Cass had heard that fear could be paralysing, but it wasn’t until she turned around to see what Ellie was staring at that she knew it was true. Her tongue stuck to the bottom of her mouth.
A man, tall, broad across the shoulders, face in shadow from the faint glimmer of a light further up the road behind him.
Something cudgel-shaped in his right hand.
He walked towards them.
His arm came up and light seared across their eyes. Instinctively they raised their arms in front of their faces.
‘Who are you?’ the man called out. ‘What are you doing?’
Kandy’s voice echoed down the alleyway. ‘Ellie? Cass? Are you all right?’
‘Mum?’ Miranda’s voice joined in from the other end.
Ellie spun around. Miranda was jogging down the alleyway towards them, torch flickering across the garbage in her way. Relief rushed through Ellie, making her knees weak. If Cass hadn’t grabbed her elbow she was sure she would have slid to the ground. When Miranda reached them, Ellie wanted to hug her, but the expression on Miranda’s face indicated that wasn’t a good idea.
‘What are you doing here, Mum?’ Miranda looked around. ‘What’s going on?’
Before Ellie could answer, Ben intervened. ‘I saw two people follow you in here and got worried. I didn’t know one of them was your mother. When I saw the car pull up outside I thought you might need some help so I came over. But I think we should go back to the van now, grab a coffee, and talk there.’
‘Did you lock the van?’ Miranda asked as they walked.
‘Yes. But I wouldn’t trust it to stay in one piece if we’re away from it for too long.’
Ellie thought about her car and how desperate she would be without it and increased her pace. She didn’t relish telling Miranda why she’d followed her. Even as a child Miranda had been independent and Ellie wondered if she would understand how worried she’d been.
Five minutes, a hot coffee and a reluctant explanation later, Ellie discovered Ben was on her side.
‘Your mother had every right to be concerned, Miranda,’ he said. ‘If I’d known why you were trying to contact Mouse I’d have gone with you.’
‘Would you?’ The surprise on Miranda’s face was almost surpassed by pleasure. Ellie noticed that Ben seemed oblivious to this, but forgave him this lack as the veiled threat of lynching in Miranda’s eyes lessened as she said, ‘Sorry, Mum. I thought if Mouse would tell me what Cherilyn did after she spoke to him I could pass that to the police and they wouldn’t come and harass the van clients.’
‘But this … Mouse … could have been the killer,’ Ellie protested. ‘And you could have put yourself in danger by trying to find him.’
‘I don’t think Mouse is capable of violence,’ Ben said. ‘He’s not like a lot of street kids. He’s naive in a lot of ways. He loves animals, shares his sandwiches with stray cats and dogs.’
‘I watch television crime shows,’ Kandy mused. ‘He probably lures them into the bushes and kills them.’
‘I would never do that.’
The five of them spun around, searching for who had spoken. The words had been soft, as though the speaker had said them to himself. Miranda walked around to the street side of the van. ‘Hello, Mouse. Did Nipsy tell you I needed to talk to you?’
Like a wave on the sand the others followed her. Mouse took a step back, worry compressing his eyebrows, and looked to Miranda for reassurance. His eyes were hazy, his clothing permeated with the unmistakable muskiness of marijuana. ‘She said it was about Cherilyn. It’s my fault, you know. I shouldn’t have told her to go there. I never told Jackson, but he must have found out.’
‘What did you tell her, Mouse?’
‘To go to the building. I thought she could sleep there at night and be safe. The latch on a window at the back didn’t work.’
‘Who’s Jackson?’ Ben asked.
‘Cherilyn’s boyfriend. But he bashed her.’
‘Did you see her again after you talked to her in the park?’ Miranda this time. Mouse looked at her as though not comprehending. ‘I saw you talking to Cherilyn two nights before she was killed.’
‘No. Didn’t see her after that. I told her I wouldn’t tell Jackson I’d seen her.’
‘What’s Jackson’s other name? Do you know where he stays?’
‘Dunno. You just gotta ask around and you get to find him.’
‘Is anybody saying who might have killed her?’
Mouse shook his head. ‘Can I have some sandwiches? I got nothing since breakfast.’
‘Sure, mate.’ Ben opened the van’s back door and pulled a couple of packets out of a box. ‘Here’s some for lunch tomorrow too.’
‘Thanks, Miranda.’ Mouse ignored Ben and smiled at Miranda. He clutched the packets to his chest and wandered off as silently as he’d arrived. They watched him drift into the alley and get swallowed by the darkness.
Ellie shivered, acutely aware of how alien she felt. This was her city, she lived here, had raised two children here, but right now she felt as though she didn’t know it at all. ‘I guess we have a possibility at least.’ She turned to Miranda and Ben. ‘Do you know this Jackson?’
Miranda shook her head. Ben thought a moment then said, ‘I haven’t heard anyone mention him, but I can ask around.’
‘Mum, you’re not going to tell that policeman about Mouse, are you?’
Ellie hesitated. Mouse was their only connection to Cherilyn before her murder. But she understood Miranda’s dilemma. They both wanted the killer caught but the trust Ben had worked so hard to achieve with his clients could be shattered by a heavy-handed police investigation. ‘I’ll give Jackson’s name to the detective investigating the case. I won’t tell him how I got it.’
‘Thank you, Ellie,’ Ben said. ‘Now we’d better get moving. We have one more stop to make.’
‘And we,’ Kandy pulled her jacket closer around her chest, ‘need a drink. Preferably somewhere warm.’
The answering machine was beeping when they returned to Miranda’s house. Funny, Ellie thought, even after all the weeks she’d lived there she still felt like a visitor, as though she had no right to call it her house.
Cass and Kandy decided to go straight back to their homes, so Ellie poured a glass of wine, grabbed pen and paper and listened to the messages. And cursed herself for the flutter of reaction when she heard Chris’s deep voice asking if she was still willing to go to the movies with him. She scribbled down the number he’d left and checked her watch – ten fifteen. Too late to return his call. She’d phone him tomorrow.
The second message was from Bruce Moloney, wanting to know if she was still going to do the interior design on the units. He grumbled about the unit being a crime scene and not having access to it. Some of the brashness had gone from his voice, and Ellie wondered if he was worried that Cherilyn’s murder in his block of units would lead to them being harder to sell. She also noted that he hadn’t expressed any concern for her wellbeing, but from what Cass had told her about the man, people skills were not his forte.
Two glasses of wine later, she slipped into bed. Miranda still hadn’t come home, but she wasn’t game to phone and ask where she was. Once in a night was probably all she was allowed on Miranda’s interfering-mother scale. Maybe even once a week was stretching it.
Ellie’s dreams that night weren’t quite nightmares, but dark alleyways figured prominently and Miranda’s face became jumbled with Cherilyn’s and she woke several times with her heart beating so fast she was gasping in panic. She wondered if Cherilyn’s murder had become so personal to her because of the association with Miranda, or if everyone who saw a dead body reacted this way.
After breakfast she called Chris and discussed movie choices and times. Then she phoned Detective Warren and told him about Cherilyn’s boyfriend Jackson. When he questioned her as to how she’d come by the information, she was glad she wasn’t talking to him in person. She’d never learned how to lie effectively, and even evasion made her fumble her words. Now she had the added complication of a hot flush suffusing her body. She mumbled something about not being able to reveal her source, hung up, and ran to the bathroom.
‘If that’s what the flames of hell feel like,’ she mumbled at her mirror image as she doused her face with cold water, ‘then I’d better start praying for the redemption of my immortal soul.’
She made a mental note to make a doctor’s appointment. HRT loomed on her horizon like an oasis.
Luckily Ellie’s hormones behaved themselves when she and Cass went to the police station on her Tuesday lunch break to make their statements, but that was probably because Detective Warren wasn’t there and she didn’t have to lie to him.
