An extract from Mark Wightman’s debut novel, Waking the Tiger, published by Hobeck in June 2021
The air in the small office was as still as a dead cat in a gutter. Betancourt lifted the rattan chicks that covered the windows in a futile attempt to take advantage of what little breeze there was, but all that wafted in was a mixture of diesel oil, human detritus, and the sea. The unique smell of the Singapore River that Anna used to refer to as the “stench of commerce”.
He watched as a large, grey-backed gull bobbed past, navigating the river atop an upturned orange crate. The bird cocked its head and held his gaze with its black eyes, as if enquiring about the day’s news. It seemed oblivious to the buzz of the bumboats criss-crossing the river like so many water beetles, the boatmen shouting at one another and cursing as they vied for prime position on the riverbank.
Although it was still early and the temperature had yet to reach its mid-day high, Betancourt’s shirt was already damp with sweat and clung to his back. The Europeans who came out to Singapore assumed the locals had an inbred immunity to the heat. He was been born here and he’d never got used to it. After nigh on forty years he didn’t expect he ever would. Peeling off his jacket, he turned up the ceiling fan as high as it would go, but the blades turned slowly, as if lacking either the wherewithal or the will to stir themselves into anything more energetic. He reached for a broom he kept specifically for the purpose and gave the mechanism three hard raps with the handle. The fan woke from its slumber and began to rotate with renewed zest while Betancourt stood underneath, arms outstretched. When the fan had chilled him a little, he pulled up the old cane-backed mahogany chair he’d scrounged from an empty office on an upper floor and sat down.
A silver-framed photograph took permanent pride of place on the otherwise cluttered table that served as his desk. Looking out at him was Anna, face frozen in laughter while sharing a secret joke with their daughter, Lucia. The picture had been taken at a garden party a year before, shortly after Lucia’s fourteenth birthday and a month before his wife went missing. What the joke was, he’d no idea, but he’d often wondered. He couldn’t even remember where the photograph was taken. He hadn’t been there. He never was. As usual, work had come first. The image gave him the same stabbing sensation of guilt it always did. That’s why he kept it here, on this table, where he couldn’t avoid seeing it. Having to look at this photograph every day was his penance.
Untended piles of documents faced him. They were an indicator less of a man with too much work to do as of one with little regard for the work he’d been given, and even less desire to do anything about it. Months of rubber-stamping documentation, trapping smugglers with paltry amounts of minor contraband, and breaking up dockyard brawls had taken their toll. Lately he’d lapsed into a semi-permanent haze of distraction.
The desk sergeant thrust his head around the door. ‘Message.’ He handed Betancourt a pink slip. His immediate superior, the Assistant Commissioner, wanted to see him. Urgently. Betancourt screwed the piece of paper into a ball and lobbed it into the wastebasket next to his desk, where it joined several others.
Pushing aside a stack of manifests, he picked up the copy of the Straits Tribune he’d taken from Leilani’s counter the previous afternoon and fanned himself idly with it. A mosquito circled, too small to see at first but audible over the noise coming from the river. He rolled up the newspaper, squinted, and took aim.
As usual, the front page of the Tribune was filled with the News from Home. In amongst gloomy reports on the progress of the war in Europe, a more light-hearted piece provided an update on Harrods’ preparations for the coming festive season and the likelihood of a white Christmas in the capital. He studied the image that accompanied the article. Crowds of people huddled in greatcoats, heads down, not showing any indication of acknowledging one another. The caption beneath read: A Happy Time of Year. He wondered if the irony was intentional. To him, London looked like a sad place. Big and grey and cold and sad. He’d never been there – he’d never been further than Georgetown on the island of Penang – and harboured no desire to do so. To him, London wasn’t a place you went to, it was a place the British escaped from.
To be fair to them, he reflected, the British weren’t the only ones happy to come here and take what Singapore offered while constantly harking back to what they’d left behind. The Chinese who’d come here to seek their fortunes, and stayed, still owed their allegiances more to Fukien or Hainan than to Singapore; the gangs of Indians who worked the docks dreamed of Madras; and the Malays pledged their loyalties to sultans most of them had never seen. It amused him, although he never understood quite why, that his people, the Serani – descendants of distant unions between Portuguese seafarers and local Malaccans – were the ones who would most often refer to Singapore as “home” and mean it.
Another article further down the page touched on the growing spectre of fascism. The news agency cited the example of the “handsome and charismatic” Oswald Mosley who had, apparently, toured the country addressing gatherings of the British Union of Fascists. Mosley, it was reported, had been calling upon “noisy and enthusiastic” crowds to extend the hand of friendship to Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini. In a commentary accompanying the article, the editor of the Tribune appeared to disagree with Mr Mosley’s point of view and urged the good citizens of Singapore to do their bit to help keep the home fires burning by purchasing war bonds, application forms available at all post offices and banks.
