Story by Lee Su Min

Couldn't help the bear hug

Couldn't help the bear hug

Negatives to Vet

Chapter 1

Nobody knows what you do in the dark, unless you tell them.

From the witness stand I could see her sitting in the public gallery. She looked slightly different from when I last met her. Her hair was black, in fact blacker than when I remembered it to be, which made it looked faked. She also had this bright red lipstick. The colour of her dress paled in comparison to her lip colour. I wanted to greet her, but I told myself I had better not.

She was with her husband. The man’s shirt was half ironed – I said half because only some parts were creased, which made it looked untidy altogether. A shining gold pen stood out from his breast pocket, and he seemed to be worried that it might fall off anytime, as he kept using his right hand to check if it was still tucked in his shirt.

Although it was rude to look at another person so closely all the time, I couldn’t help but noticed her watch. It was expensive, something like the Chanel watch that I saw on the large posters at expensive malls. I could still remember the last occasion when she was wearing that watch.

Chapter 2

The relationship between the advertising agency and the press was a complicated one, and hard to manoeuvre. The publishing company needed the revenue generated by the advertisements placed by the advertisers in their newspapers, and hence was under their payroll. Income generated by selling its core product meaning the newspapers was minimal. One advertisement in a full page could come up to thirty thousand dollars and color advertisements were more than double the price.

But at the same time, the advertisers needed to adhere to some rules and guidelines before their copies could be put to print. They were governed by a code of practice. For example, you couldn’t put the picture of a naked woman in your advertisement. And all medicinal products must be accompanied by an approval number from the relevant health authorities. But they allowed women in underwear if that underwear were products they sold. I guess you must have a logic to the punch line.

I was a witness to this phenomenon. It was like telling your boss what to do. As the administrative executive in the advertising department, I was placed at the receiving end to handle this conflict. Being in charge of deciding if to accept a piece of material for placement in the newspaper for the next day’s publication, my head was on the chopping board. If anything went wrong, I was to be blamed, and the only one to be blamed. Nobody wanted the job and I took it as I was desperate for a job. I wanted to work in the publishing company. Our News Daily was the largest print media in the country.

But as time went by, I realized that either way I was wrong. Mrs Jenny Chee my boss didn’t like me, and she was my immediate supervisor. The problem was that I didn’t know why she didn’t like me. I was obedient and hardworking. I arrived at my desk at 8:00 a.m. half an hour before the day started, and I was the last one to leave, and usually the one who switched off all the office lights.

Chapter 3

This morning I woke up feeling more tired than usual, but I managed to put on some makeup, and arrived at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to grab my Americano. The outlet opened at 7:30 a.m. and I was there at 7:30 a.m. Only one attendant was there but there was no queue. The man standing behind me was more impatient than me, tapping his foot on the floor. I ignored him, and continued with my purpose, which was to get to the office on time.

The traffic lights were slow, and I waited a good five minutes for the green man, avoiding the urge to cross the road when the cars were slow, and managing to stop myself from swearing at the traffic.

When I arrived at the office, Jenny was already in her room. She usually came in after 9:00 a.m. much later than me. I could see her through the glass panel from my desk. The office arrangement was such that we did not face each other directly. Her door was open, and that was a little unusual, as she normally shut her door tight. Then I saw Alan Fong going in. Minutes later when I looked again, Jenny was on the phone.

A nice Christmas tree with a bell and a bright red bow a Christmas dangling was hanging in front of her door.

Chapter 4

The advertising industry was huge. Advertisers ranged from liquor sellers, educational institutions, down to a bereaved family wanting to inform others about their loss. Each day I received about three to four hundred negatives on my table. They were either in a set of three – the color prints magenta yellow and cyan or just the plain black and white. I put them high up against the light and scrutinized them to find out if they conformed to the set of rules which advertisements must follow. In particular they must not show a naked woman.

It was hard work. Negatives were hard to see, as you have to figure out that the dark parts were actually going to be white and that the light parts were actually black when it came out. I have problems checking if a cleavage was too low or a word used was offensive to the public. And better if they had no words. Advertisements I liked were those where the picture was large and without too many words to go through.

Today I was confronted with this large set of negatives. They were bulky and I have to manually detach them into three pieces to read. I held them up against the ceiling, the light was fluorescent, and I found myself trying to scrutinize the perfume bottle that the woman in the picture was holding. There were some words there, and it was tiny. I couldn’t tell what they were. I decided to ignore it, and I put a check against the piece of paper that accompanied the set of negatives. I told myself that if I could not see it, then no one else would be able to see the print on the newspaper. The check with my initials was meant for the printing department to let them know that the negatives have gone through my hand and that its contents have been approved.

Chapter 5

Tonight, after I had turned off the lights, on the way out of the office to the lift lobby, an idea came to me:

Why don’t you take away the Christmas bell dangling in front of Jenny’s office door?

It was a thought, a temptation difficult to resist. Jenny had been very nasty to me – she always lectured me for more than half an hour, thus taking up a lot of my precious time with the negatives. I couldn’t help but to think that she did it on purpose.

