Murder, Mayhem and Men On Pause: Part five

Jun 10, 2023
Part five in the serialisation of the novel written by author Sandy Curtis.

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


Chapter Twenty-one

Miranda dialled Cass’s number. She felt a bit foolish worrying about her mother; after all, she was a perfectly capable woman. But the fact that Ellie knew she was cooking dinner for her and it was now past a reasonable time to eat gave the worry a basis. And Ellie’s mobile kept ringing out. Okay, if Ellie was in traffic and couldn’t pull over to answer it she could understand, but she’d phoned four times in the past ten minutes and still no answer.

            Cass’s phone stopped ringing and the answering machine clicked in. Miranda left a brief message and hung up. She flicked through her mother’s personal directory and found Kandy’s number.

            Kandy answered after the first ring, and Miranda quickly relayed her concern. When Kandy explained about meeting Ellie after work it seemed such a reasonable explanation she said goodbye without mentioning that Ellie wasn’t answering her mobile.

            A few minutes later her own mobile rang, and she sighed with relief when she recognised Ellie’s number. Shit, but she was going to give her a blast for worrying her. She flicked the phone open and put it to her ear. ‘Mum, I’ve been-’

            ‘Miranda?’ The voice was soft, hesitant, but she recognised something in the inflection as he said her name.

            ‘Mouse? Mouse, what are you doing with my mother’s phone?’ Panic inched her voice up several notches. ‘What’s happened to her?’

            ‘She’s not dead, but she looks hurt real bad.’

            Miranda gripped her mobile so hard her hand hurt. ‘Mouse! Where is she?’

            ‘In the place where Cherilyn died.’

            ‘Mouse, I’m going to call an ambulance. Can you stay with her please?’

            ‘Do you want me to clean up the blood?’

Her stomach heaved, her imagination going crazy. ‘Where is she bleeding?’ Shit, what had happened to her?

‘From her head. But I think it’s stopped now.’

‘That’s good. Mouse, can you stay on the phone? I’m going to use the other phone to call an ambulance, okay?’

‘Are you coming too, Miranda?’

‘Yes, Mouse, I will but I have to phone the ambulance first.’ Miranda flung down the mobile, ran to the landline and dialled triple zero, grateful she’d seen the address of the units on Ellie’s sketchbook. It seemed to take an eternity for her call to be put through to the ambulance service but she knew it was only seconds. Seconds she hoped wouldn’t mean the difference between life and death for her mother. As soon as she’d given them the details she grabbed Ellie’s personal directory again, flicked through the pages and found Chris’s home and mobile numbers. She dialled his mobile.

Minutes later she was driving far in excess of the speed limit to get to the units.

Pain. Sharp, blinding, digging into her skull like a jackhammer with a knife edge. Ellie was sure her head would explode if she opened her eyes, but she tried anyway.

            Darkness. Oh, God, had she gone blind?

            No, she could see outlines … of what she wasn’t sure. Then she felt movement near her head.

            ‘Don’t move. Miranda is calling an ambulance. She told me to make sure you didn’t move.’

            The voice. Male. Familiar, but not familiar enough that she could recognise it. If Miranda had called an ambulance then she must be hurt. That would explain why everything seemed so topsy-turvy. She moved her hands, felt coldness, hardness. Tiles. That’s what it felt like. She moved her head towards the tiles, trying to get up. Pain shafted harder and nausea roiled through her stomach. She bit back the urge to vomit, but it happened anyway, half-digested food spasming out in liquid and chunks. She felt it warm the tile under her cheek. Acrid. Revolting. She had never felt so ill. ‘Please.’ The word rasped from her throat. ‘Help me.’

            Cloth that smelled like dirt and musk and kittens moved over her lips. ‘It’s all right, Miranda’s mother. The ambulance is coming. Can’t you hear it?’

            She heard it then, the faint high-low rhythm of a siren. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and gave in to the need to sleep.

Miranda looked at Chris as he sat beside her in a curtained cubicle in the Emergency Room. She’d only met him a couple of times, and had thought he was fairly laid-back for a cop, but now he looked so grim she was glad she wasn’t a lawbreaker.

            ‘Are you sure they’ll treat Mouse okay?’ she ventured to ask him.

            ‘They’ve only taken him to the station to make a statement.’

            ‘Mum was lucky he found her. She could have been lying there for ages like that …’ Miranda couldn’t finish the sentence, her mind replaying the scene that had greeted her when she’d arrived at the units at the same time as the ambulance. Chris’s Rodeo had screeched to a halt as she’d run up the path ahead of the ambulance officers. Mouse had unlocked the door and she’d stopped in shock at the sight of her mother. She wasn’t sure how long it took for her mother to be assessed and put in the ambulance, but it felt like she’d aged years in that time.

            ‘How did Mouse find her, anyway?’ she asked, remembering that Chris had questioned him while she stayed with Ellie and answered the ambulance officers’ questions.

            He ran a hand over his face, pushing at his forehead as though he too, wanted to expunge the image of Ellie that had greeted them. ‘According to Mouse, he often walks the streets in the New Farm area and down by the river looking for stray animals, and he recognised Ellie’s car. He wanted to ask her how the kitten was going so he knocked on the front door. When no-one answered he looked in through the glass panel next to the door and saw Ellie lying on the floor. He said he could only see her legs but she wasn’t moving and he was worried.

            ‘Apparently Mouse is also always on the lookout for a good place to doss down if he has to move in a hurry and the units were one of his regular haunts. He had no trouble breaking in through a window that had a dodgy latch. From what he said,’ Chris stretched back in the hard plastic chair and flexed his shoulders, ‘he nearly ran away because he thought he’d get the blame, but then he heard Ellie’s mobile ring and he pulled her bag from underneath her and got it out. When he saw the missed call was from you, he hit Reply.’

            ‘Thank heavens,’ Miranda sighed. ‘Mum wasn’t making much sense when she woke up, she wasn’t even sure where she was. Have you figured out what happened?’

            ‘I found one of her shoes a few stairs down from the first landing. The heel had caught on a thread in the carpet runner. It looks like she tripped and hit her head on the tiled floor.’ He thumped his fist on his thigh. ‘She shouldn’t have been there at night on her own. It’s too dangerous with no lights.’

            Miranda was going to tell him about Ellie’s meeting with Kandy, but hesitated. Ellie could tell him if she wanted him to know.

            Chris looked at his watch and frowned. ‘How long do these damn scans take? You’d think she’d be back by now.’

            Miranda shared his impatience. After an initial examination, the ER doctor had sent Ellie for a scan. He hadn’t said anything, but Miranda felt he was worried Ellie might have a skull fracture. Considering her vagueness, lethargy and obvious pain, it was a possibility, and Miranda couldn’t subdue the worry that gnawed at her. She’d been horrified by the amount of blood Ellie had lost, but the doctor had reassured her that scalp wounds bled a lot but weren’t necessarily serious.

            ‘I guess we’re lucky it wasn’t Saturday night. They’d probably be twice as busy in here then.’

            ‘More than twice,’ he muttered.

            Rubber wheels squeaked on the vinyl floor and Ellie’s bed was wheeled into the cubicle where they waited. Both of them sprang to their feet, their gazes directed to the doctor who walked behind the bed, chart in hand. ‘No fractures,’ he said as though anticipating their question, ‘and no bleeding into the brain. Severe concussion, but she’ll be all right. We’ll keep her in for a day or two to make sure nothing else crops up.’

            ‘But I have work,’ Ellie protested weakly, her eyes partially closed to cope with the brightness of the lights.

