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Losing Your Head (The Charlie Davies Mysteries Book 1)

 

[Losing Your Head
**]Clare Kauter

 

Losing Your Head

Copyright © 2015 Clare Kauter

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

 

[]Contents

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

 

Books By Clare Kauter

Deadhead (Damned, Girl!) Preview

About The Author

 

 

For my Grandma, who would have been really handy during the editing process.

 

(Seriously, even this dedication has a green squiggly line under it. What do you want from me, Microsoft Word?!)

Chapter One

Why is it that every time you do something you hope no one will notice, you get found out? I once read that the probability of someone watching you is directly proportional to the stupidity of the action. I know this is true, because I screw up a lot and I have never, not once, gotten away with it. It has been that way since the day I was born (when I did a poo during my first ever bath, which my father kindly documented on film so that he may bring it out at dinner parties forevermore), and it will probably be that way until the day I die (likely of a heart attack while I’m having a bath in which I’ve once again done a poo). I know I can’t be the only person who gets embarrassed, but I seem to receive more than my fair share of public humiliation.

Just look at my time in high school. I did a lot of stupid things in the space of those six years. All were noticed. All were highly embarrassing. As early as my first school assembly the rest of the school learned my propensity for, as I like to call it, “bad luck” (others call it “stupidity” or “being bad at life”), when I was called upon to receive an award. The laughter started the second I stood up and began walking towards the stage. I ploughed on regardless, hoping against hope that there was some event entirely unrelated to me that was causing this hysteria. I made it up to the stage, peals of laughter ringing throughout the hall, and accepted the certificate. That was when the man presenting the award leaned forward and whispered, “Your skirt’s tucked in at the back.”

Right, I know what you’re thinking. OK, that’s mildly embarrassing, sure. It’s hardly next-level though. To be honest, I was expecting a little more.

Well, my friend, you will not be disappointed.

Realising that my bottom was on show to the entire school, I whipped around, trying to hide it. Unfortunately, however, my feet had become tangled in the microphone cord and I tripped right into the man presenting the award – also known as the school principal. We both flailed awkwardly for a time, but it was in vain – down we went, right over the edge of stage left, taking out a few members of the school band on our way down. Luckily, I came out relatively uninjured. The teacher I had landed on top of – one leg either side, straddling him – was less lucky. He tried to hold back the tears, but I saw them glistening in the corners of his eyes. He kind of took the brunt of the fall.

He transferred schools not long after.

From then on the other kids at school were always quick to ask whether my ‘boyfriend’ would be giving me another award at the next ‘arsembly’. I don’t even remember what the award was for. I just remember that I made sure I was at the bottom of the class in every subject for the rest of that year, out of fear that I may one day be called upon to receive another one of those dreaded certificates.

Even after I’d finished Year 12, if I bumped into someone down the street that knew me from Gerongate High (teachers included), I’d still get that same line. Honestly, it was getting a bit old. I mean, c’mon, I’d finished school two years ago. Why the hell would I be at arsembly?

There are many other occasions where I have found myself as the centre of attention through less-than-comfortable circumstances. Take my last job interview.

Things got off to a bad start for me when I was walking into the interview room and realised – would you believe – my skirt was tucked into my undies at the back, revealing them to the world. OH YES. AGAIN. Whilst I was attempting to untangle the clothing that was (or, rather, wasn’t) covering my backside, I was also trying to remain balanced in my brand-new stilettos. I had worn them in the hope of making a good first impression, although I hadn’t quite learned to walk in them yet. I was nearly to the chair when, wouldn’t you know it, one of the heels clean snapped off my shoe. I fell face first and whacked my head on the table on the way down. I hadn’t shut the door on my way in, so everyone got to admire me as I lay face down on the floor, unconscious, with my hand still resting on my arse, outlining my failed attempt to pick my skirt out of my crack.

And as though that wasn’t bad enough, the only pair of clean undies I could find that morning had been a G-string. Oh, no. I’m not joking.

The people at the office dialled 000, and were advised to leave the injured exactly as she was until the professionals got there, to prevent them from causing any further damage.

As I side note, I feel I should tell you that not all of my humiliations involve bums and/or poo. Just most of them.

For the record, I didn’t get the job. Not that I wanted it after what happened. Things would have been kind of awkward around the office, and I probably would have been a major Occupational Health And Safety risk. OK, I definitely would have been a risk. All in all, I wasn’t too surprised about not getting it. But I haven’t bought shoes from Payless since.

Like I said, you can’t screw up and expect not to be noticed. It just doesn’t work that way. Even if you think no one sees at the time, sooner or later things are going to start to unravel and everyone is going to find out what you’ve done. That is life and, like it or not, that’s just how things go.

Sometimes it can be a good thing. Like when someone commits a crime. A murder, for instance. Obviously, it’s not great news for the person who did it, but someone’s bound to see something. There will be some evidence, some hint, no matter how hard you try to hide it. Of course, somebody has got to figure out what those clues mean, and that doesn’t always happen. Which is how people get away with things.

That’s what I’ve learned about crime. At least, that is what I learned from my first case. (Did I just say ‘my first case’? Cringe. It sounds like a Fisher Price toy.) It isn’t like I’m a professional or anything. I really only did it to prove that I could and I’ll admit that I made a few mistakes, but, hey, how else are you supposed to learn? So, anyway, my first “case” – the murder of old Frank McKenzie.

 

  • * *

Gerongate wasn’t an exceptionally large place. I mean, it was a city, but with only 300 000 people, well, it wasn’t exactly New York. Even by Australian standards, it was fairly small. It was big enough, though, that you could never know everyone like you could in a country town. You’d get people who seemed to know everyone, but that was just because they always did the same thing and never saw anyone new. I guess I noticed this during the time I spent working at Gregory’s Groceries (George Street, Gerongate – just so you can avoid it).

Every customer had a regular shopping day and time, so by the end of the first month I knew everyone’s name. Two months and I knew all about everyone’s immediate family. Three and I could name everyone in their extended family as well. Four months and they started to let me in on the latest gossip. Five months and my job really pissed me off.

On the rare occasion that we got a new customer, it was normally just one of the regulars’ kids who’d grown up and left home. That was fine, but if someone entirely new came in – watch out. The amount of foul looks they received was enough to ensure that they would never return. The way people reacted to newcomers, you’d think that they were criminals. Then again, in the parts of Gerongate that I’d been in, change pretty much was a crime.

So I was about to do something illegal.

I guess this is about time for the boring introduction – don’t worry, I’ll keep it short. My name is Charlie Davies. I’m nineteen, and I have sometimes-curly, sometimes-straight blonde hair (it still hasn’t decided on its true identity), and dysfunctional blue eyes (read: I have to wear glasses). Being roughly 5ft 3, most fully-grown humans are taller than me. Some people think I have anger-management issues. I disagree with this. I disagree with most things.

If you want a concise assessment of my general personality, you could just look at the sum of notes written in my file by the high-school counsellor over the course of my two-year stint of sessions. It was part of the anger-management program that the head of the P.E. department (is it me or is ‘physical education’ just an eternally creepy name for a school subject?) stuck me on after I attempted to assault a guy two years up from me with a hockey stick. Not that it was my fault. He had it coming. Anyway, the counsellor didn’t have much to say about me when I took a sneak-peek at the folder while he was out getting coffee one time. All he had written was “snide, jaded – would not date”.

Ta-dah, my psychological profile when I was fourteen. Yes, fourteen, and I was already bored with the world. (And also apparently not worthy of the attentions of a paedophile, which is somehow both comforting and offensive.) I haven’t changed much since then, except that I’m slightly taller. Roughly a centimetre.

I glanced down at the clock display on the checkout computer. Ten to five. Ten minutes and then my shift was over. I’d been a checkout chick at Gregory’s Groceries for four years now. Four years of employment at a supermarket that barely passed health regulations. Oh, joy. You’d think that after working somewhere for that long you would at least have a bit of cash saved up. Only in my dreams.

I cast my gaze around the supermarket. Not that you could really call it that, being that there was nothing exceptionally ‘super’ about it. Supersized rats emerging at night, maybe. Perhaps you could say that the owner had superpowers in his ability to sweet talk health inspectors. It amazed me that they didn’t close Gregory’s the moment they entered and were confronted by the cat-sized cockroaches guarding the front door.

I stood there surveying my surroundings, trying to spot the owner-slash-founder-slash-manager of this gem of a store, Mr Gregory himself. Strangely enough, the man’s real name was Jeremy Martin. Apparently there had been a misunderstanding when the sign was printed and he was too cheap to get it redone, so the store remains “Gregory’s” to this day.

Jeremy wasn’t hard to spot, even amongst the large crowd of Wednesday shoppers. (I think it must have been pension day or something. Or maybe everyone came shopping after bingo.) It may have been more difficult to find Jeremy were his wife not with him. Mrs Jeremy Martin was a nice woman with what most people considered to be a respectable husband. She had married Jeremy at age 18 and had been regretting it ever since. OK, so that’s just speculation on my part, but if I’d somehow ended up married to a ferret like Jeremy, I would definitely be regretting it. And judging by the way Lea was screaming at him now, I was pretty damn sure she agreed.

I didn’t really know Jeremy that well as a person. I just knew him as a boss, and he was a crappy one of those. He never paid me enough unless I did special off-the-books jobs for him. He made us scrub the real use-by dates off produce and stamp on new ones after hours, and for that he gave me a decent amount of cash. I would never have done anything illegal if he hadn’t paid me well for it. At least not for him.

I gathered up my belongings and, standing, took a deep breath before making my way back through the crowd towards the angry Lea and her ferret. As I got closer I was able to make out some bits of the torrent of abuse Lea was hurling at Jeremy.

“Just tell me where the hell you were on Monday night, Jeremy. I want the truth. And don’t try and spin me that line about you helping your sister. Just admit what you were doing, you creep!” She let out a stream of descriptive words about her husband. Some people may have said that they were vulgar, but not me. Every single one of those words suited Jeremy down to the ground.

“I just want to know where you were!”

“Darling, I’ve told you over and over again, I was with Karen. My sister. Now, you need to calm down and – ”

“DON’T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN, YOU ARSEHOLE! IT’S YOUR OWN BLOODY FAULT!”

Ah, the joys of married life. I wondered where Jeremy had been. I had no idea of course; he was probably with his sister, like he said. A plan was forming in my head. Well, it was my last day…

What have I got to lose? I asked myself. I might as well go out with a bang.

I strutted over to Jeremy, pretending not to notice his irate wife, or at least pretending not to care. I gave Jeremy a kiss on the cheek (which was kind of gross, but it was for a good cause).

“Hi Jeremy,” I said, just loud enough for Lea to hear. “Dinner was great on Monday night. We’ll have to do that again some time.”

“THAT’S IT! I’M GETTING A DIVORCE!” Lea screamed. And on that note, she left. I thought she did it in a very dignified fashion, considering how angry she’d been a moment before. She just walked out as though nothing had happened. Mission accomplished. Almost. I’d ruined Jeremy’s life and reputation. I’d saved Lea. She was only 22 and beautiful. She’d have no trouble finding a better husband – not that she could get one much worse. I was hoping now that she had a bit of experience behind her she’d pick better second time round.

Now for the next thing on my list. I turned to Jeremy, whose face was red and contorted with rage.

“Charlie – Davies –” he spat at me. “You – are –”

“Suspended?” I suggested.

“Yes! Two weeks.”

I snorted. “Oh, dear, how can I live without my pay for two weeks? Oh wait, I’ve lived without it for the four years I’ve worked here, so I guess I can manage. By the way, I’m quitting.”

“By company rules you’re required to give – ”

“A two week notice? Yes, I know. This is it. At the end of my suspension, I’m not coming back. Have a nice divorce, Jeremy.”

I was amazed that by the time I’d reached the street I still hadn’t screwed up. So amazed, in fact, that I was checking behind myself as I walked along to make sure my skirt wasn’t tucked into my undies (my classic party trick). When I turned my head back around to look forwards, a brick wall ran straight into my face and broke the bridge on my glasses. Oh well. No day is perfect.

I walked all the way back to my parents’ house holding my specs together with one hand. I didn’t have a car or a house of my own, so I walked to work and lived with my parents. I know, I know. What a grown-up.

My parents’ house was your average Gerongate abode. There was nothing all that special about it. It was a two storey, three bedroom home designed in the 70s. As it had slowly moved on through the decades, much of the interior/exterior had (luckily) been updated. However, there was still evidence of the original decorating to be found in the lounge room, where you practically had to wade through the cream-coloured shag pile carpet in order to reach the couch.

I had once pointed out the lack of taste in that rug to my mother. She just told me that if I didn’t like it I could move out. She had never changed that carpet, so I guess she was hoping I’d go for the ‘leave’ option. She’d probably call in the decorators the second I was gone. I was sure she hated it just as much as me; she probably just kept it as an incentive. Mumsie’s quite cunning like that.

I entered our house through the front door and walked through to the back. I was heading for the kitchen to see if I could scab some food off my mother. She’d probably be cooking something, since I hadn’t seen her in the garden when I came in. Now, despite the kind of mental images this may provoke (“Oh, thy mother art such a lovely housewife”), that’s not quite accurate. If you think that her hobbies make her sound a little repressed, then you need to take into account that another of her favourite pastimes is driving her bad-arse Nissan with the massive bull-bar out into the country and “sight-seeing” (read: drag racing) with her best friend, Violet McKenzie (who drives a Prado). She thinks we don’t know she races, but it’s pretty obvious – who goes for a country drive with their best friend in two separate cars?

I stood in the doorway of the kitchen getting high on the smell of biscuits cooking. Mmm. She was putting a second round of mixture on the trays ready to go in the oven when the first lot was done. Mum had her back to me, but she must have heard me come in because before I even spoke she said, “No, there will not be any mixture left over, you won’t get it if there is, and you can’t lick the bowl. You can eat one of the biscuits when they come out the oven, like a nice, civilised, grown up would do. And –” she turned to face me. “Jeez, what happened to your face? It’s hideous!”

I can always rely on Mum for a confidence boost.

“Well, the wall wasn’t watching where it was going…” I trailed off.

“Get some ice on it or something, for goodness’ sake! It’s all bruised and swollen. Where does it hurt?”

Well, I was guessing it was probably hurting in the same place it was bruised and swollen, but I told her anyway.

“Just up the middle of my face.” She passed me a bag of frozen peas to put over it.

“So, apart from your ‘run-in’ with the wall,” at this point she began to laugh hysterically at her own joke, “How was your day?”

“Great!” There was no sarcasm in this statement, and my mother cut her eyes to me suspiciously.

“Drugs?”

“No, I – ”

“You found a wallet full of money on your way home and you’re keeping it?”

“No, I – ”

“Oh, well. Better luck next time.”

“I’ve got big news. It’s the reason I’m happy.”

“You’ve finally got a boyfriend and he’s asked you to move in with him! Isn’t that wonderful? Quick, let’s go upstairs and I’ll help you pack. Who is he? When do I get to meet him? How old is he? Not that I care too much if he’s gonna get you out of my house.”

“MUM! That’s not it. I don’t have a boyfriend.” She looked a bit put out at this. “But I did quit my job today.”

“Really?”

“Yes…” She was concerned. I could see it on her face.

“Where are you going to work now?”

I paused. I hadn’t really thought about that. In fact, I’d totally overlooked it.

“Umm…” I began. “Umm…”

“Yes?”

Oops. Forgot about that bit. That whole getting-another-job thing. I wasn’t really qualified to do anything. At all. Maybe I could get unemployment benefits. It probably paid better than my last job.

“I don’t actually know. I don’t s’pose you’ve heard of any jobs available?” I hoped she had. I’d do anything. It couldn’t be any worse than working at Gregory’s. I was desperate. “Anything?”

“I’ve heard there’s an opening at Coles.”

Well, maybe not anything.

 

The next morning I stumbled out of bed far too early. Somehow I managed to make it to the bathroom with my eyes still shut. When I finally opened them and caught sight of myself in the mirror I nearly screamed, thinking there was a monster in the room with me, but when I put on my glasses (which I’d taped together last night) I realised it was just my own purply-blue face in the reflection. The bruise hadn’t gotten a lot better over night. If anything, it was worse. I had a quick shower (only half an hour – quick for me), avoided looking at myself in the mirror again, dressed in semi-professional clothes, and headed down to the kitchen for breakfast. After that I planned to spend the rest of the day job-seeking. I settled on a glass of orange juice (which I spilt) and a piece of toast (which I burned) with jam (which kind of made up for the other two mistakes), and then I sat down and grabbed the newspaper to study while I ate. I meant to look for jobs vacant in the Classifieds, but the heading on the front page caught my eye. This had been the hottest piece of gossip going around Gerongate yesterday. I’d heard about it from everyone I talked to. Well, nearly everyone – Jeremy and I hadn’t had a chance to discuss it for obvious reasons. I’d been far too busy destroying his marriage for that. But everyone else had mentioned it. When I saw the headline I just couldn’t resist.

 

OLD MCKENZIE HAS THREE FARMS, $2 BILLION, NO HEAD

 

(What a touchingly sincere title. So sensitive I could barely stand it.) I discovered that Francis McKenzie had been found dead on Tuesday morning, when his (headless) body was discovered by a couple of kids. They must have been awful burdens on society to get a Karma trip like that.

The decapitation wasn’t what had killed him, luckily – it looked like he had been shot to death first. Phew. It would suck to be murdered, but if I had a choice between dying of bullets or having my head hacked off, it wouldn’t take long for me to decide.

I read further down the article and found out that Frank had left everything he owned (which was quite a substantial amount, what with him being a billionaire and all) to one person – his nephew, James McKenzie.

I knew James McKenzie. Everyone did. He was two grades above me in school, and he was the most popular guy there. He was also my mother’s best friend’s youngest child. After he completed Year 12 he’d gotten straight into police academy. He must’ve done OK there because a year later he was working as a cop at a Gerongate Station.

Personally, I didn’t really like James McKenzie. I’d always thought that he had an over-inflated sense of his own importance. I suppose that wasn’t really his fault if you saw the way people acted around him. Not me, of course. I’d been friends with him when we were little because of our mothers, but he changed. (I know, I know – “He’s not the same person as he was when he was four!” Whatever.) We still had to see each other a lot while we were growing up (much to our disgust) but since it generally ended in tears/swearing/violence, we tried to keep our contact to a minimum. I’d hardly seen him since his mother kicked him out, even less since we finished school, and that was fine by me.

Everything James ever had was a present from his Uncle Frank. Frank had no wife or kids and was a bit of a cranky old fart, to tell the truth. He didn’t like many people, but he and his nephew James got on like a house on fire. When James was kicked out of his parent’s house (age 16), Frank had taken him in and made him continue on with school. When James had decided to become a cop, Frank had payed his fees, and given James a house (free of rent) as a graduation gift. And it wasn’t like this was just some shack in a side alley. We are talking a few million dollars’ worth of mansion. I’d never actually been inside, but I’d driven past and it was massive.

Some people have all the luck.

But now Frank was dead, and everyone was accusing James. It was understandable that they thought it was him. I mean, he had motive (a couple of billion motives, if you catch my drift), and the only person who could give him an alibi had left for South America on Tuesday afternoon, hadn’t been questioned, and was currently unable to be contacted. And James had means. Frank had been shot with a pistol, and in Gerongate – and the rest of Australia, as far as I knew – only cops were legally allowed to carry pistols. If James had used a registered gun then it was only a matter of time before he was caught. Of course, being a cop, he probably came into contact with plenty of unregistered guns, too…

Poor little James. Means, motive and, right now, no alibi. Everyone thought he was a murderer, and his perfect reputation was in tatters. Boo-hoo. Now don’t get the wrong idea – it wasn’t like I was enjoying this. Well, maybe I was. It was just nice that for once I wasn’t the one being publicly humiliated.

It was sad about Frank, though. What a gross thing for someone to do. And everyone thought his nephew had done it – at least, nearly everyone. I thought McKenzie was a moron, but I still didn’t think he was a killer. I wasn’t sure he had it in him.

When I finished reading the article I flipped over to the ‘Jobs Vacant’ section. Not much there. Coles needed new checkout workers. McDonalds was looking for young people to sell their ‘food’. Same old, same old. I checked the date on the paper. It was yesterday’s. Hmm. So the jobs in the paper weren’t looking incredibly promising. Google didn’t throw up much either.

There was only one thing for it.

I shuddered at the mere thought.

 

Chapter Two

 

Have you ever had a week so bad you start believing that God’s punishing you for something? (Possibly for being an atheist?) We’re talking the sort of week where so many things go wrong that when you’re trying to think of solutions to everything, your brain casually offers up ideas ranging from “I could email, but maybe I should just call, that would be faster”, to “I’ll go early in the morning”, to “Maybe I should just die”. Well, this week had just become one of those weeks. Why, you ask?

Well.

I was on my way to Centrelink.

For those of you not familiar with this glorious establishment, Centrelink is the place they send all the people who need money. Everyone. Just lump them all together, students, pensioners, recently released prisoners, in you go. I had largely managed to avoid it by not going to university, but alas, now I was unemployed and here I was. Just so you get a sense of the ambience, here is the basic procedural run down: you line up for half an hour, get to the front, they write your name down, and then you’re officially waiting. Usually they’ll have a TV playing a handy tutorial on things such as how to wash your hands, there are stains all over the floor (Blood? Vomit? Cola?), and you’ll be sitting next to someone who smells of tuna. It’s quite an interesting cross-section of the community you get there.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a good employee and not have to return on your next day off to fix up their mistakes. If you’re unlucky… Well. Apparently, hit one wrong key and instead of earning $500 you’ve earned half a million. Seven phone calls and four trips to Centrelink later, the benefit fraud inquiry might – might – be under control. Then you’ll be able to get back onto your ordinary payments (which, for anyone who isn’t well versed in welfare, means you get slightly less money than you’re able to live on unless you supplement it with some sort of illegal activity).

My trip to Centrelink was so harrowing that I’m really not prepared to go into any more detail other than they basically told me to get a job. Great.

After wasting two hours of my life to be told, essentially, to go away, I started walking home. Then the torrential rain started. This is when I discovered that the dye in my brand new blue pants was not particularly stable. So unstable, in fact, that they were now white pants and my (usually pasty) legs were a bright turquoise. And also the pants were now two sizes smaller, seeing as apparently they shrunk when wet. (I don’t mean to brag, but it was quite a spectacular wedgie going on – yep, another wedgie. What a glamorous life I lead.)

After arriving home, extracting my pants from my crack, and attempting (read: failing) to wash the blue dye off my legs, I decided to take action.

I needed a résumé.

I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen so that I could do up a draft, and began by writing ‘Résumé’ up the top. So far, so good. I’d even remembered to put the accents in (and I hadn’t even had to Google the spelling). Underneath the heading, I wrote my name and a brief description of myself and my goals. Well, I wrote that I wanted a job I enjoyed, anyway. If such a thing was possible. Money would probably have scored higher on my list of priorities right at that time, but I thought that it would be better to leave that off. Might not have come across too well.

Next I listed my qualifications. It wasn’t a lengthy list. It was my (rather mediocre) HSC scores. That was it. Jeez, prospective employers would be really interested to know that. I was definitely going to be at the top of their list.

Their ‘Who to Avoid Hiring at All Costs’ list.

Then came the list of previous employment. After much thought I decided to actually write Gregory’s Groceries and just hope like hell that they didn’t decide to give Jeremy Martin a call.

I printed off a few copies and decided to go door-to-door. I handed out copies to shop owners for about two hours before I ran out, then I went home. I made myself a tomato sandwich (tomato: liquid, bread: stale) and sat down at the kitchen table to think. Mum was out in the garden and dad was down at the mechanic’s fixing somebody’s car, so I had the room to myself. None of the people I had seen this morning seemed very interested in hiring me and, to be honest, I couldn’t blame them. Five years of employment as a checkout chick, no car and still living with parents wasn’t exactly impressive. To tell the truth, it was actually pretty sad. They could probably tell I was a walking disaster by the bruise on my face. And let’s not forget the sticky-taped bridge on my glasses.

OK, so I hadn’t done that well with the people I’d met so far. I considered my options. Employment agency – not exactly appealing. I decided to leave that for when I was getting seriously desperate, which honestly wasn’t going to be far away. I could visit more of the places in the CBD, but if I really wanted to have a door slammed in my face, I could probably manage it myself. Besides, everyone who needed a job probably went down the main strip looking for one.

There was another option. I could visit new parts of town and see if there were any jobs going there. There were probably a lot less unemployed idiots job-seeking in the backstreets than in downtown Gerongate. There were probably a lot less business owners looking for unemployed idiots in the backstreets than in downtown Gerongate as well, but hey, it was worth a try.

That was how I’d found myself, an hour later, in a part of Gerongate I’d never been in before, standing out the front of a business I’d never heard of. I’d hesitated and I wasn’t quite sure why.

It could have had been that there were about fifty cameras out the front, some trained on the entrance and some on windows and the rest moving to give a full view of the front of the building. There were probably about four cameras filming any one place at a given time. It’d make entering undetected a nightmare. Not that I was planning to break in. It was clear these guys meant business.

I looked at the front door. It had a state-of-the-art security system on the right side of the door with an intercom connecting to somebody inside. There was a screen, a speaker, a few buttons and what looked like a credit card slot (and hell, do I know credit card slots – thank you, retail).

There was one other thing that was bothering me about this place. It wasn’t the name. Baxter & Co. wasn’t exactly frightening. A little secretive, maybe. But not scary. The thing that was worrying me was how high-tech and expensive this place looked. This wasn’t exactly a high-tech and expensive neighbourhood. This was a carry-a-gun-at-all-times kind of neighbourhood. And what bothered me about that was the suspicion I had that maybe that was how these guys made their money – by carrying guns at all times. And using them.

I hadn’t exactly meant to end up in this part of town, wherever this part was. I’d taken a wrong turn and kept going, somehow ending up in the seediest back alleys you could imagine. (Hello, metaphor for my life.) At one point I walked past what I thought was a pile of garbage bags, when suddenly they started moving and one of them groaned. Displaying admirable bravery, I screamed and ran away. Hashtag streetlife.

The more lost I got, the more broken windows I saw. Broken bottles on the road, graffiti everywhere. And not even clever graffiti. Just pictures of anatomically incorrect dicks and the word “gay” scrawled across doorways of abandoned buildings. (But hey, maybe that was a really happy abandoned building, what do I know?)

This was an area in disrepair. It was even worse than that time we went on a family road trip and ended up eating lunch in a terrifying little country town that had looked like the set of True Detective. I’m sure everyone there was related.

This Baxter & Co., though? Clean, tidy, untouched. It was fucking pristine.

So that was what had kept me from going in straight away. In this area, a nice building just seemed a little sinister. Oh, who was I kidding? It seemed a lot sinister.

Don’t be stupid, my daring side said. Just go in. Just do it! What’s the worst that could happen? You could get a job. Ooh, how awful?!

No, my sensible/conservative/boring side said. The worst thing that could happen is that you could get shot.

Pessimist, said Daring. Daring won.

I walked up to the future-of-security front door and tried the handle. To my amazement, it turned. I had been half hoping it wouldn’t so I could leave and not talk to anybody. This situation made me uncomfortable. Either someone had left it unlocked or someone had seen me standing outside and keyed me in. This was not the sort of place where I could imagine people left doors unlocked, at least not if they wanted to live. I was left to conclude that I’d been let in intentionally. And that scared me.

I entered cautiously. More cameras. The reception desk to my right (I use the term loosely – ‘reception’ sort of implies that there will be a receptionist) was drowning in unsorted files and pieces of paper. It was chaos. Just seeing it brought out the (formerly latent) obsessive-compulsive in me. I resisted the urge to move behind the desk and start tidying, however, because firstly that’s weird, and secondly the desk was unattended and I was curious to know who had let me in.

I turned to my left and studied the office door. It was shut, but judging by the nameplate it belonged to the boss. I had a strong suspicion that he’d been the one to let me in, which was odd because 1) Why, and 2) What kind of boss could afford that level of security but didn’t even hire a receptionist. I quickly knocked on the doorframe before I lost heart, and hoped no one answered. No such luck.

“Come in,” called a deep male voice from inside. I opened the door and stepped in. Harry Baxter was a balding man who looked to be in his late fifties and had obviously bought the shirt he was wearing many meals ago because the buttons now had to work pretty hard to keep his belly inside. He looked at me over the rim of his glasses, which were resting three-quarters of the way down his nose. He spoke.

“You were standing outside for quite some time. I’m curious. What can I do for you?”

I was impressed that he didn’t seem to be put off by the massive bruise on my face, although I was worried that it might be because he had learnt to ignore injuries through practice. They probably got a lot of practice here. I kind of wished I hadn’t worn long pants because it would have been interesting to see if he’d be so unruffled about my Smurf legs.

I took a deep breath.

“Iwasjustwonderingwhatexactlyitisyoudohereandifthereareanyjobsavailable?” I knew I’d said it far too quickly. Great. Another job opportunity gone. Baxter took off his glasses (not sticky taped, if you’re wondering). His green eyes were crinkled at the corners and I could tell he was amused.

“We’reaprivatesecurityandinvestigationfirmandyesthereisonejobvacant.”

Great. Now he was mocking me.

“Sit down,” he said, “And tell me about yourself.”

“Well, um, here’s my résumé,” I said, passing the sheet of paper across the desk to him as I sat. “Er, my – my name’s Charlie Davies. Um, I’ve lived in Gerongate my whole life. I did OK in my HSC but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I didn’t go to Univer-”

“Do tell me – Charlie, isn’t it? – tell me, Charlie, why you worked at Gregory’s Groceries for five years and yet you haven’t listed your boss as a referee?”

How could he have noticed that so quickly? Darn private investigator! He was typing something into his computer. I took a deep breath. I should’ve been ready for this.

“Well, there was some conflict between us shortly before I left and – hey! What are you doing?”

He’d picked up the phone off his desk and I had a pretty good idea of who he was calling. He looked at his computer screen and punched the number into his phone. He must have been searching for Jeremy’s number when he was typing a second ago. Oh, no.

“Hello, Jeremy? I was just calling you about a staff member of yours who left a short while ago, Charlie Davies.”

I remained sitting in that same chair, mortified, for the entire duration of the telephone call. I could hear some, uh, colourful language coming from the other end. Why did everything always go wrong for me?

Eventually, Baxter hung up.

“W-well?” I managed to stammer, staring down at my hands.

“When can you start?” He asked me. I was stunned. I dragged my eyes up to meet his. “I never did like Jeremy Martin much.”

I noticed that he was smiling.

“By the way,” he asked me, “How did you get that bruise?”

Chapter Three

 

“So you start when?” my mother asked me. We were sitting at the table in the kitchen, eating dinner and discussing my new job. I finished the piece of potato I had in my mouth and told her.

“But,” my mother said, “Nine o’clock tomorrow? On a Friday? Why?”

“Mum, if you saw the state of my office, you’d understand. And Dad, stop eyeing off my chips. I’m going to eat them and I’m not going to give you any. And don’t you dare try and steal them. I have sharp cutlery and I am not afraid to use it.”

My mother continued, oblivious to the chip war my father and I were engaged in.

“But still,” she said, “Why not wait until Monday? I mean, new job, new week, new start…”

“ I’m not complaining. You know -” Dad made a grab for my food and I stabbed at his hand with a butter knife. He didn’t get the chip so I continued. “I’m getting paid pretty good money.” I didn’t actually know how much money I would make, but I knew saying that would make Mum happy. In Mum’s head, Charlie + Money = Charlie getting a house. If Charlie got a house, Charlie wouldn’t be living with her parents. If Charlie wasn’t living with her parents, that, in my mother’s head, was a really good thing. It meant Charlie was growing up. Getting a life. And Mum could change that hideous carpet in the lounge room.

“Oh, well, you didn’t mention that!” She said it a bit too quickly and looked embarrassed. “I mean, that’ll be great for you. Well, I hope you enjoy it.”

Dad made another grab for my chips and I tackled him to the ground. For the first time, Mum appeared to notice.

“What are you two doing on the floor? Charlie, get up and finish your dinner.”

 

That night I slept well. I dreamt that I was back at Gregory’s Groceries for the day and I had been crowned honorary checkout chick. Jeremy Martin came along and tried to kick me out but everyone turned against him and he seemed to shrink. Someone put him on the conveyor belt and I swiped his head over and over again. Beep, beep, beep.

Suddenly I was awake and it took me a moment to realise that it had actually been my alarm clock beeping. Oh well. The image of Jeremy Martin being swiped to death was still great, even if it hadn’t actually happened. I lay there for a bit longer, thinking. Hmm. I had the feeling I was forgetting something.

Crap! My new job!

I sprang out of bed (well, I sprang as much as I was capable of at this time of morning) and raced around the room grabbing clothes to wear. I sprinted to the bathroom for a shower and when I got there I was shocked to find that I was puffed. Not a good sign.

“Charlie,” I told myself, “You’re going to have to do something about this fitness problem.”

In true “I’m finally getting my life together” style, I decided to take a tracksuit along with me to wear while running home after work. Shouldn’t be too hard, I lied to myself. It’s probably only five kilometres. Really, that isn’t very far. Then again, I’d worked up a sweat jogging the distance to the bathroom that was literally one thousand times shorter. Hmm.

When I got out of the shower I noticed that my bruise had begun to fade a little overnight, thank goodness. It was not fun to look like you’d been in a car crash. It was also very embarrassing when you had to explain to everyone that, no, you hadn’t rolled your mother’s Nissan; you’d simply walked into the wall outside Gregory’s Groceries because you’re a complete and total klutz. I hoped no one else at Baxter & Co. asked me how I’d gotten that particular injury. It probably wasn’t the kind of first impression I wanted to make. But hey, given my track record with first impressions, that certainly wouldn’t be the worst.

When I finally got downstairs, I was wearing a white blouse, a mid-length black skirt, stockings (dark, to hide the blue legs) and low-heeled pumps. I’d gone for the natural look with the makeup today, with just some mascara and lip-gloss. I went for the natural look everyday. It was the only look I could do.

My hair had decided to be wavy today so I tied it back in a bun. (Well, I tied most of it back in a bun. There were a few wayward hairs that broke free.) I’d chosen my glasses over contact lenses for the added ‘professional’ look (which worked as long as you ignored the hasty repair job I’d done on them). I had my tracksuit in my black backpack and when I reached the kitchen I added a drink bottle and some food.

While I was sitting down eating breakfast at the table my mother looked at me and sighed.

“What’s with the back-pack? You’re taking fashion faux pas to a whole new level. Which,” she added, “Is a challenge you seem to take up, and excel at, daily.”

“I’m going for a run this afternoon and I can’t take a handbag with me for that.” She shook her head. “What? It’s not that bad.”

“Charlie, your definition of ‘a run’ is a single step.”

“No it isn’t! I’m going for a run!” I gathered up my stuff and left before my mother could exchange my bag for another one. I power-walked down the street, fuming. A single step? Uh! I planned to do at least twenty.

By the time I reached the office an hour later I was puffed and sweating. Gee, if that was what a walk did to me then I was not looking forward to my run.

I looked up, waved to the security cameras and proceeded to the front door. It opened for me. When I stepped inside, I poked my head around the door of Harry’s office to say hello, but found it empty. If Harry was away, who had keyed me in? Whoever was monitoring the security cameras, probably. Guess they knew who I was already. Pretty recognisable, what with my bruise and all. Even in its faded state, it was still pretty obvious. I kind of looked like Jesse in season one of Breaking Bad.

I looked to my right. It was the desk I’d seen when I first came in yesterday, with messy piles of paper balancing precariously all over its surface. It hadn’t gotten any better overnight. If anything, it was worse. Today was not going to be fun – I would have to clean it up. After all, it was my desk.

I sighed and walked behind it, nearly slipping on the files strewn all over the floor. It took me ten minutes just to find the desk lamp (it had been concealed behind a pile of folders which I’d luckily knocked over because I don’t think I’d have found it otherwise). I flicked it on and (wouldn’t you just know it?) the bulb blew. That was all it took. I was working at a place that scared me, I hardly knew anyone, my office looked like a bomb had hit it, I had to clean it up, my face was all weird, and now I didn’t even have a light to work by.

I lay down on the floor in one of the few gaps between the piles of mess and closed my eyes, counting to ten, breathing, and envisioning a calm blue ocean.

This sucks. Not as much as Gregory’s Groceries, but not far behind. Who the hell uses a paper filing system in this day and age?! State of the art security system but a filing system from the 70s.

“You must be having a good first day. You can’t have been here more than fifteen minutes and it’s already put you to sleep.”

It was a male voice, but not one I recognised. Whoever it was had an American accent; the kind of Southern drawl I was familiar with from watching True Blood. (Don’t judge me. It’s a modern masterpiece.) I cracked one eye open to look at him, but I couldn’t see anything so I opened both eyes. There was a guy standing there, looking down at me with a smile on his face. He looked pretty tall, but I guessed from this angle most people would look kind of big.

“Oh good, you are alive. Do you want a hand up? Or is there a particular reason you’re down there?”

“No,” I said grumpily, not sure which of his questions I was answering. I felt that I was sort of expected to give an explanation. I didn’t feel obliged to tell the truth. Too lazy to come up with a convincing lie, instead I said, “I dropped a contact lens. I was just trying to find it.”

“But you’re wearing glasses.”

“I had to put them on to find my contact lens.”

“Fair enough, but you might have better luck with your search if you open your eyes and maybe actually face the floor.”

“I’ll keep that in mind next time.” I got up and turned to face the guy I’d been talking to. He was still pretty tall, well over 6 ft if I had to guess. Luckily I was a very threatening 5 feet 3 inches, or he might have been intimidating. He had messy blonde hair that was long due for a haircut along with a two-day-old beard and brown eyes. I had a feeling his hair was always like this. He was looking casual and comfy in Levis, a plain black shirt and a worn pair of Vans. I could see his muscles through the shirt and it was pretty obvious that he took working out seriously. I placed him in his mid twenties, and while and he seemed pretty friendly, I got the impression that he wouldn’t take crap from anyone. People who bothered working out that much had to have some use for their ridiculous strength, right?

“Tim Carter,” he said, extending his hand. “Most people here call me Sharps, though.” What was that, a street name? What did that even mean? Sharp shooter? Heroin addict? Snazzy dresser?

“Um – Charlie Davies,” I said, a bit distracted by imagining his backstory. “Um, I don’t – I don’t actually have a street – uh, nickname.”

He just smiled.

“So, er, what do I call you? Tim or Sharps?”

“Whatever you want, hotstuff,” he answered, still smiling. “You appear to be living in the dark here, literally. Why don’t you turn on the light?”

“I did. The bulb blew.”

“Was that before or after you lost your contact lens?” I gave him a death stare. He grinned back. “I better go, anyway. I was gonna grab a file but I’ve got NO idea where to find it around here so I might wait until you’ve started to work your filing magic. There’s a storeroom next door – there should be light bulbs in there. I’ll duck back in later and see how you’re doing. See ya!”

“Bye.”

He left. Great. Now I had no distractions (a.k.a. excuses not to do work).

I decided on an action plan:

Change light bulb.

Clean office.

Simple, to the point, and dead boring.

Oh well, I told myself. Think of the money!

That cheered me up enough to manage the light bulb. I chose one of the environmentally friendly ones that were supposed to last for ages. At least I knew it wasn’t going to stop working for a while. OK, so it cast a green glow over the desk and all the stuff on it, but hey, you can’t have everything! I tried to use the excitement from the light bulb achievement as momentum to get me enthusiastic about cleaning, but it wasn’t working for me.

Eventually I decided to stop procrastinating and just get on with it, which is not as easy as it sounds. There were files inside files inside boxes wedged behind cabinets. The desk and chair were covered in files. It looked like files and paper had got into a war and these were the remnants of the resulting massacre.

I began by throwing all the files and paper into a big heap in the corner. Maybe I’d put a pot plant there at a later date, I thought – it looked like the kind of place where greenery should go. Where did one buy plants? Hmm… Maybe I wouldn’t get one. Didn’t you have to give them water or something? I didn’t know if I could handle that level of responsibility.

By 11 o’clock I had all the files sorted out into 26 piles, based on the alphabet (duh). I was amazed to find that there was actually quite a large pile for ‘x’. Hah. The X-Files.

I started putting them all in the cabinets. I took a break at 12 for lunch. I pulled my apple, vegemite sandwich and water bottle out of my bag and wondered if it was strange that my mother still packed my lunch. I would do it myself, but if I touch any food while it is being prepared it inevitably turns rancid. When I’d finished lunch, I kept tidying.

By one, I had the files done, so I began working on the loose sheets of paper. This was a bit harder, because it involved reading them and then putting them wherever I thought they should go. I was all done at two so I started to wash and dust everything with cleaning supplies from the storeroom. The second the wet cloth touched the desk, the surface turned to mud. Jeez. They mustn’t have had anyone working in reception for a while. Well, I was probably the only one desperate enough to take on the job.

I sat down at the desk. It was now tidy and I actually liked the look of it. It definitely needed a pot plant, I decided. And maybe an electric kettle so that I could make myself tea. And I’d need a water jug as well. Some packets of lollies would be nice to have in the desk drawers, too, for when I was running low on energy.

Speaking of which, what did the drawers have in them already? I didn’t actually know what my job was, but it seemed strange that I didn’t have a phone or a computer. Shouldn’t I have? Unfortunately, all that the drawers held were three pens (one dead), a stapler and a hole punch. Nothing terribly interesting.

I glanced at my watch. Thirty-eight minutes past four. Only eight minutes since I’d last looked. OK, I could last twenty-two minutes. It wasn’t that hard, really. Not that long. No need to look through those files. It was none of my business.

Actually, I thought, maybe it is my business. I am secretary after all. I should know what’s going on…

Who was I trying to kid? I was attempting to justify snooping through the classified information – which, you have to admit, is quite tempting. Besides, I’d seen some pretty interesting files under ‘M’. Well, just the one curious one, really. Hmm. Come to think of it, I may have filed it in the wrong order. I decided I’d better check.

I opened one of the drawers and looked. Malcolm, Mapholm (was that a name?), Martin, hold on – Martin, Jeremy? Yes! I picked it up and began to read the first sheet in the file.

 

Subject – MARTIN, Jeremy

Initiated by – MARTIN, Lea

Investigator – BAXTER, Adam

 

Lea was having Jeremy investigated! So she’d already suspected he was up to something before I’d said anything – a few months ago, by the looks of it. Then he was late home…

I started to feel kind of guilty about what I’d done, pretending Jeremy was my lover and all. I should probably go and apologise. To Lea, of course, not to Jeremy. Chances were OK that she wouldn’t hurl rocks at me if I explained myself, right? When she’d had Jeremy investigated there were no photos of me – in fact, most of these pictures were of Jeremy sitting alone, watching people from across the street (ever the creeper) – so she’d probably had a pretty good idea that I was just making it up so Jeremy would look bad in front of his customers. I decided I’d go and visit her, try to smooth things over – we’d always gotten along pretty well, and I didn’t want to lose an almost-friend. I couldn’t really afford it, given how few I had. Sure, right. I could do this. I’d survive. Probably.

I put back that file. It hadn’t even been the one I was looking for. The one I wanted was titled ‘MCKENZIE, Frank’ … and here it was. I opened it and read:

 

Subject – MCKENZIE, Francis

Initiated by – MCKENZIE, James

Investigator – CARTER, Timothy

 

I checked the dates. This file was still current (a bit obvious, really, considering Frank had only died on Monday), but – wow! James McKenzie, the man suspected of murdering his uncle, had ordered an investigation into the death! I wondered if this was the file Sharps had been looking for this morning. He obviously hadn’t started work on it yet, seeing as there was just that one sheet inside it – the contract. That’s probably what he’d been working on today. Maybe I could ask him when he got back. Wait, no, I realised. Confidentiality, etc. In fact, he said he was going to come back and visit me this afternoon and if he caught me looking through his file – well, I didn’t want to know. I shut the folder and went to put it back in the cabinet when –

“Don’t bother. I’ll just have to get it out again.”

I turned around to face him. Tim was standing just a few steps away, and yet I hadn’t even been aware of his presence until he spoke. I was terrified – that was, until I saw the amusement in his eyes. So I stated the obvious.

“I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I know. You shouldn’t underestimate how sneaky I am. Another thing you shouldn’t do is snoop at classified information in full view of anyone who comes through the front door. While I admire your enthusiasm for finding out things that aren’t any of your business, there are others in this building who would be… less than thrilled to catch you doing something like that. So, maybe next time be careful.”

“I’ll think about it.” What the hell?! I’ll think about it? Gee, I sounded a lot more confident than I felt.

“Think real hard about it. Can I have that?” he asked, gesturing towards the folder that I still held in my hand.

“Oh, oh – sure. Listen, um –” I didn’t really know what to say. Please don’t get me sacked? Or have me arrested? Or killed?

He looked me straight in the eye – “You owe me.” Shit.

And on that note, he departed.

I shut the drawer of the filing cabinet and glanced at my watch. Five past five. I ducked next door into the storage room and closed (and locked) the door behind me so I could change into my tracksuit. It occurred to me that I really should have asked where the bathrooms were.

