Josie Sutherland fidgeted in her comfortable lounge chair in the big hotel foyer. Her three-day stopover in Hong Kong was over, and she had to catch the evening plane home to Australia. She felt curiously let down and disappointed.
She glared at the quiet looking young man browsing in the bookshop opposite. Not that there was anything about him to arouse her dislike. He was dressed in the grey business suit that seemed almost a uniform for the young computer executive, and carried a soft raincoat folded over his arm.
He had brown hair, cut rather short, and heavy, forbidding looking eyebrows over sleepy hooded eyes. His nose looked as if it had once been broken, spoiling the symmetry of a ruggedly good-looking face, with a strong jaw line and humorous mouth. He looked up suddenly, as if he had felt her inspection, and grinned. Josie looked away, feeling her cheeks redden. That grin changed his whole face. The heavy eyebrows arched upwards, and his grey eyes narrowed in amusement. She was uneasily aware that deep inside her a sense of response or acknowledgement stirred at the amused challenge of those grey eyes.
The pretty engagement ring on her left hand winked a cheerful reminder of her fiancé's parting words.
"Stay out of mischief, Josie, and count your blessings," James had warned. "No one else would let you go gallivanting from one side of the world to the other."
Josie flapped the paperback novel more impatiently against the armrest as she thought about James, her fiancé. He was even-tempered and steady. This is what had originally attracted her to him. She liked even-tempered and unflappable people. James was an ideal companion to go scuba diving with; he never panicked or lost his temper.
Josie sighed. James was also smug, complacent and much too satisfied with life. There were times when she wondered why she had become engaged. He was a close friend of her brothers, and that meant that he fitted smoothly into the family activities as well. They were so compatible and comfortable together in every way, but somehow their relationship seemed to lack something.
Two men idling near the bookshop in identical grey suits, and with a curiously anonymous look about them, paused to watch her flapping the novel against the armrest.
Josie's discontent deepened as she thought about James. He really was a terrific guy. It was just that he didn't take her ambitions to be a top journalist seriously. Nor, it seemed, did her editor. It was intolerable! Just because she was the baby of the office, she was never given the really big stories to cover. All she needed was the opportunity to cover one decent, newsworthy story and her career could take off, but no one was going to give her that opportunity.
When she was first instructed to cover the American computer conference, all sorts of exciting ideas flashed through her mind. Perhaps she would uncover a computer fraud, or do an interview of world shattering importance! Anything to make her editor sit up and take notice.
The American conference however, was as dull, stodgy and respectable as any of the conferences she had covered in Australia. Her hopes of an exciting scoop had faded. She brooded again about the injustice of always being given stodgy conferences to cover.
Two men in crumpled floral shirts, wearing dirty shorts exposing large expanses of sunburnt hairy legs paused in front of her, blocking her sight of the bookshop opposite. One nudged the other and grinned hopefully.
Josie's blue eyes went frosty. They looked the original ugly ocker Australians. The sort who drank themselves silly on the planes, annoyed the hostesses, and embarrassed other travellers. They grinned even more widely, and swaggered off, their destination the bar at the end of the foyer.
After all her dedication and hard work, the most exciting thing she had to report about her trip to America was a computer malfunction. Even her initial thrill at her three-day stopover in Hong Kong had dissolved. She had been so excited, but three days later, she was bored. Although, at first glance, Hong Kong seemed a mysterious and exciting place, and certainly very picturesque, it really was as dull as Melbourne. It was just that the tourists crowding it made it appear so much more diverse and exotic.
Her attention was drawn to the fat Indian walking past in a suit of impeccable cut, the effect spoiled by the garish silk turban. Were all those nice looking young Asians, businessmen or students? They all looked so identical in their immaculate white shirts, and every one of them carrying briefcases.
A group of Arab women swept past, all flowing black robes and dark resentful eyes, escorted by swarthy looking men in the standard well-cut grey business suits. Josie's discontent eased. She pondered the lack of liberation among Arab women. At least her life was free of any restrictions. She drove her own car, rode her own horse, and came and went as she liked. She had an interesting job, and an understanding fiancée.
The crowd thinned. She was aware that she was staring across at the bookshop. Why did that young man look so ill at ease, almost furtive? There was nothing illegal about buying books. Her interest was suddenly aroused. She studied him more closely.
He slid the book he had purchased into the raincoat pocket, and folded the raincoat precisely across his arm again. He looked at his watch as he strolled out of the bookshop. Curiouser and curiouser, pondered Josie. Why take such pains to conceal his purchase? What was so special about a cheap paperback novel?
