Murder, Mayhem and Men On Pause: Part seven

Jun 24, 2023
Part seven in the serialisation of the novel written by author Sandy Curtis.

Miss a part? You can go back and read it here.

Chapter Thirty-one

‘Stay here,’ Chris said to her, and his tone made it a command rather than a request. With a quick glance to check she wasn’t following, he ran up the street towards the two men.

‘I’m a police officer, mate.’ his voice was calm but deep with authority as he stopped about a metre from them. ‘You’d better put that knife down.’

They both glanced at him.

            ‘Fuck off,’ the smaller man spat, and returned his attention to Ginger.

            Whether it was bravado or not, Ellie didn’t know, but Ginger again taunted the man with a string of insults.

            With the kind of fear that almost paralyses the thought processes, Ellie watched as Chris tried to reason with the men. Watched the way he tried to talk them down, using reason, threats of arrest, offering leniency for compliance.

            Ginger started to back away, but the smaller man became more enraged.

            Ellie watched Chris, her heart constricted, knowing he was going to try to get the knife away from the man, knowing that one wrong move meant the knife, gleaming sharp and deadly in the sunshine, could easily kill him. She felt herself sway with terror at the thought.

            A siren sounded, the noise drawing closer.

The smaller man sprang, knife arm outstretched, at Ginger.

Chris lunged for him.

Ginger dived towards Chris.

It was like watching a football tackle that didn’t co-ordinate. The three men fell to the ground, Ginger trying to get away, the smaller man kicking, screaming, lashing out with fist and feet, Chris clutching his right arm, trying to break his grip on the knife.

A police car screamed into the parking lot. A sergeant jumped out and ran towards the trio.

She knew it was only seconds, but to Ellie it seemed like minutes before the knife hit the ground, Chris hauled the biker to his feet and the sergeant restrained Ginger. After a conversation with Chris and several of the bystanders, the sergeant put the now-handcuffed bikers in the police car and drove off.

As Chris walked back to her, Ellie realised that she was still standing in the same position she had been when the bikers’ argument had started. Exhaling a breath that was as much perplexity as relief, she walked to meet him.

‘Are you okay? You look pale,’ he frowned.

The absurdity of his concern almost made her laugh. ‘You’ve just tackled a man who could have killed you and you’re worried that I’m pale?’

‘I’m trained for that kind of thing,’ he replied. ‘It’s part of the job.’

And that was exactly the problem, she thought. Risking his life was part of the job. A part she doubted she’d ever get used to. Even now she could still feel the terror that had seized her when the knife flicked out. Loving Chris left her vulnerable to the kind of loss she never again wanted to experience.

But another thing worried her as well. If she loved him, why hadn’t she tried to help him? Why had she remained rooted to the spot, watching the scene as though a barrier stopped her from running to his side? Surely she should have tried to help – thrown something at the biker to distract him so Chris could disarm him, yell out that his mates were coming back, offer him money to buy another television set? She knew Chris was trained for that kind of thing, but he was unarmed and both bikers were so angry she couldn’t have been sure they mightn’t have turned on him because he’d intervened. She’d never thought of herself as a coward before, but then she’d never been in a really dangerous situation before. But it puzzled her to think she had simply stood there, frozen, when someone she loved was in danger.

‘I have to go to the Maleny police station and make a statement,’ Chris said.

‘Of course,’ she replied, but noticed he was still looking at her a little strangely.

They walked back to his vehicle in silence, but when they were on the road, Ellie asked, ‘How do you feel?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘That man could have killed you. You handled it, you did what had to be done. But how did it make you feel? I’ve never experienced anything like that. I’m trying to comprehend how you cope with it.’

He nodded his understanding. ‘That’s where the training comes in. I’ve been in a few situations like that and each time you assess the best way to handle it, but when something happens you’re just grateful you instinctively know what to do.’

It wasn’t the explanation she wanted. ‘I can understand that, but how do you feel? Does it upset you? Do you want to run away?’

He laughed. ‘Anyone with half a brain would want to run away from an angry man with a weapon, but the adrenaline kicks in, your senses seem to sharpen, and you do what you can under the circumstances.’

‘And afterwards?’

‘That depends. In Homicide you deal with some pretty horrible stuff. Everyone reacts differently after seeing death. With something like what just happened, I feel relief that no-one got hurt, that I didn’t get hurt. And sometimes I feel angry that idiots like that think they can resolve their problems with violence.’

She noticed that he was driving a little slower than usual, and his hands gripped the steering wheel tightly, as though he was having trouble staying in control. ‘Do you feel angry now?’

There was a long pause before he answered. ‘Yes. Because now you’re running away from me and there’s nothing I can do to stop you.’

The truth in his words hit her like a blow. She was running away. Emotionally. She should have hugged him, assured him she cared, that she was grateful he’d not been hurt, but instead she’d held herself rigid, not reaching out, not touching him, afraid to let him completely into her heart in case she lost him and had to suffer the pain that had devastated her once before.

‘Am I wrong?’ His words were tinged with equal despair and hope.

‘I’m sorry, Chris.’ She couldn’t give him what he wanted. ‘I want to … I want to stop … running, but I don’t know how. If you were an accountant, or a carpenter, or a salesman, it might be different. At least you wouldn’t face potential death every time you went to work.’

‘But then I wouldn’t be me, would I?’ he asked softly, his face grim.