I decided to walk back to the office, and I found myself right in front of Jenny’s door. Nobody knows what you do in the dark unless you tell them. I told myself. I became bolder. I lifted my hand, and I tugged at the dangling, then I gave it a pull! The Christmas bell came off the hook, giving a light tingling charm. I saw it fall to the marble floor, and I quickly picked it up. Then I walked towards the main door. Oh, but the security guard might see me with it. I wanted to put it in my bag. But I have no reason to bring the stuff home. Hey! I am not a thief. So, I thought about throwing it into the waste basket near Damien’s desk. But then hold it, Damien might recognise that it was Jenny’s article and surrender it back to Jenny. Then an alarm would be raised as to who left the article in his basket. I was always the last one to leave, so that the natural conclusion would be that the culprit was me!

At this moment I heard some noise. I quickly went back to my desk and pretended that I haven’t left for the day. I sat down, hid the bell in one of my drawers. And after a good fifteen minutes, when I was sure that no one was actually in the office, I decided to walk to the main door again to leave. All of a sudden, the lights went off. The entire place was in pitch darkness. And then I thought I heard some noises. A flurry of horror images came to my mind. Was the office haunted? My logical mind told me to leave the premises at once, but curiosity told me to investigate. I’ve always liked Sherlock Holms and Agatha Christie; I followed the noises and I arrived at Li Meng Hwa’s room. Mr Li was the head of the department his door was always shut. From outside I could hear the voices coming from the inside ….

“Dear, how was your day today?” unmistakably Mr Li’s voice.

“I managed to speak to Johnson today,” it was Jenny’s!

“Don’t bet on it, Johnson has the habit of going back on his words,” Mr Li said.

“… full page, continuous run for two weeks … imagine the profit margin, and not to mention the fifty thousand that will come our way … hahaha …” I could hear Mr Li’s laughter, shrill in the still of the night.

“Are you sure she won’t have discovered the offensive words?” Mr Li said.

“Don’t worry. She is as blind as a bat!” Jenny reassured him. The she I guessed must have been referring to me. Immediately I thought of the perfume advertisement.

“By the way darling, I am two weeks late,” I heard Jenny said.

“What! OMG! Are you sure?” Mr Li sounded shocked, not one of surprise.

“Have you gone for a check-up?” further down he asked.

“Yup, appointment scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, I have already taken time off,”

“Let me know the result.” Mr Li was earnest.

And then I thought I heard the sound of someone walking towards the door, before the guy opened the door, I quickly ran away, as fast as I could, to the main lobby. The lights were now on but I swore that I wasn’t the one who turned it on. At the lobby the lift was coincidentally waiting on the thirteenth floor. I went in and commanded the lift to take me down to the first floor as fast as I could.

By which time I had crossed the twelve o’clock deadline for the normal taxi fare. They charged double the fare after midnight. My taxi fares were beginning to cost more than my salary.

Chapter 6

The next morning, I arrived at the office early at 8:00 a.m. as usual. Damien who was seated at the front near the entrance and exit was reading the newspapers as usual. I greeted him, but he did not notice me. I continued to walk to my desk, hoping that the rest of the staff would notice that I was early. Jenny’s door was still shut, obviously the Christmas bell was no longer hanging at her door.

I walked to my desk as usual, carefully holding the cup of Americano in my hand, making sure that it did not spill. The desk was already half occupied with several sets of negatives. I placed the cup by the side table, where I had placed three photo frames of myself – one with my mother, one of myself, and one when I was in Hong Kong for a shorty holiday with Victor. Looking at these photographs always made me happier. I knew that Jenny wasn’t in yet, as her room was still dark. My secretary Siew Eng was also not in yet.

When Jenny came in, she at once signalled me to go in to see her. I knew straight away that it was the set of negatives with the perfume bottle. I prepared my explanation on why I let it through.

“Did you see the words on the perfume bottle that the girl was holding?” Jenny held up the newspapers to show me.

“The words are very small, no one could have read it,” I said.

“So, that means that you saw,” Jenny concluded.

“I couldn’t read it myself,” I tried to defend myself.

“But you are wrong. Everyone saw it. Look.” She held out the page with the advertisement to show me.

“It says: for sex. You know what that means?” Jenny looked me straight in the eye.

“I, err …. ” I stumbled on my words.

“But the girl had clothes on,” I ventured to explain.

Fact was that I was too tired, and too lazy to scrutinise the words, that was why I gave a tick. I lowered my head, waiting for Jenny to reprimand me. And I thought to myself, that this would be at least another forty-five minutes, if she didn’t give me the sack.

In the end, thank God that Jenny let me off the hook.

“No repeats for this advertisement,” she gave her final order. And that was it. I knew that it had something to do with the conversation I overheard the other night regarding a Johnson.

Chapter 7

I had a boyfriend before. His name was Victor Lau. He was generous, kind and compassionate. Victor also had a queer sense of humour and he always made me laugh. We were very happy together. Each day after class he would pick me up in his car from my old office at Mandy Road. We would sit at the Burger King and I would recount the experiences of the day. I couldn’t care if he were actually interested in my tales. One day, ….

“Hey Lynette, could you vet this first, I have to send this to the production department immediately,” Alan came by and sounded urgent. I did not know why I had to do him the favour, but I did. It was just an advertisement for some slimming products. Nothing controversial.

Alan Fong was middle aged, and he has a moustache which reminded me a little of Charlie Chaplin. I quite liked him, and I thought that he liked me too, but not in a romantic way. Punctually at 3:30 p.m. he would bring me a cup of coffee from the canteen downstairs. I never failed to thank him. But then I thought that by vetting the copies for him on the spot was good enough a favour. A coffee for a quick approval!

