Murder, Mayhem and Men On Pause: Part two

May 20, 2023
Part two in the serialisation of the novel written by author Sandy Curtis.

Click here for Part One.


Chapter Eight

Cherilyn spun around, heels rising as though to flee.

‘Mouse.’ Air rushed from her lungs on the word as a skinny young man moved from behind one of the trees. Her body relaxed in relief.

            ‘Do you -’ he caught sight of her face. ‘What happened to your face? Did Jackson do that? He likes to hit girls.’

            Panic reared, tightening her throat. ‘Please, Mouse, don’t tell him you saw me. Please.’ She gripped her backpack, unsure if she should trust him. Mouse was a loner, someone she knew little about, but they’d exchanged names last year after they had, quite literally, bumped into each other at the food van here. She hadn’t told him about Jackson, but some months later had seen him buying off Jackson. She didn’t let on she knew him, and he hadn’t acknowledged her. Word on the street was that he was a retard, but in subsequent meetings at the food van she’d gained the impression that he was just a bit slow.

            ‘I won’t. Don’t like him anyway,’ he shrugged. ‘You need somewhere to stay?’

            She shook her head. She couldn’t take the risk he would tell Jackson. ‘I’m okay.’

            ‘Sure you are.’ He didn’t try to hide his disbelief. ‘There’s a block of units a few streets north of here. They’re working on ‘em in the day but no-one’s there at night. Go around the back yard – a window doesn’t lock properly.’ He shrugged again. ‘Just gotta get outta there real early. Before they start work.’ He took out a small pouch and gestured to a part of the park where the lights didn’t reach. ‘Wanna share?’

            The compulsion to feel the mind-numbing bliss he offered was almost too much to resist, but she couldn’t take the risk. She couldn’t think properly when she was stoned, and that would make her even more vulnerable. ‘Another time.’ She slung her pack onto her shoulders and hurried away.

Friday dawned with grey skies that turned to drizzling rain by lunch time and a steady downpour by mid-afternoon that brought with it a coldness that seemed to creep into Ellie’s bones. It didn’t surprise her when Bruce Moloney phoned and told her he wouldn’t be able to show her around the units that afternoon.

            ‘Why don’t I drop the keys into you on my way home,’ he suggested, ‘and you go have a look at the place on the weekend?’

            Ellie watched the people outside the store trying to avoid the large puddles that had formed in the car park. ‘That sounds like a good idea, Bruce.’ A hot shower and a hot drink sounded more enticing than wet feet and tramping around an old building that would be as empty as she’d felt these past few months.

            That morning she’d told Richard about the project and had been pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm, and touched by his offer to let her contact his suppliers in her search for furniture and furnishings. She hoped he was only offering because it would be a sensible business suggestion, but lately she’d wondered if there wasn’t a little more to his friendliness than good personnel management skills.

            Twenty minutes later, and ignoring the signs that said no parking, Bruce drove his ute as close as possible to the front door and clomped into the store. Ellie recognised him instantly from Cass’s description and hurried over and introduced herself. He handed her a keyring containing several keys and explained what doors they opened. ‘Just be careful,’ he told her, ‘my men have already started pulling out the kitchen and bathroom fittings on the top floor so there’s a bit of mess around. If you decide to take on the job you’ll have to get a blue card. I can’t have you on site without one. But I can arrange that.’ He handed her a business card, ‘Call me when you’ve had a look.’ And turned to leave.

            ‘Wait.’ She stepped around so he had to talk to her. ‘Do you have a copy of the original plans?’

            ‘No, they were destroyed in the ’74 flood. The council lost a lot of records then. But the unit layouts are the same on each floor so you won’t have to look at the whole nine.’

            ‘Don’t you want to be there when I look at the place? So I can ask questions? Or make suggestions?’ Ellie felt she was floundering. She had no idea of his budget or time frame.

            He raised one bristled eyebrow. ‘You’re the interior designer. Give me a quote on a full fit-out for the biggest unit and we’ll go from there. Besides, footy’s on this weekend.’ He grinned in anticipation and stomped out.

‘Cass, I don’t think I can do this.’ Ellie paced the lounge room floor that evening, cordless phone to her ear, mind seething with self-doubt. Miranda had gone to help on the food van again, and Ellie hoped she was keeping warm. The rain had ceased, but the chill had intensified, and grey and dismal skies had turned crisp in their blackness.

            ‘Of course you can, Ellie.’

Cass sounded so sure that Ellie stopped pacing. ‘Bruce didn’t sound like he had much confidence in me.’

            ‘Bruce sounds like that all the time. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Would you like me to come with you tomorrow?’

            ‘Would you? I hate to be a nuisance, but …’

            Cass’s chuckle sounded in Ellie’s ear. ‘You’re not a nuisance. It will be interesting to see what Bruce has got himself into. How does nine o’clock sound?’

            ‘Wonderful. I’ll pick you up. Thanks, Cass.’

            When had she become such a wuss? Ellie looked at the phone as she placed it back in the holder. Her self-esteem and self-confidence had been on the wane for years, but Damien’s cold-blooded attitude to the demise of their marriage had her wondering if she’d been more to blame than he was. Had she not been the wife he needed? Or wanted? Had she become so boring that he had lost interest in her? She groaned. She’d never really considered herself assertive, but perhaps she’d become an emotional coward. If Damien’s business crisis hadn’t happened, would she have ever had the courage to confront him about the state of their marriage?

            Confront. That was the important word. She simply wasn’t a confrontational sort of person. But if she didn’t learn to become more assertive soon she was going to lose this opportunity to prove herself. She was about to grab a pen and write a few more ideas on her list but stopped. She might not have come kicking and screaming to the computer age, but she’d been reluctant to drag herself too far into its unfathomable depths. Now she regretted her lack of enthusiasm. Miranda had sourced several programs for her that would make working out measurements and placing furniture so much easier. She just wished she understood how to use them.

            With a determination she forced herself to feel, she walked to the computer desk.

‘Thank God the sun’s shining. Still cold though.’ Ellie parked outside a three-storey red-brick building in New Farm. A huge Poinciana tree bowed leafless but graceful limbs over the road and footpath. The rain of the day before had refreshed everything. Even the adjoining houses, wide-verandahed timber Queenslanders, remnants of a more genteel era, appeared to sparkle in the sun. Paintwork looked bright, roofs clean. Even the gardens, some lovingly tended, others left to run a little wild, seemed almost Spring-like with their glossy leaves and winter blooms.

            Ellie surveyed the low brick fence and tiny front yard of Bruce’s property. A large skip bin overflowing with discarded timber and plumbing fixtures sat between the fence and the building. Lasiandra shrubs formed purple sentinels either side of the front door, and she wondered if Bruce would allow them to stay. She hoped so. Colour was important, particularly for creating good first impressions. She would tell him to keep the garden as old-fashioned as possible. Then she thought of his less-than-subtle personality. No, she would advise him.

            She noted the driveway going down the side of the yard and wondered if there was parking behind the building or if Bruce planned to provide some.