As she gave her statement to a young policeman, she couldn’t help glancing at every uniform she saw, and mentally berating herself for acting like a gauche teenager. Chris Ryan had asked her to the movies – it was no big deal. It was a casual date, nothing more. And if her knees went weak at the memory of how good his butt looked in jeans and the warmth in his eyes as he’d told her he would look forward to their date, well, it was probably because she was starved of male attention and it really didn’t mean anything.
But she knew she was no better at lying to herself than she was to other people.
By the time Wednesday evening came around she was more nervous than on her first date with Damien. Ah, the brashness of youth, she thought. Back then she hadn’t had to stay home on a Saturday night unless she was sick. The trail of young men to her parents’ door didn’t seem to cease. Nor did her father’s criticism of each and every one of them.
Now she wondered if that was why she’d married Damien. He was the only boyfriend who’d achieved her father’s stamp of approval, and life was so much easier when her father approved of things. Like it was when Damien approved of things.
‘Mum, it’s a suburban cinema, not opening night at the Opera House,’ Miranda told her when she asked her advice on yet another outfit. ‘Just wear your black pants and that nice green shirt that matches your eyes. And take a jacket. The air-con in that theatre hovers around freezing. And it will be cold when you come out.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ Ellie quipped and smiled at Miranda’s raised eyebrow and quirk of her lips. It wasn’t easy, this balancing act of feeling like a mother but acting like a friend. She’d thought she’d cut the apron strings years ago, but was discovering that time didn’t lessen biological instincts. Unlike some other species, she decided, the need to protect your offspring didn’t cease when they left the family nest. But her chick was grown, and sometimes now Ellie felt like a cuckoo in the nest.
She glanced at her watch, realised how much time she’d wasted, and quickly dressed in what Miranda had suggested. She gathered her jacket and bag just as a knock sounded on the door.
If she’d been appreciative of Chris’s jeans-clad butt it was nothing compared to the mouth-watering sensation that gripped her as she took in the dark grey pants, pale blue shirt and steel-grey jacket he wore tonight. She knew he wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but something about him called to every feminine instinct she owned that said sex with this man would not be boring.
As if sensing her reaction, the gleam in his eyes deepened. She knew the tingling that started running down her breasts had nothing to do with menopause. Especially when it went further.
It was his eyes, she decided. That brilliant shade of blue that had an almost laser-like quality to it. And there was just the right length between nose and lips. She’d noticed that on Viggo Mortensen when she’d watched the Lord of the Rings movies. His nose wasn’t short or long, but just right. Symmetry. Balance. Like when furniture fitted in a room exactly how it should.
She took his outstretched hand and walked with him to his vehicle.
When the movie finished, Chris took Ellie to a small restaurant that specialised in exotic desserts. A blueberry Danish swirled with chocolate and plumped with the lightest custard cream Ellie had ever tasted complemented a rich Moroccan coffee and left her feeling delightfully decadent. Lately, food had become a necessity rather than a pleasure, but she wondered if tonight her taste buds had been sensitised by the enjoyment she found in Chris’s company.
After the trauma of the past few days, she was grateful the movie she’d selected was a romantic comedy. There was something cleansing about a good laugh. And now she was discovering how enjoyable it was to have a conversation with a man who was genuinely interested in her. Well, that’s what it felt like, and she wasn’t willing to believe otherwise.
It was only on the drive home that he asked the question that put a dampener on her mood. ‘How did you get that information about Jackson?’
It was as effective as the cold water she’d splashed on her face when she’d evaded the same question from Detective Warren. ‘I can’t tell you. It would be betraying my source.’
To her surprise, he burst into laughter. Laughter that rumbled deep in his chest and split his face into a grin that negated her decision to be aloof and offended. ‘I’m not asking you to dob anyone in, Ellie, I’m simply concerned that you could be getting involved in something dangerous.’
‘Something you think I wouldn’t be able to handle?’ Damn, but she wished he would stop smiling – it made it difficult not to relent and tell him everything. Then another thought struck her. ‘How did you know about me contacting Detective Warren? You’re not in Homicide.’
‘Wayne and I go back a long way.’
‘Were you …’ she searched for the right terminology, ‘uniform cops together?’
He wasn’t smiling now, and Ellie could see he appeared to be concentrating on the traffic harder than before. The silence became a little awkward, and she didn’t know how to break it. Silences with Damien used to mean he was ignoring her, but Chris wasn’t doing that. If the tension on his face was anything to go by, he was more than aware of her.
‘I used to be in Homicide.’
‘But you’re …’
‘A uniform cop? I am now.’
‘But you weren’t always.’ Ellie felt the eggshells under her shoes and decided to tread very carefully.
Again another silence, then Chris relaxed with a sighed, ‘No,’ and glanced at her with a half-smile that held more apology than amusement. ‘I was a detective once.’
More sure of her footing now, Ellie was about to ask what had happened, but she saw they were almost at Miranda’s house.
Chris walked her to the porch. Miranda had left the outside light on, but its glow had been softened by years of dust and cast a weak glow over them. ‘Would you like to come in for coffee?’ Ellie asked.
‘I’d like to, but I have an early shift in the morning and unfortunately I still have to iron that uniform.’ The last two words weren’t emphasised, but that twinkle was back in his eyes, and something delightful tingled through Ellie and softened her mouth in a way that made her think of kissing and cuddling and … She gave herself a mental shake. Hot sex was definitely where her thoughts were heading, and she’d only known the man a few days!
‘Thank you for tonight,’ she breathed. ‘I really enjoyed it.’
‘We could do it again.’ The twinkle was still there but the slight uncertainty in his voice told Ellie he wasn’t as sure of himself as he acted.
‘I’d like that.’ Now it was her turn to be unsure. What was the protocol on a first date these days? Should she expect him to kiss her? Should she kiss him? Should she offer him her hand? Hell, at her age she could do what she bloody-well liked! And she wanted to kiss him. Just to see what it would be like.
So she did. She leaned towards him, rising on her toes to meet his height as he bent his head to hers.
It was a gentle kiss, a tentative kiss.
But there was chemistry.
Enough to make her want more.
Enough to scare her into stepping back to try to control her breathing and slow her heart to a more normal rhythm.
Now Chris looked even less confident than he had before. The twinkle in his eyes had gone, and Ellie saw her own desire mirrored there.
She realised that, in all their conversations, she had never told him that this was the first time she’d gone on a date in almost thirty years. Or that it had only been months since Damien had left her. And she was feeling vulnerable in a way she’d never thought she would.
‘Perhaps next time we could go out to dinner?’ he suggested.
‘You have my number,’ she smiled.
She watched him walk back to his vehicle – a tall man with an assured set to his shoulders and a measured stride – and delicious anticipation warred with the butterflies of caution in her chest.
On Friday night Chris called around on his way home from his shift. Ellie opened the door to him, and had to admit the saying about a man in uniform had a lot of truth to it. Especially when his blue shirt made his eyes appear even more brilliant. The foreboding feeling that police uniforms used to evoke in her was quickly being replaced by something the exact opposite – but equally disturbing.
As she stood aside to let him walk in, her welcoming smile faded. ‘I hope this isn’t official. You don’t have bad news, do you?’
‘No. Not bad, but it is about Cherilyn Manning. Is Miranda home?’
‘She’s out with the food van. I’m sure she’d go every night but apparently Ben only rosters the helpers on a couple of nights a week,’ Ellie said as she sat on the lounge.
Chris took off his police cap and sat beside her, and she was acutely aware of the warmth, the presence of him. ‘What do you know about Ben?’ he asked.
‘He’s very involved with his church, he started the food van up with donations from the congregation and he gets various businesses to donate the food he hands out.’
‘How long has Miranda been volunteering with him?’
‘About a year. Why? Is there something wrong?’
‘Quite the opposite. He obviously does something right when he can find out more than we were able to.’
Ellie shifted nervously. ‘Are you talking about me telling Detective Warren about Jackson?’
The smile that creased his face was a tired one. ‘We know where that information would have had to come from, Ellie. And we found Jackson. He wasn’t too hard to track down. He was arrested for dealing drugs the same night Cherilyn was murdered, and from Cherilyn’s time of death Jackson would have already been in custody so he’s off the hook on that score.’
