It wasn’t the size of the gun pointed at his heart that sent paroxysms of fear through Geoffrey’s chest, but the silencer on the end of the barrel that signified the man holding it meant business.
His partner, taller and heavily built, gave the same impression, and he wasn’t even holding a gun. Though the way his right hand was bunched inside his jacket pocket indicated there was more there than a handkerchief.
Dressed in worn jeans and padded jackets that kept out the wind and allowed easy concealment of weapons and other necessities of their trade, the two men blended easily into the working-class suburb where Geoffrey lived. They pushed him back into the room, lips smiling, eyes gleaming, and his knees trembled. He’d seen their kind before: prisoners who relished enforcing their “rules” on fellow prisoners. Although he’d never been on the receiving end, he’d witnessed the results of their “persuasion” techniques.
‘You’ve been a great disappointment to your boss, Geoffrey,’ the first man smiled and tapped the gun against Geoffrey’s chin. ‘Excuses, excuses, excuses. And no results. So he decided to send Rocco and me to give you one last chance.’
‘The boss thinks you’ve been lying about that painting,’ Rocco chipped in. ‘He reckons it doesn’t exist.’
‘It does! It does!’ Spittle flew from Geoffrey’s mouth with the words, and the man with the gun smashed it against his cheek.
A tooth splintered, cutting the inside of Geoffrey’s cheek. He staggered to the side, howling with pain, and brought his hand to his cheek. Then screamed in agony as Rocco grabbed his sprained wrist and forced it behind his back.
‘So where is it?’
‘I haven’t got it.’ Geoffrey tried to spit blood onto the floor, only to have it dribble down his chin. ‘But,’ he spluttered as the gun was raised again, ‘I know where it is.’ He explained about the woman who was bringing the painting to his mother and how his mother was going to give it to him to sell.
The shorter man laughed. ‘You don’t seriously expect me to believe that someone who’s got their hands on a painting worth that much is going to just turn it over to a little old lady who’s close to kicking the bucket?’
‘It’s true,’ Geoffrey whined. ‘She said it’s in the false ceiling. She’s going to get it and give it to my mother. She’s probably already done so.’
‘Why don’t we check out his old lady, Frank?’ Rocco asked. ‘We can go in with dipshit here and say we’re the buyers.’
‘But what if the woman who found it hasn’t given it to her yet?’ Geoffrey had a horrible image of what these two goons might do to his mother if that was the scenario.
‘She better have it,’ Frank snarled. ‘Or you’ll both regret it. Now let’s get moving.’
‘Let me get my coat.’ Geoffrey went to walk to the wardrobe, but Rocco pushed him towards the table, ‘It’s on the chair, dipshit.’
Geoffrey looked down at his old jacket that was draped over the back of the kitchen chair. The gun Gazza had given him! It was still in the pocket. Shit! If Rocco saw it … But maybe it might come in handy – a bit of insurance, so to speak. No matter what Frank said, Geoffrey couldn’t be sure that he didn’t have something else in mind. He couldn’t see the boss paying two men just to get the painting.
By the time Ellie pulled up in front of the unit block she’d wished she’d left it another day to get the painting. She was tired and hungry, the sandwich she’d hastily scoffed on her way back from the doctor’s surgery merely a memory in her stomach.
The traffic had been horrendous. It seemed everyone was impatient to get home. She couldn’t blame them – it was already dark, the wind was icy, and the grey clouds that had delivered a bleak day now covered the stars.
She phoned Maud Lenard and apologised for not getting there yet with the painting.
‘I understand, dear,’ the old lady replied, but Ellie could hear the disappointment in her voice. ‘And please don’t worry about finding a buyer for me. I told my son about the painting, and he’s coming tomorrow morning to get it. He said he knows someone who will pay more than he’d get on the open market.’
A little alarm bell rang in Ellie’s mind. She’d wondered about this son who was “down on his luck”. From the way Maud had glossed over her son’s life, it sounded as though she was desperately trying to create a good impression for someone who probably didn’t deserve it.
Ellie’s stomach growled so loudly she was sure Maud could hear it, and the thought of driving to the old woman’s place before going home and eating became too much. ‘Maud, I’m so sorry, but would you mind if I bring the painting to you tomorrow evening? I’m really tired and I have to work again tomorrow.’
‘Oh. I can’t let Geoffrey know. I’m not sure if he has a phone. But,’ her voice brightened, ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter, he can still come for a visit. It’s so nice to have him back again. And he’s changed so much. He needs to have another chance, Ellie. I couldn’t bear it if they sent him back to prison, not now that he’s turned over a new leaf. If he can get enough money from the painting he won’t need to go back to his old ways.’
Ellie listened patiently as Maud talked. There was a touch of desperation in the old lady’s voice, as though she still hoped her son would become the person she’d always wanted him to be. When she finally said goodbye, Ellie rubbed her eyes and slumped into the seat.
‘Come on, Miranda. Come on Kandy,’ she muttered.
The car’s heater had created a warm cocoon, but that wouldn’t last. She put her torch in her coat pocket and waited, trying to keep her mind from thoughts of Chris. He hadn’t phoned since they’d said goodbye on Sunday, and although she kept telling herself it was only Tuesday night, and she really wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear from him so soon, the need to feel his arms around her was increasing with each hour that passed. And her uncertainty about her ability to cope with having a relationship with someone in a high-danger occupation increased in equal measure.
Kandy looked at the blank screen on her mobile and shook her head in disbelief.