She gave herself a mental shrug. People did the oddest things, even interesting looking young men. She checked the time. Soon, she was going to have to collect the rest of her luggage and think about finding her way to the airport. She slipped her paperback into her bag and stood up.
Even as the young man walked past Josie, two well-dressed men, anonymous among the many Asians, closed each side of him. The young man faltered in his stride as he struggled against their confinement. He dropped his raincoat and briefcase, and there was a thud as his fist connected with one of his captors and then the other.
The man who had been punched staggered back and flashed a knife. The young man levelled another blow, moving with the grace and speed of an athlete. Josie revised her estimate of him as just another young executive type.
The other man put his hand in his pocket. Josie recognised the ugly shape of a gun, with the elongated snout of a silencer on it. Almost without thinking, she swung her solid makeup case at his face. He flinched as he ducked, and there was the soft 'pop' as the gun went off and the acrid smell of cloth burning. There were a few bewildered glances from onlookers as they moved away from the fighting men, unaware of the significance of that soft 'pop'. The young man's arm flashed in a short upper cut that sent the man with the gun sprawling. From somewhere came a shrill whistle.
The two men looked a message at each other. The one sprawled on the floor made a shaky grab for the briefcase and raincoat on the floor. There was a crack as the young man's shoe connected with his wrist. The other man dragged him to his feet, and both men ran out into the street, pushing and jostling their way through the bewildered crowds of people, with two uniformed policemen in pursuit.
Josie realised she was shaking. Since when had Hong Kong become so lawless that criminals would dare bring a gun with a silencer into a crowded hotel lobby? How long had those men been loitering, and how long had that young man been browsing in the bookshop? Was it a coincidence that they had picked on him, or had they been waiting for him to leave the bookshop?
"You all right?" Josie asked.
"Pickpockets," the young man explained, panting slightly. He picked up the makeup case and handed it back to Josie. "Where did you learn to throw like that?"
"Big brothers," Josie explained shortly. "Weren't they rather well dressed for pickpockets?"
"Prosperous pickpockets," the young man suggested.
The dimple at the side of Josie's mouth deepened. It was probably reaction, from the frozen seconds of horrified realisation that the young man's life was in danger, but she couldn't stop the amused grin that curled her mouth.
The young man grinned back at her. "Carey Court," he volunteered, extending his hand. "Home town, Melbourne."
"Josie Sutherland," she said. "Home town, Melbourne."
Closer up he was older and more solidly built than she had realised, and there were fine laughter lines radiating from his eyes - maybe early thirties, Josie decided, revising his age. He was so well proportioned that his height was deceptive. His grasp was warm and firm.
Carey picked up his raincoat and briefcase and sat down in the lounge chair beside her. She reached for his paperback, which had slid to her feet. The cover was lurid with a fleeing girl in a flowing white gown, against a gloomy Gothic mansion.
"An Innocent Temptress," she read. "By Maidee Taylor."
Carey Court looked uncomfortable. Josie grinned again. An identical copy was now tucked in her bag. Maidee Taylor's latest book was an erotic and tempestuous romance. Hardly the sort of book to be considered necessary reading for a young executive. She handed the book back, trying to keep the dimple at the side of her mouth suppressed.
"My mother is a fan of hers," Carey explained with a sigh. "She asked me to pick up a copy of her latest book while I was overseas."
"You looked awfully furtive," Josie said with a chuckle. "I was expecting you to pull a robbery of the bookshop any minute."
"How would you feel about being caught in that section of the book shop buying that book?" Carey said with a groan. "My mother never thinks about my public image."
The two policemen returned to the hotel foyer. Someone pointed to where Carey was sitting by Josie, and they came over.
"Sorry those men got away, Sir," one of them apologised. His English was slightly accented. "Would you mind coming with us and signing a statement of what happened?"
"Hardly worth it," Carey said. He looked at his watch. "I've got a plane to catch."
The other policeman said something to him in Chinese.
"And perhaps have a look at some mug shots," the policeman continued smoothly.
"If you insist," Carey said with a shrug.
"You too, Miss," he said. "We won't keep you long. The offices are just across the road."
"I don't mind," Josie said. "Those men had been loitering around for quite a while. I thought they were waiting for friends or something."
Carey looked at Josie. "Sorry to have involved you." He corrected himself. "No, I'm not."
Josie felt her cheeks go pinker than the air-conditioned foyer warranted but didn't reply. As an engaged woman she wasn't into encouraging even slight flirtations. Still, she was very aware of his presence beside her as they followed the policemen through the foyer. There was something about him that caused her heart to beat a fraction faster, or perhaps it was the incident that had involved her. She made an effort to distance herself from the physical impact of the brown-haired stranger by her side and tried to remember more carefully the incident that had happened with such bewildering speed.
