TERROR IN TOPAZ
By A.M. STUART
Monday 28 November 1910
From her comfortable chair on the verandah, Harriet Gordon watched the curtain of water fall from the glowering sky. The evening’s torrential downpour reflected her mood. Her ward, Will Lawson, sat on a stool nearby engaged in what was now his nightly duty—oiling the absent Inspector Robert Curran’s cricket bat. The sickly-sweet smell of linseed oil hung in the heavy air, adding nausea to her threatening headache.
“Will, enough! Go and put that stinking stuff away and get on with your homework,” Harriet snapped and then conscious of her harsh tone, added, “Please. I’m sure it doesn’t need to be oiled every single night.”
“But I promised the inspector,” Will mumbled.
“I know you did, but what little I know about cricket bats, I do know they don’t need to be oiled quite so regularly.”
Will glared at her. “I will hate it if he comes back and thinks I didn’t look after it properly.”
Harriet summoned a smile. “I am certain he won’t think that, Will.” She pointed at the door. “Homework.”
Will picked up cloth, oil and cricket bat and stomped inside. Oiling a cricket bat was infinitely preferable to schoolwork.
The side gate that led from St Thomas House to the school squeaked, and Harriet’s brother, Julian, headmaster of St Thomas Church of England Preparatory School for English Boys, ran toward the house, the large umbrella he held doing very little to keep the rain at bay.
Reaching the verandah, he stopped, panting from his exertion, water streaming from his sodden hair down his face. He closed the useless umbrella and leaned it against the verandah rail.
Harriet rose to her feet, but he forestalled the question on her lips by holding up his hand.
“Let me get dry and changed and then we’ll talk,” he said. “Pour us both a whisky. I think we need it.”
It seemed like an age before Julian reappeared, his still-damp hair sticking up where he had roughly toweled it. He patted it down, adjusted his glasses and accepted the glass Harriet held out for him.
“That bad?” she asked, her voice high with tension.
“I haven’t lost my job,” Julian said.
Harriet let out a breath. That had been her greatest fear.
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On discovering Harriet’s history with the suffragist cause in England the previous year that had landed her in Holloway prison for a brief time, Keogh had dismissed her. As if that wasn’t enough, he had taken it upon himself to officially inform the Trustees of Julian’s school that they were employing a woman with a criminal past. Though ‘employing’ was a word used lightly, as the school didn’t pay her for her administrative duties. It was understood that board and lodging with the headmaster was sufficient recompense for her services.
Julian had been summoned to a meeting of the trustees to explain himself.
“They could hardly claim they didn’t know,” Harriet said.
“Indeed. Before I even suggested you come out to join me, I discussed it with the bishop, and he raised it with the others. They were prepared to turn a blind—some might say Christian—eye to your transgressions, but once it came to an official notification from the police, they had to be seen to do something.”
Harriet sank into her chair. “And what is that something?”
“I have been officially reprimanded and you are banned from the school premises.” Julian paused and a wry smile twitched his lips. “You are not, however, banned from continuing your, and I quote, ‘excellent services.’ The school typewriter will be relocated here, and I will have to bring the work to you.”
Harriet uttered an unladylike and blasphemous response.
Julian held up his hands. “I know, but in the circumstances, it is the best compromise we could arrive at.”
Harriet looked down at the glass she cradled in her hands. “Oh, Ju, I am so sorry to get you into strife.”
Julian shook his head and smiled. “I’m not. You know I’m proud of you, Harri.”
She managed a watery smile. “I suppose I should be grateful that they are letting me go on typing school reports and demands for school fees.”
Julian stood up and poured them both another whisky. “It's timely in a way. I received a letter from the acting headmaster of the Prince Alfred School in Kuala Lumpur only yesterday. They’re looking for a new senior master in classics and wondered if I would be interested.”
Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it was referred to by most people, was the capital of the Selangor State, one of the Federated Malay States. About two hundred miles north of Singapore, the state had grown around the incredible wealth from the tin mining industry. Such riches were not something the British could resist. Unlike the Straits Settlements, of which Singapore was one, which were under British rule, some thirty years earlier, the Sultan of Selangor had agreed to allow the British to administer the State under a British ‘Resident Minister’ or ‘Resident’, without relinquishing his own control. As other Malay States had joined the Federation, KL had become the administrative center for not just Selangor but all the Federated Malay States.
Harriet stared at him. “Kuala Lumpur? But Julian, you are the headmaster of your own school. It would be something of a backward move for you.”
Julian swilled the whisky in the glass he held. “Truth be told, I’ve been feeling a bit restless. It would be a relief not to have the responsibility of being a school principal and to go back to teaching senior boys again.” Julian sat down, leaning his forearms on his knees as he looked up at his sister, his face grave. “The position comes with a house but best of all, Harri, it means Will could attend at a master’s rate. The Prince Alfred School has an excellent reputation and he’d get the best education we can provide for him.”
And that, Harriet had to agree, was a good argument. They were struggling to find a suitable school for Will when he finished at St Tom’s next summer. A senior school that they could afford would be a Godsend.
“I don’t have to give Robertson an immediate answer,” Julian said. “He’s invited me—us—to visit and look over the school, meet the other staff, and see if we would like the move to Selangor State.”
“Both of us? When?”
Julian hefted a sigh. “The sooner the better. How about this weekend? I am inclined to make a trip of it. I’ve checked the train timetables. There’s a night train that leaves Singapore at 7.15 and gets into KL at 6.56 in the morning. If we go up on the Friday night train and back on the day train on Monday, you can play the tourist in Kuala Lumpur while I hobnob with the school. You’ve not really seen anything of the Malay Peninsula beyond Singapore. Seems like a good opportunity.”
“I have to admit a change of scene would be most welcome,” Harriet said.
Julian straightened and drained his glass. “So be it! If you can prevail on Louisa to take Will in for a few nights, I’ll make the travel arrangements.”
“Where shall we stay?”
“Didn’t I mention? Henry Robertson has invited us to stay with him and his wife at the headmaster’s house.”
“That’s very kind. I hope we won’t be an imposition. Do you know Robertson?”
“I’ve met him a couple of times. Nice chap. I haven’t met his wife. She’s a bit younger I gather. They have a small child and I’m sure she would be glad of some company.” He paused. “You will find Kuala Lumpur is a little different from Singapore. It’s less well established. A much smaller European population so a new face is always welcome.”
“As long as his wife is happy for some company. Does she have a name?”
“Enid…” Julian frowned. “No… Edith.”
“I think this sounds like an excellent plan Julian,” she said.
Julian straightened and smiled. “I agree. Even if I don’t take to Prince Alfred, at least we shall have a break from routine. A change is as good as holiday.”
Harriet finished her drink and her mood lifted. After the despondency of the last few weeks, a weekend in Kuala Lumpur gave her something to look forward to and her mind turned to her packing. As Julian had observed, since her arrival in Singapore the previous January, she had little opportunity to travel and her mind raced to the practicalities of travel and accommodation, and adventure.
Kuala Lumpur, Selangor State
Wednesday 30 November, 1910
A suffocating early morning humidity hung over Selangor State and by the time Robert Curran—sometime Inspector with the Straits Settlements Police Force, but currently on suspension—had scrambled up the steep slope to the entrance to the Batu Caves a few miles outside of Kuala Lumpur, he was dripping. He removed his hat, a stylish straw fedora purchased at great expense from John Little & Co the previous week and mopped his face with a clean handkerchief.
Order restored, he paused a moment to take in the cathedral-like beauty of the caves. This first chamber soared above him, hung with heavy stalactites; the ancient stalagmites below, broken and stained by the frequent visitors to the cave system. He could see a second chamber beyond, open to the daylight with vines and the roots of trees crawling over the broken walls as the plants reached for the daylight.