She wanted to cry. Wanted to make him pull the car off the road and throw herself into his arms and say that she didn’t care what he did, she would love him anyway. But she couldn’t. She wanted to fight back the fear that held her like a prison, but she didn’t know how. ‘Perhaps I just need some time. So much has happened in such a short space of time – finding Cherilyn’s body, meeting you, getting concussion, having Damien come back. Even losing a way of life I was used to. Even though I wasn’t happy in it, at least it was familiar.’

‘Are you happy in your current life?’

She thought about that for a while. ‘Yes. Yes, I am. Most of the time. I’m discovering myself again. That might sound strange, but it’s true.’

His expression softened. ‘No. I can understand that. Grief changes people, not always for the better.’

‘I … I didn’t so much change.’ There were tears in her eyes now, blurring the scenery into passing blobs. ‘I just lost myself. Maybe I did become someone else. Someone who wasn’t really me.’ She brushed away the tears. ‘Perhaps I just need time to find out who I am now.’ She thought about telling him that they shouldn’t see each other anymore, but doubted she could do it. Wanting him made her weak, but there was a strange kind of strength in that. It gave her the courage to be honest with him, to recognise that she needed to be happy in herself before she could make anyone else happy.

The silence that filled the vehicle now wasn’t the companionable silence they’d previously shared. It was brittle with fragile hopes and even more fragile despair. When Chris parked in front of the Maleny police station, he switched off the engine and turned to her. ‘Do you want to come in with me?’

She shook her head. ‘You do what you have to do.’ She opened her door. ‘I’ll go for a walk. Call my mobile when you’re finished.’

She heard his door slam and the vehicle lock as she walked away, but it was a while before his footsteps sounded on the path into the building.

Although separated by only 15 kilometres, Maleny and Montville were worlds apart in atmosphere, Ellie decided. Montville’s reputation as an up-market tourism destination was well-deserved, with a plethora of resorts, restaurants, and shops selling crafts you wouldn’t find in most markets. Maleny looked like the kind of village people lived in. The types of shops showed that some had a more alternative bent than others, but the general feeling here was that the town belonged to the residents, not the visitors.

            As she walked down the main street, glancing in shop windows, Ellie tried to control her fluctuating emotions. When Chris wasn’t with her, it was easy to give in to all her fears for his safety. Or should that be all her fears about loss of someone she loved? Damnit! She couldn’t deny she loved him, but she also knew that love could wither, could die, could be destroyed by neglect. And life could be so easily snuffed out.

The image of Cherilyn’s body flashed through her mind. Dead. Un-mourned by those who should have loved her. The sadness, the futility, of Cherilyn’s wasted life washed through Ellie. Her eyes filled with tears. She tried to brush them away, but more appeared, spilling onto her cheeks, soaking into her blouse. She pulled a tissue from her bag and tried to stop the flow. It didn’t work. People started to look at her, curious, sympathetic, apprehensive.

She stumbled into a side street, away from the shops, and stopped under a large tree that shaded the footpath. Her breath came in choking sobs that ripped from her chest and ricocheted through her head until it started to pound.

As quickly as her crying had begun, it stopped. She leaned against a paling fence, drawing in deep breaths, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Had Cherilyn’s death affected her that badly? Or was she reacting to seeing Chris in danger? Maybe it was all simply part of the concussion.

Her headache returned with an intensity that made her stomach heave. She grabbed hold of the fence, took some deep breaths, and tried to stop her lunch from coming up. After a minute or two the churning eased. On less than steady legs she walked back to the main street, bought a bottle of cold spring water, took two painkillers from her bag and swigged them down.

            She found a quiet spot in a park and sat on a bench and waited for Chris to phone.

Telling herself she was going to have to get used to being alone and lonely was one thing, Kandy discovered. Doing so was another. Playing some classical music and meditating hadn’t helped. Innumerable laps in the pool made her exhausted but no less miserable. Two glasses of wine only added to her melancholy, and as she started to pour a third she realised what she needed.

            She grabbed the phone and started to press Ellie’s number before remembering she wouldn’t be home. She called Cass instead.

To Ellie’s relief the traffic heading back to Brisbane was relatively light. She wanted to get home quickly. The joy she had experienced in the past twenty-four hours had gone, replaced by a terrible sense of inadequacy. What was wrong with her that she could let fear overshadow the wonderful relationship she was developing with Chris?

She kept sneaking glances at him, hoping to see something other than the frustration and disappointment he had shown as she’d walked back to his vehicle. She knew her expression had said that all was not right between them.

Miranda’s car wasn’t in the yard when they arrived, and Ellie didn’t know whether to be grateful she wasn’t there to see the tension she thought was obvious between her and Chris or disappointed there wasn’t a buffer to ease that tension.

‘Would you like a drink?’ she asked as she unlocked the front door and walked inside.

He placed her overnight bag on the lounge room floor and shook his head. ‘I’d better go home and get ready for work tomorrow. Besides, you look like you could do with a rest. Are you working tomorrow?’

‘No. Richard said not to come back until I have the stitches out.’ She tried to muster a smile. ‘Maybe he thinks I’ll scare the customers.’

Chris’s answering smile showed as little amusement as hers had. ‘Oh, you’re scary, all right.’ The smile faded. ‘But not because of your stitches.’ He moved closer, took her into his arms and kissed her.

It was a kiss filled with passion, with possession, with love and longing. A fiery branding that seared and weakened her so that she melded into him, aching with need, desperate to blot out the fear that stopped her from giving herself to him completely.

It was a kiss that should have been the start of lovemaking so deep and fervent it would have swept away all doubt, all fear.

But desperation, subtle as a summer haze, threaded its way between them.