            ‘I’ll write you out a certificate,’ the doctor smiled. ‘You’ll be lucky if you’re back at work in a week. You’re going to have quite a headache for a while. I’ve stitched the wound in your scalp and you’ll have to get those out in five to seven days.’ He turned to a nearby orderly. ‘Mrs Cummins is ready to go up to the ward now, please.’

            ‘Can we go with her?’ Miranda asked.

            The doctor shook his head. ‘It’s past visiting hours and we don’t want to disturb the other patients. You can see her tomorrow.’ He beamed at them, hooked the chart on the bed end, and walked away. The orderly hovered, obviously waiting for Miranda and Chris to say goodbye to Ellie.

            Miranda kissed her mother softly on the forehead. ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ she said and walked out of the way. She watched Chris take Ellie’s hand and put it to his lips. Brief though the kiss was, in that instant she realised that Chris Ryan was in love with her mother.

Chapter Twenty-two

If she moved slowly and kept her head fixed in the one direction, Ellie discovered, it eliminated the shafts of pain through her head. The overall ache didn’t go away, in spite of the painkillers, but at least it was bearable. And being propped up on several pillows helped.

            She’d vomited again, but this time a quick-thinking nurse with a pan had saved her from wearing it. When the noise of clanging trolleys, chatty patients and morning television had become too much for her to cope with, and the nursing staff realised she was covered by health insurance, they’d moved her to a private room.

            The hospital gown she wore was definitely of the one-size-fits-all variety, and she hoped Miranda would soon arrive with her pyjamas. When she’d asked the nurse this morning what had happened to her clothes and bag she’d been informed that her clothes were in the cupboard and Miranda had taken the bag home, and she worried that her notepad might have fallen out. She remembered going to the units, but everything after that was so hazy she wasn’t sure if she was remembering last night or other visits there.

            A soft knock sounded on the door and she called out, equally softly, ‘Come in’.

            Miranda poked her head around the door and grinned. ‘Wasn’t sure what you said.’

            Ellie felt her answering smile lacked the cheerfulness of Miranda’s but it was all she could muster. Her head ached, bruises covered half her body, and she felt like crap. A nurse had cleaned her face and hair last night but she was sure she didn’t smell too good either.

            ‘PJs, underwear, clothing, toiletries.’ Miranda held up an overnight bag. ‘The nurse said it’s okay if you want to have a shower.’

            ‘Thank heavens.’ Ellie tried to push herself into a sitting position, but the room started to sway and she dropped back against the pillows.

            ‘Wait on, I’ll give you a hand.’ Miranda walked over, put the bag down and helped her move, cautiously, so that she sat upright. It was a relief when the walls stayed where she knew they should be. ‘Think I’d better help you into the shower,’ Miranda said.

            Fifteen minutes, hot water and shampoo later, Ellie felt more human and less like a punching bag. She even thought she could eat something. ‘Something dry,’ she told Miranda. ‘Nothing dairy – don’t think I can handle that yet.’

            Miranda went to see what she could find, and left Ellie sitting on the bed, brushing her wet hair carefully to avoid the stitches. The wound was just inside the hairline close to her temple, and if she brushed her hair carefully the stitches couldn’t be seen. She tried to remember what had happened to her at the units, but gave up in disgust. Thinking made her head hurt.

            A flash of blue in the doorway made her heart thump. Chris. Oh, God, but he looked good, standing there, all lean but solid at the same time, a bunch of roses in one hand, police cap in the other, and a look in his eyes that said “caring” more than any words could.

            ‘You look better than you did last night,’ he said, and walked in, closing the door behind him.

            ‘I hope so.’ Hell, she’d seen herself in the mirror – she still looked like crap, only a better version. ‘I still can’t remember what happened. Miranda told me about Mouse finding me. Was he able to give you a clue?’

            Chris shook his head. He placed the roses on the bed and gently kissed her. Ellie gave silent thanks that she’d cleaned her teeth before melting into the warmth of his lips. When he moved back, she breathed, ‘Thank you,’ and wasn’t thinking of the flowers.

He looked like he was going to kiss her again, but sat on the visitor’s chair instead. ‘From what we can work out, your heel caught in the carpet on the stairs and you fell onto the tiled floor and hit your head.’

            Something flicked in Ellie’s mind at his words, but it quickly went. ‘I must thank Mouse for calling Miranda. I could have been lying there a lot longer.’

A smile made its way across Chris’s face. ‘I think you and Miranda have a friend for life there. And I gained a few brownie points by suggesting to him that if he had anything on him he didn’t want the attending police to see then he might want to leave it in the garden before they arrived to take him to the station to make a statement.’

‘You did?’ Ellie smiled. ‘That was very un-cop-like of you.’

‘I’ve attended a lot of crime scenes, and it was pretty obvious that you’d fallen and not been pushed or hit. I figured I owed Mouse a favour. He could have left you there and no-one would have known, but he didn’t.’

‘Maybe you should offer to take one of his kittens. You’d join his friends-for-life club.’

Before he could reply, the door opened.

Damien walked into the room.

Ellie stared. She felt her jaw drop.

He’d lost weight, his expensive suit tailored to fit his trimmer physique. In one hand he carried an overnight bag. The other held a bouquet of flowers that screamed ostentatious. She found her voice. ‘Damien. What are you doing here?’

He glared at Chris before striding over to the bed and thrusting the flowers at Ellie. ‘Miranda called and told me about your accident. I caught the first plane I could.’ He glared at Chris again. ‘I’m Damien Cummins, Ellie’s husband.’

Ellie almost groaned. Damien had made the statement sound like a challenge. She saw the gleam of battle in Chris’s eyes as he stood.

‘Separated husband,’ Chris reminded him.

It was like a rag waved at a bull. Damien clenched his teeth, and Ellie wouldn’t have been surprised if his eyes bulged. ‘We’re still married,’ he ground out.

‘That’s only a legality.’ Chris’s tone was mild, but Ellie could see the tension in his body and the way his fingers gripped his cap.

‘I came here to be with my wife, and would appreciate some privacy, if you don’t mind.’

‘Perhaps Ellie minds.’

Both men held each other’s gaze for a few more seconds, then turned to look at her. It was like being confronted by the headmistress when you knew you had to take the blame or rat on your friends – dead whichever way she went. Then anger bubbled up. She tossed the flowers to the end of the bed. ‘What about your girlfriend, Damien? How does she feel about this?’

Damien didn’t look exactly sheepish, but about as close to it as he could get. ‘That was a mistake. I realise that. I should never have let you go.’

‘You tossed me away,’ Ellie heard her voice rise. The ache in her head worsened. ‘Like … like unopened junk mail.’

‘I think you should leave.’ Chris’s tone made it obvious it wasn’t a suggestion.

Damien spun around to face him. ‘I think you should be the one to leave.’

Ellie watched in horror, sure that a fight was only a breath away. Her patience snapped. ‘Both of you leave!’ she yelled, and shuddered at the pounding in her brain. ‘Please!’

‘Do what she says.’ Kandy marched into the room, her lack of height more than compensated by the fierce determination in her stride. She waved an angry hand at the two men. ‘She’s got concussion. She doesn’t need all this shit. Piss off and leave her be.’

Damien looked astounded. Ellie thought it was probably the first time any woman had spoken to him like that. She suppressed a giggle that had the potential to turn hysterical.

Chris nodded his acquiescence. ‘I’ll see you later,’ he said to Ellie, and strode out, giving Damien a look that would have cowered a criminal suspect.

Damien flinched, but didn’t walk away. ‘We need to talk, Ellie.’

Kandy walked in front of Ellie, cutting him off. ‘Bugger off, Damien. Ellie will talk to you when and if she wants to.