Since leaving Singapore, Curran had been kicking his heels in a run-down plantation house while he waited on a summons. A brief meeting with the Resident of Selangor State, Henry Belfield and Henry Talbot, Commissioner of the Federated Malay States Police, an old acquaintance from his cricketing days, had provided him with very little useful information about his assignment. He had to wait until he was contacted by someone they trusted with a full brief.
The message had come at last. Be at the Batu Caves at nine in the morning and ask for directions to the Dark Cave.
A European man dressed, like Curran, in a linen suit with a high starched collar, stood framed in the entrance to the second cavern. He glanced over his shoulder and, without acknowledging Curran, stepped down into the cave, disappearing from view. Curran waited a few minutes before crossing the floor of the first cavern. He followed the other visitor into the open space beyond. The roof to this cavern had long since fallen in and above him, troops of monkeys, chattering with indignation at the intrusion, scaled the walls to the fringe of trees that overlooked the space below.
“Good morning,” the stranger said.
He sat on a rock, one ankle crossed over his knee as he pulled a pipe from his pocket, carefully packing it with tobacco from a leather pouch.
“Can you direct me to the Dark Cave?” Curran asked.
“It will be closed at this time of day.” The man looked up. “Curran?”
Curran nodded his affirmation. “And you are…?”
“Stephens, Archibald Stephens.”
“This is all a bit Rider Haggard,” Curran said, referring to one of his favorite authors.
Stephens lit his pipe, inhaling and blowing out the smoke. “We don’t know who to trust any more. When you suspect everyone from the Resident down, what else can you do? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“Apparently.” Curran caught the scent of the smoke rising from the pipe. “That’s a nice twist.”
Stephens removed the pipe and inspected the contents. “I have it made especially by a little chap in Colombo. Costs me a fortune to bring in but it’s the simple pleasures in life.”
Curran brought his attention back to the reason for this clandestine meeting. “When it comes to trust, can I start with you? Who are you and why should I trust you?”
Stephens nodded. “You must understand, Curran, our relationship with the Sultan and the Council of State is a delicate one. Here in KL, we not only have the administration for the State of Selangor but also the overall establishment for all the Federated Malay States. We are cursed, my friend with not only a Resident for Selangor but also the Resident General for the Federated Malay States, Reginald Watson.” Stephens paused. “Over governed, Curran. That’s when mistakes occur.” He removed the pipe from his mouth and continued. “As to why you should trust me, that’s an excellent question. You can check my bona fides with Belfield himself if you wish. I work in the office of the Accountant and Auditor. It is our task to see that we are, well, how to put it… we are rendering unto Caesar all that is Caesar’s. In the past two years, certain irregularities have been detected, most notably in the area of excise and duties being collected within Selangor State.”
There had been no mention of excise and duties in Curran’s short clandestine briefing on the case. Excise and duties were not part of Curran’s regular duties, let alone any irregular investigations.
“In what way?” he asked, more out of politeness.
“The only dutiable goods imported into the Federated Malay States are opium and spirit liquor. We’re not concerned about the liquor, but we are concerned about opium. There is more opium coming in than we are receiving in duty.”
“The import of opium is not illegal,” Curran pointed out.
He fought back the urge to point out that the question of the appropriate duty not being paid on opium seemed irrelevant when hundreds if not thousands, were victims of the vile substance. In his opinion, it should be banned, not used for profit. But wars had been fought on that subject. It was not for him to argue the point.
“No,” Stephens agreed, “it’s not. But avoidance of duty is. And we’re not talking a few pounds here, Curran. We are talking about thousands of pounds. Money that should be going to the administration of the FMS and into the pockets of the Sultan. He is starting to ask questions.”
Stephens nodded. “Yes. We think it is coming in via Penang.”
Now Curran’s interest was piqued, and he knew the answer even before he asked the question. “Any suspects?”
Stephens nodded. “Khoo Zi Qiang. I believe you may already have crossed paths with him?” Stephens raised an eyebrow.
