THE PARAGON MYSTERY

I

Josephine Shun Wah was dining with Charlie Waterhouse at St Ann’s in Rathdowne Street, Carlton.

Josephine was fond of St Ann’s. There was an intimacy about the place that was perfect for a tête-à-tête. The walls were painted deep red and hung with original paintings. Dripping white candles and jars of roses gave a romantic touch to every table. The best evening was Opera Night, held once a month, when the owner’s son, a baritone of distinction, and three equally musical friends, striking magnificent figures in tuxedos and satin ball gowns, sang all the favourite arias.

‘You should hear their voices,’ Josephine would tell friends, as she recalled the wonderful rendition of La Traviata’s Brindisi. ‘Such drama of spiritual dimensions! And when the soprano sings the first notes of O mio babbino caro… my God! It brings tears to your eyes...’

It was a Wednesday evening and there were few diners. Josephine was talking passionately about art and the mysterious expressions of creativity, while Waterhouse was putting away his excellent meal with relish, making few remarks. It was not until dessert was on the table that the fair-headed young man became more talkative.

‘So are you enjoying what you’re doing?’ he said, watching Josephine intently. She was close on thirty and her face shone with a vivid intelligence.

‘Well, it’s not really work, is it?’ Josephine’s voice was warm and attractive.

‘Maybe not for you but it’s definitely work for me.’

‘But it must be marvellous to be doing what you’re doing. I mean – the – the intrigue, the excitement—’

‘It’s not exactly exciting,’ said Waterhouse. ‘I spend a lot of time in limbo and waiting is a terrible bore. You can’t plan things. All of a sudden you’re told to find out about something. You’re never told why. They never give you any information. Then just when you get going, inevitably you’re told to stop. No, I wouldn’t say my job’s particularly exciting.’

Josephine didn’t answer. Her face was in shadow. They ate their lemon tart silently.

‘Well, that was delicious,’ said Waterhouse, pushing back his plate and wiping his mouth with the thick linen napkin. ‘How about some coffee?’

He signalled the waitress. No sooner was she out of earshot than Waterhouse leaned forward and said in an altered voice, ‘Look, have you decided on a place for our next meeting? Aren’t you meant to give me something?’ He glanced quickly over his shoulder.

Josephine started. Who was he looking at? There was no one behind him. A startled thought went through her mind that Charlie might be in some kind of danger. She shivered but dismissed it. Perhaps she was being a little melodramatic.

‘Stupid of me not to have planned ahead,’ she said, after a slight pause, ‘but I’ll let you know – soon.’

Waterhouse was unimpressed.

‘You know you must hand me the package at the next meeting.’

‘Oh, yes – of course,’ said Josephine. ‘But I didn’t want to choose any old place – I wanted to choose a place that’s interesting…’

The coffee arrived.

Josephine stirred her coffee slowly. Her relaxed manner puzzled Waterhouse. Most Chinese women her age were highly efficient. He’d never come across an Asian woman who was so laid back. Everything about her intrigued him. He had the feeling she was not someone you could ever know – and that annoyed him.

Josephine sipped her coffee. She was happy all right. She loved mystery and found it thrilling to mix with secret agents. Well, she presumed they were secret agents or undercover operatives. No one had used these words but she had guessed as much from the moment an unknown man had walked into her office.

‘Excuse me, Ms Shun Wah. My name is David Blandings. May I trouble you for a moment?’

Josephine gave him a swift, appraising glance. He was man of middle height, middle age, neither fat nor thin. She rose to shake his hand.

‘The State Director recommended that I see you,’ said the visitor after taking a seat.

Josephine raised an eyebrow. She was surprised to hear that the State Director had mentioned her, a middle-level public servant whom he hardly knew.

‘OK if I shut the door?’

‘Of course.’

‘It’s like this,’ said Mr Blandings. ‘I work for the government and I’ve come to let you know you’ve been chosen to take part in some special training.’

Josephine looked at him inquiringly.

