Authors: Shamini Flint
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #International Mystery & Crime
This was scanned by the scanner, proofed by the proofer and called (v1.0). My scans and/or proofs are done so I can read the books on my smart phone and or REB-1100 eBook reader. This electronic text is meant to be read by a reader...
A Thomas Dunne Book
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
A THOMAS DUNNE BOOK FOR MINOTAUR BOOKS.
An imprint of St. Martin's Publishing Group.
INSPECTOR SINGH INVESTIGATES. Copyright © 2008 by Shamini Flint. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging–in–Publication Data
Flint, Shamini, 1969–
Inspector Singh investigates : a most peculiar Malaysian murder / Shamini Flint. — 1st U.S. ed. p. cm.
"A Thomas Dunne book." ISBN 978–0–312–59697–2
1. Police—Singapore—Fiction. 2. Singaporeans—Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur—Fiction. 3. Murder—Investigation—Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur— Fiction. 4. Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)—Fiction. I. Title. PR6106.L56I57 2010 813'.6—dc22
First published in Great Britain by Piatkus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group
First U.S. Edition: July 2010
For my husband
'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.'
(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
'Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!'
(Proclamation of independence by Tunku Abdul Rahman, first Prime Minister of Malaya on 31 August 1957)
The accused, Chelsea Liew, was in court. She sat on a wooden bench in a wooden box, handcuffed to a police woman.
The prosecutor, a large, shiny Malay man, marking time until his own elevation to the Bench, watched the court official read out the charge in a slow, ponderous voice, 'That you, Chelsea Liew, on or about the eighteenth day of July, committed murder by causing the death of Alan Lee.'
The judge said, 'How does the accused plead? Guilty or
The shrivelled old man with large, yellow, herbivorous teeth and a thick head of implausibly black hair managed to inject a wealth of disbelief into the possibility of a not guilty plea. Many of the judges in Malaysia were drawn from the civil service, which meant they had previously been public prosecutors themselves. Their instincts were conservative and their sympathies rarely with the accused in criminal trials.
Chelsea's lawyer, a tall, thin Indian man with a large Adam's apple bobbing above his white, winged collar, struggled for diplomatic words that would not involve criticising any party for whom the judge had sympathy – basically, everyone except his client. 'My Lord, the evidence is circumstantial. The police and prosecution have rushed to judgement because this is a high profile case. The charges should be dismissed outright.'
Teeth were exposed in a parody of a smile. The judge, hunched over his elevated table, black gown bunched about his shoulders, looked more like a vulture than a member of the Bench. He said, 'Guilty or not guilty?'
The lawyer recognised a lost cause. He stole a quick nervous glance at the woman in the dock. At last the accused muttered, 'Not guilty.' Her lawyer sighed with relief.
The judge rapped his gavel. 'Accused to be remanded in custody until trial dates fixed.'
Her defence lawyer made one last attempt to assist his client. 'My lord, this is an unusual case involving a mother of three. Although bail is not usually granted where the charge is murder ...'
He was interrupted. 'Application for bail denied!'
The judge stood and the lawyers, members of the public in the gallery and court staff rose hastily to their feet. No one was permitted to sit in the august presence of the law. Even, thought the lawyer angrily, if it was personified by an incompetent, semi–senile old man with a stunted sense of justice. Gown billowing, the judge walked out – his work done for the day.
Chelsea's lawyer slumped back into his chair, shoulders bowed. The prosecution team looked pleased. Only the accused did not react. Her anger and emotion had been spent long before her marriage had culminated in the murder of her husband. She stared at the ground between her feet. When a policewoman took her arm and led her out, she went without resisting.
Inspector Singh was wedged into a small plastic seat at Changi Airport. Hunched up, his belly compressed his lungs. His fleshy, sweaty knees were pressed together chastely to avoid inadvertent brushes with the people on either side. Inspector Singh had a strong dislike of physical contact with strangers. Unfortunately, his girth made it difficult for him not to encroach onto their seats. His shirt was wilting and his shirt pocket, full of pens, was tearing slightly at the corner. Patches of damp were visible under his armpits and just above his belly. Only his white sneakers looked as fresh as when he had put them on before setting out for the office –blissfully unaware that he was about to be assigned to the case that he had, only that morning, been reading about in the newspapers. He remembered feeling sorry for the policeman who had the dismal task of finding the murderer of Alan Lee. He felt much sorrier now that he knew it was himself.
Inspector Singh was waiting for a flight to Kuala Lumpur. He sighed, a breathy, wheezy sound; a heavy smoker, his breathing always sounded strained. He needed a cigarette but smoking was prohibited indoors and pretty much everywhere else in Singapore. He wondered whether he dared nip outside for a fag. As much as he viewed his assignment in Malaysia with trepidation, he did not want to miss his queue number. Singh knew he would not be on the case if he was not the unofficial 'most likely to be forced into early retirement' entry in the Singapore police yearbook. He sighed again, causing his neighbour, a middle–aged white woman, to glance at him surreptitiously. Singh knew what she was thinking. A dark man in a turban who seemed worried and preoccupied? She was hoping not to be on the same flight as him. Singh had neither the patience nor the inclination to explain to her that the six metres of cloth that he had wound around his head expertly that morning into a black, pointy turban reflected his heritage as a Sikh. It did not indicate terrorist proclivities and neither, for that matter, did anyone else's turban.
Singh felt his need for a cigarette sharpen. To hell with it. He would have to risk missing his flight. He felt in his trouser pocket for the reassuring rectangle of his cigarette packet and hauled himself with difficulty out of his seat. He wiped his forehead along the band of his turban with the back of his hand. It itched when he was hot.
