Death in December
Published by Grissom Publishing Australia
Also by Shonah Stevens :-
Blood of the Cult
Dead or Alive?
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‘Jayne Belmont Complete Mystery Series’
Copyright © 2016 by Shonah Stevens
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21 Callistemon Court
An excerpt from the diary of Dorian Jones – November 18th, 2015
…[+ “I don’t know how much longer I can keep going. I rang Verity today, but there was a message that the number had been disconnected. When I contacted the phone company, they told me the new number was unlisted and they couldn’t give it to me. Is she trying to avoid me? I must talk to her – try and convince her that it was all lies. A pack of lies.”+]
James Leibinger knocked for the third time, knowing he would get no answer. He waited a couple of seconds before trying the handle. The door was locked.
He wandered around to the back of the house. Dorian hardly ever locked the place, even when he went out. Sure enough, the bathroom window was open a crack. Leibinger pushed it fully open and heaved himself inside, landing without much dignity in the bathtub.
“Hello Dorian! Are you in there mate?”
The silence echoed back at him; yet, Leibinger had the odd sensation he could feel Dorian’s presence and the cold feeling of dread, which had been with him since this morning, sent tingles of alarm through his body as he made his way towards the kitchen. A stained coffee cup and a couple of plates and teaspoons lay in the sink. Dingy, yellowing, lace curtains framed the view of a small weed infested back yard. Nothing here. He wandered into the lounge. A musty smell assailed his nostrils; the room was dark and depressing. Leibinger pulled back the heavy drapes, letting in a shaft of sunlight. The dust billowed out, causing him to step back hurriedly.
The bedroom was at the end of a long dark passageway. Leibinger moved towards it, reluctance slowing his step. But the room was empty, as was the spare room and bathroom. Leibinger stood for a moment, puzzled. Then, he decided to check the garage; maybe Dorian had gone off somewhere after all.
The car was still there, and Leibinger could just make out a figure in the driver’s seat.
Impatiently, he strode towards the car and opened the driver’s door. Dorian’s sightless eyes stared into his. Leibinger’s stomach gave a lurch. Dorian’s cheeks were puffy and gray, and there was a smell that Leibinger couldn’t quite identify…
It was the smell of death.
Marcus Wingate looked in the mirror to check who would emerge from the other toilet. Actually, he knew quite well who it was, as there were now only two male teachers remaining on the staff of Palmerston High School. The headmaster, James Leibinger, had his own bathroom and toilet en suite to his office. What’s more, his had a push-button flush, not one of these ancient pull chain things the rest of the staff had to contend with. He spun around as the door opened.
“Ah, Vella! Bad luck about Dorian eh?”
Russell Vella sniffed. He was a tall lanky man in his late fifties with longish white hair and a bony expressive face which now wore a look of acute disdain.
“Surely it didn’t surprise you? I expected something like this to happen.” Vella turned on the tap, which clanked and oozed out a trickle of light brown water. “I said to Angela just the other day, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Dorian does something stupid!’”
“He must have cracked under the strain,” Wingate mused. “Poor fellow. He was under a lot of pressure.”
Vella eyed his associate in the mirror as he dried his hands. “He brought it on himself, so don’t waste your sympathy, Wingate. I’ve always said the man was a bloody poof! I mean look at the way he acted, more feminine than half the women I know! And the poetry! Well, I ask you …”
“You may be right about him being gay,” allowed Wingate. “But surely you don’t believe that he molested those boys …”
“I do believe it. Oh, yes. Absolutely! It was guilt that made our little fairy friend top himself. And what’s more, if he hadn’t, I reckon he’d have died of AIDS before the year was out.”
With a spectacular toss of the head, Vella made his exit leaving Wingate slightly shocked, but also amused. Vella was a bigot, that was for sure, but the theatrical way he expressed his views often tended to generate more amusement than offense.
Marcus Wingate leaned towards the mirror and flicked a minuscule piece of fluff from his new plum-colored shirt. Pulling out his comb, he flicked back his dark blonde hair until it was arranged to his satisfaction. Casting a final look of approval at his good looking image, he left the bathroom with a swinging step. It would be interesting to see what happened next and what the police would make of it.
“Well, I think it’s dreadful. I can’t believe it!” Angela Farrantino held the staffroom door for her fellow teacher Ruth Rumbold to enter. “Now stop looking so sour-faced, Ruth. I know you didn’t like him, but surely you must feel ? Oh dear, I don’t know how I’m going to get through the rest of the day!”
“You’ll be all right. Just calm down.” Ruth Rumbold lowered her not inconsiderable weight onto an old armchair which sagged in silent protest. “Fussing around won’t bring him back you know.”
“Oh Ruth, surely you can’t still hate him? Especially now he’s dead?”
Ruth heaved a deep sigh; it seemed Angela was not going to let it go. Once she got something in her head, she clung onto it for dear life like a dog with a bone, and nothing could stop the inevitable debate that would now ensue. “Being dead has nothing to do with it,” she said. “He was as weak as water, and I have no respect for people like that. I’m not going to suddenly start singing his praises just because he’s gone and knocked himself off, am I?”
Angela Farrantino felt a surge of anger. She looked at the self-righteous pudgy face in front of her and felt like grinding her fist right into the middle of it. “Well, I think it’s just sour grapes! You’re just shitty because you were keen on Dorian, he turned you down, and now you hate him for it! Hell hath no fury and all that, Ruth!”
She saw the angry flush spread over Ruth’s face and knew she had gone too far. Well, it was out now and no taking it back.
“I told you about that in confidence,” said Ruth. “I didn’t expect to have it flung back in my face!”
Angela mumbled an apology and left the staff room hurriedly, almost colliding with Marcus Wingate on his way in.
“What’s the matter with old Red? She was in a bit of a hurry.” He noticed Ruth’s flushed face and pursed lips. ‘Must have had an argument those two,’‘ he thought. Unusual. Angela was usually so agreeable; it was hard to imagine her fighting with anyone. It must be this Dorian situation; it was upsetting everyone. He perched on the arm of her chair. “Come on Rum Ball, it’ll all settle down soon.”
“That’s what you think, but you’re wrong!”
‘She really is upset,’ thought Wingate. Was it the fight with Angela or Dorian’s death?
“You wait and see. The whole school will be crawling with police soon!” Ruth said.
“Well, they have to investigate Rum Ball. After all, there’s a dead man isn’t there? But it was so obviously a suicide that they won’t hang around for long. Cheer up!”
She looked at him doubtfully and nodded.
“Anyway, it’s Angela you should be worried about. She’s the one who’s wringing her hands and gnashing her teeth over all this. Unless the whole thing’s a performance for our benefit!”
Wingate sighed. “What did she say to upset you so much?”
Ruth shook her head. “She seemed to think I should be more upset over Dorian, and I told her I wasn’t a hypocrite.”
“Well, that sounds fair enough to me.” He looked at his watch. “Now, I must be off. I’ve got a class.” He stood up. “Class 6C. And if anyone should have a reason to commit suicide, it’s me having to put up with 6C for 40 minutes! Cheer up, Rum Ball. Angela was probably just cranky because of what’s happened. Keep your chin up!”
Wingate smiled to himself as he strode along the compound towards his classroom. He knew quite well that Ruth used to be keen on Dorian because Dorian had confided in him one day in the staff room. He had told Wingate that Ruth used to phone him almost every night, and he was at a loss about what to do with her. Wingate advised Dorian to be straight with Ruth and tell her once and for all he was not interested. From that day to this Ruth had never forgiven Dorian, and Wingate was sure that’s what the two women had been fighting about just now.
There was a time, too, he reflected, that he had thought Angela herself to have been involved with Dorian. Wingate did not know if anything had ever happened; in fact, it seemed to have fizzled out about the same time as Dorian met Verity, his current squeeze. He sighed. Dorian had been thin and gawky and his hair had looked perpetually unwashed. What on earth did these women see in him? Now he himself was blonde and blue eyed; yet, all he got was everyone’s problems. Sort of an “Agony Aunt” you could say. But Wingate didn’t really mind. Mixing business with pleasure was rarely a good idea. He looked towards the headmaster’s office to see the stooped figure of Detective Samuel Nolan raising his hand to knock on the door.
Simon Cross knocked on the door of the sick bay hoping he would find Miss Rumbold there. Miss Rumbold was always good for a free lolly and a kind word or two. Not that he needed a kind word now that he was thirteen years old, but sometimes it felt good anyway to have someone listen, really listen, to all your problems and give advice. Miss Rumbold gave some good advice too sometimes, not like mum who was a bit biased really. Mum thought he could do no wrong which, Simon knew, really wasn’t true.
The door opened, and Ruth Rumbold’s homely face looked out. When she saw who her visitor was, she opened the door wider and let him in.
Everyone thought Miss Rumbold was very plain. She was short and plump with mousy hair and small beady eyes. Simon had heard the other boys talking about her in class, but he didn’t care. He liked her well enough. He did feel a bit sorry for her, though, because he knew what an advantage good looks could be. He used them now, giving the teacher his cherubic smile which would melt the hardest heart.
“What’s up this time young Simon? Footy practice I suppose? Well, what’s it to be, a tummy ache or a headache?”
Simon grinned. “Neither. I just wondered if you’d heard any more about Mr. Jones.”
Immediately, Ruth became solicitous. “Come on, Simon. Sit down. Now, would you like a hot drink? No? What about a lolly then?”
Simon extracted a fistful from the proffered jar and sat down on the bed chewing contentedly. He was guaranteed at least an hour of sympathy here if he played it right. He gave Ruth his much practiced puppy dog expression.
“Now, where did you hear about all this?” Ruth sat down beside him on the bed, which groaned in protest. “It’s supposed to be very hush hush. How did you find out?”
“It’s all over the school, Miss Rumbold.” Simon looked at her wide-eyed, trying not to appear too enthusiastic. “Is it true that Mr. Leibinger found him dead in the garage?”
“Good grief child! Where on earth did you find this out?”
“From the grapevine,” Simon told her. “Is it true that he killed himself?”
Ruth sighed. Really, boys could be so ghoulish sometimes. Should she give Simon any more information? She decided against it; it might give the boy nightmares.
“Perhaps you should tell me,” she suggested. “You seem to know more about it than I do!”
“It’s just that … well, I wondered if it had anything to do with that boy … you know, Joseph, the one Dorian was … well, what Nathan and I told the headmaster about.” Simon ran the toe of one immaculate boot along the line of tiles on the floor.
Ruth felt at a loss. How unjust was the world when a young boy was stripped of his innocence and then, even worse, made to feel guilty for it? “Simon, I want you to forget all about that.” She wished she had some professional experience in these matters. “What Dorian, um, Mr. Jones, has done is nobody’s fault.” Perhaps she should recommend some counseling? “People are always responsible for their own actions. No one forced Mr. Jones to do what he did; it was his decision and his alone.” She glanced at the boy. “In fact, there is some doubt about the fact that it was suicide at all.”
“You mean it was murder?[+ Hell!+]” Simon was clearly impressed.
“I don’t think so. No, I really don’t know …” Ruth was dismayed. What had she done? The grapevine would positively flourish after this. “You mustn’t concern yourself with these sordid details young Simon.” Ruth patted him awkwardly on the knee. “I know things have been very difficult for you, but it’s over and done with now. What happened to Mr. Jones was his doing and nothing that you need worry about. Now, please try to put all this behind you and get on with your own life.”
“Oh I’m trying,” Simon assured her. “Could I please have another lolly?”
Tut-tutting and muttering about tooth decay, Ruth passed him the jar.
Detective Inspector Nolan looked around for a comfortable chair and, finding none, lowered himself gingerly into the largest and least uncomfortable one he could find. It was the first time he had sat in a headmaster’s office since he had left high school and the experience, he was surprised to find, was making him feel like he was twelve years old and nervous. He accepted a cup of tea from James Leibinger and cleared his throat.