            ‘He’s going to have to spruce up the outside,’ Cass pulled her red tartan coat closer together as they walked into the yard. ‘The windows could all do with re-puttying and painting,’ she pointed to the mullioned windows, their mottled glass gleaming dully in the sunshine, ‘and so do the glass panels either side of the door, and the door needs replacing.’

            Putting her briefcase containing her camera, pads, pens and tape measure at her sneakered feet, Ellie searched her handbag for the keys Bruce had given her. She selected the longest. The key went smoothly into the lock, then needed a little jiggling before it turned. She pushed the door open and braced herself for the theatrical creak she expected from its weathered appearance, but it simply whispered over the coarse woven mat inside.

            The foyer walls had yellowed with age, and the carpet runner covering the timber staircase leading to the upper floors had worn almost to the threads. Ellie walked over and inspected the curved hand-rail and carved railings. Good timber, it would be easily restored.

            She wasn’t too sure about the foyer floor tiles. Although none were broken, dirt seemed to have permanently stained their muted cream colour. Probably be better to replace them than try to bring them back to their former glory.

            The staircase took up a lot of the rectangular-shaped foyer, with one doorway in front of it, straight to Ellie’s right, a brass number One screwed into it. On the long wall to her left were two doorways, then another directly opposite the front door. All darkly varnished. All doors closed.

            ‘The unit doors shouldn’t be locked,’ Cass commented. ‘Joe said they’ve been working their way through from the top, taking out the bathroom and kitchen fittings. They haven’t reached the bottom floor yet.’

            ‘Good. I’d like to see what’s been done with them. Most of these old buildings were only renovated when things started to fall apart. If we’re lucky we might find some original pieces.’ It was a slight hope, Ellie knew, but she was anxious to find something that might give her an idea of how the units were originally furnished. She turned to her right. ‘We’ll start with unit One.’

            Twenty-five minutes later she was still measuring and taking notes, muttering her disappointment at finding the unit had been decorated in the “bare basics” el-cheapo style so reminiscent of flats of the 1970s. Black and white floor tiles, tight-looped multi-coloured carpet that hid stains well, plain beige bathroom wall tiles, kitchen cupboards in beige laminex. Curtains so old she thought they’d crumble if she touched them.

            As she worked, the fear that had niggled at the perimeter of her subconscious disappeared, to be replaced by a burgeoning excitement. In her mind she could see the changes that needed to be made to bring a mid-1920s ambiance to the unit. An era when the horror of the First World War and the devastating Spanish Flu had begun to ease from memories and the Great Depression had yet to occur.

Last night she’d spent hours researching the furniture and furnishings of the era and had been excited to discover that a furniture craftsman named Edmund Rosenstengel had set up a workshop and showroom in an old New Farm picture theatre in 1922. She’d found photos of his work and had fallen in love with its intricately carved elegance, his use of Queensland timbers such as oak, silver ash and maple, his styles incorporating aspects of French and English traditional furniture.

She looked around the living room, imagined the carved Broadwood piano, the finely-curved chairs and carved-leg table, the tall china cabinet with its slender, haughty elegance, the … They’d have to be reproductions, of course. She couldn’t see Bruce forking out the kind of dollars needed for originals.

            She didn’t notice that Cass had wandered from the room, didn’t hear her friend’s shoes clack across the foyer tiles, didn’t hear the soft creak as the door to unit three opened to Cass’s firm push.

            Her notepad dropped from her hand at the scream that echoed from wall to wall in the empty building.


Chapter Nine

‘Cass! Cass! What’s happened?’ Ellie raced into the foyer and saw Cass backing out of the third doorway, her face white, hand over her mouth as though trying to prevent another scream breaking through. She turned to Ellie and Ellie’s heart raced faster at the shock and horror in her eyes. She squeezed Cass’s arm in brief comfort and walked, reluctantly, into the unit.

            The multi-hued carpet would never hide the stain beneath the head of the young woman who lay, body twisted, head tilted at an awkward angle, long brown hair fanned like a halo. A deep gash split her forehead and one eyebrow and parted the skin over her smashed cheekbone. Blood, now dark and dried, had flowed across the nose and cheek, leaving the lips untouched. Chafed and swollen lips that, except for an almost-healed scar, were alabaster in death.

            Fighting the inertia of shock, Ellie fumbled in her bag for her mobile. For a second she couldn’t remember what buttons to press to unlock it, then habit kicked in and she was soon dialling the triple zero emergency number and asking for the police.

            The connection was made, and her words were like autumn leaves in a storm, scattering everywhere, until she forced herself to take a deep breath, close her eyes, and concentrate on giving coherent information. At the end of the call she opened her eyes. She didn’t want to look at the body. She wanted to run from the room, the building, to some place safe where death didn’t take children from their parents. The young woman looked about Pru’s and Miranda’s age, and the fear rose in Ellie that she could lose them as swiftly as she had lost her son all those years ago. That same fear she’d fought so hard to control so she wouldn’t smother her daughters in protectiveness and stop them from living life to its fullest.

            The sound of Cass’s quiet sobbing broke through the fear’s paralysing grip and she moved leaden feet, one by one, until she stood close enough to Cass to hug, but her arms refused to reach out. ‘I’ve called the police.’

            Cass balled up the tissue she was using to wipe her eyes and pushed it into her pocket. ‘Can we wait outside?’

            ‘In the sunshine.’ Ellie thought her voice sounded different – like she didn’t own it.

            ‘Sunshine would be good,’ Cass agreed, and they hurried through the front door and stood on the path. For a minute they stood silent, then Cass started talking, asking questions that had no answers. ‘Who is she?’ ‘How did she get in?’ ‘Who would have done that to her?’ And Ellie stayed silent, not because she knew Cass had to talk to come to terms with what she’d seen, but because she felt as though she’d used all her words in talking to the police. She felt as though there wasn’t a word left in her. So she stood, nodding her head to agree with Cass how terrible it was while inside her the emptiness, the aching, grew bigger.

            When a police car pulled up and two officers got out, Cass almost ran to greet them, but Ellie’s feet refused to move. Police had come after Paul had died. Routine, they’d said, and they’d been kind, but Ellie had never fully lost the sense of bad news that seeing their blue uniforms imparted to her.

            ‘Ellie Cummins?’ the taller of the two asked, and Ellie nodded. She tried to find the words to introduce Cass, but they wouldn’t leave her throat.

            ‘I’m Senior Constable Chris Ryan and this is Constable Allan Pierce,’ he tilted his head to the younger man standing beside and slightly behind him. He looked at Cass, but before he could ask she told him her name and how she’d found the girl and how horrible it was. ‘Could you show me where you found her?’ he asked, and Cass flinched as though he’d threatened to hit her.

            ‘I’ll show you,’ Ellie said. She didn’t want Cass to have to go into that room again. It was her fault that Cass was here; if she hadn’t been such a wuss and asked Cass to come with her, Cass would be at home with her usual rituals of Saturday mornings instead of dealing with this trauma.

