All thoughts of cake fled from Ellie’s head. Irrational as she knew it to be, images of Paul’s cold little body sprang into her mind. She swallowed hard before asking, ‘Is it bad?’
‘No. No.’ Chris must have noticed her reaction. ‘He’s all right. I’ll explain on the way if you don’t mind coming with me. Or I could call a taxi to take you home.’
‘Don’t be silly. Of course I’ll come with you.’
He glanced down at the table. Ellie saw him hesitate. ‘We can take it with us,’ she said. ‘Perhaps Danny might like some too?’
‘I’m not sure he deserves it, but it’s a nice thought. Back in a minute.’ He went to the counter and spoke to the woman behind the cash register as he paid for their meals. Within moments their desserts, with an extra, were put in takeaway containers.
‘So what kind of accident did Danny have?’ Ellie asked as they drove away.
‘We’ve had a possum getting into our roof,’ Chris explained. ‘At least we think it’s a possum because of the noise it makes. We’ve checked but we can’t find how he’s getting in so we made a trap and put it in the ceiling. Apparently Danny went up there tonight when he heard the trap spring and ended up putting his foot through the ceiling.’
Ellie stifled a laugh, unsure if Chris was seeing any humour in the situation. She decided it was better to be sympathetic. ‘So Danny didn’t hurt himself, he’s just worried about the damage to the ceiling?’
‘Not quite. Apparently when his foot went through the ceiling he fell backwards and the possum trap he was holding wedged between two beams, but the rope handle twisted around his wrist and he can’t reach it with his other arm to free himself because of his foot being stuck in the ceiling. And he can’t get his foot out because it went in at an angle and his boot is preventing him pulling back against the plasterboard. He thought about kicking a bigger hole with his other foot but decided he was better off phoning me. Luckily he had his mobile in his pocket.’
He glanced across at her, and in the glow from the street lights he must have seen the grin she could no longer suppress. His own lips lost their sternness and his laughter mingled with hers.
They were still smiling when he pulled into the driveway of a neat, low-set pale-brick home. A small hedge took the place of a front fence, and two large shrub-filled pots guarded the entry to the path leading to the front door. After the warmth inside the vehicle, the wind seemed colder than it had when they’d left the restaurant. Chris quickly unlocked the front door and ushered Ellie into the house. She barely glanced at the comfortable lounge room with its masculine sparseness of black leather lounge, flat-screen television on a steel and glass shelving unit, neatly stacked bookcase, and newspaper and mug on the coffee table. Then her gaze swung towards the ceiling, searching for a protruding boot.
‘Danny?’ Chris called.
‘Here, Dad.’ The cry came from further inside the house. Chris walked down a hallway to the laundry, Ellie following, and they saw Danny’s boot where it poked out from the ceiling, only a metre from an open manhole. Chris took the stepladder Danny must have used to climb up, reached up, untied the shoelaces, and eased the boot from his son’s foot. He pulled down some of the ceiling plasterboard behind Danny’s heel and slowly the sock-covered foot slid out of sight, accompanied by a faint groan of relief from its owner.
‘Thanks, Dad.’ A couple of seconds later a face that bore a striking resemblance to Chris’s appeared in the open manhole. ‘We caught him. I’ll hand the trap down.’
Chris took the trap and lowered it to the floor. The contents stared at them, stunned by the sudden glare of the light. ‘That’s what’s been causing that racket at night?’ Chris asked, incredulous.
Ellie couldn’t help it. She laughed. The possum was the tiniest she’d ever seen, its little pink nose barely twitching, its long claws clutching a piece of carrot as though afraid its meal would be confiscated.
‘That’s the baby.’ Danny lowered himself onto the ladder and climbed down, swatting dust and cobwebs from his jeans and jumper. ‘It got caught and the mother was really upset, but she got away. But I saw where she went so I plugged the hole. I thought we could release the baby outside and she’d find it.’
‘She might not accept it back,’ Ellie said. ‘But it looks old enough to be independent. Possums are territorial, so you’ll have to release it here. You could make a nesting box and put it in a tree in your backyard for them so they don’t try to get back in your roof.’
Danny looked at her as though seeing her for the first time. Then he grinned. ‘Hello. I guess you’re Ellie.’ He offered his hand. ‘I’m Danny.’
‘Dusty Danny,’ Chris reminded him. ‘Why don’t you get cleaned up. We brought dessert home.’
‘Sorry.’ Danny rubbed his palm against his thigh. ‘What about the possum?’
Chris picked up the trap. ‘I’ll release it in the bigger tree. That’s probably where its mother lives. You can make a nesting box tomorrow. Is your foot okay?’
‘Just a few scratches.’
Ellie watched as Danny hurried back up the hallway. He was nearly as tall as Chris, but gangly and awkward, as though his body couldn’t keep up with his enthusiasm.
‘He’s slightly autistic,’ Chris said quietly as he turned on the outside light and opened the laundry door. ‘Luckily he’s very intelligent, but his social skills are on the light side.’
‘How did he cope with his peer group at school?’
‘Not well. He wanted to be friends but he couldn’t seem to understand that they didn’t have his abilities with maths and English and he used to get impatient with them. He ended up getting teased and bullied a lot.’
Ellie nodded her understanding. ‘There was a boy in Miranda’s class like that. Great kid, but different to the herd so he was picked on a lot. It used to upset Miranda that the other boys wouldn’t just leave him alone.’
‘Yeah,’ Chris sighed as they walked towards a large eucalypt tree in the corner of the yard. ‘Kids can be cruel.’ He put the cage on the ground, the door facing the tree, and opened it. The possum didn’t move.
‘Back at the restaurant,’ Chris said while they waited, ‘you went white when I said Danny had had an accident. Were you thinking of Cherilyn Manning?’
‘No.’ Ellie let the word hang, pulling her coat closer against the outer chill while trying to ignore the inner one. She didn’t move. Chris didn’t move. Neither did the possum. She shivered. ‘We had a son. Our first-born, Paul. Money was tight so I went back to work when he was a couple of weeks old and he went into crèche. He died of SIDS when he was eleven months old. They discovered he wasn’t breathing when they went to wake him for his lunch-time bottle.’
Chris looked at her for a long moment, then he picked up one end of the trap and gently slid the possum onto the grass. ‘Go to Mumma,’ he told it, and watched as it abandoned the carrot and scampered up the tree. He shook the remaining carrot pieces onto the grass and closed the trap door. Then he put his arms around Ellie and hugged her.
There was something so intimate, so consoling, in his embrace that she sank into it as though she belonged there. And maybe she did. They’d both lost someone they loved. But though she’d shared her loss with Damien, she’d never felt the comfort from him that she was feeling now with Chris. Had they been so unable to connect with each other even back then? Before she could explore the idea further, Chris tilted his head to hers and said, ‘Let’s get inside where it’s warm.’ Then his lips touched hers in a kiss so gentle it almost brought tears to her eyes.