She’d left the mobile in her handbag in her office, but had spent most of the day in with her manager, and hadn’t heard the beeps that signalled the battery going flat. Now it was as useless as her Porsche. She’d hardly driven a kilometre after leaving work when the engine had stopped. Just like that. Stopped. Without a groan or a whine or a bang or anything to indicate the engine had a right to simply cease operating.
Luckily she’d been able to pull over to the gutter and not be left sitting in the middle of the road holding up traffic and becoming a target for a driver with a road rage mentality.
Her day had been as lousy as the weather. Her manager’s opinion of her ideas for diversifying hadn’t coincided with her view of them as being “innovative”. She didn’t think “crazy” was a particularly kind way to describe them, but after he’d backed up his opinion with facts and figures she’d had to concede he was right. Then she’d had a chef misjudge when chopping meat, resulting in a trip to the doctor and an order being late.
Now she looked at the mobile screen that was as blank as her dashboard and fought back tears of frustration. Ellie would be waiting for her. Hopefully, she wouldn’t go into the unit building alone, but Kandy couldn’t rely on that. Ellie could be stubborn when she chose to be.
Kandy stuffed the mobile into her handbag, got out of the car, and locked the door.
And swore like a wharfie as the cold wind knifed through her. Her light-weight coat was adequate for the car or the office, but couldn’t stop wind that seemed to travel from the Antarctic.
Her eyes filled with tears, but she brushed them away and told herself it was just the wind. It was dark now, and the traffic looked like a slowly-moving snake of headlights in both directions. A higher set of lights caught her attention. A bus. She looked up the road, searching for, then spotting, a bus stop. If she ran, she’d make it before the bus did. Then she could get to a phone booth and call Cass to ask her to let Ellie know what had happened. Remembering Cass’s home phone number was one thing, but Ellie’s mobile was beyond her memory capacity at the moment.
Grateful she’d worn pants and low-heeled boots, she started to run.
Panic had almost immobilised Geoffrey. He sat in the passenger seat of Rocco’s grey Toyota sedan and tried to think of a way to convince his captors that he was telling the truth and they only had to wait a day or two and he could prove it.
He’d told them where his mother lived, but the peak hour traffic had brought them to a crawl, and it was going to take a while to get there.
He twisted around to look in the back seat where Frank sat, gun held on his lap, street and traffic lights illuminating the annoyance on his face. ‘Couldn’t we go to the unit and take a look there first? It’ll be quicker.’
With an impatient flick of the gun, Frank snarled, ‘Do it, Rocco. If it is there it will save us some time.’
There was something in the way he said the words that sent a shiver up Geoffrey’s already trembling spine.
Ellie was just about to phone Miranda and find out how much longer she’d be when Miranda’s car pulled up on the other side of the road. Ellie quickly got out, locked her car and waited on the footpath.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ Miranda pulled her coat collar higher against the wind as she walked across, ‘it was a busy day and I wanted to go through some of the procedures with my boss so I wouldn’t have to keep asking her tomorrow. I didn’t realise the traffic would be so bad. Is Kandy still coming?’
‘I don’t know. I left a message for her. I hope she got it.’ Ellie hitched her shoulder bag higher and flicked out her mobile as they walked up the front path. ‘I’ll try her again.’ A recorded voice told her Kandy’s mobile was switched off so she left another message, then she unlocked the door and they hurried inside.
Ellie found herself glancing nervously around the gloomy interior. Cherilyn’s murder still weighed on her mind, and she felt that more should have been done to find her killer.
‘Come on, Mum,’ Miranda tugged at her coat sleeve, ‘show me where the manhole is.’
‘You didn’t have to come and get me, Cass,’ Kandy said as she hopped into Cass’s car and closed the door. ‘I could have caught a taxi.’
Cass looked at her friend, saw the dark shadows that makeup hadn’t concealed and eyes that had lost their sparkle. ‘I know,’ she smiled. ‘But that’s what friends are for.’ She reached over and turned up the heater.
‘Thanks, Cass,’ Kandy said, and Cass knew she was talking about more than the blast of hot air now easing her goosebumps.
‘I brought my old camping light,’ Miranda said as they entered the unit. ‘We don’t want you having another accident.’
Ellie watched her take a fluorescent light from her overly-large handbag, turn it on and place it on the floor.
‘And I’m getting up on the ladder, Mum.’ Miranda looked at Ellie as though daring her to argue.
‘Okay,’ Ellie pointed the torch at the manhole, ‘but be careful when you reach inside. The painting’s old, we don’t want to risk damaging it.’
Miranda’s tiny harrumphing sound made Ellie sigh. Note to self – don’t tell grown-up daughter to be careful. Remember she is an adult. She held the ladder and watched as Miranda moved the manhole aside and reached into the ceiling cavity.
‘That’s the building,’ Geoffrey pointed, ‘but it’s locked at night. We’ll have to go around the back and break in that way.’
Rocco snorted. ‘Amateur.’
‘There’s a car parked out the front,’ Frank observed. ‘Perhaps your mother’s friend is there now. Pull in behind,’ he ordered Rocco.
The car glided gently to a halt. They sat for a minute, watching the building, noting the flashes of a torch beam inside one of the bottom units and then a steady but subdued glow partially lighting the room. After a while Frank shoved his gun inside his jacket and said to Geoffrey, ‘We’ll go in and see if she’s got it. We’ll play it nice and cool, and you’ll tell her your mother’s sent you to get the painting. And wipe your mouth, you look disgusting.’