            Ellie led the police officer into the house. She hesitated outside the third doorway, then stood aside. Chris Ryan walked into the room and wrote swiftly in a notebook as he surveyed the scene. Ellie followed his gaze. The body still lay like a broken doll, and although she tried not to look at it, her eyes were drawn to the face, to the hint of beauty that might have been there once. The deeply shadowed eyes and pimpled skin told of the young woman’s lifestyle as much as the drug paraphernalia she now noticed strewn nearby. A scruffy backpack lay a few feet away, its contents scattered around as though they’d been tipped out and searched through; a small pink teddy bear looked up at her with dull eyes and cotton-thread mouth.

            Humming started in Ellie’s head. It was progressing to buzzing when she heard the officer’s voice, sounding so far away, ask, ‘Are you all right?’

            The faint ‘No’ that formed in her mouth didn’t come out, but he cupped her elbow and led her from the room and gently sat her on the stairs just as dizziness swept through her and her legs turned to rubber. Before she could think, her head was pushed between her knees and a firm arm went around her shoulders and stopped her from falling towards the floor. With relief, she felt the buzzing gradually abate and realised she needed to draw more air into her lungs.

            ‘I don’t normally faint,’ she explained, and as she gradually pulled upright she realised Chris Ryan was sitting beside her. He held her just a fraction longer then moved his arm away.

            ‘I fainted at my first autopsy.’

            Ellie looked at him. He’d pushed his cap back to reveal unruly black hair sprinkled with grey. His eyes were a Paul Newman shade of blue, and they twinkled as he added, ‘I found out later the coroner deliberately showed the worst parts to the new recruits. Apparently he liked hearing the thud as they hit the floor.’

            ‘Obviously had a macabre sense of humour,’ Ellie responded, and saw the twinkle deepen. ‘Oh, in his profession …’ she mumbled as her choice of words registered in her slowly-clearing brain.

            Before she could say any more, he pulled his lanky frame from the stairs and walked to greet more police officers. Suddenly it seemed like the place was swirling with dark blue uniforms. Before Ellie could work out their various ranks, two men in suits came through the front door. Chris Ryan spoke with them for a minute, then indicated the third doorway. The two men walked towards it, one nodded at Ellie and said, ‘Be with you soon, Mrs Cummins,’ as they passed.

            Ellie thought about standing up but decided not to trust her legs just yet. She looked at Chris Ryan. ‘You’d better brush your pants. The stairs weren’t clean.’

            He twisted around in a vain attempt to see his backside, then chuckled softly and swatted the dust from his dark pants. The movement was so natural and the sound so genuine she found herself smiling at him as though they’d shared a mutual secret. Then she wondered if that was his way of distracting her from the memory of their grim discovery and her smile faded.

            A moment later the two suited men returned, one of them putting away his mobile and telling the other that the forensic girls had been delayed but were now on their way. The older of the two, a craggy-faced, pot-bellied man in his fifties, introduced himself as Senior Detective Wayne Warren from the local CIB, and the other man as Detective Mick Jones. He asked Ellie questions and Mick Jones wrote her replies in his notebook.

            After she’d explained why she and Cass were in the building and what they’d seen, and given him Bruce Moloney’s contact details, he told her she was free to leave. ‘But you and Mrs Brighton will have to come into the station in the next seventy-two hours to make a statement.’ He handed her his card. ‘In the meantime, if you think of anything that might help us, please let me know. Would you like us to call someone to come and get you and Mrs Brighton, Mrs Cummins? Or are you okay to drive?’

            ‘I’ll be all right, detective.’ Ellie got to her feet. She still felt a bit shaky but the fresh air outside would help. ‘My bags are in the front unit. Is it okay if I get them?’

            ‘Senior Constable Ryan will get them for you.’

            Chris Ryan got her bags and escorted her to the front door. ‘You’d better tell your husband about this as soon as you can,’ he told her. ‘You don’t want him hearing about it on the news and thinking you might be the victim.’

            Ellie smiled wanly. ‘My husband and I are separated, Senior Constable Ryan. He lives in Sydney now. He doesn’t know I was here today and I doubt it would worry him overly if he did.’

            His face wore an expression of sympathy but she thought she saw a spark of something in those brilliant blue eyes that she could easily misconstrue as interest. ‘So is there someone who can be there for you? Sometimes things like this can lead to delayed reactions.’

            ‘I’m living with my youngest daughter.’ Ellie thought of Miranda and her compassionate nature and relief flowed through her. She’d get far more sympathy from Miranda in a minute than Pru would give in a lifetime. Pru would just scold her for everything from taking on the work to not having the builder there to ensure her safety.

            The officer who’d come with Chris Ryan was cordoning off the building with crime scene tape. As he finished, a television van pulled up in front of the house, followed by a stationwagon with a newspaper logo on the side. A cameraman spilled from the passenger seat of the stationwagon and began clicking madly. Quickly angling them away from the camera, Chris Ryan hurried Ellie and Cass into Ellie’s Magna.

            By the time she had driven a couple of blocks, Ellie could almost imagine that the previous forty-five minutes had been a bad dream. But she closed her eyes for a second when they stopped at traffic lights and the girl’s bloodied face swam into her mind. After that she focused so intently on the traffic as she drove back to Cass’s house that she doubted she’d blinked the entire way.

Although she didn’t want to stop at Cass’s for coffee and discuss the horror they’d witnessed, Ellie knew she couldn’t leave her friend alone if Joe had gone out. To her relief Joe was pruning shrubs in the garden and she said goodbye to Cass with a promise that she would go straight home and rest.

            ‘Will you be all right?’ Cass worried at her as she went to close the car door.

            Ellie nodded. ‘Miranda makes a great coffee. I’ll probably have a full pot. Or maybe a bottle of …’ she was about to say red but the image of blood changed her mind. ‘Maybe hot chocolate with lots of sugar,’ she amended.

An hour later she realised just how good a listener her daughter had become. Miranda asked only a few questions and Ellie surprised herself by blurting out what had happened. After a while she fell silent, aware that Miranda’s questions had been couched in terms that drew out information without appearing to be probing. ‘Where did you learn that technique?’ she asked and put her mug on the coffee table as she snuggled into the purple doona Miranda had placed around her on the lounge.

            ‘What technique?’ Miranda blinked at her over the top of her mug.

            ‘Your questions. They … let me tell you everything without feeling pressured. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to talk about it.’

            Miranda smiled. ‘I saw the way the clients would talk to Ben – he’s the guy who runs the food van. He wouldn’t let us call them druggies or deros or anything like that. We had to treat the clients with respect and not pry into their lives. Just accept them. But I noticed that Ben would ask questions like How did you feel about that? or maybe just make statements like That must have upset you and even the most stubborn person would gradually open up to him. Then I read some books on active listening and saw the value in it.’