Chris broke the kiss, eyes blazing, body trembling with emotion, arms still enfolding her. ‘I don’t normally play dirty,’ he said, voice gravelly with control, ‘but if I have to use sex to keep you with me I will. I don’t want to lose you.’

The words of reassurance Ellie wanted to say wouldn’t come. She reached up, stroked his cheek, tried to convey her churning emotions through her touch. He turned his head and kissed her palm, his eyes not leaving hers.

It would have been so easy to give in to him, to tell him what he wanted to hear, but she knew she couldn’t. Knew it wouldn’t be fair to either of them. ‘You promised me time,’ she whispered. ‘Remember?’

He dipped his head in acknowledgement. ‘You can have all the time you need.’

She felt the “but” behind the words, but he didn’t say any more, just dropped his arms from around her and walked to the door. ‘Chris,’ she called to him, and he turned and looked at her. ‘Call me,’ she said. ‘Please.’

He nodded, then walked out.

Chapter Thirty-two

‘They’re very happy with my progress,’ Maud beamed as the nurse helped her back into bed after taking her to the bathroom.

            ‘That’s good, Mum.’ Geoffrey had to admit that his mother did seem to be improving. She was able to walk a few steps now, not unaided, but at least one foot no longer dragged across the floor like she was wearing a concrete boot. The other foot was a different matter, and he wondered how much physiotherapy would be needed to fix that. Or if it could be fixed.

            ‘How is your wrist?’ Maud asked.

            ‘Not too bad.’ He wanted to say how it really felt, but he knew she would be shocked by that kind of language. Once it wouldn’t have bothered him, but somehow, in the past week, he had gained a respect for her that he’d never had before.

            He had actually come to look forward to his visits to the hospital, and wondered if he might have been taking too many painkillers. His desperate need to find the painting had eased, replaced by a deep resentment that it hadn’t been his fault that the cops had picked him up with the consignment. His boss had given him the time and place – how was he to know that arriving early would land him in the middle of a police sting meant for an illegal arms dealer. But the boss didn’t see it that way. Geoffrey had the drugs, he was supposed to deliver them safely and get the cash. The cops got the drugs, the boss didn’t get his money, and Geoffrey was on a short slide down the slippery slope to oblivion if he couldn’t make up the loss. But each day it was getting harder to find the energy to even think about going back to the units to search for the painting.

            His pretext of getting his mother to talk about Iris so he could find a clue to the painting’s whereabouts had turned into a genuine interest in his aunt’s life and that of his mother’s. It had been a long time since he had cared about anyone other than himself, but his gentle little mother had revealed strengths that had surprised him. He couldn’t understand why she had remained devoted to his pompous over-bearing father, but he had to give her points for loyalty.

            ‘Tell me more about how Iris discovered she had a talent for art,’ he encouraged her now, and settled back in the hospital visitor’s chair to listen.

It was only when Ellie went into the kitchen after unpacking her overnight bag that she noticed Miranda’s note on the bench. She picked it up and read:

Mum, Ben has asked me out to dinner!!! I shouldn’t be late –have work J in the morning. Cass phoned, said Kandy needs to talk. Didn’t say what about.

                                                       Love you


Ellie smiled at Miranda’s obvious reaction to Ben’s invitation. Maybe things were finally turning around for Miranda on the romance side as well as the work side. She did a quick finger cross, then went into the lounge room to phone Cass. A few minutes later she hung up the phone, no more enlightened than she had been before about what Kandy needed to talk about, but worried that it was important enough that both friends were coming around to discuss it with her.

            Several hours later she opened the door to Cass, Kandy, takeaway containers and two bottles of wine. ‘What are we celebrating this time?’ she asked.

            ‘Love, loss and the whole damn thing,’ Kandy chortled, and threw her arms around Ellie, wine bottles thumping into Ellie’s back. Ellie threw a ‘What the?’ glance at Cass but Cass just shrugged and mouthed, ‘I don’t know.’ Then she took Kandy and guided her towards the lounge. ‘Let’s sit down,’ she suggested.

Although she could see that Kandy was already on the path to a mammoth hangover, Ellie got wine glasses as well as plates and forks for the food. As soon as she placed these on the coffee table in front of the other two, Kandy said, ‘Phillip is gay,’ and burst into tears.

Ellie didn’t know if she was more shocked by Kandy’s announcement or the fact that crying was the last thing she could imagine Kandy doing. She looked at Cass. Her jaw had dropped so far Ellie could see the fillings in her back teeth.

Kandy’s tears kept streaming down her face. Ellie rushed into the bathroom and grabbed a box of tissues and gave it to her. Kandy wiped her eyes and blew her nose and balled the tissues in her fists.

Ellie couldn’t bear to see her looking so miserable. She put her arms around Kandy’s shoulders and hugged her. Kandy returned the hug, her tears starting again. She pulled back and dabbed at her eyes. ‘And to think I worried about another woman,’ she muttered.

‘How do you know Phillip is gay?’ Ellie asked, and sat on the opposite lounge chair.

Kandy told them. Told them everything. Told them how she’d remained celibate for years, how Phillip seemed to give tacit approval to her affairs, how they still got on so well together and still loved each other, and how Vanessa’s arrival had confirmed her recent suspicions that Phillip had fallen in love with someone else. ‘I’ve moved into the guest wing,’ she said between blowing her nose and opening one of the wine bottles. ‘Nathan has gone back to Sydney to arrange his re-location to Brisbane and he’ll move in with Phillip.’