Things have been going on without a hitch for three consecutive days. No one complained about me and Jenny had not been giving me the one-hour lecture since Monday. I silently prayed that the good season would last me through to the weekend. And then it’s dinner at Auntie Catherine’s place again.

Auntie Catherine was my mother’s best friend. She sorts of took over the looking after of me after mom passed away. The only regret mom had was that I couldn’t seem to find a life partner before she died. Maybe because I was too choosy. But if you asked me, I was waiting for Victor. I wanted to establish beyond reasonable doubt that he was dead before I found someone else. Although the fact that someone did not see you anymore did not necessarily mean that he was deceased.

You did not talk to a person anymore because either you thought that he was bad company for you, that he wished you ill, or that he might ask you for a favour that you could not give.

Chapter 8

I didn’t think that Alan Fong was interested in me in any way. Apart from getting me to do instant vetting of his clients’ copy material, he hardly talked to me even though he sat opposite me. Alan was in charge of pagination. He usually buried his face in the newspapers, and I thought that that was rather unsociable of him. At 5:30 p.m. sharp, he would pack up his stuff and head straight for the main lobby, dropping by my desk to say, “take care”. I quite envy his position in the company. His job was secure as he had been working for Our News Daily for more than a decade. I didn’t think that anyone else could have done the job better than he. Jenny liked him, and she always sought him out for advice.

Sometimes I felt that Alan was watching me from his desk. That made me a little uncomfortable, but I didn’t really mind it. As I said, Alan Fong was a married man, he couldn’t have been interested in me. The only problem I had with him was how to pay him back for the coffee that he brought for me each day. The coffee was inexpensive, it was just the favour that I needed to return.

Over time, I found out that there were no hard and fast rules to advertising. I just had to use my own judgement to determine if a piece of material was suitable for publication or not. So long as it wasn’t too controversial, I would put my initials on it.

However, then I ran the risk that one of the advertiser's competitors calling Jenny the next day to complain to her that I shouldn't have approved the advertisement. But whenever I told any advertiser to make amendments to his advertisement he would call Mr Li Meng Hwa directly to complain that either my attitude was poor or that I was being rude. Invariably I got the scolding. Life was tough.

Chapter 9

For reasons best known to myself, I did not go to Coffee Bean to buy my usual Americano this morning. So that I arrived at the office earlier than Alan. His desk was empty, unlike mine, which was always cluttered with negatives. I peeped at his mug. It had the words “I Miss You” embossed on it. I wondered if somebody gave it to him or he bought it himself. Then I walked to my own desk and began the day’s chores, which was to vet the negatives. I always started with the ones from the bottom as they arrived first.

Even before Jenny came in, negatives were piled on top of my desk. I took a sip of the Americano and reluctantly switched on my brains.

Half an hour later I heard some voices in the background, I recognised as Jenny talking to someone. As I turned around, I saw that she came in with Siew Eng. They were chatting animatedly. I hoped that Siew Eng had not said bad things about me, especially the way that I was slow in handling the negatives.

“Good morning, Lynette,” Siew Eng greeted me.

“Hi, morning,” I said. I never failed to reply to Siew Eng.

“Already so many negatives,” I grumbled.

“Not time yet, you could read the newspapers first,” her advice.

I took out the Our News Daily and immediately flipped at it. My attention completely focused on the advertisements, hoping that none of the ones I vetted the day before had misrepresentations or offenses that escaped my notice, and that included any typographical errors.

Jenny’s Christmas dangling was still in my drawer, but I had entirely forgotten about it.

Chapter 10

Usually at 3:30 p.m. I took a breather. Most of the negatives would have been vetted, and I took my coffee break before the new ones arrived at my desk at 5:00 p.m., just in time to give me more work, thus preventing me from leaving the office at the official working hour. I was not saying that this was a conspiracy, but that this had become a natural phenonium. Of course, I wasn’t happy about it.

I met Siew Eng in the toilet. One thing about Siew Eng was that she never failed to brush her teeth after lunch, which accounted for her sparkling white teeth.

“Any chance on joining us for the annual D & D this year?” Siew Eng asked, as though she already knew that I might not be going.

“I hope it is not going to be on New Year’s Eve. That’s my birthday.” I said.

“Wow! New Year Eve baby!” Siew Eng exclaimed with a note of envy.

“You also get half day leave every year!” she added, quick in her calculations.

“Not so good,” I said, “if I take leave, it would count for a full day leave,” and I made a sour face.

And then we both continued with our separate tasks without another word.

Chapter 11

I spent most of my time towards the end of spring 2005 to the early spring of 2006 reading the newspapers. In the mornings I read all the advertisements, and whenever I had time, I read all of the news articles. You could correctly say that I was in the newspapers business without reference to any of the publications, for I was given all of the advertisements by the company to vet, including the Malay language publication, contents of which I couldn’t fathom. I was beginning to think that it was a way in which the company was trying to get rid of me – by overloading me with work.

And I also attended the company’s annual Dinner & Dance, despite the fact that it fell on my birthday.

By March 2006 I would have worked for the company for one year, and Jenny had been pregnant for five-months. I watched her tummy grow larger as the months went by, but nothing had been mentioned about the father of the baby. Everyone in the office assumed that the fatherhood belonged to Jenny’s husband Mr Chee. I was very disturbed about this. I knew the truth but that I couldn’t tell anyone about it.

Chapter 12

I read the Bible from time to time, not as a habit but occasionally whenever I was short of reading material.