‘Oh.’ Disappointment washed through Ellie. She’d been so sure … It was so logical … ‘So we’re back to square one. Are there any other leads?’
There was something final in the way he said the word. ‘But Detective Warren is going to keep looking, isn’t he?’ Ellie tried to curb the impatience in her tone.
‘Of course. But you have to realise that we don’t have any evidence, or any clues as to why she was killed. We can speculate that it was a drug deal gone wrong, or two addicts who argued. There was no money in Cherilyn’s bag, just some coins in her jeans pocket, but that doesn’t mean robbery wasn’t the motive. We have no matches for any of the fingerprints we found, but the killer could have been wearing gloves. The back window had been tampered with so it could be accessed from the outside but there wasn’t any evidence that the place had been used by squatters.’
‘So what happens now?’
Chris twisted his cap in circles. ‘Homicide will keep looking. But it might take a while. Unless the killer talks to someone or if a friend or relative becomes suspicious and tells us then we really have nothing to go on.’ He slanted her a meaningful look. ‘Unless Miranda has more information she wishes to share?’
Like dominoes falling in a pre-arranged sequence, things slotted into Ellie’s mind. ‘You knew, didn’t you?’ she accused. ‘That first time you came here. After you told us Cherilyn’s name. You knew Miranda wasn’t telling you everything.’ Disappointment swamped her. ‘Did you only ask me out so you could use me to find out?’
‘If you remember,’ he spoke quietly, but each word was spaced to make sure she paid attention, ‘I came to see you on my own time. Something I really shouldn’t have done until this case was finished. I risked compromising possible future testimony.’
‘So why did you?’
‘Sometimes,’ he stopped twisting his cap and looked intently at her, ‘if you don’t do what you feel you should straight away, you regret it.’
Ellie had the feeling he wasn’t just talking about asking her to the movies. ‘Did you tell Detective Warren you asked me out?’
‘I … um … did happen to mention that if I called on you unofficially I might glean some more information.’ He smiled wryly. ‘I just forgot to add that I’d already done so.’
If the effect of that smile was anything to go by, Ellie should have thrown him out and locked the door. The shiver of excitement travelling down her back and the tingling in areas that hadn’t tingled in a long time told her further contact with him could be dangerous. She almost salivated at the thought. All the years of Damien’s neglect had left her aching … and probably more vulnerable than she wanted to admit.
If she hadn’t grown so far away from their relationship, Damien’s eagerness to end their marriage would have devastated her. But it had still left her with doubts as to her attractiveness and worth. Her hollowness no longer had the same magnetic pull it previously had, but right now it beckoned with flashing neon “safety” signs. She’d been more than adventurous kissing Chris the other night, and pleased with herself that she’d done so, but she was starting to develop feelings for him. Real feelings, and that was scary.
‘I’d planned on asking you to dinner tomorrow night,’ Chris continued, ‘but a couple of the blokes are down with the flu so I have to work. How about Sunday night?’
The neon sign flashed and died like a shooting star. ‘I’d love to,’ Ellie breathed.
‘Pick you up at six?’ As his smile deepened, Ellie would have agreed to 5am and breakfast in the rain. She nodded.
He stood up and she slowly rose and followed him to the door. He hesitated on the doorstep and she wondered if he wanted to kiss her. She knew she’d initiated it last time, but then it had been after a date, and felt … right. But now it could be construed as a girlfriend/boyfriend thing and she wasn’t sure she wanted to imply that. Yet.
She stepped back, said, ‘See you tomorrow night,’ and watched him walk to his vehicle. For a second she almost called him back, eager to again experience the thrill that first kiss had sparked in her, but she was afraid she might enjoy it too much. Or discover the chemistry had been a fleeting thing and kissing him again would be disappointing.
Then her mind switched tracks and she remembered he dealt with death in his job, and that scared her even more. For a moment she allowed the image of Cherilyn’s battered body to surface, then fought it back. What had happened to the seventeen-year-old Cherilyn that had led her to end up dying such a lonely and terrible death six years later? The thought lingered long after she’d spent several hours working on her plans for the units before going to bed.
‘I’m going to see Cherilyn’s parents,’ Ellie told Cass on the phone the next morning.
‘Why?’ Cass’s tone was as much disbelief and caution as enquiry.
‘Well, if Pru or Miranda had been killed, I think I’d like it if somebody apart from family and friends cared enough to let me know they remembered her and were thinking about her. I might take them some flowers.’
‘From what Miranda said about Cherilyn feeling that her parents hated her, it might not be a good idea. They might resent a stranger turning up on their doorstep. Grief can be a funny thing, Ellie.’
Ellie knew that only too well, and she was sure that’s why Cass was trying to warn her. Just as her own grief had stopped her from seeing what was happening to her marriage years ago, the Mannings might not see her as someone offering sympathy, but as a stranger intruding on their lives. The thought was daunting, but she felt she had to do it.
‘Would you like me to go with you?’ Cass asked.
‘Thanks for the offer but no, I’ll go alone. I only work one Saturday in three and today’s one of my free days.’
‘Then I’ll meet you afterwards. For moral support. I’ll bring Kandy if she’s free.’ Cass named a coffee shop and a time and wished Ellie good luck.
Just as Ellie disconnected, the phone rang. A rather cranky-sounding Bruce Moloney wanted to know why she hadn’t contacted him with her designs.
‘I haven’t done all the costings for wallpaper and furnishings yet, and I can’t do those until I take the last couple of measurements in unit one, so I can’t give you a quote,’ she explained.
‘Don’t worry about that yet. I’ve had my boys working on another job but it’s nearly finished and I can’t keep them hanging around while I wait for you to waffle over some pretty designs. Just show me how you think the renos should go so I can tell them what to rip out and what to leave. The cops have removed the crime scene tape from the building, so you can do the rest of your measurements. But unit three is still off limits.’
‘I could come around to the units this afternoon,’ Ellie offered, trying to keep her tone light. Cass had warned her Bruce could be blunt, but she wasn’t in the mood to pander to his blatant chauvinism.
‘Yeah … Okay. That’ll still give me time to get to the footy. I’ll see you there at two.’
As she gathered her drawings together a little later, Ellie wondered how Bruce would react to some of her suggestions. She believed what she’d designed was not only feasible, but made the best possible use of the unit layout without resorting to too much structural change. But she worried that Bruce didn’t have the imagination to see it that way.
When she parked outside Cherilyn’s parents’ house later that morning, Ellie was grateful her car definitely didn’t fit into the “new” category. All the houses in the street were pre-World War Two vintage, but most were presentable, though some a little tired looking. The Manning residence, however, shrieked neglect louder than a heavy metal band. If the rust on the car bodies in the side yard was anything to go by, they were the same ones Ellie had seen six years ago when she’d given Cherilyn a ride home.
As she picked up the flowers from the passenger seat, she again debated if she was doing the right thing in coming to offer Cherilyn’s parents her condolences. She didn’t know them, she barely even remembered Cherilyn, but she knew, if Pru or Miranda had been murdered, she would want to know that whoever had found them had cared about them.
Weeds and grass flecked dew on her pants as she walked to the front door. A broken timber chair lay in the yard as though it had been thrown from one of the windows. Stubbies overflowed from a beer carton on the first step to the porch. A carton on the second step bulged with empty spirits bottles. The top step was clear, but the floor of the porch had become the receptacle for old newspapers and empty beer and cola cans. Something rustled in the cans and Ellie shuddered.
A moment after she knocked on the door it was flung open. A blonde in her forties, lycra top and bike pants clinging to her thin body, moved her cigarette to one side of her mouth and narrowed her eyes. ‘Yeah?’
‘Mrs Gloria Manning?’
‘Who wants to know?’
‘My name’s Ellie Cummins. My daughter Miranda played netball with Cherilyn. I … My friend and I were at the block of units and found Cherilyn after …’ She held out the flowers.