My tracksuit was the one I’d had since high school for P.E. and it had definitely seen better days. Even though it had been rarely worn (I’d had a knack for getting out of exercise), I’d put it to use over the years as everything from a shoe-shiner, to a mop, to a bib for when I was eating in bed like a slob. These days it was saggy and bulgy in unflattering places, as well as riddled with holes. I was hoping no one would see me in it (not only because it was hideous, but also because the shirt was emblazoned with the Gerongate High logo and people wearing school uniforms when they were no longer students was just sad). That problem was solved when I realised I hadn’t brought my joggers (which, admittedly, weren’t that crash hot either – another of my high school investments that I pretended were still good enough to wear). Running in pumps not being one of my favourite pastimes (hell, I could hardly walk in them), I decided to skip the jog for today. If I felt like it I might go for a run tomorrow. Or Sunday. That was one of my life mottos: ‘Never put off until tomorrow what can be delayed until the day after’.

I gathered up my stuff and left through the front door. I turned to face the building I’d just come out of. Three stories, another building the same size but without the sign to the left, and if you went around the right hand side, there was even an underground car park. I wondered how much was owned by Baxter & Co. Probably all of it.

Out of plain curiosity, I decided to check out this fancy subterranean garage. I headed around the side of the building, being careful not to be seen. I don’t know why – after all, I had every right to be there. I mean, OK, so I didn’t have a car, but no use worrying about the particulars, right?

When I got to the back of the building, I saw the weirdest thing. Four silver cars left the garage, just to be replaced by four black cars. Huh? I was so curious about this that I actually went into the parking lot.

When I walked down the ramp, I was amazed at what I saw. The whole lot was taken up with black and silver cars. No other colours (or shades, if you want to get all technical). Just black and silver. These must belong to the Baxter & Co. workers. Hmm. This might give me a vague idea of how many people were working here. I began to count. 2, 4, 6, 8 –

Suddenly I felt a hand clap over my mouth as I was seized from behind. I struggled against my captor but couldn’t break free. The stranger had too strong a hold on me.

“What are you doing?” the person asked me quietly. It was a male voice and it was coming from an incredibly strong guy. Even with all my failed attempts to free myself the man’s feet still hadn’t moved. Or it could just be that I was incredibly weak. Probably the latter. Either way, my attacker had his arm around my neck and I couldn’t loosen it. “I’m going to take my hand off your mouth now so you can answer, but don’t even think about screaming or I’ll snap your neck like a twig. Understand?”

I nodded (at least, I tried – not the easiest thing to do when you’re in a headlock). It’s amazing how clear things seem when your life is threatened. Agree or die. Very simple.

He took his hand away from my mouth.

“I’m just walking through a car park and you attack me for it? How dare you?” I took a deep breath (or as deep as I could, given the circumstances) and hit him with another torrent of abuse. “You should be ashamed of yourself, assaulting innocent young ladies here. Or, for that matter, assaulting innocent ladies anywhere.” Did I just refer to myself as an innocent young lady? “You are a disgusting man. What appalling behaviour! You repulse me.”

I blame the way I was speaking on the restricted blood/oxygen flow to my brain. I’d started talking like my grandmother did whenever she came across an ‘impolite young man’ – all I can say in my defence is that it seemed to work she said it.

In this case, the ‘impolite young man’ himself seemed too stunned to speak. I didn’t give him a chance to compose himself before continuing. “Well? Are you going to let me go and apologise profusely for what you’ve done? Or act like the unpleasant character you are and continue with this ridiculous power trip that you seem to find so entertaining?”

Still no answer.

By now I was so worked up, I no longer cared that my life could be in danger. “Well, come on then, do something. Say something.”

His grip loosened and I ducked down to pull my head away from him. I turned around and found myself face-to-face with Impolite Young Man himself. He had jet-black hair that curled a little at the ends. His clothes, too, were jet black – black jeans, black T-shirt (despite how lean he was, I could see his muscles clearly through it – it seemed like most people at Baxter & Co. were big fans of that mystical place known as the gymnasium) and jet-black Converse sneakers. The amount of muscle wasn’t the only impressive thing about him. With his flawless caramel-coloured skin, defined jaw line, and symmetrical features, he looked like he’d stepped straight out of a photo-shopped magazine picture advertising cologne or designer underwear or something. He was probably around six foot, but he didn’t look lanky – the height suited him. I guessed he was Indigenous, though it didn’t seem the right time to ask.

“You’re the new receptionist, right? I heard your face was smashed up. Probably from sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, if your behaviour today is anything to go by. Sorry for grabbing you,” he said casually, “But this is a security company.”

“That was a pathetic apology.”

He sighed, like he was working in retail and I was an annoying customer who wouldn’t leave until he gave me a refund for that $0.33 he overcharged me. (Trust me, I know that look well. It’s one I’ve worn many a time.) “And I’m sorry that I snuck up on you.”

“Sneaked.”

“What?”

“Technically the – the proper word is ‘sneaked’.” I stammered halfway through the sentence, realising that no one with a face that beautiful cared about whether it was ‘snuck’ or ‘sneaked’. He probably had a fashion show to be getting to and I was just holding him up.

“I also apologise for my appalling use of the English language.”

“Thank you.” Wait, what? Why was I thanking him? I blame his face. It was distracting. No one should be that symmetrical.

“Do you always talk like an old lady?”

“If you sound like someone’s grandmother they’ll do what they’re told.” I wondered how far I could go with this. On your knees, young man. Now remove that tight-fitting shirt. Wait, what?

“Do I have to apologise for anything else?” he asked, not sounding entirely sincere. I wanted to press for a better apology, but I decided it was best not to antagonise him further. He was tall and be-muscled and, you know, I was kind of trespassing.

I tried to change the topic. “What’s with the cars?”

He looked bored but told me anyway. “Because it’s around five now, some of the day workers are leaving and so they’re being replaced with night workers. Everyone here drives either a black or silver company car.”

“Why the black and silver cars?”

“To blend in,” he said, straight-faced. Like hell Porches and BMWs would “blend in”. This was Gerongate, Capital of the Unnecessary Suburban Four Wheel Drive.

“Blend in? Right, so I guess this company does most of its work with the upper classes.” Impolite Young Man didn’t seem to care what I was saying. He looked at me, remaining silent. “Well, I’m leaving.” We didn’t exchange goodbyes. We weren’t exactly on friendly terms.

I started to walk away, and I was nearly out of the car park when I tripped over. Impolite Young Man appeared behind me and gave me a hand up. I was expecting him to laugh, or smile, or react somehow. He just looked disgusted, like he couldn’t believe someone had employed me. Hey, you and me both, buddy.

“Don’t say anything,” I warned him. He was smart enough to oblige.

That night, as my family sat around the dinner table (creamy cashew and mushroom pasta – good, since Mum cooked it), Mum asked me what had happened at work that day.

Well, let’s see. I’d met two guys I worked with. I knew that one had a street name. He caught me snooping through files and having a nap the floor. The other thought I was an honorary geriatric because of the way I’d abused him after he restrained and threatened me for walking around a car park. And then he saw me trip over. And he hadn’t even taken off his shirt.

“Not much,” I answered. “But they’re giving me a car.”

Chapter Four

 

I slept in late on Saturday morning. It was probably all the fun I’d had the day before that took it out of me. I had a feeling that working at Baxter & Co. was going to make me very sleepy. Death threats are so underrated as an alternative to sleeping pills.

I lay in bed for a while longer. Just as I was about to get up, I remembered what I’d promised myself I’d do today. So I stayed there.

Two hours later I decided I’d really better face the day, and half an hour after that I actually managed to drag myself into the shower.

I stayed in the shower until I used up all the hot water. When I got out I spent a very long time putting on my clothes and deciding whether to wear glasses or contact lenses. Then I changed my clothes. I ended up in a pair of jeans and a red singlet top. Then I did my hair. Then I redid it. By the end I had successfully put it up in a ponytail with my long fringe tucked behind my ears. Hmm. What now?

For nearly the first time in my life, I actually did my makeup properly. I had to use my mum’s eye shadow and eyeliner because all I had was lip-gloss and mascara. It was kind of hard to do eye makeup when I was wearing glasses, though, so I had to wear contact lenses instead (and I hardly got any mascara on them at all!). I painted my fingernails clear, and then painted my toenails the same. Then I painted them red to match my shirt. Then I painted clear over the top. By the time I was finished I really couldn’t put it off any longer, so I made myself a smoothie (which took a little while because I had to go to the corner shop because we’d run out of almond milk), drank it, gagged at the flavour, Googled the address, jumped in Mum’s Nissan, and drove.

All too soon I reached my destination. I stared at the steering wheel in utter disbelief. Not once since I had gotten my driver’s license had this car worked properly for me. It always stalled, or wouldn’t go into gear, or got a flat tyre, or had some other problem that meant it wouldn’t go anywhere. No one else had any problems with it, just me. And now, on the one day when I hadn’t wanted it to work, there were no hitches. It ran perfectly.

It hated me. And I hated it right back.

I parked and stepped out of the Patrol, looking around to see if Jeremy’s car was here. It wasn’t. OK, no excuses now. I walked slowly across the lawn, climbed the steps with all the speed and enthusiasm of a funeral procession, and rang the doorbell. No one answered, so I pressed it again. Any second now. Someone will answer the door very soon.

Oh, crap, I thought, realising I’d been pressing a light switch.

I knocked on the door, praying that no one was home. Praying to whom, I do not know. Aphrodite? I know the goddess of love and beauty was maybe not the most appropriate choice for this situation, but she was the only one I could think of. At least she could help me with the reconstructive surgery after I got my face smashed in.

I heard footsteps on the other side of the wood. Damn. Someone was here. And I was pretty sure it would be the person I was looking for.

The door was thrown open and (because I had expected it to open inwards) I was standing far too close. I had no time to move and it whacked me fair in the face, extending the life of my bruise by a few days. I stumbled backwards and fell down the steps. It was lucky that there were only three. I landed on the grass, which was nice and springy, cushioning me from the impact. Plus I was wearing jeans, so no flashing. So far, so good. Thanks Aphrodite!

I sat there on my bum feeling a bit dazed, but aside from that, fine. I glanced back up at the doorway where Lea Martin was standing – well, not so much standing as doubled over laughing at me. It was embarrassing but I comforted myself with the thought that, if nothing else, it was at least better than having her hurl abuse at me. Or having her hurl anything at me, for that matter.

“Are – you – all – right?” Lea squeezed out between barks of laughter. She took a couple of deep breaths to calm herself then came down the steps to help me up. She was wearing a pair of jeans, black and white spotted Keds and a low-cut singlet to match her shoes. She was trying to keep a straight face but the way she kept twitching made it pretty obvious that she was internally laughing at my stupidity.

What is it about people hurting themselves that is so funny? And why do I have to be the one who always seems to be entertaining everyone else? A bit unfair, I thought. But anyway, for the moment Lea’s laughter was a relief, because her happy vibes obviously meant that she hadn’t recognised me yet.

“So, Charlie, are you looking for your darling boyfriend?” she asked with a (gasp!) smile.

Lea seemed to be acting incredibly nicely towards me. And I was pretty sure she was genuine.

My surprise must have registered on my face because the next thing Lea said was, “Oh, jeez love, don’t look so shocked! I knew you were lying the moment you started with that story. I mean, come on, everyone knows Jeremy only cheated on me with women with big tits.” Well, thank you for that lovely self-esteem boost, Lea. That comment will stay in my heart forever. “Oh, shit! I didn’t mean that! Well, I did, but it came out wrong… You’ve got beautiful tits,” she finished, slightly awkwardly.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “I get that a lot.” I meant the flat-chest thing, not the beautiful tits. I’d never gotten that before.

We were both silent for a moment.

“It was an impressive way to quit work,” Lea said, breaking the silence. “It’s a pity I wasn’t around to see Jeremy’s face at the end. That would have been classic. I wanted to get a divorce even before I was married, and you gave me an excuse, so… Really I should thank you.”

If my eyebrows had left my forehead and were up past the clouds by this stage, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. This was ridiculous. No, it was unbelievable. (OK, so those two words mean basically the same thing. Whatever. I don’t care.) I had come here to apologise, expecting her to scream insults at me and not even listen to what I had to say. Instead, here was Lea thanking me for giving her a chance to split up with her husband. Thanking me.

“Um – well – I, er – um – no worries,” I blundered. As you could probably tell, I was a bit shocked. This was definitely NOT what I had predicted.

However, when I thought about it, it made a lot more sense for her to be glad to get rid of Captain Ferret than to be cut up about it. And really, I had done her a favour. I should have expected her to be like this.

But my pessimistic/boring/conservative/sensible side disagreed. Why was she being nice? She had to be angry with me. She was acting. It was all an evil ploy!

Yes, I know. If that was my sensible and boring side, it’s a wonder I wasn’t in a straight jacket.

“Come inside. Jeremy’s out at the moment, thank god. I’m just here to pack up my stuff,” Lea said. I followed her in. “D’ya want a cuppa?” she asked. “I was just about to make one.”

“No thanks,” I answered. I was slightly dubious about how nice she was being, and I wasn’t totally above suspecting that she might still slip something in my drink. Better safe than sorry, and in this instance I planned to play it very safe.

As we entered, I noticed a large pile of suitcases and luggage in the hall. Well, you’d have a hard time not noticing them – we practically had to climb over them to get into the kitchen. Lea filled the jug up with water from the tap and flicked it on.

“This is Jeremy’s house and I just can’t stand being here with him, so I’m leaving,” she explained.

“Where are you going?” I asked her. As far as I knew, she’d lived with her parents before she was married and had moved straight in with the Ferret afterwards.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “My parents are out of the country and I don’t have a key to their place, so that’s out. All my friends either have noisy kids or husbands that couldn’t manage on their own if their lives depended on it, and that drives me insane right now. I guess I’ll just check into a hotel or something and look for a job and an apartment from there.”

“Have you got enough money for that?”

“I don’t know. The divorce hasn’t gone through yet, so I’ll have to stick around Gerongate for a while. But that’s about as far as I’ve planned.”

“Oh.” The kettle, which had been heating (noisily) throughout our conversation clicked off, and Lea made herself a cup of mint tea. As she put the tea bag in the bin, I had an idea. “You could stay at my parent’s house if you want to. It’ll cost way too much staying at a hotel.”

I said I had an idea. I did not say that it was a good one.

I couldn’t tell where this was coming from. I didn’t trust this chick enough to accept a cup of tea from her, and now I was asking her to come live with me. Note to self: make appointment with psychologist.

“Are you serious? Really? That would be OK?” No, not at all. No!

“Sure it would be.” Revised note to self: make appointment with psychologist TODAY. My brain said one thing, my mouth said another. Another, very different, thing.

“It’s lovely of you to offer Charlie, but I couldn’t.” Oh, thank god! Don’t speak, Charlie. Keep mouth shut. Don’t speak don’t speak don’t –

“Oh, come on, of course you could!” No, no, shut up! Don’t do this! “My family’s not that scary!” Well, now I was just straight-out lying.

“Really?” she asked me unsurely. When I nodded, her face lit up. “This’ll be so great! We might even be able to find a place to move out together somewhere!” She caught herself. “You know – only if you want.” Guess I must have started to look a bit sceptical.

“Oh, no, yeah – maybe.” Charlie Davies, Decision-Making Extraordinaire. “Look, how about I call my parents and clear it with them, then we can pack your luggage into my car and head home?”

“Sure!”

“Fine,” I said, sounding a lot less angry than I felt. I wasn’t so much angry with her as with myself. I’d invited her to live with me. Quite apart from the fact that she could potentially end up killing me, I barely even knew her! I was practically inviting a murderous stranger to come share a room with me. And Murderous Stranger had accepted. “I’ll just call my mum. Can I use your phone? I don’t have one.” I know, I know, but I’d only lose or break it if I did.

“Oh, we don’t have a landline and I’ve lost my mobile, sorry,” she said.

“Oh.” Well. What was Plan B? “Well, um, while you finish packing I might head home then, make sure we have a room ready for you, then I’ll come back in, say, an hour?”

“That’s great. Look Charlie, I really appreciate this.” I could see in her face that she was telling the truth.

“Don’t worry about it. You better check you’ve got everything packed. I’ll be back soon.”

I went out and looked at the Nissan. It was really kind of pointless having a four-wheel drive in Gerongate. I guess the Nissan had personality. But that personality didn’t like me, and I felt the same way about it.

I jumped into the silver Patrol, inserted the key, held my breath and turned it. It started first go and I didn’t stall it once going home. I didn’t want to ask my parents about Lea staying, so of course the car wouldn’t stuff up, would it?

I pulled into my parent’s driveway and jumped out of the car. I turned to it and narrowed my eyes.

“I hate you,” I hissed. I hope it heard.

“Me? What did I do?” came my mother’s voice from behind me. She was standing there, garden-gloved hands on hips, with her big, floppy straw hat resting gently on her head and her skin greased up with sunscreen. She had obviously been gardening. “Is that why you tried to run me over?”

She thought I’d been talking to her.

“I didn’t even know you were there, Mum.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I didn’t! I was talking to the car!” As soon as I said it I realised it was a mistake. Now she was looking at me as though I was mental. Yes, Miss Outback Mario Kart thought I was crazy.

“I think I preferred it when you hated me,” she admitted. “Maybe you should meet up with some friends tomorrow. Can’t be good for you to spend so much time alone. It’s probably better if you have some other, well, people to talk to.”

OK, it was official. She thought I was insane. Probably with good reason. But maybe I could work this to my advantage…

“Actually Mum, I ran into a friend of mine today who’s out of a home at the moment. She just separated from her husband and it was his house. Since she’s got nowhere else to stay, I was wondering if it was OK for her to live here for a while…”

Mum smiled. I knew what she was thinking. “I’d pay her to live here if she would get my lump of a daughter out of the house occasionally.”

“That’s great! Someone you can hang out and go to nightclubs with. Drink alcohol. Find a man. Or a lady. ” (Meaningful pause.) “The kinds of things that normal people your age do.”

When you hear the way she speaks to me, it’s no wonder I’ve got issues.

“So,” I responded, “Should I go pick her up now? Since we’re both looking for a house, we could probably find one together. Sooner the better, I reckon.”

My mother was beaming. I could just imagine what she was thinking. “Finally, the little bitch is leaving. About bloody time! No, you can’t say that. Make it sound like you’re happy for her. Ha, ha, ha – she’ll never know!”

“Of course! How nice? Living with your friend, meeting new people.” Freeing up another room, paying for your own food.

I smiled at her.

“So which friend is this? Joanna hasn’t split up with Oswald, I hope?”

Joanna Riley became my best friend when we swapped our lunches on the second day of kindergarten. We agreed on most things, but unfortunately she had developed a crush on James McKenzie in high school (as had just about all of my other friends), which led to many arguments. Stacey, Penelope, Nancy, Joy, Naomi and Rose all had Level One crushes on James. This involved writing their first name with his last name all over their schoolbooks, cutting pictures of him out of the sport section of the school newsletter and making posters of him to hang up in their bedrooms, attending every sports match where he was playing, and a couple of times they even went to referee training days just to spend more time around him. As a result of this, they all had Level Two certificates in refereeing soccer and touch football games (all except Penny, that is – she never understood offside).

That was a Level One crush. Jo was on about Level Six, which meant that she was practically a stalker. Luckily when she began dating her now-husband, she fell in love with him and is almost totally over McKenzie. The other girls are also trying to move on, with the help of experienced counsellors and self-medication.

I never thought that I would like Ozzie when Jo first told me about him. You have to admit, ‘Oswald Park, the accountant’ does sound a bit boring. Firstly, I hate numbers, and since that’s what accountants deal with, it stands to reason that I would hate the accountant as well. When you think about it, anyone who spends a lot of time around numbers tends to be a bit cuckoo. Take maths teachers for example. I’m yet to meet a normal one. They’re obsessed with maths. They talk about algebra as though it is the meaning of life, they discuss pi like it’s part of the food pyramid and they worship Pythagoras like he’s a god.

Secondly (and I’m aware it might seem kind of shallow), what sort of a name is Oswald Park? Did his parents have something against him? It sounds like he is council property. It’s no wonder his parents weren’t invited to his wedding when they gave him a name like that. I wouldn’t forgive them either. I know you shouldn’t hold a person’s name against them (don’t judge a book by its cover, blah, blah, blah) but I just couldn’t help it.

Although I wasn’t looking forward to meeting Oswald at first, it turned out that he was OK looking, if a little bit geeky, and although he was kind of shy to start with, after a couple of drinks he opened right up. I discovered he had great sense of humour. And jeez was he a massive improvement on James McKenzie.

Still, I was kind of glad that Joanna kept her maiden name. I don’t know if I could be best friends with someone whose name sounded like a picnic destination.

“No,” I answered. “Jo’s still going strong with Os. It’s another friend of mine.”

Mum eyed me suspiciously. “Jo’s your only friend who’s married,” she said accusingly.

“Oh, this girl wasn’t in our group at school. She’s a bit older than me.”

“What’s her name?”

A simple question, with all the potential of an atomic bomb. I contemplated lying, but then decided to go for the truth. She’d have to find out one way or another.

“Lea.”

“Lea who?”

“I don’t know.”

Well, sort of the truth, anyway.

“Not Lea Martin!”

“No.” Not technically. Technically she’d readopted her maiden name, and since I’d forgotten what that was, I was telling the truth.

Cough.

“Anyway,” I continued, “I’ll go pick her up. We might go out sometime this week, if that’s OK.”

“Of course! You’re an adult. Go out and have fun with your friend. Please. No, I insist. New job, new lifestyle – your life’s really looking up!” Yeah, my life’s looking up – for you, I thought.

“It sure is!” was, however, what came out of my mouth. “See ya!”

“Bye!”

I hopped into the driver’s seat of the Nissan, turned the key in the ignition and it started. It started. I backed it out of the driveway with no dramas. So far, so good. I made it a full two blocks without any problems. I was even beginning to think that maybe this car wasn’t so bad, when it started spluttering and stalled. I tried to start it again, but it didn’t work. The car was stubborn. I kept trying to turn the engine over but had no luck. This car hated me. By this time I was fuming, and so was the car (I’d been revving it pretty hard).

I heard another car drive up behind me. I hoped the driver wasn’t in a hurry, because it was a narrow street with cars parked either side and there was no way of getting past me. I had been driving in the centre of the road because the white lines were the only way I could line up the wheels in a monster like the Nissan. Thankfully the car behind me didn’t have sirens or a flashing light, because I’m pretty sure that was a ticketable offence.

Even though I hadn’t been pulled over by the police, I’d managed to accidentally cause a traffic jam in a residential area. OK, so it was only one other car, but it wasn’t helped by the fact that all the street’s residents had come out on to their verandas to see what was happening.

I did what anybody in my position would have done. Well, anyone with slight anger-management problems, at least. I undid my seatbelt, opened the driver’s side door, hauled myself out, kicked the side of the vehicle, and screamed, “START YOU BASTARD!”

All the local residents retreated back into their lairs, not wanting to have anything to do with the crazy lady who was blocking traffic and attempting to start an argument with a Nissan Patrol.

Oh well. Now that the crazy lady had alleviated some of her anger and there were fewer spectators, she felt slightly better. Only slightly, because now she had a sore foot as well. When foot vs. Nissan, foot comes off second best.

I heard a car door close and realised that the other driver had gotten out of their vehicle. I didn’t look at them – I was too embarrassed.

“Car troubles?” The voice belonged to a young male and sounded very casual considering he’d just seen me lay into a Nissan and call it names. If I’d seen someone do that, I’d be shit scared. I’d stay in my car.

Unless it was someone I knew… Oh, please, god no, let him be a stranger.

“Pile of shit won’t start,” I told him. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to look at his face.

“Mind if I have a go?”

Looking past him, I checked what sort of car he was driving. I wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t just drive off in mine. Not that I normally would have cared a whole heap if someone made-off with the Nissan, but today I had to pick up Lea. Plus, Mum probably wouldn’t have been too happy if she were kicked out of the Outback Grand Prix because someone Grand Theft Auto’d her machine. When I saw the car he was driving, however, I realised that he wasn’t going to take the Nissan. By the look of his vehicle, he probably was a car thief, but if he had the skill to get cars like that, he wasn’t going to bother with a Patrol. I know I certainly wouldn’t if I had a Ferrari.

Jeez, I thought to myself, They’re pretty uncommon. I only knew of one person in the whole of Gerongate who had one…

I finally dragged my gaze up to his face. I had guessed right. Standing there in front of me, in faded jeans, a black printed T-shirt and worn-in Vans, was James McKenzie.

So that was why I’d cringed at the sound of his voice.

I finally answered his question. “Be my guest.”

He raised his eyebrows at me.

“What?” I snapped. “What’s your problem?”

“Just not the response I’d expect from you is all. I would have guessed something closer to, ‘No, piss off you moron. I don’t need you to help.’ Like that time when I found you trying to crawl along the pavement with your arm in a sling and it turned out later that you also had broken leg and three cracked ribs.”

“I’m sorry,” I said sarcastically. “Would you like me to try again? I didn’t mean to be polite.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Of course I didn’t? What the hell was that supposed to mean?

“What the hell was that supposed to mean?”

“Well, your behaviour towards me in the past sort of gives me the impression that I’m not one of your favourite people.”

“You aren’t.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I know that. But I really have to thank you. If you weren’t so horrible to me in high school, having the whole city think I was a murderer might have been hard. Compared to you it’s a walk in the park.”

“Well, I suppose being named and shamed is what you get for killing someone. And he was the only person who liked you. Then again, you always have been a bit of a dickhead.” Take that, McKenzie.

“Unfortunately, I’m not the killer, as much as you’d like to think so. The truth can be so inconvenient.”

“Yeah, especially for you.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Then who did?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. I have confidence in the police force to find the killer.” Like I believed that for a second.

“That why you hired Sharps Carter, then? Because you have so much confidence in the police?”

He looked startled. “How did you find out about that?”

“I find out about everything.”

“Right. Who killed my uncle, then?”

“Haven’t found that out yet.”

“Exactly.”

“But I will.”

He gave a snort of laughter. “Yeah, after it’s printed in the newspapers.”

“I have a talent for finding things out for myself.” So there.

“Yeah. And when you solve Frank’s murder, I’ll give you twenty grand and a house.” I could tell he was just being an arsehole, but the idea was so tempting.

“You’re on.” We shook hands over the bet, with James wearing a massive smirk on his face.

“You know you’re gonna get beaten, don’t you? Take my advice and leave it,” he said.

I smiled. “Getting cold feet, James? That why you’re trying to talk me out of it?”

“No. I’m just being nice. It’s gonna hurt your pride when you lose.” Like I hadn’t had my pride hurt before. Um, hello, did he not remember the high-school wedgie incident? Did I even have any pride left?

If I lose, which I won’t,” I corrected.

“We have much better resources.”

“‘We’ as in who – the police?”

“Yeah.”

“So you’re still accepted as being one of them, then? That’s strange. I would’ve thought they’d disown a murderer.”

“Well, we probably would, but seeing as I haven’t killed anyone, I’m pretty safe, aren’t I?”

“So why did they fire you? And why can’t they find the officer who is supposedly your alibi? Wasn’t she gonna lie for you? Is that what happened to her?”

I could see the anger welling up inside him. I know that this is sad, but I was definitely enjoying it.

He spoke through gritted teeth. “I’m not fired, I’m on leave. And they can’t find Sarah because she’s holidaying in South America with her mobile turned off. When she comes back, she’s going to tell the truth and I’ll be off the hook. Sorry if that kind of bums you out. Gonna make things a lot harder, isn’t it?”

“You don’t think I can do this, do you?”

“No, I don’t. You don’t have access to any information apart from what’s in the paper and the gossip going around your circle of friends.” Wouldn’t be so sure of that, mate. I’m the secretary/researcher for Baxter & Co. What’s the bet I’ll be able to find out some information from Mr Carter? OK, so I had a bit of a head start. Whatever. I needed it.

“I could always question your mother.”

“That’s low,” he said shaking his head. “Nearly as low as you smashing my car up with a wrecking bar.”

I didn’t know what he was complaining about. His uncle had replaced his old second-hand car with a brand new Ferrari. But I suppose, he had saved up for months to buy the sound system for it… Oh well. You can’t take back what you’ve done.

Not that I wanted to.

“And she’ll probably speak to me a lot more freely than she would to a policeman.”

“You’re still gonna lose.”

“Oh, come on, McKenzie. Quite a large proportion of the police force can’t even tie their own shoelaces, let alone catch a murderer.”

“Which proportion would that be?”

“The male proportion.”

“That includes me.”

I glanced at his shoes. Elasticated.

“Yeah, it does.”

He gave a derisive laugh. “All this coming from someone who can’t even make it up a flight of stairs without falling over. Anyway,” he said, before I could cut in, “I wasn’t talking about the cops. I was talking about Tim Carter. Think you’re going to win against him?”

“Yeah. I’ve got some hidden talents.”

“He’s got experience, resources, contacts – he’s the best.” He looked smug.

“Better than Adam Baxter?” I asked, quoting the name I’d read on the Martin file yesterday. Not that I had any clue who he was. He sounded like he might be important, though, what with having the same name as the company and all.

The smug look fell off his face.

“How do you know all these guys?” he demanded.

“I find these things out.”

“Mmm. Sure.” Before I could respond, he said, “Look, do you want me to start your car? Or should I just leave you to it? Maybe you can use your super detective skills to figure out what you’re doing wrong.”

“Start the car,” I said, eyes narrowed. He jumped into the driver’s seat and turned the key. It started first go. I made a sound of disgust. Why me? Why did the car hate me so much? James hopped out and I could see he was trying to disguise his amusement.

“Son of a bitch,” I said. I don’t know where it came from – it just kind of popped out.

“Me or the car?” James asked, still trying not to laugh.

I shrugged. I really didn’t know.

I climbed back into the car, attempting to look moderately co-ordinated (which, with a four-wheel drive, is quite difficult at my height) and tried to take off. Ten points to whoever can guess what happened? You got it: the car stalled.

James opened the door and told me to move over. I did. Then he got in and started the car.

“Arsehole,” I said, knowing very well who I meant that time.

Chapter Five

 

“Where to?” asked James.

When I told him the address he turned to me and said, “The Martins’ house? Are you insane? Do you have a death wish? Oh wait, I’m talking to the girl who once broke fourteen bones in two weeks. I forgot you were such a masochist.”

“Lea’s moving in with me, not that it’s any of your business. She’s a good friend of mine.” Cough. “And why are you helping me? Not trying to suck up, are you?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I want to get my car home and I can’t do it with you blocking all exits.”

When we pulled up out the front of the Ferret Cage (Jeremy Martin’s lair), I asked James how he was planning to get back to his car.

“I’ll just jog,” he answered. “It’s not that far.” Not that far? If I ran that distance it would probably be enough to send me into cardiac arrest.

He left and I walked up to the front door. It was thrown open before I even got there and Lea came bounding out. “Is it OK? Am I allowed to come?”

I laughed at her enthusiasm. “Yeah, sure. Calm down!”

She hugged me for the second time that day. Both her and McKenzie were being nice to me – nicer than I would expect, anyway. What was this? International Befriend The Enemy Day or something?

Lea and I carried her stuff out to the Nissan. For the first time since, um, ever, I was glad it was such a big car. Lea’s luggage never would have fitted in, for example, Dad’s vintage Jaguar. Then again, I never would have been allowed to drive Dad’s Jag. Even Mum wasn’t allowed to. It didn’t have a bull bar like the Nissan and I guess he didn’t want to risk mum’s safety. Or, more likely, he didn’t want to risk getting dints on it.

It wasn’t just mum and me – Dad didn’t let anyone drive his car. He kept it locked at all times, even when he was inside it. Mum had to park in the driveway so the Jag could have the garage. I suppose that made sense. No one in their right mind would steal a Nissan Patrol. People would consider taking a Jag. I know I would. But I guess that could be because I have always been a little inclined towards criminal activities. (Just minor stuff, you know – it’s not like I use kidnap people or use illegal guns.)

(Very often.)

When we finished putting her suitcases and duffel bags in the car, I looked over at Lea. She was pretty, with wild, shoulder length, reddish-brown hair (blonde highlights) that made her blue eyes really stand out. Actually, it was probably more the masses of mascara that made her eyes stand out rather than her hair, but I’m sure the hair helped. She had so much going for her. How did she ever end up marrying Jeremy? I suppose we all make mistakes. She seemed a lot happier now.

“Um, Lea,” I began awkwardly, “You wouldn’t mind driving the car back to Elm Avenue, would you? That’s where I live.”

“OK,” she said. She frowned. “Um… Why do I have to drive? Where are you going?”

“With you.” I paused, thinking of what to tell her. I didn’t want to come across as an idiot. (I don’t know why I cared – she’d already seen me fall down the stairs today. How much more stupid could I make myself seem?) Still, if I was her, knowing how clumsy I am, I’d probably rather be driving. I told her the truth. “I just prefer being a passenger in this car.”

Basically the truth.

“Why’s that?”

“Don’t ask.”

Mum and I helped Lea bring in her luggage. When she went upstairs to unpack, I was left alone in the kitchen with mum. The argument started straight away. I think it was possibly the first time I’d ever had an entire argument in whispers.

“I thought you said it wasn’t Lea Martin!” she hissed at me. “I asked specifically, and you said ‘NO’. Am I correct here? Or am I remembering this wrong?”

“Well, you’re right, but –”

“No buts! You lied to me!”

“Well, I didn’t really –”

“You said you didn’t know her last name!”

“I don’t! She’s getting divorced, Mum, and I don’t know her maiden name. And don’t look at me like that. I think I’m being the mature adult in this situation.”

“You? Mature? Get real! And how could you possibly forget her last name? You still call her mother ‘Mrs Walsh’ every time you see her. I mean come on, that is just dumb. Even dumber than you not being able to walk in high heels.”

“At least I don’t resort to cheap insults like that. That is immature.”

“Oh, la-di-da. Look who’s just become Little Miss Stuck Up.”

“Ha ha. I can hardly breathe for fits of laughter.” She had reminded me I had news, so I changed the subject. “Oh, and speaking of people who are stuck up, Mum, I saw James McKenzie today.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Yeah.”

“Is he still alive?” she asked.

“Mum,” I warned.

“I’m sorry. Please continue.”

“Anyway, I saw him and –”

“Just casually clipped him with the bulbar? Sorry, I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”

I sighed.

“Sorry,” Mum said again. “Go on. What happened?”

“Well, I was talking to him and –”

“Please don’t tell me you fell in love with him.”

I gave her a horrified look. “Mum!”

“Sorry,” she said for the third time in, like, a minute. “He is very good looking. I support your decision to run away with my best friend’s murderous son wholeheartedly. Has he asked you to live with him?”

“Mum! No!” I thought about it. Well, actually he had offered me a house. “I made a bet with him.”

“What does he want from you if he wins?”

Um, nothing… as far as I was aware.

“He won’t win.”

“What’s the bet?” she asked. Simple question, but saying the answer aloud I was going to feel like a fool.

I took a deep breath and bit the bullet. “That I can find out who killed Frank before anyone else.”

Mum just looked at me.

“He’ll give me twenty grand.”

More looking.

“And a house.”

A look-filled pause and then:

“Are you serious?”

She didn’t look overly enthusiastic.

“Yes.”

Nothing.

“I will not be deterred by your apathy,” I told her.

“Guess you won’t want to find a house with me anymore, then,” came Lea’s voice from the doorway, sounding kind of put out. I hadn’t even known she was standing there – what was with all the people sneaking up on me these days?

“Well,” I said, “We won’t have to find a house anymore. We’ve got one. We just need to find out who killed Frank so I can win the bet.”

“We?” she squealed excitedly. “You mean I can help? That is so cool! I’ve always thought I’d make a good detective! When do we start?”

Wow. That sudden enthusiasm was a little unexpected.

“Um, right away, I guess.”

I glanced at Mum. She was looking a tad sceptical.

She spoke. “You didn’t tell me what James gets if he wins.” She started to look worried. “Please tell me he doesn’t get this house.”

“No, Mum,” I laughed. “He doesn’t get the house. Like he needs another one. I don’t know what he gets. Probably just a laugh at my expense.”

“Alright,” she said. “He’s pretty much guaranteed that.”

After that, Mum left to go and see Violet. And probably compare her Nissan’s latest off-road top speed with the Prado’s.

I was starting to get a bit hungry. I glanced at the clock on the wall. Holy crap – it was twenty to four! I suppose, I had finished breakfast at half past one. Guess it was probably time for lunch.

“You hungry?” I asked Lea.

“Starving.”

I found some leftover mushroom pasta and reheated a plate for each of us. I did an OK job (apart from the edges getting a bit crunchy), but the microwave heated them a bit too well and I had to wipe the film of pasta sauce from its interior afterwards.

When we finished our carbs and fungi, we decided to start work on the murder case. But deciding that was about as far as we got.

“Um, how about we… Um…” That was Lea’s very helpful suggestion.

“Well, we could, yeah…” And that was mine, of pretty much the same amount of usefulness.

Doing well. At this rate, the bet was sure to end in our favour. We thought for a moment longer.

“I’ve got an idea,” Lea said a little reluctantly. “It’s pretty stupid, though.”

“Hey, it’s gotta be better than doing nothing.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“It’s better than anything I’ve got.”

“We could watch crime shows on TV to give us an idea of what we’re supposed to do. I told you it was a bad idea.”

I shrugged. “And people say that TV teaches us nothing.”

She flicked through the TV guide to see if there were any shows on. “There’s one in an hour that doesn’t sound completely tacky. What are we going to do in the meantime?”

“Maybe we could start a file of all the newspaper articles and stuff. And then we can add other info we find out as we go along.”

“Why didn’t you say that before? That could actually be useful. It’s heaps better than my idea. Like watching TV’s going to help us.”

“My idea came from a TV show.”

I retrieved a manila folder from my room. It was one that Jo had given me once to try and encourage me to spend more time with her on weekends. Unsurprisingly, it had never been used. There was writing in the middle, which read:

 

Snapshots of James McKenzie

<3 <3 <3

Yes. Disturbing.

I took it back downstairs with me. I picked up a pen and was about to cross it out, but hesitated. There probably were going to be snapshots of James McKenzie in here by the end of this. Instead of scribbling over the current heading, I wrote another up the top.

 

Frank McKenzie’s Murder

 

OK, so it was a slightly boring title. Oh well. That was what was actually going in the file. Lea glanced at the folder.

“What’s with the love hearts?”

“Jo Riley gave it to me.”

Everyone at school had known about Jo’s crush on McKenzie. You couldn’t miss it. She spent all her spare time following him, including lunch and recess and any classes she could possibly sneak out of. She even met Oswald while she was in the middle of a stalk session. Guess he must have been kind of a smooth talker if he managed to get her attention while her darling James was around. I can’t really imagine Os trying to hit on a girl, but Jo did say it was love at first sight, so maybe it really was.

“You mean Joanna ‘Oh-my-god-do-you-think-he-saw-me-while-I-was-in-his-back-yard-trying-to-catch-a-glimpse-of-him-without-his-clothes-on’ Riley? That explains it, then. But why do you have it?”

“She used to try and get me to come with her on stake-outs. It was supposed to tempt me into falling in love with him, give us more hobbies in common, you know.” Not likely.

“So you never had a crush on McKenzie? You must be the only girl ever to be immune.”

“You had a crush on him too?” What was this guy, the plague?

“Oh, yeah. Have you ever met any girl that didn’t want to marry him back in the day?”

“His sisters?”

“Very funny.”

“Anyway, we better get to work.” Lea looked at me, noticing the abrupt change of topic, but she said nothing. I handed her a newspaper.

We went through all the newspapers we had in the house (including the old ones we found in the garage which should have been thrown out before I was born) and cut out everything that had to do with Frank. By the time our detective show came on, we had a lot of clippings.

“We’ll have to take it in turns to read this,” Lea said as she flipped through the file during an ad break. “Or we could both read bits of it at the same time to try and get through it quicker.”

“Maybe we should just go through it when we run out of things to do,” I said. It didn’t seem like the most riveting task. “Like, we shouldn’t read it now, because we’re watching a show and we could get confused. Maybe if we’ve got some time after Frank’s funeral. When is it, again?”

She flipped through until she found the notice.

“Tomorrow,” she said.

“Right.”

“What are we actually going to do at the funeral?” she asked.

Good question, Lea. I possibly should have given it some thought before now.

“We’re going to go and scope it out,” I answered, rather vaguely.

“What do you mean?”

What did I mean? I don’t know. I wasn’t a detective.

“You know, see how people are behaving and all that. If we see anyone acting suspiciously, we’ll know to put them on the suspect list.” Crime-fighting pro tip right there. See a suspect? Suspect them. “There’ll probably be some fancy suits there, since Frank made all his money through investing. Maybe he was involved in something dodgy. If nothing else, it will give us some background on Frank. It would just be nice to get some sort of lead.”

The show came back on then and we stopped talking. It was more useful than I thought it was going to be. It gave me a few ideas, but I decided not to tell Lea for the moment, just in case she freaked out. They were not totally legal ideas. (Nothing to do with guns or murdering or anything – just a bit of borrowing-without-permission… From the police.)

When the show ended it was six. I looked out the window. The sun was still up thanks to daylight savings, and as we were nearing the end of spring in Gerongate, the room was getting a bit stuffy. I got up to open the window and I saw that mum had brought Violet McKenzie home with her (it must have killed her to be a passenger in the Nissan) for dinner. Probably not literally ‘for dinner’ – unless mum was losing the racing competition to Team Prado.

Good. This would give me an opportunity to quiz Violet about the case.

“Lea,” I whispered, “James McKenzie’s Mum is coming for dinner. We should ask her some questions about the case, but try to make it sound natural. We don’t want her to know anything’s up.”

“Sure,” Lea whispered back. “This is like we’re going undercover – cool!”

I heard the door open and Mum and Violet’s voices carried through to the lounge room.

“No, you should NOT make him a casserole. Violet, listen to me,” said Mum. “He’s 21 – he doesn’t need you to look after him. He has a housekeeper to do that. And anyway, there was a reason you kicked him out, remember? Why do you even think you have any responsibility towards him? Remember what you found in his room?”

“Yes, his brother’s drugs! James had no idea that they were there. It wasn’t his fault.”

Here we go, I thought. Let’s go over the whole drama again.

(Don’t worry if you’re not keeping up with this next part – even I have to refer to my notes about this stuff sometimes.)

James McKenzie, his older brother William McKenzie, my older brother Topher (not short for Christopher – that was his whole name) and I were best mates when we were little. Inseparable. That was, until we hit school, when James told his friends he didn’t like me, and they told me he didn’t like me, and James and I kind of became enemies. But that’s getting off topic.

Will was two years older than Topher and James, and I came two years later. When I was in Year 9 (Topher and James were in Year 11, and Will had already left school), James was kicked out by his mother when she found drugs in his room. They were, in fact, Will’s, but when Will first told Violet that, she just thought he was trying to stick up for his baby brother. James moved in with Uncle Frank and refused to talk to Will at all.

Soon after, my brother disappeared. Most people thought that Topher had run away because he didn’t want to have to deal with his two best friends fighting, but I disagreed (as usual). Frankly, that was a pathetic reason to run away. It was much more Topher’s style to just lock them in a room together until they’d figured things out. My family was not prone to avoiding confrontation, a trait you may have noticed that I also possess.

A few days after Topher disappeared, Will overdosed. Straight out of hospital he went into rehabilitation, paid for by his parents. As you could imagine, that pissed James off quite a bit. His parents were willing to kick him out for having drugs, but they did everything they could to help his brother. He hasn’t spoken to, nor been in the same house with, Will since ‘the accident’.

I know. It’s all rather dramatic.

TL; DR – We had a shitty couple of weeks, after which James was living with his rich uncle, Topher was gone, and Will and I were the only two who were still friends.

Since I was a bit sick of hearing this story being constantly repeated (I know I sound insensitive, but really, after 5 years you kind of get over it), I headed out into the hallway and cut off their conversation.

“Hi Violet!” I said in fake surprise. “I didn’t know you were coming for dinner. It’s nice to see you.”

“You too, Charlie.” She paused. “Janine was just telling me that you’re interested in Frank’s murder.”

OK, so I supposed we didn’t have to worry about acting casual? “Um, yeah, I guess,” I said, responding more to my own question than to Violet’s.

“Got any suspects?”

Lea came out of the lounge room then and joined in with, “I thought maybe it was Frank’s business partner.”

“It could be,” said Violet. “I didn’t really know Frank that well. Never met his partner.” She turned to me. I gulped. Vi had a little bit of the Ol’ Crazy Eye going on. “I hear you saw James today.”

“Yes,” I said. “The Nissan broke down and he had to start it for me.”

“And?”

“Oh, nothing serious. I think I just flooded it a bit.”

“I was talking about James.”

“Oh.” Here came the interrogation.

Violet had skills in questioning that were not yet mastered by national security organisations. If she wanted to know something, she used the minimum amount of words she could to keep the conversation going, so that the person she was talking to felt like they had to talk more to compensate. And that meant that things just tended to slip out. And so she found out everything.