“Well, Sir, all this is most unfortunate. We shouldn’t have to take up too much of your time though.” He took a noisy gulp of tea. “I’ll have to take a few details of how you found the body, in writing if you don’t mind, and then we should be able to finish this off.”
“You’re quite sure it’s suicide then?”
“Oh yes!” Inspector Nolan set down his cup of tea with a clatter. “Classic case I’d say. Mr. Jones was fighting a case of child molestation after all. Even if he’d gotten off, it’s hard to come out of something like that smelling like a rose. Mud sticks you know.” He nodded his head to emphasize this piece of wisdom.
“But the way he did it, it just doesn’t make sense.”
“Death from anaphylaxis isn’t common,” said the inspector. “But if it’s not promptly treated, it can certainly lead to anaphylactic shock and death. I believe you said Mr. Jones had a particularly severe case?”
“Yes, he did. All the staff was aware of it, and no-one was allowed to bring any form of peanut-based food into the staff room.”
The inspector shrugged. “Well, that was his method of choice. His fingerprints were definitely on the jar. And then we have to take into account the pending court case and the likelihood of him losing his job …”
“That wasn’t all,” Leibinger admitted. “Dorian’s ex-wife was pressing for sole custody when she heard the news. Case of being guilty until proven innocent! Then, of course, there was the girlfriend …”
“He had a girlfriend then? I mean, he wasn’t … you know?”
“No, he wasn’t gay!” Leibinger felt a surge of anger. Just because Dorian looked slightly effeminate and wrote a bit of poetry, everyone assumed he was homosexual. “He and this girl, Verity her name is, had been going out for a couple of months. Of course, when Verity heard he was under suspicion of molesting a boy in his class, she dropped him like a hot potato.”
‘So much for loyalty and support,’ Leibinger mused.
“Well, that virtually confirms it then.” Nolan rose to his feet with some difficulty and put the cup and saucer on the sink. “Let me have that statement ASAP will you?” He stuck out his hand. “The thing that would set it all in concrete, of course, would be a note. Don’t suppose you saw anything while you were in the house? There was nothing there when we looked.”
“You mean a suicide note?” Leibinger shook the proffered hand. “No, I certainly saw nothing like that. Mind you, I wasn’t looking for one.” “Strange,” he said, half to himself. “Dorian was always writing. He’d be exactly the type to leave a note.”
“Well, something may yet come to light.” Inspector Nolan moved towards the door. “Even without a note, we’ll have this all tied up within the week.”
Leibinger thought when the inspector had left. [+‘Nice and tidy.’ +]Nolan seemed to be anxious to get it all filed away. No one seemed to care very much whether Dorian was actually guilty of molesting Joseph Mattiello. ‘A very gray area,’ Leibinger thought, gazing through the window unseeing at the eucalypts that lined the edge of the school oval. And now it looked like the secret would go to the grave with Dorian. No one would ever know. No one except the lad concerned, of course. Leibinger found himself wondering if the boy with the outgoing personality and Latin good looks had been lying. Joseph was a bit of a drama queen and liked to be the center of attention, but that didn’t make him a liar. Leibinger sighed and rubbed his temples. Yes, it was a very gray area.
They sat around the staffroom, their poses reflecting their various states of anticipation. Angela Farrantino, wearing a bright pink floral dress which clashed with her red hair, sat straight on her high-backed chair. Marcus Wingate sat in a similar pose, curiosity lighting his good-looking features. In the corner, Ruth Rumbold crouched on her chair, as if wishing she could make herself disappear. Russell Vella leaned his immense length on his chair, gazing up at the ceiling, boredom written all over his bony features. The younger members of the staff were grouped together as if to insulate themselves against something they neither understood, nor really wanted to.
“Sorry to keep you waiting and many thanks for stopping after hours.” James Leibinger perched himself on the table in the middle of the room and surveyed them all in turn. “I’ve called this meeting to let you know that I’ve already spoken to the police, and they seem fairly sure that Dorian took his own life.”
There was little change of expression on the upturned faces. In the corner, Ruth Rumbold sagged with relief.
“The cause of death appears to have been some type of extreme allergic reaction, probably peanuts. The hospital called it ‘anaphylaxis’ or something like that; I’m afraid I can’t pronounce it properly.” He sighed and scratched the back of his neck. There was a faint muttering from his audience.
“Anyway, I would also like to ask you, and this at the instigation of the inspector, to be on the lookout for a note. Something that Dorian may have written before he died. I don’t suppose any of you have come across anything?”
He looked around at his staff. Blank faces. Shaking heads.
“He used to keep a diary,” piped up Wingate.
“That’s right,” agreed Angela. “He was always writing in it!”
“Now that you mention it, I have seen him scribbling away in some book or the other,” said Leibinger. “It had an orange cover, I think.”
“Red, bright red,” boomed Vella. “And it was full of that ridiculous poetry he wrote.”
“How do you know?” Angela asked him with a frown. “You’d be the last person he’d have shown his diary to.”
“He left it in here one day, and I had a peek inside,” said Vella. “It was full of all that flowery syrupy stuff.” He looked around as if challenging them to tell him off for his bad behavior.
“The thing is, where is it now?” Leibinger asked. “The police have searched the house. I’m sure they would have picked up something as important as a diary.”
“I can tell you where it is.” Vella unwound his lanky frame from the chair and poked his finger at Leibinger. “Jones didn’t suicide; he was murdered! And the murderer has stolen the diary to suppress the evidence. The police should be searching our houses if they want to find that diary!”
They all turned to see the white anguished face of Ruth. She had risen from her chair and stood glaring at Vella, who gaped back at her.
Leibinger was the first to recover. “That was highly inappropriate, Vella. Sit down, Ruth, and don’t take on so.” He sighed. “There was another reason I asked you all to assemble here. I thought it would be a chance to pay our respects to a fellow teacher. Now, I have here a poem which was written by Dorian and given to Angela, who has graciously lent it to me so I can read it out to you today.”
There was a restless shuffling of bodies. Wingate threw Angela a curious look.
Leibinger cleared his throat. “The poem is titled simply ‘Friend.’.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before Vella could stand it no longer. “What a load of cods! No wonder someone knocked him off if that’s the sort of drivel he wrote! It doesn’t even rhyme!”
Angela was on her feet. “Have you no respect at all? A man has died and all you can do is run him into the ground! It’s thanks to bigots like you that he killed himself in the first place!”
“Well, pardon me if I puke!” said Vella. “Fancied him a bit, did you? Well, I could have told you that you were wasting your time. The man was a poof! An out-and-out poof!” He banged his fist down on the table in front of him. Leibinger closed his eyes. What was he going to do with them? He was fond of his staff, but sometimes they really went too far!
“I could have killed him!” exclaimed Angela as she and Wingate made their way towards the staff car park. “You would think at this, of all times, he could put his dislike of Dorian aside, even just for our sakes. And as for accusing me of fancying him …”
“Come on, Red. Don’t let him get to you. Vella is nothing if not predictable. You should have known he would carry on like this. And you have to admit the poem was a load of garbage.”
Angela gave him a shaky smile. “It was pretty frightful, wasn’t it? But I’m still upset with Russell. The man has no soul.”
“He’s just tactless,” Wingate said. “And he loves the sound of his own voice. Hang on, what have we got here?”
Angela turned and looked in the direction of his pointing finger. Dorian’s ex-wife Janis Wildermuth’s not inconsiderable form was striding in the direction of the staff room.
“The wildebeest!” she gasped. “No guesses as to what wants.”
“Come on, Red. This is the best free circus we’re ever likely to see!” Wingate grabbed Angela by the hand and pulled her in the direction in which Janis Wildermuth had disappeared. Angela followed, protesting halfheartedly.
“… And I would just like to know when I was going to be told about this?” Janis glared at all those who were unfortunate enough to have remained in the staff room after the poetry reading. Ruth Rumbold cowered in a corner. James Leibinger appeared as if he had been trying to make his escape, but he was blocked by Janis, who was almost as big as he. Fortunately, Russell Vella had already left.
“I mean … this man was my husband for God’s sake!” Here, she extracted a tissue from her handbag and dabbed limply at her eyes. “And I have to find out from a neighbor that he’s gone and killed himself?”
“Mrs. Wildermuth. I do regret that you had to find out in such a callous manner.” Leibinger was being his most soothing but inwardly he was seething. What on earth was Inspector Nolan thinking by not letting Janis know? “I’m sure the police didn’t intentionally forget to notify you. You know what school grapevines are like; it was almost inevitable for this to have leaked out. In fact, I think our grapevine knows about events even they happen.”
Unfortunately, his lame attempt at humor was lost on Janis Wildermuth.
“Dorian was being persecuted! That’s why he killed himself. You all were giving him a hard time, making it impossible to go on working here. In my opinion, you lot drove him to it!”
“Oh now, wait a minute!” Angela Farrantino left Wingate’s side and advanced towards Janis. Wingate made a futile grab for her arm, but Angela was too quick. “You’re accusing us of persecution, which, incidentally, isn’t true, when you yourself were trying to take Dorian’s own son away from him?”
“It’s all right, Angela,” said Leibinger, vainly.
“Red! For heaven’s sake! Shut up!” hissed Wingate.
“No, it’s all right. Let her have her say. I’ve got nothing to hide.” Janis glared at them each in turn. “The reason I wanted to keep Dorian away from Daniel was, or should be, obvious to anyone with half a brain. It was because Dorian was under suspicion of molesting a boy in his class, a thirteen year old boy. My son Daniel is twelve years old this year. Draw your own conclusions.”
“Had it ever occurred to you that the boy in question might not be telling the truth?” asked Angela.
“No, it did not. For the simple reason that this is not the first time Dorian has been under suspicion for this kind of thing.”
Utter silence fell over the staff room for a few seconds.
“But there was nothing on his reference!” spluttered Leibinger.
“It was never proven,” said Janis. “The boy in question withdrew his complaint, and it was all hushed up. But I knew.”
And with that announcement, she swept around and stormed out of the room, almost knocking over Marcus Wingate who had been hovering in the doorway during the drama.
“I thought Vella took the prize for spectacular exits,” said Wingate. “Looks like the wildebeest could give him a run for his money.”
Simon Cross and his friend Nathan Briggs sat cross-legged on the side of the oval under a large gum tree eating their sandwiches. Ham and tomato for Simon, and cheese and pickles for Nathan. Nathan chomped his way through half of his sandwich before he was impelled to ask, “So what did you find out from Miss Rumbold?”
Simon wiped his mouth delicately. “It’s true about Mr. Leibinger finding him in his car. They reckon it was suicide, but Miss Rumbold didn’t seem too sure.”
“How did he die, do you know?”
Simon shook his head. “I didn’t ask, but one of the guys in year 10 said it was some kind of food poisoning.”
“So that’s how he did it.” Nathan looked worried. “Do you think it’s because of what we saw? You know, about what happened with Joseph?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“But Si, the man’s dead! And we’re the ones that dobbed him in!”
“Nate, we had to. You know that. We couldn’t just ignore it.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s what mum said. She was really worried. Said she didn’t know what the world was coming to! Did you tell your mum?”
Simon shook his head. “I didn’t want to worry her. She’s sort of sensitive, you know. Anyway, there’s nothing to worry about now. It’s all sorted.”
The two boys stood, brushed the leaves from their legs, and started towards their classroom. Somewhere in the distance, a siren proclaimed lunch was at an end.
Suddenly, Nathan grabbed his friend’s arm. “Why don’t we investigate? We can be private detectives and find out the truth.”
“I don’t think …”
“You said Miss Rumbold wasn’t sure about the suicide. Aww, come on Si! What if she’s right? Justice may never be done unless we find out the truth.”
“But we’ve got exams in a few days and …”
“But this won’t take long.” Nathan danced around his friend, his enthusiasm brimming over. “We can go and look for clues. Imagine if we can bring a killer to justice!”
