The Orphanage of Secrets
A Katy & Clara Yehonala Mystery
- quiet heroes and lost childhoods -
A GRIPPING STORY OF EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN
The news shatters Katy's world. Her husband, Simon, has been murdered in a remote Cambodian border township. What was he doing there?
Unable to sleep, melancholy draws Katy into his study seeking solace. A remembered smell, a half-read book, something…
What she finds is an unfinished manuscript called Chavy’s Story. The pages hint at Simon’s secretive work and tell the harrowing story of a young Khmer girl trafficked for sex. Katy and Clara travel to Phnom Penh in search of answers and come face-to-face with the terrifying underworld of a Triad psychopath.
The riddles buried in the pages of Chavy’s Story also unmask a forgotten horror from Katy’s own childhood. For Clara, a beautiful Italian charity worker threatens to upset a lifetime of modesty.
The Orphanage of Secrets is riveting storytelling. An exotic murder-mystery about amazing women, and a reminder of what is still happening to thousands of children, robbing them of what all parents take for granted, that our children are loved, nurtured and kept safe.
Katy and Clara’s lives will be changed forever in Cambodia.
THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY
THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY
There is but ever one single day in each woman’s life when she is permitted to look upon the profound beauty and profound suffering of her life to see the capricious hand of God. Such was this particular day.
The lights dim, an unspoken signal to the audience. A palpable sense of expectancy permeates the vast concert hall. Even the musicians of the famed Beijing Symphony Orchestra look between themselves, waiting. Tonight, a new concerto by the celebrated Chinese composer, Jiang Kui, is to have its première, followed by an evening celebrating his genius. Seats for the concert sold out weeks before.
Standing alone in the wings, a breathtakingly beautiful young woman experiences a flood of adrenaline pulse through her body. She shrugs off her desire to flee, a fear she still feels seconds before walking onto a stage. Instead, she takes a deep breath, draws her shoulders back, then steps into the waiting spotlight. Those fortunate to have tickets, or, like the new Chinese Premier and his wife enjoying the privileges of power, applaud generously. They have all come to hear China’s national treasure, Clara Yehonala, play Jiang’s latest work.
She wears a long, emerald-green silk dress and walks with an imperious, feline grace, her sleek hair and magnolia skin numinous in the spotlight. Not for this virtuoso the immodest distractions of cleavage or exposed thighs; her sublime music speaks directly to every soul in her audience. Miss Yehonala’s only whimsy is a delicately embroidered silk shawl the newspapers say once belonged to the Dowager Empress Cixi Yehonala, from where she traced her illustrious parentage.
She bows to the audience, acknowledging they will be friends for the next two hours, sharing a spiritual connection through her music. She lays the shawl on the Steinway grand concert piano and greets the conductor, Maestro Michel Gaultier, and the first violin concertmaster.
Motionless at the piano, Clara Yehonala holds the hushed audience in her hand. After the applause, the silence is unnatural. Ten seconds pass. Twenty. A single note echoes. Then the sensual opening of Jiang Kui’s third piano concerto fills the expanse of the mighty concert hall.
In a different world four thousand kilometres away, two white SUVs slide quietly through the unlit backstreets of a nondescript township called Krong Chey, a stone’s throw from the border with Vietnam. Their lights are off. Inside are two Cambodian police officers and three charity workers. One is an Australian. His name is Simon Bailey.
They pull over at the entrance to a narrow alleyway and switch off their engines. Now they wait. There is a different kind of silence here, the one that washes over everything. Every nerve ending taut, they focus their attention on the alley’s sinister entrance as if it whispers secrets. With the air conditioning off, beads of sweat prickle on their foreheads and cling shirts to their skin in the oppressive May humidity. Simon Bailey’s watch shows almost midnight.
These men have driven here from Phnom Penh without informing the local police. In their line of work, they know it’s unwise to trust anyone. Halfway down this alley is a locked cellar and inside are seven young girls, trafficking victims, on their way to Ho Chi Minh city. Children who wealthy paedophiles will rape of their innocence before their captors sell them into seedy brothels.
The operation begins.
The rescue is going as planned. They usually do.
Two policemen enter the building and force the occupant to hand over the key to the cellar. The Australian man hurries down the stairs to release the terrified girls who escape into the alley.
This time it is different.
Two men step from the shadows.
‘Hurry, hurry!’ calls one of the workers. ‘Into the cars, quickly. Run!’
Shots ring out. In the gloom of the stairway the Australian man feels a primal terror twisting his stomach, knowing he is trapped. He steps uncertainly into the alley, hands raised in surrender. Forced onto his knees, he stares into the cold eyes of a man devoid of compassion. The gunman walks behind him and for a second he feels a cold pressure against the skin on the back of his head. The gunman fires twice. Simon Bailey crumples forward, face down into the dirt and litter. He dies instantly.
One of the young girls turns and screams as she reaches the safety of the first SUV.
‘My shame, my shame, No!’
