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Authors: Kate Furnivall

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Something inside her hardened stubbornly when she remembered the form she’d filled out this morning when yet again she’d tried to find a trace of him or where he had been sent. With a frown and the familiar churning in her gut, she walked into Tom’s empty bedroom. She didn’t light the lamp, just stood there in the dark, listening to her own breathing, fast and shallow. In a shifting patch of starlight she stepped slowly toward her son’s old army uniform that was hanging, clean and pressed, on the outside of the wardrobe door.

She didn’t allow herself to hurry. No rushing to it. No running. No clinging. Her fingertips brushed the rough material, seeking a warm body within it. Slowly she rested her forehead against its collar and inhaled its scent. She stood like that for a long time in the darkness.

She couldn’t stop herself—even though she tried—from reaching into the side pocket of the uniform. Her fingers closed on a piece of paper and she drew it out, listening to its rustles and its whispers. She could feel its creases and its folds, grown dog-eared over the last months from her handling of it. The blackness obliterated the words on the telegram but she didn’t need to read them because she knew them by heart.

Killed in action.

Softly she started to sing “Happy Birthday.”

Keep reading for a special preview of

 

The White Pearl

 

by Kate Furnivall

Available March 2012 from Berkley Books

Malaya 1941

It was not the first time Connie had killed someone. But today there were witnesses.

A car’s bumper should be a mute object, but in November 1941 the chrome bumper on Constance Hadley’s 1938 Chrysler Royal found its voice. It screeched, an ear-ripping noise of metal against metal. It cracked, snapping one of the wooden supports on the covered walkway that ran along Alexandra Parade. It thudded, a warm, muffled grunt as it smacked into human flesh. Those sounds were to play over and over in Connie’s head. A screech. A crack. A thud. Over and over, like one of the merry-go-rounds where the tinny music knows no end.

The sun is a source of life.
Whoever said that had never lived in Malaya. Connie squinted through the windscreen as she drove through the crowded streets of Palur and felt the sun battering her brain with its fist. She had considered, on more than one occasion, taking her husband’s best hunting rifle, the one he’d had specially shipped over from London last year, aiming it at that massive yellow orb hanging in the sky and pulling the trigger. Popping it like a balloon. She’d once mentioned this desire to Nigel, and he’d looked at her oddly.

Today she’d broken her sunglasses, damn it. That was what was making her bad-tempered. Without those, she always developed a vicious headache in the sunshine.
Sunshine.
She grimaced as she peeled her back off the seat, feeling her damp blouse stick to the upholstery.
Sunshine
was far too gentle a word. Sunshine was what existed in England. It warmed your toes in the grass and peeked at you under the brim of your straw hat. She loved sunshine. The brutal heat and humidity here in the heart of Malaya were killing her.

There had been a mud slip that had delayed her drive into town, and she was hurrying now to make it to the Victoria Club in time for a swim with Harriet Court. She squeezed her big American car past one of the bicycle rickshaws that darted up and down the high street, as irritating as the fat black flies, and spotted a gap in the traffic. Instantly she accelerated into it. She swung the wheel to take the corner into Alexandra Parade, an elegant boulevard of imposing buildings where the British Empire had placed its colonial stamp on this docile patch of the Malay Peninsula.

At exactly that moment, another car did the same, as sleek and ruthless as a black-finned shark.

“Damn you, look out!” Connie shouted, and slammed on her brakes.

It was too late. She fought the steering wheel, but the back end of the Chrysler cut loose. With a sickening lurch of her stomach, she felt it start to swing in a wide, uncontrollable arc. Her wing raked the black car, but instead of slowing, it seemed to gather momentum from the impact. It was the screech of her bumper that alerted people. Faces turned to stare at her, wide-eyed with shock as the two-ton metal missile hurtled toward them on the sidewalk. The car jerked when its wheel caught in one of the deep storm drains, but still it didn’t stop, and figures scattered in all directions.

The moment seemed to elongate. Appalled, Connie watched it happen. She saw a woman yank her child off its feet and open her mouth in a huge melon-sized scream. An old man in a straw boater stood paralyzed with fear directly in front of her, and a dark moist patch blossomed on the front of his pale flannel trousers. Connie dragged at the steering wheel, her heart slamming against her ribs. The car’s hood shifted a fraction to the right and took down one of the timber uprights of the covered walkway that gave shoppers respite from the scorching sun. The crack of the wood was like a gunshot. The old man ducked, so that the bumper missed him by the width of the brim of his hat, and instead selected a different victim: a stocky native woman wearing a bright green sarong, a woven basket perched on her shoulder.