‘It’s very specific training of targeted personnel. It’s all quite simple really. You’ll be matched up to a ‘contact’ and all you have to do is follow the instructions in the schedule. Strictly limited to four months’ work. It’s not rocket science but we do need someone who is discreet. The State Director has told me you’ve only recently returned from overseas and have no specific projects at the moment, so we believe you’ll be highly suitable. Just the sort of person we’re looking for…’

‘But – but what sort of training are you talking about?’ interrupted Josephine. ‘Supposing you tell me what this is all about?’

Mr Blandings nodded. ‘I quite understand. You’d like to know what you’re getting yourself into. There’s not much to tell, really. As I say, it’s a high level government project to train personnel and you seem ideal – a talented individual well able to maintain confidentiality…’

A tinge of colour came into Josephine’s face. She turned her eyes full on the grey-headed gentleman before her. She saw an inoffensive man of about fifty who looked at her with anxious hopefulness. She suspected he knew more than he’d told her. There was a strange power about him – a power more devastating than the charm of a more vigorous personality.

‘Just what do you want me to do?’ she demanded, still eyeing him warily.

Mr Blandings nodded thoughtfully. His answer did not come quickly.

‘All the instructions are in the manual you’ll be given. The project has the support of your State Director – you’re very welcome to make your own inquiries with him. And of course, you can call me if you have any questions.’

Josephine nodded.

‘But – what happens if I fail?’ she said. ‘I mean – I – I’ve never done anything like this before.’

Mr Blandings again nodded.

‘It’s always difficult at first – because everything is so new – but I promise, it’ll become easier. It’ll be a worthwhile experience.’

Mr Blandings was tactfully silent while he watched Josephine closely. After a pause, he said, ‘So do you think you’d be interested in participating in the training, Ms Shun Wah?’

‘It strikes me—’ she said.

‘Yes?’

‘That the proposition seems – well—’ she stopped. Her lips shut tight in obedience to some warning glance from the man opposite.

‘Yes?’ he said again.

‘Well – er – yes, I would say that the proposition interests me – if the State Director has given his approval.’

Mr Blandings smiled.

‘I’m so pleased you’ve come to that decision. Now before I leave you, I do ask that you don’t mention our conversation to anyone. I mean it, Ms Shun Wah,’ Mr Blandings said. ‘It must go no further. There’ll be plenty of adventure – yes – but also danger.’

‘Danger?’ thought Josephine, when Blandings had departed. ‘Did he say danger?’ Immediately, she felt ashamed of her fears. There was nothing remotely perilous about what Mr Blandings had proposed. He seemed a nice, straightforward man. Surely, when the man at the top, the State Director himself had endorsed it, all was perfectly above board. What happened next seemed normal enough.

Her schedule arrived the following day. She was instructed to meet her ‘contact’ at fortnightly intervals at a mutually convenient location where she would be given further information. His name was Charlie Waterhouse but whether this was his real name Josephine did not learn. All she knew was that he’d travelled extensively in Asia.

Three months of wining, dining and partaking of afternoon teas passed quickly. Josephine and Waterhouse exchanged polite remarks but there were no discussions of cyanide capsules, secret ciphers or the Third Man. Josephine was rather disappointed. So far nothing that could be described as dangerous had come her way. She had kept all her appointments as arranged and everything was happening like clockwork, to the point of being humdrum. Then one morning there was an envelope on her desk.

 

At your seventh meeting with CW you are to deliver him a special package.

Meet me outside your office at 4pm. B

 

Josephine read the note twice. ‘Ah! This is more like the real thing!’

At four o’clock sharp she dashed out of the office building. Blandings was waiting for her.

‘You are to conduct your conversation with Waterhouse as normal,’ he said, ‘then slip this on the table. It’s not to be opened.’

A small brown paper package tied with a red ribbon was pressed into Josephine’s hands. She opened her eyes in surprise.

‘Does Waterhouse know about it?’ she said.

Blandings nodded.

‘But be careful,’ he said. ‘Goodbye, Ms Shun Wah and thank you for your patience.’

He shook her hand and was gone.

Josephine was left standing with the package. ‘What could it be?’ she thought to herself, shaking it tentatively, but nothing rattled. If only she could unwrap it…

These reflections passed through Josephine’s mind as she sipped her coffee at St Ann’s. A certain tension had come over their sixth meeting. Waterhouse said little.