Reading the Bible often enough would send you to the church, like if you liked Chinese food you would visit a Chinese restaurant. This Easter I found myself in a church. The church had marble flooring with a flower motif design. The colours were black and white, and the pews were made of timber wood. Many people were there, as it was almost full. An atmosphere of complete silence prevailed the entire setting, which I found deafening. Immediately I sensed that it was time to pray. So, I quickly bent down and made my petition, summarising my needs to a “let my intentions be granted”, without specifying what they were. I just wanted my life to be changed for the better. Squinting through negatives interpreting the films for twelve hours a day was definitely meaningless. Life must have a purpose.

I also knew that I couldn’t tell anyone about Jenny’s baby. I had no proof that the child wasn’t Mr Chee’s, and if I told anyone about what I overheard the other night, Jenny could sue me for defamation.

After I made my petition, thus satisfied, I looked around at my fellow parishioners. They were well dressed but what surprised me was that they came in two or threesome. I thought to myself that surely worshipping was a matter between man and God, not a family gathering. Nonetheless I kept the question mark to myself.

Chapter 13

Memories were a fragile thing. Once lost they could never be retrieved. That was why we have photographs – to capture the moment that memory might fail us. And so tonight, I took out my old photographs to rearrange them. Inevitably I found Victor in most of them. He was everywhere. We had spent the last six years together. In the swimsuit he looked quite exotic. Yes, Victor was dark skinned. He could have been mistaken for a non-Chinese. The fact that he adopted a Western name didn’t make his ethnic clearer.

Today from the office I rang the telephone company during lunch hour. I dared not use the office time and in any case was too busy during office hours.

“Hello, could you tell me who the subscriber to this telephone number 91191206 is?”

“I am sorry ma’am, this is confidential information, we are not allowed to release,”

“Even if I give you the reason?” I asked, and then continued,

“ …. you see, I suspect that the subscriber is dead ….”

“Madam, if that were the case, I would advise you to go to the police. We have no knowledge of the subscriber’s mortality status,” the woman on the other side of the line gave me a stern warning.

And then she hung up on me.

Well, at least he was still alive, for otherwise the line would have been given up, and the information would not be confidential. And didn’t the hotline officer say “if”?

I made a sign of the cross and silently thanked God that Victor was still alive. At least seemed to be so. I did not go further than to ask the Almighty to make him come back to me. I knew that it was a matter between him and me, not something that even God could interfere in.

Immediately after this, Alan came and placed another stack of negatives on my side table. I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 1:49 p.m. I cursed the man under my breath. I was not due to start work again until 2:00 p.m.

Chapter 14

I went home after midnight as usual. The house was in pitch darkness when I arrived. Although I lived alone, I was never afraid of the darkness. This was a condominium there were security guards around. In any case, this was a safe country with low crime rates, criminals were more often than not apprehended without fail. Apart from that there was nothing worth in my house for anyone to steal, unless they want to cart away my Panasonic television. Apart from a secondhand Rolex watch and a few expensive Tiffany’s pendants, no thief would want to trouble himself to break in.

I used the Google Nest Hub to turn on the music, calling for Armik “Piano Nights” Once there was music I felt better. I allowed myself to be drowned in the music as I prepared to go to bed. I spent very little time at home even though the house was interior designed. This was done when Victor was around. He liked expensive things and since he was footing the designer’s bill, I had no objections.

The next morning the first thing I did when I woke up was to look into my iPhone. No reply came from Victor, which was to be expected. I opened and deleted a message from a slimming studio which offered me a six-hundred-dollar voucher which was the last thing I needed. I was only 49 kg standing at 5 foot. I deleted this message at once and wondering if Victor also did the same whenever he saw my text.

I would continue to text him until he replied. Or failing which, unless it was proven beyond reasonable doubt that the handphone number no longer belonged to Victor. But how could I know? How could I find out?

Hey! I got a message!

I know that you stole something from Jennythe text read.

The sender was from an unknown number.

Chapter 15

When I arrived at the office the next day, I saw that the … OMG! … the Christmas dangling was gone! Somebody had taken it!

It must have been taken by the person who sent me the text. The same person found the article in my drawer and that was why he knew that I took it from Jenny. Who was he? Who could it be?

Immediately I made a sign of the cross and went into a silent prayer. It was so haphazard that even I didn’t think that God knew what I was asking Him for. I was certainly in a frenzy.

More negatives were piled at my table. I felt like calling it quits to take a day off to go home. I couldn’t stay in the office any longer. The police might come anytime. But then for such a small thing the police wouldn’t want to take it up. After all it could have been put into my drawer by mistake. Nobody knows what you do in the dark, unless you tell them. Yes, no one saw me taking the dangling the other night. Wait! There was someone. The person who turned off the power supply that night. It might not have been a power failure – the one who switched off the lights before I did at the office the other night. And all along I thought that it was a coincidence. Yes, it was deliberate. Now I have put a logic to the events the other night – someone saw me and turned off the lights to scare me, now he sent me the text to blackmail me. Yes! Blackmail! If he wanted to report me, he would have gone straight to Mr Li Meng Hwa, rather than alarming me over the phone.

Now that I have set my brains to work, I felt much better. Relieved, I started on the negatives again. No need to take leave to go home. I could stay until midnight to finish my work. Now I already knew by heart which switches were for which set of lights.