He lumbered towards the exit and was brought up short by the sound of raised voices. He looked around with mild curiosity. It did not take him long to identify the source and cause of the altercation. Two men squaring–off. One white, the other Chinese. On the First Class carpet. It seemed that they had converged on the desk at the same moment and were now disputing right of way.
Singh really didn't feel like interfering. He took a step towards the exit and then glanced back. He saw the long–suffering expressions on the faces of those queuing up to fly 'cattle' class and made up his mind. He moved silently towards the men, his sneakers muffling his approach. Not that they would have heard him anyway. They were so engrossed in shouting each other down. The white man was beefy and red–necked, his nose a mosaic of broken veins. The Chinese man was slim and fit, wearing the yuppie uniform of polo shirt and chinos, his expensive matching luggage in a heap by his side.
Singh walked up to the men standing almost toe to toe, placed a fat–fingered hand on each man's chest and shoved. They parted like the Red Sea. The white man tripped over the edge of the deep blue First Class carpet and barely avoided falling over. He said angrily, 'Who the hell do you think you are?'
The Chinese man nodded to second the question, his face contorted with rage. Singh was amused to see this united front between the erstwhile combatants.
He smiled pleasantly and said, 'Inspector Singh, Singapore Police Force.'
Both men looked disbelieving. Singh didn't blame them. He was an overweight, sweaty, hairy, unconvincing example of a policeman.
He asked, 'So what's this about?'
'He took my place in the queue!'
'No! He cut in front of me.'
The pretty woman behind the check–in counter rolled her eyes at Singh.
Singh looked at the two men, one eyebrow raised thoughtfully.
Then he turned his back abruptly on them and walked over to the Economy queue. He counted out the first ten and beckoned to them imperiously. The passengers looked doubtful but succumbed to Singh's air of authority and followed him. He gestured to the First Class check–in and they lined up quietly, one tiny woman in a
saying sheepishly, 'But I only have an economy ticket.'
'Not to worry, madam,' said Singh politely.
He turned to the two men, 'You two – at the back of this line.'
'What do you mean?' blustered the Caucasian.
'You heard me, get in line here.'
'Behind all these people?'
'You can't do that!' It was the Chinese man.
'I've just done it ...'
'I'll have your badge for this!' he stammered angrily.
Singh grinned, suddenly happy He said, 'There's a long queue for that too!'
He waddled back towards his seat, ticket stub between clammy fingers. There was no time left for a cigarette. But it had been worth it.
Forty–five minutes later he was on the plane, sitting next to an elderly Malay man wearing a white shift, open sandals and a neat, white, round turban on his head. The Malay man grinned at Singh as he sat down, baring sparse, long teeth clinging to red, receding gums. But after a brief inquiry had elicited that his companion was Singaporean, the older man lost interest and slumped back in his chair.
The plane juddered and Singh looked nervously out of the window. He could see the coastline of Peninsular Malaysia. Singapore, a small island separated from the Malaysian mainland by a thin strip of water, the Straits of Johor, and connected by two bridges, had disappeared from view.
He forced his mind back to the matter at hand –the reason for this unexpected trip to Malaysia. He had the file in his briefcase but he did not take it out. There was no privacy on board the aircraft to be reading the details. Besides, he knew the skimpy facts by heart. It was the depth of passion running beneath the surface that had occupied the newspapers in Malaysia and Singapore for the last couple of weeks and promised to make the case a nightmare. Inspector Singh's superiors had decided that the poisoned chalice would be his. From their point of view it was a splendid choice. If he managed to find a way through the thicket of politics overwhelming the case, they would claim the credit. If he failed, they would hang him out to dry, pleased to get rid of one of the last mavericks in the Singapore police. His was not an organisation that appreciated instinct over method, results over means, footwork over paperwork. He was the elephant in the room that no one talked about but everyone hoped would do the decent thing and take early retirement. As he had not done it so far, he was on a small plane, enduring a bumpy flight, to a town up in arms.
Inspector Singh was quite convinced there was absolutely no possibility of a successful resolution to the case he had just been handed. There never was when religion trumped rational behaviour and politics influenced police work. Malaysia and Singapore were both former British colonies, once part of the same country but now two suspicious and independent neighbours. For both countries, every act of state by the other was potentially a threat or an insult. The tabloid press and politicians in both countries were competing for airtime by issuing the most inflammatory statements. There was talk of 'unwarranted interference in domestic affairs' by Malaysian officials. Singapore officialdom had adopted a superior tone about 'justice being seen to be done'.
And yet, thought Inspector Singh, the historical and family ties that bound the two nations together were stronger than the disputes that divided them. But that just exacerbated every disagreement between the countries. Between Malaysia and Singapore, there was none of the polite distance and formal dispute resolution of strangers – every difference of opinion was a family feud. And there were all too many opinions being vented in newspapers and online about his new case.
The plane came in to land over undulating hills covered in neat grids of oil palm. Singh caught a glimpse of the Formula One racetrack – yet another project by the previous government to drag Malaysia onto the world stage. Mahathir, the previous prime minister, was convinced that as long as he built the biggest, the best and the most expensive of everything, Malaysia would be treated with respect by the international community. Predictably, Malaysia had instead become a byword for the funding and construction of white elephants.
Singh walked towards the trains linking the Kuala Lumpur International Airport terminal building and the arrival hall. The ceiling above was lit with hundreds of small lights intended to look like the stars at night. He had read somewhere that a computer program had been used to locate the lights randomly and so no pattern was detectable. He scowled. Programmed randomness struck him as an oxymoron. He caught the connecting train and was further irritated. It was automated – did not have a driver. Inspector Singh had spent a career exploring the fallibility of man but he preferred the risk of human error to the certainty of electronic indifference to his well–being. Moments later, he stepped out of the air–conditioned coolness of the terminal into the sweltering tropical heat.