‘He’s got a strange look on his face,’ she thought, ‘as though he knows something. I wonder what’s in the parcel. It’s hardly bigger than a book. What’s it all about?’

Josephine was curious about the seventh meeting. A strange inner sense stirred, warning her to be prepared.

‘Let’s meet at The Paragon café,’ she said, her eyes shining with excitement. ‘Tuesday fortnight. Three o’clock.’

Waterhouse gave her a long, searching glance.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘Nothing – absolutely nothing.’

II

On the agreed Tuesday Josephine walked through the double glass doors of The Paragon café at three o’clock precisely. Charlie Waterhouse was waiting, drinking coffee.

‘What would you like?’ he said, after she had studied the blackboard menu for some minutes.

‘It’s so hard to decide,’ she said. ‘Flourless orange, black forest, traditional cheesecake… I must say Death by Chocolate sounds fabulous but I’m superstitious. I don’t want any trouble – with our special transaction today.’

‘Oh, don’t be stupid,’ said Waterhouse. ‘Here – let me get it.’ He rose and went to the bar to order.

Josephine looked around at the bentwood chairs and little Parisian marble-topped tables. She congratulated herself on having thought of this location for the rendezvous.

‘Atmosphere is so important,’ she told herself as Waterhouse sat down. His eyes darted round the room and his expression was alert but he didn’t say a word. Josephine had a feeling he was waiting for someone, or something.

‘What’s the matter?’ she said.

‘Oh n-nothing – nothing at all.’

A waitress appeared with an enormous slice of cake and coffee.

Josephine helped herself to a mouthful of cake then stopped.

Of course! It was the package. It must be! She had sensed something vaguely sinister about it since the day she’d received it.

‘Look,’ she said, ‘I know you’re anxious to have this.’ She dived into her bag, brought out the brown paper package and laid it on the table. ‘Hold on. It had a ribbon tied around it. Where’s it gone? It must have slipped off. Anyway, I didn’t open it.’

An expression of doubt passed over Waterhouse’s face. He picked up the package and turned it over gingerly.

‘Honest, I haven’t opened it. What’s wrong?’

Waterhouse was looking over her head at two figures approaching from the bar. Some swift emotion flashed into Waterhouse’s eyes and died at once.

Josephine felt a hand on her shoulder.

 

‘Don’t say a word,’ said a voice. ‘Both of you are under arrest. It’s in your interest to get up quietly and follow us out the café.’

Josephine looked with unbelieving wonder at Waterhouse. His eyes were fixed on the two men whose faces weren’t easily remembered.

‘I think you’re making a mistake,’ said Waterhouse with perfect self-possession but Josephine noticed his hands were shaking.

‘We’ll see about that,’ said one of the men. ‘Now get up.’

Not understanding a thing, Josephine rose. Someone clutched her arm as she was led out of the café into a waiting car. She stifled a cry. Waterhouse was being led to a second waiting car.

‘What’s going on?’ she cried. ‘Let me go! What sort of a joke is this?’

The man was unmoved. ‘Get in,’ he said, indicating the back seat. She obeyed. What else could she do? The man took his place beside her and the car drove off.

Josephine called out for help but the driver gathered speed. She protested to the man beside her but he merely laughed.

‘So you think this is a joke, do you?’ he sneered.

Josephine stared at him.

‘What else could it be?’

‘You’ve made a mistake this time, young woman.’

She felt a premonition of disaster. Surely this wasn’t for real. She went over every possible catastrophe. Abduction, robbery, assault, enforced disappearance…

Afterwards she would have been incapable of saying whether the car had turned to the left or to the right. She only remembered it proceeded blindly down any side street that presented itself, U-turning and backtracking several times before the driver did a wild sweep round a busy intersection.

With a grinding of brakes, the car pulled up abruptly in some godforsaken lane. She was pushed out the door. Then the car swung out again.

Josephine found herself standing in a little cobbled yard behind a disused warehouse.

‘What’s going on? Nothing makes sense.’

She wandered aimlessly for an hour trying to find her way home. How was she going to find out what had happened to Waterhouse? She was baffled.

