Authors: Kevin Kwan
THE PENINSULA HOTEL, LOS ANGELES
“It's as baffling to me as it is to you,” Alex Leong said, stirring the ice cubes in his scotch glass with his finger. “Astrid's never left Cassian for this long a period before. I can't imagine what's going through her mind.”
From his chair on the rooftop bar, Charlie gazed out at the palm trees that seemed to line every street in Beverly Hills. He didn't know if Astrid's brother was truly sincere or putting on a performance, especially since he knew that Alexâlong estranged from his parentsâwas especially close to Astrid. Trying a different tactic, Charlie said, “I'm worried Astrid's had some sort of breakdown and she's unable to get help. She's been MIA for
now. You'd think your parents would be the least bit concerned.”
Alex jerked his head indignantly, his Persol sunglasses reflecting against the setting sun. “I am the last person to answer this question, since I haven't spoken to my father in years.”
“But surely you know them well enough to know how they might react?” Charlie pressed on.
“I was always the black sheep of the family, so I suppose I was more prepared when my parents took out the knives. But Astrid has always been the darling princess. She's been raised her whole life to be absolutely perfect, to never put a wrong foot forward, so it must have really hit her hard when things didn't go so perfectly. Astrid's scandal makes me look like a saint at this pointâI can't begin to imagine how they must have reacted, the things they must have said.”
“She did tell me that her parents ordered her to go into hiding. But if they adore Astrid as much as I know they do, I don't understand how they could be so coldhearted. I mean, she's done absolutely nothing wrong! None of this was her fault,” Charlie tried to reason.
Alex leaned back in his chair and grabbed a fistful of wasabi peas from the little bowl on the table. “The thing you have to understand about my parents is that the only thing that matters to them is their reputation. They care about appearances more than anything else in life. My father has spent his whole life crafting his legacyâbeing the elder statesman and all that shit, and my mum just cares that she's the queen bee of the establishment crowd. So everything in their world has to be according to their exacting standards. They excommunicated me for defying their wishes and marrying a girl whose skin tone was just one shade too dark for them.”
“I still can't believe they disowned you for marrying Salimah. She's a Cambridge-educated pediatrician, for God's sake!” Charlie exclaimed.
“How accomplished she was didn't matter to them one bit. I'll never forget what my father said to me when I told him I was marrying her with or without his blessing. He said, âIf you don't care about your own future, think of the children you will have with that woman. For eleven generations, the blood will never be pure.' And that's the last conversation I ever had with my father.”
“Unbelievable!” Charlie shook his head. “Were you surprised that he harbored those feelings?”
“Not really. My parents have always been racist and elitist to the extreme, like so many in their crowd. Peel away the veneer of wealth and sophistication and you'll find extremely provincial, narrow-minded people. The problem is that they all have too much money, and it's come so easily to them that they think they're bloody geniuses and so they are always right.”
Charlie laughed as he took a swig of his beer. “I'm lucky, I guessâmy father always told me I was an idiot who was wrong about everything.”
“By sheer dumb luck, my father was born in the right place at the right moment in timeâwhen the whole region was going through enormous, unprecedented growth. And oh yeah, he also inherited an empire that had already been set up four generations before him. I think he looks down on people like your fatherâpeople who are self-madeâbecause at the heart of it he is a deeply insecure individual. He knows he did absolutely nothing to deserve his fortune, and so the only thing he can do is disparage others who have the audacity to
make their own money
. His friends are all the sameâthey are frightened of the new money that's rolling in, and that's why they cluster in their little enclaves. I'm so glad I got away from all those people.”
“If Astrid ever comes back to me, she'll never have to put up with her parents if she doesn't wish to. I want to build a whole new life for us, and I want her to live anywhere in the world she wants to live,” Charlie said, his voice thick with emotion.
Alex raised his glass to Charlie. “You know, I always thought it was a pity the two of you didn't get married the first time around. You and Astrid let my parents scare you off too easily then. I swear to you, if I knew where Astrid was, you'd be the first person to know. But my sister is a smart girl. She knows how to disappear, and she knows where everyone's likely to be looking for her. If I were you, I'd be looking in all the unlikeliest places, rather than all her old haunts or cities where her best friends are.”