Singh strolled to the massed ranks of Mercedes Benz and climbed into the back of the first one. The Malay driver – almost all the drivers on the authorised limousine service were Malay – had an unkempt, wispy, black beard. His car on the other hand was immaculate. A verse of the Quran was plastered on the rear window. Inspector Singh did not read Arabic but he knew the expression was 'There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his only Prophet'. Across the glove compartment there was another sticker with the words 'You'll Never Walk Alone' emblazoned next to a logo of Liverpool Football Club.
Noticing the inspector looking at it, the driver asked, 'You Liverpool supporter?'
Inspector Singh watched continuous cricket coverage on the cable cricket channel in Singapore. But he felt mischievous and said, 'No, Manchester United.' He had forgotten that United was no longer the hate figure of the football world.
The driver nodded sympathetically. 'Very hard now for other teams. Chelsea boss got all the money.' He guffawed, exposing two rows of gold fillings that Singh could see glinting in the rearview mirror. 'Last time, what is important is who wins the game. Now what is important is who has the richest boss.
Bagi orang kaya trophy sahaja!
Give the rich man the trophy right away!
Inspector Singh laughed and then pulled out the newspaper he had picked up on the plane and settled down to read the latest on the matter that had brought him to Kuala Lumpur.
'There is nothing for you to do here! I don't know why you came. The Malaysian police can handle everything. You should go back now.' The speaker's moustache, a neat black brush with flecks of grey, bristled angrily as he shouted at the man across the desk from him. His eyes, under straight, thick brows, glared at the inspector from a nut–brown face.
Inspector Singh remained expressionless. He said, 'You have no choice and I have no choice. So we can do this the easy way or the hard way.' Seeing that the Malaysian Superintendent of Police was unmoved by this call to reason he added, 'After all, neither of us wants to see a miscarriage of justice.'
The officer did not respond. He sat at his desk, drumming his fingers on the table in an impatient tattoo. His desktop was devoid of anything that looked work related. Perhaps, thought Singh, the higher–ups in Malaysia merely waited around behind big, empty desks until there was an opportunity to throw their weight around with some foreign cop. He knew from his own experience in Singapore that the further up the ladder one got, the more the job was about politics and statistics than actually dealing with crime.
The Malaysian policeman was waiting for some reaction from his Singaporean counterpart. Singh wondered if he was expected to acknowledge the wisdom of the man's remarks, pick up his bags and head back to Singapore with his tail between his legs. Surely it was obvious that his superiors in Singapore had more leverage over him than the officer glowering at him across the desk? Still, if there was a waiting game to be played, Inspector Singh was a past master. He sat nonchalantly in the chair, eyeing a display of plastic flowers in a plastic vase.
The Malaysian was the first to blink. He stood up, walked over to a filing cabinet, slid open a drawer and took out a large folder.
He said, 'I do not like it but certain quarters have demanded that I cooperate. This is what we have done so far. We have the wife in custody. You can see her if you like. You can interview any other person in Malaysia but only if they agree. We cannot make anyone talk to you. I will send you my ADC. He will assist you.'
And watch my every move and report back to you, thought the inspector, but he did not say anything. This was a higher level of cooperation, however reluctant, than he had expected. Pressure must have been brought to bear at the highest levels. He nodded his thanks to the scowling man and picked up the folder.
The Malaysian leaned forward and put two splayed hands on the table. He said, 'One more thing: if you overstep your authority, I will put you in the jail cell next to the accused. And I don't think the Singapore government will send anyone to rescue you!'
Inspector Singh nodded cheerfully, assuming correctly that amusement would be the response that his opposite number would find most infuriating. He wondered when Malaysian officialdom would get over its need to indulge in theatrical bullying.
A few strides later he was out of the door. The muffled sound of footsteps caused him to turn round and he saw a young policeman hurrying after him. Singh stopped and waited.
'Sir!' A smart salute accompanied the greeting. 'I am Sergeant Shukor, aide–de–camp to Superintendent Khalid Ibrahim. He asked me to help you with this case.'
'Good. You can start by finding me a place to sit down and read this report,' ordered Inspector Singh. 'And then I'll need some tea.'
Inspector Singh lumbered after the young policeman assigned to be his minder and was shown into a small room with a desk and filing cabinet. He sat down heavily in the lone chair in the room which creaked a noisy protest. Singh swivelled around to look out of the heavily tinted glass windows behind him. On a field, a posse of young men dressed in blue shorts and white T–shirts were being put through their paces by a trainer whose booming voice could be heard faintly by the inspector. At least there was still an emphasis on fitness and not just computer skills in the police–training manual, he thought. As if to emphasise his own devotion to health, he lit a cigarette and wedged his large posterior more firmly into his chair.
He glanced at Sergeant Shukor, who was still standing smartly to attention. The young man had a tanned strong jaw, a broad flat nose and eyes that were slightly too widely spaced. If the sergeant has been a briefcase carrier his whole career, he could not have got his hands very dirty, thought the inspector. The Malaysian policeman's dark blue uniform was pressed to perfection and tight enough to grip muscular thighs and forearms. His regulation service revolver – shiny, black and dangerous – was neatly holstered.
Singh asked, 'So who is actually in charge of the Lee murder investigation?'
'Inspector Mohammad, sir.'
'Shouldn't I be talking to him before getting to work?'