Connie screamed at her through the windscreen as she stamped on the brake pedal. “Run! Run!”

Please, please, run faster!

But the woman knew that her time had come. That the spirits had chosen her, and there was no escape. She swung round at the last moment and faced the oncoming car. She stared straight into Connie’s eyes and her lips moved, but the words were swallowed by Connie’s own scream as the bumper uttered its muffled grunt. It had found flesh. The woman’s eyes became huge black pools of pain for one brief moment before she disappeared from Connie’s sight and the car shuddered to a halt.

No!

Connie was shaking, teeth chattering. With an effort of will she unclamped each finger from around the steering wheel and seized the chrome door handle. She tumbled out of the car and raced to the front of the hood. She caught sight of a pair of bare feet, their soles covered in red dust, then caramel-colored legs and the edge of a green sarong. On the ground, the rest of the woman’s body was hidden from sight behind the crowd that had gathered around her, but they drew back at Connie’s approach, opening a path for her. As if she were unclean.

“Call an ambulance!
Pangil ambulans!
” she shouted to a man in a striped butcher’s apron, and he said something in reply, but the connection between her ears and her mind seemed to have broken because the sounds meant nothing to her.

The Malay woman lay on her back, not crumpled, not in a tangle of blood and fractured bones, but straight and unharmed as though she had dozed off by mistake in the heat. With a rush of relief Connie dropped to her knees on the sidewalk beside her and lifted the limp hand. It felt warm and dry against her own damp palms, with short stubby fingers that curled around hers in a stubborn grip.
She isn’t dead, thank God, she isn’t dead.
But the woman’s eyes remained firmly closed.

“An ambulance is coming, a doctor will be here very soon. Don’t try to move,” Connie told her, her throat so tight the words sounded as if they’d come from someone else’s mouth. She leaned over the motionless figure, shielding her from the glare of the sun, and asked softly, “Are you in much pain?”

No response.

“I’m so sorry,” Connie said. “I didn’t mean to . . .” Her voice trickled away. She wanted to wrap the woman in her arms and rock her gently. “Please,” she murmured, “open your eyes if you can hear me.”

Still no response.

Thick black lashes lay on the plump dusky cheeks, and fine veins traced a network back into her temple where the beginnings of a bruise were starting to form. She looked a similar age to Connie herself, about thirty-four, but the woman’s dense black hair that she wore pulled back into a knot behind her head was showing the first few streaks of gray. Maybe she was older. Her nose was broad, and the skin of her arms a patchy, uneven brown as if she worked with chemicals of some sort.
What world have I wrenched her out of?

There was no blood. Not a mark on the sarong or on the woman herself, except for the slight bruise, and Connie allowed herself to hope it was just a concussion. Softly she started to talk to her, to entice the woman’s stunned brain back into action. She asked her name, her address, who should be told about the accident, what was in the crushed basket at her side. She stroked her hand, tapped her arm, touched her cheek.

“I’m so sorry,” she said again.

The eyes opened suddenly. There was no flicker of warning, just closed one moment, open the next, in a narrow slit of life that sent Connie’s heart clawing up into her throat.


Selamat pagi
,” she said to the woman. “Hello.”

The eyes weren’t black anymore; they were drenched in blood.

“An ambulance is coming,” Connie said quickly.

The woman’s lips moved, but no sound emerged. The stubby fingers gripped harder, pulling at her, and Connie leaned forward, so close she could feel the moist breath on her ear as she tried to catch the faint words. For the first time since she’d knelt down, she became aware of the circle of people gathered around her in the street. White faces. Sun hats. A ginger mustache. A dark uniform with brass buttons. Voices aimed at her but jumbled together in a blur. With a jolt she realized that there was a young native girl of about sixteen crouched on the other side of the woman, a curtain of silky black hair half obscuring her face, but her eyes were fixed on Connie and her expression was accusing. Behind her stood a tall native youth, his face set hard. He was wearing a waist sarong and a sleeveless shirt from which his fingers were unconsciously tearing a button.

“Do you know her?” Connie asked.

The girl stared at her coldly. “She is our mother.”

“I’m sorry,” Connie said yet again. Empty, useless words. “It was an accident.”

“White lady.” The English words came in a guttural gasp from the lips of the woman lying on the sidewalk, a flutter of sound that barely reached her.

“I’m here,” Connie squeezed her hand. “And your children are here.”

“Listen, white lady.”

“I’m listening.” Her ear was almost brushing against the struggling lips and there was a long pause, during which the heat of the day seemed to gather itself and launch an attack like a blow on the back of Connie’s neck. “I’m listening.”

