CHAPTER 1 Samantha shrugged off her leather jacket and flung it on her desk, breathing a small sigh of pleasure at the blast of air-conditioning against her clammy skin. June in Singapore was much too hot for any kind of outerwear, but she simply had to wear the cropped biker's jacket both S and Vogue had labeled "the season's must-have." Even if hers came from Taobao and not Tom Ford. She collapsed into her office chair with enough force to send it swiveling into position in front of her workplace computer. Her reflection looked back from the darkened screen, sporting a halo of messy waves that emphasized the sharp chin of her heart-shaped face. On good days, her hair fell down her back in a curtain of sleek curls. But on hot days like this-and Singapore had plenty of those-her naturally curly hair frizzed up in a way no hairbrush could wrangle into submission. "Sam, there you are!" Heads turned as Anya strutted the short distance from her desk to Samantha's like it was her personal catwalk, wearing a denim minidress belted with a brightly patterned Dior scarf that violated Arrow Public Relations' corporate dress code in half a dozen ways and made Samantha wish she had kept her leather jacket on despite how it stuck to her skin. At least it would make her outfit seem a little less plain compared to her friend's. But only Anya could get away with an outfit that, on anyone else, would have meant being hauled in for a "talk" with Human Resources. The higher-ups turned a blind eye to her misdeeds as long as they weren't too out of line, since it was an open secret Anya's father was tight with Arrow's leadership. Even during a recession when people were getting laid off left, right, and center, a spot at Arrow had magically opened up for Anya, even though she lacked the university degree that the job listing had asked for,-and in the most prestigious financial products group, no less. "Hey, what's up?" Samantha asked as Anya nudged the leather jacket out of the way and hitched herself onto Samantha's desk. Her feet-clad in lace-up combat boots with the distinctive Gucci stripes-dangled slightly off the ground. "I heard Heather kept the entire food and beverage team back for a meeting yesterday," Anya said, adjusting her headband so that two front strands of hair fell out and framed her face perfectly. "What was that all about?" Samantha laughed, her hands instinctively flying up to pat down her curls as she took in Anya's full blowout. "Don't tell me you're so starved of gossip you're actually interested in a work meeting." "It's been a slow week, but at least it's Friday now." Anya smirked. "Anyway, dish." Samantha leaned back in her chair and sighed. "She wanted us to brainstorm ways to attract new F and B clients. We haven't been doing too well these last few months." "Neither has the financial products team," Anya admitted, not sounding bothered at all. "You would think finance is an evergreen industry, but nope. A recession hits and boom-the first thing they slashed was their public relations budget." Samantha shrugged. "I guess they know that no one's looking for a fancy investment fund during a recession. But yeah, the meeting didn't go well, and Heather looked like she was ready to tear her hair out toward the end. I was ready to tear my hair out too." She gave a small shake of her head. "But enough about my work woes. How was your evening?" Anya heaved an exaggerated sigh. "After a long day at work, I was really looking forward to a nice home-cooked meal. But when I arrived home, there was nothing on the dining table! My mom forgot she had given our maid the day off." "Don't you have two maids? Why couldn't the other one cook?" Anya pouted. "Only Siti is a good cook, while Meri's better with taking care of our pets and garden. In the end, my mom and I decided to pop over to Burnt Ends for dinner. They require reservations, but they let us walk right in since we're regulars." "I was just reading about Burnt Ends in this month's issue of S over breakfast!" Samantha groped in her bag but came away empty-handed. "Damn, I must have left it at home." Then again, what was the point of showing Anya the article anyway when she had already seen Burnt Ends' crisp white tablecloths and monochrome paintings in person? The other woman could simply waltz into one of Singapore's top restaurants for a casual Thursday dinner. "Although the food was delish as always, I'm trying to lose five kilos before my birthday in two months," Anya said, her pout deepening. "I should be healthy like you and stop eating so much restaurant food, but I'm going out again with a friend tonight." Samantha's eyes darted to the lunch box in her work tote, filled with leftovers from the dinner Ma cooked