The trouble was there had been so many tourists coming and going, and standing around talking, and she hadn't taken that much notice. It was only because there had been a gap in the crowd that she realised she had been staring into the bookshop and had focussed on Carey.
Once out of the hotel lobby, they hit the smothering heat of the street. They crossed the busy road, and were quickly back into the air-conditioned coolness of the office block. From there, the policemen escorted them into a small room. A pretty young Chinese girl typed up their statements for them to sign. The face of the policemen got longer and longer as they went through the sheaves and sheaves of photographs without recognising any of the faces.
"Are you sure you don't recognise either of them?" one of the older policemen insisted in a clipped English accent.
"No." Josie was definite. "I'm sure I would know them if I saw them again. One of them had his face pitted just on his right side."
"What about the other one?"
"Well, as from now one of them should have a broken wrist," Carey pointed out.
"They weren't just the ordinary hit and run pickpockets," one of the other uniformed men said glumly. "It's unheard of that a tourist would be attacked in broad daylight in a hotel foyer, right under our noses."
"They pulled a gun and it had a silencer," Josie said. This remark earned her startled looks from both Carey and the policemen. "My brothers belong to a gun club, and taught me a bit about guns," she explained.
There was a quick conference among the policemen in Chinese.
"Doesn't sound like the usual petty crime." The older policeman gave Carey a penetrating stare. "You are absolutely positive you have never seen them before. What sort of valuables are you carrying?"
"Here is my briefcase and laptop," Carey drawled, as he placed it on the desk and unlocked it. "It's full of reports of all the conferences I attended. Of no interest to anyone except the company directors. I have traveller's cheques in my wallet, and I'm wearing a watch identical to practically every other traveller in Hong Kong."
Josie sneaked a look at his opened briefcase. Pens, calculator, brochures and pads lined the lid. Minutes of meetings and reports were briefly fanned open, showing neat and meticulous handwriting.
"What's in the raincoat pocket?" asked the other policeman whose sharp eyes had spotted the outline of the book.
"Latest book by Maidee Taylor." Carey looked sheepish. "Not yet released in Australia."
The policeman took it out and flipped through it, his face blank. "When and where did you buy it?"
"In the hotel foyer bookshop, a few minutes before those guys attacked me."
There was a baffled silence. Josie's journalistic instincts were suddenly alert. There was a mystery here. What had those sinister pickpockets been after? In fact, since when did pickpockets use guns, and with silencers? Guns were used to terrify people into submission. Guns with silencers surely weren't standard issue for pickpockets? murderers or assassins maybe!
The policemen stared at Carey. Carey looked puzzled and shrugged again.
"I think they were waiting for you," one of the policemen suggested.
"Mistaken identity," Josie suggested. "Maybe all Westerners look alike to Asians."
This drew an almost smile from the policemen. "Maybe," one of them agreed. He looked across at his colleague, and some sort of message was exchanged.
"I suppose," Josie probed hopefully, "there could be all sorts of illegal deals going on in Hong Kong; laundering of money, drug running, espionage, smuggling, and so on?"
A shutter came down over the two official faces.
"Very little crime in Hong Kong, Miss Sutherland," one of them answered.
"None at all, in fact," the other one said straight away.
"Really?" Josie said, trying not to let her elation show.
Was there something going on? She could tell by their carefully blank faces she had scored a hit. Somehow, Carey Court had stumbled into something. Perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity. Yet why were those men desperate enough to try and kidnap or murder him, and snatch his briefcase in the centre of a crowded hotel foyer?
She sneaked another look at Carey. He stood at his ease, waiting, his face smooth. He looked at his watch. Does he know something, and he's not telling? her reporter's mind questioned. The heady dream of throwing a successful and worldwide scoop on to her editor's desk tantalised her imagination. The policeman broke the silence.
"I have arranged for you to have a police escort right up until you actually leave. We can't risk unfavourable publicity by getting one of our visitors killed."
Carey's heavy brows came down in a straight bar across his hooded eyes. "I'm sure that would be overreacting," he drawled. He sneaked a look at Josie and grinned. "It will be a pleasure," he continued smoothly.
Attention focussed on Josie. "And if the young lady thinks she sees the men again, we will be on hand to arrest them."
"We won't mind at all," Josie assured them. She tucked her hand under Carey's arm, as though by physically holding on to him, she could prevent the possibility of an interesting story vanishing with him. "We're catching the same plane back, and I suppose have been staying at the same hotel?"