Chapter 16

I told myself I must engage in more meaningful activities other than this staring of negatives day in and day out. Negatives which were controversial and might pose a problem the advertisers would already have checked with the department head Jenny. I was there only as a scapegoat. And I called this “staring” as sometimes my mind drifted and I didn’t even know what I was looking at. They were all so dark and interpretations had to be made from dark to white and light to black. It wasn’t easy.

The only thing that cheered me up was perhaps the coffee that Alan Fong brought me punctually at 3:30 p.m. He did this favour for me simply because he wanted me to approve his negatives for him. I wasn’t vain I knew my short comings. I have a weak constitution and I fell sick quite regularly often succumbing to the coughs and cold. A walk in the rain would instantly send me to the GP. No one except Victor would find me useful company.

Chapter 17

I had only been in this room twice before. The first time was on my first day of work. I came in to see Mr Li Meng Hwa to sign for my employment contract, which would last me for two years, if I didn’t commit certain acts which would amount to a breach of contract. The contract also stipulated that I mustn’t be engaged in the same industry for the next two years after I left Our New Daily. I was also made to declare that I was physically and mentally fit to undergo the assignment. Of course, nowhere in the agreement stated that I could not be romantically involved or get married during the term of my employment. I glanced through the document without as much as a pause and quickly signed on it. I wanted the job and since it had now become available, I took the chance to quickly grabbed at it. Everything could happen next.

The second time I entered Mr Li Meng Hwa’s room was on my first day. I came in to report to work, and I still remembered that I wore a bright red dress. That was my favourite colour. I did remember asking myself if the new boss Mr Li Meng Hwa would like it. But then I chuckled and told myself that it was going to be my work that mattered, not my wardrobe.

So that today when Jenny sent word that Mr Li Meng Hwa was going to see me, I knew straight away that something significant was going to be happening. And judging from the fact that I overheard the conversation in his room the other night, I assumed that I was going in for a sack. Jenny let me of the hook, but the divisional head Mr Li did not. I quickly went into the ladies to freshen up, telling myself that if the company was going to dismiss me, I would give them a good longlasting impression. I knew that although my job performance wasn’t up to standard, I had done nothing seriously wrong.

Mr Li Meng Hwa was nothing but all smiles.

“Sit down,” he said.

I pulled the chair out in front of Mr Li gingerly, preparing to say I quit at any moment.

After clearing his throat, Mr Li said,

“Based on your good performance I have spoken to the CEO, and he has agreed to offer you a promotion,”

I was shocked, and stumbling on my words, I could only utter an “err …”

Mr Li waved his hands, and added, “Don’t be too happy yet. The offer of promotion was for you to take on more responsibility. You would need to put in more hours, but that the salary would be twice of what you receive now.”

I could see that it was an offer difficult to refuse. And that I must have been an idiot to say no. I nodded my head, and all I could say was “thank you”.

Upon seeing this, Mr Li pushed a piece of paper towards me, and said “sign here,” I glanced at it, and could see that it was a new contract. I wanted to ask him if I could bring it home to study it first, but then realised that it would have been rude, and that I might miss my opportunity to the promotion if I did not take up the offer immediately.

I grabbed the pen that Mr Li gave me and looked for the words Signature and I quickly signed on it. The document was in duplicate so that he returned me the other copy and told me to keep it. I left Mr Li’s office and went back to my desk a little flabbergasted, and then I sat down on my chair staring at the negatives.

At 3:30 p.m. Alan placed the usual coffee on my desk. “A penny for your thoughts?” he said.

I merely looked at him, without telling him about my promotion. I supposed that he would get to know it sooner or later, the company will announce it in the newsletter. I continued with my job until everyone had left the office, and as usual I was the one who switched off all the lights. This time I dare not turn back or even as much as attempt to hear if any noises were coming from Mr Li’s room.

Chapter 18

So that means that Li Meng Hwa and Jenny did not know that I overhead their conversation the other night. For if they did, why would they offer me a promotion?

But money and position were never without consideration. If I gave you one thousand dollars today without specifying the purpose for such a handout, chances were that the request for favour might come, sooner or later. Then apart from keeping my mouth shut, what would be the consideration?

I allowed the thought to haunt me for several months until Jenny finally gave birth to her baby. It turned out to be a girl. No wonder Li Meng Hwa did not file for paternity suit, for if it were a boy, he would have done so I was sure of that.

The D & D this year was held in September at Jenny’s house to coincide with her baby shower. Jenny told us that she would only disclose the name of the baby at the house event. I told myself that she should not only keep this a secret but also the surname of the baby a secret too.

Chapter 19

I took an instant liking to the house the moment I stepped in. The rug that greeted me was a nice white fur in the shape of a lamb. A vase with a red rose stood quietly on a small table stand. I told myself that I must not break the vase at all costs. Jenny would sack me immediately even if I did it out of carelessness. Some Jazz music was playing in the background and I knew that the other guests had arrived.

A lizard jumped out from nowhere and landed himself on my feet. I gave a loud screech and then someone gave a tenacious grip on my arm. I turned around and saw that it was Li Meng Hwa.

“Shouldn’t you be with the guest?” I said.

“Why should I be? I am also a guest,” he replied.

How treacherous! The father of the baby! I thought to myself. I think it’s about time I gave him a lesson. I decided to be frank. And for no reason I became very bold.

“You are the father, isn’t it?” I proclaimed.