last night-her standard work lunch. Anya might think she always ate home-cooked food for health purposes, but if she had Anya's money, she would be ordering in the tuna Nioise salad her friend got for lunch every day. A glint appeared in Anya's eyes. "Say, Sam," she began, her tone sugary sweet, "would you like to join my friend and me for dinner?" Samantha eyed her warily. "I don't want to crash your hangout with your friend." "You won't be crashing! Timothy's going through some relationship troubles and wants to drink his sorrows away-it's always the more the merrier for that! Besides, you straight people always have the wackiest relationship problems that I can't relate to." "Why would he tell me anything when he doesn't even know me?" "It's precisely because he doesn't know you that he might be more willing to tell you stuff! Timothy's social circle is pretty . . . insular, so he and his girlfriend share a lot of mutual friends. I think he's pretty frustrated to have no one to vent to." "He has you, no?" Anya scrunched up her face. "He knows I'm not her biggest fan, so he's learned not to ask me for relationship advice." Her voice perked up. "But you're perfect! You're not part of his world, so he can get a more objective opinion from you." Now it was Samantha's turn to pull a face. Whoever this Timothy was, he sounded like he had a much too complicated background. "I don't want to spend Friday night playing Dr. Phil . . ." "But you'll be doing a heartbroken man a favor! And also, me-your work wife. If I've to listen to straight-people relationship drama for an entire night, I need support." When Samantha still looked unconvinced, Anya leaned closer. "You've heard of Enzo, right?" Samantha snorted. "Do I live under a rock?" Prestige had called the newly opened bar-cum-restaurant "the place to be seen on a Friday night," and the accompanying photos of Enzo's official launch featured the crme de la crme of Singapore society. "Well, Tim's treating dinner at Enzo tonight. Eileen-that's his mom, by the way-knows the owner, so we get to skip the ridiculous wait list." She nudged Samantha's leg with her foot. "Come on, how can you say no to Enzo? People would sell their kidney to eat there." The sharp studs on Anya's Gucci boots dug into Samantha's flesh, but she barely noticed. Eileen . . . surely Timothy's mother couldn't be Eileen Kingston? The Prestige article had included a photo of Eileen Kingston beaming next to Enzo's owner, while carrying a limited-edition Chanel minaudire and wearing her trademark vintage Patek Philippe watch, her jet-black perm setting off her alabaster skin. Gnawing on her bottom lip, Samantha mentally sifted through everything she'd ever read about Eileen Kingston. A Hong Konger who had come over to Singapore over two decades ago. Invited to every party that counted. The wife of the chairman of Kingston Management Group-she herself ran Kingston Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm. Had one son in his midtwenties, whom Eileen referred to simply as "T" in an interview last November with Highsnobiety. A chance to experience-even for just one night-how Singapore's elites lived? Samantha smoothed back her curls and smiled up at Anya. "You know what? I'd love to get dinner with you two." Samantha darted a quick look at her watch and cursed beneath her breath as she pushed open the door to her flat. SheÕd rushed home the moment her lunch hour started, but thanks to peak-hour traffic, it was now thirty-five minutes into her break. It looked like lunch would have to be an al desko affair today. Still, this detour home for a change of clothes was a necessity. There was no way her simple linen sheath would cut it at a place like Enzo. The door whined a protest as it swung open on its rusty hinges. Samantha took only a few steps into the flat before she stopped cold. Her mother was slumped on the couch, her eyes squeezed shut and a sharp grimace etched deep into every line of her face as she massaged her left wrist. She was still wearing her nail salon uniform-a stiff white button-down tucked into plain black pants-and her nondescript work flats. More than anything else, the last observation was what sent alarm bells blaring in Samantha's head-her mother was usually fastidious about not wearing outdoor shoes into the house. "Ma, what's wrong? Is it the pain again?" Samantha dashed up to her mother, her words tumbling out in a panicked rush. Ever since her father had passed away from a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine, she had been on high alert about her mother's health. She was the one who had pushed her mother to finally visit the doctor last April after years of hearing the older woman grumble about the sharp pain