"Yes," agreed Carey. He grinned down at Josie, and again she felt that inexplicable quickening of her pulse. "We appear to have to do some catching up on our acquaintance, seeing as we are both Melbournites."
"Certainly," Josie agreed demurely. "I'm sure we will discover we have a lot in common."
She dropped her black lashes to shield herself from the intensity that flared in his grey eyes. This wasn't flirting, or leading him on, she reminded herself. Carey Court represented an exciting scoop, and a hard earned promotion, so it was part of her job to become much better acquainted with him.
The next few hours passed quickly. It was odd to find out that they only worked about three buildings away from each other, and actually had mutual friends, but had never met.
They forgot about their unobtrusive plain clothed escorts as they exchanged information. Carey worked for a bank. He explained vaguely that he represented the bank on his overseas trips, hated travelling and writing reports. Josie laughed at that, admitted she loved travelling, but this was the first time her company had sent her overseas, and being a writer, she loved writing.
They returned to the hotel together, collected their luggage, and shared a taxi to the airport. They were both travelling business class, and they booked their luggage in and settled in one of the lounges with coffee.
All the time they sat at the airport lounge, they watched the passing crowd. Josie didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed when the blinking board at last signalled their plane's departure time. They smiled their thanks to their two escorts who blended back into the crowd. They had reached the departure lounge when the two policemen who had interviewed them before, appeared in front of them.
"Mr. Court," one of them said. "There is a slight problem. Would you come with us, please?"
"And miss my plane."
"And you, too, Miss Sutherland," the other one said to Josie.
Josie blinked as she stared at him. He was younger, and wearing his hair longer than his partner, and looked apologetic.
"What is all this about?" Carey demanded.
"What about our luggage?" Josie protested.
"We arranged to have it taken off."
Even as they followed the uniformed men, the departure lounge emptied. The door leading to the walkway to the plane was shut firmly, and the attendant vanished. The blinking board showed another destination and another time for the next plane out of Hong Kong. Their plane had taken off without them!
"You do have a good reason for this?" Carey fumed.
"We will want you to identify those two men," the policeman with the shorter haircut explained as he led the way down the echoing corridor and through a quiet back way to where a police car waited.
"The pickpockets?" Josie asked.
She noticed absently that their luggage was being loaded into the boot of the car. The Hong Kong police were efficient. They must have got the luggage off the plane before they even approached them in the departure lounge. Something was definitely happening! She could almost see her big scoop solidifying in front of her.
Once they had finished with the police, she was going to have to rebook a room at the hotel, and ring through to her editor. He would be most unreasonable about her staying in Hong Kong over her allotted time, even with the excuse that she was on the trail of an exciting story. This could really be the chance for her promotion. She wasn't really listening, when the older policeman spoke again.
"What?" she stammered, trying to comprehend what he had just said.
"Two men have been found. In a back alley, with their throats cut. It might be coincidence, but one has a broken wrist, and the other a bullet in his arm and smallpox scars on one side of his face only. We will need to question Mr. Carey more fully about what their interest could be in him."
"So that's where the other bullet went," Josie said. "Very inefficient pickpockets."
"That hasn't got any connection with Miss Sutherland," Carey said angrily, as he settled beside Josie in the back seat.
"They were killed because of their connection with you. Miss Sutherland was a witness. She might have seen something."
"And she did come to your rescue," the younger policeman pointed out. "So whoever attacked you may well connect Miss Sutherland with you."
"Rubbish!" Carey said angrily.
"And she did say she had been waiting in the hotel foyer for quite a while, so she might have noticed something," the older policeman continued.
"I'm not carrying anything that would interest your local thieves or murderers," Carey protested. "It was just an accident that happened to me."
"You won't be put to any inconvenience," the older man apologised. "We just want you to stay a few days longer until everything is straightened out."
Josie remained silent. Despite the airless warmth of the Hong Kong night, she was chilled by the bland suggestion. She leaned back against the seat, and the reassuring warmth of Carey beside her only made the cold terror bite even more deeply into her.
She didn't believe one word of what the policeman had said. They knew that Carey was an innocent bystander. There was only one reason for the pretext to hold him in Hong Kong. Someone had decided that Carey was carrying something valuable enough to kill for, and while he was kept in Hong Kong, the same people would try again.
Were they going to use him as bait, to flush out the killers or whoever was behind them? Was it industrial espionage, smuggling, or something even nastier? Josie shivered. The biggest story of her career looked like it was landing in her lap, and she was not quite sure that she was ready for it.