Gloria Manning assessed Ellie a moment longer, then took the flowers and moved back and gestured for Ellie to follow her. ‘Come in. Might as well sit down as stand there giving the neighbours something to gawk at.’
As she walked into a lounge room that resembled an op shop after a delivery from their collection bins, Ellie’s heart sank. Trying to dress casually but not wanting to appear disrespectful to Cherilyn’s family, she’d worn navy slacks and a matching jacket, but in this room she felt as though ragged jeans and a sweatshirt would have been more appropriate.
‘Want a drink?’ Gloria asked as she tossed the flowers onto a wall unit. She clicked the television remote and the sounds of an energetic game show ceased. At Ellie’s shake of her head, Gloria shrugged her shoulders and picked up a stubby. She sat down on a single lounge chair and thumbed towards a spot on the lounge that was free of clothing. Ellie made her way to it and perched on the edge.
‘Mrs Manning, I want you to know how very sorry I am about Cherilyn. I only knew her through netball when she was on the same team as my daughter, but she was a very nice girl. I can’t imagine how you must feel. You must miss her terribly.’
‘She was an ungrateful bitch. I sacrificed my life for her.’ Gloria drew deeply on her cigarette. ‘I only married Zeb because I was pregnant. Me mum wouldn’t let me have an abortion and me dad told Zeb he’d rip his nuts out if he didn’t marry me.’
Ellie almost winced. Gloria Manning seemed totally unconcerned about her daughter’s murder. ‘It must be hard for you,’ she ventured, ‘not being able to have a funeral for Cherilyn until the police …’ she hesitated. Saying ‘release the body’ seemed so cold, so … CSI-like. She knew how devastated she would be in Gloria’s situation.
‘Don’t know how we’re going to afford it anyway.’ Gloria flicked ash into a saucer. ‘We ain’t got no money.’ She looked at Ellie, at her fashionable shoes, her designer-label clothes, eyes calculating. ‘You wouldn’t like to help out, would ya?’
‘I would if I could, Mrs Manning. Believe me, I would. Unfortunately, I’ve recently … My circumstances have changed recently and I don’t have access to any ready money. But I’ll see what I can do to help you out.’ The woman’s total lack of emotion was abhorrent to Ellie. Even if she and Cherilyn were estranged, surely Gloria could at least feel some human decency and grieve for her daughter.
‘Anything would help,’ Gloria looked slyly at Ellie. ‘We got two other kids – can’t take the food out of their mouths just to bury Cherilyn.’
Just then one of the ‘kids’ sauntered into the room, munching on a piece of chicken that had obviously come from the red cardboard “bucket” held in the crook of his other arm. ‘Mum, we’ve run out of Coke,’ he whined.
On a good hair day the teenager would have passed as a young version of Ozzy Osbourne having a bad hair day. Ellie tried not to look at the piece of chicken skin that had caught at the edge of his mouth. She stood up, arranged her face in a bright smile as she mumbled, ‘I have to go, Mrs Manning. I hope everything works out for you,’ and hurried to the door.
She heard Gloria Manning’s ‘See ya,’ as she avoided the cartons on the steps, then the woman’s voice rose as she cursed her son for everything from drinking the last of the soft drink to being born.
As Ellie drove away, she gripped the steering wheel tightly to stop her hands from shaking. A terrible anger seethed inside her. No wonder Miranda had thought Cherilyn wasn’t happy at home. The poor girl hadn’t had much of a chance in life, and now, in death, she appeared to be forgotten by the very people who should have cared about her.
If she hadn’t agreed to meet Cass and Kandy at a nearby coffee shop, Ellie was sure she would have gone home and done a great deal of damage to a bottle of red wine or put a token ice cube in a couple of bourbon and drys and finished them before the ice had a chance to melt. She couldn’t remember feeling so angry. She wanted to go back to Gloria Manning and slam her against a wall or shake her until the fillings fell out of her teeth. Maybe then the stupid woman would realise just how precious life was and cry for the life her daughter would never have.
The anger still seethed in her when she parked the car and walked to the coffee shop. Cass and Kandy were waiting outside, but Kandy raised one eyebrow as Ellie approached and said, ‘I don’t think coffee is what you’re in need of, Ellie,’ and, tucking a hand around Ellie’s and Cass’s elbows, propelled them to an adjacent hotel.
Clean, and relatively quiet for late Saturday afternoon, the lounge bar swirled with the sounds of nearby poker machines and a television giving racing results, and the smells of beer and spirits and aromas of deep-fried chips and battered food and sizzling steak and women’s perfume and men’s aftershave that couldn’t disguise some patrons’ body odour.
Like soldiers returning from battle, the women fronted the bar, bought their drinks, and settled into the curved seating around a corner table.
‘I gather it didn’t go well,’ Cass ventured.
Ellie took a long swig of her bourbon and dry and crunched on the ice. ‘No wonder Cherilyn hated her home life. If I’d had a mother like that I would have hated it too.’
‘What was she like?’ Cass asked.
‘Brassy blonde, fake tan and so thin that if she had a twin you could rub the two of them together to start a fire,’ Ellie exploded. ‘And her pants were so tight you’d see if she did pelvic floor exercises.’
Kandy smothered a laugh and Cass slanted her a patient look. ‘You know what I mean, Ellie. Was she coping all right?’
‘She was coping just fine. Couldn’t give a damn about Cherilyn. All she wanted to do was get money out of me. Supposedly for Cherilyn’s funeral, but I doubt that’s what it would get spent on. Probably more booze.’ She described the abundance of empty bottles and Gloria Manning’s attitude towards her daughter.
Kandy’s expression grew pensive. ‘Sounds like Cherilyn didn’t have much of a chance in life.’ She plucked invisible specks from her pants. ‘Poor kid should at least have a decent burial.’ She took a cheque book from her handbag, wrote quickly, ripped out a cheque and handed it to Ellie. ‘Seven thousand should cover it. But don’t give it to the mother. Pay it straight to the funeral parlour.’
Ellie looked at her in amazement. ‘Kandy … That’s a lot of money.’
‘We have more money than we need. We’re always giving to charity.’
Although Kandy tried to look indifferent, Ellie wasn’t convinced this was just another charitable donation. ‘Why Cherilyn?’
Tears formed at the corners of Kandy’s eyes. ‘Because it could have been me lying in that morgue with my head bashed in. It nearly was.’ There was a touch of defiance in the look she gave Ellie. ‘You’ve never met my parents and you never will. I told you once I don’t have anything to do with them. Well, it’s because my mother is an A-grade bitch and my father was an abusive prick who drank himself to death years ago. If the drug scene had been as bad when I was a kid as it is now I might not have been able to drag myself out of it.’
‘Shit,’ Ellie whispered and slumped against the backrest. Her mind fumbled to find sympathetic, supportive words, but before they could reach her tongue, Cass asked, ‘Do you want to tell us about it?’
To their surprise, Kandy smiled. A little sheepishly at first, then with genuine amusement. ‘I think I just précised it all. I ran away from home when I was fifteen, got into bad company, but escaped after a couple of years. Got a job as a waitress in a cafe, worked my way up to manager, and I do mean worked,’ she smiled, ‘and ended up running my own catering business. Which is how I met Phillip. He was holding a business function, hired me to do the catering, and somehow we clicked. Attraction of opposites, you could call it.’
Opposites was right, Ellie thought. Although Phillip seemed genuinely fond of Kandy, there was something about him that made Ellie think he viewed Kandy as a trophy wife rather than the other half of a love match. Something in the relationship didn’t gel, but she couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
She looked from Kandy to Cass and wondered, for what was probably the umpteenth time, how the three of them had become such firm friends. Their husbands shared no common interests, and on the few occasions they’d been forced to socialise with each other, hadn’t even come close to forming a friendship. It seemed the attraction of opposites law had only worked on their wives.
