By Derek Thomas Majors
Copyright 2016 Derek Thomas Majors
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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All was still. The villa park was a peaceful place in the hour before dawn, as all the revellers from the night before had finally made it back home, either theirs or someone else’s. All except Peter, whose dead body lay face down in the parking lot. A blood-soaked trophy that he had won the previous day rested serenely beside him, and its profile neatly matched the indentation in his skull. Eventually, a young woman dressed in her pyjamas emerged from one of the villas, looking to experience the serenity of an autumn Tasmanian morning before everyone else began to stir. She looked around, inhaled the cool, clean air, and heard a chorus of birds chirping merrily among themselves. Then she turned and saw the body, screamed, and within seconds hastily-dressed people came running from the other villas. They all stopped short, reluctant to approach too closely, and formed a circle around the body. None of them would have imagined a scene like this only a few days earlier…
Good god… who are these heathens? And what are they all blathering about? And why can’t they just sit down and shut up like normal people?
Laura couldn’t believe her bad luck. It was as if she walked into a parallel dimension when she stepped onto the plane. Everyone around her was carrying on… loudly. Very loudly. And they all seemed to know each other. One word kept coming up in their chatter: Talkies.
What the hell is that, anyway? Some kind of support group for compulsive talkers?
She did her best to maintain an even composure, despite the escalating din going on around her.
Thank god I remembered my noise-reducing headphones.
With the headphones in her ears and favourite Death Metal cranked up to maximum, she started to be able to hear herself think again. Laura was on her way to Tasmania for a weekend of camping and hiking with some of her old friends from her university days. Why she agreed to this trip she didn’t know, because she liked neither camping nor hiking, and these people had never been close friends anyway. Three days together spent climbing up hills just for the privilege of climbing back down again and sleeping on the cold, hard ground in tents wasn’t her idea of a good time. But she had become bored with life these days, so she said yes. And here she was.
Looks like this trip is starting off badly…. let’s hope it doesn’t go downhill too quickly from here.
Someone a few rows ahead of her stood up and started proclaiming something, in what looked like a bad impression of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And she could hear it over her music. Deciding enough was enough, she took her headphones out and listened for a while.
After what seemed like many more minutes than it actually was, everyone started clapping and cheering like lunatics.
Oh for heaven’s sake!
She couldn’t stop herself any longer. When the person sitting beside her stopped applauding and sat back down, she turned to him and asked, “What’s ‘Talkies?’”
There are blank stares, and there are incredulous blank stares. And then are mouth-gaping “I can’t believe you just said that”-type incredulous blank stares. That’s the kind of stare the man gave Laura.
Recollecting himself, he said, “I’m so sorry… hi, my name’s Dave. Pleased to meet you…?” He put out his hand, and Laura shook it.
Nice firm handshake! Hmm…
“Pleased to meet you, Laura. I’ll try to answer that as briefly as I can, and I’ll try not to convert you, promise. ‘Talkies’ is a public speaking club. We’re all going to the annual convention in Tasmania this weekend.”
And with that, he stopped talking and sat back.
Convert me? What did he mean by that?
Laura took the bait.“Public speaking?”
“Yes, we’re all members of clubs where we practice our public speaking skills.”
Laura didn’t know what to say in response, so she simply repeated “Public speaking?”
“Yeah, it’s great fun!”
“And you do this… on purpose?”
I’m going to have to change seats.
Dave continued on. “See, you’re having the very same reaction I had when I first heard about it. It’s not really as scary as you might think. Only in the beginning. Then it becomes a major high!”
I’m going to have to change seats, right now. Or maybe I should ask to change planes.
“Look,” he said, “have you ever wanted to communicate a message -- whatever it is -- so that it’s clear? So that people will listen to you and maybe do what you tell them to do? Or maybe you want to make the laugh? Did you ever look at someone on television, or see someone speak at a function like a wedding, and wonder how they do it? Did you ever think ‘maybe one day I’ll do that too?’”
Oh my god… it’s like he knows.
Her maid-of-honour speech. It was the single-most horrifyingly embarrassing moment of her life. She got up to give her address to the bride and was so nervous that she vomited all over the head table, and then promptly fainted, hit her head and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. It happened three years ago and people still hadn’t stopped talking about it. Laura still hadn’t stopped wishing she had hit her head a bit harder and died.
“Most of us have had some kind of horrific public speaking disaster,” he went on. “Maybe you’ve had one of your own?”
“Public speaking is a skill like any other, and if you haven’t trained and practised, then you really didn’t stand much of a chance. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t walk out on stage at Carnegie Hall and sit down to perform a piano concerto if you’ve never even touched a piano before, right?”
“Of course not!”
“There you go, it’s the same thing.”
Why didn’t anybody tell me this before?
“Okay, I’m going to talk to someone a few rows up ahead for a few minutes. You sit here and try not to hyperventilate, and we’ll talk more when I’m back.”
“And you just show up and, what, start talking?” Laura asked Dave as he sat back down.
“It’s much more systematic than that, so that we work on one aspect at a time. It usually takes a few tries, but most people really get into it after a while and find it fun.”
And terrifying! I’d rather grab a pair of pliers and yank out three of my own teeth!
“How many people start screaming and run out of the room?”
Oh dear, I said that out loud.
That gave Dave a good chuckle. “I’ve never seen it happen yet. But even if someone did that, it’s okay. Maybe the next time they actually make it to the front, say six words and sit back down. And they’d get a huge round of applause.”
“I like applause.”
“Doesn’t everybody? After you’ve finished speaking, and your legs are doing a good impersonation of a wet spaghetti noodle, there’s nothing better than having half-a-dozen people come up to you and tell you how great you did and how proud of you they are.”
Laura let that sink in for a moment.
How amazing would that be? Maybe I’m not such a freak after all. Maybe…
“And then the third part of every meeting is the evaluations.”
Bloody hell! Evaluations? So someone gets to evaluate you? Like I don’t deal with other people’s’ judgment enough as it is.
Laura’s jaw was frozen, her tongue inoperable, her mind seized up. Terror filled her eyes.
“Listen, what are you doing this weekend?”
What? What was that? Did he just ask me out on a date? Because that’s what it sounded like to me. It’s called ‘timing,’ buddy. Learn some.
“Um…. I’m supposed to be going hiking and camping with some old friends. To be honest, I’m not really looking forward to it”
“Oh really? Where are you going?”
“Well, we’re starting off with a day around Launceston, and then they’re taking me down south to Mount Wellington.”
“Listen, how’d you like to come along to the first morning of the convention? I’m on the organizing committee, and we’re always encouraged to bring guests along. Now that you’ve heard about it, how’d you like to see what it’s like first-hand? Do you think you have time for that before you join your friends?”
He is kind of asking me out on a date. But not. Weird. Still, he’s kinda cute… for a crazy man.
Laura weighed up her options. It occurred to her that if she went to the convention, it would probably be indoors, and she could sit down and drink coffee the whole time. Alternatively, she could be outside, clambering through the Tasmanian bush, probably drenched by the rain.
“Okay, why not? But only the first morning, and then I’ll have to go. And… where is it? How will I get there?”
“Don’t worry about that. Tell me where you’re staying and I’ll have my hotel’s shuttle bus come pick you up in the morning.”
I must be insane. I just agreed to go to a Talkies convention. A public speaking club. Maybe this plane will crash into the sea and we’ll all be eaten by sharks.
“Yikes, it’s cold!” said Laura as they stepped out of the shuttle bus.
“Yeah, well, this is normal for this time of year,” said Dave. “Some mornings though it does feel like it’ll freeze your bits off.”
Yep. Bit-freezing in progress, buddy. But wow am I glad I’m not camping right now.
“The bonus is that when the sun comes up and it catches the dew on the grass it makes the whole place glimmer and shine.”
That’s awesome, but I’d never make it out of bed to see it. People shouldn’t have to be this cold. It’s inhumane.
“Here, let’s take a walk around before we go in,” Dave said, and he started leading her off around the grounds.
Bad plan! I already think I can’t feel my feet…
Despite her reluctance, Laura allowed herself to be dragged around the grounds around the hotel and clubhouse. She begrudgingly admitted that Dave had a point. It was beautiful. The country club complex was enormous, and the hotel was right in the center of it all. In every direction stretched the golf course, with the morning mist still hanging gently a few feet over the grass. The ducks were quacking in the pond, the native Tasmanian Hens were clucking around the greens, and as the sun came up its rays caught the dew on the fairways and glistened in that way that is half grass, half ice palace. It was idyllic.
Now I know I can’t feel my feet.