Ellie closed her eyes and gingerly eased her head onto the pillows. The sound of Damien’s retreating footsteps brought more relief than any painkiller. ‘Thanks, Kandy,’ she whispered.

‘Unbutton your pyjama top and lie face down.’

Ellie opened one eye. ‘Why?’

‘Your muscles will be as tight as wires after that little scene, let alone what happened to you last night. I do a fabulous relaxing massage. No,’ she grinned, ‘don’t ask me where I learned.’

It didn’t take long for Kandy to rearrange the pillows and for Ellie to position herself to cause the least pain to her head. When she felt Kandy drop oil on her back and begin to smooth it across her skin she tried to make her body relax. Kandy’s hands applied gentle pressure, and after a few minutes Ellie’s shoulders loosened, the knots in her neck started to unravel, and the pain in her head began to ease. Kandy worked in silence, and Ellie was grateful she didn’t have to discuss Damien’s sudden re-appearance. Ten minutes later she was drifting into an almost-doze when Miranda came back.

Ellie saw the furtive way she looked around, as though wondering if she was going to be welcome or not.

‘Hello, Kandy,’ Miranda said, forcing brightness, then put a packet on the side table. ‘I got you some potato crisps, Mum.’ Ellie noticed that she didn’t look at her.

Kandy’s fingers didn’t stop weaving their magic. ‘Hi, Miranda.’

Miranda stood, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. ‘I saw Dad in the foyer.’ She let the statement hang, as though waiting for someone to take up the conversation.

It wasn’t really something Ellie felt like tackling now, but she thought it was better to clear the air rather than stew on it. ‘Why did you phone him?’

Miranda shrugged, but said, ‘I thought he should know.’

‘Why? He didn’t care about me when he was with his girlfriend, what made you think he would care now?’

‘He phoned me last week and asked how you were. He asked me not to tell you. His girlfriend had left him and he was pretty depressed.’

Ellie went to rise, but Kandy’s hands pressed her back into the bed and kept massaging. Anger started to boil in Ellie’s gut. ‘So you thought you’d tell him I was hurt so he could come waltzing back into my life and play the distraught, caring husband and I’d be so grateful I’d take him back.’

‘Not really.’ Miranda slumped into the visitor’s chair. ‘I thought that if there was a chance you could salvage your marriage then you should have the opportunity. You’re not as … as door matty as you used to be and … well, he is my Dad, and it wasn’t like he hit you or anything.’ She sniffled, and scrabbled in her pocket for a tissue.

The anger seeped out of Ellie as quickly as it had come. She’d thought Miranda had taken the breakup well, but it seemed like she still had issues with divided loyalties. ‘Mirie,’ she reached out and touched Miranda’s arm, ‘our marriage was over a long time ago. I should have been more open with you and told you that, but I don’t think I realised it myself until Damien’s business crisis forced me to confront it. I’m sorry.’

‘That’s okay,’ Miranda snuffled into the tissue, then blew her nose hard. She got up, walked to the bin and threw the tissue in. ‘I’m sorry I interfered. I thought I was helping. But there’s something I think you should know.’

What now, Ellie wondered, unsure if she really wanted to hear. Her head was hurting again, and Kandy’s gentle kneading at the base of her skull wasn’t doing as much good as it had before. She waited for Miranda to continue.

‘Chris Ryan is in love with you.’

Kandy’s fingers stilled. ‘Oh,’ she muttered.

Ellie felt her mouth open but no words came out.

Cass poked her head around the half-open door.

She took one look at the stunned tableau in the room, and tentatively asked, ‘Anyone for chocolate brownies?’

Chapter Twenty-three

Kandy made tea and coffee in the visitors’ lounge and brought them back to Ellie’s room after Miranda left. Cass sat on the visitor’s chair and Kandy perched on the end of the bed while Ellie leaned against her propped-up pillows and sipped her tea. Cass insisted Ellie couldn’t have coffee – she didn’t need the caffeine stimulant.

‘What do I do now?’ Ellie felt like shaking her head, but thought better of it. ‘Do I believe Miranda?’ She bit into a chocolate brownie.

            ‘She’s only basing it on how Chris looked at you. That doesn’t mean he’s in love with you, it could just be the way it seemed to her.’

            Ellie thought back to her last conversation with him and his conviction they would still be together in a few months time. Was it possible he loved her? She was certainly falling for him, but that could be a rebound effect. Or hormones. Oh, yeah, hormones. She was definitely in lust with him, she just hadn’t done anything about it. Yet.

            ‘What about Damien?’ Cass asked. ‘How do you feel about him?’

            ‘Good question. He’s Miranda and Pru’s father and there’s shared history, and for a moment when I saw him there was a twinge of something, but it could have been shock. He does look a lot better now he’s lost weight though,’ she mused.

            ‘You’re not going soft on the prick, are you?’ Kandy snorted.

            Ellie tried not to laugh at Kandy’s choice of words. ‘No. You can’t resurrect the dead. What Damien and I had died a slow death years ago. Though until I heard his girlfriend’s voice on the phone I had had a few fantasies about him coming back and declaring his undying love for me.’

            ‘So what are you going to do about Chris? If the man’s in love with you and there’s no hope you’re going to reciprocate it would be kinder to put him out of his misery now.’

            What was she going to do? She didn’t have the energy at the moment to tell Cass and Kandy her fears about falling in love with him and then losing him. She didn’t even want to think about it at the moment. Maybe she needed advice. ‘What do you think I should do?’

            ‘Don’t look at me.’ Cass said. ‘If I tell you what to do and it goes wrong you’ll never forgive me.’

            Ellie looked at Kandy, who shook her head. ‘Your call.’

            ‘Then I’m not going to do anything. I’ll just see what happens and worry about it when the time comes. I know that’s procrastinating, but right now that’s the best I can do.’

            ‘If they handed out awards for procrastination,’ Cass sighed, ‘Joe would need a trophy room.’

            The three of them laughed, aware of Cass’s complaint that Joe was always “going to” fix something in the house. One Christmas she’d even bought him a brass circle labelled “A Round Tuit” that came with the explanation it was for those men who, when asked to do something by their wives, said they would get around to it and never did.

            Their laughter died as a doctor walked into the room. Ellie blinked. He was almost a George Clooney lookalike. She glanced at Kandy, expecting to see her positively salivating. And blinked again. Kandy was showing only a cursory interest in the gorgeous specimen. Alarm bells went off in Ellie’s brain. Whatever was happening with Kandy and Phillip was more serious than she’d thought.

Geoffrey had watched every television news bulletin from 6am and had also listened to the radio, and when no mention of the woman was made by midday, he even went and bought a newspaper to see if anything was in there. But there was nothing about her anywhere.

She must still be alive. If she wasn’t, the workmen would have found her this morning and something should have come out in the news.

            He made a cup of coffee and tried to drink it, but he’d run out of sugar and milk and the bitterness was too great. Or maybe it was the acid pouring into his gut from what had happened last night. He poured the coffee down the sink.

            He was sure the woman had seen him. She’d cried out when she’d spotted him, and surprise must have made her lose her footing. There’d be no physical evidence to place him at the scene, his gloves saw to that, but he still worried. What the hell was the woman doing there? The other one would have been a squatter, but the woman last night wore a coat that said she shopped in stores most women couldn’t afford to look in. He cursed that he hadn’t had the presence of mind to search for her bag and take her money – the bitch was probably loaded.

            Should he go back there tonight? He might have been given a slight reprieve by his “associates”, but they wouldn’t extend that again. Instinct warned him against going back too soon after last night’s bungle. He now knew where Iris had lived before she died. Maybe he should see if his mother knew more than she realised she did.