Curran’s blood ran cold. Khoo Zi Qiang … Li An’s brother and the head of a strong clan in Penang. His investigation into Khoo’s illegal activities in Penang and his involvement with Zi Qiang’s sister, Li An, had nearly killed him – nearly killed them both. The last encounter with Khoo Zi Qiang left both Li An and him with scars both physical and intangible.
“I am quite familiar with Zi Qiang’s activities,” he said.
Stephens took a puff of his pipe and regarded Curran thoughtfully. “I know, I’ve seen your record and I was in Penang at the time. Do you mind me asking if you are still involved with his sister?”
That pain was still fresh, the scar of Li An’s departure barely healed.
“No,” he said. “She has returned to Penang.” He returned to the subject in hand. “What makes you think Zi Qiang is involved in Selangor State?”
Stephens removed his pipe and pulled his pipe-cleaning tool from a leather pouch. He stared scraping out the bowl of the pipe as he said, “Up until recently, his activities have been confined to Penang but as you probably know, the authorities there are making it increasingly difficult for him, so we suspect he is moving into more vulnerable states, such as Perak and Selangor.”
"I still don’t see why I have been sent up here?”
Stephens pocketed his pipe. “The problem with missing duty is only one symptom in what could be widespread corruption in the colonial administration. That’s why you are here, Curran. I am told that the administration needs someone from outside of Kuala Lumpur to get to the center of the corruption, a certain establishment that has been a thorn in our side for the last two years.”
“The Topaz Club?” Curran suggested.
Stephens’ mustache twitched. “What do you know about the Topaz Club?”
Curran hesitated. He knew more than he could reveal. In recent weeks he had learned that his half-sister, Samrita, had been kidnapped from her home in Laxmangarh and taken to work in the Topaz Club, a mysterious and exclusive ‘Gentleman’s Club’ offering beautiful women and other clandestine pleasures.
When Cuscaden had offered him the assignment in Selangor State, Curran had jumped at the chance it offered to save his sister.
“In my initial briefing from Inspector General Cuscaden, he suggested this might be the case and my brief includes any associations with the Topaz Club,” Curran said.
Stephens nodded. “Commissioner Talbot believes the Topaz Club is being used as a front not only for the illegal import issues but also other nefarious dealings.” He looked up at the bright blue sky beyond the bowl of the fallen cave. “Whoever is behind the club is using it as the means to coerce favorable contracts and deals from the administration.”
“By coerce you mean blackmail?” Curran interposed.
"And is Khoo Zi Qiang connected to the Topaz Club?”
Stephens let out an audible sigh. “Maybe. Khoo is not an idiot. He uses various companies and other legal entities to cover their tracks. It would take more manpower than we have to trace every single suspect contract. And our other problem is that we don’t know exactly who he has in his pocket. This is a small community, Curran, and we think the very mystique and exclusivity of the Club has made certain senior officials vulnerable.”
“Customs and excise, colonial civil servants, lawyers … police. It may even go as high as the Resident’s own office.”
“You may be right,” Curran said. “I have been indirectly looking at the trafficking of the girls who service the club.”
Stephens raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? It’s not your jurisdiction so what is your interest?”
“Personal,” Curran said. “A favor for a friend but as you have said, once you start looking behind the Topaz Club, it gets very murky.” He steadied himself before he gave too much away. “So, what is it you think I can do?”
“Your assignment is to find out who is behind the Topaz Club and to retrieve the evidence the Club is using as coercion. Everything is done through the man at the Club, Gopal Acharya. Acharya is a slippery customer. He’s done nothing we can bring him in for, apart from running a brothel and gambling premises, none of which are illegal. It’s not just girls and drink at the Topaz Club … there is easy access to opium and gambling. Put all of that together and it spells the end for many a promising career, does it not?”
“Have you visited this establishment?”
“No.” Stephens stood up. “I am ambitious, Curran, and have no wish to stall my career in the colonial service through indiscretion. To all intents and purposes, I live the life of a monk. It can be a lonely existence, but I have a girl back in England and I intend to give her the best of everything.”