An odd impulse swept over her. She looked nervously over her shoulder. Was she being followed? She walked briskly along the deserted streets. ‘Keep calm,’ she told herself. But she felt quite sure stealthy steps were following her. Would someone appear where they were not expected? At last she reached home and pulled open the door.

‘Oh, my God!’ she gasped.

Her place had been gone over! Every item she possessed was strewn down the length of the corridor – books, clothes, jewellery. She rushed wildly through every room. Then she stopped dead, distracted by a faint sound behind her. She listened. Spinning round, she caught sight of a loose, vertical blind swinging by the back door.

An entire pane of glass had shattered to pieces.

III

‘I’m telling you – he’s the one. He’s always hanging round the footpath when I leave the house. Then he follows me. The miserable snoop!’

Dick Montgomery looked at his girlfriend and sighed. He didn’t like the way Josephine leapt to conclusions. After a long career with the Australian Federal Police, the modus operandi of the former detective inspector was one of cool, calm examination of the facts. Montgomery’s old training as a professional investigator and strategist stood him in good stead in his new role in a security agency.

‘There’s no doubt about it,’ Josephine said defiantly. ‘It’s him. That bald guy. He’s the one who broke into my place. God knows why he wanted my camera and address book. Blandings told me he knows nothing about it. I’ll have to report it to the police.’

Montgomery listened in silence, and then said gravely, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’

‘Why not?’ said Josephine.

‘Because it’s best to let things settle.’

Montgomery was in the courtyard at the back of Josephine’s house, smoking. He was the reserved type and it took him a little time to think things out and put his thoughts into words. For a moment or two he was silent, puffing reflectively.

‘It’s really unfortunate you were burgled, Josie,’ he said slowly. ‘But what’s done can’t be undone. As for this bald man you keep running into – there’s no reason why he should have anything to do with it.’

‘But surely—’

‘Listen to me a minute. You’re in shock. Please don’t complicate matters. Why don’t you relax a bit?’ Montgomery picked up the wine bottle. ‘A top-up?’

The words made no impression on Josephine. She was frowning, deep in some puzzle.

Montgomery repeated his question.

Josephine roused herself with a start.

‘Oh, thanks.’

It was a beautiful evening. The air was warm and filled with the smell of spring-scented blossoms. After refilling the two glasses, Montgomery leaned back in his chair. He looked tenderly at his lover of two months.

‘Still thinking of the incident at the café?’ he said gently. ‘I know it’s been awful but there’s no point mulling over it.’

Josephine shook her head. ‘I’m not so sure,’ she said. ‘I can’t help feeling there’s something behind it all. The more I turn everything over in my mind – the more I feel it has been engineered – I mean, the burglary occurring when I was in the café. It’s all suspiciously well-timed. But why? That’s what I keep asking myself.’

Almost as her voice died away, a light shone through the cracks of the paling fence. Montgomery, who was stubbing out his cigarette, stopped and looked up.

A car was backing slowly into the rear laneway.

‘Who can that be at this time of night?’ said Josephine.

With a suddenness that startled her, Montgomery stole noiselessly to the fence. He waited until the car door had opened, then with one clean sweep, hoisted himself up and craned his head over the fence.

‘What are you doing?’ he said sharply. ‘Yes, you, I’m talking to you. Don’t you think it’s a bit late to be fixing things?

Who are you?’

A horrible fear shook Josephine. Had all this been planned – just like in the café? Supposing they’d come back to abduct her? To blot her out completely? She heard the car door slam and the next moment Montgomery was lowering himself back on the ground.

‘Who was that?’ Josephine demanded, when the car had driven off.

‘Some man carrying a tool box. He said he was fixing a window for next door. A lot of bull. He was far too well-dressed – clean-shaven, bald.’

‘Bald!’

‘I must say, that face looked familiar…’ Montgomery paused, frowning.

‘You mean you know him?’

Montgomery frowned in an effort of memory and drew out a new cigarette.