‘I can’t find the painting,’ Miranda called out. ‘Can you pass me the torch.’
Ellie handed it to her and watched as she shined it into the cavity.
A scuttling sound had Miranda jerking back, and Ellie grabbed the ladder tightly to keep it steady. ‘Yuk,’ Miranda shuddered. ‘There was a rat up here.’ She reached out again. ‘Got the painting.’ She handed it and the torch to Ellie, then pulled the manhole cover back into place and climbed down.
Ellie turned as she heard the front door open. ‘Is that you, Kandy?’ she called. ‘We’re in the front unit on the right hand side.’ She flicked the torch beam across the doorway.
Her mouth opened in shock as three men walked into the room.
‘She’s got the painting!’ Geoffrey tried to rush forward, but Rocco yanked him back by the collar.
‘You’ve scared the ladies, Geoffrey.’ Frank’s voice held the kind of patience that Geoffrey knew was only two beats ahead of a back-hander. ‘I think you’d better explain why we’re here.’
Geoffrey could see the apprehension in the faces of the two women. His gut echoed the feeling. For the past couple of days he’d drifted in some kind of a drugged cocoon, almost oblivious to the threat that had now become shockingly real. His stomach kept clenching as though fighting the need to throw up, his fingers twitched, his legs trembled with the effort it was taking not to snatch the painting and run. ‘I’m Geoffrey Lenard,’ he almost stuttered. ‘My mother, Maud, asked me to come and get the painting. She thought it would save you the drive to her place.’
He saw the puzzled frown on the woman his mother had called Ellie. ‘How did she let you know I was here?’ she asked.
‘She phoned me.’
The frown deepened. ‘But she told me you don’t have a phone.’
Frank stepped forward, smiling, and took out his mobile. ‘She let me know. I’m Frank, a friend of Geoffrey’s.’ He pocketed the mobile then shoved his hand into the front of his jacket.
Geoffrey almost stopped breathing. He knew Frank’s fingers would now be wrapped around the butt of his pistol.
Ellie took a step back. Frank’s mouth might have been smiling but his eyes weren’t. And the man who said he was Maud Lenard’s son looked like he was on the verge of a breakdown. His hair had been messed by the wind, and one cheek was red and swollen. But it was his eyes that scared her. Red-rimmed and bloodshot, they flickered constantly, as though trying to keep watch on her and Miranda and his two companions at the same time. His whole body seemed to thrum with impatience. Or fear. Or … something. She looked at the third man and thought that he’d look more comfortable with numbers across his chest as he glared at a camera.
‘Can you hand over the painting, please?’ Frank asked, though it was more of a command than a request.
It wasn’t her painting, and Geoffrey Lenard’s reason for turning up here could be valid, but something about the whole situation didn’t feel right to Ellie. Too little time had elapsed since her phone call to Maud – it didn’t seem possible that the friend of the man purporting to be her son could have got a call from Maud and driven to the units in such a short time. And Maud hadn’t mentioned anything about phoning Geoffrey’s friend.
‘I’m sorry,’ she drew in a deep breath, ‘but I promised Maud that I would take it to her. She was very anxious to see it again. Her sister meant a lot to her.’ She picked up her bag, took a step forward, and reached back to grab Miranda’s arm. ‘We’ll drive straight out to Maud’s place now. You can follow if you like.’ She went to walk past Frank but he moved quickly and blocked her way.
‘How do we know that’s the right painting?’
‘What?’ Ellie couldn’t help the irritation in her voice. ‘Do you think the whole damn ceiling is full of paintings?’
Geoffrey could see that Frank went quite still, and for one sickening moment he thought he would hear the phht of a bullet passing through the silencer. ‘Why don’t you just show it to me?’ he said quickly. ‘I remember what it’s like.’
‘Just do it, Mum,’ Miranda muttered, ‘and then we can get going.’
Reluctantly, Ellie took the painting from the bag, unwrapped it and held it up.
Geoffrey breathed a sigh of relief. It was just like he remembered. ‘This is it.’
Ellie re-wrapped the painting and put it back into the bag. ‘Now I’m going to take it to Maud.’ She looked at Geoffrey, then Frank. ‘She legally owns it.’
Frank stood perfectly still for several seconds, then motioned for Rocco and Geoffrey to move to the door. ‘We’ll all go.’
Geoffrey followed Rocco into the dark foyer. Frank waved Ellie and Miranda ahead of him. Miranda grabbed her camping light and followed Ellie.
As Ellie walked through the doorway, she saw Geoffrey silhouetted against the glass panel next to the front door. And gasped as memory rushed back. His face! And the jacket – the way the collar sat at an odd angle.
‘You were there! That night!’ she cried.
Geoffrey spun to face her, eyes widening in horror. ‘Wha – what are you talking about?’
‘The night I fell down the stairs.’ Ellie looked at Miranda. ‘He was here. That’s why I tripped.’ She turned back to Geoffrey. ‘I’d locked the door.’
‘If he broke in that night …’ Miranda frowned.
Her words and their implication hung in the air.
Geoffrey suddenly reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun.
Rocco was faster, grabbing and firing his before Geoffrey could pull the trigger.
Ellie gasped, staggering against Miranda in shock as Geoffrey cried out and collapsed against the wall.
Frank swore, low, slow, and with a meanness that was almost as shocking as what had just happened.
