ring off for the last time. At first, she’d missed the weight of the two-carat diamond. Her whole hand had seemed too light. But she was used to it now.
The aroma of tomato and herbs drifted from the kitchen. It made Anna feel hungry, but she waved away the menu, ordering only coffee. The expense of the coat had eroded her holiday savings; she had no money to spare for luxuries. Wondering if she could get away with eating her sandwiches in here, she glanced around to see who was nearby. Then she froze. There was the man in the blue jacket, striding towards her.
‘Please excuse me.’ Without waiting for a response he pulled out a chair and sat down. Anna spun round, seeking eye contact with one of the waiters. ‘It’s okay. I just want to talk to you.’ He held up both hands like someone calming a flighty horse.
‘You’ve been following me,’ Anna said coldly. Now that she was safe, she felt annoyed rather than alarmed. If the man liked the look of her and wanted to introduce himself, he was going about it the wrong way. One thing was for sure: they’d never met before. Remembering faces was one of her skills. She never confused a client with a salesman, or someone’s wife with his girlfriend.
‘I’m Jarrod Murphy.’ He extended his right hand.
Anna let it hover in the air while she put down her cigarette. Then she shook hands briefly. She noticed the blue jacket was of average quality. The man’s hair needed a trim. But there was an expensive watch on his wrist. She wasn’t sure what to make of him.
‘I’m a private detective from Sydney,’ he said, as if reading her mind. Opening a worn leather wallet, he showed her a card with the words Peace of Mind Security Services above a photograph of a man dimly recognisable as a younger, smarter version of himself. ‘I’ve been looking for you, on behalf of my client.’
For a moment Anna was too taken aback to respond. Then she shook her head. ‘You must be confusing me with someone else.’
Murphy pulled a notebook from his pocket and turned to a page covered in untidy handwriting. ‘Anna Caroline Emerson. Born 5th February 1939, now twenty-five years old. Lives alone at 2/145 Rathdowne Street, Carlton.’ He glanced up. ‘I have your phone number but I wanted to talk to you face-to-face.’
Anna stared at him. It made no sense. Why would anyone be looking for her? She didn’t owe money. She hadn’t slept with anyone’s husband, like plenty of other secretaries had. She’d done nothing that could have caused any trouble. The idea that someone had tracked her down was so ludicrous it was almost funny – except that the detective had that intense, fixed look on his face again. It came to Anna then that it must be something to do with her job. Mr Williams had some very sensitive accounts. He had warned her against disclosing confidential details to the other partners or their secretaries.
‘I don’t think I want to talk to you.’ Anna stood up to leave.
‘It’s all right. My client is no threat to you.’ Murphy laid his hand on her coat sleeve. ‘He’s on the other side of the world. In Africa.’
In spite of herself, Anna sat down. She felt anxiety rising inside her, backed by a sharp thread of excitement. ‘Who?’ she whispered. ‘Who is this person?’
Murphy didn’t answer straight away. In the dense quiet between them the lunchtime chatter seemed loud. Something dropped with a bang out in the kitchen. ‘Your father.’
Anna caught her breath. Her heart leapt in her chest as his words sank in.
The two simple words were so foreign she could barely attach meaning to them. Her mother only ever referred to her ex-husband as Karl Emerson, using his first and second names as if to suggest he was someone she and Anna barely knew.
He was someone they barely knew.
‘He’s still living in the Congo,’ Murphy said. ‘He wants to see you.’
Anna’s lips parted but she found nothing to say.
‘I know, it’s been a long time. He told me that. But he is now seriously ill.’ The detective fixed Anna with hooded grey eyes. ‘He has cancer. He’s going to die.’
Anna lit another cigarette, using the familiar movements to cover the turmoil inside her. ‘Why would he want to see me? I was only seven when Mum and I came to Australia. I can hardly remember him.’
‘He has no other family. You are all he’s got.’
Anna looked at him in surprise. When she was younger she sometimes used to wonder about Karl Emerson’s life – whether he still lived in the big house on the plantation. If he drove the silver Rolls Royce that she knew her mother had once owned. What he looked like. She had no facts to draw on; there had been no contact since her parents’ divorce. She came up with various scenarios, but her thoughts always led her, eventually, down the same path. She pictured her father happily remarried and with a beautiful daughter he adored. This time around, the story would have a fairytale ending.
Anna stared at the detective as she absorbed the meaning of what he’d just said: either there had been no second family, or for some reason they, too, were now gone.
‘I’ve had other cases like this one,’ Murphy commented. ‘People reach the end of the road and they want to be reminded that some part of them lives on in the next generation.’ He searched Anna’s face. ‘Also, they can’t bear to face death alone.’
Anger flared suddenly, warming Anna’s cheeks. ‘He should have thought of that years ago. He could have written. Or sent money. Mum had to give me everything. He didn’t help at all. He didn’t care about us.’ She could hear the whine in her voice. She felt like a little child again.
‘Look, Miss Emerson, I know it’s a shock. But the situation is urgent. He hasn’t got much time.’ Murphy reached inside his jacket and produced an envelope, which he slid across the table. ‘I am to give you this.’
Anna didn’t move. Whatever might be in the envelope – a letter, or a photograph, perhaps – she knew it would be best left alone. But after only a few moments she found herself tearing open the flap.
Red-and-white lettering jumped out at her: Qantas. Anna recognised the ticket folder straight away. She’d often arranged flights for Mr Williams. There was something else in the envelope. Pulling it out, she saw a second air ticket. This one bore the image of a fierce-looking leopard caught in the midst of leaping on its prey. Words floated above, as if keeping their distance from the wild animal: Air Congo.