“Can we go in? It’s beautiful, really, but I’m starting to shiver,” she pleaded with just a bit more whine that she was aiming for. So much for being cool. Cold clearly trumps cool.
“All right, the breakfast restaurant is just over here, and the coffee’s pretty good. For Tasmania.”
So does that mean it’s like sewage anywhere else?
The restaurant was huge, in all directions. High ceilings, wide floors, enormous windows looking out in over the 18th green. But none of that mattered to Laura; the only thing that mattered was finding a chair under the heaters. A minute or two later, Dave brought over two cups of coffee. It was several minutes more, though, before Laura started to thaw out.
“Is everything around here this…. big?”
“Oh yes,” Dave replied,” that’s why we chose it. There are going to be 200 people attending the convention this weekend, we needed enough room. Don’t forget that they’re not all in the same room all the time, either. There are workshops, breakout sessions, tea times… the whole nine yards. And then of course there are the main events like the contests and the Council meeting in the main auditorium. It has been a real headache for all of us, actually. I suppose events on this scale always are. But everyone on the organizing committee will be glad when it all over. We might actually get a full night’s sleep again. And I was only working on it part-time from Melbourne.”
You volunteered for this abuse? And you looked so normal.
“Amazing! Well good luck, I hope it all goes smoothly.”
Smoother than this lousy coffee, anyway.
“Thanks, me too. Okay, how are we doing for time? Oh look, it’s almost time, we had better get a move on. The Humorous Speech contest is starting in 10 minutes and if we’re not there when the contest starts, they won’t let us in.”
“Now, we’ve only got a few minutes,” Dave said as they sat down in the main auditorium. It was indeed a large room. It appeared there was seating for 200, as Dave had said, but the room could have easily sat another 200 people, especially since the upper level wasn’t in use. The stage jutted out into the room and was well lit by the bright lighting.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Dave continued, “here’s how it works: this is the fourth and final round. There will be seven contestants that have won their contests in round three.”
“Wow! How many people start off in round one?”
“Well, let’s see. There are 140 clubs, and assuming 4 contestants per club, that’s what… roughly 500?”
“560, actually. How many members are there in total?”
“Currently? A little less than 7000 at the moment.”
“Holy smoke! I had no idea! If there are so many people involved, then why have I never heard of this before? How long does each contestant get?”
“Five to seven minutes.”
Seven minutes? Up there on the stage in front of everybody? Better them than me.
“Do you think it’s going to be a good contest today?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve seen a couple of the contestants before, but not all. But in my experience, humorous speeches can be very hit-and-miss. What is funny to one person won’t necessarily be funny to another. Sometimes the delivery just falls flat. And sometimes the audience just doesn’t respond. That’s my personal pet peeve: when they ‘laugh on the inside.’”
Laura considered this for a moment: how horrible it would be to stand up there, deliver your best joke, and hear nothing but thundering silence in return.
The only way you’re ever getting me up there is at gunpoint.
“Wow. Well, how brave of them all!”
“Indeed. Okay, the contest chairperson is on stage. It looks like they’re getting started now.”
Laura and Dave were some of the last to exit the main auditorium following the contest, and by the time they arrived in the reception room the party had obviously already started. People were standing around in groups, drinking cups of coffee and tea and talking to one another very loudly. It was the airplane scene all over again, but this time there were more of them. Dave shepherded Laura over to the buffet table to pick up some coffee and scones.
Damn. The strawberry jam’s all gone. What’s a scone without strawberry jam? Dry and boring, that’s what it is.
“Laura”, said Dave, “let me introduce you to some of my friends. This is John, another member of my club back in Melbourne.”
“Laura!” effused John, “lovely to meet you! Which club to you belong to?”
“Laura is here today as a guest,” Dave explained. “We met on the flight over and I somehow managed to convince her to come along and see what everyone was talking about.”
“A Talkies Virgin, eh? Good for you, Laura! Do you do any public speaking yourself? What do you do for work?”
You expect me to answer that?
“Lovely to meet you too! So what is it that draws you to Talkies?” asked Laura, putting on her sweetest smile.
“Well, that’s a good question… I guess it’s really two questions, isn’t it? What draws a person to Talkies and what keeps them here? Well, in my case…”
Aaaaaand there he goes! Good one, girl!
“…told me I needed to work on my ‘soft skills,’ and suggested Talkies as a possibility. I came and was instantly hooked.”
“So that’s what brought you to Talkies, so what is it that keeps you coming back?”
John appeared more than willing to talk about himself, which suited Laura quite well at this point.
“…a mentor to some of the newer members, and it was only then when I realized just how much I didn’t know. But being a mentor – helping others – that really keeps me coming back.”
Wow … he’s more than just a standard blow-hard! Wonders never cease. Maybe I should have actually paid attention.
There was a very audible “whoosh” from the end wall of the room, and many people’s heads turned to see the rain sheeting down the windows. The once-blue sky had turned dark grey.
“Good thing these conventions are indoors!” exclaimed John. “I was wondering when the rain would get here. It’s supposed to be pretty nasty all afternoon.”
I thought the forecast was for clear skies. How did I miss that?
As if he could read Laura’s mind, John went on, “it’s amazing how quickly things change around here. Just yesterday the whole weekend was looking fabulous. Welcome to Tasmania, I guess!”
Welcome to Tasmania, indeed. I’m not going outside in that, no way!
“You know,” started Laura, “that hiking trip is looking like it just cancelled itself. Dave, would you mind if I just tagged along with you for the rest of the convention? I hate to invite myself to the party, but I mean… look at that!”
“That would be wonderful! Like I said, we’re always encouraged to bring guests along, and I’m sure you’ll have a great time. But, let’s think through this…. what about your friends? Will they still be going out hiking in this weather?”
“Oh yes, they’re complete die-hards when it comes to camping. They stole their motto from the US Postal service; ‘Rain, sleet, snow or hail’. Personally I think they’re insane.”
“And you don’t want to join them?” asked Dave with a little smile. “Why ever not?”
“Gee, I can’t imagine,” Laura said, returning the joke. “There’s only one minor problem: I’m going to have to go back to the hotel and arrange for a room for tonight. The convention ends tomorrow, right? I hope there’s a room still available.”
“Another thing you might consider,” replied Dave, “is staying here. I know of a few people who have rented one of the villas attached to the convention center who have an extra room. I’m sure they’d be happy to let you stay with them. What do you think?”
Hmm…. sounds kind of dubious so far.
“Do you think that would be all right? I mean, would that be, you know, safe?”
“Oh yes, no doubt about it. The people I have in mind are two women roughly your age, and I’m sure you’ll be best friends within about five minutes. I saw one of them as we were coming in. If you’re interested, I’ll ask her for you.”
Laura agreed, and Dave went off in search, leaving Laura to chat to John for a few more minutes.
[_ Did I just agree to that? Really??? I must be turning into one of them, because I'm losing my mind.... quickly. _]
“I see you’ve got your stuff with you now. Excellent! You’re just in time for the Global Speech Contest. It’ll be starting in about 20 minutes.”
As Dave led Laura back into the main auditorium, she asked “so what makes it a ‘global’ contest? Is it a bunch of travel stories or something?”
Laura did not appreciate the smirk and chuckle she received in response to that question.
“No, it’s called the ‘Global’ contest because it leads towards the grand final at the global convention in August. This year it’s in Las Vegas.”
“Oh, is that why there are all these signs up for “Vegas, Baby!” interrupted Laura.
“Yes, that the theme of the gala dinner tonight. Which reminds me, while you were getting your things I arranged for you to come to the dinner tonight. It’ll be fun!”
“But I don’t have anything to wear! I’ve only got hiking clothes!”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a friend who always brings backups for everything. She’s probably got an outfit she could lend you. She’s about the same size as you,” said Dave, taking a quick moment to eye Laura up and down.
I saw that. Your gaze lingered. Yes it did.
“Lovely! And you’re sure she won’t mind?”
“I think not. I’ll catch up with her later and find out for you.”
“So… what is the ‘global’ contest about. It’s obviously not about travelling.”
“A lot of people think,” replied Dave, “that it’s supposed to be about inspirational speeches. That’s not strictly the case, but close enough.”
“Inspirational… holy smoke! I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“Most people don’t. Even for the people who turn out to be very good at this kind of speech, it can take years to get the balance right.”
“So why do people do it? Isn’t that like some form of masochism or something?”
Dave laughed. “I can seem that way sometimes. Especially when you try your hardest and don’t get a result. But… for many people it becomes their hobby. Do you have any hobbies that you do just because you like doing them? Even though you might not care if anything ever comes of the hobby?”
Laura thought for a few seconds. The honest answer was no, she had never had a hobby like that. But instead, she said “I guess so.”