‘Just like that?’ Ellie couldn’t control her anger. ‘Phillip’s kicked you out?’

Kandy shook her head. ‘No. It was my idea. Phillip did what he thought was the right thing once before and broke off with Nathan. Now he’s been given a second chance. I saw how much he loves Nathan, and decided I couldn’t stand in the way of him being happy.  I know he still loves me, but, like he said, not in the way a man should love a woman.’

‘Perhaps he’s bi-sexual?’ Cass suggested.

Kandy shook her head. ‘I doubt it.’

‘Are you going to divorce him?’

‘Probably. In time. I still love him, but it’s not easy knowing he’s not the man I thought he was. But he’s still a good person,’ she quickly added, as though she thought they would assume otherwise. Crying seemed to have sobered her a lot, but now she filled a glass and drank a few mouthfuls. ‘We’re going to keep it quiet for a while. Give ourselves time to adjust.’

‘What’s Nathan like?’ Ellie asked.

‘That’s the funny part. I wanted to hate him, and he was so stiff and defensive when we met that it was easy. But once he knew I wasn’t going to stand in their way, he relaxed and was really quite nice. I didn’t want to, but I ended up liking him.’

            Ellie poured wine into the other two glasses and passed one to Cass. She doubted that she could have been as magnanimous as Kandy, but Kandy appeared to have the kind of emotional courage she lacked. At least where Chris was concerned.

            Thinking about him must have tapped into some telepathic link because Kandy asked, ‘How did your weekend with the law go?’

            Ellie hesitated for a moment, torn between memories of yesterday and today, then gave a rambling account about shopping in Maleny, their picnic at the lake, the unusual residence of the owner at their accommodation.

            ‘Great travelogue, Ellie,’ Kandy interrupted, ‘but what about your boy in blue? Was he good in bed?’

            ‘Great. And very understanding when I discovered that the old adage if you don’t use it you lose it is definitely true when it comes to vaginas. Bloody menopause,’ she growled.

            ‘That would have stuffed up your weekend,’ Cass said.

            ‘Aaah, no. Chris is very resourceful.’ Ellie recounted how he asked the restaurant maitre de for avocado oil.

            ‘You’re kidding!’ Kandy laughed. ‘What did you do?’

            ‘Turned three shades of scarlet and sweated my way out the door.’

            ‘But did the avocado oil work?’ Kandy was doubly interested now, red-rimmed eyes gleaming with amusement and anticipation.

            Ellie did a mock swoon. ‘Tres magnifique,’ she gushed in her best high school French.

Kandy giggled her appreciation. ‘Sounds like that’s one cop whose penis should be classified as a lethal weapon.’

            ‘So is he in love with you?’ Cass asked as she took the lids off the takeaway containers.

            The laughter left Ellie as quickly as it had come. ‘I think so.’

            ‘What about you? How do you feel about him?’

            It was a question Ellie didn’t want to answer. But maybe if she put her doubts into words they might reveal an answer. ‘I’m falling in love with him, but I don’t know if I can cope with his job. This afternoon two bikers had an argument and Chris went to calm them down, and one took out a knife.’ She described what happened. ‘I was so terrified he would get hurt I couldn’t even move.’

            ‘Seems a fairly normal reaction,’ Cass spooned food onto her plate.

            ‘It didn’t feel like it. It freaked me out.’

            ‘So are you going to see him again?’

The question was casual enough, but Ellie didn’t know how to answer. She shrugged and countered with a question of her own. ‘How did your property manager friend go with finding out who rented unit one?’

‘Pretty good. I told her that the new owner of the building had found something he believed was quite valuable and he’d like to return it to the person it belonged to. Because of the inscription we found on the back of the painting I was also able to tell her that we thought that person’s name was Iris.’

‘So she found Iris?’

‘No. Iris died not long before the building was sold.’

Ellie was surprised by how disappointed she felt. She wanted to meet the mysterious Iris and find out the origin of the painting.

‘But,’ Cass continued, ‘my friend was able to give me the name of her sister, who was the person Iris had named as her next of kin.’

‘That’s great. Who is she?’

‘Her name’s Maud Lenard and she lives in a retirement centre about thirty minutes drive from the units. I’ve written down the details.’ She took a piece of paper from her pocket and gave it to Ellie.

‘What’s this about a painting?’ Kandy asked between mouthfuls of Honey Chicken.

Ellie and Cass explained about the painting they’d found in the false ceiling cavity.

‘Why do you think it’s valuable?’

‘There was some writing on the back. It said, To Iris. I hope your sacrifice is worth it. NL.

‘Norman Lindsay?’ Kandy’s face shone with a reverence Ellie and Cass had never seen before. ‘It was signed by Norman Lindsay?’

‘We think so,’ Ellie said. ‘It’s a nude, and in his style. I studied art at school, and when I was doing interior decorating one of the clients had two of his paintings and I got a close up look. And then there was that movie about him, remember.’

‘I think art was the only subject at school that didn’t shit me to tears. I even stole one of the rich kid’s lunch money so I could buy some extra paints. Had to hide them from my old man, though. The bastard used to trash my stuff when he got drunk.’

            ‘Were you any good?’ Ellie asked. ‘At painting, I mean?’

            ‘Let’s just say I was better in bed than I was on canvas. The teacher never liked what I did.’ Kandy tried to laugh, but her tone was too sad to be humorous. ‘But I really loved art. Even used to borrow art books from the school library so I could look at the paintings. Nothing else in my life had any beauty.’