‘The Qantas ticket covers the route from Melbourne to Brussels, via London,’ Murphy said. ‘Then it’s Air Congo from Brussels to Léopoldville, the capital of the Congo. A smaller plane flies on from there to Albertville, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. That’s where he is.’
Anna shook her head as if to keep his words at bay. ‘This is crazy.’ She flipped open the Qantas ticket and found the dates amid the dense red text. Only three weeks away. She tried to laugh, but the sound caught in her throat.
‘You have a passport,’ Murphy stated. ‘It’s current, but you’ve never used it. My contact in Immigration looked into it for me.’
Anna refused to signal agreement even though he was right. Mr Williams had asked her to get one the previous year in case he needed her to travel with him on business. She’d been so excited. As a child she’d flown in a plane, coming to Australia from Africa, but all she could remember was an unpleasant feeling that her ears were blocked and her voice trapped inside her head. None of her secretary friends had been in the air. Like Anna, they just watched their bosses come and go. The closest they got to the experience was reading the exotic labels on the men’s luggage.
When Anna had told her mother about Mr Williams’ request, Marilyn had been less than enthusiastic. Anna guessed she was probably jealous, since her own travelling days were over. Only reluctantly had she produced the required birth certificate.
‘Don’t lose it,’ she’d warned. ‘You’ll have no hope of getting a replacement now the Congolese are in charge. The country is in ruins.’
Anna had studied the yellowing document, taking in the old-fashioned typing, the signatures in blue ink, the blurry purple marks of rubber stamps. It was titled Certificate of Live Birth. Marilyn was described as the ‘married woman wife of Karl Edward Emerson, Plantation Owner’. In the section noting the place of birth was typed Lutheran Mission Hospital, Banya, Kivu Province, Belgian Congo.
Now, as Anna sat looking at the airline tickets, she could feel Murphy’s eyes fixed on her.
‘Of course, the Congo is a long way away,’ he said. ‘And you haven’t been there since you were little. But you don’t need to worry – you’ll be looked after at every step. There will be no problems with money or travel arrangements. It’s all in hand.’ He was starting to remind Anna of the way Mr Williams dealt with business negotiations. Sometimes he called her into a meeting to take down in shorthand everything that was said. He would just keep the conversation going, any way he could, while gradually beginning to speak as if his desired outcome had been accepted. His target barely noticed when the ground began to shift, until suddenly they found themselves in a new position.
‘I don’t know whether you are aware,’ Murphy continued, ‘but there have been some problems in the Congo since Independence.’ He made the statement a question, raising his voice at the end.
Anna gave an equivocal nod. She knew it was Marilyn’s opinion that in just a few years the Congolese had shown quite clearly that they weren’t up to the task of running their own country. It was only due to the Europeans still living there, she claimed, that the economy was still going at all.
‘There’s been an uprising of some sort,’ the detective continued.
Anna frowned. ‘You mean a rebellion?’
‘Something like that. But the point is, the United Nations have sent troops in and put an end to it. So it’s all settled down now. And you’ll be flying the whole way; no road travel. You will be quite safe.’ He smiled, leaning forward. ‘You’ll like Albertville, from what I hear. It’s a resort town right on the lake. People take holidays there.’
Anna smoked in silence, her eyes lowered. Her thoughts were a tangled web of half-formed questions about Karl Emerson, about the Congo, about this man sitting in front of her. She felt she was standing on the brink; she could step forward into the unknown, or retreat while she still had time. She slid the tickets back across the table.
‘I’m not interested, Mr Murphy. You should tell him . . . your client . . . that.’
‘I understand this might be upsetting for you . . .’
‘No, you don’t understand. Karl Emerson pushed us out of his life a long time ago. He found another woman and didn’t want my mother any more. He just sent us away.’ Anna’s voice cracked. ‘It’s too late to change things now.’
Murphy gave her a sympathetic smile. Anna took a deep breath, struggling to calm herself. She tried pretending she was in the office. Miss Elliot at secretarial school had taught the girls the vital skill of controlling emotions. A secretary has to be bright and cheerful, no matter what. But when Anna finally spoke to Murphy, she found her voice was still taut with anger.
‘I’d like you to give your client a message from me,’ she said. ‘Tell him I wouldn’t cross the road to see him, let alone travel to the Congo. I’m sorry he’s all alone, but that’s his own fault.’
‘Give yourself some time to think,’ Murphy said. ‘Remember, this is not a choice you will ever get the chance to make again.’
Anna extinguished her cigarette and stood up. As she reached for her handbag, Murphy’s hand shot out to grab it first. He dropped something inside. ‘I’ve written the phone number of my hotel on the back of my business card. Contact me if you change your mind.’
‘You sound very sure.’ Murphy gave her a meaningful look. Anna sensed he was about to raise the stakes somehow. She took her bag from him, ready to walk away. ‘Most people in your position would have a question in their mind. They’d be wondering what they might gain from this.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘I’m talking about the estate. If there’s a reunion, there could be an inheritance. I don’t know the details, but your father owns some kind of plantation. He mentioned a big house. Leopard Hall.’
Leopard Hall. The name conjured a vision of a grand mansion, like something from a fairytale, set on lawns that stretched away to the edge of a dark forest. Anna didn’t know if the image was from her memory, or if she’d put it together from glimpses of photographs her mother had brought with them from the Congo. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Not that it mattered. The place meant nothing to her.
‘I don’t want his money.’ Anna snapped shut the clasp on her bag. ‘Goodbye, Mr Murphy.’