Heart hammering wildly, Ellie looked at him, then at Geoffrey as he moaned in pain and clutched his side. She looked at Geoffrey’s gun where it lay on the floor, then up to the one in Rocco’s large hand. Her brain somehow registered that the thick cylinder on the end of the barrel was a silencer. She heard Miranda’s quick breathing and glanced at her long enough to note her ashen face and horror-filled eyes before turning to Frank. He too, now held a silenced gun.
‘The painting.’ He held out his left hand.
‘The painting?’ Ellie echoed in surprise. ‘You’d shoot somebody for the painting?’ she asked, but lifted it and placed it on his palm. As she did so, she moved her other hand and the torch shone on his face. He lashed out with the gun, smashing it against her hand. The torch spun to the floor, its beam throwing erratic slashes across the foyer.
Miranda sprang forward, but stopped as Frank aimed the gun at her head.
‘Don’t, Mirie,’ Ellie cried. She held her injured hand by the wrist and fought back tears of pain. ‘He just wants the painting.’ Even to her own ears, the words sounded desperate, but she hoped they held some truth. She turned to Frank. ‘Please, just take it and go.’
‘There’s a slight problem.’ Frank drew out the words as though contemplating how best to explain that slight problem.
‘We’ve been contracted to do a job,’ Rocco smiled, ‘and we can’t have any witnesses.’
Ellie dropped her injured hand and clutched Miranda’s arm. From the shock and horror on the face of the man who claimed to be Maud’s son, it was obvious he realised that he was ‘that job’.
Which meant that she and Miranda would be as well.
She looked at Miranda’s face, saw her own terror reflected, and struggled to control the panic that welled up.
‘Is that your Magna parked out front?’ Frank asked her.
Ellie willed her mouth to move. ‘Yes.’
Frank gestured at Geoffrey but spoke to Rocco. ‘Get that piece of shit on his feet and make sure there’s no blood on the floor. And pick up his gun.’ He turned to Ellie and Miranda. ‘Pick up that torch and turn it off, then get outside. Move!’ He put the gun in his jacket pocket but didn’t let go of it.
Ellie’s mind raced, searching for a way to escape. Nothing presented itself.
‘I said move.’
Heart beating madly, Ellie shoved the torch in her bag, watched Miranda put the camping light in hers, and hurried to the front door. She glanced back, hoping she might be able to pull the door closed and run before he got there, but he was only a pace behind them.
When they reached Ellie’s Magna they stopped. ‘Rocco, you take that one,’ Frank nodded towards Miranda, ‘and follow us. You,’ he looked at Ellie, ‘will drive your car, and Geoffrey will sit in the back with me. Just remember, if you try anything, Rocco and I will have no qualms about shooting you all before we get where we’re going.’
‘Why don’t we just kill them inside?’ Rocco asked. ‘We can make it look like dipshit here did it and then disappeared.’
‘Because we don’t know if any of the neighbours have seen us. If we take them and her car there’s nothing to link us to this place.’
The street light illuminated his face, and Ellie trembled at the utter lack of compassion she saw there.
Cass turned a corner and saw several cars parked in front of the unit building. ‘There’s Ellie, and Miranda, but who are those men with them?’
She slowed down and they watched as a big man pushed the man he was supporting into the back seat of Ellie’s car, then grabbed Miranda, marched her to a grey Toyota sedan and pushed her into the driver’s seat before getting into the seat behind her. The third man shoved Ellie into the driver’s seat of her car then got into the seat behind her.
Cass started to brake so she could pull up behind the Toyota but Kandy yelled, ‘Keep going!’
‘Something’s wrong.’ Kandy peered through the car window at the Toyota and Ellie’s Magna as Cass drove past. Miranda appeared to be crying, and Ellie’s face was ghost-like.
She could only see one man in the back seat, and wondered if the other man was crouching down. Though by the way the big man had half-carried him, it seemed more likely that he was ill or injured. If Ellie and Miranda were just helping take someone to the hospital, why would they make Miranda drive their car? She didn’t look too happy about doing it, either. No, the body language was all wrong. Kandy’s background and her years surviving on the streets had sharpened her instincts, and right now they were telling her that Ellie and Miranda were in trouble. ‘We’ll have to follow them and call the cops. Give me your mobile.’
Cass tossed the phone to Kandy. She tried not to panic as her rear-view mirror reflected the other cars’ headlights coming on.
‘Pull into that driveway up there,’ Kandy ordered, ‘the one without a gate.’
‘Why? I thought we were going to follow them?’
‘We can’t follow them if we’re in front. We’ll just pretend that we live there and wait for them to go past, then we’ll follow them.’
Surely that couldn’t have been Cass’s car? Ellie tried not to let herself hope too much. But it did look like Kandy in the passenger seat, and Cass’s car had that same silly bumper sticker her grand-daughter had given her. But so did a lot of cars, she mentally argued.
Then the car turned into a driveway ahead and disappointment hit her so hard she felt like crying.
She was glad she was driving, even if it hurt her injured hand more – it gave her something to concentrate on, something to break the terrible inertia fear had created. She tried to recall similar scenarios she’d seen in movies where people had to get away from the bad guys. Crashing her car wasn’t an option, not with Miranda in the other car and liable to be shot by the other moron.
Nothing she thought of was even close to possibly succeeding.
Her gut clenched with fear for Miranda, alone with the hulking Rocco, and she said a swift prayer that he would keep his hands off her.
Geoffrey had whimpered like a kicked dog when he’d been dragged to the car, but now he began moaning. She wondered how badly he’d been hurt, then almost laughed hysterically at her concern. Unless she could think of a way to get them out of this mess, it wasn’t going to make any difference.