After seeing Alex off, Charlie went back to his suite and found that the butler had already performed the turndown service. The shades were drawn, and the television was set on the channel with New Age music playing softly. He threw off his shoes, unbuttoned his shirt, and sank into the bed. After dialing room service to order a hamburger, he reached into his pocket and took out the letter that Astrid wrote to him from Paris, reading it yet again.
As Charlie stared at the words, the glow coming from the flat-screen TV at the foot of the bed shined through the piece of paper, and Charlie saw for the first time something on the heavy stationery that he'd never noticed before. Near the bottom-right corner was a faint watermark with a distinctive, ornate monogram pattern:
It suddenly occurred to Charlie that while the envelope had been from the Hotel George V in Paris, the letter itself was written on someone else's expensive custom stationery. Who in the world was DSA? On a lark, Charlie decided to call his friend Janice in Hong Kong, who was one of those people who seemed to know everybody on the planet.
“Charlie, I can't believe it's you. It's been ages!” Janice purred into the phone.
“Yes, it's been much too long. Listen, I'm trying to solve a little mystery here.”
“Ooh, I love a good mystery!”
“I have a piece of monogrammed stationery, and I'm trying to figure out who it belongs to. I was wondering if you might be able to help.”
“Can you send me a snapshot? I'll circulate it to everyone I know.”
“Well, this needs to be kept private, if you don't mind.”
“Okay, not everyone then. Just a few key people.” Janice laughed.
“I'll take a picture and send it to you right now,” Charlie said. He hung up his phone, got out of bed, and threw open the window shades. The setting sun streamed into the room, almost blinding him for a moment as he held the letter against the windowpane. He took a few pictures and sent the sharpest image to Janice.
Just then, the doorbell rang. Charlie went to the door and looked out the peephole. It was room service with his burger. As he opened the door to let the uniformed waiter in with his trolley, his phone began to ring again. He saw that it was Janice calling and rushed to pick it up.
“Charlie? This is your lucky day. I thought I would have to send your picture around, but I recognized that monogram from a mile away. I know those initials well.”
“Really? Who is it?”
“There is only one DSA in the whole world that matters, and that's Diego San Antonio.”
“Who is Diego San Antonio?”
“He's one of the leading social figures in the Philippines. He's the host with the most in Manila.”
Charlie turned to the waiter just as he was lifting the silver dome to reveal a delicious, juicy burger. “Actually, I'm going to need that to go.”
TYERSALL PARK, SINGAPORE
Rachel and her best friend Peik Lin stood on the veranda, looking at the figure of Nick in the distance as he disappeared into a wooded part of the garden.
“He's been like this for the past week. Going off for walks on his own in the afternoons. I think he's saying goodbye to the place, in his own way,” Rachel said.
“Is there nothing more that can be done?” Peik Lin asked.
Rachel shook her head sadly. “No, we already agreed to sell yesterday. I know it makes no sense, since we've just come into a huge windfall, but my heart still hurts for Nick. It's like I'm in sync with his every emotion.”
“I wish I could find someone I could be in sync with like that,” Peik Lin sighed.
“I thought there was some secret new Mr. Perfect you promised to tell me about âwhen the time was right'?”
“Yeah, I thought so too. I thought I'd finally met a guy who wasn't intimidated by me, but like all the other losers, he disappeared with no explanation.”
Peik Lin leaned on the veranda railing and squinted into the afternoon sun. “Sometimes I feel like it would be far easier not to tell guys that I went to Stanford, that I run a huge property development company, that I actually love what I do.”
“Peik Lin, that's total bullshit and you know it. If a guy can't handle exactly who you are, then he clearly doesn't deserve you!” Rachel scoffed.
“Damn right he doesn't! Now, let's go get smashed. Where do they keep the vodka around here?” Peik Lin asked.
Rachel led Peik Lin back into her bedroom and showed her a small button by the bedside wall. “Now, here's one thing I'm really going to miss about Tyersall Park. You press this button and a bell rings downstairs somewhere. And before you can even count to tenâ”
Suddenly there was a soft knock on the door, and a young maid entered the room with a curtsy. “Yes, Mrs. Young?”
“Hi, Jiayi. We'd like some drinks. Can we have two vodka martinis on the rocks?”