‘Dad! Ellie! Do you want coffee with your cake? Is that third piece for me?’ Danny called out, and Ellie turned to see his face at a window.
‘Typical teenager,’ she smiled, ‘they’d find cake buried under a tonne of snow.’
‘And chocolate,’ Chris agreed as they walked to the door.
Several minutes later they sat at the kitchen table and watched Danny play host. There was an innocence about him that Ellie found appealing. And he looked and acted much younger than eighteen. ‘Are you still at school?’ she asked him.
He passed mugs of tea to her and Chris and placed spoons on the table for the three of them. ‘First year at uni. IT. Information Technology.’ He scooped a large spoonful of cake into his mouth.
‘Do you like it?’
‘Some of it’s boring,’ he swallowed a mouthful, ‘because it’s so basic. But some of the other guys there are on my wavelength and we have a lot of fun.’
With several more bites he finished his cake. ‘I got study to do.’ He stood up. ‘Nice to meet you, Ellie,’ he smiled, and trotted down the hallway.
‘He seems keen,’ she commented. ‘I had to use bribery to get Miranda to study. Pru was the conscientious one. Still is.’
‘Don’t be fooled.’ There was a dry edge to Chris’s voice. ‘He’s probably playing a computer game or surfing the net or talking with mates on Facebook.’
‘I like him.’
Chris looked at her, a slow smile lighting his face. ‘So do I,’ he admitted. A long silence followed, but it wasn’t strained, and Ellie found herself searching for a word to describe it. Companionable, she finally decided. Comforting. Like having a hug. Only, and she smiled at the memory of how that had felt, not quite as good. The hug was definitely better. Thinking about it now reminded her of the smell of his skin as she’d leaned into him, her face against his chest, his neck. It wasn’t aftershave or talc or anything like that, it was him, and something in her responded to it on a level more basic than her intellect could fathom. But she wasn’t going to question it, just enjoy it.
It was funny – when she was waiting to go out with him she was as skittish as a new-born colt, but when she was with him she wasn’t nervous, just … happy. The realisation surprised her. She hadn’t been happy for such a long time it was almost a shock to recognise the feeling.
‘What’s so amusing?’ he asked.
She re-focussed to see him smiling at her. She smiled back. ‘Teenage boys and possums.’ She glanced at the clock on the opposite wall. ‘And if I don’t get to bed soon I won’t wake up in time for work in the morning.’
There was a slight pulse in the air as the possibility of what her words could imply hung between them, then he stood and took their empty mugs to the sink. ‘I’d better take you home,’ he said.
That gleam was back in his eyes, and Ellie fought to control her reaction to it. Oh, yes, he was tempting, all right. It had been so long since she’d enjoyed love-making that the thought of being between the sheets with him was enough to make her clench her thighs together. Not so much in anticipation as to not give in to the ache that was threatening to overcome her natural caution. She might have kissed on their first date, but she wasn’t going to hop into bed on their second. Or third. No matter how appealing the thought was.
But when he walked her to her door some time later and kissed her goodnight, she wondered just how long her resolve would last.
The winds were blowing straight from the Antarctic. They had to be. Geoffrey couldn’t get warm, no matter how many of the thin blankets the charity had given him were piled on top of his futon. In prison he’d hated the cold so much he’d volunteered to work in the kitchen. In summer it was a bitch, but in winter it was a welcome relief from the energy-sapping cold and the bleakness exacerbated by the stark cell that had been his home.
In that half-awake state that told him he needed more sleep but his shivering denied him, Geoffrey remembered that he had something important to do today. Once that thought focused in his mind all hope of sleep fled. He lay there a while longer, fighting the need to relieve himself, then flung the blankets aside with a curse and lumbered the ten steps to the bathroom that was so small he was surprised he didn’t have to sit on the toilet to have a shower. Compact, the landlord had called it, and he’d only refrained from snorting his disgust because the rent was the lowest he’d been able to find and even that left him little for other needs.
It was only after he’d spent five minutes under the shower that he finally warmed up. That was another reason he was loathe to leave the bedsit – the hot water system might be old but it had been installed in an era before environmental restrictions had been placed on flow and volume. The copious amount of steaming water was the only luxury he had, and he wasn’t going to lose it.
Coffee and toast was hardly filling, but he slathered on the jam to try to take the edge off the gnawing in his belly. He looked at his mother’s letter and wondered again if she’d written it because she cared or because it was the Christian thing to do. Even at his worst she had still tried to convince him that God would forgive him, but he was sceptical that a supreme being would forgive someone who wasn’t really sorry for his sins. And he wasn’t enough of a hypocrite to pretend otherwise.
My door is always open to you, she’d written when his sentence was nearly up, but he hadn’t taken up the offer. His skills at lying didn’t extend to 24/7.
He brushed his teeth, knowing his mother would notice if he hadn’t. Although he hated the way it flattened what was left of his curly hair, he pulled on a beanie before he left.
As he walked to the bus stop, he phoned his mother. The ringing went on and on. His stomach clenched tighter with each drawn-out tone until he finally heard the beeps that told him there would be no answer.
The shiver that ran through his body had nothing to do with the cold. Fear rose in his throat like bile. He gulped it down. Where was she? He would have to go there again, make enquiries. Maybe the neighbours would know where she was.
Someone had to know.
By the time he walked from the last bus stop to his mother’s unit, apprehension ate into his belly like a ravenous rat. The retirement village was more alive than it had seemed the previous day – residents were walking, or riding those four-wheeled scooters he’d been tempted to nudge in the days when he used to own a car. An old man, wizened, hunched, but obviously still determined, pushed a walker with hands so twisted with arthritis he almost couldn’t grasp the handles. He watched the man’s slow procession, the incapacity that age had forced upon him, and this time his shiver was not the fear of being killed by his ex-partners in crime. Shit! I’d shoot myself if I got like that. And then he realised that if he ever reached that stage he would no longer be able to handle a gun, let alone pull the trigger.
He nearly turned and ran, but a middle-aged woman in a pale uniform came out of a unit and noticed him. She hesitated a moment, then walked towards him and said, ‘Can I help you?’
Only desperation stayed him. ‘I came yesterday to see my mother, Maud Lenard, but she wasn’t home. I phoned this morning and got no answer so I thought I’d come out and see if she was all right.’
Eyebrows drawing together in a frown of sympathy, the woman shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, but your mother was taken to hospital two days ago with a stroke. She’s still in there, I’m afraid.’
He didn’t have to fake his distress at the news, but it wasn’t because he felt any concern for his mother’s health. ‘Is she … How is she? Can she speak?’
‘I believe so, but she has been affected quite badly by the stroke and you must prepare yourself. If you walk back to the office with me I can give you all the details and let you know which ward she’s in, Mr Lenard,’ the woman smiled.
He smiled back. ‘Please, call me Geoffrey.’