The block of units looked no more sinister than it had on the day Ellie and Cass had discovered Cherilyn’s body, but Ellie couldn’t suppress the shiver that ran down her back as she stepped inside. The Poinciana tree on the footpath no longer seemed graceful, its bare branches now resembling skeletal fingers reaching for the sky.
Although Bruce’s ute was parked outside, he wasn’t waiting for her in the foyer. The doors to all the units were closed, and police tape still covered the doorway of unit three.
‘Hello?’ Ellie’s call echoed in the emptiness.
‘Up here.’ Bruce’s head popped over the landing rail on the third floor then disappeared.
Ellie started to climb the stairs, careful not to catch her heels on some of the more worn areas of the carpet runner. By the time she’d reached the third floor, she’d taken off her jacket and gained a new appreciation for the stamina people must have needed before lifts became routine in multi-storey buildings.
The door to the unit, in the same corner as unit three below but with a brass number nine attached, was ajar. She walked over and looked inside.
‘Vandals!’ Bruce exploded as he kicked a piece of plaster across the room. ‘Fu-’ he broke off as he caught sight of Ellie. ‘Bloody vandals! Look what they’ve done!’ He waved a piece of timber in the air. ‘It’ll be impossible to match this quality. I was going to get it polished and not worry about carpet, but that won’t happen now.’
Ellie stared at the holes that had been punched in the walls, the timber flooring prised up in seemingly random places, graffiti in bright red from room to room as though the writer had needed to vent his anger in words as well as actions. ‘How did they get in?’
‘Back door. Ground floor. It’s an old lock, didn’t need much to break it. Damn! I can’t afford to get security patrolling the place. Insurance will cover the damage but too many claims will up the premium.’
‘What about security lights? Could you install some?’ She stepped into the room to get a better look at the damage.
‘Not now. When we started the job the sparky – the electrician – disconnected the electricity and set up a power socket for the tradies to use. I’m replacing the wiring – it’s old and we need more power points and other things. In case you need to know,’ he gestured to what had obviously once been a kitchen but was now a bare area with cut-off and capped pipes coming from the floor and walls, ‘the plumbing’s also disconnected on this floor and the one below. But there’s still water to the ground floor if you need a toilet.’
Ellie touched the red lettering on the wall and looked at her fingers. ‘It’s chalk.’
‘Yeah.’ Bruce picked up a half-stick from behind a piece of plaster. ‘One of the chippies must have left it behind. They use it to mark things that need to be done.’
‘Have you called the police?’
Bruce snorted. ‘What for? If they can’t find who killed that girl I don’t like their chances of finding whoever did this.
She handed him her folder. ‘I only have designs based on the front unit downstairs, and as I said they’re not complete because I didn’t get all the living room measurements. And I didn’t get a chance to look at the other units.’
‘Have a look around now. They’re pretty similar in set-up. If I like what you’ve done already we can work out the individual differences.’
As she walked from room to room, Ellie saw the destruction wasn’t confined to the kitchen and living areas. The bedrooms and bathroom had been dealt with just as severely. She gazed at the holes, her mind not quite in sync with what she was seeing. Something about them bothered her, but she couldn’t figure out what.
When she looked out the windows she saw why it would have been possible for the intruder or intruders to have created so much damage without being heard by the neighbours. The adjoining houses might have been high-set Queenslanders, but they were still way below the third floor of the unit block, and large trees and high shrubs not only gave each yard some privacy but acted as sound barriers. Even the back yard of the unit block was heavily vegetated. A commercial skip bin similar to the one at the front of the building stood near the fence, and she thought how it would have provided excellent cover for Cherilyn and whoever had killed her while they broke in.
Gloria Manning’s callous disregard for her daughter’s fate still rankled with Ellie, and she switched her thoughts back to Bruce’s job before the anger could swamp her again.
In spite of the damage to the walls and floor, the unit had a light and airy feel, and it was a quality she hoped could be retained in the renovation. Sunlight streamed in through the living room windows, and when she opened them she could imagine the smells of early summer floating in, fragrant jasmines and gardenias, grasses beginning to seed, the not-too-distant tang of river water. She imagined the room as she knew it should be – light furnishings, Madras lace that was all flowers and feathers, polished brass pendant lights with petite frost glass –
‘What do you reckon?’ Bruce tapped her folder. ‘Think you can come up with something like what you’ve designed for unit one?’
‘This unit has a different aspect. It needs a different feel.’ Ellie couldn’t contain her enthusiasm for the ideas flowing through her. ‘Just think of the appeal, Bruce, with each unit offering something different, having a different theme if you like. Light and whimsy for young romantic couples, cosy and comfortable for older buyers, practical and serviceable for the career-minded, a fabulous kitchen for the closet chefs. We could make this work. It would be different to everything else on the market.’
The interest in Bruce’s eyes was almost as intense as his scepticism. ‘I don’t own the bloody bank, woman. How much would it all cost?’
Ellie’s neck tingled. Woman! She gritted her teeth, and counted to – She didn’t make it to ten before grinding out, ‘My name is Ellie, Bruce, not woman. And if we’re going to work together on this I would appreciate it if you tried to remember my name.’ Her heart pounded as shock registered on his face. Oh, hell, she’d done it now. She’d pissed him off and he’d probably tell her to take a hike and she had nothing signed to recompense her for the work she’d done so far.
Then he laughed. ‘Sure, love. Ellie. No problems. Now tell me how I can afford this.’
Ellie hid the faint tremor in her fingers and allowed her knees to relax. Ground rule number one set out. ‘Perhaps we can go down to unit one where there’s a bench and I can spread out the designs. And I can do some sketches to give you an idea of how some of the themes will work.’
‘Sounds good.’ He gestured for her to lead the way. As they walked down the stairs he said, ‘Joe mentioned you and your old man have split up. You interested in going to the football tonight?’
The thought of going out with him was about as appealing as following Miranda into that dark alleyway, but she hoped the brilliant smile she flashed him guaranteed her refusal didn’t offend.
It was only when she was driving home that she realised she’d forgotten to take the rest of the unit one living room measurements.
Perhaps it was exhaustion from such a frustrating day, or maybe the half bottle of red wine she polished off when working on more designs at home that evening, but Ellie drifted into a dreamless sleep as soon as she lay down.
So it was like dragging herself from a deep, dark pit when she became aware something was scratching on the pillow next to her head.
Groggily she reached towards it.
Heart pounding madly, Ellie leaped from the bed and switched on the light, a tiny segment of her brain registering gratitude that she’d taken to wearing pyjamas since moving in with Miranda.
‘Mum!’ Miranda appeared beside her, eyes blinking in the brightness. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Rat!’ The word strangled in Ellie’s throat. ‘There was a rat. On the bed.’ She sagged against the doorway.
‘Rat? There’s no …’ Miranda walked over to the bed and pulled up the covers Ellie had thrown back. A tiny bundle of fur uncurled itself and let out a pitiful meow. Miranda picked it up, cradled it against her chest and made soft sounds of reassurance.
Ellie’s relief wasn’t enough to stop the bite in her voice as she pulled herself from the door jamb and said, ‘I think you’d better tell me where that came from.’
Miranda’s back straightened and there was a mutinous gleam in her eyes as she cuddled the kitten and said, ‘She’s a gift. And she’s staying.’
Cass was worried.
She knew Ellie dealt with emotional issues differently, but she’d been so calm, too calm, when they’d discovered Cherilyn’s body. She’d handled it too well, Cass thought. But her reaction to Gloria Manning had been right off the wall. Cass had never seen her so angry, even when Damien had announced he was leaving. Then, she’d been rip-roaring mad, but the vibes she’d emitted when she’d told of Cherilyn’s mother’s attitude had been so intense in their fury they were several degrees below freezing.
The wind whipped the sheet she was pegging onto the line, flicking it up and over so it wrapped around the other washing. Muttering dire warnings to the god of windy weather, she unwound it and punched on another peg.
‘Cass,’ Joe called from inside the house, ‘Ellie’s on the phone.’ As she reached the laundry door he opened it and handed her the cordless phone.
