Her hands now returned to ineffectively fanning her face. Give me a breeze, she begged silently, her eyes flicking toward the dying air conditioner that jutted out above the reception desk. Her boss absolutely refused to have it replaced; whenever the issue was raised, he recounted the story of how his mother-in-law had given it to him when he had married her daughter.
She couldn't fathom why he would cherish an air-conditioning unit that resembled the wrecked car that stood at the mouth of the Cross Harbour Tunnel as a warning against drink driving. Maybe it's because I'm not married, she mused. In any case, the archaic machine would not cool the stuffy office air for her, her next client was 15 minutes late for their appointment and she still had a month to go before summer ended and her chaotic schedule returned to normal.
Hoping to speed up the dragging hands of the clock, she logged on to Twitter via a Bulgarian proxy server. Along with the rest of normal life, all social networking websites were blocked at the office.
She found the homepage cluttered with stories of a bank robbery. Punching in the words 'bank robbery' on her keyboard, she scanned down the list of comments. Apparently the Hang Seng Bank in Tsim Sha Tsui had been robbed that afternoon, and the police hadn't been able to find any traces of how it was done. Well, good thing I keep my money in that safe under my bed was the only thought that came into Lok-yee's mind in her present sullen state.
The sound of giggling announced the arrival of the couple. As she watched them on the black and white video feed from the security camera, Lok-yee scratched furiously at a mosquito bite on her leg one more time and ran a finger under each eye to make sure her make-up hadn't smudged.
A plump middle-aged man wiggled into the room, a lady of a similar frame latched like a barnacle onto his arm.
'Oh, James, it's too hot in here!' the woman announced.
It was all Lok-yee could do to stop herself yelling, 'Tell my boss, not your dumb husband!' Patting his doll on the arm, the man advanced towards Lok-yee's desk and nodded at her condescendingly.
'Good evening, Mr Gatz. Um, Mrs Gatz?' Lok-yee trilled.
At this, the lady's head swivelled towards Mr Gatz, her face flushed and her eyes a-twinkle with glee.
'Did you hear that, James?'
'Not yet Mrs Gatz. This is Ms Elle Woods,' he beamed at his companion, and then blinked unsmilingly at the plastic name card that was pinned to Lok-yee's breast pocket. 'Ms Li.'
Business proceeded as usual. As she compared the Banyan Tree Resort and the Le Meridien Resort in Phuket, Lok-yee glanced periodically at the clock on the wall marked 'GMT+8', the Hong Kong time zone. Her heart sank at the thought of the traffic she would have to weave through on her way home because of that bank robbery.
'And here are your plane tickets. I'd say Phuket's one of the nicest cities in Thailand. There are twenty-seven of them, so you've made a good choice,' Lok-yee said, sliding the plane tickets and flight information across the desk. She suddenly became very aware of the mosquito bite on her left foot and stealthily manoeuvred her leg up to her chair reach it.
'Twenty-seven? What is twenty-seven?' Ms Woods asked. Your IQ! Lok-yee thought, trying her hardest not to roll her eyes.
'I was just saying that there are twenty-seven cities in Thailand.'
At that moment, a movement on the security camera screen caught Lok-yee's eye. A tall, slim woman glided across the waiting room, sank down onto the couch, folding her hands demurely on her lap. Lok-yee's eyebrows furrowed. It was 5.34, and the office was due to close for the weekend in 26 minutes; not even the most gifted of travel agents could sort out an entire vacation in such a short time.
'Did you hear about the bank robbery?' Ms Woods asked.
'Yes, I did. It was very unfortunate,' was Lok-yee's reply.
Finally, the couple got up to go. They were evidently satisfied with the outcome of their appointment but they didn't even bother to say thank you. Lok-yee stared wistfully after them as they exited the room, chatting animatedly about their upcoming trip.
A moment later, the figure from the security camera drifted into the room. Lok-yee began to pack up her things, exaggerating every motion in the hope of getting the message across: Sorry, but the office is closed and you'll have to come by another day.