that sometimes shot through her wrists, especially her left one. And it was then that Ma had officially been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, which the doctor suspected was due to her many years of working as a nail technician. Her mother's eyes fluttered open as she grunted out an affirmation. "It's acting up again. My hands were shaking so badly I spilled gel polish all over a client's shoes. I got sent home early by the boss, and he said he's docking my commissions this month. And I've to pay for the woman's Prada heels-I bet they aren't even real." Samantha couldn't muster up the laugh her mother was looking for. Ma wouldn't be trying to make light of the situation if it weren't so awful to begin with. Her hands balled into fists. "But that's so unfair! Your carpal tunnel's getting worse because he's making you work overtime so much." The groove between Ma's brows deepened. "The next time he asks me to work extra hours, I'm going to tell him where to stick it. The pathetic pay's not worth all the health issues this job's given me." "That's right, you tell him." Samantha nodded furiously, but her words rang hollow to her own ears. How many times had they had this conversation before? And how many times had Ma slunk back to the nail salon where she had been working for the past decade, like a dog with its tail tucked in between its legs? Ma would wash people's feet and buff their calluses, accept their complaints with a smile, and readily obey all of her asshole boss's demands. All because she had no other choice. The work was demanding and her pay was paltry, but it was still an income their family couldn't afford to give up, not with debt hanging over their heads like a guillotine blade. "Have you been to the doctor yet?" Samantha asked, desperate to focus her attention on something practical they could do. "Were you able to claim any medical subsidies?" Her mother sighed. "Aiya, the doctor will just tell me to rest, but how can I take any time off? The boss will threaten to dock my commissions again. And even with the subsidies, it will still cost quite a bit. Not worth the money." She waved her good hand around in an airy gesture that made Samantha's heart squeeze. "The best way to deal with pain is to push through it-that's life." A lump swelled up in Samantha's throat. When she was younger, all she wanted was to grow up faster so she could start working and help Ma out. But being older just meant she understood better that life was about playing the hand you were dealt. If only there were more she could do besides collecting the financial aid forms from the community center every four months. If only she could offer more than the meager pay of her entry-level public relations job. She had been lucky enough to even a find a job during this recession, but career advancement opportunities had been scarce, and one year on, she still didn't have much to show for it. Ma had been ecstatic when Samantha graduated from university and found an office job-two things the older woman had never achieved-but that pride was now a distant memory. Before Samantha could say anything, her mother fixed her with a piercing stare. "Why are you home?" Samantha tore her eyes away from her mother's swollen left wrist, tonight's plans swiftly coming back to her. "I'm getting dinner with Anya and her friend tonight and the place is pretty atas, so I came back to change into something slightly fancier. But I'm not going anymore." A look of incredulity crossed her mother's face. "Why not? A posh dinner sounds fun." "Ma, what about your dinner? You can't cook with your hand like that. Of course I'm going to stay in and take care of you." The corners of Ma's mouth quirked up into a faint smile. "That's very sweet, Sammy. But you don't have to do that. You're young-you should go out and have fun!" She paused, then lightly asked, "Is Anya treating?" Samantha understood her mother's unspoken concern. "Her friend's treating. Don't worry, Ma-I know better than to eat at restaurants like that otherwise." Her mother relaxed back into the couch, still flexing her wrists methodically. "Good, good. And who's this friend? Guy or girl?" "It's a guy," Samantha said, rolling her eyes. "Do you want to know his shoe size and horoscope too?" Despite her snark, her heart lightened. Her mother's face was still pale, but at least she had recovered her usual Asian-mom nosiness. Her mother clucked her tongue. "Don't be cheeky, Sam. If he's someone who can pay for three people at an atas restaurant, then he must be very rich like Anya. Nothing wrong with being on your best behavior around him." Excerpted from The Fraud Squad by Kyla Zhao All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.