“Well this is the same.”
“Um… a hobby that involves trying and failing at something for years on end, with the high likelihood that you’ll never get anywhere… that sounds like golf to me. Is that why this convention is being held at a golf club?”
Dave just laughed and smiled. Then he said, "Here's the contest chairperson. It looks like we're getting started. Just watch what happens and maybe -- if the speeches are good enough -- you'll get the idea."
“Wow! That was absolutely incredible!” exclaimed Laura as she and Dave entered the tea room again. “Is it always like that?”
“Sometimes, although that was perhaps the strongest field of contestants I’ve seen since I’ve been a member. Personally, I thought any one of four, maybe five contestants could have won that.”
“Well, I certainly couldn’t pick a winner from that group. Where do you start? I mean… They all had interesting things to say and they all really grabbed my attention!”
“Yeah, I know!” responded Dave. “The judges do have formal criteria to follow, but even so… I’m glad I wasn’t on the judging panel this time!”
“Hey, look! There’s still strawberry jam left. I’m going to load up a plate with a few scones before it’s all gone like it was this morning. Do you want any?”
“Yeah… I’ll just steal one off your plate if that’s okay.”
Laura made her way over to the buffet table, and as she approached she overheard what was obviously the middle of a conversation between two women. The first said “…so fabulous to see the bond between them! It’s like they’re brothers, really.”
To which the second woman replied, “No kidding! And they’ve been like that the entire year. Working on their speeches together, cheering each other on, and now they’ve both won their respective contests!”
The first woman interjected, “Did you know they’re even sharing a villa down in the holiday park? Literally, what a ‘power house’ that place is.”
“Oh to be a fly on the wall, and even just soak up some of their ‘energy.’ Hey, do you think they’ll be having a party tonight?”
“Well, I would expect so,” responded the first woman, “after the gala dinner is done I would expect they would head back to their villa and just carry on. That’s what I’d do if I had just won a contest. Maybe we could just, you know… drop in and say hello?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry dear,” said the second woman as she noticed Laura standing there, “are you waiting for the strawberry jam? How rude of us to stand her in your way just gabbling on like that!”
“That’s all right,” replied Laura in her best just-slightly-too-polite voice.
“Did you see that Global contest just now? Wasn’t that amazing?” Said the first woman. “I thought it was much stronger than last year’s winner. What did you think?”
“Oh, I wasn’t at the convention last year. In fact, this is the first Talkies event I’ve been to. So far so good, but a bunch of people have been calling me a ‘Talkies Virgin’, and I have to say… it’s starting to get a bit old.”
“And so it should, my dear,” replied the first woman, “dreadful phrase! But I’m sure that you’ll be one of us in no time! I’m Janine and this is Kylie. Hey, how about we show you around a bit, help you figure out what’s going on and who’s who around here?”
“Well, that’s very kind of you, but,” said Laura, gesturing across the room to where Dave was chatting with a small group, “I’ve already got Dave over there acting as my guide.”
“Some women have all the luck!” pouted Kylie. “I’ve been trying to catch his eye for over a year now, and while he knows I exist, it’s only just. And then I tried flirting with Peter, only to find out that he’s already married! But oh well… c’est la vie. Anyway, maybe we’ll see you at the gala tonight?
Not if I see you first.
“Sure thing,” said Laura.
“Oh hey, Laura… thanks for this!” said Dave as Laura returned with the scones. “I see you’ve met Janine and Kylie.”
“Yes, indeed I have. It was, well, interesting. I got a funny vibe from them.”
“We all do, Laura, we all do.”
“So, when does this ‘gala dinner’ start?”
“The doors open at 5:30 for the aperitifs, so I expect that the group will start to get noisy once the champagne starts hitting home around 6:00.”
“You’ve done this before, then.”
“Oh yes,” replied Dave, “it’s like this every time. It’s good fun! Then there will be dinner, followed by some awards and speeches…”
“Well you could hardly skip the speeches at a public speaking club!”
“Exactly! And then dessert followed by dancing.”
“Dancing? Is that, you know… absolutely necessary?”
Dave smiled. “No, not necessary. But I wouldn’t mind taking you for a twirl out on the dance floor.”
A bit too obvious, but still… nice try.
“No you wouldn’t. I dance like a three-legged rhinoceros.”
“I’m sure that’s not true. Look, I have to run away now and attend the annual business meeting. You do not want to come to that, unless you’re looking to slip into a coma… but meet me down in the lobby at 5:30?”
Laura said goodbye to Dave, then looked at her watch and did a few quick calculations.
5:30 meetup time, an hour to get ready -- because let’s face it, it’s going to take a while to wrangle my hair into something presentable -- so that’s 4:30… which leaves an hour and a half to wander around.
“I see Dave’s gone off and left you all on your own!” effused Janine. “Were you thinking of going to any of the workshops?”
“I didn’t know about any workshops. What are they going to be talking about?”
“Well, there’s the usual ‘intro to Talkies’ one… but that’s probably going to be boring as hell. There’s a ‘being a professional speaker’ one… yuck! There’s some kind of artsy-fartsy sounding one that I can’t even remember what it’s called, and then there’s the ‘writing a contest speech’ one. Kylie and I are going to that one. You should come too!I mean, we don’t care about contest speeches, but the two champions will be there… and we could use some eye candy, y’know what I’m sayin?’
Why am I not surprised.
“Okay, why not?” replied Laura through a slightly clenched jaw. Obviously it was clenched enough to be noticed, because a look of disdain flashed across Janine’s face. It was quickly erased by the return of the plastic smile, though.
“Lovely! Let’s go!” said Janine, grabbing Laura’s arm and walking down the hallway towards the waiting Kylie.
“Um, you two go ahead, I’m going to make a stop first,” said Laura.
Not subtle, but effective.
“Well okay, we’ll save you a seat. We’ll in the meeting room at the end of the hall.”
Not so effective, then.
Once Laura saw her two new “friends” disappear into the meeting room on the left at the end of the hall, she walked down the hall and entered the door on the right. The sign outside the door said “First Timers Workshop,” which was just fine with Laura. She might learn something. And she wouldn’t have to sit there for an hour with those two.
Laura had just left the workshop room, and she turned and looked for the voice that she hadn’t recognized.
“Hi Laura,” said the woman as she approached, “my name is Christina. I’m a friend of Dave’s. He told me that you were a last-minute guest to the convention and that you needed something to wear to the gala tonight.”
“Oh, that’s you! Yes, he did tell me that he’d arrange something for me. I’m glad you caught me, it had already slipped my mind, what with meeting so many new people, the contests, the workshop…”
“He pointed you out to me before he went into the Business meeting,” Christina said, and then with a little twinkle in her eye she continued, “he said you and I were about the same size… he’s got a good eye, that man.”
Are all the women around here in love with this guy? Or is Talkies just some kind of dating service in disguise?
“How lucky for me! And thank you so much for being willing to lend me your clothes! I would have felt even more out of place than I already do. I mean, everybody must know that I’m not, you know, one of you, right?”
“Oh, not at all. That’s one of the wonderful things about events like this: people come together from all over and build new connections. As far as I, or anyone else can tell, you are ‘one of us’ that we just haven’t met before. Most of the people here… I have no idea who they are. I just walk up to them and start chatting, and in five minutes we’re best friends. Like you and I are now, see? And by the way, he also said you were in need of a place to stay tonight. You’re more than welcome to stay in my villa with me. I’ve got a spare room.”
“Really? I would feel like I’m imposing!”
“Not in the slightest! Look, we’re going to busy with the gala until about midnight, then there will no doubt be some carrying on back in the villa park for a while, and breakfast is scheduled for 7:30. So it’s just silly for you to pay for your own room for what will be probably about four hours of sleep. And besides, it’ll be fun. And I’ll be happy for the company. I’ve only got a spare room because one of my club-mates cancelled on me at the last minute.”
“How rude!” Joked Laura.
"I know! She said her mother got pneumonia or something, so she had to stay and be take care of her, and I said why couldn't your mother have timed that better -- next week would have been so much more convenient for everybody. But no, her mother just had to have it her way.".
Good sense of humour. I think we will have fun! This might work out after all.
“Don’t mothers always!”
Christina and Laura continued on talking and joking in this way as they made their way from the hotel to the villa park. Exactly as Christina had said, they became each other’s new best friend in five minutes.
“This looks lovely!” Exclaimed Laura as they entered Christina’s villa and looked around. “Bright, clean, a good size, decent kitchen, good sized bedrooms… I wouldn’t mind staying here for a longer vacation!”