The sergeant looked uncomfortable. He was remarkably transparent for a police officer. His emotions were both visible and decipherable as they flitted across his face.
Singh asked, 'What is it?'
'He was supposed to be here to meet you, sir. But he hasn't turned up.'
The inspector from Singapore grimaced. 'Not another Malaysian policeman with a bad attitude?'
'He's not exactly like that, sir.'
Singh was just about to probe deeper when there was a quiet knock on the door.
At a glance from the senior policeman, Shukor opened it.
A very tall man with thick, short, iron grey hair and a thin, ascetic face walked in. He was dressed in an extremely smart, dark suit, wore a pale blue shirt and a darker blue tie and had cufflinks with a college crest on them. He looked like he belonged on the stage, playing a Shakespearean tragedy, or in a boardroom with lots of deferential subordinates agreeing to everything he said.
He said, 'Inspector Singh? I'm Inspector Mohammad. Thank you for coming down to help us poor Malaysians stumbling around in the dark on this case.'
His voice matched his looks – smooth and effortlessly classy. And his hostility was going to be subtle and difficult to overcome. Singh, suddenly conscious of his damp shirt and pot belly, took the cigarette out of his mouth and said, 'It's my pleasure, Inspector Mohammad.'
'Please call me Mohammad. We don't have time for formality if we're to work together.'
Inspector Singh nodded. 'I understand from the sergeant here that you're in charge of this case?'
'The murder of Alan Lee? Yes, I'm afraid so. Still, it seems a fairly open and shut case, doesn't it?'
Singh gestured to the pile of papers in front of him. 'I was just making myself familiar with the facts.'
Inspector Mohammad's lip curled. 'It's not pretty, I'm afraid. Well, I'd better leave you to it. Shukor here will get you anything you need and I'm in my office when you're done.'
He walked out, closing the door quietly behind him.
Inspector Singh whistled softly through pursed lips. He said, 'Now where did that come from?'
Sergeant Shukor did not pretend to misunderstand the question. 'He's from a very wealthy family, sir. Perak royalty, actually.'
Singh nodded his head. Nine of the thirteen states in Malaysia were former sultanates and had hereditary royalty. It meant that there were a lot of people who could claim to be royalty, or at least related to royalty, knocking about.
Shukor continued, 'He went to boarding school in
England and has a doctorate from Cambridge in Criminal Psychology.'
'Then what's he doing here?'
'They say he loves the job and doesn't want to be promoted till it's all management and no police work.'
Inspector Singh could understand the reluctance to turn into a bureaucrat. He had the same instincts.
'They leave him alone, you see – because he's so well connected,' explained Shukor further.
Singh frowned. He was
well connected – and his higher–ups left him alone when it suited them, but not otherwise.
He set aside his curiosity about the Malaysian policeman, and said brusquely, 'Can you get me in to see the suspect?'
The young man nodded. 'Yes, sir. Inspector Mohammad said you would want to see her first so I have already arranged it.'
Good anticipation but he did not like the suggestion that he was predictable or predicted.
'I will see her in two hours. I will familiarise myself with the investigation first.'
The young man understood this to be a dismissal and saluted smartly. 'In that case, I will get you a cup of tea, sir.'
Inspector Singh looked around for an ashtray. There wasn't one. He dropped the fag end on the carpet and stamped it out hurriedly. The material covering the floor looked flammable. He kicked the butt under the desk. It was time to get down to work. He needed to find the quickest way out of this mess and back to Singapore. Singh untied the string that held the case file together and started to read.
The file heading was 'Chelsea Liew' and in brackets were the words 'Singapore IC'. In that short reference was the whole reason for his being in Malaysia. Chelsea Liew was a Singapore citizen. She held a Singapore identity card. She had married a Malaysian and had lived in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Bangsar for the last twenty years. She had three children who held Malaysian passports. But she was Singaporean. And she was accused of murdering her ex–husband. As a rule, the arrest of a Singaporean by any foreign country would not have involved the Singapore police. The embassy might have had a quick look if requested to ensure that the citizen in trouble was getting the rudiments of due process, but nothing more than that.
This case was different though. The religious overtones, custody battles, public outcry in both countries and political sensitivities between Malaysia and Singapore had resulted in a request by the Singapore government – keen to be seen to be doing something – to the Malaysian government – keen to be seen to be above the fray – that a Singaporean policeman be seconded to the investigation. So here he was, sitting in a grubby room in the Malaysian Police Bukit Aman headquarters, with a file three inches thick, feeling very sorry for himself.
Singh looked at the folder. He thought he recognised the efficiency of Sergeant Shukor in the neatly labelled piles of newspaper clippings, court transcripts and police interview notes. He was familiar with the essentials of the matter. But now he sat back in his protesting chair and let the full story unfold before him. The cup of tea Shukor had brought him sat untouched on the table.
From the day of their white wedding twenty years before, Chelsea Liew and her Malaysian husband, Alan Lee, had featured regularly in the gossip columns. Even Inspector Singh was aware of the beautiful Singaporean model swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance by the dashing Malaysian heir to a timber fortune. She had married her mogul and gone to live in a secluded bungalow with twenty–four–hour security and a car to match every dress. Singh stared at the faded newsprint of the happy couple. It was the Singapore equivalent of a royal wedding. Details of the matching placemats, the politicians in attendance and the estimated cost of the celebratory dinner for a thousand guests were dissected in depth in the newspapers. The wedding dress, especially made for her by a Parisian designer, had been imitated by almost every bride in Singapore that year. The fairy tale of a poor but beautiful girl who had gone on to marry one of the most eligible bachelors in Malaysia had captured the public imagination. And through all the publicity, speculation and envy, the bride had looked serene and the groom proud.