Maybe I could use that technique when I was questioning people about McKenzie.

“So? How was he?”

“Pretty normal.”

“Normal?”

“Well, yeah. He brought up the usual embarrassing stories from my past.”

“Uh huh.”

“He was dressed well.” Not that he ever dressed badly. He was one of those annoying people who just seemed to look put together all the time.

“Yep.”

“He looked healthy.”

“How healthy?”

“Like normal. Maybe a bit tired.”

“Right.”

“Didn’t seem too overcome by grief. Not that I think he did it,” I added quickly, catching the anger flaring up in Vi’s face. “I just mean he’s coping well. That’s all. Anyway, we didn’t really see each other for that long so I don’t have much to tell you.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Should I send him a casserole?”

No,” said my mother.

“Why not?” Violet asked, turning the crazy eyes on mum. Phew. I was safe. Sorry, mum, but I don’t think both of us could have made it out unscathed. I’ll always remember your sacrifice.

“He doesn’t deserve it.” Farewell, Janine. You were a good parent. I’ll miss you. Well, I’ll go to your funeral. You were an OK parent. Definitely in my top two.

Luckily, Lea stepped in, potentially saving my mother’s life (and saving me from having to write her obituary). “He’s got a housekeeper to look after him. From what I know of her she gets narky when other people cook for him. Thinks it’s an insult,” Lea told us. I wondered how she knew so much about James. Maybe she’d just been playing it cool earlier when she said she no longer had a crush on him. I’d have to ask Jo if she’d ever run into Lea in McKenzie’s backyard of an evening.

Violet sighed. She thought for a moment. “I’ll sleep on it,” she told us finally.

Only in Gerongate would a mother kick her son out at age 16 and still be cooking his dinner when he was 21.

Over dinner (one of Violet’s casseroles – delicious), I tried to find out everything Violet could tell me about Frank. I didn’t learn much – she’d hardly known him. She did tell me something interesting, though. I already knew Frank didn’t get along with his family – he’d never had anything to do with his nieces and nephews while they were little. So how had he and James met? When Violet told me she didn’t know, it struck me as more than a little weird for a few reasons. Firstly, James had met his own uncle without his family knowing. What exactly had he been doing, befriending his uncle (who had disowned the family) behind everyone’s backs? That looked bad, like maybe he’d been planning this inheritance thing for a while. James and/or his uncle must have had a specific reason they wanted to meet. I hoped that reason wasn’t so James could kill Frank for his money.

I was going to have to ask James. I probably wouldn’t have a chance tomorrow – everyone would be trying to question him at the funeral – so I’d just have to do it the first chance I got.

Violet left at about eleven and I went to bed. I lay there thinking for a long time. A few things I that had heard today were worrying me. It wasn’t just what Violet had said about James and Frank. There was something James had said that wasn’t sitting quite right. When he’d driven me to the Martin’s place, I’d told him the address, but not who lived there. Yet straight away he asked why I had wanted to go there and if I had a death wish. There, in one statement, he’d given away two things. Firstly, he knew either Lea or Jeremy well enough to have committed their address to memory (I was going to have to ask her about that), and secondly, he knew what I’d done when I’d quit my job, or at least knew that Jeremy and I weren’t on great terms.

None of this meant that he had killed Frank, of course. I didn’t think it did, anyway. Mysteries were a lot more complicated in real life than on television. But I had to solve it, if not for the house, and not for the money, just to piss McKenzie off. Lea and I could do this. If we got desperate, we could always fall back on police information to help us. I had a plan of how to get it (who said TV teaches us nothing?) and I was pretty sure that Lea would help me. She was really getting into this whole ‘amateur detective’ deal. Surely she wouldn’t let a pesky thing like the law stand in our way…

And by that stage I was at least 50% convinced that she didn’t intend to kill me.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

Sunday morning came all too soon. I glanced at the clock on my bedside table. The readout said 10:00 am. Ah. So maybe Sunday hadn’t come so soon after all.

I definitely wasn’t at my peak in the morning.

As I stood under the spray of the bathroom shower (feeble pressure, but it got the job done), I contemplated – well, considered momentarily – why there are so many songs about Sunday mornings. Nothing great seemed to happen. Some people went to church, others slept in. Many attempted to get over post-Saturday night hangovers. Others woke up thinking that it was Monday and wondering why their alarms hadn’t gone off, ran around the house screaming and fretting about losing their jobs, got caught on three separate speed cameras in the space of the 10 minute drive (which they had condensed into three) to work and then arrived at the office, finding it closed. OK, so that had never happened to anyone I knew, but it could, right?

So what made this particular time so inspirational? Yes, I admit, generally I was only around to see two hours of it, and perhaps all the miracles happened before 10:00 a.m., but I doubted it.

I shut off the water and walked back to my room wrapped in a towel. (When I’d first gotten up it had seemed too difficult to make such a massive decision as what clothes to wear for the day.) At the risk of repeating myself, I definitely wasn’t at my peak in the morning.

When I’d finally decided what to wear and dressed myself in jeans and a black T-shirt bearing the slogan “Rock-Off” (which for some reason had seemed funny when I was 14, although now I wore it ‘ironically’ and definitely not because I had no money to buy new clothes), I descended the stairs. Mum and Lea were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee.

Since I’m not much of a fan of bitter, super-caffeinated beverages (or, as my mother puts it, because I’m a wimp) I made myself a cup of green tea. I know, I know, for someone who was about as health conscious as a potato, drinking green tea was kind of weird. The thing is, black tea required sugar. Green tea did not. I drank green tea out of laziness.

As I sat there drinking my green tea I noticed my mother’s eye was twitching. I glanced at Lea. She was having trouble staying on the seat.

“How much coffee have you two had?”

“We started when we woke up.”

“When was that?”

“When Mrs Stein threw her husband out this morning.” Mum’s eye started twitching even more frantically.

Mr Stein was an ex-boxing champion. At one stage he had been the best in Gerongate. Now he was old. His wife, Mrs Stein, was a friendly lady. They lived in the house across and down one from ours. I had a hard time imagining her kicking her husband out.

“Were they yelling loudly?”

“No,” Mum answered. “It was the sirens that woke us up.” Whoa! What? Sirens?

“Sirens? What happened?” My voice was getting a little shrill.

“I told you,” Mum said irritably. “She threw him out.”

“Out the second floor window,” Lea chimed in.

“Whoa,” I said, my voice nearly back to normal. “Are you serious? Mrs Stein, frail, dainty, old Mrs Stein, threw her husband out the second storey window?” They’d been together for as long as I could remember, and now, after all this time, she’d gotten angry enough to try to make him take a two-storey free-fall. Wow. I had not seen that coming.

“I know,” said Mum, shaking her head and twitching her eye. “It’s sad.”

“Yeah.”

“I mean,” she continued, “What does this say about the state of boxing in Gerongate?”

I decided to blame it on the coffee.

“So when did this happen?”

“Round about six.”

“You’ve been drinking coffee for four and a half hours?” Hmm.

“Yeah,” said Lea and started giggling. Mum joined her.

Oh, jeez. That was not a good sign.

“Well,” I told Lea, “At least we know you’ll have plenty of time to work on the case. You certainly won’t be able to sleep for the next week.” She just kept on giggling. “I hope you’ve stopped giggling by the time we get to Frank’s funeral.”

“That’s at two, isn’t it?” Lea asked me. When I nodded, she glanced at her watch. Suddenly her eyes grew wide. “Oh crap! I’m supposed to meet my lawyer in 10 minutes!”

“You can borrow the car if you want,” Mum told her. She seemed to be finding this quite amusing. She’d probably be finding everything quite amusing for the next few days. Too much coffee was like alcohol to my mother.

“No thanks,” said Lea. “I’ll make it. I’m feeling pretty energetic. I’ll jog.”

She jogged out of the kitchen. I thought I heard her puffing as she reached the front door. At least I wasn’t the only unfit person I knew.

“I’m feeling pretty energetic, too,” Mum told me. “I might go out and do some gardening.”

I heard the back door slam and crept over to the window. I saw Mum pick up my old rainbow skipping rope, move over to the cement slab at the back of the garage and start skipping frantically.

All I needed now was someone to ask me “Does your Mum eat Vita-Weats?”

I went back to the table and sat down with my tea. I really needed somewhere to start with this case. A clue, a name… Well, I had a name, but I didn’t think it was the right one. I’d known James my whole life, and I knew he wasn’t a murderer. Especially over something as petty as money. Everyone thought he had a motive, but that wasn’t true. Frank adored James. It wasn’t like James had to kill him if he wanted money – he could have just asked for it.

So, I’d established who hadn’t done it. Great. It would have been much more helpful if I’d established who had. A name… I needed a name…

I took out a highlighter and the case file. Names. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I was going to get.

By the time I finished going through the folder, I had a list of five names. Not terribly impressive, I know, but it was a start. Three that I’d never heard of, one I’d heard a lot about, and one I’d met before.

Michael Andrews, Peter Emmeret and Derek Patel belonged to Group One. Michael Andrews was heading up the investigation, and he’d made it pretty clear who he thought was responsible. There was a photo of him alongside one of the articles, and believe me, if I’d wanted to reassure the people of Gerongate that the murderer was going to be caught, I would not have chosen to attach a picture of this guy. He didn’t have the sort of face you associated with clever thinking. Hell, he didn’t look like he could spell the word ‘think’ without help. I’d bet he’d only gotten through university because his Mummy had written his essays for him.

That explained why James had hired Sharps. I wouldn’t have trusted Andrews to direct traffic, much less solve a murder. At least this would make it easier to get information out of him. If he had any to give.

Peter and Derek, two of the others on the list, were the kids who’d found the body. I was surprised the paper was allowed to print their names. Wasn’t there a law about that? Not that laws made a whole lot of difference in Gerongate, I supposed.

The guy I’d heard a lot about was Frank’s fellow billionaire. Well, he should have been, but he gambled and drank most of it away. Larry Jones had co-owned a few investments with Frank, and I imagined he had been very jealous of McKenzie’s good fortune. Or rather, his good business sense.

There was one more person on the list. Sarah Hollis was James’s cop buddy, and also his alibi. I’d met her before a few years back, and she’d seemed pretty nice. Currently, however, she was missing/holidaying in South America – it depended who you asked. She was due back in the country this weekend. If she was still alive.

I heard the front door open and a red-faced and puffing Lea stumbled into the kitchen. She looked even worse than I did after exercise. It was probably because she had to carry all that extra weight on her chest.

“Man, I’m unfit,” Lea wheezed. “I only jogged a few blocks.”

“Don’t feel too guilty about it. I’m pretty unfit as well.”

“We should probably do something about that.”

“Probably.”

And that was all that was said on that topic.

“How long have we got until the funeral?”

“It’s only a quarter to twelve now,” Lea answered. “We’ve got heaps of time.” She noticed the papers spread out in front of me. “Have you been going through the file?”

“Yeah. I was looking for names of people involved other than the McKenzies. I found five. Two police officers, two kids and one possible suspect.”

“Let me guess. The suspect is Larry Jones.”

I was intrigued. “How did you know?”

“Well, I kind of already thought he might have done it, so I asked Alice Grey, my solicitor, but she hadn’t talked to Jeremy’s lawyer yet, so she didn’t have much to tell me. Apparently, though, she was trying to negotiate with Frank on Larry’s behalf.” Nice confidentiality there. Remind me never to go to Alice Grey with my legal problems. “She couldn’t tell me too much, but I think Larry was trying to buy some of Frank’s property, but he wouldn’t sell. She said Larry got really aggressive and she dropped his case.”

“What a nice guy.” Yeesh. Yep, suspect number one.

“Exactly. I think that maybe Larry killed Frank because he thought that James would be easier to negotiate with.”

Well, I suppose he wasn’t to know, but if that was the case then he was certainly going to be disappointed. I couldn’t see James being any less stubborn than his uncle.

The back door swung open and Mum entered the room. Her mouth dropped open. “What are you two doing?” she asked. “You have to be at the funeral at two!”

“But that’s not for ages,” I told her.

“Surely you are not that thick, Charlie. The whole of Gerongate is going to be there! You’ll never get a seat if you don’t leave soon. Look at you! You’re not dressed, you haven’t had lunch –”

“How do you know we haven’t had lunch?” I asked.

“You haven’t left a mess.” Fair enough. “Hurry up! Go get changed. How do you expect to get a park if you don’t turn up early? Come on!”

Lea and I dashed upstairs. Trust me – when mum gets like that, you do what she says. We pulled random black clothes from cupboards, drawers and suitcases (Lea hadn’t unpacked everything yet) and pulled them on.

Lea settled on a black dress that was a modest length (but had a not-so-modest neckline), black pointy-toed heels, and a tonne of mascara. I admired the way she could pull that look off. If I wore that much make-up, I’d just look like a panda. And if I even tried to walk in those shoes…

Instead, I went for a pair of black pants, a black blouse and my old black school shoes. Looking at myself in the mirror, I imagined what my mother would think. I didn’t care. If the guys I’d met were good advocates for their gender, I’d rather stay single. Anyway, I wasn’t going to a funeral to pick up.

When we were back downstairs, we found that Mum had already made us lunch. And wrapped it in cling-wrap. She took one look at what I was wearing, shook her head in disgust, thrust the car keys at me and practically shoved us out the door.

“Wouldn’t want you to be late!” she called out as she slammed the door behind us. I could’ve sworn I heard the lock click behind us.

“Reckon she wants us to go?”

When we arrived I was secretly glad that mum had made us leave so early. We were lucky enough to sneak into a park only one block away from the church. That’s what you get when you turn up nearly an hour and a half early for a funeral.

When we parked, I fell out of the driver’s side of the Nissan and whacked my head on the roof of the car parked next to us. (Yes, I literally fell out.) The car I hit was nice, in kind of a scary way. Normally I don’t notice cars (unless there is obviously something wrong with them – comes from having a mechanic for a father) but this one stood out. It was a brand new Porsche, and it was black.

Baxter & Co.

The Porsche provided a huge contrast to the car parked on the other side of us. If you could actually call it a car. It was more like a pile of scrap metal on wheels. How the hell this thing passed its registration was beyond me. Yeesh. I think I preferred the Nissan, and it’s not often I think that.

When we arrived at the church, it was already packed. And I mean packed. Even arriving as early as we did, we had to squash up in the back, standing. It seemed like half of Gerongate was there. People who arrived at one o’clock had to congregate outside.

I turned to Lea. “Time to do a bit of detective work,” I whispered. “If you see anyone you know, make a note of them. We might have to talk to them later.”

Lea started ratting through her snake-skin-print handbag (black, of course – totally funeral appropriate). Finally she found what she was looking for – a notebook and a pen. I was impressed. I’d meant for us to take mental notes, but this was much better.

“Good thinking, Ninety-Nine,” I said, struggling to see through the crowd. Being five ft 3 had its advantages, but seeing through a crowd was not one of them. “OK, have you seen anyone? Oh wait, I can see James McKenzie. Who’s that chick he’s with? I don’t recognise her.” She was a little taller than me with mousy brown hair, but that was about as much as I could see from this distance.

Lea glanced over at them. “Oh, that’s his housekeeper, Karen Martin. She’s Jeremy’s sister. Oh, he’s there too. I better write these down.” So that was how James and the Martins were connected. As she was writing Lea said, “I can tell you more about them later. Not that much to tell, though. Apart from how awful Karen’s hair looks.” To be honest, I didn’t think I was the right person to judge someone’s appearance, so I made no comment. “Can you see anyone else?” she asked as she finished writing. She looked up. “Oh, I know him. Oh, and her!”

Lea seemed to know everybody there, so after a while we had a pretty good list. Although she was spotting tonnes of people, I hardly knew anyone. As much as I hated to admit it, my mother was right. I really did need to get out more. But that was what I was doing, I reminded myself. That was one of the benefits of working at Baxter and Co. Speaking of which…

“What are you doing here, honey?”

I recognised Tim’s voice straight away (his accent was kind of distinctive). I knew he’d be there – I’d seen his car outside, plus he was working on the same case as me. Did that make us rivals? I guess it did. That could be a problem, considering he was probably trained and licensed to do this, and definitely much better at it – he’d spotted me in the crowd, and I hadn’t even noticed him until he spoke. Then again, when I thought back to our last meeting, the fact that he’d managed to sneak up on me in a crowd wasn’t that surprising. He’d had no trouble doing so in an empty room.

He wanted to know why I was here, and I wasn’t exactly sure what to tell him. I tried to stall until I came up with a good answer.

“What am I doing here? I could ask you the same question.” Now that I’d said it, that answer seemed more than a little bit stupid. “I could, but I’d know the answer.”

That brought a whole new relevance to the phrase, ‘Once you’re in a hole, stop digging’.

Great, I thought. Now he thinks I’m thick as well as stupid… Then, Did I just think that?

“Yeah, so you know why I’m here. Now you can tell me what you’re doing.”

When in doubt, bullshit like your life depends on it. Especially if it does.

“Well,” I began, “As you know, Frank McKenzie was a pillar of the Gerongate community. He made many sizable contributions to charity, and I just came to pay my respects to him, God rest his soul, and –”

“Cut the crap, Charlie.”

I turned to face him. Time to try my grandma impersonation again.

“You can’t swear in church, that’s blasphemous. God, Tim.” I clapped my hand to my mouth.

He was laughing. “Hypocrite.”

“At least I’m remorseful about it.” Or pretending to be. “You don’t even seem to care.”

He shook his head. “You’re right. I don’t care. I’ve done worse things than swear in church.” He paused. “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”

“You never give up, do you?”

“No.”

“Oh, Jesus, Tim. Why the hell do you care?”

“I counted two blasphem –”

“Shut up. If you really want to know why I’m here, I’m trying to find out who killed Frank. I made a bet with someone that I could figure out who did it, and losing is not an option. If I win, I get some money and a house, and that’s kind of big for me, ’cause I’m broke and I still live with my parents. That a good enough excuse to be here? Are you satisfied?” I know, I kind of snapped.

“Who’d you make this bet with?”

“Not telling.”

“Then no, I’m not satisfied.”

“Well you’re just going to have to deal with it.” I crossed my arms and put on my defiant face. Which is basically just my regular face.

“You’re muscling in on my job, honey. How do you expect me to react?”

“Oh, save it. I know you don’t think I’ll win. Like I’m a threat. And besides, you get payed for any time you put in on this case. It’s not like you have to solve it. You get payed more for doing nothing than I do for all my effort.”

He tilted his head, and then nodded in agreement. “I suppose that’s true. Still, I get payed more if I solve it. Calm down. You look like you’re about to cry.”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep myself from yelling. “If you want me to calm down,” I hissed at him through clenched teeth, “Saying I look like I’m going to cry is not the way to go about it.”

“Sorry, honey. I’ll store that for future reference.”

That was when Lea turned around and saw Tim.

“Hey, Sharps. How you doing?” she asked.

“Good thanks, Lea. I notice that you’re not standing with Jeremy. Would that mean that you two aren’t together anymore?” I decided that was probably a good indicator that I wouldn’t have to introduce them, so I didn’t.

“I’ve filed for divorce!” She sounded pretty cheery.

“Congratulations,” said Sharps. I thought that was what you were supposed to say when people got together, not when they broke up. I suppose, though, with Jeremy being such an arsehole and all, ‘Congratulations’ was probably quite an appropriate response.

“Mr Carter?” came a voice from behind Tim. All three of us looked to see who had said it and from the way our shoulders all slumped at the same time, I could tell we were thinking the same thing.

Great. Cops.

And not just any cops, either. I recognised Michael Andrews from the newspaper article. He was wearing a grey suit and a hideous multi-coloured fluorescent tie. I’m not great with ages but I’d guess he was somewhere in his mid-forties. He was chubby and balding, with beady little eyes on a face that was too small for his head. His brain was probably too small for his head as well. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, and that wouldn’t be very far because he obviously weighed a fair bit.

His partner was far younger, far better looking, far smarter and far more fashion-conscious. He seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

“Mr Carter,” Andrews repeated, “I’m –”

“D.C. Andrews and this is P.C. Winton. I know. We’ve met before. Quite a few times. Remember? By the way, Mr Andrews, you’re looking great! Have you lost weight?”

I was a bit worried about Sharps aggravating the cops, but obviously they were used to it because Andrews carried on as though nothing had happened. Or maybe he just didn’t get the joke. Jeez, maybe he thought that Tim was serious!

“Interesting that you should be here, Mr Carter.”

“Really? It’s interesting that you two should be here as well. It doesn’t look like you’re here to comfort James. Maybe you’re hoping to arrest someone? That would explain the very stealthily hidden handcuffs. And just as a pointer, if you’re trying to blend in, normal clothes do help. And it would also be better if you wore a tie that didn’t drown out what you were saying. Also, selling your picture to the tabloids isn’t a great move. Only suggestions.”

Little Face frowned. He didn’t understand what Tim was saying – his tie couldn’t talk. “Who are you working for?”

“Sorry, classified information. I’m sure you understand that. It’s a professional thing.”

“Mr Carter, you are obstructing our investigation. I could arrest you for that.” Whatever. Like he had the guts.

“And then I would call my lawyer, Adam Baxter, and he’d get me straight back out. You can’t just come and steal the information I’ve collected as part of a private investigation. Really, I’m starting to think you can’t figure out anything yourself.”

“Mr Carter, I’m warning you –”

“Mr Andrews, I’m warning you. There is a certain amount of professional courtesy between the police and our agency. I suggest you don’t test my patience any further. You don’t want to tip the balance. This issue is between me and my client, and it is confidential. The reason I am here is a private matter and I don’t intend to discuss it any further with you.”

When it became clear that Tim wasn’t going to answer his questions, he turned to me. “And what are you doing here, Miss, um –”

“I’m paying my respects. As you do at a funeral.”

“So am I,” Lea added, before he could question her as well. Andrews left in a huff. His partner stayed behind. He and Tim nodded ‘Hello’ at each other. Now I knew who the cop was.

“Sharps,” he said.

“Joe,” Tim responded.

Joe Winton turned to me. “Charlie. Been a while.”

“Pity it wasn’t longer.”

He laughed. “James told me he ran into you the yesterday. I was surprised he came out alive.”

“I’ve never tried to kill him.” Hurt him? Yes. Kill him? Of course not! Well, maybe once. OK, OK, twice.

“You did write off his car with a wrecking bar once.”

“Yeah, after he ran my bra up the school flagpole!”

“Was that your bra?” Lea asked. “Oh, yeah, I remember now. Didn’t he get suspended for that?”

“No.”

“His mother kicked him out, though,” Joe said.

“Not for that. Besides, he went to live in a mansion with his millionaire uncle who replaced his car with a Ferrari. He didn’t exactly lose out.”

“How did he get hold of your bra?” Lea asked.

Not in the kind of fun way you’re thinking, Lea.

“Sneaked into my room during a party.”

“Why was he at your house for a party?” Tim asked.

“Violet McKenzie and my Mum are friends,” I said. “James was always at our house a lot.”

“James said you made a bet with him,” Joe told me. Thanks, Joe, I thought. Now Tim knows who I’m working for. I shot him a look to tell him to shut up, but Tim had already heard. He smiled at me. Smug prick.

Joe caught my look and turned to Lea, trying to change the subject. “I thought you two,” meaning me and Lea, “Were kind of worst enemies at the moment.”

“Hell, no!” said Lea. “She gave me a chance to get a divorce. We’re best mates.”

“How do you know what happened?” I asked.

“Everyone in town knows what happened,” Joe said, looking at me like I couldn’t have asked a stupider question.

Great. The whole city knew.

“So,” he continued. “How do you two know each other?” This time he meant Tim and me. “Do you go out or something?”

Tim snorted. “Yeah, I take girls out to funerals a lot. Lovely setting for a date. No, we only met on Friday. We work together.”

Joe turned to me. “So, you’ve gone from groceries to security. That’s a pretty big jump. What do you do?”

“Receptionist.”

“Oh, on account of you being such a people person?”

“Shut up.”

“Did McKenzie know where you worked before you made this bet?” he asked.

“No.”

“He’s in for a shock.”

“Yep.”

“You don’t think it was a bit cruel not to tell him?”

“He didn’t ask.”

“Fair enough.”

We stopped talking then because people were turning around and frowning at us. Apparently the priest (or is it pastor? Minister? Anyway, the Jesus Man) had started to talk sometime during our conversation.

There were sniffles coming from beside me and I realised that Lea was crying. Joe obviously noticed as well, because he squeezed over next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. She threw her arms around him and started sobbing into his chest. Joe turned and pulled a face at us and Tim and I both began to scan the booklet about Frank they’d handed each of us at the door, then took a new interest the ceiling and the floorboards, and just generally tried not to look at each other in case we started cackling like crones. No matter what Hozier says, I didn’t want to be the giggle at a funeral.

The Jesus Man finished his speech alarmingly quickly, leading me to think that we must have talked through a fair bit of it. Oops.

Everyone was invited to the burial. The priest said nothing about the wake, so I assumed the general public wasn’t invited. Not that that would stop anyone from going.

Joe had to go find Andrews, so he left Lea in the care of Tim and me. We walked Lea back to the car.

“Are you alright to drive?” I asked her.

She nodded. I think she was afraid that if she said anything she might burst into tears again.

“OK. Tim,” I said, “Can I come with you?”

“To the burial?” he asked. “Sure. I’ll have to ask James if you’re allowed to go to the wake, though. We don’t want to upset him.”

“OK. Thanks.” I turned to Lea. “You sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah,” she squeezed out, then dragged in a shaky breath.

She got in the car and we watched her drive away. (No hassles, in case you’re wondering. Even more proof that the car only hated me.)

“This is your car, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing at the Porsche.

“No,” he answered. “That’s my car.” He was pointing at the lump of junk that had been parked on the other side of the Nissan.

The horror must’ve registered on my face, because he said, “Just kidding. No need to have a heart attack.” He beeped open the Porsche.

We got a little lost on the way (I blamed the GPS for giving us the wrong directions; Tim blamed me for not being able to work it) so we reached the burial a bit late and they were nearly done when we arrived. Very few of those who had attended the funeral were at the cemetery. Basically it was just cops and McKenzies, although it was really only James who had known Frank. I also recognised Karen Martin from the church (at least, I thought it was her – she didn’t have the most memorable face).

When it was over, most of the McKenzie Clan left, as did Karen. Apparently it was her little pile of silver/rust-coloured junk. Didn’t McKenzie pay her enough to buy a decent vehicle? I wondered how she had managed to beat Tim and me there when she left after us. Sure, we got a little lost, but even so… She probably went on all the backstreets and didn’t get caught in a traffic jam like we did. And she probably sped and rammed her way through town. Her car was already a write-off – it wouldn’t matter if it got a few more dings.

James McKenzie swaggered over to us.

“Sharps,” he said, and Tim nodded in recognition.

James looked towards me. “Queen Evil.”

“King Dickhead,” I responded.

Tim looked back and forth between us. “This is going to be interesting,” he said.

“We don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things,” James said. “What with her being so short and all. And she’s jealous because her friends like me better than her.”

“They do not.”

“Oh yeah? Well why don’t they hang around you on weekends rather than watching me from my backyard?”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t boast about being stalked.”

“No, especially not by your freaky friends,” he sniggered. My eyes narrowed.

“OK, a) my friends aren’t freaky, and b) none of them have ever been accused of murder.”

“OK, a) your friends are freaky, they’d have to be to want to hang around you, and b) I haven’t killed anyone. Besides, you’ve tried to kill enough people to make up for all of your friends.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded. “Everyone keeps saying that. Who have I ever tried to kill?”

“OK, you two,” said Tim, “There’s no need to get worked up.”

“It’s not funny! He said my friends were freaky and that I try to kill people.”

“It’s the truth,” said James.

“Wanker.”

“OK!” Tim said it so loud that I forgot I was busy arguing. I think he was a bit over it. “Thank you. Now that you’ve got that off your chests – ”

“Not that Charlie had much on her chest to start wi –” James caught the look on Tim’s face and stopped. “Sorry, are you two together?” There was something weird about the way he said that. It was almost like fear. Maybe he thought Tim was going to bash him. If only.

“No. Colleagues,” Tim answered. I was a little flattered that two people today had seen the outfit I was wearing and thought I was still capable of pulling any sort of boyfriend. Take that, mum.

“Oh, because I was going to say, you must be the first boyfriend Charlie’s had since, um, ever.”

“Up yours.” I gave him the finger.

As I was saying,” Tim said, “Now that you two mature adults have gotten over that, I think we should get back to the problem at hand. So –”

“Go back a bit,” James interrupted. “Did you say you two worked together?” His facial expression, however, said, ‘I hate you.’

I smiled sweetly. “Yeah.”

“Doesn’t that job require coordination? Something that you quite obviously lack?” I didn’t like this guy. I really didn’t.

“Well, that doesn’t matter too much, being that I’m secretary. Not that I can’t do the other stuff if I try,” I added quickly. A little too quickly, judging by the smirk on his face. He knew he was getting to me, and that just got to me more.

“Sure you can. Anyway –” he said, before I could interrupt. “What were you saying Sharps?”

Tim had a really pissed-off look on his face. I realised that my first impression of him had been right – you did not mess him around. Or talk over the top of him. Or not do what he said.

“Well,” he began, in a tone that made it clear that this time we were going to listen and there was no alternative, “If you two think that you’re ready to listen, then I’ll start.”

We were ready to listen. Well, we weren’t ready to die, so listening seemed like a good idea.

“Good. Now, you two seem to have forgotten the current situation. James, your uncle is dead. Murdered. And we have to find the killer. Got that? The sooner the better, too, because there is no saying the killer won’t strike again. You two arguing isn’t getting us any closer to a result, so you’ll understand if I don’t want to waste time bickering in a graveyard.” He paused. James and I said nothing, so Tim continued. “I was planning to go to the wake. That going to be a problem, James? I might pick up something.”

James nodded. “That’s fine,” he muttered.

“Charlie’s coming with me. That cool?”

James closed his eyes for a second. He seemed really stressed and I found myself, momentarily, actually feeling sorry for him.

“I guess it’s OK if she comes as long as she doesn’t cause a scene.”

That seemed like a fair deal.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “I won’t.” And at the time, I meant it.

“Why is it that when you do what I ask, I start to get suspicious?”

There. All the proof that he didn’t deserve to be pitied contained within that one simple question.

What a prick.

[+ +
++]

Chapter Seven

 

Only a guy like Tim could get away with driving a car like this. For most people, this car would look like a mid-life crisis. I’m not saying that it was a try-hard car; it just required a driver who looked cool enough to own it. Especially in black. In black, this car was a tad… sinister.

It was kind of like when you see a hot guy dressed in black suit; it looks good, but you try to avoid it. With men that was because they were either:

a cop

a Mafioso

getting married, or

the defendant

 

With the car, you stayed away because the person driving was either:

a drug dealer

too rich to travel without a very large and dangerous bodyguard

a very talented thief, and/or

carrying a gun

 

The problem was, I was worried that this rule might also apply to Tim. At a guess, I would have taken option d), because I couldn’t see a PI also being a part-time drug lord, and he didn’t seem like he needed a bodyguard. Given the lack of police chasing us, I was fairly certain he hadn’t stolen the car. But the gun thing? Totally plausible. (Almost required, what with him being from the Deep South and all.) And since I wasn’t a big fan of guns, that was kind of stressful.

So I focussed on the interior instead. Black upholstery, GPS, surround sound. There were so many buttons it was like being inside a spaceship. A stylish spaceship. I wondered whether this was his work vehicle.

“Is this car yours?” I asked him. Shit, that hadn’t come out right.

He gave me a funny look then said (sarcastically), “No. I stole it.”

“What I meant was, is it your car or is it a company car?” There. It came out better that time.

“Company car.” Thought so. I wondered if Baxter & Co. would fork out so much money for me? “Speaking of company cars, I heard about what happened in the parking lot. Heard you acted like an old lady.”

“I panicked. I’m not used to getting in trouble for being in a car park.”

“Didn’t I tell you to be careful?”

“I didn’t know that car parks were so dangerous.”

“The whole of B-Co is dangerous, honey. It’s a good place to work, but watch your back.”

“Reckon they’ll give me a car?”

“Sure. Maybe not a Porsche, though, given that you’re admin.”

“At the moment I’d be happy with anything. Just as long as it’s not a Nissan.”

He laughed. “I’ll let Adam know.”

“Adam?” As in the Adam who’d investigated Jeremy? The same Adam who Tim had said was his lawyer?

“Yeah, he basically runs the Gerongate branch. Harry’s not around much,” he explained. “Travels a lot. Setting up offices overseas, you know. So his son takes care of Gerongate.”

“Didn’t you say Adam was your solicitor back at the funeral?”

“Yeah. He does that too.” Well, someone’s an overachiever. Who runs a security business and does law in their spare time?

“Is he a friend of yours?” I asked.

“Yeah. He’s pretty cool once you get to know him.” He paused. “Well, he is if he likes you.” Oh, good. If.

“He sounds scary.”

He thought for a moment, looking like he was choosing what to say carefully. “Well, yeah. He could take me in a fight.” Oh, right, so he’s a PI lawyer ninja. Great. “And he can be kind of… Standoffish. Kinda has to be like that though, being the boss and all.”

“Right.” I was not looking forward to meeting this guy.

We rode in silence for a while, until Tim spoke again.

“OK, when we get to the wake, I have three rules. One, we leave when I say, or I’m going without you. Two, don’t cause a scene and annoy James. Three, don’t get so wasted that I have to carry you out of there, or drunk enough that you are going to spew in my car. Got it?”

“Easy.” Don’t talk or do anything. I could handle that. Probably.

I realised we were travelling in the wrong direction.

“I’m just going to drop into the office for a second. You can wait in the car,” he said. He parked in the underground car park and turned off the engine before turning to me and saying, “Stay in here. Don’t move. OK?”

“OK.”

“I mean it. I don’t want you causing a lockdown or something.”

“I’ll stay!”

“Good,” he said. “You’d better.”

Twenty minutes later he returned, a stack of newspapers in hand. I was going to ask, but from the look on his face I knew he wouldn’t tell me what they were about. Back on the road, I broke the silence. “Don’t you think having a wake is a bit cruel? I mean, not only is the poor guy dead, but everyone’s celebrating it. At the dead guy’s house. They’re paying for it with his money. That’s a bit disrespectful, isn’t it?” This was one of the rare moments when my conscience came into action. It only ever happened at inconvenient times.

He laughed. “If you put up with the funeral, it’s only fair that you’re rewarded at the end.”

I suppose that made sense. If you didn’t think too hard about it.

“So, Charlie,” he continued. “You and McKenzie obviously don’t get along. Any particular reason?”

“There are too many reasons to even begin to list.”

“OK, if you don’t want to talk about it that’s cool.” He paused. “Looking forward to work tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I lied. Sharps shot me a disbelieving look. “No.” Another disbelieving look. “I don’t know! What do you want me to say?” I snapped at him. This time he was wearing an amused expression, and looking self-satisfied. Was he stirring me up on purpose?

I know, stupid question.

Of course he was.

I tried again. “I’m a bit nervous.”

“With good reason.” Thanks, Tim!

“That’s a comforting thought.”

“I’ve told you already, honey. It’s good money, but it’s hard work. And it’s dangerous.”

“It doesn’t seem so hard.” But I was pretty sure about the dangerous bit. I was going to have nightmares about that car park for years.

“Are you starting the fitness program?” he asked.

The what now?

“Um, I’m secretary.” Why would I need to?

“Yeah, so? Are you starting fitness or not?”

“I don’t know.” No. Please, god no. Aphrodite? You still there? Lend a sister a hand?

“You probably will.” He sucked in some air. “I pity you. You’re gonna have a hard time of that. I hope you don’t live too far from the office.”

“About five Ks. Why’s that?”

“Because you’re going to have to run that distance five days a week.”

Five?! “What are you saying?”

“That’s what you do until Adam thinks you’re fit enough to cut back.” Had this guy not heard of rest days? Personally, I was a big fan of rest days. I would advocate having rest days as often as possible. Seven days a week was ideal.

“Running?”

“That’s part of it. Generally you do 2 hours of exercise every day when you’re starting out. You have to jog to the gym adjoined to the office and then spend the rest of the time working out with a personal trainer. Part of that is self defence.”

I was practically hyperventilating by this stage.

“I have to do 10 hours of slogging my arse out per week just so that I’m fit enough to be a secretary?”

“Yep.”

What kind of whacked-out place was Baxter & Co.? You couldn’t walk into a car park unarmed, and you had to be as fit as an Olympian just to handle the books – that wasn’t normal.

Tim spoke again. “You should probably get there a bit early tomorrow. They’ve been fixing up your office over the weekend. Adam will have to show you how to work everything and do searches on the computer.” He paused. “And organise your fitness classes.” I groaned. “Because I can tell you’re really looking forward to them.”

“Don’t even joke about it,” I warned. “So,” I said, desperately trying to change the subject, “I guess B-Co didn’t have a secretary for a fair while before they hired me.”

“I think it was about a month,” Tim responded.

“All those files… in one month?” How was I going to keep up if I had to put that many files away each month as well as being receptionist and researcher?

“Not exactly. Half of them – well, more than half, actually – were old files that the last secretary pulled out of the cabinets. She was trying to trash the place.”

“What possessed her to do that?”

“You don’t want to know,” he said.

“Just tell me.”

He sighed. “Well, there were a few reasons. She sent us a list of complaints and was going to go to court over it, until her solicitor told her that she would be better off leaving it. We would have been represented by Adam Baxter and he’s never lost a court case.”

“He’s that good?”

“Yeah. He’s ridiculous. Did two university courses at once – he did law externally and medicine internally. Topped both of them.”

I decided to pretend I thought Tim was lying, because that would probably make me appear as less gullible than if I showed I believed him. Even though I did.

“So, what did she want to complain about?”

“The fitness program.”

Oh no.

“How long had she been doing it?”

“I think this is one of those things that you’re probably better off not knowing,” he warned.

“How long?”

He sighed. “I really think – ”

How long?” I demanded.

“A week.”

“Please tell me you are joking.”

He grimaced. “If only.”

“Wow. And I thought the way I quit my last job was impressive. I had four years to prepare.”

“You spent four years planning how to quit your job?”

“Well, not really. I spent four years wanting to quit, but I kind of did it on the spur of the moment. I don’t know why I left it that long.” Now that I think about it, since I got paid nothing and hated it I really should have left earlier. Sometimes I worry about my mental capacity.

“What happened?”

“Well,” I began, “Have you ever heard of Gregory’s Groceries?”

“Oh, yeah. Lea’s husband – ah… I think I’m starting to see where this is going.”

“Well, I kind of got Lea to divorce him and then I quit.”

“Nice. And now you and Lea are friends?”

“And now Lea and I are friends.”

We were silent for a while before Tim said, “So, you made a bet with James McKenzie.”

“Yeah.”

“Things really aren’t friendly between you and James, are they?” I shook my head. “And you got Jeremy’s wife to divorce him.” This time I nodded. “You should probably avoid Karen Martin at the wake, then. She might not be your biggest fan. You know who she is?” I nodded again. “OK. Here we are.”

We found a park pretty close to the house. The wake was to be held, as you know, at Frank McKenzie’s mansion. The house was situated in a snobby part of town called Madison Hill, which the rest of the town had affectionately nicknamed ‘Maddies-on-the-Hill’. (Yeah, not the best pun ever, but don’t blame me. I didn’t come up with it.) Basically, all the people who lived here were very rich, married to someone who was very rich, or drowning in debt, but everyone in the city wanted to live there anyway.

Frank’s house was the crème de la crème of Madison Hill, and therefore it was also the nicest house in Gerongate. It was huge. It was expensive. And it was beautiful.

The four-storey mansion was like a palace. I thought back to the conversation I’d had with McKenzie at the cemetery and almost smiled. ‘King Dickhead’ now owned the castle.

Tim and I hopped out of the car and proceeded to Frank’s front door. We passed Karen Martin’s super fancy wheels on our way there and I wondered if she knew who I was. Just in case, I decided to take Tim’s advice and avoid her.

The front door was being held open by a six-pack of beer (like they couldn’t afford a doorstop), setting the tone for the occasion. I was willing to bet that six-pack would be gone before the party was over. It was amazing how much of a head-start the other party-goers had gotten in the extra 40 minutes or so we’d taken to get here. There was loud music playing, plenty of food and a lot of people doing the Macarena. Weren’t wakes meant to be a sombre sort of affair? Not this one, apparently.

I hoped there was some un-spiked punch or lemonade or something. I wasn’t much of a drinker. The one time I’d drunk a vodka cruiser, I passed out, and when I woke up I had a broken arm. Apparently I’d been doing the chicken dance on a table when I fell unconscious. And then fell off the table. Onto the concrete floor.

You could imagine what moonshine-laced punch would do to me. Not exactly an experience I was craving.

I looked around the room. I could see eskies filled with ice and drinks, plus a couple of fridges. There were some cans of soft drink, lying untouched. It occurred to me that most people were probably here for the free booze. I turned to Tim.

“I’m going to get a can of lemonade. Do you want anything?”

“Can you get me a bottle of water?”

“Sure. You aren’t drinking?”

“You should be grateful. I’m driving you home. And anyway, I’m not supposed to get drunk on duty,” he told me.

“You’re working now?”

He gave me a look of disbelief. “You didn’t strike me as this thick when we first met.”

“I’m just amazed that you’re getting paid to go to a party. That’s pretty cool.”

“You get paid for any work you do. This kind of stuff is classed as overtime.”

“Do I get paid for this too?” I joked.

“Depends if you find out any information for me.”

“I was only kidding.”

“I wasn’t.”

“I think I could get used to this job.”

“You just remember that when busting your ass in the gym early in the morning.” Thanks for bringing that up, Tim. Just when I’d started to breathe normally again.

“Is it really that bad?” I asked hesitantly, not really wanting to know the answer.

“They say it gets better after the first couple weeks. Think of it like this: some people pay a lot of money to work out with trainers. You get it for free. And you’ve got a lot of motivation.”

“Motivation?”

“When you get paid you’ll know what I mean.”

That sounded promising. Mmm. Money. I was pretty sure that even I could manage exercise if I got payed enough. And judging by Tim’s car, B-Co wasn’t exactly hard up for cash. It didn’t seem like they were very hesitant to hand it out, either.

“I still don’t get why I have to be fit.”

“Because you won’t spend all your time in the office. You’ll realise why you need the exercise after a few weeks. You’ll do a lot of filling in.” Filling in? And what exactly did that entail?

I didn’t end up asking Tim about it further, however, because it was then that a very drunk James McKenzie stumbled past us, one hand clasped over his mouth and the other gripping the doorframe for support, heading (I assumed) for a toilet.

“He doesn’t look too well,” I commented.

Tim grimaced then nodded in agreement. “I’m going to go and talk to some people. Stay out of trouble.” And he disappeared into the crowd.

I stood there awkwardly for a while, rocking back on my heels, not really sure what to do. I glanced around at the doorway behind me. James hadn’t come out. I wondered whether he’d passed out or was still throwing up. Yuck, I thought. I’d heard of people passing out and drowning in their own vomit. Someone should probably go and check on him.

I looked around. Everyone near me looked too drunk to spell their own names. I doubted they were going to be concerned enough about James to go looking for him. He wasn’t my favourite person, but I didn’t want him dead. And not just because I wouldn’t get a house that way. (But maybe partly because I wouldn’t get a house that way.) I decided to go check on him, because even though my conscience had never weighed largely on my personality, I didn’t want to be responsible for a death.

I walked through the doorway and continued down the hall for a while. I didn’t spot any neon signs saying ‘Toilets’ with an arrow pointing me in the right direction (or any direction, for that matter – there appeared to be a shortage of neon signs), so I just guessed what way to go. Luckily I guessed correctly and by following the groans of pain I managed to find the right bathroom.

He hadn’t shut the door and I could see him sitting next to the toilet with his back to the wall and his head between his legs. He lifted his head with his eyes still closed and said, “If you need a toilet, there’s four others. You can find them. I believe in you.”

He looked awful. I wondered how much he’d had to drink since he got back from the funeral. He was definitely sober when I saw him at the burial, and yet now, not even an hour later, he had the kind of look I associated with a full weekend spent drinking.

“You look like crap,” I informed him.

“Shit, no need to sound so sympathetic.” OK, so I admit it did come out sounding a little bit too cheerful. And yeah, it did make me feel good to see Mr Stuck Up in this state. I guess it made him seem a little less perfect and a little more human. I know. Sad.

He opened his eyes. When he recognised me, he smiled (he smiled?!).

“Ah, I should have known.”

“Embarrassed?” I suggested.

“We all have our low moments, sweetie. What’s the matter – get bored? Need someone to argue with?”

“I was just checking that you weren’t drowning in a pool of your own vomit, actually.”

He snorted. “What would you do? Hold me under?”

“Of course not.”

“That’s a relief.”

“You’re going to owe me a house soon.”

He smiled. “I should have known there’d be an ulterior motive with you.”

“Is it just me, or do you become more intelligent when you’re drunk?”

He just smiled.