He pulled out his wallet. He’d need more money if he was to keep going to see his mother.

Gazza. Gazza owed him a favour. Gazza should have been the one doing the drop-off the night Geoffrey had been caught by the cops, but he’d been too hung over to even get off his couch. Yeah, Gazza owed him all right.

An hour later Geoffrey was knocking on the front door of a fibro cottage that was more dilapidated than his bedsit. A growled obscenity filtered through a cracked window pane, then the door was pulled open.

The man who stood there in a worn grey pants and sweater needed a shave, dental work, and a haircut. He stared at Geoffrey, swore, then pulled him inside and slammed the door. ‘You shouldn’t have come here, mate. It’s good to see ya, but ya can’t stay. You’re dead meat, and I will be too if they see me with ya.’

‘It’s okay, Gaz. I made a deal with the boss. I’m going to get the money for him – get him off my back.’

Gazza’s eyes narrowed. ‘How ya gonna do that?’

‘I know where something valuable is hidden. As soon as I can get hold of it and sell it, I’ll give him the money and be in the clear.’

‘So what’s that got to do with me?’

‘I need some money, just a bit to see me through until I can get this thing.’

Gazza laughed, spittle forming on rotten teeth stumps. ‘Does it look like I got money?’

Geoffrey looked around the room, seeing the torn curtains, the battered furniture, and sighed. He’d wasted money getting here, and now it looked like he’d have to go to a charity and beg for some food to see him through the week. ‘I was stupid to come,’ he muttered, and turned to leave but Gazza grabbed his arm. ‘Wait a sec.’ He scurried towards another room. Geoffrey heard what sounded like furniture being moved, then scrunching plastic, then Gazza came back and shoved something at him.

A gun. Small. No bigger than his hand.  ‘Take it,’ Gazza pushed it into Geoffrey’s hand. ‘If the word on the street is kosher, you’re gonna need it.’

Pain gnawed at Geoffrey’s belly, and it wasn’t from hunger. Gazza must have heard wrong. He had a deal with the boss. Give him the money from the painting and all would be forgiven. What he would get for the painting wouldn’t make up for all the money he’d lost but a few hundred thousand was better than nothing.

But even as he tried to convince himself, doubt crept up his back like ants on a honey jar.

He managed to wangle an almost-decent cup of coffee from the hospital domestic who brought the patients’ lunches. Getting some lunch as well didn’t happen this time, but his mother said she was too tired after doing her physiotherapy to eat her lamb chops and vegetables and told him to have them. He watched her eat the thin soup that had come with the meal and wondered if she’d told the truth or if she’d realised how hungry he was. He felt a twinge of gratitude. It had been a long time since anyone had done anything for him without expecting something in return.

            ‘Did you see much of Iris before she died?’ he asked.

            ‘Only when she was in hospital. She hired a removalist to move her to the bottom flat. I didn’t see her a lot after that, though I felt terrible when I learned she had died alone like she did. But the doctor said it was quick. A heart attack while she was sitting watching television.’

            ‘What about her friends? Didn’t they come around?’

            ‘They’d all died. Poor Iris. For someone who’d enjoyed such a full life, she’d become somewhat of a recluse in the end.’

            That was a relief. For a while he’d considered that perhaps she’d given what he was looking for to a friend, but doubted she would do that while his mother still lived. If Iris had hidden it all these years there was a good chance it still remained that way. All he had to do was find it.

Ellie was given the okay to go home, and it didn’t taken long for Kandy and Cass to get her ready.

Cass insisted on driving her, obviously concerned that Kandy’s expertise behind the wheel didn’t extend to slow and careful. Ellie had to smile as Cass dawdled along at just below the speed limit. It didn’t surprise her to see Kandy’s Porsche speed past, any more than it did to see the Porsche parked outside Miranda’s house when they arrived.

As Cass helped her from the car, she had to admit her head wasn’t in the best shape. The ache persisted, although the dizziness only happened now if she moved fast. The stitches pulled a little and she’d have to remember them when she brushed her hair. She’d texted Chris that she was leaving the hospital, and then phoned Miranda to let her know. Now Miranda opened the front door and came out to meet them. ‘You still mad at me, Mum?’ she asked.

‘No, Mirie, and I wasn’t really mad at you. It was just such a shock to see your father arrive, and I really couldn’t handle the way he fronted up to Chris as though he was some kind of home-wrecker.’

‘I thought Chris handled the situation rather well,’ Kandy chuckled.

You handled the situation better than I did,’ Ellie muttered.

Cass hauled Ellie’s bag from the back seat and place her other hand under Ellie’s elbow. ‘Let’s get the patient inside.’

They’d almost made it to the front door when a taxi pulled up and Damien got out. Ellie shot Miranda a suspicious look.

Miranda made an “I’m sorry” face and said, ‘Dad’s flying back to Sydney this evening and he wanted to see you before he left. I told him what you said about it being all over between the two of you but he wanted to talk to you anyway.’

A sigh rippled through Ellie’s body but she simply said, ‘Okay. I guess I owe him that.’

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ Kandy said. ‘Make sure you look after your mother, Miranda,’ she added with well-restrained emphasis. ‘Coming, Cass?’

Cass looked from Ellie to Damien’s approaching figure and reluctantly handed Ellie’s bag to Miranda. She gave Ellie a gentle hug, whispered, ‘Don’t let the bastard wear you down,’ and walked back to her car.

Ellie noticed that Damien had lost his usual confident swagger. She thought Kandy’s and Cass’s curt nod and brief greeting of ‘Damien’ could have contributed to that but wouldn’t have been the cause. No, something else had happened. Even during his misery over losing his business he hadn’t lost that streak of arrogance she’d found so masculine when they’d first met but had soon come to find tiring.

Mayhem ran to greet her, rubbing against her legs and purring loudly. Ellie wanted to pick her up, but knew bending down wasn’t a good idea at the moment.

Damien followed them into the lounge room. Mayhem ran and hid behind the lounge. Damien stood looking around for a moment, then said, ‘I see you’ve made a few changes. Has Dad escaped lately? He would have cracked up.’

There was no rancour in his tone, so Ellie decided not to take offence. Besides, she didn’t need the aggro. She lowered herself carefully onto the lounge. ‘Bert hasn’t been here. Have you seen him yet?’

‘I went this morning, after … He’s deteriorated a lot, hasn’t he.’ He looked away, and Ellie saw the faint sheen of tears in his eyes. ‘He didn’t know me, Ellie. I told him who I was but … he said I was lying, that … that Damien was at school and Eugenia – Mum – had gone to pick him up.’

Ellie noticed the distress on Miranda’s face as she hurried off to the bedroom with her bag. ‘He was like that when Miranda and I saw him last.’ Sadness washed over Ellie. It must have been a shock for Damien to see how badly his father had deteriorated. When Damien had visited Bert before leaving for Sydney, Bert had been having many lucid moments.

‘Will you do me a favour?’ Damien asked. ‘Will you try to get to see him every so often and let me know how he is? I phone the nursing home and they’re sympathetic, but it’s not like seeing him.’

‘I’ll see him as often as I can. And it would be a good idea if you could visit a bit more.’

‘Hotel rooms aren’t cheap. I can’t afford to come up too often. Perhaps I could stay here?’

Ellie was sure the innocent, hopeful look in his eyes was false. It was typical of Damien to revert to charm to get his own way. Well, she was too tired, too sore, and too thoroughly pissed at him to play his game. ‘The lounge is probably a bit lumpy, but if you don’t mind squeezing into it you can stay here.’