            ‘You’re quite amazing, Mirie.’ Ellie found it difficult to accept that she had been oblivious to the layers that made up the unique human being Miranda had become. And with that realisation came shame she had let that happen. Skidding along the surface, she thought. Always being afraid to dig too deep into emotions. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

            ‘For what?’ Miranda seemed genuinely puzzled.

            Ellie smiled. ‘For being you.’


Chapter Ten


            The stupid bitch was dead.

            Geoffrey Lenard stared at the television screen and cursed until his mouth became as dry as the bottle of cheap scotch he’d finished before collapsing on the futon that doubled as the bed in his tiny bedsit. But even in sleep he couldn’t escape the memory of his bag of tools crunching into the woman’s face, her cry of pain, the blood bright red in the glow of his torch beam, her bag spinning away from his boot and spilling its contents across the floor.

            If he hadn’t quite literally tripped over her as he made his way back to the window, he would never have reacted like that. It was the shock that made him lash out, striking her as she’d tried to rise. He kept telling himself that, but he wondered if it were true. He’d never killed anyone before. But his life was on the line. And he had so little time left. If he didn’t find it soon …

            The newsreader droned on, her voice scraping at the ache in his head. He flicked the television off.


There was no silence in jail. Even in the dead of night. There were always sounds to remind you that you weren’t alone. You couldn’t relax and let your guard down.

            He couldn’t go back there again. He almost shuddered at the thought. Murder would mean a long stretch, and he’d barely survived his last short dip in that pool of human excrement. And he was getting too old to cope with the young toughs whose heads were screwed by drugs.

No, he would have to keep searching. But he’d have to wait a few days in case the cops were still around. And it would be harder now, they’d be sure to fix the window latch.

He had no choice.

He hoped no-one would get in his way, but if they did …

He wondered if killing was easier the second time.


Chapter Eleven

The nightmares came again that night. Only this time Ellie’s dreams swapped the lifeless bundle of a baby boy with the bloodied body of a young woman. A woman who had the face of Miranda, then Pru, then the girl on the floor of unit Three. By the time Ellie woke up on Sunday morning she felt as though she’d only slept for two hours all night. The bathroom mirror confirmed her suspicions. A long hot shower eased some of the creases around her eyes but the dark shadows beneath them needed more help than steam could give.

            Cass had phoned last night to make sure Ellie was all right, and Ellie had reassured her she was fine. But as she’d slipped into bed, she had envied Cass the comfort and reassurance she knew her friend would get from Joe. And she wondered if Damien would have broken from his habitual indifference to soothe the fear and ease the ache in her heart if they’d still been together.

            Now, as she finished showering and dressed in an old tracksuit that had been downgraded from fashion to house-and-yard-only status, she decided she would phone him this morning and tell him what had happened. He’d promised to keep in touch with her but so far hadn’t done so.

            She phoned him after breakfast, but as he was expressing sympathy that sounded more polite than concerned, she heard a woman’s voice in the background, and she didn’t sound like she was discussing business. Well, only the kind of business that sprang to mind on a Sunday morning after a very good Saturday night.

            ‘I see you’ve moved on,’ Ellie said, trying to make her tone as cool as possible and not allow the little quiver of her lips to get worse.

            Damien started to mutter an excuse, but Ellie found she didn’t want to know. ‘I hope you have a good life, Damien,’ she said and disconnected. In the past few weeks she’d believed she’d come to terms with the breakdown of her marriage, but now doubts flooded back. She’d thought they were both to blame for the disintegration of their relationship, but had Damien been seeing someone else all along? She told herself it didn’t matter now, she was moving on, making a new life for herself. But she couldn’t stop the terrible sense of betrayal that made her want to throw things at the wall or phone Damien back and scream at him that she hoped his dick dropped off or he caught something hugely embarrassing from the woman who didn’t even have the diplomacy to shut up when her lover’s wife was on the phone.

She looked up to find Miranda standing in the lounge room doorway, jeans tucked into her ugg boots, and pink jumper stretching halfway to her knees.

            ‘It’s really final then,’ Miranda said. ‘Between you and Dad I mean.’

            Ellie took a deep breath and slowly released it. ‘Yes. It certainly looks that way.’

            ‘It’s sad. I kind of hoped you two could get back together, now that you’ve become’ she smiled apologetically, ‘a bit more assertive, but I guess some things just aren’t meant to be.’

            ‘No, maybe they’re not,’ Ellie agreed, then stood up. ‘But if I’m going to make a go of this interior design business then I’d better get stuck into it.’ She looked around the room. ‘Would you mind if we get rid of some of this furniture and put in a desk I can use to work from? There’s no room in my bedroom.’

            ‘Do what you want,’ Miranda smiled. ‘But when Grandad Bert visits next you’ll have to explain why things have been changed.’

            ‘Oh.’ With a sinking heart Ellie remembered the temper tantrum Bert had thrown when Damien had brought him to visit and he’d seen Miranda’s clothing on the washing line. Unable to make him understand that his beloved wife Eugenia didn’t live there anymore, Damien had had to tell him that Miranda had come to visit for a few weeks before he would stop pulling out pegs and throwing her jeans and shirts in the rubbish bin. He wouldn’t touch her underwear – Ellie doubted that he even knew what the thongs and brightly-coloured bras were. Eugenia had believed white was the only colour underwear should come in.

            ‘I’ll just have to handle that when the time comes,’ Ellie said. ‘In the meantime I’ll use the kitchen table.’

            ‘Don’t forget to phone Pru and tell her what happened.’ Miranda’s rather you than me expression made Ellie’s heart sink. Telling Pru about discovering a body would be difficult enough, she wasn’t going to risk the righteous indignation that Ellie knew would be her elder daughter’s response to the revelation about the other woman in Damien’s life. Not that Ellie anticipated Pru being shocked at her father’s actions. On the contrary. Ellie wouldn’t be surprised if she complained it was due to Ellie’s lack of support that Damien had been forced to find solace elsewhere. With a sigh of gratitude, she acknowledged Miranda’s sympathetic grin.

Ellie wasn’t the only one dreading making a call to a family member. Cass had picked up the phone twice last night and once this morning to call her mother, but, at the thought of Audra’s “I told you so” attitude, had quickly returned the handset to its charger.

She gazed at the newspaper photo again. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of that Senior Constable, hers and Ellie’s faces would have been clearly visible. As it was they were half-silhouettes she hoped were sufficiently indistinct as to be unrecognisable.

That hope was shattered when the phone rang and she saw Audra’s number on the Caller ID panel. Cass looked at her watch. Audra and Gerry stuck to a routine that was more regular than Gerry’s bowel movements, and right now they would be eating breakfast and reading the morning paper. She picked up the phone. ‘Hello, Mum.’

‘Is that you in that photo in the paper? What were you thinking of, going to that derelict place? And was it Ellie who was with you?’

            Best to get it over with, Cass sighed. ‘Yes, Mum. Joe’s boss wanted Ellie to look at the units he’d bought and advise him how he could refurbish them in 1920s style and I said I’d go with her.’