Ellie couldn’t believe how happy she felt. She wasn’t naive, she knew all about the physical and emotional reactions falling in love caused, and she wasn’t going to be duped into thinking that Chris was the best thing since sliced bread. But she was certainly going to enjoy this euphoric sensation while it lasted. She’d even had a record day of sales at work and Richard had been extremely pleased, murmuring something about a Christmas bonus if that continued. Even the weather had improved – the westerly winds had died down by lunchtime and the sun had shared its benevolence, creating the kind of winter’s day Queensland boasted about to the southern states.
By the time she battled peak-hour traffic and pulled into her driveway, tiredness had taken some of the glow off her happiness bubble, but there was still a smile on her face when she unlocked the front door. Miranda’s car wasn’t in the carport, and Ellie could only assume she’d left early for her rostered shift with the food van.
Ten minutes later, changed into a tracksuit and slippers and with a pre-dinner wine in one hand and stroking Mayhem from head to tail as she lay on her lap, Ellie stretched out on the lounge to watch the television news. Nothing of great import was happening – politicians were squabbling like petulant puppies over a perceived breach of parliamentary privilege, a movie star was behaving outrageously, a car had crashed into a shopfront but no-one had been injured.
She was considering whether she felt like cooking a meal from scratch or if opening a can of soup was a better option when the newsreader made a sudden announcement: ‘A police officer has been shot while responding to an altercation near Ascot raceway.’
She watched as the screen switched to a tree-lined street blocked by police cars and swarming with officers in protective vests carrying weapons of varying firepower. Street lights broke the darkness into patches of light and shadow. Spotlights focused on a house where, according to the newsreader, the person who “allegedly shot the police officer” was holding a hostage and refusing to give himself up to the police. As the television reporter highlighted the drama of the situation, the tightness that had started in Ellie’s stomach clawed its way into her chest and threatened to stop her breathing. Was Chris the police officer who’d been shot? He was on duty, she knew that, but was Ascot part of his precinct or whatever police in Australia called their area?
Her fingers curled, pulling at Mayhem’s hair. The kitten meowed its displeasure and dug its claws into her leg. Ellie ignored the sting, her mind focused on the situation unfolding on the screen. She tried to tell herself that the odds were stacked in favour of Chris not being the officer who was now, according to the announcer, listed as critical since his recent arrival at hospital.
It didn’t work. The not knowing was a pain in her gut that wouldn’t go away. There was a rawness about it, as though she were feeling something she hadn’t felt in a long time. Something she hadn’t even felt when her father died. Cancer had taken him quickly, too far along by the time he’d gone to a doctor to even offer a hope of treatment, but still allowing enough time for the family to adjust to his early death. Not that you adjust, she remembered, but in the end it was a relief to see him free of his suffering.
This was the same agonising disbelief that had gripped her as she’d sped to the child care centre after the manager’s phone call. The sheer terror that, she now realised, had led to the kind of grief that had ended up muting her feelings in the ensuing years. Feelings that Chris Ryan was slowly bringing to life again.
Mayhem jumped off her lap, claws again digging into Ellie’s leg, and she jerked with the pain.
The reporter signed off and the scene switched back to the newsreader. Ellie drank her wine, her attention so inward-focused she couldn’t remember if it was red or white, and caring less. She stayed on the lounge, anxiety and fear tying her stomach in knots as she waited for news updates. At the end of the program a quick segue to the hostage drama showed it hadn’t been resolved and Ellie remained seated, watching but not really hearing the ensuing current affairs program and sitcom. At one stage she thought about grabbing something to eat, but was afraid she would miss an update.
Finally, just as the sitcom ended, the news came through that the gunman had freed the hostage and surrendered to the police. But no further news came about the officer who had been shot.
Ellie remained frozen a moment longer, then picked up her mobile and speed-dialled Chris’s number. It went to messagebank.
‘It’s Ellie,’ she told it, grateful her voice sounded relatively normal. ‘Call me when you can. Please.’
The next few hours became a mix of a half-eaten toasted sandwich, a let-go-cold coffee, and distracted attempts to finish her designs for the units. When a vehicle pulled into the driveway she almost ran to the door, then realised the engine noise was too light for Chris’s four-wheel-drive.
Miranda opened the front door a moment later. One glance at her daughter’s face and Ellie’s words of greeting died on her lips. ‘Mirie, what’s wrong?’ she asked instead.
Miranda swiped at her red-rimmed eyes, threw her shoulder bag on the lounge and herself after it. ‘I did what you said.’
‘What I said?’ Ellie hurriedly searched her memory. ‘Oh. You said something to Ben?’
‘Yes.’ Miranda drew in a deep breath, then let it out in a long sigh. ‘I told him I liked him. Liked him more than just as a friend.’ She lapsed into silence.
‘And?’ Ellie prompted.
‘And he said he likes me. But just as a friend. He said he can’t think of getting into a relationship at this point in his life because he wants to focus on his work with the church. He’s even considering becoming a minister.’
Ellie wished she could say something wise that would help Miranda but her brain wasn’t functioning well and she considered that nothing she said at the moment would alleviate Miranda’s misery.
‘He did say that he values my friendship and he hopes that I’ll still come out on the run with him,’ Miranda added.
‘And will you?’
‘I guess so. I – ’
The sudden ringing of the phone had both their heads swivelling to stare at it. Ellie rushed over and grabbed the receiver. Miranda looked at her, head tilted in query.
‘Hello?’ Ellie tried to keep the hope out of her voice but it came through, thick as treacle.
A sigh of relief escaped her. ‘I was …’ she wanted to say concerned, wanted to appear as though she were just a casual friend with only a casual friend’s depth of concern, but … ‘worried. The news. On TV. The shooting.’
‘Yeah. It wasn’t good.’
The bald understatement shook her. She felt like yelling at him.
‘Thanks for worrying, but I’m okay.’ He sounded tired. ‘I have to go. I’ll see you at the units tomorrow evening.’
‘Okay. Bye.’ Ellie placed the receiver back in the cradle.
‘Mum? Was that Chris? Was he involved in that shootout? Everyone was talking about it.’ Miranda pulled herself from the lounge and went over to Ellie. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Of course. I was just concerned. Chris has been very kind to me.’
Miranda said nothing, but if the look she gave Ellie was any indication of her thoughts, Ellie’s acting talent was on equal footing with her tolerance of rats.
If tiredness was a prerequisite, Ellie should have slept soundly, but her dreams bordered on nightmares; her senses, even in sleep, seemed more acute than when she was awake, rousing her at the slightest noise. She woke to another sunny day, crisp and cold with a light breeze that wafted the faint perfume of orange jasmine through her partially-open window. A good-to-be-alive day, in spite of winter’s chill.
She closed her eyes, snuggled further beneath the doona and tried to persuade herself to go back to sleep.
It didn’t work.
Her mind buzzed, torn between anticipation at seeing Chris that evening and her burgeoning feelings towards him and the panic that thought elicited. She’d done a lot of thinking last night. Once she’d known he was all right, she’d analysed her reactions to the situation. In the past it had been easy for her to drift, accepting the status quo, only half-heartedly fighting Damien’s control over their lives, and retreating further from a relationship that hadn’t really existed for some time.
