The Orphanage of Secrets

A Katy & Clara Yehonala Mystery

- quiet heroes and lost childhoods -

PREFACE

Shattered when her world falls apart after her husband, Simon, is murdered in a border township in Cambodia, Katy Yehonala wanders into his study. What is she looking for? A remembered smell, a half-read book, a coffee cup. Something like that.
What she discovers is an unfinished manuscript. The name pencilled at the top calls the document Chavy’s Story and the text draws Katy and her intrepid daughter, Clara, to exotic Cambodia and into the terrifying world of Asian child traffickers.
For Katy, unravelling the secrets buried in the pages of Chavy’s Story also lays bare demons from her own childhood. For Clara, their quest reveals a truth about herself that challenges her every inhibition and taboo as she struggles to fight or embrace her deepest longings.
The Orphanage of Secrets is riveting storytelling, a murder-mystery about amazing women and a reminder of what is still happening to children out of our sight, robbing them of what all parents take for granted – that their children are loved, nurtured and kept safe.

1

THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY


The lights dim, an unspoken signal to the audience. A palpable sense of expectancy permeates the vast concert hall. Even the players of the famed Beijing Symphony Orchestra look between themselves, waiting. Tonight, a new concerto by the illustrious Chinese composer, Jiang Kui, is to have its première, followed by an evening celebrating his genius. The hall has been booked for weeks in advance.
A spotlight falls on a stunningly beautiful young woman as she walks onto the stage to the eager applause of those fortunate enough to have tickets. Or, like the new Chinese Premier and his wife, enjoying the privileges of power. They have come to hear Clara Yehonala, their national treasure, play Jiang’s new work.
She’s wearing a long, emerald-green silk dress and walks with an imperious, feline grace. Not for this virtuoso the immodest distractions of cleavage or exposed thighs, her sublime genius speaks directly to the soul of her audiences. Her only whimsy, a delicately embroidered silk shawl which, the newspapers said, originally belonged to the Dowager Empress, Cixi, from where she traced her parentage.
She bows to the audience, acknowledging for the next two hours they are to be friends, sharing a spiritual connection through music. She lays the shawl on the Steinway Grand Concert piano and greets the conductor, the Maestro Michel Gaultier, and the first violin concertmaster.
Motionless at the piano, Clara Yehonala holds the hushed audience in her hand. Ten seconds pass. Twenty. A single note echoes. Then the sensual opening of Jiang Kui’s third piano concerto drifts across the awed silence of the mighty concert hall.


In a different world four thousand kilometres away, two white SUV’s slide quietly through the deserted backstreets of a nondescript township called Krong Chey, a stone’s throw from the border with Vietnam. Their lights are off. Inside are two Cambodian policemen and three charity workers. One is an Australian. His name is Simon Bailey. They pull over at the entrance to a narrow alleyway and switch off their engines. With no air conditioning, they immediately begin sweating in the oppressive May humidity.
They have driven here from Phnom Penh, the capital, without informing the local police. In their line of work it’s unwise to trust anyone. Halfway down this alley is a cellar, and inside are seven children being trafficked to Ho Chi Minh city as sex slaves to paedophiles and into seedy brothels. The operation begins. The rescue is going as planned. They usually do.
The policemen enter the building and force the occupant to hand over the key to the cellar. One of the charity workers hurries down the stairs and releases the terrified children who escape into the alley.
This time it is different.
Men step from the shadows.
‘Hurry, hurry!’ calls one of the workers. ‘Into the cars, quickly. Run!’
There is gunfire. Simon Bailey is the last up the stairs. As he emerges into the alley he is shot twice and crumples face down into the dirt and litter. He dies instantly.
One of the young girls turns and screams as she reaches the safety of the first SUV.
‘My shame, my shame, No!’
She tears herself away from the two charity workers and races back along the alley to where Simon is laying and throws herself on his body, convulsing in tears. The same gunman takes deliberate aim and fires twice more. He smiles, but not with his eyes.
He walks to a waiting vehicle which screeches away towards the border. The staccato roar of a motorcycle follows a few moments later.
Simon Bailey is Clara’s father.