“So,” I began. “Have you decided what house to give me yet? Or are you still being optimistic enough to think you might have a chance of winning?”

“You’ve got determination, I’ll give you that.”

“And resources.” I tried to give him a sweet smile, but I think it probably came out as more of an evil, scheming smirk.

“It was a bit nasty not mentioning that before we made the bet.” I tried the sweet smile thing again. And failed. Again.

“Not my fault. You should have thought before you acted.”

“Probably. Also we never established what I get if I win.”

“Satisfaction at proving me wrong?” I suggested.

“Yet if you win I have to give you a house? That doesn’t seem fair.”

I tried to raise an eyebrow but couldn’t, so I raised both instead. “That’s definitely fair payment for catching a murderer. Plus proving you wrong is an added bonus.”

He laughed. “I look forward to it.”

I left him in the toilet (not, like, in the toilet – I’m not that mean) and headed back out to the party. Tim walked over to me and I’m proud to say I actually saw him approaching that time.

He handed me a can of lemonade. “I guessed you’d forgotten about the drinks, so I got them myself. Where’d you disappear to?”

“Toilet.” I didn’t elaborate. Technically, I wasn’t even lying.

From behind Tim, I saw Karen Martin approaching with a bowl of punch. I was about to get out of her way when she ‘tripped’ and ‘accidentally’ poured litres of the sticky juice all over me. My face, my hair, and my clothes were soaked.

I guessed she’d recognised me.

“Oh,” she said pointedly. “Sorry!”

Now, I know I should have let it go, but I have quite an argumentative nature. Basically, that’s what makes me me.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I know you didn’t mean to spill it everywhere, especially seeing as you’re going to have to scrub it out of the carpet. What with you being the cleaner and all.” For someone with no money, possessions, status, or discernable life skills, I can do quite a good impression of a snob.

“At least I have a job,” she said.

“Oh, I do too, actually. I work for the top security company in Australia now. They even provide their employees with a car. A good one.”

I could see the anger boiling up inside her. “James offered to buy me a car, actually. As a Christmas bonus. I said no, though. I get paid plenty to buy one for myself if I wanted, but I’m not that superficial.”

“Yes, I can tell from your hairstyle that you don’t really care about outward appearances.” Not that I could talk. I hoped she wouldn’t call me out on my outfit.

“My job is very satisfying,” she said, a little too defensively.

“Really? I would have thought you were a bit old for James to want to satisfy you. Aren’t you, like, forty?”

Now there was smoke coming out her ears. “You little bitch. You have no right to be here. You ruined my brother’s marriage and James hates you. You’re pathetic.”

“Well, as much as I wish it was, it’s not their funeral, or yours, so I’m going to stay right here and pay my respects.” I gestured to the wet patch of floor around my feet. “You better get to cleaning before it stains.”

“This stuck up attitude doesn’t suit you,” she said. “My brother was your boss for five years. You’re not better than me.”

“Would you prefer if I was openly aggressive?”

“Yeah. Why don’t you smash up my car like you did to James?”

“Well,” I replied coolly, “I would, but it by the looks of it, someone got there before me.”

It was at this point that she took a swing at me. Luckily, Sharps caught her arm before it made contact. Now, normally I wouldn’t have said that Karen Martin was a big threat, but there was a lot of anger behind that punch, so, as you could imagine, I was a bit relieved when it didn’t land.

Sharps led her away, trying to calm her down. Now that the excitement was over, the crowd that had congregated during the argument dispersed and got back to partying.

I guess that alcohol shortens people’s attention spans.

“Got something against their family?” inquired a voice behind me. I turned to face James McKenzie. He was gripping the doorframe for support (again) and grinning.

“I think it’s more that they don’t like me. And it’s not funny.”

“Of course not.” He was still smiling.

“It isn’t!”

“Calm down, sweetie. I’m only happy ’cause I’m a little tipsy,” he explained.

“Really? You’re tipsy? I had no idea.”

“I see you took a punch,” he said, looking way too pleased with himself. It was a decent pun, but I didn’t want to show that I was amused.

“I took a whole bowl of it. My clothes are probably ruined.”

“No great loss.”

“Thanks for the confidence boost.”

“To be honest, sweetie, I’m surprised your mum let you come out dressed like that. Not that it isn’t a totally functional outfit, and I know it’s not my place to tell you what to wear, but I kind of wish you’d worn that pink polka-dot dress with the puffy skirt.”

“You mean the one I had when I was three?”

“Yeah. You looked hot in it.”

“That’s a little creepy. And anyway, I don’t care what people think of my clothes. Also stop looking down the front of my shirt.”

“It’s a nice view from here.”

Jeez, I thought. Make up your mind. “Earlier you said there was nothing there to look at.”

“Discredit anything that comes out of my mouth when I’m sober. I only say it to annoy you.”

“I think I like you better when you’re drunk,” I told him. And it was true. I did.

“What?” he pretended to be surprised. “You don’t like me normally?”

“Man, you’re so good at figuring things out, you should join the police force.”

“I tried, but they don’t want me.”

“Well neither do I, so stop looking down my shirt.”

We fell silent for a while. I broke the lull – if you could call it that (the background noises of the party weren’t exactly peaceful) – by stating the obvious.

“This place is going to be trashed in the morning.”

“Yeah. Karen and I’ll probably clean it up tomorrow – well, when I get over my hangover.”

I laughed. “Starting work on Wednesday, then.”

He laughed too. “If I’m lucky.”

“She’ll probably be all done by the time you stop heaving your guts up.”

“She’s a good housekeeper,” he said.

“She’s a bitch,” I contradicted.

“You’re just biased.”

“I don’t like her.”

“I know. That’s what I meant.”

“Her haircut’s shocking.”

“So are your clothes,” he countered.

“Yeah, but I’m not trying to impress anyone.”

“And she is?” Like he didn’t know she had a massive crush on him.

“Hate to break up the party, you two,” said Sharps, “But I think it’s time for us to leave, Charlie.”

“OK,” I answered.

“And I think you should go speak to your housekeeper, James. Maybe talk her out of killing Charlie. And hit on her a little,” he added.

James looked surprised but not unhappy.

“I’m on my way,” he said, and stumbled off into the crowd.

“Reckon he’ll pass out before he reaches Karen?” asked Sharps.

“Well, normally seeing a person in that state I would say yes, but James McKenzie, with the prospect of flirting? I’d guess he’s gonna make it.”

He laughed. “Well, we better leave quickly just in case he doesn’t and Karen chases us out with an axe.”

“Good idea,” I said.

“And speaking of attacking people with tools,” he began, “Did you really take to McKenzie’s car with a wrecking bar? I’ve heard two people mention it today.”

I took a deep breath. “Yes, I did, and yes, I wrote it off. No, James was not in the car. No, I was not on drugs. Yes, I had a reason – it was during a bad patch of my life. No, I have no idea how I managed it when I had a broken leg at the time. No, I wasn’t arrested for it. Yes, James has it on DVD and I’m sure he will lend it to if you ask him. Why don’t you invite all the B-Co boys around for a viewing? Hell, why not order some pizza? And maybe afterwards you can sit around and talk about it. Rate it out of five stars. Send it into The Funniest Home Video Show, list it on IMDB, upload it to YouTube. Hey, he’s probably got a full collection of embarrassing videos of me. You should ask him about that. It would probably be really amusing for you.”

Sharps was giving me a kind of stunned look.

“What?” I demanded.

He still looked shocked as he said slowly, “A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer would have done.”

I was fuming, as you could probably tell. (I was kind of sick of people bringing up that story.)

“Although, I like the idea of that movie night.”

I gave him the Evil Eye.

“Kidding!” he said.

By this time we had reached the car. As I was doing up my seatbelt, I could have sworn I heard Tim mumble, “And I thought I had issues,” but when I asked him he denied having said anything.

Tim parked outside my house and walked me to the door. I was about to go inside when Violet threw the door open.

“Hello,” she said to Tim, with a big smile. “Staying for dinner?”

“Well, I wasn’t planning –”

“Oh, come on! Janine even cleaned up yesterday. Don’t worry, you don’t have to suffer through her cooking, I’m here. Trust me, I’ll feed you well. In you come. What’s your name?” She grabbed his wrist and dragged him inside.

“Uh – Tim,” he said.

“Well, Tim, it’s good to meet you. And how do you know Charlie?”

“Er, we – we work together. Um, look, you don’t have to give me dinner. I – ”

Violet cut him off again. “So, where are you from? You’ve got quite a strong accent.”

“Um – America. Really, you don’t – ”

“ Well, I could have guessed that much. I meant more specifically, like from California or New York or… One of the other states.” A+ for geography there, Vi. “Here we are. Sit down,” she ordered. By this time we had reached the dining room.

“I – ” Tim protested.

“Would you just sit down!” she shrieked.

And he did. Fast.

“Vi,” I said, “I’m sure he has a home to go to.”

“Oh, Charlie, don’t be so rude. Look – he’s already sitting down.” Tim looked absolutely bewildered. She turned and called out, “Janine, make sure there’s enough plates for six. We’ve got a visitor.” She began to talk to herself as she wandered into the kitchen. “OK, so I’ll double the recipe. It says that it serves 12, but I want to make sure there’s enough for all of us.”

“Who’s that?” Tim asked, meaning Violet.

“Violet McKenzie,” I answered. “James’s mother.”

“You two have a long history together, don’t you?”

“You don’t even know the half of it.”

At that moment, Mum walked out of the kitchen. “And who’s our extra visitor?” She was asking him, but I answered anyway.

“He’s a male model from Scandinavia. Doesn’t speak a word of English,” I answered. I didn’t want mum to start trying to set us up.

“You know Scandinavia isn’t a country, right, Charlie? If you’re going to lie, at least do it properly.” Unlike Vi, my mother was actually quite good with geography.

Judging by Mum’s cool demeanour, I guessed the coffee had worn off. And, judging by the half-empty glass of wine in her hand, I guessed the alcohol had started to kick in.

That was when Lea entered the room.

“Oh, hi Tim!”

“Thank you, Lea,” said my mother. She turned back to Tim. “Hello Tim, I’m Janine. Pleased to meet you.”

They shook hands. Violet called out from the kitchen.

“Somebody should go and find Bruce.”

“I’ll go,” said Lea. “He’s out in the garage, polishing the Jag. I love that car. I mean really love it.” She grunted, and then everyone got very uncomfortable and she went out to the garage to find Bruce. Or stroke the car or something.

“She really likes cars,” Tim commented. “I wonder why she never got her licence.”

“Yeah,” I said, not taking in what he said. Then it clicked. “What did you just say?”

He frowned. “Didn’t you know? I thought she would have told you, since you let her drive your car.”

I kind of thought she would have, too.

Mum cut in at that point. “Your car? You mean my car! She isn’t supposed to drive? Didn’t you ask if she had her licence? You let her drive my car?” OK, I guess the alcohol hadn’t subdued her as much as I thought.

“Sorry, Mum, I’m not in the habit of asking people if they have their licence when they tell me they can drive.”

My mother looked horrified. “You let her drive my car! She could have crashed it! Anything could have happened!”

“Mum, I was in the car most of the time she was driving. She’s a better driver than I am!”

“That wouldn’t be hard,” she mumbled.

“Hey, considering the amount of times you’ve crashed I really don’t think you should – ”

“Don’t you start on me, Little Miss Car Whisperer.”

“At least I don’t do off road racing for fun!”

“Neither do I,” she said indignantly. “I just have a passion for country scenery. I don’t have to apologise that.”

“Oh, whatever,” I retorted. “I know that your book club is just a front for the 4WD racing cult you belong to. I’m not stupid.”

“It is not a cult. And besides, you – ”

“I hate to interrupt,” said Violet, who had apparently emerged from the kitchen at some point during our argument. “I know how fond you both are of a good quarrel, but we have a guest. And if I were him, I’d be scared after seeing that. Honestly, I don’t know how Bruce puts up with you two sometimes.”

“He does enough of the silent thing to make up for the both of us,” Mum said.

“Well, the way I see it is that we do enough of the loud thing to make up for him being so quiet,” I said, “But I suppose it means the same thing.”

An hour later, the six of us were seated around the dinner table tucking into some elaborate pasta dish. When Tim excused himself from the table use the toilet, Mum gave him directions for the upstairs bathroom. When he was safely out of earshot I spoke.

“Why didn’t you just tell him to go to the one at the end of the hallway?” I asked her.

“Because we need time to talk about him. Now, first things first: how well do you know him? Why did you bring him home with you?”

I sighed. “We met on Friday. I didn’t ‘bring him home’; he was just dropping me off. Violet ambushed him and scared him into staying. To tell the truth I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he climbed out the bathroom window to escape. I’m amazed Lea hasn’t left yet.”

Lea looked shocked. “Oh, this is nothing compared to dinner with Jeremy’s family. Like, I’m not saying you would be bad if I didn’t have that margin of comparison. You guys are great.” I suspected the reason she stayed had a little more to do with the Jag than the company, but I didn’t say anything.

“So,” Violet asked, “are all the guys at Baxter & Co. as hot as him?”

“Um,” I didn’t quite know how to answer that. “Some of them.” I’d only met three. Harry Baxter didn’t especially float my boat, but Impolite Young Man from the car park? Damn.

“Does that mean we’ll be having another one for dinner tomorrow night?” Mum asked.

“Well,” I said, “that all depends if Violet takes another one hostage, I guess.”

Tim came back in then and everyone shut up instantly. He raised an eyebrow. Damn it. It seemed like everyone could raise one eyebrow except for me. Perhaps I should grow a mono-brow, I thought. Then I could raise one eyebrow. Unfortunately, I wasn’t born with a natural tendency towards mono-browism, so I would probably find it difficult to grow one. Also, the disadvantages of the mono-brow seemed to outweigh the positives.

He sat down next to me and leaned over to whisper in my ear. “I heard the whole conversation. I found the downstairs bathroom.”

“Do you enjoy eavesdropping?” I whispered back.

“Would I do it for a job if I didn’t?” he asked.

“Fair point.”

“Actually, I was kinda disappointed. You made it sound as though you didn’t want me to come home with you. I liked the part about me being hot, though. I’ll have to tell James that his mother has a crush on me.”

That got me smiling. “Yeah, but she might change her mind if she kidnaps someone else tomorrow.”

Tim frowned. “Who else are you going to bring home? Adam? Somehow I don’t know that he would actually stay for dinner.”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “She used to be nicknamed Violent Violet. I reckon she could probably make him stay.”

I could tell that amused him. “Maybe you should tell Adam about her, honey. B-Co suffers from a chronic shortage of middle aged female assassins.”

“Violet would kill you if she heard you say that.”

He raised one eyebrow. Show-off. “She’d kill me for calling her an assassin? That’s logical.”

I snorted. “No, she’d kill you for calling her a middle aged woman, you dork.”

He smiled. “Either way, I doubt she’d actually kill me. I mean, I know she’s probably capable, but what with her crush on me and everything…”

I laughed. By this time, our plates had been cleared away and dessert was set out on the table. It was a pineapple upside-down cake. Yum.

Tim passed on the dessert. I noticed he’d also passed on the beer/wine he’d been offered. I’d passed on the alcohol also, because I didn’t drink, but I definitely didn’t pass on dessert. Mmm. Pineapple upside-down cake with whipped coconut cream. What was the point of existing if you didn’t eat dessert? I suppose you’ve gotta work for a body like Tim’s.

I remembered fitness program and immediately felt sick. I guess it must have shown on my face because Tim looked at me and said, “You thinking about exercise again, honey?”

It amazed me. I’d only met him on Friday, and already he knew me better than most of my school friends. I guess I wasn’t all that enigmatic. Maybe I just related better to guys than to women. It made sense, considering my three best friends when I was little had been male. Although I’d driven them all insane. My brother had run away, Will had ended up on drugs and now James McKenzie was accused of murder. I guess this was another one of those things my conscience should have done something about. You there, conscience? Hello?

Silence. My conscience was asleep.

I walked Tim to the door when he left that night. Due to the fact that it was nearly summer, the sun was still up and I could watch him as he walked away. He had a really nice…

Car.

Chapter Eight

 

It took a few moments of dazed confusion for me to realise what was going on. What was that noise? Where was I? Then I remembered: I was in bed and that was my alarm clock. I checked the readout. 7:00 a.m. I looked at my wall clock. No, my alarm wasn’t malfunctioning – it really was seven.

Time to get up, my head said. Any second now.

But my body wasn’t feeling cooperative. It reckoned it needed a few more hours of sleep.

You can have a few hours of rest, said my mind. When you get to the office.

Grudgingly, my body gave in. I rolled out of bed and whacked my head on the bedside table. At least it was on my scalp – no one would see the bruise that way. And the one on my face was virtually gone.

I grabbed some clothes and crawled down the hallway to the bathroom. I knocked on the door and when nobody answered I reached up and turned the handle (yes, I reached up – I had literally crawled to the bathroom).

Whilst under the spray of the shower I became semi-alert, and after about half an hour of shower time I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to fall asleep again. The reason my alarm had rung so early was because I’d decided to follow Tim’s advice and get to work a bit before I was meant to start. It seemed like a good idea, seeing as I was going to meet Adam Baxter today and I wanted to make a good first impression and all that.

By the time I’d made it down to the kitchen, wearing a white blouse and a black tailored skirt suit that used to belong to my mother, I could probably pass for conscious. I wondered what I was going to look like at 6:00 tomorrow morning for my exercise class. Eek. I’d gone for the professional look again today, wearing my black-rimmed glasses and tying my hair back in a neat, low, side-parted ponytail.

I glanced at my watch and realised that at the rate I was going, turning up on time was unlikely, let alone getting there early, so I skipped breakfast, shoved my wallet in my handbag and hightailed to the door in panic. I ran as far as the mailbox before realising how much of an idiot I must have looked. I chose not to care, and decided to get a taste of what jogging to the gym tomorrow was going to feel like. By the end of the block I had a pretty good idea. It was going to hurt.

I managed to make it to the office by eight thirty through a combination of power walking, sprinting, raw determination and bravery. (The bravery was when I had jumped fences to cut through people’s yards despite the Beware-of-Large-and-Vicious-Dog signs, and when I ran through the middle of heavy traffic and in front of a semi-trailer whose driver had no idea I was there.)

I took a couple of deep breaths that had nothing to do with being puffed and walked up to the front door. I turned the handle and – nothing. It didn’t open. I tried again. Damn. How the hell was I expected to get in there when it was locked? I went to try again and a voice said, “Turn that again and you’ll set the alarm off.” I was pretty sure it wasn’t my common sense talking, partly because my common sense didn’t visit very often, and partly because when it did visit, it didn’t have a man’s voice. So I turned around to see who was talking to me.

I was right. It wasn’t my common sense. It was Impolite Young Man, wearing faded jeans, a loose-fitting dark blue T-shirt, a peak cap, a pair of blue All-Stars, and a frown (on his beautiful, beautiful face). I chose to see this as a sign that he was surprised that I had turned up so early and not that he was startled by my morning zombie state.

That was until he said, “There’s a coffee machine in the hall inside. You look like you could use it.” Guess I wasn’t looking quite as awake as I had hoped. You’d think my cross-country expedition would have done something for that, but you should never underestimate the power of getting me up earlier than ten. My face at this time of the day would scare the bravest of men. “At least you’re here early. It’ll give me a chance to run through some things with you before you need to get to work.”

Hold on, wasn’t Adam Baxter supposed to be showing me around? Unless… Oh, dear god.

So much for making a good first impression.

“Adam Baxter,” he said, introducing himself.

“Charlie Davies,” I answered.

“I know.”

He handed me a card and nodded towards the intercom panel on the right-hand side of the door. I took this as a signal to swipe it. I punched in the code he gave me and there was a little beepy noise and a click. I turned the door handle again and this time it opened. Phew.

I stepped inside and, of course, tripped. Adam grabbed me before I fell, and I was going to thank him but his facial expression stopped me. He was looking at me like I was a poo and he’d found me somewhere he wasn’t expecting. “Do you always fall over or do you just do it to impress me?” Wow. What he made up for in looks he seriously lacked in personality.

“Hate to disappoint you, but I do it a lot – even when you’re not around,” I said, angry but trying to put on a façade of pleasantness.

“Oh good. You’ll fit right in around here.” The sarcasm was strong with this one. He shut the door behind him and I heard it lock automatically.

“Do you remember the code?”

I said it back to him.

“Good.” Yay! Positive feedback! Maybe I was growing on him! Like a fungus!

We walked behind my desk. Holy crap. The ‘in’ tray was full and my desk was covered with files, envelopes, and other work for me. “Will it be like this every Monday?” I asked dazedly, gesturing towards the mess on my desk.

“Probably not. For the last month we’ve had no one to do this work for us, so people were supposed to do their own. This is probably all the work they’ve had sitting around their offices that they’ve been avoiding.

“When you’re working your way through this, it’s best if you do anything marked ‘Urgent’ first, then open mail. After that just prioritise it in whatever way seems logical.” OK, so do anything for Harry and Adam first, then anything for Tim, I decided. They were definitely the three most important employees I’d met. Also the only ones. I planned to make two copies of anything I did for Tim, just in case it was connected to McKenzie.

“OK,” he continued. “Sit down and I’ll tell you about Baxter & Co.” I took a seat behind the desk. It was the first chance I had to really look around since they’d installed all the new equipment.

There was a brand-new iMac on my desk, which I guessed was connected to the new printer/scanner/photocopier/I-don’t-know-what-else that sat to the left of it. I pulled out the little ledge of the desk that was designed for holding the computer keyboard and had a mild panic attack. I don’t know what it was on that ledge, but it certainly wasn’t a keyboard. OK, so maybe it was, but it wasn’t designed for an office. It was designed for NASA’s control room. I didn’t know how they expected me to be able to use it.

A cordless telephone sat to my right. It looked like a normal phone, but there were a few extra buttons. It wasn’t too scary, I decided.

There was also another chair off to the side. Swivel chair. I guessed it was for clients and workmates and anyone else who might come to visit me.

And, last but not least, there were new Venetian blinds on my window. Ah, the homey touch.

Adam took the spare chair and rolled it over next to me, sitting down. He began to speak. “Baxter & Co. is a security and investigation company now in operation for over 35 years. It was founded by my father, Harry Baxter. It started out here in Gerongate. We now have branches in all of Australia’s major cities, as well as a couple in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.”

“I guess there’s not much call for one in Antarctica.”

No response. Note to self: gorgeous genius has no time for humour. “We’re still expanding. Controlling quality is hard. That’s why we make things difficult for people who want us to employ them.”

“I got my job pretty easy.”

“It’s keeping it that’s the hard bit. The fitness program is what most people find hardest, but it’s necessary.”

“To weed out the people that aren’t committed enough?” I guessed.

“Partly that,” he answered. “And partly because it really is necessary to be as fit as possible. We do a lot of dangerous work. Fighting and running are necessary skills.”

“But I’m admin,” is what I said aloud, but my tone said, This doesn’t apply to me. I don’t know what I was hoping for. Whining doesn’t usually get you out of things you don’t want to do. It just kind of annoys everyone. Including yourself.

“Yep. And you’ll probably be asked to help out with a lot of odd jobs around the place. We don’t have as many women working here as we’d like and those we do are flat out. That means that you will be, too.

“You’ll probably get dragged away from the office from time-to-time. The guys will have to get clearance from my father or me before they take you out of work. And you get paid for whatever work you do.”

“So, if someone doesn’t keep up with their workload I guess they’re axed?”

“Yeah.”

“Say I didn’t get through all these papers today…”

“Judging by the amount of work you got through on Friday, I’d say you’re more than capable of completing this.” And judging by what he did on Friday, I’d say that he’s more than capable of killing someone. But it’s best not to dwell on the past. Plus, that was another compliment! Kind of!

“So, do people just come in and drop work off whenever they want?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I thought for a moment. “How do clients get into the building?”

“When you’re not around, they talk to the guys in the control room through the intercom.” I worked somewhere with a control room? What was this, a dodgy sci-fi movie? “Otherwise, it’s your job. Not just anyone can walk in here. They have to have an appointment booked. Again, that’s your responsibility.”

He booted up the computer. While it was warming up he talked me through the keyboard.

“OK,” he said, “this part here is the normal keyboard, got that?” I nodded. I think he was intending that to be patronising, but I was clinging to his every word. Normal. Keyboard. “This little extra bit off to the side is the intercom panel that connects to the one outside. That’s where you slide your card and punch in your code to let people in or to log onto the computer. Some programs will also require you to swipe and code again. It’s the same code as the entry code. Right?” I nodded. So far, so good. “When someone buzzes, the picture for the intercom comes up on your computer screen, so you can see who’s outside. Hit this to let them in.” I nodded again. “So you feel confident with the keyboard now?”

“Yeah.” About as confident as a four year old driving a Ferrari.

Actually, scratch that. I felt about as confident as the parents watching their four year old drive the Ferrari.

“Good. Now with the files, there are a few things you could be asked to do. Some will be closed cases and they’ll just need filing away. Others will be research files. You might need to run names, photos, symbols, businesses and stuff through the system. The folder might tell you what program to use or you may have to run things through all programs. You print out everything you find, add it to the folder and put the file in the out-tray.

“Now the phone.” He reached over and picked it up. “Pretty straight forward. If someone rings, press the green button. The red one ends the call. When someone calls wanting to talk to someone specific, like me, press this button and it puts the caller on hold as well as bringing up an alphabetical list of all employees on the screen. You use the arrows to scroll down, and when you get to the name you want (in this case mine) you press this button. Then you tell me who it is, like, ‘Adam, it’s some hysterical lady wanting you to kill her husband’,” – because naturally that’s the first example that comes to mind – “and you press this button to put me through to her. Every office has an individual phone number so if the person wants to talk to us they’ll generally just call us specifically. However, it’s your number listed in the phone book, so you’ll get most of the calls.”

“OK.” I paused. “What if I just want to call someone else in the office to ask a question or something?”

“Just press the same button you press to find their name when they have a caller. After you speak to them, just hang up and that’s it. OK, now to the computer.”

By the time Adam left (9:45) I was pretty sure I knew what to do. I could run names and photos and stuff through all the programs. I could send messages to other staff members. I could open letters. I could enter appointments on the computer so that everyone (including the guys in the control room) knew who was coming, when, and why.

I went through my in-tray and the files strewn all over my desk and filed away the completed cases. I opened mail and entered appointments. I had to call Adam to ask what to do about a letter that wanted to send a Baxter & Co. representative to a meeting. He said he’d deal with letters like that and to send him a copy via the message program on the computer. After completing that I prioritised the cases. Three were for Harry, four were for Adam and one was for Tim. I left the rest mixed-up because I didn’t know any of them. I had just started the second search for Harry when a pop-up appeared on my computer screen. It was the visual for my intercom system. James McKenzie.

I unlocked the door. As soon as he opened it, my mouth started watering. Not at him, if that’s what you were thinking. There was no mistaking the smell of the big, fatty, hangover-cure breakfast. McKenzie stumbled through the doorway carrying a paper bag with grease-spots in one hand and a takeaway cup in the other. It smelled good, and I hadn’t eaten all day. I licked my lips.

James caught me doing th at and raised an eyebrow (was I the only one in the world who couldn’t?) but then he put the pieces together.

“You didn’t have breakfast.”

“How could you tell?”

“You were either licking you lips at me or my breakfast and my luck hasn’t been that good lately.”

“Well, you’re right. I’m hungry.”

“Want a hash brown?”

“It poisoned?”

He looked wounded. “Just being friendly.”

“Just being cautious, what with your reputation and all,” I responded.

He didn’t look happy at that. “I’m not a murderer.”

He looked like crap. Too much alcohol and not enough sleep was my guess. I actually found myself feeling sorry for him for a second. Kind of. No, that was stupid. He didn’t need my sympathy. I, on the other hand, did need breakfast.

“Is the hash brown still on offer?”

James smiled and sat down on the chair next to me, where Adam had been sitting earlier. He opened the bag, took out the box of hash browns and handed me one. I don’t think I’d liked him that much in the last 15 years. Well, he was OK when he was drunk, but that hardly counted. He was in danger of being kicked out of my ‘Worst Enemy’ position and being replaced by Jeremy or Karen Martin. In fact, maybe they’d replaced him already.

I tucked into the hash brown. It was good, but I wanted more. I glanced at McKenzie. He was drinking his iced coffee (if I knew him at all, made on soy with a pump of hazelnut) through the plastic straw. He looked at me, then at the cup, then at me again. With a sigh, he handed me the drink. I hesitated for a moment and then took it. So shoot me, I was thirsty.

I took a sip. Yum.

“Soy iced coffee with hazelnut?”

“You know me too well.”

Normally I didn’t like coffee, but in this? Perfection.

“Did you drive here?” I asked him.

“No, Karen dropped me off. Why’s that?”

“Well, you just don’t look fit to drive.”

He frowned. “Uncharacteristic of you to be concerned about my safety.”

“I was more worried about the other people on the road.” He smiled at that, an ‘I-should-have-known’ smile. “What are you here for, anyway?” I asked.

“I need to talk to Tim.”

“Oh. D’you want me to send him a message?” I asked, gesturing towards the computer.

“Yeah, thanks.”

I went into the message program and clicked on Tim’s name.

James is here to see you – waiting at my desk.

I sent it and ten seconds later I got one back.

Thanks honey. Be right there.

Hurry, looks like he might pass out if you leave it too long.

James gave me another hash brown and I drank some more of his coffee. A minute later Tim arrived.

“Morning, honey. And you too, Charlie,” said Tim. I smiled at him and he winked back. He turned to James. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yeah,” answered McKenzie. “Karen’s cleaning up my uncle’s house today and reckons I’ll just get in her way if I try to help. I don’t have anything else to do, so I thought I’d come visit, see if you found anything in those newspapers.” Those newspapers, huh? The ones I’d seen Tim with yesterday? I was going to have to try to find out more about this.

“Come down to my office, James. I’ll give you an update there,” said Tim.

“Not willing to do it in front of me?”

“Using my information would be cheating,” he teased. They left, James leaving his coffee with me.

Great. So there were potential clues in some newspapers. I didn’t know what clues. I didn’t know what newspapers. What now?

I got back to work.

Now that I’d eaten and drunk something I felt a bit better. It really was a good iced coffee. If I’d had one of these, I wouldn’t share it with anyone, let alone my worst enemy. It wasn’t like I had been particularly nice to him. So what was he up to with this ‘nice guy’ act?

OK, I admit it; I have a very suspicious nature. People can’t be nice to me without me thinking that they’re up to something. What did McKenzie want? To soften me up on the deal?

I guess this goes to show something. If you asked me to sum myself up in three traits, I would say: ‘no’. But if I actually had to do it, I would probably say: argumentative, under-active conscience, and suspicious. After that would follow clumsy, lazy, pessimistic and many other negative and unflattering adjectives. About my only positive trait is my honesty, and I only ever seem to use that when it’s inappropriate. Like when someone asks, ‘How do I look?’ (Spoiler alert: they don’t really want to know the answer.)

By lunchtime, I’d had about 500 phone calls and I’d booked them all in on the computer, I’d let a bunch of people in for appointments, and I’d made it through about half of the files (making two copies of all Tim’s info). I’d also, sadly, finished the soy coffee.

I was doing work for some guy named Panther when Sharps came back. With food.

“Where’s James?”

“Went out the back way,” he answered. “How you doin’?”

“Hungry.”

He handed me one of his subs. I opened the wrapper to see what was on it. Fancy-looking salad with hummus. I took a bite. This was a good sub. It had proper lettuce leaves on it – like, not just soggy iceberg; this had rocket and baby spinach and that purple one you only get in top quality salads. “I got it from the cafeteria next door.”

“There’s a cafeteria?”

“Yeah. It’s joined onto the gym.”

“Is it a private gym or can anyone use it?”

“Private. The cafeteria’s private, too. All healthy food, unfortunately.” He’d answered my next two questions without me having to ask. “Do you know what’s going on with your exercise yet?”

Shit. And I’d almost forgotten about it. “No. I forgot to ask Adam this morning,” I lied. I hadn’t forgotten. I’d avoided the topic.

“Well I’ll have to remind him then. You’re not getting out of it.” Gee, thanks Tim. Thanks a heap.

“How nice of you.”

“Yeah.”

I tried to change the subject. “Would you like some money for this?” I nodded at the sub.

“Nah. You can buy me lunch sometime.”

“I don’t know where to go.”

He smiled. “It’s a date.”

“Another date already?” It just slipped out. Really.

He laughed.

“What can I say? I enjoyed our last one.” He took a few more bites of his sub before growing serious. “Charlie… You know how I didn’t dob you in for reading confidential files?”

Oh, shit. “Yes?”

“And you were so grateful about that.”

“Yes?” I answered hesitantly.

“Well, I need a hand with a job after work this afternoon. Nothing hard, just talking to a guy in a pub. I just need to keep him out of the way while I search his office.”

“Is that legal?”

“Talking to a guy in a pub?”

“No, searching –” He cut me off.

“From what I’ve heard about you, Charlie, you don’t worry too much about the law. What’s the big deal?”

He had a point.

“It was just a question.”

“See ya, honey.”

“Tim –”

The door swung shut behind him.

 

  • * *

 

Adam came to visit me at 3:30.

“OK. You begin fitness training tomorrow at 6 a.m. Someone will pick you up from your house at that time. Be ready. The basic outline of your program is this: first, you and your and trainer jog down here from your house. If it takes you any longer than an hour to get here, you’ll be doing cardio drills on the treadmill and exercise bike.”

“An hour!” It had taken me longer than that to get here this morning and I’d cut out about a kilometre by jumping through people’s yards.

“Yes. Next week it will be 55 minutes. Now, should you arrive early, you’ll do some yoga, Pilates or stretching until seven, at which time you’ll start strength and resistance training. That will involve weights, squats, crunches, push-ups – circuit training, you know the deal.” Sure I did. Cough. It involved circuits and stuff. “You do that for 30 minutes. At seven thirty you start self-defence and do that until eight. You have from eight until nine to eat breakfast, have a shower and get to your office.

“We have ladies’ showers and toilet facilities and a cafeteria at the gym. Any food you buy will go on a tab and it will get taken out of your pay.

“Tomorrow at 6 you will need to be ready in a tracksuit, or other suitable clothes, and joggers. You will need to bring work clothes and a bathroom bag for the showers. There are lockers in the showers you’ll be able to use. You can leave your toiletries in there if you want.

“You’ll be doing exercise five days a week as a compulsory element of your contract, however as a member of staff you’re welcome to use the gym at any time.” Unlikely. I wasn’t going to spend any more time there than necessary. “The gym facilities are private, so only our workers are allowed to use them. You don’t have to pay for membership. Any questions?”

Wow. Someone had given that speech a few times. He spoke so quickly that I had to concentrate hard to understand what he was saying. Especially with the added distraction of that face. Ah, that face. The stuff of both my dreams and nightmares.

“Will I have one constant trainer or does it rotate?”

“It rotates. Different people have different methods of teaching and we like you to get a wide range of role models.” Role models? Sure, whatever. Pretty sure my role models weren’t going to be people who exercised.

“OK.” Great. It meant I was going to get embarrassed in front of a diverse array of people.

“Anything else? General questions?”

“Do I have a lunch hour?”

“One until two. Your calls all get diverted to someone else during that time.”

“Oh.” I was wondering why I had that big blank patch with no calls. “Another question. Why weren’t there already a phone and a computer and stuff in here when I came last week?”

“The last girl smashed them up.”

“Really? How?” The job was that bad?

“With a wrecking bar,” he said, completely straight-faced.

I went very still. That bastard, Tim, had told him about McKenzie’s car!

“Been talking to Tim, I see.” I tried to sound nonchalant. “Did he tell you anything else?”

“Yeah. He said he enjoyed having dinner at your house and I should watch out because you’re going to be taking me home next.”

I was going to kill Tim. Twice, just for added effect.

By 5 o’clock I’d finished the other half of the files and answered another 500 phone calls. Since it was time to go, I packed up my stuff (remembering my key card), ready to bolt out the door. Tim came down the corridor just as I was stepping out from behind my desk. He gave me a slow, evil smile.

“You wouldn’t be trying to sneak out on me now, would you honey?”

“Yes.”

He gave me another grin. “I admire your honesty, but it’s not gonna get you out of this. You don’t wanna back out on a deal with me, honey. I take deals seriously.”

“I don’t like the fact that you told Adam all those things that happened yesterday.”

“He appreciated it.” Did that mean he had a secret sense of humour?

Suddenly I had a frightening thought. “You didn’t actually ask James for that DVD of me smashing up his car, did you?”

“I’m not that bad.” Not exactly an answer, but I let it go, Elsa style.

I thought for a second, and then sighed. “What do you need me to do?”

“You just gotta distract an old guy for me. Nothing scary. I wouldn’t put you in danger.”

I snorted. “Bullshit.” I considered it for a moment. “Do I get paid?”

He gave me a nicer smile this time. “Yeah.”

“How much?”

He told me.

“Is what I’m wearing OK?”

[+ +
++]

[+ +
++]

Chapter Nine

 

Tim passed me a photo. We were sitting in his Porsche, parked across the road from a seedy pub. The sign read ‘ill’s Bar’. I think it was supposed to say ‘Bill’s Bar’ but the other letter appeared to have fallen off at some point. Still, since it was a cheap bar on Sump Street, the name ‘ill’ seemed quite fitting. And I was supposed to go in there and chat up some 50+ year old guy. Great.

I looked down at the photo.

“This is the target. I just need you to keep him occupied until I come in and bail you out. His name’s –”

“Larry Jones. I recognise him.”

“Yeah. Frank’s business partner. He’s a real asshole.” (I know it’s ‘arsehole’ in Australia, but it was ‘ass’ in Tim’s accent.) “But he hates James too, so you’ve got one thing in common.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“He likes his girls… Exotic. If you feel comfortable with it, faking an accent will probably hold his attention for longer.”

Hmm. This was going to be fun.

“One other thing, Tim. Why do you need me to distract him, anyway? If he’s left work for the day, surely he’ll just head home after this.”

He gave me a gentle punch on the shoulder. “Look at you, using your sleuthing skills. His wife divorced him recently. Took the house, among other things. He’s living at his office at the moment.”

“OK,” I said. “What nationality does he prefer?”

Tim smiled. “Go get ’em, tiger.”

I stepped into the pub and looked around, realising just how heavily I was in the minority here. Now, I’m not talking about being a female, although I was definitely outnumbered in that way as well. What I meant was I was probably the only one in there without a criminal record. That’s not to say I’d never done anything illegal, but at least I was smart enough not to get caught. I doubted anyone else in here could say that.

I made my way to the bar, well aware that everyone was watching me. This place was the Gregory’s Groceries of pubs. Afraid of change, living on illegal funds, and operating far below health regulations.

“Watcha want?” the barman demanded. He was an odd looking fellow, a fact that was not helped by his unfriendly manner. I was finding it difficult to decide whether he’d lost his teeth in pub brawls or whether they’d just rotted away due to neglect. His head was shaved bald, which seemed strange considering he had three day’s worth of beard growth on his face. I immediately got the impression that the majority of his brain cells had been killed off by liquor. This must have been especially detrimental to him as I doubted he’d had that many to start with.

I’d sooner scoop out my own eye with a spoon than accept a drink from him.

“I vant a drink. Vot else vould I come into a bar for?” I had no idea what accent it was, but I’d done it now. Time to commit.

“Waddid ya say?” He looked confused. He probably always looked like that.

“She said she wanted a drink,” came a voice from down the end of the bar. I looked to see who had said it. Yes! I’d struck gold.

Larry Jones was staring at me like he’d never seen a woman before. I guess Tim was right about the accent thing. Jones couldn’t take his eyes off me.

“Zank you,” I said to Jones. “I am glad zat somebody in zis room is culturally avare.”

He smiled. “What is it you want to drink?” he asked.

I pretended to think for a moment. Like I needed to think. Like I hadn’t decided the moment I walked in that there was no chance of me ever accepting a drink from that barman. “’Is stupidity ’as put me off my drink. I am zinking that per’aps I do not want to even stay in zis… zis… nesting room for cockroaches.” (Not my wittiest statement, I’ll admit, but I was pretending that English was my second language. Couldn’t be too quippy or people would get suspicious.) I turned and pretended that I was going to leave.

“Wait!” Larry called. I turned around and he continued in a slightly more composed manner. “Don’t go. I want to get to know you better.”

This was normally the part where I would have said, “I’m sorry, I don’t date anyone older than Tutankhamen” or “I don’t talk to strange men and, from what I’ve seen, they don’t come much stranger than you”, or even “I have to go, but could I offer you a lift back to the graveyard on my way?”. However, since this was a special occasion, I decided to give the old man a thrill and I sat one stool down from him.

“The name’s Jones,” he said. “Larry Jones.” Oh, try as you might, Larry, you’re never gonna be James Bond.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr Jones.”

He laughed in a way that made me feel sick, and said, “Really, the pleasure’s all mine. And please, call me Larry.”

I’d rather not call you at all, I thought. Why had Tim made me do this? Why had I agreed? This was not fun. This was creepy. “OK Larry, if zat is vot you vant. My name is Imaso.”

“Imaso?” he repeated.

“Yes. Imaso Pissedoffattim-ski.”

“Pretty name.”

Uh huh.

“Zank you.”

“So, Imaso,” he said, flashing me what he probably thought was a charming grin but really looked more like constipation. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from a foreign country.” Oh, good, that sounded legit. Why hadn’t I just told him I was a Nigerian prince looking to give him lots of money? “I’m having a gap year from school.” That bit was better.

“You speak very good English. What country is it that you come from?”

I picked a random country out of the air. “Euthanasia.”

It was only after I said it that I remembered “Euthanasia” wasn’t a country. He looked dumb enough not to notice that small mistake. I thought that maybe if I acted like that was what I meant to say, he would just ask some dumb question like “Which part of Asia is that?”, or maybe he hadn’t even heard what I said. Most of his attention seemed to be directed at my breasts.

“Euthanasia?” He looked confused. “I thought that was when you um, you…” He trailed off.

“Zat is a common misconception. People zink zat it is just a vord, a… What do you call it? A euphemism. Zey don’t realise zat vord comes from ze name of our country. You know vhy it is named after our country? I tell you. It is because in our country, homicide is legal. You don’t like someone? Easy. Bang and zey are dead. Nobody in Euthanasia does anything wrong by anybody else, because they know what the consequence will be.” How soon could I get an appointment with my psychologist, I wondered? Surely she wouldn’t mind if I called her out of hours with this sort of mental emergency.

“Really?”

“One ’undred percent.” Yes, one hundred percent lies.

“Sorry for my ignorance, but you can really kill anyone you want in this country?” He seemed far too enthusiastic about this.

“Vell, obviously zere are some restrictions. I mean, you have to be 10 or older before you can kill anyone, and to kill anyone under ze age of five you must have zeir parents’ permission.” I blame my state of mind on my harsh upbringing. Which would be a better excuse if I’d actually had a harsh upbringing.

“Jeez, I know a few people I wouldn’t mind taking there,” he said.

“Who in particular?” I asked him.

“Well, I’m supposed to be meeting one of them here tonight. If you really want to know, you can stay and meet him.” Oh, how could I turn down an offer like that? Answer: quite easily. Plus I already had a sneaking suspicion of who this might be.

“I don’t know. I’m meeting someone ’ere too. It depends vot ’appens.”

He looked a bit put out. “Pity. We were getting along so well.” Mmm. It’s amazing how nice I can be when I’m getting paid for it. “Anyway,” he continued. “Tell me more about Euthanasia. It sounds like a fascinating country. Can anybody travel there?”

“Anybody. Just ask for a ticket at ze travel agency.” Yes. And watch them freak out when you try to give them a description of the place.

He groaned. “The person I’m meeting just walked in,” he explained. I was amazed that he’d actually noticed someone walk through the door. His eyes hadn’t moved from my chest. I was about to turn to see who Larry was talking about when his ‘friend’ pulled up the stool between Larry and me.

“James,” said Larry. “This is Imaso. I’m only introducing you as a formality, even though I’m sure she doesn’t want to know you.” And for once, he’d hit the nail right on the head.

“Larry vos just telling me ’ow ’e vanted to kill you,” I informed James. “I zink it would probably be best to use poison.” Larry nodded in agreement.

James raised his eyebrows. “Are you likely to act on this?” he asked Larry.

“It can be arranged.”

There was a long moment of silence.

Well, I was certainly feeling pretty sure of who my number one suspect for Frank’s murder was.

“Would you like a drink, James?” Larry asked. I wasn’t sure if that was a change of topic or not.

“I’d sooner chew off my arm than have a drink in this place.”

“And you, Imaso?”

“I’m fine, zankyou.”

Larry stood and wobbled down to the other end of the bar. When he was safely out of earshot, James spoke.

“I’m afraid you might have just given him an idea, Charlie. I think he just asked Bob to slip cyanide into my drink. That’s probably how a publican makes most of his income in a place like this.”

“All the people in here are giving you really foul looks. It’s embarrassing.” Like I cared about being embarrassed.

“I’ve arrested most of them before.”