“Some people are, of course, although the ones that are staying here after the convention is over are probably the golfing crowd. Some others I know of are continuing on touring around the rest of the state. Now, let’s get that dress out for you. We should probably start getting changed and head back in not too long.”
Well, this is certainly preferable to camping on the wet ground in nylon tents and eating some ‘grub’ that could be cooked over a campfire!
Laura felt like a new woman as she arrived at the hotel with Christina for the gala dinner event. Not only was she clean, refreshed and all prettied up, she had never in her life worn an outfit like Christina had lent her. It wasn’t flashy or ostentatious, but elegant and understated. And Christina had all the accessories and accoutrements to make it a complete look for Laura. Laura had never seen the point of getting all ‘gussied up’ before. After all, the guys she hung around with at her work and also years before at university weren’t the types to even notice. But she liked what she saw in the mirror.
I think I could get used to this!
“Shall we make our big entrance?” Asked Christina.
As they entered the ballroom, one of the hotel wait staff pressed glasses of champagne into their hands, and before Laura knew it, she found herself introduced to a large group of Christina’s friends. The chatting, joking, and laughing was constant and contagious, and very quickly Laura felt herself relax as a large, genuine smile spread across her face.
“You have a smile that lights up the room,” said a deep voice. Laura turned.
Whoa. The man’s in a tux. And he looks… whoa!
“I’m glad you have a reason to smile,” he continued. “It looks like you’re having a good time!”
“That I am,” replied Laura. “Thanks to your friend, Christina, I’m appropriately attired, primped, and powdered, and her group of friends are just so infectiously happy!”
“It’s a good group. They’re always welcoming and a ton of fun. Hey, it looks like people are starting to get seated for the first course. I’ve arrange a seat for you over here at my table.”
“Thank you, that’s lovely! Shall we sit?”
Dave escorted Laura across the room to their table, politely greeting a multitude of acquaintances as they went. Laura tried to pay attention to the names, but as Dave guided her towards her chair his hand lightly touched her back. She felt a delightful frisson pass through her, and suddenly the names weren’t quite so important.
As they sat down, Laura asked him, “Do you know absolutely everyone here?”
Dave chuckled. “Not quite all, but most. I’ve been involved with Talkies for a long enough to have seen most of these folks at one event or another. And I must admit, I make a conscious effort to maintain and grow my network. You never know when you’re going to need help with something, either within Talkies or outside of it, and the more people you can ask for help, the stronger a position you’re in.”
“That sounds logical. Reasonable. Solid planning.”
Dave chuckled again. “Yes, yes… solid planning indeed. It’s also a lot of fun. I’ve met quite of a few of my best friends through Talkies.”
Right then, waiters appeared with the first course, and a round of ooh’s and ah’s went around the table at the sight.
The band finished playing, and people started to meander off the dance floor and return to their tables. Drinks were finished, jackets and purses were collected, and most people began heading for the exits. One group, however, lingered a while. One very loud, very drunk group.
Laura turned to Christina. “Shall we go?”
“Yes, but unfortunately we’re all going the same direction. We might as well go along with them, if for no other reason than to make sure they don’t take a wrong turn, wander into the golf course and get hopelessly lost.”
Laura had to concede that Christina had a good point, so they joined the group on the slow, stumbly walk back to the villa park. It really was not a great distance away from the hotel building, but a large group of very drunk people is hard to move quickly.
Upon arrival, the group’s drunken shouting and cheering kicked into high gear. A conga line formed, and it teetered its way through the little streets of the villa park. One woman in a very pretty green dress could be seen vomiting into one of the garbage cans beside the entrance.
“Oh dear,” said Christina, “it looks like Maree had herself a bit too big a night.”
As Laura heard someone shout “Now the party’s really getting started!” She turned to Christina and said with a meaningful look in her eye, “I think it’s time for me to turn in.”
“Yes, me too. I’m in the Evaluation contest tomorrow, so I’d like a good sleep. We’ve got this lot home just fine. What they do now is up to them!”
Laura and Christina quietly left the revellers behind, found their villa and made sure to lock the door behind them as they turned in for the night.
They were abruptly awakened, however, when a scream split the peaceful pre-dawn air. They quickly threw on some clothes and ran outside, where they found Maree standing in her pyjamas and sobbing into her hands, standing over Peter’s dead body. He lay in a pool of his own blood, his head caved in on one side, with his blood-covered trophy beside him.
Laura and Christina arrived to see a large circle of people dressed in their pyjamas, all wearing shocked expressions on their faces. Dave was among them. Everyone stood in a large circle around Peter’s body, keeping their distance, as if the body itself was contagious. There was a quiet murmur of conversation and the sound of more than a few stifled sobs.
Christina suggested they all move to the lobby of the reception building, while waiting for the authorities to arrive. One of the hotel workers was charged with keeping watch over the body to make sure it remained undisturbed.
But Laura and Dave lingered. “Hey Dave!”
“Take a look at that trophy!”
“What about it? It’s covered in blood. It was obviously used to bash in Peters’s skull. Why would I want to look at it?” Dave was conspicuously avoiding looking in the direction of the body, and had started to fidget.
“But just look at it! Don’t you notice anything? Look at it!”
Dave reluctantly looked, then quickly looked away again.
“Okay, I’ve looked at it. Yes, it’s covered in blood. Look, I’m not that good with the sight of blood…. there’s a reason I didn’t become a doctor.”
“Really? You don’t strike me as the squeamish type. There’s something stuck in his wound…”
“Laura, come on! I’m not listening to you anymore.”
“Whatever… let me just take a closer look for a minute and then we’ll get out of here.”
Dave became intensely interested in the flowers planted in the borders, enough to notice a few weeds. To distract himself further, he bent down to pluck them out.
“Okay,” said Laura, “I’ve seen everything I’m going to see. Let’s go.”.
“Where are we going?”
“To join the others, of course.”
“What… really? Now? I realize the sun’s just come up, but after this… I need a bit of a lie-down. And maybe a scotch or two.”
Like you said, not a doctor. Clearly not a police officer, either.
“A scotch? And miss the chance to see everyone’s early reactions? No way. There’s plenty of time for drinking later.”
“Oh, come on!” Said Laura, grabbing Dave’s hand and leading him off towards the reception building where most of the people had congregated. When they arrived into a roomful of crying, distraught people, the tone of shock was clearly evident.
“…can’t imagine why anyone would want to do that! Everybody liked Peter. Who couldn’t like Peter?” Said one man.
“He was always so kind, so willing to help anyone,” continued the woman beside him.
The discussion continued in this tone for 15 or 20 minutes. Kind words and fond recollections were expressed against a steady background of tears and quiet sobs. Soon, the police arrived and began taking statements from everyone present. As people were finished giving their statements, the group slowly left the lobby, some in the direction of their villas, some towards the main hotel building where the buffet breakfast was waiting for them. Laura and Dave were the last to be interviewed by the police, and as such were the last to leave the lobby.
“I still want that scotch,” moaned Dave.
“No you don’t, it’ll just make you feel worse. And after what we’ve just learned, we’ve got a lot of more poking around to do.”
“What? What did we just learn? Everyone’s upset. Hell, I’m upset! Who wouldn’t be!”
“Well that’s just the thing, not everybody’s upset the same way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you notice? How many people were gathered around Peter’s body?”
“Um… I don’t know. A dozen or so?”
“Nineteen. And how many were here in the lobby?”
“I’m guessing… nineteen?”
“No, there were seventeen. That’s just it. Two people weren’t here. Now, that might mean something, and it might mean nothing. But we have to find out.”
“Nineteen people, seventeen people… you counted? Who are you… some kind of Hercule Poirot or something?”
“Numbers and patterns, baby, it’s what I do. That’s why I went into mathematics and statistics at university.”
“Yep. How about you, what’d you study?”
“Accounting,” Dave said, mumbling slightly.
“Well, that’s lovely! A good solid career choice. Now look, I’m going to go poke around, and see what I can see. Do you want to come along?”
“Not really, but…”
“But why not? Don’t you want to know who did this? Doesn’t it bother you that one of the people here at the convention is a murderer? And that maybe that murderer was right here in this room with us just now?”
Dave shivered visibly. “What? Seriously? Well, I guess that makes sense, doesn’t it? Peter didn’t clobber himself with his trophy, so someone else… oh geez.”
“Yeah… oh geez! Okay, come on. We can work together. After what I’ve seen so far, I think we have a solid chance of figuring this out before the convention ends and everyone goes home.”
“What have you seen? You mean the nineteen and seventeen?”
“That’s only one thing, but yes. And… I know who the missing two people were.”
“Seriously!?” exclaimed Dave.