            ‘Why didn’t you start painting again if you loved it that much? When you married Phillip, I mean. You would have had more time, and certainly more money.’

            ‘I couldn’t.’ Kandy shook her head as though denying it to herself. ‘It belonged to a different lifetime.’

            ‘And you didn’t want to go back to that.’ Cass made it sound like a statement rather than a question, but Kandy whispered, ‘I never wanted to go back to that.’

            ‘But you still love art,’ Ellie said. ‘You have some great paintings in your house. You don’t have to paint yourself, but you can still admire someone else’s talent.’

            Kandy pointed her fork at Ellie. ‘I’d like to see this painting before you give it back.’

            Ellie smiled, please to see that some of Kandy’s spark had returned. ‘Okay. I’ll go and see this Maud Lenard tomorrow and make sure the painting really belonged to her sister. If it does, I’ll get it out of the unit and take it to her. I’ll phone you and you can meet me at the units and have a look.’ She turned to Cass. ‘Would Joe mind me borrowing his ladder again?’

            ‘I’m sure it won’t be a problem. I’ll give you his mobile number. Just let him know when you’re going to be there.’

            The anticipation of finding the possible owner of the painting helped to dispel some of Ellie’s previous depression about her relationship with Chris. Kandy looked happier now than when she’d first arrived, but Ellie was sure that was mainly due to being with friends and a serious nudge at the wine bottle.

            When Cass and Kandy left an hour later, Ellie was relieved to know that Cass had insisted Kandy wasn’t driving home but staying with her.

            Ellie was brushing her teeth when she heard the sound of Miranda’s key in the front door.  She stopped brushing and kicked her mother antennae up a notch, trying to decide if the footsteps coming down the hallway were slow from tiredness or disappointment. The footsteps went into Miranda’s bedroom. The door didn’t close – a good sign. She resumed brushing. When she’d finished she turned out the light, hesitated, then walked to Miranda’s door. Miranda was sitting cross-legged on the bed, black skirt flowing over her knees, multi-hued lilac blouse crushing as she hunched over, face in hands, elbows on her thighs. Her boots and jacket lay in a heap on the floor.

            ‘Didn’t it go well?’ Ellie ventured, not sure if she should move into the room or if it might be construed as invasion of space.

            ‘I don’t know.’ A deep sigh followed the words.

            Ellie edged towards the bed. ‘What happened?’

            ‘He’s having a crisis of faith. He wanted to talk to me about it. He said he could trust me because I’m such a good friend.’

            Ellie sat on the end of the bed. ‘What sort of crisis of faith?’ Heavens, she thought, we’re all having bloody crises of some kind.

            ‘He’s not sure now if he really wants to become a minister. Says he doesn’t know if that’s what God wants him to do. I asked him if he thought God wants him to do something else, but he said he didn’t know.’

            ‘So what did you say?’

            Miranda straightened up and dropped her hands onto her knees. ‘I nearly said that I think he needs a good dose of sex, but that was only me feeling so damn frustrated, so I said he should just wait for a sign from God. And that,’ she nearly spat the word, ‘was when the new volunteer he’d been so keen to show around the other night walked past and said hello.’

            Ellie was picking up “uh-oh” vibes, but simply asked, ‘What’s she like?’

            ‘Nice. Unfortunately. If she wasn’t so obviously chasing after Ben I could like her.’

            ‘Do you think Ben likes her?’

            ‘You mean as more than a friend? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell with Ben, he’s so good at projecting a calm exterior. You know,’ she leaned forward again and stared at Ellie as though she’d only just realised something, ‘I don’t know if I really know Ben that well. Tonight’s the first time he’s ever spoken about his feelings. I reckon …’ she sat up, head cocked to one side, ‘I reckon I’ve been too nice to him. Too willing to go along with whatever he wanted.’

            ‘A bit door matty?’ Ellie suggested, tongue firmly in cheek.

            Miranda laughed and threw a pillow at her. Ellie caught and hugged it.

            ‘What about you, Mum? How was your weekend?’

            Before this, Ellie had decided not to worry Miranda with her doubts about coping with Chris’s job, but as Miranda now seemed to see their relationship as more woman-to-woman than mother-daughter, she thought she’d better respect the friendship her daughter was offering. So she told her about the weekend, omitting her discovery of the lubricating properties of avocado oil.

            ‘Oh, you’ve got a problem, Mum.’ Miranda wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do about it. Is he in love with you? Are you in love with him?’

            ‘He hasn’t said anything, but he could be in love with me. He acts like it, but I’m a little rusty in that area so I could be kidding myself. And I think I could be happy with him if I could just get past this crazy fear that if I do let myself love him without reserve I’ll end up losing him.’

            ‘It’s not crazy, Mum. Paul died, Dad left you, your father was a judgemental prick who made you doubt you were worthy of being loved. It’s no wonder you feel like that.’

            ‘But …’ Ellie stopped. Miranda was right. But knowing the reasons for a problem didn’t make it go away.

            ‘Give yourself time, Mum. You haven’t known him that long. Just have fun and see where it goes.’ Miranda smiled. ‘And give me back my pillow. I have my first day of work tomorrow and I need to get some sleep.’

            Ellie threw the pillow back. ‘Good luck tomorrow. I’ll be thinking of you.’

‘Oh, God.’ Kandy pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes and tried to push away the steel bands threatening to splinter her skull. It didn’t work. She opened one eye, then the other, saw a pale pink ceiling she didn’t recognise.