“That explains it then. What are you doing here, anyway?” I asked. He’d only just gotten over his last hangover, and he was in another bar already. Alcoholic.

He looked like he was choosing his words carefully. Finally, he said: “Business deal.”

“Don’t sell,” I told him.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like him.”

“You don’t like me either,” he countered.

“I dislike him more.”

“Your reputation’s gonna be in tatters if that gets out.”

“It won’t get out.”

“As a rule, Charlie, how do you feel about men?”

“I don’t have a problem with men.” Just don’t get me started on the patriarchy. “I’m not gay, if that’s what you mean. Unfortunately, and somewhat inexplicably, I’m a fan of the penis.”

He snorted, amused. “How come you never date anyone, then?”

“I’ve had plenty of boyfriends.”

“I only remember one. That dude who really liked space ships. I used to call him Rocket Man.” He stopped to think. “He hated me.”

“Fancy that.”

“Who else have you dated?”

“Not telling.”

“Why?”

“After how you treated Rocket Ma – I mean Gerald?”

He laughed. “Were they all that bad?”

“Shut up.”

“Big sci-fi fans?” he guessed.

“Not funny.”

“Chess squad?”

“They were all very nice guys, James. You can’t judge someone based on what social group they were in at highschool.”

“Is that what you’re looking for in a life partner? A ‘nice guy’?”

I ignored him.

“How about your girlfriends?”

“What about them?” Like he didn’t know.

“Are you telling me you dated them because of their personalitites?”

“One of them used to be your best friend.”

OK, so I misled you a little. I kind of lied before when I said it was just Jo and me that became best friends on the second day of kindergarten. What actually happened was that Jo already had a best friend from the first day of school, and since they were nice they let me sit with them and swap lunches. The other girl was Celia Stanton.

The three of us stayed best friends until we were in Year 9. The reason we (Jo, me and all our other friends) stopped being pals with Celia was because of James McKenzie. Celia had never hated him like I had, but she’d never had a crush on him like the other girls, either. When she and James got together it caused a massive fight in our group. There were various reasons:

Other girls “But you’re not in love with him like us! Why did you agree to go out with him when you don’t even like him? You’re going to break his heart! (etc, etc).”

Me – “What the hell are you thinking?”

While this may seem like a pretty shallow kind of argument, we never made up with her. Even after she broke up with him and things should have gone back to normal, they didn’t. She stayed friends with McKenzie. (This was another thing I kind of held against him. He stole my most normal friend. Why couldn’t he have taken one of the weird ones?)

“Well, we’re not friends anymore, are we?”

“Would you have disowned any of your other friends if I dated them?”

“No.” He looked confused. “It’s complicated,” I explained.

“Yeah, it sounds complicated,” he agreed. “Although I’m sure your Nice Guy boyfriends would have understood.”

“No doubt.” I figured if I stopped biting, he might stop baiting.

“Why did you date those guys, Charlie? They don’t really seem to suit you.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business.”

“What would my chances be?” he asked.

“Pardon?”

“I got you a drink anyway, James,” Jones said, saving me from James’s question. “You have to learn not to be so fussy. A drink’s a drink as far as I’m concerned.” He plonked a glass (or, rather, a plastic) containing a brown, cloudy concoction on the bar in front of us.

Oh. James had been serious about the poisoning.

McKenzie didn’t make any move to pick up the drink.

“C’mon rich boy,” growled Larry. “We don’t got all day. Hurry up.”

“I thought I’d wait until the cyanide’s dissolved properly before drinking it,” James replied coolly. “Anyway, we’re here for business. So, no.”

“What?”

“My answer is no. I’m not selling or doing any deals with you, and if you continue to harass me, expect to get a letter from my solicitor.” Well, that was a hell of a way to do business.

It was then that I heard a familiar voice behind me.

“Hey James. ’Sup?” Tim asked.

I looked at my watch and gave an over-exaggerated start. “Oh no! I just remembered I’m supposed to be vorking tonight. I ’ave to go. It was so nice meeting you Larry. I could ’ave done without meeting you, James, but it was an experience anyway. Goodbye!” And I bolted out the door.

When I reached Tim’s car, I realised I’d left my handbag inside. Screw it, I thought. There was nothing in it I couldn’t replace. It was staying there. Wild horses couldn’t drag me back into the same room as Larry. He was creepy and definitely a dodgy businessman, plus my exit hadn’t exactly been smooth. He must have realised I was there to distract him. Also, there was the matter of the awkward conversation with –

“Don’t kill me,” said a voice behind me. “I’ve come with a peace offering.”

I was leaning on the roof of Tim’s (conveniently low) sports car, with my elbows resting on it and my head in my hands. I turned and looked at James. He was carrying my handbag.

“You better take it before I get too attached to it, Charlie.”

I smiled. I couldn’t help it. And that embarrassed me. And he knew that I was embarrassed. And that just embarrassed me more.

He grinned as he handed me the bag. “It’s not every day you smile at me, sweetie. Maybe my chances aren’t as bad as they used to be.”

“In your dreams.”

“Every night.”

That was when Tim interrupted. “I hate to butt in when you two are getting so chummy, ’cause I know it’s a rare occasion and all, but I have some very bad news, so if you’d kindly get your asses into the car, we can decide how we’re going to move next, because none of us wants James in jail.”

Yeah, I know it’s ‘arses’ and ‘gaol’. It’s the American thing again.

James and I both sat in the back of the car, partly because we were likely to have a fight if one of us got to sit in the front and the other didn’t (immature, yes, but we both knew it would happen), and partly because neither of us wanted to get any closer to Tim in his current pissed-off, revved-up state.

Tim pulled out of his park and began talking.

“OK, I’ll put it this way – if the police decide to search Larry’s office, you’re screwed. There is a lot of incriminating evidence on his computer relating to several murders. Including the contract for your uncle’s murder.”

“I thought ‘contract killing’ was just a turn of phrase. Surely writing up an actual contract is just asking to get caught?” How stupid was this guy?

“Not actual contracts, Charlie. But there’s a paper trail. There are emails on his computer with coded messages, plus corresponding large payments on his bank records to an offshore account. He’s tried to wipe the evidence but if I can find it, the police won’t have any trouble. You’re already a suspect. If the police find these, you’re doomed. Jones has done a really good job of screwing both of you over.”

“OK,” I said. “Let me get this straight. What this means is that Larry hired someone to kill not only Frank, but other people too?”

James looked a bit sick. “Why will I be screwed if they search the office?”

“These emails? They were sent from an old Hotmail account set up about five years ago.”

“And?”

“Well… The address started with your initials.

James just looked back blankly. “That’s hardly going to secure my conviction. It must be a set-up.”

“Andrews will roll with it though. Five years is a long time to plan a set-up, James, and that’s how long ago these emails started being sent. And seeing as your alibi is missing –”

“Hiking! She’s just out of range at the moment. She’ll be back soon.”

“Hiking, right. It just doesn’t look good.”

“I’m not stupid enough to set up an account with my initials in it to use as my special hit-man email account.”

“Hitmail, you mean?” I said. No one laughed. OK, so maybe it wasn’t the most appropriate time for puns. “Does that mean James has to keep the police away from the evidence in Larry’s office? Even though Larry’s clearly guilty?” I asked, trying to break the awkward silence I’d created. I don’t know why – I didn’t think the pun was that bad.

“Yes,” said Tim.

“Why don’t we just destroy it?”

“We can’t destroy evidence!” said James, ever the cop.

“But it’s been faked to set you up, hasn’t it?” I said. “That doesn’t count as destroying evidence. Not really.”

“It links Larry to the murders,” said Tim. “We can’t destroy it. We just need to find something that clears James before the police find it so they know it’s fake.”

“So for now, we just have to keep the police away.”

“Yes,” said Tim.

“How do you propose we do that?” asked James. “Hypnosis? Subliminal messages?”

“I think you’re gonna have to have another chat with Joe,” Tim said.

“No,” said James. “I can’t drag him into this again. He’s doing way too much for me already.”

“So Joe’s your guy on the inside,” I realised. Yeah, I said ‘guy on the inside’. This was starting to feel like a 70s cop drama.

“Yes,” said Tim.

“I’m not asking him to stay away from Jones’s office,” James told us.

“Then what was the point of me searching it?” asked Tim. “If the police go in there, that’s it. You’re done for. You can’t just refuse to ask for help.”

“You mean I just sat in the pub with that evil bastard for no reason?” I demanded.

“Well,” said James, “I wouldn’t say it was pointless. I bet it was a step up from dating a guy in the debating squad.”

“I never should have told you about my boyfriends,” I groaned.

“You didn’t,” James reminded me. “I guessed.”

“Whatever.”

“I formed a hypothesis, and upon testing it in the field I discovered that – ”

“Shut up!” I snapped.

“Sorry. I just thought that if I talked like that guy you met at that science forum –”

“You know about him?”

“Not until just then. I was guessing,” he said, trying (unsuccessfully) to hide a smirk. “But I bet he was pretty hot. Probably nearly as sexy as that dude who started the lunchtime book club in the school library.”

“He wasn’t that bad looking.”

“You dated him too?”

“No,” I said quickly.

“You did so,” he said grinning. “You’re a nerd groupie.”

That was when Tim spoke. “Hey, you called me a dork last night Charlie. Does that mean that you think I’m an eligible bachelor?”

This was beyond a joke.

“Um, don’t you two have more important things to do than rip off my ex-boyfriends? Like finding out who murdered your uncle, James? I don’t think that Jones seems smart enough to pull off a caper like that, framing you and all,” I said, desperate to get off the subject of my past (and future) boyfriends.

“Don’t try and change the topic,” said James. “Although I do agree with you that he’s not quite intelligent enough to set me up on his own. I don’t think he has the technical know-how to fake emails, either.”

“Assuming the email address is fake,” said Tim. James scowled at him. Tim caught sight of James in the mirror and added quickly: “And not just a coincidence.” Nice, Tim. Smooth.

James rolled his eyes and turned to me. “So did you ever date anyone in my grade?”

I thought for a moment. “So there’s someone else that hates James who’s killing these people for Larry, and they’ve thought of all this stuff. So they’ve masterminded an operation where even if Larry gets discovered, they’ll still be safe because James will take the rap for it and Larry will be too scared to turn them in.”

“I love how you talk about me as though I’m not here. And you didn’t answer my question, Charlie.” How did anyone find this guy charming?

“Why do you care?” I demanded. “What does it matter to you who I went out with?”

James’s face lit up. “I know! There was that guy in my grade who wore glasses. I bet you dated him.”

I gave him a foul look. “There is nothing wrong with wearing glasses.”

“I agree. But I don’t mean a guy who wore reading glasses. I’m talking about that dude that wore the star-shaped sunglasses around all the time and said they helped him see people’s auras. Remember him?”

That was when I lost it. “OK, I draw the line at that. Yes, I admit, I dated a lot of uncool people, but he was not one of them! I do have SOME standards!” I screamed at him.

We sat in silence for a minute. Tim was the first to speak. “James,” he said. “Charlie told me you had this DVD that I thought sounded interesting.”

“You two are so immature! James, you’re probably heading off to gaol soon and all you can talk about is my past relationships! And you, Tim, a second ago you were so pissed-off it was scary, and now you’re just stirring me up as well!”

“Well,” James reasoned. “They do say laughter is the best medicine.”

“Maybe we should talk through the case instead of wasting our energy with trivial information,” I countered.

“Why?” Tim asked. “You already talked it all through. We’re done.” He paused. “Do you want me to drop you off at your house, James?”

“Yes please.”

James’s house was on Madison Hill, two streets down from Frank’s house.

“Wow,” I whispered. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, but it still had the same effect on me. “James, that’s the house I want when I win the bet.”

He smiled at me and I panicked. Get a grip. I didn’t even want to start contemplating how straight his teeth were. Or how nice his face was. OK, so it was well-proportioned. Whatever. Like that mattered. Think about something else. Something boring. Like his legs. His tanned, shapely legs. Damn it! His arms, then. There was nothing attractive about arms. Except, you know, hugs and stuff. And those hands. Holding hands while walking down the beach at sunset, a string quartet playing softly in the background… Wait, what the fuck? I sounded like a tacky romance novel. Next thing I would be planning our spring wedding in his beautiful garden. And thinking that his rose-covered archway would be perfect for photos.

As I said, I told myself to get a grip before I started thinking those things, so they never even entered my mind. Cough.

“Well,” he responded, “I’m moving into my uncle’s house so I guess that’s an option. Although, that would mean we were only living two blocks away from each other and I’m not sure that would be wise.”

He had a point. “I promise I’d leave you alone.”

He smiled again. Luckily I still had a grip from the first smile. “I’ll think about it.” And with that he got out of the car and waltzed to his front door. He had a nice, uh, door.

When Tim pulled up in front of my house I invited him in for dinner. “Although I should warn you, I’m cooking so it’s probably best to decline.”

He laughed. “Thanks anyway, but I have to baby-sit my niece tonight. I’ll see you in the morning, all ready for exercise.”

I laughed. “See ya.”

“Sleep tight, honey.”

Lea and I joined forces to cook dinner that night. That was good, because then only the half I cooked was a disaster. She made some wonderful sauce with tomato and other stuff, so all I had to cook was the pasta. Ha.

The small table in the kitchen was covered with Frank McKenzie murder memorabilia, so instead we sat at the big table in the dining room. Dad was at one end, Mum was at the other, and Lea and I were sitting halfway up the table, directly across from each other. I could hear everyone crunching away at the pasta.

“The sauce is beautiful, Lea,” said Mum. She turned to me. “I’m assuming it was you who cooked, or, rather, didn’t cook, the pasta, Charlie?”

“Maybe I should have left the pot on for longer,” I answered. “I was just a bit worried it was going to burn.”

Mum gave me a look of disbelief. “Burn?” she repeated. “Didn’t you put water in?”

Shit. I knew I’d forgotten something.

 

  • * *

 

It was 8:30 and I was getting ready for bed (due to having an early start in the morning) when the phone rang. It was Jo Riley. Ah. I should have known I couldn’t avoid her for long.

“What’s this I hear about you quitting your job last week?” She didn’t give me a chance to answer. “It’s great news! There’s a heap of other weird rumours going around about you as well. I want to know everything!”

I took a deep breath and told her, right from the bit where I quit my job up until when McKenzie started my car. That was when she interrupted.

“You are kidding!” she squealed. “Oh, my god! How did he look? He isn’t the murderer is he? Is he? What was he wearing? What happened? Did you talk for very long? Oh wow. Oh wow!”

“Jo!” I said. “Keep your voice down! What if Os hears you? He probably thinks you’re over this whole thing.” Like that was ever going to happen.

“Oh, he’s not here at the moment. Anyway, keep going with your story.”

When I finally finished, there were a few seconds of stunned silence before she spoke. “So… You quit your job at a grocery store, and then the next day got a job at an international security agency, which means you now have to start a fitness plan, where you – you – have to work out with a personal trainer? And when you quit your job, your boss’s wife divorced him because of you. You then went to apologise to her, and instead of being angry with you, she thanked you, so you asked her to come and live with you. How am I going so far?”

“You’re pretty right.”

“Then, while you were driving back to pick her up after clearing it with your parents – cough you need a life cough – your car broke down in the middle of the road and the world’s sexiest guy had to start it for you.” Debateable. Like, James was up there, but Adam Baxter was definitely a contender. I didn’t want to tell her that, though. If she started stalking Adam it could only end badly. I didn’t think he’d be as easy-going about it as James. “Then you made a bet with him that you could find his uncle’s murderer – because even though you don’t like James you think he’s innocent – and you could end up going halves with your ex-boss’s ex-wife in 20 grand and a mansion. Still getting it right?”

“Yep.”

“Right. So then you went to James McKenzie’s uncle’s funeral, ran into a guy from work who’s investigating the same thing as you, lied to the cops, and found out that Joe Winton is helping dig James out of trouble. You then went to the wake, saw James drunk, liked him more, and got a bowl of punch tipped over you by his house-keeper-slash-your-ex-boss’s-sister who hates you. The guy from work saved you, and you took him home for dinner. Is he hot?”

“Yeah.”

“So he isn’t your type.”

“Ha ha.”

“So I’ve got it right for the moment?”

“More or less.”

“Right. Then today you found out that the guy you pulled the geriatric insults on is your new boss, or at least one of them, and you aren’t totally friendly towards each other, although, for once, you’re not in the wrong.”

“Thank you.” That’s what best friends are for, right? Backhanded compliments?

“And this afternoon you sat in a bar with an old dude and told him you were from a country called Euthanasia and then James came in to make a business deal with him and the old dude tried to poison him. Then you got rescued by the hot guy from work, and he drove you and James home, you talked through the case, and then they ripped you off about your boyfriends.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“So now if James turns out to be guilty, you don’t get anything out of the bet.”

“Pretty much.”

“Good thing he’s not guilty.”

“Yeah.”

“Also who the hell forgets to put water in when they cook pasta?”

Chapter Ten

 

I woke up screaming. There was a siren blaring somewhere very close to me. In all the excitement, I somehow slipped out of bed and hit the ground. By the time I stood up, I’d finally realised what was going on. It wasn’t a siren at all – it was my alarm clock screeching at me to get up. It was 5:30 a.m. and I was due for my two hours of torture.

I’d packed my bag last night, as I knew I wouldn’t be capable at this time of morning. I tugged my tracksuit on and laced up my shoes, making a half-arsed attempt to brush my hair, before giving up and forcing it back into a ponytail. What the hell, I thought. It’s too dark for anyone to see it anyway.

I grabbed my bag, headed down to the kitchen and screamed for the second time that morning at the sight of someone sitting at the table.

“Honey, when your hair looks like that, I should be the one screaming.”

“How did you get in here?” I asked.

Tim looked ready for exercise. He had the right clothes, the right body and the right attitude. I, on the other hand, was not ready, and I doubted I ever would be.

“Through the door,” he answered. Right. “Ready?”

I groaned inwardly. “Let’s get this over with,” I said.

We began to jog as soon as we got to the pavement. I made it easily to the end of the block. Well, I say “easily”. That might be an exaggeration. By the end of the second block I was puffing pretty heavily. At the end of the third block I collapsed against a fence. My lungs were on fire and it felt like I was having an asthma attack – which, considering I don’t have asthma, is really quite worrying. I sat down on the ground.

Tim groaned. “C’mon, honey. We have to make it there before seven or else you spend the next hour doing drills on the treadmill.”

“I can’t do this. I quit. Go. Leave me. This is too hard.”

He scowled and made a noise of disgust. “That is so pathetic. I thought you had more drive than that. I’ve never had to pick up anyone that hasn’t made it in an hour. Even that last bitch of a secretary didn’t complain about it. You’re such a hypochondriac.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I’m not a hypochondriac.” OK, so I was complaining, but I wasn’t pretending things were worse than they were. I really couldn’t run any further.

“Then get your fat ass off the ground and keep jogging!”

I scowled at him again. “You’re a real prick of a personal trainer.”

“You’re not even puffing! How can you say it’s too hard when you’re not even having trouble breathing?”

“I am having trouble breathing, you bastard!”

“Well if you put all the energy you’re using arguing with me into running, we might actually make it.”

I started to jog, mumbling things under my breath. After another block, mumbling as well as running became too hard so I just thought nasty things and hoped that Tim could read my mind.

I started to think about that conversation we’d just had. He said I had a fat arse. Did I? Well, it always had seemed a bit big. Maybe I did need more exercise. And I had become a bit chubby around the middle of late. Maybe he was right and I did need to get my ‘fat ass’ moving. I kept thinking these things and then realized I was starting to sound like my friends, so I stopped thinking about my weight. Kind of.

By now we were about a kilometre away from my parents’ house and I thought I was going to collapse.

“I need a break,” I wheezed. “Please. Pretty please with sugar on top. I can’t keep going. I’m not cut out for this. I’ve never been good at exercise. Ask anyone who knows me what I hate and you know what they’ll say? I hate exercise.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not – you need it.” What the hell was that supposed to mean?

Did he mean I was fat and needed to burn off weight by running? Did he mean I needed exercise so I could let off my extra energy (read: aggression) like my PE teachers in high school used to tell me? Or did he just mean I had to be fit to work at Baxter & Co.?

Spurred on by the mental image of my jiggly bum (that sounded like a Pokémon), I started running again.

By the time we’d made it two Ks, my vision was blurred (even with glasses on), my face was on fire, I was struggling to breathe, I was soaked in sweat and I felt like throwing up. I looked at Tim. He looked just like he had in the kitchen.

“Please can I walk for a while? Please? Please?” I don’t beg often, so this goes to show just how bad it was.

He thought for a second, both of us still jogging.

“We’ll slow down to a walk for the next 20 metres.”

“Please, at least a hundred.”

“Fifty. Starting… now.”

I swear it was the shortest 50 metres in history. When we got to three kilometres, we started to do intervals of walking and running, and then for the last kilometre I jogged the slowest jog ever executed.

Eventually we rounded a corner and the office was in sight. Tim took me up a flight of stairs to the door of the three-storey building next to Baxter & Co. He swiped his card and we went inside.

“Wow,” I said. (Actually, I may have just thought it, because I was puffing pretty hard and it made talking quite difficult.)

The gym was BIG. There looked to be about 50 treadmills and the same number of exercise bikes, as well as about a thousand other machines I’d never seen, much less used, before in my life. There were mini-trampolines with other gymnastics equipment set up in one section. There was a section devoted to weight lifting. There were boxing rings and punching bags. There were people coaching and training. People sweating, jogging, cycling, punching, kicking and swearing everywhere.

If there is a Hell, this is what it looks like.

“Did we make it in time?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“No. It’s 7:01.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Yep. It’s 6:52,” he said, gesturing towards the clock on the wall. “Now for the speed tour. This is the main section of the gym. Over there behind that screen is the cafeteria. Straight ahead are the toilets and showers. Over there is the staircase to the offices next door.”

“No elevator?”

“Honey, if people can’t handle stairs what the hell would they be doing here? Downstairs is the swimming pool. You’ll probably have to go in there at some point. Upstairs are the security offices.”

Tim turned to a counter at our left. “Charlie Davies,” he told the lady behind the desk. She was short, about the same shape as a beach ball, and probably somewhere in her late fifties. Her hair was dyed red (not orange, like, crimson red) and cut short, spiked up with gel. She handed Tim a clipboard and said good luck to me.

“Wouldn’t catch me exercising.”

No shit.

“What’s that?” I asked Tim, gesturing towards the clipboard.

“Progress report,” he answered. “I have to write down when we get here, what we do, your weaknesses and strengths, how long you take to do things, whether you get the hang of things quickly, how enthusiastic you are, what you already know, whether you injure yourself – all that bullshit.”

“Fun.”

“You bet. Come on, we might be able to sneak in to the early-morning yoga session to give you a little break before self defence.”

He led me off to a room on the right. When we entered, people were starting to lay their mats on the ground. Apparently the teacher hadn’t arrived yet. Tim took a mat off a shelf near the door and handed it to me.

“Make sure you sit somewhere I can see you properly.”

I laid the mat down right next to him. “How’s this?”

“Maybe we should move away from the door,” he suggested. I ended up on the right hand side of the room in the second row back. I had my shoes off, just like everyone else in the room except Tim. He was standing near the back wall, ready to take notes of how I was doing. That was when the teacher walked in.

“I’m sorry I’m late. Well done on getting ready without me. Half an hour is barely enough time for a yoga class as it is. OK, let’s start with Savasana. Lay down on your back. Relax. Palms facing up.” She continued to give us instructions on how to lie down.

I knew the teacher. She was Maria Dennis, friend and colleague of Julie McKenzie, James’s older sister. Together, Julie and Maria ran well-being classes, and ever since they’d started, they’d been trying to rope me into going. They say they’ll do it for free, but the prospect of attending one just scares me. I think they want to help me with my ‘difficult past’ and ‘anger-management issues’, but since the idea of it stresses me out so much, it’s probably better that I stay away.

We stayed lying down for about two minutes before moving onto other poses. I was struggling a bit, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I think it was a beginner’s class. There were a lot of big guys around me trying to do the poses and not having a lot of luck. They aren’t the kind of guys you expect to see in a yoga class.

“This pose is wonderful for trimming the backside,” we were told by Maria. “And it’s also great for flattening the stomach.”

I memorized that pose.

We got to a particularly hard position and Maria came around the class to check we were all doing it right. When she got to me, she was amazed. Not by my ability, unfortunately. More by my presence.

“Charlie! How are you? I didn’t expect to see you here! So, you work here now? Are you doing yoga out of your own free will or has somebody forced you into it?”

“Forced,” I answered. “And this doesn’t mean that I am coming to one of your well-being classes. This is purely for work, and I don’t plan to do any more than I have to.”

“Whatever,” she said. “I’m still telling Julie you were here. You’re good at this and I think you could really use it. It’s a great relaxation tool.”

Sure, I was feeling SO RELAXED about being in a gym.

We wrapped it up at 7:15. Tim and I lingered after everyone else had gone. I walked over to him.

“Good job, honey,” he said. “Time to move on to resistance training. Get back on your mat. We’ll stay in here for this first part. I have to see you do push-ups, sit-ups, handstands, star-jumps, lunges, blah, blah, blah. It’s less embarrassing if you do it in here and not in front of everyone.” He shut the door and the test began.

“OK,” he said when we finished. “Now we know what aspects of fitness we have to work on.”

“Everything?” I guessed.

“No. You did pretty good star jumps.” Yeah. Two of them.

We emerged from the room and he took me to the muscle-building section of the gym. I went through a few more tests.

“Good news,” he told me when I finished. “You’re stronger than you look.”

I raised my eyebrows. “I can’t even do a push-up.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re still stronger than you look.”

“Funny.”

We spent the next 15 minutes going through a sort of circuit thing with 3kg weights, and by the end of it my arms had seized up. When we finished it was time to move on to self-defence.

“Do you know anything about self-defence?” Tim questioned me as we walked over towards the boxing rings and gym mats.

“I can throw a punch, but I’ve never had lessons. I’ve been in a few fights, but they were mainly with guys who wouldn’t swing back, so I know more about attacking than defending.”

Tim smiled. “I’m assuming James was one of those guys?” James was most of those guys, to be honest.

We reached the mats. “OK,” Tim began. “The first rule of self-defence is that flight is better than fight. So today we are going to start out working on ways to get away if someone attacks you.”

By 8 o’clock, I had successfully learnt how to run away. “We made good progress today,” Tim told me, as he wrote down what we’d done on the file thingy on his clipboard. “What will happen is you’ll work on a lot of different aspects of self-defence with your trainers and then eventually you’ll get put in a fight situation with them. That’s for two reasons: one, so you learn to react in a fight, and two, so they can figure out your weaknesses and fix them up. OK, done,” he said as he finished writing. “Let’s go get breakfast.”

As we wandered up to the screened-off area on the left, I took a good look around. There were a lot of men here, and a few women. They were the weirdest assortment of people I’d ever seen. There had to be people from every country in the world here, and there were a few who looked like they came from an entirely different planet. There were men built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others who were so short and skinny I reckoned they’d probably weigh about half as much as I did (and no, I’m not going to tell you how much that is). The women were fewer, but were equally as varied in appearance.

I could smell sweat, I could see people sweating, I could almost taste sweat in the air. There was music coming through speakers, as well as people speaking in every different accent known to man. This was a weird bunch of people.

In the cafeteria, there was a huge plasma-screen TV on one wall and a long glass servery against another. A lot of people, maybe 50, were sitting at the tables eating breakfast (or maybe lunch or dinner, depending on what shifts they were working). Tim led me over to the servery, where a thin, dark-skinned girl with long black hair (tied back in a pony-tail) was standing, manning the till.

I started examining the food inside the glass cases. Every item had a label telling what it was. In the hot display case there were muffins taking up the top shelf – oat bran, fruity, cornmeal, savoury and gluten free – and the bottom shelf held buckwheat pancakes and sliced rye bread. The next case along (to the right) was a Bain-Marie with trays full of lightly grilled mushrooms, scrambled tofu, porridge, miso soup, and mixed vegetables.

I continued down the line to the next case. It was refrigerated, and contained fresh fruit of every type, sprouts, Bircher muesli and trays with various packaged-up no-fat/sugar-free/salt-reduced spreads and sauces, probably for the rye-bread and pancakes I’d seen before, plus a tray of coconut yoghurt. On the counter there were menus for fresh juices, protein shakes, health supplements, exotic healthy teas and smoothies.

I had never seen so much health in one place.

“What would you like, babe?” asked the lady behind the counter.

“Um,” I responded. “Uh – can I have some coconut yoghurt and mixed fruit? And a, uh, Green Monster smoothie?” Mmmm, greeeeeeens. Shudder.

“OK,” she said, punching something into her touch screen. “What’s your name, sorry?”

“Charlie Davies.”

She reached across the counter and shook my hand. “Jenny,” she introduced herself. “So what type of milk do you want in the smoothie? Soy, rice, almond?”

“Almond.”

“Cool. Any supplements?”

“Um – ”

“Yeah,” Tim cut in. “Shots of wheat grass and Goji juice. Protein powder and peanut butter in the smoothie.”

“Easy done,” she said. Tim gave her his order and she went off to get them ready.

“I haven’t heard very nice things about wheat grass,” I told Tim.

“Yeah, it tastes pretty bad. What I normally do is down the wheat grass, then the Goji, and then I take a swig of my drink and a big bite of food, and you don’t even notice the taste. Well, OK, you do, but at least it doesn’t make you want to throw-up.”

Great.

When Tim and I sat down at the table with our orders, he counted down from three. When he got to one, we both drank our grass, then our Goji, just like he’d said. He was right; it was pretty rank, but I could handle it.

Tim then left to hand my clipboard over to the front desk lady. When he got back, I asked him how I’d done.

“You aren’t fit. You did OK in yoga, but we could probably work on flexibility. Strength needs improvement, but everybody’s does when they first start. Your self-defence was average.”

“I told you I was bad at this.”

“It would help if you tried.”

“You aren’t nice as a trainer.”

“I’m not supposed to be. Besides, you’re lazy and that’s really annoying. It’s hard to be nice to someone when all they do is bitch and complain.”

“I’ve always bitched and complained and it’s never gotten to you before.”

He smiled, but didn’t answer.

When I finished breakfast (co-yo and fruit: good, smoothie: surprisingly decent for something that looked like a tumbler of troll snot, supplements: see above), I picked up my bag and headed off to the toilet/showers to wash the sweat off. I pushed open the door and walked inside. It had a strange layout. I mean a really strange layout. How many ladies’ bathrooms included a urinal? I glanced over at the showers just in time to see the lovechild of 50 Cent and the Incredible Hulk wander out of a cubicle. He was 7 feet tall, muscly, with skin the colour of dark chocolate, and he was…

Naked. Totally starkers.

He looked at me as though I was an alien. I looked at him with a mixture of fascination and horror. Not because he was ugly or anything, but because I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. I was in the men’s room, staring at a nude guy who was twice as tall as me. And probably not very happy. Plus, right at my head-height was his…

I was stunned. I couldn’t speak. I’d done some embarrassing things in my time, but this was the capper. Wow. I really hoped James McKenzie didn’t hear about this – it was bad enough that he knew about my ex-boyfriends now, without him finding out that I had a face off with this dude in the showers. I finally got my voice back and spoke.

“Oopsy-daisy. Guess this is the wrong bathroom. Sorry. I’ll – I’ll – ” I pointed to the door. “See ya!”

I barrelled through the door and nearly hit Tim, who was doubled-over laughing.

“It is NOT funny!” I said to him. “That was mortifying.” And then I went through the door into the girls’ bathroom. Yes. I double-checked.

 

  • * *

 

At 9 o’clock I was back in my office, filing. Ah, the joys of being secretary. Still, it beat listening to groceries beeping all day at Gregory’s.

I had made arrangements to have lunch with Tim in the cafeteria next door. My plan was to question him about the McKenzie case. That was, if he was willing to talk to me about anything other than me walking into the guys’ showers.

I doubted it, but one can only hope.

After sorting through the mail, I finished the filing and started working on researching ‘urgent’ files. I found out that everyone who was a client of Baxter & Co. was checked before the company took on their case or did security for their building. It was probably so we could evaluate the risk before doing work for the client. I was curious to see what James McKenzie’s background check said.

So curious, in fact, that I decided to find out for myself.

I didn’t find anything new, which isn’t exactly surprising since I’ve known him my whole life. I researched everything I could think of that was connected to Frank and printed all the info.

That meant that I got about half an hour behind with my research and, due to the torrent of telephone calls, I started to get really panicky that I wasn’t going to finish. Which is why I wasn’t in the best of moods when James McKenzie turned up.

“What?” I screamed at him through the intercom.

“Bad day?” was the reply.

I keyed him in. “I’m just sending a message to Tim. He’ll be down in a sec. Don’t you dare try and distract me. I have work to do.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t. I won’t even mention that guy you used to date that thought he was a rocket.”

That was when I threw the stapler at him. Due to many years of honing his sporting skills, he managed to catch it before it hit him in the face. Normally I can’t throw straight, but I can do anything when I’m angry.

I turned back to the computer and continued to frantically work my way through the files. James walked over and sat the stapler back on the desk. I snatched it before he’d fully let go, reefed it towards me and stapled the sheets I’d just printed. I stuck the sheets back in their folder and threw them into the out-tray.

“Woman on a mission,” said James.

I kept researching. Tim came and got James and took him away. I was too busy to even worry about what they were discussing.

By one, I’d half-finished the files. I picked up my key card and headed for the cafeteria. When I got there, I saw Tim waiting for me, already seated. He stood up when he noticed me and we met at the counter. I looked in the glass cases and took in the lunchtime menu.

Whoa. Cucumber and carrot sushi, salad, wraps, rolls, sandwiches, lentil burgers, chickpea burgers, fresh fruit, rice patties, grilled vegetables and more. Five hundred types of each. All bread was whole-meal or whole-grain, of course, and all wraps and sandwiches could be toasted or not. There was nothing fattening, salty or sugary amongst it, except for the fat in the avocado and the sugar in the fruit. I had the feeling I was going to get sick of this food. But, then again, at least it would help out with my ‘fat ass’ problem. Between working like a horse and eating like a rabbit the weight was going to come right off.

I went for a six-pack of brown rice sushi with cucumber, eggplant and carrot, plus a cacao protein shake. I was feeling adventurous, so I had another shot each of wheat grass and Goji. I went through the routine of wheat-Goji-swig-bite, gagged, and then ate the rest of my meal (sushi: tasty, shake: pretty decent for health food).

“So, Charlie,” Tim said. “See anyone during your trip to the men’s bathroom? You were in there for a while.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response. “Have you got any ideas on the McKenzie case?” I asked.

“You’re just avoiding my question, but I’ll leave it anyway. New leads on the murder? No.” He was lying. I knew it. He didn’t trust me.

“Timothy,” I said, “I know that you’re lying. You know, it would make a lot more sense for us to work together on this one. We could share resources.”

He snorted. “What resources can you give me that I don’t already have?”

“Connections,” I replied. “I grew up with James McKenzie. I know his parents. I know his siblings. I know his aunts and uncles, even cousins. Plus, my mother is hosting the monthly meeting of the Book Club tomorrow, and that’s always the best place to find out gossip. I have family and friends of the victim and client who will willingly talk to me.” Not to mention the fact that one of my friends was probably stalking McKenzie the night his uncle was killed, and they would be able to give him an alibi if Sarah Hollis couldn’t.

“OK,” he answered. “As long as you promise to give me everything you’ve got, I’ll work with you.”

“Good. Then we both end up with what we want.”

“Money?” he asked. “Is that what you’re after?”

“A house,” I answered. “And some money.”

“Alright,” he said. “Here’s what I’ve got. Frank’s is similar to a few other murders that have occurred over the last 5 years. Same modus operandi for each of them – fatal gunshot wound, then decapitation.”

“That’s a pretty memorable method of killing someone. Surely the police would have made the connection between Frank’s murder and the others.”

Tim nodded. “You’d think so, but a lot of them took place in other cities. Sydney, Brisbane – no one’s connected them yet. The only reason I did was because James found a stack of newspapers at his uncle’s house mentioning them. I had to go through them a few times before I realised what I was looking at.”

“So Frank knew something? That’s why he was killed?”

“I guess. I’ve looked at all the individual cases and I can’t find a connection between the victims other than the way they died. Some of the deaths line up with Larry’s emails and bank records, including Frank’s. But that’s not really concrete evidence and we still don’t know who did it. Just that it’s been going on for a long time.”

“Surely that puts James in the clear, though. You said it goes back five years? If he was only sixteen at the time of the first murder, then – ”

Tim cut me off. “It doesn’t exactly put him in the clear. In fact, it might make things worse.”

Why? I was about to ask, and then it hit me. “Five years ago. Will overdosed and Topher went missing. You think James –”

“I don’t think anything. It just doesn’t look good.” From his lack of reaction, I guessed he didn’t know that Topher was my brother. Davies was a pretty common surname, I guess.

“That seems a little far fetched.” He shrugged. “Well, if some of the murders happened in other cities, surely you can just establish where James was at the time, and if he was here then –”

“Not as easy as it sounds. We’re talking years ago. He can’t remember where he was. His bank records are no help because Frank always gave him cash for pocket money. He didn’t get a Facebook account until he was 18 and he hardly uses it, so nothing on that helps. He got a new phone number and we can’t track down his old records because he can’t remember what his number was or whose name it was in. It’s like he’s trying to have no alibi.”

Or like he’s trying to have no incriminating records. This looked bad.

“So,” I said. “Now we’re not just trying to clear James of killing one person, but a whole bunch of people?”

Tim nodded. “And it’s hard. It’s really hard.”

“Can you give me the dates of those other bodies turning up? I’ll see if anyone in my family can remember anything that helps.”

“Sure,” he said. “Good idea. I didn’t know it was possible to be so anonymous.”

“It’s almost suspicious.”

“It’s really fucking suspicious. If it were anyone else I’d be handing them in to the police. But I don’t think he’s the type. Also, surely he wouldn’t be stupid enough to put his initials on his serial killer email address.”

“Someone wouldn’t have spent five years setting James up.” I paused. “That means either James did do the killing, the person just happens to have chosen an email address with his initials in it, or…”

“Or the emails are really good fakes.”

I didn’t even have to think. “I like the third option the best. It seems the most likely.”

Tim nodded. “I agree. But my bet is that the police are going to like the first option best, which means that we really need to find the killer, or some sort of alibi for James, or else he is going to be labelled as a contract killer and neither of us gets paid.”

Hmm. That made things a little more interesting.

 

“So, how was your exercise this morning Charlie?” Mum asked when I stumbled through the doorway, back in my tracksuit and joggers. (I was trying to get a bit more exercise in – partly to cure my fat arse, and partly to get fit quicker so the mornings weren’t such torture.) She was mocking me. She’d probably heard me scream when my alarm went off this morning, and then again when I found Tim had broken into the house.

“Wonderful. Fan-bloody-tastic. I’m a natural at sports, as you know. Super-coordinated and ultra-fit. Plus, I love getting up before the sun does. Me and a couple of hours of exercise in the early morning? It’s a match made in heaven.”

“Yes. I heard your screams of delight when you first got up. You sounded very excited.”

“You bet.”

“I pity the guy who came to pick you up. I know what you look like first thing in the morning, and it would take a brave man to deal with that.” Gee, thanks Mum. “Any leads on the McKenzie case?”

I considered telling her what I found out from Tim, but decided against it for confidentiality reasons. The whole town didn’t need to know that James was a suspected serial killer.

“No,” I answered.

I walked into the lounge room to find Lea taking notes from the TV. I swam through the shag carpet and sat down on the couch next to her.

This afternoon, James McKenzie was taken in for questioning by the local police regarding the murder of his uncle, billionaire Francis McKenzie. As the sole beneficiary of his uncle’s will, James has been the number-one suspect in this murder inquiry since the beginning. Information has leaked that police are now not only questioning McKenzie about his uncle’s murder, but also about several other murders that have occurred across the country over the past five years. These victims are rumoured to have been killed in the same manner as Francis McKenzie.’

Good thing I went to all the trouble of not telling Mum that James was accused of multiple murders.

Behind the reporter, the doors to the police station opened and James McKenzie sauntered out. The reporters began firing questions at him. He stood and calmly answered their questions.

“No, I did not kill my uncle or anybody else. Yes, it does offend me that rumours like that are going around. No, I’m not angry at the police force. As a police officer myself, I understand that they pursue all lines of inquiry. No, I’m not worried about what Officer Hollis will say when she gets back into the country. I have no doubt she will tell the truth and provide me with my alibi. I don’t know if she’s in danger – I certainly hope not. I’m not answering any more questions, but I will say this.

“My uncle was one of the kindest people I knew and I don’t know why anybody would kill him. I want his murderer caught and brought to justice, and I want to get back to doing my job as a police officer.” And with that, he walked down the steps, through the hordes of reporters, and got into a black Porsche that was waiting for him at the curb.

James looked great on camera – I certainly believed his sob story. Now all we needed was evidence to prove he wasn’t a murderer. He was only safe until the police searched Larry’s office.

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked Lea.

“Have you heard that he’s being questioned for multiple murders?”

“Yep.”

“Then, no. I haven’t found out anything interesting.”

I told her the information I’d acquired from Tim at lunch. He hadn’t given me the list of dates yet, so we weren’t able to start looking into where James had been. Lea added a few more things to her notepad, and then I went to my bedroom. I practiced some of the arse-slimming yoga poses Maria had shown us.

Which is why, when mother came into my room at 6:15 pm, I had one leg behind my head while I reached for the toes on my other leg.

“Don’t stretch too far,” she said. “Knowing you, you’ll dislocate something.”

I made a noise of disgust and tried to sit up. Unfortunately, my leg stayed behind my head and I was left writhing around on the ground like a fly with its wings pulled off. My mother just shook her head.

“You’re the epitome of cool.” Such subtle sarcasm. “Perhaps you and Lea should go out to a nightclub, get drunk and hook up with cute guys and gals, like other people your age do.”

Chapter Eleven

 

It was Wednesday. This time when the alarm went off, I didn’t scream. In fact, I was so cool with the alarm clock that I didn’t even fall out of bed. Despite the fact that my whole body was aching from yesterday’s exertion, I just stood up, got dressed, grabbed my bag and walked slowly downstairs, dreading the cold and the exercise which had made my body so sore. However, whilst I might have been cool with the alarm clock, today’s fitness instructor, whom I found in the kitchen, scared the crap out of me.

He would have scared me even if I hadn’t seen him before, but the fact that I knew him made it worse. It was him. The naked guy, now fully clothed and standing in my parents’ kitchen. I screamed. He looked at me, recognised my face and blushed. Even in the dimly lit kitchen I could see the colour creeping into his cheeks. Aww. Who would have thought? Maybe he wasn’t so scary.

“Wow, you’re dressed. I was kind of hoping you’d walk around naked all the time,” I said. I willed my mouth to shut up, but it wouldn’t. “C’mon, dude, let’s go.”

He was getting redder by the second.

“What’s your name? You kind of remind me of 50 Cent, but there’s got to be at least 90 cents worth of you.” Oh, mouth, stop it! “Alright, out we go.”

We got out to the pavement and started running. “People are gonna start talking about the two of us, you know. I don’t even know your name and I’ve already seen you without clothes. What is your name? You didn’t say.”

He didn’t answer, but I swear he was getting even redder. He couldn’t even look me in the eye. I couldn’t believe the things coming out of my mouth. I was like a talking parrot on steroids.

“You didn’t strike me as the shy type the first time I met you, you know. I’m actually quite surprised. You’re not going to tell me your name, are you? Is this a game? Am I supposed to guess?” No response. No eye contact, either. “OK, how about 90 Cent? No, you don’t seem to be so fussed on that one. Um, how about Little John? No, that doesn’t quite fit. You could be a Peter, I guess. Maybe a Pat, or a Greg, or a Leroy. Like Leroy Brown.”

“Panther,” he mumbled. I guessed that was his name. He was trying to shut me up.

“Panther?” I repeated. “No buddy, you’re too late. From now on, you’re Leroy Brown. Do you know that song? I could sing a bit if you like.”

“I know the song.” He had an accent that I couldn’t place.

“Want to sing it with me? On three. Ready? One, t – ”

“I do not sing.”

“Oh come on, I got you to talk. If I can do that, I can do anything.” He didn’t look like he was going to sing. “OK, some other time. Look, dude, if you think that you’re going to get me to shut up by not answering me, you’ve got another thing coming. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard my father’s voice before, and I manage to hold conversations with him. Jeez, this silent thing’s irritating. I know you can talk. Why won’t you? I’m not going to stop, you know. I could go on for hours.

“How about I tell you my life story? I was born in Gerongate Hospital on the – ”

Panther/Leroy cut me off. “You need your energy for running. Save your breath.”

That seemed fair enough. After all, I was starting to pant just a little.

I think we were about one and a half Ks into it when I started to walk. He looked at me.

“Is there any point in telling you to hurry up?” he asked.

“No,” I answered. “I’m the most determined procrastinator ever born. I don’t do hurrying. Although, you could probably pick me up and carry me there.”

He frowned. “Would you like that?”