“Yes,” replied Laura, satisfaction in her voice. “Janine and Kylie. We’ll definitely want to catch up with them first.”
Laura and Dave entered the breakfast buffet in the main restaurant of the hotel and were met with a subdued atmosphere. By now, of course, news of Peter’s murder had circulated.
“I don’t see either Janine or Kylie in here,” said Dave, “I wonder where they might be?”
“Good question. Perhaps we should get ourselves some breakfast before we get started in earnest. We’ve got an active day lined up!”
Laura’s broad smile showed Dave that she was enjoying this, although he could not possibly imagine why. He found the whole thing completely macabre, but he tried to return Laura’s enthusiastic smile, failing miserably in the attempt.
As they walked towards the buffet, Laura stopped short and said, “Oh wait, we should probably go wash up a bit first. There’s no telling what kind of germs we’ve got on our hands after a morning like this!”
“Seriously? Yuck! Laura, you really go in for this brutally murdered dead body stuff, don’t you? I would really rather not think about it.”.
“Oh, toughen up, Dave! You’ll get used to it! And besides, there’s a murderer afoot and we don’t have much time to catch them!”
“All right, all right, all right,” groused Dave as he followed Laura towards the restrooms, which were outside the breakfast buffet room and at the end of a long corridor. When they were halfway down the corridor, however, they heard voices having a very heated argument in hissed whispers. Presumably, the voices were coming from one of the service doorways along the corridor.
“… might decide not to send anybody, out of respect for Peter!” said a woman’s voice.
“But the rules clearly say…” said a man’s voice.
Laura turned to Dave, and indicated the two of them should hide themselves from sight in one of the other service doorways.
“I know what the rules say!” said the woman. “Don’t quote the rules to me, we all know what the rules say! But those rules were designed to cover normal circumstances. These circumstances are anything but normal!”.
“But still, we have to send somebody!” the man hissed back.
“No we do not. In fact, that decision is entirely in the hands of the leadership. Now, it occurs to me right now that you’re a little bit too excited about this, especially now… “
“What’s wrong with that?”
The woman sighed in exasperation. “Before the body is even cold? Literally! And your biggest concern is about who’s going to Vegas?”
“Let me tell you, this looks bad. Really bad. As in ‘it looks like you might have done it’ bad. So let me give you some advice: drop it. Right now. I’ll forget we had this conversation, unless there is an important reason why I have to remember it. Do you understand me?”
There was some indistinct flustering, and then finally a quieter, “Yes, I understand.”. And then Laura and Dave heard two sets of footsteps coming towards them. They huddled as deeply into the shadows as they could, and in a few seconds the two walked past them. Both appeared to be absolutely fuming.
After they were out of sight and the sound footfalls had completely faded, Laura asked Dave, “What was that about? Do you know?”
“Yes,” replied Dave. “They were talking about who would represent us in the global championships in Las Vegas. Normally, it would have been Peter. Every now and then, though, the winner is not able to attend the convention, so then the privilege falls to whoever took 2nd place, and if that person can’t go, then the 3rd place finisher… and so forth.”
“So that was Mister Second Place, I presume?”
“Yes it was. And the woman was the head judge of the contest. Usually there’s no decision to make, but as she said, this situation is different.”.
“The man, I’ve seen him before, too. And not just in the contest. On the plane on the way over here, he was making a huge scene standing up and making some speech that looked like a sermon or something.”.
“Yes, that’s Jason, he does that a lot,” replied Dave with a wistful grin on his face. “He annoys everybody with that, and he just won’t stop. I’ve even talked to him about it myself, but it was like talking to a fencepost. We put up with it primarily because he is, as you have seen, quite good.”
“Yes, I’m sure. So… the people who go on to win the championship… how important is it? I mean, what do they get out of it?”
“Well, it can lead to a lucrative career as a public speaker. Think about it…. instantly the winner has ‘star’ status within Talkies, which is well known around the world, and if they want to go on and they do it at all correctly, it could be very lucrative.”
“As in, how lucrative?”
“Sometimes, although it’s like everything else… once you make the initial splash, the rest depends on you. But… it is quite a splash to make.”.
“Wow! The head judge was quite right. It does look really bad. That sounds like a powerful motive to me.”
“To me as well,” said Dave, “and I think this puts Jason at the top of our suspect list, don’t you?”
“Along with Janine and Kylie.”
“Speaking of whom… shall we wash up and get to that breakfast?”
“My god!” exclaimed Laura. “Where did all the food go? You Talkies are like a swarm of locusts! And for that matter, I guess the locusts moved on once they denuded this food source, because there’s nothing and nobody here.”
Dave laughed. “Yes, it looks like we underestimated the amount people would eat. It’s always a crap-shoot at these things. Last year we had nearly double the amount of food that we needed, so a lot was wasted. And that convention was Melbourne, so there were more people in attendance! This year, we cut the amount by only a quarter, and look what happened.”
“I hate planning stuff like this. Better you than me. So, what are we going to do about food?”.
“I think there’s some kind of restaurant in the casino part of the hotel that might be serving breakfast. Let’s take a walk and find out.”.
Dave led Laura out of the breakfast room, and out of the main entrance.
“We might as well get a bit of fresh air while we’re at it, right?” Dave said. “We’ll probably be inside most of the rest of the day.”.
“This building is huge!” exclaimed Laura. “I knew it was big, but I didn’t know it was this big!”
“It’s deceptive, isn’t it? The casino part is certainly accessible from the main building, but it goes off in its own wing, so it’s easy to think that it’s not there. Here we go, here’s the door!”
“Dave, hang on a second!”
“What is it?”
“I think I see something. There’s something bright green sticking out of that garbage can over there, on the other side of the parking area. I have a pretty good sense of colour, and to my eyes…” Laura left off as she walked away towards the garbage can, leaving Dave standing. He watched as she fished out the bright green thing and held it up. It was a cocktail dress. She looked at it for just a moment, then balled it up in her hands and ran back over to Dave.
“Look at this! This is the dress that Maree was wearing last night. And here, on the sleeve! That’s a blood stain!”.
Dave looked at it for a second, then gasped slightly. “Do you think that’s, you know, his blood?”.
“Might be, might not be. But Maree was the one who woke us up with her screaming this morning, remember? She was in her pyjamas then, but I saw her last night just before I turned in, and she was definitely wearing it then. And now it’s stuffed in a garbage can.”
“Not only that, but it wasn’t stuffed very well, was it?” mused Dave. “It looked almost like someone wanted us to find it.”
“Nice one, Dave! You’re starting to get the hang of this! Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking, too. It was either stuffed in that garbage can with the intention that it would be found, or it was stuffed in there too hastily by someone in a big hurry. Or possibly it was stuffed in there by someone who didn’t realize the significance of it. But that makes the least sense of all, because one doesn’t usually find a discarded dress, pick it up, and then stuff it in a trashcan. Especially not at a hotel, where the obvious thing to do would be to take it to the hotel reception. No, there’s definitely something serious going on here. We should take this to the police officers. They’ll definitely want to see it.”
“Can we at least get some food first?”
“No, Dave, time’s ticking by! The sooner they know about this, the more chance they have of figuring it out. Us too! Now, come on!”
“So now we’ve got four suspects,” said Laura after speaking to the police in one of the hotel offices.
“Four?” responded Dave, “I count three. Janine, Kylie, and Jason.”
“And whoever stuffed the dress into the garbage can. Whether it was Maree herself or someone else, whoever did it had a solid reason.”
“So maybe we should go find Maree and see what she has to say.”
“Good idea,” said Laura. “Where is she likely to be?”
“Well, what time is it?” Asked Dave, looking at his watch. “It’s almost eleven, which means the locusts have had their morning tea and now they’re in the Impromptu contest.”.
“Oh brilliant! Will they all be there? Can we slip in the back without being too noticeable?”
“I think we can get in, yes. As an organizer, I do have special privileges,” Dave said, visibly puffing up a bit in self-importance.
Sigh. And you had been doing so well.
“And will they all be there?”
“Most likely,” responded Dave, as they started walking in the direction of the main auditorium.
“And what exactly is an ‘Impromptu Contest’, anyway? Although I probably shouldn’t ask, because it’ll just sound like another form of cruel and unusual punishment to me.”
“Well, in the Impromptu Contest, the contestants each get asked the same question, and they have to speak to that question for a few minutes. No preparation.”
“Shut up, okay, just shut up!” Joked Laura in a saucy way. “But please catch me when I pass out. The way you feel about blood? That’s how I feel about public speaking.”.
“You’ll be fine. Everybody feels that way in the beginning. All right, here we are, let’s go in.”