The pain in his side was so bad Geoffrey thought he’d throw up. He cursed himself for panicking and pulling out Gazza’s gun. He should have waited. Should have told the stupid bitch he didn’t know what she was talking about. Should have listened to his instincts and realised the boss wouldn’t be happy with just a few hundred thousand to make up for a shipment that was worth half a mill.
Should have done what his mother wanted him to do years ago and got a real job.
The car turned a corner and he rolled further onto his side and the pain obliterated all thought.
‘What did the police say? Are they coming?’ Cass watched Ellie’s car and the Toyota drive past and continue along the street.
Kandy put her hand over the mobile and whispered, ‘They were a bit sceptical until I told them this was the same building where that girl was murdered. I gave them the rego numbers of the cars and told them I’d stay on the phone and let them know where they’re going. There’s a patrol car not too far away.’
‘Thank God.’ Cass watched Ellie’s Magna disappear around a corner. The Toyota followed. She backed out of the driveway, sped up the street, and followed.
‘Don’t get so close,’ Kandy warned. ‘We don’t want them to realise we’re following them.’ The two cars turned down the next street and Kandy tried to read the street sign as Cass followed, but a huge overhanging tree cast a deep shadow and made it impossible. She told the police the direction they had turned. After a couple of minutes she said to Cass, ‘We’re headed towards New Farm Park.’
Just as she was about to tell the police that, a familiar voice came through the mobile. ‘Kandy, it’s Chris Ryan. I’ve been patched through to you. I’m in a patrol car headed your way. We’ve just had it confirmed that the Toyota was stolen from a home where the owners are away on holidays. Don’t get too close to it. Just keep me informed of where they’re headed, but don’t let them see they’re being followed.’
‘Right.’ Kandy wished she felt as calm about it as he sounded, but she guessed he must have had a lot of practice at keeping his feelings under control.
As the two cars turned down Lamington Street, Kandy realised where they must be headed. The Powerhouse. The once-derelict power station that had been turned into a theatre, dining and conference centre on the banks of the Brisbane River in New Farm Park.
Seconds later the two cars reached a roundabout and drove straight ahead towards the Powerhouse.
‘Don’t follow them,’ Kandy said. ‘It’ll be too obvious. That’s the only way in and out. Quick, drive into the parking area over there,’ she indicated an exit to the right, ‘and stop as soon as we’re off the roundabout.’
‘But we’ll lose them.’
‘Not if we run fast enough.’
As Cass spun her vehicle into the park and slammed on the brakes Kandy opened her door and jumped out. She threw the mobile to Cass. ‘I can run faster than you. Tell Chris what’s happening.’ She ran off before Cass could put the mobile to her ear.
Huge overhanging trees cast deep shadows over the car. Ellie shivered and eased off the accelerator.
‘Keep going.’ Frank didn’t hiss, but the menace in his tone increased Ellie’s shivering to the extent her hands were drumming the steering wheel. ‘Go to your left,’ he ordered. ‘Drive as far as you can and pull up.’
The river. The parkland on the left led down to the river. Oh, God! No time left now to speed off, crash the car or anything else. She glanced to her right, to where the Powerhouse loomed, its incongruous glass foyer tacked onto its old rust-red brick wall. At the end of the week or on a weekend there would be a steady stream of patrons to eat at the restaurants and see the shows, but tonight only the cold wind swirled beneath the lights illuminating the courtyard.
The roadway ended. She braked but didn’t switch off the ignition. The heater poured warmth into the car, but her fingers were icy, her toes frozen, her stomach a solid lump of fear. She barely registered that the Toyota had stopped behind them, its headlights fading.
Geoffrey moaned, and she saw him slowly pull himself upright. ‘Rocco’s … bastard. I wasn’t … gunna shoot him.’
Ellie jumped at Frank’s growl so close to her ear. She turned off the ignition, then the headlights, and opened the door. Cold air knifed into her lungs. She shook her head, trying to focus. If the chance presented itself, she would get Miranda away, no matter what the cost.
The faint sound of laughter had her looking towards the Powerhouse entrance. A man and woman had come out and were sheltering from the wind, lighting up cigarettes.
‘Grab your handbag,’ Frank ordered. ‘Act natural. We’re just a few friends going for a walk.’ He tapped his gun against her head as though reminding her of it. She shivered. As if she could forget.
Kandy tried to use the cover of the trees to avoid being seen by the man who appeared to be holding a gun on Ellie and Miranda and his cohort who’d dragged the injured man from Ellie’s car and was now hauling him to his feet.
She ran to the last tree and leaned against the trunk, panting. And realised that what she’d thought was a large tree root was the leg of a person lying on the other side.
‘Go away!’ The voice was aggrieved. ‘You upset the kitty.’
Kandy stepped over the leg and stared at the bundle of clothing disguising a skinny body. ‘Mouse?’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Kandy,’ she whispered. ‘Miranda’s friend.’ She uttered a quick prayer to a god she wasn’t sure she believed in. ‘I need your help. Miranda’s in trouble.’
She blinked in surprise at how swiftly Mouse put the kitten aside and got to his feet. ‘Where?’
She pointed to the five people moving onto the path, Ellie and Miranda in front. ‘Those men are going to hurt Miranda and Ellie. I need your help to -’
Before she could stop him, Mouse started running towards the group.
‘Oh, shit!’ she cried, hesitated a second, then ran after him, muttering, ‘Stupid kid will get himself killed.’
Maybe if she made out he wasn’t running towards them, but away from her … ‘Stop! Thief!’ she called out.