I laughed. “No. It would be embarrassing. Almost as embarrassing as getting caught walking around a communal bathroom totally nude.”

His face, which had just begun to return to its normal colour, lit up like Rudolph’s nose again.

“It’s OK,” I said. “It was my fault. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”

He mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“Pardon?”

“I said that Sharps did not warn me that you do not shut up. Normally he would tell me something like this.”

“What did he tell you?”

“That you try to get out of running in any way possible. You have walked for long enough. Time to jog.” He took off and I followed.

About two kilometres away from Baxter & Co. I started to walk again. Panther/Leroy looked at me.

“I scare most people,” he said. “Why not you? You are scared of Spider Baxter, and yet I do not bother you.”

“Spider Baxter? Who – oh, Adam.” I frowned. Did everybody at this place have a weird nickname? “Why do you think I’m scared of him?” I wasn’t ‘scared’ exactly; I just wasn’t comfortable in the presence of such beauty. Probably best not to tell Panther that.

“Sharps told me. But why don’t I bother you? You are not even vaguely intimidated. Is it because you saw me in the shower yesterday?”

I chose my next words carefully. “I started out feeling scared of you this morning, but as soon as you blushed you stopped worrying me.”

“I do not blush.”

“No, you light up like a neon sign.”

“You are lying.”

I laughed. “Whatever you say, Leroy.”

He smiled. “Keep running.”

Yes! I’d made him smile. Achievement unlocked!

When we got to the gym, Panther Brown went straight to the admin desk and got my clipboard from the funky Grandma. He came back to me and said, “We have missed the start of yoga, so we are going to do some stretching instead.”

We went over to the gym mats near the boxing rings. He was surprisingly flexible for a guy his size; a lot more flexible than me. He wrote down some things on the clipboard. Probably how bad I was. I wondered if he would write that I was annoying and wouldn’t shut up, as well as being unfit and inflexible. I wouldn’t blame him if he did.

At 7:15, we moved over to the bodybuilding area and he got me to do rounds with the three-kilo weights like I had yesterday. Then he made me try and do push-ups. Eventually we gave up on that and I had to do sit-ups instead. Then he made me bench-press 10 kilos. It was embarrassingly hard.

We finished at 7.30, by which time my arms were aching and burning. I wasn’t in a good mood either, because that had done very little for my fat arse. Leroy read what Tim and I had done yesterday.

“OK,” he said. “Today we’re going over to the boxing bags and I’m going to teach you how to punch. Got it?”

I nodded. Fine by me. The idea that I was fat had got me stressed enough to actually want to punch something. Plus, I could always think of James McKenzie or Celia Stanton. Hell, even my friend Marney made me want to kill her sometimes. Actually, most of the time – she wasn’t really my friend; she kind of just hung around.

Leroy showed me a couple of different punches, and I did them. The boxing bag was hard, but I was angry and barely noticed. Which is why at the end, my knuckles were slightly bruised and even a bit bloodied.

That morning I went for grilled mushrooms and tofu with a slice of rye bread, plus a protein shake for breakfast. I ate alone, as Panther had to get off to a job (at least, that’s what he said – he could have just been trying to get away from me). The breakfast tasted surprisingly good, apart from the wheat grass and Goji routine.

I went into the female showers (I checked three times before entering), got my things out of my locker with my key card like one of the girls had shown me yesterday, and hopped under the spray. Baxter & Co. had really nice bathrooms. There were no expenses spared – they were actually individual showers with individual drains and they didn’t have a gap under the wall where you got hit with the spray from the person next door. My knuckles stung a little when I got soap on them.

Back in my office, the In-tray was full. I sorted out the papers, filed some, and then started researching the others. I was half way through the second file when the telephone rang.

“Good morning. Baxter & Co. Charlie speaking.”

“You little bitch,” said the voice at the other end. “How dare you mess with me? Do you know who I am?”

It was Larry Jones. Apparently he’d found out that Imaso wasn’t quite who he thought she was. And now he knew my real identity. I pressed the record button on the telephone. Luckily, it didn’t beep.

“Listen, Grandpa,” I answered. “I mess with everyone. Besides, you’re hardly terrifying. You’re an old man with addictions and you don’t have enough money to feed them. You had Frank killed because you wanted his assets, and now his heir won’t sell either. Is he your next victim, Larry? Are you going to kill James next?”

“I –” He hesitated. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ha. I had him.

“Oh, I think you do. Who did you pay to do it? I know you hired someone.”

“Hah! All right then, lady, I did. I did pay someone. James McKenzie. He killed his uncle. I heard that he killed all those other people, and I decided to get him to whack off Frank as well. Hah! I’d like to see you hand this tape over to the police now!”

And with that, he hung up.

Shit. He’d known that I was recording the conversation, and he’d made sure he’d incriminated James on it so I couldn’t give it to the police. And what annoyed me even more is the fact that the police were probably tapping Larry’s line and would have heard that conversation already. Double shit.

I picked up the phone and called Tim’s office.

“You need to get out here now. I think James is about to be arrested.”

About two seconds later, Tim barrelled down the corridor and slid to a stop at my desk.

“What? What is it?”

“Larry Jones called me because he found out who I was and rang up to abuse me so I recorded the conversation in case he said anything interesting and he realised I was recording so he said that he hired James to kill Frank because he heard that James was an assassin and the police are probably listening in on his phone calls and if he made that call from his home phone or office or mobile then they’re going to arrest James and – ”

Tim cut me off. “Charlie, try that again. Slower.”

I said it again, only this time there were sentences.

“OK,” said Tim when I’d finished. “You’re right, honey. This will probably have been monitored by the police.”

My gut sank. “Oh shit. Shit! I don’t know why I feel so bad – I mean, I don’t even like James – but shit, I don’t want him arrested because of me. Oh no. Oh man!”

“Charlie, would you let me finish? The police probably heard this conversation if he made the call on one of his telephones. Chances are that he didn’t, because while he isn’t the smartest person I know, I don’t think he’s dumb enough to incriminate himself on a phone that he knows is being tapped by the police. You need to calm down.” He paused. “I thought you didn’t like McKenzie. He’s grown on you, hasn’t he?”

I thought about that for a second. “I guess so. Like, I’m not in love with him or anything, but I don’t want him to get put away for life.”

Tim nodded. “Did you see his speech on the news last night?” he asked. “He was pretty convincing. I don’t think anyone who saw that is going to be able to say that they honestly think he did it.”

I agreed. He was a natural on film. He made you want to believe what he said, so much so that even if he did get arrested, even if he confessed, most people would still want him to be found innocent. Yes. He was that good.

Tim’s mobile went off, and he left to take the call. I wondered who it was. Maybe James. Maybe even Joe Winton, our little mole. Maybe he had information for Tim. Or, you know, it could just be a life insurance salesperson. Best not to rest any hopes on it.

After a while Tim came back.

“That was Joe Winton. He told me that the police are trying to get a warrant to search Jones’s office. He said the earliest they can get the warrant is 5 pm today. Wanna ride along and check it out, honey?”

I thought about it for a second. “Well, book club is on today, but that doesn’t start until half past 6, so as long as I’m home by then, sure.”

He smiled. “Your mother is going to think there’s something going on between us.”

I smiled too. “My mother couldn’t care less, really, except if I moved out of her house and in with you. Violet would care more.”

“Would Violet be upset if we were going out? Y’know, because of her crush on me and all?” He was grinning even wider now.

I laughed. “Maybe. But then again, her husband is Brian McKenzie and I think she reckons she did alright getting him.”

He nodded. “Most women seem to think that getting a McKenzie is alright. Not you, though.”

“No. Not me.”

“Any particular reason?”

I wondered how to answer that. “We used to be friends, but we had a fight and didn’t make up again. Now it’s more natural to stir each other up than to be nice. It’s just the way things worked out,” I answered.

“Did you ever have a crush on James?” he asked.

“You’re starting to sound like him.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I don’t intend to.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Why yes?” I retorted.

“So you did.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You might as well have.”

“Uh huh.”

“You’re hard to read.”

“You bet.”

“You’re not gonna tell me, are you?”

“Not a chance.”

“So it is a yes, then. You did.”

“You’re putting words into my mouth.”

“You really won’t say?

“No.”

“Fine. I’ll go.”

“See ya.”

“Later, honey.”

And he left.

 

  • * *

 

It was five to five, and I was pondering the McKenzie case. We knew Larry Jones had hired someone to kill Frank (amongst others). We were pretty sure that Jones and the hired hit man were trying to frame James. That was it. We didn’t know anything else.

Well, OK, we did. We knew that James was innocent. We knew that the police suspected Larry Jones. We knew that whoever had killed Frank was an accomplished assassin. We thought that Frank had figured out something about who was responsible. And we knew that we needed to solve the case fast.

The door opened and Tim entered. “C’mon,” he said. “We’ve gotta get going.”

We jogged back down the corridor, through a doorway, down some stairs, along another corridor, down some more stairs, until we eventually emerged in the underground parking lot. We jogged over to Tim’s Porsche, he beeped it open and we jumped in.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Larry’s office building. We’re waiting for the police to turn up, and then we’re causing a distraction so they don’t make it to Jones’s office.”

“What kind of ‘distraction’ are we causing?” I asked. “The legal kind? Or the not-so-legal kind?”

“Nothing too bad. Andrews ain’t the sharpest tool in the box. It shouldn’t be too hard to get rid of him.”

Tim pulled up out the front of a six-storey office building in a reserved parking space.

“Um… are you sure we should be parking here?” I asked. I was slightly dubious about Tim’s disregard for the rules. He seemed to think that nothing could touch him (which is probably true), but I wasn’t nearly as confident.

“It’s a Porsche in the VIP parking space. It would look weirder if we parked in a normal spot.”

We got out, he locked the car, and we walked in through the glass doors. We were in a big room with a reception desk and green lounges where a bunch of people were sitting. Judging by the impatient body language, most of them had been waiting for a while.

Tim swept over to the lounges and sat, and I followed him. The people looking at us probably thought that he was an important businessman and I was his PA. Which, when you think about it, was pretty close.

Tim picked up a seven-month-old magazine from the coffee table near us and pretended to read it. At least, I guessed he was pretending. Tim didn’t strike me as the kind of person to worry about celebrity baby dramas, who’s on what diet or who was caught wearing that hideous outfit. Tim was the kind of guy you could see dating a celebrity, but not having any idea what she was famous for.

I heard a telephone ring and Tim pulled his mobile out of his pocket. He walked outside to take the call and I was left on my own with the out of date magazine. I picked it up, but flicking through it I remembered why I don’t read tacky magazines – I don’t care. Although that diet sounded interesting…

A breeze rustled the pages of the magazine as the doors opened again. I looked up, expecting it to be Tim re-entering after his telephone call, and instead saw Joe Winton and Michael Andrews. I thought Tim would follow them, but he was nowhere to be seen. The cops walked over to the front desk and showed the receptionist their badges and a piece of paper. She spoke to them for a while, and then pointed to the elevator. Shit! Where was Tim?

I looked around one last time for Tim, but there was no sign of him. I was on my own. Now what? I bolted upstairs. I had no idea which office was Larry’s, but somehow I had to cause a distraction before the police got to it.

Think, I told myself. What’s the best way to cause a distraction? Well, that was obvious. Mass hysteria. But how?

By now I was on the third floor. I ran up the corridor like someone who was worried that they were about to lose a house and $20K if they didn’t beat the police to a certain office. There was no one else in sight. Just me, a rotating security camera, and a fire extinguisher.

That was it! I looked at the camera. At the moment, it faced away from me. Somehow, I was going to have to make it up to the other end of the corridor without getting caught on camera, and set the fire alarm off. I looked up. There was a sprinkler system in the roof. If I could get it to go off, everyone would bolt outside onto the street. An alarm would probably go off as well. That should generate a moderate amount of hysteria.

I ran over to the wall and edged down it. I was in the camera’s blind spot. When I got to the fire extinguisher, the camera was facing the other way. I covered my hands with my shirt (didn’t want to leave fingerprints), pulled the extinguisher off the wall and the alarms and sprinklers started. I bolted back down the corridor (careful not to get caught on camera) and descended the stairs screaming. “Fire! Everyone get out of here! There’s a fire!” When that didn’t seem to be getting much of a reaction, I tried “Bomb! There’s a suicide bomber upstairs! Run for your lives!” Again, that didn’t seem to have much effect so this time I tried just shrieking as loudly and as piercing as I could.

People started filing out of offices then, so I started saying things like, “What’s going on? Can anyone else smell smoke?” and “Did anybody else hear that bang upstairs? It sounded like something exploded.” By now, there was quite a large mass of people hurrying down the stairs, and since most people were in white blouses (including me) it was a bit like a crazy wet T-shirt contest.

Everyone started muttering, and it got louder. Pretty soon someone screamed, and as we ran through the foyer there was definitely terror in the air.

Everyone who worked in, or was visiting, the office building was out on the sidewalk. Most people were drenched and a lot were wailing (including Officer Andrews). Suddenly someone put their hand around my waist and I felt myself being dragged out of the crowd.

“Time to go, honey,” Tim said. “Wouldn’t want the cops to spot us.”

When we had safely made it out of the street, Tim asked me what had happened. I told him and he started laughing.

“I meant a small distraction, not a full-building evacuation,” he said. “Still, it was effective. And you’re sure you didn’t get caught on camera?”

I nodded. “We sat on a couch that the camera couldn’t see in the waiting room and there weren’t any cameras on the stairs. I was pretty careful not to get caught pulling the extinguisher off the wall.”

Tim shook his head, still grinning. “You’re one of a kind, honey. So, how’d you go with Panther this morning?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Hasn’t he told you already?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “He said you weren’t in the least scared of him. He also told me about how you two met in the men’s showers yesterday.” He laughed at the thought of it. “Not much that can embarrass Panther. Not too many people who can get away with ripping him off, either. You continue to amaze me, honey. You’re not scared of him, you’re not that scared of Spider…”

“Did he say anything else about me?” I asked, with fake indifference.

Tim thought for a second. “Yeah. He said that he liked you. You annoyed him like hell, but he liked you.”

Well, that’s nice to know. I wouldn’t want to be disliked by him. OK, I know I may have said he didn’t scare me, but I lied. You would have to be an idiot not to be scared of a guy that buff.

Tim pulled into Elm Avenue and we both took in the sight. It was like we’d ended up on a planet entirely populated by SUVs. There was every kind of 4WD you could imagine. Jeep Cherokee, Porsche Cayenne, Prado, Nissan, Toyota, Range Rover – it was the meeting of the Book Club. I wondered who had ‘read the most books’ (read: won the drag race) this week.

The meeting wasn’t supposed to start for another half hour, but everyone always turned up early so that they could drink more wine, eat more nibblies and share all the gossip before the discussion of books, cars and cross-country driving expeditions began.

It was insane.

Tim double-parked at the front of my house and I jumped out of the car. We said goodbye and he drove off. I walked up towards the front door and went to open it, but it was reefed open before I had the chance. It was Violet.

“Getting dropped off by Tim again?” she said. “There’s definitely something going on between you two. And what happened to you? You’re soaked.” I looked down. I was wet. Sprinklers tend to do that.

“We just work together, Vi,” I said, not answering her question about the water. Best not to worry her. I walked into the lounge room and saw everyone crowding around the TV, enthralled. “What’s up?” I asked.

“There was a fire in Larry Jones’s office building. The police think there’s someone after him. Probably has something to do with Frank McKenzie. They’re trying to put Larry’s office out now, but apparently no other offices were damaged.”

“Anyone hurt?” I asked.

“No, everyone got out in time.”

What exactly was going on? Larry’s office had actually caught fire? It seemed like Larry was being a bit of an opportunist. I guess someone had told him the police were on the way up. When I set the fire alarm off, I gave him the idea to set fire to his office and destroy the evidence against him. Or at least delay its retrieval. Plus, if it looked like he’d been targeted, maybe the cops wouldn’t suspect him so much. His face appeared on the television.

“I was very lucky to have been downstairs when the fire was started,” he said. Liar, liar, pants on fire. “I’m very grateful to the person who noticed my office was alight and raised the alarm. I’m just glad no one was hurt.”

I walked out into the kitchen and grabbed a glass of wine. I don’t drink much (as I’ve mentioned) but this seemed like a good time to start. I’d set the alarm off and given Larry the opportunity to get himself out of trouble. Great. I took a swig of the wine. And then another.

When I finished the glass, the telephone rang.

It was Tim. “Hey, honey. I guess you’ve seen the news?”

“Yes. I just finished a glass of wine and I’m not feeling any better.”

“I didn’t think you drank.”

“I don’t. It just seemed fitting to have a drink considering what I’d done.”

“Hey, it’s not that bad. I made copies of all that stuff in his office before it burned down, plus most of it’s online anyway, and now the police can’t get the evidence until we want them to. Things have worked out pretty well.”

When you thought of it that way, it didn’t seem so bad.

“So,” I said when I walked back into the lounge room. “What’s the latest gossip about the McKenzie case?”

No one cared about discussing the murder in front of Violet. She wasn’t close to Frank, and nobody thought James had done it after seeing him on telly last night. No reason it would upset her.

“Everyone is saying it’s connected to Larry Jones,” Mum’s friend, Siobhan Letterman, answered. Siobhan was like the Gerongate Bulletin. She was good to have around because she knew what was going on in town, but you didn’t tell her anything you didn’t want to be made public.

“That’s it? No one is saying anything other than that?” I found it hard to believe that no one knew anything more. This is Gerongate we’re talking about. Someone had to know something.

“Well,” Siobhan continued. “There are rumours that Larry Jones hired an assassin to kill Frank, but that hardly seems plausible.”

“OK. Let me know if you hear anything else interesting.” Great. No one knew anything. It was a dead end.

That was disappointing.

I didn’t hang around for the whole book club. I went to bed early, absolutely exhausted and dreading another day’s exercise.

Chapter Twelve

 

I was growing to hate my alarm clock. It seemed to rejoice in my misery, beeping cheerily at me when all I wanted to do was sleep. I turned it off and rolled over, listening to the rain pounding the roof. Isn’t it funny the calming effect rain has on you when you’re in bed?

The next time I opened my eyes I was being wrenched into consciousness by Adam. He didn’t look happy.

“You should be ready to run. Hurry up and get dressed,” he ordered.

“But it’s raining,” I whined.

“OK then,” he said. “Get up or get fired. You’ve got two minutes until we’re leaving.”

I pulled on my saggy, misshapen tracksuit and my worn-out joggers. I looked ready for life in the gutter. My muscles were sore, my eyes were puffy and red-rimmed and I had a hangover from last night’s wine. My head was aching along with the rest of my body, plus I was feeling kind of queasy, and I was expected to do exercise. In the rain.

I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why me? Then I told myself that no matter how bad the exercise was, I did actually like the rest of the job. Well, I liked some of it, and even the bad parts beat the shit out of being a checkout chick. Plus I got paid. A lot.

“What the hell is that?” asked Adam when I reached the kitchen.

“What?” I demanded.

“That tracksuit. You look like an advertisement for Jenny Craig wearing that,” he said. Oh, wonderful. Now it wasn’t just my arse, it was my whole body. Brilliant. Baxter & Co. was doing so much for my self-esteem.

I groaned as we walked out the door. My head was throbbing and my body was protesting, and to top it off, it was raining. Lovely.

“You shouldn’t drink during the week,” he told me. “It doesn’t feel great running while you’re hung over.”

Guess I wasn’t looking too crash hot.

“Are you speaking from experience?” I asked. I was testing him, to see just how cheeky I could be without making him angry.

He ignored the question. “You’re not going to feel too good after a shot of wheat grass.”

Just the thought made me shudder. “Do I still have to take the wheat grass?”

“Yes. It’ll teach you to get drunk when you have to work the next day.”

When we hit the pavement, I was feeling seedy and my head hurt, but I could handle it. By the end of the block, my stomach was churning. We’d made it about a kilometre (with breaks) when I spewed in the gutter.

“Hurry up,” said Adam. “I’ve already told you, a hangover won’t save you.”

I only vomited twice more on the run. I’d thought that the exercise would get easier over time. That morning changed my mind.

When we got to the gym, Adam picked up the clipboard from the front desk and wrote down the time we got in. 6:59 a.m. A minute later and I would have been running on the treadmill. Lucky – I wouldn’t have been up to that at the best of times, and this certainly wasn’t the best of times.

Adam flicked through the papers on the clipboard.

“OK,” he said. “We’ll do some stretches first. I know you did that yesterday, but apparently you didn’t go too well, so we’re going to do it again and hopefully you’ll improve.”

Adam was the kind of guy who could probably drive you to slitting your wrists. Maybe I should pull the Grandma act on him again.

He made me stretch so much that it hurt. By the end of our 20-minute stretch-sesh I was just about ready to kill him.

At the weights section, he spent about five minutes re-checking whether or not I could do sit ups, push ups, chin ups and all the other things that I’d been tested on by Tim. Two days ago. Did he actually think I’d improve that quickly?

I did rounds with weights until my arms collapsed. Then he put me on a gym machine circuit where I had to stay on each one for a minute and then take my heart rate. He wrote down comments (probably all negative). By the time we got to self-defence, I was definitely ready to kill him. And throw up. Again.

“OK, you did punches yesterday, so we’ll work on kicks today,” said Adam.

He took me over to the boxing bags and showed me a few different types of kicks. “When I call out a certain type of kick, I want you to do that and repeat until I call out another. Got it?”

“Yes,” I growled, giving him the Evil Eye.

“Good,” he responded. “Right-leg round-house.”

When I limped into the cafeteria (kicking for half an hour makes it quite painful to walk), I went straight up to the counter and looked at what was available. This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a big, fatty fry-up for breakfast, not health food.

I ended up getting scrambled tofu, mushrooms, rye bread, and the usual supplements. I did the thing where I downed the juice and nearly spewed. Again.

By the time I got to the office, I was starting to feel a bit more human. I sat down and got to work. By lunchtime, nothing interesting had happened. No threatening telephone calls. No visits from Tim. McKenzie hadn’t even turned up yet, and things were starting to get so boring that I was beginning to wish he would. But then I remembered that I was hung over and having no visitors was probably a good thing. No one to rip me off about how I looked, or say things to make me feel even sicker than I already did.

I skipped lunch that day, because the scrambled tofu just wasn’t sitting right and I didn’t want to provoke my stomach any more. One glass of wine! I was never going to drink again. For a while. Not tonight, anyway. Well, maybe. But not until late.

At five o’clock, I stood up to leave. At the same time, Adam approached my desk.

“Come with me,” he said. Not an offer. A command.

I followed him back down the corridor, through a door, down some stairs and then realised where we were going. The car park. My car was here!

When we got there, he led me over to a spot near where he’d attacked me on my first day. Ah, the happy memories. We stopped in front an empty lot.

“This is your parking spot,” he told me as he pulled a pair of keys out of his jeans pocket. I looked at his shoes. Converse – again. “You probably won’t have to drive to work for a long time – at least until you’re fit enough to cut back on days of exercise – but you’re welcome to drive it around town for non work-related things.” He handed me the key – it was on a chain with a horse on it. A mustang.

He walked me out to a little cargo-bay looking thing. There was a silver car sitting there. A convertible Mustang. With P-plates already attached.

“Is – is that – ” I tried to say.

“Your car? Yes, it is. You can go now, if you want.” And with that, he left.

I beeped the car unlocked and got in. Wow. If Baxter & Co. bought their employees Mustangs and Porsches, they weren’t exactly hard-up for cash. I didn’t realise security and investigations were such big industries.

The seats in the Mustang were covered in a nice dark fabric, the kind that would be good in summer because I wouldn’t stick to it if I got sweaty (was that a bit gross? Oh well). I sunk into the chair, put on my seatbelt, and then pressed a button and the convertible top folded down. I squealed. I couldn’t help it. This was one cool car.

I followed the arrows out of the car park and pulled onto the road. I set out with no destination in mind, just enjoying cruising around in a car that didn’t seem to hate me. Somehow, I ended up parked out the front of Will McKenzie’s apartment building. What the hell, I thought. I don’t have anything better to do. Maybe he knows something. Unlikely, since he didn’t know Uncle Frank and hadn’t spoken to James for five years, but hey. YOLO. (Is that the appropriate use of YOLO? Yeah, I’m down with the kids.)

I walked through the foyer and took the stairs. I figured it might help to get rid of my fat arse. I got to the sixth floor, puffing only slightly. (OK, I was puffing heaps. Rub it in, why don’t you?) I waited until I caught my breath and then I walked up to Will’s door and knocked.

About ten seconds later he opened the door. “Hey, Charlie!” he said with a smile, gesturing for me to come inside. I walked in and plonked on his couch. He shut the door and joined me. “What’s up? I heard you quit work and there was a contract out on your head so you got a job at a security company.”

That was surprisingly accurate. “I don’t know about the contract,” I said, and then thought of what Larry had said yesterday on the phone and decided it was entirely possible. But Will didn’t need to know that. “But I am working at a security company.”

“Cool. Going well?”

Oh, yeah. I got a company car today. A Mustang.”

He raised his eyebrows and his jaw dropped. “How bad’s your job that you deserve a Mustang?”

I laughed. “I’m secretary.”

He sighed. “And all I get is a nurse’s salary and a name tag with a typing error.” I laughed again. Will worked at a clinic – the same one he’d attended after his near-death – and he certainly wasn’t in it for the money or the glamour. He’d told me in the past that the reason he did it was because he reckoned that he could probably understand the patients better than the other nurses and doctors, seeing as he’d been through the same thing in the past. He helped people with everything from addictions to depression, and he was the perfect person for the job. He cared a lot about people. “While we’re on the topic of expensive cars, have you seen my brother lately?”

As nonchalantly as he asked, I knew it was more than a casual question. Will respected James’s wish to not try to contact him, but I knew he missed him a lot.

“Only nearly every day this week,” I said.

He looked surprised. “Something going on between the two of you?” I gave him a foul look and he grinned back. “Do I hear wedding bells?”

I poked my tongue out. I’d hardly even thought about our wedding at all. “He’s got someone from my company looking into your uncle’s murder – that’s confidential, by the way.”

“How is he? He and Frank were pretty close.”

“He’s fine. No different from normal. Maybe a bit upset, but that didn’t stop him from being just as charming as always.”

He smiled. “You do bring out the best in him.”

“By the way, Will, I need an honest opinion.”

“Oh shit.”

“My bum.”

“If you’ve got some sort of rash, I don’t want to know.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I was just wondering what you think of it.”

“I don’t think of it.”

“Looking at it now, though.” I stood and turned so he could see it, looking back at him over my shoulder.

“What is happening?”

“Look at it!”

“I don’t want to!”

“I don’t care what you want! Look at it and tell me what you think.”

He looked at it and said, “I think you’re a psycho.”

“Will!”

“Fine. It’s like, a solid six.”

“A six?’

“I was joking, Charlie. It’s lovely. Now can I please stop looking at it? Because I feel like I’m perving on my little sister.”

Fine.” I turned back around. He looked relieved. “I don’t suppose you can tell me anything new about Frank or James or the murder or anything?” I asked.

“Why?”

“Well,” I said. “I kind of made this bet with James…”

I explained the story to him.

“You set off the fire alarm, but he torched his own office?” he asked. I nodded. “You’re not getting back into the arson thing? You promise?”

I rolled my eyes at him.

“Do you think James is in danger?” he asked.

I thought for a while. “I doubt it. With him dead, there’s no one to take the fall for the real murderer. I don’t think they’d risk killing him.”

“So,” said Will. “You don’t think he’s a killer.”

“Just because I don’t like someone doesn’t make them a murderer,” I answered.

“You’ve gone sweet on him, haven’t you?”

“No!”

“Have too.”

“Have not.’

“Have too.”

“Have not.”

“Have too.”

“Grow up. Unlike the rest of the world, I don’t idolise your brother, and I have definitely not gone sweet on him!”

“You used to be in love with him,” he retorted.

“Not since I was four years old! That hardly counts.”

“Whatever.”

“I’m leaving!” I turned to go.

“Say hi to your lover boy for me!” he called as I went out the door. I slammed it behind me. I had not gone soft on McKenzie. Absolutely not.

Had I?

 

Friday should be declared part of the weekend. No one functions on Friday. Especially not if they’ve spent 6 hours of the last three days doing exercise. If that’s the case, they’re sore, grumpy, and tired, as well as dysfunctional. It sucks.

On top of the completely crap state my body was in, things were even worse when I caught sight of my hair in the mirror. From the state of it I could tell you today’s weather forecast: minor showers in the morning with heavy rain around midday and my hair frizzing up to maximum capacity at approximately 12:22 p.m.

I decided not to try to look professional today. No one else bothered. Why should I? I grabbed a nice pair of black jeans and a cute black and white striped T-shirt, then ducked next door into Lea’s room to borrow a pair of shoes. I settled on a pair of pumps (low-heel) that were black with white spots. I tried them on and they fit. More importantly, I could walk in them. I shoved everything in my bag and got dressed in my stinky tracksuit. I should really do some washing, I thought.

Tim picked me up again. We jogged in the rain. I ran the first kilometre too fast, all the while bitching about Adam. Then I ran out of breath and walked for a while. We got there in 50 minutes and I sneaked into the yoga class.

After that, Tim made me do 50 sit-ups and try to do push-ups and chin-ups. I hadn’t improved. Next he put me on some weird machine which only worked out my arm muscles, but today I didn’t care that it was doing nothing for my arse because according to Will, I had a nice arse. OK, so he would have said that even if I had, like, an extra bum cheek, but whatever.

Tim said I was performing at an ‘almost average’ level on some of the machines today. Yay! I was improving.

For martial arts, Tim took me to a Body Combat class. I enjoyed that a lot more than the one-on-one classes. It had music and it was fun. Plus, there were other people who didn’t pick up the steps as quick as me, which made me feel better. Well, there was one guy. Admittedly he did have a head injury, but whatever.

That morning for breakfast I had miso soup with brown rice, fresh pineapple juice and the supplements. I sat with Tim and asked him about the case.

“Anything new come up?” I asked.

“No. I’ve tried everything but it’s not getting me anywhere. I don’t suppose you’ve found out anything either?”

I shook my head. “Afraid not.” Apart from the fact that my arse wasn’t fat, thank you very much Tim, and I might have fallen for McKenzie. But that didn’t relate to the case at all, so I kept it to myself.

“Well,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re not having much luck digging your boyfriend out of trouble, honey.”

What? He thought I liked McKenzie as well?

I narrowed my eyes. “He is not my boyfriend.”

He smiled. “Sure.”

When I stepped into the shower, I tried to wet my hair so that I could wash it, but it had frizzed up so much that I could barely get it under the nozzle. When it was finally wet enough I shampooed and conditioned it. I got out, walked over to the sinks, and attempted to run a comb through my hair, but it stuck after about a centimetre. I borrowed another lady’s blow dryer to try and tame it, but to no avail.

The girl who’d lent me a blow dryer came over and introduced herself. “Hi. I’m Lilly.”

“Charlie,” I said, by way of introduction.

“I install security systems.”

“Secretary,” I said vacantly. I was still staring at the mirror in horror.

“Here, sweetie,” said Lilly, handing me a tube of hair gloop. “Use as much as you want. My sister gets it free from the salon for me – she’s a hair dresser,” she explained. “I don’t know if it will completely fix it, but it might help.”

I finished off the tube and my hair looked slightly better than it had at the start.

“Thanks,” I said to Lilly.

“No worries. I know what it’s like. My hair does that too – just, you know, not quite to the same extent.”

 

There wasn’t too much work for me today. A few folders to put away and three things to research for Adam, plus an envelope with my name on it, containing my pay slip. I checked my bank account and found that the money had already gone in. When I finished the files, I felt my hair and tried not to scream. Maybe I could spend my pay on a treatment.

After lunch, I had no work left. There was nothing for me to do except answer the telephone occasionally and contemplate my scary hair. By the time 5 o’clock arrived, I was more than ready to leave. I gathered my stuff and headed out.

It was pouring. And because I’d jogged here this morning, I had to walk home. I stood out on the sidewalk, wondering what the people watching the monitors would think of my hairstyle. They had a clear view of all angles. It probably looked like my head was being swallowed by a giant blonde spider.

I was panicking about how wet Lea’s shoes were going to get in this rain, when a black Ferrari pulled up in front of me. Hmm. I wonder who this could be?

The door opened and James leant across to speak to me.

“Need a lift?” he asked.

I sighed. My hair was like a blonde fro and my glasses were wet and foggy from the rain. I was sore from too much exercise, grumpy from the rain and I was tired, and now I was being offered a lift home by a guy who was potentially a murderer and whom everyone thought I was in love with.

“Thanks,” I said flatly, sliding in next to him. I pulled the door shut and grabbed the seatbelt. “I hope you don’t mind getting your seats wet.”

“Bad hair day?” James asked. I let go of the seatbelt and reached for the door handle to get out. Only trouble was, I couldn’t find it. Aah! Stupid super-car. I was trying to leave in anger but I was trapped.

James laughed. “Charlie, calm down. I was just joking.”

“I’m leaving.”

He laughed. “You don’t even know how to get the door open. Look, I’m sorry I teased you. I like the fro. Besides, you don’t want to walk home in the rain.” He was right. I didn’t.

I pulled the seatbelt over me again and tried to find where to plug it in. James reached over and did it up for me.

“Thanks,’ I mumbled.

“So,” he said when we started driving. “Did you set Larry’s office on fire?”

I snorted. “No.”

“I’m not going to get up you for it,” he said quickly. “That probably saved me from going to gaol.”

“I really didn’t. I just set the fire alarm off. Larry must have torched his own office while everyone was distracted.” We were silent for a while, so I looked around at the Ferrari’s interior, trying to figure out how anything in it worked. “Nice car.”

He was trying to hide a smile. “Not going to smash it up, are you?”

“Not unless you’re planning on turning my bra into a flag again,” I said.

He sighed. “That was a long time ago, Charlie. I’d like to think I’m a bit more mature now.” Sure, you’d like to think that.

“So,” I said. “What prompted this uncharacteristic act of kindness towards me?”

He looked wounded. “I couldn’t just drive past you. You bring out the worst in me, but even my worst isn’t that bad. Besides, I wanted an update on how you’re going.”

“With the case?”

“Yeah. I thought maybe you’d have something that Sharps doesn’t.”

I raised my eyebrows. I was genuinely surprised. “You have that much confidence in me?”

He smiled. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

“Well, I don’t really have anything at the moment. Isn’t Sarah Hollis supposed to be getting back to Gerongate soon?”

James nodded. “Sunday.”

“Well, we’ll see what happens then.” I realised there was something I hadn’t asked McKenzie that I’d been meaning to. “James, how did you even meet your uncle? He’s about the only relative of yours I’ve never met.”

He smiled slightly as he told me the story. “We were fundraising for a football trip or something, I don’t really remember. Anyway, your brother dared me to hit Frank up for some money, so I did. He liked my sales pitch, thought it was funny, so we talked for a while. We just got along, you know.” He paused. “I didn’t kill him, Charlie.”

“I know.”

We didn’t speak again until he was about three blocks from my parents’.

“Do you want me to drop you off at your parents’ house or somewhere they won’t see?”

I laughed. “At the house.”

I didn’t think it really mattered anymore being seen with McKenzie. In fact, I was kind of hoping that Violet would give up on the idea that I was with Tim if she saw me also coming home with James. She’d realise it was just a working relationship.

James idled out the front of the house. It was still pouring outside. I wondered how wet I’d get dashing from the car to the door. Then I looked down at myself and sighed. It didn’t matter. I was saturated anyway.

“I hate rain,” I said.

James laughed. “Is there anything you don’t hate?”

You? suggested my mind. “Chocolate?” was the response that rolled off my tongue, however, and for once I was glad that my mouth was working independently to my brain. The very fact that I’d thought that was troubling.

That response (the verbal one, not the mental one) drew another smile out of James. He was obviously unaware of the acute internal embarrassment from which I was suffering at this moment. Oh my god. Maybe Tim and Will were right and I had gone sweet on James.

“Bye,” I said, keen to get the hell out of there. I didn’t have time to be doubting my eternal hatred of McKenzie. I had shit to do.

“See ya.”

I turned for the door and stopped. Huh. I’d never actually figured out where the handle was. “Um,” I said. “How do I open this door?”

He reached over and did it for me, trying to hide his smile. As soon as he got it open, I leapt out of the car.

“Thanks! Bye!”

I bolted up to the front door and was about to open it when I heard another car pull up. I thought maybe I’d left something in McKenzie’s car and he’d come back to return it, but when I turned around it was a black Porsche. Tim.

I ran back to the road and jumped in the front seat of the car, next to him.

“Hey, honey,” he said. “Thought I’d go Q The Prince about the killer. Guessed you’d wanna slide along.”

I blinked. “Was that in code?”

He laughed. “I’m going to go visit an informant. He calls himself The Prince. He knows what’s up and what’s going down around town. I’m gonna ask him what he knows about our killer. I hate visiting him, but this time we don’t have a choice. Thought you’d want to know what he had to say.”

“So, uh, who exactly is this… Prince?”

“Ah, well. You’re in for a fun trip.”

We drove for a long time, talking through the case and coming up with nothing new. I hadn’t been paying attention to where we were going and suddenly realized what street we’d ended up on.

“Slade?” I hissed. “Why the hell do we need to come to Slade Street?”

Slade was dead centre of the worst area of the city. All things bad in Gerongate stemmed from here. You could get anything on Slade. Drugs, guns, very cheap (read: stolen) cars; in fact, very cheap anything. Really: forged papers, human entrails – anything. And, apparently, this was where The Prince resided.

“This is where he lives. Anything bad going down, he knows about it. He trades information for money. Well, for other things too, but since you’re still a teenager I don’t think you should know about them.”

“How do you know how old I am?”

“McKenzie. He tells me everything about you.”

I groaned. “Don’t know that he’s the most reliable source.”

He was smiling. “He actually talks quite fondly of you, Charlie. He reckons you’re gonna beat me in this case.”

I laughed. “That’s because I am.”

Tim just smiled. He parked the car and we got out. As he beeped it shut I asked, “Aren’t you worried about leaving your car here? This neighbourhood doesn’t have the best reputation.”

“Everyone knows that you don’t touch a B-Co car.”

Okey dokey.

We walked across the street into a shabby looking block of flats. Like, boarded-up ground floor windows kind of shabby. Tim led me up a flight of stairs and when we reached the top, we walked over to flat 2C. The number was peeling off the door and there was a hole in it where somebody’s foot had gone through. It was taped up but if anything that made it more obvious. Yeesh.

“What’s with the hole in the door?” I asked.

“No need to worry about that,” he answered.

“How do you know whoever did that isn’t gonna turn up while we’re here? What if we’re attacked?”

He sighed. “If you really must know, honey, I did that last time I was here. And don’t worry; no one is gonna come in while my car’s parked outside.”

“Do the people around here think you’re dangerous or something?” I asked.

“Honey, you have no idea.” Tim knocked three times on the door. No answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He knocked continuously until finally the door opened. There was no one there. I looked down. Ah. The Prince was a little guy. Seriously, like even littler than me.

“Timothy,” said The Prince. “Back again. Not going to kick my door down this time, I hope.” He turned to me. “You’ve brought someone with you. Name?”

“Charlie,” Tim answered for me.

“Charlie,” The Prince repeated dreamily. Urgh, what a creep.

“What kind of Prince are you?” I asked. “Lord Farquad?”

He scowled at me. Guess he wasn’t a Shrek fan. He turned to Tim and hissed: “Bitch speaks to me that way again, you aren’t getting any answers.”

“Hey, I’m not a –”

Tim cut me off. “Honey, just leave it.”

The Prince walked back into his lair and Tim followed, me behind him. We found ourselves in a little room with a lot of lounge chairs. The Prince climbed up into an armchair and motioned for us to sit down as well. I’d never felt tall before, but when I was able to sit on the sofa next to Tim and my feet still touched the ground, I felt positively gangly.

“So,” The Prince began. “What are we bartering?”

“Money for information.”

“Then what is the girl for?”

“Urgh! Tim, you didn’t mention that I might be part of a payment. Yuck!”

“You won’t be part of a payment, honey. I’m not a pimp,” he told me. He looked at The Prince. “As you well know.”

“I didn’t mean like that,” said The Prince. He turned to me. “We would just kill you and sell your body parts. Nothing untoward.” He said it as thought it was supposed to make me feel better.

“Reassuring,” I answered.

“Now,” said the Prince. “What is it you wish to know?”

He spoke too well to be from this part of town. He sounded like someone who should live on Madison Hill.

“The serial killer the police are looking for,” Tim answered. “The one who got McKenzie.”

“Yes?”

“What can you tell us about them?”

“What would you like to know?”

“What can you tell us?”

“About what?”

“The killer,” said Tim, starting to sound slightly irate.

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“The serial killer that you just said you knew about,” said Tim. I could see him breathing deeply in an attempt to calm down. I was starting to understand why he’d put his foot through the door last time.

“I didn’t say I knew about them.”

“Well, do you?”

“Yes.”

“What do you know?”

“What exactly are you looking for?”

“Gender, appearance, name, height, anything,” I snapped. Tim smiled slightly at me, then turned back to The Prince and nodded once.

The Prince sighed. “This isn’t going to come cheaply.”

“Just tell us,” said Tim. “Before I get impatient.” I’d never really thought Tim looked all that intimidating before, but right now even I felt a little nervous.

The Prince shifted slightly in his seat, suddenly looking a little less cocky. “Fine,” he said, his voice a slightly higher pitch now. “It is a man.”

“If that’s all you’ve got, buddy –”

“Don’t interrupt,” he snapped. Then, more calmly, “It is a man, but they say for this last one he killed, he had a lady helping. The Rodent is his name. No one knows who he is. He’s not a serial killer exactly. It’s more like he… provides a service for money. Does all his business over the internet so no one can ever identify him. He’s very expensive. Speaking of which, one hundred dollars.” Tim handed him the note and he continued. “The police won’t find him. He’s been doing this for a long time and he knows how to get away with it. Single shot to the head from a distance, then decapitation. That’s his signature. One hundred.” Tim handed over two fifties. “That is all I know.”

“You just payed $200 for that information?” I said when we were back in the car. “What was with that? Is he even reliable? He kept saying ‘they’ say this and ‘they’ say that. Who the hell are ‘they’?”

“If I knew who ‘they’ were, I wouldn’t be going to him. Generally he’s pretty reliable. I mean, yeah, it costs a little, but I’ll just tack it onto McKenzie’s bill. Besides, he gave us a lot of valuable information.”

Yeah, right. “Such as?”

“The name ‘Rodent’.”

“Big deal. Unless that’s the nickname of someone you already know, it doesn’t help much.” Tim rolled his eyes at me.

“How do people get names like that?” he asked.

“Being an Animagus?”

“What?”

“Never mind.” Apparently Tim wasn’t a Harry Potter fan. I’d have to work on that if we were going to be friends. “Appearance?” I guessed.

“Exactly!”

“But The Prince said no one had ever seen him.”

“Maybe not recently, but he must have gotten that nickname somehow. I’d say that there’s a fair chance there’s something rat-like about the way he looks or moves.”

I wasn’t totally convinced. It seemed like a bit of a leap to me.

Tim continued. “Plus, we know he does his business online, so he must be pretty good at covering his tracks. That would mean he’d probably be able to set up McKenzie fairly easily.”

“OK, so what’s our next move?”

“Go over the case again, see what we’ve missed. Try and find out how this guy fits in. Lea’s helping you, right?”

“Right.”

“So fill her in and see what she picks up from the files. I’m guessing you’ve got copies of all my information?”

“Yep.”

“Good. Go through that and whatever else you’ve got and see if anything jumps out at you. I’m going to spend some time trying to track down where this Rodent has been sending his emails from.”

I thought for a moment. “It’s the two-week anniversary of Frank’s death on Monday.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“The police aren’t going to find the killer, are they?”

“Not with Andrews in charge.”

“Do you think James will go down for it?”

“I hope not.” That wasn’t particularly comforting.

“He has an alibi, though, right? When she gets back –”

“If.”

“What?”

If she gets back, honey. A contract killer isn’t going to leave his fall-guy’s alibi alive if he can help it.” I was getting a sick feeling in my stomach. I’d met Sarah Hollis a few times; the first being right after my brother went missing. She’d been pretty young, just out of the academy – closer to me in age than she was to most of her fellow officers. She’d made me tea and looked after me and just made things feel OK for a while. I couldn’t handle the thought of someone killing a person who was so nice. I hadn’t known any of the other victims, but I knew Sarah didn’t deserve this.

“If we don’t find him, no one will, will they?” I asked. Tim didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. It hadn’t really been a question. “Any ideas on how?”

“I’m sure it’ll come to us.”

Chapter Thirteen

 

When I woke up on Saturday morning, there was sun shining through my window. Not something I remembered seeing before. I felt around clumsily on the nightstand for my glasses. When I put them on and looked at my clock, I was shocked. 7 o’clock. In the morning. My big weekend sleep-in lasted until seven. Argh! Baxter & Co. was doing weird things to me. I mean, seven!