Simon heaved a sigh of surrender. “Okay, as long as it doesn’t interrupt …”
Nathan was beside himself with excitement. “Come on. Let’s go to the library and draft up a plan of action. We can pretend it’s the incident room.” Nathan raced towards the school library leaving a bemused Simon to follow. Nate was going to do this anyway, it was better that he was there to minimize any damage, because knowing Nate, there was bound to be some. Simon trudged along behind his friend, smiling fondly.
James Leibinger sat at his desk and stared into space. What was he supposed to do? He had been with Palmerston High School for ten years now; six of them as headmaster. He had built the school up from a little tin pot show into a fine, if small, institution. The Education Department tended to leave him alone although he was actually overdue for a transfer. Good teachers of the caliber of James Leibinger were hard to come by in this torrid climate and usually had to be press-ganged from the southern states, but James was happy to stay and that suited the Education Department.
It also suited James Leibinger.
But now one of his staff had apparently committed suicide. ‘Well, that in and of itself probably wouldn’t cause too much drama,’ he reflected. People forget, and life would go on as usual. So why couldn’t he leave things the way they were?
Because Dorian Jones had not taken his own life, of that Leibinger was convinced. And that meant that somewhere out there, a killer lurked. Just ignoring that fact went against all that Leibinger stood for. He had built up this school and his reputation on honesty and integrity. With a sigh, he reached for the phone. But who would he call? The police had made it pretty plain they were no longer interested.
Then he remembered. About three months ago, he had pulled over with a flat tire on the side of the main arterial road. It had been embarrassing enough fiddling around with the jack, trying to find where on earth he was supposed to put the damn thing. It was even worse when his rescuer turned out to be female: a slip of a girl with bouncy black curly hair, who had his tire changed in five minutes flat.
He had insisted on buying her a coffee at the nearest service station and, although he knew she had only accepted to save his pride, she made him feel at ease. She told him she was a private detective, and he’d replied if he ever needed one, she would be the first person he would call.
Frowning, he felt around in the top drawer of his desk. She had handed him a card, and he was sure he had tossed it in here. Ah! Here it was.
He put his glasses on and examined the card. .
He picked up the phone.
Jayne Belmont stood up from behind the bushes and stretched her cramped limbs. For five straight days, she had been watching Jack Morris, an employee of , but she had seen no evidence that Morris had falsely claimed compensation for a back injury. Either Morris knew he was being watched or the man was genuine.
Jayne ducked back down as a delivery van from pulled up outside the house. The driver hopped out and started unloading something from the back of the van. It was a wheelchair.
Great! Jayne took a couple of shots and packed her camera wearily back in its case as she headed back to her car. Two days wasted creeping around in dense undergrowth in all the heat and humidity. To add insult to injury, the heavens chose that moment to open up and large tropical raindrops drummed down on Jayne’s head, forcing her into a run. ‘A murder,’‘ she mused. ‘That’s what we need.’
‘Now where did that come from?’ Immediately, she felt ashamed for even contemplating the demise of a fellow human being merely to satisfy her own boredom. Because she was bored, she now admitted to herself. For the first time since she had set up her own private detective agency in Palmerston, she was bored stiff.
‘Well, it will probably wear off eventually,’ she comforted herself as she got into her old Datsun and cranked the motor. The Datsun wheezed sluggishly into life and with a crunch of synchromesh, made its reluctant way up the hill.
Jayne pulled up in front of her house with a metallic squeal. Home was an old pre-cyclone high-set house, with walls that could be opened out to accommodate the cool evening breezes that sometimes caressed Palmerston in the summer. Her “office” was a small bedroom with an old solid timber desk, a dining room chair, a filing cabinet that had seen better days, and an equally ancient PC. Her latest acquisition was a combination phone, fax, and copier. Jayne reflected.
She climbed the outside stairs two at a time, feeling the sweat popping out all over her for the effort. The door was unlocked, which must mean her helper, Holly, had some time to spare for her. Holly looked up at her from their shared desk and smiled.
“Get any good photos?”
“No. Looks like Morris is genuine. While I was there, a wheelchair was delivered.”
Holly grimaced. “We won’t get much money for that one then.”
Jane shrugged. “They still owe me for the hours I put in. I’m glad that wheelchair turned up, though. It saved me from wasting any more time.”
“Time’s about the only thing we’ve got a lot of at the moment.”
Holly was a part-time employee of Australia Post. She had helped Jayne out on a case about a year ago and since then her heart belonged to the Plain Jayne Detective Agency. She put in as many hours as she could, and Jayne paid her whatever she could afford. Holly was totally loyal and always spoke as if she was already employed by the Plain Jayne Detective Agency. Now, she rose and went to the filing cabinet, heaving out the top drawer with difficulty.
“When are we going to get a decent computer, Jayne?”
“When we get to solve a murder, Holly.”
There it was again: she must have murder on the brain!
Holly was watching her strangely. “Sorry. A suspected case of shoplifting is the best we’ve got.” She placed a file in front of Jayne. “This came in this morning. up on Main Road. They know this woman’s pinching stuff, but they don’t have their own security people, and they haven’t been able to catch her. Apparently, she’s a real slippery customer.”
Jayne regarded it with distaste. Huntingtons was a medium-sized department store in the center of Palmerston, the sort no longer found in the larger cities down south. It was privately owned and boasted old-fashioned personal service. That was all very well but surely an enterprise of that size should have their own store detective. She realized she was being picky and, sighing, picked up the file.
“Oh, and a friend of yours called, a James Leibinger.”
“Leibinger? I don’t think I know anyone … Hang on, that must be the guy I rescued a few months ago when his car had a flat tire. Nice man. I wonder what he wants?”
“Perhaps his carburetor needs a service?” suggested Holly.
At least, it would delay the petty thief at Huntingtons for a few more minutes. Jayne put down the file and picked up the phone.
“Pass me the number please, Holly.”
When Jayne finally put down the phone, her pulse was racing. James Leibinger had not been at liberty, he explained, to divulge too much information over the phone, but Jayne’s instincts told her, here was something that didn’t come along every day. Something she could really get her teeth into.
“I’m off to see Mr. Leibinger,” she told Holly. “Could you please ring Huntingtons and tell them I’ll pop over there tomorrow? Oh, and would you mind locking up when you leave?”
“What about me? I could look after Huntingtons for you. Then, you could concentrate on this other thing which, incidentally, you’re being very furtive about!”
Jayne was sorely tempted but would it be ethical to expect Holly to do this for less than minimum wage?
“Tell you what. Why don’t you ring Mrs. Greiner, she’s the assistant manager there, and put it to her. Tell her I’m tied up and ask her if it would be okay if you filled in as my assistant.”
Holly’s eyes were alight with excitement. “No sweat! I’m on leave from the post office for the next couple of weeks, so this is just the ticket!” She looked at Jayne. “You’re not going looking like that, are you?”
Jayne glanced down at herself. She was wearing her old clothes from the army disposals, and there were branches and leaves sticking to her. Damn! She would have to clean up. She headed towards the shower.
“The poor guy will think he’s being invaded by Viet Cong!” Holly shouted after her.
Freshly showered and clad in a clean pair of jeans and a shirt, Jayne coaxed the Datsun in a southerly direction away from Palmerston City towards the surrounding suburbs where Palmerston High was located. She wished she could offer Holly some sort of real job, even if it was only part-time, but employing people was expensive, what with superannuation payments and payroll tax … What she needed was more work, or rather better paid work. At the moment, most of the bigger jobs went to the large private investigation agency, , on Temple Terrace. Moffats boasted four full-time detectives and a receptionist. Jayne found most of her own clients by undercutting Moffats’ prices and dropping leaflets in letterboxes whenever she had the spare time, trudging the hot and dusty streets of Palmerston until the combination of sun and thirst drove her inside. Maybe one day a case would come up which would make her famous and then she and Holly could afford a nice office in the center of Palmerston, not to mention a better computer.
she thought ruefully. Nevertheless, she again felt the keen surge of interest that James Leibinger’s call had generated. Palmerston High was only a few kilometers south of the city near where the new housing estate of Lakeside View was spreading its ever reaching tentacles. The fact that there was no lake, not even an impending one, to view had somehow escaped the developers. Block after tiny block of land was being rolled out, each with its neat little brick bungalow perched upon it. These types of houses were so unsuitable for Palmerston’s hot and humid climate, which meant their owners relied heavily on expensive air conditioning for most of the year to make their environment bearable.
As she drove, Jayne’s mind played idly with the possible meaning of Leibinger’s words. “It’s only a hunch, mind you,” the headmaster had said. “And I may be making a mistake.”
Somehow, Jayne doubted that James Leibinger made too many of those. He may not be able to change a tire, but Jayne had the feeling that the headmaster was a very intelligent man.
“Come in and take a seat. No, not there. That’s where I sit my pupils when I want to appear large and intimidating!” Leibinger grinned and waved her away from the large desk towards a couple of overstuffed armchairs in a corner near a window. “Now, this is where I sit my parents. Here.” He pulled out an armchair for her.
“What’s the story, sir?” Jayne asked, sinking into the proffered chair. “You explained that it was only a hunch at this stage?”
“Please, call me James. No need to stand on ceremony. Now, would you like some tea or coffee Miss Belmont?”
“Jayne please, and I’d love a cup of tea. Black with one sugar.”
While she waited with impatience for the obligatory politeness’s to be over with, Jayne studied the man in front of her busying himself with a kettle and tea bags. If she had to describe him in one word, it would be ‘big.’ Tall, thick set, large head and hands. His features were large and even and set off by a pair of intelligent gray eyes. The whole was topped with thick, dark, springy hair liberally laced with iron gray, giving it an attractive gun metal appearance.
Leibinger handed her a mug and grinned at her. “Have you rescued any more gentlemen in distress since last we met?”
Jayne laughed. “Not in the sense you mean. But don’t feel bad about not being able to change a tire. Your talents obviously lie in other directions.”
“It was embarrassing at the time. But then I’ve never been, nor will I ever be, any sort of mechanic. However, perhaps fate has led me to you because I’ve a situation here which, I think, needs investigating. I must tell you the police have no more interest in the case.”
Jayne felt a slight stirring of excitement, like the flutter of butterfly wings. “Sounds like a bored investigator’s dream.”
Leibinger continued. “Yesterday, one of our teachers apparently committed suicide. I found him in the garage of his home. The police came in the afternoon and told me it was definitely suicide. They added if we could find some sort of a note it would clinch the case, but it would be fairly straightforward even without one.”
The butterflies increased in intensity. “You obviously don’t agree, James. What makes you think it was anything else?”
Leibinger spread out his hands in front of him. “I know … knew Dorian very well. It would be totally out of character for him to take his own life. Even though he had major problems, Dorian was a perverse kind of guy. He actually enjoyed living in perpetual misery, and his present circumstances would have suited him quite well. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
“Yes, I know the type you mean.” Jayne studied the shrewd gray eyes in front of her and decided James Leibinger could be on to something. Wishful thinking? “Tell me a bit about Dorian,” she said. “Everything you can think of.”
Leibinger sat back in his chair. “Dorian was our math teacher, a very good one I might add. He also wrote poetry – after a fashion,” Leibinger smiled. “I chose to read some of it out at a staff meeting yesterday. Unfortunately, I didn’t read it myself beforehand or I would have changed my mind.”
“Very! Anyway, he was divorced with a twelve-year-old son. His ex-wife is a very … forceful type of woman. Dorian also had a girlfriend with whom he was getting fairly serious; in fact, we were expecting an engagement to be announced any day. Then, out of the blue, one of his private coaching students accused him of molesting him.”
“Did anyone else complain? Before or after?”
“No. No one else came forward. Sometimes you get that with kids. They’re too scared to tell until someone else makes the first move. Then suddenly all these stories start coming out.” Leibinger sipped his tea. “But not this time. There was nothing in his history either that would indicate anything of this nature. However, we did have a visit from his ex-wife yesterday, and she insinuated that he had been suspected of this type of thing in his last school.”