But with Chris she wanted to rush headlong into being with him. It was so easy, so companionable, but still with that frizz of excitement that made her feel alive, really alive, for the first time in years. But with that feeling came fear. The realisation and the memory of loss. Loss and grief so profound she wasn’t sure she could risk feeling it again.
‘Mum! You’re going to be late for work!’ Miranda yelled from the hallway.
Ellie tossed the doona aside and scrambled from the bed.
Chris’s Rodeo was parked outside the units when Ellie arrived that evening. He walked over and opened her car door. She shoved a torch in her pocket, stepped out and pulled her coat closer. ‘Hi,’ she said and the word came out all husky and sensuous. Her heart beat faster as he leaned close and kissed her. It was light, a greeting kind of kiss, but she felt it all the way to her toes. Damn, but she was lost already, heating up in ways that had nothing to do with menopause.
It scared the hell out of her.
‘Hi yourself,’ he smiled and put his arm around her and walked her to the footpath. Her fear ebbed, pushed away by the rightness of being with him.
Chris had brought his torch. It was bigger and the beam stronger than Ellie’s and she was grateful for that – the darkness inside the building was deeper than outside with its glow of street and house lights. They made their way to the third floor, not speaking, shining their torches on the stairs and the landings so they could see where they were going.
The door to unit nine was open. He motioned Ellie behind him and they walked in. The closed windows and the echo of their footsteps in the darkness created a feeling that was both eerie and claustrophobic. If it hadn’t been for the city lights sprinkling the horizon, Ellie would have felt almost disorientated. She swept her torch beam over the walls.
‘The holes! They’ve been fixed.’
She examined the patched-up sections of wall. The job had been done so well there was no way to tell what shape the holes had been. Even the prised-up floorboards had been nailed down.
‘If Bruce had called us in,’ Chris said, ‘our forensic guys might have found some clues to the perp. No use now.’
‘I’m sorry to drag you all the way over here for nothing.’ Ellie examined more of the patches. She was about to turn around when his arms folded her back against him.
‘It’s not entirely a wasted trip,’ he murmured, his breath warm on her hair. ‘We could grab some dinner. You must be hungry.’
She turned in his embrace and without really meaning to, she was kissing him. Kissing him with a passion she’d thought had disappeared years ago. His lips were soft but demanding on hers, rousing her further, asking for more, needing more. It would have been easy, so easy, to yield to that urgency, to offer what they both wanted, but she drew back, her breath coming in funny little puffs as she forced herself to gain control.
Chris must have done a better job at finding that control than she had. She heard the smile in his voice as he said, ‘That wasn’t the sort of hungry I had in mind, but it beats a pizza any day.’
Her laughter strangled in her throat. It beat a pizza by more than a country mile. But she wasn’t sure if that’s what she wanted. No, she wanted it all right, but could she cope with it? It would be so easy to fall in love with him, she was half-way there already, but could she live with someone whose life got put on the line every day? Who might not come home to her one night because some drunken idiot got hold of a gun and started a shoot-out with police?
She pulled away from him. ‘Perhaps we should get that pizza.’
His torch beam moved so he could see her face. ‘You okay? You sound … serious.’
She took his arm and smiled. ‘Pizza is serious. So many decisions – meatlovers, Hawaiian, seafood …’ She could tell he wasn’t convinced, but here in this gloomy room in a building that echoed with death was not the right place to discuss what was bothering her. ‘Let’s go get some.’
Geoffrey Lenard smiled tiredly at the nurse who came to check on his mother. He knew the medical staff thought his bedside vigil was indicative of his devotion and tried not to dispel the illusion. He’d been shocked, more than he thought possible, by her appearance when he’d first arrived. He’d expected to find her aged, after all he hadn’t seen her in years, but the tiny figure whose white hair had blended into the surrounding white sheets reminded him of a peach that had shrivelled in the hot sun.
In the previous forty-eight hours she had recognised him twice, but her mind had wandered to his childhood and stayed there. No amount of cajoling could get her to remember what had happened to her older sister.
Yesterday he’d pleaded with the retirement village manager to allow him into his mother’s unit. She’d agreed, but stayed with him while he’d gathered photos he felt might help jog his mother’s memory.
Now he studied the photo taken only months before his mother’s oldest sister, Fanny, had died aged forty. The three sisters smiled through faded black and white – Maud, the youngest by ten years, shy and timid as always, Fanny, dutiful and serious as befitting the eldest, and Iris, the middle child, the rebel, the one whose smile barely concealed her contempt for the restrictions of her gender and family’s status.
Visits to Iris’s unit were a rarity in his childhood. His father disapproved of his sister-in-law’s proclivity for associating with the more risqué elements of Brisbane society. As a clergyman he’d felt, as he’d so often told Geoffrey, that it was his duty to keep his son from people who might lead him into temptation to sin. Years later Geoffrey wondered if that restriction had made the temptation even more alluring.
‘You should go home,’ the nurse said. ‘Visiting hours are nearly over, and I don’t think your mother’s going to wake again tonight.’
‘I’ll go soon,’ he replied. ‘Just a few more minutes.’
She nodded her sympathy and left. Geoffrey slumped further down the visitor’s chair, cursing again the practicality of the straight back and vinyl seat. He’d explained the circumstances to the men to whom he owed the money, and had gained a small reprieve. But the sense of urgency hadn’t left him, and he knew it wouldn’t until the threat of bodily harm or death had been removed. Dying was one thing, a quick bullet to the head and lights out, but he knew the pain his associates were not only capable of inflicting but had done so to other unlucky bastards with more enthusiasm than he could comprehend, and the thought had caused more than sweat to leave his body on several occasions.
The soft words, slightly slurred, jerked him from his thoughts. His mother raised a crepey-skinned hand towards him. Her eyes were focused and clear for the first time since he’d been visiting her, and a strange sense of connection tugged at him. He pushed it aside. ‘Sorry for what?’
‘Not standing up to your father for you. I begged him to allow you to do the things that other boys your age were doing, but he was never a flexible person. My mother said he had “sinful pride” but I would never have told him that. When he found out I’d taken you to visit your Aunt Iris he made me promise I wouldn’t do so again. You always wanted to go,’ she sighed.
A memory flashed. His mother, finger on lips, telling him not to mention to his father that they’d been to see his aunt. ‘But you still took me,’ he frowned. ‘Only a couple of times a year, but we still went.’
‘She was my sister. I loved her. She gave up a lot for me. And she loved you. I sometimes wondered why she never married and had children because I could see she loved you.’
Geoffrey felt his world tilt a little. His gentle mother, the woman he’d always considered spineless, had defied his father for him. And for the aunt his father had despised. But … ‘What did she give up for you?’
Her eyes closed. ‘Too long ago. And she’s gone …’ Her voice trailed off, and he realised she’d gone back to sleep. He wanted to shake her awake, but knew from the past two days sitting with her that it would be futile. He hauled himself from the chair and stood looking at her as though seeing her for the first time – the white hair, the wrinkled skin splotched with age and sun exposure. He bent and kissed her forehead, then shook his head in surprise at himself and hurried from the room.