She tears herself away from the two charity workers and races back along the alley to where Simon is laying and throws herself on his body, convulsing in tears. The same gunman takes deliberate aim and fires twice more. He smiles, but not with his eyes.
He walks to a waiting vehicle which screeches away towards the border. The staccato roar of a motorcycle follows a few moments later.
Simon Bailey is Clara’s father.
How could I ever forget yesterday?
The day had started well enough. My Sundays usually did, sitting on my patio at home with a cup of floral tea, enjoying the sights and smells of our garden. These early mornings are a Katy ritual.
Now autumn’s colours were flowing through the leaves like red, ochre, and gold-coloured inks mixing in a glass of water. I hoped Melbourne’s blustery winds would stay away until my husband was home, anchoring the remaining leaves for another few days. I sipped my tea watching the sails without boats falling and felt the first of the autumn chill. Simon and I loved kicking through the leaves, though it always seemed the fallen summoned their lingering companions to earth before our time of enjoying them was ever enough.
We met when I was a student in England more than twenty-five years earlier. Our love of nature, and each other, began with the English countryside. Unfortunately, I lost him a year later. Not from carelessness or from the demise of a fleeting romance, I had flown home to China when my dear Granny Chen died. Then my mother fell ill. Filial piety and family obligations never allowed me the opportunity to go back, keeping me confined in dutiful captivity. Without complaint, I might add. Inevitably, we lost touch. Yet, despite the passage of time, I kept him in my heart even as veils descended, year by year, blurring my memories.
I was now in my early forties. My face was more sculptured than soft, like Mama and my Manchu forbears, though not too bad-looking, considering. No longer “drop-dead beautiful” as Simon once flattered me during my student days in England during the 80s. In any case, what Chinese girl wouldn’t melt under the spell of forest green eyes and an Australian accent?
I can’t masquerade as anything extraordinary any more, but can still turn an occasional head. Just enough to keep my shoulders back, a habit ingrained from childhood. After all, I am a Yehonala.
Simon and I met again five years ago when fate intervened in that mysterious way it does. Simon also met his daughter, Clara, for the first time. Clara had been a surprise to me too, popping into my consciousness a few days after getting over jet lag from my rush back home, then later as the cause of my expanding waistline. How our lives might have been different had I not kept my secret so well.
They adored each other, and Simon’s and my love affair continued where it left off all those years before. Our shared pleasures have since been nurtured by careful and regular care, creating joy as the three of us grew together.
Simon was away in Cambodia and I was looking forward to him being home on Wednesday. He ran a charity there, the Sunlight Foundation, and had campaigned for years to raise the plight of children sold into the sex-trafficking industry, often getting himself involved in matters he was too old to take on.
He was nudging sixty now. Far too old, in my opinion, to be charging around in the dead of night like the archangel Michael, rescuing children from the teashops and smoky karaoke bars in the backstreets of Phnom Penh. However, we both shared a passion for what we believed in with matching stubbornness. Much to my relief, I finally persuaded him to leave his Boy’s Own adventures to others. In the future, he promised to devote himself to fundraising and my dearest hope - spending more time with me around the Red Peony Garden, our little business on the banks of the Yarra River, forty or so kilometres east of Melbourne.
We bought the place when it was a run-down plant nursery spread over about a hectare. Then we spent three years recreating a blend of Suzhou’s ancient Imperial gardens, places we enjoyed lost hours when we’d lived in Shanghai.
I named the garden to honour my mother’s memory. The one hundred double-bloom red peonies drew thousands of visitors in November when their dinner-plate sized, crimson flowers overflowed the walkways and filled the air with intoxicating fragrances.
The Red Peony Garden was popular with visitors on their day trips to the nearby Yarra Valley wineries, or on their way to the musty antique shops and cottage restaurants in the Dandenong Ranges. Especially Chinese tourists and those émigrées who had fled New China with old money. I suppose, like me, they imagined the peaceful garden as a forever-lost world; a Shangri-La hidden behind whitewashed walls and red-painted moon gate entrance, guarded by two fierce-looking stone lions.
My favourite times were early mornings before we opened the gates, sitting in my waterside pagoda watching the koi glide beneath the lotus and water lilies in the lingering mist. The morning sunlight caught their multi-coloured scales, so they glinted like magic jewel boxes. Over the years, the koi had grown tame and rose to take food from my hand, rolling over like playful puppies so I could scratch their rubbery tummies.
Afterwards, if Simon were here, we’d enjoy a meandering, arm-in-arm walk under the willows, weeping their morning dew into the water like a lover’s tears. Or we’d take a last stroll around the garden’s bamboo-fringed arbours and restful courtyards before opening the gates and sharing our pleasure with visitors.
I left the day-to-day management to the venerable Mr Wang, a gentle Buddhist, and an expert on all aspects of the garden’s design and maintenance. He’s been with us from the start; Mr Wang believed the visitors’ enjoyment was his personal life’s mission. Together with his assistants, not even the tiniest detail was overlooked to ensure the garden’s tranquil, feng sui perfection.