Mouse didn’t falter, just kept charging towards the group.
Frank cursed, slipped his gun under his other arm and glared at Ellie and Miranda. ‘Don’t say anything, just wait until these idiots go past.’
Ellie watched the man running towards them and the woman chasing him. There was something familiar about them both. Before she could work it out, Miranda dug her in the ribs and whispered, ‘Mouse.’
Mouse? What the hell was he doing? She looked at Rocco, his right hand inside his jacket, but still holding his gun, one arm supporting Geoffrey who was half bent over.
She heard a squeal of tyres as a car sped through the roundabout.
Mouse was only a few metres away when Frank realised he wasn’t going to stop and brought his gun around.
Ellie yelled, reacted without thinking, swinging her handbag so it hit Frank on the side of his head, pitching him off balance.
Miranda whirled her handbag in an arc. The sound of her camping light shattering almost eclipsed that of Rocco’s nose breaking.
Mouse ploughed into Frank like a front row forward, sending them both rolling on the ground.
Frank’s gun went off.
Geoffrey clawed at Rocco’s gun hand.
Blood pouring from his nose, Rocco pulled his arm away and shot him in the chest.
A police car raced across the grass and screeched to a halt in front of them, headlights on high beam, blinding them.
Siren wailing, the ambulance sped away from the Powerhouse, Cass’s car following sedately in its wake.
‘Do you think Mouse will be all right?’ Ellie asked Chris as he put his arm around her and led her to her car. She had found she couldn’t stop shivering, and Chris had procured a blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders. She huddled into it now, grateful for the warmth, and the security of Chris’s body against hers.
‘He should be,’ Chris replied. ‘He was lucky the bullet went in at the angle it did. If it had gone straight in I wouldn’t like his chances.’
‘Thanks for letting Miranda go in the ambulance with him. I know your boss wasn’t too keen.’
‘He just wanted to question her a bit more while things were fresh in her mind. But I figured Mouse deserved to have a friend to hold his hand.’
‘He certainly does. And a lot more than that.’ Ellie looked around at what appeared to be organised chaos. The area had been cordoned off with police tape and lighting set up. Geoffrey’s body had been photographed from every angle and then covered with a plastic sheet while they waited for another ambulance. Frank and Rocco had been taken into custody and scene-of-crime officers in their overalls still looked for evidence to corroborate Ellie’s and Miranda’s version of Geoffrey’s murder. Police officers were keeping the media circus and onlookers at bay.
They reached Ellie’s car and he opened the front passenger door. ‘Get in. I’m driving you to the station to make your statement and then taking you home.’
‘But what about Miranda?’
‘Cass and Kandy are going to the hospital to be with her. They’ll make sure she gets home safely. She can make her statement tomorrow.’
Minutes later, as they drove close to the street where the units were, Ellie cried, ‘What will I tell Maud?’
‘You don’t have to. Someone’s already been despatched to let her know.’
‘Her only child is dead. She has no-one left.’ Ellie started to shake, tears streaming down her face. ‘It’s my fault. If I hadn’t found that painting he’d still be alive.’
Chris pulled to the kerb and stopped the car. He unclipped his seatbelt and hers and pulled her into his arms as far as the centre console would allow. He let her cry for a few minutes, then moved away a little and soothed her hair back from her face. ‘From what you and Miranda told me tonight,’ he said, ‘I think Geoffrey Lenard must have been searching for that painting for some time. We might never know the truth, but it’s probable he was responsible for Cherilyn’s murder. And those two hit men weren’t taking him to the river tonight for a friendly chat. Some years ago he was caught with half a million dollars worth of drugs and had only recently been released from jail. He was probably hoping the painting would get him out of the shit with the drug syndicate, but it wouldn’t have made much difference if they’d already decided he was a liability.’
‘Poor Maud. She was hoping he would turn his life around.’
Chris nodded, but said nothing, perhaps only too aware of the futility of that hope.
‘Will she have to be told why Geoffrey wanted the painting?’
‘The media will probably find out and they’ll be pestering her to see it.’
Fresh tears threatened to spill, but Ellie brushed them away and sat back in the seat. ‘We’ll have to hide her away for a while. She doesn’t need to cope with all that.’ Just then her stomach growled, and she realised that the pain she was feeling was as much hunger as tension. She looked at Chris, saw him raise one eyebrow. ‘Could we grab a hamburger?’
He smiled, but she noticed the strained lines around his eyes didn’t lessen. She hoped that Miranda would get something to eat, but thought that with Cass there that would definitely happen. If there was one thing Cass excelled at, it was feeding people.
Several hours later Chris drove the Magna into Ellie’s driveway. Ellie didn’t get out immediately, and he looked at her, frowning. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she half-smiled. ‘Just thinking.’
‘In a way. I was so scared tonight. Not just for myself, but for Miranda. I couldn’t see any way we could escape. I was afraid I would do what I normally do in a bad situation – nothing. Just freeze. Just look to everyone else to fix it for me. But I surprised myself.’
‘You surprised Frank too. If you hadn’t clobbered him with your handbag he would have killed Mouse.’
Ellie laughed. ‘I really don’t know why I did it. I couldn’t let him hurt Mouse. I just got so angry.’
‘Perhaps you were angry that someone else was taking control of your life again.’
‘Possibly,’ she acknowledged and opened the car door.
He walked her to the front door. She unlocked it, shivered a little at the blackness inside, then sighed with gratitude as he walked in and switched on the porch light. ‘I think you should get a security light out there,’ he said.