It was surprisingly mild for a winter’s night. No westerly wind swirled its icy breath across the city, no southerly busters blew from the Antarctic. Even with her new short haircut Ellie didn’t feel the need to wrap a scarf around her head to protect her ears as they walked to the same restaurant they’d been to only two nights before. It wasn’t as crowded tonight, and they opted for a table in an unoccupied corner.
They’d been seated and placed their orders when Chris looked at her with a searching gaze that made her feel as though he were capable of reading her soul. ‘What’s wrong?’ he finally asked.
She was about to say ‘Nothing,’ but stopped herself. She’d spent too many years avoiding anything that would expose her doubts, her insecurities, her needs. If she wasn’t going to remain a coward she would have to confront her fears. ‘I don’t know how to explain it,’ she began, then looked into his eyes and faltered. How could eyes that were the colour of clear sky appear so warm, so concerned. She could feel her worries melting under their warmth.
His hand reached across and covered her entwined fingers where they lay on the table. ‘Just tell me.’
‘I don’t know if I can cope with the kind of work you do.’
He frowned a little. ‘Do you mean dealing with murders and things like that?’
‘No.’ She wished his hand didn’t feel so good on hers. It made it hard to think of saying that maybe they shouldn’t see each other again. ‘With the fact that in your job you could be killed just because some idiot objects to having his car searched by a cop and pulls a knife or some drunken husband is beating his wife and decides to shoot the cop who tries to intervene.’
The blue darkened, clouded over, as his eyebrows drew closer together. ‘My wife died because some idiot was driving too fast in wet conditions. None of us know when something like that can happen. At least cops are trained to cope with the kind of situations you’re talking about.’
‘I know. But …’ she hesitated, ‘I’m afraid. Not afraid of dying. Not myself. Afraid of having people I care about die. It’s taken me a long time to realise how badly Paul’s death affected me. I don’t know if I could cope with that again.’
‘Tell me about it.’
Simple words. Tell me about it. As though it was that easy. She’d never told anyone before, just buried the memory like she’d buried the person she once was.
Maybe it was time to bring both out into the open and see what could come of it. She tried to move her hands away so she could remain detached while she told him, but his grip tightened as though he knew her intention. ‘Just tell me,’ he said. ‘It will be all right.’
‘I got there just before the ambulance officers. The centre staff were still trying to resuscitate him but … his … his little body was cold … and blue. And I grabbed him and held him and thought that if I cuddled him he would get warm and it was only a mistake or a nightmare and he would turn pink and wake up.’ The words tumbled out, startling her with their intensity, as though she’d unleashed not only the memories but the feelings as well. Time might have dimmed the pain, but not the images that were seared forever in her mind. ‘Then the ambulance men came and said he was dead and they took him away and it was an hour before Damien arrived. He’d been in transit from a meeting and he didn’t have a mobile phone then.’
‘Did you ever tell Damien that you’d held Paul’s body?’
She shook her head. ‘I couldn’t. I didn’t have the words. Saying them would have made it all too real. It was real enough as it was. I couldn’t relive that again by telling him.’
‘Have you ever told anyone?’
She shook her head again. ‘There never seemed a good time. We had counselling, but it seemed … I don’t know – so clinical. And I think I was trying so hard not to blame Damien because I’d had to go back to work when Paul was so little that I didn’t want him to feel worse. And on top of that I kept thinking that if only I’d done something differently that day or been more aware that perhaps Paul wasn’t well, that I should have noticed if he’d had a fever, or a hundred other things, that he wouldn’t have died. It was a day like every other day but I was sure I must have missed something.’
‘Yes. Your rational brain tells you one thing, but your heart tells you something else, doesn’t it.’
‘Did you …’
‘Blame myself for Angela’s death? Yes. I did. For a long time.’
‘Were you happy together?’ The question came out before she could stop it, but it was something she needed to know, though she wasn’t sure why.
‘Yes, we were. She understood that being married to a cop wasn’t always easy, but she dealt with it okay.’
Ellie absorbed his answer, wondering if she needed to know because she was worried he would compare her with his dead wife or because she doubted her ability to cope with what his job entailed. Right now both scenarios were more than she wanted to think about. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know why I shoved all this kind of angst onto you. It’s not like we’re … involved or anything.’
His hand stilled on hers. His gaze intensified, pinning her like a moth to cardboard, his voice low and almost rough with emotion as he said, ‘I became involved with you when we sat on the stairs at the units and you didn’t groan at my pathetic attempt to take your mind off what you’d just seen.’
Her heart jumped at the way he said involved, the emphasis he gave it, but she didn’t want to delve into that, not just yet anyway. ‘You mean about you fainting at your first autopsy?’
‘Did you really faint?’
‘No,’ he smiled, ‘but it made you feel better to think so, didn’t it.’
It was her turn to smile. ‘I didn’t feel quite so wussy knowing I wasn’t the only one.’
‘So how about you don’t worry about my job and we just keep dating and see how you feel about it in a few months time.’
A few months? At the rate she was falling for him, in a few months she’d be a total goner. It was too scary to contemplate. But then, not seeing him again was just as scary. For the first time in a long time she wanted something so badly she was willing to risk the type of emotional pain she’d spent most of her life avoiding. She smiled, aware that he would see the doubt in her eyes, but unable to hide it. ‘I guess we could do that.’
Although Chris had seemed to accept her reluctant agreement to keep going out with him, Ellie wasn’t so sure she could hold up her side of the bargain. Knowing her fear was irrational didn’t make it go away. Talking to him about Paul’s death had eased not just some of the pain – she’d learned to cope with that and time had helped – but the guilt she hadn’t been able to lose, and the resentment towards Damien that still lingered deep in her soul. But her fear of loss had become so ingrained she questioned if she could ever really free herself of it.
Once again, the reassurance she’d felt from being with him disappeared the moment he said goodnight at her door. She watched him get into his Rodeo and drive away before walking inside.
‘Hi, Mum.’ Miranda looked across from the documentary she was watching on television. Mayhem was lying on her lap, asleep in the relaxed way cats have when they feel safe. ‘What did Chris think of the holes?’
Ellie kicked off her shoes and flopped down on the spare chair. ‘Bruce had already patched them up.’
‘Tell me about it. I felt like an idiot. Chris was okay about it, but I wonder if that was because it gave him an excuse to take me to dinner again.’
‘You mean he didn’t believe you?’
‘I think he did, but he’s all cop – needs to have proof, not just my say-so.’
‘I suppose it is.’ She reached over and stroked the kitten. Mayhem twitched but didn’t wake. ‘How did you go on the van with Ben last night?’
Miranda sighed. ‘I think he’s avoiding me.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘We had a new volunteer with us and he spent most of his time showing her what to do.’
Miranda narrowed her eyes but Ellie assumed an air of innocence. Two can play at devil’s advocate, she thought.