Chelsea had given up her modelling career upon marriage. It was rumoured that she had wanted to continue working but her husband had put his foot down. They didn't need the money. There was no need for her to make an exhibition of herself. Singh vaguely remembered his own wife, she of the firm opinions and grim forebodings, had warned that no good ever came of a woman giving up her independence for a man. The inspector had been vaguely irritated by this. She, Mrs Singh, had promptly abandoned her job as a teacher on marrying him and never hinted at a desire to go back, not even when it became apparent that no children would be forthcoming from the marriage. Although to be fair, thought Singh, his wife had not given up her independence on their wedding day – she had merely confiscated his. Anyway, her bleak outlook for the couple had caused Singh to secretly wish the rich man and his trophy bride well. Perhaps this fairy–tale marriage would have a happy ending.
But it was his wife who was proved right. The gossip and innuendo had started almost immediately the honeymoon was over. Chelsea Liew was reported to have put on weight. Her husband was seen out on the town. She had an unexplained black eye. Instead of the radiant pictures of her smiling into the camera, magazines started to carry pictures of her turning away hurriedly or holding up her handbag to obscure her face. Then she had three difficult pregnancies and bore her husband three fine sons. There was a temporary respite in the steady drip of bad news. Alan Lee was reported to be ecstatic over the birth of his sons and heirs. She was briefly described as the perfect role model for mothers everywhere –devoted to her growing family.
His business dealings were also generating publicity. Alan Lee had taken over the family business upon his father's death, bypassing the elder brother, Jasper, who had rejected the timber business and become a wildlife activist – ensuring regular run–ins played out on the front pages of the Malaysian newspapers. Alan Lee was an important man in business and his patronage was sought by politicians. As Chelsea disappeared completely from the public eye, Alan Lee was often photographed with other women, described coyly as his friends or colleagues.
Finally, twenty years into the marriage, Chelsea had sued for divorce and sole custody of the children, alleging abuse and adultery. The accusations and counter–accusations were a large part of the file. The transcripts of the divorce proceedings, with both parties fighting tooth and nail for custody of the children, made vicious and ugly reading. Her medical records showed evidence of traumatic injuries consistent with beatings. Alan had insisted they were self–inflicted and the symptoms of a dangerous, deranged woman who should not have the care of her children. She had, through her lawyers, asserted persistent adultery. He had looked sorry and insisted that he had just needed some comfort after his wife had turned on him. It did not affect his ability to be a good father.
Even the renegade brother, Jasper Lee, had testified – appearing on behalf of Chelsea. He claimed that Alan Lee, far from being a model parent, was an absent father whose business dealings were so tainted with criminality that he would be an unfit father for his children. Alan Lee's lawyers had done their best to discredit his brother on the grounds he was the frustrated black sheep of the family who, not content with breaking his father's heart by walking out on the family business, was now seeking revenge against the brother who had taken over. The youngest son of the family, Kian Min, had stepped in to contradict Jasper by testifying to Alan Lee's strong character and kind heart. This had caused some surprise. It was no secret that the youngest son had tried to persuade the father, when Jasper had walked out on the business, to give him control of Lee Timber. It had not been an unreasonable request. Alan was a playboy, pursuing beautiful women. He had not completed the engineering degree for which he had been sent to the United States and was always asking for money. The father was tempted to bypass his middle son in favour of the youngest.
But Alan, perhaps suspecting that he had pushed his luck far enough, had returned home in the nick of time, settled down with Chelsea, shown a tepid interest in the business and the rules of primogeniture had triumphed. It was implied in the newspapers that Kian Min, who still worked at the company but was barely on speaking terms with Alan, must have received quite a sweetener to perjure himself on behalf of his despised brother.
Public opinion favoured the wife when court was adjourned suddenly for two weeks. There was much speculation in the interim as to the reason for the sudden delay. Did Alan believe he was going to lose? Did he have a plan to kidnap the children and spirit them out of the country? Did she? And being Malaysia, there was the inevitable suggestion that the judge had an interest in reaching a particular outcome. After all, Alan Lee had money. And money had been known to subvert justice.
In the end, it was none of these things.
When court reconvened, Alan Lee dropped his bombshell. Sergeant Shukor had a flair for the dramatic because he had included the court transcript of proceedings and artist sketches of the main characters. Inspector Singh lit another cigarette and was soon absorbed in the courtroom drama.
The policeman intoned, '
,' or All rise' in a solemn voice. The judge, a huge Indian man with a beak for a nose and scanty hair, walked through the hidden door behind the dais on which he sat. He hitched up his gown, cleared his throat loudly and sat down. The courtroom was packed. This was the first day back after the unexpected two–week adjournment. The press, including members of the Singapore press, had queued since early morning to ensure a seat. The lawyers made a show of rustling papers and diving into thick legal tomes. Journalists whispered to each other and scribbled notes furiously.
Artists sketched rapidly, trying to convey the atmosphere of the courtroom with a few quick strokes of the pen. Inspector Singh, looking at the pictures in the file, thought that they had done a good job. There were hints of dark wood panelling and a cool mustiness. The judge seemed larger than life – the court staff smaller. The couple fighting over their children sat next to their respective lawyers, an aisle and twenty years of unhappiness separating them. She was dressed conservatively. A dark suit with a white shirt, the skirt well below her knees. Her make–up was light, not sufficient to hide the shadows beneath her eyes. Her lips were pursed together tightly, as if she was physically battling to prevent her anger from spilling out.