‘I’ll ring an electrician first thing tomorrow.’ She closed the door and turned on the fan heater. She’d had hot coffee at the police station, but nothing seemed to dispel the cold that had gripped her from the moment Rocco had first shot Geoffrey.
Chris looked at her, his calm facade crumbling. ‘You scared the daylights out of me tonight. When I was told your rego number and what was happening I …’ Pain stark on his face, he pulled her into his arms and crushed her to him. ‘Damnit, Ellie, it was so close. If I’d used the siren he probably would have shot you before we could reach you.’
‘Why didn’t you use the siren?’ Her words were muffled against his chest, but she didn’t pull away. She needed his arms around her.
‘It was a judgement call. Without the siren and lights we had the element of surprise.’
‘It worked, thank heavens.’
They stood there a while longer, savouring the closeness, the surety of each other’s presence, then eased apart as a car pulled up outside.
Cass and Kandy bundled Miranda inside, and hugged Ellie as if they’d been apart for years. Cass then went into Cass-mode, making cups of tea and coffee and a plate of hot buttered raisin toast. With the five of them sitting together, eating, drinking, and discussing the night’s events, the tight core of ice in Ellie’s stomach began to dissolve. Mayhem emerged, yawning, from Miranda’s bedroom and wove tail caresses around their legs.
Some time later Cass and Kandy went to leave. Cass stopped at the door and turned to Chris. ‘Would you like a lift? Or are you still on duty?’
Ellie watched him hesitate, heard the unspoken message in his voice as he said, ‘My shift ended after I took Ellie to the station.’ She glanced quickly at Miranda, then back to Chris. ‘You could stay here tonight and I’ll drive you home in the morning.’
Before he could reply Miranda said, ‘I’d feel a lot safer with a cop in the house tonight.’
‘That’s settled then.’ Kandy took Cass’s arm, waved goodbye and walked her out the door.
‘I’m off to bed.’ Miranda yawned. ‘I have work in the morning.’
‘Are you sure?’ Ellie couldn’t hide her surprise. ‘After tonight …’
‘Mum, I’ve waited years for this job, I’m not going to jeopardise it now.’ She kissed Ellie on the cheek and hugged her. ‘Thanks for what you did tonight. You were so brave to hit that bastard. I’m proud of you.’
Something wonderful swelled in Ellie’s chest at Miranda’s words. She didn’t feel brave, but for the first time in her life she felt as though she might have a core of courage that she was only beginning to tap into.
‘I can sleep on the lounge if you’d prefer,’ Chris said as Miranda closed her bedroom door.
Ellie heard the lack of conviction in his voice and smiled.
A hot shower later they lay in bed, Ellie snuggling against him and savouring the warmth of his chest under her fingertips. She was tired, so tired, but her mind wouldn’t turn off and let her sleep. Images kept flicking through her mind like a dream sequence. Geoffrey’s face when Rocco had shot him in the foyer. The horror in Miranda’s eyes. Frank’s cold, controlled cursing. Mouse shrieking in pain. Geoffrey’s blank, staring eyes as he died.
And the pain in her hand was a reminder that it had all been real.
Her hands started to close into fists, her muscles tightening.
Chris kissed her gently, his hands softly caressing, soothing, easing the tension from her body. Her fists uncurled, fingers spreading, seeking. She moved closer into his embrace, and his gentleness changed to passion, heat, possession, as though all his pent-up worry was flooding out in a desperate need to assure himself that she was still alive, still needing him, still wanting him.
She responded with a fervour that surprised her with its intensity, meeting his need with one just as strong. The feel of him deep inside her was almost not enough, but the thrust that took her over the edge wiped out the images from her mind so that all that remained was the slow slide into sleep.
When she woke early the next morning he was gone and a note beside her bed said he had an early shift and that he would call her.
He’d signed it, “Love, Chris”.
The aroma of spicy chicken wings wafted in the warm winter sunshine as Ellie carried a tray to a large gazebo where Miranda sat talking with Joe and Phillip and Maud and Damien’s father, Bert. She found it hard to believe it was only five days since Maud’s son’s death. It felt like a lifetime had passed. In the peaceful Japanese-inspired garden in the grounds of Phillip’s property it was almost possible to believe that the violence and death had never occurred.
She’d been touched by Kandy’s lunch invitation, more so when Kandy told her who else she’d invited. Phillip had seemed a little stiff when the guests had first arrived, but had gradually relaxed. Ellie suspected he hadn’t been too sure how everyone would react to his newly-exposed sexuality. She was pleased to see that he and Kandy were still friendly with each other, but wondered how that relationship would be affected when Nathan moved in.
‘Mum, do you need a hand in the kitchen?’ Miranda rose to take the tray.
‘We’re fine. Kandy has it all under control. These are just nibbles – we’ll have lunch when Chris arrives. When he gets off his shift he has to go home and change and pick Danny up, but he should be here soon.’ She smiled at the others and walked back into the house.
When she reached the kitchen door she stopped. Kandy and Cass were engaged in a spirited discussion about different brand marinades and their effectiveness. It was so wonderfully normal that just listening to it was like soothing balm on her nerves. For the past few days nothing had seemed “normal”. In spite of police efforts to protect her and Miranda’s identities, the news media had tracked them down and had hounded them for interviews until an environmental disaster off the coast had turned them into “old news” and they’d slid back into anonymity.