“You had no prior knowledge of this at all?”
“You could have knocked me over with a feather!” Leibinger shook his head. “To think I’ve been employing a man who may be capable of interfering with children!”
“Obviously, it was hushed up; otherwise, it would have been in his history,” Jayne reflected. “Do you believe this story? Or was it just an ex-wife’‘s attempt to get even?”
“It could well have been,” said Leibinger. “Janis Wildermuth is extremely vindictive. Dorian used to call her ‘ and I’m afraid the name has stuck. I sincerely hope she was making it up; it would relieve my mind no end.”
“What happened after this boy made the complaint?”
“Everything seemed to go wrong for Dorian after that. The boy’s parents were very upset, the police were called in, Jones’ ex-wife was pursuing sole custody of their son, and his girlfriend left him.”
“And with all that you still doubt he committed suicide? There’s some pretty solid reasons there for doing so, if you’re that way inclined. Do you think the boy was telling the truth?”
Leibinger sighed. “I don’t know. I had my doubts when I first heard about it, I must admit. But if what Mrs. Wildermuth says is true … well, that puts a different complexion on things. It’s a serious accusation. I can’t really understand why the boy would make it up.”
Jayne noticed the grim expression. This man obviously cared for his staff and students. Where were headmasters like this when she had been at school?
“It doesn’t matter right now,” she told him. “The important thing is to find out whether your Mr. Jones took his own life or whether someone helped him on his way. You were saying there was no note found?”
“No, and I don’t think there ever was a note. However, Dorian was always writing things in his diary.”
“Which is missing too, I suppose?”
“I’m afraid so. Inconvenient, isn’t it?”
“I think it’s significant,” Jayne said. “If the diary is missing, it means that someone may have taken it, and that someone probably has something to hide.”
“I think I’ve made the right decision by calling you.” For the first time, Leibinger’s face brightened. “I think you’re going to find out the truth.” He stood up, clapping his hands together. “Now, where do you want to begin?”
“Where indeed?” Jayne summoned what little confidence she felt. “I’d like to take a look at Dorian’s house if you can give me a key? Then maybe you could set up a meeting with the staff for me? One at a time if possible please?”
“Consider it done. I’ll speak to them as soon as I can. I’m afraid it’ll have to be fitted in between classes as we’re a teacher short. Would tomorrow suit?”
“Tomorrow’s fine. I have a couple of things to take care of, but I’ll be all yours from then on.” Jayne finished her tea and made a vow to herself then and there that she would solve this case. She wanted to sort out this mess for this gentle man for whom she already felt a tremendous amount of respect.
For Jayne, this case had become personal.
“We can’t go in there,” Simon grabbed his friends arm. “It’s got police tape around it. We’d be breaking the law!” But Nathan had already ducked under the blue and white tape and was walking around the outside of the house.
Simon sighed and followed him. “The bathroom window,” he called out. “The latch is broken.”
They wriggled easily though the window and jumped down into the bathtub.
“We really shouldn’t be here,” said Simon. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
“Don’t be such a scaredy cat,” Nathan scoffed. “We’re helping the cause of justice, remember?”
The boys left the bathroom and started down the hallway.
“Where’s Mr. Jones’ office? We’ll start looking in there.” Nathan asked.
Simon led the way, reluctantly. Why on earth had he agreed to this? He half expected Mr. Jones’ ghost to manifest from one of the doorways.
In Dorian’s office, there was a desk, a table, and several chairs. An old computer sat in the middle of the desk, and there was an enormous bookshelf along the entire length of one wall. Nathan was busily pulling out desk drawers and rummaging through them. Simon felt a bit uncomfortable, as if they were disturbing the dead. He knew better than to say anything, though, and started sifting through books and papers on a nearby table. Suddenly, Nathan straightened up and slapped his forehead.
“Stupid! Stupid!” He looked at Simon. “Where’s the best place to find something that’s been hidden?”
Simon shook his head.
“Hiding in plain sight, of course.” Nathan was heading towards the large book shelf. “You start at that end and we’ll meet in the middle.”
Simon groaned. It was going to take forever, and his mum would be home soon. He really didn’t want her to come home to an empty house, but there was no denying Nathan. Reluctantly, he started checking the titles of the books on the shelf. The minutes ticked by. The old dusty titles seemed to blur and mix together. [+Poetry anthologies, growing vegetables in small spaces, how to do your own car service +]…
“I’ve found it! It’s his diary.” Nathan stood holding a narrow red A4 sized journal. He started slowly turning the pages.
Simon came and stood behind him. There were reminders, timetables, and some really strange poetry.
Nathan wrinkled his nose. “
“That sounds like a suicide note,” said Simon. “I reckon Mr. Jones really did commit suicide. After all, the police said so. We’re probably wasting our time.”
Nathan continued turning the pages. “Here’s something about Verity. That was his girlfriend, wasn’t it?”
“Stop it!” hissed Simon. “We’re prying into something that isn’t our business. Put it back, Nate, and let’s get out of here!”
But Nathan was still turning the pages as if mesmerized. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the air revealing swirling specks of dust from the book’s pages.
“Listen to this!” Nathan exclaimed.
“Oh, Si. That’s awful!” Nathan snapped the journal shut with a look of horror on his face. “He must be talking about Joseph!”
Simon snatched the book away. He could feel his stomach churning.
“We have to hand this in to Mr. Leibinger,” he said, making his way towards the bathroom. “I’ll take it to him tomorrow.”
Surprisingly, Nathan offered no resistance. ‘Maybe that’s put him off wanting to be a private detective,’ Simon thought. ‘And a good thing, too.’
The boys clambered back out of the bathroom window and made their way towards the school in a much subdued frame of mind.
Reaching the school, they went their separate ways without speaking.
After reaching home, Simon took the journal and opened the door of his room. He put the journal under his pillow and sat thoughtfully on his bed. Suddenly, he pulled the journal out again and started slowly reading …
Jayne let herself into the small two-bedroom house. She was a secret believer in ghosts and wondered now if Dorian Jones’ spirit had departed for the ethers or if it was still earthbound, unable to be free, until the injustice done to it had been rectified. If, indeed, there had been an injustice done at all. It was quite on the cards that Dorian Jones had taken his own life, either because of remorse or because of fear of prosecution. ‘Indeed, that would be the most likely explanation,’ she thought to herself, sadly. Anything else seemed rather theatrical, despite James’ conviction to the contrary.
She rummaged through all the drawers and cupboards, not really expecting to find anything of great interest as the police had been through everything the day before. But even if she could get a clearer picture of what this man had been like, she would feel like she had achieved something.
An extensive search of the bedroom produced nothing more significant than a few clothes and the usual personal effects. Nothing much in the lounge either, apart from a few letters and bills in the bureau. There were a few photos of what must be Dorian with his arm around a wispy-looking girl in her twenties with light brown hair and sallow skin. Jayne studied Dorian closely. He was an academic type with lank dark hair and aesthetic features. ‘‘Quite attractive if you liked that kind of thing,’ she thought.
Feeling under the cushions on the sofa, Jayne extracted a few screwed up lolly papers. Had Dorian been a lolly eater? Or had one of his private math students screwed up these wrappers and pushed them under the cushions? She put them in a plastic bag in her pocket.
The bathroom revealed a few sets of muddy footprints. It looked like someone else had visited since James. The footprints were smallish and the mud still damp. Whoever it was had not long departed.
Jayne wandered into the office. Here, there was definite signs of things having been disturbed. A nearby table showed small fingerprints in the dust, and the desk drawers were open. Wandering across the room, Jayne examined a large bookcase built into the wall. Here, books had been moved around, and there were more fingerprints in the dust. She didn’t really consider it sinister. ‘Probably a curious student trying to find clues,’ she smiled to herself. Nevertheless, she would ask James to get the police to properly secure the house as there must be an open window somewhere. She whipped out some fingerprint tape and took an imprint.
The loud knocking on a door made her jump. Pulling herself together, she followed the sound to the front door and opened it cautiously.
“Yes.” What was a Greek God doing in a Palmerston high school? He was six foot of athletic body, with a fine head with almost perfect features topped with a crop of almost golden hair. ‘Just as well she was off men for life,’ Jayne mused, ‘or this one might prove a sight too interesting!’ The teal blue eyes were studying her appreciatively.
“Miss Belmont, I’m Marcus Wingate. I’m here with a message from Mr. Leibinger. He’s got Mr. and Mrs. Mattiello coming to see him and was wondering if you wanted to sit in.”
“I probably would,” said Jayne. “If I knew who they were.”
“Oh, sorry. They’re the parents of Joseph Mattiello, the boy who made the complaint against Dorian.”
“Of course. I’ll come straight away. I’m pretty much finished here.”
She pulled the front door of the house, which locked with a click. Together, she and Wingate made the short walk back to the school. Jayne found herself very aware of his presence.
“I didn’t know James had called in an investigator,” said Wingate. “I take it he’s not satisfied with the suicide verdict?”
“I think he’s going to speak to everyone about it tomorrow.” Jayne wondered how much to tell him; technically, he was a suspect. “I think he just wants a few things checked out,” she added vaguely.
“I know, I know. You can’t say too much.” Wingate looked amused. “Tell me this, though, who’s paying for you, Miss Belmont?”
Good question! As yet, no mention had been made of money, neither had any contract been signed. Jayne, usually so meticulous in her business dealings, had been so carried away with this case that she found herself in danger of providing her services for free.
“It’s all been taken care of,” she fibbed. “What subjects do you teach, Marcus?”
Acknowledging her clumsy change of subject with a smile, Wingate launched into a description of his teaching career with Palmerston High. He told Jayne some amusing stories, and she found herself standing outside Leibinger’s office before she knew it.
“Thanks, Marcus,” she said. “We’ll probably be bumping into each other sooner or later.”
“I hope so.” He gave her a casual wave and strolled off in the direction of the classrooms without a backward glance.
Jayne’s eyes trailed after him. He had a graceful walk, controlled but sensual. She turned and knocked on Leibinger’s door.
“Ah, come in Jayne. I’m expecting them any minute now.” Leibinger pulled out a chair for her. “Just so you’ll be prepared, Mr. and Mrs. Mattiello are still rather upset over the incident with their son Joseph and may not be very forthcoming. They’re here at my invitation as I have offered them some financial support for their son’s counseling sessions.” At Jayne’s questioning look, he went on. “I feel responsible for a lot of what’s happened Jayne and, being financially quite well placed, I’ve decided to do what I can to help.”
Jayne nodded. So that’s probably where her fee would be coming from. She couldn’t imagine the Education Department paying for her. However, now was not the time to discuss the matter.
“That’s very generous of you,” she said.
They were interrupted by a gentle knock from Andrea, the school administration assistant, ushering in the Mattiellos. They were a shortish couple in their late forties or early fifties, Jayne guessed. Both dark haired with dark eyes and smartly, if not fashionably, dressed, they seemed uncomfortable and unsure of themselves. Leibinger ushered them into the room and introduced Jayne without mentioning why she was there. ‘Probably a wise decision,’ she thought.
Leibinger spoke of the offer of financial assistance, and Jayne raised her eyebrows at the generous sum. Mr. Mattiello stood and offered his hand to Leibinger. His wife produced a tissue from her handbag and dabbed at her eyes. ‘Probably relieved,’ Jayne thought. The Mattiellos were probably not well off.
Leibinger leaned forward towards the couple. “There is another matter I would like to discuss with you.” The couple nodded in silent acknowledgment. “As you may be aware, Mr. Jones has recently passed away and there is some doubt as to the cause of death. This is why I have employed Miss Belmont here to try to get at the truth. Would you mind if she asked you a few questions?”
The couple looked at each other in surprise. “Yes, we hear of this,” Mr. Mattiello finally replied. “It says he kill himself, no?”