“Oh, whatever makes you think so?” Li Meng Hwa smiled at me with a kind of grin that made me want to slap him, dispute the fact that he was paying me my salary. I liked the truth. As far as I remembered I never told a lie before. The Bible said that an honest answer was a kiss on the lips.

“I heard you two the other night,” I said.

“You are confusing me, lady,” Li Meng Hwa said, “which night?”

I looked at him, unable to recall which day it was that I overheard the conversation.

“Let me get rid of the lizard for you,” Li Meng Hwa gave his kind offer.

“Don’t touch me! You lousy man!!” I shouted at him.

I think he didn’t expect this, and he almost fell bending backwards.

At this juncture, Jenny came out from somewhere inside her house. She must have come from the kitchen, for an apron was still wrapped around her waist.

“What happened?” first thing she asked.

“No issue, Jenny, I was just trying to get rid of the lizard for Lynette,”

“So sorry for the scare,” Jenny said, and she quickly pulled me inside, a sparkling Chanel watch on her wrist glared at me. This must have been a gift from the father of the baby, either Mr Chee or Li Meng Hwa.

Throughout high tea, I kept wondering if I had made a mistake, by confronting Li Meng Hwa like that. I told myself I had lost my job for good, and that I had better hand in my resignation letter first thing on Monday morning.

Chapter 20

I prepared my letter of resignation in haste. My PC at home was an outdated model with a very old version of the Windows. I had neglected my PC simply because I was so busy at work and coming back home late at night.

When I arrived at the office early in the morning, I saw that Damien hasn’t come in yet.

I quickly walked to my desk, afraid that I have to explain on why I came in so early.

Once I sat down, I took away the photo frames on my desk and put them inside my shopping bag. Then I took one sip of the Americano which I picked up this morning and prepared to hand in my letter of resignation. My only concern now was whether I should hand it to Jenny or to Li Meng Hwa. Jenny was my immediate boss, but Li was the one that I offended.

As usual Siew Eng came in at 8:30 a.m., followed by Alan Fong.

“Good morning Lynette,” both of them greeted me at the same time.

“Where are your photo frames?” Siew Eng asked.

I couldn’t offer any explanation, so I pulled one negative towards me, and I pretended to look at it.

“Another long day,” Siew Eng said.

“Yup Monday blues …, ” reluctantly I added.

I had almost forgotten that Jenny had taken leave for the month, following the birth of her baby. So that now I reported directly to Li Meng Hwa. And frankly speaking I really loath that. The door to Li Meng Hwa’s room was always shut. I could not tell from the outside if he had come in for the day or not.

I made three trips to his secretary Elaine’s desk outside his office. And I was turned down three times. Finally, Elaine rang me on the internal line, and said, “Mr Li is free to see you now, but make it fast.”

The office was large. I had not described this to you before. A large water colour of Monet was hung in front of him. You won’t be able to see it unless you were walking out from his room. I liked it the first time I saw it.

“You have something to tell me? Lynette?” Mr Li asked even before I had a chance to sit down.

“Yes, I want to give you my letter.” I said, in a tentative tone. At the back of my mind I was hoping that he would pardon me for that night and tell me to retrieve the letter.

Mr Li opened the envelope and took out the letter which said,

Dear Sir

I would like to tender my resignation with Our News Daily with immediate effect. And I thank you for the opportunity to work at the company for the past eighteen months. My resignation is with regrets for personal reasons.

Best regards

Lynette Sim (Ms)

“So that’s it? You think that you can walk out on me, thinking that nothing had happened before?” Mr Li’s voice was clear and unequivocal.

“Err, …. ” I was lost for words. “I thought, … I thought that you didn’t want me anymore, I had offended you the other day,” I muttered, as soft as a church mouse.

“The events that happened at Jenny’s house has nothing to do with your performance here. As far as I am concerned, you are hardworking, and … I thought I had promoted you?”

“Sure, Sir,” I swallowed a bit of my saliva. And then I stretched out my hand to retrieve the letter from Mr Li. I gave him a grateful look and then I stood up to walk away from his desk, not forgetting to appraise the piece of Monet on his wall.

Outside, negatives had piled up mountain high.

Chapter 21

It was easy to forget the past, but not easy to forgive someone.

Victor was still at large, and I had been praying non-stop for his manifestation, i.e. to either reply to my messages or to let me know if he was still alive. Of course, if he were dead, he won’t be able to tell me. I had no official relationship with him, and under the law had no legal right to demand his whereabouts. For all I knew he could have been married to another woman by now.

“I Miss You” – the mug from Alan Fong came to my desk. I saw it and simply brought it back to Alan and left it there. He must have accidentally put it there. After all our desks are quite close to each other.

Then at 3:30 p.m., my usual coffee from Alan arrived at my desk. I was too busy to tell him that he misplaced his mug earlier this morning. My head was buried in the negatives throughout. It was not until 5:00 p.m. that I had a chance to take a break by going to the toilet.

And I almost forgot to mention that since Jenny gave birth to her second child the baby girl, she was in a much better mood, and no longer have the time and inclination to give me her pep talk. I got a chance to leave the office before midnight. However, I was still the last one to leave.

But recently I always found it uncomfortable at a certain hour, at around 8:00 p.m. or thereabouts. I felt a presence standing behind me, it was strong and luminating. It could be due to the fact that the lights at my section was still on. The other parts of the office were in pitch darkness. I could sense the silent force moving from one desk to the other, like a hurricane.