Alan Lee, on the other hand, had spent less time thinking about his clothes. Or perhaps he was badly advised. He wore a light suit. It struck an inappropriate note in the sombre setting. His tie was almost festive. And he appeared smug – as if he alone did not doubt the outcome would be in his favour. The lawyers, drawn wearing their white shirts, winged collars and black gowns, looked like birds of prey picking over the carcass of what had once been a marriage. The journalists were pencilled in quickly and indistinctly, like a pack of scavengers hovering on the perimeter, waiting to pounce on the remnants of the celebrity couple's privacy.
The judge glared at the packed courtroom before him and waited until there was complete silence.
He asked, Are all parties present in the matter of Liew v. Lee?'
He spoke in English although Malay was the official language of the courts. When the trial had first begun, he had, as was required, opened proceedings in Malay. But senior counsel on both sides had immediately asked for permission to proceed in English and the judge had granted it with alacrity. Their excuse was not that their Malay (and that of the judge) was atrocious, but that Chelsea Liew, being Singaporean, would not be able to follow proceedings.
Singh knew that so many languages were spoken in Malaysia that quite often the wheels of justice ground to a standstill for the lack of an interpreter who could restore the Tower of Babel to a court of law.
At the judge's question, Chelsea Liew's counsel said respectfully, 'Yes, my lord.'
Alan Lee's lawyer, Mr Loh, was a feisty Chinese man who had a reputation for using every trick in the book to ensure success for his clients. Despite that, it had never been suggested that he broke the law. It was just that he used the complexity of the law to the advantage of his clients in circumstances where more honourable practitioners might have shown some latitude and more rectitude. He said now, brightly, 'Yes, my lord!'
The judge, looking vaguely irritated at this unnecessary good cheer, said, 'I assume counsel for both parties are ready to proceed with the custody hearings?'
Mr Loh said unexpectedly, 'We are making an oral application to dismiss these custody proceedings, my lord.'
There was complete silence in the court.
Chelsea Liew's lawyer leapt to his feet. He was angry and his voice radiated with it. He said, 'On what grounds? My lord, the respondent is wasting the court's time!'
The judge said, 'Mr Chandra has a point. On what grounds could I possibly dismiss proceedings? We have almost reached the conclusion of the custody hearings.'
Mr Loh said firmly, 'We are invoking Article 121(1 A) of the Constitution of the Federation of Malaysia, my lord.'
There was a muttering in the court as journalists asked each other what the provision was and members of the public echoed the question. Alan Lee was smiling. Chelsea Liew sat up straight on the wooden bench, her anxiety peaking as she looked from the judge to her lawyer, her eyes demanding an explanation.
Her lawyer did his best. He said, 'Article 121(1A)?
But what has that got to do with anything, my lord?' He looked at the judge almost pleadingly. 'My client has suffered enough. She is desperate to rebuild her life with her children. Mr Loh and his client are in contempt of court with their irrelevant application.'
The judge said, 'You
trying my patience, Mr Loh.'
Mr Loh said firmly, 'We are applying to dismiss proceedings on the grounds that this court has no jurisdiction to hear this matter. The proper forum for a custody dispute between the parties is the Syariah court.'
There was uproar in the court as the massed audience suddenly and collectively got wind of where the argument was going. The judge rapped his gavel loudly and glared around the court. The volume of noise subsided although there were still low murmurs. This genie could not be forced back into the bottle.
The judge turned back to Mr Loh and asked in a long–suffering voice, 'Why should the Moslem religious court – the Syariah court – have jurisdiction?'
Mr Loh replied in a high, clear voice that could be heard in all corners of the courtroom, 'My client, Alan Lee, has recently become a Moslem, my lord. All family law matters concerning Moslems are within the jurisdiction of the Syariah court under Article 121(1 A) of the Constitution.'
Mr Chandra said indignantly, 'But Chelsea Liew is not a Moslem. Neither are her children!'
Mr Loh had the upper hand and he knew it. He said, 'I am not an expert, of course, but I understand the religion of minors under Islamic law is that of the father ... or he can declare them to be Moslem, which he has done.'
The transcript that Inspector Singh was reading ended rather prosaically with, 'Court adjourned. Applicant, Mdm. Chelsea Liew, caused a disturbance and had to be removed.'
The newspapers were less reticent about the 'disturbance in court' caused by Chelsea Liew. Inspector Singh found an article from the
an afternoon tabloid, which was particularly graphic. 'Madam Chelsea Liew started to scream obscenities at her ex–husband, Alan Lee. She tried to push past her lawyer, Mr Subhas Chandra, but he blocked her path. At this point she clambered over the table, leaving one shoe behind. She rushed over to Mr Lee and kicked and scratched him. He tried to protect his face but she raked him down the side of his cheek with her fingernails. Blood trickled down his face. The
understands that he needed medical treatment, including stitches, from a plastic surgeon to prevent long–term damage to his physical appearance. It took the intervention of three policewomen to restrain Chelsea Liew, who was taken into custody and later released without charge. Her last words to her husband as she was dragged from the courts were "I will kill you for this!'"
In an interview with the press outside the hospital where he received treatment for his face wounds, Mr Alan Lee said, 'It is an insult to me and my religion to suggest that I converted to Islam to get custody of my children. In these difficult times since the breakup of my marriage, I have been looking for spiritual guidance and I found it in Islam. I am proud to be Moslem and look forward to raising my children in the one true faith.'
Turning the page, Inspector Singh saw that the next document was the autopsy report on Alan Lee, killed exactly one week after the tumultuous court hearing. The autopsy had established that Alan Lee had died of injuries sustained from a bullet wound to the chest. The bullet from the revolver had penetrated a lung and then proceeded to sever the main artery leading to the heart. The deceased had succumbed to the heart wound before the lung injury but either would have been sufficient to kill him.