“I don’t believe that is the case,” Leibinger told them. “Which means that Mr. Jones may actually have been murdered. I was wondering if you could help us?”
“Why you care?” Mrs. Mattiello was on her feet waving her arms. “He bad man! He’s dead, is good. Is God’s justice!”
“Maria, is okay. Sit, sit.” Mr. Mattiello rose and somehow managed to sit his wife back down. “We help if we can.” He nodded at Jayne. “You ask.”
“I’d like to get your opinions on your staff members,” said Jayne after the Mattiellos had departed. “It may help me get a feel for them before the interviews. Would you be open to that?”
The Mattiellos had told their side of the story. It seemed like their son had been telling the truth.
“Aren’t you forgetting I’m technically a suspect?” James replied with a smile. “I could provide false or incriminating evidence, you know.”
“It’s a risk I’m prepared to take,” Jayne assured him. “Besides, why would you have called me if you were guilty? Why not just let the police verdict of suicide stand?”
“Ask me anything you want to know.” James settled into his tattered armchair and motioned Jayne into its companion.
“I’d like to record our conversation, if that’s okay with you?” Jayne fished around in her over-sized handbag, pulled out her voice recorder, and placed it on the table between them. “That would save a lot of time and save me from getting writer’s cramp. Of course, if you’re not comfortable with …”
“No, no. That’s fine.” James rearranged himself in his chair. “Ask away.”
Jayne shot him a grateful smile and pushed the record button. “Tell me your opinion of Dorian Jones first. I know we’ve talked about him before, but I’d like to go into some more details. You said he enjoyed being miserable, wallowed in it in fact. What exactly do you mean by that?”
James pursed his lips and thought for a while. “He loved to talk about his problems to everyone,” he replied. “If anyone tried to cheer him up, he … well he didn’t want that. He needed everyone to realize how difficult his life was.”
“I can see how that might have annoyed people,” Jayne mused.
“Absolutely! And he was one of those people who seemed to attract disaster. His marriage failed, his ex-wife was trying to stop him from seeing his son, a pupil accused him of molesting him, and his girlfriend left him. There was no end to the problems. And yet he wasn’t depressed in the classic sense, if you know what I mean.”
“What sort of a teacher was he?”
“He was an excellent teacher,” James sighed. “He’ll be very hard to replace.”
Jayne nodded, sympathetically. “Was there anyone who disliked him enough to do away with him do you think?”
“He wasn’t the most popular person among the staff, that’s for sure,” James sighed. “There are things you should know.” He rubbed his hands together uncomfortably. “One of the female staff had a huge crush on Dorian. Of course, he didn’t reciprocate her feelings. I must say, things became a little tense there for a while. In fact, I don’t think Ruth ever forgave him for that.”
“Ruth Rumbold, the physical education teacher?”
“Yes. She went as far as to buy two tickets to a live show she knew Dorian wanted to see, but he turned her down flat.”
“Ouch! How humiliating for the poor woman! How did you find out about it?”
“She spoke to Angela, our music teacher, about it. The worst part was that Angela and Dorian were having a fling at the time. Anyway, Angela never told Ruth about it, and I don’t think she’s ever found out until this day.”
Jayne raised her eyebrows. “And was all this going on when he was still with his wife? He seems to have been rather indiscreet, not to mention promiscuous. What about the male staff? Did any of them have a problem with Dorian?”
“Well, Russell didn’t have much time for him. In fact, you could say he disliked him. Then there’s Dorian’s girlfriend Verity; she became really upset when she found out someone had reported him for molesting one of his pupils. She has a younger brother, and I think she was maybe trying to protect him because that was the end of that relationship.”
“What about the ex-wife?” asked Jayne.
“Janis is a rather angry person.” James barely suppressed a smile. “Ever since the divorce, she has had it in for Dorian. When she found out about the accusation, she was absolutely furious. She threatened to go ahead with full custody; she did not want Dorian to see his son again.”
“Wow, that’s a bit harsh isn’t it? I doubt that she’d have been able to pull that off.”
“It rather depended on the result of the court case,” James said. “If Dorian was found guilty then they might have stopped him from seeing his son. He might even have gone to jail.”
“But despite all this, you still don’t believe he committed suicide?”
James shook his head emphatically. “No. I’m sure he didn’t. Apart from the reasons I’ve just given you, I just have a gut feeling.”
Jayne was a great believer in gut feelings, so if James didn’t think Dorian committed suicide, then she would go along with that for now.
“Let’s see, who’s next?” James rubbed his chin. “Ah, yes. Marcus Wingate. Now Marcus and Dorian seemed to get on together okay. Not the best of friends or anything, but they were able to have a conversation without one upsetting the other. Marcus is an easy going chap. He gets on well with everyone without getting especially friendly with anyone. Bit of a dark horse you could say.”
“Is Marcus married?” Jayne hoped her question didn’t sound out of place. For some reason, she simply had to know.
“He was,” James replied. “But they’ve been separated for a while now. He doesn’t talk much about his past.”
Jayne put her head down and scribbled busily in her notebook. So Marcus was unattached. She wondered at the brief flash of joy she felt. Concentrate!
“You mentioned Angela?”
“Yes. Angela Farrantino.” James smiled. “She’s our geography teacher. A nice woman, if a touch flamboyant. There was definitely something going on between herself and Dorian, but it ended badly. She wouldn’t talk about it.”
“How long ago was this?”
“About three weeks ago now.” James shifted in his seat. “My goodness! Whatever must you think of us Jayne? A month ago, this was a normal school, and the most exciting thing that had ever happened here was a student who got caught in the city for shoplifting.”
Jayne smiled at him. She wanted to tell him how happy she was that he had a school full of dramas and that he had picked her, rather than the team at Moffats and Sons, to sort them out, but that would be wildly inappropriate.
“It’s amazing how fast things can escalate when human emotion’s involved. Don’t worry. We’ll get to the bottom of this,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “Is there anyone else I should know about?”
“Not really. There’s Samantha Williams and Meredith Tamsford who look after our languages and grammar. They’re new this term and, being younger than the rest of us, tend to keep to themselves. I don’t think either of them had much contact with Dorian. That’s about it, I think. Oh! And I have Dorian’s girlfriend, Verity’s phone number and also a number for the ex-wife, Janis Wildermuth.”
“Thanks.” Jayne took the numbers. “Janis Wildermuth. Is she really as fierce as you say?”
“Jayne, St. George would have quailed in front of the wildebeest.” James stood and stretched his shoulders. “Now, I must go. I have a class to take.” He sighed. “We have a relief teacher coming tomorrow. Then, hopefully, things will go back to some semblance of normality.”
“Thanks. You’ve been very helpful.” Jayne turned off the voice recorder and slid it back into her handbag. “Thanks for organizing the interviews for me, James. Since it was on a voluntary basis, did you have trouble with any of them?”
He smiled. “Put it this way, they all agreed to see you with a bit of gentle persuasion except for Russell Vella.”
Jayne rose from her chair and watched James walk out of the room. She’d transcribe all her notes this evening in order to be ready for tomorrow. She had a sudden feeling of panic. Could she do this? What if she wasn’t up to it? Jayne took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. This was the break she’d been waiting for; this would put the Plain Jayne Detective Agency on the map, so there really wasn’t a choice. It was succeed or die!
Jayne looked with some amusement at the pair in front of her. No two boys could be more different. One exuded energy from every pore. He had ginger-colored hair and freckles to match. His features were uneven and his body lean and sinewy, but somehow the whole added up to a pleasant enough result. The other was sitting in a more relaxed stance. He had black hair and the features of a cherubim set on a peaches and cream complexion. Dark lashes framed blue eyes that were cast down. she thought. [+‘Not been out here long.’ +]She extended her hand.
“Hello, boys. I’m Jayne Belmont. I’ve come to help Mr. Leibinger solve this puzzling case of yours.”
There was a scraping of chairs as both boys stood and shook her hand. The redhead grinned broadly at her; the other smiled angelically and murmured, “How do you do?” in a perfect Cambridge accent.
“Jayne, let me introduce Nathan Briggs.” Leibinger indicated the red-headed boy. “And Simon Cross, our two amateur detectives. I’ve already explained why breaking into a potential crime scene is foolhardy and dangerous.” Leibinger studied the pair in front of him. “However, I have asked the police to have the bathroom window secured. And …” He reached under his desk and produced a red-covered book. “They somehow managed to find what the police had missed. The diary. Simon handed it in to Miss Rumbold, who passed it on to me.”
Jayne took it from his outstretched hand and sat in a nearby chair. “Ah, the missing diary.” She smiled at them. “Thank you, boys. However, I think you can now safely leave the detecting to me.”
There was an audible sigh of relief from Simon. “Thanks, Miss Belmont. I didn’t really want to go back in there. It felt rather spooky and very different from before.”
“So you’ve been there before?” asked Jayne.
“Simon was being coached in mathematics,” explained Leibinger. “The curriculum is slightly different in the UK and Simon just needed to catch up a little.”
“He got top marks in the last test, sir,” Nathan piped up. “He’s a whiz at most subjects. Except sports.” Nathan grinned at his friend. “I’m better at football!”
“Simon, I have a rather difficult question for you.” Jayne leaned towards the boy. “Did Mr. Jones ever behave inappropriately towards you when you were alone with him?”
“What do you mean?” Simon looked confused.
“Did he attempt to touch you or make any suggestions that made you feel uncomfortable?”
“Oh gosh no, Miss!” Simon looked horrified.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” said Jayne.
“What an odd couple,” Jayne remarked when the boys had gone. “They’re exact opposites, aren’t they?”
“Yes.” Leibinger smiled. “And yet, they’re inseparable. Have been since Simon’s first day. If anyone tries to tease Simon about his English accent, Nathan always jumps in and defends him.”
“I love his accent,” said Jayne. “It sounds like the Queen. Now, I must catch up with my notes.”
Leibinger rose from his chair. “I’ll leave you to it, Jayne. I have to take a class. You’re welcome to use the office.”
thought Jayne. The air conditioner seemed to work a lot better in here than in the staffroom, and it was a scorching hot day. She leafed through the diary. It was filled with timetables and a lot of Dorian’s thoughts and observations. There were several mentions of Verity and a few pages of rather syrupy-sounding verse. No dates though, unfortunately.
Ah! Here was a mention of Ruth Rumbold.[+ “What will I do about Ruth? I’ve asked… “ “And that’s twice now that Vella has talked over me in a staff meeting, the obnoxious prick!”+] Jayne grinned, but she still couldn’t make any sense out of it. She looked more closely. The ink was a slightly different color. They were two completely different sentences, Jayne realized. A page had been removed from in between.
Ruth Rumbold? She may have read the diary and seen her name. ‘She may have torn it out to prevent embarrassment,’ thought Jayne. Well, she would have to ask Ruth about it. She went on reading.
Twenty minutes later, Jayne put the diary down with a sigh. As far as she could tell at least two more pages were missing, but that was not what was disturbing her. There were definite references to a young boy in the pages. Jayne supposed it to be Joseph Mattiello, although there was no name mentioned. Jayne felt slightly nauseous and needed to get out into the fresh air.
A short walk around the oval later Jayne felt a bit better. She went into the ladies bathroom to splash her sweaty face and comb her wild black curls that defied any attempt to make them look neat. She glanced around as one of the stalls opened behind her.
“Hi, Angela. Wow! You look terrible! Is everything okay?”
Angela’s face was looking gray and hollow. “I think I must have eaten something that didn’t agree with me. I’m fine now, thanks!” Angela shook the water from her hands and rushed out.
Hmm. Jayne’s sister looked the same when she was expecting her baby. “You’re pregnant,” she said softly to herself.
Feeling at a bit of a loose end and still unable to interview the staff, Jayne called Janis Wildermuth and asked if she could come over for a chat. After a long pause, Janis agreed and gave her the address. The home was on Leichardt Street in an older area of Palmerston. Jane drove slowly down the street trying to pick out street numbers hidden behind lots of palm fronds and colorful bunches of bougainvillea.