            She groaned, feeling as rotten as she had the first time she’d got drunk and cheated on Phillip. For a second she thought she must have done it again, then memory returned. She carefully moved onto her side and stared at a row of mismatched toy bears sitting on a pink plastic toy box. Cass’s grand-daughter. This was her room during family visits.

            Misery almost overwhelmed her. Her disappointment over not having children had always been tempered by the love she had for Phillip and the life they shared, but now even that was gone. For a long moment she felt the weight of her loss drag at her soul, then the instinct for survival that had enabled her to make a better life for herself took over. She still had a business to run. And maybe she should look into starting up another one – give herself a challenge, keep her occupied so the days wouldn’t be so lonely.

Or the nights.

Ellie’s phone calls to Maud Lenard at the phone number Cass had given her kept ringing out. By the afternoon she began to wonder if she had the right number, so she phoned the retirement village office to check. A friendly office girl told her that Maud was in hospital, and a call there gave her the ward and bed number.

            During the drive to the hospital she practised several ways of explaining her visit, but knew that all of them might prove useless if Maud couldn’t comprehend what she was going to tell her. After all, the office girl had said the old woman had had a stroke. Perhaps her mental faculties had been affected along with her physical abilities.

            Ellie mentally crossed her fingers that Maud would be able to tell her the painting’s history. It still upset her that Cherilyn’s murder had not been solved, but perhaps the mystery of Iris and NL could be revealed.

Geoffrey said goodbye to his mother and wandered out of the room and up the corridor. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her news that the doctor had decided to send her home the next day on condition the Blue Care nurses would call in to help her and she got regular physiotherapy.

            It wasn’t that he didn’t want his mother to leave hospital, but he had become rather used to turning up at lunch time and having the ward attendants slip him a meal ordered for a patient who’d been discharged that morning. The fact that his visits extended long after he had eaten was something he chose not to think about.

            Re-connecting with his mother at this stage in his life was something he would never have contemplated. Thinking of her with affection that could almost be classified as love would have been inconceivable only a few months ago. But somehow, without him being entirely conscious of it, her unswerving love for him had chipped away at the barrier he had erected between them, and her revelations of defying his father had re-ignited the admiration he had once felt for her quiet but determined spirit.

            He reached the lifts and saw a small group of people waiting there had already pressed the Down button. Although he’d had a reasonable attempt at shaving, his reflection in the glass of a painting on the wall showed a man in his mid-fifties with doleful eyes and baggy skin and the sallow gauntness of someone who preferred drinking to eating. Not the kind of person anyone would strike up a conversation with while waiting for a lift to arrive. He pretended to study the painting.

            A ding heralded the arrival of the lift. He half-turned as the doors opened, then stopped, his attention caught by the reflection of one of the people exiting. A woman. Blonde. Thin. He recognised her immediately and turned away, heart pounding, mouth dry.

            What the hell was she doing here? He fought the crazy urge to turn around and yell the words at her. Her shoes clicked across the floor, and he sneaked a glance. She was walking up the corridor. She was probably just visiting a sick relative or friend, he told himself. It was pure coincidence she was here. A coldness prickled his neck. Or was it?

            He watched her. She turned towards his mother’s ward. Instinct for self-preservation kicked in. He followed her.

            When he saw her enter his mother’s room, something dark clawed at his guts. It would be too much of a coincidence if she was simply visiting a patient in his mother’s room, and he didn’t believe in coincidence. He waited a while, and when she didn’t come out of the room, he ventured close enough to glance around the doorway.

Ellie checked the name labels above the beds as she moved through the room until she found the one that identified the fragile-looking woman lying there, seemingly asleep, as Maud Lenard. She hesitated, unsure if she should wake her.

            A child ran into the room, calling out for his grandmother, and raced up to the patient in the bed next to Maud’s. Maud’s eyes opened. For a moment she seemed disoriented, then she saw Ellie and smiled. The smile was so kind, so gentle, Ellie found herself smiling in response. ‘Mrs Lenard? My name’s Ellie Cummins. I’d like to talk to you about your sister, Iris, if that’s okay?’

            ‘Come and sit down, my dear. I’ve been talking about Iris a lot lately.’

Chapter Thirty-three

She was talking to his mother! Geoffrey pushed down the urge to panic and walked back up the corridor to give himself time to think. When he’d seen the woman in the units after she’d fallen down the stairs, he’d told himself she must have had something to do with the builder carrying out the renovations. Why else would she have been prowling around there at night? Now he really started to worry. Was she a cop? Had she seen him before she tripped on the stairs? Had she found evidence linking him to that girl’s death? Had she come here to see his mother to find out where he was living?

            The questions whirled through his mind. He couldn’t afford to go back to prison, especially not until he’d got the painting and sold it and repaid his boss. Without that happening, he really was a dead man walking. He hurried to the small lounge room set aside for patients and visitors when they needed some privacy. It was empty, and he flopped into a chair that gave him a view of the corridor, picked up a magazine and pretended to read. His sprained wrist ached, and so did his head. He hoped the woman wasn’t going to be too long with his mother. He had to find out what she wanted – one way or another.

‘You found the painting?’ Maud looked so shocked Ellie was worried the old woman might have another stroke. ‘Iris told me she’d got rid of it. ‘

            ‘Why would she do that?’ Ellie asked. ‘If Norman Lindsay was the artist, and the initials NL would indicate that he was, then it would be worth a small fortune.’

            Maud propped herself up a bit higher in the bed. ‘Oh, it was Norman Lindsay all right. Iris posed for him quite a few times, but that one was special. He gave it to her when she told him she was giving up painting and posing.’