            ‘I told Gerry that was you in that tartan coat. I remember when you bought it. They haven’t made anything like that in years.’ Audra’s voice faded, and Cass said nothing to fill in the silence that ensued. Then Audra spoke again. ‘Are you all right? It must have been a terrible shock for you, finding that poor girl like that.’

            It was almost as big a shock to hear the sympathy in Audra’s voice. For an absurd moment Cass felt like crying. ‘Yes, it was horrible. But I’m okay.’

            ‘Well, I always did say you were made of sterner stuff than your brother. Heaven knows how he’d cope if he came across something like that. Probably lock himself in his ivory tower and throw away the key.’

            Cass knew that Audra would never forgive her bookish brother Leon for refusing to go into the family shoe store after he left school. He had fled to the cerebral joy of university and never ventured back. Their father had died of a heart attack, brought about, Audra insisted, by the stress of running the business on his own when he should have had the support of his only son. She seemed oblivious to the fact that Cass had worked there, often putting in longer hours than her father, and never asking for overtime.

            She wasn’t sure if she was made of “sterner stuff”, but Cass wasn’t going to knock back Audra’s unexpected support. Especially as it happened so rarely.

By three o’clock that afternoon Ellie had worked out a preliminary design for unit One. It was frustrating not having all the measurements for the unit. Cass discovering that poor girl’s body had interrupted that, and now the building would be cordoned off as a crime scene for who knows how long. Her chest constricted at the memory of the girl’s inert form. She pushed the image from her mind and concentrated on viewing the websites on furniture and furnishings Miranda had found for her on the internet. She’d seen several wallpapers she thought were promising and sent off emails requesting availability and prices. The second design she had in mind required knocking down walls to increase the size of the bathroom and add a small en suite to the master bedroom as well as create an office nook that could be easily disguised with folding doors or a feature curtain. She wasn’t sure how much renovation Bruce was prepared to do – money seemed to be a big worry for him, and in the current economic climate she couldn’t blame him for wanting to keep costs to a minimum. As it was he was taking a risk with such an innovative project.

            She pushed the drawing board aside and stood up to stretch her back. In the past five minutes her thoughts had become more centred on a steaming cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit than claw-foot bathtubs. As she walked over to the kitchen bench to put the kettle on, a knock sounded on the front door.

            ‘I’ll get it,’ Miranda called.

            Ellie smiled. She’d noticed the dreamy look that had crossed Miranda’s face when she’d spoken about Ben, the man who organised the food van, and she’d wondered if there could be more to it than wishful thinking.

            When Miranda appeared in the kitchen doorway a moment later, Ellie was surprised to see the enquiring look on her face. ‘There’s a man here to see you. Says he’s a police officer. But he’s not in uniform.’

            ‘It’s probably that CIB detective,’ Ellie said and walked into the lounge room. And stopped in surprise. It wasn’t Wayne Warren with his lined face and sloping stomach, but Senior Constable Chris Ryan, checked shirt and jeans covering his lanky body. Ellie blinked. Riding boots. He was wearing riding boots. All he needed was an Akubra and she could imagine him rounding up cattle or herding sheep.

            He saw her staring and grinned. ‘Sorry for the informality. A mate of mine owns a property up Samford way and we go riding sometimes. He has some great horses.’ He paused a moment, then as Ellie made no response, continued. ‘I was a bit concerned about you. You didn’t look too good yesterday.’

            Ellie had trouble finding her tongue. Yesterday she’d noticed little about him except his striking blue eyes but now she noticed the pleasing symmetry of his bone structure and the way it made his facial features, which were nothing extraordinary on their own, quite attractive. ‘Would you like to sit down?’ she finally managed. ‘I was just going to make some tea … or coffee if you’d rather?’

            ‘Thanks. I could do with a coffee. I had a beer with my mate but when you’re driving …’ he let the sentence hang and sat on the lounge.

            ‘I’ll make the coffee and bring it out,’ Miranda called from the kitchen, and Ellie didn’t know whether to be grateful she didn’t have to leave Constable Ryan alone to gaze at the conglomeration of furniture and furnishings that laughed at her story about being an interior designer, or worried that being alone with him when he was obviously off duty was putting their relationship on another level.

            Relationship? Where had that word come from? All they’d shared yesterday was a distracting smile and she’d assumed it had been his way of taking her mind from the horror of what she’d just seen.

            She settled herself at the other end of the lounge, annoyed that the other lounge chair was tucked into a corner and supporting a pile of Miranda’s books. With them both on the lounge they had to angle their bodies towards each other in order to make eye contact. Which brought their knees perilously close together. ‘It was kind of you to think about me.’ The words sounded inane, but she was having trouble thinking of anything brilliant to say.

            ‘I know you didn’t know the … victim …,’ he began, pacing his words as though making sure they were the right ones, ‘but even so, it’s not something you get over in a hurry.’

            ‘No,’ she agreed, ‘I guess not.’ She felt awkward, aware that his coming to see her was completely unofficial. ‘Thank you for being concerned, but you didn’t have to worry.’

            ‘When I was riding I remembered what you said about your husband probably not worrying about you. But I see,’ he smiled as Miranda brought in a tray with mugs, coffee, milk, sugar and a plate of chocolate biscuits and put it on the coffee table, ‘you’re being well looked after.’

Ellie hurriedly made introductions.

‘I’ll get the kettle as soon as it’s boiled,’ Miranda said. ‘Have they identified the woman yet, Constable Ryan?’ she asked.

‘Please, I’m off duty, call me Chris. And yes, her belongings were in the room and her bag contained ID. The details will be on the news tonight so it won’t matter if I tell you now. Her name was Cherilyn Manning. She was twenty-three and -’

‘Shit!’ Miranda’s face paled. ‘Cherilyn!’

‘You knew her?’ Chris asked, his body tensing to an alertness that told Ellie the police officer part of him wasn’t far beneath the surface.

‘You remember Cherilyn, Mum?’ Miranda plonked down onto the floor as though her legs were suddenly unable to hold her up.

There was something about the name that seemed familiar to Ellie, but no details, no face – certainly not the one on the dead body, came to mind. ‘Was she at school with you?’

‘No, but she was on my netball team when I was still in high school. Remember, the plump one with the mole on her cheekbone that wouldn’t stop bleeding when the ball hit it that time?’

‘But that …’ Ellie found it hard to reconcile the memory of that girl with the lank-haired, skinny young woman on the floor of unit three.

‘Remember how we gave her a lift home that Saturday afternoon because the game was cancelled when the storm hit and she would have had to wait for an hour in the rain for a bus?’ Miranda pressed on, as though by making Ellie remember she was able to share her disbelief and maybe her fear that murder could strike someone she knew. Or had known.

‘I remember the girl,’ Ellie shook her head, ‘but I would never have known it was her. In the unit, I mean.’

‘We don’t have any leads on who killed her,’ Chris directed their thoughts back to the present, ‘so if there’s anything you could tell me,’ he looked at Miranda, ‘that might give us some insight into her life, it might help.’