He had been shot on a deserted street two hundred yards from his front gate. The gun had not been traced. His wallet, Rolex watch and gold chain were left undisturbed. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital.
His ex–wife and the mother of his three children, Chelsea Liew, was arrested within hours and charged with his murder.
Inspector Singh wiped the newsprint off his fingers by rubbing his hands against his trousers. He felt like a voyeur, not a policeman. To look at facts like these could not leave anyone untainted. He tapped his foot, in his trademark white sneakers, against the ground. For a while, he watched the steady drip of water from the air–conditioning unit soak into the carpet.
It was hard, thought Singh, to believe that Alan Lee's sudden discovery of religion was anything except cynical. The judge had agreed to adjourn the custody hearing until the various issues of jurisdiction were determined. But he did not hide his contempt for what he saw as a cheap legal trick that brought the administration of justice into disrepute. The newspapers interviewed friends and colleagues expressing surprise that Alan Lee, of all people, should seek solace in a higher power. But the conversion to Islam, suspect as a matter of faith, was a powerful weapon as a matter of law.
Inspector Singh extricated himself from his chair with difficulty, stretched and went in search of Sergeant Shukor. He found him waiting outside the door. He stood to attention and saluted smartly as the inspector came out.
'Have you been here all this while?' asked the inspector in surprise.
'Crime rates must have come down a bit in Kuala Lumpur if you have time to loiter outside my door all day ... '
Sergeant Shukor smiled. 'Not really, sir. But I have been told to stay close to you.'
Inspector Singh shrugged. 'Well then, take me to the widow!'
'I'm here to help you,' said the inspector, almost pleadingly.
There was no response from the woman sitting opposite him at the table. She was in the small interview room when they arrived, brought up from her cell. But she had not yet uttered a word nor even looked at them. She sat, as she had from the moment they entered the room, knees together, shoulders rounded, head bowed. Unmoved by the inspector's pleas and unmoving.
The inspector tried again. 'You are a Singapore citizen. The Singapore government sent me to make sure that you are treated fairly.'
He reflected when he said this that it was not an exact truth. The government was largely indifferent to the fate of this one woman. It did, however, want to look authoritative and caring in an election year. And public opinion in Singapore was incensed by what it saw as the victimisation of someone they felt they knew personally, so intense and detailed was the media coverage of the divorce and custody battles.
The policeman could see just enough of Chelsea Liew's face to understand her success as a supermodel, although her recent experiences had left their mark. Her cheekbones were high, almost protruding through translucent skin. She had large almond eyes but they were red–rimmed, with deep blue shadows underneath. Her hair was scraped back firmly and tied in a ponytail. Grey hairs were visible all along the line of her forehead. Her lips, so luscious in those cosmetic adverts of the late eighties, were bloodless, dry and chapped. Her neck, thin and long, protruded from an oversized T–shirt. The inspector could see that she was at least six inches taller than him. Even seated and slumped, it was evident that the long legs in baggy prison pyjamas, feet slipped into flip–flops, were of a length to have stridden down catwalks – before marriage and murder had reduced her to silence.
He said, 'If you do not help me, I cannot help you.'
She looked up for the first time. For a second, as she had glanced up at him with those famous almond–shaped eyes, he had felt a remarkable sense of
It was like looking at an old magazine cover, to once again be at the receiving end of that celebrated gaze. But now the brown eyes were filled with pain.
She spoke, the words wrenched reluctantly out of her. 'Nobody can help me now.'
'Why do you say that?' he asked, more gently than was his wont. The case–hardened policeman felt an unusual sympathy for the accused.
She gestured, a small sharp movement with one hand which encompassed the prison walls around her.
'I will only leave this place to walk to my death.'
'Did you kill your husband?'
'You would use that word for twenty years of brutality?'
'What about the children?'
'What can I do for them now?'
'Not much while you're in here.'
Quiet descended on the room again.
The inspector said, 'At least let me talk to people. Find out what happened. Please! It will cost you nothing if I fail. But if I succeed, we might get you out of here and back with your kids.'
She nodded once, a terse gesture, as if she was conferring a favour on him rather than dependent on him to find her an escape route.
Chelsea Liew rose to her feet. Inspector Singh got up too and watched her shuffle to the door. Sergeant Shukor opened it for her and she walked out. Inspector Singh had almost forgotten the sergeant was there. The waiting policewoman handcuffed her briskly and led her away.
The two men left in the room were a study in physical contrasts. One fit, strong, clean–shaven, well groomed. The other dishevelled, overweight and bearded.
Inspector Singh asked, 'What do you think? Did she do it?'
Shukor shrugged. 'She had the best motive.'
The senior policeman nodded. 'She certainly did. What does your boss think?'
Singh nodded curtly.
'That she's one hundred per cent guilty, sir.'
The policeman was not surprised. Police work was rarely complicated. Locked–door mysteries and multiple suspects were the stuff of fiction. Usually, the person last heard threatening to kill someone who was later found dead was the murderer. He could not even blame Inspector Mohammad. He was not leaping to conclusions, just following the facts.
'What now, sir?' asked Shukor, interrupting his reverie.
'I go to my sister's house for the evening and then back to my hotel.'
'I will get the car, sir – and wait for you in the front.'