I stepped out of bed (yes, I was alert enough to step out of bed, not just roll out) and walked down to the kitchen. When I entered, Mum and Lea looked up at me, shocked.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s not even 10 yet, and you’re up!” Mum answered.

“So? I’ve been getting up at five-thirty the rest of the week. Seven is late for me these days.” OK, so that was a stretch, but I really was getting used to it. It was weird.

“Whatever,” said Mum. She wasn’t buying it. “Are you doing anything on the McKenzie case today?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “We’ve got a heap of information to go through, plus I got some more yesterday. We’re going to be busy.”

I got all the information from upstairs and spread it over the kitchen table. I filled Lea in on what The Prince had said, and then we started sorting through the information. By 9 o’clock we were done and had nothing interesting to report. We’d even Facebook-stalked James’s timeline to try to alibi him for the dates Tim had given me of all the murders. No luck there. I could only think of one thing to do, and I really hoped that Lea wasn’t going to freak when I told her.

It’s now or never, I decided. “We need to see what the police have got.”

She looked at me. “I was just about to say that. How do we get hold of it?”

“Well, I have a plan, but it’s slightly illegal.”

She nodded. “Sounds good.”

This was going to be easier than I thought.

“OK,” I said. “Here’s the vague outline. You and I go to the station and ask to see Michael Andrews. I haven’t figured out what we’ll say, but he’s not the smartest cookie in the jar so it won’t have to be too believable. One of us goes to his office with him and the other follows, looking inconspicuous. When one of us gets into the office, the other one bangs on the office door and pretends to be an annoying journalist trying to get information. While this is happening, the one in the office finds whatever they can on McKenzie and puts it in their handbag. If there’s stuff on the computer, copy it to USB. Then we exit very quickly and come back here to look at it and make copies if we have to. Then we somehow get it back to the police and we have all their information.”

“Like on that TV show the other night?”

I nodded.

“Can I be the one in the office? Please? Pretty please?” I took that to mean she was in.

“Sure. I make a good annoying journo. It’ll be fun.” If fun was the right word. Nerve-racking and incredibly dangerous was probably more accurate, but I was going with fun for the moment.

“When are we gonna do this thing?” she asked.

“ASAP,” I answered.

Which is how we found ourselves, one and a half hours later, standing out the front of the police station, psyching ourselves up.

“Let’s do this,” said Lea.

“Up and at ’em.”

“We’ll pounce!”

“We’re gonna get that file!”

Ten minutes later, we still hadn’t gone inside.

Lea took a deep breath, rolled her shoulders like she was gearing up, and said, “Now or never,” before walking in. To tell the truth, now that we were here I would prefer it to be never. Or perhaps even later than never. Not that I could tell Lea that, what with this being my idea and all.

I followed her in. Due to enormous good fortune, Michael Andrews, the walking marshmallow himself, was also in the front foyer, about to head up the stairs.

“Officer,” said Lea, as she swung her (decidedly narrow) arse over towards him. With all that hip swagger I was amazed she could stay upright, especially with boobs like hers – I certainly didn’t have that kind of balance. He turned to look at her and I realised that she wasn’t going to need an excuse to get into his office. “Officer,” she repeated. “I knew Frank McKenzie quite well and I thought I might be able to help with your inquiries.”

His mouth was hanging open. “Yes,” he said. “I’d love for you to tell us anything you know. Come with me. We’ll talk in my office if you like.”

I followed them at a safe distance. Andrews led Lea up a flight of stairs and down a corridor lined with posters saying things like ‘Gerongate says NO to domestic violence’ and ‘Drink-driving is a crime’. Fascinating. I wondered what the point of these posters was. To tell the police what the law said? To be fair, Andrews may have found that a handy reminder. He probably couldn’t hold too much information in his brain at any one time.

I pursued them through a doorway and found myself in a big room with about twenty different desks in it. Oh no. This wasn’t what we’d planned for. Andrews walked over to a desk (I assumed it was his) and asked Lea what she knew. That was my cue.

“Officer Andrews,” I said in my best snooty-reporter imitation. “How is the McKenzie case going? Any new leads? Is it true that James McKenzie, Frank’s nephew, is a suspect?”

Andrews walked towards me and behind him I could see Lea frantically searching through his desk drawers. This wasn’t what we’d imagined. We’d thought that the offices would be separated and I could lure him out into the corridor while Lea searched inside. In here, if Andrews turned around, Lea would be caught. In fact, if any of the other officers looked over, we were in big trouble.

“There are rumours going around that there have been other murders similar to this occurring across Australia over the last five years. Can you confirm or deny this? Does this mean we may have a serial killer on the loose? Don’t you think the people of Gerongate have a right to know if they’re in danger?”

Lea still hadn’t managed to find the stuff we wanted. With our luck, it was probably all on computer and there wasn’t a hard copy. She definitely wouldn’t have time to copy anything onto USB. She signalled at me to keep him talking.

“What about Sarah Hollis? Have you heard from her yet? Can you confirm whether she is alive or dead? She’s due back in the country tomorrow. Will she be brought in for questioning? Is she in danger?”

Andrews looked a bit overwhelmed with all these questions. Over his shoulder I could see Lea grab something from a drawer and shove it in her bag. Andrews turned around to catch Lea shutting the drawer.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Looking for a pen,” she answered. “I know an answer to this crossword.” She gestured to a magazine sitting on top of the desk. Apparently Andrews had been trying to expand his limited vocabulary.

“Oh,” he said to her. He turned to me, pointed at the door and said, “Out. Now!”

I left and walked to my car, beeped it open and hopped into the driver’s seat. I put the key in the ignition but didn’t start the engine. The only radio station I could tune into that wasn’t advertisements or classical music was a local news station. I listened to it for a while, but it didn’t tell me anything relevant to the McKenzie case.

Ten minutes later, Lea still hadn’t returned. I wasn’t too worried about her. She was probably just helping Andrews with his crossword or answering some questions about Frank with completely fabricated lies.

I was bored. I picked up my handbag from the passenger-seat floor and poured the contents onto the seat. Nothing interesting. A wallet, some tissues, sunglasses. No food. No mobile. Nothing to keep me occupied. OK, so maybe it was a good thing that I had no food. Will had said my bum was OK, but I didn’t want to risk adding to it.

Maybe I could go for a run to pass time. But I didn’t want to keep Lea waiting if she turned up. Now I’d started worrying about my posterior again. No longer was I bored. This is stupid, I told myself. You’re worried about being fat? Do something about it.

I thought for a while. I knew what I should do. And I knew what I wanted to do. And they were two very different things. I wanted to avoid the gym at all costs. However, I knew the only way I was going to tone up would be to go there and exercise. I was going to do it, I decided. I was going to sacrifice my happiness for two hours after dinner tonight on the quest for rearward excellence.

I was already dreading it.

I put all my things apart from my wallet back in my bag. It wasn’t a cool bag. It wasn’t an expensive bag. And the wallet wasn’t too flash either. I knew what I was going to be spending my pay on – a new wardrobe.

Yeesh, who had I become?

My wallet contained my driver’s licence, my Baxter & Co. key card, and my pay packet. I opened up the envelope and took the slip out. It showed my normal pay (minus the money I’d spent on food at the cafeteria), as well as $300 extra for the two jobs I’d helped Tim with. Wow. I got payed $150 each time for setting off a fire alarm and sitting in a pub. This was a cool job.

I scrunched up the envelope and put it into a side pocket on my bag. Just as I was putting my wallet away, the door opened and Lea slid in next to me.

“Sorry I took so long,” she said. “He insisted I stay and help him with the crossword. It was pathetic. ‘Canine’, three letters, ‘d’ something ‘g’. Whatever could it be. He didn’t even ask me about McKenzie after you left. Oh, that reminds me.” She retrieved the file from her bag. “Let’s get home so we can decide what to do next.”

Lea read out the post mortem results as I drove back to Elm Avenue. Nothing new there. Method of killing was exactly the same as it said in the papers. Toxicology report came back clean, so we knew he wasn’t drugged.

Lea thought that we didn’t really need to see the forensic photographs until we decided that there was nothing else in the file worth looking at. The pathologist had concluded that the bullet in McKenzie’s head had not been shot from the same gun as any of the other killings, so apparently the murderer used a different firearm each time. Also, the weapon used to remove the head varied from victim to victim. That was probably why no one had connected the crimes sooner. All the information from the other cases was included in this file, too. It was a thick file.

“Frank McKenzie’s head was removed with a hacksaw,” Lea said, flipping through the file in horror.

She was right. I didn’t feel much desire to look at those autopsy pictures either.

The forensics had also concluded that there were no DNA traces left by the killer. The Prince was right – this guy was a pro. The police were never going to find The Rodent.

There were also copies of everyone’s statements (no contact details for anyone, though, so follow-up interviews would be hard for us). James’s was just as you’d expect. He didn’t do it. He had an alibi. He didn’t know why anyone would want to kill his uncle (which was bullshit – he knew exactly who had his uncle killed and why).

Larry Jones’s statement said that he hadn’t had anything to do with it, he got along well with Frank, and he had an alibi. He didn’t know who had torched his office or why. Everything he’d said was a lie.

I parked the car out the front of my house and we went inside. We sat at the table with the file and looked through the stuff we hadn’t read in the car. Lea had also managed to swipe one extra thing from the office – Frank’s digital organiser. I didn’t know people even used these any more; surely most people just used their phone. Maybe it was a rich-person thing. Or an old-person thing. From the details in the file, it looked like the police had not, as yet, been able to open it due to the password protection.

I typed in a few random words. I tried James, Francis, Frank, McKenzie, money, billionaire, hill and, just for good measure, duck. Yeah, ‘duck’ was a long stretch, but you never know. I went back to the file and found a sheet listing properties, houses and hotels Frank had owned. I went through trying all of them but had no luck. I sighed and dialled James’s number.

On the second ring, Karen answered. “Hello, McKenzie residence. Karen speaking.”

“Hi Karen, it’s Officer Higgins here,” I said in a nasal voice. “I was just wondering if I’d be able to ask James a few questions.”

There was a pause and I guessed she’d been covering the mouthpiece to ask James if he wanted to talk. “He’s just coming,” she said. “He’ll be right with you.”

“Hello?” It was James.

“Hi James. It’s Charlie. Don’t say my name. The only reason she let me speak to you was because she didn’t recognise my voice. Now, I know this is kind of abrupt, but what was the password to your uncle’s organiser?”

He didn’t answer.

“Hello? Are you still there?” I asked.

“My uncle’s organiser is in police possession.”

“Of course it is. Just answer my question.”

He hung up.

The bastard hung up on me! OK, so I should have realised a cop wouldn’t like me stealing from the station, but really, we were talking about his uncle’s death here.

I picked up the phone and hit redial. Damned if I was gonna let McKenzie hang up on me.

“Hello? James speaking.”

“Why the hell did you hang up on me?”

“Because if I didn’t I would have started yelling at you for stealing police evidence. What were you thinking?”

I rolled my eyes. “Just tell me the password.”

“I don’t know. Figure it out yourself. I can’t believe you stole – ”

“Shut up,’ I said, and hung up on him. There, I thought. A much better ending to the phone call. Now we were even.

As soon as I hung up, the telephone rang again.

“Hello? Charlie speaking.”

“Hi, Charlie, it’s Adam. Look, I was just wondering if you were going to be driving past the office any time today.”

“Uh – ” I thought. “I was thinking of going to the gym tonight, if that works.”

He paused. “Yeah. What time?”

I thought. “Eight?”

“There’ll be a lot of security officers working out at that time.”

“So?”

“You’re welcome to go, but they, uh…”

Oh god. “What?”

“They can be a little… Tough. On newcomers.” Like the guys I’d met already hadn’t been?

“Oh, well. I’ll survive. Why did you want to know?”

“I have your work mobile here to give you. It’s a secure one, in case you need to talk to other people from B-Co about cases or anything confidential. Anyway, I’ll see you at eight.”

“Bye.”

“Later.”

We sorted through the police information all afternoon, but we didn’t find out anything exceptionally useful. Or even moderately useful. Slightly useful. We found nothing. And I couldn’t figure out McKenzie’s password.

At half past seven, I was dressed in shorts and a baggy T-shirt that came down past my (sizable) backside. I drove to the office and parked in my spot. When I got to the gym, it was packed. Weirdos. Didn’t they have anything better to do on a Saturday night? Like, you know, stay at home drinking tea and reading a good book?

I hopped on an exercise bike and pedalled until I was dripping sweat and my legs had liquefied. I stepped off, fell over and was given a hand up by someone I didn’t recognise.

“Wow. Is there any possibility you’re allergic to exercise? You’re looking a bit worse for wear.” He spoke with an Irish accent. His hair was red, his eyes were blue and he was only a little bit taller than me. “Sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. M’name’s Jason, but you can call me Patty.”

“I’m Charlie, and yes, I’m definitely allergic to exercise. I was born that way. I’m also coordination deficient.”

That got a laugh out of him. “Then I guess you aren’t security. There’s no way you’d pass the fitness test.”

“No, I’m the…” I was stumped. What I did didn’t really have a title. “Um… I’m secretary-receptionist-administrator-researcher-clerk-fill-in-helper thing. Kind of.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Right. One of those.”

“Charlie,” said a voice behind me. I turned around to face Adam.

“Hi,” I said. He handed me the phone and walked off. “Mr Sociable,” I commented.

Apparently, I was the most unfit person anyone had ever seen at this gym before. Several people told me as much. Patty offered to train me to wrestle and because I no longer have any pride, I accepted. That was when everyone began to crowd around and make bets. Not on who would win, of course – there was no competition. They were betting on how long before I’d pass out. I must have been looking pretty bad.

And I had thought that I was just going to have a quiet night at the gym. Ah, so naive. You’d think that after 19 years of being me I would know better.

Ha.

As I pulled out of the Baxter & Co. car park, I heard another car start up behind me. I didn’t think it was too strange until I looked in my mirror and saw what kind of vehicle it was. A green van. Not black. Not silver. Not Baxter & Co.

As I turned off down a narrow street, it became pretty clear that I was being followed.

Why was someone following me?

Unless…

Oh, no. It had to be The Rodent. Who else could it be?

I started to panic. Where was I going to go? I couldn’t lead an assassin to my house! Where else? I could drive back to Baxter & Co… No. I wanted this guy caught, and if I went back it would be too obvious that I’d spotted him. He’d split. I started jiggling my leg nervously and felt something heavy in my pocket. Of course!

I pulled out my mobile and scrolled through the numbers. Ordinarily I would not tempt Death like this, but since I figured the choice was between “definitely get killed by crazed assassin” or “maybe have a car accident”, just this once I bent the road rules. Oh, thank god – Tim was pre-programmed in! Aphrodite had my back tonight. I pressed call and the car’s blue tooth kicked in. I loved this Mustang! I dropped the phone back into my pocket.

“Hello? Carter speaking.”

“Tim it’s Charlie I’m being followed by The Rodent he’s in a green van save me!”

There was a pause. “Sorry?”

I took a deep breath and told myself to calm down. “It’s Charlie. Someone in a green van is following me and I think it’s The Rodent. What do I do?” It came out much better the second time.

“I’m at James McKenzie’s house. Come around here. Do you know how to get here from where you are?” he asked. His voice was very steady. He was probably trained to stay calm in these kinds of situations. I, however, was not trained for this and my voice had risen about an octave.

“Yes,” I confirmed. “Are you sure I’ll be safe there? This is really scary.”

“I’m sure you’ll be safe. Don’t hang up. Keep talking to me.”

We chatted about nothing in particular until, after what seemed like an age, I reached McKenzie’s. Tim and James were waiting outside for me. I locked my doors when I left the car and was escorted inside.

“Did you get a look at his face?” Tim asked.

“Or the number plate?” James added.

“No.”

“Where did you first notice you were being followed?”

“Just as I was leaving the Baxter & Co. car park.”

Tim frowned. “What were you doing there at this time on a Saturday? Don’t you have a life?”

James and I answered in unison. “No.”

I continued. “I was playing Gladiators with Patty.”

“What?” was James’s response. “Was that in code?”

“No,” I answered. “I was playing Gladiators with Patty because I need the exercise and as I was leaving the car park The Rodent followed me in a green van.”

“I didn’t see a green van when you pulled up,” James said. “And who the hell’s The Rodent?”

“I didn’t see the van either,” said Tim, and then explained who The Rodent was.

“A little while after I called you he got off my bumper and disappeared,” I explained.

James frowned. “Not to discredit your story, Charlie, but it could have just been anyone driving home. I know it seems scary but it probably wasn’t even someone following you. Maybe you’re just being paranoid, and it was some random person – ”

“No,” I cut in. “It wasn’t just some random. It was a green van in the Baxter & Co. car park, not a black or silver car. It probably followed me there earlier and I just didn’t notice. I went around in circles to see if they would follow me, and they did.”

“Why,” James asked, “did they stop following you? If they went to all the trouble you say they did then it doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t know,” I lied. But part of me, a part I didn’t want to listen to, thought that maybe I did know. The car had disappeared just after I called Tim. Tim, who was here talking to James – who was, despite all our efforts to clear his name, still one of the main suspects in our murder inquiry. James, who was trying to convince me I hadn’t been followed. He could quite easily have sent a text to call off the person who was tailing me without Tim noticing. That would mean that the person who had been tailing me was The Rodent’s female offsider…

And James was The Rodent.

That meant that even if I did solve the case, I would get no reward.

What if the police were right? What if this guy had everyone – including me – fooled? What if my brother had found out about this five years ago and that was why he’d run away? Oh god. What if he hadn’t run away? What if James had…

It was then that Karen entered the room. She scowled at me and spat “What the hell are you doing here?”

Was Karen his female helper? At least that would mean that the two people in the world that I disliked the most were going to go to prison.

It was a perfect answer to the question of who was the killer. Case solved. And for roughly two seconds, I actually allowed myself to pretend I believed that.

Then I reeled it in.

No. I couldn’t think that.

James would never hurt his uncle. He would never hurt my brother. And he didn’t look at all like a rodent.

So, back to square one.

Again.

But I had a more pressing problem. Namely, Karen.

“Running away from a crazed murderer,” I told Karen, “Just like I have to do every time you’re around.”

James caught her before her body made contact with mine in what must have been her attempt at a tackle. Obviously she didn’t play much football with her brother while she was growing up, because it was the most pathetic effort at a body slam I’d ever seen.

When she’d regained her composure (ish), we continued our conversation.

“We don’t usually allow trash in living room,” said Karen.

“They obviously made an exception for you.”

And after again going through the body-slam routine, James decided that it was late and Karen really should have been at home by then.

“I thought you’d left already,” he said. Further evidence that she was a psycho – hanging around her place of work late on a Saturday night. (Shh, I’d been going to the gym. It didn’t count.) After she’d gone, James led Tim and I into the kitchen to talk through the case. (Again.) And see if we could come up with anything new. (Again.) And maybe spend some time ripping off my exercise clothes. (Never again.)

When I got home, I had a shower and went to bed.

Chapter Fourteen

 

I think it must have been because of my late night and hard work yesterday that I didn’t wake up until eight that Sunday morning. I know, massive sleep in.

I felt awful as I descended the stairs, dressed in my usual uniform of Clothes That Make People Look Twice But Not In A Good Way, today taking the form of a flannelette checked shirt, my Seen Better Days tracksuit pants and Ugg(ly) boots (oh yes, I went there). If nothing else, I was comfortable.

I was at the dining table drinking green tea and staring at all the sheets of paper relating to the case when it occurred to me that when I’d tried to open Frank’s organiser, I hadn’t tried the most obvious password known to man. The most common password in the world. The one everyone was guilty of using at one time or another, despite constant warnings that if you do THE INTERNET WILL EXPLODE.

Password.

It unlocked immediately. As I was not living in the early noughties, I wasn’t entirely sure how to work it at first, but finally I managed to make my way to the calendar. I flicked through, looking for anything unusual. When I got to the day he died, I stopped and stared at the screen. I don’t know how long I sat there, just staring.

Monday evening – dinner with James.

The police reports didn’t have a great timeline for McKenzie’s death. As far as the police knew – and as far as I’d known up until a few moments earlier – no one had seen McKenzie after he’d left his office at 7 pm. James hadn’t mentioned a dinner date. This was not looking good. He’d claimed to not even have been at home that night – he said he’d been at Sarah’s. But Sarah wasn’t around to confirm that. She was due back some time today, but I hadn’t heard anything from Tim, so I was guessing no one had tracked her down yet. When we found her she’d be able to tell us what happened.

If The Rodent, whoever he was, didn’t get to her first.

Lea walked into the kitchen at around nine, and my irritation at not having solved the case must have been showing, because the second she saw me she screamed. Or, I suppose, it could have just been my outfit.

“Oh, sorry,” she said, realising it was me. “Um, would you like me to pick out something for you to wear today?”

Yep. She’d been screaming at the outfit. Or maybe it was the hair. I hadn’t bothered to brush it this morning.

“They’re my thinking clothes.”

My mother entered at this point. She took one look at me and shook her head. “When are you going to learn to dress yourself properly? You think guys find this kind of clothing attractive?”

Right, Mum, because obviously that’s all that matters in life.

“Well, everyone comments on how I look.”

Mum shook her head and walked out, mumbling and looking pained.

“So,” Lea said. “What is the plan for this morning?”

I knew I should tell her about the organiser. About all the not so subtle hints I was getting that maybe James was responsible. The thing was, if she knew that then she’d know that maybe we wouldn’t get paid. And then she wouldn’t help me.

You see, I wasn’t convinced it was James. But even if it was, and I wasn’t going to be paid, I still wanted to catch him. Before he did something to Sarah.

And to find out what he did to my brother.

“That’s the million dollar question,” I said.

Lea and I sat in the kitchen and contemplated what to do next. Currently, we had no suspects (apart from James), no leads (apart from James) and, generally speaking, no idea. (Apart from James.) We had to be missing something. I started sorting through the information yet again. The list of names I’d collected from newspaper articles was sitting on top of a pile of loose sheets. Sarah Hollis would be the best person to speak to, but I didn’t have a clue how to contact her. There were also the two kids who had found the body, but yet again, I had no way of…

Yes I did!

“Come on!” I grabbed Lea’s hand and ran back upstairs to retrieve my handbag, with her struggling to keep up. (Finally, someone who couldn’t keep up with me!)

We jumped into the Mustang and sat five Ks over the speed limit, even as I pulled into the Baxter & Co. car park. I rushed inside, booted up my computer, and after what seemed like an age I was able to begin my search.

Due to a lack of inspiration, I had decided to interview the kids who had found the body. I knew they probably weren’t going to be able to tell me more than the forensic report, but it was all I could think of. Maybe there was something they hadn’t told the police. Maybe they would give us the missing clue. I found Sarah Hollis’s address and phone number as well, just for good measure – you know, in case Tim decided not to call me when he’d tracked her down.

I didn’t take any notice of the kids’ addresses as I was printing them off the Baxter & Co. computer, but as I was pulling out of the car park I glanced at the sheets and did a double-take. And nearly clipped a rather expensive-looking car of the BMW variety.

The kids lived next door to each other on Slade Street. I seem to remember mentioning that Baxter & Co. was situated in a bad part of town. It was on the outskirts of the ring of crime and evil that radiated out from Slade. This was going to be the second time I was visiting the place in a week – first to see The Prince, now this.

I had a moment of hesitation, wondering if I should ask Tim to come with us. He’d scare away anyone who considered attacking us. And my car wouldn’t get stolen.

But I didn’t stop. If I was going to visit this place in future, I wanted to be confident going there by myself. I needed to earn their respect on my own.

At least, that is the excuse I use for the stupidity of my actions.

I drove the few blocks to the boys’ houses and stepped out of the car.

“What the hell are you doing?” Lea hissed at me. “You can’t go out there!”

“Well, I have to if I want to talk to the kids.”

She sighed and got out as well. “Do you think I should leave a note in the car in case I don’t live through this?”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. If we don’t live through this, you don’t think the car will still be here when people come looking for us, do you?”

“Thanks, Charlie. That’s extremely comforting.”

“Oh, come on. We caused a mass evacuation of an office building the other day, then stole a police file. We can handle spending ten minutes in Slade Street.”

“Well, technically, you caused the evacuation by yourself – it had nothing to do with me. And –”

“You see? If one of us can do that alone, then together we won’t have any trouble with this.”

She was about to protest, but I ignored her and walked over to the Patels’ front door. Knock knock. A waited a moment, but I couldn’t hear footsteps, so I tried again, louder this time.

The door was ripped open by a rather thin woman in a dressing gown and hair rollers, cigarette in one hand, cricket bat in the other. Obviously she was taking the necessary precautions for opening your front door in this neighbourhood.

“I heard you knock the first time, Bush Pig, now wadda ya want?”

“Derek in?” I asked casually, as though Bush Pig was my name.

“Watsit ta you?”

I was tempted to say we were from DOCS just for the lols, but I suspected she was the kind of mother who would willingly hand over her son.

“I’m DCI Peters and this is DC – uh – Puppy. We want to question your son about the body he found,” I lied.

“Where’s ya badges?”

Think quick, I told myself. “This is Australia. We don’t have badges. That’s something that only happens on American TV.”

“I knew that,” she said, making it very clear that she didn’t, which was doubly confusing since I’d been lying in the first place. “But he ain’t here. Ain’t next door with Peter, neither. They’re probably down egging the butcher’s or smoking pot or someink.”

“They’re – what – six years old? And smoking pot?” Lea asked, dumbfounded. I was speechless.

“They’re 12, I think.” I think. “Besides, I don’t let ’im do crack or nuffink.”

Comforting.

Lea and I left for the butcher’s down the road. It was only six doors down but we took the car to minimise the chance of it being stolen. I was, despite it being a B-Co car, amazed that it was still there. Maybe the thieves took Sundays off.

There was a group of seven people egging the butcher’s when we pulled up. If I had seen them half an hour ago, I would have thought that The Prince had taken all his little friends for a day out. Now I knew it was a group of children aged somewhere between 6 and 12, smoking pot and vandalising local businesses.

“Kids these days,” said Lea. Personally I suspected it had more to do with the parents, but hey, what did I know?

We got out of the car and started towards the kids. I tripped over a signpost that had been pulled down. There was something that looked suspiciously like a bullet hole just in front of the ‘I’ so that it now read ‘G oI V E W A Y’, like someone was saying it in a super bogan accent.

“Oi, Derek! Peter!” I called out. The kids all stopped what they were doing.

“What?” asked one.

“You talkin’ to us?” asked the other.

“Yeah,” Lea answered. “We wanna speak to you.”

One stuck his finger up at us. “Speak to this!” Then he high-fived his mate as though it was a good call. Sure, mate. Comedy gold.

“We just want to know about the body you found,” I said. Maybe they’d want to talk about that. If they smoked pot at age six (or 12, whatever they were) they probably weren’t all that traumatised by corpses. Maybe they’d think it was cool.

That got them listening. They walked towards us while the kids in the background resumed egg throwing. Either Derek or Peter (I didn’t know which was which) looked us up and down and licked his lips. Urgh.

“Well, babe,” he said to me, “Wadda ya wanna know?”

“What did you do when you found the body?”

“Looked at it for a while. Got bored.”

“Then we called some lady over and she got real creeped out and made us stay until the police arrived.”

“See any cars around?” It was a long shot, sure. But maybe…

“Nah,” said one.

“Yeah, there was,” said the other. “Don’t know what kind it was. Old.”

“Like old-fashioned?”

“Nah, like rusted. Dents, you know. Old.”

Fuck. That kind of vague description could fit Karen’s car. Things were just looking worse for James.

“Anythink else ya wanna know?”

“Nope.”

Behind him the kids had run out of eggs.

“Gotta go, babe,” one of the kids told me. “But maybe we should go out for a drink sometime.”

“I don’t think you’re the right age,” I responded.

“I’m thirty-four.”

“See? Far too old for me.”

The kids left. I turned to Lea.

“What now?” I asked.

“Now we get in the car and drive as fast and as far away from here as possible.”

“What? Why?”

“Don’t look, but there’s a gang of guys behind you and they’re heading our way. We should get out of here before they – ”

“Whatchoo two babes doing out here by yourselves? Danny don’t recognise you. You new? Who you work for?” Babe? Did he not see what I was wearing? This was not a babe outfit. This outfit was, if anything, a contraceptive.

I turned around to face the gang. Danny, the guy who had spoken, apparently did not only speak about himself in third person, but also felt the need to announce his name across the front of his shirt. He looked like a wannabe gangster. He was trying a bit too hard, with all the bling, as well as the tracksuit pants in the middle of a hot spring day.

“I don’t “work” for anyone,” I answered.

“Ooh, you got attitude. I like that.”

“You’re despicable,” I said, channelling Grandma. In times of adversity, that’s what I do.

“Mmm. Big words for a little girl. Maybe you could – ”

“I don’t want to hear the rest of this sentence! I don’t want to do anything with you. Leave me alone or suffer the consequences.”

He looked at me. I could tell he was about to say something else, but he lost interest when he noticed the Mustang.

“Damn,” he said. “A car like that has got to be worth a lot of money.” He looked at me. “Whose is it?

“Mine,” I said. “It’s a Baxter & Co. company car. And if you so much as think – ”

“You full of shit, girl. Baxter only employ men. The kind that have earn our respect.” Yep, ‘have earn’. Maybe if he’d gone to school he might have learn something.

“They’ve earned your respect? You mean they’ve beaten you up?”

That was when he pulled out his knife. “Shut up, bitch, or I’ll cut you up and sell your pieces.” Well, that escalated quickly.

I frowned at him. “Much of a market for that?” Oh yes, I actually said that. He had a knife pulled on me, and I was picking holes in his threats. Although now that I thought about it, The Prince had mentioned something similar last time I was here.

He pushed me backwards into Lea and we both fell to the ground. “Get the car,” Danny told his minions. “You lucky, bitch. Real lucky.” And he kicked me in the ribs. Ouch.

That was all it took, and my many years of anger-management counselling flew out the window.

I grabbed his ankle as he tried to walk away and jerked my arm back. He landed with a satisfying thud. I stood and laid the boot into him a few times as payback. I kicked his knife away to be doubly careful, and turned just in time to land a punch in the face of another guy who had been trying to sneak up on me. I packed a fair bit of anger into that punch, and possibly broke his nose. Not that I could ask him – he was unconscious. I helped Lea up off the ground and a few more guys came at me. There were too many. I could never fend them off with my bare hands. So I picked up the sign that had “goiven way” and swung it at them like some sort of modern-day urban jouster. Out of the four I’d hit, none were left standing.

I walked over to the car, still holding the sign. There were a few guys there with their knives out.

“Come any closer and I’ll kill you,” said one.

“Don’t be so pathetic.”

He came at me and I took his feet out with the sign.

The few remaining guys standing at the car looked at the dude I’d just knocked over. I checked behind me and saw a couple of guys I’d already knocked over coming at me.

“What? Do you just want me to bash you again?” No one replied. “Get your greasy hands off my car,” I hissed at the guys near the Mustang. They did. They walked around (a little too quickly to completely hide their fear) to join Danny and the others, of whom all but two had now recovered.

I casually pulled the keys out of my pocket, beeped the car unlocked and waited until Lea was inside and buckled up before I opened my door. I still had the post in one hand, and I was still furious. I looked at the post, looked at the gang, sat my keys on the car seat, took the post in both hands, and hurled it at the men. Then I stepped into the car and drove off very calmly, never looking back

We were silent for a while. “I think I’ve calmed down now,” I said. No answer. “Lea?”

“Where did you learn to do that?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Fight.”

“Um… I’ve been doing a bit at Baxter & Co. Mainly I just do whatever I think of in the spur of the moment. I just, you know, get a bit angry sometimes.”

“I bet those guys are pissed that they got bashed up by a girl.”

“It was their own fault. They should know not to touch a Baxter & Co. car.”

My mobile started to ring, and the car picked it up.

“Charlie Davies,” I said when I answered.

“Charlie, it’s Tim.”

“Oh, hi Tim. How’re you going?”

“Actually, not so good. I just got a phone call from The Prince.” There was very thinly veiled anger in his voice.

“Oh, really? How was he?” I asked flippantly.

“He said that he thought he saw you a couple minutes ago on Slade Street, but I told him you wouldn’t be stupid enough to go by yourself.”

Eek.

“By myself? No sirree. That would have been silly.”

“What the hell were you thinking? You could have ended up dead!”

“Well, it’s going to happen someday. You may as well live in the moment.” I paused. “Anyway, I wasn’t by myself.”

“Yeah, he said you were with some chick with big tits. I’m assuming that would be Lea.”

Lea made a disgusted sound. “Why do people go on about my tits? They’re perfectly natural!”

Both Tim and I said nothing, but I knew that we were both thinking that they didn’t look perfectly natural.

“You have beautiful tits,” I said to Lea, and we had a little giggle.

“You think this is funny?” Tim said so loudly it could have been a yell. I was silent. “You are lucky you didn’t get killed. I should report you for this.”

“To the police?”

“No, to Adam.” Somehow that was more terrifying.

“This had nothing to do with work! It had to do with McKenzie. I was talking to the kids who found the body.”

“Find out anything?”

“No.” OK, so I was lying. Yes, I was holding out on the two people who were helping me. Yes, I was a terrible person. I just didn’t want to cause unnecessary panic until I’d explored all avenues. “Not unless you count finding out that there are six year olds on marijuana as a discovery.”

“Six year olds!” That wasn’t Tim’s voice. Someone else was in on the conversation.

“They’re six and all they’re doing is pot? That’s not bad for Slade Street. Normally they’re on crack by then.”

“How do they get the money?” Now I knew the voice. It was James McKenzie.

“Stealing. Duh,” Tim answered. “Getting back to the matter at hand, you learned nothing, and so were nearly killed for absolutely no point whatsoever. What the hell were you thinking?” he asked again.

“It wasn’t pointless. At least now Danny won’t try to mess with me. Or my car.”

He sighed. “Why didn’t you just call me to come with you? It would have been a lot safer.”

“Look, I did fine by myself. I don’t need some guy like you to look after me. I can handle it. I’m not some helpless little damsel-in-distress waiting for you to come save me, all right? I’m stronger than I look!”

“She hates men,” I heard James tell Tim. “Don’t try.”

“I don’t hate men!”

“Honey, I’ve seen you try to do a push up, and I know that you have no muscle, so quit lying, OK? You put yourself in a lot of danger, and I want to cut a deal with you.”

I thought for a moment. “What kind of deal?”

“If you go anywhere dangerous, take someone from Baxter & Co. with you, or – ”

“Like Jenny? Or Lilly?”

“Stop being difficult.”

“She can’t. It doesn’t happen. It’s like a disease.” Ten guesses who said that.

“I am not being difficult.”

“Charlie, darl,” said Lea, “You are.”

I sighed. “So what you’re basically asking me to do, Tim, is take a man with me.”

“No, I’m asking you to take some muscle.”

“That is – ”

“I know, I know. It’s just that people would be much less likely to attack you if you took Panther with you.”

I huffed. “What do I get as part of this deal?”

“Apart from not dying? I won’t host a movie night with you as the main star.”

What?”

“Kidding, honey. Kidding.”

I thought for a moment. If The Prince had been watching me, did that mean… “Did The Prince get a video of the… incident?”

“Yeah. He filmed it on his phone in case we needed evidence to convict them for killing you or stealing your car.”

I paused for a beat. “You’ve watched it, haven’t you?”

“Yep,” Tim and James answered in unison.

“He sent it to my phone after he called,” said Tim. “Want a copy?”

“Does James have one?”

“Yes,” James answered.

“How does it compare to the video of me smashing your car?”

“Well,” he answered, “In terms of cinematography, not great, but the character playing the lead role is just as good.”

I took a few deep breaths. “Yes,” I decided, “I want a copy.” A few seconds later my phone buzzed.

“Meet me at my office,” said Tim. He hung up.

I walked into Tim’s office 15 minutes later, after dropping Lea at home. She’d had enough excitement for one day. James was sitting on a chair next to a pile of folders that had obviously been moved onto the floor to make room for him. Tim sat behind his desk, feet up. They both had their mobiles in hand, watching.

“Don’t you even have the decency to stop watching when I come in?” I asked. “That’s pathetic.”

“Shh,” said James. “It’s nearly up to the best part.”

I didn’t know what the best part was, so I went to look over his shoulder. I watched myself hurl the post at the group and get in the car. I hadn’t seen the result while I was there, but I now understood why this was the highlight. It was like 10 pin bowling, and I’d gotten a strike.

“Nice shot,” said James as we watched the gang fall down like toy soldiers. When it finished, James turned to me. “That doesn’t mean I approve or think it was a smart move, though. You could be dead right now.” He looked genuinely concerned. He probably was – he was that kind of person. You know, a nice guy. Not like nice guy as in “I’m a nice guy” Nice Guys who follow you around at bars asking why you won’t love them. He just, you know, cared about people.

Oh, shit. It did sound like I’d gone sweet on him.

“I can look after myself,” I said.

“No you can’t,” James responded.

I knew he was right, and I didn’t like that. Stuff being sweet on him.

“Don’t act like you never make mistakes. Besides, the only reason I was there is because of you. If you hadn’t – ”

“I know,” he cut me off. “That’s why I’m telling you to be careful. If anything happened to you I’d feel responsible.”

That threw me. “Oh.”

“Also, that outfit is next level.” I looked down at my Ugg/tracksuit/flanno combination. I would have said something snide back, but he cut me off. “I have to go. Let me know if you track her down, Tim.” He left.

“Sarah’s missing?” I guessed. Tim just nodded. “Tim?”

“Yeah?”

I geared myself up. “I’ve found out some stuff, and it’s probably nothing, but –”

“Tell me.”

I did. I told him about the meeting in the organiser and the car that the kids had seen near the body and how my brother went missing and Will had overdosed and how none of that made any sense, except if James…

“Shit,” said Tim. His computer pinged as an email came in. His face fell as he read it. “Shiiiitttt…”

“What is it?” I asked. He was staring at his screen in disbelief, much the same as I’d done earlier when staring at the organiser.

“Honey…” My stomach sunk. This wasn’t good. “The results on those emails are back. You know how we were trying to figure out where they were sent from?”

“Yes?” Oh no. Please, no.

“A lot of them – going back a few years – were sent from Frank McKenzie’s house.”

Shit.

“That could just be coincidence though, right? Like maybe Larry, you know, sorted it out or something…”

“Charlie…”

He didn’t need to say it. I knew. This wasn’t coincidence. This wasn’t a set-up.

“Why would he hire us if he did it? Why does Larry hate him so much if they’re working together? It doesn’t –”

“It’s a cover, honey. Maybe he wasn’t expecting us to be so thorough. Larry must be in on it too. They’re covering their tracks. And Karen’s exactly the kind of woman you’d expect to help out a serial killer.” At least that last part was accurate.

“But –”

Tim’s phone rang, cutting me off. He grew even more concerned listening to whoever was on the other end. “Be right there,” he said, hanging up. “Sarah’s been found.”

“Is she –”

“She’s still alive. I guess James is panicked, because he botched it. The bullet hit her shoulder – she must have moved as he was firing. She managed to get under cover but she passed out and it was a while before someone found her. She’s lost a lot of blood. Apparently she’s in a coma. I’m going to head down to the hospital now. Do you want to ride along?”

“No thanks,” I said. If she was in a coma, she was no good to me. I had a better idea.

“Charlie,” said Tim. “You need to stay away from James.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise me you’re not just going to leave here and go after him. If he realises –”

“I promise.”

We both left in separate cars. Keeping my promise to Tim, I wasn’t going to go chasing James. Of course, I hadn’t promised that I’d stop working on the case.

Finally, I’d had an actually good idea.

I went straight to the garage when I got home, rifling through box after box of weird shit my parents had kept over the years. After what felt like hours, I struck gold. Old school magazines.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “That doesn’t sound like gold. That sounds like hoarding. Throw them away immediately before you can no longer fit in your house and you have to get a therapist in to help you.” And I’m not disagreeing. In this case, though, they were exactly what I needed. I didn’t bother dragging the boxes back inside. I sat there on the dusty, sumpy floor rifling through old magazines, looking for pictures.

Pictures of James.

And here they were.

That game his football team had won in Sydney when he was in Year 11. There he was, smiling at the camera, standing next to Joe Winton and a bunch of other guys I didn’t remember. There was Lea, too, cheering the team on. (Our school had been one of the few schools in the country with a cheer squad. They were terrible at it, but very enthusiastic. Lea’s trademark style.) I checked the date against the list of dates the dead bodies had been found. It matched.

I checked a Brisbane game. Match. Another Sydney game. Another match.

I was sick to my stomach.

Was that what had happened to my brother?

 

  • * *

 

There was no answer at Will McKenzie’s apartment so I drove down to the clinic where he worked. He kept weird hours and was often on call, so I’d never bothered trying to keep track of his roster. I needed answers and I wasn’t going to stop until I got them. After parking in an area that wasn’t really a parking spot (it was more of a lawn), I stormed into the building.

I spotted Will from a distance, talking to a middle-aged couple. He was probably telling them about the progress their beloved child was making. Normally, I wouldn’t have behaved like such a total bitch, but this was an emergency.

“Is your brother the killer? Is that what happened?” I yelled

Will looked at me. “Pardon?”

“Did you try to kill yourself? Is that why you overdosed?”

Will just kept looking at me. Finally, he spoke. “Charlie, this is Mr and Mrs Allen. Charlie is another patient of mine,” he lied. They smiled and nodded understandingly. “Would you excuse us for a moment?” He took my by the arm and dragged me into a small counselling room nearby. “Charlie, what the fuck?”

“You tried to kill yourself. I get it. Please just tell me because I’m actually really frigging scared and I want to know what’s going on.”

“This really isn’t the time for –”

“Like fuck it’s not! Sarah Hollis is in a coma, I’m being followed by some creep in a van, and every scrap of evidence we have points to your brother! Just tell me the truth.”

“Charlie, you know you’re my best friend in the universe, but right now you sound really fucking crazy.”

“You overdosed on purpose, didn’t you?”

He looked like a deer in the headlights. “Charlie, I –”

“Don’t you dare lie to me William McKenzie.”

He sighed and began, seeming kind of unsure of what words to use. “Charlie, I – I’m gay.” Frankly, I was unsurprised, but it seemed like an odd time to come out.

“So?” I said. “What does that matter? I’m not trying to crack onto you! What do you think this is?”

“Oh my god, Charlie, grow up. This isn’t about you. I kind of… I mean, I knew for a long time, but I only admitted it to myself about five years ago and I wasn’t coping. I started taking drugs, just weed really. Nothing heavy. I got a little paranoid and hid it in my brother’s room. My parents found it, he said it wasn’t his, they kicked him out, not really for having the weed so much but for lying about it. I tried to tell them but they thought I was just trying to get him out of trouble. James wouldn’t talk to me after that, and even though I know it was about the drugs, at the time I thought it was… Well, he was the only person I’d told, then he kind of disowned me. I told your brother, then he disappeared. I thought they were…”

“You thought that all that shit happened because they found out that you’re gay? Seriously?”

He smiled, but it was not a happy smile. It looked kind of… rueful. “I know, it’s stupid. At the time, though, I was so sure. I was messed up, you know, high half the time, depressed the rest of it… I got my hands on some heavier shit and tried to kill myself. My parents didn’t kick me out because they were scared that the next time I would actually manage it.”

This was a lot more detail than I ever knew before.

“So none of this has anything to do with you maybe finding out that James was a hit-man?”

He gave me exactly the kind of look you’d imagine someone would give you after you’d asked that sort of question. “You thought that I’d tried to kill myself because I found out that my 16 year old brother was a hit man?”

Well, OK, now it maybe didn’t seem so plausible. “But James has to be the killer! Nothing else makes sense. It was James and his housekeeper, and James has been killing people for Larry Jones for five years, and that’s why Topher ran away. All the school excursions line up! Karen was the one following me last night, because she turned up after I arrived. James must have called her to warn her she’d been spotted. That has to be what happened.”

He stared at me blankly for a moment, then shook his head in disbelief. “Charlie, that is completely mental. And yes, that is my professional opinion.”

I sat down on the therapy couch and lay back, closing my eyes. “I know.” If I stopped to think for a second, I knew it couldn’t possibly be James. If nothing else, I knew he would never hurt my brother. He would never hurt his uncle. He hated Larry Jones. This was a set up.

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“I’m kind of relieved to be honest. I think I was going a bit mental thinking about…” Where my brother’s body was. That’s what I was thinking, but I couldn’t say it without my voice cracking. Change the topic. “I guess it was wishful thinking that Karen was involved somehow. I hate her so much.”

“Karen? Is she James’s housekeeper?” he asked.

“Yeah, there was a car that vaguely matched a description of hers near the crime scene.”

“How vaguely?”

“Old.”

“Right. Not exactly incontrovertible evidence, then.”

“Not exactly.”

“What’s she like?”

“Horrible. And she’s got a massive crush on James.”

He nodded slowly, as though he’d just figured something out. “So that’s why you don’t like her. Competition.”

I rolled my eyes. “Shut up.”

He smiled. “Nothing wrong with being in love, baby. You’re only human.”