Miranda opened her mouth but the whistle of the kettle stopped whatever she was about to say. She pulled herself to her feet. ‘I’ll get the hot water.’

When she returned she filled the mugs, handed them to Ellie and Chris and picked up her own. ‘I don’t think I can help you, Chris,’ she said. ‘I was seventeen when I last played netball with Cherilyn. If you don’t mind I’m almost finished a book I was reading and I’d like to get back to it. Nice meeting you.’

‘Sure. Thanks for the coffee.’

As Miranda walked away, Ellie had the uneasy suspicion that her daughter was hiding something. She looked at Chris. If he had sensed anything it wasn’t showing on his face.

‘Have you been able to work on any designs for the units?’ he asked, and Ellie was grateful the subject of Cherilyn Manning had been abandoned. She told him what she’d been able to do so far, and as he asked questions about the project – questions that showed he was truly interested and not simply being polite – she felt her enthusiasm growing. It had been such a long time since a man had shown any interest in her capabilities that she found herself almost glowing in the unexpected attention. Then, to her horror, she actually was glowing.

Heat rose in her like a tidal wave, washing sweat from every pore. She nearly gasped with surprise. In the past couple of months she’d had the occasional hot flush, but they’d been mild. Especially compared with this one.

‘Are you okay?’ Chris asked.

Ellie took a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her face. ‘I’m just warm. These old houses hold the heat in the afternoon,’ she lied, and the lie compounded her embarrassment. ‘I’ll just let some air in.’ She jumped up and went to the front door. As she opened it, she saw Cass and Kandy walking up the path.


Chapter Twelve

‘Ellie, we’ve been so worried about you,’ Kandy called and hurried ahead of Cass. She took the two steps to the front porch in a leap and hugged Ellie. ‘It must have been horrible. You -’ She stopped as she looked into the lounge room. Her arms dropped to her sides. ‘Sorry. I didn’t realise you had a visitor.’ She looked back towards the street as though confirming something to herself.

‘My Rodeo is parked a little further up the street. I missed the house number,’ Chris said as he stood up, and Ellie felt a stab of disappointment at the smile he gave Kandy. She quickly tamped down the surge of jealousy that shot through her, surprised at the unfamiliar emotion.

Surprise was also written all over Cass’s face, but she quickly concealed it. ‘Hello, Constable,’ she said. ‘I didn’t recognise you at first. Have you found out who killed that poor girl?’

‘Not yet, Mrs Brighton.’ He looked at Ellie. ‘I’d better get going. It’s my turn to cook tonight and I haven’t taken anything out of the freezer yet.’

 Ellie’s mood dropped even lower as Kandy practically purred, ‘Your wife is lucky to have a husband who doesn’t mind cooking.’

Chris looked at her as he replied, ‘My wife died ten years ago,’ then his gaze returned to Ellie. ‘My son and I have been looking after each other since. He’s more adventurous in the kitchen than I am, but he tolerates my lack of imagination.’ He walked towards the door, and Ellie saw the amusement in his eyes at the way Kandy scrutinized him as though he were a suspect in a line-up. Or a slave on the block. Or, and Ellie fought to control the thought, a potential bed-mate.

‘Come on,’ Cass ushered Kandy towards the kitchen, ‘we’ll make a cuppa while Ellie sees the constable out.’

‘Ladies,’ Chris nodded to them. Ellie walked him to the door. ‘Thanks for the coffee,’ he said as he stopped on the top step. ‘I’d like to repay the favour. Would you go out with me some time? Perhaps to the movies?’

The refusal that sprang instantly to Ellie’s tongue refused to shape into words. In all the years of being married to Damien she’d never strayed. Never even seriously been tempted by a sexy grin or a nicely toned body. There were barriers in her mind with “Married” written all over them. But the conversation with Damien that morning, or rather the conversation the woman in the room with him was trying to have, had chipped away at those blocks as surely as Michelangelo’s chisel had carved out the statue of David. ‘I’d like that,’ she said.

‘I’ll call you.’ The warmth in his eyes stayed with her even after he’d walked to his vehicle.

Kandy pounced as soon as she walked back into the lounge. ‘Ellie, you’d better not tell me that gorgeous man had come to see you simply to tell you they hadn’t caught the killer yet. He could have done that over the phone. Besides, he’s not on the homicide squad, Cass said he’s a uniform cop. Not that he was in uniform.’ Her appreciation of that fact showed on her face. ‘So? Why was he here?’

‘He came to see if I was all right after yesterday.’ Ooops, there was that heat starting again. Ellie dug in her pocket for a tissue and dabbed at the sweat that beaded on her forehead and neck.

The smile on Kandy’s face widened. Ellie gave up and flung herself down on the lounge. ‘All right! He’s asked me out. To the movies. Some time.’

‘Praise the Lord!’ Kandy waggled her hands in the air. ‘I was beginning to think he must have been blind and stupid.’

‘He’d have to be to be interested in me,’ Ellie muttered, and saw Cass shaking her head at her.

‘Don’t put yourself down, Ellie,’ Cass said. ‘You’re a very attractive woman.’

‘I’m forty-eight-years-old, in a tracksuit that should have been sent to the ragbag but is so comfortable I can’t make myself do so. I look like I haven’t slept in a week. And I’m menopausal.’

‘It’s about time you started,’ Cass said. ‘I’ve been on the downhill slide for years. But I am a bit older than you.’

‘I need a red wine,’ Ellie groaned. ‘Just when I thought I was carrying on an interesting conversation, I started sweating like I’d run a marathon and flushed so badly I was grateful the horrible curtains in here make the room dull.’

            ‘It’s not fair,’ Kandy commiserated. ‘Men go through male menopause and get a red sports car and a buxom blonde but it’s the opposite for women. Have you ever noticed,’ she twirled a shapely jeans-encased leg in the air, ‘that if your best feature is being x-rayed, the radiologist looks like John Candy, but the gynaecologist who’s examining your forty-four-year-old vagina that resembles an eroded creek bed obviously moonlights as Hunk of the Month?’

            ‘And the red wine that makes you forget that you can’t remember what you did in the previous twenty-four hours leads to big hot flushes that remind you you’re still menopausal,’ Cass muttered, seemingly unperturbed by her convoluted logic.

            ‘It’s been months since I’ve had a period, so that’s a bonus,’ Ellie smiled, then her hand flew to her mouth. ‘Shit! I hadn’t plucked those chin hairs!’

‘But your copper still asked you to go out with him,’ Kandy pointed out. ‘So spill, Ellie. What’s his name? And how long was he here and when are you going out? And did you notice what a nice firm butt he’s got? Those jeans fit very well.’

‘You lot are worse than teenagers!’ Miranda said from the doorway.

            ‘Teenagers have more to ogle,’ Kandy informed her, probably with more meaning than necessary. ‘When you get to our age you have to take what you can get.’

‘Are you going out with him, Mum?’ Miranda’s question hung in the air with all the intent of a pointed gun. Cass and Kandy concentrated on drinking their coffee.