Here it was. Number 18 looked tired and old. Peeling gray paint did nothing to enhance the wooden house, and an overgrown lawn suggested the possibility of snakes. Jayne hurried along the short concrete path and knocked on the door.
Janis Wildermuth answered promptly. She was indeed an imposing figure thought Jayne. Large, rather than overweight, with dark graying hair scraped into a bun. Her arms were folded, and her face wore a belligerent expression.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wildermuth. Thank you so much for seeing me.”
“Well, it’s not like I had a choice in the matter.”
The large figure moved aside, giving Jayne just enough room to slip inside. The house was surprisingly neat and clean, and Jayne found herself relaxing slightly.
“Mr. Leibinger has asked me to return Mr. Jones’ personal effects to you.”
She handed Janis a large paper bag which Janis took with some distaste as she waved Jayne into a chair. She took the chair opposite and glared at Jayne. This was going to be easy.
“Mrs. Wildermuth, I know this is a difficult time, but I just need to ask you where you were the afternoon and evening of Saturday, December 12th.”
“Hah!” Janis Wildermuth snorted. “You think [+I +]had something to do with it? Well, let me tell you! If I wanted Dorian out of the way, it wouldn’t be with peanuts or whatever it was. I would have stabbed him or bashed him!” Janis was breathing heavily. “Because that’s what he deserved, the little toe rag!”
“I just want to eliminate you as a suspect, Mrs. Wildermuth,” soothed Jayne.
Suddenly, Janis seemed to sag as if all the anger had exhausted itself.
“Look, I know what people think about me,” she said. “But it’s not easy being a single mother. I can’t get any money from Dorian’s estate because of this suicide thing, I can’t afford to get anyone in to do the front yard, and the school expenses are due next week. There’s no such thing as free education, you know. It doesn’t matter what they say. You’ve still got to buy books and stuff and then there’s school excursions just about every term.” She wiped beads of perspiration from her face.
“Mrs. Wildermuth, I should tell you that Mr. Leibinger doesn’t believe that your husband took his own life. I can’t say too much at this point, but it looks increasingly like he was murdered. And if that’s the case, it should ease your financial burden a little.”
Janis shook her head sadly. “It doesn’t surprise me.” She looked directly at Jayne. “You can call me Janis,” she said. “My husband wasn’t a very nice man, you know. Oh he was clever, brilliant in fact, but he could be very nasty. I could handle him all right, but I had to watch him around Daniel. He has … had a nasty temper.”
“You mean he could be violent?”
Janis nodded. “That, and the other thing … you know… And then there were the lady friends.”
“It must have been hard for you.”
“Yes. There was an incident at the last school he worked at, down in Melbourne. A boy complained but then dropped the charges. I think he was too traumatized to go through with it.” Janis rose from her chair and paced restlessly up and down the room. “Last I heard, the boy had left and needed to see a psychologist or psychiatrist – I don’t know the difference.” She paused and Jayne waited, sensing there was more to come. “The headmaster just wanted to get rid of Dorian and offered him a testimonial with no mention of the incident if he would resign immediately. Of course, he did and then we came up here, even though I didn’t want to. It’s easier to get teaching jobs up in the Territory, and Dorian got a job a week after we moved. He swore he was innocent and the boy had been lying, but I didn’t believe him.” Janis sat back down heavily, as if relieved of a heavy burden. “I filed for divorce and said I would take custody of Daniel if he didn’t move out and find somewhere else to live. That’s how come he was living in that old house near the school.” She wiped the sweat from her brow. “As for December the 12th, I honestly don’t remember. Daniel and I were probably here like we are most days. I meet him off the school bus and then we come home and talk and do homework.” She looked up at Jayne. “It’s not a very exciting life, but we’re happy enough and things are peaceful now that Dorian’s not around.”
Jayne nodded and stood up. “Thanks, Janis. You’ve been a great help. While I remember, we’ve found Dorian’s diary. It seems like some of the pages have been removed.”
Janis nodded. “I know the one you mean. Dorian always had it with him. He would have taken it with him when he moved out.”
“I don’t suppose ….”
“No.” Janis Wildermuth shook her head. “I never looked in it. To be honest, I was too afraid of what I’d find.”
Waiting for Marcus to arrive, Jayne found herself patting her hair and hoping her nose wasn’t shiny. The heat and humidity of the Palmerston climate did nothing for her looks. Her hair tended to frizz, and the sweat caused any make-up to slide off her skin. ‘Don’t be silly!’ she told herself. Still, her heart beat faster as she saw Marcus walk through the door with that easy grace.
“Jayne, I’m here for my grilling.” He smiled easily at her and slid into the armchair next to hers. “Unlike some I could mention, I’m only too happy to help, so ask away.”
“By some, I take it you mean Russell Vella?” she asked wryly.
“Yes, but don’t let that bother you. Russell would be grumpy if he won the lottery.” Marcus grinned at her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get enthusiastic about anything in the time we’ve been teaching together.”
“I’m asking everyone the same questions.” Why did she feel the need to explain herself? “So I need to know what your relationship with Dorian was like? Did you get on well with him?”
“Well enough.” Marcus thought for a moment. “He did get on my nerves sometimes, though. Everything was a drama with Dorian. A little bit went a long way, if you get my meaning.”
“Can you remember what you were doing around 12 o’clock on December 12th?”
“Was that a Saturday? If so, I was marking papers all morning. I turned the TV on after lunch to watch the footy. I don’t think I left the house at all that day.”
“Can you tell me a bit about Dorian’s state of mind on the days before he died?” Jayne asked. “The suicide angle hasn’t been completely ruled out.”
“Oh, I think you can safely rule suicide out, Jayne.” Marcus smiled. “Dorian just loved to be miserable. In fact, he wasn’t happy unless there was some drama in his life!”
“Well, there certainly was enough of that,” said Jayne.
“Yes, indeed. The drama of the day was his girlfriend Verity. She wouldn’t return his calls, and he was getting very frustrated about that. They broke up because of the rumors that were going around concerning Dorian molesting one of his private coaching pupils, but I expect you know all about that.”
Jayne nodded. “James told me all about it. Dorian had also written about it in his diary.”
“So it wasn’t just a rumor then. Vella was right.” Marcus grimaced. “I had hoped it wasn’t true. Dorian was a pain in the butt sometimes, but I thought he was harmless enough. Looks like I was sadly mistaken.”
“No, it was true all right,” Jayne sighed. “To the best of your knowledge, what were relations like between Dorian and the rest of the staff?”
Marcus raised his eyebrows. “How long have you got?” When Jayne smiled, he continued. “I can give you the abbreviated version. Ruth was upset with Dorian because he rejected her. Angela and Dorian were romantically involved for a while, but that ended on a sour note.” He thought for a while. “Vella plain didn’t like him and thought he was a pansy and as for James, I’m not sure. I think James appreciated Dorian for his teaching skills, but I don’t know what he thought about him at a personal level.”
“Well, that seems to fit in with what I’ve already heard,” Jayne said.
Marcus leaned back in his chair and sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m not being very much help, am I?”
Jane shook her head. “On the contrary, you’ve been very helpful.”
“Please sit down, Ruth.” Jayne slid into the other armchair and regarded the woman next to her. “Incidentally, thanks for handing in that diary to us. It’s helped clarify a few things.”
Ruth nodded. “Young Simon found it and handed it to me to give to James. Did you hear what they did? Decided to play amateur detectives. Broke into Dorian’s house and found it when they were looking for ‘clues.’ I told them what they did was very dangerous.” Ruth puffed out her cheeks in exasperation.
“Yes, quite. Ruth, did you read the diary before handing to James?”
“Read it? Absolutely not. It was all I could do to even touch the wretched thing. And just the thought of those two innocent boys reading all that filth! Because I knew they would have. I know how curious young boys are …”
“Yes,” cut in Jayne. “Ruth did you notice that some of the pages had been removed?”
“No, of course not. I told you, I didn’t even look at it. I put it in a plastic bag and went straight to James with it.”
It would be pointless to pursue the subject any further. “I believe you and Dorian were not on the best of terms,” Jayne tried.
“You’ve been talking to Angela.” Ruth snapped. “That woman exaggerates everything. Italians always have to be so dramatic.” Ruth clasped her hands together. “Yes, Dorian and I had a slight falling out; it was a personal matter. If you’re going to be talking to Angela, I suggest you ask her about relationship with Dorian.” Ruth nodded emphatically at Jayne. “I’m sure you’ll be quite shocked about what went on there.”
“Ruth actually said that? I can’t believe it!” Angela was beside herself. “Well, I could tell you a few things about her, too.”
Angela fidgeted in the chair. She was wearing a purple dress today with large red flowers which clashed horribly with her orange shoes. She shook her head a couple of times which caused her earrings, today a strange mixture of metal triangles and colored beads, to jangle and clank. Finally, she smoothed out her hair and composed herself.
“Ask me anything. I have nothing to hide.”
“Angela, I won’t keep you any longer than necessary.”
‘She still looks terrible,’ thought Jayne. Her skin had a gray pallor, and she looked very tired.
“I’m asking everyone the same thing basically. What was your relationship with Dorian Jones?”
“We had a fling. Yes, it was wrong, but Dorian was so very charming and so hard to resist. You understand what I’m saying, Jayne?”
thought Jayne. She nodded.
“Angela, I’m not here to judge. I’m just trying to find out more about Dorian and his relationship with the staff. Now I understand that you ended the, um … fling. What caused you to do that?”
“I can’t tell you that. I’m sorry, Jayne. I can only say that it was a clash of values. We saw things so differently that it was impossible to keep up with the friendship.”
“So the relationship ended badly?”
“No. Well, yes. I mean, it did, but we managed to smooth it over. After all, we had to work together. This has nothing to do with his death, Jayne. Please believe me.”
After Angela had left, Jayne put her head in her hands. It seemed everyone at Palmerston High had a motive for wanting Dorian Jones out of the way. Everyone except Marcus that was … She stood up and pushed the good looking teacher’s face out of her mind and forced herself to concentrate.
Who else had motive? Janis Wildermuth did. Life with Dorian Jones wouldn’t have been easy. Dorian had a nasty temper, and she was worried about their son. Janis would also have known about his severe peanut allergy and could have easily put the peanut butter in the sandwich. But why would she fake a suicide knowing she would never have access to the insurance money?
No it didn’t make sense.
What about Angela? Jayne guessed she was expecting Dorian’s child. They had fallen out because Dorian wanted Angela to have a termination, which had upset Angela deeply. However, that was hardly a motive for murder.
The more she learned about Dorian Jones, the less she liked him. However, she had a job to do, and personal feelings were just a distraction. Jayne decided she needed to dig deeper. Pulling out her phone, she called her right-hand woman.
“Holly, I need all the information you can give me about a staff member at St. Michael’s College in Shepparton, Victoria, around 2010 to 2011. A Dorian Jones. Yes, please. Oh, and if anyone remembers any problems with the senior students at around that time … I know it’s a big task, but you never know. Yes, as soon as you can. Thanks so much, Holly. Oh, how did you get on at Huntington’s?”
Reassured that Holly had apprehended the shoplifter at Huntingtons, Jayne looked again at her notes. Somewhere in that jumble of information there was a clue. A good detective would have found it by now. Frustrated with her lack of progress, she re-read the information.
Ruth Rumbold had once been keen on Dorian who had rejected her outright.[+ ‘Hell hath no fury as that of a woman scorned,’+] thought Jayne. Ruth had clearly been uncomfortable when interviewed but was it guilt or just embarrassment? Somehow, Ruth didn’t fit the bill as a murderer.
Jayne’s phone buzzed impatiently on the desk. Distracted, she shook her head. It could wait until she had finished. The phone stopped and immediately started again. Jayne frowned and glanced at the screen. Holly.