The fascist leader’s name rang a bell, and Betancourt searched through the papers on his desk until he found a memo from headquarters. He’d been right. Mosley was due to visit the colony shortly. The name had meant nothing at the time he’d received the briefing, so he’d ignored it. In his previous life, he might have been tasked with keeping the peace at such an event, but no longer.
The local news occupied page four, sandwiched between the births and deaths and classified advertisements for motor oil and radiograms. In amongst an account of an expatriate society wedding and the minutes of the Annual General Meeting of the Singapore Tennis Club, nestled a piece by a local reporter, George Elias. According to him, the city fathers were outraged by the recent increase in the numbers of Japanese prostitutes on the streets. Why the city fathers were frequenting the same streets as those patrolled by the karayuki-san, and therefore putting themselves in the way of being outraged, he neglected to mention.
Elias could be prone to hyperbole at times, but he was a decent journalist and wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers when they needed ruffling. Legalised prostitution had been outlawed by the British a few years earlier. Before, when it was still legal, they’d been able to police the red-light districts and enforce rules. Now it had been chased underground and back into the hands of the secret societies. If George Elias had convinced his editor to run the piece, chances were there was some truth in it. If there was an increase in the number of Japanese women illegally entering the country, they were probably arriving by sea. And if they were being smuggled in onboard ships, then it was on Betancourt’s watch and he needed to do something about it before Bonham, the Assistant Commissioner, told him to. The fewer reasons he gave his superior for taking an interest in him the better. Betancourt found the chewed butt of a pencil on the floor and scribbled a note on his desk jotter to double the checks on incoming vessels.
He finished reading. There was no mention of the dead woman found at the docks. Had he been hoping there would be? As Elias’ article pointed out, karayuki-san weren’t exactly a commodity in short supply, so why would there have been? Still, it bothered Betancourt. She didn’t deserve to be dismissed as just another dead prostitute. She’d been someone. Whatever she’d done in life, her death should still matter.
He stretched and yawned and continued to leaf through the newspaper until he came to the Comings and Goings section. A lethargy had seeped into his bones these past months, and he approached the task with the same heartfelt lack of enthusiasm with which he’d approached everything else since Anna had gone.
The list of ships that had recently entered or were due to leave Singapore waters was short. The Batavian Princess – the ship Abu Bakar and his men had been emptying the day before – was the last arrival due before Christmas and, like many of her sister ships, she’d remain in port until after the New Year’s festivities were over. The British tuans and their mems didn’t like to sail with hangovers.
He was finishing marking off the names of the vessels he planned to inspect when the discordant jangle of the telephone reverberated through the room. He scowled at the receiver and lifted the handset.
‘Betancourt. Marine Branch.’
A woman’s voice replied. English. She was brief and to the point. ‘I was instructed to call you when my examination of the body found at the docks yesterday was complete.’
‘And nothing. The post-mortem is finished, I’ve notified you. If you want anything else, you’ll have to come down here.’
“Here” was presumably the Crypt. Gemmill normally carried out autopsies alone. This woman hadn’t explained what her involvement was.
‘Who am I talking to?’
It was too late. A click indicated she’d ended the call. He sighed. He could count on the fingers of one hand the things he enjoyed less than visiting the police morgue, but there was nothing else for it. He picked up his jacket from the floor where he’d dropped it, dusted it off, and relocked the office door.
A familiar churning gnawed at his gut as he descended the steps to the cavernous subterranean room below the river on Clarke Quay. He glanced nervously at the curve of the tiled roof and blenched at a mental image of the massive body of water flowing over his head. Reaching for the damp wall of the dark corridor for reassurance, he reminded himself his fear was irrational. An engineer friend at the Public Works Department had once explained how the building was constructed, but the knowledge did nothing to help quell his unease. Neither did the smell of formaldehyde that penetrated every crevice.
The door to the examination room creaked as he pushed it open and the electric lights, brighter here than in the tunnel, caused him to blink. Inside, a stout Indian woman wearing a nurse’s uniform was busying herself by piling instruments into an autoclave at a long stainless-steel bench placed against the far wall. In the centre of the room, another woman, a European aged about thirty, stooped over a shroud-covered cadaver, pulling at a lengthy piece of catgut. She wore a blue apron, below which a brightly coloured print skirt peeked out. Her hands were hidden by rubber gloves, flecked with blood. On her nose, which was longer than might be considered classically beautiful, perched a pair of circular wire-framed glasses, and her copper hair was pulled back into a severe bun. She looked up and wiped a stray lock from her eyes with the back of one wrist.
‘I’m looking for Dr Gemmill.’
She resumed her task. ‘Not here. Apparently, he and Mrs Gemmill were on the reserve list for a garden party at the Governor’s Istana.’ Her tone was one of barely concealed disdain. ‘A place came available, which means you’ve got me instead. I’m Dr Trevose. I take it you’re here about the body of the poor woman found at the dockyard.’