The woman did not budge, however, and Lok-yee could not ignore her any longer.
Placing the last of her paperclips into her pencil case and zipping up her bag, Lok-yee looked up. Her gaze was instantly drawn to the black gem-encrusted choker that encircled the woman's delicate neck.
'May I ... help you?'
'Yes, please. I'm sorry this is so last-minute, but I'd like to book a trip.'
Lok-yee looked pointedly at the clock. 'And I'm so sorry, but the office is now closed for the weekend. However, you can make an appointment to come in some other time. The opening hours are from 9am to 6pm.'
'Yes, I understand, and I'm so sorry. But would it be possible to make an exception just this one time? It's a little urgent.'
There was something about this woman that commanded respect, and Lok-yee wondered what it was. Her charisma? Her austerity? The way she held herself, perhaps.
'Where to?' Lok-yee asked, her curiosity piqued in spite of herself.
'Paris. Tomorrow, if possible.'
'Ah, the city of lights.'
Lok-yee sat back down, still studying the woman's face. She looked a little sallow, and purple crescents creased the skin beneath her eyes. Maybe she did need a vacation.
Lok-yee looked out of her window. Rows and rows of cars crawled along the road like a colony of ants on the move. Might as well wait for the traffic to clear, she thought.
'Do you have any personal identification with you?' she asked. The woman reached into her leather bag and produced her Hong Kong identity card. Bonnie Parker, Lok-yee read. Date of birth: October 1, 1970.
'Alright, I'll see what I can do for you, Ms Parker. Please take a seat.'
As the woman sat down, the black gems on her choker gleamed in the office light. 'Thank you. It's a little stuffy in here.'
Lok-yee glanced up from the paperwork and followed Bonnie Parker's gaze to the air conditioner.
'It's broken. We need to get it replaced,' she replied, gesturing at it with the cheap biro the office supplied. For the next few minutes a silence ensued, broken only by the clicking of Lok-yee's mouse.
'You like Rome?' Bonnie Parker asked suddenly.
Lok-yee looked up. 'Sorry?'
'Rome. I see all these highlighted pamphlets lying on your desk.'
Lok-yee stared down at the familiar brochures that were sprawled across her work space. 'One day I'll get there, I suppose.' She returned to the list of flights on the airport website. 'And here we are. Tomorrow 11am to Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris. What about accommodation?'
'That won't be necessary. I'm staying with a friend.'
Lok-yee spent the following few minutes clarifying the travel details and costs. 'Alright then, Ms Parker, you're all set for tomorrow. Have a nice trip. And I've been meaning to say, I really like your necklace.'
'Thank you so much.' Bonnie Parker gathered her belongings and rose from her seat, fingers on the jewels. 'Yes, this is onyx,' she said, and paused. She placed a slender hand on the desk. 'On second thoughts, can you please also book me a plane ticket to Rome from Hong Kong for next Friday?'
It was just after 9am when Lok-yee entered her office after the weekend. To escape the boredom before her first appointment, she opened that day's edition of the South China Morning Post. Something caught her eye, and she flipped back to the headline. 'Robber leaves no fingerprints in Hang Seng Bank, police say.'
As she ran her eyes down the article, her heart stopped. Could it be? She slid down her chair, letting the newspaper drift to the floor. It seemed like ages before she noticed a white paper edge protruding from the Rome brochure closest to her hand. It was an envelope, on the inside flap of which was inscribed, 'Thank you for your help.' Inside was a ticket for a flight to Rome, scheduled to depart that coming Friday. There was nothing Lok-yee could do about anything any longer. The newspaper article was still visible from where she sat.
'Police have, however, found some evidence near one of the vaults in the basement of Hang Seng Bank in Tsim Sha Tsui. Police reports say that the burglar may have dropped a black gemstone that has, after tests, been identified as onyx.'