            Ellie listened with growing interest as Maud described how Iris had lived in an artist’s commune in Brisbane and how she used to travel to Norman Lindsay’s house in the Blue Mountains to pose for him from time to time.

            ‘She was always a bit wild,’ Maud said. ‘Our parents couldn’t understand her, and our sister refused to talk to her when it became known that she posed for Norman Lindsay. But Iris told me that he was most circumspect and not at all like people were saying.’

            ‘Why did he give her the painting?’

            ‘It was a farewell gift. He couldn’t understand that she would give up what she loved for me.’ Maud leaned forward as she explained why Iris had sacrificed her dreams for her sister’s happiness. Ellie felt sorry for Iris, but understood how society’s constrictions in those days would have influenced Maud’s husband, especially as a member of the clergy.

            ‘Iris showed me the painting just after I was married,’ Maud continued. ‘Unfortunately my husband walked into the room and saw it. He got so angry. There was a dreadful scene. In the end Iris promised she would get rid of it. I thought she meant she would destroy it.’

            ‘It would have been hard for her to part with it. It probably meant a lot to her.’ What we do for love, Ellie thought.

            ‘I understood that later, but not at the time.’ Maud’s eyes misted with tears. ‘I should like to see it, if that’s all right. I was horrified at the time, seeing her nude like that, even in a painting, but I remember how beautiful she was, and how well Norman Lindsay had captured that, especially that little dimple that appeared in her cheek when she smiled in a certain way.’

            ‘It’s your painting, now, Mrs Lenard, you can do what you like with it.’

            ‘I can, can’t I,’ Maud replied as though surprised at the idea. ‘Could I sell it, do you think? You said it would be worth a lot of money.’

            ‘Of course you can. I don’t know how much you’d get, but a Norman Lindsay painting sold some years ago for just over $300,000.’

            ‘That much?’ Surprise lit Maud’s lined face. ‘That would be wonderful. I have a son who’s fallen on hard times,’ she confided, her pale thin hand raised as though asking for understanding, ‘and that would make such a difference to his life.’

            ‘Would you like me to make enquiries for you about where to sell it?’

            ‘Oh, would you, dear? That would be wonderful. And, I know I’m asking a big favour, but could you bring the painting to me at the village? They’re letting me go home tomorrow morning.’

            Ellie thought quickly. She was getting her stitches out tomorrow, but that still left plenty of time to go to the unit and get the painting and take it to Maud in the afternoon. She’d be back at work the following day so tomorrow it would have to be.

She assured Maud she would get the painting to her.

Geoffrey kept watching the corridor. What was taking the woman so long? She’d been with his mother at least twenty minutes. He swore silently. He needed to go to the toilet, but was afraid she might catch sight of him if he did so.

            Five minutes of finger-tapping and leg-crossing later, he saw her walk past.

Following her was out of the question now. He waited another minute, then dashed to the toilet. Afterwards, relieved only in one area, he made his way to his mother’s bedside.

Surprise and concern wrinkled her forehead as she looked at him. ‘Geoffrey? Why are you back?’

The question startled him. He’d been so focused on the mysterious woman that he hadn’t thought of any excuse for returning so soon. ‘I … I … forgot to ask if you needed any help getting home tomorrow.’

‘Bless you, dear,’ she smiled, ‘but I’ll be fine. The nurse will call a taxi for me. But I have some wonderful news to tell you.’

It was like winning Lotto. Geoffrey couldn’t believe his luck. He pushed the Down button on the lift and smiled at his reflection in the shiny doors. Only another day and he would get his hands on the painting, flog it to his contact, give the money to his ex-boss and feel free at last. He might have been out of a physical prison since his release, but the emotional one had been harder to cope with. His doubts about the boss being content with an amount that was far short of what the shipment had been worth niggled at him, but he ignored them.

            He only hoped the painting was as good as he remembered it. He’d only seen it once. Iris had given him a bed when he’d come out of his first stay in jail and had nowhere to live. He could have accepted parole and been out months earlier, but he’d hated the idea of having to report to a parole officer every week and not be able to have a drink with his former associates. His father had disowned him, his mother had bowed to his father’s command to not see him, but Iris had offered a refuge. Barely into his twenties, with an arrogance that had grown when he’d fallen in with one of the prison “gangs”, he’d reluctantly accepted.

            At first he’d despised her artistic friends with their talk about art and their embrace of the hippie movement, but it didn’t take him long to realise that he had the contacts that could fill the needs some of them had in the growing drug culture. He wasn’t sure if Iris ever found out what he was doing, but he’d soon had enough money to get a place of his own. But not before he’d seen the painting.

            Iris had had an old friend to dinner, and Geoffrey had woken about midnight, thirsty. On his way to the kitchen, he’d seen the friend holding up the painting and admiring it while he and Iris talked about her meetings with Norman Lindsay. Geoffrey had been so surprised at seeing his aunt naked in the painting that he’d slipped back to his bedroom. Within a week he’d left, and his memory of the painting had lain dormant until talking with the art thief in prison.

            Now the painting was not only going to save his life, but hopefully give him enough money to move out of the rat hole in which he was living. He’d persuaded his mother to let him sell the painting, knowing that the art thief had contacts who would pay more than market value to have something that they thought no-one even knew existed.

            The lift glided gently to a stop. The doors opened and he walked out into the subdued bustle of the hospital foyer. There was a lightness in his heart he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. Yes, his luck had certainly changed.