Alan Lee's brother, Jasper, sat in a small office on the second floor of an old shophouse near Chinatown. From his shuttered windows, he could see the red, pagoda–roofed entrance to Petaling Street, bustling and crowded as always. Rows and rows of stalls sold knock–off Gucci handbags, Tag Heuer watches and Mont Blanc pens. The quality was often indistinguishable from the original right down to the labelling and watermarks. Jasper Lee wore a fake Rolex he had bought down the road almost three years earlier. Hordes of tourists wandered down the narrow streets, summoned in imperative tones by the Chinese vendors; the experienced bargained hard for their fakes, the uninitiated paid top dollar and felt content to have something to show off when they got home.
Jasper was indifferent to the sounds of horns blaring and engines revving directly under his window. He had learnt to tune out the sounds. He ignored the stink of overflowing garbage–filled drains mingled with the pungent, eye–watering odour of dried anchovies piled high on the pavements in front of the dry food wholesaler on the ground floor.
In the early days, when the freedom of having walked away from the family business and his father's expectations had filled him with a sense of profound relief, he was delighted by the sights and sounds that were in such contrast to his own privileged upbringing. It was so colourful and raw compared to his stultifying existence under the watchful eye of a stern father.
Those heady, early days of autonomy were behind him. His past had caught up with him. He remembered his father's last words, shouted after him in angry Cantonese, as he had stormed out the door of the family home. 'One day you will understand that your family is what is most important.'
He had disagreed with the old man, the patriarch of the family, insisting that shared values were more important than shared blood. He was not so sure any more. His younger brother had been gunned down on a Bangsar street. His sister–in–law, for whom he felt an overwhelming sense of panic, was in prison. His mother was in a state of collapse. His three nephews were in the care of Chelsea's mother. God only knew what his youngest brother was doing. Perhaps it did come down to family in the end.
Jasper looked around him at the photos of orangutans stuck to the walls, all taken in the depths of the Borneo rainforest on one of his excursions into the wilderness. There were wizened patriarchs looking calmly at the camera, young bucks captured on film screeching their aggression at any intruder, family groups of female orang–utans and their babies. The whole sense was of a gentle, separate community –so different from the ugly reality of his own existence.
He got to his feet slowly, like an old man. There was one more thing he needed to do before making up his mind.
A heavy thunderstorm had reduced traffic to a standstill. The sky was dark although it was still early in the evening. The rain fell like large teardrops, straight down. It was a few years since Inspector Singh had been to Kuala Lumpur and he had forgotten the flash floods and gridlock that rain caused.
Kuala Lumpur was just one large construction site, he thought, peering out of the window. There were looming cranes, looking spindly and unstable, in every direction. Every now and then one of them would take a direct hit from a bolt of lightning that would light up the sky to the brightness of a tropical noon. In the briefly illuminated skies, jagged half–built skyscrapers looked like twisted ruins. Concrete pillars to carry automated trains, the latest attempt to deal with traffic congestion, stood at regular intervals, like giant sentries that had been petrified by some powerful enemy.
The inspector thought that the very skies were weeping for the three boys whose father was dead and whose mother was in prison charged with his murder. It was a fanciful thought for the taciturn policeman. The strange surroundings were affecting his natural balance. He found himself unable to forget the brown, pain–filled eyes of the widow. Chelsea Liew! A ridiculous name – par for the course with the adoption of Western names by Singaporeans aiming to give themselves a cosmopolitan air. Unfortunately, they often picked the most improbable monikers. Inspector Singh had come across young Singaporeans revelling in first names like Mayfair and Rothmans.
A sudden lull in the rain drumming down on the roof of the car interrupted his daydreaming. He realised that they had inched forward a few yards and were now sheltered by a massive six–lane flyover. Both sides of the road were jammed with motorbikes, their riders taking refuge from the rain under the looming concrete structure. The car lights glinted off their shiny, plastic raincoats. A few youths were perched along the side of the road smoking cigarettes, probably the clove cigarettes from Indonesia that had become so popular – as if the fumes from the dozens of cars crawling forward in first gear were not sufficient poison to the lungs.
The inspector, who had started the day in Singapore in a bad mood, was now extremely irritable. He contemplated the sheer impossibility of the case that had been dumped on his lap as they inched forward towards their destination. How was he to investigate the murder of Alan Lee? He had no jurisdiction. The Malaysian police did not intend to be helpful. Inspector Mohammad was going to be a handful. He was being spied on by the young man patiently driving the car he was stuck in and, as if these things on their own were not a sufficient impediment, Chelsea Liew was not cooperating. He had assumed that she would be full of suggestions as to alternative suspects – desperate to save her own neck. Instead, she seemed indifferent to his promised efforts and had given him no information to work with. Exhausted, perhaps, with what she had been through. Unable or unwilling to take on the system any more. All he had got was a grudging agreement that he should try to find the truth. And that, Inspector Singh admitted to himself, was the rub.
he looking for the truth? Or was the most obvious answer, quickly seized upon by the Malaysian police, the correct one?
Finally, they drew up outside the house of Inspector Singh's sister. The sergeant indicated that he would be around the corner having dinner at one of the stalls that lined the streets in the evening. The inspector nodded and then, mentally girding himself for the encounter with his family, rang the doorbell.
His sister, a large, big–boned woman with a nose Caesar would have been proud to possess, was dressed in a cotton caftan – floral
in hot pink. The material was frayed around the neck. She nodded to her brother and held the door open to indicate that he was welcome. They did not hug or kiss despite not having seen each other for over a year. It would have been completely out of character for either of them to have expressed emotion physically. Asians of their generation were not tactile. Affection was expressed, if at all, through food. To make an effort over dinner, to have a few extra dishes, to remember what someone liked best and serve it piping hot – that was the way to show family feeling.