Betancourt introduced himself. ‘I’m the investigating detective from the Marine Branch and I need the post-mortem results.’ When he gave his name, she seemed taken aback, as though he’d momentarily wrong-footed her.
‘I’m just finishing up now.’ She peeled off the gloves and dropped them into a bin. ‘This isn’t official, you understand, as I’ve still to write up the report.’ She turned to the Indian woman, who was watching their exchange with apparent interest. ‘Martha, pass me the notes, will you?’ Martha handed over a thin buff file, which the doctor held to her chest.
‘I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before.’ She extended a hand, palm upwards.
‘It’s been a while.’ Misreading her intentions and thinking she wanted to formalise the introductions, he put out his own hand in response. She made no move to take it, arching an eyebrow instead.
He placed his wallet in her hand, warrant card uppermost. She scrutinised it, back and front, and made a note in the file before returning it. She then extracted a single foolscap page from the folder and began to read.
‘Female. Twenty to twenty-five years of age. Not Chinese. Judging by her features, she could be Korean, but I would say Japanese was more likely. She was pregnant when she was killed – I’d estimate about twelve weeks. She was well nourished and there was no sign of any recent sexual activity.’
So much for the prostitute assumption. Betancourt thought back to his own examination of the body, the previous day.
‘When I examined her yesterday, there was blood on her legs. Have you ruled out rape?’
‘There’s nothing at all to suggest it. But I’ll come back to those marks.’
Betancourt nodded. ‘When did it happen?’
‘From lividity and temperature… I’d say sometime between six in the morning and noon.’
He cast his mind back to the dockyard. Gemmill had seemed convinced the woman had killed herself. What was it he’d said? Suicide. It would have been quick. The cause of death, at least, looks cut and dried.
‘You said “when she was killed”. So you don’t believe she took her own life?’
There was no answer at first as the doctor considered her response. ‘I suppose it’s possible, but no, I don’t believe so.’ It was Betancourt’s turn to raise an eyebrow. She pointed to the three parallel cuts on the woman’s neck he’d noticed at the dockyard. ‘This pattern is fairly typical of seppuku: ritual suicide.’ She looked at him for a sign he’d understood. He had. ‘Any of these wounds would have done enough damage to kill her: her carotid artery was severed. But the cuts are clean and there’s very little blood. I don’t believe she was killed where she was discovered. The body had been all but exsanguinated prior to being moved.’
‘Dr Gemmill mentioned the lack of blood.’
‘But there’s something else. I missed it at first.’ Dr Trevose took an instrument that looked like a pair of cake tongs and placed it in the centremost cut. Using the tongs, she gently pried open the laceration. ‘See?’
He circled the table to get a better view. ‘Not really. What is it I’m supposed to be looking at?’
She made a small impatient noise. ‘Look. There.’ She pointed. ‘At the base of the cut.’
There was a dark hole beneath the slash in the woman’s neck.
‘Imagine: for this woman to have killed herself, she’d have to have used something that cut and stabbed simultaneously to inflict this pattern of wounds.’ She punctuated the words cut and stabbed with expansive hand gestures, jabbing with the tongs. He took an involuntary step back.
Dr Trevose apologised. ‘Sorry. I get carried away sometimes.’ She placed the tongs in a kidney dish. ‘I’ve never seen a weapon like that, have you?’
He hadn’t, and he was confused. ‘So, what are you suggesting?’
‘Judging by the coagulation of the blood in the puncture wound, my guess would be that whatever caused that was what killed her.’
‘And the other cuts?’
‘Done later?’ She sounded as if she was unsure herself whether her hypothesis made any sense.
But why? If the woman was already dead, what would be the point? He continued to stare at the wounds while gathering his thoughts. ‘You said you missed it at first. What did you mean?’
She picked up the tongs again. ‘See how the deep wound runs sideways, in the same direction as the lateral cuts? It wasn’t until I opened up the cuts to look for foreign matter that I saw it.’
‘It’s almost like it was hidden… Perhaps that’s what happened.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Just what I said. She was stabbed and then she was cut, but the cuts were intended to obscure the first wound.’
‘I suppose it’s a possibility.’ The doctor sounded intrigued.
If the woman had committed seppuku, then someone could have moved her body from wherever she had died to the docks, to avoid any scandal or embarrassment, though that seemed unlikely. On the other hand, if she’d been murdered, then moving the body made a lot more sense.
‘It’s an odd one.’
‘And it keeps getting odder. Did you notice the blood next to the body?’
Betancourt nodded. ‘The man who found her stepped in it.’
‘Well, get this: it was pig’s blood.’
He stared at her for a second. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Quite sure, Inspector.’
He hoped he looked as though he was taking all this in, but the truth was none of it was making much sense.