“Extra olives, please,” Peik Lin added.
Nick walked down the pathway past the lily pond, entering the deepest part of the woods in the northwest section of the property. When he was a boy, this was the area of the estate he never dared to venture into, probably because one of the old Malay servants from ages past had told him this was where all the tree spirits lived, and they should be left undisturbed.
A bird high in one of the trees made a strange, piercing call that Nick had never heard before, and he looked up into the thick foliage, trying to spot what it was. Suddenly a blur of white flickered past his eyes, startling him for a second. Collecting himself, he saw it again, something white and shiny on the other side of a grove of trees. He crept slowly toward the trees, and as the bushes cleared, he saw the figure of Ah Ling facing a large tembusu tree, clutching a few joss sticks. As she prayed and bowed from the waist repeatedly, the smoke from the joss sticks wafted around her, and her white blouse would shimmer as it caught the rays of sunlight filtering through the low-hanging branches.
When Ah Ling was finished with her prayers, she took the joss sticks and stuck them inside an old Milo can that had been placed in the hollow of the bark. She turned around and smiled when she caught sight of Nick.
“I didn't know you came out here to pray. I always thought you did your prayers in the garden behind the service wing,” Nick said.
“I go to different places to pray. This is my special tree, when I really want my prayers to be answered,” Ah Ling said in Cantonese.
“If you don't mind me asking, who do you pray to here?”
“Sometimes to ancestors, sometimes to the Monkey God, and sometimes to my mother.”
It occurred to Nick that Ah Ling had seen her mother less than a dozen times since she had moved to Singapore as a teenager. Suddenly the memory of one day from his childhood came rushing back. He remembered going into Ah Ling's bedroom and seeing her stuff a suitcase full of thingsâMcVitie's Digestive Biscuits, Rowntree's sweets, packs of Lux soap, a few cheap plastic toysâand when he asked her what these were for, Ah Ling told him they were gifts for her family. She was going back to China for a month to visit them. Nick had thrown a tantrum, not wanting her to go.
Decades had passed since that day, but now Nick stood in the middle of a forest with his nanny overwhelmed with guilt. This was a woman who had dedicated nearly her entire life to serving his family, leaving her own parents and siblings behind in China and only seeing them once every few years when she had saved up enough to go back. Ah Ling, Ah Ching the head chef, Jacob the gardener, Ahmad the chauffeur, all these people had served his family for most of their lives. This was their home, and now they were about to lose it too. Now he was letting them all down.
As if reading his mind, Ah Ling came over and put her hand on his face. “Don't look so sad, Nicky. It's not the end of the world.”
Suddenly, tears began to spring from his eyes uncontrollably. Ah Ling embraced him, in the way she had so many times when he cried as a child, stroking the back of his head as he wept quietly against her shoulder. Nick hadn't shed a single tear during the entire week of his grandmother's funeral, and now he was letting it all out.
After he had recovered himself, Nick walked quietly next to Ah Ling along the wooded pathway. When they reached the lily pond, they sat on the stone bench at the water's edge, watching a lone egret as it stepped gingerly among the shallow marshes looking for little minnows. Nick asked, “Do you think you'll stay in Singapore?”
“I think I will go back to China, for a year at least. I want to build a house in my old village, and spend a little time with my family. My brothers are getting older, I have so many new grandnephews and grandnieces who I have never met. Now I can finally be the rich old auntie who spoils them.”
Nick chuckled at the thought. “I'm so glad Ah Ma provided for you in her will.”
“Your Ah Ma was very generous to me, and I will always be grateful to her. For the first few decades I worked here, she frightened me to death. She was not the easiest woman to please, but I think in the last twenty years or so, she came to see me as a friend and not just a servant. Did I ever tell you that a few years ago she invited me to take a room in the big house? She thought I was getting a bit old to be trudging back and forth from the servants' wing to the house. But I turned her down. I wouldn't feel comfortable in one of those grand bedrooms.”
Nick smiled, remaining silent.
“You know, Nicky, I really don't think your grandmother wanted this house to go on after she was gone. That's why she prepared things the way she did. She wouldn't have taken care of me and Ah Ching and everyone else like she did. She thought of every detail.”