“Jayne. I found out something about that school you were interested in.” Holly sounded breathless. “There was a boy who committed suicide in 2010. He was allegedly sexually assaulted by one of the teachers there, but nothing could be proven, and there were no charges laid. The teacher’s name was Dorian Jones.”
“What was the name of the boy?” asked Jayne.
“His name was Samuel Wingate.”
The room spun, and Jayne tightened her grip on her phone. She opened her mouth, but no words would come out. Her stomach clenched as she digested this new piece of information. Hell! Was this Marcus Wingate’s son? If so, it put Marcus well into the frame.
“Holly, can I call you back? Something’s come up.”
Jayne ended the call before Holly had the chance to reply. Devastated, she realized she could no longer deny her feelings for Marcus. She was attracted to a potential killer.
So Marcus Wingate had a motive after all; and not just a motive, but the mother of all motives. Jayne went over to the window and stared unseeing at a group of boys, rushing around kicking a football on the oval.
Why was she so upset? Jayne had to admit that she was attracted to Marcus; she had been since she first laid eyes on him. She had fought the attraction but now it was staring her in the face, and she had to confront it. Thank God she hadn’t acted on it. She had been tempted to on occasion but had always resisted.
Now what? It was no use standing here stressing over it; she had to inform James.
It was then that James entered the room. Seeing his bulky figure was strangely comforting for Jayne, and she did her best to smile at him.
“Everything okay? You look a bit pale.” James placed his briefcase down on the desk and looked at her with genuine concern.
“I have some new information,” Jayne told him. She realized that James would be equally shocked when he heard about Samuel Wingate. His school seemed to be falling apart around his ears. “There was a suicide at St. Michael’s College in Victoria a few years ago. A boy who was allegedly molested by Dorian while he was teaching there. His name was Samuel Wingate.”
She had to admire James’ strength of character. His face didn’t change as he sat slowly down into his chair.
“There’s a staff meeting in about ten minutes in my office, so I won’t be able to speak to Marcus just yet, but I’ll have a yarn to him as soon as I can. Could you be at the meeting too please?”
“Of course. I’ll see you soon.”
Jayne turned towards the door. She didn’t know where she was going but she needed to burn off some nervous energy. As she walked towards the staff room, she peered through the window and saw Marcus sprawled on the lounge reading the newspaper. He was alone. She clenched her fists nervously and went in.
He looked up at her and smiled as she slowly came through the door.
“I was just about to go to the local shop to get some lunch, but I’m glad I waited.”
His eyes caressed her face and Jayne suddenly felt extremely sad. She sat down on a chair next to Marcus.
“There’s a staff meeting in James’ office,” she managed.
“Oops! I forgot all about that.” Marcus folded the paper and sat up straight, aiming his blue eyes into her own. “What’s the matter pretty lady? You look flustered.”
“Who was Samuel Wingate?” It was out before Jayne could stop it.
Marcus stared at her. “He was my nephew. He passed away a few years ago.”
“Because of something Dorian Jones did?”
Marcus stood up and started towards the door.
“I know what you’re thinking Jayne, and you’re quite wrong. Samuel was my brother’s child, and my brother and I had not been on speaking terms for a long time.”
He marched out of the door, leaving Jayne feeling crushed.
Jayne sat next to Angela, who smiled nervously at her. She couldn’t even look at Marcus although she was very aware of him across the office chatting and laughing with Samantha Williams. Why did James want her here? Would she be asked to stand up and give everyone an update on how the investigation was going? Normally, it wouldn’t worry her but right now she didn’t think she could string two words together coherently.
James looked at his watch. “I don’t know what’s happened to Ruth. I mentioned it to her this morning, and she said she’d be here.” James looked around at them all.
“We’ve been here for nearly fifteen minutes,” snapped Vella. “Trust Ruth to keep us all waiting.”
“Oh shut up, Russell!” cried Angela. “There may be a student she’s looking after in the sick bay.”
“Everyone just calm down, please.” James went to the window and looked out. “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind going to the sick bay and reminding her, Sam?”
“Of course.” Samantha stood and made her way to the door.
Everyone stood and rushed to the window.
In the courtyard just outside the window, Ruth Rumbold’s lifeless eyes stared back at them.
After a few seconds of stunned silence, everyone rushed out of the office and towards the prone figure outside.
“Marcus and Russel, take all the students into the school hall.” James crouched down and felt for a pulse; there was none.
“Sam, I want you to call Detective Nolan at once please. Meredith, please call Doctor Cooper and tell him we have a dead body.”
James stood and looked around. Both Angela and Jayne were standing together staring down at the lifeless form on the cement. Angela was clutching Jayne’s arm. Jayne could feel the sharp nails digging into her skin, but was reluctant to dislodge them.
“Jayne, perhaps you could organize a cup of tea for Angela?” James asked. “I’m going to start calling the parents and get the students out of here.”
Jayne nodded and gently guided the traumatized woman into the staff room. She sat her down gently. Angela offered no resistance but sat as though in a trance. Jayne busied herself with mugs and teabags, unsure of what to say. Angela, however, was the first to speak.
“I’ve never seen a dead body before.”
Jayne took the two mugs of tea with extra sugar and sat next to her. “When it’s someone you know, it makes it all the harder.”
Angela nodded and took the tea. Jayne was glad to see some color had returned to her face.
“I feel so useless,” she told Jayne. “Everyone else is running around helping, and I’m a wreck …”
“It’s understandable in your condition.”
Angela nodded. “I thought you knew.” She sighed. “Actually, it’s a relief. I haven’t told anyone, and it’s been so hard keeping it to myself. You know who the father is?”
“Yes. He wanted me to get rid of it. Can you believe that? I refused of course. I consider it a sin to end a life. As soon as he heard that, he was off. Poof!” She flung her arms in the air.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No.” Angela shook her head, and the earrings jangled noisily. “Thank you, Jayne, but I’m feeling so tired now. I think I may just lay down for a bit in the sick bay.”
Jayne waited for her to leave and made another mug of tea. She took it into James’ office.
“Would you like some help contacting the parents?” she asked.
James looked at her gratefully. “Thank you; that would be very helpful.” He took the proffered mug. “Some of the parents can’t come straight away because of their jobs. I’m not giving out any information, just telling them the school has had to close early due to a staff shortage.”
“Of course. Have you been able to contact Ruth’s relatives?”
James shook his head. “There’s a sister in South Australia that Ruth listed as next of kin. I’ll give the number to Inspector Nolan when he gets here. I think that’s the correct procedure.”
“Okay. Just give me the names and numbers.” Jayne felt as if she was on autopilot. She hadn’t examined her own feelings, how this new development would impact the case, or her own personal feelings towards Marcus. There would be time for that later. She picked up her phone.
Two hours later, the last of the students had been picked up, anxious parents had been soothed, and the other staff members had finally left. An ambulance had collected the body, and Inspector Nolan had agreed to wait until the following day before questioning everyone. Jayne and James sat, both silently examining their own thoughts.
“Do you know that Angela is pregnant?” Jayne finally asked.
“I had suspected it, yes. Thanks for looking after her by the way.”
Jayne nodded. “She was fine in the end. Marcus gave her a ride home.”
James looked at her. “I know we’re both exhausted, but I don’t think I can go home. What about you?”
Jayne thought of her empty house. “No way. Let’s try and make some sense of what’s just happened today. It might help clear our minds a bit.” She stood up to stretch her legs. “The case seems to have solved itself. Ruth must have jumped from the science block out of fear or guilt.”
“You think so?”
“No, I don’t,” said James. “I’ve known Ruth Rumbold for many years. There’s no way that woman would have harmed a soul.”
Well, he’d been right before so the chances were he was right this time.
“How did Ruth even get up to the roof of the science block?”
“There’s a fire escape at the back of the building,” James told her. “The roof is actually quite flat. We caught some students sneaking up there after school hours, so it’s been out of bounds ever since.”
“If you’re right and Ruth the murderer, then why on earth did she jump off? Unless …”
James looked back at her. “Yes, Jayne. Unless she was pushed!”
“Oh my God, Jayne. I’ve been trying to reach you; your phone’s been busy.”
“I’m sorry, Holly. Things have been going so fast around here, and I haven’t had time to think about anything else.”
“How’s the case going? You sounded pretty stressed last time we spoke. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I was so excited to land this case and now I honestly don’t know if I’m even going to be able to solve it. There’s been another murder, and things are just going from bad to worse.” Jayne could hear her voice wobbling.
“Slow down, slow down. Take a deep breath and tell me all about it.”
Jayne realized she’d been holding her breath. She let it out and slumped into the chair. She told Holly the details of the case, starting with the staff and Janis Wildermuth and ending with the death of Ruth Rumbold on the concrete flagstones outside James Leibinger’s office.
Holly listened without interruption and spent a couple of minutes thinking before she spoke.
“Bloody hell, Jayne! What have you got yourself into here? I can understand why you’re so overwhelmed. But why is Leibinger insisting that these deaths are murders? It really sounds like one may have been suicide and the other an unfortunate accident.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance. The storm was late today, but it might bring some welcome relief from the unbearable heat that had tormented the Northern Territory for the past week.
“I’ve asked myself that a few times and of course that’s a possibility.”
“Then again,” Holly continued. “Ruth could have killed Dorian then, fearing she’d be found out, jumped off the roof of the science block.”
“In theory that would work,” Jayne agreed. “I just can’t see Ruth murdering anybody though. She was a compassionate person who wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m not going to argue. I know how good you are at reading people. Trouble is if everyone else was in Leibinger’s office …”
“Exactly! You see what I’m up against?”
“It just has to be the ex-wife then. Either that or Ruth was your killer.”
Jayne shook her head. “Janis had no motive whatsoever to kill Ruth; she hardly knew the woman.”
“Well,” said Holly. “Maybe Ruth knew something she shouldn’t have.”
Jayne lay staring at the ceiling. The weariness she felt would not be relieved by sleep tonight. There was one fact that she just couldn’t get past. If someone had pushed the unfortunate sports teacher off the roof of the science building, who was it? Everyone had been in James’ office when Ruth had fallen. All the evidence she had compiled and all the motives she had discovered and mulled over in the last few days were worth nothing.
Those words of Holly’s were circulating in her brain. But even if Ruth had known something and that knowledge had led to her being pushed off the roof, who had pushed her?
With a sigh, she shrugged off the covers and padded into the kitchen. Dawn was slowly spreading its rosy light over the sky. She may as well start packing up all the evidence she had collected for Inspector Nolan who had, at last, started taking the case seriously.
She picked up the red diary with distaste. Ruth had sworn categorically that she had not read it. Ah well, it hardly mattered now; maybe it wasn’t even relevant.
Whenever Jayne thought back to this moment, she would never be able to explain what made her sit down at the kitchen table and read that diary again. She had already been through it all before. Maybe it was just a strange reluctance to give up and hand over to someone else what she had not been able to solve.
She forced herself to concentrate especially on the passages that described the abused child. Revulsion had made her skip over them quite fast the first time. This time, she read them more slowly.
Something just wasn’t making sense.
Joseph Mattiello didn’t have blue eyes. His parents both had dark hair and brown eyes. Two brown-eyed parents very rarely have a blue-eyed child, so who was this child to whom Dorian was referring?
A vision of Simon Cross flashed through her mind. The child with the peaches and cream complexion with the black hair and piercing blue eyes. But Simon had stated point blank that Mr. Jones had never attempted to touch him in any way. Jayne had always thought that rather strange. A boy such as Simon would have made the ideal target for a predator like Jones.
Simon, the boy who had passed the diary on to Ruth Rumbold.
The realization, when it came, was a shock. Suddenly, it all made sense, but Jayne didn’t want to believe it. It was just too horrible.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” Simon asked Nathan. The two boys usually met at the school oval before school.
“We don’t have much time before class,” replied Nathan, but he followed Simon along the path that ran down the side of the oval. The hot morning sun streamed down, and they kept to the shade of the trees.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any classes today,” Simon said as the two boys ambled further down the path. “Too much other stuff going on.”