Disappointment – or was it frustration – flashed in his eyes. ‘Ellie, I know you told Miranda it was all over between us, but surely you’re not going to throw away nearly thirty years of marriage just because I made one little mistake?’

Suspicion that had been lurking since she’d phoned Damien and heard his lover murmuring bed-talk in the background abruptly surfaced. ‘Was it only one mistake, Damien? Was that the first time you’d strayed?’

‘Of course.’ He held out his hands in supplication, but she caught his blink and the involuntary twitch of his cheek that told her he was lying even as the denial left his mouth. ‘I’ve always loved you, Ellie. We just got into a rough patch and I didn’t handle it well. I was under too much stress with the business failing.’

She refrained from pointing out that the business hadn’t failed, but that his greed and arrogance had made him easy prey for a clever con artist.

‘It’s too late, Damien. It’s over. We can’t go back. I don’t love you anymore.’ There. The words were out. Some of the pain still lingered, and she guessed it always would, but it was cathartic saying the words. She wasn’t vindictive by nature, but the exasperation that showed on his face caused her immediate pleasure. He was so used to her falling in with his wishes that he wasn’t coping well with this new version of her.

‘I suppose it’s too much to ask if we could be friends?’

She wasn’t too sure what “friends” meant, but she was prepared to be civil. ‘We can be friends.’

He looked at his watch. ‘I’d better go. Airport traffic can get pretty heavy.’ He stood, then hesitated. ‘Are you involved with that cop?’

Irritation inched its way up Ellie’s back. ‘Not that it’s any of your business, but we’ve only been seeing each other a few weeks. I’d hardly call that involved.’

‘Miranda said he’s in love with you.’

‘No, I didn’t.’ Miranda walked into the room. ‘I said I think he’s in love with Mum. I could be wrong.’

‘And whether he is or he isn’t is definitely none of your business, Damien. Have a safe trip back to Sydney.’ Ellie smiled, grateful to see him leave, but saddened by the whole situation.

Miranda walked him to the door and hugged him goodbye. When she closed the front door, it sounded to Ellie like it was closing on the end of an era.

Kandy wasn’t sure if she wanted to go home. Her doubts about Phillip had been eating into her for days now, and she kept thinking that each time he came home from work he was going to tell her he had fallen in love with someone else and was going to leave her. It didn’t matter how many times she told herself that was ridiculous, the doubt still lingered.

            You can take the girl out of the background, she mused, but you can’t take the background out of the girl. She’d come a long way from the homeless, street-wise young woman who’d lied to get a waitressing job to escape a life that had no future, but the insecurities of that life had left their mark. Sometimes she wondered if the sexual encounters she indulged in really happened because she was sexually frustrated or because she needed the constant reassurance that even Phillip’s solid presence couldn’t give. She enjoyed the sex, had always had a good appetite for it, but occasionally it felt like she was looking for something she would never find.

            Her Porsche Boxster negotiated the two-lane road leading to Bridgeman Downs on Brisbane’s northern outskirts. She could have driven on the Bruce Highway and turned off, but she liked the way the Roadster hugged the narrow bitumen, the way the powerful engine felt like it had to be reined in so the vehicle wouldn’t take off when it rounded tight curves or crested hills. She didn’t exceed the speed limit by a lot, but the traffic would soon increase to school-pick-up frenzy, and she took advantage of the relatively clear lane.

            Suburban houses soon changed to five and ten-acre bushland blocks that sheltered sprawling ranch-style homes, mansions surrounded by perfectly-landscaped gardens, and double-storey, marble-pillared edifices with tennis courts and swimming pools. Kandy watched a car leave the driveway of one of those edifices, and realised it had come from her house. She braked, slowed almost to a crawl, and looked intently at the driver as the car went past.

            A woman. Blonde. Slight build. About her age, maybe younger.

            Kandy’s stomach sank so low she felt sick from the drag of it. She turned into the driveway, still going at a snail’s pace, her mind whirling. This morning she’d told Phillip she was going to see Ellie in the hospital and would do some shopping afterwards, so she would be gone all day. It was now two-twenty. Phillip never left the office before five o’clock. Was he home? Had the woman come here to meet him or had she simply made a mistake and driven into the wrong place?

            As she pressed the remote and the garage roller-door revealed Phillip’s BMW, she thought she might throw up. In the ten years she’d been married to Phillip she’d convinced herself she’d buried her past. Now it only took the possibility of betrayal and she was once again the scared fifteen-year-old packing her bag and sneaking out the back door, hoping her father wouldn’t wake and start beating her.

            She parked the Porsche and sat for a few minutes, gathering her strength for what she expected would come.

            A bright smile plastered on her face, she walked through the gleaming tiled laundry to the kitchen. A glass sat on the bench, a smidgen of amber liquid in the bottom. Funny. Phillip was usually quite fastidious about rinsing glasses and cups as soon as he’d used them. She picked it up and sniffed. Scotch. Even stranger. Drinking in the afternoon wasn’t something Phillip normally did either. A shiver of apprehension ran down her spine. Perhaps he was too pre-occupied with how he was going to break up with her to be his usual predictable self.

            With its tiles and stainless steel and numerous appliances, the kitchen was almost commercial in appearance, but Kandy loved it, delighting in cooking for Phillip’s many business dinners at home. Few of the guests were close enough to him to be called friends, but Kandy understood that. In their own ways, they were both private persons.

            She dropped her handbag on the bench and walked into the dining room, her boots clacking on the tiles like slow castanets, then into the carpeted quietness of the formal living room. Tension winding ever tighter, she hesitated in front of Phillip’s office door. It was open just enough that she could see Phillip seated at his desk, staring past the rolling lawns and clipped-hedge boundary to the cloud-sloughed sky. Slivers of sunshine highlighted the grey in his fair hair and emphasised the fine lines in his face and neck.

His usual calm expression was gone.

What she saw now was the face of a man in emotional pain.

Chapter Twenty-four

In spite of the anxiety tearing her apart, Kandy felt a rush of sympathy for Phillip. She loved him, and she wanted him to be happy. But she also wanted to be happy. Steeling herself for the hurt she was now sure would come, she walked into the room and said, ‘Hello, Phillip.’

            His head whipped around as though he’d been slapped. ‘Kandy,’ he said, but the sadness in his eyes gave lie to the smile on his lips.

            She decided this wasn’t the time for subtlety. ‘Are you having an affair with the woman I just saw leaving here?’

            Now he looked more than slapped. He was obviously stunned. She hoped it was because she was wrong and not because he was shocked that she’d found him out. ‘Woman?’ He said the word as though it was foreign to him, then seemed to recover himself. ‘Kandy, please sit down. I was hoping to be able to tell you this later, but …’ he gestured to the other chair.

‘I’d rather stand.’ That way I can run when it gets too much.


            She couldn’t bear the distress in his eyes. She sat.

            ‘I was married when I was nineteen.’

            Kandy gaped. Before she could berate him for not telling her before this, he continued. ‘She was seventeen. We’d had sex once, she fell pregnant, and our parents insisted we get married. It wasn’t a love match, but we pottered along reasonably well for twenty years, then broke up. It wasn’t pleasant. I left Victoria and came here to Queensland and started a new life.’

            ‘Phillip, you’re sixty-four, you can’t tell me that woman was your wife. Not unless she’s had great plastic surgery.’

            ‘No. She’s my daughter.’

            Relief and anger flooded through Kandy in equal measure. ‘And you didn’t think having a daughter was important enough to tell me about? Or did you think she wouldn’t approve of me?’