“I curse you. You family. You children. And you. I curse you all.”

Words sharp as a cobra’s bite, but Connie did not release her grip on the small hand. The blood-filled eyes opened wider, flashed at her full of malice, and then abruptly closed. Her fingers grew limp.

“No!” Connie cried. “No, don’t go. Curse me again, curse me as much as you wish, call your evil spirits down on my head, but don’t go.”

A policeman stepped into her field of vision. “Mrs. Hadley, the ambulance is here. They’ll take over.”

Men in white uniforms gently moved Connie aside. She rose to her feet, tremors grinding up through her body and jamming her mind. Soft voices spoke to her, careful hands guided her, treating her as if she were glass and might shatter. When she realized she was being ushered off the street into the shade of a nearby building, she broke free and searched the crowd for the woman’s son and daughter, but they had vanished.

“Sit down, Mrs. Hadley.”

“Drink this, Mrs. Hadley.”

“You’ve had a nasty shock.”

“It wasn’t your fault. We have witnesses.”

Policemen, with questions and notebooks, brandished their sympathetic smiles in her face and told her she could go home, they would drive her home, but she shook her head. It was almost one o’clock.

“No, thank you. I have to pick up my son from school.”

The building that had given her refuge was a British bank with thick stone walls to keep out the heat, and a vast, cooling fan that stirred the leaden air with brisk efficiency in the small office where she was seated. The bank manager had a sunburned bald head and a kind smile.

“Take your time, my dear,” he said. “Take all the time you need.”

She sat there alone, listening to the sounds in her head. The screech. The crack. The thud.

* * *

How do you tell your seven-year-old son that you have killed a woman in the street?

Connie’s fingers gripped the steering wheel, her knuckles chalk white. She didn’t say anything at all in case the wrong words spilled out of her dry mouth. Heavy insects blundered against the windscreen as she drove out of town with her son, Teddy, on the front passenger seat, swinging his legs and chattering about the different colors of a python’s skin.

Did children in England talk of such things? How many told their mother, as Teddy did, that a king cobra could move as fast as a galloping horse? Was this normal?

In Malaya, nothing was normal.

They were heading back home along the eight miles to the Hadley Estate. It was a vast tract of land that had been in the Hadley family for three generations, hacked by hand out of the raw jungle at the end of the nineteenth century, and was now the largest rubber plantation in the region, just to the northeast of Kuala Lumpur. It stretched in shimmering layers of dense green for over five thousand acres toward mountains that reared up blue and hazy in the distance, and employed nearly seven hundred laborers, a mongrel mix of Malays, Tamils, and Chinese.

Nine years ago when Connie, full of youthful excitement, first stepped off the boat into the sweltering heat of Malaya, she had been astounded not only by the size and lush extravagance of the beauty of the estate, but also by the power of an estate owner—the
Tuan Besar
—over his workforce. It seemed to her that Nigel was like a god, a father, a judge, a bank manager, a doctor, and King Solomon all rolled into one. If he put a black mark against a laborer’s name, then that native would find work nowhere else in the district, but if a man was a skilled rubber tapper or a diligent finisher of the rubber sheets in the packing sheds who buckled down to the tough discipline of plantation life, he was highly valued and treated well.

Nigel knew nearly all his workmen by name. That fact alone had stuck in Connie’s mind and impressed her enormously when he had mentioned it as she danced in his arms to a slow foxtrot at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Out here in the tropics, swamped by a never-ending tide of brown and yellow faces, she had found it even more incredible.

“Why are you driving so slowly, Mummy?” Her son’s voice was impatient.

“I’m being careful, sweetheart.”

“But it will take ages to get home.”

“There’s no rush.”

Teddy swiveled to face her on the front seat of the Chrysler. “Yes, there is, Mummy. I have to build my airplane again.”

She risked taking her eyes off the dirt road for a split second. It was full of potholes and gullies where monsoon rains had scoured channels in the red earth that could crack a car’s crankcase if you weren’t alert. Teddy’s young face was so earnest, his eyes as round and bright as chestnuts. She noticed that his school uniform of white shirt and gray shorts was streaked with grass stains, the collar torn, and there was a telltale scratch on the tip of his chin.

“What is it, Teddy?” she asked. “Have you been fighting with Jack?”

Her son shook his head adamantly, the waves of his thick brown hair ruffling in the breeze from the open window. As fast as he had his hair cut it seemed to grow again overnight, framing his small face and sticking out over his ears.

BOOK: Diamonds in the Dust
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