2

YESTERDAY


How could I ever forget yesterday?
The day had started well enough. My Sundays usually did, sitting on my patio at home with a cup of floral tea enjoying the sights and smells of our garden. I could almost describe it as a Katy ritual.
Autumn’s colours were flowing through the leaves like red, ochre, and gold-coloured inks mixing in a glass of water. I hoped Melbourne’s blustery winds would stay away until Simon was home, anchoring the remaining leaves for another few days. He loved the Autumn leaves as much as I did, though it always seemed the fallen summoned their lingering companions to Earth before our time of enjoying them was ever enough.
Simon and I met when I was a student in England more than twenty-five years earlier and our love of nature, and each other, began with the English countryside. I lost him a year later. Not from carelessness or from the demise of a fleeting romance, I had flown home to China when my dear Granny Chen died. Then my mother fell ill and I never had the opportunity to go back. Inevitably, we lost touch. Despite the passing of time I had kept him in my heart even as veils descended, year by year, blurring my memories.
One day, fate intervened in that occult way it does. We met again five years ago when he also met his daughter, Clara, for the first time. A small detail I’d neglected to mention to him. She had also been a surprise to me, popping into my consciousness a few days after getting over jet lag from my rush back home, then later as the cause of my expanding waistline. How our lives might have been different had I not kept my secret so well...
They adored each other and our love affair continued where it left off all those years ago. Our shared pleasures have since been nurtured by careful and regular care, producing oxygen helping us breathe, creating beauty as the three of us grew together.
Simon was away in Cambodia and I was looking forward to him being home on Wednesday. He ran a charity there, The Sunlight Foundation, and had campaigned for years to raise the plight of children sold into the sex-trafficking industry, often getting himself involved in matters he was too old to take on.
He was nudging sixty now, far too old in my opinion to be charging around in the dead of night like the archangel Michael rescuing children from the teashops and karaoke bars in the squalid alleyways of Phnom Penh. However, we both shared a stubborn streak for those things we believed in. I had, finally, persuaded him to leave his “Boy’s Own Adventures” to others and he’d agreed, much to my relief. In the future, he promised to devote himself to fundraising, and to my dearest hope, spending more time with me around The Red Peony Garden, our little business on the banks of the Yarra River, several kilometres east of Melbourne.
We bought the place when it was a run-down plant nursery spread over about a hectare. Then we spent three years recreating a blend of Suzhou’s ancient Imperial gardens, places Simon and I enjoyed lost hours when we’d lived in Shanghai.
I named the garden to honour my mother’s memory. The one hundred double-bloom red peonies drew thousands of visitors in October and November when their dinner-plate sized, crimson flowers overflowed the walkways and filled the air with intoxicating fragrances.
The Red Peony Garden was popular with locals, and tourists would visit us on their day trips to the nearby Yarra Valley wineries or when driving to the popular antique shops and restaurants in the Dandenong Ranges. Especially Chinese tourists and those émigrées who had fled New China with old money. I suppose they imagined the garden as a little piece of their lost world hidden behind its whitewashed walls and red-painted moongate entrance, guarded by its two fierce stone lions.
I was there every day. My favourite time was early morning, sitting in my small waterside pagoda watching the koi glide beneath the sacred lotus and the night-flowering water lilies. The morning sunlight caught their multi-coloured scales so they glinted like magic jewel boxes. Over the years they had grown large and tame and would rise to take food from my hand, rolling over so I could scratch their rubbery tummies.
Afterwards, if Simon were here, we’d take a meandering, arm-in-arm walk around the ponds with their elegant willows drooping slender branches in the water, the morning dew weeping from their leaves like a jilted lover’s tears. Before we opened the gates to share our pleasure with visitors, we’d take a last stroll around the garden’s bamboo-fringed arbours, pagodas, and peaceful courtyards.
I left the day-to-day management to the venerable Mr Wang, a gentle Buddhist, and an expert on all aspects of the garden’s design and maintenance. He’s been with us from the start; Mr Wang believed the visitors’ enjoyment was his personal life’s mission. Together with his assistants, not even the tiniest detail was overlooked to ensure the garden’s tranquil, feng sui perfection.
I was younger than Simon and had inherited money, even though an unfortunate one-way romance in Lagos a few years back had seen the balance savaged. A previous life, best forgotten. Together with Simon’s trading business in Hong Kong, we had the financial freedom to do as we wished, though in truth we were both always kept busy, him with the charity’s work, and me indulging my own love.
I had built a small, private nursery in the corner of the garden where I grew rare Asian plants as a hobby. I spent my time between the greenhouse and chatting to visitors about Chinese traditional gardens, exotic plants, and fruits unknown to most westerners. Gardens had been my mother’s great love too, I knew she was watching over me, a contented smile on her face.
Most satisfying of all, I believed my life’s journey, after so many twists and turns, had settled on a destination. I was content.