‘There’s something else you should see.’ She pulled back the green surgical sheet and called to Martha, the nurse, for help. Together they turned the body on its side. He leaned over to get a better view of whatever it was she was about to show him. They were close and he could smell the soap she’d used that morning. He forced himself to concentrate.
Running the full length of the dead woman’s upper rear body was a magnificent tattoo of a tiger, its body drawn in exquisite detail, finely etched in golds and browns and blacks. The creature faced away from the observer, as though ascending the woman’s back. On the left shoulder blade was a rocky outcrop upon which a paw had been depicted, the animal’s head turned outwards towards the viewer, teeth bared in warning: She’s mine. Stay away!
Betancourt whistled. ‘Have you ever come across anything like this before?’
She hesitated before speaking. ‘I’ve heard stories about such things, but not here. In Shanghai.’ There was a hesitancy in her voice that suggested she was holding something back.
Martha broke in. ‘Show him the marks.’ She nodded vigorously.
Dr Trevose rested the body on its back again and peeled back the rest of the shroud to uncover the dead woman’s legs. She pointed to the marks he’d seen the previous day. ‘The blood on her legs is human, and it’s the same type as traces from the body cavity. I’d need to do more tests to be certain, but I’m confident this is her own blood.’ She picked up a long, thin surgical knife and used it as a pointer. ‘See here. At first glance, these marks seemed random, but the extent bothered me. I could understand an assailant getting blood on his hands, and some of that blood being transferred to the body, but there’s too much of it and it’s too regularly distributed. Look closely.’ She pulled down a magnifying glass attached to an extendable arm. ‘You see how the marks are thinner at the edges than in the centres?’
He found himself fascinated, and wasn’t at all sure what to make of the feeling.
‘The thinner edges are where the blood has run and settled. Watch.’ She took a piece of damp gauze and wiped gently around the edges of the marks. ‘See?’
‘It’s as though someone painted stripes on her. But why would stripes, in blood, be put on a dead woman’s body? We don’t have voodoo in Singapore.’
Again, the doctor was slow to answer, and when she spoke it seemed to be with reluctance. ‘I’ve heard rumours about this. The secret societies do it to women who attempt to escape from their control. As a warning to others: try to get away from us and this is what will happen to you.’
He was rarely speechless, but he’d no idea what to make of all this. He was so engrossed it didn’t occur to him to ask how a pretty young English doctor knew so much about Asian gang rituals.
‘I’ll need photographs. I’ll get them to send Yung down. He’s a miserable so-and-so, but he’ll do a good job.’
She nodded and recovered the woman’s body with the shroud. ‘I’ll have to keep her here for a few days until the coroner gets around to completing the inquest.’
By law, any death in or around a brothel, be it of madam, prostitute or client, required a coroner’s inquiry. Although this woman had been found at the docks, Gemmill’s initial report would have been enough to deem her a karayuki-san, and therefore subject to the coroner’s scrutiny, even if any such inquiry was bound to be fleeting.
The inspector placed his card on the steel examination table. ‘I’d like a copy of the full report as soon as it’s ready.’
She picked up the card and studied it. ‘Betancourt.’ She seemed to savour the word, as though tasting an exotic fruit for the first time.
‘It’s Portuguese. My family were originally from Malacca.’
‘Yes, I know.’ She looked him in the eye and her gaze softened. ‘I recognised it earlier, when you introduced yourself. There can’t be too many Betancourts, I thought. You’re Anna’s husband, aren’t you?’
He nodded slowly. ‘How…’
‘The orphanage. The Holy Infant.’
When Lucia was old enough to start school, Anna had found herself alone at home a lot in the cramped married quarters provided by the force. The other women in the compound were friendly enough, but language was always an issue, and she became used to spending long hours alone. More and more of the social invitations from her former circle dried up, and she missed her old lifestyle and longed for something to do. A friend had told her the orphanage was short-handed, and so she volunteered. She’d found her calling and was happy again.
‘I drop in a couple of times a week to check up on the children and I met her there. She was lovely. I was shocked when I heard the news of her disappearance. I’m very sorry.’
He’d received many words of condolence since Anna disappeared. Some were carefully chosen and sincere, others perfunctory and little more than a matter of polite form. He’d become adept at distinguishing one from the other. Dr Trevose’s words were genuine, and he was touched by the sincerity in her voice. He never knew what to say in situations like this. What was there to say when his life had disintegrated, leaving him alone, empty and raw?
He simply nodded and thanked her before letting himself out.
Emerging from the bowels of the morgue, he stretched out his arms and turned his face to the sun, and stood like that for a few moments, letting the heat recharge him. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence, meeting people who’d known Anna and were sorry for his loss, but this was the first time her name had come up in the course of an investigation. In a flash of clarity, he realised he’d probably been waiting for this moment. After all, that was how it had all started.