Tonight, I felt it most strong. I quickly packed my things and booked a Grab from my iPhone and called it quits. I didn’t want to be confronted by anyone from beyond. Packing my things, I almost spilled the unfinished coffee that Alan gave me.

The night was chilly but not too cold for my liking. I took a deep breath and told myself that life was treating me well. As I stepped into the Grab car, I saw a text from none other than Victor.

You are alive!” I quickly texted back.

“Listen, can I meet you now?” the person on the other side replied.

“It’s past midnight, …. ” I texted back, forgetting that he was the one that I had wanted to meet all the while.

“I can only meet you now,” the other side replied.

“Ok, then where?” I asked.

“Just outside Panama Cinema,” and then, “I meet you at the ticketing counter,” another text.

I was so elated I had entirely forgotten about the fact that at this hour, the ticketing counter would have dispensed all the tickets for the patrons for the midnight shows and closed.

So that I ordered the Grab driver to change destination. He drove me to the cinema and bid me goodnight, which was rather unusual. I was so happy myself that I didn’t bother about the driver.

Chapter 22

The cinema was empty. Few people were there and in fact they were only the cleaners. I took the escalator up to the ticketing counter and I saw Li Meng Hwa there.

“Thought you weren’t coming!” he said.

“You … you are the one who texted me?!” I exclaimed.

“Who else do you think it was?” he asked.

And then at the same time he took out an ornament, a charm that I recognised so well.

“Want to bring this home?” he asked.

“I, I, I … don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“You took this from Jenny’s office door,” Li did not mince his words.

I could not deny it now. The evidence was weighing right in front of me.

“What do you plan to do? Report me? This is such a small item!” I raised my voice.

“Of course not, Lynette. This is just to tell you that we have CCTV surveillance everywhere in the office. I saw you but that I found it to be a once off affair, so I decided to ignore it.”

“And in any case, you are a good staff.” Li Meng Hwa was gentle with his words.

“Let me give you a ride home,” he said.

“Wait! Then how did you know Victor’s phone number? It was you sending the messages to me, right?” I questioned the wretched man.

“Yup, you have been sending messages to this number every day, and during office hours, so we decided to go to the telecommunications company to check on it,” Li was not afraid to disclose the facts.

“You have been spying on me!” I shouted.

“We are paying for your handphone bills, of course we should know these things,” Li was adamant.

“I am done with you! I am done with your company!” I shouted, and then I walked away, back to the streets dimly lit with lights. My footsteps were bold and loud.

This time Li grabbed hold of me again. He gripped my arm so tight that I almost screamed. Frankly speaking, Li Meng Hwa was a handsome man, if he hadn’t been with Jenny and I hadn’t overheard the conversation the other night a year ago, I would have wished him as a suitor. But now?

Chapter 23

Late at night there seemed nothing much to do except to follow my bosses’ order. Meekly I walked with Li to his Lexus, and I climbed into the passenger seat without another word. Surprisingly he drove me back home, which was in fact disappointing.

Before I got off the car, Li threw a sentence at me, “It is him, isn’t it?”, with almost a trace of bitterness.

But where was Victor? I screwed my brains the entire night trying to decide if I should forget about Victor and move on.

The next day I did not report to the office. Neither did I do so for the next three days, and the week after that. No one contacted me and I simply disappeared from the radar of Our News Daily.

Three months later I found another job, this time with a real estate company. They hired me because I looked smart and presentable which was what an estate agent needed to possess. The salary was commission based and depended on my sales. I liked the job because of the flexible hours. Compared to Our News Daily where I had to be glued to the chair for two to three hours at a stretch, this job was cushy.

But I had a nagging feeling that Li Meng Hwa would not let go of me so easily, especially since he knew that I knew the truth about baby Elizabeth. It suddenly occurred to me that I could blackmail him. I did not need money, but I was quite thrilled at the thought that I could gain some control over the man. I still could not forgive the fact that he spied on me.

Speaking of the devil. Li Meng Hwa rang me up whilst I was attending to one of my customers at a show flat.

“Would you like to meet up with me?” he said over the phone, with a kind of earnestness that surprised me.

Chapter 24

I sat down in front of the man who once used to be my boss. This time he had no power over me. I greeted him politely and asked him why he had decided to meet me after such a long time. Of course I didn’t remember handing in a second letter of resignation.

“I have a favour to ask of you,” Li came straight to the point.

“Huh? I am surprised, Mr Li,” I said, almost wanting to make fun of him. “You know Jenny, and her little daughter …?” he began, somewhat tentatively.

“Yes, her daughter Elizabeth,” I said.

“Jenny had refused to allow me to see her,” Li said.

“Her? You mean Elizabeth?” I asked.

“Precisely! And you know that she is my daughter,” Li put it across.

“What is the problem? I thought you wanted me to hide it?” I queried; a bit surprised.

“Yes, and no.” Li looked quite upset now.

“Jenny had promised me that she would resign from Our News Daily and marry me once the divorce with her husband is finalised,” The man was about to cry.

“Then?” I asked.

“Nothing has happened so far, it’s been almost a year since Elizabeth was born,”

I see the picture now. This man wants me to go to court to swear that Elizabeth was his child.

“Why do you think that Jenny refused to marry you?” I probed. He ought to tell me if he wanted me to help him.

“Her husband came into a large sum of money by way of inheritance,” Li explained.

“No way, I am not going to wreck someone else’s marriage.” I said, firmly.