Word of Simon’s death came that same Sunday afternoon. Two Federal Police officers arrived at my door telling me he’d been killed by a gang of traffickers during the rescue of some children in a remote Cambodian township. The gang were smuggling young girls into Vietnam, they said, and someone had tipped them off about the rescue attempt. One of the girls had also been shot and died before reaching the local hospital.
I had screamed like a fishwife at them for letting Simon get involved in such dangerous activities, venting my grief, rage, and disbelief over my fractured world. They were forgiving of my outburst and I apologised for my behaviour. Theirs was not a job to envy.
The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh wanted to fly Simon home, but I knew it wouldn’t be what he wanted. Too much of his heart was in that tormented country. I told them I would fly to Cambodia the next day and bury Simon in the land he loved and asked if they would let the Embassy and The Sunlight Foundation know. After they left, there was one other painful matter to deal with. Our daughter, Clara. I needed to call her.
I should say at this point, we Yehonala women did not have an unblemished track record with fathers. The Red Guards had murdered my grandfather during the Cultural Revolution and had forced my mother to watch, she was eighteen years old at the time. My own father had died soon after we returned from our grim exile to a remote village gulag near the Russian border when I was twelve. And now this.
Clara had grown up without knowing her father at all for her first twenty years. She’d met him for the first time when Simon and I also found each other again, purely by happenstance, those five years ago. Afterwards, she breezily announced being the first Yehonala girl who would grow up with a dad. For his part, he promised her he was going nowhere and she had set about making up for all the lost years.
By now Clara was famous, some said she was the most gifted virtuoso in living memory, all agreed there were none comparable today. In some Jungian synchronicity, Simon had once seen her play at The Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London. At the time, he had no idea he was cheering his own daughter, but did his part raising the roof after her booming Heroic Polonaise encore she still remembers as her most triumphant performance, caught up as she was in the euphoric fervour of flag-waving British pomp and patriotism.
She was universally known as The Jade Princess, partly because of our family’s lineage to the last Chinese Empress, Cixi, another Yehonala woman inattentive with fathers, losing her own when she became the Emperor’s favoured concubine in the Forbidden City when she was sixteen. The other reasons of course were her stunning Eurasian features and the air of demure mystery surrounding her, stage-managed by her agent, Max Santini. Max was a woman of indeterminate age and manic energy whom Clara adored and who protected her as well as any lioness did her cubs.
In a tragedy of parallels, the night Simon died, Clara had been performing in Beijing. I’d been watching her on CCTV, the Chinese TV Channel, full of pride and feeling blessed by my life. All the while Simon was dying in a dirty alleyway in an obscure Cambodian border town. We cried together for a long time. She promised to meet me in Phnom Penh the next day, we were going to need each other.
Unable to sleep, I had wandered into Simon’s study. I suppose I was looking for something personal and real I could touch, or to see what his last activities had been. A half-read book, some doodling on a piece of paper, a coffee cup. Something like that.
What I found was the unfinished manuscript of a book he was writing. The later pages were still crisp, as if he had been adding to the narrative. Curiosity became the handmaiden of my sadness, I curled up on a sofa and started to read Chavy’s Story, the title he had pencilled into the top corner.
The story began in the 1970s, around the time I knew Simon was in Vietnam and Cambodia, during the war. The manuscript was the unfinished legacy of Simon’s work over many years, from the time before we had met again to the years together when he would leave for Cambodia with his charity. As I read the first few pages, I wondered who this “Chavy” might be, and who was this family he was writing about. Was it even a true story?
At crossroads in my life, or at those times I thought I was not strong enough to pick myself up after stumbling, there’s always been a small voice whispering in my ear, telling me I was facing in the right direction and urging me to keep walking. This time, the child's voice was urgent. I sensed an invisible hand tugging my sleeve with such insistence I finally understood. Chavy’s Story, Simon’s legacy, and Katy Yehonala’s destiny were the same. I must follow this road to wherever it led. I would finish her story and discover the truth about Simon’s death.
I gazed around our familiar rooms and wondered if it would be for the last time. In any case, I knew they would never look the same again to me. I went into my bedroom, pulled a suitcase down from the cupboard, and started packing.
And placed the manuscript in my carry-on bag.


Excerpt Ends

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