‘We have a new addition to the family,’ Ellie told her, but before Cass could register her astonishment, Ellie recounted the tale of her midnight intruder.
‘I’m guessing Miranda brought it home.’ Cass abandoned any hope of pegging out washing with only one free hand. She smiled as Joe walked to the line and finished the job for her.
‘Who else? It has to be the ugliest feline alive,’ Ellie muttered. ‘Miranda said it’s a Burmese-Siamese cross but I reckon it’s crossed with whatever walked over the roof at night. It’s got tortoiseshell colouring, big yellow eyes and enormous ears that are speckled like a hyena.’
Cass wondered if the kitten was really as ugly as her imagination conjured up. ‘Sounds an odd-looking cat.’
‘Actually it’s kind of cute. But fleas! We washed it and so many fleas drowned it was like an insect Titanic. We have to be careful not to step on it. The darn thing’s so tiny if you tucked it under your armpit you’d think you hadn’t shaved for a week.’
Cass chuckled. In spite of Ellie’s projected lack of enthusiasm for the kitten, Cass knew she’d soon be treating it like a member of the family. Ellie had been terribly upset when their dog had died several years ago and although she’d said she didn’t want another pet, Cass suspected it was more because of Damien’s complaining he didn’t want another animal digging up the garden and shitting on the lawn. ‘Where did she get it?’
‘Mouse gave it to her.’
‘Last night. At the food van. Asked Miranda to look after it because it was the runt of the litter and he was worried the other cats might pick on it and hurt it.’
Warning bells tinkled in Cass’s mind. ‘You don’t think Mouse …’
‘Has a crush on Miranda?’ Ellie’s worry vibrated over the phone. ‘I don’t know. Miranda’s always had a soft spot for the under-dog, Mouse might think there’s more there than kindness.’
Cass thought about that possibility as she and Ellie continued talking. After a few minutes Ellie asked, ‘Guess what Mouse had named the kitten?’
‘Should I be concerned?’
‘Probably. It’s indicative of my life at the moment.’ Ellie paused, and Cass could hear a faint purring as the kitten must have climbed onto Ellie’s shoulder. ‘He called it Mayhem.’
Cass hoped the kitten wouldn’t live up to its name. ‘How’s the situation with Miranda?’
‘Let’s put it this way – if I was a cake, she’d be the frosting.’
‘That bad, huh?’
‘Oh, not really,’ Ellie sighed. ‘It’s me, really. I feel like I have to re-establish myself all over again with her. Living with her has made me realise I never really knew her before.’ The purring became more pronounced and Cass knew Ellie was already a goner. The kitten obviously had her exactly where it wanted. ‘I think she thinks I don’t trust her to make the right decisions for herself. Maybe having Mayhem will show her that it’s not easy to stop wanting to protect your children.’
Cass laughed. That sounded like the old furphy that giving your children a pet taught them responsibility. She’d lost count of the number of pets she’d looked after over the years as each once-conscientious child grew into a “I’m too busy to look after it” teenager. Or left home. She felt a slight sorrow at the thought of how far away her kids lived now. Two married, two not. But they were happy, and for that she was grateful.
As Ellie kept speaking, Cass grew apprehensive. Finally she said, ‘Ellie, you’re rambling. What is it you really want to tell me?’
Silence. For a second.
‘The units were broken into again. One on the top floor was trashed.’
‘What’s Bruce doing about it?’
‘Putting a new lock on the back door.’
‘And that’s it?’
‘Has he told the police?’
‘No. He reckons it’s just vandalism and they won’t be bothered.’
Cass heard the underlying worry in Ellie’s voice. ‘But you think it could be connected to Cherilyn’s murder, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know, Cass. But what if it is? There was something … strange about the way the damage was done. It didn’t strike me at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it this morning, and it’s like some of the damage had a purpose, but some was random. I know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s what it felt like.’
‘Well, don’t you go back there again by yourself. If you have to go there and Bruce won’t be there I’ll go with you.’
‘No buts. I’ll go with you. And stuff what my mother thinks.’
Ellie laughed, and Cass joined in. It was about time she made decisions without feeling like she should consider what Audra thought.
The pants Geoffrey had bought at the op shop didn’t fit as well as he would have liked, but they’d been the best he could afford at the time. He looked at himself in the mirror glued to the old-fashioned wardrobe. The crack on one side gave him a slightly disjointed look, but overall he didn’t look too bad. The jacket had been given to him when he’d left jail, but at least it was relatively modern, even if it was a bit short and the collar wouldn’t straighten no matter how much he pulled at it. With a shave and his hair washed he looked presentable enough. At least the old bag should let him through the front door.
Good thing his old man was dead. The righteous old prick hadn’t even let her visit him in jail. But he knew she wouldn’t turn him away, not when he presented himself like the prodigal son, the repentant sinner come to plead for forgiveness. The pretence shouldn’t be hard to maintain, he’d learned the art of lying and looking innocent at an early age, recognising even then the value in puppy-dog eyes and softly-curling brown hair. Charming the ladies had come easily to him. And the one he now had to convince was his mother, and he’d always been able to wrap her around his little finger.
He opened the old one-door fridge with its rust marks that had seeped through the thin layer of paint. Like everything else in his fully-furnished, self-contained bedsit, it told of a landlord whose shopping expeditions didn’t go further than the cheapest second-hand stores. He reached out to grab one of the three cans of rum and coke sitting next to half a loaf of bread, a tub of margarine, and a jar of jam, and stopped. Fingers trembling, he closed the door. Not even coke could disguise the smell of rum, and he needed to appear as reformed as possible.
His nerve started to falter as he locked his door, pulled on his gloves and walked to the bus stop. Perhaps he should have phoned first? No, he didn’t want to give her the chance to refuse to see him. Too much risk in that. If he turned up at her front door, surely she wouldn’t turn him away?
In spite of the cold wind that buffeted the open-fronted bus shelter, he began to sweat.
Cherilyn’s murder had reminded Ellie how fleeting life was, but it was with a different kind of sadness that she and Miranda drove out to the nursing home to see Damien’s father Bert on Sunday afternoon. Bert and Eugenia had been one of the better things to come out of her marriage to Damien. “Salt of the earth” types, practical and non-intrusive in their support after Paul’s death, adored their grand-daughters but didn’t spoil them, and always made Ellie feel that she was a welcome addition to the family. She sometimes wondered how Damien had turned out to be so different.
The only blessing in Bert having Alzheimers was she wouldn’t have to tell him that she and Damien had broken up.
As she and Miranda waited for the door that separated the visitors’ arrival section from the Alzheimers and Dementia wing of the home to be unlocked, Ellie felt the usual tightening in her stomach she got on every visit. It wasn’t just the sight of so many elderly and not-so-elderly people with minds that no longer functioned that did it, but the worry that one day she or Damien could end up in the same state and Pru and Miranda would have to make the decision that Damien had found so hard.
The large recreation room was painted in the palest of lemons, the vinyl floor covering an almost perfect imitation timber, the curtains a cheery burst of sunflowers and leaves. All designed to add some brightness to the lives of people imprisoned by diminishing memory and fading abilities.
Ellie and Miranda walked past the armchairs on wheels that held those people beyond walking or doing anything for themselves. ‘Living corpses’ Damien had muttered the first time they had inspected the home and she’d shushed him quickly, worried one of them might still retain enough function to hear him and be upset.
They found Bert out in the garden, sitting on the grass, a handful of weeds next to him, staring vacantly at the agapanthus plants surrounding a small gardenia bush. A carer who’d been talking to another patient came over as they approached him. ‘He’s a little lost today, I’m afraid,’ she told them. ‘You may not find you can make contact with him.’
‘Has he been happy?’ Miranda asked.
‘We think so. He’s always happier here in the garden.’