I was younger than Simon and had inherited money, even though an ill-fated romance in Lagos had seen the balance savaged a few years back. A previous life, best forgotten. Together with Simon’s trading business in Hong Kong, we had the financial freedom to do as we wished, though we were both kept busy, him with the charity’s work, me indulging my love of the garden.
Gardens had been my mother’s great love too. I knew she was watching over me with a contented smile on her face. I spent much of my time in the greenhouse, where I grew rare Asian plants as a hobby and chatted to visitors about traditional Chinese gardens, exotic plants, and fruits unknown to most westerners.
Most satisfying of all, after so many twists and turns, my life’s journey had settled on a destination. I was content.
News of Simon’s death came that same Sunday afternoon. Two Federal Police officers arrived at my door, telling me a gang of traffickers had killed him while rescuing some children in a rural Cambodian township. They said the criminals were smuggling young girls into Vietnam, and someone had tipped them off about the rescue attempt. One of the girls had also been shot and died before reaching the local hospital. I had screamed like a harpy at them for letting Simon get involved in such dangerous activities, venting my grief, rage, and disbelief over my fractured world. They forgave my outburst, and I apologised for my behaviour. Theirs was not a job to envy.
The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh wanted to fly Simon home; l knew it wouldn’t be what he wanted. Too much of his heart was in that tormented country. I told them I would fly to Cambodia the next day and bury Simon in the land he loved and asked if they would let the embassy and the Sunlight Foundation know. After they left, there was one other painful matter to deal with. Our daughter, Clara. I needed to call her.
I must say here that we Yehonala women didn’t have an unblemished track record with fathers. The Red Guards had murdered my grandfather during the Cultural Revolution and forced my mother to watch. She was eighteen years old at the time. My father had died soon after we returned from our grim exile to a village gulag near the Siberian border when I was twelve. And now this.
Clara had grown up without knowing her father at all for her first twenty years. She’d met him for the first time when Simon and I also found each other again, purely by happenstance, those five years ago. Afterwards, breezily announcing being the first Yehonala girl who would grow up with a dad. For his part, he promised her he was going nowhere, and she had set about making up for all the lost years. He lied to both of us.
By now, Clara was now a famous pianist. Some said she was the most gifted virtuoso in living memory; all agreed there were none comparable today. In some Jungian synchronicity, Simon had once seen her play at the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London. At the time, he had no idea he was cheering his daughter. However, he did his part raising the roof after her booming Heroic Polonaise, an encore she still remembers as her most triumphant, caught up as she was in the euphoric fervour of flag-waving British pomp and patriotism.
Clara was universally known as the Jade Princess. The name was partly due to our family’s lineage to the last Chinese empress, Cixi, another Yehonala woman inattentive with fathers, losing her own when she became the emperor’s favoured concubine in the Forbidden City when she was sixteen. The other reasons were her stunning Eurasian features and the air of demure mystery surrounding her, stage-managed by her agent, Max Santini. Max was a woman of indeterminate age and manic energy, whom Clara adored. Max protected her as well as any lioness did her cubs.TOP
In a tragedy of parallels, the night Simon died, Clara had been performing in Beijing. I’d been watching her on CCTV, the Chinese TV channel, full of pride and feeling blessed by my life, blissfully unaware Simon was waiting to die in a grubby alley in a Cambodian border town with a name I couldn’t pronounce. We cried together for a long time. Tears for remembered last conversations, things we talked about, things we should have talked about. Tears for complaints I made about him spending so much time away I wished I never said to him. Tears for the why-why-why… She promised to meet me in Phnom Penh the next day. We would need each other.
Unable to sleep, I had wandered into Simon’s study. I suppose I was looking for something personal and real I could touch, or to see what his last activities had been. A half-read book, some doodling on a piece of paper, a coffee cup. Something like that.
What I found was the unfinished manuscript of a book he was writing. The later pages were still crisp, as if he had been adding to the narrative. Curiosity became the handmaiden of my sadness, I curled up on a sofa and started to read Chavy’s Story, the title he had pencilled into the top corner.
The story began in the 1970s, around the time I knew Simon was in Vietnam and Cambodia, during the war. The manuscript was the unfinished legacy of Simon’s work over many years, from the time before we had met again to the years together when he would leave for Cambodia with his charity. As I read the first few pages, I wondered who this “Chavy” might be, and who was this family he was writing about. Was it even a true story?
At crossroads in my life, or at those times I thought I wasn’t strong enough to pick myself up after stumbling, there’s been a small voice whispering in my ear, telling me I was facing in the right direction and urging me to keep walking. This time, the child’s voice was urgent. I sensed an invisible hand tugging my sleeve with such insistence I finally understood. Chavy’s Story, Simon’s legacy, and Katy Yehonala’s destiny were the same. I must follow this road to wherever it led. I would finish Chavy’s story and discover the truth about Simon’s death.
I gazed around our rooms, so familiar to me, wondering if it would be for the last time. In any case, I knew they would never feel the same again to me. I went into my bedroom, pulled a suitcase down from the cupboard, and started packing.
And placed the manuscript in my carry-on bag.
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