Ellie’s teeth caught at her bottom lip. All the implications of going out with Chris Ryan hit her. It wasn’t just seeing a movie with an attractive man, it was a date, a foray back into the world of possibly finding a mate, of building a relationship. Or, her rational mind interjected, it could be just a fun evening with a nice man and nothing more. ‘Yes,’ her rational mind said, and her hopeful one crossed its fingers behind her back.

Miranda shrugged. ‘He seems okay.’

‘It’s only the movies.’

‘Whatever.’ It was a reply typical of when Miranda had been a teenager and thought pretending complete indifference to the subject would say more than any statement she could make. Ellie wanted to ask what was bothering her but decided to wait until they were alone.

The opportunity to talk came later that day when Ellie was cooking omelettes for their dinner and Miranda wandered into the kitchen for a drink.

            Ellie poured the whipped eggs into a pan. ‘Mirie, do you have a problem with me going out with Chris Ryan?’

            ‘No way.’ Miranda’s response was genuine. ‘Go for it, Mum, you deserve some happiness.’

            Ellie changed tack. ‘I had the feeling you knew a bit more about Cherilyn Manning than you told Chris,’ she said as Miranda poured lime mineral water into a glass.

            ‘Why would you think that?’ Miranda put the bottle back in the fridge and picked up the glass.

            ‘I could tell by the look on your face. You’ve never been very good at hiding things, Mirie.’ Even if I haven’t always been good at seeing them, and for that I’m sorry.

            ‘I couldn’t tell him, Mum. If the cops come snooping around the food van asking questions Ben will lose all the trust the clients have in him.’

            Ellie sprinkled ham and cheese onto one half of the omelette and folded it over. ‘Did Cherilyn come to the van?’

            Miranda nodded. ‘She came about six months ago. I didn’t recognise her at first, and when I did and tried to talk to her she didn’t want to know me. I think …’ Miranda’s top teeth worried at her bottom lip in a gesture Ellie realised was so like her own, ‘I think she didn’t want me to see how she’d changed. Maybe she thought I would judge her. But I wouldn’t do that. Ben says any one of us could have ended up on the streets if our lives had been different.’ She looked up at Ellie. ‘Do you remember what Cherilyn’s house looked like, when we gave her a lift that afternoon?’

            The rain had been pouring down for a while by the time they’d reached Cherilyn’s house and Ellie had only gained a vague impression of an overgrown front yard and old car bodies surrounded by weeds in the back yard. ‘It was pretty messy.’

            ‘Cherilyn hated living there. She said all her mother cared about was going to the pub and playing the pokies. I know most teenagers complain that their parents don’t understand them, but basically they know their parents love them. From what Cherilyn said I think hers hated her.’

            ‘Do you think she was abused?’

            ‘I don’t think so. But she had a pretty poor opinion of herself and that seemed to come from what her parents said to her.’

            Ellie thought of the thinness of Cherilyn’s body that her jacket and jeans couldn’t disguise and the pathetic bundle of belongings and her heart ached with sadness. To die such a terrible death was bad enough but to have lived without being loved was cruel. ‘I hope they catch whoever killed her.’

‘They probably won’t. They’ll make a few enquiries but no-one will talk to them and they’ll put it down to a drug deal gone wrong and move on to a more important case.’

For one vividly clear moment, Ellie remembered the meagre contents of Cherilyn’s backpack: underwear, jeans and a couple of tee-shirts, a notebook, some crumpled envelopes and photos, a toiletry plastic bag. And a small pink teddy bear. Ellie felt herself crumpling at the thought that the bear was the only remnant of a childhood that had not given Cherilyn the love all children deserve.

‘Mum? Are you all right?’

Ellie blinked. Miranda was shaking her arm. ‘You went all funny,’ she said and gently pushed her onto a chair. ‘Sit down. I’ll finish the omelettes.’

In that subtle role reversal, Ellie discovered she was no longer the mother. Somehow over the past couple of weeks, and without her really noticing it, she had become a housemate and, she hoped now, a friend. And there was a certain amount of freedom in the realisation. Sometimes being a mother could be a burden – you were always supposed to know what to do, what was the correct decision to make. As a friend she could offer her opinion and not, supposedly, be offended if it wasn’t held in high regard.

‘When did you last see Cherilyn?’ she asked.

Miranda flipped the omelette onto a plate, turned the electricity a little lower and poured more beaten eggs into the frypan. ‘Two nights before you and Cass found her. It had been ages since I’d last seen her. And before you ask, no, she didn’t say anything that could give any idea of who killed her. She -’

When Miranda didn’t continue, Ellie prompted her, ‘She what?’

‘When we were packing up the van to leave, I saw Cherilyn talking to one of the other clients who come to the van. They were a bit far away, but I’m sure I recognised him.’

‘What did they do?’

‘Just talk, as far as I could see. Then Cherilyn left.’

‘Well, it’s a start. At least that’s one name we can give to the police.’

Miranda looked at Ellie as though she’d grown another head. ‘No, we can’t! Didn’t you hear what I said before? We can’t have the cops sticking their noses into our clients – they’d never trust us again. They’ll think we’ll tell the cops.’

‘But we just can’t -’

‘I want Cherilyn’s killer caught too. But you’ll just have to trust me on this, Mum. If I can find out anything that will help I’ll let you know and you can tell the cops.’

Ellie wanted to protest. Up until now she hadn’t been overly worried about Miranda helping on the food van, but Cherilyn’s murder had reminded her that some of the clients Miranda spoke about so protectively were drug addicts and dealers who could get desperate enough to eliminate anyone who interfered in their lives. She looked at the calendar on the wall. ‘You’re rostered on tomorrow night, aren’t you?’

‘Yes. And it’s usually a night when Mou -’ she glanced quickly at Ellie then concentrated on flipping the omelette. ‘When I can get a chance to talk with the clients.’

With one particular client, Ellie thought, but she kept that observation to herself.

Two hours later Ellie phoned Kandy and asked for her help.

            ‘You want to do what?’ Kandy asked.

            ‘I want to follow the food van Miranda volunteers with and make sure she doesn’t get into trouble when she questions the clients.’

            ‘Clients!’ Kandy snorted. ‘How very PC. So where do Cass and I come in?’

            ‘Not Cass.’ Ellie shook her head vigorously. ‘She got such a shock when she found Cherilyn’s body, I don’t want to put her in a situation like that again. She doesn’t need the trauma.’

            ‘But I do?’

            Hell! Ellie couldn’t believe she’d been so thoughtless to imply Kandy’s feelings meant less than Cass’s. Then she heard a low rumble of laughter and realised Kandy had been teasing her.

            ‘So when do I pick you up?’ Kandy asked.

            ‘No, I’d better pick you up. One look at your Porsche and we’d be mugged the moment we opened the door.’