A flickering image on the television screen caught her attention. Black and white footage of Brisbane’s parks and gardens from early in the twentieth century. People moving like marionettes across leaf-strewn paths and beneath the limbs of trees already old in nature’s terms. In the background were houses and buildings that had long since been demolished, and she felt again the disappointment when she’d discovered unit one had been renovated. With a jolt she remembered that she hadn’t taken the opportunity tonight to finish measuring the living room. So much for trying to be professional.
‘You okay?’ Miranda asked.
‘You kind of jerked up, like you’d been stung.’
‘Just mentally kicking myself. I forgot to get the rest of the measurements for unit one. I’ll have to go back after work tomorrow and take them.’
‘You’ll probably be late getting home. Do you want me to cook dinner?’
Ellie smiled. ‘That would be great.’
Geoffrey Lenard stepped out of the bus onto the Translink busway station platform. He paused for a moment, wishing he could still feel the mild midday sunshine that had shone through the window on his journey to the hospital, but no warmth penetrated the modern steel and concrete structure. He pulled his coat closer and hurried into the hospital. After his mother’s brief brush with reality last night he was cautiously optimistic that she might be the same way again this morning and he could obtain the information he needed.
When he’d left last night the nurse had warned him not to come in before lunch as his mother was scheduled for another scan and more blood tests. Now, as he hurried along a hallway that led to his mother’s ward, the aroma of roast lamb overtook the all-pervading smell of antiseptic, and his stomach rumbled in response. The bus trips of the past few days had eaten into his dwindling money and breakfast today had consisted of a slice of toast and coffee so anaemic it barely coloured the interior of the mug.
He stopped in the doorway to the room his mother shared with several other women.
Her bed was empty.
Not only empty, but stripped of sheets, pillows, and blankets.
Geoffrey’s jaw dropped. Air gushed from his lungs. He could swear the room started to sway.
‘Mr Lenard? Mr Lenard?’
A woman was speaking to him. He turned to face her, seeing but not really noticing the nurse’s uniform straining across her more than generous curves. Then he remembered her face. The nurse who’d spoken to him last night. ‘My mother ..’ his voice failed him.
‘She’s fine, Mr Lenard. Just a little accident. Elderly people don’t always have good bladder and bowel control, I’m afraid. She’s just being given a wash and a change of nightgown.’
Relief rushed through him so quickly he staggered. The nurse reached out to steady him. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes, yes. I just haven’t eaten. Didn’t realise how late it was getting.’
The look she gave him said she’d seen the state of his clothing and shoes and knew that time had little to do with his lack of food, but her eyes held nothing but sympathy as she said she’d try to ‘rustle up something’ for him. Within a few minutes she returned with a tray like those that had been placed on the stands over each patient’s bed. It was only then that he noticed his mother’s stand held a similar tray.
‘A patient checked out this morning,’ the nurse informed him, then winked conspiratorially. ‘No point having his lunch go to waste.’
Just then another nurse bustled in, linen in her arms, and swiftly made his mother’s bed. Geoffrey waited until she had finished, then placed his tray next to his mother’s. He looked around to see two of the other patients, both women and both on the wrong side of seventy, staring at him with ill-concealed curiosity. The third patient, a younger woman, was devouring her lunch as though she’d been starved for some time. Geoffrey remembered some of the medical procedures he’d endured when he’d fallen ill once and knew that fasting was a pre-requisite for most. He closed the curtain around the bed to give himself some privacy and took the lid off the plate.
Salad. Cold meat of some to-be-guessed-at origin, and salad.
What sane person ordered salad in the middle of winter, he fumed.
He looked at his mother’s lunch. Lifted the lid. Roast lamb. Dripping with gravy. Crisp potatoes. Soft pumpkin. Carrots and beans and even some broccoli.
His hesitation was brief. He swapped the trays around and wolfed down the hot meal. He was just dabbing his mouth with the paper serviette when the curtain was pushed aside and a nurse wheeled his mother over to the bed. Her face broke into a lopsided smile of pleasure and something he’d thought long gone stirred in his chest.
The nurse locked the wheelchair brakes and began to help his mother onto the bed. The old woman faltered, her legs obviously lacking the strength to stand. Geoffrey took her arm, surprised by how thin it felt under the flannelette nightgown, and assisted the nurse.
‘Sorry,’ his mother apologised. ‘I’m more tired than I thought.’
‘It’s all right, Maud,’ the nurse tucked the sheet and blanket around her, plumped several pillows behind for support, and pushed the tray table over the bed. ‘Just eat your lunch now, dear,’ she said, and with a nod to Geoffrey, now seated on a visitor’s chair, swept away.
‘I’m so pleased you’ve come,’ his mother smiled again. ‘I thought I might have dreamed you were here last night. We talked about Iris, didn’t we?’
She remembered! Geoffrey tried not to appear too eager. ‘Yes. You were saying she gave up a lot for you. What did you mean?’
Maud looked as though she were uncertain she should talk about it. ‘It was a long time ago, when I was going to be engaged to your father. It doesn’t matter any more.’
Geoffrey shrugged. ‘If it doesn’t matter, then what’s the harm in telling me. Iris is gone, and I’m the last family member alive. It’s part of my history, so I probably should know.’
Maud pondered this a bit, then sighed. ‘It was a scandal at the time, and it could have prevented me marrying your father.’
Geoffrey managed to stop his reactive snort. Having that sanctimonious old prick as a father had pushed him into places he may never have otherwise gone. The forbidden was always more attractive than the safe. ‘I know Iris was a bit unconventional, but I didn’t think she did anything scandalous.’
‘Not when you knew her. But when she was younger,’ Maud’s smile replaced the tiredness in her eyes, ‘she was such a tearaway. She’d always been a wilful child, but she got worse as she got older. Nothing our father said could make her change her ways. She made friends with a group of artists. They were a wild lot, and their morals weren’t the best. She used to paint, but she also used to pose for artists too. Sometimes in the nude,’ she whispered. ‘She said that’s how she made a living.’ Drool slid from the corner of her lip, and she took a handkerchief from her bedside drawer and wiped it with a trembling hand. ‘Your father wanted to marry me, but he said he couldn’t because it wouldn’t do for the wife of a minister to have a sister with the reputation Iris was getting.’
Geoffrey tried to curb his impatience. As a child, the few times he’d seen Iris she’d always been circumspect around him, but when he’d become a teenager she’d been less cautious and he’d discovered what sort of a life she really enjoyed. ‘So what happened?’ he prompted.
‘I told Iris how heartbroken I was. She didn’t like your father but she loved me, so she gave up modelling for the other artists and got a job in a shop. She left the artist’s commune where she was living and moved into a flat.’ She paused, leaning back against the pillows, her voice softening to a tired whisper. ‘The flat where we used to visit her,’ she explained.
This was more like it. The unit. The “flat” as his mother always called it. That’s what he needed to know. ‘She lived in a top floor unit when you used to take me there,’ he said. ‘Is that where she died?’