            ‘There wasn’t any need to tell you about her or her about you. I haven’t seen her since I left Melbourne.’

            A horrible thought filtered into Kandy’s mind. ‘Haven’t you been in touch with her at all? Birthdays? Christmas?’

            Phillip shook his head. ‘That was one thing my wife insisted on – I wasn’t to have any contact with the children.’

            ‘Children?’ Kandy’s head started to spin. ‘How many do you have?’

            ‘Just Vanessa and my son Joshua.’

            Kandy stared at him. What kind of woman would insist her husband have no contact with their children? And what kind of a father was Phillip that he would agree to that? ‘Why wouldn’t she let you see your own children?’

            ‘It doesn’t matter now. It was a long time ago. I set up a trust fund to ensure they were always financially well off, and even my grandchildren will benefit.’ Phillip’s face had resumed its usual placidity, but she was beginning to see how deceptive that was. ‘I’m sorry you had to find out like this. I should have told you before.’

            Whether it was the last couple of days of anxiety or her shock at Phillip’s revelation she wasn’t sure, but Kandy felt like the stuffing had been knocked out of her. ‘I think I need a drink,’ she muttered. Phillip reached over as though to pat her hand, but she snatched it away and stood up. ‘Actually, I think I’ll have a swim.’

            She almost ran upstairs to their bedroom and into the dressing room. She grabbed one of her one-piece swimsuits from a drawer and hastily stripped. As she pulled the swimsuit up over her legs she saw herself in the full-length mirror. Saw her tanned and toned body with its curvaceous hips and still-high breasts that had never suckled a child. And her ever-so-slightly-rounded barren belly. A sob caught in her throat and she roughly tugged the swimsuit into place, pulled on a bathing cap, and hurried down to the enclosed entertainment area with its heated pool and two spas. Her dive was concise and clean, not at all indicative of the emotions that churned inside her as she powered from one end of the pool to the other and back, again and again.

            It was only as she began to tire that she realised that she hadn’t asked Phillip if all those late-night meetings and hung-up phone calls involved Vanessa. And why had Vanessa come to see him after all those years with no contact?

            She left the pool, pulled a towelling robe and slippers from the built-in wardrobe in the changing room, and went to find him.

            He was gone, and so was his BMW.

It was amazing what a good sleep could do, Ellie thought. She stretched her arms gingerly above her head, easing some of the aches caused by bruised muscles. She looked at her bedside clock. Six pm. Four hours since Damien had left and she’d crept into bed and felt the bliss of relaxing into a painkiller-induced sleep.

            Carefully, she moved her head from side to side. It still hurt, but the dizziness wasn’t as bad as it had been. And the nausea had gone. The room was cold, and her pyjamas weren’t thick enough on their own. She snuggled back under the doona. She wanted to sleep again, but her stomach growled in a way that convinced her that would be impossible. With a sigh of resignation, she got out of bed and pulled on her fleecy dressing gown. Although the floor was carpeted, it had worn with age, and she quickly shuffled into her slippers.

            An appetising aroma was drifting up the hallway. She detoured to the bathroom, then walked to the kitchen. Miranda was standing at the stove, stirring something in a large saucepan. ‘Smells good,’ Ellie commented.

            Miranda turned towards her and smiled. ‘Chicken soup.’

            Ellie returned the smile. ‘Eugenia would be proud. And crunchy bread rolls?’

            ‘In the oven, keeping warm.’

            A knock sounded at the front door. ‘Sit down Mum,’ Miranda put the spoon on the sink. ‘I’ll get it.’

            A moment later Ellie heard Chris’s voice, then Miranda’s, then Chris’s again, and she wondered if Miranda had gone into protection mode. A moment later both of them walked into the kitchen. ‘Chris’s come straight off his shift, Mum. I told him there’s plenty of soup if he wants some but he said that’s up to you.’

            Ellie had wondered how she would feel when she saw him again, especially after Miranda’s surprising revelation. Right now he didn’t look like a man in love, but rather a man in doubt. His quiet confidence seemed to have deserted him. He held his police cap in such a tight grip she was sure his fingerprints would be embedded in the cloth. Without a single doubt she knew her appetite wasn’t just for the chicken soup. Whether she could cope with loving a man whose job put him in more danger than most was something she didn’t even want to consider at the moment. She just knew she wanted him.

            ‘Pull up a chair,’ she smiled. ‘Miranda’s used her grandmother’s recipe. You’re in for a treat.’

            Her smile must have conveyed more than thoughts of food. Chris’s tense expression eased and a gleam lit his eyes. ‘I’m sure I am,’ he said.

            Half an hour and several bowls of soup later, Miranda said she wanted to watch her favourite television show and went to the lounge room. Ellie tried not to smile. As far as she was aware, Miranda watched little television, and had never mentioned having a favourite show.

            ‘Ellie,’ Chris said, face serious, ‘I want to apologise. I wasn’t very polite to Damien. And it wasn’t fair to you. He is still your husband.’

            ‘Like you said, it’s only a legality.’

            ‘It seems like he wants you back in his life.’ He picked a crumb off the table and put it on his plate and pushed it around.

            Ellie watched him watching the progress of the crumb. If he didn’t love her, why was he acting like her reply didn’t interest him in the slightest? Men. Sometimes they were so easy to read. Then she thought of Damien. Maybe not. She remembered Kandy’s advice about putting Chris out of his misery. Okay, it wasn’t quite what Kandy meant, but she could at least tell him what she’d decided about Damien. ‘He’s got Buckley’s.’

            The crumb stopped moving. Chris’s confidence seemed to soak back into him like water into a sponge. His smile almost made her heart stop beating. ‘I’m not working this weekend,’ he said. ‘Would you like to go up to Montville or Maleny with me? Only if you feel up to it. We could stay Saturday night and come back Sunday. No pressure – just two friends spending some time together.’

            He was lying and they both knew it. What was between them had gone way past friendship. He was right about the “no pressure” thing though – he wouldn’t have to ask. She was already mentally picking out her sexiest lingerie. It might have been wasted on Damien, but she was sure Chris would find it very interesting indeed.

Geoffrey shivered as he walked from the bus stop to his flat. He hunched deeper into his coat and pushed his gloved hands into the pockets. His right hand touched the gun he’d kept there since Gazza had given it to him. He’d never owned a gun before, didn’t really know if he could use one, but it made him feel better just to know it was there.

The street light shortened his shadow as he hurried past, then stretched it to a jagged line as he continued along the broken pavement. Just as he turned into the gateway to his building, the light emitted a loud pop and went out. He jerked in sudden fear. His hip hit the brickwork, his sneaker caught on the bottom of the gate and he fell forward. He pulled his hands from his pockets, thrust them out to break his fall, but wasn’t quick enough.

            Pain knifed through his right wrist as it twisted under him.

It was nearly midnight before Phillip returned home. Kandy was lying in their super king-size bed, still awake, but pretending to be asleep. Phillip didn’t turn on the light, but she heard him move to his dressing room and close the door. She heard the faint click of the light switch. A minute later it was turned off and the door opened. The bed was so big that even though he made no effort to lie down gently, she didn’t feel the dip of springs or pull of the sheet and doona. She looked across at him, at the relaxed line of his body as he lay on his back. When she’d first seen his bed, she’d thought how wonderful it was, but soon came to realise that its huge size did little to promote intimacy. You almost needed to pack a lunch to crawl from one side to the other, she’d once told him.

            The lack of intimacy was even more pronounced tonight. The gap between them was more emotional than the doona-covered physical space. She lay still, chewing over the questions she wanted to ask him, trying to work out phrasing that wouldn’t sound accusative. Just when she opened her mouth to speak, she heard a gentle snore. He was asleep!