“Remember when we were trying to solve Mr. Jones’ murder?” Nathan kicked a stone along the path. “We should have persevered you know. We may have been able to save Miss Rumbold’s life.”
Simon shook his head. “It wouldn’t have helped.”
Nathan looked at him. “You mean we wouldn’t have solved it?”
“No, I mean it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Simon gave an impatient sigh. “Because I already solved it, Nate.”
Nathan came to a halt. “You mean you who killed Mr. Jones and Miss Rumbold?”
Simon nodded and kept walking along.
Nathan ran to catch up. “I don’t believe you. How can you know? The police thought it was suicide until Miss Rumbold turned up dead. Even that lady detective hasn’t managed to solve the case. So you know something they don’t?”
“Yes. Mr. Jones died because of the things he did. He deserved it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Mr. Jones was a monster, so someone had to get rid of him.” Simon looked at the ground. “It was a shame about Miss Rumbold though. She was cleverer than I thought. She nearly worked it out.”
They had reached the clump of Eucalyptus trees at the far side of the oval. Simon sat on the bench. Confused, Nathan took the bench opposite.
“You’re making this up.”
“Am I? Mr. Jones was a rotten pervert! He asked me to do things I didn’t like. I didn’t realize what he meant at first but then it became obvious, so I said no and ran out of the house.”
“Oh my God, Si!”
“But I couldn’t forget about it. I was so angry. I wanted to do something to him to make him pay.”
“Like what? What did you do, Si?”
“I thought about it a lot. I’ve known about this peanut allergy thing for a while. The school warned mum that I could never take any foods made from peanuts to Mr. Jones’ house when they were organizing the coaching. I Googled peanut allergy and found out all this stuff. I went back there a few days later and took a jar of peanut butter with me.” Simon looked up at his friend who watched him, a horrified expression on his face.
“It wasn’t my normal coaching day, but I knew he would be really surprised and pleased to see me. He offered to make us lunch. I said I’d give him a hand. When he wasn’t looking, I mixed some peanut butter with that cheese spread stuff he was using. We ate our sandwiches, and I could tell he was really happy that I’d come back. I felt sick, and it was hard to eat, but I had to pretend everything was normal.
“After a while, I could see he was starting to have symptoms like what they said on the website. He said he was having trouble breathing and was looking around for his phone. Of course, I’d already thought of that so I had hidden his phone when I first got there. You see, if peanut allergy is treated, then you can be cured.”
“So he’s staggering around holding his chest, and I knew that he had realized what I’d done. It was important that he knew why and he knew all right.”
“Si please stop…”
“No! Anyway, he staggered towards the garage and got into his car. But it was too late because I’d hidden the car keys along with the phone. Eventually, he stopped moving. I guessed he was dead then, so I got the jar of peanut butter and wiped it, and then I put it in his hand so it had his fingerprints on it.
“After that, I put the jar back in the kitchen, got the phone and car keys and put them back where I’d found them, and left. I was careful, so no-one saw me. What are you crying about, Nate?”
“What happened to Miss Rumbold?” Nathan’s voice was a croak.
“That was unfortunate.” Simon sighed. “I liked Miss Rumbold, but she got suspicious. She told me there had been some pages removed from the diary. Apparently, that lady detective told her. She asked me if I had done it. So of course I told her it wasn’t me, but I think she was getting suspicious, so I had to do some pretty quick thinking. I asked her to come with me because I had found the missing diary pages up on the roof garden above the science block. At first, she said no because there was a staff meeting she had to go to. Anyway, I told her this was very important and she would be able to take this evidence to the staff meeting and probably help solve the case.
“We went up the stairs, and I pulled over one of the pot plants near the edge of the roof. She came over to look and I just gave her a push and she went over the edge.”
There was a few moments of silence. Over in the distance, the Kookaburras started their morning serenade.
“So what happens now?” Nathan’s voice was barely a whisper.
“It’s all right, Nathan. Just stay where you are.”
The spell was broken by the voice of James Leibinger emerging from the clump of trees. With him was Inspector Nolan and Jayne. The two men approached Simon, who put up no resistance. Jayne went over to Nathan.
“Are you okay, Nathan? Come with me, and we’ll see about getting you home.”
The boy stood up shakily and almost collapsed against Jayne, who guided him away.
“I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day, don’t you?”
“I didn’t know what he was going to do, Miss,” Nathan told her. “I told him to stop, but he wouldn’t. I tried to stand up and run, but my legs wouldn’t work.”
“It’s all right now,” soothed Jayne. “Come with me, and we’ll arrange for your mum to come and pick you up.”
“What’s going to happen to Si?”
“Don’t worry about that now; he’ll be taken care of.”
“What made you suspect Simon?” James asked her a few days later. “Thank God you made the connection when you did. I don’t know what would have happened to Nathan otherwise.”
It was school holidays. Exams were over and most of the staff had left. The deserted school was eerily silent.
“I read a passage in the diary that indicated there was more than one boy Dorian was molesting. The description matched Simon. I got to wondering about why Dorian had never targeted Simon. The boy was exactly the type Dorian was attracted to and yet Simon denied he had ever been molested by the teacher. I started wondering if Simon had lied. Was it embarrassment? Or was it something more sinister? Then it dawned on me that Simon had obviously decided to take matters into his own hands.”
James shook his head. “I just find it so hard to understand. I mean the boy is thirteen years old! And then after going to all those lengths to protect his secret, he suddenly reveals the whole thing to his friend?”
“I think he wanted recognition,” Jayne mused. “He’d carried out what he considered to be two perfect murders. He must have felt an overwhelming need to tell someone how clever he’d been.”
“Well, he has been very clever,” sighed James. “It’s chilling when a brilliant brain like his turns itself to evil.”
“If only I’d read that diary a bit more closely the first time, I might have picked it up earlier.” Jayne shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I was disgusted with what Dorian had written about his victim and skimmed through it rather quickly. I should have picked up on the fact that he was talking about two boys, not just one. If I’d done that, Ruth may still be with us.”
“Please don’t think like that.” James shook his head. “If it weren’t for you, Ruth would have been branded a murderer, and Simon would have gotten away with it. Who what he may have turned his hand to in the future. There was also Nathan to consider. Nathan knew everything and was at great risk of harm. Besides, what’s done is done, and there’s nothing to be gained by regret. You’ve done a fine job Jayne, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
“Thanks,” said Jayne. “What do you think will happen to him? Simon, I mean.”
“That’s for Child Services to decide,” said James.
“But what about you, James? What’s going to happen to the school now? What do you think the Education Department will do?”
“Please don’t worry on my account, Jayne. The school will survive and, God willing, I will still be here to run it. Yes, we have lost two of our staff, but we can replace them. Yes, some of our parents are very agitated right now, but things will calm down. What I would like to know is what happens now to the Plain Jayne Detective Agency? If you’ve had time to read the papers or watch the news, you will have seen the publicity this case has created. You’re on the map now, Jayne; you’re a celebrity!”
“Really?” Jayne hadn’t even considered the effect the case might have on her career. A couple of short weeks ago, that was all she thought about. She had been so emotionally invested in this case, she hadn’t even watched the news or picked up a paper. She had gone home each night so weary that she had collapsed into bed, sometimes too tired to even eat dinner.
Her phone buzzed impatiently in her pocket. Jayne fished it out. Holly.
“Bloody hell, Jayne! When are you coming back to the office? Calls are coming in left and right, and I can’t cope by myself!”
“I’m heading in right now.” Jayne hung up and looked at James. “To answer your question, it seems that the Plain Jayne Detective Agency has finally hit the big time. We’ve made it, James!”
As Jayne guided the Datsun out of the car park for the last time, she looked in the rear view mirror and saw Marcus heading towards his car. She reversed up to him and opened the window. “Just wanted to say goodbye,” she said lamely.
“Ah Jayne, I hear congratulations are in order. Well done!” He didn’t look at her directly while speaking and Jayne sensed that door had closed.
“Thanks, well I’d better be off. Enjoy the holidays!”
Marcus smiled briefly at her. “I will. Have a good Christmas Jayne!”
She put the Datsun into gear and drove away.
Jayne had no regrets. She didn’t have time for romance anyway. There were more important things to take care of.
About the Author
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‘Jayne Belmont Complete Mystery Series’
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Jayne’s next adventure where she goes underground to catch a criminal –
Excerpt from the next book in the series – ‘
“Jayne, I’m pleased to meet you. My name’s Leanne, and I’m really worried about my sister. I haven’t been able to contact her for around three weeks. She used to call me every week without fail from that awful place …” Leanne pumped Jayne’s outstretched hand and started walking around the office. “Sorry. I’m a bit frantic!” She gave a slight laugh and continued pacing.
“Hi Leanne. Try to calm yourself down. I’m sure we can help. Now just sit down, and we’ll get you a cup of tea or coffee. Then you can tell me all about it.”
Leanne dropped down onto the chair provided and sighed.
“Thank you. Coffee would be lovely, white with no sugar please.” Her hands twisted in her lap. “Every week on a Friday night she would call at around eight. I haven’t heard from her now for three weeks. I just know something terrible has happened.”
Jayne sat next to her and put a calming hand on Leanne’s shoulder.
“What makes you think that something’s happened, apart from her not calling you?”
“Because … I felt it. We’re twins – identical. We have a very close bond. When something’s wrong with either of us, the other one can feel it. We’ve been like that since we were small.”
“Okay, I believe you. Now, what’s this awful place you referred to earlier?”
“Thank you,” Leanne spoke to Holly who handed her a mug of coffee. She turned back to Jayne. “It’s a cult called Prophets of the Light. They call themselves a commune, but that’s rubbish. They’re definitely a cult. My sister Rhiannon has been with them for around eight months. She just got out of a long term relationship and was a bit depressed. She thought some time away from reality might help. I tried to talk her out of it. I’ve read about these places and the way they try and twist your mind.”
“Prophets of the Light … I’ve heard of it,” Jayne said. “It’s out in the remote farmlands somewhere. What happens when you call her phone?”
“It just goes to her voice mail,” Leanne replied. “Something has happened to her. I know it. I’ve tried to talk to them and the police have tried … All we get is the same reply that she has left and they don’t know where she’s gone.”
“Maybe she did leave and went somewhere to clear her head,” Jayne said. “Maybe she just needs to be on her own for a while.”
“No. Rhiannon wouldn’t just leave. She loved being there. She enjoyed the security of life in the cult. In fact, she was going to begin studying so that she could move to the next level.”
“You said you felt that something was wrong,” Jayne said. “So what exact feeling are you getting now?”
“That’s the trouble.” Leanne looked up at her. “I’m not getting anything at all.”……
Click HERE to buy Blood of the Cult.
Also by Shona Stevens – Deadly Sin
Two dead prostitutes are found in a public park. Is it the work of a serial killer? Or is this more personal? Find out here -
Dead or Alive – The daughter of a real estate mogul is kidnapped, but no ransom demand is received. Can Jayne rescue the girl in time?
Shonah Stevens lives in Brisbane, Australia with her partner, small dog and around 30 species of parrots. She loves to read and write mystery fiction.
When headmaster James Leibinger finds one of his teachers dead, the police write it off as suicide. After all Dorian Jones had plenty of problems. However, James is convinced Dorian was murdered, but how can he prove it? The he remembers a chance encounter with a female private detective â€“ Jayne Belmont. Would she be able to solve this mystery? Jayne is faced with an entire staff of teachers and an ex-wife who would all like to see the back of Dorian. What's more they all seem to have had opportunity. Jayne slowly narrows down her suspects, but when another body falls to their death and all the suspects were in the same room, the case becomes impossible to solve. Or does it? Join Jayne on her ups and downs in this murder mystery set in the city of Palmerston in Australia's torrid Northern Territory where the heat and humidity combine with circumstances to test Jayne's wits almost to breaking point.