‘Ah!’ he cried. ‘Of course! I gave evidence against him at his trial. This was years ago. He’s a crook called Ginger. Used to wear a ginger toupée. He got seven years. We got him for aggravated burglary but he was playing at more than one game – illegal abortions, bringing in prostitutes from South America. He owned a gem and diamond valuation shop on Bourke Street and he’d extract the real diamonds and replace them with replicas. Not a nice man Mr Ginger but a most accomplished thief. The difficult thing was to prove anything against him. Followed him around St Kilda for weeks before we finally tracked down his accomplice. Actually, I think you’re right. He probably is the one who burgled your place. I’ll call the police if you want.’

Josephine didn’t answer.

‘What’s the matter, Josie? You’re very pale.’

She stayed motionless as stone.

‘Can’t you see?’ she said at last, raising her head. ‘A crime is being played out and I’m at the heart of it. First the parcel, then the burglary and now this. But why? Why is this Mr Ginger going for me?’

Montgomery looked at her, entranced. There was a childlike candour about Josephine which made her irresistible.

He spoke quietly. ‘What do you think will happen next?’

‘What else could happen? I – I’ll get killed!’

‘Nonsense,’ said Montgomery.

So fierce was his reply that Josephine looked up in surprise.

IV

‘I’ll ask you once more. Why did you go back to China?’

‘I told you.’

‘Is there nothing else you can remember?’

‘Nothing at all.’

‘You weren’t mixed up in any subversive activities?’

‘Nothing of the sort.’

Josephine was worn out. She was no longer certain of anything. It had been three hours since her interrogator first began asking questions. She was beginning to mix everything up, confusing her first time in China with her second, third and fourth trips. Even the two universities she had attended were running together in her memory. Her head ached.

She’d told him her life story. Her family had been in Australia since the gold rush. Her great grandparents were pioneer tobacco and hop growers in north-eastern Victoria. Her mother was born in Bendigo and her father was an immigrant from Guangzhou. She was born in Melbourne and she had decided to visit China to study Mandarin because she knew next to nothing about her own country.

‘Why are you asking all these questions? I understand you’re with the government but what’s this all about?’

A look of contempt swept over the man’s face. ‘Why don’t you just own up? We know what you’ve done.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Josephine said. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’

The man made an effort to control himself.

‘I’ll ask you one last time. Are you ready to make a clean breast of everything?’

This was the moment Josephine had been fearing. She was cornered. This man had complete power over her. She had to tell him what he wanted to hear.

With an effort she said aloud, ‘I’m not a spy! I was only asked to train as a spy!’

She saw from his response that she had struck the right note. Perhaps something in her shaking hands warned him she had reached the limit.

‘Well,’ she demanded. ‘Are you happy now?’

The man left the room. A few minutes later the door opened again.

‘You!’

A smile creased Dick’s face.

‘Yes, me. I’ve been working on you all this time.’

Josephine stared.

‘You must know that you were under suspicion from the day you joined the department.’ Montgomery spoke in a familiar and slightly superior voice. ‘Single, well-educated, all those trips backwards and forwards to China. Something about you defied logic. We didn’t know where you stood. We have to be careful with people like you. So I was put on you to watch your every move. To see what you’d do with the information they gave you, whether you’d make contact with anyone. We had to search your place because the ribbon was missing – there was the chance you’d tampered with the parcel. Ginger found the ribbon on your bedroom floor.

‘Oh yes. Ginger works for us. His appearance in the lane was staged to make you confused—’

‘You can’t mean it,’ Josephine blurted out. ‘I don’t believe you.’

Montgomery grinned.

‘Well, it’s all worked out for the best, hasn’t it? You must know by now Blandings is a brilliant strategist. His plans are faultless. So now we’re satisfied you’re not an enemy agent.’ He paused, flushed with triumph.

Josephine glared savagely at the ex-detective.

‘You deceived me!’

‘My dear girl, it’s all a matter of perspective, it’s about how you look at things. Right from the beginning you were distracted from the real business by the romance and intrigue of the espionage world.’

Josephine’s heart gave a sickening thump. She swayed as she stood.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, and passed quickly to the bathroom, closing a cubicle door behind her.

She took a few seconds to catch her breath. Her air of innocence disappeared as she opened her handbag and carefully removed from its false bottom a red ribbon. Flushing it down the toilet she thought, ‘What you believe is a matter of faith, not proof.’

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