            Anger raced through her. How could he sleep when she was a frayed mess of doubts and questions and worries and misery?

            It was a long time before her mind finally succumbed to exhaustion and allowed her to sleep.

Geoffrey didn’t have any painkillers except cheap scotch. It wasn’t his favourite brand, but when he’d bought it last week the difference in price had allowed him to buy a few more groceries. Now he drank it not because he enjoyed it, but because he needed the freedom from pain he hoped it would bring.

            His wrist was a swollen lump of blue-black bruising and agony. He’d chipped ice from the freezer of his old fridge and folded it in a tea towel and wrapped it gingerly around his wrist, but it provided only a little relief from the pain. He could call an ambulance, but he’d still have to get home after he’d been treated and he didn’t have enough money for a taxi fare. He swigged another mouthful. Maybe he could drink enough to wipe himself out and get some sleep.

It was bliss not to have to leave the warm cocoon of her bed and get ready for work. Ellie snuggled even further under the covers and tried to get back to sleep. It didn’t work. The sound of Miranda showering seemed to hum through the walls. The sun was shining too, and the glow seeping through the curtains was enough to lighten the room and take the edge off her determination not to face the day.

            The shower stopped, but it was too late. Ellie was very definitely awake now. The bedside clock flicked a new red number at her and she blinked. Seven o’clock. What was Miranda doing up so early?

            Now that she was fully awake, her toileting needs couldn’t be put off, so she slipped the doona back and gently eased herself into a sitting position. And smiled. She felt a lot better this morning. The headache had eased to a dull nagging shadow. She could cope with that. Dressing gown, slippers, a trip to the loo and the bathroom, followed by a cup of hot tea, and the morning would be distinctly rosy.

            She got to the bathroom part only to discover Miranda was still in there. Stranger still. She knocked on the door. ‘Mirie? Are you okay?’

            ‘Sure, Mum. Come in.’

            Ellie did. And blinked in surprise. Miranda was carefully applying eye-liner, her face a picture of intense concentration, her long blonde hair swirled at the back of her head in some complicated knot. A white tailored blouse was tucked into a black skirt that hugged her hips. Her pyjamas were draped over the bath and her sloppy Ugg boots flopped against the side as though feeling abandoned.

            ‘Where are you going?’ The question popped out before Ellie could stop it.

            ‘Sorry. In all the excitement yesterday I forgot to tell you that I have a job interview today.’ She slid the eye-liner into her make-up bag and careful unscrewed her mascara and applied it. ‘Which lipstick?’ She held up two.

            ‘The one in your left hand,’ Ellie answered. ‘Mirie, I’m so pleased for you. What’s the job?’

            ‘Just a shop assistant, but it’s with a store that sells scientific equipment and books. The employment agency phoned yesterday. I’m so nervous I couldn’t eat breakfast.’ She glanced at Ellie. ‘Don’t worry, I had some fruit juice. That will keep me going until after the interview.’

She blotted her lips, smiled at the mirror and checked her teeth. Satisfied, she gave Ellie a quick hug. ‘Wish me luck.’

‘I’ll cross my fingers for you.’

Miranda went to her bedroom and came out wearing a black jacket and clutching her handbag. She grabbed her car keys from the kitchen and called out ‘Bye,’ when she opened the front door.

‘Mirie!’ Ellie called and watched her daughter turn. ‘You look great. You’ll knock them dead.’

Miranda laughed, as Ellie knew she would, and left.

The house now seemed too quiet, and Ellie realised she’d become used to sharing breakfast with her daughter, or at least having her around before she left for work.

Work. Something pinged in Ellie’s mind, and she realised that with all the kerfuffle with Damien and Chris she hadn’t asked Miranda for the bag she’d been carrying when she’d fallen down the stairs at the units. She was sure she had to do something there, but couldn’t remember what it was.

She found her handbag on a shelf in her wardrobe and hauled it down. And grunted at the weight of it. No wonder her shoulders sometimes ached. She really should get a smaller one. But then it wouldn’t hold her notebook and sketch pad, would it. She took out the notebook and leafed through it. That was it. The last notation. False ceiling in unit one. She needed to see if the original ceiling was good enough to warrant the time and effort of removing the false one. Perhaps she could do that today.

            As though anticipating that thought, the ache that had settled dully in the back of her head increased.

            She frowned. Perhaps she’d think about going to the units again after some tea and toast and painkillers. And maybe some more sleep.

When Kandy woke she saw that Phillip’s side of the bed was empty. She checked the time. He shouldn’t have left for work yet. But lately he wasn’t doing anything he usually did, was he.

            She dressed in a black pants suit and went downstairs. Phillip was sitting in the dining room, coffee and croissant half devoured, the Courier-Mail spread across the pale oak table. He looked up, pushed his reading glasses further down his nose, and smiled. ‘Good morning, darling.’

            It was obvious his world was back on track. But hers was out of kilter. She wanted to ask him about the late meetings and hanging-up phone calls but somehow the words wouldn’t come. She knew she was being a coward, but her insecurities ran deep, and after yesterday’s revelations she didn’t feel ready for a full-on confrontation. ‘Good morning.’ She wanted to kiss him on the cheek as she did every morning, and as he expected every morning, but she glided past him to the kitchen and poured herself a large coffee. She noticed another croissant warming in the oven, took it out and slid it on a plate, picked up that and her coffee, and went back to the dining room and sat down.

            ‘Are you going into work today, dear?’ Phillip enquired.

            Kandy had hired a manager for her catering firm several years ago, and her presence at the office wasn’t as essential as it used to be, but she still averaged at least three days there each week. She was proud of what she’d built up and wasn’t about to give it up. Besides, although the manager was extremely competent, he lacked Kandy’s entrepreneurial skills, and Kandy enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of decision-making and business politics. ‘I haven’t decided yet,’ she replied.

            The croissant oozed butter over her fingers as she picked it up and bit into it. Phillip continued to read the paper. Kandy finished the croissant and wiped her fingers on a serviette from the holder Phillip had placed on the table. She’d grown used to his fastidiousness over the years but now it bothered her. Like his emotions. Why did he have to be so controlled all the time? Why couldn’t he let his feelings erupt like hers did sometimes?

She sipped her coffee. ‘When will I get to meet Vanessa?’

Phillip lowered the paper. ‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible. She’s flying back to Melbourne today.’

‘Already? That was a short visit. Why did she come to see you? Especially after all these years.’ Kandy tried to sound casual but she heard the tone in her voice and knew he wouldn’t be fooled.

‘Her mother isn’t well and she wanted to tell me herself. Vanessa was always considerate like that.’

Kandy wanted to say that Vanessa could have easily done that by phone, but she didn’t. ‘What’s wrong with … What’s your ex-wife’s name?’

‘Mary.’ Phillip smiled and pushed the paper aside. ‘I’d better get to work. I might be the boss but it doesn’t set a good example if I’m late.’

‘No,’ she agreed, but suspected his conscientiousness had more to do with avoiding any more questions she might ask.

He stood up, leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, and walked to the downstairs bathroom. She knew he would brush his teeth, comb his hair, put on his suit jacket and adjust his tie, get his car keys and drive his BMW to his office. Phillip was a man who lived by habits, which was why it had become so obvious to her when those habits had been broken.