Ellie hadn’t quite mastered conference calling, so she breathed a sigh of relief that evening when she managed to get Cass and Kandy on the phone at the same time. She told them about Maud Lenard, then asked Cass to tell Joe she’d be there the next day to borrow his ladder again.

            ‘Would you be able to meet me at the unit, Kandy?’ she asked. ‘I’ll phone you when I know what time.’

            ‘I’ll be in and out of the office tomorrow, so just call my mobile.’

            ‘How are things at home?’ Cass asked.

            ‘A bit strained to say the least. Phillip’s so nervous I almost feel sorry for him. At least I know where I stand, even if it is out in the cold – and I’m not talking about the bloody weather – but I think Phillip’s worried that the age difference with Nathan will be more obvious now that he’s in his sixties.’

            ‘It’s you we’re worried about,’ Ellie chipped in, ‘and how you’re coping.’ She refrained from adding that she thought Phillip deserved any grey hair and wrinkles he was getting.

            ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m the happiest kitten in the litter, but I figure if I concentrate on expanding my catering business it will help me take my mind off everything.’

            ‘Isn’t that a little difficult? I mean, what with still living in the same house with Phillip?’

            ‘It’s a bit awkward, but I still have dinner with Phillip every night. In one way it’s not like much has changed.’

            Except your husband’s in love with another man, Ellie thought, but left the words unsaid. She knew they were all thinking the same thing.

            ‘And it’s made me realise,’ Kandy added, ‘that maybe I’ve been deluding myself about our relationship for a long time. I think I wanted Phillip to be the love of my life, but he’s actually been a mix of father figure and best friend.’

Ellie wondered if Kandy might be better off severing ties completely with Phillip, but if having him as a friend was still possible, then at least that was some comfort for her.

‘How are you going with your favourite cop?’ Kandy asked. ‘Made any decisions yet?’

‘Not yet.’

            ‘Are you even seeing him again?’

            ‘I … I asked him to call me.’ Ellie knew the words sounded pathetic, and she was beginning to worry that if she took too long to make up her mind, he might decide she wasn’t worth waiting for. After all, she wouldn’t want to lose her heart to someone who wouldn’t commit to a relationship.

            The doubt gnawed at her as she said goodbye to Cass and Kandy. It lingered as she cooked dinner and waited for Miranda to come home. It was still there after she’d listened to Miranda’s tired but happy recount of her first day in her new job, and after she’d shared the details of her meeting with Maud Lenard, and irritated like an unscratchable itch as she lay in bed and tried to sleep.

The insistent ringing of the phone woke Ellie at 7am the next morning. She opened one reluctant eye, looked at her bedside clock, and waited for Miranda to answer it. A moment passed before she realised the other sound she could hear was the shower running. She tossed off the doona, scrambled into her dressing gown and slippers, ran up the hallway and grabbed the phone.


            The voice that croaked back at her was barely recognisable as Richard, and it took a while before she worked out that he was asking her to go into work today because two of the other staff members were sick with the flu and he had now succumbed as well. She quickly agreed, told him to look after himself, and hung up.

            ‘Mum?’ Miranda, body swathed in a large towel and hair covered by a shower cap, emerged from the bathroom. ‘I thought I heard the phone. Was it for me?’

            ‘No. It was Richard. He’s sick, and I have to go into work.’

            ‘But you’re getting your stitches out today, and getting the painting.’

            ‘I’ll just have to go to the doctor’s in my lunch break. And the painting will have to wait until the weekend.’ She frowned, thinking of how excited Maud had been at the thought of seeing her sister’s painting again. ‘I’ll have to let Maud know. She’ll be disappointed.’ She hesitated, remembering the old woman’s frailty. A couple of days could be a long time at her age. ‘Maybe I could get it after work today.’

            Miranda raised an eyebrow. ‘Not on your own, you won’t. Not after last time. But if you really want to do it, I’ll meet you there.’ She pulled off the shower cap and shook out her hair. ‘I wouldn’t mind seeing this mysterious painting myself.’

            ‘Okay. I’d better phone Kandy and let her know the change of plans.’

It was only as she sat in the doctor’s waiting room at lunch time that Ellie remembered to phone Joe. He agreed to leave the ladder in Unit One and told her it was a good thing she wasn’t leaving it until the weekend because they would be ripping down the false ceiling on
Thursday. He assured her that Bruce knew nothing about the painting, but had apparently decided that high ceilings were more authentic.

            She was just about to phone Maud and say she would be late getting around with the painting when the doctor called her name. She switched off her mobile and hurried into his office.

Although he knew his mother probably expected him to call in to see her once she was home, Geoffrey found he was reluctant to do so. It had been easy to visit her at the hospital. There was a certain anonymity in being one of the many visitors streaming through the foyer and into the wards. The other residents at her retirement village probably knew of his prison convictions, and although in the past he had always pretended it didn’t matter to him who knew, he was strangely depressed at the thought his mother might see disgust on her friends’ faces when they looked at him.

            He was also afraid that if he visited his mother this afternoon, he might run into the woman who was bringing her the painting. He couldn’t be sure she hadn’t seen his face well enough that night in the darkened building to be able to recognise him, but it was a risk he wasn’t going to take.

            The five o’clock news had almost ended when his door shook under a determined knock. He didn’t wonder who it could be – the landlord was the only person who bothered him, and that was only because he wanted the rent.

            The knocking came again.

He hauled himself to his feet and grumbled the short distance to the door and opened it.

            And almost pissed himself in fright.

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