Ellie’s chest tightened further. She squatted down and looked closely at Bert, trying to find some semblance, some flicker of the man she’d known for thirty years. ‘Bert? Bert, it’s Ellie. I’ve come to see you. Miranda’s come too.’ Miranda knelt on the grass beside her.
Dull grey eyes slowly focused. His eyebrows slowly drew together. He looked at Ellie without recognition, then frowned deeply as he looked at Miranda. ‘Ellie? What are you doing here, Ellie?’
‘I’m Miranda, Grandad. This is Ellie.’
Confusion showed on Bert’s face. ‘No. No, that’s not Ellie.’ He looked back at Miranda. ‘Are you trying to trick me, Ellie?’
At Ellie’s quick head shake, Miranda stopped her instinctive denial. ‘She’s my mother,’ she said instead.
Bert’s expression brightened. ‘I remember Ellie’s mother. A lovely lady. Like my Eugenia.’ Tears started to trickle down his cheeks. ‘She doesn’t come to see me any more. I’ll have to find her.’ He started to rise, then hesitated. His mouth opened, and all expression left his face. He dropped back onto the grass and stared vacantly into the distance.
As they drove away five minutes later Miranda stated flatly, ‘I’m not going back there again.’
Ellie bit her lip. She wanted to say the same thing herself, but knew she couldn’t. Next visit might be different, Bert might recognise her, but if not she would still go back. Even when he became one of Damien’s “living corpses” she knew she would go and hold his hand and tell him Eugenia still loved him and she was waiting to see him. She knew she would do for him what she hoped someone she once loved would do for her.
This was only a second date, Ellie told herself that evening as she waited for Chris to arrive. She shouldn’t feel like there was any importance attached to it. But she couldn’t calm the nerves in her stomach, the way her heartbeat accelerated at the sound of a vehicle in the street. She peered out through the gap in the loungeroom curtains, looked at her watch, then peered out again.
‘Mum, you’re starting to make me nervous,’ Miranda complained and put down her book. She levered herself from the lounge and walked over and turned on the television. A current affairs program blared into the room and she lowered the sound.
‘I’m sorry.’ Ellie smoothed a non-existent wrinkle in her turquoise jacket and hitched at her matching skirt to ensure it sat straight. ‘I shouldn’t be nervous. It’s only dinner.’
‘And how often in the past thirty years have you gone out to dinner with a man you barely know? Even I would be nervous if someone asked me on a dinner date.’
‘Mirie, I don’t mean to pry, but why aren’t you going out on dates? Don’t you meet anyone you’re interested in?’
‘I don’t like doing the pub and club scene and there aren’t too many other places you can meet a decent man these days. And don’t tell me to join a sports club, you know I’m uncoordinated.’
‘What about your friends from the soup kitchen where you volunteered who used to come around here?’
‘People move on, Mum,’ Miranda flopped onto the lounge. ‘They get different lives. And I don’t often go there now I do the food van. Guess I’ve just got into a rut.’
‘What about the church Ben runs the food van for, surely they have a club for young people?’
Miranda looked uncomfortable. ‘I’m not really churchie, Mum. I don’t mind volunteering with the van but …’
‘But you really only do it because you fancy Ben.’
Eyes widening, Miranda whipped around to stare at Ellie. ‘Oh, God! I’m not that obvious, am I?’
‘Only to me, dear. Ben seems to be totally oblivious to the fact that you fancy him.’ Ellie tried to keep the sarcastic note from her voice but Miranda gave her look that said she’d got the implication.
‘Don’t you like him, Mum?’
‘I think he’s a very nice young man, Mirie, but he either doesn’t realise that he has a chance with you or else he’s simply not interested.’
Miranda sighed. ‘I think he’s not interested in me.’
‘There’s only one way to find out – ask him out. See what he says.’ Ellie was tempted to say more but she heard Chris’s vehicle pull up outside. She picked up her coat and purse and opened the front door. ‘Be braver than I was, Mirie,’ she said and walked out.
When the warden had told him his father was dying, Geoffrey had quickly concealed the pleasure surging through him. The whole time he’d been in prison, he’d worked hard at being a model prisoner, never allowing anything to jeopardise his chances of parole. Rejoicing in his father’s imminent death would not project a good image.
‘Your mother wanted you to know,’ the warden had said. ‘We could arrange a hospital visit for you to see him.’
He’d looked at the warden with what he hoped was deep sorrow etched on his features, and allowed a tear to trickle from the corner of one eye. ‘My father disowned me years ago, Warden. If he’s not asking to see me then I’m afraid it would only bring more pain to my mother to see him reject me again. It’s better I don’t go.’ The words had been said with just the right amount of sadness, and he’d congratulated himself on his acting skills when he’d seen the sympathy on the warden’s face.
His skills at lying had saved him on many occasions, but they wouldn’t do so now. He’d pleaded coercion when the cops had picked him up with the drug shipment, and faked remorse so well during his trial his sentence was more lenient than it should have been, but he’d got word in prison that when he was released he’d better make recompense for the loss the gang had incurred or swimming with concrete boots would be the least of his worries.
Prison had provided him with time to think. Childhood memories had re-surfaced, and with them a chance to get his hands on something that would enable him to buy off his predators.
It had all seemed so easy, but he hadn’t counted on death interfering, though at her age he should have. She’d been his favourite aunt, too, one that appreciated the wild streak in him, probably because she’d once shared it.
Now as he waited for his mother to return to the one-bedroom retirement unit she had moved to after his father’s death, his lip curled in disgust. So much for being the faithful wife to the man-who-would-be-bishop. His father’s ambition had far outstripped his abilities, and the coveted manse had remained an unfulfilled dream. His mother’s meek acceptance of his father’s overly-pious excuses had angered him as much as his father’s failures.
The apprehension that had built in him in the hours he had spent waiting on his mother’s tiny enclosed patio threatened to blow into full-scale panic. What if she didn’t come home? What if she was away on holidays? She mightn’t return for weeks.
He was running out of time.
The pathway and street lights in the retirement complex had been on now for several hours, and he moved out of the shadows to look at his watch. Eight o’clock. It had taken several bus connections to get here, and he wasn’t sure how late they all ran. He would have to leave. Tomorrow he would phone her first, and if she answered he would hang up and make his way back.
As he walked away, he wondered if the builder would call the cops when he found the damage to the unit. Finding that red chalk had been a stroke of luck. He’d realised he could make the damage look like it had been caused by vandals who’d broken in. He’d put a few more holes in the walls for good measure. The anger in his graffitied words had been genuine – an expression of his wild frustration and almost all-consuming fear when he hadn’t found it, when he’d realised that his aunt must have taken her secret with her to her grave.
His mother was his last hope.
‘This must be Brisbane’s best-kept secret,’ Ellie murmured as she surveyed the interior of the small restaurant. She absently picked a crumb from the red and white check tablecloth and put it on her plate. ‘I’ve never tasted a pizza so good. All those combinations. Yum.’
‘Do you have room left for dessert?’ Chris smiled and handed her the menu.
‘I doubt it.’ She scanned the list. ‘But … Tiramisu cake – how can I resist?’
‘Good choice. They make the best here.’
It was easy to believe. The restaurant wasn’t fancy, more traditional home-style Italian with its candles overflowing wax down the sides of Chianti bottles and grape-leaf clusters and white cement-daub walls and tubs of flowering red and white geraniums at the entrance. Families with young children and groups and couples of all ages occupied the tables that huddled close to allow maximum patronage.
Chris caught the eye of a waiter and placed their dessert order. ‘Would you like more wine?’ he asked Ellie as the waiter picked up their dishes and the empty bottle.
She shook her head. ‘No thanks. I have to work in the morning. As it is I’ll be tempted to sleep in.’
‘How are the designs going?’
It was a topic she had avoided all evening, worried that if she mentioned the break-in and vandalism Chris might want to investigate it and that would really get Bruce off side. But she knew she wasn’t a good liar, so she told him everything, including how Bruce wouldn’t inform the police of what had happened.