            His explanation of why his daughter had visited didn’t convince her he was telling the truth. Vanessa could have easily phoned to tell him about her mother. And did ‘isn’t well’ translate to something life-threatening? Just how serious was Mary’s illness? Phillip didn’t seem overly concerned. It might be his ex-wife, but he was usually a sympathetic person and she couldn’t believe he would describe her condition so casually. Kandy’s street instincts had been honed further with the cut-and-thrust of business negotiations, and right now she smelled a tall, fair-haired, fashionable rat. Unfortunately she loved him.

            Ten minutes later she was accessing the Yellow Pages on-line. She had always known that money could get you most things you wanted, but being married to Phillip and having access to what she considered an almost unlimited supply made her realise just how easy it could be. Now she called the number of the private investigation service that seemed best equipped to handle her needs, and offered them double their usual fee to get certain information to her within the next couple of hours.

Chapter Twenty-five

The hospital Emergency Department was a mix of crying kids and whinging adults and patient patients and those too sick to bother making any noise or eye contact or even attempt to watch the morning show on television.

            Geoffrey watched the never-ceasing flow of humanity through pain-hazed eyes. Only some of the pain was from his wrist, the rest was a hangover of enormous proportions. His name was finally called and he stumbled into the next two hours of his life. He emerged with a sling holding his strapped-up wrist to his chest, a box of paracetamol in his pocket, and a disbelief in the x-ray that showed no bone was broken.

            ‘Sometimes a bad sprain can be more painful than a break,’ the doctor had told him. Geoffrey had been tempted to offer him both so he could make a comparison. Only discretion and the knowledge he was physically incapable of doing so kept his mouth shut.

            He caught a glimpse of his reflection in a glass panel. Shit! He looked bloody awful. Shaving had been out of the question. Not only was he right-handed, but he couldn’t be sure his left hand would be steady enough to hold a razor without cutting himself. He stood in the hallway and debated what to do. Almost without conscious thought, he started walking to his mother’s ward.

Ellie couldn’t believe she’d gone back to bed and slept for three hours. Sleeping in the mornings wasn’t something she’d done before, but as she wriggled her feet into slippers and pulled on her gown, she realised her body had needed it.

            Twenty minutes later she emerged from the bathroom dressed in cerise velour pants and jacket that was a lot newer than her favourite tracksuit and almost as comfortable. She heated up some of Miranda’s chicken soup and buttered a bread roll and was about to sit down to eat when a knock came at the door. Her heart beat a little faster at the thought it might be Chris taking a break from his shift to check on her.

            When she opened the door she tried to hide her disappointment, but Cass quickly picked up on it. ‘Guess you were expecting a certain man in blue,’ she quipped with a grin.

            ‘I wasn’t sure,’ Ellie said as she indicated for her friend to come in. ‘We’re going away this weekend and -’

            ‘Away? As in spending the night together?’

            ‘Get that gleam out of your eyes, Cass Brighton,’ Ellie tried not to laugh. ‘He said there’s no pressure on me, we can just go as friends.’

            Cass started to laugh. ‘That’s a good one. The man fairly eats you up every time he looks at you, and he reckons you can just be friends?’

            ‘Don’t worry,’ Ellie rolled her eyes. ‘There’s no hope of that. The eating up is mutual. The man turns me on like I haven’t been turned on for years.’

            ‘Sounds like you need an electrician, not a cop.’

            ‘I was just having lunch,’ Ellie deflected. ‘Would you like some?’

            ‘No, thanks. I’ve already eaten. But I’ll have a cuppa.’

            ‘Why aren’t you at work? You usually work Fridays.’

            ‘Slow day, so I took the afternoon off. I’d done some overtime last week so it evens out. Thought I’d come and see how you’re doing.’ Cass waved Ellie to the table and went to fill up the kettle. ‘And what happened with Damien after Kandy and I left yesterday.’

            Between mouthfuls of food Ellie told her. And added details of Chris’s suggestion of a weekend in the mountains.

‘Montville and Maleny are so pretty,’ Cass sighed in envy. ‘All the hinterland behind the Sunshine Coast is beautiful. Joe and I went years ago.’

‘Speaking of Joe,’ Ellie put down her spoon. ‘Would he be working on the units this afternoon?’

Cass poured two cups of tea and brought them to the table. ‘Why?’ She raised a suspicious eyebrow. ‘You’re not thinking of going there again, are you?’

Ellie explained about the false ceiling in unit one and how she needed to find out if the original ceiling was worth restoring. ‘So I thought if I borrowed a ladder from Joe I could have a look through the manhole. I’d still need a torch, but it would be safer in the day time.’

‘You’re crazy. You could have been killed when you fell down those stairs, and now you want to go climbing a ladder. Are you sure you didn’t dislodge something when you hit your head? You used to be so sensible.’

‘You could come with me to make sure I stay safe,’ Ellie cajoled.

Cass looked at her with mock severity. ‘Emotional blackmail.’ She smiled. ‘Guess I’m an easy mark.’

Twenty minutes later they were on their way to the units in Cass’s car. Cass had refused to let Ellie drive her own car, declaring that she wasn’t going to risk her passing out at the wheel and turning them both into road accident statistics. Ellie was actually relieved. She didn’t feel as good as she’d made out to Cass she did.

As they arrived at the units, Ellie was surprised by the number of tradesmen’s trucks parked in the driveway and on the road. They walked through the front door, and when Ellie looked at the stairs, she had a flash of memory that startled her. A man … A shadow … Something she’d seen, but only fleetingly. Somewhere here. But it was gone as quickly as it had come.

‘G’day, love,’ Joe called out from the top of the stairs. ‘Saw you pull up. Hi, Ellie. How are you?’ His boots clomped on the stairs as he walked down to them. ‘What’s the problem?’

Cass explained their need to borrow a ladder and within a few minutes, Joe had positioned his ladder in the unit one hallway and was pushing the manhole open. He wrinkled his nose. ‘Bit dusty in here.’ He climbed down. ‘Use my torch, it’s more powerful than your little one. I’ve got to get back to work. Give me a yell when you’re finished.’

‘Thanks, Joe,’ Ellie said, and took the torch. With Cass holding the ladder, she climbed up until her head and shoulders were in the false cavity. She switched on the torch and shone it upwards. And felt the kind of disappointment that comes when you pin your hopes on something and it doesn’t measure up. Through the battens and beams that held the false ceiling in place, she could see no fancy cornices, no intricate designs, no patterns or swirls or decoration of any kind on the original plaster. She turned slightly so she could shine the beam through to the lounge room section. No different. It would be a waste of time and money to remove the false ceiling.

She turned around so she could step back down the ladder. As she did so, her arm brushed something and she almost dropped the torch when it moved. She eased away as far as she could and shone the torch at it. A large rectangular object. Covered in cloth, or thin canvas. She reached out carefully and touched it. It didn’t move, and she realised it had only done so when she’d bumped it because it had been placed between two beams and she’d knocked it off. A thick layer of dust made it impossible to see if there were any markings on it. Careful not to disturb too much of the dust, she picked it up, manoeuvred it out of the manhole and handed it down to Cass.

As soon as Ellie got to the floor, they took the bag outside to brush the dust off by rubbing it gently over the grass. They discovered it was actually a thick cloth drawstring bag. Once they’d removed enough dust, Ellie opened it and drew out a flat parcel covered in brown paper and tied with string. She pulled the string aside and unwrapped the paper.

‘Wow!’ Cass breathed over her shoulder. ‘She’s beautiful.’

Ellie stared at the painting. ‘This isn’t an amateur’s work.’ She peered at the signature on the bottom right-hand corner and felt her heart beat faster. She turned the frame around and saw an inscription and two initials on the back.

Her mouth opened, but for a moment her voice seemed to desert her. Then she whispered, ‘Oh … my … God.’

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