I ignored him, having just remembered something important. I sighed. Whether it was relief that James was innocent or disappointment that I had been wrong, I don’t know. “He doesn’t look like a rat. He can’t be the Rodent I’m looking for.”

To his credit, Will didn’t look too confused at what I had said. I guess he’d known me long enough that nothing I said could really faze him. “I don’t even want to know what kind of weird fantasies go through your head.”

“William, shut up.”

“You are a strange and twisted woman, Charlie Davies. I don’t know if I want you to become my sister in law.”

I rolled my eyes. “I have to go. I have a murderer to catch.” I stood and stormed to the door. Unfortunately, when I got there I couldn’t get it open. Will let me out, not bothering to disguise his amusement.

“Later, Dangerous Davies.”

Prick.

“By the way, if there’s any chance of you running into my brother today, you might want to change out of your current outfit. It makes you look large in all the wrong places.”

I frowned. “Are there right places to look large?”

“Boobs?”

I looked down. Flat.

“Mmm.”

“The clothes you wear make you look like a spinster who’s given up all hope of finding a man. How can you expect James to fall in love with you when you go around dressed like you’re homeless?”

I groaned. “I don’t expect, nor want, your brother to fall for me. As you well know.”

When he started to hum Can’t Fight The Moonlight, I slapped him across the face and left the clinic. Sitting in my car, I considered all the information I had about the case. As far as Will knew, James had nothing to do with killing anybody, and, on top of that, James didn’t fit The Rodent’s profile. So basically I had nothing. Back to square one. Again.

At this rate, I was going to lose the bet.

Chapter Fifteen

 

Back in the car, my phone began to ring. The car answered for me. What a car.

“Honey?”

“Hey Tim, what’s up? How’s Sarah?”

“Still out of it,” he said. “But I talked to the person who found her. Apparently they saw a green van in the area.”

Oh god. Did that mean…

“Is there some sort of safe house I can go to?” Yeah, that sounded a little dramatic. But hey, this was a dramatic situation.

“We’re tracking your car’s GPS. Just make sure you keep an eye out and call it in if you spot the van.”

“Who do I call?”

“Me. Please just don’t do anything stupid.”

“Sure,” I said, in what I doubted was a convincing tone.

“Please.”

I was feeling much calmer after talking to Will. I mean, sure, there was a very experienced assassin after me and I had no idea who they were, and yeah, they could kill me at any time, but hey – I was still in with a chance of winning a house.

I cruised in silence for a while, not really driving anywhere in particular, when my phone rang again.

“Charlie? It’s Jo.”

“Hey, Jo.” How did she get this number? I hadn’t planned on telling her I had a mobile, um, ever.

“Were you ever planning on telling me you got a mobile?” Uh… “Not that it matters. Your mum gave me the number so now you can’t avoid me.” She cackled. “I can’t believe you waited until your work gave you a mobile before owning one. Hello, 21st century. Actually, hello 20th century. You are so behind the times.”

OK, was there some way I could get my car’s Bluetooth to block certain people’s numbers? Because as much as I loved Jo, this was actually going to drive me crazy.

“I didn’t realise people were so hot to talk to me,” I said.

“Sure, whatever. I’m just ringing to remind you that my dinner party is tonight and you promised , like 100% promised, that you would be there. Here.” Pretty sure that was a lie, but whatever. “Lea is already here – your mum dropped her off. They’ve both told me you’re dressed like a country hobo, so go home and get changed. It starts in an hour, but I don’t mind if you turn up late looking hot, because I have invited three potential suitors for you, and you are going to love all three of them and you’re not going to be able to choose and you’re just going to have penis coming at you from all directions and you won’t even know what to do with it.” I shuddered.

“Jo, that is the single most disturbing image I have ever been exposed to, and I just spent all weekend looking at autopsy photographs.”

“Anyway, turning up fashionably late is OK so I don’t even care that you’ve forgotten. Just make sure you get changed out of your Old McDonald clothes and into something that shows a bit of leg. A bit of shaven leg,” she said, and hung up.

I groaned and headed for home. I didn’t think I could get out of this dinner party. Best to just submit. It was four o’clock when I got back and I hopped straight into the shower, trying to tame my crazy curls. Once I was washed and shaven (don’t even go there, you pervert), I added some weird hair goo and let my mane dry curly. I opened my wardrobe and looked in. Hmm. I really did need to go shopping.

As you may have gathered by now, I was not usually one for fashion statements. Well, I guess I did make statements, but the things my clothes tended to say were along the lines of “go away” and “there’s no such thing as the wrong size”. Trying to find something nice to wear was a challenge. Normally I wouldn’t bother, but Jo had given me instructions, and Jo could be downright terrifying when you defied her.

A dress, I decided. Not to impress the “potential suitors”. (Oh lord, I didn’t think I’d be able to even look at them after Jo’s earlier comments. After that, even my internal monologue was starting to sound like my Grandma voice.) I was only wearing the dress for Jo. I dug around in the back of my cupboard and found a pink dress. Yes, a pink dress. A gift, of course. I secretly loved it – it was an exact copy of my favourite pink polka-dot dress from when I was little. It had appeared, pristinely wrapped in baby-blue wrapping paper and white ribbon, on the dining table the morning of my last birthday. There was no “from” on it. My parents denied all knowledge of it. They thought maybe it was from Vi. Vi suggested it was maybe from my friends. My friends suggested it was maybe from a secret admirer.

I was pretty sure I knew who it was from, which was why I’d never worn it.

Until tonight.

I was ready by five, and headed out in my car to Jo’s house. On the way, however, I got a little distracted, thinking about the case. If the emails had been sent from Frank’s house, and James hadn’t sent them, then who had? I wondered if Tim had updated him at all. Probably not. Tim didn’t want James to find out how much we knew in case he was the killer and he got spooked. James probably didn’t even know about Sarah.

Unless, you know, he shot her.

Next thing I knew, I was accidentally parked outside his house. Well, I thought. I’m here now. Might as well duck in for a chat. He’s probably not even a murderer.

He took a while to answer when I knocked at his door, and when it finally opened he looked… Well… Not like the James McKenzie I knew. This was like when we were little and I’d broken my arm for the first time – he’d thought I was dying and he spent three days in a deep depression, refusing to eat or sleep or leave the side of my bed. Except now he wasn’t three and it wasn’t heartbreaking in a cute way anymore. It was just heartbreaking.

“Oh my god James, you look like shit.” Not the most sensitive thing I’d ever said, I’ll admit.

“Come in,” he said quietly, turning and walking away. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts, which wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but was also just not like him. He was one of those rare individuals who walked around the house fully dressed. Something was really wrong.

There was an old-time jazzy mix playing somewhere in the background, and he had a glass of some sort of amber liquid in hand. It was all rather dramatic. I followed him into his kitchen at which point he stopped, turned, and looked at me. “I like your dress,” he said, his voice cracking slightly.

“Birthday present,” I said, as if he didn’t know.

He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Tim called,” he said. “He apologised, but said he can’t get anywhere with the case and that he was dropping it.”

“He’s lying,” I said. “He got somewhere. It just wasn’t where either of us wanted it to go.” I watched his face, but he clearly already knew.

“I’m expecting to be arrested any minute now.”

“Well, you’re dressed for it.”

“Do you know what evidence they have against me?” he asked.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you,” I said.

“Why not? Do you think I’m guilty?”

He said it in a light-hearted way, but there was a flicker of something more serious in his eyes. Fear, sadness, you know – the kind of emotions you probably feel when people think you’re a serial killer.

“Obviously, yes, I think you’re a crazed killer. You’ve always displayed such psychotic tendencies. That’s why I’m here. Because you’re so terrifying.”

He laughed quietly, but still didn’t look much happier. “Is Sarah OK?”

“Last I heard, she’s still in a coma.”

What?

Ah, so Tim hadn’t told him anything. I began explaining – about Sarah, about the same van that chased me being seen near where she was shot, about the car seen at Frank’s murder scene, about the emails sent from Frank’s house, about the date in the organiser, about the pictures in the magazine.

“So Tim actually thinks…”

James leant back against the fridge, his knees giving way under him, and slid down, collapsing onto the floor. He put his arms around his knees and his head forwards. I realised that his shoulders were shaking. Oh shit. This was worse than when I broke my arm. This was much worse.

I walked over and sat down beside him, putting my arm around his shoulder. He turned and hugged me and we sat there like that for a moment; him crying silently, me feeling awkward and wondering how to help. He regained his composure eventually and apologised.

“Sorry, I, um… You know.”

“I’m really sorry your uncle’s dead, James.” It was one of those rare moments when I acted like a nice human with feelings.

“Thanks Charlie,” he said. “We need to figure out who did it.”

“I know. OK, um. I have no idea what to do. All the evidence screams that you did it and had Karen help you.”

“Except that I didn’t.”

“I know, Jamie.” I froze. Jamie? That was what I’d called him when we were kids, back when we had affectionate nicknames for each other.

“Jamie? You haven’t called me that since we were little.”

“Yeah, well, it seemed a bit familiar after we broke off the engagement.”

“Why did you break it off?” I looked at him. His eyes were still red from crying. It was kind of endearing.

“You didn’t want to hang out with a dorky kindergarten kid. I was just doing you a favour.”

“Some favour. You broke my heart.”

“You broke mine first.”

“That’s a lie and you know it.”

“It’s not a lie at all.”

The jazz singer was warbling in the background. Everything felt a bit nostalgic. I didn’t often drink, but this felt like a red wine moment. Or scotch on the rocks. Not that I’d ever had scotch.

“I hope they don’t arrest you any time soon,” I said. “I’m hungry.”

“And you want me to cook you dinner?”

“Well, if you’re offering.”

Yes, I was ditching my friend’s specially organised dinner party held in my honour to hang out with James McKenzie, who at any moment might be carted away for a string of violent murders. What a turn of events.

“Cupcakes OK with you?” he asked.

“Do you even have to ask?”

We mucked around baking mini mud cakes for – well, I don’t know how long. He lent me an apron to protect my dress. (Yes, he owned an apron. I don’t know, it must be an upper-class thing.) Neither of us could cook particularly well, but we were happy just eating the mixture from the bowl. Only about half ended up actually in the oven.

“Sweetie?” said James, growing serious.

“Yes, Jamie?”

“Do you… Do you still talk to Will?”

The question caught me off guard. “I saw him this morning.”

“How was he?”

Oh right, so he refused to speak to his brother for five years but now he was asking me how he was doing? Boys.

I chose my words carefully. “He’s… a lot better than when you last saw him.”

James looked a little uncomfortable. “Did he, um, say anything?”

“He said a lot of things. That happens during conversations.”

“Right, yeah.” James was avoiding eye contact. “Of course, I just…”

“This whole fight thing you’ve got going on is a bit stupid. You still live in the same town. Just talk to him.” It’s not like he’s a missing person, I thought, but I kept that last bit to myself.

“It’s no worse than the fight you and I have had going on for the last 13 years.”

I sighed. “I guess not. But your family misses you.”

“Mum brought me a casserole the other day.”

“She what?”

“It’s probably time for me to grow up and stop whining about getting kicked out, isn’t it?”

“Probably. It would be nice for all your nieces and nephews if you’d come to the family BBQs.” Our families always had joined barbeques – one every few weeks. James never came, though. He’d only see his siblings and their kids when his parents and Will weren’t around. “Plus I think Will could do with a friend.”

“Will’s friends with everyone.”

I thought about telling him what Will had told me this morning, but I thought maybe it wasn’t my place. All I said was, “He misses you.”

The oven pinged at that time and the serious conversation was over. I burnt myself trying to get the trays out of the oven. As James was putting burn cream on it for me I could see he was trying not to laugh at my stupidity, so with my free hand I painted icing on his face.

That cosy little moment – James tending to my burn, me drawing a moustache on his face, both of us giggling like little children, jazz playing in the background – is when Karen Martin walked in.

Carrying a gun.

Fuck.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Karen Martin looked back and forth between me and James, from his hands on mine, to me painting his face, and then back to our hands again. She looked ready to murder, and not just because she had a gun in hand. Her eyes were crazy. Even crazier than I’d seen them before.

“What exactly is this?” she asked.

“Cupcakes,” I said. “Want one? They’re really nice. I think you’d –”

“Shut up!” she screamed.

I did.

“Karen,” said James slowly, measuredly. “Why do you have a gun?”

She was fuming. “I saw her car parked outside so he lent me a gun just in case. She’s been snooping around. She was getting too close to us. And too close to you, James. You’re mine.”

OK, psycho alert.

“Who lent you the gun, Karen?” asked James, slowly letting my hand go.

“Don’t move!”

“Just putting my hands on the counter, Karen. I don’t want to stand here holding Charlotte’s hands, OK? I’ll keep them where you can see them.” Charlotte? Oh god. She took a deep breath, still looking suspicious, then finally nodded. We both put our hands down on the bench. I really hoped James had some sort of plan. “Who lent you the gun, Karen?” he asked again.

“Who do you think?” she asked.

“The Rodent?” I guessed.

Don’t call him that!

“She didn’t mean anything by it, Karen. She just doesn’t know his real name.”

“Yes she does. She’s just being rude!”

“No she doesn’t, Karen. She doesn’t know anything. She hasn’t figured it out yet. I told you she wouldn’t be able to, remember?” Oh, thanks James. Well, I got a lot closer than anyone else. I totally pegged Karen for this shit. “What’s wrong, Karen? What can I do?”

“Nothing,” she hissed. “I thought you were a good person, but you’re not at all. I stuck up for you all this time. He said we should let you take the blame and I said we shouldn’t and after all that, you get with this bitch.”

“We’re not together,” I said.

“Shut up,” said Karen and James together.

“We aren’t together, Karen,” said James. “We’re not even friends. You know that.”

“I’ve caught you in the middle of a date! She keeps coming over! He’s been following her for days and you keep spending time together! I thought…” Her voice broke. “You’ve just been laughing at me this whole time!”

“No, Karen,” he said. “You’ve got me all wrong. You and I, we’re friends, right?”

Bit odd, James claiming to be friends with a crazy homicidal woman in her mid-thirties, but whatever. I guess he knew what he was doing. Police training or something.

“I thought we were, but he said –”

“Karen, you know me. Better than anyone.” Smooth talker. A second ago I’d thought maybe I fit that bill, but here we were. Crazy Karen was his new bestie. “If he’s said that I’ve been misleading you, he’s wrong.”

“You’ve never even asked me out!” she cried. Oh, wow. Is this what my crazy McKenzie-obsessed friends were going to be like in 15 years? Yeesh. I should talk to Will about getting them some counselling…

“I didn’t think – I didn’t realise that’s what you wanted,” he said. “You never gave me any signs.”

“You – you didn’t know?”

Oh my god, was James actually just going to be able to sweet talk the crazy bitch out of killing us?

“I had no idea.”

She looked like she was softening, but then she straightened back up. “Well what’s she doing here, then?” She gestured at me.

He rolled his eyes. “She just wouldn’t leave. Look at how she’s dressed – she came over here and tried to break in, demanding we go on a date. She’s a bit weird in the head, Karen. She’s not reserved like you. She’s not really my type.”

And he had the gall to claim he was heartbroken over our cancelled wedding. I mean sure, I knew he was just trying to calm her down, but still. He knew I’d been on my way somewhere when I stopped. As if I’d dressed like this for him.

It was working, though. Karen was lowering her gun.

That was, of course, until another figure stepped into the room.

“He’s sweet-talking you, Karen. He doesn’t love you. He loves her. We have to kill them both.”

My jaw had dropped so far open I’m surprised it wasn’t grazing the floor. There, in the flesh, was my worst enemy apart from Karen, egging the deranged bitch on.

It was The Rodent.

The JM in the email.

A man who had access to McKenzie’s house at any time thanks to his sister’s cleaning contract, giving him somewhere safe to send his ‘business’ emails from.

Jeremy Martin.

Oh, god. How was I going to tell Lea about this?

Maybe I’d be lucky and I’d die so I wouldn’t have to.

Wait – Lea. She’d been at all those sporting events with James, cheering the teams on. And of course, her (weird, ten years her senior) boyfriend would have tagged along. And done some light murder on the side. A homicide-line, if you will. I knew now was not the time for puns. But if I was about to be shot, I was going to go out with a bang. OK, I’m done now. I promise.

“What the fuck,” said James, echoing my thoughts exactly. Well, some of my thoughts. The other thoughts included Was the green van he’d been chasing me in the Gregory’s delivery van? Did I spend five years working for a hit man? I should have been paid more for that. What now?

“They’re together, Karen,” said Jeremy. “He loves her.”

“He really doesn’t,” I said.

“Shut up,” all three of them said at once.

In the distraction caused by Jeremy walking into the room, I’d managed to drop my hands off the bench and I was now subtly trying to go through my pockets.

Fuck.

Where the fuck was my mobile?

In the car, of course. James’s mobile was off in some other corner of the house hooked up to speakers and playing the jazz that was now to provide the ironic backing track to our deaths.

At Last by Etta James came on.

Of course.

What a tune to die to.

“Jeremy, you don’t have to do this,” said James.

“I do, actually,” he said. “I’ve already accepted a down payment.”

I’d always wondered how he managed to drive such a nice car and own such a nice house running a dive like the grocery store. I’d assumed it was his disregard for workers’ rights and use-by dates. Now it was all clear – it was hit money.

“Who’s going to take the blame if I’m dead?” asked James.

“Well, you see, we’ve already planned for that.” Oh goodie. “You see, you’re going to kill Charlie, and then filled with uncharacteristic remorse (and, can I just say, undeserved remorse – of everyone I’ve killed, Charlie, it’s you I’ll kill most gladly)… Anyway, filled with remorse at having bumped off your childhood sweetheart, James, you’ll kill yourself. It’s all very neat, really.”

All very neat. Everyone would believe it, I was sure. Even Tim.

Not Will, maybe. Or maybe he would believe it. Oh my god, don’t let Will think that this was his fault.

“How long have you been planning this?” I asked. I didn’t really know what I was meant to do, but keeping Jeremy talking seemed like a good idea.

“Planning to stitch James up? Not very long. Not until I’d killed his uncle and the all the pieces just seemed to fit so neatly together. So many happy coincidences. Larry will have to go to gaol, of course. You’ll be blamed for all the deaths, James. And I’ll retire. So will Karen. And we’ll live a good life.”

“Why did you kill all those people?” James asked. I think he wanted to keep them talking, too. Buying ourselves time.

“Money, of course,” said Jeremy. “Good money. Larry Jones was my best customer – bumping off people all over the place to fix up his dodgy deals. People started to get so scared of him that they’d just do what he asked – sell for next to nothing, pay him protection money, the lot. He payed me a good amount and I made him a lot more.

“That was until your uncle got wind of it, of course. Started sniffing around, asking people questions. He was going to uncover Larry. He was going to uncover me. Larry paid me to whack him off and Karen came along to help.”

“I didn’t want to!” she said. “But James, Jeremy explained how much better your life would be without your uncle around. You’d have so much more money. I knew it would make you sad, but it worked out in everybody’s best interests.”

“Except Frank’s,” I said.

“Frank should have known better than to stick his nose into someone else’s business.”

“It was his business,” I said. “Larry just wanted to buy him out so that he could keep running it in the dodgiest way possible without anyone finding out!”

“Well, basically, yes,” said Jeremy. “We were going to try to help James out – let his alibi live, you know – but then he started running around with you, Charlie. Breaking my sister’s heart. After all these years he’s been leading her on…”

“Bullshit,” I said.

“Charlie,” James said quietly, trying to warn me off.

“No, it’s bullshit. He was going to kill James the whole time, Karen! He’s making all this up. James and I aren’t together. Jeremy has been planning this – he’s always planned to set James up for it. Jeremy doesn’t care about your feelings. He’s just doing this for himself. For the money.”

Karen started shaking her head at me, a bit too slowly to be convincing. “N-no,” she said. “He wouldn’t do that. He cares about me.”

“Of course I do,” said Jeremy, flashing me a smug look and trying to put his arm around Karen. Unfortunately for him, Karen caught the look and pulled away from him. “What –”

She raised the gun and pointed it at his head. “You’ve been lying to me?” she whispered.

“No, Karen,” he said. “No!”

“But it can’t all be coincidence… You’ve been trying to set him up. You knew that I loved him and you still set him up to take the rap for it!”

I looked at James. He glanced back at me. I knew we were both hoping for the same outcome from this little family feud. Never had I thought I’d be on Karen’s side in an argument.

They were yelling back and forth, Karen getting more irate and crazy, flailing the gun around a little too much for comfort; Jeremy trying to back away from her while convincing her that he hadn’t been planning to kill James the whole time.

I guess Karen’s flails got a little too wild, because suddenly the gun went off and shot one of the cupcakes to my left. I screamed and James pulled me down behind the counter. (I landed relatively injury free, apart from a bleeding nose caused by hitting the edge of the counter. Luckily, most of it was going on the apron, though. Just a little splash on the dress.) Just before we’d ducked down I saw Jeremy run at Karen to try and get the gun off her. Suddenly there were more bangs and lots of voices shouting. I was confused and terrified and had no idea what was going on. The room was swimming and my nose hurt and I wasn’t getting enough air.

After a lot of deep breathing I could make out McKenzie’s voice telling me that it was OK. Looking around, I realised that the house had been stormed. The room was flooded with cops. Jeremy and Karen were both, unfortunately, unharmed, but they were being taken away in cuffs, screaming at each other.

James led me outside for some fresh air. I wasn’t good at coping with all this hit man shit. After a few deep breaths of the cool night air, I was feeling a little better. McKenzie was stroking my back, which was comforting. I looked over and realised he was still wearing only his boxers.

“Shouldn’t they give you a blanket or something?”

He just smiled and pulled me in for a hug. I heard someone coming up behind me and turned around – Tim. He hugged me as well.

“Honey, you are so fucking dead,” he said.

“I’m not even!” I said. “I’m alive!” I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was just genuinely in awe of that fact.

He laughed. “Are you OK?”

“Yes!” I said, then thought for a moment. “Well, actually, I burnt my finger on the cupcakes. And hit my nose.”

He just shook his head.

“How did you know to call the police in?” James asked Tim.

“Lea called the office when Charlie didn’t show up to their weird ‘find her a husband’ party. Charlie wasn’t answering her phone so Lea was worried that the guy in the van might have gotten her. When we checked her car’s GPS, we found she was here. To be honest, we thought you might have done something to her, James.” Tim looked embarrassed now saying this. “Sorry, bud, but we did, so Panther and I rode over to check it out. We noticed that the green van was parked on the street so we ran the plates and found out it was Jeremy Martin’s. From there we just sort of put the pieces together and I called Joe. He organised the cops. We were all waiting outside when we heard a shot and stormed the place.” He turned to me. “What the hell were you thinking, coming here?”

“It’s lucky I did,” I said. “Or James would probably be dead and no one would know it was Jeremy. Plus we wouldn’t get paid.”

“I guess,” said Tim. “What were you even doing here?”

I looked at James. He looked back. What could I say? “Baking cupcakes?”

Tim stared at me for a moment before shaking his head. “I’m never going to understand you.”

Tim left to go and call Adam and talk to some cops, so James and I were alone.

“Are we allowed to eat the cupcakes now?” I asked.

“I think they might object to us consuming the crime scene,” he said.

I nodded. Probably. Looking around, I couldn’t believe how many cops there were around the place. It was slightly terrifying. I guess you need some manpower to take down a hit man. “There are so many cops here,” I commented.

“Yeah,” said James.

“What if Karen and Jeremy hadn’t turned up?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, what if they’d stormed the place and we were just inside banging?”

Suddenly I realised what I’d said and tried to hide my embarrassment. A grin was spreading over McKenzie’s face. “Imagine that,” he said.

“No,” I said. “And you stop imagining it too.”

“I can’t. That’s going to be in my head forevermore.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be.”

“That dress isn’t helping.”

“Then I’m never wearing it again.”

He looked me dead in the eye. “In my head, you never wear anything else.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

The capture of notorious hit man Jeremy Martin and his crazy sister Karen was all over the television for weeks. They weren’t talking, and there wasn’t that much concrete evidence against them, so for a while the case was looking a bit sketchy. After all, it was just our word against theirs that they’d confessed, and after they lawyered up it looked like they might just end up with the possession of an illegal firearm charge. (I know, right? Well done, justice system.) Michael Andrews still seemed to think James was responsible for the murders and that I was, for some reason, covering for him.

Andrews was definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Luckily, however, a bunch of date-stamped photos somehow ended up in police possession, which showed Jeremy stalking various people who later ended up dead. The photos Adam had taken while he was investigating Jeremy for Lea. Well played, Adam Baxter. Well played.

Dodgy businessman Larry Jones was arrested in relation to a series of less than legal activities, and McKenzie came out of it all as the hero – he lost a close family member, was dragged across the coals by the media, then was set up by the real culprits, and in the final act, was nearly killed before finally triumphing over the villains and bringing them to justice.

Well, more or less.

Lea and I didn’t see much of the news coverage, though – we were too busy moving into our new house. Luckily, the damage to the kitchen was minimal; the cupcake had taken the brunt of the force. It was probably for the best that we hadn’t tried to eat it. Any cake that can withstand a bullet is maybe not the kind of thing you want to snack on.

You might be wondering why exactly we ended up getting the house, seeing as we hadn’t really solved the case – I just happened to be there when the murderer walked in and confessed. Well, I think James felt a little bad that I’d nearly been killed because of him, and maybe kind of guilty that when he’d tackled me out of the way of the bullet I’d nearly broken my nose, so we compromised. (I know! We were acting like real adults!) He’d given us the money, and now we were renting the house at a greatly reduced price.

Lea took it surprisingly well, the whole ‘ex husband is a hit man’ thing. It did mean that her divorce was going to be a little messier, but at least he was in prison so the chances of him killing her to get out of losing his estate were minimal.

Once Jo Riley learned that I hadn’t just ditched the party and was, in fact, detained by a homicidal maniac (or two), she decided to organise another mate-finding soiree, this time held at my own house so there was no way I could escape. So that was where I was now. I’d worn the pink dress again, figuring that no one here had seen me in it before so I could probably get away with it. I hadn’t actually had time to wash it, but who was going to know? Sure, there was a little blood on it from my nosebleed, but it just looked like another polka dot from a distance.

As the party got underway in the backyard, I stood at the kitchen counter, drink in hand, thinking back to the other night. Not to the ‘nearly getting murdered’ bit so much, but to the ‘baking terrible cupcakes and acting like friends’ bit. Friends, what a weird idea. It hadn’t been weird at the time. He’d been so nice – not cocky like normal. Maybe I liked him better depressed. Eek. I’d be a terrible girlfriend. Wait, what? I didn’t mean that. Never mind. Moving on.

My phone was plugged into a dock with its speakers pointing away from the kitchen, projecting the noise out towards the party. I didn’t actually know who’d put the music on it. It was nice, though. Old-fashioned stuff. Jazz…

“Hey sweetie,” said a voice behind me. “Not enjoying the party?”

I smiled to myself.

“Not as much as the last one,” I answered, turning to face him. Standing before me, dressed impeccably in blue jeans, a black shirt, and Vans, was none other than James McKenzie. “I didn’t know that you were invited.”

“I like your outfit,” he said.

I knew that I should have worn jeans.

“What’s up?” I asked, changing the subject. He smiled, knowing that I was just avoiding responding to his comment, but he answered me anyway.

“Not much. Lea invited me. Personally I think it’s a little weird inviting your landlord to your house party, but whatever. If this is as crazy as it’s going to get, I probably don’t have much to worry about.”

I glanced out the glass doors to the backyard. There were a lot of bored-looking people making small talk. Grimace.

“Yes, unsurprisingly I’m yet to find my future husband, despite having met three potential gentlemen callers tonight.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, one is an accountant, like Oswald, but unlike Oswald he doesn’t appear to have any personality whatsoever. Or, in fact, any knowledge of socially acceptable behaviour. He spat on the ground near my feet while we were talking and then just acted like nothing had happened.”

“Ew,” said James. “OK, and number two?”

“Ah, well, he just wants to tell me about how expensive his car was, but how he got a really good deal on it. And also his television. And some other appliances.”

“Ooh, fascinating,” said James. “Does he know all the specs?”

“Definitely,” I said. “He can recite them all off by heart, although I’m not entirely sure he knows what any of them actually mean.”

“Strong contender, then. Number three?”

“Not so sure about number three. When I said hi, he started to choke and Os had to give him the Heimlich, after which he went home.”

“So maybe not?”

“Maybe not.”

“And number four?”

“Number f –” I stopped, seeing that he was grinning, and realised what he meant. The music changed, and string instruments began playing. We stood there in silence as Etta James started singing.

At last…

“Our song,” James commented, laughing quietly.

“Yes, our special ‘That Time We Nearly Got Murdered’ song. That’s one to tell the grandkids.”

He laughed softly. “Grandkids, hey?” I smiled back. “So, are you having too much fun at this party, or could I perhaps tempt you away?”

I looked back out the glass doors to the sombre gathering taking place outside.

“You know what? As much fun as I’m having here…”

“Yes?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“It’s a surprise,” he said, taking my hand. “But I promise no one will interrupt us this time.”

 

*** The End ***

 

If you enjoyed this book, please leave a review – even just one sentence really helps me out. Thank you!

 

And make sure to visit clarekauter.com/freestuff to pick up some Charlie-related freebies.

 

 

The story continues in

Unfinished Sentence

The Charlie Davies Mysteries Book Two

Books by Clare Kauter:

 

Charlie Davies Mysteries

 

Losing Your Head

Unfinished Sentence

Graceless

 

Charlie Davies: A Psychological Profile

 

Short Fuse

 

Damned, Girl!

 

Deadhead

Sled Head

Hell’s Belles

 

Talk Of The Devil: An Interview With Satan

 

 

If you liked this, you should try

 

Deadhead

Damned, Girl! Book One

 

Here’s a little sample…

 

Chapter One

 

The lady in my kitchen was stuck up and stupid but I needed her money so I swallowed hard and put on my best Customer Service Fake Smile™.

“Was there anything in particular you’d like me to ask him?”

She was crying into the toilet paper I’d given her when she’d asked me for a tissue. Not that I didn’t have any tissues to give her; there was just something satisfying about watching annoying clients cry into toilet paper. You do what you can to keep yourself amused in this business.

“I just want to know if he’s… happy!” She began to sob with loud, shuddering breaths. I tried my best to look sympathetic, although I suspect my facial expression may have been one of disgust rather than compassion. I didn’t understand crying loudly in front of people. It wasn’t something I did very often. Usually only when I was in a public place and desperately wanted to get my own way. It’s amazing what people will do to get you to shut up. But these tricks don’t work on me.

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll make sure to ask. Just before we get started though, I’m afraid we have to discuss the subject of fees. It is much harder summoning the spirit of a deceased animal, as I’m sure you can appreciate – what with the language barrier and all – and hence for animal clairvoyance I charge double my standard rate.”

“No price is too high for my Noodle.”

Excellent.

Now, before you get on your moral high horse and yell at me about taking money from a grief-stricken woman, just hear me out: this was a lady who had disposable income to spend on communing with the spirit of her dead pet. She clearly knew nothing about the spirit realm whatsoever and hadn’t bothered to do any research. She’d just assumed that I could talk to her dog. Now, let’s think about this…

She wanted me to ask. Her dead dog. Questions.

I love animals, but even to me this was a bit far. Firstly, she wanted me to summon the spirit of her dog (and let’s be fair, dogs don’t come when they’re called at the best of times, much less when they’re dead). Spirits don’t just hang around once they die. They pick the conservative party upstairs or wild times for eternity downstairs unless they’ve got some unfinished business to attend to. Most animals, especially pampered pet poodles, do not have ‘unfinished business’. The only ghost animal I’d seen in the last week was a cockroach coming back for a crumb he hadn’t finished. When he realized he couldn’t eat it, he moved on. Animals don’t tend to get hung up on the past. They go with the flow. And if, by some miracle, I did manage to summon a dog, I couldn’t be sure it was her dog, could I? Even if I were sure it was hers, how on earth was I meant to talk to it?

Nevertheless, there was a lot of money at stake here, so I shut my eyes and gave it a go. I took a deep breath and with all my energy, projected my voice into the astral realm….

“Here puppy! Come on, who’s a good boy? Come to Nessa, that’s a good boy. Noodles! Noooooodles!”

Suddenly I heard a bark at my left ankle. I opened my eyes and looked down. To my astonishment, there was a dog there. A ghost dog. I’d actually summoned a dead dog. I looked away from the dog when I heard huffing and chair scraping from across the table.

“I didn’t come here to be made fun of! I hope you don’t expect –”

“Is Noodles a poodle with a pink diamante-studded collar?”

She stopped in her tracks. “You – you actually –”

“Yes,” I said. I was used to this reaction. People always thought I was having a go at them when I spoke to ghosts the way I spoke to normal people. Or dogs. They expected me to put on a sing-songy voice and talk in riddles, with perhaps the occasional head-twitch or possession. Reality was much tamer. Spirits were basically just the same as they used to be, but dead. You tried to talk to a ghost like you see people do on TV and the ghost would think you were crazy.

Noodles had also noticed the lady moving and started growling loudly, teeth bared. Eventually he inched towards her.

“What’s he saying?” she asked.

“Um… Difficult to know right now,” I said.

Noodles had advanced right up to her, no longer growling but doing the dog equivalent of shooting her dirty looks. He lifted his leg and began to wee on her shoe, still glaring at her face.

“How about now?”

Noodles ran back over to me, tail wagging. I leant down and patted him when suddenly he disappeared in a puff. His business in this world had concluded.

“He’s much happier now he’s seen you,” I said, trying not to stare at the ghostly urine dripping from the lady’s foot.

  • * *

 

A breeze rustled the leaves of the fruit trees as the pinkish light of dusk settled over the cemetery across from my house. Some people found it odd that I lived across from a cemetery. I found it calming. If there was one place ghosts didn’t like to hang out, it was here. You’d only get the occasional newbie passing through, and they tended not to bother me. They had bigger concerns. Like being dead. Besides, it was good for business. When you deal in death, living near a cemetery gives you some street cred.

It had always seemed like a bit of a sick joke to me that Watergrove cemetery was dotted over with a variety of fruit trees. How cruel could you be? The first thing the dead guys would see as they floated up out of the grave would be these very alive trees bearing very edible fruits which they could never again touch. Most of the deadies who ended up at my house whined for several minutes about something to that effect, before moving on to whine about something else. Usually to do with being dead. They had very one-track minds, these ghosts. As though death had taken something away from them. I mean sure, they couldn’t touch anything, but they could be invisible and fly and walk through stuff. Surely it wasn’t that bad.

I wandered out to the herb garden in front of my house and picked some coriander. I was having tacos for dinner, but the coriander also had the added benefit of keeping away any stray ghosts who thought about haunting me. Like most people, ghosts can’t stand the smell of coriander. It’s like garlic and vampires. Taco Tuesday was a good night to keep away all the supernaturals.

Well, almost all of them.

Halfway through mashing up the avocado for my Holy Moly Guocamole (to go with my Salsa-tional Tomato Salsa and Cream-azing Cashew Cream), I heard a weird noise behind me. A squishy noise, like play-dough footsteps. (I don’t quite know what that means either. Just roll with it; it’s poetic.)

I didn’t bother turning around. I knew who it was already. It would be some representative from the Green Wattle Coven, coming to hassle me again to join them. They’d become convinced that I had magical powers ever since three of them turned up when I’d first moved in, promising to rid my house of rodents. Apparently around the cemetery there were big problems with pest animals. When they found out I’d already taken care of the mice and the cockroaches, they were in absolute awe.

“But how?” they’d asked. “Dost thou know the ways of Wicca?” (Yes, they actually spoke like this.)

“No, I just googled it. Peppermint oil repels rats and cockroaches hate garlic.”

At this moment, they all turned to each other and whispered, wide-eyed, “She knows of the Sacred Herbs!”

“No, you don’t understand. I didn’t perform any rituals, I just used the herbs to keep them away and then blocked up the holes where they were getting in. I didn’t use any magic.”

“Thou hast brought no harm to the living creatures! Thou art at peace with the Mother Earth!” the oldest, crone-iest one said.

“Well, no, I’m a vegan so –”

“Veegan? I do not know that sect.”

“Oh, it’s not a branch of magic or anything, it just means –”

“She has no coven,” one whispered.

“She is unclaimed,” said another.

“Join us!” said the third. Then they all began singing “Join us” in unison. They wouldn’t leave and I ended up chasing them out by brandishing a frypan. Various representatives had been turning up a couple of times a week ever since. It got to a point where they’d started breaking into my house and I’d find them in the bathtub or hiding in cupboards waiting for me. One of them let slip that wormwood would keep them out, and after much searching I managed to find a bush in a corner of the cemetery and hung a wreath of it on my front door. I wondered how they’d finally managed to get past it. The squelchy footsteps stopped and it suddenly occurred to me that witches don’t really sound squelchy. Insane, yes. Squelchy, not so much.

So what was that noise behind me?

I turned around, confused.

And screamed.

Well, it was kind of a scream. You know when you’re not expecting something, so you start to scream, only to realize that it’s not actually that scary, and you stop committing to the scream so it sort of becomes a honk?

Yeah. That.

So anyway, I honked.

Sitting in the middle of my (quite dirty, now I was looking at it – when did I last sweep it? Wait, when did I ever sweep it? Did I even own a broom?) kitchen floor, was a squishy little play-dough-footed axolotl.

He squinted up at me. I crouched down to get a better look at him and realized he was wearing glasses. That was weird. What kind of animal has glasses? And wasn’t the coriander bothering him? He was even treading on a piece of it I must have dropped.

“Are you lost, little guy?”

“Unfortunately not.”

This time I screamed properly. I did that whole scramble-back-from-the-unexpectedly-scary-thing that you see in horror movies and Vines where the person tries to run backwards while they’re still on their bum. I slammed into the kitchen bench and banged my head. Even after that, the axolotl was still there, so I kept banging it like an old person with a piece of technology that wasn’t working properly.

“You’re mental,” said the axolotl.

“YOU THINK I DON’T KNOW THAT?” I screamed. “YOU’RE TALKING TO ME.”

“You talked to me first.”

“But – but – wormwood – and the coriander!”

He gave me what seemed to be a look of deep concern. “That’s not how you do sentences.”

“Neither’s that!”

“I was trying to speak to you in your own language,” he said. Fair call.

I took a few deep breaths and tried again. “The coriander didn’t scare you off?”

He shrugged – I think it was a shrug – and said, “I’m Mexican.”

“Right.” I was pretty sure it was a bad axolotl joke, though, because his accent sounded more like that of an Oxbridge graduate.

“So, you are Nessa I presume?”

“Yes. Who on earth are you? And why are you here? And how can you talk? And where did you get your tiny glasses? And why do you know my name?”

“I’m your new familiar.”

“I’m not a witch!”

“Hey, I didn’t exactly ask for this either.”

“What – do you mean someone sent you?”

“Well, kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“I lost a bet.”

“You lost a bet?”

“Yep.”

“And I was the punishment?”

“Yep.”

“And what did the winner get?”

“Nothing.”

“How is that winning then?”

“They didn’t get stuck with you. I’m Henry, by the way. Since you didn’t think to ask.”

“Henry?” I couldn’t take all this in. There was an axolotl talking to me and introducing himself – lecturing me on manners and grammar in amongst it – and he was here because he lost a bet?

“Yes, Henry,” he said. “Now I hope you’re fixing me a taco.”

I made Henry and myself a tempeh taco each and we sat out on the verandah overlooking the cemetery as we ate. Henry began explain (between mouthfuls – if nothing else his table etiquette was second-to-none) what exactly he’d been sent to my house to do.

“I’m here to audit you.”

“What?! What for?” I mean, sure, I wasn’t exactly paying tax on my cash-in-hand psychic business, but was the ATO really in the habit of sending a talking fish-lizard to scare business owners into following the law? Come to think of it, that would probably be quite effective. They’d either shape right up or end up in a psychiatric ward.

“Unauthorised use of magic.”

Oh, man. He had to be kidding.

“You have to be kidding! I’ve never used magic in my life!” Not strictly true, of course, but…

“I just saw you talk to a dead dog.”

“That’s not magic! I just talk to dead things.”

“Are you hearing yourself?”

Yeah, OK, he had a point.

“So why are you here? To fine me? Arrest me? I can see why they chose you, what with your imposing physique and all.” He narrowed his eyes at me. I narrowed mine back.

“I could take you in a fight.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

He sighed. “Fine.” Henry stood and clicked the fingers of his right hand. Suddenly there was a huge bang and we were encompassed in a cloud of sparkly smoke, the international symbol for “some magic is happening here”. The smoke began to clear and I realized I might have underestimated Henry’s ability to drag me away. Before me now stood a huge silverback. As in, a massive gorilla.

“Ah,” I said. “So what were you saying about this audit?”

He sat back down, now causing a lot more strain on my second-hand wicker chair. I noticed that his tiny glasses had grown to accommodate his now much larger head. It was like magic. “Basically, it’s my job to see how you conduct yourself and whether you’re qualified for a licence. I’ll be staying with you until I’m able to complete my observations.”

“Right. And how long is that likely to take?”

“Well, really, it depends on the quest.”

Oh, great. Of course, there had to be a ridiculous step in the licensing process. “The what?”

“I haven’t been given the instructions for your quest yet, but generally it’s a way for me to see how you conduct yourself in a pressure situation, and how well you’re able to control your magical abilities.”

What magical abilities? I talk to ghosts! What possible use is that for a quest? It’s not like I can do actual witchcraft or shamanry or alchemy or see the future or something useful.”

Henry looked at me over the top of his glasses. “That’s not what I’ve heard.”

What? How could he possibly know about… He couldn’t! No one knew. (Well, almost no one, but I doubted the devil was going to talk to this guy.) But then how did he know about me at all?

“Who’s been telling you stories about me?”

He shifted in his chair and looked like he might fall straight through it. “We had a tip off from that coven that meets nearby.”

Of course. Who else? If they couldn’t get me to join them, they were going to… What, exactly? Have me arrested? Get me sent on a quest? What exactly was their agenda?

“Right. So what happens now? Am I in trouble?”

“No, no. We’re just waiting for someone to turn up with our orders for the quest. They’ll usually try to pick something that plays to your strength. Someone will be here soon and give us our directions, then we just go from there.” He relaxed back in his seat. I wondered what this would look like to a passerby – a girl and a gorilla eating tacos by the cemetery. Not that there were too many passersby around here. Except, you know, for gho–

“YOU NEED TO FIND MY KILLER.”

I screamed – again. This really wasn’t my night. A ghost (a poltergeist, to be specific – I could tell from his slightly green aura) had just appeared less than a metre in front of me. Just – POP. Out of nowhere.

Henry yawned and stretched, completely unfazed. “I guess this is it,” he said. “That was surprisingly fast. It usually takes them weeks to send out a quest.”

The ghost looked at Henry and frowned as if trying to figure something out. Probably why the hell there was a talking gorilla sitting across the cemetery eating tacos.

“This is a, uh, special case,” said the ghost. “They said you’re to get started right away.”

“They always say that,” said Henry. He turned to me. “They’ve done a pretty good job here. I mean, this is going to involve a whole lot of talking to ghosts. You should have your licence in no time. What’s your name, ghosty?”

“Ed,” Ed said. “I, uh, I’m dead.”

 

About the Author

 

Clare Kauter is a semi-professional lawn bowls champion and compulsive liar who writes books in her spare time. She describes her books as “mystery with a twist..ery” and advises that if you don’t like puns, you should back away now.

 

Clare began writing her first novel at age 13, and eventually that book was published as Losing Your Head (the first of the Charlie Davies Mysteries). She also writes the ‘Damned, Girl!’ series, set in a modern fantasy world.

 

Head to clarekauter.com for more info (and some free stuff)!

 

And don’t forget to follow Clare on:

 

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Losing Your Head (The Charlie Davies Mysteries Book 1)

Charlie Davies is really not qualified to solve a murder. She's really not qualified to do anything, unless it involves publicly embarrassing herself. But when her former high-school nemesis, James McKenzie, is accused of his uncle's murder, he jokingly offers Charlie twenty thousand dollars and a house if she can clear his name. Charlie (like one of life's true winners) still lives with her parents, and decides to take him up on the deal. What's the worst that could happen, right? Oh yes, she actually thought that. Unfortunately, that means McKenzie keeps hanging around, annoying her, and sometimes (even worse) being nice. The audacity of this guy. Things start to heat up a little for Charlie. Not in that way. (But kind of in that way.) And what if, after all this, McKenzie has tricked her? What if he's guilty? What if she doesn't get paid? Charlie might actually go insane. Or, you know, end up dead. Either way, what a ride, right? ***Contains some swearing.*** 'Losing Your Head' is the first book in The Charlie Davies Mysteries. If you enjoy funny soft-boiled mysteries with a snarky heroine, give this series a try!

  • Author: Clare Kauter
  • Published: 2016-08-15 03:35:20
  • Words: 78775
Losing Your Head (The Charlie Davies Mysteries Book 1) Losing Your Head (The Charlie Davies Mysteries Book 1)