“She may have thought of every detail, but for me, so many questions remain unanswered. I keep beating myself up about how stubborn I was, refusing to come back to make peace with her until the very end. I wasted so much time,” Nick lamented.
“We never know how much time any of us have. Your Ah Ma could have gone on living for many more months, or even years, you never know. Don't regret anything. You are lucky you were back in time to say goodbye,” Ah Ling said soothingly.
“I know. I just wish I could talk to her again, to understand what she truly wanted,” Nick said.
Ah Ling suddenly sat up on the bench. “
I'm getting so absentminded, I almost forgot that I have a few things for you from your Ah Ma. Come, come to my room with me.”
Nick followed Ah Ling to her quarters, where she produced an old imitation Samsonite suitcase from the back of her closet. He recognized it as the suitcase she used when she had gone back to China all those decades ago. Ah Ling opened the suitcase on the floor, and Nick saw that it contained stacks and stacks of different-colored fabrics, the kind she used to make the beautiful silk patchwork quilts that hung at the foot of the bed in every guest room. At the bottom of the suitcase was a bundle tied in dark blue satin fabric.
“When your Ah Ma was in the hospital, she asked Astrid to gather a few things from the vault and various hiding places she had. Astrid brought these down to me, to be kept for you. I don't think your Ah Ma wanted any of your aunties getting their hands on these,” Ah Ling said, handing Nick the bundle. He undid the knotted satin and found a small rectangular leather box. Inside was a vintage pocket watch on a gold chain signed Patek, Philippe & Cie, a silk coin purse full of gold sovereigns, and a small stack of old letters tied in yellowed ribbon. At the bottom of the box lay a newer, crisper envelope with “Nicky” on the front in his grandmother's elegant handwriting. Nick tore open the letter and began reading it immediately:
I feel that time is running short and I don't know whether I will see you again. There are so many things I had wished to tell you, but never found the chance or the courage. Here are some things I am entrusting to you. They do not belong to me, but to a gentleman named Jirasit Sirisindhu. Please return these things to him on my behalf. He lives in Thailand, and your auntie Cat will know how to find him. I am also entrusting you with this mission because you will want to meet Jirasit in person. When I am no longer here, he will be able to provide you with the resources that you will need. I know I can count on him to be of great help to you.
Your Ah Ma
“Thank you for safeguarding these things for me!” Nick said, kissing Ah Ling on the cheek as he left her room. He walked across the courtyard to the main house and went up the stairs to his bedroom, where he found Rachel working on her laptop.
“Good walk?” Rachel looked up.
“You'll never believe this, but something rather remarkable just landed in my hands!” Nick waved the letter at her excitedly.
Nick sat on the edge of the bed and quickly read the letter to her.
Rachel's brow furrowed as she listened to the cryptic letter. “I wonder what it all means? Do you know this guy? Jirasit?”
“I've never once heard my grandmother utter his name.”
“Let's google him quickly,” Rachel said. She typed in the name and it popped up immediately.
“M.C. Jirasit Sirisindhu is a grandson of King Chulalongkorn of Thailand. He is an exceedingly reclusive figure but is said to be one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, with interests in banking, real estate, agriculture, fisheries, andâ”
Nick's eyes suddenly lit up. “Oh my God, don't you see? âHe will be able to provide you with the resources you need.' He's one of the richest men in the worldâI think this man holds the key in helping us get Tyersall Park!”
“I'm not sure if I would read so much into this letter,” Rachel cautioned.
“No, no, you don't know my grandmother like I do. She doesn't do anything without precision. She wants me to go to Thailand and meet this manâit says right here that Auntie Cat in Bangkok will know how to find him. Rachel, this is the plan she had all along!”
“But what about the deal we've made with the Bings?”
“It's only been a day, and we haven't signed any contracts yet. It's still not too late to rescind the deal, especially if this man can help us! We should catch the next flight to Thailand!”
should catch the next flight out, and I should stay here to put the brakes on anything that comes up. We wouldn't want your aunts signing anything until you're back,” Rachel suggested.
“You're absolutely right! Honey, you're an angelâI'm not sure what I'd do without you!” Nick said breathlessly, grabbing his travel duffel from the cupboard.