“If I remember correctly, Jenny wasn’t very nice to you before,” Li tried to instigate me.

“No way, and goodbye!” This is the second time I walked away from the good-looking man.

And I couldn’t say that I was not disappointed.

But I was also afraid at the same time. Now that Li was certain that I knew about the secret – the fatherhood of Elizabeth, would he hire an assassin to kill me?

Chapter 25

Li Meng Hwa was not my beau, neither was he my boyfriend. But after the past few encounters, I had grown to take a liking to him. He never took it back on me, he just allowed me to do whatever that I wished, at that moment. And whenever I stormed out on him, he just stood there and waited until I had gone out of sight. I had begun to develop feelings for him. I told you he was good looking. He was also well dressed.

I told myself I shouldn’t be running away from Li Meng Hwa like that. Like a pokemon he appeared at critical times. I was beginning to wonder if he was doing this for revenge. But why could he take revenge on me? I had not done him any harm, either wilfully or unwittingly.

But the image of Victor Lau See Chin still haunted me. You couldn’t blame me I was living in the house in which he designed with the help of an interior designer. I decided that I should move out as soon as possible.

I found the name of an agent – Ryan Chan Kok Liang. He was working together with another lady by the name of Crystal Chong Bee Eng, in the same company that I now worked at. Both of them have six years of real estate experience. I was persuaded to sell my house at below the market price since the economic outlook for this quarter was dim. I just wanted to leave the premises as soon as possible. Even though I had not thought of where to go.

Chapter 26

On the day of the viewing, only three persons appeared at my house. One was a middle-aged banker, the other a couple and the third a man from overseas. I gave them my reserved price at once, and all said that they would think about it. I guess that this was a negative response.

But two days later I got a call from Ryan Chan my estate agent. He gave me a piece of shocking news – that the house was mortgaged, so that I would have to discharge the mortgage first. I had no idea. Victor had been managing all the details all these while. I only did the domesticated chores like house-cleaning and helping him to entertain. If this were the case, then I couldn’t sell the house. But I also had no means to pay off the mortgage. What happened to the letters of demand? Surely the bank would have sent them to me?!

“Apparently Victor Lau has another address,” Ryan Chan said.

“Could you give me the other address?” I asked innocently.

“Am afraid I myself don’t know,” he replied.

It all suddenly came together. Now I knew why Victor disappeared from my life. I didn’t remember having quarrelled with him. Fact that he left so abruptly had puzzled me for a long time. He must have been in debt. But how come? As far as I know, Victor was not a gambler.

“How many months due is the mortgage?” I asked.

“I don’t know, all I know is that the house cannot be sold until the mortgage is discharged,”

“Can I ask the buyer to discharge the mortgage for me?”

At night I tossed and turned in bed, unable to fall asleep. My accommodation was in trouble and soon I will have nowhere to stay. I was merely an occupier in the house of a missing man. Apart from the fact that I had also lost my job.

Chapter 27

There was no way out. Either I begged Li Meng Hwa for the admin executive job back, or I allowed myself to go hungry in the streets.

I went personally to look for Li Meng Hwa in the office, this time his secretary Elaine was not seated at the outside to stop me from barging in. Thank God Li was in.

To say the truth, Li Meng Hwa was not surprised to see me at all. He merely said to me,

“You’re back!” and then he signalled for me to sit down in front of him.

“You know how long I have waited for you to come around to your senses?” Li opened conversation.

“Yes, and I know that I shouldn’t have left like this, without any note,” I said plainly.

“For this I would demand that you write a letter to explain for your absence, to indicate that you had been employed by us Our News Daily all this while,” “…. you could say that you were hospitalised, or that you were going through bereavement …. although for bereavement the leave allowed is only three days.” Li was certainly very helpful.

“I … err … I try my best … can you write the letter for me?” I said, I really didn’t know how to go about it.

“Fine. Report to me first thing tomorrow morning.”

I went home with a mixed feeling of gratitude and relieved most of all. I could start to get my life back. Victor had played me out and I should not be bothered about him anymore. He couldn’t pay the mortgage to our house, so he abandoned ship. That was certainly very irresponsible of him.

And most of all, now I could have a schedule to my day, and I could start to have my Americano again!

Chapter 28

The negatives were piling up again. I told myself to drink more coffee. Alan Fong was at his newspapers and doing pagination again. Siew Eng was just waiting for me to pass the vetted ones to her for her to bring them to the production department. As I was sipping the coffee reading the news for a breather, I saw ….

Victor Lau See Chin!!!

There was this news that a man by the name of Victor Lau See Chin had been stabbed at Panama Cinema on 15 March 2007, just three months ago, the same night that I had met Li Meng Hwa. I recorded the date in my memory because that was also the same day two years ago that I joined Our News Daily.

Yes! Even if my text messages could be read by Li Meng Hwa because my handphone bills were paid by the company, it was strange that Li could be holding Victor’s handphone on that day. How could he have gained control over Victor’s handphone?

…. Victor was killed!!!

Immediately my phone rang. Elaine was on the internal line,

“Lynette, Mr Li wants to see you now,” she said.

I stood up from my chair, like a zombie I walked to Li Meng Hwa’s room. I knocked even though I knew that he was expecting me and then I opened the door.

“Has it been proven beyond reasonable doubt?” the man on the high-backed chair said, staring straight into my eyes, his words piercing into my ears.

Now all I need do was to find the motive.

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