‘No. She had a fall and broke her leg and couldn’t handle the stairs, so she moved into one on the bottom floor.’
No wonder he’d had no luck in the top unit! ‘Which one?’ He had to fight to keep his eagerness from showing.
‘I forget which number but it was the front one.’ The pause was longer this time, and her eyes closed briefly. ‘The first on your right as you walked into the entrance.’
‘What happened to all her things when she died? She had some nice paintings, if I remember?’
‘She’d left them to an art foundation in her will. They weren’t worth much – the solicitor had them valued before he handed them over, some sort of tax thing.’
That explained the measly $1,300 he’d received from her estate. It should have been more, but her hospital bills had had to be paid and the solicitor’s fees had eaten a large hole as well.
There was another question he wanted to ask her, but he was fairly sure she wouldn’t know the answer. Even if she did, he doubted she would discuss it. His parents had always been prudes, using euphemisms for body parts and functions. Hell, he’d got to grade five before he’d found out he had a penis and not a “that”. His first grade schoolmate had called it a “prick” and he’d wondered how you could prick anything with flesh that was soft and rounded. His mother’s choice of “nude” to describe Iris’s modelling was indicative of how she was. In his whole life he’d never heard her use the word “naked”.
Before he could ask her anything else, her head slipped to one side and her breathing slowed into the soft rumble of sleep.
He thought about leaving, but decided not to just yet. If he waited for a while he might score some afternoon tea from the plump nurse who’d found him some lunch. Then he’d go back to his bedsit and pick up his tools. With a bit of luck, tonight would prove a lot more rewarding than his previous visits to the units.
Ellie whirled at the words coming from behind her and grinned as she saw Kandy. ‘Do you really think so?’
‘Absolutely.’ Kandy waved a ring-clustered hand at the living room display Ellie had just finished decorating. ‘You have a good eye for detail. I would never have thought to contrast that shade of orange with the green and brown.’
‘Tangerine,’ Ellie corrected automatically, with a smile.
‘How’s it all going?’
‘Great. Richard and the staff are really nice and I’m getting the hang of things. My first week here I was so nervous I nearly ran away when Richard was on lunch and a customer started asking questions I didn’t know the answers to.’
Kandy plonked herself down on the dark leather lounge and crossed her legs. Then grimaced and uncrossed them. ‘Must remember not to do that. My chiropractor says it’s bad for my back – pulls my spine out of alignment. I’ve had back problems recently. Too much sport.’
Ellie couldn’t stop her grin. ‘Perhaps too much of a certain kind of sport?’ Kandy’s answering smile lacked its usual animation, and Ellie instantly apologised. ‘I’m sorry. I was only joking.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Kandy waved a dismissive hand. ‘I’m not even getting any of that lately.’ She stood up. ‘What time do you finish work?’
Ellie looked at her watch. ‘In half an hour. Why?’
‘Can we meet somewhere? To talk?’
‘Sure.’ Alarm bells started clanging in Ellie’s head. Serious talk wasn’t something Kandy indulged in, but lately some chinks had started showing in her cheerful armour. ‘There’s a cafe two doors down. It’s nothing flash but the coffee’s good. I’ll meet you there.’
‘Thanks, Ellie. I appreciate it.’
By the time Ellie walked into the cafe thirty-five minutes later, her curiosity was such that it would have killed a hundred cats. She spied Kandy at a corner table, a coffee cup empty in front of her. The way her friend’s fingers were worrying at the teaspoon, Ellie wondered if she’d taken up smoking again. She’d fidgeted like that when she’d gone through nicotine withdrawal two years ago.
Kandy saw her and waved her over, then caught the eye of the girl behind the counter and signalled. ‘Coffee’s coming,’ she said when Ellie sat down. ‘And I’ve ordered Black Forest cake as well. It that okay?’
‘That’s fine.’ She was about to say that it sounded like comfort food, the kind women buy when they need to feel better about themselves or men or a doctor’s report. Ellie found her chest constricting a little. Maybe Kandy had caught something from one of her lovers? Or had she fallen in love with one of them? Or had Phillip found out about her affairs and thrown her out? Kandy didn’t say anything and by the time the waitress arrived Ellie had just about blown her mind with hundreds of unanswered questions.
The coffee steamed in its mug, creamy, frothy, and sprinkled with chocolate dust, the aroma wafting into Ellie’s nostrils with its tantalising bitter-sweetness. If a man smelled like that, she thought, no woman could resist devouring him. The thought made her think of Chris. He didn’t smell like coffee, but she felt like devouring him anyway. Perhaps Kandy had met a coffee-flavoured lover?
Kandy poured a sugar sachet into her coffee and stirred, her gaze on the mug, but Ellie doubted she saw what she was doing. The tightness in her chest increasing, Ellie waited for Kandy to start talking. But Kandy kept stirring. ‘What’s up?’ Ellie finally asked.
‘Did you suspect Damien was having an affair?’
If Kandy’s question was designed to take her by surprise, it worked. Ellie stared at her, then gathered her wits. ‘No. But I suppose I should have. Things had been so … well, bad isn’t the right word, more like non-existent, for so long that I guess I didn’t want to think about it. Why do you ask?’
‘Because I think Phillip might be having an affair.’
The absurdity of Kandy’s words hit Ellie. ‘But you have affairs all the time. Why would you be upset if Phillip did?’
‘Because Phillip couldn’t care less about sex. If he’s having an affair it will be because he’s fallen in love with someone.’
‘But …’ Ellie tried to find the logic in Kandy’s worry about the situation, ‘like I said, you have affairs all the time. What’s the difference?’
‘That’s just sex. I love Phillip. Hell, I must do. Why else would I stay with a man who can’t even get an erection when he sees me in a G-string and tassles?’ She saw Ellie’s incredulous look and explained, ‘I only tried that once, when we were first married. I knew he was conservative but I thought a little titillation wouldn’t hurt. I soon found out he has very set ideas on what constitutes acceptable wifely behaviour. Anyway,’ she took the teaspoon out of the mug and tapped it on the table, ‘for a man like Phillip who has no sex drive, if he’s having an affair it’s because he’s in love with someone. Do you see?’
In some strange, convoluted way, Ellie could see what Kandy was getting at. She took a long sip of her coffee, then spooned cake into her mouth and ate it before asking, ‘Why do you think he’s having an affair?’
Kandy broke pieces off her cake with her fork, then pushed them around the plate. ‘The usual things that make wives suspicious. Phone calls that hang up when I answer, meetings that go late into the night, that sort of thing. I called into his office unexpectedly and his secretary said he was out to lunch so I went to his usual restaurant and he wasn’t there.’
‘Perhaps he’d gone somewhere else?’
‘Phillip is a creature of habit. He would only go somewhere else if he didn’t want the staff there to see who was with him. And his mobile was turned off. He never turns that thing off.’
Ellie had to concede Phillip’s behaviour did look a little suspicious. ‘What are you going to do about it?’