“I admire your self-discipline, Stephens.”
Stephens allowed himself a small smile. “You have the full support of the Resident, and of course our Police Commissioner Talbot but, for obvious reasons, they are staying at arm’s length. You are on your own, Curran.”
In his meeting with Talbot, Curran had been given a name… Detective Inspector Charles Wheeler. Curran had meet Wheeler on a couple of occasions.
“He’s a teetotaling Methodist with eight children. Devoted to his wife by all accounts … or too scared of her to step outside the front door. I doubt he’s even heard of the Topaz Club. But keep him out of it if you can, Curran. With Keogh in Singapore, he’s got enough to deal with,” Talbot had said.
“Where do you suggest I start?” Curran said.
Stephens rose to his feet. “The Topaz Club. We want those files. That is our priority. Once we have those names, the rest can be dealt with. We had a contact at the club who said she had the files, but she has disappeared. She’s no longer at the club.”
Curran thought of the girl who may have been his sister Samrita’s friend, Lakshmi. If he was correct, disappeared meant dead.
“If the club no longer has the files, what is the problem?”
Stephens snorted. “The problem is, Curran, we don’t know who has been compromised and just because our friends at the Club know the files are missing, doesn’t mean our chaps do. They can go on being compromised. We need the files.”
“But if the girl is dead?”
Stephens’s eyes widened. “I never said she was dead.”
“What do you know about the body of a girl pulled from the Klang River a few months ago?”
Stephens shook his head. “I vaguely remember something about that. What about her?”
Curran shook his head. “She may be your missing girl.”
Stephens turned away. “Damn it! How do you know that?”
Curran shrugged. “I don’t. Just a policeman’s instinct, Stephens.”
“That makes finding the files even more urgent,” Stephens said.
Curran took a moment to digest the information.
"First things first,” he said. “Where is the Topaz Club?”
The address Curran had followed up in his initial search for Samrita had yielded nothing except an empty house.
“It keeps moving. A few months ago, it moved out of town to what I can best describe as a fortified position, well concealed off the road to the Batu Caves. Not far from here, in fact. I defy anyone to get near it … walls, dogs, and guards. No one gets in or out unless they have a reason to be there. Anything else?”
"Any idea how I get into the Topaz Club? I have this.” Curran produced the card he had taken from the commodities broker, George Sewell, in his last case.
Stephens took the card and turned it over. As Curran knew it contained no information except a gold circle on a black background.
“It’s a start but from what I know you will need a member to introduce you. I suggest the Selangor Club on the Padang is the best place to make the sort of contact that will give you an introduction.”
Stephens fished in his pocket and produced an envelope.
“I’ve been told you are using the name Ronald Sutton as an alias?”
“Correct,” Curran said and rasped his chin, which had reached the point of just looking disreputable. He needed a bit longer before he could sport a decent beard.
“If there are any problems with gaining entry to the Selangor Club, this is a letter of introduction from a respectable Gentlemen’s club in London. I am sure the club will welcome you with open arms.”
Curran took the envelope and tucked it into his own pocket.
“How do I contact you?”
“Leave a message with the concierge at the Empire Hotel addressed to Mr. Giles. It needs say nothing more than ‘The Batu Caves are highly recommended’ and I will find you.”
Curran refrained from rolling his eyes. He was a plain policeman and had little time for these Boys' Own adventures.
He left Stephens gazing up at the vault of the sky above him and returned to the outside world and his newly acquired motor vehicle, a 1908 Sheffield Simplex that he’d picked up for a song in Johor. He abhorred motor vehicles but recognized he needed the independence that having his own transport gave him, and he liked the Sheffield Simplex because it had only two gears: forward and reverse.
On the drive back into town, he passed through the rows of rubber trees and patches of jungle but saw no building resembling Stephens’s description. If the Topaz Club was tucked away off this road, it was indeed well hidden.
END OF EXTRACT: To purchase the book: Click HERE
(For release 18 October 2023)