Half an hour later, Dave and Laura re-emerged from the auditorium. Dave was completely normal, but Laura was as white as a sheet. Dave turned to her and asked, “Well, I didn’t see Maree in there anywhere, did you?”
“Sorry, what?” stammered Laura.
“Maree… she wasn’t in there.”
“Oh, right. No, I didn’t see her. God, I feel like I’ve just watched a horror movie. That was dreadful! And what kind of question was that: “Tell us about your most traumatic childhood experience, and why it was so difficult for you?”
“A bad question,” replied Dave. “I was quite surprised. But did you see how the winner handled it?”
“No kidding! He was amazing! Such poise, and such class! How do you learn how to do it like that?”
“Well, first of all, that was Patrick… he’s pretty amazing at everything he puts his hand to, and the words ‘poise’ and ‘class’ describe him perfectly. As long as I’ve known him, he has always been excellent with Impromptu questions… unbeatable sometimes, as we just saw!”
“Amazing! But still… I think I might have PTSD from that.”
“You’re upset by a little impromptu question, and the sight of a freshly murdered cadaver doesn’t phase you? You’re weird, Laura.”
“Well, thanks, Dave! I think that’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in weeks! I never wanted to be normal. ‘Weird’ is good!”
“You’re really weird, Laura”.
“You’re pretty weird yourself, Dave.”
A group of three people walked past them.
“…fell asleep out in the forest. Both of them. Can you believe that?” exclaimed the first person.
“And after everything that happened between them at the gala…” said the second, as they moved out of earshot.
Laura grabbed Dave’s arm and started following the trio.
“…her saying ‘he’s mine, you cow! That’s what we agreed! This time Peter was mine and Dean was yours!’”, continued the second person.
The third person said, “You mean, like…. like I think you mean?”
“Who knows?”, replied the second, “but they were almost tearing each other’s’ hair out.”
“Really?” said the third person, “because I had heard on what I thought was good authority that Peter was involved with Maree. I thought everyone knew that.”
“Interesting,” replied the second, “I never heard that. Apparently they hadn’t heard that either. Anyway, finally one of them stole a huge bottle of something from the bar and they were gone.”
The first person interjected, “Where they, I guess, stumbled out to the forest, drank themselves stupid and fell asleep.”
The conversation ended, and Laura signalled Dave to stop following them.
“I’m guessing they were talking about Janine and Kylie,” Laura said.
“But didn’t you see them when you came home last night? Weren’t they in with that big group you and Christina were with?”
“Nope, they weren’t there. But I didn’t think anything of it. This is starting to smell really bad, Dave. Janine and Kylie were drunk and arguing about Peter only a short while before he was killed. I don’t know what the exact details are, but that sounds like a motive to me. Then they ostensibly fell asleep in the forest? Really? And when did that happen? Before or after Peter was killed? Were either of them present when the murder was committed? Did either of them do it?”
“Damn. I was hoping we could rule them out. They might be loud and a bit forward, but I think they’re both okay at heart. And now we’ve still got three – maybe four – solid suspects. I need a coffee!”
“Yeah, me too,” replied Laura.”. It’s getting close to lunch time, isn’t it? Shall we join the swarm? Get some food? See what we can see?”
“Hey, that’s strange,” said Laura as they were turning to leave the lunchroom, having just finished eating. “Dave, look out there!”
Dave looked out the window to where Laura was pointing, and after a few seconds said, “Laura, I’m noticing a pattern here. Every time you tell me to look at something, not only can I not see it, but we end up with another suspect. Soon I guess we’ll end up with a second dead body. You’ll be in your element.”
“I can’t believe you can’t see it. Do your eyes even work? How many fingers and I holding up?”
“Very funny. So what do you see?”
“Something that shouldn’t be there. Come on, let’s go!”
Laura led Dave out past the grassy area filled with outdoor tables, towards the edge of the woods. When they were only a few meters away, Dave slowed when he finally saw what Laura had seen.
“It is another dead body. Oh geez! Serves me right for being a smartass.”
There was a running shoe just visible underneath a stack of branches. The foot that was in the shoe was attached to the lifeless body of Maree. She was simply dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. The handle of an ordinary table knife protruded from the left side of her chest.
“Well, judging by the fact that the blood had pretty much dried up,” said Laura, examining the body, “I’d guess this happened a few hours ago. Probably very soon after we all left the villas for breakfast. She was with us then, but we haven’t seen her since. So maybe as early as, what? Ten o’clock? After she and the killer had breakfast, I’m guessing, because that’s probably where the knife came from. I’d say this is pretty much cut-and-dried case,” she said with a cheeky little smile.
“Laura! For god’s sake! The woman’s dead! And you’re making horrible puns!”
“Okay, okay, all right… I’m sorry. There, you happy now?”
“What do you think? We’re standing over another dead body. I’m not happy at all!”.
“Oh, Dave, you’re lovely, you really are, but seriously… get it together, man! She’s gone. There’s nothing more we can do for her, except figure out who did this. And we’re not going to do that if we lose our heads, are we?”
“No. You’re right. Okay. Can we at least go somewhere else and sit down?”.
They made their way back to the hotel, where they went directly to the office that was being used by the police. After describing what they found, and agreeing to keep it quiet for a little while in order to give the police investigators time to observe everyone’s behaviour, Laura and Dave sat down in one of the overstuffed couches in the hotel lobby.
“How is it, do you think,” began Laura, “that we have two murders, both of which occurred right out in the open, and apparently nobody knows anything? Otherwise the police would have taken some action by now. Somebody must know something!”
“Well, by the look of things, Maree knew something,” replied Dave, “a bit too much.”
“Very good, Dave! And welcome back! It looks like you’re even starting to regain some colour in your cheeks.”
“You just don’t stop, do you?”
“Nope, not when I’m presented with so much good material. Look, things are even less clear now than they were an hour ago. Maree is still a suspect in Peter’s murder, and now she’s not talking. Someone killed Maree, and while it’s most likely related to Peter’s killing, we can’t assume that. However, let’s imagine for a moment that the two are directly connected. What do you think happened?”
“Well,” Dave fumbled for words, “I guess the most obvious possibility is that Maree saw the murder, and the murderer had to shut her up.”
“That’s a good start. Look, here’s what I think. Either Maree killed Peter or she didn’t. If yes, then Maree was most likely killed as an act of vengeance or retribution. If no, then I would go with your suggestion: she saw Peter’s murder, and the murderer saw her. And then of course there’s the wild card.”
“The wild card? What do you mean?”
“That there’s something else going on, that we don’t know about. So then, the murders are connected, but not for any obvious reason, and we pretty much have no chance figuring it out before the convention closes this afternoon.”
“So what should we do?”
“Well, I still think we need to talk to Janine and Kylie.”
“So do I. But Laura?”
“Can that wait? The Evaluation contest is next, and Christina is competing. I promised her I’d go watch and let her know how she did and what the other contestants said.”.
“Well… okay. Hey! Tell you what…” said Laura as she recognized someone on the other side of the lobby. “I see Mister Second Place over there. Remember, from this morning? I want to talk to him. Maybe I’ll get him to buy me a coffee and I can ask him some questions.”
“But Laura, he’s going to want to see the Evaluation contest too. Look, he’s heading towards the auditorium now. He’ll be busy!”
“Oh, I can get him to change his mind.”.
“Seriously? He’s kind of a jerk, Laura, I don’t think…”
“Oh, Dave, do I really have to explain this to you?”
“That flattery will get you everywhere? Especially with jerks? And when combined with a starry-eyed gaze and a little batting of the eyelashes…” she said, demonstrating.
Dave hesitated, then swallowed. “I…. see. Well… I’ll see you after, then….”
“See you!” She said cheerily as she jumped off the couch and headed across the lobby to intercept Jason, leaving Dave on the couch, shaking his head slowly.
“Hey there! Didn’t I see you in the Global contest yesterday? You’re speech was so totally amazing! It was so wrong that you didn’t win. I was sure you were going to win! I so totally thought you were going to win that!”
God, this hurts. I hope this is over before I develop a brain haemorrhage.
“Well, thank you, honey! I thought I had it, too.”
“Hey, want to grab some coffee or something?”. Cue the eyelashes. “I’ve love to hear about how you came up with that! I mean, nobody can put together a speech the way you can!”
“That’d be nice, darlin’. I was going to watch the ‘eval’ contest, but you’re much more interesting.”
“Laura! How’d it go? What’d he say?”
Laura gave a little shudder. “He’s smarmy. No, wait, it’s worse than that… he’s super smarmy. UltraSmarm. Sir Smarminess. As in, set your phasers on ‘smarm’…”
“Laura….” Dave chided gently.