Bruce had informed her that the publicity about the Norman Lindsay painting being found in one of the units had prompted several enquiries from prospective purchasers. Everything was now “all systems go” and she’d “better start putting in orders for the furnishings”. Apparently people were rapt in her idea of individually-themed units and were eager to see her drawings.
Kandy looked up and caught her staring. ‘How’s Maud doing?’ she asked.
Ellie walked into the room and picked up her glass of wine. ‘She’ll be okay. I think deep down she knew that Geoffrey wasn’t going to change. All the residents at the retirement village have formed rosters to make sure she isn’t alone at any time and they’re keeping the reporters from getting to her. They’re screening her phone calls and all her visitors. They’re very protective.’
‘Good!’ Cass poured some of the disputed marinade over some steak. ‘Poor old dear can’t be blamed for what her son did. Has she decided what she’s doing with the painting?’
‘Yes. She’s decided to sell it and give the proceeds to a prisoner rehabilitation facility.’
‘But I thought she wanted to keep it to remind her of her sister?’
Ellie smiled. ‘I took a photo of it – just the face – and had it enlarged for her. She’s happy with that.’
Kandy chuckled. ‘I’ll bet some of the old boys in the retirement village would have been happier to see the original.’
‘Before all this happened,’ Cass said, ‘I was starting to wonder if there might be something missing from my life.’ The other two looked at her in astonishment, but she held up a warning finger and continued. ‘Maud might have married a man of the cloth but I’d married a man of the sloth,’ she glared mock-warningly as Ellie and Kandy started to laugh, ‘and my mother was driving me nuts. Still is,’ she muttered. ‘But after the other night I’ve realised that I’m okay with that. I don’t need too much excitement in my life. Having my family and my friends safe and well is good enough.’
‘Speaking of family,’ Kandy said, ‘Vanessa phoned me a couple of days ago.’
‘Phillip’s daughter?’ Cass looked surprised.
‘Yes. She wanted me to know that she’s coming to visit Phillip after Nathan moves in. She thanked me for not standing in their way.’ She picked up her wine glass and drained it. ‘Apparently,’ her face lit with pleasure, ‘she likes me and hopes we can be friends.’
‘So are you going to stay here?’ Ellie asked.
Kandy shrugged. ‘For the time being. It’s my home too. And Phillip and I still get along really well. Once Nathan arrives I’ll re-evaluate the situation.’ She went to the fridge and took out a bottle of wine, filled her and Cass’s glasses and topped up Ellie’s. ‘To friends,’ she said, and raised her glass and grinned.
‘To the friends who saved Miranda’s life, and mine,’ Ellie toasted, eyes misting with emotion. ‘To you both.’ She took a long sip. ‘It’s a shame Mouse isn’t well enough to be here. But I think he’s enjoying all the attention he’s getting in hospital. He just worries about his cats.’
‘Speaking of which,’ Cass rolled her eyes, ‘that one you foisted onto me has an attitude that would make any teenager proud. Demands to be fed, eats like a pig, then stalks off and leaves a mess.’
The laughter that followed almost drowned out the sound of the doorbell.
‘Granddad’s having a good day,’ Miranda said as she helped Ellie carry plates into the kitchen. ‘He hasn’t once called me Ellie.’
‘What about you, Mirie? Are you having a good day?’
‘Actually, I’m enjoying myself more than I thought I would.’ She placed the plates on the bench. ‘Danny’s amazing with what he knows about computers. He’s promised to do some upgrades on mine. It wouldn’t hurt to have a computer geek in the family,’ she winked as she saw Chris approaching, and walked outside.
Between work and fending off the media horde, Ellie had had little time to herself the past few days, and Chris’s shifts had relegated their communication to a few brief phone calls.
‘We haven’t had much of a chance to talk,’ he said as he walked up to her. He put his glass on the bench. ‘How are you and Miranda coping?’
She saw the concern in his eyes, the uncertainty that was as much for her welfare as for the situation between them. ‘It’s funny,’ she said, ‘but we both feel it’s like a dream – or a nightmare. I guess we were so terrified that it didn’t seem real, like it was the kind of thing that happens to other people like druggies and criminals, not ordinary people like us. But you won’t find either of us going into a room without lights on any more. And we do tend to jump if there’s an unexpected noise.
‘Last night I started thinking about it again and didn’t realise I’d dialled Miranda’s mobile number into the microwave oven.’ She smiled wryly. ‘I blew up the coffee mug.’
His answering smile sent a shiver through her that had nothing to do with shattered china. She wondered if he knew how extraordinarily sexy she found him.
‘Have you thought any more about … us?’ he asked.
‘Actually, I’ve been giving that a lot of thought lately. These past few months have been a big learning curve for me. I’d been trapped for years in a situation that I couldn’t get out of because I thought it was up to me to save my marriage and because I’d never really allowed myself to become my own person. I think I’m finally finding the courage to become that person. It could be a long journey, and I’ve only just begun.’
‘I see.’ Chris looked away, but not before she’d seen the pained acceptance in his eyes.
She took his hand, smoothed her fingers along his, felt the roughness of his skin, the solidity of bone and flesh, and ached with the love she felt for him. ‘But there’s no reason I can’t have a friend come along on that journey,’ she said, and smiled as he turned to look at her again. ‘Especially one who is so good at cooking with avocado oil.’
Her heart raced at the expression on his face, and she smiled as he took her in his arms.
‘Lady,’ he said, ‘you haven’t seen half the recipes in my cook book yet.’
If what she read in his eyes was any indication, she was going to have a lot of fun finding out.