By Monday evening Ellie had almost changed her mind about “Operation Mou”, as she’d begun to call her plan. But when she arrived home in the cold and the dark the anxiety about Miranda that had bothered her all day increased. She ate a toasted sandwich, gulped down a coffee, and changed into boots, jeans, sweater and a dark coat. She was just pulling on a black wool beanie that she’d bought in her lunch break when there was a knock at the front door and she rushed to open it.

            Kandy stood there. And so did Cass. Both dressed in dark pants and jackets.

            ‘Before you get mad,’ Kandy said and stepped into the lounge room, ‘I figured it was only fair that Cass had the chance to decide for herself if she wanted to be part of your cloak and dagger scheme.’

            ‘And I do,’ Cass said, following her and giving Ellie a quick hug. ‘I know you were only trying to protect me Ellie, but I’m tougher than I thought I was. And I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to Miranda.’

            A wobble started in Ellie’s jaw but she clenched it instead.

            ‘Get your bag, honey bee,’ Kandy said, ‘and let’s get moving. I’ve got coffee and muffins,’ she indicated the large bag she was carrying, ‘and binoculars. I know private eyes carry empty bottles to pee in when they can’t stop watching the subject, but there’s no way I’m trying that in your little car. I’d probably end up with the gear stick up my arse. Besides, I figure with three of us there, nicking off to a loo for a few minutes won’t be a problem.’

            For one mad moment, Ellie was sure she could feel the swish of capes and the zing of rapiers meeting in a mad Musketeer chorus. Then sanity returned and she hurried to get her car keys.


Chapter Thirteen

The Magna slid quietly to a stop beneath an overhanging Camphor Laurel tree in New Farm Park and Ellie switched off the headlights. The food van was parked three hundred metres away, under a street light, easily seen from most parts of the park.

            ‘I can see Miranda,’ Kandy said from the back seat, binoculars to her eyes. ‘The back door of the van is up and she’s there with a big box. I can’t see what’s in it. Wait, she’s just handed a packet to a scruffy-looking kid, so they must be the sandwiches and cake. And there’s a nice-looking young man at the side of the van who’s giving out Styrofoam cups, so that must be Ben the coffee boy.’

            Ellie looked through her binoculars. So that was Ben. Good-looking in a straw-haired, country-boy sort of way. She wondered how he felt about Miranda.

She’d expected to see only street kids coming to the van, but as the minutes dragged on people of all ages and some she came to think of as the stereotypical homeless, drifted towards the van, took what was offered, and moved on. Some, like wraiths, seemed to be swallowed up by the darker areas of the park. Others, like the old woman pushing a supermarket trolley half-filled with blankets and cardboard boxes, stayed chatting to Miranda and Ben for a considerable length of time. What surprised Ellie was the quiet dignity of most of them.

            After thirty minutes of conversation and speculation, Ellie, Cass and Kandy gradually drifted into silence. The reality of being a watcher set in, along with a numb bum, aching back and the urge to sleep that boredom brought. The warmth from the car heater had dissipated, but their thick jackets staved off the chill that crept in.

            Just as Ellie thought she’d have to ask Kandy for a coffee to keep her eyelids from drooping closed, she saw Miranda and Ben close up the van and drive off. ‘Come on,’ she said and started the car, ‘we have to follow them to the next location.’

            ‘I thought you said you’d asked Miranda where they park the van?’ Cass asked.

            ‘I did. But when I looked up some of the streets I realised they were so long I should have asked her for the nearest cross street. If I drive past the van I risk her recognising my car.’ She swung out into the road and followed at what she hoped was a reasonable distance.

            A few minutes later the van pulled up in an ill-lit street in an industrial area. Ellie quickly switched off the Magna’s headlights and parked.

            ‘Why would they come here?’ Cass looked at the wire fences surrounding huge steel-walled warehouses, older brick buildings that bordered the footpath, wholesale shops and takeaways that screamed functional rather than fashionable.

            ‘For the ones who aren’t game to come into the park,’ Kandy said softly.

            If she hadn’t been using binoculars, Ellie wouldn’t have seen the faces shadowed by hoods and scarves on the shapes that emerged from the darkness and shuffled in spasmodic bursts to the van. Wouldn’t have seen the despair, the hopelessness, the dull resignation, the intelligence lost to drugs or mental retardation. Or the flicker of gratitude for the caring expressed in food and drink.

            She watched the way Miranda interacted with the “clients”, the genuine compassion her daughter obviously felt for these people who had become the forgotten part of society, and realised how superficial her own giving to the community had been.

            After speaking with one particular client, a woman dressed in an ankle-length skirt and old sheepskin jacket several sizes too big for her small frame, Miranda nodded to Ben, grabbed something from the front seat of the van, then followed the woman up the street. The woman stopped in front of an alleyway, pointed somewhere into its dark cavity, then hurried away. Ellie watched Miranda hesitate, then walk into that darkness.

            ‘Where the hell is she going?’ Ellie growled. She waited, eyes straining, the seconds ticking by. It was probably only a minute, maybe two, but it felt like a lifetime, and Miranda didn’t reappear. ‘That does it.’ Ellie put down the binoculars, picked up a torch, and opened the car door. ‘I’m going after her.’

            ‘I’m going with you,’ Cass opened her door.

            ‘We’re all mad,’ Kandy muttered, got out and walked to the driver’s door. ‘You two follow. I’ll drive closer and keep the car running in case we need to make a quick getaway.’

They’d worn sneakers, but their footsteps sounded loud in the still, crisp night air. The pavement was bitumen, broken and uneven in places, and they stumbled in their haste, grabbing each other for support. At an old brick building that formed one corner of the entrance to the alleyway, they stopped. Ellie looked around the corner. Dark though the street had been, the alleyway was darker. She took two paces forward, closed her eyes for a moment to let them adjust to the greater darkness, then opened them. Rubbish bins, industrial size. Boxes – some cardboard, some timber. Garbage lay in windswept piles against doorways and obstacles. The smell of rot hung in the air – timber rot, food rot, and, Ellie was sure, body rot. And the acridity of stale urine.

Cass stayed behind her, closer than a shadow. Ellie was tempted to switch on her torch, but didn’t want to betray their presence.

            They moved cautiously, slowly, trying to see where Miranda had gone. Cockroaches scurried in the garbage, making it seem alive. Ellie hoped it was cockroaches. Better them than rats. She remembered rats from her childhood – the derelict house across the road that swarmed with them, the way they boldly ran across in the night and invaded her home in their search for food. The council rat-catchers with their fox terriers that ferreted out the rats and bit their necks and killed them. Blood dripping. Limp furry bodies. Nightmares. She shuddered.

            Halfway down the alleyway her trepidation turned to gut-shrivelling fear. Miranda had disappeared.

‘Are you scared?’ Cass whispered, so close the back of Ellie’s neck prickled.

            ‘No,’ Ellie hissed. ‘I’m pissing my pants because I like the warmth.’

The words were barely said when she felt sorry for their harshness. She turned to apologise, and found her mouth wouldn’t work.

Nothing would work – her mouth, her legs, her arm that should have been lifting up to point out to Cass the dark shape coming down the alleyway after them.

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