‘Why do I get the feeling you don’t consider this a simple case of kids breaking in and vandalising the unit?’ he asked when she’d finished.
‘I have nothing to go on but a gut feeling.’ Ellie found it difficult to express what she felt. It was like walking into a room that looked perfectly okay but knowing that something wasn’t quite right. ‘There was a lot of damage, but some of the holes in the wall looked like they’d been made carefully. They weren’t just punched out. They were too uniform, too square, as though they’d been deliberately cut out, whereas the others were jagged, like they’d been punched or hit with something like a hammer.’
‘Do you think I could have a look at them?’
Ellie saw the interest in his eyes, and imagined his cop brain ticking over the possibilities. She wasn’t sure she wanted this date turning into an investigation, even if she had mentioned the vandalism, but she needed to talk about it, and Chris was more likely to have answers than Cass or Kandy. ‘I doubt Bruce would welcome you, but I have a key to the building.’ She saw his eyebrows rise. ‘I can’t get there during a working day so Bruce gave me a key so I could look around after work or on weekends. I might need to take more measurements and I’ll need to check and see if the refurbishments are being done the way I designed them.’
‘I’m working a late shift tomorrow, but what about we go there after you finish work Tuesday?’
‘Okay. I’ll bring a torch.’ She was surprised at the relief she felt in knowing she wouldn’t be going back there alone. By the time she left work and drove to the units it would be dark, and she didn’t relish the idea of being there now the electricity had been disconnected. Especially when the memory of what she’d seen in unit three kept popping into her head.
She wasn’t sure if it was the wine she’d consumed or the need to stop thinking about Cherilyn’s murder, but her mind abruptly switched tracks and she blurted out the first thought it came up with. ‘How did your wife die?’
Surprise registered in Chris’s eyes, but before she could apologise and take back her question, he replied, ‘Hit and run. She’d walked down to the shop to get some milk and was hit when she was crossing the road.’
‘Oh, my God. I’m so sorry.’ Of all the things she’d surmised – cancer, heart attack, car accident – Ellie had never considered something like that.
‘We never found the car or even a witness who could describe it. It was night and drizzling rain and she was wearing dark clothing. But it would have been impossible for the driver not to know he’d hit someone.’ There was no emotion in Chris’s words, and if it wasn’t for the flicker of pain in his eyes, Ellie thought he could be reading out the details of a case in which he had no personal involvement. ‘I was supposed to buy the milk on my way home, but I’d been delayed at a crime scene so she left Danny in the house and walked to the corner shop. It was only two hundred metres away.’
‘How old was Danny?’
‘Eight. Old enough to leave on his own for the ten or twelve minutes it would have taken for Angela to get the milk.’
‘So he’s eighteen now,’ she mused. Then she frowned. ‘How old are you?’
‘Hell! I’m a cradle-snatcher.’
Chris chuckled. ‘Technically you’re only eighteen months older than I am, and that’s hardly cradle snatching.’
‘How do you know how old I am?’
‘You found a dead body. That immediately makes you a possible suspect until you’re cleared, which means we have to check you out.’
‘So,’ Ellie’s brain raced, but her words emerged slowly, ‘you know everything about me.’
If she’d thought his eyes could twinkle before, it was nothing to the gleam she saw now. His lips curled in a half-suppressed smile. ‘Not … everything.’
The words were so blatantly suggestive the colour flamed in her cheeks before she realised he was teasing her. ‘Just as well,’ she muttered, grabbing a serviette and dabbing at her face.
‘I’m sorry.’ He was instantly contrite. ‘I didn’t mean to embarrass you.’
‘I’m not embarrassed,’ she smiled, trying desperately but ineffectively to ignore the moisture seeping from every pore in her skin and the heat that made her body glow with colour more becoming a tomato, ‘but if you know so much about me you know I’m in that horrible menopause age bracket.’
‘It’s a bugger, isn’t it,’ he sympathised. ‘My sister had a hard time of it.’ He gave her an appraising look. ‘You don’t get mood swings, do you?’
She shook her head. ‘No, thank heavens. Just the odd power surge. And wine seems to make it worse.’ She reached for the water jug and poured a glass. ‘I think I should stick to this.’
‘My sister should have,’ he grimaced. ‘Every time she drank she was a real pain in the butt. I even told her husband that if he strangled her I’d go to court and testify it was justifiable homicide,’ he laughed. ‘But she’s fine now.’
‘It sounds like you’re quite close to her.’
‘She’s my older sister, always bossing me around. Good thing I was always taller or she would have been impossible to live with.’
In spite of his words, Ellie could see the love he obviously had for his sister. ‘Does she live in Brisbane?’
He nodded. ‘After Angela was killed, Rhonda and my mother looked after Danny when I went to work. They kept me sane too.’
‘Is that why you went back to being in uniform?’
For a moment she thought he wasn’t going to answer, or if he did it would just be to give a one word reply. But he picked up a serviette and folded it into ever-decreasing squares that seem to require his intense concentration as he said, ‘I thought I’d have a better chance of finding the car if I stayed in Homicide, but after a year Warren told me I should either take a break, give up looking, or get out of the service because I was becoming obsessive and wasn’t doing my job properly. Rhonda and Mum had been trying to tell me the same thing but I hadn’t listened. Danny had become withdrawn to the point of barely speaking and I hadn’t really noticed, or if I did I’d put it down to the same grief I was feeling. I told Rhonda what Warren had said,’ he looked up from the serviette, and his lips moved in the beginning of a wry smile, ‘expecting her to sympathise, but she gave me a blast that nearly knocked my head off. The next day I asked to go back into uniform.’
‘Did you regret it?’
He shook his head. ‘I’d told Rhonda how guilty I felt that Angela had gone to the shop when I’d promised I would do it, and she told me guilt didn’t raise a child and if I didn’t start becoming a better father I’d lose Danny as well. It was the wake-up call I needed.’ He placed the now extremely small serviette in the centre of the table. ‘How long have you been separated from your husband?’
Separated. Such a strange word. Taken literally it could mean that she and Damien were like two people pushed apart by a frenzied crowd or a wartime battle, seeking but not finding each other. Or maybe they’d deliberately decided to go their own ways. When in actuality they’d drifted apart, becoming strangers to each other. And maybe in a way, she thought, she’d become a stranger to herself. She was still trying to find who she really wanted to be. Working again had helped restore some of her confidence, and the opportunity to get back into the designing and decorating that she loved had put her in touch with the creative side of herself she’d thought long-buried under Damien’s less-than-subtle demands. But something was still missing, and she wasn’t sure she was ready yet to find out what that was.
‘About three months now. It wasn’t anything dramatic. We hadn’t really been a couple for a long time.’ She was tempted to tell him that Damien already had someone new in his life, or maybe his lover had been around for longer than Ellie wanted to think about, but she didn’t want him to think she was on the rebound.
‘So there’s no chance of getting back together?’ The question was asked in such a casual tone that Ellie almost missed the stillness in his body that gave lie to his seemingly mild interest.
‘None that I can see,’ she said, and felt a twinge of regret for the twenty-nine years of marriage that had ended with barely a whimper. ‘I phoned to tell him about Cherilyn and that was the first time we’d spoken since he’d left. I don’t even know where he’s staying. Thank heaven for mobile phones,’ she laughed.
As though on cue, Chris’s mobile rang. Annoyance flicked across his face. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But I’d better check it.’
Ellie smiled her assent. Chris looked at the screen, a frown furrowing his brow. ‘Sorry. I’ll have to take this. Back in a minute.’ He pushed his chair from the table and walked outside, the wind whisking leaves through the entryway before the glass doors closed behind him.
The waiter returned with their dessert. Ellie viewed the delicate sponge and creamy filling and coffee-chocolate layers decorated with blueberries and raspberries and chocolate curls and discovered she didn’t feel as full as she’d thought. Actually, her mouth was almost watering at the sight.
Chris strode back to the table. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, not making a move to sit, ‘I have to get home. Danny’s had a bit of an accident.’