“Right! Thanks! He didn’t do it.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because he wasn’t there. He was ‘occupied’ at the time.”. Then Laura’s voice changed in imitation of Jason’s voice, and she said, “if y’know what I’m sayin’”.
“As in…. ‘occupied?’”
“Occupied. He suggested we might be similarly ‘occupied’ together tonight, too.”
“Disgusting!” Exclaimed Dave, with a bit more enthusiasm than Laura had expected. Dave said, “Where is he?” as he started to turn and look.
It was Laura’s turn to chide. “Now, Dave, we can let it go. We’ve got other things to do. But hey, how did Christina go?”
“Oh, she won the Evaluation contest,” replied Dave. “She did brilliantly. I’m not totally surprised, because I’ve seen her evaluations for years now, and she has always been one the best I’ve ever seen. Well, now that you’ve ruled out Jason, what’s next?”
“They’re next,” said Laura.
Laura motioned Dave to follow her across the lobby, because sitting on a couch right in front of them, were the very two people they had been looking for all day.
“Well, hello!” said Laura, “we’ve been looking for you!”
“Have you?” asked Janine through her tears. “Well now you’ve found us. What do you want?”
“To ask you where you two were last night?”
“We were in the hotel security office!” blurted Kylie. “We stole a bottle of gin from the bar and headed out into the woods. We got drunk and fell asleep. Then a hotel security guard found and dragged us inside! We were there the whole time. They let us go just before dawn.”
“You slept there?”
“Of course we slept there!” replied Janine. “We were so hammered we could have slept on a roller-coaster.”
“So you didn’t go straight back to the villa park?” asked Dave.
“Of course not!” exploded Kylie, through her own tears. “I know what you’re thinking… you’re thinking we had something to do with it. Because we had a fight about him at the gala last night. Everybody thinks that! But you’re all wrong! It’s just a game we play. We both really like both Peter and Dean, but neither of them notice us much, so we just hang around, you know? And make up stories. Like a fantasy.”
“And that’s all?” asked Laura.
“That’s all!” replied Janine, starting to cry in earnest now. “Look,” she said as she handed the convention programme book to Laura, which was opened to a page listing the previous winners of the Global contests. “His name will be on this list next year…” she said with a thick voice.
Laura looked at the proffered list, and instantly something in her mind went ‘click’. “May I take this?” asked Laura.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
Laura took the book and motioned to Dave to come outside again with her.
“Dave, the closing ceremony is about to start, right? You go in and save us some seats. I’ve got to pop down to the villas for a minute.”
“Sure thing. But… why?”
“Oh, just checking on a theory.”
Laura slipped quietly into the auditorium just as the doors were closing, and quickly took her seat near the back next to Dave.
“Did your theory check out?” whispered Dave.
“Thank you all for coming,” began the emcee, “on what has become a much more sombre occasion than we had ever anticipated. Normally the closing ceremony of a convention is a happy occasion, but given the circumstances, today’s ceremony will be much shorter and simpler. Before we start thanking the people who put in so much hard work organizing this event, I would like to ask you all to stand for a moment’s silence as we remember Peter.”
They either don’t know about Maree, or they don’t want to talk about her.
The audience stood, and for a minute there was total silence. From her vantage point at the back of the room, Laura took the opportunity of observing the behaviour of a few people. What she saw convinced her that she was correct.
“Thank you, everyone. Please sit down.”. The crowd sat. “May I please ask the Chief Convener and her team of organizers to come to the stage to receive…”
“I’m going to go grab a seat at the front while everyone’s moving around!” Whispered Laura to Dave. “Coming?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Mmm… no. Not really. Come on!”
Laura and Dave scooted to the front row as the organizing committee was taking to the stage. The emcee handed out the thank-you gifts, called for another round of applause, and the organizers left the stage.
The emcee continued, “I would now ask our other three contest winners to come to the stage.”
“Oh, this will be good!” exclaimed Laura in a whisper to Dave.
“Why? Don’t you find this dull? Usually they get to make a thank-you speech, and those can drag on for a while.”
“You don’t know?”
“Laura, what…” but Dave stopped short as the emcee began again.
“Usually, we give each of the contest winners an opportunity to say a few words, but given the circumstances, I’m sure you’ll all understand if we do not.”. The three contest winners nodded their heads in subdued approval. “Thank you. At this time, however, Dean, this year’s Humor champion, has asked to say a few words about his friend, Peter.”
“Thank you,” said Dean, taking the microphone from the emcee. “Today is indeed a very difficult day. For me, I still cannot believe what has happened. Peter was my friend, in the best sense of the word. Many of you have said, jokingly, that we were like twins. Indeed, that is how it always felt to me. We started Talkies at about the same time five years ago, and our Talkies journeys were almost identical the entire way. We entered contests at the same time, and found that we both loved them; we took on club leadership roles at the same time; we progressed through the educational program a similar rates. And all the while, I always knew that I could count on Peter for support, advice, and friendship. I’m sure everyone who knew him even a little would say the same: he was a positive force in the lives of everyone he touched. Indeed, the bond grew between us over the years is something that I will miss very deeply, for a very long time. It’s no secret that we both aspired to be global champion, and together we helped each other, and pushed each other to greater heights. He won the Global contest this year, deservedly so! And he would have represented all of us brilliantly at the Global Championships. I can only aspire to be able to honour his legacy and do as well in the future.”
“Then why don’t you tell us why you killed him!?”
“Laura!” shouted Dave.
“I beg your pardon?” asked Dean.
“Let me up there, and I’ll tell you!”
“This is wildly inappropriate,” said Dean, incredulously, “but okay, since you’ve brought up the idea in this public forum, we might as well finish it here and now. Please, come up here and tell us all exactly why I killed my best friend, little lady.”
Fuel to the fire. Thanks for that.
Laura grabbed Dave’s hand and dragged him up onto the stage. For his part, Dave tried unsuccessfully to escape Laura’s iron grip and after a few steps had to just go along.
Dean sneered through a smile as he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage…. what are you anyway? My accuser?” And he handed the microphone to Laura with an obvious show of unfelt politeness.
“Well, um, thank you, Dean,” began Laura. “My name is Laura. Ladies and gentlemen, from the first moment I saw Peter’s body this morning, I knew something wasn’t a simple as it appeared. I’m going to tell you about three things: first, those strange things that caught my attention. Second, the two other people who were also, in my mind, main suspects. And third, the proof as to why it had to be you, Dean, and no one else.
"Initially, everything at the murder scene appeared as you expected it would at a murder scene. Dead body, pool of blood, murder weapon. But it was the murder weapon that was unusual. One would expect that if a large trophy was used to bash in someone's skull, it would be covered in blood. But the trophy wasn't covered in blood: it was completely covered in blood. Someone -- the murderer, presumably -- had taken the trouble of coating the whole thing. Why would anyone do this? My curiosity was piqued.
“The next thing that grabbed my attention was that several people were conspicuously absent from the group this morning: people I would have expected to see. There were three of them. Two of those, Janine and Kylie, were present at the discovery of the body but then slipped away. I wondered why that was, and I spent most of the day trying to find them. Eventually, though, it became clear that neither of them had anything to do with the murders.
“In fact, it was Janine who handed me the piece of evidence I needed to make the whole picture come together. Just before this ceremony started, Janine and I were sitting together, talking about Peter, and she showed me the list of Global contest winners from previous years. When I looked at the list, it was clear that this was not the same set of names I saw on the trophy beside Peter’s body this morning.
“This seemed really odd to me. I had seen that the engraving on the faceplate of trophy said “Global Speech Contest”, so obviously… that faceplate did not belong on that trophy. Since that was not a mistake that was likely to be constantly made over the years, I concluded that the faceplates had been recently switched. After all, the trophies are in all other respects, identical.
“After you hit Peter, you must have noticed a sliver of wood that was stuck in Peter’s head wound. Clearly, it had broken off the trophy, and you couldn’t get it out… it was still there this morning. The trophy we found beside his body had no damage whatsoever, and that was the first real clue. You had to switch the trophies, because you knew that you’d need to be seen carrying your trophy around at some point, at the very least on the trip home. You needed that to look convincing or the game was up. You needed a quick solution, so you decided to switch them.
“How am I doing for time?”
“Five minutes, Laura! Two more minutes to go!” Said someone sitting behind a set of timing lights.
“Excellent. But the final clue was that you were also not present this morning when Peter’s body was found. Given that he was your best friend, I find this unusual.”
“I slept like the dead.”
A pun? Seriously?
“I took a sleeping pill last night because I was so charged up.”