A frown drew Kandy’s perfectly-shaped eyebrows together. ‘I don’t have a clue. I could hire a private investigator to find out but I don’t want to do that. Phillip might find out and I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him.’
Again there was a crazy logic to Kandy’s thinking, and Ellie thought she saw it. Well, sort of. ‘Perhaps you could tell him that you feel he’s avoiding you. Maybe, if he is having an affair, it will give him the opening he needs to confess.’
‘And what if he does confess and wants to leave me? I know you and Cass think I’m a tough cookie, but I’m not really. I’m scared to be on my own again. Before I married Phillip I had lots of lovers, but I didn’t have anyone who loved me.’
‘How long have you been married?’
‘Nine years, nearly ten. Long enough to know when he’s lying to me.’
‘I was married to Damien for nearly thirty years and I didn’t have a clue what he was up to,’ Ellie said, then sighed. ‘But it shows just how little there was between us at the end.’
Kandy raised limpid brown eyes to Ellie. ‘Makes you wonder about this whole marriage business, doesn’t it.’
‘But there’s always Cass and Joe,’ Ellie smiled. ‘They’re set in concrete. Shining example for the rest of us not to give up hope.’
‘Let’s just hope they don’t fuck up. Oh. Sorry. About the swearing. You and Cass don’t swear and I usually keep my tongue under control when I’m around you.’
‘That’s okay. It’s my mother’s fault – she used to say that swearing is a crutch for a crippled conversationalist.’
Kandy laughed. ‘If that comes into your head every time you go to swear it’s no wonder you can’t.’
‘And getting my mouth washed out with soap if I even said shit or bastard. Strict parents and a convent school upbringing,’ Ellie shrugged. ‘Didn’t have a chance, did I.’
‘Would have been better than my dead-head parents,’ Kandy replied and Ellie silently agreed. At least her parents had cared about her.
In the silence that followed, Ellie finished her coffee and cake. Kandy picked the cherries out of her cake and nibbled at them. Obviously their talk had done nothing to improve her appetite, and Ellie felt less than cheerful herself when they parted company and walked back to their cars. Somehow she felt she’d let Kandy down, as though she should have been able to help her more, but she honestly had no idea what to advise.
Darkness had already fallen as she got into her car. She put the key in the ignition. And remembered she’d planned to go to the units after work and finish measuring unit one.
She hit the steering wheel.
And just to prove she could do it, she swore.
And decided to go anyway.
Only a slight breeze rustled the lasiandra leaves outside the front door of the unit building as Ellie turned the key in the lock. She switched on her torch, walked inside and locked the door behind her.
Damn, but she wished Bruce had left the electricity connected. The place was spooky with its high ceilings and dull echoes and drab colours and musty smell of old carpet and peeling wallpaper. She walked into unit one and pulled the curtains aside, grateful the glow from the nearby street light wasn’t interrupted by a fence or trees. The room wasn’t lit up, but at least it wasn’t totally dark now.
If she didn’t let herself think about it, she could almost pretend that this once-lovely old building wasn’t where Cherilyn had been so brutally killed.
She took out her pad and tape. It was awkward trying to take measurements and hold the torch at the same time, but luckily she only had a few to do. By the time she’d finished she felt pleased that she hadn’t succumbed to the fear that dark places usually held for her. She swept the torch beam around the lounge room, seeing in her mind how her designs would transform it. A sudden thought made her look up at the ceiling. She should have noticed it before, and cursed herself for not doing so. Unlike the foyer and unit nine, the ceiling here had been lowered, probably to fit in with the modernisation done in the 1970s. The original ceiling would have been plaster, perhaps with decorative patterns, and hopefully with ornamental cornices. It was too much to hope that it could be pressed metal – the ceiling in unit nine was plaster and she couldn’t see why it would be different here. She made a note to check it out in daylight.
She packed her tape and pad into her handbag and walked into the foyer. As she passed the stairs she hesitated. If she took the measurements of unit nine now she could start work on the design for the renovations tonight. She remembered her enthusiasm when describing to Bruce her vision of how it could look, and her idea to have different themes for each unit. Her eagerness bubbled up. Shining the torch ahead of her, she climbed the stairs.
Geoffrey pushed aside the loose palings in the fence behind the units and crawled through the resulting gap.
When he’d first checked out the area with a view to breaking in, he’d realised that breaking into the front of the building would be impossible without the risk of being seen. The street light was too close and there wasn’t enough shrubbery to give him cover. The house behind the units, however, provided perfect access. An elderly couple lived in the highset Queenslander, and their yard was so overgrown he could slip down the side and through their back yard without any chance of being spotted.
In seconds he scurried from the fence to the back of the unit building. He slid a piece of strong, flat steel under the hopper window he knew opened into an empty storage room. On his last visit he’d chiselled out the groove in the sill so that the latch hung loose inside it. Now he moved the steel so it pushed the latch out of the groove. He slipped a piece of wire that he’d bent to a right angle at one end between the sill and the bottom of the window, twisted it so the right angle caught against the timber, and pulled the window open. He quickly climbed inside, taking care not to make a noise.
It was going to work. Ellie knew it was. Even at night the unit had that same light, airy feel it had in the daytime. Perhaps it was the light-sprinkled view across to the river, luckily not impeded by other multi-storey buildings, although some modern high-rises dominated the skyline to the left and right. Or maybe it was that the windows were larger than most made in that era. The floor plan, too, was more open than unit one. Yes, the renovation she’d envisioned should be achievable.
Taking the measurements was harder here, with no street light to help, and took longer than she anticipated, but by the time she’d finished she almost floated on a glow of satisfaction. This unit would be the pick – even in the dark it had an ambience the others lacked.
She picked up her bag and walked out onto the landing then down the stairs. With only a small window on each floor, the stairwell was a lot darker than the rooms. The confined area felt almost oppressive, as though the air had been sucked out of it.
Her torch beam started to dull, and she remembered she had no spare batteries. The thought of being caught in there with no light made her quicken her pace.
Soft thuds on the staircase.
Geoffrey whipped around, gloved fingers on the door handle of unit one. A figure rounded the first floor landing, torch pointing downwards. He turned to hurry back the way he had come, but before he could, the torch flicked towards him. The figure cried out and pitched forward, tumbling over and around until he heard a sickening thud, and then all went still.
No wonder people said they were scared shitless. His guts heaved, his bowels clamoured to be emptied. He stared down at the figure, then turned on his torch. A woman. Head twisted to one side. The beam illuminated the side of her face and the dark red blood spreading from underneath her fair hair. Her long dark coat fell around her like a shroud.
Not another one!
He hadn’t really looked at the other stupid bitch, just lashed out and ran for the window, shoving his torch into his coat pocket as he did so. It had happened so quickly he was left with only fleeting impressions. Unfortunately, they were impressions that refused to go away. Now it was happening again. He stood, frozen, his brain trying to decide what to do.
A mobile began to ring.
He spun around.
No-one was there.
It kept ringing, and he realised the sound was coming from underneath the woman.
He hurried around her and ran back to the storage room.