“If that is true, you must be well-rested, because you would indeed have been soundly asleep not to have been woken up by all the commotion. But you don’t look rested to me. In fact, you look like you haven’t slept in about a week. A seasoned killer would definitely want to been at the scene of the crime with the rest of the group. But you’re not a seasoned killer.”
“I’m not a killer at all! It wasn’t me,” asserted Dean. “Someone obviously snuck into my room, took the trophy, and used it on Peter.”
"Then switched the faceplates, coated your trophy in his blood, and removed the other trophy from the scene? That seems like a lot of work to me. But indeed, that is a possibility. It seems that something between you and Peter had changed, and you just couldn't wait to take revenge. So tell me: when we retrieve the other trophy, which is currently sitting in plain view in your room -- I went back to the villas to check just before the ceremony started -- will we find a missing splinter? And traces of Peter's blood underneath the faceplate? They're stuck on with a sticky substance of some sort, and I'm sure will have absorbed some of the blood. And quite possibly one of your own fingerprints as well, left behind as you were making the switch.
Dean’s demeanour darkened. “Give me that!” he hissed, snatching the microphone back from Laura.
“He had it coming!” Dean snarled into the microphone. “We had a deal and he backed out. Leaving me with nothing and looking like a complete idiot in front of everybody!”
“A deal? What kind of deal?” demanded Laura. “You might as well tell us. As you said, you might as well finish this here and now.”
“I paid him to write my Global speech, okay?” Dean shouted into the microphone. Once the reverberation in the room faded, it was so quiet you could have heard people’s thoughts. Although they probably weren’t thinking at all; everyone in the room was stunned.
“I knew I would never, ever be able to beat him. We’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve never won. Didn’t you notice? I’ve always come second to him when we’ve been up against each other. I paid him to write my Global speech, and to let me win just this once. And then he stole the speech and used it himself.”
Gasps sounded all over the auditorium.
“Not only that! In the third round contests, he paid the contest chairperson and fixed the speaking order! So he would go first!”
This brought a round of scandalized whispers from the audience.
“You can imagine my situation! There I was, with a speech that I had paid for, which I had perfected, which I thoroughly expected to win… and he went and used it first. There was nothing I could do! I couldn’t protest that he had plagiarized my speech, because then the truth would come out. So I got up in front of everybody and got completely embarrassed by doing an ordinary club speech I wrote a few months earlier. And I couldn’t remember half of it! Me! The high-flying Talkie who talked about winning the world championship! I looked totally ridiculous. And there he was, sitting right there, front and center, with a cold sneer all over his face. He knew exactly what he was doing, he had planned it all along. He did it to me on purpose and he deserved to pay!”
“So that’s when you decided to kill him?” asked Laura and Dave, simultaneously.
“No, that’s when I decided to blackmail him.”
More gasps and whispers.
“I got him drunk last night, to ‘celebrate our wins’, I said… and we got back to the villas really late. We were each carrying our trophies. The party was still going, of course, but eventually we were the last ones there. I told him I wanted my money back, and more. Much more. Otherwise I would tell everyone what he had done.”
Wow, the pregnant pause of pregnant pauses. I guess he’s not half-bad at this, after all.
“He stood there and laughed at me. He said ‘the joke’s on you, you ridiculous little man… you’ll won’t do anything of the sort, because they’d throw you out too, and never let you back. Your dream would be dead, too.’ I couldn’t believe it. I started to get angry, and he obviously saw it because he kept going, ‘I played you like a fiddle from the very start! From the first second you proposed this ridiculous idea, I knew how this was going to go. You never had any real talent for Global speeches, anyway, admit it! Everyone knows you’re just a juvenile hack!’ And then he said the thing that made lose it. He said that he would go to the leadership and expose me! And that I should pay him to keep quiet, not the other way around! My grip tightened on my damn Humor trophy, and before I knew it, I had already hit him three times with it. He went down… and didn’t get up again.”
“And Maree saw you do it, so she had to die, too, is that it?”
“Yes and no,” replied Dean, visibly wilting now. “She was there, but that was just an unfortunate coincidence. Unfortunate for me. Turns out, the whole thing was her idea from the start. After all she was the one who suggested the scheme to me in the first place. She was my girlfriend… well, I thought she was… and together we were going on to fame and fortune,” and at that he let out a sarcastic laugh. “But it wasn’t until the scheme had gone wrong that I realized what she really was: a complete psychopath. She saw me kill him, and I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. She was calm… too calm. It was her idea was to switch the trophies. So I did. I had to clean mine first before prying off the faceplate. As I was doing that, she started laughing, and she couldn’t stop herself. ‘This is working out better than I planned!’ she said. She told me she had played Peter against me, working with him the same way she worked with me! Regardless how it worked out, she would always have had one or both of us in her pocket. She said… the only thing left to clean up now was John, the head judge from the 3rd round. He was in on the plan, and he was the only other person who knew about it. She turned to go, and I tried to stop her, and I saw that I stained her dress a bit with Peter’s blood. She looked at me so coldly… I’ve never seen anything like that before. She said that I was hers now, from my head down to my toes, and that she was going to make me give her everything… everything she ever dreamed of. And with John out of the way, nobody would ever find out.”
“So why didn’t you stop her?” asked Laura.
"Because she said, 'you had better finish with the trophies, before someone else sees you.'. And she was gone. I had to let her go. And I had to work quickly. So I finished with the faceplates, and then I just lay each side 'his' trophy down into the pool of blood -- clumsy, I know, but I was panicking again -- and then I chased after her. I nearly caught up to her by the time I got to the hotel, but then I saw..."
“Saw what, Dean? What did you see?”
I saw her strangling John with a cord. He went limp, and then she just let his body slide into the creek.” The audience members made all manner of shocked sounds at this revelation: gasps, cries, exclamations. Dean went on, “And you know what she did? She plugged one end of the cord into her phone and stuffed the other end into her ears. She strangled him with headphones! By the time I got up there, he had already started to float away with the current.”
There were a few long seconds of pure silence, as everyone was clearly horrified at the news.
Finally, Laura said “there’s only one thing I don’t understand. Why did she stuff the green dress into the garbage can?”
“Oh, that. Well, she told me that she had just seen the hotel security guards out in the grounds, and she heard footsteps running behind her. That was me, but she didn’t know that. So she ran around the corner of the building, whipped off the dress, which by this time was both wet and had some blood stains on it… and the next thing I saw was that she came back around the building wearing only her underwear, pretending to be drunk.”
“And that’s when you knew you had to get rid of her?”
More gasps sounded.
“Yes. But I didn’t know how. So I slipped away quietly, then wandered around the dark golf course for most of the night, trying to figure it out. I got back to bed really really late. I was actually asleep in my bed when all the commotion was going on this morning. And then, at breakfast… Maree just sat down at my table and started talking about the night before. No effort to keep her voice down, nothing. I think she had pretty much gone over the edge by then, but I didn’t care. I said ‘let’s go outside!’ She got up and led the way, and I slipped a table knife into my pocket when she wasn’t looking. And then…. I think you know what happened then.”
By this time two police officers had arrived, and moved towards Dean. Each grabbed one of Dean’s arms. The microphone hit the stage with a muffled thud as he dropped it, and together they exited the stage. Silence filled the cavernous auditorium as even the air itself held its breath in disbelief.
Later that evening, Laura and Dave arrived back in Melbourne. Flights out of Tasmania had been delayed, giving many of those who attended the conference time to talk through everything they had seen and heard. The shock of it all clearly hadn’t worn off, and nobody could yet believe what had happened.
After retrieving their luggage, Laura and Dave stood in line, waiting for taxis. They were heading in opposite directions.
“One hell of a weekend, wasn’t it?” asked Laura.
“For sure. A convention like no other.”
“Did I hear correctly that next year’s convention is in Adelaide?”
“You did,” replied Dave. “Does this mean you’re considering joining us?”
“I could be convinced,” she said, with a little twinkle in her eye. “But I’m definitely coming to the convention.”
“Wonderful! I’ll see you there, then,“ he said. ”I’m already looking forward to it.”
Two taxis arrived. Dave loaded his bags into the back of one taxi, while Laura loaded hers into the other. He gave a short wave to Laura, climbed in his taxi, and drove away. Laura stood for a moment and watched it go.
Oh, I’ll see you a lot sooner than that. I’ll make sure of it.
Thank you for reading my work! I certainly hoped you enjoyed it. This is my first attempt at a work of fiction, and I had a wonderful time writing it. The murder mystery plot and all of the characters in this book were purely fictional, but some of the details and events were real.
If you enjoyed this work, and would like to see “Conventional Murders #2” in the future, please take a moment to visit the site where you downloaded this edition and write a review for me? I’d really appreciate it!